Saturday, February 02, 2008

It's Like They Live In A Different World

While no one commented on it, I did a write-up on the story about Jake Tapper doing an entire blog post in which he misrepresented an out-of-context quote from former President Bill Clinton. Tapper framed the quote, and by implication the entire speech, as essentially saying that Democrats want to shrink the economy to achieve environmental stability. When some folks tried to point out that, in essence, his head was so far up his ass he could chew his food after he swallowed it, Tapper printed a "defense" that made him look even more clueless.

Well, now it seems that the attempt to defend "a national correspondent" from charges that he's dumber than ox shit has become a ridiculous parody of mainstream media simply lying its collective ass off.
New York Times writer Andrew Revkin has written a long dissection of yesterday's episode involving Jake Tapper and his piece's bogus claim that Bill Clinton said he wants to "slow down our economy" to combat global warming. Revkin's conclusion: It's the blogosphere's fault.

If you're not up to speed on this, you can read about the whole episode here. This is what Revkin has to say about it:
Further down in the post, Mr. Tapper included the full text and a link to the entire speech. The context makes it clear that Mr. Clinton was not recommending a slowdown to limit warming, and instead was saying that an economic slowdown and emissions cuts in the United States and other industrialized countries would have no effect because emerging economic powerhouses like China would not follow suit. But the blogosphere, for the most part, doesn’t seem to have time for full transcripts — only the portion that suits some preexisting stance.


Just to restate the obvious, this episode was the creation of three parties: Tapper, ABC News, and Drudge. Revkin uncritically points to Tapper's explanation that the piece put video and the context of the quote further down in the piece. But so what? The problem here, again, was the obviously misleading use of the quote out of context and high up in the piece. This simple act, when combined with ABC News' misleading headline and the willingness of Drudge to grab on to the falsehood and push it out there, created a story that wasn't true.

I am agog at the ability of the media to take an error of their own creation - and an error that is so easy to correct - and rather than admit error, to compound it through distortion and outright falsehoods. I'm really not sure how to push back against this kind of thing other than continuing to expose it for what it is, but I really, really get frustrated with the child-like inability to say, "I'm sorry, I goofed" on the part of alleged professional adults.

Saturday Rock Show

I used to say that my first real rock album purchase was Styx' The Grand Illusion. That isn't really true, however. A few years before, I (along with millions of other pre-pubescent boys and girls) purchased the Kiss LP Destroyer. I spent years hiding the fact that I once listened to those Casablanca discs, Love Gun being the only other Kiss album I ever owned (and Lord did I have a time figuring out what the song "Plaster Caster" was about; don't ask).

I have returned, not quite reluctantly, to the notion that, while certainly not great, and probably not even good, Kiss was nevertheless a fun band, who understood that part of rock is spectacle. They exaggerated everything, the make-up, the outfits, the extra-high platforms, their stage show that included just about everything from good old fashioned rock vamping to the stage itself exploding. I heard an interview with Gene Simmons once, who said that he had seen one of the San Francisco bands, who turned their backs on the audience (my guess is that it was the Jefferson Airplane, who had this tendency towards introspective playing). He said he had never felt so insulted, and that his concert ticket was wasted money. So, he created a band that went far in the other direction.

The nice thing is that the guys in Kiss don't take themselves too seriously. They love music, but they know their limits, and play to their strengths. One of those strengths was nice, crowd-pleasing sing-alongs. Their first was "I Wanna Rock And Roll All Night". Even better, in my not-very-humble-at-all opinion, is "Shout It Out Loud" from Destroyer. Here they are, in 2000, in full make-up and costume, showing how to get an audience on its feet, and keep them there.

Imagine A Church Acting Like . . . A Church

Along with Presidential elections and summer Olympics, this year also brings the Quadrennial General Conference of the United Methodist Church. The structure of the United Methodist Church, as spelled out in its Discipline (our Constitution and body of laws), is similar to the divided government of the United States, the land that gave this denomination birth. The General Conference is, in essence, our Congress. It is the law-making body, as well as, in some way, the executive, because it is the only body that speaks for the United Methodist Church on matters of faith, doctrine (our Articles of Religion are modeled on the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church), and practice. Delegates from all over the world gather and worship, discuss resolutions sent in from all over the world (I do believe we go a bit far in allowing consideration of any resolution that passes Disciplinary muster; some of them are just outside the bounds of seriousness, even if all the "i"'s are crossed and "t"'s are dotted), and set forth an agenda for ministry for the next four years. Of course, there are the ever-present commissions and study groups set up on everything from the ordination process to the sacraments - and they either report back in four years, or get extended until they seem to last forever.

United Methodist Communications held a press conference last week in which they outlined the agenda for the upcoming gathering, to be held in Fort Worth, TX. Part of a report on the news conference reads as follows:
Weary of decades of the church's top legislative meeting being consumed by debate over homosexuality and other hot-button issues, the Council of Bishops and other denominational leaders have shaped a new churchwide agenda with the overarching purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The agenda includes four areas of focus: developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world; creating "new places for new generations" by starting new churches and renewing existing ones; engaging in ministry with the poor; and fighting the killer diseases of poverty such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.(emphasis added)

Isn't it funny? The Great Commission says, "Go make of all disciples", not "Go make sure men aren't sleeping together", or "Go ensure that fetuses are safe from their murderous, sinful mothers". John Wesley famously quipped "The world is my parish", and went forth - and sent forth - people to preach the Gospel, to spend time in contemplation, and to acts of mercy and justice and compassion. He didn't send people out to make sure that our seminaries were packed with people who could recite doctrinal formulas and enforced them with iron rigor. And Bishop Coke and Bishop Asbury wanted the Methodist Church to be a vehicle for the work of Jesus Christ, not for the egos of the bishops.

I am sure there will be hollering from the right-wing, as they insist we need to deal with this or that issue. Yet, wedging General Conference is a bit played out, and creating media storms over non-issues exhausts the patience of those who believe the Church should be about the business for which God has called it, not enforcing narrow interpretations of doctrine, and skewed ethical practice. I am encouraged by this news conference, because it is clear that the insistence on a focus on the heart of true Methodist theology and practice means just that - there will be an enforced rigidity to the agenda. It is high time we made the decision to be the United Methodist Church again, not the Good News Church, or the Non-Creedal Church With a Confessional Lobby. Being a United Methodist is about living in ministry and mission to the whole world, and the General Conference seems to be waking from its lassitude and showing that "United" isn't a declaration of doctrinal rigidity, but about faith in Jesus Christ, and a dedication to his call to be in the world for its healing and restoration.

Friday, February 01, 2008

In The Presence Of I: From Shelter From The Storm to Between You And Me

I thought I would begin by considering two very different songs about music. At least, my assumption about "Shelter From The Storm" is that it is Dylan's ode to music. I received Blood On The Tracks for Christmas, 2000, and immediately recognized it as Dylan's attempt to mythologize himself, from the opening "Tangled Up In Blue" through "Bucket Of Rain". Yet the real highlight of the album is the next-to-last track, in which Dylan, strumming his boxy six-string, tells the story of how music has been the only true constant, the only true love of his life. While one can certainly consider it as an achingly beautiful love song about a woman who is the object of near obsessive love, I believe it to be more about Dylan and music, rather than Dylan and any of the women he may have loved, and who have loved him.

I think it is far better to listen to what this song says about the power of music in one's life, than to read volumes of words about it. Indeed, when one considers that it takes far longer to construct a narrative or analysis of any given piece of music than to sit and let the music tell its own story, weave its own magic, the truth of something I once heard a musician say in an interview - "Music is like sex. We spend far more time talking about it than we actually do doing it" - hits home.

The analogy is apt. Like sex, music (one can substitute any art form, but we are here concerned about music) is this strange, wonderful combination of fleeting immanence and overarching transcendence. Even the longest pieces of music - a Mahler symphony, say, or one of the extended ramblings of the blues improvisers - contain within themselves this tendency to transcend the limits of time. We lose ourselves in them, forgetting that time is passing. We become, in those moments of ecstasy and transport - whether it is true love making or listening to music - eternal.

The intimacy of Dylan's rendering of his relationship with music is a far better way of saying this than any words on a computer screen or piece of paper could convey. "Shelter From The Storm" is one of those songs - and there really aren't that many - that make me wonder how the performer manages to do it. The utter nakedness of the subject, telling the whole world of one's innermost desire and vulnerability and need for protection, is more than I could ever manage to do in public.

Yet, it is also such a bold venture - to use music to tell the most basic fact of one's existence, viz., that music is one's shelter from all the storms in one's life. A song about music could either be self-indulgent, or it could transcend one's limited vision and capture the essence of who one is. I think Dylan escapes the former charge through the bald, completely honest nature not just of the lyric, but the arrangement. He is standing there, strumming his guitar, and laying his soul bare before the world.

Rather than a solipsism, the song is an attempt - within the larger framework of Dylan weaving a myth about BOB DYLAN - to let a little reality, a little truth shine through. More than anything, I think this aspect - the whole context of Dylan's revelatory exercise - gives the song its enormous power and depth for me.

Of course, there is also the simple fact that, while not the artist of Dylan's ability or genius, my feelings about music are quite similar.

I sometimes believe that I dance around the subject far too often, putting out my twice-weekly music posts, without ever being honest enough to say that my love for music is far more basic, far deeper than simple appreciation for an entertainment. I can spend pages and columns on details such as the difference between technique and emotive playing, or the way different harmonies create subtle differences within the same melody. Yet, in the end the truth is far deeper, far less amenable to rational analysis. I live without television. I live without painting. I suppose that, should tragedy strike, I could wind up living without my wife and family (unhappily to be sure). I would not choose to live if I had to live without music. I suppose that sounds like the height of irrationality, but I must confess that my love for music is so deeply interwoven in my life, that I could not separate it out if I had to. My happiest moments, as well as those of my deepest despondency, have all been accompanied by the sounds of music. My earliest memories revolve around it. There are songs that transport me, almost immediately, to a particular place and time, with all the emotional immediacy of actually being there. This is deeper than memory. It is transcendence, tout court.

Of course, there is not just the confessional mode. We must also consider the sheer joy of music, the anthemic, hymnic gift of celebration we receive. When a song gives us not just a taste of the inner-most desires, but the most grateful joy - we are also in the presence of a transcendent moment. Such moments rarely are sustained for long, even in the best songs. Yet, there are one or two that give us a chance to shout, and cheer - not those performing the music, but music itself.

The most direct of those is the song "Between You And Me" by Marillion. Another song about music, it does what Dylan's song did, but it does it with all the pulsing power of the best sing-along, stand-on-your feet hymns one could imagine. This song is a celebration of the way music is part of human communication, saying what cannot be said. We should, indeed, celebrate those moments, that reality - and stand and shout and cheer, and lose ourselves in those moments when we "can do no wrong". Those moments are indeed fleeting, but after all, they give us shelter from the storm.

Reading Habits II: Criticizing Critics

I dislike Fridays. I am hard-pressed by time, and I generally dislike that. I especially dislike it because I would like to take the time to deliver some good stuff on this blog, but I always feel like I have one eye on the clock. My posts today will be somewhat different, but reading Giddins has put my mind in motion (no jokes please) and so I think it may just serve as a preface, or perhaps introduction, to a series of posts. You will see as you read on.

Last year, on a whim on a day off, I took Lisa to Woodstock, IL, which, for those not in the know, is where the movie Groundhog Day was filmed. It is only 20 miles away, and it is quite something to walk around that square where Bill Murray was stuck on the same day for years.

There is a wonderful little independent book shop next to a coffee shop, and those things are like magnets for both of us. As we wandered, I came across Gary Giddins' collection of critical essays, Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of its Second Century and didn't look back. For those who may not know, Giddins is the jazz critic for The Village Voice. I found him to be an always informative, if occasionally annoying, source on Ken Burns' Jazz documentary (but the same went for most of the non-musician critics, and even one or two of the performers), and I see he manages to translate that dual propensity for being both engaging and annoying in print. It must be who he is.

One thing is clear from reading his review essays - his love for the music about which he writes is as deep and profound as one's attachment to a lover. His familiarity with the lingo of jazz - choruses and 16- versus 12-bar blues changes, heads, books, leads, and all the rest - is delivered in a way with which I am familiar. That is to say, he tosses off such words and phrases with the easy, but probably misguided assumption that the reader knows what he is talking about. After all, he knows what he is talking about. There just doesn't seem to be a need to put in a little glossary for those not familiar with the terminology (for the record, I do know what he's talking about; but assumptions are bad things for any writer to make, especially when dealing with such writing as this).

He also knows the history and genealogy of jazz. He understands how influences work, hears little nods and even bows from a later generation to a previous one; who jammed with whom in some club somewhere late at night and took those beer- and gin-soaked lessons with them as they passed to the next level; keeps the canon of who is, and who is not, jazz as if it is written in stone (he disses, on several occasions, one of my favorite guitarists, Wes Montgomery; I do hope that is not because he orchestrated some of his songs . . .)

Yet, even as I am enjoying Giddins pretty rigid view of jazz, and his childlike delight in the music, I find myself wondering about the benefits, not so much of writing about music in general, but of criticism as a necessary part of the dance of art. We are, after all, dealing with one art form - the written word - standing in judgment over another - music. We are taking a step back from the emotive core that produces the best melodies and harmonies and trying to rationally assess what is irrational; we are attempting to fix in time what is both ephemeral and timeless, and give it some kind of permanence it is not, by its very nature, supposed to have.

This is a kind of Platonic temptation. I once called it an ideology, in reference to the late rock critic Lester Bangs. I think it is more than that, though. More than simple ideology - although ideology functions as a part of the overall approach - it is a philosophical preference to see "music" as something that exists outside the agency of the musicians who perform it. For Bangs, the best music was the MC5, the early Stooges, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music - music that spoke of rebellion, of a break with tradition, perhaps even a bit of danger. There is nothing wrong with having one's own favorites (how can one not?), turning those personal choices in to a transcendent canon against which to measure each and every musical act to float down the music industry pipeline is a recipe not only for disappointment, but for a certain myopia.

Giddins suffers from the same critical ocular dysfunction. The fixed stars of his firmament are Louis Armstrong, a collection of whose early recordings Giddins encountered early, and was a formative influence on his appreciation and acceptance of jazz; Duke Ellington, the greatest composer of American music, who transcends category; and, interestingly, Giddins has a fondness for, and understanding of, Cecil Taylor's avante adventures. He also understands the struggle between honoring tradition and the desire to create that exists in jazz, and pays homage to both the endlessly-repeated songs, and the new creations of both young and mold musicians who wish to add to the library of great songs.

He occasionally makes what I consider a category mistake, invoking classical composers - Mozart and Bartok, Bach (who lends himself to such comparisons) and Brahms - when attempting to convey what a musician is attempting. My problem with this approach is that classical music is both historically and stylistically removed from jazz as a musical form. Why not take the music on its own terms, and attempt to convey what a musician is doing on its own terms, rather than seek an analogy outside the grammar, vocabulary, and even library of jazz?

Also, why slight musicians who attempt to draw in influences from other popular musics - rock, particularly blues-influenced rock in particular - and give it a place to breathe and even grow in jazz? I know that there are many traditionalists who still disdain fusion for precisely this reason; by bringing in electric instruments, and larger musical forms, the intimacy of jazz - a few guys and gals on a club stage blowing and banging away with the audience within kissing distance - is lost. Yet, this is to take just one way of making the music and making it a standard by which it is to be judged, and found wanting, rather than appreciating what the performer is attempting on its own terms. I know that The Mahavishnu Orchestra is jazz, even though they had closer affinities to such diverse groups as The Allman Brothers Band (who were heavily influence by both Miles Davis and John Coltrane), King Crimson (Fripp added a violinist to the line-up in 1973, just as McLaughlin has one), and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

I am enjoying Giddins because he is a smart, occasionally witty, sometimes scathing writer (especially of other critics of jazz whom he seems to dismiss too casually) whose deep, abiding love for the music comes through even as his attempt to convey with words runs up against the reality that it cannot be so conveyed. Critical writing about jazz, in the end, is a bit like writing about the wind, or a snowflake. We do not see wind; we feel it. Each snowflake, like each jazz performance, is unique, fragile, easily destroyed by too close an attempt to understand it. I think that, when writing about music, we should always remember that we are in the presence of what is, in the end, outside our ability to rationally comprehend. Any critical reflection on art diminishes not the art, but ultimately the critical reflection, A writer about music looks small compared to the person who is actually performing the music.

It is like trying to convey to another person why one is in love. In the end, music, like love, is some kind of strange, irrational, ephemeral event, to be what it is rather than a subject for too-meticulous analysis.

Having said that, I do believe that I am going to write about music. . .

Thursday, January 31, 2008

"It's that simple and it's that dumb."

Matt Yglesias has a great little piece on the really warped logic the Bush Administration uses to justify its actions. In the particular instance, the question is a free trade agreement with Colombia, yet as Yglesias points out, the same modus operandi applies across the board to pretty much everything these dunces do.
In Bush world, first you set out to do something. Then if that thing seems to not be working out or causing problems, what you need to do is do it again harder. Anything else, after all, would only embolden the bad guys.

Thus the surge, the push to make permanent the tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2002, to pass another Patriot Act, another FISA bill - more and better stupid up and down the line.

Otherwise, the terrorists win.

January 20, 2009 cannot come fast enough.

An Object Lesson - Why I Really Don't Like Big-Time Journalists, And Why I Accuse Them Of Bias

The story comes from Sadly, No!

First, former President Clinton, stumping in Denver for his wife's campaign, gave a speech in which he said the following:
“Everybody knows that global warming is real,” Mr. Clinton said, giving a shout-out to Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize, “but we cannot solve it alone.”

“And maybe America, and Europe, and Japan, and Canada — the rich counties — would say, ‘OK, we just have to slow down our economy and cut back our greenhouse gas emissions ’cause we have to save the planet for our grandchildren.’ We could do that.

“But if we did that, you know as well as I do, China and India and Indonesia and Vietnam and Mexico and Brazil and the Ukraine, and all the other countries will never agree to stay poor to save the planet for our grandchildren. The only way we can do this is if we get back in the world’s fight against global warming and prove it is good economics that we will create more jobs to build a sustainable economy that saves the planet for our children and grandchildren. It is the only way it will work.

With me so far?

OK, so Jake Tapper, senior national correspondent with ABC, wrote the following in re this speech:
Former President Bill Clinton was in Denver, Colorado, stumping for his wife yesterday.

In a long, and interesting speech, he characterized what the U.S. and other industrialized nations need to do to combat global warming this way: “We just have to slow down our economy and cut back our greenhouse gas emissions ’cause we have to save the planet for our grandchildren.” At a time that the nation is worried about a recession is that really the characterization his wife would want him making? “Slow down our economy”? I don’t really think there’s much debate that, at least initially, a full commitment to reduce greenhouse gases would slow down the economy….So was this a moment of candor?

He went on to say that his the U.S. — and those countries that have committed to reducing greenhouse gases — could ultimately increase jobs and raise wages with a good energy plan. So there was something of a contradiction there. Or perhaps he mis-spoke. Or perhaps this characterization was a description of what would happen if there isn’t a worldwide effort…I’m noquite certain.

Are you following this? President Clinton said that a green economy could be, and would be, a robust economy. Tapper heard Clinton say something about "slow the economy down" and his ears, and his eyes (the entire speech is posted at Tapper's blog, so he could reference it if he wanted), and his brain all shut down. "Misspoke"? "A contradiction"? No, Clinton was giving a parody of an argument against working to reduce greenhouse gases as a prelude to emphasizing the economic benefits of a green economy. It seems pretty clear to me.

Then again, I didn't go to journalism school, and I don't know what journalists do . . .

Of course, the story gets worse, not better. You see, even the loony right took issue with Tapper's description of Clinton's speech. You just have to know you've really boned up when the right-wing, which exists to hate him and his wife, will insist you mischaracterized a speech the former President made.

And Tapper, ever the brave defender of journalistic integrity, comes back and updates his previous stupid with even more stupid. Here's a tip: Jake, when you're in a whole, don't ask someone to give you a shovel; if they do, don't start digging:
This morning, trying to understand what former President Bill Clinton was driving at when he made a statement about effort to combat global warming, I posted a quote of his, put it in context, provided video links, and asked what he meant.

The Clinton campaign did not provide for me, as requested, an explanation of what he meant.

Instead, the response from the Clinton campaign is to post an item on its "fact" hub and accuse me of "parsing."

I will plead guilty to "parsing" -- the dictionary definition of the word -- "To examine closely or subject to detailed analysis, especially by breaking up into components" or "To make sense of; comprehend."

But I suspect the Clinton campaign thinks of the word "parsing" in its more colloquial sense -- as in "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

I guess I should defer to their expertise.

While this is perhaps not the lowest of low points, it is such a wonderful illustration of just how bad - and how mind-numbingly idiotic - our national journalists are, I couldn't help passing it along.

Reading Habits I: In Which I Reveal Guilty Pleasures Gone Bad

Until last evening, I have found myself at a standstill, reading-wise, for the past several weeks. I thought it was because of extraneous stuff in my life, distractions that kept me from one of the most calming pursuits invented by human beings - ruminating with a good book in one's hand. Picking something at random last night, in an attempt to jumpstart my reading, I finally landed on terra firma as it were (to which I shall return in the second of these little meditations). I realized, last night as I eagerly gobbled sentences, paragraphs, and pages that what was missing was simple - I had exhausted my brain not on something deep and profound, but had, in fact, emptied it on what a former colleague of mine in another job and another time called "brain candy". The truth is, since early November I have been engaged in my second attempt to read through all of Robert Jordan's fantasy series The Wheel of Time. I did the same thing almost exactly a year ago, and managed to get one volume farther along this time - I am close to finishing volume 8, The Path of Daggers. Yet, I just cannot bring myself to finish it.

I think Jordan's attempt is admirable, yet with each volume, the pace slows until one reaches crawling speed. There is endless repetition of plot points and thematic material that seems to pad what are already over-long works of increasing complexity. Characters are introduced in one volume, disappear for one or two or even three, then reappear, and the reader is given little hint as to who this person is, or what role he or she is supposed to play. Even leads drop out - one of the main characters does not appear at all in, I believe, volume 5. I am two-thirds through 8 and another main character while mentioned has yet to show up.

The books themselves certainly deserve the label "massive". The first volume, The Eye of the World (I have always imagined Jordan sitting and listening to The Grateful Dead as he conceived and wrote that one), comes in at just under 900 pages. To put this in perspective, the entire Lord of the Rings feaux-trilogy comes in at just over a thousand pages of text, excluding the appendices. Subsequent volumes of Jordan are equally lengthy; the shortest (so far) is nearly seven hundred, with most of the rest coming in well over 800 and one or two nearing the 1,000 page mark. They could have used some judicious editing and lost much of their bulk by focusing more closely on the story.

On the other hand, Jordan is creating a realistic world - there are warring nation-states; religious, ethnic, gender, and class strife and struggle; the end-game of the entire series, the final battle with evil is complicated by the scheming and plotting of various characters, said scheming and plotting always overthrown in the end through the wonderful plot device of the lead characters having the ability to mold events around themselves (thus depriving such schemes and plots of serious consideration as threats; the device, like much else in Jordan's series, is overused) - and is taking great care to present events as realistically as possible. Realistic, that is, should one suspend disbelief long enough to accept a sexual division of magic, an endless cycle of passing away and coming again of the same persons and events (Jordan seems to be imbuing a certain Nietzschean quality to his world - this is a presentation of the eternal recurrence). Schooled at The Citadel, South Carolina's military undergraduate college, he writes of battles with an attention to detail and understanding that is both unusual among authors and a bit daunting. It is also refreshing, especially after having read some of Tom Clancy's work, waiting for a grasp of tactics, strategy, or a realistic understanding of either military life or the methods of modern warfare.

I think I can honestly say that I am just not cut out to read epic fantasy. I can suspend disbelief long enough to accept the events I am reading. I can enjoy the humanity of characters who live in a universe where magic is real, horrid, nightmarish creatures who do the bidding of the Prince of Darkness form armies that always threaten to overwhelm the world, and it lies with one man, endowed with the ability to do magic, but the omnipresent threat of eventual insanity always hanging over his head, to lead the world in a final assault on the forces of evil. What I cannot do is sustain that suspension long enough to wend my way through so much unedited stuff, the endlessly repeated invocations of this or that or the other plot point that was clear early in the first volume, yet appears again and again in each subsequent volume.

I have turned, happily enough, to Gary Giddins Weather Bird: Jazz At The Dawn Of Its Second Century, and will write some thoughts on it tomorrow.

The First Shot Across McCain's Bow - The Prince Of Darkness Speaks

With the momentum in the Republican nomination clearly with Sen. John McCain, the first attempt to create a cloud over his possible (yet not yet probable, and certainly not likely) nomination appears in today's Washington Post in Robert Novak's column.
As John McCain neared his momentous primary election victory in Florida after a ferocious campaign questioning his conservative credentials, right-wingers buzzed over word that he had privately suggested that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was too conservative. In response, McCain said he recalled saying no such thing and added that Alito was a "magnificent" choice. In fact, multiple sources confirm that the senator made negative comments about Alito nine months ago.

I realize this doesn't help Novak, and is probably irrelevant to what he is trying to do, but it took me less than four minutes to find this site and discover, lo and behold, that McCain voted to confirm Alito as Supreme Court Justice. So, perhaps McCain doesn't believe that Alito is "conservative". Other conservatives, however, believe he is. The evidence of his actions on the Court would indicate he is. McCain, in the most important act relevant to Alito's sitting on the bench, voted to confirm him.

In other words, Novak is peddling crap. Of course, once again he's a bag carrier for a group of unnamed crap peddlers, but that doesn't mean he doesn't know what he's doing; it's not like he is going to open the bag and breathe deeply the fumes emanating from the pile of offal he has been handed.

Further down the column, Novak reveals that the alleged Alito comments are part of a two-pronged conservative offensive against McCain. The one prong is, obviously, Supreme Court nominees. The second is taxes, and the root source is Grover Norquist, who plays squire of darkness to Novak's Princely role of the same political realm.
Meanwhile, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist is worried because a prominent journalist informed him that a few years ago McCain said to him, off the record, that as president he would have to raise taxes. More recently McCain has told me, on the record, that he would never support a tax increase and, consequently, favors making the Bush tax cuts permanent.

Norquist and McCain have a stormy relationship. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, McCain in 2005 subpoenaed records of Norquist's dealings with now-imprisoned Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Denying wrongdoing, Norquist said that McCain held a grudge against him because he campaigned against the senator's 2000 presidential bid. Norquist told me that he has no animus toward McCain and only wants assurances that McCain opposes higher taxes.(emphasis added)

If you believe the part highlighted in italics, you are either naive or stupid. Norquist is monomaniacal about taxes, and I believe he not only holds a grudge, but would work non-stop to keep someone he even suspected might increase federal revenue out of office. The fact that McCain would come close to questioning Norquist's legal integrity means only one thing - payback time.

This column appears to be, as the title suggests, a shot across McCain's bow. It is also a stern warning to McCain that he is expected to hold to doctrinal purity on taxes and group-love fore Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Otherwise, we can expect more of Novak's columns aimed not at the Democratic nominee, but at McCain, as conservatives continue to eat their own in an attempt to maintain their purity.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

What's In The Balance Against Losing Our Soul? (UPDATE with link)

From David Kurtz:
This may be the most revealing bit of Michael Mukasey's testimony today: Whether waterboarding is torture, the attorney general says, requires a balancing test of the costs v. the benefits.

So there you have it. In the view of the Justice Department, there is no categorical prohibition against the torture of detainees, even under the Detainee Treatment Act.

From a more detailed report by Paul Kiel:
Mukasey responded that it was "not simply a relative issue," but there "is a statute where it is a relative issue," he added, citing the Detainee Treatment Act. That law engages the "shocks the conscience" standard, he explained, and you have to "balance the value of doing something against the cost of doing it."

What does "cost" mean, Biden wanted to know.

Mukasey said that was the wrong word. "I mean the heinousness of doing it, the cruelty of doing it, balanced against the value.... balanced against the information you might get." Information "that couldn't be used to save lives," he explained, would be of less value.

Marty Lederman blogs: "What this reveals is that DOJ and Mukasey have concluded that waterboarding is categorically not torture, and is not 'cruel treatment' under Common Article 3 (even though it is, by Mukasey's own lights, "cruel" -- go figure)."

Biden responded, "You're the first I've ever heard to say what you just said.... It shocks my conscience a little bit."

I believe we have reached some kind of nadir here. The only bright side is, we can only get better when we remove the heinous human beings from any position where they wield power and influence.

I believe these people have stared far too long in to Nietzsche's abyss, and that abyss has not only stared back, but captured them in toto. How sad for us. How horrible that such people call themselves American officials.

UPDATE: I should have read on a bit, because just after publishing this, I came across this from digby, who uses the same source, adding a thought I have had myself.
I honestly don't know why everybody's so hung up on waterboarding specifically at this point. If this is their legal understanding, then they can use the rack, they can break arms and legs and they can pull teeth out with a pair of pliers. There is no logical difference between any of that and waterboarding if the only moral and legal guideline is that "it might be used to save lives."

Florida Washout

Edwards and Giuliani are gone. The Republican nod appears to be McCain's to lose (my dream of a brokered Republican convention is all but dead; sigh . . .). 1.7 million Democrats came out to vote, close to the 1.9 million Republicans, even though their vote will not count, due to the fact that the party is punishing them for holding their primary too early (I just love the way the parties are disenfranchising voters over what are some of the flimsiest, stupid reasons ever imagined), so the on-going, under-the-radar story of high Democratic turnout continues. More than any of the previous contests, I believe last night's was, as all the hype suggested it might be, a watershed.

I cannot pretend to be sanguine about Edwards' departure. He pushed both Obama and Clinton to the left, and despite the near-blackout of the major press on his speeches and policy stances (although they certainly paid attention to his haircuts and girly-manness, didn't they), his was a necessary, important voice. I once thought I would support him, but changed my mind after a consideration of other things besides issues and policy-stances. I believe that Edwards needs to return to the Senate, or perhaps run for governor of North Carolina - I believe one term in the Senate just doesn't show a willingness to tough out the world of politics (although, considering the press he received, especially after it was revealed his wife had cancer, both and he and his wife are to be commended for their fortitude).

Giuliani became a bad joke. Once the front-runner (of course, before any votes were cast), the nomination was at one time seen as his to lose. He managed to do that quite handily through the simple act of campaigning. He offered his vision of himself, his record - and Republican voters responded with a collective "No" loud enough to be heard over the din of press adulation. His response - all 9/11 all the time - became a parody of itself in the end, only adding fuel to the fire the burned his candidacy to the ground. He added nothing but a combination of comic relief and fear and loathing among many Democrats over the even remote possibility of his becoming the nominee. Like Fred Thompson, he will not be missed because he didn't really do much more than provide a target for slavering press coverage for what was, in essence, a non-entity.

The McCain win is the real story. Here is where my crystal ball gets put on the shelf, and, to change the metaphor, I stand deep in my own end zone to punt. I once thought Republican Establishment disdain for McCain would be strong enough either to give Romney the momentum necessary to eke out a narrow victory, or push the race to the convention floor. It seems, however, that Republican voters are smarter than I am. With the choices narrowed to these two men - despite the Huckabee surprise in Iowa - Republican voters have done what they often do and gone on to support the elder statesman of the Party. Bob Dole's nomination in 1996 was the same kind of thing, as well as a final bow to what was then touted (and repeated far too often in subsequent years) as "the greatest generation". I do believe McCain has the nomination all but sewn up, with next week's Super Tuesday contests most likely putting the finishing touches on that fact (of course, should Romney end up splitting the vote, winning enough states to keep his hopes alive, this dynamic may change; this is why I should keep my mouth shut about political predictions . . .).

That, I believe, creates a fundamental problem for the Republican Party going in to the general election. For whatever reason - and I just can't fathom it, considering his record and rhetoric - McCain really is despised by many constituencies within the Republican Party. Most especially, despite recent attempts to pander to them, the right-wing evangelical groups - representing the single biggest grass-roots constituency in the Party - might just vote with their feet and stay away in droves, regardless of whatever empty promises he and others make to them. Bridging that gap will be the biggest challenge a McCain campaign will face, and while not insurmountable, it certainly will be formidable.

It might be made less so should Sen. Clinton get the Democratic nomination, but I think that Clinton-hatred, despite its deep roots among many the further right you float in the political spectrum, will only get any Republican candidate so far.

There is the larger dynamic of the campaign, coalescing recently in the almost-constant blathering about "Change" coming from both Democrats and Republicans. The country is ready to move on from the disasters of the past seven years, and so that one word has become the mantra of all the candidates, even conservatives for whom change should be as bad a word as the phrase "blowjob in the Oval Office". I think the yearning for change is real. I also think that a McCain candidacy will face the dual hurdles of his love affair with the occupation in Iraq (as well as his enthusiasm for unprovoked attack on Iran) and his age going up against either of the Democratic front-runners. Especially embodied in the candidacy of Barack Obama (I'm sure you were wondering when I would sneak my endorsement for him in here), I believe that the choice in the fall could not be more clear. Taking nothing away from McCain's biography, the kind of courage and inner strength necessary to survive what he went through with some semblance of his mind intact, I believe this story is, like fear of another terrorist attack, a bit played. The truth is, McCain is a creature of Washington, DC, and a supporter of our current, unhappy, status quo. Obama is offering voters a vision of something more, something better, a chance to believe and work for America. McCain, like the current President, believes in a kind of caretaker vision for the Presidency. Like Bush when the first economic downturn occurred in 2001, McCain does not believe it necessary for our leaders to ask us to sacrifice in the face of challenges and adversity. Bush infamously enjoined us to go shopping - as if, somehow, spending money we didn't have would make our fears of another terrorist attack, an anthrax mailing, and an economic slump all go away.

This, I think, is the key to Obama's ultimate success. The country does not believe we are, as we constantly hear from many on the right, that we are a nation at war. Simply put, we haven't been asked to do anything, to give up anything, to live our lives differently because of the threats we allegedly face. Bush says, "shop" because, essentially, he and most Republicans do not believe it necessary to pull the country together in shared sacrifice to face the threats. That is government's job, and he will do it, without submitting to the will of Congress, either for money or oversight, because he and his Administration believe that the title "Commander-in-Chief" somehow insulates him from the rule of law. Imagine a man who spent years in the military occupying the office of President, a man who believes in more and bigger wars, and that is a recipe for disaster.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Theological Ramble

Please feel free to add your two cents. Or not. Life delivers thoughts, and I have a blog, so I type them out. They may mean a lot, or they may mean nothing at all. You judge.

I have had multiple occasions recently to consider two related concepts, given by men who lived two centuries apart. I am speaking of Luther's doctrine that human beings are at once justified by grace through faith, yet still live in sin, usually summed up in its Latin equivalent, simul iustus et peccator. John Wesley developed a doctrine of Divine Grace which saw the movement of God in human life in a three-fold manner - prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. That is, God's love is there for us before we even recognize it, is present with us in that moment when we are grasped by the power of salvation, and leads us forward as we move deeper in to the mysteries and possibilities of the life of the life of faith. I believe that, while Wesley was most likely aware of Luther's teaching, he never (as far as I know) made the connection between his own teaching and Luther's. Yet, there is most definitely a relation, with Wesley's teaching on grace being an elaboration, a detailed discussion and description of exactly what that whole simul thing looks like in the life of the believer.

I think it is a sad thing that many so-called Protestant churches have lost any connection whatsoever to this teaching of Luther's. I can, perhaps, forgive the Reformed Churches for emphasizing Calvin's more mature, developed theology of grace, but I think that it rests as much on Luther as does Wesley's. I also think that, unlike Calvin, Wesley's Arminian nod toward human freedom is more in keeping with holding that tension in Luther's original formulation. Much of the debate in United Methodist theological circles, back in the late-1980's and early-1990's, was the lengths to which Wesley tried to bridge the Calvinist-Arminian gap. Personally, I think it was wasted effort. Wesley, while always calling himself "a hair's breadth away from Calvin", was in fact an Arminian, and we United Methodists should embrace that heritage, without disdaining Calvin's equally important emphasis on the sovereignty of God and the mystery of salvation.

Having said all that (you thought I'd forgotten Father Martin, didn't you), I think that the core of the Protestant revolution in Christian thought - what makes Protestant churches Protestant, not Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Other - is Luther's emphasis on the reality that we human beings, in this life, are never completely abandoned by God, yet nor are we completely embraced by God. The impossible position in which we find ourselves is that of those who, despite our best efforts and with all the help God can grant, are still those steeped in sin, and therefore separated from God. The grace that moves toward us is always necessary; we cannot bridge that Divine-human gap on our own. It comes not just as the saving word, the comforting word (think Isaiah 40 here), but the word of judgment.

Wesley accepted this, but thought that this twin reality - judgment/grace - was something God continued to work to overcome in the life of the believer; thus the notion of grace as not just justifying but sanctifying (occasionally called "perfecting" in hyper-Wesleyan circles) and that this latter is not something that is simultaneous with the former, but a living process, a journey God leads us through. I like the idea, because I know that I am not now, nor most likely in whatever years God grants me, in a place where I feel that I have reached the end of this thing called the Christian life. Indeed, I sometimes fell like I'm playing that kids game, red-light/green-light. I keep getting caught out, sent back to the beginning.

Yet, I also know that God doesn't toss me out of the game at all. The mercy and love of God, embodied in Jesus, is always there giving me, as it were, a do-over. Even though he knows perfectly well I'll need another tomorrow, next week, six years from now. In about 20 minutes. That's the fact, the mystery, the contradiction, the wonder, the joy of grace.

"As if history itself doesn’t happen"

With a generous hat-tip to dday, writing at Hullabaloo (you know, I really need to change the spelling on my blogroll someday), I would like to recommend for close reading and study this article at The New York Times. Written by Parag Khanna, who is a senior research fellow in the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation, the article is a long, and long-overdue reality check for Americans on what has been happening in the rest of the world while America leadership was drained away in a pointless war and occupation in Iraq. The lesson from this article, should anyone consider it in its totality, is quite simple: the world situation facing the incoming President - whoever he or she may be, of whatever party - will face a world fundamentally different from the one George W. Bush inherited from Bill Clinton on January 20, 2001. While the threat of terrorism is omnipresent (it always will be), of greater importance is the simple fact that the United States has lost its standing as the lone hegemonic power in the world. While still powerful, to be sure, and still the focus of much global concern and attention, these come less from the ways in which we stride unchallenged across the world stage, and more from an interest in how we have fallen, and continue to diminish, yet fail to acknowledge it.

Here is part of a description of the world as it is, not as we are told it is:
At best, America’s unipolar moment lasted through the 1990s, but that was also a decade adrift. The post-cold-war “peace dividend” was never converted into a global liberal order under American leadership. So now, rather than bestriding the globe, we are competing — and losing — in a geopolitical marketplace alongside the world’s other superpowers: the European Union and China. This is geopolitics in the 21st century: the new Big Three. Not Russia, an increasingly depopulated expanse run by; not an incoherent Islam embroiled in internal wars; and not India, lagging decades behind China in both development and strategic appetite. The Big Three make the rules — their own rules — without any one of them dominating. And the others are left to choose their suitors in this post-American world.

The more we appreciate the differences among the American, European and Chinese worldviews, the more we will see the planetary stakes of the new global game. Previous eras of balance of power have been among European powers sharing a common culture. The cold war, too, was not truly an “East-West” struggle; it remained essentially a contest over Europe. What we have today, for the first time in history, is a global, multicivilizational, multipolar battle.

In Europe’s capital, Brussels, technocrats, strategists and legislators increasingly see their role as being the global balancer between America and China. Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a German member of the European Parliament, calls it “European patriotism.” The Europeans play both sides, and if they do it well, they profit handsomely. It’s a trend that will outlast both President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, the self-described “friend of America,” and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, regardless of her visiting the Crawford ranch. It may comfort American conservatives to point out that Europe still lacks a common army; the only problem is that it doesn’t really need one. Europeans use intelligence and the police to apprehend radical Islamists, social policy to try to integrate restive Muslim populations and economic strength to incorporate the former Soviet Union and gradually subdue Russia. Each year European investment in Turkey grows as well, binding it closer to the E.U. even if it never becomes a member. And each year a new pipeline route opens transporting oil and gas from Libya, Algeria or Azerbaijan to Europe. What other superpower grows by an average of one country per year, with others waiting in line and begging to join?

In the spring of 2001, I purchased the book The End of the American Empire, a musing on the coming rise of an increasingly united Europe, and the decreasing ability of the United States to work its will on the rest of the world. Then came the attacks of September 11, and I, like most others in the United States, lost a bit of perspective. By focusing on the attacks as something qualitatively different, rather than a mere geometric leap in the methods and ability to deliver mass death, I set aside the arguments in that book to focus on the threat from terrorism. That brief period, a loss of perspective for which all Americans continue to pay, came crashing down when it became clear that, against all reason, sense, and any rational accounting of national, strategic interest, we would invade and destroy Iraq. I am sobered by the fact that young men and women who will graduate from high school this coming spring were in middle school/junior high when we invaded. This is their reality; this is their education in the destruction of American power and influence - moral as well as political and economic. This perspective, far different from my own (I reached my majority at the nadir of the early-1980's Reagan recession, and was not quite 24 when the Berlin Wall was taken down), will school a whole generation in the perils of overreach. We would all do well to remember that.

I urge anyone to go and read the article - really an essay, it is a bit longer than the average newspaper article. It is well worth the time and effort. I think it should be used as the source for all sorts of questions in candidate forums - imagine John McCain being forced to acknowledge that foreign policy in a hypothetical McCain Administration would be dominated by playing catch-up with the rest of the world.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Music Monday

I actually got a couple good replies to my request last week for break-up songs, so they will follow shortly. I also got a link to country song titles that, while not meeting the criteria I was looking for, certainly gave me a chuckle.

First, the oldest break-up song, both in time and from a reader "of a certain age". While no story is related, this is one of those songs that speaks for itself. Don and Phil Everly's "Bye Bye Love":

Next up, is Merle Haggard's "Going Where The Lonely Go". This song paints its own picture, so I will say no more, especially as I was not given permission to do so. The video really doesn't fit the song, so I think it would be better to close one's eyes, and the tears will flow, no matter how happy you are now.

Finally, we come to my own. This isn't the greatest song in the world, but the title, and lyrics, and mood, neatly captured a moment in my life, when I realized that good intentions, romantic intentions, sincerely held feelings aren't enough to save what is lost forever. That painful lesson, granted with all the subtlety of a kick in the gut, left me dazed as I spent the entire month of August, 1992, trying to figure out how to move on. The simple truth of this song, rendered somewhat banal by the song, left an indelible impression upon me; I would no longer look for love. I would need to work at a real relationship, and let love be what it is. This is Patty Smyth and Don Henley, "Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough":

Since I got a reaction to last week's request, I would like to go two for two. Next week, rather than break-up songs, I would like to go for "I'm so over you" songs. These cover the next stage, perhaps, in a break-up. If you instigated the break-up, however, they could be the first stage - that wonderful, freeing feeling of being rid of the burden of an unhappy relationship. It might even include a proverbial (or not so proverbial) hand signal to the one to whom it is directed. Once again, I already have one in mind, but would like input.

So, next week's Monday Music post is in your hands.

Philosopher Fridays On Monday - People Try To Teach Philosophy To A Philosopher

Delayed for the weekend - Somerby's one main fault is a tendency to delay promised articles - Philosopher Fridays returns today with reader input that shows that lay folks still regard philosophy as some kind of final arbiter of reason and Truth, rather than the creation of castles in the air - beautiful structures! such profound goodness and truth! - that, like all such things, are too often figments of the imagination of those cerebral architects.

There is still this lingering idea that "reason" is something external to human beings, a court to which access is given for only a select few. These few sit in judgment upon human actions and thought as the final determinants of what "fits" with this "thing" called "reason". This Platonic temptation, which seems self-evident, makes those who should probably know better imagine philosophy as the most subtle way human beings have yet designed to contact this realm of eternal forms, rather than an exercise in the wonders of language creating these floating McMansions.
SOMERBY(1/18/08): “In our view, of course, almost all ‘philosophical writing’—especially that which deals with ‘the nature of consciousness’—is painful to read, poorly thought out, shoddy, inept and disastrous."

You do qualify these statements with “may be” and “almost,” but it seems a rather shallow concession towards your desired end of making philosophy out to be nothing more than hucksters mashing language together until people nod their heads in contrition. We have enough of this these days already, instead of jumping on the bandwagon why don't you actually stand up for something? Truth, Beauty, and Existence (big T or small t, take your pick) is a good start. If people refuse to accept that we can stand on the shared ground of reason then what use is it to run your blog in the first place?

That is the criticism of much contemporary post-modern (anti)philosophy - if we don't play the game by the old rules - mere anarchy is loosed!


Mere anarchy has always been the rule. Thinking the near indecipherable writings of Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger somehow just have to have deep meaning because they are so badly written is the first mistake we too often make. On the other hand, reading Richard Rorty, who managed to make pragmatist philosophy accessible to anyone with the ability to read at a high school level, often causes philosophers to shake their heads. It isn't opaque enough. It dismisses much of the heritage of the west as so much sophistry and fantasy-mongering. He takes things as assumed that have always existed as questions in philosophy - the reality of the world, the role of evolution in creating human language and thought, the role of interpretation in communicative action (to quote Habermas).

Yet, it is precisely these qualities that made Rorty the exemplar of an approach to human social life. By clearing away the muddle, by insisting that we reject the notion that "reason" is some external tribunal standing in judgment over human activity, we can finally see that we are creatures embedded in webs of activity, including language, that are rooted in our humanity. It is not a question of "human nature" as some airy philosophical concept, but rather humanity as the mundane reality that we are the result of evolution, happy accidents who have developed all sorts of tools for coping with our environment - from society and language to prejudice, war, and the wheel - and our continued survival depends upon setting aside a prejudice for believing in Platonic courts of last resort, but engaging in the always stressful, never complete task of learning to be human.

If "reason" is cast aside, what's left? Why, just living - and learning to live as fellow human beings on this watery dirt ball. That seems like quite a task in and of itself.

I look forward to more of these. Somerby is my kind of philosopher - he knokws crap when he reads it.

Investigating God's Finances

This has been under the radar, but it might get ugly:
“You can go get a subpoena, and I won’t give it to you!” [Rev. Kenneth] Copeland storms. “It’s not yours, it’s God’s and you’re not going to get it and that’s something I’ll go to prison over. So, just get over it!” he tells Grassley, jamming his finger into the air. “And if there’s a death penalty that applies, well just go for it!”

Republican Senator Charles Grassley has decided to investigate the finances of 12 mega-churches, under the suspicion that the leaders of these congregations - televised to millions around the world - are using gifts and donations to these ministries to support lavish lifestyles. Ever touchy about the whole church-state thing, I find this kind of fishing expedition a bit odd, especially from a Republican lawmaker during an election year.

First, I call it a "fishing expedition" because there is no underlying single incident prompting this investigation. It is - or at least seems - to be the result of questions regarding how these congregational leaders live. It is apparently unseemly for a preacher of the gospel to make a lot of money, or live in a nice house, or have private jets at his disposal, or whatever. While I sympathize, to an extent, I am also wary of two things in regards to this "investigation". First, these kinds of investigations always find "something", even if it hardly measures up to the hype beforehand. The simple fact is, there is always a bit of shady business and difficult-to-untangle accounting when the kind of money dealt with by these ministries is involved. Even if outside auditors and accountants are used, lines get crossed all the time, because the laws are written in such a way that violations of even technical aspects are inevitable. Compared to the amounts involved, they are usually minuscule, even if they sound large to the lay reader's ear.

Second, there is the propriety of it all. Grassley is quite obviously using this issue to curry favor with . . . someone. No politician is completely clean of that charge, obviously. He might well be outraged at the fact that some of these gentlemen live in luxury. Behind that outrage, however, lies a core belief that, as a clergy spouse, I have encountered frequently, and wonder about. That is, there is this belief that ordained clergy should live somewhere just above the poverty level, but still be able, at a moment's notice, cavort hither and yon, answering all calls and summons wherever they may lead, give twice the 10% called upon by Scripture, receive cast-off furniture with open arms, and always live within their meager means. Recently, we received the wonderful gift of dinner from a church member - ham and scalloped potatoes, broccoli salad and dessert - because she wondered if we were OK financially, what with the economy getting bad. We have a refrigerator and bunker freezer and pantry full of food, and we actually manage to do quite well on a combined income that is higher than the median, thank you very much. Two kids, two car payments, a couple loans (getting rid of credit card debt), and Moriah's braces, and we still manage to feed ourselves, put gas in our cars, and dress well enough to appear in public. Yet, some people wonder how we do it.

It would be nice to have twice the income we do now. In fact, we would be less on the edge - like most Americans are - if we did. On the other hand, our expenses would most likely rise to meet the increased income, so we would probably end up in the same position, only with the debt column having bigger numbers in it (that has been the pattern since we were first married, and jumped in income from near zero to almost $20,000 a year, such a grand sum!!).

I suppose the investigation will go forward, and one or two of these folks will appear at the table before the Senate Finance Committee, attorney in tow, cameras whirring and klieg lights glaring. We might actually have an enforced contempt order should Copeland make good on his refusal to supply the documentation (why can't they be enforced against Bush Administration official? Maybe that one is too easy to answer). In the end, we will have a situation similar to that which prevailed after the contretemps between Jim Bakker's PTL Club and Jimmy Swaggart's ministry - one or two will be publicly humiliated, most likely end up either paying a big fine or in the pokey for a night or two. The underlying question - how do we keep the balance between church and state, respecting the valid work of these ministries while ensuring there is little abuse of the privilege of tax-exemption - will remain.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

On Violence (With Apologies To Hannah Arendt For Stealing Such A Succinct Title)

In my seminar on liberation theology, the first book we read wasn't Gustavo Gutierrez' A Theology of Liberation, but Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. A seminal work that now reads in many ways as a period piece, Fanon's book is two essays reflecting on the effects of the long struggle Algerians waged for independence from France. I say it reads as a period piece because there is much in there that is outdated, most especially the pan-Africanism that Fanon obviously supports, and that is an impossibility. Saying that, there is a wealth of material for thinking and reflection in Fanon's book.

As Arendt writes in her review essay, under the same title as this post and published in a collection of review essays, the bulk of commentary on Fanon's work focuses on the first section, with its exploration of the rhetoric and practice of violence among those involved in the Algerian resistance movement. Because so much of that first section is striking in its acceptance of violence - a kind of late-20th century Bakunin - Fanon is often lumped with Georges Sorel and other theorists of violence. Even Arendt, who notes that this is not the aim of the book, does this anyway. The second half of the book, as important as the first, is a long muse on how extended exposure to the realities of violence, of the rhetoric of dehumanization that accompanies so much militant activity, and the twin pressures of striving for a common humanity and a release from oppression destroys the psyches of the people involved. In other words, Fanon is writing on the destructive - not just personally but socially - consequences of engaging in violence. Arendt notes this, as well as the disparity in reviews, but insists that Fanon is a "theorist of violence" anyway, because he was an active supporter of the Algerian resistance until his untimely death from cancer.

I am musing on this because in some comments over here, in our long and extremely civil discussion of hate crimes laws, I am accused of giving support to violence, or at least a defense of racially-motivated violence. Nothing could be further from the truth. I offered, rather, an attempt to understand the frustration that leads to violence, how it is understandable as a reaction to officially sanctioned violence.

I take my cue on the issue of violence in American race relations from James Cone and the Black Panthers. I realize this might sound surprising, considering the fact that we have just celebrated the birthday of the leading American theorist and practitioner of non-violence. Nothing that follows should be considered as rejecting King's message, however, but as clarifying my own understanding, and the limits I believe are inherent in any attempt at non-violent social change, especially in an American context where violence was the rule.

The Panthers were introduced to America with the following one-liner: "Violence is as American as cherry pie." The uproar this little statement caused is hard to fathom today. Coming in the midst of King's attempt to construct a social ethic of non-violence, the idea that some young blacks would embrace violence as a means of social change seemed heretical. Yet, the statement is true on its face, and contains within its pithiness the lived experience of a people.

In various places in his earliest work, Cone - professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in NYC - writes that it is one part ironic, one part effrontery, for the white power structure to get the vapors at the thought of blacks using violence to achieve certain social ends, considering the systemic, thoroughgoing violence used to oppress African-Americans throughout our history. It is, Cone writes, part of the way the power structure plays the game - the rules keep changing, the goal posts are moved, and now blacks are held to a standard that has never been applied to whites.

Of course, good liberals are supposed to be outraged at such talk. "You're supporting violence!" they harrumph.

Actually, I understand the desire for violence. I also understand the frustration expressed by many blacks that the game keeps changing in ways that prevent them, not just from winning, but even from playing. I do not approve. Social violence is never constructive - whether done to oppress, or to rebel against oppression. Yet, the frustration, rage, and despair that breed violence need to be understood, not just in an intellectual fashion, but in a deep, existential way. We need to enter in to the lives of the Other, that Other whose way of life and place in society is so different. That is, we need to meet the Other at the Other's place for once, rather than demand the Other meet us where we are. As many African-American cultural commentators have noted, whites have no secrets from black Americans - we are an open book. Yet, the life ways, folk ways, and history, of black America is still foggy at best, unremarked and unrecognized by most whites. With the possible exception of individuals such as George Washington Carver, W. E. B. DuBois, King, Malcolm X, and an entertainer of sports figure - Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, Jackie Robinson - there is no grasp of the ways the lives of these groups living within one society have woven the tapestry of American life, one of them against all odds.

All of this is to say something rather short, and sweet. The effort to understand the roots of violence, and to explain those roots, and even to sympathize (to an extent) with the desire is not to approve, or condone, violence. It is what it is - an effort to understand. Without understanding, how can we move through, then past, this rage that can only kill?

The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

With apologies. This is a great little movie, by the way. I think it's Jim Carey's best performance. Ever. Ditto Kate Winslet. Even Elijah Wood does well in a supporting role.

Tbogg has a nice extended post on Jason Mattera, the " surprisingly fresh face of conservatism" who isn't really all that fresh, or really conservative. What makes it worth recommending is the absolute cluelessness the young man displays. Whether it's kicking a liberal journalist out of the YAF meeting ("Because I said so") or whining about race-based private scholarships ("There's a group of students on campus, a large group of students on campus who are handicapped and they're at a disadvantage. And they're at a disadvantage because of their Caucasian descent.") or even displaying a certain, um, fogginess about his sexual orientation (“If you were with The National Review, I’d get you a seat right up front and have one of my interns give you a nice massage, and grab you a cup of Sunkist.” . . . “I would give you my business card,” he quips as I turn to leave. “But you would probably just hit on me.”), Mattera is the very model of the modern major conservative. Displaying equal parts intellectual dishonesty, a rough exterior that only exists because some powerful folks have his back, and the kind of lack of awareness that comes from any serious exploration of life outside the cozy bubble in which he exists.

I don't like criticizing him because he supports the military venture in Iraq without ever entering the military. In a time of an all-volunteer military, he is perfectly within his rights to make those particular choices, and I think it improper to make more of that than there is.

When an absence of any serious intellectual, moral, or political integrity is raised to an art form, as it is here, it is a wonder to behold. As the power and influence of conservatism wanes (although it will, obviously, never disappear), it is nice to see the lighter (it isn't quite a torch) being passed to a new generation as gruesome as the one that is passing in to history.

Are There Two Republican Primaries?

I ask this question because David Broder sees nothing but boredom on the part of the various Republican candidates. I see real vitriol against McCain by rank and file Republican operatives; against Romney by the other candidates; against Huckabee by pretty much every one; and against Giuliani by voters. The Republican Party is splintering and collapsing before my eyes, yet Broder can only stir up enough to yawn. I don't get it.

Broder is, of course, silent about "Straight Talk Express" McCain's bald face lie the other night, at a candidate's forum in Boca Raton. Par for the course; Russert didn't either. Nor do any of the candidates get challenged when they claim that tax cuts increase revenue. This claim, disproved over and over again, never once gets challenged by the fact that it is wrong (I think heads all over Washington would explode if that happened).

This, too, is a part of the "bland, boring" Republican primary - an overflowing of rhetorical effluence, enough bullshit to heat New York for a year. Yet, one hears crickets chirping from those covering the race. On the other hand, a mild dust-up between the leading Democratic candidates is a thing to shake one's head at, and wonder over, and admonish both candidates for.

The whole thing is a bit like looking reading about some other set of primaries. Not the one's currently going on.

Virtual Tin Cup

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