Saturday, December 26, 2009

Waving The Bloody Shirt - Republican Cowardice

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

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

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

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

Saturday Rock Show

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

David Broder Likes Democrats Who Hate Democratic Policies

It's that simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 25, 2009


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

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

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

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

My Mother's Evangelistic Outreach - Christmas, 1978

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

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

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

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

I do know we stopped getting The Watchtower after that.

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

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

Thursday, December 24, 2009


And there were in that same country shepherd . . .

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ethical Uprightness And Liberalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

When God Answers Prayer In Surprising Ways

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

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

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

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

Read the whole thing.

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

Mr. President - grow a pair.

Christmas Music For Your Monday

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

"Christmas Lullaby"

"Angels Carol"

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

With A Mixture Of Joy And Envy . . .

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Memories - 1993

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right-Wing Christmas Thoughts

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

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

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

And he preempted A Charlie Brown Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

Virtual Tin Cup

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