The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The ‘War on Christmas’ is surprisingly lucrative

The ‘War on Christmas’ is surprisingly lucrative

I imagine in some circles, the “controversy” is still a fairly big deal, but my sense is that this year’s “war on Christmas” is largely a bust. It was vaguely faddish last year, but most sensible people got sick of the issue quickly. Reasonable, levelheaded Americans figured out a long time ago that there is no war, the vast majority of the country celebrates and enjoys the holiday, and the conservative culture warriors probably just need to pick up a new hobby.

But they can’t. Not because there’s a nefarious scheme to undermine Christianity, and not because there are key skirmishes yet to be fought, but because the religious right has figured out that this silly little “War on Christmas” is a cash cow.

For Conservative Christian groups, this year’s hot gift is a weapon for fighting back in the “War on Christmas,” be it a button, a bumper sticker or a memo with advice to the troops.

The Mississippi-based American Family Association says it has sold more than 500,000 buttons and 125,000 bumper stickers bearing the slogan “Merry Christmas: It’s Worth Saying.”

The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal aid group that boasts a network of some 900 lawyers standing ready to “defend Christmas,” says it has moved about 20,000 “Christmas packs.” The packs, available for a suggested $29 donation, include a three-page legal memo and two lapel pins.

And Liberty Counsel, a conservative law firm affiliated with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, says it has sold 12,500 legal memos on celebrating Christmas and 8,000 of its own buttons and bumper stickers.

This adds up to a very serious fundraising scheme.

The Alliance Defense Fund shipped 20,000″Christmas packs” this year. The American Family Association sold more than 500,000 buttons and 100,000 magnets. The AFA’s Don Wildmon refused to get into specifics, but acknowledged that the project turned a profit — so much so that he plans to sell buttons in the spring about Easter.

Given the costs and the sales figures, a friend of mine got out a calculator.

Basic math says the Liberty Counsel has pulled in an estimated $300,000+, the Alliance Defense Fund an estimated $500,000+, and the American Family Association an estimated $600,000+ from selling their “War on Christmas” wares.

As I see it, we can draw two conclusions from this. One, even these religious right groups probably realize Christmas is not “under attack,” but cynically exploit the fears of their members in order to pad their budgets.

And two, if retailers acceded to right-wing demands and dropped “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” from their commercial vocabulary altogether, the religious right would probably experience a deep sense of panic.

It's morally exhausting to live in this country

It's morally exhausting to live in this country

Wed Dec 20, 2006 at 04:31:41 PM CST

I am speaking of the United States. I can't speak of the psychic and emotional cost of living in other countries, since I don't live in any other country. Of course, I suppose that cost can also be great.

Why so exhausting? I will sum it up: the moral obliqueness of the general population, the lack of selflessness, the quest for mindless pleasure and distraction, the anti-intellectual self-congratulation -- and all in the context of trying to live a sane and morally centered life in the midst of a society engaged in a criminal war that results daily in horrific slaughter and chaos.

Who can not be drawn downward by the circus of prosecutorial scandal, both petty (Nancy Grace) and profound (Saddam Hussein), while no U.S. official is prosecuted for war crimes for the massive bombing of Indochina, for assassinations abroad, for use of white phosphorus in Iraq, for torture and the training of torturers abroad, for lies, for stealing from the poor to give to the rich, etc.?

Who can not want to cry at the indifference to one genocidal slaughter after another (Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur)?

Who will not rage at the massive mismanagement of this society that has eviscerated the educational system, made the health care system nearly arcane and unreceptive and uncaring, and trashed the industrial and social infrastructure of the society?

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

It is morally exhausting to live in America. To breathe its air of hypocrisy and cynicism and stubborn racism. To write this diary and sleep at night, along with all the criminals that torture, kill, mislead, steal, and lie, and then sleep well at night, who send their children to the best schools, who attend conferences, and premieres, and dances, and picnics, and PTA meetings, and angry meetings, and poetry readings, and movies, or watching TV, playing video games, drinking bottled water, writing Daily Kos diaries... an infinite regression to rant, and then start all over again.

Forgive me this spate of pessimism and despair, but sometimes, if you are a thoughtful and feeling human being, it truly is exhausting to be a person in these United States, circa 2006.

What God is he, writes laws of peace, & clothes him in a tempest
What pitying Angel lusts for tears, and fans himself with sighs
What crawling villain preaches abstinence & wraps himself
In fat of lambs? no more I follow, no more obedience pay.
-- America, A Prophecy

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ned Lamont - Iraq: One Way Or The Other

Iraq: One Way Or The Other


December 20 2006

To govern is to decide, but on many issues - health care, energy independence, the deficit - Washington has simply kicked the can down the road for another administration or generation to handle. The nation has no such luxury when it comes to the "grave and deteriorating" situation in Iraq, to quote the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group.

As Yogi Berra said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. By all accounts the current road (stay the course) is a bloody dead end. Now is the time to decide whether America goes all out for military victory or we end our combat role and let the Iraqis assume responsibility for their own destiny.

Those championing the first course believe that Iraq is the front line in the war on terror, the World War III of our generation. They speak loudly and carry a small stick. You do not win a war by embedding more American trainers in the Iraqi army or with a short-term surge in U.S. soldiers.

If you believe the Churchillian rhetoric, it's time to move from Donald Rumsfeld's minimalist force to Colin Powell's overwhelming force. To do that, you must prepare the American people for the real costs of war, financial and human - with the prospect of higher taxes and a draft; and you must sober up the people to the fact that we will be in Iraq a long time, as long as necessary to transform the country and the region.

To stay or to go - we cannot have it both ways. As columnist Tom Friedman framed the choice: We have either 10 months or 10 years in Iraq. Sen. John McCain said we must send the troops necessary to win the war; otherwise, it is "immoral" to leave our outnumbered troops to die.

It is high time for Washington to decide. Splitting the difference is politically palatable, but it is the coward's way out and simply delays the inevitable.

Baker-Hamilton stumbles in the right direction: We'll stand down as the Iraqis stand up (Recommendation 20); we'll stand down even if the Iraqis do not stand up (Recommendation 21). The Iraq Study Report is a Rorschach test, and the president and Congress are interpreting the ink blots very differently. It is time for Congress and the president to step up and end our combat operations in Iraq, which will help resuscitate diplomatic efforts in the region.

The political worldview in Washington right now is schizophrenic: cautious at home and a daredevil abroad. Sending 140,000 predominantly Christian troops into the heart of Islam and expecting them to be greeted as liberators - that is a faith-based initiative. But on the domestic front, our government seems to have given up trying to make a difference. Our health care system is broken, our transportation system is breaking, our education system is a tale of two cities, we are more dependent upon oil, and our deficit is about to fall off the cliff. Washington responds with a tax credit here or an earmark there. Iraq is sucking all the oxygen out of the real policy debates, which are long overdue.

I used to think that our country had missed an extraordinary opportunity to harness the civic pride that blossomed across the country following the tragedy of 9/11. After spending a year talking with the people of Connecticut on the campaign trail, I am convinced that we did not miss that opportunity. Everywhere I went, I was struck by the patriotism and energy of the American spirit.

Americans are ready to confront our problems head on and turn them into opportunities, starting with an end to the war in Iraq and coupled with a smarter and stronger war on terror. It's your turn, Washington: time to decide.

Ned Lamont of Greenwich was the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate this fall.

Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant,0,424579,print.story?coll=hc-headlines-oped

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

White House, Joint Chiefs At Odds on Adding Troops

White House, Joint Chiefs At Odds on Adding Troops

By Robin Wright and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 19, 2006; A01

The Bush administration is split over the idea of a surge in troops to Iraq, with White House officials aggressively promoting the concept over the unanimous disagreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intense debate.

Sending 15,000 to 30,000 more troops for a mission of possibly six to eight months is one of the central proposals on the table of the White House policy review to reverse the steady deterioration in Iraq. The option is being discussed as an element in a range of bigger packages, the officials said.

But the Joint Chiefs think the White House, after a month of talks, still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House review is not public.

The chiefs have taken a firm stand, the sources say, because they believe the strategy review will be the most important decision on Iraq to be made since the March 2003 invasion.

At regular interagency meetings and in briefing President Bush last week, the Pentagon has warned that any short-term mission may only set up the United States for bigger problems when it ends. The service chiefs have warned that a short-term mission could give an enormous edge to virtually all the armed factions in Iraq -- including al-Qaeda's foreign fighters, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias -- without giving an enduring boost to the U.S military mission or to the Iraqi army, the officials said.

The Pentagon has cautioned that a modest surge could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq to attack U.S. troops, the officials said.

The informal but well-armed Shiite militias, the Joint Chiefs have also warned, may simply melt back into society during a U.S. surge and wait until the troops are withdrawn -- then reemerge and retake the streets of Baghdad and other cities.

Even the announcement of a time frame and mission -- such as for six months to try to secure volatile Baghdad -- could play to armed factions by allowing them to game out the new U.S. strategy, the chiefs have warned the White House.

The idea of a much larger military deployment for a longer mission is virtually off the table, at least so far, mainly for logistics reasons, say officials familiar with the debate. Any deployment of 40,000 to 50,000 would force the Pentagon to redeploy troops who were scheduled to go home.

A senior administration official said it is "too simplistic" to say the surge question has broken down into a fight between the White House and the Pentagon, but the official acknowledged that the military has questioned the option. "Of course, military leadership is going to be focused on the mission -- what you're trying to accomplish, the ramifications it would have on broader issues in terms of manpower and strength and all that," the official said.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said military officers have not directly opposed a surge option. "I've never heard them be depicted that way to the president," the official said. "Because they ask questions about what the mission would be doesn't mean they don't support it. Those are the kinds of questions the president wants his military planners to be asking."

The concerns raised by the military are sometimes offset by concerns on the other side. For instance, those who warn that a short-term surge would harm longer-term deployments are met with the argument that the situation is urgent now, the official said. "Advocates would say: 'Can you afford to wait? Can you afford to plan in the long term? What's the tipping point in that country? Do you have time to wait?' "

Which way Bush is leaning remains unclear. "The president's keeping his cards pretty close to his vest," the official said, "and I think people may be trying to interpret questions he's asking and information he's asking for as signs that he's made up his mind."

Robert M. Gates, who was sworn in yesterday as defense secretary, is headed for Iraq this week and is expected to play a decisive role in resolving the debate, officials said. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's views are still open, according to State Department officials. The principals met again yesterday to continue discussions.

The White House yesterday noted the growing number of reports about what is being discussed behind closed doors. "It's also worth issuing a note of caution, because quite often people will try to litigate preferred options through the press," White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters.

Discussions are expected to continue through the holidays. Rice is expected to travel to the president's ranch near Crawford, Tex., after Christmas for consultations on Iraq. The administration's foreign policy principals are also expected to hold at least two meetings during the holiday. The White House has said the president will outline his new strategy to the nation early next year.

As the White House debate continues, another independent report on Iraq strategy is being issued today by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based crisis monitoring group that includes several former U.S. officials. It calls for more far-reaching policy revisions and reversals than did even the Iraq Study Group report, the bipartisan report issued two weeks ago.

The new report calls the study group's recommendations "not nearly radical enough" and says that "its prescriptions are no match for its diagnosis." It continues: "What is needed today is a clean break both in the way the U.S. and other international actors deal with the Iraqi government, and in the way the U.S. deals with the region."

The Iraqi government and military should not be treated as "privileged allies" because they are not partners in efforts to stem the violence but rather parties to the conflict, it says. Trying to strengthen the fragile government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will not contribute to Iraq's stability, it adds. Iraq's escalating crisis cannot be resolved militarily, the report says, and can be solved only with a major political effort.

The International Crisis Group proposes three broad steps: First, it calls for creation of an international support group, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Iraq's six neighbors, to press Iraq's constituents to accept political compromise.

Second, it urges a conference of all Iraqi players, including militias and insurgent groups, with support from the international community, to forge a political compact on controversial issues such as federalism, distribution of oil revenue, an amnesty, the status of Baath Party members and a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Finally, it suggests a new regional strategy that would include engagement with Syria and Iran and jump-starting the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process.

Desperation in the White House

Desperation in the White House

By Joseph Galloway
McClatchy-Tribune Information Service

The power brokers in Washington carefully arranged fig leaves and tasteful screens to cover the emperor's nakedness while he was busy pretending to listen hard to everyone with an opinion about Iraq while hearing nothing.

Sometime early in the new year, President Bush will go on national television to tell a disgruntled American public what he has decided should be done to salvage "victory" from the jaws of certain defeat in the war he started.

The word on the street, or in the Pentagon rings, is that he'll choose to beef up American forces on the ground in Iraq by 20,000 to 30,000 troops by various sleight-of-hand maneuvers -- extending the combat tours of soldiers and Marines who are nearing an end to their second or third year in hell and accelerating the shipment of others into that hell -- and send them into the bloody streets of Baghdad.

These additional troops are expected to restore order and calm the bombers and murderers when 9,000 Americans already in the sprawling capital couldn't. They're expected to do this even when Bush's favorite (for now) Iraqi politician, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, refuses to allow them to act against his primary benefactor, the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Shiite Muslim Mahdi Army militiamen who kill both Americans and Sunni Arabs.

This hardly amounts to a "new way forward," unless that definition includes a new path deeper into the quicksand of a tribal and religious civil war in which whatever Bush eventually decides is already inadequate and immaterial.

The military commanders on the ground -- from Gen. John Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command, to his generals in Iraq -- have said flatly that more American troops aren't the answer and aren't wanted. For them, it's obvious that only a political decision -- an Iraqi political decision -- has even the possibility of producing an acceptable outcome.

The White House hopes that its much-trumpeted reshuffling of a failed strategy and flawed tactics will buy time for its luck to change miraculously. That this time will be paid for with the lives and futures of our soldiers and Marines -- and their families -- apparently means little to these wise men who've never heard a shot fired in anger.

This president has made it painfully obvious that he has no intention of listening to anyone who doesn't believe that he's going to win in Iraq. He'll march stubbornly onward without any real change of course until high noon Jan. 20, 2009, when his successor will inherit both the hard decision to pull out of Iraq and the back bills for Bush's reckless, feckless misadventure.

The midterm election that handed control of Congress to the Democrats can be ignored. Bush's own approval rating in the polls, now at an all-time low of 27 percent, likewise means little or nothing.

Only Bush's definition of reality carries any weight with him, and therein lies the tragedy -- both his and ours.

James Baker was sent to Washington by the original George Bush, No. 41, to salvage something out of the mess that his son, No. 43, has made of his presidency and the world. The Baker commission labored mightily and produced, if little else, some truth: The situation in Iraq is dire and rapidly growing worse.

It's also clear, however, that Bush the son is paying no more than lip service to the Baker report. He doesn't want Dad's help, and the idea that he once again needs to be rescued from the consequences of his mistakes -- as he had to be so often back in Texas -- can only have hardened his resolve to stay the course.

What will happen in the coming year if the congressional Democrats begin to do their job, issuing subpoenas and holding oversight hearings into the looting of billions from the national treasury by defense contractors and other fat-cat donors to the Republican Party?

What will happen if everything that Bush does to string things along in Iraq fails (as has everything he's done there so far), and the Iraqis ask, order or drive us out?

Did you notice that at every stop on the president's information-gathering tour last week, there was a very familiar face looming over his shoulder? There was Vice President Dick Cheney, looking as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Should the president suddenly have an original thought or seem to be going wobbly, Cheney will be right there to squelch it or to set him straight.

It can be argued that Bush understood little about war and peace and diplomacy and honesty in government. Cheney understood all of it, and he bears much of the responsibility for what's gone on in Washington and in Iraq for the last six years. Keep a sharp eye on him. Desperate men do desperate things.

In China's pocket

In China's pocket

Robert Kuttner

The Boston Globe

The high-profile mission to China of key U.S. economic officials looked like another predictable fizzle. The delegation, headed by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, was long on state dinners and photo ops, short on real progress.

That's because the Chinese have learned to play their U.S. trading partners like a soothing violin, and we Americans are all too willing to dance to the tune. Despite the precarious condition of the U.S. dollar, the Chinese central bank keeps lending us dollars by the hundreds of billions, so that we can keep buying their cheap products. The more we owe them, the less leverage we have.

As the cliché used to have it, damn clever, these Chinese. A better interpretation would be: Damn stupid, these Americans.

Bernanke, Paulson and company make a big deal of China's deliberately undervalued currency. By intervening in money markets to keep the yuan cheap, China makes its products artificially discounted.

But the yuan is the least of America's problems. If the Chinese actually did what Paulson and Bernanke say they want and stop pegging the yuan to the dollar, it could trigger an international run on the dollar. What the U.S. officials really want is the appearance of progress, and very gradual appreciation of the yuan, to head off pressure from Congress for tougher measures.

However, slow adjustment of the yuan, which is already occurring, will hardly make a dent in the trade deficit with China. The far bigger problem is China's entire economic system.

China has managed to combine something that in theory can't exist: a Leninist one-party state, and a fiercely efficient pseudo-capitalist economy. Since President Bush I, American leaders have insisted that as China becomes more capitalist, it will become more politically liberal. But tell that to opposition leaders who keep being jailed. China is no closer to a Western style democracy than it was on the day of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

China's mercantilist economy defies norms of free trade. But American industry finds it too convenient to use China as a low-wage production zone to complain very much.

So the U.S. government goes through the motions of protesting China's subsidies to industry, its theft of American intellectual property, its coercive demands for the transfer of sensitive technologies by U.S. business partners and hardly bothers to protest the slave-like labor conditions in many Chinese factories. The Chinese make soothing noises, not much changes, and the U.S.-China trade imbalance keeps going through the roof.

Last June, the AFL-CIO filed a petition under Sec. 301 of the 1974 Trade Act, which makes brutal labor conditions in an exporting country an unfair trade practice, just as theft of intellectual property is an unfair trade practice. The petition described: a nightmare of 12-hour to 18-hour work days with no day of rest, earning meager wages that may be withheld.

The factories are often sweltering, dusty and damp. Workers are widely exposed to chemical toxins and hazardous machines, and suffer sickness and death at the highest rates in world history. They live in cramped dormitories, up to 20 to a room, with each worker's space limited to a bed in a two-tiered bunk — comparable in space, discomfort, and privacy to prison cells in the United States. Ten to 20 million workers in China are children. No one knows the precise number, because statistics of that kind are state secrets. The severe exploitation of China's factory workers and the contraction of the American middle class are two sides of a coin.

In rejecting the petition, the Bush administration did not deny the conditions, but cited ongoing consultations. Yet, last year's annual Report of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China declared that the Beijing government had simply "avoided discussions with the international labor community on Chinese workers' rights." And labor conditions were not even on the Paulson-Bernanke agenda.

In the early 1990s, China was a lot weaker economically, Americans were a lot less dependent on Chinese lending, and China eagerly wanted entry into the World Trade Organizations. But three administrations Bush I, Clinton, Bush II gave up that diplomatic leverage and worked to welcome China into the WTO in exchange for mostly empty promises. Why? Because American business elites were so eager to make more deals.

So, after the Paulson-Bernanke trip, once again nothing much will change, and we will be deeper in hock to Beijing than ever.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Out of Sight

Out of Sight


Baker, La.

There are hundreds of children in the trailer camp that is run by FEMA and known as Renaissance Village, but they won’t be having much of a Christmas. They’re trapped here in a demoralizing, overcrowded environment with adults who are mostly broke, jobless and at the end of their emotional tethers. Many of the kids aren’t even going to school.

“This is a terrible environment for children,” said Anita Gentris, who lost everything in the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina and is living in one of the 200-square-foot travel trailers with her 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. “My daughter is having bad dreams. And my son, he’s a very angry child right now. He cries. He throws things.

“I’m desperately trying to find permanent housing.”

The television cameras are mostly gone now, and the many thousands of people from the Gulf Coast whose lives were wrecked by Katrina in the summer of 2005 have slipped from the national consciousness. But like the city of New Orleans itself, most of them have yet to recover.

The enormity of the continuing tragedy is breathtaking. Thousands upon thousands of people are still suffering. And yet the way the poorest and most vulnerable victims have been treated so far by government officials at every level has been disgraceful.

More than a third of the 1,200 people in this sprawling camp are children. Only about half of the school-age youngsters are even registered for school; of those, roughly half actually go to school on any given day. The authorities can’t account for the rest.

A number of officials who asked not to be identified told me they are concerned that large numbers of children are remaining isolated at Renaissance Village, holed up in the trailers day in and day out, falling further and further behind educationally, and deteriorating emotionally.

Leah Baptiste, a caseworker from a local affiliate of Catholic Charities, said: “These trailers are small. They were only meant for traveling. And you’ve got families with three and four children cooped up in there seven days a week, 24 hours a day, with no privacy, no babysitter, no job, no money — there’s a lot of help they need. Some people have learned to adapt, but a lot are depressed.”

The most critical needs for the trailer camp population are housing and employment. Many of the adults at Renaissance Village were working before the storm but have been unable to find work since. Even the lowest-wage jobs in the Baton Rouge area are scarce, and without cars (in some cases, without money even for bus fare) it’s extremely difficult for Renaissance Village residents to get to them.

Beyond that, many of the residents have severe personal problems. “They are afraid,” said a woman who works closely with the population and asked not to be identified. “They’re embarrassed by their situation, humiliated. They don’t know what to do. Some cannot read or write, so when the government drops off these bureaucratic forms for them to fill out, it’s a waste of time.”

Nearly all of the residents are carrying scars from their initial ordeal. Many lost close relatives, and many came frighteningly close to dying themselves.

Candice Victor was about to give birth immediately after the storm and needed a Caesarean section. A stranger with a butcher knife offered to do it. “She was going to sterilize the knife by pouring lighter fluid on it and setting it on fire,” Ms. Victor said. Wiser heads prevailed, and the baby, a girl, was later successfully delivered.

The big story in the immediate aftermath of Katrina was the way the government failed to rush to the aid of people who were obviously in desperate trouble. What we’re witnessing now is an extended slow-motion replay of that initial failed response. Thousands of people remain in trouble, but instead of clinging to roofs and waving signs at TV cameras in helicopters flying overhead, they are suffering in silence, out of the sight of most Americans.

The government could have come up with a crash program to build housing and find or create jobs for the victims of Katrina. It could have ensured that all those hurt by the storm received whatever social services they needed, including mental health counseling and treatment. It could have begun to address the long-festering problems of race and poverty in this country.

The government could have done so much. But it didn’t.

They Only Look Dead

They Only Look Dead

Neoconservatives lobbied for an unnecessary war and are getting blamed. But they have made comebacks before.

by Scott McConnell

Republicans may have gotten “a thumpin’,” but the neocons appear to be suffering a full-fledged rout. The intellectual faction that had its origins in City College’s storied Alcove No.1 during the 1930s (home of the “anti-Stalinist” socialists) has become a household word, and not in a good way. Apolitical grandmothers write their children e-mails deriding “the neocons and their war.” Intellectuals who have logged years on the payroll of well-funded neoconservative institutions forward little ditties through cyberspace: (to the tune of “Thanks for the Memories”)

But thanks to the neocons,
For every war a shill,
We’re driven from the Hill
But their mission was accomplished
Since our troops are dying still.
A cakewalk it was.

Thanks for the neocons
Those late-night shows on Fox
We watched while drinking shots
Sure Cheney lied and soldiers died
But ain’t Ann Coulter hot?
A kegger, it was.

If disrespecting the neoconservatives is emerging as a minor national sport, it should be enjoyed, and tempered, with realism. The last few years have been difficult for the faction, the years to come perhaps more challenging still. But they are as aware of their own vulnerabilities as anyone—much more so than the Bush-Rove Republicans with whom they have been allied. Neoconservatives have faced the political wilderness before and survived. They have other political options.

Moreover, whatever one might feel about “the neocons and their war” it is difficult not to experience some twinges of remorse over the movement’s decline. For decades, The Public Interest was a penetrating and groundbreaking journal. Commentary in the 1970s—when it turned hard against the countercultural '60s—was brave and forceful. Nathan Glazer may never have written anything void of wisdom. To see the movement that spawned this grow into something bloated, stupid, and ultimately dangerous to America is to see the terminus of a vital part of our intellectual history.

The neoconservative lines were first broken two years ago when Iraq War architects Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz were ushered out of the Pentagon—a virtual decapitation of the cadre that planned the war. Scooter Libby’s indictment and subsequent departure from Dick Cheney’s side was a further blow. By last summer, George Will, the dean of establishment conservative journalism in Washington, had turned openly against the group. Noting Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol’s call for the U.S. to use the Lebanon war as a pretext to bomb Iran, Will remarked, “The most magnificently misnamed neoconservatives are the most radical people in this town.” Kristol received more of the same medicine when he appeared on National Public Radio with Gen. William Odom, director of the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan: “Mr. Kristol certainly wants to make [Lebanon] our war. He’s the man with remarkable moral clarity. He tends to forget the clarity he had on getting us into the mess in Mesopotamia. I think if you look at his record, you’d wonder why anybody would allow him to speak publicly anymore.” Thus moral clarity—that robust quality the neoconservatives had long ascribed to themselves—is returned as mockery.

A main dilemma for the neoconservatives is their relationship to Bush’s lame-duck presidency. Neocon doubts that Bush will stay true to the course they have helped set for him are widespread. Addressing these fears, this summer Norman Podhoretz argued that the president was still their man. Quoting Bush speeches at length, Podhoretz insisted the evidence showed Bush still believed in the “Bush Doctrine.” But it is not clear that neoconservatives will be rallied by such hallucinatory observations as

I must confess to being puzzled by the amazing spread of the idea that the Bush Doctrine has indeed failed the test of Iraq. After all, Iraq has been liberated from one of the worst tyrants in the Middle East; three elections have been held; a decent constitution has been written; a government is in place; and previously unimaginable liberties are being enjoyed.

Veteran pamphleteer Joshua Muravchik recognized the larger problem, that the current neocon brand—now defined by Bush, the Iraq War, and American global hegemony—has become broadly unpopular. Writing in Foreign Policy, Muravchik observed, “some among us, wearying of these attacks, are sidling away from the neocon label.” He raised a bugle to stem the retreat. Neoconservative ideas are “as valid today as when we first began.” George Bush “has embraced so much of what we believe that it would be silly to begrudge his deviations.” Neoconservatives, he mused, should acknowledge mistakes, if necessary—“We were glib about how Iraqis would greet liberation.” And they should concentrate on their greatest strength—“political ideas.” While Muravchik unsurprisingly called for renewed agitation to bomb Iran, his most amusing recommendation may have been that neocons should “volunteer” to train U.S. Foreign Service officers in the “war of ideas”—and make sure their trainees were assigned to every overseas post.

Podhoretz (writing this past August) and Muravchik (published in late October) may have been anticipating the remarkable neocon self-immolation that would appear in early November on Vanity Fair’s website, in the form of David Rose’s interview notes for a forthcoming article. Rose quotes neoconservatives who had played major roles in the formulation and selling of the Bush administration’s foreign policy all lamenting that Bush has proved himself unworthy of the sound advice they gave him. Eliot Cohen, whose pre-Iraq War book stiffened the Bush team to ignore the reservations of America’s top generals, fears America will need “another big hit” to spur it to the warpath again. Michael Ledeen, a confidant of Vice President Cheney, laments that the most powerful people in the White House are the women who are in love with George W. Bush—Condi, Karen, Harriet, and Laura. In the neocons’ heyday, he formulated what Jonah Goldberg admiringly called the “Ledeen Doctrine”: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”

Unlike Norman Podhoretz, these neoconservatives were realistic about what a charnel house Iraq has become, but this was Bush’s fault, not theirs. Richard Perle, who left his chairmanship of Bush’s Defense Policy Board in 2004, acknowledged that had he “seen where we are today,” he would not have advocated the invasion of Iraq. But he attributes the current failure to Bush’s bumbling: “[Decisions] did not get made in a timely fashion … you have to hold the president responsible. … Huge mistakes were made, and I want to be very clear on this: they were not made by neoconservatives who had almost no voice in what happened … and certainly no voice in what happened after [Saddam’s] downfall. … I’m getting damn tired of being described as an architect of the war.”

Perle chose not to dwell on his associate of more than 20 years, Douglas Feith—the man he recommended to Donald Rumsfeld for the number-three slot at the Pentagon, the same Douglas Feith that Rumsfeld entrusted with planning for post-Saddam Iraq.

David Frum’s complaint is more interesting. Frum was a principal author of Bush’s “axis of evil” designation, which placed Iran on Washington’s enemies list, put a damper on Iranian co-operation in rolling up al-Qaeda, and helped cut the legs from under moderate reformist elements in Iranian politics. Says Frum, “I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas.”

But Bush’s lack of ideological aptitude was predictable, a bone neocons had chewed over for a long time. As Bush advisers, both Frum and Perle had a difficulty: they felt themselves to be far more intelligent than Bush (as surely they were) and yet needed Bush to sell their global political ideas to the American people. Perle never proved able to mask his condescension. Years before, he had commented, “The first time I met Bush, two things became clear. One, he didn’t know very much. The other was that he had the confidence to ask questions that revealed he didn’t know very much.”

Frum made a real effort to finesse the matter. After leaving his White House speechwriter job, Frum wrote a memoir depicting Bush as “The Right Man”—one who was “nothing short of superb as a wartime leader.” Bush, he said, combined moderation, persistence, and boldness in just the right measure. Temperament, it appeared, could trump the ability to “absorb the ideas.” Frum’s book would set the standard for hagiography of the one-time master of Baghdad. The genre was later supplemented by John Podhoretz’s Bush Country: How Dubya Became a Great President While Driving Liberals Insane and Fred Barnes’s amazingly sycophantic Rebel-in-Chief. The neocons may not have believed all they wrote in these courtier volumes, but they certainly believed it should be published. Extricating themselves from the Bush embrace will be awkward and risks burning the faction’s bridges to more conventional Republicans.

But I predict that they will manage it. Despite the obituaries now being written, neoconservatism will not soon be over with and certainly won’t disappear in the way that American communism or segregation have. The group has always been resilient and tactically flexible.

Recall the state of neoconservatism in the early 1990s. The neocons could point with pride to their role in the Reagan presidency—though America’s Cold War success owes as much to the times when Reagan ignored their advice as when he took it. George H.W. Bush granted a presidential pardon to Iran-Contra figure Elliott Abrams, allowing him to continue his career. But that was all Bush 41 did for the group. When the elder Bush, after evicting Saddam from Kuwait in 1991, tried to put America’s weight behind settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, many neoconservatives suddenly remembered their Democratic Party roots and bolted. In 1992, a significant group of neocons signed on as advisers to Bill Clinton, and the Democratic standard-bearer, eager to shed the McGovernite label neoconservative publicists typically draped around his party, entertained their counsel during the campaign.

But appointing them to strategic foreign-policy posts in his administration was another matter. Soon enough, press coverage of the Clinton transition was filled with neoconservative grumbles of being shut out. In one noteworthy example, Beltway neocons strongly backed Joshua Muravchik’s aspiration to be assistant secretary of state for human rights. But like many neoconservatives, Muravchik had a long paper trail, and his job search did not survive Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory’s illumination of it. “Plainly if the president-elect is looking for a human rights director who thinks Mrs. Clinton is a post- Cold War Communist dupe, the search is over,” wrote McGrory.

What is basically a group of intellectuals interested in foreign policy has not always found it easy to acquire powerful political sponsors. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson was the archetype, a “labor” Cold War Democrat and the man who originally brought Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz to Capitol Hill. A force in the Senate, Jackson could delay or even thwart policies he opposed, and he (and aide Richard Perle) did a brilliant job of tying Henry Kissinger’s détente policy in knots in the mid-1970s. But that was the power to negate, not create. Jackson induced sleep on the stump, as his two presidential bids revealed. Replacing him as the great hope for the neocons was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York-born Harvard professor who was, in the 1960s and ‘70s, a flamboyant and often brilliant intellectual. But once elected to the Senate in 1976, Moynihan proved a disappointment, turning out to be not remotely as hawkish as neoconservatives expected.

For the older neocons, with backgrounds as Democrats and even socialists, embracing the Republican Party always seemed a date on the wild side. But not so for those now under 60, who came of political age under Reagan. Republican ties were natural. And as the experience with the Clinton transition demonstrated, crossing the floor to the Democrats will not be easy.

But if Bush has failed them, what options remain? Joe Lieberman has less national appeal than Henry Jackson did, and once you have been embedded in the Pentagon and the vice president’s office, forays from the Senate will seem a weak brew. John McCain is another matter, and if Americans can be persuaded that the solution to their Middle East, terrorism, and other diplomatic dilemmas lies in more troops and invasions, neoconservatism will have springtime all over again.

In the short run at least, neoconservatism is wounded and is likely to present a different public face. The soaring language about how it is America’s destiny to spread democracy throughout the globe, the efforts to define an American global empire as something greatly to be desired—this will dropped, a casualty of the Iraq fiasco. But it’s not clear that the neocons will miss the democracy baggage. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards”—the one that landed her the post of Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, was published in Commentary and considered a primary example of “neo” conservative thinking of the period. But recall that her argument was that “authoritarian” regimes could be reliable American allies in the Cold War, and Washington was destabilizing them by hectoring about human rights and democracy. Kirkpatrick was wrong in the end about how durable communist “totalitarian” regimes turned out to be (compared to the authoritarian dictatorships she favored), but the dominant perspective of the essay was undeniably realist—an attempt to take the world with its myriad political cultures as it was rather than imposing upon it a pre-fabricated American model.

What won’t be dropped is the neoconservatives’ attachment to Israel and the tendency to conflate the Jewish state’s interests (as defined in right-wing Israeli terms) with America’s. So one can look forward to neoconservative agitation on two fronts: a powerful campaign to draw the United States into a war to eliminate Iran’s nuclear potential and an equally loud effort in support of maintaining Israeli dominance over the West Bank and denying the Palestinians meaningful statehood. Those who argue effectively for a more even-handed American policy towards Israel and Palestine will risk the full measure of smears linking them to historical anti-Semitism. The archetypical neoconservative argument will no longer be Bob Kagan and Bill Kristol’s call for American “benevolent global hegemony,” but Gabriel Schoenfeld’s attack on John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in Commentary, an essay that sought to connect the pair’s work to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

This election season ends with neoconservatism widely mocked and openly contemptuous of the president who took its counsels. The key policy it has lobbied for since the mid-1990s—the invasion of Iraq—is an almost universally acknowledged disaster. So one can see why the movement’s obituaries are being written. But the group was powerful and influential well before its alliance with George W. Bush. In its wake it leaves behind crises—Iraq first among them—that will not be easy to resolve, and neocons will not be shy about criticizing whatever imperfect solutions are found to the mess they have created. Perhaps most importantly, neoconservatism still commands more salaries—able people who can pursue ideological politics as fulltime work in think tanks and periodicals—than any of its rivals. The millionaires who fund AEI and the New York Sun will not abandon neoconservatism because Iraq didn’t work out. The reports of the movement’s demise are thus very much exaggerated.

Boss Hog

Boss Hog

America's top pork producer churns out a sea of waste that has destroyed rivers, killed millions of fish and generated one of the largest fines in EPA history. Welcome to the dark side of the other white meat.


Smithfield Foods, the largest and most profitable pork processor in the world, killed 27 million hogs last year. That's a number worth considering. A slaughter-weight hog is fifty percent heavier than a person. The logistical challenge of processing that many pigs each year is roughly equivalent to butchering and boxing the entire human populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Columbus, Austin, Memphis, Baltimore, Fort Worth, Charlotte, El Paso, Milwaukee, Seattle, Boston, Denver, Louisville, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Las Vegas, Portland, Oklahoma City and Tucson.

Smithfield Foods actually faces a more difficult task than transmogrifying the populations of America's thirty-two largest cities into edible packages of meat. Hogs produce three times more excrement than human beings do. The 500,000 pigs at a single Smithfield subsidiary in Utah generate more fecal matter each year than the 1.5 million inhabitants of Manhattan. The best estimates put Smithfield's total waste discharge at 26 million tons a year. That would fill four Yankee Stadiums. Even when divided among the many small pig production units that surround the company's slaughterhouses, that is not a containable amount.

Smithfield estimates that its total sales will reach $11.4 billion this year. So prodigious is its fecal waste, however, that if the company treated its effluvia as big-city governments do -- even if it came marginally close to that standard -- it would lose money. So many of its contractors allow great volumes of waste to run out of their slope-floored barns and sit blithely in the open, untreated, where the elements break it down and gravity pulls it into groundwater and river systems. Although the company proclaims a culture of environmental responsibility, ostentatious pollution is a linchpin of Smithfield's business model.

A lot of pig shit is one thing; a lot of highly toxic pig shit is another. The excrement of Smithfield hogs is hardly even pig shit: On a continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure. The reason it is so toxic is Smithfield's efficiency. The company produces 6 billion pounds of packaged pork each year. That's a remarkable achievement, a prolificacy unimagined only two decades ago, and the only way to do it is to raise pigs in astonishing, unprecedented concentrations.

Smithfield's pigs live by the hundreds or thousands in warehouse-like barns, in rows of wall-to-wall pens. Sows are artificially inseminated and fed and delivered of their piglets in cages so small they cannot turn around. Forty fully grown 250-pound male hogs often occupy a pen the size of a tiny apartment. They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth. The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs -- anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits. The pipes remain closed until enough sewage accumulates in the pits to create good expulsion pressure; then the pipes are opened and everything bursts out into a large holding pond.

The temperature inside hog houses is often hotter than ninety degrees. The air, saturated almost to the point of precipitation with gases from shit and chemicals, can be lethal to the pigs. Enormous exhaust fans run twenty-four hours a day. The ventilation systems function like the ventilators of terminal patients: If they break down for any length of time, pigs start dying.

From Smithfield's point of view, the problem with this lifestyle is immunological. Taken together, the immobility, poisonous air and terror of confinement badly damage the pigs' immune systems. They become susceptible to infection, and in such dense quarters microbes or parasites or fungi, once established in one pig, will rush spritelike through the whole population. Accordingly, factory pigs are infused with a huge range of antibiotics and vaccines, and are doused with insecticides. Without these compounds -- oxytetracycline, draxxin, ceftiofur, tiamulin -- diseases would likely kill them. Thus factory-farm pigs remain in a state of dying until they're slaughtered. When a pig nearly ready to be slaughtered grows ill, workers sometimes shoot it up with as many drugs as necessary to get it to the slaughterhouse under its own power. As long as the pig remains ambulatory, it can be legally killed and sold as meat.

The drugs Smithfield administers to its pigs, of course, exit its hog houses in pig shit. Industrial pig waste also contains a host of other toxic substances: ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrates and heavy metals. In addition, the waste nurses more than 100 microbial pathogens that can cause illness in humans, including salmonella, cryptosporidium, streptocolli and girardia. Each gram of hog shit can contain as much as 100 million fecal coliform bacteria.

Smithfield's holding ponds -- the company calls them lagoons -- cover as much as 120,000 square feet. The area around a single slaughterhouse can contain hundreds of lagoons, some of which run thirty feet deep. The liquid in them is not brown. The interactions between the bacteria and blood and afterbirths and stillborn piglets and urine and excrement and chemicals and drugs turn the lagoons pink.

Even light rains can cause lagoons to overflow; major floods have transformed entire counties into pig-shit bayous. To alleviate swelling lagoons, workers sometimes pump the shit out of them and spray the waste on surrounding fields, which results in what the industry daintily refers to as "overapplication." This can turn hundreds of acres -- thousands of football fields -- into shallow mud puddles of pig shit. Tree branches drip with pig shit.

Some pig-farm lagoons have polyethylene liners, which can be punctured by rocks in the ground, allowing shit to seep beneath the liners and spread and ferment. Gases from the fermentation can inflate the liner like a hot-air balloon and rise in an expanding, accelerating bubble, forcing thousands of tons of feces out of the lagoon in all directions.

The lagoons themselves are so viscous and venomous that if someone falls in it is foolish to try to save him. A few years ago, a truck driver in Oklahoma was transferring pig shit to a lagoon when he and his truck went over the side. It took almost three weeks to recover his body. In 1992, when a worker making repairs to a lagoon in Minnesota began to choke to death on the fumes, another worker dived in after him, and they died the same death. In another instance, a worker who was repairing a lagoon in Michigan was overcome by the fumes and fell in. His fifteen-year-old nephew dived in to save him but was overcome, the worker's cousin went in to save the teenager but was overcome, the worker's older brother dived in to save them but was overcome, and then the worker's father dived in. They all died in pig shit.

The chairman of Smithfield Foods, Joseph Luter III, is a funny, jowly, canny, barbarous guy who lives in a multimillion-dollar condo on Park Avenue in Manhattan and conveys himself about the planet in a corporate jet and a private yacht. At sixty-seven, he is unrepentant in the face of criticism. He describes himself as a "tough man in a tough business" and his factories as wholly legitimate products of the American free market. He can be sardonic; he likes to mock his critics and rivals.

"The animal-rights people," he once said, "want to impose a vegetarian's society on the U.S. Most vegetarians I know are neurotic." When the Environmental Protection Agency cited Smithfield for thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act, Luter responded by comparing what he claimed were the number of violations the company could theoretically have been charged with (2.5 million, by his calculation) to the number of documented violations up to that point (seventy-four). "A very, very small percent," he said.

Luter grew up butchering hogs in his father's slaughterhouse, in the town of Smithfield, Virginia. When he took over the family business forty years ago, it was a local, marginally profitable meatpacking operation. Under Luter, Smithfield was soon making enough money to begin purchasing neighboring meatpackers. From the beginning, Luter thought monopolistically. He bought out his local competition until he completely dominated the regional pork-processing market.

But Luter was dissatisfied. The company was still buying most of its hogs from local farmers; Luter wanted to create a system, known as "total vertical integration," in which Smithfield controls every stage of production, from the moment a hog is born until the day it passes through the slaughterhouse. So he imposed a new kind of contract on farmers: The company would own the living hogs; the contractors would raise the pigs and be responsible for managing the hog shit and disposing of dead hogs. The system made it impossible for small hog farmers to survive -- those who could not handle thousands and thousands of pigs were driven out of business. "It was a simple matter of economic power," says Eric Tabor, chief of staff for Iowa's attorney general.

Smithfield's expansion was unique in the history of the industry: Between 1990 and 2005, it grew by more than 1,000 percent. In 1997 it was the nation's seventh-largest pork producer; by 1999 it was the largest. Smithfield now kills one of every four pigs sold commercially in the United States. As Smithfield expanded, it consolidated its operations, clustering millions of fattening hogs around its slaughterhouses. Under Luter, the company was turning into a great pollution machine: Smithfield was suddenly producing unheard-of amounts of pig shit laced with drugs and chemicals. According to the EPA, Smithfield's largest farm-slaughterhouse operation -- in Tar Heel, North Carolina -- dumps more toxic waste into the nation's water each year than all but three other industrial facilities in America.

Luter likes to tell this story: An old man and his grandson are walking in a cemetery. They see a tombstone that reads here lies charles w. johnson, a man who had no enemies.

"Gee, Granddad," the boy says, "this man must have been a great man. He had no enemies."

"Son," the grandfather replies, "if a man didn't have any enemies, he didn't do a damn thing with his life."

If Luter were to set this story in Ivy Hill Cemetery in his hometown of Smithfield, it would be an object lesson in how to make enemies. Back when he was growing up, the branches of the cemetery's trees were bent with the weight of scores of buzzards. The waste stream from the Luters' meatpacking plant, with its thickening agents of pig innards and dead fish, flowed nearby. Luter learned the family trade well. Last year, before he retired as CEO of Smithfield, he took home $10,802,134. He currently holds $19,296,000 in unexercised stock options.

One day this fall, a retired Marine Corps colonel and environmental activist named Rick Dove, the former riverkeeper of North Carolina's Neuse River, arranged to have me flown over Smithfield's operation in North Carolina. Dove, a focused guy of sixty-seven years, is unable to talk about corporate hog farming without becoming angry. After he got out of the Marine Corps in 1987, he became a commercial fisherman, which he had wanted to do since he was a kid. He was successful, and his son went into business with him. Then industrial hog farming arrived and killed the fish, and both Dove and his son got seriously ill.

Dove and other activists provide the only effective oversight of corporate hog farming in the area. The industry has long made generous campaign contributions to politicians responsible for regulating hog farms. In 1995, while Smithfield was trying to persuade the state of Virginia to reduce a large fine for the company's pollution, Joseph Luter gave $100,000 to then-governor George Allen's political-action committee. In 1998, corporate hog farms in North Carolina spent $1 million to help defeat state legislators who wanted to clean up open-pit lagoons. The state has consistently failed to employ enough inspectors to ensure that hog farms are complying with environmental standards.

To document violations, Dove and other activists regularly hire private planes to inspect corporate hog operations from the air. The airport Dove uses, in New Bern, North Carolina, is tiny; the plane he uses, a 1975 Cessna single-prop, looks tiny even in the tiny airport. Its cabin has four cracked yellow linoleum seats. It looks like the interior of a 1975 VW bug, but with more dials. The pilot, Joe Corby, is older than I expected him to be.

"I have a GPS, so I can kinda guide you," Dove says to Corby while we taxi to the runway.

"Oh, you do!" Corby says, apparently unaccustomed to such a luxury. "Well, OK."

We take off. "Bunch of turkey buzzards," Dove says, looking out the window. "They're big."

"Don't wanna hit them," Corby says. "They would be . . . very destructive."

We climb to 2,000 feet and head toward the densest concentration of hogs in the world. The landscape at first is unsuspiciously pastoral -- fields planted in corn or soybeans or cotton, tree lines staking creeks, a few unincorporated villages of prefab houses. But then we arrive at the global locus of hog farming, and the countryside turns into an immense subdivision for pigs. Hog farms that contract with Smithfield differ slightly in dimension but otherwise look identical: parallel rows of six, eight or twelve one-story hog houses, some nearly the size of a football field, containing as many as 10,000 hogs, and backing onto a single large lagoon. From the air I see that the lagoons come in two shades of pink: dark or Pepto Bismol -- vile, freaky colors in the middle of green farmland.

From the plane, Smithfield's farms replicate one another as far as I can see in every direction. Visibility is about four miles. I count the lagoons. There are 103. That works out to at least 50,000 hogs per square mile. You could fly for an hour, Dove says, and all you would see is corporate hog operations, with little towns of modular homes and a few family farms pinioned amid them.

Studies have shown that lagoons emit hundreds of different volatile gases into the atmosphere, including ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. A single lagoon releases many millions of bacteria into the air per day, some resistant to human antibiotics. Hog farms in North Carolina also emit some 300 tons of nitrogen into the air every day as ammonia gas, much of which falls back to earth and deprives lakes and streams of oxygen, stimulating algal blooms and killing fish.

Looking down from the plane, we watch as several of Smithfield's farmers spray their hog shit straight up into the air as a fine mist: It looks like a public fountain. Lofted and atomized, the shit is blown clear of the company's property. People who breathe the shit-infused air suffer from bronchitis, asthma, heart palpitations, headaches, diarrhea, nosebleeds and brain damage. In 1995, a woman downwind from a corporate hog farm in Olivia, Minnesota, called a poison-control center and described her symptoms. "Ma'am," the poison-control officer told her, "the only symptoms of hydrogen-sulfide poisoning you're not experiencing are seizures, convulsions and death. Leave the area immediately." When you fly over eastern North Carolina, you realize that virtually everyone in this part of the state lives close to a lagoon.

Each of the company's lagoons is surrounded by several fields. Pollution control at Smithfield consists of spraying the pig shit from the lagoons onto the fields to fertilize them. The idea is borrowed from the past: The small hog farmers that Smithfield drove out of business used animal waste to fertilize their crops, which they then fed to the pigs. Smithfield says that this, in essence, is what it does -- its crops absorb every ounce of its pig shit, making the lagoon-sprayfield system a zero-discharge, nonpolluting waste-disposal operation. "If you manage your fields correctly, there should be no runoff, no pollution," says Dennis Treacy, Smithfield's vice president of environmental affairs. "If you're getting runoff, you're doing something wrong."

In fact, Smithfield doesn't grow nearly enough crops to absorb all of its hog weight. The company raises so many pigs in so little space that it actually has to import the majority of their food, which contains large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus. Those chemicals -- discharged in pig shit and sprayed on fields -- run off into the surrounding ecosystem, causing what Dan Whittle, a former senior policy associate with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, calls a "mass imbalance." At one point, three hog-raising counties in North Carolina were producing more nitrogen, and eighteen were producing more phosphorus, than all the crops in the state could absorb.

As we fly over the hog farms, I notice that springs and streams and swamplands and lakes are everywhere. Eastern North Carolina is a coastal plain, grooved and tilted towards the sea -- and Smithfield's sprayfields almost always incline toward creeks or creek-fed swamps. Half-perforated pipes called irrigation tiles, commonly used in modern farming, run beneath many of the fields; when they become unplugged, the tiles effectively operate as drainpipes, dumping pig waste into surrounding tributaries. Many studies have documented the harm caused by hog-waste runoff; one showed the pig shit raising the level of nitrogen and phosphorus in a receiving river as much as sixfold. In eastern North Carolina, nine rivers and creeks in the Cape Fear and Neuse River basins have been classified by the state as either "negatively impacted" or environmentally "impaired."

Although Smithfield may not have enough crops to absorb its pig shit, its contract farmers do plant plenty of hay. In 1992, when the number of hogs in North Carolina began to skyrocket, so much hay was planted to deal with the fresh volumes of pig shit that the market for hay collapsed. But the hay from hog farms can be so nitrate-heavy that it sickens livestock. For a while, former governor Jim Hunt -- a recipient of hog-industry campaign money -- was feeding hog-farm hay to his cows. Locals say it made the cows sick and irritable, and the animals kicked Hunt several times, seemingly in revenge. It's a popular tale in eastern North Carolina.

To appreciate what this agglomeration of hog production does to the people who live near it, you have to appreciate the smell of industrial-strength pig shit. The ascending stench can nauseate pilots at 3,000 feet. On the day we fly over Smithfield's operation there is little wind to stir up the lagoons or carry the stink, and the region's current drought means that lagoon operators aren't spraying very frequently. It is the best of times. We can smell the farms from the air, but while the smell is foul it is intermittent and not particularly strong.

To get a really good whiff, I drive down a narrow country road of white sand and walk up to a Smithfield lagoon. At the end of the road stands a tractor and some spraying equipment. The fetid white carcass of a hog lies in a dumpster known as a "dead box." Flies cover the hog's snout. Its hooves look like high heels. Millions of factory-farm hogs -- one study puts it at ten percent -- die before they make it to the killing floor. Some are taken to rendering plants, where they are propelled through meat grinders and then fed cannibalistically back to other living hogs. Others are dumped into big open pits called "dead holes," or left in the dumpsters for so long that they swell and explode. The borders of hog farms are littered with dead pigs in all stages of decomposition, including thousands of bleached pig bones. Locals like to say that the bears and buzzards of eastern North Carolina are unusually lazy and fat.

No one seems to be around. It is quiet except for the gigantic exhaust fans affixed to the six hog houses. There is an unwholesome tang in the air, but there is no wind and it isn't hot, so I can't smell the lagoon itself. I walk the few hundred yards over to it. It is covered with a thick film; its edge is a narrow beach of big black flies. Here, its odor is leaking out. I take a deep breath.

Concentrated manure is my first thought, but I am fighting an impulse to vomit even as I am thinking it. I've probably smelled stronger odors in my life, but nothing so insidiously and instantaneously nauseating. It takes my mind a second or two to get through the odor's first coat. The smell at its core has a frightening, uniquely enriched putridity, both deep-sweet and high-sour. I back away from it and walk back to the car but I remain sick -- it's a shivery, retchy kind of nausea -- for a good five minutes. That's apparently characteristic of industrial pig shit: It keeps making you sick for a good while after you've stopped smelling it. It's an unduly invasive, adhesive smell. Your whole body reacts to it. It's as if something has physically entered your stomach. A little later I am driving and I catch a crosswind stench -- it must have been from a stirred-up lagoon -- and from the moment it hit me a timer in my body started ticking: You can only function for so long in that smell. The memory of it makes you gag.

Unsurprisingly, prolonged exposure to hog-factory stench makes the smell extremely hard to get off. Hog factory workers stink up every store they walk into. I run into a few local guys who had made the mistake of accepting jobs in hog houses, and they tell me that you just have to wait the smell out: You'll eventually grow new hair and skin. If you work in a Smithfield hog house for a year and then quit, you might stink for the next three months.

If the temperature and wind aren't right and the lagoon operators are spraying, people in hog country can't hang laundry or sit on their porches or mow their lawns. Epidemiological studies show that those who live near hog lagoons suffer from abnormally high levels of depression, tension, anger, fatigue and confusion. "We are used to farm odors," says one local farmer. "These are not farm odors." Sometimes the stink literally knocks people down: They walk out of the house to get something in the yard and become so nauseous they collapse. When they retain consciousness, they crawl back into the house.

That has happened several times to Julian and Charlotte Savage, an elderly couple whose farmland now abuts a Smithfield sprayfield -- one of several meant to absorb the shit of 50,000 hogs. The Savages live in a small, modular kit house. Sitting in the kitchen, Charlotte tells me that she once saw Julian collapse in the yard and ran out and threw a coat over his head and dragged him back inside. Before Smithfield arrived, Julian's family farmed the land for the better part of a century. He raised tobacco, corn, wheat, turkeys and chickens. Now he has respiratory problems and rarely attempts to go outside.

Behind the house, a creek bordering the sprayfield flows into a swamp; the Savages have seen hog waste running right into the creek. Once, during a flood, the Savages found pig shit six inches deep pooled around their house. They had to drain it by digging trenches, which took three weeks. Charlotte has noticed that nitrogen fallout keeps the trees around the house a deep synthetic green. There's a big buzzard population.

The Savages say they can keep the pig-shit smell out of their house by shutting the doors and windows, but to me the walls reek faintly. They have a windbreak -- an eighty-foot-wide strip of forest -- between their house and the fields. They know people who don't, though, and when the smell is bad, those people, like everyone, shut their windows and slam their front doors shut quickly behind them, but their coffee and spaghetti and carrots still smell and taste like pig shit.

The Savages have had what seemed to be hog shit in their bath water. Their well water, which was clean before Smithfield arrived, is now suspect. "I try not to drink it," Charlotte says. "We mostly just drink drinks, soda and things." While we talk, Julian spends most of the time on the living room couch; his lungs are particularly bad today. Then he comes into the kitchen. Among other things, he says: I can't breathe it, it'll put you on the ground; you can't walk, you fall down; you breathe you gon' die; you go out and smell it one time and your ass is gone; it's not funny to be around it. It's not funny, honey. He could have said all this somewhat tragicomically, with a thin smile, but instead he cries the whole time.

Smithfield is not just a virtuosic polluter; it is also a theatrical one. Its lagoons are historically prone to failure. In North Carolina alone they have spilled, in a span of four years, 2 million gallons of shit into the Cape Fear River, 1.5 million gallons into its Persimmon Branch, one million gallons into the Trent River and 200,000 gallons into Turkey Creek. In Virginia, Smithfield was fined $12.6 million in 1997 for 6,900 violations of the Clean Water Act -- the third-largest civil penalty ever levied under the act by the EPA. It amounted to .035 percent of Smithfield's annual sales.

A river that receives a lot of waste from an industrial hog farm begins to die quickly. Toxins and microbes can kill plants and animals outright; the waste itself consumes available oxygen and suffocates fish and aquatic animals; and the nutrients in the pig shit produce algal blooms that also deoxygenate the water. The Pagan River runs by Smithfield's original plant and headquarters in Virginia, which served as Joseph Luter's staging ground for his assault on the pork-raising and processing industries. For several decades, before a spate of regulations, the Pagan had no living marsh grass, a tiny and toxic population of fish and shellfish and a half foot of noxious black mud coating its bed. The hulls of boats winched up out of the river bore inch-thick coats of greasy muck. In North Carolina, much of the pig waste from Smithfield's operations makes its way into the Neuse River; in a five-day span in 2003 alone, more than 4 million fish died. Pig-waste runoff has damaged the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound, which is almost as big as the Chesapeake Bay and which provides half the nursery grounds used by fish in the eastern Atlantic.

The biggest spill in the history of corporate hog farming happened in 1995. The dike of a 120,000-square-foot lagoon owned by a Smithfield competitor ruptured, releasing 25.8 million gallons of effluvium into the headwaters of the New River in North Carolina. It was the biggest environmental spill in United States history, more than twice as big as the Exxon Valdez oil spill six years earlier. The sludge was so toxic it burned your skin if you touched it, and so dense it took almost two months to make its way sixteen miles downstream to the ocean. From the headwaters to the sea, every creature living in the river was killed. Fish died by the millions.

It's hard to conceive of a fish kill that size. The kill began with turbulence in one small part of the water: fish writhing and dying. Then it spread in patches along the entire length and breadth of the river. In two hours, dead and dying fish were mounded wherever the river's contours slowed the current, and the riverbanks were mostly dead fish. Within a day dead fish completely covered the riverbanks, and between the floating and beached and piled fish the water scintillated out of sight up and down the river with billions of buoyant dead eyes and scales and white bellies -- more fish than the river seemed capable of holding. The smell of rotting fish covered much of the county; the air above the river was chaotic with scavenging birds. There were far more dead fish than the birds could ever eat.

Spills aren't the worst thing that can happen to toxic pig waste lying exposed in fields and lagoons. Hurricanes are worse. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd washed 120,000,000 gallons of unsheltered hog waste into the Tar, Neuse, Roanoke, Pamlico, New and Cape Fear rivers. Many of the pig-shit lagoons of eastern North Carolina were several feet underwater. Satellite photographs show a dark brown tide closing over the region's waterways, converging on the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound and feeding itself out to sea in a long, well-defined channel. Very little freshwater marine life remained behind. Tens of thousands of drowned pigs were strewn across the land. Beaches located miles from Smithfield lagoons were slathered in feces. A picture taken at the time shows a shark eating a dead pig three miles off the North Carolina coast.

From a waste-disposal perspective, Hurricane Floyd was the best thing that had ever happened to corporate hog farming in North Carolina. Smithfield currently has tens of thousands of gallons of open-air waste awaiting more Floyds.

In addition to such impressive disasters, corporate hog farming contributes to another form of environmental havoc: Pfiesteria piscicida, a microbe that, in its toxic form, has killed a billion fish and injured dozens of people. Nutrient-rich waste like pig shit creates the ideal environment for Pfiesteria to bloom: The microbe eats fish attracted to algae nourished by the waste. Pfiesteria is invisible and odorless -- you know it by the trail of dead. The microbe degrades a fish's skin, laying bare tissue and blood cells; it then eats its way into the fish's body. After the 1995 spill, millions of fish developed large bleeding sores on their sides and quickly died. Fishermen found that at least one of Pfiesteria's toxins could take flight: Breathing the air above the bloom caused severe respiratory difficulty, headaches, blurry vision and logical impairment. Some fishermen forgot how to get home; laboratory workers exposed to Pfiesteria lost the ability to solve simple math problems and dial phones; they forgot their own names. It could take weeks or months for the brain and lungs to recover.

Smithfield is no longer able to disfigure watersheds quite so obviously as in the past; it can no longer expand and flatten small pig farms quite so easily. Several state legislatures have passed laws prohibiting or limiting the ownership of small farms by pork processors. In some places, new slaughterhouses are required to meet expensive waste-disposal requirements; many are forbidden from using the waste-lagoon system. North Carolina, where pigs now outnumber people, has passed a moratorium on new hog operations and ordered Smithfield to fund research into alternative waste-disposal technologies. South Carolina, having taken a good look at its neighbor's coastal plain, has pronounced the company unwelcome in the state. The federal government and several states have challenged some of Smithfield's recent acquisition deals and, in a few instances, have forced the company to agree to modify its waste-lagoon systems.

These initiatives, of course, come comically late. Industrial hog operations control at least seventy-five percent of the market. Smithfield's market dominance is hardly at risk: Twenty-six percent of the pork processed in this country is Smithfield pork. The company's expansion does not seem to be slowing down: Over the past two years, Smithfield's annual sales grew by $1.5 billion. In September, the company announced that it is merging with Premium Standard Farms, the nation's second-largest hog farmer and sixth-largest pork processor. If the deal goes through, Smithfield will own more pigs than the next eight largest pork producers in the nation combined. The company's market leverage and political clout will allow it to produce ever greater quantities of hog waste.

Smithfield points to the improvements it has made to its waste-disposal systems in recent years. In 2003, Smithfield announced that it was investing $20 million in a program to turn its pig shit in Utah into alternative fuel. It now produces approximately 2,500 gallons a day of biomethanol and has begun building a facility in Texas to produce clean-burning biodiesel fuel.

"We're paying a lot of attention to energy right now," says Treacy, the Smithfield vice president. "We've come such a long way in the last five years." The company, he adds, has undergone a "complete cultural shift on environmental matters."

But cultural shifts, no matter how genuine, cannot counter the unalterable physical reality of Smithfield Foods itself. "All of a sudden we have this 800-pound gorilla in the pork industry," Successful Farming magazine warned -- six years ago. There simply is no regulatory solution to the millions of tons of searingly fetid, toxic effluvium that industrial hog farms discharge and aerosolize on a daily basis. Smithfield alone has sixteen operations in twelve states. Fixing the problem completely would bankrupt the company. According to Dr. Michael Mallin, a marine scientist at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who has researched the effects of corporate farming on water quality, the volumes of concentrated pig waste produced by industrial hog farms are plainly not containable in small areas. The land, he says, "just can't absorb everything that comes out of the barns." From the moment that Smithfield attained its current size, its waste-disposal problem became conventionally insoluble.

Joe Luter, like his pig shit, has an innate aversion to being contained in any way. Ever since American regulators and lawmakers started forcing Smithfield to spend more money on waste treatment and attempting to limit the company's expansion, Luter has been looking to do business elsewhere. In recent years, his gaze has fallen on the lucrative and unregulated markets of Poland.

In 1999, Luter bought a state-owned company called Animex, one of Poland's biggest hog processors. Then he began doing business through a Polish subsidiary called Prima Farms, acquiring huge moribund Communist-era hog farms and converting them into concentrated feeding operations. Pork prices in Poland were low, so Smithfield's sweeping expansion didn't make strict economic sense, except that it had the virtue of pushing small hog farmers toward bankruptcy. By 2003, Animex was operating six subsidiary companies and seven processing plants, selling nine brands of meat and taking in $338 million annually.

The usual violations occurred. Near one of Smithfield's largest plants, in Byszkowo, an enormous pool of frozen pig shit, pumped into a lagoon in winter, melted and ran into two nearby lakes. The lake water turned brown; residents in local villages got skin rashes and eye infections; the stench made it impossible to eat. A recent report to the Helsinki Commission found that Smithfield's pollution throughout Poland was damaging the country's ecosystems. Overapplication was endemic. Farmers without permits were piping liquid pig shit directly into watersheds that fed into the Baltic Sea.

When Joseph Luter entered Poland, he announced that he planned to turn the country into the "Iowa of Europe." Iowa has always been America's biggest hog producer and remains the nation's chief icon of hog farming. Having subdued Poland, Luter announced this summer that all of Eastern Europe -- "particularly Romania" -- should become the "Iowa of Europe." Seventy-five percent of Romania's hogs currently come from household farms. Over the next five years, Smithfield plans to spend $800 million in Romania to change that.

Posted Dec 14, 2006 8:53 AM

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Glenn Greenwald - Winning hearts and minds

Winning hearts and minds

As you may recall, one of the primary "justifications" for invading Iraq was that we were going to reduce anti-American resentment in the Middle East -- which fuels terrorist recruitment -- and therefore make the world safer for our country. They were going to so appreciate everything we did for Iraq and Afghanistan that they would realize how great we were, like us much more, and therefore not want to attack us anymore. How is that going?

Attitudes toward the U.S. from those in the Arab world have suffered greatly as a result of American foreign policy in the region, according to an Arab American Institute/Zogby International poll released today . . .

In 2002, the favorability rating of the U.S. among Moroccans was 38%. Now it's 7%.

In 2002, the favorability rating of the U.S. among Jordanians was 34%. Now it's 5%.

In 2002, the favorability rating for the U.S. among Saudis and Egyptians was already so low -- 12% and 15% -- that it basically could not go any lower. And it has not, but it certainly has not improved either after four years of our grand wars of "liberation."

In particular, support for our "Iraq policy" commands 2% of the Saudi population (96% disapprove), 6% of Moroccans (93% disapprove), and 7% of Jordanians (86% disapprove). Those approval numbers are slightly higher -- slightly -- in Lebanon (16-73%) and Egypt (25-50%).

It is worth recalling here that the idea of winning Muslim "hearts and minds" in the Middle East was not the solution invented at an International Solidarity Conference sponsored by Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan, Kofi Annan, and Fidel Castro. This was the paramount goal which warmonger neoconservative insisted justified our invasion of Iraq and which President Bush himself has repeatedly identified as the central objective in our Epic Worldwide War of Civilizations.

In his best neocon-ese, the President recently attributed the September 11th attacks to "conditions where anger and resentment grew, radicalism thrived, and terrorists found willing recruits. We saw the consequences on September the 11th, 2001, when terrorists brought death and destruction to our country, killing nearly 3,000 innocent Americans." And in the same speech, he warned:

The experience of September the 11th made it clear that we could no longer tolerate the status quo in the Middle East. We saw that when an entire region simmers in violence, that violence will eventually reach our shores and spread across the entire world. The only way to secure our Nation is to change the course of the Middle East -- by fighting the ideology of terror and spreading the hope of freedom.

Maybe the lesson to learn is that people do not like you better when you send your military into the middle of their region and invade, bomb, and occupy the country which is one of the most important to them religiously, geopolitically, culturally and historically. Doing that is more likely to increase your unpopularity rather than decrease it.

But I'm sure this problem will be solved once we start bombing Iran. Muslims will definitely appreciate our pro-democracy bombing campaign and their hearts and minds will finally be ours.

Frank Rich - Mary Cheney’s Bundle of Joy

Mary Cheney’s Bundle of Joy

IT’S not the least of John McCain’s political talents that he comes across as a paragon of straight talk even when he isn’t talking straight. So it was a surprise to see him reduced to near-stammering on ABC’s “This Week” two Sundays after the election. The subject that brought him low was the elephant in the elephants’ room, or perhaps we should say in their closet: homosexuality.

Senator McCain is no bigot, and his only goal was to change the subject as quickly as possible. He kept repeating two safe talking points for dear life: he opposes same-sex marriage (as does every major presidential aspirant in both parties) and he is opposed to discrimination. But because he had endorsed a broadly written Arizona ballot initiative that could have been used to discriminate against unmarried domestic partners, George Stephanopoulos wouldn’t let him off the hook.

“Are you against civil unions for gay couples?” he asked the senator, who replied, “No, I’m not.” When Mr. Stephanopoulos reiterated the question seconds later — “So you’re for civil unions?” — Mr. McCain answered, “No.” In other words, he was not against civil unions before he was against them. His gaffe was reminiscent of a similar appearance on Mr. Stephanopoulos’s show in 2004 by Bill Frist, a Harvard-trained doctor who refused to criticize a federal abstinence program that catered to the religious right by spreading the canard that sweat and tears could transmit AIDS.

Senator Frist is now a lame duck, and his brand of pandering, typified by his errant upbeat diagnosis of the brain-dead Terri Schiavo’s condition, is following him to political Valhalla. The 2006 midterms left Karl Rove’s supposedly foolproof playbook in tatters. It was hard for the Republicans to deal the gay card one more time after the Mark Foley and Ted Haggard scandals revealed that today’s conservative hierarchy is much like Roy Cohn’s milieu in “Angels in America,” minus the wit and pathos.

This time around, ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage drew markedly less support than in 2004; the draconian one endorsed by Mr. McCain in Arizona was voted down altogether. Two national politicians who had kowtowed egregiously to their party’s fringe, Rick Santorum and George Allen, were defeated, joining their ideological fellow travelers Tom DeLay and Ralph Reed in the political junkyard. To further confirm the inexorable march of social history, the only Christmas season miracle to lift the beleaguered Bush administration this year has been the announcement that Mary Cheney, the vice president’s gay daughter, is pregnant. Her growing family is the living rejoinder to those in her father’s party who would relegate gay American couples and their children to second-class legal or human status.

Yet not even these political realities have entirely broken the knee-jerk habit of some 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls to woo homophobes. Mitt Romney, the Republican Massachusetts governor, was caught in yet another embarrassing example of his party’s hypocrisy last week. In a newly unearthed letter courting the gay Log Cabin Republicans during his unsuccessful 1994 Senate race, he promised to “do better” than even Ted Kennedy in making “equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern.” Given that Mr. Romney has been making opposition to same-sex marriage his political calling card this year, his ideological bisexuality looks as foolish in its G-rated way as that of Mr. Haggard, the evangelical leader who was caught keeping time with a male prostitute.

There’s no evidence that Mr. Romney’s rightward move on gay civil rights and abortion (about which he acknowledges his flip-flop) has helped him politically. Or that Mr. McCain has benefited from a similar sea change that has taken him from accurately labeling Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance” in 2000 to appearing at Mr. Falwell’s Liberty University this year. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last week found that among Republican voters, Rudy Giuliani, an unabashed liberal on gay civil rights and abortion, leads Mr. McCain 34 percent to 26 percent. Mr. Romney brought up the rear, at 5 percent. That does, however, put him nominally ahead of another presidential wannabe, the religious-right favorite Sam Brownback, who has held up a federal judicial nomination in the Senate because the nominee had attended a lesbian neighbor’s commitment ceremony.

For those who are cheered by seeing the Rovian politics of wedge issues start to fade, the good news does not end with the growing evidence that gay-baiting may do candidates who traffic in it more harm than good. It’s not only centrist American voters of both parties who reject divisive demagoguery but also conservative evangelicals themselves. Some of them are at last standing up to the extremists in their own camp.

No one more dramatically so, perhaps, than Rick Warren, the Orange County, Calif., megachurch leader and best-selling author of “The Purpose Driven Life.” He has adopted AIDS in Africa as a signature crusade, and invited Barack Obama to join the usual suspects, including Senator Brownback, to address his World AIDS Day conference on the issue. This prompted predictable outrage from the right because of Mr. Obama’s liberal politics, especially on abortion. One radio host, Kevin McCullough, demonized the Democrat for pursuing “inhumane, sick and sinister evil” as a legislator. An open letter sponsored by 18 “pro-life” groups protested the invitation, also citing Mr. Obama’s “evil.” But Mr. Warren didn’t blink.

Among those defending the invitation was David Kuo, the former deputy director of the Bush White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In a book, “Tempting Faith,” as well as in interviews and on his blog, the heretical Mr. Kuo has become a tough conservative critic of the corruption of religion by politicians and religious-right leaders who are guilty of “taking Jesus and reducing him to some precinct captain, to some get-out-the-vote guy.” Of those “family” groups who criticized Mr. Obama’s appearance at the AIDS conference, Mr. Kuo wrote, “Are they so blind and possessed with such a narrow definition of life that they can think of life only in utero?” The answer, of course, is yes. The Christian Coalition parted ways with its new president-elect, a Florida megachurch pastor, Joel Hunter, after he announced that he would take on bigger issues like poverty and global warming.

But it is leaders like Mr. Hunter and Mr. Warren who are in ascendance. Even the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at Mr. Haggard’s former perch, the National Association of Evangelicals, has joined a number of his peers in taking up the cause of the environment, putting him at odds with the Bush administration. Such religious leaders may not have given up their opposition to abortion or gay marriage, but they have more pressing priorities. They seem to have figured out, as Mr. Kuo has said, that “politicians use Christian voters for their money and for their votes” and give them little in return except a reputation for bigotry and heartless opposition to the lifesaving potential of stem-cell research.

The axis of family jihadis — Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the American Family Association — is feeling the heat; its positions get more extreme by the day. A Concerned Women for America mouthpiece called Mary Cheney’s pregnancy “unconscionable,” condemning her for having “injured her child” and “acted in a way that denies everything that the Bush administration has worked for.” (That last statement, thankfully, is true.) This overkill reeks of desperation. So does these zealots’ recent assault on the supposedly feminizing “medical” properties of soy baby formula (which deserves the “blame for today’s rise in homosexuality,” according to the chairman of Megashift Ministries), and penguins.

Yes, penguins. These fine birds have now joined the Teletubbies and SpongeBob SquarePants in the pantheon of cuddly secret agents for “the gay agenda.” Schools are being forced to defend “And Tango Makes Three,” an acclaimed children’s picture book based on the true story of two Central Park Zoo male penguins who adopted a chick from a fertilized egg. The hit penguin movie “Happy Feet” has been outed for an “anti-religious bias” and its “endorsement of gay identity” by Michael Medved, the commentator who sets the tone for the religious right’s strictly enforced code of cultural political correctness.

Such censoriousness is increasingly the stuff of comedy. So are politicians of all stripes who advertise their faith. A liberal like Howard Dean is no more credible talking about the Bible (during the 2004 campaign he said his favorite book in the New Testament was Job) than twice-married candidates like Mr. McCain are persuasive at pledging allegiance to “the sanctity of marriage.”

For all the skeptical theories about the Obama boomlet — or real boom, we don’t know yet — no one doubts that his language about faith is his own, not a crib sheet provided by a conservative evangelical preacher or a liberal political consultant on “values.” That’s why a Democrat from Chicago whose voting record is to the left of Hillary Clinton’s received the same standing ovation from the thousands at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church that he did from his own party’s throngs in New Hampshire. After a quarter-century of watching politicians from both parties exploit religion for partisan and often mean-spirited political gain, voters on all sides of this country’s culture wars are finally in the market for something new.