Saturday, August 04, 2012

FAIL-Force Winds

So I was perusing my feed on Facebook and came across this story.
Now Obama is on record trying to restrict the votes of military personnel.
Wow.  Really?  Not passing the sniff test, I typed "federal lawsuit ohio voting military" in to the Google-machine, and the intertubes spat out several pages of stories all saying the same thing.  Some came from places like Drudge and Hot Air, sure, but others were mainstream news outlets, including network affiliates in  Ohio cities.

Didn't look good.

After several pages of scrolling, I found a DailyKos piece that, while certainly no more reliable, ideologically, than all the Breitbart/Instapundit/LGF right-wing sites, had the virtue of a link to the actual text of the very real suit filed in a physical federal court.  The very first sentence of the complaint filed by co-plaintiffs Obama for America, the DNC, and the Ohio Democratic Party reads:
Plaintiffs bring this lawsuit to restore in-person early voting for all Ohioans during the three days prior to Election Day – a right exercised by an estimated 93,000 Ohioans in the last presidential election.
Wait.  What?  The lawsuit is brought to bring back voting rights Ohio residents had previously enjoyed?  What does that have to do with restricting military voting?

Reading through the lawsuit, we come to the money shot.
Specifically, taken together, Amended Substitute House Bill Number 194 (“HB 194”), Amended Substitute House Bill Number 224 (“HB 224”) and Substitute Senate Bill Number 295 (“SB 295”), all enacted by the 129 the Ohio General Assembly, impose different deadlines for in-person voting prior to Election Day (“early voting”) on similarly situated voters.  Prior to the enactment of these laws, there was a single uniform deadline of the Monday before Election Day for inperson early voting.  After the enactment of these laws, voters using the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voter Act (“UOCAVA”) may vote early in-person at a board of elections office up through the Monday before Election Day, while non-UOCAVA voters can vote early in-person at a board of elections office (or designated alternate site) only up until 6 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day.
OK.  So, if you read this far and no farther, it certainly looks like plaintiffs are whining because military personnel have an undo advantage in exercising their right to vote.

Which is why folks need to keep reading.
The Ohio General Assembly has failed to articulate any justification for this differential treatment of UOCAVA and non-UOCAVA voters, and no justification can be discerned.  Indeed, these different deadlines exist despite the fact that, for purposes of in-person early voting, both UOCAVA and non-UOCAVA voters are identically situated, i.e., they are qualified electors who are physically present in their home county when they desire to vote in-person at their county board of elections office prior to Election Day. . . .
[A]s a result of HB 224 and SB 295, most Ohio voters will not be permitted to vote in the three days prior to Election Day for no apparent reason.  Without early voting in these last three days before Election Day, tens of thousands of citizens who would have otherwise exercised their right to vote during this time period, including Plaintiffs’ members and supporters, may not be able to participate in future elections at all. 
In other words, plaintiffs want to restore early voting to non-military personnel.  Much of the body of the suit rehearses the confused and contradictory history of attempts the Ohio legislature has made to restrict the ability to exercise voting rights.  In their haste and (probably) confusion, they let stand a very nice privilege for the military personnel who might be home on leave prior to Election Day; they revoked this same privilege for folks who, as the suit says, "are similarly situated", i.e., they, too, are residing in their legal residence and are otherwise able to vote.  If they show up at the polls on Saturday and Sunday between an Army Major or a Navy pilot, however, they will be turned away.  The suit is being brought to make sure that civilian gets the same opportunity to vote early as the uniformed folks standing in line.

In other words, the story the folks on the right are pushing is the exact freaking opposite of reality.  There is nothing in this lawsuit that seeks to restrict any voting by anyone, military or civilian; rather the entire intent of the lawsuit is to expand opportunities to vote for all Ohio residents.

There is an irony here.  The story was originally "broken" by the folks at  The author of the initial story is . . . wait for it . . . an attorney.

I'm an unemployed former WalMart associate, and I figured out what the lawsuit said.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Fall Into The Culture Gap

Pulling a double-reverse on his statements about the role of culture in the success of Israel versus the failure of the Palestinian territories, Mitt Romney penned an op-ed in which he cited, among others, Jared Diamond's Guns,Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies to defend his position.  Diamond has returned the favor, penning his own piece for The New York Times, in which he states, among other things, that Romney seems not to have read the book he cites.
MITT ROMNEY'S latest controversial remark, about the role of culture in explaining why some countries are rich and powerful while others are poor and weak, has attracted much comment. I was especially interested in his remark because he misrepresented my views and, in contrasting them with another scholar's arguments, oversimplified the issue.
It is not true that my book "Guns, Germs and Steel," as Mr. Romney described it in a speech in Jerusalem, "basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth."
That is so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it. My focus was mostly on biological features, like plant and animal species, and among physical characteristics, the ones I mentioned were continents' sizes and shapes and relative isolation. I said nothing about iron ore, which is so widespread that its distribution has had little effect on the different successes of different peoples. (As I learned this week, Mr. Romney also mischaracterized my book in his memoir, "No Apology: Believe in America.")
That's not the worst part. Even scholars who emphasize social rather than geographic explanations - like the Harvard economist David S. Landes, whose book "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations" was mentioned favorably by Mr. Romney - would find Mr. Romney's statement that "culture makes all the difference" dangerously out of date. In fact, Mr. Landes analyzed multiple factors (including climate) in explaining why the industrial revolution first occurred in Europe and not elsewhere.
Now, it should be clear that it is possible Romney read Diamond's book, and merely misunderstands the larger argument the author makes.  Nothing wrong with that, readers do that all the time.  My point is not to prove or disprove Diamond's assertion on whether or not he read the book in question.  Rather, it is to point out how meaningless the entire idea of "culture" has become, a buzzword that can include or exclude whatever the user might wish, without any even basic rigor of definition.  As a result, we have far too many discussions that focus on something, "culture", that none of those involved in the discussion either understand or limit.

These discussions tend also to betray a lingering essentialism, in which "culture" becomes an outward expression of the inner life of the collection of individuals underneath whatever cultural umbrella we choose.  In the immediate case, Israeli economic success versus Palestinian economic failure becomes demonstrative, in Romney's telling of the tale, of some inner cultural superiority the Israelis possess, rather than numerical and military advantages by which they impose severe restrictions upon the Palestinian populations under their heel.

Other examples, such as the North Korea/South Korea divide, can be laid, not at the feet of culture, but at the feet of politics and policy; so, too, the United States/Mexican divide, which is a case in point of the much larger dominance of the US over much the rest of the western hemisphere.  The kinds of rebels against this hegemony - Castro's Cuba and Chavez's Venezuela - are as much protests against paracolonial exploitation as they are practical expressions of political ideologies.

There is no distinction inherent in a population, expressed as "culture" that explains anything about who the people are.  I would go so far as to insist that the very idea of "human nature", this holdover from Aristotelean essentialism, is as fraudulent as the metaphysics that accompanies it.  The reality of the variety of human social life belies any appeal to some inner core that explains much of anything.  That there are other, better, explanations that fit Ockham's famous razor far better than the insidious idea of "culture" should be clear enough.  That Romney continues to believe otherwise is more than a little troubling.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

On Contingency: The Irrelevance For Theology Of Evolutionary Theory

My recent extended sojourn at what I called "the Ancestral Villa" on Facebook gave me the opportunity to dip in to my parents extensive and varied library.  I read An Army at Dawn, the first volume of Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy, covering the Allied invasion of North Africa.  If anyone continues to think that WWII presented a simplistic, good-versus-evil story, complete with hagiography of "the Greatest Generation", this volume should disabuse them.

I also liberated a copy of Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, an important volume in the Freudian reading of fairy tales.

Finally, there were two books by the late Stephen Jay Gould.  One, Dinosaur in a Haystack, is a collection of his essays from Natural History magazine.  The other is his marvelous Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.  Gould was a rarity.  Like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, he had a gift not only for writing about science for a general audience, but for doing so without sacrificing the rigor necessary to make complicated matters clear to the uninitiated.  One need not know what an echinoderm is, or have forgotten the difference between phyla, class, and order from high school biology, yet still find rich rewards in Gould's work.

The revision of the fossilized remains of the Burgess Shale deposit in British Columbia is, Gould argues, the most important long-term paleontological work of the last third of the 20th century.  At the heart of this revision not only of the creatures themselves - including the clarification of a far wider variety not only of species and genera, but entirely new and extinct phyla - lies the deduction that comes from the consideration of this early variety in multicellular life in the aftermath of what is known as the Cambrian explosion (the fossils in the Burgess Shale come a couple hundred million years after that initial burst of evolutionary leaping-forward).  As Gould makes clear, the abundant evidence from the revision of the fossil record is that, rather than working within the strictures of modern taxonomic limitations, the Burgess remains represent an initial experimentation with variety that is stunning.  Creatures such as hallucigenia, pictured at the top, have left no evolutionary legacy; they also are so distinct as to represent not just genera or order unrelated to modern forms, but entire phyla of creatures that, within a couple hundred million years, were wiped out in an extinction event that left only roughly seven percent of genera to carry on in the newly decimated world.

The meta-argument Gould proposes from the evidence is simple enough, and should be clear from the referent of the book's title: more than any other piece of evidence, the Burgess Shale fossils demonstrate the role of contingency in the history of evolution.  Not only might the history of life have been radically different had different species survived the post-Cambrian extinction; almost without doubt there would have been little chance that large land animals including self-conscious primates, would have emerged.  Despite our most desperate, parochial desire to see in the emergence of Homo sapiens the inexorable yet invisible hand of evolutionary progress at work, the facts tell a far different story.  Things not only could have been different; if not for certain events that are, by definition unrepeatable, they very well might have been.

I can hear the creationists winding up their "Harrumphs" at such thoughts.  I would suggest, however, that this new understanding of the role of historical contingency demonstrates more clearly than anything else the total irrelevance of the theory of biological evolution through natural selection for any theology that calls itself Christian.  That evolution tells a very different story, rooted in very different assumptions, and flowing toward very different conclusion, has nothing whatsoever to do with the theological story of Creation.  The latter concerns itself with the relationship between the world created by God - a world that we all recognize contains the contingent, that which is by definition unpredictable and therefore cannot be controlled or understood prior to its emergence - and the God who created it.  Evolutionary theory, as partially reimagined by Gould through the lens of the Burgess Shale remains, tells a very different story that cannot, by definition, tell us anything other than what happened and, perhaps, how.

While it has been clear, to me at any rate, that biology and the Doctrine of Creation have nothing to do with one another, Gould's work in this book solidifies the irrelevance of the former for the latter.  Of course, this won't stop the Creationists, who have far too much invested in their odd reading of the first two chapters of Genesis (more, indeed, than they seem to have invested in the central message of the Christian Scriptures, the Gospel of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection).  All the same, it seems thoughtful Christians need no longer worry that there might yet be something in the theory of evolution that threatens our faith in the God who creates out of prodigal love.  Evolution tells its tale, the Doctrine of Creation tells its story, and, really, in the end, the former is about us, while the latter, as all good theological stories should be, is about God.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Little House On The Prairie

Today marks an anniversary for our family.  Thirteen years ago, after some let-downs and frustration, we arrived in Illinois after a months-long, 1,000 mile change of place that, looking back, is a marvel of planning mixed with hope, and not a little hilarity.

In the autumn of 1998, Lisa and a year-old Moriah returned from a trip out here from our home in southern Virginia.  In the car on the way back from Richmond airport, Lisa broke down in tears, telling me she wanted to move back here.  I didn't hesitate, telling her, "Let's do it."  I won't detail the way it worked out, but it was, quite literally, a last minute thing, with a call to Lisa from the DeKalb District Superintendent coming on Memorial Day, and a move scheduled for August 1.  As we had already been given our moving papers in Virginia and were in the process of packing, the only things we had to arrange were getting our child, our belongings, and our pets from there to here.

From such beginnings, family legends are born.

A week before the move, not wanting our electronics and plants to sit for a week on a hot moving truck, we packed them in my Escort hatchback on a Sunday evening, our Ficus tree sitting on the floor of the passenger side of the car, for me to make a single-day drive to my mother-in-law's house in Sycamore, IL from our house in Jarratt, VA.  I woke up knowing I had an 18-hour drive ahead of me, showered, kissed Lisa, and went out to discover my car had a flat tire.  Instead of sighing and changing tires, I began to turn the air blue, with Lisa standing there trying to shush me.  Considering all our neighbors were church members, hearing their pastors husband screeching scatologies probably wasn't a good idea.  We ended up taking a tire from Lisa's car and putting it on my car while she took the flat to fix.

I showered again, Lisa and me laughing the whole time as we released the tension from the frustration.

I was in Indiana when the cell phone rang.  Lisa was calling, and she told me I had to bring the tire home with me, meaning once I got our things unloaded where we were storing them, I would have to put the donut on my car where it parked and fly with the tire back to IL.  I balked until Lisa told me that, being different sizes, driving with the changed tire on our Escort wagon would present a serious hazard.  So, after arriving at my in-law's then getting up early to take our car where we were storing it for the week, then heading to O'Hare with the tire in the back, I was settled in my mind.  We pulled up to the airport and the skycap asked if I was checking anything.  I handed the heavy, odd-shaped box to him and he asked, "Is this a tire?"  To this day, I have no idea how he knew, but I said, "Yes."

"Is it deflated?"

I looked at my mother-in-law, and she looked at me.

"We can't check it," he said.  "The baggage compartment isn't pressurized . . ."

"And it could explode," I finished, sighing.

My mother-in-law chuckled, grabbed the tire-box, and said, "I'll deflate it and ship it to you."

I arrived at National Airport and Lisa and I drove home.  She chuckled over the tire incident.

The next day, the movers arrived, emptying our house of belongings, including several pieces of furniture from a neighbor's house, generously offered to us at no price.  Two full-sized beds, plus bedroom furniture, a gorgeous blue barrel-back chair, and a piano later, and the truck was gone.

Moriah flew out to Illinois with my sister-in-law, who flew to Richmond, had lunch with us at the Texas-Wisconsin Border Cafe (long may it be remembered), then back to Illinois, all within a few hours.

Lisa and I made the trip in another long day's drive, looking so much like the Clampett's that, at one stop we made, glancing at the car we were driving, I did not want anyone seeing me walk to it and climb in.  In our Escort station wagon we had the last small items, two cats in carriers, one of whom spent all 18 hours carrying on non-stop, and a Great Dane who hated riding in a car panting in my ear and heating up the inside of the vehicle.

We had a day's rest before the actual move-in, spending most of it at my in-law's enjoying their pool as northern IL was then in the midst off a streak of 100+ degree days that was leaving a trail of bodies in the city of Chicago.  I did manage to retrieve my car, put the tire my mum-in-law had shipped next-day freight to us back where it belonged, and drove to the little town of LaMoille for my introduction to our new home for what turned out to be the next five years.

And where I was stopped by the police officer for the town, ostensibly for illegally passing a car that was making a left-hand turn.  Stearny, I would later learn, was just checking out the guy with the Virginia plates driving from one end of his town to the other.  Since I didn't violate any actual laws, he let me go, but it seemed an inauspicious beginning to our time there.

The next day, the cats back in their carriers and Gretchen once again panting in my ear, I drove down to our new house first.  Lisa was going to finish getting Moriah ready and head down about a half-hour later.  I pulled in to the driveway, and walked up to the parsonage, the last - or first, depending upon which way you were driving through town - house along the Main Street.  Little more than a narrow, north-south break in the cornfield that is Bureau County, LaMoille has the kind of charm only small midwestern farm towns can have, a kind of built-in nostalgia that gives one an idea what life might have been like in, oh, 1905 or so.

The house was locked, so I walked around to the back, peering in through the glass double-doors that led from the sitting room to the deck.  The single most impressive sight was the kitchen with its counter and cabinet space.  It would be several years before those cabinets were filled.

I walked back, and there were two men waiting for me.  Don Henderson and Mark Swanlund, members of the church, were rightly curious as to who might be at their empty church parsonage.  After introducing myself, they smiled and let me in.  I led Gretchen to her one and only trip to the basement; the events of that day so traumatized her it became impossible to get her ever again to head down there, which worried Lisa and me no end in the event of a possible tornado.  The cats were closed in the laundry room, where they proceeded to express their displeasure by sticking their paws under the door.  After the movers were done, one of our cats, Patch, spent three hours hissing at every single thing she encountered.

I have never once regretted our decision to move up here.  I consider Illinois my home, loving the expansive prairie, the opportunities I couldn't have imagined existed for our family, and most of all the people I have come to know and love over the years.  It's been a great beginning, these past 13 years.  Our younger daughter was born out here, and Moriah, arriving at the age of 2, is a Midwesterner through and through.  While our time in Jarratt was a great beginning, I don't think any of us would be as happy with one another or content in our lives if we hadn't come to the Land of Lincoln.

So, happy anniversary to us.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Israel Trap

So Romney's in Israel and said some stupid things.  They won't be reported as stupid, of course.  For some reason, a whole lot of influential people seem to think the Israelis are our "friends".

The United States doesn't have friends.  There are countries with whom we are allied through various treaty obligations.  There are countries who share certain values with whom we work to further specific ends, not all of which are laudable.  To quote the first part of Benjamin Disraeli's dictum, countries don't have permanent friends (I only quote the first, because Disraeli's full quote errs; nations don't have permanent interests, either).

Going to Israel and saying that Jerusalem is the capital of the country is a horribly stupid, insulting, and dangerous thing to do.  Not least because it damages the furtherance of long-term goals for the region.  Having a President of the United States who states without fear of contradiction that the disputed non-capital of a country is in fact its capital might help him with the anti-Semitic Christian Zionists and the smattering of radical Zionists in America and Israel.  It does absolutely nothing, however, to further what should be the long-term goals for all parties interested in a peaceful settlement of the many disputes in the Middle East.

So, even though he doesn't care, Romney fell into what I have come to think of as "the Israel trap".  The one thing as sure as God made little white bunnies is every four years a major party candidate for President will heap encomiums upon the State of Israel.  Rather than consider our relations with the Israelis through the normal lens of realpolitique, statements to the effect of our on-going special relationship with Israel abound. The lie that it's the only democracy in the Middle East get repeated without correction (I think the Turks and the Iranians might disagree).  The nonsense that they are committed to a peaceful resolution of outstanding issues will be bandied about.  The quite remarkable claim that the United States can be "an honest broker" (to quote Al Gore from one of the 2000 election debates) in the disputes among parties in the Middle East will be repeated.

And all the while, the fires of hatred and war and death rise higher and higher because no one has the balls to stand up and tell the Israelis to knock it off.  I have repeated several times my admiration for Pres. George H. W. Bush, when he told Yitzhak Shamir he either had to dismantle settlements in the occupied territories or the money spigot would turn off.  Shamir thought Bush and his National Security Team were bluffing, even showing up at the White House to demand the US change its policies.  Bush, ever the New England gentleman, smiled and shook his head.  Shamir left the White House in a huff, heading straight to the airport for a flight to Tel Aviv (leaving me, among many other motorists, on the side of the road as their motorcade sped through the city).

And that reminds me . . . Mitt, pay attention:  Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel.  Tel Aviv has been and will continue to be the capital of Israel.  Any attempt to alter this particular bit of the status quo would be an utter disaster for everyone, including the Israelis.

Should the Israelis decide, on their own, to take military action against the Iranians on whatever pretext, the United States should make clear it wants nothing to do with it.  It should work beforehand to prevent it.  We should do everything in our power beforehand to make clear to the world we are not siding with the Israelis in such a cataclysmic screw up.  Instead, we have Mittens saying he won't do anything about it.

Millions of Arabs and Muslims around the world know now, if Romney is elected President, what the score is.  Thoughtful American friends of Israel are banging their heads against the wall reserved for moments when American politicians do and say stupid things that are counter to our own interests as well as the interests of the Israeli people and state.

Name Them One By One

Like most folks on the Internet, I spend way too much time bitching about how wrong other people are.  I detest that.  Really.

I also spend an inordinate amount of time bemoaning the current state of our world.  There is much about which to complain.  The Syrian government is making war against its own people.  The planet is warming.  The US is in a near-nationwide drought.  Death and more death, hatred and bigotry and ignorance seem as rampant and ready to do their destructive work as ever.

I thought it might be nice, as the old hymn has us sing, to count some blessings for a change.

I'm grateful for being alive.  I realize that sounds trite, but it really isn't.  I have watched friends and family members die.  The simplest thing is the joy of inhaling and exhaling, the sweet taste of air entering my body, then the glad exhale that rids it of metabolic toxins.  The feel of the pulse beneath my skin, reminding me my heart is beating, blood still getting oxygen where it needs to go.  Life, in and for itself, is an abounding, overflowing joy.

I am surrounded by the most amazing people.  It is difficult for me to imagine someone more blessed and fortunate than I am in my most intimate relationships.  I was raised by parents who cared enough to give me both love and discipline.  They wanted me to excel, so they pushed me - at times I felt too hard, but don't all children feel that way? - to do better, to be better at whatever I was doing.  I was the youngest a five very different, yet exceedingly challenging siblings.  My brother and sisters lay down all sorts of challenges for me to follow, not the least of them being how to be myself.

My wife is the single individual for whom I am most thankful.  Anyone who knows Lisa will testify to her abounding energy, her great good humor and patience, her deep reservoir of love and kindness for everyone she meets, and an inner beauty that makes her outer beauty glow all the more.  No more prominent evidence of the reality of grace exists than my marriage to this singular individual who, day by day, amazes, astounds, and, yes, arouses me to no end.

Then there are my daughters.  Whoda thunk it, a guy like me having children so intelligent and thoughtful, so funny and fun-loving, so ready to face life?  I know I can never really do right by them as a father, but I try each day to make sure they know I am completely and utterly devoted to providing them with the best life they can have.

I have an amazing group of friends.  Really.  Folks I grew up with.  Folks with whom I went to seminary.  Members of the churches Lisa has served.  My co-workers.  I am fed and watered by their variety, the many things I have learned, the more than occasional ego-shattering that reminds me I'm just me, and while that's no big deal, it doesn't need to be.

I wake up and most mornings Lisa and I sit in our three-season room, drinking coffee, reading, occasionally taking the time to chat, catching one another up on our thoughts.  In the autumn and mid-spring, it can be dark, and we watch the sun rise, the light entering the room bit by bit.  In the summer, it's bright, the birds are in the feeders, the squirrels and chipmunks and rabbits out and about in the yard, and we marvel at our fortune to have our time in this place.  The coffee revives us.  The reading gives us our space and time.  Our sharing brings us together, reminding us how each day we need to renew all the bonds that tie our life together.

These simple joys, these privileges I have because of accidents of birth and history as well as the blessings I enjoy from a loving God, make each day something to look forward to.  Do they change the world?  I doubt it.  I never forget so much of these aren't so much blessings but rather, as I wrote, privileges that come from being American, being white, being middle class.  Yet, precisely because, being privileges they are neither automatic nor natural, I hope I never take them for granted.

Have a great and glorious day.  If you're not, take a moment of quiet and count your blessings.  You'll be amazed, I think, at how it keeps you humble and grateful.

Virtual Tin Cup

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