Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fall into the....



In the movie "White Christmas," Danny Kaye's character saves Bing Crosby's character from a falling brick wall at the very end of World War II. In the rescue, Kaye's shoulder is injured ever so slightly. In gratitude for what he did, Crosby's character agrees to take on Kaye's character in his show biz act when they return to civilian life. Throughout the film, whenever Kaye's character wants to manipulate Crosby's character, he simply rubs his shoulder and looks pained.

Which is beginning to sound a lot like what John McCain is doing as questions about his home ownership continue to dog him. Politics as bad musical comedy. But that raises a question: if he's Danny Kaye, why are we Bing Crosby? When did John McCain ever save our lives? What did he do that didn't happen to some 600 military POWs in Vietnam? The answer should be: "Nothing." But the real answer is related to this image:



In my memory, the image above went up on billboards and flags and stickers almost before we announced the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. In my memory, it predates the famous picture of the last helicopter lifting off in Saigon, people trying desperately to cling to it. My memory is almost certainly wrong, but the guilt and shame encapsulated in that famous helicopter echoes in the logo above, which became the emblem of loss in Vietnam. Our government didn't try hard enough to win, and so abandoned POW's and MIA's to the brutality of their North Vietnamese captors. It was a more enduring and pernicious myth than the "spitting on soldiers" story. We told ourselves (as many still say, including John McCain) that we could have won Vietnam if the government hadn't stopped us, or if the people had "supported the troops."

All, of course, convenient lies to keep us from considering whether we should have been involved in that war in the first place; and from accepting the fact that we lost a war, and are losing another one (the only reason McCain insists we must stay in Iraq until we "win," though he can never say what "win" means). And now the long shadow of the POW-MIA issue tries to cover the Presidential race of 2008. The "meme" is that John McCain is a former POW, which makes him a hero by default, which means we can never speak ill of him. It is, of course, being run into the ground by the McCain campaign. But who does it really resonate with, and why?

My own perception is that the meme is being repeated by pundits and TV anchors, almost all of whom are either Baby Boomers or pre-Boomers. It's an informal review, but I don't remember hearing Rachel Maddow ever bring it up on "Countdown", though of course Keith Olbermann has paid obeisance to it. Roy Sekoff has never mentioned it on "Verdict" (you see now what news programs I watch regularly), but Bob Schieffer famously brought it up with Wesley Clark. It seems to be a topic that means a lot to people my age or older. People, that is, who remember the end of the Vietnam War and the POW-MIA flags and stickers, who remember that reflex of national guilt and shame we expressed in a series of Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris movies.
But that can't mean much to people younger than us. It seems to make a great deal of difference to people who publicly state their opinions for a living, and therefore are chary of stating an opinion that might get them socially ostracized (unlike, say, Rick MacArthur, who seems willing to say whatever he damned well pleases, and usually makes more sense than your average media pundit), but only to those people who remember how Vietnam ended, rather than those who learned it as history. It's understandable reaction, for those of us who have those memories. One is forced to notice that most prominent pundits who don't defend McCain as a knee-jerk reaction, defend him because they are Boomers themselves. Which says more about the age of our punditry than it does anything else; it also underlines the problem McCain has with voters: his weltanschaaung was formed in the '60's, as were those of many of today's pundits. But that was 40 years ago, and a new generation has grown to adulthood and even parenthood in that time, with yet another generation of voting age behind them, and none of those people (including Barak Obama) were formed in the crucible of Vietnam/Civil Rights/Great Society legislation, that was the '60's.

Not that the pre-Boomers aren't holding on to their mythology as fiercely as possible. Tom Brokaw insists that John McCain is Danny Kaye, and America is Bing Crosby:



He doesn't explain what McCain did to save America. His argument hinges, instead, on McCain as symbol of sacrifice (even though he was one of over 600) and on Bill Clinton as symbol of Boomer selfishness (even though George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Tom DeLay all shamelessly avoided that war) . Brokaw is stuck with his myth of the "Greatest Generation," the corollary to which is that the Boomers failed to live up to that generation's legacy (thus Bill Clinton is shamed into recognizing the greatness of John "POW" McCain). But it was the Boomers, as Studs Terkel has pointed out, who actually changed the world for the better. Indeed, much of the world we lament losing under Bush was given to us by the Warren Court and the activists of the 1960's, not by the defeat of fascism and Nazism in the 1940's. All of that is swept aside, however, by the representative of a generation who was born during the war, and came of age not in the '60's, but in the Eisenhower '50's. Once again, the imprimatur of the punditry is that of old white men born long before Barack Obama or many of his most ardent supporters.

The contingent that still thinks like Tom Brokaw hardly seems enough to propel John McCain into the White House. According to the Census Bureau, as of 2006 the majority of the US population was between 18 and 65. Voter turnout was up by 7 million in 2006, and registration of 18-24 year olds was up as well. Voter registration for those over 55 is higher as a percentage of the electorate, but the number of people who remember Vietnam is still smaller than the number who don't, and the portion of that number who can vote are more likely to be attracted to Barack Obama than to 72 year old John McCain. As of the date of this post, Obama has a 23 point lead over McCain among voters aged 18-24.

Just how effective, then, is the claim that "John McCain was a POW"? Especially now that he's using it to defend himself from any questioning at all? Most of McCain's campaign seems to be stuck in the Sixties, like his recent reference to the Cold War, and who "won" it. (And notice McCain can't bring that up without reminding us he was a POW in a war many Americans can't even remember.) Well, that depends on who's listening. Funny thing is, we had a phrase for this situation in the Sixties.

We called it the "generation gap."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Wake Up, America!!!!

Yeah, Hillary did a good job last night. But this is the speech I'd rather be talking about today:

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Save the cheerleader, save the world



Michelle Obama last night:

And as I tuck that little girl and her little sister into bed at night, I think about how one day, they'll have families of their own. And one day, they - and your sons and daughters - will tell their own children about what we did together in this election. They'll tell them how this time, we listened to our hopes, instead of our fears. How this time, we decided to stop doubting and to start dreaming. How this time, in this great country - where a girl from the South Side of Chicago can go to college and law school, and the son of a single mother from Hawaii can go all the way to the White House - we committed ourselves to building the world as it should be.
I'm developing an allergy to "saving the world," or even to "building the world as it should be." More and more I agree with Candide's conclusion, one I've learned from the Desert Fathers: We must all tend our own garden. Wendell Berry is right: we can't even "think globally, act locally." We have no concept of the reality, the complexity, the vastness of the world, and it is hubris that would stun the ancient Greeks into silence to even imagine we do. In the meantime, I hear from Michelle Obama how much her husband will do for this country, how much he cares:

"Barack doesn't care where you're from, or what your background is, or what party -- if any -- you belong to. That's not how he sees the world," she said. "He knows that thread that connects us -- our belief in America's promise, our commitment to our children's future -- is strong enough to hold us together as one nation even when we disagree."
And yet I haven't seen one picture of Barack Obama that looks like this:



or this:



or this:



No nasty reminders that there is poverty in America. No photo ops in New Orleans, standing among the dispossessed and the displaced who look surprisingly like Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, except that when they dress, it isn't "cheap chic fashion" and "$79 Gap sundresses," because they can't afford even that. Which may be the reason only John Edwards went to New Orleans; he doesn't remind us all how few rich African-Americans there are.

What am I complaining about? I'm complaining about the idea that this is "Change We Can Believe In." It isn't. At best, it's change we think we can accomplish. And it's all being played out in the same arena it's been played out in since 1968, since the last time there was real hope of change. Rick MacArthur has precisely that much right:

When I looked at it, the first thing I noticed about Obama’s winds of change, his breath of fresh air, was that of the top twenty corporate and financial contributors to his campaign and Clinton’s, eleven were the same. So where is the big difference in their approach to politics?

The other thing that you should know about Obama is that he has been—he goes around saying he doesn’t take money from lobbyists. Well, it’s true that he doesn’t take money from registered lobbyists, but only a child or a naïf would think that corporate lawyers or Washington lawyers don’t lobby informally in front regulatory commissions and in front of members of Congress, and Obama has been all over the corporate law community. And he, early in his campaign, even went down—and this is audacious, I must say—to the headquarters of Greenberg Traurig, Jack Abramoff’s firm, the lawyers—the headquarters of the law offices in Miami, and did a video stream fundraising pitch, where he raised a whole bunch of money from the lawyers who worked alongside Jack Abramoff for I don’t know how many years. It’s absurd. It’s a distinction without a—a difference without a distinction, I think is the way one person put it, not taking money from corporate lawyers and refusing—or rather, not taking money from registered lobbyists but taking money from corporate lawyers, who in effect do the same kind of lobbying that registered lobbyists do. And now you’re looking at a vice-presidential candidate, Joe Biden, who’s very much in that mix.
And what does this have to do with Robert Kennedy in Kentucky or Mississippi?

I neglected to mention that on the big box minimum wage bill back in Chicago—and again, this is bread-and-butter Washington—excuse me, Democratic Party labor politics—Daley prevented a big box minimum wage from being instituted in Chicago, and there still isn’t one. He defeated the forces of labor. He defeated the independent Democrats in the city council, and Barack Obama has never said a word about that issue or really said anything substantive about Wal-Mart and their stranglehold on the wage scales in big cities all over the country now.
Nothing; nothing at all. We're going to save the world, donchaknow?

UPDATE: Following on Hillary's almost universally praised speech last night, I would like to associate myself with the comments of Mr. Harry Shearer.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"The honesty of knowing that we are not honest"


"Power," observed Adams, "always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws."
Believe it or not, I thought of Niebuhr while watching Bill Moyers' interview of Andrew J. Bacevich. Then I found the introduction to his latest book on Moyers' website:
The United States today finds itself threatened by three interlocking crises. The first of these crises is economic and cultural, the second political, and the third military. All three share this characteristic: They are of our own making. In assessing the predicament that results from these crises, THE LIMITS OF POWER employs what might be called a Niebuhrean perspective. Writing decades ago, Reinhold Niebuhr anticipated that predicament with uncanny accuracy and astonishing prescience. As such, perhaps more than any other figure in our recent history, he may help us discern a way out.
Is it any coincidence that Niebuhr was a theologian, or that the crises Bacevich identifies are, at their root, spiritual? I think not. Because here's Bacevich on Niebuhr:

In Niebuhr's view, although history may be purposeful, it is also opaque, a drama in which both the story line and the dénouement remain hidden from view. The twists and turns that the plot has already taken suggest the need for a certain modesty in forecasting what is still to come. Yet as Niebuhr writes, "modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management."

Such humility is in particularly short supply in present-day Washington. There, especially among neoconservatives and neoliberals, the conviction persists that Americans are called up on to serve, in Niebuhr's most memorable phrase, "as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection."
Evolution, anyone? Evolution usually regarded as the counterpart to religion that everyone praises and no one understands? That pernicious notion of "progress" that means we are all moving toward a telos, and that telos, of course, is "perfection". Whether you claim your telos from some apocalyptic vision provided by "God", or from some sense of the proper direction of human endeavor and "survival," you are pursuing the same goal with the same hubris. Or, as Bacevich puts it:

Despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, modern man, Niebuhr writes, clings to the view "that history is the record of the progressive triumph of good over evil." In that regard, President Bush certainly fits the definition of a modern man. So too do those who announce that with history having "ended" plausible alternatives to democratic capitalism cannot exist, who declare categorically that globalization will determine the future of the international system, or who prattle on about America's supposed "indispensability" as the sole remaining superpower. All of these deep thinkers fall prey to what Niebuhr described as "the inclination of wise men to imagine that their wisdom has exhausted the infinite possibilities of God's power and wisdom." The limits of their own imagination define the putative limits of what lies ahead — a perspective that, as we learned on September 11, 2001, serves only to set the observer up for a nasty surprise.
I find that observation about good triumphing over evil particularly salient to those who lament the rise of the GOP from Ronald Reagan forward, or perhaps going back to the defeat of Barry Goldwater. We have not moved from a time of enlightenment to a time of darkness. We have gone neither forward nor backward. As Bacevich concludes in his interview with Moyers, we're really stayed in one place for quite a while, no matter who occupies the White House. And there are warnings about neglecting that truth that go back to the tragedies of Sophocles, and are as current as Niebuhr 40 years ago:

Let me make the case more directly: to read Niebuhr today [is] to avail oneself to a prophetic voice, speaking from the past about the past, but offering truths of enormous relevance to the present. As prophet, Niebuhr warned that what he called "our dreams of managing history" — dreams borne out of a peculiar combination of arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-delusion — posed a large and potentially mortal threat to the United States. Today we ignore that warning at our peril.

Since the end of the Cold War the management of history has emerged as the all but explicitly stated purpose of American statecraft. In Washington, politicians speak knowingly about history's clearly discerned purpose and about the responsibility of the United States, at the zenith of its power, to guide history to its intended destination.
That sentiment, Bacevich points out, is distinctly and truly American. He quotes George Bush on how the Middle East will be remade, a claim Bacevich asserts could be made by any President, from Jefferson to Kennedy to Reagan. It is, says Bacevich, a narrative the American people believe in: our power to change the world, and make it better, by making it over in our image. And there's a reason that narrative is so compelling:

This narrative renders the past in ways that purport to reveal the future. Its defining features are simplicity, clarity, and conviction. The story it tells unfolds along predetermined lines, leaving no remove for doubt or ambiguity. History, the president goes on to explain, "has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty." Furthermore, at least by implication, the Author of Liberty has specifically anointed the United States as the Agent of Liberty. Thus assured, and proclaiming that "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," the president declares that "We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom."
It is a human thing, to want a narrative that reveals the shape of the future. One of the powers of stories like that of the Great Selchie, is that some creature on this planet can explain the shape of things to come and can, through magic, explain that shape to us; even if what is to come is fatalistic. But remove the fatalism, and all that can be left is inevitability, an inevitability that, of course, means we will prevail. The opposite of that is also proposed: for every self-confident American, sure of the rightness of the present course, there is an American sure the present course can bring nothing but doom and disaster. The current label for such discussions is "partisanship," by which both sides are derided but neither side critiqued. And again, everyone hacks at the branches of the tree of evil, while only a theologian and occassionally a Professor of International Relations, tries to get at the root.

Niebuhr, as I said, was a theologian (a point almost lost on Bacevich; or more likely he downplays it because theology, once the mother of all the sciences, is now at best a bastard stepchild), but obviously not one you will hear quoted from the pulpit of Saddleback Church. As Bacevich says:

Niebuhr has little patience for those who portray the United States as acting on God's behalf. In that regard, the religiosity that seemingly forms such a durable element of the American national identity has a problematic dimension. "All men are naturally inclined to obscure the morally ambiguous element in their political cause by investing it with religious sanctity," observed Niebuhr in an article appearing in the magazine Christianity and Crisis. "This is why religion is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm." In the United States, he continued, "The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry." The emergence of evangelical conservatism as a force in American politics, which Niebuhr did not live to see, has only reinforced this tendency.
Idolatry comes in many forms. This is just one of them:

RW: The answer is, we must do all we can. People say America is not the policeman of the world. We may not be, but the Bible says, if you have been blessed, then you are to care for people who can't care for themselves, you are to speak up for people who can't speak for themselves, and to defend the defenseless.

There is a difference between that and living under oppression, living with fear for your life. That's why whether or not they found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is beside the point. Saddam and his sons were raping the country, literally. And we morally had to do something. If you have a Judeo-Christian heritage, you have to believe it when God says that evil cannot be compromised with. It has to be resisted, it has to be overcome.
To step away from Niebuhr for a moment, and make the point from the Hebrew Scriptures: there is a reason Mosaic law does not forbid the owning of slaves, or command the people of Israel to go and make the earth pure in a post-Noah vision of apocalypse for the purpose of paradise. The law of the Torah makes clear that the widow, the orphan, the slave, the oppressed, are to be treated fairly, and given consideration. They are not elevated above the powerful, but neither are they to be the footstools of the king. (The line to the kingdom of God where the first are last and the last first, is a direct one.) It is not a vision, actually, far removed from Candide's conclusion that we all must tend our own gardens. The people of Israel: the leaders, the wives, the widows and orphans, the slaves and aliens, were all the "garden" Israel had to tend, and sufficient unto the day was the work thereof. Israel's vision of a peaceable kingdom came to embrace all of creation through Isaiah's visions after the Exile. But the salient feature of those visions was that Israel would be peaceful and prosperous, and all the nations would see that and come to Israel to share in that peace and prosperity. When swords were beaten into plowshares it wasn't to be after those swords had vanguished evil and converted the world to one religion: it was because Israel's vision would inspire the world to come and learn from them, from the people truly blessed by the Creator of the Universe, and through them the blessing would flow.

It's a peculiarly Christian, and American, vision that we must help that kingdom come by imposing it through force of arms, or through force at all. The problem of evil, after all, is a particularly Christian one; as with all such thorny problems, we tend to deal with them by blaming someone else for the situation. The splinter in their eye, a reflection of the log in our own; and nothing bothers us so much as what we see in the mirror:

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I've been troubled by the course of U.S. foreign policy for a long, long time. And I wrote the book in order to sort out my own thinking about where our basic problems lay. And I really reached the conclusion that our biggest problems are within.

I think there's a tendency on the part of policy makers and probably a tendency on the part of many Americans to think that the problems we face are problems that are out there somewhere, beyond our borders. And that if we can fix those problems, then we'll be able to continue the American way of life as it has long existed. I think it's fundamentally wrong. Our major problems are at home.

BILL MOYERS: So, this is a version of "Physician, heal thyself?"

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, yes, "Physician, heal thyself," and you begin healing yourself by looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing yourself as you really are.
But can we be honest enough to be honest with ourselves? Aye, there's the rub. As Bacevich says in the introduction to his latest book:

The impulses that have landed us in a war of no exits and no deadlines come from within. Foreign policy has, for decades, provided an outward manifestation of American domestic ambitions, urges, and fears. In our own time, it has increasingly become an expression of domestic dysfunction — an attempt to manage or defer coming to terms with contradictions besetting the American way of life. Those contradictions have found their ultimate expression in the perpetual state of war afflicting the United States today.

Gauging their implications requires that we acknowledge their source: They reflect the accumulated detritus of freedom, the by- products of our frantic pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

Freedom is the altar at which Americans worship, whatever their nominal religious persuasion. "No one sings odes to liberty as the final end of life with greater fervor than Americans," the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once observed. Yet even as they celebrate freedom, Americans exempt the object of their veneration from critical examination. In our public discourse, freedom is not so much a word or even a value as an incantation, its very mention enough to stifle doubt and terminate all debate.
Think about how accurate that is. Freedom is what allows us to worship as we choose, or to get religion as involved in politics as any individual wants it to be. Freedom is also what allows us to critique religion, and deride it's place in politics. All exercises of freedom, but what is the point of the exercise, except to flex our particular freedom, to intone our particular version of the incantation so as to ward off the evil spirits of mythology or atheism? Do those who most strongly assert their freedom of, or from, religion, ever critically examine that which they venerate, and ask why it is so important? Or do we blame it on the fundamentalists and the atheists, and aver we cannot be free until we are free of them? "No one sings odes to liberty as the final end of life with greater fervor than Americans." Yet, if you catch that car, what do you do with it?

In his interview with Bill Moyers, Bacevich praises Jimmy Carter and the famous "malaise" speech (even though, as Bacevich points out, Carter never used that word in the speech). He understands why Carter failed and Reagan triumphed, though. Carter called us to be responsible; Reagan told us we were Americans, and so responsible to no one. Party on!

BILL MOYERS: I was in the White House, back in the early 60s, and I've been a White House watcher ever since. And I have never come across a more distilled essence of the evolution of the presidency than in just one paragraph in your book.

You say, "Beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, "the occupant of the White House has become a combination of demigod, father figure and, inevitably, the betrayer of inflated hopes. Pope. Pop star. Scold. Scapegoat. Crisis manager. Commander in Chief. Agenda settler. Moral philosopher. Interpreter of the nation's charisma. Object of veneration. And the butt of jokes. All rolled into one." I would say you nailed the modern presidency.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, and the - I think the troubling part is, because of this preoccupation with, fascination with, the presidency, the President has become what we have instead of genuine politics. Instead of genuine democracy.

We look to the President, to the next President. You know, we know that the current President's a failure and a disappoint - we look to the next President to fix things. And, of course, as long as we have this expectation that the next President is going to fix things then, of course, that lifts all responsibility from me to fix things.

One of the real problems with the imperial presidency, I think, is that it has hollowed out our politics. And, in many respects, has made our democracy a false one. We're going through the motions of a democratic political system. But the fabric of democracy, I think, really has worn very thin.
We are not responsible; we just elect the people who are responsible. Hmmmm...nice work, if we could get it. But of course with responsibility goes authority, and with authority goes power, and pretty soon the people as the sovereign is just an empty phrase. And then what....?

I started off saying this was a spiritual problem, not a political or even material one. The abdication of responsiblity is a spiritual issue, an issue that opens the door to acedia, as we abandon responsiblity and authority and are soon left with what Graham Greene calls the unforgiveable sin: despair. But sometimes we need to get down that low to see we are truly at the spiritual lick-log:

Although politics may not be exclusively or entirely a quest for power, considerations of power are never absent from politics. Niebuhr understood that. Borrowing a phrase from John Dewey, he reminds us that "entrenched predatory self-interest" shapes the behavior of states. Even if unwilling to acknowledge that this axiom applies in full to the United States, Americans might as a first step achieve what Niebuhr referred to as "the honesty of knowing that we are not honest."

Why is this so important? Because self-awareness is an essential precondition to Americans acquiring a more mature appreciation of history generally.

On this point, Niebuhr is scathing and relentless. Those who pretend to understand history's direction and ultimate destination are, in his view, charlatans or worse. Unfortunately, the times in which we live provide a plethora of opportunities for frauds and phonies to peddle such wares.
These two convictions are tightly entwined. Those convinced they know the shape of history, convinced history has a telos and they are enlightened as to what that telos is, are also convinced they have the authority, if not the responsibility, to clear away the obstacles to that eschaton. Whether they are religious fanatics hoping to spur Armaggedon, or entrenched atheists sure they are liberating humanity from the shackles of ignorance and mythology, the goal is still the same: their vision is the one worthy of achievement, and nothing must stand in its way. Or, in a milder form, their vision is the one that will save humankind, or life on the planet, and it must win the day. Because the end of history can be known, and the purpose of our lives today is to achieve the proper, not the improper, end.

History as a comic book, in other words. History in which we alone are honest, and those who oppose us are dishonest, and whatever meliorating factors there may be on our side, they pale in comparison to the fecklessness of the opposition, and so we must prevail and impose our purer, if not wholly pure, vision on the world.

We easily forget honesty is born of humility; and hubris blinds us to the cliff we are about to step over. And yet we should have learned that lesson by now, eh?

Niebuhr regarded this line of reasoning [the validity of pre-emptive war] with horror. "The idea of a preventive war," he wrote "sometimes tempts minds, whose primary preoccupation is the military defense of a nation and who think it might be prudent to pick the most propitious moment for the start of what they regard as inevitable hostilities. But the rest of us must resist such ideas with every moral resource." In Niebuhr's judgment, the concept of preventive war fails both normatively and pragmatically. It is not only morally wrong; it is also stupid. "Nothing in history is inevitable," he observed, "including the probable. So long as war has not broken out, we still have the possibility of avoiding it. Those who think that there is little difference between a cold and a hot war are either knaves or fools."

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, such cautionary views, shared by American presidents, helped avoid a nuclear conflagration. Between 2002 and 2003, they did not suffice to carry the day. The knaves and fools got their war, which has yielded not the neat and tidy outcome promised, but a host of new complications. Yet that has not dissuaded those still committed to the proposition that military power offers simple solutions to otherwise daunting problems. Keen to dispose of the difficulties we have brought upon ourselves in Iraq, they are now calling for an even wider application of the Bush Doctrine, with Iran the next target.
Notice we are back, again, to the notion that the future can be known, and that we, privileged by God or fate or the Enlightenment as we are, can know it. And if things didn't work last time, well that's only because we didn't try hard enough, or support the troops firmly enough. The Big Idea never fails; only its acolytes prove all too human.

So where does this leave us? On a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night? In the final redoubt of prayer, pinned in our cells by our apathy and rejecting action? I prefer the insight of John Fowles in such matters: "Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation." Bacevich says:

The United States today finds itself threatened by three interlocking crises. The first of these crises is economic and cultural, the second political, and the third military. All three share this characteristic: They are of our own making.
I think he's right; which is why I call the crises, at base, spiritual; and why I think a spiritual solution is the only one available. Because what Bacevich is calling for is a whole sight, is a brutal and ruthless honesty that is not possible absent the despair brought about by the destruction of all we hold valuable, or by profound self-examination. The first is the way of war, and the hope of war: that from the ashes something new and pure will arise. We all know the lesson that hope actually teaches. The second is the way of religion, of religion that is responsibility, or it is nothing at all. Whether we can, in this age and nation of "mega-churches", is another question. But I think Professor Bacevich is right in this: this is what Paul Tillich, another 20th century theologian, contemporary and friend of Niebuhr's, would probably label as our nation's "ultimate concern."

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Birthmark


Sadly, the aftermath of the Rick Warren Civility Forum is less civility, not more. John McCain blames NBC:

In this case, the campaign is objecting to a statement by NBC's Andrea Mitchell on "Meet the Press" questioning whether McCain might have gotten a heads-up on some of the questions that were asked of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who was the first candidate to be interviewed Saturday night by Pastor Rick Warren at a presidential forum on faith.
Seems Pastor Warren didn't have as much control over his participants as he thought he did:

Senator John McCain was not in a “cone of silence” on Saturday night while his rival, Senator Barack Obama, was being interviewed at the Saddleback Church in California.

Members of the McCain campaign staff, who flew here Sunday from California, said Mr. McCain was in his motorcade on the way to the church as Mr. Obama was being interviewed by the Rev. Rick Warren, the author of the best-selling book “The Purpose Driven Life."
And it's double-plus uncivil, because John McCain is a former POW (did you know that?):

“The insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous,” Ms. Wallace said.
Of course, we could speculate on the "gate" Warren took in for this lesson in civility. According to the NYT article, 2000+ people were in attendance Saturday night. At $500 to $2000 a ticket, that's certainly what some people would call "rich," either for the person collecting, or to describe the persons paying. But never fear, nobody on stage that night would say that:

The two differed most, perhaps, in their answers to the question on wealth and tax: "define rich." Obama first softened it with a dig at his host, who not only leads a mega-church but is a mega-million-selling author of self-help books. "If you've got book sales of 25m, then you qualify," Obama told Warren, adding: "If you are making $150,000 or less as a family then you are middle class, or you're poor. If you're making more than $250,000, you're doing well."

McCain's position was more nuanced. "Some of the richest people I've known in my life are the most unhappy," he said. His wife applauded from the audience. "I don't want to take any money from the rich, I want everybody to get rich," said the man who has professed that economics is not his strongest suit. "If you're just talking about income, how about $5m? It doesn't matter because I don't want to raise anyone's taxes."

Warren nodded his understanding. Pastor Rick, whose church is considered to be at the vanguard of compassionate Christianity - different to the old model peddled by some social conservatives over the last decade - understands many things, money among them.
Yes, yes he does. Money talks, and Pastor Warren and his audience listen. Which is a situation with interesting parallels to the parable in Luke, about Lazarus and the rich man; but let's not go there too hastily, because we all know: money talks:

"He's a fabulous marketing man," said Richard Schweinberg. A local government officer who attended the forum, Schweinberg was one of the early adopters of Warren's message, joining the church the year Pastor Rick started it, in 1980.

"There were 70 people in a school auditorium," he remembered. "It was just Pastor Rick and his wife. She played the piano and he was the preacher. Now there are three main preachers: in my household we call them the teacher, the comic and the marketeer. Pastor Rick is the marketing pastor. He knows how to sell himself and the church and religion. I don't know if he knows that that's what he's doing."
Once again, I've been down this road once or twice before. And if you doubt that church marketing is a business all its own, I found this and this when I asked Google to find those old posts of mine. At Google, both emphasize their "church marketing" skills. Which means it's all about $$$$, because somebody's got to pay the bills that keep those marketers in business and provide them with such slick websites.

Money talks.

But I do wonder if the British clearly have a different understanding of "nuance," since McCain's answer wasn't so much subtle as ducking for cover. One is left wondering how many questions he didn't see coming. And I'm quite sure Pastor Warren knows exactly what he's doing. It's not his awareness, but what he's doing, that bothers me.

Of course, on the question of wealth, you never disappoint Americans by talking about how good it is, and for all his social consciousness, I don't hear anything coming from Rick Warren that sounds even vaguely like Dorothy Day or Gustavo Gutierrez. His compassionate Christianity seems to be pretty much limited to asking Dives to throw Lazarus a few slightly better scraps from the table. I should say I like Obama's answer much better, but I note the audience reaction doesn't say anything about Obama's response. Of course, if you can afford the price of admission, you're going to like McCain's answer a lot better.

Wasn't there another parable about a rich man and a camel and the eye of a needle?

Anyway, I've yet to hear of any questions about the candidates positions on charity or compassion; but apparently they were asked about evil:

“We are not, as individuals, going to be able to erase evil from the world,” [Obama] said. “That is God’s task. But we can be soldiers in that process and we can confront it.”

Mr. McCain dispensed with nuance: “Evil must be defeated,” he said, identifying Islamic extremism as one example.

“I have no doubt,” he said, leaning forward like a fighter. “None.”
Of course, I can understand why Warren would simply nod at that, rather than wonder about the speaker's sanity:

There is a difference between that and living under oppression, living with fear for your life. That's why whether or not they found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is beside the point. Saddam and his sons were raping the country, literally. And we morally had to do something. If you have a Judeo-Christian heritage, you have to believe it when God says that evil cannot be compromised with. It has to be resisted, it has to be overcome.
That's the kind of language that makes people wary about mixing religion in politics. Which is back to why this whole forum bothered me, in the first place: not because of the theology of Rick Warren, or the politics of John McCain or even Barack Obama; but because when you add to politics the absolutist stance sometimes encouraged by the religious (if we have to add a religious perspective, I'd prefer adding the humility and simplicity of the Desert Fathers), we end up with the Global War on Terror and a battle to defeat "evil."

Barack Obama, to his credit, focused on the parable of the sheep and the goats, from Matthew; and averred that it was God's job to eradicate evil, if it could be done, not ours. One might even point to a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, an American author who understood the nature of evil far better than John McCain or Rick Warren do. In his story "The Birthmark," a scientist obsesses over removing a blemish, a birthmark, from his wife's cheek. Sadly, when he finally succeeds, the cure kills her. It seems that stain of imperfection was a necessary part of her, as it were; and removing it removes her, as well. An object lesson from the author of The Scarlet Letter in the necessity of imperfection, and the evil that emanates from trying to force our vision of the good on the world. Certainly American efforts to eradicate evil, in our country if not in the world, have lead to still more evil being done than what we started with.

Funny neither Sen. McCain nor Pastor Warren were familiar with the concept. It's as Christian as the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount; or even the Lord's Prayer. Or another of those parables, about the splinter in your brother's eye, and the log in yours.

Inconvenient things, parables; must be why they don't come up more often.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Eve of Destruction


Well, actually, afternoon before the big meetup at Saddleback Church. But let me just say that, in this interview anyway, Rick Warren strikes me as, well, clueless. Or tone deaf to the insidious nature of irony:

RW: Right now civility is a losing battle. It's easy to demonize from a distance. When people sit behind a screen they lose all civility. The anonymity makes people more ad hominem. One of my three life goals is to help restore civility to civilization. I just think the Internet has made us ruder.
JG: Small goal.
RW: All three of my goals are impossible, but I'm trying. To restore civility, to restore responsibility to individuals, getting people to stop playing victim. And to restore credibility to churches, because in many ways they've been co-opted by politics.
And the best way to do achieve that last goal, of course, is to hold a public forum with the two presumptive Presidential candidates, in your church, where you, the pastor, get to moderate. Or is that just so meta-ironic it's no longer even irony anymore? I mean, it's kinda like how Jesus took over temple worship by chasing all the moneylenders out of the public area of the Temple, and got everybody to see things his way after that. Or how he deposed Pilate and made Rome give up claim to Palestine in order to teach people that giving Caesar what was Caesar's meant making Caesar give up something first.

Oh, wait, that's not what he did at all. And I'm a little fuzzy on "getting people to stop playing victim," unless he means what David Brooks said about China's Szechuan province and (implicitly) how Americans reacted to Katrina and Rita (hint: we're a nation of whiners). But let me go a little further, because this really bugs me:

RW: The answer is, we must do all we can. People say America is not the policeman of the world. We may not be, but the Bible says, if you have been blessed, then you are to care for people who can't care for themselves, you are to speak up for people who can't speak for themselves, and to defend the defenseless.
Actually, the Bible doesn't make helping others conditional. When Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew, he doesn't say that those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the prisoners, were well-off and doing charity work out of their abundance. He said they did it, period. He didn't say they could afford to; they just did. When the widow listened to Elijah and made a meal for him before serving herself and her son, it was clear there was no food left. Yet her faith and her hospitality to a stranger meant there was enough for all of them until the famine passed. The Bible is full of such stories. There is never any serious emphasis on giving from your abundance. In fact, that's what Walt Brueggeman would call the teaching of Solomon, not the theology of the God of Abraham. So we don't give because we have so much to share, or because we are so richly blessed by God (and implicitly deserving of such blessing). We take care of those with less than we have because we should. The law was the gleanings of the field were left for others who needed it; that the widow, the orphan, the slave, the alien, all powerless groups, were to be cared for, or there would be prosperity for none. When John the Baptist tells his audience in Luke to give up their second coat to the person with no coat, or give food to the person with no food, he is making exactly this point. It isn't your excess you share, it's whatever you have: period.

But, of course, that kind of preaching won't fill a mega-church. And I won't even touch on the idea that this nation had a moral imperative to invade Iraq.

There is a difference between that and living under oppression, living with fear for your life. That's why whether or not they found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is beside the point. Saddam and his sons were raping the country, literally. And we morally had to do something. If you have a Judeo-Christian heritage, you have to believe it when God says that evil cannot be compromised with. It has to be resisted, it has to be overcome.
Screw that "turn the other cheek" gab! We've got evil to overcome! This is the kind of moral/religious justification for war that Reinhold Niebuhr stood on its ear two generations ago, especially when he wrote about the "irony of American history" (and yes, there is that nagging question of just how we define "evil," especially considering the state of Iraq today. The good Rev. Warren let's that pass right by, and Mr. Goldberg helps him ignore it.) But that was many years ago; I doubt that anyone would know.....

It is always so much easier to judge, than to subject yourself to judgment. Which is what makes commentary like this so precarious. So let me clarify: I have no animus toward Rev. Warren. I don't think much of this forum tonight, as either a political or a theological exercise; and I disagree with his ideas, as far as I can ascertain them. But I'm enough in agreement with his interest in civility to say that I my only interest is to point out some alternative to what Rev. Warren presents, which I would call "the usual American theology." It's not that he's wrong, or "bad;" but there are alternatives, just as there are alternatives to McCain and Obama appearing in his church, answering his questions, tonight.

ADDING: Wow, Just wow. Tickets for the event tonight were $500 to $2000. And yes, even at a church with a facility as grand as Saddleback obviously has, it's hard to believe that money isn't paying the bills for use of the space, not just for "network feeds." Also, two questions come up:

1) Hospitality: " 'When you have the national stage, shouldn't you be open to everybody? A church that espouses its openness is now catering to the haves and have-nots.' " One can at least safely say that the first are still first, and the last are still last. Wonder what purpose that drives at the church?

2) Separation of church and state:

Some residents had concerns about the church taking money for a political event. One the church's Web site, Warren said he felt the event was not a violation of church and state.

"It has no government sponsorship," he said in a statement.
Well, most presidential campaigns don't. But Presidential campaigns are all about the government. Which is the problem with this forum in the first place.

Imagine what a mission-oriented church could do with proceeds from tickets selling for $500 to $2000. Never get their hands on that kind of money, is what they could do; because they aren't selling what the world is buying.

Obviously Rev. Warren is. Render unto Caesar, and all that. Sort of the reason Jesus never got involved in Roman politics.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Unfit for Command?



The situation in Georgia would be a comedy of errors if death and destruction weren't involved. Saakashvilli apparently thought US troops would fall out of the clouds from hovering secret and invisible bases and repel Russian tanks, rather than take weeks to arrive, set up, establish supply lines, and otherwise be ready to conduct a military operation.

You know, the way it works in the real world, rather than in the movies.

But before you look too harshly at the President of Georgia, consider the President of the United States:

President Bush Wednesday promised that U.S. naval forces would deliver humanitarian aid to war-torn Georgia before his administration had received approval from Turkey, which controls naval access to the Black Sea, or the Pentagon had planned a seaborne operation, U.S. officials said Thursday.

As of late Thursday, Ankara, a NATO ally, hadn't cleared any U.S. naval vessels to steam to Georgia through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, the narrow straits that connect the Mediterranean and the Black Seas, the officials said. Under the 1936 Montreaux Convention, countries must notify Turkey before sending warships through the straits.

Pentagon officials told McClatchy that they were increasingly dubious that any U.S. Navy vessels would join the aid operation, in large part because the U.S.-based hospital ships likely to go, the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy, would take weeks to arrive.

"The president was writing checks to the Georgians without knowing what he had in the bank," said a senior administration official.

"The president got out in front of the planning when he talked publicly about using naval forces," said a second senior administration official. "At that point we need to look at treaty obligations, our bilateral relations with the Turks and others, waterway restrictions and what kind of ships might be appropriate and usable — something like the Comfort or something already in the Med (Mediterranean)."
Yeah, it seems our ships can't magically appear just where we want them to, either. Apparently delivering humanitarian aid is just as much of a physical undertaking as delivering military power and personnel. And both involve the cooperation of other countries, which involves, well, diplomacy 'n' stuff:

"We think about Turkey when we realize we need them for something," said Mark Parris of The Brookings Institution, who served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey between 1997 and 2000. "This could very well be a case of that."

Bush on Wednesday said he was launching a "vigorous and ongoing" humanitarian mission in which U.S. military aircraft and ships would bring aid to beleaguered Georgia.

....

U.S. officials said the Turks hadn't cleared U.S. naval vessels to transit the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.

"The Turks haven't been helpful," said a State Department official. "They are being sluggish and unresponsive."
And, of course, there's a reason for that:

The Russian invasion of Georgia has almost certainly unnerved Turkey because it has huge energy and trade interests in adjacent Central Asia.

Turkey also may be reluctant to jeopardize the $24 billion in annual trade it does with Russia, which provides around 70 percent of its natural gas supplies. The Turkish Navy also shares the Black Sea with Russia's powerful Black Sea Fleet, which in part has prompted Ankara in recent years to restrict U.S. and NATO naval operations and exercises there.
Saakashvilli is more than a bit of a fool, apparently:

Bush's pledge to send aid-carrying naval ships prompted Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to proclaim that U.S. warships would break what he claimed — inaccurately — was a Russian naval blockade of Georgia's Black Sea coast, and that U.S. forces would take control of his country's ports. He seems to be in good company.
Lucky us.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Schrödinger’s Moral Dilemma



Interesting moral question raised by this movie, one I'm just starting to think about (and if you haven't seen it yet, and plan to, well, there are spoilers ahead. You have been warned.). It has to do with why, in the movie, Batman is now referred to as the "Dark Knight." And the question is this: are you morally culpable if society (or a community) thinks you are, even if you have not committed the culpable acts? To use an analogy, consider the criminal law.

We all know police turn away people who confess to a crime they didn't commit, and this is right: the innocent, especially the deluded, should not be punished for what they did not do. But at the end of the movie, this is exactly what Batman does: he takes responsibility for what he did not do, all to preserve the notion of a "shining knight," that knight being the District Attorney Harvey Dent, driven to homicidal rage and the need for vengeance after horrific injuries and losses (losses that don't affect Batman in the same way, which is not insignificant). Taking on the sins of others (shades of a Christ figure!), Batman becomes an outlaw in the old English sense of the word: one literally outside of the law, beyond its protections, exposed to calumny from all sides. And it is a role he takes on, not one he deserves.

So, is he morally culpable? One is tempted to say "No." But that is only because we have knowledge the community in the film does not. We know what Commissioner Gordon knows, what Batman knows. But morality, ethics, is a matter for the community, not the individual. The individual cannot declare himself above, or even absolved, by the community for what the community considers an immoral act. Even the Romantic hero who defies the gods (or the community, by violating its ethics for a 'higher purpose') has to take the punishment of the community for such hubris (whether it is truly hubris in the Aristotelian sense, or not). A community is the necessary element for an ethic, a morality (even though the two terms have different referents). Isolated on a desert island, one cannot commit an unethical act, because there is no custom of the community to violate. Perhaps one can commit an immoral act, if one believes in transcendent rules governing behavior, rules one adheres to as a representative of a group which is no longer with you, but whose strictures you still observe; or if one believes in a metaphysical being, a deity who offers or establishes the guidelines of a moral system.

Batman, of course, does not operate on a desert island. In the film he is guilty, but yet not absolutely guilty. He accepts responsibility for crimes he did not commit, and there is no evidence allowed to exonerate him. Isn't he, then, guilty? Yes. No. It's almost a Schrödinger’s cat state of culpability: we know he is not guilty, but we can't know it for sure until we open the box (release the evidence of the true murderer), and that Batman himself will not let us do. So he is guilty, even though he isn't.

And lest you think this theme of death and responsibility a minor one in the film, consider the situation of the prisoner's dilemma created when two ferries are loaded with people, one innocent civilians, the other other the worst convicts, and both set adrift in the river of the city by the Joker, who gives each boat a choice: push the detonator provided and destroy the other boat, or both boats will be destroyed at midnight. In the end, it is the largest, scariest, deepest voiced black convict who walks over to the guard who is refusing to take responsibility for saving his life by killing others, and says: "Give it to me, and I'll do what you should have done 10 minutes ago." He takes the detonator in his manacled hands, and tosses it overboard. A few tense minutes later, the civilians on the other boat also refuse to commit murder in order to save themselves. The weight of the community on them, the leaders in both boats refuse to act: instead, the people do, and the wisdom of Jeffersonian democracy is upheld. (Of course, it helps that Batman then stops the Joker from blowing up both boats, but that's to ensure their moral choice was not made in a wholly cruel and indifferent universe. This isn't a foreign film, after all!) The weight of the community on his shoulders, Batman acts, too. But is it a moral act? Is he justified in proposing what is essentially a lie: that the symbol of justice, Harvey Dent, who reached his personal breaking point and became a murderer in the name of vengeance, is actually an innocent wounded by evil (the Joker) and so dead as a martyr to justice?

Of course, Batman kills two birds with one stone by his decision. Imitators of his activities put themselves, as well as Batman, at risk by their mimicry, even as Batman's heroism inspires the evil of the Joker (it's a wonderfully tangled set of moral questions and problems posed in this film). Having become 'outlaw' by his own hand, he alone can open the box and determine whether or not the moral dilemma (the "cat") is true or false (i.e., dead or not dead). But by keeping a hand firmly on that box, and by being branded a murderer, he regains his power to intimidate (one he loses to the Joker's propensity for killing anyone at anytime, when the criminals of the city know Batman will never cross that line). He also becomes a figure, not to emulate, but to excoriate. So he is the defender of Gotham, the crime-fighter par excellence; and yet he is no shining knight. As Commissioner Gordon dubs him in the last lines of the movie, he is a "dark knight."

And is he moral? Or immoral? It is a question, true to Gödel’s insight, that can only be answered with access to information not available to the sphere in which it is asked. Yes, he is moral; but only if you have access to the information he won't let you have. So no, he isn't; because what the community knows is all the community can ever know. But he is also responsible: not responsible for, but responsible to; responsible to the community. And therein lies the problem:

The concept of responsibility is one of those strange concepts that give food for thought without giving themselves over to thematization.....This paradoxical concept also has the structure of a type of secret--what is called, in the code of certain religious pratices, mystery....The exercise of responsibility seems to leave no choice but this one, however uncomfortable it may be, of paradox, heresy, and secrecy. More serious still, it must always run the risk of conversion and apostasy; there is no responsibility without a dissident and inventive rupture with respect to tradition, authority, orthodoxy, rule, or doctrine.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, p. 27.

Batman is left with paradox (the "dark knight"), heresy (he is self-branded a murderer, in the course of upholding the laws which forbid murder), and secrecy (the secret he now keeps is the most important secret of all). And now he runs the risk of conversion (Is he not already a criminal in fact? will more copycats seek to follow this new imago? ) and apostasy (can he remain a crime-fighter? Will Gordon maintain his secret? Must he be even more alone now than before?). As Derrida says: "there is no responsibility without a dissident and inventive rupture with respect to tradition, authority, orthodoxy, rule, or doctrine." And that rupture is precisely a moral one, as Derrida and Kierkegaard pointed out in the context of the story of Abraham and Isaac.

This movie is not that story; but morally, it only not quite that story. Is Abraham morally culpable for planning, even attempting, to slay his son? The answer is yes; and no. Again, in the realm of what Johannes de Silentio calls the "ethical" (and there are reasons he doesn't call it the "moral"), the realm Isaac and Sarah and the world live in, Abraham is a murderer, especially in the famous formulation of the Gospels ("Those who leer at a woman and desire her have already committed adultery with her in their hearts."). But before God, in the "religious" sphere, or the realm of the eternal, Abraham is not only justified, but righteous. But he is always guilty in the ethical. There may be a teleological suspension of the ethical, but as Johannes de Silentio asks: "Everything depends upon how this man stands related to the utterance of the augurs which is in one way or another decisive for his life. Is this utterance publici juris, or is it privatissimum?" The entire resolution of the problem hangs on that question, and it is a resolution that is irresoluble:

On the other hand, in case the will of heaven had not been announced to him by an augur, in case it had come to his knowledge in an entirely private way, in case it had put itself into an entirely private relationship with him, then we encounter the paradox..., then he could not speak, however much he might wish to.
de Silentio is imagining the quandary of the Romantic hero, the individual struggling against both Fate and the community, and determined to remain true to himself above all. Caught in that struggle, de Silentio imagines a true Romantic victory, one that can never be shared, that can only be known individually, that can only be known to a community outside the community with which the individual struggles, if only so someone can then appreciate the exquisite anguish of this tragic hero, and so the situation is truly tragedy (which is, after all, a play) and not horror and despair. As de Silentio puts it at the beginning of his meditation:

If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all--what then would life be but despair?
That's precisely the moral battle of the movie: is there such an eternal consciousness (the "good" to which Batman wants to remain faithful), or is the foundation of all only a wildly seething power writhing with obscure passions (the Joker, an agent of chaos, a man with no identity, whose life story itself is a fiction he makes up for his own entertainment when torturing his next victim)? But is that "eternal consciousness" necessarily "God"? There's no hint of that in the movie (unlike in, say, Harry Potter), nor need there be. But if there is nothing transcendent, no symbol larger than the individual herself, then the Joker wins. That's the moral center of the story: the question of sacrifice, and to what the sacrifice is offered, and why. Batman becomes outlaw in order to save the city. He becomes guilty in order to bring hope. He becomes immoral, in the name of morality. And he is guilty; while at the same time, he is not. And he is a symbol for the people, at the same time they find they don't need symbols, in order to behave morally.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

I got your motive right here, Bub!



Via the Mad Priest, the FBI answers the cries for a motive in the anthrax mailings:

Bruce Ivins may have targeted Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy with anthrax-laced letters in 2001 because he saw them as bad Catholics owing to their votes in favor of abortion rights, officials close to the investigation say.
Oh, you want connections, too? We got those:

Ivins and his wife were both practicing Catholics, and their children had attended and graduated from a Catholic high school in Frederick, Md. His wife, Diane Ivins, according to an e-mail Ivins wrote in 2002, was president of the Frederick County Right to Life, and the couple had connections to many other anti-abortion groups. In a July 10, 2002, e-mail cited in the affidavit, Ivins wrote: "I'm not pro-abortion, I'm pro-life, but I want my position to be one consistent with a Christian."

In 2001, the Catholic anti-abortion movement was openly critical of Catholic members of Congress who voted in support of abortion rights for women. Two of the more prominent lawmakers who fell into this category were Daschle and Leahy. The Ivins affidavit mentions an article in the September/October 2001 issue of the Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati newsletter that singled out Daschle, Leahy and Sens. Edward Kennedy and Joseph Biden for criticism because of their abortion rights votes.

This would be the same NPR, by the way, who told us Ivins played the villain in a class play (via, of course, the FBI), which is as relevant to his guilt or innocence as his religious affiliation. And this is what the FBI is doing now, before they close this case:

Also on Thursday, the government explained why it had seized two computers from a Maryland public library last week. Officials believe Ivins used the computers three days before he committed suicide. On the evening of July 24, FBI agents watched Ivins go into the library and use the two computers. According to newly issued search warrants, Ivins reviewed a Web site dedicated to the anthrax investigation and checked his e-mail. The FBI quickly seized those computers, and now a judge has given investigators permission to search them. A special agent said the search could turn up a suicide note or other writings.
I await the contents of the suicide note written on a public library computer with bated breath.

Good grief.

UPDATE: Grandmere Mimi has more. This is, actually, how criminal investigations are conducted. Usually, however, our only contact with them is as the plot of a TV show. Like the lesson on poverty revealed by Katrina in New Orleans, this should be a lesson on "law and order." The kind of security we insist on having in our society has a price, and it is very high. But as long as the bill is paid by someone else, we don't much mind. "Innocent until proven guilty" is a legal concept, and it is applicable almost exclusively in a court of law. Unfortunately, the court of law is not the only place in which a criminal case exists.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Inshallah


The "worst of the worst," we were told, were being held in Gitmo. The first of those "worst" to be tried was not even convicted of carrying missiles around with him when he was captured. Instead, he was convicted of, basically, being Osama bin Laden's driver. And he was sentenced, effectively, to six more months in prison. But the most significant part was the statement of the judge at the sentencing hearing:

The judge — quite remarkably — said, 'I hope Mr. Hamdan you're soon able to join your family in Yemen.' And Mr. Hamdan said, 'inshallah' ['God willing'] and the judge answered him 'inshallah.' It was an amazingly emotional scene."
Mr. Hamdan is not a "terrorist" or a "murderer" or a "criminal." He is a human being, convicted of a crime for which he will serve a sentence established by law and a judicial proceeding. And the judge is not an avenging angel or even a "decider." He is a court official carrying out his appointed role; and he, too, is a human being. This, the world should take note, is how human beings treat each other, and seek to effect justice.

It was a dubious judicial proceeding, to be sure, but the outcome, as the BBC noted, "was far more lenient than anyone expected. Even civil and human rights observers said they were positively shocked." And what moved me is what moved John McChesney: Mr. Hamdan apologized for his crimes, and the judge wished him well and hoped he would rejoin his family some day, God willing.

But the judge pronounced as a Muslim blessing, in response to Mr. Hamdan. It was that small incident, after all the rest of this trial, that gave me hope once again in the people of this country, and their sense of justice and fairness. The BBC isn't sure the Bush Administration will bow to pressure to release Mr. Hamdan, but NPR is not so sure. Six months from now someone else will be President, and I have no doubt Barack Obama would release someone like Mr. Hamdan at that point. Certainly there will be more than a few people in positions of power and influence in the US government who will consider that the right outcome.

Inshallah.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The (anthra)X Files


The guilt or innocence of Bruce Ivins comes down to this:

Officially, the U.S. does not have or keep any weapons-grade anthrax. President Nixon ordered the dismantling of U.S. biowarfare programs in 1969 and the destruction of all existing bioweapons, including anthrax.
The anthrax used in the attacks in 2001 was weapons-grade. As the article points out, turning liquid anthrax (the kind Ivins worked with) into weapons grade anthrax is a complex process that it is almost inconceivable for one person to carry out, and certainly inconceivable that Ivins carried it out in a high-security facility.

But the fact that such anthrax does not officially exist, explains why no one has ever been charged with this crime, and why the FBI is now so anxious to pin it on a dead man.

And suddenly I wish Fox Mulder worked for the real FBI......

Oh, Dear, What Can the Matter Be?



The question is starting to bounce around the intertubes: why are some people so obsessed with end times and apocalyptic predictions? Atrios starts it off on the basis of speculation a few years ago that "intelligent machines" (by which, of course, we mean "rational" strictly in the Western European Enligthenment sense of that term. Other forms of "intelligence" and "rational" need not apply, for they will not be considered) would be the next step in human "evolution" (where evolution, of course, means "progress," which is merely Social Darwinism, not true biological evolutionary theory at all. But then, even the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is a Social Darwinist, at least in his critiques of religion, so maybe that distinction is merely pedantic.) Amanda asks, essentially: "My death; is it possible?" , and comes up more or less with an answer:

I think apocalypse scenarios capture the imagination because they’re a projection of our anxieties about mortality, but they also address our anxieties about not being very important in the scheme of things at all. Considering not just that you’re going to die, but that life will go on without you is humbling---which means, if you’re egotistical, humiliating. Think about it. After enough time passes, even the most famous people are forgotten, except for a few extremely unique ones like Julius Caesar, who probably didn’t even realize at the time that he was creating the sort of fame that outstripped other sorts of fame. How many of you can name all the kings of Europe throughout history? We can name all the Presidents, but that’s because our history is relatively short. Given enough time, you’ll be lucky to be a character in a history book that only a fraction of a percentage of the population will read. The fact is most of us won’t have even that. Your family will grieve you when you die, and their children will know about you, but odds are a few generations down the line, they won’t even remember your name. The impact we have in the world is limited to the length of our lives and a few years after that. Even your genetic heritage divides itself into meaninglessness in a few generations.

Apocalypse scenarios put that fear to rest, especially if the apocalypse comes in your lifetime.
Well, yeah, but the real question is: why is the scenario so pervasive? Why, in other words, is it so American?

Christianity, of course, is the answer. Christianity and Romanticism, which took up the elegiac theme from Anglo-Saxon literature and just ran away with it.

If you go back and read Beowulf, you'll find a few almost easily overlooked references to the "giants" who left only their artifacts behind. Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands, but even his sword is no match for the blood of Grendel's mother (which may be where Ridley Scott got the idea for the acidic blood of the "Alien"). The Anglo-Saxon hero has to wield one of the swords left by the giants (which only he is strong enough to do) in order to slay the monster. Who were these giants? The Romans. The mead hall of Heorot would have been a squatty, small, dark and rather flimsy affair, especially in contrast to the concrete structures the Romans left behind. Some of their aqueducts and buildings still stand. Where are the mead halls of Hrothgar? No wonder they considered the Romans "giants."

It is this sense of living among the ruins of a once great age, when "giants" walked the earth, that is the root of the elegiac in Anglo-Saxon literature. Life is nasty, brutish, and short in Anglo-Saxon poetry. "The Wife's Lament" focusses solely on her loss of her husband, and how she is now a stranger in a strange land, unable to return to her own people, rejected by her husband's people. "The Wanderer" looks back on his life as a loyal warrior to a now dead king, and all he can think of is what he has lost. Even the people Beowulf ruled, as they mourn him at the end of the poem, know their loss is not just of a noble king, but of the kingdom, too. As they mourn his passing, they know tomorrow they will lose all they have held, to a neighbouring king; the only question is, which one?

British literature is shot through with this elegiac theme. You can even find it running like a continuo through the revived "Dr. Who" series. Once a happy-go-lucky traveler in time and space, now the Doctor is haunted by the war that destroyed his people, and by all the "companions" he has had to leave behind. Every season, nearly every episode, turns on loss to one character or another, and always the losses the Doctor has known; losses that now include a family no one has ever seen or, before, heard of. It is the most British thing about the series: the sense of loss, the persistence of memory: the elegiac.

Romanticism (which began with Wordsworth and Coleridge) took that theme up with a passion, remembering the imagined glories of Greece, frolicking in temple ruins now covered with overgrowth, lamenting the loss of faith until Wordsworth would rather "be a pagan suckled on a creed outworn." And now, facing a modern world that more and more seems beyond our control, a world that daily offers us new promises it fails to deliver, that proffers a very un-Christian salvation in which the millenia will finally appear on earth with the newest car, the latest toothpaste, the most up-to-date laptop, we turn the elegiac into not only what has been lost, but what will be lost, so Paradise can be regained again.

Paradise lost is the modern American threnody. We came to this country to establish a more perfect union, because more truth and light was yet to break forth, because we sought reform and escape from the "Old World," and were determined to establish a new world on this continent, one we proclaimed with our very bourgeois, very market driven revolution. (The French, a decade later, would literally turn their society upside down, loot the national treasury, empty the churches of their valuables, seize land of monks and aristocrats alike, and descend into a Reign of Terror. America's revolution was much calmer and gentler, by contrast, but also less fundamental than was, or is, imagined.)

We came seeking paradise, and we are still determined to find it. If we can't find it, we will make it, either by pursuing evil, which we once called "Communism" and now label "terorrism;" or by building the better mousetrap, or simply through buying, finally, the perfect product which will raise us to the heights of glory we so richly deserve, be the product an idea, an "intelligent machine," or simply a community created and finally perfected, on the Internet.

And the flip side of paradise, of course, is the price. The price for paradise is, and always has been, apocalypse. During the Babylonian Exile, apocalypse was expressed in the Book of Daniel, with the handwriting on the wall and the three faithful in the fiery furnace. A tiny portion of the overall scriptures of the Hebrews, the fiery visionary of Daniel has always held an inordinate sway over the public imagination, much like the "whale" in the book of Jonah (itself a slight book with a very direct point that everyone overlooks, because it is so inconvenient. The point? You are not in charge; God is. Daniel teaches much the same lesson, but again....) There is one counterpart to Daniel: the Revelation to John. In the original Greek, it is actually the "apocalypse." "Apocalypse" doesn't mean "end" in Greek (that's "eschaton," end times). It means "revealing." But we've separated those two words, and given "apocalypse" another meaning entirely in English. So it goes.

On these two books have entire industries been created, industries which have merely flourished as modern industry has given us greater and greater god-like power (and as we have emphasized, more and more, that power as the true attributes of a "god." Read Greek literature, and look in vain for Zeus hurling thunderbolts whenever he appears, or Apollo blowing clouds around or changing people willy-nilly into animals, or otherwise performing miracles. "Magic," too, used to simply a form of wisdom; but now we insist it be an extension of will power. Harry Potter is not wise, he has supernatural "powers." Magic is power, just as industrialization gave us power over night, over distance, over the earth itself and the produce of the land.) Apocalyptic as we understand it today, especially in the dense fields of dispensationalism and the three branches of millenialism (pre-, post-, and amillenialism) all derive from the 19th century, the time of the rise of fundamentalism, itself a reaction to 19th century German Biblical scholarship which is still largely unknown outside of seminaries, despite the fact it changed humankind's view of the Bible forever. Or would have, had the fundamentalists not fought so vigorously against it.

So why are we so fascinated with end times and apocalypse? Largely because it puts us in control. Hal Lindsey wrote a book almost 40 years ago which asserted the Battle of Armageddon would most certainly be between America and the USSR. Oops. Now he says Barack Obama is almost certainly the anti-Christ. Uh-huh. Why is he saying these things? Well, probably because it means he is in control of the future, that scary time no one can see but that we all are racing to live in, because that's the time when finally everything will be better! And we think that because of Christianity? No; because of the Industrial Revolution, becuase of our indomitable faith in "progress," in our power and authority over the material world which will, finally, yield up the "intelligent machines" and the consumer products which will eliminate hunger and want and poverty and greed and usher us, finally, into the future envisioned by Star Trek, where magical devices produce meals and clothes and houses and all of the creature comforts, simply by transforming "energy" into "matter." And where does that energy come from, and how do we circumvent the law of conservation of matter? Easy! Technology! Progress! Science!

Uh-huh.

But until then, we have our quotidian lives to live, and they aren't always going so well. We find someone to blame for that: Congress, or liberals, or homosexuals, or terrorists; Muslims, bloggers either conservative or progressive; Republicans, Democrats. And when all of those fail to explain the cosmic despair that overwhelms us, or that just doesn't explain why I have not yet succeeded, or why my success has not made me permanently and unalterably happy, or why I still don't feel in control of my existence, rather than turn and to the hard work of self-realiztion, we turn to apocalypse. Now! When all things will, once and for all, come out just the way we want them to, and all problems will be solved, and we'll get to live the way we want to, forever.

Of course, chasing that car and catching that car, are two different things. But the Joker in "The Dark Knight" is almost the perfect exemplar of a modern American: we are offered almost nothing anymore except the chase; the chase, and the promise that tomorrow, our candidates will finally win, our policies will finally be enacted, our choices will finally effect the country as a whole, and then we can relax and enjoy the fruits of our labors. Until then, what hope do we have, except to expect the apocalypse (which will surely come if the Republicans/Democrats aren't defeated, once and for all!) and to imagine we alone will escape alive to tell thee. Or at least to enjoy the millenia of peace and prosperity that is sure to follow.

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Oh, just follow the link.

Actually, considering at least two of these items are blatantly "American" (I recognize the soap, and the PJ's could only be the product of an earnest American housewife), it's funny I know of no comparable column to this in major American papers, or any American counterpart to Ruth Gledhill. I think this is because the Constitution really is the formative document not only of our nation but of our public culture, and that "separation of church and state" thing, at least since the 14th Amendment, has become so strong that we can't imagine a major news outlet regularly reporting on religion.

Well, that and the constant and peculiar emphasis on religion as a "private" matter, to the point we drop the "Reverend" from Dr. Martin Luther King's titles, ignore the place of the African-American church in the Civil Rights movement, overlook the number of prominent American Catholics (Dorothy Day; Thomas Merton; the Berrigan Brothers) in the anti-war and social justice movements (we especially prefer to ignore liberation theology in the Americas). Religion is apparently so private we can't even talk about it in public, except to admire the success of a Joel Osteen or mock the visions of an Oral Roberts.

It's just a strange thing living in "the most religious country on earth," as this place is often called. We can't talk about religion publicly; we can't recognize religion as a major force in human existence; if we study the Bible, it must only be as literature, and yet to do that is insulting to believers (somehow). (On the other hand, how do you understand "Call me Ishmael," if you don't know who Ishmael is? We have plenty of people reacting to caricatures of Christianity, today. How do we educate our children so they are not so ignorant about religion, a topic surely as important to understanding their place in the world as physics, calculus, and biology are?) Why is it we have no regular coverage of religion in America, no constant series of reports on what the Catholic church or the Anglican Communion of the Southern Baptist Convention is up to? Is it because we don't have a state church? Or is it because any reporting on religion is a prior non-inclusive? Or is it just that we have to insist religion is a private matter, lest the wall of separation come tumbling down?

Sorry, religious metaphor; I'll have to work on that.....

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Rorschach Tests

I may just quit writing for awhile, and instead merely post Kierkegaardian parables, throw them out like inkblots, and let the interpretations be your own. That, after all, is what Kierkegaard would want.

Consider this one, for example. The only guidance I would offer is to point out that "the literary world" of Kierkegaard's day, would be the MSM of our own.

If I tried to imagine the public as a particular person...I should perhaps think of one of the Roman emperors, a large, well-fed figure, suffering from boredom, looking only for the sensual intoxication of laughter, since the divine gift of wit is not earthly enough. And so for a change he wanders about, indolent rather than bad, but with a negative desire to dominate. Every one who has read the classical authors knows how many things a Caesar could try out in order to kill time. In the same way the public keeps a dog to amust it. That dog is the sum of the literary world. If there is someone superior to the redst, perhaps even a great man, the dog is set on him and the fun begins. The dog goes for him, snapping and tearing at his coattails, allowing itself every possible ill-mannered familiarity--until the public tires, and says it must stop. That is an example of how the public levels. Their betters and superiors in strength are mishandled--and the dog remains a dog which even the public despises. The levelling is therefore done by a third party; a non-existent public levelling with the help of a third party which in its insignificance is less than nothing, being alread more than levelled.... The public is unrepentant, for it is not they who own the dog--they only subscribe. They neither set the dog on any one, nor whistle it off--directly. If asked they would answer: the dog is not mine, it has no master. And if the dog had to be killed they would say: it was really a good thing that bad-tempered dog was put down, every one wanted it killed--even the subscribers.
And simply picking up on, not the conclusion, but the beginning of that parable (no other connection is necessary, except perhaps Kathleen Norris' study of acedia), one more parable:

The gods were bored, and so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone, and so Eve was created. [From that moment on] boredom entered the world, and increased in proportion to the increase in population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille; then the population of the world increased, and the peoples were bored en masse. To divert themselves they conceived the idea of constructing a tower high enough to reach the heavens. This idea is itself as boring as the tower was high, and consitutes a terrible proof of how boredom gained the upper hand.... I desire no disciples; but if there happened to be someone present at my deathbed, and I was sure that the end had come, then I might in an attack of philanthropic delirium, whisper my theory in his ear, uncertain whether I had done him a service or not.