Sunday, July 31, 2005

Cuaderno Latinoamericano: Roger Noriega Quits the Bush Administration - Roger Noriega, Bush's Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the State Department, has quit. Noriega simply says it was time to retire after a long career in public service; but some speculation has it that he was too single-minded to do a balanced job for the whole region. Personally, I tend to agree. His obsessiveness with Cuba and Venezuela made him unable to be really effective in other probably more important matters in U.S.-Latin American relations. Word is also that Thomas Shannon, chief of Latin American Affairs at the National Security Council, is Noriega's likely replacement.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Liberal Lighthouse: Casey vs. Santorum - As of July 22, 2005, Rasmussen has Pennsylvania's Democratic Candidate for the Senate, Bob Casey Jr., ahead of Republican Incumbent Rick Santorum, by a double digit margin: 52% to 41%. Personally, I think Bob Casey Jr. will win this in a landslide. Here are my reasons for this assessment:

(1) Santorum, while a reliable social conservative, has some damage repair to do among his own base after having supported the moderate Republican, Arlen Spectre, in the last Senate GOP primary race against the much more socially conservative Pat Toomey.
(2) Santorum, with his outspoken support for a Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage, has been labelled (whether rightly or wrongly) as an intolerant homophobe. His attitudes and positions on this issue have made him seem unforgiving and judgmental. This hard edge will not sit well with moderates and conservatives who value compassion and understanding if not agreement with the besieged gay minority.
(3) Casey is a pro-life, pro-social justice Catholic who will win over some of Santorum's previous Catholic supporters who vote pro-life, but who also highly value a pro-social justice orientation in political candidates.
(4) Pennsylvania is a reliably democratic state, having elected a Democratic Governor and having gone decidedly for both Gore and Kerry in the past two presidential electoral cycles -- something neither Santorum nor Spectre could overcome for the national GOP; and this fact may not elicit the type of enthusiastic interest by the national Party as Santorum will probably need to have to win in this election.
(5) Casey is a much more likeable and personable individual than Santorum. Casey rubs people the right way, whereas Santorum tends to rub people the wrong way. People either love or hate Santorum; but no one hates Casey.

Friday, July 29, 2005

School Board: Catholic Schools and Tax Dollars - I continue to be amazed at the inconsistencies in the New Orleans Archdiocesan Educational Office's single-minded fascination with State Government as an answer to the money woes of the Catholic school system. It is all the more interesting to me given that the Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Fr. William Maestri, pretends to be a social and fiscal conservative. Fr. Maestri is obviously a Republican cleric who constantly criticizes big-government, tax-and-spend liberalism. But he spares no effort to get the State Government to adopt a voucher program that would put more and more money into the Archdiocesan coffers. Although Fr. Maestri speaks of the voucher program in terms of "parental choice" in education, it is also patently clear to me that he's also in it for the money. A recent article in the Archdiocesan Newspaper, the Clarion Herald, in a moment of unguarded candor, highlights this fact:

Among the biggest challenges is finding the money to meet the needs of Catholic education in the inner city. There are 24 inner-city Catholic schools with a total population of about 10,000 students, and many are kept financially afloat by parish giving and archdiocesan subsidies totaling more than $1.5 million annually.

About 60 percent of students in inner-city Catholic schools are non-Catholic, but Father Maestri said the church has a commitment to offer quality education "to people of every race, creed, color, religion, national origin and socioeconomic status."

"Catholic education is a true gift, one that requires constant maintenance and a constant openness to where the Holy Spirit is calling us to serve," Father Maestri said. "Catholic education and the entire state of Louisiana are uniquely joined in an incredible relationship for the common good. Catholic education has contributed mightily to the well-being of our city and state in all facets of life."

Father Maestri said the archdiocese is open to the possibility of taking over a failing elementary school in Orleans Parish as early as the 2006-07 school year. He will meet with state education superintendent Cecil Picard to discuss the details of a possible takeover.

THE archdiocese also will continue its lobbying efforts for a pilot voucher program for students in failing Orleans Parish public schools.
In other words, if the financially failing Catholic elementary schools in the City can't make it in the current educational market, what's the solution? What else: GOVERNMENT! That's right, stop asking other successful and wealthy suburban parishes to subsidize the inner city Catholic Schools and get the State Government to do it. Why rely on private charity and personal incomes to pay for Catholic schooling when the state can do it for you!

If Fr. Maestri were a big government, tax-and-spend liberal Democrat, then I could perhaps understand his fixation on Government as a solution to the financial crisis facing the Archdiocesan Catholic school system. But, he's not a big government liberal. Or at least he pretends not to be when it doesn't serve his company's own financial interests.

Maestri's lobbying of the State for a voucher program rather reminds me of Tom Benson's efforts to get the State to fork over taxpayer dollars to subsidize a losing professional football team in ways that secure his bottom-line profit margins.

Call me a cynical SOB, but it seems to me that Fr. Maestri is not really against Government telling people how to spend their own tax dollars. He just wants to make sure that people can only use these vouchers on educational services and that his company is one of the State's few preferred (but unaccountable) vendors of such services that taxpayers can patronize.

As I said before, if Fr. Maestri were really interested in the best educational opportunities for children, he'd be begging the Catholic High Schools run by religious orders, given their excellent and proven abilities for fundraising scholarships for needy kids and building up endowments AND their financial independence from the Archdiocese, to open up and run feeder elementary and middle schools. But I'm not holding my breath because it would risk putting the non-competitive Archdiocesan schools out of business.

Cuaderno Latinoamericano: CAFTA - How the GOP squeezed it out - By arm-twisting and bribing and horse-trading their own vulnerable party mates. What will the fallout be in next year's mid-term elections? I think the GOP will pay a big price for this.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Cuaderno Latinoamericano: CAFTA Approved - I generally recognize the potential benefits of free trade policies. However, I am also of the opinion that unregulated free trade does not necessarily improve the quality of all lives, even if it increases overall wealth. I guess you might call me more of a "fair" free trader -- someone who wants more open markets and understands the benefits that can be gained by creating more open markets, but who also wants the benefits to be spread out evenly and fairly among all involved.

That said, I am not at all convinced that CAFTA, in its current formulation, is structured to bring benefits to all affected parties.

The fact that the CAFTA as currently formulated is opposed by the U.S. Catholic Bishops, as well as by the Central American Catholic Bishops, is enough to give me pause. Free trade without justice is not worthy of support; and how can justice be present if workers have been excluded from the crafting of the CAFTA.

My two cents. I'd love to hear yours.

Cuaderno Latinoamericano: Dinosaurs Back in Mexico? - Andres Oppenheimer is hinting maybe so. As a student of Mexican Politics for a long time now, I've often wondered if the Fox victory was part of a long-term political strategy by the PRI to shed its image as an anti-democratic Party but to create the conditions for its return to power without really substantively changing the way the machine operates. I've also been of the opinion that the true test of whether democracy has finally arrived in Mexico will take place in the wake of the 2006 presidential elections, especially if the PAN loses control of the Presidency, as it seems poised to do. Will the post-Fox Mexican political system return revert back to its PRI-dominated authoritarian past? Or will it turn into a PRD-style authoritarianism? In either case, will Mexicans prefer the certainty and security of authoritarianism or the continuation of democratic gridlock and uncertainty? We shall see.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Lagniappe: First Iraqi War Vet to Join Congress? And he's a Democrat, to boot. His story via Salon is here and his campaign website is here. Liberal patriotism at its best comparing Hackett, the Democrat Iraq War Veteran, with his Republican rival, Schmidt:

On the issues, the candidates both describe themselves as fiscal conservatives, but on the Iraq war and the so-called moral values questions, they stand in stark relief. Hackett is a critic of Bush's Iraq war policy and believes America was led to war unnecessarily. Schmidt is a strong backer of Bush's handling of the war. ...

Schmidt commends Hackett for his service, but believes Hackett should "stand with the president" by "supporting the Iraqi war effort and our troops that are over there," her campaign manager Joe Braun said. (Through Braun, Schmidt declined to speak with Salon.) When asked to answer that charge, Hackett is blunt: "The only way I know how to support the troops is by going over there." He doesn't hesitate to criticize Schmidt's support of the war: "All the chicken hawks back here who said, 'Oh, Iraq is talking bad about us. They're going to threaten us' -- look, if you really believe that, you leave your wife and three kids and go sign up for the Army or Marines and go over there and fight. Otherwise, shut your mouth."
Ya gotta love it!

[Hat tip to YatPundit.]

The Corner Watch: Derbyshire vs. Lowry - In a refreshing moment of candor on National Review Online's blog, "The Corner," John Derbyshire takes on Rich Lowry. You need to read Derbyshire's whole posting to get the background before arriving to his concluding statement, but this is the somewhat surprising way in which Derbyshire concludes with:

So, were you [Lowry] arguing back in 2002 and 2003 that the main reason we ought to invade Iraq was to kill local jihadis more easily? Was that your rationale, or some large compnent of your rationale, for supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom at that time? If it was not -- if, at some point between spring of 2003 and now, you changed your rationale for our presence in Iraq -- how would you go about persuading an impartial observer that your change of rationale was not motivated by blind loyalty to this administration?
Again, Derbyshire is an avid supporter of killing as many jihadis as possible and he is principally a supporter of the Iraq War, but this makes his blunt question to Lowry all the more interesting. It will be interesting to follow this conversation to see how Lowry responds.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Lagniappe: Letter to Fr. Maestri and the Clarion Herald on Parental Choice in Education - Fr. William Maestri, the Archidiocese of New Orleans' Superintendent of Education, has been an ardent and outspoken proponent of "parental choice" in education. This is code for being an advocate for school vouchers. In this editorial, Fr. Maestri praises the passage of State House Bill 613, which paves the way for a voucher program. He considers this Bill to be a "historic victory for children, familes, and education." For a sample of the effusiveness of his praise, read these words by Fr. Maestri:

There are many to commend for this historic victory. Rep. Burns, a freshman in the House, embraced parental choice as if it were his issue for all of his young life. He showed political prudence, patience and a genuine desire to make things better for our children and community.

A true hero and leader was New Orleans Rep. Austin Badon. He dared to put children first. He dared to speak, vote and act on behalf of what is in the best interest of Orleans Parish and our schools. He was not a politician but a true statesman whose courage and conviction were inspiring and instrumental for the outcome. New Orleans is fortunate to have such a leader.

Many members of the Louisiana House of Representatives broke with the old voices who continue to accept failure and lack of opportunity for children. These courageous members dared to think in new ways in order to combat the all-familiar voices of poor education and poverty. They indicated they, in the name of Louisiana, were ready for a new day. Such a new day centers on making things better for all our citizens, especially our children who live in poverty.
Sounds great, doesn't it! Fr. Maestri's selfless devotion to the best educational interests of children seem evident, no? But, as highly as I might think of the cause, I have it on good authority that Fr. Maestri seems to be more interested in boosting the declining enrollments of Diocesan-supported Catholic Elementary and Middle schools, than what is in the best educational interests of the City's poorest children. I have it on good authority that Fr. Maestri is a staunch opponent of having independent (that is, non-diocesan-controlled) Catholic High Schools open up affiliated Catholic elementary and middle schools. Now why would someone supposedly looking out for the best educational interests of the City's poorest children be opposed to such a possibility? Well, my speculation is that it is because such schools would out-compete the Diocesan schools, and that voucher funds, should they become available, would go to the Dominican Sisters or the Jesuits or the Christian Brothers, rather than to the Diocesan coffers.

But, I want to give Fr. Maestri the benefit of the doubt. I want him to prove that he is not really opposed to options that are in the best educational interests of the City's poorest children by openly declaring his position on the creation of such "alternative" Catholic elementary and middle schools. I want him to say that if Brother Martin High School or if Jesuit High School wanted to start up a middle school at no expense to the Diocese in the wake of the creation of a voucher program, he would lend his full support to this option. So, to that effect, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Clarion Herald on the subject. I sent it via email and via snail mail. Here is what I wrote:
Attn: Editor
Clarion Herald
P.O. Box 53247
New Orleans, La. 70153

Dear Editor:

As a product of the New Orleans Catholic School system from grade 1 through college, I applaud Fr. Maestri for his unyielding and tenacious fight for the rights of children to have the best education possible. Fr. Maestri's persistent efforts to lobby the Louisiana State Legislature for a voucher program that would ostensibly help poor children to attend private or parochial schools is a fine demonstration of his resolve. We should all be inspired by his indefatigable fight to provide the best educational opportunities for our City's poorest children.

In the spirit of his example and his commitment to the best interests of our children, I would like to encourage Fr. Maestri to go one step further. And it's an easy step, too, given Fr. Maestri's position as superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese. Why don't Maestri and the Archdiocese encourage the New Orleans Metro area's best Catholic High Schools to open up and run elementary and middle schools? Such schools would be wildly popular, financially secure, and unreliant on the thinning Archdiocesan coffers.

Imagine children going to such fine centers of Catholic education as "Brother Martin" or "Dominican" Elementary Schools, or "St. Augustine" or "Archbishop Chapelle" Middle Schools! With or without vouchers, what a marvellous opportunity for the City's children that would be!

Surely Fr. Maestri's dogged commitment to the best interests of the City's poorest children (not to mention his good, conservative Catholic values) wouldn't be shaken by a little competition between St. Dominic School and "Jesuit Elementary," even if it meant not filling ALL the seats of what would surely become its less-competitive and less-desirable Archdiocesan-run elementary and middle schools? Just a thought from someone inspired by Fr. Maestri's admirable and unselfish commitment to seek the best educational options for our city's poorest children.
I don't expect the Clarion Herald to publish this letter; nor do I expect a personal response from the Archdiocese or from Fr. Maestri. But I do want not only them, but also my blog readers, to know that I'm calling them on the subject. And if you want to call the Diocese and Fr. Maestri out on the subject, feel free to send out your own letter of support as well.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Kingfishery & Kingcakery: Citation for Being Too Clean ... Only in New Orleans - I guess being out of the City for six weeks dulls one's threshhold for the seeming incomprehensibility of some of the things that go on here, but, had I been here all along, I still probably would have been as incredulous to read that the City had issued a citation and a hearings summons to a homeowning couple for putting out their trash for pickup a bit too early. I kid you not. The City of New Orleans apparently intimidated some people who were responsible enough, even if a bit too overeager, to put their trash out for collection instead of spreading it around the streets and gutters. I mean, seriously, one quick pass through the French Quarter at any given moment is enough to illustrate the silliness of such action. It's a sad day when "garbage consciousness," especially in a City known for measuring the success of its Mardi Gras by the tonnage of randomly-strewn garbage picked up off the streets, results in an intimidating and costly summons for conscientious citizens. What's even worse, though, is that the City, having refused to even investigate the problem before issuing a summons and citation, got it wrong and apparently intimidated the wrong people! Ay, Caramba!

Friday, July 22, 2005

Kingfishery & Kingcakery: Susan Mire on Archbishop Hughes and Pro-Choice Politicians - You know, I'm a liberal Catholic that tends not to get too animated by or defensive about the Catholic Church's formal position against abortion. I expect the Church to promote a pro-life position when it comes to abortion. But, I chafe when people speak in justification of the Catholic Church leadership's public behavior regarding the politics of abortion when other issues of "life" -- i.e. capital punishment and war -- engender no such similar public protests by the Catholic leadership in defense of life.

That's why Susan Mire's piece in the Archdiocesan newspaper, Clarion Herald, really offends me. It isn't enough that Mire tries to defend Archbishop Alfred Hughes's political behavior on the issue of abortion [Hughes refused to attend a ceremony held by Loyola University honoring the entire Landrieu family's public service record because U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and her brother, State Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu, have voted "pro-choice" on occasion.]. No, she feels the need to say that Hughes's very public and very calculated snub was also an act of love towards the Landrieus. (Just the patronizing condescension of this attitude is enough to turn my stomach.) But more appalling is how she tries to canonize Hughes by explaining his "loving" political behavior as an example of true moral leadership and courage. Speaking in justification of Hughes's actions to boycott Loyola University's celebration of the Landrieus, Mire ponders, as if she were in Hughes's shoes (Now, remember, she's speaking of a man who has a not-so-admirable history in the Church sex-abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese):

What if you found out that someone you respected and admired, someone you knew to be generous, concerned for the less fortunate, peaceful and church-going, would regularly go behind a locked door, confer with others, and agree to support the brutal killing of children and the sexual abuse of women? And this plan included sending funding to individuals who prey on women, the natural defenders of children, when they were most vulnerable. Would you continue to defend their good actions? Or would you question them and challenge them?
Change a few select phrases here and there, substituting "the brutal killing of children and the sexual abuse of women" with "the wilful coverup of the sexual abuse of minors by priests," and Mire's questions about whether one should continue defending the good actions of the Landrieus take on a whole new meaning when applied to the "loving" protest actions of Hughes. Instead of praising Hughes for his "principled" stance against the Landrieus, where's Mire's "questioning and challenging" of Hughes? Methinks Mire should take a bit of her own advice, and begin to protest Hughes out of her deep love for him.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Lagniappe: Sean Huze's Gripping Story from the Front Lines in Iraq - The Gambit Weekly, a fine New Orleans weekly newspaper, has in its current issue a great story by Eliza Strickland on Sean Huze's experience as a marine on the front lines of the Iraq War when it began in March of 2003.

Sean Huze volunteered the day after 9/11 and, according to his own words, went to war with full faith in George W. Bush's arguments. Although Huze still supports the troops and wants the U.S. effort in Iraq to succeed, he returned from the war feeling deceived by the Bush Administration. Here are some of what I think are the more important pieces in this story:

Don't get Sean Huze started on the subject of yellow ribbons.

"I really have a resentment against these freaking yellow ribbon magnets, I really do," says the former Marine, a veteran of the Iraqi Freedom campaign and a Louisiana native. "It's not the ribbons themselves. But I think people stop there, and that's not real support. A yellow ribbon magnet on the back of your car is not supporting the troops."

So what is supporting the troops? Not sending them to die in battle unnecessarily, Huze says. Providing support for families left behind. Properly arming and equipping those soldiers in the war zone, and making sure they're not stretched too thin. And taking care of returning veterans who bear the physical or psychic wounds of war.

Huze believes the Bush administration has failed on all counts. He also thinks the American public hasn't insisted that its government do better.

Huze left the armed forces in the fall of 2004. When he returned to the United States, he wrote a well-received play about the war titled The Sand Storm: Stories From the Iraqi Front. He also serves as a spokesman for Operation Truth, a non-partisan veterans organization that has frequently criticized the Bush administration for its management of the war and its treatment of soldiers and veterans.

"The voice of the troops on the ground is something that's not reaching America," says Huze, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "People will listen to a general who can't even tell you what gunpowder smells like, but they won't listen to a private who has had to take a life and see his comrades fall in battle. It blows me away."
Here's another section of the piece where Huze defends the troops ...
Huze's battalion soon came to be called "The Destroyers" by the Iraqi troops who encountered it. They fought battles in Al Kut and Tikrit, and fended off surprise attacks in non-descript towns and on nameless roads. Huze earned his share of commendations for his role, including a Certificate of Commendation citing his "courage and self sacrifice throughout sustained combat operations"; the Combat Action Ribbon; Meritorious Promotion for Corporal; the Presidential Unit Citation; and the National Defense Service Medal.

"We were certainly effective, and we all made it home," says Huze, speaking in measured tones. "So there's something to be said for that. We were also responsible for a lot of carnage. Unfortunately, as in any war, the civilian population pays a pretty heavy toll, especially when we were engaged throughout the war in urban areas. It's not like you're in an open battlefield and it's two armies going at it. All of it was in densely populated areas. You see a lot of things you'd rather not see.

"I've met so many people out here in the past months who'd like to portray the military as a collection of trigger-happy fools who love killing women and children," Huze continues. "It's a disgusting lie to perpetuate. You're in an urban environment, you are taking fire, and you've got tenths of seconds, not even seconds, to make the decision. Mission accomplishment is always No. 1 priority, so you do what you have to do to push on with your mission."
And here's Huze relating his feeling of being deceived by the Bush Administration and of being put off by Bush's arrogance ...
Before long, Huze would discover other ways in which his war experiences had changed him.

"At the time I went to Iraq, I was a sucker like about 90 percent of us," says Huze. "I believed the justifications, I believed what the president said."

Throughout his time in Iraq, Huze says, he continued to take comfort in the rationale for war that he believed the Bush administration had presented: that Saddam Hussein had links to Al Qaeda and that Iraq's stockpiled weapons of mass destruction posed an imminent threat to the United States.

But back at Camp Lejeune, after the glow of his hero's welcome had worn off, Huze began to question those assumptions. On July 2, 2003, a presidential press conference changed his uncertainty to anger. Answering a question about the burgeoning Iraqi insurgency, Bush replied with a challenge: "Bring 'em on." To Huze, it seemed that the president was more concerned about his "Texas tough guy" image than the lives of the troops. "He was surrounded by body guards, while the guys I knew were the ones who were really putting it on the line, who would have to bear the repercussions of his statements," Huze says.

As Huze began to doubt the war, he became more troubled by his memories. If the war wasn't fought for the cause of thwarting terrorism, how could he justify the dead Iraqi civilians the Destroyers had left in their wake? And how could dead American soldiers rest easy in their graves?
Huze, being an actor, put his experiences and his reactions as a soldier on the front lines into a theatrical production that has met with success. It's called The Sand Storm and I hope to be able to see it some day.

Lagniappe: Back in the Saddle - Let's see if I can try to give some more life to this blog. It has been a while since I posted anything ... not because of lack of desire, but just because of lack of time. I've spent the last six weeks in Latin America and was consumed with the affairs of my work and life there. Now I'm back in the Big Easy, enjoying a bit of a Summer break before the next semester kicks in to gear, and propelled by the heaviness and heat of the typical New Orleans summer to keep cool indoors and to ponder more deeply the events of our time.

Some returning thoughts:

(1) I still think Andrew Sullivan is the best all-around independent-thinking, right-leaning blogger in the universe.
(2) I'm not all that worked up about the nomination of John Roberts to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. I'm not exactly happy about having another conservative on the court, but it could have been worse.
(3) I'm reading the new Harry Potter and I am loving it as usual, though I think it is not as action-filled as I would have liked. My favorite to date is still Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but that may change when I finish the Half-Blood Prince
(4) I'm writing a country study of Mexico for ABC-Clio Publishers and editing their Latin American Country Study series.
(5) I'll be revving up my Cuaderno Latinoamericano blog shortly. And hope to do the same for my social justice blog, Semillas. Anyone interested in participating as a contributor to either of these blogs is welcome to write me and find out what is entailed and expected.
(6) Regardless of what happens to Karl Rove (and I think he's toast, or should be), we now know that the Bush team is just as sleaze-ball, sneaky, and cut-throat as any administration has been. You can call it politics if you want, that doesn't make it any less trashy.