Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking Forward - Advice For Liberals They Won't Read Or Heed

Since no one reads my blog, really, I doubt this will have any impact. As 2009 comes to the curtain call, I thought I would put my not-quite-one-penny's worth of advice for liberals out there.

Stop your damn whining.

I have been reading several long-time liberal bloggers - digby, Glenn Greenwald, Dean Baker - and it is amazing to me how little their mindset has changed since I first started blogging in the summer of 2006. Two straight liberal Democratic Congressional victories, an overwhelming liberal Democratic Presidential victory, and their entire world still centers on how much power the Republicans have, how much of a threat the right wing continues to pose, not just on a day to day basis as obstructionists to the Democratic agenda, but over time as very real danger to the Democratic majorities in Congress. There is the ubiquitous complaint about the media its mindlessness. There is the on-going idea that the religious right will somehow emerge from its flapping and flailing, still leaderless and agenda-less, as a power to be reckoned with.

Power is, for the most, an illusion. While there are very real accouterments that accompany very real power - money and guns, for the most part - they have little to do with the power the Republicans continue to wield over far too many liberals. I fear that even liberals and Democratic bloggers refuse to leave behind the mindset of defeatism, of a minority beset on all sides by forces ready and eager to thwart their search for a better society by evil enemies and purblind, fair-weather fake-friends.

It is one thing to bring forward specific criticisms of the President, of the Congressional Democrats, of their various strengths and weaknesses and mistakes and occasional correct actions. It is quite another to continue to act as if liberals were not, in fact, in power. Just because a few insiders in Washington continue to pretend that Republicans still run the show; just because the Washington Post only quotes insane Republicans like Peter King and Pete Hoekstra when, for example, some nincompoop tries to set his underwear on fire on a plane in no way means that either King or Hoekstra are movers and shakers. Just because Meet The Press continues to showcase the risibly nonsensical Newt Gingrich in no way means he has any power or authority.

As of right now, the Republicans still have some kind of odd power over far too many, not so much in reality as in the minds of liberal bloggers who believe, despite all sorts of evidence, that the right is poised to take over the Universe, having spoiled any chance liberals might have had of making the world a little better.

Please, for God's sake - stop it. Stop acting like losers. Stop talking like losers. Stop making the impossibly perfect the enemy of the very real not too shabby. Stop making inferred accusations that the Obama Administration is, in reality, no different from the Bush Administration, or even the Clinton Administration.

Just, for God's sake, for just one brief moment, act like winners, not whiners.

Make a resolution for 2010 that you will no longer allow the big scary Newt to have any power through the really stupid things he says on Twitter. Stop worrying that John Boehner is, through some kind of Rovian alchemy, going to emerge as the Speaker of the House in January, 2011, because it isn't going to happen. Finally, look at the actual evidence of the past year and consider how far we have come compared to any time in the previous eight years. So what if Obama's election didn't usher in a new millennium of good will to all? We are, for all there have been all kinds of frustrations (including with the President and members of the Congressional Democratic caucus), far better off than at any time since the Big Dog left office in January, 2001.

Most of all, get over yourselves. Move on. The times have changed, yet you all write as if it were still 2004 or 2005. The best way to keep another from having power over you is to refuse to grant them that power. Point and laugh at the occasional brashness and boldness of someone acting as if they have power, to be sure. Continuing to cower in the corners, or complain of Republican hypocrisy, or whine because Newt Gingrich gets more TV face time than some liberals grants these folks far too much power.

It also betrays a mindset, implying that all these folks really want is their own space on the Sunday morning blabfests, rather than fostering their own, alternative sources of public discourse.

I close with the words with which I opened. I know few will read this, and those who do will find all sorts of reasons to disagree with pretty much everything I have written. So what? Finding someone like digby and Glenn Greenwald back in the summer of 2006 was really quite wonderful; reading them today, however, when they seem to do no more than recycle the same points they made then makes me wonder if they understand how big a victory liberals have won. What they haven't done is capitalize on that victory. I guess it really is more fun to be a persecuted minority. . .

The Terror Of Isolation

Facebook friend, author, reviewer, essayist, and Husker Du fan Scott McLemee linked to this essay by Tony Judt in the latest New York Review of Books. It is the first in what promises to be an on-going series of reflections on Judt's life with ALS. This particular essay concerns Judt's reflections on what it is like, for him, as he is, to go to bed. Here is just a bit:
I leave bedtime until the last possible moment compatible with my nurse's need for sleep. Once I have been "prepared" for bed I am rolled into the bedroom in the wheelchair where I have spent the past eighteen hours. With some difficulty (despite my reduced height, mass, and bulk I am still a substantial dead weight for even a strong man to shift) I am maneuvered onto my cot. I am sat upright at an angle of some 110° and wedged into place with folded towels and pillows, my left leg in particular turned out ballet-like to compensate for its propensity to collapse inward. This process requires considerable concentration. If I allow a stray limb to be mis-placed, or fail to insist on having my midriff carefully aligned with legs and head, I shall suffer the agonies of the damned later in the night.

I am then covered, my hands placed outside the blanket to afford me the illusion of mobility but wrapped nonetheless since—like the rest of me—they now suffer from a permanent sensation of cold. I am offered a final scratch on any of a dozen itchy spots from hairline to toe; the Bi-Pap breathing device in my nose is adjusted to a necessarily uncomfortable level of tightness to ensure that it does not slip in the night; my glasses are removed...and there I lie: trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.

I am reminded of that anti-war classic Johnny Got His Gun, about a young man severely wounded in battle, unable to communicate with the outside world save through nodding his head in Morse Code. Judt's reflections on his condition made me think of that, as well as the terror of the kind of isolation of which he writes. Deprived not just any ability to move, he is deprived of something far more basic - the ability to get that most basic necessity, simple contact and communication with another human being. While all the physical constraints of the disorder surely frustrate and even lead him to depression, what comes through even more for me is the terror of isolation, and Judt's courage in the face of that isolation.

Of all the torments visited upon human beings, the forced isolation from any kind of communication with our fellow human beings may be the most terrifying. Given that Judt seems to understand the gulf between himself and others will only widen with time, he sends these dispatches from behind the darkening curtain of his body to let the world know that he still lives, he still thinks. He still is. Such a cry from the depths is the stuff of true heroism, of true humanity, and I applaud him and look forward to more of these essays. I also want him to know that, while night seems to settle like a wall between him and his fellows, this article has reached one small island, and being someone who is up most nights anyway, will be with him in spirit, wishing and hoping his fear and terror may recede just a bit. More than anything, I want him to know that his essay has rendered him no longer alone.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Morally Uncentered Reading

Serious reading, as in the kind that renders reviews, is usually something I leave to others. I have definite views of the role of fiction, and very definite views on my own idiosyncratic tastes and ways of reading. Stumbling upon this kind of discussion, then, frustrates the bejesus out of me. Comparing Shakespeare to Bunyan is difficult at the best of times; they were very different authors, pursuing very different agendas, with very different styles of writing. One can, to be sure, prefer one to the other for any number of reasons; on matters moral, however, I cannot imagine preferring one over the other. Especially, as George Scialabba clarifies in a comment, in the arena of moral imagination, and the way their deployment of language reflects a sense of heroism and grandeur.

First of all, those notions would be foreign to both Bunyan and Shakespeare. Bunyan's Pilgrim was no hero, but a type. That Bunyan saw his pilgrim moving through a Manichaean universe with a sword of justice and a shield of righteousness at his side does not make him heroic, just a baroque Puritan knight-errant. That Shakespeare's characters recognize the moral ambiguities of the dramatic worlds they inhabit is not a lack of moral imagination, but a recognition that these are characters that have to act, and react, to specific plot points. Shakespeare was a playwright before he was a poet. His writing was nothing if not functional; banal, perhaps, but even the best writers are not above banality if it can illumine both character and action.

Finally, to rest upon moral imagination as the final arbiter of what makes one author, poet, or playwright better than another is a fool's game. Especially as we enter the modern, post-Enlightenment and Romantic eras, writers are nothing if not the purveyors of a certain moral sensibility; the best writers, while first and foremost interested in telling a story, are also telling a story about people we have to recognize, including as moral agents. Whether it is the cut-and-dry morality of Bunyan, or the far more ambivalent sense of good and evil one encounters in Shakespeare, we must find something recognizably human about those we encounter, or we as readers or viewers are lost. While I will not gainsay George's preference for Bunyan, I will most definitely insist that Shakespeare's moral imagination, while certainly "pedestrian", is preferable for all that. One makes ethical decisions with what is at hand, even at the best of times. The best characters in Shakespeare have as simple a moral universe as Pilgrim, which is why they far too often are supporting characters rather than leads. While Hamlet wrestles with "what to do", Horatio looks on and listens far more than offers advice. Yet, at the end of the play, with the bodies lying around in heaps, it becomes clear that Horatio has a far better, and more clear, moral sense that Hamlet, his uncle, or mother, ever did. Yet, precisely for that reason, Horatio as a lead character in a play would be dull indeed. Dramatic conflict doesn't come from moral clarity (except perhaps when it is coupled with poor judgment) but from moral ambiguity. With that in mind, I prefer neither one to the other, but read them both for what they are.

The Musical Decade

With all the year-end and decade-end reviews - most of them quite depressing, to fit the times, one supposes - I thought I would do something entirely different. The past ten years has been for me one of extreme pleasure as I discovered and rediscovered all sorts of music out there, got back in to seeing bands live, and generally celebrated my own particular obsession.

When the decade began, I was still not much in a musical frame of mind. Busy beginning a family, still settling in to life in the Midwest rather than the south, and only tentatively getting back in touch with the wider world, I had a hangover from my own belief that the second half of the '90's was a period when popular music really and truly, yea verily, sucked. Two events, however, were pivotal for getting my mind back in musical mode. First was Ken Burns' Jazz, which not only managed to tick off the right people, but present American's signature musical form as something beautiful and, most of all, accessible. The second thing that happened was, in 2001, I started DJing as a part-time job. The extra cash spurred a musical buying spree that focused my attention on what I'd been missing in my exile in the southland.

Jazz, as a piece of history, isn't without its flaws; it isn't without those moments that make one want to groan. While I appreciate the depth of understanding of the music that someone like Gary Giddins brings to the table, that Wynton Marsalis can offer, one would have liked other perspectives as well. I suppose an early review I read in The Nation is correct. At the time he began to assemble the documentary Burns was relatively ignorant of the style. He turned to a few sources to construct his narrative. In the same way that he managed to rely far too heavily on George Will (!!!) for his Baseball documentary which skewed the general narrative, so, too, the reliance on just a few secondary narrative sources created problems for Jazz. For example, the idea that Miles Davis decided to try his hand at using electric and even later electronic instruments in his ensembles solely because he liked Sly & The Family Stone, the money they made, and the women who threw themselves as Sly is not only small-minded, it neglects the possibility that Miles saw musical possibilities in what became known as fusion that needed exploring. His own initial experiments would blaze a trail followed by Weather Report, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and even Pat Metheny in later years.

The summer of 2001 was a marvelous time for me. My younger daughter was born in June, always a way to mark a moment in one's life. I had just begun training as a mobile DJ, and with the extra cash I was earning, decided to celebrate by buying some new music. I rediscovered Dream Theater after nearly a decade of ignoring them and their development as a band; one of the offshoots, Transatlantic, was another. When Miriam came home from the hospital, I remember sitting in the living room and listening to their first release, SMPTe on the headphones with the newborn asleep in the crook of my left arm and four-year-old Moriah asleep in my right.

I also discovered, belatedly (of course, but better late than never) the Grateful Dead. The archive releases known as "Dick's Picks", originally two-track masters made from the front-house mixing board that the band listened to after each show, were relatively inexpensive, and while their quality wasn't marvelous, they were and are good enough to sit and enjoy. I was working third shift as night auditor at a small resort hotel and would pop a CD in to the computer, the volume turned down so it wouldn't interfere with me hearing a guest at the front desk or answering the phone, and enjoy from just after midnight until around five a.m.

I have been a member of the Musical Heritage Society since 2000, and have enjoyed many fruits and benefits - the entirety of Franz Schubert's sacred compositions, Mozart's Requiem, even a Ravi Shankar CD and the complete recording of Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, including some numbers previously unavailable. I found an excellent remaster of Bach's masterpiece, the B-minor mass, with liner notes that told the story of how Bach had assembled the piece from bits here and there composed through the years. Then, of course, there is Henry Purcell. If you haven't heard this British Baroque composer, you need to give him a listen.

I have ventured out past the barely-acceptable in to musical extremes both exciting and nerve-wracking. The Mars Volta and Ozric Tentacles, in particular, offer something new even when listening to something heard many times before. German prog-band Sieges Even has a unique sound, quite apart from all the Dream Theater and Euro-metal clones out there. Porcupine Tree is a band unto themselves, and as my concert experience this past fall proved, quite adept at blowing the mind of an audience.

Then there's Grizzly Bear. I am reminded of, by turns, the Cowboy Junkies and early Genesis, truly an odd mash-up.

Yet, as my forays in to the Dead show, I am not above appreciating something old. I rediscovered, by turns, Robin Trower, Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, Pete Townsend and The Who (and without doubt ny favorite song-writer continues to be Townsend), and Tom Waits (a little piece of heaven come to earth). While the rest of the world seems to be gaga over Lady Gaga, I am quite happy in my own little corner of the musical universe.

For all that popular music is dominated by producers layering in far too much sound, especially bass, over simple rhythms and highly-sexualized lyrics, there are options out there. Indeed, even as the music industry continues to decline as it stubbornly clings to a business model that has been irrelevant for well over a decade, there has rarely been a time when musical options were more exciting, offering pretty much anything and everything for the discriminating listener. Musically, this past decade has been one of excitement, innovation, and opportunity. Unlike the previous decade, the past ten years have been among the best, musically speaking, I can remember since the first half of the 1970's.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Repeating Stupid Mistakes

In 1956, a rebellion against imposed communism in Hungary broke out. For one brief, shining second, a crack in the relatively new Iron Curtain appeared. In the heady couple days when it seemed possible the Soviets wouldn't intervene - they were as confounded by events as everyone - then-Pres. Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, made it clear that the United States "stood with" the people of Hungary. Even Eisenhower made vague references of support that sounded, to some, more than rhetorical.

Then the tanks rolled in and people started dying and disappearing in to prisons.

It was the quite sane and sound refusal of the Eisenhower Administration to intervene, and begin a new war in Europe, that soured many on the right to him. When Joseph Welch, the founder the John Birch Society, called Eisenhower an agent of the communist conspiracy, it was this event, among others, that made many think him, at the very least, a dupe.

To be fair to the conspiracy-mongers, the over-the-top rhetoric of support for Hungarian freedom raised hopes far too high in Budapest as much as it did in the hearts and minds of right-wingers in America. American refusal to do anything to stop Soviet tanks and the ensuing turmoil was not just dispiriting; it was reminiscent of the British refusal to honor its commitments to the Czechs before the Second World War; betrayal of a weak semi-ally in the face of tyranny creates deep scars and long memories. Which is not to say that Eisenhower was wrong to stand by while Hungarians died in the streets or were hustled off to prison; they should have been more circumspect in their rhetoric beforehand.

Fast forward to today's headline from Reuters, and it's deja vu all over again.
Obama says U.S. stands with protesters in Iran

It may sound cynical and small-minded, but it's easy enough for Obama to say he "stands with" the Iranian protesters, even as he stands at his Hawaiian home. Words from this Administration are cheap, and these words in particular are as vacuous as a speech from Newt Gingrich or an entire book by Jonah Goldberg. Since there is absolutely nothing the US can, or should, do, silence would be far better in this instance than the meaningless declaration of some abstract solidarity. Since we aren't going to invade Iran - and I doubt such an act would be welcome by those we claim to support - and short of that we really can't do much of anything, we should simply lodge the usual diplomatic protests and shut up.

Notable Quotable Krugman

Of all the columns, blog posts, television appearances, and books Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman has left us, today's column is a masterful summary of our current economic and political malaise.
What was truly impressive about the decade past, however, was our unwillingness, as a nation, to learn from our mistakes.

Even as the dot-com bubble deflated, credulous bankers and investors began inflating a new bubble in housing. Even after famous, admired companies like Enron and WorldCom were revealed to have been Potemkin corporations with facades built out of creative accounting, analysts and investors believed banks’ claims about their own financial strength and bought into the hype about investments they didn’t understand. Even after triggering a global economic collapse, and having to be rescued at taxpayers’ expense, bankers wasted no time going right back to the culture of giant bonuses and excessive leverage.

Then there are the politicians. Even now, it’s hard to get Democrats, President Obama included, to deliver a full-throated critique of the practices that got us into the mess we’re in. And as for the Republicans: now that their policies of tax cuts and deregulation have led us into an economic quagmire, their prescription for recovery is — tax cuts and deregulation.

At some point, someone in a position of authority needs to heed these words.

And the first person who carries on about over-regulation and a too-heavy tax burden needs a dose of reality.

Music For Your Monday

Tuesday, April 20, Park West Chicago.

These are all sections of one, seventy-minute piece of music. Should be a long show.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Evidence That Having A Doctorate Doesn't Mean You're Not An Idiot

This piece from classicist Victor Davis Hanson is all the evidence I need that avoiding his "writing" is good for my health. There isn't a factual claim that's accurate; there isn't a theoretical claim that isn't arguable; there isn't a sentence that makes sense.

He is certainly entitled to his opinions. He is also entitled to be ignored for being a dork.

War And Western Christian Thought

There's actually a really good, subtle debate at "On Faith" concerning the general question of "Just War" theory and the specific citation of it by Pres. Obama in his Nobel acceptance speech. I would invite anyone interested in these topics - is "just war" theory still viable? does it apply in Afghanistan? did it apply in Iraq? - to read through the entire panel discussion.

While it is impossible to cite all the panelists, or even highlights from a few, the one comment that jumped out at me was from Susan Jacoby. The following pretty much reflects my own thinking on this matter:
I think that Thomas Aquinas's "just war" theory, with its links to classical philosophy, has about as much relevance to whether a modern nation should commit itself to war as thirteenth-century understanding of the human body does to modern medicine.

Physicists don't study Aristotle; astronomers don't use words like "epicycles"; any chemist who talked of phlogiston would be laughed at; doctors have Galen on their shelves if they're also antiquarian book collectors. Why is it people think it's OK to cite philosophers whose intellectual universe included the thoughts of these and others as well?

While such a comment might reflect a desire to set aside this entire discussion, I do not wish to do so. Read and ruminate, and come to your own conclusions.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Waving The Bloody Shirt - Republican Cowardice

It has been amazing to me that Republican politicians somehow get a pass as members of a party that is as chicken-livered as they repeatedly demonstrate themselves to be. Reading the story, I can only conclude that the alleged - what? arsonist? - was not only "aspirational" as a member of al Qaeda, but as a "terrorist" as well. Like the so-called shoe bomber a few years back, these people are not scary, they're just not-that-bright folk, and the fact that his entire plot ended up with him getting burns on his leg and beat up by passengers should tell anyone paying attention the extent to which he represented a threat to the plane, to air travel, and to American security.

My real problem is with the only politician quoted here - Rep. Peter King (R-NY) who demonstrates, once again, that Republicans have no grasp of American power, or what demonstrates a "real deal". Some moron burns his leg and Peter King says, "it could have been devastating". In what way? That a plane might, incongruously, been brought down by this dork? While highly improbable, even if that had happened, it would have been devastating to the families of the victims, to be sure; it might have been devastating to the physical infrastructure of an airport in one of America's poorest cities, too. Devastating to American power, security, and interests? Only if one is so terrified of one plane being destroyed that it makes you run for cover.

Or perhaps King, like Republican politicians for most of the past decade, isn't so much scared himself as he is wanting the American people to be afraid. Fear is a marvelous tool for manipulating the public to do all sorts of things they might not otherwise do. Waving the bloody shirt is a tired Republican tactic - get Americans quaking in their boots at the prospect that some nasty people out there (and how wonderful it was someone from Nigeria!) might do something to hurt them - and my guess is it's just an old playbook King is using here.

Yet, by returning to it once again, all I can think is he might just be a little afraid of the nasty al Qaeda mens himself, you know? The Republican Party in general shows a tendency to quake in their boots at the thought that something bad might happen to the American people. Infantalizing the American people is bad enough. Showing cowardice like this is even worse.

Saturday Rock Show

Liquid Tension Experiment was nothing more or less than Dream Theater's instrumentalists, with Tony Levin rather than John Myung on bass (if you're going to replace John Myung, I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have). While these instrumentals hang together only very loosely as "songs", they certainly display a technical deftness and understanding of what fans of the musicians want. Of the two releases, no song displays this better - blisteringly fast guitar and keyboard solos; Mike Portnoy's drumming was never better; Tony Levin somehow manages to keep up with it all, and show these young whippersnappers what an old guy can do - than "Another Dimension". While the Italianesque middle section - an accordion? - is a bit over-the-top, the song itself returns to its roots for an ending that will leave listeners ears bleeding.

David Broder Likes Democrats Who Hate Democratic Policies

It's that simple.

What is "the vital center"? Broder never tells us. Is it the large majority of the American people who favor a public option on health care? Is it the large majority who has elected Barack Obama President in the belief that he really was different, that he was a leader, that change we could believe in would come? Is the vital center the 60% and more of the American people who detested George W. Bush and the Republicans so much they stripped the party of any power in 2006 and 2008?

I have defended the bill and the process that led to it, and the President's role in that process, throughout the entire health care reform debate. That job has been easier because the right went off the deep end this summer with the Tea Party/Birther movement, while the left showed a surprising lack of sympathy for the limits of Presidential power and influence. The former, for some reason, think Obama is a fledgling dictator, while the latter want him to be and decry his relative silence during much of the debate in Congress.

While the health care debate, for all the crazies and ignorant folk on the extremes seemed to dominate in the press, was actually an important civics lesson for those ignoring the screeching and paying attention to the details, we have ended up with the President battered, the Democratic base turning away, in particular, from the Congressional party, and the prospects of financial industry regulation far dimmer than they might have been. If Obama shows the same inability to enter the debate at strategic points, and display a willingness to act in support of legislative measures he supports (as he did with the public option), my guess is the "vital center" will not be the Democratic Party's main concern going in to next autumn's elections, but the liberals, activists, and particularly bloggers who make up the activist and publicist base of the part who may just vote with their butts.

Broder's political instincts have been bad for years; he famously wrote a column in 2007 in which he predicted that then-Pres. Bush, whose approval ratings had not been above 40% since the previous summer, was "poised for a comeback". He seemed oblivious to the palpable public anger at George W. Bush in particular and the Republican Party in general for its gross malfeasance while in power. He lectured Democrats not to be too liberal, to be Republicans while they governed (which, if the example had been followed, would have meant not doing much, and what they did do they did very badly), and lamenting the passing of an old guard that had a record of corruption and maladministration little matched in American history.

I think it safe to say the Democrats can ignore the advice of David Broder. Indeed, like Bill Kristol, a safe bet would be to do the opposite; Kristol is the only pundit operating today with a worse record of advice and prediction than Broder. What they cannot do is ignore the rising tide of frustration and even anger among the Democratic base at the Congressional, particularly Senate, Democrats for the way they handled health care reform. If this is the way Harry Reid's tenure as majority leader is to continue, it might be wise to consider getting more and better Democrats in power, so that a change of leadership can come.

Don't listen to Bill Daley. Don't listen to David Broder. Listen to the people who actually voted for the Party and what they want in their elected representatives, what policies they want. That's the key to victory. No one elected either one of these folks to positions of authority. They can be ignored easily enough.

Friday, December 25, 2009


It is this post and the ensuing comment thread that make me refuse the label "intellectual".

These people need to seriously lighten up. What a bunch of doofuses.

For the record, Frank Herbert wrote Dune for a penny and a half a word as an ongoing serial in one of the pulp science fiction magazines. Anything else was just froth.

Don't even get me started on the very first comment. When someone takes themselves this seriously, all others should do is point and laugh.

My Mother's Evangelistic Outreach - Christmas, 1978

Because my mother is an exceedingly polite person, she tolerated a Jehovah's Witness coming around to bring The Watchtower to our house. Her patience, and that of the rest of us, was tested one year when the woman came to our house on Christmas Day one year. Perhaps on purpose, perhaps without thinking, this woman brought her daughter, no more than eight or nine years old.

Now, for those who may not know, Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas, considering all the trappings a form of idolatry. In to the midst of our pretty typical Christmas - a bunch of people sitting around on the floor in their pajamas with gifts overflowing - entered this woman to preach the Gospel of the impending demise of the Earth, offering us a place on the Witness' lifeboat.

My mother took one look at the expression on the child's face as she looked around at our house and did the unthinkable - she offered the young girl a present.

What happened next I do not know, because overwhelmed with embarrassment, I decided I had to go to the bathroom.

I do know we stopped getting The Watchtower after that.

In retrospect, however, I am proud of my mother. While gift giving isn't the essence of the season, it is a part of a certain approach to Christmas, a reflection of our own sense of thankfulness for the abundance with which we are blessed by a good God and the bounteous love that takes us out of ourselves and allows us to consider the feelings and thoughts of others. My mother saw this young girl looking upon us - not just the gifts, I would like to think, but the togetherness of us all gathered in our living room, just enjoying the pleasure of one another's company - and offered her a place in our celebration, in our circle of acceptance. Nothing could be more Christian.

May we all reach out to those outside our circle of love and community and invite them in, offer them a place to sit, a gift with no strings, and the sacrament of selfless giving. When you do so, remember Virginia Safford when you do, and her thoughtful offer to a young child one Christmas thirty years ago.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


And there were in that same country shepherd . . .

As Linus says, that's what Christmas is all about - simple folk getting the word that something world-changing is happening even now, and they are both the witnesses and first heralds of something that will shake the foundations of the earth.

Simple folk. Shepherds and a country carpenter and his fiancee far from their home. An old man who was promised life until the arrival of the Messiah; an old prophetess who sees the baby and rejoices. A mother who takes all these wonders and signs and holds them to herself.

The joy of the season is in simplicity - the simplicity of the fact of God's presence; the simplicity of those who are the first to hear the Good News; the simplicity of that message of love and presence.

May God's presence be with all of you, not just in this season in which we rejoice, but all through the year as we celebrate Jesus' life, and ministry, and death and resurrection. May your day tomorrow be filled with happiness and laughter and song.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ethical Uprightness And Liberalism

I can't believe I'm jumping on this particular bandwagon. . .

Someone at NRO wrote something about Star Trek: The Next Generation, and all sorts of people are writing about it. A point missed - and it was a near thing, he almost got there - by Matt Yglesias concerns the question of the character of the Captain, Jean-Luc Picard. Now, I do not believe that the character traits of fictional persons, especially characters on on-going television series, are particularly interesting. Yet, since the subject is broached, I thought it might be important to note that I disagree almost entirely with Yglesias' characterization of Picard:
I think the right way to say this is that Picard is a conservative person living in a liberal socialist utopia. That’s not to say that he’s a closet version of an early 21st century American right-winger, someone who secretly yearns for the reintroduction of capitalism, religion, and the routine use of lethal violence. Instead, he’s a characterological conservative, someone who believes deeply in authority and tradition and who’s not inclined to subject the basic political values of the Federation to a lot of scrutiny.

While I agree that Picard is an ethical individual, it precisely because he is a typical liberal type that he spends quite a bit of time in many, many episodes engaged in a kind of weird philosophical scrutiny of his own, and by extension the UFP's, various actions.

Just one example of many: In the episode "I, Borg", Picard is confronted with the ethical dilemma of a captured Borg. His hatred and fear of the Borg, and by extension his sense of duty in the face of a mortal threat to the UFP creates a conflict when this Borg, Third of Five, discovers, among other things, that he is an "I" (some of the hokiest, and really stupid smarmy liberalism crops up in this episode, with Dr. Crusher gushing about how the Borg is "lonely"; that kind of sentimental anthropomorphism makes me cringe). Picard struggles with the decision of whether or not to return "Hugh" (his adopted name) to the collective with what amounts to a computer virus that would render the Borg unable to operate. As Hugh insists he does not wish to return, yet this is an opportunity to destroy the biggest threat the Federation has faced, what is Picard to do?

With Hugh deciding that, in fact, he will return, with the addition of his own discovered individuality as the new virus the conflict ceases to an extent. In the wake of eight years of Bush Administration conservative foreign policy, however, Picard's mental self-abuse on the entire issue of what to do with a problem like Hugh reveals that he is not, in fact, a conservative at all. A characteristically conservative individual would have sensed no conflict between his duty to the Federation and his duty to the abstract proposition that all individuals of whatever type are of intrinsic moral worth, to be protected and honored at all times. Shoot, Dick Cheney would have shot Hugh in the face and hopes some of that experience would spread through the collective. Instead of that, Picard struggles with the contradictory mandates, ethical to their core, of his sense of duty as a military officer serving a democratic government and his sense of duty to the individual the Borg has become. The resolution, while interesting, lets Picard off the hook of responsibility.

Conservatism betrayed itself during the eight years of the Bush Administration by revealing that, at its core, it has no ethical sense at all, at least as that has been defined for the past 250 years or so. For Bush-style conservatives, one's duty is defined as a duty to authority, pure and simple, without recourse to the kind of namby-pamby self-analysis that Picard goes through frequently. There is a hierarchy of values, clear and definable, and conservatives easily enough figure out how to rank a sense of duty to them. In Picard, we have a kind of liberal pluralist, someone with an understanding of the more-than-occasional incommensurability of various ethical demands, and reveals through various episodes of the show that there is no final resolution, that each decision creates both new opportunities and problems (something Picard and the Enterprise crew discover in a two-part episode the next season, in which the newly-individuated Borg suddenly become an even greater threat through the intervention of Data's "brother", Lor). In light of the way events unfolded, was Picard's decision "correct"? While it might be possible to say, "No" - and there is a bit of that kind of thing in the midst of the two-part episode - my own sense is that Picard's original decision, ethically compromised as it was, was a good ethical compromise; neither he nor anyone else (except perhaps the writers on the show) could have predicted the results of the individuation of part of the Borg collective.

In any event, yes, Picard is a hard-ass, and a kind of ethically upright person we all wish we could be. Yet, he is both characteristically and temperamentally liberal.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

When God Answers Prayer In Surprising Ways

The Senate vote on health care reform has raised, among other things, an interesting theological issue. What happens when God answers prayer, but in ways one neither expects nor desires?
[Sen. Tom] COBURN [R-OK]: What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can’t make the vote tonight. That’s what they ought to pray.

Well, apparently, it was his fellow Oklahoman, James Inhofe whose absence seemed to fit the Divine plan quite nicely.

I should note that the Think Progress piece claims that Coburn prayed that a member of the Democratic caucus would not show up. The prayer, however, is pretty straightforward - Coburn just wants people to make sure someone doesn't make it. I think Inhofe's absence fits quite well.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"This President just doesn't have the stomach to make anyone do anything they don't want to do"

Read the whole thing.

The passive-aggressive President for our time. It would be nice if he showed some kind of anatomical part that provided strength.

Mr. President - grow a pair.

Christmas Music For Your Monday

John Rutter is a great composer of sacred music. Here are some samplings.

"Christmas Lullaby"

"Angels Carol"

OK, this is more an Advent Carol . . . A setting for the Magnificat:

With A Mixture Of Joy And Envy . . .

I want anyone with more than one brain cell to read this fantastic piece on Oral Roberts by Phil Nugent. It is one of the best pieces of writing of any kind I have read in a very long time.

It is by turns, funny:
As a Pentecostal, Oral spoke in tongues, praying every day with his wife in a mysterious, divinely inspired language that was half Captain Beefheart, half Teletubbies, usually delivered in the lyrical tones of someone who's just caught his dick in his zipper.

Oral, who wrote autobiographies like Li'l Wayne drops mixtapes, was given to reminiscing about the many times that he resurrected dead people at his live shows. You might wonder what the dead people were doing there, but it seems that, perhaps because of his awesome charisma, adults and children had a startling tendency to breathe their last while he was onstage. Oral once explained that he hated to show off like that but that having someone drop dead in the middle of a show can be very distracting and that he found it necessary to resurrect them so that he could continue to deliver the Lord's word.

And always scrupulously honest about who, in fact, Roberts was:
[I]t makes [Roberts] sound as if he could be neatly bracketed in the same category as Falwell and Jim and Tammy and the others who used the TV pulpit to cash in or reach for political power starting in the late 1970s and 1980s. Oral actually came from, and always kept one foot in, an older tent show tradition, and though he went into TV and used it as a money-raising tool with a vengeance, he was always a lot weirder, and, I suspect, considerably more sincere in his beliefs than people like the bullying demagogue Falwell or Jim and Tammy when they were on their crusade to make everything nice-nice.

It ends with an acknowledgment that, in his own peculiar way, Oral Roberts was more true to my own vision of what it means to be a Christian (which is both frightening and comforting):
[A]t least he could die with the knowledge that he was perhaps the last person in his profession who recognized the obvious truth that a man of God, rather than fitting in too cozily with the most well-heeled and respectable members of society, ought to be something of a lunatic. Babble us out of here, Oral!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Memories - 1993

Do not neglect to show hospitality; by doing this, some have entertained angels unawares. Hebrews 13:2

Lisa came home from work on Christmas Eve and told me a story that has remained with me. She worked part time at Wagshal's Delicatessen. For those who may not have heard of it, it has a long, illustrious history in Washington,DC, serving Presidents and diplomats, Senators and journalists, students and local residents with the finest foods, the best sandwiches, and the most expensive smoked salmon that is worth every penny. I have always felt privileged that Lisa worked there, because it is a landmark of a sorts.

On that Christmas Eve, it was cold, but not bitter. It had been snowing off and on all day, as I recall, but not a whole lot of accumulation. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of extremely wealthy, important people getting deli platters and wines, marzipan and bagels, or just a sandwich to tide them over, a homeless man walked in to the deli. It was obvious to all that he had not cleaned himself recently. There was dried vomit and urine on his clothes. He might even not have known what kind of business he was entering; he might just have wanted to get warm for a few minutes.

The son of one of the owners, along with Lisa, saw this man, and the reaction of the shoppers in the small, crowded space, and acted. Mike came from around the counter, spoke to the man, and led him out the back door to the kitchen. Lisa made him a couple small sandwiches which she paid for. Mike took the man's coat, and offered him his own much nicer, finer coat. It was warmer, it was clean, and it was dry. The sandwiches were offered with some hot chocolate. The man thanked Mike and Lisa, and went out back on the stoop to eat. Mike came back in, and with this very busy delicatessen, crowded with last-minute shoppers getting things together for Christmas dinners and parties in some of the finest houses and for some of the most important folk in the most powerful city in the country, and wept because not one of these people had done anything other than turn away in disgust.

Of all the events that first Christmas we were a married couple - Lisa waking up with a fever; the small, Charlie-Brown-Christmas-Tree we somehow managed to get from Lowe's to our little apartment despite the ice, laughing all the way; our meager offerings to one another; the smallness of the day, as it was just us and no one else - the tale of Mike and Lisa helping out that man has remained with me. As the Biblical epigram should make clear, I have wondered, off and on over the years, about that man. I asked Lisa if he looked familiar; for all that the neighborhood we lived in was filled with the wealthy and powerful, there were a few homeless men and women, and those of us who had lived there for more than a few months recognized them. She said, no, he wasn't familiar at all.

Why was this man, this dirty, hungry man, perhaps suffering from alcohol poisoning, his clothes stiff with stale vomit and days of urinating on himself, suddenly in this place, a wealthy deli? Why was this man taken in, offered not just food and drink and warmth, but a coat, some rest and respite from the never-ending search for both that is the lot of those who have no place to call their own? Why did none of those last minute shoppers, many of whom certainly considered themselves Christian, perhaps, willing to give time and money to a good cause, offer this man so much as a smile as he weaved his way through the packed crowd?

As we come to the end of Advent, as our time of preparation comes to a close and we welcome the birth of Jesus, I would ask that we remember that Christmas, for all my memories seem to revolve around my feelings, my memories, and my sense that a Christmas is either good or not based on some weird alchemy of familial communion, gifts, good will, and the weather, has nothing to do with me. In fact, it has nothing to do with those things I just mentioned that seem to make Christmas, well, Christmas. Rather, it is about a young couple turned away from an inn, forced to spend the night in a stable. A young couple who, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the crowds gathered in many towns around Judea, Samaria, and Galilee to sign up for the census and tax, gave birth to their first child in a barn. This event took place even as many, like the crowd in Wagshal's that night, looked on, their noses up-turned at an unwed couple, a poor, Galilean carpenter and his fiancee desperately searching for a comfortable bed, some hot food, and a clean, warm, dry place for the young lady to have her baby.

May all of you, as the day comes in all the busyness of family and gifts, of fellowship and food not forget that it was precisely this busyness that God seeks to interrupt, indeed to disrupt. Our attention needs to be focused not on all the cultural trappings that would make December 25th somehow different than other days. It needs to hear the cry of a newborn baby, a cry coming from some forgotten corner of a town far too busy celebrating to remember that even here, right here, God is doing something we might need to stop, listen, and talk about.

Right-Wing Christmas Thoughts

Via Thers at Eschaton and Instaputz, all I can say, in the spirit of the season, is "Oy vey!":
Christmas is anti-government. It is all about faith and family, tradition and, for the most part, the setting aside of politics and work to celebrate life.

But here are the president, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi in our faces every day and every night, and their global party is going 24/7 in Copenhagen. Now the House Democrats have just moved to spend another $174 billion the country doesn't have on more government and more give aways, and then left town, with many heading off to Europe to get in a little more speechifying and some skiing no doubt.

Stateside, Al Gore is doing poetry --in a William Shatner/Rod McKuen kind of way-- with Harry Smith on the Early Show, and Harry Reid is hold marathon secret meetings on a secret bill --Obamacare 9.0-- and we are being lectured by Bernie Sanders who couldn't get elected mayor anywhere in America except he's a senator from Vermont. President B is threatening "fat cat bankers" on Sunday night and warning us of national bankruptcy on Wednesday night (after his party votes to spends $174 billion we don't have).

And he preempted A Charlie Brown Christmas.

The first sentence is just . . . ah, God, it's just awful. Christmas is nothing more or less than celebrating the birth of Jesus. All the other stuff - the month long spending orgy, the repetitious "White Christmas"'s, the lights, the parties, even the family stuff - has little to nothing to do with the meaning of the day itself. While certainly inseparable from a cultural perspective, that isn't what Christmas is about as far as the day itself is concerned. Indeed, for most of Christian history, the day itself was little remarked and regarded.

As for Christmas being "anti-government", since there are political elements, textual and sub-textual, in the two Gospel narratives that deal with Jesus' birth, this, too, is wrong. There are taxes and social outcasts and murdering Quisling imperial toadies and the effects of poverty and an unwed mother with her much-older betrothed. Just mentioning these few bits is enough to get anyone started thinking about all sorts of things that have to do with politics and social justice.

Then, of course, there is the declaration that the one whose birth we celebrate is The Prince of Peace. Apparently, however, this is a non-governmental, non-political peace.

I love the attempted dig at Bernie Sanders - "couldn't get elected mayor anywhere", yet acknowledging that he is a US Senator - and the fact that someone somewhere preempted A Charlie Brown Christmas. Treasonous!

What stupid, horrible people we have writing about politics in this country.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Treating A Senator With The Respect He Deserves

This is awesome.
Inhofe did travel to Copenhagen however — with a single staffer and when he got there, all he could muster was an “impromptu” press conference and spent a grand total of two hours in the Danish capital. But even during the press conference, few reporters showed up and the Oklahoma senator wasn’t very well received by the ones who did:
A reporter asked: “If there’s a hoax, then who’s putting on this hoax, and what’s the motive?”

“It started in the United Nations,” Inhofe said, “and the ones in the United States who really grab ahold of this is the Hollywood elite.”

One reporter asked Inhofe if he was referring to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Another reporter — this one from Der Spiegel — told the senator: “You’re ridiculous.”

The real "truth squad" is suddenly . . . a reporter from Der Speigel. So much for the vaunted American press.

Saturday Christmas Rock Show (Sort Of)

Jon Anderson of Yes released a Christmas album back in the 1980's. These folks synchronized the nearly 5000 lights of their house to "I Saw Three Ships" - which shows they had far too much time on their hands.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ben Nelson Doesn't Care About People

It's really that simple, and Matt Yglesias gets to the heart of it.
Providing prenatal services to pregnant women is a pro-life gesture by any stretch of the imagination. As is providing health insurance to young children. As we saw the other day, uninsured children are over three times more likely to die from their trauma-related injuries than are commercially insured children, even after adjustment for other factors such as age, gender, race, injury severity and injury type.

But Nelson won’t let those lives be saved unless the bill is modified in an insulting and discriminatory way. And part of the insanity of it is that the actual impact on the number of abortions in America is going to be tiny. Middle-class women will be able to pay for abortions out of pocket, and the “Hyde Amendment” status quo already screws poor women. But it’s a nice symbolic dig at pro-choice America, and a further means of stigmatizing reproductive health services as somehow not real health care. And Nelson, Bart Stupack, and various bishops love the idea of holding the whole package hostage to this point, since I guess the dead kids with trauma injuries will go to heaven anyway or something.

Now, I won't pretend this isn't a passionate issue for some people; there are those who sincerely believe that abortion is by far the greatest horror besetting the United States. For those people, discussing the issue dispassionately and with any kind of distance is impossible.

Yet, quite simply put, Ben Nelson, Bart Stupak, and most other "pro-life" politicians couldn't give a fart in a hurricane about ending abortion. If they did, they had plenty of opportunities during the Bush Administration to do so. That they did not proves to me, and quite a few other on-lookers, that they enjoy keeping the issue alive in order to do things like this - use it as a bludgeon against women and minorities. The fetus doesn't enter their calculations as a real thing, needing (among other things) a healthy woman to bring it to full term.

By attempting to hold health care reform hostage to the continued existence of the fetus, as a theoretical proposition, is not "pro-life", but stupid, purblind politics of the most horrible sort. No "life" of any consequence is saved by this.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


While I understand why there are quite a few liberals who are all put out by the politics of health care reform, at the end of every argument over principles and every rant about what an idiot Joe Lieberman or Olympia Snowe is, the entire issue isn't about being right or wrong, but about people who are desperate. At the end of all the pontificating and breast-beating, we need to remember that people are quite literally dying as we dither over who is more right on the question of health care.

Is the bill perfect? Anyone who thought that we Americans would manage to craft even a bill even moderately acceptable to liberals doesn't understand how things work. Abandoning health care reform when we are so close to actually accomplishing something would be the height not just of folly but of social irresponsibility. If you don't believe me, read this:
If I feel abandoned, it's not by Obama and the Democratic party, it's by those on the left advocating to kill the bill.

I am unemployed and have a pre-existing condition that requires daily medicines, quarterly doctors visits and an annual test. I am on COBRA, which runs out mid-2010, when I will have to find new health insurance. I will need to purchase some kind of health insurance, assuming I can find provider who will insure me

I don't pretend to understand all the intricacies of the health care reform bill, but I do read a lot. From what I can glean, if the bill passed, I would be able to find health insurance because I could not to be turned down due to my pre-exisiting condition. And based on my income at the moment, my premuims would be subsidized.

Am I disappointed in the reform effort? Yes. I believe in single payer. I was terribly disappointed the Medicare buy-in for 55 and older was dropped, not because I give a rat's ass about Lieberman or the political wrangling involved, but because I am two years shy of 55 and I would have loved to be able to tough it out on the private market for a little while longer knowing Medicare coverage was just around the corner. Believe me, it's scary being 52 and unemployed with a medical condition. Any form of security is vital.

My case is not unique or unusual. In fact, it is common. I am one of thousands if not millions with the same issues that this bill would affect. And when I read or hear people from the left arguing against the bill that would likely provide me and people like me with some modicum of security because the bill doesn't accomplish everything they had hoped it would or it doesn't help every last person or the insurance industry will benefit, I do feel abandoned.

Again, the bill is not perfect. It might not even be marginally acceptable. Liberals, at least those most vocal folks on the internet, are sounding more and more like the right when it was in power, disdainful of politics and revolted by the legislative process, disgusted by the shallowness and vanity of politicians. Some, I think, wish that Democrats behaved as Republicans did when the latter were in power. Rather than have an actual debate and include the minority in the process, just steamroll over everyone. Yes, the Republicans can and are stonewalling - but that is the way the process works.

While I am quite sure there are people who could point to this or that provision of the bills before Congress that fail to address the concerns expressed in the above, I find that kind of thing meaningless. The bill may not be what we want in details; in principle, however, it will be established that Congress can set the ground rules for health care coverage. As this generation of politicians passes in to history, more will become accustomed to the reality that health care is an issue over which Congress has control. It isn't a pretty, or easy, process. In the end, though, health care will be like Social Security, a third, or perhaps fourth, rail.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Seeking Understanding

As modernism wanes, theologians have very often taken to quoting St. Anselm of Canterbury, who described the pursuit of a Christian intellectual life as fides quaren intellectum, roughly translated as "faith seeking understanding". This usually means that there are claims Christians make concerning what they believe; ours is a faith that cannot rest upon these claims without attempting to make sense of them. Karl Barth famously quipped that theology is nothing more than sermon preparation, which is kind of the same thing; in the Reformed tradition, the sermon sits at the center of the communal worship life, and is exposition of a Biblical text to the faithful.

Yet, at some point in these times when so much of the intellectual energy of the modernist project has exhausted itself, I believe the question needs to be asked: Is the intellectual content of the Christian faith both a necessary and sufficient condition for making this faith tenable? Indeed, considering the varieties of intellectual approaches to the Christian faith, to the variety of claims existing under the name "Christian", one need hardly imagine my own answer to this question is "No".

This is not to say the intellectual pursuit of understanding isn't an important part of our communal life. It has been from the beginning and will continue to be long after people have stopped reading David Hume carry on about miracles and Voltaire talk about strangling princes with the entrails of the last priests (or is it the other way around? I can never remember). It should also be remembered the assaults on the Christian faith currently in fashion - Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris being the most notorious - aren't exactly new.

The late second-early third century Christian Apologist, Tertullian wrote a long dialogue in which he addressed then-current slanders against Christianity, which included, among other things, the charge that worship services included cannibalism, sexual orgies, and the worship of a donkey. This last charge I find amusing precisely because it shows that common Roman sentiment on divinity was so limited they could not imagine human beings worshiping a god who was not represented by some image or other (their common slander against both Christians and Jews was they were "atheists" because they refused to create an image; popular imagination changed that in to Christians, at any rate, paying obeisance to an ass). Tertullian did not attempt to refute, point by point, this kind of thing. Instead, he did the equivalent of pointing and laughing at how stupid the accusations were (even though there were believers who paid through torture and even death for the accusations), and made a clear case for what it was Christians actually believed and practiced.

This trip back in time is necessary, first, to remind Christians that attempts to ridicule our faith are neither new nor, in the main, terribly original. At least the Romans managed to picture Christians being interesting in their worship practice, rather than either nonsensical or boring. Second, while Tertullian's defense of Christianity was superb (he was, perhaps, the brightest, and certainly the wittiest, Christian writer in the centuries before Augustine; few Christian writers in the centuries since have managed to be quite as funny as Tertullian was), it was also done with one eye on the fact that the defense of the faith was secondary to the proclamation of that faith. Getting the word out that Jesus of Nazareth had lived and died and risen again in order to bring about the reconciliation of fallen humanity with God was the point; fleshing out what that might mean, and what it most certainly did not mean, was important, but not necessary to making that faith real, a living thing among those who declare it.

Whether it's the best and brightest among the Roman Empire, European intellectuals of the 18th and 19th century deciding that "miracles" are the mark of Christian belief, or Sam Harris writing the only true Christian faith is fundamentalism, we have always faced those who decide, from outside, who we are and what we believe and why it's nonsense. While addressing these criticisms is important, it should always be done with one eye on the reality that making sense of the idea of Jesus as God incarnate isn't as important as declaring it.

Tertullian's lead in another area needs to be followed as well; Christian writers need to remember that a little scorn, the kind of writing that makes folks laugh is effective. Making fun of people who think they're really smart but are actually both ignorant and stupid gets the message out that they aren't quite as authoritative as they claim.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Persistence Of Religious Life

If I have a complaint about George Scialabba's What Are Intellectuals Good For? it is the constant repetition throughout various essays that religious belief is no longer a tenable, intellectually viable alternative in the west. While I understand the reality that much of western Europe has been de-Christianized, and the United States is increasingly less religious than a generation or two ago, I believe this confuses two very different things - one is social secularism and the other is personal, and even communal, agnosticism or atheism. With religious belief ne of the driving forces behind so much of the social and political conflict in our world, the repeated invocation that religious belief itself is some kind of anachronistic, intellectually void area leaves me thinking that self-satisfied and self-declared intellectual elites like George must believe that those who hold to some kind of religious belief are the benighted, intellectually incoherent crowd who haven't heard that God, like the tooth fairy, is an illusion best left behind as we as a species mature.

The persistence of religious belief is, perhaps, the most unremarked upon phenomenon of our time. While militant atheists publish near-best-sellers declaring the tattered remnants of the faithful to be incoherent, even socially and politically dangerous, and the beliefs themselves to be nonsensical, millions and even billions around the world pay them no heed whatsoever, and carry on their lives as if the question of intellectual coherence and moral confusion were of little interest to them. Whether it's Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia, Roman Catholics and Muslims in the Philippines, Pentecostals across Africa, Seventh-Day Adventists in South America, snake-handlers in the deep woods of Appalachia, animists in most Chinese villages, or whatever, religion persists.

Yet, the conceit among intellectuals that (a) they understand religious belief better than believers, and are (b) capable of rejecting it far more easily has led to a third unchallenged assumption among our late-modern intellectuals - (c) this rejection of religious belief allows them to see and think about the world far more clearly than those who have not done so. Yet, I would ask: if this is so, why don't you see that billions of your fellow human beings not only don't agree with you, but find your insistence that religious belief is no longer a live, viable, human option not just insulting but really kind of silly?

Part of the confusion, I believe, lies in missing an important distinction. On the one hand, many western societies have become far more secular in their official position regarding matters of state. While many western European nations remain officially religious - they have a state-sanctioned church, and regulate religious practice, going so far as, for example, Germany, in which clergy are state employees - in day-to-day reality, the de-Christianizing of their societies (go to any European country on Sunday and check out church attendance; you'll find more people in pubs on Sunday morning than in church) has led to a hands-off approach to religious matters. In the United States, one of the great benefits of the separation of church and state in an official capacity has been the on-going liveliness of our national religious life, yet even here, where even the most convinced political liberal has to make some kind of obeisance to our demand our political leaders have some kind of religious belief, we are increasingly less religious in practice. The golf course, beach, and ski resort are the places we spend our Sunday mornings (or in bed, or sitting around and watching television, the real high priest of our society). Increasingly secular in our social life, the language of religious faith less familiar than a generation ago, our common western heritage gives to religious life a place. This place, however, is far more peripheral to our official view of ourselves than in the past.

The realities of becoming less capable of speaking a common religious vocabulary and the increasing social secularization are not, however, demonstrative of the demise of religious belief as a powerful force, either in our own societies or the world at large. At best, they are part of the larger fracturing of any kind of common vocabulary, common to a diverse, pluralist society. Ours in America has always been a minimalist public vocabulary, rooted in the Constitution and our burgeoning democratic sense (this was first noted by de Tocqueville). The realization that we can speak of religious belief less and less is part of the marginalization of most common vocabularies rather than the demise of religious belief.

Yet, this would seem to contradict my earlier assertion that ours is an increasingly de-Christianized society. I believe, however, that most Americans would profess some kind of belief, in a vague, generalized sense, in some kind of generic God. They would also, I believe, insist that such belief is a necessary part of human life, both personal and communal (in nine days, check out the parking lots at various churches as communities gather for Christmas Eve services if you don't believe me).

This contrasts with the kind of atheism espoused by Scialabba. While less militant than that of, say, Richard Dawkins, it is no less insistent that religious belief is, as George himself says quoting the godfather of western Enlightenment Immanuel Kant, part of our self-imposed social and cultural minority. My problem with quoting Kant in this context, however, is that Kant was a devout Christian, after a fashion. While his expression of belief, given in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone is hardly "orthodox" by any stretch of any definition of that particular word, Kant, the son of an 18th-century evangelical pastor who spent his entire life under the roof of his parents, would hardly insist that part of true Enlightenment is tossing off the shackles of religious belief. He might insist we clarify what kind of religion we profess; for Kant, it was a highly individualized profession, centered in an ethical commitment to our innate moral sense that, he insisted, was the divine spark within us. While later Enlightenment figures in Germany and elsewhere would seek to distance themselves from any profession of religious belief at all - Nietzsche, too, was the child of a Lutheran minister, it should be recalled - to quote Kant in this way is disingenuous.

Skipping forward to our own time, the reality that our public life is dominated by issues and events rooted in various kinds of religious belief is undeniable. Yet, far too many commentators seem unwilling, or unable, to grant this reality, or at any rate to discuss it in an intelligent manner. Even the website, dedicated as it is to fleshing out half-assed religious journalism, doesn't always get to the heart of the matter as it explores various questions and issues and even quotes before us. It would be nice, to be sure, if journalists whose job it is to make sense of various events, could be a little more interested in the relationships among religious belief, religious practice, and public events from the profound to the horrific. Yet, again, this inability on the part of journalists is less evidence of the efficacy of religious belief and simply more evidence of the fracturing of a common vocabulary on any number of topics.

Directly, I think the insistence that religion as a viable human personal and collective option is no longer sustainable, either intellectually or existentially, is demonstrably false. Look around the world, or even one's own community. Indirectly, I believe its repetition, while certainly heartening to the person who holds that view, is evidence that, despite his or her best intentions, it just can't be sustained in the wake of massive evidence to the contrary. While it might be an overall social benefit for religious beliefs of all sorts to just fade away (yet, I'm not sure how that argument makes any sense, considering that officially atheist societies have been, in the previous century, the perpetrators of the most horrific acts of cruelty against their own and other populations), I see no evidence whatsoever that this is going to happen any time soon. Refusing to grasp that fundamental reality, self-declared intellectuals sideline themselves, in many ways, from serious, on-going discussions of public import. While this may give them a sense of their own heroic advantage to we benighted few who still profess some kind of belief in this or that religious tradition, it makes what they say less relevant, and less intellectually honest than it might otherwise be.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Music For Your Monday

Inspired by my friend Wes, I think it's important to remember, in these days when most pop is pretty watered down crap, with too much control in the hands of record company management, artist management, and others who know nothing about music that there was once a time when artist produced music they wanted. In the early 1970's, Elton John released album after album of outstanding music. It is difficult to remember just how extraordinary these songs are, precisely because John has become something of an icon. I should also note that my youngest sister was the biggest Elton John fan I have ever known, so I kind of grew up with these songs in the background a lot.

First comes "Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding", which Dream Theater does covers almost to perfection on their Different Seasons EP. I can't imagine a pop performer even thinking about recording, let alone releasing, anything like this today. At least there was a time it was done.

While George Michael seems to have hijacked this song, I still prefer the original.

Finally, the song that started me thinking about it all today. Funny enough, the lyrics by Bernie Taupin are about . . . Bernie Taupin who saved John from a half-assed suicide attempt as he drew closer to a marriage that would have been a travesty for him. This is "Someone Saved My Life Tonight"

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmas Memories - 1988

If ever there was a Christmas that actually surpassed one from my childhood, it was this year. For one thing, the house was full of people. My parents, of course, and my three of my siblings. My older sister's husband joined us, as well as my youngest sister's then-boyfriend. We awoke on Christmas morning to find the living room quite literally filled to overflowing with gifts. The piles and piles of packages stuck out in to the middle of the floor! Not even when we were kids had there been a Christmas where the room was so full!

If it seems that, at this stage, odd to mention presents, it is important to remember that, at 23, I was the youngest person in the house. Adults usually give and receive smaller gifts; that year, however, we all seemed to get more, and bigger, gifts than ever. This was the year I received my first guitar, a 12-string. Everyone was surprised, with a small chuckle, at the size and extent of the gifts that year.

Because we were older, there was no sense of this Christmas being "about" anything other then sitting around, unwrapping presents, and enjoying one another's company. We certainly did that. There was a tremendous amount of laughter that day. As morning slipped to afternoon slipped to evening, it seemed the gift-opening would never end. We broke for dinner later than usual - it was after eight o'clock, I think - and still had oodles of packages to unwrap. We finished just shy of midnight, making it easily the longest time spent together unwrapping gifts.

We snacked during the day, spent time talking about finding this or that gift, commented on whether a present was given in good taste or bad, as a joke or as something more serious. We reminisced about Christmases past, and other gifts of a similar quality or kind that meant something to us. Most of all, we just enjoyed sharing the time together.

Never again would I have a Christmas, at my parents' house or anywhere else, with such a crowd or such a sense of simple enjoyment. I, for one, cherished that whole season, from the arrival of my brother to the bemused smile on my brother-in-law's face when he realized my mother had determined he would collect rhinos as his particular family collectible (my mother had decided that everyone in the family would collect figurines of this or that animal; mine, with no irony at all, is elephants). It was a day with little or no rancor; rather, just a day with eight adults enjoying Christmas and one another's company. It recaptured, for one brief, shining, moment that sense of wonder and enjoyment I always had as a child, a part of a large, boisterous family that could revel, at least for that day and time, in one another's company.

Which Question Deals With The Reality?

Getting a tip on a piece by Matt Taibbi is always a good thing. Even when it is a slam at the Obama Administration and its management of the economy. Sad to say, I was not aware that two of Obama's inner circle, folks who pushed serious reform in the direction of economic democracy and tighter controls on financial institutions and transactions, were replaced almost the moment Obama won the election by Wall Street insiders.

There is a part of me that wants to defend this kind of thing. Who else did people think would be in charge of economic policy? As even Taibbi notes, most of those mentioned were not only executives at Citigroup; they were also veterans of the Clinton Administration. While it is true the Clinton Administration was the period of time during which the basis for the current crisis was laid, most especially the '99 repeal of Glass-Steagall, although other regulatory provisions on banking, investment, and financial products in general were weakened during the Clinton years as well. It should also be noted it wasn't Bill Clinton or Bob Rubin who repealed Glass-Steagall's provision on separating investment from commercial banking, but Congress, with former Texas Republican Phil Gramm taking the lead.

Yet, there really is no defense for Obama's actions. He not only had people already in place who had sound policy recommendations. There were various advisers, formal and informal, who were making all sorts of recommendations and proposals that could have benefited the newly-victorious President-elect. Instead, he made a crucial error, thinking that people with experience in both government and industry at the highest levels were more capable of dealing with the crisis then those who did not have the experience. That there were serious questions regarding the role, and even responsibility, senior banking executives played not only in setting the housing bubble - and its effect upon the economy in general - in motion; having these same people turn around and devise a plan that, in essence, saved them from the worst effects of their own actions is unconscionable.

Taibbi begins his piece asking the following questions:
Is [Obama] just a rookie in the political big leagues, hoodwinked by Beltway old-timers? Or is the vacillating, ineffectual servant of banking interests we've been seeing on TV this fall who Obama really is?

Whether the source of Obama's decision to look for help from the very people who brought about our current catastrophe lies in inexperience or naivete is important, but also irrelevant. My own guess is that, in reality, it was a deliberate decision on his part, done in the belief that "these people know best", even if actual evidence shows they really don't know anything at all. Yet, it is important to ask the question, because it goes to the heart of how Obama will govern for the rest of his time in office, and how we evaluate his performance.

So, deliberate choice? Ignorance based either in inexperience or exuberance? What do you think?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Saturday Rock Show

About fourteen years ago, Molly Hatchet performed at a small speedway in southside VA. They stayed at the small roadside hotel at which I worked. I received quite a few complaints and ended up heading over to their rooms, to find the band had left (their tour bus was gone from the parking lot) and they had managed to trash their hotel rooms quite nicely. It ticked me off, because of all the later additions to the whole southern rock thing, I liked them quite a lot, and this cover of Greg Allman's "Dreams" is one of the few cover songs I think actually improves on the original.

The Scaredy-Cat Delusional Left

One would think that, having won two national elections in a row, liberals might be a bit more bold. I'm not talking about Democrats in Congress, mind you; since most of those folks spent a good chunk of their careers in the minority, they have become quite used to being cowed in the face of Republican intransigence and nonsense. I am talking, first and foremost, of those liberals and leftists who blog, comment on blogs and news articles, are most vocal in our current public discussions on health care reform, the economy, the opening of discussions on financial re-regulation, and, of course, the Presidency of Barack Obama. I have become increasingly frustrated with the fact that most of these folks believe, lacking any evidence whatsoever, that the radicalization of the Republican Party, its embrace of a combination of ignorance and a seething social rage just barely this side of out-and-out violence is a sure formula for success.

What utter nonsense.

Take, for example, the following comment, which follows a piece at Washington Monthly online on a Virginia Republican who, in the face of overheated rhetoric (the feds are gang-raping America), rather than confronting it and the person who said it, seems to agree with the sentiment.
The really scary thing is the potential snowball effect. Neo-Klan loudmouths talk rape, murder and revolution, rightwing politicans coddle them, Democratic supporters become disillusioned and don't vote due to Republican stonewalling and Democratic wimpiness, Republicans take power, fear the Baggers will turn on them if they don't deliver, and produce a fascist government they may not even believe in. I know Grassley doesn't, for one; like so many of them he's just terrified of a primary challenge from the right. But would he object to being part of a dictatorship? No, he'd love to be up on the balcony wearing the armband. Dark days, today and tomorrow.(emphasis added)

"Dark days"? Ridiculous. Last time I checked, the Democrats have 58 seats in the United States Senate, with the two independent members caucusing with them. The House majority is larger than any the Republicans had in their twelve years in control from 1994 through 2006. And while it is indeed true that his favorability numbers are falling, Pres. Obama is the first Democratic President since Lyndon Johnson to enjoy such wide support for so long after his election, and pretty much across the board. Indeed, even Ronald Reagan had serious problems in favorability as the recession of the early 1980's - a very different animal to be sure - dragged on and on. In many ways, Barack Obama is by far the most successful American President with the American people in a very long time.

Yet, the election of Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, a Democratic President, a resetting of our national policy agenda away from tax cuts in perpetuity for the wealthy and the freeing of any restrictions on capital and financial transactions does not seem to satisfy. The attention the press paid over the August Congressional recess to the Tea Party movement has only fed that particular beast, to be sure; the persistence of Sarah Palin in our national consciousness is the one gift, sad to say, the McCain campaign has bequeathed the American public. We face climate skeptics, evolution skeptics, even birth-skeptics who believe that Barack Obama not only was not born in the United States, but that a massive conspiracy has hidden this truth from the American people. Liberals, for all their claims to a greater clarity of vision and adherence to the principles of science and understanding, are actually surprised that these notions, all easily proven to be factually inaccurate, nevertheless survive and even thrive in the fever swamps of the right.

With the persistence of these imaginary threats, we also have the rough road health care reform has faced. The emergence of a few folks as opponents - Olympia Snowe and Ben Nelson; Joe Lieberman and Bart Stupak - has generated so much concern that there is the widespread belief that it will fail, to the detriment not only of the millions of uninsured Americans, but the electoral and political fortunes of the Democrats. Now, obviously, since the world is imperfect, this is a live possibility. Yet, it seems that quite a few minds have already been made up that even the bill before the Congress right now is so awful, so devoid of merit - the magic phrase "public option" is on everyone's lips, even if few seem to understand that it really is nothing more than Medicare for everybody; which is why (surprise, surprise) the insurance industry is opposed to it - that passage in a form even somewhat similar would be tantamount to defeat.

Now, I have issues with the way health care reform has been done. It seems to me the best things the sponsors of the legislation could have done would be to do a quick study of the way the varieties of public health insurance work in industrialized countries then cherry-pick the ideas and programs that best fit the United States. This isn't rocket science, and far too many people seem to believe we as a nation are reinventing the wheel.

My larger complaint right now, however, is with those who seem to believe that disagreement on this issue is not just error-prone, but somehow immoral. The language of rights, already overburdened, has been weighted down with the addition of health care. Without explanation, without defense, with more moral fervor than intellectual muscle, liberals and leftists are demanding opponents stand aside because health care is a right and the passage of health care reform is a moral imperative.

Are they so afraid of actual debate they would silence opponents by painting them as immoral, in much the way the whole "death panel" nonsense suggested that behind the Democratic designs on health care reform was a kind of eugenics? The fear and loathing among liberals has become, in many instances - far too many - a mirror of the delusions among those on the right. We cannot have a dispassionate discussion on the merits, accepting the good faith and will of our opponents. Indeed, the entire social and cultural basis of our democracy - our pluralist acceptance of difference as a boon, with those differences to be negotiated constantly, including on issues of power - is not only forgotten, it seems to be a matter of scorn.

I suppose mine is one of those namby-pamby voices of moderation, a phony liberal who would surrender in the face of opposition. Since my complain, however, is that far too many liberals have surrendered, not so much because of the merits of disagreement but its reality, I find this difficult to swallow. One of the merits, to me at any rate, of the Obama Administration, is the respect the President shows for the inherent limits of the office, including a refusal to act as if he is "legislator-in-chief". He has made his legislative program known, offered his preference for certain specifics, and is sitting back and letting Congress do its job. This display of respect for the Office of the President has few fans on the left, however. Since one of the many complaints about the Bush Administration was its Imperial nature, its scoffing at any limits on Presidential power, one would think that an Administration that makes a virtue of these limits would be celebrated.

Instead, we hear the constant complaint that the President isn't "doing enough" for health care reform. Um, last time I checked, we the people have a role in this. Contacting our elected representatives, getting information to them, insisting that a vote one way or another on their part would help or hurt their future electoral prospects - while there are some who voice this opinion, far too often what one hears is a whine that it's all the President's fault.

I guess this rant is about done. All I can say is the following, and mark this post for reference in a year's time: the Republicans are headed to electoral disaster next year, and there will be a leftward swing, not huge, but noticeable, among the Democratic caucus in both Houses of Congress. Health care reform, and soon financial re-regulation, will pass in some manner, fashion, or form, and form the cornerstone of the platform the Democrats will take to the American people next fall. The notion that the Republicans are poised for some kind of comeback is ridiculous on its face, considering the current state of the Party and its elected members.

We liberals need to learn how to celebrate victory a little, but also how to celebrate democracy, too.

Virtual Tin Cup

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