Thursday, June 28, 2012

Can I get off here, please?

I don't want to comment on the healthcare decision from the Supreme Court today (a/k/a, by absolutely no one, National Federation of Independent Business v. Sibelius, and now you know why), except to note this passage from the dissent:

It is true enough that everyone consumes "health care," if the term is taken to include the purchase of a bottle of aspirin. But the health care “market” that is the object of the Individual Mandate not only includes but principally consists of goods and services that the young people primarily affected by the Mandate do not purchase. They are quite simply not participants in that market, and cannot be made so (and thereby subjected to regulation) by the simple device of defining participants to include all those who will, later in their lifetime, probably purchase the goods or services covered by the mandated insurance. Such a definition of market participants is unprecedented, and were it to be a premise for the exercise of national power, it would have no principled limits.
What color is the sky on their planet?

In what reality are children not participants in the market for healthcare?  Third-world countries?  North Korea, maybe?  Just what in the HELL are they talking about?  (Okay, I want to do more than note this odd argument.  Sue me.).  Are the justices so old or childless they don't recall childhood diseases, injuries, accidents, are unaware of children in hospitals, with cancer or other illnesses?   Tonsillitis, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus?  Do these words mean nothing to the dissenting justices?  Are they too old to know about ear tubes and ear infections and all the ills young children are heir to?  Do they think children are magically immune to medical needs until they reach middle age, or at least the age of majority when they can buy insurance?  Do they not begin to understand the reason most children in America live to the age of majority is BECAUSE OF HEALTHCARE, NOT IN SPITE OF IT!!!!?????

Sorry....I'll calm down.

I don't find this opinion comforting, from a legal standpoint, because I find the argument that the mandate is illegal and unconstitutional frankly bizarre, and saving it by calling it a tax (like Social Security or Medicare) is even stranger; though I'm glad it was saved.  But this idea, that children don't participate in the healthcare market until they are at least legally adults, is just....

...well, the mind boggles.

Addendum:  There is a cemetery in Nacogdoches, Texas that dates back to the 19th century.  In that cemetery there is a family plot which contains the grave of the father and two of his wives, and all of his children.  As I recall, only one child lived to early adulthood, and all the children from both wives predeceased the father by many years.  He left, in other words, no worldly heirs.

In the cemetery of the church I once pastored, also dating back to the 19th century, there are a number of children's graves, most from the early 20th century.  There is a mass grave there, too, containing children and adults, victims of a yellow fever epidemic.  Modern medicine began pretty much with Fleming's discovery of penicillin, and it has exploded since then.  It is a rare thing, now, to see a child's grave; rarer still to see a family plot filled to overflowing with all the family, the only adults the parents.  That is because of healthcare.

I remember mass immunizations in my childhood for polio, and the vaccines I had to take to ward off diseases my parents feared, that some of my parents peers still suffered from (such as polio.  I still remember iron lungs.).  No one said we were too young to participate in the "marketplace."  No one considered immunization a "mandate" Congress couldn't impose.  It was a matter of public health.  It still is.

To say, with a straight face, at the beginning of the 21st century, that children do no participate in the healthcare market, is like saying vaccines cause autism, or the world is actually flat.  It is a statement with no basis in reality, and marks the speaker as a person with no serious claim to our attention.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Faster and Furiouser

The conspiracy theory is that "Fast and Furious" was designed by the Obama Administration to provoke outrage at lax gun laws which allow a river of guns to flow to Mexico and create a backlash against lax gun laws.

When the reality of Fast & Furious is that lax gun laws allow a river of guns to flow to Mexico, and because of those lax gun laws the entire attempt to prosecute that flow of guns was impossible.

You really do have to run as fast as you can to stay in one place.....

The First Temptation

Last year, Luis Duran drove almost 200 miles to San Antonio to have a colonoscopy because he didn't want to wait six months for an opening at a county clinic.

A few days later, the doctor in San Antonio – a friend of a friend who had performed the screening for free – called to break the news that Duran, 51, had advanced colon cancer and needed immediate surgery.
Patients wait in line to get checked in at Houston's Ben Taub General Hospital (Aaron M. Sprecher/AP Images for KHN)

"I kind of broke down," recalled Duran, a machine operator whose employer had terminated his health policy.  "I said, 'Doctor, I don't have insurance, and I don't have much money, but I won't refuse to pay. Please help me.'"
And by "this," I mean the whole article; and note that the article includes this:

Texans are individualistic and value their freedoms and responsibilities, said Lucy Nashed, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, who notes  Medicaid spending is a big part of Texas’ budget.

"Individual responsibility is about making healthy choices and taking ownership of your lifestyle -- not just about buying health insurance," Nashed said. "And you can't legislate a healthy lifestyle."
And this:

With its fiscally conservative philosophy and cash-strapped state budget, Texas does not offer Medicaid coverage to childless adults unless they are pregnant, disabled or elderly. Parents of children covered by welfare are eligible for the state-federal health program only if they make no more than $188 a month for a family of three.

At the same time, the proportion of Texas workers with employer-sponsored insurance is almost 10 percentage points lower than the national average of 61 percent, in part because of the state’s high concentration of jobs in the agricultural and service sectors, which often lack benefits.
Dr. G. Bobby Kapur is associate chief of the emergency room at Ben Taub General Hospital in Houston (Aaron M. Sprecher/AP Images for KHN)

"Seventy percent of the people we see here are employed," said Dr. G. Bobby Kapur, associate chief of the emergency room at Ben Taub General Hospital, part of the taxpayer-supported Harris County Hospital District.

"They're hourly wage earners, nannies, [people] working in lawn care services or dry cleaning or real estate, or people working two part-time jobs and neither will pay for health care," he said. "Many are small business owners who are well-educated and well-dressed."

The problem is not too few health care providers –– although there may be a shortage of primary care doctors willing to treat Medicaid patients. Houston's hospitals are world-renowned, drawing patients from all over the globe for its highly specialized care -- primarily to those who can pay. 
 And try not to wish there was a hell where Lucy Nashed could spend eternity alongside Rick Perry.

It ain't no easy thing.*

*I've known people who died of colon cancer.  I'm almost moved to violence over this story.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The More Things Change Watch

This matter of recruiting a membership for the church is a real problem.  Even the churches which once believed a very definite conversion to be the sine qua non of entrance into the fellowship of the church are going in for "decision days" as they lose confidence in the traditional assumption that one can become a Christian only through a crisis experience.  But if one does not insist on that kind of an experience it is not so easy to set up tests of membership.  Most of these "personal evangelism" campaigns mean little more than an ordinary recruiting effort with church membership rather than the Christian life as the real objective.  They do not differ greatly from efforts of various clubs as they seek to expand their membership.

Of course we make "acceptance of Jesus as your savior" the real door into the fellowship of the church.  but the trouble is that this may mean everything or nothing.  I see no way of making the Christian fellowship unique by a series of tests which preceded admission.  The only possibility lies in a winnowing process through the instrumentality of the preaching and teaching function of the church.  Let them come in without great difficulty, but make it difficult for them to stay in.  The trouble with this plan is that it is always easy to load up your membership with very immature Christians who will finally set the standard and make it impossible to preach and to teach the gospel in its full implications.

--Reinhold Niebuhr, 1919

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Morning Meditation

"Why is it," asked one of my elders the other day, "that your Sunday evening sermons are more pessimistic than your morning sermons?"  I think what he really meant is that they were more critical in analyzing life's problems.  I told him that I tried to give inspiration in the morning and education in the evening.

But the fact is that circumstance probably affects the quality of the message as much as purpose.  A full church gives me the sense of fighting with a victorious host in the battles of the Lord.  A half empty church immediately symbolizes the fact that Christianity is very much a minority movement in a pagan world and that it can be victorious only by snatching victory out of defeat.

--Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1980, p. 34-35.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

It's mighty reckless....

"Many of us saw that video where he said it was the first step. If you're a member of the UAW, you know what that means," Barrett declaimed. "If you're a carpenter, or a painter, even if you're not part of a union, you know what that means. It means they're going after the middle class, and the people who want to be middle class. Scott Walker has said he was going to divide and conquer. He has succeeded in dividing. We will show this nation that Scott Walker will never conquer the middle class of America.... It's just cynical. You know that there's something wrong when your governor is raising 70 percent of his money in $250,000 and $500,000 checks.... He says he doesn't want Wisconsin to look like Milwaukee, and he insults the city he led for nine years. I'll tell you this — I don't want Wisconsin to look like Texas."

Well, there it is.   And I swear, until recently, I had no idea Gail Collins had written a book about politics in Texas.  But, of course, this is why we need one:

Eventually, I asked him why he was here, at the Serb Hall, supporting Scott Walker, whose politics were far more in tune with the people who are trying to strangle the postal service than they are with the people who still work there. Phil told me that it was about his sister-in-law. "The problem is that, when you start handing out free health care out to teachers, that annoys me to no end," he said. "I never got free health care. My brother's wife is a teacher and I once asked her, when I was getting my teeth worked on, what it cost her and she said, 'Nothing.' It should never get to that point where somebody's getting free health care. Something's way out of whack there."
That's why everything in the country is starting to look like Texas.  Because it should never get to the point that somebody's getting something for free.

In Texas, we pretty much resent the fact that anybody else has a functional government, at all.  I thought about that again the other night, because I'd said Texas has gotten used to a non-functioning (it would have to improve to be dysfunctional) government in my lifetime.  The fact is, Texas has always had what it wanted:  a government that does next to nothing at all.

Texas has been, since the Civil War, a one-party state.  It was pretty much a one-party state when it was a Republic, so it's in the bones of the place; we drink it in the water.  And I can vaguely recall a parade of lackluster men, all Democrats, who sat in the Governor's office and did....well, pretty much nothing.  It was all they were expected to do.  We may recall "Pappy" O'Daniel, but only because of his connection to the Light Crust Doughboys (yes, the inspiration for the "Soggy Bottom Boys").  We may recall "Ma" Ferguson, but only because she was the first female governor of Texas (no, it wasn't Ann Richards).  In my lifetime it's been John Connally, a man best remembered for being in the car with JFK in Dallas (and later for spending more money than any hopeful in the GOP primaries to get only one delegate to the convention); Preston Smith; Dolph Briscoe, and then some governors who actually tried to do things, such as William Clements (R) and Ann Richards.  But Texas learned its lesson, and made sure after Gov. Miz Ann that the Governor would be a useless and non-embarassing figure head.  So we got Bush, and then Rick Perry (who is in political trouble now because he did embarrass Texas.  That is the one political sin we cannot forgive.).

Don't ask me what Dolph Briscoe and Preston Smith did; nobody cared.  But what I'm saying is, this ain't quite right:

Not until she visited Texas, that proud state of big oil and bigger ambitions, did Gail Collins, the best-selling author and columnist for the New York Times, realize that she had missed the one place that mattered most in America’s political landscape. Raised in Ohio, Collins had previously seen the American fundamental divide as a war between the Republican heartland and its two liberal coasts. But the real story, she came to see, was in Texas, where Bush, Cheney, Rove, & Perry had created a conservative political agenda that is now sweeping the country and defining our national identity. Through its vigorous support of banking deregulation, lax environmental standards, and draconian tax cuts, through its fierce championing of states rights, gun ownership, and, of course, sexual abstinence, Texas, with Governor Rick Perry’s presidential ambitions, has become the bellwether of a far-reaching national movement that continues to have profound social and economic consequences for us all. Like it or not, as Texas goes, so goes the nation.

Which isn't to say it's wrong; just that Texas hasn't really changed, and the political agenda created here existed long before Bush and Cheney got hold of it.  After all, OPEC was modeled on the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that over saw the oil bidness in Texas for decades.  Long before Texas had any political influence, it had plenty of economic influence, and the TRRC was part of that.  What has changed is the desire of the GOP to run things as they are done (now) in Texas; and what's really changed, is that this isn't about the Tea Party anymore.  In fact, it probably never was.

Let me try to explain.  Texas began its political life as a debtor's haven.  The Texas Constitution includes a homestead exemption which means no homeowner can lose their house for debts which are not:  a) taxes; b) the mortgage; or c) a lien for work done to improve the homestead.  A widow (or widower) has a survivor's interest in the homestead which lasts as long as the survivor is alive, and there's nothing the heirs can do about it.  It used to be a requirement of Texas law that, when it came time to sell the homestead, the wife had to be questioned separately, apart from her husband, to ascertain that she was freely and of her own accord agreeing to the sale (she still has to agree, but the rather paternalistic separate meeting with the lawyer is no longer necessary).

This meant, of course, there were no second or third mortgages in Texas.  But Texas also has broad protections over what can be seized to pay debts.  Personal property to a certain value is exempt, but so are specific items of personal property (the list runs rather long in the statutes).  Wages cannot be garnished, except for child support payments.  It is, frankly, hard to collect on a civil judgment against an individual in Texas.  The homestead exemption runs to 10 acres inside the city limits, and 100 acres outside of it.  There is no limit on the value of the house.  George Bush managed to change some of that, and I'm still not sure it was a good thing.

It is now possible, thanks to W., to take out a second mortgage on a homestead in Texas.  One might say, in good times, that accessing one's equity in a home is a good thing.  But considering how many people lost their homes in the S&L collapse in the '80's, and that without second mortgages, it's never seemed like a good thing to me.  Who it benefits, of course, is the lenders.  In fact, there's an obvious linkage between that piercing of the homestead exemption and mortgage backed securities:  they are both ways to play with property as if it were stocks on the market, rather than shelter and, well, a home.

Remember Enron, and what it did to the electricity market in California?  Bush liked that, too.  But then, as I say, the TRRC was controlling the oil market when that market was primarily Texas, for a long time.  We have a history, in other words, of using government to prop up business, and business likes it.  The Texas Constitution was born in an anti-railroad./anti-banker fever, but that quickly cooled.  A few decades back, when there was a renewed effort to fix the clanking 19th century constitution (which really is a mess; every two years voters have to amend it after the Lege meets (for only six months every two years) to get almost any laws enacted.  Nobody ever knows what they are voting for, and most people don't bother to vote, but the amendments pass anyway.), a businessman led the effort to oppose reform.  His reasoning:  "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."  And from a businessman's point of view, there's very little that's broke about Texas government.

And that last stab at Constitutional reform was when George W. was still mostly known as the drunken scion of Poppy, who was still an Ambassador or running the CIA or something.

So this didn't start with Rove and Cheney and Shrub.  It's just gotten worse since then.

On the other hand, Texas is now the second most populous state in the nation, behind only California; and it's getting bigger all the time.  A state with that many people in it is bound to finally start throwing some weight on the national stage, no matter what its ambitions are.  The upside is, naked ambition doesn't work:  Rick Perry sank faster than a stone on the water on the national stage.  He gets elected in Texas because he's a Republican, not because he's a good politician (a Democrat getting elected since William Clements was governor would be the mark of a great politician; just ask Ann Richards).  Perry is the distraction; Perry is the freak show.  Forget Perry.  The real power here is Grover Norquist.  Just ask Molly Ivins:

Norquist is just the sailor you want in the crew when contemplating the disaster about to engulf the public schools [in Texas]. He is behind the national anti-tax movement, and 38 Texas Republican legislators have now signed his pledge to never, ever raise taxes, without exceptions, including for catastrophic emergencies. Norquist himself is a noted contributor to the sweet science of state governance, saying last year: "We are trying to change the tones in the state capitols and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship. ... Bipartisanship is just another name for date rape." 
 I pause only to note this was written 8 years ago, long before the current dyspepsia about the "Tea Party" and the "divided" Congress.  Ms. Ivins went on to connect this directly to Texas:

Texas is the National Laboratory for Bad Government, and think what a splendid opportunity we now have to completely ruin our public schools by doing absolutely nothing. Our schools are funded by the Robin Hood plan adopted in 1993, which arrives at an approximate level of fairness between rich and poor districts by taking money from rich districts and giving them to poor ones.

            Local property taxes have skyrocketed, while state lawmakers complacently brag they haven't raised taxes. The state's share of the cost of public education has dropped from 52 percent in 1980 to 38 percent today. The state, which has an infinitely larger lax base than local districts, may not have raised state taxes, but they have sure as a by-God raised your local taxes.

            This cannot continue. Over half of the school districts are already within 1 percent of the top tax rate allowed by state law. They can raise local taxes no further. They are cutting programs, and firing teachers and administrators. More and more are applying for waivers to get their districts exempted from the state requirements that there be no more than 22 pupils per teacher in the first elementary grades, and that was the great triumph of years of school reform efforts. As we have all learned over the long struggle to improve the schools, smaller class size is the one improvement we know works no mater what the other variables are.

            We need at least $10 billion in new taxes to fix this without harming the schools. The alternative is a $2 billion fix patch on the old system that will further decay the schools. So, attention all Americans, the case study beings, right here in Texas, home of so much bad public policy: how to destroy the public schools.
Suffice to say, it did get worse.  Here's how that worked out in the intervening 8 years:

Under pressure from federal courts demanding more equitable school funding, Texas revised how it pays for education through high school in 2006. The state enacted laws to cut local property taxes and expand a levy on business income. While the recession crimped state revenue in 2008 and 2009, companies using loopholes avoided paying as much as forecast.  

In 2011, Perry was proud of a budget that was described as doing this:

 Rep. Sylvester Turner of Houston, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee: “This budget will dismantle the educational infrastructure in the State of Texas.

And it has; the layoffs of teachers and staff in Texas last year was massive.  The budget cut $4 billion from education funding for two years.  And there's no sign any of that money is coming back in the next session.  And Gail Collins' book and interview with Rachel provides ample evidence of how poor the Texas education system is now.  The result is fairly clear, but no one wants to admit it:

Lawmakers on the Public Education Committee were alarmed that so many of the first ninth-graders to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, test this year performed poorly. They branded many aspects of the implementation of the new test sloppy.
Yes, STAAR is a joke of a test, as is any "standardized test."  But who is surprised when an underfunded school system produces students incapable of passing a test, any test?  The test is only part of the problem, but it will get all the blame.  I can't go on.  I'll go on.

Texas is now a nightmare dreamed by Samuel Beckett.

I mentioned, at the beginning, that resentment is a driving force in American politics; but it always has been.  Texas started out as a debtor's paradise; what better origin to breed resentment of what others have that you don't?  Of course, not all Texans are like that, or Planned Parenthood wouldn't be run by Ann Richards daughter, and LBJ would never have waged a War on Poverty.  And resentment is not peculiar to Texas by any means.  But resentment has always taken a curious form here.  There's a reason we don't like being embarrassed by our politicians, why that is the unforgivable political sin.  It's because we don't like being mocked.  And being a debtor's haven, we resent anyone who has more than we do, unless of course they are business owners who have "earned" it.  That's pretty universal; if I can't earn it, why should you have it?  The special form of resentment in Texas comes from this sense of inferiority, of being a debtor's haven, a last redoubt, the final refuge of those who couldn't make it anywhere else, and don't come here to reverse their fortunes, so much as to escape the consequences of seeking fortunes.

Texas, in other words, is full of people who feel like they got the raw end of the deal, and now they only want to be left alone.  A debtor's haven pretty much guarantees that.  The government won't help you, but it will see to it that you are left alone.  Texas has always been a draw for people with nowhere else to go; it makes for a mighty peculiar culture, though.  It makes us mighty touchy about how we are perceived.  We really don't like public figures who make us look foolish.  That's the kind of attention we came here to get away from; even those of us who were born here.

Divide and conquer, of course, has worked spectacularly well in Texas.  Rick Perry knows that:

As Texans, we always take care of the least among us.

The frail, the young, the elderly on fixed incomes, those in situations of abuse and neglect, people whose needs are greater than the resources at their disposal – they can count on the people of Texas to be there for them.

We will protect them, support them and empower them, but cannot risk the future of millions of taxpayers in the process. We must cut spending to keep our economic engine on track.
He never precisely identifies who that abstract group of faceless frail, young, and elderly are, nor what protection they will be offered (or how adequate it will be).  And then he weighs them against the taxpayers, and he finally decided Texas schoolchildren and Planned Parenthood should take it in the neck.  But then, those people:  poor women who need healthcare; teachers; students; don't deserve any help from Texas.  Or at least, not enough to do them any good.  And if Texas' "economic engine" is measured by unemployment, it's still pretty much tracking with the national average.   Any real difference can best be attributed to the energy sector of the economy, especially oil and gas.  It certainly is a stretch to say that Texas government policy has anything to do with it, since the only government policy in Texas is:  do as little as humanly possible.

Some of this, of course, is funny, because now the "liberal media" is discovering it again.  Gail Collins has an article in the current New York Review of Books which contains absolutely no new information at all, and certainly nothing I didn't already know from reading Molly Ivins (who is much funnier, and a better writer, too.)  Yes, Texas still dominates the public school textbook industry, and yes the textbooks they choose are disastrous.  The only response I can make is that my daughter is a product of Texas public schools, and she is not ignorant about evolution or economics, for that matter.  I've found I'm far more an influence on her than the school textbooks she never read were.  Did anybody read the textbooks in school?  I have a vague memory of reading some, and I never got a decent education in Marxism or economic theory, for that matter; not in public schools.  But there were libraries and bookstores and now, the internet; not to mention intelligent teachers (and some not so intelligent, to be honest).  My daughter was lucky enough to be in a school district where they were less concerned with ideology than with instruction.  I attended Texas schools when the Gablers were in full flower, and I still managed to learn what they would have had me never know.  It's bad, but it's not the end of civilization as we know it.

Gary Wills is closer to the mark:

Those who think there is no difference between the parties should look at the state that no longer elects any Democrats, the Texas described so well by Gail Collins, with its schools attacking evolution, its religious leaders denying there was ever any separation of church and state, and its cowboy code of justice. If people like Professor Unger, people too highly principled for us folks who muck around in the real world, get their way, they will not give us a prince turned into a frog, but America turned into Texas.
 As the late Ms. Ivins said, "I love the state of Texas, but I regard that as a harmless perversion on my part and would not, in the name of common humanity, try to foist my pathology off on anyone else."  The Tex-Mex is good, the people are friendly, the beer is cold, the music foot-stompin', but the politics?  Heaven forbid.  What I take from Mr. Wills' critique, which is about politics and not just about Texas, is that you have to be willing to get your hands dirty in the world, if you are going to complain about the world.  Pardon the seeming hard turn, but this is a lesson that goes back to the Desert Fathers.  As Thomas Merton pointed out, they went to the desert because society (Rome was collapsing) was falling all around them, and in the shipwreck they could only grab a piece of floating debris and hang on.  Thomas Cahill's argument about how the Irish saved civilization is similar, as the Irish missionaries came in from the fringe of the collapsing empire toward its center, bringing literacy, compassion, and spiritual discipline with them (interesting how many "Catholic" practices common today came from Irish Christian spirituality). And no, I don't mean now to be comparing the problems of the country as seen through the lens of Texas with the collapse of civil order.  That expectation is sheer nonsense.  But if you can't delve into the world and reshape it at the foundations, you have to stay out of the world altogether.  Mr. Wills' article is about Professor Robert Unger's inability to be either hot or cold, and his attempts to remain heilege; pure; unscathed.  Nice work if you can get it.

But you can't, in this world.  The Desert Fathers struggled with their own human nature.  It was enough struggle, just tending their own gardens (read the number of  stories where they have to remind the other monastics to stay out of each others business, if you doubt me).  And if you want to engage the world, you have to do it on the world's terms.  You have to get messy with politics, and make compromises, and try to accomplish something rather than nothing at all.  But I think in that course you have to prize humility above hubris, effort above accomplishment, and purity of heart above purity of will.  The problem with the purists on either side is, as Reinhold Niebuhr said of revivalist preachers:

They never seem to realize how many of the miseries of mankind are due not to malice but to misdirected zeal and unbalanced virtue.  They never help the people who corrupt family love by making the family a selfish unit in society or those who brutalize industry by excessive devotion to the prudential virtues. (Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1980, p. 45.)
 Niebuhr links this to power, wondering if power is possible without sacrificing some measure of truth.  He would probably stumble over my insistence on the power of powerlessness.  Still, it is a question of power, and the power here resides in the abstraction:  the "family as a....unit in society," or "excessive devotion to the prudential values."  As ever, looking for something outside of us to provide salvation for us, to save us from ourselves so we are relieved of responsibility for our actions, miserable creatures that we think we are.

The problems of Texas, or of politics in America, are of the same ilk:  an insistence that the right ideology will usher in the millenium, or at least save us from our humanity.  Rick Perry speaks in comfortingly abstract bromides about compassion for the poor, with no more regard for poor people than he has for rattlesnakes.  I am wary of people who come promising salvation, through governmental mechanisms or religious promises; just as I am wary of the claim that someone somewhere is getting something for free, and I'm gettin' nothin'.  Two sides of the same coin, and I'm tired of trading in that currency.  Give Caesar what has Caesar's image, and God what has God's image, and the rest will take care of itself.

And the sign?  Seriously, it's an anti-litter campaign.  Get over it.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Game of Clones

Continuing my practice of connecting nothing with nothing, I actually agree with the Pope:

"How are we to explain the fact that people who regularly received the Lord's body and confessed their sins in the sacrament of Penance have offended in this way?" said the pope, referring to church staff who abused children.

"It remains a mystery," he said. "Yet evidently their Christianity was no longer nourished by joyful encounter with Jesus Christ. It had become merely a matter of habit."
I agree with the Pope if by "mystery" he means:

The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse--
who can understand it?
I the LORD test the mind
and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings. Jeremiah 17:9-10
But let us admit that, in this context, that is a most unfortunate use of the term, and "mystery" sounds more like "Let's move on and not ask any more troublesome questions."

And the other thing much on my mind is sex and film.  Yes, sex and film.  I had the chance to watch a French film the other night, one involving female nudity (and such nudity always connected to sex) but no male nudity at all (how very Gallic!).  Odd film, about a movie maker who wants to make a documentary about women acting out their sexual fantasies, violating their personal taboos in front of the camera.  Exhibitionistic women and porn stars need not apply, he reasons, because their reactions won't be "honest."  It's not a porno because there's actually a plot to it, and a lot of typical Gallic discussions of weighty topics.  Interestingly, as I say, the only people naked in the film are women.  There's also an odd bit about "angels", represented by women dressed in black tank tops and black pants, with their hair tied back in a pony-tail so they all look vaguely similar.  They observe the action, and actually instigate some of it, but can't be seen by the other characters.  More on that in a minute.

Today, coincidentally, I stumbled across a video of all the sex scenes from "Game of Thrones."  I don't subscribe to HBO or any of the other "premium" services for the very reason displayed in this video (find it yourself, it's not that hard to locate).  Let me put it this way:  if "Mad Men" were on HBO, all the sex scenes would be explicit, and Christina Hendricks would have to have shown up nude from the waist up by now, given all the men her character has slept with.  And that wouldn't improve the show a bit; in fact, it would take away from it (nor would she do it, which would mean we'd lose her acting.  More on that in a minute, too.).

I know people love the various series on HBO, but I've found them all to be pretty much the same:  graphic violence or graphic sex are required to justify the price of the cable bill.  The video compilation from "Game of Thrones" proves my point.  It's not erotic (well, not to me) or even entertaining (there are at least two rape scenes.  I get the narrative importance of rape, but the entertainment value?  Do we really need to see it so explicitly to understand it?).  And all of it involves female actors being nude from the waist up (at least), but almost no nudity (nothing you wouldn't see in a bathing suit, if that much) from the males.  In fact, nothing more than a shirtless Clark Gable showed.

Yeah, we've come a long way.

Why do we demand female actors bare their breasts for our entertainment?  It's not because we are so "cool" with nudity, or we'd expect to see Jennifer Aniston or Angelina Jolie doing nude scenes, and frontal nudity, not just from the back.  We all know nudity is only what you do because you need the work, so I began to feel sorry for the actresses in "Game of Thrones" who seemed to be stripped to the waist almost every time they were on screen.  I mean, double standard much?  And even when we see women in full frontal nudity, well, it may be"porn," but don't show a penis, or it's "hard core porn."  Why?

The French movie, "Exterminating Angels." came close to touching on these questions.  The director puts his chosen actresses through sexual encounters that break taboos to see if they will do so with a film crew watching and filming.  It's an excuse in the story for eroticism, if not porn.  But he goes through a number of actresses who decline to be in his film, which is the real point of the story:  that sex is something primal and perhaps even private, and it unleashes, as he says at the end, even violent reactions (that's Ovid waving from the sidelines).  The women who turn him down seem to recognize the danger, or at least realize there are legitimate (and by that I mean not just social) boundaries here.  The director never seems to understand that.  He turns out to foolishly turn away from porn stars, who appear as characters quite comfortable with faking anything for the camera; unfortunately, the three women he chooses can't fake the feelings his tests of them demands.  In fact, he unleashes something, and it's not exhibitionism or voyeurism, it is passion.  It is, of a sort anyway, love.  One actress decides she's a lesbian in love with another actress, who is in love with the director (as is the third actress, it turns out).  Two of them end up quitting the film, which gets made, and at the end a gang of four masked persons (the actresses?  Their friends?) brutally beat the director with a baseball bat, breaking one arm, both legs, and his jaw and teeth, before one of the "angels" stops the beating.  It appears she, too, is in love with the director.  Or perhaps not.  It's all very Gallic at this point, and the director is shown one last time, crumpled in a wheel chair with shattered limbs, his lower face covered with a bandage, and you wonder if he would have been better off dead.  It's still not clear he's solved the mystery of love and sex, but it is very clear he never understood what he was getting himself into.

I wonder if we know, either.  It isn't sex that's involved in the priest abuse scandals, it's rape; and rape is about power, not sex.  And it isn't sex we watch in "Game of Thrones" or any other film where two people simulate (or not) sexual activity, and where women are displayed in ways that make it most obvious they have breasts (usually bending forward at the waist; that seems to be the favored film position).  It's really about our power to get women to disrobe for us.  And we're so liberated we can easily get this on our TeeVees, and anywhere else.

I don't like what the Church is saying about the child abuse scandal; but I'm not crazy about what society is telling us about sex and sexuality.  "Exterminating Angels" is the only film I've seen that tries to examine this question from the point of view of the voyeur and the subject.  It clearly delineates that there are at least three classes of women in this question:  those who refuse to consider performing for the camera, those who separate sex from acting, and those who unlock emotions best kept in check.  It's not exactly Ovid, but it is an examination of the power of desire and the perils of pursuing certain pleasures.  If we don't expect Jennifer Aniston or Angelina Jolie to do nude scenes for our entertainment, it means we understand there are lines that should be drawn, or at least respected.  But when rape becomes an integral part of entertainment, when less famous actresses are expected to regularly bare themselves for the camera and yet we refrain from calling that "pornography," we are doing some very complex things ourselves to label some things as deserving of damnation, and some things as mysteries.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Labor Day

This has been driving me a bit nuts.

Countries should have people work until they are older to reflect longer life expectancy rates, Slim reportedly saidSlim added the current retirement age was established “when jobs were more physical and people died at 60, but now we live until 85 or 90.”

El Universal reported one of the world’s savviest businessmen as saying: “We live in the knowledge society, so knowledge and experience should be valued. This is why a person’s work life could be increased.”
Every building this man enters; every vehicle that transports him to that building; every stitch of clothing he puts on this back; every piece of food he puts in his mouth; every fork he lifts, plate he eats off of, road he travels on or the goods he buys travels to him on, every material thing this man touches that he deems necessary or pleasurable or useful to his existence, even the very "information society" he thinks now has replaced the material world humanity has lived in since the first human being...

is the product of manual labor; is the product of physical effort; is mined or harvested or cut down or reaped or gathered or cooked or otherwise prepared for him, by the work of hands.  And those hands have not been replaced by "knowledge" and have not been replaced by "executives" and cannot be replaced by white collar employment in an office at a computer; because none of those things, from the white collar to the office to the computer, is possible without the work of hands, without manual labor.

And to say those people are living longer or can work longer because you imagine all people who earn their bread by their efforts do so in a physically non-demanding way, in a way that only employs their fingers and what goes on between their ears, is as mindless and idiotic and undeserving of anything but contempt and scorn, as the belief that the earth is flat and the stars are just tiny lights in the sky.

Nuns on the bus!

Watching Lawrence O'Donnell last night and playing with my smart phone led me here

In a spirited retort to the Vatican, a group of Roman Catholic nuns is planning a bus trip across nine states this month, stopping at homeless shelters, food pantries, schools and health care facilities run by nuns to highlight their work with the nation’s poor and disenfranchised.

The bus tour is a response to a blistering critique of American nuns released in April by the Vatican’s doctrinal office, which included the accusation that the nuns are outspoken on issues of social justice, but silent on other issues the church considers crucial: abortion and gay marriage. 

Which in turn led me here:

 The Vatican has appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying that an investigation found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems.”

The Vatican’s assessment, issued on Wednesday, said that members of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” 

Which, finally, took me here:

 A committee of American Roman Catholic bishops announced Wednesday that a popular book about God by Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, a theologian at Fordham University in New York, should not be used in Catholic schools and universities because it does not uphold church doctrine.

The book, “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God,” examines different understandings of God through experiences of the poor and oppressed, Holocaust victims, Hispanics, women and people of religions other than Catholicism. Among the chapter titles are “God Acting Womanish” and “Accompanying God of Fiesta.” 

Ain't the internets wonderful?

Now what I know of all this I've read in the New York Times.  And I accept that the bishop's must assert their authority, and that the church doesn't really approve of social justice preaching and teaching and acting which exceeds what the Church considers its mandate.  I have a copy of Gustavo Gutierrez'  The Truth Shall Make You Free, which includes his response to two Vatican pronouncements penned by the present Pope critical of liberation theology (Cardinal Ratzinger declared it constituted "a fundamental threat to the faith of the church.")  Leaving the Pope's (and the Vatican's) position at that quote, however, misrepresents, perhaps even fundamentally, the Vatican's position on liberation theology.  The same may well be true of the Vatican's position on the nuns on the bus.  But still, it's hard not to sympathize with them.  Start with Sr. Johnson.

Sister Johnson is a prominent feminist theologian and a former president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society. She belongs to a religious order in New York, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood.  

Not likely to be too radical, then.

The Rev. Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the bishops’ Secretariat for Doctrine, said, “The primary concern was not over feminism or nonfeminism. The bishops are saying that the book does not adequately treat a Catholic understanding of God.” 

Which is an understandable problem, even from a Protestant's point of view.  And there is this:

Theology professors at Catholic universities said they did not see a theological cause for the bishops to condemn Sister Johnson’s work.

 Stephen J. Pope, a theologian at Boston College, said: “The reason is political. Certain bishops decide that they want to punish some theologians, and this is one way they do that. There’s nothing particularly unusual in her book as far as theology goes. It’s making an example of someone who’s prominent.” 

Still, with any institution where someone has the final say, that power is wielded by human beings, and human beings are, as Aristotle well understood, political creatures.  So undoubtedly there is some politics involved here; and the bishops know it:

 The recent Vatican crackdown on the largest organization of U.S. nuns turned into a public relations "debacle" for the bishops, said Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston.
"Our church, both in the States and at the Holy See, does not do a good job of communicating around controversial topics," O'Malley said. "We need more help and more sophistication in our messaging." 

 But Sr. Johnson's defense is not critical of the bishops:

“One result of this absence of dialogue is that in several key instances this statement radically misinterprets what I think, and what I in fact wrote,” she said. “The conclusions thus drawn paint an incorrect picture of the fundamental line of thought the book develops. A conversation, which I still hope to have, would have very likely avoided these misrepresentations.”
 Which sounds to me a bit like the Bishops and the Girl Scouts.  I don't know if the Bishops truly believe the rumors about the Girl Scouts, or if they feel it would be wise to make an investigation and thoroughly scotch those rumors. Either explanation is possible, but the way the Bishops have been presenting themselves lately, the former is going to gain favor over the latter in the public mind.

As for the nuns on the bus, well, that little matter was handled in a way not exactly calculated to reassure:

Word of the Vatican’s action took the group completely by surprise, Sister Sanders said. She said that the group’s leaders were in Rome on Wednesday for what they thought was a routine annual visit to the Vatican when they were informed of the outcome of the investigation, which began in 2008.

“I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.

“I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad,” Sister Campbell said. “We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”
That explanation rings true with the Vatican's critique of liberation theology. Say what you will about linking liberation theology critically (as in "with criticism") to Marxist analysis, the upshot seems to be Marxism is not to be allowed because that is a bridge too far.  (Let me say, arguendo, that Marxist thought is no more "unChristian" than Aristotle's philosophy, and yet Aquinas and the Church don't balk at using the old Greek's ideas as the basis for Christian doctrine.  I might argue there is no more inherent a problem in using Marxist analysis to reach theological conclusions than there is in using the influence of Egypt on Plato to argue for an immortal soul.  But that's another matter....).  Likewise, the nuns say, their critique of social justice issues is more than the Church will allow.

Which the Church itself has all but said:

 Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.

It isn't really out of line to point out there are no statements in the Gospels, nor anywhere in the letters, about abortion or same-sex marriage (the latter is confined entirely to Leviticus, which is another discussion).  There is plenty of mention, throughout the New Testament, about poverty and economic justice.  You may or may not think it is central to the teachings of Christ (I do, but we can agree to disagree), but I defy you to show me one clear statement in any of the Christian scriptures on abortion or same-sex unions.

So while the Bishops worry about "messaging," this rebuke of the nuns has all the earmarks of a smackdown.  Whatever language the hierarchy wants to put it in, this is clearly an assertion of power.

Are assertions of power always wrong?  No; nor do they need to be taken as a coup de tete.  Sr. Johnson sees her situation as in invitation to dialogue.  Sr. Campbell sees hers as a reason to get on a bus.  They even join their critique of the Ryan budget to that of the U.S. Conference of Bishops.

I don't presume to critique the position of the Vatican based on a few newspaper stories.  But my sympathies, and my heart, are with the nuns.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Swear there ain't no heaven and I pray there ain't no hell..."

Time once again to ask the perennial question:  "What God do you believe in?"

Oh, no; sorry.  We aren't asking that question.  We're just asking "Do you believe in God?"  Which is the same thing as saying "Do you think God exists?"  Except it isn't, of course.  But that's another quibble.  Let's go to the chart (courtesy, as you can see, of TPM).

Actually, what that chart shows is agreement with the statement "I never doubted the existence of God."  What's funny is how it moves up and down over the years.  I guess God was wiping out the doubters, because it seems they don't live as long as the believers, at least among the "Silent" and "Boomer" generations (Gen X and Millenials are still too young, overall, to have left behind only those who never had a doubt).  Or maybe it's memory, and as you get older, you're less likely to remember your childhood doubts.  Or maybe this just reflects societal changes, and church is no longer the binding force we all thought it was after World War II (church historians will tell you that was the aberration, not the rule.  And even the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts were never the norm for all the settlers in the New World).  Protestant churches especially are the product of culture as much as they are the shapers of culture (the same is true for the Roman Catholic church, but in fundamentally different ways, since the RC is hierarchical and centralized, and most Protestant churches are less so, to varying degrees; and the more hierarchical ones are rapidly giving way to the decentralized and congregational forms).  If the culture has shifted away from the churches, are the churches really to blame?

Well, to some extent, yes.  On the other hand, what you actually see in that chart is the grave difficulty of the modern church.  Look at that chart (or any of the others at Pew) and don't overlook the fact you are looking at five different cohorts, from "Greatest" to "Millenial."  I don't know what "Greatest" covers, since the graph for it ends in 1994, but even leaving them aside, you have four groups that might all coexist under one roof of one church.  And that means you have people who remember (as my last church had) coming to church in a horse and buggy, sitting next to "Millenials" who've grown up knowing man walked on the moon, who may have forgotten there ever was a Soviet Union, who don't know life without the internet or cell phones, and so on.  You have people who consider their private lives private, next to people who think everyone on Facebook needs to know what they were doing in the past hour.*  Now, try relating not just the gospels, but a community life, to those disparate groups.  One will be remembering a past the other knows nothing about, while the Boomer stand in a bridge between people who grew up without TV or maybe even radio, and people who grew up on Skype and Twitter.

You can make too much of these differences; or at least you think you can, until you encounter them.  And trying to keep all those generations under one roof is virtually impossible.  The only churches I see trying to appeal to "Millenials" (if not Gen X, too), I see in ads at the local mall, where everyone is pictured as young and happy and trying to make a religious community out of...well, what, exactly?  Pretty much the thin gruel of God loves you and wants you to have a good time and to make a good marriage and to be a good employee and have nice friends and....

Nothing you wouldn't get as well from an atheist, in other words; or just any community group or self-help guru.  There is a church near me now, a new one, that wants to be my "community church."  They advertise one day of Vacation Bible School (on a Saturday, for no more than 5 hours), and family movies on the third Fridays of the month, or live music on the first Fridays.  Nothing wrong with that, but what do they preach and teach, exactly?  What do they confess?  Are they really any different from any club or business that wants my trade?  How?

So if Millenials doubt the existence of God, is it because of Richard Dawkins?  Or is it because of the churches?

Which is not to say I know of any mainline churches which are doing any better.  As I say, they have their own difficult dynamics to work with.  Fewer kids are born into these churches, and fewer of them stay any longer than they have to; which means even fewer of them return when they start families (the safety catch so many denominations rely on).  Church attendance is a cultural matter, but as the culture stops enforcing it, attendance stops occurring.  On the other hand, try to make the church more attractive to Millenials, and the Boomers and Silent generations will quickly let you know who's in charge here!  Which is why the Millenials leave in the first place, making the Boomers and Silents complain that there are no children around anymore.**

I should point out, too, that doubting God's existence, and abandoning the church, are two different things, and that to the extent Millenials are leaving the pews, it's for reasons more complex than a question of philosophy of religion.  If the young are more inclined to doubt God exists, perhaps that is a failure of theology (even though it's not a theological question).  Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore....***

Because none of this is new:

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.

But it is the lines that follow which are the most important:

 Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore;
Let the work not delay, time and the arm not waste;
Let the clay be dug from the pit, let the saw cut the stone,
Let the fire not be quenched in the forge.

*Which raises an interesting theological as well as sociological issue:  how self important must you be to think everyone else on Facebook (or your "friends," at least) want to know everything you've been up to, complete with pictures?  There is a narcissism that is being fed and encouraged in ways as socially altering as the Boomers who grew up sitting in front of the TeeVee watching "Romper Room" and "Captain Kangaroo."  It is a far cry from the humility traditionally professed in Christianity, and may be another explanation for the decline in the number of Millenials who report they have ever doubted God's existence.

**I speak in generalities, since anyone can cite a church where this isn't happening.  But I think the general observation is supported by the data being reported.  At least, it's one likely explanation.

***To question God's existence is not a theological question, but to answer those doubts may well be a theological matter.  To doubt God's existence is also not to betray a complete lack of faith.  Mother Teresa famously "doubted" the existence of God, but what that meant is one thing, and how it affected her life in the Church, is another.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Who is this who darkens counsel....?"

I dragged this up out of the void for no particularly good reason except that I stumbled across it again.  I'll leave it in the original formatting so it's clearer what's going on:

"I'd like to take another look at this:

"The focus of the teachings of the gospels is not, IMHO, either soteriology nor the hereafter.

"Most of the time when I'm at work, I'm not thinking about my paycheck and what I can buy with it. Yet. if the paycheck never comes, I don't have a job. I propose that the relationship between soteriology and religion is similar to the relation between pay and employment; a path to salvation (however conceived) is the difference between a religion and a set of suggestions.

"Now, the suggestions may be very wise, but without a soteriology to back them up they don't form a religion. They aren't binding (you seem fond enough of epistemology to know what "religion" means in Latin).

"So the choices for a Christian, as I see them, are:

"-Belief in the resurrection of the body in an immortal form, requiring physical law to be almost completely and permanently rewritten by divine fiat.

"-Belief in the survival of the mind/personality/"soul" without the brain. Neuroscience and clinical psychology make this option increasingly untenable.

"-Lack of belief in the resurrection, with the attendant loss of concepts like "redemption", "heaven","accruing treasure in heaven", "hell", "blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth", &c. At this point, Christianity is so watered down as to be largely indistinguishable from atheism.

"Am I missing something? Declare, if you have understanding."

The first premise is pretty much the subject of  Derrida's The Gift of Death and of Given Time:  Counterfeit Money.  That is, can there be a gift, if a gift is understood as something given without knowledge of its deliverance, without knowledge of its receipt, so that there is no reciprocity, no possible system of exchange at all (I would liken this to consideration in contract law, where the least thing can be accorded the status of creating an offer and an acceptance and, with the consideration, a contract).   That, to me, is the first part:  is religion merely about salvation at some level, about what I ultimately receive from it?  Because if it is, can grace ever be a true gift?  Can there ever be true faith?

Christianity is certainly about receiving something; but is that something necessarily salvation?  First, we'd have to define "salvation."  The most popular definition is "eternal life," by which some get it, and some don't.  But set that aside, and what else could it mean?  A good life now?  That's the gospel of wealth; so there's another one.  What else?  Aid and comfort in this life?  Why couldn't that be salvation?  And as for the distinction between "religion" and "a set of suggestions," what religion is not a set of suggestions?  Some may take them as absolute strictures to be absolutely followed, and those who don't are damned.  But some people like chocolate ice cream, and some people will only eat vanilla.  Some of us might suggest they try other flavors, to no avail.  Are these things right, or wrong?  They certainly aren't a religion, because no matter what individuals may say, the weight of history says religion is an option, not a requirement.  You may, after all, say you are religious; but how am I to know for sure?  As Luther understood, no one can know.  Even God, in Jeremiah, says the heart is devious above all things, and therefore God has to test it to know what is in it.  If you don't accept it as binding, it is only a suggestion to you.  And does salvation alone make it binding?

What, then, of the woman who washes Jesus' feet, in Luke?  Clearly the woman expects nothing from her act except some money.  Does she go off believing in a soteriology that wouldn't be formulated for another 200 years?  Does Luke foresee the atonement theory, and that's why he includes her story in his gospel?  Declare, if you have understanding.

Or you could just go here, and read what I've said about salvation before.  An interesting trick, since it came up by thinking of "ligare" and then the akedah. It's an interesting question, what assurance of salvation Abraham had in Genesis 12, or at the moment he raised the knife over Isaac.  Not much of one in either case, from what I can see; yet see how much religion has sprung from those two simple events.

Let me finish these assertions off quickly, then:

"-Belief in the resurrection of the body in an immortal form, requiring physical law to be almost completely and permanently rewritten by divine fiat.

A common misconception, but not one supported by scriptures.  John goes to great pains to prove Jesus' resurrection was real: Thomas touches his wounds, Jesus eats fish on the beach, etc.  But none of the other gospels make Jesus' resurrection necessarily bodily, and even in John's version Jesus appears in a closed room, without opening a door.  Whatever form the resurrection takes, it doesn't require physical laws to be rewritten.  But if you accept the reality of a Creator, there's no reason why that couldn't happen, either.

"-Belief in the survival of the mind/personality/"soul" without the brain. Neuroscience and clinical psychology make this option increasingly untenable.

I don't know why, since science can neither confirm nor deny the reality of a soul, mind, personality, etc.  Science cannot confirm my love for my wife and my daughter, and I don't know why it would want to.  Science can make certain explanations, but I find them to be reductio arguments and not to be taken seriously.  Nor is there any reason why the soul/mind/what-have-you (all of the terms have their limitations, yet I hear neuroscientists speak freely about "Consciousness" and "Mind" with no more understanding of the terms than I have of the terms of neuroscience) would not interact through the brain (so the "God spot" in the brain may be merely the neuroreceptors we mistake for the experience of God in mystics, or it may be just where God interacts with the human.  To understand otherwise is to push dualism into strange new places.)  The metaphysics of Christianity are only untenable if you think science has revealed truths about reality which it hasn't.  As I said, science cannot prove or disprove my love for my family; and all attempts to explain it scientifically are really rather unnecessary, not to mention ridiculous.  Ultimately, and this is revealed by the reliance on "belief," it's a matter of language games.  You either believe in science, and discredit mind; or you believe in mind, and dismiss some aspects of neuroscience.  Or, you accept Wittgenstein's conclusion to the Tractatus.

 "-Lack of belief in the resurrection, with the attendant loss of concepts like "redemption", "heaven", "accruing treasure in heaven", "hell", "blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth", etc. At this point, Christianity is so watered down as to be largely indistinguishable from atheism.
 Whatever have you said that makes me discard the resurrection?  Attendant concepts?  You weren't paying attention.  The blessings of Christianity come in this life, not in some sweet bye and bye; else the Beatitudes you allude to are just empty phrases.  As for the particular blessing of the meek, I've written elsewhere of the power of powerlessness.  You could look it up, but here, I'll find it for you.  If these were things only to be known in some sweet hereafter, it would be a miserable state of affairs indeed.  But if they are known now; if the last parable of Matthew can have any meaning and place in this world (rather than the next, if there is one), then the life we seek is here, not there.

As for the distinction between atheism and Christianity, I leave you with this simple historical example.  My church, the United Church of Christ, started hospitals, schools, orphanages, mental asylums, social service centers, all of which still exist 150+ years later.  They were started by German immigrants, people without much money themselves, to help other German immigrants, back when, actually, there wasn't a Germany.  They were started to help strangers, in other words.  They were started by people of faith and set up for anyone who needed help, and they still serve that function today.

True, they could have been started by atheists or free thinkers (in the 19th century).  But they weren't.  They were started by Christians; because they were Christians.  If that sounds a bit triumphalist, well; I mean it to be.  I am proud of those people, and what they accomplished.  And they did it not because they believed so strongly in their own salvation; but because they believed so much in the good God wanted them to do.  And they believed in God for...well, for many reasons.  But, in major part, it is clear, for the same reasons Wittgenstein (again!) identified in John Bunyan:  because of something they had experienced.

Can you declare it false?  Well, better that falsity than the presumed assurance of the atheists, is all I have to say.  The former has clearly done more good in the world than the latter.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be scientists....

I was going to comment on the comments below, but then I saw "Prometheus."

You know, the science fiction movie that's about religion because one character remembers talking to her father about heaven and she wears a cross because she "chooses to believe" and she's challenged by meeting her "makers" because now how can she have any faith in God since it turns out....

Oh, well, I won't get into spoilers.

But really, honestly, truly, has our public discourse on religion still not advanced beyond the mid-19th century?  "Choose to believe"?  What kind of lame excuse for a discussion of faith (which is merely trust, not "believin' what you know ain't so") is that?  And what is discussion of Christianity doing in a movie so obviously trying to reference Greek mythology?

And a pretty suck movie, too.  It's like they started out intending to make a very interesting story, and halfway through they got bored.

Alright then, I will get into spoilers.  You have been warned.

First, this has to be the most self-conscious Ridley Scott movie ever.  The building J.F. Sebastian lives in is the "Bradbury," an odd allusion to a writer as unlike Philip K. Dick as any writer could be.  But that's as much allusion to other works as I can recall from the Scott films I know.  This one is shot through with them, to the point it looks like someone took a shotgun to the story, and left it rather full of holes.

Yes, this is "2001:  A Space Odyssey Goes to Hell."  Aliens left behind a calling card, and two scientists interpret it as an invitation.   Big mistake.  They are the pure, selfless souls whose only interest is knowledge and understanding; and one of them wears the cross around her neck and "chooses to believe."  Which is an idea worthy of the early 20th century, at best, and always brings to mind Eliot before he became fully committed to Christianity:  "Consequently I rejoice/having to construct something upon which to rejoice."  As Lisa Schwarzbaum says of the character Elizabeth Shaw:  "She declares herself a woman of faith, although faith in what we don't know, because heaven forbid the script get theologically specific."

Heaven forbid, indeed.

There are references to almost every "Alien" movie in existence (absent the "Alien v. Predator" series).  Ridley Scott has said he was angry about not being chosen to to the sequel to "Alien," and he may have seen this as his chance to get back some of his own.  There's a basketball court on the "Prometheus," just as there is on the ship where Ripley is cloned back into existence in "Alien Resurrection."  But the only person who uses it for something besides a big room for meetings is David, the android/cyborg/robot/call it what you will.  And he makes a perfect, nothing but net, dunk, while riding a bicycle; just as the cloned Ripley does, sans bicycle, in "Alien Resurrection."  David is also HAL from "2001,"  the only member of the crew always awake while the crew slumbers through the 2 years of the journey.  But unlike HAL, David is not homicidal; he's just sociopathic.

Which is inevitable, given that he has the intelligence of a human being, but none of the emotions (aside from curiosity.  Why is it that intelligence is curious, without being emotional?  Anyway, it makes him a perfect sociopath, so perhaps he's fully human after all).  One could almost think it's no accident David is named David, as that's the name of Haley Joel Osmet's character in "A.I.," a young boy robot who does have emotions and longs, like Pinocchio, to be a real boy.  It's not clear David in "Prometheus" wishes for humanity, but there are the inevitable jokes about Pinocchio which indicate another twist in this tale is Spielberg's collaboration with Kubrick (who directed "2001"!).

David is also an insert in keeping with three of the four "Alien" films:  in the first film, the robot is wholly indifferent to the fate of the crew of "Nostromo," determined only to bring back a creature for the company's study as a weapon.  The murderous "artificial person" is redeemed in "Aliens," where he actually saves Ripley and Newt.  Winona Ryder's robot is determined not only to save humanity by destroying the aliens, she is also religious.  David presages the lethal indifference of Ash and combines it with the cold-blooded plotting of Carter Burke from "Aliens:" both characters want to infect (or infest) the female lead with an alien, then put her to sleep until the return to earth.  Burke's motivations, however, are a bit clearer than David's.  It may be he is as indifferent to the fate of humanity as the Engineers are, and as happy to see them wiped out.  Or it may be that he's just endowed with insatiable curtiosity, and an indifference to human life to match; a sociopath, in other words.

But back to the film's allusions.  There are, sadly, no memorable lines in this film, unlike the sequel to "Alien" which made Scott so angry.  Say what you will about James Cameron, but at least once upon a time he had a real gift for dialogue.  Scot picks this up in one scene where David is summoned to leave the building they find on the distant planet's moon:  "David, we are leaving!"  Which echoes, intentionally or not, the famous cry "Marines!  We are leaving!" during the marine squad's first encounter with the "bugs" in "Aliens."  A faint echo, but hard to ignore it as an echo, given the context.

There's another, even odder one one, which I can't help think is a weird inside joke.  You've heard, by now, of the "C-section" scene, which my daughter found intense but I thought was both overly dramatized and also so slow in coming you could predict the outcome minutes ahead of it (as with many of the "twists" in the plot of this story; none of them are really surprises at all, unlike the horror that tears out of John Hurt's chest and rampages through the "Nostromo.").  What is procured from that emergency surgery is a squid; or something very much like a squid.  Which immediately made me think of the roadside delivery scene in "Men in Black" (the first one; the funny one), where Tommy Lee Jones ends the scene telling the new father:  "Congratulations, Reg. It's a... squid."*

And yeah, there's the "black goo," which is the "weapon" before it takes any form; and it's more than slightly reminiscent of the "black oil" that plagued Mulder and Scully through several TV seasons and more than a few movies, without any real explanation of what it was (its effect shows up in the eyes, which is where Shaw's lover first realizes something is wrong with him after David spikes his drink).  On the other hand, black is just a good, all purpose color, especially (traditionally) for death.

Lastly, there is the ending of the film, one everyone says clearly leads to yet another film in a brand new, Ridley Scott sanctioned, series (even the aliens in "Aliens" don't look quite like the alien in "Alien," if you look closely).  That much is clear, and this time it echos "Alien," almost down to the very language used in the voiceover.  What is more interesting, though, is the drive to leave the moon and seek out the home planet of the "Engineers."  Elizabeth Shaw, the woman who "chose to believe," wants to know why the "Engineers" engineered a life form so virulently destructive, and why (okay, here comes the serious spoiler) they wanted, 2000 years ago (!), to take them to earth.  But the answer is obvious, starting with the movies title, and running through the many references to the Titan's gift of fire to humanity.

The film opens with a large white (sepulchral white,  not pink) humanoid standing by a raging waterfall, drinking a brew from a silver container, and then decomposing as he falls into the water.  The extreme closeup (on the level of DNA strands) makes it clear:  this is the beginning of life on earth.  Not that Shaw knows that, but we do (and there's the other "2001" connection.  There's no black slab, but there is a shadow over the landscape as the film opens, and a flat teardrop shape disappearing into the clouds as the alien downs his lethal cocktail.  Next comes the "invitation," which isn't an invitation at all.  In "2001" it was, but we so easily misinterpret what we really don't understand....).  It's impossible not to connect that act to the Prometheus myth, and to conclude this was a rogue act, not a planned one, and that it took the Engineers a few millenia to notice, and longer still to devise a bio-weapon response, and then to find out (as we have) that bio-weapons especially are a poor choice of offense, since there isn't much defense to them even by the people using them.

All of which explains why the Aliens are so lethal and so determined to destroy human life; it's what they were made for (although they undergo something of an evolution, thanks to that squid Shaw removes from her womb.  That may, or may not, be another matter.).  But it also explains why the Engineers wanted to return to earth with a bio-weapon:  to undo what should not have been done.  The Greek Gods couldn't take back fire, but they could punish Prometheus.  There is no Prometheus for the Engineers to punish (he dumped his DNA in the water), so they must undo what was done.  Unfortunately for them, that's not as easy as they thought.

The scientists do realize there is a connection between humanity and the Engineers, as they discover our DNA is exactly the same (though there's got to be some difference, since they are humanoid but not human.  Then again, the "Prometheus" is shown traveling through space with its engines firing, something "2001" had the sense not to do, as there is negligible friction, if any, in interstellar space. Hard science fiction this ain't, in other words).  And that explains why the Engineers are so...well, human.  Of course, it may be they are jealous; or it may be they are afraid.  One thing is certain:  it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Not that God really plays a role here.  The giant head in the cave is just a carving of the Engineer's head.  Maybe it's their scientist who discovered how to create the material from which the Aliens will come.  Maybe they just admire their brains a lot (to that, see below).  There is a Giger mural on the opposite wall, one showing what appears to be the original Alien, although a creature like that doesn't make an appearance until the very end of the film, and then only after a series of plot twists end in its creation.  But the clear implication of the film may be best understood by reference to Genesis 2, and the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil.

Because there is evil enough in the human world, but the greatest evil known today is genocide.  There were mass slaughters in human history; whole cultures have disappeared, nations have gone to their graves at the hands of others,  leaving barely a trace in the historical record; but genocide, and the deliberate mass slaughter of people just because you can, is the great horror of modern existence.  The clear point of the "weapon" found on this moon is that it was meant to destroy all life (aside, I guess, from the plants and bugs) on earth.  Certainly all human life, anyway.  The knowledge of that kind of evil is life changing for Elizabeth Shaw.  It is why she leaves the moon behind, not to return to earth, but to find the Engineers, to find out why they would unleash this kind of horror, why they would be the worst criminals humanity had ever encountered.  She isn't exactly leaving Paradise, but she can't stay there, and she can't go back to where she came from; any more than Adam and Eve could.'

And where is your God now?  Maybe this is the best place to ask that question, one David puts to Shaw at some point in the film where it feels entirely contrived.  As I say, however, David is a sociopath as a human being.  He is the reason Shaw gets "pregnant" in the first place, because he experiments with the "goo" (the familiar slime Aliens leave behind) and gets it into Shaw's lover's drink.  (Why?  Time thinks it's because David is doing all he can to resurrect the Engineers, but that's too generous by half.  Why should this goo recall the Creators?  No, David is merely curious, and he's as happy to experiment on human beings as human beings are to experiment on lab rats.  He's no more human than the Engineers who created us, and now want to destroy us.  David doesn't want to destroy us but, being unable to die himself, he has no sympathy for those of us who do.).  The goo, by the way, alters the DNA of the poor lover, who impregnates Shaw before he realizes he's contaminated.  Thus, she gives birth to a....squid.

Which squid is ultimately instrumental in creating the first familiar alien at the end of the film.  Or almost the alien; again, the morphology is not quite right, and that can't be an accident.  But from David's experiment comes Shaw's squid which attacks the last surviving Engineer (whom David awakened; David is instrumental in every important plot twist in the story) and implants what emerges, fully grown, as an Alien.  David, unlike the Engineers, is not playing God, and unlike Shaw and her sponsor, is not seeking God.  He's just curious; and wholly indifferent to human concerns as he makes things happen.

Knowledge is the great danger here, but the knowledge of good and evil is actually not the core of the story (any more than it is in the Prometheus myth).  The scientists find the Engineers because they are seeking knowledge; and because they imagine knowledge is good, and the signs left behind are an invitation.  They are however, like David, wholly inhuman messages, and an invitation to meet their creator is not one of those messages.  In fact, the very non-humanity of the Engineers raises other interesting questions.

The scientists find a structure on the moon, and in it they find records of the beings that created it (thanks to David, who understands enough of the language and controls left behind to activate them).  They find one Engineer with a severed head, a head they can artificially restore to life.  Unfortunately, when they do so, the head shows signs of agony, and then explodes.  This does not seem to be the result of the effort to restore it, but a mark of something long dormant what would have killed the Engineer if decapitations hadn't gotten there first.  This may, or may not, have been the first purpose of the "weapon" the Engineers were creating.  When it attacks two humans, one dies and the other becomes an animate corpse hell-bent on death; a zombie, if you will, who is extremely hard to kill.  Or perhaps the weapon attacked the brains of the Engineers because they would gestate there, as Venus sprang from the brow, not the loins, of Zeus.  It's hard not to think about that in a film named "Prometheus."

Still, the first answer seems more likely in the context of the film; the second is simply more interesting.  When the fully developed alien rips out of the Engineer's chest at the end, it is clearly a perversion of the act of birth, a change accorded by mixing human DNA with the weapon's DNA.  The weapon stops going for the head, and starts going for the heart (and here it's worth remembering the punishment of Prometheus:  the constant destruction of his liver, thought by Greeks to be the seat of emotions.  Today the vulture would tear out the Titan's heart.)

Did the original weapon attack the head in order to gain a body?  Did it attack the head because the Engineers eschewed the virtues of the heart?  (Their monument to themselves is a hieratic head).  Does it attack the heart because it is now a mockery of human birth?  I dunno; but the questions are more interesting than the movie they spring from.

And what about that 2000 years ago?  The head is dated to that time, meaning the Engineers died 2000 years before "Prometheus" lands to reawaken them (curiosity killed the cat!).  So were the Engineers 2000 years ago plotting a Second Coming that would indeed bring an end to human history?  And 2000 years later, we almost make sure that can happen?  "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...."  It's no accident Yeats titled his most famous poem "The Second Coming."  Yeats understood history as going in cycles, or more precisely as gyres, intersecting cones that made history run back and forth from one end to the other, from anarchy to order and back to anarchy again; and he figured it would happen in roughly 2000 year cycles.  There is a touch of that here, too; of history moving its slow thighs with a gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun;  or as the surviving Engineer, who seems as hell-bent on killing humans as the Aliens are.

Hmmmm....maybe they hate us for our freedom.

One last bit in the movie:  human life begins with the sacrifice of an Engineer.  It is saved with the sacrifice of the crew of "Prometheus," as they crash into the last piloted ship attempting to take off and deliver its deadly cargo to earth, 2000 years late.  The Second Coming is aborted, and it's a good thing, too.  But it's a second coming almost started by the very humans who end it, and it is prompted by a very human, and as I've noted before, very religious idea that all of human history has led to a particular moment; a moment for which some human being is usually responsible:

Notice, first, the resilience of the idea that all human history was meant to lead to this moment. That is, I must say, a very religious idea. It is the idea that some force, call it God, call it history, call it the zeitgeist or the gyres or what-have-you, is impelling human existence in a direction, and that direction is forward, and this point in time is the zenith of that effort, and if it wasn't inevitable that it led to us, it's a darned lucky thing it did because, well, we are so deserving! That's not a Greek idea, not at all. Read a Greek tragedy: all "progress" by the tragic hero inevitably ends disastrously. There is no progress, there is only survival and taking responsibility for your errors. That's the best we can do, according to the foundational culture of Western civilization, according to the supreme rationalists that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and modern thinking admire. Any idea that we have moved "forward" to this magic moment in time is entirely non-rational.
Which conclusion Elizabeth Shaw is more or less forced to.  "I'm sorry," she sobs, "I'm sorry," as she realizes her innocence and naivete and certainty that she was solving the riddle of human existence has led to nothing but death and destruction and the loss of everything that mattered to her.  It is, indeed, a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living god; except she hasn't.  She hasn't fallen into the hands of God at all; she has stumbled on hubris.  The Greeks would recognize this as tragedy; her hubris is her hamartia; on her, ultimately, depends the fate of the crew of Prometheus, and even the fate of humankind.  Her hamartia leads to her tragic error, everyone but her dies, and she lives to know her error and take responsibility for it.  She assumed she was important, that she had been placed her for a purpose.  She found out she was wrong; horribly, frighteningly,tragically wrong.  She thought seeking knowledge was an unalloyed good; she found out it could be an almost-unalloyed evil.  The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil bears bitter fruit, indeed.

So is there a lot more to "Prometheus"?  I'm not quite sure.  There's certainly less than was intended.  Most of what I've found there I freely admit I put there.  Perhaps the most interesting speculation prompted by the film is that David is the only one who can communicate with the Engineers (for which he gets his head ripped off), and he is, like the humans are to the Engineers, a human creation and ultimately as alien to the humans (albeit created in their image!) as the humans are to the aliens (also created in their image!  Though some slight deviation in the DNA makes us as much like them as chimpanzees are like us).  Without David, none of the true action of the plot occurs; with him, the worst possible consequences occur.  Which is sort of like the Alien at the end, created by David's actions but hardly with his intention, as it is entirely accidental that squid + Engineer=Alien.  What is not accidental is that Alien is as inimical to human life as David is indifferent to it.

And what does it add up to?  I dunno.  But I do think the whole is far less than the sum of its parts.  Because, in the end, the parts here...are just parts.

Addendum:  I have to add (because I just came across it) that Scott said this about his own film and the sequel (apparently this was originally planned as two movies!):

Ridley Scott intends to stay on as director. “I enjoyed it so much, I really want to do the sequel to this. It’s interesting to do a sequel because this leaves the door so open to some huge questions. The real question to me is – the more mankind discovers in science the more clear and helpful everything becomes, yet we’re very bad at managing ourselves. And one of the biggest problems in the world is what we call religion, it causes more problems than anything in the goddamn universe. Think about what’s happening now, all based on the very simple idea that a Muslim can’t live alongside a Catholic, or a Catholic can’t live alongside a Protestant…”
 And it would be safe to say, based on what I've said above:  "Huh?  What movie did he watch?"  And not only that, but what planet is he living on?

On the other hand, as that link points out, Scott is 75 and working on two movies already (a sequel to "Blade Runner" and a Cormac McCarthy legal drama (two more reasons to go on living!  or not...), so directing the sequel may be postponed long enough to give us all a reason to believe there is a God.....

Further tedious addendum:

For no good reason I grabbed my copy of Greek Myths by Robert Graves off the shelf, and got the lowdown on the Prometheus and fire business.  It seems Prometheus tricked Zeus (it takes too long to explain) and Zeus' response was to deny fire to humanity.  "Let them eat their flesh raw!," Graves quotes (from various ancient sources).  So Prometheus brings us fire.  This story goes in two directions, interestingly.  One is toward Pandora, who is married to Epimetheus, Prometheus' brother.  She opens the box Prometheus had warned his brother to keep closed, and out come "all the Spites that might plague mankind; such as Old Age, Labour, Sickness, Insanity, Vice, and Passion."  But that direction, and the original possession of the box, stem from the other direction, from the reason Prometheus gives humanity fire in the first place.

Prometheus is the creator of humankind.

Final addendum because I'm walking away from this now!  NO!  I REALLY MEAN IT!

Whenever I feel like I've read way too much into a movie, I'm always comforted by finding someone else who's gone much further than I would.  Viz.  Jesus Christ as an Engineer?  Uh, wouldn't they notice he wasn't exactly human?  The Annunciation to Mary?  A birth on Christmas Day?

Well, okay, I have to give you the last one.

But Dr. Who?  Really?  Because of an old TV episode and one of the Doctors and one of the companions?  That's an even bigger stretch than connecting it all to H.P. Lovecraft. And all that abdomen opening adds up to what, exactly? I mean, did you see the first movie 33 years ago? It's kinda part of the territory.**

Absolutely no mention of Kubrick, though.  Nor of Jiffy Lube.

Which I think are pretty serious omissions.

*If you really want to see it, or see it again, don't say I don't cater to ya.

**The idea of the king ruling and then dying is pretty interesting, though it's got bugger all to do with Christianity.