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Barack Obama is a CIA Plant!

One of the things I find really irritating about wingnuts is that they don't appear to think very clearly, and their writing shows it. Here's a typical passage from a typical "run your underwear up the flagpole" bit of conspiracy-baiting from Jim Lindgren at The Volokh Conspiracy:

As part of a joint “project” with SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] (p. 170), Oglesby arranged meetings with Haynes and Business International clients as part of their “round-table meetings,” allowing SDS to explain their opposition to the war (p. 171). New York SDS members continued to meet regularly with Business International even after Oglesby left New York.

Haynes “had come to agree with SDS about the war, racism, and urban poverty.” (Id.) Haynes, who died in 1976, told Oglesby that if he had been in the same generation as Oglesby, he might have joined SDS. (p. 170) After Robert Kennedy died, Haynes even called up Oglesby and urged SDS to riot: “Get your people out and tear the goddamn place into pieces.” (Oglesby, p. 188)

According to Oglesby, the Dohrn/Klonsky wing [of the SDS] was highly suspicious of SDS’s joining in any programs with Business International. Oglesby’s memoir recounts long discussions and interrogations of Oglesby — led by Dohrn, Klonsky, and Arlene Bergman — over Oglesby’s development of SDS links with Business International. [emphasis added]

Of all the firms in all the world, Obama had to walk into the one that years before had closer ties to SDS than any other mainstream business in the world. What luck!

(It's so cute the way scare-quoting "project" turns it into a wingnut dog-whistle.)

The point, I think, is that because Obama worked for a company that eight (or more) years previously had a President who was sympathetic to the aims of the Students for a Democratic Society, we're supposed to be suspicious of Obama's aims, now. As though just having one official who made contacts with the SDS was enough to taint an entire company such that not only would the taint still be there ten to fifteen years later, it would be strong enough to taint in turn everyone who ever worked there for a brief time, or perhaps everyone who was ever associated with them -- and that now, we're supposed to suspect that any of those people might be a sleeper-agent for the ComIntern.

But that's not what's wrong with this passage.

It's not even the dog-whistle invocation of "SDS" as code for "communist", harkening back as it does to the cold war and the days of "useful idiots." (By the way, the Right has useful idiots, too -- they just all think the idiot is someone else.)

What's really wrong with this passage is that Lindgren screws up telling the story.

He wants to establish "ties" between SDS and Business International. Clearly he wants to imply that those ties are somehow active, that they have sufficient vitality to make us legitimately worried about Obama as a result. Yet he takes great care (probably because, like any writer, he's loathe to edit) to keep a passage that expresses great ambivalence ont he part of SDS over being involved with Business International. He doesn't say why, but suspicion of Business International's motives seems like a plausible reason. Apparently there have been rumors off and on that Business International was a CIA front, like Coca-Cola (though it's as easy to imagine SDS's suspicion starting those rumors as being in response to them).

Here's where it gets sloppy: Lindgren seques from that into trying to draw the connection between scary-SDS and scary-Obama by way of (possibly spooky) business research firm Business International, right after clearly establishing that some influential elements of scary-SDS were scared of Business International.

So that's how Lindgren screws uptelling the story: He precedes his closer with evidence that undermines (if not negates) it. And because of his own confirmation bias, he probably doesn't even realize he did it.

At another level, though, this is merely typical conspiracy wanking. He's taking a random connection and tossing it against the wall. It's as though I were to point out that John McCain consorted with Democrats as a Naval attache to Congress in the 1970s. Some lunatic might make the leap to associate him with Democrats and by extension with the anti-war movement. Voila: John McCain is now a secret Commie, in the mind of one lunatic. It's a dog whistle. The great holy grail of conspiracy baiting is to find the dog whistle that calls the most dogs. Sometimes it's best to leave the crap in, because you can just never know what will resonate with a lunatic. 

The juciest irony, though, is that based on Lindgren's story, it's just as easy to create a nutjob conspiracy narrative where Barack Obama is a CIA plant as it is to create one where he's a secret Commie.

It does encourage the development of poor rhetorical skills, though.

Yes, They Really Are That Crazy, Redux (Or: Intellectual Penis Envy)

If any doubt remained that the giants of intellectual conservatism who staff National Review Online were a bunch of raving lunatics severely handicapped by intellectual equivalent of penis envy, Andy McCarthy is now making a non-endorsement endorsement of the deeply paranoid and strange notion that Dreams from my Father was ghost-written by Bill Ayers:

There has been speculation about this which I've ignored, no doubt because there are enough policy reasons to oppose Barack Obama and I don't want to feed into what sounds, at first blush, like Vince Fosteresque paranoia.  But I've finally read Jack Cashill's lengthy analysis in The American Thinker.  It is thorough, thoughtful, and alarming — particularly his deconstruction of the text in Obama's memoir and comparison to the themes, sophistication and signature phraseology of Bill Ayers' memoir.

There is nothing in Obama's scant paper trail prior to 1995 that would suggest something as stylish and penetrating as, at times, Dreams from My Father is.  And when Obama speaks extemporaneously, one doesn't hear the same voice one encounters in the book.  Now maybe Obama has a backlog of writing fom Columbia or Harvard that signal great literary promise, but he not only hasn't shared it, he's assiduously hidden traces of it.  And, to be sure, writing is different from speaking — in fairness, some of Obama's off-the-cuff bumbling when he speaks is certainly due to the rigors of the campaign which would cause even the most gifted communicator to faulter from time to time.  But it's not unreasonable to expect more similarity between Obama the writer and Obama the orator.

It really shouldn't be necessary to debunk this, and in fact, it won't do any good for anyone to bother, it's just so god damned loony of an idea. But dammit, it offends me as a writer. And I find it obscene, frankly, that someone who makes a pretense to intellectualism can put such crap out there and try to pass it off as reasoning.

Here's how Jack Cashill starts out his "thorough, thoughful" "analysis":

Prior [strange broken link preserved as a slap at Jack Cashill and American "Thinker"] to 1990, when Barack Obama contracted to write Dreams From My Father, he had written very close to nothing.  Then, five years later, this untested 33 year-old produced what Time Magazine has called -- with a straight face -- "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician."

The public is asked to believe Obama wrote Dreams From My Father on his own, almost as though he were some sort of literary idiot savant.  I do not buy this canard for a minute, not at all.  Writing is as much a craft as, say, golf.  To put this in perspective, imagine if a friend played a few rounds in the high 90s and then a few years later, without further practice, made the PGA Tour.  It doesn't happen.

Right from the outset is remarkably sloppy thinking, and it's really kind of comical that it's the lede for a story in a publication called "American Thinker." My wife, who teaches composition to college freshmen, would have sent back the draft that included this with a note that indicating it would seriously hurt the grade of the final paper. I really shouldn't have to point out the amazingly obvious logical errors (and there are two howlers, either of which renders the lede worthy of ridicule by any reasonably intelligent junior high school student), but the ostensibly intellectual Jack Cashill didn't spot 'em so I guess I should assume NRO-clique conservative intellectualoids are just not sharp enough to get them.

  1. The fact that Cashill isn't aware of Obama's writing during that time period doesn't mean there wasn't any. There was probably a lot. He was a law student for much of that time, a community organizer giving frequent talks and speeches for much of it as well. And he was talking day after day with black preachers, who train in narrative reasoning at the feet of their family and neighbors from a very young age. This is stuff Cashill should be bright and educated enough to know. That he's not accounting for it strikes me as willful ignorance.

  2. As importantly, writing (something Cashill's clearly not that good at, since he seems unable to form coherent arguments) is actually not even remotely like golf in one very important regard: Golf is comprised of a set of specific cognitive and motor activities that aren't really very mappable to real life, whereas writing (and particularly in African-American communities) corresponds to cognitive and social-interaction activities that an intelligent and conversant person uses all the time in his/her daily life. If you're a thoughtful person, you're always "writing", and always learning about language. So if someone writes a crappy essay that's published when he's 14, and the next thing he publishes is a masterful novel that hits the shelves when he's 30, it's actually not very surprising.

So, what's going on here? It's obviously not that Cashill actually has objectively creditable reasons for believing that Bill Ayers (or anybody else) ghost-wrote Obama's memoirs and speeches (and no, he doesn't stop at the memoirs). There's got to be more to it. I actually don't believe it's purely race, either. I think David Brooks (whose name is probably less than mud at NRO) is onto something with his critique of the (lack of) intellectual foundations of the modern American Right. Now, I don't think David Brooks is an intellectual giant, but dammit, he actually makes a credible effort and he's willing to deal with reality. I don't necessarily agree with his ideas about demographics, for example, but he's done the work of thinking through the problems and I can actually believe he knows more about the details than me.

So is it the standard white male's fear of a black man? Or is it the more profound standard conservative male's fear of an intelligent "leftist"?

So, let's be fair: There are some "leftists" intellectuals who are as frightened to the point of irrationality of intelligent conservatives as Cashill clearly is of Obama. And there are some conservatives -- even some occasionally hot-headed ones, like Andrew Sullivan* -- who are capable of having intellectually honest discussions with people who don't agree with them on doctrinaire matters. Cashill, though, is clearly an intellectual fraud. So's McCarthy. They're so terrified of the idea that someone they don't agree with might be better than them at the one thing that makes them special, that they have to expend this much effort rationalizing away that person's success. 

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*Sullivan's at least intelllectually honest, though, inasmuch as when he does get carried away -- as he sometimes does -- he's generally able to recognize it and willing to call himself out. Buckleyites, in my experience, are rarely willing to do that, and never in deference to anyone they've identified as "leftist."

Poker Dreams. Or: Let's be clear how this is going to go.

I had a dream about poker last night. Barack Obama was in it, sort of, as a presence in the background, someone I knew was playing, somewhere. So was John McCain. I was getting together things for a rummage sale, and one of the things I was putting in was a poker set. Only, it was poker played with dice, and the game had been somehow "simplified" so that people wouldn't have to actually understand suits and hands and betting rules. The dice had arabic numerals on them. (In my dream, the old-fashioned dot-patterns were deemed 'too complicated'.) And there were lots of dice -- hundreds, possibly.

I'm generally not big on the idea that dreams are metaphors for life, but this one seems so relevant, so poetic, that I can't ignore it. See, Obama is a poker player. Supposed to be quite good at it. The most important thing in poker is to make decisions about your course of action that are based on what you actually know (is he showing his tell? what cards are face up? what have I got? is my gut telling me anything?), and then sticking to it until you know something that warrants changing your plan. McCain is a craps player. He throws dice. The most important thing in craps is that you have a lot of money, so it doesn't hurt so much when you lose it. Snap decisions don't matter one way or another, so intermittent reinforcement will tend to make those decisions stick with you as valuable more often than as detrimental.

John McCain will not be debating tonight. Sarah Palin will not be debating next week. John McCain will be maneuvered into position to take credit for a solution to the financial crisis as a favor from the Republican leadership, even though he'll have nothing constructive to do with it; in so doing, it will be made clear to half of America that he muddied the waters by injecting himself into the mix, and to the other half that he Took Charge And Got It Done.

I actually think there's an excellent chance there won't be any debates at all. He seems desperate to avoid them. Obama's best bet is to let it be known that he'll be available whenever McCain wants to carry forward with the planned debates, and keep pointing out that the Senate Finance Committee (which McCain has no part in) has actually been making excellent progress without intereference from the Presidential candidates.

At this point in time the campaign starts to look like a slow-motion train wreck: Palin is being shown for the lightweight she is, McCain is cracking under the pressure of trying to be something other than John McCain, and Obama is keeping his cool and sticking to his game. He seems to know what's in his hand, and to have known for months. Let the dice fall where they may: He's not playing that game. He's playing poker, not craps.

Singularity as Death-Avoidance

IEEE Spectrum focuses on the technological singularity. Glenn Zorpette thinks it's largely driven by fear of death:
The singularity debate is too rarely a real argument. There’s too much fixation on death avoidance. That’s a shame, because in the coming years, as ­computers become stupendously powerful—really and truly ridiculously powerful—and as electronics and other technologies begin to enhance and fuse with biology, life really is going to get more interesting.

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Freeman Dyson and the Pretense of Vision

Freeman Dyson is one of the more dangerous scientists alive right now.

.... The wiggles in the [Keeling] graph show us that every carbon dioxide molecule in the atmosphere is incorporated in a plant within a time of the order of twelve years. Therefore, if we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands. That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" as a low-cost backstop to global warming. The science and technology of genetic engineering are not yet ripe for large-scale use. We do not understand the language of the genome well enough to read and write it fluently. But the science is advancing rapidly, and the technology of reading and writing genomes is advancing even more rapidly. I consider it likely that we shall have "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuels and other useful chemicals. Biotechnology is enormously powerful, capable of burying or transforming any molecule of carbon dioxide that comes into its grasp. Keeling's wiggles prove that a big fraction of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes within the grasp of biotechnology every decade. If one quarter of the world's forests were replanted with carbon-eating varieties of the same species, the forests would be preserved as ecological resources and as habitats for wildlife, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be reduced by half in about fifty years.

That's just science fiction, of course -- not the scary part at all. This is the scary part:

It is likely that biotechnology will dominate our lives and our economic activities during the second half of the twenty-first century, just as computer technology dominated our lives and our economy during the second half of the twentieth. Biotechnology could be a great equalizer, spreading wealth over the world wherever there is land and air and water and sunlight. This has nothing to do with the misguided efforts that are now being made to reduce carbon emissions by growing corn and converting it into ethanol fuel. The ethanol program fails to reduce emissions and incidentally hurts poor people all over the world by raising the price of food. After we have mastered biotechnology, the rules of the climate game will be radically changed. In a world economy based on biotechnology, some low-cost and environmentally benign backstop to carbon emissions is likely to become a reality.

Translation: "We don't need to do anything now, because we'll invent our way out of the problem when the time comes."

I suppose I should be grateful that he's no longer appointing himself global diagnostician. At least now he admits that there might be a problem.

I've been told by people I respect that Dyson is a very good physicist. But I'm hard put to recall anything outside of his domain that wasn't just plain stupid once you got past the "oh, neato" moment. I mean, Dyson Spheres are a cool idea, but also a really dumb one if you think about them just a tiny bit. They're a triumph of the broadly logically possible: We can imagine it, therefore it must be feasible. We can imagine going Niven & Pournelle one better and building a sphere around a small star (or arranging otherwise to intercept all of the star's energy). We can imagine nesting matrioshka layers one inside the other, to overlap and trap the inevitable leakage. All we have to do is solve this list of several thousand technical problems. We've solved every other technical problem we've ever been presented with; we'll clearly be able to solve these. What is conceivable, is feasible.

We can imagine magic carbon-sequestering trees, therefore they must be feasible. We can imagine a quarter of the world's trees being replaced by these magic inventions, therefore we should count on it happening (when the alternative is essentially the collapse of civilization).

All of these speculations commit an obvious and really, really troubling error: They assume that certain important things, like rate of technological innovation, rate of increate in energy use, etc., are essentially laws of nature: That not only won't they change, but that their not changing is a righteous thing. Moore's Law will go on forever; we'll keep increasing our need for energy at a predictable and increasing rate; we'll keep inventing new ways to solve all of our problems; better living through chemistry.

This kind of thinking is usually based on a detailed look at only a very short span of human history, and a very high-level gloss of anything beyond the past three or four hundred years.

It's disturbingly short sighted, in other words, even as it pretends to vision.

This is why I don't respect Dyson: He pretends to vision, but is blind to his own short-sightedness

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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

Calling Tim Lovejoy

From the outro to a Boston Globe piece on Stephen Prothero's new book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't:

And it's not only church-state watchdogs and atheists who are skeptical about whether teachers can pull off the non-devotional tightrope walk. "My own sense," says Mark Noll, an acclaimed historian at Notre Dame who is an evangelical Christian, "is that the Bible is a pretty explosive book. If students read it carefully, they'd be changed in a way that public schools couldn't handle -- and appropriately so.

Holy Book Learning - The Boston Globe

I agree. But probably not about what the change would be. Unless by "read it carefully," he means 'read it under the guidance of a qualified, believing, religious professional.' And not, say, a cynical camp counselor. Or, for that matter, on their own. If so, they might well be changed in a way that the churches couldn't handle.

Because at the end of the day, the Bible is still an old book full of bloody stories and finicky, contradictory aphorisms. In the words of the Reverend Tim Lovejoy: "Have you actually read this thing? Technically we're not allowed to go to the bathroom."


Large Christian Families

Large Christian families or large families in general are not a new phenomenon. In years past, there were mothers who had many children with hopes that a few of them would survive infancy and later childhood. For instance, within a period of 21 years, Susanna Wesley, Christian mother of Methodist founder John Wesley, gave birth to 19 children, many of whom died in infancy.

So, why is Mark Morford so bent out of shape about Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar recently having their 16th baby?

Morford mulls over his reaction in his SFGate column (October 19, 2005):

It's wrong to be this judgmental. Wrong to suggest that it is exactly this kind of weird pathological protofamily breeding-happy gluttony that's making the world groan and cry and recoil, contributing to vicious overpopulation rates and unrepentant economic strain and a bitter moral warpage resulting from a massive viral outbreak of homophobic neo-Christians across our troubled and Bush-ravaged land. Or is it?

Obviously, nowadays here in America, modern advances have increased the probability that babies will survive. And there are many people who would question the Duggarsâ?? judgment in choosing to turn out yearly â??screaming spitballs of joy.â?

Mark Morford inquires:

Perhaps the point is this: Why does this sort of bizarre hyperbreeding only seem to afflict antiseptic megareligious families from the Midwest?

Even though the Duggars are from Arkansas, a state Iâ??ve always thought of as a Southern one, the operative word that struck me in Morfordâ??s question was â??megareligious.â?

Certainly there are many Christian families who love children but do not desire large families. Among the ones who do want big families, I propose that not only is love of children, as expressed by the Duggars, a reason, but also, for some others, these multitudinous little blessings from their God are part of a strategy to fully proselytize the Good News. Overpopulating the world could even mean overtaking the heathens, by golly!

In Nancy Campbellâ??s list of â??101 Reasons for Having Children!â?, #84 reads:

I want another arrow for God's army.


Mark Morford ends his article:

Ah, but this is America, yes? People should be allowed to do whatever the hell they want with their families if they can afford it and if it's within the law and so long as they aren't gay or deviant or happily flouting Good Christian Values, right? Shouldn't they? Hell, gay couples still can't openly adopt a baby in most states (they either lie, or one adopts and the other must apply as "co-parent"), but Michelle Duggar can pop out 16 kids and no one says, oh my freaking God, stop it, stop it now, you thoughtless, selfish, baby-drunk people.

No, no one says that. That would be mean.

Balderdash! Define â??mean.â? There is a time for politeness, and there is a time for, well,... protective measures.


Catholic Bishops Offer Guide to Symbolic Passages in Bible

A friend directed me to a Yahoo news article (October 6, 2005) from The Scotsman entitled â??Church stops believing in the Bibleâ? by Stephen McGinty. As I read further, it became apparent that there was no way the Catholic Church in Scotland was ending belief in the Bible. The Church had simply published a guide explaining that not all Bible passages were literally true.

The idea of symbolic language in the Bible is nothing new. But an official guide from the Church in Scotland could help combat what the bishops say are "significant dangers" involved in taking a fundamentalist approach to the Bible.

In the United States there is a debate among some Christians who wish the story of creation as told in the Book of Genesis to be taught as an alternative to the theory of evolution as explained by Charles Darwin.

However, the first 11 chapters of Genesis, which gives two differing stories of creation, cannot be considered as "historical" according to Scotland's Bishops.


Father Michael McMahon, a lecturer in scripture and a priest of the Paisley Diocese, who co-wrote the report, said: "In order to believe that every passage of the Bible is the literal truth, you have to suspend your critical faculties. You have to suspend the God-given ability to reason."

I wholeheartedly am glad to see some official views expressing dangers of a fundamentalist approach. However, there remains the possibility that if the bishops were to succumb to critical reason entirely, they might also question why they accept as factual some tenets like The Virgin Birth and bodily resurrection. If they indeed have given this some thought, there still comes a point when decisions to interpret some passages metaphorically and not others can create some confusion in the total doctrinal picture.

For instance, if the Genesis creation stories are to be considered symbolic, are we to assume that Adam and Eve are not historical figures? If so, what about Adamâ??s â??original sinâ? that has implicated all of humanity? St. Augustine claimed that transmission of original sin occurred in the semen of the male. This very material doctrine of original sin required Maryâ??s immaculate conception so as to be conceived free from all stain of original sin.

Regardless of symbolic creation stories, the Virgin Birth is still considered factually correct by the Catholic Church in Scotland. I donâ??t have a copy of their newly published guide. Perhaps the bishops explain further how symbolic the figure of Adam is, the one, according to doctrine, whose stain literally inherited by mankind required a literal immaculate conception of Mary, not to mention the doctrine that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary without agency of a "stained" human father.

The mystery continues...


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.

The Decline of FEMA in the Rise of the Militarized State

"No-one cares about disasters until they happen. That is a political fact of life... "
-- David McEntire, who teaches emergency management at the University of North Texas, quoted in a Reuters story on Yahoo News

Guns matter much more than butter to the Bushites.

For its size, I suspect there are few government agencies that have been more effective than FEMA. They moved fast, and when they said "boo!" people jumped. They were so effective that they even get a footnote in the conspiracy literature (with a little help from Wired Magazine and Chris Carter).

Well, make that "were more effective." That was then, of course -- before the most conservative US administration in over a century got a blank check to reorganize government agencies in the light of their own perceived priorities. And those priorities were much more focused on human-driven risks than on natural ones. (And anyway, the only "natural" cause of anything is God. Right?)

Now, this week in New Orleans, we see how little attention anyone really pays to FEMA now that they're several steps down in the Federal Homeland "Security" bureaucracy. But (of course) I think there's more to it; I think it boils down to the fact that schoolyard bullies don't get nearly as much enjoyment out of helping people recover from disasters as they do out of blowing people up and shooting them. That could just be why, now that there are lots of looters in the streets, the President's got the Army all over it.

Thought for the moment: Katrina as God's Punishment on the Poor

Question: How do you tell if someone is going to get help after hurricane Katrina?
Answer: Find out if they were actually in the hurricane. If so, probably not.

I've been thinking about something. There's a very important and simple difference between the people who are getting help and the people who are not: The ones who are getting help were able to drive to safety; the ones who are not, were stuck in harms way.

Put another way: If you're middle class, the probability is that you're getting help; if you're poor, the probability is much higher that you're not.

Very soon after Katrina hit on Monday morning, there were hundreds of Army and National Guard trucks en route to the Gulf Coast, loaded with MREs and fresh water. Where did they go? Why, they went where the refugees were: Places like Baton Rouge.

But they didn't go to New Orleans. Obviously, it would have been harder to get in to New Orleans, but you would think they'd be prepared to mobilize a few Blackhawks and Chinooks to airlift in a few palettes of drinking water and MREs to those highway flyovers poking up above the floodwaters. (That is, if those Blackhawks and Chinooks weren't half a world away enforcing a schoolyard-bully foreign policy.) But no: Instead, they went to places that already had a functioning infrastructure, where, though it would have meant some hardship, locals would have doubtless chipped in to help.

The semiotics of this aren't that simple, of course. There's already an undercurrent of discontent at the idea that people who made the "choice" to stay in a place like New Orleans need to be taught a "hard lesson". (You don't need to look to the web for this -- just keep your ears open.) And then of course there's the symbolism of washing away "Sin City South" in a deluge. Anyone still there, must be part of the mess that God wanted to wash away.

Karma, language, and action

In following the Horgan debate on MeFi, I encountered this, in a response to a Horgan critique of Buddhism:

.... Karma literally means "action." Action always produces results and so the word karma is often misunderstood as referring only to the results of our actions, not the actions themselves. In fact, action and its results are one and the same. Time, the thing which makes us see them as separate matters, is the illusion. Time is no more than a clever fiction we humans have invented to help organize stuff in our brains. ....

... which is, in turn, no more than a clever fiction that Buddhists have invented to help organize stuff in their brains. Because, of course, if the world is an illusion, then we can't prove the world is an illusion.

Tricksy, these Buddhists, is....

But I digress, as usual. What really interests me is the simple assertion that actions and their results are "one and the same", without any attempt to explain what that means. If you parse the language, what doubtboy is really saying is that the Buddhist term karma isn't a synonym for "action", it's a cognate. "Karma", that is, doesn't "mean" "action" -- it "means" (in English) "action plus result."

The two different conceptualizations of "action" let you reason to different ends -- they give you different kinds of power. One gives you power to include, the other gives you power to divide. As Pirsig pointed out in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the power to divide is powerful, too.

Where Buddhist practice starts to get really interesting (to me) is where it allows you to use both conceptualizations of "action" simultaneously. It's my experience that many dedicated students of Buddhism don't grok this possibility; I expect that doubtboy, like Pirsig, does.

Church-State Issues Revisited

Saturday, our family ate at a fine Mexican restaurant. Yesterday, we enjoyed Thai food, Belgian waffles, jazz music, and throngs of people from all over the metropolitan area at the annual TasteFest in Detroitâ??s New Center. All in all, the weekend was shaping up to be somewhat of a wonderful multicultural experience. An American experience.

Upon the return trip home, following a car with a bumper sticker that read: â??God Rules!â? jolted me a bit. There was also a Christian fish sticker with the word "Jesus" inscribed inside. The owner of the car, possibly the woman driving, certainly had the right to display those stickers. I couldnâ??t help but wonder whether she had voted for George Bush. In my mindâ??s eye, I could almost see Antonin Scalia blessing the bumper display. I thought of various belief systems represented across our nation, and then I envisioned the narrow Christian right influence within our administration superimposed over the lot -- vibrant diversity beginning to choke under the miasma of evangelical fundamentalism.

I read with interest Noah Feldmanâ??s article in The New York Times yesterday: â??A Church-State Solution.â? He outlined history of our American experiment with â??no established religion at all.â?

Infusions of religious diversity have brought challenges, and Feldman describes two conflicting camps in our present era: 1) â??values evangelicals,â? those â??who insist on the direct relevance of religious values to political life,â? and 2) â??legal secularists,â? those â??who see religion as a matter of personal belief and choice largely irrelevant to government and who are concerned that values derived from religion will divide us, not unite us.â?

Noah Feldman writes:

Despite the gravity of the problem, I believe there is an answer. Put simply, it is this: offer greater latitude for religious speech and symbols in public debate, but also impose a stricter ban on state financing of religious institutions and activities. This approach, the mirror image of O'Connor's compromise, is drawn from the framers' vision and the historical experience of separating church and state in America. The framers might well have been mystified by courthouse statues depicting the Ten Commandments, but they would not have objected unless the monuments were built with public money. Having made a revolution over unfair taxation, they thought of government support in terms of dollars spent, not abstract symbols.


These constitutional principles, reduced to their core, can be captured in a simple slogan: no coercion and no money. If no one is being coerced by the government, and if the government is not spending its money to build religious-themed monuments or support religious institutions and practices, the courts should hold that the Constitution is not violated.

I heartily agree with his proposal to ban government financing of religious activities, yet Iâ??m not entirely ready to support his greater latitude for religious speech and symbols in the public realm, at least right now. I need to chew on this some more. â??Religious speech and symbols in public debateâ? are one thing, but where does this debate take us? Feldman talks about acceptance of religious symbols on public property in certain circumstances, for instance a Ten Commandments monument not â??built with public money.â? But in our present climate, these are not always benign expressions of religious belief, at the same time embracing respect for religious diversity in our country. A bumper decal that says â??God rules!â? could raise some eyebrows if displayed on government property. Does that denote a god that literally rules or is it merely saying that â??God is coolâ? in modern jargon? Apparently, our Supreme Court has ruled that exhibitions on government property delineating ten religious mandates, the first literally commanding believers to have no others gods before a particular monotheistic god, are acceptable in particular situations. Perhaps some would view these as â??abstract symbols,â? but others might view symbols as directly representing a personâ??s or entityâ??s position regarding a belief, regardless of actual intent, just as one might logically assume a religious bumper sticker to reflect a car ownerâ??s belief system. And, some belief systems or religious factions inherently do have coercive intentions.

Feldman has written an intelligent article based on reasonable, respectful considerations and expectations. I havenâ??t always seen evidence of this in our present administration. Our country has witnessed unprecedented actions by extremists who would undermine church-state separation. Although I agree with Noah Feldman that religious coercion isnâ??t acceptable in the public realm, Iâ??m reticent to trust that some others see any distinction between expressing beliefs and forcing them on others.


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.

Overt Endorsement of Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments. It amazes me how these ancient tribal guidelines came to be stamped as not only holy, but also erroneously the source of American law by some who donâ??t even interpret all of the commandments in the manner in which they were intended.

As explained by Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

Most of them do not even have a parallel in the civil law of this country. We don't have laws against coveting your neighbor's S.U.V. or Prius or anything in between; if we did, we would have hundreds of thousands of people in a federal penitentiary. We donâ??t have blasphemy laws. Very few states even have laws against adultery. We don't make Sabbath worship or failing to worship on some Sabbath a crime.

So, our Constitution and our secular laws are not based on the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments were not used by the framers of the Constitution in creating the secular democracy that we have.

There is no doubt that these commandments taken as a whole make a Judeo/Christian statement. Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive questions the recent Supreme Court decision regarding government Ten Commandments displays:

It said that it was OK for Texas to have a six-foot high monument of the Ten Commandments on the capitol grounds in Austin but it was not OK to have framed copies of the commandments in Kentucky courthouses.

For the life of me, I can't detect a logical foundation for ruling one way in Texas and another way in Kentucky.

Marci Hamilton of FindLaw wrote a detailed column today offering explanation. Specifically:

Observers may wonder: How can the Court say one display is constitutional and the other is not? It's the same Ten Commandments.

The answer is that as in most government speech cases under the Establishment Clause, context is everything. To be constitutional, the Court made clear, a government Ten Commandments display must be part of a presentation that is educational or historical - not religious. In addition, the government may not overtly endorse any part of the display.

In the case of the Kentucky display, the county government clearly intended to push a particular religious idea. For some, the context or intent wasnâ??t as clear-cut in the Texas case.

If the government was not overtly endorsing the Texas display, what is meant by â??overtly endorseâ?? Could government workers circumvent â??overt endorsementâ? by covertly passing on Christian fish symbols to passersby?

Is not simply allowing its six-foot presence on display considered blatant endorsement?

Apparently not.


Christian Left Challenges the Right

Mark Lawsonâ??s article in The Guardian yesterday might make some heads spin with its litany of recent names and subjects in the news associated with what he terms a United States theocracy: Billy Graham, George Bush, John Brown, the Terri Schiavo case, the Ten Commandments, the Air Force Academy, not to mention the mother of an 11-year-old boy from Utah who pronounced to the nation that â??the heavens are openâ? and God â??does listen,â? after the discovery of her missing son in the wilderness.

Mr. Lawson observes:

The open religiosity of US society has always been a shock for European visitors, but it feels as if the rhetoric is intensifying monthly in a sort of galloping spiritual inflation.

I agree with the intensity, but I cringe at the thought of linking this galloping inflation with anything remotely spiritual, except in the sense of America possibly selling â??its soul to the devil,â? as Lawson wonders at the end of his article.

Perhaps agreeing with Mark Lawsonâ??s assessment, but not ready to throw in the towel, is the new Christian Alliance for Progress (CAP) that is determined to â??reclaim Christianityâ? from the Christian right extremists.

According to Rob Garver of the The American Prospect:

The Reverend Timothy F. Simpson, a Presbyterian minister and the groupâ??s director of religious affairs, said in an interview Wednesday that the Christian left has for too long allowed the Christian right to be the public face of his religion in America.

The radical Christian right has so polarized our country that an activist Christian left faction is now organizing ready to make waves. CAP is attempting to counteract the highly organized efforts of the Christian right by becoming a viable front that also acknowledges Muslims, Jews, atheists, and anyone who cares about what these leftist Christians view as expressing the ends of the kingdom of God -- standing for the interests of the neighbor, poor people, and the oppressed.

Leftist Christians, although respecting non-Christians, still characterize them in terms of a Christian agenda. And even though the Christian left is promoting the noble aim to preserve the separation of church and state, their efforts do sound like the makings of a holy movement.

Time will tell how effective this grassroots strategy will be and maybe all this is necessary, but Iâ??m beginning to wonder when the term â??secularâ? will stop being a dirty word.


Hope for SpongeBob

Who woulda thunk that little, conservative Hope College in western Michigan could be a venue for contentious wrangling over gay issues?

Religion professor Miguel De La Torre bills himself as theologically conservative but socially liberal because he interprets the Bible literally. His stance must seem at least confusing if not downright wrong to those who also interpret the Bible literally and choose a straight conservative approach, both theologically and socially. He certainly gained the attention of right wing Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, whom he criticized for outing SpongeBob and advocating â??hate, disgust and fear toward homosexuals.â? Dobson countered that he never said SpongeBob was gay. Miguel De La Torre then apologized,... oh, not to Dobson, but to the gay community:

I am sorry if I inadvertently made you the object of my discourse rather than the subject. I never intended to speak for you or about you, but rather to highlight what I continue to see as a moral travesty--the use of sacred text to justify cultural bigotry.

Well, the upshot is that De La Torre has resigned. Rumors abound. Some speculate that the DeVos family (Amway Corp.), whose generous donations benefit Hope College, may have been involved. After all, Hope President James Bultman criticized the SpongeBob essay in a letter to De La Torre dated March 14:

"Hope is dependent on enrollment and gifts to drive the college financially," the president wrote. "When people are displeased with what we do, their only recourse is to exercise their options with regard to enrollment and gifting. Several have indicated their intention to do so."

Then again, no one is named and one could only conjecture...

How psychologist David Myers, also of Hope College, will eventually fare is up for grabs at this point. He has written a book making a Christian case for gay marriage. Bultman says no action will be taken against Myers for his new book. Of course, he has not written a scathing article disparaging James Dobson, and Myers counts Richard DeVos as a friendly supporter regarding his activist work on behalf of people who need hearing aids.

David Myers reports on the subject of gay marriage carefully from a scientific approach.

"I care about all of these denominations I see that are threatening to explode," Myers said. "I'm saying that the culture is changing and ... within 10 years or so, people will look back and wonder: What was the big deal? Why did this once seem so big on our radar screens?"

I say, whatâ??s the big deal now. But then, I look at a soap opera taking on real world legs and injuring so many people and realize that the big deal is that these religionists will not transcend the muck of our material world as long as they insist on only literal interpretation of a book they call authoritative and sacred.

Food for thought: References to â??femaleâ? and â??maleâ? were not always equivalent to literal, human â??womanâ? and â??manâ? in metaphorical ancient parlance. â??Femaleâ? and â??maleâ? were philosophical clichés for material constituent and form (or ideal form).


Most Of The People, Some Of The Time, Redux, Etc.

"Judicial activism" is a funny term. It seems that now, when Judges behave conservatively (as in, conserving clearly delineated constitutional rights), that's "activism" -- especially if it requires that the judge point out the simple Lincolnesque truth, that it's possible to fool most of the people for long enough to get a really dangerously sweeping proposition passed into law.

Case in point: Nebraska's version of the boilerplate "Defense of Marriage" act has been struck down as federally unconstitutional in two distinct and sufficient ways: It "creates a significant barrier to the plaintiffs' right to petition or to participate in the political process" and "imposes significant burdens on both the expressive and intimate associational rights" of gays, lesbians, and potentially anyone who wants to form a legally binding association that's not a state-sanctioned "marriage" between a "man" and a "woman."

Like, say, shacking up. Or signing a palimony agreement. Between straights.

The Neo-Calvinists and their fellow-travellers keep talking about the fact that "over 70% of Nebraskans" decided to support the measure "defining marriage as between a man and a woman" after being barraged with highly charged advertisements and exhortations from the (real or virtual) pulpit for weeks to months. What really happened is that "over 70% of Nebraskans" decided to support a measure that they clearly did not understand. They didn't understand, for example, that it would radically restrict the rights of foster parents, unmarried opposite-sex domestic partners, persons in power-of-attorney relationships, non-custodial parents, and so on.

What really happened is that "over 70% of Nebraskans" got conned.

If it weren't for the fact that it would require abrogating the US Constitution, I'd be inclined to let Nebraska, Kansas and the rest of the virtual bible-belt just slide back into the dark ages. Politicized evangelism has far, far greater potential to destroy this nation than racial issues have had at any time in the last 40 years. Racial issues have at least been constrained: By notions of decency (no mainstream white could use the "N" word without censure), and by commonly-held economic desires (almost everybody wants the American Dream, and almost everybody is willing to see that, even about classes of people for whom they have contempt). Religious issues are not so constrained: When it's a religious issue, your opposition is evil, pure and simple -- believe that, or be damned. End of discussion. Please leave the church by the side door, so you don't soil the earth your neighbors have to walk on.

But [un?]fortunately, we do all have to live together in this country. We don't get to let them live in the mediaeval hell they seem determined to create. Not the least reason being that the virtual belt isn't limited to big square red states -- it harms people in places like Michigan and Connecticut who've never done any harm to anyone by being so immoral (or so unfortunate in their sexual orientation) as to dare to co-habitate without the benefit of state-sanctioned marriage.

So we don't get to let them sleep in the bed they've made. But we don't have to let them make us sleep in it, either.

Species of Atheism

Dylan Evans discusses â?The 21st century atheistâ? in todayâ??s Guardian:

When I say that I value religion, I don't mean that I see any truth in the stories about gods, devils, souls and saviours. But I do think there is one respect in which religion is more truthful than science - in its depiction of the longing for transcendent meaning that lies in man's heart. No scientific theory has ever done justice to this longing, and in this respect religions paint more faithful pictures of the human mind. My kind of atheism sees religions as presenting potent metaphors and images to represent human aspirations for transcendence. It is only when these metaphors are understood as such, and not mistaken for literal statements, that the true value of religion is revealed.

I agree that literalism could be a stumbling block. I also recognize that transcendence can take on different levels of meaning, depending on how one views those â??potent metaphors.â?

Moreover, atheism is not the exclusive property of the nonreligious.


New Terror Threat: Unitarian Jihadis

Can you actually wage jihad for tolerance? John Carrol @ SFGate "reprints" the manifesto of the Unitarian Jihad [fwd courtesy Amy]:

We are Unitarian Jihad, and our motto is: "Sincerity is not enough." We have heard from enough sincere people to last a lifetime already. Just because you believe it's true doesn't make it true. Just because your motives are pure doesn't mean you are not doing harm. Get a dog, or comfort someone in a nursing home, or just feed the birds in the park. Play basketball. Lighten up. The world is not out to get you, except in the sense that the world is out to get everyone.

Brother Gatling Gun of Patience notes that he's pretty sure the world is out to get him because everyone laughs when he says he is a Unitarian. There were murmurs of assent around the room, and someone suggested that we buy some Congress members and really stick it to the Baptists. But this was deemed against Revolutionary Principles, and Brother Gatling Gun of Patience was remanded to the Sunday Flowers and Banners committee.

It would be funnier if powerful and highly educated men didn't believe that there's some kind of "anti-christian conspiracy", or think that judges who have the integrity to make objective judgements are just asking to be shot. Those folks should try being a non-christian for a while, and see what that feels like.

Papal Elections of the Past

My father loved history. He had even majored in history as a college undergrad before entering medical school. We used to call him a â??walking encyclopedia,â? and we would occasionally check his facts with our home encyclopedia. Undaunted, Dad liked to quiz us at dinnertime, you know, that time of the day when families actually used to come together for a meal and real conversation. I think I survived vapid school history courses because of my dad. He made history colorful. His interest in history was about people and their life dramas, their idiosyncrasies, as much as it was concerned with sociopolitical overviews and memorized dates.

I suppose that is why I read with interest yesterday's article, â??Vatican history reveals bloody, corrupt battles for church powerâ? by David Crumm (Knight Ridder Newspapers).

The stately nobility of the election about to unfold at the Vatican - eagerly watched by world leaders and members of other faiths - is all the more amazing because of the centuries of corruption, greed and murder in its past.


One of the most bizarre loose ends was the "cadaver synod" after the election in 896 of the insanely vengeful Pope Stephen VI. He harbored so much anger at a predecessor, Pope Formosus, that he had his corpse exhumed.

Formosus' decomposing body was dressed in papal vestments, propped in a throne and put on trial for crimes against church law, including perjury. Unable to mount a defense, Formosus' ghastly remains were convicted. As punishment, the three fingers Formosus once used to bless the faithful were hacked from his right hand. His body was dragged away and thrown into the Tiber River.

Piling crime upon crime like a modern suspense novel, Stephen soon was thrown into prison himself. Formosus' friends crept into his cell and strangled him.

I also experienced a modicum of disappointment regarding the reticence of some â??professional historiansâ?:

"Even professional historians shy away from this period because these things are so horrifying," said John-Peter Pham, a papal historian at James Madison University in Virginia and the author of the newly released "Heirs of the Fisherman."

Just how horrible did it get? Well, squeamish readers should skip the next three paragraphs.

Phooey to that. Is there even one reader out there who wasnâ??t eager to read further? We humans have this fascination for gory tales. And real ones are all the more alluring.

But these stories have more to offer than a momentary, spine-chilling diversion. These historical vignettes offer us a chance to maintain a bit of perspective. I applaud historians who donâ??t â??shy awayâ? from horrifying happenings.

After all, when some of us get tired of the avalanche of speculation concerning this â??statelyâ? papal election, itâ??s helpful to be reminded that it could have been a lot worse. Bloody worse. Literally.


Revealing â??Revelationsâ?

Yesterday, as I leafed through the TV guide for the week, I noticed a blurb about a six-hour miniseries, â??Revelations,â? premiering this week. Wonderful. More apocalyptic gloom and doom. I surfed online to get some reactions to the upcoming spectacle.

Back in March, in The Washington Times, Pat Nason wrote:

NBC has programmed religious fare in the past -- including the Michael Landon hit "Highway to Heaven" from 1984-89 -- but NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly downplayed the religious nature of "Revelations.�

"Ultimately, this is a fictional thriller," he told the Times.

Downplay the religious nature? With a nun as one of the lead characters? And this nun leads an astrophysicist â??on a journey through the unfamiliar world of faith,â? as described on NBCâ??s website. Even the astrophysicist is described in pious terms as â??one who worships Science.â? Gosh, what am I thinking? NBC so downplays the religious nature of Revelations.

But then, per Frazier Mooreâ??s article of April 8, 2005 in The Canadian Press, the series has drawn criticism from some in the Christian community as being superstitious speculation.

Frazier Moore responds:

But why not? Entertainment is entertainment, and that's the overriding mission of Revelations.

"It isn't necessarily preaching anything," acknowledged Revelations executive producer Gavin Polone, who added, "I don't think there's going to be some church that says, 'Yes, what's going on in this television show corresponds to what we believe.' "

Yes, but we see part of Poloneâ??s mission explained further in todayâ??s Washington Post:

Bringing to television a tale that centers on biblical prophecy, Jesus Christ and the New Testament was part of the mission for executive producer Gavin Polone.

"Usually on television, when you see any rendition of faith, it becomes it so nonsectarian it has no meaning," Polone said. "I've always felt that the executives in the entertainment industry are completely out of touch with the culture of most Americans. They're disconnected from the nation's character and religion. I wanted to do something that would be directed specifically toward the Christian audience."

Confusing? Frank Rich offers some interesting observations in todayâ??s New York Times:

This Wednesday the far right's cutting-edge culture of death gets its biggest foothold to date in the mainstream, when NBC broadcasts its "Left Behind" simulation, "Revelations," an extremely slick prime-time mini-series that was made before our most recent death watches but could have been ripped from their headlines. In the pilot a heretofore nonobservant Christian teenage girl in a "persistent vegetative state" - and in Florida, yet - starts babbling Latin texts from the show's New Testament namesake just as dastardly scientists ("devil's advocates," as they're referred to) and organ-seekers conspire to pull the plug. "All the signs and symbols set forth in the Bible are currently in place for the end of days," says the show's adult heroine, an Oxford-educated nun who has been denounced by the Vatican for her views and whose mission is underwritten by a wealthy "religious fundamentalist." Her Julie Andrews affect notwithstanding, she is an extremist as far removed from the mainstream as Mel Gibson, whose own splinter Traditionalist Catholic sect split from Rome and disowned the reforms of Vatican II, not the least of which was the absolution of Jews for collective guilt in the death of Jesus.

So, if the Christian audience Polone seems directed to is the extremist far right crowd, why do we see even fundamentalist Jerry B. Jenkins (â??Left Behindâ? novels) criticizing what he considers a mishmash of silliness and misrepresentations? And why do NBC executives seem to be downplaying the religious theme at the same time they say they are â??specificallyâ? targeting Christians? They seem to playing both secular and religious camps.

I contend that â??Revelationsâ? is far right holy propaganda insidiously trying to grab a bigger bite of the secular fold. Itâ??s religion gone extreme trying to suck in a worldly audience by adding an ostensibly â??rationalâ? character, the astrophysicist. Sure, I could be wrong; I havenâ??t seen the show yet. But at least I do agree with Frank Rich about the preoccupation of the media with dying. Frank Rich also made a TV appearance today on CNN where this was a topic of discussion.

From his NYT article:

We don't know the identity of the corpse that will follow the pope in riveting the nation's attention. What we do know is that the reality show we've made of death has jumped the shark, turning from a soporific television diversion into the cultural embodiment of the apocalyptic right's growing theocratic crusade.

â??A culture of death, not life.â? â??Revelationsâ? seems to fit that mold.

Is that a theme I care to promote on a beautiful, sunny Spring day? No way.

If anyone really wants to see a religious miniseries, why not a comeback of The Thorn Birds? Here we have a relevant, practical theme about the celibacy requirement for priests also discussed today by New York Times's Nicholas Kristof. However, by todayâ??s standards, would this miniseries be too liberal? After all, we would have a gay actor, Richard Chamberlain, portraying a straight priest in love with a woman. And who can forget the delicious scene when aging Mary Carson (Barbara Stanwyck) reveals her lust for the young, handsome priest... No, too risky.

Too life-affirming.


Judas Iscariot: Hero or Betrayer?

About 2,000 years after the Gospel according to Judas sowed discord among early Christians, a Swiss foundation says it is translating for the first time the controversial text named after the apostle said to have betrayed Jesus Christ. [â??Gospel of Judas back in spotlight after 20 centuriesâ? by Patrick Baert, Middle East Online, 2005-3-30]

This gospel apparently is so controversial as only to be back in the spotlight in select circles, it seems. My thanks to a friend who directed me to this story. My own subsequent online search demonstrated a paucity of mainstream news articles. Of course, subject matter and timing might preclude more coverage. Somehow drawing attention to heretical material that contradicts a Christian orthodox dogmatic rendition of supposed historical events wouldnâ??t seem appropriate to some while a pope is dying. Not politically wise, and, to be sure, John Paul II was a very political figure.

But that will not stop the pursuit of historical inquiry. Many earthly sojourners, including heretics such as myself, should be quite intrigued by information from the Dutch press, found on Dutch art dealer Michel van Rijnâ??s website.

Interestingly, while there are those Christians who rely on the literal theological significance of alleged historical events, there exist(ed) also those heretics who might not consider the actuality of these events important so much as the derived, inner symbolic truth from the rendering.

The impact, or lack thereof, will be felt around Easter, 2006 when the translated document is scheduled for full launch.

UPDATE: Michel van Rijn has kindly offered a translation based on photographs of fragments of nine pages from the Gospel of Judas on his website (scroll down his webpage). He also has added commentary with the text, which isnâ??t always carefully delineated. Nonetheless, itâ??s nice to have a preview before Spring, 2006!


Karol Joseph Wojtyla

I believe the dead should be remembered as they were, not as we would have had them.

An atheist, raised Methodist, I've nevertheless always been somewhat in awe of the office of the Papacy. But I've often wondered whether that was due to some familial kinship -- some hearkening back to the origins of Christian churches -- or due to the man who has held the office for more than half of my lifetime.

The Papacy is one of the single most important political offices in the world. Make no mistake: It is a political office, and I would argue even more so than a religious office. So it's entirely appropriate, purely on those grounds, to attend to the death of Karol Joseph Wojtyla. And even if his office didn't bear the weight that it does, he might very well. His presence was forceful; one eulogist after another has spoken of his quiet but absolute confidence the seem again and again to be describing something like intellectual courage. Something like honor.

John Paul II has an enormously problematic legacy. His interpretation of dogma is arguably responsible for exacerbating the spread of AIDS, for the birth of tens of millions of unwanted children -- and, implicitly and indirectly, for tens of millions of abortions -- for tacitly endorsing sexual intolerance and squelching processes that could have led to greater and more rapid spread of freedom throughout Latin America. He appears to have been actively complicit in helping American Catholic dioceses to avoid the consequences of sexual abuse on the part of their priests.

And at the same time, he is arguably responsible for the collapse of the Polish communist state -- for toppling-back the first domino. Hist moral example in forgiving his own would-be assassin made a huge impact on me. And he found ways to reach across sectarian boundaries and to admit some of the failings of the church.

Nevertheless, his legacy is immensely ambivalent. Only time will tell whether the world can approach it objectively.

The Western Christian News Celebration

I tuned in Good Morning America Weekend on ABC for a little while as I worked in the kitchen this morning. Easter Sunday apparently seemed to be a good time to dredge up some Christian news, new and old.

For instance, per their website earlier today:

· On Easter Sunday, we'll check in on the Pope's health live from Vatican City.

· We'll also take a look at mega-churches, huge congregations where people can worship, work out and browse books all under one roof.

New: Although unable to speak, the pope gave an Easter Sunday blessing.

Old: Super-sized churches are big business.

Also old: Original report about a young girl with celiac disease who is barred from Catholic communion because substituting rice for wheat wafers is against Roman Catholic doctrine.

I happened to catch that segment, the interview with mom and daughter.

I also caught Kate Snow wishing George Stephanopoulos a â??Happy Easter.â? But then he made a comment about how it wasnâ??t his Easter. Stephanopoulos. Kate Snow mentioned she should have known.

My Greek Orthodox neighbor likes to keep people informed as to her Easter schedule since her religious holiday doesnâ??t always coincide with the Western Christian date of celebration. This year she observes Easter on May 1. On this date Wiccans also celebrate Beltane, â??the conjoining of the goddess with the energy of the god in the sacred marriage which is the basis of all creation.â?

I should check in to GMA on May 1 and catch the news.



David Crumm of the Detroit Free Press writes:

The deal is this: Some guys in Grand Rapids figured out a hot new way to package practical spiritual messages as DVD movies that give you an inspirational jump-start in 12 minutes or less. Most people have never heard of them or the odd name they've chosen for this line of films: NOOMA. But they seem to be on the verge of taking the religious publishing world by storm.

What's the evidence that they're onto something big? Well, the Grand Rapids religious publishing giant Zondervan now is partnering with them to ship the first 10 DVD movies, subtitled in seven languages, to hundreds of Christian bookstores around the world in the next couple of weeks. And for the next wave, Zondervan will aim the distribution at bigger retail chains, said John Topliff, a company marketing vice president.

Zondervan. The Christian publisher that would like to know whether or not you prefer to use a Bible that has red lettering.

And now theyâ??re marketing a product to â??jump-startâ? those with short attention spans. A dose of packaged, feel-good spiritual help on demand. Talk about instant gratification.

Readers can check out the Web site,

Oh, that oddball name? It's another way they cut to the chase. It's a pronouncer for the ancient Greek word, pneuma or soul.

Ah, a phonetic shortcut. Actually, pneuma has been defined as either soul or spirit, coming from the Greek pneuma, â??air, breath, spirit.â? On the other hand, â??spiritâ? also can be viewed as something quite different from â??soul.â? But thatâ??s getting too complicated. Only works if youâ??ve got more attention span.


Ruth and Ron Conklin

Many, many moons ago, I came out as an atheist, and my religious orientation hasn't truly wavered since. It would have hurt my parents less if I'd told them I was gay, I think. I thought about that this morning, as I read a message from my father. It seems that my childhood pastor and his wife are soon to celebrate their 60th anniversary. I'm thinking of sending them a note.

Ron Conklin played an important role in my coming out. As I think back on it now, the sequence of events is hazy in my mind. But this much I can definitely say: It came to a head over confirmation. In the United Methodist Church, children are confirmed at about the age of 13. It's their last year in "Sunday school"; after that, they're supposed to join the adults in the sanctuary. We had a deal in our family that we could make up our own minds about attending services once we'd been through confirmation class.

By that time, I'd been dubious about Christianity for at least three years, and had counted myself firmly as an atheist for at least two. I felt unclean every time I sat in the santuary and mouthed hymns or prayers, and had even begun to consider leaving the Boy Scouts because I felt dishonest reciting the Oath and Law.

So when June rolled around, and Confirmation time drew nigh, I elected not to be confirmed in the United Methodist Church. I told my parents why; they didn't like it. They implied I would be forced to confirm. I made it clear that I would not be.

As a compromise, I agreed to talk to Reverend Conklin. We met after school one day, at the church. As I recall, we didn't talk for long; I told him what I believed, told him that I felt it would serve no purpose to argue about it, and ultimately, though I'm sure it didn't make him happy to do so, he agreed that it would be dishonest for me to confirm if I did not believe in God.

I promised him in return that I'd come see him if I wanted to discuss my "doubts." He didn't demand that; he asked for it. I knew him well enough to know it wasn't a deal, but an offer. I've always been grateful to Ron for that, but then, that was the nature of his belief: Faith had to be freely chosen, or it was without meaning.

That wasn't the end of friction -- my parents tried to go back on our traditional deal regarding confirmation and church-attendance, and my mother still occasionally begs me to "reconsider" and tries to guilt me into Easter services whenever the logistics align -- but my meeting with Ron Conklin more or less forestalled a war. I've always been grateful to him for that, too.

The Conklins have been close to my family in the years since. Ron married all three of my siblings (even my agnostic brother Glen asked him to perform the service), twice travelling a day's drive to do so. And my parents have often stayed at their cabin in the Adirondacks.

There's another story that comes to my mind more often with regard to Ron Conklin, though. At the reception for my brother Glen's wedding, I stood to offer the traditional "best man's toast". I hadn't given it much thought, intentionally: I felt it would be more appropriate if more sincere, and more sincere if done off the cuff. So as I started to talk, I didn't know quite where I was going -- only that Glen and Sheila would want me to avoid cliches and embarrasing stories. I allowed myself to start out on the usual "I was there when..." journey, let myself wind into the story for thirty or forty seconds, and then stopped, suddenly, put on an urgent expression, and cried out: "Sheila, it's not too late! The window's open! He's a monster, run away now!"

Ron burst out laughing (along with everyone in the room except for the mothers of the couple), and called out, "It is too late, I've got your signature as a witness!" He later congratulated me: "You did the two most important things a best man is supposed to do, you made the couple feel good and you kept it short."

Dad tells me that the Conklins are living in the same area where I first knew them, where our church was -- his last church as a full-time pastor. I'm glad they're well. I'll never share their faith, but I'm glad that at least some people of faith have had people like Ron and Ruth to look out for them.


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