Saturday, July 25, 2009

Saturday Rock Show

Because I'm two months out from my first ever Porcupine Tree show at the Vic, here they are with an older tune, "Dark Matter". It's just the song with a blank screen. Musically, the band has changed quite a bit, but what group around for nearly 20 years hasn't, unless they're Iron Maiden?

One Last Time, With Feeling

In many ways, taking up the discussion concerning religion and our public life is a good thing, because the whole discussion a couple years ago became clouded by the fact that the most vocal opponents of something they invented and called "religion" were really crackpots. It is an important discussion to have. The recently departed Bush Administration was in many ways the most sectarian of American Presidential Administrations, perhaps since hyper-Presbyterian Woodrow Wilson occupied the White House. Both exhibited the calm assurance of faith; both practiced executive hubris that led to the utter failure of their most important policy initiatives, and in the more recent case the near-destruction of our economic infrastructure. A better argument for keeping one's religious beliefs out of the practice of governance could not be constructed.

Yet, the discussion seems to be returning to the whole issue of whether or not supporting religious beliefs is even legitimate. This is a weird argument to be having, actually. After all, there are as many varieties of religious belief and practice as there are human communities. Even Christianity is a divided house, with eastern and western branches, Protestant and Catholic, various minority sects such as the Coptic Church, the Marionite Christians of Lebanon, Mennonites and Amish, Seventh Day Baptists and even Messianic Jews. The split between the Reformed and Lutheran Churches, between Anglican and Methodists, even between, say Methodists and Wesleyan churches should be enough to convince even a casual observer that variety is part and parcel of religious practice. Yet, there are those who persist in writing about "religion" without even acknowledging this humdrum reality.

One of the fun things about taking up this topic is exposing the ignorance of those who berate Christians for being ignorant dupes. While in and of itself not a counter-argument, it does at least have the advantage of making the case that not every doofus believes in God. A secular doofus is just as stupid.
Harris's case for torture is this: since "we" are OK with horrific collateral damage, "we" should have no qualms against waterboarding, the lesser evil. "It's better than death." Better, in other words, than bombing innocents.

Then again, Sam Harris is not devoting his time in the media to call for an end to bombing civilians. Attacking the sacred cow of airstrikes might have been a real heresy, true to his Quaker roots but ensuring himself exile from cable news. Instead the logic he lays out -- that Islam itself is our enemy -- invites the reader to feel comfort at the deaths of its believers. He writes: "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them."

This snippet from a two-and-a-half year old interview with Sam Harris on makes a case far more clearly than any reasoned discussion I can imagine that Harris is not someone to be taken seriously. I see little moral or intellectual distance between the position Harris is taking here - torture is OK, killing people because they have religious beliefs is fine (I thought we prosecuted a bunch of Germans for doing that . . .) - and one offered by, say, an anti-abortion fanatic who refuses to condemn the murder of an abortion doctor, and spouts off falsely on all the "proven" dangers of abortion and calls a fetus "the preborn". The latter is a fanatic, pure and simple. So is Harris. Just as ignorant, just as willing to dehumanize the alleged opposition to all things bright and beautiful, just as willing to kill to create their perfect world.

Turning to Richard Dawkins, I can only say that his own strident claim that religion is an active danger to the physical and intellectual health of the human species is undermined by his own ignorance, hubris, and blindness.

In plain English, the "debate" over "religion" is, for the most part, truly stupid. Religion is a human social phenomenon wondrous in its variety, capable of inducing both heroism and atrocities. No less so than any other human phenomenon. I want no part of it. It is a waste of time. While discussing the relative merits of religious belief and practice and its role in public dialogue and even public policy is certainly important, invoking these small-minded, ignorant blowhards does nothing but turn me off. It is far more important to take for granted that religion will continue to exist, in whatever forms it may take, and ask how it can become a force for the public good, rather than insist it should be eradicated from human life entirely. The latter stems from ignorant fanaticism, the desires of utopian fantasies that can only lead to violence. The former is far more important, and realistic.

That's the discussion I will enter. That's the discussion we need to have. Anything else is just nonsense.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Fetal Obsession

I was reading Jamison Foser's discussion of the "privileging" of the anti-abortion position in discussions of health care reform, and was reminded of two recent incidents involving Pres. Obama and the Roman Catholic Church. Late last spring, a few anti-choice Catholics tried to create something out of nothing because the President was invited to give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. No matter how often it was pointed out that the "protesters" were a tiny segment of the UND community, and that many of them, including their leaders, were neither part of the Notre Dame community nor even Roman Catholic, the media continued to act as if the campus was on the verge of exploding over the issue.

Fast forward to Pres. Obama's trip to Europe earlier this summer for the G8 Conference, and I heard a report - on NPR? somewhere . . . - on an audience the President had with Pope Benedict XVI. Whoever did this report (and, no, I tried to find it and cannot; Google has failed me) spent quite a bit of time commenting on how the Pope seemed quite at ease with the President, even charmed by him (my guess is that's not hard as Pres. Obama seems like a pretty charming, disarming guy) despite the fact that Obama is pro-choice. Say what one will about Josef Ratzinger, my guess is he is astute enough as the currently-reigning Pontiff to raise issues with an American President that go beyond abortion.

Furthermore, there is more to Roman Catholic doctrine than abortion. There are many potential points of contact between a moderately liberal American President and a pretty conservative Roman Catholic Pope. Yet, it was the abortion angle that seemed to overwhelm at least the discussion I heard.

Is it at all possible to have some kind of public discussion in which the human fetus does not suddenly become all-important?

Swatting At Flies

Hard on the heels of my decision to take up the issue of religion and its place in our public life, I have come across an article at entitled "The Silliest Smear".
IT'S hardly a new charge against atheists, but it has come up again several times recently in the blogosphere: that today's secularists, atheists, anti-theists and whatnot, including the publicly active ones, are "just as fundamentalist as the fundamentalists". It appears again and again in reader e-mails sent to Andrew Sullivan's blog (currently in the hands of guest-bloggers). This trope needs to be laughed out of existence, immediately.

Laughed out of existence? A smear? The evidence for this kind of talk . . .
First and most salient, as Oxford's Tim Garton Ash writes, "there are no al-Darwinia brigades making bombs in secret laboratories in north Oxford." Yes, sigh, many atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennet are just as convinced that there is no God as Osama bin Laden is convinced that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger. On one hand you have faith that makes people fly planes into buildings, genitally mutilate young girls, murder abortion doctors (in church), stone adultresses, outlaw certain forms of consensual sex or even just make it impossible to buy beer on Sunday in some states. On the other hand there is the atheist "faith" that makes people write smug op-eds, put ads on buses (see photo), file frivolous lawsuits against nativity scenes on public property, and the like. Show me what harm in the world a prominent atheist intellectual has done.

Ah, but Stalin and Hitler and Mao! Give me a break. Sure, they were atheists. But they did not kill because they were atheists. Hitler was a fanatical racist and Mao and Stalin fanatical communists, and they killed in the name of those fundamentalist philosophies.

This last paragraph is just factually inaccurate. Writing off the mass death in the name of atheist political ideologies by laying it at the feet of the personal psychoses of the political leaders is to diminish their crimes, and to ignore the reality that, at least in the case of the communist criminals, they were either actively murdered or passively allowed to die in the name of something called "scientific socialism". Not just atheism, but the rational reconstruction of the social order. In the case of Hitler, the issue becomes more than confused due to the fact that the Nazi movement was beginning to move in an officially pagan direction even as the Second World War began to go badly. Be that as it may - replacing one religion with another hardly matters in this case precisely because at a deeper level, contempt for human life was part and parcel of the Nazi ideology - to dismiss the reality that millions of human beings died in the 20th century in the name of atheist ideology as hardly worth mentioning in the same breath as Islamic terrorism or Christianist violence here in the United States, in my opinion, makes an interlocutor hardly serious.

It is also good that the author mentions Christopher Hitchens. In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Hitchens, effectively, switched ideological sides. Viewing the issue as not as a complex mix of history, religion, anti-imperialism, and even racim, but rather as a simple war of civilization confronted by barbarian hordes, Hitchens ceased writing for The Nation, and began to vocally support George W. Bush and his Administration, going so far as to endorse Bush for a second term in 2004. This put Hitchens in the odd (for him at any rate) position of defending an Administration dedicated to the same irrational principles that he claimed to abhor in Americas adversaries. A vocal proponent of the American invasion of Iraq, and a supporter of our continued presence, while perhaps not a trigger-man, he has nonetheless pimped a destructive, illegal war, and in the process supported a gang of fundamentalist know-nothings and crooks, perhaps the single worst eight year term of any President in American history. As far as I am concerned, his refusal to acknowledge the Iraq invasion as a horrid error that should never even have been offered as a possibility, and his unflagging cheerleading for Pres. Bush have left blood on his hands no less than on far more well-known Bush-pimps like Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol.

That he's an atheist is neither here nor there. His moral myopia is not a result of his atheism. Yet, he is no different than a fundamentalist Christian who refuses to condemn a murderer of an abortion doctor.

To say that atheists are somehow morally superior to religious believers because some of our current troubles are rooted in religious belief is to celebrate a bit prematurely. In reality, human beings are quite willing and able to kill, either individually or collectively, then make up the reasons afterward, religion being only part of the mix. It is not a "silly smear" to note that some of the most vocal opponents of "religion" are moral lepers who nevertheless are celebrated by some as enlightened leaders against a benighted few who still cling to medieval myths and ancient writings rather than the greatness and power of modern science and rationality. Rather, that's just pointing out some sad facts.

There are some serious issues concerning the role of religion in our public life, and its deleterious effects. To casually dismiss as "silly" the reality that this discussion is not helped by ethically-challenged neo-Nazis who actually believe it possible to eradicate "religion" when they show no understanding of religion not only doesn't help. It shows as much ignorance as we religious folk are supposed to practice.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

No Offense Taken

It is with great joy that I was led to read this blurb on a forthcoming book called The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. Dealing with one or two titular Christian bloggers has led me to the conclusion that, for them at any rate, Jesus isn't so much about forgiveness and love as he is about whining and feeling sorry for himself.
Taking offense and getting angry aren't exactly the same thing. Anger has to do with the intolerable difference between what is and what ought to be, which is to say, with injustice. Offendedness has to do with my own discomfort with the difference between how I feel and how I'd prefer to feel. Offendedness makes it all about me.

Back before he sank without a trace from our public square, Sam Harris became a lightning-rod for many Christians who took "offense" at his attack on the Christian faith. Rather than discuss his "arguments" in any kind of detail, they puffed up their chests in righteous indignation and pronounced his work "offensive". I would add that much the same treatment was visited upon Richard Dawkins for his God Delusion, which was really nothing more than a rehash of arguments around for a couple centuries or so, packaged with a fevered proclamation that getting rid of religion (about which Dawkins evidenced no understanding whatsoever) would make the world a better place. When I wrote about these two gentlemen, I was attacked in similar fashion; it was somehow beyond the pale that someone who is a professed believer say anything about the air-tight arguments these two geniuses make about religion! I was confused, intellectually incoherent and dishonest, and as much a part of the problem as my fundamentalist relatives in the faith.

Finally getting around to talking about the issue of offendedness, we can begin to dismantle the industry of Christian whining about the lack of respect they receive. We can talk about religion in intelligent, thoughtful ways, rather than get sidetracked over who offended whom and how. I always thought it funny that no one quite understood that I was not at all "offended" by the "arguments" made by the likes of Harris and Dawkins. Rather, I took them seriously enough to expose them for the silly, shallow drivel they were. How can one get offended by someone ignorant enough to believe that redressing an 18th century skeptical argument against the existence of God is somehow presenting something new and incontrovertible in to such a discussion?

We Christians need to toughen up. When you enter the public square, and declare yourself a believer, assume that there are those who won't like you for that very reason (there's a Bible verse or two on this subject I could quote to make my point; my hope is I don't have to). Don't be so thin-skinned. It isn't personal when I or others disagree with you. I don't take offense when folks get touchy with me. I might laugh, or get frustrated at a lack of understanding, or wish that people who said we Christians are ignorant rubes would be a little less ignorant themselves. That's not being offended, it's just trying to keep the discussion going without taking another's terms for the rule of the debate.

We Christians need to suck it up a tad. God isn't outlawed in the classroom, removed from the public square, or no longer a part of our social and cultural life. Anyone who says these kinds of things, and claims offense at them, doesn't think too much of God, after all.

Revolting Elites

The late Christopher Lasch had his unfinished final work edited by his daughter and published posthumously. Entitled Revolt of the Elites, it chronicled (as best it could under the circumstances) the ways in which our political, educational, corporate, and media elites began to view the American people as ignorant boobs, in need of bread and circuses rather than politics; entertainment rather than news; and trivia rather than serious reflection on our current national condition. It was an intriguing thesis, and I have pondered it often over the years since I first read it. By removing the question of ideology from the mix, and focusing on certain social and cultural realities that are easier to trace (such as, for example, the Ivy League inbreeding of so many of our elites), the dynamics of much of our social and political life come in to a different, but no less clear, focus.

This is not to dismiss ideology from the mix of our public life. Rather, by taking its cue from certain facts and trends, including ideological and political trends, it puts ideology in the larger context of our social life, social structure, and cultural traditions, and we end up with a far more nuanced, far more interesting snapshot, among other things, of our public discourse and its discontents (and occasional malcontents). As I noted earlier, the day is chock-a-block with really fun stuff. It seems most of our political establishment has lost its collective mind. One could take the easy road and say, "Well, they're all just a bunch of pig-ignorant wing-nuts. Screw 'em!" While it is certainly more than true there are plenty of low-info folks out there offering their opinions on matters they really don't understand, it should be pointed out that, very often, the people who complain the loudest when things don't go their way are usually children, whether in terms of age or temperament.

It is as much intellectual laziness as it is keen observation to say, in effect, "They're all stupid, so why be surprised when they say something stupid!" Some of our elites, despite receiving education at excellent institutions of higher learning, are indeed as dumb as a creel of dead fish (see Bush, George W., Presidential Administration of for details), there are larger dynamic at work here than simple stupidity.

My own impression is the idea that the vast bulk of the American people aren't very bright really began in the mid- to late-1960's, as George Wallace surprised a whole lot of folks in the 1968 Presidential race. While his appeal was certainly strong across the south for racial reasons, he also appealed to many working class whites in the northeast and upper midwest. Observers at the time believed this to be a case of status anxiety. Others saw it as a populist revolt against the elitism of the youth anti-war and counter-cultural movements. Andrew Greeley, then a practicing sociologist at the University of Chicago, put it down to both causes. Whatever the reasons (and my guess is racism in the big cities had much to do with it, as well), the end result was the infamous "Southern Strategy" Richard Nixon employed so successfully in 1968, a playbook Republicans have returned to time and again. With the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision, religious conservatives re-entered public life in a big way, as the anti-abortion (really anti-sex) movement exploding on the scene. Social and cultural conservatism had come in to its own, and the Republican Party was reaping the rewards.

Yet, as I noted on Sunday, the Republican Party has failed to deliver, for the most part, on any of its social agenda, for what is most likely the simplest reason - they don't really believe in it. While it may be true there are liberals out there who express a certain hauteur when dealing with conservatives, this is no less so for elites of any persuasion. One of the worst examples of the former phenomenon happened during the Clinton years. During a discussion of the charges made against Clinton by Paula Jones, one of the President's defenders said, "Well, you never know what you're going get when you drag a $20 bill through a trailer park." While Jones' charges were deemed without legal merit, to dismiss them entirely as confabulation in this way gave Clinton's opponents all the ammunition they needed to screech about Democratic and liberal elitism.

Yet, the same phenomenon occurs on the other side, yet is far more subtle. Bill Kristol's ongoing support of soon-to-be former-Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska is a case in point. For all his faults, Kristol isn't a dumb guy. Yet, his insistence that, despite evidence that it was Sarah Palin's presence on the Republican ticket that torpedoed McCain's chance at victory last fall, I believe that Kristol is supporting her for the same reason that so many liberals make fun of her - she is attractive to the far-right base of the Republican Party. I believe, Kristol is trying to be her political groomer because it is politically expedient to do so. She is, to be sure, popular with the base. The rest of America, however, is quite done with her, and made their feelings known in no uncertain terms last year during that whole election thing.

Fast forward to Pres. Obama's press conference last night, and we have another instance of this same phenomenon. The press conference was supposed to deal with the on-going fight on health care reform. It ended up being, in the minds of far too many, about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It is certainly easy (same link to Sadly,No! as above in the first instance) to dismiss this as press corps stupidity. My guess, however, is the question was rooted in the assumption on the part of the reporter who asked the question that there is a segment of the American public truly interested in the opinions of our first African-American President on the arrest of a prominent African-American intellectual on seriously bogus charges. That it has become a bit of a distraction for the President is due in no small part not to press corps apathy toward the health care debate so much as it is their belief that the American people don't care all that much about the health care reform debate.

None of this is to say that there aren't truly dumb people in the press corps and punditry. There are, and some of these truly dumb people hold prominent positions (just think of David Broder getting glassy-eyed as Al Gore talked serious policy during a 2000 debate with then-Gov. George W. Bush, or Lou Dobbs ongoing obsession with the birther nonsense on CNN). Yet, I think these kinds of things become part of the general milieu of received, conventional wisdom not only because there are reporters who aren't that bright, but because many of their cohort hold the American people in contempt, intellectually.

When I started this particular web log, the weekend before the 2006 mid-term elections, I had to deal with a liberal blogger (he doesn't blog anymore, too bad) who insisted that the Republican Party would win the elections, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, and when they did so, the "sheeple" (as he called them), would blithely and silently go along with such obvious election fraud. I insisted that (a) the polls certainly suggested a Democratic victory was at hand; (b) Rove's now-infamous "the math" comment was a gambler's bluff more than anything else; (c) I trusted the American people to do what was in their interest in light of a whole series of events, and toss the right out of power. That I was vindicated in all three positions doesn't matter as much as the fact that it was the last one - my innate trust of the American people to vote in their interests when things are really down - that was the root cause of my lack of concern over that election, or the 2008 Presidential election. Unlike so-called right-wing populists, I believe I am far more a populist because I trust the American people to do what is right for the times.

Right now, the in-fighting in Washington is not based on ideological differences, or corporate corruption of the process, or the intellectual vacuity of our civic institutions including the national press corps. Rather, the in-fighting in Washington is rooted in the stake-holders of the status quo who are fundamentally undemocratic, do not trust the American people, and wish to keep the entire process in the hands of those who have held power for 40 years to our near-national demise; and those, including I would argue the President who trust the wisdom and intelligence of the American people, treat us like grown-ups, and refuse to allow themselves to be dragged down to the level of intellectually interrupted individuals simply because there is a general belief that America is too stupid to do policy.

My guess is, in the long run, the President is going to win this fight, too.

An Embarrassment Of Riches!

Slept in today, and am aghast at the amount of potential blogging material out there. It is almost like a cartoon of a tiny person and a huge person on a teetertotter. The huge person jumps on his end, and the tiny person not only goes up fast, but launches in to the sky; it seems that has happened to the mainstream media, the right-wing, even a United States Senator. I've had two cups of coffee and I'm still not quite ready to deal with it all.

The establishment has gone off its nut. It would be funny if the status quo weren't a complete train wreck.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Maybe A Good Conversation Starter

Over the past two-and-a-half years of blogging, I have occasionally encountered folk who express the oddest sentiments regarding Christianity, Jesus, God, and "religion". Two years ago, I did a post that highlighted an example of intellectual dishonesty on the part of an anti-Christian writer. In response to this post, some hilarity ensued. It all boiled down to what I consider serious problems in the way we talk about "religion", Christianity, and our public and social life. This situation has certainly not been helped in any way by fundamentalist Christians whose stated positions on belief bear little relationship to the way Christians have construed those concepts. The resulting backlash - the "evangelical atheists" - is a confused and muddled, occasionally rage-filled and incoherent as their right-wing counterparts, which leaves the vast bulk of us, believers and non-believers, Christians and those of other faith traditions, trying to figure out where it is we fit in.

In light of Rick Perlstein's very magnanimous decision to include some of my words, and the fact that I am a self-professed liberal Christian married to a woman minister in a mainline denomination, in an article posted in Newsweek on-line yesterday, I think this issue bears a little revisiting. Part of the reason Perlstein felt moved to include me in this article was my stated position as a Christian and a liberal, something that his interlocutor, Bill O'Reilly, seems to think doesn't exist. That is to say, as Perlstein does quite succinctly, that liberals are a threat to something The Factor host calls "Judeo-Christian values." Now, since O'Reilly rarely displays such values on his program, I sometimes wonder why he would defend something that, in practice, he displays not at all.

Obviously, the answer is "money". Defending a meaningless set of words that describe a set of political and social values rather than any virtues or ethical position related to either the Jewish or Christian faiths and their variants is a way to bring in viewers, therefore ad revenue, therefore more money for O'Reilly. Many people seem to think that O'Reilly is some kind of "conservative", neo- or otherwise. In actual fact, I don't believe O'Reilly has any set of overriding values other than self-promotion. His disdain for Perlstein, whom he described as "someone who wrote a book [Nixonland] no one read" indicates the values O'Reilly holds closest - popularity and success.

I would have preferred that Perlstein take the discussion of O'Reilly's frequent invocation of "Judeo-Christian values" a bit further, but at least a beginning has been made in this regard. Such a discussion, an air-clearing as it were, would be a good start. It would save me laughing until I cried over people who tell me I'm confused in my identity, that "my Jesus" has anything to do with the United States government, and that we "religious people" are the real source of so many ills. These folks, no less than their religious fundamentalist adversaries, are as much a part of the problem as anything.

Some General Thoughts On Health Care Reform

The opponents of health care reform are doubling down, going for broke, thinking they can get Pres. Obama over a barrel, just as they did to Pres. Clinton 15 years ago. They think they have a winner in obstructing and killing legislation that would make health care affordable and accessible to the tens of millions of Americans currently uninsured. Whether its the lie that legislation currently under consideration would outlaw private insurance or the hyperbole that "government-run health care will kill people", they are pulling out every possible scare-tactic in order to make sure this particular Hercules is strangled in its crib by the giant snake of fear and power.

Considering a national health plan was first part of Democratic policy initiatives in the 1948 Presidential campaign, I would hardly think that considering legislation on the matter 61 years later is "ramming" the issue down the throats of the American people. One matter that is never mentioned in polite - by which I mean televised - discussions concerns the oft-touted question of "cost". While it may be true that there are initial costs that seem prohibitive to such a venture, part of that is due to the simple reality that, per capita, we in the US pay roughly twice what those in many other industrialized countries pay for health care. Think about that. Smaller countries with fewer people utilizing nationalized health care actually control the cost better than we do. Furthermore, the quality of care is roughly the same. The oft-repeated myth that the United States has "the best health care system in the world" is not only factually inaccurate, but by sheer repetition induces a kind of inertia. "If it isn't broke, why tinker with it," right? Except, it is broken. Not only are our per capita outlays far more than those of other nations; we have to cover the cost of the uninsured at higher rates. When an uninsured individual shows up at an emergency room with a serious condition, if that person receives treatment, we taxpayers end up footing the bill in some manner. Wouldn't it be preferable to pay that bill at a lower rate?

We currently ration our health care based on an individual's ability to pay for it. The uninsured put off seeing a doctor until an emergent situation, which is far more costly, and usually limits treatment because of high cost, than if they saw a physician they knew and trusted in an office visit. Examples of people being denied treatment in Euro-style national health centers and hospitals, while certainly unfortunate, ignore the uncomfortable fact that far more Americans are either denied treatment because the insurance company refuses to cover it (or have their coverage yanked, and end up in bankruptcy thanks to out-of-sight medical bills), or are limited in treatment options due to insurance company restrictions. Whenever I hear an opponent of health care reform talk about "some government bureaucrat getting between you and your doctor", I wonder if they realize that private health insurance industry bureaucrats do this kind of thing all the time, resulting in all kinds of suffering, restricted care, and even death.

As far as the bugaboo named "socialism" is concerned, except for a few for whom this seems to mean, "The United States is becoming the Soviet Union!!", no one seems to care. The vast majority of the American people (73% in one recent survey) support health care reform including a public option, and we have reached a point, politically, where it is feasible. Since various countries have national health care plans that are less expensive, offer similar or even better quality care than ours for less money, and free up money for other socially worthy endeavors through these savings, it seems to me this should be a no-brainer, especially to the fiscally prudent. Except, of course, "no-brain" seems to be the way opponents are going with their opposition.

One was some on the right think they can torpedo health care reform is by raising the specter of abortion. Since Medicare currently covers the cost of Viagra, yet Medicaid does not pay for birth control for women, I do believe this opens the door to a whole subject the right wouldn't want to go down, but since they are beginning to do so, let us go there. Under current federal law, Medicaid does not pay for abortions. I can envisage all sorts of treatments that a national health care plan would not cover, from rhinoplasty to tonsil/adenoid removal without some emergent condition threatening the life or long-term health of the patient. Yet, when pregnancy does threaten the life or long-term health (including reproductive health) of a woman - whether it's an ectopic pregnancy, or some kind of acute emergent condition in which a decision to save one or the other (mother or fetus) but not both becomes paramount - it seems to me that covering the cost of an emergency abortion should be a pretty easy decision to make. Most private insurance plans don't cover things like a nose-job or other plastic surgery. Abortions, like-wise, aren't covered. I can envisage all sorts of restrictions placed on various medical procedures, conditions set as cost-control. Yet, if a woman, in consultation with her physician, decides that an abortion is necessary to save her life or long-term health, where's the controversy, unless the holy fetus and its existence trumps even the life and health of the mother? Since the Supreme Court of the US says that abortion is legal; that third-trimester abortions can be regulated except in cases where the life or health of the mother is threatened, legally, I'm not sure where abortion opponents have a leg to stand on.

Now, does this mean that, say, a Catholic hospital will be forced to perform abortions? Of course not! Since they wouldn't be considered as a treatment option anyway, this isn't a serious claim. My advice, as always, to all those who scream about abortion is simple - don't have one. If, in consultation with her physician, a woman understands the option as necessary, and she so chooses - don't become that meddling bureaucrat that stands between an individual and her physician!

I understand that health care reform is a bruising battle right now. The opponents of such reform are going to get more and more shrill the closer any measure comes to consideration for a vote. Yet, if we Americans are going to get through the next century, not get left behind, burdened with spiraling costs and diminished care, a new national caste system based on an individual's ability to receive quality medical care at low cost, and free up our national wealth for other equally worthy social needs, the time is now.

Let's just get it done.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

That Was Quick!

I was figuring it would be the end of the week before it appeared. To make a very long, surprising story very short, may I just say that Rick Persltein knows who I am.
O'Reilly claimed in his column that I, and Newsweek magazine, too, am part of a movement, one that wants "to knock out Judeo-Christian traditions." I suppose he would include in this movement the friendly blogger I quoted above, the one who sympathetically paraphrased my article—even though that writer, Geoffrey Kruse-Safford, a religious liberal from Rockford, Illinois, calls his blog "What's Left in the Church." (Geoffrey's not a minister, but his wife is.) But me, and Geoffrey, and the "citizen of Kenya" Barack Obama, and probably Geoffrey's minister wife: some Americans want to insist we are aliens; others, not really American at all.

Earlier in the piece, he quotes a blog post I wrote on Sunday at some length.

I'm honored, and humbled by this.

Reaping What They Sow

The Republican Party has floated every possible bit of nuttiness in to our mainstream public discourse over the past generation. Whether it's the alleged communism of Martin Luther King, Jr. (promoted by the late Sen. Jesse Helms) to the Obama birth certificate nonsense, to the myriad charges of treason and anti-Americanism hurled at Democrats and non-right-wingers, if it seems outlandish, has no basis in reality, and manages to smear the reputation and patriotism of a major Democratic politician or liberal public figure, it's been said and done.

What happens when a non-right-wing Republican holds a town meeting and his partisan constituents gather? This:
‘Socialized Medicine’ Will Destroy The Nation ‘Faster Than The Twin Towers.’ Audience member: “I don’t have the answers for how to fix the broken pieces of our health care system, but I know darn well if we let the government bring in socialized medicine, it will destroy this thing faster than the twin towers came down.” [Applause and cheers]

The Cap And Trade ‘Tax’ Will Kill The American Economy. Audience member: “Do you have any idea what that cap and trade tax thing, bill that you passed is going to do to the Suffolk County poultry industry? That’s how chicken houses are heated, with propane. It outputs CO2. I mean, I’m outputting CO2 right now as I speak. Trees need CO2 to make oxygen! You can’t tax that!”

Global Warming Is A Hoax. Audience member: “I’m actually hopeful that this vote that you made was a vote to put you out of office. [Raucous applause and cheers.] … You know, on this energy thing, I showed you, I had in my email to you numerous times there are petitions signed by 31,000 scientists that that know and have facts that CO2 emissions have nothing to do and the greenhouse effect has nothing to do with global warming. It’s all a hoax! [Applause.] First of all, I cannot for the life of me understand how you could have been one of the eight Republican traitors!” [Applause and whoops.]

Global Warming, Like Darwinian Evolution, Is Just A Theory. Audience member: “It’s still a theory, so is Darwin’s theory of evolution! And yet we have the audacity to say global warming is accurate, it’s more than a theory? How about how cold it’s been this spring. Personal data, data shows that since 1998 average temperatures have been cooling!”

The Swine Flu Epidemic Is A Conspiracy To Force AIDS-Infected Vaccines On The American Public. Audience member: “The virus was built and created in Fort Dix, a small bioweapons plant outside of Fort Dix. This was engineered. This thing didn’t just crop up in a cave or a swine farm. This thing was engineered, the virus. Pasteur International, one of the big vaccine companies in Chicago, has been caught sending AIDS-infected vaccines to Africa. Do you think I trust — I don’t trust you with anything. You think I’m going to trust you to put a needle full of dead baby juice and monkey kidneys? Cause that’s what this stuff is grown on, dead babies!”

President Obama Is Not A Citizen Of The United States. Audience member: “Congressman Castle, I want to know. I have a birth certificate here from the United States of America saying I’m an American citizen, with a seal on it. Signed by a doctor, with a hospital administrator’s name, my parents, the date of birth, the time, the date. I want to go back to January 20th and I want to know why are you people ignoring his birth certificate? [Applause and cheers.] He is not an American citizen! He is a citizen of Kenya!” [Applause]

I'd feel sorry for Rep. Castle (R-DE), but when you plant a field of nuts, don't be surprised at harvest time when you get bushels of them.

Bismarck Spins While Cantor Speaks

Whether or not he actually said it, infamous 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck is often quoted as saying that no nation can run its foreign policy according to the Sermon on the Mount. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor thinks otherwise. Or does he . . .
Reaching out to the Muslim world may help in creating an environment for peace in the Middle East, but we must insist as Americans that our policies be firmly grounded in the beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition upon which this country was founded.

Now, I happen to disagree with Jonathan Chait's stated reasons for supporting the state of Israel: "The basis of the U.S.-Israel alliance is, and should continue to be, Israel's democratic character and desire to live in peace, in contrast to the eliminationist intentions of its neighbors." If this is so, then the US should have no dealings with Saudi Arabia, Syria (well, the right would prefer we not deal with Damascus), and perhaps even Lebanon, Iraq, and other Gulf states.

The basis for any nation's foreign policy should be what is in the best interest of that nation-state. Chait's formula - supporting Israel because it is a democracy - is a formula for limiting our dealings with the outside world to a very privileged few indeed.

As to Cantor's "Judeo-Christian tradition" as a basis for our foreign policy, I would wonder if he really understands what he is advising. Let us return for a moment to Bismarck's idea of the inapplicability of the Sermon on the Mount, and wonder if Cantor would prefer the US be meek, rejoice when we are persecuted abroad, refuse to return violence when violence is done to us, and continually seek peace so that we may be called "Sons of God".

Obviously, Cantor has no idea what he is talking about in any substantive sense. Rather, he is using buzzwords that mean something other than what he believes they do. While it might seem heresy for a left-winger to say so, Bismarck was fundamentally correct; the United States would not last long if we were to adopt the Sermon on the Mount, or any other set of Christian principles as a guide for our foreign policy. Rather than the peace-seeking, self-abnegating tradition of Jesus, Cantor is plugging the idea that we need to support Israel no matter what it does (including its low-level war of attrition against the Palestinians) simply because Israel shares a name with the historic Jewish Kingdom of the Old Testament. The name is a talisman, and conservatives enjoy mouthing support for the current state of Israel without any considerations of the multiple realities that would temper our support for the current Israeli Republic.

Decoding the double-talk and nonsense these people use is just one more service this blog hopes to provide.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Music For Your Monday

Vivaldi gave us gorgeous baroque compositions, including some concerti one would be hard pressed to find duplicated today.

Here is his Concerto for Lute.

The Concerto per mandolini:

Finally, his Concerto in C Major for the "Flautino", or recorder as we would call it today.

Grace, Perfectability, & Theology

Feodor asks some legitimate questions that deserved a response longer than a comment.
Why does Protestantism not really believe that good theology helps people love better and corrupt theology corrupts loving better?

If I remember correctly, I'm pretty sure the NT epistles are filled with encouragements and scourges for the church to think better so it can love better.

In the first place, I don't know that one can make such a blanket statement about "theology" and its place in "Protestantism". Certainly I cannot imagine a Reformed Christian make such a claim. In fact, I'm not sure I would, either, although for different reasons. In my own case, I would say that "good theology" and "bad theology" are not so much causes of better or worse loving; rather, they are correlate to them because they are effects of a similar cause - sin.

To say that "good theology helps people love better" is to give to theology far more power than it has. Certainly, theology is an important part of the life of any Christian. Reflecting on what it is we believe and why has been something we Christians have done since the beginning (if you don't believe me, check out the New Testament; there are some writings there that are good examples of this kind of thing). Yet, theology is nothing more than reflection. We are looking in a mirror and seeing what is behind us. If a Christian is honest enough, one could say that even the most profound theological statement is as corrupt as the most confused (kind of like Barth's insistence that all dogmatics is prolegomenna). Like any reflection, it is not quite what one sees, being reversed and limited (one needs multiple mirrors to see, for example, one's back).

It is grace that offers us the opportunity to love better, sin that keeps us from so doing and even loving worse than we might otherwise. Theological reflection is not a substitute for love or grace; it is only a fully human (therefore sinful and grace-filled simultaneously) act.

His second question includes a Bible quote (a bonus!):
AND that we can steer toward perfectability for perfectly good reasons and to good effect?

2 Peter 1:3,4:

"His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires."

What say you, Methodist?

I'm not sure what this latter has to do with the former claim that theological reflection can be a means of grace. Certainly, John Wesley would accept the principle invoked here in 2 Peter, but only as indicative of the three-fold grace of God, moving us toward perfection in love. Please note that this is not a "perfection" in the sense of being a good little boy or girl all the time. Rather, it is, through a process of disciplined living, opening oneself so fully to the grace of God in Jesus Christ that one acts out of love - love for God and love for neighbor - at all times. Wesley insisted that such was indeed possible, and we United Methodists affirm this even today. Yet, such "perfection" has little or nothing to do with theological reflection. It has to do, instead, with a disciplined life. Theological reflection can be, and perhaps even should be, a part of that process. In the end, however, theology is an effect of grace, not a means for it.

Out Where The Buses Don't Run

I just got up, just finished my first cup of coffee, and I run across this three course meal of crazy.
Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who has been captured by the Taliban and appears in a video released this weekend by his captors, “went missing from his base in eastern Afghanistan on June 30.” The circumstances of his capture are still unknown. ABC News reports, “Defense officials said it appeared he somehow left his base in Paktika Province at night, likely accompanied by several Afghan soldiers.” On July 6, the Taliban claimed that “a drunken American soldier had come out of his garrison” and was captured by them.

On Fox News yesterday, guest Ralph Peters, a retired Army Lt. Col., urged against leaping to conclusions. “I was to stress first of all that we must wait until all of the facts are in until we make a final judgment,” Peters said, but quickly added, “He is an apparent deserter,” “he is collaborating with the enemy,” and “we know that this private is a liar.” Peters then suggested that if Bergdahl is a deserter, the Taliban should kill him

At some point, someone somewhere in the bowels of FOXNews is going to realize they are featuring seriously disturbed individuals who hate America.

This talking pile of poo is a freakin' retired Amry Lt. Col. for crying out loud! He wants the people we are fighting to kill and American POW!
I want to be clear. If, when the facts are in, we find out that through some convoluted chain of events, he really was captured by the Taliban, I’m with him. But, if he walked away from his post and his buddies in wartime, I don’t care how hard it sounds, as far as I’m concerned, the Taliban can save us a lot of legal hassles and legal bills.

I thought it was we America-hating, military-bashing, fag-cowardly liberals who were supposed to think and say these kinds of things? I can almost picture Peters spitting on Pvt. Bergdahl if he is released. . . Which is more than any anti-war protester did to any returning Vietnam vets.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

All Grown Up

With many thanks to an old friend, here are a few pictures from my oft-mentioned 25+1 class reunion. These are the people I grew up with, and aren't they a great looking bunch?


Through various links, I discovered this
It cannot be denied that the central government has become destructive of our unalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness and our rights to live free. The government is no longer responsive to we the People. They have stretched and shredded the constitution to the point that they have illegally seized for themselves virtually unlimited powers over the citizens and act as if we have no rights and no powers of our own. They are acting without our consent.

Our Founders established that when our government becomes destructive of our rights then it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

We have reached the point where the government's long train of abuses and usurpations has achieved absolute Despotism, therefore it is our right, it is our duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for our future security.

Therefore, We the People of America choose to exercise our right to throw off and alter the abusive government by peacefully recalling and removing from office the President of the United States, the Vice President of the United States and all U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives effective immediately.

An interim provisional Chief Executive and congressional representatives will be established as follows:

The Secretary of State shall immediately assume the office of interim Chief Executive. The Chief Executive shall appoint and the interim Senate shall confirm an interim Vice President.

An immediate election shall be held within each state legislature to appoint two interim senators to represent each sovereign state.

A special election shall be held by all states within 30 days to elect interim members of the House of Representatives.

Elections for regular government offices shall be conducted in November, 2010 as previously scheduled, except that elections will be held for all elective offices, including President, Vice President and all U.S. Representatives. U.S. Senators will be elected per class schedule by the various state legislatures.

We alter the government to provide new Guards for our future security as follows

Now, it's quite obvious that this kind of stupidity is meaningless. Rather than puff out my chest and go all "Harrumph! Right-wing treason!"

Nah. It's just kind of funny. They didn't like losing, so they're going to do what Sarah Palin did. They quit. That's all.

A House Divided

This op-ed in Newsweek by Rick Perlstein raised Bill O'Reilly's ire.
"Hey, did Bill O'Reilly or someone on Fox do something with me in it tonight?"

"I dunno. I'm recording but not watching. Why?"

"My inbox just started getting deluged with hate mail a little bit ago."

"What time did it start?"

"About 7:30 [Chicago time]."

"Yep, that would be O'Reilly."

"I think they ran my picture. A lot of the mail is about how ugly I am."

That's a rough transcript of a phone call between Perlstein and Dave Neiwert the latter recorded on his blog, the second link above. What exactly did Perlstein write?
For decades it has remained a Republican article of faith: white, lower-middle-class, "heartland" masses, fundamentally socially conservative, were an inexhaustible electoral resource. So much so that Bill Clinton made re-earning their trust—he called them the Americans who "worked hard and played by the rules"—the central challenge in rebuilding Democratic fortunes in the 1990s. And in 2008 the somewhat aristocratic John McCain seemed to regard bringing these folks back into the Republican fold so imperative that he was moved to make the election's most exciting strategic move: drafting churchgoing, gun-toting unknown Sarah Palin onto the GOP ticket.

But beneath the surface, some Republicans have been chafing at the ideological wages of right-wing populism. In intel-lectual circles, writers like David Brooks and Richard Brookhiser have argued for a conservatism inspired by Alexander Hamilton, the least democratic of the Founding Fathers, over one spiritually rooted in Thomas Jefferson, the most democratic. After Barack Obama's victory, you heard thinkers like author and federal judge Richard Posner lamenting on his blog that "the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party."

Perlstein's entire article is nothing more than a chronicle of the division within Repulican ranks between the party's elites - in the guise of people like David Brooks and David Frum and Charles Krauthammer - and its far more strident base. Some incontestable facts that Perlstein includes - the rise of the violent fringe during various periods of liberal ascendancy; the actual violent outbursts including murders, bombings, and what have you; the promotion of various fringe conspiracy theories by people on FNS (and, one should add, CNN's Lou Dobbs recent promotion of birther nonsense on his show) - certainly seem to indicate that Republican elites treat part of the base of the part with a certain amount of disdain, courting them with a wink and a nod when necessary, dissociating from them when they fail to deliver the electoral goods.

Indeed, Perlstein's article is not so much a liberal elitist sneer at the lumpen proletariat in fly-over country as much as it is a careful examination of conservative elites and their attitudes toward those they regard as such (I would note that Bill Kristol's embrace of Sarah Palin as she deserts her post in Juneau is as much a bit of cynical elitism as, say, Charles Krauthammer's dismissal of soon-to-be-former-Gov. Palin as unfit for national office; Kristol still wants to woo those same voters so many Republicans view as necessary to victory). One thing Perlstein does not note, and should note, is that the cynical manipulation of socially conservative attitudes by elites misses an important fact noted a decade ago in a book entitled What's Wrong With Kansas? The book chronicled how much better this heartland state fares under Democratic governance, both state and national, yet it remains a bedrock of reliable socially conservative, Republican electoral hopes. This remarkable bit of information - that those who support Republican politicians because of the Party's voiced support of certain social and cultural values nevertheless vote against their own economic interests when supporting Republican politicians - is as much a part of the weird dynamics of the past 40 years of political history as anything.

Actually, this latter phenomenon sheds light on the very point Perlstein is making. Republican politicians, at least since Richard Nixon's successful 1968 Presidential bid, have attempted to harness the anger and frustration of a group of voters whose concerns with the varieties of changes the country has gone through would fuel the fires of victory for the party. That they never actually intended to carry through a socially conservative political agenda became clear early on; other than a devotion to tax cuts, both individual and corporate, and an attempt to dismantle the New Deal and Great Society, there was really no way to address the social and cultural changes the country has experienced through the legislative process. Republicans knew this; the senior party members really didn't care all that much about abortion or women's rights except that they could be used to strip away a segment of otherwise reliable Democratic voters, if they mouthed the platitudes of social conservatism enough.

The meteoric rise and fall of Sarah Palin is a set piece, in a way. The most cynical gamble in recent political history, she was placed on the national Republican ticket last year not for any virtues, electoral or otherwise, she may have brought, but rather because she represented what many Republicans believed to be part of the base of the Party. That she was intellectually vacuous, held few if any political views she could articulate effectively, was a poor administrator and was multiply-scandal ridden were all virtues in the eyes of some elites in the Party precisely because all of these could be placed at the doorstep of "liberal elites", rather than as personal and public faults Sarah Palin brought with her.

Were Bill O'Reilly more intelligent and less self-centered, he might have read Perlstein's article more carefully and realized that Perlstein was not insulting his viewers, or the Republican base at all. Rather, Perlstein was telling the world the same thing many liberal commentators (including me) have been saying for years: The leadership of the Republican Party holds the views of social and cultural conservatives in contempt, offering empty promises in return for electoral support. The end result of decades of such cynicism is now before us in the person and recent career of Sarah Palin. Her presence is a symptom of everything that is wrong with the Republican Party. That's all Perlstein was saying.

Virtual Tin Cup

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