Sunday, August 31, 2008

Truth Telling

Our text this morning is "Thou shalt honor thine own reputation by being a teller of truth as best thou seest it." This is from, you guessed it, my godless decalogue. Let's parse it.

Reputation, etymologically involves a rethinking. Perhaps it is a matter of sitting thinking about another, much as a 14-year-old girl who moons by her phone willing it to be rung by the boy she is (re- putare, Latin) thinking about, again, for the 33rd time this afternoon.

"I hear he ..." she has heard.

We can't create our own reputation, but we can regard it well, or disregard it. Maybe, if it is worthy, we can honor it.

As to truth, is it so if it is merely what we can best see? Might it be something well beyond the horizon, which we cannot see?

The God-ists say so, I suppose, but that is not what I have in mind. Rather, I am thinking of what you think is true, even if it isn't.

Such things aren't true by virtue of thinking they are. But they aren't quite lies, unless one knows them to be or experiences them as false. Then you dishonor yourself.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Conventional Conventions

The Democratic Party nominated Barack Obama. Yawn. The Republican Party will nominate John McCain next. Longer Yawn. Wake me up when the Orwellian splurge is over.

In a world in which 17 people will die of hunger within the next minute, what justifies the $4 billion political orgy we call a presidential election?

If the political discourse had some depth, if the pseudoevents had some real mystery to them, if the electorate took the time to learn what's involved in being a citizen of a self-governing nation, then perhaps, some expenditure to work out the world's longest-running political experiment might be worthwhile.

As it is, we're stuck with a barrage of non-issue advertising. Every moment is a scripted appeal to emotion. One candidate claims to care for the country merely because he failed at war and was taken prisoner, all the while hiding that he really stands for the privilege of the few. The other wants to offer change yet cannot risk exposing the details to his adversary's demagoguery.

In the end we have a very expensive political circus put on by the plutocracy, in the name of an alleged democracy, all aimed at the deluded, defrauded, abused majority of the electorate.

This is true in all the Western democracies, not just the United States. Yet few countries spend waste as much time and money on the project with, to judge by the last two elections alone, as paltry a result to show for it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Whither Marriage

The Edwards affair once again brings social notions of marriage and its obligations to the fore, all of which leave me uncomfortable and intellectually unsatisfied. People mean different, disparate and often contradictory notions while using the same word.

Ask the average man or woman on the street about marriage and you'll get answers such as "a sacrament," "a commitment," and "a contract." What do these mean?

I still have the actual illustrated Baltimore Catechism no. 1 from way back when the dinosaurs roamed, which Sister Catherine Agnes used to teach us in second grade that "Matrimony is the sacrament by which a man and woman bind themselves for life in lawful marriage."

Sister also used one of her classic and mildly scary illustrative stories -- which I later learned had not been her own invention, but part and parcel of a U.S. catechetical teaching method devised in the 1930s -- to drive home the point. Here's how I remember it:
There was once a little girl who was very sick. Her family and the parish and everyone prayed and prayed and prayed so she would not die. She lived. Years later, she died in a car crash. She had been married three times and went straight to hell. Better that she had died when she was young and pure.
Save your gasps for the comment box.

One need not have been a child in a pre-Vatican II American Catholic school to agree that, traditionally in the West, marriage has meant that a man and a woman publicly committed to mutual and exclusive sexual congress, with childbearing and rearing in mind, along with a series of social and economic obligations that flowed from parenthood, for as long as both would live.

Social mores have amended that commitment in almost every respect. A man and woman? To have sex? Exclusively? To have children? To rear children properly? For life? No, no, no, perhaps (say some economic studies), and ha-ha!

Perhaps that's because marriage is a contract.

Traditionally, again, in marriage a propertyless woman was conveyed to a man for the purpose of bearing an heir and keeping house, in exchange for economic benefit. In the Cinderella scenario, the aspiring, talented, voluptuous woman provided sexual, childbearing and house-managing services to the handsome, well-heeled man, a prince of a fellow.

Some view marriage, then, as the sole surviving universally legal and respectable form of prostitution. In exchange for unnecessary, ephemeral promises in ceremonies whose luster barely survive the very day they take place, a man gets sex and a woman gets money -- even though in contemporary society, marriage is utterly unnecessary for either.

I mean, if it is a contract: who is selling and buying what, why and how do the terms make sense?

If not, why then, marriage?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

250x30 #56 Brother Steele

Ireland somewhere has a crook-nosed, vehement, passionate man who, if he has dropped his vows as many did, probably became a politician. You insisted we leave footprints in our wake.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Rick Warren and the Evangelical Life Project

News that John McCain and Barack Obama were interviewed on their moral stances by the Rev. Rick Warren's Saddleback Church made me wince. Despite my roots in the historical churches that still claim apostolic succession, I am an agnostic. So what's my beef? Let me count the gristle.

Theologically, Warren is a midget. He subscribes to the plainest, simplest, most literal interpretation of the English translation of the Bahble. Period.

Granted, he doesn't pretend to be Teilhard de Chardin. He's more of a religiously inclined Willy Loman. Therein lies my complaint with Warren and evangelicalism: the project of life they propose.

Both embrace the American Dream, seek popularity before truth and propose a life based on ultimately superficial, uncritical and magical thinking.

What can one possibly glean from asking what three people a candidate would ask advice from or what an itinerant woodworker of 2,000 years ago means to him or -- hell's bells! -- what he thinks about abortion?

It's the same old pap.

Call yourself a salesman, Warren, and make sure you publicize that your god is Mammon. Then go leave the rest of us alone.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tomorrow, 40 Years Ago

Tomorrow, 40 years ago, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia and Alexander Dubček, architect of the liberalizing "Prague Spring," was hustled to Moscow for what I imagine must have been some very high intensity conversations. The world of 2008 was unimaginable then.

The snake-shaped Czechoslovakia has recently been in the news thanks to John McCain, who apparently doesn't know its two ethnic and linguistic regions split up peacefully in 1992. To be fair, what I know about the country is just enough for this one post.

For example, years ending in 8 were fateful for Czechoslovakia:
  • 1918, foreign powers gathered in Versailles carved it out as an independent republic from the carcass of the Austro-Hungarian Empire;
  • 1938, Neville Chamberlain famously handed over the Sudetenland and Bohemia (aka, the head of the snake) to one Adolf Hitler, who proceeded to invade it;
  • 1948, the Communist Party staged a coup d'etat in February and took over the government; and
  • 1968, Dubček, the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion.
These last three were the last events of the Cold War era that I observed through my parents' anticommunist lenses with the thought of crafting some of my own.

It was my last year of secondary school, the year of the French student-worker general strike in May, the year they killed the dreams of a Martin and a Bobbie, the year of Khe Sahn and the Tet Offensive when the possibility of the first military defeat of the United States in history became possible.

It was the year that, in my unending quest to define historical periods, I decided that the World War II postwar era -- that epoch, the heyday of my parents', always recalled in grainy black-and-white celluloid -- had ended in front of my very eyes.

I lived the Prague Spring in the movie houses of Buenos Aires, which were modern Plato's caves for me as I watched the still highly redarded majestic Czech film Closely Watched Trains and it's much less well-known Loves Of a Blonde.

Could socialism have a human face, after all, Mr. Dubček? Why were the students and workers of Paris troublemakers while youths throwing stones at Soviet tanks in Prague were heroes?

These were the questions I could no longer avoid 40 years ago tomorrow, when near midnight Soviet tanks slipped into Prague.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Is Atheism a Religion? What is?

In an e-mail list I briefly joined I found myself landing into a long-running debate concerning the nature of religion in which the Christian argued that a federal appeals court had declared atheism a religion.

In Kaufman v. McCaughtry, a case about the rights of atheists to form a religious club in prison, the U.S.Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in 2005 that
Atheism is, among other things, a school of thought that takes a position on religion, the existence and importance of a supreme being, and a code of ethics. As such, we are satisfied that it qualifies as Kaufman’s religion for purposes of the First Amendment claims he is attempting to raise.
Does this mean atheism is a religion? For legal purposes it has been for some time. In 1985 (in Wallace v. Jaffree) the Supreme Court explained the thinking this way
At one time it was thought that this right [to choose one’s own creed] merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-Christian faith such as Islam or Judaism. But when the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all.
Mechanistic right-wing Christians have used these decisions to argue triumphalistically that atheism is a religion, much in the vein of the World War II saw that "there are no atheists in the foxholes." Hell, foxholes were hard to find in World War II, which was essentially a war of movement, with tactics designed to avoid the foxhole altogether.

Moreover, legal isn't moral or philosophical. Or slimming, as I like to add.

In trying to define in a speculative discussion what "religion" means and really is, we are drawing on sociology and social psychology, along with religion and theology themselves, not to mention, ultimately, philosophy.

The Wikipedia, everyman's reference albeit fraught with problems, offers this:
A religion is a set of beliefs and practices, often centered upon specific supernatural and moral claims about reality, the cosmos, and human nature, and often codified as prayer, ritual, or religious law.
To my mind, the deal breaker for an atheist, or even an agnostic, is the word "supernatural." Once you affirm something beyond what can be observed and verified, youŕe not involved in human inquiry any more.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Contra Feministe

One of my newer favorite feminist feeds, Feministe, has been doing a series of numbers on traditional religious positions in an uninformed way that I, as an agnostic and former believer, find profoundly embarrassing.

Yes, Feministe folks, I agree that abortion should remain legal in the United States, the claim of the virgin birth of Jesus raises some pretty thorny questions and biblical dicta on homosexuality are ... um ... not au courant, to say the least. But that does not necessarily mean that
  • ipso facto, it is illogical and beyond comprehension that someone would be "politically opposed to safe, legal abortion and reproductive health services," as KaeLyn wrote;
  • the Christian doctrine of the virgin birth hinges on a mistranslation of Isaiah, as Sam wrote; or
  • the biblical injunctions against homosexual sex are inherently outdated, as Sam, somewhat more trenchantly than above, wrote.
Kaelyn's straw-man and ad hominem approach to abortion, a topic I hate to discuss (because all reasonable discussion has long ago become impossible), Sam's rabbinicocentric interpretation of Christian doctrine and her historical optimism have common limitations.

Central to all three is the their limited point of view.

Because she is "pro-choice" -- yet another abortion debate weasel word, but don't get me going -- is her position, Kaelyn seemingly cannot imagine that people whose religion makes abortion a very grave immorality would hold that the ideal law would ban such a thing.

Yet one need not revisit the hoariest theocracies to find explicit links between religious and political views -- John of Leiden, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Ghandi -- among folks with whom I imagine Kaelyn might find some common ground.

Similarly, Sam made a somewhat more forgivable mistake in hanging her intellectual hat regarding the virgin birth on a particular set of passages in Isaiah, which she deems "mistranslated." The birth narratives in the gospels owe as much to pagan sources as to Judaic; it was simply inconceivable to the ancient mind that a great personage would not have been born amid all manner of miraculous portents.

In her more recent and even more measured posts, Sam's even more forgivable limitation is that she does not seem to be able to see beyond her own time. Weighing whether to chuck biblical rejection of homosexuality or modernity it is clear that her dogma is the modern age. I have never been certain that being modern was always best and a solid reading of history supports that view.

In sum, my criticism is not about the opinions but rather the way they are delivered, which tend to make contrary opinion look more reasonable.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Listening to the Baby Boom's Echo

It's almost a reflex for someone of a certain age to deride young people as somehow wanting in comparison to one's own, so I routinely resist my generation's tendency to bemoan my sons' Gen-Y peers as "entitled." So imagine my surprise when I found my older son nodding at the notion.

He was being too polite, I thought, when he described his childhood as cosseted. Where were the claims, I wondered, that I had caused every last neurosis he will ever have? Someone call Doktor Freud!

Yet, indeed, he laid out a very plausible scenario for peers born in the echo of the post-World War II baby boom, in the last century's last two decades. A group now come of age, beginning to pop up in the workplace, to marry, in brief, to launch adult lives, they pose to the boomer a number of questions.

Their aesthetics are decidedly different. Melody went out with hip-hop and only now returns with the tantalizing alternative genre. They claim to be more techie, but deep down, matched up with someone reasonably geeky of an older generation, a lot of it  can be blown off as just froth.

But what about the entitlement thing?

"They had so much as children that they expected life to keep giving them everything when they grew up," said my son, as I recall his words.

Really? Life will take care of that.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Why Neo-Conservatism Deserved to Fail

As the veritable Thermidorian Reaction that began in 1980 with Ronald Reagan winds to a close with the failed presidency of George W. Bush, the failure of neo-conservatism seems to have been pre-ordained. Some analysts are concerned with why, wondering -- by way of the overdone "brand" cliché -- it is no longer "selling," but I'm more interested in why it never deserved to succeed, so we collectively learn the lesson once and for all.

Setting aside right-wing intramural disputes concerning the term, for my purposes "neoconservatism" is the generally new brand of U.S. conservatism that emerged from the first Reagan electoral campaign onward. Earlier U.S. conservatives had been elitist and roundly unpopular advocates of a puny misanthropy consisting of balanced budgets and neutrality in world wars, along with a dash of racialism.

Enter the Boomers of 1980-2008, a swarm of opportunists and demagogic ideologues who wrapped themselves in the flag, their professed love of (unborn) human "life," their avowed family values and their Christian faith.

Never mind that they became the most corrupt profiteers since the Grant Administration. Forget that they killed life for many infants and children who depended on public aid. Let's also overlook the many foreign and U.S. people killed in unprovoked military aggression from Grenada to Iraq. Nor shall we mention that their faithless, divorced Ronald Reagan papered over their cynicism about values and that his poll-reading henchmen manipulated religious opponents of abortion with empty promises. We shall turn eyes otherwise concerning the none-too-devout myriad sexual exploits of folks from Newton Leroy Gingrich to Larry Craig.

These inherent hypocrisies are only part of why neoconservatism richly deserves its grave. Consider the following qualities of neoconservatism:
  1. Anti-democratic: propounds a hierarchically ordered society, along the sex and ethnic lines that have traditionally divided American society (when "men were men" and "the colored weren't uppity"), with white males of northwest European origin at the top.
  2. Socioeconomically Darwinist: embraces beggar-thy-neighbor policies of extreme individualism and privilege for the asset-owning few, deemed under Calvinist ideas to be divinely rewarded with riches for their efforts;
  3. Authoritarian: touts notions of "natural law" and religious values, rather than unfettered inquiry, as bases for public policy (eg., stem cell policy);
  4. Anti-American: emerged aided, abetted and allied to foreign fascistoid movements alien to the ethos of the American democratic experiment, such as the right-wing axis of The Washington Times and the Unification Church, the more secretive Franco-era Spanish Catholic Opus Dei movement (in which Justice Antonin Scalia participates), and the even less well-known Tradition, Family and Property international movement;
  5. Aggressively lawless internationally: holds the United States unaccountable to U.S. ratified international law whenever convenient, such as in the peacetime mining of Nicaraguan ports, bombing of Iraq, unprovoked invasion of Iraq, Grenada, Panama, Dominican Republic (to name just a few) and also in a similar roster of abuses in international trade;
  6. Anti-intellectual: in a bid to appear "populist" the elitist neocons have bound themselves in a straitjacket of doctrines that fly in the face of the best that modern, current study teaches and, as a result, have failed to deliver broad-based prosperity (admittedly not their goal) or even its semblance (a propaganda necessity).
In sum, for these and manifold other problems in the very nature of neoconservatism, once they are kicked out of power, please, please ... never let them back in!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

FDR, not JFK

In the very well known picture shown below, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill), the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for the presidency this year, is visualized as a new John F. Kennedy even though the most likely model is the candidate I wanted, but could not get, in 1976: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Sure, Obama is reminiscent of Kennedy, who was 43 when he was sworn in and deemed "young" (a notion that puzzled me at the time). Obama also shares with Kennedy the mastery of a personal style of oratory, his identity as a member of an "outsider" group in terms of the levers of American society and, of course, charisma.

Yet Obama will be 47 years old if he wins the election and is sworn in, closer to Franklin Roosevelt's 51. (I now regard both ages as relatively "young.") Although he is neither patrician nor disabled and thus superficially a very different kind of man, Obama's time and challenge resemble FDR's more closely than Kennedy's.

JFK was elected at the peak of American prosperity, power and self-confidence. Obama, if elected, will preside over a time in which -- as with 1932 -- fear is the nation's major enemy. Indeed, the government calls the people it uses as excuses for military adventures, "terrorists," that is, inspirers of fear (although, franky, I am not particularly terrorized).

Like FDR, a putative President Obama (what a fine ring that has!) will face:
  • reconstructing confidence in the nation's financial sector through thoroughgoing reform;
  • rescuing thousands of Americans from bankruptcy and potential homelessness (as in the Depression, I'm told there are tent cities in the Southwest, where people who lost their homes are beginning to squat);
  • reversing the economic decline of the wage-earning majority who on average today earn less than their parents earned in 1973.
That's not mentioning uniquely contemporary problems, such as:
  • the erosion of respect for the United States following unprovoked aggression against Iraq;
  • successful pursuit of those responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001;
  • committing to eradicate extreme poverty from the face of the earth;
  • finding a way to revamp the health system so every U.S. inhabitant has a realistic opportunity to get care as basic human dignity requires;
  • overhauling Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare and other social programs to prevent their financial ruin and assure a sturdy safety net for future generations;
  • the restoration of the nation's infrastructure, neglected over the past 30 years; and
  • encouraging the development of renewable sources of energy to replace our current overuse of hydrocarbons such as petroleum.
These are all Roosevelt-scale, foundational projects. These are not dazzling new programs, such as JFK's NASA and Peace Corps, which although worthy of continuation, were extensions of the national purpose. They are essentials without which the republic is at peril.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Other Kind of Welfare

As poverty month approaches -- the poverty rate is released at the end of August -- I am drawn to considering how rarely, despite the American myth, anyone really pulls themselves up by one's own bootstraps. Most of us owe who we become as adults, occupationally, financially, socially and, of course, psychologically, to someone else.

The phrase "pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps," which prompted the computer term bootstrapping, or simply booting, arises from the tall tales of adventure told of Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchhausen. The derring-do was satirized in 1785 by one Rudolf Erich Raspe in The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchhausen. In that work, Munchhausen pulls himself out of a swamp by his shoe laces, without help.

In reality, almost anyone who is not poor today had considerable help, even if it wasn't from a formal public assistance program. There's such a thing as what I would call Middle Class Welfare, much as there is simply naked, decadent and obscene privilege for the rich.

Most likely you know MCW. Set aside your rhetorical preparation for the oppression olympics and you'll recognize the decent schooling you received, the food and clothing, the vacations, the parents with sufficient education and intellectual interests to spur you to inquire.

Maybe, like my father, yours worked in the public sector and actually was supported by taxpayers. That goes for everyone from mail carried to president, from U.S. bureaucrat to U.N. envoy. The taxpayers of the world have long -- for millenia, even -- supported a class of scribes and experts to aid the king or ruler.

Even if your father worked in the private sector ... you never heard of corporate subsidies? Think of employment during the Depression and employment after: what made the difference, if not massive war spending and later the military-industrial complex as described by that wild-eyed radical Dwight David Eisenhower.

Every generation in your family who went to a university was partially subsidized. You didn't really think your tuition actually pays for 100% of the costs of a college education, did you?

Indeed, here's my proposition. Society is not a business and is not intended to make a profit, nor much less to be efficient (which even the very profitable businesses aren't).

Moreover, human beings make thoroughly inefficient, wasteful investments. You have to spend about 20-30 years feeding and clothing them to get 30-40 years of middling, complaining output, then you have to spend a fortune for 20 years more postponing their inevitable breakdown and demise. All in all, a losing proposition.

That is why welfare for everyone, that is, a social support for the basic needs and dignity of everyone, is an essential requirement for a sound, functioning and vibrant society.

Yes, you too, get and need welfare.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

British Victim Olympics Come to the USA

Imagine that a taxicab rider in the vicinity of the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 had parlayed minor injuries into an interview on "60 Minutes," a blog, a book and an occasional column in The New York Times, taking on the role of poster child and blaring loudspeaker of 9/11 victimhood. Imagine then, that an apparently unbalanced woman challenged her role on her own blog and Ms. Victim managed to have the challenger imprisoned for doing so.

Change the country to Britain and the event to the London bombings of July 7, 2005, and you'd be imaging someone like Rachel North, of whom apparently the Brits must now be so tired that just yesterday she was now bottom-feeding on a lazy Saturday U.S. public radio show that specializes in weird slices of life.

I heard it yesterday, having been apprised of her radio appearance by an alert reader of this blog.

North, which I understand is a pseudonym, was interviewed by an entirely sympathetic English-sounding voice concerning her apparent encounter with British conspiracy theorists who believe she is part of some British coverup concerning the London bombing.

Did she have anything new to say about her experience? No.

Did North have anything to comment concerning her egregious moves to censor another blogger under medieval British laws that allow trial in absentia (!) and jail for the expression of opinion? No.

The show was merely devoted to how teddibly, teddibly difficult life is for poor, forlorn Rachel North who, apparently is pursued by all sorts of British online nutcases, who claim -- obviously irrationally -- that she is part of a government conspiracy to blame Muslims for the attack.

Rachel North is not that important, chaps!

No mention of her publicity-seeking "diary" of her experiences during the bombing on the BBC, her endless blogging on her own tragedy and her continuing nitpicking of the Labour Party government's official investigation. Nor much mention of the money she made off the tragedy with her book and column in ultraconservative news magnate Rupert Murdock's The Times of London.

There was no mention of one Felicity Jane Lowde, against whom North and others campaigned to have jailed for her admittedly questionable opinions concerning North in comment sections on North's blog and posts on Lowde's own. Lowde was imprisoned last summer. So much for Britain's right to free speech.

As I have written here earlier (see here and here) a pox on both their houses. Insofar as I am concerned it's just an online catfight of no significance -- except that it has rattled the cages of the inmates in that asylum called the United Kingdom and she now is trying to bring the circus here. (There's more money to be made in the USA, isn't there?)

Indeed, also not mentioned in the radio show, the behavior displayed by North's own supporters -- see the 250 comments on the first link cited above -- amply demonstrated that they are no lilting, longsuffering wallflowers. Whatever is wrong with Lowde, the "Northsquad" as my cyberfriend Alex Fear calls them, and perhaps anonymously North herself, are as "antisocial" online (this was their charge concerning Lowde) as their bête noir.

Why do I, who am usually more interested in politics, economics, ethics, etc., even care? Because in National Public Radio's one-sided, semi-prurient infotainment about North, I found a saddening blur of lines between blogging and journalism, between right and wrong, between what is important and what should be laughed out of the court of public opinion.

On WAMU, the station I heard her on, they didn't bother to inquire enough to uncover the free speech scandal of a blogger jailed for airing opinion, the travesty of shameless publicity-seeking that surrounds explosive incidents (pun intended) or the silliness of an English-accent-only broadcast segment on a show for American audiences about events and people of no consequence here.