Friday, May 25, 2007

Rock Show a Day Early (You'll Find Out Why at the End)

When the whole Seattle thing broke in 1991-1992, I have to say I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, anything that breathed new life in to the moribund music then on display was a good thing. On the other hand, it seemed to be a bit of a bandwagon people were jumping on. Looking back, the bands produced some fine music, one song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that defined a slacker generation to a "T", but were plowed under by the rise of hip-hop in the middle part of the decade.

Of the four biggest bands to emerge from the Seattle underground - Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains - what I liked best was the diversity. You knew each group just by listening to a few of the opening notes of a song. There was no "sound", no Seattle equivalent of the "Wall of Sound" or "the Philly sound". There was just an ethos - make it new.

Of the four singers, the late Layne Stanley of Alice in Chains always intrigued me. Not a great voice - but I find myself strangely attracted to it nonetheless. Not the rage-filled baritone vibrato of Eddie Vedder, or the blues-shouting of Chris Cornell, or the wasted crie de couer of Kurt Cobain, his voice was as unique as theirs. I have a friend who doesn't like it because it is too nasally - he didn't like Guns 'N' Roses for the same reason, i.e., Axl Rose's voice was too nasally. I agree, yet I can't help sitting up and taking notice. Here's a great song of theirs called "Would":

One thing the Seattle bands could do was collaborate. The best album of 1992, in my not-so-very-humble-at-all opinion was by Temple of the Dog, which included members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, in a tribute to Chris Cornell's best friend and roommate. The music transcended this particular focus, and while "Hunger Strike" got all sorts of air time, Cornell's mournful wail on "Say Hello to Heaven" is still the best part of the disc for me.

A couple years later, Stanley got together with members of Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees to form Mad Season. I think I listened to little else in the summer of 1995, and hearing anything of theirs takes me bac to southern Virginia.

This post will be my last for a little over a week. I am taking a little vacation, recharge my batteries, spend some time with family, and prepare for some small changes in this little offering to the ages. I do hope that 10 days away - I will be back June 4 - is not too long to lose my readers. Feel free to check out six months worth of archives, talk amongst yourselves, etc. Never fear, God willing and the creeks don't rise, I will return a week from Monday refreshed and rarin' to go. Enjoy the holiday weekend, don't spend too much time in front of the computer, and always remember this: Everyone hates George Bush, and hates this war. We just need to remind the Democrats in Congress of this . . .

Doing What Really Ticks Off the Wing-Nuts

Part of the reason I can't just write off supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton for President - besides the fact that she will most likely be the Democratic nominee and I refuse to shoot myself in the foot and refuse to back her - is that she just gets the nut jobs frothing. Looking back over the 1990's, part of the fun of the time was the psychotic break Clinton forced upon so many. Here was a guy, moderate in his politics, personable in his character, certainly a womanizer (but how many politicians have forgone this obvious perk of power?), whose one obvious flaw was that he wore his ambition on his sleeve. Yet, for all that and all that, all sorts of horrors were attributed to him, from murdering one of his oldest friends (because his wife had an affair with him, broke it off and he was going to go public with it) to running a huge drug smuggling operation while governor of Arkansas (and here we thought it was the CIA who ran drugs, via the Contras, during the 1980's).

The attacks on Hillary were, and continue to be, far worse. Her sexual identity is attacked. Her parenting and spousal skills are impugned. Her religious faith is mocked. Her integrity is considered, by all insiders of whatever stripe, to be non-existent. Nothing she says or does is ever taken on whatever merits it might have, but always seen through the strange, distorted lens of Hillary hatred.

Two of the latest examples, one of them repeating a tired chestnut concerning Sen. Clinton's sexuality, can be found here at Media Matters. This first one is a doozy, because it works on the assumption that everyone assumes they know something about Hillary Clinton that (a) is factually inaccurate, and (b) would be irrelevant if true. Trying to "smear" Clinton as a lesbian assumes there is something bad about lesbians. Of course, this all begs the question of the relevance of personal questions in public debate - something these same folks get all purple-faced about when questions are raised about Mary Cheney's sexual orientation.

The other item, also at Media Matters, has Tucker Carlson whining about Hillary Clinton's voice. You know, this is just the kind of thing a closet queen would carry on about - while he sits down to listen to Barbara Streisand records (but, oh, so sorry, I shouldn't drag up questions of sexual orientation because they don't matter, right?). This is among the really stupid things the media obsess over - all one has to do is tune in to Hardball on any given night and Chris Matthews will be sifting through the Clinton's underwear drawer, concerned as always with whatever it is the couple might or might not be doing together.

While I still think, despite my sister's boredom with him, that John Edwards would be a great candidate, his early mistakes - the $400 haircut thing will never go away now, no matter how hard we try to erase it - show he has yet to put together a disciplined team to deal with inconsequential matters. I think that, despite his tremendous gifts, not the least of which is passion and dedication, he won't get it. Obama is too new, too green. For good or ill, I think Clinton gets the nod, and whomever the Republicans put up, no matter how hard they try - all they will do is remind people how much they loved her husband, how much better things were when he was President, and she will waltz across the finish line, in my humble prediction, with close to 350 electoral votes. I bet, and I will stick by this for the next eighteen months or so (yes the election is that far away), the solid south for the Republicans won't even hold.

The truth is, part of me wants to support Sen. Clinton because she inspires such pathological hatred among those who have done so much damage to our country for so long. Nominating her would guarantee months of ranting and raving, much mouth-frothing and tantrums on the right, keeping a Republican victory ever more at bay. This is perhaps not the best reason to support someone, but, you know what, a fun campaign would be better than a dull one.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Stop Listening to the Consultants and Pundits

As far as the Iraq supplemental "compromise" is concerned, all this shows what happens when Democrats listen to industry-backed, conventional-wisdom-spouting consultants and hacks like Rahm Emmanuel and Joe Klein and David Broder. Speaker Pelosi has already announced her opposition to the bill, as has Sen. Christopher Dodd. Surprisingly, the two Democratic front-runners, Obama and Clinton, have hedged. One would have thought that Obama, his campaign ignited by his insistence that he would have opposed the original AUMF, is showing a bit of yellow now that he has to cast an actual vote. Clinton is still trying to triangulate herself to death; she, of all people, should recognize that nothing she does will be painted in a good light by anyone, so she gains nothing by trying to play both sides of the fence.

The only winners in this particular legislative dog-fight are the President, who gets to do whatever he wants, and the Republican Party, which can now hang this damnable war around Democratic necks. Since the Democrats were elected, in part, to end this horrid conflict, or at least American involvement in the current civil war, one would have thought this a no-brainer. That, and Pelosi has already read the President the riot-act about how not to negotiate with Congress - issuing dictat's and expecting them to be followed is no longer the game - so one would have thought it possible to play this game differently. One tactic would have been to strip the "pork" from the bill; just send the President a bill funding the war, timelines and all. Let him veto it. Change the language slightly, pass it, and send it again. And again. And still again. Hang this whole thing around George W. Bush's neck. Let it be his war - and his decision not to fund the troops because Congress won't play by his rules. Do it until, in Lloyd George's wonderful phrase, "the pips squeak".

You can't negotiate with the Administration because they do not understand what is involved. There is no compromising with this bunch because they feel that compromise is failure. In this case, with the Dems caving across the board, that is true.

To Senator Richard Durbin, Senator Barack Obama, and Representative Don Manzullo, I urge you to vote against this supplemental. Vote no. Go back to the table, and instead of asking the President what he wants, tell him what you are giving him. When he screams and stamps his foot, let him get it out of his system, then repeat. Keep repeating. This isn't a political game, by the way. This is the way of calling these criminals and moral lepers on the carpet and demanding they recognize the fundamental reality that they are criminals and moral lepers. No one likes them. Everyone wants out of this war. Give it to 'em straight.

Some Final Comments on Similarities to 1932 (I Swear This is the Last One)

These historical comparisons are probably boring - I've received one comment so far - but they help me to get a handle on just why I think the Democratic Party is poised for a historic electoral victory next year. Part of the benefit of reading history is one sees certain similarities between events and time periods that surprise. That is not to say that history repeats itself; that is cheap and unintellectual. History contains unique events, unrepeatable. It is only the meaningful dimension, given not in and through the events themselves, but how we appropriate them and understand them, that becomes revelatory. With this in mind, it should be noted that, in 1932, despite the Republicans losing control of Congress in the 1930 elections, despite the burgeoning of all sorts of epithets with the word "Hoover" in them - Hoovervilles being the best known - it was almost universally recognized the Hoover would win re-election easily, and that Franklin Roosevelt was a political and intellectual lightweight, carrying much too much baggage to beat an incumbent President.

Since the end of the Civil War, there had been two Presidents elected from the Democratic Party. Grover Cleveland won as a result of his campaign to end corruption in the federal bureaucracy and as a champion of civil service reform. Woodrow Wilson won because Teddy Roosevelt split the Republican Party in 1912 because he was unhappy with his anointed successor William Howard Taft. Those two blips aside, the Republicans dominated national politics, and every two years, the same three words were whispered again and again, words that played on fears and historical memories that still carried clout - the Democratic Party was the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion". Many thought them weaknesses. Roosevelt saw them as strengths to be exploited.

The conventional wisdom concerning Hoover's inevitability is also based on the fact that, until the collapse of the economy, Hoover was perhaps most famous for his work feeding millions of war refugees in Belgium and Russia. Initially a civil engineer (why else name a dam after him?), it was his organizational skills that won him the nod from Wilson to co-ordinate relief efforts for those left destitute by the World War. He was universally acclaimed as the savior of much of Western European flood plain, as he cobbled together all sorts of private and public organizations to get help to those who needed it most. Hoover was viewed, indeed, as a dangerous "social engineer" by many conservatives in the Republican Party precisely for this reason; Coolidge was not pleased his former Commerce Secretary got the nomination and refused to campaign for him.

The Republican dominance had been so long, and stretched beyond the Presidency to Congress and the states outside the old Confederacy, that considering a massive shift in the political tide was, quite literally unthinkable. The Democratic takeover of Congress in 1930 was largely understood to be a reaction to the Depression; once the inevitable turnaround happened, the old status quo would return. This was the line put out by the overwhelming majority of major-newspaper editors, to a person Republican or even, like the Chicago Tribune's Col. McCormick, quite right-wing. Roosevelt was weak. Everyone knew he was a cripple. His campaign was short on specifics, except a promise to erase the federal budget deficit and repeal Prohibition. The Joe Lieberman of the 1930's, former Democratic governor and Presidential candidate Al Smith, came out strongly, almost violently, against Roosevelt at an infamous Jefferson/Jackson Day dinner in New York City in the autumn of '32. He saw Roosevelt as much too beholden to an odd conglomeration of city bosses and intellectuals (that Smith himself had been one of the former was, apparently, unmentionable), and would thus simultaneously alienate both urban and rural voters, the former by his allegiance with the egg-heads, the latter by his allegiance with corrupt machine politicians.

Roosevelt was much more clear-eyed than his cowardly co-Democrat. He saw that the Depression was such a radical break with our social past that it opened an opportunity for a radical break with our political past. In that regard, Oct., 1929 is similar to September 11, 2001. The former was only one cause, although certainly the most visible and dramatic of the world-wide calamity of the Depression. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington have little to do with our current predicament in Iraq. In both cases, the conventional wisdom insisted that we needed to allow the grown-ups who had run our country for years to continue to run things, because, while it was clear things were bad, they would only be worse if the Democrats were in control. There were even those who insisted there was little difference between Hoover and Roosevelt - a variation on the "Republicats" theme first heard in 200 and echoing down the years to today. Nation magazine editor Oswald Garrison Villard continually emphasized the weaknesses of both parties, refusing to endorse anyone, but pushing either Norman Thomas (for whom my maternal grandfather worked) or William Foster, the Socialist and Communist candidates, respectively.

One more point, with reference to our current predicament in regards the woefully weak capitulation on the Iraq supplemental. In 1931, Congress passed a modest bill for relief - $600,000,00 - that Hoover vetoed as much too expensive, and much too radical. Democrats in Congress failed to override the Presidential veto and Congress sent no more aid bills for Hoover's imprimatur. In light of what would pass under Roosevelt and overwhelming Democratic control in the years to come, the bill was both modest and likely to do little if anything to end the suffering of the majority of American people. Like the battle over the Iraq supplemental, the Democrats folded under the pressure of conventional wisdom, yet they would re-write the rule book within a couple years. I think that the bill should be opposed - please don't misunderstand me - but I also think this one loss only highlights the fact that the Republicans own this deadly fiasco in Iraq as much as they owned the Depression, a fact Democrats should highlight again and again.

While I do not think a Democratic sweep inevitable - nothing is certain in life except, alas, death - I do think the signs point to a major political loss, not just for now, but for years to come, as long as the public provides the spine for Democrats in the run up to the election next year.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Some Specifics In Regards My Last Post

OK, so I made some general comments concerning the social utility of ensuring wages keep pace, not just with inflation but the prevailing pool of supplied goods. In other words, we need to make sure that there are enough people around who have cash available to purchase what we produce. This would seem to be commonsense - even Henry Ford paid his assembly-line workers enough money to buy his Model T's and Model A's - yet wage and earning discussions too often start from abstract premises completely devoid of questions of social utility (let alone social justice), and include even more abstract and demonstrably untrue notions as the equivalence of power between employer and employee.

What are some things we could do to move towards a more sane relationship between productivity, wages, and credit? First, turn the NLRB in to a body with teeth. Overturn so-called "right-to-work" laws in states that have them - they clearly violate federal mandates concerning unionization. Take Wal-Mart, Target, and other anti-union companies to court and force them to recognize the collective bargaining rights of their employees. Second, to stem the fears that a sudden jump in wages would spike inflation worries, be reminded that our inflation rate is at historic lows, and has been so for over a decade (indeed, a few years ago, the fear was radical deflation, or a collapse in prices and purchasing power) because of stagnant wages. Even a modest increase in purchasing power across the board would have little overall effect because the liquidity influx would be offset by increased consumer spending. With a rising demand for goods, retailers and others would be forced to compete, driving prices down. The increasing demand would also spur production. Since we are not speaking of dumping money into the economy will-nilly, but through a process of giving workers the tools for more financial stability and opportunity, this isn't radical, but pretty sane economic sense.

As for credit, we should take a lesson from history. When the Greek city-state of Athens was about to collapse from economic strangulation, including an excess of public and private credit, Solon, the elected leader, simply declared all debts, public and private, wiped out. Not only were the debts no longer owed, they were erased completely. Creditors were freed from the burden of unpaid debt; debtors were freed from the burden of unpayable debt. Such a debt moratorium would be in the interests of most people, not the least of whom would be banks, holding so much unsecured debt (all those credit cards being used to pay off credit cards), driving up mortgage and housing prices to use as collateral with other banks to support all that unsecured debt they currently hold . . . The whole house of cards could tumble, especially with the housing market recently popping like a big, pus-filled pimple.

We need to remember that there is a social dimension to the question of wages and earnings - and I am not referring to corporate earnings. This is the part of the equation that the New Deal tried to reign in in its first days. One of the lessons we had learned was that businesses are concerned with one thing - earning money. Rules mean little to such as these, which is why regulation is necessary. Such regulation mostly concerned limits on the more egregious misbehaviors of corporate criminals. What needs to be sought now, and I do mean now, before the collapse comes, is a more stringent regulation of the remuneration policies and practices of corporations. A minimum wage is just a first step, and quite frankly an inadequate step. Ensuring that starting wages provide enough for a person to act as a free agent in society is a necessary starting point; as our current minimum is below our current poverty-rate, one would think that pegging the minimum wage to, say, oh, some percentage above poverty - 115%, say, perhaps even 120% - and allowing for it to be adjusted for inflation, would keep the bottom of the wage ladder well above the drowning point.

For those who scream about free markets, etc., all I can say is, free markets destroyed American capitalism once. They can do it again. Too many signs point toward such an outcome in our future, and one would think these market fundamentalists would prefer to save corporate capitalism than watch it sink under the waves of a tragic, and avoidable, economic flood.

Some More Thoughts Inspired By William Manchester's Narrative

Yesterday, I wrote about The Glory and The Dream, William Manchester's narrative account of America during the middle years of the 20th century. Beginning with the routing of the BEF by "Dugout" Douglas MacArthur, Manchester moves on to an overview of that horrid year, 1932, with a glance back at the previous three-and-a-half years of Depression. One of the points Manchester makes on the roots of the Depression is something that should make us all sit up and think.

Part of the problem that resulted in the almost complete collapse of industrial capitalism in the United States was a refusal on the part of government or society to demand higher wages from employers at a time of increasing productivity. The 1920's were boom years for industry (although certainly not for farmers, as drought and over-farming destroyed much of the arable land in the middle part of the country), but the rapid increase in productivity, spurred by technology, was not matched with a rapid increase in wages. Indeed, wages during the 1920's were flat, much as they have been for a generation, even as we go through another technological revolution increasing productivity. Stagnant wages combined with increased productivity led to a flourishing of credit, from individual consumers to corporations. Once the notes started to come due - the Crash of 1929 was only the first brick to fall - there was simply not enough cash in the system to stop the liquidity failure. Firms were left with huge inventories no one could buy because there wasn't enough money left. Thus began the spiral that left from a quarter to a third of America unemployed.

As we are in the dying phases of another round of market fundamentalism, perhaps it would be incumbent upon us to digest these facts. After a brief uptick during the Clinton years, wages (in constant dollars, for those who care) have continued to stagnate, reducing purchasing power. This reduction in purchasing power has led to the explosion of credit with which too many of us are saddled. While there are all sorts of mechanisms in place to catch a precipitous collapse of the credit system, it is all too easy to understand what would happen should it become clear that liquidity shortage is a serious problem. No computerized trading halt, no bank holiday, no influx of cash from the Federal Reserve can stop the second death of American capitalism should notes come due. That we are in the midst of some strange stock market bubble right now does not decrease, but actually increases, my fear that things can only get worse.

It would seem, then, that it might be important to demand higher wages all around as part of a general policy of increasing the available cash in the system usable for consumers. Rather than offering credit, a labor policy that focused on the social dimension of corporate wages, and what happens when that dimension is ignored in the name of some kind of strange, abstract ideal known as economic laws, would be most congenial to cushioning whatever blow will come - and come it will. An entire economy riddled with debt, not enough present or future cash in the system to buoy up the slowly sinking boats - it's all there. One little spark could set it all ablaze.

1932 was a bad year. We could have worse, though, if we fail to act.

What Were They Doing, Hiring Someone Named Monica?

Monica Goodling, former White House Liaison with the Department of Justice, is testifying under a grant of immunity from the House Judiciary Committee. Christy at Fire Dog Lake is live-blogging, and TPM has updates as things go on, but I just want to offer some thoughts on things so far.

First, the Republican Committee members' performance is abysmal. All the constant whining about "fishing expeditions" and "nothing to see here" when she admitted under oath to breaking the law by using partisan political criteria in hiring decisions makes one wonder about their loyalty. All these Republican men seem mesmerized by this pretty young blonde thing, in way over her head in all sorts of trouble, wanting to protect her. Some of their comments are just nauseating.

Second, I think the committee has aimed too low with Ms. Goodling. It seems pretty clear that she just didn't do all that much other than interview people, and while her admitted law-breaking (I do hope her immunity does not shield her from potential disbarment) is symptomatic of the corruption of the DoJ under Bush/Gonzalez, I do not think she held the keys to any kingdom. She was a functionary, a water-carrier for the small-minded partisans who wanted to turn the entire federal bureaucracy into a Republican fiefdom, and while what she did was awful and illegal, she was clearly just too small a player in the specific incident - the USA purge - under investigation. I for one am glad to have her off the federal payroll, but she has shed little light upon this incident, except perhaps to add another voice to the growing chorus that quite clearly shows that all roads in this particular scandal lead to the White House.

I feel bad for Monica Goodling. She seems as if she isn't that bright, isn't quite sure what she did that was so bad - in this respect, she reminds me of the portrayal of Donald Segretti in the film adaptation of All the President's Men - although she may be play-acting, and understand that she is in quite deep doo-doo. She also reminds us all what happens when we put people in positions of power when they have no inkling of the destruction they can wreak, and of the necessity of Congressional oversight. After today, I do believe that we should quickly forget Monica Goodling.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

History Wing-Nuts Would Love

I am starting to re-read William Manchester's The Glory and The Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972. His opening chapter is an account of the assault upon the Bonus Army in the late summer of 1932. Reading the account in our current historical setting is eye-opening in a number of ways. First, there was the fact that the BEF, as they called themselves, were veterans under siege by the Great Depression, lobbying for an advance on the "bonus" guaranteed by law, which was not due until 1945. As no one in Congress or the Hoover Administration would see them, and as they had no resources to return to their homes, they set up camps in southeast Washington, across the Eleventh Street Bridge, and on the Mall. On a very hot, very muggy July day (Washington has no July days for which those words wouldn't apply), Hoover sent in the troops, under the command of Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur, with his faithful aide Maj. Dwight Einsehower at his side. The field commander was Maj. George Patton, riding one of his many horses.

To show what different times these were, it is important to say that the Bonus Army, AEF vets and their families, including many with combat wounds, and some with multiple decorations (including a PFC who won a DSC for saving the life of a young Lieutenant named George Patton), when they saw the Army coming down Pennsylvania Avenue, stood and cheered; they actually thought it was a parade in their honor. That was, until Patton's cavalry brigade turned and charged. Not only were those on the Mall routed, MacArthur ignored a direct order from his Commander-in-Chief (the commander guy) and marched across the Eleventh Street Bridge and destroyed the main BEF camp in Anacostia. Several small children, including a three-month-old infant, died as a result of inhaling tear gas. One was bayoneted as he tried to protect his pet rabbit.

Part of what made this all possible was the same kind of media conventional wisdom that could ignore convenient facts, and allow official propaganda to work its magic upon a ruling class feeling the pinch of those lean years. The President, the Army Chief of Staff, and the Attorney General continued to harp on the constant disruptions and radical elements within the ranks of the BEF. None of this was true. The Bonus Army and their familial camp followers refrained from panhandling, were peaceful and respectful of official authority (until they started getting gunned down), and were seeking the radical solution of getting was was promised them 15 years earlier, due to extremely changed, and straightened circumstances. Journalists who reported these truths were silenced by editors who saw nothing more than a rabble bent upon, in MacArthur's words, "incipient rebellion".

The army chasing down vets, gunning them down, gassing them, the President and Attorney General lying about the whole situation to a gullible press - God, how the wingnuts would love it.

Can't Get Too Much of a Bad Thing

One thing's for sure - George Bush is consistent. Apparently, it is now necessary to send even more troops to Iraq. It has been reported in several places, a nice summary can be found here at Think Progress, that there is a move for a "second surge" (really, a further escalation of the occupation). Coming on the same day the Democrats caved to the President on the question of timelines in the forthcoming Iraq supplemental, it shows that there should no longer be any credence given to anything the Bush Administration says. No more should Democratic negotiators sit down with Bush and his advisors, hoping to hammer out a compromise. He doesn't want one. He doesn't believe in compromise. He doesn't believe he should have to negotiate with anyone. "L'etat, c'est moi," is his motto.

How many young Americans, and Iraqis of all ages, have to die, before we get politicians who stand up and end this damnable war? How long do we have to keep sending our troops over to be targets for snipers, or IED fodder, achieving nothing? I always thought a good rule of thumb, militarily, was that you don't reinforce failure. All we are doing is making everything worse. Bush doesn't even have the gumption, according to the report linked above, to come before the American people and explain what he is doing and why. I am quite sure it is because, despite the bubble of unreality in which he continues to operate, his aides are aware he is about as popular as a root canal without anaesthesia, and the public is demanding an end to this war. Rather than dare the ire of the public, he's doing it on the sly. Quite a coward.

Let me just quote Jane Hamsher from her take on the whole thing:
George Bush doesn't deserve "a chance" to play Army Men . . .

Indeed, he does not. Not Army Men, not fighter pilot. Not President of the United States. He has exhausted not just the good will and trust, but the tolerance of the American people.

Hitting Where It Hurts

Sometimes a news item flashes by and one cannot resist highlighting it. With a nice summary at Faith in Public, Ethics Daily has an article about the head of the United Methodist Church's General Board of Church and Society (essentially, our lobby in the Capitol) laying the groundwork for removing the stars and stripes from church sanctuaries:
"In a worship setting nothing should come before the center of our faith in whose presence we have gathered to worship, the Triune God," said the Rev. Clayton Childers, director of annual conference relations for the United Methodist Church's General Board of Church and Society.

Writing in the May 10 edition of the board's newsletter, Faith in Action, Childers also argues that "the presence of a national flag in worship can imply endorsement of national policies which often run counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ and our Christian faith."

First, a bit of history. The flag was not in most church sanctuaries until the First World War. Many Americans were deeply skeptical about our participation in that particular European fiasco, and church leaders - partly for sound theological reasons, partly out of a deep distrust of Britain and (Catholic) France - were vocal about their opposition. It was former President Theodore Roosevelt who started the clamor, insisting that such preaching was unbecoming of true American Christians, and started to insist that true American Christians would display the national flag in sanctuaries. By war's end, most had caved, and there the flag has stayed ever since.

Mark Tooley, director of the Institute for Religion and Democracy's United Methodist Project, has wasted no time being and idiot, er, I mean, commenting on this:
The United Methodist Church, under its liberal leadership, is losing over 50,000 members a year, and this church lobby official is oddly worried about getting American flags out of our churches.

Unlike the blood-soaked Swastika flags that the Nazis forced upon German churches, American churches voluntarily display their country’s flag as a reminder of the country in which God has providentially placed them. Typically, American flags stand against the side walls of American churches, quietly and obtrusively. They are hardly the idolatrous object of imperialistic worship against which the United Methodist lobby official warned.

Religious Left figures, like the United Methodist official, are hardly concerned about idolatry when their politically correct, rainbow paraphernalia and peace banners are woven into church worship services. They oppose the United States flag because they are contemptuous of our country, its history, its institutions, its culture, and its leadership role in the world.

Yes, of course, it isn't because the Church needs to stand outside the culture and nation in which it exists, to act as a check upon its less savory actions. It's because we all hate America.

Such stupidity is truly a wonder to behold.

Just as an aside - get it out, now. It has no business, and serves no function, in the sanctuary of the church.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Music Monday

I find it funny that singers are often overlooked in discussions of music. They are very often after-thoughts, verbal musicians whose contribution is the less than a guitarist or keyboardist. Yet, there is a big difference between Sid Vicious and Frank Sinatra singing "My Way".

What follows are three women singers I like. One is a jazz singer, a second is an under-exploited R&B singer, the third is a woman whose international debut with a rock band preceded a huge reconstruction of an R&B song.

The first time I heard Cassandra Wilson, three names came to mind. She swings like Ella. She has the vocal range and power of Sarah Vaughn. She has the rhythmic and melodic complexity of Thelonius Monk. There are few contemporary jazz vocalists who have managed to not only take in everything, but keep moving forward, but she is the best.

When I call Anita Baker "under exploited", what I mean is that, quite simply, the material she has been given by the awful "Adult Contemporary" industry simply doesn't match up with the potential and real abilities she has shown. Another Sarah Vaughn sound-alike, were she to have the resources that, say, Aretha Franklin had when she signed to Atlantic in the late-1960's, I think she would be huge. Sadly, she has been ghettoized by a music industry that thinks adults like horrid schlock. The best thing one can say is that she manages to take these songs and make the vocal beautiful.

Finally, there is Oleta Adams. I first heard her, as did most of the rest of the world, when she sang a duet with Roland Orzabal on Tears for Fears' "Woman in Chains". I still get chills when I hear her sing. The next time I heard her, she was taking a Brenda Russell song, described by one commentator as "cute" - and should one read the lyrics without thinking of the production, this description is apt - and turning it in to an aching plead by a woman for her man to come back. Maybe I'm a sentimental softy, but I still get tears in my eyes when I hear this song. Having drifted in to the same "AC" orbit as Anita Baker, Oleta continues to record and perform, including a recent Gospel CD.

Should anyone not notice, these women share two traits. First, they are, all three, quite, even stunningly, beautiful. Also, they are all altos. I realized, when putting this together, that with the exception of Billie Holiday, I am not really a fan of sopranos. Nor am I a fan of blues shouters, vibrato-plagued folk-rockers, or in fact most of those women who sing in rock. Guess that's just me.

One Christian's View of Porn and the First Amendment (UPDATED with a summation and further points)

Earlier this month, Garance Frank-Ruta, a liberal blogger of some note an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which she argued for raising the age of consent for women desiring to pose nude from 18 to 21 years of age. Her argument, stemming largely from the disgusting Girls Gone Wild series, was that easily-exploited young women are being taken advantage of by older men who tread a fine line between child-pornography and adult pornography. These women, often debilitated by drink and drugs, find themselves suddenly plastered all over the world, baring it all for posterity. From there she constructs an entire argument, including references to the international sex and porn industries, vague references to "coercion", and the old chestnut that those who view pornographic materials are conspirators in the continued exploitation of women.

The argument has created quite a stir, with various people weighing in on the subject. The latest star turn, found here (with a h/t to atrios; incidentally, since this is entirely relevant, Lance Mannion sounds like either a character in a soap opera or, ahem, a porn star's name), finds Frank-Ruta insisting that those who disagree with her support Girls Gone Wild, kiddie porn, enforced rape, and man-on-dog sex. Actually, the last one is made up; that's former Sen. Rick Santorum. Anyway, I have avoided the issue myself, but feel compelled to say a word or two on the issue, if for no other reason than Mannion raises an important point in the piece linked above, and one entirely relevant to the issue at hand - what, exactly, is pornography?

I was once accused of putting "porn" on my blog for posting a photo similar to the one above. The discussion went on and on, and I realized my interlocutor simply did not see a distinction between the artistic representation of the female figure and porn. It is one thing to note that Girls Gone Wild and its producer are among the scummiest things on the planet, indeed preying upon those in a weakened state and the enduring male fascination with women barely of the age of consent. It is another thing to lump this kind of attenuated adolescent drivel with hard-core pornography, to insist that all or even most women involved in porn are either coerced to do so, or find it a last resort for quick cash to support a drug habit. It is a further stretch to argue that all of this would somehow magically go away if the age of consent were raised three years. Garance-Ruta is at least consistent when she continually calls young college aged women "teenagers", obliterating the distinction between 13-year-olds and 19-year-olds.

What, exactly, is pornography? Is the above photo pornographic? Is Girls Gone Wild? Is Emmanuelle? I think we all know that Anal Angels 16 is pornography, but then we are left to wonder about policing issues. How do we make the distinction between those women who, for whatever reason, might participate voluntarily in such a production, and those "coerced" (we are never given a definition of coercion, which is left to our imaginations)? Do we allow those who say, "Sure, whatever," and those who are pushed in front of a camera by some outside force - a person, an addiction, a serious lack of self-worth - different levels of responsibility, robbing the latter of agency through a well-intentioned desire to protect them from their own self-destructive tendencies?

How well do we serve ourselves by continuing to inafantalize our young adults, insisting they are incapable of making decisions based solely upon their age? While there is no doubt that an eighteen-year-old, seriously impaired by chemical ingestion, can have the emotional and mental agility of a five-year-old; they are still an adult, and we do them and ourselves no service by pretending they are not. We call them "girls", "teenagers", etc., and allow ourselves the conceit that we know better than they how to live their lives, what mistakes are and are not permissible, and that we should decide for them what is in their best interests.

Finally, there is the whole First Amendment thing to contend with. Whether we like it or not, whether it's college women flashing their breasts at Mardi Gras or Jenna Jameson becoming a mainstream celebrity even as she continues to appear in porn, it is legal and should continue to be so. No one is forced to view this slop. Those who do certainly display their own arrested development. I have never been able to follow the logic that those who view porn are as bad as the thugs and degenerates who produce it. The desire to view sexual acts is as old as the human race; many of the images preserved in Pompeii were discovered to be depictions of sexual activity, even some in homes that had makeshift Christian altars.

We can do all sorts of things to work against the exploitation of women, the degradation of human sexuality through pornography, etc. We should not, however, pretend that 18 years olds are children needing our protection, or that silencing or banning images that we find offensive is the best answer. Since the above photo is viewed as pornographic by some, I think it only right that we just let it all go. I can insist that Girls Gone Wild is the video equivalent of what I scrape off my shoe after walking through a pasture, but that I don't have to view it, and have never viewed it, and no one is making me view it. There are no easy answers to this problem, but paternalistic infantalizing and censorship just aren't the answers.

UPDATE: Living in a free society means that some people make decision with which we disagree. Some people make life-decisions that are horrendous, leaving lasting scars upon themselves. While there are all sorts of informal, social methods of constraining such behavior, the choice is simple - do we legislate other people's life choices, or do we allow them the same privilege we have all had, to mess up and either make it right or not on their own?

At heart, there is little difference between Garance Frank-Ruta and recently barely-lamented late Rev. Falwell. Both view women as incompetent moral agents, needing the steady hand of the state to limit the choices they can make. Frank-Ruta sees 18-years-old women as unable to know they are exploited. Falwell sees women of any age as incompetent to make any moral judgment. It is only a question of degree, not of kind. Whether one appeals to a lack of proper feminist consciousness or Christian grace, both rely upon the horrible paternalistic idea that some people, because they lack certain proper mental, psychological, or spiritual defenses, are incapable of making "proper" moral decisions. How liberal is this?

Photo credit: Sergey Kristev

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Chris Hedges Is Wrong

I really liked Chris Hedges' book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, despite certain flaws. His latest book, however, on the Christian Right, comes a bit late in the game. The movement, having captured the Republican Party, is strangling it to death, and itself in the process. The movement itself is morphing, moving away from single-issue advocacy and towards a more holistic approach to issues of public policy. It is, also, less conservative (that is, right-wing) and less doctrinaire than in the past, as a new generation of leaders chafes at that Biblical and historical ignorance parading as faith on display.

Hedges' latest volley in his ongoing attempt to kick a movement when it is down, available here at, is entitled "Christian Right's Fear of Pleasure is Our Greatest Threat to Choice". In the piece, he writes:
The Christian right fears pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, which it sees as degrading, corrupting and tainted. For many, their own experiences with sex -- coupled with their descent into addictions and often sexual and domestic abuse before they found Christ -- have led them to build a movement that creates an external rigidity to cope with the chaos of human existence, a chaos that overwhelmed them. They do not trust their own urges, their capacity for self-restraint or judgment. The Christian right permits its followers to project evil outward, a convenient escape for people unable to face the darkness and the psychological torments within them.

The leaders of this movement understand that the only emotion that cannot be subsumed into communal life, which they seek to dominate and control, is love. They fear the power of love, especially when magnified and expressed through tender, sexual relationships, which remove couples from their control. Sex, when not a utilitarian form of procreation, is dangerous.

They seek to fashion a world where good and evil are clearly defined and upheld by the nation's judicial system. The battle against abortion is a battle to build a society where pleasure and freedom, where the capacity of the individual and especially women to make choices, and indeed even love itself, are banished. And this is why pro-life groups oppose contraception -- even for those who are married. The fight against abortion is the facade for a wider fight against the right of an individual in a democracy.

In order to be clear why I disagree so strongly with Hedges, we shall take each paragraph in its turn. By doing so, I think we shall also find that Hedges has not so much constructed an argument, as made certain assertions with no basis in evidence provided, that are not even remotely connected to one another.

First, as to the first paragraph:
The Christian right fears pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, which it sees as degrading, corrupting and tainted. For many, their own experiences with sex -- coupled with their descent into addictions and often sexual and domestic abuse before they found Christ -- have led them to build a movement that creates an external rigidity to cope with the chaos of human existence, a chaos that overwhelmed them. They do not trust their own urges, their capacity for self-restraint or judgment. The Christian right permits its followers to project evil outward, a convenient escape for people unable to face the darkness and the psychological torments within them.

This kind of armchair psychologizing, based on a skimming of a survey textbook for college freshmen, including certain unsourced and unverifiable assertions concerning the experiences and attitudes of others, is just horrid. How can Hedges possibly understand the drives and motives behind the actions of hundreds of thousands of people? I daresay that, from my own experience with this kind of thing, I can safely say that Hedges would be hard-pressed to give a coherent explanation of the psychology behind his own political viewpoints. To claim, as he does, that what is really behind the anti-abortion movement is result of massive fear and loathing due to bad sexual experiences, and his insulting idea that they so act because they are "unable to face the darkness and the psychological torments within them" is just plain awful. There are many things that are wrong the the pro-life movement; to reduce the entire thing to such nonsensical, pseudo-psychological mumbo-jumbo does nothing but make us liberals feel superior because we, apparently, can cope with the vicissitudes of life as it relates to our own awful and painful sexual histories.

Notice, by the way, that he provides no examples, offers no accounts, cites no psychological or other sources for the assertions he makes here. He just says, in effect, all these people have been hurt and are too afraid to cope with it, so rather than deal in a psychologically healthy fashion with their pain, they just call all sex evil. Because they are weak.

To the second paragraph:
The leaders of this movement understand that the only emotion that cannot be subsumed into communal life, which they seek to dominate and control, is love. They fear the power of love, especially when magnified and expressed through tender, sexual relationships, which remove couples from their control. Sex, when not a utilitarian form of procreation, is dangerous.

First of all, in the opening sentence he conflates, by implication, love and sex. The two are not the same. Second, societies draw all sorts of limits, limits that by definition "dominate and control", on what is and is not acceptable sexual behavior. The unstated implication is that such domination is, prima facie, wrong. The not-so-subtle shift from talking about "love" to talking about "sex", and making the claim that one is outside the ability of others to control, and the other is dangerous, creates a mishmash that makes no sense whatsoever. If love/sex can't be controlled, and if the leaders of the anti-choice movement recognize this, what in the world are they doing, and why is Hedges so worried about it? If the whole anti-pleasure thing is about control, why are those seeking such control attempting to control that which they understand is beyond social constraint?

Finally, the third paragraph:
They seek to fashion a world where good and evil are clearly defined and upheld by the nation's judicial system. The battle against abortion is a battle to build a society where pleasure and freedom, where the capacity of the individual and especially women to make choices, and indeed even love itself, are banished. And this is why pro-life groups oppose contraception -- even for those who are married. The fight against abortion is the facade for a wider fight against the right of an individual in a democracy.

Please note there is no relationship between the opening sentence, which I was always told was known as the "topic sentence" of a paragraph, and what follows. Again, it is mere assertion without any relationship with what follows. As another general comment, I find it a trifle unsettling that the intentions of an entire group are reduced to the ineffable, the psychological, and the unseen. Is it not enough that much of the anti-choice crowd provide ample evidence in public testimony and activity to criticize? Apparently, these folks are so awful, and transparent, that we can discern all sorts of nefarious things without batting an eyelid. At least Hedges can . . . Hedges moves close to the reality when he says this issue is "the capacity of . . . women to make choices". The issue has been, as should be clear from all the statements of those involved for decades, about women's rights. This is about women, not individuals in some abstract sense. Also, to reduce the anti-choice movement to a "facade" is to call in question the motives and intentions of millions of people, with whom I happen to disagree, reducing it all to psychological motives and anti-democratic power-plays. Isn't the anti-choice movement bad enough without seeing all sorts of things in it others don't or can't see? Isn't it enough that we take on issues in the public sphere that are public, and leave the undergraduate psychologizing for dorm-room bull-sessions?

Finally, there is absolutely nothing in the entire piece that warrants the notion that those on the right fear "pleasure". Besides that, such a claim is the kind of idiotic caricature I would think we were beyond. Apparently, Hedges is not. Again, he is wrong. He is wrong in his analysis. He is wrong in imputing motives and intentions without evidence. He is wrong in his inability to construct an argument. He is wrong in his ability to construct a paragraph. Writing the kind of thing Hedges writes here may make him, and those who nod their heads in agreement, superior to their more benighted fellow citizens, but it fails the test of serious analysis. We would do better to stick to the public record than try to see how scared and psychologically hamstrung are those on the opposite side of the political fence.

A Quick Rant About Some Silly Ideas That Drive Me Crazy

With a hat tip to atrios, I came across this bit of nonsense and I have to say, I agree with Duncan. What's the big deal?

I am actually quite tired of the notion that a musical group loses its "integrity" when it sells its music for commercial purposes. Indeed, Michael Stipe's insistence that "Our music is not for sale" is nonsense. You can't get it for free at the CD shop, can you? As for the Pixies and Sonic Youth - please. Their schtick is old, their music predictable, and their only claim to fame is that they don't sell a lot of discs. For some reason, lack of sales is a mark of "integrity" with some people. For me, lack of sales could also be a sign that the band in question sucks. Fugazi is a different story; they have never had a record deal. I saw them a coupe times when I was in DC, and they were interesting, and I thought they could have done more had they not decided to take a vow of poverty. Their secret is safe from the rest of the world, however, as they adamantly refuse to sign with a record company. More's the pity.

This idea that those musicians and groups that don't jump on the commercial bandwagon have more integrity and authenticity is silly and counter-productive. Some of the best music of the past fifty years has been produced by artists with contracts with the biggest record labels. The Beatles had a contract with Capitol Records, for crying out loud! I guess I'm silly to think the whole idea of becoming a musician is to reach as many people as possible with one's music. Corporations have quite happily subsidized all sorts of counter-cultural, even criminal, behavior amongst their stable of groups. To think that one's "principles" would be "compromised" by signing a record deal is a sophomoric idea. Principles are compromised all the time; the better the musician or group, the more leverage they have in how far such compromise might go. I see no reason other than the desire to be seen as a martyr against the evil of corporate governance in such self-destructive behavior.

If you are a musician, unless it is a part-time hobby, take atrios' advice - grab the money and run. You won't lose your soul, and you might just get the opportunity to reach all sorts of people you might not otherwise have reached. Or, sit around and parade your principles while you wait tables to supplement your "real career".

In Defense of Creation II - Beyond the Nuclear Threat

Just over twenty years ago, the United Methodist Bishops released a landmark pastoral letter, In Defense of Creation, addressing itself specifically to the issue of the looming threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Recognizing that the letter is out of date on a number of levels, but the threats to creation remain and have multiplied, the Council of Bishops, as reported here, are updating the document, and inviting input from annual conferences, seminaries, and others, wishing to offer insights and suggestions for emphases. The author of the original document, emeritus Dean and Professor Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary and retired Senior Pastor of Foundry UMC, also in Washington, J. Philip Wogaman, will be returning to familiar territory, once again authoring the statement to be offered to the Church for comment and consideration.

I thought it incumbent to address some specifics on this issue. First, I think it important, as a general observation, to note that the original document, coming as it did as the Cold War was starting to wind down (glasnost and perestroika were at their height, and it was less than a year after the document's release that Ronald Reagan received the offer from Gorbachev to eliminate the mutual nuclear stockpiles of our respective countries in return for ending research in to Star Wars; the offer occurred during a closed-door session of a summit in Rekjavik, Iceland; infamously, Reagan turned him down, storming out of Iceland), was deficient because Wogaman refused to address the moral degradation inherent in maintaining nuclear weapon technology. I do not blame him, but I do feel that, by failing to insist that elimination of nuclear weapons unilaterally was a moral imperative, the document missed a golden opportunity.

With the Soviet Union long gone, and nuclear threats now coming more from the proliferation of former Soviet stockpiles for sale on the black market, the issue is far more complicated, and the situation far more dangerous that it was during the reign of the Evil Empire. Furthermore, it is important to remember that, in the autumn after the pastoral letter's release, the world came together to address the recently discovered hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, a hole linked directly to the use of chloro-fluorocarbons. The ensuing international agreement on the reduction and eventual elimination of these chemicals was a landmark, and the first round in an ongoing world-wide recognition that threats to human survival were not limited to the evil of nuclear weaponry. In the years since then, with the signing of the Kyoto Accords (from which Pres. Bush removed the US as signatory), there has been a consensus that there needs to be a global legal and regulatory regime for environmental sustainability. It should not be doubted that nearly as much space and time will be dedicated to the issues of environmental concern and global climate change as to the threat of global nuclear annihilation.

Furthermore, and much to the surprise and delight of many, the Bishops are also seeking input on the issue of global poverty. Since the six billion or so human beings are also an integral part of creation, and our current global economic structure is destructive of human life and integrity (as well as the physical integrity of the planet), it is cheering to find the Bishops intent upon looking at economic matters, especially as they relate to the ways international capital destroys human lives. It is further cheering because Wogaman was writing about the relationship between economics and Christian ethics long before it was fashionable to do so. This is a subject with which he is intimately familiar, and his expertise is a welcome asset.

It is heartening to see the Church actively engaged in moving forward on this front. Revisiting the issue of creation care, in a comprehensive, all-encompassing way is a sign to me that the Church is not resting on its laurels, but conscious of the privilege it has of speaking out of its own historical reality in the Wesleyan tradition to matters of concern to us all. It should be a welcome voice as we move beyond the sterility of our current public dialogue on these matters.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More