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

Friday, June 28, 2013

The eyes of Texas


Perry spoke about Wendy Davis and abortion in Dallas.  His office gave this statement to the New York Daily News:

Perry’s office defended his statement, saying Friday that he was “praising Sen. Davis for her success despite coming from difficult circumstances.”

Two things:  it is not insignificant this statement was made to a New York newspaper, and not one in Texas.  It is also not insignificant that this statement came from the Governor's office, and not the Governor.

And frankly, just the fact that newspapers in New York that aren't the New York Times are paying attention to what our Governor says, is something new.

The whole world is watching.  The rock that has rested over Texas politics, the rock even Rick Perry's futile and foolish run for the GOP nomination for President, couldn't remove, may have finally been shifted.


This may get very interesting....*

*If you're curious to see what happened, this is an excellent six minute video summary.

 And yes, the difference between the Governor and his office is very real. The boy don't know when to shut up.

I'm gonna start some popcorn....

Between you and me....


I'm not a big fan of C.S. Lewis, actually.   I think Tolkien spun a better yarn, and Lewis' ideas of how to reconcile Christian belief (i.e., tenets of doctrine) with modern rational thought have always left me a bit cold (and always seemed a bit oversimplified.  I prefer Kierkegaard's approach to Lewis' apologetics, especially as represented in The Screwtape Letters.  Lewis is the modern proponent of "The best trick the devil ever pulled was making people believe he didn't exist," and it's such an annoyingly childish bit of sophistry I'm not sure I can forgive him for it.)  So I don't really care about his relationship to American evangelicals; still, this column raised some interesting points, like this one:

“No culture,” observes the child psychologist Suzanne Gaskins, “comes close to the level of resources for play provided by middle-class Euro-American parents.” In many traditional societies, children play by imitating adults. They pretend to cook, marry, plant, fish, hunt.

“Inventive pretend,” in which children pretend the fantastic or impossible (enchanted princesses, dragon hunters) “is rarely — if ever — observed in non-industrialized or traditional cultures,” Gaskins says. That may be because inventive play often requires adult involvement. Observing the lack of fantasy play among the Manus children in New Guinea, Margaret Mead noted that “the great majority of children will not even imagine bears under the bed unless the adult provides the bear.”

Westerners, by contrast, not only tolerate fantasy play but actively encourage it, for adults as well as for children. We are novel readers, movie watchers and game players. We have made J. K. Rowling very wealthy.

This suggests that we imagine a complex reality in which things might be true — materially, spiritually, psychologically. Science leads us to draw a sharp line between what is real and what is unreal. At the same time, we live in an age in which we are exquisitely aware that there are many theories, both religious and scientific, to explain the world, and many ways to be human.
This is the most interesting part of the column, yet  it doesn't really seem to be engaged in the comments, which turn on the value, or lack thereof, of Lewis' work.  True, there's the usual sloppy assertion that science determines reality (is my love for my child, then, unreal?  My love for my friends?  For my God?  All unreal.  In the words of Bill O'Reilly (correct, this time), "Science can't explain it!"  Oh, it can; but only through a reductio ad absurdum that's hard to take seriously, or even to call "scientific."), but leave that aside and there are some very interesting observations about what creatures of culture we actually are.  And how much we owe "fantasy" not to the failure to mature as social beings (i.e., as societies), but to the very fact that, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment (of which the former is a product), we now actively engage in fantasy precisely because we extirpated it, root and branch, by destroying "traditional cultures" with abandon starting some 200 years ago.

There is no serious question that the preservation of "fairy tales" and traditional blessings, charms, and prayers, began in the 19th century because people saw such things were disappearing.  But the societies that created those prayers and tales didn't survive; only the artifacts did.  This lead to two very curious conclusions:  one, that "traditional societies" were shot through with superstitions we had now "outgrown," and two, that from our "superior" position as gatherers and preservers, we could keep the facts of these societies alive, or at least in memory.  But in taking them out of context, we, of course, altered them.*  In trying to preserve the fantasy element we thought was part and parcel of human existence before the Romantic period, we created fantasy as an element all its own.  There is a reason Beowulf is matter of fact about the existence of Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a greedy dragon, and a reason Dunsany's tales of fantasy are verbose, bombastic, and frankly tedious.  Dunsany assumes the world he creates for fantasy must be invented out of whole cloth, and he does it out of the material of the 19th century, not the 9th.  Yeats does the same thing, trying to preserve Irish legend in his poetry.  The Brothers Grimm were actually authors, not the careful scholars that Alexander Campbell was; they cobbled their stories together and re-wrote them to suit contemporary tastes.  And the more we engage in fantasy now, the more we are engaging in what is essentially an existential practice:  trying to state what we think it is to be human.

Which is not to say I hate fantasy; I love it.  Bradbury's stories of dangerous mushrooms in the basement (which may eat you, rather than you eating them); of men in cocoons who emerge with wings and the power of flight; of dead bodies rising out of the ground hating because the world has become so antiseptic, so uninterested in death; that kind of thing is still me bread and butter.  I rise not to bury fantasy, but to praise it.  It's just interesting that the upshot of the Enlightenment was not only the Industrial Revolution and the Romantic movement, but the desire for, which has become the need for, fantasy.

I've thought before that there's really nothing remotely similar to the magic in Harry Potter and the magic in pre-19th century tales.  Gandalf (whom Tolkien tried to keep to the traditional version of wizard) is a very poor hand at wizardry compared to Dumbledore, yet Dumbledore exemplifies magic as the purest expression of the Schopenhaurian will.  Post-industrial technology has taught us that it is merely an extension of our will, however imperfect it may be, and if we train ourselves to conform to it (i.e., "use" it), it will respond as an extension of our self.  Even as I type this I am not thinking in terms of each letter I must strike with which finger, but I have become so competent at the task I can type almost without thinking about the particular words I need to spell.  The advantage to a computer that would take my dictation, and a computer with a keyboard, is a slight one at this juncture.  I would certainly spend more time thinking about where my sentences end, how they end (question mark?  Exclamation point!), and where the paragraphs should be, if I were dictating (yes, Virginia, there was a time when I wrote by dictation).  So actually typing is a better expression of my will than speaking; at least when it comes to writing (I'm not sure I want to think about how to construct the compound sentences I love while thinking about what punctuation to indicate, and where, verbally).

We are, I think it is safe to say, besotted with fantasy.  Why else is everyone and his maiden aunt obsessed with "Game of Thrones," a story that resembles reality (or even the medieval literature of Chaucer, Malory, and Langland) even less than "Cinderella" does?  Science fiction movies are no less fantastic than the satirical traveler's tales of the Roman Empire; but are far more a part of our culture.

I have to come back to the "suggestion" that we "imagine" a complex reality, and the implication that science, of course, renders reality very neatly into what is, and what is not, real.  The argument about the definition of reality is a chimerical one, suited only to college students in dorm rooms late at night after too many refreshments inhaled or imbibed.  The issue here is not "what is real?" but "what is not real."  Human existence is not bounded by material things alone.  If that was all there was to life, there would be no spiritual or religious or even interpersonal yearnings, and we could have easily reduced society to the one Huxley imagined in Brave New World.   I don't doubt for a moment that if existence were as simple as fiction imagines it that we would have created Huxley's dystopia by now, if only because it is so simply and logically predictable.  We haven't, of course, and we won't, only because existence is not that simple.  "Life is messy," as my Pastoral Care professor loved to say; and it is.  It is that very "messiness" that makes life irreducibly complex.  Science no more simplifies that complexity than religion does.  But I'm not sure science tries to, anymore than religion does.  Proponents of a simplistic world view do, of course; and that Venn diagram would show a significant overlap between scientific atheists and fundamentalists religious believers.

Still the question arises:  did we destroy fantasy, or did we create it?  There is nothing comparable to the tales of Dunsany or Eddison or even Tolkien, prior to the 20th century.  Did we take this from traditional societies?  Or, as we cut children off from the human world (read the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience), did we decide to reclaim childhood by inventing it?  John Mortimer noted in his Rumpole stories that the very idea of a "teenager" was invented in the mid-20th century.  We have, in just the last 100 years, invented whole categories of human experience that we think are immutable and timeless, at the same time we denigrate Judaeo-Christian practices and beliefs as being rooted in a Bronze Age culture.  What this brings us to is the question of boundaries:  of where we draw the line between fantasy and reality, between worthwhile and worthless, between reality and non-reality.  The boundaries, in other words, that establish our identity:  the line between us and not-us.  With this quasi yin-yang appreciation of fantasy literature in mind, I will try to take up that larger question.  It's really the question of boundaries that fascinates me.

*The deep irony here is that painters like Picasso engaged the art of non-European cultures and incorporated it into their work, much like composers like Beethoven took in Turkish music to enrich European music of the 19th century.  The masks Picasso and the Dadaists and Surrealists saw were artifacts in Europe.  The artists understood this, but they still treated these artifacts as something of value.  Most writers (Dunsany foremost among them, and later critics who relegated "fantasy" to adolescents and small children) actually disdained the forms they took from traditional societies, and used it to establish (at first) the superiority of European post-industrial culture.  It was only later used, and here I'm thinking especially of Bradbury, to humanize that culture.  Fantasy was, when it began, merely a form of entertainment, and an almost illegitimate one at that (due, in no small part, to it arising during the rise and dominance of the literary school of Realism).

Ye shall know the truth, and the truth will not stop you from wondering what's for dinner....


I'm not even as impressed with this argument as Charlie Pierce is, mostly because it's only vaguely a legal argument, and largely because it wants to declare legal and illegal what the authors don't like; which is just like saying Obamacare is unconstitutional despite the Supreme Court.  Not an impressive position, in other words.

But it gives me an excuse to raise the Snowden issue again, mostly because of this one sentence:

Lulled, perhaps, by the Obama administration’s claims that these “modest encroachments on privacy” were approved by Congress and by federal judges, public opinion quickly migrated from shock to “meh.” 
I appreciate the need to base your argument on shock and awe, but it generally doesn't work any better as a polemical strategy than it does as a military strategy.  Indeed, it's kind of like opening your argument to the jury with a joke; if it doesn't work, you're pushing uphill the rest of the way.

And the shock and awe of the NSA didn't work.

When revelations came out about Total Information Awareness, the program wasn't shuttered, those responsible buried beneath the prison, and the computers burned, the buildings razed, and the grown sown with salt so never again would this horror be unleashed on decent American citizens.  Congress just made it all legal.  So, frankly, I'm not sure the public was ever shocked.

And now we find out the real problem is with making all information "digital" in the first place:

The fact that Snowden has made digital copies of the documents he accessed while working at the NSA poses a new challenge to the U.S. intelligence community that has scrambled in recent days to recover them and assess the full damage of the breach. Even if U.S. authorities catch up with Snowden and the four classified laptops the Guardian reported he brought with him to Hong Kong the secrets Snowden hopes to expose will still likely be published.

A former U.S. counterintelligence officer following the Snowden saga closely said his contacts inside the U.S. intelligence community “think Snowden has been planning this for years and has stashed files all over the Internet.” This source added, “At this point there is very little anyone can do about this.”
You simply cannot keep it from getting out, or even reproducing.

And this is the other reason why the public is not shocked:  Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden because both of them seem to think they're living out the plot of a cheap '60's spy movie:

 Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who Snowden first contacted in February, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that Snowden “has taken extreme precautions to make sure many different people around the world have these archives to insure the stories will inevitably be published.” Greenwald added that the people in possession of these files “cannot access them yet because they are highly encrypted and they do not have the passwords.”* But, Greenwald said, “if anything happens at all to Edward Snowden, he told me he has arranged for them to get access to the full archives.”
....
The arrangement to entrust encrypted archives of his files with others also sheds light on a cryptic statement Snowden made on June 17 during a live chat with The Guardian. In the online session he said, “All I can say right now is the U.S. government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me. Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped.”

Part of this brings us back to problem no. 1:  digital information is practically fecund.  You may get the original document and all the copies, or the negative of the photograph.  But the "original" of a digital document doesn't mean a damned thing.  Nor does spreading it around the world seem to mean much, either.

Snowden isn't making himself more secure with this kind of adolescent paranoia.  He's just making himself more and more the topic of discussion.  I've no doubt the government is quite sure what Snowden took, and the impact of it so far has really not rocked the foundations of Western Democracy; nor is it likely to.  This cloak and dagger talk is getting embarrassing.  But the two principals here just keep encouraging that:

“When I was in Hong Kong, I spoke to my partner in Rio via Skype and told him I would send an electronic encrypted copy of the documents,” Greenwald said. “I did not end up doing it. Two days later his laptop was stolen from our house and nothing else was taken. Nothing like that has happened before. I am not saying it’s connected to this, but obviously the possibility exists.”


When asked if Greenwald believed his computer was being monitored by the U.S. government. “I would be shocked if the U.S. government were not trying to access the information on my computer. I carry my computers and data with me everywhere I go.”
That man is so brave!

No, seriously.


*and yet "Snowden was able to access files inside the NSA by fabricating digital keys that gave him access to areas he was not allowed to visit as a low-level contractor and systems administrator."  So I'm sure those passwords are impenetrabobble, as Albert Alligator would say.

I think Snowden's done cotched his head in a grackle's nest.  Might be just the disguise he needs right now....

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Oops


The odd thing is, I actually agree with Perry:


In fact, even the woman who filibustered the Senate the other day was born into difficult circumstances. She was the daughter of as single woman, she was a teenage mother herself. She managed to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and serve in the Texas senate. It is just unfortunate that she hasn't learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.
I just don't think these statements lead to his conclusion.

I agree that life must be given a chance to realize its full potential, and that every life matters.  But when that creates a crossroads between two lives, where one must be literally enslaved to the other (the fetus cannot live without the woman, but the woman can live without the fetus), who determines the resolution?  The state?

No.

So which life matters more, is the issue.  And that question is an entirely moral one.  It is not a question of law, it is a question of choice.  It is a determination made by the pregnant woman, and no one else.  How can she choose the way I think best, when the outcome of the decision does not affect me?  Why does the state get to weigh in, outside the standards set by Roe and Casey?  The standards of Roe and Casey are legal standards, and the state is a creature of laws.  The morality of the question, the rightness of her decision, is not a legal question. It is not a legal question within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, anyway.

So Perry is right; every life matters. But Perry is wrong; especially since he clearly thinks rich lives matter much more than poor ones.  And what really matters to him are his political ambitions:

This is not about money — if it were, Texas would be taking it. This is about Obamacare. It's widely believed in Austin that Perry is seriously considering another run for president — this time without the "oops."  His base is Tea Party Republicans across the country. While it might cost $100 billion for the privilege, Perry is going to be able to stand in front of them and say, "I said no to Obama when he tried to bribe my state with health care coverage for the poor."
A "privilege," we should note, that's not costing him a thin dime. And in the world of outrages, this is the real outrage; what he said about Sen. Davis is just proof the man can't stand to reason to save his life. His venality, his selfish arrogance, is what truly "tarnishes the high office he holds."

Texas, Our Texas

There has been a Texas sized hole in American politics since LBJ left office.  I sense that may be changing.

That's the Lite Guv reacting to a Capitol building that looked like this:

 To give you some idea of scale, the Texas Capitol is the largest state capitol in the country; it is second in size only to the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. That interior space is enormous; I'm still trying to imagine it filled with people, even as I look at the picture.  The Capitol sits on 51 acres, with the building proper a full city block removed from 11th street, which fronts it.

Reports that lines stretched down to 11th Street from the Capitol the night of the filibuster mean it stretched a full block away from the entrance.  And this crowd was not from across the country; it was from across the state, although the whole world was watching.

The night of the filibuster, Dewhurst tried to claim the vote occurred in a timely manner, despite the fact the computer timestamped the vote as occurring on Wednesday, after the session had expired (one Senator shouted from the floor that he had a "Constitutional point of order!" regarding that vote).  3 hours later Dewhurst finally had to concede he'd lost, but he did it be covering up the fact the computer record had been altered (a felony, actually).  He said the vote was timely, but  he didn't have time to sign it before the Senate, so based on that arcana he ducked the issue.

The whole world was watching.

And finally the world is noticing that Texas is the 2nd most populous state in the nation, and what happens here affects a lot of people who don't live in California or on the East Coast.  But more importantly, people in Texas are getting agitated.  That crowd in Austin wasn't celebrities who flew in just to wear orange t-shirts and not get on TeeVee.  It was Texans who, as Cecile Richards said, were finally fed up.

Now, will this be Wisconsin and the recall effort that wasn't?  I don't think so.  One thing about special sessions:  legislators don't like 'em.  Texas is cheap, and legislators don't get paid enough to take six months off work to come to Austin; but they agree to, every two years.  Special sessions extend that visit, and the first one might be free, but the second one costs.  A third one?  You may have a mutiny on your hands.  There are also, as the Senate filibuster rules show, lots of ways to gum up legislative proceedings, and the Lege has three items on its agenda for this session.  One is the hot button of abortion, which has already failed twice (once in regular session, and then in the special); the other two involve matters of substantive law (transportation and criminal law).

 Everything starts over in a special session; they don't get to pick up where they left off.  If the House and Senate don't get the transportation issue, especially, handled soonest, they'll never get to it, and they'll have to come back a third time.  More than a few in the Lege won't appreciate that, and Dewhurst is already taking a lot of heat for screwing up the last session.  So don't expect abortion to be front and center, especially when roads in Texas are on the line.

By the way, the first session was taken up first with passing redistricting maps which were already in existence, and which the GOP easily rammed through.  Still, that took up most of the session, and then the legislating work to ban abortion had to begin, along with the criminal law changes and the transportation funding.  So those who say this is a "done deal" in Texas, are wrong.

And there's always the option Texas championed in the '70's, and revived again in this century:  the walkout to deny the House a quorum.  Despite Tom DeLay's attempts to nationalize that issue the last time Texas redrew its districts, the Dems stopped that the first time around.  If they can (or have to) use that to stop this anti-abortion bill a second time, don't expect Perry to call a third session just for this.

He may not get a quorum of Republicans to come back to Austin for yet another 30 days.

Dewhurst's appeal to the Gadsden flag crowd and to nativist Texan xenophobia may be a useful fundraising tactic, but Dems are organizing, too.  Battleground Texas is already reaching out to Texans to get Dems energized and organized; it's the first real effort I've been aware of since Anne Richards lost to George W. Bush. That "angry mob" language might work in a few quarters, but rather like the slow acceptance of gays and lesbians, people across Texas are going to recognize that they know the people in that crowd, or know somebody like them, and the image won't stick long.  Will this be a turning point?  What have I got, a crystal ball?

It will, at least, get interesting.  And if the nation starts paying attention to Texas, it might even crack the rock this state has been living under since people got bored with the image of the cowboy-hatted Texas oilman flying his private plane downtown for lunch with the longhorn horns on its engine cowling, and every yard dotted with an oil derrick.  Maybe if we finally start getting some attention down here, people will stop thinking Texas is Austin and the rest a god forsaken wasteland, and politicians will find others are paying attention to what they're doing.

Couldn't hurt....

Adding:  Because it meets so briefly and infrequently, more than most legislative bodies the Texas Legislature functions on some respect for the rules and each other (there was a long discourse on this by Sen. Whitmire , the "Dean" of the Texas Senate, during the filibuster).  There is evidence that has been lost, sacrificed to the political ambitions of the Man Who Would Be Rick Perry (the Lite Guv.).  If the Lege is going to start three bills from scratch and pass them in 30 days, they need some comity to do that with.  Sen. Davis has already indicated there should be an investigation into the matter of the altered timestamp.  She may not get it, but this last session may have left a bad taste in everyone's mouth, and forcing a do-over may be the worst political mistake Messrs. Perry and Dewhurst have made.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

It's not even past.


I like Chris Hayes, but honestly, he's a naif.  The VRA is all but dead, and hell will follow after it.

As John Lewis pointed out to Rachel Maddow last night, just after the Civil War blacks had the vote, and even elected black public officials in the Reconstructionist South.  But not for long:

Between 1890 and 1910, ten of the eleven former Confederate states, starting with Mississippi, passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disfranchised most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites through a combination of poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residency and record-keeping requirements.  Grandfather clauses temporarily permitted some illiterate whites to vote but using the same law prevented most blacks from voting.

 According to John Roberts the Voting Rights Act changed all of that, so we can discard it, now.  Of course, Texas moved immediately to instate its Voter ID law.  The Texas Department of Public Safety, charged under the law with issuing voter id cards to those without driver's licenses or concealed handgun permits (no, seriously) announced no one will be able to vote without proper ID.  A law the state's own evidence found would impact Hispanic voters more than any other group, and which the courts found would impose "strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor."  I guess since "poor" can include white people, it's okay.  But it's not a literacy test, so what's the problem, right?

The Texas AG also said Texas redistricting will simply go ahead according to the plan the Federal courts said violated the VRA just a few months ago.  Problem with that is, the Lege already passed new redistricting maps in the special session.  Unless Perry vetoes them, they will take effect as if the VRA was still in effect.

If Perry does veto them, even current superstar Wendy Davis could  see her seat in the Texas Legislature disappear. But will he?  That's where things get interesting.  The VRA is not entirely dead, you see.  The discrimination of the new maps could still be challenged without Sec. 4, and that means redistricting in Texas is not as clear-cut now as Gen. Abbott thinks it is.

And no, Texas is hardly alone in these efforts.

Yup; everything's all better, now.

As Justice Ginsberg pointed out in dissent yesterday:

The stated purpose of the Civil War Amendments was to arm Congress with the power and authority to protect all persons within the Nation from violations of their rights by the States. In exercising that power, then, Congress may use “all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted” to the constitutional ends declared by these Amendments. McCulloch, 4 Wheat., at 421. So when Congress acts to enforce the right to vote free from racial discrimination, we ask not whether Congress has chosen the means most wise, but whether Congress has rationally selected means appropriate to a legitimate end. “It is not for us to review the congressional resolution of [the need for its chosen remedy]. It is enough that we beable to perceive a basis upon which the Congress might resolve the conflict as it did.” Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U. S. 641, 653 (1966).

The 15th Amendment, by the way, which the Voting Rights Act implements, was ratified in 1870.  95 years later, it finally got the enabling legislation it calls for.

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
"Abridged" now means by poll tax or literacy test; any other impediments to voting are not what was contemplated by the Amendment.  Or something.

What happens now?  I don't know.  The basis of the ruling yesterday was states rights.  Do I exaggerate?  Well, consider the official summary of the opinion:

 (1)  State legislation may not contravene federal law. States retain broad autonomy, however, in structuring their governments and pursuing legislative objectives. Indeed, the Tenth Amendment reserves to the States all powers not specifically granted to the Federal Government, including “the power to regulate elections.” Gregory v. Ashcroft, 501 U. S. 452, 461–462. There is also a “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” among the States, which is highly pertinent in assessing disparate treatment of States. Northwest Austin, supra, at 203.

The Voting Rights Act sharply departs from these basic principles.
This puts Justice Ginsburg's comments about the Civil War in their proper context.  And it makes the decision yesterday the new Plessy v. Ferguson.  I do not say that lightly.  Consider one example:  this is the infamous statement from Plessy:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.

This is the slightly more anodyne comment from the Court yesterday:

But a more fundamental problem remains: Congress did not usethat record to fashion a coverage formula grounded in current conditions. It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day.

"Present day" is a bit vague there, but if we can allow it to include the present century, only 13 years old at this point, then "present day" includes 74 DOJ actions to enforce Section 5 of the VRA in the "present day."

Yup.  Everything is different now; and blacks really can't complain about any "badge of inferiority."  We've fixed all that, and we don't need to fix it anymore.

While blacks are now elected to public office in southern states, and trees no longer sprout "strange fruit" as they did within my lifetime, and we may no longer sing "Mississippi Goddamn!," old times there are still not forgotten.

And how rapidly they return is now an open question.

The Eyes of the World Were Upon Them....

I was up at midnight watching this on-line.  I had a hard time finding out in real time just what was going on (turns out the filibuster effectively ended at around 10, but Democrats in the Senate were able to tie up proceedings until nearly midnight, when the crowd in the gallery took over).  I had an even harder time finding out what had just happened.  There was a vote called, but the crowd was so noisy the Lt. Gov. ("Lite Guv," we say down here, thanks to the late Ms. Ivins) seemed to suspend the vote.  Before he could announce a result there were cries from the floor of "It's midnight!  It's midnight!", and a lot of milling about by Senators who didn't seem to know if they should stay or go.

The scene itself was impressive.  The Capitol in Austin sits on 15th street.  The line at 11:30 last night of those wanting to get into the Senate Chamber reportedly stretched all the way down to 11th street.  Wendy Davis reportedly went international.  The whole world, quite literally, was watching; and this morning, I think that's why David Dewhurst threw in the towel at 3 a.m.  He knew he'd never get away with it.

Not that he didn't try:

 “With all the ruckus and noise going on,” Mr. Dewhurst said, he could not complete administrative duties to make the vote official and sign the bill. Senate Democrats and women’s right’s advocates said the real reason the vote could not be made official was a time stamp on official documents that showed the bill passed after midnight. The Legislature’s official Web site first posted that the Senate’s vote occurred on Wednesday, after the midnight deadline, but the date was later changed to Tuesday for unknown reasons.
The reasons, actually, are not unknown; whodunnit is more the question.  But it didn't work; Dewhurst knew he couldn't get away with fudging computer records and turning the Senate chamber into a time machine, so he folded.  It was also just perfectly plain, as of 1:15 this morning,  that the records had been altered.  Hard copies are hard to argue with.

It also appears the arcane Texas Constitution once again reared it's beleaguered head and made a difference here:

Republican senators made a last-ditch effort to approve SB 5, voting 19-10, but by then the clock had ticked past midnight. Under the terms of the state Constitution, the special session had ended, and the bill could not be signed, enrolled or sent to the governor.
So shenanigans and ill intent were defeated, for once.  Shenanigans because it was obvious to anyone watching last night that the rules of the Texas Senate which control filibusters were wielded, albeit in gentlemanly fashion (there was a fascinating debate around 7 p.m. about civility on the Senate floor. I caught that live.), the rules are what the majority says they are.  The 7 p.m. debate was on a point of order about whether another Senator helping Sen. Davis strap on a back brace had violated the filibuster rules.  The factual issue was less important than the excuse to vote on a point of order, which went along party lines.  The final point of order, that Sen. Davis had strayed from a discussion of matters germane to the bill under consideration, is what brought the filibuster to an end.  That vote, too, was a foregone conclusion.  Nobody watching could doubt the Republicans were looking for any excuse that would legitimate ending the filibuster, although they weren't so ham-handed as to do it on the slimmest pretext possible.

The whole world was watching, after all.  That "unruly mob" in the gallery, as the Lite Guv. would later call them, clearly had some impact.

 And even Rachel Maddow finally recognized that Texas is the 2nd most populous state in the country, and what happens here actually does affect a whole lot of people.

Maybe that kind of attention will help us out.  Even if none of this might have happened without the Voting Rights Act. But let's leave the last word to the Lite Guv.:

“An unruly mob using Occupy Wall Street tactics” derailed legislation that was intended to protect women and babies, he told reporters.

"I didn't lose control of what we were doing," he said. "We had an unruly mob."
Or maybe it was just an unruly bill.  Democracy sux, don't it?


Monday, June 24, 2013

Drip...drip...drip...

This sounds just as bad as Charlie Pierce makes it sound:

You want "Nixonian"? This, right here, this is Nixonian, if Nixon had grown up in East Germany. You've got the entire federal bureaucracy looking for signs of "high-risk persons or behaviors" the way Nixon sent Fred Malek out to count the Jews. You've got created within the entire federal bureaucracy a culture of spies and informers, which will inevitably breed fear and deceit and countless acts of interoffice treachery. (Don't like your boss at the Bureau Of Land Management? Hmm, he looks like a high-risk person. Tell someone.)
Until you find out this started, not with Nixonian paranoia, but with, well, leaks.  Leaks, and violence:
Obama launched the Insider Threat Program in October 2011 after Army Pfc. Bradley Manning downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from a classified computer network and sent them to WikiLeaks, the anti-government secrecy group. It also followed the 2009 killing of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, an attack that federal authorities failed to prevent even though they were monitoring his emails to an al Qaida-linked Islamic cleric.

An internal review launched after Manning’s leaks found “wide disparities” in the abilities of U.S. intelligence agencies to detect security risks and determined that all needed improved defenses.
Which, as the saying goes, is a whole other kettle of fish.

Is the "Insider Threat Program" a vast overreach?  If what McClatchy reports is true, it sure looks like it, but the worst excesses seem to be reserved for the government departments most likely to harm the national interest:

The Defense Department anti-leak strategy obtained by McClatchy spells out a zero-tolerance policy. Security managers, it says, “must” reprimand or revoke the security clearances – a career-killing penalty – of workers who commit a single severe infraction or multiple lesser breaches “as an unavoidable negative personnel action.”

Employees must turn themselves and others in for failing to report breaches. “Penalize clearly identifiable failures to report security infractions and violations, including any lack of self-reporting,” the strategic plan says.
Please notice that requirement seems to be limited to the Defense Department, and is not part of a nationawide order to the "federal bureaucracy" (something I thought existed only in the heads of the most passionately right wing, and then only when it involves helping brown people or poor people, and never when it involves the military).  This is the part that so concerns Mr. Pierce:

The program could make it easier for the government to stifle the flow of unclassified and potentially vital information to the public, while creating toxic work environments poisoned by unfounded suspicions and spurious investigations of loyal Americans, according to these current and former officials and experts. Some non-intelligence agencies already are urging employees to watch their co-workers for “indicators” that include stress, divorce and financial problems.

“It was just a matter of time before the Department of Agriculture or the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) started implementing, ‘Hey, let’s get people to snitch on their friends.’ The only thing they haven’t done here is reward it,” said Kel McClanahan, a Washington lawyer who specializes in national security law. “I’m waiting for the time when you turn in a friend and you get a $50 reward.”
Well, maybe.  That is a concern; then again, so are Bradley Manning and Nadil Hasan; and now, Edward Snowden.

And then, of course, there's the now requisite Iraq war mea culpa never again:

The policy, which partly relies on behavior profiles, also could discourage creative thinking and fuel conformist “group think” of the kind that was blamed for the CIA’s erroneous assessment that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction, a judgment that underpinned the 2003 U.S. invasion.

“The real danger is that you get a bland common denominator working in the government,” warned Ilana Greenstein, a former CIA case officer who says she quit the agency after being falsely accused of being a security risk. “You don’t get people speaking up when there’s wrongdoing. You don’t get people who look at things in a different way and who are willing to stand up for things. What you get are people who toe the party line, and that’s really dangerous for national security.”
I don't think bureaucratic groupthink is fomented by excessive government concerns with leaks and national secrecy.  Then again, given the Wikileaks case, and now Snowden's secrets, are these concerns with secrecy excessive?

Of course, and obviously, the program isn't working:

There are, however, signs of problems with the program. Even though it severely restricts the use of removable storage devices on classified networks, Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed the agency’s telephone data collection operations, used a thumb drive to acquire the documents he leaked to two newspapers.

“Nothing that’s been done in the past two years stopped Snowden, and so that fact alone casts a shadow over this whole endeavor,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the non-profit Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “Whatever they’ve done is apparently inadequate.”
And here, really, is the problem:

 Stopping a spy or a leaker has become even more difficult as the government continues to accumulate information in vast computer databases and has increased the number of people granted access to classified material to nearly 5 million.
Revoking security clearance is a "career killer," but really, how secure are we if 5 million people have such clearance?

The article says far more than Pierce does.  "Nixonian"?  Nixon wanted to punish his personal enemies.  Obama wants to shut down a kind of transfer of information absolutely impossible without contemporary technology.  Is he doing it in a ham-handed fashion?  Yes.  But the devil is in the details:

The program, however, gives agencies such wide latitude in crafting their responses to insider threats that someone deemed a risk in one agency could be characterized as harmless in another. Even inside an agency, one manager’s disgruntled employee might become another’s threat to national security.

Obama in November approved “minimum standards” giving departments and agencies considerable leeway in developing their insider threat programs, leading to a potential hodgepodge of interpretations. He instructed them to not only root out leakers but people who might be prone to “violent acts against the government or the nation” and “potential espionage.”
Which sort of undercuts Pierce's claim that there is a monolithic "federal bureaucracy" that is functioning just like the East German Stasi.  But still, there are as many problems with that as can be imagined.  One agency can be lenient, the next draconian.  This, I agree, is not exactly striking at the roots of the problem.  The problem is, we have 5 million Edward Snowdens.  What do we do to keep the 5 million Edward Snowdens from blowing their security oaths?   The problem is, we have a huge number of people in government employ, and they have access to the same world-wide information the rest of us do.  Whom do we blame next time we fail to catch the next Nidal Hasan before he goes berserk?  Is there to be no accountability for that?

Is Obama's response Nixonian paranoia?  (is an executive order really the equivalent of setting up the Plumbers?) Or the first clumsy attempt to get a handle on the "data revolution" we are now living with?

Have we found, again, that there are severe limits to this world we so want to create and rejoice in?  Or is that too theological a question to be legitimate?

Is Paul Krugman a journalist?

I ask in all seriousness because tout le monde is, was, or will be, upset that David Gregory asked Glenn Greenwald if Greenwald should be charged with aiding and abetting Edward Snowden's crimes, and Greenwald huffed (on air and later on  Twitter, where all serious conversations are held) that the question was insulting.  Or appalling.  Or something.

And I'm trying to figure out the difference between me, Krugman, and Greenwald.

I post on this otherwise largely overlooked blog.  If a former NSA employee came to me and wanted me to publish his/her stolen secrets, could I claim the magic privileges accorded to journalists?

Yeah, right.

But up until he got a gig with the Guardian, Greenwald was a blogger.  Now he writes a column for that paper, in which he does nothing more than express his opinion, usually based on some current news item. Paul Krugman writes a column for the New York Times, in which he does nothing more than express his opinion, usually based on some current news item.  And, of course, like Greenwald I am a lawyer, and like both of them, I publish my opinion, usually based on some current news item.  Krugman is a college professor.  If Ben Bernanke came to Krugman with juicy inside info on the Federal Reserve and Krugman got the NYT by-line on a news article, would Krugman now be a journalist?

What about if he just posted it on his NYT blog?

Which of us is a journalist?

One attempt at definition is that a journalist is someone with an editor.  Paul Krugman has an editor.  I don't.  Guess I'm out.  But is Greenwald a journalist, and Krugman not?  And what difference does it make?

I don't think journalists have any special legal protections (this is one reason Obama started pushing a shield law), but Greenwald does and he sure wants 'em now.  Nobody suspects Barton Gellman of aiding a felon, but Gellman hasn't been in Hong Kong hobnobbing with Snowden.  I assume Greenwald didn't go all that way to talk to Snowden on Skype.

So is Greenwald a journalist?  Does he have a magic legal shield Krugman and I don't?  If he doesn't, why does anybody think David Gregory asked the wrong question?  Especially when he made this comment:

Gregory replied that "the question of who's a journalist may be up to a debate with regard to what you're doing," but added that he was merely posing a question others have asked, and not "embracing anything."
Greenwald is a noted and vociferous supporter of Julian Assange.  Wikileaks says they are helping Edward Snowden.  Did Greenwald's support of Assange lead him to want to help the next Assange before criminal charges were filed?  Greenwald has clearly wanted this story to affect U.S. government policy.  I can't say the same for Barton Gellman, or for David Gregory.  Greenwald is free to support whomever he wants, but is Greenwald a journalist because a newspaper publishes his opinions?  Did Snowden contact Greenwald because of the latter's support for Assange?  Did Greenwald help Snowden in any way in Hong Kong, or even to get to Hong Kong?

It's a fair question.

But before we answer that, can somebody please explain to me just who the hell a "journalist" is, and what kind of special protections they get?  'Cause I can't figure out how Glenn Greenwald is anything; except opinionated.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Probably my last word on the subject....


I almost agree with Digby:

It's going to take a different consciousness among the American people or an outbreak of conscience and courage among our leaders. I honestly don't know where that leaves us.
Except I think I do know where this leaves us.

"It" in that quote is the surveillance state we find ourselves living in.  Lawrence Lessig, at the link in Digby's post, argues we need to use technology to defeat the evil abuse of technology; but to me that's like saying we just need to develop a safe no safecracker can open, a lock no lockpick can pick.

Can't be done.   Unless you put something in a box that can't be opened without destroying the contents (call it "Schrodinger's Box"), whatever you leave access to, someone will find their way to.  So there is no technological fix to this, no lock that can't be opened, no program that can't be hacked.  Do we, as Lessig said 15 years ago, accept the fact credit cards leave records and so just switch to cash?  Well, if you don't want to leave a record, what choice do you have?  Yet on-line sales have only increased since 1998, and so far as I know nobody has figured out how to transmit cash to Amazon over the intertubes.  So maybe we aren't so worried about that, after all.

We are all giving up privacy for convenience all the time.  I joke with my daughter about setting up a Facebook account so I can update my status:  "I'm sitting at the computer, waiting for something interesting to read."  "I'm sitting in the restaurant, waiting for my meal to arrive."  "I'm sitting on the toilet, waiting..."  Well, you get the idea.  I know nothing about Facebook, but I hear stories.  A few years ago the nadir of private life was Jerry Springer and people who told stories about themselves that would make Oedipus think he wasn't that badly off. Now you can bypass the TV studio and go directly to the people!  College kids who used to drink away from Mom and Dad now post photos of their drunkenness on-line, oblivious to the fact an employer in two years time might not find it so amusing, but could certainly find it enlightening.

Then again, I've never heard of anyone not getting a job because of photos of the frat parties they posted two years ago.  Not that I would hear, come to think of it.  But the things people put out for public consumption amaze me.

And there is still that stalwart majority (perhaps only 50% + 1, but still) who think they have "nothing to hide" so why shouldn't the government collect data on them, especially if it will help catch a crook?  You want to fault such thinking, but it's a hair's breadth away from the reasoning that says, for public health, you need vaccines; or for public safety, you need to evacuate your home when fires are burning.  We all have to give up something, in other words, for the good of society.  So what's a little privacy?  One man (at least) in Colorado got some air time complaining he was a prisoner in his own home. He refused to evacuate, but if he left to buy more food, the police wouldn't let him back into the neighborhood.  The idea he was endangering the lives of firefighters and rescuers who might need to pull him from that neighborhood if it caught fire, never seemed to occur to him.  He didn't want to give up his ability to move freely in and out of his house, despite the fact he'd surely demand rescue if he needed it.  And even if he didn't, do we really want a rescue operation that refuses to help certain individuals in time of need (anybody remember those homeowners who didn't pay for fire protection and lost their homes?  The fact that such practices harkened back to the 18th century didn't make anybody feel better.)

There is a legitimate distinction between public health or safety, and privacy and public safety as law enforcement.  But distinctions are something most people just aren't that good at.  Government needs to be, for that very reason; but at some point, you have to trust that government is doing its best in honoring those distinctions.  Evacuation orders are for public safety as well as the safety of "first responders" who shouldn't die because someone was stubborn, or stupid.*  Policies that limit the data government can look at are for the public good, too.

Lessig doesn't argue that we must turn off the NSA computers and let all such intelligence gathering go dark.  But we can't believe technology is the magic that will do what we mean instead of just what we say.  That's what magic is:  it does what you wanted to do, what you needed to do, even if you yourself weren't sure what you needed or how you wanted it done.  Magic always makes everything come out alright.

There is no magic here.  There are only issues of trust.  Ironically, there are only issues of faith.

Faith, and the question of whether or not all this technology is really worth the price we have to pay for it.  Aye, there's the rub; because unless a "different consciousness" means everybody everywhere going "off the grid," the information and the technology are still going to be there, and we'll still need to trust that it isn't being abused.


*almost completely off topic, but one reason I'm starting to be annoyed by the "martyr" status being accorded to the "first responders" of 9/11 is that they didn't die so other people could evacuate the towers; they died because their radios didn't work, and they didn't get the evacuation order.  It was courageous of them to go into the buildings; but their deaths were not a sacrifice, they were a failure of government policy (specifically Giuliani's).  I really don't like the idea aborning that "first responders" exist to die so we don't have to.  It's wrong, and it's wrong in the same way that saying all military personnel die to preserve our freedom is wrong.  We are rapidly developing this societal notion that others must die so we can live, or live comfortably; and it's a very disturbing idea. And I'm not sure it isn't connected to this idea that we have to give up some privacy for the convenience of modern technology and our own security.  Well, my security; if the government comes after you, you must be guilty of something.

If.....

One of the first things I did on the World Wide Web was to look at an Irish newspaper.

I was living in a Chicago suburb at the time, and for my entire life the height of my urban worldly experience was buying a copy of the New York Times Sunday edition, printed in the town in Texas where I had been living sometime before coming to Chicago, via a satellite download.  The very fact that was possible was a technological wonder at the time.

So reading a newspaper "on-line"(!) from another country, in a language I could read, was eye-opening.

More eye-opening was the story I read, by an Irish Catholic who, for the first time in her life (she was my age or slightly younger, IIRC) had traveled across an imaginary but quite real line into a Protestant neighborhood.

My knowledge of Irish history is sketchy at the best of times, but this would have been after the peace accords that stopped the violence in Ireland; and the writer was trying to describe her experience at entering a "Protestant" neighborhood, even entering a Protestant church (which would have been less different from her Catholic experience than a Texas Southern Baptist entering a Greek Orthodox synagogue, or even a Catholic sanctuary).  Her description made it clear she was entering a foreign country, where they spoke the same language, but that, too, just marked how different "they" were.  Everything about Protestants, in her upbringing, was wrong; probably evil; and certainly "foreign."  I can't begin to describe the strangeness of the neighborhood to her.  And it was a neighborhood; it was literally across a street, on the dividing line between Catholic and Protestant; and it was clear the religious terms meant more as markers than they did as theological labels.  "Protestant," to her, meant "alien" in ways that would almost fit the science-fiction use of the term.

Not that she was belligerent, malignant, or malicious in her narrative.  That's what really struck me.  Protestants were truly strange to her; not British, not American, not even French.  The difference was more profound than that.  She'd have found a bazaar in Araby (Joyce reference; very posh!) less unfamiliar.

I think about that again, in the context of President Obama's remarks in Belfast.  Yes, it is profoundly stupid for Sean Hannity and the Breitbart gang to try to make something of nothing; but that's what they do.  More particularly, they are really appealing to an ingrained ignorance that doesn't want to know the rest of the world is not like America, where religious labels really don't mean that much except to a handful of adherents to those labels.  Baptists may still be convinced the Roman church is the Whore of Babylon, and fundamentalists may still expect the Jews to convert to Christianity before the Final Trump sounds; but nobody divides their neighborhoods along religious lines.  Nobody fears the violence of a solid block of the citizenry on the other side of an invisible but very real dividing line; not in this country.  When President Obama says:

If towns remain divided -- if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs -- if we can't see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. 
He is talking precisely about the things his harshest critics would like to create; whether they want to face that or not.

But they also represent a blush on the cheek of a dying age; because one of the things the World Wide Web is doing is making us realize, perhaps only one person at a time, how much alike we are. I don't doubt this will be turned against that direction. I watch old movie newsreels that once told audiences how much people in the world were like them.  It was a bit jingoistic, and it failed because the world is not America, and doesn't want to be.  But the blind ignorance of a Sean Hannity cannot sustain an American political movement far into the future.

Frankly, it never could.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Great Caesar's Ghost!




So I read this review of the religious theme in "Man of Steel" before I saw the movie, and I thought it was thoughtful, if a little middle-brow, and insightful to a degree; and that it had a curious hole in its center.  Then, as is usual when I read movie reviews, I saw the movie, and thought:  "What movie did he see?"*  (and yes, I do know this idea of a religious theme is something being promoted by the studio.  Of the making of marketing pitches there is no end.  The sermon points in that article may well play a role here before we are through.)


Let me just start with that review, and yes, this is a spoiler, so stop if you don't want to know something about the movie.  Here's a curious point in the review:

My issue with it occurs when we start equating the Superman story with the story of Jesus. As we hear the marvel in Lois Lane's voice saying, "He saved us," we can't help but begin to connect the two. The problem is, despite the similarities of circumstance, they are so very different.

Okay, minor quibble:  Lois Lane doesn't say that, a minor character (her intern, we find out), says it.  But context is all (spoiler alert!).  The premise of the movie is that nobody on Earth knows who Superman is (including Superman!) until General Zod shows up.  He comes with a team of Kryptonians, and between their super powers and their technology they are frightening proof indeed that "We Are Not Alone."  (Dealers in conspiracies and black oil these guys are not.)  Superman is an alien, too; Zod announces that when he announces his arrival, and when Superman is finally revealed as Superman (I know, I'm not making this clearer, but in the movie this story works), humanity is more than a bit leery that he's not as dangerous as the guys in the space ship.  Sure, he's been on Earth for 30+ years, but who's to say he wasn't the scouting party?  So, come to the end of the movie, and Superman has dispatched the bad guys in typical Hollywood cataclysmic fashion (trust me, they blow up real good!). It falls to the intern to look on in awe and wonder, and say what everyone else has realized:  "He saved us."  Meaning, he didn't ignore us, or attack us, or leave us to the un-tender mercies of the bad guys.  He fought his own people to save the people of earth.

Otherwise, he is right; Jesus and Superman are so very different; and most of the discussion about this "religious" angle in the movie, is missing that point.

For example, unless you want to invoke an early heresy and put a twist on it, that Jesus fought God, who was really a demi-urge and therefore imperfect, in order to restore Paradise, it's really hard to find a Christ figure archetype in the plot of this movie.  Because just saying "He saved us" is not, really, to invoke Christianity at all.

Sandlin insists the allusions to Jesus are intentional:

There should be little doubt that serious efforts were made to make connections between Superman and Jesus. In one scene, what is essentially a spirit form of Superman's father, Jor-El, stands with his son looking over the Earth and tells him, "You can save her, son. You can save them all." Then, Superman steps out into space, arms outstretched, his body in the perfect shape of a cross, and he does not rush off to save Lois Lane (and the rest of us) until the camera captures a full shot of that image. He is our savior.  

But I'm not so sure.  I was even looking for this scene, and even when I saw it, I thought:  it's just a dramatic pose.  It's Superman showing he is supremely confident, even in orbit around the earth, leaving a hole in the side of a damaged space ship, about to plunge into the atmosphere to save Lois Lane in a falling capsule:  he's got it all under control.  No hurries, no worries.  If it was meant to echo the Crucifixion, then it did it about as well as the statue of Christ the Redeemer on Sugar Loaf mountain.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, ya know?

And what does it mean to say "[Superman] is our savior"?  Does the sentence mean the same thing if we substitute "Christ" for "Superman"?  There is a muddle here, because even the move's studio is happily pushing the notion that "Superman saves!":

 -- "Although fully aware of the bloody cost, Jesus decided to willingly submit himself to Roman soldiers. Jesus is arrested and tried as a common criminal, sentenced to death for crimes he did not commit. He pays the price for our individual and collective sin. The One genuinely innocent man takes on the burden of a gravely fallen people. The Man of Steel is faced with a similar test. Should he lay down his life for humanity? Do we deserve such sacrificial justice from Superman? The words of his father, Jor-El, resonate, 'You can save them...you can save them all." He places Superman's life in context. 'You will give people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonder [sic].'"

It isn't really hard to recognize that the "salvation" offered by Superman in the movie has nothing to do with fundamentalist/evangelical Christian soteriology; but the distinction is intentionally blurred in those sermon notes.  The muddle is in the idea of salvation, and that salvation is, and must be, a religious concept.  But it isn't, and even in Jesus' day, it wasn't.

The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory, or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.

 Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus' footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice, or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace. In Search of Paul: How Jesus's Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom, by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed  (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), p. xi.

We need to consider that rather carefully.  "Save" is an English word with several meanings.  We save money by buying something for less than we thought it would cost.  We save money by putting it in a bank account.  We save time, but we can't save time the same way we save money.  We used to say a girl was "saving herself" for the right man by remaining a virgin until her wedding night.  We save bottle caps or postcards or food from one meal for another, later meal.  We save a cat from a tree, save a seat in a theater, save ourselves from an embarrassing or tedious situation.  We save face, save our breath, save our place in a book, take a stitch in time to save nine (okay, does anybody do that anymore?  Or even know what it means?).  We save water, we save electricity, we save gasoline or energy, all by not wasting them foolishly.

And none of those touch on the meaning of "saved" as used in "Man of Steel" or in the phrase "Jesus saves!"

At no point in "Man of Steel" does Superman proclaim the Kingdom of God is already present and operative in this world.  Which is the real problem here:  not that Superman is or isn't meant to be a Christ figure, but just what a "Christ figure" is.  We use the term too loosely.  Northrop Frye, the man who taught us to think in terms of archetypes like Christ figures, said that even Jesus of Nazareth was a Christ figure.  He's not the origin of the archetype, in other words; he's an example of it.  But that only means the archetype has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus.  So getting the archetype close to the religious figure is already to misunderstand the use of the archetype.  And, as Crossan and Reed say, the preaching of Paul, in the footsteps of the preaching of Jesus, proclaims "a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace."  Not much there to build a comic book on, or a comic book movie.  Better, for comic books, is the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.  Which, despite the complaints of some about how this movie ends, is precisely what this movie engages in.  (Spoiler alert!  again!).  The movie ends, as that linked review complains, by violating the once inviolable principle of Superman.  But that inviolable principle is really an act of piety:  just because Superman has superpowers doesn't mean he can't kill, unless you mean that those with the greatest power must exercise the greatest restraint.  And if Superman actually did that consistently, he'd be a pretty dull superhero.  So it's a matter of how he exercises restraint, which is supposed to mean he cannot possibly kill.  But why not?  Because he is "holier" if he doesn't?  Because he is worthier of our admiration if he proves himself more restrained than us?  I'm not arguing Superman should ever kill; but that it's a measure of our piety toward the idea of Superman that we would be offended if he ever did; offended to the point we think he's no longer Superman, if he takes a life.

The reviewer arguing Superman can never kill brings the point down to this:

The way the movie bends over backward to get to that moment is an embarrassment of plot illogic. The fact that nobody involved in the making of the movie could come up with a clever way for Superman to not kill Zod — like maybe use any of his superpowers besides his incredible ability to punch real hard — says more about the filmmakers than about Superman.
His only real "superpowers" are his ability to punch real hard; that and fly, burn things, and see through stuff.  Which of these powers gives him the ability to keep an equally superpowered and malevolent being from destroying all human life, without killing that being?  It's not like, at that point, Superman has any alien technology left capable of rendering Zod powerless, or imprisoning him for all time.  Zod has made it quite clear annihilation of all non-Kryptonians is his only purpose now, that he is reacting out of nothing but hatred because Superman has destroyed the one purpose Zod was born for:  to protect Kryptonians.  Superman has made it clear his loyalties lie with humans, so Zod has no purpose left but to, in effect (and he makes this explicit) commit suicide by...well, not cop, so by Superman.  And Superman has no choice but to oblige him; that, or render all his actions so far in the movie completely irrelevant.  It is, actually, a rather neat dilemma; and Superman's reaction is, in part, the reaction of a man who has just killed the last member of his own species.

That could be something to build an interesting sequel on.  But it's certainly not Christ-like; not even for the archetype.  It does, however, create an even stronger sense of piety, because Superman loved humans so much he killed the last Kryptonian who could be an unmitigated threat to them.  It starts the cycle, in other words, over again.  War, victory, peace; back to piety.  He is much closer to a god at the end of the film than he has ever been in the comics.   A Greek god, though; not a Christian one.

Superman saves the same way Caesar does.  He does it by eliminating our enemies.

And that's the problem:  there is no Christ figure here, because there is nothing vaguely Christ-like about Superman.  The "crucifixion" scene in the movie might be compared to the Christ Triumphant, the fully robed (as opposed to nearly naked form on the crucifix) Christ with arms outstretched, and wearing a crown:  the Christ who has triumphed over death, with the cross now not wood he is hanging from, but the backdrop symbolizing his victory over death (thus the stance of Christ the Redeemer on Sugar Loaf Mountain, just without a giant cross).  But that Christ comes after death and three days in the tomb; Superman's moment of outstretched arms comes after a few minutes in Kryptonian atmosphere, which serves to drain his powers as effectively as green rocks do in other Superman stories.  It's a problem for him, but it's not death, and it's not three days in the grave.

The other part of the problem is the one of reducing Christianity to soteriology, and soteriology to a simple affirmation of faith in Jesus as the Son of God.  The "sermon notes" promoted by the movie studio are the most egregious example of this ("How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again. Let's consider how Superman's humble origins, his high calling and his transforming sacrifice point us towards Jesus, the original superhero."  I would submit how we are treating others is far more important a Christian issue, than how we are treating ourselves.).  But the very question of salvation is the issue here: are we saved by Caesar disguised (by us) as Christ?  Or are we saved by being disciples of Christ?  And what does that mean, and what does that salvation mean?  Superman makes no claim on the people of earth; he establishes no new method of behavior, he proclaims no basilia tou theou.  He's supposed to be a shining example, but that seems to be more a contrast between the expectations of his real father and the fears of his adopted father (who dies so his son won't expose his alien nature.  Now that's a sacrificial figure!).  But the nature of salvation:  what is that?  All this discussion of Superman as the Anointed One doesn't just blur that issue; it obliterates it as surely as the black hole created in the movie destroys the Kryptonians.

And that's the real problem with all this discussion of Superman as savior.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Where is that sock?


Greenwald keeps promising more revelations; Snowden keeps saying he's not revealing damaging information.

Again, not really his call to make:

Since then, two more stories have brought to light how the U.S. government collects information on other countries, each revealed ahead of a major summit with said countries. Two weeks ago, Snowden — revealed as the leaker of the documents — told the South China Morning Press that the United States was most certainly spying on China, leaving Obama in the awkward position of decrying Chinese cyber-espionage during an informal meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

On Sunday, the Guardian has brought to light cooperation between the NSA and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) — its British counterpart — to spy on its allies during summit meetings, intercepting large amounts of information from its allies in the Group of 20 meeting in 2009. The report also detailed how Dmitry Medvedev, then President and now Prime Minister of Russia, was targeted specifically during that meeting.

The problem with all of these revelations is not that they’re happening at all or that they’re being released at inopportune moments. Instead, the issue is that rather than exposing potential harm, they are now instead bringing to light clandestine activities the NSA is tasked under law to do. Spying on other countries may be morally questionable to some, including Snowden as he made clear in a question and answer session on Monday. But these actions are neither illegal nor counter to the Constitution. It’s entirely within the mission of the National Security Agency to do these things, and revealing them actually takes away from the focus on the agency’s more questionable practices.
This may come as a shock to Mr. Snowden, but just because it bothers him, doesn't mean it's illegal, immoral, or unconstitutional; nor even that it shocks the conscience of the nation. 

Some say this is a distraction from the "serious" issues of how the NSA is using its power.  But more and more, this is the story.   The story is more and more all about what outrages Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden.  They've both made clear that their purpose in publicizing Snowden's secrets is to get a public reaction akin to the one they have.  That's neither heroic nor brave; it's a child's view of the world.*  I'm no longer sure what conversation we're supposed to be having, although a discussion of government power and how we should limit it, or how much we should be bothered by it, would be an interesting discussion.  But that's not what's going on.

What's going on is a monologue led by Greenwald and Snowden (Greenwald even opened the on-line chat with the Guardian by trying to be sure the discussion touched on themes near and dear to his heart) about what they think is wrong with the world.  And, frankly, just because they have the megaphone, doesn't mean what they want to talk about is the right topic of conversation.

Funny how much more complicated these things are than they seem to realize.


*Much was made, early on, about the comparison of Snowden to Ellsberg.  The lesson of the Pentagon Papers, aside from a landmark Supreme Court ruling on the First Amendment, is that Ellsberg's efforts didn't change history.  The war didn't end with the revelations of those papers, and Nixon didn't fail to get re-elected.  In essence, as Bush proved with Iraq 30 years later, nothing really changed.  Which is not to say Ellsberg shouldn't have released the papers; but Greenwald and Snowden should be better students of history, and not expect revelations to change the world, or make everyone suddenly agree with them.  That they still don't understand this does not redound to their credit.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Journamalism!



Comes now again, Edward Snowden, and once again makes this story about him and not about the U.S. Government, and when he doesn't do that sufficiently, Glenn Greenwald does it for him:

The second question, from The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, read as follows: "How many sets of the documents you disclosed did you make, and how many different people have them? If anything happens to you, do they still exist?"

And even that fat, wet, right-over-the-plate slow pitch was too much for the batter:

Snowden stopped short of answering the question directly.

"All I can say right now is the US Government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me," he wrote. "Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped." 

Which is pretty much what Greenwald has been promising since this story first broke and the republic did not fall upon the revelation that the government is spying on people, maybe even its own people.   As Josh Marshall said:

the one interesting and significant thing to come out of this Snowden live chat is his focus on what is technically possible within the NSA vs whatever policy restrictions are in place to protect privacy, constitutional protections for US citizens and so forth. It’s not even totally clear, reading these answers, how much Snowden and his nemeses within the Intel Community are even disagreeing about how things work.

This, I think, is what JMM is talking about:

 "US Persons do enjoy limited policy protections (and again, it's important to understand that policy protection is no protection - policy is a one-way ratchet that only loosens) and one very weak technical protection - a near-the-front-end filter at our ingestion points. The filter is constantly out of date, is set at what is euphemistically referred to as the 'widest allowable aperture,' and can be stripped out at any time. Even with the filter, US comms get ingested, and even more so as soon as they leave the border. Your protected communications shouldn't stop being protected communications just because of the IP they're tagged with… More fundamentally, the 'US Persons' protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it's only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that 'We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.'"
or this:

"More detail on how direct NSA's accesses are is coming, but in general, the reality is this: if an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc analyst has access to query raw SIGINT databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want," Snowden wrote. "Phone number, email, user id, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on - it's all the same. The restrictions against this are policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time. Additionally, audits are cursory, incomplete, and easily fooled by fake justifications. For at least GCHQ, the number of audited queries is only 5% of those performed."

 I've no doubt there's a lot of "power and danger" in this system.  The question is:  how do you eradicate that, without eradicating the system?  Google, Yahoo, Bing, Apple, all have this information, too; not to mention Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, etc. As I said before, the idea that The Phone Company knows more about us than anyone else goes back at least to 1967, which, if I'm doing my math right, is about 17 years before Our Heroic Snitch was born.  It's certainly a few decades earlier than the Revolution of the Intertubes.  Everything old really is new again.

So, yes, the government can hoover up this information.  The salient question is:  do they?  We can't take away their power to get the information; we can only seek to limit their desire to get that information, or at least limit their willingness to do so.  Of course the limitations are policy based; that technological genie ain't goin' back in that bottle.  We are back where we started:  do we trust the government not to violate our privacy?

Because if we don't, what the hell are we gonna do about it?  Except go off the grid and disconnect from all the communications conveniences of this modern world which most of us seem to think are so essential to our well-being.  Certainly Mr. Snowden imagines these communications devices are the thing that's keeping him alive.

In other words, given the state of the world, limited policy protections are the best we can ever hope for.  Maybe that explains why Glenn Greenwald is still fanning the flames for more revelations to come out that will finally persuade the world to think like Glenn Greenwald.

Or like a cheap spy novel; there doesn't seem to be much difference.

And where the hell are the rest of those documents?  Are you going to tell us again how a government spied on foreign dignitaries at an international meeting within its borders?  O, the humanities!

By the way, that line from the "Founding Fathers" is in the Declaration of Independence, not the U.S. Constitution.  We have a long-standing legal and civil tradition of not treating non-citizens quite the same way we we treat U.S. citizens.  And yes, we spy on both of them, but from different justifications and with different policy and legal limitations.  And frankly:

  Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it's only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%.

Maybe not, but nobody put you, a private contractor hired to perform a specific task, in charge of U.S. foreign, legal, or national security policy.  That decision, in other words, is slightly above your pay grade.  And if you don't like it and you want to expose it, come back to America and face the consequences of your crime; make your stand in a court of law, present your defense to a jury of your peers, and persuade them, your fellow citizens, that you are right and the government is wrong.

Until then, you're just a coward; and a putz.