Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Doing my best to cheer up, here.

THERE is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment, for these are from the hand of God.--Ecclesiastes 2:24

CARNIVAL celebrates the unity of our human race as mortal creatures, who come into this world and depart from it without our consent, who must eat, drink, defecate, belch, and break wind in order to live, and procreate if our species is to survive. Our feelings about this are ambiguous. To us as individuals, it is a cause for rejoicing that we are not alone, that all of us, irrespective of age or sex or rank or talent, are in the same boat.--W.H. Auden

IN Europe some of the most famous celebrations of the three days before Ash Wednesday occur at Nice in France (La Bataille des FIeurs), Binche in Belgium (where there is a rewarding museum on the worldwide cult of Carnival), and Cologne and Munich in Germany. In all these spectacular events, the mask plays a prominent part, symbolizing as it always does the opportunity for licence, buffoonery, ribald jokes and a general relaxation of inhibitions.

From ancient times the importance of Carnival in Venice, which lasted for almost two months from Christmas until Ash Wednesday, was really based on the tacit participation and consent of the rulers of the city. Political despotism was suspended, and a mask could provide a protective cover for all types of games, adulteries, love affairs and conspiracies under the guise of popular merrymaking.

One of the most remarkable of all European carnivals-the Fasnacht of Basle in Switzerland-is however celebrated after Lent has begun. In the sixteenth century the church banned all masking, and the fiercely independent Baslers were so furious that they decided to double their sins and celebrate Carnival on the Monday after Ash Wednesday.--Lionel Lambourne

COME, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.
Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
and let no flower of spring pass us by.
Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither. Let none of us fail to share in our revelry;
because this is our portion, and this our lot.--Wisdom 2:6-9

We shall have mead
We shall have wine
We shall have feast
We shall have sweetness and milk
Honey and milk,
Wholesome ambrosia,
Abundance of that,
Abundance of that.

We shall have harp,
We shall have lute,
We shall have horn.
We shall have sweet psaltery
Of the melodious strings
And the regal lyre,
Of the songs we shall have,
Of the songs we shall have.

And the King of kings,
And Jesus Christ,
And the Spirit of peace
And of grace be with us
Of grace be with us.--Celtic blessing on Ash Eve

So much depends on a red wheelbarrow

Or on what the meaning of "is" is.

The story of the death toll in Iraq last week from the Washington Post is already being picked up around the world:

SECTARIAN violence unleashed by last week's bombing of a Shia shrine has killed more than 1300 Iraqis, making the past few days the deadliest of the war outside of major US offensives.

A report in The Washington Post based on figures from Baghdad's main morgue said the death toll from the blizzard of violence following the shrine attack was more than three times higher than the figure previously reported by the US military.

Last night, a further 27 people were killed and more than 100 wounded when three bombs went off in quick succession in Baghdad Shia neighbourhoods.

The Post reported that hundreds of unclaimed dead lay at the morgue at midday on Monday - blood-caked men who had been shot, knifed, garrotted or apparently suffocated by the plastic bags still over their heads.
And is already being denied:

In an unusual statement, issued in English, the office of Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, said media reports that the death toll was well over 1,000 were "inaccurate and exaggerated."

But the size of the crowd outside the morgue suggests the death toll following the Golden Mosque shrine attack could be higher in a country where keeping accurate statistics is extremely difficult.
Issued in English? Gee, I wonder who that statement was meant for?

And how long has this been going on? Read between the lines:

It was a familiar scene outside the morgue. Grim-faced men and teenagers waited to load up crude wooden coffins bearing the names of mosques which have loaned caskets to the relatives of victims who could not afford their own.

Some people said two or three of their relatives had been caught up in the latest orgy of killing to hit Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled former President Saddam Hussein in 2003.
And, as Holden points out, Bush thinks its all the fault of the Iraqis:

PRESIDENT BUSH: The United States strongly condemns the bombing of holy sites. We believe people should be allowed to worship freely. Obviously, there are some who are trying to sow the seeds of sectarian violence. They destroy in order to create chaos. And now the people of Iraq and their leaders must make a choice. The choice is chaos or unity. The choice is a free society, or a society dictated by the -- by evil people who will kill innocents.
You'd never know the US started this mess by first kicking over the anthill. There is not one statement of responsibility in that quote. The Idea remains sacrosanct.

As it did for William Kristol; as it did for William Buckley. As it has done since Vietnam. The Idea is never wrong. It is the execution in which people fail. But never "we;" never "us:" always "them."

The Iraqi office of Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari all bus asks: "Who you gonna believe? Me? or your lyin' eyes?" And it is all in defense of the idea that, since Samarrah, Iraq has not descended into civil war, which is apparently the ne plus ultra of societal chaos, the point at which even Kristol and Buckley agree, we must withdraw.

And so we come back to this legalistic matter of definition. Is it a "civil war" because the Powers That Be say so? Or because the death toll for Iraqis is finally being taken seriously by the US MSM? Or because it's exceeded 1000 in one week?If so, then we just lower the reported number, right? Remain calm, all is well?Is Iraq actually more dangerous now than before Samarra? If so, by how much? On what scale do we measure chaos and atrocity and declare one state worse than the other?

Or am I just talking to myself? It doesn't matter, in the end. The Reuter's article, ironically, gets it right:

Haedar Nabil has been searching for his brother for four days. He returns
home each night in despair and then starts looking again at dawn.

"We can only rely on God's mercy," he said.

I Wish I Was In New Orleans

Scout has me turning this way. Or, rather, she crystallizes what has been bothering me for sometime, something I miss from parish ministry, from the daily grind and responsibility of being involved with ordinary people in their ordinary lives, and trying to see byond that to the "larger picture."

But scout prime, especially here, in her post from New Orleans about yesterday (Lundi Gras), stirred the beast of my conscience from its hibernation, and it is driving me to reconsider many things, and speak critically of many of them.

But for now, go read scout's post. This is what real writing is. This is what blogs exist for.

Compared to this, we should all be silent, and simply provide links to words like hers, words that give us an idea of what reality really feels like.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Law & Order

George Will yesterday, arguing that Iraq is now in "civil war".

Now, does Iraq have a government? Let me just postulate the question. A government exists when it has a reasonable monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. As long as the militias are out there, the existence of an Iraqi government is questionable. Think of Los Angeles. If Los Angeles said the Bloods and the Crips are going to be tolerated, they’re going to be armed and police their areas and enforce the law in certain areas, what sense would Los Angeles have of government?
Think Progress highlights the last sentence in that quote, but I'm drawn to the postulate itself. It's the "Old West" idea of governance, one fostered by Clint Eastwood movies and what has become the undeniably American mantra that "might makes right." I caught it again last night watching an otherwise execrable exercise in film-making and mayhem, "Swordfish."

John Travolta's character justifies his crimes (murder, robbery, destruction of massive amounts of private and government property) on the grounds that he is protecting America against terrorism, that indeed his violence protects ordinary Americans from the violence terrorists would unleash on us. In fact, he unleashes greater violence on them, to convince them that the crime ain't worth the price. Sean Connery got to say it better in "The Untouchables," but it's the basic idea of escalation: they send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue, etc. Except "The Untouchables" ended with Capone convicted of tax evasion, and the impetus for his mob activity removed when Prohibition was repealed. So much for "the Chicago way."

"Swordfish" ends with a yacht blowing up off the coast of Monaco, making America safer by taking out one more terrorist. Terrorists, as we all know, don't live in caves in Afghanistan or neighborhoods in Pakistan, or in war-torn Iraq: they lounge in luxury on yachts, like all venal criminals. They don't blow themselves up in suicide missions, they live the life of Reilly, and so have something to lose when Americans engage in massive, if stealthy, retaliation.

Everyone is just like us, you see. Rich, violent, corrupt, and susceptible to pressure. That's why, when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil; because we're the meanest SOB in a valley full of SOB's just like us, except not quite as mean. More fool them. And that, of course, is what government is: the meanest SOB in the valley. The one with the most legitimate claim to the use of violence. Because violence is what provides the basic order to society. Except, as we have learned, as we should have learned, the world is nothing like that, and a poet, not a warrior, turns out to have been right: "Those to whom violence is done/Do violence in return."

Consider again what Will is saying. Look at his example: "If Los Angeles said the Bloods and the Crips are going to be tolerated, they’re going to be armed and police their areas and enforce the law in certain areas, what sense would Los Angeles have of government?" Under Will's scenario, what sense of government should L.A. have now, except that but for the strength and persistence of the LAPD, the "thin blue line," LA would be a place of lawlessness and chaos?

Which is, we all tell ourselves, "how the West was won." Except that's only true in the dime novels of the 19th century, and the cowboy westerns which were based on those novels. In those stories "might makes right," and the sheriff with the fastest gun rules righteously. The problem is, it has almost nothing to do with the settling of the American frontier whatsoever. The West wasn't settled by strong but righteous men. It was settled because humans prefer order over chaos, stable society over lawless frontier. People took society with them; society didn't follow on and impose rule on savages.

Except it did, didn't it? That was once part of the justification of American expansionism: "White Man's Burden." It was our duty, just like our British cousins had in India and Asia, to bring civiliazation to the "savages," and to resort to violence if they resisted. The story continues to feed our native fascism to this day, as we glory in action heroes like Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, rugged individuals who alone can protect us from the scourge of evil men who want to take away what we have. It certainly feeds our native xenophobia and racism to think that we only subdue the "savage races" and the forces of evil by force of arms. After all, isn't that why we went to war in Iraq?

That is also why our enterprise in Iraq has been such a singular failure. Governance is a matter of covenant, not coercion. Saddam Hussein had enough of an arrangement with enough members of Iraq to maintain control, and used his military or police power to coerce the rest. Relying almost solely on coercion, the US has been singularly unable to control events even within the Green Zone of Baghdad. We have proven, once and for all, that governance is not a matter of superior firepower or greater military strength because, like the safe that cannot be breached or the code that cannot be broken, where there is sufficient will to penetrate, a way to undermine such security will be found. A social contract only works so long as enough members of the covenant agree to it. But a coercive arrangement only works so long as sufficient power can be brought to bear, and can be maintained. It turns out that Iraq is evidence that "sufficient power" is like having "enough money." In the case of an ongoing need to spend, "enough money" is never enough. In the absence of the agreement of enough parties to the social contract, "enough power" is never attainable.

So perhaps it is time to rethink the American credo that "Might makes right." Perhaps it is time to consider that we didn't build our country that way, why do we think we can build another on those principles?

Death and Torture

[saving this from dusty obscurity]

We are sure that there are "universal" values that have always been respected by "decent people," or that what has changed is a result of "progress." We consider slavery universally reviled, even as it is still practiced in some parts of the world. We abhor torture, even as we teach other countries (our neighbors to the south, for example) to do it. We are quite sure we long ago gained the pinnacle of civilization, and yet children did not begin to be valued as "little adults" until after the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the "middle class." Child labor laws were tacitly upheld by Teddy Roosevelt (he refused to meet with "Mother Jones" when she lead a "Children's Crusade" march to his summer home in upstate New York when he was President). It was later into the 20th century than most of us think before child labor was outlawed. When Jesus said "you must become like a child" to enter the basiliea tou theou, most NT scholars today agree that meant become as worthless as a child in 1st century Palestine, not innocent as a lamb in 19th century Britain (and then only if you were white and aristocratic).

But surely on more "serious" issues, such as death and torture, there has been agreement throughout time, or at least throughout Western culture?

... the modern liberal’s revulsion toward torture is unusual. As Nietzsche and Foucault remind us, through most of human history there was no taboo on torture in military and juridical contexts, and so no need to repress the infantile sadism that nature has be-queathed us. Indeed, Judith Shklar notes a remarkable fact, namely that cruelty did not seem to figure in classical moral thought as an important vice: "[O]ne looks in vain for a Platonic dialogue on cruelty. Aristotle discusses only pathological bestiality, not cruelty. Cruelty is not one of the seven deadly sins . . . . The many manifestations of cupidity seem, to Saint Augustine, more important than cruelty." It is only in relatively modern times, Shklar thinks, that we have come to "put cruelty first"—that is, regard it as the most vicious of all vices. She thinks that Montaigne and Montesquieu, both of them proto-liberals, were the first political philosophers to think this way; and, more generally, she holds that "hating cruelty, and putting it first [among vices], remain a powerful part of the liberal consciousness." Shklar also observes that putting cruelty first, as liberals do, incurs genuine moral costs: "It makes political action difficult beyond endurance, may cloud our judgment, and may reduce us to a debilitating misanthropy . . . ."
David Luban (pdf file) makes a compelling argument. His argument, in a nutshell, is this: "I am arguing that torture is a microcosm, raised to the highest level of intensity, of the tyrannical political relationships that liberalism hates the most." The arguments against it, he points out, are based on five "illiberal" motives: cruelty; victor's pleasure ("The predominant setting for torture has always been military victory. The victor captures the enemy and tortures him."); terror ("a practice that exists to make it easier to subdue and tyrannize people is fundamentally hostile to liberals’ political philosophy."); punishment ("Foucault argues that the abolition of punitive torture had little to do with increased humanitarianism. Instead, it had to do with a change in the distribution of crime in Western Europe. As the West grew more prosperous, property crimes eclipsed crimes of passion as a social problem. This led to calls for a milder but more certain system of punishments. The trouble with torture is that when the punishment is so awful, the temptation to mercy becomes too great. Imprisonment, out of sight and out of mind, replaced the public spectacle of torment."); and for extracting confessions.

Luband's thesis is to undermine the "ticking time bomb" scenario (which he does quite well), so we will leave him there and turn our attention to death. How do you see death? Your answer depends not on your humanity, but on your culture. For example:

Historian Philippe Ariès reminds us that death was a part of life. Medieval and early modern romances, chronicles and memoirs speak with one voice: when death knocked, the door was opened and the visitor was welcomed in remarkably similar ways.

Organization was essential. The dying person was responsible for the proper execution of his final exit. The doctor's principal task was not to delay death, but to guarantee that it was welcomed properly. And, indeed, the doctor wasn't alone. Family and friends gathered for the ceremony and the doctor was simply a face in the crowd. One and all understood their roles and the lesson that was imparted: they, too, would eventually be called.

The intimate relationship between life and death unfolded in unexpected places. The medieval and early modern cemetery was no less public place than the deathbed. For centuries, the activities we associate with the marketplace commonly took place in cemeteries, amongst the tombs and charnel houses. Merchants and scribes, musicians and dancers, jugglers and actors and, gamblers and the like sought to make a living in the company of the dead. When Hamlet clowns about with Yorick's skull, he's exceptional only in the fluency of his language.
This is where it gets interesting, of course. Is human nature really a constant across time? If so, in what? Our fear of death? That's another "explanation" for religion by the non-religious. But apparently the people of the "Middle Ages," a time dominated by the Church and death, were afraid of neither. "Memento mori" may have been the medieval equivalent of "Have a Nice Day," not a grim reminder of doom and despair. Death was certainly not a boon companion; but that which you can do nothing about, you soon learn to live with. It may be another irony of the law of unintended consequences that our ability to further and further postpone death has made us even more afraid of it than our ancestors. In some ways, surely, we are better off. But in some ways....

I used to live no more than 50 feet from a graveyard. Most visitors to my house considered that "creepy" if not "morbid." Graveyards used to surround churches, which were the center of social life in a community. Now even hospitals are out of the way places we only enter as patients or as family members. Graveyards are as far from sight as possible, and funeral homes handle burials because we don't want our worship spaces "tainted" with the memories of our loved one's last repose (I actually had many church members tell me this, as a reason not to hold a funeral at the church, and, indeed, most of the funeral services I have done have been in funeral homes).

We are terrified of death. When death knocks, we flee. Robert Redford, in his one appearance on "The Twilight Zone," actually played Death knocking on an old woman's door. She spends the episode desperately rejecting his entreaties, until she finally realizes he is not an enemy. She finally yields to the inevitable. Per this historian, our ancestors could not even have imagined such a tale.

And we can still do little more about death than our ancestors could. We despise torture because, as Luban points out, it violates our sense of individual sovereignty, an idea that is fundamental to our identity as human beings. Is fear of death as innate as abhorrence of torture? Perhaps not. Notice the connection between these two, a connection lost and sought to be regained today: community.

The liberal emphasis on cruelty focusses on the treatment of the individual, the 'sovereign' whom we have all learned to honor thanks to Romanticism. Cruelty is wrong because it involves inflicting intentional pain by an individual on an individual. Cruelty is what we accuse God of, when we suffer. Ivan Ilyich's burning question as he dies is not, "why death?", but, "why me?" What have I done to deserve such suffering? Job never accuses God of cruelty; nor do his friends, or even his wife. And yet we do. Are these things right? or wrong?

Is it possible to elevate cruelty to too great a vice? Don't we abhor torture because it is cruel? And yet we don't blink at cruelty imposed on 'others.' Cruelty is the worst of vices, but it is narrowly confined: it is what is done intentionally. Death in war is unintentional. Suffering in US captivity is "unsanctioned" or the fault of a "few bad apples." We blame the individual, never the system, and so the cruelty of poverty passes us by, the cruelty of hunger and homelessness escapes us. We don't blame the victims of Katrina when they are on their rooftops, but when they are in another city, we begin to wonder when they are going to take care of themselves. The cruelty of the circumstances, of the artificial constructs of cities and economies and societies, is never to blame. It is always the person, and since systems cannot intend to harm, only people, well, there really is nothing cruel about it.

Death is never systematic, either, except when it is. Death from warfare, from pestilence, from poverty, doesn't disturb us. We hear of 200 dead in Iraq this week and, like the body counts from Vietnam, we don't throw up in our morning coffee, we reach for the cinnamon rolls. And yet when it is our turn to die, or for a loved one to die....

Death is harsh, of course. It is painful, it is sad, it is cruel. But is that because it is the nature of death to be so, or because of the nature of our understanding, our cultural response to death? What if we greeted it as our ancestors did? What if we welcomed it as a part of life? How could we do that, except in community?

The horror of death for Ivan Ilyich is that death is for him alone. Only at the very end, literally in extremis, when he screams for three days without ceasing, but is unaware of his screaming, only then does he reconcile with his family, if only in his own heart, and only then does he welcome the inevitability of death. Indeed, at that point death is gone, it is, in the words of John Donne, "no more." Death itself dies. Why? Because he is not alone.

Cruelty is cruel because it marks us as alone, as separate, as wholly apart. Cruelty is the worst vice because it is inflicted personally upon each of us, personally. But what if who we are were less important than who we are among? What if who we are were less important than who we were with? What if what we shared mattered more than what we have done, acquired, accomplished, made? What if it were more about each other, and less about each one of us? From where we are now, without "going back" (as if we could), would we be closer to removing death's sting? Would we get closer to abolishing torture and cruelty?

Or are we doomed to always struggle for power, always argue over who has the right to be in control?

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Here is the church

without a steeple
In the twilight of the biggest snowstorm in New York City's history, the pews of a rented Baptist church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan were packed for the Rev. Timothy J. Keller's fourth sermon of the day.

The 600 or so who braved the snow for the evening service got what they had come to expect — a compelling discourse by Dr. Keller, this time on Jesus' healing of the paralytic, that quoted such varied sources as C. S. Lewis, The Village Voice and the George MacDonald fairy tale "The Princess and the Goblin." It was the kind of cogent, literary sermon that has helped turn Dr. Keller, a former seminary professor whose only previous pulpit experience was at a small blue-collar church in rural Virginia, into the pastor many call Manhattan's leading evangelist.

Over the last 16 years, Dr. Keller's church, Redeemer Presbyterian, has swelled to 4,400 attendees, mostly young professionals and artists who do not fit the prototypical evangelical mold, spread out across four different services on Sundays. Although Dr. Keller, 55, is hardly a household name among believers outside New York — in part because he has avoided the Christian speaking circuit — his renown is growing in pastoral circles and in the movement to establish or "plant" new churches, a trend among evangelicals these days.
But take away the pastor, and where are all the people?

A looming question for Redeemer, though, is how much of what Dr. Keller and his team have built can be maintained when he ultimately exits the stage. When he was out for several months in the summer of 2002 while undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer, attendance dipped noticeably.
So, the ecclesiological question, buried until the end of the story is: is this a church? Or a personality cult?

The article focusses on the intellectual preaching of Dr. Keller, and I'm sure he does a fine job.

The Rev. Stephen Um, whose church in Boston, Citylife, began four years ago and now attracts about 500 people every Sunday, said he and other pastors had embraced Dr. Keller's emphasis on delving into the prevailing culture almost as much as into the biblical text. Along these lines, Dr. Um is just as likely to cite a postmodern philosopher like Richard Rorty or Michel Foucault in his sermons, as he is, say, Paul's Letter to the Philippians.
Well, to be honest, I'm as likely to make the same cites. But that's not entirely the issue, is it? John Donne was reportedly a famous preacher. So was Jonathan Edwards.

But is church about the preacher? Or about being a Christian? The latter is what "church growth" is all about, among evangelicals as well as any other Protestant (and probably even Catholic) church (I just saw a sign at a neighborhood Catholic church advertising an evangelizing program, "Alpha," which is now available as "Alpha for Catholics." So I wonder...) .

Believing new churches are the best way to produce new Christians, evangelicals are making a major push to start new churches around the world, said Edmund Gibbs, a professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary outside Los Angeles.
There is still a very legitimate question, though: are we creating Christians, or creating church-goers? Making disciples? Or building up institutions?

The Catholic church grew by being the church of the empire. The Protestant churches grew by being the churches of preachers, but those preachers represented their denominations, not themselves. We live, now, in a post-denominational world. Denominations no longer define us, nor can they. It is the major question of a post-Christian world(i.e., one in which not every member of society is expected to profess the Christian faith): now what do we do? It may be that church growth is nothing more than the blush on the cheek of a dying age.

If so, what then?

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

This, by the way, is the new meme:

BILL KRISTOL: There would not be civil war if Zarqawi had not spent the last 2 1/2 years – had ex-Saddamists with him, very skillfully going on the offensive slaughtering Shia in Karbala, now blowing up the mosque.

CHRIS WALLACE: They’re there. There are going to be more mosques to blow up. What do you do about the terrorists?

KRISTOL: Kill them. Defeat them.

CHRIS WALLACE: We’ve been trying.

KRISTOL: We’ve been trying, and our soldiers are doing terrifically, but we have not had a serious three-year effort to fight a war in Iraq as opposed to laying the preconditions for getting out.
William F. Buckley said the same thing, though nobody noticed:

And the administration has, now, to cope with failure. It can defend itself historically, standing by the inherent reasonableness of the postulates. After all, they govern our policies in Latin America, in Africa, and in much of Asia. The failure in Iraq does not force us to generalize that violence and antidemocratic movements always prevail. It does call on us to adjust to the question, What do we do when we see that the postulates do not prevail — in the absence of interventionist measures (we used these against Hirohito and Hitler) which we simply are not prepared to take? It is healthier for the disillusioned American to concede that in one theater in the Mideast, the postulates didn't work. The alternative would be to abandon the postulates. To do that would be to register a kind of philosophical despair. The killer insurgents are not entitled to blow up the shrine of American idealism.
Of course, he had to reach back across three wars to do it, but he found his historical parallel. In a war unlike any other the U.S. has been engaged in since, and one conducted unlike any other the U.S. has been engaged in, since.

And engaged for radically different reasons. But that doesn't stop him from blaming the execution, rather than executing the idea.

This is the Vietnam "baby killer" meme all over again. No one spat on returning GI's and called them baby-killers. But we've absorbed that story until we think it's true, and we've all but decided the protestors and the media (even Walter Cronkite turned against the war long after Martin Luther King did, but by then it was obvious to Nixon we had to get out) lost that war for us.

Now we're going to blame the Iraqis, for not greeting us as liberators and showering us with flowers, the way Chalabi told Wolfowitz and Perle and Cheney they would do. Now we're going to blame the military, or the military command (who, after all, alone have the power to tell us when to leave; except they didn't speak up soon enough, so now it's their fault we're caught in a civil war), or the Iraqis who've not chosen to follow our benevolent leadership.

And after we destroyed their country, too. What gratitude.

But Jack Murtha is not right, and the commanders have failed to tell us it's time to go. It's because we didn't try hard enough. Or because the Iraqis didn't accept our kindness.

But it's not the idea's fault. It was never the plan. Just ask Mr. Buckley. The "postulates" are still sound.

It's the people who keep screwing things up.

With apologies to T.S. Eliot

Thou hast committed fornication:

While an international debate rages over the future of the American detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the military has quietly expanded another, less-visible prison in Afghanistan, where it now holds some 500 terror suspects in more primitive conditions, indefinitely and without charges.
But some of the detainees have already been held at Bagram for as long as two or three years. And unlike those at Guantánamo, they have no access to lawyers, no right to hear the allegations against them and only rudimentary reviews of their status as "enemy combatants," military officials said.
But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead:

"Guantánamo was a lightning rod," said a former senior administration official who participated in the discussions and who, like many of those interviewed, would discuss the matter in detail only on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy surrounding it. "For some reason, people did not have a problem with Bagram. It was in Afghanistan."
I will show you fear in a handful of dust:

Other military and administration officials said the growing detainee population at Bagram, which rose from about 100 prisoners at the start of 2004 to as many as 600 at times last year, according to military figures, was in part a result of a Bush administration decision to shut off the flow of detainees into Guantánamo after the Supreme Court ruled that those prisoners had some basic due-process rights.....

But according to interviews with current and former administration officials, the National Security Council effectively halted the movement of new detainees into Guantánamo at a cabinet-level meeting at the White House on Sept. 14, 2004.

Wary of further angering Guantánamo's critics, the council authorized a final shipment of 10 detainees eight days later from Bagram, the officials said. But it also indicated that it wanted to review and approve any Defense Department proposals for further transfers. Despite repeated requests from military officials in Afghanistan and one formal recommendation by a Pentagon working group, no such proposals have been considered, officials said.
April is the cruelest month

Officials said most of the current Bagram detainees were captured during American military operations in Afghanistan, primarily in the country's restive south, beginning in the spring of 2004.

"We ran a couple of large-scale operations in the spring of 2004, during which we captured a large number of enemy combatants," said Maj. Gen. Eric T. Olson, who was the ground commander for American troops in Afghanistan at the time. In subsequent remarks he added, "Our system for releasing detainees whose intelligence value turned out to be negligible did not keep pace with the numbers we were bringing in."
Unreal City

"It was like a cage," said one former detainee, Hajji Lalai Mama, a 60-year-old tribal elder from the Spinbaldak district of southern Afghanistan who was released last June after nearly two years. Referring to a zoo in Pakistan, he added, "Like the cages in Karachi where they put animals: it was like that."

Guantánamo, which once kept detainees in wire-mesh cages, now houses them in an elaborate complex of concrete and steel buildings with a hospital, recreation yards and isolation areas. At Bagram, detainees are stripped on arrival and given orange uniforms to wear. They wash in collective showers and live under bright indoor lighting that is dimmed for only a few hours at night.
And when I asked the Sybill "What do you want," she replied "I want to die."

"It was like a cage," said one former detainee, Hajji Lalai Mama, a 60-year-old tribal elder from the Spinbaldak district of southern Afghanistan who was released last June after nearly two years. Referring to a zoo in Pakistan, he added, "Like the cages in Karachi where they put animals: it was like that."
Abdul Nabi, a 24-year-old mechanic released on Dec. 15 after nine months, said some detainees frequently protested the conditions, banging on their cages and sometimes refusing to eat. He added that infractions of the rules were dealt with unsparingly: hours handcuffed in a smaller cell for minor offenses, and days in isolation for repeated transgressions.

"We were not allowed to talk very much," he said in an interview.
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

An official of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Shamsullah Ahmadzai, noted that the Afghan police, prosecutors and the courts were all limited by law in how long they could hold criminal suspects.

"The Americans are detaining people without any legal procedures," Mr. Ahmadzai said in an interview in Kabul. "Prisoners do not have the opportunity to demonstrate their innocence."
"Out of sight, out of mind," one of those officials said of the Bagram detainees.

Saturday, February 25, 2006


A continuing series about the perils of topical publishing.

From the catalog description for Jim Geraghty's Vote to Kill, due out in August, 2006, from Simon & Schuster

From a rising young star of conservative journalism comes a trenchant, spirited account of how September 11, 2001 forever changed American voters and why Republicans continue to dominate this country, despite the supposed sea change that was to follow Hurricane Katrina....

As Democrats continue to project an image of confusion and pacifism, more Americans trust the GOP to be ruthless in killing terrorists. From "security moms" to neo-Jacksonian bloggers, people across the country are confronting the post-9/11 era with white-knuckle anger and relentless determination. "Vote to Kill" captures this zeitgeist, showing why terrorism was the defining issue in 2002 and 2004, and will be in 2006 and 3008 and why Republicans have convinced Americans to vote as if their lives depended on it.
Oh, the American people have learned that lesson alright. But they were told "terrorists = Arabs."

And then came Dubai. And after that Samarra. And suddenly the US media is reporting the weekly death toll for Iraqis, too.

That's the problem with topical publishing. Timing is everything.

Geraghty is listed as currently working in Turkey for National Review. Maybe he needs to come back home and re-take the national pulse.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Eyes of Texas are appalled by you

It is "Go Texas" day in Houston in honor of the Houston Rodeo.

Everyone is expected to dress like their favorite Texas symbol. And, since I look silly in a cowboy hat.

Yes, this my shirt today.

I also have one that looks more like something Roy Rogers would have worn. If you know what I mean.

And if you do, you'll understand why I don't provide a picture of that one.


Lewis Lapham lays out the case in the latest issue of Harper's Magazine (Vol. 312, No. 1870, March 2006, "The Case for Impeachment," pp. 27-35).

He reviews the facts collected in the report made by Rep. John Conyers pursuant to his HR 635 calling for "a select committee to investigate the Administration's intent to go to war before congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouraging and countenancing torture, retaliating against critics, and to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment." The report, as Lapham notes,

borrows from hundreds of open sources that have beomce a matter of public record--newspaper accounts, television broadcasts...magazine articles... sworn testimony in both the Senate and House of Representatives, books written by, among others, Bob Woodward, Geroge Packer, Richard A. Clarke, James Mann, Mark Danner, Seymour Hersh, David Corn, James Bamford, Hans Blix, James Risen, Ron Suskind, Joseph Wilson. As the congresmane had said, "Everything is in plain sight; it isn't as if we don't know."
So the facts Lapham builds his argument with are largely known, especially by the audience of this blog. It is his conclusion, then, that is interesting:

The heavy volume of angry protest on the Internet, reflected in the polls indicating the President's steady decline in the popular esteem, suggests that at least half of the American electorate, in the red states and the blue, knows that the Bush Administration operates without reference to the rule of law, also that the President believes himself somehow divinely ordained, accountable only to Jesus and the oil companies, at liberty to wave what he imagines to be the scepter of the Constitution in whatever ways he deems best. But in the news media they find no strong voice of dissent, in the Democratic Party no concerted effort to form a coherent opposition.

Which places the work of protecting the country's freedoms where it should be placed-with the Congress, more specifically with the Republican members of Congress. What else is it that voters expect the Congress to do if not to look out for their rights as citizens of the United States? So the choice presented to the Republican members on the Judiciary Committee investigating the President's use of electronic surveillance comes down to a matter of deciding whether they will serve their country or their party. I don't envy them the decision; the rewards offered by the party (patronage, campaign contributions, a fat retirement on the payroll of a K Street lob-bying firm) clearly outweigh those available from the country-congratulatory editorials in obscure newspapers, malicious gossip circulated by Focus on the Family and Fox News, an outpouring of letters and emails from grateful citizens not in positions to do anybody any favors....

It isn't the business of the Congress to punish President Bush. Any competent court in the country could arraign the President on charges identical to those brought against the crooked executives at Enron and Tyco International (fraud, misuse of stockholder funds, manipulation of intel-ligence) and send him off to jail dressed in an orange jump suit. Nor is it the responsibility of Congress to sit in moral judgment; the sermons can be left to the Reverend Pat Robertson and the Yale Divinity School. It is the business of the Congress to prevent the President from doing more damage than he's already done to the people, interests, health, well-being, safety, good name, and reputation of the United States-to cauterize the wound and stem the flows of money, stupidity, and blood.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Appointment in Samarra

The speaker is Death

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
Somerset Maugham's version of the story. Samarra is where the Golden Dome was located. It may well be where Bush's invasion of Iraq meets its fate.

Speaking of torture and democracy

Which, as we know, we don't do:

One document, which is marked “secret” but is not classified, is a twenty-two-page memo written by Mora. It shows that three years ago Mora tried to halt what he saw as a disastrous and unlawful policy of authorizing cruelty toward terror suspects.

The memo is a chronological account, submitted on July 7, 2004, to Vice Admiral Albert Church, who led a Pentagon investigation into abuses at the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It reveals that Mora’s criticisms of Administration policy were unequivocal, wide-ranging, and persistent. Well before the exposure of prisoner abuse in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, in April, 2004, Mora warned his superiors at the Pentagon about the consequences of President Bush’s decision, in February, 2002, to circumvent the Geneva conventions, which prohibit both torture and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” He argued that a refusal to outlaw cruelty toward U.S.-held terrorist suspects was an implicit invitation to abuse. Mora also challenged the legal framework that the Bush Administration has constructed to justify an expansion of executive power, in matters ranging from interrogations to wiretapping. He described as “unlawful,” “dangerous,” and “erroneous” novel legal theories granting the President the right to authorize abuse. Mora warned that these precepts could leave U.S. personnel open to criminal prosecution.

In important ways, Mora’s memo is at odds with the official White House narrative.
The New Yorker

Purple Fingers

As I was saying, it's this problem of democracy and the other that it necessarily incorporates:

The dilemma struck me almost immediately after my arrival, when one of our colleagues stormed into the office after a late-night meeting of the Iraqi Governing Council, uttering: ``We have a problem. And no one wants to deal with it. The Governing Council is issuing orders and the ministers are starting to execute them.'' Several of us burst out laughing. We were fostering a transition to sovereignty and democracy. We had established the Iraqi Governing Council. But God forbid it should actually seek to start governing!
(link via Eschaton)

Cf. Hamas in Palestine, or Congress questioning whether a UAE based and owned company should operate 6 ports in this country (and why does even the desire to review that deal prompt a veto threat from Bush?), and why Bush seems to think "the government" is neither him, nor his Secretary of Defense, nor even the "leadership" of Congress, etc.

This isn't, of course, about democracy limiting itself in order to save itself. This is about allowing democracy license, and freedom. Which is the problem:

Is democracy that which assures the "right to think and thus to act without it or against it? Yes or no? Although there are today, apart from the Arab and Islamic exception we spoke of earlier, fewer and fewer people in the world who dare speak against democracy ....even though almost everybody outside a certain Arab and Islamic world at least claims a certain democratism, we would do well to recall that there are in the end rather few philosophical discourses, assuming there are any at all, in the long tradition that runs from Plato to Heidegger, that have without any reservations taken the side of democracy. In this sense democratism in philosophy is something rather rare and, in the end, very modern. And perhaps not even very philosophical. Why? This democratism was, as we know, the constant target of Nietzsche, whether because of the specific forms it took in modernity or because of its geneealogy in the ethico-religious, that is, Jewish, Christian, and especially Pauline perversion that turns weakness into force. More than any other form of democracy, more than social democracy or popular democracy, a Christian democracy should be welcoming to the enemies of democracy; should turn them the other cheek, offer hospitality, grant freedom of expression and the right to vote to anti-democrats, something in conformity with a certain hyperbolic essence, an essence more autoimmune than ever, of democracy itself, if "itself" there ever is, if ever there is a democracy and thus a Christian democracy worthy of this name. Derrida, Rogues, p. 41
Of course, a Christian democracy is not on offer in Iraq, nor is it necessary that it be. But interesting that a "Christian" democracy (the article quotes a young Bushite who fears giving Iraq constitutional authority for judicial review as that might lead to legalized abortions) can't seem to begin to offer democracy at all.

Much less accept it, at home or in countries we haven't invaded. Perhaps it is that problem of having other voices heard, and of considering how those voices are to be counted.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

& the "other"

Let me add this to the conversation, merely as another point of view, if nothing else:

Since 9/11, the assault on Muslims has escalated the world over. They have been treated with suspicion, harassed at airports, illegally detained, deported from Western nations, imprisoned for long periods without due process, and tortured in the most barbaric ways in prisons from Abu Ghraib to Guatanamo. Two predominantly Muslim nations have been invaded and occupied, with well over 100,000 killed. It is not a few cartoons that people are angry about, but the sum total of humiliation, violence, and misery that Muslims and the people of the Middle East have endured. Anyone who claims to be progressive, to be on the left, needs to take a principled stand in defense of the right of ordinary Muslims all over the world to express outrage over these cartoons.

Politics, Religion, and the "other"--Part II

Or: How We Work Hard To Create Our Own Enemies.

Let's put this in the context of the photos from Abu Ghraib and the Danish cartoons, shall we?

The United States lags dangerously behind al Qaeda and other enemies in getting out information in the digital media age and must update its old-fashioned methods, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Friday.

Modernization is crucial to winning the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide who are bombarded with negative images of the West, Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Pentagon chief said today's weapons of war included e-mail, Blackberries, instant messaging, digital cameras and Web logs, or blogs.

"Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but ... our country has not adapted," Rumsfeld said.
I'm guessing, between this from last week and the news today, that the Administration has given up entirely on Karen Hughes mission.

A Muslim scholar, identified as one who had advised President Bush after 9/11 (but his advice clearly was not taken to heart), was on Anderson Cooper this past week (though I can't seem to find the transcript), pointing out the power of imagery in much of the Middle East, where, in countries like Pakistan (where violence continues), the majority of the population is illiterate.

The problem with illiteracy is not the problem we are accustomed to thinking of. Widespread literacy, as recent American history can attest, does not lead to wiser and less violent actions than widespread illiteracy does. If Pakistanis, for example, need a reason to be angry with the U.S., they need only reflect on the casual indifference to life we recently showed by bombing a house with an unmanned drone, in hopes of killing a "terrorist," but obviously unconcerned with killing innocent people. People who happened to be Pakistani.

Illiteracy was rampant in Europe in the medieval period. It is one more reason we tend to call that time the "Dark Ages." But as a review of church art and architecture will reveal, or a careful appreciation of the great works of literature of the period, such as Dante's Divine Comedy or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, these were people literate in images, if not in words. Scholars today can show us how to "read" the stained glass windows of the European cathedrals, windows the most illiterate peasant of the "middle ages" could have read as easily as we scan a newspaper. We privilege, in other words, the written word over images (except when we don't. There are more explicit sex scenes readily available in the most popular "women's books" on the shelves of any bookstore than are allowed in even an "R" rated movie. "Crash," a wonderful film, earned an "R" rating, as far as I could tell, because Jennifer Esposito was shown naked from the waist up; or perhaps it was because she was in bed, at the time, with a black man.) But in some cultures in the world, especially the "hot spots" of the world, images carry the weight that words do for us. More weight, in fact, because they "read" images as we might the text of a Presidential speech or the pronouncements of the Fed Chairman.

There is, in other words, a "cultural clash," but it has nothing to do with technology. It has everything to do with what you privilege, and what you prize, with what you have to work with, and how you work with it.

But that answer doesn't justify the Defense budget, or put more money in the pockets of defense contractors; so small wonder it gets no consideration. Small wonder, too, we, and the people in the portions of the world we are most involved in, continue to talk past each other.

We aren't, of course, the only people doing that; or using violence as a means to achieve an end. Once again, a symbol destroyed, serves as much purpose as any constitution written on paper. Sometimes it's like we're speaking a different language.

But sometimes it isn't; which is even worse.

Which Passes All Understanding

One of the favorite hobby-horses of the anti-religion crowd is to claim that all religions spring from a need to explain natural phenomena. It is, of course, an 18th century claim, one brought to full flower in the 19th century in Europe, and a reductionist argument with little or no basis in fact. Rather difficult to read the Creation story of Genesis (either one) or the story of Abraham as an explanation for rainfall or drought, or feast or famine. But it occurred to me this morning that there is a reason for this flawed analysis, and the root is in the question of power.

Consider: all governments only rule by the consent of the governed. Democracy is not unique in this aspect, it is simply meant to put all of the authority in "the people," who then put the responsibility on those who lead and direct the day to day functions of government. "That government governs best which governs least," Thomas Jefferson asserted, and yet he expanded the powers of the government far beyond those of his predecssor, John Adams (he of the Alien and Sedition Acts). In history, ironies abound.

But no government survives which does not serve the people governed. Ideally a democratic system of government corrects the errors and corruption of those to whom it gives responsibility with greater alacrity than a monarchy or a dictatorship. But eventually even the dictator cannot maintain control over a people whom his government does not serve with some benefits. Orwell's pessimism on this point has not been borne out by history. His "proles" have not proven as tractable and complacent as 1984 imagined, and the usual picture of the misery of the serfs in Medieval Europe has proven to be wildly exaggerated. Likewise the freedoms we so value in this country seem, to outsiders, to come at a high price and while we see Islamic countries as backward and primitive, they feel the heel of our boot on their necks, and wonder how much of our liberty is based on their suppression.

Pakistan today is as outraged at our casual missile strikes in their neighborhoods to kill one terrorist (we'd call it using a sledge hammer to kill a fly, if it happened to us) as they are by cartoons of their holy prophet.

So it isn't a matter of history "progressing," much less coming to an "end," and it certainly cannot be reduced to a simple schema of "freedom = good." Because too often freedom means "I have the power to take from you." Just ask the people who were here when the Europeans started pouring in.

Power is the root here, and power always flows from the governed. When situations become extreme enough, the governed withdraw their consent from the government, be it a dictatorship, be it a democracy. And this is where religion becomes connected to it.

Did religion arise solely as mythology, a magical explanation for natural phenomena? That explanation was never removed from the rulers, the government over the people who told those stories. Explanations of natural phenomena by reference to divine powers may seem to be a first-line abstraction from observed natural phenomena, but at least in Western literature, it is hard to find these explanations separated from those who claim to provide security from the vagaries of the future and the insecurity of daily living.

Humankind, after all, is a social creature, which bands together into groups at a minimum to meet the common goals even Aquinas understood were basic: shelter, food, reproduction, and education of offspring.

Set aside the Greek myths for a moment, not because they undo the analysis, but because most tellings of them are removed from their context and have been retold as stand alone stories, as "myths" which were attempts to explain nature and the cosmos. They were, but no more than the story of Beowulf explained the nature of courage, heroism, and immortality through deathless fame. In that, Beowulf is connected directly to Gilgamesh. But neither culture knew of the other, and neither culture thought its stories were "myths" in the 19th century European sense we use today. The stories of Persephone and Pandora need to go back into the context from which they arose; so set them aside for now, and attend to more complete examples.

Gilgamesh is one. The ruler Gilgamesh is a good ruler, but immature. The people appeal to the gods for help, because while the gods are far away and ethereal, Gilgamesh is close at hand, and material. If Gilgamesh can't be straightened out, who cares what else the gods provide or require? Or Oedipus Rex: Apollo is angry with Thebes because of an injustice, but it is Oedipus the people look to in order to right the wrong. Apollo may be withholding rain, but the ruler is responsible for correcting the problem. The tragedy of Antigone is that the ruler has defied the gods. But before it is revealed the gods are angry, Creon's son reveals that the people are turning their smpathies to Antigone's plight. If Creon angers the gods, what will that mean for Thebes? The gods cannot be reached; but people can. Even in Exodus: God may lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, but when they get tired of the desert and the manna, Moses is blamed for leading them into disaster and hunger.

Or the figure of the Fisher King, behind the Arthurian Grail stories. The king lies wounded in his castle, a wound which will not heal but from which he does not die. His castle sits in the center of a wasteland, the kingdom reflecting the condition, not of the gods, but of the king. It is the king who protects the people; his state is their kingdom's state. It is no accident that Lear's madness occurs in the midst of a hurricane. The storm in his soul is the storm in the kingdom.

Stories of how divine powers control natural phenomena for the benefit of the people, or their harm, are never far removed from the responsibility of the rulers for the people. When Moses calls upon the God of Abraham to turn nature against Egypt, the blow is struck at Pharoah's power, and that is why Pharoah finally decides to release the Israelites. When every first born male in Egypt is struck down in the Passover, Pharoah understands his ability to rule is what is threatened.

The gods, in other words, may have been propitiated in hopes of insuring the harvest, or securing the future, but it was the rulers who were held responsible for making sure all went well below heaven. So the King of Nineveh repents upon hearing Jonah's message, and the whole kingdom repents with him. And Constantine confesses Christianity on his death bed, and quickly the whole Empire joins him. It has a great deal less to do with anthropomorphism and the Freudian projection of a father figure onto the clouds, and a great deal more to do with political power, and governance.

Which is, again, the issue in play. Much of the anti-religion response centers on the efforts of certain Christian groups in America to gain power; as in the Dover, Pennsylvania school board case. As Rick Allen pointed out in the comments, it is no small part of the issue in the on-line "Wieseltier" controversy. It's a question, not of faith, but of authority; not of "what do you believe?" but "who will rule?" Christianity, ironically, asks the same question, because it's central responsibility is to proclaim the empire of God, the basilia tou theou. But in that empire, the first are last, and the last first. The scramble is not to be in authority, but to be in service to others. Properly, it has nothing to do with power at all. Properly, it understands that there is no power without resistance, and so Christians profess to offer no resistance.

Because all power comes from God; who taught us the value of power, in the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Which, oddly enough, has nothing to do with either power, or natural phenomena, or governance, at all.

Mushrooms in the basement

Why does it always seem to be the British get the news out about our country first?

Almost 100 prisoners have died in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan since August 2002, according to US group Human Rights First.

The details were first aired on BBC television's Newsnight programme.
(link via rorschach)

Hell, it's a US group, reporting on deaths in US custody. We used to have a tradition of journalism in this country. Now we have CNN; MSNBC; FoxNews; besides the three "major networks." And nobody could break this story?

If they did, I missed it.

No, I didn't. I Googled "Human Rights First" under "News," and I got these links to this story: Radio New Zealand and The Scotsman. Oh, and this, from Al Jazeera:

Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, launched recently a new attack on the American President George W. Bush, denouncing the administration’s persistent refusal to shut down Guantanamo jail, despite numerous international calls to shut down the notorious detention facility in Cuba.

Guantanamo Bay camp reflected "a society that is heading towards George Orwell's Animal Farm", Dr John said.

Last month, Amnesty International launched its "Tell the Truth about Torture, Mr. President" campaign where it enlisted thousands of people who urge the president to be honest with all Americans about the U.S. government's use of torture in the so-called "war on terror."

"The White House has dodged the truth about torture for too long," said Dr. William F. Schulz, Amnesty International's Executive Director. "With reports of torture in the news virtually every day, it is imperative the president and all in his administration end the secrecy and end the torture. This campaign will allow thousands of Americans to demand that torture in our names is not committed again and insist that the president speak the truth in his State of the Union address about this heinous crime."

Following the latest report compiled by 5 UN inspectors on the horrific treatment and harsh conditions detainees face at Guantanamo jail, Dr Sentamu called on the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) to immediately take a strong action against the U.S. - through the U.S. courts or the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

Remarks made by Sentamu, the Church of England's second in command, are expected to boost the international, unprecedented united and strong stance against the U.S. government’s insistence not to close its torture camp in Cuba.

"The American Government is breaking international law,"

"The U.S. should try all 500 detainees at Guantanamo, who still include eight British residents, or free them without further delay. To hold someone for up to four years without charge clearly indicates a society that is heading towards George Orwell's Animal Farm," Dr. Sentamu told The Independent.
Probably didn't know about that either, did you? This is the way the world talks about this. This is what the world knows about us.

Why don't we know it?

Oh, and remember Katrina? Remember poverty in America? Heard anything about that since Anderson Cooper was in New Orleans in August? Neither have I. Don't worry: the British have.
A shocking 37 million Americans live in poverty. That is 12.7 per cent of the population - the highest percentage in the developed world. They are found from the hills of Kentucky to Detroit's streets, from the Deep South of Louisiana to the heartland of Oklahoma. Each year since 2001 their number has grown.

Under President George W Bush an extra 5.4 million have slipped below the poverty line. Yet they are not a story of the unemployed or the destitute. Most have jobs. Many have two. Amos Lumpkins has work and his children go to school. But the economy, stripped of worker benefits like healthcare, is having trouble providing good wages.

Even families with two working parents are often one slice of bad luck - a medical bill or factory closure - away from disaster. The minimum wage of $5.15 (£2.95) an hour has not risen since 1997 and, adjusted for inflation, is at its lowest since 1956. The gap between the haves and the have-nots looms wider than ever. Faced with rising poverty rates, Bush's trillion-dollar federal budget recently raised massive amounts of defence spending for the war in Iraq and slashed billions from welfare programmes.

For a brief moment last year in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina brought America's poor into the spotlight. Poverty seemed on the government's agenda. That spotlight has now been turned off. 'I had hoped Katrina would have changed things more. It hasn't,' says Cynthia Duncan, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire.

Oklahoma is in America's heartland. Tulsa looks like picture-book Middle America. Yet there is hunger here. When it comes to the most malnourished poor in America, Oklahoma is ahead of any other state. It should be impossible to go hungry here. But it is not. Just ask those gathered at a food handout last week. They are a cross section of society: black, white, young couples, pensioners and the middle-aged. A few are out of work or retired, everyone else has jobs
If it didn't make me so damned angry, I'd be ashamed for my country. What's the matter with Kansas? We're idiots, that's what. And our corporate media treats us like mushrooms. They keep us in the dark, and they feed us shit.

Damn them all.

But you know what? We are the sovereigns in this country. "We the people." We rule.

The responsibility starts with us. Now what are we going to do about it?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The King is dead. Long live the King.

I was looking for a bit of information on Michel Foucault, and turned to The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow (Pantheon Books, New York 1984). I was going for something else (which I'll get back to later), but this passage from the introduction seemed to speak more plainly to the kerfluffle over the Wieseltier review of the Dennett book "Breaking the Spell." Atrios picked up Leiter's critique, and Pharyngula weighed in, and still the issue has generated more heat than light.

So, in the interest of shedding a bit more light, let's start with Rabinow's introduction to Foucault's work.

The context here is a debate on Danish TV (and try to imagine that in America, even on PBS) between Chomsky and Foucault. Rabinow begins by characterizing Chomsky's position:

For Noam Chomsky, there is a human nature. This point is fundamental: unless there is some form of relatively fixed human nature, true scientific understanding is impossible. Starting from his own research, Chomsky asked: How is it that on the basis of a partial and fragmentary set of experiences, individuals in every culture are able not only to learn their own language, but to use it in a creative way? For Chomsky, there was only one possible answer: there must be a bio-physical structure underlying the mind which enables us, both as individuals and as a species, to deduce from the multiplicity of individual experiences a unified language. There must be, Chomsky insists, a "mass of schematisms, innate governing principles, which guide our social and intellectual and individual behavior. . . there is something biologically given, unchangeable, a foundation for whatever it is that we do with our mental capacities." Chomsky's scientific career has been devoted to uncovering these structures. His aim: a testable mathematical theory of mind. His lineage: Cartesian rationality.
Stop right there, and take that in. Rabinow is discussing this issue on philosophical grounds, the underpinnings beneath all assumptions about what "reason" is and how "reason" functions and why reason is important. He places it as the underpinning of Chomsky's analysis, and puts his view in the context of Cartestian rationality. Which, frankly, is where these discussions need to occur, but don't.

If you wade through the comments at Pharyngula, for example, you will find all kinds of arguments about where reason comes from; but no coherent discussion about what reason is. All the assumptions are that "science" represents "reason," and all agree on what "science" is (have they even read Francis Bacon, much less Thomas Kuhn or Richard Rorty?). Pay attention, too, to the comment about Chomsky's assertion about "human nature." If that universal is removed (and philosophers and some anthropologists would gladly show you how to do that, should you ask them), Chomsky says true scientific understanding is impossible. That seems to be a crucial issue in Dennett's work, and yet no one raises it. Why not? Because the investigation would stop right there? Is that a "scientific" analysis? Or proceeding from comforting assumptions?

Michel Foucault rejects Chomsky's view of both human nature and science. In a methodologically typical fashion, Foucault avoids the abstract question: Does human nature exist?, and asks instead: How has the concept of human nature functioned in our society? Taking the sciences of life during the eighteenth century as an example, Foucault draws a distinction between the actual operational categories within a specific discipline at a particular historical moment and those broad conceptual markers such as "life," or "human nature," which, in his opinion, have had very little importance in the internal changes of scientific disciplines. According to Foucault, "It is not by studying human nature that linguists discovered the laws of consonant mutation, or Freud the principles of the analysis of dreams, or cultural anthropologists the structure of myths. In the history of knowledge the notion of human nature seems to me mainly to have played the role of . . . designat[ing] certain types of discourse in relation to or in opposition to theology or biology or history." Foucault is highly suspicious of claims to universal truths. He doesn't refute them; instead, his consistent response is to historicize grand abstractions. In the last analysis, he doesn't take a stand on whether or not there is a human nature. Rather, he changes the subject and examines the social functions that such concepts have played in the context of practices "such as economics, technology, politics, sociology which can serve them as conditions of formation, of models, of place, etc. . . . what [it is] in social forms that makes the regularities of science possible." (emphasis added)
Which, in part, is where Thomas Kuhn's "paradigms" come in. But to read the comments on the web, you'd think science was one seamless paradigm of constantly unravelling knowledge of absolute truth, progressing ever "forward." Or what Wieseltier called "contemporary superstitions."

For Foucault, there is no external position of certainty, no universal understanding that is beyond history and society. His strategy is to proceed as far as possible in his analyses without recourse to universals. His main tactic is to historicize such supposedly universal categories as human nature each time he encounters them. Foucault's aim is to understand the plurality of roles that reason, for example, has taken as a social practice in our civilization not to use it as a yardstick against which these practices can be measured. This position does not entail any preconceived reduction of knowledge to social conditions. Rather, there is a consistent imperative, played out with varying emphases, which runs through Foucault's historical studies: to discover the relations of specific disciplines and particular social practices.
Now, am I saying at this point that Foucault is right, and that Chomsky and the "scientific" view of the world, is wrong? Not at all. Foucault's reasoning takes him, as he acknowledged in the interview, too close to Nietzsche for me. Much of what he says I disagree with for other reasons, as well. Still, his analyses are powerful, and insightful, and have to be taken into account. As my favorite seminary professor used to say, "Life is messy," and that messiness extends to our intellectual understanding. We understand better by broadening our awareness of the scope of human thought, not by narrowing it. And it seems to me that Foucault's point about human nature is a valid one: we like to consider it "absolute," but we define it in terms of those things we either wish to accept, or wish to challenge. And if we think those arguments gets us closer to the Truth, we are deluding ourselves.

But still, Foucault makes a valid point, one relevant to this discussion, and one that explains why Wieseltier's review should generate so much energy:

For Foucault, knowledge of all sorts is thoroughly enmeshed in the clash of petty dominations, as well as in the larger battles which constitute our world. Knowledge is not external to these fights; it does not constitute a way out of, or above, the fray in the way Chomsky views it. Rather, for Foucault, the "will to knowledge" in our culture is simultaneously part of the danger and a tool to combat that danger. Following Nietzsche, Foucault asserts that knowledge did not "slowly detach itself from its empirical roots, the initial needs from which it arose, to become pure speculation subject only to the demands of reason. . . .Where religions once demanded the sacrifice of bodies, knowledge now calls for experimentation on ourselves, calls us to the sacrifice of the subject of knowledge." Foucault confronts this challenge, this threat, by refusing to separate off knowledge from power.
"Follow the money," William Goldman had "Deep Throat" say. What he meant was: "Follow the power."

Monday, February 20, 2006

"No One Likes Us..."

"I don't know why." No, wait, maybe I do.

"She is lovely, no?" The agent motioned through the windshield toward the Eiffel Tower. "Have you mounted her?"

Langdon rolled his eyes. "No, I haven't climbed the tower."

"She is the symbol of France. I think she is perfect."

Langdon nodded absently. Symbologists often remarked that France--a country renowned for machismo, womanizing, and diminutive insecure leaders like Napoleon and Pepin the Short--could not have chosen a more apt national emblem than a thousand-foot phallus.
From The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown

This is so wrong on so many levels. "Symbologists"? I don't even want to know who they are supposed to be. Machismo, womanizing, "diminutive insecure leaders"? Certainly the three qualities of the French national character that always come to mind first for me.

If I was a rabid Francophobe.

But worst of all: imagine reading over 700 pages of such stuff.

And yes, it has been translated into French. So we can insult them in their own language. I can only think that if the French ever produced anything so banal and idiotic, they would have the decency not to translate it into English.

I can't wait for the movie version.

[I should have explained that this passage is in a "travel journal" about to go on sale, marketed as a way for the fans of "The Da Vinci Code" to re-trace the steps of the story. Why one would want to look at the Eiffel Tower and recall these words is a mystery best left to fans of the novel, of which, apparently, there are many.]

"Have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken?"

pastordan points me to this review, and while I agree with what he says about Wiesltier's comments, the opening paragraphs alone qualify his review of Daniel C. Dennet's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon for separate consideration:

THE question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett's book. "Breaking the Spell" is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions.
Wieseltier is absolutely right. And that is why philosophy, and co-equal with it, theology, is so important to modern life.

It really is a pity we don't teach it to our students, and only offer it as an option for the few "geeks" in college who are even interested enough to seek out the courses there.

And I must say, with regard to Mr. Dennet's book itself: does he have the courage to challenge his own convictions by studying (at least) Christian theology, if not world religions (the works of Huston Smith or Jaroslav Pelikan are, I'm sure, readily available to him) and taking their claims seriously, as many a theologian and student of religion takes seriously the claims of science and the philosophies of science (not to mention the philosophies of empricism, logical positivism, and the analytical schools in general)?

Until he does, he has no warrant to brand himself a "hero".

"He wants to blow off everything."

In the continuing saga of "The Vice-President's Got a Gun (Everybody run!)," Maureen Dowd on "Meet the Press" yesterday explained the issue clearly enough that even Tim Russert should now understand it:

The reason this story has evoked such fascination is because the vice president is like the phantom. You know, we hear the creak of the door as he passes, but we don't really know what he's up to. We don't know his schedule. We don't always know where he is. We don't know what democratic institution he's blowing off at any given minute, and so this allowed us to see how his behavior and judgment operated pretty much in real time -- with the delay, but pretty much in real time. ... And it covered all the problems of the Bush/Cheney administration: secrecy and stonewalling, then blowing off the rules that are at the heart of our democracy, then using a filter to try and put the truth out in a way that would most suit their political needs, and then bad political judgment in bungling a crisis. I mean, if there's one thing the Republicans are great at since Reagan, it's damage control. But he is such a control freak, you know, he doesn't even care about the damage. ... Mary, it isn't only the press. He blows off the FISA courts, he blows off the Geneva Conventions, he blows off the U.N. to go to Iraq. He wants to blow off everything. He's got a fever about presidential erosion just the way he had a fever about going into Iraq.
Interesting how this seemingly passionless man is so passionate about: privacy. For him, of course, not for the rest of us. Spying on American citizens conducting business overseas (with foreigners!) is okay. Knowing what the man a heartbeat away from the Most Powerful Man In The World is up to on any given day, or even after he shoots a man in the face, is out of bounds and beyond the limits.

And by the way, the next time someone says "hunting accidents happen," here are the statistics (via Arianna, who links back to DailyKos):

In Texas, over the last decade, only one hunter in 26,000 has been involved in a hunting accident.

In 2005, only one in 36,000 was involved in a hunting accident.

In fact, there were 1.1 million hunting licenses issued in Texas last year but only 30 reported accidents.
Just a rough guess, but I think there are more traffic accidents in Houston on a daily basis than that. So much for "this happens all the time, it's no big deal."

But the issue here is not even the press, even though they are feeling slighted by an increasingly uncooperative and mealy-mouthed Press Secretary. The issue, as Ms. Dowd says, is: "He blows off the FISA courts, he blows off the Geneva Conventions, he blows off the U.N. to go to Iraq. He wants to blow off everything."

And it is precisely here that we re-engage Derrida's analysis of the "rogue state." Derrida points out something useful, something that might almost have come from William Blake: democracy carries the seeds of its own destruction. In fact, it necessarily does so. Democracy is always opening itself to the dissolution sought by the "other." Not the "other" which is the opposition party to the party in power, but rather the party which is in opposition to democracy; and in opposition precisely to save democracy.

It works something like this:

Perhaps this is the moment to recall an example that would appear particularly symptomatic of the current situation we have been discussing regarding Islam and democracy, namely, what happened in postcololnial Algeria in 1992 when the state and the leading party interrupted a democratic electoral process. Try to imagine what the interruption of an election between the so-called rounds of balloting might mean for a democracy. Imagine that, in France, with the National Front threatening to pull off an electoral victory, the election was suspended after the first round, that is, between the two rounds. A question always of the turn or the round, of the two turns or two rounds, of the by turns, democracy hesitates always in the alternative between two sorts of alernation: the so-called normal and democratic alternation (where of one party, said to be republican, replaces that of another be equally republican) and the alternation that risks giving power, modo democratico, to the force of a party elected by the people (and so is democratic) and yet is assumed to be nondemocratic.... The great question of modern parliamentary and representative democracy, perhaps of all democracy, in this logic of the turn or round, of the other turn or round, of the other time and thus of the other, of the alter in general, is that the alternative to democracy can always be represented as a democratic alternation. The electoral process under way in Algeria in effect risked giving power, in accordance with perfectly legal means, to a likely majority that presented itself as essentially Islamic and Islamist and to which one attributed the intention, doubt with good reason, of wanting to change the constitution and abolish the normal functioning of democracy or the very democratization assumed to be in progress.
Translate the particulars of the Algerian election in 1992 to the election of Hamas in 2006, and the point still holds. Derrida goes on to note that:

The Algerian government and a large part, though not a majority, of the Algerian people (as well as people outside Algeria) thought that the electoral process under way would lead democratically to the end of democracy. Thus they preferred to put an end to it themselves. They decided in a sovereign fashion to suspend, at least provisionally, democracy for its own good, so as to take care of it, so as to immunize it against a much worse and very likely assault....[T]he hypothesis here is that of a taking of power or, rather, a transferring of power to a people who, in its electoral majority and following democratic procedures, could not have been able to avoid the destruction of democracy itself."
This "sending off" Derrida labels the "renvoi," the "sending as emission, as a mission that puts one on the path, the sending as legacy....Renvoi as repreive or deferral as well as exclusion, at the same time murder and suicide....To immunize itself, to protect itself against the aggressor (whether from within or without), democracy thus secretes its enemies on both sides of the front so that it's only apparent options remained murder and suicide; but the murder was already turning into suicide, and the suicide, as always, let itself be translated into murder."

This is today's headlines. Israel and the US want to cut off funding for the elected government of Hamas. Condoleeza Rice declares the elected president of Venezuela a "threat to democracy." In order to preserve democracy, we must send it away. And so Dick Cheney, in order to preserve the power of the government, power derived from the consent of the governed, must cut off the power of the governed to consent. Consetn requires knowledge of actions, and Cheney insists his actions be as concealed as possible. For our own good, we must be kept in the dark about what government is doing to us, in our name, with the sovereignty we establish. So further revelations about the NSA domestic spying program should not be pursued.

Democracy, Derrida points out, is all about "voice," about "votes," which itself is not a simple issue:

...one will never actually be able to "prove" that there is more democracy in granting or in refusing the right to vote to immigrants, notably those who live and work in the national territory, nor that there is more or less democracy in a straight majority vote as opposed to proportional voting; both forms of voting are democratic, and yet both also protect their democratic character through exclusion, through some renvoi; for the force of the demos, the force of
democrary, commits it, in the name of universal equality, to representing not only the greatest force of the greatest number, the majority of citizens considered of age, but also the weakness of the weak, minors, minorities, the poor, and all those throughout the world who callout in suffering for a legitimately infinite extension of what are called human rights. One electoral law is thus always at the same time more and less democratic than another; it is the force of force, a weakness of force and the force of a weakness; which means that democracy protects itself and maintains itself precisely by limiting and threatening itself.
It is not too much to say that, by his actions, Dick Cheney understands that point precisely. Democracy maintains itself precisly by limiting and threatening itself; and democracy is all about numbers. Fearful of the threat those numbers represent, including the threat that democracy might send itself away, for its own good Cheney would send democracy away, and replace the many with the one, and replace the threat with authority, an authority that does not threaten, and so does not limit, itself.

Which is precisely what our system of government is supposed to prevent. But the autoimmunity of the system may, instead, be bringing that precisely about.

[-Quotes from Jacques Derrida, Rogues, tr. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2005), pp. 30-36]

All the Pap That's Fit to Print

Well, apparently, it's not about Cheney or Whittington anymore. Now it's all about Mary Matalin:

"I don't buy that we did it wrong," ]Ms. Matalin] said. "But I do understand that every day over there is like walking up a mountain with bricks in your backpack, and when something starts the beasts not just growling but flinging themselves against their cages, I feel bad about that, and it's not a good day for [Scott McClellan]."
First, it's official: the Times has declared that this story has "completed its trajectory" (perhaps not the most felicitious metaphor for a story about a hunting accident, eh?)

Second, it's all about the struggles of Mary to get the story out:

Mary Matalin, Vice President Dick Cheney's longtime troubleshooter, was sleeping in last Sunday when the phone jangled her awake at 8 a.m. She groggily picked it up to hear, 'The vice president shot somebody, and he's O.K.' "

"And I said," Ms. Matalin recounted, " 'Can I get a cup of coffee?' "
Oh, by the way, remember the flap about Dick Morris being in the White House giving Clinton poll numbers? Well, that's all behind us now. Mary Matalin speaks for Mr. Cheney. But she doesn't work there:

Ms. Matalin, 52, is now the editor in chief of Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and is publishing a book by the vice president's other daughter, Mary Cheney, this spring.
But, hey, a friend in need is a friend indeed, right?

The group decided that rather than going "into the belly of the beast," as Ms. Matalin described a vice presidential news conference in the White House briefing room, Mr. Cheney would appear on a favorite outlet, Fox News. Ms. Matalin hastily made the arrangements for the interview with Brit Hume later that day, when Mr. Cheney took full responsibility for shooting his friend.

She was on the Don Imus radio program the next morning, and promptly got into a heated argument about Mr. Cheney with the host.

"He didn't shoot Harry on purpose, but you're handling this horribly and you're just trying to spin me," Mr. Imus said, adding that he wanted to know why the vice president had a beer at the ranch at lunch, as Mr. Cheney told Fox News.

"What are you, his nanny?" Ms. Matalin shot back.
I think we can safely say that position is already taken, and Ms. Matalin guards it jealously.

But the imortant thing is, she's really, really sorry about the way she handled the story:

On Friday, she retreated to the weekend farm she shares with her two daughters and her husband, the Democratic strategist James Carville. It had been, she said, a horrible week. She also took blame for the pounding Mr. McClellan took in the briefing room.
What with Cheney being so "Harry-centric" (her word) after the shooting, it was just hard all around.

Good grief.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Support our Troops Freedoms

And if we do torture, it's only because we need to preserve our freedoms:

"It is the Soldier, not the reporter,
Who has given us freedom of the press,
It is the Soldier, not the poet,
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer,
Who has given us the freedom to demonstrate.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer,
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag."

From a mural at the Armed Service YMCA, Killen, Texas.

In his preface to Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut wrote that in civics class in the 1930's he was taught the difference between America and Europe was that European nations required standing armies, and America functioned quite well without one, because it had no imperialist ambitions, and needed no army to stave off the ambitions of other nations. It seems a positively whimsical notion sovereignty compared to the positively Hobbesian sentiment of that verse, written by a Marine Corps chaplain. And yet how many in America today would disagree with it? How many would challenge its basic assumption that soldier stands on a wall, protecting we the hapless citizens, from the evil on the other side?

Sometimes I think this is what Dwight Eisenhower was warning us about. Sometimes I think about how quickly we forget. We weren't afraid, once.

Now fear is our only excuse for the very things we cherish. And it seems that what we cherish is our fear.

Politics, Religion, and the "other"

I'm going to be taking alot from Street Prophets today, and, as the lawyers say, "incorporating herein by reference." Starting here, in fact, so you'll have to read the post first to understand what I'm on about.

I'm a jackdaw scholar, I pick up on the all the shiny little things, and take them back to my nest. Before I found pastor dan's post, I had found this, in Harper's. It's from an article about the "intelligent design" trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, written by the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. At one point while covering the trial and talking to the participants, he meets with the pastor of a local church, a proponent of teaching "intelligent design" in the Dover public schools. Here is his description of what happened:

When I visited Groves in his cinder-block church, he had set up his own video camera to film me filming him. He told me it was just to keep a record of the event, and I did not object. At the end of my interview, he asked me if I was an atheist, and I replied that, no, I was an agnostic, believing that faith even in nothing was too much faith. I finished by observing how odd it was that a country as riddled with Christian faith as America has so little regard for its poor, sick, and imprisoned.

Two days later, two reporters told me they had visited the church in search of local color and found me booming from a TV on the altar, declaring my agnosticism to many gasps of horror. Apparently, the consensus was that I'd end up in hell, probably to find Great-Great-Grandpa sitting at the Devil's side.

When I upbraided Groves about this-he had not told me I was to be used in this way-he shrugged off my objections and told me it had been "educational." He and his flock concluded that I had a different understanding of Christianity. Coming from Europe, mine was "more socialistic," while his was more concerned with "individual salvation." ("God or Gorilla," by Matthew Chapman, Harper's Magazine, Feb. 2006, vol. 312, no. 1869, 54-63)
I know people like this, and you can no more disabuse them of such notions than you can make the earth stop turning. But notice not just the strange misreading of Matthew 25 (I've always contended American evangelicals leap over Matthew 25 in their haste to grasp Matthew 28 with both hands, generally around the throat), notice the casual justification of deceit by dismissing Chapman's concerns because Chapman has a "different understanding of Christianity."

There is, quite simply, no talking to such people. Nor do we even need to try.

Or do we? I found this from Anne Lamott this morning. Does not talking to "such people" mean we cannot speak at all? Is silence and holding our tongues what Jesus would do? I was thinking about that question when I lead the reading of the psalm this morning:

1 Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!
2 Happy are they to whom the LORD imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!
3 While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.
4 For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.
6 I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD."*
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
7 Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
8 You are my hiding-place; you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

True, it's a psalm about confession, but sometimes might our sin be not speaking the truth as we understand it? We admire the prophets today for speaking up; we overlook that, by their own admissions, they often suffered agonies for being the ones to say it. Jeremiah writhed under God's hand; Amos said he'd rather go back to dressing sycamore trees; and Ezekiel must have seemed simply crazy, even by a Foucaultian understanding of insanity.

And that's when pastor dan's exegesis seemed to have a connection here (I told you this was a jackdaw's nest today). He reminds us of the place of humility, of the importance of setting aside the ego ("me, me, pick me!"), and also of being careful what you wish for, because you might get it.

I have to admit, when I heard this Gospel passage read this morning, my first thought was about the hole torn in the roof, and no mention of the displeasure of the homeowner. That, it occurred to me, was a very modern thought, and a very perverse one. Where building materials are plentiful and cheaply acquired, and labor ready to hire on almost any street corner (in sharp contrast to Jesus' day), we are more and more concerned with what we can own and preserve against loss and destruction, and less and less concerned with each other. There is no mention here that the homeowner was particularly aggrieved about the destruction of his property. I can't help but think today that that's the next thing we would all think about, if it wasn't the first thing.

So what does this all have to do with the other? Just that; a kind of concrete meditation on the 'other' is, it seems to me, always important. To Pastor Groves, Mr. Chapman is so wholly 'other' as to be beneath concern or consideration, an already lost soul who is doomed to perdition and therefore worth no more thought than a bug on the floor. Anne Lamott made herself 'other' to the group she spoke to, but was she therefor wrong to speak? The paralytic was not 'other' to either Jesus or the homeowner, but did Jesus become 'other' to them by what he did? Well, yes, at least to some, according to Mark's story.

And this whole post, in its divagations, seems, at least to me, both inviting and obstinately "other" at the same time. Part of me likes it, and part of me wants to scream with the poet: "It is impossible to say just what I mean!"

All the others we meet, encounter, perhaps even create by our behavior: are we responsible for them? Not entirely. But neither can we just go around them, as if they weren't there. Even the others we admire, as Ms. Lamotte shows, affect us.

Sometimes it's just about learning the limits of our reach.