Saturday, December 09, 2006

Longer Musical Interlude and Promo

I have to admit that when I first heard Tool I thought I was listening to just another angst-ridden, post-Seatle flash-in-the-pan. Even though I thought their videos were extraordinarily creepy and sometimes difficult to watch, like looking at something through lenses that distort all proportion and leave one unable to see clearly, I was still unconvinced.

The summer of 2001 I went on a discovery for new music. I had found, or refound, several bands that I enjoyed, but was still restless. In the fall, Tool released Lateralus, and with more than a bit of trepidation, after talking with several people who knew the band well, I went out and bought it. I had an afternoon alone in the house, so I got my first lesson at high volume. Needless to say, I was hooked. Here was a band that made up for a lack of technical skill - no shredding - with serious song writing ability. What really blew me away was the intelligence of the lyrics. This wasn't the mindless rage of punk, or the shallow nihilism of black metal, but songs that were relentless, forcing a person to think. If you wanted to. The music, without lyrics, stands on its own as some of the most powerful I have ever heard.

In a post on my previous blog here I wrote that I hope some day James Maynard Keenan is made poet laureate of the United States. I was not then and am not now in repeating it being facetious. Just listen to the lyrics of "The Grudge" or "Lateralus", or the song I just can't get out of my head, "Vicarious". Consider this - how many song writers in rock are intelligent enough to know the word exists, and use it as a song title, in a furious cultural commentary? I was discussing the band and its music with some older folks this previous March, and someone asked, in reference to the song "The Grudge", how many sixteen-year old moshers and fist-pumpers at a Tool show would get the reference to Saturn in the song (the Titan, not the planet). My answer was, probably not many. That is hardly the point, to me. The real point is that it is a joy there is music that complex out there that it can operate at so many levels simultaneously. I can sit an think about the words I am listening to; I can go the United Center and scream my head off while my head is blown apart by the sheer sonic power of the band's musical ferocity. There is nothing incogruous to it. It is a real joy.

Even if it is a dark joy.

Again, not for everyone, especially if you don't like songs with "fuck" in them, or songs about fisting, or about transvestites. Or songs that can only be understood completely when listened to at high volume. That is my suggestion. Crank it to twelve.

Thinking in Place and Time

While I would normally take Democracy Lover's adivce and not address his comments in a separate post, his comments brought up something that I feel important to address at some length.

Some time in the past month, I wrote of the impact Isaiah Berlin's essay collection, The Crooked timber of Humanity has played in the development of my intellectual life, but I was prepared for what Berlin said by reading others before him. If Berlin's ideas were the seeds, the ones who tilled the soil and planted the seed were James Cone and Franz Fanon. From them I learned how to think from a different place, from a different reality set or gestalt (when I later read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I was immediately struck by the similarity, in a different context, of approach). It was Cone I read first, and his A Black Theology of Liberation showed me the possibilties inherent in a whole different way of udnerstsanding. It was from his book God of the Oppressed that I learned there is no "Truth" (another idea I simply confirmed when reading Richard Rorty), just different ways of coming to terms with the worl in which we live. There is no such thing as "History", just the varied and variegated histories we all accept as part and parcel of how we have come to be.

Two years after reading Cone, I came to Fanon's classic The Wretched of the Earth (if you don't have time to read all of it, try Hannah Arendt's deeply flawed but still important review essay "On Violence", which is available as part of her collection Crises of the Republic and as a stand-alone, thin, single volume essay; by trying to place Fanon's work within a larger context of theorists of violence such as Georges Sorel and Bakunin, Arendt misses the point entirely). While I have certain concerns (especially with Jean-Paul Sartre's Stalinesque "Introduction"; Sartre's ideological love affiar with totalitarianism is as unattractive as his wall-eyed stare from most photographs), Fanon's relentless ferocity, his passionate insistence that France pay attention to Algeria for its own sake, and that the Algerian situation was a subset of a much larger phenomenon of the assertion of power by the previously powerless can be exhausting and exhilirating simultaneously. One of the points to which Fanon returns again and again is that much of the rhetoric of violence used by the Algerian resistance is only giving voice to the non-spoken but very real policies of the French occupiers. In other words, they make explicit what is implicit, and inherently implicit, in colonialism, but they turn it around and use it as a weapon to fight those who are oppressing them.

Cone said something similar in his discussion of the rhetoric of violence coming from the Black Power movement in the United States. After 300 years of forced immigration, slavery, and the denial of the rights of citizenship and even personhood to blacks in America, for white people to turn on blacks and insist they embrace non-violence is not only hypocritical, it shows the fundamental fear the white majority has of the minorities in their midst, and the subconscious recognition of their own complicity on a national scale in the continued oppression of Americans of African descent.

This whole notion of seeing the world through other eyes was nascent, then. I didn't flesh it out thoroughly, or think through the consequences, until I read Berlin. Berlin put flesh on the bones of Fanon and Cone. Ideas are no univocal (they do not mean the same things to all people in all times and all places), but are part and parcel of the whole existence of those who use them. Even those who use them may have slightly different shades of meaning, emphasizing one thing here, another there. The point is, we cannot take such things as "freedom", "justice", "love", "equality" or whatever it may be, and find meaning for all time through some kind of Socratic discussion. It just won't work, because ideas are not things, but the products of people living out their lives, puzzling out their lives, and trying to make sense of them. We have to eradicate the whole notion that "freedom" exists independent of people who are free, or who are struggling to be free as they define it. We have to eradicate the idea that "love" exists apart from actual loving relationships. Since Plato, and especially since Hegel, we have this absurd notion that ideas exist independently of the minds that think them.

To say, then, that it makes no difference if one is a faithful Christian or a concerned secularist misses the point that we are speaking of individual lives, lived in a context and history of their own interaction with others, their upbringing, their education, etc. We have to surrender the notion that there is one right way to be human, and instead celebrate all the different ways there are actually human beings, even in all the contradictions and inevitable conflicts that result from these differences.

I tend to think of this way of thinking as an intellectual equivalent of a basic idea of physics, that no two particles can exist within the same space and time. Two human beings, no matter how close in whatever ways one may measure such things, do not exist within the same frame of reference and all that makes them who they are as unique individuals separates them in space and time, creating differences. Sometimes these differences are small. Sometimes they are enormous, even insurmountable. That does not make the differences bad. They just are.

Ideas, then, are not interchangeable, even closely related ideas. A faithful Hindu exists within a totally different frame of reference from a faithful Christian. there is nothing bad about being a faithful Hindu; I can certianly imagine myself as one. That option is not possible, however, not because of an intellectual decision on my part, but because there are a whole host of things - family history, education, life experiences - that would prevent me from making that choice for myself. I do not think it a evil choice; it just is not one I can make.

On the other hand, at one time I considered myself an agnostic with vague ethical notions. I realized, however, that there was an intellectual - and even more important a moral - dishonesty to my position because I was, without really being aware of what I was doing, hauling all sorts of baggage from my religious upbringing into my now-secular way of living, including a decisively, ahem, evangelical, proselytizing way of being. That is to say, I was quite insistent that the only way was my way, etc. When I returned to the church and began my intellectual and spiritual explorations there, I left all that behind. As a committed Christian, I no longer believe there is such a thing as "Truth"; as a committed Christian I no longer believe there is only one acceptable way of living a fully human life, although I would stake my life on the Christian way of living a fully human life. I am comfortable with contingency and error and the possibility that, as Lincoln said, "Two people may disagree on something, and they may both be right."

In Memoriam

Jean Kirkpatrick is dead. Appointed to be United Nations amabssador by Roanld Reagan, her appointment was heralded by the Washington media as evidence of Reagan's bipartisanship because, up until the 1980 election cycle, Kirkpatrick had been part of the Democratic Party intelligentsia. She earned the plaudits of conservatives everywhere for a speech, later essay, on the difference between totalitarian and authoritarian states that could be and was used to justify American support for all sorts of horrid political creatures, including Ferdinand Marcos, the Duvaliers in Haiti, the Somoza crime family in Nicaragua, and the Shah of Iran.

Even as an ignorant and naive but earnest follower of national affairs in the early 1980's, I never quite understood the whole "bipartisan" idea. I also thought Kirkpatrick's diplomatic hair-splitting was a rationalization for the abuses of American power rather than a real distinction. After all, those oppressed by authoritarians are no less oppressed than those oppressed by totalitarians, and the latter are so few and far between - and one could hardly imagine a successful totalitarian, despite Orwell - as to be speaking about something unreal.

When I was an undergraduate, I came across a study Kirkpatrick conducted on the differences between the delegates to the 1968 Chicago National Democratic Convention and the 1972 Miami convention. More than any of the details of the study (and it was this study that Kirkpatrick often cited as the beginning of her disaffection with the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy) what I remembered most was the abject horror on the part of Kirkpatrick and her co-authors that non-white, non-urban ethnics, women, and others would insist on a seat at the political table. The convention, the first under the rules arrived at by the intra-Party McGovern commission after the 1968 disaster, was a harbinger of the future in much the same way 1964 was a harbinger for the Republicans of 1980. McGovern was right at the wrong time, because he was insistent on shifting the balance of power in the party to representatives of the actual constituency of the Party, rather than to urban machine bosses and state party chairs. With the suburban boom and the dispersion of centers of gravity within the Democratic Party among a variety of constituencies (the so-called "special interests" that were only human beings doing what human beings do), McGovern wanted a Party that actually reflected the way the country had changed. When Kirkpatrick, like her fearless leader, claimed the Democratic Party had changed while she had stayed the same, I realized she was correct. I also believe that it had changed for the better, and that such change was and is necessary. Again, McGovern was a horrid candidate, and the wrong person at the wrong time for the Democratic Party. At the same time, he was right in the long run, and Kirkpatrick, and the co-authors of her study, were not so much wrong (it was only a glance at the actual make-up of the delegations) as they were horrified at the possibilities of these great masses of lesser breeds without the law actually controlling the Democratic party.

Kirkpatrick's legacy is almost non-existent, except for a horrendous justification for American foreign policy horrors. I think the fact that the her distinction itself has not survived, any more than have the actual dictators themselves, is wonderful testimony to her intellectual acumen. May she rest in peace.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Imperial Pageantry and democratic Revolutions

As a kind of follow-up to yesterday's post on whether or not elections matter, I want to take a moment to talk about the "culture" of official Washington, which includes all sorts of journalistic types who should, out of deference to their professional credentials, be a bit more skeptical about those with whom they share space in teh former swamp on the Potomac. As guides, I have consulted Glenn Greenwald, Digby, and Paul Kagan (h/t Digby & Greenpagan). One of Greenwald's themes has been the absolute intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the pundit and journalists who have been cheerleaders for our current morass, and the stubborn refusal on their part to acknowledge error or the rightness of those whom they have previously despised and ridiculed. In this particular post, he discusses the irrelevance of the Baker-Hamilton ISG report, as it is clear the President will ignore it anyway. Paul Kagan, in his column, gives a short list of just a few of those who have been consistently correct. Digby discusses, through a long citation from a 1998 article by Washington Post columnist (and wife of former editor Ben Bradlee) Sally Quinn, the utter vacuousness and pettiness of Washington officialdom (typified by the now-famous quote of David Broder that Clinton "trashed" Washington).

All of this is by way of background. Also by way of background is a book by John Ralston Saul, Voltaire's Bastards, in which the author discusses Washington officialdom in terms of the coutriers of the ancien regime. Governed by strict rules of etiquette and an understanding of hierarchy and the roles and functions they were assigned, the courtiers played a game in which the goal was to approach power as close as possible. Not to influence it, not to share it - just to bask in its proximity. Imperial Washington - one could hardly call it anything else, at least since the end of the Second World War - is no less prone to this kind of nonsense than was Imperial Paris and Versailles.

Part of the nonsense chronicled by the above authors is the desire for civility and correctness on the part of officialdom. Since the beginning of the Cold War, when Truman appealed to former isolationist Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan to support arms and money for the Greek and Turkish government against communist insurgents, both parties have played this game. Debate in an Empire impedes progress of Imperial designs. Disagreement and discussion are signs of weakness - weakness of will, weakness of purpose - and Democrats no less than Republicans have been prone to this undemocratic impulse. What else explains Robert McNamara and his pernicious influence at the Department of Defense but a desire, not for governance, but technical, managerial competence? These are all well and good in their proper place; government is not a business, and anyone who argues that it should be run like one knows nothing about governance.

This desire for techonocratic competence, for a passionless, "rational" approach to public policy has sapped our democratic impulse. In the face of one democratic uprising, during the Vietnam War, the Establishment fought back, shunting aside the Democratic Party for a Republican Party increasingly conservative and belligerent, aiming to uphold American imperial power. Now, with Iraq, the imperial infrastructure and its adherents are shown to be hollow, their power chimerical (remember Rove's "math"?), and their shrill insistence on a bi-partisan solution (the ISG report) irrelevant to a President so out of touch with our current situation and impervious to shame that he can crack a sophomoric joke at a news conference over a situation that cost 33 lives of American service personnel in one week. These 33 men and women were in a position to die because of his orders, his policy, and his continued unwillingness to change, and he belittles their sacrifice with a joke and a chuckle.

This past election was not a triumph, or not just a triumph, for the Democratic Party (and when will the media start talking about the Democratic Revolution?) but for small "d" democracy. We the people have found our voice, and are speaking loud and long and consistently, being the spine and even marrow if necessary to our new elected leaders. The increasing irrelevance of the governing class, including the Washington Press Corps is a good sign that our democracy is not dead, and may have some life left yet. Democracy is more than elections, our republic is more than a flag. We are finding our voice, changing the way political affairs are practiced and discussed, and unafraid of challenging the status quo that for too long has limited debate in the name of civility and bipartisanship, and shut out the people in order that unelected official could make policy unimpeded by the great mass. There is potential - potential, mind you, not yet realized - for this election, and its underpinnings, and the object lesson of the ISG and its reception both in officialdom and by the White House for there to be nothing less than a fundamental change in the way America is governed. I sm talking now, of course, about a revolution, a real revolution, one without guns and death, but a revolution nonetheless. Let us work for the day we no longer have to read David Broder to understand Washington, or listen to Cokie Roberts flap her lips anywhere. Let us continue to work to throw the courtiers out on their colective asses, and forge ahead with our own views, our own wisdom, and our own arguments, as uncivil and as partisan as they can get.

What Does it Mean to REALLY be a Christian?

Last night I attended a Bible Study at our church, and part of the discussion focussed on the issue of "call". That term has a very specific meaning, coming from the Bible - it refers to God calling individuals to perform certain tasks and functions. As someone who has wrestled much of his adult life with this question - What is God calling me to do? - I can say that it has intense personal emotional, psychological, and spiritual tension in it. The struggle itself can take an enormous toll on a person. Something I have believed since I was a young man, too young to really know what I actually believed about anything, and something that has only been reinforced by learning and experience, is my firm belief that God calls all of us. Even if we aren't Christian. If God calls a person to live the life of a casual agnostic - so be it. If God calls a person to be a devout Hindu - so be it.

In the midst of the discussion, I spoke up and referred to my own experience, which has included wrestling with whether or not to enter the ordained ministry (thankfully for whatever church I may have been appointed to, I realized that was not my calling). I said that, while questioning, and refusing to acknowledge, and running away, and standing in awe, and questioning some more are all valid responses, there comes a point where we need to stop the chatter - in our heads and in prayer - and get on with the business to which God has called us. I specifically referred to the story of Moses encounter with the LORD in the burning bush. In that story, after trying to turn the LORD's call away, and after claiming all sorts of faults that would interfere with fulfilling his call, Moses challenges the LORD for a sign. essentially, he is asking God for credentials, for proof to give to the Hebrews living in Egypt that the god Moses will claim to represent to them is in fact the LORD of their ancestors. The answer the LORD gives is this: Here's your sign, Moses. Bring the people back to this mountain, and I'll tell you what to do next. In other words, stop dithering and looking for excuses and ways to weasel out of this. I have a job for you. Get to work.

That particular passage has always had special meaning for me, because, first, the only guarantee is Divine Presence. While, implicitly from this story perhaps there is also the guarantee of success, in truth that particular bit is more a narrative and theological device than any kind of retroactive promise that we shall succeed at what we are sent forth to do. Unless I missed something somewhere, history isn't over yet, and even temporary success can lead to long-term waffling or even failure. The point of the story, for me, has always been this - being called by God is not about sitting around trying to figure out all the details beforehand, making sure all ducks are lined up, all "i"'s dotted and "t"'s crossed, contracts and pre-nupts signed and vetted to ensure smooth sailing. No, like the apostles sent out by jesus during his lifetime, we go out with nothing on our backs, no promises of success, no money in our wallets, no cars, no cell phones, no blackberries, nothing but trust that God will be with us. Not that God will guarantee our success, not that God will give us a Lexus, not that God will have people falling all over each other to hear each and every syllable and sigh that falls from our lips. There isn't even a guarantee we won't be hindered by sickness and even death. All we have is this assignment, as it were, from God. We are to go out and do it as hard as we can, to the best of our ability. Period, end of story.

That is the Christian life to me. No guarantees. No divine insurance policy. No deus ex machina to pull our chestnuts from whatever fire we may find ourselves in. We are to go out and work and do and, most of all, live. Before and after and in-between all that we can say or think about it, God calls all of us to live our lives to the best of our ability. We are to live humbly, as the prophet Micah says. We are to live lovingly. We are never to presume to have all the answers, because it isn't about being right and having answers. Life is about living, really. To be a Christian is to live in the knowledge that life in all its ins and outs, ups and downs, good times and horrific times, is something precious to God. The act of living is something that God finds very good. To me, that is the Christian life.

The Ignorant Things Right-Wingers Say

I was all set to like Cal Thomas, you know, give him the benefit of the doubt. A couple weeks ago he wrote a very thoughtful column about how the religious right needs to assess its place in American politics, and its approach to issues, and its methods, and its assumptions concerning the redemptive possibilities of legislation. I was looking forward to reading more thoughtful commentary on this issue, but then, last week he made some really heinous remarks over the whole kerfuffle in Minnesota over some Muslims who were praying, and now, he writes what is perhaps one of the most historically ignorant partial paragraphs I have have ever read. I will not comment because there isn't enough space in Blogger's memory banks to hold what I wish to say. Just read it, and weep, as I did (the whole column, if you are brave enough, is here):
It is not the United States that has caused regional instability in the Middle East. as suggested by the ISG. If that were the case, who was to blame for instability before the Iraq war or the previous one; indeed who was to blame for instability before Israel became an independent state in 1948. The region has always been turbulent. Turbulence is their problem, not ours.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Do Elections Matter, Part II (UPDATED)

Due to various time constraints and responsibilities, I have time for only this one post today. I shall try to make it a good one.

Both Arthur Silber and Glenn Greenwald have thoughtful posts, not so much on the Baker-Hamilton ISG report, but on the assumptions and underlying ideology behind the report, and of course its members who are a who's-who of status quo types who, as Glenn points out with his wonderful ferocity, did not deign to consult a single opponent of the war, but managed to ask questions of Christopher Hitchens (one hopes he was less besotted than usual). Both Greenwald and Silber are highly dubious of the report and its authors, as am I. Both Greenwald and Silber insist that the report is less a revelation from the Wise Ones of Washington (as it has been endlessly hyped by the media) but cover from the same narrow set of assumptions that has brought us this disaster in the first place (I was surprised to hear, on NPR this morning, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Troglostan) say that diplomacy with Iraq, Syria, and North Korea should be done as we "talked" with the Soviet Union; of course, the neo-cons were never persuaded that was a good idea, either). As far as the ISG is concerned, I agree with Arthur's quoting from Andrew Bacevich that it is, not only in its make-up, but in its operative assumptions and manner of dispensing its "wisdom", fundamentally anti-democratic. Rather than have a serious debate on the issue, or hearings before a Congress with subpoena power, the first impulse is to create a commission to do the hard job of figuring out policy.

Of course, since the ISG was formed, much has changed. Bush's approval ratings have tanked, staying below forty percent pretty consistently since late-spring/early-summer. Despite a relentless propaganda effort by conservatives and Republicans, and the mainstream media's insistence that Bush is a strong leader to be taken seriously, most Americans view him as a cypher. Finally, the election in November pretty much proved that, even in a Congress gerrymandered to ensure a perpetual Republican Congress, they Republicans couldn't hold on to power. It is this last item that is most important. I believe, contrary to something Arthur writes towards the end of his piece, that elections matter. Here, as counter-point, is Arthur:
[F]ive years from now . . . there will still be approximately 50,000 [American] troops in Iraq. . . . The foreign policy consensus to which our governing elites subscribe knows no party line.

There is a certain truth, at least to the second sentence quoted above, that elite consensus is and has been since the end of the Second World War, by and large, a bi-partisan affair, with disagreement occuring only over particulars. The neo-conservatives are an exception, but their views are, in a way, only an extreme end of what is a conservative "realist" spectrum of opinion (a good book to read on this point, and it is an old one, is America in Our Time: From World War II to Nixon-What Happened and Why by Godfrey Hodgson).

Having said all that, I believe that Arthur is fundamentally wrong to say that things will not become markedly better as a result of a change of party control of Congress or, should it ahppen in 2008, the Presidency. While I recognize the roots of the elite consensus run deep and wide, and while I also recognize the limited nature of the vision of American foreign policy (and I have some sympathy for the views expressed by Arthur Silber, although I believe his case is weaker than he supposes), as shown by a panel that is willing to interview Tom Friedman but not Jack Murtha, I believe that this past election was fundamentally different from any we have had since 1980, when conservative Republicans and Democrats amanged an electoral coalition that has, by and large, held for the quarter-century that has followed. The fundamental differeces are two - the way information is dispersed; economic and social precariousness of a previously sated middle-class. Social dynamics and the underlying structure - the skeleton, as it were, of the electorate - are an important factor in figuring out how and why people vote. Too much attention is being paid to official Washington, even by those who claim to disdain it and all it stands for, and not enough on the electorate who put those officials in place to begin with.

While I agree with Glenn Greenwald when he states that the among the many reasons not to take the ISG seriously is its refusal to challenge an ideological hammerlock by those who, as time and history have shown again and again, were correct all along, not just in general but in most particulars as well, I disagree that ISG will provide good cover for a Bush Administration willing to change course. I see no willingness on the part of Bush or anyone else in the Administration to either admit error or change the fundamental nature of their policy in Iraq. The ISG itself offers no real change, except perhaps for an insistence on more diplomacy, but rather a rhetorical shift, a new way of presenting the situation to the American people and of shaping our reception of it and our responses to it.

The American people, however, united by a disdain for Bush and the Republicans in general, as expressed on November 7, have demanded change, including an end to our occupation in Iraq. Should they fail to address this issue - among a host of other, laudable goals to which they have pledged themselves - the American people will demand action. We have our voice now, and it is called the Internet. Our voices are heard, our power has become substantial. While eiltes poo-poo as irresponsible the idea of troop redeployment (we are told again and again that things will not get better in Iraq if we do so; the American people wisely show they don't really care, and that is hardly the issue anyway) our elected officials must make clear that we will act responsibly, including responsibly towards our military.

I believe this past election was not only a seismic shift in the ideological make-up of the country, but marked a fundamental shift in power, away from traditional centers towards a more diffuse, decentralized, and dispersed - small "d" democratic, in other words - base of power. The elite consensus, as persuasive as it might have been for 60 years, has collapsed, and a new consensus is emerging because the American people are demanding it. I see it all over the Internet. I read it in blogs and various web-sites. I even see it and hear it when I talk with people in church, at work, or wherever. The reason it isn't discussed more is because it is such a threat to the power of the media and those elites who still cling to the old ways. Change has occurred. Elections matter. I do not say this out of some naive conviction, but rather because I have seen it - we all have seen it - in our lifetimes. This time, however, the change has moved in a direction progressives of all shapes and sizes can be happy with. We need to stop acting like losers and start thinking like people who actually have power, influence, and are now, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be, winners.

UPDATE: For a persepective similar to my own, go see this (h/t atrios).

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On Mary Cheney's Baby and the law in the Commonwealth of Virginia

This is going to include a boring autobiographical note, so bear with me. In the early summer of 1994, my wife and I were preparing to move to southern Virginia where she would take her first charge as pastor of small United Methodist congregation. Before we moved, we were at the Annual Conference, meeting in Norfolk (we stayed in Virginia Beach, in a suite on the beach; sigh, those were the days) and in lieu of our daily dose of the Washington Post, which did not come to Va Beach, we read the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I was totally unprepared for the shock I received at my first exposure to a seriously right-wing paper, and I never resigned myself to the fact that wingers simply do not think about things the same way I do.

At the time, a case was making its way through the Virginia courts that concerned the parental rights of a lesbian single mom, fighting to regain custody of her child from her mother, who objected to her "lifestyle". The editorial position of the T-D was, and I wish I were making this up but I am not, that since the woman in question had admitted in open court to violating state law by performing "sodomy" (oral sex is actually illegal in VA, no matter who does it to whom, or the status of the relationship), she had disqualified herself from custodial parenthood. When I first read the editorial putting forth the paper's position I was, to say the least, aghast. My first thought was that it was a joke, satire to make a point about how ridiculous the Commonwealth's position was. It was only after re-reading it that I realized they were totally serious.

Let us leave aside the whole gay versus straight thing for a moment, and consider the whole situation in terms of Commonwealth law (I have read the statute books on this subject, and they are troglodytic). In Virginia, the only sexual act that is legal is missionary sex between a married man and married woman. Period. Everything else is a violation of the law. Leaving aside the question of enforcement, I goggle when I think about the fact that legislators in Richmond actually care so much about what people do in their private lives. Thousands of married couples in Virginia, according to the logic of the T-D editorial board, are unfit parents.

All this leads up to the whole Cheney-Poe issue because the discrimination against gay couples runs far deeper, and the hated and fear of gay couples is so entrenched (I hate to use these words, but there is really no other way to describe it) that even a high-profile couple like them will be subject to criticism, as is happening already (see here for the beginning of the intrusion of wingers into the private life of this couple). A federal law, not "protecting marriage", but making same-sex marriage (or some legal equivalent thereof, like civil unions) legal, granting full legal and parental rights to same-sex couples is necessary to overturn the horrendous discrimination Cheney and Poe will face in their life as parents. Nothing less will do.

In addition, could someone in Virginia please remove from the statute books those peeping-Tom laws that intrude upon the private acts of consenting adults? Of course, the Supreme Court ruling on the Texas sodomy law case probably has done much to remove the more egregious aspects of the law, but there is still far, far to go.

Dean Broder on the ISG: More Proof that Retirement Should Be Mandatory (UPDATED Below)

With the publication of the Iraq Study Group report (available here, with a tip o' the hat to Think Progress) the Inside the Beltway gushfest is just beginning. Of course, the overall assesment of the group (ISG hereafter) was leaked weeks ago and has been a topic of much discussion. I want to wait until I actually read the report - it's only 125 pages long, with 73 specific recommendations - before commenting on the report itself. For now, I want to confine myself to a column by David "Dean" Broder that appeared in my local paper this morning, the Rockford Register Star, and should be all over the net soon (Broder publishes on Yahoo, so you can go to the opinion page there to read the full text). The title of the column as it appears here in the northern prairie is "Iraq Study Group: Politics for Grown-ups". Now, I don't know if that was the original title, or one put there by editors locally, or suggested by Broder's editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, or whomever, but I find it interesting that, while it echoes a theme much discussed in the immediate run-up and in the immediate aftermath to the election, the article itself is of a piece with the entire "bi-partisanship is wonderful, let's all get along, let's not fight here folks" mentality that is the hallmark, not of adulthood, but of those frightened of confrontation, risk-averse as it were, in the face of the threat of those who might hold different views.

The gushing in Broder's piece is glaring; the members of the ISG he interviewed, including former Secretary of Treasury and State, former Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and former Chief of Staff to President Ronald Reagan and current Bush-family water-carrier James Baker; former Senator Alan Simpson (R-Stone Age, er, WY); former Clinton confidante and attorney Vernon Jordan; former Rep. and Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta (D - Land of San Francisco values) practically engaged in a circle-jerk of mutual admiration.
"It was a very wonderful experience," former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming told me [Broder] last weekend. "We very quickly stopped considering ourselves as Republicans and Democrats, but as Americans trying to deal with a most urgent problem."
[A]s commission member Vernon Jordan, the Democratic lawyer, noted, they were . . . "professionals" - veterans of public service. . . . "This process has been a lesson in civility."
Leon Panetta . . . said the high averagea age of tghe 10 commissioners contributed to its success. "This is a different generation of policymakers," said Panetta, who at 68 was one of the youngest members [!!!]. "These are people who have very different views but are comfortable trying to understand each other and coming together to solve a terrible issue facing the country."
"No on wanted to see us embarrassed by being unable to come to consensus," Simpson said.
Panetta observed that while most of the commission members had some dealings with each other in their previous positions, they really bonded during their inspection trip to Baghdad earlier this year. "Fifteen hours on the plane together and three days in a tough place - that was a human experience where we shared a lot and really got to know each other," [Jordan] said.

Broder's opening paragraph is an excellent summary of insider disdain, and fear, of partisanship:
Whatever the final effect of the Iraq Study Group report being issued today, for the 10 commission members this was an exhilirating experience, a demonstration of genuine bipartisanship that they hope will serve as an example to the broader political world.


I have a better idea, Dean. Let's actually have a debate over this "terrible issue" that is not controlled by the phony philosopher kings of a "different generation of policymakers", one of whose youngest members is six years past eligibility for Social Security! How about we get our elected representatives and the President to actually hammer out something - with all views, including strong, partisan, rancorous views being acceptable. The time for "senior statesmen" (former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor excepted) is long past. Neither Baker nor anyone else should try to snatch the President's chestnuts from this fire. Rather than sit in awe of bipartisanship, I would rather hear a real debate where people got nasty, and all twisted and contorted by anger and frustration. You know why? BECAUSE PEOPLE ARE DYING, AND WE HAVE BEEN LIED TO FROM THE START, AND THEY KEEP LYING EVEN AFTER THEY ARE CAUGHT! WE ARE SICK UNTO DEATH OF THE BULLSHIT, INCLUDING BULLSHIT MASQUERADING AS BIPARTISANSHIP! Even if everything the ISG report recommends is good and correct; even if its particulars are enacted by Congress, the fact that the people were excluded from the decision-making process; that the ISG itself had no member who spoke Arabic, let alone had any serious expertise in anything other than governance should force any and all to srutinize every syllable. There was just too much male bonding going on here for this this to be as serious as it purports to be.

As for Broder, one would expect nothing less, or more, than his shallow, whiny, insistence, that if we only acted like the wise ones from Washington, and allowed them to rule in our stead and name, things would be so much better. All this democracy and arguing and nastiness and partisanship (its only partisan, by the way, when Democrats do it) is so distracting from the wisdom of senior statesmen gathered to solve a problem facing our entire country.

It make you want to throw up.

UPDATE: I would like to direct your attention here and here for more succinct, and better written, ways of saying the above, along with a history lesson as to why the ISG included all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons. As Duncan says in a comment (not linked, but it's easy to find) on something Tony Snow said today - there is National Unity on Iraq, even if it isn't the kind of national unity government-types and Broder would like.

Musical Interlude and Promo

There is no doubt that Btiches Brew is one of the most influential albums ever recorded. Love it or hate it, understand it, or shake your head unknowingly at it, it is difficult to deny there is power there. Three of the musicians on the album went on very different paths, although it is obvious they took lessons from Miles' insistent experimentation. John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra and Joe Zawinul's Weather Report both followed the lead Miles set forth, yet one can hardly imagine more different results.

McLaughlin'a band sounds much more like prog rockers than jazz musicians, but all but the violinist were veterans of a variety of sound outfits, including Cannonbal Adderley, before creating some of the most amazing jazz/rock sounds ever. Their Birds of Fire should be listened to at high volume.

Weather Report, founded by Zawinul, and included another veteran of Miles Davis mid-60's quintet, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, produced slick, accessible, song-based jazz, highly rhythmic and infectious, with one song, "Birdland" off Heavy Weather becoming something of a radio hit. While never giving away credibility and musical integrity, Weather Report provided a good example of how electric jazz could be both melodic and soulful, producing songs that are easily on a par with anything more acoustic bands could offer.

After settling down with Davis' landmark album - I submit, in my own opinion it fails as often as it succeeds, but its failures are spectacular (a bass clarinetist and and electric guitarist!), and its successes are indeed sublime - give a listen to the two above mentioned albums. Better yet, buy them as gifts for a loved one who prizes good music. They'll be glad you did.

Poor Little Rich, Famous, Doted-Upon Girl

I don't normally discuss pop culture because of a prejudice I have that it is junk. I admit freely and openly that I have a closed mind when it comes to much of the slop offered by corporate media. Perhaps I am a snob, but I just don't think Gretchen Wilson holds a candle to Loretta Lynne, or Garth Brooks should even be mentioned in the same breath of Merla Haggard, or Justin Timberlake should be mentioned at all. As this particular post involves one particularly over-exposed female celebrity (in pretty much every sense of the word), I also have little time or patience for Ashlee Simpson, the travails of Nicole Ritchie, or (ugh!)Paris Hilton. There are just some things better left alone.

Having said all that, I am going to dive into a topic I find fascinating, I suppose in the same way as a boy I was fascinated by the strage creatures I found under rocks in the creek that ran behind my parents' house - Britney Spears. For someone who has not produced an album in several years, and for someone who has yet to produce an album worthy of any more than cursory notice; for someone whose talent is nil, who has been packaged and managed and propped up by parents and mangers and producers and spokespeople and publicity agents, it is surprising how much ink and megabitage (is that a word?) is spent on her various ups, downs, ins, outs, and now her divorce travails. It is almost impossible to swing a digital-dead cat on the internet without tripping over a photo of Britney with her nipple hanging out, Britney lighting a surreptitious ciagrette on a shopping trip with "friends", and now Britney flashing an unshaved pubic area as she exits a car (and who should be the driver of that car but the original bald beaver flasher herself, Paris Hilton).

I feel bad for Britney. I do not mean to suggest her problems, such as they may or may not be, are more serious than those a single-parent household trying to make ends meet. I do not mean to suggest her problems are more serious than a recently-returned Iraq vet who can't find good mental or physical therapy because the Army doesn't care and a Republican Congress has cut funding. I feel bad for Britney because, since her childhood (by all appearances and from what reports I have read) she has been prepped and preened, coddled and modelled and prepared for the day she was to become a star. Packaged and promoted by the team that brought us N'Sync and Christina Aguilera, the shallowness of her vocal talent was overcome by production values that created a huge sound not only behind her but around her as well. Multi-tracking, overdubbing, echoing and reverb are Britney's best friends when she has a mic.

I doubt if, with one notable exception, Britney has done a spontaneous thing since she was ten or eleven. The exception, of course, was the drunken rush to Las Vegas to marry on Saturday, only to have the marriage ended on Monday. When spontaneity is crushed so thoroughly and publicly, one should wonder about the psyche of the person so effected. Of course, there is also the constant barrage of over-sexualized imagery, starting with her very first music video that played upon latent male pedophilia to portray her as a school girl who was, in the words of the title song, not that innocent. Since that time, she has played upon her sexuality over and over again, learning to move not som much sinuously and provocatively but like a stripper in a road-side club. She has a song written for her last album that suggests masturbation (where would she find the time to be alone?). She makes sure there are enough pictures of her flashing skin, without ever actually posing for Playboy or another men's magazine to keep the tittilation factor high. Of course, with her recent, er, slip as she got out of a car, there will be no end to it. There is no way anyone could convince me that was not a coldly calculated move on her part - flash a little bit of her pantyless crotch, keep her in the news, that's the important thing. There is no such thing as bad publicity.

Except, of course, there is this bubble that forms around people like Britney Spears. This bubble creates this zone of unreality. We witnessed earlier this year how Tom Cruise has become less and less, er, normal, because of his status as a celebrity. How much moreso has Britney been effected by what is essentially a lfetime cut off from real human contact? The falseness of her entire life is hardly mitigated by the fact that she has a lot of money. The fact that her one spontaneous act was a ridiculous marriage that was forcibly annulled less than 72 hours after it was contracted; the fact that she has to smoke surreptitiously - these are, or should be, danger signs to anyone who cares, not about Britney in particular as a "star" or celebrity, but about any human being who is so manipulated that he or she has very little room for maneouver.

I say all this merely to show that I am not suc a total elitist snob that I completely ignore pop culture. I just view it slightly different from other people, that's all.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Short Take

Thank to this piece at Think Progress, it is safe to say that Paul Krugman is %100 correct. Being called a liar by Neil Cavuto is like being called a murderer by Ted Bundy. Krugman is a professional economist who writes on economic matters for the New York Times. Neil Cavuto is a . . . is a . . . . What is it Cavuto does besides create CO2 for his office plants to breate?

Who hates the troops? The Army!

I heard a promo for the special report on my local NPR affiliate, and Think Progress has a good summary. I thought it was all us lefty bloggers who spit on American veterans. Turns out it is the United States Army. This is both infuriating and sad. I wonder how the right will spin this one?

A Christian Reflection on Government Horrors

Digby has this and Glenn Greenwald has this on recent revelations of the treatment of Jose Padilla, and Glenn has this on a piece in the UK paper The Observer that details how the US kept a serial murderer on its payroll and destroyed the career of a man who tried to stop it (the details of the story have to be read to be believed; it is one of those things, if put in a novel, would never bepublished precisely because it is so outrageous). I have thought long and hard about what would constitute a distinctly Christian, as opposed to simply a lefty, perspective on these iceberg-tip violations of law, the Constitution, and human dignity. I am not sure I have progressed to any kind of real answer, but I thought I might give a start here. I want to make it clear that I do not think a Christian perspective is the sole legitimate protest against these and myriad others; indeed, a strictly legal argument - relgiously neutral - is, in many ways stronger. Even a moral argument that makes no mention of God or any religion of any kind, could make mincemeat of the Bush Administration's justifications for its wide variety of human right's abuses. I just think it is important, for me, to figure out what a distinctly Christian perspective might add - or might not add - to this whole discussion.

As a general beginning, I think it safe to say that, despite Jesus' being George W. Bush's favorite political philosopher, Jesus himself would never countenance torture, having been a victim of it himself (and, like Padilla, unjustly I might add). That there might actually be a "debate" on the issue of torture in the United States shows how low we have sunk. We pride ourselves as part of a Western culture that values the life and integrity of each individual (honored more in the breach than not, truly enough), and worked hard to get through international and domestic laws against genocide and torture. To claim that we are now in a national emergency dire enough to set these aside is ludicrous on its face; as these particular laws make no exceptions for different types of conflict, and as violations of these laws not only have the potential to bring harsh penalties but show the moral vacuousness of those who do violate them, it is easy enough to point out the sheer lawlessness and immorality of anyone who claims that torture is necessary as a part of our war-fighting strategy.

This is still, however, a legal argument. A good starting point for a Christian perspective would perhaps be the second chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Philippians. In this chapter, in which he is trying to buck up the courage of the Philippians in the face of some sort of persecution (whether from the local synagogues or from Roman officialdom is not clear), he reminds his readers, through a quoted hymn or early creed, that we Christians are to imitate Jesus the Messiah who "laid no claim to equality with God, but made himself nothing, assuming the form of a slave. Bearing the human likeness, sharing the human lot, he humbled himself, and was obedient, even to the point of death"(Revised English Bible). There are a variety of ways we could look at this particular passage, but for now, I want to concentrate on the highlighted portions, for this reason: as early as a quarter-century after his death and resurrection, there was developing within the Christian movement a high Christology that understood Jesus to be, in some way not yet fully fleshed out (and still not, two thousand years later, I might add) sharing in the divinity of the Jewish LORD. The remarkable thing, for Paul and these early incarnational theologians (the author of the Fourth Gospel is another), was that God became human; in a world dominated by a popularized form of Greek neo-Platonism that understood the world to be a source of corruption, to claim divinity had assumed the human lot was a remarkable statement. To say that this divine-human being had died was even moreso.

This little review of Christian theology on this particular passage serves to show that, from the earliest records we have, Christians saw value in human beings precisely because God saw value in human beings, enough so that God became human. We are the image-bearers of the Godhead, first through creation, then through incarnation. Human integrity is valued by God. Even the most vile offender - a child molester; a serial murder (even one on the US payroll); a supposed terrorist-not - bears something of the dignity and worth of all humanity, an integrity that God cherishes and loves, even in the depth of our estrangement from God. That integrity is not to be violated for purposes of expediency, especially political expediency. This is beyond law, beyond custom, even perhaps beyond reason; we are to honor the integrity of other human beings in their person because they are cherished by God in and for their humanity.

There are also numerous passages from the Hebrew prophets that could be used to argue against a government run amok. The prophets were the spokesmen for God to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah when they had wandered from the covenant established with their LORD; the worst violations were not moral, but in fact social and political, the oft-cited abuse of the poor and widows and orphans. These were not just evils and and of themselves (about this the prophets are quite clear), but are themselves symptoms of a deep estrangement from the covenant that established the people in the first place. The prophets called the people to return to that covenant; they are reminded, again and again, that they are different precisely because of that covenant, not for any political power they may or may not wield. The distinctiveness of the Hebrew people lies in the fact that, once they were no people, but God called them out and led them out of slavery to freedom (I do not wish to discuss the historicity of the events in question; I am speaking here of national founding "myths" as it were, and their use by the Hebrew prophets). They are not their own, but the LORD's people, and as such they do not answer to anyone but the LORD for their conduct.

While I would not use such justifications against the current Administration in too literal a way, I bring up the prophets because they were the original dissenters, the anti-American, dirty-f'ing-hippie crowd of the two kingdoms (Amos is hauled before the king and insists he is nothing but a poor shepherd, hardly worthy of notice by the great and powerful king; Ezekiel was an early practitioner of civil disobedience, and his visions are particularly surreal). they spoke the truth in a way that discomfited those in power. We Christians share this heritage, and should practice it as well. The abuse of power is an ever-present temptation, even among those with the best of intentions (or those who believe they have the best of intentions, which is usually worse). That the US government would engage in acts that can only be called horrific cries out for all persons of good faith - including Christians - to take a stand and insist "No more!". I know this is just a beginning, but I think it is a start for a distinctly Christian source of protest against the most vile abuses of power by the Bush Administration.

Coming out of the Closet

The title is a reference to St. Matthew's Gospel, where Jesus tells people not to be ostentatious in their faith, charging them "Whn you pray, so into a floset to do so; do not stand on the corner and shout as do the Pharisees. I tell you, they have their reward." This comes via two articles, here and here, that deal in different ways on different facets of American evangelical Protestantism. Christy Hardin Smith at Fire Dog Lake wonders why so many feel it necessary to wear their faith on their sleeve, or perhaps as a chip on their shoulder, but fail miserably when it comes to actually doing anything other than putting a bumper sticker on a car, or a horrid lawn ornament up at Christmas time. David Kup, on the other hand, would like James Dobson to take a little personal responsibility for a misleading and inaccurate article posted at the website for his group, Focus on the Family.

The reason I put them together is this. Kuo is being "swiftboated" (a term de guerre politique for personally destroying the reputation of anyone who publicly disagrees with the Right) for saying something that should have been clear for a long time - the Bush Administration didn't and doesn't care a fart in a windstorm for Christian voters. One did not need the evidence in his book, Tempting Faith to figure that out, but it is good it is in the public record. Kuo's problem, of course, is that he is saying something true, bound by his conscience and his sense of integrity rooted in a deep commitment to the Christian faith that there is more to being a Christian than slamming abortion rights or same-sex marriage. You see, like Christy over at FDL, he wants Christianity to actually be about something substantive - helping the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, all that stuff St. Matthew's Gospel says we are going to be judged on.

For Dobson, alas, Christianity is about "family values" which are neither defined nor explpained, just declaimed. It is about power - power in the family devolving from husband to male children, only afterwards to wife then female children; power in the state being rooted in a God devoid of mercy or grace, but enforcing a code of conduct more arbitrary than anything found in the distortions of Muslim terrorists; power in society flowing from a Church not about service but about policing private conduct in a way antithetical to both the bulk of Christian history and real American values. That the Christian faith is about setting aside power (read the second chapter of Paul's letter to the Philippians for a good summary) is outside his ken.

Publicly shouting one's faith from the rooftops (one of those instances where Jesus seems to contradict himself) is admonished in scripture, but in a totally different context. We are to shout from the rooftops when there sems to be a general denial of the faith. While America is hardly a Christian nation (now would I want it to be), the plethora of churches and the constant discussion of the place of religion in public life would not lead an objective observer to claim that Christianity has disappeared from the United States. There is no need for shouting from the rooftops, or putting out really ugly Christmas displays.

Both Hardin Smith and Kuo present examples of what the Christian faith should be - one through rhetorical challenge, the other through example - and use counter-point as a wonderful tool for showing how far back into the closet many Christians need to go (and please, no gay jokes).

Monday, December 04, 2006

Some Thoughts on American Foreign Policy

With John Bolton finally leaving the office he despised (why did he ever take it in the first place, as he held the entire institution in contempt?), I want to reminisce about American foreign policy, at least since the end of the Second World War. First, I find it intgriguing that Kenneth Adelman would praise the Truman foreign policy team. After all, it was right-wingers who labeled Dean Acheson (as staunchly conservative a man as one could imagine) "Red Dean", and who, when Joe McCarthy went after Gen. George Marshall (as honorable and decent a human being who ever graced the Army uniform, and who, next to Acheson himself, was perhaps the greatest Secretary of State in the 20th century) piled on in scurillous personal attacks. Even Eisenhower didn't have the balls to stand up and defend his old chief.

The Republicans like to crow about how "tough" and "expert" their foreign policy advisors are. Let's run down a few of them, shall we? John Foster Dulles, of whom Winston Churchill said he was the only bull who carried around his own china shop. William Rogers was a cipher, purposely chosen to be useless so that Nixon and Kissinger could run foreign policy as they chose, and as a result destroyed American diplomatic credibility and gave us disastrous SALT agreements (see Seymour Hirsch's The Price of Power). All I will say is - Al Haig and Iran-Contra.

Adelman claimed the group around George W. Bush was as expert as Truman's advisors. Colin Powell was a figurehead, maladroit at the game of bureacratic in-fighting, a public spokesperson for views he reviled and policies he thought were wrong. Condoleeza Rice is not much better, and she has all but disappeared from the public stage recently.

The best foreign policy has always been driven by Democrats - McGeorge Bundy and George Ball, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrun Vance, even Madleine Albright, for all her faults (and they were legion) was better by far than any of the Republicans mentioned. Yet, the Republicans still claim an expertise in foreign affiars, and the stenographic press, ignorant of history and blind to what they see around them, largely follows, echoing these same tired falsehoods. Why?

Of all the post-war figures here, Kissinger in many ways is prototypical. Wanting to be tough and realistic (in all senses of the word), his ego was no match for his intellect or abilities. He wanted to be Tallyrand and Stalin (if you read his book Diplomacy there is an obvious man-crush for the Soviet leader, which should tell one all one needs to know about Kissinger), but he practiced foreign policy in a country that tries to be open and discuss its policy, even its foreign policy. The idea that politics stops at the water's edge has never been true in American politics, and is only fostered by those who do not want discussion of foreign affairs. Kissinger was a failure not only because he lacked the ability to be either as clever or as ruthless as those with whom he dealt; he failed because, in a democracy, we all get to figure it out as ew go along. The long string of Republican disasters that followed are only a coda to the authoritarianism Kissinger tried to emulate.

I realize this is all controversial, but I have never been comfortable with Bolton sitting in the chiar once held by Eleanor Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (I know Noam Chomsky doesn't like him for selling out East Timor). They were giants. Bolton is a smudge on the pages of American diplomatic history. Personally, I hope he writes his memoirs; I can't imagine anything more funny or ridiculously sophomoric than a person whose whole intellectual and professional career has been spent bashing the UN, then turning around and trying to defend his miserable tenure there. The contortions alone should be worth reading.

Some Thoughts on the Culture Wars

Yesterday, I disagreed with Driftglass' when he insisted the Christian Right had not retreated from the so-called "Culture Wars". I erred, however, because I said they had, when I should have been more precise and said that, in fact, they are retreating. There are a plethora of articles linked over at Faith in Public that show the increasing diversity and creativity within evangelical circles, even those to the right on the political spectrum. I shall simply note this one on the resignation (it may have been forced; I am stil unclear about that) of the Rev. Joel Hunter as President of the Christian Coalition. Amazingly enough, he wanted to expand the group's agenda to include positive work with and for the poor (among other items) and they refused.

The groups has ceased to be a serious contender since 1996, and its increasing focus on two negative issues - opposition to legal abortion and opposition to gay marriage which is only legal in Massachusetts - will push it even further to the margins of our political discourse. More to the point, I think this shows the increasing irrelevance of "Culture War" rhetoric. The Christian Coalition is now a hollow shell of what it once was because it could not expand beyond these two issues. Evangelical churches, even those with rightist leanings are growing precisely because they are moving forward on issues of poverty and socio-economic justice, environmental activism, including action to curb gloabl warming, and human rights issues, especially in Darfur. These are hardly headline-grabbing issues; pelting women with plastic fetuses is a good way to get on the evening news, while working quietly to help educate and employ the poor is not. Yet there is little warrant in scripture for the first and much for the second. That is why, in the end, the culture wars were always doomed to fail (if they ever in fact existed at all).

As more and more Churches began to feel the tug of the call to act for people, sitting around and whining about how horrible Hollywood and rock music are became less important than making sure hungry people got fed and the planet doesn't become a wasteland incapable of sustaining vast human populations. This does not mean that there won't be a tattered remnant of the misguided faithful, clinging to their posters of aborted feti, screaming about "Adam and Steve" (I had a friend named Steve whose boyfriend was Adam, and they just loved that particular bit of business). It just means they will become increasingly irrelevant as their influence wanes in the halls of power.

As a side note, Iread a column from a Sunday paper in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, written by culture uber-warrior Cal Thomas, and I think I spoke too soone about him retreating from the culture wars. Part of the column concerned the feritility rates among the industrialized nations versus those in developing nations, especially (in this case) Muslim ones. I am always surprised at the concern over sex among some of these folks. On the one hand, they don't want people having sex until they are married; once these folks are married, however, appraently all caution is tossed aside, and the women folk are supposed to start popping out babies like an industrial toaster, especially because the darker races who worship a demon named Allah are much more fertile. The racism in such thoughts is appalling, as is the cultural supremacy inherent in the idea that we have a duty to produce as many white Christian children as possible to replace the dwindling supply of Christian soldiers. In essence, this is Nazi-talk. The only good thing about such ideas is they are as marginal as anti-flouridation crusades.

I have problems with much of popular culture. We do not have cable or satellite television in our house because most of what is on in garbage. I do not listen to commercial radio because most of what is on is garbage. My wife and I rarely go to movies because there are so few that have any meaning. In a society where access to the private sex videos of individuals is the subject of an entire website, all sorts of boundaries are crossed that need to be propped back up - not in law, but certianly through common consent and general persuasion. I do not believe, however, that the right-wing war on popular culture was ever more than a publicity stunt, as the culture got trashier and trashier even as the right-wing gained more and more power in Washington. For now, however, we can content ourselves that the worst excesses of the warriors against American culture are past.

Short Take (UPDATE With New link)

Thanks to posts here and here I am reminded (as if I needed reminding) why I really would prefer Joe Klein simply stop publishing, or appearing on television. Is there anyone outside the political blogs who doesn't know incoherence when they hear it?

UPDATE: Add Digby to the list of those who have dissected Klein's nonsense. It seems Clinton's spurned lover just won't stop.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Let the Games Begin (UPDATED WITH LINK)

Dirftglass Blog has a commentary on today's column by New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof. It is subscription-only, so I have not read it, so perhaps commentary on it is unwarranted, but Driftglass' comments give one a good idea of the general tenor and content. I have to say, I for one am in agreement with Drifty over Kristof, although for different reasons. Kristof's column calls for a truce on attacks upon "religion" (a term I hate; I much prefer specificity to generalizations, and religion is a word that covers a multitude of sins, and virtues). I cannot see why. Is religion such a fragile crystal it will break under the smallest pressure? Do Christians fear the truth of the sting of criticism, and lack the resources to go about their business under the scrutiny of those who do not share their convictions? I would not countenance attacks upon minority religions in the United States, especially in the current environment Islam, but only because most of what one reads and hears is not so much criticism as ignorant bigotry masked as legitimate criticism. We do not know enough about that particular faith to comment upon it intelligently, so we should just be quiet, and perhaps learn a thing or two.

As far as attacks upon Christianity are concerned, I am fine with it. Especially the politicized Christian Right is as deserving of criticism as one can imagine; as the most vocal, most powerful, and most visible Christians currently available, I do not think they are above criticism. The last time I checked, this was a free country, and no one - not even religious types - is above criticism. If you can't play in the big leagues, where you don't get to set the rules, but have to abide by those that put everyone on the same plane, I would suggest you pack your bags and go home. To try and exempt religion and religious folks - even nice liberal types like me - from criticism is ridiculous.

There is one point in Driftglass' commentary that I want to disagree with, however. He criticizes Kristof for saying the religious right has retreated from the "culture wars" (which were mostly a figment of the imagination of the right anyway, but that is a point for another day). I think Kristof is correct, to an extent, as such a Kulturkampfer as Cal Thomas has already suggested that it might be time to rethink the entire idea of a war on, or perhaps in, or maybe for, culture (the choice of preposition is important, and one I never quite understood as being correct). I also think Driftglass is correct that ithasn't happened yet. there has been a general retreat from the militant rhetoric, but only because there is a recognition that there is no way for "Christian values" to win in the marketplace of ideas without some form of gross enforcement. There will always be those who struggle over these issues, but the shrill nature of the the past generation is, I believe, a thing that shall recede into the background noise more and more.

I look forward to Kristof's column becoming available so I can read it in its entirety. Perhaps, in doing so I might change my opinion. In the mean time, son't shrink from the opportunity to either criticize or be xriticized; that is what living in a free society is all about. If you can't take the heat, get out of the American kitchen. Let the games begin.

UPDATE: I corrected the link above so now it might actually work, and here is the Kristof piece via Faith in Public I have nothing to add after reading it. Bring it on.

Moving On: No Apologies Here

After the past week's discussion with Democracy Lover, and new reader Steven Carr, while energized and excited by the possibilities, I feel a need to move on from the topics I have been covering. You see, this blog is not about defending the faith, nor is it even about explaining it to those who don't, or perhaps won't, understand it. This blog is about my own experience of the intersection of the Christian faih, culture, and politics. As such, I am not about apologetics.

Apologetics has a long and storied history in the Christian Church. From a group of second century writers who are collectively known as the Apologists - because their approach was to use apologeia, legal defense - there have always been those who saw it their duty to make a case for the Christian faith for those outside it. Even St. Thomas wrote two separate works, one the Summa Theologiae for inside the Church and the other, the Summa COntra Gentiles for those outside it, at a time when CHristianity was the sole official faith of the European continent. In a pluralistic age, there has been an increasing awareness of the need for apologetics and some theologians, Leslie Newbigin, Paul Tillich, and Douglas John Hall in particular, have argued that it has a role in a world where the Christian fiath can no longer be taken for granted, even in the west.

My own position is quite different. I agree more with the late, great Swiss theologian Karl Barth who argued against apologetics for two reasons: first, it accepted the rules of the road from the non-Christian world for what is and is not acceptable as methods of argumentation and acceptable as "evidence"; second, it is the world that should stand before the Church and justify itself, not vice-versa. This militant vision of theology and the Church is appealing to me because, for three hundred years, Christianity has accepted the terms of the debate offered by those who refuse to grant it credence, and in so doing, has lost both intellectual respectability (theology was once the "Queen of the Sciences"; one could hardly find a person willing to grant that now) and its ability to ground itself in the lives of communities. Instead, it has had to contend in a foreign field, where the lay of the land is unfamiliar, and the adversary knows all too well every hill and valley, every trap and hiding place. Just as I do not believe we should accept "Conventional Wisdom" in our social, cultural, and political life, I do not think we should accept it in our faith life, either. You don't want to believ in Christianity, far be it from me to convince you otherwise. If you think you can convince me with an argument, no matter how sound you might think it is, I have heard them all before, and used some myself before I returned to the Church, and I understand them for the sand and wind they are.

The Christian faith and the Christian life is not about rational acceptance of certain principles and ideas. It is about a life lived under the cross, and in the shadow of the empty tomb. It makes no sense to those who cannot or will not understand it as such, and in the end, there are no "reasons", in the conventional sense, that can convince someone to choose such a life over others. I do not see anything wrong with other religions. I do not see anything wrong with no religion. I admire Islam, and Hinduism, and Baha'i, and Judaism, especially when they are lived and professed with integrity. I admire non-believers who are passionate about justice and freedom, equality and trust. What matters most to me is that a life is lived out of the experience of a community, or even an individual's conscience, for others. In the end, it matters not a whit to me whether one is a professed Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Zoroastrian, or refuses to profess anything other than a desire for people to live fully human lives. My pursuit is aprt and parcel of my Christian faith, and I accept it gladly, even for all its flaws and its history of denial of the very values I treasure. I do so because my experience in various Christian communities has been one of passionate pursuit of these goals, and my faith has grown organically out of them.

I appreciate rational argumentation, and enjoy the banter, but I also understand that lives are at stake - real lives, real people - and we need to act to save those lives, to bring those people to a place where they can live their lives as fully human. The game of "I'm right, you're wrong and here are all the reasons why," does not mean anything to me any more because it distracts from the loving acts required to do what is necessary for others. It is for this reason that this blog exists. It is for this reason I am a Christian. It is for this reason I feel it unnecessary to defend my faith to those who not only do not share it, but are actively opposed to any proclamation of faith. I think I need to move on because, as I wrote in a previous post, I am starting to feel like I am tramping over the same old ground, and I have no desire to get stuck in the mud.

Virtual Tin Cup

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