Saturday, February 09, 2008

Some Heresy For A Self-Professed Left-Winger

I saw this post over at Ezra Klein's blog, and I couldn't help myself. While I disagree with him that on-line book retailers will, over the course of time replace the physical book store - shopping is as much a social activity as it is an individual activity - I was so glad someone said what I have said privately, but kept under wraps.
I'm one of the many who has no problem with large, chain bookstores.

I remember reading the occasional story in The Nation on the numerous threats to our culture posed by the spread of Borders and Barnes & Nobles book stores, and I just couldn't help but wonder what the fuss was about. They don't pay their workers enough? Name a company that does. They strangle creativity? By the ability, through economies of scale, to present more rather than fewer title? They aren't local? No, but their staff is, and most have a section on local history, local authors, even local ghost stories and legends. Their employees don't know what they're talking about? Again, I don't look for expertise in a clerk; I look for the ability to find what I'm looking for, a different kind of skill than knowing the stylistic difference between John Cheever and John Barth.

Unlike the demise of the physical music store - which is as much the fault of the record companies as it is on-line file sharing and music downloading - the book store, I think, will stay with us at least a while longer. And, yes, I enjoy milling through our local Borders (I think they have a better layout, and selection, on balance, than the Barnes & Noble).

Saturday Rock Show

I go from two posts on American music to a post featuring a German prog-rock band (with a Dutch lead-singer). Go figure. It's nice to see Sieges Even represented on YouTube by a few more videos. I know no one, or few, in the States have heard of them, but that's OK. They are a wonderful, fresh voice in a genre that has achieved "sameness" again, after the vital elements put out there by Dream Theater, now 20 years old. This song is "These Empty Places", performed in a club in Vienna, Austria. It would be nice if they could front the money for a real video, with better sound quality, but I'll take what I can get.

Music For America, Part II

In my previous post, I mentioned lights blaring in my head as I read about the liberty within jazz. Not just jazz, however; I also mentioned pieces coming together as I understood something for the first time that should have been clear from the first. Much of the talk about hip-hop as an exciting art form (it used to be limited to rap; I think the larger form, which embraces not just rap but r&b as well, works far better), something American suddenly became clear to me. Maybe I'm a decade or more behind the curve; or maybe I am preaching to those who refuse to listen. I do know that, until that moment of clarity, I was one of those who turned my nose up at the limits of hip-hop, its penchant for the outright theft (called "sampling") of riffs, even whole musical ideas, with a thin overlay of vocal and a gut-wrenching, head-pounding bass line. This is music made for two things, really (and perhaps this is one reason so many people who think of themselves as appreciators of music disdain it) - dancing and sex. Indeed, since there are rarely distinctions (I am in full agreement with the view that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire) and hip-hop blows those distinctions out of the water with its blatant sexuality, and its insistent beat that reminds one that rhythmic repetition can be a joy encompassing all sorts of things.

In many ways, hip-hop is a sub-genre not of r&b (which it in fact encompasses and transcends), but of jazz. Like jazz musicians who take old tunes and remake them in their own image - Coleman Hawkins playing "Body and Soul" like it has never been played, before or since is a great, historical example - hip-hoppers (and here the producer becomes important again) take riffs and chords and even melodies, overlays and underlays different beats, cuts and chops bits we know well and remake them in their own image, and put a different sensibility on them. Instead of doing it with a quartet that knows the changes of "West End Blues", however, it is a producer who hears breaks in "Ventura Highway" or "Kashmir" that those who wrote it didn't even know were there, and takes those songs apart, putting them back together again in a new way as the background for a whole new song. Janet Jackson and P. Diddy managed to take two classic rock songs and find nuggets within them, in the latter case even getting Jimmy Page to come along for the ride.

I know there are purists out there who howl at this kind of thing, because I was one of them. The problem, however, is that, to take Led Zeppelin as an example (since they were mentioned above), they were nothing more than ripping off, first, the Rolling Stones, and also Delta Blues (represented by Willie Dixon, especially on their first album), but recast with dirge-like beats, over-amplified, and a very dark mood. In other words, those being ripped off were, in their day, nothing more than musical thieves, taking what they loved and recasting it in their own image. It takes no less talent to do this kind of thing with a computer and musical editing software than it does with a guitar, bass and drums. One still needs that most essential, and most rare of gifts, an ear for what is and is not musical, and how best to recast that music, to take what we know and make it fresh and new, even (perhaps) different.

Hip-hop, I think, represents possibilities. We can treasure our past, but we can take those elements from the past that we love the most, discard elements that are outmoded, outdated, or non-essential, and put not so much a veneer but the reality of contemporaneity upon them - those beats, those vocals, those sentiments - and make them not just new but really, actually different. There is something so wonderfully American about this, a kind of musical syncretism, even (dare I use the word?) micegination, about this. We are in the presence of something wonderful, something that, in Ellington's often overused phrase, is "beyond category", except, perhaps for that most important category - American music.

Music For America, Part I

I recently found Gary Giddins' National Book Critics Circle Award winning Visions of Jazz: The First Century. After perusing his column collected in Weather Bird, reading him in a far larger form has been refreshing, a bit like the difference between listening to an epic song by Yes - "Close to the Edge", say, or "Gates of Delirium" - after listening to their shorter pieces. You get the sense that the larger form is much more amenable to his style, his enthusiasm for his subject matter, and his desire to say pretty much everything he wants to say. While he has written in larger, book-length form before, there is just something explosive about this text. You get the sense he is not only setting forth his position vis-a-vis the history of jazz, but settling scores, as well as making clear and explicit what has long been implicit and murky.

In the introduction is a paragraph that sums up Giddins' belief about jazz. It isn't just his, though. I think it is, if such a word has meaning, the essence of jazz as a musical style.
The one truth about jazz of which I am certain is that it incarnates liberty,often with a perversely proud intransigence, merging with everything and borrowing anything, yet ultimately riding alone. Unlike pop, it doesn't measure success with sales charts. Unlike classical, it isn't, as yet, certified by a state-subsidized ladder of achievement. Jazz does what it wants when it wants and pays the price of commercial marginality. Not a bad thing, independence, which is what hooked many of us on art and jazz in the first place.

This little paragraph, tossed off without a whole lot of fanfare, was an epiphany of sorts for me. Lights went on in the dimness of my brain. Not just jazz - which I had identified as quintessentially American - but now hip-hop became far more clear to me. Unlike the music of rebellion, rock and roll, jazz is the music of freedom. It is the music that expresses what America could be, if ti lived up to what it says about itself.

When one considers, for even one moment, what Giddins says above concerning the propensity of jazz to borrow from wherever it needs to borrow while maintaining its own integrity, and compare it to the rigid formulas of rock, of heavy metal, of indie-rock, you realize that the latter "rebels" are purists, ideologues of music who demand conformity even as they preach revolution. "Doing your own thing" only goes so far as making sure your sound meshes with what others have done before. In the end, to rebel is to be forced to be free, a Rousseauian nightmare of totalitarian freedom.

In jazz, there is no need to force freedom. It's part of what you're doing. Sitting and listening to Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, or the Miles Davis quintet, or even Pat Metheny - you are already free because these musicians understand that they are free. Rules? You don't need no stinkin' rules! Just listen to Charlie Parker, and at one and the same time you hear the blues, and you also hear how the rigid, standard blues progression can sit there pole-axed by someone, yet still remain that same old, 12-bar, two or three chord change.

America is not in need of rebellion, because we already are free. That most American of musics, that which tells us who we are, and how we are, lets us know with every chorus, every melodic interval, every shift from chordal to scalar modalism. No matter how intricate or detailed the explanation, it's all about nothing more and nothing less than freedom.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Again - Why I Support Obama

Retreading the same argument over and over again, answering the same (tiresome) questions, responding to the same (tiresome) criticisms is telling on me. My patience has thinned to non-existence, my nerves are frail, and I do believe I'm on the verge of a full-blown hissy fit.

- I am supporting Barack Obama because he gets it. "It" being what it takes to be elected President of the United States. It isn't about policy (especially as there are few policy differences between Clinton and Obama) but about a perception of governance. Clinton is campaigning, essentially, as the better manager. Obama is campaigning for President - a much larger frame of reference, with a far different cv necessary.

- I have no illusions about Obama's ideological position. I am not only not expecting miracles. I am not expecting fireworks or the sudden end to controversy or the need to hold him, and the entire government, accountable.

- I will not countenance, however, any insults to the millions who voted, in a kind of faux-elitist contempt. Democrats are turning out in droves (unlike Republicans) because they have two candidates who would make superb Presidents. We have people we can vote for. It's been more than a while since that happened. TO claim that Democratic voters are too stupid or ignorant to understand the process they are engaged in is, for me, beyond the pale. It is more than the whining of losers, it is the false smugness of the eternally self-satisfied.

- Obama's message of hope is the necessary message for our time. Period. Even should he not win the nomination, he has changed the rhetorical dynamic of the race.

- I believe that electing Barack Obama President of the United States will open up vast energies of enthusiasm and a sense of arriviste that a younger generation of Americans (even at 42, I include myself in this cohort; Obama is only three years older than I) both needs and will welcome. The boomer's have proven themselves ill-suited for governance, not once but twice, with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The new generation to whom a torch should be passed is one thatis quite tired of Republican nonsense, and the constant drumbeat of "must"'s that we hear from conservatives. The government, the economy, the society - they are ours, and we will fashion them for all our ends.

- Hope is not the same as blind faith. It includes faith, indeed, but is an active, rather than passive thing. It is working towards realizing that which in which we believe. All the tired dismissals of Obama's talk of hope misses the simple fact that for far too long both Republicans and Democrats have not told us we not only should be better than we are, but that we have the power to be better. We are not called upon to believe in Sen. Obama, but ourselves.

This last point, as I say elsewhere, is powerful mojo for me. This is a song I can sing in the shower, a tune I can whistle while I drive, a book I can recommend to friends. There is just something deeply American - rooted in the best traditions of our country - about this appeal. It is Lincolnesque, Rooseveltian, even Reaganesque (notice I do not say Kennedyan; I am not a booster for Camelot) in the best senses of those terms.

Finally, like Dr. Atrios says, it isn't about me. It isn't about Obama meeting my needs. It is about Obama doing what is right for all of us, right now, in the world in which we find ourselves (through our own cupidity and dullness, certainly).

Serendipitously, this came across my radar, and I am amused at the thought that a person whose moniker is "Democracy Lover" would counsel despair in an election year. Simply put - and with all due respect - this is the "whoa is me" of one whose favored candidate was given as fair a hearing as our system allows and turned away. If he wants to start his own country and run it by his Platonic rules, that's all well and good. Me, I'm choosing hope, and Obama, for our future.

The Last Redoubt Of The True Believers

Dan Froomkin's column is taken up with President Bush's speech to the CPAC conference. Sadly, No!'s Mister Leonard Pierce is sending out a series of dispatches deep from the belly of the beast, and need to be read for the sheer audacity he displays, as well as the topsy-turvy worldview he captures so well. Yet, it is with Froomkin's piece I wish to deal for the moment.
Bush told a room full of whooping Republican die-hards at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference: "We will face other challenges ahead that will require new energy and before long, new leadership. I'm absolutely confident, with your help we will elect a President who shares our principles. As we take on the challenges, we must be guided by the philosophy that has brought us success. Our policies are working. The American people support our points of view. They share our philosophy."

But outside that room, Bush's philosophy has been found wanting. For instance, while he specifically mentioned health care and education as areas where conservatives hold an advantage, a new poll out today shows that an overwhelming 68 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of those issues. Even among Republicans, his support is at an all-time low.

Alan Fram writes for the Associated Press: "It's almost as if people can barely stand the thought of President Bush and Congress anymore. Bush reached his lowest approval rating in The Associated Press-Ipsos poll on Friday as only 30 percent said they like the job he is doing. . . .

While the stuff Bush tossed to attendees at CPAC was the kind of thing they wanted to hear ("We believe our nation has the right to defend itself -- even if sometimes others disagree."), the fact remains that most of the American people simply want this Administration to end. They want someone to echo Gerald Ford's words after he was sworn in, having escorted former President Nixon to a helicopter on the south lawn of the White House, "Our long national nightmare is over." Of course, it would be nice if Bush's successor did not do what Ford did, and allow the various and sundry law-breakers escape the judgments of prosecutors. It would be so nice to see Cheney, Bush, Rice, Colin Powell, Alberto Gonzalez, and so many others in the dock (the first two preferably in The Hague, facing an international tribunal for war crimes; a person can dream, no?). The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they do grind.

In any event, between Froomkin's "professional" report and those from Sadly, No!, one gets the sense that CPAC holds the last dregs of Bush's historic approval ratings from the aftermath of the terror attacks on NY and Washington. Bush thinks he can help McCain by campaigning for him. Bush thinks he can help McCain by campaigning this way for him. All I can say is - go, George, go! Get out there on the stump and tie McCain even closer to you.

These folks at CPAC may love George W. Bush, his Presidency, his words, his policies, pretty much everything about the past seven years, but they are so wrapped up in their reverence for the Commander-in-Chief, they ignore the simple reality that America wants it all over with, done, kaput, finished. Should McCain take his campaign cue from CPAC, his loss will be even bigger than it is likely to be.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Yes We Can

It isn't about wishful thinking. It isn't about "faith". It's about making America, well, America.

Yes. We. Can.

Mitt's Out

Six months ago, it seemed the Republican nomination was Giuliani's to lose, but all those "in the know" kept insisting that former Massachusetts governor Willard "Mitt" Romney was the guy to beat. Come fall, as Giuliani's star began to fade thanks to his ability to project his sociopathy quite clearly, many in the establishment wing of the far right demanded and received Fred Thompson as a candidate, although he shambled rather than fell in to the race. Come Iowa and everyone was agog at Mike Huckabee. The one name that few took seriously was Sen. John McCain. Last summer, his campaign was on life-support, out of money and out of options.

Once Iowa was over, and New Hampshire surprised everyone, the big Republican story was the "strategy" Rudy Giuliani was using - a big win in Florida. Except, of course, that kind of didn't work out so well. The other big story was the way Mitt Romney was the center of a concerted attack from all the other Republican candidates. The beating he received took its toll.

This past Tuesday, Romney managed a win in Massachusetts, Utah, North Dakota, and perhaps somewhere else. Huckabee managed to scrape off the religious right for wins in the Confederacy. The rest of the night belonged to McCain. Even though he was touted as the "front-runner" by the press (although never actually leading in polls or delegate count), Romney, following Daniel, read the writing on the wall the King could not, and fell on his sword today to make sure the Democrats don't turn the keys to the executive washroom over to the hordes of al Qaeda who took all of Iraq's WMDs to Syria. Or was it Jordan. Anyway, he's being the good stoic, for the good of the party, for the good of the country and recognizing the reality that no one in the Republican party who actually likes him enough to vote for him.

It's pretty clear that, now that it's official, if Howard Dean is smart (and he is) the Democratic Party will turn its collective eyes upon the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, who has promised more and better wars that no one wants but him.

When All Else Fails, Just Make Stuff Up

I haven't been cruising over to Media Matters recently (more fool me), but I just came away with a nugget that pertains directly to this post yesterday on the issue of voter turnout, and the disparity between Republican and Democratic turnout.
Summary: MSNBC's Chris Matthews suggested to Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean that he should be concerned about the party's lack of broad appeal, noting polls showing a large number of "college graduates" and voters of a "high economic and social echelon" voting in the primaries. Matthews added, "I just wonder where regular people are in this." But Matthews didn't mention that, according to CNN, "voters are turning out for the Democratic primaries in number[s] that absolutely shatter previous records." Matthews also failed to mention the record turnout in an earlier discussion on the subject with Tim Russert.

First, please note the absolute stupidity of part of Matthews' framing device - "I just wonder where regular people are in this" - as if, somehow, highly educated people aren't regular (being highly educated, I will swear in court that I have not needed a purgative in quite a while). This kind of mindlessness is part of Matthews' shtick, of course. These are the last dregs and final, fading ghosts of Richard Nixon's "silent majority" (a concept sociologist Andrew Greeley actually claimed was real, based upon ethnic diversity and class solidarity). We have here the kind of subtle, coded language of class warfare that we have been hearing for decades and is not only stale, but demonstrably false.

The whole idea of "elites vs. people" ("regular people") has no more reality than the tired notion of "Reagan Democrats". It is not a "myth" but an out-and-out falsehood. It is, more than anything else, a kind of right-wing populist trope; the better educated an individual is, the less attached to everyday concerns he or she is, and therefor that person's political opinions are not as important, or as vital, or something, as that of uneducated, working-class folks.

The larger point, however, is the total elimination of a not unimportant fact - Democratic turnout has been generally higher than Republican turnout. Polling data has also suggested that Democrats are far more enthusiastic about their choices than Republican voters. Yet, neither Matthews not Russert acknowledge this fact. So, they ask Dean a question based upon bias and preconceptions rather than actual information journalists would use to frame a question regarding an issue as important as voter turnout and responsiveness to a political campaign.

More Reflections Inspired By A Biblical Approach To The Christian Life

Yesterday, I presented a pretty stunning critique of what was dubbed "evangelical theology", but is more properly termed, via ER, "fundamentalist theology". Part of my reasoning for rejecting the notion that our lives have to conform to certain moral principles before we can correctly call ourselves Christian, or having faith, or however we choose to define ourselves, is reading the Bible.

My wife wrote a sermon toward the end of her first appointment, "Oh The People God Picks", patterned after the Dr. Seuss book Oh The Places You'll Go. It's a brilliant and loving homage to the Seussian style, and she delivers it sitting down (she has used it more than once; it's just too good not to reuse). In it, she reflects on the many individuals in Scripture whom, shall we say, have less than stellar characters. From Abraham, who was quite willing to allow his wife to be used as a concubine in order to save his own skin, to Rahab the prostitute who sold out her city to the invading Hebrews to St. Paul the accomplice in the murder/martyrdom of St. Stephen, it's simply a fact that most of those chosen by God to be vehicles of God's work are human beings complete and unexpurgated.

Moses, David, Solomon - all murderers. David added rapist to his list of crimes. Jacob, conniving with his mother, managed to steal his brother's birthright. Joseph was a self-righteous prig who, while offering forgiveness to his brothers, also managed to heap a load of guilt upon them, as well as firmly plant the Hebrew people in Egypt, from which they would need to be forcibly released.

Even Lot managed to sleep with both his daughters and Noah celebrated the end of the flood by getting so drunk he passed out.

This is not to excuse the behavior presented in these stories. Rather, it is to say that the writers of these Biblical tales were well aware of the depth and breadth of human fallibility, and recognized that God would use the material that was there in order to achieve the Divine purpose.

Extrapolating from that particular premise, which I think is both inarguable and unremarkable, it seems to me the height of ignorance to proclaim, at once, Biblical authority for a certain narrow, historically contingent moral code, and the necessity of this moral code for properly labeling oneself a follower of Jesus. By writing out of the fellowship of God anyone who has ever fallen short of the glory of God would reduce the Christian family to zero. Whether it's taking away Sandi Patti's Dove awards because she had a long-term extra-marital affair, or stripping away Ted Haggard's ministry because he is gay, or simply dismissing whole denominations as non-Christian because they interpret the Bible differently, this whole way of thinking and trying to live a Christian life ends up creating the false choice of either living a very restricted life, or spending eternity in hell.

Since it seems that God was quite willing to accept various individuals complete with all their flaws, I just wonder at the hubris, and contempt for God, displayed by those who insist that before we are acceptable to God, we have to live our lives according to their rules.

Girding Their Loins

While dubbed the Prince of Darkness, Robert Novak is doing his best to put a smiley face on the dread most insider Republicans feel at the thought of John McCain as their party's nominee for President. He contrasts the reactions of two Mississippi Republican politicians - Gov. Haley Barbour (who was GOP chair at the height of Republican power), and Sen. Thad Cochrane - to the eventuality, and comes away . . . trying his best.
A lifelong professional politician and former Republican National Committee chairman, Barbour was following the GOP tradition of closing ranks once it becomes obvious who will be nominated.

I believe Novak put this up front so that readers would know this was his position. He doesn't like it. He thinks Republican voters handed the Democrats the White House (as opposed to a vigorous Fred Thompson or sane Rudy Giuliani candidacy?). He will soldier on, in the best Ronald-Reagan-Richard Nixon tradition. Not, however, without tossing out a slap at McCain.
. During 35 years in Congress, the soft-spoken, gentlemanly Cochran seldom has uttered a harsh word about anybody. So why did he tell the Boston Globe recently that "the thought of [McCain] being president sends a cold chill down my spine"? Because Cochran is the Senate's reigning king of pork, and McCain would be the most implacable foe of pork ever nominated for president.

Whoa. You mean Cochrane thinks McCain will peel away the largesse Mississippi receives from the feds? I thought Republicans didn't like government hand-outs to the undeserving.

And what was McCain's reaction to Cochrane's remarks?
But it's not easy for the tough old naval aviator to be nice to critics. On Super Tuesday, he was jovial on NBC's "Today" program until the interviewer mentioned Cochran's remarks. "A couple of those people that are criticizing me," said McCain, "are not the most respected members of the United States Senate, to be honest with you."

Ouch! I felt that one.

The prospect of McCain having to fight off this kind of thing for the next nine months is one thing. I don't think he deserves it. On the other hand, it certainly will be fun.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Jumping Off From A Pretty Devastating Critique Of Evangelical Theology

It's funny how life works. Last night, as I made sure I traveled no more than 25 mph over unplowed roads to get to work (my 9 mile drive took just under half and hour), I was musing a bit on the differences between what I have come to learn is a certain evangelical/fundamentalist approach to Christian faith, and my own, liberal position. Part of this was sparked by a conversation I had a few days back with ER. I was trying to figure out how to approach the topic, when I came across this over at Street Prophets, which is a brief commentary on this post over at a blog. I shall repost the relevant portions from the original post.
The Evangelical Hermeneutic is what keeps the Contemporary Christian Culture Cancer growing. As insidious as an undiagnosed Leukemia, the Contemporary Christian unwittingly brings this disease to the text.
It is, for one deep inside the conspiracy, impossible to see a passage any other way. The cancer can not be removed—the patient must be—and that only by death.
When approaching a text such a one unconsciously applies the following principles to elicit its meaning.

1. It is about me. Whatever the book, be it Pentateuch, prophets, psalms, gospel or epistle—it is talking about me.

2. It tells me what to do or what not to do. An action is required on my part. My ability to do or not to do what the bible tells me is equal to my goodness or wickedness.

3. It condemns those that are different from me. People who are non-Christian (those who freely admit their lack of faith or worse profess a false faith) or unchristian (people who say they are Christian but demonstrate their lack of salvation by their actions, whether it be thinking premarital sex is not bad or going to an Episcopal church).

4. It implies the opposite. Every pronouncement of grace points to my own condemnation if I fail. Every promise is a threat. Everything that God does, reveals what I must do.

In comments, JHCFleetguy takes the writer of this criticism to task, with the following pretty good summary of an alternative Evangelical hermeneutic:
I have failed, am failing, and will fail. That is a given - to think otherwise is the worst of arrogance and pride. I am not condemned, and will not be condemned, because of Christ's sacrifice on the cross - and that promise of scripture is there for me to accept and pick up if I will just do so.

Let me begin by saying that, while JHC sums up a kind of mainstream evangelical theological position quite well, I am actually more sympathetic to the former view. Especially the narcissism involved, with an emphasis on personal moral perfection, and the threat to eternal salvation posed by any immoral act. Historically, JHC's view is more in line with what could traditionally be called "evangelical theology". On the other hand, the four-point presentation of an "evangelical hermeneutic" is far more in keeping with my own, recent exposure to what I can only call a poisonous approach to the Christian life.

Here were some of my thoughts from last night, keeping my preference for the critique above in mind.

Between the fundamentalist and myself, the crucial difference is quite clear, although only after some careful reflection. For the former, faith is a place at which we arrive. For me (and I can only speak for me, and will only speak for me), faith is the journey itself. For the former, it is a rigid moral code. For me, it is living life the best way I know how at the time, with the full understanding that I will fail, and anyway, it isn't about just me getting a free pass through the pearly gates. For the former, it is about avoiding condemnation. For me, it is about following Jesus and serving the world. The decision about my own future status, whatever that might be (indeed, if it even exists) is not in my hands in the end.

For those whom I have encountered who have reflected the kind of hermeneutic described above, I believe that the journey is one to faith. For me, it is one of faith. For them, it is a realized eschatology, a kind of atomistic new creation embodied in one's own moral code. For me, it is a non-eschatological attempt to live out God's call for me, knowing that there aren't any answers to my hundred million questions, so the only thing to do is to keep on plugging. If I fall, well, that's what grace is about.

What do you think?

By The Numbers

The most under-reported - or perhaps it is better to say unreported - story of this primary season is the disparity in voter turnout by party. Crooks & Liars still has this handy-dandy little chart up from last night, and you can click through and get all sorts of little factoids out of it. For example, in my state of IL, Hillary Clinton received 643,352 votes in her loss to home-state Senator Obama. By contrast, the total number of Republican voter was 643,352. Sen. Obama received more votes than the total number of Republican voters in their primary. Indeed, about 1,000,000 more Democrats voted than Republicans in IL. Let that sink in while we peruse some other numbers.

In OK, a pretty red state (OK, I used the phrase, for what I hope is the last time), the numbers were closer, but the Democrats still got out more voters by about 60,000 (something like 9% of the total of the combined two-party voting totals). In his loss, Obama still received 7,000 more votes than McCain, who won OK.

California presents an even more disparate picture. The Democrats turned out 55.7% more voters. Think for a moment. Half again as many Democrats as Republicans voted in California. The vote totals for the top two Republican candidates was 1,707,538. Obama received 1,680,331 votes. In other words, the two top Republican candidates received only 27,000 more votes combined than the second-place Democratic contender received on his own.

This is not an across-the-board phenomenon. Alabama had a bigger Republican turn-out than the Democrats. Other states were closer. Interestingly (at least to me), Massachusetts had a two-to-one disparity in voter turnout favoring Democrats, even though a relatively successful former governor of that state was on the Republican ballot.

One can argue that the results I am presenting here are skewed towards the Democratic Party. After all, with the exception of OK, I am looking at states that are far more favorable to Democrats than Republicans anyway. These states have large urban centers that will skew the numbers even more. These are arguable points, and as I am using only the chart at C&L, rather than a more detailed - by county or even precinct - voter map, I have no way gaging how correct the counter-arguments are.

All the same, I think it important that I chose NY, IL, and CA very deliberately because they were the biggest prizes in last night's primaries, and (with TX), are among the biggest, and most necessary, states to win come November. With Democratic turnout this high, that tells me that Democratic voters are far more excited about the upcoming election than Republicans. While Republican voters (as opposed to self-appointed Republican spokes-folks like Limbaugh, Hannity, and She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named [Alan]) seem resigned to a McCain candidacy, they aren't excited at the prospect. Democrats, however, seem to know this is their year. With Edwards turning the intra-party discussion leftwards, and Obama providing thematic material, even a Hillary candidacy will be better than it might otherwise have been.

On a totally unrelated note, may I just add that we are living through the biggest winter storm I personally have experienced since a three-day extravaganza in DC in January, 1996. In that one, on a Sunday in early January, I walked from my room at Wesley Theological Seminary, where I stayed as I attended classes a CUA, to a small market about a mile north on Massachusetts Ave, NW to get a Sunday Post. There were moments, and more than moments, when I wondered if I would actually live to make it home. There was about a foot of snow, the wind was tremendous, the snowfall nearly blinding, and I had exhausted myself just getting to where I had planned to go. Coming home I put one foot in front of the other, wondering when I would just give up and collapse in a heap in the snow. Not one of my brighter moments, I'll grant you. Today, I shall sit in my warm house and watch the snow fall, and my St. Bernard romp occasionally as he has to go out and do his business.

How's this post-Super Tuesday weather where you live?

Oh, and let me echo ER and ask prayers, and more substantive help, to the victims of tornadoes across AK, MS, KY, and TN yesterday. In the midst of all the blather over politics, we should remember that many people were simply trying to stay alive in the face of a nature that doesn't know of politics.

After The Deluge - Some Clarity and Some More Meaningful Votes

For Republicans, it seems it is the best of times and the worst of times. For Democrats, the race goes on, and the pundits are torn as to whether this is great for them or bad for the Democrats and the country.

At least the Democrats have a target for their arguments now. McCain, on the other hand, has fences to mend (although perhaps not with the talkers and squawkers who will not give an inch of their disdain for the man).

I wonder when the media will start talking about the turn-out numbers. Last night, I was checking out the NY results, at the point that about 24% of precincts were reporting, and Hillary Clinton had more votes than the total number of Republican voters. By something like 75,000 voters. I think that tells us something about who is excited by this campaign.

So, things are somewhat clearer, but still going on. More democracy is always better than less. I suppose we could bemoan the fact that the field is reduced before all the states have chimed in, but I think this captures the reality on the Democratic side, at least from my own perspective. Democratic voters are happy with their choices, and will support whichever of the candidates ends up with the nod. I think this is something both campaigns should keep in mind as they keep the arguments and debates going for the next few weeks.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Coolness Factor

Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein have posts on the minutiae of the Obama and Clinton campaigns. While I sympathize with the former's sighing frustration with time wasted discussing this kind of thing, I would also argue that it is important. This kind of thing, as trivial (even nonsensical) as it seems tells us a lot about a candidate. Remember candidate Clinton blowing (OK, maybe that was poor word choice) his sax on one of the late-night shows? Remember "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)", the 1992 campaign theme? Shoot, you can look up in a history book about the importance of Roosevelt's choice of "Happy Days Are Here Again" as a campaign song.

These things create a mood, tell us who these people are as people, and their personal styles. The difference between Celine Dion and Curtis Mayfield is huge, and speaks volumes about who Hillary Clinton is as opposed to Barack Obama (God knows, I'd vote for Mike Huckabee if he listened to "Superfly"). The fact is people make political decisions and choices based on all sorts of information, and sometimes trivial things like this tell us more than a person's preference in music (or in Sen. Clinton's case, non-music; please, Hillary, Celine Dion?). They tell us about risk-taking, about an openness to innovation and newness, about how they view their lives.

Right now, I've got Slayer playing on Pandora - and I think an outsider would consider that important. Taking in to account my self-professed Christianity, that I would sit and blast out my little 6 watt laptop speakers with some good old-fashioned death metal might cause some to pause. They might even want to know what else I find worth listening to, and how that works itself out in my life.

So, yeah, it's trivial. That doesn't mean it's unimportant. In fact, I would much rather have a President who dug Stevie Wonder (I would treasure a copy of any of my old Stevie Wonder LPs signed by both men) than one who listened to Adult Contemporary. The former knows music. The latter just likes background noise. One likes inspiration. The other likes to have something playing to keep the silence at bay.

It's Not Just Tuesday, It's SUUUUPERRRR Tuesday

Voting here today (polls in IL close at 7:00 pm CST, so I have time). Is there a contest where you are? For whom, and why?

Tomorrow, we sweep up the confetti and figure out where to go from here.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Music Monday

I had a great response to my request for what I came to call "kiss-off" songs. In fact, I had one that is so awesome . . . I'm not going to use it, but I will mention it a bit later. Anyway, I do believe that I shall turn to you, dear readers, in the future as we mine thematic music posts. I think it's a lot more fun than me putting up all the stuff in my own music library anyway.

In the fall of 1991, a couple friends of mine revealed a wonderful ability to take lyrical cliches about love, reverse them, and toss them out as fodder not just for laughs, but for some serious thoughts. They presented a composition, "I'm tired of co-dependent love songs" (that word, co-dependent, was in the air back then). It included the thoughts, "I can smile without you/I can live if living is without you". Whether we are instigating a break-up, or reached the point in the grieving process where a combination of anger and resilience is giving us the opportunity to breathe again, we are helped, sometimes, by musicians who give to us the words we might not have to say to our former paramours. First up, "Let's Call it Off" by Peter Bjorn & John", short, simple, to the point:

This is the ultimate kiss-off song. It is also, in many ways, a wonderful ode to the power women can find within themselves given half a chance. Of course, now it can be seen as bit trite, even silly, but you know what? The sentiments are so clear, the message so strong, I don't care. This is Gloria Gaynor, and if you have to ask the title, you need to take a basic music appreciation course:

A bit of personal info on the next song is required. In the fall of 1987, I was involved with a young woman, and we seemed to be cruising to the future together. Except, of course, we really weren't. For one thing, we were both far too young. For another, in my own case, I was far too immature for the kind of commitment she was asking for. Had we made the disastrous choice to stay together, she would have been miserable (I am clear-eyed enough now to admit that, at 22 years old, I was a poor choice for any woman; I needed some more seasoning, some more living to make myself less unacceptable). That fall, however, I was the miserable one, but I didn't quite know how to get out from under the stone that was weighing me down (if that sounds horrible, well, tough; neither one of us were really good for the other, and I think we both knew it). In the midst of my own angst (which wouldn't be completely relieved for another year; yes, I'm a chicken-heart) came "Don't Shed A Tear" by Paul Carrack, the opening lines of which go, "Cab fare to nowhere is what you are/A white line to an exit sign is what you are". The chorus includes the lines, "Don't shed a tear for me/My life won't end without you/Long as the night will be/The sun will rise without you."

I only hope she hasn't found this blog.

Honorable mention should go to Alanis Morisette's "You Oughta Know", described as "I'm so over you that I'd probably run you over with a car" by Alan, who suggested it (kudos to him, and many thanks). To be honest, and I hate to admit this, I didn't even think of that song, but it certainly belongs in any list of kiss-off songs out there.

Next week, we mine the depths of . . . songs about death.


Yesterday, the youth led worship at Poplar Grove UMC, and they used the film The Blues Brothers as a template. The worship service began with a series of clips from the movie in which Ayckroyd and Belushi are seen repeating, over and over again, "We're on a mission from God". This includes the most famous line from the movie: "It's [I forget the number of] miles to Chicago, we have a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses." To which Belushi responds, "Let's roll." The youth dressed in black pants, white shirts, narrow black ties, and shades. A few even sported fedoras.

Now, I am quite sure some traditionalists could be outraged by using such a movie as a template for a worship service. For one thing, it is a comedy. For another, it is a silly, nonsensical, and profane comedy (although it's got some of the best music of all time in it; my favorite is Aretha's star-turn as a waitress in a greasy spoon diner). Yet, God's grace is not escaped by hiding behind profanity, nonsense, and laughs. Even these can be vehicles for the Spirit.

My question is the same posed by the youth to the congregation - are you on a mission from God? Jake and Elwood are moved to get the band back together for a charity concert for the orphanage where they grew up, hardly anything radical. Yet, they see it as not just something they should do to be nice. This is what God is calling them to do. Nothing - not even pretty much every state trooped in Illinois chasing them - can stop them because, as Elwood intones in his flat, strangely Canadian monotone, "We're on a mission from God."

Another movie that explores some of the same territory, albeit a bit more self-consciously but still with humor - is last year's Evan Almighty.

I wonder. How crazy are we to insist that God is "calling" us, "sending" us, "using" us? I have no answers to these questions, because they are unanswerable in any definitive way, but I cannot escape this weird thought that we are indeed past the point of rational sanity at times - and I by no means say this pejoratively. I think both Joseph Smith and Muhammed were out of their minds; I also refuse to deny the possibility that they both had genuine encounters with Angels that provided new, fresh information on the mysteries of God's love for humanity. Perhaps being out of one's mind is a prerequisite for accepting the impossible possibility of such encounters.

Any thoughts?

This Is Why I'm Not A Published Writer

At the Washington Post today, author Michael Chabon offers up my sentiments for supporting (and voting, tomorrow) Barack Obama's candidacy for the Presidency.
In a better world, if there were such a thing (and so far there never has been), we would not need a president like Obama as badly as we do. If there were less at stake, if our democracy had not been permitted, indeed encouraged, to sink to its present degraded and embattled condition not only by the present administration but by a fair number of those people now seeking to head up the next one, perhaps then we could afford to waste our votes on the candidate who knows best how to jigger, to manipulate and to conform to the vapid specifications of the debased electoral process it has been our unhappy fate to construct for ourselves.

Because ultimately, that is the point of Obama's candidacy -- of the hope, enthusiasm and sense of purpose it inspires, yes, but more crucially, of the very doubts and reservations expressed by those who pronounce, whether in tones of regret, certainty or skepticism, that America is not ready for Obama, or that Obama is not ready for the job, or that nobody of any worth or decency -- supposing there even to be such a person left on the American political scene -- can be expected to survive for a moment with his idealism and principle intact.

The point of Obama's candidacy is that the damaged state of American democracy is not the fault of George W. Bush and his minions, the corporate-controlled media, the insurance industry, the oil industry, lobbyists, terrorists, illegal immigrants or Satan. The point is that this mess is our fault. We let in the serpents and liars, we exchanged shining ideals for a handful of nails and some two-by-fours, and we did it by resorting to the simplest, deepest-seated and readiest method we possess as human beings for trying to make sense of the world: through our fear. America has become a phobocracy.

I like that word - phobocracy. I also like Chabon's notion that Obama inspires because he tells us we can be better than we have been, if not as good as we can be in some Platonic world.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Nick Kristof And The Limits Of (My) Tolerance

Tristero comments on this column by New York Times columnist Nick Kristof. Tristero focuses on Kristof's idea that liberals think it OK to make fun of Mike Huckabee's religious beliefs, and places them on the same level as Obama's race and Clinton's gender - subjects about which any derisive commentary should be off limits. He gets the nub of this (truly idiotic) notion:
For reasons I don't quite understand, [Kristof] equate[s] essential, virtually unmodifiable characteristics - a man's race, a woman's gender - with Huckabee's chosen "faith." And [he] take[s] me, a liberal, to task for deriding it.

So much for that part of Kristof's argument. Indeed, this point should be made over and over again whenever we hear evangelicals whine about how it's OK to make fun of their religious beliefs, but not make racist or sexist comments. Simply put - you can change your religious beliefs, but not the color of your skin (and the way society views you because of it); of course, you can change your gender, but that creates as many complications as being born a woman, if not more.

Far more troubling, to my mind, that this kind of stupid cant, is the following:
Liberals believe deeply in tolerance and over the last century have led the battles against prejudices of all kinds, but we have a blind spot about Christian evangelicals. They constitute one of the few minorities that, on the American coasts or university campuses, it remains fashionable to mock.

Scorning people for their faith is intrinsically repugnant, and in this case it also betrays a profound misunderstanding of how far evangelicals have moved over the last decade. Today, conservative Christian churches do superb work on poverty, AIDS, sex trafficking, climate change, prison abuses, malaria and genocide in Darfur.

Bleeding-heart liberals could accomplish far more if they reached out to build common cause with bleeding-heart conservatives. And the Democratic presidential candidate (particularly if it’s Mr. Obama, to whom evangelicals have been startlingly receptive) has a real chance this year of winning large numbers of evangelical voters.

First of all, "American coasts or university campuses" are two very different things, populated by diverse groups of people, including, yes, evangelicals and conservatives. This is the kind of right-wing talking point that is just nonsensical, being both factually false and ideologically vicious.

Further, while it is true that evangelicals are being much more vocal on a variety of social issues that could make them amenable to voting for less conservative political candidates, two qualifying points need to be kept in mind before we get all excited about Obama winning all those mega-church members. First, these changes are highly contested, having been fought against tooth and nail by the "leaders" of America's evangelical community. Second, on what basis does Kristof make his observation that Obama (as opposed to Sen. Clinton) is the first Democratic Presidential candidate with the potential to attract evangelical voters?

Consider the way Obama's church, Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, has been raked over the coals in the media, especially by Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. Does anyone not realize that this is red meat for evangelicals? His Christian bona fides are being stripped away by proxy. His faith is being denied him in order to counter any possibility that evangelicals might be tempted to vote for him. Make no mistake, this is the World Series of political hardball.

Finally, who says that liberals have to be tolerant? I find tolerance degrading, paternalistic, and somewhat smarmy. Why in the world should I accept those who are totally unacceptable, socially and politically speaking? I find the very idea repugnant. Part of tolerance is a kind of smugness, in which the tolerant treats those whose views are different, even diametrically opposite one's own, as basically wrong, the result of ignorance or prejudice. I have heard enough "tolerant" people treat those different from them with condescension that is itself a kind of insult. I would much rather take such persons seriously - and then quite happily insist they are not to be tolerated. To borrow a famous phrase of Winston Churchill's there are some things up with which I will not put.

So, yeah, Nick Kristof, I'm a liberal whose intolerant. I don't see where that's a problem, either. It's not just conservatives for whom I feel a measure of disgust; "liberal" "journalists" are really trying my patience as well.

Abraham's Faith Was Reckoned As Righteousness

Over here, Hapa Theology and I get in to an extended discussion on the nature of Abraham's faith, and the question of the demand on God's part for human beings to sacrifice their lives, or worse, the lives of others.

In the comment section, I offer the view, a view that came to me as I was writing, that early Christian interpreters of the idea of faith - I am thinking specifically of Paul's discussion of Abraham's faith - missed the real exhibition of the patriarch's faith, the willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at the call of the LORD. Paul sees the demonstration of Abraham's trust in God evinced in his willingness to leave behind his ancestral land for a place to be his own, and that for his progeny.

This, however, is only the first half of the call of the LORD to Abraham. After the drama and resolution of the issue of who will be Abraham's child (made more difficult not less so by the birth of Hagar's son, Ishmael), comes the final test of Abraham's willingness to follow this God who called him away from everything he knew and loved. While the text parenthetically notes that this is a test, no such softening of the demand for human sacrifice is offered to Abraham. Indeed, Abraham's willingness to commit this act of human sacrifice potentially creates a conflict between the promise of this God - that Abraham's descendants will number as the grains of sand - and the demands of God - for sacrifice.

Now, human sacrifice was not unknown in the Levant at the time, so one could posit that this is an overcoming of that particular religious rite by going through it. Yet, that is a kind of historical interpretation that, while satisfying our moral and ethical sense, is not supported either the text itself or extra-textual evidence. In a sense, we are stuck with this scene, and forced to ask ourselves a question - would we have faith enough to kill our only child at the behest of a god who has already ripped us from our home, our family, our land - everything that shapes our lives and gives them meaning. Now, after promising to bless our descendants, we are called to end any hope of progeny.

Abraham gets up the next day and takes Isaac to the place of sacrifice and builds an altar.

Is this a test of faith you would want to face? Is it one you could pass?

All Campaign All The Time

I really wonder why people cannot see clearly what is directly in front of them. It should be obvious by now that most of our big-time pundits have no feeling for, or real interest in, real democracy. Fully invested in the political culture of Washington, dedicated to understanding the play of insiders - which itself is far more beholden to personalities than any consideration of policy - they could not care less about the way elections and other vehicles for expressing the will of the people actually pan out, or how people feel about them. They are far busier telling people who's in, who's out, who's up, who's down, than they are giving an opinion that might actually inform.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Dean of Political Journalism is disgusted at the fact that we are having what he calls "what amounts to a national primary" on Tuesday. He is further disgusted by the fact that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are flooding the airwaves in various states with television ads. He sets up a phony dichotomy between the ways in which the primary campaigns played out in the early states versus the Super Tuesday states:
Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada had graduate-school time to study the field, while the voters in the Feb. 5 states got only a CliffsNotes version of the campaign.

Now, one could draw several conclusions from this kind of thing. One is that, in fact, Broder is in favor of more, rather than less democracy. Of course, if that is so, and if it meant more retail politics in more states, then the first primaries for the 2012 election cycle would have to begin sometime next summer. Consider just one state - my native New York - and what it would take to do retail politics there. The state contains the second largest city, second largest metropolitan area, yet that accounts for only about 35% of the state's population, and just a fraction of the state's geographic expanse. There are two mountainous areas - the Catskills (which are really just a small part of the Appalaichans) and the much larger Adirondacks (the combined federal and state park land in the Adirondacks is bigger than the state of Connecticut). The Finger Lakes, stretching westward just below Lake Ontario and out to the shores of Lake Erie contain grape arbors and apple orchards, dairy farms, small colleges, a potential for burgeoning industry, with the twin medium cities of Rochester and Buffalo anchoring it. The center of the state has Syracuse and its small cousin Utica, with histories of corruption and huge snows. From Albany and Schenectady on down the Hudson Valley lie the estates of the oldest families, mostly Dutch (including the Roosevelts). Up north is a line, made jagged by the peaks of the Adirondacks, between Watertown and Lake Placid, with still more colleges and universities the farther north you go, until you get to the college town of Potsdam, and just 30 or so miles further on the US border town of Massena, closer to the capital of Canada and the Provincial Capital of Quebec than to either Albany or Washington. Millions of people stretched out over thousands of square miles of diverse terrain, with unique interests and demands, histories and possible futures. A candidate could spend the better part of a year just in upstate New York doing retail politics, never once hitting the Five Boroughs or its environs, and still not cover all the territory.

Of course, this doesn't include TV advertising. There are stations not just in New York, Buffalo, or Rochester. Syracuse, Binghamton, Albany, Schenectady, and Elmira all have local affiliates of broadcast networks that reach to the far corners of the state. Eschewing television advertising would be impossible, but it would also be even more expensive in a longer, ground-operation type campaign. And that is just one state. We have not yet ventures south to Pennsylvania, Virginia, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Texas, Minnesota. Then, of course, there's California, where the kind of politics Broder is talking about would be flat-out impossible.

Of course, to someone whose entire life is invested in politics as much as Broder is the prospect of a campaign-without-end probably sounds like heaven on earth. Yet, politics is not primarily about elections, or campaigning. It is about governance. All this primary stuff does not exist to employ political operatives or journalists, but to find candidates to fill offices to serve the public. The public would tune out a years-long campaign (although this year's seems to be an exception, starting in earnest about a year before any balloting; I think public disgust with the current Administration has a lot to do with that), and the pundits would mostly be talking to one another.

This is the kind of silly, empty-headed nonsense that sounds like the defense of democracy, but turns out to be nothing more than a lobby for the permanent employment of political pundits. Who knows, maybe he's bucking for better diners than they have in Iowa and New Hampshire.

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