Saturday, January 19, 2008

Charles Pierce

No, not this one. This one, the guy who takes over on occasion for Eric Alterman over at the latter's "Altercation" blog. In particular, the following snippet, which made me laugh:
Part The Third: Come a cold morning a year from now, some pundit is going to come on my electric television set to explain how the inauguration of a Democrat as president of the United States is the best thing that ever happened to Rudy Giuliani's campaign.

There is a reason this is funny. Back on the night of the New Hampshire primary, Atrios penned a parody of mainstream press somehow turning a horrid loss by Giuliani into a clever strategic victory. Then - Howard Fineman actually said it! You have to keep up with these things if you want to understand how stupid our pundits are, and how empty our discourse is of anything substantive. Pierce's prediction is no doubt true; I made a similar prediction, viz., a Democratic victory will be questioned on the merits of something trivial and stupid, and a growing narrative will develop about the already-wounded President-elect. Pierce's take is only different in emphasis and detail. It says, in essence, the same thing - our press corps is ridiculous.

There is one thing I would like to take issue with - the on-going narrative concerning Sen. Hillary Clinton's "calculating" nature:
The Clintons appear to have forgotten that, when Bill got his ass impeached for being a priapic idiot, a lot of Democrats supported him because the alternative was utterly unthinkable. Now, it seems to be fast dawning upon them -- and particularly upon Clinton pere -- that there are a number of Democrats who either a) are too young to remember the golden era that was the 1990s, or b) are old enough to remember them all too well as the years of an overly punitive welfare-reform bill, the Defense Of Marriage Act, the several dozen new federal death penalty offenses, and those elements of the Patriot Act that had their birth during the Clinton administration, particularly in the 1996 Antiterrorism act. This seems to be causing the Clinton campaign no little consternation, since it can be assumed that Senator Clinton signed on to the Iraq war out of a similar level of political calculation. Unfortunately for him and her, we now have a Democratic primary electorate that sees such calculation as unseemly at one end and as cowardly at the other. The Clintons are unable at this point to triangulate the circle. Meanwhile, Bill's losing his sh*t to reporters and Hill's resorting to cheapjack electioneering that's getting laughed out of the federal courts. And, it should be noted, that the born-again non-triangulator who was Bill's vice president was right about the war, loudly and publicly, and he was ridiculed for it while Senator Clinton was still working with the protractor trying to fashion a position whereby she could argue that she wasn't really handing the armed forces over to the whims of feckless vandals. The day is past, I think.

There is much asserted here that is only speculation - on the motives for Sen. Clinton's vote for the AUMF, on her general tendency towards using a "protractor", etc. It doesn't seem to occur to people that Sen. Clinton may have had many reasons for acting the way she did, and some of them may have been based in deep convictions, and a sense of necessity for acting in the moment. That her convictions are not the same as many on the left does make them not convictions. It does not make them mere calculations by a hyper-ambitious woman out to win at all costs. It makes them her convictions. I don't like liberals and progressives imposing (right-wing) narratives on politicians any more than I like conservatives or mainstream folks doing it.

Having said that, go and read the little piece.

One more thing. We should all hoist flags in support of that wonderful, all-American city that George Bush and the Republicans tried to kill. It is the birthplace of jazz, of a form of the blues, of Louis Armstrong, of Dr. John, of the Meters and The Neville Brothers. It is no longer the home to tens of thousands who were turned in to refugees from this most American of cities by the deliberate indifference of a political class and party that saw political profit in depopulating a city of its lower-middle, working, and underclasses (the very heart of the music I love so much).

More On Meaning From Meaninglessness

I started reading, for the first time since the autumn of 1994, Thomas Kuhn's The Copernican Revolution, the work that predated The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and in some ways anticipates the arguments he would set forth in the later work. Indeed, in some respects, the earlier work can be seen as one long example of what he was talking about when he spoke of "normal science" and "paradigm shift" and "Gestalt shifts" and the like. Early in the first chapter, he makes a bold statement that is at the heart of his study:
We need more than an understandingof the internal development of science. We must also understand how a scientist's solution of an apparently petty, highly technical problem can on occasion fundamentally alter men's attitudes toward basic problems in everyday life.

Early on in the paragraph containing the above quite, he sites Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection as another example of a scientific theory that had all sorts of social and cultural implications far outside the bounds of the very narrow confines of science within which it was first created, and for which it served its only real function.

I think the social and cultural implications of "Copernican Astronomy" were enormous, although their movement through western society was much slower than the explosion created by Darwin. Part of that, of course, was the abstract nature of the argument - Copernicus did nothing more than alter the base of calculations, and Kuhn is quick to point out the margin of improvement in astronomical calculations didn't improve all that much by using the Copernican solution. In many ways, it would be the invention of the telescope that would spell the end of Ptolmaic Astronomy; yet, once again, Kuhn is quick to point out there is no reason this is so. A telescope does not remove one from to earth to see it speeding around the sun. In many ways, the telescope provided not so much confirmation of Conpernicus, as create more problems - suddenly there were all these stars no one knew were there!

Why do we ascribe such importance to these issues? Why do we continue to have debates over the meaning for us of a theory on the origins of species? Why do some people insist, despite all the evidence, that the theory cannot be true? What is the fundamental threat posed to human society by a scientific theory?

This question is at the heart of the matter, really. Evolution deniers (no different, in spirit, from Holocaust deniers) insist that if evolution is true, meaning is ripped from life. What a load of horse apples fresh from on a summer afternoon. The theory of evolution by means of natural selection has nothing whatsoever to do with meaning; it is descriptive of natural processes, observable by any human being, that have resulted in the diversity of life on our planet. At the bottom of the ocean are huge tube worms sitting in water so hot and acidic, no biochemical compound should remain stable; yet they not only exist there, but anchor an entire eco-system based upon the nutrient rich outflow from superheated vents. Where is there meaning, however one wishes to define that word, in that?

Copernicus did not set out to destroy millennia-old cosmologies, but to correct calculating errors in astronomy. Darwin did not set out to upset the psyches of generations of fundamentalist Christians, but to answer the simple question - where do all these different kinds of animals come from? Those whose heads explode when they contemplate Darwin, or even Copernicus (I suppose they still exist somewhere, too), miss the point if they think either individual, or the theories associated with them, have any meaning whatsoever outside the narrow confines of scientific applicability for which they were constructed.

Saturday Rock Show

I thought I'd do the easy one first.

I first heard of Queensryche through a semi-demo/single when I was in college called "The Lady Wore Black". It would be a few years before they released Operation:Mindcrime, a concept album based around a kind of political-thriller-with-a-love-story kind of thing. Usually lumped with such bands as Motley Crue and White Lion, Queensryche actually had some good writing chops, and a singer who could sing, not just either bellow or screech. A few years back, they toured with Dream Theater. The last cut on O:M is probably my favorite song of theirs - I just like the arrangement. "Eyes of a Stranger".

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Bonus! Philosophy Fridays At The Howler!

I have been a daily reader of Bob Somerby's The Daily Howler for close on to two years now. Today, he offered up what he hopes will be the first in a series he is calling Philosophy Fridays. How wonderful! Check out today's entry, and you will get a glimpse in to something near and dear to my heart - taking apart the pomposity of philosophy by recognizing the deeply flawed nature of much of what passes for "thought" and "argument" in philosophy - and not just philosophy, I would add.

The best part is the explanation of Wittgenstein's takedown of much philosophical writing - in which what is essentially a bait-and-switch occurs. We accept something as either profound or provocative, because it makes some kind of surface, grammatical sense. Yet, a moment's thought reveals such sentences - "It is three o'clock on Mars" - to be meaningless gibberish masquerading as profound thought.

I also think Bob is a bit kind in his review of the gentleman in question. The paragraph in question begs more questions than could be answered in any single philosophical monograph. Perhaps that isn't "It's three o'clock on Mars" thinking and writing, but it is awfully close.

For Democracy Lover - Feingold On Edwards

In comments here, Democracy Lover insists that all progressives should support former Sen. John Edwards for President. In a spirit of keeping the record straight, I would offer up this somewhat edited interview with Wisconsin Sen. Russell Fiengold, linked via Talking Points Memo, in which Feingold, currently the most progressive member of the United States Senate says the following on Edwards' record versus his current rhetoric:
On the Democratic presidential candidates

I did notice that as the primaries heated up, all of a sudden, all the presidential candidates — none of whom voted with me on the timeframe to withdraw from Iraq — all voted with me and when we did the Patriot Act stuff.

The one that is the most problematic is (John) Edwards, who voted for the Patriot Act, campaigns against it. Voted for No Child Left Behind, campaigns against it. Voted for the China trade deal, campaigns against it. Voted for the Iraq war … He uses my voting record exactly as his platform, even though he had the opposite voting record.

When you had the opportunity to vote a certain way in the Senate and you didn't, and obviously there are times when you make a mistake, the notion that you sort of vote one way when you're playing the game in Washington and another way when you're running for president, there's some of that going on.

Tales Of Mystery And Imagination

With a generous hat-tip and a huge thank you to Alan, I recommend this article from The Christian Century. In it, the author demonstrates how easy doing science is - he even discusses his discovery of the oddity of parralax - and the way in which solving one problem often leads to the creation of new problems not even imagined.

I just wish he had fleshed out the ending of the article a bit (I suppose this just reflects my own bias for greater clarity; who am I to correct a published author unless it's Jonah Goldberg?) and stated directly that much of the "conflict" between science and religion misconstrues the nature, function, and proper limits of each. Having made those caveats, this short piece is a wonderful rumination on the excitement of discovery inherent in science; it is also a wonderful rumination on the limits of science and the necessity for leaving room for mystery, and leaving mystery as mystery. Sometimes, there are no answers to the questions we ask, whether it's that scrunchy sound in our ears as our ear is pressed in to the pillow at night, or what dark matter might be.

And that's OK.

On New Hitlers and Reforming Dictators

Matthew Yglesias, whom I tend to respect even if he is not one with whom I always agree, shows a surprising lack of understanding about the history of American support of what he calls "tin-pot dictators", as he reflects on George Bush's lie concerning the non-existent reform efforts of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The pretense that every country we have a dispute with is run by the New Hitler while every country we opportunistically ally with is run by a Bold Reformer is incredibly dumb and something a grownup country ought to be able to move past.

This is as old as American hegemonic actions. During the first days of the Cold War, the communist rebels in Greece were linked directly to the Soviet Union, even though Stalin has explicitly denounced them, and pulled both funding and arms shipments via Yugoslave before the situation reached a supposed crisis. For those who may not know, it was the alleged Greek crisis that spurred on the rewriting of our defense and intelligence laws, creating the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency. The National Security Act is in many ways a similar over-reaction to a non-event in Greece to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security as a response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Not that these were non-events; it is just the response is disproportionate to the action that created them.

In his one trip to South Vietnam, then Vice President Lyndon Johnson called President Ngo Dihn Diem the Winston Churchill of southeast Asia, which was about as realistic as calling Ho Chi Minh the anti-Christ. During the 1980's, Jose Napolean Duarte, President of El Salvador, was championed by various interests in Washington, even as he turned a blind eye to the multiple massacres perpetrated by the death squads his military sent out as wild patrols. Daniel Ortega was the Josef Stalin of Central America, even as the contradoras supported by the United States raised money through cocaine smuggling (I well remember one Reagan speech, in which he held up a photo, supposedly of members of the Nicaraguan regime smuggling drugs; the claim was almost immediately proved false as the people shown were well-known leaders of the contras).

Before Vietnam, President Sukarno of Indonesia was ousted in a military coup, as his reformist, somewhat socialist regime, was seen as a direct threat to . . . well the oil companies, since Indonesia controls oil reserves in the southwestern Pacific.

Of course, there is the horrid events in Chile in 1973, which resulted in neo-Fascist states not just in that poor land, but in Ururguay, Paraguay, and Argentina, Operation Condor, and a reign of terror across South America, and indeed the world. Even now that he is rotting in his grace, and one hopes his soul is suffering in hell, General Pinochet is still lauded by Robert Novak and others in Washington, as if he were the best thing to happen in Chile.

Bush's stupid bald-faced and easily disproved lie in Egypt is just the latest in a long series of nonsensical drivel on our client states and their adversaries that American leaders have done for close to two generations. It is infuriating, but it is also par for the course.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

More On The Latest In Cosmological Science

Yesterday I referenced this article in The New York Times, which covered the esoterica of contemporary scientific cosmology. Today, from the On Faith forum at The Washington Post/Newsweek, comes this little appreciative piece, and the comment section, in which people wax at turns eloquent, insane, and a tad ignorant, on the issues.

Part of the problem with a glib reference to something as deep as theoretical cosmology is that there are standards scientists use. To use one example, the assumptions involved in theorizing a preference for creating partial universes, planets, even floating brains, comes from the law of thermodynamics. Any statistical analysis of the thermodynamics of the universe would almost certainly preclude a universe populated by billions of galaxies, containing hundreds of billions of stars. On one of those planets, incredible as it seems, there is a planet where chemical processes have led to things that are self-propelled, nourishment-seeking, reproduce themselves (roughly), take in certain gaseous compounds to aid in the chemical processes to sustain this other activity. One of these beings has evolved to the point where it can actually wonder "how" and "why" and discover what a statistical fluke the entire structure of the known universe is, let alone its own existence is.

More than anything else, I believe that is the lesson behind all the strange things in contemporary cosmology. All things being equal, our universe is a fluke of some initial flaw in the Big Bang, which has spurred further flaws down the line, which lead to an article in The New York Times talking about free-floating brains in space. It isn't that they are there, or might be; it's just that the equations tell us they are far more likely, statistically speaking, that human civilization sitting on the third planet of an average star asking how such things as floating brains are possible.

Obama On Reagan

First, so we can have some clarity, here is the paragraph that is giving many, including digby, fits:
I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.

I think that digby is just plain wrong in her take on this statement. On the other hand, I think that Ezra Klein gets it exactly right.

First, some snippets from digby:
I get that Obama is signaling that he sees this election as a game changing election like 1980. And he may very well be right about that. I hope so. But it's disconcerting to hear him casually recount these Republican arguments without a clear disclaimer, as if it's a matter of fact not opinion. People may have believed in 1980 that the "excesses" of the 1960's and the 1970's were the cause of all their problems and that government had "grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating" but that doesn't make it true. Republican propaganda conveniently offered up all kinds of scapegoats for the fact that the US was reeling from Vietnam, Watergate, a terrible oil shock --- and a lousy economy as a result of all those things. An awful lot of the "excesses" Reagan spoke of in carefully coded speech had to do with civil rights and more urgently at the time, integration, specifically busing, which was one of the hot buttons that drove the "Reagan Democrats" outside the south to the Republicans. And then there was the relentless, militant fear mongering about the Evil Empire ...

Remember, Reagan didn't run on "Morning in America" in 1980. That was 1984. 1980 was the much more aggressive, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

Whether or not Republican rhetoric was reflective of reality, it resonated because it reflected a certain perception of reality. Reagan understood that, blew his dog whistle, and managed 50.1% of the popular vote in 1980. It doesn't really matter that things may not have been quite as bad as Republican politicians painted them. What matters is the country was ripe to elect someone who told them the old American Dream was not dead. Reagan told them that. That he dragged all sorts of baggage with him was, I think, neither here nor there for many voters. Unlike Carter, or Mondale after him, Reagan wasn't gloomy, didn't tell us he would raise our taxes, didn't talk about the American decline. Reagan talked in the folk mythology of an America ready to face challenges, accepting what is coming with the understanding that we could face it squarely.

This is high praise for the rhetoric of Reagan, and I am someone who voted for Mondale in 1984, my first Presidential vote ever. I am proud of my vote for Mondale, even though at the remove of nearly a quarter century, I will tell you that I know he was perhaps the worst possible choice the Democratic Party could have made. There was a case to be made against Reagan, and Mondale just wasn't the person to make it.

Progressives like to dismiss Reagan as a crank, or perhaps some sinister character who used his wonderful phrases to hide the horrid mess of right-wing nonsense that has followed in his wake. I doubt he was either that intelligent or that clever; I think he was simply articulating something missing from American politics for a long while - the possibility that America and Americans could be better again, could rise to the challenges of stagflation and a resurgent Soviet adventurism in Afghanistan. People responded to it not because they were closet right-wingers, or because they were racists; those elements certainly latched on to Reagan like a stink to an outhouse, but I think at its most basic, Reagan's appeal was something deeply American. He has not had a duplicator, only imitators, since, in either party.

In contrast to digby's somewhat visceral reaction to Obama's words, I offer a bit of young Ezra, who I think nailed it quite nicely:
What he's saying is that Reagan effectively understood the ideological currents in the country and used that mastery of public opinion to drive popular sentiment. In other words, he admires Reagan for shifting the center. When he says that "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," he's articulating a fundamentally different idea of the presidency than Clinton is -- more inspirational than managerial, as concerned with the prevailing ideological atmosphere as with the specifics of contemporary legislative initiatives.


[Obama's] reconstructing [Reagan's political legacy] as accountability in government rather than smallness of government, clarity of purpose rather than conservatism of purpose, dynamism and entrepreneurship rather than backlash and upward redistribution. So what's going on here is twofold. First, Obama is suggesting he has a fairly grandly ideological view of the president's role, and that it includes harnessing the ideological forces of the moment to push the country in a new direction. Second, he's sanitizing and subtly reworking Reagan's legacy, and more than Reagan's legacy, the lessons of the 80s, so they fit with a liberal worldview, rather than undermine it.

My only quibble with Klein here is his insistence that Reagan "understood" what he was doing. I doubt it was that conscious. I think Reagan believed what he was saying; it was far more intuitive than intellectual. There was nothing at all calculated about Reagan's appeal to "the City on a Hill" (although then-Gov. Mario Cuomo's takedown at the Democratic convention was a superb job, by taking on a central myth, a story America cherishes about itself, he was dooming the Democratic Party).

I think his inclusion of Bill Clinton in the list of Presidents who haven't fundamentally changed the nature of our political climate is telling. Clinton, I think also unconsciously but with later cultivation, understood the necessity of an upbeat message. Yet, I think he also understood the conservative movement had yet to run out of steam and political capital; it was not a time for bold, persistent experimentation, as the fight over health care reform showed. Clinton was the master of retail politics at the national level, undercutting Republican ideological and strategic advantages through the appeal to lingering middle-class resentment, albeit in an upbeat way.

Obama is a conscious, intelligent Reagan of the liberal variety. This is a nice summary, and I also think it is a compliment.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

For Alan, Inspired By A Discussion Over At ER

OK, so it's kind of long and complicated, but the really short version is that Alan has been having a discussion over what constitutes evidence, etc. in a debate.

I stumbled across this via tailrank, and I think it is quite something. Please peruse the link and let me know what you think.

Explain Some Things To Me

I know I must sound like a naif, but I honestly do not understand the recording industry. I know the model under which it still operates has been little changed in a quarter century, and perhaps longer, but I think there is something fundamentally wrong not just with the big labels and the whole issue of supporting acts and distribution, but with big radio as well.

I came of age at a time when, especially FM, radio was changing, and the recording industry was undergoing the first major contraction it had experienced since the Great Depression. From the mid-1960's through around 1977-1978, there was money to burn as all kinds of artists and musicians and label-created non-entities sold millions of copies of their recordings. When Bob Welch could sell a million copies of his first solo recording, one knows that people are just looking to toss money around. Yet, as the economy in general became different, and the recording industry changed to meet the changing standards, the amount of money and time invested, especially in new acts, simply disappeared (in one of my books on prog, an anecdote relates how Genesis was understood to be a money-losing proposition when it was first signed to its label in Britain; the label saw it as a long-term thing, and was willing to make the investment). Big radio stopped being diverse - I can still remember hearing good, solid funk and jazz on my AOR station until around 1980, when suddenly all one could hear was Foreigner, Journey, and Loverboy. And "Stairway to Heaven".

Yet, as I listen to Pandora I am amazed at the huge diversity of music available. Not just on the internet via downloads, but on CD. Even though it is difficult to get a song on radio today (one could almost say impossible) with any quality, if one keeps one's ears open, there are artists out there who are still doing the whole CD thing even as its death is continually announced.

I realize there aren't all these artists out there who can move bucket loads of CDs, but there are still many, many groups that could do well if they had access to radio air time.

Perhaps we need a new definition of commercial viability.

I don't know what the answers are. I only know there is plenty of great music out there for the taking. I would think that the music industry, which kind of exists to make money off people's willingness to spend money on what is essentially a luxury, would take the time to look at the way they create, market, and distribute this music. People are willing to shell out the bucks (although that may not be as true in the upcoming year as it has been in the past). Punishing listeners for downloads is not an answer (consider the reaction against Metallica's surrender of a print-out of illegal downloads). Maybe considering making a smaller return on a larger number of artists spread over a wide array of genres is better than looking to make a killing on what, in the end, amounts to the same regurgitated formula (Nickleback, I mean you) is a possibility.

I guess I just don't understand business, because this seems to me to be a no-brainer.

On Editing The Bible

Pastor Dan has a nice summary on the whole issue of how the Bible came in to existence. What's best about it is it clears away much of what is considered "learned opinion" on the subject. While I might quibble with the idea that textual variants among various manuscripts comes down to the question of whether an article is definite or indefinite (they didn't exist in Koine Greek, so it is kind of hard to tell), in general the variants are minor enough to be inconsequential. There are books, especially in the New Testament (particularly Paul's letters) that seem to be compilations (and bad ones at that) of various writings (check out the end of Romans, or 2 Corinthians), which raises the question not so much of authorship as editorship. The form critics of the mid-20th century, I think, had a good idea, but they went too far in attempting to divine (no pun intended) not only attribution, but motive in editions.

Having said that, I think it is also important to say that, in a very real sense, translation is "rewriting" in a very real sense. Especially when reconstituting the dead languages in which the Bible was originally composed into the living languages of today, it is necessary to wrestle not just with grammar, but intelligibility. The poetry of the Old Testament stands up well (the Psalms still do well, I think, as do some passages in the prophets, especially Isaiah 40), but the declarative nature of much of the New Testament can render even the most dedicated translator bananas, especially as the structure of subordinate clauses in the Greek used by Paul leaves most people scratching their heads.

Having said all that, Dan is essentially correct to say that the Bible has been, for all intents and purposes, unchanged for close to two millennia. Since questions of editorial intention and possible lost content, to name two subjects discussed ad nauseum, are impossible to answer, it seems to me far better not to pursue them. They usually reveal the biases of the person doing the asking rather than anything substantive about the construction of the canon or individual books.

Mittmentum And The End Of The Republican Party

So Willard Romney won the Michigan primary last night. By 9 points. The race is, as I heard on NPR this morning, wide open. I have been saying this for a while. I think it is hilarious, because unlike the Democratic primary campaign, in which most voters feel very enthusiastic and are happy with the wealth of choices, the Republicans are unhappy, and recognize the dearth of serious choices. We move forward, inching closer to (what may be) the decisive Super Tuesday on February 5. Or not. I foresee the potential for enough different wins - the states cover the country pretty well geographically, socially, etc. - to keep both races wide open. On the Democratic side, I will not discount either ego or the casual dislike of the other candidates keeping the rest of the field in play. On the Republican side, I just see, as I have said repeatedly, a train wreck, although I think the speed of this particular multi-car mess is increasing. With consummate liar and fraud Mitt Romney finally winning a primary, he can "keep hope alive" (to borrow one of Jesse Jackson's phrases) long enough to just about screw the entire party in to the ground.

Why do I think this? The policy commitments of the Republican Party, whether it's tax cuts forever, military Keynianism, or corporate profit over workers and the environment simply have no traction with the majority of the American people (I think it an arguable point if any of them ever had such traction; yet they certainly have enough cachet with enough to keep the Republicans in the "W" column for a generation). Exhausted of any ideas - I heard Newt Gingrich this morning, pimping his book Real Change, saying we need more supply side economics even though it has already been revealed that supply-side was always a strategy for ending the Great Society rather than a serious economic theory - and saddled with the most unpopular incumbent President since Herbert Hoover (I don't count Nixon, because he left office before having to face the serious wrath of the American voter; maybe that's why he left, to save the Republican Party), the candidates for the Republican nomination include one of the oldest to seek the nomination; a two-term governor from liberal-leaning Massachusetts who has somehow miraculously transformed himself in to a right-wing nut job; and a real right-wing nut job who refuses to deny that he is anything but. And, of course, now-irrelevant sociopath Rudy Giuliani, and racist libertarian Ron Paul.

In an ideal world, Romney would run on his record in Massachusetts, and be a respectable, formidable opponent to the Democratic nominee, leaving the competition in the dust early on. Yet, because of the nature of the Republican Party (or perhaps a perception of the Republican primary voters?), Romney felt he had to become far more conservative, and spent close to a year becoming a hunter, anti-gay rights, anti-choice candidate, all of which were simply not who Mitt Romney was.

I still foresee the possibility of a brokered Republican convention (anything, at this point, is possible), and an anointed nominee - this is where Newt Gingrich comes in; I think he new book is the same kind of campaign document we see from candidates every election cycle - which only makes things worse. The Republican Party is dismembering itself before our eyes, which, in many ways is sad, because it had a worthy pedigree at one time, and represents currents in American history that are not wholly bad. Captured by elements of the far right, it has morphed in to something unrecognizable to those who called themselves a Republican even within my lifetime, but it has run out of steam, and I think the George Bush Presidency was the last gasp of the Republican Party for a while.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Lord Deliver Us From Those Who Know Your "Standards"

It seems inescapable that Mike Huckabee's little statement about changing the United States Constitution to fit "God's standards" would become a subject today. I would much rather write about pretty much anything else, but have decided that, if nothing else, it would put paid, once and for all, my desire to place in print my own take on the idolatry of the family in certain religious circles in the United States. It would also be a nice way to ensure that no one ever think for one moment that I believe Mike Huckabee has done anything other than espouse a very dangerous, un-American thing by insisting we change the Constitution to fit some arbitrary "standard" some would call Divine (by the way, I'm not even sure what the phrase "God's standard" refers to; God doesn't really have a standard except unconditional love for all creation, so I suppose that wouldn't be a bad thing; on the other hand, to pretend this is what Huckabee is referring to would be ludicrous).

First, in order to get ourselves oriented, here is the whole paragraph in which the phrase appears:
I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution. But I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that’s what we need to do is amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than trying to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how we treat the family.

One of the things we notice is that, to someone not steeped in fundamentalist rhetoric, this statement makes no literal sense - I'm not even sure who Huckabee is arguing with here, to be honest. Furthermore, the idea that the Constitution is some kind of guide to "how we treat each other and how we treat the family" is simply ignorant. The Constitution dictates the form of government we have, the extent and limits of its power and authority, and gives some rough detail on the relationship among the branches of government created by it. Period. Part of its genius is its brevity and simplicity; part of what makes it so confounding a document is its vagueness and openness.

So, I'm not really sure what the problem is here. Unless, as should be obvious, Huckabee is arguing for a theocratic rewriting of American governance. In which case, he does not deserve to be elected dog catcher in Sussex County, Virginia, let alone President of the United States.

As far as the phrase referencing the family is concerned, I wish to state that the idolatry of "family" by religious conservatives is unBiblical. There are few places in the New Testament that reference the family directly, and some that pop to mind are downright hostile: "I come not to bring peace, but a sword to the family"; "Anyone who does not hate his father, mother, or brothers, indeed does not hate his own life, is not worthy to be called my disciple"; in St. Mark's Gospel, Jesus' mother and brothers come and try to bring him home, afraid he has lost his mind and is in need of their care and Jesus responds, "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?"

Not exactly family-friendly.

I have never understood the family-fetish of the right. Families come in many different shapes, sizes, and members. Indeed, the word "family" can mean pretty much whatever you want it to mean. To those on the right, I am quite sure it references some kind of vaguely traditional paternalistic nuclear or somewhat extended group of individuals, related by blood. Is a couple that has never married, but raised some children and spent many happy years together a "family"? What about a gay couple who are raising the child of one of the partners? What about a childless couple? Single parents? What about the old woman who has a couple cats footpadding around the house after her - are they her family?

Creating some ideal and calling it normative not just for understanding but for sole consideration as worthy of social concern, interest, and support, is dangerous in a society as vast and plural as ours. To do so based on some reading of sacred literature - without any basis within that literature, one might add - is not just dangerous, but misguided as well. Whatever the phrase "God's standards" might mean, encoding any or all of the above Bible verses as public policy would certainly not be conducive to supporting the family, however one conceives it.

As for any other reading of this statement - taking it out the realm of family-worship, and considering the whole question of "changing God's word" (not God's standard) - since it can only mean some kind of theocratic reconstitution of our government and society, it is the height of dangerous lunacy. Any other view is simply absurd; Huckabee may be playing to his base, but the rest of us should shudder, wondering exactly which of God's standards we will fail.

UPDATE: I am listening to a cover of the following song by Boston-based guitarist Gary Hoey. I couldn't find the cover, but the original rocks pretty good, too (bad grammar, but hey, what you gonna do?). I think this should be the theme song for the Democratic Party this year, "Lunatic Fringe" ("Can you fell the resistance? Can you feel the thunder?")

Monday, January 14, 2008

Music Monday

The summer of 1988 was an important time for me. I was breaking up a two-year-long relationship that had been damaging to both the young woman and myself. I was getting back in touch with my religious heritage. I spent the summer in a place with people who embraced and comforted and supported me without ever knowing they were giving me a sense of peace and comfort that I had not had for about a year of my life. I was in a place of healing.

One of the gifts I received that summer, from my dear friend Barb, was an introduction to a remarkable folk duo, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, who performed under the name Indigo Girls. I don't think anyone who heard their second release, The Indigo Girls, could not realize they were hearing musical genius. The first cut, which was also the first single, is a major statement of who they were at the time, but also defined them in a way I think they should be proud of. They are probably sick to death of performing it (especially 20 years on), but I really don't get tired of hearing it.

I think this next song is the single most beautiful composition they have ever put together. While the arrangement is lush - all those strings - the nakedness of the lyrics is so brave, I wonder how Emily sings this one facing an audience. I am happily envious that there are those who are willing to be so brutally honest about the depth of their love for others, and the sometimes dangerous places love (not obsession, but real love) can take us ("There's not enough room in the world for my pain" has resonances in my life, as I'm sure others can relate). There is someone I think of when I hear this song (my wife knows, and deals with it), and while time and life have separated us, the song takes me back to a time and place, which is what the best songs do.

One of the things I love about the Indigo Girls is their unabashed political turns. They aren't the kind to bash one over the head with their political point of view, but they do not shy away from speaking their minds. From Come On Now Social, this is Amy Ray's song "Go".

Science Versus Scientism - Getting Meaning From Meaninglessness

Yesterday, I heard the tail-end of the public radio program Speaking of Faith, in which hostess Krista Tippett interviewed author Jenna Levin, theoretical physicist and novelist (the transcript is here, and the mp3 audio is here). At the end of the interview, Ms. Levin went all whimsical on the powerful meaning for her of the relationship between stellar fusion and life on earth - carbon being forged in the heart of stars billions of years dead, expelled in those stars' death throes at hyper-velocities, finding their way, by chance, to our little corner of the galaxy, and, through the grinding of time and the occasional happy (for us) accident, leading to the creation of amino acids, proteins that are able to make copies of themselves. Musings on the inherent beauty and power of the contemplation of such astrophysical facts is neither new nor surprising. Albert Einstein could put listeners to sleep as he gave a quasi-mystical interpretation of his view of theoretical physics; at the end of his bestseller, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking says that working on a solution to the general relativity/quantum mechanics contradiction leads him to think that he is approaching the mind of God. Perhaps the most well-known, to my mind at any rate, statement of this approach to the wonders of contemporary physics, is the collection of essays Broca's Brain by the late Carl Sagan.

Now, it is easy to understand how those so deeply immersed in the pursuit of such fundamental questions could be captivated by the beauty, the awesome power, and even elegance (a word Einstein used often to describe the way equations fit together) of the discoveries of science. The combination of fear and awe often associated with religious reverence certainly seems justified when we sit and think about the consequences of certain scientific investigations - a kind of weak anthropic principle, the universe sitting and contemplating itself.

Yet, I wish to question this way we appropriate the discoveries of science. Wonder is certainly appropriate when we realize we are studying such fundamental, awesome power as what goes on in the heart of stars, or trying to figure out what, exactly quasars are; yet, to give these things meaning is extrinsic to the facts themselves. They are bare facts - stellar fusion, chemical processes, and the emergence of carbon-based life are nothing more than facts. To grant to them some kind of even minimal transcendent quality, while understandable, is, to my mind, to completely misunderstand what science is and does. Even at its most grand - cosmology and theoretical astrophysics; biochemistry and genetics - science is actually quite a humble enterprise, limited in scope, operating within clearly defined parameters, and offering us no more meaning that the cup of coffee sitting in front of me. To wax rhapsodic about the deep meaning of sudden, accidental coalescence of amino acids in the warming oceans of the earth half a billion years or so after its creation is to misinterpret the nature of the event. While certainly important (would any of us be here is this hadn't happened? chilling thought, that), there is no inherent meaning in it. Ditto even for something as necessary to study as the Big Bang (to which most scientists would agree we can only approach as close as the first nano-second after its occurrence).

This kind of romantic understanding of science (I get the term from the subtitle to Sagan's book, Essays on the Romance of Science) is, in the end, the creation of a kind of ideology, which I call (for lack of a better word) scientism, the elevation of scientific inquiry to a quasi-mystical, quasi-reverential avocation. While indeed wondrous (I certainly would not argue with such an appellation), to take the next step and inscribe meaning upon bare scientific facts, some of which are working models themselves, to be modified as our ability to figure things out improves, is to put upon them something that, even in their grandeur, they do not deserve.

To take the example of the rain of carbon upon the infant planet earth from cosmic debris - this is a theory concerning the nature of the origin of that element upon our planet. based upon various other theories, including stellar mechanics, it is certainly the most plausible scenario, but that in no way means it is correct and should therefore serve as the the basis for reverential contemplation on the nature of human beings. There is nothing within the theory itself that lends itself to such value-laden exegesis. The events are, despite our puny human perspective, unremarkable. Granting some kind of deeper status to these events is to move them from the mundane reality they are to a transcendent realm wherein they contain some kind of transcendence they are ill-equipped to carry.

I wish to be clear. I am certainly not disputing the discoveries of astrophysics, biochemistry, and the like. I am taking issue with taking these discoveries and making of them something mystical. They are meaningless events. Only human beings grant them meaning. The ideology of scientism is as much a distortion, detrimental to a proper understanding of the scientific enterprise, as creationism, working from the other end of the spectrum. Creationism isn't science, but pretends to be. Scientism isn't science, but pretends to be.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


The humor site Sadly, No! is simultaneously doing us all a favor and turning itself in to the "All Goldberg All The Time" website. Like TNT broadcasting A Christmas Story over and over again on Christmas Day, the site has become dedicated to poking fun at Jonah Goldberg's ridiculous book, Liberal Fascism (I'd include the subtitle, but the question is begged - why?) It might be tempting to simply dismiss Goldberg as an ignorant crank who refused to do any research; or perhaps as a poor logician, falling in to fallacy after fallacy; perhaps one might even suspect that, in the end, he has no earthly clue what he's talking about.

The nice thing is, dedicated as they are to making sure we all keep our perspective on the basic hilarity of some parts of our public discourse - its pretensions, its nonsensical ad hominem attacks, its complete ignorance of any decency or sense of proportion - we are all saved the conscience-troubling decision of deciding whether to buy Goldberg's 500-page pile of refuse, thus contributing to its nominal success. Along with the accompanying book tour, and a recent interview in Salon, Goldberg actually manages to kick himself while he's down (not quite as hard as kissing one's elbow, but for one of Goldberg's physical proportions, still quite a feat), providing more fodder for the contributers at Sadly, No!

There is a part of me - a small part, but it is still there - that is frustrated by all this. I know I could write a better book than Goldberg; hell, I could write a better bad book than Goldberg, without farming research out to readers of a magazine. But, I know that envy is an ugly emotion, so I try not to let it intrude upon my criticism of what is, in fact, one of the silliest "literary" offerings that has appeared in many a year.

The one service Goldberg has rendered is proving it is possible to be a worse writer than Ann Coulter, or have a worse ghost-writer than Rush Limbaugh.

Future Not

I just heard an interview on Living on Earth with a man named Ray Kurzweil, who is described as a "famed inventor and futurist". Now, he may be well known among that cohort of people who follow lone inventors and "futurists", but I had never heard of him. Furthermore, listening to the interview, I felt that my ears were being assaulted with the same crap I heard from Alvin Toffler disciple Newt Gingrich.
[In the early 21st century, imagine waking] up to a wall-size, high-definition television showing surf off Maui. (this is my favorite island - you can pick your own scene) You walk or jog or do Stairmaster while catching up on the morning news and beginning to review your day's schedule. Your home office is filled with communication devices, so you can ignore rush-hour traffic. . . . When you are sick, you sit in your diagnostic chair and communicate with the local health clinin. Sensors take your blood pressure, analyze a blood sample, or do throat cultures. The results are quickly relayed to health aides, who make recommendations and prescribe medicine. . . . If you need a specialist, a databank at your fingertips gives you a wide range of choices based on cost, reputation, and outcome patterns. You can choose knowledgeably which risk you want to take what price you want to pay.

Now, in some ways, this future is now. His vision of a "diagnostic chair", right out of Star Trek, isn't; his imagination concerning health care delivery - individual choice in lieu of serious health care reform - is the nightmare most people without insurance face, without all the gee-gaws, and also with limited financial resources to meet the need.

More to the point, has any of this wonderful technological innovation changed the fact that we are in the midst of a deteriorating occupation in Iraq? Is the promise of "nanobots" (Kurzweil's term; I much prefer "nanites", which comes from Star Trek: The Next Generation; they all amount to the same thing) mitigating the current malaise brought on by inept and corrupt public administration at the federal level? At its most fundamental, "futurists" tend to be wild about all sorts of gadgets, imagining how they will revolutionize our lives, while forgetting that our social and political lives have deeply entrenched problems that no amount of gaping at a hi-def scene from Maui will repair. That is, they are wrong about the social and political impact of technological advancement because they have no interest in or understanding of either.

Technology does create new opportunities, and challenges and problems as well, and they do alter the social and political landscape, although very often not in ways we imagine. The "futurists" have been spectacularly wrong about the implications of all sorts of technology; indeed, they are often wrong in their predictions about the directions technology will take, because they mistake technology for something independent of human beings who make it. By assuming the stance "if it can be built, it will be built", they ignore all sorts of reasons why all sorts of contraptions aren't built. Or aren't utilized (my mother used to tell me how, as a young adult in the late 1940's, "futurists" confidently said that by the 1970's helicopters would replace automobiles as the favored form of individual and family transportation).

I tend to think of the future as something that is largely driven by human social, economic, cultural, and political needs and desires; technology is a subset, and hardly the most important, of "cultural" in this list. It would do well to remember that, no matter how clear the sound in those new Bose speakers, they don't change the fact that Ann Coulter is still employed, Rush Limbaugh still has millions of listeners, and George Bush is still in the White House.

Virtual Tin Cup

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