Saturday, December 19, 2009

Treating A Senator With The Respect He Deserves

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

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

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

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

Saturday Christmas Rock Show (Sort Of)

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

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ben Nelson Doesn't Care About People

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Seeking Understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Persistence Of Religious Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2009

Music For Your Monday

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmas Memories - 1988

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

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

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

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

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

Which Question Deals With The Reality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virtual Tin Cup

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