Saturday, December 29, 2007

Saturday Rock Show

Via Pandora, I have discovered another of those symphonic progressive heavy metal bands that seem to sound alike, but I can't help liking. This is "Mirror, Mirror" from Blind Guardian.

If You Can Fake Authenticity, You've Got It Made

In this post, in which Pastor Dan comments on Rod Dreher's take on Mike Huckabee, we are faced with the whole issue of authenticity in politics. Essentially, PD seems to be making the argument summed up in this post title. I think he is both wrong and right. I think Huckabee's mostly phony, aw-shucks-just-plain-folks, Baptist preacher persona resonates with a certain segment of the Republican primary voting bloc. For the most part, however, I think most people, judging by the horror of the Republican establishment at Huckabee's sudden surge, recognize phony when it smacks them in the face (this same phenomenon behind Mitt Romney's crash - most people recognize he has remade himself into something he is not).

Where PD is right is in this:
That means the voters' yearning for authenticity and community will continue to go unsated. That's as it should be: politics can't solve everything. But to the extent that politics can provide solutions - an ability Americans tend to cynically under-estimate - I believe that our role is to keep pushing for the authentic and the truly communal. Don't let the candidates off with half-truths and glib remarks. Make them be real (and take a meat ax to the media when they won't allow it). Make them suggest real, helpful alternatives.

Interesting enough, however, I think that the words "authenticity" and "community" are empty words, filled in by whoever hears them. To some, there is little that is authentic about Rudy Giuliania, even as he has a record that jibes pretty well with his rather sociopathic rhetoric. For others, it is Sen. Clinton who is the big phony, even as she runs a cautious, careful campaign, refusing to commit herself to more than health care reform. For some reason, keeping herself open, and refusing to commit herself beforehand to any particular policy proposal is a sign of inauthenticity. On the other hand, Obama seems to have the Democratic corner on authenticity, even as he tries to make himself post-political, which is about as real an option as committing the nation to a Mars landing by next October. Dodd and Kucinich and Edwards, in many ways the most "authentic" candidates on the Democratic side (to the extent that their campaigns center on certain themes and rarely stray from these themes), get little press coverage, unless one counts the nonsensical haircut crap about Edwards.

There will always be a measure of artifice about political campaigns. There is no way around this. Yet, the discussions of "authenticity" that fail to note how consistent the candidates have been - even the inauthentic ones (Romney is perhaps the worst offender) - are more the problem than the candidates themselves. The most honest assessment comes from Chip Reid of CBS News, who is covering the Edwards' campaign:
I’m a bit unhappy with John Edwards. I’ve been covering his campaign for 10 days and he hasn't made a lot of news. Let’s face it – a lot of what political reporters report on is mistakes. The campaign trail is one long minefield, covered with Iowa cow pies, and when they step in one – we leap.

I’ve done very little leaping – and I blame Edwards. While other candidates misspeak, over-speak, and double-speak, Edwards (at least in these 10 days) has made so few mistakes that I end up being transported -- newsless -- from town to town like a sack of Iowa corn .

He has a remarkable ability to stay on message. Not just in “the speech,” but even in Q and A. Nothing throws him off. He turns nearly every question into another opportunity to repeat his central theme. Global warming? We need to fight big oil. Health care? Fight the big drug and insurance companies. Iowa farmers’ problems? Blame those monster farm conglomerates. And the Iowa populists eat it up.

In other words, what Edwards' says, and the reception he receives isn't nearly as interesting as the fact that his is a disciplined campaign, staying on message.

It isn't inauthentic politicians that are the problem. It is stupid, bored journalists who would rather write about haircuts and gaffes than serious policy issues.

Cognitive Dissonance

With all the blather in the media about what a horrible Islamic theocratic dictatorship Iran is; about how insane its current President is (He denies the Holocaust! He wants to destroy Israel!); with our news media playing this game of pretending Iran is building a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons to bring the United States to its knees; it is nice to see images of ordinary Iranians actually engaged in ordinary things. Some of those Iranians are Christians. Some of those ordinary things include celebrating Christmas.

I know that it is hard to wrap one's mind around the fact that Iran is a pluralistic democracy, but it is. I also know that it is hard to wrap one's mind around the fact that, while titularly a Republic, Iran is in fact a kind of constitutional monarchy, with the Ayatollah (currently Khameini) a kind of de facto king, primer inter pares. I know that it is difficult to wrap one's mind around the fact that minority religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, are legally protected in Iran. We have been fed so much crap over the past 28 years about Iran that discovering the reality that is very modern Iran is a bit like discovering the fact that Santa Claus doesn't exist; it upsets the equilibrium one has maintained about the world.

I chose this photo, from Photo Activists for Peace, because it shows a beautiful church with full pews. There are other photos there - including one of children visiting Santa Claus - that show how ordinary Iranian Christmas traditions are. Contrasting the life of Iranian Christians with that of the now non-existent Iraqi Christian community (even during the height of the medieval caliphate and Crusades, there were thriving Christian and Jewish communities in Baghdad) is even more important now, as the Bush Administration seems hell-bent on bombing Iran for no reason; we know what has been wrought in Iraq by our Commander-in-Chief's ability to destroy everything he touches, so it might be a good idea to download some of these photos because if Bush has his way, Iranian Christianity might just end up going the way of the dinosaur and Iraqi Christianity.

A generous h/t to Fire Dog Lake; photo courtesy of Photo Activists for Peace.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Only One Thing (UPDATED)

Is there anything else going on besides coverage of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto? I've read the Washington Post story online. I've read various commentaries on commentaries - the kind of meta-meta-stuff that certainly fills airtime, while providing nothing of real substance. Yet, the simple truth is this - it is neither surprising, nor particularly important, except to the extent that one could actually trust Prevez Musharaf to actually carry through on anything.

The biggest irony of all is something that has been lost down the memory hole of our ADHD major media. Early in campaign 2000, Pres. Bush was interviewed for an article in which one item in particular stood out for criticism from "press critics" who thought the journalist who did the interview was mean to then-Governor Bush. Bush was asked who was the leader of Pakistan. This occurred a few months after Musharaf took power in a coup d'etat. Bush answered that he didn't know. Much of the "criticism", which complained of shallow "gotcha-journalism", missed the point that while Bush may not have known the details of the internal politics of Pakistan, he certainly should have known what many well-informed American citizens knew. In light of the centrality of Pakistan to our foreign policy, such as it has been, for the past seven years, knowing who led that country, and how he came to power, might, in retrospect, be considered important.

In any event, Bhutto is dead, like her brothers and father. The country to which she dedicated her life sinks further in to sectarian violence coupled with authoritarianism, and, as dday at Hullabaloo notes, American policy in South Asia is basically in tatters.

UPDATE: You know, Rudy Giuliani getting all narcissistic about the Bhutto assassination is one thing. Now, the Democrats are getting in on the act, taking this tragic event and turning it in to a reflection on their Presidential primary campaigns.

Jesus on a chariot-driven sidecar.

It would have been the better part of valor for Sen. Clinton at least to show that she has the maturity to shut the hell up, after Sen. Obama's stupid comment. This is one instance where the kind of war-room, instant response kind of politicking is wrong. It would have been much better to just make a condolence statement, to show what real statesmanship (statespersonship?) is like. This is politics at its most stupid.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

My Anti-Year In Review

I don't like "Year In Review" things. For one thing, most of what passes through our consciousness is ephemeral, fleeting, replaced tomorrow by something equally if not more important, outrageous, beautiful, exciting, infuriating, hate-filled, loving, you name it. For another thing, there just seems to be few through-lines, or trend lines, or rising/falling fates-features of our public life (unless one takes the Britney Spears career implosion/Lindsay Lohan career implosion/Paris Hilton jail trauma narrative as important; of course, now we have Britney's sister getting pregnant, so it's like an even worse sequel to a really bad movie, straight to video). Finally, this year was, in many ways, prologue to next year - the up-coming Presidential campaign is, to put not too fine a point on it, and to say it for one of the few times that such words will actually mean something, the most important election since 1968, perhaps even since 1932. The Republicans look as if they might nominate no one; the Democratic race is looking tighter, but except for Sen. Clinton, any change at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW would be significant.

So, rather than look back at a year less than a week away from the history books, I would much rather look forward to 2008. I refuse to make predictions (I don't want to look like Bill Kristol, after all) except to say the year should be interesting, hard on many if not most working people (myself included), and include many surprises.

What Do You Think Of Fine Tune

I am experimenting with a new widget, in case you haven't noticed. From a site called Fine Tune, it is a free streaming service, allowing people to set up a 45-song set. The rules are that you are limited to three songs per artist - keeping you from having an all-Beatles, all-Grateful Dead, or all Reba McIntyre set. On the plus side (against Pandora), it is embeddable in Blogger. On the down side, it really has a very limited playlist - I types in all sorts of artists and the site didn't recognize them. I'm going to give it a try here, and would appreciate feedback. I put the set together yesterday morning waiting for my kids to wake up for Christmas. I did it in a hurry, and I'm not sure I even approve all the selections I made. I can always make more, or different ones. Right now, I'm just kind of getting a feel for it. If my musical taste doesn't sit well with you, there is a stop button, or you can just turn the volume down if one selection doesn't do it for you.

If only I could embed Pandora . . .

A Rabbi Takes Down Congress

Rabbi Irwin Kula has weighed in on the Congressional resolution regarding the significance of Christmas, and the piece is worth reading for its wisdom, insight, and the smackdown on Congress that it so richly deserves.
It would be humorous if it were not so depressing that adherents of and believers in a great religion like Christianity think that the approval of a group of politicians, who besides having no particular expertise in religion have themselves exhibited a remarkable level of incompetence at the job they are supposed to be doing, actually would make any difference in what anyone would or should think about this two thousand year old tradition. Is there anyone who seriously thinks this resolution will actually inspire people to deepen their respect for Christianity - that this resolution offered by a bunch of politicians who pass such affirming resolutions on just about every possible issue – National Pet Month, National Watermelon Month to name just two - will make anyone more seriously recognize that Christianity is a great faith? Personally, the fact that the House of Representatives passed this resolution diminishes Christianity for it makes Christianity just one more political lobbying cause - a political special interest and what is worse the resolution itself could not be more both banal and arrogant.

The only thing that is unremarkable about Rabbi Kula's little article is that it is the same thing people have been saying about the politicization of religion in America for a generation. Only now, it seems, are people paying attention.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Music Monday - Christmas Edition

OK, this isn't really a "Christmas" hymn, but I first heard it on a collection of Christmas songs by the Dale Warland Singers. It is beautiful, called "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree", here done by the choir of Kings College, Cambridge:

I refuse to give in to popular ignorance and put up a bunch of the music from Handel's oratorio The Messiah. It is an Easter oratorio. Yet, there is one passage, "For Unto Us A Child Is Born", that can, with justice, be sung at Christmas. This is Robert Shaw Conducting the Atlanta Symphony and Chamber Chorus:

One of my favorite Christmas Songs is "Coventry Carol". I guess I just have a soft spot for English hymnody. This is the Royal College of Music Chamber Singers:

To you and yours, one last time - Merry Christmas, and may you be richly blessed by the birth of hope and life and light.

The Emperor's Tailors Are Naked, Too

Just one political post, then it's on to the wrapping, church services (my wife has three, from 4:30 until midnight), turkey, and a LLLOOOOONNNNGGGG day tomorrow. May God richly Bless and keep you safe. And remember, it isn't the third package of blue socks, it's the love behind them that matters.

I saw this yesterday over at Crooks and Liars, and wondered how it is possible for Bill Kristol to speak so clearly, when his head is so far up his ass. Dick Cheney wins a brokered GOP convention, and goes on to win in November? No matter who the Republicans nominate, it will be a Republican year in 2008? Huh?

There's delusional, and then there's just batshit insane. Bill Kristol is the new crazy guy wandering down the street, muttering to himself.

I think I should make it clear that I know Kristol is not a journalist, even though he plays one on TV and as editor of The Weekly Standard. While it should be clear that this kind of nonsense is meaningless to everyone but Kristol himself, so in love with his own vast powers of analysis and insight that he has no idea how absolutely wrong about everything he has been, and will continue to be.

Yet, is Kristol so different from the rest of the chattering and typing classes? Perusing this post by Glenn Greenwald, I was led to re-read this from digby. It is one of her great gifts that she knows how to find the nonsense our current Emperor's courtiers and courtesans continue to spill out in to public, revealing less about our politics than about their own petty obsessions and childish preferences. To be as fair as it is possible to be - in the Spirit of Bob Cratchit's wife, for the day's sake if not necessarily for their own - by revealing their own weaknesses, foibles, and biases (let's hang out with this cool kid!), we do see quite clearly that the issue isn't ideology, or at least not all ideology. There is nothing wrong with saying, "This guy or gal is pretty likable," as long as one does not forget that one has a professional responsibility to move beyond such nonsense. None of the most influential Washington-based journalists, however, seem to feel they should do so, or have an obligation to inform their readers and listeners on issues of substance. Like Maureen Dowd acting surprised that someone might think she should write about welfare reform, the rest of them continue to believe that their role is to inform the public who is, in the oft-repeated phrase of George W. Bush, "a good man." What the "good" means is, apparently, a secret known only to those in the know.

I think, however, the historical epoch when Washington-based journalists and insiders actually influenced American public opinion is over. Of course, it is arguable that it ever actually existed, and that might be a subject for serious historical study; for the nonce, it will be assumed that journalists had a role - not the role, not even prima inter pares - in shaping general public opinion towards major candidates (and ignoring also-rans) for national office. From Walter Lippmann and Joseph and Stuart Alsop and their many imitators and wannabes, some journalists have recognized that journalists can, and occasionally do, have a role, an "in" with the powerful. I doubt whether Lippmann ever overcame the heady role he played with Wilson and Wilson's eminence gris "Colonel" House in developing domestic policy as an unofficial adviser after the American declaration of war on Germany in April, 1917. Like many who came later, who discovered that the attractions of power often lead to awful places (Bill Moyers as LBJ's press spokesman is a great example), Lippmann was very hard on Wilson, feeling that the latter had "betrayed" the ideals for which war had been declared. In fact, it was Lippmann who was used, and tossed aside, by House and Wilson, and only Lippmann's tremendous ego and naivete, not a great combination, could shield the facts from him.

The process accelerated with the emergence of true American Imperialism after the Second World War; every Empire needs its chroniclers, and there was no shortage in supply as America became the only superpower on the planet. Journalists lunched with Presidential advisers, sat in on private meetings with major legislators and Presidential aides, attended parties, weddings, and other social events with them. Despite obvious professional conflicts, they could be considered of similar social standing - they were "players". By seeing themselves as players, their professional roles changed subtly over the years.

I do not know, for sure, if there was ever a time when Washington-based journalists were as influential as they believed themselves to be. They surely influenced the ways the powerful in Washington acted; yet one wonders how far that extended once one moved beyond the precincts of suburban Maryland and northern Virginia. With the emergence of television, these same folks could be said to reach a wide audience, certainly - yet having a big audience (or potential audience) is not the same thing as influencing such an audience.

With the many changes our country has been through since January, 2001 (and, perhaps by extension, going back to December, 1998, when the House of Representatives voted to impeach Pres. Clinton, even as one Speaker and his designated successor had to step aside because of behavior for which they were seeking to remove the President), I do believe the clownish behavior of our major media-types will be less than meaningless. It is one thing to see that our Emperor is, in fact, naked. It is another thing altogether to see that his entire retinue, including those who have wrapped him in the mantle of power and prestige, are not only similarly adorned, but are blissfully ignorant of their own nakedness before the American people.

In 1932, the opinion of the major press barons and the few reporters who were "national" was that FDR was a sure loser. They all knew his polio had left him a cripple; they all knew his wife was ugly, the couple estranged due to his long-time affair; they all knew his policies were nothing but Americanized Bolshevism, and that Roosevelt was little more than a traitor to his class. Hoover was solid, confident, refused to call the economic and social disaster all around everyone else what it was (to do so would be to legitimize it in the eyes of the American people; the Depression was nothing more than a crisis in American confidence); his wife, Lu, was among the most popular women in America. When Maine (which actually voted in Congressional elections two months early back then) went Democratic for the first time since before the Civil War, a few paid attention, but then, Congress had changed hands in 1930, so that was one thing. All the press thought Hoover was just the bees knees, and would walk away with a second term, because FDR couldn't.

So, maybe, they've always been both ignorant and wrong.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Repeat

I was going to write something about A Christmas Carol and discovered I already had last year. So, slightly touched up to correct some errors, is this post from December 24, 2006. Feliz Navidad.

I know I said I was going to take a break, but I felt a need, as it were, to put up something here from Dickens' A Christmas Carol (I have the Yale University Press fascimile edition of the original manuscript; try reading Dickens' handwriting, and you'll not have a merry Christmas). The high point of the story, for me, is not the disclosure at the grave that Scrooge will die that night. Personally I have always felt that irrelevant; we all die, and none of us know the manner of our death or the status of those who might or might not mourn. For me, the climax is the lecture Scrooge receives from the Spirit of Christmas Present at Cratchit's house. Scrooge has just been told that Tiny Tim will die (and there is no condition placed upon that fate; Tim is as dead as Marley's doornail whether Scrooge changes or not, all the TV specials notwithstanding) and he begins to weep. The Spirit quotes back Scrooge's words concerning the adventitious nature of death, decreasing the surplus population, and then he continues:

"Man!" said the Ghost, "if man you be in heart not adamants; forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you and such as you decide what men shall live, what men shall die! It my be, that in the sight of heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. . . ."

I wonder what the oh-so-superior, oh-so-perfectly knowledgeable idiots on the right make of such a statement. O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh, Coulter, Malkin - the whole blathering herd of non-thinking flapping lips stand as Scrogge stands, under the judgment of their own words, their own sense of superiority, hoist by their own petard, as it were.

Dickens' novella is a part and parcel of Christmas celebration because it echoes the true meaning of the day - the new birth offered even to the most "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" - against the backdrop of a society dedicated to forgetting the truth that God's love is not measured by the wealth of the nation, or the effectiveness of its business culture. Those who claim a War on Christmas would do to remember Dickens' words in the mouth of that sublime and joyous Spirit - the real War is the one waged day after day to render inhuman all those who do not agree with them; to create a society as unfeeling, as uncaring, indeed as hostile as the one in which Scrooge stomped about with his eyes downcast. We should all remember this day that any of us, myself most definitely included, are in no position to pass judgment upon the lives, and most especially the untimely deaths, of others apart from pronouncing them upon ourselves. While I would offer, with Dickens, that this tale not leave you out of the spirit of th day, perhaps there is a lesson here we can recall in the heat of July, or the rain of April, or the falling leaves of October - we are fellow-travelers upon this globe, and all we should do is help one another as fellow-travelers.

God Bless us, everyone.

Some Atheist Spirituality For Christmas

I saw this over at the Newsweek/Washington Post online "On Faith" forum, and was blown away. Entitled "An Atheist Chooses Jesus Over Santa" by Andre Comte-Sponville, who, we are informed, is the author of the forthcoming book The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. I urge all of you to go read the whole thing. Here are a few highlights:
Just look at Santa Claus, bearded and pot-bellied, entertaining the passersby on the sidewalk. The man who dresses as Santa gets paid to do it. I can excuse him for this – one has to earn a living – but I cannot excuse his employer. In fact, I’m surprised that our churches don’t criticize this. The belief in Santa Claus is worse than heresy, which at least has good faith in itself. Santa is just a superstition for children, a lie for adults, and a generally stupid concept.


And what is the opposite of Santa Claus? A child rather than an old man. Poor rather than rich. Hidden rather than exposed. He who has nothing to sell, nothing to give, nothing more than his life and his love. The opposite of Santa Claus is Jesus Christ: the naked infant between the bull and the donkey, the innocent victim between two thieves, the crib and Calvary. These two images, in their extremes, are the most famous of the beautiful nativity story. They demonstrate the essence of this God, who is the weakest of all gods, the most human, and for all that, the most earthshaking.


What does Jesus symbolize? The primacy of love, even when weak, defeated, humbled, and tortured. Easter marks his victory, his omnipotence, his divinity. Christmas marks his weakness, his fragility, his humanity. This is why Christmas has more significance to me. It’s not the victory that I like, it’s the love. Not the power, but the justice. Not divinity, but humanity.

This is why I am an atheist, while remaining faithful – as best as I can – to the spirit of Christ, who represents justice and charity. That is the true spirit of Christmas – the basic opposite of which is the spirit of Santa Claus (if he has a spirit at all), and beyond that it is the spirit of his zealous fans, big and small, who embody selfishness and consumption.

Can I get an "Amen"?

Their Own Worst Enemies

John Judis from The New Republic and Ruy Teixeira from The Center for American Progress have a piece in today's Washington Post entitled "Get Ready for a Democratic Era". I have been saying this for a long time - the vaunted "realignment" Karl Rove and other Republican operatives carried on about only showed how myopic he and they were. The Republicans have had the kind of run over the past forty or so years that should be the envy of most political parties. They have set the agenda. They have controlled the White House for all but twelve of those years. They controlled Congress, either directly or through alliances with conservative Democrats, for most of this same period. Even now, some Democrats, too used to being cowed by Republican dominance, do not realize they no longer need to fear them. Indeed, while Judis and Teixeira are correct, they miss the fact that the coming Democratic era will not include the current Congressional "leadership" unless they recognize the changed reality around them. The game has changed, and with a new game, new players are needed.

The opening of the article is succinct, and needs to be memorized by every Washington insider who still believes that Karl Rove is a political genius:
Karl Rove's grandest aspiration was to create a Republican majority that would dominate American politics for a generation or more. But as the effects of his distinctive brand of fear-mongering fade, it's the Democrats who are poised to become the country's majority party -- and perhaps for a long time to come.

While the Democrats continue to cave in to President Bush's every "demand", for reasons I can only assume are based in the fear of Republican name-calling, a habit of cowardice that, while understandable, is inexcusable, this paragraph sums up why Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Harry Reid need to thumb their noses at the President and his lick-spittles in Congress and go about their work without a thought for the hissy fits they will throw.

The Republican's time is up. Unless these folks, and many others like them, want to be pushed aside, they need to recognize the changing political climate around them, and change themselves. In other words, lead, or get the hell out of the way.

The article itself is an object lesson in how the parties need to see the country. With the exception of the invocation of the non-existent "Reagan Democrats", the article is a profoundly good one. With a slew of retirements, with the political, demographic, social, and cultural changes that have been moving forward since the mid-1990's, the prospects for any Republican candidate at the national level is not good; for some, retirement seems the better option than losing.

The fracturing of the Republican coalition, personified perfectly by the libertarian Ron Paul facing down the war-wongering John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani, even as Republican crowds boo him, should be evident for all to see. Meanwhile, the emerging Democratic coalition of liberalized suburbs, racial minorities eager to move civil rights to the next level, and a general nation feeling that Washington-based politicians are not listening to the people on the issues that matter, including health care reform, the environment, fiscal soundness and probity, and infrastructure investment - one wonders how the ceaseless babble from the nattering classes, the mindless invocations against taxes and terrorism are anything else than the memorized choruses of those whose imaginations are as shriveled as their souls.

Yet, the Democrats, as they have amply shown this year, can still screw this up, by refusing to yield to the new realities around them, and giving pride of place to such useless people as Reid, Hoyer, and Pelosi. They are a drag on the party's fortunes; their constant babble is not matched by anything but the actions of political cowards, and they have yet to accept they stand against a President who's approval ratings have not even been close to 40% for over a year. Yet, still the wipe their brows, and shuffle their feet, afraid the Republicans will mangle them in the press, or at the polls, if they stand up to Bush. They have failed to accept the most basic reason they were handed responsibility in the first place - to stand up to Bush.

I have no doubt that 2008 will be a Democratic year. Should the next Congress re-elect Nancy Pelosi Speaker, Steny Hoyer Majority Leader, and Harry Reid Senate Majority Leader, I fear that all the possibilities will be pissed away, as they continue to defer to Republicans, who will howl even louder in the minority than they ever have before.

Virtual Tin Cup

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