Sunday, May 31, 2009

Who Is to Blame for the Next Attack? FRANK RICH

AFTER watching the farce surrounding Dick Cheney’s coming-out party this month, you have to wonder: Which will reach Washington first, change or the terrorists? If change doesn’t arrive soon, terrorists may well rush in where the capital’s fools now tread.

The Beltway antics that greeted the great Cheney-Obama torture debate were an unsettling return to the post-9/11 dynamic that landed America in Iraq. Once again Cheney and his cohort were using lies and fear to try to gain political advantage — this time to rewrite history and escape accountability for the failed Bush presidency rather than to drum up a new war. Once again Democrats in Congress were cowed. And once again too much of the so-called liberal news media parroted the right’s scare tactics, putting America’s real security interests at risk by failing to challenge any Washington politician carrying a big stick.

Cheney’s “no middle ground” speech on torture at the American Enterprise Institute arrived with the kind of orchestrated media campaign that he, his boss and Karl Rove patented in the good old days. It was bookended by a pair of Republican attack ads on the Web that crosscut President Obama’s planned closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention center with apocalyptic imagery — graphic video of the burning twin towers in one ad, a roar of nuclear holocaust (borrowed from the L.B.J. “daisy” ad of 1964) in the other.

The speech itself, with 20 mentions of 9/11, struck the same cynical note as the ads, as if the G.O.P. was almost rooting for a terrorist attack on Obama’s watch. “No one wishes the current administration more success in defending the country than we do,” Cheney said as a disingenuous disclaimer before going on to charge that Obama’s “half measures” were leaving Americans “half exposed.” The new president, he said, is unraveling “the very policies that kept our people safe since 9/11.” In other words, when the next attack comes, it will be all Obama’s fault. A new ad shouting “We told you so!” awaits only the updated video.

The Republicans at least have an excuse for pushing this poison. They are desperate. The trio of Pillsbury doughboys now leading the party — Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Cheney — have variously cemented the G.O.P.’s brand as a whites-only men’s club by revoking Colin Powell’s membership and smearing the first Latina Supreme Court nominee as a “reverse racist.” Republicans in Congress have no plausible economic, health care or energy policies to counter Obama’s. The only card left to play is 9/11.

Yet even before Cheney spoke, Congressional Democrats were quaking in fear, purporting with straight faces that the transfer of detainees to “supermax” American prisons constituted a serious security threat. Many of the same senators who signed on to the Iraq war resolution in the fall of 2002 joined the 90-to-6 majority that put a hold on Obama’s Gitmo closure plans.

The déjà vu in the news media was more chilling. Rather than vet the substance of Cheney’s fulmination, talking heads instead hyped the split-screen “dueling speeches” gimmick of the back-to-back Obama-Cheney scheduling. Time magazine’s political Web site Photoshopped Cheney and Obama’s faces atop prize fighters’ bodies.

Most of the punditocracy scored the fight on a curve, setting up a false equivalence between the men’s ideas. Cheney’s pugnacious certitude edged out Obama’s law-professor nuance. “On policy grounds, you’ve got a real legitimate fight here,” David Gregory insisted on “Meet the Press” as he regurgitated the former vice president’s argument (“You can’t compromise on these matters”) and questioned whether the president could “really bring” his brand of pragmatism “to the issue of the war on terror.”

One New York Daily News columnist summed up Cheney’s supposed TKO this way: “The key to Cheney’s powerful performance: facts, facts, facts.” But the facts, as usual, were wrong.

At the McClatchy newspapers’ Washington bureau, the reporters Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel detailed 10 whoppers. With selective quotations, Cheney falsified the views of the director of national intelligence, Adm. Dennis Blair, on the supposed intelligence value of waterboarding. Equally bogus was Cheney’s boast that his administration had “moved decisively against the terrorists in their hideouts and their sanctuaries, and committed to using every asset to take down their networks.” In truth, the Bush administration had lost Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, not least because it started diverting huge assets to Iraq before accomplishing the mission of vanquishing Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. That decision makes us less safe to this very minute.

You can find a link to the complete Landay-Strobel accounting of Cheney’s errors in the online version of this column. The failure of much of the press to match their effort has a troubling historical antecedent. These are the same two journalists who, reporting for what was then Knight Ridder, uncovered much of the deceit in the Bush-Cheney case for the Iraq war in the crucial weeks before Congress gave the invasion the green light.

On Sept. 6, 2002, Landay and Strobel reported that there was no known new intelligence indicating that “the Iraqis have made significant advances in their nuclear, biological or chemical weapons programs.” It was two days later that The Times ran its now notorious front-page account of Saddam Hussein’s “quest for thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes.” In the months that followed, as the Bush White House kept beating the drum for Saddam’s imminent mushroom clouds to little challenge from most news organizations, Landay and Strobel reported on the “lack of hard evidence” of Iraqi weapons and the infighting among intelligence agencies. Their scoops were largely ignored by the big papers and networks as America hurtled toward fiasco.

Another reporter who was ahead of the pack in unmasking Bush-Cheney propaganda is the author Ron Suskind. In his 2006 book on the American intelligence matrix, “The One Percent Doctrine,” Suskind wrote about a fully operational and potentially catastrophic post-9/11 Qaeda assault on America that actually was aborted in the Bush years: a hydrogen cyanide attack planned for the New York City subways. It was halted 45 days before zero hour — but not because we stopped it. Al-Zawahri had called it off.

When Bush and Cheney learned of the cancellation later on from conventional intelligence, they were baffled as to why. The answer: Al-Zawahri had decided that a rush-hour New York subway attack was not enough of an encore to top 9/11. Al Qaeda’s “special event” strategy, Suskind wrote, requires the creation of “an upward arc of rising and terrible expectation” that is “multiplied by time passing.” The event that fits that bill after 9/11 must involve some kind of nuclear weapon.

“What are the lessons of this period?” Suskind asked when we spoke last week. “If you draw the wrong lessons, you end up embracing the wrong answers.” They are certainly not the lessons cited by Cheney. Waterboarding hasn’t and isn’t going to save us from anything. The ticking time-bomb debate rekindled by Cheney’s speech may be entertaining on “24” or cable-news food fights, but is a detour from the actual perils before the country. “What we’re dealing with is a patient foe who thinks in decades while we tend to think more in news cycles,” Suskind said. “We have to try to wrestle this fear-based debate into something resembling a reality-based discussion.”

The reality is that while the Bush administration was bogged down in Iraq and being played by Pervez Musharraf, the likelihood of Qaeda gaining access to nuclear weapons in a Taliban-saturated Pakistan was increasing by the day. We know that in the month before 9/11, bin Laden and al-Zawahri met with the Pakistani nuclear scientist Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood. That was the real link between 9/11 and nuclear terror that the Bush administration let metastasize while it squandered American resources on a fictional link between 9/11 and a “nuclear” Saddam.

And where are we now? On the eve of Obama’s inauguration, David Sanger reported in The Times that military and nuclear experts agree that if “a real-life crisis” breaks out in Pakistan “it is unlikely that anyone would be able to assure an American president, with confidence, that he knew where all of Pakistan’s weapons were — or that none were in the hands of Islamic extremists.”

Pakistan is the time bomb. But with a push from Cheney, abetted by too many Democrats and too many compliant journalists, we have been distracted into drawing the wrong lessons, embracing the wrong answers. We are even wasting time worrying that detainees might escape from tomb-sized concrete cells in Colorado.

What we need to be doing instead, as Suskind put it, is to “build the thing we don’t have — human intelligence. We need people who are cooperating with us, who step up and help, and who won’t turn away when they see things happening. Hearts and minds — which we’ve botched — must be corrected and corrected quickly. That’s what wins the battle, not going medieval.” It’s not for nothing, after all, that Powell, Gen. David Petraeus and Robert Gates, the secretary of defense — among other military minds — agree with Obama, not Cheney, about torture and Gitmo.

The harrowing truth remains unchanged from what it was before Cheney emerged from his bunker to set Washington atwitter. The Bush administration did not make us safer either before or after 9/11. Obama is not making us less safe. If there’s another terrorist attack, it will be because the mess the Bush administration ignored in Pakistan and Afghanistan spun beyond anyone’s control well before Americans could throw the bums out.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Suddenly it's OK to call a judicial nominee a racist

When the nation learned in 2005 that Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito had belonged to a Princeton University alumni organization that advocated a cap on the number of women and minorities allowed at Princeton, the news media quickly circled the wagons to protect the Bush nominee.

When Alito was asked by Senate Democrats about his membership in the organization -- which he touted while applying for a job in the Reagan administration -- the media denounced them for going too far. The merest hint of a suggestion of an implication that Alito was a member of a racist organization was shouted down as an unfair slander; Democrats were pilloried for making Alito's wife cry with their inappropriate questions (though Mrs. Alito didn't actually start crying until Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham took to the microphone).

Gloria Borger, for example, said that the pertinent question was not whether Alito agreed with the Concerned Alumni of Princeton's clearly racist and sexist stance on university admissions, but "whether the Democrats took this a step too far today." Katie Couric added: "Too much to take: Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito's wife driven to tears after Democrats question his integrity. Did they go too far?" The media consensus that Democrats went "too far" in questioning Alito continues to this day. Fox News' Megyn Kelly recently claimed that during Alito's confirmation hearings, his wife was "crying hysterically after Ted Kennedy made her cry."

So it seems the news media treat even a suggestion that a Supreme Court nominee might be guilty of involvement in a bigoted organization as a vile slur. Even if the nominee touted his membership in a group that sought to limit the number of women and minorities accepted into his alma mater. Even then, such questions are treated as inappropriate and abusive scrutiny that have no place in civil discourse.

As long, that is, as the nominee in question is a conservative white male, nominated by a conservative white male president.

But as we learned this week, if the nominee is a progressive Latina nominated by a progressive African-American president, you can just come right out and call her a racist -- based on nothing more than a distorted quote and a ruling nobody has read -- and the media will take you seriously. They will amplify your complaints. Far from denouncing you for going "too far," they will pretend that your false descriptions of her comments are accurate.

Eight years ago, Sonia Sotomayor said that she would hope that in judging cases involving discrimination, a Latina woman would reach a better decision than would a white man who hasn't had her experiences. Past Republican Supreme Court nominees like Samuel Alito have said similar things, and it really isn't particularly controversial.

But if you change what Sotomayor said a bit -- drop a word here and there, change a few others -- to pretend that she said Latinas are better than white men ... well, that's racist!

And that's just what the right wing did. Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and other conservative media figures quickly insisted that Sotomayor is a racist and a bigot. They even compared her to David Duke. (Now, at first, you might think that if Rush Limbaugh is calling someone a racist, he must mean it as a compliment. But if you listen to his tone of voice and the full context, it's clear he means it as an insult.)

And the media, particularly cable news, took their complaints seriously. They quoted them, and they adopted the right's inaccurate shorthand version of Sotomayor's comments in order to explain why the conservatives were upset. News reports that explained that conservatives are distorting Sotomayor's comments were few and far between; reports that noted that conservatives have said similar things in the past were even rarer.

Just a few years ago, the mere suggestion that Samuel Alito should explain his membership in an organization that sought to limit the number of women and minorities at Princeton was met with outrage by the media. How dare the Democrats! They've gone too far! But now, with conservatives explicitly calling Sotomayor a "racist" based on manufactured evidence, the media can't even be bothered to point out that they are distorting her comments. Instead, the conservative complaints get taken seriously, as though they are a reasonable and fair interpretation of what Sotomayor said.

So it seems that lying about a Latina in order to call her a racist is just fine, as far as much of the media is concerned. Just don't you dare question why a white male belonged to an organization that sought to keep women and minorities out of his college. That's over the line.


On Tuesday morning, President Obama announced his nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. In the four short days that followed, understandably, most of the media's attention has centered on the nominee, though much of that attention has been riddled with conservative misinformation.

Yesterday, Media Matters released a special report noting that in coverage of Obama's announcement, the media have advanced numerous myths and falsehoods about Sotomayor. In some cases, the media assert the falsehoods themselves; in others, they report unchallenged the claims of others.

The report suggests that in addition to evaluating these claims on their merits, the media should also consistently report that conservatives were reportedly very clear about their intentions to oppose Obama's nominee, no matter who it was. Their attacks must be assessed in the context of their reported plans to use the confirmation process to, among other things, "help refill depleted coffers and galvanize a movement demoralized by Republican electoral defeats."

As documented in the report, the myths that have emerged or resurfaced since Sotomayor's nomination was announced include:

Sotomayor advocated legislating from the bench
Sotomayor said, "Latina judges are obviously better than white male judges"
Sotomayor's Supreme Court reversal rate is "high"
Liberal judges like Sotomayor are "activist[s]"
Sotomayor was "[s]oft on New Jersey [c]orruption"
New Haven firefighters case shows Sotomayor is an "activist"
Sotomayor lacks the intellect to be an effective justice
Sotomayor is "domineering" and "a bit of a bully"
"Empathy" is code for "liberal activist"
Be sure to read the entire report for a detailed breakdown of the facts dispelling these right-wing myths and falsehoods.

In all, this week, Media Matters released more than 100 research items, blog posts, video clips, and columns surrounding media coverage of the Supreme Court and Sotomayor's nomination.

As the week went on, it became clearer that Sotomayor would be a victim of attacks from conservatives in the media reminiscent of those on Obama:

MSNBC's Pat Buchanan called Sotomayor a "lightweight," "an anti-white, liberal judicial activist." He and his sister Bay both claimed that Sotomayor's nomination was the result of "affirmative action."
Media Matters' Eric Boehlert went head-to-head with former Rep. Tom Tancredo on CNN over the context of Sotomayor's past comments. During the segment, Tancredo claimed Sotomayor was a member of the "Latino KKK," earning the right-wing former congressman the mocking of MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.
Jeffrey Kuhner, filling in for right-wing radio host Michael Savage, claimed Sotomayor believes "that America is a racist, sexist, homophobic and misogynist society."
Fox News' Glenn Beck said Sotomayor's appointment was more evidence of a Marxist "hostile takeover" of the United States. He also called her a "racist," who "is not that bright" and "divisive."
Savage described Sotomayor as "Chairman O's pick for the Supreme Court" and a "radical activist."
Radio host and conservative movement leader Rush Limbaugh called Sotomayor "an angry woman," "bigot," and "racist."
Mark Krikorian, over at the National Review Online, had an issue with the pronunciation of Sotomayor's name, writing that "it sticks in my craw."
Fox News' Sean Hannity claimed Obama turned "his back on Mainstream America" by nominating "the most divisive nominee possible," a "radical."
Politico's Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin initially reported that Sotomayor was "a Latina single mother" despite the fact that Sotomayor has no children.
If media coverage of week one of the Sotomayor nomination is any indication, it's going to be a long, hot summer. Fear not, though -- Media Matters will be there through it all.

Other major stories this week:

Is there something in the water at Fox Nation?

Back in March, while promoting its newly launched website, The link appears to be going to the domain, but is really going to the domain, Fox News ran advertisements telling viewers that "[i]t's time to say 'no' to biased media and 'yes' to fair play and free speech." In the weeks since the website's launch, Media Matters has documented more than 50 instances where Fox Nation failed to come close to the bias-free, "fair play" standard set out by Fox News.

This week has been particularly awful. Case in point:

Fox Nation is just asking: "Sotomayor Argued Death Penalty Is Racist... Is She?"
With picture of burning WTC, Fox Nation wonders if Obama has "Pre-9/11 Mindset"
Fox Nation: "Need Another Tea Party? National Sales Tax 'on the Table' "
Fox Nation baselessly claims Sotomayor "Wants to Ban Guns"
Fox News still trafficking in birth certificate theories
Continuing to be "bias"-free, Fox Nation calls Obama "Cocky Barack"
Be sure to check out the Media Matters archive on Free Republic ... er, Fox Nation.

Rush Limbaugh's Failure-palooza

By now, everybody watching the Obama administration remembers Rush Limbaugh's well wishes for the new president the day before his inauguration -- that's when El Rushbo said, "I hope Obama fails." The comment picked up a head of steam in the press, provoking Limbaugh to elaborate two days later, saying, "We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles ... because his father was black." A month later, Rush let us all in on "the dirty little secret," as he described it, that "every Republican in this country wants Obama to fail, but none of them have the guts to say so; I am willing to say it."

Since then, Rush has been quick to wish failure on all kinds of things. For example, back in February, Limbaugh said, "I want the stimulus package to fail." In March, he strangely compared his hope for Obama's failure to a Steelers fan wanting the Cardinals' QB to fail in the Super Bowl. The same month, he seemed to offer up some reverse psychology, claiming, "If there's anybody who wants America as it was founded to fail, it's Barack Obama."

And so, Rush Limbaugh's failure-palooza marched on this week as news of Obama's selection of Sotomayor for a seat on the Supreme Court was reported. Without skipping a beat, Limbaugh said of the president's nominee: "Do I want her to fail? Yeah."

To give you an idea of how completely warped Rush's thinking is, two days after his Sotomayor "fail" comments, Limbaugh claimed, "This country is failing because President Obama is succeeding."

So, was it Sasquatch or Chupacabra driving the Chrysler?

Another week, another bizarre conspiracy theory from the right. Eric Boehlert brings us the story of the budding Obama scandal that's been hatched this week within the right-wing blogosphere, which has all the hallmarks of previous failed Obama conspiracy theories. The latest centers on the idea that Obama's White House, as part of the automaker's restructuring, personally selected which Chrysler dealership would be closed. Not only that, but the Obama White House punished dealerships whose owners gave campaign contributions to Republicans. The horror!

Conservative bloggers excitedly claim that their research proves a massive conspiracy's afoot. Their research? A laundry list of names of dealers who have indeed given money to the GOP and have indeed been closed down as part of the GM restructuring. So why doesn't that prove Obama has a hit list? First, because nearly 800 dealerships are being closed down, yet bloggers detail campaign contributions for less than 10 percent of those dealership owners. Second, all the bloggers actually prove is that a lot of dealership owners are Republicans. Does that surprise anyone?

Statistician Nate Silver demolishes the theory with actual research, noting, "It shouldn't be any surprise, by the way, that car dealers tend to vote -- and donate -- Republican. They are usually male, they are usually older (you don't own an auto dealership in your 20s), and they have obvious reasons to be pro-business, pro-tax cut, anti-green energy and anti-labor. Car dealerships need quite a bit of space and will tend to be located in suburban or rural areas. I can't think of too many other occupations that are more natural fits for the Republican Party."

Friday, May 29, 2009


Some Republicans rebuke Limbaugh, Gingrich on Sotomayor criticism
Accusations that the Latina Supreme Court nominee is racist can only hurt the party, say GOP members who advocate a more civil debate.
By Janet Hook LA TIMES

While some prominent conservative activists are accusing President Obama's Supreme Court nominee of racism, more Republicans are telling them to chill out and "grow up," or they risk damaging the party's chances of expanding its reach to women and Latinos.

Members of the Republican establishment are trying to steer the debate over Sonia Sotomayor away from the battle cries of conservative icons Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, in favor of a more measured conversation about the legal philosophy and qualifications of the first Latina to be nominated to the court.

"I think it's terrible," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in a radio interview, condemning those who have called Sotomayor a racist. "This is not the kind of tone that any of us want to set when it comes to performing our constitutional responsibilities of advise and consent."

Limbaugh earlier in the week had branded Sotomayor a "reverse racist," and on Friday he compared her to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Gingrich, referring to the high court nominee, said on Twitter this week that "new racism is no better than old racism."

They were reacting to reports of a speech Sotomayor gave in 2001 at UC Berkeley in which she said that "gender and national origins" affect a person's judgment, and that "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Former Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who dropped out of the race for the GOP presidential nomination in 2007, on Thursday threw another log on the fire.

In an interview with CNN, Tancredo accused Sotomayor of belonging to a group that was akin to the Ku Klux Klan, calling the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights and advocacy group, "Latino KKK without the hoods and nooses."

At the same time, the White House tried to defuse controversy over Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment, with Obama addressing it directly in an NBC interview Friday.

"I'm sure she would have restated it," the president said. "But if you look in the entire sweep of the essay, she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about struggles and hardship that people are going through -- that will make her a good judge."

Obama added that part of a judge's job is "to stand in somebody else's shoes. . . . And so her, as a Latino woman, part of her job is going to be to listen to the farmer in Iowa and, you know, if he's upset about a farm regulation, and be able to understand how hard it is to farm, and what that means. And to be able to incorporate that into her decision-making."

Attempts within the GOP to find the right tone in addressing the Sotomayor nomination reflect that the party has no clear leader and is struggling to recover from brutal election losses. Some Republicans worry that fighting a shrill, losing nomination battle will not help -- and might hurt -- efforts to rebuild the party.

"Whether or not Barack Obama gets his nominee is not going to determine the future of our party," said Terry Holt, an advisor to George W. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. "He's a popular president with the votes to confirm his nominee. That's not our best fight or our worst problem to deal with."

Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster, said: "Any kind of ad hominem attacks are not helpful to the party's reputation, certainly not in attracting independents, which is our challenge at the moment."

But some conservative activists are urging Senate Republicans to mount a vigorous opposition to Sotomayor's nomination in order to fire up the party's demoralized base. Waging an aggressive fight might also send a warning shot to Obama about court battles to come and highlight the differing legal philosophies of the two parties.

"It will help in uniting the Republican coalition," said Curt Levey, head of the conservative Committee for Justice.

Senators are the only ones whose votes on Sotomayor count. And Republicans in the chamber have been keeping their distance from outside activists such as Gingrich and Limbaugh.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) rejected their assertion that Sotomayor is racist. "I don't agree with that," he said on CNN. "And, frankly, I think it's a little premature and early, because she hasn't had a chance to explain some of these comments that she's made."

Cornyn, a member of the Republican leadership who comes from a state with a large Latino population, is highlighting the distinction between members of the Senate and outside critics such as Gingrich and Limbaugh.

"Neither one of these men are elected Republican officials," Cornyn said in his National Public Radio interview. "I just don't think it's appropriate. I certainly don't endorse it. I think it's wrong."

Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, on Friday offered the bluntest advice of all to Republicans. "Play grown-up," Noonan said in her Wall Street Journal column.

For Teenagers, Hello Means ‘How About a Hug?’


There is so much hugging at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, N.J., that students have broken down the hugs by type:

There is the basic friend hug, probably the most popular, and the bear hug, of course. But now there is also the bear claw, when a boy embraces a girl awkwardly with his elbows poking out.

There is the hug that starts with a high-five, then moves into a fist bump, followed by a slap on the back and an embrace.

There’s the shake and lean; the hug from behind; and, the newest addition, the triple — any combination of three girls and boys hugging at once.

“We’re not afraid, we just get in and hug,” said Danny Schneider, a junior at the school, where hallway hugging began shortly after 7 a.m. on a recent morning as students arrived. “The guy friends, we don’t care. You just get right in there and jump in.”

There are romantic hugs, too, but that is not what these teenagers are talking about.

Girls embracing girls, girls embracing boys, boys embracing each other — the hug has become the favorite social greeting when teenagers meet or part these days. Teachers joke about “one hour” and “six hour” hugs, saying that students hug one another all day as if they were separated for the entire summer.

A measure of how rapidly the ritual is spreading is that some students complain of peer pressure to hug to fit in. And schools from Hillsdale, N.J., to Bend, Ore., wary in a litigious era about sexual harassment or improper touching — or citing hallway clogging and late arrivals to class — have banned hugging or imposed a three-second rule.

Parents, who grew up in a generation more likely to use the handshake, the low-five or the high-five, are often baffled by the close physical contact. “It’s a wordless custom, from what I’ve observed,” wrote Beth J. Harpaz, the mother of two boys, 11 and 16, and a parenting columnist for The Associated Press, in a new book, “13 Is the New 18.”

“And there doesn’t seem to be any other overt way in which they acknowledge knowing each other,” she continued, describing the scene at her older son’s school in Manhattan. “No hi, no smile, no wave, no high-five — just the hug. Witnessing this interaction always makes me feel like I am a tourist in a country where I do not know the customs and cannot speak the language.”

For teenagers, though, hugging is hip. And not hugging?

“If somebody were to not hug someone, to never hug anybody, people might be just a little wary of them and think they are weird or peculiar,” said Gabrielle Brown, a freshman at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in Manhattan.

Comforting as the hug may be, principals across the country have clamped down. “Touching and physical contact is very dangerous territory,” said Noreen Hajinlian, the principal of George G. White School, a junior high school in Hillsdale, N.J., who banned hugging two years ago. “It was needless hugging — they are in the hallways before they go to class. It wasn’t a greeting. It was happening all day.”

Schools that have limited hugging invoked longstanding rules against public displays of affection, meant to maintain an atmosphere of academic seriousness and prevent unwanted touching, or even groping.

But pro-hugging students say it is not a romantic or sexual gesture, simply the “hello” of their generation. “We like to get cozy,” said Katie Dea, an eighth grader at Claire Lilienthal Alternative School in San Francisco. “The high-five is, like, boring.”

Some sociologists said that teenagers who grew up in an era of organized play dates and close parental supervision are more cooperative with one another than previous generations — less cynical and individualistic and more loyal to the group.

But Amy L. Best, a sociologist at George Mason University, said the teenage embrace is more a reflection of the overall evolution of the American greeting, which has become less formal since the 1970s. “Without question, the boundaries of touch have changed in American culture,” she said. “We display bodies more readily, there are fewer rules governing body touch and a lot more permissible access to other people’s bodies.”

Hugging appears to be a grass-roots phenomenon and not an imitation of a character or custom on TV or in movies. The prevalence of boys’ nonromantic hugging (especially of other boys) is most striking to adults. Experts say that over the last generation, boys have become more comfortable expressing emotion, as embodied by the MTV show “Bromance,” which is now a widely used term for affection between straight male friends.

But some sociologists pointed out that African-American boys and men have been hugging as part of their greeting for decades, using the word “dap” to describe a ritual involving handshakes, slaps on the shoulders and, more recently, a hug, also sometimes called the gangsta hug among urban youth.

“It’s something you grow up doing,” said Mazi Chiles, a junior at South Gwinnett High School in Snellville, Ga., who is black. “But you don’t come up to a dude and hug, you start out with a handshake.”

Some parents find it paradoxical that a generation so steeped in hands-off virtual communication would be so eager to hug.

“Maybe it’s because all these kids do is text and go on Facebook so they don’t even have human contact anymore,” said Dona Eichner, the mother of freshman and junior girls at the high school in Montvale.

She added: “I hug people I’m close to. But now you’re hugging people you don’t even know. Hugging used to mean something.”

There are, too, some young critics of hugging.

Amy Heaton, a freshman at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, Md., said casual social hugging seemed disingenuous to her. “Hugging is more common in my opinion in people who act like friends,” she said. “It’s like air-kissing. It’s really superficial.”

But Carrie Osbourne, a sixth-grade teacher at Claire Lilienthal Alternative School, said hugging was a powerful and positive sign that children are inclined to nurture one another, breaking down barriers. “And it gets to that core that every person wants to feel cared for, regardless of your age or how cool you are or how cool you think you are,” she said.

As much as hugging is a physical gesture, it has migrated online as well. Facebook applications allowing friends to send hugs have tens of thousands of fans. Katie Dea, the San Francisco eighth grader, as well as Olivia Brown, 11, who lives in Manhattan and is the younger sister of Gabrielle, the LaGuardia High freshman, have a new sign-off for their text and e-mail messages: *hug.*

A Human Language Gene Changes the Sound of Mouse Squeaks


People have a deep desire to communicate with animals, as is evident from the way they converse with their dogs, enjoy myths about talking animals or devote lifetimes to teaching chimpanzees how to speak. A delicate, if tiny, step has now been taken toward the real thing: the creation of a mouse with a human gene for language.

The gene, FOXP2, was identified in 1998 as the cause of a subtle speech defect in a large London family, half of whose members have difficulties with articulation and grammar. All those affected inherited a disrupted version of the gene from one parent. FOXP2 quickly attracted the attention of evolutionary biologists because other animals also possess the gene, and the human version differs significantly in its DNA sequence from those of mice and chimpanzees, just as might be expected for a gene sculpted by natural selection to play an important role in language.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have now genetically engineered a strain of mice whose FOXP2 gene has been swapped out for the human version. Svante Paabo, in whose laboratory the mouse was engineered, promised several years ago that when the project was completed, “We will speak to the mouse.” He did not promise that the mouse would say anything in reply, doubtless because a great many genes must have undergone evolutionary change to endow people with the faculty of language, and the new mouse was gaining only one of them. So it is perhaps surprising that possession of the human version of FOXP2 does in fact change the sounds that mice use to communicate with other mice, as well as other aspects of brain function.

That is the result reported in the current issue of the journal Cell by Wolfgang Enard, also of the Leipzig institute, and a large team of German researchers who studied 300 features of the humanized mice. FOXP2, a gene whose protein product switches on other genes, is important during the embryo’s development and plays an active part in constructing many tissues, including the lungs, stomach and brain. The gene is so vital that mice in which both copies of the gene are disrupted die after a few weeks.

Despite the mammalian body’s dependence on having its two FOXP2 genes work just right, Dr. Enard’s team found that the human version of FOXP2 seemed to substitute perfectly for the mouse version in all the mouse’s tissues except for the brain.

In a region of the brain called the basal ganglia, known in people to be involved in language, the humanized mice grew nerve cells that had a more complex structure. Baby mice utter ultrasonic whistles when removed from their mothers. The humanized baby mice, when isolated, made whistles that had a slightly lower pitch, among other differences, Dr. Enard says. Dr. Enard argues that putting significant human genes into mice is the only feasible way of exploring the essential differences between people and chimps, our closest living relatives.

There are about 20 million DNA differences between the genomes of humans and chimps, but most make no physical difference. To understand which DNA changes are important, the genes must be put into another species. There is no good way of genetically engineering chimps, even it were ethically acceptable, so the mouse is the test of choice, in Dr. Enard’s view.

Dr. Joseph Buxbaum, an expert on the molecular basis of psychiatric disease at Mount Sinai Medical Center, said Dr. Enard’s team had taken a good first step toward understanding the role of FOXP2 in the development of the brain. “The most surprising finding, and cause for great optimism, is that the gene does seem to have a great effect on pathways of neural development in mice,” he said.

Dr. Gary Marcus, who studies language acquisition at New York University, said the study showed lots of small effects from the human FOXP2, which fit with the view that FOXP2 plays a vital role in language, probably with many other genes that remain to be discovered. “People shouldn’t think of this as the one language gene but as part of a broader cascade of genes,” he said. “It would have been truly spectacular if they had wound up with a talking mouse.”

The Empathy Issue


The American legal system is based on a useful falsehood. It’s based on the falsehood that this is a nation of laws, not men; that in rendering decisions, disembodied, objective judges are able to put aside emotion and unruly passion and issue opinions on the basis of pure reason.

Most people know this is untrue. In reality, decisions are made by imperfect minds in ambiguous circumstances. It is incoherent to say that a judge should base an opinion on reason and not emotion because emotions are an inherent part of decision-making. Emotions are the processes we use to assign value to different possibilities. Emotions move us toward things and ideas that produce pleasure and away from things and ideas that produce pain.

People without emotions cannot make sensible decisions because they don’t know how much anything is worth. People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decision-makers. They are sociopaths who sometimes end up on death row.

Supreme Court justices, like all of us, are emotional intuitionists. They begin their decision-making processes with certain models in their heads. These are models of how the world works and should work, which have been idiosyncratically ingrained by genes, culture, education, parents and events. These models shape the way judges perceive the world.

As Dan Kahan of Yale Law School has pointed out, many disputes come about because two judges look at the same situation and they have different perceptions about what the most consequential facts are. One judge, with one set of internal models, may look at a case and perceive that the humiliation suffered by a 13-year-old girl during a strip search in a school or airport is the most consequential fact of the case. Another judge, with another set of internal models, may perceive that the security of the school or airport is the most consequential fact. People elevate and savor facts that conform to their pre-existing sensitivities.

The decision-making process gets even murkier once the judge has absorbed the disparate facts of a case. When noodling over some issue — whether it’s a legal case, an essay, a math problem or a marketing strategy — people go foraging about for a unifying solution. This is not a hyper-rational, orderly process of the sort a computer might undertake. It’s a meandering, largely unconscious process of trial and error.

The mind tries on different solutions to see if they fit. Ideas and insights bubble up from some hidden layer of intuitions and heuristics. Sometimes you feel yourself getting closer to a conclusion, and sometimes you feel yourself getting farther away. The emotions serve as guidance signals, like from a GPS, as you feel your way toward a solution.

Then — often while you’re in the shower or after a night’s sleep — the answer comes to you. You experience a fantastic rush of pleasure that feels like a million tiny magnets suddenly clicking into alignment.

Now your conclusion is articulate in your consciousness. You can edit it or reject it. You can go out and find precedents and principles to buttress it. But the way you get there was not a cool, rational process. It was complex, unconscious and emotional.

The crucial question in evaluating a potential Supreme Court justice, therefore, is not whether she relies on empathy or emotion, but how she does so. First, can she process multiple streams of emotion? Reason is weak and emotions are strong, but emotions can be balanced off each other. Sonia Sotomayor will be a good justice if she can empathize with the many types of people and actions involved in a case, but a bad justice if she can only empathize with one type, one ethnic group or one social class.

Second, does she have a love for the institutions of the law themselves? For some lawyers, the law is not only a bunch of statutes but a code of chivalry. The good judges seem to derive a profound emotional satisfaction from the faithful execution of time-tested precedents and traditions.

Third, is she aware of the murky, flawed and semiprimitive nature of her own decision-making, and has she accounted for her own uncertainty? If we were logical creatures in a logical world, judges could create sweeping abstractions and then rigorously apply them. But because we’re emotional creatures in an idiosyncratic world, it’s prudent to have judges who are cautious, incrementalist and minimalist. It’s prudent to have judges who decide cases narrowly, who emphasize the specific context of each case, who value gradual change, small steps and modest self-restraint.

Right-leaning thinkers from Edmund Burke to Friedrich Hayek understood that emotion is prone to overshadow reason. They understood that emotion can be a wise guide in some circumstances and a dangerous deceiver in others. It’s not whether judges rely on emotion and empathy, it’s how they educate their sentiments within the discipline of manners and morals, tradition and practice.

Would You Slap Your Father?

Would You Slap Your Father?
If So, You’re a Liberal By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

If you want to tell whether someone is conservative or liberal, what are a couple of completely nonpolitical questions that will give a good clue?

How’s this: Would you be willing to slap your father in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit?

And, second: Does it disgust you to touch the faucet in a public restroom?

Studies suggest that conservatives are more often distressed by actions that seem disrespectful of authority, such as slapping Dad. Liberals don’t worry as long as Dad has given permission.

Likewise, conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.

The upshot is that liberals and conservatives don’t just think differently, they also feel differently. This may even be a result, in part, of divergent neural responses.

This came up after I wrote a column earlier this year called “The Daily Me.” I argued that most of us employ the Internet not to seek the best information, but rather to select information that confirms our prejudices. To overcome that tendency, I argued, we should set aside time for a daily mental workout with an ideological sparring partner. Afterward, I heard from Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. “You got the problem right, but the prescription wrong,” he said.

Simply exposing people to counterarguments may not accomplish much, he said, and may inflame antagonisms.

A study by Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania found that when people saw tight television shots of blowhards with whom they disagreed, they felt that the other side was even less legitimate than before.

The larger point is that liberals and conservatives often form judgments through flash intuitions that aren’t a result of a deliberative process. The crucial part of the brain for these judgments is the medial prefrontal cortex, which has more to do with moralizing than with rationality. If you damage your prefrontal cortex, your I.Q. may be unaffected, but you’ll have trouble harrumphing.

One of the main divides between left and right is the dependence on different moral values. For liberals, morality derives mostly from fairness and prevention of harm. For conservatives, morality also involves upholding authority and loyalty — and revulsion at disgust.

Some evolutionary psychologists believe that disgust emerged as a protective mechanism against health risks, like feces, spoiled food or corpses. Later, many societies came to apply the same emotion to social “threats.” Humans appear to be the only species that registers disgust, which is why a dog will wag its tail in puzzlement when its horrified owner yanks it back from eating excrement.

Psychologists have developed a “disgust scale” based on how queasy people would be in 27 situations, such as stepping barefoot on an earthworm or smelling urine in a tunnel. Conservatives systematically register more disgust than liberals. (To see how you weigh factors in moral decisions, take the tests at

It appears that we start with moral intuitions that our brains then find evidence to support. For example, one experiment involved hypnotizing subjects to expect a flash of disgust at the word “take.” They were then told about Dan, a student council president who “tries to take topics that appeal to both professors and students.”

The research subjects felt disgust but couldn’t find any good reason for it. So, in some cases, they concocted their own reasons, such as: “Dan is a popularity-seeking snob.”

So how do we discipline our brains to be more open-minded, more honest, more empirical? A start is to reach out to moderates on the other side — ideally eating meals with them, for that breaks down “us vs. them” battle lines that seem embedded in us. (In ancient times we divided into tribes; today, into political parties.) The Web site is an attempt to build this intuitive appreciation for the other side’s morality, even if it’s not our morality.

“Minds are very hard things to open, and the best way to open the mind is through the heart,” Professor Haidt says. “Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games.”

Thus persuasion may be most effective when built on human interactions. Gay rights were probably advanced largely by the public’s growing awareness of friends and family members who were gay.

A corollary is that the most potent way to win over opponents is to accept that they have legitimate concerns, for that triggers an instinct to reciprocate. As it happens, we have a brilliant exemplar of this style of rhetoric in politics right now — Barack Obama.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


“Does anyone still doubt,” asks Rich Lowry at National Review, “that it was a good and necessary thing for Cheney to be out counter-punching on national security?”

William Kristol reads both speeches, goes with the fight metaphor: “a mismatch“:

Obama’s is the speech of a young senator who was once a part-time law professor–platitudinous and preachy, vague and pseudo-thoughtful in an abstract kind of way. . . . Cheney’s is the speech of a grownup, of a chief executive, of a statesman. He’s sober, realistic and concrete, stands up for his country and its public officials, and has an acute awareness of the consequences of the choices one makes as a public official and a willingness to take responsibility for those choices.

“I do find it kind of amazing that Cheney is offering up a national security speech,” writes John Cole at Balloon Juice.

It is just weird to have a former VP out there openly sabotaging a new administration, and make no mistake about it, that is what Cheney is doing. . . .

But what is really weird is that they seem to have just given up any pretense that Bush was anything other than an empty suit. Between Dick’s multiple pronouncements, his really odd response on MTP in which he said “I guess the President had been briefed,” and stunts like this speech today, Cheney is basically telling you who the HMFIC for the last eight years was, and he wasn’t a legacy frat boy from Connecticut.

“I hope that President Obama is enjoying this debate,” writes Michael Goldfarb at the Weekly Standard, “and one certainly hopes that he will continue to embrace it, because it is a debate that he has been asking for since he decided to run for president.”

Still, when Goldfarb looks across the aisle, he see little enjoyment:

Each day the Democrat’s angst seems to deepen, and each day the confusion of President Obama’s policies becomes more evident. Despite all the rhetoric of his presidential run, he has now embraced the Bush administration policies on the commitment of troops to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He now supports the wiretapping he threatened to filibuster. He has denied the release of photos that the Bush administration likewise recognized as a propaganda gift for our enemies, and a danger to our troops serving in Iraq, and has revived the military tribunals he once scorned. And on those issues where his record has matched his rhetoric — such as the commitment to close Guantanamo, he is not even supported by his own party.

One wonders what comes next. I bet he tries to change the subject — and quickly.

James Fallows says the following two sentences form the President’s remarks were the “argumentative / explanatory crux of the speech to the right“:

I do know with certainty that we can defeat al Qaeda. Because the terrorists can only succeed if they swell their ranks and alienate America from our allies, and they will never be able to do that if we stay true to who we are.

“This has been,” continues Fallows, “from the start, the central indictment of the Bush-Cheney approach to al Qaeda.”

Anything-goes tactics may or may not win battles, but they certainly lose wars. Dick Cheney’s speech, cut off by BBC about ten minutes in, is ineffective not just because of its anger/contempt but also because what is billed as a response is in fact one cycle late, simply re-stating the claims Obama went out of his way to rebut (rather that keeping up with the cycle by answering anything Obama said).

At the Atlantic, Marc Ambinder says “Cheney seems to be arguing with himself; or, rather, with the decisions that his President, George W. Bush, made after the thumping of the 2006 elections.”

Ambinder bases his argument in part on an article by Jack Goldsmith in this week’s issue of the New Republic. In particular, Ambinder cites Goldsmith’s description of the primary difference between the Obama and Bush administrations approach

concern[s] not the substance of terrorism policy, but rather its packaging. The Bush administration shot itself in the foot time and time again, to the detriment of the legitimacy and efficacy of its policies, by indifference to process and presentation. The Obama administration, by contrast, is intensely focused on these issues.

“I doubt that many White House officials disagree,” continues Ambinder, “”although they point out that many of the institutionalized decisions that Goldsmith sees are works in progress, and that the executive is inherently limited in his ability to quickly reverse course on many aspects of national security policy.”

Indeed, it is hard to find a Bush administration official who disagrees with Goldsmith at this point, save for friends and allies of Mr. Cheney’s. That’s because, from the middle of the President’s second term until the end, the Bush administration began the process of legitimation. . . .

Cheney seems to be arguing with himself; or, rather, with the decisions that his President, George W. Bush, made after the thumping of the 2006 elections. He is arguing with Republican Party elites, most of whom are willing to criticize individual decisions Obama has made but who can’t find fault with his general approach to terrorism.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but our president can give a helluva speech,” writes Adam Serwer at the American Prospect.

The most important part of the president’s speech was the framing of our national conversation around this issue. . . . He reframed his positions national security, much as he does with all political issues, as standing between two “two opposite and absolutist ends,” those who would never “put national security over transparency” and those who believe the Nixonian dictum that “that the President should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants.”

I don’t buy this framing. The fact is that there is no middle ground when it comes to due process. With his soaring and sincere rhetoric, the president has done an incredible job of selling his kindler, gentler War on Terror, and ultimately, the American people will likely have his back, if only because they trust him. In a sense, Barack Obama may be far more dangerous than George W. Bush when it comes to violating our civil liberties, where the American people feared the excesses of Bush, they trust wholly in the sincerity of Barack Obama. At least for now.

Glenn Greenwald says “the speech was fairly representative of what Obama typically does:

effectively defend some important ideals in a uniquely persuasive way and advocating some policies that promote those ideals (closing Guantanamo, banning torture tactics, limiting the state secrets privilege) while committing to many which plainly violate them (indefinite preventive detention schemes, military commissions, denial of habeas rights to Bagram abductees, concealing torture evidence, blocking judicial review on secrecy grounds). Like all political officials, Obama should be judged based on his actions and decisions, not his words and alleged intentions and motives. Those actions in the civil liberties realm, with some exceptions, have been profoundly at odds with his claimed principles, and this speech hasn’t changed that. Only actions will.

“I regard it as the national security equivalent of his Jeremiah Wright speech,” writes Andrew Sullivan.

Why? Because it managed to reach a place apart from, while being fully part of, the furious debates we have been having. These debates are vital, and the notion that we can simply move on from the Bush-Cheney era without some accounting or reform is both empirically and morally false. We are struggling for a sustainable, long-term balance between security against a ruthless and unprincipled and lawless enemy - and a law of war, and a judicial system and a civilization that we rightly love and want to defend. This struggle will be a long one, and an extremely difficult one, and the most profound of the insights that the president offered today is as banal as it is central:

“There is a core principle that we will apply to all of our actions: even as we clean up the mess at Guantanamo, we will constantly re-evaluate our approach, subject our decisions to review from the other branches of government, and seek the strongest and most sustainable legal framework for addressing these issues in the long-term.”

. . . I feel much more confidence now that victory - for both our system and the war against Jihadism - is possible. Civil liberties purists will quibble and fight. Cheney-dead-enders will continue to stoke fear and division. I think this is the right balance - and deserves our vocal and persistent support.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Obama calls for 'common ground' on abortion at Notre Dame

Story Highlights

NEW: 39 protesters arrested before speech for trespassing, police say
NEW: He endorses "sensible conscience clause" for doctors opposed to abortion
NEW: Obama calls for reducing abortions, making adoption easier
Obama's pro-abortion rights, stem cell views opposed by protesters
SOUTH BEND, Indiana (CNN) -- President Obama delved into the abortion debate in a controversial Notre Dame commencement address Sunday, calling for a search for common ground on one of the most divisive issues in American politics.

Addressing a sharply divided audience at the storied Catholic university, Obama conceded that no matter how much Americans "may want to fudge it ... at some level the views of the two camps are irreconcilable."

"Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction," he said. "But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."

The commencement ceremony was boycotted by a number of graduates dismayed by the university's decision both to tap Obama as its commencement speaker and to give him an honorary degree. View pictures from the commencement »

The president is a supporter of abortion rights and federally-funded embryonic stem-cell research -- positions that are anathema to traditional Catholic teachings.

Some graduates attended the ceremony, but expressed their disapproval by donning mortarboards marked with a cross and the outline of an infant's footprints. Others countered by wearing mortarboards adorned with an Obama campaign symbol.

Protests by abortion rights opponents before Obama's speech led to 39 arrests, St. Joseph County sheriff's deputy Rachel Zawistowski told CNN. One of those arrested was Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff identified as "Roe" in the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that struck down state laws banning abortion. Watch police arrest anti-Obama demonstrators »

All those arrested were charged with trespassing, and two people taken into custody were also charged with resisting arrest, Redmond said. The charges are misdemeanors, and defendants had to post bail of $250 each before being released, he said.

Inside, several hecklers who interrupted the start of Obama's speech were loudly booed by the audience.

Obama asked the crowd if it's possible "for us to join hands in common effort."

"As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate?" he asked. "How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?"

The president told the audience a story about an e-mail he received during his 2004 Illinois Senate race from a doctor who opposed abortion. The doctor, according to the president, said he voted for Obama during the Democratic primary but felt he might not be able to support him in the general election.

A self-described Christian who "was strongly pro-life," the doctor had been offended by an entry on Obama's Senate campaign Web site that said Obama would oppose "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." Watch Obama discuss abortion »

"The doctor said that he had assumed I was a reasonable person, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable," Obama said.

He said the doctor urged him not to change his views, but rather to speak about the issue of abortion in "fair-minded words."

After instructing his campaign staff to change the wording on his Web site, Obama said he prayed "that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me."

"When we do that -- when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do -- that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground."

The president said that while "maybe we won't agree on abortion ... we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make."

He urged supporters and opponents of abortion rights to "work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term."

He also endorsed the drafting of a "sensible conscience clause" to "honor the conscience" of doctors and other medical workers opposed to abortion.

Let's "make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women," he said.

Obama is the ninth sitting U.S. president to deliver the commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, but none of his predecessors touched off a similar firestorm. Watch how some graduating seniors are taking Obama visit in stride »

"I have no problem with Obama speaking on the campus [but] I do have a problem giving him [this] honor," said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League.

Catholic Bishop John D'Arcy of South Bend, Indiana, was among those who skipped the ceremony.

"President Obama has recently reaffirmed, and has now placed in public policy, his long-stated unwillingness to hold human life as sacred," D'Arcy said in a written statement.

Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins noted in a statement in March that the university has hosted Democratic and Republican presidents, and said the invitation does not mean the university agrees with all of Obama's positions.

Obama carried the Catholic vote in last year's presidential election by a margin of nine percentage points, 54 to 45 percent. A Quinnipiac University poll released last Thursday suggests most U.S. Catholics wanted Notre Dame to allow Obama to speak, with 60 percent of Catholic voters in the survey saying Notre Dame should stand by its invitation to the president.

Observant Catholic voters who attend religious services about once a week said by a 49 to 43 percent margin that Notre Dame should keep Obama on the program. Catholics who attend services less frequently said by a 70 percent to 26 percent margin that Obama should speak, according to the poll.

"Neither Americans overall, nor Roman Catholic voters in particular, think Notre Dame should rescind its invitation to President Obama," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

"The strongest opposition to the president's appearance comes from observant Catholics, but more of them than not say he should be allowed to speak."

The poll, taken April 21-27, surveyed 2,041 registered voters nationwide. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.

"Catholics are not a monolithic group. If you divide between practicing Catholics and nonpracticing Catholics, you'll find that the practicing Catholics for some reason are opposed to Obama getting an honor. They're not opposed to him speaking at Notre Dame. They're opposed to him being honored," Donohue said.

So Far So Good New York TIMES

Less than three weeks after Chrysler filed for bankruptcy protection, it looks as if the Obama administration will pull off its goal of completing the carmaker’s restructuring by June, allowing it to emerge as a smaller, more viable contender in the global auto market.

Unfortunately, Detroit’s problems — and the White House’s — don’t end there. Still looming is the fate of General Motors, a much larger and more complex company than Chrysler. G.M.’s bankruptcy is becoming increasingly likely as its bondholders refuse to accept the government’s terms for a restructuring out of court.

Even if G.M. — with a lot of help — manages to survive bankruptcy, it has yet to show that it has a solution for one of its most fundamental problems: its inability to make cars that consumers want to drive. This is the government’s problem too. Under a plan being negotiated by General Motors and the Treasury, the government would swap some of its loans for a stake of at least 50 percent.

So far, it looks as if Chrysler will emerge from its restructuring a more sensible company, linked up to Italy’s Fiat, which knows how to manufacture and sell fuel-efficient cars. The deal, which could give Fiat up to 51 percent of Chrysler, was designed under the eye of the government to increase Chrysler’s sales overseas and get Fiat to develop fuel-efficient vehicles in the United States by 2013.

Chrysler’s bankruptcy has been so smooth and fast because the government held its hand all the way — including providing financing to keep it running through bankruptcy and cover its warranties so consumers would keep buying.

The process started with a precooked government plan to divvy up the company between Fiat, a trust fund run by the United Automobile Workers union and the American and Canadian governments. Even then it took a sympathetic bankruptcy judge to convince a group of recalcitrant lenders that it was in their best interest to drop their opposition. The company is still meeting fierce resistance from some of the 789 dealers it plans to shutter, as it shrinks to fit its smaller role in the global market.

G.M.’s restructuring is unlikely to go so smoothly. Many of G.M.’s creditors vehemently oppose the government’s plan to give them a 10 percent share of the company in exchange for debt worth some $27 billion while giving 39 percent to a fund run by the U.A.W. to cover obligations worth $10 billion.

The company must still slash labor costs further, and probably fire 20,000 additional workers. It wants to close hundreds of its dealerships. A bankruptcy process would be further complicated by G.M.’s sprawling global nature — and by the prospect that its subsidiaries might have to simultaneously file for bankruptcy in other countries.

Even assuming G.M.’s likely bankruptcy ends felicitously, the automaker will have to pull off the trick of becoming an entirely different company — one that can make fuel-efficient cars to serve a future of expensive energy and environmental strain and then persuade American consumers to buy them. It has little experience with either.

Culling the Hummer and launching the Chevy Volt won’t be enough. G.M. must swiftly pare its gas-guzzling truck and S.U.V. lines, which last year accounted for 11 of its 20 top-selling brands. It must accelerate development of gas-electric hybrids and other higher-technology cars. Pulling this off successfully could well require further help from Washington to coax drivers to pay the premium for fuel-efficient cars.

Fortunately, the government, the U.A.W. and G.M.’s new leadership all seem to get it. They share a broad vision of where the company needs to go. Pulling it off won’t be easy.

Plouffe warns of 'swiftboat' attacks on health reform

From THE HILL Sam Youngman

Days after President Obama and members of Congress said they were confident they can pass health care reform this year, Obama's former campaign manager warned supporters Saturday that opposing forces are lining up to "torpedo" the plan.

David Plouffe, the man who ran Obama's historic and ultimately successful run for the White House, wrote in a fundraising e-mail to Obama's massive supporter e-mail list that the same operatives behind the swiftboat campaign that helped end Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) quest to unseat President George W. Bush are regrouping to target Obama's healthcare efforts.

Rick Scott, who helped fund the swiftboat ads during Kerry's run, is helping to fund a new group that is targeting what he and some Republicans consider an effort by Obama to socialize medicine.

"As we speak, the same people behind the notorious 'swiftboat' ads of 2004 are already pumping millions of dollars into deceptive television ads," Plouffe wrote. "Their plan is simple: torpedo healthcare reform before it sees the light of day by scaring the public and distorting the president's approach."

In his e-mail through Organizing for American, Obama's semi-dormant campaign operation at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Plouffe asked supporters to donate money and organize to urge Congress to act on legislation.

"The swiftboaters are once again trying to sell the American people short," Plouffe wrote. "As during the election, we deserve a serious conversation -- not fear-mongering and deceit. You and I see the importance of healthcare reform every day."

Plouffe was spotted recently at the White House when his beloved Philadelphia Phillies were honored by the president for winning the World Series last year.

May Features on

1. H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu)
2. Postal Rate Increase
3. Popular Baby Names
4. Memorial Day – May 25
5. Older Americans Month
6. Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

1. H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu)
Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to find the most updated information and guidance about the H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu).

The H1N1 Flu is believed to spread person-to-person, mainly through coughing and sneezing. To avoid becoming infected, or to avoid infecting others, CDC advises:
• Washing your hands often with soap and water.
• Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
• Covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
• Staying home from work or school if you’re sick.
• Following public health guidance regarding closures, crowds, etc.

Influenza H1N1 (Gripe porcina)

2. Postal Rate Increase
Starting May 11, postal rates for one-ounce, First-Class U.S. stamps will go up to $.44 (from $.42). Visit USPS to review other postal rate changes.

Remember that you can always use the Forever Stamp without additional postage on standard one-ounce envelopes.

3. Popular Baby Names
Each year—right around Mother’s Day—the Social Security Administration releases the most popular baby names registered during the prior year.

Emily and Jacob have been in the #1 spot for several years. Check out the new listing for 2008 to see if Emily and Jacob are still the most popular girl and boy names in the United States, or if other names have broken their long-standing streak!

Lista de los nombres de bebés más populares

4. Memorial Day – May 25
Monday, May 25 is Memorial Day, a national American holiday dedicated to remembering those who’ve died in military service.

Visit’s Memorial Day page to learn about the holiday’s history; get safety tips on boating, swimming, and grilling; and much more.

In the spirit of unity and remembrance, please observe a moment of silence at 3:00 pm local time on Memorial Day.

5. Older Americans Month
Happy Older Americans Month! President John F. Kennedy designated the month of May as a time to recognize older Americans, who currently represent about 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Seniors can find a range of government information and services on's Senior Citizens' Resources page, including:
• Caregivers’ Resources
• Health
• Housing
• Money and Taxes

Mes de los Estadounidenses de la Tercera Edad

6. Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month
Learn more about the special contributions of Asians and Pacific Islanders to America’s past, present, and future. You’ll find a range of resources on this topic, including images, audio, and video.

Visit the U.S. Census Bureau for interesting statistics about Asians in the U.S. You can find out which states have the largest Asian populations; see the median income of Asian families; and much more!

The right's tortured shell game

This week one thing became abundantly clear: Media conservatives want to talk about torture -- well, not really; they want to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for failing to stop the Bush administration's torture policies. You know, the policies conservatives contend worked great to keep us safe. Have trouble following their logic? That's sort of the point -- a shell game is designed to confuse the audience, forcing members of it to select the wrong shell and lose whatever money they've thrown on the table. There's little difference between that curbside gambling and what we're seeing now from conservatives.

In the process of focusing on what Pelosi and other congressional Democrats knew about the Bush administration's use of harsh interrogation techniques, as the GOP has advocated, some in the media have ignored evidence that the Bush administration began using the tactics in question before briefing congressional Democrats, and that upon learning of the techniques in 2003, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee expressed concerns to the CIA, but did not have the authority to force a change. Indeed, according to a May 2005 Bush Justice Department memo, following the Bush administration's authorization of the harsh interrogation techniques, CIA officials used one of the most controversial techniques, waterboarding, on Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in August 2002 -- before any congressional Democrats had been briefed on any of the tactics. According to the same Justice Department memo, CIA officials waterboarded Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in March 2003 -- after Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) had reportedly raised concerns to the CIA about the techniques in February 2003.

As Chrystia Freeland, U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times, said on MSNBC's Morning Joe, "[M]aking Nancy Pelosi into the big culprit of waterboarding is to move the spotlight to the wrong place." She's spot on, but that's just what we've seen this week.

In fact, Greg Sargent from The Washington Post Co.'s Plum Line blog detailed a crucial point about the ongoing Bizarro World coverage of the torture "debate" and how the forgotten issue of why the Bush administration OK'd the use of torture has morphed into a question about the credibility of Democrats. Wrote Sargent, "Multiple news accounts this morning report that Pelosi's credibility is in question after yesterday's press conference, in which she accused the CIA of lying about what they told members of Congress about the agency's use of torture. This theme was sounded by MSNBC, WaPo's Dan Balz, the New York Times write-up, and many others. That's as it should be. But I challenge you to find a news account that stated with equal prominence that the CIA's credibility is also in question."

To illustrate just how far off the deep end media conservatives have jumped, we need look no further than Fox News' Dick Morris -- master of the disingenuous -- who this week expressed his interesting opinion that Pelosi should "step down" because "it is in the best interest of the American people."

Morris wasn't alone. More and more, Fox News' attention to this story is beginning to look like an all-out campaign to boot the California Democrat from the speaker's chair.

The same day Morris made his comments, on America's Newsroom, Fox News contributor Andrea Tantaros stated, "I think the Democrats need to come out and call for her to tell the truth or resign, because she is really -- she's hurting her colleagues." When co-host Megyn Kelly asked Tantaros, "Is it that bad? Are we at the point where a resignation demand should be made?" Tantaros responded, "Absolutely. And I think her colleagues need to do it. I think they need to call for her to either come out, tell what she knew, when she knew it, testify. If they find her to be lying, then she needs to step down."

Additionally, on the next day's edition of America's Newsroom, Kelly asked Rep. Steve King (R-IA) of Pelosi: "[C]an she be held accountable, if indeed the American public believes that she lied, if the members of the House believe that she lied, and on top of lying, she then threw our CIA under the bus? What can be done to take away the speakership? What would be the procedure for that?" The same day, the supposedly unbiased Fox Nation, a Fox News website, also posted the headline "Watch Nancy Twist in the Wind: Is Her Speakership in Jeopardy?"

I see your question, Fox Nation, and I'll raise you one: "Will Fox News' incessant twisting of the truth in pursuit of Speaker Pelosi's scalp further call into question the right-wing cable network's journalistic integrity?" In a word, yes.

Other major stories this week:

How much is The Philadelphia Inquirer paying Bush's torture memo man?

So, President Bush's torture memo man John Yoo is now an Inquirer columnist. It's not really much of a surprise coming on the heels of the revelation that the Inquirer pays former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum $1,750 to write a quickie column, about five times the going rate for that kind of work. It does, however, leave us wondering how much the Inquirer must be paying Yoo.

The Philadelphia Daily News' Will Bunch this week broke the story that the Inquirer had signed a contract with Yoo to write a monthly column. Bunch wrote that the Inquirer offered Yoo a columnist spot despite his status as the "conservative legal scholar whose tenure in the Bush administration as a top Justice Department lawyer lies at the root of the period of greatest peril to the U.S. Constitution in modern memory."

Yoo earned the condemnation of Bunch and many others while at the Justice Department because he, in Bunch's words, "argued for presidential powers far beyond anything either real or implied in the Constitution -- that the commander-in-chief could trample the powers of Congress or a free press in an endless undeclared war, or that the 4th Amendment barring unreasonable search and seizure didn't apply in fighting what Yoo called domestic terrorism." Further, as Bunch pointed out, Yoo is best "known as the author of the infamous 'torture memos' that in 2002 and 2003 gave ... Bush and [former Vice President Dick] Cheney the legal cover to violate the human rights of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, based on the now mostly ridiculed claim that international and U.S. laws against such torture practices did not apply."

Bunch quoted editorial page editor Harold Jackson suggesting that at the time the contract was signed, the Inquirer did not fully grasp his record: "Of course, we know more about Mr. Yoo's actions in the Justice Department now than we did at the time we contracted him." But Jackson defended the Inquirer's decision, saying, among other things, according to Bunch: "Our readers have been able to get directly from Mr. Yoo his thoughts on a number of subjects concerning law and the courts."

But Yoo's May 10 column casts doubt on even that assertion -- in the piece, Yoo made statements on the issue of judges showing empathy inconsistent with the arguments he offered in the past. In the column -- which carried the byline "John Yoo Inquirer Columnist" -- Yoo denounced President Obama's stated intention to nominate a Supreme Court justice who demonstrates the quality of empathy. Specifically, Yoo quoted from Obama's 2007 statement that he would seek judges who possess the "empathy" to "recognize what it's like to be a young teenage mom, the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African American or gay or disabled or old."

Deriding Obama's declaration of empathy as a key quality, Yoo wrote, "Obama ... now proposes to appoint a Great Empathizer who will call balls and strikes with a strike zone that depends on the sex, race, and social and economic background of the players. Nothing could be more damaging to the fairness of the game, or to the idea of a rule of law that is blind to the identity of the parties before it."

But Yoo was not nearly as negative about demonstrations of empathy by a judge when he described the reasoning behind the judicial decisions of Justice Clarence Thomas, for whom Yoo clerked. To the contrary, in a review of Thomas' 2007 memoir, My Grandfather's Son -- in which Yoo praised Thomas' "unique, powerful intellect" and commitment to "the principle that the Constitution today means what the Framers thought it meant" -- Yoo touted the unique perspective that he said Thomas brings to the bench. Yoo wrote that Thomas "is a black man with a much greater range of personal experience than most of the upper-class liberals who take potshots at him" and argued that Thomas' work on the court has been influenced by his understanding of the less fortunate acquired through personal experience.

Worse still, as Media Matters noted this week, Yoo's newspaper writing may not have always presented his actual "thoughts" or views: In a May 29, 2004, Wall Street Journal op-ed, Yoo made assertions that were later revealed to be highly misleading or at odds with legal memos he had written during the Bush administration as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.

More conservatives bow to leader Limbaugh

Last weekend on CBS' Face the Nation, when asked where he stood on a recent spat between Rush Limbaugh and former Secretary of State Colin Powell over the future of the Republican Party, Cheney said, "Well, if I had to choose in terms of being a Republican I'd go with Rush Limbaugh, I think."

He wasn't alone. In the days that followed, a litany of conservative heavyweights lined up to support Cheney's take on the Limbaugh vs. Powell saga.

CNN political analyst and GOP consultant Alex Castellanos said, "I agree with the vice president. I'd pick Rush too." MSNBC's Pat Buchanan concurred, saying Limbaugh is "a better Republican" than Powell, while Fox News' Sean Hannity declared he "couldn't agree more" with Cheney.

Former Bush adviser and current Fox News commentator Karl Rove stuck it to Powell, concluding, "It's not a very comforting vision to say my vision for the Republican Party's future is for Rush Limbaugh to shut up."

Check out this YouTube video Media Matters put together in an attempt to highlight the latest round of right-wing Limbaugh ring-smooching.

Disturbing comments on Pelosi, Reid land CBS golf analyst in sand trap

Late last week, Media Matters noted that CBS golf analyst David Feherty, in an essay for a Dallas magazine wrote, "From my own experience visiting the troops in the Middle East, I can tell you this, though: despite how the conflict has been portrayed by our glorious media, if you gave any U.S. soldier a gun with two bullets in it, and he found himself in an elevator with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Osama bin Laden, there's a good chance that Nancy Pelosi would get shot twice, and Harry Reid and bin Laden would be strangled to death."

In a statement to the press, Media Matters President Eric Burns responded: "Mr. Feherty's violent comments about Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid are disgusting. Suggesting that our troops would attack the leaders of the very democracy they've sworn to sacrifice their lives for is an insult to their integrity, honor, and professionalism. CBS Sports should demand its golf analyst apologize to our soldiers."

By that evening, Keith Olbermann was naming Feherty the "Worst Person in the World" for suggesting that "any U.S. soldier" would kill Pelosi and Reid.

Over the weekend, CBS Sports senior vice president of communications LeslieAnne Wade issued a statement in response to the brewing controversy over Feherty's comments, stating, "While outside his work for CBS, David Feherty is a popular humorist, we want to be clear that this column for a Dallas magazine is an unacceptable attempt at humor and is not in any way condoned, endorsed or approved by CBS Sports." Pressure for an apology from Feherty mounted as the Associated Press ran a story that noted the golf analyst was coming "under sharp criticism" and the New York Daily News reported on the controversy under the headline "Shot at Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi lands CBS golf analyst in hot water."

By late Sunday evening, Feherty was apologizing to Pelosi and Reid for his disturbing comments, saying in a statement, "This passage was a metaphor meant to describe how American troops felt about our 43rd president. In retrospect, it was inappropriate and unacceptable, and has clearly insulted Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid, and for that, I apologize. As for our troops, they know I will continue to do as much as I can for them both at home and abroad."

Friday, May 15, 2009

Student who shot classmate to graduate, no jail time

Morehouse student shot classmate Rashad Johnson in 2007

Johnson survived, never returned to Morehouse, but shooter graduates this weekend

Shooter was offered a plea deal that avoided jail time; faced up to 20 years in prison

"I really feel sick, like how could this happen," Johnson says

Gary Tuchman and Ismael Estrada CNN AC360

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- About 500 students will graduate this weekend from Atlanta's prestigious Morehouse College. One person who won't be there is Rashad Johnson, shot three times by a fellow student. But the shooter will receive his diploma -- part of a plea deal that spared him up to 20 years in prison.

It's a puzzling case that raises a huge question: How can this be?

Even Atlanta's chief district attorney, Paul Howard, is outraged by the generous plea deal, an offer that was made by a prosecutor under his command.

"First of all, for the victim and his family, they deserved a better resolution," said Howard, a Morehouse graduate himself. "It seems like the wrong person got the right benefit."

Joshua Brandon Norris faced one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and a second count for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. But in a court hearing in January, he was presented with what the judge described as "the break of your life." Watch Justice for all? »

He pleaded no contest to the first count; the second charge was dropped. He got six years of probation, a $1,000 fine and 240 hours of community service. He avoided any jail time, and the plea also mandated that he "remain in college and complete your college degree," according to court transcripts. The sentence was not the judge's idea, but he followed the prosecutor's recommendation.

Johnson, who still has a bullet in his left leg, says he wasn't told about the court hearing. When he learned of the plea deal, his reaction was: "He's gotta return to college? This criminal?"

Johnson's father died three months before the shooting. He had taken the semester off to grieve for his father, but remained in Atlanta and had planned to return to Morehouse the following semester. After the shooting, he went home to California to be with his mom and recover from his injuries.

His mother, Fahizah Johnson, said, "I am so disappointed because Morehouse has been an institution in my family for three generations."

"This guy shot my son three times, and he's still in school? He's still a student with other students?" she said. "I'm hurt for my son. I'm hurt for his dream deferred, but it's not over. And I'm thankful for his life and I'm thankful for his spirit."

The incident began at a Halloween party in 2007 at an Atlanta club, where Morehouse college kids had gathered for a bash. The club owner said he saw Norris causing trouble, and a bouncer threw him out the front door.

Minutes later, the people in the club heard gunshots and everyone hit the floor. The club owner said the shooter was the man he saw kicked out.

Johnson told CNN that there was an altercation outside the club and that he exchanged words with Norris. He said he didn't think much of it, and he began walking to his car when Norris pulled up in his Hummer, got out of the vehicle and pointed a gun at his head.

"When he put the gun to my head, all I could think about was I'm not going to let this kid take me away from my mom, especially with what she's dealing with right now," Johnson said.

He said he grabbed Norris' wrist and pulled his arm down when shots rang out. "I felt the sharpest burning sensation when the first bullet hit my leg. It actually made my leg buckle," he said.

Norris would not go on camera with CNN, and neither would his attorney. But his lawyer said that at the time of the shooting, his client felt his life was threatened and was defending himself.

CNN also asked Morehouse officials to comment on why Norris was allowed back in school and asked if they ever talked about safety considerations involving other students there. The school had allowed Norris to return to classes, even before the plea was entered.

Morehouse refused to discuss the issue on camera. But in a written statement, the school said, "The college cannot comment on specific student conduct matters, incidents of inappropriate student behavior, whether on or off campus."

The assistant district attorney who made the plea deal could not be reached for comment. Howard, his boss, said that the prosecutor of the case has resigned and that he would have been fired for his handling of this case. Howard feels a stiffer penalty was warranted.

"We are sorry this happened for so many reasons," Howard said. "When something like this happens, I am very upset by it."

He added, "It was an inappropriate sentence."

As for Johnson, he is attending Sacramento City College and plans to attend law school after he graduates in 2011. Johnson said he no longer wants to be a Morehouse man. The fact that Norris is graduating this weekend, he said, is an injustice.

"I really feel sick, like how could this happen," he said, fighting back tears.

Commentary: Celibacy should be rethought

Story Highlights
The Rev. Donald Cozzens: Celibacy is 1,000 years old but not intrinsic to the church

Many popes were married in the first millennium of the church, Cozzens says

Cozzens says church views marriage as sacred; why should priests be denied it?

Cozzens: Celibacy is a gift that should be optional, not mandated by the church

The Rev. Donald Cozzens is writer in residence and adjunct professor of theology at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. A priest of the Diocese of Cleveland with a doctoral degree, he is the author of several books on the Catholic Church, including "Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church" and "Freeing Celibacy," both published by Liturgical Press. For another view on this topic, read here.

(CNN) -- It's an issue that simply won't go away. In spite of signals from the Vatican discouraging even discussions of obligatory celibacy for Catholic priests, the almost 1,000-year-old rule is under the microscope. And it will be for decades to come. Here's why.

In the Catholic tradition, even though sex is cast as sinful unless expressed in the conjugal embrace of husband and wife, it is held as fundamentally good, a part of God's creation.

The church even holds that marriage (including spousal lovemaking) is a sacrament -- something sacred that contributes to the sanctity of husbands and wives. In light of this official teaching, it is dawning on many Catholics that mandatory celibacy for priests, a canonically imposed discipline of the church, is precisely that -- a discipline.

They are asking, "How is it that a discipline of the church has been allowed to trump a sacrament of the church?" In effect, the church is saying that should God call a man to the priesthood, God will not, at the same time, call that individual to the sacrament of marriage. It's right to ask, how does the church know this?

Public opinion surveys indicate that most Catholics, priests included, believe the discipline of celibacy needs a serious review. Recently the retired archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, observed that obligatory celibacy is open for discussion. It is not, Egan noted, a matter of dogma.

For decades now, bishops from Asia, Europe and the Americas have asked Vatican officials to consider optional celibacy for priests. The church's official response is consistent and succinct: As a precious gift from God, the discipline of celibacy for priests will remain in place.

This, in spite of the inherent paradox lying just below the claim that the gift of celibacy is a precious gift of God to the priesthood and the church: How can a gift be legislated? The church answers that if a man is called to the priesthood, God will grant him the gift of celibacy. Many priests today wonder how church leaders know this. Reading the mind of God in this matter -- in any matter of church discipline -- is risky business.

More and more Catholics today are coming to understand that celibacy as a universal law for priests had its origins in the 12th century and that during the church's first millennium, priests and bishops -- and at least thirty-nine popes -- were married.

Still, most well-read cradle Catholics are surprised to learn that St. Anastasius, pope from 399 to 401, was succeeded by his son, Pope St. Innocent I, and that a century later Pope St. Hormisdas' son, St. Silverius, also was elected to the papacy.

Even in our secular world, it's common to speak of church-based ministry as a calling, a vocation. Isn't it possible that God would call an individual to the priesthood and to the sacrament of marriage? God apparently did so for more than half the church's history. How do we know that God isn't doing so today?

For some years now I've been teaching in the religious studies department at John Carroll University in Cleveland. I've asked dozens of serious, healthy young students if they have given any thought to being a priest. They seem flattered by the question. With only one exception, each has answered, "Yes, I've thought about being a priest, but I want a family."

There are, of course, other factors, urgent and pressing, that will keep the celibacy issue alive. The Catholic priesthood is aging. The average age of active priests hovers at 60, and if retired priests are factored in, it is considerably higher. Moreover, Catholic seminaries are lucky to be half full.

Parish staffing challenges alone will press for a review of the celibacy rule. Catholic bishops simply do not have enough priests to meet the pastoral and sacramental needs of the Catholic faithful. Closing and merging parishes may offer some temporary relief for overworked priests, but the shortfall of priests will continue to challenge the vitality of Catholic parishes and the health of Catholic clergy for decades to come.

But the most human, existential factor that should keep the celibacy issue on the table is the spiritual and emotional health of priests. Celibacy really isn't the issue -- mandatory or obligatory celibacy is.

There are many priests who do possess the gift of celibacy -- it is their "truth" so to speak -- and their humanity, warmth and pastoral effectiveness give abundant evidence of their authentic celibate lives. But there remain other priests who believe deep down they are called to the priesthood but not to celibacy. And for these men, the burden of mandated celibacy threatens their spiritual and emotional well-being. The priesthood may be their "truth," but mandated celibacy wraps them in a cloak of loneliness and struggle.

I don't know Father Alberto Cutie. He appears to have touched the lives of many and preached the gospel with power and conviction. I suspect he feels called by God to be a priest, but not a celibate priest.

Surely he knows that Easter Rite Catholic priests are allowed to marry and that the church welcomes into the priesthood married convert ministers from other Christian denominations. Surely he knows that in many parts of the Catholic world, clerical celibacy is openly flouted, and church authorities choose not to notice.

I wonder if church officials understand the burden they place on the shoulders of a man who believes he is called to priestly ministry but not to celibacy. Certainly, a married priesthood will have burdens of its own and, sadly, scandals of its own -- infidelity and abuse among others. But it should be left to the individual priest and seminarian to determine whether or not he is blessed with the gift of celibacy.

A mandated "gift," after all, is really no gift at all.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A case for celibacy for priests

The Rev. Robert Barron: Why does Church back practice that seems unnecessary?
He says he rejects the "marriage is spiritually suspect" defense of celibacy
But celibacy sets the priest apart as a symbol of another world, he says

The Rev. Robert Barron is Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary and author of several books, including "Eucharist," "Word on Fire: Proclaiming the Power of Christ" and "The Priority of Christ: Toward a Post-Liberal Catholicism." Barron is the director of, a global media ministry based in Chicago, Illinois. For another view on this topic, read here.

(CNN) -- The scandal surrounding the Rev. Alberto Cutie has raised questions in the minds of many concerning the Catholic Church's discipline of priestly celibacy. Why does the church continue to defend a practice that seems so unnatural and so unnecessary?

There is a very bad argument for celibacy, which has appeared throughout the tradition and which is, even today, defended by some. It goes something like this: Married life is spiritually suspect; priests, as religious leaders, should be spiritual athletes above reproach; therefore, priests shouldn't be married

This approach to the question is, in my judgment, not just stupid but dangerous, for it rests on presumptions that are repugnant to solid Christian doctrine. The biblical teaching on creation implies the essential integrity of the world and everything in it.

Genesis tells us that God found each thing he had made good and that he found the ensemble of creatures very good. Catholic theology, at its best, has always been resolutely, anti-dualist -- and this means that matter, the body, marriage and sexual activity are never, in themselves, to be despised.

But there is more to the doctrine of creation than an affirmation of the goodness of the world. To say that the finite realm in its entirety is created is to imply that nothing in the universe is God. All aspects of created reality reflect God and bear traces of the divine goodness -- just as every detail of a building gives evidence of the mind of the architect -- but no creature and no collectivity of creatures is divine, just as no part of a structure is the architect.

This distinction between God and the world is the ground for the anti-idolatry principle that is reiterated from the beginning to the end of the Bible: Do not turn something less than God into God.

Isaiah the prophet put it thus: "As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my thoughts above your thoughts and my ways above your ways, says the Lord." And it is at the heart of the First Commandment: "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods besides me." The Bible thus holds off all the attempts of human beings to divinize or render ultimate some worldly reality. The doctrine of creation, in a word, involves both a great "yes" and a great "no" to the universe.

Now there is a behavioral concomitant to the anti-idolatry principle, and it is called detachment. Detachment is the refusal to make anything less than God the organizing principle or center of one's life.

Anthony de Mello looked at it from the other side and said "an attachment is anything in this world -- including your own life -- that you are convinced you cannot live without." Even as we reverence everything that God has made, we must let go of everything that God has made, precisely for the sake of God.

This is why, as G.K. Chesterton noted, there is a tension to Christian life. In accord with its affirmation of the world, the Church loves color, pageantry, music and rich decoration (as in the liturgy and papal ceremonials), even as, in accord with its detachment from the world, it loves the poverty of St. Francis and the simplicity of Mother Teresa.

The same tension governs its attitude toward sex and family. Again, in Chesterton's language, the Church is "fiercely for having children" (through marriage) even as it remains "fiercely against having them" (in religious celibacy).

Everything in this world -- including sex and intimate friendship -- is good, but impermanently so; all finite reality is beautiful, but its beauty, if I can put it in explicitly Catholic terms, is sacramental, not ultimate.

In the biblical narratives, when God wanted to make a certain truth vividly known to his people, he would, from time to time, choose a prophet and command him to act out that truth, to embody it concretely.

For example, he told Hosea to marry the unfaithful Gomer in order to sacramentalize God's fidelity to wavering Israel. Thus, the truth of the non-ultimacy of sex, family and worldly relationship can and should be proclaimed through words, but it will be believed only when people can see it.

This is why, the Church is convinced, God chooses certain people to be celibate. Their mission is to witness to a transcendent form of love, the way that we will love in heaven. In God's realm, we will experience a communion (bodily as well as spiritual) compared to which even the most intense forms of communion here below pale into insignificance, and celibates make this truth viscerally real for us now. Though one can present practical reasons for it, I believe that celibacy only finally makes sense in this eschatological context.

For years, the Rev. Andrew Greeley argued -- quite rightly in my view -- that the priest is fascinating and that a large part of the fascination comes from celibacy. The compelling quality of the priest is not a matter of superficial celebrity or charm. It is something much stranger, deeper, more mystical. It is the fascination for another world.