Sept. 25: Witchcraft

Today's news for the Last Frontier

September 26, 2008 

Two media storms broke overnight that Alaskans need to watch. One is Sen. Ted Stevens' corruption trial, with opening arguments today. The other is a video that shows VP candidate Sarah Palin being blessed against witchcraft in a Wasilla church and reactions to that in light of her quest for national office.

Both stories will have links below to follow, but Alaska has other news as well, including more than $30 million in oil company bids to search in the National Petroleum Preserve, a survey on what it means to be gay in Alaska, new sealife species discovered in Aleutian waters and violations by nine cruise ships of their wastewater discharge permits this summer.

So there's a lot of news today. Let's begin.

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How Sen. Ted Stevens could beat the charges against him. CNN.com talks to legal experts on strategies that could work. Michael Levy, a former federal prosecutor, says the burden facing the Justice Department is how it will "prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew the actual value of these renovations when he had asked, received and paid bills for them?" The defense can portray him as too busy or absent-minded for that level of detail.

The experts debate whether Stevens is hurt or helped by testifying, which he says he is willing to do if his lawyer wants it. And then, there's the issue of former Veco head Bill Allen's credibility.

"Bill Allen is going to be central to this case. He's the primary accuser against Sen. Stevens," former federal prosecutor Michael Levy said. "The government is gonna say that he's finally come forward and is telling the truth about the relationship between Veco and Sen. Stevens. The defense is gonna sit there and say this is a man who's got more than a decade of jail time hanging over his head, and the only way he can save his own skin is to sing whatever song the prosecutors want him to sing and that's all he's doing."

Who is Ted Stevens? Time magazine has an easy-to-skim review of the senator's long career, with interesting nuggets:

>Was a committed supporter of Title IX in the mid-1990s, which requires equal spending on men's and women's sports at the collegiate level.

>But said in 1999 that women don't support defense spending as much as men because women prefer to spend money on "touchy-feely things."

And finally, how is Stevens' trial like an Irish wake? Everyone in the room is a Sullivan, quips Washington Post columnists. Besides the judge and a lawyer on each side, the court reporter is a Sullivan. Keep the players straight with the Associated Press round up of key players. An Alaskan had one better: The trial should have been moved home and held in the ... Sullivan Arena.

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Witchcraft video kicks up discussion of Palin's religion. If you haven't seen the video, the Alaska Politics blog posted it last night and includes a link to Alaska blogger Mudflats guide through sometimes hard-to-hear references in the video.

Today, Bruce Wilson at Huffington Post explains why Palin should talk about her religion and what it means to her now that she wants to be vice president. First, he quibbles with atheist Sam Harris, writing in Newsweek, over his questioning of the overt behaviors in Pentecostal faiths. Wilson isn't concerned there but with underlying fundamentals.

So, religious behaviors, in the case of the Christianity of Sarah Palin's churches, matter insofar as they are yolked to religious doctrines that affect the temporal, earthly realm. Triumphal and exceptionalist religions teaching their believers to "infiltrate" and gain control of governmental, business, educational and media sectors are toxic to the pluralist ethic that has characterized America's over two-centuries-long pioneering experiment with democracy.

That's why Sarah Palin's churches matter: not because people at Palin's churches speak in tongues or for any specific gestural or behavioral expression. These things are deeply felt and not properly mocked or stigmatized. Rather, Palin's churches matter because pastors in those churches espouse an aggressive form of Christian nationalism and also the doctrine that all forms of religious and philosophical beliefs other than their own are invalid and even under demonic influence.

Although the video is from 2005, the Associated Press reports that Palin spoke fondly of this minister on a visit to the church in June 2008.

"Pastor Muthee was here, and he was praying over me, and you know how he speaks, and he's so bold," Palin said. "And he was praying, 'Lord make a way, Lord make a way.' ... He said, 'Lord, make a way and let her do this next step.' And that's exactly what happened."

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Sexism surfaces in Palin's visit with heads of state. This is painful. The New York Times reports on a scene captured by TV cameras as Palin met Asif Ali Zardari, the new president of Pakistan.

"I am honored to meet you," Ms. Palin said.

"You are even more gorgeous than you are on the (inaudible)," Mr. Zardari said.

"You are so nice," Ms. Palin replied. "Thank you."

"Now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you," Mr. Zardari continued.

When an aide suggested they shake hands for the camera, Zardari said, "If he's insisting, I might hug."

Palin's ear gear during her New York visit drew a scathing remark from a British writer at The Guardian. She had dangling Alaskas, the shape of the state, from each ear.

Forget about the rimless glasses; Palin tells us a lot about herself through her choice of jewelry. Her ear-wear displays a carefully crafted lack of sophistication.

During a campaign rally in her home state, she decided upon beaded earrings that looked as if they had been picked up at a local craft fair. Accessorized with a glittery brooch that spelled out the word Alaska, the look couldn't have been more small-town America, more I'm one of you, I'm ordinary, I fight for my people.

So what is Palin saying with her homage to Alaska? With terrifying literal-mindedness, these earrings express everything we need to know about her pride in her roots and her people. At least no one will be in any doubt about where she's from.

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Katie Couric's interview with Palin makes political analysts nervous. Jeff Greenwald writing on Salon.com posts the Couric interview above his words and then proceeds to express concern for her media strategy of avoidance and for the revealing snippets voters get in brief interviews. He says the Couric interviews made him feel sorry for Palin, who he thinks is "probably pretty smart."

But Sarah Palin's performance in the tiny vignettes of unscripted dialogue in which we've been allowed to see her has been nothing short of frightening ... One of two things is absolutely clear at this point: she is either (a) completely ignorant about the most basic political issues -- a vacant, ill-informed, incurious know-nothing, or (b) aggressively concealing her actual beliefs about these matters because she's petrified of deviating from the simple-minded campaign talking points she's been fed and/or because her actual beliefs are so politically unpalatable, even when taking into account the right-wing extremism that is permitted, even rewarded, in our mainstream.

What seems most likely is that she's perfectly conversant in the exceedingly narrow and parochial range of issues she's concerned herself with as Wasilla mayor and Alaska governor -- oil drilling on the North Slope, specific local budget items, corruption issues inside the Alaska state GOP and evangelical and religious matters. She really doesn't seem to have any thoughts about anything outside of that -- or if she does, she is suppressing them -- and is thus capable of spouting little more than empty right-wing slogans.

In other Palin news:

> Who is running Alaska with Palin on stump? (Associated Press)

Even Palin's lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell, said keeping in touch has been difficult. And since hackers broke into Palin's Yahoo e-mail account last week, he said, it has dropped off entirely.

"Until she was hacked, we were communicating just about daily. Now I'm talking with her chief of staff," Parnell said. "I saw her in person when she came home about a week ago, but I haven't spoken to her since."

> Palin delays personal financial reports (Associated Press)

The Republican vice presidential candidate received a four-day extension from the Federal Election Commission.

The federal financial disclosure report was initially due Monday. Now Palin has until Oct. 3.

> Palin dines with media mogul Rupert Murdoch (Politico.com)

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What's in a non-endorsement? Well, depends on whom you ask. The endorser in this scenario is Sarah Palin, and the wannabes are Sen. Ted Stevens, Rep. Don Young, and candidate Ethan Berkowitz.

First Young. A story in Roll Call (subscription required) headlines with "Young sees no boost from Palin" and reports that despite his primary win over a Palin-endorsed Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, Young's numbers have continued to decline. His campaign manager is seeking a meeting with Palin and has also asked for Parnell's endorsement.

In August, Palin had this to say about Young:

"I don't think Don Young wants my endorsement," Palin said at the time. "I believe that ... as he expressed his dislike for our administration, I can't imagine he would seek the endorsement, so no need to offer it up without it being accepted."

For his part, Young won't even say her name.

"I won't talk about the current governor," Young said. "I've been under a lot of governors, and I just won't talk about this one."

Sounds like one cold war that may never thaw.

For his part, the Berkowitz campaign finds Palin's silence golden.

"Everyone up there is waiting to see what she's going to say, because it would be an incredible reversal for her to come up and say she's going to endorse Don Young or Ted Stevens," spokesman David Shurtleff said. "Her popularity is so high because she ran on a platform to get rid of people like that."

Now, on to Ted Stevens. At least one journalist has been trying to call the question for several weeks. Jake Tapper, ABC News senior correspondent, posed the question by e-mail to the McCain/Palin campaign two weeks ago and is keeping readers abreast of their lack of response. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner takes note of her silence as well.

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Five companies bid $30 million to find oil and gas in NPRA. Reuters reports that the vast but lightly explored area attracted Conoco Phillips, Anadarko, Petro-Canda and Talisman Energy, all already holding leases in the area. The newcomer is Dallas-based Petro-Hunt.

The big-money bids unsealed Wednesday were for a region north of the Colville River and near the Brooks Range foothills, an area considered more likely a source of natural gas than oil.

Tom Lonnie, Alaska state director of the BLM, said he was pleased with the results of the lease sale, which offered about 4.8 million acres of land that had been previously available.

"I think it was quite successful," he told reporters after the bids were unsealed.

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"Lake Lucille is basically a dead lake." David Talbot of Salon.com talks to town residents about the health of its two lakes and former Mayor Sarah Palin's lack of effort to save them.

"Sarah's legacy as mayor was big-box stores and runaway growth," said Patty Stoll, a retired Wasilla schoolteacher who once worked in the same school with Palin's parents, Chuck and Sally Heath. "The truth is, Wasilla is just plain ugly, it's not a pleasant place to live. It's not thought out. And that's a shame.

"Sarah fouled her own nest, and I can't understand why. I hate to think it was simply greed or ambition."

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Why Sarah Palin's Alaska deserves more respect. Slate.com features part-time Alaskan Jim Albrecht's essay about what growing up in Alaska was like in light of the unflattering portrait many national visiting writers have painted.

I never thought it possible for Alaska to be the anvil of such partisan animosity, for Alaska, the land of libertarian neighborliness, to be sent to the front in the culture wars. I suppose the circumstances of one's childhood always tend to melt away slowly into new construction and nostalgia and loss, so I don't claim to be unique. But the harshness of the light on Sarah Palin calls up those distant memories, and their dissipation seems now abrupt as if the old neighborhood was subject to aerial bombardment and civil war.

In the old days, people used to leave their cabins unlocked in the winter (with notes saying, "Take what you need, leave what you can") because it was considered reckless to lock a shelter against those who might come across it in desperate straits. Growing up, we had no Internet to bring us together, but we had a shared geography that did so in a much more powerful way. Wilderness has a bully pulpit all its own, and, back when we could still hear it over the cell phones and the four-stroke snowmachines, it preached a repetitive sermon. 1) We don't all have to agree about everything, 2) but we do all have to survive the winter. If the Alaska of my childhood could be put on the stump, I believe that would be the content of its speech.

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The ACLU asks, "What's it like to be gay in Alaska?" The GLBT news and events Web site, Bent Alaska.com offers links to the ACLU results to date, and a link to take the survey.

Responses to the survey have been collected via e-mail, online, and in person and include participants from Anchorage, Juneau, and Fairbanks. So far, 26 percent of respondents report having experienced discrimination or harassment in the workplace and an additional 18 percent have faced these obstacles outside work. When the lack of legal recognition of their partnerships and families is counted as a form of discrimination, the proportion of LGBT people who have suffered the consequences of discrimination is even higher.

"The survey shows that LGBT people want the same thing as most other Americans. They want to be able to provide for themselves and their families without worrying about being refused or fired from a job because of who they share their lives with," said Tiffany McClain, the ACLU of Alaska's LGBT public policy coordinator. "But in the state of Alaska they have no legal recourse if they suspect unfair treatment from an employer, landlord, or creditor."

Bent Alaska also links to an essay in The Advocate on what being gay in Wasilla is like. The essay remarks a dueling attitudes in the state.

"Alaskans live by a mindset of ‘live and let live'," says former Wasilla resident Aaron Stielstra.

Will Hanna, 30, who moved to Alaska from what natives call "The Lower 48," agrees.

"It kind of feels like its own country sometimes," he says, referring to the strong culture of hunting and individual rights that often finds expression in gun ownership. "It wouldn't be unusual to see someone walking around Wasilla with a .45 strapped to them."

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Other headlines of interest to Alaskans:

> Survey reveals 20 new species in Aleutian waters (Juneau Empire)

> Nome to get 18 wind turbines (North American Windpower)

> Renewable energy grants application deadline looms (North American Windpower)

> Sports Hall of Fame opens in Anchorage (Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)

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