Thursday, July 29, 2010

Only because it's a topic I write about....

I have to say to Anne Rice: "Okay. Whatever."

What I'm tempted to say is: Christianity is not about you; and maybe that's the problem. Sure, it's a "quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group." But name me one group of human society that isn't. I understand you aren't "anti-gay...anti-feminist...anti-artifical birth control...anti-Democrat...anti-secular humanism...anti-science...or anti-life." Neither am I. I won't go so far as to say that you can't quit Christianity in the name of Christ, since it isn't at all clear to me that Jesus of Nazareth meant to have anything like modern Christianity follow in his wake. But it is clear to me that the gospels all speak of communities of believers, and so to declare yourself "committed to Christ" but through with "being a Christian" sounds a little solipsistic and not more than a little self-centered and self-interested. After all, it takes a community to confirm a religious experience; when its confirmed only by the person who has it, we call that a delusion.

These two tweets by Ms. Rice make me think of my favorite line from "Angels and Demons"*:

"My church comforts the sick and the dying. My church feeds the hungry. What does your church do? Oh, that's right, you don't have a church!"
Which is not at all an argument for joining a church, but it draws a bright line between the community of believers (disputatious and infamous as they may well be) and the individual who, in essence, declare themself holier than they. Then again, there is no argument for joining a church. Being part of a church is like being in a committed relationship: what argument would ever persuade you to do such a thing? There are plenty of arguments for bailing out of relationships; but who argues themselves into one? If someone does, it's pretty clear they don't really want to go through with it. When someone makes the an argument after getting out of a relationship, though, who are they trying to persuade? And why?

*which is more to the point than might at first seem.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

This is where I came into the movie....

If I keep posting about racism, it's because it keeps coming up:

"What struck me about [the Sherrod speech] was that sort of little, casual aside, where she says something about health care, and 'I've never seen people so mean' ... The implication is -- and she uses the phrase at one point 'the black president' and 'we endured the Bush years'. And the implication to me was that she was saying 'if you didn't agree with Obamacare then you're a bigot,'" Lord said. "The essence of the formula is 'scare race X to death that race Y or Z is coming after them in some fashion, and then, you know, you get all the votes and the money, etc, etc, etc. And that all that's gone on over a couple years of history of the Democratic party is that the races have changed."
No, don't stop there; it gets crazier. Lord actually argued, earlier, that progressives are the real racists, although everybody stumbled over his insistence that "lynching" can only mean "death by hanging." It's a stupid point to cavil over, but he stands his ground:

Barraged by criticism Monday, Lord later expanded his critique of Sherrod by arguing that Hall wasn't beaten to death by enough people to constituted a mob, and therefore it couldn't have been a lynching in two different ways. He stands by that assessment.

"Certainly the image in my head of a lynching is rope around the neck," Lord told me. "And when we really got into this, it was quite apparent to me that there was all sorts of other things. That there has to be a mob -- mob action. Well what is a mob? Is it two people? Is it three people?"*
It's an unintentionally ironic pose for Lord, but it also proves by his own words that he's just an inflammatory idiot. The central contention in Lord's original piece is that Hugo Black is somehow the responsible author for the the opinion in Screws v U.S. Government, a case that was remanded for new trial on 14th Amendment grounds. (The opinion was written by Douglas, with Black and three other justices concurring.) Lord doesn't understand or address the holding of the case, but rather uses it (because Shirley Sherrod mentioned the case in her speech) as a club to beat up on Hugo Black, and, by extension, all progressives. The unintentional irony is that the Court's opinion turns on very fine definitions of statutory and Constitutional law, definitions established by precedent which the Court is at great pains to cite. Lord, on the other hand, just grabs hold of a definition of "lynch" and insists he's in charge of it. Sort of like he insists Hugo Black wrote an opinion Black apparently just found to be sound legal reasoning on a Constitutional issue. Oh, Lord also gets to determine what a "mob" is, too. Which means nothing to legal definitions, or to any other user of the English language; but then, everyone else is wrong. And a racist.

Does that last statement seem to go too far? Not for Lord, who has set himself up as the French Academy, deciding by fiat what words mean and who's to be the master of them. Jeffrey Lord is Humpty-Dumpty; a racist Humpty-Dumpty.

As I've said before, I really don't think this amounts to much. Lord and his ilk are on the backside of the cultural wave. They are the fringe of a fringe, gaining notoriety more because of modern technology than for the power of their ideas. As Rachel Maddow said of the Tea Parties recently, "objects in media are smaller than they appear." It's even an old strategy, to speak of outreach to black voters like this:

"Get out there and engage on race," Lord said. "There's no reason in the world that we can't be getting the black vote. But it's our job to separate black from left and talk about left and right."
Reminds me of my childhood; and the strategy worked really well then, too (as you can tell today by the support the GOP has from blacks). I think the Biblical metaphor for what Lord is doing is straining at gnats and swallowing camels. Lord is really nothing than a sideshow attraction, a carnival geek. What's worse is this:

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' investigation into the New Black Panthers case -- specifically, whether racial bias played a role in the Justice Department's decision to close the case -- is part of a pattern at the commission: A pattern of investigating almost exclusively, for lack of a better word, reverse racism.

The conservative majority on the commission, as well as former DOJ lawyer J. Christian Adams and much of the right-wing (including many Republican senators), believe that black members of the New Black Panther Party engaged in widespread intimidation of white voters on Election Day 2008. Further, according to Adams, the Obama administration is purposely dropping cases against black defendants in a blanket policy of pro-black racism.
Like I said, the subject keeps coming up. The struggle never ends. Does it?

*Two people suffice for most state statues, according to Wiki.

Today lynching is a felony in all states of the United States, defined by some codes of law as "Any act of violence inflicted by a mob upon the body of another person which results in the death of the person," with a 'mob' being defined as "the assemblage of two or more persons, without color or authority of law, for the premeditated purpose and with the premeditated intent of committing an act of violence upon the person of another."
No, that's not the best source in the world, but it's good enough for Lord's argument.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"What do you have to do? Shoot Medgar Evers?"--Chris Rock

I had gotten this far:

Alberich makes me think we should put this "Sherrod affair" in context:

BTW, I am curious about something. We are having an excellent conversation about race, class, etc. here. But still ... I wonder. I, for one, happen to be white, middle class, etc. (although my wife happens to be African-American and our daughter's biological father is Afro-Hispanic).

Not to be nosy or racially labeling myself, but is this conversation about race and class, even here, still being had by white, middle class folks like myself?
So I start with the facts compiled by Frank Rich:

If we are to learn anything from this travesty, it might help to retrace the racial soap opera that immediately preceded and provoked it. That story began on July 13, when the N.A.A.C.P. passed a resolution calling on the Tea Party to expel “racist elements” in its ranks. No sooner had Tea Party adherents and defenders angrily denied that such elements amounted to anything more than a few fringe nuts than Mark Williams, the spokesman and past chairman of the Tea Party Express, piped up. He slapped a “parody” on the Web — a letter from “colored people” to Abraham Lincoln berating him as “the greatest racist ever” and complaining about “that whole emancipation thing” because “freedom means having to work for real.”

Williams had hurled similar slurs for months, but now that the N.A.A.C.P. had cast a spotlight on the Tea Party’s racist elements, he was belatedly excommunicated by the leader of another Tea Party organization. In truth, it’s not clear that any group in this scattered movement has authority over any other. But one thing was certain: the N.A.A.C.P. was wrong to demand that the Tea Party disown its racist fringe. It should have made that demand of the G.O.P. instead.
Breitbart has never denied his motivation in publishing the excerpted videotape of Ms. Sherrod's speech was to respond to this NAACP action. And yes, the issues may have an even larger context. But the NAACP resolution is generally accepted as the starting point, and what the NAACP did was to declare some whites in America racists.

There the troubles began.

The merits of the NAACP claim aside, it's the question of power that's at issue. Racism has been defined as possible only for people who have power to use their prejudice against other "races" (the very term "race" is a 19th century shibboleth). It's rather hard to argue with that definition when you realize everyone publicly reacting to the term, and seeking desperately to redefine it, is white. The NAACP is publicly perceived, at least, as a black organization (in her speech, Ms. Sherrod lamented that the room she spoke to wasn't more racially diverse; indeed, that was central to her point). The Tea Parties are perceived as overwhelmingly white, and hardly charitable to the President's race. Shirley Sherrod uses the term "racism" against a white man (Breitbart) and Howard Kurtz, a white man, tut-tuts about such unseemliness.

E.J. Dionne defines the opposition to Obama as "racial," which is apparently a euphemism for "racist," because the opposition is clearly an effort to wield power based on the President's skin color. And, in the context in which Mr. Dionne used the term, it's hard to argue the President's opponent didn't show they had real power behind their words. After all, if somebody jumps when you say frog....

But Mr. Dionne can't seem to bring himself to say "racist" because that's, apparently, such a charged term. And besides, the people he'd be using it against are white, and they aren't Southern rednecks.

Frank Rich, as I pointed out below, avoids too much discussion of racism (fine; it's his column), while Bob Herbert, a black man, discusses both race and income, two issues still joined together in American culture as tightly as eggs and bacon or chocolate and vanilla. I can't get to Eugene Robinson's column on this issue (don't feel like registering with WaPo), but I detect a distinct difference between black and white observers of this issue, even when they are on the same political side. There is still a documentable discomfort among whites, especially middle-class and upper-class whites, about issues of race in this country. Is it guilt? Is it shame? Is it because of the hidden wound, the freedom and independence of this country which actually depended, for the first several hundred years (slavery in this country began almost simultaneously with Columbus) on denying both of those things to persons so other persons could lay claim to it?

Or is "racism" one more term that only "progressives" can be accused of?*

when I decided to leave the whole thing alone, because frankly I was tired of it and I wasn't sure I was still saying anything. Then I wandered over to Digby, where I found material like this (which Digby, in turn, had found):

I partly agree with the CCC. Though racism proper denotes an abhorrence of people because of their race which is largely absent from the Tea Party movement (and indeed in the CCC, if you follow their website), white people in the Tea Party are rightly sticking up for their own interests and resisting the genocidal depredations of the multiculturalists. To be sure, most Tea Partiers believe colorblindness is the ideal; I believe, however, that God has a place for all races in his divine plan. The white race is under an unprecedented threat of enslavement or demographic extinction, and rightly merits a defense by those of its number who appreciate its beauty and good qualities and want it to persist.

To the earlier question on the CCCs thoughts on Catholics, they have nothing against members of the Church founded by Jesus Christ, but are obviously upset with the USCCB and other clergy for mishandling the immigration issue to the point of effectually denying our Nation's sovereignty.
CCC, if you don't know, is the Council of Conservative Citizens, the lineal descendant of the old White Citizens Councils. The language here is the language I heard in my childhood, when a distinction was made between "prejudiced" (not so bad; meant you didn't like "black people," but you didn't use the "N" word, either), and "racists" (who hated black people). On such distinctions did we maintain our moral superiority, while keeping our very white foot on their very black necks. Or at least not encouraging much in the way of change, in what MLK called "Justice." The rest of that quote is just pure white supremacist racism, of course. One slides quickly from bad to worse, without every really passing "GO". Nothing, really, has changed.

Maybe that's all I had left to say.

*and no, Jeffrey Lord's argument doesn't make any sense on its face, or in its particulars.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Mistah Kurtz--he brain dead

I'm not a fan of Howard Kurtz, and this clip is "Exhibit A" as to why. I'm also not trying to make a new career off the topic of racism in America and Shirley Sherrod, but the final question by Howard Kurtz in this segment from his show is, well, simply appalling:

So what it comes down to for Kurtz, as an "objective" media critic, is that any charge of "racism" is apparently tantamount to slander and cannot be levied against any person whatsoever. The final question is to Matt Lewis (who does yeoman's work trying to obscure the issues surrounding the matter of Ms. Sherrod's firing and public treatment by FoxNews and Andrew Breitbart): should Shirley Sherrod get away with calling Andrew Breitbart a racist?

What, is that now equivalent to "child molester" and "dope peddler"? Seriously? Shirley Sherrod, a woman with a sterling civil rights record, overstepped by calling Andrew Breitbart what he so clearly is? Even if we disagree on who is and who is not a racist, seriously, Mr. Kurtz?

E.J. Dionne explicitly links Glenn Beck to the NAACP's charge of racism in the "Tea Party" movement. Does that make him a racist, too? Or is it okay, because he's a journalist?

He does an even better job on this topic in print. Indeed, I disagree with Mr. Dionne in only one thing, a minor matter of definition, or perhaps it's just emphasis. He writes:

And there can be no more shilly-shallying about the fact that racial backlash politics is becoming an important component of the campaign against President Obama and against progressives in this year's election.
It's not "racial." It's racist. Pure and simple.

When do we get to start that conversation on race in this country?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The REAL Elephant in the Drawing Room

Frank Rich will get all the attention for his column, but just when you think he's going to strike the nail on the head:

Even now, I wonder if many of those who have since backtracked from the Sherrod smear — including some in the news business who reported on the video without vetting it — have watched her entire speech. What’s important is not the exculpatory evidence that clears her of a trumped-up crime. What matters is Sherrod’s own story.

Not the best lead up, but an indication he may finally return our focus to what Ms. Sherrod's speech was about: what she learned about racism and class in America. Sadly, no:

She was making the speech in Georgia, her home state, on March 27, the 45th anniversary of her father’s funeral. He had been murdered when she was 17, leaving behind five children and a wife who was pregnant with a sixth. Sherrod had grown up in Baker County, a jurisdiction ruled by a notorious racist sheriff, L. Warren Johnson, who was nicknamed “Gator” for a reason. Black men were routinely murdered there but the guilty were never brought to justice. As Sherrod recounted, not even three witnesses to her father’s murder could persuade the grand jury to indict the white suspect.

Sherrod had long thought she’d flee the South, but had an epiphany on the night of her father’s death. “I couldn’t just let his death go without doing something in answer to what happened,” she said. So she made the commitment to stay and devote her life to “working for change.” She later married Charles Sherrod, a minister and co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, whose heroic efforts to advance desegregation, including his imprisonment, can be found in any standard history of the civil rights movement.
All really excellent information but not really the point of Ms. Sherrod's speech. For that, we should turn to Bob Herbert a day earlier:

Which brings us to the most important part of the Shirley Sherrod story. The point that Ms. Sherrod was making as she talked in her speech about the white farmer who had come to her for help was that we are all being sold a tragic bill of goods by the powerful forces that insist on pitting blacks, whites and other ethnic groups against one another.

Ms. Sherrod came to the realization, as she witnessed the plight of poverty-stricken white farmers in the South more than two decades ago, that the essential issue in this country “is really about those who have versus those who don’t.”

She explained how the wealthier classes have benefited from whites and blacks constantly being at each other’s throats, and how rampant racism has insidiously kept so many struggling whites from recognizing those many things they and their families have in common with economically struggling blacks, Hispanics and so on.

“It’s sad that we don’t have a roomful of whites and blacks here tonight,” she said, “because we have to overcome the divisions that we have.”

There is no way we’ll overcome those divisions if people who should know better keep bowing before and kowtowing to the toxic agenda of those on the right whose overriding goal is to foment hostility and hate.
No mention of economics or class in Rich's column. He does focus on the continuing evil of racism, and points me to this interview with Media Matters in which Ms. Sherrod makes the trenchant statement:
"I think it is race. You think we have come a long way in terms of race relations in this country, but we keep going backwards," she said. "We have become more racist. This was their doing, Breitbart put that together misrepresenting what I was saying and Fox carried it."
Which I think pretty fairly applies to Fox News (which has nothing to do with "news", and should be treated the same way society treats David Duke or regards Bull Connor); but I'm not sure it applies to American society. I don't think racism has been eliminated in America; but neither do I think most Americans sympathize with the views of Andrew Breitbart, especially on the question of race. And I find it interesting that the most explosive topic in Ms. Sherrod's speech is the question of economic classes in America. Which makes me think, too, Mr. Herbert is missing the mark. There is no way we’ll overcome those divisions if people who should know better keep bowing before and kowtowing to the moneyed class whose overriding goal is to hang on tightly to what's theirs and to exploit anyone and everyone to get it and keep it. Those are the blinders we have to remove first, if we are going to start to remove the blinder of racism in this country.

That's what Shirley Sherrod was saying; and still, nobody wants to hear it. That's a lesson Will Campbell almost 40 years ago. It's the one we all still need to learn.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Carry Me Back to Ol'....

The real ugliness is not being a racist; it's being called a racist.

That national conversation on race in America can't start until we all agree there are no racists anymore. And that race isn't a problem anymore. And if it is, it's a problem because black people keep bringing it up. Which makes them the real racists. So we don't need to have a national conversation on race. We just need to marginalize the racists. Who are black people who dare to suggest some white people who are not Southerners like David Duke (and so already marginalized) might be racists.

Problem solved.

Actually, and almost as a longish footnote, I don't think most people think this way, despite the desperate efforts of people like Breitbart, Vandeihei, and Blankley. I think most people understand the complex issue of race in this country. The problem is not with the people, it's with the idea that anything on TeeVee or Talk Radio or on the pages of a newspaper or magazine resembles a "conversation." Even blogging and Facebook and what-have-you, are not technological substitutes for the agora. If there is a problem with the American "conversation," it's that we don't have one, at all; and then imagine mass media (TeeVee, Intertubes, talkradio, etc.) is a proxy for that. It isn't. So I'm not so much outraged, or surprised, at what opinions people have about race, especially whites. While I'm working from Digby, she thinks this means the narrative has shifted. I can only assume Digby is younger than I am by at least a generation. To put the paragraph Digby quotes in context (!):

Gallagher, the radio host, says the appearance of anti-white bias at the Agriculture or Justice Department "creates white racists."

"White people sit around, and they get angry and they think this is the world they live in, and it's not fair. I hear it in the frustration of my callers," he said.

"White America understands by now, you'd better be very careful in the way you treat people of color. In this history of this country that's great advice. That's as it should be. We've had a shameful past," he said. "Now the fear is that the pendulum has swung so far the other way, that white people mind their P's and Q's and don't say anything that can be perceived as racist, but blacks can talk about hurting people."
That one is as old as American racism itself. Whites aren't racist because they consider blacks inferior, or even because their ancestors enslaved Africans, who were notable as slaves because of skin color (the first such kind of slavery in human history, and so the "peculiar institution."). No, it was because blacks made whites racist.

There is a plaque on the backside of a column in the Texas Capitol that purports to honor the "South" in the Civil War, by denying that the war was about slavery, but rather was about "states rights." Which, of course, means it wasn't about being racists and owning people, it was about freedom from government that wouldn't allow Texans to own people (the same reason for the Texas War of Independence from Mexico; Mexico outlawed slavery, and at the time, Texas WAS Mexico.). The plaque dates from the 1950's, about the time the civil rights movement actually got started. And the animosity against blacks in the 1960's was never because they were black, but because they were disruptive, or uppity, or didn't mind their place. It was always the fault of the blacks that the whites had to react so violently.

Same as it ever was. Except most people don't see it that way, now. Most people are appalled by such language, such thoughts. And the Tea Parties and Andrew Breitbart and FoxNews all know it. I don't see this a resurgence of that evil; if anything, it's the last blush on the cheek of a dying age. But bad ideas never really die, so I don't expect this one to. The fact that it is still the subject of open discussion, while disappointing, is not a reason to assume there is something new under the sun.

This is not new at all. What is notable is that such a small instance brings it all out again. Maybe what we really need is more such instances; maybe what we really need is a new civil rights movement.

Or maybe just a conversation that's a little more coherent than that AP article:

Some liberals have long maintained that racism requires power, and so black people can't be racist. Obama's election undercut the first argument and made the specter of black racism appear more threatening.
Perry, the Princeton professor, pointed out that blacks have 10 cents of wealth for every dollar possessed by whites.

"We can hardly say whites as a group are suffering under the weight of racial discrimination. That said, we do have to find ways of talking about race with more openness but also with greater sensitivity," she said.

"There is a lot of work for everyone to do in this regard, and people of color are no exception."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart...

I detect a pattern here.

Jeremiah Wright overcame racism in his lifetime (just consider his age, and where and when he grew up. Res ipsa loquitor.). Shirley Sherrod lost her father to murder at the hands of a Klansman, and was still feeling resentment that she should help white farmers, in 1986. She learned from her mistakes, to embrace people as people, not as skin tones. So did Jeremiah Wright, although he preaches the lesson quite differently than Shirley Sherrod does.

And both get hung out to dry by the Obama Administration*, and by society in general. Of course, the gross injustice done to Shirley Sherrod shows signs of reversing already. The exposure may finally ruin Andrew Breitbart's ability to influence the public discourse, though I won't put any money behind that speculation. I'm quite sure it won't end the knee-jerk reaction to video-tape=IRREFUTABLE PROOF! that continues to plague our You-Tubed age (although, as an aside, I have to note a cable channel almost entirely devoted to playing security tapes of robberies, burglaries, etc., in which we all clearly see the suspects are absolutely unidentifiable, and where often the narrator tells us the alleged criminal is still at large. I still remember when security cameras were going to assure us no criminal would ever get away with a crime again....)

But to trace this back to its roots, does this sound familiar?

So in an attempt to turn manufactured right-wing ammo into blanks, Obama has completely separated himself from his minister and his church. What worries me is this: Can we expect a President Obama to cave in to the whims and will of the right on policies and issues he knows are important, if this nation is to move forward in a progressive and compassionate manner? Can we expect him to genuflect to negative reports by an uninformed, misinformed or ill-willed media? Is the candidate of change willing to go-along in a willy-nilly get-along fashion?
Yes, apparently, he is. And it's all about the race question. This race question:

Anyone who does the math knows that America is on track to become a white-minority nation in three to four decades. Yet if there’s any coherent message to be gleaned from the hypocrisy whipped up by Hurricane Jeremiah, it’s that this nation’s perennially promised candid conversation on race has yet to begin.
I should point out, first, those are not my words; the first quote is from Monroe Anderson, someone I've otherwise never heard of. The second is from a column by Frank Rich, a white man; as is Andrew Breitbart. Interestingly, we still allow white people to conduct our national discussion on race. What we really don't like, is when black people do it.

Barack Obama knows this, down to the soles of his shoes. So this embarrassment on his part, the feet of clay he has on this subject, are not entirely unforgivable. Barack Obama never had the experiences of Shirley Sherrod or Jeremiah Wright, so he's never had the reason to say things like this:

MODERATOR: What is your relationship with Louis Farrakhan? Do you agree with and respect his views, including his most racially divisive views?

WRIGHT: As I said on the Bill Moyers’ show, one of our news channels keeps playing a news clip from 20 years ago when Louis said 20 years ago that Zionism, not Judaism, was a gutter religion.

And he was talking about the same thing United Nations resolutions say, the same thing now that President Carter is being vilified for, and Bishop Tutu is being vilified for. And everybody wants to paint me as if I’m anti-Semitic because of what Louis Farrakhan said 20 years ago.

I believe that people of all faiths have to work together in this country if we’re going to build a future for our children, whether those people are — just as Michelle and Barack don’t agree on everything, Raymond (ph) and I don’t agree on everything, Louis and I don’t agree on everything, most of you all don’t agree — you get two people in the same room, you’ve got three opinions.

So what I think about him, as I’ve said on Bill Moyers and it got edited out, how many other African-Americans or European-Americans do you know that can get one million people together on the mall? He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century. That’s what I think about him.

I’ve said, as I said on Bill Moyers, when Louis Farrakhan speaks, it’s like E.F. Hutton speaks, all black America listens. Whether they agree with him or not, they listen.

Now, I am not going to put down Louis Farrakhan anymore than Mandela would put down Fidel Castro. Do you remember that Ted Koppel show, where Ted wanted Mandela to put down Castro because Castro was our enemy? And he said, “You don’t tell me who my enemies are. You don’t tell me who my friends are.”

Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy. He did not put me in chains. He did not put me in slavery. And he didn’t make me this color.
Let me first note that at least twice in that interview Rev. Wright mentions comments he made to Bill Moyers that were edited from the broadcast tape. You can but the irony with a knife, because we all know that what's on tape is all we need to know. But it's that last statement, of course, that's the bridge too far for white people; even for white liberals. We have never, in our literature, portrayed slavery as the cruel and inhuman institution it was (it took Toni Morrison to do that, in Beloved. Need I point out Toni Morrison is not white?) We have repudiated the "peculiar institution" of slavery, so why does this black man keep bringing it up? We are supposed to be trying to 'get beyond color,' and here's a black man refusing to let us do that. It's the same reason Andrew Breitbart wanted to highlight the comments of Shirley Sherrod: because in her edited remarks, Ms. Sherrod seemed not to have gotten "beyond color," and we all know that can only mean: "RACISM!" But don't take my word for it:

"I think the video speaks for itself," [Breitbart] said. "The way she's talking about white people ... is conveying a present tense racism in my opinion. But racism is in the eye of the beholder."
Should I mention again that Andrew Breitbart is white? Do I need to? Shouldn't I get beyond color by now?

And so the Obama Administration reacted; as, to be fair, did the NAACP. And I don't recall the NAACP rushing to the defense of Jeremiah Wright, either; but maybe they weren't responsible to. Fair is fair, and let's not invent responsibilities for other people we don't want for ourselves.

But as I noted at the time, there were commenters, black and white, who regarded Wright (and probably still do) as too radical, as a threat to Obama's chance to be the first black President. Whites, you see, are in charge of the discussion; they still get to determine what is "racism," and what is not. I was not, for a long time, a fan of the idea that "racism" is only possible when one is in a position of power, a position to oppress, as a black liberation theologian like Jeremiah Wright might say. Now I've completely changed my mind, because the discussion of racism hasn't changed since my pre-Civil Rights Act childhood. Racism is still an ugly thing bourgeois whites find objectionable and a label they would consider slanderous. But that's because they are still in charge of defining it, and determining how it is used. And we diligently whitewash history to do it:

I was going to start this on a better note, but then I listened to Juan Williams giving us his expertise on the "black church", and if there was any better evidence that the two parties to this national conversation are talking past each other, that "analysis" is surely it. Just listen to him re-write King's history and theology. The person Williams describes doesn't sound at all like the person who wrote these words from jail attacking the "white church." Nor does Williams include room for the vilification of King that followed his speech on Vietnam, a speech that attacked both war as a tool of statecraft, and economic injustice. Williams fails to note that King's stance was considered so radical that even the Washington Post turned against him, as did many of his supporters who thought the fight for civil rights had nothing to do with war or economic policy. And when King died he was in Memphis to support a garbage worker's strike; very likely that is the straw that broke the camel's back, since civil rights and voting rights had been passed into law years earlier. Williams pointedly draws the distinction between King and Wright by saying that King always "preached the gospel," and neglects the fact that the preaching of that gospel led King to promote economic justice, not just civil rights. To hear Williams tell it, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated for being too inspirational and bringing too many people together. Just the kind of plaster saint Jeremiah Wright refuses to be.
This, after all, is what Jeremiah Wright said to the National Press Club:

Maybe now, as an honest dialogue about race in this country begins, a dialogue called for by Senator Obama and a dialogue to begin in the United Church of Christ among 5,700 congregations in just a few weeks, maybe now, as that dialogue begins, the religious tradition that has kept hope alive for people struggling to survive in countless hopeless situation, maybe that religious tradition will be understood, celebrated, and even embraced by a nation that seems not to have noticed why 11 o’clock on Sunday morning has been called the most segregated hour in America.

We have known since 1787 that it is the most segregated hour. Maybe now we can begin to understand why it is the most segregated hour.

And maybe now we can begin to take steps to move the black religious tradition from the status of invisible to the status of invaluable, not just for some black people in this country, but for all the people in this country.
But the narrative was all, and Sen. Obama found Rev. Wright's comments on 9/11 (he was quoting a U.S. Ambassador about the "chickens coming home to roost"), Louis Farrakhan, and Palestine/Israel, "appalling:"

“I’m outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday,” Mr. Obama said, speaking to reporters here today. He added, “I find these comments appalling. It contradicts everything that I’m about and who I am.”
The message, of course, being: I'm safe for white voters. I'm not a scary angry black man.

Now, nor is he a supporter of angry black women who talk about white men in 1986 acting "superior," or who confess they weren't, at the time, inclined to help them. When she worked for a private organization dedicated to helping black farmers; and from the white farmer she learned that poverty is the enemy, not race. I don't have a lot of confidence that Obama wants to take up the cudgel of that issue either, though. "Class warfare" is as scary as "racism" to white Americans; especially non-poor white Americans.

You know, even Glenn Beck said this Shirley Sherrod business was screwy, and she deserves to get her job back. Glen Beck!

Maybe it's time this Administration grew a backbone about the fact that the President is black. People mostly don't care; and the ones who do, are the ones who should be called out for their racism. They certainly shouldn't be allowed to set the terms of the discussion. For the moment, though, I have to agree with a comment Phila made after the "race speech" which was supposed to transform our national discussion of race (and didn't; not one jot):

Hope for the future is swell, but I get very tired of people either ignoring our victims or paying lip service to them (which amounts to the same thing). As I said over at my place, my worry is that Obama's presidency won't be influenced enough by Wright, so to that extent, his speech wasn't reassuring; we always "getting over it," and finding "closure"'s one of the worst goddamn things about us, and that's what I hate to see Obama (and everyone else) pandering to.
Same as it ever was, in other words. And that may be because we still expect politicians to hold this discussion for us; and don't want to listen to pastors like Jeremiah Wright, who do. Politicians, after all, we can control: we can berate them, castigate them, decry them, and keep them in the public eye dancing like a bug on the hot griddle of our attention. Pastors we ignore, unless they spend lots of time on TV and seem to have large audiences. And those pastors never challenge our opinions about race, or make us feel like we might be racists; so we safely ignore them.

And that conversation on race in America, continues to be postponed....

Hastily attached addendum: 20 minutes after I post this, the beat goes on. That conversation is NEVER going to happen.

*or simply by Obama, to be more accurate

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

To Kill a Bad Idea

In which the author proves he is a Southerner, and probably a racist, to boot. Maybe. We'll see.

Battle has been joined on the topic of the 50th anniversary of To Kill A Mockingbird. Let me first say I am amazed to see this book still on most "required reading" lists in the high schools around me. Nothing wrong with that, per se, but you might be surprised just how many books you read in high school (especially if high school was 30+ years ago) that are still being read there. I know my father didn't read a lot of them because they weren't in print when he was in high school, but the bulk of the titles I first encountered in high school English still fill the bookshelves of bookstores in the "Literature" section. In some cases, like The Catcher in the Rye, I don't understand that (if ever there was a book that was particularly a product of a particular class and locale and time period....). In the case of Mockingbird, I do. I find it hard to understand the world of Holden Caulfield, a world I never knew. I find it easy to enter the world of Scout Finch, also a world I never knew. But I almost did; as I say, I'm a Southerner.

Although by the time I was growing up in the South, the civil rights movement was already underway. Interestingly, we forget it was underway under Eisenhower; that Truman even gave it a nudge when he integrated the armed forces. The Civil Rights Act was not an act sui generis by LBJ: he did it hot on the heels of the death of JFK, using that horror was another impetus to get a law begun under JFK, passed. And of course, that law didn't end the problems of race in America, either. So there's a continuum here, one that began long before the Articles of Confederation were a gleam in anyone's eye. Hard not to pay attention to these things if you're a sentient Southern boy.

But I digress....

The major problems with Mockingbird seem to be that it is an artifact of its time, and insufficiently anticipates the attitudes of white liberals in America in 2009-10. Malcolm Gladwell, of Tipping Point and Blink fame (and whom I consider an idiot; his books are textbook examples of how NOT to do causal analysis) thinks Atticus is a flawed liberal icon because he is a good lawyer. No, seriously.

This is essentially the defense that Atticus Finch fashions for his client. Robinson is the churchgoer, the “good Negro.” Mayella, by contrast, comes from the town’s lowest breed of poor whites. “Every town the size of Maycomb had families like the Ewells,” Scout tells us. “No truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.” They live in a shack behind the town dump, with windows that “were merely open spaces in the walls, which in the summertime were covered with greasy strips of cheesecloth to keep out the varmints that feasted on Maycomb’s refuse.” Bob Ewell is described as a “little bantam cock of a man” with a face as red as his neck, so unaccustomed to polite society that cleaning up for the trial leaves him with a “scalded look; as if an overnight soaking had deprived him of protective layers of dirt.” His daughter, the complainant, is a “thick-bodied girl accustomed to strenuous labor.” The Ewells are trash. When the defense insinuates that Mayella is the victim of incest at the hands of her father, it is not to make her a sympathetic figure. It is, in the eugenicist spirit of the times, to impugn her credibility—to do what A. A. Sizer did in the John Mays case: The victim, coming from the same inferior stock, would likely share her father’s moral character. “I won’t try to scare you for a while,” Finch says, when he begins his cross-examination of Mayella. Then he adds, with polite menace, “Not yet.”

We are back in the embrace of Folsomism. Finch wants his white, male jurors to do the right thing. But as a good Jim Crow liberal he dare not challenge the foundations of their privilege. Instead, Finch does what lawyers for black men did in those days. He encourages them to swap one of their prejudices for another.
You see? Atticus is not supposed to defend a client against an unjust charge. He's supposed to indict the entire culture of the South! YEAH!

Wait? Huh?

Mark this as another example of why I consider Gladwell an idiot. Any lawyer who did that, EVER, would be properly dealt with only when he'd been found liable for malpractice. Not to mention, as Thers says: it's a book! Get over it!

Actually, what led me to this righteous rant is the other problem this country has had since before the Articles of Confederation, and that is the conviction that while we are "one nation, indivisible," some parts of that nation just aren't quite as, well, "correct" as other parts. And while this is undoubtedly true, statements like the quote below make me want to recall the halcyon days of the "Southies" in Boston rioting when their schools had to be integrated. It happened a good decade after my Southern East Texas high school was integrated (and no, we did not go quietly into that good day, either; but neither did we riot to the point it made national news):

In July 2010, we might be more comfortable with an Atticus Finch who was less compassionate toward his racist neighbors. In explaining people and events to his young daughter, Scout, Finch noted that these were not bad people (even though some did want to commit violence against blacks), just misguided.

From where we sit today, this attitude is both ludicrous and offensive. One can't distill "not bad" from what is clearly bad. But, then, who is to say that Lee thought otherwise? Sometimes truth is better received through a reflex of recognition than by a blow to the head. Remember, too, Finch was trying to explain a hateful world to a child in terms familiar in the church-going South: Hate the sin, love the sinner.
I know it's not quite as egregiously stupid as Gladwell, but still... Let's start at the end, and work backwards. First, "Hate the sin, love the sinner" is a phrase I heard in my mid-adulthood, not in my childhood. I grew up at the other end of the era Harper Lee describes in Mockingbird, but I doubt either of us ever heard that insipid phrase, or were told to apply it to anybody. We might have been told to love the repentant sinner, but distinguishing sinner from sin? That would be like knowing the dancer from the dance; we wouldn't be able to begin to know how to do that. And the rigid Calvinism that lay behind much of the Christianity of the American South would consider such an idea yet another sin, if not an outright heresy. So let's lay that aside and begin to peel this back a little further, shall we?

Yes, Atticus is trying "to explain a hateful world to a child." But then, I remember my parents lamenting my grandfather's free use of the "N" word. They told themselves he used it because it was the word he grew up with, not because he had any animosity toward blacks. And he didn't; no overt animosity, anyway. Today I see clearly that the word designates a different class of person, and that's the problem with it. It's no different from talking about "illegal aliens", although that term is less offensive in polite company than "wetbacks" or "spics." But the meaning is the same, and it's what my grandfather meant. Was he, then, in the strictest sense, a racist? I suppose so. Should I not love him?

It's not an idle question, because Atticus is talking about friends and family he has to live with everyday. You want to wear the hair shirt of your moral superiority for all to see, you won't seem all that morally superior to anybody but yourself. You want to change the morality of a culture, of a society, you either do it by withdrawing entirely from that society and throwing stones at it from a safe distance (in the form of either your moral superiority, or critiques of the immorality of those you are safely away from), or you do it in whatever small way you can manage. You get to be Socrates in jail, or the Socrates who accepts exile. You don't do it by declaring everyone around you inferior because you find them morally dubious. He who is without ANY sin can cast that first stone, and just because you may have purged your soul of racism doesn't mean you are a paragon of virtue.

As for ludicrous and offensive: I remember the crowds screaming at black faces as schools were integrated under court orders. I not only saw the pictures of such crowds, I was in the middle of them a time or two, on my own high school campus. I didn't think much of the people who were screaming, but it was only my adolescence that let me imagine I was, in any way, morally superior to them. Martin Luther King was, ultimately, right; as is Atticus; as was Nelson Mandela: if we go around pointing fingers of blame at everyone we deem blameworthy, we eventually form a circular firing squad of sorts. Sure it's better to imagine that "today" we expunge the racists from our midst and cast them into the outer reaches where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth: but try telling that to the "tea parties," who are gleefully calling the NACCP "racist." But the fact is, we can go on pointing out who is insufficient to be in "our" group, or we can embrace the vision:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
No mention there of expunging the racists from the South, of shipping them off to their own state or country. The message is about transformation, and Dr. King was right: we really can't do both. We can't claim moral superiority and end immorality. Which was the great lesson of Atticus Finch, the lesson above all that Scout learned that summer.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"I swear I saw your face change, it didn't seem quite right."

A simple question re: Nation-building.

Why do we imagine that water-treatment systems and power plants will automatically lead to peace and a stable nation?

Not to disparage such ideas as necessary to civilized existence, or as a definite good, but the comparison here to Germany and Japan is important. Both nations were defeated in war, not invaded and overrun, or suffering under ineffectual governments or suffering absolute civil collapse, or civil collapse consequent to invasion. It's the civil condition that's critical, not the condition of the infrastructure. Germany and Japan already had social stability; infrastructure merely aided in maintaining that stability. Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan: all had suffered social collapse or prolonged social instability. Water treatment plants and electricity were not going to replace what culture could not provide. Which is not to say culture could not eventually provide it; but technology is not a substitute for culture. If it was, there'd be no ghettoes in America, no "wrong side of the tracks," no neighborhoods where you keep your car doors locked and don't stop at red lights. (Yes, I exaggerate, but to make a point.)

It's peculiarly Western, or perhaps peculiarly American, that we think all problems are solved by owning or providing to society the right "things." And yet we only apply that lesson abroad; we never apply it at home, where we know it doesn't work (or imagine it leads to personal corruption). It isn't that the advantages of industrial society are actually disadvantages: but they aren't the reason for civil order or social happiness.

And yet we go on telling ourselves so, at least when we extend our reach abroad and try to bring peace and order to foreign lands. Or, more accurately, we tell ourselves it is so simply because it benefits contractors like Halliburton, who build the power plants that don't work and the water treatment systems that never get completed. Such socialism is anathema at home, but de rigeur abroad. As always we have again committed fornication, but, it was in another country and besides, the wench is dead.

I guess there is some value to a liberal arts education, huh?

And, to go on too long, that subject is connected to this one. Which I mention only because of the second comment.

The unemployed are a constant reminder of the failure of Republican policies.

Seriously, the economy has changed as we sent all of our jobs to China. We have a lot of 50+ people who may never work again. What are we to do with them?
This marks at least the third time within my lifetime that unemployment has hit so many people in middle age. I remember the spate of books that came out then, like Executive Blues, a book I remember reading as an article in Harper's in the mid-90's:

Jerry Meyer was a certified success story--the youngest-ever vice-president of McDonnell Douglas at the age of 40. At the age of 50, he was unemployed and on the flip side of that dream, a victim of corporate downsizing. His bewildering journey from corporate success to white-collar joblessness is a memoir that Fortune magazine called "brilliant, original, and raging".
But that's the "nice" review, and Myer's problems started, not in 1995, but in 1991:

If you thought that receiving a nice severance package and having out-placement specialists assisting you makes job search easier, think again. Meyer chronicles his experience in job hunting after being laid off from a corporation. He begins in 1991, weaving past and present into his narrative and revealing to the reader the many forces that shaped his career and his often conflicting feelings about working and the future. The subjective nature of the narrative is both the strength and the weakness of the book. Meyer taps feelings that a downsized employee could relate to and even encourages introspective thinking, yet he is cynical. His tone might be too discouraging for a job seeker.
That's a much more accurate review of the book. And that was nearly 20 years ago, long enough for a new generation to grow up ignorant of the immediate past (as all American generations seem to do). And that was after the collapse in the economy in the 80's. Anybody remember Jerry Meyer? Anybody remember the number of people in their 50's in the '90's who were suddenly unemployed and unemployable? That time, we blamed Japan, not China. Anybody else remember we've seen this movie?

And if all of this starts to sound like territory Barbara Ehrenreich has covered more recently, that's because it is.

As I say, I'm in my 50's now, and I've seen this movie three times. When do we start to take a lesson from it? Or will we just keep treating it as a movie, and continue in our uniquely ahistorical posture?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man

As usual, fools rush in, etc., etc. Which means: I'll bite:

Absent a direct line to the Almighty and a conviction that the last days are upon us, how is it “moral” to teach people to abandon their families, give up on thrift and husbandry and take to the stony roads? How is it moral to claim a monopoly on access to heaven, or to threaten waverers with everlasting fire, let alone to condemn fig trees and persuade devils to infest the bodies of pigs? Such a person if not divine would be a sorcerer and a ­fanatic.
Hitchens is right, actually. It's a question seminary students struggle with. And the answer is: it depends on who Jesus was talking to.

Seriously; that's not a cop-out. There is a general presumption that whatever Jesus said, it was for general application and was meant to be applied to all persons in all circumstances. But it is an incorrect presumption; and here arises the first great distinction of Christian doctrine, based on precisely how one understands soteriology (which may or may not be the Euler's Identity of Christianity, although many seem to think so; but I am not among those "many", as we shall see).

First, credit where it is due, Hitchens' analysis of Pullman's position on Christianity is a fairly insightful one:

The difficulty that Pullman never quite confronts is that this involves what is vulgarly known as fundamentalism: an unmediated contact with the original message. Atheist though he is, Pullman turns out to be a Protestant atheist.
Although I'm not sure how a Protestant atheist differs from a Roman Catholic one, Hitchens does do something here I think he never intended: he locks Christians and atheists together in a way that makes them the twin sons of one mother Pullman posits in his novel. It's probably a more unintentionally revealing sentence than Hitchens has scribed in a long time. As a self-described atheist he is Lazarus from the original Star Trek, doomed to be locked in battle with his "evil twin" for eternity. Or at least until he gives up caring about Christianity.

What I find funny about books like Pullman's are the matters atheists find so important; things like this: "His method [writes Hitchens] is to show Jesus more or less as we “know” him, giving moral lessons to ever larger crowds." On the other hand, "Christ [the "evil" twin] goes on to witness and write up a non-miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand (everyone simply shares the extra food they have brought) and to suborn a disciple of Jesus to give him secondhand accounts of events at which he cannot himself be present." Does it never occur to atheists to question the "ever larger crowds," especially a gathering of 5000 people to hear a man speak in first century Palestine? What, did Jesus commandeer an amphitheater, or steal a megaphone from somebody, or point a stick at his throat and mutter "Sonorous!" like the wizards in Harry Potter? Atheists do this all the time: strain at gnats and swallow camels. The same gospels that describe miracles like the loaves and fishes, also describe crowds larger than most of the villages Jesus walked through; yet one is impossible, the other quite acceptable. It's funny, really. Seminary students learn to accept this for what it is: first century propaganda. Atheists, meanwhile, skeptics to a man as they claim, swallow it whole. Huh.

Take the Sermon on the Mount, which Hitchens mentions here. Matthew has it on a mountain, a la Moses. Luke has it on flat ground (scholars call it the "sermon on the plain") and clearly says Jesus "looks up" and addresses his disciples, a/k/a, "the Twelve." How anybody else hears what Jesus says is a mystery. (Mark and John don't have it at all, but that's another matter.) That's the problem with seeking an "unmediated contact with the original message." We really don't have one. The one we do have is so mediated, we can't separate the dancer from the dance. And if we did, would we really have anything?

Which makes the conclusion of Hitchen's review downright funny:

I said earlier that Pullman was a Protestant atheist. Even so, he may well have been annoyed at the welcome given to his book by the clerical establishment in the person of the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, who has described the “Jesus” character as “a voice of genuine spiritual authority” and the book itself as “mostly Pullman at his very impressive best, limpid and economical.” Pullman himself, echoing the common modern question of “W.W.J.D.?” — a question that in most modern contexts comes with no answer at all — claims that “my version is much closer to what Jesus would have said.” We in the infidel community do not pronounce anathemas or proclaim excommunications, or make the easy distinction between religious faith and “organized religion,” but this latest attempt to secularize Messianism is a disappointment to those of us who can never forgive the emperor Constantine, not just for making Christianity a state dogma, but for making humanity hostage to the boring village quarrels and Bronze Age fables that were drawn from what remains the world’s most benighted region.
The whole bit about "humanity" being "held hostage" is laughably ethno-centric, not to mention historically dull-witted; but no matter. It's Pullman's assertion I find the funniest: “my version is much closer to what Jesus would have said.” Really? On what basis is that claim made? You studied a translation, maybe a parallel gospels edition? You really want to dance with Biblical scholars who may not be all that religious themselves, but who know these texts and their transmission, historical context, translation (Jesus spoke Aramaic; the gospel are all written in koine Greek), etc., to a level of detail that would make many an expert in other fields wonder if they knew enough about their subject? You did a more thorough job than the Jesus Seminar? Somehow, I doubt it.*

As for Hitchens, I love people who think they know more than "organized religion," as if modern bureaucracy were merely another version of "the Church," and all organized forces were the true source of evil in the world. I'm not terribly impressed when people act in groups either; war, after all, is a group effort, and churches can engage in truly un-Christian acts. But then I consider the lone serial killers who slaughter without mercy, or the paranoid individuals who simply chase away census takers every 10 years at the point of a gun, and I think individuals acting alone aren't necessarily Nature's last word, either.

But let me not leave Hitchens' opening question dangling. "[H]ow is it “moral” to teach people to abandon their families, give up on thrift and husbandry and take to the stony roads? How is it moral to claim a monopoly on access to heaven, or to threaten waverers with everlasting fire, let alone to condemn fig trees and persuade devils to infest the bodies of pigs?" I'm not sure of the immorality of condemning a fig tree, or infesting pigs with demons, so I'll leave that aside as mere rhetorical flourish. As for claiming a monopoly on access to heaven, I reject the versions of Christianity which do, so I won't defend that as "moral," either. It is the first question, then, that is interesting, and it raises the pertinent question: who did Jesus call, and how did he call them?

That's not an idle question. Jesus did tell the man who wanted to follow him to "leave the dead to bury their dead," and that no man who put his hand to the plow and looked back was worthy of the kingdom of God. There are two points here: what is morality (is it merely Aristotle's "ethic," what the community accepts as good? And if so, Euripides wants to know where Medea's complaints fit in?)? The second is: who was Jesus talking to? You? Me? Hitchens?

Sometimes Jesus says easier things, you see. Like the woman caught in adultery, or the woman who washes his feet with her hair in Simon's house. In neither case does Jesus say "Sell all you have, and come, and follow me." He just says: "Go, and sin no more." That's a moral directive, of course, given in the context of Jewish/Hebraic (the historical context muddles things a bit) of the situation. But it's not the same directive in each case. Is this an inconsistent morality? Or a question of who is being addressed, and what they are being told to do?

Today we understand this distinction as the difference between ordained clergy, and the laity. One has a more serious burden of discipleship than the other, although theologians like Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer want to erase those distinctions a bit more than some others might. We certainly hold our clergy to higher standards; and we certainly don't imagine that all laypersons are to be the examples of discipleship that clergy should be. So is there really a moral inconsistency in the examples Hitchens cites? Not unless you take the Christian fundamentalist view of soteriology, there isn't.

Ironic, no?

*My New Testament professor in seminary is a member of the Jesus Seminar. He all but bragged about voting to reject as authentic almost every statement of Jesus found in the Gospels. There was a group, and they voted, and the majority ruled. I'm trying to imagine Pullman using a similar process in the privacy of his study, to evaluate what Jesus would have said. This is the problem, you see, with "organized religion." Especially when it isn't so organized along the principles you imagine it to be organized along.

Friday, July 09, 2010

"I know a fireman who looks after the fires...."

I've never cared for the basic premise of assertions like this. That is to say, I've been fairly well educated in the sciences, and did a lot of reading in science when I was young (I did a lot of reading in a lot of subjects; I still do). Yet I can never remember what the Second Law of Thermodynamics is (pace C.P. Snow; and your idea of the "Two Cultures" was rather weak anyway), and I'd never before heard of Euler's Identity (nor did the link to Wikipedia enlighten me much; surprise, surprise.). I do, however, think Wittgenstein would have a lot of fun with a statement like this:

After proving Euler's Identity during a lecture, Benjamin Peirce, a noted American 19th Century philosopher/mathematician and a professor at Harvard University, stated that "It is absolutely paradoxical; we cannot understand it, and we don't know what it means, but we have proved it, and therefore we know it must be the truth."
But oddly, I still don't consider myself scientifically illiterate. I speak jargon in three different professions(academic English; law; and theology/philosophy), so I understand the concept of "speaking science." I'm just not impressed by it. It's a minor skill set, a set of vocabulary, a specific lexicon. But it's still a language game. Big deal.

I could tell you how you don't speak my jargon, therefore you have no business talking to me. I could establish foundational claims in philosophy of religion, or theology, or literary criticism, and fling them about proving you are a fool unless you speak as me! Feh. Had enough of that in graduate school. Left academia the first time to get away from it. I'm not interested. It proves nothing.

On the other hand, I despise ignorance and affect; which is probably why this kind of pose bothers me. At either extreme we can establish a litmus test, an initiation rite, a test which you must complete in order to be allowed into the charmed circle of discussion. We need some standard, of course: it is pointless to argue with fools. Ultimately, though, I've come to the conclusion that it is simply pointless to argue.

Do you want to establish your position and persuade others it is sound? Fair enough. Do you want to sweep the agora of all foolishness and wrong-headed nonsense? Might as well stop the tide coming in while you're at it.

Now, to be fair, Gareth Harris is inviting a dialogue, not dismissing the ignorant as impossible to teach. I agree with him, ultimately. If you would discuss a subject, learn it first. I guess I just prefer a bit more humility in the approach. The more I have learned, and I have learned a great deal, the more I realize I know very little about a lot of things. But the more the world comes to resemble Borge's Library of Babel for me: as full of books as there are stars in the sky, indeed more full than that. It is a library that comprises the universe itself, but none of the books are written in a language I can read, even though the books themselves comprise all language. My knowledge is a paltry thing, and the more I apply myself to learning the greater portion of one field, the narrower my scope becomes, and the less I know of the universe itself. Although I imagine that if I simply persevere in one pursuit, I will finally see the universe in a grain of sand, and know all eternity in an hour, I also know this is not true, that the microcosm is not the macrocosm, and that the more I learn about one thing, the less I learn about all things. So I abjure jargons.

Could I set you a task of understanding the world's literatures, or just those I know best, from Western culture? But which way will I have you learn it? What will I establish as fundamental? The moment I choose something, I set it apart as a mountain, but to climb a mountain is merely to reach the top. What about all the other mountains, and the valleys, and the deserts, and the beaches, and the plains? Philosophy of religion? Which is more important? The Christian question of theodicy? The metaphysical nature of the Ground of Being? The experience of eternity, the mystical union with the Godhead? The peace that passes all understanding? Which must you know before we can converse? Must we learn the nature of the soul? Must we agree there is a "soul"? Must we accept that the most important things in the universe are knowable to the human mind? Must we decide that what is not knowable is worthless? Should we first decide what it means to "know"?

So you should understand the fundamental concepts of epistemology, then? But whose? Those of Socrates? Or Locke, Berkeley, Hume? Kant? Gadamer? When do you know enough that we can discuss existentialism in the realm of Christianity? After you've read all of Kierkegaard? Or Kierkegaard and Tillich? Or should we read Buber together in order to both grasp the nature of the I-Thou as he understood it? Is this essential? Or merely my interest, my hobbyhorse, the way I came to the understandings I have now?

I don't know. I don't know. The commandment was that we love one another. Are we doing that now? (I address only other Christians now, I know.) And if not, why not? What else are we called to do? Evangelize? Wouldn't loving one another do that? Wouldn't it do it better than anything else?

But which is easier? To evangelize? To set some ground rules before you can talk to me? Or to love one another? Three guesses; first two don't count.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

I really need a hobby.....

According to this New Yorker profile, 2.4 million people read Andrew Breitbart's blog every month. That would be about half the population of Houston, or not enough people to keep a syndicated radio program on the air nationwide, or even a basic cable program ("The Daily Show" got a reported 1.4 million a night back in 2009., just for comparison's sake). I can't think of 10 people I know in real life who've heard of Andrew Breitbart. Actually, I can't think of one. And what does he traffic in?

No battle is too petty for Breitbart, no target too small or pathetic. He once showed me a series of messages that he had received from an apparently unhinged visitor to his Web sites. One missive concluded with a postscript: “You drank human urine three times—how did it taste?” Breitbart recalled, “That is when I said, O.K., I am not going to ignore him anymore—I want to create a level of pain for him that makes him realize this is not worth this.” He published the messages, as well as the sender’s name and photograph, on Big Journalism, along with a scathing editorial saying that the sender’s “stylings deserve a far greater public platform.” Breitbart told me, “I am sure if you talk to shrinks, or prosecutors, who are experts in these types of people, it is best to avoid them. But that’s not how my brain works.”
Pretty much what anybody blogging about politics traffics in, in other words. Outrage. Outrage and argument. In fact, here's political blogging in a nutshell:

He does not pretend to be an expert in policy, or to be particularly interested in it. “Just because I am paying attention to politics and culture doesn’t mean that I should be talking about the health-care bill, talking about the minutiae,” he told me. Instead, Breitbart is obsessed with wresting control of the political narrative from the established media organizations. If the wire services that Breitbart aggregates, and the bloggers he recruits, serve as his content providers, then Breitbart might be called a malcontent provider—giving seething, sneering voice to what he characterizes as a silenced majority.
Will the real America please log into the internet and stand up?

But it reaches further than that; Breitbart's response to John Lewis claiming the tea party members shouted racial slurs at him outside the Capitol several months ago goes a bit beyond the level of politics blogging going on:

The editorial was a typical Breitbart gesture: a brazen, blustering provocation disorientingly couched as a reasoned response to a brazen, blustering provocation. If his logic was weak (the absence of documentary evidence of an incident does not prove that the incident did not occur), his rhetoric was effective, repositioning the congressmen not as victims of racism but as perpetrators of it.
Now we're into Christopher Hitchens territory.

A place I promised myself I wouldn't go, but maybe it's just as well I did. Hitchens, much in the manner of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, sets up a straw man of his own imagining and proceeds to set it on fire. He does this in front of an audience as ignorant as he is, and his eloquence (such as it is) passes for intelligence, and wins him crowds anxious to have his book signed, which is, after all, what he's really there for. There was a reason Plato had Socrates condemn the Sophists, and when I regard people like Hitchens, my sympathies for Socrates go up just a bit. It's a problem of language games, in the Wittgenstein sense: Hitchens disparages experiences he doesn't accept, accepts experiences he does, and the whole thing runs on wheels. It is essential, in Hitchens world-view, that everyone think as he does, so we must all accept the reality of quarks and mesons, even though the evidence for them is simply that physicists have declared they have a reality, and their particle accelerators and equations prove it. I don't doubt they do, but I have to take it on faith, since I'm not a physicist. It has nothing to do with my life, of course. Quantum physics may affect computing, but it will never effect how the electrician wires my house, or how the plumber fixes my toilet, the mechanic repairs my car. Yes, yes, at some level it is important (I don't deny it), but does it affect my daily life? Do I have an experience of quantum mechanics? No. It may explain questions I haven't asked, and don't need to ask; but that doesn't prove it essential to my life, or even true. Truth, as Kierkegaard pointed out, is subjective. Quantum mechanics may well be "true." But what does that mean to me?

Nothing. Not really.

So I don't discard quantum mechanics, but I accept it as valid. It fits, I am told, with the same science that makes this computer and the internet possible, the same science that makes my lights come on, my refrigerator hum, my car run reliably. Good enough. But none of these things are truth to me, either. They may be valid facts; but they are not "truth." What is truth? Ah, that's not really the realm of science.

It's not the exclusive realm of religion, either, or the only realm of religion. But to speak of matters relevant to religion is not to speak of anything Christopher Hitchens has publicly espoused as valid for discussion. So why should I try to converse with him? He wants me to accept the reality of quarks because physics says so, when he knows no more than I how such things can be, or even if they are. He accepts what the physicists say; he trusts. And "faith," as that word is translated from the koine Greek of the New Testament, is most commonly rendered into modern English as "faith." But for Hitchens, faith means "believin' what ain't so." And Hitchens doesn't have the good grace to so much as read William James and reconsider that assertion.* He doesn't need to; he has his eloquence.

And Andrew Breitbart has his outrage. Per that New Yorker profile, he provokes a lot of thoughtful people, people whom I admire and respect for their opinions. But arguing with Breitbart, or Hitchens, is like wrestling with a pig: you get muddy, and the pig likes it. In the meantime, Breitbart and his friends are keeping the dream alive:

Mike Silver, a businessman who is Breitbart’s neighbor, remembers being at Breitbart’s house for the 2004 Super Bowl, when Janet Jackson had what her co-performer, Justin Timberlake, characterized as a “wardrobe malfunction.” Silver recalls, “He immediately grabs his laptop—he has all these disciples who send him things—and the phone starts ringing off the hook. He wrote the story, calling what Jackson was wearing a ‘solar nipple medallion,’ and then for the next couple of hours you could see that phrase popping up on all the broadcasts. I couldn’t believe how quickly they could influence the Zeitgeist of the world.”
I had never heard that description before. I guess my Zeitgeist is not the world's Zeitgeist.

*I.e.: "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."

Sunday, July 04, 2010


(from The Hymnal of the E&R Church)

Our heavenly Father, who hast declared that all the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdom of thy Son, bless all the races of mankind, banishing from among them all hatred and enmity, purging them of all pride and vainglory, delivering them from all lust for power and greed for gain.. Incline the hearts of all peoples to open their gates to the Lord of lords, and King of kings, that he may enter into their cities, their churches, and their homes, to dwell there and to govern all things by his Word and Spirit. So may justice, mercy, and peace prevail throughout the world, and thy Name be glorified; through Jesus Christ our Lord.


O God, the Lord of might and love, control the nations of mankind by thy gracious power, and make them to long for the reign of good will in the earth.


Guide the hearts and minds of all who govern, that they may seek first thy kingdom, and bring forth justice for all nations, whether small or great.


May the children of our own and every land grow up in hatred of war and in love of peace; and, renouncing all self-seeking, may they devote their lives to the service of Christ in the upbuilding of a righteous and peaceful world.


Save us from the spirit which leads to strife, from the temper which refuses to forgive, from the ill will that has no wish to forget, and from lack of faith in thy power to change the hearts of men.


Grant thy Holy Spirit to those who bear on their hearts the burden of the world's sin and pain; prosper their work for the welfare of human life, and inspire them with wise judgment, that they may build a brotherhood of nations in the fatherhood of God.


Friday, July 02, 2010

Killing foe for peace...bang, bang, bang. bang, bang, bang...

Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. --George C. Scott Patton

Preparatory to July 4th, and another round of tales about how many people died for "our" freedom, I remembered this line from the speech that opens the movie "Patton." It's the thing we don't focus on when we praise those who "died" for our country, as if their deaths were not intimately connected to the deaths of others. Every time we praise someone for "dying" for their country, we really mean to praise them for killing for their country, for making other people die.

Because if freedom is secured only through war and bloodshed, that's how it's done.

The whole question of whether we exist as a country because of our military, or our military exists because we are a country, is another matter. As is the question of whether the military should exist apart from the citizenry. As Andrew Bacevich points out, the "Greatest Generation" signed on for the duration; not for life, or until retirement. We seem to have lost our way on that, too.