Saturday, July 12, 2008

Saturday Rock Show

Germany's Van Den Plas sounds an awful lot like Dream Theater. The problem with this comparison is the former band has been around a bit longer. This little video, of their song "Iodic Rain", showcases the way a good live performance can make a song that might not be as interesting on CD and give it life. I especially like the way the drummer never stops smiling. He, at least, seems to be having fun.

McCain's Very Bad Week

Were ours a functioning representative democracy, where elections were about substantive issues, and had we a press corps that could actually pull its collective head out of its singular anus, John McCain's hopes of winning the White House would have evaporated like rain in the Sahara this week. As I wrote earlier this week, McCain called the structure of Social Security "a disgrace", displaying an ignorance of one of the best constructed, best functioning government programs in history that is breathtaking. As Bob Somerby reports, however, there was much more in McCain's little talk that, in his words, come out of a "fever swamp". This alone would have been a candidacy killer in any normally functioning election cycle.

Had this been the only "oopsie" McCain had experienced this week, it would have qualified for a very bad week indeed. Yet, this hardly begins to touch on what happened. There was Phil Gramm, still looking like Deputy Dawg, insisting that ours is a "mental recession" and that we have become a "nation of whiners". These words came the same week the price of oil continued to climb to new highs ($147 a barrell on Friday), the two federally-created mortgage guarantors almost went bankrupt (they haven't yet, but they have lost billions of dollars in market value), and one of the largest bank seizures in history happened only yesterday, another victim of bad, bordering on criminal, lending practices during the housing bubble. While the United States may not - yet - be in a technical recession (two straight quarters of economic contraction), there seems little doubt that we are perched on the precipice of an abyss. That McCain would consider the words and advice of Phil Gramm worth anything, particularly at a time of economic crisis, shows a certain lack of judgment in who he picks as an advisor. Again, were this the only thing that happened this week, this would have been a very bad week indeed for the very senior Senator from Arizona.

Through a campaign staffer, McCain lied about Obama's tax plan, insisting that the presumptive Democratic nominee would raise taxes on small businesses. This is demonstrably false, and the Obama camp ran out an ad across VA and OH highlighting McCain's refusal to tell the truth.

McCain was unaware of his own voting record vis-a-vis health care for women. When challenged on his "no" vote on a measure mandating coverage of birth control, even as insurance companies cover Viagra for men, McCain stammered through a non-response that showed he had no idea that he had voted against a proposal he was touting to a group of Wisconsin business women.

In an interview in Pittsburgh, McCain mangled published accounts of his time as a POW, telling a reporter that he named part of the starting line-up of the Pittsburgh Steelers to his North Vietnamese captors. In earlier accounts, including his memoirs Faith of our Fathers, McCain claimed he named the Green Bay Packers. This is such serious, and obvious, pandering, one almost cringes with embarrassment.

If Obama had a week like this, we would be reading and hearing obituaries of his candidacy all over the place. If Obama had a record of stupidity, ignorance, bad judgment, and outright pandering all in one week, it might be considered good form to just close up shop and return to the US Senate. McCain, however, isn't and won't. Now, this might mean some good, nasty fun had by the rest of us as we laugh at the next few months of howlers, lies, ignorance, and off-the-cuff stupidity that flows from McCain and his surrogates. At the very least, however, it might be nice if the press took note of this very bad week and did a bit of, I don't know, reporting on it.

Reflections On An On Faith Forum Piece

David Waters has a little column on the recent passing of John Templeton, a successful business man and founder of the Templeton Foundation, which seeks to bridge the gap between science and religious faith. The Templeton Foundation, according to its founder, uses the scientific method to investigate various human phenomena such as forgiveness and humility, the latter virtue exemplified by its founder in a quote Waters uses: "We should admit that no human being has ever known one percent of the infinity of God. We are terribly ignorant."

I found the article interesting not so much for the rather soft-spoken nature of its subject, or for the fact that we have here an example of a very wealthy individual interested in religious belief but quite honest about his and our ignorance of much of what we claim to think about the Divine; what interests me are some of the comments that show some people did not hear the message of humility, insisting they have all sorts of answers to questions human beings have struggled with, even fought and died for, over the centuries. In contrast to the subject, these folks might benefit from a dose of humility.

From commenter "Spiderman2":

John Templeton said "I want people to realize you shouldn't think you know it all."

The problem John Templeton has is he didn't realize Jesus Christ know it all.

If he knew that, he would NOT have been wasting much money to seek the Lord.

Jesus said "Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come." (John 7:34)

Many religions would NOT find him and that's the truth despite them claiming to have known Him.

"Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, AND FEW THERE BE THAT FIND IT." (Matthew 7:14)

Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, having billions of followers would fail by that criteria alone. You study their doctrines and you would know that Jesus was accurate when he said that.

"Meg" wrote:

All those different religions can't all be right.

There is no way any two of them can be right.

Is it likely that any one of them is right?

The likelyhood is that none of them are right.

They are all superstitions, and all equally wrong.

Ask a scientist. There are no gods.

"Andrew" wrote:

Here's John's smarter namesake, who was an evangelist and Billy Graham's partner, but up and quit one day on realizing the nonsense that religion is;

"Is it not foolish to close one's eyes to the reality that much of the Christian faith is simply impossible to accept as fact? And is it not a fundamental error to base one's life on theological concepts formulated centuries ago by relatively primitive men who believed that the world was flat, that Heaven was "up there" somewhere, and that the universe had been created and was controlled by a jingoistic and intemperate diety who would punish you forever if you did not behave exactly as instructed?

Is it not more likely thst had you been born in Cairo you would be a Muslim and, as a billion people do, would believe that 'there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet?

If you had been born in Calcutta would you not in all probability be a Hindu, and as a billion people do, accept the Vedas and the Upanishads as sacred scriptures and hope sometime to dwell in Nirvana?

Is it not probable that, had you been born in Jerusalem, you would be a Jew and, as some 15 million people do, believe that that Yahweh is God and that the Torah is God's word?

Is it not likely that had you been born in Peking, you would be one of the millions who accept the teachings of the Buddha or Confucious or Lao Tse and strive to follow their teachings and examples?

Is it not likely that you, the reader are a Christian (or Muslim etc) because your parents were before you?"

From "A Farewell to God" by Charles Templeton, as reprinted in "The Portable Atheist". page 285. Pub.DaCapo press

Finally, the best comment of all:
Paul :

John Templeton sounds like a real sleazebag.

These are the voices of people that need, not to be ignored so much as not heeded when subjects such as these arise. There is no thought here, no consideration for the wisdom of others, not even a glimmer of seriousness. Yet, these are the voices that dominate so much of our phony debates. We believe that these positions, extremes bordering on parody, actually reflect serious option, the only options, available. Yet, how is it possible? How can it be that such mutually exclusive positions exist within the realm of human possibility, without that phenomenon itself being something to be viewed in wonder?

So many people have so much invested in being "right", in having the "correct" way of thinking about the world without ever once realizing that what they see as "correct" might not be so for others, and that's OK. It's OK there are Muslims who believe there is one God, Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. It's OK that there are those who believe in the transmigration of souls as we seek to rid ourselves of attachments to the physical and achieve enlightenment. It's OK there are people who believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, correct in all matters of fact, faith, and ethics. It's OK there are people who think all religions are a bunch of hokum dreamed up by the powerful and exploited by shysters to rob the common people of their power and their money. All of these are real human possibilities, and therefore, by their very existence, they are all right.

I realize the above sentence would seem to make no sense; that is so only if you are convinced there is only one right way of being human, only one right way of living a fully human life. I do not believe this is so. Rather, I believe that human beings are remarkable creatures, who have the capacity to use whatever tools are at hand to try and help them survive. Since all these possibilities (and so many more) have been and are being used right now, rather than demand the elimination of all those that don't fit "our" way of thinking, wouldn't it be far better, far wiser, to celebrate those differences, and recognize all of them as equally legitimate human responses to life and its travails? It seems to me John Templeton was doing exactly that.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Some Liberal Christian Thoughts - A Response To Democracy Lover's Comment

Down the page a bit, Democracy Lover and I have been having a discussion on God and Jesus, and I have been so heartened by this particular little conversation, I thought I would move my response to his last comment out of the comments and in to a post all its own. In order to make clear that to which I am responding, here are his words, in full:
I will look around for some of these theologians and see if I can manage to read them. I find a lot of the philosophical work heavy going.

I also have trouble with the concept of God "participating" in human life in the way you describe. It presupposes a God external to human life, and that is a slippery slope. At this point, I could say with the Quakers that there is something of God in each of us, but that something does not have an external presence except as individuals share their "somethings" with one another.

I can agree with you and Spong that there must have been something astounding about Jesus for people to have retained a commitment to him after his execution. Finding ways to describe that without reference to the supernatural eluded them, but it doesn't have to elude us.

Jesus was clearly concerned with the ethic of human life as being lived around him. He (or his followers) described that in religious terms, but it seems to me the emphasis in Jesus' teaching is not belief in God (regardless of how that is defined), but in right action here and now. It seems just as valid to view his use of God imagery as a way of validating his moral and ethical stance, rather than viewing the morality as flowing from God.

Much of our discussion here is about language, or perhaps semiotics. How we describe our internal process is not as important as how that internal process shapes our external life. To use traditional language, "by their fruits shall you know them".

If we lived in a different part of the world, we might look for inspiration to Mohammed or the Buddha or Kahili ("the ring, he's wearing the ring"). Jesus is a powerful image to us because of our cultural tradition but the mainstream of that tradition has worked feverishly for 2 thousand years to make his image conform to their understanding of power, rather than his. Unless we can recapture some of that original power (not an external force in my book), Jesus is not useful to us.

The first thing I would say, specifically in regards to the "heavy-hitting" theologians, only Tillich is really so immersed in the kind of dense German bad writing that he can be off-putting. One of Bonhoeffer's many virtues is the clarity of his writing and exposition. Richard Rubenstein is all-American, meaning he has not been translated from the angular Teutonic with its weird sentence construction. Also, I don't think he quite "gets" some of what he is writing about; rather than render his subject matter opaque, it renders it more easy to comprehend, because he is trying to translate the concepts for himself. Start off with Tillich's The Courage to Be and Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers From Prison; they shouldn't be too hard to find. Rubenstein's After Aushwitz is, I believe, out of print. Some of his other work, The Cunning of History and The Age of Triage is available through Beacon Press, the UU publishing house in Boston.

Before I get to the deeper theological concepts of immanence and transcendence and your own trouble with them (believe me, I have trouble with them, too), I want to address specifically the term "supernatural" and why I find it meaningless. I have said before that the word implies a clear understanding of "nature" in order to insist that something is "above" or "outside" the natural order. Yet, what constitutes "nature" is never clear. Earlier this week I posted a couple interesting recent scientific findings that deal directly with this issue. One of them is the black smokers, the vents on the sea floor where gas is vented through holes in the earth's crust. Because they occur so deep, the water does not vaporize, but exists in a superheated state, usually around 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The area around the smokers is not only superhot, but highly acidic due to the presence of various chemicals in the water. Had anyone said there was an entire ecosystem based upon the existence of these vents in the early 1970's, most biologists would have laughed. Simply put, the combination of acidic water and temperatures far in excess of the boiling point of water would melt the protein bonds that enable life. It is quie literally impossible, by a previous understanding of what is "natural" for these vents to support even bacteria, let alone complpex organisms.

Yet, they do. Through the arduous process of natural selection, organisms have developed that can live quite happily in an environment that is, at its most basic level, hostile to all life on earth. Indeed, the creatures that exist at these smoking vents could not survive elsewhere on the planet. While certainly now considered "natural", because they exist and thrive, they still defy any previous understanding of the word and its application.

Another quick example. In 1980, the Voyager I spacecraft did a flyby of Saturn. It took thousands of photos, making many remarkable discoveries. One of those discoveries was the existence of a pair of small moons orbiting just outside a thin outer ring. Called the "shepherd moons" because their gravitational interaction with the particles that make up the ring they border seems to keep it as it is, one of the things they do that astonished those who studied them was they orbit in helixical fashion. That is to say they spin around a common center of gravity perpendicular to the orbit of the planet. One of the mission scientists was quoted in a 1981 National Geographic magazine article as saying that this violated several laws of orbital mechanics. Yet, it was apparently the laws that were wrong. Again, this would have been considered "supernatural" before its discovery.

All this is not to argue the whole "God of the gaps" nonsense. Rather, it is to point out that before we can be clear about what is supernatural, we should be clear that we don't even know what constitutes "nature" in a way that is either clear or consistent.

As to your lack of comfort with my use of the term "participating" and the inference that, prior to this participation, God was somehow external to human, and presumably other, life. I suppose I should confess here that this was a clumsy way of trying to intimate one of the deepest mysteries of Christian religious belief, what has traditionally been considered the dichotomy, or to use a favored theological term "dialectic", of immanence and transcendence. These are fancy words that refer to the strange, contradictory idea that God is, of necessity, "outside" our understanding of time and space, yet we confess an experience and understanding of God as intimately involved in time and space, indeed in our very lives. Tied to these thoughts are the notions of grace, the incarnation. Lying behind these is the whole covenant tradition going back to the Hebrew people escaping Egypt (we do not need to deal with historicity of this event at this point; it is enough to speak of the tradition as it applies to their own self-understanding).

The kind of penentheism you offer is a common response to the dialectic. It is a difficult position to maintain, and can elide far too easily in to pantheism, which is a far less preferable answer to the conundrum. After all, the red maple tree out front, the small hive of bumble bees in the ground under our picture window, and my St. Bernard usually do not show any sign of divinity with which I am familiar. Yet, one can affirm a certain divine presence within them, yet separate from them. We do not need to get in to the whole "soul" phenomenon here; suffice it to say that this is both a problem and a mystery. We are here at the deepest, most basic roots of religious belief of any type. The liberal Reformed theologian Friederich Schleiermacher referred to it as the "whence" of the felling of absolute dependence human beings experience. Part of the genius of this formula is that is boils down so much of both Christian thought and life to a single word that is generic. He said we call this "whence" God, and spent close to a thousand pages unpacking this in a Christo-centric, highly Biblical fashion that nonetheless denied much of what went before in the tradition (if you're thinking of reading his Glaubenslehre, forget it; try his On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, a series of sermons he published in 1799). Schleiermacher gave short shrift to anything we might call "supernatural", yet nonetheless affirmed the most basic Christian claims that, in Jesus, God was present in human life and history in such a way that the relationship between humanity (I suppose, to be all pomo, I should add "all of creation") and God was radically altered.

Part of the problem with delving in to this realm is that we are the very heart of the mystery. There is no solution that is adequate. One can even deny the mystery has any relevance or meaning at all. I am not suggesting one should accept it. I am saying that you should be aware that, right here on this point, we are standing over the abyss that, for Christians at any rate, offers only one lifeline out - profession of Jesus as the unique embodiment of the Divine love and grace for the world. I do not subscribe to any traditional metaphysical formulae for unpacking that particular phrase, yet I stand by it nonetheless because of that "whence" that Schleiermacher spoke of. I am quite comfortable ignoring the "two natures" theology, the ontological status of the incarnation, and those sorts of questions because, to me, they ignore the reality of the experience that is too deep for explanation, too profound for language to capture.

Finally, I would say that I do not want you to believe anything. I am offering these responses as a guidebook because, it seems, you are confessing (!!) that you are open to certain possibilities that you might not have been comfortable with before. Even if you decide to chase some of these ideas down, and decide they are as nonsensical after dealing with them as you did before you did so, that's OK. I am far more interested in the process than in any result. Also, remember this as well. Pretty much every answer possible - including outright rejection - has been given over the course of the history of the Christian Church. Your answer will hardly be new, but it will be your answer, and that is what counts.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Little Touch Of Barack In The Night

From TPM, here's Sen. Barack Obama on former Sen. Phil Gramm's "nation of whiners" comment:

One hopes the campaign starts using this in commercials. Over and over and over and over again, so that Gramm's hang-dog visage and words of idiocy get yoked to John McCain now so the story becomes one about McCain's lack of judgment in picking those who will advise him.

McCain Lie Watch

I decided that a statement McCain made earlier this week, as reported by Ezra Klein, is in need of amplification.
Every time we cut capital gains taxes, there has been an increase in revenues.

This particular piece of fiscal nonsense is a bugaboo of Bob Somerby. The reason it is a bugaboo is that it is repeated ad nauseum and no one in the press has the gumption to point out that this is just false. McCain's little lie - don't people know when we cut taxes we increase revenue? - is so often repeated it is considered conventional wisdom. That there is abundant research proving the exact opposite (which is common sense; when you get a pay cut, do you earn more money? Neither does the United States government), but it is ignored. This is Somerby's problem with this particular bit of fiction.

I just wanted to show that the Lie Watch is alive and well. And here we have an example that, when all else fails, choose a lie everyone knows is a lie and no one bothers to contradict with the facts. It makes everyone's job - McCain, his spin/spokesfolks, the press - so much easier.

Faking It Real Well

Through a wonderful accident, I am rereading Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor (which, if you clicked the link, you will discover is an ongoing project via blogs). The book explores the overwrought notion of what it means to be "authentic", "keeping it real" as the hip-hoppers say. In the process they discuss Kurt Cobain, Jimmie Rodgers, Elvis, John Lennon's explorations in primal scream therapy, the tormented soul of John Lydon, and Donna Summer's exploitation and the dismissal of some of her best work because it is associated with disco. It is a wonderful book, full of both insight and delightful trivia (jazz impresario John Hammond was instrumental in "discovering" Bruce Springsteen).

One of the most troubling aspects of this quest for authenticity, and one dealt with in a chapter dealing with Mississippi John Hurt and the cult of the bluesman, is the racism inherent in the notion that there is something more real in certain life stories, certain behavior patterns, as well as the use of musical ideas. This idea is carried over from those whites who adore the blues, R&B, and jazz too often for the wrong reasons (what they hear as the "primitive" "jungle beats" of the complex rhythms of jazz and R&B and its variants, as well as the musical complexity of the blues that extends beyond mere instrumental virtuosity and emotional openness) music critics who too often demand of an artist both an emotional transparency and a lack of musical subtlety as true marks of what it means to be a great rock, soul, R&B, or rap artist. While I admire some of his work, the late Lester Bangs was among the worst offenders when it came to this kind of mindlessness; he actually considered Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, a contractual obligation record he put out, featuring nearly thirty minutes of unlistenable guitar noise, a piece of musical genius, high art. Reed, as a sometime protege of Andy Warhol, no doubt laughed behind his hand whenever he talked to Bangs.

I must confess, at the same time, that I feel a bit defensive when this entire issue arises. One thing Barker and Taylor do make clear is that "authenticity" in art is something that is an unrealizable goal; by its very nature, all art mediates meaning between the artist and the public addressed by a work of art. John Lee Hooker sitting and stage and chopping the same chord for twenty minutes while he sings about hard times is no less mediatory than is Bach's B-minor Mass; it is a difference in audience and intended affect, rather than any substantive difference between the blues as an art form and sacred music. Furthermore, the reverence for simplicity, it seems to me, whether it be simplicity of harmonic structure, of tone palate, of rhythm, or of lyrical content is often considered goods to be pursued, rather than stages. The Ramones, for example, began as three-chord, two-minute rock-and-rollers, wearing leather jackets a la Fonzie and James Dean, but recorded a great cover of the Brothers Johnson's great psychedelic hit "Time Has Come Today" that is remarkably faithful to the original. John Lydon, while disdaining Pink Floyd at a time when they had become far too bloated and pretentious for their own good, nevertheless loved the dark, brooding songs of the progressive rock band Van Der Graf Generator. Kurt Cobain gave props in various interviews to King Crimson's Red, particularly the grinding guitar work on the title track.

All of this is to say that "authenticity" very often can lead an artist to a place that many critics just don't get. Among my favorite bands are some of those most reviled by rock critics (and I will admit there are times that critical distance is necessary). Yes; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; King Crimson; Pink Floyd; Dream Theater; The Grateful Dead; Rush; Metallica; Black Sabbath - all of these bands have been heavily criticized (sometimes correctly; no artist, however gifted pulls it off well all the time). The basis of the criticism, to my mind, is based upon the a priori notion that precisely because of the music they create, they do not conform to what it means to be a rock musician or rock band. Yet, is it not possible that John Anderson, Steve Howe, Mike Portnoy, John Petrucci, Tony Iommi, Robert Fripp, Roger Waters, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Jerry Garcia, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, James Hetfield, and Lars Ulrich all create the music they do because that is the music they hear? In what ways are their artistic offerings somehow less worthy of consideration than that of Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Barry Gibb, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, or Neil Young?

I would argue that we are entering a realm where we should not so much leave authenticity behind as a criterion in judging music, but redefine authenticity to include not just a certain transparency, but a dedication to one's muse, even if it doesn't conform to certain canonical modes. Dream Theater produce the music they do because the core members of the band dedicated hours and years of their lives to studying the craft of playing their instruments, and then dedicated more years of their lives to the even more difficult art of writing songs and performing them before an audience. The results are sometimes uneven (I think they have matured as songwriters over the past decade; reaching a peak with Train of Thought and Octavarium), but that hardly matters. As Barker and Taylor point out, one artist most (including myself) would consider one of the great talents of rock, Neil Young, sucked for the entire decade of the 1980's. Similarly, ELP put out one of the most remarkable albums of all time - I would not necessarily call Brain Salad Surgery rock; I think it's unclassifiable, really - and also one of the worst, Love Beach. Yet, John Lennon put out "Imagine", but he also put out "Woman is Nigger to the World". At what point do we stop pretending that John Lennon was no less earnest than Keith Emerson in his desire to be considered a "serious" artist?

My point in all this, while slightly self-justificatory, is simple: I think the entire issue of authenticity is too often drawn far too narrowly to include the entire question of the product a musician creates being an authentic result of hard work, dedication to the crafts of musicianship and song-writing, thus leaving outside whole bodies of work that are too often dismissed out-of-hand as "inauthentic". While Barker and Taylor do the difficult work of making us realize that disco, bubblegum, Europop, and early techno (Kraftwerk) were all legitimate musics that offered something to the tastes public that liked them, the avant garde, art rock, progressive, heavy metal are still outside the boundaries because these are populated by ironists (Brian Eno, David Bowie), trained musicians (Rick Wakeman, Carl Palmer), and working class whites who distort the blues beyond all recognition (Tony Iommi; Black Sabbath, like another later heavy metal band Judas Priest, began life as a blues band). Yet Eno, Bowie, Wakeman, Palmer, and Iommi all have produced exceptional music that received at one time or another a wide hearing by large segments of the music-buying and -listening public. Unlike, say, Sonic Youth or (one of my favorite bands) Fugazi, they achieved success by "keeping it real" in a way that was different from the hyper-romantic and self-defeating demand to always be a suffering artist.

Or, perhaps, is my argument one for abandoning the entire concept of "authenticity" as a category for considering the worth of popular music? Perhaps it is, because the word is too ill-defined for serious discussion.

McCain Stupid Watch

I had been running a "McCain Lie Watch" Series, but it got to the point that I was bored by the daily presentation of his utter disregard for anything resembling the truth. Yesterday, however, we entered new territory. Via Talking Points Memo:
Americans have got to understand that. Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today. And that's a disgrace. It's an absolute disgrace and it's got to be fixed.

As Avedon puts it at Eschaton, "McCain thinks the problem with Social Security is that it's Social Security."

This is a gift, manna from heaven to the Obama campaign. McCain is now on record declaring that he is fundamentally ignorant about one of the most successful and popular government programs in history.

To add some funny to the stupid, McCain's spokesfolks are trying to spin away all the idiocy, and in so doing only shining a bright hot spotlight on it. Again, Talking Points Memo has the "clarification":
[T]he disgrace is our failure to fix the long-run imbalance in Social Security -- a failure of leadership evidenced by our willingness to kick to problem to the next generation of leaders. He's also describing the looming and increasing demographic pressures confronting the Social Security system and Washington's utter failure to address it.

Now, Josh Marshall's adept deconstruction of the bullshit coming from the McCain camp, which follows directly from the above quoted blurb:
Now, this goes against the plain meaning of the words. But everybody has words come out the wrong way sometimes, or they say things they don't really quite mean. IN other words, if it's just tripping over your words, who cares. But digital video recording is a wonderful thing. And that's why we can know pretty clearly that Rogers' explanation is bogus and that this is precisely what McCain meant.

The townhall meeting where McCain said Social Security was "an absolute disgrace" was on Monday in Denver. Just yesterday McCain went on CNN and said more or less exactly the same thing on CNN.

In response to a question from CNN's John Roberts, McCain said, "Let's describe it [i.e. Social Security] for what it is. They pay their taxes and right now their taxes are going to pay the retirement of present-day retirees. That's why it's broken, that's why we can fix it."

He doesn't use the flamethrower language of "absolute disgrace" but he says very clearly that what's wrong with Social Security -- "why it's broken" -- is the way it was designed to work and has worked for almost 80 years, because it's a pay-as-you-go system, "pay their taxes and right now their taxes are going to pay the retirement of present-day retirees." In other words, there's no question that John McCain thinks that the problem with Social Security is the way it was designed at the very beginning, the way it was always designed to work. Sometimes he just uses more flowery language than others.

Straight talking maverick on the loose!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has a very interesting little bit at the On Faith Forum, in which he argues, from a reading of the Pew Survey on religious belief, that atheism is actually a much more vigorous, active proselytizing set of intellectual and emotional commitments than the kind of "Who cares?" attitude one would assume.

What I find personally interesting, and I hope Rabbi Stensaltz does, also, is the way the comment section - now up to 230 comments and growing - proves his point. The anti-theists over there are stumbling over one another to show how medieval and silly religious belief is (I just love all the comments about "some guy in the sky" - as if people with religious belief are all two year olds); Galileo comes up for a mention (as if there weren't more recent examples of religious persecution of new ideas). Here's a typical, almost archetypal, example:
Religion is a crutch for the weak to justify a narrowminded existence, used to enforce strict adherence to some arbitrary set of norms by the wicked.

Just as the author of this worthless article does, I think that most of the people who claim to be christians really aren't christians, because their behaviors aren't inline with the teachings of christ, they've just been told since birth that they are Christians, and that were they really to examine their faiths they would find God neither necessary or possible.

What's funny about this comment is the first sentence of the second paragraph, "the author of this worthless article" - doesn't claim to be a "christian" because, being a rabbi, he's Jewish.

I just love stupid people like this who tell us "christians" how stupid we are. And ignorant. And superstitious.

I just love it when a thesis is proved in the process of people trying to say what nonsense the thesis is.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Music Monday

First, thanks for the great suggestions last week. Second, Cameron is correct - "Summer of '69" was the first threatened video, so it won't appear here. On the other hand, a song the lyrics of which make absolutely no sense whatsoever (unless the title refers to a type of weed David Lee Roth was on when he wrote it), but that has a great hook, is Van Halen's "Panama":

Up next is one of the great party songs to emerge from the 1980's. I'm not really sure why, but "Love Shack" just keeps on going, doesn't it . . .

This next song takes me back to the summer of 1989. It was so appropriate for that time in my life, a point I shall not belabor. It is overproduced, taking a wonderful Bruce Hornsby piano change and making much more of it than should have been done, but that's Henley's thing. This is "The End of the Innocence":

I think I'll do summer songs from the 1990's next week. Requests? Suggestions? Complaints?

Heading Them Off

In what is sure to be a new right-wing tempest in a teapot, the AP story of a supply of Iraqi uranium being shipped to Canada has already become "proof" for the right that, five years after the initial invasion, and as many years (if not more) that it was known conclusively by both the international community and American intelligence that Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction or a program for building any, that in fact they did.

As Open Left calls their survey of the right-wing blogosphere's reaction to this particular bit of news, this is a case-study in how the right-wing takes information and makes of it what it can and/or will in order to show they were right all along. To be honest, I did not know such a cache of uranium existed; to be further honest, I doubt most of the those now screaming that Bush is somehow redeemed knew it either. Yet, it seems the US military knew about it, considering it was guarding it. If the military knew about it, surely their civilian commanders knew about it. If their civilian commanders knew of it, then it is quite probable the President knew of it, or should have. Only mendacity will propel either the President or Vice-President to point to it now and say, "See? See? We were right all along!"

So before our local, small-time versions of RedState and whatnot start pointing to this story as some kind of proof that Bush didn't lie all along, and in fact it was us wimpy liberals who lied about the lying, all I can say is . . .


Sunday, July 06, 2008


It is easy enough to make fun of the lack of intellectual integrity of buffoons such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. They are nothing more than wind-up toys, symbolizing the principle GIGO (Garbage In Garbage Out). More worrisome are those like Michelle Malkin who pretend intellectual integrity, yet are little more than racist creeps, given a veneer of respectability by appearing on TV. It is easy enough to dismiss Malkin and others such as her - Katherine Lopez, Debbie Schussel, Pam "Atlas" - once one gets past the fact they offer little more than do such radio blabbers as Limbaugh and Hannity.

No, what follows concerns the attempt by the right to put a serious, academic legitimacy to what is, in fact, crap. This particular post was actually going to reach far in to the distant past, The Bell Curve. Lucky for me, though, I found this post as Daily Kos that details the career of John Lott, Jr. Lott was a University of Chicago economist who made his bones on the right with an argument that crime reduction correlated with carry-to-conceal laws and. He was bolstered with his internet campaign to get his message out by one of his former students, Mary Rosh.

Except, there was no such person. She was a creation of Lott's fervent imagination, used by him to create the impression that he actually had support.

Now, this little bit of fakery does not mean his thesis is wrong. That needs to considered on the merits of the evidence. Right?
Other people were unable to find the results he cited when looking at the same numbers, leaving many people to believe that he had gotten to his conclusions through the application of a great deal of fudge.

When someone publishes something, in Lott's case in a book, it becomes fodder for other researchers. That's the way theories are tested; unfortunately for Lott, other researchers looked at the same data and did not come to the same conclusions as Lott. Had one or two done so, one might argue the data is inconclusive. Yet, it seems clear that Lott was a fabulist, a fancy way of saying he was pulling this stuff out of his ass. Among the arguments in his Freedomnomics, which was released a year ago, and detailed by the Kos diarist:
* The expansion of the federal and state governments, along with increases in both taxes and regulation, can be traced, not to war or economic turmoil, but to giving women the right to vote.

* Abortion caused an increase in crime -- including a rise in murder as much as 7% (the real culprit is sexual freedom).

* Problems of corruption, such as Enron, occur because there is too much government regulation.

* Another factor in the rise of crime is affirmative action, which has ruined our nation's police forces.

* Price gouging during a disaster is good for the economy.

For years, conservatives have been waging a battle against higher education, claiming it is infiltrated by traitorous liberals poisoning the minds of our impressionable young people. At the same time, they have featured various academics who attempt to use sophisticated language to make a silk purse out of the sow's ear of contemporary American conservative ideology. The worse aspect of the Lott story is not that he is an intellectual fraud given props because he has a Ph. D. The worst part of this whole story is that he was unmasked as a fraud years ago, yet is still given a platform from which to perpetuate this fraud.

Is it any wonder some young Americans wonder why we have a holiday on the fourth of July when conservative "intellectuals" are given free rein to lie like this?

Peter Beinart Is An Idiot

I suppose that's not news to those who have followed his career. Yet, he gives ample evidence that even as attempts to write something positive, he has no clue what he's talking about. In today's Washington Post, he has a piece, and it begins like this:
In "The Best and the Brightest," David Halberstam chronicles Lyndon Johnson's absolute terror of appearing soft on communism. Having seen fellow Democrats destroyed in the early 1950s because they tolerated a Communist victory in China, Johnson swore that he would not let the story replay itself in Vietnam, and thus pushed America into war.

The second sentence is factually inaccurate. Period. Now, Halberstam may have written what Beinart says Halberstam wrote. Lyndon Johnson may have thought what Beinart says Halberstam says Lyndon Johnson thought. In fact, however, the Democrats did not "tolerate" a communist revolution in China. All that happened was career professionals who had worked in China and seen the brutality of the Nationalists and the way the communists used that brutality to their advantage said over and over again that the government of Chiang Kai-Shek had no legitimacy and would fall. That's all any of them ever did.

If you read, say, Dean Acheson's memoirs, you get no hint, no clue that Democrats in the State Department said, "Well, Mao's in, Chiang's out, so let's roll with it." Far from it. The whole "Who lost China?" business was a concoction of right-wing Republicans who sought to use the Chinese revolution as a bludgeon to beat Democrats with. No matter how hard they tried to explain the facts, Republican politicians and reporters who knew less of the facts than the politicians did kept repeating over and over that "someone" in the US government "lost" China.

That such ideas made any sense whatsoever to anyone still amazes me. That anyone would think that a government that included Dean Acheson, perhaps the most gifted, erudite, and conservative (in a traditional sense) Secretary of State in our history, would "tolerate" the communists taking over anywhere is even more ludicrous.

Beinart's piece is nor worth reading precisely because the second sentence is full of crap. Even if Halberstam wrote what Beinart says he wrote; even if Lyndon Johson believed what Beinart says Halberstam says Johnson believed, it would seem to me an elementary proposition that, knowing the facts of the matter would create an opportunity to set the record straight. So, either Beinart is intellectually lazy, or he's ignorant.

Or both.

Some Thoughts On Creation

For a generation we have been told that we must either subscribe to a literal interpretation of the first two chapters of Genesis, or we must accept certain grand theories on the creation of the universe. The two are mutually exclusive, and we must choose. Any person who actually thinks should realize that such a simplistic presentation is most likely wrong, because reality is far too complicated.

When I affirm that I believe that God is the Creator, I am affirming my belief that what is depends for is existence upon God. Of course, it would take volumes to unpack that particular sentence, and this is a blog post, so I will pass that over for the nonce. At this point, I would like to offer up a couple examples of the wonders of our world, with only minimal comment, that, to me at any rate, point up the basic flaw of the false dichotomy.

First, there's this report of a brine lake in a crater a bit over a mile down (7400 feet) in the ocean. Here, under the weight of a mile of water was supersaturated brine that acted like a large lake, including wave lines on the shore and wave-like action when the explorer plummeted in to the brine. Along with this was the discovery of a new species of octopus that was . . . curious . . . about the explorer.

Another discovery deep in the ocean have been dubbed Black Smokers, discovered in the late 1970's. Within the limited confines of superheated (up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit) and acidic water near the smokers, entire eco-systems dependent upon them, from bacteria to anaerobic plants to giant tube worms and crabs thrive.

When I think of the tiny universe imagined by the people who dreamed up The Creation Museum, I wonder how they fit the wonderful discoveries we are making all the time in to their view of the world. Of course, like all ideologues, they have an answer to every question, even if it's wrong.

At the same time, I fail to see how the strange and beautiful discoveries mentioned here add a scintilla to the falsification of any religious idea, let alone the idea that God created the Universe. Their view of God, and creation, is as small and false as the creationists is of creation. They, too, have a ready answer to the question, and like the creationists, it is wrong.

I stand in awe of God for the wonders of creation, wonders we barely understand, and are discovering more and more of each day. I also stand in awe of the scientists who are pushing back the boundaries of understanding what is, and is not, "natural".

Virtual Tin Cup

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