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Posts For: October 3, 2007

Art or Family?

Last week the Romanian-born soprano Angela Gheorghiu was fired from her role in Puccini’s “La Bohème” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera because, according to the Opera’s general director, she missed several essential rehearsals by leaving Chicago “without permission, a direct violation of her contract.” Gheorghiu’s excuse? She needed to be with her husband, French tenor Roberto Alagna, who is in New York singing two roles at the Met. Gheorghiu claims, “I asked Lyric Opera to let me go to New York for two days to be with him, and they said, ‘No.’ But I needed to be by Roberto’s side at this very important moment.” Gheorghiu, 42, has received much bad press for diva-ish behavior (often in articles by righteous critics who routinely display just as much diva-ish behavior as she).

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Last week the Romanian-born soprano Angela Gheorghiu was fired from her role in Puccini’s “La Bohème” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera because, according to the Opera’s general director, she missed several essential rehearsals by leaving Chicago “without permission, a direct violation of her contract.” Gheorghiu’s excuse? She needed to be with her husband, French tenor Roberto Alagna, who is in New York singing two roles at the Met. Gheorghiu claims, “I asked Lyric Opera to let me go to New York for two days to be with him, and they said, ‘No.’ But I needed to be by Roberto’s side at this very important moment.” Gheorghiu, 42, has received much bad press for diva-ish behavior (often in articles by righteous critics who routinely display just as much diva-ish behavior as she).

Gheorghiu’s understudy, Elaine Alvarez, a promising Cuban-American soprano who nevertheless lacks her predecessor’s track record, will take over the performances. Last month, the celebrated Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel suddenly withdrew from a long-prepared Covent Garden performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle in London, citing a “particularly stressful family situation.” The situation is that his six-year-old son in Wales broke a finger, which required surgery. Terfel’s wife Lesley defended her husband in the press, stating: “People expect too much of Bryn sometimes. He’s more than a singer, he’s a husband and a father, but opera companies don’t want to hear that.” The Royal Opera’s talented music director, Antonio Pappano, is reportedly “shocked” and even “incensed” by Terfel’s reaction to what may be seen by some as a common childhood boo-boo.

Time was when performing artists of the caliber of Terfel and Gheorghiu were more or less expected to deny themselves a family life, dedicating everything to their art and audience. The paradigm is the late English ballerina Alicia Markova (1910–2004) who famously renounced any private life, focusing on performing and teaching. The noted British mezzo-soprano Janet Baker has asserted that she consciously chose never to have children, because singing was “more important to her.” Are singers finally beginning to realize that striving for a happy family life may be even more humanly important than disappointing fans and enraging opera bosses? If so, they would only be following the example set by a conductor 25 years ago, when the veteran maestro Carlo Maria Giulini gave up a thriving career as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in order to care for his ailing wife in Italy, without a hint of criticism. What is good for the Italian goose is good for the Romanian (or Welsh) gander.

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Richard Dawkins’s Selective Rationality

On Monday, this article in the Guardian, “Atheists arise: Dawkins spreads the A-word among America’s unbelievers,” about what is best described as an evangelical crusade by the celebrated Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, caught my eye.

I confess to being a bit puzzled by the current wave of attacks on religion. I am both a Ph.D. (with lots of science) and a regular church-goer, long under the impression that the alleged incompatibility of the two was a 19th century notion, associated with such organizations as The National Secular Society in England (to which Annie Besant devoted her estimable talents during the years before she helped found Theosophy), and perhaps best exemplified by vigorous period pieces, such as Andrew Dickson White’s massive two volumes, published in 1898, on The Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom. Over the last year or so, however, a powerful new wave of distinctly old-fashioned anti-religious campaigning has begun, with people like Christopher Hitchens and Professor Dawkins in the lead. I find myself asking why.

Many factors can be adduced: merits in the atheist argument; a desire to forestall criticism that secular and scientific politics as practiced in the last century proved disastrous; resentment of the way some politicians constantly invoke God. But maybe more sinister forces are at work.

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On Monday, this article in the Guardian, “Atheists arise: Dawkins spreads the A-word among America’s unbelievers,” about what is best described as an evangelical crusade by the celebrated Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, caught my eye.

I confess to being a bit puzzled by the current wave of attacks on religion. I am both a Ph.D. (with lots of science) and a regular church-goer, long under the impression that the alleged incompatibility of the two was a 19th century notion, associated with such organizations as The National Secular Society in England (to which Annie Besant devoted her estimable talents during the years before she helped found Theosophy), and perhaps best exemplified by vigorous period pieces, such as Andrew Dickson White’s massive two volumes, published in 1898, on The Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom. Over the last year or so, however, a powerful new wave of distinctly old-fashioned anti-religious campaigning has begun, with people like Christopher Hitchens and Professor Dawkins in the lead. I find myself asking why.

Many factors can be adduced: merits in the atheist argument; a desire to forestall criticism that secular and scientific politics as practiced in the last century proved disastrous; resentment of the way some politicians constantly invoke God. But maybe more sinister forces are at work.

Consider this statement by Professor Dawkins in an interview with the Guardian:

When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby has been, though in fact they are less numerous, I am told—religious Jews anyway—than atheists and (yet they) more or less monopolize American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence the world would be a better place.

What do we make of a professor of science who claims to be so rational as to have no tolerance for The God Delusion—the title of his latest book—but who nevertheless accepts uncritically that Jews “more or less monopolize American foreign policy”? Dawkins does not say “influence” or even “disproportionately influence,” both of which would be debatable but empirically defensible. He says “monopolize,” which is simply untrue.

This quotation suggests that, if not actually hostile to Jews, Dawkins focuses on them and their alleged monopoly of influence in a way that bodes nothing welcome. Will the new, passionate non-believers Dawkins seeks to awaken now join the long procession of mobs, demagogues, religious zealots, and conspiracy theorists who have likewise focused irrationally on Jews? I sense worrying disorder in the mind of this self-proclaimed rationalist.

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More on al-Dura

In a brief hearing today, Appellate Court judge Laurence Trébucq read out the court order enjoining France 2 to hand over, no later than October 31, the raw footage filmed by cameraman Talal Abu Rahma on September 30 and October 1, 2000. Bénédicte Amblard, representing France 2, confirmed her client’s intention to comply. This confirms the request announced at the September 19 hearing of Philippe Karsenty’s appeal of his October 2006 conviction for defamation against France 2 and Charles Enderlin in the “al-Dura affair.” In the absence of mention of a huis clos, it is assumed that the November 14 hearing will be open to the public. An overflow crowd is expected.

This court order, which would seem perfectly reasonable to someone acquainted with the United States legal system, apparently is unprecedented in France. In fact, if the October 2006 defamation suit had been brought in an American court, the defendant’s lawyer certainly would have asked to examine the outtakes. (“Discovery” as we know it does not exist in French law. The burden of proof in a defamation case rests on the defendant.) The court of first resort had ruled that Karsenty’s public accusation of France 2 and Jerusalem correspondent Charles Enderlin, on his watchdog site Media-Ratings, was not based on a serious investigation of the facts. Further, the court discredited Karsenty’s arguments, “drawn from a single source—Metula News Agency.” The irony of this judgment is that Charles Enderlin relied on a single source—Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu Rahma—for the report of Muhammad al-Dura’s “death,” and failed to investigate the report after he received the raw footage, which contradicts the sworn testimony of the cameraman.

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In a brief hearing today, Appellate Court judge Laurence Trébucq read out the court order enjoining France 2 to hand over, no later than October 31, the raw footage filmed by cameraman Talal Abu Rahma on September 30 and October 1, 2000. Bénédicte Amblard, representing France 2, confirmed her client’s intention to comply. This confirms the request announced at the September 19 hearing of Philippe Karsenty’s appeal of his October 2006 conviction for defamation against France 2 and Charles Enderlin in the “al-Dura affair.” In the absence of mention of a huis clos, it is assumed that the November 14 hearing will be open to the public. An overflow crowd is expected.

This court order, which would seem perfectly reasonable to someone acquainted with the United States legal system, apparently is unprecedented in France. In fact, if the October 2006 defamation suit had been brought in an American court, the defendant’s lawyer certainly would have asked to examine the outtakes. (“Discovery” as we know it does not exist in French law. The burden of proof in a defamation case rests on the defendant.) The court of first resort had ruled that Karsenty’s public accusation of France 2 and Jerusalem correspondent Charles Enderlin, on his watchdog site Media-Ratings, was not based on a serious investigation of the facts. Further, the court discredited Karsenty’s arguments, “drawn from a single source—Metula News Agency.” The irony of this judgment is that Charles Enderlin relied on a single source—Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu Rahma—for the report of Muhammad al-Dura’s “death,” and failed to investigate the report after he received the raw footage, which contradicts the sworn testimony of the cameraman.

As for the “single source,” all investigators and analysts working over the past seven years to unearth the truth about the al-Dura affair have drawn on documentation collected and developed by Israeli physicist Nahum Shahaf. The mass of documentation, analysis, and reasoned argumentation subsequently accumulated would fill several books in several languages. On the other hand, France 2 and Charles Enderlin are still presenting the same flimsy arguments used ever since the report was aired, immediately provoking serious inquiry from many quarters. It should be noted that CNN rejected the al-Dura report proposed by Abu Rahma on September 30.

Skeptical readers of this blog suggest that even if the truth about the al-Dura report fully and convincingly were to be exposed, that would not change the underlying story or the attitudes the report has fostered. Beyond the realistic assessment of the enormous difficulties facing those who would reveal a giant media lie, stands our hope that democratic societies can demand a minimum of integrity from the journalists who claim to inform us. Recent developments in the al-Dura affair should encourage us to persevere.

French mainstream media do not even want to admit they know about this turn of events in the al-Dura affair. But Charles Enderlin whistles in the dark on his France 2 blog. “Finally,” he exclaims, “the raw footage will be projected…” and, he hopes, his critics will be silenced.

We shall see…

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Men in Black

The assault on Blackwater in particular and on the private military industry in general continues unabated, largely because leftists are eager to “prove” that the Bush administration, in cahoots with out-of-control mercenaries, is raping Iraq. For examples, see these typically simplistic columns by Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman, which essentially parrot the one-sided brief against Blackwater prepared by Rep. Henry Waxman’s Democratic staffers.

The fact that Blackwater’s founder, Erik Prince, happens to be a conservative who has donated to Republican candidates and is part of a wealthy Republican family in Michigan makes his company a particularly attractive target. In reality, as viewers of Tuesday’s hearings before Waxman’s committee could see, Prince does not easily conform to the image of a greedy and corrupt capitalist. With his blond crewcut and ramrod posture, he is about as all-American as you can get, and, though he came from a background of privilege, he volunteered to serve as a Navy SEAL officer—one of the most dangerous and demanding assignments in the entire armed forces.

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The assault on Blackwater in particular and on the private military industry in general continues unabated, largely because leftists are eager to “prove” that the Bush administration, in cahoots with out-of-control mercenaries, is raping Iraq. For examples, see these typically simplistic columns by Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman, which essentially parrot the one-sided brief against Blackwater prepared by Rep. Henry Waxman’s Democratic staffers.

The fact that Blackwater’s founder, Erik Prince, happens to be a conservative who has donated to Republican candidates and is part of a wealthy Republican family in Michigan makes his company a particularly attractive target. In reality, as viewers of Tuesday’s hearings before Waxman’s committee could see, Prince does not easily conform to the image of a greedy and corrupt capitalist. With his blond crewcut and ramrod posture, he is about as all-American as you can get, and, though he came from a background of privilege, he volunteered to serve as a Navy SEAL officer—one of the most dangerous and demanding assignments in the entire armed forces.

Nor do most of Prince’s employees conform to the stereotype of drunken gunslingers shooting up a town for fun. Most are straight arrows like him with extensive experience in military Special Operations or big-city police SWAT teams. That is not to say that some of them don’t make mistakes or misbehave. But so do some soldiers. The attempts to demonize an entire industry based on the misbehavior of a few are akin to attempts by some to demonize the entire American armed forces based on what happened at Abu Ghraib.

In the Los Angeles Times this morning, I try to put the promise and problems of the private military industry into perspective. One of the points I make is that if we can impose more accountability and oversight on security contractors, we can make more extensive use of them in certain situations where we are not willing to commit our armed forces.

One example I mention is Darfur. Another example is provided in the newest issue (not yet online) of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s journal Orbis, which contains an essay called “Blackwaters for the Blue Waters: The Promise of Private Naval Companies.” The author, Claude Berube, a professor at the Naval Academy, suggests reviving the ancient practice (explicitly recognized in the Constitution) of issuing “letters of marquee” to “privateers,” who would supplement the efforts of our navy in combating drug smugglers, terrorists, and pirates on the high seas. This seems to me a compelling idea. Our navy now has fewer than 300 ships and every single additional ship will cost billions of dollars. Employing private companies at sea could be a cost-effective alternative.

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Chinese Chess

Are We Ready for China?” That is the title of Aaron Friedberg’s characteristically provocative essay in the October COMMENTARY. Friedberg, who teaches politics at Princeton and was from 2003 to 2005 a key foreign-policy adviser to Dick Cheney, is currently at work on a book—certain to be highly controversial and the subject of intense interest in both Washington and Beijing—about the U.S.-China rivalry. 

“Though our leaders are loath to admit it,” writes Friedberg,

the United States is almost two decades into what is likely to prove a protracted geopolitical rivalry with the People’s Republic of China. The PRC is fast acquiring military capabilities that will allow it to contest America’s long-standing preponderance in the Western Pacific. In Asia and beyond, Beijing is working assiduously to enhance its own influence while at the same time seeking quietly to weaken that of the United States. Meanwhile, China continues to run huge trade surpluses with the United States, accumulating vast dollar holdings and advancing rapidly up the technological ladder into ever more sophisticated industries.

As Friedberg notes, the implications of China’s rise for America’s position in the world are profound, and are extending from one realm into the next.

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Are We Ready for China?” That is the title of Aaron Friedberg’s characteristically provocative essay in the October COMMENTARY. Friedberg, who teaches politics at Princeton and was from 2003 to 2005 a key foreign-policy adviser to Dick Cheney, is currently at work on a book—certain to be highly controversial and the subject of intense interest in both Washington and Beijing—about the U.S.-China rivalry. 

“Though our leaders are loath to admit it,” writes Friedberg,

the United States is almost two decades into what is likely to prove a protracted geopolitical rivalry with the People’s Republic of China. The PRC is fast acquiring military capabilities that will allow it to contest America’s long-standing preponderance in the Western Pacific. In Asia and beyond, Beijing is working assiduously to enhance its own influence while at the same time seeking quietly to weaken that of the United States. Meanwhile, China continues to run huge trade surpluses with the United States, accumulating vast dollar holdings and advancing rapidly up the technological ladder into ever more sophisticated industries.

As Friedberg notes, the implications of China’s rise for America’s position in the world are profound, and are extending from one realm into the next.

In the past year, in one of many developments in the military arena where it is spending far more money than it publicly acknowledges, China tested an anti-satellite weapon, blowing up one of its own satellites in space, and revealing a growing potential to blind the United States in a future conflict.

In the commercial and technological arena, China continues to stride forward. Growth and trade figures speak for themselves. But there are numerous developments that are going relatively unnoticed. “Birth of a Giant” was the Aviation Week & Space Technology headline in September for an article taking note of China’s progress in constructing an indigenously produced regional passenger jet, the ARJ21.

This aircraft is not intended to become another export item or to will compete, at least initially, with Boeing and Airbus, whose A300 is its equivalent. Rather, says Aviation Week, the ARJ 21 “is important as the occasion in which Chinese industry is learning to develop a commercial aircraft to full Western standards and with its own intellectual-property rights, to coordinate with many subcontractors, to gain certification from the U.S. FAA, to establish an international marketing operation, and—crucially—to prove that it will support aircraft in service.”

There is yet another arena where China is forging ahead. It is far less significant to U.S. policymakers, but fascinating for what it reveals about the potential of a country with population in excess of a billion to take extraordinary strides in a realm in which it has been historically backward.

Up until its collapse, the USSR was virtually the sole superpower in chess, the ultimate game of strategy and war. But with the Soviet Union’s disintegration, many of the USSR’s best players now live in Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, China has been rising out of almost nowhere.

In late August, a Chinese team trounced Russia handily in an annual competition held this year in Nizniy Novgorod. It then defeated the British national team in Liverpool. As the American grandmaster Andy Soltis notes, the Chinese accomplished these feats “without having a single player among the world’s 20 highest-rated grandmasters.” They simply have an enormous base of young talent from which to draw. 

“If China stays on its current path,” concludes Aaron Friedberg in COMMENTARY, “if it continues to grow richer and stronger while remaining autocratic, it will likely become bolder, more assertive, and possibly more aggressive than it is today. . . . We are going to have to run faster just to stay in place. But we are unlikely to do so if we cannot even acknowledge to ourselves that we are in a race.”

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Suffering a Fool

Avi Lewis is a Canadian television host and the husband of Naomi Klein, author and columnist for the Nation and herald of the anti-American, proto-socialist, “anti-globalization” movement. (Klein is infamous for a 2004 column she wrote the week of the Republican National Convention in New York City entitled, “Bring Najaf to New York.”) Klein and Lewis make, as you might imagine, a politically pugnacious couple.

Recently, for his show “On the Map,” Lewis interviewed the prominent ex-Muslim critic of fundamentalist Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who, next to Burmese democracy activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, qualifies as perhaps the most remarkable woman of our age. By way of introduction, Lewis glossed over Hirsi Ali’s childhood as a Muslim in Somalia (from which she escaped to the Netherlands), informing viewers that she got her start in politics with the “right-wing Dutch Liberal Party” and now holds “a job at the arch-conservative American Enterprise Institute.”

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Avi Lewis is a Canadian television host and the husband of Naomi Klein, author and columnist for the Nation and herald of the anti-American, proto-socialist, “anti-globalization” movement. (Klein is infamous for a 2004 column she wrote the week of the Republican National Convention in New York City entitled, “Bring Najaf to New York.”) Klein and Lewis make, as you might imagine, a politically pugnacious couple.

Recently, for his show “On the Map,” Lewis interviewed the prominent ex-Muslim critic of fundamentalist Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who, next to Burmese democracy activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, qualifies as perhaps the most remarkable woman of our age. By way of introduction, Lewis glossed over Hirsi Ali’s childhood as a Muslim in Somalia (from which she escaped to the Netherlands), informing viewers that she got her start in politics with the “right-wing Dutch Liberal Party” and now holds “a job at the arch-conservative American Enterprise Institute.”

Lewis was, apparently, incredulous that anyone could be as stringently critical of Islam as Hirsi Ali, and appeared doubly perplexed that the person in front of him spouting what he considers “Islamophobia” is a black woman. He challenged Hirsi Ali’s unremarkable statement that Islam is the only religion that threatens liberal democracy today, pointing south to the United States as the prime example of a country where “evangelical Christianity has ascended to the highest ranks of power, where conservative social values drawn and justified by the Bible are imposed upon people every day.” Lewis didn’t not stop there. “North American Muslims really feel under siege these days,” he informs Hirsi Ali. (How Muslims feel under the rule of the Saudi monarchy or the Mullahs in Iran is something Lewis doesn’t bother to consider.) What causes peaceable, everyday North American Muslims to feel this way? Are they being rounded up and sent to prison in massive police sweeps? Are prominent American political figures calling for their deportation? Not exactly: Lewis’s claim that “North American Muslims really feel under siege these days” rests on his contention that “People don’t want to travel because flying is such a hassle.”

Towards the end of the interview, Hirsi Ali praised the prosperity of the United States and the opportunities it provides to immigrants such as herself. Lewis, really sinking his teeth into the role of a provincial twit, replies sarcastically: “Your faith in American democracy is just delightful,” and chides, “Is there a school where they teach you these American clichés? Is it part of your application process?” Hirsi Ali took this in stride. A lifetime spent dealing with intimidation and vitriol has given her the ability to suffer fools with considerable grace.

As one already too familiar with Naomi Klein’s work, I never thought I would call her her husband’s better half. Either way, they deserve each other.

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The Democrats’ Rush to Recovery

Under the leadership of Democrats, the Congress has achieved something unprecedented: approval ratings that fluctuate between 18 percent (on good days) to 11 percent (on bad days). In the face of this massive unpopularity, what do they do? Why, they engage in a full-scale effort to smear the most successful radio talk show host in history.

It is quite a spectacle to behold.

I have written elsewhere on why Rush Limbaugh’s “phony soldiers” comment is a phony controversy. Any fair-minded reading will lead one to conclude that Limbaugh’s reference to “phony soldiers” had to do with, literally, phony soldiers—that is, those who had falsified their service records.

But Democrats, having watched the MoveOn.org attack of General David Petraeus blow up in their faces, were desperate to turn the tables. What it has led to are scenes that are almost comical, with Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Tom Harkin taking to the floor of the Senate—the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body—to say things like this (from Harkin):

What’s most despicable is that Rush Limbaugh says these provocative things to make more money. So he castigates our soldiers. . . . More people tune in. He makes more money. Well. I don’t know. Maybe he was just high on his drugs again.

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Under the leadership of Democrats, the Congress has achieved something unprecedented: approval ratings that fluctuate between 18 percent (on good days) to 11 percent (on bad days). In the face of this massive unpopularity, what do they do? Why, they engage in a full-scale effort to smear the most successful radio talk show host in history.

It is quite a spectacle to behold.

I have written elsewhere on why Rush Limbaugh’s “phony soldiers” comment is a phony controversy. Any fair-minded reading will lead one to conclude that Limbaugh’s reference to “phony soldiers” had to do with, literally, phony soldiers—that is, those who had falsified their service records.

But Democrats, having watched the MoveOn.org attack of General David Petraeus blow up in their faces, were desperate to turn the tables. What it has led to are scenes that are almost comical, with Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Tom Harkin taking to the floor of the Senate—the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body—to say things like this (from Harkin):

What’s most despicable is that Rush Limbaugh says these provocative things to make more money. So he castigates our soldiers. . . . More people tune in. He makes more money. Well. I don’t know. Maybe he was just high on his drugs again.

The whole thing—from the faux outrage to the ad hominem attacks to the willful distortion of Limbaugh’s comments—radiates desperation. But there is a pernicious element as well.

Members of Congress, no matter how juvenile they behave, exercise real power. They have the capacity to shred reputations. And their antics can trivialize an admirable profession (politics) and deepen cynicism among the polity.

Democrats in Congress may have thought they could steamroll the man from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, but they are finding he fights back—and that he has a very large megaphone.

Rush Limbaugh is the target of their animus because he is an immense talent who has deep conservative beliefs. He single-handedly saved AM radio and has made the conservative movement stronger and more popular. It’s dawning on conservatives that this unfair attack on him is an attack on the movement, and that the effort to silence him is an effort to silence them.

Congressional Democrats, having remained (more or less) quiescent during the slander of the commanding general in Iraq, decide that the road to recovery is to smear a radio talk show host.

What a party.

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