Saturday, April 07, 2007

Kafka Comes To Iraq

For all those on the right who bleat Administration talking points about "torture", about how the extraordinary powers of the PATRIOT act will never be abused, about how those captured by the US are all a bunch of horribly guilty evil-doers bent on killing our women and raping our men as they blow up our buildings and destroy the greatest nation destined by God before time began, should read this article at, by David Phinney. An American contractor, who was a Navy veteran and worked for an Iraqi company (and also was an FBI informant on the potentially illegal activities of this company that still is under contract with the US government), ended up in a prison in Iraq for three months as a suspect for aiding terrorists. His story, the treatment he received at the hands of American authorities, and his subsequent release are part of a civil suit he and a partner have brought against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others. I shall quote what happened, briefly:
Vance, a two-time George W. Bush voter and Navy veteran, recounted the events of his imprisonment and the grief of his fiancé and family. They did not know if he was alive or dead, he said. They were already making inquiries to the U.S. State Department on how to ship his body home.

He then drew a wider circle around his ordeal to include the countless others who have been held falsely without charge and denied normal legal constitutional protections under law. "My name used to be 200343," Vance said recalling his prisoner ID. "If they can do this to a former Navy man and an American, what is happening to people in facilities all over the world run by the American government?"

Vance's nightmare began last year on Apr. 15 when he and co-worker Nathan Ertel barricaded themselves in a Baghdad office after their employer, an Iraqi private security firm, took away their ID tags. They feared for their lives because they suspected the company was involved in selling unauthorised guns on the black market and other nefarious activity. A U.S. military squad freed them from the red zone in Baghdad after a friend at the U.S. embassy advised him to call for help.

Once they reached the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, government officials took them inside the embassy, listened to their individual accounts and then sent them to a trailer outside for sleep. Two or three hours later, before the crack of dawn, U.S. military personnel woke them. This time, however, Vance and Ertel, Shield Security's contract manager, were under arrest. Soldiers bound their wrists with zip ties and covered their eyes with goggles blacked out with duct tape.

The two were then escorted to a humvee and driven first to possibly Camp Prosperity and then to Camp Cropper, a high-security prison near the Baghdad airport where Saddam Hussein was once kept. Vance says he was denied the usual body armour and helmet while traveling through the perilous Baghdad streets outside the safety of the Green Zone or a U.S. military installation.

So . . . any comments from those who want to argue that the Iraq occupation is going well, and that our conduct is all above board? Anybody? How about I quote just a bit more, OK?
In a lawsuit now pending against former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and "other unidentified agents," Vance and Ertel accuse their U.S. government captors of subjecting them to psychological torture day and night. Lights were kept on in their cell around the clock. They endured solitary confinement. They had only thin plastic mattresses on concrete for sleeping. Meals were of powdered milk and bread or rice and chicken, but interrupted by selective deprivation of food and water. Ceaseless heavy metal and country music screamed in their ears for hours on end, their legal complaint alleges.

They lived through "conditions of confinement and interrogation tantamount to torture", says the lawsuit filed in northern Illinois U.S. District Court. "Their interrogators utilised the types of physically and mentally coercive tactics that are supposedly reserved for terrorists and so-called enemy combatants."

Rumsfeld is singled out as the key defendant because he played a critical role in establishing a policy of "unlawful detention and torment" that Vance, Ertel and countless others in the "war on terror" have endured, the lawsuit asserts, noting that the former defence secretary and other high-level military commanders acting at his direction developed and authorised a policy that allows government officials unilateral discretion to designate possible enemies of the United States.


But darker allegations are included in the complaint over false imprisonment. Because he worked with the FBI, Vance contends, U.S. government officials in Iraq decided to retaliate against him and Ertel. He believes these officials conspired to jail the two not because they worked for a security company suspected of selling weapons to insurgents, but because they were sharing information with law enforcement agents outside the control of U.S. officials in Baghdad.

"In other words," claims the lawsuit, "United States officials in Iraq were concerned and wanted to find out about what intelligence agents in the United States knew about their territory and their operations. The unconstitutional policies that Rumsfeld and other unidentified agents had implemented for 'enemies' provided ample cover to detain plaintiffs and interrogate them toward that end."

It may take some time to sort out the allegations as the legal process grinds forward, but, in the meantime, Vance is raising new questions about his detention. He still wonders why his jailers didn't just call the FBI and have him cleared. They had access to his computer and cell phone to determine if his claims were true.

"When I told them to do that, they just got angry and told me to stop answering questions I wasn't being asked," Vance said. "I think they were butting heads with the State Department. I just snitched on the wrong people. I took the bull by the horns and got the horn."

Since Vance is a Navy veteran, does all this sound like "Supporting Our Troops"? Who will be the next victim of this surreal treatment? You know, if you look at me neo-Earth map, you'll notice that someone in Tehran checked in once; also Jerusalem, China, Colombia . . . How soon will it be before someone gets wind of this, and I end up having to listen to Gretchen Wilson at 100dB for hours on end (the very definition of torture; if they choose to play Tool, I'll probably just sing along)? I ask this in all seriousness because the end of this entire policy is the ability to act this way with impunity.

I am glad that Vance and his partner were released, and I wish them well in their legal actions. More important than any of that, however, is the simple fact that his story is out now for all to read and hear and consider - are there any other Vance's and Ertel's out there? Who else will be Vance and Ertel? Does the fact that it hasn't happened to you or you or you (I have heard this tired, nauseating line over and over again) mean nothing now that we all know it has happened to one of us, an American citizen doing his job and his duty as an American and former military person? What will it take to end this insanity?

Holy Week Day 6: Like Francisco Franco, Jesus is Still Dead

For some reason, that bit from early Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update with Chevy Chase" occurred to me as I was figuring out how to write this particular post. He used to open the segment saying, "Our top story tonight, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco is still dead." There were variants, such as, "our sources confirm . . .", "despite rumors to the contrary . . .", "latest reports still indicate . . .", but the line was always the same, and for some reason, it was always funny, as stupid as it was.

Jesus is dead. Like the parrot in the Monty Python sketch, he has ceased to be. He is bereft of life, and rests in peace. Pushing up daisies. Taking a dirt nap. He is an ex-person.

Death is both the most simple and most mysterious event. It is the end; our body stops working. No more blood flowing. No more electro-chemical functioning in the cerebellum. No more kidney's filtering out poisons. No more digestion (except, of course, of us by bacterium). No more toe wiggling. No more burps after meals. Nothing. Yet none of this captures the emotional reality that is death. The physical reality is interesting; it is and always has been the emotional dimension that gives death its mystery, its fascination, and the odd feeling that we are treading over a vast chasm. As the Marillion song, "Estonia", says:
No one leaves you
When they live in their heart and mind . . .

Of course, this strangeness is captured in the second half of the chorus:
When we're gone
Watch the world simply carry on

The Bible is silent on the events of Saturday, because death is silence. The late Swiss Jesuit theologian Hans Urs Cardinal von Blathasar wrote a book, Mysterium Paschale, in which he sought to bring out the mysterious elements of the passion event, and wrote an entire chapter on Saturday, that most silent and strange of the days of Holy Week. Yet, for all the depth and profundity of von Balthasar's work, it is really only death that we are about today, that end of all that is for what is most important - us. Yes, the world will go on, our loved ones will mourn but continue while we return to the dust from which we were created. We will write no more poetry, sing no more songs, argue no more with spouses and co-workers, make love no more, laugh no more, cry no more.

Jesus is dead. The event itself is too close to reflect on anything more than the pain, the shock, and the fear ("Are we next?"). His body lies wrapped in a shroud, unprepared, a borrowed tomb his only resting spot. There is nothing to see, hear, or think beyond this - Jesus is dead. All that he said, all that he promised, all those whose lives he changed - it is all meaningless, and he and his movement can fade in to obscurity now, like all the other would-be messiahs and miracle workers.

I couldn't find anything on YouTube for the song "Estonia", so I substitute, for your viewing pleasure, from their Marbles Live DVD and the CD Brave (IMHO, the best recording they have ever done), the song "Living With the Big Lie" (I think there is something apropos about this):

Friday, April 06, 2007

And Here I Thought The Adults Were In Charge

Our President is a child. From Froomkin via Fire Dog Lake:
"The first stop was a card table set up in front of a cinderblock-type hut," New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg wrote in his pool report. "Sitting on top of it were suitcase devices used to view the images sent back from predator drones. 'Train it on Holland,' POTUS said as a soldier held up the drone, about two feet long and pointed it at Steve Holland of Reuters. Peering into the image received in the suitcase device's monitor, POTUS said to Holland, 'You're as rough looking here as you are regular.'"

…"We arrived at another display of robotic rovers built to handle and search for road side bombs. With your pool assembled before him, POTUS grabbed the joy stick on a remote control and started sending a rover with a grab claw into the photographers, telling Jason Reed of Reuters - who was right in its path - 'You're not debris, you're still a human being.' . . . POTUS then turned his attention to your humble pool reporter, 'Rutenberg, come here,' then saying, 'Put your hand there by the claw.'"

Why is this man let out in public? He is an embarrassment. As watertiger at FDL writes as gloss on this report:
Despite Bush's willingness to put his pathological behavior right out there on display, the press just waves it off as "frat boy" behavior. My mother used to chastise us children when we were getting too rambunctious. "Laughter always ends in tears," she warned. With Bush, this is too true. And it always comes at someone else's expense.

Rick Warren vs. Sam Harris - Is Anything More Pathetic?

With a hat-tip to atrios I found this column by E. J. Dionne on the recent debate between Rick Warren and Sam Harris. As Duncan notes, Warren is a pretty conservative guy - up to and including denying a place at the table for Jews and others of different faith traditions - while Harris, for all the atheistic fire and brimstone of his writings, can't hold a candle to the destructive fantasies of many Christians (his fantasies are equally destructive, but also as delusional, a topic I have covered ad nauseum). I have no interest in the debate itself, although for reasons different from Duncan's. He is bored with the topic - I love his insouciance towards religious belief; it's so refreshing to find someone who actually says "I don't care" when asked about God - but takes Dionne to task, rightly, for not bringing up Warren's, shall we say, less than savory views. It is one thing to go after a lunatic like Harris - it's too easy, really - but it might be unseemly to question the bone fides of Warren because he is a pastor. Atrios has no problem doing so, however, and thinks Dionne should have been a bit more candid in discussing the less than savory nature of some of Warren's views.

My problem with this entire subject - the whole idea of a debate between Warren and Harris - is much more fundamental. The two men quite literally have nothing to talk about. A debate is a discussion on a topic in which those on opposite sides seek some sort of common ground through the process of argument. This is Crossfire-style nonsense, really, with no goal other than boosting ratings, and giving a forum to two men our public square would be better off without. Any Christian, or Jew, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Chinese animist, or even garden-variety "believer" who hasn't really fleshed out his or her thoughts on the subject, should at least have the fortitude to insist that, when approaching an intellectually dishonest bully like Harris, certain questions be raised concerning his owned professed belief in things like reincarnation, ESP, torture, especially the torture of Muslims precisely because they are Muslims, and other problems that emerge from his writings. Warren, however, as popular as he is, is a lightweight, and I have to agree with atrios that he came off pretty silly in his "debate" precisely because he refused to put Harris on the spot on these and other issues. Once one agrees to let others set the terms of any debate, the debate is already lost.

Neither Harris nor Warren are intellectual shining stars, and a debate such as the one they held is more a showy, TV-set-piece designed for ratings rather than serious reflection on deep subjects. One should devoutly ignore it, except to say what has been said here. I would prefer to bracket off such discussions and debates as these precisely because they are pointless. We have serious problems facing us as a nation - and yes, religion is certainly part of the problem (how could I deny that?) - and we need to deal with them together, within a framework and vocabulary of shared values and goals. Part of that vocabulary should not include questions for which, in the end, there are no answers, only a whole lot of sound and fury, which, as Shakespeare reminds us, is really just a tale told by two idiots.

Holy Week Day 6: Jesus is Dead

From the Gospel of St. Mark 15:37 (Revised English Bible):
Then Jesus gave a loud cry and died

Remember the now-infamous Time cover story "Is God dead?" It came from a movement that had exactly three adherents, in somewhat different forms, known as "Radical theology" or "Death of God Theology". William Hamilton, Thomas J. J. Altizer and Richard Rubenstein were three very different thinkers puzzling through our contemporary dilemmas using a variety of intellectual tools and wondering about the relevance of God-talk in an age poised on the brink of destruction. Hamilton - whose career and writings are so obscure he doesn't even have a wikipedia entry - taught at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. Altizer taught briefly at Drew University School of Divinity. Rubenstein, at the time, was Jewish Chaplain and professor of religion at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. Each in his own way sought to figure out, for a time no longer in need of God, what that meant.

While causing quite a stir among academics - everyone from Americans like John Cobb and Langdon Gilkey to Germans like Helmut Thielicke felt the need to respond to the claims of radical theology - it meant little to most Christians, because (a) for Hamilton and Altizer, writing as they did from a Christo-centric, radical Hegelianism, the death of God was a metaphysical fact with existential consequences, but their writing tended to be so dense as to defy easy summation; (b) for Rubenstein, God's death was a historical reality embodied by the horrors of Auschwitz, a historical reality that, for the Jewish people, necessitated religious solidarity in the face of a world no longer held in check by traditional religious demands of moral conduct.

Yet, we Christians, if we are to be consistent, do claim that God died. On Good Friday, when Jesus "gave a loud cry and . . . died", he didn't fake it. He wasn't holding one eye open to see if the Romans would leave him alone. He wasn't a spirit whose physical shell was expendable. He didn't speed his way to heaven in the arms of angels. Even employing the "two natures" theology (Jesus is fully human & fully divine) doesn't help, because of the perichoretic nature of the relationship (i.e., the two natures were fully entwined, inseparable); so we can't say that only the human part of Jesus was dead, but the divine part, the Second Person of the Trinity, was still alive.

The best depiction of Jesus' death is Michaelangelo's statue Pieta, in which a weeping Mary is holding the broken, battered body of her son on her lap, her eyes and hands turned to a now-empty heaven. The depiction of Jesus in that statue shows the ignominy of death. It robs us, all of us, of whatever we might call human dignity. There is nothing noble or uplifting here - only the horror of a mother holding the dead body of her adult child who has been broken and defeated by death (how many times in history has this particular scene been repeated? That is a subject for another day, methinks).

For now, we live in a world disenchanted. A world that, as the three gentlemen mentioned above said, is a world in which God is dead. Silence is the only option for now.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Critical Thinking

The Daily Howler is part of my daily reading regimen. While I shall admit Bob Somerby is occasionally tiresome and repetitive, he is also insightful, and brings to the task of media analysis a keen mind, especially in regards to what is most necessary in a world inundated with spin, propaganda, and biased, tainted sources - what it means to approach a story critically, that most misunderstood faculty. To be critical does not mean to tear apart, but rather to ask questions that go to the heart of what is presented, to see if it stands up to assault. Being critical means ensuring that we the people are given information that adds up, that engages as much publicly available information as possible, and makes due allowance for the possibility of personal and professional bias. Being critical is a necessary part of being an American citizen.

With that in mind, I find today's edition to be particularly important. Addressing the heresy and apostasy of Michael Dowd, the Bush consultant who went public this past weekend with his criticisms of George W. Bush and the Bush counter-offensive, Somerby draws attention to things that much of the "he-said-she-said" approach of the media have left out. Of course, if anyone is reading this blog, they are aware that the White House went whole hog after Dowd, questioning not the substance of Dowd's criticisms, nor the man's integrity, but rather his psychological fitness and therefore the relevant weight that should be given to his views. Most egregious in this regard was White House counsel Dan Bartlett who was specific - a series of personal misfortunes, including a divorce and the ensuing deployment of Dowd's son to Iraq have left his judgment questionable.

Of course, no one is surprised by the White House's approach; it is business as usual to attack those who disagree with them, especially those who were former friends. In Bartlett's case, when pushed, he denied making a personal attack (which he was in fact doing) and then repeated his original statements. Many liberals rushed to defend Dowd; I remember hearing Air America radio host Bill Press gleefully touting Dowd as a once-true believer who had turned on Bush and been trashed publicly for it. The subtext of this is, "Therefore we must believe him." Of course, many on the right take the opposite tack, pointing out Dowd's history as a Democratic operative in Texas, and his supposed publicly acknowledged willingness to join one of the Democratic campaigns as a consultant (I have not heard or read of this, but perhaps it is true; I neither know nor care, and it is irrelevant to the issue here).

Somerby takes all this in and then asks some questions, not about Dowd's motives or integrity, but about the publicly available information concerning who Dowd is, what he has done (especially as regards the corrosive aspects of certain aspects of the Bush approach to governance), and wonders how much weight we should be giving this particular story. The issue is not one of the motives behind Dowd's sudden decision to jump ship. Our motives for even the most important decisions of our lives are usually opaque to us. The issue is taking in as much of the information available to us as we can, and then considering Dowd's actions in light of that information. In this case, Somerby highlights a Frontline documentary that showed how Dowd had decided, in the wake of the Florida nonsense, that there was little middle ground left in the country, and it would be better for Bush to govern for and to the Republican base rather than as a uniting figure. The evidence indicates, then, that all the most egregious follies of Bush's style of governance lie at the feet of this former Democratic campaign consultant, who recommended that Bush govern as a radical conservative in order to keep his base intact. With Cheney's Darth Vader-like breathing in his ear concerning the primacy of executive power, and the nonsense of John Yoo's "unitary executive" theory, Dowd's advice must have seemed sound.

Taking all that in to account, what are we to make of Dowd's complaint that Bush has not governed as a bipartisan uniter when he was the architect of an approach that demanded Bush not so govern? This is not a question of psychological motives, nor is it to question his personal integrity. It is to raise the only critical question necessary to weighing Dowd's apostasy (and the sudden rush to defend him from White House attack cats) and considering its sincerity in light of what is publicly available. To my mind, Dowd does not come off well at all, and while the attacks by Bartlett and others have been horrific (God protect those who rush off the Bush White House spilling the beans; you all will be trashed mercilessly in public), and the liberal rush to defend him has been somewhat silly, the critical questions force us to wonder what, exactly, is the relationship between Dowd's remarks and his actual activities as an adviser to the Bush Presidency. It also, with Digby's help, forces us to demand more of Dowd that just jumping ship as it begins to sink beneath the waves. He needs to come clean on the role he played in creating this train-wreck of an Administration in the first place.

Finally, Somerby channels President Bush to point out the obvious wool-pulling Dowd may have accomplished by actually raising his profile as a consultant even while not making amends for the destructive effects upon our national polity:
BUSH UNCHAINED/PRESS STATEMENT: For six years, Matt Dowd fed you bullsh*t on my behalf. Now, he’s feeding you bullsh*t on his own behalf. I wish Matthew well in his corporate career, where he’ll trick you credulous rubes into buying a ton of bad products.

Really, isn't that the end of a critical reflection on Matthew Dowd's somewhat late, somewhat truncated mea culpa?

Politics, Polls, and Public Fickleness

Over at my Turtle-Loving Neighbors to the North's web-site, there is an interesting discussion brewing on this thread over the question of the relationship between polls and political leadership. My interlocutor in the comments section, Cameron, uses the changing nature of President Bush's poll numbers as evidence that the Democrats shouldn't rely too much on current polling that gives them clear public support for everything from solid oversight of the Executive Branch to setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. After all, Bush once had high poll numbers, and look at him now. The subtext, of course, is that the Democrats are following fickle public opinion, whereas Bush, staying a suicidal course with Nixonian poll numbers, is a political hero, doing what he thinks is right regardless of polls.

There are two parts to a response to this position. First, I would agree that generally speaking it is not a good thing for politicians to chase poll numbers to tweak public policy (this was a constant complaint against the Clinton Administration by both the left and the right). Yet, it would seem that public opinion is actually following Congressional leadership on these and a host of issues, rather than vice-versa. The Democratic leadership in Congress has staked out a series of policy and oversight positions, acted upon them, and the public has approved with substantially steady numbers. The polls follow the acts, not vice-versa, giving a lie to the notion that the Democrats are opportunistic, poll-driven nihilists. In fact, they are following an electoral mandate granted in the November, 2006 elections to do certain things, are their actions are all well within that mandate. The support they continue to get is because the public is impressed with their refusal to cower under the not-so-withering assaults of the Republican Administration.

Second, there is also something to be said for someone, anyone, who continues to do what he or she thinks is right in the face of all sorts of outrageous slings and arrows. Heroism is indeed one epithet to describe such actions. However, insanity and delusion are also ways to describe such actions. When the actions are accompanied by a series of factually challenged assertions - oh, let's just begin with WMDs in Iraq, shall we? - then we are entering into loony land rather than hero land. The consistent pattern of Bush and his Administration has been to do something, spread all kinds of nonsensical falsehoods about why they were doing it, and when called out about the falsehoods, deny they ever said such things. When this lie is, again, pointed out to them, they deny denying their lies. Then, like Cheney carrying on, to this day about a non-existent meeting between Al Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence operatives in Prague, reality ceases to have any relationship to the position one is supporting. Again, this isn't heroism. This is clinically insane behavior, and it is not worth emulating, but obstructing at every opportunity.

As for the "fickleness" of public opinion, remember this - the public expresses its opinions based upon as much information as it may have at any given time, as well as certain factors such as the emotional tenor of the times (the period right after 9/11) that are harder to pin down. Reputable polling agencies weigh all sorts of these matters and ask a number of questions that drive their numbers toward a reflection of public opinion based upon these two separate categories. Polls are reflective of the public's understanding and feeling on matters of substantive policy matters. With a plethora of sources for information out there, and the steadiness of Bush's low poll numbers, the drop in the President's poll numbers serves not as a warning for Democrats over the fickleness of the public. It serves as a case study in what happens when the public comes to understand they have elected a bunch of people to high office who are untrustworthy; they stop trusting them, and seek out those who are trustworthy to guard against the abuse of power by those who should never have been entrusted with it in the first place.

Holy Week Day 5: The Disciples Run Away

From the Gospel of St. Mark 14:50-52 (Revised English Bible):
[After Jesus' arrest] the disciples all deserted [Jesus] and ran away. Among those who had followed Jesus was a young man with nothing on but a linen cloth. [The soldiers] tried to seize [the young man]; but he slipped out of the linen cloth and ran away naked.

At my wife's first church, there was a woman who, every Holy Week, defended the Apostles' cowardice, Peter's in particular when he denied Jesus, as part of God's providential plan. After all, had they stood by Jesus, they most likely would have been lined up with Jesus on crosses, rather than a couple failed bandits/revolutionaries. Lisa would attempt to argue a theological point, but this woman would not budge. "He who fights and runs away . . ." and all that. Of course, Peter ended up on a Roman cross, upside down, according to legend, so it was a matter of time before he shared his Lord's fate.

Attention is often focused on Judas as the betrayer, yet how are the actions of the Apostles any different? They run in fear for their lives, even though they had just promised Jesus they would stick with him to the bitter end (verse 31, same chapter). Indeed, how is Judas' betrayal of Jesus in any way substantively different from our own betrayal of Jesus? How often do we "Christians" promise ourselves, our lives, our fortunes, to the service of God's work, only to run when it becomes a threat? There are many examples of martyrs in history; I am sure there are many untold tales of failed martyrs, those who simply ran away when the main chance arrived, that one crucial moment when to act, to decide, forced them to forswear their promised commitments.

We often identify with Jesus in the story as it unfolds, wishing things were different, wishing that he had done more to save himself. We weep at the beatings, the crown of thorns, the feel of the nails pounded into his wrists and feet, because it all seems such a waste. That it was only ever to be this way and no ever only enters our minds when we remember that Easter follows Good Friday; from Thursday evening until Sunday morning, we wallow in our feelings of sorrow.

How much are we like the Apostles that way, using our grief over what happened to Jesus to shield us from the uncomfortable truth that we are as responsible for these acts as those who actually performed them? We rail against the disciples' perfidy, yet forget our own compromised discipleship, our own running away when the going gets tough. As the disciples cower over the next few days, let us not go to the foot of the cross and weep; let us hide in fear and trembling, forgetting all he told us until that moment when he appears within the locked rooms of our lives to remind us, again, of all that he taught us.

Richard Rorty I: The Minimalist Approach to Pragmatist Civic Virtue

I have been waiting for time to work up a post, or a series of posts, on the philosopher Richard Rorty. Now is my chance and, being me, I shall begin with Rorty's approach to civil life.

Citizens of a Jeffersonian democracy can be as religious or a irreligious as they please as long as they are not "fanatical". That is, they must abandon or modify opinions on matters of ultimate importance, the opinions that may hitherto have given sense and point to their lives, if these opinions entail public actions that cannot be justified to most of their fellow citizens.
from "The priority of democracy to philosophy", contained in Obejectivity, Relativism, and Truth, p.175

With the recent discussions over the place of religion in our public life, the relevant importance of expressions of faith by candidates for public office, and the silly obeisance by Republicans to ignorant fanatics like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, it is refreshing to hear, again, that the American civic virtues are, despite the outpouring of nonsense from the Christian right, minimalist, dedicated to a common vocabulary that shuns ultimate grounding, metaphysical speculation, and religious intolerance. For years I had the vague idea, never articulated very clearly, that our common life was rooted not in a common ethnos as in Europe, or a common religion, or homogeneous ideas concerning the structure of personal and social life. Rather, what it means to be an American comes from the Constitution of the United States; this is our political dictionary, our guide to what it means to do public life, and the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is incoherent public discourse. Rorty's position, summed up in the quote above, and fleshed out in the article from which it comes, is a nice summation of the idea that, for us Americans, there is no need to get our philosophy right first, but rather philosophy is a reflection of the already-in-action public life we all share. Philosophy, in other words, serves a therapeutic rather than heuristic or meta-narrative function, which is why, for Americans, the practice of democracy is always prior to the practice of philosophizing about democracy.

In the article in question, he is arguing in defense of the position taken by moral and legal philosopher John Rawls in his work A Theory of Justice that "justice as fairness" is all the definition we need, rather than a transcendental grounding in some metaphysical idea about what constitutes "human nature" or "human essence". Because it is democratic practice that has priority, all that is left or even necessary for the philosopher to do is describe what justice looks like, and how injustice looks like, rather than figure out the essence of "Justice" and then move to how to put it in to practice. One of Rawls' critics, communitarian Michael Sandel, is put off, fearing that democracy cannot survive without the theoretical underpinnings Rawls feels are unnecessary for an active civil life in a democracy.

Part of the reason Rawls, and Rorty, are correct and Sandel and right-wing political philosophers like Leo Strauss are wrong is the latter believe that philosophy has a priority to democracy; without the theoretical underpinnings for political life philosophers provide, they fear, it will collapse in a heap of anarchic rubble. In a footnote, Rorty went so far as to note that Strauss, who was a professor of Rorty's, insisted "that the Greeks had already canvassed the alternatives available for social life and institutions." Rorty calls such an "assumption" "pointless" (p.188, n.34). Rorty is correct because he takes democracy as it exists seriously, and in no need of transhistorical grounding because it works. All a philosopher is left with is describing how it works, not creating the conditions under which it might or should or ought to work.

This priority of lived reality, rather than the transcendental fleshing out of ahistorical fictions such as "Justice", "Human Nature", and even "Democracy" gives to Rorty's political philosophy a clarity that the gnosticism of Strauss, or the hesitant earnestness of the communitarians do not have. Strauss wants us to emulate great thinkers (which he always insisted only he understood truly and completely). Sandel distrusts both liberalism (both classical, laissez-faire liberalsim and contemporary statist liberalism) and traditional, Burkean conservatism, and feels that, with America foundering between the two poles of liberalism, and with no tradition in traditional conservatism, needs a new political theory in order to survive.

Rorty thinks these ideas nonsense, because American democracy is alive, vibrant, and working quite well. Rooted in the only commonality necessary - a vocabulary derived from the Constitution's minimalist approach to government structure and function - we do not need to get our philosophy right first in order to do civic life well. Rather we do civic life well, and we need to reflect upon why that is. Rorty feels, rightly, that it works because we have, as a people, shunned the idea that what binds us is something essential, transcendental, metaphysical, or even religious. Rather, being an American is a practical, pragmatic matter of doing public life a certain way, using a common vocabulary based on the structures set forth in the Constitution and fleshed out in our history. There is no need to get back to the "essence" of the Constitution (what the founders intended), because what the founders intended is what we have - a living, vibrant, ornery, argumentative, occasionally corrupt political life that serves the interests of those who are alive at the time to be served by it.

Such a minimalist approach is often pooh-poohed by "serious minded" people because it seems absurd to think that the actual practice of democracy should come first. After all, what if we're wrong? The only answer, it seems to me, is, how can we be wrong if we are living out this minimalist civic virtue, in a lively, argumentative, combative way? How can we be wrong when we are actually "doing" democracy, not to fit some essentialist idea of what democracy "really is", but just doing democracy? Any errors can be corrected, not by getting our theory right beforehand, but by actual practice - indicting criminal practitioners of graft and corruption; setting up legal structures to protect the rights of minorities; setting forth mechanisms for insuring equal access to our common life for all.

I like Rorty, I suppose, because he articulates well what has always been nascent in my own mind, that American public life and public discourse is something we do well, even when we do it "badly", because what makes us uniquely American - even African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Indian Americans . . . - is neither being a common people or sharing a common faith, but just being American, living out our public life together. It's really that simple.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Holy Week Day 4: Judas Looks to Betray Jesus

From Mark 14:10-11 (Revised English Bible):
Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray [Jesus] to them. When [the chief priests] heard what [Judas] had some for, they were glad and promised him money; and [Judas] began to look for an opportunity to betray [Jesus].

Coming on the heels of the story of the woman who anointed Jesus with oil, and the apostles' rebuke, followed by Jesus' admonishing, with the misunderstood "the poor you will always have with you" line, Judas' betrayal, at least in St. Mark's Gospel, looks like a case of disillusionment with a revolutionary. After all, what were they about if not helping the poor? In St. John's Gospel, a similar story is told, with the gloss that Judas was being a hypocrite, because as keeper of the monies, he was stealing.

The reasons for Judas' betrayal are irrelevant, because they are opaque. Why does anyone ever betray that to which they have dedicated their lives? Think of Aldrich Ames at the CIA - filthy lucre was at the heart of that most disastrous intelligence failure. The payment to Judas is almost incidental; a part of the story that may or may not be historically accurate, but certainly taints Judas' reputation even further.

Yet, what else could have been the outcome of Jesus' trip to Jerusalem but his death? If it was not Judas, it would have been another trumped-up charge, with the deed occurring another time or place. More to the point, as the whole reason for the incarnation was the death and resurrection of Jesus, why place blame? Why seek a villain? Why place Judas in the deepest pit of hell, as Dante did? Was he not doing his part in God's plan all along? I believe compassion, rather than condemnation, is in order for this prototypical bad guy.

I have a book entitled The Gospel According to Judas, a thought sparked in the author's mind by a bit of graffiti on a mirror in San Francisco, "Judas, come home, all is forgiven". The book explores the radical nature of grace and the possibility of forgiveness even in the most dire and God-forsaken circumstances. What would a confrontation between the recent suicide Judas and the risen Jesus look like? Would the forgiveness offered by Jesus even be welcome? More to the author's point, how are we fundamentally different from Judas, as we are quite often much more despicable in our betrayals.

As we enter that most harrowing of times before Easter, we must keep in mind that, if we are to understand God properly, the radical nature of grace offered in Jesus' name calls us to see in Judas ourselves, and pray that the mercy offered him is the mercy offered us. If it is not, then our failure of faith, our failure of nerve, our willingness to condemn condemns us.

The Dustbin of History Professors (UPDATE with Digby Quote)

I've had a good laugh at all the right-wingers giving free advice to the British on how to handle the Iranian capture of 15 British sailors and marines in their territorial waters. I say "laugh" because one can either laugh at how nonsensical they are, demanding that others risk their lives to satisfy their desire for vicarious sacrifice and war, or weep at the moral vacuity of such nonsense, and I for one choose to laugh. The silliest idea, however, was one I had not thought of because, frankly, it was the dumbest. Leave it to Newt Gingrich, as detailed by Glenn Greenwald to come up with a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem.

Gingrich's detailed response? First, we send in a bunch of special operations personnel to blow up Iran's gasoline refinery ("they have only one" - as if Gingrich ever, ever, told the truth or knew what he was talking about). Then, we lay down a good, old-fashioned naval blockade on all incoming gasoline tankers (never mind that, under international law, such a blockade is a casus belli, which is why JFK was so trepidatious when he used one against Cuba in 1962), giving them thirty days to respond, or force them all to walk. Then, of course, we bomb the hell out of them anyway.

You know, such genius from someone who holds a Ph. D. in history is astounding. Let us ignore the fact that Iran has a porous border with Iraq. Let us ignore the fact that the Russians would, in all likelihood send in tanker truck after tanker truck through their long border. Let us ignore the fact that we would potentially be intercepting tankers from allies, causing all sorts of diplomatic problems (I doubt whether Gingrich would care about such niceties as diplomatic problems with our allies). Indeed, let us ignore reality completely, because, after all, this is Newt.

In the 19th century, when Britannia ruled the waves, they could station a man-o-war off the coast of a country and force it into submission. Today, even with a carrier task force, all we can do is fly our planes around and look tough unless we are willing to go whole-hog and start firing off missiles, because naval blockades don't work, especially with a country with long land borders like Iran.

Newt, I am told, taught history. Via Joan Didion's book Political Fictions (a collection of essays from The New York Review of Books), I learned that Gingrich is a disciple of that deeply historically challenged "futurist" Alvin Toffler. Is it any wonder he ran for Congress? How could he possibly teach history when he thinks Toffler is a serious person? That is like using Star Trek to teach physics - one is science fiction, the other is science. Why anyone would give a scrap of credence to this deeply flawed individual is far beyond my capacity to understand. But, of course, I am a "loonbat" according to Goat, so what do I know? Do I have a Ph. D. in history?

That Gingrich does is just proof for me that doctoral diplomas aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

UPDATE: You know, sometimes it is difficult to find the words to express one's disgust with the inane silliness of people on the right. The blathering on the right over what it considers British cowardice in the face of the Iranians taking fifteen sailors and marines captive for violating their sovereignty is really incredible, especially since none of those so carrying on have a fucking clue what they are talking about. I shall leave it, again, to St. Digby to sum it all up:
The rightwing is filled with these flatulent armchair warriors, ready to condemn everyone from intrepid reporters to the professional military for cowardice when they are captured by the enemy and fail to behave in what they consider a properly Rambo-esque manner. They seem to think these people should die rather than be taken alive or some other such puerile nonsense. (I guess it explains their hostility to John McCain --- better to be a rich, coke sniffing draft dodger than survive five years in a POW camp.)

These are empty, cruel little boys and girls with serious deficiencies in their characters. They are lost souls, walking this earth without ever learning the meaning of decency, empathy or morality. I suppose this is understandable on some level. The only "lives" they truly value exist only in a womb or a petrie dish. And apparently that's because these wingnuts relate to them --- they are just about as fully human as frozen blastocysts themselves.

UPDATE II: For any further commentary, I leave it to Tool. I really like Maynard's gas mask. . .

The Coming Showdown Over the Supplemental

The Congress passes a bill fully funding the occupation, but includes a timetable for withdrawal. The bill also fully funds healthcare for wounded soldiers and returning vets. It also includes money for military families and other provisions of support which the President insists on calling "pork". The President insists he will veto this bill, because it isn't "clean" (what Congressional bill eve is?). He has even made up timelines that suggest the occupation will cease being funded if Congress doesn't pass a clean bill. Of course, none of it's true, and even the withdrawal timeline isn't binding, but Bush, apparently, feels he needs to teach Congress who's boss (the Decider), so this is where he's taking his stand.

I shall leave commentary on the up-coming showdown - what President in American history has ever won against Congress? - to digby, who always says it better, and first:
Republicans have the most dangerous habit in the world: they believe their own hype. And it gets them into trouble again and again. Having a president that has been hovering for many, many months at around 30% approval rating is a weakness so huge that it can't be overcome with a swagger and a sneer. I do not know how this "showdown" will turn out. It's a very fluid situation and anything can happen. But in this case . . . the Democrats are working on behalf of the majority of Americans and the Republicans are not. That is far more likely to govern the outcome than some miraculous return of the mythic man with the bullhorn.

If Bush really believes what he's been saying about executive power and the need to fund the troops by the middle of April then he can sign the supplemental and then issue a signing statement that says he can ignore the withdrawal dates. But he won't. And he won't issue that signing statement because it would cause a national uproar and possible constitutional crisis, which it would. He's not doing it because crazy men are telling him that this confrontation is the way to bounce back --- the same crazy men that advised him to invade Iraq and told him that he didn't need to respond to the worst national disaster in American history.

So have at it George. The Democrats will take their chances. Your track record wouldn't scare a seven year old girl.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Holy Week, Day 3: The Question of Authority

From the Gospel of St. Mark: 11:27-33 (Revised English Bible):
[Jesus and the disciples] came once more to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple court the chief priests, scribes, and elders came to him and siad, "By what authority are you acting like this? Who gave you authority to act in this way?" Jesus said to them, "I also have a question for you, and if you give me an answer, I will tell you by what authority I act. The baptism of John: was it from God, or from men? Answer me." This set them arguing among themselves: "What shall we say? If we say, 'From God,' he will say, 'Then why did you not believe him?' Shall we say, 'From men'?" - but they were afraid of the people, for all held that John was in fact a prophet. So they answered, "We do not know." And Jesus said to them, "Then I will not tell you either by what authority I act."

The third day of Holy Week is chock full in the Gospel of Mark - the parable of the vineyard owner, the Sauducees (the party that supported the current accomodationist priests of the Temple who did not believe in the resurrection from the dead) asking about marriage after the resurrection, and the "Little Apocalypse" in Chapter 13 - but I chose this particular passage because it gets to the heart of all that is to follow. Those who challenge Jesus assume authority and power, yet are unwilling to actually use it, except in underhanded, evil ways. Jesus, who acts with authority, refuses to acknowledge its source, but is very public in his acts and words.

One can say much about this exchange. Power, authority - the assumption of who has them and their sources is an ongoing problem in human social life. Very often, those who assume power and authority, without any mandate or source, are the most arbitrary, and the most fearful. Whether it's Henry VIII grabbing monasteries and killing cardinals, Czar Peter the Great cutting off beards, or Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Chairman Mao killing just about everyone, they assume authority and absolute control, yet rule out of absolute fear and with secrecy, relying upon deceit to function day to day.

Jesus, who is open and honest with a disingenuousness easily mistaken for naivete, does so out of quiet confidence that power and authority are illusions used for destructive purposes. The fear the "leaders" show is indicative of the fear any leader has for those who exercise authority publicly. Any challenge needs to be met head on, but the cheerful refusal to acknowledge the source of authority on the part of Jesus is an object lesson for us all in how to respond to those who demand "By what right" we speak and act as we do. Authority is for those who actually have none. Legitimacy is for those who do not have it. Power in this world is only the power to control and, inevitably, destroy.

"It's news when the president says something . . ."*(with a bad word)

So, the President held a press conference today. In it, he managed to state, without fear of reprisal or question, a single paragraph so grossly erroneous one wonders why his head doesn't simply explode from the stress of insisting that reality is not what we think it is. I shall quote Greg Sargent, from Talking Points Memo's blog Election Central:
He said:

"The bottom line is this: Congress's failure to fund our troops on the front lines will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return to the front lines. And others could see their loved ones headed back to the war earlier than they need to. That is unacceptable to me, and I believe it is unacceptable to the American people."

Let's put aside for a sec the more transparent ruse here -- that the Dems are failing to fund the troops, when in fact they passed a bill doing just that. Instead, check out how Bush is still asserting that the approach being used by the Congressional leadership -- that is, tying troop readiness standards and a withdrawal deadline to funding -- is "unacceptable" to the American people. Or at least that he "believes" (weasel word) that it's unacceptable to them.

The reality, however, is that if Bush vetoes Congress' bill, it will be Bush who is failing to fund the troops in line with what the American people want -- because the American people strongly support the Dem Congress' efforts to tie a withdrawal deadline to troop funding.

As God as my witness, I wonder how anyone with a functioning brain cell can take anything this man does or says seriously. I know you're out there, but please explain how to me how this paragraph, every word of which (except for the "I believe"; Bush may actually believe that the American people support him, regardless of the polls) is factually inaccurate, makes sense.

*The title of the post comes from atrios, and the sentence end:
" . . . but it's bigger news when he's full of shit." A reporter that said that, or its televisable equivalent would be a pleasant turn of events.

My Last Word on the Subject (I Hope)

Because there was a bit of a dust-up this weekend over the, um, linguistic content of this blog, I wrote what I thought were my final thoughts on the subject. I have not, though, because I talked about it a bit yesterday with my wife, who's views I respect and try to emulate, but with whom I hold a fundamental disagreement on this particular issue. She has never said "Don't use bad words," but she does glance askance at me when I admit that I do, on occasion, use them. My discussion with her went like this:

"You use foul language?"
"Not usually. It does serve a good rhetorical function."
"What do you mean?"
"It's one thing to call someone a moron. But if you call them a fucking moron, you've really made your point."
Laughter from the good Reverend.

More to the point, (a) this is my blog, and I'll say and write pretty much what I want the way I want it; if your sensibilities are hurt because of it, the exit is a click away; (b) I assume that if you stick around long enough to actually read a post or two to be offended you are an adult. As an adult, regardless of how you were raised, or your own preferences, you have heard and/or seen a dirty word or two. Let us now act as adults, and stop pretending that it is somehow demeaning or distracting that, as adults, a word or two strays from our lips that is bluer than others. Seriously, if you are so put off by the occasional "fuck", "shit", "asshole", or whatever, I suggest the problem is not mine.

As a Christian, I see nothing wrong with the occasional bout of profanity. Indeed, I had a minister tell me, when I was in college, that if we have reached the point in our relationship with God that we can actually pray with profanity - in anger, frustration, grief, whatever - then we have arrived at a new depth of intimacy with God. Again, I do not advocate, and will not practice, endless profanity. I will not, however, censor myself because someone somewhere may write, "Ooo, he's a Christian and he said f--k! (or he77)" God, and I, are both bigger than that.

Because I am, as I told Neon Prime Time, a "sensitive liberal", I shall now flag, in the title, any entry that might contain a word that might cause offense or tears or eye socket flame-out.

I hope this is the last time I have to broach the subject. Can we all be grown-ups now?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Holy Week, Day 2: Jesus Curses a Fig Tree

I have decided to offer little Bible studies here, from the Gospel of St. Mark, as we go through Holy Week. If they are of interest, fine. If not, feel free to skip them. They are more for my own spiritual education anyway.

From Mark 10: 12-14 (Revised English Bible):
On the following day, as they left Bethany, [Jesus] felt hungry, and, noticing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. But when he reached it he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season for figs. He said to the tee, 'May no one ever again eat fruit from you!' And his disciples were listening.

Seems pretty harsh, don't you think? After all, it wasn't even the season for figs! Where's all that compassion and grace stuff? Should one read this literally (please don't), one might see an arbitrary, capricious Jesus, willing to destroy that which is unpleasing at any given moment regardless of circumstance. Certainly would reinforce certain right-wing readings of the Bible, wouldn't it. We could, however, as an alternative, read this passage, within the larger narrative framework of Jesus coming to Jerusalem, and consider what it might be telling us symbolically. Or are we to suppose that the Gospel writer was either too stupid or too ignorant to understand the power of metaphor?

Here is how I read this short passage, as disturbing as it may be. First, one can consider it in light of the parables told in St. Matthew's and St. Luke's Gospels of the wedding feast, in which invitations are sent far and wide and summarily ignored; the groom sends his servants to bring in any and all, and casts out from his fellowship those who were invited but refuse to come. Seen in light of this parable, this story of the withering of the fig tree is another way of saying that Jesus comes to us in his own time, on his own terms, and we have to be ready to respond to that call, whatever and whenever it might be.

Second, we can consider the story in light of the week's events themselves. Jesus has come to Jerusalem to confront the religious and political establishment head-on. He is offering them, and the people, an opportunity, a chance to move away from both the Scylla of violent confrontation with Rome and the Charybdis of supine accommodation to Rome through living a life dedicated to loving community. A people paralyzed between the two extremes mentioned above, however, whose leadership seems to see no way out cannot see the offer for what it is. Jesus comes, and the leaders are not ready. The curse is the result of the refusal to see that the Lord has come and is calling his people to a new way of life; stuck within what is understood to be a natural cycle (it isn't fig season), they cannot hear the call because "the time isn't ripe" as it were (to extend to fruit metaphor a bit).

Judgment is always part of the message of Jesus; even us United Methodists, in love with John Wesley and Charles Wesley and Albert Outler, recognize the fact that grace and judgment are two sides of the same coin. You can't have one without the other. The curse of judgment, indeed, comes in the exact same moment that grace is offered. We see and hear, in the words "Your sins are forgiven", the recognition of the reality of our sin, and what it means that our sins need to be forgiven. As we move from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, it might be necessary to remember that no one wants to hear the curse of judgment. We want to have our good feelings about ourselves reinforced, not those parts of us we would rather hide and cover over exposed for all the world to see. If we are uncomfortable with Jesus cursing the fig tree, perhaps it is because we, too, are not yet in season, but are hearing a call from our Lord to serve.

Don't Confuse Me With the Facts, Indeed (With Bad Words)

Is it childish of me to attempt to drive home a point to Cameron, especially when he accused me of "ignoring" "facts"? He insists that I conveniently ignore whatever does not fit my ideological blinders; I insist that what he offers are neither fats, nor relevant, and that in fact the position he is taking - defending the Bush Administration - is morally and intellectually without merit. While I welcome him here, I am trying to get him and other right-wingers to acknowledge, if nothing else, the situation in America as it stands today is not quite what they wish it might be, or represent it to be. I think that is not too much to ask.

If it were just me who found the entire Republican establishment horrendous, I think it might be easier to dismiss me as a crank, just another "dirty fucking hippie". If it were just one or two stray right-wingers who ignored inconvenient realities, I suppose one could argue that I was engaging in hyperbole and exaggeration to score some kind of political points. Except, it isn't just me. It's not just a few long-haired, America-hating, Grateful Dead-loving "Stuck in the 60's" types. Consider this from Glenn Greenwald (read the whole thing; watch a short ad for a free pass):
In Cliff May's mind (and he's hardly alone), he thinks the Iraq War is wonderful and that the only problem with it is that we have not been prosecuting it aggressively enough. Therefore, that simply must be what normal, regular Americans think, too, even if mountains of empirical evidence demonstrate exactly the opposite -- because, after all, May is a normal, regular American who believes in what normal, regular Americans believe in [or, as David Brooks calls them (i.e, himself), "the normal, nonideological people"]. May's deep-seated faith in that belief outweighs any empirical data.

The capacity of Bush followers literally to ignore facts that conflict with their convictions is truly extraordinary. In the weeks before the midterm election, all sorts of national Republicans were complaining anonymously in the press that Bush and the White House were genuinely living under the delusion that they were going to win the election even in the face of a consensus of evidence showing the opposite.

They lived in that illusory world by doing what Cliff May did here. Bush did not believe the polls because he was certain that Americans intrinsically prefer Republicans because of how Right they are. Hugh Hewitt was actually insisting that the poll data itself was biased against his movement and that polls that showed the candidates tied actually meant that the Republican was ahead, and polls that showed Republican candidates behind actually meant there was a tie. They literally do not recognize the existence of facts which negate their beliefs and desires about their own Rightness. That, of course, is how they continued to insist that things in Iraq were going great, and still are, despite the mountains of facts to the contrary -- the Iraq War is Right; therefore, it must be going well.

Then there is this at The Horses Mouth, commenting on a front page piece at The Washington Post that purports to explain how Congressional Democrats are "overreaching" by "straying" into national security matters. At the post in question, after highlighting a curiously slanted bit in a "news" piece, in which a Republican Congressman is quoted saying the Democrats might upset Americans by appealing to their "constituents" (aren't their constituents Americans?), Greg Sargent highlights the fact that the article is based upon certain, um, factual errors, not the least of which is that the poll numbers just don't add up:
...[G]iven what happened in the 2006 elections, and given what polls are telling us today with virtual unanimity, how in the heck could anyone report with no skepticism whatsoever the absurd idea that the boldness of the Dem Congressional majority right now "has Republican political operatives gleeful"? That phrase is, like, so June 2006. What's more, why are we uncritically swallowing the idea that if Bush "wins" the legislative showdown over Iraq, it'll automatically be good politically for the GOP? Poll after poll after poll shows that the public overwhelmingly supports the Dem Congress' efforts to end the war, and indeed many want the Dems to go further than they are in reigning in Bush.
The article in question links to a variety of polls that demonstrate the exact opposite of the Congressman's point.

Finally, there's John McCain's trip to a Baghdad market. You know, it's one thing for a United States Senator to make a fool out of himself, shooting off his mouth about things about which he knows nothing. It is another thing entirely to risk the lives of 100 soldiers, and the crews of 3 Blackhawk and 2 Apache helicopters, to show how safe Baghdad is. I pretty much agree with Duncan's point here (there are some really bad words here, so if you fear your eye sockets may scorch, you may want to skip this):
Last week he laid down his marker. He said yo my bitches - and by his bitches, we mean the media which are his "crazy base land" - your reporting is wack! There are safe neighborhoods in Baghdad!

Then he went to Iraq. He could've walked through one of those neighborhoods. And, hell, he's macho John McCain! Tough guy Saint John! He's got bigger balls than you do! If anyone can swagger down the streets of Baghdad with nothing but his grimace and glare to keep himself safe, it's fucking John McCain!

Now, realistically, I wouldn't have expected even Fucking John McCain to wander down random Baghdad streets unaccompanied. But you would've thought he'd have more self respect than to do it with 100 soldiers, 3 Blackhawks, 2 Apaches, and then have the balls - well, I guess here is where his mighty balls do their job - to pretend it was a stroll through the park.

The whole photo-op was a farce, because as Think Progress is reporting, the snipers have returned and are killing people again.

Because he is the Dean of Political Bloggers (that's a joke for those who might not know it), I shall allow Duncan to have the last word:
People hate George Bush and hate the war. The public would be behind literally any possible course of action the Democrats choose to take to get out of there.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Some Thoughts for Palm Sunday in re Flip-Flopping

Years ago, when I was just a wee lad forced to sit still and be quiet in church, my mother's glare ready at a moment's notice to warn me when I had strayed over the boundary of correct behavior, the minister of my home church, First UMC, Sayre, PA, preached a Palm Sunday I have never forgotten, with a lesson whose meaning has only deepened over time as I consider its implications. The Rev. Richard H. Schuster (d) preached a sermon with the disquieting theme that all those folks gathered on Sunday to cheer the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem were also in the mobs on Friday morning shouting "Crucify him!", when Pilate, seeking a way out of the dilemma within which he was caught, tried to fob Jesus off onto the mob. The mob, it would seem, preferred the successful revolutionary Barabbas (a name that is a play on words; in Hebrew and Aramaic, "Barabbas" means "Son of the father" - the crowd wanted the fake son of the father rather than the Son of the Heavenly Father) rather than the unsuccessful revolutionary.

He drew our attention to this fact recalling how all of us waved our palm branches during the opening procession. We are the crowd that welcomes Jesus into Jerusalem. We are the ones who stand in the mob and demand his death five days later.

Why would he want to do this, go and spoil all that triumphal Palm Sunday fun? For me, over the years as I have continued to think on Rev. Schuster's words, I have become convinced that he was serving us a warning. We must not separate ourselves from that mob - most especially not call them "Jews" and blame them for Jesus' death - but demand we participate with them, and ask ourselves what would prompt us to act in such a despicable way. We can call it all sorts of things, original sin, human depravity, mob psychology, but the truth is the same regardless of how we describe it. We are always disappointed when our heroes turn out to be different from the way we imagine them or picture them. Jesus was revolutionary, make no mistake about that. He was not revolutionary in the way people wanted him to be, however. He had no desire to tear the Roman eagle from the top of the Temple, or remove the statues of the Caesars from the inner court. He did not wish to replace the current group of High Priests with those, like the Maccabaeans, who would be more pure. His revolution was about a community that lived the Law, not demanded that others do so. The Law, for Jesus, was love - loving God and loving our neighbors - and in the end, that's what he asked of us.

The tragedy of Holy Week is not Jesus' death, because, for what it's worth, while little else is clear from the Gospel narratives, it seems pretty certain that the Jesus portrayed within them understood that a journey to Jerusalem was a death sentence (whether the historical Jesus understood this I neither know nor am particularly interested in). The tragedy of Holy Week is not the betrayal by Judas Iscariot (every story needs a villain, right?). The tragedy of Holy Week is not the cowardice of the Apostles, fleeing and lying and hiding; I dare anyone to show how they would react differently.

The real tragedy of Holy Week is our contemporary blindness to the depths of evil within us, our willingness to demand death for Others in the name of whatever abstraction is the catchphrase of the day, while preserving life for ourselves. The real tragedy of Holy Week is the blindness to our capacity to destroy that which does not meet our abstract expectations of what is true and real and good. When we call our failed heroes flip-floppers, the implication is that they are weak. In truth, it is we who are weak, flipping and flopping around in search for a deliverer from whatever troubles us, rather than grasping the truth that the power is within us, if only we recognize that power as a capacity for both evil and good.

This Friday, as we remember the death of Jesus, do not go and stand at the foot of the cross. Stand in the mob, the last sliver of the palm branches still embedded in your hands that now are curled into fists as you shout "Crucify him!" That would be more honest.

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