Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Alberto Agonistes

I went to the dentist today, and actually found a current magazine! Clearly a sign I should blog about the article on Alberto Gonzalez! Which contains such journalistic insights as these:

“Listen, we’re in a war, and the only way to win a war is to be tough,” he would tell me several weeks later, noting that the Obama administration has continued many of the policies he gave legal blessing to, both as White House counsel and as AG under George W. Bush. “Everyone is learning that to be successful in this environment, you have to go to the limit of what the Constitution allows.”
(No mention that torture violates Federal law, and the "When the President does it, it's legal" argument, goes back to Richard Nixon and Watergate.)

When I mentioned torture memos, he interrupted me to ask which torture memos I was referring to.
Classic Texas Monthly style, that. No answer to the question, no clarification, no follow up. Because it really matters how you define "torture," you see. We really must argue the point awhile, because it's a gray area.

This circle was easily the most hawkish and aggressive within the administration. The caustic, imposing Addington, who as a longtime Washington hand knew more about presidential wartime power, the Constitution, and Capitol bureaucracy than just about anyone in government, set the tone with his contempt for those who advised caution, or were soft. He was, like Cheney, not interested in opposing opinions, and members of the State Department or Congress were excluded from meetings.
I.e., don't blame Alberto. He was only doing his job. He didn't know anything about the Geneva Conventions. He relied on others. He was only following orders. And that whole "opposition" thing? That's how we do it in courts of law, so the law is followed and the truth determined. But this was a crisis, so protecting the country "legally" meant whatever John Yoo thought. Seriously:

The only person in the administration who knew as much about presidential wartime powers as Addington was a young legal scholar from Berkeley named John Yoo, who was the deputy assistant attorney general in the OLC. A product of Harvard and Yale Law, Yoo was a whiz kid whose conservative bona fides—he’d clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas—were indisputable. Within weeks of the attacks, Gonzales was asking Yoo for memos outlining the limits of the Geneva Conventions. Yoo was generous: Since Al Qaeda and the Taliban militia did not constitute a nation or a state, he concluded, they had no protections.
All the opposition to Yoo's legal opinions? Alberto has an answer for that, too:

Would it have been nice to invite everyone to these meetings? Sure, but it just doesn’t work that way. Were there times others should have been invited? I have to concede it may have been helpful, but we did the best we could under the circumstances.”
See, it's not his fault. He couldn't help it. You can't blame him. He didn't try, but trying is hard! Besides, does this sound like torture to you?

In March 2003 Yoo sent out another crucial memo, this time exploring the limits of prisoner interrogation. He concluded that military interrogators were not subject to federal laws prohibiting assault, maiming, or other uses of force during questioning because the end goal was “to prevent further attacks on the United States.” The memo suggested that acts like dousing prisoners with scalding water, corrosive acid, or caustic substances; slitting an ear, nose, or lip; or disabling a tongue or limb were not criminal.
Well, it's certainly not what they meant:

To Gonzales, Abu Ghraib was not, as critics would charge, the logical outcome of the administration’s permissive view of “enhanced interrogation.” He told me that he lamented it as the “despicable conduct” of a few “knuckleheads.” When the news broke, he worried that people would think prisoner abuse was part of White House policy, which, in fact, many people did. “We had worked very hard to do what was right,” he told me, “and now everyone would assume this was a by-product of what had been authorized.”
And that's it for the article. Which torture memos was Swartz asking Gonzales about? Dunno. Why was torture Constitutional when it is clearly banned by statute? Dunno. Why am I telling you this? Oh, because of this:

From the early 1930's until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002-2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.
Will Bunch expands the point to indict the political culture of the entire country on seemingly unrelated terms:

Increasingly, we're losing our perspective, maybe our minds. We have candidates for the U.S. Congress comparing the taxes that we pay to finance the U.S. military or to pay for public schools to slavery, or to the Nazi-led Holocaust. As Americans, we should all seek higher ground over what we talk about when we talk about slavery, and what we talk about when we talk about torture.
A point that I would, again, call Kierkegaardian. I hope to explain that meaning soon. But for now, the beat goes on. And the country, apparently, keeps marching to it.

Is this a great country, or what?

An update, because it just gets better:

However, the Times acknowledged that political circumstances did play a role in the paper's usage calls. “As the debate over interrogation of terror suspects grew post-9/11, defenders of the practice (including senior officials of the Bush administration) insisted that it did not constitute torture,” a Times spokesman said in a statement. “When using a word amounts to taking sides in a political dispute, our general practice is to supply the readers with the information to decide for themselves. Thus we describe the practice vividly, and we point out that it is denounced by international covenants and in American tradition as a form of torture.”

The Times spokesman added that outside of the news pages, editorials and columnists “regard waterboarding as torture and believe that it fits all of the moral and legal definitions of torture.” He continued: “So that's what we call it, which is appropriate for the opinion pages.”

I remember Ted Koppel interviewing Jon Stewart during the Democratic Convention in 2004. The exchange went something like this:

Ted Koppel made the distinction between fact and truth, using himself as an example. [Actually, Ted Koppel told Jon that he was confusing "truth" with "facts."] What if, he said, President Bush revealed at the convention that Ted Koppel is a "drug dealer and pedophile." Would it be a fact to report that the President said that?

"There is a difference between facts which are reported immediately [and the truth]," Koppel said. "The truth may not catch up for another week or two."
Except what I remember Koppel saying was that he'd report what Bush said, and let someone else refute it. Later. Much later. Long after the lie was half-way 'round the world. Because, like Lara Logan, his duty is not to the truth, nor to his audience. In fact, let me just point out it can be done. People can be called on their lies:

Brewer nonetheless stuck by the claim that undocumented immigrants are murdering Arizonans when asked about it last weekend on a local Arizona political show.

"Our law enforcement agencies have found bodies in the desert, either buried or just lying out there, that have been beheaded," she said.

The anchor notes that he couldn't find "any beheadings in any kind of news search."

The Arizona Guardian followed up, asking the state's county coroners -- who would examine any body connected with a crime -- if they'd seen the headless bodies from the desert.

They hadn't.
A newspaper investigates, a reporter in real time challenges a statement. Was that really so hard?

Apparently for Ted Koppel, this violates some journalistic standard of "objectivity." Kinda like the New York Times here. I know this idea of the "objective journalist" gained traction after the "yellow journalism" days of William Randolph Hearst, but honestly, hasn't it become more of a detriment than a benefit?

Andrew Sullivan is right: this is newspeak. This is using words, or reporting (take your pick), dishonestly, so as not to offend those in power. And really, it doesn't even have to be this way; except, one has to admit, the Governor of Arizona is not exactly a "position of power." Not in national politics.

There is no truth in this kind of 'objectivity," and none to be found through it. Truth can only be found in spite of it.

God save the Republic. Something tells me I'd better activate my prayer capsule....

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"A vapid and hollow charade...."

I was looking at this, and thinking about how, as the author says, most use of "anonymous sources" is just an excuse for lazy reporting. And then there's the "blowback" against the Rolling Stone McChrystal article; if Lara Logan is a representative example of journalists today, their job is not to report the news, but to report the news their sources want them to report, when they want it reported. That's simply what she says there: sources tell her when to report, and when not to, and respecting sources is much more important than reporting news. Because, apparently, we only need to know what the sources want the reporters to let us know, and while the journalists may know much more than that, their first duty is to their sources, never to the general public.

It's a problem of Kierkegaardian proportions. But let's get back to the first issue, first: the problem of "anonymous sources" is not entirely laziness; it's also a matter of technology. If you want to boil it down to one source, let's blame Ted Turner.

Turner was praised as a visionary (or damned as a madman) when he turned "TBS" from a "superchannel" (remember those?) to the basis for a cable network that soon spread to CNN, CNN Headline News, and TCM. But it was CNN that did it: 24 hour cable news. Information around the clock, from around the world, to you in your living room. What could go wrong, with a world to choose from? How could you ever run out of information?

Except, of course, CNN doesn't bring you the world: it brings you America, and a damned small portion of that. Mostly what it brings are stories that claim national attention (hurricanes, floods, oil well blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico) and politics, which means mostly D.C. Turner tried to center his network in Atlanta, Georgia, but technology is a two-edged sword, and the power to send out a signal from somewhere besides New York or El "A", meant the power to receive a signal back from those places, too. In the end, the incoming signal proved stronger than even geography. Long before "cyberspace" made location irrelevant, it didn't matter where Wolf Blitzer's "Situation Room" was physically located: psychically, it was rooted in D.C. So news didn't change; it got worse.

And reporters got jobs; except, of course, TV journalism is not print journalism, and CNN doesn't compete with "60 Minutes" (is that still on, by the way?). But cable news, and now internet news, and any kind of news at all, is a hungry monster: it needs to be fed. The apt comparison is the mortgage backed securities game, which soon needed more mortgages than the market could offer in order to meet the demand from investors for more such securities. The response was not to limit the number of such securities available; the response was to prompt the market at the other end to supply more mortgages. And we all know how well that worked out. The same thing happened with "news:" we needed more of it, wherever it came from. Had anonymous sources not existed when this happened, we'd have needed to invent them.

Today it's the simplest thing in the world to find new "zombie lies" traveling all over the news, now starting with reputable. v. internet, sources. ABCNews recently reported that Phoenix, AZ bears the dubious distinction of being the "number two kidnapping capital of the world." No, not even close. But it makes a good story, and we need to fill air time, so let's report it! Now, in fairness, that may just be an egregious lapse on the part of ABCNews; but politicians have decided there is no downside in promoting outrageous lies in campaign ads and speeches, sometimes based on nothing more than what they heard on Glen Beck's radio show, or just made up out of whole cloth. And are these lies ever investigated, disputed, dismissed by journalists? No, not really. They're too busy defending their sources and their professional conduct, and seeking reports from anonymous sources so they have something to put on the air when the camera turns to them and Wolf wants the next story that's a "situation."

FoxNews, MSNBC, CNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN....that's a lot of airtime on a lot of channels that need something to say. And then there's Huffington Post, and TPM, and Drudge, and Slate, and Salon, and....I'm not even touching the surface, or trying to equate all of these sites; they're just the ones I think of off the top of my head. Lots and lots and lots of internet sites seeking eyeballs, and blogs and Twitter and Facebook seeking commentary, and stories go 'round and 'round and 'round, and it all becomes true because everybody's saying it, and once in awhile we bemoan the "pack mentality" or reliance on "anonymous sources" and we condemn "lazy journalism" or listen to one reporter tell another reporter not to report everything he knows, especially when he's on the road to Paris with a four-star general who only sleeps four hours a day and eats one meal a day and has been drinking beer with you for hours and just starts talking as if you were his oldest buddy in the world, which suddenly you are and how dare you betray him because you're there as a journalist, not as his drinking pal....

And we keep striking at the branches of the tree of evil, and no one takes an axe to the roots. It is a Kierkegaardian question, as much as that is an image from Thoreau; but the two great individualists of the 19th century have much to teach us in the 21st century. Much, indeed. But it won't help us much to change the nature or politics in America, or journalism, or the intertubes. Maybe something closer to home, and harder to work on, is what needs to change.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning..."

There's a reason a book like this is published in the popular press rather than among the experts in the field:

Bering argues that the strangely deeply-rooted sense that some intentional agent created us as individuals, wants us to behave in particular ways, observes our otherwise private actions, and intends to meet us after we die would also have been felt by our ancestors, leading them to behave in ways that favored
their reputations--and thus saved their genes.
IOW, Richard Dawkins meets St. Augustine, and the result? Bollocks.

Funny, I was just reading some notes on Augustine's Confessions, and even the editors of Norton's Anthology of World Literature pointed out that the three characteristics of Augustine's remarkable work would have been strange and, indeed, incomprehensible to his peers and his predecessors, especially the idea that we were created as individuals, that the gods wanted us to behave in particular ways, and that the gods would be the least bit interested in our personal, indeed in our interior, lives.

That's all Augustine. Every bit of it, rooted in Augustine's Confessions. And it is no more a summary of human religious experience than John 3:16 is a summary of all Christian theology. It's just pure, mindless crap. It's just another "expert" taking some simplistic, reductio ad absurdum view of religion, shoe-horning it into a "scientific theory" (of which it is neither) and peddling it for purposes of making a buck from the gullible and naive. The author, Jesse Bering, is noted in the catalog from which I took that precis (and for which, to be fair, he is not responsible) as "one of the principal investigators of the Explaining Religion Project. I can only hope their efforts are better informed than this.

Oh, and the thesis of the book, apparently, as if you couldn't guess:

But in today's world, these psychological illusions ahve outlasted their evolutionary purpose and Bering draws our attention to a whole new challenge: escaping them.
Same song, different verse: a little bit louder, a little bit worse.

In other news, Sam Harris continues to set fire to the straw men in his head:

Bestselling author Sam Harris dismantles the most common justification for religious faith—that a moral system cannot be based on science.
I can only say that was probably "the most common justification for religious faith:" in the nineteenth century. And World War I pretty much set fire to it, as "The Waste Land" and most of the ouevre of the "Lost Generation" eloquently recounts. And there are plenty of "moral systems" based on simple observation (which is, essentially, science), starting with the great-granddaddy of them all: the Nicomachean Ethics.

Lord, deliver me from fools. Please.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Here we go 'round the prickly pear...

Once again, through the good offices of Wounded Bird, I wind up at the "Mitregate" story; but only briefly. Through Mimi's post I found this post which includes this description of PB Jefferts Schori stay in England:

There was one positive moment when Canon Kearon said to Bishop Katharine, “I gather you’ve also been visiting England and there have been some issues that arose during your visit there. I just want to say I’m not a member of the Church of England, I'm a member of the Church of Ireland."

Most of us took this to be a back door apology for the way Bishop Katharine was treated by the Archbishop of Canterbury [he told her not to wear a mitre] -- "mitregate," as it is being called. By the way, Bishop Katharine remains amazed at the uproar over it, and she clearly is losing no sleep over something she calls “bizarre, just bizarre.” She did comment in conversation that the readings that day were wonderfully apt, being about the woman who knelt before Jesus with her hair uncovered.
Oh, really? Luke 7:36-50, I'm guessing. How interesting, especially since the C of E was so concerned with people seeing this woman, and thinking her acceptable.*

Really, the Gospels are such a handful of prickly pears sometimes. Most of the time, actually. Handling them is really like playing "Hot Potato" with live hand grenades.

Really. And I haven't even mentioned the very interesting discussion about the basiliea tou theou this brings up. Somehow that just doesn't seem...hospitable.

*As for the explanation of the C of E, especially the resort to English law, my lawyer's nose smells a crawfish, and my lawyer gut tells me: "Bollocks!" You resort to the "letter of the law" when you don't want to do something, and you don't want to be responsible for the decision.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Prayer at Dressing

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

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

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

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

From Catherine Maclennan, née MacDonald, crofter, Achadh nam Breac, Moydart.

“My mother was always at work, by day helping my father on the croft, and by night at wool and spinning, at night clothes and at day clothes for the family. My mother would be beseeching us to be careful in everything, to put value on time and to eschew idleness; that a night was coming in which no work could be done. She would be telling us about Mac Shiamain, and how he sought to be at work. If we were dilatory in putting on our clothes, and made an excuse for our prayers, my mother would say that God regarded heart and not speech, the mind and not the manner; and that we might clothe our souls with grace while clothing our bodies with raiment. My mother taught us what we should ask for in prayer, as she heard it from her own mother, and as she again heard it from the one who was before her.

“My mother would be asking us to sing our morning song to God down in the backhouse, as Mary’s lark was singing up in the clouds, and as Christ’s mavis was singing it yonder in the tree, giving glory to the God of the creatures for the repose of the night, for the light of the day, and for the joy of life. She would tell us that every creature on the earth here below and in the ocean beneath and in the air above was giving glory to the great God of the creatures and the worlds, of the virtues and the blessings, and would we be dumb!

“My dear mother reared her children in food and clothing, in love and charity. My heart loves the earth in which my beloved mother rests.”

Quoted from Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the Last Century, by Alexander Carmichael (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press 1997), pp. 197, 621.

Monday, June 21, 2010

But the levee was dry....

Just a passing observation on news reported at Wounded Bird about the hospitality offered by Lambeth Palace to the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church:
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori carrys her mitre as she processes in Southwark Cathedral

From Episcopal Life:

She did so in order to comply with a "statement" from Lambeth Palace, the London home of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, that said "that I was not to wear a mitre at Southwark Cathedral," Jefferts Schori told the Executive Council June 16 on the first day of its three-day meeting here.

In the week before her visit, the presiding bishop said, Lambeth pressured her office to provide evidence of her ordination to each order of ministry.

"This is apparently a requirement of one of their canons about the ministry of clergy from overseas," she said.

The presiding bishop said both the ordination and mitre issues put the Very Rev. Colin Slee, Southwark's dean, "in a very awkward position."

She called the requirements "nonsense" and said, "It is bizarre; it is beyond bizarre."
As Mimi says about the issue in comments:

I've also said that the kerfluffle is not about a hat. It's the lack of hospitality demonstrated by Lambeth Palace.

After all, what do silk vestments and mitres have to do with the Gospel?

Much of the disappointment on this side of the pond has to do with the fact that at least some of us want to think well of ++Rowan. We want to think of him as somewhat of a pastor to all of us in the Communion, but he continues to show his disdain for the Episcopal Church.
The question of hospitality rears its head here, and that's an interesting point. When I brought up my theories at a local church, one of the greeters there, a man who had been welcoming people to "his church" for decades, told me he now recognized it was not "his church" at all. Perhaps Archbishop Williams needs to learn that lesson; or at least consider the complexities of the issue. At the very least.

Funny how it's the issue of hospitality that drives people away from church; more so, I think, than any other single issue. Undoubtedly this action is "based" on some doctrinal issue or another, some matter of canon law or other very important foundation. But all it does is end up undercutting the hospitality the Church is always supposed to offer. And hospitality that is not welcoming to anyone and everyone, is not hospitality at all. And hospitality is the very heart of the Gospel. As Mimi asks:

After all, what do silk vestments and mitres have to do with the Gospel?
It is a very stinging question, once you stop applying it to any umbrage one might have on Jefferts Schori's part, and ask it of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I don't want to go so far as to say: "This is why people leave church, or never attend in the first place." Still, I'm hard pressed to think of a church or a congregation that doesn't ultimately founder, if it does, on the question of who is welcome, and who is not. And the people who would want to be part of an organization that treats its clergy like this*, is not an organization I would rush to be a member of.

Or, as I said on another occasion:

Ideas don't matter. Things don't matter. People matter.

Except when they don't, and only ideas and things do. Or, as they tried to teach me in seminary: "They don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care." And that knowledge comes only from actions, not from words. Actions speak louder; as anyone can tell you.

But, as Mimi notes, this situation is being investigated by Lambeth Palace (from whence the directive to PB Jefferts Schori issued), so I'm sure the responsible party will be publicly admonished soon. Probably by the responsible party.

Meanwhile, the three men I admire most just caught the last train for the coast...

*Yes, and the way the Anglican Communion wants to treat homosexuals and women, but this is so emblematic of disdain for others. It's seldom one sees it so bluntly displayed. Usually it is papered over with words and actions that can't be so easily photographed. And if it is photographed, no one wants to see it. Like the "Ejector" ad, above, that ABC wouldn't run. (Why yes, I am rudely tooting my own church's horn. Why do you ask?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Those Who Cannot Learn from History...."

Funny these two stories being broadcast on the same night.

Rachel Maddow:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Jon Stewart:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
An Energy-Independent Future
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

"...are doomed to repeat it."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Everyone a Cincinnatus (?)

As it happens, I was just talking to a friend who knows some people who work for BP, and the BP people had mentioned to her how distorted news coverage of the event was, from the inside BP perspective. Mind, these are not executive level people charged with meeting the public and explaining the ways of the corporation to the world; these are people just trying to do their job and make a living. I've had that experience before, that the narrative I knew was not the narrative being presented in the press; or in the local gossip of the community, which is really all that "news" amounts to (no, really. I'm serious). Narratives, I thought; it all comes down to narratives; and in our narratives we don't all speak the same language. Ricouer was right; and so was Wittgenstein. Now put that in the context of this:

This, I think, is the deepest reason why public reaction to the crash of 2008 and the election of Barack Obama took a populist turn and the Tea Party movement caught on. The crash not only devastated people’s finances and shook their confidence in their and their children’s future. It also broke through the moats we have been building around ourselves and our families, reminding us that certain problems require a collective response through political institutions. What’s more, it was a catastrophe whose causes no one yet fully understands, not even specialists who know exactly what derivatives, discount rates, and multiplier effects are. The measures the federal government took to control the damage were complex and controversial, but there was general agreement that at some point it would have to intervene to prevent a worldwide financial collapse, and that without some sort of stimulus a real depression loomed. That, though, is not at all what people who distrust elites, who want to “make up their own minds,” and who have fantasies of self-sufficiency want to be told. Apparently they find it more satisfying to hear that these emergency measures were concocted to tighten government’s grip on their lives even more. It all connects.
The narrative is everything, and already the financial crisis is being superseded by the oil well pumping millions of gallons into the Gulf, and not just because it is the most recent crisis: it is also the most visible. Nobody is (yet) using the language of Naomi Klein in reverse, and arguing this blowout is simply an excuse to tighten government's grip on their lives (I find, more and more, the concept of the "shock doctrine" is just a matter of perspective). Unemployment and a slowing economy and even hedge funds, are abstractions compared to pictures of oily beaches and oily birds and videotape of shrimpers and fishers talking about how they can't work, or boom floating on the water essentially doing nothing (as boom does). This morning on NPR I heard the closest thing to a conspiracy theory this crisis has prompted, when one angry man averred that, had this oil spill occurred off Hawaii, Obama would never have let it get to shore. I recognize that sentiment, even as I recognize the error. There are 4000 oil wells in the Gulf Coast, but the ones that get attention or never get drilled, are the ones planned for the coast off Martha's Vineyard or Carmel, California. I exaggerate, of course, but the Gulf is known, if it's known at all, as the "Redneck Riviera," and as a nation, we don't really care about "rednecks." So the sense that, if it happen in the Gulf, nobody really cares, is palpable, and real. This is the first time in my life I've seen national concern with a pollution event in the Gulf. Even though we may have heard of the "dead zone" created at the Mississippi Delta every year due to run off from Midwestern fields, nobody's boycotted corn products in protest, or picketed a Fritos factory. In fact, nobody really cares. But that only proves this kind of anger on the Gulf is not new, and it's not conspiratorial, and it doesn't fit into the thesis of that review at the New York Review of Books. But I wonder if this massive leak won't be the crisis that proves government can, and must, be a central player in our lives.

It's a grand irony, of course, to speak of the perfidiousness of government on cable television and talk radio, two means of communication which wouldn't exist without government regulation. Nor does anyone want to shut down the FDA, or the FAA, or privatize Social Security or Medicare. The famous cry when the Tea Party was still neither a "party" nor necessarily serving tea, was that we should get the government out of the people's Medicare. So much for coherency, and I won't seek that as carefully as the article does. But we seem to be a people who react to crisis, who require crisis to shape us, and I think that is a narrative we've been telling ourselves since World War II.

I opened up Anthony Bourdain's newest book, and found the chapter in which he slams Alice Waters for her elitist opinions about food in public schools, and how more Americans need to spend their money on organic meat and micro-greens, rather than on Nike shoes (which apparently is all that the non-wealthy Americans who don't frequent Chez Panisse waste their money on, and why they end up at McDonald's; at least, per Mr. Bourdain's characterization of Ms. Waters). She insists this needs to be done on the level of the public schools, and that such a program is of national importance. But that's not what struck me (not as much as it struck Mr. Bourdain); what struck me was her argument for such a program: it was, she said, a matter of national security.

Before you scoff knowingly at such absurdity, consider how broadly "national security" has been applied since World War II. Harry Truman used it to shut down a railroad strike in 1946. He used it to turn the OSS into the CIA and to establish the national security state we now know and love (or loathe). The federal interstate highway system was sold, not as an improvement for interstate commerce or to bind the nation together, but as a matter of national security. Eisenhower sold it as the "National Defense Highway System," and to this day DOD is still involved in it. Later Ike warned us against the "military industrial complex," which has been built on the alleged threat to our national security, at first represented by the USSR, and now represented by "Islamic terrorists." When Sputnik went into orbit around the planet, "national security" demanded a response, and we got the "New Math." It was a national educational initiative promoted as a matter of "national security." The fact is, our national identity, an identity forged in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the experience of World War II, is that we must be a combined 50 states gathered under one central government, for the purpose of national security. This was hardly the national concern before that war; since that war, it has not only become the national obsession, but the national identity.

The crisis is always external: that we will be attacked again, as at Pearl Harbor; as on 9/11. The response is always federal: only the government, the federal government, can protect us.

And now we face the blowout of the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf. And neither the private autonomy of the Sixties nor the economic autonomy of the Eighties provides any answer to this problem. It isn't a crisis on the scale of the Great Depression nor of World War II, but it is already undoing decades of anti-government rhetoric. Now Sarah Palin challenges President Obama to contact her because, as a half-term governor of Alaska, she had experience dealing with oil-spilling oil companies (or so she says), and even John Boehner has to insist the government will not spend taxpayer money cleaning up a mess caused by a multi-national corporation. Suddenly all the verities of autonomy, individual and economic, are being set aside by the loudest cheerleaders of those supposed national ideals, and one demand is being made: the government must fix this. Obama must fix this. Suddenly, again, the government is our only recourse.

And, of course, we have to drill for oil: it's a matter of national security.

Now what? The disconnect will probably continue: no one who criticizes "big government" seems to realize the biggest part of that government is the Department of Defense, which is never criticized from the right (unless DOD wants to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"). How many of those critics realize the DOD keeps tabs on Federal highways as means for transportation of troops and equipment? Considering the original rationale for the interstate system was to allow evacuate cities in times of crisis, and the line of cars that made a packing lot out of I-45 from Houston to Dallas when Rita threatened the Texas Gulf Coast, one wonders exactly what kind of contingency plans such DOD monitoring includes. But such issues never come up, because our reaction to government in our lives is always a reaction to abstractions. We grumble when we have to stand in line to renew a driver's license, or we complain that government should get out of our Medicare, but we never argue that police shouldn't regulate traffic (at least until they pull us over), or that firemen shouldn't put out fires, or that ambulances shouldn't be government owned (I see very few private ambulances on the streets of Texas cities, and at the state level you'd think we hate government altogether). Or we want government in our lives to be sure our children learn about Newt Gingrich and Phyllis Schlafly, and as little as possible about Thomas Jefferson. So with part of my mind I agree with the thesis of this NYR review, and with part of my mind I think: not so fast.

I could be nit-picky over statements like this: "The conservative media did not create the Tea Party movement and do not direct it; nobody does." Because they did, actually; and they do, as much as any movement is "directed." (The anti-war movement of the Sixties was no more coherent than the Tea Party, and probably no more effective. Even the Civil Rights movement was a hodge-podge of actors, from Dr. King at one end to Malcolm X at another.) But there is abundant evidence that corporate funding created the anxiety and animosity of the Tea Parties, and FoxNews has always been its house media organ. Without FoxNews cheerleading the rallies, as well as organizing them (have we forgotten last summer so soon?), the "Tea Parties" would never have come into existence. They may be no better organized than Ross Perot's party ever was, but somebody with money (Perot in the first case; conservatives and corporations in the new case) had to get the ball rolling. This is not an inchoate group created by political spontaneous generation from a confluence of sociological factors absent the guiding hand of any human actors. This isn't about "withdrawing into 'communities of like-mindedness.' " Honestly, have Americans ever lived in any other kind? There's always been a "wrong side of the tracks" and a "right neighborhood". What has changed is not our willingness to be exclusive, but one of the things the Sixties generation got right: more voices have been brought to the table. I'd say that's more because those voices demanded a place and the baby boomers willingly gave it to them, rather than emphasize the role of the boomers in making that change happen to begin with. But the overall argument of the article on this point is, quite frankly, nonsense. And let's see if we can note a certain inconsistency here:
A familiar American ritual is now being performed in homes across the country. Meetings are being called. Coffee is brewed, brownies baked, hands raised, votes tallied, envelopes licked, fliers mailed. We Americans are inducted into this ritual’s mysteries at an early age, and by the time we reach high school we may not read well but we certainly know how to organize an election campaign and build a homecoming float.

But what happens after the class president is sworn in and the homecoming queen is crowned? The committees dissolve and normal private life resumes. And that, I suspect, is what will happen to the Tea Party organizations: after tasting a few symbolic victories they will likely dissolve. This is not only because, being ideologically allergic to hierarchy of any kind, they still have no identifiable leadership. It is because they have no constructive political agenda, though the right wing of the Republican Party would dearly love to attach its own to them. But the movement only exists to express defiance against a phantom threat behind a real economic and political crisis, and to remind those in power that they are there for one thing only: to protect our divine right to do whatever we damn well please. This message will be delivered, and then the messengers will go home. Every man a Cincinnatus.
This is, of course, the imagined perspective of the East Coast; it's how we all live here in flyover country. That strikes me very much as the narrative of certain sectors of New York City, or at least the East Coast. Coffee brewed, brownies baked? Among whom? Ozzie and Harriet and Donna Reed? Nobody I know does this now. We're all too busy working. The reality of suburban life in the 21st century was better captured by T.S. Eliot at the beginning of the 20th century:

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together
But every son would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions.

Which is another way of saying this didn't all start happening in 1968, or in 1980. Maybe the retirees who seem to form the bulk of the Tea Party-goers I see on TeeVee still bake brownies and hold coffee klatsches. But I'm simply not sure the "Tea Parties" (several groups still fight over who has claim to that title) are that cohesive. Maybe it's done among the corporate wives and lobbyists who created this "populist" movement, though the women I know from that strata are more likely to have Starbucks cater, and I don't see them mixing with the hoi polloi who screamed at town-halls last August, or decorate straw hats with tea bags and go out in public thinking they are making a political statement. Nor will the Tea Parties dissolve because they've tasted "a few symbolic victories." It will be because they've never been a force in American politics, period. The first politician they claimed to elect, Sen. Brown from Massachusetts, couldn't disavow his connection to them fast enough once he was sworn into office. Rand Paul has been shown to be a buffoon, and Sharon Angle is proceeding down the same path. How many voters, really, are going to resonate to Rick Barber's call to impeach Obama and start a revolt against the IRS? Even in Texas the most conservative members of the Board of Education lost in a GOP primary (!), after the fiasco of the textbook selection and curriculum review. As Jon Stewart noted, only one incumbent lost last Tuesday in the primaries in several states, and that was a sitting Governor who had annoyed and offended almost everyone. Surely if the Tea Party had any influence to wield, it would have done so then. The Tea Party will dissolve because it has served the purpose of its corporate founders; not because the sentiments expressed have changed the course of America, or satisfied the people painted like movie villains and carrying rifles at public gatherings.

The "Tea Parties" will go the way of Ross Perot's party: dissolving in frustration and bickering and unable to do the very hard work of organizing. Anybody remember what impact Ross Perot had on American politics? I didn't think so. But the failure won't be because every man or woman is his or her own Cincinnatus. It will be because organizing is hard. It takes a central figure, a common ideal. Christian churches have that, in the guise of Luther or Charles Wesley or one's own ancestors, or the Pope. Lose that, shatter the ideal, and the center cannot hold, because there is no center anymore. In the case of the "Tea Parties" (and which one is entitled to that name?), there never was one. Ross Perot's party fell apart when he lost interest in it. The "Tea Parties" have never gotten that far. And even the comparison to Cincinnatus is wrong, except in the archest sarcasm: nothing the Tea Partiers have done has called for the slightest sacrifice from them. Theirs is the Church of Meaning and Belonging, not the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging. It's an old, old model, in other words, not a recently created one woven from the strands of American culture in the last 40 years. And it's a model that never, ever, survives the buffets of the winds of change. In fact, it's usually a huddling place from them.

That said, it probably won't surprise you to learn I think this is exactly right:

But the blame does not fall on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or the Republican Party alone. We are experiencing just one more aftershock from the libertarian eruption that we all, whatever our partisan leanings, have willed into being. For half a century now Americans have been rebelling in the name of individual freedom. Some wanted a more tolerant society with greater private autonomy, and now we have it, which is a good thing—though it also brought us more out-of-wedlock births, a soft pornographic popular culture, and a drug trade that serves casual users while destroying poor American neighborhoods and destabilizing foreign nations. Others wanted to be free from taxes and regulations so they could get rich fast, and they have—and it’s left the more vulnerable among us in financial ruin, holding precarious jobs, and scrambling to find health care for their children. We wanted our two revolutions. Well, we have had them.
What I'm wondering is: will the disaster in the Gulf be big enough to overcome this conclusion?

Now an angry group of Americans wants to be freer still—free from government agencies that protect their health, wealth, and well-being; free from problems and policies too difficult to understand; free from parties and coalitions; free from experts who think they know better than they do; free from politicians who don’t talk or look like they do (and Barack Obama certainly doesn’t). They want to say what they have to say without fear of contradiction, and then hear someone on television tell them they’re right. They don’t want the rule of the people, though that’s what they say. They want to be people without rules—and, who knows, they may succeed. This is America, where wishes come true. And where no one remembers the adage “Beware what you wish for.”
Right now the sentiment is going in exactly the opposite direction, with the only prominent figure in the Gulf area agreeing with that quoted sentiment being Haley Barbour (whose state's beaches are still not fouled by oil; Rick Perry is surprisingly mum on the whole matter, after declaring the blowout an "act of God" he was wisely stopped talking about it). But we do want our narrative, and we want to think its the only one out there.

Grover's Corners is a wondrous place in "Our Town," but who is the "our" in that town? Mexicans? Asians? Blacks? None appear. Politics? Non-existent. It's a lovely ideal, but it's about as realistic as Rick Barber's version of American history, where the US revolution was sparked by a tea tax. Funny, that doesn't appear anywhere in the catalog of grievances Jefferson put in the Declaration of Independence. You don't have to be much of an historian to just read that. Our vision of the American West is equally as distorted. Without government offers of land, and government support for the railroad, California might still be speaking Spanish, and Native Americans might still be living in the lands between the Mississippi River and the California border. The "rugged independence" of Americans is still a myth, a narrative we tell ourselves, with as much basis in fact as George Washington and the cherry tree (that didn't happen, either). And, again, this isn't new:

A coin of Julius Caesar shows his spirit descending cometlike to takes it place among the eternal deities. A coin of Augustus Caesar calls him divi filius, son of a divine one, son of a god, son of the aforesaid comet. A coin of Tiberius Caesar hails him as pontifex maximuis, supreme bridge builder between earth and heaven, high priest of an imperial people. A silver denarius was a day's pay for a laborer and, if a day laborer meant somebody who worked every day rather than somebody who looked for work every day, it would have been a very good salary. Imagine this situation: If, after three days of hard work, a day laborer held those silver denarii in his hand, how would he, could he, should he distinguish between politics and religion in the Roman Empire?....
As Crossan says:

The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory, or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.
Jon Dominic Cross and Jonathan Reed, Excavating Jesus, revised & updated (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 178-79.

This was the story Rome told itself, and it was reinforced through public art (and stories such as that of Cincinnatus) which displayed the military superiority and moral virtue of Rome, as well as the domestic pieties which defined Roman civilization and justified the nature of its existence as preferred by the gods. That's what mass communication is for: reinforcement of conventional wisdom and accepted opinions which serve to reinforce the power structure that prevails. If that narrative is shattered now, perhaps it is simply because a black man occupies the White House. Or because change has come on the heels of medical technology, and all the "old people" who used to be dead and gone, are still around, and still lively enough to complain that things as they are have been changed upon someone's blue guitar. This, too, is no surprise, though no one is paying much public attention to it. What is your memory of the average age of the speakers at the town hall meetings last August? Most of them complaining about government paying for medical care, were probably receiving government paid medical care. Since then they have simply served to draw out the younger people with sillier ideas, like Angle and Barber.

People like Angle and Barber have been telling themselves a story that was never true, but one they want to believe once held America together. The story Rome told itself about its superiority held; until it didn't hold anymore. And then Augustine started telling the story of the City of God, not as a transition away from Rome, but as a protection of his fellow Christians, who were being blamed for the collapse of the empire. And that narrative held for awhile. Luther and then Calvin gave us narratives; and then Bunyan. Maybe we need a new narrative now. I'm not quite sure. What I am sure of, is that the old narrative that has been worn out was woven from strands of the '60's "revolution," and the Reagan "revolution," but that neither were as revolutionary as we think. One was simply white people allowing blacks to finally sit at the table (the civil rights movement didn't start on college campuses nor among white people), and the other was simply a retrenchment after the Vietnam War ended and let the air out of that balloon (most of the "yuppies" of the '80's were modeling themselves on the students of the '60's who went corporate and got jobs after college). The basic American narrative never really changed.

Maybe it's about to. Maybe it's high time it finally did. We'll see.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

As I was not saying....

Stanley Hauerwas makes an interesting point, apropos of what I posted below:

That a theologian should be surprised about being a Christian may seem strange, particularly among folk who have little sympathy with Christianity. They often assume that theologians by definition must believe in what they think about. That, of course, is a deep mistake made, particularly in recent times. Many who become theologians in our time think their task is to try to determine how much of what has passed for Christianity they still need to believe and yet still be able to think of themselves as Christians.
Maybe that's what drives the "atheists" so nuts, and also drives them away from any serious consideration of theology: in the theologians (especially), but also just in ordinary Christians, they recognize a kindred spirit, and think: "There but for the non-grace of no-god, go I".

I mean, it's obvious the "atheists" like Shook and Dawkins and Harris are as rabidly evangelical about their views as the Christian fundamentalists they despise and caricature. All you have to do to get the Dawkins/Harris/Shook atheist point of view is to reverse Hauerwas' formulation: how much of what passes for Christianity does one have to reject in order to not believe and still think of oneself as an "atheist"? I know a lot of non-believers who aren't bothered by that question at all, but the atheists Shook addresses certainly seem to be consumed with answering that question.

Maybe the problem is really rooted in the issue of identity, an identity that really has a common taproot. But where Christians and Christian theologians want to identify the nature of God, atheists want to identify the reasons they shouldn't be plagued by the question of the nature of God.

It's an itch they can never scratch. Hmmm...maybe I should be more sympathetic to them. Or would that just drive 'em crazier?

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Um, yeah, whatever....

Anthony, in comments below, gives me a heads-up about this: An Atheist’s Guide to What You Need to Know about Theology. This is, of course, kind of like a Creationist's Guide to everything you need to know about Evolutionary theory. And rather like Creationists, who imagine if they know of the 2nd law of Thermodynamics they know all the science they need to refute Darwin, this "guide" rests on the category error of failing to distinguish between questions of theology, and questions of philosophy of religion. Such as, for example, the question of the existence of God; which is the central issue of this "guide:"

Part One. Do you feel the need to argue with a religious believer about why one should instead doubt God? To be effective, learn some theology (see Part Three). If you don't like arguing over God, then you don't need to know anything about theology. Your non-religious worldview is amply justified by common-sense, reason, and science. Relax and let others do any needed arguing.

Part Two. Do you feel the need to argue with religious believers about why religious belief has bad consequences or immoral implications? To be effective, you need to get good at "religious criticism" (rather than just match their opinion against your opinion), and you should acquire a philosophy that has rational standards of what is good/bad and what is moral/immoral (see Part Four). If you don't like arguing over religion gone bad, then you don't need to know anything about theology. Relax and smile at your religious neighbors, so they will wonder how an atheist can be so happy.

Part Three. Next, check whether this religious person is religious basically because this person enjoys their cozy worldview or this person finds religion morally satisfactory. If so, then proceed to Part Four instead. Still here? Then you are dealing with a religious person who could probably give you some frail arguments for why God exists.
Part One already betrays a complete ignorance, not of theology or philosophy, but of religion. Doubt God? Have you read the Psalms? ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") Job? The prophets? Jonah? The Gospels?


Parts Two and Three is an attempt to re-hash the 19th century arguments about God=morality=whatever society likes. I'll stick to Dostoevsky, thanks; more insightful and far more entertaining on this hoary chestnut. Why, even the film version of The Brothers Karamazov is a better investigation of those issues than this "guide" is. And as for Part Four: please. I'm a theologian and a philosopher of religion, and I can probably summon up better arguments for atheism than this "Guide" can. I won't even give you a "frail argument" for the existence of God, because I consider them all frail. But let's be distinctly clear about this last issue, and distinctly clear about where this "guide" is aimed.

Judaism, I am told, does not have a theology. The concept of theo logos is Greek, not Hebraic, and it's one reason Martin Buber is considered a philosopher, not a Jewish theologian. Islam seems to have a theology, but there is no serious discussion of the existence of God in Islam, at least not one I am aware of. Hinduism? Buddhism? Does anyone think of these when they hear the word "Theology"? And do you attack them by attacking the notion of God's existence? No, of course not. And it's an interesting thing that no one attacks observant Jews for believing in the same God Christians do; no one attacks them for their beliefs, that is. I guess that would seem rude....

Not to wear my heart on my sleeve about the matter, just to point out how truly narrow the vision of this "guide" is. It's aimed at some idea of Christian theology, and probably aimed at Protestant theology and some Roman Catholic theology. Orthodox doctrines are of no interest, and the Copts aren't even on the radar screen. So, are we clear so far?

The question of God's existence came up first among Christian theologians, although variants on the issue were used to condemn Socrates, and led to Aristotle's explanation of a causal universe that required a first cause, lest it be a closed loop with no beginning and no end, and so no cause and effect. But that shows only that the questions came into Christianity through Greece, not through Israel. And while the question intrigued theologians like Anselm and Aquinas, the answers were never the basis for faith, but arose from faith. So, at best, they were tautological; or, as Kierkegaard puts it, illogical:

If, namely the god does not exist, then of course it is impossible to demonstrate it. But if he does exist, then of course it is foolishness to want to demonstrate it, since I, in the very moment the demonstration commences, would presuppose it not as doubtful--which a presupposition cannot be, inasmuch as it is a presupposition--but as decided, because otherwise I would not begin, easily perceiving that the whole thing would be impossible if he did not exist. If, however, I interpret the expression "to demonstrate the existence of the god" to mean that I want to demonstrate that the unknown, which exists, is the god, than I do not express myself very felicitously, for then I demonstrate nothing, least of all an existence, but I develop the definiteness of a concept.
If you at least get the sense of a dog chasing its tail from the excerpt, you are on the right track. Proving the existence of God is a bootless enterprise, And it isn't a theological issue at all. The question of God's existence is a philosophical one; the question of God's nature is a theological one. But contemplating God's nature presupposes God in the first place, and no theologian ever came to the work having reasoned out God's existence without some experience of God that was far more important than the product of any rational analysis. (Consider the example of Aquinas, one of the supreme reasoning minds of the Western world. He had a mystical experience sometime after completing his Summa, and said that all his words were straw in comparison, and he never wrote another word. Did he need to argue a proof for God's existence? Would it have mattered?) Yet the existence of God is the central premise of this "guide," and it purports to explain enough theology to the uninformed to make them experts at destroying the faith of believers. Uh-huh. Kind of like how that 2nd law of thermodynamics just shoots down the whole theory of evolution.

Once again, what puzzles me is why "atheists" care so damned much what other people believe. I don't care that atheists don't share my beliefs; why do they insist I share theirs? Don't tell me it's because "Christians" force their beliefs on you, an atheist. A lot of Christians don't like my theology, either, and would love to force their version of Christianity on me, but I've learned to live with them, and to leave them alone. And as a "guide," I presume that blog post is supposed to lead somebody somewhere. But it's hardly going to provoke the kind of exploration that will lead back to the place of beginning, where it can be known for the first time. In fact, it's just another road to nowhere.

So it goes.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Quieting the Day

I was reading Tolstoy's "Three Questions", and found it followed by "The Coffee-House of Surat," which ends here:

"Therefore, let him who sees the sun's whole light filling the world, refrain from blaming or despising the superstitious man, who in his own idol sees one ray of that same light. Let him not despise even the unbeliever who is blind and cannot see the sun at all."
And I thought it was a nice thought.