Saturday, July 14, 2007

Saturday Rock Show

When I was a sophomore in college, my next door neighbor for the first half of my first semester would come home in the evenings and play, over and over again, on a small, tinny tape player, the soundtrack to the Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense. I got so tired of hearing it, I actually avoided seeing the movie because the repetition of the soundtrack just destroyed my enjoyment of the music so much. Over the years, however, I bought it, and watch it on occasion. I love much of the music, but I find the band's artsy, downtown-New York, Andy Warholesque pose annoying. One can be insouciant about one's status as a musician, but there is no reason to be insufferable about it. Having said all that - I do love David Byrne's suit, the lighting, even some of the theatrics.

Here's "Girlfriend is Better", from which the title of the film came:


Remember back in the 1990's, when all it took to attempt to remove a President from office was a fib about a personal indiscretion? As the country - or at least its official organs, including the press - were consumed by the specter of a President engaging in extra-marital oral relations (horror of horrors!), there were some who wondered if such a single-minded focus on such a ridiculous incident might not be distracting. The world was still a dangerous place. In the midst of all the hot air, Al Qaeda bombed American embassies in Africa, remember, and Republicans laughed and screamed "Wag the Dog!" at Clinton's response. Until, of course, 9/11, when they screamed at him for lobbing a few missiles. The poor guy couldn't win with some people.

The various departments and agencies of the Executive Branch of our federal government continue to function in the midst of these storms, yet with the distractions of various issues and controversies, they can be left rudderless, with important decisions left unmade, and possible policy alternatives not considered in the heat and light of various media firestorms. As various priorities consume more and more time and official energy, other things often fall under the radar, things that maybe, just maybe, might cause us concern somewhere down the road. I offer, as exhibit "A", this story of Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to remove Russia from a Treaty regarding conventional weapons limitations in Europe. Ever since Pres. Bush first met the Russian President, looked in to his eyes and saw his soul, it has become evident to most other people that, in fact, Putin probably doesn't have one. Increasingly authoritarian and arbitrary, to the point of engendering a nascent cult of personality, the Russian President is attempting to revive Russian fortunes as a major power. Aided by the recovery of the Russian economy and the silencing of dissent and public discourse through official repression, Russia is trying to become, once again, if not a superpower, certainly a major factor in regional politics. If it succeeds, we can chalk up "the return of the Cold War with Russia" as another success of the Bush years, along with "losing the war with Iraq", "shredding the Constitution", and "allowing Al Qaeda to regain all its former, pre-9/11 strength". The reasons for all of these, while rooted partly in the ideology of ultimate executive power propagated by Cheney, John Yoo, Alberto Gonzalez, and practiced by the President, are practically rooted in our continued presence in Iraq.

As we continue to bleed our military, physically, in terms of morale and strategic strength, it seems the Russians are taking the opportunity to bluster and assert their historic prerogatives in Eastern and central Europe. Meanwhile, we have to listen to nincompoops like Joe Lieberman talk about how wonderful our presence in Iraq is; we have to listen to psychotics like Cheney tell Congress and the American people to go, well, you know the quote; we have to go through the motions of dealing with the struggle between Congress and the Executive even as both the President and his most vocal supporters insist the only threat on the horizon comes from radical Islam, even as Russia gins up not just the rhetoric, but the reality of a more tense, more militarized Central Europe. Were we led by sane, competent people - or even insane competent people - we might actually be paying more attention to this than we are. Alas and alack, we are not in a position to do much of anything other than say, "Gee, that's too bad." Because we are distracted.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Paternalism of the Self-Righteously Correct

While I know I shouldn't be surprised, I am more than occasionally agog at the moral and intellectual blindness of those who seek to pass judgment upon the lives of others. Whether it is the fundamentalist Christian who insists that we have to believe his or her way or we are damned to hell or the ardent rationalist who insists that we subsume all of life under the banner of reason, discarding all that cannot be defended, defined, and explained through a combination of logic and evidence. That vast middle where most human beings reside - recognizing the world might be a bit more complicated than boosters and fanatics insist; happy in the muddle and contradictions and vagueness that make up their lives - has no place for those who insist that all human beings must conform to their way of thinking or they are not fully human (because they don't worship God the correct way, or they don't think correctly, or whatever).

To the fundamentalists of all stripes, there is no arguing, there is no persuasion, there is no evidence, there is no alternative. While my own concern tends to be with Christian fundamentalists, increasingly I am wearied by the intolerance of secular fundamentalists. While I recognize a legitimate gripe at some of our more, ahem, noisome fundies, the reactions provoked too often sound an awful lot like fundamentalism, with the subject changing rather than the intent.

I am an advocate of a kind of via media when it comes to matters of life, whether it is the life of the mind or the life of the spirit, or both. It seems to me that the arguments both types make - one can either be a Christian or a rigorous materialist/rationalist/empiricist but not both - is belied by the simple reality that in fact many human beings are both. Including me. I see no inconsistency in saying, "Heck, yeah, the Universe is close to 12 billion years old, maybe older, and life on earth is in a constant state of flux through the process of evolution" and "God Created the World and All that is in it." The first is a regard for the current state of our scientific understanding. The second is a faith claim about the relationship between God and the world. Those who find such a position either inconsistent or self-contradictory just don't understand we are dealing with two distinct ways of dealing with the world.

Part of being an advocate of the kind of middle ground I inhabit is recognizing the limitations inherent in all human endeavors. Science is a marvelous tool, but I dare anyone to provide a coherent argument for me to remain faithful to my wife. That is an irrational decision on my part, and I declare it so with a lot of glee. On the other hand, I also dare a fundamentalist to please explain how we reconcile the first two chapters of Genesis which are, on any reading, mutually contradictory. Rather than get bogged down in figuring things out in such ways as this, my own preference is to live my life as best I can, and make my own peace with the world and its mysteries both terrible and sublime. I choose, in other words, life over any one way of interpreting it. I leave the interpretation to reflection, and use whatever tools I see fit to do so, rather than having a previous commitment to any one way of deciding what is the only way of thinking.

In the end, while I might enjoy the occasional repartee with those who insist it's their way or the highway, my own preference is to allow them to spout off and just get on living my life.

Blogroll Pumping

I usually don't do this, but I want to highlight one of the sites on my blogroll. I don't know how many of you use those little buttons to check out what I check out each and every day, but I would urge you to click on Sadly!No. The guys at Sadly!No do what I cannot do, and wish I could - they skewer the right wing through humor. They also marshal enough reason and evidence along the way to burst the pretension to wisdom, sagacity, and intellectual honesty that is so sorely lacking. Their main targets include, but are not limited to, Blogs for Bush, Michelle Malkin and her Pajamas Media, Peggy Noonan, Deb Schlussel, and gay conservative Ace of Spades. They are always funny, insightful, biting, and correct. I start my blog-reading with them because they help me keep something in perspective - while the issues are serious, we are not. Those who consider themselves the most serious people around are actually the biggest clowns in our public circus. One can either scream at them, or laugh at them. Thanks to Sadly!No, we all can laugh together.

As a note of warning, some of the language and imagery might be considered offensive to those of a more genteel nature. The site is definitely rated "R", but so is life.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Hang Our Heads In Shame

This is embarrassing. Three protesters were arrested today as they interrupted the Senate invocation by a Hindu priest.

Over at TPM's Election Central is this story of an interview with the head of the group represented by the arrested protesters. Here is a sampling of his, uh, views:
In the interview, [the Rev. Flip] Benham praised the three activists, Ante and Katherine Pavkovic and their daughter Kristen. And he scorned the idea of the Hindu invocation.

"What we have here is just a wonderful example of Christian theology becoming biography in the sacred chamber of the United States Senate, as a Hindu was offering up a prayer to open up the session this morning. And the folks that were there [the Pavkovics] ... waited for the Senate, or a Senator with a backbone, to remind the Hindu that there is one God who made this country great, and his name is Jesus."(emphasis added)

The Pavkovics disrupted the ceremony after seeing that no Senator would emerge to challenge the Hindu clergyman's beliefs

Just a note on the highlighted portion of the text; uh, no.

This is the kind of thing that makes me want not to be a Christian anymore, because idiots like these protesters call themselves by the same name. Maybe I'll become Hindu; Chaplain Zed appears to be a pretty reasonable guy . . .

Lying In Politics

In her essay of the same name, Hannah Arendt discusses the question of public untruth in the light of the revelations provided by The Pentagon Papers. One of the points Arendt makes is that the understanding of the concept of untruth, and therefore the bar for responsibility, is different in the public realm than it is in the private sphere. Because we are dealing here not with individuals but institutions, the issue could become complicated by getting into all sorts of psychological discussions of the limits of information flow and that sort of thing. Arendt cuts the Gordian Knot by insisting that the issue is not "What did an individual know and when did he or she know it" but rather, "what institutional mechanisms were in place to ensure that the best information was available for making decisions of public import in a democratic society".

One of the biggest bombshells of the Pentagon Papers was the discovery of a discussion among RAND Corporation analysts of the possible ramifications of a North Vietnamese attack upon the US Navy in international waters. Given the knowledge of the limitations of the North Vietnamese Navy, their unwillingness to provoke a US attack directly upon them at a time most of the US military was concentrated in South Vietnam fighting the Viet Cong, and public wavering on the issue of the relevance of an Indochinese civil war for our national security, these analysts figured the attack would have to be large enough to seem clear and show hostile intent without being overly damaging (that would be impossible). With all the givens, and all the intelligence data they had, they figured out the best way to get the US behind a larger military commitment to South Vietnam was for the North Vietnamese Navy to send gunboats out and attack American ships in international waters, under the cover of darkness.

In 1964, in the Gulf of Tonkin, this is exactly what happened. Under cover of darkness, a small contingent of North Vietnamese gunboats fired upon US ships outside the territorial waters of North Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson used this clear act of aggression to push through a resolution in Congress authorizing the President to use force to protect out military and civilian assets in both North and South Vietnam.

Two problems immediately presented themselves to those who were reading the Pentagon Papers in 1971. First, the details of the events of the night were sketchy at best, sometimes contradictory, and none of the principles involved in the original attack made any further claims of North Vietnamese aggression, before or after the attack. Indeed, some of those who were named as participants - gunners and low-grade officers - insisted that nothing untoward happened that night. Furthermore, the logs of the ships were missing, so the question of the exact positions of the ships in question couldn't be verified. Were they in international waters, or were they not, provoking a North Vietnamese response? The second problem was the real bombshell. The discussions at the RAND Corporation and inside the Pentagon, which eventually ended with a discussion of the details of an alleged attack by the North Vietnamese upon American forces, occurred two years before the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin.

While most Americans understood the Pres. Johnson had lied about the success or lack thereof in Vietnam, this was evidence that it was quite probable that the roots of the deepening American commitment to South Vietnam and aggression against North Vietnam were themselves false. Whether or not the incident occurred became a moot point once it was learned that Pentagon officials were discussing such an event and how to capitalize upon it years before it actually, or allegedly, taken place.

Did Lyndon Johnson believe something happened in the Gulf of Tonkin when he sent the resolution up to Congress? Who knows? Did members of Congress, including those with access to intelligence information, believe it? Who knows? These questions are irrelevant to the larger point - the United States lied about the immediate, proximate, and sufficient cause for its deepening engagement in the South Vietnamese civil war, and the resulting conflict and social dislocation at home are laid at the feet not just of those Pentagon planners, but at Pres. Johnson and those members of Congress who voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

Does George Bush believe that Iraq hid its weapons of mass destruction so well that we still can't find them? Did he believe throughout 2002 and in to 2003 that they still had them? Who knows? More important, this question is not relevant. There is more than enough public evidence available, not just contemporaneously, but currently, that shows public officials and the institutions of our government were aware at the time various claims were made that these claims were, at best dubious, and usually out-and-out false. Whether or not any individual is morally culpable for "lying" is irrelevant.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Quote Of The Day

From an article by Charles Marsh (Bonhoeffer scholar extraodinaire):
Like Bonhoeffer, I fear that the gospel has been humiliated in our time. But if this has happened, it is not because the message -- the good news that God loves us unconditionally in Jesus Christ, that we are freed and forgiven in God's amazing grace -- has changed. Nor is it due to the machinations of secularists, or because the post-Enlightenment world has dispensed with the hypothesis of God. The Christian faith has not only endured modernity and post-modernity, but flourished in its new settings.

The gospel has been humiliated because too many American Christians have decided that there are more important things to talk about. We would rather talk about our country, our values, our troops, and our way of life; and although we might think we are paying tribute to God when we speak of these other things, we are only flattering ourselves.

If only holiness were measured by the volume of our incessant chatter, we would be universally praised as the most holy nation on earth. But in our fretful, theatrical piety, we have come to mistake noisiness for holiness, and we have presumed to know, with a clarity and certitude that not even the angels dared claim, the divine will for the world. We have organized our needs with the confidence that God is on our side, now and always, whether we feed the poor or corral them into ghettos.

Rambling Thoughts

These are just some general comments that are related to nothing in particular other than what just popped in to my head. Please treat them as lightly as they deserve. . .
I just read the draft and have decided to re-title it. Again, please take this as lightly as possible. There is just no point to it. These are stream (or at best, rill) of thought kind of things . . .

First of all, in regards to the whole issue of the various crimes and atrocities of the Christian Churches throughout history, I think it is important to remember that no human institution is free from the guilt ascribed to the Church. Christians have the blood of millions on their hands, a crime that cries out to heaven for justice. I know few who would dispute that. I just want to know what, exactly, we are to do about it except to work harder in the future to prevent the kind of things people get all up in arms about. Should the churches merely accept responsibility, announce they are closing up shop and go home? By that understanding, pretty much every nation-state on the planet deserves the same fate (and some anarchists, like Noam Chomsky, would like nothing better. . .). It is easy to get on one's moral high-horse and shout "J'accuse!" It is easy to wash one's hands of responsibility for participation in communal evil by saying, in effect, "As those actions don't represent my moral beliefs, I refuse to accept responsibility for them". Earnest chest-thumping, if nothing else, gives one the satisfaction of being right when everyone else is wrong.

Whether it's the Church, or various nation-states, or political ideologies, or what have you, I think it is necessary to recall that all of us, at some level participate in the evils we decry. All of us benefit from the wrongs done in the past. All of us are inheritors of wealth stolen from the enslaved, the dead, those deemed unworthy of the simple human courtesy of being left in peace. Our world barely escaped alive from the 20th century's warring madness, yet no one, as far as I know, is seriously considering condemning the United States and the Soviet Union categorically because the life of the planet was held in the hands of the least sane person in charge at any given time (considering the Presidents we elected during that time, that is a frightening and chastening thought indeed). I would like nothing better than a serious reconsideration of the Cold War and the threat it posed and any possible legal ramifications it presents for future generations; as it stands now, however, there are few out there discussing this issue.

Human institutions are a mixed bag, and current ideological and moral fads blind us to the possibility that everything from imperialism to war does have certain advantages. War, sometimes, is a necessity. Imperialism, while racist, paternalistic, and oft times couples with a certain amount of low-level genocide (and the occasional outbreak of outright slaughter) also provides certain benefits to those so embraced by the motherland. Just to give one example, India is a relatively passive, boisterous democracy (with the small problem of the period when Indira Ghandi declared marshal law in the 1970's . . .) partly because of the political influence of Great Britain. This isn't the only reason, by far, but it certainly is one of the reasons, and I think we should recognize the fact and move on.

All this is to say that, we need to look at the whole picture of the history of an institution, not just the negative. Whether it's the Church, the United States, whatever, I can think of only one or two irredeemable institutions in recent history - the Nazi Party, and the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union and China. I would never argue that there were aspects of them that should give us pause before we condemn them. By all means, condemn them with gusto! Precisely because they stand out so vividly, however, and were so brutally awful, they are the exceptions that prove the rule - no one's perfect, and the one without sin should cast the first stone.

Am I an apologist for the Church? On some level, sure. Why not? It has provided me with a spiritual and intellectual home, as well as certain psychological and social props that I find comforting. Some of the most intelligent, thoughtful, kindest, and most liberal minds and voices I have ever known have also been men and women of faith who have been in my life. I have been privileged to have had people in my life who had a deep faith, a willingness to befriend me, the need to chastise me, and on one or two occasions even return love for me that I felt for them (in many senses of the word). My youth leaders in high school (Bob and Val Crocker), the pastor of my home church in senior high (Rev. Edwin Martin), various professors in seminary (Mark Burrows, Josiah Young, Jim Logan, David Hopkins, Roy Morrison, John Godsey), friends of mine in seminary, and one or two special people in my life who shall remain nameless (out of simple courtesy and fear of lawsuits) who have been more than friends. My wife, obviously, caps the list on a very personal level, because I have a wise, caring, loving pastor for a wife who is my spiritual adviser, critic, and sounding board. I have a tremendous amount of emotional investment in the United Methodist Church in particular, and the larger Church of which it is a part. Why should anyone be surprised by my defense of an institution that has provided a place for me to live and grow and sometimes royally screw up but never toss me aside?

Focusing on the negatives gets us nowhere fast. It is necessary to remind the world that we are hardly guilt free; that doesn't mean the guilt cancels out all the good done.

I have no desire to change anyone's mind concerning matters of faith. They are far too personal, far too ingrained in one's identity, for me to do so. That is not the intention of this site, and I would be lying if I claimed that I found it my duty to proselytize. Despite our differences, I honor and rejoive at DL's position whole-heartedly, and his reasons (stated and unstated) for holding them. Likewise, I honor and rejoice at my old friend Jim Bush-Resko's spiritual journey from Catholic to lapsed-Catholic to Friend. Wherever one comes out on the whole question of faith, religion, politics, etc., I think it is important to remember that none of us hold the truth in a bottle. We are all struggling to figure it out as we go, and we all share in the joys and horrors of this life and world. I would much rather have a bunch of people around me who all thought differently than an echo chamber for my own thoughts.

Is there a point to all this or am I rambling? I guess my point is simple - we need to weigh all the evidence, and consider the possibility that different people ascribe different weights to different pieces of evidence based upon their own life experiences. Intellectual discussions aside, I think that it is important also to remember that, as I said previously, there is an irreducibly subjective, untranslatable element to our lives that is immune from rational discourse and objective evidence. These decisions - about faith or lack thereof, about how much and how far we support various institutions of which we are a part (or choose not to be a part) - are not best left to logic and reason.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

History As A Chastening Rod - For Both Fundamentalists And Secularists

Some comments by Parklife down-thread got me thinking, in connection with my previous post, and I thought I would be up front with some of my own biases and reasons for questioning the intellectual depth and seriousness of fundamentalist Christians.

When I entered seminary, I had little understanding of the history of Christianity. I had read, as an undergrad, of some of the early Christian apologists, and of course I knew of people like St. Thomas and Martin Luther. Beyond that, the amount of Church history I knew could be summed up in a paragraph or two. It was having the door opened to the diversity, the depth, the breadth, and continuing plurality of Christianities that made me realize that my own faith was not only provincial, but shallow. That can be a shattering experience. For me, though, it was liberating. I continue to read histories of the Church, from the early post-Apostolic church to my current reading in the American liberal tradition, and am continually astounded at the various turns and stages the various incarnations of the Christian faith take. While I stand by my own personal confession, I also recognize its contingency, and rather than threatening my own sense of faith, I am glad that the depths of faith are not limited to me, my denomination, or even my tradition. Such would be a limit to God and God's revelation I find both silly and contradictory.

At the same time, the history of the Church and church teaching renders a blow to all those secularists (which is not the same thing as all those who profess no belief; secularism is the idea that we are better off without religion; it is a prejudice rather than an intellectual position) who insist that we surrender our intellect and reason when we become Christians. Even a cursory glance at the history of the church should remind us that, during the long slog of the Dark Ages, learning and thought were kept alive by the Church. The Aristotelian revolution that was part of the intellectual heritage of the Crusades was not a rebirth of learning, but only of one style of reasoning. Historian of science and devout Catholic Pierre Duhem, writing in the early decades of the 20th century, made a persuasive case that much of what many still call the "Scientific Revolution" of the 17th century was in fact an outgrowth of various debates that extend back to the controversies between St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure. While I think he overstates the case a bit, there is no doubt that Galileo, Kepler, and even Newton (a devout religious convert who wrote a huge commentary on the Book of Daniel) relied partly upon an intellectual legacy they gained from the Church.

History, for me, is a chastening rod for any attempt at religious or theological or secular or intellectual triumphalism. We are just bit players in a drama that extends backwards thousands of years, and will continue as long as people try to make sense out of what it is they believe. As such, I find the kind of finality and holism professed by fundamentalists historically inaccurate and theologically mendacious. I would rather spend an hour or two with William of Ockham, or Scotus Eriugena, or even that hyper-Platonist the pseudo- Dyonisius, that with J. Gresham Machen or James Heidinger. The God of the latter is just too small for me.

Personal Distractions

There are two things that are currently keeping me from being able to concentrate on what I am doing as fully as I might like. The first is considering some comments from Marshall Art on the nature of blogging and blogging debates and arguments. The second is my reading, which is both opening up my perception of the history of American liberal religion and reducing my tolerance for what passes for discussion of religion and religious issues. I suppose this is a natural outgrowth of my continuing evolution as a human being - Lord knows I don't want to be the same person all the time - but it is playing havoc with my own preference for really listening to what others have to say, and opening up myself to new possibilities.

As for the first issue, I am a bit - how can I say this? - exhausted by the notion that there is something to study, some piece of evidence that is not in the public's view that could exculpate the Bush Administration from the conviction that they are serially committed to untruth, the shredding of the Constitution, and the destruction of the balance of powers between the Executive and other branches of the federal government. To be honest, these are neither unremarkable, nor should they be considered controversial, claims. One need not even consult the polls, consistent for over a year now, that the American people are just plain tired of Bush and pretty much everything to do with him, his Administration, his policies, and his law-breaking. To discover, this late in the game, that there are those who might question this, and accuse those of us who assert it of suffering from "BDS", or using biased sources is, to be blunt, nonsensical.

On the larger issue of discussions/debates on line, Marshall is "surprised" that people don't just concede his superior wisdom and agree with what he has to say. For example, he continues to insist that his arguments concerning the beginning of life are solid and unanswerable, even as I attempt to point out how they are not. I want to continue the dialogue; he wants to be right. That is part of the problem. I have no interest in "winning" and argument, especially since such is irrelevant anyway. More to the present point, as Marshall is relatively new, he may be surprised to learn that such discussions have been going on for a long time, both here in blog-land and in the real world, and all the points have been hashed and rehashed before. There really is nothing new under the sun, so Marshall should perhaps content himself with some good fun rather than any victory dances.

This same conclusion - we are going over well-worn territory - is strengthened by my current reading on the history of American liberal Protestantism. The current fundamentalist/progressive debate within the churches is an echo of a similar religious and cultural divide that raged from the 1880's through the 1920's. The terms of the debate are the same, the issues are the same, even the language is the same. Only the cast of characters have changed. This is one reason why I am no longer moved to respond to fundies - thy lost once, they are losing again, and we have more important things to discuss. Part of this impatience stems from the intellectual shallowness of those who have no idea of the history of religion and religious debate in this country. Most people think that previous fundamentalist incarnations were short-lived and limited to the 1920's. The growth of Protestant liberalism towards the end of the 19th century, fed by German methods of Scriptural exegesis and hermeneutics, a burgeoning of understanding on the history of doctrine (led by the greatest Church historian ever, Adolf von Harnack), and the influence of neo-Hegelians and liberals following Schleiermacher, created a backlash led by American fundamentalists who rejected pretty much everything the new scholarship and openness embraced. Today's fundamentalists are no different; they just have different targets.

American liberal Protestantism is a rich vein of thought and practice that has been sadly neglected as too many have looked elsewhere for inspiration. One need only consider that our religious and theological roots include names like Emerson, Beecher, Rauschebusch, Niebuhr, Thurman, Mays, and King to take pride in our heritage, and use it as a resource for the future. We no longer need to look across the Atlantic, or south of the border, for inspiration. To use a phrase from Gustavo Gutierrez, we are more than capable of drinking from our own wells. My impatience with fundamentalists is simple - their well dried up long ago, and (to change the metaphor) are seeking to give a stone those of us asking for bread.

If They Want To Talk About It, They Should Expect To Get Thumped

While there are many on the left and liberal end of the political spectrum who welcome liberal politicians speaking of their faith, it should come as no shock that, when they do, conservatives and fundamentalists will go after them with all the limited theological and intellectual resources at their command. This is why (a) I wonder why they do it; and (b) wonder if, they are doing it at the behest of some consultant, why they listen to a consultant as stupid as this. This is a no-win situation for the candidate, and is a distraction from something that separates liberal politicians from conservatives - a dedication to keeping one's personal faith commitments out of public debate. Once we go down the road, we are left with all sorts of things that need to be said unsaid, and the conservatives and fundamentalists, while not having much in the way of serious thought, do have the pithiest sound bites.

Over at a site named is a column by Cal Thomas that includes the following sentence in a review of a recent New York Times article in which Sen Hillary Clinton spoke about her religious faith:
The quality and depth of one's relationship with God should be personal and beyond the judgment of others, unless one is running for president and chooses to talk about it as part of a campaign plan to win the election.(emphasis added)

So there you have it. Religious conservatives are going extra-constitutional on us, reserving a religious test for liberals who speak out on faith issues. Thomas goes on to score all kinds of points against Sen. Clinton, at least in his own mind. Part of the problem with a column like this is that Clinton revealed a deep faith, an abiding trust in God, and an openness to the world that characterizes the best in Christian wisdom. For Thomas, however, there is nothing but the betrayal of true Christian belief, which he "proves" by throwing Bible verses out left and right. Proof-texting is a fun game, and everyone can do it (you don't even have to believe in the Bible), but it is meaningless except to those for whom the words written down in various dead languages thousands of years ago trump everything.

For this reason alone - the good proof-text always works better than the nuanced statement of faith - one wonders why the Democratic candidates want to play this game. Since they are playing it, however, they should expect to get treated like this. At the same time, Thomas' insistence on a new religious test for public office at least leaves open the possibility for religious liberals and progressives and non-believers and believers of other faiths to take on the Christian fundamentalists. They just have to be willing to be as nasty and intellectually shallow and dishonest.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Music Monday

I have enough suggestions and requests to do my first "Summer Songs" Music Monday. First up, by most popular demand, is that wonderful ode to the female orgasm, "Afternoon Delight" by The Starland Vocal Band.

Next up is Seals and Croft's "Summer Breeze".

Finally, here's Manfred Mann's Earth Band with their cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Blinded By the Light". Please note that, while there were other versions of this of better quality, I preferred this one because it was contemporaneous with when the song was new. I also love those mid-seventies haircuts, the open vests, the whole campy schtick. God Bless the 1970's.

Life, Death, Abortion, Euthanasia, and Christian Ethics

Quite a title, I know. I guess I can sum up what I want to say this way - as a Christian, I do not believe that death is the ultimate horror. I do not fear death. Furthermore, I think it is anti-Christian to support life at all costs. Furthermore, I think that an ethic that calls itself Christian that seeks to forestall death out of fear is in fact not Christian.

You know what? This is really all I have to say. All the details I wanted to put in - from Terri Schiavo and abortion to assisted suicide - really flow from this simple assertion. Too many Christians act out of a fear of death that, were they consistent, has no place in the Christian faith. Death is not the enemy. To act as if it is, and that any and all signs of life must be defended at all costs, is to betray the message of the resurrection (kind of an important part of the Christian faith, I think) that God's love transcends death. Even were one to deny the historical, physical reality of the resurrection of Jesus, treating it more as a metaphor, we arrive at the same place.

Abortion, Healthcare, and Choice

Over here at Marshall Art's new blog, in the comments thread, I am involved in an ongoing discussion of the issue of abortion. Before your eyes roll, etc., let me just say that my interlocutor, going by the nom de computer Mom2, has asked me to personalize the question, rather than discuss it dispassionately (at least, as dispassionately as possible). My response was easy. Having gone through the whole pregnancy thing twice, my wife and I were conscious of the hazards involved, and the difficult choices we might face should serious complications arise. I will be blunt and say that, for me, if ever the choice was forced upon us, while not forcing anything, I would, as I said in comments there, with great regret and without hesitation, do what was necessary to save my wife's life and/or future reproductive health.

I wrote those comments last night, and at work last night I got to thinking about them in the context of the broader issues of "choice" and healthcare. As abortion is still a medical procedure, it seems to me a perfectly reasonable way to consider the subject. In the first place, I think it is important to say that, while the event never transpired (thankfully) where we had to even glance in the direction of abortion, I am glad the option is a live one. Were that option closed, especially in a situation where my wife's life and/or health were threatened, and no choices were left, not even the bad choice of losing a fetus to save a life - I would be enraged. To have one's medical and ethical decisions made for them, especially when the issue is so dire is a presumption and imposition of the most tyrannical sort.

The same, more broadly, applies to the whole issue of healthcare. Whether it is the lack of coverage that tens of millions of Americans face, or the denial of coverage by insurance companies that effectively ends treatment, considering the pro-life movement within this broader context of the limitation of personal choice is the tyranny of the minority. In some cases, the reasons presented are economic; in some others, moral or religious. In either case, they show a decided lack of healthy respect for the human ability to make decisions for themselves, and to take upon themselves the burden of making difficult choices. I do believe that is the heart of the anger at both instances of corporate presumption - insurance companies in their way, and the pro-life movement in its way each would tell others that the choices they make are the incorrect ones, and their lives and health are better managed by others who know better.


Sunday, July 08, 2007

Considering the Source

One of the ways human beings weigh evidence for which they have no direct knowledge is taking the measure of the source of the information. The reliability of a source is a necessary component of considering the veracity of any claim that source makes. Once again, the incomparable Digby points us to this piece in the LA Times on the Nixon library. From the Times:
The Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda has long been the most kicked-around of presidential libraries, and nothing invited more ridicule than the dim, narrow room purporting to describe the scandal that drove its namesake from office.

Venturing into that room, visitors learned that Watergate, which provoked a constitutional crisis and became an enduring byword for abuses of executive power, was really a "coup" engineered by Nixon enemies. The exhibit accused Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — without evidence — of "offering bribes" to further their famous coverage.

Most conspicuous was a heavily edited, innocent-seeming version of the "smoking gun" tape of June 23, 1972, the resignation-clinching piece of evidence in which Nixon and his top aide are heard conspiring to thwart the FBI probe of Watergate.

Who was the director of the library who led this odd bit of historical revisionism?
Yet from the start, the library had trouble being taken seriously. Its first director, Hugh Hewitt, announced that researchers deemed unfriendly would be banned from the archives, singling out the Washington Post's Bob Woodward as a candidate for exclusion. Scholars cried foul; Hewitt revoked the plan.(bold in original; italics added)

While we all know Hewitt is an apologist for the Bush Administration, we now know that he is intellectually dishonest as well. Does that mean that everything he says is wrong? Of course not. It does mean that we need to consider his history as a partisan hack servicing power, and his willingness to alter the historical record as part of the service, when we read him.

Just a thought.

One More Nugget of Fact for Marshall (UPDATED)

At his own blog, Marshall wrote that he spent "a couple hours" reviewing the Libby trial and came to the conclusion that Libby had been "railroaded". I thought he might find this portion of this piece by Steve Benen from Talking Points Memo interesting. Benen is discussing a new article on the commutation written by Michael Isikoff:
Isikoff also added an interesting detail I hadn't heard before: Bush asked White House Counsel Fred Fielding to help determine whether Libby's jury made the right call. Far from respecting the verdict, as the White House has been emphasizing all week, the president hoped to find that the jurors came to an unreasonable conclusion, which in turn would make it easier for Bush to intervene.

Fielding came up empty. As Isikoff explained it, he "reluctantly concluded that the jury had reached a reasonable verdict: the evidence was strong that Libby testified falsely about his role in the leak."

In other words, the president learned just how guilty Libby really was, but commuted the sentence anyway because he "hated the idea that a loyal aide would serve time."(emphases added)

So, a noted attorney came to the conclusion that the jurors' decision was correct. Marshall, who I am assuming is not an attorney, spent a couple hours looking things over, and came to the opposite conclusion. As to weighing various sources and their reliability, with whom should I go here . . .

UPDATE: With a tip of the hat to Digby for the link we have this piece by Hendrick Hertzberg which includes the following:
Some of the Post’s findings have been foreshadowed elsewhere, notably in Jane Mayer’s dispatches in this magazine. (See, especially, Letter from Washington, “The Hidden Power,” July 3, 2006.) But many of the details and incidents that Gellman and Becker document are as new as they are appalling. More important, the pattern that emerges from the accumulated weight of the reporting is, as the lawyers say, dispositive. Given the ontological authority that the Post shares only with the New York Times, it is now, so to speak, official: for the past six years, Dick Cheney, the occupant of what John Adams called “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived,” has been the most influential public official in the country, not necessarily excluding President Bush, and his influence has been entirely malign. He is pathologically (but purposefully) secretive; treacherous toward colleagues; coldly manipulative of the callow, lazy, and ignorant President he serves; contemptuous of public opinion; and dismissive not only of international law (a fairly standard attitude for conservatives of his stripe) but also of the very idea that the Constitution and laws of the United States, including laws signed by his nominal superior, can be construed to limit the power of the executive to take any action that can plausibly be classified as part of an endless, endlessly expandable “war on terror.”

More than anyone else, including his mentor and departed co-conspirator, Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney has been the intellectual author and bureaucratic facilitator of the crimes and misdemeanors that have inflicted unprecedented disgrace on our country’s moral and political standing: the casual trashing of habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions; the claim of authority to seize suspects, including American citizens, and imprison them indefinitely and incommunicado, with no right to due process of law; the outright encouragement of “cruel,” “inhuman,” and “degrading” treatment of prisoners; the use of undoubted torture, including waterboarding (Cheney: “a no-brainer for me”), which for a century the United States had prosecuted as a war crime; and, of course, the bloody, nightmarish Iraq war itself, launched under false pretenses, conducted with stupefying incompetence, and escalated long after public support for it had evaporated, at the cost of scores of thousands of lives, nearly half a trillion dollars, and the crippling of America’s armed forces, which no longer overawe and will take years to rebuild.

While this is more an indictment than a conviction (there is no evidence presented in Hertzberg's piece, merely assertions; for Marshall's sake, we might consider giving evidence for these assertions) it should be clear that the notion that the Bush Administration is perhaps the most criminally corrupt and incompetent bunch ever to fail miserably at governing our country is not the invention of low-level bloggers such as myself, or the "liberal press" or any other conspiratorial group struck with some psychological disorder known as BSD. Rather, it is the reasonable conclusion of six and a half years of witnessing these clowns in action. It just is.

On The Uses Of Intelligence

One further comment for Marshall. In a comment on a post below, he writes:
I'm saying that based on the best intel he had, which matched the intel and opinion of darn near the world, he was NOT lying.

In the first place, the intelligence "he had" was not the same as that of the rest of the world. In fact, as has been clearly demonstrated through the investigative reporting done by Seymour Hersch published in New Yorker magazine, the Vice President opened something called The Office of Special Plans, through which raw intelligence was funneled, to circumvent the kind of analysis done by the CIA. The problem, as the administration understood it, was that the intelligence just wasn't providing the kind of information they could take to the American people to justify going to war. Rather than use the analytical tools and talents available at the CIA, naked reports were picked up and used, sometimes verbatim, by Bush, Cheney, and the rest, to bolster their case. The frustration at the CIA was so high partly because their imprimatur was being placed upon information that, time and again, proved (to put it judiciously) unreliable.

This brings up the larger point of the uses on intelligence. No nation uses intelligence for strategic purposes. Intelligence is a tactical tool, giving nations information on how best to pursue strategic goals. The only counter-example from history is the infamous Zimmerman Telegram just before the American entry into the First World War. The German ambassador to Mexico attempted to convince the Mexican government to declare war on the United States (we had just fought an on-again/off-again undeclared war against Mexico, from 1911 to 1915), and Germany would support the Mexicans by recognizing Mexican sovereignty over former Mexican territory in Texas, the southwest, and California. The telegram was released, even though it gave notice that we had broken German codes, as a great propaganda tool against the Germans who were, at the same time they were inciting the Mexicans to war, waging a peace offensive against the United States.

Governments seeking to make a case for war do not hide behind intelligence reports they insist cannot be revealed (unless, of course, they are tyrannical or criminal regimes). Their case is made public, and the information - even some which might otherwise be better kept classified - is revealed. To say that Bush was relying upon intelligence in his decision to go to war misconstrues the way intelligence works.

For Marshall, Who Had Some Questions

Apparently, not everyone is paying attention. In remarks on a couple posts below, newcomer Marshall Art wants proof for my assertion that Bush and members of his Administration lied to the American people in the run up to the war. Indeed, in one comment, he denies that such proof even exists (apparently, Patrick Fitzgerald went after Libby for no reason; or, it's possible that Valerie Plame's ID was leaked as payback for her husband's insistence that Bush's claim that Saddam Hussein attempted to purchase uranium from the African country of Niger was false, based upon information the intelligence community knew - at the time it was included in a speech by President Bush - was false; is that a lie? depends on one's definition I suppose . . .). In order to enlighten Marshall, I have a small list of links here - just a sampling, mind you - of Administration false statements, history revision, etc. on the run up to the war. These include not just contemporaneous accounts, but current spin in which the lies continue.

Now, Marshall says he is open to the possibility that Bush and his Administration in fact lied to the American people. Let's put that to the test, shall we?

1) For a general overview, go here. It's an older site, but there is just a laundry list of quotes from Bush and Administration officials, every single one of which has proven factually untrue.

2) On Donald Rumsfeld's serial falsehoods, Truthout has a nice recap with refutations. My favorite has always been, "We know where the weapons are," even as UN inspectors on the ground weren't finding any.

3) From just one website - just one, mind you - come, the following six links, from the previous three months, in which current Bush Administration rhetoric attempts to spin past history, ignoring the fact there is enough on record to show them to be falsehoods. All those nasty documents. Should have been shredded. Remember, this is just one website, I didn't have time to do too much digging. From Think Progress:
- June 4, 2007
- May 26, 2007
- May 25, 2007
- May 24, 2007
- April 19, 2007 (this is one of my favorites, in which, in answer to a question, Karl Rove says the Iraq war was Osama Bin Laden's idea)
- April 10, 2007

Now, this is just a sample, not just of previous misstatements, but of the current attempt to either (a) lie about the history, or (b) claim that there have never been any lies, or (c) the claim that no misstatements were made is itself false. Like last summer's attempt to make "cut and run" the phrase du jour, and then, having failed miserably at it, claimed that no one in the Administration ever accused the Democrats of having a "cut and run" strategy. They are like kindergarteners, really, and if thousands of people's lives hadn't been lost, it would be comical. In context, though, it's a tragedy of epic proportions.

Had I the time, I am quote sure I could have found the exact sources for hundreds of whoppers. Just consider Secretary of State Colin Powell's appearance before the United Nations Security Council, I think in February of 2003. "Slam dunk" was the word used; "compelling", "inarguable", "unanswerable" were other epithets used. Alas and alack - the entire performance was the biggest embarrassment of Powell's career, as he has since noted with much regret. The night before, reading over notes, Powell grew frustrated, tossing the report across the room and telling aides that the information he was going to the UN with was, in his words, "fucking bullshit". That description, while crude, was accurate. Whether it was "mobile germ warfare units" or whatever other nonsense he spewed, every assertion he made in that presentation has been shown to be factually inaccurate. Of course, we have Powell's own remorse afterward, but that cannot undo the damage done, or the tens of thousands of lives lost and bodies and minds destroyed on both sides.

Now, I am sure that Marshall will argue that my sources are biased, etc. Of course, they're biased. That is not an argument for their lack of credibility. The main point here is this - the information is out there, available, anyone can read it and make of it what one will. The frustration for many of us is the denial, such as the one you made, Marshall, that is even exists. Not only does it exist, it is copious, detailed, and damning. This isn't some weird BSD most Americans suffer from. We are mad as hell, not just because of the war, which is a disaster of historic proportions. We are mad as hell because of the lying, not just four years ago, but the on-going, continuous, non-stop lying. This is lying that continues even after it has been proved a lie.

I would be happy to read a list of any sources you might provide, even one more thorough, that would attempt to refute my claims of Bush Administration untruths, or of the nobility and success of our current military efforts in Iraq, or of the veracity of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, or any other member of the Administration as it pertains to the war in and occupation of Iraq. I, too, am open to the possibility that four years and thousands of pages of documents are just plain wrong.

Virtual Tin Cup

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