Saturday, May 19, 2007

Saturday Night Rock Show (Updated to Change my Idiotic Mistake)

Coming of age during the 1980's was kind of like the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities - that whole "best of times, worst of times" thing - when it came to the music. Some of the music from my wayward youth and young adulthood has not only stood up well, but actually grown in my esteem. England, for some reason, provided some of the most interesting, inventive takes on American styles, as a new generation, weaned on Motown, Stax/Volt, and the Philly sound of the early '70's moved on from the punk of their own youth, drank in reggae, ska, and dub, and came out the other side. Some of these performers, like Paul Young, were abysmal. Others, like Alyson Moyet, were interesting (I think she has a great, if undisciplined, voice). The Style Council, emerging from Paul Weller's break-up of The Jam, started moving in interesting, R&B-tinged directions almost immediately. This is a pretty little love song of theirs, "You're the Best Thing". If you close your eyes, and tilt your head, you can almost hear Smokey Robinson singing this song, the Miracles moving in sync behind him:

For those who might be wondering, "What happened to Uriah Heep?", I have two answers, the first short, the second a bit longer. The shorter answer is, "God, they're awful." The second is, I had planned to do Heep without actually checking them out. I haven't actually listened to them in years, although I once had their three biggest-selling, and arguably artistically best albums. After giving them a listen, though, after all these years, I thought, "I just can't do this." I like putting up music I really like, or at least like to make fun of. In this case, I just couldn't do it. Also, from the vintage clips from the early '70's over at YouTube, half the band look like contestants in a Harry Reems look-a-like contest.

Hint for Monday, and I will stick with it this time: Lady singers I like.

Some General Thoughts on Christian Sexual Ethics

I believe I once quoted my mother's one comment to me on human sexuality, "If God made anything better than sex, he kept it to himself." For lack of anything better to write about today, I thought I would take a minute and offer some thoughts on human sexual ethics from this one individual Christian's point of view. I offer these thoughts in a random, non-systematic way, and invite comment, criticism, etc.

For the record, I think human sexuality is, in the words of the United Methodist Discipline a good gift from a good God. At its best, it is a mysterious union of two people that is greater than the sum of its physical and psychological parts. At its worst, however, it is destructive of life, of physical and psychological health. I have called this aspect of sex "demonic" because, sadly, I have experienced it for myself (no, I won't elaborate; I offer that merely to say that this is something I know from first-hand experience) and there seems no better adjective for it. For me, one of the biggest problems we have in talking about human sexuality is that we fear sex, we fear stepping on toes, we fear appearing to interfere in the individual decisions of others. Even if it is sometimes difficult to discern a coherent sexual ethic from the contradictions of the Bible and the varieties of teaching in the history of the Church, I think the attempt should be made to address the issue for each generation of Christians. So, here's mine, again, in a non-discursive way.

- We too often confuse sex and love. At its root, we human beings are no different from dogs in the park. The crucial difference is that we give meaning to what we do.

- The desire for sexual release is actually a stronger physical desire than nourishment. We can recognize this, but still maintain some kind of discipline and control precisely because we recognize it. Exercising discipline and control are the hallmarks of emotional and intellectual maturity.

- The relationship between sex and procreation should never be the root of any sexual ethic. Reproduction is just one of the beneficial aspects of human sexuality. Because Roman Catholic sexual ethics are so rooted, I believe they are, at heart, deeply flawed.

- The pleasurable aspect of the sexual act is obvious and banal, and should not be a serious part of an ethical discussion. Eating is pleasurable, too, as is, on occasion, emptying one's bladder, but neither of these pleasures suddenly become central to understanding eating or peeing, or an argument in their favor. To focus on the fact that sex "feels good" is to be stuck in perpetual adolescent, masturbatory mode.

- There are limits to what should be acceptable human sexual conduct, including acts with children, and any act the denies the humanity, agency, and integrity of another person. Even should another person find sexual release through humiliation and the erasure of their individuality, that is no excuse for participating in it; the individual in question is, in two words, mentally ill. To find sexual pleasure in the debasement of others is a sign of mental illness as well. What two individuals get up to on their own, in private, can still be destructive, and I have no problem calling sadism and masochism illnesses.

- Marriage is a social, legal relationship the church uses as a model for the relationship between Christ and the Church. Even in the centuries of Christian dominance in the west, it was more often honored in the breech than in actual practice. To limit human sexual practice, a priori, to this particular form of relationship is nonsensical. This does not mean I support people mating willy-nilly. I just think we should be honest and say that marriage adds little to human sexuality.

- That some people are romantically and sexually attracted to others of the same gender is simply a reality we are going to have to accept some day as an institution. All that I have written here applies to straight and gay folks equally, because I see no differences other than to whom one directs one's affections.

This is hardly exhaustive, and doesn't address a whole host of things, but I think these are all good starting points for discussion, disagreement, debate, dissension, etc.

Photo Credit: David Mendelsohn

Joe Klein Expresses His Dislike for Free Expression

Over here at Swampland, Joe says he "agrees" with the gyst of this column by Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell who summed up a column on how to "edit" comments to the Post's online edition this way:
When in doubt, take it out.

What is being taken out is not factual inaccuracy but four-letter words. I am sick and tired of thin-skinned, faux-concern for the sensibilities of readers disguised as a desire for civility in our public discourse. Either we are going to allow free expression, or we are going to operate under the nonsensical rule that some speech is more equal than others. It is true that one can make a point without throwing in profanity. You know what? Sometimes, it works well to pound home a point not otherwise obvious, or not made with enough emphasis. Besides that, the idea that we need to "take out" words that hurt our feelings, or might scorch our eyes to cinders because of our own sensitivity only shows how lily-livered these people are.

Klein is frightened of criticism, really. He can't handle it that people are so enraged by his mediocrity and insiderism that they might just vent their spleens at him. He cannot imagine why people think he is a walking, writing joke, the embodiment of all that is atrocious about our current commentariat.

In that spirit, here's a hearty, "Grow the fuck up!" to you, Joe Klein.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Mark Tooley Should No Longer Pretend He Is a Christian

Mark Tooley is the most vocal and visible individual at the Institute for Religion and Democracy (I refuse to provide a link; go find them yourselves). He is director of something called "The United Methodist Project", whose sole goal is to impugn the faith, motives, intelligence, and integrity of the clergy, hierarchy, and actions of the United Methodist Church. In that spirit, I wish to impugn the intelligence, faith, and sanity of Mark Tooley, because, quite frankly, he can neither reason nor argue, and he bases none of his "analyses" in anything resembling the Christian faith.

Over here at Faith in Public, is a reprint of a Tooley article from The American Spectator, in which Tooley smears a Mennonite couple who protested an Army recruiter who was working in a public library (who thought that was a good idea?). Tooley's sole complaint was that the couple are prominent in Mennonite activist circles. Apparently, this is wrong for some reason Tooley doesn't define; Christian pacifism is erroneous on its face, obviously.

The end of Tooley's article is worth reading in whole:
Though Christ could get angry too, His own encounters with soldiers of His day were more hospitable than the Coils angry fracas with the recruiters at the Stow-Munroe Falls Public Library. Traditional Mennonites once and usually still believe that they witness to their peaceful faith through quiet example, not loud confrontations that impugn the motivations of others.

Doubtless the wider Religious Left will salute the Coils' more aggressive interpretation of Mennonite pacifism. "Good for our Mennonite brother and sister!" enthused Chuck Gutenson at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. Himself a pacifist, the Methodist professor quoted Jack Nicholson in saying the military recruiters obviously "couldn't handle the truth" and wanted to deny the Coils' "freedom of speech."

Of course, the free speech and beliefs of the military recruiters and the young man who was interested in their offer seems not to merit respect from the Coils' supporters. And the old dignity that used to accompany traditional Christian pacifism becomes even more of a fading memory, as angry and more belligerent successors replace it.(emphasis added)

As someone writing from a supposedly religious, indeed Christian perspective, one would have thought Tooley would be a little more respectful of the traditional Mennonite pacifism and more recent activism in support of these beliefs. As for the "dignity" Tooley speaks of, the Coils were not undignified; far from it. They merely flashed cars with anti-military phrases through a window, and protested when they were quite rightly upset that their First Amendment rights were violated when asked to cease. As for the "rights" of the recruiter, I fail to see how they were in any way violate due to the Coils' actions. Why, however, should that in any way be a part of a supposedly Christian analysis of the situation? The issue was state coercion against the peaceful, legitimate protest, based upon religious beliefs, of state action the individuals in question found wrong. Tooley's apologia for the state and attack upon Mennonites should disabuse anyone who had any lingering questions that he lacks even a fundamental grasp of Christian principles.

May I suggest a different name for his group? The Institute for Know-Nothing Dogmatism and Fascism.

Immigration Song

So there's a new immigration bill that's got senior statesman Teddy Kennedy and loony Arizonan Jon Kyl on the same side. This is, apparently, the kind of the thing the David Broder's of the world like - "bipartisanship". Except in this case bipartisanship looks less like a well-crafted, nuanced piece of legislation (the mid-'80's immigration reform bill) and more like the creature Victor Frankenstein put together on a rainy night in his castle. Over at Fire Dog Lake, Pachacutec has a good rundown on the pros and cons of the bill, but his assertion that there is "crap" in the bill is an understatement. Especially disconcerting is the shift in immigration policy from citizenship for people to employment for the trained and educated. This is a dangerous shift in policy, and ignores the reality that the need for unskilled labor is at the heart of illegal immigration. As they do little to enhance enforcement (a 300 mile long fence is our Maginot Line), it doesn't address the root of the problem.

I usually do not comment on immigration, because it is an issue about which my feelings are both simple and clear - (a) the more the better; (b) anti-immigration is fueled by the same kind of fear that brought us all these years of Bush: racism, ignorance of others, a refusal to acknowledge our own complicity in the situation. As to (a), the US has only ever improved with an influx of new nationalities, and our Mexican brothers and sisters are adding new color and sound and life to a moribund Anglo-German dominated culture and society. As far as I am concerned, the only necessary requirement for coming to America should be saying to an embassy official somewhere in the world "I want to be an American," and we should throw open our arms in welcome.

(B) is the result of racism, period. Racism is a mixture of ignorance, fear, and a fundamental refusal to acknowledge the humanity or worth of others whose differences are superficial. Tom Tancredo is a bigot. Pat Buchanan is a bigot. The "Minutemen" (I just hope that doesn't refer to how long it takes them to finish making love, for their partners' sakes) are bigots. There are no rational reasons to object to the current "illegal" population amongst us - they serve a useful economic function (indeed, had we a living, breathing labor movement, and a living, breathing sense of civic life, the last thing we would worry about would be the downward pressure on wages from an influx of immigrants, because wages would not be left for individual corporations to determine, but be understood to be part of a larger, socially understood, sense of public utility; again, a post for another time) as well as give America their love. They aren't "illegal aliens" - a bunch of strange beings from some odd place we cannot understand - but people, mostly from Mexico (although during the 1970's and 1980's, the influx of white illegals, mostly from Ireland, went unmentioned and unnoticed), who are seeking the chance for a better life. They bring their food, their clothing, their language, their religion, their songs, their poems, their stories - and we add them to the anthology of life that makes America a great place to live.

The bill is a piece of garbage, even though there are elements that are notable. I think it much too complicated, contradictory, and indicates a drastic shift in immigration policy that we need to seriously address before indicating our support for it. We should be hitting the phones, making sure our members of Congress and the Senate understand that those elements of the bill that are horrid are removed before getting final approval. As Atrios so wisely notes here:
Regarding the immigration bill, I think the basic calculation isn't "this bill or nothing," it's "this bill or nothing now but something else two years from now."

Since we have waited 20 years since the last major overhaul of immigration law (with Ronald Reagan, whom all the Republican candidates want to be, offering amnesty to the illegals in our midst), we can wait until after the 2008 election, when we have a Democratic President and larger Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress so we can ignore the knuckle-dragging Republican leadership that feels it necessary to pander to the racists and fear-mongers. By all means, insist on changing the bill as it exists; if that means the bill dies, there is no reason to think another bill, a better bill at a different time more advantageous to America, can be crafted.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Not Just Scumbags, But Criminals, Too

Yesterday I was all caught up with the awfulness of Gonzalez and Card badgering an ill, and sedated, John Ashcroft, to sign off on a program he and his department had declared not legal, and missed the simple fact, highlighted and expanded upon by Glenn Greenwald that lying at the heart of this tragi-comic Keystone Kops scene (I dispute the idea that it's like a thriller; it's more a parody of a thriller, with Leslie Nielsen as Card and Jim Belushi as Gonzalez) is the President of the United States overruling his own Justice Department, moving forward with a program they had decided was not legal. So desperate for the patina of legitimacy an Ashcroft Justice Department might provide, Bush demanded that his servants intrude upon the health and healing of a very ill man in order to do so. That he would not says more about how horrid the program was and is than anything else. This is John Ashcroft, after all.

As Greenwald notes at the end of his piece, had we a functioning journalist class in this country, not a bunch of nitwits by turns sycophants and courtiers, this story would be huge - even bigger than Jerry Falwell's casket, Paris Hilton's jail time, or another crotch-shot of Lindsay Lohan. The indictment of the press is only secondary to the real travesty here - we are saddled with this clearly criminal bunch for nearly two more years, even though most Americans despise them, and some wish the Democrats would grow a pair and get busy ending the war and dragging their sorry butts before an impeachment panel. The evidence is clear. The noose should be tightening around these guys, but isn't only out of political cowardice.

Jonathan Edwards, The First One

Like most people, the only thing I knew about Jonathan Edwards was from an American History survey class discussion of the Great Awakening of the 1720's and 1730's. Citing as an example of the kind of thing a visitor to a service might hear is Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". Of course, the entire sermon isn't used, just the part where a lurid portrait is drawn of a pathetic human figure, dangling over the fires of hell, our only hope of rescue being the long-suffering acts of a loving God who should just let us drop because we deserve nothing less.

Edwards' collected papers - diaries, correspondence, pamphlets, and sermons - currently stands around 60 very fat volumes. His writings encompass works on beauty, on the joys of nature, and far more than any other subject, love. Indeed, were he a bit more systematic a thinker, one could almost call him a proto-Romantic, for there are echoes of his work in thinkers as diverse as Thoreau, Emerson, Fichte, and Hegel. Before secular historians discovered that one sermon, out of the thousands he preached, Edwards was known more for his thinking and writing on love than anything else. To be fair, by the way, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is such an example, should one consider Edwards' Calvinist roots. To describe, not so much the horrid thought of God allowing us to fall in to the pit of eternal damnation, but the idea that the only thing keeping us from so falling is the love of God, Edwards is describing, using language we moderns find disturbing, lurid, and a bit over the top, what Grace is. He is talking about the fact that God should let us drop, should be angered enough to condemn us to eternal separation from the divine presence, yet does not. That God acts this way is the mystery of grace, a mystery that gives us hope, and is the root of and model for human love.

Even those who would not acknowledge him, such as Richard Rorty, are still influenced by Edwards' combination of non-systematic thought and desire to see the whole of life through a lens of clarity and honesty. Rather than seek a key to understanding what is really going on, Edwards was more than happy to allow for change in his views as the world around him changed. He gloried in the diversity of life, in the beauty of nature, and in a sincere and deep love for his fellow human beings. Unlike our current crop of non-theologically inclined religious "leaders", Edwards' most abiding character trait was a humility bordering on self-abnegation. He honestly did not accept the many accolades he received during his lifetime as reflecting of what he viewed as his meager achievements. He felt himself always learning more about the ways of God in the world. He was, in many ways, the first American pragmatist, and a great example of what a Christian theologian should be - a servant of the people and God.

His influence is wide and deep, but to link him to our current religious fanatics is, I think, to do dishonor to his legacy. Emerson, Whitman, Niebuhr, even the Roman Catholic feminist Rosemary Radford Reuther are far more recipients of and followers in the footsteps of Edwards than Robertson and Dobson. The latter are more in keeping with Billy Sunday than a serious, profound, deeply fraught man like Jonathan Edwards.

As an aside to Jim Bush-Resko, Edwards' influence during the Second Great Awakening was minimal, and his work largely forgotten until the early twentieth century, accept among New England Congregationalists (of whom Emerson, especially, was most representative, carrying his legacy forward in, first, Unitarianism, then later post-Christian Transcendentalism). American fundamentalism owes more to anti-intellectualism and fear - the hallmarks of Dwight Moody and Sunday - than the depth and passion and humble faith of Jonathan Edwards.

Another Republican "Debate" - Manliness Unleashed

If there is any doubt that the right-wing of the Republican Party desires nothing less than a super-macho male authority figure, all one need do is consider two aspects of the debate last night. First, how much more white and male could the panel of candidates be? Second, the biggest applause lines (outside Huckabee's comment on Edwards) concerned "September 11th" and all the varieties of ways each and every candidate would torture more, inter more, and kill more in the name of America. These guys don't need to run for President, but to the nearest psychoanalyst's couch. What a bunch of pathetic non-men, trying to prove their manliness by how tough they might be. I seriously hope this is the best the Republicans have to offer the country over the next eighteen months (yes it is still eighteen months until the election), all I can say is, "Bring it on!"

I know there are many on the left, progressives, liberals, whatever you might wish to call them, who still tremble in fear over the possibilities of the press distorting the process (along with that evil genie Karl Rove), delivering a win to whichever of these posturing blowhards gets the nomination. I know that they fear the polloi's desire for a strong man in the White House. While celebrating the Democratic victory last fall, despite Rove and despite the media telling us what a bunch of losers the Democrats were, we still operate under the twin assumptions of Republican dominance and public stupidity that limit our appreciation of just how much most of the country despises (a) the war, and (b) the Republicans who brought us the war. Calling for more, not less, war and more, not less, torture, illegal domestic spying and detention is a recipe for national disaster for the Republicans, and we on the opposite side of the political spectrum should, I think applaud them, encouraging them to exhibit even more blood-lust and macho posturing. The only ones who take any of these guys seriously is the press. All one needs to do is look at the polls - serious, scientific polls - to recognize that even Giuliani can't win, and he's the current front-runner.

I am not suggesting we ignore whatever dirty tricks the Republicans conjure out of thin air. I am not suggesting we ignore media stupidity and bias. I am saying that we have the tools to push back against them, and that they do not have the traction they once had. The ability of the right to dazzle us with nonsense is, for the most part, over. We need to stop quaking in fear of these faux supermen, posing in front of the mirror of national television and laugh at them instead.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

I Have Decided Not to Chicken Out After All

Democracy Lover called me out on my chicken-heartedness in comments on this post:
I certainly agree with your points and am disappointed that you don't know how the fundamentalists reconcile their love of a market based on individual greed with their alleged love of one who had no place to lay his head.

I will attempt, as best as I can, to sketch out my own theory of the relationship between the lures of consumptive capitalism and a certain type of fundamentalist Christianity, always with the caveats that it is (a) only my own idea; (b) only tentative; and (c) subject to revision at any time.


I think the whole "Calvinism Makes America Great" thesis, redolent of a nearly century old German book, is wrong on any number of fronts. There is a history of hyper-Calvinism in America's past, but, as the late church historian Clarence Goen pointed out, by the time of the War for Independence, church membership and attendance in New England, home of our fight against the British, was in the single digits. Laws passed the previous century limiting public participation, including voting rights, to those in full communion with the church were ignored because the resultant disenfranchisement would include many prominent community leaders. In Virginia, there was a movement, before hostilities broke out, to disestablish the Anglican Church, which only succeeded during the Revolution with the passage of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Overall, across the colonies (as they still were at the time), only Catholic Maryland had church attendance and membership rates higher than 10 or twelve percent.

The "religion" we inherited from our American ancestors was largely secularized, devoid of serious content, and was full of class, ethnic, racial, and sexual prejudices which still dominate. At the same time, the pursuit of wealth (as noted by de Tocqueville) had replaced the pursuit of salvation as America's defining creed. As such, it is no surprise that it found its way in to American religious thought, along with our breathless optimism and belief in the power of reform, i.e. working within the system to effect change. There is a direct line from early proponents of American economic ingenuity and The Power of Positive Thinking, and no one can doubt the latter is much more reflective of our mood as Americans (like it or not) than any abstruse doctrinal dispute or denominational battle. In other words, our religion reflects who we are as a people, for better and for worse. Those who have more power simply display this tendency to a greater degree than those without it.

The actual words of the Bible are, ironically, irrelevant to those who declare most loudly their adherence to an uncritical acceptance of them. What exists first for such people are a set of logical premises that are necessary for constructing a world-view. They view the public role of religion as a private sanctuary from the storms of the world; in essence, the church is a place where we go to feel good about ourselves, or cry with other people when we are sad. Clergy are magicians, waving their hands to make us feel better when we are sick, comfort us when we mourn. Their words should be limited to bourgeois platitudes that support our view of the world, or at worst, challenge those parts of our society and culture we don't like. The church, in other words, is a prop for the powerful, offering slops to the less-powerful in the language of an eternal home in the bosom of Jesus in the sky when we die.

I think the struggle between fundamentalists and progressive Christians is part and parcel of a larger struggle that involves issues of race, class, gender, and devolves, in the end, to the issue of power. I dot not believe that my own, admittedly quirky, Christian beliefs are any less filled to the brim with all sorts of contingencies that will someday be seen as quaint, antiquated nonsense. The difference between my own view of these matters and those of a fundamentalist, however, is that I recognize my own fallibility, my own limitations, and the probability that I am wrong. A fundamentalist, especially one in a position of power, cannot do so for fear that the entire world- and supernatural view constructed will crumble to the ground if the person says, "I believe this, even though I don't think it is, or can be considered, either True (note the capital) or Eternal." I think I am much more comfortable with my own fallibility and contingency than many of those on the right, and I think there is a certain fear at the heart of the fundamentalist/capitalist dogma - the fear of insignificance, of contingency, of loss, and of meaninglessness - that I cannot share.*

As an aside, let me just say that I can go so far as to say that, should everything I believe turn out to be a bunch of nonsense; should meaninglessness rule the universe after all, I'm OK with that, because I believe we largely construct meaning anyway. I do not believe the Universe, as a whole, has a narrative. That's a subject for another day, though.

Newt Gingrich Teaches a Lesson

We all remember the story of how Newt announced his intention to divorce his first wife by bringing the papers to her bedside as she recovered from cancer surgery, badgering her to sign. Apparently, right-wing compassion for the ill mirrors Newt's own personal ethic, as outlined in testimony today by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey. The accounts are all over the place, but the single best presentation and commentary are by Glenn Greenwald.

It seems that then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez and Chief of Staff Andrew Card were upset by the fact that, as acting AG, Comey refused to sign off on the warantless wire-tapping program. Comey was "acting" because then-AG Ashcroft was in the hospital with pancreatitis, a common concomitant of severe gall bladder problems (Ashcroft was over a week in ICU after his gall bladder was removed; I, on the other hand was lucky enough to be home by lunchtime the same day; I know how lucky I was). Not content with the "No!" they received from Comey, Gonzalez and Card went to the hospital to badger an ill man to sign off on a program his own department had concluded was illegal. Ashcroft, who for multiple reasons is a person it is easy to both dislike and ridicule, nonetheless displayed a remarkable amount of integrity by (a) refusing to sign off on the program; and (b) remind both Gonzalez and Card that he was not AG. Legally, his imprimatur would mean nothing, even were he to agree to give it.

I hate to be so judgmental. I really do. All the same, I have to say these people are scumbags. Unethical, immoral, lying, awful individuals who deserve every approbation imaginable. Awful. Horrible. Scumbags.

Jerry Falwell, RIP

First, let me say that, love him or hate him, he is perhaps the single dominant figure on the religious right for the past generation. His energy and dedication to transforming American politics was largely successful, although it is starting to crumble as a new generation, not satisfied with easy (wrong) answers and a mindless dedication to single, relatively meaningless issues (abortion and gay rights), realizes the possibilities for political action that are closer to the American mainstream.

Second, I offer condolences to his family and loved ones. He lived just about the Biblical "three score and ten", and it was a life full of power, privilege, and a certain level of triumph, so they should only mourn their own loss, not anything missing from his own life. They can celebrate a life of accomplishment.

Third, his was a life dedicated to an un-American, largely un-Christian ideal, fed by fear, ignorance, and a lust for power one can almost see dripping off his face in his countless televised sermons. I can offer condolences, I can understand that he was important in a historical sense, and still declare that his importance was largely as a negative force in our public life. Whether it was blaming gays and feminists for the September 11 attacks (how does he differ from that whacko from Kansas who goes around protesting at fallen vets' funerals?) or calling Archbishop Desmond Tutu a "phony" (Gary Trudeau did a great series of strips in the 80's, ripping on the whole "Live Aid" thing, with Falwell leading a chorus of right-wingers in "Apart Aid" in support of the racist regime in South Africa), it seemed his heart was not even in the right place, let alone his mouth. He rarely voiced compassion, unless it was for not-yet-living human beings encased in a womb, nor did he view our public life in all its diversity and strangeness as something to celebrate.

I cannot pass final judgment upon him, but his influence and record are almost wholly negative, even pernicious, and we will be decades repairing the damage to both church and state the he and his cohorts have wrought (just today, Pres. Bush met with James Dobson in the White House; they are still around, still influencing policy, and more dangerous in decline than they ever were in ascendancy). He rarely voiced compassion, respect, or love for others (although he did have some kind of strange bond with Larry Flynt of all people).

Sometime in the '90's, after dissing the Metropolitan Community Church, he appeared on CNN with a pastor from that denomination. Falwell started quoting Leviticus and the first chapter of Romans, and the MCC pastor was asked to respond. The answer was as beautiful, compassionate, and full of the true gospel as Falwell's was lacking in all of these qualities. "Here's the difference between us, Jerry. You believe when we die, I will go to hell and you will go to heaven. I believe that when we die, should I go first, I will be waiting in heaven to greet you." Such a classy response should go down in history as the best way to respond to these people.

Falwell is dead. That won't change. We can change the world that he and others like him made, however, and change it for the better.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Music Monday

I have always been ambivalent about cover songs. I love the Grateful Dead, and the Dead played hundreds of covers, everything from Robert Johnson to Bob Dylan to Traffic. To a person, however, the Dead were excellent musicians, and their covers were expertly crafted, well done, and rooted in a deep love, not just of the songs themselves, but of music as an art form. Another band I like, Dream Theater, released an EP, Different Seasons, that contained live clips from a all-cover show they did at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London in 1995. The cuts range from the obvious (a medley of Led Zepelin songs) to the not-so-obvious (Elton John's "Funeral for a friend/Love lies Bleeding"). A subsequent live video includes covers of Metallica, Yes, and Marillion.

What follows are three examples of some of the worst, most awful covers I can imagine (I tried to find a fourth, but was lucky enough to dodge that particular bullet). First up is the song that actually ended my already-on-the-rocks relationship with commercial radio. When I heard this song for the first time, I shook my head in disbelief, and except for a brief interlude with the only commercial alternative radio station then on in Washington, DC (WHFS), I have not listened to commercial radio since. The whole hair band thing would soon die, was probably already dead, but just too stupid to realize it, but there was enough life left in this horrid beast to produce House Of Lords doing a cover of "Can't Find My Way Home":

Next up is one that used to get a whole lot of groans when I was in college. If Jim Bush-Resko pays a visit, I wonder if he remembers the time Phil "Dr. Metal" Favre actually played this one, got sick of it, and faded the original perfectly during the instrumental break in the middle. I do, because it was among the best radio performances I have ever heard. For some reason, should one read the comments on YouTube, some people actually like this one. April Wine destroying King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man":

We have moved from the awful, to the abysmal, and now we present - the absurd. I may have telegraphed this a couple weeks ago, but I can't resist, because it is just . . . so . . . cryingly . . . vomitously . . . awful. Don Ho's cover of Peter Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey":

The fourth one I tried to find but was saved from having to present to the world was Gene Simmons' cover of "Over the Rainbow". That occurred to me at work last night; lucky for the world I couldn't find it.

Hint for Saturday: What band from the 1970's was among the first to combine heavy metal and progressive elements, had two album covers by Roger Dean, and still tours on the nostalgia circuit. If you answered Deep Purple, by the way, you are wrong wrong wrong.

Freedom, Community, and Capitalism - Some Thoughts Spurred by a Comment

Friend, reader, commenter Democracy Lover writes in part in a comment on my post yesterday on Milton Friedman:
Underlying this market worship is the idea that individual liberty is paramount and that nations are merely aggregations of individuals all pursuing self-interest without regard to others. The idea of community is lost. Government is seen as restricting individual liberty rather than working to achieve our shared goals. Why such an ideology finds resonance among those who claim to revere an itinerant teacher who urged his followers to love others as themselves is beyond me.(emphasis added)

For a quarter century or more "freedom", "equality", even "citizenship" have lost their inherent social, civil, and political meanings in our public discourse and been taken over (one almost hesitates to say "stolen") by a rhetoric that understands all these terms solely as a function of economics, of the pursuit of wealth and survival. I have always felt that these folks, strident anti-communists to a person, are merely "turning Marx on his head" (to coin a phrase they would not find apt). They would seem to agree with Marx that human beings are driven primarily by a desire for the satisfaction of certain desires, and that history itself is nothing less nor more than the unfolding of this struggle to fashion a system whereby the greatest satisfaction of the greatest number of these desires can be achieved for the greatest number of people. They would only quibble with Marx over the details, it would seem. In that sense, they are nothing more nor less than right-wing Marxists, just as Marx himself was nothing more nor less than a left-wing Hegelian. We are stuck, then, in a sterile debate between the descendants of two long-dead German philosophers. Pretty depressing.

As I wrote in the post on which DL comments, at the heart of Friedman's (and, by extension, his followers') folly is an ahistorical assumption that governments are not necessary by-products of human interaction, but rather optional aggregates that can be embraced or discarded at will. By ignoring the realities that governments exist of necessity (I do not here want to discuss the root of that necessity; it just is), Friedman can spin all sorts of fantastic theories about what is possible for free markets. By ignoring the real human consequences of actually doing what Friedman says, however, we find ourselves in the position we are now - and we have much work to do to repair the damage wrought in Friedman's name.

In essence, the radical individualism of this world-view is the philosophy of the rich, secure, and independent individual. Of course, those whose financial and economic position is relatively safe (although that safety is guaranteed through all sorts of government mechanisms, but that is never mentioned) can day-dream about lower taxes, about government getting out of the way of actually accumulating more stuff, and of freeing one from the burden of association with those not like oneself. Alas, the rest of society actually pays more supporting these individuals (as we are discovering) and so Friedman's vision, shared by a prostrate class, of a world without all the messiness of real-world government action, is a world where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and society itself feels the bonds of cohesion start to strain. In the nineteenth century, those who thought like Friedman were labeled social parasites, and to my mind, I see no reason why the label shouldn't be revived. Whether it is Paris Hilton or Donald Trump, one wonders what, exactly these people contribute or own that should force the rest of us to support them. Yet, Friedman's theories are based on exactly this notion - the leisure class, wealth, etc., need not apologize for success, because social and economic success are winning arguments in and of themselves.

As for the relationship between the ultra-individualism of our market fundamentalists and the supposed orthodoxy of the Christian fundamentalists, this is a conundrum without an answer, DL, and something I have pondered. All I can say is that we all have inconsistencies in our personal philosophies; in this case, however, these people's inconsistencies rule our world.

Know-Nothing Criticism of Walter Rauschebusch

On the event of the centennial republication of Walter Raushcenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis (with accompanying essays by such commentators as Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Stanley Hauerwas), the Wall Street Journal has seen fit to publish an editorial critical of Rauschebusch, which can be found here, entitled "Christianity Without Salvation", written by Joseph Loconte. The blurb at the bottom identifies Loconte as a member of The Ethics and Public Policy Institute, a right-wing think tank.

Rauschenbusch was a pastor in New York's Hell's Kitchen, and his work among destitute immigrants spurred his realization that something was desperately out of whack with the Christianity of his day. Drowning in sentimental pietism, awash in class prejudice, burdened with the phony idea that the church served to uphold society and its social institutions, mores, and unspoken assumptions, Rauschenbusch demanded that the Church return to the serious work of being a body of people dedicated to living for others. He lived this out in his pastoral work, and a few years after the book's publication, and its rousing success, he was rewarded with a teaching position at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, where he always felt out of place. He was a pastor first, a prophet second, and an academic almost never (at least in the commonly understood meaning of the term).

Rauschebusch's thesis was simple as it was provocative: The over-emphasis on privatizing the religious experience has created a situation where the church, once at the forefront of social protest and change, no longer had the vocabulary, let alone the spiritual, financial, or emotional resources to address the searing social problems the country faced as a result of rapid industrialization and a flood of immigrants the society had chosen not to work at integrating into the society at large. While burdened with much of the vocabulary of the infant social sciences of his time (when are we not burdened by the vocabularies of our own time?), Rauschenbusch demanded the church forego discussion of matters of ultimate concern - death, the end times - and regain a vocabulary that would serve as the tool for working for social justice. Hardly a radical, Rauschenbusch was a Christian example of the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century, and much of his book echoes things one can read in Lincoln Steffens, Sinclair Lewis, and other reformers.

Yet, even today, the feelings aroused by Rauschenbusch's book are ambivalent. Loconte's article, just from the title alone, brings the main criticism of Rauschenbusch right to the front (his criticism is not new, by the way). It is all very well to want to alleviate the stresses and strains of modern life, these critics say, but Christian faith is about ultimate things - death, salvation, the eternal soul - and a concern over the vagaries of our temporal existence distracts us from these vastly more important and central facets of the Christian faith and life.

We are in the process, in the mainline churches, of emerging from a struggle against conservative and fundamentalist forces that would (a) dilute the message of the church, returning it to its pietistic sentimentalities, and ignore questions of social justice (except, of course for fetuses and gays); and (b) simply toss away centuries of serious struggle, in America in particular, over our growing understanding of the depth and diversity of Christian teaching, and the central place social and political struggle has always had in the Church's existence, both for good and ill. The best example of this - and he is often called a liberal, but I doubt that for a number of reasons; he is just an honest, thorough scholar - is British scripture scholar and Anglican Bishop Thomas Wright, whose series of books on the emergence of early Christianity is revolutionizing the way we think of the early church. By forcing us to really see what the early church looked like, not what we might want it to look like, or perhaps wish it were like, most of our assumptions and conclusions are tossed out the window.

The criticism Loconte tosses at Rauschebusch (whose influence extended through Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr to Martin Luther King, the aforementioned Hauerwas, and others), that he ignores questions of ultimate concern is dead on, and itself begs the question of the relevance of such issues. As the epistle of James points out, if we see someone naked and cold, and all we do is say, "God Bless You," and don't offer this person our coat, the blessing is meaningless. It is all well and good to be concerned over the ultimate state of our relationship with God, but to my mind, this is something that God will take care of without any assistance from us. The Church is a medium, not the mechanism for salvation. Rauschenbusch was not interested in worrying over the final state of those for whom he cared because he heard God's call to serve them. Stuck in the ridiculous, unbiblical, and vaguely unorthodox position that the Church needs to be first and foremost about whether or not we go to heaven or hell when we die (apparently the idea that we just die is never considered; for myself, if the end is, indeed, the end, well you know what, so what?) Loconte cannot understand that the position from which he views Rauschenbusch, even from the remove of one hundred years, is exactly the position the Rauschenbusch rejects as inadequate to serve the needs of those suffering in our world.

Rauschenbusch was hardly perfect, but even today his book is a definite must-read for those interested in the development of liberal Christianity in America. Most of Loconte's criticisms are juvenile, myopic, and question-begging, and should spur one to read Rauschenbusch rather than ignore him. In that sense, Loconte's article is a good example of why people who don't know a whole lot shouldn't criticize people who do.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Throwing Milton Friedman In The Garbage Pail

Digby directs us all to this piece by Ezra Klein in the Los Angeles Times. Digby's comments are as worthy of serious study (as always) as is Klein's original. I just want to use Klein's piece for a particular, partially meta, rant that I have not stated clearly enough, although I have mentioned it on occasion. I believe that much of the predicament we find ourselves in can be traced back to a little book, little noticed at the time, but heralded since as a kind of primer for non-economists, on the economic theories of Milton Friedman. The book, Capitalism and Freedom, spins a tale of the magical (in the previous post I call them occult; it's all the same) powers of the market to heal all wounds, raise all boats, fly all planes, repair all roads, and pay for all goods and services. While there was much debate in the early Reagan years over just how far the devolution of public services to private entities was good or even necessary, the collapse of Central and Eastern European Communism in the period 1989-1991 gave free marketers a wonderful opportunity to show how marvelous markets actually were. Of course, the results were a dismal failure, but we have been fed such a line of crap by market fundamentalists that we non-economists (or at least, non-analytical economists; most of us have the tools to figure out what's wrong without reading Freidman, Keynes, or Samuelson) seem lost at sea as the situation has spun seemingly out of control.

One of the silliest, stupidest, and most unrealistic parts of Friedman's little book was arguing that municipal services would be better done through market mechanisms than through direct public intervention. His argument goes something like this: with only one entity involved in the decision making on what roads get fixed, what the make-up of the police force is, who picks up the garbage when on what days, and so forth, we have created a monopoly. This creates a situation rife with opportunities for mismanagement, price exploitation, graft, and inefficiency. Rather than rely upon localities to determine their needs and make the effort to fill them, citizens would be better served by allowing various private firms to compete for the privilege of paving our streets, picking up our garbage, treating our sewage, and so forth. With competition comes the possibility of lower cost. Part of winning would be providing the service at a lower per capita rate than we currently pay through taxation. Efficiency would be part of the marketing behind attracting better quality local services. The company that would provide the service better, at a lower cost, than is currently provided for would be the winner. Rather than taxed, local citizens would simply be billed by the company. As companies continued to compete for these evolving contracts, the incentives to do it better cheaper would increase the overall efficiency of the services provided.

At the heart of this entire argument is a flaw that goes unnoticed. It would seem to be a negligible argument against Friedman, but it goes to the heart of the matter as it were, and can be summed up like this. No public institution - no government of any size worthy of the name - has ever operated in this manner, nor could it sustain itself for long if it did so. Friedman's flights of fancy are ahistorical, unreflective of the potential for even greater graft and corruption inherent in such a proposal, and reveal a certain devil-may-care attitude towards the grimy details of how municipal government works (and more than occasionally doesn't work) that should dissuade one from taking this seriously.

This is kind of Government 101 here, but bear with me.

Whether it is the feds, states, or our local entities (counties, villages, townships, whatever), government has legitimacy to the extent that it provides basic services that serve the common interest, such as building and maintaining roads, providing public protection, keeping the commons clean, etc. As government cedes more and more of these functions to private companies they are, in effect, ceding their legitimacy to private entities. We are not just ridding ourselves of inefficient public services, but declaring that we do not believe in the legitimacy of our public service providers, and their overseers and regulators in government. This is a huge no-confidence vote in the very idea of self-governance. No system, no government, could or can survive very long if it is constantly undercut in this way.

There are surely arguments that can and have been made about the way public services are provided. There are all sorts of mechanisms that have been or could be put in place to provide public services more cheaply, more efficiently, and reduce the possibility of corruption, lack of or loss of service, and the rest. Pretending, however, that the public has no vital interest in the public interest in the name of some abstract goal of efficiency, however, is destructive of the very heart of self-government.

Many, including me, have said this before, and I will say it again. We are living at a vital time in the history of our country, one I thought would never return. We are returning to the idea, once thought discarded, that the public interest is better served by public bodies than private, for-profit entities. The dismal failures of the Bush Administration are not an argument for less government, but in fact serve as arguments, not so much for more government, but for the necessity of government services that work for and in the public welfare. Milton Friedman's little fantasy mini-epic should be tossed by the wayside, and we should return to a certain fundamental truth - we as a people, in charge as we are of our public life, should insist that we are not to hand over to others what is ours to care for.

Talking Trade

As we move closer to actual voting in primaries (it is May already, so I think we should, you know, start hearing some serious wonky stuff from the candidates), I thought it a good idea to discuss an issue that is kind of important on any number of levels, but is too often discussed as if it were much too lofty for mere mortals such as myself to understand - international trade. Via newly-added blogroll member Ezra Klein comes this piece on a proposal for increasing poultry trade with China. The post highlights an article that discusses Chinese poultry farming and the vagaries of regulating such a beast. In light of recent revelations concerning the Chinese practice of using high doses of lethal fillers to pet food, as well as detailed discussions of their shrimp farming methods in the article quoted in Klein's post (shrimp farms and poultry farms share space, with the shrimp feeing on chicken feces, leading to a huge increase in salmonella poisoning of Chinese farm shrimp), one would wonder why we are discussing with the Chinese importing foodstuffs, especially foodstuffs we grow in abundance.

Of course, the answer is simple - money. Meat producers and processors see dollar signs. Lots of them. As they are no fans of government inspection themselves, one should not wonder about their reaction to calls for halting discussions with the Chinese due to safety concerns. Of course, the talks should be halted, and all trade negotiations with the US on all topics stopped until a few details - such as regulatory oversight, the maintenance of safe working and healthy farming environments are guaranteed, and mechanisms for punitive actions that would not necessarily create WTO action - are worked out. Discussions of issues such as these are usually limited to meta lectures from "free trade" disciples who discuss the wonders of free markets, the necessity of open relationships, the possibilities for greater wealth for all, and on and on and on. The actual details of the particular situation do not seem to matter to these people, because they are either (a) ignorant of them; or (b) insouciant toward real-world detail. They have faith that the market contains certain occult mechanisms that will resolve all problems in the end. That such problems include death for American pets, and illness for American citizens is a messy detail, not to concern ourselves with. Free trade must be maintained at all costs.

This is the problem with the status quo and the limited options available for discussing the topic publicly. Every question is shouted down by "Free Trade!". Every insistence that US regulation exists for a reason is shouted down by "Free Trade!". Every offer of health, safety, labor rights, environmental rights being a part of serious international trade agreements is shouted down by "Free Trade!". Such stupidity is enabled by a press that drinks from the free trade well without understanding the historical necessity behind so much industrial regulation. After all, one need only read Sinclair Lewis The Jungle to understand why meat inspection was first introduced (you'll never look at sausage the same way, I guarantee it).

Health and safety - including the health and safety of our farms and the animals that come to our tables each day - is not creeping socialism, or the desire to destroy the American farmer. Rather, it has been the piecemeal result of responding to various problems, most having to do with preventing outbreaks of various food-borne pathogens. For the most part, farmers seem to have no problems with these regulations (I have yet to hear a serious complaint from a farmer because his or her pigs or cattle are to be well taken care of); it is, rather, at the processing end - where the animals are slaughtered and the meat divided up into consumable and industrial uses that problems arise. This is the real money-making end of the process, and this is where problems arise. What should be considered a legal additive to a consumable meat product, and what should not? As eliminating completely all traces of danger are impossible, what is the acceptable level of risk (a) overall, and (b) with regard to specific potential hazards? Are "non-consumable" meat and animal products still safe in small doses for human consumption, thus available for production in processed meats? What additives, fillers, and nutrient enhancers are safe, and at what quantities? These questions, and myriad others, are specific for each and every stage of the process, necessary to ensure both meat quality as well as the safety of the food supply, and should not be farmed out (no pun intended) to foreign firms or inspectors, especially those in a country notorious for its corruption, bad faith, and willingness to cut costs at the expense of human and animal health and well being such as China.

Rather than get lost in the Hall of Mirrors discussions over the benefits of "Free Trade!", I would rather hear serious discussions over specifics of our trade policies, not the least of them being, (a) why we are discussing importing poultry from China when we do not need to do so; (b) what kinds of guarantees do we have our food supply is safe, even now, before we start dealing with large-scale imports of foodstuffs from foreign sources; (c) what kinds of mechanisms should the US pursue, either through WTO-sanctioned methods, or independently, to ensure that the US maintains a safe food supply? These are just some of the questions we face, and for which we should demand more, better, and more thorough answers than "Free Trade!"; we should not leave matters of such importance to the believers in occult phenomenon, who always seem to tolerate a little human sacrifice for the greater good.

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