Friday, March 18, 2011

What Chris Bertram Said (UPDATE; UPDATE II)

Succinct, clear, and correct. The saying, "Sad but true" keeps coming to mind.

The desire to "do something", while understandable, is woefully misguided absent clarity of thought, any sense of the stakes involved, the interests that may be harmed out of the commendable desire to see a dictator overthrown and a people, yearning to be free, have their wishes granted. That the world is a messy place often makes our real choices unpalatable. The course the UN has placed in front of those who wish to interfere in the Libyan Civil War is fraught with peril all the way around. Just consider Qaddafi's history of retaliation for international interference in his country. No doubt, at some point, the French, or the British, or whoever else gets involved in what will no doubt be seen as a debacle, will be perplexed when there is some kind of violent response against them and/or their interests or people.

I heard an interview yesterday with Secretary of State Clinton. Steve Inskeep of NPR read a question from a gentleman who wondered when the United States would do something. I thought Sec. Clinton's response was spot on. That it seems inadequate to the moment is due, in large part, to an ongoing belief the the United States, being the biggest player in the planetary schoolyard, has both the ability and the responsibility, to set things aright. The persistence of the belief in the benevolence of American interference in the affairs of other states is a marvel, really, of hope over reality. The UN will prove no better, and perhaps spectacularly worse.

I grieve for the lost promise of Libyan freedom. What anyone else could have done, let alone should have done, continues to be the same as it always was - not a damn thing.

UPDATE: I'll be honest. I never saw this coming.
Muammar Gaddafi's government said it was declaring a unilateral ceasefire in its offensive to crush Libya's revolt, as Western warplanes prepared to attack his forces.

"We decided on an immediate ceasefire and on an immediate stop to all military operations," Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa told reporters in Tripoli on Friday, after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution authorizing military action.
Things that make you go, "Hmm . . ."

UPDATE II: After some thought, and reports that fighting continues, I have to say I am less surprised now. At this point, Qaddafi stops fighting, and talks about talking. Except, really, he holds all the cards. His ground forces can consolidate. The opposition, such as remains of it, sits huddled in and around Benghazi. The talking about talking breaks down, and now the Libyan Army is ready to go. And, surprise, surprise! It doesn't need planes. Its tanks, its artillery - all in place. The troops, arranged properly and briefed thoroughly, move in.

This is a situation that wholly favors Qaddafi.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Why I Wish I Could Ban "Moral Issues" From Public Debate (UPDATE)

I recently read a story about a New York state representative, a Democrat from the New York City area, who was a pivotal player in killing that state's attempt to legalize gay marriage. He was busted for being part of an extortion/bribery racket . . . with his long-time male partner as enforcer/bag-man. When I read the story, the first thing I thought was, "Well, at least there are some Democrats out there for whom the closet is a comfortable place, too." After the parade of Republicans kicking open their closets, it was a relief, really, to have a Democrat own up to being a real wanker.

The conservatives gave a real run in the hypocrisy marathon, though. David Vitter? Devoted family man who also had a diaper fetish he felt the need to pay someone else to assist him with, rather than trust his wife. Mark Foley? Let's write a bill going after pedophiles on the internet, which should have been a huge clue that he might well have odd feelings about those underage. The late Henry Hyde? Let's prosecute Pres. Clinton, try to get the guy booted from office, because he had the temerity to receive oral pleasure from a woman not his wife. Oh, and by the way, he had a years-long affair. The latest entrant in this rogues' gallery - well, not really latest because he's haunted our public life since I was a young adult - is Newt Gingrich, out there in force talking morality and the joys of monogamy, something at which he has been spectacularly unsuccessful most of his adult life.

I try to avoid talking about most public issues in moral terms, because talking about "morality" is such a slippery thing. Most of the time, when "morality" rears its ugly head, it's a stick others use to beat down those they don't like. Don't like gay folk? Well, then, whatever it is they do, it's immoral! Don't like young people whose lives are different from the previous generation? Well, then, they're immoral!

Elaborate intellectual structures, with all sorts of references to various sacred texts are invoked. The threat to the survival of our society, our very way of life are intoned in what is hoped is the kind of stentorian voice the Hebrew prophets may have used.

It's all a sham.

Social and cultural mores - what we call "morality" - are an ever-changing, never-quite-solid set of rules and expectations that are nice, to be sure. They add to the way we understand and accept one another. All the same, there is no way, apart from near tyrannical strictures and structures, the political arena - the various branches of the federal government, the states, what-have-you - can legally address the way mores change, grow, and move. I would much prefer we deal with matters about which the political process is well-equipped to deal - the economy, foreign policy, addressing our common life through support of the arts, supporting environmental, health and safety, labor organization, and other ways we discovered in the 20th century to improve our common life. We get sidetracked arguing over nonsense and all the while the real barbarians - the thieves and bandits we like to call corporations - steal us blind, strip away the various fig-leaves of protections we have constructed to protect ourselves and enhance our common life.

I noted the Republicans caught in various stages of moral turpitude not to say, "See, aren't they a bunch of hypocrites?", because, frankly, I detest calling people out for moral (or other) hypocrisy. It's easy, it's cheap, and it usually boomerangs around and smacks us in the face. I am quite tired of the "gotcha!" game that goes on far too often, in which this or that person who has spent quite a bit of time pontificating about how horrible our moral choices as a nation may be, only to end up caught, sometimes quite literally, with their pants down. Far better to leave that latter kind of thing in that category that young people refer to as "TMI" and concentrate on matters over which we have actual control.

UPDATE: This is a perfect example of what I'm talking about here.
When it comes to the cost of environmental rules, industry scaremongering is virtually always wrong. And not just a little wrong. A lot wrong. Yet serious people continue to stroke their chins and take their pseudo-studies seriously.

Anyway, read the whole thing. Mercury is a huge health hazard, the new EPA rules have been in the works for decades, and mitigation technology is available that works pretty well at a reasonable cost.
We are bombarded by bullshit that every little environmental regulation will cost jobs, kill the economy, leave us no better than Zambia, economically speaking. Yet, the fact is that mercury, which not only leads to a kind of dementia but is also a mutagen, is the real threat. Not the regulations to control its use and disposal in to the environment. That won't hurt anyone, costs little to nothing, and benefits everyone.

We are incapable of having this discussion, though, not least because some people seem to think that gay people are destroying America, unwed mothers will leave us impoverished and culturally backward, and masturbation kills. I mean, seriously, people. We were once a country that managed its affairs with at least a modicum of intelligence and maturity. We are, it seems, incapable of governance because we manage our affairs like poorly-trained 19-year-olds, worried about our appearance and whether people will say bad things about us. The real tragedy is that, I think most people get this. Yet, we still have to treat seriously people who should be patted on the head and told to go in the other room while the adults deal with things.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Killing The Record Industry One Song At A Time

My friend Greg, who is also the guy for whom I work as a DJ, turned me on to the documentary, Before the Music Dies. It's available free, as you may have discovered if you clicked the link, at A look at the hazards and potential of our current historic moment as regards music - the depredations of the music industry, corporate consolidation in commercial radio, and the MTV effect on the one hand; the availability of inexpensive recording tools and distribution networks from social media to small labels to other internet sources - the film is a definite must-see for any music fan.

With the advent of Justin Bieber over the past year, and the threat of a new Britney Spears record on the horizon, this film reminds us that while the destruction of both commercial radio and the record industry in the name of profit is an opportunity for musicians to get their music heard, and for fans of music - any kind of music - to hear incredible, strange, marvelous, wonderful stuff.

The film opens with the following clip, leaving this viewer with the dreadful thought that, as the record industry has existed for the past twenty years or so, nothing like this could have been produced. Thankfully, technology and a desire for hearing something new, really new, is keeping the door open for all sorts of people who might otherwise never get a chance to be heard. So, hear are Ray and Billy, ladies and gentlemen.

Oh, yeah, here are ten random songs, just because randomness is a threat.

Two Lovers - Mary Wells
Southern Point - Grizzly Bear
Runaway - The National
Up for the Downstroke - Parliament/Funkadelic
Larks Tongue in Aspic, Part III (Live) - King Crimson
Ommie Wise - G. B. Grayson (Anthology of American Folk Music)
Ben - Michael Jackson
Harold The Barrel - Genesis
Kneel and Disconnect - Porcupine Tree
I Ka Barra - Habib Koite and Bamada

This song just missed my random list, literally. All the same, it may well be my favorite song of all time. If I were stranded on a desert island, and didn't have this song, I'm not sure how I would survive. I think God put Marvin Gaye on this earth to record the album What's Going On, and this title track is just about perfect in every way.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Truth And The Bible I - Prior Commitments Outside The Bible

What follows is a long response to a discussion here. It is not even marginally on topic, would be far too long for a comment, yet it deals with issues under discussion. I dealt, years ago, with these same topics with Neil, who also seemed not to get the point I was trying to make. My hope is that I've become better at explaining this stuff.

In any discussion on the nature of truth in the Bible that includes literalists, one finds what is, in essence, a defense of a particular view of truth that is usually labeled "correspondence". This is the theory that states truth pertains when there is a direct, discernible relationship between the things we say or write, and our experience. Now, the correspondence theory of truth, or at least a version of it, which I will be calling the "weak version", is a good approximation of how we conduct our affairs in everyday life. Communication needs to have a certain level of mundane reliability. As an evolutionary tool, language only works as a survival tool if those who use it understand a certain amount of correspondence between what is said and what is happening. If we doubt that, the saber-tooth tiger that is lurking around the corner may pounce on us because we don't trust the other hunters trying to warn us about it.

At the same time, just because the "weak version" of correspondence has some commonsense validity does not mean it is the sole, or even the best, theory of truth out there. After all, part of the problem is confusing "the correct conveyance of immediate information" with truth as a philosophical category. Just as Newtonian physics works well enough as an approximation for how things operate here on earth at non-relativistic speeds and at the macroscopic level, but breaks down once we start dealing with relativistic velocities and sub-atomic particles, correspondence starts to fall apart once we start to push it toward conveying more than simple facts to truth.

Conveying facts, contingent events, and truth, a quality that obtains throughout the changes of time and space, is qualitatively different. Correspondence does the former quite well. It cannot do the latter for the simple reality that facts exist, they can be pointed to in space and time, plotted on a graph, that kind of thing. Truth, being a universal (at least in philosophical parlance), does not "exist" in this mundane way.

Now, one could argue that I am confusing the matter, since the issue of correspondence concerns itself with the reliability of the reports of various events and persons in the Bible. For example, when the Bible reports the siege of Jericho, the walls are said to have collapsed after the people marched around them and blew their horns. Now, archaeologists have examined the wealth of remains of old Jericho and find no evidence the walls collapsed or were otherwise breached. I have been accused of putting more faith in the archaeologists than in the Scriptural narrative, but right here lies the essence of the confusion. If our trust in the Biblical narrative rests upon a trust in the correspondence between the events depicted in Scripture, either fantastic or mundane, and actual historical events, then the Bible loses. Particularly if the standard is, as it often is claimed to be, that any Scriptural passage so proven factually inaccurate calls the entire body of writings in to question.

There are a variety of understandings of truth: logical coherence, the evidential theory, the pragmatic theory, and the correspondence theory (Karl Popper via Karl Hubner). They are sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradictory, sometimes complimentary, but each is proposed because of limitations and flaws in the others. Relying on any of them for an understanding of truth when reading the Bible forces us to face their limitations.

A prior commitment to any theory of truth, particularly a strong version of the correspondence theory, misses a not unimportant fact. The Bible itself offers a view of truth that is fundamentally distinct from any of these. In the Gospel of St. John, Jesus proclaims himself to be "the Truth", as well as the way and the life. It seems to me that we need to start here for an understanding of truth in the Bible.

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