Monday, February 28, 2005

"Said the joker to the thief..."

Gagani de-mystified (somewhat)

Heckuva pill to swallow, huh? Nothing worse than Continental philosophy on an empty stomach.

Gagani (below) is talking about the presence of God in items identified by theological discourse. Not the words themselves (this is a raging issue in contemporary philosophy: whether words are "names" or "signs," and on and on), but what they indicate (let's not even get into "signified" and "signifier." No reason to drag semiotics into this.). So the long phrase "the metaphysics of presence of theological objects" can be more simply rendered "the traditional metaphysical ideas of a transcendent deity."

Then he speaks of the heart of the matter: "that supreme moment which coincides with out actual experience of the significance of religion and which recognizes in religious discourse a hermeneutic perspective from which to look at life...." For "hermeneutic," just fall back on Ricouer, and think of "originary," or the point of beginning. Experience, IOW, is where religion begins, and the significance attached to that experience, is a part of a religious discourse (since nothing is understood wholly outside of a context, or a language, and language involves a shared discourse.)

And a hermeneutical approach because it isn't an attempt abandon what has been known and passed on ("tradition"), but "rather a recovery of the signs of the religious tradition that have not been thought through to the end." This, to me, is the crucial point: carrying the ideas given to us through to the end of our way of understanding, our ways of knowing, without fear of where that will lead us. The "metaphysical commitments" that tradition hands down "regarding the ontological status of the referents of theological discourse," after all, are not originary, but are part of the discourse, a part that may need either reinterpretation (Bultmann's "demythologizing," although I don't favor that course), or simply to be understood apart from traditional metaphysical explanations. ("God is spirit," but must we define "spirit" before we can discourse on our experience of "God"?). Doing this may not be throwing out the "tradition, but in fact "may therefore signify a recovery of the signs and the annunciations immanent within the history of a religious tradition." In other words, once we stop accepting it because "we've always done it this way," and start taking it seriously enough to examine as a contemporary object, not an historical artifact, we may find it has equal significance for us as it did for the first children of Abraham. Or, as Gagani puts it: "Once the metaphysical charge is defused, the objects of the religious tradition become figures for an interpretative perspective on life. It is in this capacity that they may be seen to intepret the movements of existence in which we are immersed, and not in so far as they attract the processes of life and history, sucking them back into a further ontological domain of transcendent beings, which is presented today as the most suitable vantage point from which to re-think religious experience philosophically." Maybe these "objects" do "transcend" us, ultimately. But we will find that by examining them for ourselves; not by starting with the end already in our assumptions.

Or something like that.

A simple thought experiment

Reading an essay by Vincenzo Vitiello, I'm struck by his mention of something that is really rather a commonplace: the idea of Israel rebelling against their God.

The context is Israel outside of Egypt, and also outside the Promised Land, and their actions that lead to the judgment of God that Israel will spend 40 years in the desert before coming to the place God has promised. And it isn't that action that struck me; it is the concept of rebelling against "God."

A god is a constitutive item of human identity. Kierkegaard called it the Power which posited the self, a self which is known in relation to itself. Gods are constitutive of human communities, too. This is the foundation of the "mythological" explanation for divinity in anthropology, sociology, and the general discourse in post-Enlightenment Western civilization. For Israel, this explanation was built into their sense of national identity: "A wandering Aramean was my father," the annual blessing began, in Deuteronomy. Passover is the recollection of the creation of the nation in the exodus from Egypt. The God of Abraham is the one who created this rebellious people. What, then, does it mean, to rebel against one's god?

"Israel," as the stories in Genesis make clear, means "struggles with God." It is the new name given Jacob after he wrestles with an angel all night at the Jabok, just before he goes to seek peace with his wronged brother (Jacob being the one who wronged Esau). But in most cultures, to struggle with the god would mean death. Greeks don't struggle with their gods. They may struggle with the consequences of their decisions, but the decisions of Zeus or Apollo or Venus, even Cupid, are not challenged by the nation. Yet Israel is a "rebellious people." Even God names them so.

What does this mean? Can we conceive of this struggle in non-metaphysical terms? Do we struggle with our gods, and expect them to change? Politics; money; economic systems; science; reason: what is it that is transcendent, more than "us" or even the sum of "us," that gives life its meaning. If you struggle with it, do you expect it to yield? Or do you expect the struggle to make you yield, to put you in a position where, finally, you understand? Israel struggles with God for a revelation, of a change of God's heart, or simply out of stubbornness. When we struggle with our "gods," at most we seek discovery, a change in our thinking, our selves. What would it mean to rebel against reason, except to expect unreason? We don't expect reason to change, or even to listen.

What would it mean to rebel against one's god, against the very thing you hold most sacred, most important? Not in terms of the goal sought, but just the idea of such rebellion. How is this even conceivable?

"There must be some kind of way out of here...."

Karen Armstong would agree with the sentiment expressed by "The Last Whole Earth Catalog:" not that we are as gods, but we are, as human beings, religious creatures, and we might as well get good at it. In what is still a post-Enlightenment world, that is an effort we have singularly failed at. After all, an excellent argument can be made that the Enlightenment project of the 19th century, to declare "God" finally and irrevocably dead, is what prompted the American fundamentalism we now suffer from. As Ms. Armstrong notes:
“Before the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial—when the secular press ridiculed the fundamentalists and said they had no place in the modern agenda—fundamentalist Christians had been literal in their interpretation of scripture but creation science was the preserve of a few eccentrics. After the Scopes trial, they became militantly literal and creation science became the flagship of their movement. Before the Scopes trial, fundamentalists had often been on the left of the political spectrum and had been willing to work alongside socialists and liberal Christians in the new slums of the industrializing North American cities. After the Scopes trial, they swung to the far right, where they remained. They felt humiliated by the media attack. It was very nasty. There was a sense of loss of prestige, and, above all, a sense of fear.”

Philosophy drives much of this. The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement, as was its antithesis, Romanticism. Today Romanticism is reduced to hearts and flowers and slef-centeredness, and the insights of the Enlightenment are used to justify the worst excesses of crony capitalism and brute power politics. That is not the fault of either philosophy; it is the fault of thoughtlessness. But philosophy continues to lead the discussions, if only indirectly. Much of the assault on religion today, and much of what lead to the creation and rise of fundamentalism, started in the assaults on metaphysics, which culminated in the misunderstanding of the work (a misunderstanding that persists to this day, even among philosophers) of the "Vienna Circle."

The "assault" on metaphysics led to Rudolf Bultmann's famous attempt to "demythologize" Christianity. Although, to be fair to Bultmann, that effort was merely his attempt to state to non-theologians the philosophical foundation of modern theology. It led, however, to serious distortions, and more accusations from conservative and fundamentalist groups, rather than conversation. And what is the current specialist thinking now? An essay by Aldo Gargani neatly states the philosophical underpinnings of most "liberal" theologies, although not in the simplest of language:

Our vision will remain inevitably superficial as long as we do not overcome the metaphysics of presence of theological objects and as long as we do not return to that supreme moment which coincides with out actual experience of the significance of religion and which recognizes in religious discourse a hermeneutic perspective from which to look at life....This might look like an attempt to overcome or to abandon the tradition, but what is at issue her ei s rather a recovery of the signs of the religious tradition that have not been thought through to the end. Abandoning the metaphsical commitments regarding the ontological status of the referents of theological discourse may therefore signify a recovery of the signs and the annunciations immanent within the history of a religious tradition. Once the metaphysical charge is defused, the objects of the religious tradition become figures for an interpretative perspective on life. It is in this capacity that they may be seen to intepret the movements of existence in which we are immersed, and not in so far as they attract the processes of life and history, sucking them back into a further ontological domain of transcendent beings, which is presented today as the most suitable vantage point from which to re-think religious experience philosophically. Aldo Gagani, "Religious Experience," tr. David Webb, Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1998), p. 114.)

The focus of fundamentalism is precisely on preserving the objects of the religious tradition, and preserving them as objects (another irony of a belief system that eschews idolatry). Thus religion is lost to the modern world, not because humanity has "outgrown" religion, but because the discourse no longer provides an interpretive perspective on life. When Jesus spoke of mustard seeds and the road to Jericho and Samaritans, his audience knew immediately what he meant, and they understood. In point of fact, of course, they often misunderstood, and this misunderstanding was precisely the aim of the parables. But the parables and the actions and the teachings of Jesus were meant to provide an interpretive perspective on life, not provoke an idolatry of the teacher.

But that is only one direction. The other is toward understanding that this is what religion is for, and why human beings keep turning to it. Unfortunately, religion is also used for exerting power, and that is precisely what is being done, again, in the world today. As Ms. Armstrong notes, Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush are pursuing the same ends with the same means. If they could meet, she speculates, they would probably find they had much in common. Which is the other old, old story: that which you most oppose, you most come to emulate. So, is opposition the only course open to everyone? That's an entirely negative response to the world, to all that is "not you." Is there a positive course that is an alternative?

In the Penal Colony

Well, Bob Herbert has said it; said it in the plainest language possible:

As a nation, does the United States have a conscience? Or is anything and everything O.K. in post-9/11 America? If torture and the denial of due process are O.K., why not murder? When the government can just make people vanish - which it can, and which it does - where is the line that we, as a nation, dare not cross?

When I interviewed Maher Arar in Ottawa last week, it seemed clear that however thoughtful his comments, I was talking with the frightened, shaky successor of a once robust and fully functioning human being. Torture does that to a person. It's an unspeakable crime, an affront to one's humanity that can rob you of a portion of your being as surely as acid can destroy your flesh.

Americans no longer have consciences, we just have pocketbooks; we no longer have governance, we just have a security-provider; we no longer have souls, we merely have appetites.

And this is the inevitable outcome of our reliance on technology, our faith in the material, our belief that we truly are Masters of the Universe. This is not necessarily a "Republican" or "right wing" point of view. The wholly alternative "Last Whole Earth Catalog from 3 decades ago began with these words, seen in no way then as arrogant or ignorant, but in fact as prescient and pragmatic: "We are as Gods, so we might as well get good at it." It is hubris, born of our warping of the legacy of the Enlightenment, hubris as much as venality, that has brought us to this point.

Review the movies of the last half-century or so, and you begin to realize Americans don't believe in government; they only believe in security. Police in movies and on television do not govern traffic, provide order for society, work for the common public good. They hunt bad guys, and they protect specific individuals, preferably nubile women, from harm. They are a security apparatus, a Praetorian guard for the middle class; nothing more. What more, indeed, do we need? Our technology, our "economic system," our own hard work, is what provides our needs. What need have we of anything else, except, of course, a security force, to make sure we can keep it and, at our leisure, enjoy it?

When we think of Ancient Rome, we don't think of the road system that spanned Europe, the engineering feets that created concrete domes and aqueducts and planned cities, and an economic system that lasted for a thousand years. We think of the short sword and the might of the Roman military, and the ability to maintain order through terror (crucifixion was the single most efficient combination of terror and execution ever devised; and when the streets of Jerusalem ran red with blood in 70 C.E., it was to uphold the "Pax Romana." It is that "Pax" that we solely remember and admire today, in America.)

We have lost our way, and we have done it willingly. I learned just how brutal my government could be during Vietnam. I lost all belief in the goodwill of my government, just as Mark Twain did in the 19th century. What he wrote in "The War Prayer" was repeated on the TV in my living room when I grew up. But I always thought the U.S. was superior in one way: that we would never countenance a "Hanoi Hilton" under U.S. government control. Now even Sen. John McCain doesn't speak out about what is done "in our name."

I am ashamed of us. We have no excuse, we have no explanation, and we have no soul. We have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage. I am convinced this is a moral universe. The only question left now is: when does it become clear to us what is already true, that we have destroyed ourselves as a country? When will we realize the message is being written in our bodies, and we are now the proprietors of Kafka's penal colony?

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Third Sunday of Lent

NOW when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, "Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John" -although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized-he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink."

THE Samaritan woman said to Jesus, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."

Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband and come back." The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!" The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth." The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ), 'When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you." John 4:1-26

THE Samaritan woman simply didn't fit any of their social standards. Mary of Bethany simply didn't accept any of their role definitions. Mary Magdalen was indeed a bold and brazen woman. And they made no bones-any of them-about their comm itment to Jesus. No bones at all about either his call or their intention-in fact, their compulsion-to carry on his will and his wonderful presence in their lives.

The Samaritan woman faced them head on. Mary of Bethany persisted in her vocation. The women of Jerusalem went on ministering to him while all the others hid. Mary Magdalen, remember, went right into their midst-it was a forty-hours gathering, or perhaps a synod, I think-to minister to him and to proclaim his resurrection.
"What is that woman doing in here," the men said. "Send her away." And they went to the tomb to see for themselves "because they did not believe her," the Scripture reads. "We have no more need of you," the men of Samaria said. "Our place is in the kitchen," Martha, the well-conditioned woman, said.

But Jesus said back to all of them: "She is doing what you are not doing; she's preparing me for my buriaL" And Jesus said, "But she has chosen the better part, and it shall not be denied her." And Jesus said to the woman, and to the woman only, "I am the Messiah." And Jesus said, "Mary, don't stay here. You go and tell Peter and the others. . . ."--John Chittister

JESUS' disciples were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, "What do you want?" or, "Why are you speaking with her?" Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" They left the city and were on their way to him.

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because ofthe woman's testimony.--John 427-30, 39

By banishing women from leadership roles and by controlling women's access to religious knowledge, the clerically defined church concealed women, making women invisible even to themselves. Through the strategy of concealment the clerically -dominated church has blinded itself to images of spiritually gifted women. In doing so, it has successfully avoided unwelcome insights. We assume the insights are unwelcome because they would lead to meaningful questions and to an inner mandate for change. I, for one, do not doubt that changes in self-understanding could be painful, even overwhelming, for most clerics. Fifteen years ago I had a newly ordained priest cry out in anguish in a university classroom, "If I am not superior to the rest of the church, I'm wasting my life!" Ten years ago I was amazed to read a popular article by an eminent priest theologian in which he fell back to unfathomable divine design as his final reason for maintaining the celibate male priesthood after he had conceded intellectually that there was no sound traditional, theological, or anthropological reason for refusing to admit women to orders. Perhaps he was responding finally and intuitively to the logical inconsistency of admitting women to a state which defines itself by its refusal of women.--Mary Collins

OUR elder brother, Jesus, was a scandal to patriarchy. Women and all who would be sisters and brothers of Jesus will be a scandal. I believe that is our true home now. That is the wilderness in which we find ourselves.--Madonna Koldenschlag

Friday, February 25, 2005

If we don't feel it, is it true?

Reading Feuerbach this morning (The Essence of Christianity), and came across this:

If, for example, feeling is the essential organ of religion, the nature of God is nothing else than an expression of the nature of feeling….How couldst thou perceive the divine by feeling, if feeling were not itself divine in its nature? The divine is assuredly known only by means of the divine—God is known only by himself….

…But the object of religious feeling is become a matter of indifference, only because when once feeling is pronounced to be the subjective essence of religion, it in fact is also the objective essence of religion, though it may not be declared, at least directly, to be such….Thus feeling is pronounced to be religious, simply because it is feeling; the ground of its religiousness is its own nature—lies in itself. But is not feeling thereby declared to be itself the absolute, the divine? If feeling in itself is good, religious, i.e., holy, divine, has not feeling its God in itself? Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, tr. George Eliot (Amherst: Prometheus Book, 1989), pp. 10-11)
Now, Feuerbach is pursuing interests which are not mine, and reaches conclusions I don’t agree with. And some of his epistemology and metaphysics I would especially question. But the insight here (which he says is “adduced only as an example”) is what intrigues. It brings out the question of pietism and Romanticism, and links them directly to questions of American fundamentalism.

Pietism arose in the German Protestant churches in the 17th century as a reaction to the rather arid climate of the Reformation; it’s aim was to restore a measure of devotion to religious observance, and, not coincidentally, to involve the individual more in spiritual practices. By the 19th century Pietism was bolstered by the emphasis on the individual that arose under Romanticism. Feuerbach even reflects this turn, when he takes religion into the purely individual, personal, sphere: “I cannot know whether God is something else in himself or for himself than he is for me; what he is to me is to me all that he is.” (p. 16) Obviously, this presages Existentialism. Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun.

But the point of inquiry here, is into fundamentalism. It rests heavily on the emotional experience of the believer: conversion is an overwhelming experience of impulse, not a considered position achieved through reason; glossalalia and interpretation are “gifts of the Spirit” bestowed in an emotionally charged worship service, not the result of quiet meditation in a meeting-room; worship services emphasize spontaneity and emotionalism, not the pre-determined corporate responses of liturgical practice.

This is not limited to fundamentalist churches, of course. Most Protestants, who do not employ liturgical worship, expect the Sunday service to fulfill some emotional need, void, hunger, want; when it fails to, they consider their time that morning unsuccessful, perhaps failed. They are guilty, as are their fundamentalist brethren, of the error their non-believing friends accuse them of: of replacing reason with emotion.

Emotion is not the essential element of religious faith or practice; nor is it the obstacle to faith or religious practice. But fundamentalism and conservative Christian practice certainly places it at the center, and does so condemning “rational” faith as relying too much on the intellect, not enough on the heart (and rightly so). But fundamentalism is guilty of the same sin; it is the log in its own eye that lets it see the splinter in the other’s eye. As Feuerbach maintains, when he says only the Divine can know the Divine: like knows like.

There are other places to go with this, but while I’m reacting to it just now, I thought I’d share a bit of it.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

"I made you! You made me!"--The Joker, to Batman

Mark Crispin Miller blames something he calls "projectivity," which he distinguishes from hypocrisy, and which he tries to ground n psychology (although I don't believe he is a psychiatrist):

Hypocrisy means "dissimulation" pure and simple. A hypocrite does one thing privately while playing a very different role in public. Insofar as he's capable of happiness, he's happy just to live such a divided life. What he does not need is to have some demon-figure(s) onto whom he can relentlessly project those aspects of himself that he unconsciously detests. This is the animus that drives the Bushevik movement--more than greed, more than oil, more than imperialism. The movement is, ultimately, pathological. Which explains its compulsive hatefulness. Every time the Bushevik vents his spleen against "the liberals," he's actually referring to himself. "The liberals," he insists, are lying, bitter diehards, who would do anything to stay in power; they steal elections; they are "a coalition of the wild-eyed"; and on it goes forever. If the movement weren't relentlessly projective, it would just disappear. They have to stay on the attack against the demon, which they can never finally kill, because that demon is inside them.

So this episode is not anomalous. Guckert/Gannon is no oddity, but just another fine example of projective nastiness. He's by no means the only gay homophobe in this movement, which appears to be the work primarily of closet cases. There are others who have not been outed, but should be. The rest of us should be taking this quite seriously, not just because it might enable a political advantage, but because it cuts right to the heart of what this Christo-fascist movement's all about.

William Blake, and the early Romantics generally, more or less following Socrates and Hellenistic thought generally, grounded it in the paradox of the contraries:

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Socrates, of course, argued from contraries in the Phaedo, to prove both the existence, and the immortality, of the soul. So it is an old method of proof, and of epistemology. Both Socrates and the Romantics recognized the contraries as fundamental to existence.

And so Jacques Derrida makes the same connection between religious fundamentalism and the modern world, which he recognizes as a "double and contradictory structure:"

Religion today allies itself with tele-technoscience, to which it reacts with all its forces. It is, on the one hand, globalization; it produces, weeds, exploits the capital and knowledge of telemediazation: neither the trips and global spectacularizing of the Pope, nor the interstate dimensions of the 'Rushdie affair,' nor planetary terrorism would otherwise be possible, at this rhythm-and we could multiply such indications ad infinitum. But, on the other hand, it reacts immediately, simultaneously, declaring war against that which gives it this new power only at the cost of dislodging it from all its proper places, in truth from place itself, and the taking-place of its truth. It conducts a terrible war against that which protects it only by threatening it, according to the double and contradictory structure: immunitary and auto-immunitary. Jacques Derrida, Religion, tr. Samuel Weber (Standford: Stanford University Press 1998), p. 46.

Tele-technoscience, of course, is a product of the modern world, of rational thought. But then, just as the worm dies without the rose, but the rose dies because of the worm, so too religious fundamentalism dies without the modern world. It may seem an ultimately pathological relationship, but clearly fundamentalism decries the modern world even as it uses it to justify and spread its message. Jerry Falwell and James Dobson rely on telecommunications science, and decry the cultural products of that science: Teletubbies and Sponge Bob Squarepants. Al Qaeda decries the economic and technological power of the West, and uses that very power as a weapon, and a method of disseminating its message. Derrida points out that there is no hope for the future without the possibility of repitition; if the future is wholly unknown, we cannot trust in it to amend the present. But if the future is repeatable, or even possibly repeatable, then faith in it is faith that everything already is "technical, automatic, machine-like supposed by iterability. In this sense, the technical is the possibility of faith, indeed, its very chance. A chance that entails the greatest risk, even the menace of radical evil."(emphasis in original)

It is the modern world that created fundamentalism. The Enlightenment insisted on a bright line between "mythology" and "reality." What couldn't be proven "true" according to Enlightenment standards was, myth, and had to be discarded. Up until that time, no one read the scriptures of the world religions as literally true or literally false. In the richest period for imagination and understanding in Western Europe, the medieval mind moved comfortably in allegory. Dante's Divine Comedy was not read as a road map to the after life, but as a metaphorical description of divine justice, no more real or unreal than Ovid's Metamorphoses, or the descriptions of Greek battle and sea journeys in Homer. No one worried seriously worried whether a fish could swallow a man and keep him alive; they read Jonah for its metaphors about God and redemption and repentance and prophecy, and above all, human obduracy. The medieval mind moved fluidly and comfortably between the allegory of Dante or "Everyman," and the invention of eyeglasses and many another technological innovation. But when "reason" insisted on primacy of place and the right to judge all aspects of human existence, even the "metaphysical" ones (Ovid's Metamorphoses is not about fantasy and gods, but about human passions and how individuals change) and the metaphorical understandings, an irruption was bound to occur. And that occurence, in religion, was fundamentalism.

It is, of course, inherently unstable, as well as unhealthy. Calling it a pathology is not an inapt metaphor. It is our Ouroboros, the world snake devouring its own tail. This is visible in our cultural life, and in our political lives. It affects the way we understand the world, and understand others in the world; and the way they understand us. Mark Miller is right: in its excess, in either the Bush Administration, or "Focus on the Family" or even Al Qaeda, it is pathological. But until we understand the basis for the problem, we won't understand how to respond to it.

"I think we've got a live one here!"--Jack Nicholson, "Batman"

So, does this work? Or does it backfire? Per Maureen Dowd:

The USA Next group intends to combine the two ruthless success stories of the Bush re-election: the Swiftian tactic of amplifying its vicious and dishonest attacks through the media, and the Rovian tactic of hanging gay marriage like an anvil around the neck of a foe.

It began with an almost comically hyperbolic Internet ad that briefly ran on The American Spectator's Web site, painting AARP as pro-gay sex - even though it's tough to think of AARP and steamy lust in the same hot breath - and anti-soldier. It showed a soldier with a red X across him, and two gay men kissing at their nuptuals, with the headline "The REAL AARP Agenda."


Mr. Jarvis defended his ad by saying that he was simply trying to provoke liberal bloggers, and that he succeeded. In fact, part of the sinister beauty of the Swift Boat method is its viral quality: it slips into a host body - "Inside Politics," say - and hijacks it. An ad it showed briefly on the Internet has now been replicated free, all over the world, and, yes, it is now being transmitted through the Op-Ed page of The New York Times.

It's all a matter of perception, isn't it? But control of perceptions is not an exclusive province. Is Mr. Jarvis being disengenuous, or serious? Is it wheels within wheels? Or did even he realize this ad was "ridiculous;" but that all options were on the table?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

"Are these things right or wrong?"--T.S. Eliot

materfamilias gratia: you have basically said what I meant to say. I to will not throw my religion out but at the same time I would not use it to control others.
When I said everyday world I meant the workings of our society. I.E. The government. The controllers. The powerful. The war makers. The haters.--Maxcat49

This is the most delicate of issues: How do we integrate religion into public life without trying to take control of public life? The two cannot be segregated: it is simply false to say religion is a "purely private matter." As is apparent in societies around the world, even sexual preference is not a "purely private matter," nor can it be. We are social creatures, and our identity will always, to one degree or another, depend on the social constructs of our community. We may argue about what those social constructs should be, but we can no more deny that fundamental than we can conduct the discussions without using language.

So religion is not purely private. But it has a bad track record of being an excuse for controlling others. How, then, do we strike a balance? How do we act morally, without being moralistic? It is our morality that determines, for example, the validity of our compassion, the legitimacy of our actions, the validation of our intentions. Divorcing morality from religious belief is not the answer (at least for believers). But what limits do we place on how we assess what is right, and what is wrong?

I'm not out of touch, you're out of touch!

And while we are on the subject, this is downright funny:

"We are going to be revealing areas where the AARP is out of touch with a large number of their members, including the issue of marriage," Charlie Jarvis, the [chief executive of USA Next], said in a statement. "We will engage AARP with an aggressive campaign to educate the people about where they really stand on the issues and how out of touch they are with the large majority of their own members."


Nancy Thompson, a spokeswoman for AARP, said it had not taken a position on same-sex marriage. In Ohio, the organization opposed an amendment to the state's Constitution that banned such marriages, but only because the second clause blocked legal recognition of any union, potentially including unmarried heterosexuals, that approximated marriage rights, Kathy Taft-Keller, state AARP director said. Voters approved amendment.

David M. Smith , vice president of policy for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, said, "These groups think that the debate on any issue can be dismissed by bringing up gay marriage. We're probably going to see the cancellation of the N.H.L. hockey season blamed on gay marriage next."

BTW, what Ohio effectively did was to outlaw "common law" marriages. Texas allows them, on the perfectly common sense grounds that, should you lose your marriage license, you don't have to go through the hassle of seeking it out from the county clerk where you got married, which may be in another state, or even lost to antiquity. Think about it this way: "common law" marriage exists where a couple represent themselves as married. How many married couples are required to prove their status was legally recognized by an authorized officer? We have to present a driver's license, but a marriage license? The parties don't even need to present the license in a Texas divorce action. So what AARP opposed, was the removal of simple common sense.

Which should make things interesting in Ohio, should anyone wish to challenge the married status of anyone else. It also raises the question of who is really out of touch with whom.

Although I still think treating the GOP and its minions like boggarts from Harry Potter, and dismissing them as "ridiculous!," is a good tactic, too.

Hang it all, Rick Santorum, there can be but one mandate!

Greed is still not entirely "good." The idea of watching out for others is not entirely dead. Selfishness and "I got mine" don't rule at all levels of our society.

Finally, some good news breaking through on Social Security. It seems Sen. Rick Santorum is not having an easy time separating the old from the young on the Social Security "reform" issue:

Pennsylvania shows the challenge Mr. Bush's allies face as they try to neutralize retirees by promising that their benefits will not be affected. Martin Berger, president of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans, a union retirees group, said older Americans were a potent political force in Pennsylvania and would not sit out this debate. AARP is also expected to be active in states like Pennsylvania.

"We refuse to accept this concept of 'you got yours, now back off,' " Mr. Berger said. "We built the system. We believe it should be available for our children and grandchildren."

In fact, judging from polls and town meetings, many older Americans still have strong feelings about Social Security and skepticism about relying on the private marketplace for retirement security. And Democrats are appealing to those feelings.

Ms. Schwartz told her audience on Monday that the plan would "really dismantle Social Security as you know it" for children and grandchildren, and would lead to great inequities among the generations. "I'm over 55, I'm going to be O.K.; my two sisters are under 55, they're going to see their benefits cut," she said.

"It's going to be an enormous change for anyone under 55," she added. "You know how important Social Security is, right? And you know how important it is to future retirees as well."

Ms. Schwartz's audience - about 50 retirees showed up despite a messy snowfall the night before - was not a hard sell for the Democratic message. Milton Shapiro, 92, who retired from the greeting card business, said people already had opportunities to save outside Social Security, through 401(k)'s and I.R.A.'s. "Social Security is an insurance plan," Mr. Shapiro said.

After the meeting, Mr. Shapiro said he had written to Mr. Bush to suggest incremental fixes to extend Social Security's solvency while maintaining the traditional program. He got a letter back thanking him for his support. "One of his flunkies wrote it," Mr. Shapiro said with a shrug, adding that he is a devoted Democrat.

In the end, Mr. Santorum said, the people who show up and ask questions at public forums often have an agenda. He said he hoped to sway the quieter people with open minds, especially the young.

"It's really their decision - this is a program for younger workers," Mr. Santorum said. "They should fully participate in the development of this policy."

And while there might be a lot of skepticism among older Americans, he said, "I don't think it's a tough sell for the people who are going to be affected by the change, and that's the most important thing."

"I'm not going to let go of this," he said at the end of the day. "And the president's not either."

Santorum's attitude is no surprise. When the message doesn't work, blame the audience. Nixon appealed to the "silent majority" (until he didn't appeal to them as much as he thought); now Bush wants to appeal to the "silent young people." But the issue then is: who votes? This same article notes that Santorum could face a stiff challenge in 2006. And "young people" still aren't as likely to vote for SS reform, as the older voters are to vote against it.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Be Thou My Vision

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Words: Ancient Irish; translated to English by Mary Elizabeth Byrne, 1905. You may also find a version of the words in Eleanor Hull’s Poem Book of the Gael (1912).

Music: “Slane,” of Irish folk origin. Slane Hill is about ten miles from Tara in County Meath. It was on Slane Hill around 433 AD that St. Patrick defied a royal edict by lighting candles on Easter Eve. High King Logaire of Tara had decreed that no one could light a fire before Logaire began the pagan spring festival by lighting a fire on Tara Hill. Logaire was so impressed by Patrick’s devotion that, despite his defiance (or perhaps because of it?), he let him continue his missionary work. The rest is history.
I recognize the story about the music may be apocryphal; but it's worth passing on.

The definitive recorded performance is by Van Morrison, with the Chieftans, on Hymns to the Silence.

So bye-bye, Miss American Pie...

Perhaps this is the final sign that the American Sixties are truly dead; buried, now, with a stake of cannabis through the heart.

Some informed speculation on the meaning of the death of Hunter S. Thompson is that, as he himself belatedly realized, the American people really are as venal and fascistic as the current Administration. The reasoning goes that Thompson was buoyed through 1972 and the rest of Nixon's reign by the thought that Nixon represented the dark Id of the American dream, but not its superego, or even its ego. But given the state of play today, how can we say that's true? Nixon at least knew he was fighting flesh and blood enemies. George W. Bush seems to think he's on a mission from God, and is truly leading the forces of light against the forces of darkness.

Even Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather were never so vainglorious and arrogant. "Generation of Swine," indeed.

So maybe this is the end, my beautiful friend, the end. Maybe this is where all the Sixties idealism finally lies down in the gutter and gives up the ghost, where the zeitgeist finally realizes it has neither zeit nor geist left, and it is merely a useless anachronism, and is best swept away soonest.

In the end, it's a question of where you put your stake. In the end, it's a question of what you believe in most fervently, and how soon that belief lets you down. Thomas Merton said the Desert Fathers fled the collapse of civilization in the desert; that they lived in a time when culture was so corrupt and chaotic that one could only cling to a piece of the flotsam and try to ride out the flood. Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 protrayed those rapidly rising floodwaters, but it portrayed them through pragmatic American Sixties idealism; it showed us that one could be a realist and an idealist and angry as hell all at once. And it made political junkies out of almost an entire generation. A generation that believed that ideals, firecely adhered to, could save the world.

But how fierce is fierce enough? And which ideals? And when does salvation come?

"The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse--who can understand it? I, the Lord, test the mind and search the heart to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruits of their doings." Jeremiah 17:9-10

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

T.S. Eliot, "Ash Wednesday"

It's the hypocrisy, stupid....

George Bush is a good and holy man, because he plays one on TV. He understands what Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts have understood before him: sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made.

I mentioned that to my wife, and she recalled a moment from the debates that struck me, at the time, not at all. Asked about their wives, she said, Kerry gave some kind of answer that didn't impress, but Bush said, perhaps in all sincerity, that he loved his wife very much. That's what people want, she said, they want a President they think is sincere.

I'm very much afraid she is right.

Now fast-forward to last week's testimony of top administration officials before the Senate Intelligence Committee. If the war in Iraq was supposed to stem the terrorist tide, the comments of these officials made it clear that it hasn't worked.

Porter Goss, the C.I.A. director, told the committee, "Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists." He added, "These jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focus on acts of urban terrorism."

The war, said Mr. Goss, "has become a cause for extremists." In his view, "It may only be a matter of time before Al Qaeda or another group attempts to use chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons."

Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said: "Our policies in the Middle East fuel Islamic resentment. Overwhelming majorities in Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia believe the U.S. has a negative policy toward the Arab world."

An article in last Friday's Washington Post said the radical group Ansar al-Islam, which has carried out dozens of suicide bombings in Iraq, is recruiting young Muslims across Europe to join the insurgency.

So tell me again. What was this war about? In terms of the fight against terror, the war in Iraq has been a big loss. We've energized the enemy. We've wasted the talents of the many men and women who have fought bravely and tenaciously in Iraq. Thousands upon thousands of American men and women have lost arms or legs, or been paralyzed or blinded or horribly burned or killed in this ill-advised war. A wiser administration would have avoided that carnage and marshaled instead a more robust effort against Al Qaeda, which remains a deadly threat to America.

What is also dismaying is the way in which the administration has taken every opportunity since Sept. 11, 2001, to utilize the lofty language of freedom, democracy and the rule of law while secretly pursuing policies that are both unjust and profoundly inhumane. It is the policy of the U.S. to deny due process of law to detainees at the scandalous interrogation camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where prisoners, many of whom have turned out to be innocent, are routinely treated in a cruel and degrading manner.

Bob Herbert

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Second Sunday of Lent

THAT night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."--Genesis 32:22-30

HOW is it that, when there is so little time to enjoy your presence, you hide from me?--Teresa of Avila

JESUS took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" -not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.--Luke 9:28-36

WE of the Taize community look upon the transfiguration above all as the celebration of that presence of Christ which takes charge of everything in us and transfigures even that which disturbs us about ourselves. God penetrates those hardened, incredulous, even disquieting regions within us, about which we really do not know what to do. God pene-trates them with the life of the Spirit and acts upon those regions and gives them God's own face.

THIS Lent, which we observe amidst blood and sorrow, ought to presage a transfiguration of our people, a resurrection of our nation. The church invites us to a modern form of penance, of fasting and prayer, perennial Christian prac-tices, but adapted to the circumstances of each person. Lenten fasting is not the same thing in those lands where people eat well as is a Lent among our Third World peoples, undernourished as they are, living in a perpetual Lent, always fasting. For those who eat well, Lent is a call to austerity, a call to give away in order to share with those in need. But in poor lands, in homes where there is hunger, Lent should be observed in order to give to the sacrifice that is everyday life the meaning of the cross. But it should not be out of a mistaken sense of resignation. God does not want that. Rather, feeling in one's own flesh the consequences of sin and injustice, one is stimulated to work for social justice and a genuine love for the poor. Our Lent should awaken a sense of social justice.--Oscar Arnulfo Romero

I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.--Revelation 1:13-16

THE LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.--Numbers 6:24-26

Friday, February 18, 2005 the apostrophe

In writing, below, about the Salem Witch trials and rye ergot, I lost, I think, the proper issue. If the problem was literally in the bread, the accused were certainly innocent. But the real issue, and the issue Arthur Miller was getting at in his play, is the reaction of society.

Society reacts to percieved threats to society. Michel Foucault would undoubtedly show us that it is a question of how "madness" is both understood and responded to. In medieval Europe, it was largely accepted. In Puritan Salem, in the thrall of the Enlightenment, "madness" was demonic possession. So the reaction of society to the "witches" is the crux of the issue. Society responded to a perceived threat. Were these things right, or wrong? But the critical question is this: who holds society responsible for its mistakes? Later society?

Likewise, who holds the commanders responsible for misdirecting the troops? The ACLU reports today that the records of abuse just released show clearly the torture and abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan was too wide-spread to be "a few bad apples." Clearly leaders are complicit in this scandal. Leaders hold a dual role in a governmental hierarchy: they command, but they also represent. What they "represent" is society (even in totalitarian regimes). The stability of the leadership gives society its sense of security.

When the leadership is the problem, by extension, society is the problem. What then?
Who watches the watcher? Who holds the king and his advisors accountable? How does society hold itself accountable?

The Roots of Lectio

Antiphon for Lent: Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest.

PSALM 51 (50)

Have mercy, tender God, forget that I defied you.
Wash away my sin, cleanse me from my guilt.
I know my evil well, it stares me in the face,
evil done to you alone before your very eyes.
How right your condemnation! Your verdict clearly just.
You see me for what I am, a sinner before my birth.
You love those centered in truth; teach me your hidden wisdom.

Wash me with fresh water, wash me bright as snow.
Fill me with happy songs, let the bones you bruised now dance.
Shut your eyes to my sin, make my guilt disappear.
Creator, reshape my heart, God, steady my spirit.
Do not cast me aside stripped of your holy spirit.
Save me, bring back my joy, support me, strengthen my will.
Then I will teach your way and sinners will turn to you.
Help me, stop my tears, and I will sing your goodness.
Lord, give me words and I will shout your praise.

When I offer a holocaust, the gift does not please you.
So I offer my shattered spirit; a changed heart you welcome.
In your love make Zion lovely, rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then sacrifice will please you, young bulls upon your altar.

The bold lines are purely arbritrary. They struck me this morning, when I read over them. The roots of lectio divina; the first lines that strike you, and meditation on them to discover why. Or maybe just how; "why" is such an overworked question, sometimes.

The Crucible and the Crux of the Biscuit

So, it turns out that the Salem Witch Trials may have a biological, and a botanical, root. The bread did it.

Rye, commonly used to make bread, is subject to ergot, a fungus that thrives when a cold winter is followed by a wet spring. The ergot is an hallucinogen, producing: "paranoia and hallucinations, twitches and spasms, cardiovascular trouble, and stillborn children. Ergot also seriously weakens the immune system." Conditions in 1347 in Europe were ideal for ergot, and that may have caused many of the deaths from the Black Death. The symptoms of the two conditions are much alike, and the weakened immune system might well have caused many more people to die from the Black Death than otherwise would have.

And what of the witches in Salem? Dr. Lienhard answers that succinctly:
The symptoms of bewitchment are consistent, but the way those symptoms were received was not. Crazy behavior was commonplace in the medieval plague years. The mad "Dance of Death" is a theme shot through medieval iconography. The spasms suffered by ergot victims were called St. Vitus Dance. Do you remember Ingmar Bergman's wonderful movie about the plague, The Seventh Seal? It began and ended with the figure of death leading the doomed in an eerie dance across a hilltop.

Then, in the 1500s and 1600s, the symptoms of ergot were blamed on witches -- all over Europe, and finally in Massachusetts. Witch hunts hardly occurred where people didn't eat rye.

In the 1740s, the so called Age of Rationalism, ergot symptoms became a mark of holy, not demonic, possession. Visions, trances, and spasms were read as religious ecstasy. It was a period of religious revival that historians call the Great Awakening.

This raises an interesting question about responsibility. Were the people who inspired Arthur Miller's play the victims of society? of hysteria? or of a fungus? Were they alone responsible, or the community they lived in? Miller's conclusion is fairly clear; but we still don't have a model, either in public ethics or at law, that holds members of the system liable for actions of those in the system. We claim to have one, but all too often those at the end of the chain of command suffer, while those at the top of the chain, even if charged, are never convicted. Is responsibility always an individual matter? And if it isn't, by what model do we reasonably apportion blame, and exact recompense?

This morning, word comes that American troops have staged mock executions of prisoners. On what do we blame that behavior? It is too widespread to be bad individuals, just a few "bad apples"? But do we have a model for corporate liability? Do we have a valid system for making people in a system responsible, not just the people accused of the direct actions? We established the principle at Nuremburg that "only following orders" was no defense. But now are we going to blame it on the MRE's?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Religion and Public Life

The preference among most progressives, at least on blogs, is that religion play no part in public life. Which is understandable, when religion is too easily abused by its most vocal practitioners into an exclusive club, a forum from which to judge the deserving and the undeserving, the fit and the unfit. What, then, to make of this, from a man who joined one of the most rigidly ruled and strict of monastic Christian orders?

In Louisville, at the comer of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. ...This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: "Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others."
(Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image Books 1968), 156-57)

An experience, of religion, from religion, of the worth of others, and of the worth of a public life, which is life with others. Religion can provide that. Not religion alone; but it is part of the human experience, going back to the earliest human memory. More of the human race is "religious" than is not, and to long for the day when "religion" either disappears, or can be completely expelled from public life, is to long for something that will never occur, and, indeed, should never occur.

So, if it is going to be in public life, and a part of public life, how should it be accomodated to, and accomodate, public life?

What Precedent Does Jeff Gannon Set?

The Lynne Stewart case was of only passing interest to me, until the NYT Op-Ed this morning. Perhaps it is because the law is something I know something about; and perhaps because it is an arcane subject to most people; but what is going on in the law right now, should alarm every sentient American who can listen to the news.

Criminal sanctions can only be imposed by a court of law following an act of Congress. But John Ashcroft promulgated new regulations, violation of which was a violation of existing statutes which provided for criminal penalties, and today Lynne Stewart faces a possible sentence of 30 years in jail.

Elaine Cassel explains how serious this is:

Under the new regulation, the status of the client's confinement is irrelevant. He may be a detainee with no pending charges, a defendant awaiting trial, or someone serving a sentence. (Even convicted persons have legitimate needs to work with their lawyers on appeals, habeas corpus petitions, and to improve conditions of their prison confinement.)

DOJ determines the scope of the "monitoring." According to the regulation, surveillance is allowed "to the extent determined to be reasonably necessary for the purpose of deterring future acts of violence or terrorism."

What's more, there is no provision for judicial oversight of the decision to conduct surveillance, the nature and extent of the surveillance, or DOJ's determination of the boundaries of "legal" representation. Imagine leaving it up to DOJ to tell you what you can and cannot do for your client. Presumably, doing any thing more than pleading the client guilty could create grounds for accusing an attorney of aiding and abetting terrorism.

The complete facts of the case are here (also by Elaine Casell). In sum, "Stewart's supposed support for terrorism instead consisted of aiding her client in 2000 by giving a press release to Reuters News Service in Cairo, Egypt, and of being present when her co-defendants allegedly aided her client in writing a series of letters."

The critical points, according to Cassel, are these: (1) Stewart had to agree to a series of SAMS (Special Administrative Measures) in order to be able to represent her client. "What Stewart did not know what that after she signed the SAMs, the government began surveillance of her visits, first under the 1994 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant targeting her client, and then under specific regulations that allowed them to target her." And then things get interesting:

On October 31, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft, secretly amended the SAM regulations - without notice to the public. As amended, the regulations allow the Bureau of Prisons to conduct videotape and audiotape surveillance with respect to attorneys' communications with people in federal custody....

No warrant is necessary for the surveillance to occur. Nor is specific notice to the attorney or the client that they will be monitored; according to the regulations. Rather, routine notice that their communications "may" be monitored is enough.

But eventually, as we say in East Texas, we get down to the lick log:

If the attorneys are prosecuted, they can expect, at trial, to be conflated with their clients - just as Stewart was. The prosecution showed an old tape of Osama bin Laden promising revenge if Rahman were not released. In a courtroom only a short distance from Ground Zero, the tape must have meant a great deal. But it related to Rahman, not Stewart. Though Rahman may be a Bin Laden confederate, that does not mean his attorney is.

The larger issue here is not whether Stewart "stepped over the line" from lawyer to criminal co-conspirator, as the jury verdict implies. Nor is it whether terrorism fears caused the jury to reach an irrational verdict - as may well be the case. The larger issue is that those who face terrorism-related charges will now be entitled to a government-crippled defense.

The Ashcroft Justice Department showed disdain for attorneys--save its own. Unfortunately, the Gonzales Justice Department likely will be even worse on this score. Referring to the Stewart verdict, Gonzales was quick to warn that he would "pursue both those who carry out acts of terrorism and those who assist them with their murderous goals."

If you aren't afraid, you aren't paying attention.

No, seriously. Be very afraid....

The blogosphere is ringing with the story of Jeff Gannon. It should be ringing with the story of Lynne Stewart. One is a "gotcha" where political opponents of George W. Bush finally get back a bit of their own, or think they do. The other is a "gotcha" where the Administration of George W. Bush asks: "And how many lawyers does the blogosphere have?"

...the jury found that Ms. Stewart frequently made gibberish comments in English to distract prison officials who were trying to record the conversation between the sheikh and his interpreter, and that she "smuggled" messages from her jailed client to his followers.

But if the federal government had followed the law, Ms. Stewart would never have been required to agree to these rules to begin with. Just after 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft gave himself the power to bypass the lawyer-client privilege, which every court in the United States has upheld, and eavesdrop on conversations between prisoners and their lawyers if he had reason to believe they were being used to "further facilitate acts of violence or terrorism." The regulation became effective immediately.

In the good old days, only Congress could write federal criminal laws. After 9/11, however, the attorney general was allowed to do so. Where in the Constitution does it allow that?

. . . .

The Stewart conviction is a travesty. She faces up to 30 years in prison for speaking gibberish to her client and the truth to the press. It is devastating for lawyers and for any American who may ever need a lawyer. Shouldn't the Justice Department be defending our constitutional freedoms rather than assaulting them?

I should note the author of this excellent and succinct statement on the Stewart case is "a former judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, is an analyst for Fox News and the author of Constitutional Chaos: What Happens When the Government Breaks Its Own Laws." Not exactly a regular commentator on Pacifica Radio, in other words.

Bush to blogosphere: you got Jeff Gannon. We've got your lawyers.

Guess who should be staying up nights worrying?

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

I only want to say....

Posts are irregular here to begin with. But as of today, SBC is screwing with the phone lines in my part of town, which apparently affects their ability to carry the DSL signal my internet provider, well, provides. And Blogger don't seem to like dial-up.

That said, there is synchronicity (or coincidence, for the mathematically minded) in the world. Dread Pirate Roberts seems to have tumbled to a similar notion here, and since they are all good people associated with that site, I commend it to perusal by anyone who drops by here.

Especially if nothing new goes up for the next (quelle horreur!) ten days, as I am told is possible..

Quoth the Raven, "Over Here!'

Darwin saw that natural selection depended on survival of the fittest and, coming from a culture that valued competition, assumed such survival would depend on the selfishness of the individual. which is not a critique of Darwin or of his theory; that assumption was warped badly by his "followers" and led directly to the completely incorrect "Social Darwinism." It shows, rather, that the assumptions we begin with often direct us toward the evidence that supports that assumption. Known shortly after Darwin's theories became widespread, but little appreciated again because of the culture of competition, was the reality that some species depend, not on competition, but cooperation. Which brings us to the ravens.

Scientists have noted that, in the wild, ravens act altruistically, not selfishly. Carrion eaters, they have to survive in the winter when food is scarce. When a raven spots food, the bird does not, as might be expected, glut himself, or haul the food away for safekeeping. Instead, the bird will circle the food, then fly away. As long as a few days later, the bird returns with other ravens, and they all eat their fill. Thus does both the species, and the individual, survive.

Cooperation, not competition, insures their survival. The species persists, but so does the individual. Knowing other ravens will feed them in turn, each raven relies on the others for its survival, and in turn supports the group. It's a mutually sustaining practice, and one antithetical to the usual view of "survival of the fittest." "Fittest," of course, is a subtler and more complex concept than "victor" who gets all the "spoils."

"Selfish gene" theory, which is a bete noir of your humble correspondent, suffers from the same flawed assumption. The selfish gene might be pressed into conformity with this cooperative, v. competitive, reality of nature. But the real question is: is competition our only measure of existence? Is it not, rather, in cooperation that we thrive, in society and community that we grow and prosper? Aristotle's "original" ethics was about how to get along in a community, about doing what was expected and what made others prosper, in a society. "Morality" has only recently taken on the aspect of an indivdual pursuit, of something done for one's own reasons, adhered to for one's own benefit. "Morality" as an imposition by a third party is not something to be desired, but whether it ever served that purpose is unclear, conditioned as we are now by the Romantic revolution to see all things in terms of our unique and ineffable and highly individual "selfs." But are we so unique and individual after all? Are we so independent and aloof and apart from each other? Is the "public" and the "private" so easily divided into convenient categories: "politics" and "policy" in the former, "religion" and "morality" relegated only to the latter?

Are we really individuals who come together as necessary to promote the common good, but who also have a "good" that is personal and private, and not to be invaded by or overlap with the "public" sphere? Are the lines that sharp and clear and clean and easy? Is the lesson of the raven that it's fine for them, but we have more pressing issues? Or is it that cooperation runs deeper than just agreeing to a minimum standard of conduct, a minimum public order? Romanticism was a reaction to radical and fundamental changes in human society, changes that threatened to (and often did) sublimate human beings below machines. But the defiance of the individual against even society that fueled that revolution, has now become a tired reflex by which we insist our uniqueness is constantly under challenge. But are we that unique, as individuals or as a species? What are the limits of our uniqueness, what the virtues...and what the vices?

Do we learn more from the crows than that cooperation is not solely a human value? And that the birds have more in common, know more about trust, than perhaps we do?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Fortress of Self-Esteem

A hermenuetical philosophy...will try to get as close as possible to the most originary expressions of a community of faith, to those expressions through which the members of this community have interpreted their experience for the sake of themselves or for others' sake.--Paul Ricouer

Experience, of course, is the last refuge of our society. Experience is personal, and not be gainsaid. Experience is individual, and not to be examined by another. Except, of course, every community of faith interprets its experience for the sake both of the community, and its members, and for other communities it encounters.

"Community of faith" seems to refer, in some sense, to a community religious; but it needn't. "Faith" may be the conviction in things unseen, but "things unseen" is not limited to deities. Who has seen the law? And yet the "social contract" requires that we have faith in its workings. Precisely the problem, of course, encountered under the present Administration: there, faith is only in power, and the exertion of force. But without faith in the law, there is no governance: only tyranny, the rule of strength constantly applied. So faith is not the sole substance and realm of "religion."

Nor is experience mine or yours, alone. We are not born with experiences, nor are we born knowing how to interpret them. There are origins to the frameworks we give our experience; some old, some new.

In his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh uses a family and an individual to illustrate changes both within individual souls, and within societies. Waugh describes a scene aboard an ocean liner just before the outbreak of World War II, a change indicative of the shifting of tectonic plates. The narrator, Charles Ryder, is travelling on a luxury liner, and when asked by the waiter for a drink preference in the bar, asks for whisky with un-iced water. Unfortunately for Mr. Ryder's taste, as the ship has set out from America, all the water is iced. The waiter then brings him two pots: one of ice water, one of boiling water, which Ryder mixes to the acceptable temperature. "He watched and said: 'I'll remember that's how you take it, sir.' Most passengers had fads [Ryder observes]; he was paid to fortify their self-esteem."

A small point, but in the context of the story, a telling one. The family of Castle Brideshead has no problem with "self-esteem." The head of the family is the Marquis of Marchmain. His eldest son is Lord Brideshead. The family claim to the land around the castle, and to the privileges of the British upper class, go back for centuries. Theirs is a title built on money and acquisition from long ago. Indeed, the class that gauges its standing by what it owns and what it spends is represented in another character in the story, and not at all in an agreeable light. But the shif it plain. Here we get to see an originary expression, almost the birth of the "modern age." Having no historical or embedded claim to praise and approbation, but being hungry for it, we who come after the collapse of absolute authority of the "titled class" trick out our self-esteem based on our money and our most recent acquisition. And we have to be reminded, as often as possible, of how special an individual we are.

But is that experience particular, or social? Is that interpretation of what is important, most especially what is important to us, personal? Or is it provided? Are the origins of what we think and know embedded in truth? Or in what makes us comfortable? Ore our personal experiences really, in the end, so originary? Do we really keep them to ourselves, or do we inevitably interpret them for the sake of others, too? We interpret even our personal experiences through the expression of others. But where do those expressions originate?

Irony, We Hardly Knew Ye

From the LA Times:

The latest chapter in the legal history of torture is being written by American pilots who were beaten and abused by Iraqis during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. And it has taken a strange twist.

The Bush administration is fighting the former prisoners of war in court, trying to prevent them from collecting nearly $1 billion from Iraq that a federal judge awarded them as compensation for their torture at the hands of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The rationale: Today's Iraqis are good guys, and they need the money.

The case abounds with ironies. It pits the U.S. government squarely against its own war heroes and the Geneva Convention.

Many of the pilots were tortured in the same Iraqi prison, Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers abused Iraqis 15 months ago. Those Iraqi victims, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said, deserve compensation from the United States.

But the American victims of Iraqi torturers are not entitled to similar payments from Iraq, the U.S. government says.

"It seems so strange to have our own country fighting us on this," said retired Air Force Col. David W. Eberly, the senior officer among the former POWs.

The case, now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, tests whether "state sponsors of terrorism" can be sued in the U.S. courts for torture, murder or hostage-taking. The court is expected to decide in the next two months whether to hear the appeal.

Congress opened the door to such claims in 1996, when it lifted the shield of sovereign immunity — which basically prohibits lawsuits against foreign governments — for any nation that supports terrorism. At that time, Iraq was one of seven nations identified by the State Department as sponsoring terrorist activity. The 17 Gulf War POWs looked to have a very strong case when they first filed suit in 2002. They had been undeniably tortured by a tyrannical regime, one that had $1.7 billion of its assets frozen by the U.S. government.

The picture changed, however, when the United States invaded Iraq and toppled Hussein from power nearly two years ago. On July 21, 2003, two weeks after the Gulf War POWs won their court case in U.S. District Court, the Bush administration intervened to argue that their claims should be dismissed.

"No amount of money can truly compensate these brave men and women for the suffering that they went through at the hands of this very brutal regime and at the hands of Saddam Hussein," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters when asked about the case in November 2003.

Government lawyers have insisted, literally, on "no amount of money" going to the Gulf War POWs. "These resources are required for the urgent national security needs of rebuilding Iraq," McClellan said.

The case also tests a key provision of the Geneva Convention, the international law that governs the treatment of prisoners of war. The United States and other signers pledged never to "absolve" a state of "any liability" for the torture of POWs.

Former military lawyers and a bipartisan group of lawmakers have been among those who have urged the Supreme Court to take up the case and to strengthen the law against torturers and tyrannical regimes.

"Our government is on the wrong side of this issue," said Jeffrey F. Addicott, a former Army lawyer and director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. "A lot of Americans would scratch their heads and ask why is our government taking the side of Iraq against our POWs."

You simply have to read that much of the story to appreciate fully what is going on. Simply and frankly, unbelievable, indefensible, inexcusable. The war on "frivolous lawsuits" may even extend into the "War on Terror." Which "war" is now paramount, and why?

God with me lying down
God with me rising up,
God with me in each ray of light,
Nor I a ray of joy without Him,
Nor one ray without Him.

File under: "Earth, Stewardship of"

The oil age began in 1859 and peaked in 1970. The oil endowment allowed us to use the stored energy of millions of years of sunlight. Unfortunately the fossil-fuel honeymoon is almost over.

It has been estimated that without coal, oil, or natural gas, it would take several planets just like Earth to support the current number of humans living.

World oil discovery peaked in the 1960's. Since 1999, the discovery of large oil and gas fields has collapsed: sixteen in 200, eight in 2001, three in 2002, and none in 2003.

There are half a billion cars and trucks currently in use around the world.

We will not be rescued by the wished-for hydrogen economy. Our daily enjoyment of oil and gas has given us the energy equivalent of three hundred slaves per person in the industrialized nations. No combination of alternative energies will permit us to continue living the way we do, or even close to it.

All the major systems that depend on oil, including manufacturing, trade, transportation, agriculture, and the financial markets that serve them, will begin to destabilize. The boundaries between politics, economics, and collective paranoia will dissolve.

from The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler, to be released by Atlantic Monthly Press in May, 2005.

Is any of this even half-right? Well, the last paragraph is certainly correct. All of the major systems of "this modern world" certainly do depend on fossil fuels. The computer I write on, and the one you read on now, are probably powered by natural gas or coal. The amount of petroleum available to be exhumed is certainly finite, and burning coal until it all runs out is simply not feasible. Nor will coal or natural gas or even hydrogen power ships that traverse the seas; or jets that circle the globe; or trucks that haul tons of material at a time. Sooner or later, whether or not it really represents the energy of 300 slaves per person, or just one slave per person, that energy flow will stop. And as dependent as we are on such energy, no diminution in it will seem gradual or easy; it will come suddenly, it will be sharp.

And what happens then? Have we been forcing the earth to yield crops? Has the "Green Revolution" been no more than a magicians's illusion? If the earth can sustain the output, can we sustain the fertilizer needed to force that output?

What happens when half a billion cars and trucks in the world go dry? What happens when energy supplies are simply reduced, when demand fully exceeds available supply? Will a million million Chinese simply take up their bicycles again? Will the rest of the world accept darkness so we can bathe in light?

Bless to me, O God,
My soul and my body;
Bless to me, O God,
My belief and my condition;

Bless to me, O God,
My heart and my speech,
And bless to me, O god,
The handling of my hand;

Strength and busyness of morning,
Habit and temper of modesty,
Force and wisdom of thought,
And Thine own path, O God of virtues,
Till I go to sleep this night;

Thine own path, O God of virtues,
Till I go to sleep this night.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Valentine's Day Movie Suggestions

Coincidence? I think not.

Today is the 75th Anniversary of the release of Dashiel Hammett's groundbreaking "hard-boiled" detective novel, The Maltese Falcon.

You humble correspondent just happens to own a copy of the classic John Huston movie, on DVD. Sold to him together with the other classic Valentine's Day movie: Casablanca.

So now there is no excuse not to enjoy both of them this evening.

Happy Valentine's Day

This kind of thing just fascinates me:

For thousands of years, love, passion and marriage were considered a rare and usually undesirable combination. Valentine's Day was originally envisioned by the Roman Catholic Church as a check on sexual passion. Even though young people centuries later turned the holiday into an occasion to celebrate romantic love and sexual attraction, few of them expected to marry on the basis of such irrational emotions. Almost no one believed that falling in love was a great and glorious thing that should lead to marriage, or that marriage was a place to achieve sexual fulfillment.

Read it. Then give her that box of chocolates and the Hallmark card (or him; hey, whatever!), and pay no attention to the historian behind the curtain.

It's a lovely idea. Even if it does make us all nuts and keep the divorce lawyers in business.

Mea Culpa, mea culpa...


having invited you to the new blog (link below), I went there myself and, as I said, threw a snit.

It's been a bad day.

Lent always does this to me.

Any other excuses?

No. Just pay no attention to your churlish host, or at least don't follow his example. Go and enjoy the company and the food and the conversation. I, at this point, am not fit for human society. Eh, it happens. Kind of like werewolves and full moons, only not as often. Time to recharge the spiritual/emotional/philosophical batteries. Fortunately, I downloaded Rick Wakeman's "Six Wives of Henry VIII," which is proving an excellent restorative (owned the album way back when, traveled to a Wakeman concert when I was in college; halcyon days).

And now I'm getting far more personal than this blog deserves. The state of mind, by the way, usually means something needs to be worked out, and worked out on a very deep level. Not the time, clearly, to be engaging in new conversations.

Oh, for a fortune cookie say, two days ago....

Sunday, February 13, 2005

An invitation

From cervantes, that deserves wider dissemination:

Hey Robert M., I hope you'll stop by and be a part of a new project that some of your fans have started, maybe you already know about it. And everyone who comes here is invited as well. You'll probably hear also from some of the other participants but I figured I'd put my two cents in here.

dialogue concerning the two chief world systems

I've already made a rude opening comment, for which I must repent later (got to stay out of dialogues regarding "faith" and "genetics." It's not science, and it's not theology. Aaargh!) But this should be interesting.

First Sunday of Lent

The question of Lent is the question of our age: are we spiritual creatures, or not?

Unfortunately, we turn that issue into an either/or: there must be a dichotomy, a unitary fundamental that underlies all appearances and is consistent no matter external circumstances. It is our Hellenistic heritage. Thales of Miletus observed the rain showering the grass, the cow eating the grass, and then the cow giving milk, and concluded the underlying fundamental common to all these things was water. So, he surmised, all things are primarily and fundamentally water. Because ex nihilo nihil fit, and like can only know (and be; but phenomenology comes many centuries later) like. Socrates was on basically the same ground in Phaedo, when he argued for the immortality of souls from the existence of opposites. The opposites are not truly opposite, but merely aspects of the same whole.

Ex nihilo nihil fit is sound enough; but must everything be reducible to one known? Is there only this admixture of elements, but one is primary and at least first among equals?

Are we, as beings, fundamentally material? Or psychological? Or spiritual? Is that what we should be looking for? Purity of heart may be to will one thing, but it purity of being to only be one thing?

An issue worthy of at least 40 days meditation.

"The spirit cannot endure the body when overfed, but, if underfed, the body cannot endure the spirit."--Francis de Sales, 17th century

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Faithful Genes

Nicholas Kristof has a column up on the subject of "genetically based faith" (not to be confused with faith-based genetics). I'll add a link when I'm back on the home computer, but for now, let's address the topic this way:

As Henry Ford said of history: bunk.

The first problem is: what is faith? How do we measure it?

The millimeter is an abstract concept, like faith. It doesn't exist in reality, except as an idea. But it can be defined in terms of angstroms of light. What similar physical referent can we give for faith?

The millimeter is the same for the Muslim, the Buddhist, the Taoist, the Christian, the Jew, the agnostic, the atheist. Can the same be said for faith?

And as long as we are looking for a "faith gene," or at least a genetic predisposition to "faithfulness," is there a rationality gene as well? A "scientific" gene? A "lover's" gene? A "sociable" gene?

Faith is a culturally determined concept as ill defined as "love" or "hate" or even "peace" (is the latter merely the absence of war? Something else? If so, what?) Indeed, the basis for the conversation puts me in mind of the discussions of Artificial Intelligence and Intelligence Quotient. First thing to be determined in those discussions (yes, you guessed it): what is "intelligence"? How do we measure it? What is its physical referent? Until we can do that, it is rather difficult to scientifically establish that intelligent either exists, in humans or machines, or that it is measurable.

It demeans both science and the human experience to treat what are basically reductio ad absurdum arguments as if they were legitimate.

And don't get me started on "selfish gene" theory!*

*(which is just the great grand-daddy of these absurdly unreasonable ruminations)

Friday, February 11, 2005

Friday after Ash Wednesday

GOD said to Noah: "The end has come for all things of flesh."--Genesis 6:13

ONE does not appreciate the sight of earth until one has traveled through a flood. . . . As we progress up the river, habitations become more frequent but are yet still miles apart. Nearly all of them are deserted, and the outhouses floated off. To add to the gloom, almost every living thing seems to have departed, and not a whistle of a bird nor the bark of the squirrel can be heard in this solitude. Sometimes a morose gar will throw his tail aloft and disappear in the river, but beyond this everything is quiet-the quiet of dissolution. Down the river floats now a neatly whitewashed henhouse, then a cluster of neatly split fence rails, or a door and a bloated carcass, solemnly guarded by a pair of buzzards, the only bird to be seen, which feast on the carcass as it bears them along. A picture frame in which there was a cheap lithograph of a soldier on horseback, as it floated on, told of some hearth invaded by the water and despoiled of this ornament.--Mark Twain

PICTURES of the temptation of Jesus often show him in a bleak and barren place, the only living being among bare, gloomy rocks. Mark's reference to animals reminds us that the reality was probably quite different. We may imagine Jesus sitting among rabbits and wildflowers perhaps visited at night by a lion and in the morning by birds who came to investigate this new, and so quiet, dweller in their wilderness. Not only human beings, but through them all created things, are called into the communion made possible when the power of the spirit in Jesus broke through barriers of possessiveness and lust for power. Satan's plausible suggestion is that if we want good things we must make sure we keep them to ourselves. Someone else might take some. But Noah's ark is the sign that we can only be saved together. Those who refuse untidy and unpredictable intimacy, clinging to their right to control and manipulate, drown in the water which they cannot control. This water is the water of life, and life is the spirit that grows and flows and bears up the ark on its bouyant surface.--Rosemary Houghton

EVEN before the introduction of Lent it had been customary to fast before Easter: one day, two days, even a week. But even when Lent was generally accepted, not all of its forty days [from the First Sunday of Lent until Holy Thursday] were at first regarded as fast days. In Rome toward the end of the fourth century a fast of three weeks was usual; and even when people began to fast on all the other days of Lent they still made an exception of the Sundays. Because Lent contains six Sundays, there thus remained thirty-four fast days leading up to the ancient paschal triduum. But if Good Friday and Holy Saturday (which were also fast days) were counted as well, that made thirty-six days in all-just one tenth of a year. In this fashion, as was observed with a certain satisfaction (for example, by John Cassian and Gregory the Great), one paid a tithe of the year to God. But since the seventh century considerable importance began to be attached to the idea that in Lent there ought to be the full number of forty fast-days. It became necessary, therefore, to take in four days from the preceding week; and thus Ash Wednesday came to be the beginning of Lent.--Josef Jungmann

FOODSTORES in earliest spring are at their lowest. Animals are calving or laying eggs. Lenten fasting has its origins in these rhythms of nature. For forty days we remind ourselves that the earth is like Noah's ark, all creatures gravely dependent on each other. Lenten fasting is a participation in the new birth of this season. Only by fasting together can we preserve each other's lives, as well as the lives of generations yet to be born.--Keeping Lent, Triduum, and Eastertide

Only the despised...

AS Jon Stewart said, "You're killing the country."

More than any of his predecessors, President Bush understands the conventions of journalism and the traditions of political debate. These require that respectful attention be paid to whatever claims the president makes. Journalists who have the temerity to question whether the claims ring true (or whether the numbers add up) can count on being pummeled as liberal ideologues, even when they are only seeking the facts.

The president's claims are thus duly reported, and most of the challenges come from the political opposition. Then the administration defends itself (as in, "administration officials dismissed the criticism as partisan carping"). Even when the most diligent and numbers-savvy budget reporters try to explain what's going on -- and bless all of them for trying -- the truth is usually lost in the cacophony of claims and counterclaims.

E. J. Dionne

This is not new, just different. Observers as disparate as Charles Dickens and Jules Verne, as recently as the 19th century, found an American political culture that was long on producing heat, short on producing light. The cries of "partisanship" as a way to end discussion of public concerns did not begin with the Gingrich Republicans, and is not a creation of post-Reagan era politics. What Mr. Dionne identifies is just the latest variation on an old American theme. As Ecclesiastes said, there is nothing new under the sun.

Mr. Dionne goes on to discuss the budget, and the deficit, which shows no signs of shrinking or even being reduced under this President, and reaches this conclusion:
The whole point (and, yes, this happened in the 1980s, too) is to create deficits, followed by a "crisis," followed by demands for cuts in domestic programs, especially in those "federal outlays" for low-income people.
In other words, the very people in charge are seeking only to preserve their power and their position. And if, indeed, "'twas ever thus," then I am haunted once more by these words, attributed to Jesus of Nazareth by Jon Dominic Crossan:

"Only the despised are blameless. Only the wretched are guiltless."

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

AND whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.--Matthew 6:16-18

THROUGH greed we underwent the first stripping, overcome by the bitter tasting of the fruit, and we became exiles from God. But let us turn back to repentance and,
fasting from the food that gives us pleasure, let us cleanse our senses on which the enemy makes war. Let us strengthen our hearts with the hope of grace, and not with foods which brought no benefit to those who trusted in them. Our food shall be the Lamb of God on the holy and radiant night of his Awakening.--Byzantine Vespers

SUCH exercises as fasting cannot have their proper effect unless our motives for practicing them spring from personal meditation. We have to think what we are doing, and the reasons for our action must spring from the depths of our freedom and be enlivened by the transforming power of Christian love. Otherwise, our self-imposed sacrifices are likely to be pretenses, symbolic gestures without real interior meaning. Sacrifices made in this formalistic spirit tend to be mere acts of external routine performed in order to exorcise interior anxiety and not for the sake of love. In that case, however, our attention will tend to fix itself upon the insignificant suffering which we have piously elected to undergo, and to exaggerate it in one way or the other, either to make it seem unbearable or else to make it seem more heroic than it actually is. Sacrifices made in this fashion would be better left unmade. It would be more sincere as well as more religious to eat a full dinner in a spirit of gratitude than to make some picayune sacrifice of part of it, with the feeling that one is suffering martyrdom.--Thomas Merton

A strict observance of Lent made possible a pleasure which is unknown to us now, that of "un-Lenting" at breakfast on Easter Day. If we look into the matter closely, we find that the basic elements of our pleasures are difficulty, privation, and the desire for enjoyment. All these came together in the act of breaking abstinence, and I have seen two of my great-uncles, both serious, sober men, half swoon with joy when they saw the first slice cut from a ham, or a pate disembowelled, on Easter Day. Now, degenerate race that we are, we could never stand up to such powerful sensations!--Anthelme Brillat-Savarin