Sunday, April 29, 2007

Habeas Schmabeus

I'm listening to this episode on This American Life right now. And trying to keep my blood pressure down.

And wondering how hard it would be for Congress to pass a law outlawing these practices. It's not even a funding issue, a "support our troops buy mine-proof vehicles" issue, a "Don't leave the troops stranded without bullets in a war" issue.

It's a simple issue of law, and of lawlessness. How hard would this be to correct?

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Said the Joker to the Thief

I didn't think it was possible to make the US experience in Vietnam look good, but somehow this Administration has managed it:

The United States has previously admitted, sometimes under pressure from federal inspectors, that some of its reconstruction projects have been abandoned, delayed or poorly constructed. But this is the first time inspectors have found that projects officially declared a success — in some cases, as little as six months before the latest inspections — were no longer working properly.

The inspections ranged geographically from northern to southern Iraq and covered projects as varied as a maternity hospital, barracks for an Iraqi special forces unit and a power station for Baghdad International Airport.

At the airport, crucially important for the functioning of the country, inspectors found that while $11.8 million had been spent on new electrical generators, $8.6 million worth were no longer functioning.

At the maternity hospital, a rehabilitation project in the northern city of Erbil, an expensive incinerator for medical waste was padlocked — Iraqis at the hospital could not find the key when inspectors asked to see the equipment — and partly as a result, medical waste including syringes, used bandages and empty drug vials were clogging the sewage system and probably contaminating the water system.

The newly built water purification system was not functioning either.

Officials at the oversight agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, said they had made an effort to sample different regions and various types of projects, but that they were constrained from taking a true random sample in part because many projects were in areas too unsafe to visit. So, they said, the initial set of eight projects — which cost a total of about $150 million — cannot be seen as a true statistical measure of the thousands of projects in the roughly $30 billion American rebuilding program.

But the officials said the initial findings raised serious new concerns about the effort.

The reconstruction effort was originally designed as nearly equal to the military push to stabilize Iraq, allow the government to function and business to flourish, and promote good will toward the United States.
Winning hearts and minds, indeed. This Administration can't even mimic the vaunted reconstruction of Europe which replaced the horror of World War II with the European Union of today. It can't learn anything from history at all.

I remember two distinctive things about Vietnam: Soldiers served a two year tour and went home; and they could go to Saigon in relative safety. We didn't lose control of Saigon until we withdrew, but in Iraq, with a "surge," we can't even control access to the Iraqi Parliament in the Green Zone. And our standard of sucess in Iraq has sunk so low now, it can no longer be seen:

President Bush explained why in a television interview on Tuesday. "If the standard of success is no car bombings or suicide bombings, we have just handed those who commit suicide bombings a huge victory," he told TV interviewer Charlie Rose.
I haven't bothered to look up the transcript to see how Mr. Rose followed that absurd declaration. Frankly, anything less than: "Are you insane?" could hardly be considered an honest response.

So we've poured out money like water in the desert sands to rebuild Iraq, and we haven't done that right. We've poured out American and Iraqi blood in order to pacify and stabilize Iraq, and we haven't done that right. We've displaced almost 4 million Iraqis, and almost nobody in America seems to even notice. Frankly, I think we are numb.

Is there anything about this Iraq debacle that has been done right? Anything at all?

Update: And I never even got to Katrina the first time around....

Many of the U.S. diplomats who received the message, however, were beginning to witness a more embarrassing reality. They knew the U.S. government was turning down many allies' offers of manpower, supplies and expertise worth untold millions of dollars. Eventually the United States also would fail to collect most of the unprecedented outpouring of international cash assistance for Katrina's victims.

Allies offered $854 million in cash and in oil that was to be sold for cash. But only $40 million has been used so far for disaster victims or reconstruction, according to U.S. officials and contractors. Most of the aid went uncollected, including $400 million worth of oil. Some offers were withdrawn or redirected to private groups such as the Red Cross. The rest has been delayed by red tape and bureaucratic limits on how it can be spent.

In addition, valuable supplies and services -- such as cellphone systems, medicine and cruise ships -- were delayed or declined because the government could not handle them. In some cases, supplies were wasted.

The struggle to apply foreign aid in the aftermath of the hurricane, which has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $125 billion so far, is another reminder of the federal government's difficulty leading the recovery. Reports of government waste and delays or denials of assistance have surfaced repeatedly since hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005.
I think it's safe to subsitute "difficulty" with "absolute and complete inability."


I've been wanting to come back to the topic of the Beatitudes. As I've said before, the Beatitudes can be understood as reversing our view; they are are about reversing our expectations, our understanding, our knowledge of what is good. But to get to that point, I want to start with what Boreas said here:

Robert is, of course, using The Complete Gospels, Annotated Scholars Version, Revised and Expanded Edition, Robert J. Miller, editor; (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994) Miller is also responsible for this translation, as well as an Introduction to Luke and notes to the Gospel.

Miller's note regarding this passage reads as follows:

Congratulations (makarios) traditionally translated "blessed." "Congratulations" better expresses the performative language of the Beatitudes, which grant the recipient recognition of good fortune.

Later, in an explanatory note regarding the usage of "Congratulations" and "Damn you" in these passages, he says,

The traditional translation "blessed" lives on primarily in its connection with the Bible, apart from sayings like "bless you" when someone sneezes....In colloquial English, bless does not mean a declaration of God's favor.

The language of the beatitudes is performative: performative means that the words accomplish what they say...."Blessed" is archaic language and now nearly empty of meaning. To translate "happy" or "fortunate" is to introduce connotations that are not present: the poor and the hungry are not "happy" or "fortunate." Further, "happy" or "fortunate" misses the performative character of the language.

Damn: The traditional translation of the Greek interjection ouai is "woe."....Like the term "congratulations!," "Damn" is performative language: it is like pronouncing sentence on a convicted criminal.

Other opinions may (and probably do!) differ, but I find that these translations bring life to Luke 6:20-26 in a way I have never perceived it before.
The question of performative language raises the question of translation and interpretation, two conditions which often appear alike (as the poet said).

"Performative language" is not a grammatical term, but one taken from speech act theory, specifically from the work of J.L. Austin. Already we are wading into waters I haven't really entered since graduate school almost 30 years ago, so what I can say about speech act theory is limited, at best. These two sources, however, give us enough of a window onto the theory to be helpful. Let's start with the first one:

As John Searle puts it, "All linguistic communication involves linguistic acts. The unit of linguistic communication is not, as has generally been supposed, the symbol, word, or sentence, or even the token of the symbol, word, or sentence, but rather the production or issuance of the symbol or word or sentence in the performance of a speech act." Meaning, then, should be regarded as a species within the genus intending-to-communicate, since language itself is highly complex, rule-governed intentional behavior. A theory of language is part of a theory of action. The basic emphasis of speech act theory is on what an utterer (U) means by his utterance (x) rather than what x means in a language (L). As H.P. Grice notes, "meaning is a kind of intending," and the hearer's or reader's recognition that the speaker or writer means something by x is part of the meaning of x. In contrast to the assumptions of structuralism (a theory that privileges langue, the system, over parole, the speech act), speech act theory holds that the investigation of structure always presupposes something about meanings, language use, and extralinguistic functions.
Clear as mud yet? Perhaps a bit of detail will help:

Austin divides the linguistic act into three components. First, there is the locutionary act, "the act of 'saying' something." Second, there is the illocutionary act, "the performance of an act in saying something as opposed to the performance of an act of saying something." Third, there is the perlocutionary act, for "saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, of the speaker, or of other persons." In other words, a locutionary act has meaning; it produces an understandable utterance. An illocutionary act has force; it is informed with a certain tone, attitude, feeling, motive, or intention. A perlocutionary act has consequence; it has an effect upon the addressee. By describing an imminently dangerous situation (locutionary component) in a tone that is designed to have the force of a warning (illocutionary component), the addresser may actually frighten the addressee into moving (perlocutionary component). These three components, then, are not altogether separable, for as Austin points out, "we must consider the total situation in which the utterance is issued -- the total speech act -- if we are to see the parallel between statements and performative utterances, and how each can go wrong. Perhaps indeed there is no great distinction between statements and performative utterances." In contradistinction to structuralism, then, speech act theory privileges parole over langue, arguing that external context -- the context of situation -- is more important in the order of explanation than internal context -- the interrelationships among terms within the system of signs.
These ideas arise from the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. To put it in the context of Western philosophy, David Hume left us apparently unable to speak about anything of importance. Analytical statements, Hume concluded, gave us facts, but those were largely self-evident to his empirical mind. Synthetic statements asserted opinions, principles, conclusions, arising from those facts, but as they were unprovable empirically, they were useless and discussion of them fruitless. Wittgenstein took up that point and argued that all problems of philosophy were the result of misunderstanding the nature of "language games" (which is, you understand, to over-simplify Wittgenstein grotesquely, but this isn't a philosophy seminar now, is it?). This example may seem gnomic or even gnostic, but I think it sums up Wittgenstein fairly well, at least for our purposes here:

It is true that we can compare a picture that is firmly rooted in us to a superstition; but it is equally true that we always eventually have to reach some firm ground, either a picture or something else, so that a picture which is at the root of all our thinking is to be respected and not treated as a superstition.

I think of that as Wittgenstein moving from Hume to Kant in a fairly compact way. Perhaps this will illustrate a bit better Wittgenstein's primary concerns:

God's essence is supposed to guarantee his existence--what this really means is that what is here at issue is not the existence of something.

Couldn't one actually say equally well that the essence of colour guarantees its existence? As opposed, say, to white elephants. Because all that really means is: I cannot explain what 'colour' is, what the word "colour" means, except with the help of a colour sample. So in this case there is no such thing as explaining 'what it would be like if colours were to exist.'

And now we might say: There can be a description of what it would be like if there were gods on Olympus--but not: 'what it would be like if there were such a thing as God.' And to say this is to determine the concept 'God' more precisely.

How are we taught the word "God" (its use, that is)? I cannot give a full grammatical description of it. But I can, as it were, make some contributions to a description; I can say a good deal about it and perhaps in time assemble a sort of collection of examples.

Remember in this connection that though we might perhaps like to give such descriptions of the use of words in a dictionary, all we in fact do is give a few examples and explanations. But remember too that more than this is necessary. What use could we make of an enormously long description?
Alright; enough, I hope, that you get the idea, or at least the larger context. Here is perhaps a clearer statement then, of Austin's concerns:

In his famous work, "How to do Things with Words," J. L. Austin outlined his theory of speech acts and the concept of performative language, in which to say something is to do something. To make the statement “I promise that p” (in which p is the propositional content of the utterance) is to perform the act of promising as opposed to making a statement that may be judged true or false. Performatives cannot be true or false, only felicitous or infelicitous. Austin creates a clear distinction between performatives and constantives, statements that attempt to describe reality and can be judged true or false, but he eventually comes to the conclusion that most utterances, at their base, are performative in nature. That is, the speaker is nearly always doing something by saying something.

For Austin, what the speaker is doing is creating social realities within certain social contexts. For example, using an explicit performative, to say “I now pronounce you man and wife” in the context of a wedding, in which one is marrying two people, is to create a social reality, i.e. in this case a married couple.
That last example is particularly felicitous, because speech act theory, as indicated by Miller's comments on the Beatitudes, has become a favorite topic in theological and scriptural studies circles; in no small part because it allows theologians and biblical scholars to talk about things they formerly literally had no concepts for.

When God comes on the scene in Genesis 1 and says "Let there be light," it is the ultimate performative act. John later picked up on this, making logos both the creative force of the cosmos, and the creative function. We are accustomed to hearing that famous phrase of the beginning of creation as a command, a directive. But to whom would God address such a command? Creation itself? Isn't that what God is doing? How do you address and command something which does not yet exist? But if you think of it as performative language, as an "illocutionary act," it becomes clear that God's speech is, indeed, action. (This is why the singer Alanis Morissette is a speechless deity in the movie "Dogma." God's speech is the ultimate performative act. God does not command; God does. You can see, our language can't quite contain the concept we are trying to express here; which is another philosophical problem).

Again, when Ezekiel prophesies to the valley of dry bones, it is performative language: his speech, through God, causes the bones to be alive again, flesh to be knit on them, breath to enter them (although that breath comes from God). There is a marvelous and powerful intimacy here, as pneuma (Gr.) and ruach (Hebrew) both mean, equally, breath; wind; and spirit. Without all three, there is no life. If you have one, you have all of them. And what are words, except breath? And yet certain words, Christains profess, also have the Spirit in them.

Well, you can see where that goes. Returning to the Beatitudes, why should be consider them "performative language," since there is no way to determine that from the grammatical case used by Matthew or Luke or Q? (Jesus would have spoken Aramaic; already we have a translation/interpretation problem, as the Gospels are written in Greek.) Clearly an airtight case cannot be made (grammer trumps all?), but a fairly strong one can be built simply by considering who Jesus was speaking to. Was he speaking to them? Or to us?

It's a simple but fundamental shift in thinking which the analysis of "performative language" underscores. If Jesus is speaking to the crowd, but is merely describing a condition which should exist, or which someday will exist, it is nothing more than an empty promise and a statement of conditions in an indeterminate future. A uselessly cruel statement, in other words, especially as it is addressed to the ptokoi; not, as Dom Crossan notes, the poor, but the absolutely destitute. Crossan points to the play Plutus, by Aristophanes, where Poverty, or Penia, distinguishes itself from beggars, the ptochou. The address here is to Poverty, who responds:

What have you got to bestow but a lot
of burns from the bathing-room station
And a hollow-cheeked rabble of destitute hags,
and brats on the verge of starvation?...
For a robe but a rage, for a bed but a bag
of rushes which harbor a nation
Of bugs whose envenomed and tireless attacks
would the soundest of sleepers awaken.
And then for a carpet a sodden old mat,
which is falling to bits, must be taken.
And a jolly hard stone for a pillow, you'll own;
and for griddle-cakes barley and wheaten,
Must leaves dry and lean of the radish or e'en
sour stalks of the mallow be eaten....
Are the blessings which Poverty brings in her train
on the children of men to bestow!

The life you define with such skill is not mine;
'tis the life of a beggar [ptochon], I trow....
These are the people Jesus pronounced "blessed." Odd enough to make such an announcement; but to announce it in a way that would be understood as coming at some eschatological future still too far away to be even imagined, would make his words not stirring and memorable to those who first heard them, but utter madness and quickly forgotten. If we hear them as addressed to us, who don't even grasp what ptochoi means, if we hear them, in other words, in an eschatological context, they make sense to us. However, there is no way they would make sense to the original audience, or even to Matthew or Luke's audiences. If we hear them as performative language, however, as language with the same import as "Let there be light" or "I now pronounce you man and wife," we can understand why they would have been remembered, and why they would endure. And if we hear them as performative language, we hear them as something very different from the declaration that God loves us all just as we are, and will take care of the poor and the hungry on the day of the eschaton; or even that God's blessings are what we would have them to be.

So what does it mean to understand the Beatitudes as performative, rather than descriptive, language? What does it mean to hear God pronouncing blessing on the destitute, rather than promising blessing in the sweet bye and bye? It gets at the truly subversive nature of the blessings pronounced in Matthew and Luke. We first have to hear them as being pronounced, not announced. If they are pronounced, they are declared active upon the recipients, they are made real by the very act of stating them. If they are merely announced, they are said for the benefit of us, 2000 years later, who need to know what the situation is, or more properly, what the situation will one day be. If the blessings are merely an eschatological statement, they still have no meaning aside from "this, too, will come true. Someday. Eventually." But if they are not, then they upend our understanding, and declare to us that everything we know is wrong; that in spite of appearances, a blessing is made, given, poured out, on the destitute; on the hungry; on the mourners.

I heard a man today tell the friends and family of David Beverly that they had not lost a father, a husband, a friend, because they knew he was now "with the Lord." That isn't a theology I kick at, or mean to kick at, but it's also never been a sentiment I've ever expressed at a funeral. Many find comfort in it; I've always been troubled by denying the reality of death. But in the face of death, it's a powerful comfort for many to say the dead are not gone. However, in the face of mourning, especially to those who have yet to hear of, to experience, to begin to struggle to understand the resurrection, how much more powerful is it to pronounce a blessing on their sorrow? How much stranger is it? Who among us even today would stand up at a funeral and say: "Congratulations to you mourners, because you will have your comfort!"? But that is precisely what Jesus says.

You see in that example the difference between performative and what I'm calling descriptive, language. One says you will be blessed later for your suffering now; the other says you are blessed, now, in your suffering; in your destitution, your hungry, your devastation. Not because of it, but in it. The essence of the blessing, if there is one, does not guarantee its existence. It is the pronouncement of the blessing which matters. It is performing the act, as opposed to making a statement which may be judged true or false. Are the destitute, the hungry, the sorrow-filled, truly blessed? That's not the issue! This isn't a statement about them; it is an action to them! In that distinction lies a world of interpretive difference; it is the gap between eschatological and present, between to come and now. If I tell the mourners at the funeral "Congratulations to you who are crying! You will laugh!", they would not be comforted (and yes, social context greatly affects the performative nature of language). The second phrase would mean nothing to them; the first would get caught in their throats. But if I say "Blessed are you who mourn," I would undoubtedly be on safer ground, and what they would hear would be a comforting eschatological promise that their mourning would eventually be ended. But is that a memorably dynamic so powerful it echoes in 3 gospels (Matthew, Luke, and Thomas)? Or is it a statement about inevitability so bland it is practically meaningless? By the same token, if I tell the hungry beggars under the freeway overpasses that they will have a feast, am I blessing them? Or just being cruel?

The problem with saying the familiar Beatitudes are actually unfamiliar "performative language" is that it means we don't know what to do with them. The problem with saying they are not performative language, but simply address the question of meaning within language, is that we do know what to do with them: smile politely and take our comfort from their familiarity, and move on.

What would it mean to live as if such blessings were enacted rather than described?

Friday, April 27, 2007

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers..."

The Justice Department wants to keep laywers out of Gitmo. Why? Because they promote violence, of course:

Saying that visits by civilian lawyers and attorney-client mail have caused “intractable problems and threats to security at Guantánamo,” a Justice Department filing proposes new limits on the lawyers’ contact with their clients and access to evidence in their cases that would replace more expansive rules that have governed them since they began visiting Guantánamo detainees in large numbers in 2004.

The filing says the lawyers have caused unrest among the detainees and have improperly served as a conduit to the news media, assertions that have drawn angry responses from some of the lawyers.
This is an old complaint. Initially, the blame was laid on Newsweek. Of course, Human Rights Watch and the Red Cross showed that blame was, shall we say, misplaced. Since then we have learned that Gitmo should simply be described as a "gulag." And Human Rights Watch and the Red Cross weren't the only ones concerned; even the FBI was troubled:

The United States is maintaining an archipelago of prisons, many of them secret prisons in which people are being disappeared. They are being held in incommunicado detention without access to the judicial system.

That is similar to the gulags. They are being held without access to their families; that is similar. And in many cases, they are being mistreated, abused, and even killed. In fact, there have been at least a hundred deaths of detainees, 27 of which have been ruled to be homicides by medical examiners.

Now, at Guantanamo Bay itself, you don't to rely upon Amnesty International for reports of abuses that have taken place there and of the violation of the Geneva Conventions. In terms of abuses, a Kentucky guardsman, for example, reported detainees whose heads had been slammed into walls.

The FBI agents there at Guantanamo Bay reported their concerns about people held in stress positions for eighteen to twenty-four hours. The Red Cross itself reported on sleep deprivation there.

And we've heard reports of female interrogators smearing what they represented as menstrual blood upon the faces of those prisoners, some of the prisoners there, which certainly is inhumane and degrading treatment, even if it doesn't rise to the level of torture.
And then there were the suicides, which were not blamed on access to lawyers, but the lack of access:

But attorneys for the men_who the military initially said had no lawyers_say that had the detainees known of legal efforts on their behalf, they might be alive today.
What could lead people to commit suicide, aside from despair and hopelessness? Perhaps conditions like these:

I want to just quote a section of your book that gives a harrowing account. You write, "The most traumatized detainees were kept in Delta block. It was equipped like the others, but its occupants seemed to constitute a psychiatric ward, rather than a prison block. The prisoners here were truly mentally disturbed. At any time, at least 20 prisoners were being held in Delta block."

And you go on to say that "cameras were installed along the ceiling and in the back section. A few cages have been converted into a large office where nurses and guards watched the detainees from dozens of monitors. Inside their cages, the detainees exhibited a wide range of strange behaviors.

”Many of them acted like children. I’d stop to talk to them, and they would respond to me in a child-like voice, talking complete nonsense. Many of them would loudly sing childish songs, repeating the song over and over. Some would stand on top of their steel-frame beds and act out childishly, reminding me of the king of the mountain game I played with my brothers when we were young.

”Unlike those in the other blocks the prisoners here were allowed the privilege of paper and crayons. They would lie on the floor or on their beds drawing pictures. The nurses let them hang the pictures on their cage wall, and every cell was plastered in pastel drawings of animals, the guards, their cells and mosques. A mental health expert later explained to me that an adult who takes on the attributes of a child is suffering from regressive behavior. It affects people who have been so traumatized by prolonged stress that they lose the sense of themselves and revert to the mindset of a child."
Long before the Supreme Court ruling that allowed these prisoners to have lawyers:

The prisoners were so depressed and frustrated by the way they were being treated that one by one, they tried to hang themselves.
The position taken by the Justice Department is a direct result of the suspension of habeas corpus, of the Military Commissions Act of 2006. It is also the most rankly cynical, most barbaric and reprehensible and simply unjust, position I can imagine any lawyer taking. If taking a position that directly violates the interests of the justice system isn't a violation of a lawyer's oath, then there is nothing a lawyer can do that violates that oath, and it has become a meaningless act. The position taken by the Justice Department is consistent with the posture of the Bush Administration for the past 6 years; government doesn't mean doing anything for the people; government just means being in control.

It is long past time to simply declare them evil.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bill Moyers and the Topic du jour

"How hard I find it to see what is right in front of my eyes!"--Ludwig Wittgenstein

I agree with Greenwald; the report by Bill Moyers was excellent. He makes me proud to be from East Texas. The best people I knew there were just like him: people of quiet, respectful, steely decency and honor. People who aren't afraid of truth, and who aren't obsequiously deferential to power.

Like, say, Tim Russell. If you've watched the report, you know what I mean.

I also agree that little in the report was "new," in the sense of being previously unknown. But the spotlight on the Knight-Ridder reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, and their editor John Walcott, was enlightening and encouraging. Watching it, though, seemed like deja vu all over again, and not because of left blogistan. I happened to glance over at my bookshelf during the show, and right at eye level was a little volume I'd almost forgotten about. A book by Lewis Lapham: Theater of War. It wasn't that this book replaced Moyers' report. But, I realized, unless you have the mindset to question, unless you are, as Moyers' kept repeating, "skeptical," unless you are merely waiting for the phone to ring, as Tim Russell is, and the Truth to introduce itself and sit down on your TV show and fend off all your zingers and 'gotchas!' (because, after all, only then could we know it was the Truth), you first have to think differently in order to see what is in front of your eyes.

This is Lapham, for example, in 2002:

For the last four month the curators of the national news media have done their patriotic best to muffle objections to our worldwide crusade against terrorism, the editors of important newspapers removing contraband opinion from the manuscripts of well known polemicists, the producers of network talk shows softening the criticisms of American foreign policy for fear that they otherwise might be seen as displays of weak-mindedness if not as proofs of treason. I don't wonder why the watchers at the gate of freedom might want to keep a sharp lookout for suspicious substances at a time when some of them had recieved anthrax in the mail, but I didn't think that we were well on the way to a ministry of state propaganda until I came across "Defending Civilization," a guide to the preferred forms of free speech issued last November in Washington by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni....[This group, it turns out, is lead by Lynne Cheney, Martin Peretz, Irving Kristol, and William Bennett, and decries the lack of support for George W. Bush among college professors.]


Words pressed into the service of propaganda lose the name and form of meaning, a point of which I was reminded when, at about the same time I encountered the Washington tract, I happened to read The Psychology of War, a study of the ways in which human beings adjust their interpretations of reality in order to recognize the mass murder of other human beings as glorious adventure and noble enterprise. First published in 1992...the book, written by Lawrence LeShan, draws a distinction between the "sensory" and the "mythic" perceptions of war. Let war become too much of a felt experience, as close at hand as the putrid smell of rotting flesh or the presence of a newly headless corpse seated in a nearby chair, and most people tend to forget to sing patriotic songs. Much better for everyone's morale if the war takes place in a galaxy far, far away, in the mountains of high-sounding abstraction where only the enemy dies.
Theater of War, by Lewis Lapham (New York: The New Press 2002), p. 170-171, 174-175.

Mark Twain, of course, would agree. As would most traditional Christian doctrine. As John Walcott said to Bill Moyers:

A decision to go to war, even against an eighth-rate power such as Iraq, is the most serious decision that a government can ever make. And it deserves the most serious kind of scrutiny that we in the media can give it. Is this really necessary? Is it necessary to send our young men and women to go kill somebody else's young men and women?
The decision, however, as Moyers points out, as Lapham pointed out for years in the pages of Harpers, is made by people in Washington, by people in New York. Not, as Walcott noted, by the people who read the reports his reporters were publishing:

Our readers aren't here in Washington. They aren't up in New York. They aren't the people who send other people's kids to war. They're the people who get sent to war.
Decision making, in other words, is for the Beltway pundits; providing cannon fodder is what the people in flyover country are for. Moyers established that decisively last night. Lapham, as I say, had been saying it for years. Decisions about life and death are too important to be left to the people who will be doing the dying. But we don't like the way that sounds, so Tim Russell was at pains to prove up his "blue collar cred" with Moyers.

One can, of course, go 'round and 'round with this. Consider Mark Knoller's response to the report. He takes umbrage with Moyers' representation of the Washington press corps as a "conduit" for the White House; but he brings a knife to a gun fight:

Did we report what the President said about his case for war? Of course we did. That’s our job. Did we also report that his views were challenged or disputed by others? Absolutely. Were questions raised about the veracity of the president’s arguments? Certainly.
Atrios points out it's not clear where those questions were raised; certainly not at the press conference Moyers' referred to. I also recall Ted Koppel interviewing Jon Stewart at the GOP Convention in 2004, and telling Stewart that if a speaker were to stand up on the floor and claim Ted Koppel was a drug dealer, Koppel would obligated to report that without reply, because that's his job. The clear message was: someone else would have to "make news" by defending Koppel against the charge, and then Koppel could report that. In this way, Koppel defended the absolute inability of the Washington press corps to do the job Landay and Strobel did, which was to ask questions that didn't depend on someone else raising the point first. Indeed, this is the way "journalism" now gets done:

WALTER PINCUS: We used to do at the Post something called truth squading. --President would make a speech. We used to do it with Ronald Reagan the first five or six months because he would make so many-- factual errors, particularly in his press conference. PRESIDENT REAGAN: (3/6/1981) From 10 thousand to 60 thousand dollars a yearÂ…

WALTER PINCUS: And after-- two or three weeks of it-- the public at large, would say, "Why don't you leave the man alone? He's trying to be honest. He makes mistakes. So what?" and we stopped doing it.

BILL MOYERS: You stopped being the truth squad.

WALTER PINCUS: We stopped truth squading every sort of press conference, or truth squading. And we left it then-- to the democrats. In other words, it's up to the democrats to catch people, not us.

BILL MOYERS: So if the democrats challenged-- a statement from the president, you could-- quote both sides.

WALTER PINCUS: We then quote-- both sides. Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Now, that's called objectivity by many standards isn't it?

WALTER PINCUS: Well, that's-- objectivity if you think there are only two sides. and if you're not interested in-- the facts. And the facts are separate from, you know, what one side says about the other.
As Charles Hanley pointed out, facts are damned inconvenient things; and sometimes, in the relationship of reporter and audience, reporters are the only ones with the facts:

CHARLES HANLEY: What we did was-- go out everyday with the inspectors. These guys would roar out on these motorcades at very high speed and roar through towns and do sudden U-turns and-- and drive over land and do all of these things to confuse the Iraqis about where they were going-- so that there wouldn't be a call ahead telling-- telling them to put away all the bad stuff.

CHARLES HANLEY: The inspectors then would issue a daily report. And-- as it turned out, of course, inspection after inspection, it turned out to be clean. They had nothing to report, no violations to report.

BILL MOYERS: In January of '03 Hanley wrote about the suspicious sites that the us and British governments had earlier identified as major concerns. "No smoking guns in...Almost 400 inspections." He reported. It ought to have cast serious doubt on the white house's entire evaluation of the iraqi threat. But reporting like this was overshadowed by the drumbeat from Washington -- which is why, Hanley says, sometimes his editors balked when he wrote that the White House lacked firm evidence on WMDS.

CHARLES HANLEY: And that would be stricken from my copy because it would strike some editors as a-- as tendentious. As sort of an attack or a-- some sort of-- allegation rather than a fact. You know and we don't want our reporters alleging things. We, you know, we just report the facts. Well it was a fact. It was a very important fact that seemed to be lost on an awful lot of journalists unfortunately.

BILL MOYERS: Six weeks before the invasion, with the facts still in short supply, the American Secretary of State went before the United Nations.

COLIN POWELL (UN Security Council 2/5/03): I cannot tell you everything that we know. But what I can share with you, when combined with what all of us have learned over the years, is deeply troubling.

CHARLES HANLEY: One major problem was that-- Secretary Powell barely acknowledged that there were inspections going on. It got to ridiculous points such as-- his complaining about the fact that they'd put a roof over this open air shed where they were testing missiles.

COLIN POWELL (Security Council 2/5/03): This photograph was taken in April of 2002. Since then, the test stand has been finished and a roof has been put over it so it will be harder for satellites to see what's going on underneath the test stand.

CHARLES HANLEY: What he neglected to mention was that the inspectors were underneath, watching what was going on.

COLIN POWELL (Security Council 2/5/03): A single drop of VX on the skin will kill in minutes. Four tons!

CHARLES HANLEY: he didn't point out that most of that had already been destroyed. And-- on point after point he failed to point out that these facilities about which he was raising such alarm-- were under repeated inspections by-- by good-- expert people with very good equipment, and who were leaving behind cameras and other monitoring equipment to keep us-- a continuing eye on it.
Powell failed to note it; and then reporters failed to note it. But of the two parties, which one do we expect to be telling us the truth? Which leads me back, briefly, to Mr. Knoller:

Were questions raised about the veracity of the president’s arguments? Certainly.
I'd love some examples.

But to charge that the White House press was “compliant” and cheered the President’s arguments for war plainly misrepresents the facts.
Seeing as the reporting as Moyers presented it, and I think his presentation was at least fairly accurate, leads directly to the conclusion that that's precisely what happened, I'd like to know what facts were actually misrepresented. Because failure to act is itself an action.

The last word on this should be left to John Walcott:

You know, we're sending young men and women, and nowadays not so young men and women, to risk their lives. And everyone wants to be behind them. And everyone should be behind them. The question for us in journalism is, are we really behind them when we fail to do our jobs? Is that really the kinda support that they deserve? Or are we really, in the long run, serving them better by asking these hard questions about what we've asked them to do?
And to Wittgenstein:

"When you bump against the limits of your own honesty it is as though your thoughts get into a whirlpool, an infinite regress: You can say what you like, it takes you no further."

What we are seeing is the limits of the honesty of many journalists. And it's not doing anybody any good.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

And now for something completely different....

I am about to do a new thing; even now it springs forth! Can you not perceive it?

--The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus

The problem is, of course, we usually can; and we don't like what we perceive. So there's a push-back. The push-back makes a lot of noise, stirs up a lot of people (or seems to), and gets a lot of other people very worried.
This is, of course, the way the Reformation worked, or so we think. This is the way the explosion of Protestantism metastisized until there are "King James Bible" Churches (I kid you not) and so many flavors of Baptist and even Presbyterian, not to mention the varieties of Pentecostalism and the cross-denominational "fundamentalists," that the array becomes simply dizzying. I once served a church which had split, many decades before, over the decision to recarpet the worship space. The departing church members set up their own church not a half-mile from the "original" church. This is the way it used to work in Protestantism: you didn't like the way things were going, you left. Episcopal polities (those with bishops, I mean, not TEC specifically) were not immune from this. Think of the Lutheran church; and the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, and the Wisconsin Synod Lutheran get the idea.

So that's the model: Protestant churches divide like amoebas, and so churches proliferate. Except when they don't.

From my personal experience, I know of a UCC church here in Texas which left the denomination many years ago, something fairly easy to do in that congregational polity. They saw themselves as the vanguard of a number of Texas churches who would surely follow, as the UCC is very "liberal" and Texas church goers are, for the most part, famously conservative. They weren't the only ones who saw themselves as that vanguard, either; many in the UCC feared they would destroy the fragile church in this state (the majority of UCC churches in Texas are here in Houston, and I think the number here tops out at 14). But despite the best efforts of that church itself (they sent pastors full of zeal for what they hoped would be a new denomination to rural Texas churches where they were sure their seed would find fertile soil), no UCC church followed them. Oh, there are two (or were two, last time I paid attention) UCC churches in Houston which weren't happy with the UCC endorsement of gay and lesbian pastors (the UCC did that a long time ago), but I don't know that they ever really left the denomination. The church which did leave, which hoped to be the flagship of many departing churches, was the largest UCC church in its city, and one of the oldest, practically a "grandfather" church to many in the state. No one, however, felt the urge for going, and so far as I know today, their drive to establish a new, counter-UCC denomination, has petered out.

Why? Because the people in Texas really were secretly liberal? No. The church I left exploded a few years later (one church member later told me) when they tried, in desperation for a pastor, to call a lesbian. I mean no disrespect to the candidate when I say "in desperation," but I knew that congregation would never accept a gay or lesbian pastor. And, sadly, they didn't, in the ugliest way possible. Neither, however, did they try to leave the UCC. Not that there weren't grumblings when I was their pastor. The church had been an "E&R" church before the UCC was created, and one very vocal member would tell me I should put "E&R" back on the sign, because that would restore it's fallen membership. The consensus in Texas is that no one knows what "UCC" means, and if you call it "United Church of Christ," they assume it's a distaff branch of the very conservative "Church of Christ," which has a much larger presence here. But except when it involved them personally, that church never cared that much about the gay/lesbian pastor issue. Two other churches in Houston threatened to leave the UCC over the gay/lesbian pastor issue. I know at least one of them eventually went the other way, and is not "Open and Affirming," meaning the officially welcome and invite the LGBT to their church. God's love is amazing indeed.

But the question before us is: why isn't there greater energy for a schism in TEC? Because I think the effort for division is truly petering out; the vision of a new denomination is already on the skids. Fr. Jake and the Mad Priest have had posts about this recently; I'm not going to do the research to back up my assertion (I assume most of you wouldn't read the footnotes anyway). I just have a strong sense the air is rapidly departing that balloon. Why would that be?

Not because people are more liberal than we think. I think, in fact, it's an identity issue, but the issue of identity is going another way from what we've come to expect, to anticipate.

There was a time when people identified strongly with their church, their denomination; indeed, the two were one and the same. Bill Moyers tells this story, which probably sounds like every church member we know (and yet, it's never us!):

One of my favorite stories is of the fellow who was about to jump off a bridge, when another fellow ran up to him crying, “Stop, stop, don’t do it.”

The man on the bridge looks down and asks, “Why not?”

“Well, there’s much to live for.”

“What for?”

“Well, your faith. Your religion.”


“Are you religious?”


“Me, too. Christian or Buddhist?”


“Me, too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?”


“Me, too. Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian?”


“Me, too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Savior?”

“Baptist Church of God.”

“Me, too. Are you Original Baptist Church of God or Reformed Baptist Church of God?”

“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”

“Me, too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1879, or Reform Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1917?”


Whereupon, the second fellow turned red in the face and yelled, “Die, you heretic scum,” and pushed him off the bridge.

It's a great story because it's true, right? But I think it seems true, and it isn't really true any longer. It's true for the people who want to split TEC, just as it is for the people who still want to split the UCC. Those people, however, are distinctly in the minority; and that minority is shrinking in significance and power, not growing. The persistent question is: why? And the answer is: because denomination is no longer central to our identity. And because the issue of denomination was never about theology, and always about power; it was about who got to define the theology, and how they got to do it. Now, the Reformation is often cast in the guise of power, of the Catholic hierarchy rejecting the "heresy" of Martin Luther and threatening his life, all of which happened. But Lord Acton's famous maxim, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," was made in response to Pope Pius IX's promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility, and many of the issues of power and theology we grapple with today are not the age old questions of the medieval church, but problems raised by post-Enlightenment understandings of secular and ecclesial authority. (The promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility, by the way, led to a split in the Roman Catholic church; I have met a priest of the "Old Catholic" church, which continues, albeit under the perception of most laypeople, to this day). Let us make it a maxim, in fact: Schisms arise from disagreements over power, not theology. Theology, after all, we can argue about. Power is not asserted by argument; and there can't be any real question which we take more seriously. After all, if theology was our primary concern, we'd have all followed the example of the Desert Fathers centuries ago.

But today; does anybody really care what denomination you are? The church judicatories do; take it from a minister, no one takes denominational identity more seriously than those whose paycheck depends on that identity. But do the laypeople care that much? They used to; they certainly used to. But ask a layperson the primary differences between a Presbyterian and a Cumberlan Presbyterian, or between a Southern Baptist and an American Baptist, or even between a Methodist and a Lutheran; see if even members of those churches can give you more than a shrug and can explain their choice of church based on more than habit or preference for the pastor or the people who gather in that building.
Does this matter? Not really; I certainly don't think it does. I'm much more concerned with the pilgrim's journey than with the finer points of the doctrine which guides that journey. Do we still push each other off the bridge depending on whether our church found the truth in 1879 or 1917? Do we even know the difference anymore? We used to; but we don't now.

So efforts at schism, at destruction and reformation and re-creation, are failing. Denominational identity is not the issue it used to be. Denominational identity is simply not the part of our social makeup that it used to be. That's part of it; the other part is, the entire issue of homosexuality is out in public now, and no rain of fire has fallen from the heavens, no collapse in civic standards has occurred; no doom has befallen us. Too many families have gay or lesbian children, and they refuse to reject those children, they are relieved, in fact, to be able to openly embrace them. Combine those two, and the screeching about the ordination of Gene Robinson and the demands for "purity" and "tradition" simply fall on deaf ears. People are not seeking a spiritual guidance and companions on the pilgrimage based on the narrower points of their denomination's doctrine. They are not so concerned with whom they associate with, not on that subject. The subject itself has simply stopped being that central to them. It is a fine wedge issue; it can still be wielded as an instrument of power in some places, as it has been used in Nigeria against Davis Mac-Iyalla; as it is being wielded against Archbishop Williams and the Primates of the Anglican Communion. It is not getting traction with the laity of The Episcopal Church, however; and I seriously doubt it will. I think the worst is over, and in this post-Christendom age the rage that was meant to divide the Church, if not destroy it, is already running out. Homosexuality was, itself, once an issue of identity. Accusing a boy of being a "faggot" made a fine school-yard taunt when I was young, mostly because we didn't really know what it meant. Now we do; we all do, and my high school student daughter accepts her friends who identify as gay or bi-sexual with an interest only in their personalities, not their sexuality. That is the future, at least in America, and it is the future for denominations like The Episcopal Church. I'm sure my daughter will always identify herself with her friends and her family long before she identifies herself with her church; which means both she and her church will benefit. Some people want to continue the divisiveness and schism that permeated Protestantism for centuries. The rest of us, however, left that behind in the 19th century, or at the latest in the early 20th century. God is about to do a new thing; can you not perceive it?

And that new thing means God is in charge, not us. Some of us like that; some of us don't. Same as it ever was. It's still the same old story; not a fight for love and glory, but a struggle to acknowledge God is sovereign, to figure out just what that means. "The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife sown in the sod." Thanks be to God, who gives us strength for the struggle.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Ideology Über Alles

If we are not the country most concerned with ideas, and least concerned with human life, then I simply don't know what we are.

Item: Newt Gingrich blames the shootings at Virginia Tech on "liberalism." Even individuals are captives of ideas, not agents of their own actions.

Item: the Supreme Court upholds a ban on "partial birth abortions." Of course, the US infant mortality rate is higher than any country in Western Europe, with the exception of Ireland. In states like Mississippi, it has reached a level almost double the US rate. Does this worry politicians or activist groups? Apparently not.

Item: Canada is publicly concerned about its role in Afghanistan after 9 Canadian troops die there in a 10 day period. The US lost 35 soldiers in Iraq in the same period. Which isn't to say we aren't questioning our role in Iraq, also. But we didn't start after losing 9 soldiers in 10 days. We consider people much more expendable than that.

The idea of aborting fetuses, though, sends us into a frenzy. The idea of people disagreeing with our politics, makes us livid. But the idea of doing anything about it, such as, say, having elections where we have runoffs for the Presidency, thus encouraging multiple parties to participate in public decision making, an idea that prompted an 87% turnout in France's presidential elections....well, we can't have that, either. It might actually encourage people to participate in their democracy.

Even in left blogistan, the idea of a third party is anathema, because it would lead to a dilution of political power. We don't want people to participate in the political process, unless they agree with us. We can't allow the concept of a third party unless we first change the electoral system. But without the pressure of "third parties" (a term that already considers two to be normative), there will be no pressure to change the electoral system because why change a system that already works with the two parties we have established? And why start a third party, because without a change in the electoral system, a third party will simply weaken the power of one of the two "major" parties? We don't care about people. We care about the conversation, we care about the political ideologies. We want to control that.

Ideas are everything here. People are simply another means to power. People are simply another way to make sure our ideas prevail. We have become a nation of Platonists non pariel, convinced that we only serve the truth of the Good. Whatever the mysterious and ineffable "Good" might be.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

I read the news today, oh boy....

Forget Kansas; what is the matter with Mississippi?

For decades, Mississippi and neighboring states with large black populations and expanses of enduring poverty made steady progress in reducing infant death. But, in what health experts call an ominous portent, progress has stalled and in recent years the death rate has risen in Mississippi and several other states.

The setbacks have raised questions about the impact of cuts in welfare and Medicaid and of poor access to doctors, and, many doctors say, the growing epidemics of obesity, diabetes and hypertension among potential mothers, some of whom tip the scales here at 300 to 400 pounds.

“I don’t think the rise is a fluke, and it’s a disturbing trend, not only in Mississippi but throughout the Southeast,” said Dr. Christina Glick, a neonatologist in Jackson, Miss., and past president of the National Perinatal Association.

To the shock of Mississippi officials, who in 2004 had seen the infant mortality rate — defined as deaths by the age of 1 year per thousand live births — fall to 9.7, the rate jumped sharply in 2005, to 11.4. The national average in 2003, the last year for which data have been compiled, was 6.9. Smaller rises also occurred in 2005 in Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee. Louisiana and South Carolina saw rises in 2004 and have not yet reported on 2005.

Whether the rises continue or not, federal officials say, rates have stagnated in the Deep South at levels well above the national average.
The U.S. national average, as estimated by the CIA for 2007, is expected to be 6.37 per live births. So when the NYTimes says "well above the national average," they mean "almost double." 6.37 infant deaths per 1000 live births puts us well above every country in Western Europe. But they practice socialized medicine, so you know we're better off here. Somehow.

Cuba, by the way, suffering under the evils of socialism AND Fidel Castro, has an infant mortality rate of 6.04 percent. Aren't you glad our health care system isn't socialized, like theirs?

Why do I ask what's wrong with Mississippi? Isn't welfare a Federal program? True enough, yet:

In 2004, Gov. Haley Barbour came to office promising not to raise taxes and to cut Medicaid. Face-to-face meetings were required for annual re-enrollment in Medicaid and CHIP, the children’s health insurance program; locations and hours for enrollment changed, and documentation requirements became more stringent.

As a result, the number of non-elderly people, mainly children, covered by the Medicaid and CHIP programs declined by 54,000 in the 2005 and 2006 fiscal years. According to the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program in Jackson, some eligible pregnant women were deterred by the new procedures from enrolling.

One former Medicaid official, Maria Morris, who resigned last year as head of an office that informed the public about eligibility, said that under the Barbour administration, her program was severely curtailed.

“The philosophy was to reduce the rolls and our activities were contrary to that policy,” she said.
But whoever you want to blame it on:

Oleta Fitzgerald, southern regional director for the Children’s Defense Fund, said: “When you see drops in the welfare rolls, when you see drops in Medicaid and children’s insurance, you see a recipe for disaster. Somebody’s not eating, somebody’s not going to the doctor and unborn children suffer.”
Well, at least they aren't being aborted, right?

Maybe we should blame their culture. After all, that's the excuse in Iraq when we find out are beating their prisoners savagely in order to get them to talk:

After the prisoner was returned to the Iraqis, Captain Fowler was asked whether the Americans realized that the information was given only after the Iraqis had beaten Mr. Jassam. “They are not supposed to do that,” he said. “What I don’t see, I don’t know, and I can’t stop. The detainees are deathly afraid of being sent to the Iraqi justice system, because this is the kind of thing they do. But this is their culture.”
Excuse me while I rage a little. I cannot let that stupid comment go by without remembering our now Attorney General who,as White House Counsel, declared the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and redefined torture to mean anything that dind't quite kill someone. "Their" culture, Captain Fowler? Don't flatter yourself.

And do you want a simple statement on just how incredibly stupid this invasion was, just how badly handled this whole mess has been, just how little hope there is that all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put Humpty Dumpty together again? We can't even agree with the Iraqis on which comes first, the chicken or the egg:

“Most of them don’t believe in this insurgency,” he said. “They are young people. They are having to stay home without employment. They want food. They want money. They want to be able to marry. But there are no jobs. If you offered them jobs, most of them would not be working with Al Qaeda.”

The American soldiers would agree, but they also are clear that the only way to bring jobs is first to make the neighborhood secure. “You need a J.S.S. every kilometer or so,” Captain Fowler said. For now, there are nowhere near that many security stations on Baghdad’s west side.
No wonder the soldiers call this area "the Wild West." They still believe the 19th century mythology that the American West was settled by overwhelming force and brute violence. But so long as people have no hope, there will always be violence; and force met with force just leads to the use of more violence. Of course, we could simply run Iraq the way Saddam Hussein did; say, with a J.S.S. every kilometer or so...

Saturday, April 21, 2007

O, that my head were a fountain of tears!

As everyone knows, health care is much cheaper if you don't use it.

"[The number of veterans getting disability benefits] went from 102,000 and change in 2001... and now it's down to 89,500," says Parker. "It's counterintuitive. Why are the number of disability retirees shrinking during wartime?"
Three guesses, first two don't count:

"I don't fully think they were prepared for the length of time this war is going to last," [Hong] Wyberg [mother of Tim Ngo, injured in a grenade explosion in Iraq, rated 10% disabled by the Pentagon, later rated 100% disabled by the VA] says. "They had no idea of how many injuries or the type of injuries that were going to come out of this."

Michael Parker retired from the Army in October, and he thinks Wyberg's suspicion is correct.

"The more I looked into it, I realized that this system does not have the soldier's back at all," says Parker.
But don't despair; like the situation at Walter Reed, the Pentagon is aware there is a problem:

Pentagon officials conceded that the disability system doesn't work as well as it should. They admitted it is too bureaucratic and too often adversarial. They said they would listen to suggestions for change.
Besides, in another Friedman Unit or two, we'll know whether or not this was all worth it.

"Zap those gooks"

Why am I not surprised?
The Marine Corps chain of command in Iraq ignored "obvious" signs of "serious misconduct" in the 2005 slayings of two dozen civilians in Haditha, and commanders fostered a climate that devalued the life of innocent Iraqis to the point that their deaths were considered an insignificant part of the war, according to an Army general's investigation.

Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell's 104-page report on Haditha is scathing in its criticism of the Marines' actions, from the enlisted men who were involved in the shootings on Nov. 19, 2005, to the two-star general who commanded the 2nd Marine Division in Iraq at the time. Bargewell's previously undisclosed report, obtained by The Washington Post, found that officers may have willfully ignored reports of the civilian deaths to protect themselves and their units from blame. Though Bargewell found no specific coverup, he concluded that there also was no interest at any level in investigating allegations of a massacre.
The Vietnam phrase for this was: "Zap those gooks." Kinda hard to be greeted as liberators when you consider all the people there "gooks."

"All levels of command tended to view civilian casualties, even in significant numbers, as routine and as the natural and intended result of insurgent tactics," Bargewell wrote. He condemned that approach because it could desensitize Marines to the welfare of noncombatants. "Statements made by the chain of command during interviews for this investigation, taken as a whole, suggest that Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as U.S. lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business, and that the Marines need to get 'the job done' no matter what it takes."
"In order to save the village, we had to destroy it."

Friday, April 20, 2007

"There but for the grace of God...."

I keep looking for a way mostly to avoid talking about this; but this is what I keep coming back to:

The larger point to be garnered from this is that we are very poor at being our brothers keeper. Katrina brought this concept to the fore in one aspect, the community to community level. Cho brings this forward on the individual to individual and individual to community level.

One will never know if this outcome could have been avoided by any measure of intervention, but it is clear that much was not tried. There were certainly sufficient warning signs that could have been used to initiate such actions. But in truth, little in the way of public help is available.

I see the same thing when I work at the homeless shelter, lots of guys who with a little of the right help at the right time might have ended up in another place. But that help, for all the best of our efforts, for the larger part, simply is not there.

As a society, we accept the failure of our neighbors all too willingly.
"There but for the grace of God," we say, and let ourselves off the hook once again. Or we consider it an economic question. There is, some will point out, the cost/benefit ratio to be considered:

"Psychiatric hospitalization is an expensive resource and a scarce one," [Psychiatrist Paul] Appelbaum says. "And to use it merely because we were afraid that he might represent some degree of threat at some point in the future would not be a good use of a hospital bed."
But that is not a context-less question either: cost in consideration of what other expenses? Benefit in consideration of what other costs? We are told the cost of ending the war in Iraq is higher than the cost of continuing it, that the cost of national defense is outweighed by the benefits of keeping the elephants away. Cost/benefit analyses are not, as is usually presumed in this culture, the bottom line of an absolute standard. It is simply the reflection of what is valued, and a way of avoiding the question: "Why?" They are expressions of utilitarianism: "the greatest good for the greatest number." And the clear answer in American culture is that the basis for valuation is not human life, but abstractions: ideas, or money.

Money, of course, is the ultimate abstraction. The paper in your pocket, the metal in your coin purse, is worthless unless someone says otherwise. It is our agreement that gold is valuable that makes it so. Love and compassion are as seemingly rare as gold, yet no market trades in them. Still, two are essential to existence, and the third is so frivolous and unnecessary it should shock us to think how much we value it.

But it doesn't. Because we don't think about it. We are in love with other ideas. We prefer abstractions which distract us from reality.

Is it, for example, "paternalism" to not want to see the video record of the VTech killer played on the nightly news, that the issue is our freedom from "Elite Filters"? Materialist arguments that the killer is dead, he doesn't profit from the exposure, ignores the issue of "copy cat" killers, or the basic fundamental truth of the human psyche: that "my" death is unthinkable. Your death I can well imagine, and in general it stays my hand from striking you (Brutus must turn Caesar into an abstraction in order to murder him; Macbeth kills Duncan only to fulfill the promise of the three witches, and the guilt of what he does haunts him before and after the murder). But my death, my extinction, is literally unimaginable. "My death, is it possible?" Well, is it; can you really think your own non-existence? If you can, you are far better at abstract conceptualizing than I.

Is it a question of my freedom versus your censorship? Is this really a matter of battling abstractions? Or is the issue simple human decency? The photo in this post was taken in a bar in Blacksburg, Virginia. To me, it encapsulates the brutal inhumanity of our culture. The murderer of 32 people is raised up on the altar of American culture, placed high on the shrine of media visibility, the place every reality TV show and "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars" and "Sweet Sixteen" all tell us we should strive to be. That picture wouldn't be possible except that it rests atop 32 bodies. But instead of vomiting over that fact, we quibble over the idea of it. Is it paternalism to point out how sick, how absolutely inhuman, this is? Is it paternalism to ask why we think ideas so much more important than human beings?

Before Atrios thinks I'm dissing him again (we take our positions far too personally in blogistan, left and right), let me say I don't hear or read anybody raising the question, inviting this conversation. We lament the loss of life, we natter about gun control or "politicizing the tragedy" (tell me what, precisely, in America, we don't politicize? Death? Motherhood? Family? Religion? Please, tell me what is so sacred in our public discourse we never think to "polticize" it? Money is the only topic, the only abstraction, I can think of.) We rush anxiously away from the carnage and loss of life and the grief into the comfort of abstractions, and then it's all better, because then we don't have to deal with the horror of how we live and what we are willing to live with, and we can deal with bloodless abstractions. All the better to wield our power, is all that it is.

There have been 47 school shootings since February 2, 1996. Of those 47, 9 did not occur in America. Since the Columbine shooting, there have been 25 school schootings in America. What have we learned in 8 years? That we can tolerate three shootings a year, on average? That shooting fewer than ten people (the Nickel Mines, PA, Amish school shooting) is not enough to even notice anymore? That shit and crazy people just happen, like earthquakes and hurricanes?

We spend huge amounts of money to predict earthquakes and forecast hurricanes. Why do we assume that mentally disturbed people with easy access to guns is simply a cost of doing business?

America is a country which has fallen in love with abstractions. We are the "land of the free and the home of the brave." So brave, we berate the dead at Virginia Tech for not bravely storming the shooter and disarming him, like the heroes do in the movies. So free we refuse to spend the money it might take to provide for mental health care because of the possible "moral hazards" it might cost (another way of measuring how much money we would have to lay out) or the civil rights we might infringe (and yet for criminals? No harshness of conditions is too much for us, apparently, no sentence too long or onerous.). We love mankind, it's people we can't stand. We accept the failure of our neighbors all too willingly. Of course we do; because it isn't our failure. Our ideas will save us. The same ideas: "Freedom, democracy, liberty" which were supposed to save us from the savage violence of the "Old World," of the brutal kings and their centuries old feuds, their blood-soaked history. We are supposed to be cleansed from all that.

Our ideas, our illusions, protect us from facing our awful reality. "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." Indeed. It took an American-born poet that achieve that insight.

So, I write that, mickle in my wroth, begun determined to find some deep insight but finding myself in simply another rant, and then I go to class to lecture on poetry, and find myself reading this, just because I'm talking about sonnets:

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; 5
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; 10
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

("God's Grandeur," by Gerard Manley Hopkins)

And I still think the public discourse is too caught up with bright and glittering abstractions, but I think this is what Niebuhr was getting at: this is unalterably the nature of the public discourse. One might as well rage at the sea for coming in, or the sun for rising on another evil day. It isn't the discourse that's the problem. It's thinking that the discourse is a venue for difference, for change, that is the problem. And there is an alternative: "Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The monstrousness of war

should not go without comment.

Douglas Feith tells NPR the problem with the Iraq war was not in the planning, nor even in the idea that invading a foreign country was either wise or sensible. No, the problem, says "Professor" Feith, is that the Administration failed to market the war successfully. In a remarkable reversal of the Tinkerbelle/"Support our Troops" theory of war, Mr. Feith asserted (and Steve Inskeep tacitly accepted) that the only failure in Iraq has been the failure to continue to persuade the American public of the justness of the war.

Which would be remarkable enough an assertion on its own, but thanks to NPR we have the "Long View of Kanan Makiya with Kanan Makiya. Mr. Makiya's position on the war is that the failure to establish a flourishing democracy in Iraq by now is to be laid at the feet not of war planners like Mr. Feith, who imagined that kicking over the ant hill of any society would produce, not chaos, but order; no, says Mr. Makiya, the problem with the war is the political leadership of Iraq. That leadersip, says Mr. Makiya, let him down. It is Mr. Makiya who convinced Dick Cheney that the Iraqis would greet US soldiers as liberators with "sweets and flowers." The fact that this never happened is not Mr. Makiya's fault. After all, he was out of the country for several decades. In his absence, he avers, the people "changed." How was he to know?

You can listen to both stories and be struck by one thing: no mention of death. No mention of the bodies in the streets, as the Red Cross reported recently, bodies which terrify the children whose families have not yet fled the chaos that is now Iraq. No mention of the chaos that Iraq has descended into as a direct result of the idea and the execution of the US invasion. No mention of the deaths of US soldiers. No, says Mr. Feith; proper marketing would cause us to paper over all of that. No, says Mr. Makiya, the problem is the ingratitude of the Iraqi people. Responsibility for deaths, chaos, destruction, mayhem? Don't look for any acceptance of responsibility here. Mr. Feith is quite sure that, knowing what was known then, the war was both necessary and good. Mr. Makiya is quite sure the plan would have worked as he predicted, had the people of Iraq only acted as he expected. The errors are both minor, and the fault of others.

To listen to them, you'd never know people were dying in Iraq at rates that so exceed the death toll at Virginia Tech as to make the latter seem almost meaningless. To listen to Steve Inskeep in both interviews, you're left wondering why a comedian like Jon Stewart makes the better journalist.

"I want to live forever! Light up the sky with my name!"


is what Harry Shearer is talking about:

A society in which it's easier to become famous for killing people than for doing something useful or constructive is one remarkable place in which to live.
Yes, it is.

A hermit was asked why we are troubled by demons and he answered, 'Because we throw away our armour, that is, humility, poverty, patience and men's scorn.'
Adding: this photo was taken in a bar in Blacksburg, VA. And blogs aren't the only ones who engage in cat-fights:

The videos of Seung-hui Cho, the man who fatally shot 32 people at Virginia Tech on Monday and then killed himself, shouldn't have been released because they don't offer the public any greater understanding of the gruesome crime, said Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and ABC News consultant, on "Good Morning America" today.

"If anybody cares about the victims in Blacksburg and if anybody cares about their children, stop showing this video now. Take it off the Internet. Let it be relegated to YouTube," Welner said. "This is a social catastrophe. Showing the video is a social catastrophe."

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I blame Thomas Jefferson

No, really, I do. We'll come back to that in a minute.

This version of the conversation(it is a multi-faceted conversation, indeed) started over at Street Prophets, with the question: why isn't America as secular as Europe? The thesis is that materialism is a religion, and so displaces "real" religion. Viz:

I’ve mentioned religion professor Dell deChant before. He’s written that commercialism is not a mark of secularism but of a new — or actually quite old — religion practiced with fervor throughout the country. In the new religion, worship occurs in malls and other businesses as actors buy and sell goods to take part in the cosmic story of acquisition.
But, of course, that hasn't dispelled religion from public discussions in Europe:

Passive indifference to faith has left Europe’s churches mostly empty. But debate over religion is more intense and strident than it has been in many decades.
Religion is re-emerging as a big issue in part because of anxiety over Europe’s growing and restive Muslim populations and a fear that faith is reasserting itself in politics and public policy. That is all adding up to a growing momentum for a combative brand of atheism, one that confronts rather than merely ignores religion.


As with many fights involving faith, Europe’s struggle between belief and nonbelief is also a proxy for other, concrete issues that go far beyond the supernatural. In this case, they involve a battle to define the identity of a continent.

Half a century after the 1957 Treaty of Rome laid the foundations for the now 27-nation European Union, Europe has secured peace and prosperity. But it is deeply uncertain about what binds the bloc together beyond mere economic self-interest...
Well, okay, religious belief as identity; that's an old story. Maybe we should come back to that, too. The interesting bit here is the question: if materialism drives out piety, why is America still so pious, while Europe is almost as materialistic, and clearly so non-religious?

As I said, I blame Thomas Jefferson. Well, not really; but we have to consider the cultural history of Europe, and of the United States, at least in very broad outline.

European culture was, for centuries, based on the authority of kings. But despite American prejudice towards monarchs (due largely to stories we tell ourselves about King George III and the attitudes of our "Founding Fathers"), monarchs were not maniacal dictators who only took from the people and gave nothing in return. The king may have "owned" the kingdom, but that created obligations rather than negated them. The English idea of criminal trials, for example, was based on the idea that to harm a subject of the king was to harm the king's property (just like poaching on royal lands is theft of the king's game). It seems an awfully proprietary theory to us, but this notion allowed the state to prosecute crimes by individuals against other individuals. It was a step up from keeping the peace by killing trouble makers on the spot, or looking the other way so long as the trouble didn't disturb the comfort of the sovereign. This idea also supporte the notion of noblesse oblige, the obligation of the nobility to provide some care, however crude, for the peasants and serfs.

America, of course, never had quite so strict a notion of the obligation of the community to care for the individual. When we do imagine such societies in America, we tend to imagine religious societies such as the Puritans, and tend to imagine their concerns as Pecksniffian, at best. Europe rather easily slid from monarchy to socialist democracy, where it was expected the government would provide the care for the least which the church, through monasteries, and the nobility, through charities, and even the state, had done before. America never quite accepted that the state should play such a role, and preferred the myth of the "self-made man," the "rugged pioneer" who achieves because he is not fettered by a third party, and is not responsible for anyone but his own family (and the image was almost inalterably male).

Europe, after the Enlightenment and events like the earthquake in Portugal, and the slaughter made possible by "improvements" in weaponry, rather quickly moved away from belief in God. As it did so, and as it prospered both as Empires, and later as socialist democracies (again wracked by two world wars in the 20th century), was able to abandon religion. That abandonment was not without cost (read the works of Hemingway, Eliot, Sartre, and Beckett, for example), but they found they could live on the other side of a "post-religious" world, and what the church had once done (provided material charity), the state could now do (socialism, of one form or another). So they shed religion as they gained material prosperity. But that doesn't mean the two events are inextricably connected.

Being an immigrant society, America did not take up these changes quite so avidly. Immigrants tend to revere the culture they have left behind, and preserve it even as that culture quite naturally changes in the "old world." The Enlightenment in America didn't take hold quite so firmly, especially in the wake first of the Great Awakening, and then in the blossoming of Romanticism (a much more spiritual than intellectual movement, in contrast to the Enlightenment). So while Americans slowly prospered, and finally (actually after the Civil War and Reconstruction) began to become widely materially comfortable (a condition only finally secured after World War II), they did not abandon their religious beliefs. Indeed, they wed them to their rising materialism, making wealth and prosperity signs of God's grace (and, given the rising prosperity which followed World War II and the Great Depression, that's an unsurprising conclusion).

Enter "The Gospel of Wealth." It's a very American version of Christianity, this idea that God will bless you and make you rich if you only accede to the odd metaphysical concept of "letting Jesus into your heart." But it is the undeniable teaching of the "mega-church," of the church as promoted by Joel Osteen and Ted Haggard and Willowcreek and Community Church of Joy, and on and on and on. Why didn't materialism drive out religion in America? Because of the roots of our culture, and because we found a way to wed blatant consumerism and religious piety into a self-reinforcing whole that preaches God's greatest promises are material wealth and personal comfort. No real metaphysic need be applied (is the Incarnation, Resurrection, or even the Crucifixion of God at the heart of the preaching of the mega-churches?) and the separation of church and state means the church was never so much of an ally to the State as to influence it to show care for the people of the country (as late as the 19th century, German immigrants to St. Louis set up the first orphanages, mental health care facilities, and hospitals, all German Evangelical church institutions, and most of those are still private facilities). Jeffersons' "separation of church and state" spared us in many ways; but it paved the way (quite unintentionally) for the religious and materialist culture we have today.

It should be true that, as people prosper, they become less religious. Jesus certainly taught that, at least according to Luke (the other gospels aren't nearly so critical of economic class as Luke is), and yet even Luke's second volume, Acts, records that one of the first supporters of Paul was Lydia, "a dealer in purple cloth." Such cloth was reserved by sumptuary law (and severe punishment) to royalty, so Lydia was very wealthy and very well-connected. It should be true that Christianity is a "fellahin religion." I've said so myself, many times, especially arguing for the "marginalization" of Christianity. But if it were solely that, Constantine would never have converted (unless we are going to cynically say his conversion was false on some grounds), and rich non mega-churches in America simply would not exist.

It is, in other words, a very tangled question. Is higher education an indicator of lack of piety? When the university system began, and for centuries thereafter, theology was the mother of the sciences, and a theological education one of the most rigorous one could attain. What changed was not human nature, nor the fundamental nature of theology, but secular understandings of what is valuable. Extremely wealthy and powerful kings once devoted themselves to God as much as to their kingdoms. St. Louis is not a saint solely because he was rich, or a king of France. If we find the two exclusive today, perhaps it is because of our understanding of religion, and theology, and the material world. Which, again, is not to critique the way this discussion began, but to recognize: things change.

It may be they are ripe for changing again. But, if so: how should we proceed?

"Three Generations of Imbeciles is Enough"

Texas ranks 47th in per capita spending on mental health care. Texas is #1 in state executions, by a margin no other state even approaches. It is impossible to say any longer that these two are not connected:

Very few people on death row are entirely rational. Many suffer from some form of mental illness."
Ted Cruz, Solicitor General, State of Texas.

Which seems, on the surface, bad enough. But it goes down; really deep down:

“Parity” refers to the effort to treat mental health financing on the same basis as financing for general health services. In recent years advocates have repeatedly tried to expand mental health coverage—in the face of cost-containment policies that have been widespread since the 1980s. Parity legislation is an effort to address at once both the adverse selection problem and the fairness problem associated with moral hazard. The fundamental motivation behind parity legislation is the desire to cover mental illness on the same basis as somatic illness, that is, to cover mental illness fairly. A parity mandate requires all insurers in a market to offer the same coverage, equivalent to the coverage for all other disorders. The potential ability of managed care to control costs (through utilization management of moral hazard) without limiting benefits makes a parity mandate more affordable than under a fee-for-service system.

Managed care coupled with parity laws offers opportunities for focused cost control by eliminating moral hazard without unfairly restricting coverage through arbitrary limits or cost-sharing and by controlling adverse selection. However, continued use of unnecessary limits or overly aggressive management may lead to undertreatment or to restricted access to services and plans.


State efforts at parity legislation paralleled those at the Federal level. During the past decade, a growing number of states have implemented parity (Hennessy & Stephens, 1997; National Advisory Mental Health Council, 1998; SAMHSA, 1999). Some (e.g., Texas) target their parity legislation narrowly to include only people with severe mental disorders; others use a broader definition of mental illness for parity coverage (e.g., Maryland) and include, in some cases, substance abuse. Some states (e.g., Maryland) focus on a broad range of insured populations; others focus only on a single population (e.g., Texas state employees) (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, 1999).
"Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General"

Either Texas isn't interested in parity, or, as the Texas Solicitor General is going to argue in Panetti v. Quarterman, people who don't have severe mental disorders don't qualify for mental health care, but do qualify to be executed, because they're crazy enough to be criminals.

Good grief.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Day After

How odd is it that this should be the text that comes up in my prayer book for Tuesday:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the god of all consolation, who consoles us in all our afflication, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same suffering that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.
Or that this should be the prayer:

O Great Consoler, you are near us in times of trouble. Give us courage to see your will in everything, that we may accept suffering as Jesus did, patiently bear each other's infirmities, and offer comfort to one another, through the grace of your Holy Spirit. Amen.
Coincidence? Serendipity? Working of the Spirit? Or simply the conditions that prevail?

How odd is it, after all, that police would get a report of a shooting, and decide it was a matter of domestic violence, nothing more? How odd is a shooting anymore, that a college campus wouldn't think to shut down? How odd is it that, after one fatal shooting, a campus of 25,000+ on 2600 acres, wouldn't think to shut down? How odd is it that two fatal shootings, unrelated to each other, would occur within walking distance of each other on the same college campus, on the same day? How odd are shootings that police and campus administrators would not consider two deaths enough warrant to close a school immediately? How odd is it that we don't have a more accepted response to such an incident?

If there is one shooting on a campus, is that reason enough to close the entire campus? Could it even be done? The biggest school I've ever attended was UT Austin, with a student population of almost 50,000. I doubt you could shut down that campus in a day, especially if the shooter wasn't in a high tower taking out whoever walked by. But are shootings so much a part of the fabric of American life that two fatalities in a campus dorm can be considered a "domestic dispute," and life on campus should be expected to go on, uninterrupted? There will be particular, almost unanswerable, questions aimed at the administrators of Virginia Tech. They are not being aimed from here. From here, the questions are aimed at all of us: who are we? What society have we shaped here? What is going on?

Preliminary reports are that the shooter of the people in the classroom was a recent immigrant. That is even more disturbing than a jilted lover. What is it about our society that people feel free, or are free, to come here and vent their rage, their imbalance, their emotional instability, their insanity, their whatever-the-reason-for-rampage? What have we done? What have we wrought?

It is not coincidence that a prayer book written by Benedictines to guide believers in daily prayer life would include a prayer for consolation that would fall on the day after a senseless slaughter like this. That doesn't reflect on the prescience or wisdom of the writers of the book; it reflects on the society we have shaped. The applicability of such prayers is not surprising; it is to be expected. And that is the problem. Beyond the immediate grief and horror, there are the questions about our immediate reaction to the causes for our grief and horror. Are shootings so common that one does not presage another? Are they so common that two unrelated shootings can happen in one day in one place?

What have we wrought? It is popular in 'liberal' scriptural studies circles to point out the economic critique of the gospels, a critique based largely on the contents of Luke's gospel and the cleansing of the Temple. This is not to say that is not a sound critique, a valid stance against the world. But how do we critique the world we have made when horrors like this happen? Random evil? Economic injustice? Spiritual laxity? Nothing seems to apply, except that we accept a high level of violence, we don't blink at killings until they rise to a number above 1, or 2. At that point, suddenly we are concerned; and just as suddenly we have no answers, and we don't point fingers of blame. We criticize the NRA, or the police involved, or call the shooter "crazy," and we move on, glad, as ever, that we are not among the dead.

What have we wrought?

"O Great Consoler, you are near us in times of trouble. Give us courage to see your will in everything, that we may accept suffering as Jesus did, patiently bear each other's infirmities, and offer comfort to one another, through the grace of your Holy Spirit." That is not a popular sentiment, even in Christian circles. We don't want to be encouraging suffering, and we don't want to be accepting it. But in thinking that, we turn this prayer inside out and aim it back at God. Perhaps, as Christians, we who believe should instead, on a day like this, turn the prayer around:

Give us courage to see our failings in everything, that we may accept responsibility as Jesus did, and so bear patiently each other's infirmities, and offer comfort to one another, through the grace of your Holy Spirit.
It isn't an either/or prayer; it can be both/and. We need to accept responsibility for what we have done. We who are believers (let the reader understand) also need to accept the consolation of God.