Political Animal

OBSCURE NATIVE RITUALS….Chris Bertram points

OBSCURE NATIVE RITUALS….Chris Bertram points us to Kenan Malik’s blog, where he is upset over this news report from New Zealand:

Work on a section of the new highway between Mercer and Long Swamp, dubbed the “Waikato Expressway”, has been put on hold after local Maori said they believe there is a taniwha in the way. Local Maori claim the taniwha – or guardian spirit – is lurking somewhere in swampland near Meremere.

….Transit New Zealand will not be interviewed but says it issued the stopwork order out of respect for Maori culture. A meeting is scheduled between roading authorities and local Maori to decide what happens next.

Kenan is appalled by this:

To take seriously Maori beliefs about the taniwha, and to view respect for such beliefs as the basis of Maori rights, is to suggest that Maoris possess rights, not by virtue of being rational political actors, but as a consequence of holding irrational cultural beliefs. It is to resurrect a Romantic, ‘Noble Savage’ view of Maoris and to assess their rights on a different basis from which we assess other peoples’ rights.

But compare these “irrational cultural beliefs” to this quote from the Chicago Tribune about a pair of cemeteries that are on the grounds of O’Hare Airport. The churches were moved away years ago, so why are they still there?

Said John Carr, acting airport manager: “It is a very costly thing to move cemeteries.” The legal complications of moving bodies are formidable, Maynard Marks, secretary of the Cemetery Association of Greater Chicago, agreed.

“If the state has to move one body to route a highway, it will reroute the highway,” he said.

As Kieran Healy pointed out in a hilarious post a few days ago, it is all too easy to ignore the fact that our own rituals and beliefs are every bit as stylized and irrational as anyone’s, something that anthropologists frequently have good natured fun with. Would Kenan have felt the same way if a local Christian group had protested the highway because its route took it through a cemetery?

It’s often the case that the true root of these kinds of disputes is a belief by a non-majority group that they are not being taken seriously. This has certainly been the case in Hawaii, where scientists have built telescopes on Mauna Kea with wild abandon for the past decade and simply dismissed out of hand native concerns about desecration of temples. Eventually protesters got their attention, but the problem probably could have been avoided entirely by simply treating their requests with respect from the start.

My guess is that Transit New Zealand has learned this lesson. Certainly governments are not obliged to automatically defer to religious belief ? quite the contrary ? but by taking the Maori religion as seriously as we take Christianity, the situation will probably be defused fairly quickly and an adequate compromise reached. And it will be done not by treating the Maori as noble savages, but simply by treating them as equals.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST….Two excerpts from

COMPARE AND CONTRAST….Two excerpts from articles about George Bush today. First, from Ron Brownstein’s review of three books about Bush:

What none of these books adequately explain is why Bush has been so confrontational and ideological in shaping his domestic agenda. As governor of Texas, he was a consensus-builder who routinely reached out to Democrats: He made substantive compromises on all of his major priorities in the state

His pattern as president has been very different. He has consistently aimed his proposals (from tax cuts to energy) at the interests of the Republican base, and he has usually resisted compromise unless absolutely necessary. With a restored Republican majority in Congress, Bush is now advancing an agenda that envisions another round of massive tax cuts, large increases in defense spending and sustained federal deficits that choke off domestic spending.

Next, this excerpt from Richard Reeves’ column:

[Washington] is a scary place. Not many people here believe Bush when he says he sees war as a last resort. From here, Bush the impatient, Bush the hater, seems ready to go to war no matter what happens — as if sending tens of thousands of soldiers far from home out there in the desert is reason enough to attack.

….There are words he likes; “commander” is one. Even his weird talk, the jumbled stuff, is sometimes revealing. Exactly a month before taking office, after the chaos of vote-counting in Florida, the new president-elect talked of the job this way: “If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier. Just as long as I’m the dictator.”

That is from one scary Texan. There is some kind of anger in the man alone, hostility that sometimes seems barely under control — as if he were, in street language, being “disrespected.”

In the same way that conservatives had some kind of visceral loathing for Bill Clinton, I think this is the side of the Bush that sets liberal teeth on edge. It’s not so much that he’s dumb, it’s that he seems so petty, smallminded, and downright mean, someone who treats politics like a take-no-hostages siege where the goal is not the solution of problems but the utter humiliation of your opponents. I can understand someone liking his policies, but I find it hard to understand someone liking the man.

PAIN AND SUFFERING….Dwight Meredith has

PAIN AND SUFFERING….Dwight Meredith has a question about President Bush’s tort reform proposal:

President Bush went to the battle ground state of Pennsylvania yesterday to announce his proposed tort reform initiative for medical malpractice suits. The core of the proposal is a $250,000 cap on the recovery of non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases.

….Why was the cap set at $250,000?

Well, $250,000 sounds like a lot of money, doesn’t it? But let’s take a more realistic look at things, shall we?

Let’s see….how about, say, a 30-year-old who had the wrong leg amputated and ends up in a wheelchair suffering from phantom pain for the rest of her life? Life expectancy is about 50 more years and a prudent guess for long-term real rate of return if the money is invested is about 3%. So what does that get her?

According to this handy dandy annuity calculator, she gets less than $10,000 per year.

Since pain and suffering is a lifetime deal, it makes sense for payouts to be made annually for someone’s lifetime. After all, a 30-year-old is going to suffer longer than a 70-year-old. So why not talk about payout caps in those terms?

That’s easy: because it suddenly doesn’t sound so good. $250,000 sounds like a generous amount to most people. $10,000 per year sounds kind of stingy.

Presentation is everything, isn’t it?


IRAQI NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAM DISCOVERED….Via Michael J. Totten, a report in the Telegraph that says UN inspectors in Iraq have discovered proof of an ongoing nuclear weapons development program:

Acting on information provided by Western intelligence, the UN inspection teams discovered a number of documents proving that Saddam is continuing with his attempts to develop nuclear weapons, contrary to his public declarations that Iraq is no longer interested in producing weapons of mass destruction.

….A Western diplomat closely involved with the investigation into Saddam’s nuclear capability yesterday confirmed that the documents showed that Iraq was still attempting to develop its own atomic weapons.

“These are not old documents. They are new and they relate to on-going work taking place in Iraq to develop nuclear weapons,” the official told The Telegraph. “They had been hidden at the scientists’ homes on Saddam’s personal orders. Furthermore, no mention of this work is made in the Iraqi dossier that was submitted to the UN last December.”

This report is currently unconfirmed, but if it holds up it’s hard to imagine that anything more is needed to get widespread global support for military action. This is not a dozen short-range artillery shells, it’s a current, ongoing program to build nuclear weapons.

I have argued before that when it comes to military action the UN does not deserve the abuse it gets from conservatives. In fact, the UN’s judgment has been pretty reliable on this score over the past couple of decades, supporting the U.S. when it deserves support and condemning it when it deserves condemnation. And I predict that if these document show what the Telegraph says they show, the UN will once again demonstrate sound judgment and approve a resolution authorizing military force to depose Saddam Hussein.

UPDATE: According to AP, Iraq says the documents relate to an old laser isotope separation program from the 70s and 80s that proved too difficult and was abandoned in 1987. The AP reports quotes Hans Blix as saying that that the UN “was perfectly aware that the laser production took place before 1990, and it doesn’t add very much to that knowledge. What it teaches is that they are not declaring meticulously what they should have been declaring.”