Saturday, April 21, 2007

Saturday Night Rock Show

At their best, they actually rocked as hard as any other group one can name. At their worst, they were pompously dull. Most people remember them for their latter tendency, that became more pronounced over time. For me, though, I prefer to remember good things. If you disagree, well, hey, this is music I like. Go find your own video. I found this compilation video.

I just remembered, I never mentioned the band. Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends, come inside, come inside, ladies & gentlemen, EMERSON, LAKE, & PALMER:

In Which I Help The World Find Iraq's WMDs (Or Maybe Not)

Stupid is one thing, but bat-shit insane is something else entirely. Today's post by Glenn Greenwald brings us an example of the latter so phenomenally ridiculous, one has to read it to really appreciate the depth of the crazy. The following are Greenwald's opening paragraphs:
Melanie Phillips is a British neoconservative who has devoted herself to warning England that Muslims are taking over and destroying its culture. Her book, oh-so-cleverly titled Londonistan, warns of "the collapse of traditional British identity and accommodation of a particularly virulent form of multiculturalism."

She has described James Baker and Jimmy Carter as "the kept creatures of the Arab world" who "are intent on smoothing the path to Israel's destruction." She thinks global warming is a "con-trick" because everything is "well within the normal cyclical fluctuations in temperature from century to century." And on and on and on. Needless to say, she is a deeply admired figure in the world of Fox News and right-wing blogs.

But all of that is rendered moderate, restrained, sober and even sane by a new article she wrote for the British magazine, The Spectator (headline: I Found Saddam's WMD Bunkers), which claims that: (a) WMDs really were found in Iraq after the invasion, (b) they were located in vast underground bunkers (c) which contained "nuclear, chemical and biological materials", but (d) the U.S., through negligence, failed to secure those sites and, as a result, (e) the WMDs were stolen by The Terrorists and/or Syrian agents, who now have them and are actively plotting (along with China, Russia and North Korea) to use them against the West, but --

(f) because the Bush administration is so embarrassed by their failure to prevent the theft of all these dastardly weapons, and because Democrats are embarrassed by this discovery because it proves that Saddam really did have WMDs all along, they have all jointly created a vast conspiracy where they conceal the discovery of WMDs in order to cover up for their negligence.

Should Ms. Phillips wend her way to this blog, I have a hint as to where to look. Just dig up sections of Washington, DC. From the Earth Island Journal:
During World War I (WWI), American University, adjacent to the site that would become Spring Valley, was the headquarters for all of the research and testing that was performed by the Chemical Warfare Service. Work was done not only on campus, but also throughout the surrounding area, covering over 500 acres and constituting the American University Experimental Station. Here scientists conducted extensive outdoor tests on poison gases. Some of these tests exposed animals to chemical agents. Others included forming poison gas clouds and testing their duration in the atmosphere. Thousands of these tests were performed, and after the war, the testing areas were bulldozed over with dirt, burying exploded and unexploded chemical warfare munitions. Bottles, barrels, and laboratory equipment were similarly buried in large pits. The remaining chemical agents were probably poured into the ground. One of the most toxic agents tested here was lewisite, an arsenic-based compound thought to be carcinogenic and mutagenic, and that has dangerous residues that can remain in the soil indefinitely. Lewisite was not used during WWI, but it became a commonly produced chemical warfare agent during the early and middle parts of the 20th century. North Korea may still produce it.

For a few years after WWI ended, there were anecdotal reports of new homeowners in the area surrounding American University finding their backyards pitted with shell holes, but eventually even the residents of the area forgot their neighborhood’s history. Thus it was a surprise when, during the construction of a new home in 1990, some of the workers experienced skin burning and eye pain severe enough to warrant a visit to the emergency room. One suffered from black spots on his skin, which was considered consistent with exposure to a blister-causing agent such as lewisite. The workers unearthed antique laboratory equipment, broken jars and a 55-gallon drum. An environmental firm hired to investigate the situation attributed the workers’ symptoms to the presence of a herbicide in the soil.

In January 1993, workers digging a utility trench about a mile from that house uncovered rusted bombs. The Army Corps of Engineers began an operation to locate and remove all WWI-era chemical agent munitions and equipment from Spring Valley; their work continued through 1994. In total, 141 munitions were recovered, including 43 shells suspected of containing poison gas, as well as glassware and other lab equipment. Some of the recovered materials tested positive for lewisite and its arsenic-containing degradation products. As part of this investigation the Army Corps tested soil samples and in 1995 concluded that all poison gas related materials had been removed, and that Spring Valley was now safe.

But some people were justifiably skeptical of the Corps’ remediation efforts. In June 1996, workers planting a tree on the grounds of American University President Benjamin Ladner’s property were overcome by odors and suffered severe eye burning. Subsequently, the workers found broken bottles and glassware containing liquids, and an environmental firm confirmed the presence of arsenic in the soil at 28 times permissible levels. Still, nothing was done for a few more years until the Army Corps agreed in 1999 to examine one other site, the South Korean Ambassador’s residence, two houses away from Ladner’s property. The Corps found extremely high levels of arsenic (up to 1,000 parts per million [ppm]) and unearthed 250 shells and 175 bottles. Soon after, another excavation at a different residence unearthed 380 shells, several 50-gallon drums and 40 bottles, most containing mustard gas or lewisite. Arsenic levels at the site were found to average 241 ppm The American University experimental station, c. 1918. Photo courtesy of the authorswith a high of 498 ppm. These findings eventually led the Army Corps in 2001 to expand its efforts and agree to test every property in Spring Valley. Any property that had a soil sample exceeding 13 ppm of arsenic would have additional samples taken; any that were higher than 20 ppm would have the soil removed and replaced. As of June 2004, 139 properties have been found to have arsenic levels higher than 20 ppm. Over $100 million has been spent by the Army Corps thus far, and the Corps estimates that four more years will be required to complete the remediation work.

At the time, I lived on the campus of Wesley Theological Seminary, which is immediately adjacent to the north of American University on Massachusetts Avenue. I well remember the day - screeching sirens, roads cordoned off, the warnings of imminent evacuation of a huge section of the city (which, thankfully, never transpired) - but I also remember little in the news at the time. Could it be that this was because these were not WWI ordinance at all, but the secret repository of Saddam's chemical munitions? Was the link to American University's history as a testing area for chemical weapons used as a convenient cover? Did the helicopters used and planes used to transport cocaine for Clinton to Mena, AR also remove those Iraqi munitions to Syria? Was Vince Foster murdered by Hillary Clinton and rolled up in a rug because he had discovered this plot?

Atrios sums it up best:
Right wing bloggers are the stupidest fucking people on the face on the Earth.

What Won't These People Steal?

If it were just the horror of Iraq, or the sickening bad joke of Alberto Gonzalez' Justice Department, or the Office of the Vice-President doing everything imaginable to smack down other members of the bureaucracy in order to remain top dog, or the President looking horribly discombobulated during a town hall meeting, perhaps the dwindling supporters of the Bush Administration would have a point in their arguments that their is no evidence of systemic corruption or incompetence. Then, a story like this one from the Washington Post comes along and one wonders why, exactly anyone would want to defend even the janitor who sweeps the floor at the Pentagon, because you just know he's on the take, too:
The Justice Department is conducting a probe of a $6 billion reading initiative at the center of President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, another blow to a program besieged by allegations of financial conflicts of interest and cronyism, people familiar with the matter said yesterday.

The disclosure came as a congressional hearing revealed how people implementing the $1 billion-a-year Reading First program made at least $1 million off textbooks and tests toward which the federal government steered states.

George Miller, Democratic Representative from California is quoted in the article as calling this a "criminal enterprise". Couldn't agree more.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Weaving & Re-Weaving Webs of Belief: Science and Philosophy as Therapy (Richard Rorty, Part II of II)

It would be nice if we could unlock the secrets of the Universe. It would be wonderful if we found the final theory, the single equation that served as the master key to opening all the doors of nature for us. It would be wonderful if there were a final language-game that all human beings in all times and places could accept as descriptive of their world.

Unfortunately, none of these things are ever to be. Should we ever finalize a marriage between quantum mechanics and general relativity, it will in all likelihood create as many new problems as it solved old ones. One of the lessons of science is that each new theory doesn't so much close doors for research as it does open up whole new wings on buildings for further research.

Taking his cue from Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, philosopher Richard Rorty is trying to wean us away from a view of science as somehow the metanarrative for the human race. Rather than view science as the key to opening the locked doors of nature, or (to take another metaphor from an early work), cleaning the mirror of nature that resides in something we call "the human mind", science is the unexciting and rather mundane pursuit of the human species figuring out ways of coping with its environment in order to survive, and perhaps thrive a little. Indeed, from Rorty's perspective, science isn't even the most fruitful, or interesting, or important way human beings are coming to grips with the world in which we live. Literature, art, the social sciences - these are not so much keys to something we call truth as avenues for discovering ways of living in solidarity with our fellow human beings as we traverse this world through our 3 score and 10 years. Science, then, like literature, and music, sociology and anthropology, are nothing more and nothing less than one more adaptations human beings have for survival. It is not qualitatively distinct from the discovery by chimps of tool use and the art of war; it only differs because we want to insist, on no evidence other than wish-fulfillment, that human beings themselves are somehow qualitatively distinct from all other creatures on earth.

The service of philosophy is less as arbiter of final truth - because there is no such thing - or judge over all the narratives we have to cope with our lives to find the "best fit" to the world, than it is one more therapy. Philosophy does us all a service when it points us in possible directions towards those language-games that serve the greatest need of the greatest number; it should allow for the possibility of error, and cheerfully eschew the idea that it has a judicial role. Philosophy, like science, is best when it helps us cope.

Echoing Dewey, who claimed that most of our beliefs are mostly true most of the time, Rorty describes "truth" as something that not so much resides in some final vocabulary toward which we are working through whatever mechanism - be it science, philosophy, sociology, or whatever - as a web of beliefs and desires we use to cope with the world. This web of beliefs and desires is in constant flux as we encounter new words, new sentences, whole new paragraphs that describe the world in new and surprising ways. Sometimes these new words and sentences become woven into the fabric of our beliefs and desires, and in so doing, the whole warp and woof is changed, not through some occult phenomenon known as rationality or argument, but just through the adaptation of new words and sentences that open up exciting possibilities for us.

The best we can ever do is learn to cope in better and better ways with the world around us. We will never know the world as it is in itself, because this fiction serves no purpose. Things do not exist in themselves, but as parts of the various webs of relationships we come to represent through various sounds and marks on paper to try and make sense of them. These sounds and marks are not occult phenomenon, but the part of another unremarkable human adaptation we call language. Language is another way we have of coping with our environment.

I find Rorty's views refreshing because, by flattening out the artificial hierarchies we use to congratulate ourselves on our cleverness, it reminds us that we are just Darwinian creatures having to cope with our environment. Unlike tigers, who hunt, or zebras, who herd together, we use things like language and science and anthropology and philosophy as part of the package natural selection has given us to survive. That's really all there is to it.


The reviews are in, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez did not fare well yesterday. This is hardly surprising, yet the astounding thing about his performance is how abysmal it was even after a much-publicized time of preparation. Consider how much of a train-wreck it might have been had he gone in cold.

For me, it was not so much his almost-constant claims of amnesia when questioned on his role in the despicable politically motivated firings of eight US Attorneys (he could recall the actions of others pretty well; for him, though, not so much). The most telling thing was his attitude. At once petulant and arrogant, whiny and presumptively dismissive, he reminded me of a child caught doing something bad. In an attempt to protect oneself from the results of breaking rules, children very often will adopt such an attitude as a way of protecting themselves from the punishment that is sure to come. It usually fails miserably. In Gonzalez' case, however, he has an indulgent father in President Bush who will no doubt continue to defend this horrid little man who displayed, for all the country to see, how much he is in over his head as head of the Department of Justice.

One of the most egregiously childish acts of his entire performance was his robotic mantra that came down, essentially, to repeating, "I said I was sorry!" Again, like a child caught doing something bad, he must figure that apology is the same thing as penance, and should derail any attempt at punishment. My nine-year-old has already learned that, as I told her recently, "Sorry is not enough." It is only the first step. For Gonzalez, it would be best if he just went away, disappearing in to some obscurity, although wing-nut welfare will no doubt rescue the tatters of this man's reputation, landing him a cushy job somewhere distorting our legal system for his own ends, until the next Republican Administration when, Elliot Abrams-like, he emerges again to do us public disservice.

As with children behaving badly, I just wish all of them would go away. I wish it were January 21, 2009, with Pres. Clinton/Obama/Edwards ensconced in office, with huge Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and a real accounting for all the terrible crimes of the past years could be done. The children have been left without a babysitter since January of 2001, and the house is a disaster; there are years ahead of us rebuilding what has been so relentlessly attacked by this gang of criminal oafs.

Working For the Weekend

This has been a difficult week, personally and publicly, and I for one cannot wait for tomorrow morning. I get off work at 7 a.m., will sleep for a few hours, then spend time mowing the lawn, listening to something uplifting - maybe the Sea Symphony or perhaps Ancient Echoes by the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble (SAVAE) - and read. In the course of 9 days, we have gone from a quick recap of winter (snow and ice and very cold) to sunshine and temps in the 70s. The windows are open, the heat's off, and the sounds of spring - from birds to weed-whackers - flow through our house.

I can't help but think, though, that there are 32 young people who will never know the coming of spring. There are 32 families who will not have their child figuring out how to balance work and play this summer. There is a family here in NoIl that will not see their son graduate from HS, go to the prom, dance with his wife on his wedding day, or see his team (Da Bears) maybe actually win a Super Bowl*. I know I should move beyond this, but this has been, as I said, a hard week.

On a non-political, non-religious, totally self-indulgent and hopeful note, I want to know what your plans are for this weekend. Drinking? A quick trip to see something beautiful? Time with family? A baseball game? A reunion with old friends or family? I think we need to celebrate life a bit right now, and be thankful.

*The young man who passed away was a huge Bears fan. A neighbor of ours is also a Bears fan, having his pick-up customized with a team logo. My wife asked if she could use his truck to transport the casket across the street from the church to the cemetery where he would be buried, in his "34" jersey. Not only did the man agree, but he gave my wife one of his copies of a special Walter Peyton magazine that came out after Sweetness died. The edition is limited and valuable, and went in to the casket and the ground with this young Bears fan. Is it any wonder why I love her so? She knows just the right touch, and brings out the best in everyone she encounters.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers

The title is out-and-out theft. Before becoming the first professor theology at the new University of Berlin, the young German Reformed pastor Friedrich Schleiermacher, who had also served, like his fellow faculty-member and nemesis Georg W. F. Hegel, as tutor to some of the wealthiest families in Prussia, published a series of sermons he had preached on the intersection of "religion" and "culture" in Enlightenment Prussia. One must remember that this was the era of Immanuel Kant, of Schelling, of Fichte. This was the time of Voltaire and LaPlace. Schleiermacher's sermons are pleas for the consideration of a mostly beneficent, intellectually vapid culture-Christianity that does neither harm nor good, because it only serves as metaphysical buttress for what is best about society. Despite my great admiration for much of his work, this one, while a stunning popular success, is not his finest hour.

I hope to turn the title around here, because I have made comments in the past couple days that would seem, on the very face of things, to be contradictory. I am a Christian, yet I have taken other Christians (and pseudo-, or non-; I don't really care what Dinesh D'Souza's religious beliefs are, but if he wants to classify himself as a Christian, so be it) to task for the condescension and intellectual vapidity they too often display. I want to make clear the sources of these comments so someone can't jump up and down and say, Horschach-like, "OOO! OOO!"

First of all, I see nothing incongruous with a Christian saying that we need to listen to those of other faiths, and those of no faith at all. This comes from my firm belief in Christian humility, best summed up in the words of my father: "You don't know every goddamn thing!" Part of Christian humility includes listening to the voices of those who not only don't believe, but can't imagine believing. We have no stake, no interest, and no impetus, for demanding that others believe as we do. All we can do is live our lives, and leave the rest to God.

Second, by trying to take every little bit of information and turn it in to an apologetic moment demeans the faith, demeans the intellectual content of the faith, makes us look small, weak, frustrated. It would seem to me that, for example, the presence or lack thereof of atheists in foxholes or mass murder sites is neither here nor there. As with a famous study of the Holocaust done in Israel, the reaction of survivors was pretty much across the board - some had their faith shattered, some had it strengthened, and some said it had no effect on their faith whatsoever. I think to try and bring God in to an argument here, at least in the way D'Souza wants to, is intellectually flabby (to say the least) as well as dishonest. We need to listen to what real people say about their experiences, not judge beforehand what the spiritual outcome might or might not be.

I do not believe the Christian faith is proved or disproved by any and every little action we human beings do, or every event that occurs in the world. I do not think we can say with any kind of intellectual honesty that, "The holocaust shows that God does not exist", or "The survival of 'x' people during 'e' event shows that God was with them," or whatever the case may be. this is my main beef with Dawkins; he wants to show that he has definitively proven that God cannot exist. There is simply no way to do that. One can deny God's existence, for some reasons that are both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. One cannot say that one has shown for all time and all places and all people that God is an existential impossibility. It can't be done. Period. Such intellectual shabbiness is on a par with the horribly awful "apologetics" of Josh McDowell.

I think what we Christians need to do is shut up. I think what we Christians need to do is start listening to people, including non-Christians and even anti-Christians. I think we need to ask forgiveness for our pride, the kind of pride that sees no atheists in foxholes, the kind of pride that sees divine providence in a disaster area, the kind of pride that can detect the invisible action of the Almighty in every eigen-state jump of every elementary particle. I think we need to pray more, sing more, worship more, and let go the vast conceit that we have an "in" to the reality of the Universe that is closed to others. We may claim that the universe was created by God, but that doesn't mean we either understand that universe, or the God who created it. I think we need to practice a bit of silence in the face of so much noise and squawking and shouting. We need to be a bit slower to have all the answers. In fact, we need to admit that sometimes, there are no answers, because there are really no questions.

There's just life. That's all. For me, Christianity isn't the magic key to all the mysteries of everything. It's just about life. And sometimes, life is admitting you don't know everything, and listening to other people tell their stories.

Why Blame the Victims When We Can Blame the Entire Country (Plus an English Biology Professor, Too)?

Remember when the Columbine HS massacre happened, and Newt Gingrich said that it was the perfect encapsulation of liberalism, or something to that effect? Remember after 9/11, when Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell blamed abortion and feminism? It seems that there is always someone else to blame for these horrors than those who actually perpetrate them, and the fault usually devolves to some aspect of society that is not liked by those doing the speaking.

I wrote about John "Rambo" Derbyshire's whine about how wimpy the victims were in not taking this guy out. Others on the right, Michelle Malkin for instance, have started blaming the education system for turning our young men into heartless, gutless wimps, who cower when a maniac points a gun at them (I suppose she really liked Samuel Jackson's line in Pulp Fiction where, confronted by a robber at the diner, says, "This isn't the first time today I've had a gun pointed at me," all calm, cool, and collected).

Now we have that sorry pathetic excuse for a human being, Dinesh "Distort D'Newsa" D'Souza, writing here (with a hat tip to Digby, and also Obsidian Wings, whose take on this piece is wonderful). The part where he answers D'Souza's question about the presence of atheists in the wake of tragedy is priceless: "So that's why I couldn't find me." I shall reprint D'Souza's little failed typing exercise in full. It's short (which is lucky, cause I just had lunch):
Notice something interesting about the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings? Atheists are nowhere to be found. Every time there is a public gathering there is talk of God and divine mercy and spiritual healing. Even secular people like the poet Nikki Giovanni use language that is heavily drenched with religious symbolism and meaning.

The atheist writer Richard Dawkins has observed that according to the findings of modern science, the universe has all the properties of a system that is utterly devoid of meaning. The main characteristic of the universe is pitiless indifference. Dawkins further argues that we human beings are simply agglomerations of molecules, assembled into functional units over millennia of natural selection, and as for the soul--well, that's an illusion!

To no one's surprise, Dawkins has not been invited to speak to the grieving Virginia Tech community. What this tells me is that if it's difficult to know where God is when bad things happen, it is even more difficult for atheism to deal with the problem of evil. The reason is that in a purely materialist universe, immaterial things like good and evil and souls simply do not exist. For scientific atheists like Dawkins, Cho's shooting of all those people can be understood in this way--molecules acting upon molecules.

If this is the best that modern science has to offer us, I think we need something more than modern science.

The universe doesn't have a "characteristic", main or otherwise. Atheism, it seems to me, has never had a problem dealing with the question of evil. Had D'Souza spent more time in class at Dartmouth and less time making up stuff to put in the student newspaper, he might have read Freud and the Frankfurt School (especially Herbert Marcuse) and any of a host of social theorists who have written on the topic. Of course, since these folks are atheists, I suppose what they have to say means nothing to Dinesh. In fact, I doubt reading them would matter because, while I have little truck with Richard Dawkins, invoking his name, and distorting his argument (and granting will and agency, including indifference, to conglomerations of atoms in the process) does not help at all.

Because he seems incapable of being embarrassed at how stupid he is, I refuse to waste my time being embarrassed for him. I would rather put his writings out there for all to see and laugh at. The bit about "good", "evil", and "souls" not existing in a "materialist universe" (whatever that means) is really funny. I mean, seriously. Good and evil are human constructs based upon what is and is not socially acceptable behavior. That's all. For the Romans, watching people kill each other, throwing religious minorities and other criminals in to a ring to be devoured by lions and tigers, was all OK. For us, it isn't. I happen to think we're a better society for it, but I certainly can't prove that point by reference to something "out there" called "good" and "evil". As for the soul, well . . . let's just not talk about that, OK? I really, really don't want to make D'Souza look any worse than he already does.

There are always atheists in foxholes, or at mass murder sites. We just don't listen to them, because some people with a certain agenda lift up those people who happen to mention one deity or another.

Since his last book tanked, I don't think he has helped his prospects for a new book deal with this little piece of non-intellectual fluff. Maybe Dancing With the Stars needs another right-wing has-been, since Tucker Carlson fared so badly before.

Short Take

Been watching Senate hearing with the Attorney General. Here is my impression of how the questions are going:
Democratic Senator: You've lied, misled, blocked information, changed your story, and now you want us to believe you, even under oath. I think you are a lying sack of crap.
AG:You can believe me because I don't remember anything important.
Republican Senator:A question or two on how tough your job is, and how awful for the Democrats to be calling you a liar, politicizing this process. You are a tough man doing a tough job.
AG:Thank you, Senator, for having my back, along with the President.

BTW, "I don't remember", and worse, "I've been searching my memory" (he actually used these words in response to a question from Jeff Sessions from Alabama) are weasel ways of avoiding perjury charges, because, you know, suddenly the light can go on in a darkened corner of the AG's mind, and he can remember what he forgot to talk about under oath.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How to Report the News 101, by Christy Hardin Smith

Let's cut to the chase, shall we? All the nonsense about "balance" in the news has to stop for this simple reason, summed up in this paragraph from a post at Fire Dog Lake by Christy (you need to read the whole thing):
[T]he false equivalency given to factually inaccurate crap has got to stop. If the public official with whom you are speaking is trying to sell you a load of bullshit, it is okay to call it manure. In fact, it is accurate to do so. As Jay [Rosen] says, too many journalists over the past few years have "lapsed into a phony kind of balance." If the facts do not support it, you aren't doing yourself any favors by pretending that both sides of an argument are equal. That is not balance, it is just phony.

This is my problem with the people who want to hide Don Imus behind the First Amendment. This is my problem with all those who whine about how "horrible" the "liberal media" and foul-mouthed liberal bloggers are to Bush and his criminal cronies. This is my problem with mainstream journalists like David Broder, Joe Klein, Thomas Friedman, Tim Russert, and others. They insist we have to take this crap, and not call it crap, because it comes from official sources. Sorry, but if you hold a spoon full of shit up to my mouth, insisting it is medicine and that I have to take it because you say so, my mouth is staying shut, and, by God, I will call it shit, no matter how much you insist it is medicine.

Why is it non-journalists seem to understand this concept so much better than journalists do? How difficult is it, in a story or during an interview, when someone lays down a real whopper, to just say, "You know what, that's just wrong, and I need to point that out." If the person wants to continue to lie, or insist on a falsehood, just keep calling them on it. It isn't that hard. You do it and do it, as often as you have to. If they cut you off from access to information, what in the world have you lost but a lying, no-good sack of shit? In fact, it would seem to me you could write a piece that included the following line:
I went to my usual source, X, who lied to me, and when I called him on it, he cut me off from information. Because he lied to me, I do not feel obliged to hide his identity any longer.

How about that for journalistic ethics?


We have been dealing with a whole lot of death recently in our household. Two weeks ago, a childhood friend of mine, a man whom I had known since we were in kindergarten, died. Monday, my wife performed two funerals. Today, she attended two. Tomorrow, she attends the funeral of a sixteen-year-old at whose death-bed she sat on Sunday, along with his family. On top of this comes the mass murder at VA Tech. A person can only take so much.

The fellows at Sadly!No do us all a service by making fun of horrible people. Here, here, here, and here they take shots, like standing inside a closed barn, hoping to hit a wall, or perhaps the roof, at Deb Schussel (again, I refuse to link to her because she is so abysmally horrible). I have been able to laugh when, to be honest, I just want to weep. I want all of it - all the blame, the finger pointing, the racism, the faux-hero posturing, the demand for more guns, more gun-control more this, less that - I want it to all STOP so we can just be human enough to mourn with the families and friends, to console those who have survived. Crooks and Liars has this piece that includes a comment at Schussels blog, calling her an "empty-souled vampiric monster." How appropriate.

Why can't these people just shut up? Seriously. Just. Shut. UP!

For This Christian, "Religion" Is Optional

Via Faith in Public, comes this piece by Jeff Jacoby. I can 't think of a better illustration of bad thinking and ridiculous question-begging than this, and I insist you go read it. I shall quote just one line, the most egregious of which follows:
[Y]ou rarely have to look far to be reminded of the indispensability of God and religion .

I shall be quick (I hope; we all know what happens when I get on a roll . . .). Very simply put, "religion" as a social phenomenon covers such a wide variety of practices - one can look at AA as a religion, as has been done for two decades by social scientists; we can analyze certain civic practices (saluting the flag, moments of silence on days of national remembrance, the ceremonies of our public life) as part of what is known as "civil religion' - that it is less a noun than an adjective, a term empty until filled in by the description of certain specifics that one or another analyst deems necessary to flesh out his or her idea of what constitutes "religion". In short, the word "religion" has come to mean nothing except what we want it to mean; the word itself is a cypher, and the constant conflation of it with certain specific practices such as "Christianity", "Judaism", "Islam", etc., is misleading at best, and intellectual dishonesty and obscurantism at worst.

Second, to say that "God" is indispensable is to do to the word "God" what we have done to the word "religion". It becomes a cypher, a blank to be filled in by whatever qualities, affectations, and descriptions we feel best fit the word. Rather than deal with the specifics of Christian practice, Jewish practice, Buddhist practice (OK, that's not a good example, because Buddhism doesn't have gods, but you get my point), we posit something-we-know-not-what and call it, for lack of a better word, "God", and demand that others recognize this as supposed universal idea as representative of divinity.

I would wish that such talk were replaced by discussions of very specific faith traditions, what they offer us, how they restrict us, and their effects both good and ill on us as individuals and as a society. By discussing the topic this way, we avoid the kind of nonsense Jacoby is offering - I am not an apologetic thinker when it comes to questions of faith, so I do not believe it necessary to defend the Christian faith from the onslaughts of critics - and get down where people live. Indeed, I would insist that Jacoby's piece is more harmful than good, because it distracts us from discussing religion as a social phenomenon is some kind of intelligent, thoughtful way.

Finally, for many individuals, God and faith, religious practice and professions of faith are not only optional, they are easily discarded as so much detritus. Why should we dismiss these people, their lives, their lack of belief, and their cheery apathy toward these questions and issues in such a demeaning, presumptive tone? I really am tired of people of faith who demand that others not only practice as they do, but believe as they do, and (by way of implication) that by not so doing, they are somehow wrong on some very fundamental level. Give me a cheery atheist over a demanding Christian any day of the week.

I say and write all this as a Christian who believes deeply in the transformative power of faith; in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and the inauguration of the New Creation, within which we live; in the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit to lead us all to new life, to the kind of life God desired for us when we were created in the divine image. Having said all that, I do not believe for one moment that such statements need to be defended from assault, or that they are "necessary" for social cohesion. Social cohesion, especially in a land as diverse and multi-faceted as ours has no need of divine support, nor should it.

That isn't any religion's business.

Let's Ban All Medical Procedures!

So, the Supreme Court upheld a ban on Intact Dilation and Extraction (Intact D & E, or IDE), known among the pro-life community by the very bad, very false neologism "partial birth abortion". What medical procedures are next? Vasectomies? Blood transfusions? Open-heart surgeries? Organ transplants?

My view on this issue is really quite simple. This is a medical procedure, performed under the care of a physician, and it is dangerous business when the state determines what is a legitimate medical procedure and what is not. This has ramifications that have little to do with the question of abortion. We can extend the logic here to start banning pretty much any medical procedure that violates some group's beliefs. Let's just consider the question of childbirth itself; even though anesthesia was available for years, it was denied women because of the scriptural injunction that women were to give birth in pain as part of the punishment for original sin.

Let's not even go down the list and talk about conception control.

Rather than simply throw the whole issue of abortion back on the state legislatures where it belongs, and where we could actually have a debate on the issue of abortion, we now have a situation where the Supreme Court has done a mirror-image of the Roe decision, imposed its will upon the public, initially within a highly narrow category of prospective cases, but with ramifications across a broad spectrum of social and medical practices. This is a very dangerous precedent.


Digby's right. These people have issues (from tbogg's blog):
For years the modern feminists have attempted to completely obliterate the need for men in society. They have argued in favor of, marched for, and protested on behalf of the ideas that women can provide everything that a woman needs.

Go into any women's studies program on the campus of any major university and you will learn that women don't need men for economic provision, physical protection, or to even achieve sexual orgasm. Our daughters are being taught that to believe men are necessary for anything is not only pure bunk, but actually a sign of intellectual weakness.

As a result women have shunned personal relationships and sky-rocketed to the top of the business world. Their incomes have increased as they have put off having children, not to mention the thought of getting married till far later in life.

They've gotten themselves into the gym and lifted weights and learned kick-boxing so that at least theoretically they could ward off an attacker. (Of course they haven't been encouraged to pack fire-arms or conceal handguns because for some reason its more "progressive" for a woman to take male hormones and resemble eastern European male wrestlers than it is for the most lady-like among us to blow someone away if their life depended on it.)

Women have been inundated with auto-eroticism (emphasis added) methodologies and lesbian love making techniques not only in these women's studies courses but also through popular culture, women's magazines, and cable television. They are also told by that same culture, be it prime time media or TIME magazine, that men at best "are clumsy" in this area, and at worst "just plain don't know what they're doing."

In making all these “advances” there has still been one major stumbling block for the argument of a completely female universe. That has been the production of sperm, male DNA, the missing element to creating a child when paired with a woman's egg. Without this necessary ingredient the entirety of the female-only existence is impossible, women's studies departments are useless, and feminism is nothing more than mindless brainwashing.

Before I take a stab at the whole thing, the italicized line needs a bit of, um, clarification. Perhaps Kevin McCullough, the "author" of the above piece of woman-hating ranting, is unaware that auto-eroticism does not refer to masturbation as a general practice, but a particular form, much more prevalent among men than women, that involves asphyxiation, and can end up in tragedy. We shall leave this bit of fetishistic ignorance to one side, and shall just stare at this piece of bewildering wonderment.

I have written recently of the fear certain men have, a fear exacerbated by the appearance of independent, strong women. Such women, whose mere image can cause such men to simultaneously cower and shiver in fear and explode with rage, highlight the underlying insecurity such men have that they are not "man" enough. That they are not necessary for fulfilling the life of these women. They fear that such women would take a look at them, snicker dismissively, and wander away in search of - another man? a woman, perhaps? D-batteries? - whatever might fulfill here needs of the moment or a lifetime. McCullough is a perfect illustration of the warping of the male psyche brought about by the appearance of independent women; if this isn't self-justification masquerading as social critique, I don't know what is (alright, for the sake of argument, I will also concede that there is social commentary here; so perhaps its social commentary masquerading as one big essay/assay into the borderland of psychosis).

While all men have insecurities when it comes to their relationships with women - if you read Susan Faludi's Stiffed, and nodded in agreement even once, you know what I mean - most of us come to some sort of accommodation with these insecurities. Indeed, if you are mature, and even just a bit self-aware, in the midst of a relationship, you might want to share those insecurities. But these are, for the most part, private matters. When the presence of a type of public woman appears on the scene, however, these men quiver and shake and turn beet-red in the face. Simultaneously afraid and rage-filled - the mere presence of these individuals as representative of a type is usually enough to get the adrenaline pumping - they must reassert their masculinity. Thus, as in the case of McCullough, we have the reminder that, "Hey, man got sperm!" As if, somehow, this were even close to being relevant to anything other than this particular sad-sack's own sense of his emptiness and lack of worth.

As a personal aside, let me just say that I am the youngest child in a family with three older sisters, all of whom are extremely bright, intelligent, accomplished, and, like our mother (Sis, if you're reading this, please nod in agreement), strong-willed. I married a woman of similar traits and talents and accomplishments. The presence of such a type of woman in the world makes all our lives both more interesting and easier; for some men, however, the fear such women engender (no pun intended) overwhelms their rational thought processes, and we end up with Kevin McCullough telling us that without sperm, women are nothing.

It is both scary and sad.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

For Those Left behind

Tomorrow, I hope to be in a different emotional space. The events at Virginia Tech have just left me feeling that all the nonsense, all the talk, all the pomposity, all the posturing, all the foolishness - it is all meaningless. We need to come together right now, all 300,00,000 of us Americans, and pray or do the non-religious facsimile thereof, and hold in all our thoughts those who are living and will live with this forever: the parents, siblings, lovers, friends, and those who escaped death, sometimes by the narrowest of margins. We need to hold them all and let them know all of us are with them. I know the song is cheesy, but I heard it last night, and I can't get out of my head the feeling that, for the living, this is what we need to be saying:

Note: I couldn't upload the actual video, but this one is pretty good. If you don't like it - the song or the video - go find your own. But do it for them, not for yourself.


There has been quite the little controversy here over dirty words and pictures. Some people have been offended by languages and images that have appeared on the blog of one who proclaims himself a "Christian". Compared to the following, from John Derbyshire from NRO (no, I will not link and increase the technorati ratings for this scumbag), nothing I could ever post would be as horrible or as damaging (h/t, Ana Marie Cox at Swampland):
As NRO's designated chickenhawk, let me be the one to ask: Where was the spirit of self-defense here? Setting aside the ludicrous campus ban on licensed conceals, why didn't anyone rush the guy? It's not like this was Rambo, hosing the place down with automatic weapons. He had two handguns for goodness' sake—one of them reportedly a .22.

At the very least, count the shots and jump him reloading or changing hands. Better yet, just jump him. Handguns aren't very accurate, even at close range. I shoot mine all the time at the range, and I still can't hit squat. I doubt this guy was any better than I am. And even if hit, a .22 needs to find something important to do real damage—your chances aren't bad.

Yes, yes, I know it's easy to say these things: but didn't the heroes of Flight 93 teach us anything? As the cliche goes—and like most cliches. It's true—none of us knows what he'd do in a dire situation like that. I hope, however, that if I thought I was going to die anyway, I'd at least take a run at the guy.

In the wake of this horrific event, to write something like this . . . Words fail me as I try to figure out how to describe this vomitous pile of letters structured like sentences. The only thing that makes this worse is his bringing up Flight 93, thus somehow finding a 9/11 angle when there wasn't any to be had. This is the vilest pornography. It certainly doesn't meet this community's local standard, and should be prosecuted as obscenity.

UPDATE: In the interest of fairness, I should add that, while not nearly as bilious as the above piece from National Review Online, the following excerpt from this pice at Fire Dog Lake by TRex is also unfortunate, because it attempts to make political hay out of the deaths of 32 innocents and one very ill individual. Perhaps in time we can have discussions such as this. For now, however, we should all just remain silent, praying to which ever God or god or goddess or gods or goddesses or nature or whatever that the families and friends of the fallen may find some way of making it through these next days. Sometimes all this talk on the internet can be just awful, and awful knows no political label:
This is a terrible tragedy, one that will be haunting us for years to come. Still there is a part of my brain that absorbs this kind of sudden and senseless catastrophe and responds, "Welcome to what the people of Iraq go through every day."

Monday, April 16, 2007

Music Monday

One of my musical passions is sacred music. I am not a fan of gospel (although there is something transcendent about Mahalia Jackson), or of white gospel like the Gaithers, but I do love listening to baroque, classical, and contemporary sacred music. Perhaps it's just a cultural bias (especially because I recognize the beauty and power of both gospel and spirituals; I just can't sit and listen to them), but listening to an orchestra and a choir pulls me out of myself and places me somewhere holy. My first offering tonight is just a bit of "St. Matthews Passion", a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. My copy is from the Musical Heritage Society, on three CDs.

Next is British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams, with "Five Variations on Dives and Lazarus". The "Dives and Lazarus", for those who may not know, comes from the parable in St. Luke's Gospel about the rich man who dies and, standing on the edge of an unbridgeable gulf, sees a poor man who had begged at his gate held to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man begs first for mercy, then for the opportunity to return, Marley-like, to earth to warn his family of the peril that awaits them. Father Abraham says, "You had the law and the prophets. Why should they listen to you, if they will not listen to them?" Ouch.

Finally, I present a piece by Franz Schubert. I have a seven-CD collection of his sacred works, including Masses, bits of masses, and a cantata based upon the raising of Lazarus from St. John's Gospel. The liner notes include mention that Schubert often neglected, or purposely left out, the invocation of the Trinity from many of his Masses, and he was a vocal critic of what he viewed as "obscurantism"; yet his masses were performed often. The following is the "Benedictus" from Schubert's Mass No. 6 in E-flat major:

No Sense of Irony

Cluelessness is not something restricted to politicians, or Republicans, or conservatives. All of us from time to time say and do things that, were we a bit more self-aware, we might not have done. Yet, it seems that our President wants to monopolize this particular corner of human behavior. From Faith in Public
President Bush preached to the choir at the National Catholic Prayer breakfast Friday, promoting the "dignity of life," and stressing his opposition to easing restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research — a reference to a bill he's threatened to veto.

"In our day there is a temptation to manipulate life in ways that do not respect the humanity of the person," Bush said Friday. "When that happens, the most vulnerable among us can be valued for their utility to others instead of their own inherent worth."

Yes, let us have dignity for blastocysts, but not for the tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans and the 3300 American service personnel killed, the tens of thousands of each of these wounded. Let us make sure that every germ cell is preserved, but death row inmates dispatched as quickly as possible.

This man is a horror show of self-ignorance. I suppose I should have entitled this one "No Sense of Shame", but one would have to be aware of how horrible one is in order to have any shame.

In Memoriam

To those who have fallen in Blacksburg, VA:

Merciful Jesus, that takes away the sin of the world, grant them eternal rest forever.
Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world, grant them eternal rest forever.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Art, Politics, & Dirty Words: Is Imus as Bad as Snoop Dogg?

I am not a fan of rap music the way I am a fan of prog metal or jazz. I do not own any rap CDs. I do not listen to rap to relax, or as background for reading, or any of the reasons I listen to music. I do not stay current with who's hot, who's not, what's better, what's worse. I honestly have no opinion on all sorts of issues of vital interest to those intimately involved in rap and hip-hop culture.

This does not mean I do not appreciate it as an art form. At its best, it is challenging in a way that no art form has been since be-bop. It has changed the way we view issues of musical authorship, of the relationship among lyrics, rhythm, tonality, and a whole host of other "traditional" musical categories. It has also focused attention on those who create it - inner-city African-Americans. Its roots in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and its spread to other minority communities (significantly south central LA) pushed this new art form into communities with very specific attitudes, grievances, and vocabularies. Thus, the premiere LA rap group NWA offered the following song from their first release, Straight Outta Compton (NPT, you might want to get your smelling salts):

Living in a city that has a long history of official violence against blacks, one can imagine the rage and frustration that comes from being considered a criminal simply because of the color of your skin. We may blanch at the violence and rage, but we should also understand it is very real, and a perfectly reasonable response to a history of police violence and corruption.

Is rap, are rap artists, as bad as Don Imus? Indeed, one African-American journalist says he is worse. Earl Ofari Hutchison, writing at says:
While Imus's "nappy headed hos" slur has been plastered all over creation, the "B" "H," and expletive-laced rant that Snoop unleashed against Imus, has barely got a squint of mention.

His R rated words are so vile they can't be printed in adult company.

First of all, lest we all faint from the horrid R-rated words, let us all calm down and remember that Snoop's characterization of Imus as "another tired old white guy", juxtaposed against the hippest, young black man around (himself) is part of what is missing when we get the vapors from racially insensitive remarks, "vile" profanity, and the like. Imus is a tired old white guy, and Snoop is, while perhaps not as cutting edge as he once was, certainly among the more creative hip-hop artists of the past fifteen years. The rules for what is and is not acceptable behavior and word-choice (including the infamous "n" word) are different. Not only that, they should be different. These are two different persons emerging from two completely different backgrounds and historical contexts. They should be judged differently, because there is no one final arbiter of who is correct and who is not, I think it entirely reasonable to hold an artist who struggled to get himself out of a world of violence and criminal activity, but still carries much of that baggage with him to a different standard than an aging white man who hob-nobs with some of the most powerful and influential politicians and journalists in the country. The latter, Don Imus, has no business, even in jest, appropriating African-American street slang to demean a group of successful young women. As soon as Snoop has the kind of power and influence Imus had, and as soon as he says something equally offensive - and both conditions have to apply here - I will be the first to raise all kinds of hell about it. Until then, there simply isn't any comparison.

I think Hutchison is wrong in saying that Snoop Dogg is worse than Imus. Middle and Upper-middle class blacks have always had a problem with the popular entertainments that came from working and under-class African-American life. They thought jazz and the blues were barbaric, and worked overtime to separate themselves culturally from their more crass, vulgar, and earthy fellow citizens of color. So, along with racial problems, we also have intra-racial class bias at play here, another factor with a long history. I think Hutchison's sniff at Snoop's vocabulary is only understandable within the larger framework of a rising black middle class wishing to distance itself from its own past. I pass no judgment upon Hutchison for doing so; I am explaining, neither defending nor condemning. I have no dog in this fight, except of course for the fact that, as an American, this kind of racial, class, and cultural conflict tends to effect us all in the end. I do not agree with Hutchison for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I do not think that art is as central to questions of power in society as politics and the media are. That is the main reason why I do not equate the rantings of Don Imus with the lyrics of Calvin Broadus - it's like apples and oranges.

For those who might wish to disagree on any number of points I have made here, all I can say is that any attempt to make all words mean the same things throughout all time to all people doesn't work. Words don't mean the same thing at the same time to two people having a conversation; why in the world would anyone think that Don Imus calling the Rutgers' Women Basketball team "nappy-headed hoes" and Snoop Dogg referring to women as "hoes" and "bitchezz" are equivalent? One is a white guy trying to be sneakily racist; the other is a black guy trying to forge an art form from very rough materials the only way he knows how. I don't like the characterizations of women that rap artists use, but I do understand there is a world of difference between Don Imus and Snoop Dogg.

Virtual Tin Cup

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