Monday, December 31, 2007

Music Monday

Unrelated to what follows, I just have to mention one the best band-names I have heard in the long time, courtesy of Pandora Radio - King Black Acid and the Womb Star Orchestra. As far as I'm concerned, a band with a name like that just has to be good.

Anyway, I thought I'd just post some not-quite-random videos, with nothing linking them other than me liking them.

First, I have been remiss in noting the passing of the great jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. All the recordings I have of Peterson are as accompanist to Billie Holliday. Peterson was a good foil for Lady Day - he disapproved of her dissipation, her over-indulgence, her lack of a disciplined personal life; he loved her musical style, her dedication, in the face of all that seemed to try to destroy it, to her art. He was a steady hand on the roiling seas of her life. And the results were glorious. He continued long after he surrendered to the inevitable and left her in the capable hands of Jimmy Rowland. Here he is from way back in 1977 (thirty years before his death!).

This is the Choir of Clare College Cambridge performing "Hear My Prayer" by Henry Purcell:

Finally, from the DVD my loving wife got me for Christmas, this is Joe Satriani with the amazing, colossal "Flying in a Blue Dream" (which CD I still have yet to find; I used to have it, but like several others over the years, have lost in various moves hither and yon across our fair land):

100 Verses For Jesus

This post over at Erudite Redneck's blog sparked some good old-fashioned fun, even bringing Neil, from 4simpson's blog, over, to add his ha'penny. For the sake of full disclosure, I should add that ER links to me (I blush), and offers some initial thought to spark discussion, and then Neil pipes up.
"We confess that we have stepped away from Christ’s Path whenever we . . . have claimed Christianity is the only way"

I would run, not walk, away from any group that teaches such an ignorant and foolish thing. The Bible notes least 100 times that Jesus is the only way.

That isn't what makes it true, of course. But it does mean that it is a view that all Christians should hold. To say otherwise is to mock the cross.

The ones who claim Christianity isn't the only way are the ones who have stepped away from the path (if they were ever on it). They are either too ignorant or too timid to defend Christianity.

If you want a list of many of the the verses that point to Jesus' exclusivity go to and search for "100 verses" at their Store page. Or you can just read the Bible. :-) It is hard to miss the theme.

First of all, if "it doesn't make it true" that the Bible has 100 verses saying Jesus is the only way (to what, I'm not quite sure), then why mention it? If it doesn't make it true, why should all Christians believe it? If it doesn't make it true, how does it mock the cross? Indeed, the entire comment becomes irrelevant.

The Bible says many things, in many verses. Some of these things are contradictions of things said in other places. There are hundreds of verses, especially in the prophetic books of the Old Testament, in which it is quite clearly and unambiguously stated that the LORD isn't interested in either the proper recitation of formulaic prayers or the enacting of rituals, but in how the people are to live together. I do believe that when the prophet says that the smell of the sacrifices is a stink in God's nostrils in the face of rampant injustice, then it might just be the injustice God is worried about.

More to the point of this particular post, part of my problem with the way Neil is attempting to "argue" here is that bean counting Bible verses on any particular subject means little. It is how one lives with these verses, how one incorporates them in to one's life, that matters. Of course, Bible study is important. But it is study that is key here - reading commentaries, reading histories, struggling with the meaning of any particular verse, including how one may have understood a particular verse or passage at one time, and how that meaning has changed.

This seems such a basic tenet of being faithful, I find it hard to believe it is unclear. A fancy name for it is "the hermeneutic circle" - the interaction of action and reflection in light of Scripture, in which Scripture informs us, and is in-formed in us, and how this interaction changes, and how the meanings change in changing circumstances - but it is really nothing more than wrestling with the Bible in the full knowledge that any interpretation will change over time.

I suppose I'm some kind of weird non-Christian because I just don't take the Bible at its word. Or Word. Oh, well.

The Candidate Of The Iraq Study Group (UPDATE)

In comments here, frequent visitor, commenter, and overall good egg Democracy Lover asks my opinion of the possible independent candidacy of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. As if my opinion were important, I offered that his candidacy will be the Iraq Study Group Report of 2008. We all remember how breathless the Washington Establishment was, waiting for the report of the ISG in the wake of the Republican defeat in the 2006 mid-term elections. I hope we also remember that it was almost immediately irrelevant; not worth the reams of paper it was printed on, the counsel of the Village Elders to their errant son was not only ignored but spat upon, with Bush pulling a George Costanza, and doing the exact opposite, with the results we are currently trying to live with (and many have died with).

A good take (as always) is Glenn Greenwald's, with the best, most succinct description of those who have suddenly discovered how nasty and messy democracy is, and that they really don't like it - "a handful of retired, mediocre politicians with no following are issuing self-absorbed, thug-like demands, complete with deadlines". This is the heart of the problem here; this is, in essence, a King's Party, at a time when the political tide is running (small "d") democratic, we have a bunch of royalists demanding obeisance to the status quo.
Former Senator David L. Boren of Oklahoma, who organized the session with former Senator Sam Nunn, a Democrat of Georgia, suggested in an interview that if the prospective major party nominees failed within two months to formally embrace bipartisanship and address the fundamental challenges facing the nation, "I would be among those who would urge Mr. Bloomberg to very seriously consider running for president as an independent.(emphasis added)

I especially like the part I highlighted, because it perfectly encapsulates the "thinking" of the Washington establishment - do what we say or we'll pout, stamp our feet, and cause a ruckus in the press.

I think digby's worry about a potential Bloomberg candidacy is wrong. Unlike Perot's 1992 run, Bloomberg will not articulate a frustration the country feels, gaining supporters around the country at the expense of either major party candidate. In Perot's case, it was the spiraling federal deficits; Clinton heard the message loud and clear, and thus his first term was dominated by measures to rein in federal spending and reset the tax code to a slightly more progressive basis, making it both just and prudent. The results we lived with, quite well, from 1995 through 2000.

Bloomberg will not articulate anything the Republicans won't. He won't give voters a voice that is not heard elsewhere. His only support will be well-regarded pols who have either retired or been turned out of office by voters in their former constituencies, as well as a few Establishment pundits. Like the ISG report, it will have absolutely no real support in the country, because there is just no support for a post-partisan politics. We continue to live with the politics of non-partisan compromise, to the detriment of us all.

This is the kind of thing Washington insiders love, and the rest of us can ignore quite freely.

UPDATE: I didn't read Eschaton before I wrote the above, but it seems that Duncan says something similar:
Nah, Bloomberg isn't Perot. Just the opposite. Bloomberg is for self-styled Washington insiders who think politics exists to validate their importance and for the Washington Elite Consensus folks who lack a constituency and imagine they need to save the country from the whims of pesky voters and evil communists like John Edwards. It's the permanent floating class of Washington who are sure that "Washington is broken," and who know precisely who to blame - voters. Or maybe bloggers.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

I've Been Tagged By The GOM

I just discovered that I have been meme-tagged by none other than William Gladstone, the great nineteenth century British statesman who continues to live and prosper and offer his vision for his upcoming (in 2009) 200th birthday. Eight "aspirations" (predictions) for the coming year (I have to say that I am only doing this because I have been tagged by a personage of Gladstone's greatness; otherwise, I would not do so):

- I predict that a brokered Republican convention will settle on Newt Gingrich as the nominee; he will lose 49 states and the District of Columbia;

- I predict that, after Clinton and Obama destroy one another in the early primaries, John Edwards emerges as the Democratic front-runner, especially after winning several southern primaries, including Florida and South Carolina;

- I predict that David Broder will die of a brain aneurysm when it becomes clear that Edwards will be the Democratic nominee;

- I predict that George Will will quote everyone from Ignatius of Antioch to Wittgenstein to prove that Edwards is outside the mainstream of western thought;

- I predict that Edwards' running mate will be Dennis Kucinich;

- I predict that most of the music played on commercial radio will suck;

- I predict that Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears will both go in to rehab, and fall off the wagon (OK, so that was an easy one);

- I predict that Focus on the Family will proclaim the end of Christianity in America when Edwards/Kucinich are elected, even as Edwards celebrates his election in his home church in North Carolina, thus providing the final nail in the coffin to the sanity of Focus on the Family.

Some of the predictions are serious. Some are not. I'll leave it to the reader to decide which is which.

Who Jesus Might Be

Back in August I wrote this post in which I set out my position on the whole question of "TRUTH", and got pummeled for my troubles. I find it more than ironic, then, that my wife's worship series for the season of Epiphany concerns discovering who this Jesus is whose birth we just celebrated with all sorts of pomp and circumstance. I say "ironic" because behind the series is the idea that we need to encounter Jesus today, right now, in the face of all the realities we face, most of which would deny to him significance or meaning for our lives. In other words, meeting Jesus is not a matter of asserting various doctrinal statements, but of encounter, of experience, and of making sense of what so much of our world insists is senseless.

We find ourselves, as Christians, in a situation similar in many respects to that of the early church. Ours is a world of many faiths, many religions, many demands upon our ultimate concern and for our consideration as answers to questions of ultimate significance. Christianity is not the single voice of the West; indeed, the only description of the west is a spiritual and cultural fragmentation encouraging either the intransigence of fundamentalism or the openness of pluralism. My own preference should be obvious, but there is no reason to believe that, in the end, we who live in what was once known as Christendom will settle for the pluralist alternative, especially as it offers few existential comforts in a world of competing loyalties.

Part of getting from where we are to where we might like to be includes learning, perhaps for the first time, perhaps just yet again, who Jesus is, or can be, and what he might have to say about our current situation. Part of this process will be to leave ourselves open to the very real, very live option that he might not have anything to say. We might find that a first century Jewish Messiah offers little or nothing for ordering our lives in the chaos of our (post)modern world. Encountering Jesus, whether again or for the first time, in real openness includes facing the reality that we might just need to bid him adieu.

Struggling with issues of faith in a post-Christian age include always keeping in front of one the possibility of true post-Christianity. We should face this squarely, and not shrink from it either in fear or denial. We live without the net of certainty that always existed underneath even our parents and grandparents, and we should face the fact that, walking as we do upon the blade of a sword over the bottomless pit of meaninglessness is where we are now. With all due respect to those of the fundamentalist persuasion, the constant assertion of various doctrinal positions and statements as eternally true might comfort one in the face of the realities we face, but should a slip occur, and one find oneself plummeting, the comfort one thought was a sturdy line will crumble to ashes and dust. We need to move beyond the platitudes of historic doctrine and discover what, if anything Jesus has to say to us today. And we need to accept that is the answer is "nothing", it might be best to set him aside and move on to that which satisfies.

Thus it is without fear, but with trepidation that we take this Epiphany venture, discovering who this Jesus might be for us, here and now. It is often repeated that God does not so much force us to meet on Divine terms, but comes to us as we are. This cliche had better be right if we are to discover in Jesus something worth guiding our steps in these days of multiple religions, of no religion, of easier, more accessible answers to questions that vex and confront us. If not, we might discover, deep in the heart of the Church, that we no longer have need of its soothing words that now are empty of any real meaning for us.

Are we up to the challenge? Do you want to really meet Jesus as he is, not as we wish him to be? The discovery might just be unsettling.

Historical Comparisons Are For Ninnies And Journalists . . . But I Repeat Myself

Joel Achenbach has a piece in the Washington Post today that is one of the oddest things I have read in a while. Purporting to be a comparison between the landmark year of 1968 and the coming election year, in essence the article is a paste-together of factoids, reminiscences of Achenbach's colleagues, and a repeat of the nonsensical notion that Democratic Presidential candidate is talking 1960's revolutionary rhetoric. There is no through-line to the piece, no way to be sure what Achenbach's point was other than to show he has friends who were connected to Bobby Kennedy. With the single exception that this might just be the first glimmer from an establishment reporter that the coming election is important, just as '68's was important, this jumble of sentences really does not quite become an article in the traditional sense, because it isn't really about anything.

The opening paragraph tries to set the tone:
Forty years ago, this country entered what would turn out to be the most politically charged, disorienting, violent and tragic year in modern American history. The year we're now heading into has some surface similarities to 1968: a protracted and wrenching war in Asia, an unpopular president, a wide-open presidential campaign and raw-nerve controversies over civil rights (with gays and immigrants this time) and geopolitics (featuring jihadists instead of communists). The murder of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan is another awful reminder of 1968, when two American heroes, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, lost their lives to assassins.

The first sentence is wrong, because 1970 was much more volatile, especially after the Kent State murder of four young students by National Guardsmen. Campuses all over the country quite literally exploded in rage. Even my little alma mater, Alfred University in western New York State, faced the grim reality of students taking over buildings, tossing bottles and rocks at State Police the Administration called in to settle things down, and even the occasional Molotov cocktail tossed out a window. The biggest marches and demonstrations against the war in Vietnam occurred in 1970, including the national moratorium, which was a nationwide event including a 750,000 person march to the Pentagon, where young people shouting slogans faced troops with bared bayonets and live ammunition. So, right from the start, Achenbach gets it wrong.

Comparing the assassination of Benazir Bhutto to the murders of King and Kennedy is historically ignorant on several levels, not the least of which is she isn't an American. She was neither a crusader for peace and justice, nor a politician who had gone through a life-changing event (in Kennedy's case, the assassination of his brother in 1963) and saw his role and his candidacy in quasi-messianic terms. Bhutto was a twice-elected Prime Minister surrounded by corruption, if not actually the beneficiary of corruption herself, who was instrumental in beginning Pakistan's long march towards nuclear weapons. She returned to Pakistan recently after exile only because of a deal brokered between the Musharraf government and her party by the United States. Otherwise, she might have ended up in a Pakistani prison.

Anyway, so much for setting the stage.

On Edwards, Achenbach seems to have a tin ear for political rhetoric that isn't part of our normal political discourse.
Where is the spirit of that Kennedy campaign? Certainly with Obama, who's so often described as Kennedyesque. But you can also find it in the candidacy of John Edwards.

A week before Christmas, Edwards stopped in Keene, a small city in a valley in the southwest corner of New Hampshire -- prime turf for liberals, leftists, artists, organic farmers, college professors. Edwards brought Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne as his warm-up act. They sounded terrific, the lyrics saturated in idealism.

Things like hunger, greed and hatred[.]

One way or another, gonna be eradicated

Out came Edwards, and he was on fire. The former senator talked about ending the war in Iraq and taking power away from big corporations. He said 35 million Americans last year went hungry. He talked about the uninsured Americans who must take their sick kids to the emergency room in the middle of the night and beg for treatment. He talked about a man who spent 50 years with a cleft palate, unable to talk, without money or insurance to pay for an operation that would finally let him speak. "In America," he said. His rhetoric could easily have come from Kennedy or King in early 1968. He predicted that he will ride a wave of popular sentiment that will shock the mainstream. He was, in essence, describing what in the '60s would have been known as The Movement.

"The Movement"? Edwards is describing the realities millions of Americans face. The fact that Achenbach stresses Edwards' mention of hunger in America, as if it were some strange anomaly, shows that this isn't "Movement" rhetoric, and Edwards isn't some hippie who got "Clean for Gene" with a $400 haircut. He is a populist politician who is describing what 40 years of Republican political hegemony has wrought, and that it is possible for the American people to do something about it. We have before, and we can again.

This, more than any other part of Achenbach's piece, is the most disturbing. Like Republican politicians who continue to fight the battles of the '60's, Achenbach is stuck in some kind of time loop, unable to describe political events outside some weird kind of framework that sees anyone not bowing to corporate power as a "revolutionary". That Edwards is actually speaking of the disenfranchisement of Americans to those disenfranchised Americans, and in so doing offering them hope, is lost on someone who would rather recount how one of his colleagues has a legal pad with 40-year-old handwriting on it. All in the awe-filled tones of someone holding the Magna Carta.

2008 and 1968 will only be alike in this way - this will be a year when one political party that has dominated our public life for over a generation will get a boot (large or small depending, but the boot nonetheless) - and the other party spends years trying to figure out what happened and why, and trying to reinvent itself. Pretty much everything else Achenbach writes about is bunk.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Saturday Rock Show

Via Pandora, I have discovered another of those symphonic progressive heavy metal bands that seem to sound alike, but I can't help liking. This is "Mirror, Mirror" from Blind Guardian.

If You Can Fake Authenticity, You've Got It Made

In this post, in which Pastor Dan comments on Rod Dreher's take on Mike Huckabee, we are faced with the whole issue of authenticity in politics. Essentially, PD seems to be making the argument summed up in this post title. I think he is both wrong and right. I think Huckabee's mostly phony, aw-shucks-just-plain-folks, Baptist preacher persona resonates with a certain segment of the Republican primary voting bloc. For the most part, however, I think most people, judging by the horror of the Republican establishment at Huckabee's sudden surge, recognize phony when it smacks them in the face (this same phenomenon behind Mitt Romney's crash - most people recognize he has remade himself into something he is not).

Where PD is right is in this:
That means the voters' yearning for authenticity and community will continue to go unsated. That's as it should be: politics can't solve everything. But to the extent that politics can provide solutions - an ability Americans tend to cynically under-estimate - I believe that our role is to keep pushing for the authentic and the truly communal. Don't let the candidates off with half-truths and glib remarks. Make them be real (and take a meat ax to the media when they won't allow it). Make them suggest real, helpful alternatives.

Interesting enough, however, I think that the words "authenticity" and "community" are empty words, filled in by whoever hears them. To some, there is little that is authentic about Rudy Giuliania, even as he has a record that jibes pretty well with his rather sociopathic rhetoric. For others, it is Sen. Clinton who is the big phony, even as she runs a cautious, careful campaign, refusing to commit herself to more than health care reform. For some reason, keeping herself open, and refusing to commit herself beforehand to any particular policy proposal is a sign of inauthenticity. On the other hand, Obama seems to have the Democratic corner on authenticity, even as he tries to make himself post-political, which is about as real an option as committing the nation to a Mars landing by next October. Dodd and Kucinich and Edwards, in many ways the most "authentic" candidates on the Democratic side (to the extent that their campaigns center on certain themes and rarely stray from these themes), get little press coverage, unless one counts the nonsensical haircut crap about Edwards.

There will always be a measure of artifice about political campaigns. There is no way around this. Yet, the discussions of "authenticity" that fail to note how consistent the candidates have been - even the inauthentic ones (Romney is perhaps the worst offender) - are more the problem than the candidates themselves. The most honest assessment comes from Chip Reid of CBS News, who is covering the Edwards' campaign:
I’m a bit unhappy with John Edwards. I’ve been covering his campaign for 10 days and he hasn't made a lot of news. Let’s face it – a lot of what political reporters report on is mistakes. The campaign trail is one long minefield, covered with Iowa cow pies, and when they step in one – we leap.

I’ve done very little leaping – and I blame Edwards. While other candidates misspeak, over-speak, and double-speak, Edwards (at least in these 10 days) has made so few mistakes that I end up being transported -- newsless -- from town to town like a sack of Iowa corn .

He has a remarkable ability to stay on message. Not just in “the speech,” but even in Q and A. Nothing throws him off. He turns nearly every question into another opportunity to repeat his central theme. Global warming? We need to fight big oil. Health care? Fight the big drug and insurance companies. Iowa farmers’ problems? Blame those monster farm conglomerates. And the Iowa populists eat it up.

In other words, what Edwards' says, and the reception he receives isn't nearly as interesting as the fact that his is a disciplined campaign, staying on message.

It isn't inauthentic politicians that are the problem. It is stupid, bored journalists who would rather write about haircuts and gaffes than serious policy issues.

Cognitive Dissonance

With all the blather in the media about what a horrible Islamic theocratic dictatorship Iran is; about how insane its current President is (He denies the Holocaust! He wants to destroy Israel!); with our news media playing this game of pretending Iran is building a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons to bring the United States to its knees; it is nice to see images of ordinary Iranians actually engaged in ordinary things. Some of those Iranians are Christians. Some of those ordinary things include celebrating Christmas.

I know that it is hard to wrap one's mind around the fact that Iran is a pluralistic democracy, but it is. I also know that it is hard to wrap one's mind around the fact that, while titularly a Republic, Iran is in fact a kind of constitutional monarchy, with the Ayatollah (currently Khameini) a kind of de facto king, primer inter pares. I know that it is difficult to wrap one's mind around the fact that minority religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, are legally protected in Iran. We have been fed so much crap over the past 28 years about Iran that discovering the reality that is very modern Iran is a bit like discovering the fact that Santa Claus doesn't exist; it upsets the equilibrium one has maintained about the world.

I chose this photo, from Photo Activists for Peace, because it shows a beautiful church with full pews. There are other photos there - including one of children visiting Santa Claus - that show how ordinary Iranian Christmas traditions are. Contrasting the life of Iranian Christians with that of the now non-existent Iraqi Christian community (even during the height of the medieval caliphate and Crusades, there were thriving Christian and Jewish communities in Baghdad) is even more important now, as the Bush Administration seems hell-bent on bombing Iran for no reason; we know what has been wrought in Iraq by our Commander-in-Chief's ability to destroy everything he touches, so it might be a good idea to download some of these photos because if Bush has his way, Iranian Christianity might just end up going the way of the dinosaur and Iraqi Christianity.

A generous h/t to Fire Dog Lake; photo courtesy of Photo Activists for Peace.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Only One Thing (UPDATED)

Is there anything else going on besides coverage of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto? I've read the Washington Post story online. I've read various commentaries on commentaries - the kind of meta-meta-stuff that certainly fills airtime, while providing nothing of real substance. Yet, the simple truth is this - it is neither surprising, nor particularly important, except to the extent that one could actually trust Prevez Musharaf to actually carry through on anything.

The biggest irony of all is something that has been lost down the memory hole of our ADHD major media. Early in campaign 2000, Pres. Bush was interviewed for an article in which one item in particular stood out for criticism from "press critics" who thought the journalist who did the interview was mean to then-Governor Bush. Bush was asked who was the leader of Pakistan. This occurred a few months after Musharaf took power in a coup d'etat. Bush answered that he didn't know. Much of the "criticism", which complained of shallow "gotcha-journalism", missed the point that while Bush may not have known the details of the internal politics of Pakistan, he certainly should have known what many well-informed American citizens knew. In light of the centrality of Pakistan to our foreign policy, such as it has been, for the past seven years, knowing who led that country, and how he came to power, might, in retrospect, be considered important.

In any event, Bhutto is dead, like her brothers and father. The country to which she dedicated her life sinks further in to sectarian violence coupled with authoritarianism, and, as dday at Hullabaloo notes, American policy in South Asia is basically in tatters.

UPDATE: You know, Rudy Giuliani getting all narcissistic about the Bhutto assassination is one thing. Now, the Democrats are getting in on the act, taking this tragic event and turning it in to a reflection on their Presidential primary campaigns.

Jesus on a chariot-driven sidecar.

It would have been the better part of valor for Sen. Clinton at least to show that she has the maturity to shut the hell up, after Sen. Obama's stupid comment. This is one instance where the kind of war-room, instant response kind of politicking is wrong. It would have been much better to just make a condolence statement, to show what real statesmanship (statespersonship?) is like. This is politics at its most stupid.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

My Anti-Year In Review

I don't like "Year In Review" things. For one thing, most of what passes through our consciousness is ephemeral, fleeting, replaced tomorrow by something equally if not more important, outrageous, beautiful, exciting, infuriating, hate-filled, loving, you name it. For another thing, there just seems to be few through-lines, or trend lines, or rising/falling fates-features of our public life (unless one takes the Britney Spears career implosion/Lindsay Lohan career implosion/Paris Hilton jail trauma narrative as important; of course, now we have Britney's sister getting pregnant, so it's like an even worse sequel to a really bad movie, straight to video). Finally, this year was, in many ways, prologue to next year - the up-coming Presidential campaign is, to put not too fine a point on it, and to say it for one of the few times that such words will actually mean something, the most important election since 1968, perhaps even since 1932. The Republicans look as if they might nominate no one; the Democratic race is looking tighter, but except for Sen. Clinton, any change at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW would be significant.

So, rather than look back at a year less than a week away from the history books, I would much rather look forward to 2008. I refuse to make predictions (I don't want to look like Bill Kristol, after all) except to say the year should be interesting, hard on many if not most working people (myself included), and include many surprises.

What Do You Think Of Fine Tune

I am experimenting with a new widget, in case you haven't noticed. From a site called Fine Tune, it is a free streaming service, allowing people to set up a 45-song set. The rules are that you are limited to three songs per artist - keeping you from having an all-Beatles, all-Grateful Dead, or all Reba McIntyre set. On the plus side (against Pandora), it is embeddable in Blogger. On the down side, it really has a very limited playlist - I types in all sorts of artists and the site didn't recognize them. I'm going to give it a try here, and would appreciate feedback. I put the set together yesterday morning waiting for my kids to wake up for Christmas. I did it in a hurry, and I'm not sure I even approve all the selections I made. I can always make more, or different ones. Right now, I'm just kind of getting a feel for it. If my musical taste doesn't sit well with you, there is a stop button, or you can just turn the volume down if one selection doesn't do it for you.

If only I could embed Pandora . . .

A Rabbi Takes Down Congress

Rabbi Irwin Kula has weighed in on the Congressional resolution regarding the significance of Christmas, and the piece is worth reading for its wisdom, insight, and the smackdown on Congress that it so richly deserves.
It would be humorous if it were not so depressing that adherents of and believers in a great religion like Christianity think that the approval of a group of politicians, who besides having no particular expertise in religion have themselves exhibited a remarkable level of incompetence at the job they are supposed to be doing, actually would make any difference in what anyone would or should think about this two thousand year old tradition. Is there anyone who seriously thinks this resolution will actually inspire people to deepen their respect for Christianity - that this resolution offered by a bunch of politicians who pass such affirming resolutions on just about every possible issue – National Pet Month, National Watermelon Month to name just two - will make anyone more seriously recognize that Christianity is a great faith? Personally, the fact that the House of Representatives passed this resolution diminishes Christianity for it makes Christianity just one more political lobbying cause - a political special interest and what is worse the resolution itself could not be more both banal and arrogant.

The only thing that is unremarkable about Rabbi Kula's little article is that it is the same thing people have been saying about the politicization of religion in America for a generation. Only now, it seems, are people paying attention.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Music Monday - Christmas Edition

OK, this isn't really a "Christmas" hymn, but I first heard it on a collection of Christmas songs by the Dale Warland Singers. It is beautiful, called "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree", here done by the choir of Kings College, Cambridge:

I refuse to give in to popular ignorance and put up a bunch of the music from Handel's oratorio The Messiah. It is an Easter oratorio. Yet, there is one passage, "For Unto Us A Child Is Born", that can, with justice, be sung at Christmas. This is Robert Shaw Conducting the Atlanta Symphony and Chamber Chorus:

One of my favorite Christmas Songs is "Coventry Carol". I guess I just have a soft spot for English hymnody. This is the Royal College of Music Chamber Singers:

To you and yours, one last time - Merry Christmas, and may you be richly blessed by the birth of hope and life and light.

The Emperor's Tailors Are Naked, Too

Just one political post, then it's on to the wrapping, church services (my wife has three, from 4:30 until midnight), turkey, and a LLLOOOOONNNNGGGG day tomorrow. May God richly Bless and keep you safe. And remember, it isn't the third package of blue socks, it's the love behind them that matters.

I saw this yesterday over at Crooks and Liars, and wondered how it is possible for Bill Kristol to speak so clearly, when his head is so far up his ass. Dick Cheney wins a brokered GOP convention, and goes on to win in November? No matter who the Republicans nominate, it will be a Republican year in 2008? Huh?

There's delusional, and then there's just batshit insane. Bill Kristol is the new crazy guy wandering down the street, muttering to himself.

I think I should make it clear that I know Kristol is not a journalist, even though he plays one on TV and as editor of The Weekly Standard. While it should be clear that this kind of nonsense is meaningless to everyone but Kristol himself, so in love with his own vast powers of analysis and insight that he has no idea how absolutely wrong about everything he has been, and will continue to be.

Yet, is Kristol so different from the rest of the chattering and typing classes? Perusing this post by Glenn Greenwald, I was led to re-read this from digby. It is one of her great gifts that she knows how to find the nonsense our current Emperor's courtiers and courtesans continue to spill out in to public, revealing less about our politics than about their own petty obsessions and childish preferences. To be as fair as it is possible to be - in the Spirit of Bob Cratchit's wife, for the day's sake if not necessarily for their own - by revealing their own weaknesses, foibles, and biases (let's hang out with this cool kid!), we do see quite clearly that the issue isn't ideology, or at least not all ideology. There is nothing wrong with saying, "This guy or gal is pretty likable," as long as one does not forget that one has a professional responsibility to move beyond such nonsense. None of the most influential Washington-based journalists, however, seem to feel they should do so, or have an obligation to inform their readers and listeners on issues of substance. Like Maureen Dowd acting surprised that someone might think she should write about welfare reform, the rest of them continue to believe that their role is to inform the public who is, in the oft-repeated phrase of George W. Bush, "a good man." What the "good" means is, apparently, a secret known only to those in the know.

I think, however, the historical epoch when Washington-based journalists and insiders actually influenced American public opinion is over. Of course, it is arguable that it ever actually existed, and that might be a subject for serious historical study; for the nonce, it will be assumed that journalists had a role - not the role, not even prima inter pares - in shaping general public opinion towards major candidates (and ignoring also-rans) for national office. From Walter Lippmann and Joseph and Stuart Alsop and their many imitators and wannabes, some journalists have recognized that journalists can, and occasionally do, have a role, an "in" with the powerful. I doubt whether Lippmann ever overcame the heady role he played with Wilson and Wilson's eminence gris "Colonel" House in developing domestic policy as an unofficial adviser after the American declaration of war on Germany in April, 1917. Like many who came later, who discovered that the attractions of power often lead to awful places (Bill Moyers as LBJ's press spokesman is a great example), Lippmann was very hard on Wilson, feeling that the latter had "betrayed" the ideals for which war had been declared. In fact, it was Lippmann who was used, and tossed aside, by House and Wilson, and only Lippmann's tremendous ego and naivete, not a great combination, could shield the facts from him.

The process accelerated with the emergence of true American Imperialism after the Second World War; every Empire needs its chroniclers, and there was no shortage in supply as America became the only superpower on the planet. Journalists lunched with Presidential advisers, sat in on private meetings with major legislators and Presidential aides, attended parties, weddings, and other social events with them. Despite obvious professional conflicts, they could be considered of similar social standing - they were "players". By seeing themselves as players, their professional roles changed subtly over the years.

I do not know, for sure, if there was ever a time when Washington-based journalists were as influential as they believed themselves to be. They surely influenced the ways the powerful in Washington acted; yet one wonders how far that extended once one moved beyond the precincts of suburban Maryland and northern Virginia. With the emergence of television, these same folks could be said to reach a wide audience, certainly - yet having a big audience (or potential audience) is not the same thing as influencing such an audience.

With the many changes our country has been through since January, 2001 (and, perhaps by extension, going back to December, 1998, when the House of Representatives voted to impeach Pres. Clinton, even as one Speaker and his designated successor had to step aside because of behavior for which they were seeking to remove the President), I do believe the clownish behavior of our major media-types will be less than meaningless. It is one thing to see that our Emperor is, in fact, naked. It is another thing altogether to see that his entire retinue, including those who have wrapped him in the mantle of power and prestige, are not only similarly adorned, but are blissfully ignorant of their own nakedness before the American people.

In 1932, the opinion of the major press barons and the few reporters who were "national" was that FDR was a sure loser. They all knew his polio had left him a cripple; they all knew his wife was ugly, the couple estranged due to his long-time affair; they all knew his policies were nothing but Americanized Bolshevism, and that Roosevelt was little more than a traitor to his class. Hoover was solid, confident, refused to call the economic and social disaster all around everyone else what it was (to do so would be to legitimize it in the eyes of the American people; the Depression was nothing more than a crisis in American confidence); his wife, Lu, was among the most popular women in America. When Maine (which actually voted in Congressional elections two months early back then) went Democratic for the first time since before the Civil War, a few paid attention, but then, Congress had changed hands in 1930, so that was one thing. All the press thought Hoover was just the bees knees, and would walk away with a second term, because FDR couldn't.

So, maybe, they've always been both ignorant and wrong.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Repeat

I was going to write something about A Christmas Carol and discovered I already had last year. So, slightly touched up to correct some errors, is this post from December 24, 2006. Feliz Navidad.

I know I said I was going to take a break, but I felt a need, as it were, to put up something here from Dickens' A Christmas Carol (I have the Yale University Press fascimile edition of the original manuscript; try reading Dickens' handwriting, and you'll not have a merry Christmas). The high point of the story, for me, is not the disclosure at the grave that Scrooge will die that night. Personally I have always felt that irrelevant; we all die, and none of us know the manner of our death or the status of those who might or might not mourn. For me, the climax is the lecture Scrooge receives from the Spirit of Christmas Present at Cratchit's house. Scrooge has just been told that Tiny Tim will die (and there is no condition placed upon that fate; Tim is as dead as Marley's doornail whether Scrooge changes or not, all the TV specials notwithstanding) and he begins to weep. The Spirit quotes back Scrooge's words concerning the adventitious nature of death, decreasing the surplus population, and then he continues:

"Man!" said the Ghost, "if man you be in heart not adamants; forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you and such as you decide what men shall live, what men shall die! It my be, that in the sight of heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. . . ."

I wonder what the oh-so-superior, oh-so-perfectly knowledgeable idiots on the right make of such a statement. O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh, Coulter, Malkin - the whole blathering herd of non-thinking flapping lips stand as Scrogge stands, under the judgment of their own words, their own sense of superiority, hoist by their own petard, as it were.

Dickens' novella is a part and parcel of Christmas celebration because it echoes the true meaning of the day - the new birth offered even to the most "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" - against the backdrop of a society dedicated to forgetting the truth that God's love is not measured by the wealth of the nation, or the effectiveness of its business culture. Those who claim a War on Christmas would do to remember Dickens' words in the mouth of that sublime and joyous Spirit - the real War is the one waged day after day to render inhuman all those who do not agree with them; to create a society as unfeeling, as uncaring, indeed as hostile as the one in which Scrooge stomped about with his eyes downcast. We should all remember this day that any of us, myself most definitely included, are in no position to pass judgment upon the lives, and most especially the untimely deaths, of others apart from pronouncing them upon ourselves. While I would offer, with Dickens, that this tale not leave you out of the spirit of th day, perhaps there is a lesson here we can recall in the heat of July, or the rain of April, or the falling leaves of October - we are fellow-travelers upon this globe, and all we should do is help one another as fellow-travelers.

God Bless us, everyone.

Some Atheist Spirituality For Christmas

I saw this over at the Newsweek/Washington Post online "On Faith" forum, and was blown away. Entitled "An Atheist Chooses Jesus Over Santa" by Andre Comte-Sponville, who, we are informed, is the author of the forthcoming book The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. I urge all of you to go read the whole thing. Here are a few highlights:
Just look at Santa Claus, bearded and pot-bellied, entertaining the passersby on the sidewalk. The man who dresses as Santa gets paid to do it. I can excuse him for this – one has to earn a living – but I cannot excuse his employer. In fact, I’m surprised that our churches don’t criticize this. The belief in Santa Claus is worse than heresy, which at least has good faith in itself. Santa is just a superstition for children, a lie for adults, and a generally stupid concept.


And what is the opposite of Santa Claus? A child rather than an old man. Poor rather than rich. Hidden rather than exposed. He who has nothing to sell, nothing to give, nothing more than his life and his love. The opposite of Santa Claus is Jesus Christ: the naked infant between the bull and the donkey, the innocent victim between two thieves, the crib and Calvary. These two images, in their extremes, are the most famous of the beautiful nativity story. They demonstrate the essence of this God, who is the weakest of all gods, the most human, and for all that, the most earthshaking.


What does Jesus symbolize? The primacy of love, even when weak, defeated, humbled, and tortured. Easter marks his victory, his omnipotence, his divinity. Christmas marks his weakness, his fragility, his humanity. This is why Christmas has more significance to me. It’s not the victory that I like, it’s the love. Not the power, but the justice. Not divinity, but humanity.

This is why I am an atheist, while remaining faithful – as best as I can – to the spirit of Christ, who represents justice and charity. That is the true spirit of Christmas – the basic opposite of which is the spirit of Santa Claus (if he has a spirit at all), and beyond that it is the spirit of his zealous fans, big and small, who embody selfishness and consumption.

Can I get an "Amen"?

Their Own Worst Enemies

John Judis from The New Republic and Ruy Teixeira from The Center for American Progress have a piece in today's Washington Post entitled "Get Ready for a Democratic Era". I have been saying this for a long time - the vaunted "realignment" Karl Rove and other Republican operatives carried on about only showed how myopic he and they were. The Republicans have had the kind of run over the past forty or so years that should be the envy of most political parties. They have set the agenda. They have controlled the White House for all but twelve of those years. They controlled Congress, either directly or through alliances with conservative Democrats, for most of this same period. Even now, some Democrats, too used to being cowed by Republican dominance, do not realize they no longer need to fear them. Indeed, while Judis and Teixeira are correct, they miss the fact that the coming Democratic era will not include the current Congressional "leadership" unless they recognize the changed reality around them. The game has changed, and with a new game, new players are needed.

The opening of the article is succinct, and needs to be memorized by every Washington insider who still believes that Karl Rove is a political genius:
Karl Rove's grandest aspiration was to create a Republican majority that would dominate American politics for a generation or more. But as the effects of his distinctive brand of fear-mongering fade, it's the Democrats who are poised to become the country's majority party -- and perhaps for a long time to come.

While the Democrats continue to cave in to President Bush's every "demand", for reasons I can only assume are based in the fear of Republican name-calling, a habit of cowardice that, while understandable, is inexcusable, this paragraph sums up why Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Harry Reid need to thumb their noses at the President and his lick-spittles in Congress and go about their work without a thought for the hissy fits they will throw.

The Republican's time is up. Unless these folks, and many others like them, want to be pushed aside, they need to recognize the changing political climate around them, and change themselves. In other words, lead, or get the hell out of the way.

The article itself is an object lesson in how the parties need to see the country. With the exception of the invocation of the non-existent "Reagan Democrats", the article is a profoundly good one. With a slew of retirements, with the political, demographic, social, and cultural changes that have been moving forward since the mid-1990's, the prospects for any Republican candidate at the national level is not good; for some, retirement seems the better option than losing.

The fracturing of the Republican coalition, personified perfectly by the libertarian Ron Paul facing down the war-wongering John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani, even as Republican crowds boo him, should be evident for all to see. Meanwhile, the emerging Democratic coalition of liberalized suburbs, racial minorities eager to move civil rights to the next level, and a general nation feeling that Washington-based politicians are not listening to the people on the issues that matter, including health care reform, the environment, fiscal soundness and probity, and infrastructure investment - one wonders how the ceaseless babble from the nattering classes, the mindless invocations against taxes and terrorism are anything else than the memorized choruses of those whose imaginations are as shriveled as their souls.

Yet, the Democrats, as they have amply shown this year, can still screw this up, by refusing to yield to the new realities around them, and giving pride of place to such useless people as Reid, Hoyer, and Pelosi. They are a drag on the party's fortunes; their constant babble is not matched by anything but the actions of political cowards, and they have yet to accept they stand against a President who's approval ratings have not even been close to 40% for over a year. Yet, still the wipe their brows, and shuffle their feet, afraid the Republicans will mangle them in the press, or at the polls, if they stand up to Bush. They have failed to accept the most basic reason they were handed responsibility in the first place - to stand up to Bush.

I have no doubt that 2008 will be a Democratic year. Should the next Congress re-elect Nancy Pelosi Speaker, Steny Hoyer Majority Leader, and Harry Reid Senate Majority Leader, I fear that all the possibilities will be pissed away, as they continue to defer to Republicans, who will howl even louder in the minority than they ever have before.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Saturday Rock Show - Two For the Holidays

You know, Crooks and Liars stole my idea for the first of my two Christmas Rock music posts. Damn John Amato and his ties to the record industry! Well, I'm using a different version (I've not seen the new Battlestar Galactica, and I'm not sure of the relevance here, anyway). The Call's "Let The Day Begin" would be either a prelude, postlude, or anthem for a rock service if I were to do one. "Here's to the closing of the age . . ."

I used to get all choked up over the line "Here's to the soldiers from the forgotten war/Here's to the wall that bears their name". Having stood several times before the Vietnam War Memorial, and watched grown men weep as they traced the name of a fallen friend, comrade, or relative, you can't help but weep. Someday, I hope, our current crop of vets will have the chance.

I think it was 1983, although it might have been 1984, Yes lead singer Jon Anderson released a solo Christmas album. Still having the last dregs of cachet as lead singer of Yes, he hosted a Christmas Party on the original MTV network. The video is pretty cheesy, I know, but I like the song. This is another case of me having been really stupid as a youth, by the way. This album, as far as I know, was another never converted to compact disc. I never purchased the LP, although it was readily available for a long time. Ah, well. This is "I Saw Three Ships".

My guess is that posting will be spotty over the ensuing days, and obviously non-existent on Tuesday. If you are taking a break from the craziness of the internet, which is understandable, then Merry Christmas, all of the blessings and hope of the season, and may you not get indigestion from too much candy, turkey/goose/ham, and please have patience with your relatives because they are having patience with you.

I have never said this, and I might not again for a while. Truth is - I love and appreciate all of you. Having even one reader is a blessing; having all the visitors I do - it is overwhelming.

No Man Is Alone Who Truly Has Friends

To say I am overwhelmed by the response to my request for help yesterday would be an understatement. Faced with the discomforting reality that emergencies can create a temporary (very temporary, one hopes) bind, we now can make it for the four days until I get paid.

This is a real George Bailey moment. It isn't that I was considering suicide (please; even if it was eight grand I was faced with losing, I wouldn't toss myself off a bridge because of filthy lucre); it is that both of us felt at our wits end - and perfect strangers came through and helped. You are all proof that there is goodness, kindness, trust, and hope in the world, and on behalf of Lisa and myself, thank you and God bless you.

In the spirit of openness and accountability that I think is necessary whenever money is involved, the gifts totaled $175.00. In keeping with my pledge, $17.50 will be given to PGUMC and its ministries. Another seventeen-fifty will go to Medicins Sans Frontiers (that's Doctor's Without Borders to those among you not familiar with the language of snail-eaters).

Again, many thanks. I am now a debtor to all of you, and fear I may never know how to repay this debt I owe. As long as it doesn't involve listening to Toby Keith, I'm yours.

Friday, December 21, 2007

From The Polar Express To The Magic Bus . . . And Back

My family and I were watching The Polar Express and, me being me, I got to thinking about some weird juxtapositions, certain social . . . ironies? . . . involved. The story takes place at some point during the 1950's; had Tom Hanks' character survived Saving Private Ryan, one could almost imagine this as some kind of weird sequel.

The biggest trauma older baby boomers faced was the assassination of President Kennedy. In many ways, that event - which revealed the dark underbelly of America; the reality of the persistence of an evil that transcends our attempts to mechanize it, socialize it, bureaucratize it, and organize it out of existence - was the political equivalent of the fantasy of no longer believing in Santa Claus. While much of the Kennedy myth was postmortem, there is no doubt that his appeal stemmed in part from his own inspiring desire to be believed more than what he was. What he was, in fact, was a pill-popping philanderer, suffering debilitating pain, with limited social vision and political instincts. What he presented was a vital, vigorous, progressive, faithful powerful presence - staring down the Red Bear, either in Berlin or Havana. His destruction of South Vietnamese infrastructure during 1962 and in to 1963, with the help of RVN President Ngo Dihn Diem, led to the first mass protest against the war - in Vietnam, when a Buddhist monk, protesting the anti-Buddhist policies of the Catholic Ngo, immolated himself. Kennedy acquiesced when he realized that Ngo might actually balk at the lengths he, Kennedy, believed necessary to end the Viet Cong insurrection.

In much the same way, the whole Santa Claus thing can be seen as an allegory for lost innocence. As plaid out in the film Polar Express, we have a nine or ten year old boy who is facing a kind of crisis of faith. He has certain facts that challenge his belief in the red-suited one; yet he has a desire not to surrender the belief in the face of contradictory facts. Given the opportunity to take a trip, he goes, never quite accepting it as real until confronted by Santa himself.

Yet, even after the climactic moment, he realizes he has failed - in losing the bell he loses the token of proof necessary to support his belief in the event itself. The discovery of the bell under the tree is, in some ways, like a resurrection moment. The reality of the trip may have been in question; but it is a reality that can be supported now by nothing so huge as a small bell.

I still picture the boy, the young girl, and the rest of the children on the train, ten or twelve years later, sitting around in dashikis, passing a hash pipe, all in long hair, some of the boys in beards, listening to "White Rabbit" or "The Other One" or "This is the End", discussing a sit-in, or march. That, too, is a reality that, with the passing of years, must seem as much a dream as a trip to the North Pole. Yet, with the passing of years, the radicals who chanted "F-U-C-K" along with Country Joe MacDonald at Yasgur's Farm looks back not to the idyll in August, but to the train trip - to a point not when the loss of innocence is flaunted but when lost innocence is confronted with the challenge that innocence does in fact have a basis, perhaps not in reality, but in dreams just as powerful as reality.

In our time of political and social integration, in many ways I believe that it is necessary to hold these two, different yet related, traveling experiences in tension. Those who danced naked in the rain at Woodstock are now approaching retirement, and it is a natural human tendency to revel in the nostalgia of childhood, especially at Christmas. Yet, I think that recalling both group travels - both partly within the mind of the traveler - are necessary. Both are important. Part of my own disgust with much of the counter-culture and political radicalism of the late-1960's lies in the fact that, belief having been shattered in Dallas and in the pages of Camus, Sartre, the novels of John Barth, and the rice-paddies of South Vietnam, belief itself became something akin to surrender to a corrupt, criminal system. Without belief, no political process can long hold together; without belief, even in the rightness of one's own political, social, and cultural instincts (even if they are counter what is currently acceptable), there is no way to sustain the hard work necessary to keep working for change. As senescence sets in, it seems that The Polar Express shows that the desire for belief is still there. I just wonder if those same young senior citizens will turn, with time, to reacquiring the fire in the belly, if perhaps not the fashion and preference for opiates, that energized them when the first blush of youth had fallen from their ideals.

An Emergency Appeal

This is perhaps the hardest post I have ever written. The truth is - Lisa and I are in a bit of financial crunch right now. I know it's the holidays, and everyone is a tad strapped, but any help given through Amazon will be gratefully accepted.

The only thing worse than admitting one has money problems to the world is asking for help. This is not a case of living beyond our means, or of biting off more than we can chew. It's not a case of spending lavishly on our liberal lifestyle, or buying too many Christmas presents after all my talk of not spending a whole lot. It's just a couple emergencies unforeseen and the realization that we don't have the means to make it through the next week (until I get paid). It sucks, but it's reality. Any help at all will make me a debtor to all.

Please forgive this craven begging. We are in a pickle, and I feel as if I have little choice.

When Bureaucrats Kill

I heard this story this morning on the Marketplace Morning Report, and "infuriated" doesn't begin to describe how I still feel.
A 17-year-old girl died at UCLA Medical Center last night. Heartbreaking enough. But her death has a lot of people upset with her insurance company. CIGNA refused to cover a liver transplant for her. . . .


Nataline Sarkisyan had been battling leukemia. She developed complications from a bone-marrow transplant. That caused her liver to fail.

CIGNA said there was a lack of evidence that a transplant would help. The company changed its mind and said it would cover a transplant after protests yesterday organized by a California nurses' union. But Sarkisyan died before she could have the transplant.

Whenever I hear people whine about "socialized medicine", one of the refrains that sounds most often is "I don't want bureaucrats deciding treatment". I try to explain that we already have that, only they're private bureaucrats, not public ones. In the former case, they are bureaucrats whose primary loyalty is to the company for which they work and the stockholders of said company. In the latter case, as long as the law is written well, their need be no such problems (one of the benefits of public versus private bureaucracies). This doesn't mean the system will be perfect. It only means that the bureaucrats with whom we deal will be loyal to a law the defines exactly how they should act.

All the arguments over mandates, all the nonsensical drivel about socialized medicine misses the simple reality that even with health insurance, people are denied coverage and suffer the consequences, including death. I don't give a damn about the insurance companies' bottom line. One young woman's death is one too many, and CIGNA has that, and many others (I am sure) on their corporate consciences. They killed this young woman in the name of profit, as surely as they had put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger.

Like we always hear in Mafia movies, it isn't personal, it's just business. Dead is still dead, though.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Opening Pandora's Box

I have just discovered nirvana. Heaven. A place of rest and respite. A gold mine. The best place on the internet.

It's called Pandora, and it gives you the ability to create your very own radio station streaming for free. I have my own, and it took me about ten seconds to set it up. If I could find a plug in to my blog, I would do so. Check it out. There are established music channels, those of others like me who have set their own up, and so much more. Check it out.

Leaving Some Room

Over at Street Prophets, Pastor Dan provides, via New Testament scholar Paul Achtemeier, the perfect encapsulation of why I just can't buy in to certain notions. One notion is that it is incumbent upon us to ensure that all our doctrinal "i"'s are dotted and "t"'s crossed in order to be Christian. Another notion, one that does not at all seem related to the first, is that we have an obligation to act in accordance with high principle at all costs, ignoring political and historical reality, in the knowledge that at least "we" are high-minded and clear-sighted enough to so act and see where others are clouded by the messiness of the world around them. First the quote, then a bit of commentary.
The self-righteousness of those who believe that unless they do the good it can never be done is a fearful thing, and it is abroad in the world today. Much of the vilification visited by social reformers upon those who do not fully support, let alone upon those who question, their programs is the result of their feeling that unless their version of societal reform is enacted no redemption will ever occur. Such hostility toward those who disagree with their program for goodness bears eloquent testimony to the outcome of such self-idolatry which occurs with the loss of hope for God's future. That the Christian is not passively to accept injustice is patent from what Paul has just said about the Christian obligation to love, and hence to aid, one's fellow human beings. But unless that love is tempered by the hope of God's final redemption, it will turn into an instrument of ideological tyranny and fearful self-righteousness.

As regards the first notion, quite simply put, we will never get our theology, or our practice right. This does not absolve us of the duty to think through what we believe and why. It merely reminds us that, no matter how intricate, how much in keeping with the history of doctrine (or veering wide of that particular mark), how fruitful it is in winning the hearts and minds of others, ninety-nine percent of it is nonsense, having nothing whatsoever to do with who God is, and what it is God requires of us. Since the best of scripture can be described as "murky", and most of it can be described as "contradictory", one relies as one can and must upon what one believes is right as a guide to interpretation. Too often even the most thorough and pious exegete leaves aside much that remains in the text. So, at best, we do what we can, and leave the rest to God, trusting in grace to pick up the slack. Karl Barth said that all theology was only prolegomena, and he is so right.

Living with the tension of knowing that we are called to an impossible task - putting forward what can only generously be considered our "best guess" - is never easy. Often, it leaves us throwing up our hands. The criticisms of those who are so sure of themselves, both in their pronouncements and in their judgments rankle precisely because we wish we could be so sure. I, for one, wish I could. I cannot, not and be honest to what I believe. Yet, I know little else of what we can do, or at least I can do. So, I move forward as best I can, and when the end comes, if it resembles anything like tradition tells us it might, I can only hope that God has a sense of humor.

As for the other notion, this reflects my own frustration of living with another tension - knowing what is right to do, and knowing what it is possible to accomplish within the limits of how we now live. This reflects my own frustration over much of the earnest garment-rending of such persons as Arthur Silber, and Democracy Lover, with both of whom I agree to a large extent analytically. Prescriptively, however, I find both lacking. Exacting analytical clarity is not the same thing as practical wisdom. When faced with the many limits within which we now live, we are confronted with the conundrum that the best for which any of us can hope falls well short of what should be. To call this frustrating is to say not nearly enough.

Yet, we must always be aware of the reality within which we live, including its limits and liabilities. We will never live up to our own lofty ideals; nor will we ever get what any of us think is the perfect set of circumstances. All we can do is work with what we have. Accepting political and social reality as a "given", what Heidegger defined as the lebenswelt into which we are all thrown higgledy-piggledy, is part of being a responsible human being. In doing so, we also accept our own limitation, including our own limited moral judgment as well as our own limited vision. Again, we are not absolved from doing the best we can. Very often, however, the best any of us can do is far less than the best that either can or should be done. Believing that our vision is clearer than others, our knowledge greater or deeper than others, and that what is vouchsafed to us provides a burden for action that does not lie upon the shoulders of others is not only hubris in the classical, Greek sense of the term. It is also the sin of pride. To put it another way, it is the self-aggrandizing assertion that only I, with my wisdom and knowledge have the tools to correctly describe and prescribe what is the correct line of conduct. Even now, as the country spins into recession, the government is paralyzed by obstructionist Republicans and vapid Democrats, and our major media seem incapable of providing us with the information necessary to understand what is happening around us, we need to remember that even if none of this were the case, we would still have troubles, controversies, and problems.

Having limited knowledge, abilities, vision, and being limited by the options provided by the world around us does not leave us impotent, nor does it absolve us of the responsibility of doing what must be done. We should never let ourselves be fooled in to thinking that with us lies the sole hope of salvation. Rescuing our country from its current problems is a challenge all of us face; the solutions lie in the wisdom of the American people, as far as that term can be applied, and we trust it, and God's grace, to pick up the slack.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Some Thoughts On Our Recent Science Discussions

I am going to make one or two heads explode when I say the following - I think Marshall Art's somewhat sulky complaint that science needs to be translated for laypersons is, in some way, correct. While I still grant Alan's point that our schools do a lousy job teachings science, and that this is so because of political pressures and financial pressures, I still believe that it is incumbent upon science to do a better job of educating the general public on the way science operates, what it's latest findings are, and what their significance might be. I also grant Alan's point that most journalists who report on science tend to be ignoramuses, or deliberately obfuscatory, which means the burden falls upon the group that least likes to deal with this - the scientists themselves.

Much of what I have called below "anti-science" or scientific ignorance or illiteracy, is a result of a number of factors. Some of those include the increasing specialization as well as cross-specialization involved in scientific research. For something as complex as evolutionary theory, we have not only cellular biology, but bio-chemistry, taxonomy, genetics, and the various sub-categories of biology, such as specialists in various animal families, or vertebrate and invertebrate biology, botany, etc. Concerning the infinitely more complex issue of global warming, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, meteorology are all involved, in various ways, in exploring the phenomenon itself, as well as its consequences. Tracing the ways these interact is difficult for an educated lay person. For someone who is not as scientifically literate as others, it is nigh-on impossible. It seems there is an ethical imperative on the part of scientists to explain not only what they are doing, but the how of it, and even more important, the why.

I think that this kind of thing is more easily understood as the result not just on a willingness to refuse to understand what science is, but as a reaction against what seems to be the inordinate complexity of this somewhat random article from Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry, October, 2007 volume. Entitled "Photochemistry of Cu complexed with chromophoric dissolved organic matter: implications for Cu speciation in rainwater", authored by Melanie Louise Inez Witt, Stephen Skrabal, Robert Kieber and Joan Willey, the abstract of the article follows:
Significant quenching of fluorescence by Cu in rainwater samples from southeastern North Carolina demonstrates that chromophoric dissolved organic matter (CDOM) is an effective ligand for Cu in rainwater. A strong inverse correlation between the decrease in fluorescence upon Cu addition and CDOM abundance suggests the presence of excess binding sites for Cu in high CDOM samples. Electroanalytical studies indicate that CDOM extracted from C18 cartridges formed Cu complexes with concentrations and conditional stability constants similar to ligands found in ambient rainwater. When authentic rainwater samples were photolyzed with simulated sunlight both photoproduction and photodestruction of ligands were observed, suggesting the photochemical response of Cu-complexing ligands in rainwater is the result of two competing reactions. The rate of CDOM photobleaching was directly related to changes in strong ligands (KCuL ∼ 1015) whereas weaker ligands (KCuL < 1013) were not correlated, suggesting the photolabile CDOM resides in the strong ligand class. A photolysis study comparing filtered and unfiltered rainwater samples indicated that Cu-complexing ligands adsorbed onto or otherwise associated with particles are photodegraded much more rapidly than dissolved ligands. Photolysis with UV radiation appears to be most effective at engendering changes in Cu ligands, however a significant photochemical response was also observed when samples were exposed to photosynthetically active radiation with wavelengths greater than 400 nm. Results from this study demonstrate that complexation of Cu by CDOM has important ramifications for controlling both the speciation of the metal and the reactivity of CDOM in rainwater.

Isn't it so much easier to just say, "Boy, you know, my gut just tells me these scientists are paid hacks, because there's snow in my backyard while they prattle on about global warming," than to try and fight your way through this abstract? Unless scientists themselves are willing to stand up and explain to the general public what they mean, regardless of the troubles involved, scientific ignorance will continue, and get worse.

This is not an argument for dumbing down science. Just the opposite. I am arguing for increasing the scientific literacy of the general American public. Now, willful scientific ignorance ("I don't care what all those scientists say! I won't click any of your links! Commonsense is better than thinking!") will never disappear, and I still say we should simply dismiss this kind of thing out of hand, even as we patiently explain to others what science is, and is not. Yet, there is a public burden upon scientists to do a better job of getting the word out concerning their jobs, their methods, and their results.

I probably ticked off everyone with this little post. Oh, well.

I Just Don't Think He's Up To The Job

I wasn't exactly surprised when the junior Senator from my current state of residence decided to toss his hat in to the Presidential ring. After giving the keynote address at the '04 Democratic convention while still only a candidate, and then just a sitting member of the Illinois State legislature, I do believe the press coverage went to his head. There is no denying that Obama is an electrifying figure. Several folks round about here, life-long Republicans, voted for him in '04, and said they would have done so even if a serious candidate had opposed him (Alan Keyes was the fly-in Republican candidate that year in what was one of the strangest and silliest campaigns in recent memory). Some of them are considering voting for him if he wins the nomination.

Me, I just don't think he's ready.

I think his campaign has not been run well. I think that his health care proposal simply doesn't cut it (more on this below). Too much of his rhetoric is long on feel-good, post-politics claptrap that ignores the reality that it isn't politics Americans hate, but the way some politicians in Washington think politics should be done. Indeed, like Al Gore's dismissal of politics surrounding global warming ("It's a moral issue, dammit!"), it is not only naive, but disingenuous to think that invoking some kind of politics-transcending position gives one some kind of moral authority. In fact, it makes you look, well, naive and disingenuous. Politics isn't bad in and of itself. It is a necessary part of human social life. Whining about "politics as usual" is usually a substitute for admitting one is really bad at politics.

Two recent commentaries on Obama have really highlighted his weaknesses for me. Taking them in reverse chronological order, today, Obama's campaign claimed that he is the most scrutinized and investigated candidate in the (presumably Democratic) field. As Josh Marshall writes, "I really hope the Obama camp is kidding . . .". Apparently, the eight years of uberinvestigations of every aspect of the lives of both Bill and Hillary Clinton are so 1990's that we don't need to think about them anymore.

C'mon, man, please?

Sunday's New York Times column by Paul Krugman is an examination of the political approach to health care reform of the leading Democratic contenders.
Barack Obama insists that the problem with America is that our politics are so “bitter and partisan,” and insists that he can get things done by ushering in a “different kind of politics.”

To some, perhaps to many, independent-minded voters, the call to a post-partisan politics might seem attractive. Yet, after first basking in the glow of the words and giving it careful consideration, it has to be asked - how, exactly, does one cut through the web of interests (both political and financial) that attach themselves to every major piece of legislation? What kind of politics can deal with serious, substantive, and clashing interests without conflict? This is a question that Obama can't answer because the only answer is simple - there isn't one. In regards to the specifics of health care policy, Krugman writes:
Mr. Obama [is] being unrealistic here, believing that the insurance and drug industries — which are, in large part, the cause of our health care problems — will be willing to play a constructive role in health reform. The fact is that there’s no way to reduce the gross wastefulness of our health system without also reducing the profits of the industries that generate the waste.

As a result, drug and insurance companies — backed by the conservative movement as a whole — will be implacably opposed to any significant reforms. And what would Mr. Obama do then? “I’ll get on television and say Harry and Louise are lying,” he says. I’m sure the lobbyists are terrified.


Anyone who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world.


[N]othing Mr. Obama has said suggests that he appreciates the bitterness of the battles he will have to fight if he does become president, and tries to get anything done.(emphases added)

Krugman is correct. A major policy overhaul of such an entrenched interest, with so many billions of dollars at stake, will not be carried out in some Platonic world where only Ideas clash. Appealing to the better nature of the American people to overcome the bitterness of those opposed to serious health care reform might sound all Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, but whether Obama likes it or not (and I think he does, because he knows that it is true no matter what he says on the stump) money still talks, and bullshit, even high-minded bullshit like this, walks.

I understand the appeal of Obama. I even understand, politically, what he is up to here - appealing to all those alleged, non-partisan voters out there who are supposed to be turned off by all that nasty politics and just want stuff done. Except, of course, if that is what they believe, Obama is not being up-front with these folks because he isn't telling them that, in order to get anything done, he and his supposed Administration will have to engage in dirty, nasty politics. Showing your cards during a primary campaign and saying that of course the health care and pharmaceutical industry will have a seat at the table as legislation is hammered out tells people all they need to know - because of the aforementioned difference between money and nonsense, Obama is telling people who will actually be writing this legislation, whether he knows it or not.

I really like Obama. His is hardly a stellar record in the Senate, but I want him to finish out his first term, run and perhaps win a second, and then, maybe, try for another go at the Big Chair. He isn't quite up to snuff. Yet.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

James Lipton's Last Questions

Via Hapa Theology, discovered via Erudite Redneck, comes the following questions, which are standard fare on James Lipton's From The Actor's Studio on Bravo:

What is your favorite word?
"Flabbergasted". It seems like a nonsense word to me, but it has such a nice sound. One does not need it defined when one hears it, because its meaning seems to obvious.

What is your least favorite word?
"Fiduciary". It sounds like a social disease.

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Creatively - a good melody; spiritually - openness and a lack of fear; emotionally - the same as spiritually.

What turns you off?
Following rules that don't make any sense. Also, anti-intellectualism. Anyone who thinks that another person thinks too much, writes too much, or shows off how much they know drives me nuts (probably because I've had that tossed at me quite a bit).

What is your favorite curse word?
"Horseshit". I liked the way my parents used it. The flow from the "s" to the "sh" can be either smooth or not, but it does seem to be not a natural move in English. Once you get it nailed with this word - sounding both within a single flow - it works far better that the far more common exclamation of bovine excrement.

What sound or noise do you love?
My children's laughter. My wife's sighs. My church singing. The bank teller saying, "Here's your money, sir."

What sound or noise do you hate?
Britney Spears singing.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Since I don't have a profession, any would do.

What profession would you not like to do?

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
"Here's what you got right" and shows me a pad from a pocket notebook with the word "Loved his family" on it. "Here's what you got wrong" and unrolls a computer printout seven and a half feet wrong - all blank.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Music Monday

When I was growing up, my parents had a collection of Christmas records that had been special releases by Columbia exclusively for sale at the now defunct Grant's Department Stores. I suppose they really aren't as good as I remember them being, but in truth I remember them quite fondly. Gary Puckett singing "O Holy Night", Leslie Uggams singing "It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas", and Aretha Franklin singing "Let It Snow!" are true gems. Most of the offerings were of what we now call "Easy Listening", performers who do standards and pop classics. I thought I would offer by example.

What would Christmas without Johnny Mathis be like?

Even worse, what would Christmas without Perry Como be like? Best not to ponder that . . .

Finally, Mel Torme wrote "A Christmas Song" specifically for Nat "King" Cole. Yet, he performed it as well. One of the Grant's albums my parents still have contains a version. Here's "The Velvet Fog" (what a silly nickname):

As a bonus, I found the following, and I laughed so hard, I was wiping tears away. I know it isn't Christmas music, but I couldn't keep this gem to myself. If you can guess who does it, you'll win . . . nothing, really.

Not On My List

I don't know how many of you follow this kind of thing, but National Review editor Jonah Goldberg has just published a book entitled Liberal Fascism. Now, before folks on the right who have recently been here take me to task for dismissing something I haven't even read yet, I have to say a few things. Before I say those few things, however, let me just say one thing - the publication of this book angers me more than just about anything in recent memory. Thousands of trees died so this pile of thought-excrement could be presented to the public. This is an environmental disaster of the biggest proportions.

The photo above is the Table of Contents page from Goldberg's alleged book, taken by Bradrocket over at Sadly, No!. Now, if we take this page as a general thematic to Goldberg's "argument", we find several thing that, to those who have been paying attention to political discourse, especially on the fringes, for a long time, might find familiar. The biggest red flag (no irony there) comes in the subtitle to the fourth chapter, in which there is an equation made between the New Deal and fascism. This is an old trope of the right, which didn't emerge until after the Nazis and Fascists were defeated, before which none of them seemed to have much of a problem with either system of government. It is an argument that has been made for fifty years, and dismissed by serious people for just as long. Here it is, however, once again rearing its stupid head once again.

The chapter on the 1960's is the most revealing. Usually, the criticism of 1960's political activism is that it was too far to the left, relying on Marx and mid-century European neo-Marxism. Yet, Goldberg apparently wants to paint it as a phenomenon of the far right. How this circle is squared would be interesting, except that I can imagine the argument goes something like this: Hitler relied upon street thugs to beat up Jews, Socialists, and any other political opponents in his rise to power. The student demonstrators of the 1960's marched in the streets, sometimes engaging in violent confrontation with the authorities who were their political enemies. Therefore, the student demonstrators of the 1960's were brownshirts with long hair and beards. Let us not forget that the leader of the SA, the brownshirts, Ernst Rohm (my computer won't do the tilde over the "o"), was gay. Add all this up and you get . . . I'm not sure what you get, except for a silly, nonsensical argument.

Now, I could be wrong, and Goldberg could have come across a treasure trove of heretofore unknown documents that prove that Abbie Hoffman was a secret admirer of Heinrich Himmler, the Grateful Dead encoded Mussolini speeches in their songs, and marijuana was part and parcel of the initiation rites of the Gestapo. Or he could have just found an orifice from which to pull these "arguments", being careful to wipe his fingers off after he typed.

Like another publication that was supposed to be a "major work" of the "culture wars", Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah, I expect this book to be remaindered within a few weeks, so I might actually wait until I am sure the publisher won't pass any royalty checks to Goldberg before I buy it.

I am honestly befuddled by this kind of thing. For far too long, Fascism and Nazism have been presented as phenomena of the right; yet here they are argued to be copied by the American Left. This particular circle cannot be boxed, I think, but I could be wrong, and I and others could be dupes of the most heinous political movement to emerge in Europe since Monarchical Absolutism.

I still think Goldberg is just not as full of crap as he used to be because he has put quite a bit of it in type.

Virtual Tin Cup

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