Wednesday, September 26, 2007


I started this blog as an outlet, a way to say a few things I could no longer say because I no longer had a pulpit to say anything from.

Which is already the wrong way to start, because a pulpit is a place from which one says very specific things to very specific people, unlike a blog which is open to anyone who stumbles upon it and is a place to say anything that pops into your head. But blogging is an odd creature, at once personal and public. Speaking is public; we have to engage another's attention to do it, and we can see when we are losing their attention, when we should stop, sit down, let them go away from our voice for awhile. Writing is personal. Much as we imagine there is someone reading what we write, much as we obsess over who is reading it and how many people, we still imagine it is going to only one person at a time. On a blog, that is a fatal miscalculation.

We may imagine an e-mail is for one person only, though we know how easily it can be passed around ("viral" is the perfect metaphor for what happens, and how). We may be sure our telephone conversations are private, and our letters (but who writes anymore? Even I have given up the practice). But I have made the fatal miscalculation of imagining no one is reading this, all the while hoping everyone is. And inevitably what you say, whether you meant to say it or not, comes back to haunt you. And I'm tired of being haunted.

I started this, as I said, in order to keep my hand in; to establish some kind of communication with others who were either sympathetic or of like mind, and I've done that. But this blog has outlived its usefulness, and now it must go. I'll take some time to mine it for things useful to me, or hopefully useful; then I'm going to take it down. All the way down. Turn out the lights. Ring down the curtain. Lock the doors.

I'm tired of what it has become, of the inadvertent problems it has caused me. Life as enough problems all on its own without creating our own set. This is it. In a week or so, it will be gone. It will know it's place no more.

It was a good run. Thanks for stopping by. Thanks for the interest, the comments, the good words. I appreciate it more than you know. But all things, good or otherwise, must come to an end.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Demise of Public Discourse-Part II

(edited since first posting; in case you noticed and/or were wondering)

I'd almost forgotten about this:

The Internal Revenue Service has told a prominent Pasadena church that it has ended its lengthy investigation into a 2004 antiwar sermon, church leaders said Sunday.

But the agency wrote in its letter to All Saints Episcopal Church that officials still considered the sermon to have been illegal, prompting the church to seek clarification, a corrected record and an apology from the IRS, the church's rector told standing-room-only crowds of parishioners at Sunday's services.

The church also has asked the Treasury Department, which oversees the IRS, to investigate allegations that officials from the Justice Department had become involved in the matter, raising concerns that the investigation was politically motivated.
Part of the background of this case is summed up in a post I made earlier. But the allegations of political motivations don't come from idle bloggers like your humble host. They are prompted by e-mails obtained via an FOIA request made by the church. As the article points out that DOJ was involved in the case "before the IRS made any formal referral of it for possible prosecution." But there's more to it than that. A time line of the case, constructed from the documents at the church's website, (a convenient index of the documents is here)helps put this in perspective.

The IRS sent a "Notice of Tax Inquiry" on June 9, 2005. It's concerns were raised by an LATimes article about the Rev. George F. Regas, Pastor Emeritus of the church (p. 3 at the "index" link). The church responded on June 24, 2005 (p. 16 at "index"). The IRS responded on September 2, 2005, and submitted a "draft" Information Document Request ("IDR") as required by the Internal Revenue Code (pp. 21-23 at "index"). The IDR is where things get interesting, at least behind the scenes.

Starting at p. 50 here, you can read the IRS e-mails discussing DOJ interests/concerns with the case and with the IRD. The e-mails recognize the case is "sensitive," which is probably why DOJ was getting involved. It is clear from these e-mails that the IDR was being held up by DOJ review. However, whether that review was appropriate is an open question. Marcus Owens, "a former director of the IRS division that handles tax-exempt organizations," per the LATimes article, represented the Church in this matter and wrote to the IRS on March 29, 2006, (here, at p. 61). The LATimes article is coy:

One e-mail, for example, appears to show coordination between IRS and Justice Department officials about a request to the church for documents. Others discuss the timing of the request and news coverage about the case.
In fact, the first e-mail, on February 28, 2006, indicates no further contact will be made with the church until DOJ "is on board with it." On that same date (document at p. 52), the IRS procedure is "still on hold awaiting review and approval from DOJ as to their being willing to support and enforce the issuance of an IDR and probable summons." On July 7, 2006, another e-mail indicates that the IRS Chief Counsel is running the IRD past Justice and that they expect a response from Justice soon (p. 57).

Then, in an e-mail titled "Actions needed to be prepared for Justice response," dated July 18, 2006, another LATimes article with quotes from Marcus Owen is passed around for everyone to see (p. 58). Finally, on July 17, 2006, Justice has almost signed off on the IDR ("We are optimistic that they will have no technical concerns with the All Saints IDR so the goal is to be getting ourselves ready to issue that IDR.") (p. 59). That IDR was finally issued on July 24, 2006. The church objected to the breadth of the IDR (p. 14 at the "IDR" link), and other issues surrounding it, and requested the IRS issue an adminstrative summons so the church could challenge the procedures of the IRS in court. One problem with the IDR the letter noted is that it asked for "written or oral communications identifying one or more candidates." As Mr. Owens points out, prayers for the President are a regular part of Episcopal liturgy, which makes identifying such "oral communications" a bit onerous, at best.

The objection to the IRD led to a series of letters about the summons itself, and finally the IRS dropped the matter on September 10, 2007. Basically, without any information other than what the IRS received from the church on June 24, 2005, the IRS decided that "the church intervened in the 2004 Presidential election campaign. However, they decided it was a one-time occurrence, and the Church had policies in place to prevent such things from happening, and the IRS would not leave them alone with a warning to watch what they post on their website (No, I'm not kidding. Read the letter here, at p. 8. Mr Owens, the former IRS director of this deparment, smells a rat:

"In view of the fact that recent congressional inquiries have revealed extensive politicization of [the Department of Justice], my client is very concerned that the close coordination undertaken by the IRS allowed partisan political concerns to direct the course of the All Saints examination," attorney Marcus S. Owens wrote in a letter Friday requesting an investigation.
The problems this raises are not lost on the congregation members, either:

"It's so important for this church to be speaking truth to power, and I applaud that," said Sharon Fane of Burbank, who said she had joined All Saints largely because of its IRS battle. "But I have some fear for us too. What will this cost?"

The church's top lay leader, senior warden Rich Llewellyn, said the decision to push for answers from the IRS was clear, given the significance of the issues and the church's long history of social activism. "We really need clarity from the IRS," he said. "Otherwise, it's a very scary prospect to think that these agencies are looking over our shoulders at what our pastors can preach in church."
This is, let us not forget, the kind of thing that got Nixon in trouble. But then we had a Congress willing to investigate a sitting President and his abuses of power. Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank tried to get an investigation of the IRS going in 2005, precisely because of cases like that of All Saints. Cases, let us note. He got nowhere. 2 years later we have a CYA letter from the IRS (you did something really bad, but we'll let you off this time), an Attorney General who abruptly resigns, a new Attorney General designate with the blessing of the Democrats who revels in the use of state power, and a church that could afford to stare down the IRS.

Does any of this add up to: "The system worked."?

Upon reflection, consider the facts here: this case was prompted by an article in the LATimes. Now, I could go into a pulpit this Sunday and preach a sermon denouncing George Bush as the anti-Christ and telling people to vote for Dennis Kucinich in the upcoming primaries, and no paper would take notice, much less the IRS. So there's an interesting selection process going on here: the IRS is only going to pick on prominent churches which are likely to be large enough, and wealthy enough, to defend themselves (most churches I've been in couldn't even afford the staff to post all those documents to the church website, much less get volunteers to do it). But did the IRS expect the church to back down? Apparently so, because after the church twice refused to comply with the administrative subpoena, and made clear its position that the issue was best presented to a court and that it would go there, the IRS decided: "Never mind." There is no way to read their final letter except as a CYA measure for something they knew they couldn't defend before a judge. So what is the lesson? That prominent "liberal" churches will be targeted? But if they are prominent and liberal, I assume they are ready to defend their rights under the First Amendment (which covers both freedom of speech and freedom of religion). What is clear, especially given the information that came out of the attorney firings scandal, is that this was politically motivated. It takes a determined naivete indeed, to think otherwise.

Now it will be interesting to see if any further investigation is prompted, or supported, by prominent California Democrats.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Demise of Public Discourse

I know I'm picking other people's bones this morning, but Ezra Klein neatly selects the relevant portion of the "60 Minutes" interview with President Ahmadeinejad of Iran, and while he doesn't make anything of this answer, it intrigues me:

PELLEY: Well, Mr. Bush is, without question, a very religious man, for example, as you are. I wonder if there's anything that you've seen in President Bush that you admire.

AHMADEINEJAD: Well, is Mr. Bush a religious man?

PELLEY: Very much so. As you are.

AHMADEINEJAD: What religion, please tell me, tells you as a follower of that religion to occupy another country and kill its people? Please tell me. Does Christianity tell its followers to do that? Judaism, for that matter? Islam, for that matter? What prophet tells you to send 160,000 troops to another country, kill men, women, and children? You just can't wear your religion on your sleeve or just go to church. You should be truthfully religious. Religion tells us all that you should respect the property, the life of different people. Respect human rights. Love your fellow man. And once you hear that a person has been killed, you should be saddened. You shouldn't sit in a room, a dark room, and hatch plots. And because of your plots, many thousands of people are killed. Having said that, we respect the American people. And because of our respect for the American people, we respectfully talk with President Bush. We have a respectful tone. But having said that, I don't think that that is a good definition of religion. Religion is love for your fellow man, brotherhood, telling the truth.
This answer seems to have gone right past Pelley, because his response is:

PELLEY: I take it you can't think of anything you like about President Bush.
I just read that as a perfect example of how we think about "religion" in this country, and how thoroughly we have divorced it from issues of responsibility, or "love for your fellow man, brotherhood, telling the truth." Can anyone read that answer and tell me what is wrong with it? Can anyone tell me how is it a misguided, flawed, or corrupted understanding of "religion"? Not that Ahmadeinejad should be confused with Ghandi or Mother Teresa, but are we so incapable of having a discussion of religion in this country that an answer like this is just so much babble in our ears? The President of Iran raises important, central, burning questions. The journalist responds with: "So, nothing to say, huh?"

Will dragging religion into politics change this? Will arguing over who gets ordained change this? "You just can't wear your religion on your sleeve or just go to church. You should be truthfully religious." It's not exactly shrill, is it? And yet, apparently, even that sentiment is uttered at a pitch too high for reporters to hear. Or even bloggers, for that matter. Ezra wants to know why Pelley responds that Bush believes in God. As Ahmadeinejad points out, acting like a religious person is not the same thing as believing in God at all. Which is really the problem Dawkins and Hitchens have; but it's also the problem of our public discourse of religion.

Just for the record

This is not due process; this is merely the appearance of due process:

“Each individual so arrested was brought immediately before a federal judge where he was assigned counsel, had a bail hearing and was permitted to challenge the basis for his detention, just as a criminal defendant would be,” he wrote. The article made no reference to Mr. Awadallah’s detention.
Due process means doing more than this for people detained because of a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon:

It was Oct. 2, 2001, and the prisoner, Osama Awadallah, then a college student in San Diego with no criminal record, was one of dozens of Arab men detained around the country in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks as potential witnesses in the terrorism investigation.

Before the hearing, Mr. Awadallah told his lawyer that he had been beaten in the federal detention center in Manhattan, producing bruises that were hidden beneath his orange prison jumpsuit. But when his lawyer told this to Judge Mukasey, the judge seemed little concerned.

“As far as the claim that he was beaten, I will tell you that he looks fine to me,” said Judge Mukasey, who was nominated by President Bush last week to be his third attorney general and is now facing Senate confirmation hearings. “You want to have him examined, you can make an application. If you want to file a lawsuit, you can file a civil lawsuit.”

Even though Mr. Awadallah was not charged at the time with any crime and had friends and family in San Diego who would vouch that he had no terrorist ties, Judge Mukasey ordered that he be held indefinitely, a ruling he made in the cases of several other so-called material witnesses in the Sept. 11 investigations. A prison medical examination later identified the bruises across his body.
But wait, it gets better. Mr. Awadallah was taken from San Diego to New York as a "material witness. His attorney, Mr. Hamud, wasn't informed, however.

“I wasn’t aware that they were in New York until approximately 8:30 yesterday morning,” Mr. Hamud told the judge at the Oct. 2 hearing, according to the transcript. Mr. Hamud said he had been required to fly overnight to New York from California to attend the early morning hearing.

“You are now aware of it,” the judge replied without elaboration.

When Mr. Hamud asked Judge Mukasey why he was not admonishing prosecutors for blocking his contact with Mr. Awadallah, the judge replied: “Your question is ridiculous. The government isn’t interfering with the attorney-client privilege.”

The lawyer continued, “It is, Your Honor.”

The judge replied, “Oh, please.”
Due process is something other than noting a prisoner can file a civil lawsuit if they so choose. Due process is something more than bringing a defendant into a hearing that is essentially a kangaroo court. What is described here is the due process of the Red Queen: `Sentence first--verdict afterwards.' Or, as the king said:

`What do you know about this business?' the King said to Alice.

`Nothing,' said Alice.

`Nothing whatever?' persisted the King.

`Nothing whatever,' said Alice.

`That's very important,' the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: `Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course,' he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.

`Unimportant, of course, I meant,' the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, `important--unimportant-- unimportant--important--' as if he were trying which word sounded best.
Wonder which sounds best to Judge Mukasey now?

Check the Kerning! or, The Irony: It burns, it burns!

Marty Kaplan is right; almost.

Yes, I fully appreciate the corrective power of the netroots, and the imperative to challenge propaganda, and the alarming susceptibility of the beleaguered American electorate to fear and demagoguery. But I'm afraid that, while citizen-activists have embraced the understanding that media = politics, the Washington political class has made the mistake of believing that politics = media.
I am left wondering, though: what "corrective power"?

Right blogistan is still credited with bringing down Dan Rather, although that claim is based on nothing but air and exaggerated (i.e., invented) data. Left blogistan has been looking to get back some of its own ever since, and loves to whoop and holler about it's mighty corrective power in the face of the "mighty Wurlitzer." But I'm still looking for people in the "real world" who have heard of Eschaton or Daily Kos and who actually care what gets posted there, especially among all the dross at the latter (on any given "open thread" at Eschaton you can find any number of links to comments and diaries at DailyKos outlining all manner of dread conspiracies against, well, usually against the political stance of posters at DailyKos. Yeah, like they're that important!) Frankly, given the record of the past 7 years, and especially since the last Federal elections, I'm not seeing any exertion of power at all. Washington is still the same as it ever was, politicians still making obeisance to their "base" and still doing the bidding of the moneyed class or still trembling in fear over the perceived reaction of the reptile-brain, Id-driven voters they are sure exist.

The Washington class has believed "media=politics" since JFK trounced Richard Nixon. Everyone agrees that if you listen to the audio tapes of the famous Kennedy-Nixon debates, Nixon won. He ran circles around Kennedy. But watch the first TV broadcast, and Nixon looks like the shifty, dubious character we all (now) remember him to be. The lesson wasn't lost on Nixon: The Selling of the President was written about the '68 campaign, when Nixon repackaged himself as a statesman, not an anti-Communist bomb thrower. We've been treating media as politics ever since, if not long before. Karl Rove didn't invent this; it was handed to him on a silver platter.

So, does politics=media? Only if you want to give media all the power. Is the media the message? Are we all McLuhanites now? Well, it's a convenient excuse for a whipping boy, that's for sure. But I'm still not convinced it's any more than that.

Thoreau's observation is still right: there are a thousand hacking at the branches of the tree of evil, for every one hacking at its roots. And if that isn't the definition of the powerlessness of power, it's the best metaphor we've got.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The View from Canada

Or what might as well be another world:

But watching Gen. Petraeus, I was struck by how familiar his words sounded. The general talked like every Sunni I’ve ever met in Iraq—hell, he sounded a bit like Saddam. The old tyrant would have had one of his characteristic chest-heaving guffaws watching Petraeus as he intoned the old Baathist mantra about the dangers to Iraq: Iran, Iran, Iran. Bush took up Gen. Petraeus’s views a few days later in a nationally televised speech about Iraq, in which he talked about the threat Tehran posed. It seems that Petraeus and Bush have come to the same conclusion as Saddam: the main enemy is Iran, and you can’t govern Iraq without the Sunni Arab tribes, even as you encourage anti-Iranian nationalism among the Shia. This is what Saddam did during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and what Washington is trying to do now. One of the main problems with this strategy is that both the Sunni tribes and Shia nationalists are profoundly anti-American and don’t trust each other—a potential recipe for further disaster.

Going back to Iraq is like sitting through a depressing Scheherazade, 10,001 Nights of Horror Stories. Everybody had them. Do you want to see a picture of someone’s 10-year-old boy, chopped up in pieces and put in a cooking pot because his parents couldn’t pay the Shia militia’s ransom? Here, look at the burns on my body, inflicted by the bodyguards of the Sunni politician who sold my eight-year-old son and me to al-Qaeda. Let me tell you about being kidnapped in Falluja by a gang that pretended to be al-Qaeda—they made me drink urine and had a fake beheading studio where they set up mock video executions to scare us into raising ransoms. As a friend of mine kept saying over and over—“Where do they get these people? What kind of a person does this? Where do they get them?”

Sadly, these stories are true, while so much that is said about Iraq is myth and delusion. As the famous American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn wrote about armed conflict, there is “the real war and the propaganda war.” During the congressional hearings about the surge, I kept thinking of Tattoo on Fantasy Island, half expecting Ambassador Crocker to tug on Gen. Petraeus’s sleeve and say, “Look, boss, da plane.” Smiles, everyone, smiles! Sometimes I think Iraq doesn’t exist at all. It’s just a series of preconceptions, a country invented to keep the West’s intelligentsia busy arguing and pontificating, fighting over facts about a place that is so clearly a work of fiction. Frankly, I wish it didn’t exist, at least for the sake of Iraqis. First Saddam, now this.

Certainly the notion of there being any cohesive central power in Iraq is a myth. Whatever is running the country, it’s not a government. Iraq’s body politic has some kind of autoimmune deficiency syndrome in which the antibodies designed to defend it have turned on its own organs. It’s a perfect environment for opportunistic parasites, in this case Iraq’s neighbours. So it seems almost unfair to criticize Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s failure to govern, as if somehow he was in charge of anything that could be called a state.
Consider a few facts:

The great irony of Maliki is that under other circumstances a government like his—one that is: a) accused by the U.S. of close relations with an American enemy (Iran); b) running a strategically important country (like Iraq); c) involved in the oppression and murder of one of its minorities (the Sunnis), which is closely linked to an important U.S. ally (the Saudis)—is an administration that many Americans would want to eliminate. There is a good chance that if the U.S. Army wasn’t there already, Washington would have invaded to get rid of Maliki. But having toppled Saddam, lost thousands of soldiers, and so far spent some US$500 billion on combat operations alone, the U.S. is now in too weak of a position to do much.
And as for "al Qaeda in Iraq"? We did it. Again. The details are in the article. And lest you think it is simply some foreigners anti-americanism (the first dodge of even "serious" American analysts, I've found):

The American role in the promotion of the terrorist organization is not some mad conspiracy theory, but a well-documented attempt by the U.S. government to demonize the insurgency and make it appear to be the central front in the war on terror.
So how did the US "create" al Qaeda in Iraq? By promoting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi:

[H]e was a minor figure unlikely to get much of a following on his own in Iraq. Jordanians are not greatly respected by Sunni tribal Iraqis, who tend to view them as the metrosexuals of the Middle East. I used to watch the nightly news with insurgents—they called themselves the “resistance”—and they would laugh at what U.S. spokesmen were saying about the insurgency and Zarqawi’s prominence.
And what happened, in brief?

U.S. military leaders did what Americans have gotten very good at doing in the last few years. They made up a story, which they repeated on the news for U.S. domestic consumption—and then started to believe themselves.
It's so familiar a story it doesn't need elaboration. But there's plenty in the article, if you want to look for it. We have met the enemy, and he is us. Just because we've turned that observation completely into cliche, doesn't mean it isn't true. Just because we claim we've learned from history, doesn't mean we aren't doomed to repeat it. William Polk gave an absolutely chilling interview on NPR yesterday. I'd much rather consider his thoughts and read his book than complain about the Senate's pointless and toothless condemnation of a political ad.

But then, I'm funny that way.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Aarggh! Shiver me timbers!

This blog be taken over today, and ye'll all be keel-hauled afore the sun sets over the yardarm!

My pirate name is:

Mad Roger Flint

Every pirate is a little bit crazy. You, though, are more than just a little bit. Like the rock flint, you're hard and sharp. But, also like flint, you're easily chipped, and sparky. Arr!

Get your own pirate name from
part of the network

Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Just pointing out....

When law school graduates naively think juries and clients and seasoned practitioners will be impressed with their law school grades, reality gives them a sound thumping.

When pastors naively think that, having just left seminary, they will now go to a church that not only will love them but is anxiously awaiting receipt of all the wisdom and erudition they acquired in seminary, they usually don't last long with that congregation.

But when generals are naive, are stupidly, blindly naive, and their naivete leads to the destruction of an entire country, the displacement of 4 million people, and the deaths of probably 1 million more....

“One of the mistakes I made in my assumptions going in was that the Iraqi people and the Iraqi army would welcome liberation, that the Iraqi army, given the opportunity, would stand together for the Iraqi people and be available to them to help serve the new nation,” [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Peter] Pace said.
I guess the lesson is, if you're going to fail, fail big. Fail so big that you make friends among those on earth, so they will be able to welcome you into the eternal dwellings.

Harry Potter and the Gift of Death

A rough draft. I have other things I need to be doing this morning.

I love, of course, the big, swirly stuff, so I latched onto this recent post at Fr. Jake's place. However, following his link to the original, I already found so much to argue with in the opening paragraph (is there a "collective psyche of the West?" is there even a psyche, much less a collective one? I am too much an existentialist for that.), I've decided to stick with the parts Fr. Jake extracts:

...The modern experience of a radical division between inner and outer--of a subjective, personal, and purposeful consciousness that is paradoxically embedded in and evolved from a world that is intrinsically unconscious, impersonal, and purposeless-is represented historically in our culture in the great division between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. In the world view of the modern West, the Enlightenment essentially rules the outer cosmos and the objective world, while the Romantic aspirations of our art and music, our spiritual yearnings, rule the interior world of the modern soul. In the Romantic tradition--represented, for example, by Goethe and Rousseau, Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Beethoven and Holderlin, Emerson and Whitman all the way up to our post-Sixties counterculture--the modern soul found profound spiritual and psychological expression. The Enlightenment tradition, by contrast, represented by Newton and Locke, Voltaire and Hume--and more recently by thinkers such as Bertrand Russell or Karl Popper, the cosmologists Stephen Hawking and Steven Weinberg, or the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins--has been mainly informed by rational-empirical science. In a sense, the modern soul's allegiance is to Romanticism, while the modern mind's allegiance is to the Enlightenment. There is a kind of schizophrenia within the world view that all of us grew up with in the twentieth century. Our spiritual being, our psychology, is contradicted by our cosmology. Our Romanticism is contradicted by our Enlightenment, our inner by our outer. There is no easy congruence between those two radically different world views; yet, to use Faust's term, they are somehow forced to "cohabit within our breast"...
This isn't really a new insight so much as a fairly well presented one (the further idea, that "humankind has entered into the most critical stages of a death - rebirth mystery", is a bit too apocalyptic for my taste. I'm a "wars and rumors of wars" kind of guy; like the poor, the advent of the Great Revelation Which Will Change Everything has always been with us, which means it will never be with us; not, at least, until everything really does change, once and for all). It does highlight the battle between the Enlightenment and Romanticism which is still going on (although I think it rages for reasons entirely different from those Mr. Tarnas cites. It's really a simple matter that neither has entirely run its course; and then there's the issue that neither is truly unique nor original in human thought; which is another reason a revelation is surely not at hand; pace, William Butler.). If nothing else, it presents a nice contrast to a far more interesting view of European (i.e., Western) history and civilization, as examined by Jan Patocka and related by Jacques Derrida. And that, in turn, points up that it's very hard to read the last book of the Harry Potter series and not think that J.K. Rowling has been reading Derrida and thinking about religion and responsibility and mystery:

In the proper sense of the word, religion exists once the secret of the sacred, orgiastic, or demonic mystery has been, if not destroyed, at least integrated, and finally subjected to the sphere of responsibility. The subject of responsibility will be the subject that has managed to make orgiastic or demonic mystery subject to itself; and has done that in order to freely subject itself to the wholly and infinite other that sees without being seen. Religion is responsibility or it is nothing at all. Its history derives its sense entirely from the idea of a passage to responsibility. Such a passage involves traversing or enduring the test by means of which the ethical conscience will be delivered of the demonic, the mystagogic, and the enthusiastic, of the initiatory and the esoteric. In the authentic sense of the word, religion comes into being the moment that the experience of responsibility extracts itself from that form of secrecy called demonic mystery."--pp. 2-3
That is Patocka on European history as a history of Christianity, via Derrida. Patocka's thesis is that religion introduces responsibility to the other into a society subject to "mystery" of the orgiastic and demonic, and is in fact distinguished by subjecting the latter to the duty of responsibility to the other. The "orgiastic," the "demonic," feeds the individual (one might say the "ego," if that can be done without invoking Freud). According to Patocka, says Derrida:

an experience of the sacred as an enthusiasm or a fervor for fusion....has as its effect, and often as its first intention, the removal of responsibility, the loss of the sense or consciousness of responsibility. --p. 1
I would pause right here to note that one of the key themes of the Harry Potter series is responsibility. The Ministry of Magic ("MOM"; I love that acronym!) keeps those with magical powers responsibile for their actions, and wants such persons trained up in the responsible use of their powers. Voldemort, of course, represents the "demonic," even the "orgiastic," use of magic, especially in his abuse of others, stories recounted in the last two volumes of the series. The demonic leads to the "loss of the sense of consciousness of responsibility." If there is anything Voldemort represents and even offers, and which Harry and Dumbledore symbolize the opposition to, it is that. And, of course, as even Dumbledore's story (not fully revealed until the end of HP7) represents, this matter of responsibility is always a matter of a vigil, a vigil that is related to, and made clear by, death. For Dumbledore, this revelation comes with the death of his sister. For Harry, this revelation comes when he learns he is "the boy who lived." Derrida, through Socrates and the Phaedo, connects this to the origins of philosophy, which is the origin of coming to responsibility:

For it is indeed a matter of care, of "keeping-vigil-for," a solicitude for death that constitutes the relation to self of that which, in existence, relates to onseself. For one never reinforces enough the fact that is it not the psyche that is there in the first place and that comes thereafter to be concerned about its death, to keep watch over it, to be the very vigil of its death. No, the soul only distinguishes itself, separates itself, and assembles within itself in the experience of this melete tou thanatou. It is nothing other than this concern for dying as a relation to self and an assembling of self. It only returns to itself, in both senses of assembling itself and waking itself, becoming conscious, in the sense of consciousness of self in general, through this concern for death....For it is thus that the soul separates itself in recalling itself to itself, and so it becomes individualized, interiorized, becomes its very invisibility. And hence it philosophizes from the very beginning. Philosophy isn't something that comes to the soul by accident, for it is nothing other than this vigil over death that watches out for death and watches over death, as if over the very life of the soul. The psyche as life, as breath of life, as pneuma, only appears out of this concerned anticipation of dying.--pp. 14-15
At the end of HP7, Harry is walking out into the Forbidden Forest to face Voldemort, to die at his hands because he knows he is the seventh Horcrux, the penultimate but unintended repository of a piece of Voldemort's tattered soul. It is the supreme irony of the book, crowning the initial irony of Voldemort getting a partial report of the prophecy from Snape, and choosing to make it true by choosing to kill the infant Harry Potter. He sets into motion a chain of events which end in his death 16 years later, but only because of the character of Harry Potter, because of the choices Harry makes. As he walks to his death, Harry takes out the Golden Snitch left him by Dumbledore, holds it to his lips, and whispers: "I am going to die." J.K. Rowling reported that she cried when writing some of the last portion of this book; I can only imagine it was at this scene she did so. Harry is not Abraham, choosing to give the gift of death to another. He is the sacrifice, choosing the gift of death for himself, having seen the deaths of so many friends, among them Tonks, Remus, and Fred Weasley. So now he gives the gift to himself, and to his friends, by giving them his death. But at that moment the vigil becomes "this vigil over death that watches out for death and watches over death, as if over the very life of the soul. The psyche as life, as breath of life, as pneuma, only appears out of this concerned anticipation of dying." And so the family and friends of the orphan appear, to comfort him, to succor him, to assure him that he is doing what must be done, not for his death, but for his life. It is a question of the weight of history, of events in place long before he was born. It is also, and more importantly for Harry, a question of responsibility:

History can be neither a decidable object nor a totality capable of being mastered, precisely because it is tied to responsibility, to faith, and to the gift. To responsibility in the experience of absolute decisions made outside of knowledge or given norms, made therefore through the very ordeal of the undecidable; to religious faith through a form of involvement with the other that is a venture into absolute risk, beyond knowledge and certainty; to the gift and to the gift of death that puts me in relation with the transcendence of the other, with God, as selfless goodness, and that gives me what it gives me through a new experience of death. Responsibility and faith go together, however paradoxical that might see to some, and both should, in the same movement, exceed mastery and knowledge. The gift of death would be this marriage of responsibility and faith. History depends on such an excessive beginning."--p. 5
Harry displays both responsibility and faith. It is his loyalty to Dumbledore that calls Fawkes to the Chamber of Secrets. His loyalty to Dumbledore remains unshattered, although shaken, in the Order of the Phoenix, and although what he learns about Dumbledore in HP7 disturbs his quiet honoring of his mentor, his responsibility to the charge given him remains unyielding. He declares himself Dumbledore's man in HP6, and reaffirms that position in HP7, when Dumbledore is gone. This faith, and the responsibility he undertakes because of it (the lone quest for the remaining Horcruxes, without revealing the secret of them to anyone who might help), exceeds both mastery and knowledge, the two arenas Dumbledore and Voldemort both lay claim to (and it consumes the latter, and sorely tempts the former, who in the end cannot resist the temptation and so is swept from the field before his time). And here again, having accepted responsibility and acted on faith (which should be understood as trust, not as belief), Harry is able to use the Resurrection Stone not to recall the dead from their peace (Dumbledore's error, as he freely admits to Harry), but to draw himself nearer to them, even as he approaches them and accepts their realm, readies himself to exchange his world for whatever their's offers. He is ready, too, to die, not in the place of the others, but in order to give them "a little longer to live:"

I can give the other everything except immortality, except this dying for her to the extent of dying in place of her and so freeing her from her own death. I can die for the other in a situation where my death gives him a little longer to live, I can save someone by throwing myself in the water or fire in order to temporary snatch him from the jaws of death, I can give her my heart in the literal or figurative sense in order to assure her of a certain longevity. But I cannot die in her place, I cannot give her my life in exchange for her death. Only a mortal can die, as we said earlier. That should now be adjusted to read: and that mortal can only give what is mortal since he can give everything except immortality, everything except salvation as immortality.--p. 43
The error, the sin, the evil, of course, of Voldemort: he is all too willing to let anyone and everyone die in his place, to bring their deaths so he can achieve immortality, or something near it.

In order to put oneself to death, to give oneself death in the sense that every relation to death is an interpretive apprehension and a representative approach to death, death must be taken upon onself. One has to give it to oneself by taking it upon oneself, for it can only be mine, alone, irreplacably. That is so even if, as we just said, death can neither be taken nor given. But the idea of being neither taken nor given relates from or to the other, and that is indeed why one can give it to oneself only by taking it upon oneself.--p. 45
Voldemort, of course, only gives deaths to others; he cannot give the gift of death, because he cannot first take it upon himself. In this way Harry is, again the "anti-Voldemort," but not because he is more powerful than Voldemort. Dumbledore has already shown, in HP6, that he is far more skilled a wizard than Voldemort. Dumbledore not only "casually" battles Voldemort (Harry notes that Dumbldedore seems no more concerned than if he was simply strolling through the lobby of the Ministry of Magic), he unravels almost all of Voldemort's secrets, and the ones he doesn't uncover, Harry and Ron and Hermione do. It is power, of course, which finally undoes Dumbledore, just as it threatened to do when he fought Grundewald and his sister was killed. That grief never leaves him, and finally undoes him when he tries to use the cursed ring for his own end (to disturb the dead, as he later puts it). Voldemort, in the end, is not undone by power, which he always fears, but by powerlessness, the one thing he cannot battle. There is no power without resistance, and when Harry offers himself unresistingly to Voldemort, it is Voldemort who, in that very instant and thereafter, because of Harry's choices and Harry's actions, loses the power of life and death. Voldemort fails because he refuses to ever take responsibility (Remorse is the one thing that would cure the soul of a wizard who kills with an Unforgiveable Curse. What is remorse except accepting responsibility?). Voldemort and Bellatrix represent the demonic, the orgiastic; it is all they pursue and all they desire. In the end, it is their undoing.

The concept of responsibility is one of those strange concepts that give food for thought without giving themselves over to thematization.....This paradoxical concept also has the structure of a type of secret--what is called, in the code of certain religious pratices, mystery....The exercise of responsibility seems to leave no choice but this one, however uncomfortable it may be, of paradox, heresy, and secrecy. More serious still, it must always run the risk of conversion and apostasy; there is no responsibility without a dissident and inventive rupture with respect to tradition, authority, orthodoxy, rule, or doctrine.--p. 27
The power of powerlessness. How powerful is Harry Potter, at any point in the stories? He is a gifted Seeker, but even that doesn't guarantee his team wins every Quidditch match. He is not as knowleadgeable as Hermione, nor as savvy as Ron. He needs his friends, and in the end it is his friends in Hogwarts who inspire him to do what must be done; it is their gift of death, taken upon themselves, that shows him he must give it to himself by taking it upon himself. But throughout the stories it is his "dissident and inventive rupture with respect to tradition, authority, orthodoxy, rule, or doctrine" which leads him to success, which creates the responsibility he finally fulfills by the most creative rupture of all: making a willing sacrifice of himself for his friends. Derrida quotes Patocka on what could be almost said directly on this point:

Responsible life itself was conceived in that event [The Christian reversal of what Patocka calls "the social problem of the Roman Empire...consolidated on the grounds mad possible by the Platonic conception of the soul, a soul which could have a relationship to the transcendent Platonic "Good" through the orgiastic or demonic. Christianity reverses this through responsibility] as the gift of something that, in the end, while having the characteristics of the Good, also presented the traits of something inaccessible to which man is forever enslaved--the traits of a mystery that has the last word. Christianity understands the good in a different way from Plato, as goodness that is forgetful of itself and as love (in no way orgiastic) that denies itself.==p. 30
It isn't that Harry is a Christ figure by making this sacrifice; it is merely that he is a Christian.

All quotes from Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, tr. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1995).

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Shock the Monkey

Naomi Klein, via Jane Smiley, makes some interesting points about 20th century history in the Americas. This kind of thing has been documented recently by Democracy Now!. Amy Goodman has talked extensively with John Perkins, who calls himself a former "economic hit man," and has written two books on what Klein calls the "shock doctrine." But what's truly interesting about Klein's analysis, and something Ms. Smiley doesn't pick up on, is that it is simply an extension of the Monroe Doctrine we all learned about as children.

Follow Ms. Klein's examples, and find one that isn't in the Americas. Now note that precisely what has been done in America, thanks to people like Milton Friedman (and we should not overlook Grover Norquist. I've pointed out before that Bush is merely doing to the country what Norquist did to Texas.), has been done almost exclusively in the Americas, as Perkins repeatedly points out. Coincidence? I think not.

Compare, for example, what Perkins says:

And we do this, typically -- well, there are many ways to do it, but a typical one is that we identify a third-world country that has resources, which we covet. And often these days that's oil, or might be the canal in the case of Panama. In any case, we go to that third-world country and we arrange a huge loan from the international lending community; usually the World Bank leads that process. So, let's say we give this third-world country a loan of $1 billion. One of the conditions of that loan is that the majority of it, roughly 90%, comes back to the United States to one of our big corporations, the ones we've all heard of recently, the Bechtels, the Halliburtons. And those corporations build in this third-world country large power plants, highways, ports, or industrial parks -- big infrastructure projects that basically serve the very rich in those countries. The poor people in those countries and the middle class suffer; they don't benefit from these loans, they don't benefit from the projects. In fact, often their social services have to be severely curtailed in the process of paying off the debt. Now what also happens is that this third-world country then is saddled with a huge debt that it can't possibly repay. For example, today, Ecuador. Ecuador's foreign debt, as a result of the economic hit man, is equal to roughly 50% of its national budget. It cannot possibly repay this debt, as is the case with so many third-world countries. So, now we go back to those countries and say, look, you borrowed all this money from us, and you owe us this money, you can't repay your debts, so give our oil companies your oil at very cheap costs. And in the case of many of these countries, Ecuador is a good example here, that means destroying their rain forests and destroying their indigenous cultures. That's what we're doing today around the world, and we've been doing it -- it began shortly after the end of World War II. It has been building up over time until today where it's really reached mammoth proportions where we control most of the resources of the world.
With what Smiley reports on what Klein says:

Why did Bush and Cheney go to war? Well, where do they get their fortunes? The Shock Doctrine works perfectly for them. As for that 45% below the poverty line, well, once the globalizing manufacturers exported the well-paying US jobs, then the globalizing financiers moved in and sold the newly impoverished working class a few sub-prime mortgages guaranteed to take whatever else they had. Then the financiers screamed for a bailout, and Bernanke gave it to them. The free market, you might say, is working perfectly now, at least according to its shock principles.
Our efforts are, of course, world-wide, and concerned with natural resources like oil; think of Nigeria. But it is in the Americas that we have had the most baleful and most insistent impact. Which is one reason Hugo Chavez worries so many people in American government and business today. He represents the new leadership Klein speaks of, and the people of those countries who are now:

...cannier and more resistant to the shocks administered to them by Bushco and their own ruling classes. Having endured "Disaster Capitalism" for several decades, they understand their own self-interests better and aren't as easy to fool.
Intersting, too, the European Union (while they have their own problems and hardly represent the basiliea tou theou) seem to be doing just fine without Friedman and Norquist (and James Monroe's doctrine).

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Being and Nothingness and Time and the Gift of Death and Quidditch

While you are waiting for me to finish my magnum opus, the post on Harry Potter and Jacques Derrida and why the Golden Snitch is a symbol of French phenomenology, and not incidentally what J. K. Rowling has to do with Edgar Allan Poe (you are waiting, aren't you?), you can go here.

Being associated with such an august site, I'm expecting quite a rise in traffic around here. Try to look respectable, won't you?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"It's the government of nothing."

One of my pet peeves is the idea that there is a "government" in Iraq, because there were elections, and because the US has officially recognized it. Takes a bit more than that to make a government, of course, and the New York Times makes that point in telling us what Ambassador Crocker didn't tell Congress yesterday:

Power has essentially shifted in a number of directions, geographically and socially. Some provinces have become dominions unto themselves; other provinces are impoverished, unable to get Baghdad to deliver resources that the provinces can not procure themselves.

In Diyala Province recently, American troops had to travel to Baghdad on their own to demand food for the area’s starving families after the government did not deliver it. Officials in Baghdad “tell you everything you want to hear,” said John M. Jones, head of the provincial reconstruction team in Baquba. “Putting into action is another thing.”

Those provinces that are doing well do so in part by keeping electricity from the national grid and making exclusive deals with neighboring countries. Mr. Crocker interpreted the nascent interest in particular by Sunni majority provinces in having more control over their affairs as “a budding debate about federalism among Iraq’s leaders.”

But Iraq, the central government is an object of scorn and ridicule. Mr. Crocker mentioned only glancingly the government’s failure to deliver needed services, focusing primarily on Baghdad’s lack of electricity.

However, electricity is a problem in many parts of Diyala, Diwaniya and other areas. Health services have steadily declined because many doctors, along with a broad swath of the educated middle class, have fled the country. “It’s the government of nothing,” said Adel al-Subeihawi, a tribal leader on Sadr City ’s eastern edge. “No oil. No water. No electricity.”

Crippled by corruption and inefficiency, departments in many ministries are all but private fiefs. While there are dedicated government workers and administrators, they face the longest of odds in trying to deliver services. In some areas, militias control the distribution of gas for cooking as well as ice for refrigeration.

The loss of faith in the government has driven Iraqis to militias, tribes and nongovernment organizations like Mr. Sadr’s.

“Always, when the government becomes weak, that means the tribes and militias become strong,” Mr. Subeihawi said. “The Americans and the government are in one valley. The militias are in another valley entirely. They don’t see each other.”
You can't see, of course, what you don't want to see. Or, as George Will said today:

After more than four years of war, two questions persist: Is there an Iraq? Are there Iraqis?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Freedom for Me, but not for Thee

NPR this morning noted that, in the case of the "Lackawana 6," Dick Cheney personally prevailed upon Louis Freeh to make arrests because Freeh could not state with "100% certainty" that these suspected terrorists would not commit a criminal act. Pre-emptive justice is one way to put it. "Guilty until proven innocent" is the more accurate phrase.

And the beat goes on:

The chaplains [of federal prisons] were directed by the Bureau of Prisons to clear the shelves of any books, tapes, CDs and videos that are not on a list of approved resources. In some prisons, the chaplains have recently dismantled libraries that had thousands of texts collected over decades, bought by the prisons, or donated by churches and religious groups.


Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said the agency was acting in response to a 2004 report by the Office of the Inspector General in the Justice Department. The report recommended steps that prisons should take, in light of the Sept. 11 attacks, to avoid becoming recruiting grounds for militant Islamic and other religious groups. The bureau, an agency of the Justice Department, defended its effort, which it calls the Standardized Chapel Library Project, as a way of barring access to materials that could, in its words, “discriminate, disparage, advocate violence or radicalize.”
What's on, and what's off? Well...

The lists are broad, but reveal eccentricities and omissions. There are nine titles by C. S. Lewis, for example, and none from the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Cardinal Avery Dulles, and the influential pastor Robert H. Schuller.
And is this effort really necessary?

The effort is unnecessary, the chaplain said, because chaplains routinely reject any materials that incite violence or disparage, and donated materials already had to be approved by prison officials. Prisoners can buy religious books, he added, but few have much money to spend.
And no, it's not just Muslim titles that are being removed, and yes, there is the question of why the government can decide, in such a blanket way, what is "approved:"

“Otisville had a very extensive library of Jewish religious books, many of them donated,” said David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish group. “It was decimated. Three-quarters of the Jewish books were taken off the shelves.”

Mr. Zwiebel asked, “Since when does the government, even with the assistance of chaplains, decide which are the most basic books in terms of religious study and practice?”
As Hecate asks (from whom I got this link), what about "pagan" titles?

The silence on that, of course, is deafening.

The constitutional question can be stated succinctly, and it is:

“Government does have a legitimate interest to screen out things that tend to incite violence in prisons,” Mr. Laycock said. “But once they say, ‘We’re going to pick 150 good books for your religion, and that’s all you get,’ the criteria has become more than just inciting violence. They’re picking out what is accessible religious teaching for prisoners, and the government can’t do that without a compelling justification. Here the justification is, the government is too busy to look at all the books, so they’re going to make their own preferred list to save a little time, a little money.”
That "justification," by the way, hardly meets the standard of "compelling." And, of course, the most telling part:

The lists have not been made public by the bureau....
Public notice can be so embarassing. I guess if the terrorists knew what was banned in prison, they'd go out and read it; or something.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

In God We Doubt

Well, after I thank Grandmere Mimi for the link, I'm going to have to look around for a copy of this, John Humphrys new book In God We Doubt. He writes about his own spiritual journey, and along the way takes a swipe or two at Richard Dawkins, which is always a good time:

Militant atheists seem to have enormous difficulty in understanding why so many people – many of them just as clever as they are – manage to live by their beliefs. Here’s what Dawkins told Laurie Taylor in New Humanist magazine: “I don’t know what it would mean to say that we live by faith in our daily life. There is, I suppose, a sense that we are sometimes too busy to reason everything out, but otherwise I don’t know what it means.”
Just on the scale of reason alone, the very idea that Dawkins "reason[s] everything out" is simply laughable. David Hume would have a field day with that remark, not to mention Kant, Kierkegaard, Socrates, Sartre, and Derrida. I can only imagine the comic novel Voltaire could make out of that innocently naive comment. But the real heart of the article is not the swipes at "militant atheism," as Humphry calls it; it is the insight into human experience:

Trite it may be, but most of us can see the beauty as well as the horrors of the world and, sometimes, humanity at its most noble. We sense a spiritual element in that nobility and, in the miracle of unselfish love and sacrifice, something beyond our conscious understanding. You don’t need to be an eastern mystic or a devout religious believer to feel that. We should not – we must not – be browbeaten by arrogant atheists and meekly accept their “deluded” label. They are no more capable of understanding this most profound mystery than a small child making his first awe-inspiring discoveries.
If you get the feeling the wheel is being reinvented, you aren't alone. Humprhys is not really telling us anything William James hasn't already pointed out:

The freedom to ' believe what we will ' you apply to the case of some patent superstition; and the faith you think of is the faith defined by the schoolboy when he said, " Faith is when you believe something that you know ain't true." I can only repeat that this is misapprehension. In concreto, the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider.
But in this new age of reason, reinventing the wheel to prove how wise we are today, is all the rage. And I don't mean to point a finger at Humphrys when I say that, but sadly, the public discussion of these issues is a miserably informed and largely ignorant one, fought out almost entirely on the misbegotten Romanctic landscape of one's own personal experience. Dawkins can't imagine what "faith" is, as he relates it to religion particularly, so he can't imagine it has any reality. Dawkins also shows no knowledge of the famous essays by James, nor any glimmer of the work of Wittgenstein on language games, and yet he is credible because he is a scientist, he is militant, and he is an atheist.

Humphrys is, on this battlefield, little better. He brings only personal anecdotes to the discussion, and while he admits at one point that his sample size is too small to be of statistical significance, he still insists that:

I HAVE talked to many people about God – eminent theologians, historians, scientists, clerics – but let me finish with a woman called Mrs Buchanan.
The anecdote that follows that sentence, though, is quite good, and really quite explanatory. If his argument could be summed up by Shakespeare: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," it's still a good argument nonetheless. The issue remains: are the militant atheists, only a handful of all humanity at any one time, even a minority of a minority in Western countries, really the only sane ones, and the rest of the world insane? Can anyone find that position credible?

Which is not to say numbers are proof, but rather to focus us on the question of proof, the standards of proof allowed. Proof is actually a term we associate with logic, with truth tables and elaborate proofs of the validity of statements. The syllogism is that basic form: Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore Socrates is mortal. It is valid not because Socrates is proven to be a man, or that men are proven to be mortal. It is valid because, given the validity of the first two statements, the conclusion about them can be drawn. But is Socrates a man? Are all men mortal? The syllogism cannot tell us. Where is the proof? Chase that down far enough, you end up with the empiricism of David Hume, and you find you can make only two kinds of statements: synthetic, and analytic. And one kind of statement is pointless, verifying information that really advances no valuable knowledge, and the other is unverifiable and therefore must be rejected. What kinds of statements would the latter be? "I love my wife" would be a fine example. Try proving that one empirically; yet try proving to me that it is a pointless statement. So even as I enjoy Humphrys' work, I note that we still haven't advanced the ball very much, at least not in the popular discussion. Why are these blatant mischaracterizations of religion still giving us so much trouble? Maybe it's because neither side brings that much ammunition to the argument; and yet the stores of knowledge sit waiting for someone to examine them....

On the other hand, I appreciate Humphrys if only because he brings us Giles Fraser:
He [Fraser] is embarrassed by “stupid” Christians thinking they know more about the nature of the universe than clever atheists like Dawkins. Ask him to prove that God exists – one of the subjects of his philosophy lectures at Oxford – and he cheerfully admits that he can’t. He goes further: “The so-called proofs of God’s existence are all rubbish.”

Ask him if the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened and he says: “Umm . . . dunno . . . can’t prove it.”

Ask him about evangelical Christians and he snorts: “Evangelicals have misunderstood the Bible. They turn it into some bloody Ikea manual.”

Ask him to sum up the state of battle between militant believers and militant atheists and he says: “Atheists have the best arguments, which makes belief such a precarious thing.”
Proofs of God's existence: well, I'm at risk of running that flat into the ground. Fraser is right: they are all rubbish. The more interesting question to me has become: why do we care about them? I have an answer or two; but I'm still knocking them into presentable form.

The resurrection? I consider that a confessional topic. I can't prove it; but I don't need to. Whether or not you confess it (i.e., believe it) is irrelevant to me, if we're going to argue about it. I'm not an apologist for it. And as for evangelicals turning the Bible into an "IKEA manual," well that's just lovely. I'm keeping that.

Some of the critique of religion I read on the web comes from, I think, a vague memory of Wordsworth, of how we are all "suckled on a creed outworn." The creed outworn, actually, is the doctrines of the European enlightenment, and European Romaniticism. The critique of religion these twin forces are usually focussed on is the question of theodicy, the question of suffering, of which Humphrys has a great deal to say (he and Chris Hedges could certainly swap notes on that issue for quite a long time). America is often held up as a product of the Enlightenment, but the question of suffering for the Founding Fathers was limited, largely, to white land owners. I know, I know, two different meanings of the root "suffer," and "suffrage" just sounds like "suffering." A poor pun, at best. But the suffering of slaves, or of Native Americans, didn't bother much of anybody during the Enlightenment. Indeed, the great theodicial issue of the European Enlightenment, the destruction of Lisbon by an earthquake (the event that really set Voltaire off on religion), mostly raised the question "Why do we suffer?" There's a notable shift in that concern in the experiences of Humphrys or Hedges, it should be noted. The theodicial issue goes on, but it needs addressing on its own terms.

Here's the real issue, and frankly, it brings us back to Harry Potter:

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the little old lady might use a different vocabulary to try to explain why they believe, but it comes to the same thing in the end. They believe because they believe. This is not about intellect or learning: it’s more basic than that. It is both more profound and more simple.
Start here: why isn't Harry just like Voldemort? If B.F. Skinner was right, environment should be a powerful shaping force (of course, Harry isn't a human being, he's a fictional construct, so dragging behaviorism into this is unfair; but bear with me, I'm not lashing out at a new target with this). Both Harry and Tom Riddle are raised in loveless environments, both find Hogwarts to be their first true "home." Maybe it's genetics, given their quite different parents (and so, pace Skinner, it's blood that will out). But isn't it all about "intellect or learning"? Don't we still prefer that answer, or the answer of the power of genetics, which we only know through intellect and learning, over the answer Dumbledore consistently gives, the answer Voldemort consistently sneers at: love?

Is love an emotion, or is love a force? War is a force that gives us meaning, Christopher Hedges says; is there, then, no place also for love? There's an interesting question, eh? Is love just another feeling, akin to anger, remorse, fear, hatred, lust, desire? Or is it something else entirely? Empiricists would not want to push that too far, but still Humphrys is right:

Strip from Christianity the notion of proof, evidence and historical events (or nonevents) and what drives belief has little to do with the head and a great deal to do with the heart.
Fraser makes the point, one I've arrived at independently, and used more than once: Explain to me, in scientific or empirical terms, without resort to reductio arguments, precisely why I love my wife. Perhaps my love for my child is because she carries my genetic code (Dawkin's "selfish gene"), but why do I continue to love my wife? Or, as Fraser puts it:

“The night before I got married my brother sat me down in an Indian restaurant and (too many beers) got me to make a list on a napkin of why this girl was the right person for me to marry. One side of the napkin had all the pros and the other side the cons.

“What was fascinating about the list was that nothing I could write down – kind, pretty, warm, sexy, etc – could ever add up to “I love her”. To marry and make the love commitment is the nearest thing to faith I know because it is something done with the same degree of risk.

“Would a person who needed everything fully evidenced and rationally demonstrated ever be in a position to say, ‘I love you’? Couldn’t a Dawkins-type figure make a case for love being a fiction, a function of human need, a function of biology and selfish genes? He may have many useful and persuasive things to say but there is something deeply mistaken about thinking love is simply reducible to the chemistry of the brain.

“Love, like faith, is to make more of a commitment than one can prove. But there is a truth to it that I won’t – indeed can’t – back away from. Of course, there is much to say about all of this and I can think of a dozen reasons why faith and love might look different. But the truth of both is, for me, found in the poetry, not in the science.”
Or, as Kierkegaard said (sad how seldom he comes up in these discussions, considering how much he contributed to them. We're still catching up with the melancholy Dane): "Truth is subjective." Or, as Wittgenstein put it:

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.
We don't really advance the conversation until we come to grips with this as a fundamental truth. Dawkins can't imagine a life lived by relying on faith? Fine. But does that mean such a life cannot be? Hardly.

And where I disagree with Humphrys, again, is in any description of religious faith as a security blanket, as "the little scrap of blanket that so many small children rely on." To be fair, Humphrys doesn't really rest his argument there so much as accept the description arguendo. But I don't accept it that way, and there is ample evidence in what Humphrys presents to dismiss it altogther. Take the example of Mrs. Buchanan, the neighbor he knew from childhood who was always a faithful Christian and a good person despite the fact her marriage was a childless one (as Humphrys points out, there was no IVF in 1954). Humphrys, wisely, will go no further than to say of church for the Buchanans: "It provided structure and, I think, some meaning to their lives." That in itself is no small thing. But set that up against, say, this explanation of the view of Kierkegaard:

With regard to everything that counts in human life, including especially matters of ethical and religious concern, Kierkegaard held that the crowd is always wrong. Any appeal to the opinions of others is inherently false, since it involves an effort to avoid responsibility for the content and justification of my own convictions. Genuine action must always arise from the Individual, without any prospect of support or agreement from others.
"Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all." But Derrida was wise enough not to de-limit responsibility to social structures or even the duties of citizenship. Perhaps responsibility to one's self and what one holds to be true is responsibility enough. Kierkegaard can be read, in light of that summation, as being very harsh indeed, as insisting everyone practice the Christianity he practiced. But Kierkegaard was not reacting against bourgeois Christians in the Danish pews. He was reacting against their leaders, and against the "severe rationalism" of Hegel. He was not condemning the Buchanans he might meet in the Lutheran church of a Sunday. He was actually speaking for them, for their lives, for their existence. The crowd might well say, as it did to Sarah, that the shame of childlessness was on this couple, certainly on the wife. It's an old story, and yet God did not give Mrs. Buchanan pleasure, even late in life. Yet her convictions remained the same, or apparently so. Even Luther, long before the Dane, would consider how much he could know his own heart, and lead us all to agree with the prophet that: "The heart is devious, beyond all understanding. Who can fathom it?" So was Mrs. Buchanan a good existentialist Christian? She probably wouldn't explain it that way, but she certainly did not derive her faith solely from others. There was something that made that faith a live option for her (James' term) or something actually taking place in her life. In that sense Kierkegaard describes her faith, and the challenge of his writings is to the rest of us: to accept her, even if we do not have her faith, or her understanding of faith.

There is just so much more to this, and so many people have pointed that out. Browsing through my archives for a minor point or two, I came across this, quite by happenstance:

[John] Gray [professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics] argues that this fixation misses the point of religions: "The core of most religions is not doctrinal. In non-western traditions and even some strands of western monotheism, the spiritual life is not a matter of subscribing to a set of propositions. Its heart is in practice, in ritual, observance and (sometimes) mystical experience . . . When they dissect arguments for the existence of God, atheists parody the rationalistic theologies of western Christianity."
One might also note those "rationalistic theologies" are of a certain time and place, and hardly the sum and substance of all religious practice, or even of all Christian belief. There are more things in heaven and earth indeed, Horatio.

So I've been through all this more than once, and yet I keep returning to it, trying to have the last word on it (well, let's be honest). But ultimately it comes back, not to arguments and reasoning but, as Humphrys points out, to the question of love. So I ask again: is love merely an emotion, or is it akin to a force in the world? In the schema of Harry Potter love is clearly powerful, deep, and mysterious, experienced rather than known, or surely Voldemort would have discovered its powers, Dumbledore would have included it on the Hogwarts' curriculum. It is love that saves Harry in the beginning, and love that sends him into the Forbidden Forest with his words to the Golden Snitch Dumbledore has left him: "I am going to die." It is not faith that sends him there; he is quite sure of his end, not at all anticipating a further future. And there is an even deeper irony here, one that links the militant atheists and the militan fundamentalists the former so fear:

This is a thought taken up by Azzim Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought. "I refer to secular fundamentalism. The problem is that these people believe that they have the absolute truth. That means you have no room to talk to others so you end up having a physical fight. They want to close the door and ignore religion, but this will provoke a violent religiosity. If someone seeks to deny my existence, I will fight to assert it."
We are, of course, encouraged to fight to assert our existence because Islamic fundamentalism leads to the "existential threat" of terrorism. And yet one response we are urged to make is to deny the validity, any validity, to religion, which provokes the very response we seek to quell. To fight to assert your identity, your existence, is, of course, very human. But it is not, ultimately, what Harry Potter does; it is not, ultimately, what Christianity (at least) teaches. And that is where the question "What is love?", gets very interesting.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

On the valid distinction between reason and knowledge

It's a distinction that seems to go back to Plato v. Aristotle. Plato's Socrates, at least until he decided to beome a political philosopher, is all about the value of reasoning over knowledge. (Please note the distinction between the noun "reason" and the verb "reasoning." This is a rough draft; I don't have time to polish every edge as it deserves, so forgive the interpolations; but they will come.) Aristotle seems, in say, the Nicomachean Ethics or the Poetics or his works on science, to be all about knowledge: observation, facts, the way things are. But Aristotle is the father of logic, and logic is purely a system of reasoning. Logic will never yield a truth out of data; it will only tell you if your reasoning from that data is valid. So logic may tell you that if all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal, but logic will only tell you that your reasoning is flawed if you start with all men being mortal, and determine Socrates, too, is mortal, therefore Socrates is a man. Socrates could, of course, be a cat. But logic will never establish that. Nor will it establish that Socrates exists. Hold on to that issue, we'll come back to it.

The Greeks, at least in the philosophies handed down to us and in surviving fragments and references in Aristotle, were not interested in knowledge: they were actually interest in reasoning. That's a blanket statement, but I mean to cover the foundations of what we know call Hellenistic thought, of what Whitehead was referring to when he said all Western philosophy is just a footnote to Plato. Socrates, especially, eschewed knowledge. He flays Euthyphro so badly in what seems, for him, to be only casual conversation, that the priest abandons his court claim against his father for an act of impiety (murdering a slave) and leaves the stage clear for Socrates to present his Apology. Euthyphro clearly exceeds Socrates in knowledge of the subject of piety and religion; but Socrates bests Euthyphro in reasoning.

Nor is Socrates anymore interested in data procured by mathematics. For Socrates, knowledge of math is secondary; we all have it, we just need to recover it. Reasoning, in Socratic epistemology, is the road to recovering data. (This is also the road through which Socrates is praised, because his ironic stance is excused since the goal is deemed ultimately worthy. The fact is, as any reader of the Apology can tell you, and as Kierkegaard understood: Socrates only goal was the ironic one of destroying knowledge, not releasing it or even reclaiming it. But that's another point that doesn't necessarily undermine the one I want to make. I warned you there would be digressions.) But it is the reasoning that will set you free; the data is mere ephemera; it is knowledge about the shadows of the forms. Only reasoning can lead to understanding the impermanence of the forms, and even the forms themselves are but guides to the Good. So knowledge, ultimately, is only a stepping stone to the end and source of reason. Read Dante as an example of medieval thought, and be amazed at how thoroughly Platonic the "Dark Ages" were. In many ways, it would be a modern mathematician's dream world.

But I digress; again.

To bring this down to earth a moment, connect it to Harry Potter. Voldemort's "sin," his great evil, is the pursuit of knowledge. The only wizard in the series who knows more than Voldemort, and indeed who uses that lust for knowledge but blindness to reasoning (which is also wisdom) against him, his Dumbledore. Voldemort's pursuit of knowledge, of course, is aimed at gaining power. It is no accident that Dumbledore was also tempted by his knowledge to gain power, and use it much as Voldemort would. It is also no accident that Dumbledore inscribes on his sister's grave the words from a parable of Jesus: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." It is, after all, the death of his sister that convinces Dumbledore to never seek any position of power more potent than headmaster of Hogwarts. It is also her death that haunts him so it ultimately leads to his own. I wonder if Rowling had in mind the less familar version by Dominic Crossan: "You buried your treasure where you buried your heart." It certainly applies most pointedly to Albus Dumbledore.

So Rowling's universe does not praise knowledge, but it does praise reasoning. Hermione often supplies facts, data, information, knowledge: but it is the reasoning of Harry, of Ron, of Hermione, which always carries the day. It is especially the moral reasoning of Harry which ultimately succeeds. Oh, there is so much more to say on this, and no time to do it now. But the issue goes far beyond a clever reading of the 7 Harry Potter books: it goes to the current obsession in some quarters with the "existence" of God, and with the assault on religion conducted in the name of reason. An assault usually conducted from an array of "facts," and without much that Socrates, or even Aristotle, would recognize as "reasoning."

So, much, much more, later.

On an unrelated note

You have only to read this NYT "profile" on Condi Rice to realize news reporting and news coverage is absolutely driven by the prevailing wisdom and the perceived position of that vast and unknown quantity, "public opinion." As the article itself says:

There was a time when, perhaps more than Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice seemed to have the best shot at becoming the first woman or the first African-American to be president. But that was before she sounded public alarms based on faulty intelligence to justify the Iraq war, telling CNN, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” It was before a former top Bush administration colleague, David Kay, charged with finding unconventional weapons after the Iraq invasion, referred to Ms. Rice in Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial” as “probably the worst national security adviser since the office was created.”
Note there isn't a lot of new information there, and it implicitly links Ms. Rice's decline to what can only be called "old news" about this Administration. No mention of Ms. Rice, for example, shopping for shoes while New Orleans drowned. It's true that the idea of Condi Rice for President came first, Woodward's book second. But the declinein Rice's status has come only recently; it didn't start in 2006, and it was actually precipitated by her non-involvement in the Katrina debacle, as much as by her championing a war, as National Security Advisor, that couldn't have gone worse. In the article she acknowledges the war in Iraq as a "stain" on her legacy. Curious language for someone who warned us of the "mushroom cloud" that would be the final, deadly proof that her boss was right about those WMD he was no disastrously wrong about. But the real "tell" of the piece, the real proof that public opinion has swung so hard against this Administration that no blow is too low, is in the next paragraph:

And it was before furious Lebanese hung a huge banner depicting Ms. Rice’s face, with blood dripping from her lips, from a bridge in central Beirut.
What in any other context would be yet another example of foreign perfidy and a perfectly reprehensible comment on an American public official, is here the last nail in the coffin of the case against Condi Rice. How the mighty are fallen!

Did blogs have anything to do with this? I doubt it. They allowed people to speak their minds to like-minded people, but did they change the editorial policies of the mighty NYT? More likely public events did that. It is hard to find anyone other than Karl Rove who still thinks Bush is even a competent President, but the evidence for his success is now as rare as hen's teeth. Still, there is reality, and then there is reality:

Critics of the war in Iraq have long charged that the press has usually whitewashed the death and violence of the conflict by refusing to publish or air some of the most graphic images. Now a famous filmmaker -- using some of the photos that newspapers have failed to print -- is trying to do something about that.

The latest film by Brian DePalma, director of numerous well-known movies such as "Scarface," "The Untouchables" and "Carrie/" is aptly called "Redacted" and has just been shown for the first time as part of the Venice Film Festival. DePalma spoke to reporters there, saying, among other things, "Pictures are what will stop the war."

The film centers on perhaps the most horrendous known atrocity involving U.S. troops, the gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl and four members of her family in March 2006....

"All the images we...have of our war are completely constructed -- whitewashed, redacted," said De Palma in Venice, according to press reports. "One only hopes that these images will get the public incensed enough to get their congressmen to vote against the war."

DePalma makes use of images he has grabbed from the Web, including soldiers' home videos and photos that have never appeared in print. There's also more standard documentary film footage and the use of fictionalized techniques and characters to avoid certain legal issues, making it into an unusual kind of "docu-drama."
As for ending the war, we'll see. Humankind cannot bear very much reality. And our Congress cannot seem to connect with reality at all.