Friday, June 08, 2007

Some Music for the Weekend

I'll be away this weekend on a mix of business and pleasure, so I thought I'd offer a bellyful of long songs for your entertainment. Or not. Maybe I'm just being pretentious.

First up is the title track from Dream Theater's Octavarium. Loved it live in Chicago in March of '06; look forward to seeing them this August as they tour in support of their forthcoming CD on Rhino.

Next up, in multiple parts in order (one hopes) is "Supper's Ready", an interesting interpretation of the Book of the Revelation to St. John by Genesis.

Finally, we have, again in multiple parts, VanDerGraaf Generator's "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers" (dedicated to Cristina at Contra Capa).

The Point Exactly: Matt Yglesias on the Failure of "Immigration Reform"

The beneficial withering on the vine of the ridiculously mistitled immigration reform legislation yesterday - the Senate failed to vote for cloture, allowing a vote - has many people up in arms. Lindsay Graham from South Carolina was apoplectic with Barack Obama yesterday on the Senate floor, betraying the reality too many Republicans are facing, viz., pressure from the base to reject the bill even as those who support it most are . . . Republicans. Personally, I think it was a horrid bill, with little of real compromise in it. In fact, it was a mish-mash of contradictions, trying to hold both ends together with a non-existent middle.

Via atrios, comes this piece from Matt Yglesias which ends on the perfect note, summing up the problem the failed immigration bill failed to address and its supporters vehemently deny:
There isn't a unitary "immigration problem" that Washington is failing to solve. Rather, various people see various different problems and there's not a consensus as to which problem is sufficiently problematic as to warrant action.

Do My Eyes Deceive Me? Cal Thomas On The Sojourner's-Sponsored Democratic Religion & Values Forum

As long ago as this post after last November's election, I noticed that Cal Thomas had awakened from his dogmatic slumber and was seeing the world through new eyes. I vowed to follow his public musings on the question of the relationship between religious belief and politics, and have done so. His latest column, which can be found here, concerns the recent forum, hosted by CNN's Soledad O'Brien and sponsored by Sojourners, on the relationship between the Democratic candidates' faith and their political views. I have stated quite clearly that I disapprove of this entire exercise, and I distrust Jim Wallis and his motives for holding such an irrelevant hour-long commercial for the Democratic candidates. What I found surprising was that Thomas, too, was not a booster for this event.

While this might not be surprising - why should an old conservative culture warrior approve of liberals talking faith? - what was in fact surprising was that Thomas' reasons for not liking it are remarkably similar to my own, as summed up in the final line of his column:
Most of this God-talk by politicians is irrelevant. We're not electing a theologian, but a president. There are many moral and godly people in my church who I would trust with my wife, but with possibly one exception, not the country. Competence, not ideology or religiosity, should be primary in this election.

Careful, Cal. You're beginning to sound like a Democrat.

New Realities & Realignments IV: What is Berlin to Me? (Isaiah, that is)

I mentioned in the first of these posts that I would be discussing various philosophical and theological ideas in reference to our current situation. While they may seem irrelevant, they help me to get a handle on the possibilities inherent in our current historical moment. I do believe that we are living through a classic period of realignment - not just political, but ideological - and the opportunity is there to offer up possibilities for moving forward that have little to do with the past. In order to do this, however, there are some old ideas that could serve us very well, should we attempt to take them up and use them in our current circumstances. For me, the most pregnant variation on classical liberalism is that of Isaiah Berlin, especially in the essays included in the small volume The Crooked Timber of Humanity. A theme runs throughout these essays, or perhaps themes, which run something like this:
-The Enlightenment ideal that all human ends, being amenable to rational discussion and analysis and therefore susceptible to rational solution and resolution is untenable precisely because the multiplicity of real human ends are often contradictory. The peaceful resolution of human ills is neither logically nor practically feasible.
-In recognizing the diversity of real human ends and the means to achieve them, we can either despair for any resolution of serious human conflict, or we can celebrate the reality of this diversity, even as we recognize the irreconcilable nature of this diversity.
-Rather than a liberalism that sees itself as the end of human intellectual, moral, and political development, Berlin sees liberalism as offering human beings a way of recognizing the historically contingent nature of their own social and more preferences, seeing the humanity in other, incompatible ends and means, while still allowing individuals and societies the power to adhere to their own social and political ways.
-Rather than the "tolerance" of contemporary liberalism, a tolerance that is at once condescending and paternalistic, Berlin prefers liberal pluralism. Being a pluralist requires only that one see, for example, the humanity of other human societies, their social, political, religious, and moral choices as a real possibility even if one does not, nor perhaps even could not, make those choices for oneself. It does not require the impossible necessity of standing back from one's own social milieu; it only requires the imaginative leap into other, different social milieus to see the human possibilities inherent in them.
-Pluralism does not negate the reality of difference and conflict; indeed, part of the appeal for me of liberal pluralism is the hard-nosed realism that sees in human social difference the potential for serious conflict. Of course, this begs the question of what kind of conflict and whether such conflict can ever be satisfactorily resolved. By recognizing that human conflict is rooted in real difference, however, we are freed from our delusions that we have something to offer other benighted peoples that they lack; pluralism is a nice anti-imperialist ideology from the word "go".

I do not wish to minimize the potential threat from fundamentalist terrorism. We have already lost many men and women to those who are committed to destroying American dominance. The Bush Administration, however, has responded in exactly the way the terrorists would want us to, pouring gasoline on a fire that already rages out of control. The alternative offered by a liberal pluralistic approach would give us both the ideological and practical context within which to mould a response that would aid us moving against those forces that see the US as a global threat to their way of life while at the same time making real strides to reduce not just the appearance of such a threat, but the threat itself. By moving away from the idea that the US has something to offer the world - call it democracy, or freedom, or whatever - that those countries we threaten lack, we would no longer be in a position to endorse the kind of stupid exercises like our current Iraq debacle. Rather, we could return to hunting al-Qaeda as an international law enforcement activity, reduce our military and other presence in the Muslim world, and move to listening to rather than dictating to those who differ from us.

Of course, such a pluralist position would involve us giving up the grandest illusion of them all - the false myth of American uniqueness. Should we toss that bucket of spoiled fish down the ideological crapper, we might actually be on our way to improving our stance in the world. As it stands now, we are the biggest of the rogue states, simultaneously hated and feared, but with too much muscle for others to take on in any serious fashion. Should we abandon the idea that we are God's gift to the other nation-states of the world, we might actually make some progress.

By recognizing that others are different and still fully-fledged human beings, perhaps we can actually develop policies that not only recognize differences, but celebrate them rather than plowing them under in the name of abstract, and largely phony and truncated, ideas such as freedom, democracy, capitalism, etc. These are great ways we have of organizing our social and political life. Should we decide that they are not for everybody, and see in other ways of living equally human possibilities for being in the world, we might actually make some progress.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

David Broder Should Be Careful Who He Calls Ignorant of Reality

Not to cast aspersions upon the non-elected, non-appointed Dean of political reporters, but it just seems so ridiculous for David Broder to claim in his latest column, which you can find here, that there are people who lack, as the title of the column states, "a real world clue". The column begins as follows:
The 18 presidential candidates -- eight Democrats and 10 Republicans -- who came to Saint Anselm College here for a pair of debates this week displayed a remarkable ability to ignore the real-world consequences of many of the policies they were advocating.

Democrats brushed aside concerns about the impact of their votes to cut off funding for the troops in Iraq or the larger implications of a precipitous withdrawal from that country. Republicans were casual about contemplating the use of nuclear weapons against Iran or the effects of foreclosing a path to citizenship for millions of people living illegally in the United States.

First, the Democrats never voted to cut off funding for the troops. That is simply factually inaccurate. Second, while it is good to note that a member of the Establishment understood the dangers of such a cavalier discussion of using weapons of mass destruction against a nation that poses no threat to the United States (kind of like terrorists . . .), that was hardly the biggest boner of the night for the Republican candidates. Methinks that Mitt Romney's claim that Saddam booted the inspectors out of Iraq prior to the invasion in 2003, rather than being told to leave by the US so they wouldn't be in harms way should win the prize. Also, we should note that not a single reporter has called Romney on this particular whopper. Ah, well.

We continue with Broder a bit further down, where he offers up a nugget that one can only assume he received as a gift from his proctologist, as one can only assume that it was pulled whole and complete from his rectum:
[T]he dynamic on both sides is trending toward extreme positions that would open the door to an independent or third-party challenge in 2008 aimed at the millions of voters in the center.

The danger may be greatest for the Democrats, even though President Bush's failings have put them in a favored position to win the next election. Prodded by four long shots for the nomination and threatened by the rhetoric of former senator John Edwards, a serious contender, the two front-runners, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, have abandoned their cautious advocacy of a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces and now are defending votes to cut off support for troops fighting insurgents in Iraq.

(I) What is the fascination with third parties among the media? There will only be two serious contenders for the Presidency in 2008. There are not "millions" of voters, and there is no "center" for them to occupy. This is all make-believe from a man who claims that the candidates of both parties are lacking a clue about the real world. Hoo-boy-howdy. For the record, it was the Republicans, to a man, who manifested an almost psychotic fascination with their own manliness and a disdain for any sane American future. It was fear, fear, death, destruction, and their own manliness as the only insurance against the total devastation of the United States in the face of an implacable foe. It was sad, really, to see such a display. But, I digress.

(II) The bill the Sens. Clinton and Obama voted "nay" on funded the occupation without a timetable for withdrawal. That is all. The original bill fully funded troops in the field, only setting a timetable for a phased withdrawal of American forces from Iraqi soil. Broder either knows this and is lying, or he doesn't know it and is therefore stupid. Either way, another reason not to trust him is added to our long list.

I know it's painful, but let us read a bit further, shall we?
In this dispiriting display of pandering and group-think, two notable contrary examples stand out.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, alone on the stage in voting for the temporary funding bill, declared his determination not to deny arms and protective equipment for the troops his 2002 vote helped send to Iraq -- even, he said, if it costs him the nomination.

And on the Republican side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona defended his and the president's comprehensive and humanitarian approach to immigration -- a grace note in what was otherwise a rather discordant pair of ensemble performances.

Who gets props from Broder? Biden and McCain. Neither has a prayer of getting the nomination. Biden will lose because he refuses to do what the Democrats were elected to do and end this fiasco in Iraq. McCain is hated by the base of the Republican Party, which is destroying itself on the very immigration bill that won't pass, is hardly a serious piece of compromise, comprehensive reform legislation, and lacks any humanitarian component at all, despite Broder's claim to the contrary.

I saved the best bit for last. It comes from the middle of the piece, but is so glaringly, stupefyingly stupid, I just wanted to give it pride of place:
The broader question of Persian Gulf policy in the likely event of a drawdown of American forces in the coming year is also a blind spot for the Democrats. Beyond exhortations to the weak Maliki government in Baghdad and a vague hope of convening an international conference on Iraq, the leading Democrats have little to suggest that could mitigate a possible foreign policy disaster.

Please read the last sentence again. Broder does not see our present situation as a disaster; only if Democrats end our occupation of Iraq will a foreign policy disaster occur.

Holy cow.

Good Reading

For a good discussion, in which yours truly waxes verbose on issues of Biblical interpretation, go visit this thread at Erudite Redneck's blog. Give him a shout out as to who sent you.

New Realities and Realignments III: Richard Nixon, Father of the Contemporary Republican Party

We are often told that the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln, of Theodore Roosevelt, of Ronald Reagan. We are to view these men as the standard-bearers of true Republican values - of strength, honor, integrity, gritty, manly patriotism, and the willingness to endure in the face of overwhelming odds and against severe criticism. All these traits are indeed part of the make-up of each of these men (yes, I said something nice about Reagan). Yet our contemporary Republican Party, despite the bleating of the current presidential candidates, is not the party of Reagan. We are living in the last days not of the age of Reagan, or perhaps of Barry Goldwater-style Republicanism. No, our current Republican Party models itself after our most tragic President - Richard Milhouse Nixon.

It is necessary to understand this point, upon which I shall elaborate below, if we are to understand our current situation. I am writing so much background material here, so much historical information because we cannot move forward unless we are clear-eyed about where we've been. I apologize if this is boring, but all of this is more for my own benefit than anyone else's, and I rarely bore myself so please bear with me.

The first thing that it is important to remember about Nixon is that he never got over two defeats - first for the Presidency against John Kennedy, second for the governorship of California against Pat Brown. Despite journalistic nonsense during the 2000 campaign post-game, Nixon indeed was more than willing to go to court to challenge Illinois' election results precisely because there was more than enough evidence to show that the Daley machine threw the entire state in to the Democratic camp. I do believe that he resented his advisers refusal to move forward more swiftly and publicly. When he lost the governor's race for California two years later, it was quite clear in his bitter remarks about not having Dick Nixon to kick around any more that he viewed his defeat as a personal repudiation.

It is also important to remember that, with all his flaws of character, temperament, and intellect, Nixon was the embodiment of many of the values of post-WWII America. Indeed, his many flaws, as well as his virtues, were precisely what made him so emblematic of the United States as it struggled to redefine itself in light of the new reality of American hegemony in the world. In other words, both his rise, in 1946, and his fall, in 1974, bookended the period of American singular domination of the world scene and its eventual slow decline in the face of changing world circumstances.

With the take-over of much of the machinery of the Republican party by various right-wing groups in the run-up and aftermath of the 1964 Goldwater debacle, I believe Nixon saw his main chance to manipulate feelings over the pace of social change. The Johnson Administration's growing obsession with Vietnam only added to the possibilities for a Republican candidate in 1968. With a combination of cunning, cleverness, and ruthlessness (using unofficial campaign adviser Henry Kissinger as a plumber for information on Administration peace efforts with North Vietnam, as well as a monkey-wrencher of the worst sort was a stroke of evil genius), combined with Humphrey's refusal to repudiate Johnson (who apparently still had his VP's manhood safely in his hip pocket) until late in the campaign gave Nixon enough breathing room to eke out a victory (although, as T. H. White's The Making of the President, 1968 points out, had the election been held no more than five days later, the trend back to Humphrey and the Democrats would have given the election to Humphrey). While many saw Nixon as a moderate, and a President who was not given to partisan concerns - it was repeated over and over again by journalists who claimed to "know" Nixon that he had chosen Maryland governor Spiro Agnew to be his partisan hatchet man - he actually ran his administration upon the principle that the principle reason fro gaining power was the maintenance of power. The entire machinery that led to his eventual resignation was put in place almost immediately upon his inauguration, with only the flourishes of the plumbers being added after the leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

As a diarist over at The Daily Kos notes here, the playbook for turning the federal bureaucracy into an arm of the Republican Party is not an invention of Karl Rove. Rove, rather, is using the rules set forth a generation ago by one Fred Malek, of whom Rove is merely a protege. Malek was clever, malicious, sneaky, ruthless, and ultimately stupid. I add the last epithet because he actually put it in writing that one should never put things in writing (kind of like the bogus notion that primitive people are afraid of cameras because it might capture their soul; only in this case, putting things in writing might reveal that these people don't have souls).

Whether it's Ronald Reagan's congenial so-called eleventh commandment ("Thou shalt not speak evil of your fellow Republicans"), George H. W. Bush's use of what was called "blue smoke and mirrors" by two journalists to win the 1988 Presidential election - flag burning and Willie Horton were the precedent on the eve of the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War were followed by the lack of any serious rationale for his re-election other than the idea that the Presidency was a Republican office are emblematic of Nixonian ideals. The harassment of President Clinton over non-existent scandals, the stealth campaign of George W. Bush in 2000 and the ruthlessness followed by self-defeating stupidity of the ensuing elections up through last years Republican debacle all show the hallmarks of the Nixonian idee fixe - both sides are corrupt, but only Republicans get in trouble for it, so why not go whole hog and corrupt the entire machinery. Power is, after all, its own reward as the Democratic Party has shown time and again (does anyone think FDR was elected four times out of selflessness?). These ideas are at the heart of much Republican whining over the media - when Democrats are caught engaged in dirty politics, it's considered all part of the game; in their eyes, the Republicans pursue no worse strategies than Democrats, but are held to a different standard by the press and the public. It all goes back, of course, to the refusal to recognize that dirty politics led to Nixon's first defeat in 1960. Whether it's Rush Limbaugh playing the victim card, or the pimping of phony voter fraud cases (aided and abetted by America's favorite past-time, racism), there is a direct line to Nixon's narrow loss to JFK that has to be remembered.

As we move forward to next year's election and consider all the changes in our country over the past few years, we have to remember the patron saint of the Republican Party isn't Abraham Lincoln or even Dwight David Eisenhower. It is the Trickster himself. With that in mind, should deciding for whom to vote be an issue?

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Two Religion Related Items

(I) As reported in detail here by Scarecrow at Fire Dog Lake, Jim Wallis hosted a round-table with the three leading Democratic candidates on the issues of faith and public policy (should you go to Faith in Public, they have a video of it, plus follow-up articles). My shorter response is that I agree with Scarecrow on this one; this is a bad precedent, and adds little to the Presidential debate, and opens up the Democratic candidates to the charge of pandering.
The real culprit here, besides the candidates themselves who are willing to prostitute their faith, is Jim Wallis. Unlike Scarecrow, I do not nor have I ever like Wallis. He is a publicity whore, and has stated quite openly that he desires nothing less than to be for the left what Jerry Falwell was to the right. Rather than serve the Gospel, he wants to lead a movement. By hosting a forum such as this one, Wallis has shown that he has no desire to discuss issues of public policy on their merits, offering candidates a place instead where they can say all sorts of irrelevant things about their private lives rather than give serious responses to serious questions. This does not mean that issues of faith are irrelevant to matters of public policy; rather, it is a further erosion of the constitutional ban on religious tests for public office, with Wallis being the chief offender. I make no friends among religious progressives with my disdain for Wallis, but I just can't help myself - I think he's a fraud, and I think what he did in hosting this forum is a bad precedent.

(II) President Bush's nominee for Surgeon General, James Holsinger, is, like me, a United Methodist Lay person. In the late 1988, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church - our chief law-making body - created a study-group on the question of homosexuality and the church. Its mandate and task was broad, and its membership was diverse. My academic adviser in seminary was a member, although he left before the study was completed for health-related reasons. Holsinger was among a group that offered up a minority report, due to an ideological split within the study commission. As reported by Think Progress, part of Holsinger's initial contribution to the minority report was an oddly-homoerotic discussion of gay sex (and I say that as a straight man). Part of Holsinger's report, discussing the supposed history of disdain for male-male anal-genital copulation is so woefully ignorant, one wonders how stupid a man with the title "Dr." could be to have penned it. He insists that anal sex is "unnatural" because "everyone knows" the difference between the sex organs and the "alimentary canal" (some of these men were, apparently, quite well-endowed if he is worrying about the alimentary canal rather than just the rectum). Why, even children are aware of the difference!
Should Dr. Holsinger be interested, there are some pieces of Greek pottery he should peruse, in which Greek men are pictured fervently in flagrante. He should also read Plato's Symposium on the joys of man-boy and man-man love. Or perhaps he and other fans of the film 300 should remember that the the Spartans, in direct defiance of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", encouraged sexual liaisons between and among their soldiers as a way of increasing their solidarity and willingness to sacrifice themselves for one another.
Just for the record, the whole "tearing" thing is true, of course, but such tearing also occurs in vaginal intercourse. It also occurs to men; no amount of lubrication, natural or artificial can prevent microscopic breaks in the skin. As a doctor, he should know this, probably does know this, but he would rather put the onus on same-sex copulation for all sorts of horrors rather than discuss the issue seriously.
I would apologize to the rest of the world for Holsinger as a member of the UMC, but, alas, he is just one of many quite silly and bigoted people in our church.
BTW, his rampant and public ignorance (not to mention bigotry) should automatically disqualify him from consideration as Surgeon General of the United States (unlike another UM layperson, the late C. Everett Koop, who was an early advocate of safer sex practices and didn't discriminate based upon sexual orientation). Of course, in a sane world, his name wouldn't even crop up, so my hope is slim . . .

Several Republicans Disqualify Themselves for the Presidency

In last night's Republican candidates forum (I truly hesitate to call it a debate; how can ten people have a debate?), CNN's Wolf Blitzer offered these feaux-manly men the opportunity to show just how tough they are by asking whether they would preemptively strike Iran to end its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons (I say alleged, because it seems only the United States insists that is what the Iranians are up to; according to the IAEA, all Iran is doing is working on improving its civilian nuclear power industry). Mitt Romney and (of course) Rudy Giuliani (and a couple others) tried to outdo one another by insisting that "all options are on the table", blah, blah, blah. While Blitzer's question was nonsensical in the extreme, based upon false assumptions and perceptions, the answers were quite telling. Both Romney and Giuliani admitted that using nuclear weapons were a possibility in taking out a non-existent threat.

Even supposing that the Iranians were developing nuclear weapons, which all sources who are actually on the ground in Iran say they are not, can anyone tell me or the American people why it is necessary to threaten the use of nuclear weapons in an unprovoked act of aggression against a nation that does not now nor will in the foreseeable future threaten the United States in any way, shape, or form? Would it be possible for a truly serious journalist or pundit to address these answers in a sober way? Would it be possible for said pundit to insist that, by declaring their willingness to use our nuclear arsenal against a non-nuclear state in a preemptive strike against a non-existent threat, these candidates have now utterly disqualified themselves from serious consideration for the Presidency?

That the Republican base laps this stuff up like hogs at the trough is irrelevant. I wouldn't support anyone who so cavalierly asserts their willingness to use these immoral weapons under any circumstances, let alone against a state unable to even seriously threaten retaliation in kind. Thuggery of this kind is horrid to even contemplate. These responses should be highlighted again and again during the ensuing campaign in order to show just how grossly awful the Republican Party has become.

What is Happening in Iraqi Kurdistan?

This morning, I heard a report on NPR that there was a raid by Turkish troops into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Now, as seen here at Talking Points Memo, both the Kurds and the US State Department are saying either (a) the incursion is over, or (b) it never happened in the first place. This raises all sorts of questions, which in their turn beg others, not the least of which is this: Wasn't this predicted as part of destabilizing Iraq? In fact, wasn't this little complication part of the constant worry over the invasion, and part of the reason the Turks refused to allow part of the US Army to stage an invasion of Iraq from their territory?

The US has been playing a dangerous game by trying to keep Iraqi Kurds safe by providing them with a semi-autonomous state-within-a-state in northern Iraq while supporting NATO ally Turkey, which has a long history of slaughtering ethnic minorities, including its own substantial Kurd population. For years, a quiet civil war has occurred in Turkey, with American complicity, against the Kurds, with the terrorist group the PPK as a pretext for near-genocide. With the Iraqi Kurds flexing their political and social muscle, and providing a safe haven for Turkish Kurds, it was only a matter of time before Turkey's patience ran out and something like this "alleged" border-crossing occurred. That it has taken this long is the only surprising aspect of this entire story.

I suppose the only issue now is what happens next. Do we find out whether the Turks in fact crossed the Iraqi border? Does the US support an old ally in its continuing ethnic war against the Kurds, or its new ally in northern Iraq? What happens if the Turks actually cross the border in force? Do ethnic Kurds from Syria enter the fray as well, further destabilizing the region? Does the US try to remain above the fray, even though it created the situation in the first place?

The whole thing stinks, and there are no easy answers or good choices, unless one wants to write off Turkish friendship. Of course, the Turks are in the midst of multiple political crises right now, not the least of which is the whole issue of maintaining their secular state (the creation of which was fueled by rising Turkish ethnic solidarity, which first expressed itself in the slaughter of a million and a half ethnic Armenians) or becoming increasingly defined as a Muslim state.

Then, of course, there is the whole Kurdish question. The Kurds are the world's largest ethnic minority without a national homeland, scattered as they are across Turkey, Syria, and Iraq (and I believe parts of Iran and the southern Caucuses as well). With the British creating states out of whole cloth after the First World War, without regard to ethnic identity, and the maintenance of said states for wholly imperial reasons (please read "oil" here), we are now, nearly a hundred years on, in a situation in which the combination of national feeling, religious solidarity, and post-colonial resentment are mixed together like an evil brew that is about to explode. That the US has aided and abetted the entire situation provides little solace for our ability to get the simmering kettle to stop reeling.

All of these historical thoughts are just a pretext for asking certain questions that need to be answered more clearly. What are the US interests in re the Kurdish people, not just in Iraq, but across all the borders where they live? Will the US end its sale of weapons to the Turks that are used to kill Kurds? Will NATO and the EU end their relationships with Turkey, or end talk of allowing Turkish membership into the EU, as long as they continue their war on their Kurdish population? Or will the US continue to play both ends against a non-existent middle, supporting both northern Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, and pretend that the status quo is acceptable?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Is Religion Evil? Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife, Just Answer Yes or No . . .

In the latest round of soft-headed believer versus verbose but nonsensical non-believer debates, captured here, a somewhat sober Christopher Hitchens debates religion with a somewhat scatterbrained Chris Hedges. While perhaps intellectually stimulating and exciting - Hitchens is nothing if not well-read and erudite, always fun to watch even when he is at his most annoying - like a previous debate between torture-loving atheist Sam Harris and mind-numbingly stupid Rick Warren, I just wonder at debates like these. What purpose do they serve? How do they move us forward to a better understanding of the role of religion in our lives right now? How do they guide us to a better comprehension of the religious roots of much of the current conflict (especially when they are devoid of any discussion of Islam and its history with the west)?

I know that there are many secular folks out there who just get all whoozy when the topic is religion. I can even see Democracy Lover's words flashing across the screen - "evidence", "rational", etc., etc. - as he gears up to show just how silly believing in God is. Like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris (kind of the atheist version of Tinkers to Evans to Chance, I suppose), however, none of this is any longer of the remotest interest to me. Debating the efficacy of religious belief is a bit like debating the dangers of traveling on an interstate highway. People believe in God, for good and bad reasons, and do good and bad things with those beliefs. People drive on interstate highways, sometimes safely, sometimes not. Debating whether it's a good idea to drive on interstates misses the point that people actually do so drive, and it might be better to discuss how they actually drive rather than try to debunk the idea that driving on interstate highways is a good idea.

I am no longer interested in discussing whether or not religion is good, or a force for good. Of course it is. It is also a force for evil. I am much more interested in discussing what believers of all kinds, shapes, sizes, and variations actually do with their beliefs than with whether or not their beliefs are justifiable. Most beliefs, even in the efficacy of scientific rationality, are impervious to such scrutiny, and it wastes time and energy which could be much better devoted to figuring out what is actually happening. Religion in some form or another will always be with us, just as skepticism and non-belief will be. Neither is superior or inferior to the other, and each contributes to the sum total of both human evil and greatness, and perhaps we should be figuring out ways to use all our intellectual and moral resources to help us survive our current predicament rather than casting aspersions upon those whose intellectual and spiritual views are different from ours? That was a terrible run-on sentence by the way, but I let it stand.

Since we are on the subject, I shall just make this statement. Many thousands died at the hands of religious fanatics across Europe and the Holy Land during the centuries of the crusades - Jews, women, Muslims, religious protesters such as Cathars in the south of France and Waldensians up and down the mountainous spine of the Italian peninsula. Yet, in the 20th century, just to name two individuals, Josef Stalin and Mao-Tse Tung both are directly responsible for the deaths of millions of their fellow human beings in the name of atheistic, scientific socialism. While I can hear the "But . . . But . . ." stammering in the background, these are facts - indeed, among the thousands dead in both countries were priests, nuns, hierarchy, and laity of various religious groups, Christian, Buddhist and whatnot as religion was purged from the societies (it was only Stalin's decision to use the nationalism of the Russian Orthodox Church that saved the lives of the Primate of that church after Hitler invaded) - and while it might be gratifying to progressive secularists to argue about the religious status of the beliefs involved, the truth is this: millions died in the name of no God at all.

I say this not to play, "Gotcha!", but only to remind us that we human beings kill each other for a variety of reasons. Our hands are bloody and we would be better served if the energies used in pointless debates such as these were directed towards figuring out how me might all live together on this little blue planet of ours, rather than deciding who's right and who's wrong about questions for which there is no such answer.

New Realities & Realignments II: The Cold War Ends, But Not For Our Elites

It is worth remembering, to keep some perspective on our current historical moment, that those young people graduating from high school this year were born the year the Berlin Wall fell, democracy came like a thief in the night to Poland and Hungary, and China, poised on the brink of revolution, killed the only true heroes it has produced in what was then 41 years of communist rule, as tanks and troops rolled through Tiananmen Square. I remember quite vividly the events of early June; I shall never forget (possibly because they kept playing it over and over and over . . .) CNN's footage of a single man standing before a line of tanks, halting them in their path. I am quite sure than tank commander and driver had orders not to roll over him in broad daylight (killing people happens much more easily in confusion and darkness, after all), but it nonetheless provided a beautiful image for the power of a lone individual. He refused to budge, even moving back and forth when the tank tried to swerve around him.

The destruction of China's last best hope for true democracy came at a time when Poland was moving peacefully to multi-party democracy, Hungary had opened its borders to Austria, causing a flood of East German refugees to the west, and perestroika and glasnost, still disavowed by hard-line Cold Warriors, had opened a small window of light in to the workings of the Soviet Union.

In November, something wonderful happened. I shall never forget sitting and watching Tom Brokaw stand in front of images of East Germans dancing on the Berlin Wall, the guards who had orders to shoot them just a day or two before standing around with nothing at all to do. Within days, it seems, the sledge hammers came out, and cement and rock went flying as the first real cracks and holes appeared in a now-redundant wall. I think I cried a little, because too many had died because of this wall, and breaching it, in the end, was all too simple*.

Even as freedom marched down the rusted Iron Curtain (Bulgaria, reading the signs of the times, created a committee for constitutional reform and declared open elections for mid-year, 1990; after the Czech army killed protesters, a crowd gathered in St. Wenceslaus Square in Prague, and the regime fell like an over-ripe peach; the only violent revolution was in Romania, where Ceaucescu fought to the bitter end, his and his wife's bitter end at the receiving end of a firing squad caught for all the world to see on video tape), there were some who just didn't realize what was happening. Those "some" included the President of the United States and his national security/military team, who decided, for reasons I have yet to fathom (like the Iraq invasion Bush 41's son would later initiate, the reasons for this particular fiasco always seemed to change) invaded Panama. Even as democratic revolutions flared across the communist world, the United States engaged in 19th century gunboat diplomacy with a nation so small and powerless, it shares currency with the United States.

Within two years of what historian John Lukacs called the anna mirabilis, the Soviet Union ceased to exist after a failed coup attempt destroyed the last tatters of Soviet credibility. I won't soon forget those tense few days when the world poised on the brink, waiting to see if Pres. Gorbachev would survive, if Russian tanks in Red Square would mimic their Chinese cousins, the DC commercial classical station interrupting a string quartet to blast out the Beatles' "Back in the USSR" when the coup collapsed, and the terrified and exhausted faces of Gorbachev and his wife as they stepped off the airplane that brought them back to Moscow (they had been vacationing with their grandchildren at the time; one wonders at the stress upon them just on a personal level). The final nail in the coffin of the Cold War had been pounded down, and . . .

Nothing happened. Rather than change decades of public policy towards Cuba, South America, indeed most of the Third World, the United States engaged in one of the biggest orgies of triumphal nonsense one has ever seen. This was the time of The End of History; we were "the lone superpower"; communism was part of "the dustbin of history" (as neo-cons quoted their favorite Marxist, Leon Trotsky, in what must have been a bit of delicious irony); a "New World Order" was declared on the eve of the American-led multi-national military campaign to remove Iraq from Kuwait. While there was some initial discussion of a "peace dividend" - all that money that had gone to support a military establishment geared to a no-longer-existent threat moving to domestic spending, or perhaps tax cuts - it was soon clear that our bloated military-industrial complex was addicted to the idea that it was still necessary. The "lone superpower" rationale became the rationale for not just continuing to funnel money to the Pentagon, but to actually increase spending. The collapse of Cuba's main source of income increased rather than abated American retaliation for a former neo-colony's absurd decision to act as a sovereign state.

When Bill Clinton was elected President, his back-turning to the world was part and parcel of the general feeling in America that it was time to direct our energies towards domestic reform and restructuring. While the neo-cons and their think tanks continued to churn out all sorts of position papers and declarations, usually starting with phrases like, "It's still a dangerous world . . .", Pres. Clinton reflected the mood of a large portion of the United States when he quite consciously looked upon the rest of the world as potential trading partners and markets for American goods, rather than a Manichean world of good and evil, us and them. When an American cruiser turned back from the port in Port Au Prince, Haiti, the media and their neo-con allies screamed that America had been humiliated, thus necessitating the eventual landing of American troops in Haiti - again. Another interpretation of this event was that, perhaps, it was no longer necessary to engage in this kind of bully-boy tactics, and it might be better for an American ship to be taking care of piracy in the South China Sea, maybe. In other words, the neo-cons were still thinking of the US as "the lone superpower", while Clinton might well have been thinking in practical terms of what the US could actually do with its military, rather than just stand (or float) around and look tough.

In the years since - the best chronicle is the recently-deceased David Halberstam's War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals - the debate has gone back and forth over the role of the US in the world, but the range has been extraordinarily narrow. One thing that never gets questioned is the idea that the US is "the lone superpower". Yet, what has being the lone superpower brought the US? Indeed, is the US the world's lone superpower? Is the phrase even meaningful in a world that, perhaps, has outgrown the need for such an ungainly, undisciplined behemoth?

*In a documentary on the events leading up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it was revealed that the East Germans desperately wanted to continue in power. It was only when Mikhail Gorbachev refused to take a call from the East German leader on the eve of the events in question that the order to shoot to kill was rescinded, at the last possible minute. With the Soviet Union no longer getting their collective backs, the East Germans knew that any attempt to use force would have ripped their country apart, and quite possibly have begun a new European war, with the Russians staying neutral. They opted for self-induced euthanasia over a period of about a year to a more brutal suicide.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Music Monday

Sometimes when I hear something, I instantly like it, and want more. Sometimes, when i hear something, I can't imagine wanting to ever listen to it, or anything remotely similar, again. Occasionally, though, there are bands that I like despite my initial resistance, or bands I come to loath despite initially thinking they had some kind of promise. Then there are bands I want to like, but just can't get around some aspect or other to say, "Yeah, they're pretty good."

First up is a band that, when I first heard the, I thought, "Ugh!" Over time, though, they have grown on me, despite the self-indulgent self-pitying of the lyrics. This is the song that really made me sit up and take notice of Korn, "Freak on a Leash":

Next up is a band that thought had a lot of promise the first time I heard them, reached what I thought was a good first plateau for them, only for me to realize that this was their peak, and that would sink slowly downhill from there. Godsmack started out as an Alice in Chains cover band, which seems odd, since Sully's throaty baritone growl is far-removed from Layne Stanley's nasal tenor. I think they had a lot of potential, but never progressed beyond this song, their best, in my not-so-humble-at-all opinion, "Awake":

Finally, I think I have a mental block when it comes to the band Slipknot. On the one hand, I think they produce some of the finest hardcore around. On the other hand, while I recognize unintelligible screaming and grunting is part of the charm of hardcore for its fans, I just can't get beyond the fact that the songs would actually be better if they were sung rather than just incoherently screamed. Love them or hate them, they give one a different view of farm country when we realize this is kind of a Des Moines, IA supergroup (the best musicians from various Des Moines hardcore groups). By the way, I think the masks are unnecessary, but again, are part of their charm. This is called "The Nameless":

New Realities and Realignments I

One of the great things about my little vacation was an opportunity to read stuff I haven't had a chance to read in years. One of them was a collection of essays by Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas. I first read it the summer I was married, fourteen years ago, and have read an essay or two in it but not the whole thing at once since. I have also started a later collection, The Proper Study of Mankind. All of this is a springboard to reflections on our current situation, an analysis that may or may not be correct, but certainly helps me figure out where we are, and maybe - just maybe - where we are headed.

When George Bush was re-elected in 2004, my wife and I were both quite down about it. "I don't understand it," she told me. My response was, "Maybe people have to let things get really bad before they want to change." I said that thinking people were accepting of the status quo until a crisis emerged that forced them to question their acceptance of it. I also thought, at the time, that things couldn't get much worse than they already were. I honestly couldn't imagine the level of base criminality and stupidity, not just of the Administration, but of elected Republicans in general. I feel quite chastened as I think about this now; the pervasive corruption of the entire Republican establishment should serve as an object lesson to all those who wonder about our political culture. There is little that impedes the corrosive and seductive effects of power when those who hold power believe themselves ordained by God to rule.

In the two-and-a-half years since the election, a series of political and cultural and natural events have highlighted (as if there was ever any question) the evident failures not just of the Bush Administration, but of the Republican Party and its dominant ideology. Hurricane Katrina and the failure to save New Orleans, Terry Schiavo, the on-going war in Iraq (for some reason, our dismal performance in Afghanistan, allowing the ousted Taliban to reform is rarely mentioned; consider it mentioned), the pervasive corruption and unresponsiveness of the Republican-led Congress, the destruction of the integrity and independence of the entire federal bureaucracy as the Bush Administration used it to serve narrow, partisan ends. This list, of course only highlights the most egregious and most obvious faults and flaws. It would seem, however, that the total effect of these has been to create a situation where not only the President, but Congress, too, sinks in public esteem (although that is a general institutional rating; Democrats in Congress, especially when they are acting in the public interest, get much higher scores than when they capitulate to dominant narratives of "bipartisanship"). The public clamors for release from the Bush Administration and its misrule. How are we to navigate these strange waters in which we find ourselves?

The most important point to consider when trying to make sense out of our current political dilemma is that the public, more intelligent than the combined wisdom of our pundits and national journalists, recognize not just malfeasance but maladministration, and seek a remedy within the context of the available options. For too long, our political choices have ranged over a very narrow band of acceptability; with the Bush Administration's - indeed, the Republican Party in general - abject failures, there is the realization that the kind of taboos that have existed for a quarter century no longer apply because the circumstances within which we find ourselves are unique. Bill Clinton attempted to govern within these new realities, and was remarkably successful at it. The struggle, in the six-and-a-half years since George Bush's election, has been over the plurality that refused to recognize these changed realities - and our dominant media's refusal to grant these changes the status of acceptability. From redefining what "liberal" and "conservative" mean to rethinking the role of the United States in world affairs to questions of domestic policy from taxes to suburban sprawl, we have tried to engage an entire new way of living as the United States, while our dominant media and politicians continued to pretend we had just won World War II and were the biggest kid on the block with the biggest stick (the "lone superpower" delusion).

Over the coming weeks I am going to examine the changes that I think have occurred, what they mean, how the public has reacted to them, and the obstinate refusal of our dominant elites to grant these new realities the status they deserve. Let me state my theses - yes, they are plural - clearly, as I shall be defending and fleshing them out over time:
- The end of the Cold War caught our elites by surprise. Most have continued to act as if the US "victory" provided an opportunity for us to act unilaterally as the "lone superpower", aided and abetted by media elites who continued to live within this no-longer-controlling paradigm. The public, however, has reacted differently, and only now are politicians catching up.
- As the Goldwater campaign of 1964 was to conservatism, the 1972 defeat of George McGovern was a Pyrrhic defeat of liberalism. McGovern's campaign and platform, even with all its limitations, failures, and comedic aspects, reflects a post-Cold War political ideology that events have finally allowed to flourish. We are, now, McGovernites.
- Our dominant media elites, while certainly craven and stupid, are also blinded by their adherence to outmoded ways of thinking and presenting the world to us. The most interesting aspect of this disconnect is the public, by and large, recognize the reality not given by the elites' interpretation, and refuse to go along with their dominant narrative. Thus the elite call the public stupid, ignorant, misguided, or even unethical or immoral. Rather, it is the elites who are ignorant, blind, and stuck in a past that no longer applies.
- There are intellectual and historical tools available for interpreting what is happening, the best including the views on pluralism voiced by Isaiah Berlin and Charles Taylor, on pragmatism and social hope voiced by Richard Rorty, and inclusion voiced by Miroslav Volf.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

It's Good To Be Back . . . With An Agenda No Less

This little vacation of mine was just what the doctor ordered. I feel refreshed, renewed, invigorated, and ready to get back in to the whole blogging thing. I do hope you haven't wandered far, or if you have, you find your way back. I started missing doing this about Wednesday, but kept to my desire to stay away until today in order to give myself the time needed to get even more clarity and perspective.

I feel a bit like Rod Serling. In his last interview, as reported in Stephen King's Danse Macabre, Serling said of his scripts for The Twilight Zone that about a third of them were good, a third of them were just OK, and a third of them were just awful. I feel that way about what I have written here. There are some pieces I am very proud to have authored. Some seem like place holders. Some . . . I would just as soon forget. Part of this vacation has been a chance to give myself some perspective on these less than admirable achievements of mine. I have decided, in order to reduce the quota of embarrassing posts, to set myself a public agenda, and a set of rules as I go forward. I do this for myself, to put out publicly what I have seen and read privately as constituting my best efforts. I do not promise I shall abide by them %100; but I do promise to be conscious and aware of them. That is why I am setting them out publicly - I make myself accountable not only to myself, but to all who read this as well.

First, some stylistic things. I will refrain from using strong language, including profanity. While I have argued in the past that such self-censorship can be self-defeating, I think it detracts from my own goal of being true to my self-professed identity as a Christian. As a distraction, it plays in to questions of my credibility. I would rather be credible than provocative, so I shall no longer be dropping the "f-bomb" on the world as a way of being rhetorically shocking. Better writing and more thought, as well as clarity of exposition can do that just as well.

Also, I will spend a bit more time on posts. I tend to write quickly, edit only for grammar and spelling, then post. I think I should spend a bit of time editing for clarity of exposition, simplicity, and even elegance. I would rather be a better writer than a quick writer. I have more than once struggled to make a point that, after reflection, could have been made both more easily and with less exposition had I given myself time to think through what I was trying to say.

I think it is important to list my own agenda items as I go forward. These are the main topics of interest and concern for me, and help me to keep from wandering hither and yon, focusing my intellectual energies and interests in a way that is constructive for the larger public dialogue of which this blog is a tiny part.

- Focus attention on the increasing diversity of Christian religious practice in the public realm, especially on the evolving evangelical movement and the changing nature of the mainline churches.

- There is no "natural" or "real" narrative that reveals the inner meaning of our current events; this blog will focus on the liberal/progressive narrative as it encompasses issues of concern and hope for our country and the world.

- The intellectually shallow and dishonest, morally obtuse and impaired commentary of much of our national commentariat is in dire need of correction. The main culprits - Joe Klein, David Broder, Tom Friedman, the network and cable news organizations - are in dire need of change to reflect, not necessarily the "correct" view, but a view that is more reflective of the changed realities we as a nation find ourselves in. I shall continue to criticize the failures (and occasional whopping nonsense) of these and other representatives of our small-minded elite journalists.

- I have an interest in the historical, philosophical, and, yes, theological underpinnings and perspectives on our current world situation, and examining them is a way to present current events in a broader intellectual context. As such, I shall be offering posts that go off in to territories of more intellectual depth (hopefully with a big dose of humility and humor to keep my head from getting too big).

- Various immediate events - a Congressional hearing, a headline, the death of important personage, a church service or sermon that touches me - will be offered when they arise and move me to comment or highlight them in order to point you to them for you own edification, enlightenment, or criticism.

- Music has always been as important to me as breathing. I will continue my Monday and Saturday music posts, with occasional musical offerings when the mood, or perhaps occasion, calls for them.

As we move forward, I hope I have the discipline to keep to this agenda, and that I do not become either boring or predictable. As always, feedback is appreciated, but not always necessary.

Virtual Tin Cup

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