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Posts Tagged ‘Bush

A Little Secret About Obama’s Secrecy: More Secrets than the Bush Regime

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The administration, challenged by the president to be the most open, is now denying more Freedom of Information Act requests than Bush did

By Andrew Malcolm, LA

March 21, 2010

The Democratic administration of Barack Obama, who denounced his predecessor, George W. Bush, as the most secretive in history, is now denying more Freedom of Information Act requests than the Republican did.

Transparency and openness were so important to the new president that on his first full day in office, he dispatched a much-publicized memo saying: “All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.”

One of the exemptions allowed to deny Freedom of Information requests has been used by the Obama administration 70,779 times in its first year; the same exemption was used 47,395 times in Bush’s final budget year.

An Associated Press examination of 17 major agencies’ handling of FOIA requests found denials 466,872 times, an increase of nearly 50% from the 2008 fiscal year under Bush.

As Ed Morrissey notes on the blog Hot Air, during a time of war and terrorist threats, any government can justify not releasing some sensitive information. And true, Obama had previously been a legislator, not an executive.

But why make such a big campaign deal over a previous administration’s secrecy when you’re going to end up being even more secretive?

On March 16 to mark annual Sunshine Week, designed to promote openness in government, Obama applauded himself by issuing a statement:

“As Sunshine Week begins, I want to applaud everyone who has worked to increase transparency in government and recommit my administration to be the most open and transparent ever.”

However, a new study out March 15 by George Washington University’s National Security Archive finds less than one-third of the 90 federal agencies that process such FOIA requests have made significant changes in their procedures since Obama’s 2009 memo.

So, a day later, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel sent out yet another memo. Since the agencies ignored the memo from the president, they’ll all snap to when the staffer’s note arrives, don’t you think?

Top of the Ticket, The Times’ blog on national politics ( ticket), is a blend of commentary, analysis and news. This is a selection from the last week.

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Findings of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine

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The Russell Tribunal on Palestine

By Stephen Lendman

Launched on March 4, 2009, “The Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RTP) seeks to reaffirm the primacy of international law (to settle) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (by focusing on) the enunciation of law by authoritative bodies (and) address(ing) the failure of application of law even though it has been so clearly identified. (It begins where the International Court of Justice) stopped: highlighting the responsibilities arising from the enunciation of law, including those of the international community, which cannot continue to shirk its obligations.”

RTP is part of the BRussell Tribunal, named after famed philosopher, mathematician, and anti-war/anti-imperialism activist Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970), who warned over 50 years ago:

“Shall we put an end to the human race, or shall mankind renounce war” and live in peace, because there’s no other choice.

Established in 1967, the BRussell Tribunal investigated Vietnam war crimes, more recently Iraq war ones and Bush administration imperialism continued under Obama. RTP exposes decades of Israeli crimes against  Palestinian civilians, calling for an end to colonialism, occupation and apartheid and for justice, equality, and peace.

The First Barcelona Session (March 1-3)

Hosted and endorsed by the Barcelona National Support Committee and Office of the Mayor of Barcelona, under the honorary presidency of Stephane Hessel, a jury of distinguished legal experts and human rights activists heard reports from authoritative experts on issues including:

— the right to Palestinian self-determination;

— illegal settlements and plundering Palestinian natural resources;

— annexing East Jerusalem;

— the Separation Wall; and

— the EU/Israel Association Agreement

Panel Members

— Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Nobel Peace laureate, 1976;

— Ronald Kasrils, writer and activist;

— Michael Mansfield, attorney and President of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, UK;

— Jose Antonio Martin Pallin, Emeritus Judge, Chamber II, Supreme Court, Spain;

— Cynthia McKinney, former Georgia state legislator, US congresswoman, Green Party presidential candidate, and prominent civil and human rights activist;

— Alberto San Juan, actor, Spain; and

— Aminata Traore, author and former Mali Minister of Culture.

Experts Heard by the RTP

— Madjid Benchikh (Algeria) – University of Cergy Pontoise Professor of Public International Law and former Law Faculty of Algiers dean;

— Agnes Bertrand (Belgium) – researcher and Middle East specialist with APRODEV David Bondia (Spain) and University of Barcelona Professor of Public International Law and International Relations;

— Francois Dubuisson (Belgium) – Free University of Brussels Law Professor;

— Patrice Vouveret (France) – President of the Armaments Observatory;

— James Phillips (Ireland) – lawyer;

— Michael Sfard (Israel) – lawyer;

— Phil Shiner (UK) – lawyer; and

— Derek Summerfield (UK) – Kings College London Institute of Psychiatry honorary senior lecturer.


— Veronique DeKeyer (Belgium) – EU Parliament member;

— Ewa Jasiewicz (UK) – journalist and Operation Cast Lead eye witness;

— Ghada Karmi (Palestine) – physician, author, Middle East expert, and University of Exeter Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies;

— Meir Margalit (Israel) – Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and Jerusalem City Council member;

— Daragh Murray – Palestinian Centre for Human Rights legal advisor; PCHR’s Director, Raji Sourani, couldn’t attend because Israel and Egypt keep him imprisoned in Gaza under siege;

— Raul Romeva (Spain) – EU Parliament member;

— Clare Short (UK) – British Parliament member and former Secretary of State for International Development;

— Desmond Travers (Ireland) – retired Colonel and Goldstone Commission member.


It followed “methodology applicable by any judicial body in terms of the independence and impartiality of its members.” Israel’s absence was no impediment. The evidence presented has been addressed by numerous other bodies, including:

— the UN General Assembly and Security Council;

— the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories;

— the Goldstone Commission; and

— various human rights organizations among others.

The RTP “simply dr(ew) attention to circumstances that are already widely recognized by the international community.” Its proceedings dealt with:

— Israeli international law violations;

— EU breaches of specific and general international law rules; and

— EU’s failure to address Israeli international law violations and hold it accountable.

Findings and Conclusions

The RTP found Israel in violation of breaching virtually all international humanitarian laws as well as ones covering the rules of war and occupation, as follows:

(1) Failure to recognize Palestinian self-determination under provisions of the December 1960 UN General Assembly Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples and all UN resolutions before and thereafter affirming Palestinian self-determination, including:

— the UN Partition Plan (GA Resolution 181, 1947) granting Jews (with one-third of the population) 56% of historic Palestine, the rest to Palestinians with Jerusalem designated an international city under a UN Trusteeship Council;

— GA Resolution 2131 (1965): Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of Their Independence and Sovereignty, “reaffirming the principle of non-intervention,” calling it “aggression;”

— SC Resolution 242 (1967) calling for an end of conflict and withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from occupied territories; SC 338 (1973) repeated the same demand;

— the 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations;

— SC Resolution 298 (1971) affirming “acquisition of territory by military conquest is inadmissible,” calling Israel’s failure to observe previous resolutions deplorable;

— GA Resolution 3236 (1974) recognizing Palestinian self-determination and expressing “grave concern” that they’ve been “prevented from enjoying (their) inalienable rights (to) self-determination….national independence and sovereignty….without external interference….;”

— GA Resolution 3314 (1974) on the Definition of Aggression in accordance with the UN Charter and Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and its judgment, calling it the supreme international crime against peace;

— numerous other SC and GA resolutions affirming the principles of international law, including Geneva’s Common Article 1 obliging all nations to enforce them, stating specifically: “The High Contracting Parties undertake to respect and to ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances;” and

— Lisbon Treaty (December 2009) principles affirming fundamental freedoms, peace, democracy, human rights and dignity, justice, equality, the rule of law, security, tolerance, solidarity, mutual respect among peoples, the rights of the child, strict adherence to the UN Charter and international law, environmental protection, and sustainable development, and to prevent conflicts and combat social exclusion and discrimination.

(2) Failure to comply with the provisions of the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (the Apartheid Convention), defined by the Rome Statute to include murder, extermination, enslavement, torture, arbitrary arrest, illegal imprisonment, denial of the right to life and liberty, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and other abusive acts imposed by one group on another.

(3) Failure to observe international laws with regard to:

— illegal acts of aggression, including inflicting mass deaths, injuries and destruction during Operation Cast Lead, mostly affecting civilians;

— free movement, expression and the right of assembly;

— imprisoning Gazans under siege;

— denying the universally acknowledged right of return;

— refusing Palestinians the right to their own resources “such as watercourses within their land;”

— annexing East Jerusalem in July 1980 despite SC Resolution 478 a month later declaring the Jerusalem Law null and void and requiring its immediate rescinding;

— constructing the Separation Wall on expropriated Palestinian land (ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice);

— denying Palestinians access to their own land, air space and coastal waters and control of their borders;

— violating Fourth Geneva by building illegal settlements on expropriated land, dispossessing protected persons, and transferring its own civilian population to the territory it occupies;

— the systematic use of torture, abuse and degrading treatment, illegal at all times, under all conditions with no allowed exceptions;

— targeted assassinations and other willful killings of non-combatant civilians and others;

— and numerous other systematic violations of fundamental international laws.

The RTP found EU states in violation by:

— exporting weapons, munitions and components in support of Israel’s aggressive wars;

— buying produce from settlements;

— participating with settlements in research projects;

— not holding Israel accountable for its crimes of war and against humanity in Operation Cast Lead and other acts of aggression;

— not holding Israel liable for failing to observe international human rights laws in numerous EU-Israeli agreements;

— upgrading its relations with Israel under the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Agreement;

— tolerating illegal European commercial operations in the Occupied Territories, including the Jordan valley Tovlan landfill site and East Jerusalem tramline construction; and

— failure to take determined steps to end the illegal Gaza siege, an act of slow-motion genocide through extreme depravation, causing a growing humanitarian crisis.

The RTP asks EU member states:

— to rectify their breaches by fulfilling their international humanitarian law obligations.

— implement an EU Parliament resolution requiring the suspension of the EU-Israeli Association Agreement, ending Israel’s impunity;

— observe the Goldstone Report recommendation to collect evidence and exercise Universal Jurisdiction (UJ) against alleged Israeli and Palestinian violators;

— repeal requirements that they be member state residents and other impediments to assure all suspected war criminals are held accountable;

— ensure member state UJ laws and procedures have teeth, are enforced, including by mutual cooperation;

— ensure no measures weaken or subvert UJ laws to assure no safe havens exist;

— have the Austrian, French, Greek and Italian Parliaments enact laws complying with Fourth Geneva’s Article 146, requiring “effective penal sanctions for persons committing, or ordering to be committed, any” Convention breaches, including “the obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, such grave breaches, and shall bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts;”

— have individuals, groups and organizations use all available means to ensure EU member states comply with their international law obligations; and

— support the global BDS movement to hold Israel accountable.

The RTP “calls on the European Union and (its) member states to impose” diplomatic, trade and cultural sanctions to end the impunity Israel “has enjoyed for decades.” If EU nations won’t do it, European citizens must pressure them by all available means.

No longer:

— can Israel’s international law breaches be tolerated;

— should people demanding justice be denied;

— should Palestinians have to endure colonialism, occupation and apartheid; or

— accept anything less than justice, equality and peace.

– Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He contributed this article to Contact him

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Splitting the Sky Goes to Trial

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Splitting the Sky, who attempted a citizen’s arrest of George W Bush for crimes against humanity, will be tried today in a Canadian court.

=Citizen’s Arrest of Alleged War Criminal George W. Bush in Canada

Splitting the Sky, indigenous activist, seized by security forces in Canada last year when he attempted to make a citizen’s arrest of George W. Bush will have his day in court on Monday, March 8th. According to Professor Anthony J. Hall, this case will demonstrate whether Canada is ruled by law or fear and highlight the need for new principles, the Calgary Principles to amend the victor’s justice of the Nuremberg Principles, in light of the new impunities for high level crimes against humanity and the Earth in this era, and the need to protect and honor civil resistance to those high crimes.

Dacajaweiah, John Boncore, or Splitting the Sky, is not a man of few words. If you read his hefty 653-page autobiography, it is very clear that he has lived an extraordinary life and has survived more than his share of violence, to find deep within himself a well of energy and spirit enabling him to not only endure hardships, but to serve his people and the land in the timeless struggle against oppression and tyranny. From the Attica Rebellion to Gustafen Lake to Calgary in 2009, when he attempted a citizen’s arrest of George W. Bush, “Dac” has consciously taken a leadership role to politically challenge the powerful forces that dominate the North American continent. Brutally arrested for his action, he earned his “day in court” to voice not only his defense, but “to highlight the hypocrisy and criminality of the Canadian government for allowing Bush into Canada, and to firmly establish the legal defense of ‘civil resistance’, the duty of citizens to act when our governments and their agents are derelict in their duty. This will be very useful in the future to rein these criminals in.”

Prior to Bush’s visit, the Canadian group Lawyers Against the War asked Canadian officials to bar entry or try Bush for his suspected crimes since Canadian Law prohibits “people suspected of any involvement in torture or other war crimes and crimes against humanity from entering Canada for any period and for any purpose. The most recent report of the War Crimes Program affirms the necessity of barring war crimes suspects from Canada: ‘The most effective way to deny safe haven to people involved or complicit in war crimes or crimes against humanity is to prevent them from coming to Canada.’”

Lawyers Against the War and protestors implored the government to do their duty and arrest Bush. “Dac” was carrying papers detailing the evidence against George W. Bush, which he had planned to serve him with on behalf of the victims and the people of the world, and he raised his hands to show that he was “non-violent.” Dac was then thrown down, stomped on, kicked, handcuffed and led off to be brutalized in a Calgary jail.

Monday, March 8, 2010, he will have his opportunity to put forward his case and present evidence, with support, testimony and affidavits on his behalf from respected scholars, including David Ray Griffin, Peter Dale Scott, and Michel Chossudovsky, as well as from former US Congresswoman, outspoken human rights advocate, and former Green Party Presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney. Professor Anthony J. Hall, author of The American Empire and the Fourth World and founding coordinator of Globalization Studies at the University of Lethbridge, stated last December:

“Splitting the Sky’s action in Calgary highlights the abject failure of law enforcement agencies to do their job. It highlights the unwillingness of police and those who direct them to apply the law equitably and independently…

“As the Nuremberg principles make clear, the implicated law enforcement officers cannot claim in their defense that they were merely following orders in deciding to arrest Splitting the Sky rather than George W. Bush.

“I propose that the trial of Splitting the Sky presents a platform for the elaboration of a new set of juridical rules and protocols to be known as The Calgary Principles.

“It has been six decades since the UN general assembly agreed to a succinct refinement of the principles that emerged from the trial of some of the top Nazis, as well as their juridical, medical, and industrialist accomplices. During those decades, there has been an intensification of the culture of impunity that immunizes those at the top of the hierarchy of wealth and power from any legal accountability for their crimes.

“Like the Tokyo trials of the defeated leadership of imperial Japan, the Nuremberg Trials were a classic example of victors’ justice.

“As long as the power politics of victors’ justice continues to protect the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, the rule of law remains a fraud. Under present conditions, the rule of law is a sad hoax designed to disguise the role of law enforcement agencies as protectors of the ill-gotten wealth often stripped from the branches of humanity that Frantz Fanon once labeled ‘the wretched of the earth.’

“The elaboration of the Calgary Principles will have to entail the quest for new language and juridical concepts to capture the full extent and complexity of international crime in the twenty-first century…

“Consider, for instance, the nature of the crime that takes place when whole populations are sentenced to endless futures of disproportionately high rates of genetic deformity through the saturation of their mother lands with depleted uranium. Consider the nature of a crime that would see a drug company covertly introduce a new disease strain in order to market a prepared antidote of vaccine to cure the disease it had disseminated.

“What names, what prohibitions, and what punishments do we need to respond to and discourage crimes that infect populations, deform populations, and even destroy whole ecosystems, making the renewal of all kinds of life, including human life, impossible to sustain?

“Hence it can be said that these days the most important agencies of the military-industrial complex and the national security state are the media conglomerates. These agencies of propaganda for an aggressive war bombard us on a daily basis with mental missiles of psychological warfare.

“The constant barrage of messages we receive that peace is to be found in war, that freedom is to be found in slavery, that wealth is to be found in indebtedness, and that truth is to be found in lies, is pulling humanity away from our fragile inheritance of reason, rationality, and enlightened discourse on the real menaces we face…”

Splitting the Sky’s action mirrors the actions of countless people in countless demonstrations that are taking place across the world where lives, land, forests, lakes, jobs, homes, species, and communities are threatened by powerful forces, making decisions in luxury and comfort, protected by men with guns from citizens trying to make their voices heard to protect that which they love and care deeply about. The trial will illustrate whether or not Canada is ruled by laws or by fear. Whatever happens, the struggle for truth, justice, and peace will continue.

For Anthony J. Hall’s entire article and speech, see .
More details about Splitting the Sky are posted at

Splitting the Sky and Anthony J. Hall will be on the new weekly radio show, Community Currency, hosted by local activist, Carol Brouillet Thursday, March 11, 2010, 2 pm – 3 pm PST, on the Progressive Radio Network (…

Put On the Freakin’ Magic Glasses!!!

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Magic Glasses

Thanks to KevinCow @ Something Awful

Oh, and if you haven’t already done so, don’t forget to watch John Carpenter’s funky masterpiece, “They Live

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In Theory of the Leisure Class, the prescient and brilliant analysis of American society, Thorstein Veblen devotes a chapter to “Devout Observances.” He’s not referring to Lent, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, communion, sacred processions or reading the Bible. He’s referring to this nation’s obsession with sports, which at the turn of the LAST century was already proving to be a “secular religion.” The book was published ca. 1900.

Sports as a diversion from reality….
Here’s an interview with a contemporary social critic with a similar message.

Mark Dice’s The Resistance Manifesto

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US Imperialist Hubris – Asking Bush & Clinton to “Help Haiti” is Cruel Mockery

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Bush, Clinton and the crimes of US imperialism in Haiti

18 January 2010

The Obama administration has announced that former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush will head the fundraising for relief efforts in the wake of the Haiti earthquake. In his radio speech Saturday, Obama declared: “These two leaders send an unmistakable message to the people of Haiti and the world. In a moment of need, the United States stands united.”

The message of the Clinton-Bush appointment is indeed significant, but hardly what the White House and the American media have suggested. In selecting his two immediate predecessors, those who have set US policy in the Caribbean since 1993, Obama demonstrates that the devastating human tragedy in Haiti will not bring any alteration in the rapacious role of US imperialism in that impoverished semi-colonial country.

For eight years apiece, Clinton and Bush were directly and deeply involved in a series of political machinations and military interventions that have played a major role in perpetuating the poverty, backwardness and repression in Haiti that have vastly compounded by the disaster that struck that country last Tuesday. Both men have the blood of Haitian workers and peasants on their hands.

Clinton took office in the immediate aftermath of the military coup which ousted Haiti’s first democratically elected president, the populist cleric Jean-Bertrand Aristide. That coup was backed by the administration of Bush’s father, who saw Aristide as an unwanted and potentially dangerous radical.

The new Democratic Party administration undertook a tactical shift in policy. Clinton imposed economic sanctions on the Haitian junta, which destroyed Haiti’s fledgling export industries, then dispatched the Marines to Haiti—for the third time in the 20th century—to compel Gen. Raoul Cedras, the junta leader, to depart. The US restored Aristide to the presidency, after he had given assurances that he would do nothing to challenge the domination of either Washington or the native Haitian elite, and that he would leave office in 1996 without seeking reelection.

After Aristide obediently left office on schedule, he was succeeded by René Préval, who served the first of his two terms as president from 1996 to 2001, carrying out the dictates of an International Monetary Fund “structural adjustment” program that slashed employment, cut public services, and ruined domestic rice farmers.

When Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party won a clear victory in May 2000 legislative elections, the Clinton administration and the Republican-controlled Congress refused to accept the election and cut off US aid. Aristide himself returned to the presidency after winning a landslide election victory in November 2000, only to face an implacable enemy in the incoming Bush administration.

For three years, Haiti was systematically starved by the US aid cutoff and measures taken by the Bush administration to block international aid and isolate the Aristide government. Finally, in February 2004, amid protests fomented by the Haitian ruling elite with covert American backing, the US military again intervened in the country, seizing Aristide and shipping him out of the country to exile.

The Marines turned over effective control of the country to a United Nations peacekeeping force, with Brazil providing the biggest troop contingent, propping up a series of unelected Haitian prime ministers until elections in 2006, from which candidates of Fanmi Lavalas were largely excluded. René Préval was elected president for the second time, in a term scheduled to end late this year. Once a supporter and professed political “twin” of Aristide, Préval has long since made his peace with both Washington and the Haitian ruling elite, and his second term has been characterized by slavish subservience to the economic prescriptions of Wall Street and the International Monetary Fund.

Throughout the Clinton and Bush administrations, US demands for adherence to IMF austerity policies were combined with a vicious program of repression against Haitians fleeing the country of their birth to seek refuge and a better life in the United States. In his first campaign for the presidency, in 1992, Clinton criticized the persecution and forced repatriation of Haitian refugees, only to reverse himself and continue those policies unaltered. For the next 17 years—and continuing with no change from Obama—hundreds of refugees have died in small boats seeking to evade the US Coast Guard blockade.

Most recently, Clinton has been the official UN envoy for Haiti, backing the corrupt Préval regime and seeking to develop Haiti as a base for a profitable US-run garment industry founded on near-starvation wages. Food riots swept the country in April 2008, but that did not stop Préval from blocking legislation that would have raised the minimum wage of $1.72 a day for workers in the garment factories.

As for George W. Bush, his selection as co-leader of a supposed humanitarian campaign is an insult to the people of both Haiti and the United States. His appointment by Obama is in keeping with the Democratic president’s unflagging efforts since his election, the result of popular hatred of Bush and his party, to rehabilitate the Republicans.

An unapologetic war criminal who is responsible for the slaughter of a million Iraqis, Bush’s signature domestic “achievement” was the abject failure of the US government either to prevent the devastation of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in Hurricane Katrina, or to mount an effective relief and recovery effort afterwards.

This is the record of the two men whom Barack Obama has selected as the public face of the latest US initiative in Haiti. Bush and Clinton made a series of media appearances over the weekend, including interviews on all five Sunday television news programs, during which they emphasized the need to restore “stability” to Haiti, and the important role that the United States would have to play in that effort.

Bush and Clinton personify the pernicious and reactionary role that American imperialism has played in Haiti for the last century. It is no exaggeration to say that the policies of their administrations have caused as much death and devastation in that country as last Tuesday’s earthquake.

Patrick Martin

Paris: “What Would You Do”?

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For more on Paris, check out

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Denis Diderot: Humanist, Avant-Lettrist, Philosopher, Polymath

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Denis Diderot IS the Enlightenment

Wikipedia Entry

Annotated Bibliography

Short Biography

A CAN’T MISS FILM: DIDEROT, COCTEAU & BRESSON: Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) is a French film directed by Robert Bresson. It is a modern adaptation of a section of Diderot‘s Jacques le fataliste (1796), telling the story of a man who is tricked into marrying a former prostitute. The title means “the ladies of the Bois de Boulogne“, a park in Paris.

On Jefferson, Diderot and the Political Use of God


The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Thomas Jefferson, 1782

Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.

Thomas Jefferson, 1787

Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

Thomas Jefferson, 1808

The whole history of [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man [Jesus]; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.

Thomas Jefferson (to John Adams, 1814)

De-demonizing Atheism

The word itself has a foul sound: “atheist.” It did in ancient Rome, when it referred not to what we today understand as atheists, but to persons who declined to publicly worship the Roman deities. Odd though it may seem, Christians were condemned for their “atheism.” Many contemporary atheists will avoid the word, fearing hostility and misunderstanding, preferring the less provocative “agnostic.” Nevertheless atheists are all around us: people who are quite convinced that things in general don’t exist because some One, for some reason, as an act of will, made them—but because processes unknowable to our minds, preceding the existence of consciousness in general, caused them to happen.

The atheistic premise is simply, and maybe best, articulated by Friedrich Engels: “It is impossible to conceive of thought without matter that thinks.” Some people, having the option of thinking a primal Mind created everything, or else that minds, thoughts, neurological activity, “spirit” etc. postdatethe billions-old existence of much else, choose the latter option. Not necessarily because they want to, out of some willful anti-God inclination, but because they sincerely just can’t buy, not only a specific religious tradition, but the God-assumption generally. Their logic causes them to agree with Ludwig Feuerbach’s contention that humanity made God, not vice versa. Atheists are not bad people. They are just people who think, and their thought takes them to the sober conclusion that no Creator exists, and that conclusion tends to lead to the belief that when you die, and your brain activity ceases, you as a personality are gone forever.

Dr. Newdow’s Suit

One such thinking person, a physician as it happens, is suing the federal government for obliging his nine year old daughter to recite, in school, the statement that the U.S. republic is “under God.” He asks why, if he seeks to share his worldview with his child (as most parents want to share their beliefs with their kids), the state should intervene to promote a contrary view. He asks why, if the constitution mandates a separation of church and state, his daughter’s public school schedule every morning should include a verbal pledge indicating that she believes that she, and her country (indivisible, with liberty and justice for all), is “under God.”

This is a very reasonable question to ask, it seems to me, precisely comparable to the question a devout Christian, Jew or Muslim might ask if his or her child were asked to daily recite, “one nation, without gods, indivisible” Why should schoolchildren have to pledge any opinion on this issue? The pledge is by definition “a promise or agreement” (Webster’s), and when you have states requiring, by law, that kids stand hands-to-chest and publicly promise something—anything at all— “under God,” you’re asking them to either believe that thought preceded matter that thinks (thereby attempting to shape and skew their whole thought process) or to under duress pretend belief (to the advantage of those who really do believe this, and want their kids surrounded by other kids, in tax-payer funded institutions, who will dutifully intone the God-pledge and so shield their own innocents from the troubling existence of doubt and diversity). This is unreasonable.

But surely the Supreme Court will rule against Dr. Michael A. Newdow’s case, filed on behalf of his child. It will say that the inclusion of “under God” in a statement, the recitation of which many states require, does not conflict with the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Justice Stephen G. Breyer has already suggested that “God” is so inclusive a concept that it should be inoffensive to atheists like Newdow. The doctor responded reasonably, “I don’t believe I can include ‘under God’ to mean no God, which is exactly what I think.” I’m not sure whether Breyer is being profound (drawing upon theUpanishads and the notion that God neither exists nor doesn’t exist, existence itself being a merely human concept); or absolutely stupid, (which Supreme Court justices can by law be); or just arrogantly dismissive of Dr. Newdrow’s argument.

Clearly the function of the God reference—not part of the original pledge but inserted during the 1950s (when schoolchildren were taught that the Free World faced Godless Communism)— is designed to inculcate belief that the cosmos has a Creator that the Republic acknowledges and reveres, and in so doing attaches itself to that which is ultimately powerful, rational, holy and good. Those who promote the pledge should honestly state this point in making their case. The neocons’ ideological mentor, atheist Leo Strauss, stressed that the masses should be imbued with religion, so that they might be better controlled. If they see in the actions of the state the unfolding of the will of the Creator, they will be far more inclined to support those actions than if they see them as the naked power-plays of mere humans—mere millionaires and billionaires— unimpeded by the simple commendable moral sense of the humbly devout, but eminently able to politically exploit it. (Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz know this very well, and have encouraged President Bush to depict their plans for a Middle East empire as a crusade to smite evildoers and do God’s will.)

So the Supreme Court will find no merit in the atheist’s case, will ridicule it as numerous politicians (from Bush to Tom Daschle) have, and will deny that anyone’s freedoms are diminished by the coerced public declaration, dutifully intoned by schoolchildren, of the thesis that in the sky over the U.S. there hovers God, who, even if their parents say nothing about capital-H Him at home, is someone who definitely is, and is important to their teacher (an object of respect) and to their schoolmates. Why, the justices will ask in legalese, should anyone at all, holding any belief system, have a problem with this or see it as a violation of their constitutional rights?

The Religious Views of the Founding Fathers

Religious fundamentalists incessantly repeat that the Founding Fathers of the American Republic were God-fearing Christians. This is simply untrue. They key figures were men of the Enlightenment, religious skeptics, generally persuaded that there was a logical Mind behind the marvelous machine which was the universe, but contemptuous of Biblical literalism. George Washington said little about religion (nothing about Jesus), rarely attended church (when he did, he indifferently visited Quaker, German Reformed and Catholic services) and was willing to hire on his estate “Mohometans, Jews or Christians of any Sect, or Atheists.” Thomas Paine specifically rejected Christianity as a religion abounding “in invented and torturing articles that shock our reason or offend our humanity” John Adams distanced himself from Christianity, asking “when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate a free inquiry?” James Madison blamed the religion for “superstition, bigotry and persecution.” So did Benjamin Franklin. It would be highly inaccurate to term these men “Christians.”

The finest mind among the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, certainly did not believe that the God of the Old Testament—alternately loving, angry, punitive, regretful of his actions, reconciliatory—really existed out there in the cosmos, or that that God consisted of three parts, or that one part (the Son) had to be brutally crucified in Jerusalem seventeen centuries before his time in order to allow humans otherwise consigned, by that God’s decision, to fry forever, to instead live forever in Paradise if they embraced some suitable version of Christianity. Jefferson indeed dismissed this worldview as nonsensical. He was a keen student of the gospels, found much value in the words attributed to Jesus, and called himself a “Christian” only in that he held (as he wrote in a letter in 1820) “the precepts of Jesus to be the most pure, benevolent and sublime which have ever been preached to man.”

Diderot and the Christian Lady

Among the thinkers who influenced Jefferson (and others among the Founding Fathers) was the French philosophe Denis Diderot (1713-84). In 1814 Jefferson wrote that Diderot, whom he described as an “Atheist,” was “among the most virtuous of men,” whose virtue “must have had some other foundation than the love of God.” (So Jefferson expresses an opinion on that fundamental question: “Can people be good if they don’t believe in God?”) Diderot was among the French thinkers, during what’s called the “Enlightenment” prior to the Revolution of 1789, who pushed against the limits of the Old Regime’s censors in advancing human thought at the expense of irrational religious dogma. What thephilosophes achieved intellectually in the eighteenth century remains the bane of our twenty-first century Back-to-the-Bible neanderthals who wish the Enlightenment had never happened. Diderot authored much of the Encyclopédie, or Encyclopedia, which epitomized contemporary European rationalism and couldn’t help but antagonize the Church. While doing so, Diderot penned a little gem, published under a pseudonym in 1777, entitled “Entretien avec la Maréchale de —–” that has been translated by Lester G. Cocker into English as “Conversation with a Christian Lady.” It is a philosophical dialogue involving a fictitious Monsieur Thomas Crudeli and an aristocratic lady, who like many high-born Frenchwomen of the time was well-educated and enjoyed lively intellectualreparté in her salon.

The philosopher Crudeli happens by, intending to meet the lady’s husband, who is out. But she “at her toilette” courteously entertains his visit. She knows his reputation, and remarks that he’s a man who doesn’t believe in anything. When he confirms this, she asks curiously: “Yet your moral principles are the same as those of believer?” and he replies that they are. “You don’t steal? You don’t kill people? You don’t rob them?” she presses him. No, he replies, so she asks him: “Then what do you gain by not being a believer?”

Crudeli (Diderot) gently disabuses the noble lady of her expectation that nonbelief stems from a desire to engage in wanton crime. He does not aggressively promote atheism, but merely defends his intellectual position, noting in passing that much violence has occurred in the name of religion. But, the increasingly consternated maréchale asks him, “if you destroy religion, what will you put in its place?” He offers no alternative, just noting “there would at least be one terrible prejudice less in the world.” She points out the comfort people derive from the belief in an afterlife. He replies: “I myself do not entertain such a hope. But I do not wish to deny it to others.”

She asks, what if he’s wrong—and he dies and faces a Creator who will judge him? He responds with an allegory suggesting in essence that if, by chance, there is an ultimate intelligence that created the universe, it will not consign to eternal hellfire decent rational people unable, due to their own honest reasoning processes, to recognize itself. She asks him if, if called “before the magistrates” (atheism still a crime in France at this time) he would “tell them the truth?” He says no, he would aver religiosity so as to “spare those magistrates the responsibility for an appalling crime” (that is to say, his own execution). “You coward!” she chides. “And if you were at the point of death, would you submit to receiving the last rites of the church?” “Most conscientiously,” says the atheist. (It is one thing for the religious believer to endure martyrdom confident of a heavenly reward, another for a nonbeliever to nod to religious sentiment, to avoid conflict or make others happy or avoid a pointless death.) “You wicked hypocrite!” She replies.

Maybe she has a point. Maybe people should stand by their beliefs, whatever the consequences. Dr. Newdow (whose public profession of unbelief is fortunately legal in this country, although I imagine he gets a lot of hate-mail) is not a hypocrite. He is not simply averring his atheism, but, two and a half centuries after Diderot, in the country of the religious skeptic Thomas Jefferson, he’s demanding that his daughter not be forced, by the state, to be a hypocrite. Unfortunately, I fear, contra Jefferson, the Supreme Court will reinforce the bridges so far built between church and state, forcing through its theological view and undermining civil rights. The Founding Fathers would not be pleased. (But being dead, it’s likely they aren’t following this story.)

Under God, the “War on Terror”

A common criticism of Islamic societies, widely repeated lately, is that they never experienced an Enlightenment—a movement that could have weakened the hold of religious fundamentalism over the minds of Arabs and other Muslims. The charge is somewhat deceptive. The European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was largely a correction of the intellectual stagnation bred though centuries of institutionalized Christian dogmatism. The kind of dogmatism that obliged Galileo to back off, under threat of torture, from his heart-felt conviction that the earth (despite Biblical references to its immobility) revolves around the sun, and not vice versa, in 1633. The Muslim world in contrast allowed for free scientific inquiry, and it is largely due to contact with that world that science came to revive in Europe during the Renaissance. Thus so many of our words pertaining to mathematics and astronomy—zero, cipher, nadir, zenith, algebra—come from Arabic. The Muslim world didn’t have a Dark Age from which it needed to emerge.

The widespread illiteracy, backwardness and religious fundamentalism in the present Muslim world results not from specifically Islamic traits, or a benighted past, or the content of the Qur’an and hadith, but power relations in recent history. Poverty, corruption, alliances between local tyrants and foreign patrons who have cleverly used Islamic religious passion when it served their purposes. Once upon a time, U.S. administrations (Carter and Reagan) happily built an anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan drawing on Muslim fundamentalists from all over the world and specifically urged them to see their struggle as a jihad. Few issues were more crucial to these jihadis than the rejection of male-female equality and the maintenance of Muslim clerics’ leadership in society. If there was some prospect for “enlightened” policies in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the U.S. deliberately sabotaged them, delighting instead in the fact that some of the most backward forces on the planet shared its determination to topple secular Soviet-style rule and merge their religious agenda with America’s Cold War politics.

But one shouldn’t stereotype people from “Muslim countries” as religious fanatics. I’ve met lots of Muslims who believe in a Supreme Being but have little interest in or use for Islamic theology, and others who culturally identify with Islam but don’t really embrace religion at all. And in the history of Islam, one finds the occasional expression of deep religious doubt and dissent:

Alike for those who for TO-DAY prepare,
And those that after a TO-MORROW stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
“Fools! Your Reward is neither Here nor There!”

So wrote the Persian scientist Omar Khayyam around 1100, this translation provided by the nineteenth-century British Christian Edward Fitzgerald. Khayyam’sRubaiyat abounds with religious skepticism.

The Islamic world has had its skeptics, its Diderots, and has potential to generate more—as does the U.S.A., threatened as it is by Christian fundamentalists who want to blur distinctions between church and state, force worship into our schools, draw on public money to proselytize, bring religion into public health policy, institutionalize homophobia on religious grounds, and make kids publicly swear that they’re “under God”—whether or not God’s here or there, whether or not there’s ever a heavenly reward. We have lots of people, who like the third U.S. president, demand we “question with boldness even the existence of a god” and insist that the preaching of such existence falls outside “the legitimate powers of government.” But the forty-third U.S. president, like the fundamentalists of the Taliban, thinks government should promote religious belief.

“The American people, when we pledge our allegiance to the flag, feel renewed respect and love for all it represents,” said George W. Bush in July 2002, after Dr. Newdow won a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals striking down the “God” reference in the Pledge. “And no authority of government can ever prevent an American from pledging allegiance to this one nation, under God.” (As though “government” was trying to “prevent” rather than promote religion.) This was not long after Bush had used that Pledge (Oct. 12, 2001) to try to get the nation’s schoolchildren behind his “War on Terrorism,” and behind his yet unannounced plans to use 9-11 to attack Iraq.

Stand there with me, kids, and pledge obedience to whatever I, your President, decide to do to smite all this scary evil out there threatening our Homeland. Doesn’t it feel good to all be together, all pledging, all under God?

Bush no doubt rests assured that the justices who upheld his election will uphold the “under God” language as well, and that the Pledge in which it occurs will remain serviceable as his war, rooted in and exploiting both mundane and religious delusions, spreads liberty and justice to all, everywhere under God that U.S. troops can occupy.

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author ofServants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa, JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.

He can be reached

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