Saturday, March 03, 2007

Extremists I Happen to Like

I have been thinking about the whole "here's what a left wing extremist looks like" business from Joe Klein - his list of the traits of America-hating bloggers, and I realized that, while I know of no bloggers who have even one of these traits (at least none of the big liberal bloggers - Atrios, Koz, Glenn Greenwald, Media Matters, Crooks and Liars - that are the real movers and shakers), I do admire certain left-wing groups, and subscribe to one left-wing publication, that might at one time have fit the description, in some stereotyped way.

First, I subscribe to The New York Review of Books which infamously published an article in 1968 or 1969, with illustrations, on how to manufacture a Molotov Cocktail. TNYRB continues it left-leaning reputation, although the days of radical chic (more on that in a moment) are long over; I like it because it is a glimpse into the minds of the New York-based intelligentsia. That, and it once ran my all-time favorite personals ad: "Will trade dog-walking for sex." Desperation, thy name is an upscale personals ad.

I have to admit some ambivalence about one no-longer-existent group, the Weather Underground. No fan of violence myself, and certainly not doctrinaire about anything in my life, especially politics, these adolescent faux-Marxists managed only to kill themselves, although they did, famously, once manage to put a bomb in a trashcan in the US Capitol building. Score one for audacity. Their fomenting revolution fomented nothing but FBI Ten Most Wanted Lists, and unfortunately because of their incompetence, killed several when their homemade bombs destroyed the building they were living in. They were more heat than light, but just dangerous enough to force the government to act.

A personal note. A good friend of mine, much older than I, told me a story about how, one day, as he was walking through Baltimore airport, he met an old friend. They stood and talked for a few minutes, exchanged an embrace, then went their separate ways. A few minutes later, still in the airport, my friend was surrounded by several nondescript men in suits who hustled him into a nondescript room. My friend was asked just one question, "Do you know that was the leader of the Weathermen?" My friend said that, yes, he did know that. He was held for several hours, then left to go on his merry way. The most fascinating part of this story to me is that my friend was so self-possessed that he did not drop any names to me, never revealed the source of his relationship, and could still after twenty years (at the time I was told the story) smile about it, rather than feel bitter or angry. Happy radicals are the most dangerous, you know, because they have fewer illusions to lose.

Another group about which I feel no ambivalence, which shall always hold a place of affection for me are the Black Panthers. Inspired by a combination of Malcolm X's rhetoric and Saul Alinsky's organizational principles, the Panthers managed to frighten many in the establishment, while at the same time do serious work in neighborhood self-policing, feeding the poor, running drug dealers out of neighborhoods, rescuing women trapped in prostitution, helping out schools in trouble, run homeless shelters and other social service agencies. Their militant stance - they dressed in camouflage fatigues and went around armed - was a direct response to the reality blacks in America still face, the violence of the unspoken rules of white supremacy that govern our fair land. The formula is simple - if they face an armed threat, why not arm themselves in self-defense?

The Panthers threatened no one except racist institutions bent on returning African-Americans to their status as non-citizens/non-persons in our society, and that threat was enough to scare the bejeebers out of just about everyone. The FBI did manage to raid the Chicago cell and kill the leader of the Chicago Panthers, and the rest were driven underground; this overreaction by Hoover's men, I have no doubt with the connivance of the Nixon Administration, was prompted by no more than the sight of black men banding together to protect themselves and save their communities when those communities were abandoned by the white power structure. The Klan can march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington (and if anyone doubts those yahoos aren't armed under those sheets they're just fooling themselves), but if a few - very few - black folk arm themselves, why it's the end of civilization as we know it!

While the situation the Panthers faced was very serious, and cost them the lives of followers, I still find something vaguely silly about the official overreaction to what was, in essence, members of the African-American urban community seeking to help themselves. After all, right-wingers like guns, they like self-help - they should have embraced the Panthers as fellow travelers. That they didn't, and still feel they were a domestic terrorist organization, just shows how empty so much of their talk is. Race makes hypocrites of us all.

As to radical chic. The phrase was coined after a series of soirees given in New York City by the very literati who people the columns of TNYRB which included leaders of the Panthers, future leaders of the Weather Underground, and Fidel Castro. This also sparked the term "limousine liberal" - a bunch of rich patrons doting upon real revolutionaries, treating them as pets, or perhaps animals in a zoo, while at the same time burnishing their own credentials as living and thinking beyond the edge of acceptability. Such shallow, thoughtless (in the literal sense of the term), pandering is laughable, but was taken to be very serious business at one time. Personally, the sight of Norman Mailer - fat, self-absorbed, drunk on gin - having a conversation with Bobby Seale would make me burst out laughing at the sheer absurdity of the moment. Seale was a person worthy of admiration. Mailer is someone, on the other hand, whose fame and renown simply escape me. A misogynistic hack, obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, he is still riding the rails of The Naked and the Dead, which has already been surpassed by other, later novels, for its realistic portrayal of World War II.

So, I suppose I am one of those extremists that Klein doesn't like. Of course, the fact that I have to reach back to groups that no longer exist, and were always peripheral to national politics anyway, proves that the straw radical Klein detests has ceased to exist. He, like the reactionary figures ruling our country since the first election of Richard Nixon, have been fighting this same battle, even while the rest of us have moved on to bigger and better things.

Like Noam Chomsky.

Hell May Not Be Freezing Over, But I Should Get Out a Sweater

Just the other day, I wrote here that I doubted whether or not Sean Hannity would welcome the pastor of Trinity UCC, Chicago, to respond to ignorant, baseless charges that were spouted on his show. Score one for those who claim Hannity is fair - if you go to Crooks and here, complete with video, you will see the difference between someone who is intelligent, thoughtful, well-read, decent, and Sean Hannity. Hannity asks a question, and when he is clearly unhappy with the answer - I assume he thinks people will be bullied by him - he tries to change the subject. BTW, he studied theology? At Joe's Divinity School?

His utterly insipid remarks at the end show that he and the minister and congregation at Trinity live in completely different worlds, and Trinity's is the real one.

I will give Hannity props, though. He did what I thought he would not do, and faced with someone he could neither bully nor talk over, he gave up, and Colmes managed to make the most important point - that Trinity is being singled out because of Obama, not because of anything on its website. Like all bullies, when faced by someone who is not intimidated, Hannity backs down like the true coward he is.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Joe Klein's Defense - He Gets Nervous When He Writes (Updated)

You know, this particular horse is not only dead, scavengers have scattered the bones. The formula is really quite simple, and Greg Sargent at The Horses Mouth gets it exactly right - we do not like you, Mr. Klein-you-are, because you keep attacking the people with whom you should be agreeing, and not attacking those with whom you hold substantively differing views. You dismiss the lefties as shallow potty mouths but fail to point out the real shallow potty mouths are the ones who demand we destroy the Bill of Rights, kill all the Muslims in the world, and lock up or execute those who disagree with the first two propositions. Those who hold the latter positions prop up an incompetently criminal regime with way too much innocent blood on its hands, and you get mad because some on the left point out the United States is doing some really stupid things, and has done so in the past?

God, you're awful. You are shallow. You are, in fact, hollow, who makes a mockery of your profession. Your defense? "I get nervous when I write." Oh. Dear. Sweet. Loving. Jesus. I doubt whether anyone out here cares one iota for your blood-pressure levels as you face a blinking cursor and blank screen. What we do care about is your monumental pandering to power, your obstinate silence in the face of a huge power-grab on the part of the Bush Administration, and your refusal to acknowledge that those you disparage as shallow, vulgar, and insincere are and have been and will continue to be on into the future - right about just about everything, whereas you have been, are and continue to be wrong. Period, end of sentence, end of indictment.

As I was going back and checking links for this post, I came across this piece that Klein typed as a response to all the enquiries from all those potty-mouthed lefties. His list of the characteristics of left-wing extremists range from the cartoonish (they're vulgar, they don't like religious people) to the demonstrably - and demonstratedly - true, yet consistently denied by those in the mainstream (American activity in the Middle East, best described as imperialistic, is the major source for and instigator of Islamic extremism and terrorism). So, Klein is really back at square one, haveing proven that he is, in in Duncan's words a wanker.

UPDATE: I just perused again the post in which Klein lists left-wing extremist traits. I also took a peak at the comments section (still brave of him to keep those in place, I must note). They all boil down to two things that I believe Klein will resolutely refuse to answer. First, since he will not get into a "pissing contest" (language, Mr. Klein, language!) and name names, that tells most readers he can't. I would tend to agree. While I have read occasional rants on various web sites that skirt one or two of these mindlessly stereotyped qualities, none of the major sites, and even few of the minor, Z-level sites, echo even one or two of them on anything like a regular basis. Indeed, Dinesh D'Souza and Jerry Falwell have castigated America more than any lefty of whom I am aware. Second, the list itself shows how out of touch with our present reality Klein actually is; many of the things he claims are hallmarks of leftwing extremism are, in fact, the opinions of, if not a majority, certainly a plurality of Americans. On the most important issue of our day, Iraq, I will say again, what Klein takes as a one-time stupid blunder is actually the end-result of many stupid policy decisions Washington-based types, not the least of whom are journalists, have touted as remarkably successful, included among the list would be the Grenada invasion, the Lebanon occupation, the Libya bombing, Vietnam, tax cuts for the rich, tax increases for the working class, gutting veteran's benefits, supporting terrorist regimes in El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia . . . In other words, this isn't one case of dumbness among a host of successes, but one more, perhaps the topper, in a long list of dismal policy failures and horrors, some of which have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of human beings. This isn't left-wing extremism, it is simply the truth. Klein's moral blindness to this one fact alone makes him an unserious person, bereft of any moral standing upon which to criticize others. He is more than a wanker. He is a buffoon, parading around as a serious person; he is the court jester to King George, and he doesn't even realize it.

UPDATE II: Upon further reflection of Klein's list, I am astounded that it reads less like something a serious-minded, "liberal" journalist might write, and more like something concocted by the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, or any other right-wing nut-job one could name. This alone should tell Klein something, if he were self-aware enough, and self-critical enough, to consider the possibility that he might have just made an ass of himself in front of the entire world.

UPDATE III: What will Klein say about Ann Coulter's remarks, indeed presence, at the CPAC conference? Will his post read like Glenn Greenwald's, where Greenwald highlights several salient points, not the least of which is Coulter's continuined acceptance and acceptability among the congniscenti of the right, even as she calls fro the destruction of the NY Times building, the assassination of Presidents and Supreme Court Justices, and calls Muslims "ragheads"? I would urge Klein to read Greenwald as a refustation of just about everything he attempted to write here, and is based, not on preconceived ideas of what is and is not acceptable discourse among proper politicos, but upon the reality with which we are all faced. As I wait for Klein's reaction, the crickets get louder . . . and louder . . .

When a Non-Story Dies . . .

. . . leave it to Sean Hannity to play God and try to resurrect it. I wrote here back in January about John Solomon's lazy, unresearched attempted hit-piece on Barack Obama's home church in Chicago. The story was chewed up and spit out by just about everyone, and one would have thought that such an ignominious death to such blatant nonsense would rest easily in the grave. Sadly, though, Sean Hannity - who, like Tucker Carlson, suddenly fancies himself a critic of the varieties of the expression of Christian faith - dragged on some no-name critic who managed to smear Obama, his church, its statement of faith, and its mission, all without ever actually visiting the church or talking to members.

Actually, the person Hannity placed before the cameras has a name - Erik Rush. Rush is a columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is also lazy, ignorant, and somewhat of a blowhard. I say all these things, and use these epithets very consciously because they are not so much insults as descriptive of his (lack of) work ethic. He looked at the church's website and proceeds to smear an entire congregation as a "cult" on national television. The reason? Barack Obama is a member there!

Now, of course, this entire thing is nonsense. Trinity United Church of Christ is an active, vital congregation and its view of its place in the world is both within the mainstream of the church and American religious history. The problem for Rush and Hannity is the church is self-conscious of its mission to and ministry for African-Americans on the south side of Chicago. It is not Afro-centrist, or, as Rush put it, "African-centrist". It is simply aware of its history, identity, and what this means for the church's responsibility to the community in which it lives. Apparently this is so far beyond the religious imaginings of Rush - I don't even want to begin to speculate on Hannity's ability to imagine anything - that, when Alan Colmes asks some basic, you know, journalistic-type questions, as well as a question on integrity - who is Rush to judge the church, its ministry, or its faithfulness to Christian teaching - he sputters, spews, and merely re-asserts his original claim as a defense of his original claim.

In many ways, Obama's outspoken Christian faith is a good thing for the country, as is Mitt Romney's candidacy, and both for the same reason. What they show is that right-leaning Christians are actually small-minded, ignorant, and that their enablers in the media are actually more shallow and ignorant than they are. Sean Hannity criticizing the beliefs of others is a bit ludicrous. Personally, I would love to take this guy on - anywhere, anytime - on matters of faith. Precisely because he does not have a clue what he is talking about, and invites guests on to his show who are just as lazy and stupid as he is, it would be a joy to watch someone, or even be someone, to take this guy down on national television.

You don't suppose Hannity will invite the pastor of the church on to respond? Or perhaps Sen. Obama?


Didn't think so.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Facing the World With Integrity

You may have noticed the neo-earth map on the right-hand sidebar, and marveled at it, as I have at a website I frequent. I got it because I thought it was pretty cool. As I have looked at the map over the course of the past couple days, however, my emotional response to it has changed from fascination to awe in its most basic form - a mixture of wonder and fear.

Many years ago, I learned the toughest lesson of my life from a man whom I still admire - indeed, if a picture and bio of an individual were needed to describe "integrity", I would use his above all other people I have known. Part of that lesson was that I had, through a combination of arrogance, ignorance, and naivety, lost the respect of someone I admire (nothing, except perhaps losing a close family member, could hurt more than letting down someone one is trying to emulate). In the course of a conversation with me, this person said something I have not only never forgotten, I have actually tried to incorporate into my life; I fail as often as I succeed, but at least I still struggle with it. He told me that we should always use caution and care and circumspection in our dealings with others because we never know how our actions are going to effect others. It is quite possible that something we do or say, to which we attach little significance, can turn out to be of utmost importance to another, and that, in its turn, can cause ripples that spread all around the world reaching us again, years later, in a chain that is almost difficult to perceive yet very real just the same.

Taking in the implications of the map to the right, I wonder - what does someone in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia or Singapore think of what I have written? What do my protestations of faithful Christianity mean to someone in Seoul or Birmingham? What, exactly, is the impression I am giving to those who read this blog, even once?

These are not casual or insignificant questions, but go to the heart of this whole project called blogging. I present to the world a snapshot of myself with each and every post, and I cannot but be concerned about the impression others have of that snapshot. Just consider, as a not-mundane example, the heading I have given to the George W. Bush reverse clock, "Countdown to Freedom". What does someone from as tightly controlled and authoritarian a society as Singapore think of that? There is little doubt that George Bush's administration presents a clear and present danger to our historical freedoms; but how does that threat look to someone living under practically no freedom whatsoever?

On another level, what about my self-professed Christianity? How do I reconcile that with some of the posts I have put up? Are nuance and complexity just a thin reed upon which I justify to myself things I have written that have no place on a site dedicated - still - to both progressive politics and faithful Christianity? I submit that these are questions to which I have no answers, but I think keeping them in mind in the future - keeping that map in mind, and all the yellow dots on it - will make me a better blogger, and I hope a more honest and integral blogger.

More Tales From Opposite World

We were told that the grown-ups were in charge. They had experience. They had the know-how. They were intelligent. They were clever. We have been spoon-fed this political ipecac syrup for years now, even as evidence mounted that the exact opposite was the case - that in fact the foreign policy "team" Pres. Bush put together was among the most ideologically-driven, practically inept group ever assembled. The fact that Iran-Contra criminal Elliot Abrams had his career rehabilitated should have been a clue that we had descended beyond mere incompetence to criminally negligent.

A nice counter to the nice-nice "oh-aren't-they-clever" nonsense still foisted upon us by insipid journalists, are the comments of Josh Marshall:
It's a screwup that staggers the mind.

and Robert Farley (h/t, Duncan):
Morons. We have morons on our team.

The references are to revelations today that the entire policy-making apparatus, in regards to North Korea's nuclear program was based upon false premises, and actually encouraged and strengthened the Hermit Kingdom's ability to develop and build nuclear weapons. The reason the assumptions were wrong? Why, because they were the opposite of Bill Clinton's, and of course Bush had to make sure he did the opposite of Clinton to appease the idiots in his base.

So, Clinton was a failure for containing Iraq and North Korea, but Bush is a strong leader for leading us into the stupid, pointless, losing occupation of Iraq; and now, Kim Jong-il has nuclear weapons, even though Clinton had hammered out a tough agreement with them that kept them from working on them for eight years.

Please, for the sake of my feeble brain, name one thing this gang of idiots ensconced in offices in Washington have done right since January 20, 2001. These people are like the anti-Midas, turning everything they touch into the most foul ordure rather than the purest gold. They have destroyed the military; they have bankrupted the country; they have not pursued those who actually perpetrated acts of terror against the United States; they neglect returning vets, cardboard cutouts of whom they claim to support; they lie, lie about lying, deny knowing anything about the lying about lying - and are certainly among the most morally bereft political Administration's in American history, along with Ronald Reagan's, Warren Harding's, and Ulysses Grant's (strangely, all Republican). Is there any reason any Republican running for office should not be automatically disqualified from holding public office?

January 20, 2009 cannot come soon enough!

UPDATE: This post by Tristero at Hullabaloo, beyond making the now-mundane observation that such important information is currently below the radar of our media elites, is just another piece of evidence in the huge moral/political/historical/and one would hope someday soon, legal, case against the Bush Administration. We are going to end terrorism as we know it by declaring war on it! By invading Iraq, however, which the Pres. and V-P still defend as central to the whole War on Terror thing, we have actually increased both the number of and ferocity of terrorist attacks, in ways that are actually quantifiable.

It's like someone asked the question, "What would happen if we elected the worst administration ever?" and then put it in to practice.

I Commit Progressive Heresy

This article by David Sirota over at got me thinking about something that has, quite frankly, bothered me for many a year. It was incoherent, vague, and inarticulate, until I saw the headline and read the article; I now understand what bothers me about this line of reasoning, and what bothers me are several things. Before I detail my reasons for not liking such nonsense (and nonsense it is), I shall state my heresy, making it public for all to see - I do not believe it is productive or helpful for progressives to automatically exclude corporations from policy-making discussions. I will go further, and state unequivocally and categorically, that to exclude corporations from discussions that have the potential to effect their businesses, their profits, and their stock values is immoral, unless we are going to state that corporations should not make profits, or shareholders not expect a return on their investments.

OK, I've got the heresy out of the way. Now to the explanations. First, I have read articles like Sirota's for years, as I was a subscriber to The Nation for about six years, and such "reporting" was rampant. To note that such-and-such a person, claiming to be a liberal, had some kind of relationship with some Fortune 500 company, or that Public Television routinely solicits from, and receives money from, corporations and charitable foundations that have right-leaning agendas, or corporate-criminal records, should automatically make us question the liberal bona fides of those involved is guilt-by-association I find abhorrent. A good example is Public Television, which still solicits money from right-leaning foundations, but was much more influenced by the appointment of an anti-CPB chair to the board than by any strings attached to grants for funding by the MacArthur or Vining Foundation.

At the heart of such reporting is a kind of political Manichaeanism, in which corporations are the embodiment of evil and labor and workers are the embodiment of virtue. I will not disagree that corporations wield tremendous influence in the political sphere; I will also not disagree that corporations that routinely violate fair labor standards, workplace safety, and environmental laws - not to mention anti-trust and tax law - need to be held accountable in a far more strict manner than is currently the case; giving such law penalties with teeth would go a long way toward ensuring corporate compliance. To me, however, none of this is even remotely relevant to the way the issue is too often framed; usually, it is the big ugly, horrible, worker-hating corporation against the ground-down, struggling-but-virtuous worker, with the end result always being the worker loses. Along with the Manichaean guilt-by-association, such reporting too often ignores the complexities of the stories involved, not the least of which is this fun fact that is too often overlooked - corporations exist to make a profit; thus they have an interest in doing business in a way that minimizes costs. This is neither sinister nor hidden, but should be plain for all to see. That profit-seeking sometimes skirts - or even more than skirts - across the boundary between lawful and unlawful does not negate this fundamental reality.

As far as the particular issue in question, why the deathless prose in Sirota's piece? The Democratic leader of the Senate is holding hearings with large corporations and the US Chamber of Commerce on the issue of free trade - Oh. My. God. Horror of horrors! A politician is meeting with business leaders on a matter that impacts their business and profits!


We can operate in a variety of ways in this country. We can be right-wing Manichaeans - "Axis-of-evil" types. We can be left-wing Manichaeans - corporations-and-churches-are-out-to steal-our-liberties-and-our-money types. Or, perhaps, we can recognize that corporations have interests that, both by law and by moral imperative, need to be considered in any complicated policy involving their interests. In so doing, such consultation should not exclude other interests, interests which, up till now, have been largely ignored - organized labor, environmental, workplace safety - but there is nothing untoward about meeting with corporate representatives as well.

Sirota's piece is redolent with a constant, whining, lefty-leaning subtext, close to but not quite conspiracy mongering, in which corporations act as nefarious, behind-the-scenes Rasputins, stealing from virtuous workers, evilly manipulating gullible, greedy, or otherwise corruptible politicians for their own ends. We the people stand by helpless as corporations run our country from smoke-free back rooms.

Please. Unless one is to deny that businesses and business leaders have the same rights to address issues of concern to them with our political leadership, then I suggest, perhaps, we actually investigate what is said and why, rather than standing in our holier-than-everyone Amen corner and crying about big evil corporations stealing the Democrats from the people who elected them. That kind of nonsense is both old and, well, nonsensical. We need to think about these things, people, not just react.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Real Skepticism

Yep, skepticism is a scientific virtue except in matters of global warming, ahem cough, cough oops wrong subject. - Goat in a previous comment thread

I suppose I am belaboring a point here, but it is important to repeat that real scientists, not non-scientific climate change deniers, do engage in practical skepticism each and every time they engage in experimental investigation and use the current climate change model as a guide. Implicit in every scientific experiment is the question of whether or not the current theory is workable. That is the definition of science - the falsifiable theory never verified, only provisionally accepted as operable under the current level of knowledge and understanding.

This is one of the reasons why climate change skeptics continue to misunderstand the whole issue - they simply don't understand the way science works. Once a theory is offered as an explanation for disparate data, its acceptance is provisional upon the theory's ability (a) to account for the data; (b) the theory's ability to predict future experimental results with a relatively high degree of accuracy (scientific theories involve correlation, not causation, thus statistical understanding of the range of experimental results is important and differs between various theories); (c) the theory's ability to withstand scrutiny as experiments refine theoretical language and possible future experimental avenues. For this last one, specifically, as new data emerge, how much does the theory change, and are clauses added to the theory that, perhaps either enhance, or undermine the central premise of the theory (this last is an important codicil to scientific advancement, worked on by the late philosopher Imre Lakatos).

As a model, the current understanding of global climate change works so well precisely because it is fruitful for a variety of experimental avenues, it accounts for disparate data previously understood as separate and understood outside an overarching model, said distinct theories being inadequate to account for a variety of details within the experimental data. As the current model is used as theoretical background to various scientific explorations, its value as a predictor of outcomes is high, indeed extraordinarily high as scientific theories go, close to the level of various physical theories, which is unusual for a science as broad as climatology. Finally, the changes made to the theory, rather than undermining it, enhance it both as a vehicle for future experimental study, and refine in detail the various ways global climate change functions.

Scientific theories are never verified. They are always provisionally accepted, as long as they meet the criteria above for success. When any scientist, using any theoretical model, begins a study, in the back of his or her mind is the idea that it is quite possible the theory being used is not only wrong, but will be proven wrong by the experiment in question. We should be less impressed by the number of studies that confirm the theory of human-induced global climate change, and more impressed by the theory's stability and reliability as a predictor for scientific exploration.

Real skepticism is not sitting around asking questions about Al Gore's electricity consumption; that is character assassination, and is irrelevant anyway. Real skepticism is the work of a variety of scientists, each and every day, doing research and discovering that global climate change is occurring, and that the model stating that human activity, from industry to mowing the lawn, is a major, perhaps the major factor involved.

Condescending Religious Talk

Over at Faith in Public, they have reprinted this article from Paul Campos of the Scripps-Howards news agency, and a law professor at the University of Colorado. The title of the column intrigued me - "Why there are almost no genuine atheists" - as I have known several genuine atheists, some with serious religion issues, some more cheery and nonchalant. Reading the column, which I would recommend if for no other reason than to be amazed that someone with such poor reasoning and writing skills is a lawyer, law professor, and columnist, provides a glimpse into one of the most annoying traits among those who seek to defend "religion" in the public sphere. Starting with Mitt Romney's recent statement about needing "a person of faith" in the White House, and poll data suggesting it would be easier to put a camel through the eye of a needle than to elect an atheist President of the United States, Campos goes on to assert that this information is irrelevant because atheism - as he defines it, to which we shall repair in a moment - is almost non-existent. Thus, it would seem, the atheist candidate pool being slim as it is, we need not worry ourselves over much about such obvious bigotry.

What Campos means when he speaks of atheism is (and I kid you not) a sense of some transcendent anchor or ground for a moral order. He even sites Edmund Wilson as "proof" that self-avowed atheists are actually hedging their bets by appealing to certain ethical norms between believers and non-believers. While my own take on Christianity is a deep sense of the centrality of a communal ethic, based upon the sacrifice of Jesus, given hope and new life through the resurrection, I would never claim that my view of ethics or morality is either exhaustive or exclusive. Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, Richard Rorty, and Isaiah Berlin were and are highly concerned with the moral life. Each of them, in their own way, has worked toward understanding what it takes to live out a moral code, to live together as fellow human beings. Each of them, also, are quite cheerfully (or, in Russell's case, hostilely) atheist. I am not necessarily pushing any of these, or other, philosopher's points of view; I am saying that even a cursory understanding of contemporary thought could actually lead one to make a counter-argument to Campos.

More to the point, should one consider only the demands of the moral life as necessitating a belief in a transcendent order rooted in what can be called, for lack of a better word, "god" or "God", that is a thin reed to which to cling. This is exactly the kind of fuzzy, hazy nonsense I find so distasteful; by ignoring the real specifics of genuine religious and theological thought, not just in Christianity, but in any religion one could name, for some transcendent common denominator that can link us all back together in one big, happy, religious whole, we lose touch with the true diversity of human religious thought, and the problems, challenges, limits, and possibilities such thought offers us. To say that, in effect, Wilson isn't an atheist because he believes that we need to work to salvage our common humanity from a variety of threats to its existence isn't just wrong; it's silly, shallow, and offers non-sequiturs and anecdotes as arguments.

I am as deeply suspicious of people who want to salvage "god" from the ashes of contemporary atheist discourse as I am of atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who would demand we leave religion behind us as so much adolescent baggage. Neither one deals with the realities we face, or offers helpful ways of working within that reality; it offers, instead, comfort and (in the case of Harris and Dawkins) publicity to those who print such nonsense. There are many atheists among us; we need to listen to what they say, and not be condescending to them, insisting that we know what they are really saying because we know that there is no moral order without "god".

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Christopher Lasch Rolls in His Grave

In the spring of 1991, a friend of mine encouraged me to purchase a new book by then-University of Rochester historian Christopher Lasch. The book, entitled The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, is a tour-de-force, covering everything from the literature of Dickens to the theology of Jonathan Edwards to the French Syndicalists to the Boston busing controversy of the 1970's, and in the middle offers serious assesments of the careers of Reinhold Niebuhr, Edmund Burke, and Martin Luther King, Jr. as well. The argument of the book is simple: the ideological fantasy of a linear increase in human hapiness and self-satisfaction has run its course, but we do not as yet have the tools to grapple, ideologically, with its failures. Looking at alternatives from within the era of progress itself offers us a way forward. While not agreeing with everything Lasch said - I did not like his dismissal of the allegations of racism at the heart of the busing controversy, couched in suburban populist rhetoric - the book floored me for its clarity, breadth of research, and wealth of information.

Lasch made a name for himself towards the end of the 1970's with a book entitled The Culture of Narcissism, in which he argued that much of our social and cultural commentary on the previous decade was misguided because it failed to note that many of the hallmarks of what critics took to calling "the 'Me' decade" were actually indicative of a type of psychopathology known as narcissistic personality disorder. In the work in question, and its 1984 follow-up (less read in the age of Reagan, more's the pity), The Minimal Self, Lasch discusses in depth the nature of narcissism and the way it is displayed in a variety of dysfuntional social phenomena. A major point Lasch returns to again and again, because it is necessary, is that the so-called selfishness exhibited in social and cultural life was not indicative of a bloated sense of self, but rather in an absence of any meaningful, centered sense of identity. Much of what superficial criticism took as an absorption in the self was actually part of serious personality problems - much of America was exhibiting a lack of any sense of themselves, seeking to project into the world a self that they could then reabsorb, through social-psychological osmosis, as their true identity. The problem is that narcissists are incapable of holding on to identity for long because of the fundamental problem at the heart of their pathology - they lack the resources necessary for a secure identity. Thus, the search goes on.

Lasch's work was misappropriated and mis-interpreted at the time, and continues to be. In an updated edition of Narcissism, Lasch responds to a variety of critics by, in essence, restating his thesis, precisely because it was so poorly understood by his critics. Narcissism is not navel-gazing slef-indulgence. Rather, navel-gazing self-indulgence is indicative of any meaningful sense of individual identity, and shows that there is something profoundly wrong with social institutions which would foster such a pathology. Still, however, one can read accounts in which Lasch is invoked as a critic of selfishness, and it irks me, as someone who has read the work (and re-read it because it rewards multiple readings) to read people who use Lasch in ways that are diametrically opposed to the ideas he put forth.

Now we come to a study, written about here by Tristero at Hullabaloo and, with a slightly different take, here by my turtle-loving neighbors from the north (with a comment from Your's Truly), in which narcissism again rears its ugly head, yet this time - do we have to replay all the idiocy from the 1970's? - it again is misappropriated, misapplied, and an argument is made that tries to prove the exact opposite of what should be intended. A study claims that our youth are suffering from, you guessed it, narcissism. The evidence? Why, they're a bunch of self-centered, lazy creeps who don't do anything for anybody!

The study, flawed in a variety of ways, equates narcissism with self-centeredness, uses indicators that prove something else entirely (to which we shall return), and follows a methodology that would lose any other psychologist a Ph.D. on his or her dissertation. One point, made by Tristero, is that the study ignores the fact that the youth portrayed as self-indulgent do more community volunteer work than any other age-cohort. To dismiss this, essentially, as class work as the study-authors do, misses the point that this volunteer work is being done.

More on point, the study is hardly scientific because it seeks to prove something the researchers already took as axiomatic - that our youth are over-pampered, over-indulged, and we are reaping the rewards of parental leniency rooted in what is underrstood to be a failed liberal ideology. The problem, of course, is that these axioms are false - if you base scinece on untrue assumptions, your conclusions will be false as well. If I were to seek out physical confirmation of the luminiferous ether, and found it, that would prove nothing.

I do, however, have an laternative interpretation of the data gathered. Rather than indicative of narcissism among youth, the data could point to a struggle by well-grounded, psychologically healthy youth against the social pathology endemic to our political culture, a pathology most marked for its narcissism, its refusal to learn from mistakes or grant reality a separate, integrated existence (both hallmarks of narcissistic personality disorder), and a tendency to exaggerate one's own skills and gifts, even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary (another hallmark of the disorder). In other words, it is not youth who are narcissistic, but the ruling elites, the genereational cohort that was the subject of Christopher Lasch's original criticism. In short, Lasch was right, and we are reaping the fruits of that social pathology.

Short Take

As I wrote here, I really like Al Sharpton. It seems Bob Somerby does, too. For the record - this is very good stuff, much better than anything coming from Washington.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Stages of Right-Wing Denial of Global Warming and What They Reveal

For several months, I have read a variety of peices on the net and in print on global warming, and it is interesting to decode right-wing denials and the phony debate. In doing so, one finds that, at the heart of the matter is not any question of scientific data, although they pretend this is so; rather, what lies at the heart of denials of global warming is a fear of what doing something about global warming might mean for our present standard of living. Fear of economic dislocation - deindustrialization, a leveling down and scaling back of our economy - are the major factors at the heart of the phony debate. To put it simply - the global warming deniers do not wish for us to give up our grossly consumptive standard of living to save the planet, because we have, by gosh and by golly, earned the right to steal resources from planet earth and use them for our mutual destruction.

First, of course, come the denials. It is so easy to create a question for science and scientific theories, and the deniers have loads of them. Indeed, all one has to do is point out that someone, somewhere, is raising these questions, and blamo, you have a lack of scientific consensus. At the heart of this is the very real position that no science is exact, all scientific evidence is statistical in nature, and all theories are questionable. I have made the same points myself innumerable times. The problem, however, is that while all theories are questionable at some basic, ontological level, as a matter of practice, it would be difficult to imagine a less problematic theory than human-induced global warming. It satisfies all the criteria for successful theory no matter what philosophy of science one adheres to; it accounts for disparate data, it makes predicitons based upon certain assumptions, and these predictions are highly accurate, and lead to further predicitons that are also remarkably accurate.

So, presented with the success of the theory, the overwhelming evidence, etc., except for die-hards like Jim Inhofe, the matter shifts slightly something like this: "OK, fine, the earth is getting warmer. Can we with absolute certianty say the human activity is the source of the problem?" It is a short drive down a very crooked path to this rather prosaic, indeed scientific, question, to Dana "Dinosaur Farts" Rohrbacher. In a recent House committee hearing, Rohrbacher noted the fact of earlier global climate change, and offered dinosaur flatulence as a possible source. All one can say about such idiocy is "HAHAHAHAHAHA". Yet, the question is a sound one, and deserves the response that, yes, we can say, with quite great deal of certainty (more than is given with most scientific theories and models) that human activity is the leading contributing factor to global climate change. Again, evidence is brought out, part one of the whole "debate" is repeated, until we are all satisfied that both part I and part II of the whole "debate" has come to a complete stop and all trays are in their upright and locked positions.

We now move to the true heart of the matter. "What can we do about it?" Those who pose the question, often without waiting for a response from serious interlocutors, answer it themselves this way: "It would mean the end of our standard of living. No industry. No automobiles. We all go back to living in the Middle Ages. Our economy would collapse. Our civilization would end." Of course, no one makes this point except those who claim they don't believe the theory, so one could call this an exercise in bad faith. Actually, I claim they do believe in global climate change - how could they not? - and are terrified of the implications for what they hold to be our practically divine right to live more richly than any other nation on earth. Now, few serious policy makers are suggesting that we deindustrialize. Indeed, there are a variety of ways of making our lives carbon-neutral that actually encourage innovation and invention on the part of industry. This, alas, is also a threat to our current economic and social status quo, which these folks are defending without thought.

It is this, more than anything else that lies at the heart of global warming deniers. They understand the threat is very real, but see little more than any attempt to deal with the situation as a threat to the way things are. These folks liike the way things are. Of course, if Bangladesh is flooded out, or Florida disappears as a peninsula, or New York City becomes unlivable below 75th St., we might need to rethink the entire thing - yet, these are situations for which we need to be preparing now - socially, politically, and economically. Just one prediction - the desertification of much of the arable land og the American Plains - is quickly becoming a reality. Think about what that would mean in terms of food production, population redistribution, our economy. These are things for which we need to have contingencies, not suddenly rush in willy-nilly screaming "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!"

These are the reasons, I feel, that global warming deniers are disingenuous; they claim not to accept either the theory, or the preponderance of the evidence supporting the theory, or the cause. I believe they accept it whole-heartedly; what they fear are the implications for their privileged position in society and the the privileged position of America in the world. Such a threat cannot be borne, so they attack the theory, rather than admit what any sane person would admit - the prospects of the implications of global climate change scare them immensely.

Is it Jesus or the Piltdown Man?

James Cameron, director of Terminator, Aliens, and Titanic knows something about resurrection. The endings of his movies are famous for dragging out the deaths of their villains (or heroes), attempting to wratchet up suspense by having a skeletal android emerge from a fire; an alien somehow survive the vacuum and absolute zero of space to threaten Sigourney Weaver; and Leonardo DiCaprio survives much longer than the roughly forty-five seconds he would have in the near-freezing North Atlantic waters (after survivng the sinking of a huge ocean liner) to slip romantically beneath the waves. This struggle against death - usually by evil, which seems more persistent and stronger than good - is a theme of his movies. It should come as no surprise, then, that Cameron is making a movie about an ossuary found in Israel a quarter-century ago and claiming it is the burial container of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, that Jesus.

Is it possible? Of course it is! Indeed, such a find would be among the most important in archaeological history. It would force a fundamental re-thinking of Christianity and Islam which also holds to a less important, but still miraculous view of the resurrection of Jesus. It would force a fundamental reassessment of two-thousand years of western history. It would be earth-shattering beyond belief, as important as the discovery of intelligent life outside our solar system.

I have not seen the film, obviously, and I do not believe Cameron holds any animus towards Christianity. I refuse to believe there are sinister motives behind this project, and I think it would be interesting to view all the evidence - or at least the evidence Cameron presents in the film. If nothing else, if true, that stupid add that has run in The Nation for years claiming that Josephus of Alexandria invented the story of Jesus would end, because there would be proof from archaeology that he, indeed, existed and was not "fictional".

I think skepticism is in order, and not just because faith-based archaeologists are calling the whole thing in to question. For one thing, in the AP story by Marshall Thompson here (if the link doesn't work, let me know; you can find it at Yahoo!News, I am sure. I would, however, like to correct the link if possible, but it's one of those wierd long string of letters and numbers), I do not believe that history, archaeology, and theology should be used in the same breath as the Greek Orthodox archaeologist who defends The Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the site of Jesus burial. Quite simply - we don't know where Jesus was buried. This is like pointing to a stump and saying "This is where George Washington cut down that cherry tree."

Other comments, however, by other archaeologists, do raise important points. First, Jesus is a Hellenization of "Yeshua" (Joshua), a fairly common name. Mary, likewise, is the Greek form of "Miriam" (my daughter's name, BTW), also fairly common. The tomb containing the ossuaries was a fairly typical one for mildly prosperous Jerusalem-based merchants. So, not only didn't Jesus rise from the dead, he somehow moved his whole carpentry business (and his suddenly-discovered family, one assumes) from Nazareth to Jerusalem. He also was not a politico-religious figure at all, but apparently died naturally, and was laid to rest with his entire family. The Gospels are fiction, the concoction of strange minds bent on, what? Creating a religion out of whole-cloth?

The fact that this story dove-tails with (a) The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Jesus comes down from the cross, lives a long life with his wives and children, only to encounter a con-artist named Saul who is trying to become famous on the back of Jesus name and reputation; and (b) The DaVinci Code which was done much better by Robert Anton Wilson, who called it The Illuminatus Trilogy should also give one pause. These are modern conceits - that Jesus was married, that Mary Magdalene was his wife, etc., etc. Had any of these things even been remotely the case, there would be some ancient source, canonical or not (and the number of surviving non-canonical Gospels is large, and they make for very interesting reading; none of them mention Jesus having a wife and children) would have at least hinted at them. They do not. Even Josephus, the supposed "inventor" of Jesus' divinity, etc., mentions none of this in his chronicle (the anti-Semitic conceit that later Christian scholars added the parts about Jesus to Josephus' account of the Jewish Wars does not hold water).

These are important considerations. None of them, however, are as important as this. The tomb and ossuaries were discovered in 1980. While one can imagine all sorts of scenarios in which the information was withheld out of a sense of fear for the reaction of the faithful, we are entering, again, into DaVinci Code-conspiracy mongering, all arguments from silence. Could not a more plausible explanation be that they were not reported as the tomb of Jesus and his family because there was enough evidence showing that they belonged to someone else?

Again, I have not seen the documentary, and I certainly pass no judgements upon Cameron, his producers, or anyone else involved in the process. We need to remember that skepticism is a scientific virtue, even in matters of faith.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


Almost thirty-five years ago to the day, then-Sen. Edmund Muskie, Democratic Presidential candidate from the great state of Maine, stood in a snow-and-sleet storm and defended the honor and integrity of his wife. A letter had been published under her name in which the Senator had, among other things, referred to northern residents of his state as "Canucks" - an insulting term for Canadians familiar to any who have lived along the northern border (I grew up three hours from Toronto; closer than to NYC). Muskie's overreaction - he has ever since been captured with wetness on his cheeks; the ultra-conservative publisher of the Manchester, NH newspaper insisted he was weeping, and if he was, who could blame him - cost him dearly, as support slipped away among Democrats.

In the winter of 1971, Richard Nixon was in trouble. Any poll you read had his numbers in the mid-40's, and Sen. Muskie, the presumptive Democratic nominee, beat him by more than the margin of error time and time again. Muskie was not tainted by Vietnam, and dissociated himself from Humphrey and others in the Johnson Administration. Commenting again and again that the nation was still waiting on the "secret plan" for ending the war, Muskie had no idea, as 1971 turned to 1972, that Nixon would soon unleash the most vicious bombing campaign in world history against North Vietnam, and would also unleash the most vicious political smear campaign in history to derail the ordained candidacy of the only Democratic politician who could beat Nixon.

The author of what has come to be known as "the Canuck letter" was part of a team of political infiltrators and trouble-makers led by a cherub-faced young Republican from southern California named Donald Segretti. Segretti and his team dubbed their work "ratfucking". Mostly juvenile, adolescent nonsense - sexual innuendo, disrupting schedules, the political equivalent of "Do you have Prince Albert in a can? You better let him out!" - these pranks cost the Democrats money and time, distracting them just enough to keep them off balance.

The role of the press in this entire process was vital. Had the "Canuck" letter not been published, Muskie most likely would have beaten Nixon, and our entire history would have been very different. The press, however, then as now, was eager to be a vehicle for unsubstantiated charges, gossip-mongering, and the battle of personalities that is often presented as a substitute for real politics. Now, however, the place of ratfucking has become much more open, and much more sinister.

When Dick Cheney gives an interview and is not called on his lies, that is ratfucking. When the White House press corps refuses to put information in context, including calling lies what they are, that is ratfucking. When reporters whine when bloggers call them on their fatuousness, their laziness, and their plain errors of fact, that is ratfucking. When the Speaker of the House is embroiled in a phony "scandal" over a non-issue, that is ratfucking. We are living in a time when the insidious actions of our (previously) most criminal Administration are now part and parcel of the political process, aided and abetted by a press that sees itself as under siege, on the one hand from the most secretive Administration in American history, and on the other hand from "liberal bloggers" who keep insisting they do their job properly.

Even though we don't have pizza being delivered to Democratic Caucus meetings, or stolen letterhead being used to slander the private lives of politicians (why steal when you can make your own on the home computer?), we now have public figures allowed to present, without question, comment, or interruption, nonsense and lies to the American people. Worse, we have enablers in the press who insist that this is the way things should be. I would prefer to remind these lazy, stupid, ignorant folks that they are participants in the biggest ratfuck in American history. In other words, they are being taken for a ride, and loving every minute of it.

Virtual Tin Cup

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