Saturday, February 23, 2008


I was rummaging through the archives at the blog at Original Faith, and I came across this post from May of last year. It summarizes something I have danced around a few times, with my own plea that I would prefer to remain silent about it. Many years ago - in the summer of 1993, in fact, right after I got married - I had a mystical experience that I mentioned briefly to my wife, once. About four years later, I told my good friend, Steve, about it, and we had a long discussion about it. Reflecting on what is said in the linked post, and how I felt about my attempts to relate what happened, I feel two ways about the issue. On the one hand, I see no reason why I shouldn't share it. On the other hand, reducing the event to words, whether words with another person face to face, or words on a computer screen, just seems to me to reduce the event itself, make it not so much banal as understandable. The fact is - the event itself was charged beyond my own capacity for understanding. It just was, and there is no way to make sense of it apart from my own emotional reaction to it.

To call it "ineffable" does present its own problems. It's odd that we have a word in the English language for things for which there are no words. Like the concept "zero" as a mathematical unit, it seems to be an inherent contradiction - a concept for that which signifies no thing. Something about nothing. Except, of course, this is the opposite kind of thing; this is something about just about everything.

Rather than relate in detail, in sum, I came face to face - was it in flesh? spirit? something beyond any of these humdrum categories? - with the Divine. I saw, in those eyes, one who saw and knew everything about me, and yet looked on me with a love and acceptance that is beyond my ability to relate. My reaction to that moment when my eyes met his - a moment that lasted forever, it seemed - was immediate; I collapsed in tears, and was held. No words were said, but none were needed. The honest comfort was enough.

Then, just as suddenly as it all began, I was alone again, my face wet, my mind confused about what it was, exactly, that had happened.

To this day, I wonder. Was it some kind of hallucination? Was it "real", or real, or perhaps REAL? There is no answer I can give to any of these questions. My fear of relating the event itself rests as much in my own distrust of my own recollections, as well as my ability to capture the power of that moment, as anything.

What say you?

More On Sin And Morality

A couple days ago, I related a discussion my wife and I had concerning the whole issue of sin and the Christian life. One of the points I made in our little talk was that I just didn't see any relationship between "sin" and conventional morality. I quickly added that I didn't think this meant that I would go off and kill people. . . . And she interrupted me immediately and asked, "Why not?"

That's a standard response, and on the fly I didn't have the kind of strong response I would have liked. I think I mumbled something semi-coherent, and quickly changed the subject. Yet, that was not because my position was wrong, or at least weak, but because I was tired. In retrospect, I wish I had said something like the following:

Why not? Because there are all sorts of good reasons why not that have nothing whatsoever to do with the questions of sin and salvation. Morality has its own logic, and can be supported without reference to any God. Being a moral agent is not the same thing as being a Christian. Being a moral agent means considering the integrity of other persons before one considers how one acts. Sometimes, being a Christian means disregarding the integrity of others, or at least their current sense of integrity, in order to push them to a deeper, or changed, or radically new, sense of their own integrity. In doing this, we violate their integrity, their sense of peace with the world and with themselves.

Moreover, the idea that God sent Jesus to earth to make sure we behave ourselves reduces the incarnation, death and resurrection to a cosmic birching. To reduce God's idea of the full human life to not doing certain acts, and the Divine promise as mitigated upon whether or not we are good or bad - that cheapens the message of grace, and the Christian life. Are we a community who are trying to live out the Kingdom of God in the here and now, or are we a community who are trying to make sure we don't drink, smoke, swear, or have sex in the wrong way? Are Paul's imprecations against "immoral acts" primary for the Christian, or culturally contingent pleas for living differently, indications of the possibilities inherent in living by grace?

If they're the former, I'm not quite sure what the fuss is about, because then God is nothing more or less than the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live, and I honestly don't want anything to do with a moral scold, divine or otherwise. Paul also said that Christians are to be all things to all people, and Jesus said that we are to be as wily as foxes - hardly calls to a conventional moral life.

If the Christian life is something lived not as payments on an afterlife insurance policy, but as the risky business of bringing peace and justice in to this world right here and now, then I think conventional morality kind of goes out the window. Part of what makes up conventional moral thinking is a sense of our security in this life and this world, with the moral life as a bulwark against the anarchy inherent in not being moral agents. Jesus calls us to challenge the false idols of security and self-possession (among many others), so it seems to me the first thing to go would be a demand to be upright and true.

The Christian life should be an offense to all conventionalities. That includes the idea that it exists solely as the reason why people are good and not bad. there are a whole host of really good reasons why we should live lives in which taking others in to account first is important. None of them mention God. Yet, when the demands of morality become oppressive, they inhibit the true freedom to which God calls us. Again, this isn't antinomianism. Rather, it is the idea that there just isn't any relationship between the life to which God calls us, and the whole question of whether or not we are moral agents. They are unrelated at the most fundamental level - they have nothing whatsoever to do with one another.

Kind of like the idea that there is no such thing as "truth" that adds anything substantive to a sentence, giving it more meaning than it might otherwise have, the idea that we need to be properly functioning moral agents, as our current standards define that kind of thing is nonsensical on its face.

Proud To Be An American

I hope you are, as well, after reading what follows, and find the strength to go and read the whole thing:
The administration declares with certainty that Zubaydah is a "senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden" who "helped smuggle al-Qaeda leaders out of Afghanistan." Dan Coleman, a former FBI analyst who was on the team that reviewed Zubaydah's background file, disagrees, describing him as "insane, certifiable" and saying he "knew very little about real operations, or strategy." We do not presume to know the truth. So far, we know only what has been publicly reported. But we hope to uncover the facts and present them to those with the power to act upon them.

Yet Zubaydah's mind may be beyond our reach. Regardless of whether he was "insane" to begin with, he has gone through quite an ordeal since his arrest in Pakistan in March 2002. Shuttled through CIA "black sites" around the world, he was subjected to a sustained course of interrogation designed to instill what a CIA training manual euphemistically calls "debility, dependence and dread." Zubaydah's world became freezing rooms alternating with sweltering cells. Screaming noise replaced by endless silence. Blinding light followed by dark, underground chambers. Hours confined in contorted positions. And, as we recently learned, Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding. We do not know what remains of his mind, and we will probably never know what he experienced.

Saturday Rock Show

I'm not a fan of failed American Idol contestant Chris Daughtry or his band. I find their music pretty pedestrian, although he does have a great voice. Trying to combine his love for both '70's stadium rock and the mid-'90's faux-alt rock band Live just doesn't seem to work very well.

Except for this song, off the Spiderman 3 soundtrack, set here to Final Fantasy scenes.

This is the exact opposite of the sappy love songs we all hear far too often, from the sublime ("In Your Eyes" by Peter Gabriel) to the ridiculous ("I Love You" by the Climax Blues Band). This song is about something far less complicated than love, and it is summed up in the song's title, "Crashed". No fleeting glances across a crowded room, no hand-holding or long walks in the park here. This is about that most basic chemical reaction we have with another person. It can be heady, overwhelming, wonderful, and even lead to love. It isn't that most sublime state, however, and Daughtry recognizes it better in this song than in any attempt I have ever heard. The added power of the electric guitar adds that emotional flavor of this kind of relationship - there's nothing sweet and dreamy about what happens when there's a sexual spark between two people. It is, rather, explosive. And, as he says in the chorus, it can be consuming.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

One Last Time (Today) On The McCain Thingy (UPDATE)

I have now read both the Times and Post stories, and I have to agree with the folks at TPMCafe that the Times story doesn't have a whole lot of "there" there, at least as far as the question regarding any alleged infidelity is concerned.

On the other hand, the Post story is pretty clear that the question is one of undo influence by a lobbyist over a member of the United States Senate. That seems far more important, indeed vital, especially in light of the pushback already underway on the right. By muddying the waters with allegations of sexual impropriety without any substantive content to them, while making substantial allegations of improper influence - especially upon a politician who claims to be working against such undo influence - creates a situation in which the story can be spiked, effectively, by making sure our eyes are on the mud, rather than the water that should be clear.

In short, this whole thing might end up helping McCain (although, right now, I don't see how, exactly) by creating sympathy for him. On the other hand, if it starts a conversation on what a hypocritical liar McCain has always been on the question of lobbies, lobbyists, and his position in regards such entities, it's all good. I think we need to drop the whole sex thing and maybe, just maybe, concentrate on the far more troubling question of what, exactly, McCain got for his little letter on behalf of Paxson.

UPDATE: It seems the first half of the first sentence in the last paragraph above is coming true (please see the link; please). May I just add a couple points? First, one wonders if this wasn't some far more complicated move on the part of Republican operatives; that is, get the sex angle up front, providing enough cover to discredit the entire thing. Kind of like the whole Dan Rather/60 Minutes brouhaha back in '04, in which the authenticity of certain documents became the focal point of the larger story, rather than the question of Bush's status in his final years as a Reserve pilot. Indeed, the authenticity of the documents has not, to my knowledge, ever been conclusively disproved. Rather, the waters were made murky by a few right-wingers who shouted long enough, repeating the same thing over and over again, forcing action on the part of CBS. Once again, I do believe we have a good, solid story being used in a way that is the exact opposite of its actual content. Very odd.

Second, the turn-around on this entire story is a lesson in the way the news cycle is working in these days of the internet and the 24-hour "news" shows. Rather than taking weeks to develop a counter-strategy, McCain was out there this morning, and his political allies - and opponents - already have good, solid strategies in play to work this story in their own particular directions. This story might actually seem old by tomorrow.

Sin, Morality, The End Of The World - And Other Light Topics

Again, I share some pillow talk . . .

Last night, the girls were tucked in and Lisa and I were sitting and reading in the TV room (Wednesday nights are one of my night's off work), when our older daughter came downstairs, crying. She said she had a dream - you know the kind that come right as you are drifting off - about the end of the world, and it scared her silly. She was quite distraught and my wife sat and held her, finally distracting her with a book entitled Parachuting Hamsters, which could distract anyone.

After she was back in bed, and we were quite sure all were asleep, we were lying in bed and talking about what had happened. Lisa told me that our daughter had said that part of what was running through her head was a discussion they had at Wednesday night church activity about sin, hatred, and death. I was quite angry, and was honest enough to tell Lisa that I thought it just wrong that those kinds of things be so explicitly discussed, especially with someone as young and impressionable as Moriah. I further stated that I was moving away from an emphasis on the whole concept of "sin" in my thinking about the relationship between God and humanity. I also said that the constant harping on sin, and equating it with whatever moral thinking and ethical precepts one considers necessary for human life, to be not only wrong, but unbiblical.

Saying this to a minister is one sure way to have an argument. Except, of course, Lisa is not only my minister, but my wife. She understands that I have some weird ideas sometimes, and that I can defend them pretty well. She listened to what I had to say, and then offered her own view - with an emphasis on sin as brokenness, on the necessity of grace to heal the breach between humanity and God, and our need for a constant seeking out of that grace.

I responded by saying that talking about sin as brokenness is all well and good, except that when it comes down to defining that particular word in practical terms, we end up discussing moral failings, ethical lapses, and mental illness; in other words, it comes down to being bad rather than good. I countered by saying that if that was the case, how do we deal seriously with the tales from the Old Testament in which the Chosen People commit genocide; or emasculate the entire male population of one city because of a rape; achieve the divine promise of securing the Land through the destruction of the indigenous people? How do we square an emphasis on contingent morality with the fact that God's work was done by murderers, adulterers, prostitutes and thieves? How do we put sin in the story of the Garden, when in fact the word is not only not mentioned, it seems pretty clear from the text the story is one of grace (Adam and Eve do not die; there is no mention of death entering the world, because there is no mention of death previously being non-existent)? Whether it's Adam and Eve's relationship with God, Cain and God, David, Solomon, Hosea, Ezekiel, the anointing of Ataxerxes as meshach by Deutero-Isaiah because he released the Israelites from Babylonian captivity after he had conquered Babylon - the stories are about God's grace not in spite of human moral failure and ethical viciousness, but in the midst of those very things.

How else do we talk about the cross of Jesus but the revelation of God's power in the weakness of a failed Messiah dying an ignoble death outside the gates of the City?

None of this is to say that grace is not a necessary component of the Divine-Human relationship. Rather, it is to say that grace isn't some metaphysical medicine we get to cure us of the ontological disease known as original sin. Rather, grace is the description, in the first instance, of the very nature of the Divine-human relationship. As such, grace is always present or it isn't grace. It's something else, some conditional grant of reprieve until we slip up again and do something bad.

In other words, either grace is radical, total, and always present, or it isn't grace.

What do you and your spouse talk about after everyone else is in bed?

A Different Tack Leading To The Same Conclusion

So The New York Times decided to run with the whole adultery angle, while The Washington Post focused far more on the impropriety of a lobbyist having such close ties to a Senator with a reputation for disdaining such creatures. The essence of today's article in the Post is quite simple - McCain may deny the allegations of an improper personal relationship, but those who were charged with protecting his political reputation were concerned about the way Vicki Iseman, a telecom lobbyist, seemed to use her ties to McCain. She was told, in 1999, "to get lost", yet she apparently found her way back long enough to become a potential liability in the 2000 campaign. This liability, apparently, was just enough below the radar not to become an issue at the time. As times change, though, the range of the radar has widened.

I was talking with my wife about this story, and I have to admit that this particular angle - the whole "undo influence" thing - is far more troubling than the question of whether or not McCain could keep it zipped with this woman. Indeed, I couldn't care less if he could. My attitude towards adultery in politics is bipartisan - I don't care about who is sleeping with whom. As to whether a lobbyist used "closeness" to further the interests of her clients, and in a manner that might be considered inappropriate (there are certainly no allegations of illegality), that is another matter. Of course, the inappropriateness might just be a matter of image; McCain, after all, has been the public bane of lobbyists since the 1990's. Yet, there is evidence on the record that he intervened on behalf of one of Iseman's clients.

This raises all sorts of questions, not so much about whether or not McCain was cuckolding Mrs. McCain II (with whom he had been cuckolding Mrs. McCain I), but about his public integrity, or perhaps I should write his "alleged" public integrity.

Either way, it is quite clear that big guns are aimed squarely at McCain. If the Republicans are interested in taking down McCain on some squirrelly principle, the next few days and weeks could be a whole lot of fun.

Except, perhaps, for Mrs. McCain.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

That Was Fast

McCain is the presumptive nominee, and the long knives are out already.

Why didn't we hear about this in 2000, or in the years since?
Early in Senator John McCain’s first run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept through his small circle of advisers.

A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.

When news organizations reported that Mr. McCain had written letters to government regulators on behalf of the lobbyist’s client, the former campaign associates said, some aides feared for a time that attention would fall on her involvement.

Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship. But to his advisers, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity.

Break out the popcorn.

Cleaning Up The Blogroll - And An Addition

So, I've weeded out a few things, and I've added my hometown newspaper, the Morning Times (formerly Evening Times) of Sayre, PA. The first thing I check out everyday is news from the old homestead. I know I am getting old because I check out the obituaries. . .

I'm going to be spending the week after Easter at my parents, and so I can actually hold a copy in my hand. I will be taking my laptop, but can only hope there is wi-fi somewhere. Anyway, check it out to get a flavor of where I grew up.

I May Be On To Something . . .

In light of my recent musings on tossing away the false security of the trappings we call life, I came across this post over at Original Faith, and I must say that I agree wholeheartedly with it.
Feel-good spirituality isn’t the real thing. Not all {Christians - or insert any other religious/spiritual affiliation} who get into car accidents find that they make a good recovery. Not all spiritual people are physically healthy. Not all prayers are answered. Believing in angels, saints, in Christian doctrine, or any other doctrine, is absolutely no guarantee of safety, security, health, wealth, or happiness.

If it were that easy, only the mentally incompetent would have (additional) difficulties. If ask and you will receive worked materialistically, then obviously any mentally competent person who saw all the believers asking and having and getting what they wanted would observe this, believe in it, and ask for and receive the things they wanted too.

Religion and spirituality have never been about people obtaining goodies, despite the fact that large segments of humankind have perennially tried to make it about that and supported each other in this delusion.

Blessed are those whose happiness is founded upon peace; woe to those whose peace is founded upon happiness.

I would only add that "peace" here should be defined not as the absence of trouble or turmoil, but being at peace in one's relationship with God, and accepting that blessings include turmoil. Being settled in one's life isn't peace, but acquiescence in the face of the possibilities open to one in following where the call of Jesus takes us. It called Peter away from his father's nets, and to an upside-down cross in Rome. Why should we think it calls us to a two-car garage in the 'burbs? How shallow is that? How false is that kind of faith?

Clinton's Slippage, Electability, And Some Good Arguments

Ezra Klein makes a good case that the collapse of the Clinton campaign in the face of the freight-train that is the Obama machine says much about arguments concerning "electability". I would disagree with him on the whole issue of "inevitability". That was a media-constructed falsehood which she and her team picked up and ran with. In general, though, I think the fact that she started flouncing almost immediately after losing Iowa says much about what her prospects would be in the general election. Obama, on the other hand, started with several deficits - some of which he will carry in to the general election - and yet has run a far more disciplined campaign than has Clinton. That's a surprise, all things considered.

After you go and read young Ezra, think about this - in the current political climate, how will Obama's negatives, real or imagined, stand up to the multitude of McCain's negatives, most of which are quite real (the one fake one is that he isn't really conservative)?

Obama's Wins - Against All Odds (UPDATE)

So he won Wisconsin and Hawaii. Big. Sen. Clinton is using Rudy's playbook, banking of wins in later states to make up for the fact she hasn't won in 10 contests. Make no mistake - I think the nomination is Obama's, and I believe it might be wise, in the long run, for her to bow out graciously. On the other hand, should she stay in, that's OK, too. I think, though, that if she punts Texas and Ohio, she should say, "Congrats, Barack" and head back to the Senate.

Glenn Greenwald has a very important post up today, in which he discusses the ways in which the traditional right-wing attacks against Barack Obama have been tried this past week, including some really awful, meaningless stuff against his wife, and failed quite miserably. I think this might just be a portent that our discourse is changing, and for the better. I do not thing "Teflon" should be appended to him like it was to Reagan back in the 1980's; this isn't a case of real crap not sticking where it belongs. Rather, it is the case that Obama understands the way the media game is played and manages to wipe off that crap they throw at him, and play the game by his rules. Perhaps that's the reason the right has been particularly shrill and incoherent. Looking for traction for any narrative to undermine his candidacy, they are floundering for something that might dispel the momentum that is clearly his.

When I came home from work this morning, my wife was checking out headlines on-line, and she turned to me and said, "Barack Obama is going to be our next President." As far as I'm concerned, that settles the matter.

Yes, we can.

UPDATE: Lest anyone think there is some kind of parity between the parties, read this from Christy over at FDL. The end is the kicker. Quoting from a Hawaii Democrat:
Together we made history last night! Over 37,000 citizens turned out at our caucus sites to voice their preference for the Democratic Party nominee for President. We have never before had more than 5,000 participants at our caucuses.

Not only "Yes, we can." I think, "Yes, we will" should be the new mantra.

UPDATE II: I realize the Republican primary race is, for all intents and purposes, over, while the Democratic race is still hot and heavy. Yet, when you take a look at the turnout numbers, you just can't help but wonder what, exactly, that means for the general election in the fall.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


A couple days ago, my good friend and fellow blogger ER posted this, which has the most marvelous title, "No Map For My Wandering Pilgrim Way". The post got my mind churning about saying something a bit personal, as it were, and then, lo and behold, I came across the latest installment of the Progressive Bible Study over at Street Prophets, which considers the whining of the people to Moses in Exodus 17. I guess that clinches it, I thought, so I will offer here some very personal thoughts. Always dangerous. . .

Without going in to gory detail - which I am not interested in doing anyway, and would bore most people - the worst time of my life (a period stretching from sometime in 1989 through late 1990) was marked by a kind of spiritual risk aversion on my part. The reason I love the title of ER's post so much is simple - there was a time in my life when I wanted, indeed even prayed for, a map. I wanted to know what my life held for me. I didn't want anything left to chance. When things in my life started to fall apart, and they did so rather rapidly and precipitously due to my own inability to handle the rather mundane problems life throws at you, I became even more risk-averse, cowering and running to various places of safety, rather than deal with things as they were.

I do believe that has been a part of my life ever since. The last time I stood on the edge of a deep chasm and leaped, eyes open, was a long time ago. I have been playing it quite safe - not just spiritually but in many aspects of my life - for so long, while talking a good game, I realized very recently that "cowardice" is a good word for one of my defining character traits. Of course, there is a fine line between "cowardice" and "caution" in life, especially as we get older and our responsibilities pile up. Yet, we ignore the reality that so much of what we call "responsibility" is a fake security blanket we toss over our lives so that we can pretend that we don't live on the edge of a bottomless pit.

Playing it safe is all well and good at times. Yet, when it becomes a habit, it betrays a dearth not just of faith, but a capacity for taking life as it comes, and discovering all sorts of joys - and, yes, pains, too - that are out there for the taking. Life without risk isn't really living, but marking time. It also isn't the life God wants for us. After all, God asks so little of us - just our lives, and the death we all must face anyway. Why hide behind the trappings of a false security - call it money, or family, or success, or even a home - in order to hide the fact that we don't want to put any of this in jeopardy. We'll sing songs praising God on Sunday, but please don't ask us to quit our job on Monday because we work for a company that's screwing its workers or dumping toxic waste. We'll pray for the kingdom to come, but make sure our lives aren't disturbed all that much by the event. It's always someone else, some other, whose life becomes topsy-turvy because of the way our lives go.

Along with the story of the children whining in the desert, I would also recall another Biblical story - the parable Jesus tells of the wedding banquet. We have no idea when, how, or for what purpose, God will call us, or in what form that call will come. In St. Matthews' telling, please recall that all those good, sensible folk who pleaded that life interfered with their ability to answer that call ended up in the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing their teeth. This isn't a game we're about here. Every moment is filled with the potential for ultimate meaning, if we are open enough, and brave enough, to risk it.

I no longer wish to hide behind all the trappings of life and say that I am being sensible, when really what I am is a big, fat chicken, unwilling to face the truth that to live is to risk. Obviously, every risk has the potential to pretty much destroy everything - just look at the past seven years in the United States, and the sad state of our affairs - but it also has the potential for the biggest, most wonderful payoffs. Running scared because the possibility of loss exists isn't living, and, to be honest, I want to live.

What's Up? Is It Blogger, YouTube, Or Just My Computer? (UPDATE)

My computer resolutely refuses to display any videos, on any site, from YouTube. I can go to YouTube and watch to my heart's content, so I know it isn't like I lost Adobe; in fact, I just updated it a couple days ago. Are the vids playing for you? Is YouTube mad at me for posting too many and punishing me by blocking them? My cookies are enabled, so that isn't the problem.

It happened suddenly yesterday afternoon. I was checking out a video on another blog, navigated back to my own and saw nothing but blank space where my three music videos should have been. If the problem isn't corrected, I'm going to sens a note to blogger asking, in essence, "What's up?"

Thoughts, questions, possible answers/solutions please. It's annoying going to various sites and seeing these big blank spaces where videos should be.

UPDATE: OK, so I updated Quicktime yesterday, which my computer has been begging me to do for weeks, and now, the vids are back and everything seems copacetic. I didn't know Quicktime had anything to do with YouTube videos. Oh, well.

Not So Lost In Space

There's a tiny fraction of my brain that is still a little kid, sitting and watching the moon landing in 1969 and coming to terms with it all. There is a tiny fraction of my brain that was excited (yes, I'll admit it) by Star Trek and all the Wagon Train to the Stars. I followed the post-lunar landing careers of the 12 men who walked on the moon - their mental problems, their mystical experiences, their alcoholism, their self-imposed isolation. I also followed the arguments, pro and con, concerning the continued efficacy of human space exploration versus robotic space exploration. I come down quite clearly and easily in the "send the robots" camp.

The imaginations of millions were fired by the possibilities inherent in space exploration back in the 1960's. Crossing the quarter million miles between the Earth and the Moon became a kind of mantra for "can-do"ism - we can put a man on the moon, but can we solve all the other problems we face, that kind of thing. Yet, putting 12 human beings on the moon was extremely dangerous, hugely expensive - at the same time the federal government was expanding domestic investment and waging an illegal and losing war in southeast Asia. Added to these facts was the simple fact that, unlike exploration of unmapped places on planet Earth back in the 16th and 17th centuries, there just was no reason for continuing our presence on the moon. No minerals, no exploitable resources whatsoever. Human beings have certainly explored, but only if there was a payoff. Just going somewhere "because it's there" is great if you're Sir Edmund Hillary; if you're a nation-state investing billions of dollars of tax-payer money, it's a sign of profligacy and lack of judgment.

Back in the 1990's, the world's imagination was fired up by the landing of two roving robots on the surface of Mars. Continuing to operate long after they were supposed to shut down, those little robots managed to show us that, like the Moon, Mars is a desolately beautiful place, uninviting to human beings, but suited well for robots.

All this, sparked by reading this post by Matt Yglesias, is to say that a sensible, fiscally and scientifically sound space policy would continue the robotic exploration of near space. When there are reasons to send human beings back out beyond near-Earth orbit, as well as the technology to do so (right now, we would be hard-pressed to equal the achievement of making an Apollo capsule, let alone getting it somewhere interesting for those inside to get out of), by all means, we should do it. Right now, I think looking at pictures sent by robots who are risking nothing is far better, and a far better investment of time and resources, than dreaming of Martian colonies or outposts on the asteroids.

Smudges On His Halo

This is more like it; and this, too. Two columns by respected Washington journalists - E. J. Dionne and Eugene Robinson - have columns in today's Post that do the unthinkable. They challenge many of the most compelling narratives of John McCain's rationale for electing him to the White House. Dionne's especially parses a single sentence in McCain's stump speech - "[T]he transcendent challenge of the 21st century is radical Islamic extremists," - and asks a simple question that should be asked by both Democratic hopefuls, and whoever ends up facing him in the fall: "Does he mean that in the year 2100, Americans will look back and say that everything else that happened in the century paled in comparison with the war against terrorism?" He asks about other global challenges, domestic challenges (he doesn't ask questions about unforeseen events, but what politician does?), and wonders about the relative position of terrorism in the whole range of problems facing us in upcoming years.

Robinson's column is far more blunt, and honest:
The good news for Republicans is that they have a big head start in the Fiesta of Forced Smiles -- the post-primary, pre-convention phase of the presidential campaign in which former opponents and party elders pledge their support for the presumptive nominee in a photogenic show of unity.

The bad news is that the likely nominee, John McCain, intends to run on positions that most voters reject.(emphasis added)

To read someone, somewhere, speak the truth like this - and a truth that does not bode well at all for John McCain, is a pleasure to behold.

As always, I obviously recommend each of these columns for your perusal.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Music Monday

For some reason, I just never get exactly what I want to say when I first put it down. I tried to say something simple last week - I was going to post what are, in effect, "guilty pleasures" - songs we know we shouldn't like, but dammit, we do anyway. How easy would that have been?

Anyway, I thought I would post three songs here to make people, most especially my old friend Jim, wonder what, exactly, happened to my judgment. There's nothing wrong with my judgment, really. I just have to confess that there are some songs, and artists, that move me, even though I know they probably shouldn't.

I have written about Train before. God knows I grew quite tired of "Drops of Jupiter" when the song was first released. One night, my wife and I were in the Sam Goody's in the Peru, IL Mall and there was this song on the PA in the store. I asked one of the clerks what it was, and she said it was by Train. The song was "Getaway" - a plea in six-eight from a man for his love to come back, and they could get away together. There was just something urgent in the lead singer's presentation that resonated with me. I had gone to buy something else, but I put a copy of Drops of Jupiter in my hand, and was surprised to learn the entire album, with one or two exceptions, was equally good. It is what it is - a pop album by a band with limits - yet the emotional core of so many of the songs was so raw, I listened and still listen to it frequently. My favorite track on the CD became "I Wish You Would":

In the past year or so, I've come to appreciate some music I thought I left far behind me, 1970's AM pop radio. A staple of that tinny medium from my late childhood and early youth was England Dan and John Ford Coley. One of their biggest songs was "Nights Are Forever Without You". You have to imagine a polyester suit with really wide lapels, a porn-star mustache, and shoulder-length hair to get the full effect of this song.

I thought I'd save the best - or worst - for last. If any band was despised more than Journey when I was in college (maybe REO came in a close second) I can't name it. The horrid "ballads", "Open Arms" and "Faithfully", staples of many a slow-dance in my not-very-flaming youth, became objects of scorn to those of us who thought we knew what real music was.

Yet, the band was not lacking in talent. Guitarist Neal Schon started his career in Santana. His solo work with Jan Hammer is startling in its originality. Drummer Steve Smith has a long career as a jazz drummer of massive respect. Bassist Ross Marler was impressive. Alas, I believe it was keyboardist Jonathan Cain and lead singer Steve Perry who rang the death knell for this particular band.

Yet, there is a song of theirs that still haunts me. It is actually pretty grown-up in its sentiments (unlike the previously mentioned songs, fodder for far too many yearning adolescents), and has a really nice key-change in the bridge/guitar solo. I know I have to apologize for liking this song, but I just can't help myself. This is "Send Her My Love":

UPDATE: I thought honorable mention should go to a few others. Some of the songs off Toto's IV LP, including "Rosanna", and "I Won't Hold You Back Now". Justin Timberlake's "Sexy Back". No Doubt's "Hella Good". Those are some I can think of off the top of my head. I'm sure there are more I am ignoring, out of embarrassment.

BTW, to ER - REO? I bought Hi Infidelity the week it was released, before everyone and their grandmother jumped on the bandwagon, as it were. It's actually not a bad album - a concept album about cheating, cheaters, love lost, love held on to. I thought the best single line of any of the songs on the album was "They think they're full of fire/She thinks they're full of shit" from "Tough Guys". Unfortunately, the band was hyped far beyond its capacity. It was a hard-working rock and roll band that could come up with occasional good hook or riff; beyond that - eh.

Why Do They Hurt Me Most When I First Wake Up?

Friday, I chose to ignore, as much as I could, the emerging narrative, exemplified by Charles Krauthammer's column in the Washington Post, of Obama's appeal as "cult-like" and "creepy". I couldn't because it emerged so fast, and became a matter of fact among the typing classes. One would think such a tactic, transparently stupid on its face - especially coming from a group (conservatives) who have tried to create in Ronald Reagan the Greatest American Of All Time - would have fallen flat pretty quickly. It may yet, but it has emerged yet again at the Post, this time in Claire Hoffman's contribution to the On Faith forum.
Is Obama the Messiah? People are asking these days and it's not so hard to understand why: the desperate throngs, the tears, the great awakening of a slumbering demographic. All that larger symbolism.

This is how the column begins. One would think it couldn't get worse - "People are asking. . ."; please - but it does. Keep tissues handy for the blood sure to start seeping from your eyes from the stupid.
The emotional landscape of many American voters is calamitous of late -- frightened by our Babylonian war, unhappy with our President and depressed by the cleansing crush of the credit crunch -- so it's not surprising that the coming presidential election would take on a certain biblical coloring.

The Messiah question is a loud one coming from all corners. Even a blogger for Mother Jones, the hot heart of the far left, worries that the Obama-passion will be used for nefarious purposes by right-wingers, he himself writes "Barack Obama has a messiah complex and no one will convince me otherwise."

Is the "emotional landscape of many American voters . . . calamitous of late"? It may be. Calling our occupation of Iraq "our Babylonian war" - ugh. This kind of garbage is just awful - pseudo-psychobabble combined with the kind of phrasing - "people", "no one", to make it seem as if the writer has surveyed enough Americans to make the kinds of judgments about a mass as quixotic, diverse, and variegated as the American public. As I wrote on Saturday, on the heels of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, it shouldn't be surprising that the right is turning the narrative in this direction. How better to discredit a candidate than thinly-veiled references to the kind of emotional euphoria one sees in grainy newsreel footage of ecstatic Germans tossing HItlergruss and clamoring "Sieg Heil!"? The fact the phenomenon is on the liberal rather than the conservative end of the spectrum only confirms for these folks that lefties are all a bunch of closet goose-stepper, ready to toss another fetus in the oven, and force all the menfolk to acts of sodomy.

I remember reading Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind when it came out 20 years ago, and one passage in particular has stuck with me. He describes the fervor of fans at a rock concert (trying to imagine Allan Bloom at a rock concert is a bit of a stretch; it's in his book, though, so we should just run with it), and compares all the trappings - the unison shouting, the hands waving in the air, the emotional flush on the faces of the fans - to these same old Triumph of the Will clips. At the time, I thought he was just an old fart who didn't know any better. In light of Jonah's typing exercise and these latest attempts to paint a portrait of a scary, "messianic" movement, I'm not so sure.

It's all bunk, of course. All of this - with the exception of the column linked here - comes from people part of a movement that includes putting Ronald Reagan's name on some federally funded piece of property in every county in the United States; insists that Reagan won the Cold War, cut taxes every chance he got, and elevated the fetus to citizenship while simultaneously protecting us from evil brown folks; has tried and failed, since the old codger wandered out of office in 1989, to find a replacement for him. That they would turn around now and accuse liberals, who are excited by a candidate (actually they are pretty pleased with both candidates, for the most part; Obama just has that extra frisson about him), of creepy, cult-like, Messianic adoration is almost comical.

This is one narrative we need to strangle quickly.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

From Cain To King - Oh The People God Picks

This might actually be turning in to a series or something. It is certainly something upon which I am ruminating, as I wrestle with the implications of God's Providential work in the world.

In seminary, I took a class on exegetical method, the single most rewarding class I took. The professor, Dr. David Hopkins, moved us through various texts and various ways to read them, from the simple uses of a Concordance to various more advanced readings. One of the texts with which we wrestled that spring semester, 1992, was the story, as he called it, of Cain and God. Rather than "Cain and Abel", Hopkins pointed out that Abel is not a subject of the story at all, but rather an object, a prop in the struggle between Cain and God. The most fascinating part of the story, for me, is what is too often missed - there is no condemnation from God for the murder of Abel; indeed Cain receives a blessing from God, the mark of Cain which is in fact a sign of divine protection. I realize this is a reversal of "traditional" readings, yet it has always been clear to me this is the function of the "mark of Cain". Indeed, by calling the story one of "Cain and God", it focuses attention on who the real actors are, and the role of God's grace here. Cain murders his brother - a crime from which his blood cries forth from the ground - and even as God's anger rises, Cain's thought is not on repentance, but on his own safety as he ventures out in to the wider world (to all fundies who subscribe to creationism, I want to know where all these people who threaten Cain's life came from, since Adam, Eve, and now just Cain should be the only people on earth; just wondering). And God provides that blessing.

In a similar vein, the entire story of David, from young shepherd made war hero to the entry in to Jerusalem, making it the capital of this new kingdom, through the civil war and reconciliation, is one of multiple betrayals, rape, murder, war, fratricide - and, of course, the threatening of the line of succession, this time the royal line rather than the line of patriarchs. Through it all, the LORD's work is done. The child born of the rape of Bathsheba, Solomon, becomes king. The story of Solomon's reign follows the same pattern, set out as early as the stories of the patriarchs, and made clear in the story of David - God is there, not despite, but even in the midst of the limits of human moral and ethical conduct.

Flashing forward a few thousand years, to the life and work of Martin Luther King, I think we see the same dynamic in play. It is quite clear, from abundant evidence, that King engaged in some serious intellectual dishonesty in his doctoral dissertation. This plagiarism should have been evident to his principle reader, Harold DeWolfe, but was apparently overlooked for what might be a variety of unknown reasons. In his personal life, King also left much to be desired; he had an eye for the ladies, and there are enough anecdotes confirming it to say that he was most likely unfaithful to his wife, who suffered much for the life he chose (and carried his work forward best she could, left to raise their children alone after his death). Yet, who would deny that he was about God's work? Who would question his commitment to justice, not just as an American ideal (although it certainly was that), but as a Biblical mandate? Who would doubt the sincerity, indeed transparency, of his oft-stated need for strength from God for the work he felt called to? Because he was a bit of an intellectual thief and a philanderer, does that negate either the reality of his faith, or the faithfulness he gave to the cause of human freedom and justice?

There are those who would say such a thing. Yet, this betrays an ignorance of the way God works, even as the Biblical authors presented quite clear evidence to the contrary. Moral scolds and nannies to humanity, they believe we need to be squeaky clean in our lives before we make a single statement about our faith, or about how to live our faith in the world. Too bad God wasn't listening to them when he called his prophets to marry prostitutes, when he anointed David king, and kept faith with David throughout his self-induced troubles. Too bad God wasn't listening when God was going about making a murderer of Christians the most famous of the early missionaries. Too bad God wasn't using a prostitute, a turncoat prostitute, as a vehicle for the Hebrew people's victory over the city of Jericho.

God is not a moral scold. God knows the limits under which we live, and loves us and uses us to achieve the divine ends even in the midst of all the scandal and even evil in our lives and the world.

A Paper Of Dunces II

First, I will offer the link, so you can go peruse the beginning of the article.

All I will say is this - please, for the love of God, stop.

Is It Any Wonder Hillary Is Falling Behind? (UPDATED With Links)

With and adviser who says something as dumb as what follows, one now has a clue as to her current troubles on the campaign trail:
“Winning Democratic primaries is not a qualification or a sign of who can win the general election. If it were, every nominee would win because every nominee wins Democratic primaries.”

By this logic, her losing primaries shows what a winner she is! Haven't we had enough of this kind of up-is-down, black-is-white nonsense since 2001?

Don't go away mad. Just go away.

UPDATE: Dr. Atrios has a link (in which he nominates Slate's John Dickerson for "Wanker of the Day" yesterday) to this as Lawyers, Guns, and Money:
More generally, shouldn't Democrats who have complained that George Bush was elected on the strength of a popularity contest be nervous that this blossoming Obamadulation is getting out of hand?

I'm not even sure what to do with something as breathtakingly stupid as this. Do I laugh, or do I cry?

A Paper Of Dunces

On the one hand, there is plenty of empirical evidence that Americans just don't know what educated people should know. A large plurality do not know who the President, Vice-President, Chief Justice of the United States, or even their own Representative is. A large plurality believes that "Intelligent Design" is a serious alternative to the theory of evolution. There are even those who believe the sun revolves around the earth. There are some who believe the epigrams of Shakespeare are Biblical quotes. Naming the works of Twain, Melville, Dickens, Hemingway seems beyond the capacity of many Americans. I don't think we should even go too far discussing mathematics.

Yet, historically, this has usually been true. Americans have approached education as they have approached every other endeavor - they have sought to get from it what is most useful in their lives without going too far in the direction of seeing knowledge for its own sake as a virtue. The better-educated among us, detecting a bit of reverse snobbishness in this disdain for over-learning, consider this anti-intellectualism.

It is true that this attitude has been exploited by unscrupulous politicians for their own ends. It has also been venerated by other politicians - Joe McCarthy and George Wallace come to mind immediately - as a virtue of the common person over and against "egg heads" and "pointy-headed elites". Thoughtful, intelligent persons open to nuance and subtlety - Dean Acheson as McCarthy's bete noir, pretty much any "liberal intellectual" contra Wallace - were portrayed as somehow un-American because of their learning, their erudition, their thoughtfulness, and their refusal to keep it simple.

While it is certainly troubling that many Americans have trouble finding their own state on a map (let alone Iraq, or Afghanistan), it is hardly indicative of some fundamental failure on our part. Nor is it clear that we are a nation of dunces.

A single sentence in Susan Jacoby's "Outlook" piece linked to above gives away the entire game in her scolding article:
I cannot prove that reading for hours in a treehouse (which is what I was doing when I was 13) creates more informed citizens than hammering away at a Microsoft Xbox or obsessing about Facebook profiles.(emphasis added)

"I cannot prove . . ." With those three words, she shows that she is not discussing peer-reviewed research on the status of our national tendency towards ignorance of certain facts many consider fundamental. Rather, she is being a moral scold, reveling in the superiority of sitting in a treehouse reading, rather than playing XBox 360. The rest of the paragraph, following directly from the above topic sentence, gives away even more, perhaps more than Jacoby might have intended:
But the inability to concentrate for long periods of time -- as distinct from brief reading hits for information on the Web -- seems to me intimately related to the inability of the public to remember even recent news events. It is not surprising, for example, that less has been heard from the presidential candidates about the Iraq war in the later stages of the primary campaign than in the earlier ones, simply because there have been fewer video reports of violence in Iraq. Candidates, like voters, emphasize the latest news, not necessarily the most important news.(emphasis added)

Wow. OK, so it's the public's fault that they don't know enough about current events, not the news media who drop stories, or don't even report them. It's the candidates' fault they don't discuss Iraq, rather than journalists who are present every time one of them pokes his or her head outside, that no one mentions Iraq. Because of the lack of videos of Iraqi carnage, she says, not the intentioned disappearance of Iraq by the Republican candidates themselves (the Democratic candidates, as far as I can tell, discuss the morass of Iraq as much as possible; but it's the public's fault the news media doesn't cover it).

Further evidence of an ignorant public and its perfidy is given in the following paragraph:
As video consumers become progressively more impatient with the process of acquiring information through written language, all politicians find themselves under great pressure to deliver their messages as quickly as possible -- and quickness today is much quicker than it used to be. Harvard University's Kiku Adatto found that between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate -- featuring the candidate's own voice -- dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds.

That sneaky, ignorant public! Somehow they have managed, through some nefarious scheme to reduce the soundbites of the candidates on the evening news without producers and editors at news organizations having a hand in it. Of course, we shouldn't even discuss the deregulation of the commercial market on television, which removed barriers to the number of minutes allowed for commercials each hour (thus reducing the available time for presenting actual news), or the stripping of network news outfits by corporate parents in the name of economy, or the gutting of the "public interest" portion of FCC licenses with the removal of the fairness doctrine and the number of hours of public affairs programming required to maintain one's FCC license.

Yes, it's all those ignorant yahoos out in fly-over country, those doofuses who don't know who Vice-President Cheney is, or who the President of Pakistan is (wait, that was a candidate for the Presidency, running at a time when that particular nation-state would become somewhat important to our foreign policy).

Lamenting our national ignorance is one thing. Refusing to take responsibility for that ignorance, and taking other mitigating factors in to account - even admitting that one has no evidence for the claims one is making - is just as ignorant, indeed anti-intellectual as lamenting all those rubes who can't identify California on a map of Mexico.

UPDATE: Good Lord, Susan Jacoby has an entire book of this. It's quite clear she's qualified to write about unreason . . .

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