Reading tonight's news reminded me of a scene in Barbara Hambly's novel Dog Wizard (although it's a common enough theme). The wizards are busy doing all sorts of complicated and intricate magic to, basically, stop the world from being destroyed by other invading realities, while trying to avoid the attention of the Inquisition, their long-term antagonists, who have barged in demanding to know what the hell they're up to. At one point the head of the Inquisition breaks into a room with all sorts of mystical chalk circles and incense and silver powder and what have you, and the wizards say "What ever you do, don't break the circles! You'll destroy the Universe as we know it!"
The chief Inquisitor's response, at this point, is to say "Ahah, you're planning something evil, I know it. And you say that breaking this circle would foil your plans? Well, even if it would mean my death, I will do it gladly, to rid the world of the likes of you."
The rest of the book, after he breaks the circle, is about the wizards trying to put the world back together again.
While no analogies are perfect, obviously, the behaviour of the Bush administration had a lot of similarities: its refusal to listen to people who are not theologically pure, its sheer and utter determination to follow its own agenda, the primacy of belief and tactics over reason and facts. Tonight threw up three examples.
A moonbase! No, let's go to Mars! No, both!
I don't have much to add to what Gregg Easterbrook has said (via Atrios) - in summary, that building a moonbase is scientifically pointless and prohibitively expensive, and would be no use for sending men to Mars, which would also be prohibitively expensive. I'd add, personally, that I'd like to see us getting unmanned missions to Mars right before we send people there. The success rate is 50% this year, and 33% all in all, I believe, which is not something I'd be too happy about for a manned mission.
Matthew Yglesias adds:
Even as a political gambit this is a bit weird -- surely a more generous Medicare benefit would buy you more votes-per-dollar. And if you want a giveaway to aerospace constractors why not just push for even more defense spending? It almost seems to me like Karl Rove was just sitting around his office trying to figure out how he could really piss me off and he (correctly) decided this would do it.
Ezra Klein in Pandagon expands on this:
Bush could rally Americans around curing cancer, ending world hunger, rebuilding shattered societies, remaking our communities, recreating civic participation or any of a huge number of issues that face humanity in the near future. But instead, he's rallying Americans around something that they can't possibly be personally involved in and, in the scheme of things, is not the most pressing of causes.
I'll note that, as yet, Bush has not actually announced what his major Space initiative is, so to some degree this brickbatting is premature. But, nonetheless, the fundamental problem with Space is that it costs too much to get from Earth into orbit, and then from there to elsewhere in the Solar System. Oh, and the Space Shuttle is a 20-year-old implementation of a 1970s design. That's the main problem with the Space programme, not whether we want to go back to the Moon to see if it's still there, and still made of rocks.
No discussion in the Bush cabinet
Ron Suskind is due to bring out a book about the workings of the Bush administration, The Price of Loyalty, fuelled partly by confidences from Paul O'Neill, Bush's first Treasury Secretary. Says CBS (via Calpundit, who has more on this issue):
A lack of dialogue, according to O'Neill, was the norm in cabinet meetings he attended. The president "was like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people," O'Neill is quoted saying in the book.
It was similar in one-on-one meetings, says O'Neill. Of his first such meeting with the president, O'Neill says, "I went in with a long list of things to talk about and, I thought, to engage [him] on...I was surprised it turned out me talking and the president just listening...It was mostly a monologue."
There's more in the Washington Post (bizarrely):
In making the blind man analogy, O'Neill told CBS his ex-boss did not encourage a free flow of ideas or open debate.
"There is no discernible connection," CBS quoted O'Neill as saying. The president's lack of engagement left his advisers with "little more than hunches about what the president might think," O'Neil said, according to the program.
To which the Bush Administration's response is:
"It's well known the way the president approaches governing and setting priorities," says White House Spokesman Scott McClellan. "The president is someone that leads and acts decisively on our biggest priorities, and that is exactly what he'll continue to do."
Shorter McClellan: This isn't news; the President doesn't waver.
This response spectacularly fails to address any of the criticisms in the programmes. It sounds so much like a non-denial denial that I can only assume that O'Neill is, in fact, speaking the truth. It certainly gibes with what we know already, that Bush doesn't read newspapers, because his staff can do no wrong.
Remember, also, that the Clinton administration was preparing to bomb Al Qaeda, but decided not to do so because they were a lame-duck administration and didn't have the right to impose a policy on the next President. Instead, they briefed the new team extensively on the threat from terrorism - only to see the Bush team do nothing, until September 11th.
Now, you could vaguely excuse Bush & co. for not trusting the Clintons. But if O'Neill is correct, Bush (and his people?) had a tendency to not listen to anybody. This report removes one of the last remaining excuses the Bush administration had for underestimating Osama bin Laden, and that's something that deserves to be repeated.
Incidentally, compare this with this wonderful quote about Wes Clark:
Always, he thought unconventionally. General Scales, his classmate, offered this: "They say in the military that you bring to your boss three solutions: one that's too hot, one that's too cold and one that's just right. That's called the Goldilocks solution. You have an answer and you steer him to it.
"Wes doesn't recognize the Goldilocks solution. He'll say: `Well maybe we shouldn't eat any porridge. And why are there bears in here? And who is this Goldilocks character wandering around? And by the way, what is the whole purpose of fairy tales?' And this drives some people nuts."
Religion, science and morality? They're all the same
The last story tonight is the latest from the Associated Press' wingnut hack in residence, Nedra Pickler (you know the country's going wrong when the wire services are pushing politically biased reporting). In Dean Criticizes Bush Over Stem Cells, the first paragraph reads:
Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean on Friday criticized President Bush for restricting stem-cell research based on religious beliefs even though his own faith affected his decision to extend legal rights to gay couples.
I don't know where to begin. I mean, the UK press isn't that bad.
OK. Let's start with what's actually going on.
- In 2000, Howard Dean, as governor of Vermont, signed into a law a Civil Unions bill that granted the same rights (insurance, inheritance, hospital visitation) to gay or lesbian couples as married heterosexual couples.
- In 2001, Bush announced a moratorium on harvesting of stem cells, citing the sanctity of human life.
- Howard Dean recently said that his religious beliefs contributed to him making that decision: "The hallmark of Christianity is to reach out to people who have been left behind."
- He also recently criticised Bush for letting religious beliefs get in the way of good science.
Is there a contradiction? No.
Dean's decision was only partly backed up by religion - indeed, until recently (and some people are deeply unimpressed by this latest addition to the story), he didn't mention religion at all when explaining why he campaigned for civil unions. You could have reached the same decision without using religion at all - it's a matter of ethics, political theory, or, very probably, both. Equality of rights before the law is a fairly solid, consistent tenet for most people in Western democracies, and you don't need to be religious to favour Howard Dean's ultimate position. (I'm all for it, and I'm an atheist.)
Bush's decision, however, was not only based purely on religion, but actually went counter to the scientific evidence available to him at the time. Scientists came to him and said that stem-cell research could potentially cure Alzheimer's and a number of other diseases, and he said "Forget it, God is against it. I know it, because I believe."
I deeply hope that, come this time next year, the US has an intelligent, inquisitive, challenging, consensus-building President that will do something to address the country and the world's problems. Either Dean or Clark would be fine candidates - although I prefer Dean myself. But for the good of the country, it cannot, must not, be Bush.