Jan 31

He won election with a slim majority of Catholic voters because enough progressives believed his policies aligned with social justice mandates of the Gospel. He just lost them with a mandate of his own.

The case his Department of Justice took before the Supreme Court was an audacious opening salvo. Now, his administration has launched an all-out assault on the church and believers and sympathizers.

Of the barrage of columns and articles and blog posts and commentaries on this, there are a few that stand out starkly for saying Obama’s Left Catholics. They deserve attention.

Ross Douthat in the New York Times:

When government expands, it’s often at the expense of alternative expressions of community, alternative groups that seek to serve the common good. Unlike most communal organizations, the government has coercive power — the power to regulate, to mandate and to tax. These advantages make it all too easy for the state to gradually crowd out its rivals…

Sometimes this crowding out happens gradually, subtly, indirectly. Every tax dollar the government takes is a dollar that can’t go to charities and churches. Every program the government runs, from education to health care to the welfare office, can easily become a kind of taxpayer-backed monopoly.

But sometimes the state goes further. Not content with crowding out alternative forms of common effort, it presents its rivals an impossible choice: Play by our rules, even if it means violating the moral ideals that inspired your efforts in the first place, or get out of the community-building business entirely.

This is exactly the choice that the White House has decided to offer a host of religious institutions — hospitals, schools and charities — in the era of Obamacare. The new health care law requires that all employer-provided insurance plans cover contraception, sterilization and the morning-after (or week-after) pill known as ella, which can work as an abortifacient. A number of religious groups, led by the American Catholic bishops, had requested an exemption for plans purchased by their institutions. Instead, the White House has settled on an exemption that only covers religious institutions that primarily serve members of their own faith.

Which absolutely everyone except HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius knows is not an exemption at all, nor even a fig leaf. It’s a sham.

The regulations are a particularly cruel betrayal of Catholic Democrats, many of whom had defended the health care law as an admirable fulfillment of Catholicism’s emphasis on social justice. Now they find that their government’s communitarianism leaves no room for their church’s communitarianism, and threatens to regulate it out of existence.

Critics of the administration’s policy are framing this as a religious liberty issue, and rightly so. But what’s at stake here is bigger even than religious freedom. The Obama White House’s decision is a threat to any kind of voluntary community that doesn’t share the moral sensibilities of whichever party controls the health care bureaucracy.

The Catholic Church’s position on contraception is not widely appreciated, to put it mildly, and many liberals are inclined to see the White House’s decision as a blow for the progressive cause. They should think again. Once claimed, such powers tend to be used in ways that nobody quite anticipated, and the logic behind these regulations could be applied in equally punitive ways by administrations with very different values from this one.

This is exceptionally keen insight on this ominous affront to sensibilities. Not to mention constitutionally protected liberties.

Michael Gerson in the Washington Post.

Catholic leaders are still trying to process the implications of this ambush. The president had every opportunity to back down from confrontation. In the recent ­Hosanna-Tabor ruling, a unanimous Supreme Court reaffirmed a broad religious autonomy right rooted in the Constitution. Obama could have taken the decision as justification for retreat.

And it would have been a minor retreat. The administration was on the verge of mandating nearly universal contraceptive coverage through Obamacare without public notice. There would have been no controversy at all if President Obama had simply exempted religious institutions and ministries. But the administration insisted that the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s Hospital be forced to pay for the privilege of violating their convictions.

Obama chose to substantially burden a religious belief, by the most intrusive means, for a less-than-compelling state purpose — a marginal increase in access to contraceptives that are easily available elsewhere. The religious exemption granted by Obamacare is narrower than anywhere else in federal law — essentially covering the delivery of homilies and the distribution of sacraments. Serving the poor and healing the sick are regarded as secular pursuits — a determination that would have surprised Christianity’s founder.

That’s not at all a stretch. As many have pointed out, this so-called ‘exemption’ wouldn’t even apply to Jesus.

But Gerson gets even more scathing.

Both radicalism and maliciousness are at work in Obama’s decision — an edict delivered with a sneer. It is the most transparently anti-Catholic maneuver by the federal government since the Blaine Amendment was proposed in 1875…

The implications of Obama’s choice will take years to sort through. The immediate impact can be measured on three men:

Consider Catholicism’s most prominent academic leader, the Rev. John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame. Jenkins took a serious risk in sponsoring Obama’s 2009 honorary degree and commencement address — which promised a “sensible” approach to the conscience clause. Jenkins now complains, “This is not the kind of ‘sensible’ approach the president had in mind when he spoke here.” Obama has made Jenkins — and other progressive Catholic allies — look easily duped.

Consider Catholicism’s highest-ranking elected official, Vice President Biden. Biden had encouraged engagement with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on conscience rights. Now he will be remembered as the Catholic cover for the violation of Catholic conscience. Betrayal is always an inside job.

Consider Catholicism’s most prominent clerical leader, Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, head of the Conference of Catholic Bishops. Dolan had pursued a policy of engagement with the administration. In November, he met face to face with Obama, who was earnestly reassuring on conscience protections. On Jan. 20, during a less-cordial phone conversation, Obama informed Dolan that no substantial concession had been made. How can Dolan make the argument for engagement now?

The implications of Obama’s power grab go further than contraception and will provoke opposition beyond Catholicism. Christian colleges and universities of various denominations will resist providing insurance coverage for abortifacients. And the astounding ambition of this federal precedent will soon be apparent to every religious institution. Obama is claiming the executive authority to determine which missions of believers are religious and which are not — and then to aggressively regulate institutions the government declares to be secular. It is a view of religious liberty so narrow and privatized that it barely covers the space between a believer’s ears.

It is a deservedly blistering analysis, in the end.

The administration’s ultimate motivation is uncertain. Has it adopted a radical secularism out of conviction, or is it cynically appealing to radical secularists? In either case, the war on religion is now formally declared.

But it has produced a perhaps-not-foreseen upshot. Already.

Elizabeth Scalia explains.

With the administration’s decision, the covert culture of death has finally made a truly overt move against the culture of life. On one side, there is cheering. “Women’s groups” are happy. Anti-religionists, particularly those with an animus toward the Catholic church, are nearly delirious. On the other side, there is a grimness that is interesting in its unity, particularly as it is playing out in Catholic media. The furor of more conservative Catholics is unremarkable, but the reactions of the so-called “progressive” church may surprise some for the intensity of their disappointment. At the National Catholic Reporter Michael Sean Winters—furious on behalf of those Catholics who “took some punches” for the sake of President Obama—declares he cannot, in good conscience, cast another vote Obamaward. He now suggests that the bishops chain themselves to the White House fence in order to bring attention to the direct assault this administration is making against the church’s constitutional right to its own conscience—its right to be what it is.

Before anyone on the ‘right’ goes off blaming their left-leaning co-religionists who helped usher this administration into power, consider:

…the laity—divided for decades on issues ranging from felt-banners to dress to dogma—has found a line in the sand upon which they can come together; “conservative” Catholics are reassured to see their more “progressive” brethren defending the church’s right to be who and what she is; more “progressive” Catholics may be coming to realize that—as relentlessly single-minded as some of their opponents could be—had they not held the line all these years, much could be crumbling at this moment.

Now is the time for all good Catholics to come to the aid of providers—the schools, hospitals, charities, and soup kitchens who serve communities in need without asking affiliations. And, in coming together, perhaps now is the time to ponder their long-held presumptions, each about the other, and broaden our own outreach as well.

If nothing else, in declaring war against our consciences, the Obama administration has given American Catholics a great gift of clarification; a fractious family we may be, but—as the saying goes—we are church. And we have the right to be who we are.

By God.

Tagged with:
Jan 30

The Obama administration did what no one or nothing else has seemed able to do in recent history in one sweeping stroke…galvanize Catholics who were otherwise evenly divided for and against his policies.

This story is growing in both heat and light.

First, on January 19th, Pope Benedict warned the church in the US that ‘radical secularism’ was posing new threats to religious liberty in this country. 

At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing. In America, that consensus, as enshrined in your nation’s founding documents, was grounded in a worldview shaped not only by faith but a commitment to certain ethical principles deriving from nature and nature’s God. Today that consensus has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such…

The Church’s defense of a moral reasoning based on the natural law is grounded on her conviction that this law is not a threat to our freedom, but rather a “language” which enables us to understand ourselves and the truth of our being, and so to shape a more just and humane world…

The legitimate separation of Church and State cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the State may choose not to engage, or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.

 However, the State chose to do just that, and announced it the next day.

Never before has an American president so openly and wantonly disregarded the religious civil liberties of so many.

[On Friday, January 20th], the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would make final the rule mandating that insurance policies provide for contraceptive services, including sterilization, and drugs with an abortifacient mechanism of action.

With this rule, hundreds of religious colleges and hospitals, for example, will now be required –in fact, coerced — into providing insurance coverage for practices they believe to be morally wrong and violative of their religious beliefs. These institutions, which have educated citizens and cared for the infirm for hundreds of years, will now have to cave into the federal government or close their doors.

This much I’ve reported on before. But go a bit further, as I did on radio the other day with two experts fro ACLJ.

After the HHS handed down its interim rule in August, 2011, numerous organizations, including the ACLJ, submitted comments to HHS arguing that the proposed rule would violate federal law and subvert the First Amendment. As the ACLJ wrote in its September 29, 2011 letter to HHS on behalf of Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of St. Cecilia:

“In their 151-year history, the Nashville Dominicans have, with the help of God, survived a Civil War on their doorstep, deadly epidemics, devastating floods, economic depression and tumultuous social upheaval. Today, however, they face a new, more insidious threat — their own government . . . Should HHS persist in implementing the Interim Rule and its contraceptive mandate without major modifications, the Congregation will be forced to curtail its mission. What war and disease could not do to the Congregation, the government of the United States will do. It will shut them down.”

Yes, this is as big as it sounds. Hard to comprehend, really. The US bishops’ communications director posted this:

Health and Human Services’ recent attacks on freedom of religion show it is deaf to religious sensibilities. Even the Administration’s resounding defeat on January 11—when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected the Administration’s reading of the First Amendment as “extreme,” “untenable,” and having “no merit”—couldn’t unplug its ears.

The Court held in Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC that the government could not meddle in the internal affairs of religious organizations, in this case, a Lutheran church and school. Yet nine days later, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said it would force all but a few religious organizations to violate their own teachings in providing health care benefits to their own people…

The First Amendment unambiguously says that government “shall make no law” prohibiting the free exercise of religion. It doesn’t say that some laws trampling free exercise are fine. It says no law…

Must Catholic hospitals, to be true to their identity, now turn away people of other faiths from their emergency rooms and fire non-Catholic employees? Currently, Catholic hospitals serve one out of six people who seek hospital care in our country. Must Catholic Charities hire and serve only Catholics in its food pantries and other social service agencies? Until today, you didn’t need a baptismal certificate for soup.

This egregious violation of religious freedom marks the first time in our history that the federal government is forcing religious people and groups to ante up for services that violate their consciences. Some claim this is all about access to contraceptives—but everyone knows how and where to get them, and get them cheaply. And the mandate also forces coverage of sterilization and abortion-causing drugs. This is about forcing the church to pay for all these things through insurance coverage, to sponsor these “benefits” that it considers immoral. This is, in other words, about freedom of religion, which is a foundation stone of U.S. democracy.

To be clear…

The government allows other religions to live out their beliefs. The Amish have a conscientious objection to health insurance, and so the law exempts them from buying it. The government acknowledges their right to live out their religious convictions in U.S. society. Why are beliefs of Catholics and others dismissed?

To make clear something that didn’t get much press coverage…

Some months ago HHS refused to award an anti-trafficking grant to the U.S. Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services (MRS). It did so despite MRS’s scoring higher on an objective scale (according to the government’s independent advisors evaluating grant applications) than two of the three organizations that were awarded grants. (And two of those scored so low that they were deemed unqualified.) I suggested then that HHS had an ABC rule, “Anybody But Catholics.” Now I wonder if ABC isn’t also the answer to who gets freedom of religion.

That is abundantly clear, and it’s pulling Catholics together unlike anything else has, to assert fundamental rights common to all citizens, left or right, liberal or conservative, and especially the people they serve.

This federal mandate is “an unconscionable threat,” and Dr. Donald Condit frames it in clear and unambiguous terms.

In May 2009, President Obama delivered the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame where he proclaimed, to naïve applause: “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics … ”

What a difference a few semesters make…

Last week, the National Association of Evangelicals said it was “deeply disappointed” by the administration’s ruling. “Freedom of conscience is a sacred gift from God, not a grant from the state,” said Galen Carey, NAE Vice President for Government Relations. “No government has the right to compel its citizens to violate their conscience.  The HHS rules trample on our most cherished freedoms and set a dangerous precedent.”

On the Huffington Post, Romanian Orthodox priest Fr. Peter-Michael Preble, an early supporter of President Obama, said the HHS ruling was a “direct attack” on religious freedom in America and the beginning of more attacks on the faith of Americans. He’s also changed his mind about the president. “Well I now feel I was duped and his brand of change is not what America needs at all,” Preble wrote.

The Catholic Medical Association also responded: “This latest attack by the Obama administration on religious freedom and free speech rights should be of grave concern to all Americans because it is destructive of individual rights and of the common good. It should be challenged and resisted by all legitimate means.”

Here are some suggestions.

Tagged with:
Jan 25

This was an extraordinary provocation.

On the day after Pope Benedict warned the church in America about unprecedented political and cultural threats to religious freedom, the Obama adminstration issued a mandate that will force religious institutions to comply with health care rules profoundly against their fundamental moral beliefs.

The ACLJ was already preparing briefs for the Supreme Court hearing on the Obama healthcare legislation, based on the individual mandate that required citizens to purchase something, by federal law, for the first time. Now, that mandate requires them to purchase something that violates their moral conscience.

Never before has an American president so openly and wantonly disregarded the religious civil liberties of so many.

Last Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would make final the rule mandating that insurance policies provide for contraceptive services, including sterilization, and drugs with an abortifacient mechanism of action.

With this rule, hundreds of religious colleges and hospitals, for example, will now be required –in fact, coerced — into providing insurance coverage for practices they believe to be morally wrong and violative of their religious beliefs. These institutions, which have educated citizens and cared for the infirm for hundreds of years, will now have to cave into the federal government or close their doors.

US Bishops conference president Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, responded time and again, Wednesday in an op-ed piece that ran in the WSJ and many of the nation’s larger newspapers.

Religious freedom is the lifeblood of the American people, the cornerstone of American government. When the Founding Fathers determined that the innate rights of men and women should be enshrined in our Constitution, they so esteemed religious liberty that they made it the first freedom in the Bill of Rights.

In particular, the Founding Fathers fiercely defended the right of conscience. George Washington himself declared: “The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness; and it is my wish and desire, that the laws may always be extensively accommodated to them.” James Madison, a key defender of religious freedom and author of the First Amendment, said: “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.”

Scarcely two weeks ago, in its Hosanna-Tabor decision upholding the right of churches to make ministerial hiring decisions, the Supreme Court unanimously and enthusiastically reaffirmed these longstanding and foundational principles of religious freedom. The court made clear that they include the right of religious institutions to control their internal affairs.

Yet the Obama administration has veered in the opposite direction. It has refused to exempt religious institutions that serve the common good—including Catholic schools, charities and hospitals—from its sweeping new health-care mandate that requires employers to purchase contraception, including abortion-producing drugs, and sterilization coverage for their employees.

What readers from countries outside the US should understand for proper context, this is a radical departure from US law and custom.

Last August, when the administration first proposed this nationwide mandate for contraception and sterilization coverage, it also proposed a “religious employer” exemption. But this was so narrow that…even Jesus and His disciples would not qualify for the exemption in that case, because they were committed to serve those of other faiths.

Since then, hundreds of religious institutions, and hundreds of thousands of individual citizens, have raised their voices in principled opposition to this requirement that religious institutions and individuals violate their own basic moral teaching in their health plans. Certainly many of these good people and groups were Catholic, but many were Americans of other faiths, or no faith at all, who recognize that their beliefs could be next on the block. They also recognize that the cleverest way for the government to erode the broader principle of religious freedom is to target unpopular beliefs first.

Now we have learned that those loud and strong appeals were ignored. On Friday, the administration reaffirmed the mandate, and offered only a one-year delay in enforcement in some cases—as if we might suddenly be more willing to violate our consciences 12 months from now.

In one sweeping move, president Obama and his Catholic health secretary have succeeded in something no other groups or efforts or initatives or projects have been able to do: unite and galvanize Catholics on the right and left. It’s an amazing feat, really.

When Barack Obama secured his party’s nomination for president in 2008, one group of Democrats had special reason to cheer.

These were Democrats who were reliably liberal on policy but horrified by the party’s sometimes knee-jerk animosity to faith. The low point may have been the 1992 Democratic convention. There the liberal but pro-life governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey Sr., was humiliated when he was denied a speaking slot while a pro-choice Republican activist from his home state was allowed.

With Mr. Obama, all this looked to be in the past…And Mr. Obama would go on to capture a majority of the Catholic vote.

Now, suddenly, we have headlines about the president’s “war on the Catholic Church.” Mostly they stem from a Health and Human Services mandate that forces every employer to provide employees with health coverage that not only covers birth control and sterilization, but makes them free. Predictably, the move has drawn fire from the Catholic bishops.

Less predictable—and far more interesting—has been the heat from the Catholic left, including many who have in the past given the president vital cover. In a post for the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters minces few words. Under the headline “J’ACCUSE,” he rightly takes the president to the woodshed for the politics of the decision, for the substance, and for how “shamefully” it treats “those Catholics who went out on a limb” for him.

The message Mr. Obama is sending, says Mr. Winters, is “that there is no room in this great country of ours for the institutions our Church has built over the years to be Catholic in ways that are important to us.”

Mr. Winters is not alone. The liberal Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles, blogged that he “cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience”—and he urged people to fight it. Another liberal favorite, Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., has raised the specter of “civil disobedience” and vowed that he will drop coverage for diocesan workers rather than comply. They are joined in their expressions of discontent by the leaders of Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities, which alone employs 70,000 people.

In the run-up to the ruling, the president of Notre Dame, the Rev. John Jenkins, suggested a modest compromise by which the president could have avoided most of this strife. That would have been by allowing the traditional exemption for religious organizations. That’s the same understanding two of the president’s own appointees to the Supreme Court just reaffirmed in a 9-0 ruling that recognized a faith-based school’s First Amendment right to choose its own ministers without government interference, regardless of antidiscrimination law.

A few years ago Father Jenkins took enormous grief when he invited President Obama to speak at a Notre Dame commencement; now Father Jenkins finds himself publicly disapproving of an “unnecessary government intervention” that puts many organizations such as his in an “untenable position.”

Here’s just part of what he means by “untenable”: Were Notre Dame to drop coverage for its 5,229 employees, the HHS penalty alone would amount to $10 million each year.

The irony, of course, is that the ruling is being imposed by a Catholic Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, working in an administration with a Catholic vice president, Joe Biden. A few years back the voluble Mr. Biden famously threatened to “shove my rosary beads” down the throat of those who dared suggest that his party’s positions on social issues put it at odds with people of faith. Does he now mean to include Mr. Winters, Cardinal Mahony and Father Jenkins?

Catholic liberals appreciate that this HHS decision is more than a return to the hostility that sent so many Catholic Democrats fleeing to the Republican Party these past few decades. They understand that if left to stand, this ruling threatens the religious institutions closest to their hearts—those serving Americans in need, such as hospitals, soup kitchens and immigrant services.

Conservatives may enjoy the problems this creates for Mr. Obama this election year. Still, for those who care about issues such as life and marriage and religious liberty that so roil our body politic, we ought to wish Catholic progressives well in their intra-liberal fight. For we shall never arrive at the consensus we hope for if we allow our politics to be divided between a party of faith and a party of animosity to faith.

Stay tuned. This is ramping up by the day.

Tagged with:
Jan 24

It was a rare moment of honest admission.

Just a quick and simple throwaway line at the end of a discussion between Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and guests Larry Sabato and Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport about the Florida GOP primary on January 31st. A discussion about what happened in South Carolina and how fast the numbers changed in the week and few days and hours before the primary that no one could predict. After the Iowa primary in which no one foresaw Sen. Rick Santorum’s appeal and popularity.

In a tangle of confusing (or confused) punditry with commentators doing their best to call the GOP race as they see it, though they’re seeing it through the hopeful lenses of political ideology…

The show host asks for an informed assessment from experts on location in the next battleground state. And with time running out on the program, the Gallup organization’s spokesman says…

“None of us here have any idea what’s going to happen.”

Thank you for refreshing honesty, Dr. Newport. It was the other guest, Dr. Larry Sabato, who tweeted on election night in South Carolina

“It’s going to be a long campaign. Cancel all vacations.”

Tagged with:
Jan 23

I remember writing in 2008 that the race was consistent only in its unpredicability. That’s the only resemblance this presidential race holds to the last.

There is no comfort in any political camp right now. They each feel equally emboldened and vulnerable. Just as they did in the Democratic primary in 2008.

That’s not bad for the political process after South Carolina, third race in.

Three states. Three winners. A divided delegate count. If there is one clarity in the unpredictable, captivating turns of the Republican presidential race, it is this: Anything can happen and Florida, which is next to vote, is wide open.

“Whether it’s a ball game or a political race, momentum counts. And Gingrich has it,” said state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who is not affiliated with a candidate.

Gingrich’s resurrection comes as the GOP field has narrowed, allowing him to tap into conservative voters eager to settle on a candidate other than Mitt Romney, whom Gingrich has relentlessly pounded as a “moderate.”

This raises a big question for a lot of people: Why are conservative voters eager to settle on a candidate other than Mitt Romney? Do conservative voters coalesce around any candidate? My discernment is not yet. They’re splintered.

Then again, Gingrich could squander it all, as he has before in the lead position. With nine days before primary day on Jan. 31, his surge will be met with negative ads and increased news media scrutiny.

And Ron Paul is prepared for the long slog.

“THIS is the beginning of a long, hard slog,” said Ron Paul, at his optimistically titled “Victory Party”. “This is a hard fight because there’s so much worth fighting for,” said Mitt Romney, “and we’ve still got a long way to go.” Indeed we do…

What happened in South Carolina? Erick Erickson writes that today’s result was “about Republican grassroots giving the Washington Establishment the finger. The base is angry, and right now only Newt is left to fight for them.” Mr Gingrich can hardly be considered a Washington outsider, having served in Congress for some 20 years, but if there is one thing the former speaker is good at, it’s fighting. His debate performances this week displayed not a mastery of the issues, or any particularly novel policy proposals, but anger. His speeches have portrayed the campaign as an epic battle between an exceptional American, himself, and an un-American president.

And it has tapped into the anger of the people joining Tea Party movements and Occupy movements and given them voice. How that will play in Florida is the next great unknown.

‘The great unknown is well put.’ The Florida primary is on the 31st. Political maneuvering asaide, the people have a say and want to express their values and priorities.

An awful lot can happen between now and then. Stay tuned. It will probabaly change daily.

One thing I’m going to be watching for is the ‘electability issue’, with the observer status that the term has been applied equally to three different candidates in the Republican campaign, as if they’re each the only one electable against the sitting president.

Stay tuned. Each primary holds infinite possibilities and hope.

Tagged with:
Jan 22

The news reports have been fast and…confusing. Or careful, as they ought to be. The internet world is far more difficult to police than the geographical one, tough as that one is.

So as CNN asks, what is this all about?

Megaupload, the file-sharing website shut down Thursday by the U.S. federal government, is a Web hosting tool that now finds itself accused of being an online haven for digital pirates.

Many people probably never have heard of the site. But to millions, the 6-year-old site, based in Hong Kong, was a fast, easy way to store massive files in a “locker” online and then share them with friends or colleagues.

At various points in its history, Megaupload has been among the most popular websites in the world.

And it once had the support of some celebrities. A (really bizarre) YouTube video shows Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, P. Diddy and several other celebrities vouching for the site in an apparent music video-style advertisement.

But the site has long suffered accusations of allowing less-than-legal files to pass through its computer servers.

“Megaupload was always going to get taken down — far too flagrant publication of copyrighted material,” Jonathan Riggall, a website editor living in Barcelona, Spain, wrote on TorrentFreak, a blog devoted to file-sharing issues.

“I think sharing on the Web is great, and I don’t care if it’s copyrighted material — but Megaupload and some similar sites are making loads of money out of making it possible for people to view pirated stuff. Of course they will be targeted as they are blatantly breaking laws.”

The U.S. attorney for Megaupload.com denies the government’s allegations.

And their attorney team is getting to be impressive and high-profile.

Bob Bennett, the man who defended Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, was on Thursday retained to represent Megaupload.

Speaking to the Guardian, Bennett said: “All I am at liberty to say at this stage is that we will be vigorously defending the case.”

The attorney’s former clients also include collapsed energy giant Enron, and former defence secretaries Clark Clifford and Casper Weinberger.

If found guilty of charges including racketeering, the Megaupload executives arrested could face a sentence of up to 50 years in prison.

The prosecution of Megaupload represents one of the biggest copyright cases in US history.

[Founder Kim] Dotcom [whose original name is Kim Schmitz] is accused of heading up a criminal venture that illegally cheated copyright holders out of $500m in revenue over a five-year timeframe.

The 37-year-old and his associates are said by prosecutors to have profited to the tune of $175m as a result.

Here’s how, according to the claim.

The site offered what’s called “one-click hosting,” letting users upload anything on their hard drive or in cloud storage to the Web.

The service gives users a URL that can then be shared with others — often on discreet online message boards or social networks — letting them access the file as well.

MegaVideo was the site’s video service, letting even nonmembers view more than an hour of video at a time on the site, and MegaPix was a photo storage and sharing site in the mold of Flickr or Photobucket.

People who paid for a premium account on the site were able to upload and download larger files.

It was, by all accounts, a successful business model.

The U.S. government said that it seized $50 million in assets and that much of the $175 million the site has earned since 2005 was due to copyright infringement. As Ars Technica notes, even the site’s graphic designer reportedly earned $1 million last year, and between them, the seven indicted people (including the creatively named Kim Dotcom) owned 15 Mercedes-Benzes, a Maserati, a Rolls-Royce and a Lamborghini. The blog TechCrunch has posted photos of seized assets, including the cars and a large house in New Zealand, in case you’re interested.

Publicly, at least, the site frowned on illegal uploads. It featured a tool to report “abuse,” gave copyright holders the ability to hunt for illegal content and registered with the U.S. government under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a law aimed at fighting piracy.

The site’s owners have denied any wrongdoing in regard to copyright violation, and their attorney has said the site was wrongly shut down before its owners were allowed to address the charges against them.

But the Justice Department says the anti-theft efforts were a facade — that Megaupload’s employees knew they were enabling piracy and made the site difficult for outsiders to search for illegal material.

This is inflaming worldwide reaction. In the ‘observations and provocations from the L.A. Times’ Opinion Staff’

The indictment the Justice Department obtained this month against MegaUpload, a popular online locker and file-sharing service, includes allegations that company executives personally uploaded and downloaded copyrighted content — a familiar accusation in online piracy cases. But it adds a couple of intriguing twists that blur the distinction between actions that promote piracy and those that discourage it. And it echoes the argument by major labels and movie studios that content-sharing platforms have a duty to monitor their users for infringements, an assertion that U.S. courts have largely rejected.

The core allegations against Kim Dotcom and his colleagues at MegaUpload, if true, make the case that company officials knew about the infringing activity and, rather than honoring requests from copyright holders to stop it, encouraged it. In addition to accusing executives (the indictment refers to them collectively as the “Mega Conspiracy”) of personally infringing, the indictment contends that the company copied videos wholesale from YouTube without permission, made duplicate links to content that would stay live after copyright holders forced the original link to be removed, and paid repeat infringers instead of banning them…

So it may be that MegaUpload is, in fact, a big, lucrative conspiracy to profit off of Internet users’ love of free (and illegal) downloads. Still, I was struck by how far the indictment goes to find something nefarious…

So was I, but for two reasons not mentioned in any of these links. One, for the timing, when SOPA and PIPA were up for debate in Congress, with a worldwide backlash.

And two, for the startling last line of this news story, citing the Justice Department…

Other material found uploaded included child pornography and terrorism propaganda videos, according to the indictment.

If true, why would the Justice Department tip their hand in this early stage? And why would the story drop it in as the last line? It struck me as jarringly off base from the major violations cited of copyright infringement and internet piracy.

Stay tuned, this is a developing story.

Tagged with:
Jan 21

In the US, we’re consumed with presidential campaigns, debates and primary elections.

We’d better keep an eye on what’s happening abroad. Where to being on that….there’s so much.

Most urgently, look at what’s happening in Nigeria.

A militant Islamic group whose almost daily attacks have put Nigerians on edge left the country stunned Saturday after a well-coordinated strike with disturbing echoes of Al Qaeda’s brand of mayhem.

More than 150 people were killed in the Friday evening carnage in the northern city of Kano. The group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attacks, whose targets included the secret service headquarters, an immigration office and a passport office.

It was the group’s most deadly strike, far exceeding previous death tolls.

Boko Haram, which wants to impose sharia, or Islamic law, on Nigeria’s 160 million people, killed more than 500 people in almost daily attacks last year. Before Friday’s violence, it had killed more than 70 people this month.

U.S. officials have expressed fear that the group, whose name means “Western education is sacrilege,” may be getting support and training from Al Qaeda affiliates on the continent, given the increasing sophistication of its attacks and growing use of suicide bombers.

Nigeria is divided between the mainly Muslim north and the oil-rich, mainly Christian south…

In other news

Anti-Christian violence continues in Egypt, according to local sources, the episodes are linked to the attempt of fundamentalist Islamic fringe – Salafis – to block the vote of the religious minority in the next election. On 19 January, a mob attacked the Coptic Christian community of the village of Kebly-Rahmaniya, near the town of Nag Hammadi, Qena governorate, Upper Egypt. The assailants, chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) attacked and burned down houses, huts, shops and businesses…

Witnesses quoted by Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) report that Egyptian security forces did not intervene promptly to repel the onslaught and defend the Christians. Even the teams of firefighters delayed their intervention, arriving only 90 minutes after the assault, and when most of the buildings were already in flames. A source adds that a hut belonging to a Coptic Christian was burned to make room for the construction of a mosque. Moreover in the area there are now 300 Muslim places of worship, compared to only one Christian church even though Christians are 50% of the local population.

According to the Copts, the anti-Christian violence is related to the upcoming parliamentary elections: the Salafis, in fact, want to prevent the religious minority from voting which, with its 20 thousand members, can shift the balance of power in the area. The Copts are close to the Muslim moderate wing, which opposes the Islamist front.

And this is important to understand in fuller context.

A new political era in Egypt began Saturday as Islamist parties won nearly three-quarters of the seats in parliamentary elections to inherit a nation mired in economic crisis and desperate to move beyond military rule and the corrupt legacy of deposed President Hosni Mubarak.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s dominant political and religious force, won 47% of the 498 seats in the lower house of parliament, according to official final results. The ultraconservative Salafi Islamist party Al Nour won nearly 25%, followed by the secular parties New Wafd and the Egyptian Bloc, with about 9% each.

We need to see news not only as outbursts of events, much as they capture the world’s attention, but as signal events that alert watchful observers to changes of destiny in the course ahead.

The elections were a sobering lesson for young activists whose nascent parties were no match for the grass-roots networks and entwined religious and political message of the Islamists. The liberal activists helped ignite the revolution that brought down Mubarak but, winning only seven seats, they have been surpassed by more formidable political powers.

They didn’t foresee this in the euphoria of change.

The relatively moderate Brotherhood and the puritanical Salafis are likely to battle over how deeply Islam should shape the constitution and be ingrained in public life. Both parties have said social and economic challenges are the most pressing concerns, but the Salafis, who receive funding from Persian Gulf nations, are certain to push for an Egypt more rooted in sharia, or Islamic law.

The movements for change are sweeping the globe. Be careful what you wish for.

Tagged with:
Jan 18

It started out to be about copyright infringement. But it ended quickly, when the old guard caved to the pervasive pressure from the new.

I was lamenting Wikipedia going dark, but was especially concerned about what the challenges in SOPA and PIPA might mean. Before I had the chance to really read the links to news stories I’d saved on them from the day before, it was all over.

When the powerful world of old media mobilized to win passage of an online antipiracy bill, it marshaled the reliable giants of K Street — the United States Chamber of Commerce, the Recording Industry Association of America and, of course, the motion picture lobby, with its new chairman, former Senator Christopher J. Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat and an insider’s insider.

Yet on Wednesday this formidable old guard was forced to make way for the new as Web powerhouses backed by Internet activists rallied opposition to the legislation through Internet blackouts and cascading criticism, sending an unmistakable message to lawmakers grappling with new media issues: Don’t mess with the Internet.

As a result, the legislative battle over two once-obscure bills to combat the piracy of American movies, music, books and writing on the World Wide Web may prove to be a turning point for the way business is done in Washington. It represented a moment when the new economy rose up against the old.

This is amazing.

Legislation that just weeks ago had overwhelming bipartisan support and had provoked little scrutiny generated a grass-roots coalition on the left and the right. Wikipedia made its English-language content unavailable, replaced with a warning: “Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet.” Visitors to Reddit found the site offline in protest. Google’s home page was scarred by a black swatch that covered the search engine’s label.

Phone calls and e-mail messages poured in to Congressional offices against the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect I.P. Act in the Senate. One by one, prominent backers of the bills dropped off.

But how to interpret that depended on who was interpreting it.

“A lot of people are pitching this as Hollywood versus Google. It’s so much more than that,” said Maura Corbett, spokeswoman for NetCoalition, which represents Google, Amazon.com, Yahoo, eBay and other Web companies. “I would love to say we’re so fabulous, we’re just that good, but we’re not. The Internet responded the way only the Internet could.”

For the more traditional media industry, the moment was menacing. Supporters of the legislation accused the Web companies of willfully lying about the legislation’s flaws, stirring fear to protect ill-gotten profits from illegal Web sites.

Mr. Dodd said Internet companies might well change Washington, but not necessarily for the better with their ability to spread their message globally, without regulation or fact-checking.

“It’s a new day,” he added. “Brace yourselves.”

Citing two longtime liberal champions of the First Amendment, Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, Mr. Dodd fumed, “No one can seriously believe Pat Leahy and John Conyers can be backing legislation to block free speech or break the Internet.”

But the takeaway lesson here is in this Reuters piece.

Wow.

The messaging industry never had control of the message.

The tech guys found a simple, shareable idea — the Stop Online Piracy Act is Censorship — made it viral, and made it stick.

That’s it. That’s the key now to the power of ideas and influence.

Hollywood had Chris Dodd and a press release. Silicon Valley had Facebook.

It shouldacoulda been a fair fight. But it wasn’t.

It seems that Hollywood still does not realize that it is in the information age. Knowledge moves in real time, and events move accordingly. The medium is the message in a fight like this.

Five days ago, almost nobody knew or cared about SOPA. But with lightning speed, the leviathans of the Internet, including Google and Facebook and Wikipedia, managed to brand this battle as Bad and mobilize millions of followers.

This is a big news story, a head-turner, though it shouldn’t have been.

By Wednesday morning as Wikipedia went dark, the SOPA is Censorship message was on the cover and home page of every news outlet around the country. By midday, four senators and one member of Congress had backed off the legislation.

What was Hollywood doing?…

Why didn’t Hollywood grab the tools of the Internet to explain that when artists get ripped off, everybody loses?

Why didn’t anyone call Will Ferrell and Adam McKay to post a hilarious, viral video that would make the point?

And where was the Creative Coalition when you needed it?…

Hollywood showed today that it is completely clueless in leveraging the tools of the 21st Century.

It’s a turning point in history. Wiki it tomorrow.

Tagged with:
Jan 17

…be prepared to work harder for it. Some of the top search sites are going dark for the day.

Surely you know about this. If you don’t, chances are it won’t affect you much. But I do searches every day for research, so this will be an interesting exercise. We’ve heard of the ‘democracy of the Internet’, certainly of ‘Wikipedia.’ Here it is in action.

With a Web-wide protest on Wednesday that includes a 24-hour shutdown of the English-language Wikipedia, the legislative battle over two Internet piracy bills has reached an extraordinary moment — a political coming of age for a relatively young and disorganized industry that has largely steered clear of lobbying and other political games in Washington.

The bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate, are backed by major media companies and are mostly intended to curtail the illegal downloading and streaming of TV shows and movies online. But the tech industry fears that, among other things, they will give media companies too much power to shut down sites that they say are abusing copyrights.

The legislation has jolted technology leaders, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, who are not accustomed to having their free-wheeling online world come under attack.

One response is Wednesday’s protest, which will direct anyone visiting Google and many other Web sites to pages detailing the tech industry’s opposition to the bills. Wikipedia, run by a nonprofit organization, is going further than most sites by actually taking material offline — no doubt causing panic among countless students who have a paper due.

And discomfort for journalists and radio show hosts gathering research, especially as deadline approaches.

Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, said that the technology industry, which has birthed large businesses like Google, Facebook and eBay, is much more powerful than it used to be.

“This is the first real test of the political strength of the Web, and regardless of how things go, they are no longer a pushover,” said Professor Wu, who is the author of “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.” He added, “The Web taking a stand against one of the most powerful lobbyers and seeming to get somewhere is definitely a first.”

And hopefully last. At least I subscribe to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Economist, several online newsletters…and get press releases by the hour.

That should be good for a day.

Tagged with:
Jan 17

For many years and political cycles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and works have been selectively remembered according to which passages and sound clips work for the advantage of a political agenda.

It’s been more heat than light in public debates over civil and human rights, and we can’t rely on activists or media to generate the light, so it’s up to us. So say the co-authors of the Public Discourse article about MLK’s Philosophical and Theological Legacy, in a radio interview I did with them on Martin Luther King Day. They focus on King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to show the civil rights leader’s grounding in natural law as a deciding influence.

For a key reason:

King faced vexing moral and philosophical questions from the outset: how did he know whether a law was just or unjust, and when, if ever, was it morally permissible to disobey? In his now-celebrated “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” King’s answer was that “a just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” “To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas,” King explained, “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”

Those who praise the modern civil rights movement, but who also want to keep morality and theology absent from public discourse, seldom mention King’s reliance on natural law in his justly famous letter.

Some who are quick to revile slavery and racism as the nation’s greatest sins are blind to its  moral parity in the movement to defend abortion on demand as “reproductive rights”, though the analogy is jarringly clear. In both causes an entire class of human beings are deemed unworthy of rights, even to the recognition as persons with inherent dignity. So Dr. King is claimed by abortion activists, as absurd as that is.

His niece, Dr. Alveda King, speaks to this all the time.

Don’t accept what the media say about what Dr. King said. Read it yourself, engage the eloquent philosophical and theological reasoning of a well-educated and committed Christian. On his national day of honor, The King Center archive site was officially launched, making his writings more available than ever.

And don’t miss the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

As Justin and Kevin summarized:

King is of course the kind of historical figure that practically everyone wants to claim as his own. Reality, however, is often complex, and the truth about King is that his primary motivations, his most fundamental commitments—the very core of his thought—were rooted in a worldview repugnant to many of those who now claim his legacy.

The ironty and disonesty of that is important to understand, because it’s based on religiously informed convictions that pre-date the state, convictions the state is increasingly driving out of the public debate and battle over civil rights.

Tagged with:
preload preload preload