Saturday, February 03, 2007

Some Thoughts on Creativity, Self-Indulgence, Art, Entertainment, and Popularity

No one responds to my music posts, but that's OK. In that way, they are my forays into "self-indulgence" - I do them because I want to - and I quite enjoy them, especially now as there is so much going on that is, frankly, worrisome.

Among the stupid things music critics throw around as a negative epithet is that this or that musician is "self-indulgent". The phrase, which I honestly profess not to understand in any negative way but, in fact, as a non-judgemental description of the activity of the best musicians, has become so common, musicians themselves use it. On Ken Burns' Jazz, Branford Marsalis calls Cecil Taylor's claim that listeners should practice before coming to one of his concerts "self-indulgent bullshit". In an interview recorded for a video-biography of the progressive rock band Yes, keyboardist Rick Wakeman admits that, during the bands prime years of the early 1970's, they probably did engage in "self-indulgence", and also calls the band "pompous in places". Jazz fusion keyboardist Jan Hammer, in liner notes to a re-issue of The Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire LP says that the band members became "self-indulgent". I suppose I agree with Robert Fripp, who in the liner notes to one of the many releases and re-releases King Crimson has had over the past decade or so, wrote that self-indulgence is the cornerstone of creativity. Artists, whether painters, sculptures, writers, architects, or musicians, do what they do to please themselves, not others. The best art is honest art - art that comes from within, without any pretense or concern over acceptability or (God forbid) respectability.*

When you listen to Beethoven's fifth or sixth or ninth symphonies, you are listening to an artist thumbing his nose - or flipping the bird - to critics who, in the language of the day, called Beethoven "self-indulgent" for trying the patience of listeners with these long symphonies. There were conventions, there were rules, there was a structural order of melody, of harmony, of tempo, and of length, that Beethoven violated again and again.

In a different genre, but in a similar vein, when the Beatles produced
Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, they broke all the rules - the three minute pop song, the clean break between songs, the four-piece rock band playing a variation of the 12-bar blues. Of course, they had already pushed certain boundaries - the clarinet solo on "When I'm 64" is one tha tpops to mind immediately - but this went beyond all those limits.

Similarly, The Who, with time to spare in recording an album at about the same time, wrote and arranged and recorded a 12-minute song, "A Quick One While He's Away". This stunning violation of all that was holy, combined with the fearlessness that was Pete Townsend, led, eventually, to the rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia and the failed avante-garde combination of rock, life, performance, and audience interaction, Lifehouse (the remnants were released as, arguably, one of the ten or twenty best rock albums of all times, Who's Next; even failures can be spectacular. To my mind, there are no wrong notes or bad or slow moments on that entire LP, an achievement Townsend reached only one other time, on his solo album Empty Glass).

The ultimate self-indulgent rock criminals were, of course, the British prog-rockers, most epsecially Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Yes, and King Crimson. ELP, with their arrangements of contemporary art music; Yes, with their arrangements that pulled in everything from TV music to Brahms' concertos to Hindu spirituality; Crimson with their apocalyptic visionary lyrics, their fusion-inspired heavy metal doubling and even tripling, and their long group improvs at concerts were the essence of all that was unholy in prog to critics who yearned for the simplicity (one could argue, especially in light of some of their more, ahem, racially insensitive comments on the blues and early rock and roll, the primitivism) of the two-and-a-half-minute, electrified blues.

Part of this criticism comes from an ignorance of something quite simple - those who think they are gate-keepers in art, any art, usually insist that there are rules. Music has to be in 2, 4, or at most a variation of 3 to be danceable. Songs have to be no longer than 3:00, 4:00 at the maximum; a ten-minute song is just too taxing for the average listenter. The blues is the basis of great American dance music, and must never be deviated from. Unfortunately, none of these are rules or laws, but only conventions that can be observed or not at the whim of the individual artist. One can listen to Tarkus, Tales From Topographic Oceans, and Larks Tongue in Aspic and accept them on their own terms, or reject them because they don't conform to what you perceive "true" rock or rock-n-roll should be. The problem, however, lies in the critic's obstuseness, not in any alleged "sin of self-indulgence" (to qutoe a Procol Harum song) in the musician.

This is not to say that those musicians and groups who are pushing the boundaries are so self-absorbed (which is not the same thing as self-indulgent) that they have no desire to reach people. They do. There is a difference between really good sex and masturbation, even though some of the sensations are the same. In the same vein, there is a difference between practicing and performing; there is also a difference between performing for an eager audience and performing for an audience that does not understand what you are doing. "Entertainment" is the belief that is is encumbent upon the artist to provide something for an audience - not just the music, but all the surrounding context, mood, atmosphere, an understanding of the music itself. Entertainment is what lazy people look for when they go to a nightclub or concert hall. "I want to be entertained" is one of the silliest, most vapid statements I can imagine, and I doubt there are too many musicians our there who believe it is their job to entertain anybody. They are to provide an experience - something to make you laugh, cry, get aroused, be joyful. Hopefully, the experience will be so exhilirating, you will come back for more. And spread the word.

This brings me to my last little contemplation. "Popularity" is something I find it almost impossible to understand. Prince, R Kelly, Usher - these men sell millions of records, sell out concerts, make some of the most interesting, most demanding, most boundary-pushing music around, and are almost totally ignored by the mainstream music press (of course, racism might have something to do with that, you think?). Gwen Stefani, Aaliyah, and Janet Jackson make some of the most derivative, over-produced and under-performed albums and are followed everywhere. Rush, Dream Theater, Pantera, and Tool sell millions of records, sell out concert tours, and are , again, ignored by critics, or treated as pariahs. Sheryl Crowe and Tori Amos write the same album over and over again - and are treated as "original artists". Of course, the one love-affair I have never understood is the critics passion for David Bowie, as big a pretentious, self-absorbed, poser as one could find; one who has admitted, incidentally, that he doesn't give a damn about music, but is only in it for the money.

Those whom critics love, and those whom the fans love, are not always in line. Sometimes it takes decades for a band to be recognized as truly great; it was thirty years before Rolling Stone actually did an in-depth story on Yes, admitting that there might be one or two moments on one or two of their albums worth listening to. On the other hand, the critical lines in the sand seem so rigid, that one doubts whether or not they will ever understand that art is not about boundaries and definitions, and definitely not about being popular. It is about honesty - and the most honest assesment of any artist comes from the reception among those (a) who understand what that artist is up to; and (b) those influenced by that artist to take the next logical step, advancing the conversation, as it were. To my mind, then, Black Sabbath is much bigger, much more important than any single recording Lou Reed ever made.

*This is not to say that musicians do not yearn for an audience. It is the kind of audience that is the question; do they or do they not understand what is being done and take it on something like its own terms.

More on Iran

As per yesterday's post, it is encumbent upon us to KEEP THE PRESSURE ON. In that vein, I have the following links for your consideration:

Talking Points Memo - here, here, and here.

The Incomparable Digby - here, here, here, and here. has a story here.

Of all these links, the two most interesting are one from Joshua Marshall at TPM, in which he mentions the incoherence on a confrontational approach to Iran, and some sort of regional strategic alliance with the Saudis when it would be much more in our interest to do the opposite, espcially given (a) a preponderance of the historical and current evidence linking Saudi nationals and groups with links to the Saudi royal family to continued violence against Americans; and (b) a rational consideration of our national self-interest. This being the Bush Administration, doing the opposite is, of course, de rigeuer . . .

The other interesting item, at Hullabaloo, is one that suggests that, rather than concentrating their ire and an attempt at some kind of showdown with the Administration of Iraq policy, it might be encumbent upon Congress to make their stand - and make it NOW rather than attempt to do so after the planes are flying and people are dying - on any attempt at military action against Iran. I would concur wholeheartedly with this statement.

In reference to a comment on yesterday's post, a military coup is indeed one of the many nightmare scenarios I have kept myself awake with over the past months, as the generals take a stand against the reckless and feckless destruction and endangerment of our troops. Such a move would, I think, be like political chemotherapy - it would be worse than the disease. Of course, it might be that we are running out of options, especially as members of the Administration feel themselves even more constrained than usual, their collective backs against the wall, as it were. The fact that (a) such a nightmare scenario is entering our minds; and (b) being discussed by two generally rational people, shows just how desperate the situation in becoming. We need to act. We need to act now.

Where Democracy Lover & I Will Definitely Agree

I had first heard of this particular brouhaha last fall, but now, according to Crooks & Liars, ths case of a teacher in New Jersey has taken a turn for the bizarre. A student who taped a teacher prattling on about certain whacky religious views when that teacher should have been teaching, you know, science and stuff (the student did that because no one in the Administration would take the boy's word over the teachers; so he's a liar and loony), is now being punished for bringing the situation to light. Taping teachers is no longer allowed in that school district.

Were I a parent in that school district - you know I can't even begin to write, because my blood boils at (a) the situation itself; (b) the perfidy and cowardice of the Administration and school board for not firing this guy's ass; (c) creating a false debate over "rights" and "freedom" when what is at issue is professional integrity and honesty. The teacher in question needs to be fired NOW, and perhaps having his professional credentials revoked (is that even possible?) so that he can never teach in public shcools again (if he wants to teach in some religious-based schools, fine, although I think there might be a certain question of his moral character as, when first questioned about the incident, he LIED). The school board needs to publicly apologize to the student who called the teacher out, that student's family, and all those who support him; apparently the teacher in question is quite popular (why? he tells kids fairy tales and that they are going to hell!) and the student who made the tape has received a whole lot of flak from other students.

I think DL & I would be together on this one. This nutbag has no place teaching student in a public school; the sitting school board members need to be replaced as soon as possible, to reflect a bit more, ahem, spine and testicular fortitude.

Friday, February 02, 2007

In response to Democracy Lover's comments, I offer the following points.

1) You want to argue that I am not addressing the central issue - viz., whether children are "endangered" by the teaching that evolution is not only wrong but evil - by bringing up questions of what constitutes scientific "truth". My point is that such a question gets to the heart of the issue. It is one thing to argue that, by failing to provide a proper scientific educatino for their children, parents are doing demonstrable harm to their children, and that it is encumbent upon the state to intervene for the sake of the children. This position, however, begs the questions which I shall raise again, concerning (a) the precise definition and general understanding of science, and the status of scientific findings as truth; (b) which theoretical and practical scientific truths are given sanction and which are not, and are therefore liable for state intervention; (c) what occurs when there are changes not only in theory but in scientific practice that falsify previously held scientific "truths". For all practical purposes, these are issues that would have to be decided upon before any kind of serious state intervention could be undertaken.

2) You argue that science has a "method" that arrives as truth, while religion does not. You argue that science changes and religion does not. Both of these statements are demonstrably false for a variety of reasons. Just for one instance, as you seem to vent your anger at fundamentalism, it is important to udnerstand that it is a very, very recent development in the history of Christianity, only codified towards the end of the 19th century, and set forth definitively in the first decade of the 20th. There is no monolithic "Christianity", not even a monolithic "evangelicalism". Christianity is as varied and variegated as there are times and places, societies, cultures, languages, and ways of thought. Surviving documents from 8th century China show a vigorous Christian community in the Middle Kingdom that discussed Christian theology in terms far different from the Platonic-Aristotelianism of the Mediterranean. Coptic and Syriac Christianity is still vastly different from either Roman Catholocism or the various Orthodox churches. I have not even begun to mention all the nuance of the various Protestant churches.

As for what we currently call the scientific method, it is just the latest development - hardly a timeless truth - in an ongoing process of trying to figure out a way of describing the world around us that is open to as many people as possible. It is in fashion, and has been so for a century or so, not because the teachings of science correspond to the way the world "really is", but because it works well. When it fails to work, when it no longer provides descirptions of the world that work, it will be replpaced by something else that does. Medieval science was just that; ancient science was just that. Simply because it is different from what we today commonly call science in no way justifies us dismissing it as not science. It was science because it was a way people used to try and figure out the world around them, and it worked for them. That's it, and that's all.

3) In the 1920's, as he was solidifying his hold on the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin declared that Darwinian evolution was antithetical to Marxist teachings, because it did not account for the possibility of "revolutionary" change. Darwin's books were banned, and Lamarckian evolution through the inheritance of acquired characteristics replaced it. Those who taught Darwin were arrested. Ther results, as history has shown, were catastrophic from a humanitarian point of view.

I bring this up to make the following point. One can argue that the Soviet agricultural disaster was a result of ignoring the "truth" of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Darwin, however, did not discount the possibility of inheriting acquired characteristics. Rather, he argued that change occurred slowly, over a vast expanse of time. He had no idea of genetics, the actual bio-chemical mechanism of biological change; nor did he articulate clearly what became more clear in the mid-60's "synthesis" Ernst Mayr and others worked out between genetics and evolutionary theory (it is forgotten that the two theories, Darwinian evolution and Mendellian genetics were theoretically incompatible until this synthesis occurred, changing both evolutionary theory and genetics) that evolution occurs both within individuals and within whole populations. Darwin was also an avowed racist (read The Voyage of the Beagle, a gossipy mid-Victorian travelogue chock full of horrid tidbits about our brown and black brothers and sisters), and a grand supporter of eugenics. In other words, Darwin was as wrong as he was right, and it has been constant scrutiny and questioning that has created our current evolutionary theory that uses certain Darwinian terms but is far from the original teaching in On the Origin of Species Through Natural Selection.

By refusing to remain open to any and all possibilities, by adhering to a strict scientific orthodoxy based upon previously held political and social commitments, Stalin doomed millions of Ukrainians and Russians to death by starvation. It was not because he chose the "wrong" science, but because this commitment was a small part of a much larger totalitarian scheme that stifled political, social, and intellectual life. My objection to your argument in your post, DL, is not based upon a disagreement over the question of creationism versus evolution, but the insistence that the state enforce conformity to any orthodoxy of any kind - political, religious, social, or scientific. That road is far too dangerous a road down which to travel.

To quote Arthur C. Clarke, I do not care what scientific perversions people practice in their own homes, as long as they do not force others to accept them through the power of the state (from a collection of non-fiction essays entitled Spring, 1984). I am appalled at the poor level of scientific education in this country, and the constant interference local school districts face when attempting to teach things like geology and biology from people whose religious sensibilities are offended. I would much rather school boards gained spines and told these people to yank their little kiddies out and home-school them if they don't like science being taught, but otherwise to please chut up and go away.

This does not mean, however, I would countenance the school board, the local municipality, or any other state agency move to restrict the way these children are taught outside the school room, because that is as unwarranted an interference as the other, and much more dangerous, not for the children, but for our whole society.

Thinking the Unthinkable

I am having multiple types of computer problems, so I didn't get a chance to do much of anything yesterday. Damn machines! Things seem OK right now, and I wanted to get this item in before I respond at length to Democracy Lover's comments on my previous post.

We are entering nightmare country here. The Bush Administration is ramping up the rhetoric against Iran. They are claiming Iranian repsonsibility for the attack last week in which five American service personnel were kidnapped and later found executed on the side of a road. They are insisting that a porous Iran-Iraq border is responsible for all the weapons and "foreign fighters" in Iraq. American troops now have ROE that allow them to "kill" "Iranians found in Iraq. We have not one but two Carrier Battle Groups in the Persian Gulf (I hope all those Tomcats don't crash into one another!). It goes on and on and on and on . . .

There are many reasons why this increasing belligerence toward Iran, despite its very public nature, is below the radar screen - Iraq is, in the words of Sen. Arlen Specter, "sucking the oxygen from everything else"; there is a power struggle, going on day after day in Washington, as to who is in charge, and right now, no one is winning; the struggle for power in Washington is a great distraction for the Bush Administration, because it allows them to move unnoticed. The biggest reason, however, is that I think so many Americans refuse to believe that the Administration would be so unbelievably stupid as to begin even an air war against Iran when things in Iraq are such a bloody mess. The whole south-eastern and southern Asian area could completely unravel, sparking a real war of Islam against the United States, and we simply do not have the resources or the will to continue in Iraq, let alone such a conflict. Of course, America has nukes, but so does Pakistan (who could not stay out of such a conflict if it expanded).

Speaking of nukes, does anyone really want to wake up tomorrow and read the United States decided to drop a few nukes on Iranian targets? What kind of response do you think that would receive around the world?

I will admit that, while I saw the signs as long ago as seven months, I refused to believe that an Administration as unbelievably stupid and incompetent as the one we now have would try the same tired trick and get people to fall for it. I also thought that, with all the evidence showing we were breaking the military months ago, they would abandon the plan because they were unrealistic from a logistical point of view. Because of the multiple horrors of such a potential scenario - constitutional crises of various types, nuclear weapons use, a real war with real, horrific consequences for the United States - I just closed my eyes and siad, "They simply won't be that dumb."

I think that position was common, and we are paying a price for a refusal to read the signs properly. I think we have to start yesterday to ensure that the Bush Administration does NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, SO MUCH AS TOSS A PEBBLE UPON IRANIAN SOIL AND THAT IF IT DOES SOMETHING, ANYTHING (fart in its general direction, as the Pythons said), ALL OF 'EM, FROM BUSH ON DOWN, GET HAULED OUT OF OFFICE BEFORE THE FIRST SYLLABLE OF THE WORD IMPEACHMENT IS SOUNDED.

We have to start thinking the unthinkable in all sorts of areas, before it is too late.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Liberal Thought Police

Frequent commenter, friend, and fellow Blogger blogger Democracy Lover has a post in which he waaxes indiginantly concerning parents teaching their children, not only that creationism is true, but that evolution is an evil, Satanic plot to destroy true American Christian living. Indignant that such is occuring, he insists not only that such teaching be banned, but that those responsible be arrested. The children, apparently, will be turned over to those better suited for caring for their inellectual and emotional health.

Such thinking is antithetical to eveything I believe and profess; thought police are thought police, whether I happen to agree with them or not. Hiding behind children is not only tired, it is old, and has a deadly history. Josef Stalin used the same excuse to endourage children to denounce their teachers, neighbors, even their parents to authorities.

I have a question for DL: Since what has constituted "scientific turth" has changed, and continues to change, at a drastic pace, which such version is acceptable? Is Newtonian physics outlawed because it is wrong? Do we ban Einstein, or perhaps Heisenberg, because they contracdict one another? Do we adhere to Darwin, Ernst Mayr, or Watson and Crick? What questions are legitimate questions, and which are unacceptable? Since science lives and breathes through the vigorous and open debate of ideas, even the theoretical foundations of all we hold to be true, what practical limits do we place upon what is, and is not, science? Again, who decides? Do we hide scientific debate entirely, because such debate may be poorly understood by children?

In the comments section of the post in question, Darrell claims that the First Amendment does not protect parents who lie to their children. So . . . half of American parents should be indicted because of the whole Santa Claus thing, I guess. Or is lying about Santa OK, but not about evolution. Of course, then we are back to the question of what standard we use to figure out what is a "lie" and what is not.

The First Amendment overs everyone, even those we find abhorrent - the Klan, Sparatacists, Joe Klein - and I will defend these and myriad others in their right to teach and live their lives the way they want to. Freedom is hard. America is hard. Legally enforced orthodoxy of any kind is antithetical to the spirit of the American constitution. Liberal thought police are as bad as conservative thought police. Thuggery is thuggery, even if I happen to agree with the thugs in question.

It's official: We are a Third World Country; Thank You, George W. Bush

First it was the revelation of signing statements, then warrantless wiretapping. Then, of course, there was the idiotic hyping of "the Commander-in-Chief". Of course, now that Congress is in the hands of Democrats, Bush has decided to rule by decree. The nail in the coffin, as it were, is the revelation of massive waste and fraud in Iraq reconstruction. That this last item was predicted years ago - remember the no-bid contracts with Halliburton and Bechtel? - does not render it any less saddening and maddening. Along with these political developments, there is the increasing socio-economic stratification at home, as the middle-class continues to whither, struggling to maintain a standard of living and hopes for their lives and the lives of their children a previous generation took for granted (it appears the dream of a college education for whoever wants it is as dead as many other dreams).

You know, David Broder whined about Clinton "trashing the place", meaning official and social Washington. Will he whine about Bush trashing an antire country? It will take years, perhaps deacades, to undo the damage Bush has done to the United States, its social and economic infrastructure, its military, its reputation abroad, and the sense of pride and well-being Americans have always held about their homeland. Like James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, Ulysees Grant, and Warren Harding, Bush is headed for a small "Z"-list of "Worst President Ever". Personally, I think he should top that list; we had further to fall than before, but Bush managed it in just a few short years.

Americans On Trial

Glenn Greenwald has the skinny on Germany and Italy indicting Americans for the "extraordinary rendition" (a fancy, nonsensical bit of jargon for kidnapping) of their citizens, which resulted in them being held without charge, and tortured in some country or other. I find it fascinating that Bush "unsigned" the US from the International Criminal Court because Americans were not exempt from indictment and/or prosecution. Apparently it never occurred to him that there were national laws on the books as well that could very well be used to hold Americans accountable for illegalities. I know there are some out there who find tthis kind of thing enraging - how dare these non-Americans actually take action against Americans and America? - but I am surely not one of them. The more indictments the better - Henry Kissinger is long overdue for a day in court - and keep them coming, I say. When Americans break the law, they should be punished - or is law and order only for those of the wrong color or class?

At the end of the Second World War, the United States, under the leadership of Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson, led the way in creating an international legal standard, both of precedent and enforcement, in which citizens of individual nation-states would be held accountable for illegal acts. Along with all the other destruction wrought by the Bush Administration, it seems this heritage, of which we should be inordinately proud, has also been pissed away.*

I have been wondering, for the past year or so, how other countries would begin to take a stand against the United States, the biggest, most dangerous rouge nation in the world, and have feared more than I care to admit, that military action would be the answer. It is a good thing to see that it is legal action, subpoenas and indictments, rather than armies and bullets, that will be used to bring us to heel.

*I am well aware that the United States, and most other countries as well, have violated various of the Nuremberg Standards. The principle, however, has rarely been ignored as extraordinarily as it has been under Bush.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Politics of Science in and Anti-Scientific Administration

Think is on the case as Henry Waxman's Oversight committee shines a light into some dim, dark, rarely observed corners of the Bush Presidency here, here, and here. Of course, this is not "news" because I remember, years ago, articles in The Nation (to which I no longer subscribe for a vareity of reasons; originally it was a temporary money problem) in which scientists were complaining about the Bush Administration working to edit and manipulate scientific data to serve partisan or ideological ends. I thought then that this was such a minor complaint that it was hardly worth discussing. While troubling, certainly, it was hardly an issue to excite the public.

The preoponderance of the evidence, however, makes the issue no longer just one among many outrages of the Administration. They refuse to discuss the geological age of the Grand Canyon; they block stem-cell research funding; they try to come-up with science-fiction-inspired methods for blocking sunlight (which proves a point I have long held that too much immersion in science fiction creates an anti-scientific world-view); they manipulate debate on global warming. All of these pieces, taken together, show an Administration dangerously close to the Soveit Union's refusal to adhere to Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics. Famously, Josef Stalin argued that Lamarckin evolution and genetics was more in keeping with Marxist-Leninist principles, and therefore forced Soveit agriculture to work on Lamarckian principles. The result, of course, was wide-spread crop-failure and the concomitant repeated famines in the Unkranian breadbasket, exacerbated by the forced relocation of the traditional field workers, the kulaks. Adherence to bad science led to horrific results.

I do not believe for an isntant that Bush, Cheney, or most of those in the Administration care a fig one way or another about questions about science versus religion or other such issues. Their hostility to global warming is expedient, as they choose to support a position that helps their cronies in the energy industry. They refuse to discuss stem-cell resarch and block discussions of geological time because it appeases their fundy-Christian base. They are hostile to science for immediate political gain. Period.

The problem, of course, is that such immediate political gain is undermined by the long-term implications of ignoring scientific research because it may cause political problems down the road. As long as we refuse to discuss, coherently and with a full accounting for all relevant scientific materials, global warming, we continue to make the problem worse. Interestingly, an oil-friendly group of politicos who adhere to creationism will find it difficult actually to find oil, because one needs to understand geology - real geology, not faith-based geology - in order to find it and then get to it, so, at least in this case, we have a potential scenario in which the Administration ends up at loggerheads with itself.

The political manipulation of scientific data is a dangerous road down which to travel. Science deals with discreet phenomena, open to public scrutiny, debate, and possible refutation. Politics deals with power, an aspect of which is controlling information. Completely open and public discussion of scientific matters can be detrimental to those who wish to control information in order to serve limited, political ends. We have a history in this country, at least since the Second World War, of open access to all but the most sensitive scientific information. We also have a history as a leader of scientific and engineering education. Sixtty-odd years of greatness is being pissed away by a small group that wishes to control information for partisan political purposes. Our country's reputation, its strength, its future is endangered by those who would suppress scientific data because it contradicts their political views or those of their supporters. Like WMDs in Iraq, the whole "war on terror", missile defense systems that don't work, and a whole host of other things, we have an Administration that is suite simply incapable of dealing with reality or the truth. The manipulation of science and scientific information is a special case of a much larger problem of having a truth-challenged group in power who believe that it is possible to force reality to fit their pre-conceived ideas through the simple manipulation of information. The result is the mess we have right now in our country - an Administration at war with reailty.

We need to rescue ourselves from the delusion that is the Bush Administration. Part of that process should be opening up previously closed windows and doors, and discussing scientific matters on their own terms, free from the manipulations and machinations of those afraid of reality.

Short Take

With this interesting poll, I ask an historical question. Does anyone remember all the talk in the late-90's of "Clinton fatigue"? Will we soon, I hope, hear of "Bush fatigue"?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Getting it Right About Religion in America

The good folks at Faith in Public Life. org have reprinted this article by Dave Brown and Glen Hiemstra from the Seattle Times in which the reporters address the question of our current public discourse about religion in a way that cuts through much of teh garbage that currently passes for debate. Acknowledging (a) that there are conflicts within, between, and among religions, and between those who do not subscribe to religious belief and the faithful; (b) there is a vocal anti-religious movement out there that wishes to eliminate, not religion from our public discourse, but religion from life; (c) that (b) is nonsensical on its face, and distracts us from the real issue of how to discuss religion in such a way that acknowledges difference without belittling opposing points of view.

I like their suggestions, especially the business about the First Amendment. I am conflicted about what, exactly, the role of an individual candidate's or politician's faith profession should be. On the one hand, I find much with which to agree in Richard Rorty's position that religion is, as the title of an article suggests, "a conversation stopper" because there seems to be no appeal beyond a claim that one holds such-and-such a political stance due to one's faith commitments. On the other hand, we are, like it or not, stuck in the most religious of the developed nations in the world, and religion does play now, as it has always done, a role in our public life and discourse. If it becomes a matter of figuring out how to get religious talk right in public, then I think the authors are on to something.

The problem, however, is that there are those, on many sides of the issue, who are quite simply refuse to listen to those with whom they disagree. For some reason, the whole issue fills them with incoherent rage and tehey wish to silence their opponents. Since they shout the loudest, and publish the most often, these are the voices we hear, and we are forced into listening to ping-pong, "LALALALALA - I'm not listening to you!", nonsense that gets us nowhere. We are left with the impression that religion in America is represented by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the one hand; Jim Wallis and Sojourners on the other (I will admit right now I find Wallis irksome, a self-important, self-appointed media whore who is basking in a certain triumphalism right now I find grotesque; was that subtle enough a criticism?).

Discussion of religion in America needs to stand on certain premises, the first and most important of which is that it is not going away. The second premise is that there is no central voice on religious matters in America. We have no Pope, no Council, no Synod, no Head of the Church (as the Queen is the head of the church in England) - and we need to include all sorts of voices in the dialogue and debate. we need to acknowledge the limitations of our own points-of-view. Christians need to come clean about our history of anti-Jewish bigotry, anti-Mormon bigotry (now playing out over the Mit Romney candidacy). Protestants need to acknowledge a long history of anti-Catholocism. We all need to acknowledge not only anti-Islam prejudice, but a profound ignorance of its tenets, teachings, and practices. We might also want to surrender any notion that we have the keys to the kingdom, as it were, denied to all other benighted groups in the land. We are a passing breeze in the world, and even the most celebrated among us now will fade from memory, along with teachings, professions, and confessions, as times and ideas change. Humility is necessary for a reason, and that reason can be summed up in one word - fallibility.

We also need to allow real disagreements, real arguments, to take place. We should not shy away from conflict in some vague interests of civility. Civility is an overrated virtue; I would much rather argue with someone that play nice, muttering behind my hand. Discourse about religion, when acknowledging the reality of difference, and the necessity of humility, should not keep us from ensuring that we silence ourselves out of deference to the feelings of others. I can say, on the one hand, I find the persistent anti-Mormonism in America disgraceful; on the other hand, I find the tenets and teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints risible. This is the way to do public discourse. Maybe we can get move forward together now.

Evangelicals Are Christians, Too

The story about male prostitute Mike Jones, Ted Haggard's business partner, visiting Haggard's church, should make those who think of evangelicals as shallow, homo-hating, vindictive, and generally mean people sit up and take a bit of notice. Jones himself acknowledges the response was overwhelmingly warm, and while I doubt he shall become a member any time soon, there is no doubt he would be welcomed by the congregation should he so choose.

It is all too easy to stereotype groups by the behavior of individuals and even some portion of the membership of such groups, evangelicals among the rest. Yet here we have a group of evnagelical Christians acting like, well, Christians. They reach out, in love, without judgement, and welcome one into their midst that, by the normal rules of the game, would be shunned. While I doubt few minds will be changed because of this incident, I am heartened by it, because it is an object lesson in the possibilities inherent in the Christian life. I might disagree with the church's teaching (or I might not, I do not know what they are), and I might find Haggard a disreputable character, doing incalculable damage to himself, his family, and the reputation of Christians everywhere - not because he's gay, but because he chose to hide it behind lie after lie after lie, acting out in ways morally reprehensible, indiscreet, and illegal. It would have been much better had he acknowledged his sexuality and taken a stand within that, rather than hide behind a cassock and pulpit, convincing himself that he could continue to live two lives.

Haggard's church, it seems, is better than Haggard at the whole Christian thing. Perhaps he taught them too well, or perhaps he should have listened to himself more. Whatever the reason, this is a good story, a story to relieve a bit of ache from the heart.

Spit and Polish (Digby Took my Title, Damn Him!)

Over at Hullabaloo, here, here, and here, Digby has been following a story about an alleged incident in which an Iraqi war veteran claims to have been spat upon by war protestors. As he notes, such stories, all proven baseless, still have a certain cachet among conservatives despite them being not true. By dipping a toe into this strange stream of American folklore, and by examining conflicting accounts digby does the kind of work reporters should do but do not do. Indeed, by Googling the name of the veteran, Digby was able to come up with all sorts of information that could lead a skeptical reporter to ask certain questions about ahost of matters, including the reality of the incident itself.

Part of the problem withreporting on large-scale protests such as this is that there are, quite literally, too many stories without a single narrative focus. Over here we might have mothers and grandmothers walking along peacefully; over there might be a group of black-shirted anarchists taking the opportunity to cause trouble; innocent by-standers may be dragged into the midst, or protestors may simply walk away. I have participated in a number of DC protests - agaisnt the first Gulf War, for gay rights, and I can tell you it is impossible to tell anything like a coherent story about such protests because the events themselves are, largely incoherent.

An anecdote. Prior to the first Gulf War, I was with a group on the sidewalk in front of the White House on a cold January night. We were chanting, stomping our feet to keep warm, and keeping our distance from a small group that had chained itself to the fence. The police, apparently understanding the protestors, were waiting, and when one of them tossed something over the fence on to the lawn, they moved in, cutting the chain, handcuffing the protestors, and moving them to a police van idling on the curb. The protestors were not resisting, but neither were they cooperating. They did not stand, they did not walk, they had to be dragged across the sidewalk and picked up and placed in the van. One protestor, hauled off the sidewalk by a large, burly officer, was hoisted like a sack of potatoes, then dropped, the top half of his body landing on the floor of the van, his legs dangling over the edge. He rolled, very slowly, onto the ground, and was quite literally stepped over as the officer placed the next person, a bit more gently, into the van. I made a move to help the man, writhing on the ground - handcuffed, out of breath, bleeding from his nose - then stopped, because (I hate to admit this) I was afraid what this cop would do to me. A couple friends of mine and I looked nervously at one another, then turned and walked away, the man still lying on a very cold Pennsylvania Avenue. Not one of my finer moments.

The next day, there was a small blurb on the inside pages of the Metro section of the Post about the incident, but nothing about the incident with the protestor. No reports of any injuries at all. I know a reporter saw it because there was a woman to my right scribbling notes in a small pad, talking to people around me, asking questions. I mentioned this to the people who had been standing with me that night and none of them acknowledged the incident; in dact, one refused to acknowledge he had been there at all. I found this not only bizarre but disturbing until I realized that, perhaps, shame or whatever had prompted these folks to refuse to acknowledge that they had failed to help someone who had needed helping. Or, perhaps, they had faulty memories. I, for one, know the incident took place, and will remember it (to my discredit) as long as I have memory.

The point in relating this incident is simple - reporters, even the bst ones, are limited to what they can see, hear, and the information given by those to whom they talk. At the same time, there is quite literally too much going on for any one individual to absorb. incident, people, words all flash by so fast, with no coherence or connection to anything else, that it becomes impossible to filter everything in such a way that some kind of overall picture emerges. Stories of incidents that never occurred become fact. Incidents that did occur become apocryphal. There is no way, really, to decipher, which are and which are not true. I say this not to argue that the reporter is not to blame for not doing what Digby did and discovering links between the person who alleges the spitting incident and an abundance of right-wing personas and personalities. All I am suggesting is that these events can become overwhelming, and physically and emotionally exhausting as well. It might be better if reports actually waited a day or two to allow the reporters a chance to get their heads clear.

My own opinion is simple - I doubt the incident occurred, and I agree with Digby that a little journalistic leg work (or perhaps "finger work" on Google would be more apt) could have cast doubts on the entire incident. On the other hand, I can understand its genesis and its possible inclusion in the story.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


I used to be a proud elitist. I admit it with only the embarrassment that comes from revealing some other non-dangerous vice. I used to be quite proud of myself, of the books I read, the music to which I listened, to my education status. I used to think it was important to make distinctions between what was just mediocre or popular or otherwise middle- to low-brow and what was truly excellent and good and true. I was most proud of the fact that I recognized this distinction and counted myself above those benighted masses who could not.

Life and experience have made me completely reject the very idea of elitism as anything other than an epithet tossed about by those who feel inadepquate when confronted by others who may know something they do not, or who may feel intimidated by those who are better educated, or better looking, or whatever. Conversely, there are elitists who truly believe the nonsense that most Americans are knuckle-draggin morons who prefer "American Idol" to discussing politics, art, music, or whatever. They disdain such fools, granting to themselves the privilege of being among those who understand quality. I know such people, and politely detest them, because they are usually smug, ignorant, small-minded, and as locked within their own world-views as those benighted, bedraggled masses they wish to elevate themselves from.

When I recognized that, far from making myself better, I was just making myself different from others because of what I choose to read, listen to, view, etc., I was suddenly free from the burden of being among an anointed minority staving off a new Dark Age in the wake of FOX TV, Paris Hilton, and a new CD from Britney Spears. I no longer judge other people for the choices they make - or do not make - concerning a whole host of things cultural, educational, intellectual, or otherwise, because, quite frankly, one man's meat is another man's poison, and I refuse to poison anyone in the belief that it is steak for all.

Another thing that forced me to rethink the whole elitism thing was actually listening to what other people said, whether it was about politics, about music, about religion, or whatever. Once I had completely absorbed my father's oft stated dictum that I "don't know every goddamn thing", I realized - lo, and behold! - there is an abundance of wisdom and understanding out there, and it is free for the taking as long as one is open to it. While still trapped within my own skull, as are we all, I no longer limit myself to seeing through my own eyes, but imaginatively live with and see with other lives and through other eyes. I engage others as equally befuddled stumblers through the world, trying, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but never surrendering. Once I realized that disagreeing with me did not make another person wrong - that is, absolutely wrong in some final epistemological and ontological sense - I was free to engage in lively debate, holding firmly to my positions, but listening to others and finding myself changing my mind once in a while.

One of the biggest challenging the liberal/progressive movement today is a pervasive elitism, manifest often by those who find that disagreement means fundamental error. As time has not ended, history continues, and entropy unfolds around us, we progressives may currently have the better arguments, the preponderance of the evidence, and many of those same benighted masses behind us; this does not make us "right" in some ultimate sense. It only makes us, to steal a quote, right now. A bit of humility is in order, a bit of listening, a bit less schadenfreude (no matter how good it feels!).

Because My Wife Complained

When she reads he headline, I will undoubtedly hear of it. She told me yesterday that I hadn't posted much about religion recently, and she is right. I have been feeling remiss about it myself. The problem is that too often my posts about religion cause me more problems than they are worth - I get stuck saying the same thing over and over, rather than moving the conversation forward, which is my intent. So, what follows are some general guidelines on how I plan on addressing issues of faith from now one. Of course, feel free to ignore them at your leisure; I, however, will try to stick with them as much as possible.

I could cut and paste the first paragraph from yesterday's post here, substituting "religion" for "music". Religion is a human phenomenon, a vast, sprawling phenomenon that covers every human social group of which we have record, in every time and place. Because of the varieties of religious expression, one finds it maddeningly difficult to define just what a religion is; I studied sociology under a scholar who wrote the first definitive work on Alcoholics Anonymous as a religion. What are the points of contact between, say, Chinese ancestor-worship and Zen Buddhism and Coptic Christianity? What possible link is there between the religious expression of the ancient Maya and contemporary snake-handlers? From just this, it should be clear that, like obscenity, religion is impossible to define, but one knows it when one sees it.

I say this, again (and again and again and again) because too often the word "religion" is substituted for the word "Christianity" by both critics and supporters alike as if they were interchangeable, a horrid ethno- and cultural-centrism I find both mindless and confusing. When I read Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, the two "bad boys" of the vocal atheist movement, deride "religion", then cite mostly Christian and Muslim horrors (or alleged horrors), I wonder what in the world they are toalking about. Certainly, since Harris exempts Buddhism, reincarnation, ESP, transmigration of the soul, and astral projection from criticism, one wonders about his hostility to religion in general, and about his credibility in particular. All of this together makes it difficult to discuss issues of faith because no one seems clear on what, exactly, the issue is.

For me, "religion" covers a vast array of beliefs and practices. I will undoubtedly enrage and insult not a few people by insisting that atheism is as much a religious phenomena (especially in its current, "evangelical" form) as, say Judaism or Lutheranism. My larger point is that attempting to divorce the concept of "religion" from its very specific realities - by treating religion as if it existed independent of those who practice and profess it, in other words - is to discuss an unreal abstraction. Religion is a human phenomenon, and cannot be separated from the very real people who sing the songs, say the prayers, light the candles, sacrifice the chickens, etc.

Second point: I will not discuss the "rational" or "reasonable" merits or demerits of religious faith versus other expressions of human life because, quite simply, such debates are meaningless. They assume too much about "rationality", they are ignorant of the history of religions and their role in propagating all sorts of rationalities in all sorts of settings, and too often we take "rationalism" and "reasonableness" to be something real, as well, i.e., divorced from human beings who think. Rationality is whatever people want it to be, and Christians are as rational as non-Christians are as rational as Buddhists are as rational as shamanists. To be rational is to think. Period. Unless one wants to argue that religion and thought are contradictory (and some have made that argument; it is simply ignorant, and I won't engage with ignorant people any more, trying to convince them of their ignorance) we will not move the issues forward if we try to figure out who is and is not rational or reasonable.

Third point: Christianity's hands - in all its guises and in all its vareigated histories and confessions - are extremely bloody. So are the hands of Muslims, of Hindus, of Buddhists. Indeed, except for Jains and Quakers, it is difficult for me to think of a religious group that has not been washed in the blood of opponents, dissidents, and false prophets. Why would I want to argue otherwise, since it is true? As long as we are admitting this truth, we might as well go whole hog, totus porcus, and point out that non-theistic beliefs - political ideololgies, social ideologies, and the like - are just as bloody, just as amenable to the delights of hurting and killing "the other" as are religion. It is simply historically and factually inaccurate to argue otherwise. In other words, I will not discuss the issue of Christian atrocities any more because, quite simply, human history is full of wars and pogroms and destruction wrought for any number of reasons, relgious among the rest. No human history is free of it (except, as I mentioned, Jains and Quakers; maybe, too, Ba'hai) so we will, again, get bogged down in irrelevancies if we try to outdo one another in the whole "who committed worse atrocities" game.

Third point: Secular liberals need to resign themselves to the fact that there are people of faith among them, people who share their political, social, and cultural values, but who also profess deep, profound, and abiding trust in some higher power (to use an AA term of art). Just because I am a Christian does not make me equal to Jerry Falwell. I will not check my faith at the door of progressive/liberal politics just because some people don't like it, are uncomfortable with it, or want to discuss something else. My politics and my faith are inseparable precisely because I am inseparable within myself. There are a whole host of reasons why ifind consonance between my faith and my politics - not the least of them being a commitment to the welfar and integrity and life of individual human beings wherever they may be and however that may be manifest. I am not interested in converting anyone to Christianity; I am, however, committed because of my Christianity to act to protect and and defend those who are weak, outside, lost, hurting, or under some threat. I do it because of my faith. Deal with it.

Finally, I will not belittle the faith of those Christians with whom I disagree politically. Some of them are United Methodists like myself. Others of other denominations, faith traditions, creedal traditions, etc., may believe slightly differently from me, but because I refuse to admit that any one faith tradition contians within it the whole truth of Christian faith, I will not denounce or otherwise call into question the faith of thosw who believe differently from me. Fundamentalism serves a vital spiritual need, and serves a check on the non-fundies who sometimes get all caught up in forgetting some very basic tenets in a continual search for relevance. I don't agree with fundamentalists, but I am thankful for them and the perspective they bring, and their militant refusal to compromise on issues that, quite possibly, should not be compromised. I am just one person occupying a very small portion of one faith tradition, and I have no monopoly on truth, and I will not presume it. I will call error when I see it, and reserve the right to disagree with pretty much anyone; I will not call anyone, however, a false Christian, or deride their claims to faith or faithfulness.

These are my rules. I hope I can stick to them. I hope you can, too.

Virtual Tin Cup

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