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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Tuesday, 14 March 2006
Religion: Tales of the eBay Atheist
Topic: God and US

Religion: Tales of the eBay Atheist

Slavoj Zizek is the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and the author, most recently, of The Parallax View (MIT Press) - "The Parallax View not only expands Zizek's Lacanian-Hegelian approach to new domains (notably cognitive brain sciences) but also provides the systematic exposition of the conceptual framework that underlies his entire work."

Indeed. Something to read with a stiff scotch in the evenings.

Now the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, an offshoot of the University of London, located in Bloomsbury, was formed in response to a simple question - "What have intellectuals ever done for the world?" The question angered them. So they do research and write and hold seminars and all that sort of thing. And they explain things.

In the Tuesday, March 14 edition of the International Herald Tribune (Paris) Slavoj Zizek argues something quite unpopular - Atheism Is A Legacy Worth Fighting For.

Oh my. He jumps right into it.

The item had appeared in the parent publication of the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times, two days earlier here, but the Times requires registration so the Paris link is best if you want to see what he says in detail.

In short he argues that the there is a tradition of atheism in Europe (really) and those who work from that grand tradition are those who should be running things. The believers have messed things up. Step aside -
For centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?
What about that? A good idea?

Zizek covers the basic Dostoyevsky thing - if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted and we're in a world of hurt. We need God to keep us from being so awful. He even mentions André Glucksmann's "Dostoyevsky in Manhattan" where that French philosopher argues the same thing - nihilism is the problem and what happened in New York on that September morning in 2001 was the result of us living in this world where people pay lip service to God (for many "lip service" is what you attend on Sundays) but all values have been drained away. Everything is permissible - no one is serious about God and so on.

Zizek says that whole idea is just wrong, in fact, it couldn't be more wrong -
The lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted - at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted, since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.
Ah! The logic here is that fundamentalists do what they identify as "good deeds" in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation. In contrast atheists do good deeds "simply because it is the right thing to do."

Zizek argues this is "our most elementary experience of morality." Specifically - "When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God's favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror." You know. You don't need God. And he cites David Hume - the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.

It seems he talking about "taking personal responsibility" in an entirely different way than the Republican evangelical right does, and far differently than the American "economic conservatives" talk about it when they argue for eliminating most if not all social programs to force the disabled, unlucky, poor and uneducated to force them to "take personal responsibility."

Much of what he writes is, however, about matters in Europe - that business a few years ago about whether the preamble of the European Constitution should mention Christianity. It does, but it's only a reference to the "religious inheritance" of Europe, and what makes modern Europe unique, Zizek notes, is that it is "the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post."

Yes, no one in America could get elected dogcatcher if he or she were an atheist. That's just the way it is. Only the godly need apply, or at least those who say they are.

Of course the irony Zizek plays with is that in Europe, where what you believe is your own business and not a matter of public record and thus not a qualifier or disqualifier for any office, this "creates a safe public space for believers." Build a cathedral, build a mosque. Your business. Just observe the rest of the laws and pay your taxes. The government has too much else to deal with. It's busy with the other stuff - monetary policy, roads and schools, pubic safety, national defense and all the rest. The leader may be a devout Mormon, or openly gay as are the mayors of Berlin and Paris. What does it matter? They have their public work, and they do it well or they don't. What they do off-hours is no one's business.

And this plays out, oddly, in the recent Cartoon Wars with the outraged Muslim crowd -
... The only political force that does not reduce them to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the "godless" atheist liberals, while those closest to their religious social practice, their Christian mirror-image, are their greatest political enemies.

The paradox is that Muslims' only real allies are not those who first published the caricatures for shock value, but those who, in support of the ideal of freedom of expression, reprinted them.

While a true atheist has no need to bolster his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other's beliefs. Respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: Either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

What about submitting Islam - together with all other religions - to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as adults responsible for their beliefs.
Now, there's something to think about. Or this week you could go to Naples -
Naples, March 13 - Despite its fair share of social problems, Naples is one city with no shortage of good spirit thanks to the distinctive brio and humour of the local people .

This makes it the ideal venue for a four-day festival devoted to the serious study of 'L'arte della felicita' - the art of happiness. Philosophers, psychologists, doctors, authors and health, lifestyle and religious gurus from all over the world are coming to Naples between March 23 and 26 to discuss human contentment .

Thousands of Neapolitans flocked to the debut edition of the festival last year .

Organizers are expecting to have an even bigger hit on their hands this time .

Debates, lectures, workshops, film screenings, open-air meditation sessions and theatre performances are among the events in a packed programme .

The 2006 festival focuses on the subject of dealing with grief .

It will be kicked off with a lecture on "cynical aesthetics" by renowned French philosopher Michel Onfray, whose writings celebrate hedonism, reason and atheism.
Hedonism, reason and atheism in Naples? Sounds like fun.

That's almost as much fun as what ran in the Wall Street Journal on March 9th - Atheist Gives Churches A Chance To Win Him Over.

Here Suzanne Sataline reviews the details of the DePaul University graduate student, Hemant Mehta, an atheist, who offered his soul for sale on eBay. It went for five hundred and four dollars, which seem to be the going rate. Well, he wasn't really selling his soul. He just promised the winner that for each ten dollars of the final bid he would attend one hour of church services. He said he suspected he had been missing out on something. His pitch? "Perhaps being around a group of people who will show me 'the way' could do what no one else has done before - this is possibly the best chance anyone has of changing me."

We're told lots of evangelists bid, to "save him." Atheists bid to keep him on their side. The winning bid came from Jim Henderson, a former evangelical minister from Seattle, who had a third motive -
The 58-year-old Mr. Henderson has written a book for a Random House imprint and is currently a house painter. He runs off-the-map.org, a Web site whose professed mission is "Helping Christians be normal." Mr. Henderson is part of a small but growing branch of the evangelical world that disagrees with the majority's conservative political agenda, and wants the religion to be more inclusive and help the disadvantaged.
Yep, he's one of those "out of the mainstream" types who doesn't understand Christianity has changed and become militant and vengeful, and he flew to Chicago, met the grad student in a bar, and told him what deal was going to be. Yeah, it was supposed to be fifty hours of church, and the church the winner named. Henderson said he'd rather this atheist went to services at an array of churches and write about what he saw and heard for Henderson's website. The five hundred dollars? This grad student heads something called the Secular Student Alliance, with fifty-five chapters around the world. The Secular Student Alliance could have the money if this atheist would do basic reporting for the website - "I'm not trying to convert you. You're going there almost like a critic. If you happen to get converted, that's off the clock."

Cool, and Hemant Mehta was told to score the priest or minister - from one, boring, to ten, "off the charts." The first Catholic priest got a three.

There's a ton of detail at the link, like this -
Mr. Mehta has also been reading and critiquing church bulletins. In one, Park Community asked the congregation to pray, in advance of a coming meeting on the construction of a church building "that God would ... open the doors to the right parking solution, allowing us to build a worship space for 1,200 people, rather than the 850 currently permitted."

"Really?" Mr. Mehta observed on the Web site. "That's what you're praying for? Do they think a god will change parking restrictions? Will a god change the price of nearby property? Will a god add another level to a parking structure?"
Well, He (or She) might - you never know. And if you want to read the commentary it's at the off-the-wall site in its own section, The eBay Atheist.

Well, that's mildly interesting, but this is not Zizek's Europe, where what you believe is your own business and not a matter of public record and thus not a qualifier or disqualifier for any office.

Belief here has a political and public dimension, and it being discussed in terms of the 2006 mid-term elections and the 2008 presidential election. The question for "the opposition" is much like what was asked in the last go-round. Should any Democrat running for office go all religious to strip votes away from the Republican who will, no doubt, claim to be a godly soul who was born again (something didn't take the first time?) and accepts the avenging Jesus who hates the poor in his heart. Maybe you can grab a few votes by being pious and angry.

But the left often makes fun of such God nonsense. They heap scorn on the "God is with me" evangelical Republicans. Some say that's not fair, or not right, or a bad strategy.

One of the most influential commentators on "the left" (whatever that is), says this -
I wonder who all the religious candidates we've unfairly scorned in the past would be? Jimmy Carter? Bill Clinton? (and no, having affairs does not mean you are not religious, just a sinner.) Al Gore? John Kerry? They all go to church and profess to be believers. Are they just not religious enough? ...

I recall scorning both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and neither one of them were particularly religious. Bobby Kennedy was a youthful hero and he was as Catholic as they come. In fact, I'm having a hard time coming up with any consistent views on either side toward religious politicians at all. It would seem to me that this entire argument is nothing but a political football used to shut down criticism and advance a particular agenda without having to debate the issues on their own merits.

... Every secular "knee jerk liberal" has voted for religious candidates their whole lives. Indeed, it is impossible not to. You cannot get elected in this country if you do not profess religious belief. We have enthusiastically backed candidates who are from every religious tradition and from every region. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were both born again, southern evangelicals. We do not scorn religious candidates, period.

Many of us knee-jerk leftists are hostile to those who want to use the state to dictate the proper social attitudes of its citizens and interfere in their most personal, private decisions, that's true. I would scorn Pat Robertson and Sam Brownback's ideas no less if they were secular. It's the lack of respect for the division of influence between the private and public sphere's that is causing the problem.

And as for hostility, let's not forget that it was back in 1988 that a future president of the United States said this -

President George H. W. Bush: I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.

Who scorns who again?

Perhaps some of these religious politicians could speak to the flock about giving some respect to the non-faithful. It's the Christian thing to do.
Give respect to the non-faithful? That's not going to happen. This is not Europe.

Duncan Black adds this (emphases added) -
I'm not hostile to religion. I don't much care about religion. I'm not much interested in it. This isn't strange. Most people aren't much interested in religion other than their own, if that.

I'm not sick of religious people. I think it's great that they're free to believe and practice their religion in any way they want. I'd like to keep it that way.

I am sick of people who keep claiming that the Democratic Party is hostile to religious people and controlled by secular liberals who are hostile to religion. If by "Democratic Party" you mean "some people who post anonymous comments on the internet" you may have a point. Otherwise, the idea is ludicrous.

Do the Democrats have a perception problem about religion? Sure. We have a political party which has been claiming to be God's Own Party for decades. We have a mainstream media which equates Christian with Religious Right most of the time, and news anchors who don't think liberals can be 'good Catholics.' We also have some left-leaning Christians who seem to think this perception problem is due to hostility to religion by secular liberals who have no public presence. I don't understand this. People who perpetuate right wing talking points about Democrats always piss me off especially when they have no basis.

Secularism has essentially no representation in our media or politics. I'm sure there are secular politicians and media types, but few discuss it. No one gets on TV or writes newspaper columns or in any way participates in our contemporary mainstream political discourse and praises secularism or atheism or anything similar, and certainly not in a way which denigrates religious beliefs generally. Advocates for the separation of church and state are not advocating secularism, aside from government secularism, they're simply trying to defend freedom of religion.

Can Democrats appeal to evangelical voters by doing X? Sure, and they can appeal to [insert voting bloc here] by doing Y. The question is can they do so without alienating lots of other people or compromising their principles. Maybe they can. I have no idea. But that's politics. I'm happy to hear about ways to reach out to religious voters, though not being a politician it isn't actually my job to do so. If people vote Republican because they perceive some guy on the internet with no actual official relation to the Democratic party in any way is insufficiently deferential to their religious beliefs then I'm really not sure what I can do about that. I don't really require people to be deferential to my beliefs.

Moderate/swing/independent voters respond to personal charisma and the perception that somebody "knows what they stand for." You know, spine, backbone, etc. I'm sure some genuinely religious politicians can use their faith to help send this message. There are lots of other politicians who can find other ways to do so.

From a policy perspective I'm personally not really interested in compromising on sex or reproductive rights in order to get votes. As with every other issue of course messaging can be improved, though I'd rather focus on getting the "pro-choice for me but not for thee" crowd to understand that they are, in fact, pro-choice whether they know it or not rather than talking about how icky abortion is. I don't know why the public face of religion in this country is concerned with almost nothing but sex, but I'm not really sure those people can be reached.

As with Democrats who constantly fret that they aren't seen as "tough" enough, people who fret that Democrats are not "religious" enough simply reinforce the perception without improving it.
Man, it is hard to deal with what some of us think is a private matter, but we do live in the last great western theocracy.

Atheism may or may not be a legacy worth fighting for, but the question is why anyone cares what this or that politician believes. Is the person in office getting things done that need done? Whether he or she believes in The Flying Spaghetti Monster, Jesus, The Great Pumpkin, or The Holy Manhole Cover - as interesting as that might be it matters little.

But then, here it matters. This is not Slavoj Zizek's Europe. This is America, the mirror of the caliphate the other side says is coming.

Those of us without deep faith, on either side, should pour a scotch and read all about this Lacanian-Hegelian approach to new domains (notably cognitive brain sciences). We don't matter.

Posted by Alan at 22:05 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006 22:08 PST home

Monday, 13 March 2006
Starting the week with alarms and chaos...
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Starting the week with alarms and chaos...

Monday, March 13th, two days before "Brutus Day" (the Ides of March, the day when bad thing happen to political leaders), we got the alarm from the president. Well, actually, David Sanger in the New York Times surveyed what the president had been saying in defense of the now moribund (as in dead) Dubai ports deal, and also in reaction to all the polling showing, consistently, that the majority here wonder what we're doing there - wondering just why are we in a war that more and more looks like a civil war where we may have to take sides in what is not our business, in a country in ruins we just cannot reassemble (and the locals aren't helping, what with their more pressing issues over who finally gets to be on top), and where, best case, we'll end up with a fundamentalist theocracy, with ties to Iran, that might or might not be willing to side with us on this or that issue in the future. Somehow that's bit discouraging.

The Alarm? A Bush Alarm: Urging U.S. to Shun Isolationism

Ah, as Sanger opens - "The president who made pre-emption and going it alone the watchwords of his first term is quietly turning in a new direction, warning at every opportunity of the dangers of turning the nation inward and isolationist..."

Quietly? Define that. The idea is we really shouldn't shun deals with foreign governments, especially with the United Arab Emirates (we should reach out co-opt them into helping us even more with thing like the port deal), and we should believe that it really is our business to rip out a pesky government, especially one that had be run by the murderous and destabilizing Saddam Hussein, and get those folks way, way over there to start up the first Jeffersonian free-market flat-tax deregulated democracy in the neighborhood. We should be involved in the world, and engaged. We can't always act alone. That would be wrong. Not prudent. Thus the alarm.

Sanger probably uses the word "quietly" because he is compiling things - there was no one central presidential speech launching a "campaign on isolationism." In the last two weeks or more there seems to have been a major shift in the way the president is talking about the world, and in how the administration chooses now to deal with the world. Sanger is reporting that. Nothing was actually announced. But the shift is blatantly obvious and should be noted.

There's something odd going on here, and it doesn't take rocket scientist to wonder what's up. Matthew Yglesias does the basics for us here, saying that what the president sees as an unfortunate isolationist reaction in Americans these days looks more like unfortunate opposition to the administration's policies -
It's worth saying as clearly as possible that this is entirely bogus. Before George W. Bush took office, zero American presidents launched wars against countries that posed no threat to the United States for the purposes of transforming an entrenched dictatorship into a democracy. After Bush took office, he continued in the noble American tradition of not doing that. Several years into his term, he invaded Iraq because, or so he said, its government was close to building a nuclear bomb that it was likely to give to al-Qaeda. Several months after the invasion, it became clear to everyone that this was false and he started pretending to have done it in order to turn Iraq into a democracy. Today, with Iraq in shambles, people are correctly perceiving that the reason no president has ever tried to do something like that is that it's a fundamentally unsound, unworkable idea.

His effort to paint himself as a free trade martyr is, if anything, more pathetic. The White House has embraced protectionism whenever - as in the case of the steel tariffs, the softwood lumbers tariffs, and the explosion of farm subsidies - the balance of K Street money favors protectionism. The farm bill he signed into law doomed the Doha Round of WTO talks...
And Yglesias goes on about CAFTA and so on, but you get the idea.

And it does seem like name-calling. Suggest that something is a stunningly bad idea and should be reconsidered and you're an "isolationist." As name-calling goes that's pretty good. You get lumped in with the "buy American" folks who want to destroy Toyota and Sony, or with those way back with those who thought we shouldn't have fought in Europe against Hitler (and were glad when FDR said we never would, even as he was working us into the battle).

The problem is that, like all name-calling, it's beside the point. The opposition has, for the last five years, since that historic September, urged that we should engage the world and work out how everyone could join in dealing with "the problem." But no. We'd have none of that - join us in what we've planned and don't ask question, or you're one of "them." Here, suggest security concerns that should be worked out and poof - you're an "isolationist," case closed and you're wrong.

It's the usual. The pattern is clear. Let's talk, as something here seems to need more consideration. No, no point in talking as it's clear that you're just an [insert name here].

You might point out that you were the ones saying we needed to work with the world and the administration was saying that was dangerous and things had to be done unilaterally, without considering the views of wimps, fools, the corrupt and the French. You might, but why bother? You'd just get called another name. Of course, in the fifties you'd be called a communist. The label stops the conversation, as how can you consider the views of someone who's a [insert name here]?

So much for political discourse. But then lots of people use this method to shut down discussions. It probably explains more than a few divorces.

But there was - on the day when folks were discussing "isolationism" (gee, I never knew I was an isolationist but I guess I'll have to rethink things and agree with the administration more now) - the first of the current flurry of presidential speeches on Iraq.

These seem to be semiannual affairs. About twice a year the frustration builds up. This week the war will be four years old, and this milestone is over twenty-three hundred our troops dead, the chaos in the streets of the major Iraqi cities, the low poll numbers. People wonder what we're doing and why, and what we'll get for it in the end.

It's time again. Run out the usual - it may look bad but it's not, we really do have a plan, there was nothing at all wrong with the idea, and if you'll be patient we'll "achieve total victory" (to be defined later), and the media is unfair in reporting all the bad news. Look! Schools repainted!

CNN reported on the first speech in the current series here, the president acknowledging things really aren't going well at the moment. This was the big news, the hook. But of course the president said it was going well, as it's all in how you look at things. Yeah, that Shiite mosque was blown up and there were two weeks of death and destruction and revenge and counter-revenge, worse than any chaos before, but then, Iraq is "turning away from abyss" - they saw the worst so now they know that's not the way to go. The new parliament will finally meet soon - late, but they will meet. It'll all work out.

How does he know? Is there a plan if it doesn't? None needed. It'll work out. CNN - "Hoping to shore up support for the war, President Bush said Iraq was moving toward a democratic future."

We'll see. But don't doubt it. You'll be called a name. And no one will listen to you because you're nothing but a [insert name here].

CBS here reported other aspects of the speech, "Bush Urges Patience on Iraq" and so forth. Of course he did. But CBS led with the message in the speech for Iraqis - "President Bush called on Iraqis Monday to embrace compromise as they negotiate a new unity government.." Yep, they're messing up the whole thing. All democracies work on compromise - you talk and work things our so everyone get something, or understand why what they want must be put off. What's wrong with these people?

As mentioned in these pages long ago (here), the irony is when you think about Henry Clay (1777-1852), the Great Compromiser, this is no longer our model for how governance works best. This president never compromises. That's weak, and it "sends the wrong message." The world needs to see our resolve and all that. The warring sides in Iraq this month know that. "Yeah, George - whatever."

In the two days before the first speech in the series somewhere around seventy died in Sadr City with the car bombs and mortar round and all. The rest of the country was no better. And Knight-Ridder reported here Iraqi officials confirming death squads have been operating from inside the Iraqi government. The soldiers and their commanders have been taking out selected Sunnis and their families. And the day of the first speech in the current series there was this - "Shiite vigilantes seized four men suspected of terrorist attacks, interrogated them, beat them, executed them and left their bodies hanging from lampposts in a Shiite slum today, according to witnesses and government officials."

There's no whiff of compromise in the air there.

And there's no whiff of compromise in the air in Washington.

That's not how things work anymore. Why are we asking the Iraqis to be different from us?

Interestingly a good take on the whole business comes from Bronwen Maddox in the Times of London (UK) here - speech last night was an attempt by the president to show that "he gets it." He really does understand why Americans blame him for the mess in Iraq. That can't hurt as he seems finally to be "acknowledging what the rest of the US is seeing nightly on the television."

As for the rest, the need to "not lose our nerve" and our "comprehensive strategy for victory" (don't ask) seems to Maddox to be piffle, although he doesn't use that word, even if he is writing from London.

And as for the good news -
The first was that the US would pour platoons of experts into combating the threat of roadside bombs, which have killed many US soldiers, and which he called "the No 1 threat to Iraq's future". Perhaps they are, but we are spoilt for choice.

Tackling these bombs may be a useful thing for US forces to do. But the impression is that they do not know where to start. Since the bombing of the Shia al-Askariya shrine in Samarra, militias have been springing out of the shadows and bombs exploding in areas that used to be quiet.

Nor is Bush's second claim credible: that the weeks since the Samarra bombing could have been worse. He argued that many had predicted that the bombing of the shrine would plunge Iraq into civil war. But "most Iraqis haven't turned to violence", he said, adding his voice to the futile wrangle about whether the killings now qualify as "civil war".

Even if you concede the hypothetical point that the bloodshed could have been worse, it is clear that these weeks have changed the war. Before, the US was fighting Sunni militants. Now, Sunnis and Shias are fighting each other, with the US watching impotently.

So his third main claim also looked vulnerable: that the Iraqi security forces, under US guidance, were becoming more representative of Iraqi people. The greater fear, as coalition officials acknowledge, is that the US has equipped the Shias in what may become a civil war.
Other than that things are fine.

An aside - the president didn't say much on the technical points of the advanced research into ways to deal with these bombs. He said he couldn't. That would be tactical knowledge the bad guys could use, immediately. They'd counter somehow, immediately. Some of us do know the details and the specific contractors involved. But as much as we are beyond irritated with this whole business, none of that will appear here. He's right. We've got some good stuff in the pipeline, and people should know we're working on the puzzle - but that's it. The comments here are on policy and geopolitics and political theory. That's all fair game - in a democracy you can question decisions and suggest alternatives. That's the whole point in having one. Involvement, participation, makes things better for everyone. The country is a joint effort, or has been, in concept, so far. But some things are not said, for good reason.

In any event, Maddox is curious that the Democrats seem adrift these days - the low polling numbers and chaos in Iraq should be a gift to them -
But they are afflicted with the same problem as the Tories: how to criticise [sic] the conduct of the War on Terror that they initially supported.

The attempt by Russ Feingold, a Democrat senator from Wisconsin, to win a congressional censure of Bush brings a nasty twist. He wants a resolution to censure Bush for what he thinks has been unlawful wiretapping after September 11, 2001. The White House, noting that Feingold may contest the presidency in 2008, has dismissed this as political. More awkward for Democrats, it has challenged them to say that it "shouldn't be listening to al-Qaeda communications", even though "we are a nation at war".
Yep, Feingold late in the day the "patience" speech was given did introduce the censure resolution. Earlier in the day at a speech in Wisconsin, Vice President Cheney wasn't pleased - without the permission of George Clooney, he channeled the ghost of Edward R. Murrow, who himself threw the words of a witness at the McCarthy hearings back at Joe McCarthy - "Have you no shame, sir?" The irony was delicious.

For those interested, over at the "Crooks and Liars" site you can see a streaming video of Feingold introducing the resolution here - the president authorized an illegal domestic wiretapping program and then misled Congress and the public about its existence and legality, and the resolution is a responsible step for Congress to take in response to the President's undermining of the separation of powers and ignoring the rule of law.

Senator Specter says the law in question was unconstitutional. You can't pass laws the interfere with the president or something. Senator Frist says whatever - warrantless spying on American citizens is constitutional and legal anyway, law or no law. Senator Durbin asks Specter if that's so. Specter says, "I don't know - I don't have any basis for knowing because I don't know what the program does."

This is a Tom Stoppard play. Or a Feydeau farce. Or maybe it's a Monty Python skit. No, it's the Senate.

Feingold tossed in something deadly serious. These guys couldn't handle it. Good theater, but a bad day for the country.

It doesn't matter. There will be no censure. The president's party controls the senate. Were they to let this come to a vote they have the votes to smash it, and the Associated Press here reviews all the Democratic senators who'd never vote for censure - you don't want to appear too radical or too angry or too unwilling to work things out.

What? That would be too much like the guys on the other side of the aisle?

Let's see here. You get criticized for having no plans, no principles, and for those wimpy ideas about being reasonable when the swarthy masses with the odd religion are out to kills us all, and here you decide the right thing is to take no position and to try to appear sweetly reasonable one more time. Because you think you get points for that? Yeah, right. Congress will not change hands.

But what a chance. Note that a few hours after the boilerplate "patience" speech the new USA Today, CNN, Gallup polling hit the wire, with this - the president's approval rating hits a new low, thirty-six percent of those polled say they "approve" of the way Bush is handling his job. A record low. Sixty percent disapprove - matching an all-time worst rating hit last November and again two weeks ago. Fifty-seven percent say sending our troops to Iraq was a mistake - up two points in two weeks, down two points from last October.

Other details - two years ago the number of those polled who said they were certain we'd "win" in Iraq was about eighty percent, and now it's twenty-two percent. Maybe a clear definition of how we'll know when we've won would help. Only one percent two years ago thought it was unlikely or certain we'd win. That's at forty-one percent now. Ambiguity.

Ambiguity is opportunity for those who'd like a change in direction. Or not.

Oh well, these guys are running things well enough, except for what the war we chose has turned into, and the business with FEMA and Hurricane Katrina, and breaking a few laws (or coming up with a whole new view of the constitution about the laws), except for the torture and secret prisons and "disappearing" people, and throwing away respect and influence around the world, and this and that, here and there.

Next up? Avian flu. Via John Aravosis here we learn that the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt, at a meeting on such in Wyoming said, March 10th, if or when the big epidemic comes people should not expect the federal government to help. That's not the job of the federal government. You're on your own -
When you go to the store and buy three cans of tuna fish, buy a fourth and put it under the bed . When you go to the store to buy some milk, pick up a box of powdered milk, put it under the bed. When you do that for a period of four to six months, you are going to have a couple of weeks of food. And that's what we're talking about.
Make of that what you will. Who would want the government doing things? Personal responsibility, that's the ticket.

Here's an idea. We all hate big government. Let's get together on our own, work together, pool resources, everyone gets a say, and grow our own food, start our on schools, build roads, some sort of power grid, everyone chips in for the common stuff, and we have... a democratic government collecting taxes for some things a few don't agree with, getting bigger all the time. Oops.

Let's work with the one we have. And no name-calling.

Posted by Alan at 21:56 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006 06:17 PST home

Starting the week with alarms and chaos...
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Starting the week with alarms and chaos...

Monday, March 13th, two days before "Brutus Day" (the Ides of March, the day when bad thing happen to political leaders), we got the alarm from the president. Well, actually, David Sanger in the New York Times surveyed what the president had been saying in defense of the now moribund (as in dead) Dubai ports deal, and also in reaction to all the polling showing, consistently, that the majority here wonder what we're doing there - wondering just why are we in a war that more and more looks like a civil war where we may have to take sides in what is not our business, in a country in ruins we just cannot reassemble (and the locals aren't helping, what with their more pressing issues over who finally gets to be on top), and where, best case, we'll end up with a fundamentalist theocracy, with ties to Iran, that might or might not be willing to side with us on this or that issue in the future. Somehow that's bit discouraging.

The Alarm? A Bush Alarm: Urging U.S. to Shun Isolationism

Ah, as Sanger opens - "The president who made pre-emption and going it alone the watchwords of his first term is quietly turning in a new direction, warning at every opportunity of the dangers of turning the nation inward and isolationist..."

Quietly? Define that. The idea is we really shouldn't shun deals with foreign governments, especially with the United Arab Emirates (we should reach out co-opt them into helping us even more with thing like the port deal), and we should believe that it really is our business to rip out a pesky government, especially one that had be run by the murderous and destabilizing Saddam Hussein, and get those folks way, way over there to start up the first Jeffersonian free-market flat-tax deregulated democracy in the neighborhood. We should be involved in the world, and engaged. We can't always act alone. That would be wrong. Not prudent. Thus the alarm.

Sanger probably uses the word "quietly" because he is compiling things - there was no one central presidential speech launching a "campaign on isolationism." In the last two weeks or more there seems to have been a major shift in the way the president is talking about the world, and in how the administration chooses now to deal with the world. Sanger is reporting that. Nothing was actually announced. But the shift is blatantly obvious and should be noted.

There's something odd going on here, and it doesn't take rocket scientist to wonder what's up. Matthew Yglesias does the basics for us here, saying that what the president sees as an unfortunate isolationist reaction in Americans these days looks more like unfortunate opposition to the administration's policies -
It's worth saying as clearly as possible that this is entirely bogus. Before George W. Bush took office, zero American presidents launched wars against countries that posed no threat to the United States for the purposes of transforming an entrenched dictatorship into a democracy. After Bush took office, he continued in the noble American tradition of not doing that. Several years into his term, he invaded Iraq because, or so he said, its government was close to building a nuclear bomb that it was likely to give to al-Qaeda. Several months after the invasion, it became clear to everyone that this was false and he started pretending to have done it in order to turn Iraq into a democracy. Today, with Iraq in shambles, people are correctly perceiving that the reason no president has ever tried to do something like that is that it's a fundamentally unsound, unworkable idea.

His effort to paint himself as a free trade martyr is, if anything, more pathetic. The White House has embraced protectionism whenever - as in the case of the steel tariffs, the softwood lumbers tariffs, and the explosion of farm subsidies - the balance of K Street money favors protectionism. The farm bill he signed into law doomed the Doha Round of WTO talks...
And Yglesias goes on about CAFTA and so on, but you get the idea.

And it does seem like name-calling. Suggest that something is a stunningly bad idea and should be reconsidered and you're an "isolationist." As name-calling goes that's pretty good. You get lumped in with the "buy American" folks who want to destroy Toyota and Sony, or with those way back with those who thought we shouldn't have fought in Europe against Hitler (and were glad when FDR said we never would, even as he was working us into the battle).

The problem is that, like all name-calling, it's beside the point. The opposition has, for the last five years, since that historic September, urged that we should engage the world and work out how everyone could join in dealing with "the problem." But no. We'd have none of that - join us in what we've planned and don't ask question, or you're one of "them." Here, suggest security concerns that should be worked out and poof - you're an "isolationist," case closed and you're wrong.

It's the usual. The pattern is clear. Let's talk, as something here seems to need more consideration. No, no point in talking as it's clear that you're just an [insert name here].

You might point out that you were the ones saying we needed to work with the world and the administration was saying that was dangerous and things had to be done unilaterally, without considering the views of wimps, fools, the corrupt and the French. You might, but why bother? You'd just get called another name. Of course, in the fifties you'd be called a communist. The label stops the conversation, as how can you consider the views of someone who's a [insert name here]?

So much for political discourse. But then lots of people use this method to shut down discussions. It probably explains more than a few divorces.

Posted by Alan at 21:56 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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Sunday, 12 March 2006
The way things seem from out here in Hollywood...
Topic: Announcements

The way things seem from out here in Hollywood...

The new issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format parent to this daily web log, is now online. This is Volume 4, Number 11 for the week of March 12, 2006 - filled with new material.

This week there are four extended commentaries on the past week. In general terms there's a discussion what we can generally believe to be true and what is just "truthiness" - and, yes, the study how we know what we know is epistemology. And, with everyone on the national stage spinning events this way or that, there's discussion of just what winning in that business is. And things sure seem like 1973 in a whole lot of ways. And at the end of the week, political bummers, with an assessment of the way things are going, from the Dubai business to an amazing array of what sure seem like scandals.

And there's one of those infrequent arts columns - a cult book from 1939 becomes a movie with major stars and all that, but why?

Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson, this week offers us a photo essay on the opening night at the big art exhibit at the Pompidou Center in Paris, and yes, the new show is all about Los Angeles.

Bob Patterson is back, way back. The World's Laziest Journalist has been spending a lot of time in 1943 for some reason, and the Book Wrangler offers a list.

Photography this week - the amazing Korean bell and pagoda at the harbor, scenic lighthouses (yes, we have those here), a bit of Italy here in the land of the wealthy who live at the coast, special botanical shots, and a week after the Oscar business, some really inside stuff.

Quotes this week? Nonsense.

Direct links to specific pages -

Current Events ______________________

Political Epistemology: When the facts aren't enough...
Winning: Reading the Tea Leaves
Edgy Times (kind of like the seventies)
The State of Play: Things Collapsing and the Old Woman Uses the D-Word

In These Times ______________________

LA Revisited: Back to the Obscure Thirties

The International Desk ______________________

Our Man in Paris: What's LA Smell?

Bob Patterson ______________________

WLJ Weekly: from the desk of the World's Laziest Journalist - Time Travel Courtesy of Time Magazine
Book Wrangler: Recommended Without Comment

Southern California Photography ______________________

At Angels Gate: The Korean Bell of Friendship and Bell Pavilion, Angels Gate Park, San Pedro
Lighthouses
Italianate: Statuary at Malaga Cove Plaza
Botanicals
Oscar Day: The Obscure Inside Scoop

Quotes for the week of March 12, 2006 - Nonsense

Posted by Alan at 18:44 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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Saturday, 11 March 2006
LA Revisited: Back to the Obscure Thirties
Topic: Local Issues

LA Revisited: Back to the Obscure Thirties

What this about? Nostalgia? For the middle of the Depression? For the middle of the Depression here in Los Angeles when the major studios were pumping out those white-telephone fantasies, the streets were filled with the homeless and hopeless, and the "Grapes of Wrath" dustbowl refugees were rolling in from Oklahoma only to find not much here? There's something in the air that fuels a return to those days?

The new film "Ask the Dust" opened in limited release March 10th (basics here) - Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Donald Sutherland, written and directed by Robert Towne. "An ambitious young man (Farrell), sick of his intolerant Colorado hometown, moves to Los Angeles to become a novelist. As his writing career takes off, he becomes obsessed with a Mexican barmaid (Hayek). It's based on a cult-classic book by noir great John Fante."

John Fante? Well, he was born in Colorado in 1909 and began writing out here in 1929 - a few decades of short stories, novels and screenplays. But he's not a household name.

On the other hand, Ask the Dust is his semi-autobiographical coming of age novel set here and does have a noir following. It was first published in 1939 and you might think of it as an anti-Gatsby, written while the man who wrote The Great Gatsby more than a decade earlier, with all its sad glitter, was drinking himself to death right here on Laurel Avenue, a few doors down the street, sickened of many things, including Hollywood. Ask the Dust is about the other side of this town - the grit.

Amazon is offering the June 1980 paperback edition (and offers a link to the front cover, the back cover, and an excerpt). And they quote from the preface by Charles Bukowski - "Then one day I pulled a book down and opened it, and there it was. I stood for a moment, reading. Then like a man who had found gold in the city dump, I carried the book to a table. The lines rolled easily across the page, there was a flow. Each line had its own energy and was followed by another like it. The very substance of each line gave the page a form, a feeling of something carved into it. And here, at last, was a man who was not afraid of emotion. The humor and the pain were intermixed with a superb simplicity ... that book was a wild and enormous miracle to me."

John Fante died in 1983. Bukowski loved the book. But who else was reading it?

Robert Towne was. As in this - "In the Robert Towne-directed adaptation of John Fante's Depression Era novel, Hayek will play the fiery Mexican beauty Camilla who hopes to rise above her station by marrying a wealthy American. That is complicated by meeting Arturo Bandini (Farrell), a first-generation Italian hoping to land a writing career and a blue-eyed blonde on his arm." (A trailer for the movie is here.) That link, at the Internet Movie Database leads to only one comment, which offers this - " Relying on the powerful performances of his cast, the film depends mostly on the background of Los Angeles as the magnificent city of dreams and ambition where lonely souls collide day after day."

Yeah, yeah. Everyone says that. "Crash" won best picture this year.

But what about the book? How did this one become a movie?

In this industry town, the Los Angeles Times explains, but the item was not in the entertainment or business pages. David L. Ulin, book editor of the Times covered it this week in the Friday book column.

See An L.A. Story, And Its Author's Too - John Fante's 1939 novel revealed a city in survival mode, a fertile setting for a writer of a similar mind. - Los Angeles Times - March 10, 2006

There he calls the book one of the "ur-texts of Los Angeles literature" - after almost seventy years still offering "a vivid portrait of the city's life." He says it's seminal, framing a new sensibility, "by turns cynical and innocent, full of rage and hope and desperation, much like Los Angeles."

Of course it was published in 1939, the same year as Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust. It was a big year for cynicism.

Ulin quotes the opening line - "One night I was sitting on my bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed."

Yep, this is a Los Angeles "in which glam and glitter are not just distant but nonexistent, and it is enough merely to survive."

It now an old theme. And here the hero "falls in love with a Mexican waitress, whom he can't have and (perhaps) doesn't really want. He is casually brutal, to her and to others, and yet his redemption lies in his ability to recognize - if not mitigate - this propensity within himself."

He's conflicted - he sees the 1933 Long Beach earthquake as divine retribution for his sins -
There is, of course, something solipsistic about reading a natural disaster through a personal filter, as if the Earth itself were little more than a megaphone for God. Yet paradoxically, this becomes one of the novel's charms, the unrelenting way Fante reveals Bandini, and, by extension, himself.

Whatever else "Ask the Dust" is, it is a piece of autobiographical fiction, the author's life transformed into myth. It is acri de Coeur, an expression of self in the face of indifference, the indifference of the world. For all Bandini's crowing ("Here I am, folks. Take a look at a great writer! Notice my eyes, folks. The eyes of a great writer. Notice my jaw, folks. The jaw of a great writer. Look at those hands, folks. The hands that created 'The Little Dog Laughed' and 'The Long Lost Hills' "), he is adrift in the universe, just like everyone.

"It crept upon me," Fante writes, "the restlessness, the loneliness ... the world seemed a myth, a transparent plane, and all things upon it were here for only a little while; all of us, Bandini, and Hackmuth and Camilla and Vera, all of us were here for a little while, and then we were somewhere else; we were not alive at all; we approached living, but we never achieved it. We were going to die. Everybody was going to die. Even you, Arturo, even you must die."

This is a universal moment in which the physical yields to the metaphysical and we stare down mortality as if it were the barrel of a gun.
My, it does sound like the flip side of Gatsby. But not on the north coast of Long Island with the mansions. And here we have a profoundly unsympathetic and self-absorbed hero, brutal and full of bluster. No Gatsby charm here. It's an LA thing.

Ulin doesn't think much of the film, as Fante, "is presenting us with a three-dimensional portrait, made all the more profound by his willingness to portray Bandini as unsympathetic and self-absorbed. Regrettably, it is precisely this quality that is missing from the film adaptation of the novel, in which writer-director Robert Towne backs away from Bandini's complex mix of arrogance and insecurity in favor of a lukewarm love story that sentimentalizes the character and his relationship with the waitress Camilla, one of the most scabrous affairs in literature."

Well, Hollywood is like that.

But what's with romanticizing the back end of town during the Great Depression? This film based on a minor novel was green-lighted by any number of marketing people, and funds were released for its production. These things cost real money. Someone decided people would pay to see a tale of someone self-absorbed and confused, with a pumped-up but shaky ego, trying to make sense of a world in economic ruin. And there's even a major earthquake. The marketing people must know something about the current zeitgeist. This is not a good sign.

Posted by Alan at 16:22 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 11 March 2006 16:31 PST home

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