If you’re interested, my post on the Israel/Gaza situation has been updated with some more thoughts on the matter.

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The RNC is having a debate amongst the contenders for the organization’s top job.

Just to give you a flavor of how obscenely out of touch these vaunted GOP operatives are, consider a couple of their responses when asked to name Bush’s biggest mistake (to repeat: his biggest mistake):

Former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele cited the “failure to communicate on the war, Katrina, the bailout.” [emphasis mine]

South Caroline Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson cited the decision to push Social Security and immigration reform which, he said, “tore our party apart.”

Yep, you read that right.

Michael Steele said that one of Bush’s biggest mistakes was poor communication skills in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (not, you know, his failure to prevent the deaths of 1,600 Americans in the most embarrassing and tragic episode in modern American history).

And Katon Dawson believes that the biggest, most worstest, thing that Bush did to destroy the Republican brand for a generation was his bad timing on pushing Social Security and immigration reform! Seriously!

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Even though conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer can often be a right-wing lunatic on a lot of issues (see, e.g.), he recently wrote a compelling article in (gulp) The Weekly Standard arguing for a hike in the national gas tax that deserves close attention. An excerpt (I recommend you read the whole thing):

Americans have a deep and understandable aversion to gasoline taxes. In a culture more single-mindedly devoted to individual freedom than any other, tampering with access to the open road is met with visceral opposition… But it’s not just love of the car. America is a nation of continental expanses. Distances between population centers can be vast. The mass-transit mini-car culture of Europe just doesn’t work in big sky country.

This combination of geography and romance is the principal reason gas taxes are so astonishingly low in America. The federal tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. In Britain, as in much of Europe, the tax approaches $4 per gallon–more than 20 times the federal levy here…

Today’s economic climate of financial instability and deepening recession, moreover, makes the piling on of new taxes–gasoline or otherwise–not just politically unpalatable but economically dubious in the extreme.

So why even think about it? Because the virtues of a gas tax remain what they have always been. A tax that suppresses U.S. gas consumption can have a major effect on reducing world oil prices. And the benefits of low world oil prices are obvious: They put tremendous pressure on OPEC, as evidenced by its disarray during the current collapse; they deal serious economic damage to energy-exporting geopolitical adversaries such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran; and they reduce the enormous U.S. imbalance of oil trade which last year alone diverted a quarter of $1 trillion abroad. Furthermore, a reduction in U.S. demand alters the balance of power between producer and consumer, making us less dependent on oil exporters. It begins weaning us off foreign oil, and, if combined with nuclear power and renewed U.S. oil and gas drilling, puts us on the road to energy independence.

Andrew Sullivan and Joe Klein approve. Gotta give credit where credit is due…

Update: The case for a gas tax is made all the more compelling by recent auto industry sales data that show gas-guzzling SUV sales surging again due to — wait for it… — low gas prices!

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… doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you:

The Maryland State Police surveillance of advocacy groups was far more extensive than previously acknowledged, with records showing that troopers monitored — and labeled as terrorists — activists devoted to such wide-ranging causes as promoting human rights and establishing bike lanes.

Intelligence officers created a voluminous file on Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calling the group a “security threat” because of concerns that members would disrupt the circus. Angry consumers fighting a 72 percent electricity rate increase in 2006 were targeted. The DC Anti-War Network, which opposes the Iraq war, was designated a white supremacist group, without explanation.

Doesn’t this sound way too much like the FBI’s tracking of “anti-American” elements (i.e. war protesters) during the Vietnam era?

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If you haven’t heard by now, John Travolta’s son died recently from what appear to be severe head injuries sustained as a result of some condition, perhaps seizures.

In the ensuing few days, serious questions have been raised as to whether John Travola’s Scientology-inspired beliefs about mental illness (i.e. that autism doesn’t exist and the complete refusal of all mental health medications) contributed to his son’s death.

Because the reporting at this point seems highly speculative, I’ll withhold full judgment until more facts are out.

However, here is a general construct that, if true, should make people truly outraged.

1. Fact: John Travolta is a member of the “Church” of Scientology, a trumped-up cult with loony beliefs on mental health and how life started on earth. Part of these beliefs requires parents to refuse medication for their children for mental illness (i.e. anti-seizure medication, anti-depressants, etc.).

2. Travolta’s son had some kind of mental illness that required the presence of a 24-hour nanny. Many have speculated that his son showed signs of severe autism along with a seizure disorder.

3. It has been reported that Travolta’s son’s symptoms could have been helped with certain medications, which Travolta’s beliefs would have required him to refuse.

4. As a result of not being properly medicated, Travolta’s son suffered from a serious attack that killed him.

If all this is true, Travolta (and other religious nuts like him who refuse lifesaving treatments on behalf of their minor children) should at least be prosecuted for child endangerment or criminally negligent homicide.

Update: For the sake of fairness, it was reported that the Travoltas had their son on an anti-seizure medication for some period of time.

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I have avoided weighing in on the latest Israel/Palestine conflict because, frankly, I find myself woefully ill-equipped to offer any intelligent commentary on the most complicated geopolitical struggle of the last century.

However, one of the best commentators in the business, Glenn Greenwald, offers up what I think to be a fundamental truth underlying many people’s conceptions of the conflict and its participants:

Those who giddily support not just civilian deaths in Gaza but every actual and proposed attack on Arab/Muslim countries — from the war in Iraq to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to the proposed attacks on Iran and Syria and even continued escalation in Afghanistan — are able to do so because they don’t really see the Muslims they want to kill as being fully human.

One of the most important facets to justifying war and making it palatable over the centuries has been to dehumanize the enemy. Greenwald rightly points out that this is exactly the same thing that Muslim extremists do to to help justify their killing of Western civilians:

If you see Palestinians as something less than civilized human beings: as “barbarians” — just as if you see Americans as infidels warring with God or Jews as sub-human rats — then it naturally follows that civilian deaths are irrelevant, perhaps even something to cheer. For people who think that way, arguments about “proportionality” won’t even begin to resonate — such concepts can’t even be understood — because the core premise, that excessive civilian deaths are horrible and should be avoided at all costs, isn’t accepted. Why should a superior, civilized, peaceful society allow the welfare of violent, hateful barbarians to interfere with its objectives? How can the deaths or suffering of thousands of barbarians ever be weighed against the death of even a single civilized person?

Read the Whole Article (via Andrew Sullivan)

Edit: Bear in mind images like this when you consider the human toll involved in the conflict:
Update: One of my friends emails with the following reaction:

I take some issue with your Palestinian post. Not that I don’t agree with the suggestion that Westerners have a tendency to look at Arabs/Muslims as less-than-human, and vice versa. It is implicit in your post, however, that the killing of innocent civilians — and in such large numbers — by the Israelis is entirely the fault of the Israelis. Your response, well, whose is it then? The answer, of course, is Hamas. Hamas has borrowed from the Hezbollah playbook: they place their arms and their soldiers in highly-populated areas and in mosques. They want large civilian casualties because that leads to political pressure placed on Israel, which leads to Israel pulling out. Which leads to more stalemate. Hamas is not interested in moving the peace process forward because any lasting peace will lead to a two-state solution, which is not acceptable to Hamas. Hamas has one goal: to destroy Israel.

On a side note, Hamas insists that the firing of rockets into Israel is a necessary component of their struggle, their resistence. But, as with Arafat, the primary thing standing in the way of a 2-state solution is Hamas! Witness how far the West Bank has come in building up its infrastructure since the PA/Hamas schism. Palestinian communities in the West Bank are thriving: restaurants, businesses. Sure, they have a long way to go, and certainly financial stability doesn’t equal personal freedom and dignity. But, look at what Hamas has done in Gaza in the last few years: build tunnels to smuggle larger, more accurate weapons.

My sincere hope is that the Palestinian people reject Hamas, and reject terrorism. That would apply pressure on Israel. Israel would then have no choice but to move forward on the 2-state solution. Ah, if only…

Although my dear friend’s email warrants a much more thoughtful response, none is needed — I agree with all of his points (or at least, in my ignorance, defer to his much greater knowledge on the subject), especially his “sincere hope is that the Palestinian people reject Hamas, and reject terrorism.”

The main point of my posting on the topic had to do with highlighting what my friend described as “Westerner[s’] tendency to look at Arabs/Muslims as less-than-human, and vice versa.”

When it comes to the much larger issue of proportionality and whether the current Israeli action in Gaza is justified, I don’t have enough intellectual ammunition to even convince myself (much less anyone else) that I have anything approaching the right answer. For such weighty topics, I suggest a recent piece by Andrew Sullivan that, while unsatisfying in many places, does a good job of at least getting some things on the table. In general, however, I do have a couple opinions on the matter from which you can draw your own conclusions:

(1) Israel is largely an open and free democracy that strives, to the greatest extent it deems possible, to minimize civilian casualties in order to achieve its ends. This stands in stark contrast to the actions of Hamas — a totalitarian/fundamentalist Islamic organization that strives to maximize civilian casualties in its campaign to wipe Israel off the face of the map. From this basic standpoint it’s clear that Israel has a vastly greater claim to the mantle of legitimacy of its actions than does Hamas.

(2) Regardless of the fact that Israel is in a fundamentally more “legitimate” position than Hamas, we always need to assess the fundamental morality of the things that Israel does. This is the case whether Israel’s actions are unprovoked or, as in the current case, brought upon the despicable actions of Hamas. I won’t go so far as to assess the quantum of morality on both sides in the current battle. However, we need to bear in mind that there is always some line that should be drawn and questions in that vein to be asked. How much force is too much? What levels of civilian casualties would be unjustified? These are obviously not bright line numbers but I think it is important for us to think about them when situations like this arise.

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This video is way too funny not to post:

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A new CNN poll has Obama’s approval ratings thus far at levels not seen in decades for a President-Elect:

A national poll suggests that three-quarters of the public thinks President-elect Barack Obama is a strong and decisive leader, the highest marks for a president-elect on that characteristic in nearly three decades.

Seventy-six percent of Americans questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Wednesday said Obama is a strong and decisive leader.

“That’s the best number an incoming president has gotten on that dimension since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981,” CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said. “The public’s rating of his leadership skills is already as high as George W. Bush’s was after 9/11 and easily beats the numbers that both Bush and Bill Clinton got at the start of their first terms in office.”

Steve Benen makes an excellent point:

CNN’s Bill Schneider recently noted that these are the kinds of numbers that occur “when the public rallies around a leader after a national disaster.” By most respects, that happens to describe Bush’s presidency.

Too true. Think for a second how our economy suffered after 9/11. Now think how the economy suffered under BUSH. We need some kind of ominous and catchy phrase to describe the Bush years. Like the Bush Disaster, Bush Implosion, Bush Epic Fail or Bush Catastrophe. Maybe Bush Calamity…

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