Saturday, February 12, 2011

Discussion Topic

OK, here is a chance to start a real conversation with some right-wingers. It comes from this post by Matt Yglesias. It begins with a quote from former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, speaking at the CPAC conference:
“Mr. President, with bullies, might makes right. Strength makes them submit. We need to get tough on our enemies, not on our friends. And, Mr. President, stop apologizing for our country,” Pawlenty said in one of his speech’s biggest applause lines.
Matt continues, after a gratuitous music video from Nirvana:
This is interesting, in part, because I don’t even remember the president apologizing for our country.
OK, so, on the one hand you have Gov. Pawlenty saying that Pres. Obama needs to stop apologizing for our country (whatever that means). Then Matt makes the factually accurate statement that, in fact, Pres. Obama has never "apologized" for the United States (again, whatever that means). Matt continues, however, to offer a view that is not factual, but is his opinion. I am not suggesting I agree or disagree with it. These are Matt Yglesias words, not mine:
[R]age at the president’s non-existent habit of apologizing is a pure psychological manifestation of acute sensitivity around this issue. It’s a very pure distillation of the raw, hysterical, absurd atavistic nationalism that lies at the core of contemporary conservatism.

Matt extends his argument:
I mean, I assume Pawlenty doesn’t raise his kids to never apologize for their conduct. Apologizing is the right way to respond to wrongdoing. Sometimes I make factual errors in my posts and I try to apologize for them. I stepped on a woman’s foot by accident yesterday and apologized. That’s life. You apologize. Is it seriously an article of faith of the American conservative movement that the American government has never done anything worth apologizing for? That’s the official view of the political movement that allegedly thinks the other movement is too statist? When I heard that tear gas that Egyptian police fired at protestors in Tahrir Square was made in America and purchased with my tax dollars, I felt kind of sorry. But evidently real rightwingers are devoid of human compassion or any ethic of responsibility.
It is a fact that Pres. Obama has never, to the knowledge of anyone, "apologized" for actions the United States has carried out. Yet, he is constantly criticized for doing something he has not, in fact done. That's part (a). Part (b) is the description of right-wing ideology that sees nothing in America's history or current activity around the globe worth apologizing for. Obviously, we have much to apologize for.

In order to cover my self, I googled "Obama apologizes" and I got this hit right at the get-go:
President Obama this afternoon spoke with Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom to “express his deep regret” and “extend an apology to all those infected” following the revelation that the U.S. Public Health Service conducted a study from 1946 to 1948 in which near 700 prisoners, soldiers and patients with emotional and mental problems were purposefully infected with syphilis.
So, OK, he did apologize. Seems to me, though, this is kind of a big deal, purposely infecting people with a horrid disease without their knowledge or consent. So, he has apologized, but for a specific act that is, by any measure, reprehensible.

An April, 2009 Telegraph article on a speech by President Obama is characterized, perhaps not unjustly, as an apology for American arrogance by at least one blogger.

Beyond that, all I get are links to the Wall Street Journal and Rush Limbaugh claiming Obama is on another "apology tour", as well as instances where the President has apologized for words or actions that, it seems to me, warrant at the very least a public apology.

So, there you have it. The President has apologized, directly and forcefully, for a despicable act on the part of Americans in the past. He has also, obliquely perhaps, apologized for American arrogance and dismissal of European unity, while in the same breath calling on Europeans to be a bit more magnanimous toward America.

So, where are the apology tours? Other than these instances, when has the President gone on an "apology tour"? Should the President stop something he never actually started?

"All horizons are open"

As I watched the celebrations, the tumult, the joy in Egypt yesterday, one long-time activist for democracy in Egypt was being interviewed by Al Jazeera. Trying to capture her feeling at this particular moment, the above quote summed up not only her own sense of possibility, but my own sense that what has been happening across North Africa and the Middle East over the past six or so weeks is more than just rearranging the same old pieces on the chess board. With Yemen's long time autocrat vowing neither he nor his son will run for President in upcoming elections; with Jordan's King Abdullah II accepting protesters' demands that the government be replaced; with protests from Mauritania in the far west to under-the-radar YouTube postings from Saudi Arabia have shown, this may well be the beginning of a complete alteration of the nature of political life in the large swath of the Muslim world.

This was already on my mind from hearing this interview last week on NPR. Today, this article was offered up on Al Jazeera's English-language website.
The Egyptian revolution, itself influenced by the Tunisian uprising, has resurrected a new sense of pan-Arabism based on the struggle for social justice and freedom. The overwhelming support for the Egyptian revolutionaries across the Arab world reflects a sense of unity in the rejection of tyrannical, or at least authoritarian, leaders, corruption and the rule of a small financial and political elite.


We are now witnessing the emergence of a movement for democracy that transcends narrow nationalism or even pan-Arab nationalism and which embraces universal human values that echo from north to south and east to west.

This is not to say that there is no anti-imperialist element within the current movement. But the protests in Egypt and elsewhere promote a deeper understanding of human emancipation, which forms the real basis for freedom from both repression and foreign domination.
The whole article deserves to be read, but this central reality - the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and nascent stirrings in other countries are about people seeking to define their nations, their realities, for the very first time - it seems to me is the only way to read events. Even should the revolutions be betrayed in the near or more distant future, they were sparked and made successful by the people of Tunisia and Egypt standing up for the first time and demanding to be heard as the people of Tunisia and Egypt.

Friday, February 11, 2011

While They Cheer In Tahrir

I feel a bit of disappointment that I am not in a position - say, DC, where I could go to the Egyptian embassy, let alone in Cairo or Alexandria or Suez - to celebrate with the Egyptian people. The days ahead present all sorts of questions and difficulties, but for the moment, like Pres. Obama in his statement just a few minutes ago, it is enough to praise the people of Egypt for taking hold of their right to guide their destiny as they see fit. Gone are the nonsensical claims of "the Arab exception", ousted VP Omar Suleiman's claim that the Egyptian people aren't ready for democracy, that universal rights aren't actually universal. For now, it is enough to watch in awe as the people in Egypt celebrate their victory.

I am curious, though. Where have all the defenders of real freedom been? With two exceptions, the silence has been deafening. Exception number 1. Exception number 2.

The second, just posted, asks questions that need to be considered over the coming days and weeks and months, albeit set in a framework with which I happen to disagree. All the same, it, and the first as well, offer thoughtful takes on events in Egypt, free of cant and, worse, bigotry, that should be commended.

I still wonder, though. We've been hearing that the left is the enemy of freedom, yet I, as a lefty kind of guy, have been celebrating the end of a dictatorship. Where are all the friends of freedom?

The sound of the crickets keeps drowning out my question . . .

It Is Done

I was starting to write a post on the uncertainty in Egypt when I was rudely interrupted by a terse statement from Vice President Suleiman announcing that Pres. Mubarak has stepped down, and turned rule over to the Army. While this is only a beginning, the eruption in Tahrir Square is a thing of beauty to any and all who have been following events for the past three weeks.

For now, it is enough to celebrate with the people of Egypt. He has gone. It's over.

I know it says, "girl", but you know what, who cares?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Some Thoughts On Marriage

I've been doing a little back and forth on matters related to marriage, human sexuality, and the role of the Christian churches at this post. A point I made early on is that the Christian churches in America have, by and large, forfeited any coherent, Biblical approach to matters relating to marriage and the dynamics of human interpersonal relationships generally; taking a punitive approach, for instance, to the fruits of out-of-wedlock sexuality (i.e., not blessing a child born out of wedlock within the congregation), absent any evidence of a coherent approach to larger matters is not only mean-spirited and lacking in grace. It is just further evidence that, particularly in those quarters who hold up the Bible and insist we are to live by it, the churches really have no clue.

It seems fitting, then, that today's office reading is from the Gospel of St. Mark, the first sixteen verses of chapter 10, in which Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees regarding the Mosaic law concerning marriage and divorce. These verses, ripped apart and put back together again, Frankenstein-like, have been used for everything from hating on gays to punishing women for adulterous behavior, even though Jesus does happen to mention men, too. Rather than creative exegesis, let's just look at the questions and Jesus' answers.

Jesus is asked about the particular legal codes regarding marriage and divorce. He asks the Pharisees if they know what they are, to which they give a nice, summary answer. Jesus' response is quite simple - the Law is wrong. When a man and a woman marry, it isn't about feeling all warm and gooey inside; it isn't about getting tax benefits; it isn't because they are soul-mates whose lives are forever, inextricably intertwined. Nope, a man and a woman, joined in marriage are so joined by God. As to the why's and wherefore's, Jesus offers not a clue. Simply put, all Jesus is saying here is that, once folks get married, they are changed. They are no longer two people, but joined together - again, he doesn't explain it, he just says "they are one flesh" - they are something altogether different.

A careful reader would be forgiven for thinking he is showing the way marriage is related to the life of the Christian, a new creation in the risen Christ. This is, quite simply put, one of many proleptic passages in which Jesus offers a view of the resurrection and the life awaiting us. Reading this as a marriage manual absent this context - sharing in the life of the resurrected Jesus - is only getting part of the story.

Sad to say, our churches, whether mainstream or marginal, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical, however one wishes to describe them, are incoherent on matters relating to marriage because they start talking about marriage rather than talking about the resurrection of Jesus. They start talking about family rather than talking about the resurrection of Jesus. They start talking about human relationships before they start talking about the resurrection of Jesus. In this passage, Jesus is offering us a whole new way of thinking about and talking about marriage, one rooted in his own life and passion and resurrection.

It might be nice if our churches started talking about marriage in the way Jesus is talking about it here. It might be nice if the churches started talking about marriage in any way other than the way they currently talk about it. It would be nice if we began any discussion on matters of human relationships talking about Jesus, crucified and risen, rather than talking about other stuff first. Our incoherence on matters regarding marriage, the family, sex, and an abundance of other matters falter because he have an agenda that keeps us from talking, first and foremost, about Jesus crucified and risen.

Random Humpy Music, Get Ur Freak On Edition

I got thinking about the role of music as a soundtrack to two not-necessarily-related human activities - love and sex. Ahead of next week's celebration of all things romantic, I thought it might be fun to consider the more carnal aspects of human relationships, and how they are reflected in popular song. Humans have always celebrated sexual intimacy in song; the poetry of Sappho, existing only in fragments, is perhaps three thousand years old. The Song of Songs in the Bible may be nearly as old. Indian songs and sex manuals and even carvings adorn the subcontinent. Only in the past couple hundred years, particularly in America and Britain, has there been any effort to pretend that human sexuality isn't a fit subject for the aural arts.

Here in the US, our folk music traditions, most especially the blues, celebrate sex in ways that are both humorous and deeply human. The old blues standard, "He's My Handyman" is the marvelous celebration by a woman of her man's sexual prowess. Even older tunes like "Diggin' My Potatoes" are even more carnal.

Rhythm and blues, rock, and rap continue this trend. Apart from the explicit songs, like "Get Low", or W.A.S.P.'s "Animal", there are songs like Charlies Rich's "Behind Closed Doors", The Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight" (I love this one in particular because, as a child, this homage to the female orgasm was played all over AM radio; I am embarrassed to admit that one of my sisters had to tell me what the song was about; hey, I wasn't eleven years old!), and The Doors' "Love Me Two Times" were glorifications of sex that got all sorts of airplay.

The hard rock bands of the 1980's were a bit more open. For example, Whitesnake's "Slide It In" and The Bullet Boys' "Smooth Up In Ya". managed to get their message across pretty clearly.

The Christian churches have had a devilish time dealing with the celebration of sex in popular song. From the Middle Ages right up to the latest rap hit, the first response has been to shush the singer, and condemn the listeners. Except we human beings are a marvelous, complex animal, and sex happens to be an important part of human life. Celebrating sex is celebrating being alive, being human. Take some time before you get all smarmy and mushy next Tuesday and listen to a tune or two that revels in all the sweaty goodness of being human together.

OK, enough of that before I get all hot and bothered. Let's see what "random" offers up, shall we?

China Cat Sunflower - The Dead, May 4, 2009 Allstate Arena, Chicago, IL
Dear Father - Yes
I'll Take New York - Tom Waits
Melrose Avenue - California Guitar Trio
Symphony #5, 4th Movement - Ludwig van Beethoven
In Memory of Elizabeth Reed - The Allman Brothers Band
Treat You Right - Bob Marley
Sehnsucht - Rammstein
So Legt Ihn in Die Blumen, Lazarus Oratorio - Franz Schubert
Boplicity - Miles Davis

Oh, why not? Cheesy, way too much hair, but, heck, it's fun, right?

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


My undergraduate alma mater, Alfred University, rests quietly in a spot best described as "the middle of nowhere". Small, almost the poster child for small western New York universities and colleges, it boasts among its many distinctions, the inventor of the air hockey table. One of the physics professors there, the late John Stull, created it as a lab tool for experimenting with zero-friction. For some reason, a toy company got wind of it and wanted to buy Stull's patent. Because he was a Ph.D., had a really good lawyer, or both, Stull refused to sell his patent. Instead, he licensed it, including a share of the profits. He became a wealthy man.

One of the things he did with that money was build a four-telescope observatory near the top of one of the hills just south of campus. Because it sits, as I say, in the middle of nowhere, it is uniquely suited for astronomical observation. The University offered, as a general science elective to fulfill basic liberal arts requirements, a four-credit astronomy lab. Running from eight pm until midnight one night a week, "astro lab", as it was known, was popular, among other reasons, because, locked in the top of the observatory with one or two partners was a marvelous opportunity to sneak in some weed or beer, and blow one's mind even as one checked out the wonders of the universe (not that I ever did either, I think to the frustration of my lab partner, a sophomore and sister at one of Alfred's three sororities).

The first time you put your eye to a real telescope like this, it can be quite mind-blowing. After siting it and orienting it - you find your way in the night sky by using co-ordinates known as right-ascension and declination, two of the few terms I have carried with me for all these years - you can find pretty much anything. The thing is, though, very often the patch of sky toward which the telescope may point will appear quite blank, a big black patch. You put your eye to the 'scope, and . . . you see stars. Maybe even hundreds. You might be looking at one of the small globular clusters that circle our galaxy, say, or perhaps a well-known but otherwise invisible star or double-star system. The Crab Nebula, always a favorite of mine, is beautiful through a telescope.

A prize possession of mine is a National Geographic Magazine from 1981 that featured an article with pictures of the Voyager I fly-by of Saturn. For some reason I still can't really understand, I was entranced by both the images and the accompanying story, the way the pictures puzzled astronomers, to the point that some of the images seemed to suggest many of the theories regarding orbital mechanics were obviously wrong. In the winter of 1991, I happened to find this very same magazine in a pile of books in an antique mall in rural Maryland. I picked it up for two bucks, and it sits on my book shelf to this day.

Yesterday, a friend of mine on Facebook linked to this site that offers one of those telescoping perspective shots in a series of photographs. Starting with the earth/moon system, we move ever outward until we encounter a mega-galaxy thirteen billion light years distant. One need hardly go that far through the series of photographs, however, to have one's mind blown. The photo showing Rigel and Aldebaran, two nearby stars in our galaxy, swallowing up not just our sun, but the entire solar system is enough to make you stop and wonder.

Our grasp of these things is, I would wager, minimal. Consider, as a fer-instance, the conflict over the Palestinian territories in the Middle East. The total size of the West Bank and Gaza strip is 6,020 square kilometers. For scale, my current state of residence, Illinois, is over 55,000 square miles. Indeed, our smallest state, Hawaii, at just over 6400 square miles, is larger than the Palestinian territories. Much of that region of our world is transfixed by a couple parcels of land that, together, are smaller than the smallest state in the US, could, in fact, disappear quite nicely as a county or two in one of the larger states of the union.

This is not to suggest that size equals importance, or that the conflict over Palestine, or in any other region of the world needs to be set aside. Rather, it is only to suggest that our perspectives on cosmic distances is limited by our experience of terrestrial distance. My commute to work is about as long as a drive from Jerusalem to the northern border of Israel with Lebanon, another hot spot. I drive it without thinking too much other than the country roads I take offer a bit of peace and quiet. Looking at the photo of Betelgeuse swallowing up Aldebaran, rendering our solar system invisible in the process, is literally impossible to grasp in any but the most superficial way. We have nothing in our collective experience with which to compare these images. All we can do is sit, a bit slack-jawed, and be silent.

When we speak of "creation" as a theological concept, it is always a nice idea to have access to stuff like this series of photograph. It keeps us from being too parochial in our concerns, too limited in our perspective, too small in our thinking. It might even encourage some people to shut up and just consider what their eyes cannot behold on a clear night sky.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Makes You Wish The Dust Speck Was Boiled

Former Dr. Seuss character John Bolton insists, among other things, that he is no duck.
"I'm not like the duck, placid on the top of the water and paddling furiously underneath. I'm really looking at it. It's a hard decision for me."
By all means, John. Run. I don't want to have downloaded that picture for nothing.

Have Attorney Will Travel

It isn't just Switzerland.
Human rights groups have vowed to track George W Bush round the world after their success in forcing him to cancel a trip to Switzerland amid concerns over protests and a threatened arrest warrant.

Katherine Gallagher, a lawyer with the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights, said: "The reach of the convention against torture is wide. This case is prepared and will be waiting for him wherever he travels next.

"Torturers, even if they are former presidents of the United States, must be held to account and prosecuted."

Although Bush has travelled freely round the world since leaving the White House in January 2009, human rights groups believe he is vulnerable to prosecution after admitting in his autobiography last November that he authorised waterboarding and other interrogation techniques.

"Waterboarding is torture, and Bush has admitted, without any sign of remorse, that he approved its use," said Gallagher, who is also vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights.
I look forward to George taking up the burden of personal responsibility, traveling to Spain or some other country that hasn't looked kindly on foreign heads-of-state torturing and killing people, allowing himself to be arrested, and appearing in court to defend his actions.

I hope he calls Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney as character witnesses. That would save the prosecutors a lot of time.

Virtual Tin Cup

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