Saturday, June 07, 2008

Self-Defeating

Matt Yglesias has a nice little post in which he argues that the media strategy forthcoming in this election from the Republicans could be better, especially since it has little traction, except among those who are predisposed to believe that Barack Obama is a secret Black Panther Islamo-Fascist Communist.

While it actually be prudent for Republicans to heed his advice and make a strong case for their candidate, that isn't how they operate. So, between now and November, expect all sorts of garbage about "Barry" and his ties to everything from the War on Christmas to his secret plan to turn all white people in to Soylent Green. In this case, this tired script will fail utterly and completely. They will not lose to Obama so much as they will defeat themselves with the ludicrous concoction of bile and drivel they spew.

Saturday Rock Show

My favorite band, currently and for the past seven or so years, is Dream Theater. One of the great things about the band is their musical fertility. Not only do they continue to release great CDs, the members of the band release solo projects, side projects, and participate as guests on the releases of others. There is enough music from these guys to keep a fan satisfied for a long time.

Lead singer James LaBrie released a solo CD a few years back, Elements of Persuasion, that was, for the most part, straight-ahead heavy metal. This song, "Slightly Out Of Reach", is a bit softer and accessible. Enjoy.

More On Michale Ledeen's Delusional Fantasies

After publishing the previous post, something hit me between my eyes (and, no, it wasn't from my wife to get off my duff and clean the house!). I considered Ledeen's comment about a Franco-German conspiracy to eliminate America as a global rival using Arab surrogates. Then, I dimly recalled Donald Rumsfeld once said something that struck many as odd. From January 23, 2003:
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Wednesday dismissed French and German insistence that "everything must be done to avoid war" with Iraq, saying most European countries stand with the United States in its campaign to force Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to disarm.

"Germany has been a problem, and France has been a problem," said Rumsfeld, a former NATO ambassador. "But you look at vast numbers of other countries in Europe. They're not with France and Germany on this, they're with the United States."

Germany and France represent "old Europe," and NATO's expansion in recent years means "the center of gravity is shifting to the east," Rumsfeld said.

The link at digby's original post got me an html error message, so I used the very useful Google and got the original article by Ledeen. Now, this was published in March, 2003, but it was most likely festering in the fertilizer of his mind for a while. His ideas most likely had floated amongst the flotsam and jetsam of the Bush Administration. Reading, again, Rumsfeld's comments in the context of Ledeen's conspiracy-spinning, sheds new light on the meaning of Rumsfeld's comments, stupid enough on their own.

While most Americans, to their credit, do not read National Review, an article such as this would have been noted by the French and Germans, especially in light of Rumsfeld's very public dismissal of Franco-German objections to American military action in Iraq. This is the kind of thing guaranteed to cause what, at one time, would have been called "a diplomatic crisis", a fancy term for "pissing off another country".

Scroll down and read the blurb I copied from digby's post, and add to it the following, from Ledeen's 2003 article:
The Franco-German strategy was based on using Arab and Islamic extremism and terrorism as the weapon of choice, and the United Nations as the straitjacket for blocking a decisive response from the United States.

This required considerable skill, and total cynicism, both of which were in abundant supply in Paris and Berlin. Chancellor Shroeder gained reelection by warning of American warmongering, even though, as usual, America had been attacked first. And both Shroeder and Chirac went to great lengths to support Islamic institutions in their countries, even when — as in the French case — it was in open violation of the national constitution. French law stipulates a total separation of church and state, yet the French Government openly funds Islamic "study" centers, mosques, and welfare organizations. A couple of months ago, Chirac approved the creation of an Islamic political body, a mini-parliament, that would provide Muslims living in France with official stature and enhanced political clout. And both countries have permitted the Saudis to build thousands of radical Wahhabi mosques and schools, where the hatred of the infidels is instilled in generation after generation of young Sunnis. It is perhaps no accident that Chirac went to Algeria last week and promised a cheering crowd that he would not rest until America's grand design had been defeated.

Both countries have been totally deaf to suggestions that the West take stern measures against the tyrannical terrorist sponsors in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. Instead, they do everything in their power to undermine American-sponsored trade embargoes or more limited sanctions, and it is an open secret that they have been supplying Saddam with military technology through the corrupt ports of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid's little playground in Dubai, often through Iranian middlemen.

It sounds fanciful, to be sure. But the smartest people I know have been thoroughly astonished at recent French and German behavior. This theory may help understand what's going on. I now believe that I was wrong to forecast that the French would join the war against Iraq at the last minute, having gained every possible economic advantage in the meantime. I think Chirac will oppose us before, during, and after the war, because he has cast his lot with radical Islam and with the Arab extremists. He isn't doing it just for the money — although I have no doubt that France is being richly rewarded for defending Saddam against the civilized countries of the world — but for higher stakes. He's fighting to end the feared American domination before it takes stable shape.

If this is correct, we will have to pursue the war against terror far beyond the boundaries of the Middle East, into the heart of Western Europe. And there, as in the Middle East, our greatest weapons are political: the demonstrated desire for freedom of the peoples of the countries that oppose us.(italics added)

Please note the italicized portion. Five years ago, a conservative commentator writes that the Great And Never-Ending War On Terror might just have to be pursued in Europe as well as the Middle East. Coming on the heels of Rumsfeld's comments, is it any wonder the French and Germans might have been a bit, well, upset by both our behavior and our rhetoric?

What Digby Said, Plus

First, just click and read, reflecting that she got it right five years ago and, like all the rest of us liberals, was called a conspiracy monger, a Bush-hater, etc., etc. Being vindicated by time and the release of a Senate Committee report hardly makes up for the vitriol she, and others like her, received at the hands of supporters of Bush.

Second, I wrote just a bit yesterday about the Defense Department shutting down an internal investigation in to the possibility that the United States was being run by Iranian intelligence, all too happy to have the US do its dirty work and eliminate the threat on its western border. I had seen the name "Ghorbanifar", and remembered it from Iran-Contra days (I was a senior in college when the story broke; my first summer after graduating, when not being a camp counselor, was spent watching the Iran-Contra hearings on television). Yet, even I had no idea that another alumnus from those days of Keystone Kops foreign policy had a hand in our current mess. Meet Michael Ledeen:
Assume, for a moment, that the French and the Germans aren't thwarting us out of pique, but by design, long-term design. Then look at the world again, and see if there's evidence of such a design.

Like everyone else, the French and the Germans saw that the defeat of the Soviet Empire projected the United States into the rare, almost unique position of a global hyperpower, a country so strong in every measurable element that no other nation could possibly resist its will. The "new Europe" had been designed to carve out a limited autonomy for the old continent, a balance-point between the Americans and the Soviets. But once the Soviets were gone, and the Red Army melted down, the European Union was reduced to a combination theme park and free-trade zone. Some foolish American professors and doltish politicians might say — and even believe — that henceforth "power" would be defined in economic terms, and that military power would no longer count. But cynical Europeans know better.

They dreaded the establishment of an American empire, and they sought for a way to bring it down.

If you were the French president or the German chancellor, you might well have done the same.

How could it be done? No military operation could possibly defeat the United States, and no direct economic challenge could hope to succeed. That left politics and culture. And here there was a chance to turn America's vaunted openness at home and toleration abroad against the United States. So the French and the Germans struck a deal with radical Islam and with radical Arabs: You go after the United States, and we'll do everything we can to protect you, and we will do everything we can to weaken the Americans.

The Franco-German strategy was based on using Arab and Islamic extremism and terrorism as the weapon of choice, and the United Nations as the straitjacket for blocking a decisive response from the United States.

Digby says it sounds like something out of a Le Carre novel. Actually, it sounds like something out of a parody of a La Carre novel. This is an example not so much of paranoia (although it is that, too) as it is simple delusion masked as sophisticated insight.

The irony, of course, is that the folks who bought and paid for crap like the above, embracing it with their pea-sized intellects and even smaller moral senses, actually have the temerity to call "conspiracy theorists!" on those who, all those years ago, saw it and called it for what it is.

Finally, I agree with Clark. We have reached the point where we can no longer afford to play nice with these people. Barring the very real possibility that George W. Bush issues some kind of blanket pardon for any member of his administration (a la Gerald Ford "pardoning" Nixon before he had even been formally indicted for any crime), it seems to me that it might do the United States, and the rest of the world, some good, to see these men do a perp walk at The Hague. A kind of goodwill gesture to civilized countries, showing that we will play by the rules after all.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Ignorance Isn't Bliss, It's Just Ignorance (UPDATE)

With a nod to Talking Points Memo, we have access to the Phase II report of the Senate Intelligence Committee on the pre-Iraq war intelligence cock-up. One of the most interesting aspects of this entire story is highlighted by TBogg, from a report by McClatchy:
Defense Department counterintelligence investigators suspected that Iranian exiles who provided dubious intelligence on Iraq and Iran to a small group of Pentagon officials might have "been used as agents of a foreign intelligence service ... to reach into and influence the highest levels of the U.S. government," a Senate Intelligence Committee report said Thursday.

A top aide to then-secretary of defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, however, shut down the 2003 investigation into the Pentagon officials' activities after only a month, and the Defense Department's top brass never followed up on the investigators' recommendation for a more thorough investigation, the Senate report said.

We all know we were lied to. Now, it seems, it is more than possible that some American officials were being played. Rather than figure out if this were true - it is war, after all - the investigation in to the backtrail of this information was closed down. Apparently not wanting to know what's really going on is a pre-requisite for being an official of the Bush Administration.

January 20, 2009 cannot come fast enough.

UPDATE: Atrios offers an even more sinister conspiracy theory. Click the link and read it for yourself. Kind of creepy, no?

How Much Have We Changed?

When the issue of American racism is discussed, one often hears conservatives (and some liberals) protest that, not having been slave-owners or members of lynching parties, they feel no compelling interest to feel "white guilt" for our original national sin. We also are told that, since the days of the early Civil Rights era, so much ground has been traversed in race relations as to make other substantive claims for social justice moot. My own argument has always been that racism is deeply embedded in our national psyche; as hard as I wish to deny the truth of it, it rests even in me, and I am ashamed to admit that I have operated under its guiding principles on many occasions.

As a rhetorical strategy, talking about slavery and lynching makes sense. After all, these are (mostly) southern historical realities. We Yankees can pretend that their existence at one time was limited territorially (although slavery wasn't ended in all the northern states until the early decades of the 19th century). As a group, we whites can pretend that this deeply rooted ugliness was excised by the spectacle of Bull Connors' gods besetting marching children, and his state police beating and shooting peaceful marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge.

Except, of course, these are the comfortable fables of those who have no desire to face the ugly reality that our hatred and fear of blacks does not know of borders or historical events. While it is true that no one alive today in America has ever owned a slave, and the last surviving participants in lynchings are feeble old men and women now, Rick Perlstein reminds us that, in living memory, residents of one northern city and its environs expressed opinions regarding African-Americans that are little different from the most despicable writings of Nazis about Jews, or of the ideas of Theodore Bilbo, Richard Russell, and other die-hard segregationists.

It is conventional wisdom that the backlash against Civil Rights began when the focus of the movement shifted from the share-cropping fields of the South to the slums and ghettos of the north. One of the main obstacles to de facto integration was the practice of what became known as "red lining" - city planners and real estate companies would draw red lines on city maps limiting residency to African-Americans. One of the biggest and longest fights in our racial melodrama was the issue of "open housing". Red lining had been declared un-Constitutional by the Supreme Court before segregation in education, yet the practice persisted, unofficially, in to the early 1970's (my parents managed to buy a house in 1970 as real estate agents tried to dump houses across New York State in advance of the Rockefeller-supported open housing law; that house, sitting on a double lot, is worth far more than the original purchase price because everyone involved wanted to make sure a white family bought it).

Perlstein has unearthed, and published at the link above, letters Illinois Senator Paul Douglas received from Chicago residents during the on-going Civil Rights and open housing debates in 1965 and 1966. Here's a sample:
I am white and am praying that you vote against open housing in the consideration of Equal Rights.
Just because the negro refuses to live among his own race--that alone should give you the answer.
I was forced to sell my home in Chicago ('Lawndale') at a big loss because of the negroes taking over Lawndale--their morals are the lowest (and supported financially by Mayor Daley as you well know)--and the White Race by law.
Please don't take away our bit of peace and freedom to choose our neighbors.
What did Luther King mean when he faced the nation on TV New Year's day--announcing he will not be satisfied until the wealth of America is more evenly divided?
Sounds like Communism to Americans. 'Freedom for all'--including the white race, Please!

What was behind this and hundreds of other letters Douglas received? Here's Perlstein's own words:
You could draw a map of the boundary within which the city's seven hundred thousand Negroes were allowed to live by marking an X wherever a white mob attacked a Negro. Move beyond it, and a family had to face down a mob of one thousand, five thousand, or even (in the Englewood riot of 1949, when the presence of blacks at a union meeting sparked a rumor the house was to be "sold to niggers") ten thousand bloody-minded whites. In the late 1940s, when the postwar housing shortage was at its peak, you could find ten black families living in a basement, sharing a single stove but not a single flush toilet, in "apartments" subdivided by cardboard. One racial bombing or arson happened every three weeks.... In neighborhoods where they were allowed to "buy" houses, they couldn't actually buy them at all: banks would not write them mortgages, so unscrupulous businessmen sold them contracts that gave them no equity or title to the property, from which they could be evicted the first time they were late with a payment.

So, on the one hand, you have whites arguing that blacks demanding the freedom buy homes wherever they wished is the root of the problem. Yet, the real problem - from an objective point of view - was white violence against African-Americans who thought that, as citizens of America and residents of the city, they had the freedom to do just that, and were stopped by mob violence. In Chicago. In 1966.

As a further note on all this, it should be remembered that Nixon's call for "law and order" in 1968 was interpreted by African-Americans as racist. People wondered how that could be.
As a Gage park resident & that of my in-laws & my parents, & their familes we are living as decent, hard-working people, you should consider martial law to prevent a peaceful community from getting harassed. That you should consider re-establishing law &order & change laws to protect the people and not criminals & people who openly voice their opinions against the majority as well as the government. Our children don't get sprinklers, day courts, new schools, elevators, cheap rent, yet they will be asked shortly to go fight on foreign shores. I think its time to defend our country from within. I have 3 sons & I will gladly have them defend this country here.

Yet, who was breaking the law? All the evidence points to white mobs. Who demanded law and order? Members of white mobs, demanding that blacks obey the law by not living in white neighborhoods.

Unless we stare this ugliness in the face, call it what it is, and accept that it is a living reality in our social life, all the advances in the world - including Barack Obama's soon-to-be Presidency - won't mean a thing.

Stick To Psychiatry, Charles

I should have known better than to read Charles Krauthammer's column in today's Washington Post. For one thing, any column in praise of the current price of gasoline is bound to tick me off. For another thing, it misjudges the mood of the moment if a political columnist tries to find something positive in the current price of gasoline. Finally, he tosses in enough nonsequiturs and makes such odd analogical points that his argument ends up looking not so much convincing as it is a jumble of special pleading. A corollary of all this is that, as Republicans are busy trying to make the Democrats in to a bunch of effete, elitist snobs (this is so tired), their publicists are sounding like . . . effete, elitist snobs who don't give a fart in a windstorm for the pain caused by our current price spike in gasoline.

Before we go to the column, I want to say that I recognize that the price of gasoline is tied to the price per barrel of oil, which is at record highs, even adjusted for inflation. Pres. Bush recently pleaded with the King of Saudi Arabia to prevail upon his fellow members to raise production quotas (which would be logical from an economic point of view), and lower the price per barrel. His majesty apprently smiled, then shook his head, pointing north to the on-going American clusterf . . . I mean presence in Iraq as well as our continued blind and stupid support of the most aggressive policies of the State of Israel. Our on-going presence in Mesopotamia is certainly not helping in at least some aspects of our public policy.

Anyway, back to Krauthammer. His thesis is pretty simple (no surprise there), although he takes a bit of time to get to the money shot.
So now we know: The price point is $4.

At $3 a gallon, Americans just grin and bear it, suck it up and, while complaining profusely, keep driving like crazy. At $4, it is a world transformed. Americans become rational creatures.

--snip--

America's sudden change in car-buying habits makes suitable mockery of that absurd debate Congress put on last December on fuel efficiency standards. At stake was precisely what miles-per-gallon average would every car company's fleet have to meet by precisely what date.

--snip--

It was one out-of-a-hat number (35 mpg) compounded by another (by 2020). It involved, as always, dozens of regulations, loopholes and throws at a dartboard. And we already knew from past history what the fleet average number does. When oil is cheap and everybody wants a gas guzzler, fuel efficiency standards force manufacturers to make cars that nobody wants to buy. When gas prices go through the roof, this agent of inefficiency becomes an utter redundancy.

So, that's his point. Soaring gas prices are doing far more to push forward higher fuel efficiency standards than any amount of government regulation. So, we should not regulate at all, just let the market decide at what point Detroit decides to make automobiles that use gasoline more efficiently.

There are two problems with this position that should be obvious. The first and most obvious problem is the question begged by the entire premise - if no regulation is necessary, what, exactly is the prompting for more fuel-efficient automobiles? Obviously, the answer is the success of foreign models that are far more efficient and better built than their American counterparts. Along with official prodding since the dim days of the 1970's, the invasion of the American automobile market by, principally, Japanese and German cars has worked as a corrective to our Detroit-based hubris that American-made is the finest around.

Yet, foreign fuel-efficiency is based upon the simple fact that foreign countries have higher fuel efficiency standard, higher gasoline taxes and prices, and therefore greater incentive to make cars that are, relatively speaking, cheaper to operate. It isn't magic or mystery as to why German cars are both smaller and more efficient. Germans have paid consistently higher prices at the pump than Americans, as have the Japanese. At the root of our current desire for more fuel efficient automobiles is not the sudden spike in gasoline prices so much as the continued presence of fuel efficient cars from countries that have highly regulated petroleum markets.

Go figure.

Another little factoid that Krauthammer neglects is that the absence of regulation is itself a deliberate regulatory policy. We as a country are sending a signal to the petroleum industry that they are free to do whatever they want, to make whatever profits they might be able to squeeze out, rather than take some measure of control over a commodity that is central to the rest of the economy. Their continued high profitability becomes a greater good than other social goods. The opposite point, regulation is an expression of our collective will to decide that other social goods take priority over corporate profits, isn't so much Marxism (Kratuhammer manages to mentions Stalin, therefore resurrecting that wonderful old chestnut that liberals are nothing more than a bunch of pinkos) as it is the rational decision to insist that some things take priority over Exxon-Mobil making far more money this past year than ever.

Krauthammer tosses out a couple analogies that show he really doesn't know how to argue properly:
Some things, like renal physiology, are difficult. Some things, like Arab-Israeli peace, are impossible. And some things are preternaturally simple. You want more fuel-efficient cars? Don't regulate. Don't mandate. Don't scold. Don't appeal to the better angels of our nature. Do one thing: Hike the cost of gas until you find the price point.

So, unlike the study of physiology or the pursuit of Arab-Israeli accommodation (which is being pursued by regional actors quite well, thank you very much, because they aren't pursuing comprehensive plans, but incremental steps), the pursuit of the socially desirable goal of more efficient automobiles should best be left to the oil companies.

Like most of those who think they understand economics, Charles Krauthammer betrays not just the ignorance, but social elitism of those who believe they know better how to decide for all of us how to live. I guess I thought that was Congress' business, because there's a line in this scrap of paper known as the United States Constitution about Congress having not just the right but responsibility to regulate interstate commerce. I know, I know, referring to the Constitution is so unfair. What did the founders know about free-market economics, right?

Probably more than a failed Canadian psychiatrist.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Some Things Can't Wait

I was going to post Eddie Vedder's version of "Hard Sun" from the Into The Wild soundtrack on Saturday. Watching the video, which contains clips from the film, I was struck quite hard by it. You see, if I had my way, back in the dim days of my life between college and seminary, I could have been Chris McCandless.

Since I was in high school, I had a dream of hiking across the country. Not hitch-hiking, but hiking, getting away from people, from civilization. I wanted to see what I could see. Of course, I had no idea what that would really entail. Mountains, rivers, rain, snow, wild animals, hunger, thirst - none of that entered my calculations. I may not have aimed for Alaska, but one does not need to aim for the extremes to face the threat posed by such an "adventure". I have watched the video several times over the past couple days, and I can't escape the fact that, had I been a bit more stubborn, I might well have ended up facing a similar fate. I don't know, now, whether I can watch this movie, certainly not with any equanimity.

Anyway, here's the song and video. Now, I have to figure out something else to do for Saturday!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Read And Discuss

From late-19th century religious philosopher and founder of the personalist school of philosophical idealism (and good Methodist, too!) Borden Parker Bowne:
The Church was Christian long before it had the Bible, as the Christian ideas long preceded the completion of the biblical canon. The Church is Christian because of the effective presence of these ideas, not because of its doctrine of Scripture.

History Is Made

Today is one of those days that, in retrospect, will become bigger than it seems now. The Democratic primary voters have chosen Sen. Barack Obama to be their Presidential candidate. Yes, he's relatively green. Yes, he has stumbled on more than one occasion. I do not believe for a moment that electing him will erase all the bad from our country. He is not our savior. He is a politician, running for a political office.

He is an African-American in a deeply racist country, running to be Chief Executive, Commander-in-Chief on the military, and the head of state. This has been a historic race in any event, as the two leading candidates, since the early caucus and primary days, have been a woman and an African-American man. The white men all dropped out pretty early, leaving the stage to these two more-than-capable individuals. Now, at the end of it all, Barack Obama stands on a stage in Minnesota with his wife and accepts the inevitable.

I want us all to pause for a moment and realize that, in all likelihood, Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States. This is his moment. Fortunately for us, and by "us" I mean all Americans, this is also our moment. I have no doubt the campaign will become ugly indeed before November, with all the bigots and cranks coming out of the woodwork. The Republicans will pull out all the stops to turn Obama in to something and someone he is not. The Washington pundits, who just love John McCain, will continue to slather him with sloppy kisses. Joe Lieberman will probably go through a few pairs of knee pads.

Yet, at this moment, we should stop and consider that our next President will be Barack Obama. Say it with me - Pres. Obama. President Barack Hussein Obama. At this moment, when so many nutjobs on the right continue to push the fiction that Obama is some kind of Muslim Manchurian candidate, we should not silence his middle name, but shout it from the rooftops. President Barack Hussein Obama. This is the man who will represent America to the world for the next eight years.

I, for one, look forward to the future with a little more hope, a little less fear, today, because I know that, for all his limitations and faults, Barack Obama will be a more-than-capable President. Perhaps, should he rise above his own limits and flaws, he will be good. Right now, though, we can celebrate the simple fact that an African-American is the nominee for President of one of the two major parties in this country, the oldest continuous political party in the world, and the one with the deepest roots in our racist history. This is something to celebrate.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

"[U]sing Communion as a weapon."

E. J. Dionne's column in today's Washington Post highlights an incident I had not heard until reading about it here.
Word spread like wildfire in Catholic circles: Douglas Kmiec, a staunch Republican, firm foe of abortion and veteran of the Reagan Justice Department, had been denied Communion.

His sin? Kmiec, a Catholic who can cite papal pronouncements with the facility of a theological scholar, shocked old friends and adversaries alike earlier this year by endorsing Barack Obama for president. For at least one priest, Kmiec's support for a pro-choice politician made him a willing participant in a grave moral evil.

Kmiec was denied Communion in April at a Mass for a group of Catholic business people he later addressed at dinner.

Not being Roman Catholic, I feel hesitant about commenting on the actions of the priest in this case. At the same time, not being Roman Catholic, I have a different view of the communion table and its place in the church. We in the United Methodist Church call is "the Lord's Supper" and "the Lord's table" for a reason - it isn't the property of the church, or the clergy person performing the rite. I was raised this way; in 1996, at a funeral mass, I took communion in a Roman church, knowing full well the priest could "deny" me communion. I find the entire idea abhorrent that, because I was not baptized by a Roman Catholic priest, he has the power to refuse my participation in the Sacrament.

Now, we have another instance of a priest abusing the privilege (OK, I'm losing my cool here). He can deny it to anyone engaged in "a moral evil"? So, I'm assuming that Roman Catholics who guide US policy in Iraq are denied communion on a regular basis? I'm assuming that Justices Thomas, Alito, and Scalia are denied communion because of their support of the death penalty.

As far as I'm concerned, this is a clear violation of the separation of church and state. It is all well and good for the church to advocate for particular policies, and to oppose others. When it comes to denying communion on a single issue, and because an individual supports one candidate and not another, no amount of legal hair splitting on the part of the denomination should save this priest and congregation from having its IRS status revoked.

Let's Talk About Sex, Part I



In order to make reading these easier, I am posting these two pieces in a way that makes them easier to read as a visitor scrolls down the page. Hope it makes sense.

Think Progress has a piece highlighting a Washington Post article from Sunday.
On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA) is launching a $1 million “Parents for Truth” campaign. Its mission is to enlist 1 million parents to back abstinence-only education by lobbying local schools and working to elect supportive lawmakers. Last week, the NAEA e-mailed “30,000 supporters, practitioners and parents to try to recruit participants and plans to e-mail 100,000 this week.”

One quote from the article that TP does not highlight comes in the fourth paragraph, and is both ignorant and frightening:
"There are powerful special interest groups who can far outspend what parents can in terms of promoting their agenda. But we recognize that parents more than make up for that by their determination and motivation to protect their own children," said Valerie Huber, the group's executive director.

Ms. Huber is quoted further down in the article:
"Parents are being misled. They are told the content of the curricula in their children's classrooms stress abstinence and just have information to make decisions in case they become sexually active," Huber said. "But most of these programs provide explicit how-to information that give teens a green light for activities that put them at risk."

In between these two quotes comes the money shot, literally and figuratively speaking:
The [Parents for Truth] campaign comes as Congress is debating whether to authorize about $190 million in federal funding for such programs, which have come under increasing criticism because of a series of reports that concluded they are ineffective. Such criticism has prompted at least 17 states to refuse federal funding for such programs.

So Congress is deciding whether or not to pour good money after bad down the rat hole of abstinence-only sex education. Ms. Huber says that parents are being "misled", yet who is doing the misleading?
"It's a classic fear and smear campaign," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a private, nonprofit Washington advocacy group. "It's absolutely misleading."

Wagoner and others condemned abstinence-only programs as having been proved ineffective.

"We've wasted $1.5 billion on so-called abstinence-only programs that don't work," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "That's why parents want education programs in our schools that do work and will keep teens healthy -- by including information about abstinence as well as contraception, healthy communication, responsible decision making, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections."

What is most fascinating about this entire episode, is the past of Valerie Huber, the person responsible for developing this "Parents for Truth" campaign. Some "Truth" about her might be helpful. From Think Progress:
Valerie Huber, the NAEA’s executive director, was found guilty of “neglect of duty” while at the Ohio Department of Health in 2006. She “participated to a substantial degree in the selection of a vendor” for which she also worked. Huber was given a one-day suspension from her position. . . . An abstinence-only conference planned by Huber in October 2005 had been criticized for its “overt Christian messages and anti-gay speakers, including ones openly recruiting for the ‘ex-gay’ movement.”

I would be the last person to say that we should not teach our children that sexual abstinence is a sound choice. The problem, as demonstrated in study after study, is that abstinence-only sex education is a dismal failure precisely because it fails to provide enough information to our young people to make that decision in a context in which they understand what it is they are abstaining from.

In 1989, I took a youth group I was leading to a concert by the Christian rock band Petra (kind of like Journey for Jesus). In between sets, some guy (of whom I had never heard at the time) named Josh McDowell got up on stage and spent a good twenty minutes haranguing a crowd full of teenagers on the multiple dangers posed by human sexuality. It reminded me a bit of Eddie Murphy's routine from his first comedy record, in which, after reviewing the progress in STDs from gonorrhea to herpes ("you keep that shit forever, like luggage") to AIDS, he foresaw a time when, "you put your dick in and it explodes." Except, McDowell did it in a way that was not only not funny, it was frightening. I was horrified that an adult would subject a captive audience of ignorant youth to such a torrent of fear-mongering.

I have no doubt that "abstinence-only" sex ed today is little removed from McDowell's rant. Its utter failure to achieve any substantive goal, whether reducing teen pregnancy or even delaying the age of the onset of sexual activity, should be enough for serious, responsible parents who have a regard for "truth" to reject it as a pedagogical tool.

Let's Talk About Sex, Part II


In order to make reading these easier, I am posting these two pieces in a way that makes them easier to read as a visitor scrolls down the page. Hope it makes sense.
Now that we've managed to deal with the silliness, stupidity, and negligence of contemporary religious ignoramuses who push failed (non)education policies, I think it important to make a positive statement concerning what is, or perhaps better put, should be the best way to talk to young people about human sexuality.

First, I have included this image of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden because this is the paradigmatic view of our current status vis-a-vis not just God, but the world and one another. Symbolic not just of our fallen state, our separation from God, it is symbolic of our willful rejection of a grace-filled, and sinless, relationship with one another on an interpersonal level. While we live in a post-Romantic age, many of the ideas concerning human love and sexuality are soaked in Romanticist ideas concerning the power of love, its ability to overcome obstacles, and the possibility of finding with another human being, a partner with whom one can spend not just this life, but the next as well. These ideas, the Christian view of the Fall and the Romantic idea of Love Triumphant, are in fundamental conflict, yet they rest easily enough in the American mind.

We Americans, however, add another layer to this odd combination of ideas - our obsession with sex. For a country that denies the most basic information concerning the reality of our physical and psychological drives in that regard, we are besotted with images of human beings engaged in sexual activity. It pervades our popular culture. Porn stars are celebrities. Mainstream actors and actresses are sexualized. What we deny and ignore and dance around on the left hand, sneaks back on the right in our images and words and songs in order to keep us titillated.

The church has a legacy of ignorance and dishonesty and bigotry when it comes to human sexuality. Late antiquity was a time when Platonic and neo-Platonic thought was pervasive; it invaded the church's teaching in a variety of ways, including celebrating a certain sexual asceticism that could become fanatical. The Greek Father Origen is the best example; in order to remove sexual temptation from his life, he castrated himself. After the Constantinian establishment, there was an exodus from communal life, especially on the fringes of the Empire, and the rise of what became known as the Anchorites - hermits living alone in the desert. The first and greatest of these, St. Anthony, lived in a cave in Egypt. While sitting and praying, he reported being visited frequently by the Devil in the guise of a woman to tempt him.

During the Middle Ages, it was firmly established church doctrine that sin entered the world not through one man, as St. Paul writes in Romans, but through one woman. Eve as sexual temptress was a ubiquitous figure in Christian writing. Women were often portrayed as sexual animals, and sometimes worse. One writer referred to women as a sink of ordure (excrement) and vomit.

In order to talk about sex in the church, we need, first, to come clean about our double millennia of misogyny, and our rejection of one of the gifts of a good God. I feel fortunate to belong to a denomination that affirms that sex is indeed a good gift from God. Yet, in order to truly affirm this gift, we should be honest enough to deal with some facts about human sexuality. First, as research has shown, it is as powerful a drive as the drive for survival. Sometimes, it overwhelms our desire for food and drink. In human relationships, it certainly overwhelms common sense and a rational consideration of our best interests, at least at times. It is not enough to affirm that sex is a gift from God. It is not enough, as a community that affirms that, to insist on the necessity of using that gift correctly. I believe, and have believed for a long time, there is a need for instructing people (not just young people) on what it means to use the gift of our sexuality correctly.

Our denomination, like most American denominations, affirms the proper role of human sexuality is in a committed, monogamous relationship blessed by both church and state, between a man and a woman. In other words, sex outside of heterosexual marriage is a no-no. This is a marvelous ideal, yet it ignores several realities. First, it ignores the reality that our sex drive starts to rev up before we have reached a level of emotional and intellectual maturity to deal with it. It also ignores the reality that some people are attracted to members of their own gender, or both. It ignores the reality that some people, even acknowledging that married sex is far better than other forms, will engage in non-connubial pleasures.

Without telling stories out of school (and dodging any lawsuits tossed my way), I will say that I have experience with what I have called in my life the "demonic aspects" of human sexuality. That is to say, a sexual relationship devoid of serious emotional attachment and the resulting damage to both of us, psychologically and otherwise. I have called this state "demonic" because it was far worse than the easily described and dealt-with "obsession". While I do not know the end-results for my partner, I do know that it was many months of serious soul searching and talking things out before I felt comfortable entering in to any kind of relationship with a woman. I had looked for too long in to the abyss, and it had not only looked back, but captured me. I was self-aware enough to fear what I had become, and knew I could become again.

From that experience, I have gained an interest in making sure the church's teaching concerning human sexuality is honest enough to include some serious psychological education. It is all well and good for non-religious teaching to deal with the physical, psychological, and emotional complexities of sexual desire. The church needs to be clear that, absent the depths of emotional attachment, the desire for sexual union to be indicative of, symbolic of, and part of a deeper, more fully developing emotional attachment between two human beings, simple physical sexual intercourse is abused. That is to say, just "doing it" to "do it" is wrong, not on some grand metaphysical level, but on a deeply personal and interpersonal level. Simply fulfilling one's craven physical desire for another person, without any corresponding emotional component isn't really "sex" at all. It is masturbation, with the other pserson substituting for one's hand. Period. Doing this over time not only dehumanizes and depersonalizes the other, it destroys one's own sense of oneself.

For that reason, I think it necessary for the church to talk to people about sex, and to do so including the very real dangers posed by sexual activity without a very real human connection. Between two people where such a connection exists, and where the sex act is part and parcel of deepening and extending this connection, I think the issue of marriage is something that might be negotiable. Just sex for the sake of sex, however - down that road we might just look like Adam and Eve in the above etching.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Music Monday

Just for some fun, and a flashback to my college days in the 1980's (last century!), here's some New Order for your Monday.


Lies, Damn Lies, And David Broder

I read Broder's apologia yesterday, which he bolstered with a study by a study by something called the Project For Excellence (PEJ). I didn't have time to read the study, but the summary given by Broder seemed counter-intuitive enough that it might actually be true (that's one thing about us social science people; we tend to accept studies that sound as if they are turning accepted wisdom on its pointy head). Yet, today's Daily Howler takes up Broder's piece and dissects it, and the study upon which it was based, and discovers, lo and behold, not only that Broder didn't seem to read the report, but the report itself is a mire of confusion and poor methodology. In other words, Broder managed to sift from a summary (if he even did that) that the notion that the press has been unkind to Sens. Obama and Clinton is a fable.

Yet, as Somerby notes, Broder misrepresents the methodology of the study, and the study itself is a morass of confusion. Since Broder defends his position with an inaccurate representation of a confusing piece of "research", what conclusion can we make? Can we conclude that basing an entire column upon an inaccurate reading of a flawed study might not be the best way to support one's views? Can we conclude that the study itself might not actually make any significant conclusions? Can we even, perhaps, make the argument that Broder is happy to grasp any straw that keeps him from sinking in to the depths of wankerdom?

My guess is that, in all likelihood, all three conclusions are correct. In other words, we are back to square one.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

A Good Smackdown Of Gerry Ferraro

Last night I just linked to Geraldine Ferraro's Boston Globe piece. Today, we have a wonderful smackdown/takedown of Ferraro from jezebel.com.
No, Geraldine, see, the problem was not that you were inappropriately being called a racist, it's that your idea of a defense of those charges was not to go back and apologize or clarify what you meant and then duck down for a couple of weeks, it was to attack people who were — whether rightly or wrongly in your mind — offended by your comments of being racists themselves.

--snip--

Geraldine, I literally cried in frustration that you can't see what you're doing to the Democratic party, to the women's movement, to the uneasy d├ętente between the (almost exclusively white) old guard feminists and those feminists of color who have complained for decades about the short shrift their issues have been given in the larger women's movement. What, you hadn't noticed that? You titled your piece "Healing The Wounds of Democrat's Sexism" and then you rip open the flesh of Democrats' racist wounds — you do remember the fifties and sixties well enough, I assume, to recall which party's Southern Senators kept a federal civil rights law off the books for decades, right? And you side with the so-called Reagan Democrats, those bastards that frankly kept you from the Vice Presidency, in charging the party with reverse racism.

--snip--

Racial resentment, Geraldine, is racism. Why can't you see that? People coming up to you and complaining that they can't complain about black people is them complaining for being looked down upon for being racists! And, yes, their time ought to have passed, it should pass, they should learn and understand that racism should have no place in our society and as a party leader, a stalwart, a barrier-breaker you should be breaking it to them that "getting treated fairly for being white" means losing sometimes, and sometimes it means losing to a person of color. It means you are not always going to come out ahead, it means that the advantages your fathers or mothers faced 40 or 50 years ago (or less long ago than that) because of the color of their skin should disappear and you should lose to better-qualified candidates of color and then you should not ever, ever even in the dark recesses of your small, reptilian brain think "Well, that's what affirmative action has wrought in this country," because that, Geraldine is racism. And it's there, and it's palpable and the fact that you are the educated white Reagan Democrats standard bearer for how sexism is worse than racism and it's not really racism if it's just "racial resentment" makes me sick to my fucking stomach.

And I'm gonna add this, just so you don't point to me and say, well, there's someone who doesn't understand sexism. Is there sexism? Sure, God knows I've been turned down for jobs in favor of less qualified men, replaced men in positions and not earned as much, been hooted and hollered at on the street and been called all nature of diminutives in the work environment and out and had all manner of shit thrown at me my entire life for being a smart girl or a bitchy girl and all the rest of it. But do you know what no one has ever, ever called me? The N-word. Ask around, Geraldine, it's still in use. So, I recognize that I'm damn lucky not only to be a woman (because I love being a woman even if sexism exists for the rest of my life), but that I'm lucky that in addition to putting up with sexism I don't have to put up with racism. The fact that you don't recognize that makes me deeply, deeply sad and furiously angry at the same time.

It's past time for people like Geraldine Ferraro to shut up.

The Political Cowardice Of Barack Obama

While perhaps not surprising, it is nonetheless sad that Barack Obama has decided to remove himself from the roll of membership of Trinity UCC, Chicago. Pastor Dan has a good discussion of the two abyss' that were beneath either side of the razor's edge upon which any pastor of Trinity would face. He also offers good pastoral advice, not just for someone who's church has a Presidential candidate among its membership. In the end, however, I for one cannot feel anything but saddened by the fact that Obama - who benefited from the ministries of Trinity Church - has decided to dissociate from it because the message of some of those who have stood in its pulpit has created a storm on the right.

Far better, perhaps, for Sen. Obama to tell those who refuse to get it that where he goes to church is his own damn business. Far better to tell people what attracted him to Trinity, and kept him there all these years, than to say in the face of the screeching hordes who refuse to hear what has been said, "You know, you're right." The critics aren't right, and will never be right. It's that simple.

The critics have created a caricature of Trinity Church, its long-time pastoral leader, its theology and missional impulses, its members, and its guest preachers. This caricature, based in a combination of ignorance and political opportunism (with a smattering of prejudice just to season things correctly), has won out over the far more complex reality that is the life and ministry of this faith community. Barack Obama has allowed the forces of darkness to overtake what was an opportunity to speak out for the independence of our religious beliefs from our politics, as well as for the prophetic message and ministry of some parts of the African-American church.

I think the only winners in this are the ignorant haters who refuse to understand the voices from Trinity for what they are. Too bad for all of us.

More Signs Of The Crumbling Of The Empire

I tend not to be a big fan of Washington Post columnists. Yet, David Ignatius' column in today's edition is a wonderful description of what happens when the end of American legitimacy and power leaves a vacuum, in this case in the Middle East.
What happens when a superpower becomes preoccupied by a costly war and loses some of its ability to coerce friends and enemies toward the outcomes it favors? We're seeing a demonstration of that change now in the Middle East, as Arabs and even Israel reckon with the limits of American power -- and begin to cut their own deals.

The new power dynamic is clear in two developments over the past several weeks -- the Lebanon peace deal brokered by Qatar on May 21 and the Israel-Syria peace talks, with Turkish mediation, that were announced the same day. Both negotiations could help stabilize the region, albeit not on the terms the United States might prefer.

This independence from American tutelage is arguably one advantage of the new diplomacy: It is grounded in realism among the Middle Eastern nations about their own interests, rather than in wishful thinking about what the United States can accomplish. It reflects, as well, the growing strength of Iran and its radical allies, and the diminished clout of the United States -- and in that sense, it accords with the altered balance of power in the area.

The most important line in this excerpt is at the end of the second paragraph: "not on the terms the United States might prefer." Our preferences, including the contradictory ones of continued good relations with the state of Israel as well as with radical fundamentalist nations including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, no longer matter all that much.

Very often we have been warned that in the absence of American power, chaos would ensue, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world. "Nature abhors a vacuum" we are continually warned. Except, of course, chaos too often ensues from our presence, to which the rejoinder that our absence might just be the needed corrective to the mess we leave in our wake might make some kind of sense.

More to the point, it seems that the nations of the Middle East know far more where their own interest lie, and what is necessary for constructing some kind of regional accord, than any outside power whose interests might just conflict with their own. This growing sense of regional identity, as well as the flexing of diplomatic muscle are all to the good. Rather than lament the fact that we didn't get what we wanted, we should be celebrating the fact that such a regional process has been created and is operating with a fair amount of success.

Of course, that won't happen. More than likely, we will do all in our increasingly shrinking supply of power to undermine the deals Ignatius discusses, as well as any others that may come to pass. We are far better at making a mess of things than we are at supporting a process and structure that, while successful, excludes us. As our power dwindles, however, we can at least hope that includes our power to make mischief.

Do You Want An Effingham Sandwich?*

*The title is an in-joke among those people whow went on my wife's church's mission trip to Gulfport, MS two year ago. Effingham is a city in southeastern Illinois in which the groups stopped for lunch. The joke was that everyone had "an 'Eff'-ing ham sandwich". Not very Christian, but funny.

Thers has a nice little post over at Fire Dog Lake on the never-ending complaint about the use of foul language on liberal blogs. One would have thought this particular bit was worn so thin it could be discarded, yet, as Thers points out, it continues to be a point of contention. It seems that some on the right are willing to hold themselves up as moral exemplars in our public discourse because they refrain from using bad words.

I, too, have on occasion been known to use salty language. I have been admonished not to do so. I even discussed the issue with my wife, a United Methodist minister. As I pointed out to her, I use it relatively rarely, but it does add a certain "umph" to a discussion. It is far more pointed to say of someone, "You're a fucking moron", rather than just say, "You're a moron". She responded with laughter.

Since I started blogging, this complaint has been floating around, and is quite tired. With all the horrors in this world, with all the lies in our public discourse, with all the force-feeding of bullshit from official sources, the notion that we should sit around and talk about these things without resorting, in anger, to more colorful modifiers is just silly. One argument I have had tossed against me is the really old, "What if some child read this? What if your child reads this?" to which I have responded, in all honesty that this blog isn't for children. In the end, these rules are artificial, and I tend not to like rules set by others limiting what I say, or how I say it. As Thers puts it (in a very salty excerpt; please have your chaise and hanky ready):
I don't know where anyone ever got the idea that the Internet should be a place for the reasonable exchange of ideas between people of differing political beliefs, but such an idea is in my experience misguided at best and at worst actively dangerous. "Civility" is not a virtue in itself, but a mechanism, a way of facilitating discourse: when someone is determined to say any fucking shit they want as a way of getting whatever they want and to loudly insist that they are in the right just because the other side is mean and vulgar when they point out, accurately, that they are little more than a vicious gang of crazy-assed lying motherfuckers... well, fuck civility. Truth is a higher virtue by several orders of magnitude.

I think we should lay to rest once and for all the idea that we are engaged in some enlightening discussion far removed from the ugly reality that people's lives are at stake because of the choices of our political leaders. We should forget the idea that we're all Americans, only differing in our choices of method rather than disagreeing fundamentally over the kind of country in which we live. Some people (fewer now, and for a couple years running) believe that George Bush is correct in the way he has chosen to run this country. To some degree or other, most Americans tend to disagree. Some disagree violently. Whether it's the horrid doctrine of the unitary executive, or just a vague disgust over the never-ending morass that is Iraq, spewing out bodies the way Detroit used to spew out cars, we are in the midst of trying to hammer out a way to be America. It seems to me to be unquestionable that many people would feel strongly about this, and this strength would be expressed in strong language.

I guess, as I have said on numerous occasion, it is time some people grew up. Be an adult. If you don't like four-letter words, you are under no compunction to read this, or any other, blog. Please, however, do not set some arbitrary standard, a test the rules of which you refuse to let me in on, then fail me, and tell me I'm uncivil. As I have also said, more than once, "Homey don't play that way."

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