Saturday, May 28, 2011

High End Malfeasance

Bob Somerby maintains that our crass, stupid, crazy political culture can be dated, roughly speaking, to the 1988 Presidential campaign, when the Republican Party and George H. W. Bush's campaign managed to turn the managerially competent but largely non-ideological Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, in to some weird, anti-American creature from our nightmares, hating the Pledge of Allegiance, and making fun of a photo-op he did in which he was driven around in a tank.

That may well be the case, at least at a Presidential level. It was an ugly, stupid campaign, and the Dukakis' never recovered their reputations from that, which is sad, because the Democratic Party has been deprived of an important, intelligent, thoughtful technocrat because of party anger that he blew a huge lead over the sitting Vice President, losing in November because he allowed the Republicans to define him as, quite simply put, some crazy outsider who hated America. This pattern, however, of taking run-of-the-mill political nonsense and making crazy out of it became far more institutionalized, at least in my mind, in 1992.

Does anyone besides me remember the House banking scandal?

In our speeded-up Universe, it happened a lifetime ago and more. Young people graduating from high school this year weren't even born when news broke that members of the House of Representatives had been kiting checks without any penalty. By and large, I agree with David Broder's real-time assessment of the mess as "penny ante". All the same, over 50 members decided not to run for re-election that year, starting a pattern of volatility in House membership that has continued for nearly 20 years. After roughly forty years of party stability, this period seems odd, but is far closer to the historical reality (outside the old solidly Democratic South). One of those who decided to end his House career was the member from my old House district in New York, well-respected back-bencher Matt McHugh, for whom David Broder had much high praise. Further along in this same column, Broder quotes Minnesota's Vin Weber, one of the few and last serious conservatives to exist in Washington, to the effect that the banking scandal seemed to produce a set of expectations that were irrelevant to the issues Congress was facing. Broder echoes this, yet takes it a step further in his closing comments:
"What worries me is the effect on the public. They're putting all their hopes on new faces. And if the new Congress comes together and doesn't do anything about economic stagnation, about breaking the poverty cycle, about welfare reform and education reform and the rest, we really run the risk of a political crisis."

That is no exaggeration. And the risk is greater because of something McHugh and Weber can't say - but I can. When you lose too many people like them, you cripple the Congress.
This last sentence, when I read it in real time way back in 1992, jumped out at me as "odd". House member, regardless of tenure, serve at the whim of the voters. Long-time members understand this, manipulating and taking advantage of various perks, including the appropriations process, to keep the money flowing home so local power-brokers, and voters, understand that folks in Washington are working for them. All the same, the longer one stays in any one place, in particular when a single party dominates any institution for too long, an expectation of entitlement can creep in, and the temptation to go beyond simple exploitation of seniority perks can become overwhelming. While members from both parties took advantage of the lax oversight and management of the House Bank, it was the Democrats who had been in charge since the 1950's, so it seemed more than appropriate they should pay the price in terms of losing seats.

Furthermore, while it may well be sad to lose long-term members like McHugh, Congress has continued to function (more or less) without him. Yet this last sentence reveals something far more rotten than a bunch of bounced checks. One of the most important voices in American political journalism seemed to believe that House members should be given a pass, whether or not they have done anything wrong, because other parts of their records seem to balance out their wrong-doing. In the case of McHugh, his quiet yet consistent work-ethic seemed to suggest someone who understood how to get things done in the House of Representatives, something Broder always seemed to admire. All the same, it is voters, not high-end political journalists, who determine who is a member of the House.

Reading this column 19 years ago, I realized something was broken in our political culture, an anti-democratic streak within our elite press corps that continues, and has strengthened.

Friday, May 27, 2011

More On Intellectual Dishonesty - Mainstream Edition

I read with interest today's Daily Howler. While I wonder why Somerby believes that David Brooks has only recently become a joke, I was particularly interested in his discussion of Sisela Bok's review of a book by James Stewart.

Talk about burying the lede!

Bok notes that Stewart's very first sentence . . . well, I'll just let her tell it.
The book’s very first sentence makes an erroneous claim of vast proportions: “We know how many murders are committed [in the United States] each year — 1,318,398 in 2009.” No source is given for this figure, almost 100 times larger than the number of murders actually reported that year. It turns out to refer, rather, to the totality of violent crimes reported in the United States, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report.
A book that Bok calls "scathing", that Stewart "scrutinizes with equal care" various bits of evidence, that the book is "provocative and hard-hitting". The compliments flow like wine at a wedding reception. All the while, Ms. Bok take a while to note that this carefully scrutinized, provocative, hard-hitting book begins with a false claim. Now, is this just poor analysis on Stewart's part? Is it confusion? Was it, perhaps, poor editorial scrutiny that allowed such a basic, and huge, error to start off a book on honesty?

While I will not, as Somerby does, speculate on reasons why Bok does this bit of prestidigitation, I find it more than a bit amusing that this becomes a side note in an otherwise glowing review. While not necessarily calling in to question the accuracy or veracity of the entire work, it would certainly lead me to question other claims that sound, shall we say, dubious at best. Furthermore, I believe that Somerby's point about Stewart's past publications, and their causal acquaintance with accuracy is highly relevant in any assessment of his writing. In particular, since he is here claiming some kind of moral high-ground in regard to public truth-telling, it might be important to assess his own relationship to factual accuracy in presenting his case.

Quite apart from the farcical nonsense of so much of our public discourse - Obama drank a beer in Ireland, so he is an alcoholic! Obama hates America, Israel, and puppies! - when whole books, alleging both careful factual scrutiny and seriousness of intent as well as topic, turn out to be written by individuals with what could be called a casual relationship to factual accuracy and a blase attitude toward serious matters, and then have these same works assessed favorably with academics bearing a certain reputation for integrity, we are all in trouble.

Signs Of Grace - Even For Those Who Don't Believe

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
1 John 4:7-12
I find it amusing to consider people. All of us walk around, our game faces on, appearing in public as strong and confident, even blustering and bombastic, or by turns obsequious and deferential. Invariably, however, we are faced with the grim reality that these public face in no way give others a clue about who we are. Time and again, I have found, how we present ourselves to others bears no relation whatsoever to the person we feel ourselves to be.

The kudzu vein of American emotional issues is simple lack of self-confidence, bordering on neurotic self-loathing. If I had a dime every time I met someone who, regardless of outward appearances, circumstances, and even public, professional action, believed in his or her heart-of-hearts that he or she was a worthless pile of dog vomit, I would be living somewhere warm and tropical. The problem, of course, is that the sum total of problems caused by what is popularly known as low self-esteem is greater than individual instances of simple low self-regard. Substance abuse. Familial dysfunction. Physical, emotional, and psychological abuse within families. The myriad social dysfunctions one sees on shows like Cops. The toll all of us pay for each of thinking we are somehow unworthy of acceptance by others is very high indeed.

I got to thinking about this whole topic after reading this post last evening. Specifically, I found a certain passage enlightening:
Needless to say my 3 hour commute home was filled with images of my husband canoodling with a soon to be dead woman who was prettier than me, funnier than me, and just about better at me than everything. She was witty, charming, didn’t swear, fart, burp or say stupid things. She had beautiful hair and an incredibly toned ass.
Now, the young woman who wrote this is hardly a wilting flower. Quite the contrary. Yet, here she reveals to the world that, at heart, she just knows there is . . . another . . . out there for whom her husband will fall, someone prettier, wittier, more appealing than she knows herself to be. When she learns otherwise, however, she gets the shock of her life. Her husband, far from searching for that other something better, spends the hours between waking and sleeping with his thoughts on her.

Where does this lack of any sense that we are worthy of love reside? Psychologists always seem to point to families, to some kind of parental neglect or other familial dysfunction. Personally, I don't buy it. There just has to be something more to it. One of my reasons for saying this is my own experience. Growing up in a large, boisterous, garrulous, variegated household, the one thing all of us could count on was parental love. Yet, all five of us, in some manner, express the same kind of low regard as one sees most everywhere else. Ours, I think, tends toward garden-variety low self-esteem, sometimes edging toward seeking the kind of reassurance that comforts us with truths we both desperately wish to believe, yet cannot will ourselves to believe.

I consider myself the luckiest person I know. Quite apart from everything else in my life, I share it with a woman who is smart, and funny, and compassionate, and dedicated, and - yes, I'll say it - sexy as all get out. She is also my best friend, my confidante, the person to whom I turn not because I take her for granted but because I believe in my heart that, even if all the world falls apart, she will be by my side if for no other reason than I will be right there next to her. This is more than "love" as the poets and Romantics understood it. It is something more, something greater than the kind of "moon-spoon-June" crap we are fed by popular culture. After eighteen years of marriage, we finish one another's sentences. We have the same thoughts, expressed simultaneously. Something far deeper than simple passion, or even "love", is at work here. Lisa is, beyond a doubt, half of my life.

I wasn't always one who believed stuff like this. I refused, for the longest time, to believe it possible that another person could be, for me or anyone, so enmeshed with another that untangling the knot of their lives would be impossible. The best one could hope for, I used to say, is that the hard work of marriage would create bonds that would be difficult to sever. I am older, and far wiser, now, and believe with all my heart that Lisa has been right from day 1 - she and I were meant to be together. I know that sounds like so much craptastic, romantic nonsense. It is, nonetheless, true.

When the author of the above passage of Scripture was writing about love, I am quite sure the romantic variety of that state was not at all in mind. The word in question, filia, refers to the bonds of friendship that were far more prized, far more important, than the bond between spouses. In ridding our language of a variety of words describing a variety of emotional reactions to others in our lives, English is a poor way of communicating our feelings to others. I love my daughters, and I love my wife, and there are two or three people in my life, past and present, for whom the word "love" fits quite well. Yet, all these expressions of love are different for a variety of reasons. Yet, of one thing I feel myself quite sure - the reality of love in my life is testimony to the presence of God, not just in my life, but in the world.

The simple sentence, "God is love", given as a predicate regarding the subject "love" in the larger argument, sums up a basic reality that contradicts everything we believe and even think we know about the world. How many people really want to believe that love - not just between two people who share a mutual physical attraction and some kind of initial emotional bond - makes up not only for all the suffering and pain in the world, but even just for the lack of any sense of worth we feel? Yet, if we allow ourselves to think even about the possibility of love, we realize - quite apart from any Biblical references - that it is both impossible, and the most important, fundamental reality of human life. How is it possible, that of all the contingencies, mistakes, choices good and bad that led me there, that I could wind up, in Washington, DC in September of 1992, for just the slightest chance of encountering the woman who, I could not have imagined, is everything I could have wanted a life-partner to be? Yet, it did happen. For no other reason than this, I refuse to regret anything I ever did before that moment. If anything, even a single know in the tangle of my life before then, changed, I would not have met her, and nothing in my life would be the same. As I've told her, I may well have married, had children, too, but there would always be something . . . missing . . . some regret or some piece missing from my life.

Of all the bits and pieces of things in this world to which we in the church could point to show that God exists, and that the Christian God exists as we proclaim God to exist, for me the reality of love in all its variations, seems inarguable. That it is even possible seems to make no sense. How could anyone, anywhere, possibly defend the proposition that two individuals could or should spend the rest of their lives together? How is it possible that two people could meet, share interests and laughs together, share experiences and call one another "friend" yet have that word contain so much more than simple shared experiences. I maintain that, whether we can admit it or not, the simple reality of love between two people - whether it is love for a spouse or significant other, love for a child or pet, love for one or two special people in our lives we call friend - is the most direct, most clear, and most important sign that God, the Christian God revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, exists.

I know that sounds simple, even simplistic. Naive, perhaps. That doesn't make it any less true. If you love, open yourself to the possibility of being loved. Loved by others. Loved by God. It makes no sense, and a whole lot of questions remain unanswered, but that doesn't make it any less real, or true. It may well be the only thing that matters.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

If We Lived In A Sane Universe . . .

I read the news today. Oh boy.

Newspapers are dying. What does the premiere newspaper in the country do? It decides to make this guy an op-ed columnist. Considering David Brooks is the flagship columnist for the Times, the bar was already pretty low, but still . . .

There are amazing, intelligent, thoughtful, funny, insightful, provocative folks who write well, but just don't have the audience. They could use the kind of samolians the Gray Lady pays, too. They would attract new readers. They would create the kind of buzz a big newspaper needs to stay off a ventilator.

For example, Dan could write about religion. With comment threads stretching to the hundreds, its obvious the positions he takes bring out readers who want to talk about the same things he writes about. His willingness to engage anyone and everyone is a virtue far too rare on the internet. Agree or disagree with him, you have to admit, he keeps readers, and keeps them interested.

Lisa could write about politics. Or parenting. Or writing. Or sex. Or all of them in a single column! She's funny, bawdy, irreverent, and at one time had the best profile picture of any blogger I read on a regular basis. If she and I met, I would be a fawning, love-struck teenager, I am quite sure. Of course, the Times might have to relax its style book a bit for some of Lisa's vocabulary, but it would be worth it.

Angela could write about being married to a military officer. Or working out. Or ferrets. Or politics. Or sex. Or all of them in a single column! She used to call herself "The Angry Ballerina", but since she married James Nason, she's been far less angry; in fact, she is practically cuddly, now, all things considered. She, too, is vocal, opinionated, strident even, yet marvelously warm and, most of all, human.

Our public discourse needs an infusion of smart, a mainline of funny, and maybe a defibrillator of thoughtful if we are going to yank ourselves out of the hole in which we find ourselves. Rather than fall back on columnists who may well prove to be even more awful than the current crop, one would think a business that is rotting on the vine might just take a chance and reinvigorate itself.

Of course, the Washington Post did the same kind of thing, hiring Ezra Klein as their on-line commentator. Klein went from being intelligent, thoughtful, and irreverent to, well, just another writer at the Post. So, does entering the mainstream mean selling your soul? It shouldn't. Evidence suggests otherwise, though.

It would be nice if these folks, and some others, got the exposure and rewards they deserved. One of the continual frustrations of this life is the on-going marginalization of internet discussions and writing, as if somehow a medium populated by tens of millions of people were somehow irrelevant.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Intellectual Dishonesty - It's The Currency Of The Realm!

I learned yesterday that An Important Liberal Internet Writer has serious issues with Noam Chomsky. Calling him, in one post, the "Stupidest and Most Dishonest Man Alive", is indeed a tad harsh, considering the candidates for that title are legion. All the same, what began as an interesting spate of reading a blogger I have not read before (Brad DeLong is an economist, a neo-liberal, and Larry Summers fan, the last of which would make me take the things he says with certain grains of salt), has become an exercise in pointing to a species of much larger concerns.

It should be clear to anyone who spends more than five minutes reading blogs, websites, even an on-line newspaper, that intellectual dishonesty is just part of what happens out here. Person "A" writes a post. Person "B", for a variety of reasons usually occluded takes issue what Person "A" says, or thinks "A" has said, and writes a post "rebutting" it. Person "A" takes issue with the interpretation, making clear that Person "B" has misunderstood what was written, offering (sometimes politely, sometimes not) a reiteration of the point at issue for the sake of clarity. What ensues usually ends up in the equivalent of a slap-fight, amusing to be sure, but amounting to little more than adults behaving like children.

I have learned through hard experience that misinterpretations, willful misunderstandings, and general dishonesty is just part of what it means to take a step out in public and say stuff. Other people are going to misunderstand you. Still others are going to claim you are the most dangerous human being writing anything anywhere. Best to just let such things stand there as testimony to one's interlocutor's issues, rather than pursue such disagreements to their inevitable conclusion.

Still, I think it is important that random charges of intellectual dishonesty, regardless of their roots (and the comment thread at Crooked Timber is full of speculation - it would be irresponsible not to! - about the reasons DeLong has a serious hard-on for Chomsky), not be initially unchallenged. In this case, I think it not unreasonable to assert that, as I am one of the few people who I know who, having read Chomsky, am neither a fan nor a detractor, but rather consider myself a sympathetic critic who is not blind to Chomsky's deficiencies. Since I just wrote about Chomsky the other day, it is fitting, I think, to take up a cudgel or two in his defense.

First, the Matt Yglesias post that sparked the above post is virtually indistinguishable from one DeLong posted. That does not mean that Yglesias is being dishonest; he is merely defending Eric Alterman from what he considers slander, as DeLong is. However, Yglesias is wrong in his reading of Chomsky's statement, as DeLong is (since they make the same error). Using such an opportunity to call Chomsky the stupidest and most dishonest man alive begs all sorts of questions, I believe, but for now I will let my conclusions regarding what Yglesias wrote stand in for any further thoughts on DeLong's post.

A couple random examples, I think, should suffice to show that DeLong, seeking to dismiss Chomsky from a circle of credible and serious critics, quite simply does not understand Chomsky. First, here's a post that delves in to what most would consider ancient history, an exchange of letters in The New York Review of Books from 1970 between Chomsky and Samuel Huntington. In his letter, Huntington takes issue with what he feels is Chomsky's characterization of a point Huntington made concerning the relationship between the depth of support for the Viet Cong and what steps would be necessary to end that support. Earlier in the writing under review, Huntington had stated that the only possible way to end that support would be, and here Chomsky quotes him directly:
Writing in Foreign Affairs, he [Huntington] explains that the Viet Cong is "a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist." The conclusion is obvious, and he does not shrink from it. We can ensure that the constituency ceases to exist by "direct application of mechanical and conventional power...on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city...."
The two quotes in question, juxtaposed as they are, appear in different places in the article under review, the latter prior to the former. Chomsky links them to make the not-unreasonable point that this seems to have been Nixon Administration policy - kill or otherwise remove as much of the rural population of South Vietnam as possible so as to deprive the Viet Cong of their natural constituency. Indeed, this had been US policy since the Kennedy Administration first devised and implemented its "strategic hamlet" policy - removing the rural population to what were little more than concentration camps so the Viet Cong would no longer be able to recruit villagers for their cadres.

Huntington seems to believe that, by creating the above sentences, Chomsky implies that Huntington favors such a policy. In his reply to Huntington's charge, Chomsky makes clear he was not saying anything of the sort, but rather making clear that Huntington seemed to understand the difficulties in separating the Viet Cong from their natural constituency and stated what the only possible policy response would be; furthermore, Chomsky was making it clear that, while Huntington may not favor such a policy, that indeed seemed to be what the Nixon Administration was doing. That, to me at least, is clear enough; Huntington misunderstood what Chomsky was about here, even though it seemed clear enough to this reader.

Further down, DeLong makes clear why he takes sides in this forty-year-old spat.
Let's try out an English sentence:

Peter Beamont and Josef Goebbels are both human beings.

The grammar is as Steven Poole asserts it is: my sentence asserts one point of comparison--human-ness--between Peter Beamont and Josef Goebbels, but is grammatically silent on other points, and on "overarching 'equivalence'."

But there is another channel of meaning here besides the grammar of the sentences, a rhetorical channel, one having to do not so much with what the sentences themselves say but with why they say them, and thus with what the sentences say about our beliefs about the world and about right action in the world.

Why would a speaker choose to bring Josef Goebbels to mind, if all the speaker wanted to do was to assert that Peter Beamont is a human being? No speaker would do so--unless he or she had some other point to make besides the point that Peter Beamont is a human being. Rhetorically, one thing that the bringing of Josef Goebbels to the minds of the audience does is to assert that there are additional valid points of comparison between Beamont and Goebbels--points of comparison that the speaker expects the audience to seek out, and reflect upon.

Peter Beamont would be right to be pissed off at anyone who wrote "Peter Beamont and Josef Goebbels are both human beings.

Chomsky is playing the same game in the paragraph quoted up high that I am playing in my sentence: a grammatical denial accompanied by a rhetorical assertion. And Steven Poole is playing a different game--that of pretending that the grammatical level of meaning is the only one, that the rhetorical level of meaning simply does not exist. Peter Beamont, by contrast, is a straightforward guy, reading Chomsky's words and receiving the messages transmitted through both channels. For which Steven Poole trashes him. Unfairly. As Poole knows well--hence the "grammatically" weasal-word in the Poole passage I quoted.
Quite apart from any relationship to the foregoing contretemps, this is as silly and stupid an argument as I have read in quite a long time. Is it not true that two human beings are, well, two human beings? Furthermore, does not such an invocation make most readers consider the substantive content, what DeLong considers the rhetorical rather than simply grammatical uses of such a comparison? Is that not what Chomsky is doing when, as he does in a quote cited by DeLong above the section here, notes that we must set aside invocations of principle and humanitarianism when leaders make them, considering the villains who have done so? Is DeLong making an implicit claim here than US leaders are less mendacious than others? If so, based on what evidence?

All sorts of questions are begged here, questions for which DeLong simply has no answer beyond his main point - and here, trying to find a thread through this post is difficult at best - that Chomsky is being mean comparing US leaders to historical and contemporary despots. He doesn't like that; I don't like it much either. If there is evidence, however, that the comparison is apt, it is far better to swallow the uncomfortable truth than rest easy in a lie.

Jetting ahead a couple decades, DeLong takes Chomsky to task for what he, DeLong, believes is the misrepresentation of the views of a member of the Clinton Administration for the bombing campaign over Serbia, done in the name, so the public was led to believe, of protecting Kosovar Albanians from ethnic cleanings at the hands of the Serbs. The result, of course, was the Serbs managed to ethnically cleanse Kosovo, then Serbia cried out for peace. In any event, here's the "offending" quote from Chomsky:
On the NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia, Noam Chomsky interviewed by Danilo Mandic: Director of Communications [for Clinton Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott], John Norris.... [T]ake a look on John Norris's book and what he says is that the real purpose of the war had nothing to do with concern for Kosovar Albanians. It was because Serbia was not carrying out the required social and economic reforms, meaning it was the last corner of Europe which had not subordinated itself to the US-run neoliberal programs, so therefore it had to be eliminated. That's from the highest level...
DeLong attempts to correct what he feels is Chomsky's mendacity on this point by including a long quote from John Norris. Embedded in this long quote is the following interesting tidbit:
It was Yugoslavia's resistance ot the broader trends of political and economic reform--not the plight of the Kosovar Albanians--that best explains NATO's war.
Which is Chomsky's point. Indeed, nothing in the long quote from Norris refutes Chomsky's basic point that it was Serbian refusal to play by the evolving rules of western European economic, political, and military hegemony that brought about the military action. By saying quite succinctly and clearly that it was not the plight of the Kosovar Albanians, Norris says exactly what Chomsky says he said, and the whole long passage is, in essence, a defense of the position Chomsky attributes to Norris. I'm not even sure how DeLong could misunderstand this, unless he is predisposed to assume that Chomsky is a liar.

In which case, who is being intellectually dishonest?

Senior Cultural Icons

Happy 70th birthday, Bob Dylan.

From those dim, smoke-filled rooms in Greenwich Village to today, you have provided millions of people with the words they needed to make sense of senseless times. You have provided a voice to those who had their voice taken from them. You even had some fun along the way. You were the butt of jokes over your voice, dismissed as over-the-hill on the even of some of your greatest successes, played with the best musicians, taught John, Paul, George, and Ringo how to smoke dope and use it, sat in your pink house in Woodstock, NY with Rick Danko and had some fun and started another revolution even as your body healed from a motorcycle accident. You played with Christian themes, played at being a bourgeois parent, and in July of 1985 made an offhand suggestion at LiveAid that started FarmAid even as you stood and played with Neil Young and Keith Richards, surely a moment that needs to be remembered.

And who knows who you, the former Robert Zimmerman from Duluth, MN, really are? I guess that's OK, too, because it's really about the music you made, and your apathy toward the truth of your life is a sign, to me, that you would much rather make it all about the music.

I wonder how many of the folks who follow would name you as an influence?

Take the Time - Dream Theater
Like Rock & Roll Radio - Ray LaMontagne & the Pariah Dogs
Lady of the Island - Crosby, Stills, and Nash
Svete Tikhii, No. 4 of Vespers - Sergei Rachmaninov
Aquaboogie - Parliament
All Lovers Are Deranged - David Gilmour
Neurotica - Rush
Blues for Allah - The Grateful Dead
No Returning - The Explorer's Club
Phoenix - The Cult

Co-written by Gilmour and Pete Townshend, from one of my favorite albums of all time, Gilmour's About Face, this is "All Lover's Are Deranged". True dat. . .

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Rushing In And All That

There are two topics I dread discussing. One is anything having to do with the state of Israel. One attracts either nutjob religious zealots, or nutjob anti-Semites, and I detest nutjobs. The other is abortion. Largely because it is a topic about which I really don't care all that much, I find the prospect of saying anything fraught with trouble. Admitting up front that one does not care about it is a sure-fire way of attracting anti-abortion folks who scream "MURDER!!", while the pro-choicers who see insouciance on this matter as a sign of weakness in the face of the threat to every woman who has ever existed just doesn't help anyone's credibility.

So, I'll repeat myself: I honestly don't care all that much about the issue.

Furthermore, I am going to write a post about abortion, because I am not an angel and do not fear to tread upon certain ground that others, even a bit wiser than I, would avoid.

The reason for my intemperate decision? I have recently seen bandied about the claim that African-Americans have abortion as rates three times higher than whites. This "fact" (to which we shall repair anon) has been accompanied by the claim this is part of a conspiracy of racist whites wishing to destroy blacks by destroying their babies. Considering the sources of this claim, I had serious doubts about its veracity, so I used Google and discovered (.pdf), to my surprise, that the actual numbers are far higher. According to information in the Statistical Abstract of the United States (SAUS), the abortion rate per 1,000 pregnancies was 14. For African-Americans, it was 50.2. That is actually around three-and-a-half times. These numbers, according to the chart at the link, do represent a continuing downward trend in the abortion rate since the first-cited date. The abortion rate across the board in the US has declined, and when broken down by race, the decline is clear enough.

The Guttmacher Institute conducted a survey regarding abortion in 2005. The results (.pdf) of that survey are clear enough:
The reasons [for having an abortion] most frequently cited were that having a child would interfere with a woman's education, work, or ability to care for dependents (74%); that she could not afford a baby now (73%); and that she did not want to be a single mother or was having relationship problems (48%). Nearly four in 10 women said they had completed their childbearing, and almost one-third were not ready to have a child. Fewer than 1% said their parents' or partners' desire for them to have an abortion was the most important reason. Younger women often reported that they were unprepared for the transition to motherhood, while older women regularly cited their responsibility to dependents.

Conclusion: The decision to have an abortion is typically motivated by multiple, diverse, and interrelated reasons. The themes of responsibility to others and resource limitations, such as financial constraints and lack of partner support, recurred throughout the study.
Funny enough, I didn't see "because racist white liberals want me to" as a reason, although, I suppose that's because all these poor young African-American women are too afraid of the big mean white-supremacist liberals to say it.

Now, I have criticized some of the more facile, and borderline racist, defenses of abortion that one used to hear; when a middle-class or even upper-middle-class white person insists that abortion needs to kept legal and accessible for the poor and minorities, without any elaboration whatsoever, it sounds bad. It might even be bad, but it certainly sounds bad.

This does not mean that pro-choice supporters, or the Democratic Party, or whomever, is racist. Indeed, it's an odd argument to make barring any actual evidence. I know there is some logical fallacy at work here: "Liberals support abortion. Blacks have abortion at a higher rate than whites. Therefore, pro-choice supporters are racist." That, it seems, it the argument, and it just doesn't seem to follow.

Now, if an individual or group opposes abortion, and wishes to advocate for restricting or even banning the procedure, go for it. If one wishes to cite data regarding racial disparities in abortion rates, super-duper (although, it might be a good idea to get the numbers right). Calling pro-choice folks "the real racists" because the abortion rate for African-American women is higher than the rate for whites or other ethnic groups, absent any actual data (let alone logical coherence), is not only inflammatory. It is wrong. Repeating it when it is shown to be wrong (and it is easily shown to be wrong, regardless of how one feels about the procedure) is called lying.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Marriage, Sex, And St. Paul - 1 Corinthians 7:1-15

The clearest and most direct discussion of marital life is in 1 Corinthians 7:1-15:
1 Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

8 Now to the unmarried[a] and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.

12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
As a general observation, it seems that St. Paul was not a huge fan of the marital state ("Now to the unmarried[a] and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do."). He concedes, however, that sexual desire being what it is, marriage is preferable to fornication, and therefore grants to those who have less - what? self-control? - whatever it is that St. Paul sees himself possessing, the permission to marry as a way of avoiding the trap of fornication.

Beyond that, in this epistle, St. Paul is far more interested in making sure that married couples stay together, even if one is married to a non-Christian; such a relationship may provide a moment of grace to the unbeliever, as St. Paul rightly notes, and is not to be set aside.

I find the advice to marry to avoid fornication humorous. First of all, it bares witness to the reality that physical desire can be overwhelming, even to the most faithful person; it also sees in marriage an expedient release from the asceticism that St. Paul practiced, one he seemed willing to grant. Were St. Paul serious about marriage as an institution, he might well have said more here, in particular about the place of marital sexual relations within the larger context of the relations between husband and wife. He seems to be less concerned, in his dealings with the Corinthian congregation, in establishing what marriage is or can be, in a theological sense, and more concerned with pragmatic realities, including preventing a rash of fornication that might seem to be either ignored or tacitly accepted by the congregation.

In our day and age, with the attraction of marriage as a social institution waning, and the sense of social and religious approbation for sex outside of marriage all but disappeared, St. Paul's message might seem quaint. On the other hand, and with minimal textual support, it might also reveal an understanding of the weird dichotomy regarding the place of sex within the context of marriage. One could even call it contradictory. On the one hand, assuming, of course, that any couple has reached a certain maturity regarding their relationship, sex is far less important a part than, say, money, or child-rearing, or even the simple day-to-day give-and-take that makes up getting along with one another. On the other hand, there is little doubt about the basic power of the sex drive. It can lead even sensible, sober men and women to do all sorts of things that aren't very bright. Younger individuals, with less understanding and self-control, might well see sex as an overriding concern. This confusion, caused not least by the power of the desire for sex itself, can cause no end of trouble.

How do we, as a church, respond pastorally to the realities of this verse and the realities of pre-marital cohabitation? How do we talk to people about what St. Paul is saying, when it seems to violate the ethos of our day and age? Since we do a supremely lousy job of teaching young people about human sexuality - beyond the plumbing aspects, of course - whether inside the church or out, we might want to take a few steps back and think more clearly and honestly about how we do not talk about sex in general before we begin thinking about speaking clearly about this particular passage of Scripture. Simply drawing a line and stating, "Don't!" is impractical, not least because doing so without saying why begs the question of authority: "Why should I listen to you?" To this the churches just don't have an answer anymore, not least because on matters of human sexuality, we have abdicated our teaching role for one of arbitrary authoritarianism.

In order to appreciate the beauty of St. Paul's pragmatic acceding to the reality that sexual desire is powerful, and therefore marriage, rather than chastity, is an acceptable accommodation to that reality, we need first to be clear about human sexuality - not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically as well, in order to do our theology right - so that our teaching has some semblance of coherence. Until we do that, St. Paul's words will fall on deaf ears not least because we Christians just don't talk about sex beyond that, "No!" behind which stands nothing more than, "Because I say so."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

American Senescence

John Quiggin has an interesting, provocative piece at Crooked Timber, with which I disagree almost entirely.
The fact that, with no observable exceptions, the Republican Party relies on delusional beliefs for most of its claims about economics, science and history has been obvious for some years. But, until recently it’s been outside the Overton Window. That seems to have changed, . . .


Why is this happening now, after years of apparent Republican immunity from any kind of fact-based challenge? And how will this affect public debate in the US and elsewhere?

The precipating event, I think, was Obama’s release of his long-form birth certificate. The timing was brilliant, and indicative of political skills that seemed to have deserted Obama for some time. By the time he acted, it had become clear that the majority of Republican supporters supported birtherism (at least verbally) and that no-one in the Republican Party (or among conservatives more generally) was prepared to confront birtherism head-on as a racist delusion. The par position among “sensible” rightwingers was something like “Of course, I believe that Obama was born in Hawaii, but he has only himself to blame for not releasing the long-form certificate (and, in any case, Democrat supporters also believe crazy things[1])”. That position sounded safe, but looked awfully silly in retrospect, especially when Donald Trump took the credit for it.

The killing of bin Laden a few days afterwards set the seal on things. As Scott McLemee observed, Obama seemed to be making life difficult for himself in his quest to impose Sharia law on an unsuspecting US populace. The desperate attempts of Republicans to claim that it was their policy of torture that made Obama’s success possible looked even sillier given their longstanding endorsement of, or acquiescence in, birtherism.
First of all, dealing with the last point, torture-pimps still believe that. Furthermore, they believe that Pres. Bush, VP Cheney, and others in the Bush Administration deserve far more credit for the Navy SEAL raid that ended with the death of Osama Bin Laden than Pres. Obama (why that is, I just do not know). The idea that because Obama produced a birth certificate, after having already done so during the 2008 campaign, somehow "counts" against the birther phenomenon, is really beyond me.

Anyway, the global warming deniers still run things in the House. Mercantilists and gold-standard preachers seem to be the wave of the future, while Krugman gets dismissed as a lonely, ivory-tower academic more comfortable with numbers than people. The President, who seemed intent on addressing the serious threat of economic collapse as soon as he took office, has succumbed to the phony garment-rending by Capitol Hill Republicans over the deficit.

Meanwhile, Republicans elected last fall defending Medicare and promising to make job-creation their number one priority have signed on to a bill to dismantle Medicare and have yet to make any serious policy offers regarding job growth.

The overall adherence to certain principles unrelated to reality is unabated in the Republican Party; with Newt Gingrich in the running for the nomination for President, this divide is sure to increase.

This is not to say that the Democratic Party adheres to reality any more than the Republicans. If they did, they might fight a little harder, work a little better, at ensuring the message, "These guys are whacko!" was heard every single time policy matters get discussed. For example, you want to talk about global warming? Make sure there's a couple sentences about Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) who is either incapable of understanding even the most basic science, or batshit crazy (there is a third option - that he's both).

There is no reality-based journalism out there, any more than there is a reality-based politics, or a reality-based community supporting one or another party. The sad fact is we are a country facing many major, important problems, and right now neither major party has anyone of any consequence addressing any of these problems in a substantive, thoughtful manner.

No country, regardless of international status, can survive with a pool of potential national leaders as incapable of addressing serious matters as ours are; even less can such a nation survive with a national press corps that seems incapable of printing the fact that the policies supported by the majority of the Republican Party are not, in fact, valid. They are factually false.

Reality is smacking this country around, without the help of any reality-based journalism. I see little prospect of it in the future, either.

Virtual Tin Cup

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