Saturday, December 30, 2006

Mourning the Mourners

Two men died; one forcibly, the other died quietly in his bed. Yet it seems as foolish to revel in the execution of Saddam Hussein, as it is to revise history to put Gerald Ford on a pedestal.

Hussein's hanging will go down in history as yet another mistake in the huge series involving Iraq. Why? Writing in the second century of our era, the Christian writer Tertullian provides the classic explanation in another context. "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church," he wrote.

The word "martyr" comes from the Greek, meaning "witness." The early Christian martyrs gave witness to their faith to the point of death. Their example inspired the growth of the Christian movement to the point that it eventually took over the Roman Empire.

More to the point of Hussein's death, in Islam a martyr (shaheed) is also a witness, particularly when defending the Islamic world from an expansionist adversary. There is some controversy whether the suicide bombers could properly becalled martyrs, since Islam prohibits suicide.

No such obstacle stands in the way of the crown of Islamic martyrdom for the strongman ruler of Iraq.

You may object that Hussein ordered people killed and was despotic. Care to name mild and democratic leaders in the Arab world whom Hussein might have chosen to emulate? Which emir or pasha was elected? What Arab nation is renown for regarding the habeas corpus and due process devoid of cruel and unusual punishment as standard operating procedure?

What might Hussein be compared to globally that it warrants a U.S. puppet government executing him? Was Hussein's treatment of Kurds and dissidents worse than that of the secret SAVAK police under the CIA-installed Shah of Iran? Worse than that of Gen. Pinochet of Chile, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines or the Apartheid regime of South Africa, all of which received lavish U.S. support over the course of decades?

Was Hussein worse than the carefully cultivated Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia (whose rule Hussein's regime most closely resembles)? The gallery of cruel dictators aided by Washington is long. Why pick on this one?

The reverse could be asked concerning Ford. The man who told New York City to go bankrupt has now, in the words of Daily News headline writers, dropped dead. Why the gushing accolades?

Not mentioned in the Ford hagiography is that he opposed public housing, the minimum wage and called for the bombing of North Vietnam. When Congress blocked Nixon's attempt to appoint white supremacists to the Supreme Court, Ford launched an effort to impeach the liberal William O. Douglas.

As to Watergate, he is now presented as a visionary of healing, but in 1972, it was Ford's parliamentary maneuvers that prevented congressional hearings on the burglary of the Democratic Party's headquarters before the elections took place. In January 1974, Ford charged that “the AFL-CIO, the Americans for Democratic Action and other powerful pressure organizations [are] waging a massive propaganda campaign against the president of the United States.”

Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward has documented a meeting between Ford and Nixon chief of staff Alexander Haig on Aug. 1, 1974, eight days before Nixon resigned, in which three options were presented to Ford, all involving pardons of Nixon. Ford later claimed no deal was made, but it's obvious that the quid-pro-quo was part of the fix that led him to his unelected presidency.

So what's to be gained by elevating Hussein to the status of an Islamic folk hero, when he could have been allowed into old age in prison for decades until his name and being became as thin and harmless a public memory as Ford's?

Monday, December 25, 2006

Love Thyself

Let's be honest and admit that at the center of our existence lies one person: Number One. We're taught to curb #1: parents and teachers insist that #1 take second place to others, that #1 learn a little self-hatred, take joy in self-punishment, aspire to self-abasement. Nonsense!

In the end, I can only count on myself.

You, too, can only count on yourself. You thought the president was going to take care of those night terrors? You expected Mommy to come hug you through the unemployment line? Ha!

What's more, I can't divorce myself. I'm stuck with me through thick and thin.

That's the via negativa to self love. We can turn it around.

You see, I can make myself better as no one else can. You, too, can grow and enhance yourself in ways no one else can match.

Start thinking small. I can wake up hungry and feed myself. I can be dirty and wash myself clean.

That's quite a lot! I am, as a person with disability told me some time ago, temporarily able-bodied; one day I may be bed-ridden and incontinent. For the moment, I can do for myself everything that my mother once did for me when I was a newborn -- and then some. I can probably do all this with greater precision than anyone else, since I know exactly what I like and want, what will make me feel good.

In the Republic of Me, I am the people and the representatives. I am the sovereign and liege in my own kingdom.

In my inner conflicts (dialectics, anyone?) I aim, for my labor and management, my male and female (yes, Virginia, there's also a guy lurking inside you), the boss and the bossed, to make things better in the end. My inner selves live in covenant with one another and we have the potential to be at peace.

We are a prosperous happy little realm, I, me, and myself. At heart we are delighted to greet ourselves in the mirror. That wonderful familiar face.

Is it too fat, wrinkled, sebaceous, sallow? We can choose better food, use better makeup, or simply choose to ignore it.

I have that power. I can love myself.

Oh, sure, there comes the moment or three in which we see that movie star on a magazine cover, that actor or actress on TV, that politician, that carefully groomed author on a dust-jacket ... and, for that moment, the worms of envy and hatred drive us into a rage at the gall of those daring to upstage the star of our lives, so easily, so totally!

Our looks seem so ... I don't know, lacking. No wonder I didn't get to be the Paris correspondent for The New York Times and marry a blonde Nobel-prize winnning novelist! I don't look right.

But that's totally wrong! In the Dominion of Me, Myself & I (note the ampersand in the august title) those terms and rules have no jurisdiction, no claim, no extraterritoriality.

In the personal channels of my brain, Entertainment Today (or whatever those shows are called) features the perennial celebrity: me. My Academy of Language accords me its highest honor every year. To ourselves, we are, as the Beatles claimed, more famous than Jesus.

We have so much that we overflow to others. Of course, we're in love ...!

Friday, December 22, 2006


Some time ago, in 2004, when I was still an angry atheist and not merely a snotty agnostic, I argued that doing good made sense. Today, I am convinced good is a dire necessity and that without good, a radical good that beautifies everything in its path, we will not long survive.

Good is an imperative. Say it: "I will not long survive unless I embrace a moral order that begins with my survival and demands behavior that enhances the survival of all humanity."

A moral order is not a series of orders that pretends to be moral: wave the flag, work for a living, keep you genitals zipped up except in certain circumstances. That's just a set of manners to keep us all in line for whomever the powers that be happen to be; it's a vision made squalid by rulemakers, churches, schools, mothers without a sense of humor, fathers with belts that are too tight.

A few nights ago, out of nowhere, I had a dream about this.

I found myself in the atrium of a very modern school. A priest was sitting at a desk with some books in front of him. A nun sat beside him.

She explained that everyone in the school would be going door to door throughout the neighborhood to make sure that every family had a copy of the catechism, the Bible and another book I can't recall.

"What if the families can't afford the books?" I asked.

"Why, this is the key to eternal life," said the priest.

"So Jesus didn't really say 'Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.' ?" I said.

Then I asked: "What he really said was 'Come, for you have sold catechisms and Bibles and good books' ?"

I woke up just then. Just in time to avoid the scene I had set in motion.

This did not strike me as a dream about Jesus or Christianity, only a criticism of the way visionaries have been defanged and declawed so that their challenges might be more palatable and profitable to the shamans and the kings they serve.

The real imperative is much wilder, impractical, almost impossible. It breaks through laws, regulations, tame social manners. It doesn't justify war or profiteering or sexualizing; nor does it provide the convenient hypocritical tut-tutting. The great visionaries saw something far, far beyond a well-ordered society and the churches and armies and brothels and cotillions.

Don't just do something, as Buddhists like to say, stand there!

Turn the other cheek. Begin the ending. Love the hate. Paint colors over what is gray or black or white. Do nothing.

We must.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Breaking Up Is Easy

A friend who is thinking of leaving her husband -- for the record, I wish she wouldn't -- asks why it is that married people in middle age split up. It seems true. Is it? If so, why?

It is true, at least in the United States, according to the Bureau of the Census.

Up through age 49, divorced men make up no more than 29.5 percent of their peers. This jumps to 40.8 percent in the ages of 50 to 59. Then it declines to 30.9 percent in the following age decade. For divorced women the same percentages are 35.4 percent, 38.9 percent, 28.4 percent. (See Kreider,Rose M., 2005. Number, Timing,and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2001. Current Population Reports, P70-97. U.S. Census Bureau, Washington,D.C., which you can download here.)

So, Why?

A 2004 survey of matrimonial lawyers in Britain found as causes extra-marital affairs (27 percent), family strains (18 percent), emotional/physical abuse (17 percent), mid-life crisis (13 percent), addictions (6 percent), workaholism (6 percent). A study by a California State University professor based on the opinions of the individuals involved listed incompatibility, lack of emotional support, abuse, sexual problems and money.

Few surprises here for the general population.

But the Census tell us that marriages that last more than 20 years tend not to end in divorce. Yet those are the marriage breakups we're focusing on here. Married people in their first marriage by their fifties have usually been together a long time.

That's what my experience listening to stories as a volunteer discussion meeting facilitator in a support group for separated and divorced men and women (go here) tells me.

Many people, I think, want to break out of their lives at some point in middle age. Some men think that if they get a new young wife they will be young again. (Others sublimate with the purchase of a sports car or motorcycle.)

As to women, to my mind (I expect rotten tomatoes for this, but I will stand my ground), the dirty little secret no one talks about much is the M-word, menopause, which in my opinion exacerbates existing conflicts when the condition strikes and reduces the will to reconcile. When childrearing comes to an end, also, a number of changes bring about a reorientation of life.

There's also an intangible sense, I think, that if only you could get out of your marriage your life would be so much better. Something's missing that you think everyone else has.

What none of this takes into account is what happens after. Here my listening experience talks. For the first week or three there's an immediate release, for the leaver, from the affliction, real or imagined, that led to leaving.

For the leaved it's another story. One person I know attempted suicide. Many, many others fell into a deep sadness. There's an overwhelming sense of failure and doom hovers over everything when a marriage of X years (especially when X includes multiples of 10) seems to have ended for good.

When that realization hits the leaver, the same sadness seeps into his or her heart. (Unless the leaver has run off with someone ... that will happen when the infatuation fades away.)

People make it worse. Friends and family take sides. Many refuse to have anything to do with the two people breaking up, on grounds that it might be "catching." You learn how few friends you really have; how useless relatives are. Your kids have enough challenges with their own lives. If you are religious, you learn how little God intervenes.

Then comes the law to coldly divide possessions you jointly struggled to acquire.

Even if you then find a support group and go on a spree of dating, you find it doesn't ultimately solve anything. Your dates ultimately don't care about anything but themselves, just like the ex who left you or whom you left.

You are alone and you are fifty-something. You've done just about everything you put your mind to do since youth. Next stop is to become ashes in an urn ... and what a long way down that is!

Oh, you can find new friends and fill your life with busy-ness and travel and acquisition. (I have no idea what this thing about travel is: I've gone everywhere I ever want to go.)

Yet there will always remain the hole of the thing that fell apart, the other life you ended prematurely. But I stray from the topic, because that's why people don't break up. That's why people, deep down, wish they hadn't broken up.

As to breaking up, Neil Sedaka was right. It's not very easy to do.

Once it's done, all the king's horses and all the king's men will find well nigh impossible to put it together again.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The End of Belief

Sunday before last I underwent a reverse of Charles Wesley's famous "strange warming" experience: a distinct cooling of the heart in church toward religion, God, and what Zorba would have called "the complete catastrophe."

Almost five years ago I stopped attending any kind of Sunday Eucharist service, a practice in which I had been constant almost all my life. Although my faith fell off like scales, in a reversal of Saul of Tarsus' experience in Acts 9:18, I have been sporadically attending various churches over the past year or so.

Why is an agnostic even going to church? That's a long story I'll leave for another day.

Eight days ago, I undertook my sporadic sitting in at the Eucharist service in the main nave of the Cathedral Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Anglican see's main church in Washington, D.C.

The cathedral's dean, the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III decided to open his sermon on the season of advent with a broadside on Richard Dawkins and his most recent book The God Delusion (for my blog on both, go here).

Only Lloyd didn't say Dawkins. He said "Hawkins." To which I uttered an almost reflexive correction "Dawkins!" that annoyed a few fellow churchgoers.

Then he said it again: Hawkins. He identified the "best-seller" (is it?) by its correct title but kept saying Hawkins (get the taped sermon here if you don't believe me).

Clearly, Lloyd had never set eyes on even a comma written by Dawkins, an uncommon name that would have stuck in the mind of any bona fide reader.

Worse still, Lloyd wielded a puerile argument against Dawkins' contention that religion is the cause of a great deal of violence, both in the present and historically. The Dean countered with the proposition that the great massacres of the 20th century had been committed by Hitler, Stalin and Mao, whom Lloyd covered with the blanket characterization of "atheists."

This made me cringe because, first of all, it is not conclusively proven that the Jesuit-educated Adolf Hitler was actually an atheist.

Moreover, the belt buckle worn by soldiers of the Wehrmacht read "Gott mit Uns" (God with us). This is known to have served as a prop referred to by commanders in the field rousing the rank and file before battle on the Eastern Front against the godless Soviets.

The record shows that the Nazi war machine and its genocidal sidekicks did not formally disown the European Christian deity; to the contrary, God was heartily invoked by the invading, marauding, pillaging and murdering German hordes.

Similarly, former Orthodox seminarian Yosip Stalin might correctly be identified as having become an atheist as general secretary of the Communist Party, although he spawned a cult of personality that turned Marxism-Leninism into something remarkably similar to a religion.

Much the same could be said of Mao, whose best known aphorism on this subject is "religion is poison." The French film-maker Jean-Luc Goddard made no bones about adopting Maoism as his "religion," which is precisely the way Maoist Communism functioned.

Most important of all, neither Hitler, nor Stalin, nor Mao sent millions to their deaths under the banner of atheism, but under the aegis of their particular brand of nationalism and collectivism. At most, they could be said to be mass-murdering maniacs who just happened to be atheists, if that.

The reverse, my Very Reverend Sir Priest Lloyd, cannot be said of the great Christian persecutors and annihilators.

In the name of the Christian God, they have
  • dispatched Saracens in the Crusades and heretics in the Inquisition during the Middle Ages;
  • then in the Renaissance sent dissenters from Calvinism to the bottom of Lake Geneva with the proverbial millstone tied to their necks, or sent hundreds of Jesuits and and Jesuit-protectors to be drawn and quartered by order of Queen Elizabeth of England, or killed varieties of Catholics, Jews and Protestants in diverse and ever-inventive ways, all for the sake of their faiths;
  • finally in the more modern ages, robbed and murdered native populations of America, Africa and Asia, also with great missionary zeal and churches' blessing.
And that's just a brief, quick sweep.

Islam, granted, is not behind by far. The Sunni and Shia rivalry has claimed lives for a millenium and the spread of Muslim jihadists throughout the Mediterranean, the Balkans and Spain in the Middle Ages, bespeak centuries of war in the name of another monotheistic religion and its blood-thirsty adherents. Only military defeats five hundred years ago kept the Muslim jihad at bay. And, purely Quranic or not, need we mention Al-Qaeda and its leaders plain invocation of their God?

Not to be left behind, the followers of the Jewish faith of Abraham practiced wholesale slaughter by divine inspiration according to their own holy writ in places such as Jericho. In modern times, the State of Israel has waged at least one unquestionable war of aggression (1967), along with bearing with responsibility for several massacres of civilians in Lebanon, most recently in the village of Qana. Anyone claiming, with talmudic hair-splitting, that no violence has come from the adherents of Judaism for the two millenia in between forgets that, as criminal lawyers say, the means and the opportunity were lacking.

In the end, Lloyd's rhetorical sparring nets him a 3-0 defeat -- and that's only counting three monotheistic religions!

Yet it was not so long ago that Lloyd's other words -- such as his positive call to his congregation to let the love of Jesus Christ be born in their hearts during advent -- would have resonated in my bones, blotting out the nonsense, the arrogance and the cupidity of an overreaching preacher.

This time I was left with emptiness. I did not want to join him in reciting the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith that follows the homily in the Western Christian liturgical matrix. I do not believe. After hearing him I knew firmly that I do not believe.

Something finally snapped and I have been searching for words to describe what it was for eight days. I give up.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Bush's Rats

A friend who blends masochism with political savvy by surfing the AM radio airwaves has informed me that conservatives are now dumping George W. Bush overboard. They're acting as if Bush weren't one of their own.

These are the same folks who fawned over Bush when the last Republican national convention held his apotheotic second coronation. In case you don't recall, that was when young, crewcut Republicans screaming "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" brought eerily to the minds of so many of us the images of rallies such as Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl might have choreographed.

Now that the Democratic Party successfully made Bush the poster boy of all that is wrong -- and he does bear responsibility for a lion's share of it -- and has taken the Senate and the House from the GOP, many right-wingers are trying to tip-toe away.

It's the "good German" syndrome. Or as Woody Allen put it: "I never knew Hitler was a Nazi, I thought he worked for the telephone company."

Only columnist Charles Krauthammer, the rottweiler of U.S. nationalism even though he was born not in the United States but Uruguay, has realized the need for some dignity in defeat and remains a stalwart defender of the Bush Administration.

The Republican Party since 1980 has been essentially a party of opportunists: they have vied with each other for the largest bribes, the most shameless cronyism and war-profiteering and, for a while, have been handsomely rewarded for their efforts. Now it's dawned on them that the party is over and that they're dancing in the ballroom of the Titanic.

Let's not let the rats jump off ship. Let's make sure at least a few of them drown as they richly deserve.

One of the important ways to do so is to avoid falling for the single-gunman theory that has dominated the public interpretation of many pivotal events. I mean single gunman as in Lee Harvey Oswald, obviously the mere puppet of a conspiracy so clever that 43 years later we still do not know its contours.

In this case, let's not forget that the unmitigated disaster to which this president has led us -- war, debt as far as the eye can see, widening gaps between have-mores and haves (let alone between those two and the have-nots) -- is not the result of the one man, W, making mistakes.

Dubya isn't a bumbling idiot. He is a clever dissembler who hasn't minded looking like an idiot so long as it advanced his agenda.

All of our current national problems are the logical consequence of the Reaganite policy and the Reaganite agenda since 1980. And it was the agenda, not his stumbling, that a sizeable proportion of Americans have rejected.

Neo-conservatism, the Reaganite marriage of fundamentalist Christian theocracy with laissez-faire, Laffer-curve social darwinism, has not merely been heartless and immoral policy since 1981. It has been, on the facts and in the most practical of terms, simply and undeniably wrong.

Two more years of it and we would have lost the U.S. Constitution, confirming the dictatorship into which Bush -- and his entire neo-conservative movement -- has been attempting to seduce the United States. The recent congressional elections have been a Thermidorian reaction -- reminiscent of 1790s France when terror ended.

Hopefully, the elections will have the effect of halting the ascendancy of Patriot Act-inspired terror by the U.S. government, diminishing the capacity of officials to brand anyone with whom they disagree a "traitor," and bringing closer the day in which the massive transfer of national assets to the wealthiest elites, domestic and foreign, is brought to a stop.

Now it's time to make clear just how un-American, how intolerant, how limited, and how ultimately against the national interest neo-conservatism, all its branches, all its policies and all its figures really have been.

To paraphrase Marie-Antoinette, let them eat crow.