Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Couple Endings And A Beginning

I was sad to hear that Jerry Lieber, half the second best song-writing duo of rock and roll, passed away this weekend. Anyone who enjoys 50's R&B and early rock and roll has to love Lieber and Stoller.

There was another loss the same day.

Nick Ashford, who along with his wife Valerie Simpson, wrote some of Motown's greatest songs, has also left us. Later, in the 1970's, they decided to release some songs under their own names. It had long been Motown practice for songwriters to record demos so the performers had a template from which to work. That was how Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson started out. Diana Ross's cover of this duet is a sad piece of re-engineering; personally, of all the Ashford & Simpson songs, this is the one that, for me, stands the test of time the best.

Today was the first day of school for Moriah and Miriam. For Moriah, it was a milestone of sorts - her first day of high school. So, in honor of this momentous occasion . . .

Con Alma - Wes Montgomery
Old Folks - Miles Davis
Home By The Sea (Live) - Genesis
Into The Lens - Yes
Offertorium "Salve Regina" - Franz Schubert
Single Girl, Married Girl - The Carter Family
Closer to Fine(Live) - The Indigo Girls
Don't Leave Me Now (Live) - Pink Floyd
Rumba Mama - Weather Report
Symphony 31 in D, 3rd movement, Allegro - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

As Roy Harper's lyrics say, it is usually those labeled immoral who stand and hold back the moral nightmare.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Supporting Scientific Research

This report from NPR's Morning Edition contained, among other glorious tidbits, the latest freakout among some on the right - shrimp on a treadmill.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Who studies shrimp on a treadmill? Biologist Lou Burnnett. He learned about the senator's report when CNN called him.

Mr. LOU BURNNETT (Biologist): I was pretty irritated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the half-a-million dollars was actually for a lot of different research on this economically important seafood species. The treadmills were just a small part of it, a way to measure how shrimp respond to changes in water quality. Burnnett says the senator's report was misleading.

Mr. BURNNETT: It suggests that much money was spent on seeing how long a shrimp can run on a treadmill, which was totally out of context.
Then, of course, there was the toenail clippings.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her group has also criticized other government-funded studies, including a National Institutes of Health grant for measuring nicotine exposure in toenail clippings.

Ms. LAFFERTY: They used recovery money, money that was meant to more or less stimulate the economy - interesting use of money, mailing in toenail clippings.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The deputy director of the National Institutes of Health is Lawrence Tabak. He defended the use of recovery funds. And he says the toenail study has an important goal that its critics didn't mention: trying to assess people's risk of lung cancer.

Mr. LAWRENCE TABAK (Deputy Director, National Institutes of Health): So what's scientifically sound and indeed cost-effective - to collect biospecimens for cancer research - was twisted in what was intended to ridicule an important lifesaving research effort.
Nit-picking scientific studies is a time-honored tradition in our nation's Capitol. The late William Proxmire, D-WI, used to have his "Golden Fleece" awards given to most everything from the space program to agriculture subsidies, but he usually saved a few for basic research grants.

We can have a serious, thoughtful debate about whether or not, or how much, to fund basic research through public funds. Since public funds usually go to studies that have relevance for everything from local and regional economies (finding out how shrimp deal with environmental stressers is kind of important to the folks who make their living harvesting the little critters) to public health (one can do an assay of toenail clippings and gain valuable information on all sorts of things, not the least of them being the lingering effects of nicotine addiction and how that may impact the prospects of cancer development). Getting chided by Sarah Palin for allegedly doing something ridiculous should be considered a badge of honor; after all, at least the scientists involved in various studies actually finish what they started.

The reality is this scientific research is carried out for a marvelous reason - it's in the nation's interest to have this information. Since economic growth, sustainable development, public health, and other policy priorities are things about which we need to know, scientific studies of all varieties are an important part of doing things better, more efficiently and cost-effectively, and understanding the various impacts of a variety of environmental and human factors on the country. You want to argue that there is a principle involved here, be my guest. By and large, however, you will not find too many folks who understand (a) how science works, and (b) how politics works that would agree with you.

So, hooray for the study on the correlation between penis size and sexually transmitted disease. More information is always preferable.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Being Human

The whole problem is this: how to utter God in a practice of faith where I must decide what I wish to do with the woman or man I find in my path - make of him or her a human being with a right to life or a slave for life.
Jean-Marc Ela, "Gospel In Resistance", in African Cry, p. 139

This single sentence, the penultimate one in the final essay in Ela's collection of essays on Christianity in Africa, has haunted me for eighteen years. I encountered it in a seminar on liberation theology, the spring semester of 1993, raised it as the key question underpinning much of what should constitute not only an ethics but also an anthropology. I proceeded to write what was perhaps my worst, ever, seminary paper. The professor, Josiah Young, wrote a single comment - that I seemed to have other concerns, and the paper was a muddle as a result - with which, at the time, I took umbrage. I was trying to finish my last semester of seminary, graduate, and plan my wedding simultaneously. So, yeah, I had other "concerns". It didn't take long, however, for me to hang my head and realize that Josiah was quite right. The paper was crap. Having the best of intentions didn't prevent me from writing garbage, as I floundered and flailed my way toward coming to terms with the simple question - Who are Others to us, claimed by God in Christ through the Spirit, which should also place a question mark before our own identity as well.

With recent events here in the United States and abroad pushing me toward a broader acceptance not only of certain explicitly leftist diagnoses of our malaise but also a renewed interest in finding sources for resistance, I have, in recent weeks, been doing more floundering. The summer saw me attempt a re-read of Pierre Duhem, a clear attempt at escape. I have started, and set aside, Charles Taylor's "classic", The Source of the Self as both inadequate for the task, and a hopeless, vague muddle. I went through Christopher Lasch's The True and Only Heaven, to find myself confronted by frustration that, while asking good questions, his answers tended to the unpalatable, to say the least.

Which led me, in a roundabout way, to Dwight Hopkins' Being Human: Race, Culture, and Religion. Explicitly written in the tradition of black theology of liberation, Hopkins explores ways to say what it means to be human that is faithful to the intersection of our muddled reality and the claim God places upon us. That we are human, and that this word has implications for our life of faith, is a question to be answered, rather than an assumption with which to live. Our world is filled to overflowing with forces and voices and institutions that deny the basic humanity of so many, it should be obvious to even the most unreflective soul that "being human" is disputed territory. To affirm humanity in the midst of racism and sexism, that God's revelation in Jesus demonstrates God's choice to be with us in this way and not another - a marginalized, Nazarene Jew born to an unwed mother, dying a political revolutionary - already tells us much about what "being human" means. Unpacking the various ways our contemporary world places human beings - within culture, within races, as "selves" - can go a long way toward answering the question theological anthropology seeks to answer.

At its heart, without Hopkins' knowing it, is Jean-Marc Ela's wonderful question to us. This question that has plagued me, to which I gave a woefully inadequate answer nearly two decades ago. While I do not believe Hopkins' work will present a final answer, it should, I would think, provide a way of thinking and understanding that will help me stop flailing.

Virtual Tin Cup

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