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Human Theory

To Be Vaguely Acquainted With Her Is To Be Seduced By Her

Larry Eagleburger, pressed on whether Sarah Palin would be ready to serve as President:

"It is a very good question," he said, pausing a few seconds, then adding with a chuckle: "I'm being facetious here. Look, of course not."

John McCain, in response:

Larry has never had a chance to meet Sarah. She's got more experience than Sen. Biden and Sen. Obama put together.

Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard catalogs people who "respect" her versus those who don't, and wants us to believe that it's all about whether or not they have actually met her, in the flesh. If so, I'm starting to think Sarah Palin should be classified as some kind of munition, perhaps a psychological or biological warfare agent. Or maybe she's like that alien princess from OT. It seems that once you come in contact with her, your critical faculties are toast. Call it 'Caribou Barbie Infatuation Syndrome.' Symptoms resemble those of excess alcohol consumption, including a tendency to see little starbursts, perceive people on television as speaking directly to you, excessive gift-giving, and rationalization of or blindness to flaws or exaggeration of virtues in the object of infatuation.

Curiously, most heterosexual women seem immune. I wonder why.

Apparently it's never occurred to Barnes that meeting her, rather than not meeting her, might be the error.

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Schizoid Conservative Moralism

I've always found it both ironic and unsurprising that American Conservatives are simultaneously raunchier and more puritanical than liberals. Cases in point? Sarah Palin sells herself on sex and motherhood, combining a tailored suit with fuck-me boots and winking like a Hooters hostess at all the horny little conservative boys out in TV land. Meanwhile, Fox news appeals to the Supreme Court for the right to use obscenity and consistently pushes out the most violent and sexually suggestive shows on broadcast TV, while simultaneously bankrolling harradins of culture war like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.

If you were raised in a moderately conservative church, there's a good chance that you encountered some variation of the Preacher's Kid. On the face, they're perfect Christian sons and daughters, in the pew with straight back and perfect grooming and butter wouldn't melt in their mouth -- it's all "yes, ma'am," and "no, sir," and "what would Jesus do?"

But once the adults are out of sight, they're grabbing the bottle and giving out a big fat wink before they take a long, hard pull and beckon for a hit off the joint. Then it's off to deflower a virgin or get nasty with that smoker-boy in the leather jacket.

Any convention-city prostitute can tell you that the Republicans are the kinky ones, and they can also tell you why: It's the repression. They want to both please and resist mommy and daddy at the same time. They want to be both bad and good. They're the Preacher's Kid writ on grand scale.

Project Much?

Josh Marshall quotes one of his readers regarding John McCain's New Mexico speech from yesterday:

What a weird spectacle McCain's speech was this afternoon. It was as though McCain went out of the way to take every criticism that has come his way and attribute it to Barack Obama. In addition to being jarringly at odds with reality, it also seemed to undermine the larger questions that the campaign seems to want to be raising.

My wife said much the same thing. And it seems so obvious. The now-infamous Des Moines Register video shows a man so unable to master himself that he fairly seethes with anger -- so much so that the Register, a reputable if socially liberal newspaper, felt it appropriate to publish an op-ed on the topic as it related to McCain's suitability for Presidential office:

John McCain is angry.

You can feel it in the clenched muscles in his throat, the narrowing of his eyes, the controlled tone with which he handles a question he doesn't like, as if struggling to contain something that might spill out. We've seen that body language on TV. But around a Des Moines Register table Tuesday, the anger and tension were palpable. And unsettling.

The thing that bothers me a little is that in my experience, this kind of projection -- calling your opponent out for what you're doing -- usually works. People assume that no one would get that angry without good reason, especially if you've established a reputation for moralism and integrity.

The one hope is that McCain has indeed damaged his brand so badly that he has no reputation left to ground that impression in. (Discounting the "base", of course. The Republican base is rabid with frustrated fury by this time -- witness the un-corrected shout of "kill him" at a Palin rally over the weekend, or "terrorist!" in response to McCain's rhetorical question 'Who is the real Barack Obama?')

Those Words Evoke Invocation

If they don't understand the words you use well enough to know that you're talking nonsense, I suppose the argument must go, they deserve to be conned.

Victor Davis Hanson at the National Review is asking "Why is Obama foolishly evoking race time after time?"

I suppose Obama could fix that by coloring his skin white. (Isn't it interesting that Obama "evokes" race, but McCain doesn't. Kind of like the one-drop rule: If any color shows, it signals "race.")

I envision the shade of William F. Buckley jabbing fiercely at Hanson with a ghostly blue pencil, alternating with an whacks from an insubstantial Collegiate to pay Hanson back for mis-using the term yet again in the body copy.

But I imagine Buckley might be proud of Hanson for this adorable rhetorical sleight-of-hand:

Obama's problems with race have nothing to do with his half -African ancestry or his own experience with racism and unfairness, but boil down to his deftly wanting it both ways: reminding the Germans he is a different sort of American from what they're used to (false, they knew Rice and Powell well enough), while preempting by suggesting others will evoke race, but in a negative context.

So let me get this straight: The different look that Obama was talking about was dark skin? Since, you know (you did know this, right?) that both Rice and Powell are (snicker!) black.

Of course, it could be intentional intellectual sloth. Clever boy. "My opponent is a practicing heterosexual, and his sister is a known Thespian," as Earl Long is reputed to have remarked with all apparent sincerity. The key is to force the marked man to talk about his own marking. That way you can accuse him of bringing it up.

So that's why my life flashed before my eyes...

In 1992, Thaler shocked the world with bizarre experiments in which the neurons within artificial neural networks were randomly destroyed. Guess what? The nets first relived all of their experiences (i.e., life review) and then, within advanced stages of destruction, generated novel experience. With this very compelling model of near-death experience (NDE) hopes for a supernatural or mystical explanation of this much celebrated phenomena were forever dashed.

Dr. Stephen Thaler, President & CEO, Imagination Engines, Incorporated

Life During 1980. And 2007.

Over at The Danger Room, they've posted a reminder of a thin whispering voice from the 1980 zeitgeist -- a very funky live rendition of "Life During Wartime":

DANGER ROOM Soundtrack

My first thought was that I'd forgetten how hot that song was. My second was that this could be Bagdhad they're singing about. Or Gaza. Or Beirut.

Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons
Packed up and ready to go
Heard of some gravesites, out by the highway
A place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance
I'm getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstone, lived in the ghetto
I've lived all over this town

This ain't no party, this ain't no disco
This ain't no fooling around
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey
I ain't got time for that now

[....]

Why stay in college? why go to night school?
Gonna be different this time?
Can't write a letter, can't send a postcard
I can't write nothing at all
This ain't no party, this ain't no disco
This ain't no fooling around
I'd love you hold you, i'd like to kiss you
I ain't got no time for that now

Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock
We blended in with the crowd
....

Lyrics: Talking Heads - Life During Wartime

There was something in the air, or the water, or the synchronistic ether in the late '70s. In the summer of 1980, I began the process of fleshing out an idea for a science fiction novel that would be set in a ruined, riot-torn city. A mysterious agent would enter the city as everyone else fled, set on a mission that he could not fully know. I like to think I know, generally, where I go the ideas. It emerged from a melange of influences, including (but far from limited to) Grahame Green's The Confidential Agent, riots in England (particularly Brixton) in 1981, and this song. I know I had the general idea as early as sometime in 1980; I don't think it achieved anything like final form until the fall of 1985.

I've drawn scenarios involving the collapse of urban civil societies in notes and sketches for many projects between about 1979 and the present, and encountered a great many more in fiction. What's impressed me about the real world in those 27 years is how ready it is to snap back to the norms. The general rule seems to be that when there's trouble, people will help one another out, to the extent that they know how or that they believe they can, without harming their own. England did not disintegrate after the riots of '81 (as I imagined it might, from the naive perspective of a 17 year old American conservative). Beirut eventually settled to a relative stability. I had begun to feel that order was the rule, in human society, not the exception.

But of course there are ways to make the tendency go the other direction, and the first and most important condition for a descent into chaos after disaster is the weakening of what for lack of what I regard as a better term I will refer to as civil society. It's not sufficient that there be poverty or that there be a disconnect between people and their government (be it local, state, or federal) -- there has to have been some kind of basic collaps of the ordinary day to day organizing structures of life. There's probably nothing specific, either, that needs to collapse. In Iraq, we can see many small things that combine to make life unstable; we can see the tacit encouragement to develop on-the-ground, ad hoc civil institutions to deal with issues like insecurity and shortage. Some of those institutions will be deeply cultural; those will be the ones that excite the most devotion, as they become the means by which people define "their own."

John Robb points out continuously that the "perpetual collapse of Iraq" is in direct relation to the failure of the Iraqi state. I would take that a step further, and say that it is in direct relation to the failure of civil society in Iraq. Robb points to Maslow to make his argument that there are some basic needs that need to be met before you can have security; I would point out that even if those needs are met, who meets them and how (i.e., the ideology that informs the new structures that stand in for the state) becomes a critical factor in what it's like to live in those states.

Put another way: Stability is a matter of perspective. Being Sunni or Shi'ite has a completely different bearing on the degree to which your Maslovian needs are being met, depending on whether you live in Mosul or Bagdhad, on whether you you side with or against the Sadrists, and so on. I'm not implying that's lost on Robb. He focuses on the economics and the gross factors, and he's right to do so. By doing so, he can arrive at what he calls the "humpty-dumpty principle":

States are increasingly finding themselves in perpetual disruption or complete failure. One driver of this is globalization. Globalization has diminished state power across the board ("it melts the map"). So,if we want to build a peaceful (and profitable) system that obeys a new rule set (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Barnett), the limits of state power must be a critical factor in its development.

Global Guerrillas: THE HUMPTY DUMPTY PRINCIPLE

The phrasing is interestingly precise: "the limits of state power must be a critical factor...." Not "Limiting state power," nor "bolstering state power"; instead, what the limits are. Because what they are will have a different result, depending on where you are.

But I digress, as usual. This whole set of ruminations started as a meditation on a song lyric, and there were certain parts of that lyric that haunted me back then more than the rest of them. They haunt me now not so much because I think they might come true, but rather more because they make me ponder what would have to happen to make them come true.

Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons
Packed up and ready to go
Heard of some gravesites, out by the highway
A place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance
I'm getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstone, lived in the ghetto
I've lived all over this town

[....]

This ain't no party, this ain't no disco
This ain't no fooling around
This ain't no mudd club, or c. b. g. b.
I ain't got time for that now

Heard about houston? heard about detroit?
Heard about pittsburgh, p. a.?
You oughta know not to stand by the window
Somebody might see you up there

[...]

Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks?
They won't help me survive
My chest is aching, burns like a furnace
The burning keeps me alive
Try to stay healthy, physical fitness
Don't want to catch no disease
Try to be careful, don't take no chances
You better watch what you say

Lyrics: Talking Heads - Life During Wartime

In America, I expect it would be a gradual process. We are too big to fail that quickly, and large parts of the country would retain or define their own stability. How they do that, though, is far from pre-determined. It's more likely to take the form of organization through the manipulation of power by a few than by the distribution of power to a many.

Ethnic Excuses

In todayâ??s Detroit Free Press, Susan Ager decries lame excuses based on ethnic or human stereotypes used by people who â??canâ??t help themselves.â?

Get drunk if you want. Kill your enemies if you must. But don't blame your ethnicity, or your humanity, because the rest of us aim to do better.

These types of excuses for abominable behavior are bad enough, but perhaps equally troublesome are reasons based on ethnicity used to define acceptable behavior or up to standard inclusion.

I once worked with a woman who was of Polish extraction. Her life was â??everything Polish,â? except, of course, that she was an American. Her husband had both German and Polish ancestry, but, according to this woman,... he was Polish. Nothing else would have been good enough. Holidays included only homemade Polish delicacies and traditions. She was especially happy if her children dated Polish people. And there was an added bonus if these dates were Polish Catholic. This woman didnâ??t mind sharing these tidbits of information with us non-Polish-Catholic heathens. There was a place for acquaintances or coworkers in her life, but those who didnâ??t meet her specifications would never be worthy of her inner circle. There was a publicly identified, carefully delineated wall that outsiders did not dare penetrate.

Personally, I find tradition to often be a healthy, unifying part of society, especially when those of varying traditions attempt mutual understanding and respect. However, for some, the idea of community often meets a dead end with divisive, hubristic, arbitrary boundaries, justifications.

Some of the rest of us aim to toast human diversity, not ethnic restrictions.

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Human Potential

I havenâ??t been writing a lot here lately. Iâ??ve been involved in a personal project that has thrust me into idealistic mode. Or rather, what might seem incongruous to some, my realistic/practical idealistic mode. I donâ??t believe in a material utopia in our imperfect world. Yet, I have always felt an inexorable pull of the Ideal in the sense of human potential for good, where, practically, in our world of becoming, we can be informed by the Ideal. In any case, I thought Iâ??d spare readers here what could come across as a squirrelly visit back to naïve pie-in-the-sky, adolescent meanderings,... well, to even a greater extent than usual.

But then I read todayâ??s local paper and changed my mind. Columnists were writing about the larger picture, about altruism and working for social change. I had recently engaged in discussion about educational opportunities in the U.S. with one of my pragmatic idealistic friends. Money handouts, public education, college quotas are ways to provide opportunity. However, potential can be suffocated, in spite of good public school teachers, before even considering any future opportunities by way of college admissions policies, if, for example, a young student comes home after school to a mom on crack and her boyfriend who beats the child.

Americans have a heritage of individualism, but the ability to express uniqueness becomes compromised if we ignore public ills that affect all of us as interrelated members of society. This is nothing new, but what cure might seem obvious philosophically isnâ??t always translated clearly to satisfactory action. Social workers and other professionals have their hands full. They need continued caring, loving support from individuals, families and neighborhoods by way of community involvement and early intervention.

In todayâ??s Detroit Free Press, Rochelle Riley talks about second chances.

What if our corrections system were changed to punish those who are violent and rehabilitate those whose crimes should not preclude them from voting, becoming part of a neighborhood, teaching others to not do what they did?

What a sensible thought.

Imagine what would happen if we pledged to spend more on public and life education on the front end instead of prison on the other. Maybe we'd stop making killers of inmates who had no such tendencies before entering prison.

The front end. Exactly. And I particularly appreciate Ms. Rileyâ??s mention of not only public, but also life education. Consideration of a personâ??s whole environment, not just one aspect is imperative. Too expensive a venture? Consider that it costs $4 million a day to run Michiganâ??s Department of Corrections. How about emphasis on â??correctingâ? by offering more alternative sanctions for rehabilitation of nonviolent offenders and additional, effective â??front endâ? education? There is work in this area and hopefully weâ??ll see more.

David Crumm also comments in his Detroit Free Press article today about a retired businessman, Leon Tupper, who volunteers in his community and helps nonprofits, â??from groups combating bigotry to groups aiding battered women and the homeless.â?

The idea is that life should have three phases. First, there's growing up. Then, there's establishing a career and home.

And then? Well, Tupper and a growing number of other people think life's third phase shouldn't be limited to fishing or golf. Or, as Tupper puts it, "In this third phase, we should use the talents we have accumulated to give back to the community."

With any luck, not all of us baby boomers will end up too senile early on in our upcoming retirements to preclude helping and mentoring others. We shouldnâ??t expect perfection. The mundane world is not the ideal one. Nonetheless, whether motivation is viewed as coming from a spiritual source or not, the sensible action of giving to oneâ??s community can enable the flowering of noble, gracious human potential.

And, hopefully, more and more people who believe in good human potential will keep talking about this and matching deeds with words. This path often involves struggle. Another alternative is to give up. I donâ??t choose to follow that particular alleyway to agony.

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The Masonic Mac

Some design-geek at Frog Design thinks that iPods are "universally" described as "clean" because the iPod "references bathroom materials." It's kind of a silly little think-piece, not least in that it makes a point and then throws out a lot of unrelated arguement in an attempt to hide the fact that it doesn't really make much of a case for what might otherwise be an interesting assertion. But that's not what I'm writing about.

A comment in-thread lead me to this insight: Being a "Mac Person" is a little like being a mason.

Which is to say, to be a "Mac Person" is to feel that you belong to something, while at the same time feeling yourself to be different from other (lesser) people. If you belong to a secret society of some kind, you feel both privileged to belong, and empowered by your connection to that society.

Membership in the secret society comes with a cost: Dues, expenses for robes or other paraphernalia (as Stetson Kennedy wrote in his book about infiltrating the Klan), and any opportunity cost associated with providing expected assistance to other members. Any extra costs are obviously assumed to be at least offset by benefits, by "believers" in the secret society. Those costs are their "dues"; they're what they pay for the privilege of being made special by the organization.

Committing to the Apple Way has similar costs: Software is more expensive and less plentiful; hardware is often proprietary (as with iPod peripherals), or hardware options more limited (if you don't believe it, try to buy a webcam off the shelf at a mainstream store); software conventions are different, and require retraining. Apple users (rationally) presume there to be offsetting benefits, typically cast in terms of usability. My own experience using and supporting Macs tells me that those benefits are illusory, but that's beside the point: Mac users assume them to exist, and act on that assumption.

But they also gain a sense of superiority from it, and they get that reinforced every time they pay more for something, every time they have a document interchange problem with a Windows-using compatriot, every time have a problem figuring out what to do when they sit down at a non-Mac microcomputer.

The extra cost is understood as an investment. They are paying dues. Being a Mac Person is, in that way, a little like being a Mason. Or at least, a little like what we might imagine it's like to be a Mason, since most of us have never actually met one.

Mother Nature and Human Nature

As I listen to people talk about rebuilding the City of New Orleans, I hark back to an article I read in the Detroit Free Press a few days ago. Ron Dzwonkowski asks, â??Do We Invite Disaster?â?

No, we don't go looking for trouble from Mother Nature. She just seems to want, from time to terrible time, to remind the most powerful nation on Earth what real power is. And maybe she's also trying to teach us some lessons that we don't want to learn.

New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will be years recovering from Katrina -- sure to be one of America's least popular names for newborns for the next decade -- and experts will spend at least that much time trying to figure out if more could have been done ahead of time to minimize the damage and save lives.

Sure. How about evacuating New Orleans years ago when somebody realized it wasn't smart to pack 470,000 people into 180 square miles of a hurricane-prone area below sea level and between a huge lake and the Mississippi River? This was a place living for decades on borrowed time and a network of levees that, until last week, kept the water back.

Ron Dzwonkowski writes a hard-hitting article, demanding us to look in the mirror. People are not always smart. Even considering the choice to â??pack 470,000 people into 180 square miles of a hurricane-prone area below sea levelâ? surrounded by large bodies of water, there could have been a better response in regards to mitigating the destruction of human lives.

But where there are people, there are politics. President Bush is carrying on an investigation. We should feel so reassured.

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Forests and Trees

Ayn Rand, President Bush, and Pope Benedict XVI might not only have something in common with each other, but also in common with Westerners in general: a black and white view of the world. This possibly would contrast with East Asian people who have a more holistic philosophy, observing objects in relation to the whole.

Richard Nisbett carried out a study at the University of Michigan regarding contrasting worldviews.

â??Figuratively, Americans see things in black and white, while East Asians see more shades of grey,â? says Nisbett. â??We wanted to devise an experiment to see if that translated to a literal difference in what they actually see.â?

The researchers tracked the eye-movements of two groups of students while they looked at photographs. One group contained American-born graduates of European descent and the other was comprised of Chinese-born graduate students who came to the US after their undergraduate degrees.

Each picture showed a striking central image placed in a realistic background, such as a tiger in a jungle. They found that the American students spent longer looking at the central object, while the Chinese studentsâ?? eyes tended to dart around, taking in the context.

Harmony versus goals

Nisbett and his colleagues believe that this distinctive pattern has developed because of the philosophies of these two cultures. â??Harmony is a central idea in East Asian philosophy, and so there is more emphasis on how things relate to the whole,â? says Nisbett. â??In the West, by contrast, life is about achieving goals.â? [â??Westerners and Easterners see the world differentlyâ? by Zeeya Merali, NewScientist.com, 22 August 2005]

Interesting study. Would these researchers consider themselves living proof of â??black and white,â? goal-oriented Westerners?

I donâ??t consider myself to hold an entirely black and white view of the world. I like to think that I view many things contextually, that I see grey. How about you?

I suppose some of us are anomalies.

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E-mail Review

What fun catching up on my e-mail for the past week. *cough*

Thereâ??s the age issue:
A friend forwarded me a great article on how to handle the question: How old are you? Interesting timing, that. This past week the technician in the doctorâ??s office was checking my birth date and said, â??Now, that makes you...?â? And looking up from her work for a sec, she smiled at me and blurted, â??You look good!" I know she was surprised. I know she meant well. I know I should have taken it as a compliment. But I just couldnâ??t help completing her sentence silently in my mind as I vocally thanked her. â??... for your age.â? I mean, really, would she have made that same comment to a twenty-year-old?

Then neatly tucked among various spam e-mails for goodies such as Viagra, Cialas, and Rolex watches was my alumni newsletter linking an article about a University of Michigan study which â??suggests that women, but not men, automatically associate sex with submission and that connection reduces the quality of their sexual experience.â? It doesnâ??t seem at all that â??weâ??ve come a long way, baby.â?? More discussion of this study: here.

I have more mail to go through, but, hey, I need a break. Submission. Submission?!?

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Youthful Indiscretion

So some people seem to remember that Iran's new President-Elect was one of their captors during the time when they were held prisoner in the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979-1980.

Sorry if I seem like a bit of a hard-ass on this, but: So what? Even if they're right -- why should this have any bearing on how we deal with Iran? Vladimir Putin was a KGB man -- a member of the secret intelligence service of an enemy state. Abu Mazen was a terrorist, and we deal with him. Menachem Begin planned bombings for the Irgun during the Jewish insurgency in Palestine; he was responsible for the deaths of many non-combatants. But they were British, mostly, or Palestinian, so they don't matter to us.

Really, it seems as though we look for excuses to refuse to deal with other countries. And by "we", I mean the Vulcan Cabal, and by "other countries", I mean ones that might possibly oppose the hidden agenda of the Vulcan Cabal, which is American Hegemony, plainly and simply put. But I digress.

When former soldiers go to Vietnam as tourists, Americans expect them to be greeted with respect -- which, by and large, they are, at least as far as I've heard. And by and large, we treat old Viet Cong and NVA "terrorists" with respect when they come here. What's the difference?

I expect it has something to do with blood. People look at me like I'm a little off when I tell them this, but I really do think that bodies politic (the "American People", the "Iranian People") "think" (which is to say, "feel") in terms of blood sacrifice. This is all at a sub-rational level, of course; we find other rationalizations for our behavior, but in the end it's a ritual matter: Once blood is spilled, the nature of the discussion changes.

If you walk through the world for a few days looking at news reports, I submit that you'll start to see this view as making sense. We sacrificed blood in Vietnam. We have never sacrificed any blood in Iran. Not publicly, at least. Blood would have sanctified our humiliation -- it would have taken it to a new level, made it "serious".

So in Vietnam, we had a sense that we paid a price, in blood. Blood is real currency; humiliation is just getting taken. It's not real currency, not to most people. We're going to have the same sense of things with regard to Iraq, I predict. (Though I expect history to reliably fail to repeat: the dynamics will be very different in the long run.)

This isn't likely to happen with regard to Iran -- at least, not soon. We'd have to really go to war with them, and I like to hope that won't happen, because the price would be ... fantastic. It's not Iraq; it's a functioning state with a patriotic people, well-armed with real (as in non-imaginary) and extremely dangerous weapons.

I hear on NPR that Iranians don't think much about the hostage crisis. To them, it's part of the "American Satan" background noise. When people in the US do remember it (and I doubt that many do, at least accurately), they remember it as shaming, as humiliation: That those little pissants could thumb their noses at us in public and we could do nothing about it.... I was there -- that is, I was alive and politically conscious, 15 and 16 years old, at the height of my natural adolescent boy's obsession with respect and purity of purpose.

I remember it like a little scar. I remember how much it made me despise Jimmy Carter. He was responsible (in my mind, at that time) for making the US seem weak. I talked tough about it with my friends; I think that deep down, many Americans wanted to wake up one morning and find out that all those hostages had been killed. It would have made us victims, given us the "right" to start shooting. And I can tell you, we wanted to start shooting. We wanted that so badly.

Quote for the Moment -- Reflections for Father's Day

Our respect for family values is a lie. When the powerful fall or are pushed from power, they inevitably say, as they tender their resignation, that they are leaving to spend more time with their families. Nobody believes them, and rightly so. Powerful men do not put themselves out to pasture, snap on Snuglis and spend their days happily on park benches changing diapers. Compare the compensation of nannies with CEOs to see how much we value the nurturing of children. Closer to the truth is that there is a radical incompatibility between the parenting of children and the perpetuation of a system that seems hell-bent on blighting their future.

I entered into fatherhood by attending the birth of my daughters. I discovered a shattering truth: that we are all born from the vaginas of women. We emerge in mucus and shit and blood. We slither out like some marine mammal, parting a seabed of pubic hair and grope with our blind mouths for the breast. I cannot help but feel that if birth were in fact the central metaphor of our civilization, the axle around which the world turns, all men would be unmanned of their false and warlike manliness.

Successfully unmanned, we could become fathers. Perhaps then, fatherhood would resemble motherhood and motherhood could resemble fatherhood. The boundaries of gender, once thought of as immutable, would be happily breached and bent, and so would the boundaries between motherhood and fatherhood. Whether the breasts of men would pour forth milk I cannot say, but of this I am sure: Civilization would turn on a new track and never again would rock-jawed men and clench-mouthed women lead their sons and daughters off to the butchershop of war as if it were heroic for the cow to lead the calf to the slaughter. And the world might turn away from death.

-- from â??Confessions of a Mother-Manâ? by Osha Neumann (AlterNet, June 18, 2005)

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Romantic Passion

Romantic love is a big news item this week. Big in a scientific way. Researchers are discovering that the brain is more specialized than they expected with different regions in the brain for sexual arousal, passionate romantic love, and long-term commitment.

Yes, for all you unbelievers, there is such a thing as romantic love. Poets, musicians, artists of every kind, you may now say, â??told you so.â??

Is romantic love only a biological urge as part of a process leading to possible long-term commitment to another human? A socialization need?

Why do many people then still feel a continuing need for passion and romantic love in their lives, even in committed relationships? To reinforce commitment when ennui sets in? That doesnâ??t always occur though when passion is redirected to a new person.

If anything, this passion region of the brain is quite a mystery to me.

Benedict Carey of The New York Times writes:

New love can look for all the world like mental illness, a blend of mania, dementia and obsession that cuts people off from friends and family and prompts out-of-character behavior -- compulsive phone calling, serenades, yelling from rooftops -- that could almost be mistaken for psychosis.

Although college students were the subjects of this research, Iâ??m also reminded of passionate mystics from the past whose love was focused on a spiritual quest. I wonder what brain-scan findings would reflect if this technology had been available when Hadewijch of Brabant/Antwerp was equating love with hell, at the same time recognizing the need to search for "the offerings of veritable Love":

For there is nothing Love does not engulf and damn,
And no one who falls into her
And whom she seizes comes out again,
Because no grace exists there.
As Hell turns everything to ruin,
In Love nothing else is acquired
But disquiet and torture without pity;
Forever to be in unrest,
Forever assault and new persecution;
To be wholly devoured and engulfed
In her unfathomable essence,
To found unceasingly in heat and cold,
In the deep, insurmountable darkness of Love.
This outdoes the torments of hell.

Or when Mechthild of Magdeburg was describing her â??wild inhuman needâ? â??like a bride hungry for her husband.â?

Or when Teresa di Avila (thank you, jana) described her ecstatic experience of an angel plunging a spear in her heart, the sweet pain being so severe that it made her utter several moans, yet â??so extreme that one can not possibly wish it to cease.â?

So, would these only be wild words of frustrated ascetics? We have witnessed passionate love expressions in a spiritual light from others also involved in human love relationships. Married Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi comes to mind. Human love becomes part of divine love.

Whether viewed as solely a biological urge or one leading to/stemming from spiritual ardor,...viva romantic passion, elicitor of splendid artistic expression.

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Whatâ??s Like a Rolling Stone?

Is 'Like a Rolling Stone' an existential clarion call rather than a long tirade? Does it advocate the cutting of all ties and the refusal of all comforts? That's not how I have ever heard it. It seems to me to be about someone who has had those ties and comforts stripped away, who has stood revealed as a fraud and a poser, and that Dylan is revelling in her fall from grace and favour. Isn't 'Like a Rolling Stone', from its vomited lyrics to the sneer in Dylan's delivery, the greatest put-down ever recorded? [â??Confused by Dylan? You will beâ? by Sean Oâ??Hagan, The Observer. April 10, 2005]

Sean Oâ??Hagan seems to be baffled by Greil Marcusâ??s new book about one of Bob Dylanâ??s great songs, â??Like a Rolling Stone,â? released 40 years ago. On the other hand, the lyrics arenâ??t puzzling to Oâ??Hagan, who takes the words at face value and doesnâ??t paint Dylanâ??s motives as sympathetic in any way. However, there are others who would label Dylan a poet, even a literary icon.

Herb Bowie writes in his book, Reason to Rock:

So this phrase, â??a rolling stone,â? that meant a lack of material possessions, a lack of home, a lack of belonging for the blacks who sang it, became a symbol of liberation for the rock generation. Because those who adopted it â?? Bob Dylan, Brian Jones and Jann Wenner â?? saw, and made us see, that these material ties also enslaved us, restricted our perspective, blurred our vision, dulled our senses, and blinded us to our own creative potential.

This is why Dylan asks the question: â??How does it feel ... to be like ... a rolling stone?â? And this is why millions sang along with him. For he is singing, not about the reversal of fortune of one woman, but about the transformation of a generation. He is singing this phrase because, in allowing ourselves to feel the answer to this question, we were â?? at least for some of us, and at least for some time â?? able to liberate ourselves from our position and our place, able to see through the deceit and illusion around us, and able to achieve that clear, transcendent, crystalline vision that can only be bestowed by art and artist.

Are we to accept interpretations on different levels?

Greil Marcus quotes Bob Dylan in his May 13, 2005 Guardian article, â??How does it feel?â?:

"I still feel like the same person," Dylan told the photographer Richard Avedon's collaborator Doon Arbus in 1997, talking about the milieu where from 1960 to 1965 he did his work. "One of the feelings of it was that you were part of a very elite, special group that was outside and downtrodden. You felt like you were part of a different community, a more secretive one. And this community spread out across America ... every little city you went to, if you knew who to call, what to look for, you could find ... like-minded people.

"That's been destroyed. I don't know what destroyed it. Some people say it's still there. I hope it is. I know, in my mind, that I'm still a member of a secret community. I might be the only one, you know?"

A secret community of like-minded people. Maybe even a community of one. Would this involve something more than liberation from a materialistic world, deceit and illusion? That theme isnâ??t so secretive, is it? The mystery remains,... except for those who know.

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Brain Physiology and Biases

Negative feelings about black people may be subconsciously learned by both white and black Americans, suggests a brain imaging study. The research is among the first to test the brain physiology of racial biases in both black and white subjects.

The new study showed that both white and black people had increased activity in an area of the brain called the amygdala - which responds to fearful or threatening situations - when completing a matching task with images of black faces.

[...]

Interestingly, when the subjects performed the verbal matching tasks, the race-biased amygdala effect disappeared. The scans showed that when word processing, areas of the brain involved in fighting impulses or inhibitory control took over.

â??The moment you start thinking about race in words you know youâ??re thinking about it and can make decisions,â? says Lieberman. â??In general, putting your feelings into words seems to regulate or dampen those feelings.â? [â??Brain scans reveal racial biasesâ? by Anna Gosline, New Scientist, 8 May 2005]

Although caution should be taken in interpreting results of the study, it also helps to confirm my opinion that a recognition of the power of our irrational nature should not be downplayed no matter how rational weâ??d like to view ourselves. Regarding other studies mentioned briefly in the article, how about black Americans showing â??preferentially positive associations for white peopleâ? in Implicit Attitude Tests? Awareness of our limitations are driven home when we at times are confronted with the reality of evil in the guise of harmlessness.

On the other hand, I feel that our nonrational nature should not always be viewed negatively. Certain instincts have a function of self-preservation. Also, by combining what some consider a higher nonrational nature with a balancing rational interpreter, we can learn from our experiences and benefit from vistas beyond the mundane.

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Humanity: What Is It?

Eschatology seems to be a theme in the media lately. A couple weeks ago, The Guardian featured an article in which Kate Ravilious asked â??10 scientists to name the biggest danger to Earthâ? and assessed the chances of it happening. I figured that Christian fundamentalists might want to take stock in how the timing of a Second Coming might be crucial. By the time Jesus reentered the scene, humans could very well be extinct through telomere erosion or supplanted by super-intelligent robots. And then, what if the earth were swallowed by a black hole? That last one made me hungry and I opted for a snack, feeding my stomach while lightly chewing over in my mind how a literal bodily resurrection would work.

In the most recent issue of Utne, the possibility of altering the human body and mind is addressed in Alyssa Fordâ??s article, â??Humanity, the Remix.â? In the past Iâ??ve relegated terms like transhuman and posthuman to the stuff of science fiction. But modern advances in nanoscience, bioengineering, information technology, and cognitive science are bringing some of these concepts into the mainstream.

Alyssa Ford ends her article:

Amid the debate over whether these powerful new tools should be controlled, or even can be, one thing is sure: If we ever find ourselves stepping into a posthuman future, it will be for all the usual human reasons.

Not altogether comforting.

At the very least, such speculation compels us to reevaluate what being human means. Anne Skare Nielsen zeroes in on this topic in her article, â??New Technologies in the Dream Societyâ?:

The new technologies affect our myths and stories of what it means to be human, and what the natural boundaries are. When these 'irrational' feelings aren't respected, but rejected as misunderstandings, superstition, ignorance, and stupidity, it really isn't very strange that many people feel provoked and reject biotechnology en bloc.

Also:

The common view of humanity in the Western world is based on mankind being free and unique, and on species being static quantities that only slowly change. This collides with the scientific facts that tells us that many of our traits are genetically determined and constantly changing, and that there's no such thing as species boundaries. There's simply no biological evidence to support the claim that mankind is unique, sacrosanct or dignified and in possession of an integrity that protects us from anything. And if we talk about natural and unnatural, it is mankind that is the most unnatural in all the world. Compared with the majority of living organisms, everything from our sexual habits to our work to our ways of solving conflicts really is quite odd.

Oh, and here I thought being â??oddâ? made a distinctive statement. Looks like oddness is run-of-the-mill for humans.

Nielsen ends the article speaking about the importance of retaining a core of deep personal values, â??keeping a dynamic inner equilibriumâ? in the midst of a changeable society. That leads me to wonder how many humans would be proficient in discerning â??only the messages that have relevance or energy.â?

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R-E-S-P-E-C-T

During an interview in the Spring, 2005 issue of AAUW Outlook,
Madeleine Albright weighed in with advice to help women, also noting some differences between men and women. She wasnâ??t trying to provoke discussion about
genetic attributes vs. socialization.

Instead, she spoke candidly about her own experience with practical suggestions. Take it or leave it.

AAUW Outlook: In your leadership positions, what characteristics that could be defined as typically female got in your way? Which helped you be effective?

Madeleine Albright: The same things that get in our way are also things that make us different and good. I wouldnâ??t want to be like a man. I like to be liked, and I think thatâ??s a female thing. And even though everybody thinks we talk so much, women basically wait in a meeting to kind of get a sense of the room and to see whoâ??s who and what the point is. You think of things and youâ??ve got something you want to say and you think, â??Oh my God, this is going to sound stupid.â?

Youâ??ve felt that yourself?

Yes, and then some man says it, and everyone thinks itâ??s brilliant, and youâ??re really mad at yourself for not having said it. So I began to force myself to speak up.

Thatâ??s what I teach in my classes. One of my mottos is â??interrupt,â? because I think you listen differently if youâ??re going to speak than if youâ??re just absorbing information. You then become a part of the discussion. The female thing of just waiting to see whatâ??s going to happen is often counterproductive.

I especially appreciated her response to the following question:

A reporter once wrote that you fought a â??daily war against sexism.â? Is that accurate?

No, it is not, because Iâ??m not an angry person. Itâ??s obviously inherent in me to want to see women recognized, and I want to promote women and mentor women. But Iâ??m not angry. I go about it in different ways. But I am offended on behalf of women.

What I have to do is constantly make sure that I and [all] women are respected and treated properly.

No argument there.

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Human/Animal Chimeras and Personhood

Imagine walking down the street and literally bumping into Bugs Bunny, or Buzz Bunny for that matter, not a fictionalized cartoon character, but a living, breathing rabbit with human attributes. Upset at you for running into him, he glares and wags a carrot in your face.

Would Elmer Fudd have the right to hunt down a real chimeric creature? Better research this. Ah, looks like Elmer Fudd is one step ahead of me at Google.

Seriously, thatâ??s not all, folks.

All you Mouseketeer fans out there --

What happens when you cross a human and a mouse? Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke but, in fact, it's a serious experiment recently carried out by a team headed by a distinguished molecular biologist, Irving Weissman, at Stanford University.

Scientists injected human brain cells into mouse foetuses, creating a strain of mice that were approximately 1% human. Weissman is considering a follow-up that would produce mice whose brains are 100% human.

What if the mice escaped the lab and began to proliferate? What might be the ecological consequences of mice who think like human beings, let loose in nature? Weissman says that he would keep a tight rein on the mice, and if they showed any signs of humanness he would kill them. Hardly reassuring. [ â??Are you a man or a mouse?â? by Jeremy Rifkin, The Guardian, March 15, 2005]

Jeremy Rifkin further states:

Fusing a human and chimpanzee embryo - which researchers say is feasible - could produce a creature so human that questions regarding its moral and legal status would throw 4,000 years of ethics into chaos. Would such a creature enjoy human rights? Would it have to pass some kind of "humanness" test to win its freedom? Would it be forced into doing menial labour or be used to perform dangerous activities?

Ethical ramifications regarding animal-human hybrids have been and continue to be examined in legal and religious forums.

Letâ??s consider the â??approximately 1% humanâ? mice that have already been created. How much â??humannessâ? would be required to qualify for â??personhoodâ? to gain legal human rights? Mice with 1% or 100% human brains? Or doesnâ??t the brain alone matter for personhood? Our concept of humanity is being challenged.

If animal-human hybrids at some point should qualify for a predetermined personhood status, they feasibly could be affected by ongoing human issues such as reproductive rights, gay marriage, and Social Security benefits, ... or even the right not to be killed while on the job (laboratory specimens). Farfetched? Maybe.

The National Academy of Sciences, America's most august scientific body, is expected to issue guidelines for chimeric research some time next month, anticipating a flurry of new experiments in the burgeoning field of human-animal chimeric experimentation.

Stay tuned.

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Santeria in Patriotic Drag

The Iraq war is like santeria in patriotic drag. Soldiers are sacred. It's that blood thing, again, I think: Once blood has been spilled in a cause, the cause is somehow sanctified. The straussian bullshit artists in the vulcan cabal are happy every time they can say that the evil enemy has spilled blood, happier still if they can say it's American blood.

Supporting the war on the argument that we've "sacrificed" and it would be disrespectful not to honor that sacrifice isn't solidarity; it's bloodthirsty primitive ritualism. It's voodoo. It reminds me of the late-Aztec "hummingbird-god", Huitzlpochtli, who fed on the blood and hearts of brave warriors, in large quantities, in return for permitting the sun to keep on shining.

Similarly, the Bushite-Vulcan cabal and their fellow-travellers demand the blood of American youth. Modern historians tell us that the Aztec sacrifice-empire was on the verge of collapse, as evidenced by the fact that the outsider, Cortez, was able to quickly unite so many diverse factions around his tiny band of Spaniards. Ed Calnek, for one, has argued that the sacrefice regime served the purpose of proppin up the Aztec state.

If I believed that history repeats, I'd be expecting another Cortez -- or wondering if his modern name isn't "Bin Laden."

And What Does "Blarney" Mean, Again?

Geoff Pullum has some advice:
Whenever you hear someone starting to say something that begins with "The X have no word for Y", or "The X have N different words for Y", never listen to them, and always check your wallet to make sure it's still there.

We're told often enough that the Eskimo have "x [where x varies from 30 to 1,000,000] words for snow". It's nonsense, of course -- they actually have quite a bit fewer than we do. I can thank an old anthro prof for clueing me in on that myth, but Anthony C. Woodbury back in 1991 compiled a list of English and Yupik lexemes for "snow" for an old-school mailint list. But it just won't go away. It's another aspect of that idea that some peoples really do think differently.

Pullum was moved to comment by a blarney-rich (which is to say, charming and engaging) interview with Irish novelist Frank Delaney on WeSat. The Irish are "devious", Delaney says, because they've made do without words for ideas like "yes", "no", and "sex". After putting paid to the issue of words for sex, Pullum goes on to make this fascinating observation about how the Irish say "yes" and "no":

The story about Irish lacking particles meaning "yes" and "no" is true, by the way. But it has nothing to do with the Irish mind or spirit or way of looking at the world or the notion of neither agreeing nor disagreeing. In Irish you repeat the verb of someone's clause to agree with it (as if someone said "Got milk?" and the way you gave an affirmative response was to say "Got"), and you repeat their verb with the negation particle in front to deny it ("Not got"). But the same is true of Chinese.

Which is not to say that there aren't interesting cultural consequences related to that particular characteristic of the Irish language. Certainly they could have said 'yes' or 'no'; no language would last long without a simple and straightforward way of doing so, and in any case the Irish construction is somwhat analogous to the German constructs for negation. In German, the word for "not" (as in "not green") is the same as the word for "nothing": nicht. But I've yet to hear anyone suggest this colors the German way of thought. I submit that the reason is more or less frank ethnocentrism, again. (And in fact have never heard a German-speaker make an error in speaking English that would suggest any confusion on the issue.)

I'm reliably informed, for example, that it's regarded as being in very bad form to "say no" (i.e., to refuse to do something) in Japanese. Certainly they have a way of doing it; but it's not something that polite people observing the pretense of social equality will easily do. Instead, you find indirect ways of expressing refusal. The subject came up with regard to Japanese marketing campaigns by a large, Rochester-based "document company" which used far too assertive language forms. But this is not so much a matter of language per say as of its usage in a cultural context. A language can be used, generally, to express any number of different ideas; in a cultural context, though, it may not be very good for expressing some of them.

Do Not Go Gentle

Ethan and Helen Levine were very much in love. Moreover, they both were suffering from severe physical ailments and psychological stress. On New Yearâ??s Day, after meticulous planning to make sure their affairs were in order, this Wyoming couple committed suicide. They were found in their garage, inside a green SUV, holding hands. Carbon monoxide had taken their lives.

In an August Star-Tribune column that seemed to foreshadow the path the couple would take on New Year's Day, Helen appeared to justify â?? or at least, explain â?? their decision, and she concluded the piece with a quote that could be construed as either ominous or oddly comforting, depending on viewpoint.

"Whether we find ourselves slipping away from natural causes, or taking the moment and make our own way, I remember the advice of Dylan Thomas: 'Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.'" [â??The Last Exitâ? by Bethany Kohoutek, Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, posted March 9, 2005 at AlterNet]

Dylan Thomasâ??s words were directed at his dying father, urging him to fight against death. Helenâ??s â??taking the momentâ? to commit suicide in calculated fashion might be thumbing a nose at a natural process of death. It speaks of a perceived dignity that even seeks death, but wants to do it on oneâ??s own terms, not those of a natural grim reaper. Does that type of defeatist anger fit the intent of Dylan Thomasâ??s poem?

When we eventually encounter an amber light in lifeâ??s flowing road of green lights, I sense that Dylan Thomasâ??s words might encourage us to rebelliously run through that amber light and more amber lights ahead before a red one unavoidably should stop us in our tracks. Helen Levine, regarding her personal circumstances, might have interpreted rage against the turning of the amber light to red as deliberately stopping at an amber light and gathering tools to fix the light so it would turn red before it was originally set to do so.

Iâ??m reminded of another famous poem by Emily Dickinson, which begins:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me.

The Levines, on the other hand, did stop for physical death, perhaps invoking its presence even before it was in sight down the road. They experienced burning â??rage, rageâ? about their intense pain, physically and politically. Helenâ??s words in her article appeared to be a defiant statement, including an option of making â??our own way,â? in her case, the extinguishing of this worldly light, a light that, for the Levines, proved to be too scorching.

Yet, this was not the type of rage that shouts at the inevitable unknown, trying to grasp a little more time, even if briefly rekindling the flickering flame of earthly existence. The Levines' rage snuffed it out.

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Tim's Mammalian Brain

Heaven forbid we should make a rational choice. Because, of course, rational, counter-intuitive thinking has never gotten us anywhere. Not anywhere that we remember, at least, while our lizard-brains are in charge. It might be worthwhile, though, to remember that for the last few ten-million years, the mammals have been in charge.

Jennifer Loviglio wants an SUV. She wants it because she wants to feel safe:

.... I want an SUV. I want to be safe. Last month I totaled my old Volvo in a scary accident, and at that moment everything changed.

It was late afternoon and the weather was fine --- dry roads, good visibility. I was driving along East Avenue and without warning a young driver in a Honda made an illegal left across traffic. I hit the brakes but it was too late. The awful metal smash. The explosion of airbags with their acrid smoke and debris. My son screaming in the backseat.

The car lurched onto the sidewalk and we got out fast. No one was hurt. ....

... and yet, she still wants her SUV.

She's test driven them, and she felt that tendency to roll over; she felt it as even more pronounced in the full-sized SUV, but she still wants "8,600 pounds of metal between my boys and the other cars."

She wants those 8,600 pounds because she wants to feel safe, not because she wants to be safe. In fact, she knows she'll be less safe:

In larger SUVs, that top-heavy pull is even stronger. And yet, even though I know better, it does feel safe up there. A couple of years ago, in a New Yorker article about SUVs by Malcolm Gladwell, an industry expert pointed out that this paradox is common. On an intellectual level people know taller vehicles have a greater chance of a rollover, but on what he calls the "reptilian level," consumers think "if I am bigger and taller I'm safer."

The article also shows how SUVs take much longer to stop and are difficult to steer even at moderate speeds, whereas sporty little cars with their better handling can avoid potential collisions at speeds upwards of 50 miles an hour. It makes the case that a smaller car, which could be crushed by an SUV, might nonetheless be a safer vehicle because of its maneuverability. Still, though, if I'm going to hit something --- God forbid --- I'd rather be in a tank.

Of course, the rational thing to do would be to check the crash test ratings for various models, or even just buy another Volvo. The first one served her well: The much-lauded Volvo space frame did its job, the airbags worked, and no one was hurt. And in the unlikely event of a rollover, there are few cars in current manufacture that will keep her family safer than a Volvo.

But this isn't a rational issue, it's a "maternal gene" [sic] kicking in. And we all know, don't we, that it's "crucial" (by which she clearly means 'forgivable') to obey the yearnings that we think are wired into our genes.

Which is to say, to be good and conscientious parents -- well, mothers, really, since "paternal genes" aren't under discussion -- we must always obey our lizard brains. Heaven forbid we think for a moment with our mammalian brains.

My sister went off the road one time and rolled her car. She was on her way to church on Sunday evening, with her two year old son and a bunch of warm pumpkin pies in the back seat. When her '73 Saab 99 settled back onto its wheels, she felt something warm and sticky on her head; but it was only pumpkin pie, and Luke was screaming that frightened but unhurt scream from his fiberglass car seat.

Luke is now 25 and a father of two. The much-lauded Saab roll-cage had done its job. The next day, once he'd arranged to have the wreck (which still at least looked driveable) towed back to the house, Luke's father Tim was on the phone looking for a new-used Saab to replace it with.

That was Tim's mammalian brain -- his "paternal gene" [sic] -- working. He wanted his family to be safe.

And after all, the mammals are in charge, now.

Love, Pain, and Story Logic

One of the most egregious failures of imagination that I see every day is what looks very much like an inability (or more likely an unwillingness) to stretch the mind to understand what a story is trying to tell you.

And what stories are trying to tell you isn't some single, specific thing. If they are, they're bad stories -- maybe even false stories. Good stories -- "true" stories -- are like a thought-experiment: "What would happen if someone did this?" I am increasingly convinced that stories are how humans are wired to make sense of the world. Stories are why we have advanced language skills: Better language made for better stories, better stories made for a more survivable community, etc.

If a story has consistent, valid story logic and character logic -- if the characters behave in ways that makes sense for those characters, in that circumstance, to behave -- then we can safely say that there's at least some truth in it. If the story is powerfully told, so much the better: Without good telling, we won't stretch ourselves to find the empathy we'll need to make the narrative talk to us. This is what "great" makers of narrative (those folks we call "writers", but also film-makers, poets, songwriters, painters...) have always done.

So Medved is not only being reductionist on this point, he's being a bad critic, because he's approaching criticism without imagination. He's looking at the film as though it's some kind of a morality-machine, and any good film -- any good story -- is something more than that. It's a narrative, from which we can draw a deeper understanding (that is, if it's story-logic and character logic are true).

Anyway, I don't have high expectations for a review from anybody who's expecting to find a clear moral universe in an Eastwood film. Think of Unforgiven (endorses prostitution and lawless behavior), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (romanticizes gay sex and murder and promotes an anti-christian agenda through endorsing voudoun), Bridges of Madison County (glorifies adultery), or probably any of his other films from the past 15 years. There is a theme there, though, I think, and it's that Clint Eastwood lives in an increasingly vague moral universe these days. They only things that seem to be certain in Eastwood's moral universe are pain and love. (And there are worse absolutes to fixate on. Power, per se, for example, has no real moral endorsement in Eastwood's vision -- it's a fact, to be sure, but it's always in service of love or pain. But I digress...)

What these films can help us to understand is that a vague moral universe is not an amoral one. Every Eastwood picture that I can recall (aside from his forgettable late Dirty Harry outings, done to win studio backing for future projects) has been driven by its moral choices. His characters do not serve as moral models; rather, they model moral behavior. There's a crucial difference: The first means that they are merely shadows on the cave wall, cast by the contorted hands of a finger-puppeteer; the latter allows us to imagine ourselves in that world, and consider the choices we would make.

The Images of Mary Ball Washington

Today is George Washingtonâ??s birthday. And after a bit of musing, I realized that I didnâ??t know much about the woman who gave him birth.

I did know that Washingtonâ??s father, Augustine, died when George was young and that not much was known about their relationship. The legend of honest George chopping down a cherry tree and subsequent confession to his father was fabrication, of course.

Pursuant to a little investigation, I discovered that much of Mary Ball Washingtonâ??s persona also has been the stuff of myth.

Who was Mary Ball Washington? Now, scholars are producing work about her for the first time in decades and are challenging the extreme images that have been painted of her.

In the 1800s, Mary's first biographers generally romanticized her, but biographers of the next century tore her down, some recent scholars have said. In some of the most prominent books about George Washington, written in the mid-1900s, his mother was described as superficial, materialistic and so overbearing that one biographer said George was "fleeing from his mother to war."

But recent research looks at the societal context of her relationship with her son, and current researchers have said Mary has been portrayed unjustly. [â??Scholars, Symposium Challenge Mary Washington Loreâ? by Michelle Boorstein, The Washington Post, 14 March 2004]

We humans surely love a good story, donâ??t we? Hereâ??s another yarn spun at the conclusion of The Washington Post article:

Although this recent scholarship might stimulate some interest locally, guides at the Mary Washington House in Fredericksburg, which is now a museum, pondered last week whether the city's matriarch would gain a wider audience.

"What I want to know is, what do they think about Mary Washington in Detroit? How much do people know about her outside of Fredericksburg?" Regina Spencer asked.

"I don't think people think about her," Len Malinowski answered. "[Henry] Ford, maybe, but not Washington."

Not quite.

Henry Ford and Mary Washington.

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Beefy Fatheads

The New York Times Maureen Dowd is discussing "fatheads," the segment of the male population that has a condescending locker room mentality in regards to women, in her article, â??Whereâ??s the Road Beef?â?.

At the dawn of feminism, there was an assumption that women would not be as severely judged on their looks in ensuing years. Phooey. It's just the opposite. Looks matter more than ever, with more and more women spending fortunes turning themselves into generic, plastic versions of what they think men want, reaching for eerily similar plumped-up faces and body shapes.

What they think men want often becomes what women think women want, and in my experience, there are also those fatheaded women who are vicious in judging other womenâ??s appearance.

Iâ??m not immune to the human (not just female) convention of primping, but I am rather fond of lines and sags and bags as people age. We all earn those badges of maturity. And, at least for me, I feel ageless inside no matter what nature eventually has in store for my body. So, where do we draw the line between caring about our health/appearance/grooming and being neurotically obsessed with our looks, grasping for some illusive fountain of physical youth? Are we humans with dignity or merely physical objects, often encountering double standards?

Iâ??m reminded of an incident several years ago during a backyard picnic. A few of us were chatting in a circle, introducing ourselves. A neighbor of the hosts looked at his wife, mentioning they were newlyweds, and then teasingly said that his wife needed to lose a little weight sheâ??d put on since the wedding. I looked at the womanâ??s petite frame and wondered what on earth he was talking about. Jerk, I thought, looking at what some might have considered his unattractive paunch.

No one said anything as we uncomfortably watched the woman teasingly nudge her husband back. The womanâ??s saddened eyes belied her forced smile.

I didnâ??t speak up, even though I wanted to, because the woman needed to speak for herself. But she didnâ??t, at least not publicly. She didnâ??t call him a neolithic fathead. She didnâ??t even calmly tell him she was happy the way she was. Nothing. Heck, maybe she even bought into this ridiculous, demeaning crap.

After a brief pause, conversation continued. One battle lost. One woman appearing to accept public disdain.

She might have let him have it later in private. I donâ??t know. But still, for a while after that I beat myself up for not coming to her aid.

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More Thoughts on Intelligent Intentions

With continuing clarification from intelligent design proponents like Michael J. Behe that:

Intelligent design proponents do question whether random mutation and natural selection completely explain the deep structure of life. But they do not doubt that evolution occurred. And intelligent design itself says nothing about the religious concept of a creator.

... can ID ever be considered independently without creationist hijackers muddying the waters? Is it feasible for most people (and not just religious believers) to consider notions of intelligence and intention without preconceptions of a dogmatized deity or assumptions that creation has something to do with â??goodnessâ??

ID proponents see a place for investigating both evolution and design as a logical approach. Is this reasonable?

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