Saturday, October 03, 2009

A Via Media

I have finally reached the culminating chapter in Christopher Lasch's The Minimal Self. From pp.226-227:
The new left's suspicionof large-scale social organization; its rejection of democratic centralism; its distrust of leadership and party discipline; its faith in small troups; its repudiation of power and "power trips', work discipline, and goal-directed activity in general; its repudiation of "linear" thinking - these attitudes, the souce of so much that was fruitful in the new left and of so much that was futile and self-defeating as well, originated in the central contention . . . . that "our politics begin with our feelings."

Such a politics can take many forms: radical feminism, environmentalism, pacifism, nihilism, a cult of revolutionary violence. "Cultural revolution" is an ambiguous slogan. In China, it was invoked on behalf of systematic attacks on intelligence and learning, a revolution against culture. In the West, a critique of "instrumental reason" has sometimes degenerated into a Dionysian celebration of irrationality. The revolt against technological domination points toward new forms of community but also toward nihilism and "addled subjectivity," as Lewis Mumford has called it. But in spite of the anti-intellectualism, the infantile insurgency, and the taste for destruction so often associated with cultural politics, it addresses issues ignored by the dominant political tradition: the limits of reason; the unconscious origins of the desire for domination; the embodiment of this desire in industrial technology, ostensibly the highest product of the rational intelligence.

This dangerous road - skirting the edges of the kind of destructive tendencies Lasch details - is also a necessary one. It's one I try to hew close to as much as possible. Setting aside traditional ideological commitments and a mindless consistency in pursuit of certain social and political and cultural goals that are life affirming means flirting with easy, and dangerous, answers. Thus, while I ignore the brain-dead creationists and global-warming deniers, I am quite vocal in my refusal to follow those who insist that scientific or technical (what Lasch refers to as "instrumental") reason as the only solution to our collective problems. While I do not take seriously much of the offered political opposition to our current situation, I am critical of those with whom I would agree that a certain intellectual consistency should drive an agenda that includes what I perceive as political naivete and the possible abandonment of the current political system because it seems beyond the scope of influence from those on what is traditionally known as "the left".*

Much of what passes for social and cultural commentary by "traditional" left-wing critics usually boils down to an unrealistic assumption that science has forever reduced any and all religious statements to the category of "irrationality"; that technical or instrumental reason renders much of our political discourse moot, if only we would pat attention to it; that adherence to a certain set of social and political views necessitates certain actions and modes of thought that are exclusive, irrefutable, and consistent. I regard none of these propositions as either realistic or even rationally defensible, precisely because they are belied by the reality around us. Most important for me, the end result, no matter how much arguments otherwise are made, they are undemocratic to the core; precisely because they eschew politics as messy and inefficient (the highest goal of instrumental reason is efficiency, a practical application as it were of Ockham's Razor), they much prefer Administrative guidance to a democratic politics that is open to all.

We are all in need of a different way of moving forward. While not completely ready to endorse all of what Lasch has to say, his offer of a way through the stale, dead ideological line-ups we usually deal with is a much-needed first couple steps forward.

Saturday Rock Show

U2's lead singer Bono once said that the band's guitarist The Edge was spare with his playing because he believed that one had only a limited number of notes allocated to one in life, and Edge wanted to live as long as possible.

Applying that philosophy to this young band, Scale the Summit, it seems they believe they are going to die young. Or, one can say they are so enthusiastic to show the world they can play, they haven't taught themselves the discipline of songwriting yet. While technical virtuosity is certainly an admirable quality, when it is tempered by service to the goal of crafting a coherent melody and harmony, it becomes something even more powerful. I just hope that the Sturm und Drang underway in the recording industry allows them the possibility to learn that discipline, because they do have potential. This is "Sargasso Sea".

The lead guitarist plays an eight-string, the rhythm guitarist plays a seven-inch, the bass player a six-string, so they are impressive just in their choice of instruments.

This Is What Drives Me Crazy

The other day, in a comment I wrote the following:
Part of the problem also stems from really bad reporting, too. There are incidents all over the place of just plain, flat-out lousy reporting.

In the post to which this comment was added, I called David Broder one of the best political reporters of our time. At one time, that might have been true. Yet, the very opening of today's column is forcing me to wish I had never written those words.
Barack Obama has reached the moment of truth for answering the persistent question about his core beliefs and political priorities. The coming votes in the House and Senate on his signature health-care reform effort will tell us more about the president than anything so far in his White House tenure.

A reporter is supposed to be paying attention. A reporter is supposed to be able to string together various incidents creating an intelligible whole. While it might be the case that individual statements, especially on health care reform, suggest a refusal to take a firm stand, this hardly means that the President faces "persistent question[s] about his core beliefs and political priorities". Through the course of his column, Broder never once names who is asking these questions, let alone specifically what those "persistent questions" might be.

Rather, the narrative he weaves is one straight out of the Republican playbook, and has little to do with "questions" about his beliefs or political ideology.
All during last year's campaign, Obama skillfully skirted the question of whether he was a moderate, consensus-seeking pragmatist, as his words suggested, or a faithful adherent to the liberal agenda, as his voting record demonstrated.

In stylistic terms, he cultivated the pragmatic image. On issues, he was alternately one or the other -- lining up with the liberals on Iraq and civil liberties, for example, but joining the hard-liners on Afghanistan and the budget.

In the campaign, he took the moderate side of the health-care debate -- disagreeing with Hillary Clinton on the necessity for an individual mandate to buy health insurance and suggesting that he would be satisfied with incremental progress toward covering all the uninsured.

But now, a number of factors have combined to strip him of the camouflage that he once enjoyed when it comes to health-care policy.(emphasis added)

Camouflage? What does that even mean?!?

The whole column is nonsense. While I am quite willing to accept that Glenn Beck is both stupid and ignorant enough to believe much of what he says about the President, I refuse to give Broder the same benefit of the doubt. Any observer of the President - and he was the junior Senator from my state for four years and I paid attention to what he said and did - would know that, at heart, the President is indeed a pragmatist. He has no "ideology" per se, other than getting stuff done for people. There is no other conclusion one can reach from a careful examination of his record, whether in the Illinois state legislature, or the United States Senate, or the White House.

Since I refuse to believe for one moment that Broder believes any of his assertions, one has to wonder, then, why he wrote the column. Bad reporting, combined with a familiar, and partisan, take on the President's approach to governance that is at variance with the facts at hand leads me to a couple conclusions, neither of which excludes the other. Either Broder is really stupid and believes this (despite my refusal to grant him that stupidity) or he is playing a partisan role here.

Of course, this seems to be part of a larger trend at the Post, noted by Glenn Greenwald and Matt Yglesias:
[O]ne is once again left with the profound crisis facing the employees of the Washington Post. Simply put, they all work for an institution that seems utterly indifferent to whether the people who write for the paper are informing the readers or deliberately trying to mislead them. That hurts their credibility, each and every one of them. It also means that whenever any of them do good work, they raise the prestige and credibility of an organization that dedicates a substantial quality of valuable real estate to deliberate efforts to mislead the public about the single most important issue of our time. It’s a very serious problem.

While this addresses, specifically, the multiple ways the Post seems to misinform readers on global warming - from (again) bad reporting to the factually inaccurate pieces offered by George Will - the same could be said across the board, including the recent controversy over the decision by the Swiss to deport rapist movie director Roman Polanski. Sometimes at odds with itself, very often at odds with basic factual material, the Post seems to be on a steep dive toward oblivion.

Add today's column by David Broder to the weight dragging the paper down.

Friday, October 02, 2009

We Are Better Than We Give Ourselves Credit For

I wrote the other day about the debunking of the Kitty Genovese story. For far too long, the image of three dozen people actively preferring the death of a young woman pleading for help rather than involve themselves and risk all sorts of things from minor inconveniences up to and including death has ruled much of our collective thoughts on what our collective life - the German social thinker Max Weber called it anomie - has done to us. I would be the last person to say that the debunking of the story proves the opposite of the story; rather, while there seems to be specific, credible evidence of one person who heard/saw something there is also evidence this person refused to act because of a certain mitigating circumstance. Being drunk, while hardly a morally exculpatory excuse, at least presents an understandable explanation.

On the larger point, much of our popular culture is flooded with images of large numbers of Americans acting, in the words of various characters from popular fiction and television and movies, "easily frightened, easily led, panicky, even dangerous". One that comes to my mind (because my wife has watched it recently) is an older episode of the TV series ER when a possible smallpox outbreak leads to a lockdown, which, in turn, leads to a riot, including violent attacks on the staff. The riot only stops when those trapped inside realize that the police will fire on them if they attempt to break out.

Lockdowns happen in all sorts of places all the time, sometimes for an hour or two, sometimes longer. I have yet to read of a riot (outside a prison lockdown, of course) in a lockdown situation. Considering that our recent history includes such things as powdered anthrax attacks, this should surprise many.

The other side of the coin - the anti-Genovese point of view, if you wish - is offered in the television series Lost. Considering what the characters go through - I'm still in season one, but that really big thing that shakes the trees and snatches the pilot out of the cockpit . . . I mean, these people set up a golf course for pete's sake. And it's entirely believable!

Why? Precisely because Hurley's reason for doing so - they need to be about more than mere survival, coasting from crisis to crisis, they need the distraction of something mindless in order to feel alive, not just like survivors - make so much sense (Hurley is the combination Greek chorus/moral check of the show, and I really love the fact he's worth close to $200 million back in the real world). Lost provides an alternative to the "Genovese syndrome" view that prevails on that episode of ER, and for that very reason, I think it is far more accurate.

Think back for just a moment or two to the image we saw on television on September 11, 2001. We saw people running through the streets, some toward, far more away from, the danger. We saw people - many, many people, not just the official "heroes" such as the firefighters and EMTs and police officers, but ordinary citizens - helping one another. There were no riots in the streets, there or in any other city that day. There were no angry mobs descending on Islamic centers of worship. There was no "mob" at all.

Or perhaps, to make sure my point isn't too parochial, consider the images from the South Asian tsunami a few years back. For all the devastation, and for all the reports of looting and economic exploitation, there were also images of people going about the understandable routine of trying to get their lives started again. They went back to the ruined villages and picked through the rubble for evidence of their personal effects; they hugged one another both in sorrow over loss and in relief at having made it through.

Remember the stories of Katrina survivors shooting at the helicopters trying to save people? Remember the white suburbanites who armed themselves at stories and rumors of gangs of African-Americans looting in the suburbs? Of course, none of these stories were true (well, the armed white folk was true); they were believed not because they were credible in a factual sense, but because, despite all evidence to the contrary, for the most part, we human beings are far less panicky, far less prone to go off on wild screaming-meemie fits, far less likely to pose a danger to others and ourselves in times of crisis, and far less likely to ignore the cries of those in need than we give ourselves credit for.

That there are counter-examples is no doubt true. That hardly disproves my thesis that we are better than believe of ourselves. I never said we were perfect, and there are plenty of examples of groups of human beings doing truly horrible things - lynchings, you know, were a community activity - to make that point, too. I only said that we need to cut ourselves some slack.


For a couple years, I've used the generic term "the press" or "journalists" as a lazy way of defining one of my chief complaints with our current public discourse. ER has chastised me on many occasions, and rightly so, I might add. The problem isn't "the press", or "journalists" as practitioners of a particular profession. Rather, it is the eruption in the past decade and a half of a professional pundit class that, for want of a better way of describing things, would dearly love to have it both ways. On the one hand, they wish to be taken seriously as commentators on whatever issue has our national attention; on the other hand, they want to be treated as just journalists who have a particular set of practical and ethical standards unavailable to those outside the profession, when criticized by outsiders.

Part of the problem with this should be obvious. Even the best political reporters and commentators - and I would include David Broder, Thomas Friedman, Eugene Robinson, and the late Robert Novak as among the very best - are (or were) just that. Political reporters. They are not experts on policy; they aren't really knowledgeable about social science data on the relationship between various interest groups and the powers that be. What makes especially this group so frustrating to read is the belief they all seem to share that an understanding of certain realities of power in our nation's capital translates in to an understanding of broader social and political forces.

Perhaps the most egregious offender on this level - the pundit who pretends he is a public intellectual a la Walter Lippmann or Reinhold Niebuhr or Arthur Schlesinger - is George Will (although David Brooks certainly seems to be making a run at the title). Will's problem is not that he is ignorant, like Jonah Goldberg is ignorant, or the ultimate insider who considers questions of policy irrelevant, the way Robert Novak would. Rather, Will's problem is quite simply that he believes he is smarter than he actually is.

Like Will, and Brooks, and other lesser lights who seem to be multiplying like athlete's foot fungus in a high school locker room, the professionalization of political and social commentary is probably the worst thing to happen to this country in many a year. What makes this professionalization so bad is the unstated belief that anyone who is not a professional in this regard - we bloggers, say - simply "doesn't understand". Our further complaints about the phony high-mindedness of many pundits usually results in the accusation that we are all secretly harboring a desire to become like they are.

The truth, which for some reason seems beyond their ken, is that we have no such desire. Rather, opening up political commentary to the masses has created a far more lively, politically productive, and ideologically shifting public discourse than at any time in my own living memory. Even the best pundits are offering no more than their own view, based on knowledge of events, and persons, perhaps a private conversation or two as a way of setting the stage or "background" as it were. I can only speak for myself when I say that the democratization of political and social commentary, as evidenced on the internets, is a great thing; rather than attempting to dismiss or even silence we bloggers, to snidely wave a hand and insist we can't possibly understand what we are talking about is belied quite simply by the record of the past four or so years. Professional pundits, for all their access, for all their understanding of the inside-baseball kind of stuff they find all important, have been incredibly, almost comically wrong. If you want to stretch your mind back a bit further, just remember the split between elite and public opinion at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

While I believe there is certainly a role for professionals to discuss politics, political and social issues, and various cultural trends that effect them, the way they have overrun our discourse, marginalized the opinions of large numbers, even the majority, of the American people is staggering in its arrogance and small-mindedness. That there are many bloggers who seem to be able to see and understand and explain what is going on, why, and make pretty accurate predictions based on these more distant observations should be a huge clue as to why it is the punditry is held in such disdain.

We Americans aren't ignorant, or stupid, or sheeplike, needing the words from the various oracles to guide us in our political opinions. We are feisty, occasionally insane, quite often funny, at our best irreverent, at our worst obsequious and blind to our own hypocrisy. These qualities exist across the political spectrum (although spectra would be a far better way to describe it) and there is abundant evidence that the current liveliness of our public dialogue on issues such as cap-and-trade, health care reform, and financial services regulation would be far more stilted, truncated, and less well-informed than it currently is if not for the very hard work of bloggers and citizen-journalists who are doing the grunt-work of getting the word out, starting arguments, making their case.

In the future, I will be sure to specify that it isn't the press or journalists that drive me crazy. Rather, it is the elitism, an elitism often combined with a staggering ignorance barely disguised as insouciance toward policy detail, of the professional pundit class that make me crazy.

May a thousand blogs bloom!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Another Myth Shattered - And It's A Good Thing

I grew hearing about this story.
Genovese had driven home from her job working as a bar manager, late in the night of March 13, 1964. Arriving home at about 3:15 a.m. and parking about 100 feet (30 m) from her apartment's door, which was around the rear of the building, she was approached by Winston Moseley, a business machine operator.[2] Moseley ran after her and quickly overtook her, stabbing her twice in the back. Genovese screamed, "Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!" It was heard by several neighbors, but on a cold night with the windows closed, only a few of them recognized the sound as a cry for help. When one of the neighbors shouted at the attacker, "Let that girl alone!", Moseley ran away and Genovese slowly made her way toward the rear entrance of her apartment building. She was seriously injured, but now out of view of those few who may have had reason to believe she was in need of help.

Records of the earliest calls to police are unclear and were certainly not given a high priority by the police. One witness said his father called police after the initial attack and reported that a woman was "beat up, but got up and was staggering around."[6]

Other witnesses observed Moseley enter his car and drive away, only to return ten minutes later. In his car, he changed his hat to a wide-rimmed one to shadow his face. He systematically searched the parking lot, train station, and small apartment complex, ultimately finding Genovese, who was lying, barely conscious, in a hallway at the back of the building, where a locked doorway had prevented her from entering the building. [7] Out of view of the street and of those who may have heard or seen any sign of the original attack, he proceeded to further attack her, stabbing her several more times. Knife wounds in her hands suggested that she attempted to defend herself from him. While she lay dying, he raped her. He stole about $49 from her and left her dying in the hallway. The attacks spanned approximately half an hour.

A few minutes after the final attack a witness, Karl Ross, called the police. Police arrived within minutes of Ross' call. Genovese was taken away by ambulance, at 4:15 am, and died en route to the hospital. Later investigation by police and prosecutors revealed that approximately a dozen (but almost certainly not the 38 cited in the Times article) individuals nearby had heard or observed portions of the attack, though none could have seen or been aware of the entire incident.[8] Only one witness, Joseph Fink, was aware she was stabbed in the first attack, and only Karl Ross was aware of it in the second attack. Many were entirely unaware that an assault or homicide was in progress; some thought that what they saw or heard was a lovers' quarrel or a drunken brawl or a group of friends leaving the bar outside when Moseley first approached Genovese.

Ramming around, reading something completely unrelated, I discovered the transcript of this episode of NPR's On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where do you think the number 38 came from?

JOSEPH DE MAY: No one knows. All I can tell you is that there’s a man named Charles Skoller, and he was the assistant prosecutor. He helped prosecute Winston Moseley. And he said he doesn't know where the 38 witness number came from. He said that the District Attorney’s Office found only maybe five or six people who saw anything that they could use, and of the people he identified, there are only really two that I know of who actually saw any part of the physical attack.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the only person who could be said to have ignored the plight of this young woman was that man at the top of the stairs.

JOSEPH DE MAY: Well, let me tack on that word “ignored.” The rap against the witnesses is not that they sat there and watched what was going on. It was that they heard a scream and did not act upon it. Now, why didn't they act upon it? The common belief is that they didn't want to get involved, and, of course, that quote comes from the one guy at the top of the stairs who said that. But if you look at the Rosenthal book, the people who were interviewed later on said they didn't know why.

I think a number of them were uncertain about what was going on. Others truly thought that other people would call. Others thought that whatever the crisis was, the fact that the attacker had left and Kitty had left the scene under her own power meant there wasn't a problem any more.

And I have to tell you that I do not by any means accept that no one called the police. One of the people who contacted me is a retired New York City police officer who said that he was an eight-year-old boy whose bedroom was on the second floor of that apartment building on the night of the murder. And he said his father did call the police because he was there in the living room when he did. I've heard second- or third-hand about two other people who also said that they called the police.

I grew up with this story still floating around. Television programs used it as a template. Public intellectuals and even science fiction writers (the wiki article notes Harlan Ellison's long, and false, rhapsody, on the alleged incident) used it to create the myth of urban anomie and callousness that still exists. Like the Central Park jogger case of 1990, another incident that didn't occur the way everyone thought it did, or the Columbine HS massacre, it took on a life of its own.

The part of the NPR dialogue that got me slapping my head and shouting, "D'oh!", was the whole issue of the trial of the person who committed this murder. It seems the number "38", which is still bandied about, was one either the author of the original article, or editor Abe Rosenthal found while exploring his rectum (i.e., he pulled it out of his ass). Yet, of such nonsense not just urban myths and legends, but entire social philosophies are born.

In order to discover what actually happened, consulting the trial transcript might have helped, always with the caveat that they are also a limited source of information, too.

The idea that ours is a heartless, callous society that would rather allow an innocent young woman be murdered than trouble ourselves with "involvement" is an ugly story that needs to disappear. While there are, of course, instances where people sit by or walk away rather than help those in need, there are enough others to more than make up for the scared few - hardly 38! - who would rather "not get involved".

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Christians And Other Faith Traditions

With a very generous hat-tip to Rick Perlstein, who put the link on his Facebook account and plugged my blog in the process (it still kind of blows my mind), I would invite you to read this, from USAToday. In particular, this just jumped out at me.
Christians should have friendships with people of other faith, but engaging in other traditions' worship practices is problematic, said Mark Driscoll, lead preaching pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Driscoll said that in this case, Christians and Muslims fast for different purposes and do not worship the same God.

Christians observing a Ramadan fast is "insane at best ... Sad, tragic, horrific, misguided, dangerous, wrong," Driscoll said. "If Christians want to pray during Ramadan, they should pray not with Muslims but for Muslims — that Muslims would come to know Jesus. To pray with Muslims absolutely dishonors Jesus."

First, I just love the whole, "pray that Muslims would come to know Jesus" because it is so ignorant. Driscoll should read the Holy Q'uran - Jesus is in there, faithfully portrayed as messiah and prophet. Muslims revere him as they do Abraham and other prophets. As for dishonoring Jesus by celebrating a religious festival with those of other faiths . . .

Sorry, but a short rant here. Quite simply - nothing, nothing I say, nothing I do, dishonors Jesus, if it is done in love and a spirit of fellowship. How does Driscoll feel about Christians who hold Seder? I have attended High Holy Day services. I even attended one Friday night during Purim, which recounts the events recorded in the Book of Esther. I have attended a Seder. Does this dishonor Jesus, considering that Jesus himself did these things? How utterly ignorant is this guy?

On the other hand . . .

Christians should enter these with the understanding that they are done in a totally different spirit, with unstated beliefs and assumptions about their spiritual efficacy, and in line with a completely different set of beliefs. The article appears to show that those who are so participating are doing exactly that.

What's truly sad is the whole "other God" crap. We three Abrahamic faiths - Jews, Christians, and Muslims - differ so little that, to those far outside our bitter quarrels, the fussing and screaming probably seems much ado about little. Which is not to suggest there are no differences. Rather, it is to suggest that what holds us together should count far more than our differences. There is a beauty to much of the teaching of Islam, an endorsement of mutual humanity, a sense of discipline to the God of love and mercy and justice that is emphasized, in many ways, far more than in Christianity, which claims many of the same Divine attributes, but too often gets caught up in abstruse doctrinal nonsense, rather than celebrating the God of grace and love.

I think it would be far better if more Christians did this, in concert with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Shared sacrifice like this would be a wonderful way to show that we know that Muslims already have Jesus, and that Jesus is big enough for us all to share without having any exclusive rights.


Got in to a brief discussion on Anton LeVay's Church of Satan last night on Facebook, and it got me thinking of Geraldo Rivera's infamous 1988 primetime television extravaganza, "Satan's Underground". One of the best moments, for me, came when Geraldo addressed a question to LeVay's daughter, who was appearing as spokesperson for her father's organization, and she simply got up and walked out, refusing to deal with the kind of crap Geraldo was spewing (a good write-up of how horrible it was can be found in this archived review from the San Jose Mercury News).

The late-1980's were the heyday of what one author called a Satanic Panic (I love this book, by the way; I think it might be hard to find, but make the effort). Whether it was the McMartin Preschool case in California that spiraled out of control, Geraldo's stupid special, or the nonsensical "survivors stories" one heard repeated ad neaseum, the reality is that all sorts of diverse phenomena suddenly became "explainable" as instances of rampant Satanism. Geraldo made things worse by trying to tie Charles Manson to Satanism, in the process getting used by that wily psychopath during an "interview" in which Manson turned the tables on Rivera who was too stupid to realize he was being played, even as Rivera was exploiting the national gag-reflex toward Manson for ratings (I confess I watched the special, and will also confess that I found it by turns hilarious and extremely disturbing, although not as the host would have had me).

Are there disturbed young people out there who might turn to stories of "Satanism" as a means of venting their mental illness? Of course there are. Is there an "official" Church of Satan (with tax-exempt status!) in San Francisco? Of course there is. Is there a secret Satanic underground preying on young women and children that continues to flourish now that the media spotlight is off them?


Like the "CIA/The Mafia/The Communists/The military killed Kennedy" nonsense, the 9/11 truthers, and our current plethora of "birthers" that claim our President was actually born in Kenya, conspiracy theories are impenetrable to reason; very often falsifying data become subsumed as part of the larger conspiracy itself.

I am occasionally asked whether, as a liberal Christian, I "believe" in "Satan". I really have no answer to this question. Do I believe that there is evil in the world? Do I believe that evil is or can be personified in some metaphysical entity, or perhaps entities ("demons") that wreak occasional havoc upon us? Do I believe that our "reality" is merely the plane upon which the larger battle of good and evil, in the "persons" of "God" and "the Devil" occurs?

To the last, my answer is an unequivocal "No". To the second question, I sometimes wonder, but for the most part I have to ask a counter-question: "With all the monstrosities occurring in the world, why would Satan or one of his minions waste time 'possessing' the body of an individual?" In other words, I think much of it is silliness.

To the first, the answer is again unequivocal - Of course I believe there that "evil" exists, to the extent that one can use that word as a descriptor of certain acts, individual and social. Children abused, even tortured, in their own homes. Millions dead at the hands of their own government, either through active or passive means. The list is endless. Yet, I can discuss these instances without any recourse whatsoever to the question of "Satan".

While LeVay's "Church" certainly allows folks to think they're being all hedonistic; while individual instances of disturbed young men and women claiming to act either under the direction of a demon, or through the auspices of "worshiping the devil" certainly exist; for the most part, I feel no need to assign outside, metaphysical, agency to account for evil in the world. We human beings are more than capable of filling that bill.

Reviving A Theme (UPDATE)

Liberal blogs are a-twitter (no pun intended, because I don't subscribe) with a Newsmax column that certainly seems to endorse the idea of a military coup against Pres. Obama (TPM archived the original, which is good, because Newmax has removed it).

This isn't exactly new. From May, 2007, courtesy of the Hoover Institute's resident token*, Thomas Sowell:
When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup.

While I have been criticizing many anti-democratic tendencies on the American Left of late, there is little doubt that a far more vile and dangerous version lives in the fever swamps of the right.

The only thing that saddens me is time on our 24 hour news channels will be wasted discussing not how awful and anti-American this is, but whether or not the military really is thinking coup.

UPDATE: I didn't read the column in question before I wrote about it, but it is actually even more frightening to read than to read about. There are dangerous people out there. Good God.
*By calling Sowell "token", I am referring to the fact that he is African-American and conservative. While he has produced interesting studies of the economic roles of minority populations in various settings - the Chinese in southeast Asia, for example - for the most part he exists where he does solely because of his race. A middling intellect married with a typical academic's desire to publish or perish and conservative political cred add up to a very sorry state of affairs, whereby Sowell is being used and either doesn't know it, or doesn't care because he is on the catbird seat, so to speak.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Against Moral Judgments

I have been given a whole lot of food for thought recently on the question of judging other people. The details aren't really here nor there; suffice it to say that events have given me plenty of opportunity to sit around and say, "Boy, you are one sorry excuse for a human being," or, "You are so wrong, it can't ever be made right." The wreckage of human lives that stares at us as we survey what has been wrought by the actions of others make it so easy to insist that the actions of others are so clearly morally unjustifiable as to make judging them not only easy but necessary.

Except, I caught myself over this past week doing that same thing, only to realize later I was doing so on limited information, and without regard to perspective.

Similarly, if I were honest enough about my own life - all of it, not just the little chunk in which I currently reside - I would have to admit that I haven't exactly always left smiles behind when I rode in to the sunset. Quite the contrary.

Whether in interpersonal relations or on a social/political level, judging actions as morally vicious is usually easy for those who have reached the maturity level of a six-year-old. Far more difficult, it seems to me, is to address the thornier issue of "What do we do now?"

Back in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks, you could hear right-wingers carry on about "evil doers", and how liberals feared calling the attacks "evil". My response, then and now, is simple - so what? Calling them evil isn't a policy response; it's an act of rage against the pain one feels. As a society, we had to act, not out of fear and rage, but with deliberation, caution, and a sense of our own interests and limited capacity to alter certain realities in the world. We did none of those things and continue to live with the consequences.

I refuse to sit around and judge the world, precisely because, first, I am as much at fault as those to whom others would point as the culprit. Second, being hardly innocent myself, the issue isn't guilt or innocent, or even responsibility, but how do we go about making things better. How do I change my decision-making so I don't leave a mess behind when I move on in life? How do we as a community make life easier for those for whom it currently is a struggle? While I recognize that diagnosing the problem is a necessary part of finding a solution, it is precisely here - at the level of diagnostics - that I find the morality trap far too easy to fall in to (and, yes, I ended that sentence with a double preposition . . .). We can't just fault "white culture" or "imperialism" or "industrial society" and leave it there, as if we aren't all of us participants in these things, aiding and abetting the many evils that beset our world.

Withdrawal in to purposeful communities outside these realms is only an evasion of responsibility, in my opinion; while they may offer examples of solutions, they are far too often done with the express purpose of defining an "us" over against a compromised "them" who still participate in the evils around us. Thus so self-defined as removed from the problem, such persons can sit on their moral high-horse and pronounce judgment on the rest of us.

In my opinion, such persons are cowards. It is far more difficult, and far more noble, to accept the reality that all of us - and I do mean all - are morally compromised in some way, and we owe it to ourselves and to the world around us to learn from the multiple errors in our lives. We need to live a little more honestly, love a little more openly, give much more freely, and refuse to set ourselves up as some kind of judge over the lives of others.

Moving forward means moving forward with the acceptance of our own limitations, our own errors, and, yes, even our own contribution to the evils in the world around us. Since I'm as much at fault as anyone else, since I've hurt others many times in my life, and while I regret it I cannot go back and change that hurt, one thing I can do is live a little more deliberately. Part of the deliberation includes refusing to judge others precisely because I've been there and done that.

No Messianic Complex Here . . .

Ah, the hybris of the young . . .
By World Saver, I mean those of us who feel the weight of the world’s brokenness on our shoulders and feel obligated to heal it.

Maybe being bred in a laboratory of hope is a bit of an overstatement. However, for years I have felt obligated to save the world if possible and if not, at least leave the world better than when I was born. Cure cancer, find a vaccine for HIV, equalize the world food disparities, microlend to women in developing nations, there are so many worthy causes.

As I mentioned above, I am not the only person who feels this way.


I moved to Los Angeles after college to work in HIV Prevention as part of an Americorps program. I worked with homeless youth, went into schools to teach kids about safe sex and tested over 250 people for HIV. World Saver.

But, from where does this urge to save the world arise? For me, it is a combination of my white privilege/guilt and religious idealism. I was raised upper-middle-class in white suburbia. I received an amazing education at a public high school. I never had need of anything. I got a car and cell phone when I turned 16. When I would try to get a job, my parents always told me that my job was to do well in school and that they would take care of everything else. I had no idea how lucky I was. But, perhaps that’s because most people around me were having a similar experience.

Obviously, the rest of us who are far busier raising our families, trying to make ends meet, recognize the necessity for moral compromise in a world that really doesn't care one way or another about us - we aren't world savers.

Except, we are. Parents are world savers. We are the most hopeful folk in the world, raising our children to work hard, to believe they can achieve their goals, have a life like ours, or perhaps even better than our own. We work hard to make sure the world around us - in our own little neck of the woods, as it were - is a little better than it might be. We care for our neighbors, ask after them. We help them when they need it. Even in the cul-de-sac in which we live, we are attentive to one another, keep an eye out when houses are empty at vacation time, watch out for one anothers' kids, dog sit on weekends away.

Trying to make the world a better place doesn't have to involve all that the author of this piece says. Sometimes, making the world a better place begins at home. Our world has far too much brokenness for any one person to fix, or even one group to fix. Sometimes, all we need to do is look up and down the street, and see what we can do to make one anothers' lives a little better.

Who's A Coward?

This is almost too easy.
LIMBAUGH: As has always been the case, ours is a world governed by the aggressive use of force, and we have a namby-pamby wimp in the White House leading us in exactly the opposite direction, and he's being made a fool of.

Let's clarify here. On the one hand, we have the first African-American President, who began his candidacy with most of the political world telling him he couldn't win. In the midst of his Presidential campaign, the financial system collapsed, and rather than be gimmicky, he kept right on going, remaining calm, confident, and won.

As both candidate and President, he has been on the receiving end of all sorts of baseless nonsense, racist demagoguery, and a near-constant barrage of criticism from both his left and right, even as he carries through on his campaign promises, his favorability numbers remain high, and his opponents, especially to his right, sink below the horizon except as figures on the nightly news.

He's being called a coward by a drug-addicted radio host who refuses to come out of his protective bubble and take serious questions from anyone; whose callers are screened to make sure no one with an opposing point of view gets through; whose record on both truthfulness and follow-through is near zero. Being caught on a return flight from a sex-tourist haven with a bag full of Viagra for which he didn't have a prescription, he rails on his show about "morality".

Those fish who swim in small barrels should not provide reasons for others to take aim.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Comedy For Your Monday

Feeling heretical, even outrageous, here's some late George Carlin stuff on abortion, the sanctity of life, and other issues. Not safe for work or people who pass out when they hear dirty words.

Robin Williams gets his freak on in London.

Richard Pryor from Live on the Sunset Strip, talking about a run-in with the Mafia. I love this entire film, Pryor is transcendent, and this is just a sample.

Virtual Tin Cup

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