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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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Wednesday, 18 October 2006
When Movies Get Too Real
Topic: Couldn't be so...
When Movies Get Too Real
In Metaphors Regarding Power you had two different people explaining current events by referring to movies. There was that Kuo fellow who wrote his book about how the quest for political influence had corrupted the evangelical movement, and how the key people in the administration were laughing at them all behind their backs for being such rubes. He said it was like getting the Ring of Power - you may want to do good with it, but the power corrupts you. Then Senator Santorum decided the best way to explain why we had to keep on keeping on in Iraq was that it was like in the movie - we had to keep the Eye of Mordor focused on that place so it wouldn't see us here, or something like that. It wasn't terribly clear. But both were referring, of course, to The Lord of the Rings - probably the three movies and not the Tolkien books. As we know out here in Hollywood, people do turn to popular culture, something most everyone knows in some way, to explain things. It may be rather stupid, but people often use popular commercial films to explain real life. It's no big deal. What else do we all have in common?

But sometimes it gets creepy. Consider the following.

Movies Explain Life, Part One

If you're a late baby boomer, or addicted to junk movies on the less visited cable television channels late at night, you might know The Time Machine (1960), George Pal's version of the 1895 H. G. Wells tale, starring Rod Taylor and the fetching Yvette Mimieux, as Weena. The deal here is a Victorian scientist and tinkerer builds a time machine and uses it to explore the distant future where there are two races, a mild gentle race, and a cannibalistic one living underground. His machine is stolen by the underground race and he must risk capture himself (and being eaten) to return to his own time. That's the hook. But there's something else going on.

You see, the year he ends up in is 802,701 - and he finds this apparently peaceful, pastoral, sort of Taoist future, and it's filled with happy, simple humans who call themselves the Eloi. But they're all dumb as a post and not curious about anything. As Wells would have it, this lack of intelligence and vitality is the logical result of mankind's struggle to transform and subdue nature through technology, politics, art and creativity in general. They got there, to that utopia, and found nothing. They devolved. With no work to do, they became physically weak and slight, in all senses of the word. And with no work to do and no hardships to overcome, their society eventually became non-hierarchical and non-cooperative, with no defined leaders or social classes. But then, on the bright side, there was no war and crime, but also no art or much of anything interesting (save for the lovely Yvette Mimieux). It was a crappy trade-off, depending on your point of view.

And there were the other folks - because the human race had by then diverged into two branches. The wealthy, leisure classes evolved into the ineffectual, not very bright Eloi, but the downtrodden working classes had evolved into the brutish Morlocks. These are cannibals who sort of look like albino apes and who labor underground maintaining the machinery that keep the Eloi - who are really their flocks - docile and plentiful. They eat them. It's a scary synergy - two distinctly flawed mutually dependent races with sub-human intelligence.

That's the future. Wells was not exactly an optimist.

Well neither is Oliver Curry, the evolutionary theorist at the London School of Economics. The BBC notes here, on 17 October (2006 of course), that Curry has worked out that after the year 3000 mankind will have "peaked" and at that point will be divided into two subspecies - brilliant, attractive people and weak-chinned, degenerate goblins. There's even an illustration at the BBC site.

You see it's our technology and more discriminating mating patterns that will inevitably lead to this division -
The descendants of the genetic upper class would be tall, slim, healthy, attractive, intelligent, and creative and a far cry from the "underclass" humans who would have evolved into dim-witted, ugly, squat goblin-like creatures.

But in the nearer future, humans will evolve in 1,000 years into giants between 6ft and 7ft tall, he predicts, while life-spans will have extended to 120 years, Dr Curry claims.

Physical appearance, driven by indicators of health, youth and fertility, will improve, he says, while men will exhibit symmetrical facial features, look athletic, and have squarer jaws, deeper voices and bigger penises. Women, on the other hand, will develop lighter, smooth, hairless skin, large clear eyes, pert breasts, glossy hair, and even features, he adds.
Ah, Yvette Mimieux and those pert breasts. But he also says racial differences will be ironed out by interbreeding. We'll all be coffee-colored. Actually, that would be cool.

And it seems Wells was right about the technology stuff ruining things - "Social skills, such as communicating and interacting with others, could be lost, along with emotions such as love, sympathy, trust and respect. People would become less able to care for others, or perform in teams." It's those I-Pod things, of course, and everyone commuting to work alone, and all the rest.

And the new humans would have been ruined by McDonalds and KFC - "Physically, they would start to appear more juvenile. Chins would recede, as a result of having to chew less on processed food."

Bummer. And there's that Eloi-Morlock thing, as sexual selection - being choosy about one's partner - will create more and more genetic inequality -
The logical outcome would be two sub-species, "gracile" and "robust" humans similar to the Eloi and Morlocks foretold by HG Wells in his 1895 novel The Time Machine.

"While science and technology have the potential to create an ideal habitat for humanity over the next millennium, there is a possibility of a monumental genetic hangover over the subsequent millennia due to an over-reliance on technology reducing our natural capacity to resist disease, or our evolved ability to get along with each other."
We get along with each other now? Well, maybe we do, relatively speaking.

This is startling stuff. Science fiction becomes reality, once again, although some of us are still waiting for our flying cars and robot housecleaners.

Reaction to all this was immediate. Shakespeare's Sister here - "I feel so torn. As an intelligent person, I'm rooting for the upper class. As a squat, goblin-like creature, I'm rooting for the underclass. What's a girl to do?"

The logical Lindsay Beyerstein, saying there not much real evidence here, and a whole lot of gloom and doom, offers this -
The stories leave a number of questions unresolved. For example haven't seen dramatic genetic changes in the human species over the last thousand years. People have gotten taller and sturdier over the years, thanks to better nutrition. Still, there's no evidence that humans today are dramatically genetically and morphologically different from people 1000 years ago. Furthermore, even if Curry could show that there have been substantial genetic changes, he would still have to establish that these differences were the result of differential reproductive success. So, why does Curry think that the next thousand years will produce a willowy super-race and a permanent goblin underclass?
Because he saw the movie, Lindsay!

The even more logical William Weston offers this -
Many observers of the rich have noticed that they use their money to select attractive mates. I have noticed that the smart tend to use their smarts to select smart mates. (Yes, there are ugly rich people and pretty smart ones; we are talking big trends here.) So, if Curry is even a little right, perhaps the Eloi of the future will be themselves divided into the smart and the handsome. And that might be a fair fight.
So you get the smart but homely Eloi, the pretty but dumb Eloi, and the damned Morlocks, who are neither. The future looks dim.

Movies Explain Life, Part Two

All war criminals, and in particular the Nazi dudes who didn't make it to the Nuremburg trials, end up in the middle of South America - Uruguay, Paraguay, interior Brazil and such places. We learned that in The Boys from Brazil (1978) - a young inexperienced Nazi hunter stumbles onto a secret SS meeting in 1970's South America. Led by the infamous Doctor Josef Mengele, the plot of the Nazis is first dismissed as unimportant by veteran Nazi hunter Lieberman. When the young Nazi hunter turns up murdered, however, Lieberman investigates the mysterious meeting and discovers an insane plot to resurrect the Führer, Adolf Hitler, and establish the Fourth Reich. Gregory Peck is Josef Mengele, Laurence Olivier is Ezra Lieberman (Simon Wiesenthal, of course), and there's James Mason, Lilli Palmer and Uta Hagen on hand. It's an amusing film.

But then there's this.

At the site "Bring It On" they've put together quite a story. It won't get much press, but it's really fascinating.

It has four parts -
  • There's this - The Cuban News Service reports that George W. Bush has purchased 98,840 acres in Paraguay, near the Bolivian/Brazilian border.
  • There's this - the heavy drinking wastrel Jenna Bush paid a secret diplomatic visit to Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte and U.S. Ambassador James Cason. There were no press conferences, no public sightings and no official confirmation of her 10-day trip which apparently ended this week.
  • The Paraguayan Senate voted last summer to "grant U.S. troops immunity from national and International Criminal Court (ICC) jurisdiction."
  • Immediately afterwards, 500 heavily armed U.S. troops arrived with various planes, choppers and land vehicles at Mariscal Estigarribia air base, which happens to be at the northern tip of Paraguay near the Bolivian/Brazilian border. More have reportedly arrived since then.
Something is up. Maybe George has been watching old movies, and actually thinking about what might happen when next month, as seems more and more likely, the Democrats gain control of both houses of congress and the investigations begin. Or maybe he's worried about what might start up in the International Criminal Court when he leaves office. Paraguay has agreed to be a safe haven.

No, it couldn't be. The Cuban News Service, Prensa Latina, is a Cuban-government operation and they could be just messing with our minds. This is not happening, except the land purchase has also been reported in the Brazilian press here (in Portuguese of course), in the Argentinean press here, and in the Paraguayan press here. Those last two are in Spanish, but the gist of it is that all the paperwork and deeds are secret, but someone leaked the information - a new "land trust" created for President Bush has purchased almost a hundred thousand acres of land near the town of Chaco.

And there's more regarding Jenna Bush dropping in for secret meetings with the local president and America's ambassador to Paraguay, James Cason. President Bush had posted Cason in Havana in 2002, as our diplomatic envoy (they don't get an ambassador or anything) but last year moved him to Paraguay. Cason is the former political adviser to the U.S. Atlantic Command and Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, and he'd previously been stationed in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama over the last thirty years. So this may be military, and not based on the silly movie.

But why is the land in his name? And why is it protected by a semi-secret U.S. military base manned by American troops who have been exempted from war-crimes prosecution by the Paraguayan government?

This is very curious.

And there's more information on the base, which Rumsfeld secretly visited late last year, here -
U.S. Special Forces began arriving this past summer at Paraguay's Mariscal Estigarribia air base, a sprawling complex built in 1982 during the reign of dictator Alfredo Stroessner. Argentinean journalists who got a peek at the place say the airfield can handle B-52 bombers and Galaxy C-5 cargo planes. It also has a huge radar system, vast hangers, and can house up to 16,000 troops. The air base is larger than the international airport at the capital city, Asuncion.

Some 500 special forces arrived July 1 for a three-month counterterrorism training exercise, code named Operation Commando Force 6.

Paraguayan denials that Mariscal Estigarribia is now a U.S. base have met with considerable skepticism by Brazil and Argentina. There is a disturbing resemblance between U.S. denials about Mariscal Estigarribia, and similar disclaimers made by the Pentagon about Eloy Alfaro airbase in Manta, Ecuador. The United States claimed the Manta base was a "dirt strip" used for weather surveillance. When local journalists revealed its size, however, the United States admitted the base harbored thousands of mercenaries and hundreds of U.S. troops, and Washington had signed a 10-year basing agreement with Ecuador.
"When the young Nazi hunter turns up murdered, however, Lieberman investigates the mysterious meeting and discovers an insane plot to resurrect the Führer, Adolf Hitler, and establish the Fourth Reich." No, couldn't be.

But wait! There're more! One sees here that the odd and messianic Reverend Moon, the owner of the pro-Bush Washington Times, and who has said he's the savior come to redeem us all, bought 1,482,600 acres in the same place - Chaco, Paraguay.

It only gets odder and more mysterious, doesn't it?

And it also involves the president's father. That item above from Paraguay mentions the first President Bush already owns about a hundred acres there. It must be the new Moon-Bush compound.

And here's some background -
"In the early stages of the Reagan Revolution that embraced the Washington Times and Moon's anti-Communist movement, it was embarrassing to be caught at a Moon event," wrote The Gadflyer last year. "Until George H.W. Bush appeared with Moon in 1996, thanking him for a newspaper that 'brings sanity to Washington.'" That was while on an extended trip to South America in Moon's company. A Reuters' story of Nov 25 of that year describes the former president as "full of praise" for Moon at a banquet in Buenos Aires, toasting him as "the man with the vision." (And Moon helped Bush out with his own vision thing, paying him $100,000 for the pleasure of his company.) Bush and Moon then traveled together to Uruguay, "to help him inaugurate a seminary in the capital, Montevideo, to train 4,200 young Japanese women to spread the word of his Church of Unification across Latin America."
Uruguay, Paraguay, interior Brazil and such places are not much in the news of course. But something is up. You have your old Nazis, young Japanese women training to spread the word of the Church of Unification across Latin America (Moon is Korean), and the Moon and Bush family land is located at what Paraguay's drug czar says is an "enormously strategic point in both the narcotics and arms trades." And it sits atop one of the world's largest fresh-water aquifers. You've got just everything there.

It's amazing what you find reading the gossip rag Wonkette.

It's probably nothing. But there was that movie.

And it all makes some sort of weird sense from out here in Hollywood.

__

Footnote:

Black Sunday (1977), directed by John Frankenheimer - "A demented war veteran (Bruce Dern) plots to kill thousands of Americans at the Superbowl in Miami by using a specially designed dart-gun from the Goodyear blimp which flies above the stadium. However, a tough Middle Eastern anti-terrorist agent (Robert Shaw) has uncovered some of the plot and is out to stop him."

Wednesday, October 18, 2006, this -
By now, Americans have gotten pretty used to over-hyped terror threats out of Washington. But now we have another layer of hype to contend with. There's been a frenzy this afternoon over a report that a threat was posted on the Internet regarding several coordinated "dirty bomb" attacks on NFL stadiums, supposedly set to happen this weekend.

What very few seem to be noting, however, is that the "threat" was posted not to one of many Islamist militant Web sites - but to an American humor site, "The Friend Society." That fact seems rather pertinent - but the AP has buried it at the end of the long version of its report. Moreover, as of this post, a search of Google News revealed only 36 media outlets carrying the long version. Other sites, like the virulently anti-Islamist blog Little Green Footballs, where proprietor Charles Johnson admitted the threat was "probably bogus," were actually reporting that the threat came from an Islamist Web site.

The Friend Society Web site - which sometimes also uses "Thefucksociety.com" as a URL - appears to be down. The post about the terror threat, which was reportedly made on Oct. 12 by a Friend Society user named "javness," seems to have vanished from the Internet altogether -- though Google caches of the site remain available. The thread itself has been cached; called "New Attack on America, Be Afraid," it stretches to three pages…

Other threads under discussion on The Friend Society at the time included "stretchy vagina debate," "PEYOTE" and "MLB Playoffs." javness, the user who allegedly put up the post in question after recently joining the site, was also participating in another thread concerned with matters of warfare - it was called "Optimus Prime's First Line Could Be Your Own!"

The Department of Homeland Security seems to have a handle on this one. In response to a request for comment, DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen emailed Salon a press release (which included the full "New Attack on America" post) from the Open Source Center, a group in the Directorate of National Intelligence. The press release notes that The Friend Society "contains none of the hallmarks of jihadist websites." It also points to comments that accompanied the original post: Responding to other users who had challenged "javness" to provide some sort of proof of the terror plot, "javness" quipped back, "you already know too much."
Sigh.

Posted by Alan at 22:28 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 19 October 2006 07:37 PDT home

Tuesday, 17 October 2006
Metaphors Regarding Power
Topic: Perspective
Metaphors Regarding Power
As mentioned last week in Explaining Things, one of the things that needs explaining is what is in the just published Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, a book by David Kuo. Kuo was an up and comer among those known as social conservatives - the religious right, opposed to women having any option at all to abort an unwanted pregnancy, to gay marriage, to that separation of church and state business that forbids mandatory prayer in school and forbids the government funding or even endorsing crosses on hills and the Ten Commandments on slabs of stone in courthouses. That was the fight. He wrote speeches for Ralph Reed, one of the founders of the Christian Right organization - although Reed is now disgraced, caught up in the Abramoff scandal, where Reed jerked around various Indian tribes for fun and profit. Kuo had also served as a policy adviser to John Ashcroft, the former attorney general who draped heavy cloth over the statues in Justice Department lobby (the stone bare breasts were offensive) and who led his subordinates in daily prayer meetings imploring Jesus for guidance. Kuo has said Bill Bennett was his mentor - and that would be the Bill Bennett who wrote the Book of Values and the Book of Values for Children, and admitted he had dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars gambling in Vegas casinos, but it was no big deal. Kuo joined the George Bush campaign early - 1998, two years before the first presidential election - and rose to become second in command at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Now he's slapping his forehead and saying evangelicals should take a two-year "fast" from politics. The new book documents that the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was kind of a farce - a tool to trick the Christian Right and its associated organizations into getting out the Republican vote, and behind their backs Rove and the rest were mocking Falwell and Dobson and the rest as "nuts" and "kooks." They were useful idiots, with the emphasis on the word idiots. It was pure manipulation of the Christian groups, and there was the failure to fund the policies the president said were his "personal priority" - giving grants to religious organizations to do government work. Nothing much was ever funded - in fact such funding actually decreased - but the political benefits were enormous. If you were a certain kind of Christian - the evangelical kind - you had to be a Republican. The government was finally on your side, and on Jesus' side - unless you looked at the spreadsheets. Kuo looked at the spreadsheets, and he heard what was said behind the backs of the major evangelical leaders. He was not amused. He took notes. He wrote a book about it all. And he even appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes" to discuss it all (video here).

The White House is most unhappy with him, and the evangelicals are pretty much refusing to believe all this is so. It's quite a mess, but the White House is good at saying things that are so are just not so - they've raised that to a fine art - and evangelicals are conditioned to believe in authority, be it the inherency of the Bible or the inherent authority of a devout and godly president, one who's always saying that he is doing Jesus' work. The damage may be minimal.

Those outside that frame of reference - who don't have a predilection to stop thinking, shut down and simply trust what others claim is inherently authoritative, or trust anyone who makes the claim, without evidence, to be an authority figure - find all of this puzzling.

In an exclusive interview with Richard Wolffe of NBC, Kuo tries to provide a frame of reference for the few skeptics left in America. That odd bit of explaining what's going on is here -
I have no anger towards my former colleagues or towards anyone else. Part of what made this so difficult to write is the amount of respect I have for my former colleagues. I like and respect them.

It was also a real challenge to try and tell the entire story, my own intimate story about what happens when you struggle with God and politics - and politics wins. I think one of the things that drove me was feeling the urgent need to tell people, particularly Christians, I suppose, that politicians look at any constituency with very cold eyes. They form constituencies to form a governing coalition. That isn't a bad thing; that's just what they do. And I think Christians have come to this notion that this White House is somehow their fellow parishioners with them, and that is simply not the case. I am shocked, frankly, by the White House response that it [the faith-based agenda] hasn't been political. That is the other side of absurd, and fundamentally misleading.

… In some ways White House power is like [J.R.R.] Tolkien's ring of power. When you put it on, it feels good and it's dazzling. But after a while it begins to consume you in ways you don't realize. That's the nature of White House power. I have no doubt that Christian political leaders have gotten involved for all the right reasons. I just think over time it becomes harder and harder to stand up against that ring of power and the White House, to say no and walk away.
So, as you saw scrawled on the walls of midtown subways near NYU in the early 1960s - Frodo Lives! Tolkien's rolling over in his grave. But if you know the books, or the film trilogy (and how could you not?) then this begins to make sense.

As you recall, the One Ring was created by the "Dark Lord" Sauron during the Second Age in order to gain dominion over the remaining elves of Middle-earth. Don't ask. Anyway, he tricked the elves into helping him make such rings and then forged the One Ring himself in the fires of Mount Doom. It controlled all the rings of power ever made. Sauron was obliged to place most of his native power, life force and will into the ring, and then, by doing that, as long as the One Ring existed, it was impossible to remove him from the mortal plane - he was both immortal and invincible. With it he could control others and rule the world, but then he lost the damned thing. And whoever found it would have all the power. Drat! And everyone really wanted it, but part of the nature of the One Ring was that it slowly but inevitably corrupted its wearer, even if the wearer wanted to use its unimaginable power to do good. For this reason the Wise - Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel - when Frodo came up with the thing, refused to wield it in their own defense, saying it must be destroyed. They knew it would corrupt even them, and turn them into monsters. Political power at its highest level - the office of the leader of the most powerful nation on earth - is kind of like that. Or it isn't.

But is it an explanation of what is happening here for those outside the evangelical world of ceding critical thought to authority. Just think of what the ring did - it drove people who wanted it to make the world better quite mad, and for those who possessed it, twisted them in to monsters. The hero of the tale, Frodo the Hobbit, at great personal cost, got to Mount Doom and destroyed the thing - and saved the world.

And that leads to this -
David Kuo's comparison of White House power to Sauron's Ring of Power is something that has been on my mind recently too. Neither he nor I are alone in making that comparison - a couple of weeks ago I saw a bumper sticker on the streets of Portland, Oregon which said "Frodo Has Failed, Bush Has the Ring."
No! Really? But you can actually buy the bumper sticker (and matching mugs, t-shirts and a backpack). Amazing.

But wait! There's more! The guys on the other side of the political fence can use Tolkien too!

Note that here we see in an interview with the editorial board of the Bucks County Courier Times, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, knowing that he's losing the battle to keep his senate seat - he's the third ranking Republican in the senate and as socially conservative as they come, and a staunch supporter of the president's "we stay until we win it all" approach to Iraq - says the Iraq War is just like what's going on in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." Really it is. But its not the ring business - you see, the United States has avoided terrorist attacks at home over the past five years because the "Eye of Mordor" has been focused on Iraq instead.

What?

That goes like this -
As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else. It's being drawn to Iraq and it's not being drawn to the U.S. You know what? I want to keep it on Iraq. I don't want the Eye to come back here to the United States.
So both sides can play this Tolkien game, or we're all Hobbits, or something. For those not into Tolkien, or who missed the films, even with the eleven Oscars, the Courier Times explains - the "Eye of Mordor" was "the tool the evil Lord Sauron used in search of the magical ring that would consolidate his power over Middle-earth." Of course it is. Everyone knows that.

The problem is, of course, the one side is making a joke and Santorum is quite serious. Or he's mad. The idea that there is one vastly evil and somewhat supernatural power scanning the globe and out to get us all seems a bit pathological, but then he doesn't say aliens from the planet Clorox II are sending messages to him through the fillings in his teeth, and that's why he's wearing the tin-foil hat. It's just he imagines one super-powerful bad guy behind everything, and it doesn't appear to be Michael Moore. He never says who it is, actually. It may be Professor Moriarty - but that's Sherlock Holmes' stuff, not the Hobbit stuff. But we are supposed to admire his unified paranoia, which is supposed to be some sort of geopolitical wisdom.

But Santorum does come down to earth, sort of. Elsewhere in the interview he says he disagrees with the notion that the United States is "bogged down" in Iraq. And there's all this talk of troop withdrawal. People are asking quests, and they shouldn't - "I don't think you ask that question. I know that's the question everybody wants to ask. But I don't think anyone would ask that question in 1944, 'Gee, how long are we going to be in Europe?' We're going to be in Europe until we win."

People should shut up. And they should really worry about THE EYE.

Okay. Why not? Santorum is always amusing.

And anyway, the war is going fine, in fact "remarkably well." Vice President Cheney came out of hiding to tell Rush Limbaugh that with this -
Well, I think there's some natural level of concern out there because in fact, you know, it wasn't over instantaneously. It's been a little over three years now since we went into Iraq, so I don't think it's surprising that people are concerned.

On the other hand, this government has only been in office about five months, five or six months now. They're off to a good start. It is difficult, no question about it, but we've now got over 300,000 Iraqis trained and equipped as part of their security forces. They've had three national elections with higher turnout than we have here in the United States. If you look at the general overall situation, they're doing remarkably well.

It's still very, very difficult, very tough. Nobody should underestimate the extent to which we're engaged there with this sort of, at present, the "major front" of the war on terror. That's what Osama bin Laden says, and he's right."

As Andrew Sullivan says - "If you were at all concerned that this administration has no grip on reality, then you need to become more concerned."

But maybe Dick Cheney is Lord Sauron, or one of his tools. You never know.

But the recent flurry of Tolkien talk is an anomaly. The standard authoritative reference work about how the world works is still the Bible. See the video clip here (at the 4:58 mark) or check out the Sacramento Bee here.

It's John Doolittle, the Deputy Majority Whip and Secretary of the House Republican Conference, with this -

As for Armageddon, I just note with interest that's what the Bible says. That it's on the Plains of Megiddo. Right there in Israel. And it makes you wonder where this conflict's all going to ultimately lead. And I happen to believe it will ultimately lead to what the Bible says.

There are books more dangerous than Tolkien's. And Doolittle isn't dealing in metaphor. Such folks don't do that.

Whether Kuo is right or not - the political operatives at the White House think the religious folks who drop by are "kooks" to be used and mocked - there's a chance he had it wrong. And we're going to all die, because the Bible says we should.


Posted by Alan at 23:05 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 18 October 2006 07:05 PDT home

Monday, 16 October 2006
In Defense of the Incomprehensible and Puerile
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
In Defense of the Incomprehensible and Puerile
America must look strange to those elsewhere, although in the last six years it has become our default position that we really don't care what anyone else in the world thinks of us. We do what's right, as we see it, and we do it for the good of everyone in the world, and someday they'll understand that and thank us. Or maybe they won't. It hardly matters. We really don't care what they think. We think we're noble. That sustains us though all the distain. After all, we single-handedly saved the world in two world wars, and now they think we're foolish, or worse. Or they remember history differently, as if they had something to do with winning those wars. That's our problem with the French, of course. As for all the others, they just don't see the good we unselfishly do for them. It's so petty of them. And it's kind of sad, actually.

This is hardly worth documenting with references. Listen to what the president, vice president, and secretary of defense have said in the first six years of the administration, and remember what Donald Rumsfeld said about "old Europe" - those fusty and now calcified nations that just don't "get it." The message is that these fools understand nothing. Recently the world offshore didn't even understand that prolonging the massive civilian bombing in the Israel-Hezbollah thirty-day war was a very good thing - the birth pangs of a new Middle East, as Condoleezza Rice famously put it. The hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who lost everything just didn't "get it" either. They foolishly cling to the idea that stability is good, when our president carefully and repeated explained that it is not - the old status quo produced grumpy people who turned into terrorists, and we needed a new and better world to be born, and of course that birth is bound be a bit messy, but everyone should want this new and better world. Still they bitched about all the dead people.

So, from the outside, it seems America is hard to understand - or it's easy to understand and the rest of the world is just amazingly dense and unjustifiably resentful. Or so the thinking goes.

The rest of the world finds us puzzling? Maybe so.

The view from offshore of the House page scandal, the Mark Foley business, might provide an example. Monday, October 16, Gary Younge wrote about it here in The Guardian (UK), and we have a contemporary Brit invoking a long-dead French fellow -
"All the domestic controversies of the Americans at first appear to a stranger to be incomprehensible or puerile," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic 19th-century treatise, Democracy in America. "And he is at a loss whether to pity a people who take such arrant trifles in good earnest or to envy that happiness which enables a community to discuss them."

And so it is that, as the extent of the carnage in Iraq becomes evident and North Korea goes nuclear, America's political class obsesses over a single Congressman's predilection for teenage boys.
But that is what we do, as odd as it seems. And Younge seems to think this is unbalanced, as it is what had galvanized the Democrats -
They know how to make electoral capital out of a gay man propositioning American teenagers (as of yet there is no suggestion that he actually molested any of them). But when it came to American soldiers forcing Iraqi prisoners to masturbate for the camera, their ability to focus minds on inappropriate sexual behavior and abuse of power somehow eluded them.

Now, with three weeks to go before the mid-term elections, the Democrats are flipping the traditional script. "Anybody who had a personal vulnerability before this is totally [at risk] with the spotlight on scandal," a Democratic aide told the Washington Post. "Frankly, it is a tough environment out there if you have a problem with the bottle or the zipper."
Whatever works - and the bottle and zipper do.

And as puerile as it seems, he does note that last week in New Jersey, the Democrat candidate Linda Stender accused her Republican opponent, Mike Ferguson, of preying on young women in a DC nightclub. And in Pennsylvania, Chris Carney has accused his Republican opponent of "repeatedly choking" and "attempting to strangle" his young mistress. Younge doesn't mention that the Republican in the latter case is running ads where he says, yes, he was unfaithful to his frumpy wife for years, and he is so very ashamed of that, but he never, ever beat his nubile young mistress senseless, nor did he ever try to choke her to death - so you really should vote for him, as he's telling it like it is, revealing himself, warts and all, this making himself one of the few truly honest men in politics. You speak to your constituents' concerns, you see. And he may win reelection.

The rest of the stuff is just too dry, like this -
Federal agents raided the home of the daughter of U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.) and his longtime friend Charlie Sexton this morning. The agents departed Karen Weldon's three-story brick home on Queen Street in Philadelphia with arms loaded with boxes. A government car pulled into the alley to the back door of the house and loaded boxes into it. Three agents standing in an alley declined to identify themselves.

"I can confirm that we conducted a number of searches regarding an ongoing investigation," said FBI agent Jerri Williams, a spokeswoman in Philadelphia. "Details regarding those investigation cannot be provided because the accompanying affidavit is sealed."
But the story is becoming clear. His daughter had no experience in anything, and she set up a lobbying firm, and her father got her two or three million dollars in contracts. Some shady Russians, and Slobodan Milosevic, signed up for her to wield her influence, and daddy did what he could for them in the House. It was sweet, and illegal - but it's dry stuff.

All such corruption stories are dry, like this -
Lester Crawford, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner who resigned suddenly in September 2005, was indicted in U.S. court for making false statements related to his investments and conflict of interest. U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor announced the indictment in a court filing today in Washington.
First of all, no one follows who the FDA commissioners are, and although he just up and quit after two months on the job, that was hardly headline news. No one noticed. He will plead guilty for issuing rulings highly favorable to two companies where he held very large blocks of stock options - PepsiCo and Sysco. We're talking, in the one case, a purveyor of junk food and high-fructose soft drinks, and in the other. of the biggest supplier of food and cocktail napkins to American restaurants. Where's the sex? No one will ask the president about that appointment. Appointing Michael Brown to FEMA meant many thousands died and a major American city was ruined forever. Appointing Lester Crawford meant more kids got fat, and he got rich. It's a minor thing.

Still, Younge points out, there's trouble in the air -
"This is without question the worst political situation for the GOP since the Watergate disaster in 1974," wrote the veteran analyst Charles Cook in his political report on Friday. "I think a 30-seat gain today for Democrats is more likely to occur than a 15-seat gain, the minimum that would tip the majority. The chances of that number going higher are also strong, unless something occurs that fundamentally changes the dynamic of this election. This is what Republican strategists' nightmares look like."
The question is how the opposition Democrats will play their hand.

Younge suggests they will stupidly play to what really doesn't matter, and about which folks really don't care much -
For if America's political class are pushing de Tocqueville's "puerile trifles", the electorate is clearly far more interested in substance. With wages stagnant, health costs rising and the military death toll in Iraq this month hovering close to a two-year high, voters want serious answers to serious questions. The Pew survey showed that the six issues of most concern to the electorate were Iraq, terrorism, the economy, healthcare, immigration and energy policy.

Last week, the Democrat minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, addressed some of these concerns. She pledged that in the first 100 hours of a Democrat majority she will increase the minimum wage, reduce interest rates on student loans, expand federal funding for stem-cell research, and require the government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to lower the price of prescription drugs for Medicare.

This is great as far as it goes. It provides an answer to those who claim there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. But it also confirms the accusation that, given the challenges facing American society, this difference is inadequate. For one of the reasons the Democrats are so eager to talk about the Foley scandal is because they have little substantive to say on the matters on the American public's mind.

Pelosi might have added to her to-do list closing down Guantánamo Bay, setting a date for troop withdrawal from Iraq, raising taxes on the top earners to help curb the deficit, and putting a stop to warrantless wiretapping. But the truth is that Democrats have no consistent or coherent position on Iraq, terrorism or anything else much. The last few months have told the tale of Republican demise, not a Democrat revival. So while November 7 promises the possibility of electoral change, the prospect of real political change seems remote. The Democrats are standing for office, but little else.
Yeah, but the big stuff is hard. Maybe it's too hard.

And the biggest issue, the war after the Iraq War, has no easy answer. The Democrats have no plan of their own for victory. How could they? It's not even possible - "A commission formed to assess the Iraq war and recommend a new course has ruled out the prospect of victory for America, according to draft policy options shared with The New York Sun by commission officials."

So the honest Republicans are running on a curiously unbeatable platform - yeah, we screwed up, and maybe it is the biggest screw up in American history, so bad there's no good fix of any kind, so unless the Democrats come up with one, and there is no way they can, people should vote for us again, because the Democrats can't do anything about what's happened after all, as they've always been useless.

And the issues with Iraq are really complex, unlike who was covering up the gay congressman preying in sixteen-year-old male pages and why, and whether that congressman really beat his mistress or not. Tom Engelhardt explains here.

The president describes the enemy this way - "The violence is being caused by a combination of terrorists, elements of former regime criminals, and sectarian militias." But the emphasis keeps changing. Early on it with the middle group, the "bitter-enders" - they missed Saddam Hussein. Then it was the terrorists. Now it's the religious sects. One can get confused, and now he says it's all three. You need a scorecard.

Add to that there may be a coup in the works - that's mentioned here (Washington Post columnist David Ignatius) and a week earlier here (Robert Dreyfuss). Insiders are talking about the possibility of a new five-man "ruling commission," a "government of national salvation" that would "suspend parliament, declare martial law and call back some officers of the old Iraqi army." So reboot the system, as it were.

And Engelhardt reviews recent talk of a political accommodation with the insurgents. We stop fighting them?

And there's this -
Of course, all of this has brought to the surface a lot of hopeful "withdrawal" talk in the media (and the online world), in part because the Baker group seems to have been floating "phased withdrawal" rumors. Before you think about genuine withdrawal possibilities though, note the announcement by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker last week that he was now planning for the possibility of maintaining present force levels in Iraq (140,000+ troops) through 2010; that Casey at that press briefing left the door wide open to ask the President for even more troops after the election; and that the build-up on the ground of permanent bases (not called that) and our vast, nearly billion-dollar embassy in the heart of Baghdad is ongoing.
So who knows what we're doing? Sex is easier.

And there are the inherent paradoxes in the kind of war we walked into. Engelhardt points to Michael Schwartz analyzing this, an article by four military experts published in the quasi-official Military Review, entitled "The Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency."

What would they be?

Paradox 1: The More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You Are
Paradox 2: The More Force You Use, the Less Effective You Are
Paradox 3: The More Successful Counterinsurgency Is, the Less Force That Can Be Used and the More Risk That Must Be Accepted
Paradox 4: Sometimes Doing Nothing Is the Best Reaction
Paradox 5: The Best Weapons for Counterinsurgency Do Not Shoot
Paradox 6: The Host Nation Doing Something Tolerably Is Sometimes Better Than Our Doing It Well
Paradox 7: If a Tactic Works This Week, It Will Not Work Next Week; If It Works in This Province, It Will Not Work in the Next
Paradox 8: Tactical Success Guarantees Nothing
Paradox 9: Most of the Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals

Michael Schwartz is Professor of Sociology and Faculty Director of the Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University, and his books include Radical Protest and Social Structure, and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo) - so his discussion of each paradox is detailed, and quotes extensively from the source document (PDF format). Read it carefully and you'll see it makes sense.

The only problem is, of course, for all the common sense here, the analysis of these paradoxes of fighting an insurgency doesn't meet the Alexis de Tocqueville "incomprehensible and puerile" test. Not only are the concepts not exactly simple, they're certainly not sexy and titillating. They're only self-evident, and you realize that when you carefully think them through. It may be too much work.

No "Neanderthal" voter will think them through, having long ago bought into the president's "we will accept nothing less than total victory" line, as that's easy enough to work with. As they say on the infomercial about the countertop thing that will roast a chicken for you - "Set it… and forget it!" The enemy may be ambiguous, but we can kill them all and let God sort them out, as General Sherman once said. This is too tricky. The nasty congressman who likes young boys, and who knew he did and when, is easier to get all upset about. This is not lost on the Democrats. To get elected you use they tools provided you.

A secondary problem about all this - what is circulating as the new thinking in the military - is that the president, and more importantly the vastly more influential vice president and the secretary of defense, don't see these paradoxes at all. On the policy and strategy levels they are committed to the exact opposite of what the military knows it has to do, on the tactical level. And that goes a long way to explaining "the revolt of the retired generals." It's a matter of who "gets it."

And it's way too hard for a population busy with other matters to deal with the idea that even the military is saying the top guys have the basic concept all wrong. And too, the media will give the population busy with other matters… other matters. They do need to sell advertising time, and keep the ratings up. Sexy and puerile will do nicely, thank you.

Alexis de Tocqueville said he was "at a loss whether to pity a people who take such arrant trifles in good earnest or to envy that happiness which enables a community to discuss them." He was onto something there.

No one from the outside really understands America.

Posted by Alan at 22:32 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2006 06:57 PDT home

Sunday, 15 October 2006
Attending to Seemingly Useless Information
Topic: Reality-Based Woes
Attending to Seemingly Useless Information
There were two Friday the 13ths this year - January and October. But this isn't that bad - Friday, September 13th, 2019, is the next year to contain a full moon on a Friday the 13th. That'll be a bad day for sure.

Any Friday the 13th is an unlucky day, except in Greece and Spain, where Tuesday the 13th is the bad day. It's more the thirteen thing - Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, was the thirteenth guest to the Last Supper and all that. The day of the week matters less, though you will find fundamentalist Christians who carefully worked out that it was on a Friday the 13th that Cain killed his brother Abel, and on a Friday the 13th Eve chatted with that sneaky snake and completely ruined things for all of us forever. So it wasn't any Tuesday, you see. It was a Friday, and the 13th. And women always ruin things. Cosi fan tutti and all.

Of course thirteen is just a bad number, one that screws things up. There are twelve months in a year, twelve signs of the zodiac, and twelve gods of Olympus, twelve labors of Hercules, twelve tribes of Israel, and twelve apostles of Jesus. So thirteen just seems… strange. And people still avoid the number these days - more than eighty percent of high-rises just don't have a 13th floor. Most airports don't have a Gate Thirteen. Hospitals and hotels pretty much don't have a "Room 13" anywhere. If you visit Florence, Italy, the house between number 12 and 14 is always 12 and a half. In France you once could find yourself one of those quatorziens (fourteeners) - available as a fourteenth guest to keep your dinner party from some unlucky fate, like deadly dull conversation or fistfights. That still may be a custom there. Who knows? But if you find yourself worried about Friday the 13th you can always try the standard folk remedies to make sure bad luck doesn't get you - climb to the top of a mountain or skyscraper and burn all the socks you own that have holes in them, or stand on your head and eat a piece of gristle.

As they say, you could it look up. All of it falls under the heading of "useless information."

But what information is useless? On this month's Friday the 13th the Washington Post published this column by Jeffery Smith - headline "Bush Confounded by the 'Unacceptable'" and subhead "President Wields Word More Freely as His Frustration Rises and His Influence Ebbs."

This is just a curious word count thing - or, as Smith contends, it means President Bush finds the world around him increasingly "unacceptable." Given that's the same world the rest of us live in, this could be a problem. The man is very unhappy. Who knows what he's going to do about it?

The gist of it is this -
[A] survey of transcripts from Bush's public remarks over the past seven years shows the president's worsening political predicament has actually stoked, rather than diminished, his desire to proclaim what he cannot abide. Some presidential scholars and psychologists describe the trend as a signpost of Bush's rising frustration with his declining influence.

In the first nine months of this year, Bush declared more than twice as many events or outcomes "unacceptable" or "not acceptable" as he did in all of 2005, and nearly four times as many as he did in 2004. He is, in fact, at a presidential career high in denouncing events he considers intolerable. They number 37 so far this year, as opposed to five in 2003, 18 in 2002 and 14 in 2001.
And there are the usual suspects - the unacceptable includes rising health costs, immigrants who live outside the law, North Korea's claimed nuclear test, genocide in Sudan and Iran's nuclear ambitions and all the rest, and now with things going in the weeds with North Korea and Iraq, and congress not getting much of anything done on any domestic initiatives, and all those polls with his approval ratings in the thirties all the time, he saying things are unacceptable more than ever. But it's his thing. Back in January he was telling a bunch of elementary school kids in Maryland that their recent scores on math and reading proficiency tests were "unacceptable." Now we're all the little kids - the whole world is the little kids who are just not doing the right thing.

Smith quotes Stanley A. Renshon, a political scientist a CYNU, saying all this is in keeping with the president's apparent self-image as a Jeremiah, "railing against the tides" and saying what "people ought to be doing something about." Of course that's not the same as doing anything about anything, but it sounds serious and important. The president is supposed to be the world's Jeremiah? That's not in the job description, but it's what we got.

And Smith charts the widening targets here -
As a presidential candidate and in his early presidency, Bush was more apt to denounce domestic events. His assertions that school performance and achievement gaps between white and black students were unacceptable account for almost a third of his usages of that term since 2000.

Bush's targets expanded from 2003 to 2005 to include nine condemnations of "unacceptable" actions by Iraq and Iran, as well as the Social Security system and the administration's own response to the Katrina hurricane. This year, he has hurled the term "unacceptable" at actions by Iraqi insurgents and police, at supporters of a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, and at a U.S. law making the degrading treatment of detainees a war crime.
You see the frustration metastasizing. Steven Kull, a political psychologist who directs the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes explains - some folks deal with failures "by intensifying an authoritarian posture and insisting that their preferences are equivalent to a moral imperative." Then they explode, of course, in some sort of tantrum. They can be a bit dangerous.

And there's this -
Moisés Naím, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, said there is a relationship between "how strident and extreme" the language of many leaders is and how limited their options are. For Bush, Naím said, "this comes at a time when the world is convinced he is weaker than ever."

Many foreigners think the United States is losing Iraq and are no longer in awe of U.S. military might, Naím said, and at home, Bush is so weak that Republican candidates are wary of appearing with him. "The world has noticed," Naím said. "What is happening is that a lot that was deemed unacceptable [by Bush] now has become normal and tolerable."
And what has become normal and tolerable is now unacceptable. And he's ticked off. Watch out.

And there's that other thing -
Bush's proclamations are not the only rhetorical evidence of his mounting frustrations. One of his favorite verbal tics has long been to instruct audiences bluntly to "listen" to what he is about to say, as in "Listen, America is respected" (Aug. 30) or "Listen, this economy is good" (May 24). This year, he made that request more often than he did in a comparable portion of 2005, a sign that he hasn't given up hope it might work.
But grabbing people by the lapels and shouting at them to listen to you isn't the most effective rhetorical strategy. It's hardly a way to make friends and influence people. And the more you do it, hoping it finally works, the less it works. It's kind of obvious.

Kevin Drum puts it nicely here -
This is a symptom of what I find so mysterious about Bush's popularity: his speaking style always strikes me as irritated and angry, as if he's nearly ready to jump out of his skin in frustration that his audience just doesn't get it. Even though he keeps explaining it! And explaining it again! And again! What's wrong with you people?!?

This feeling is almost palpable, and it's the reason I don't understand why his supporters continue to find him attractive. Especially over the past couple of years, he seems increasingly angry, defensive, frustrated, and completely unable to understand why he can't control events around him. Conservatives recognize how feeble and embarrassing this looks when Bush pulls this schtick over something that even they understand is dumb (Kathryn Jean Lopez on the Harriet Miers nomination: "I hate this groaning-when-the-president speaks reflex I've had all week on this issue") but they don't seem to understand that to growing numbers of people he sounds this way all the time.

Listen, George: Being hectored just isn't a good way to people's hearts, and repeating the same words over and over isn't a good way to influence actual events in the world. Is it any wonder your approval ratings are stuck in the 30s?
Yep, and Jeremiah was a bore, and really tiresome. So was Hector.

But the president is a "hard-liner" and that's supposed to a good thing in this world full of wimps and defeatists, and with North Korea tests a nuclear weapon. But is he, really?

See this from DK over at Talking Points Memo -
Just yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, no less a Bush critic than Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Colin Powell's chief of staff at the State Department, asserted that Bush's hardline on North Korea has failed.

I have no doubt that there are genuine hardliners within the administration who urged covert and overt military action against North Korea early in the President's first term, and certainly in response to the breakdown of the Agreed Framework. Every Republican administration is going to have its share of Curtis LeMays.

But those true hardliners have not prevailed in the internal administration struggle over whether the U.S. should lead with the carrot or with the stick. What has emerged as U.S. "policy" is inertia. No carrot. No stick. No nothing, unless cheap rhetoric about what is "unacceptable" counts for something.

There are quite reputable people in foreign policy circles, like former Defense Secretary William Perry, who have advocated much tougher measures against North Korea than Bush has adopted. Perry, for instance, proposed publicly earlier this year that the U.S. hit the DPRK's new ICBM with a U.S. cruise missile while it was still on the launch pad, before a test flight could be conducted.

The sad truth is that we have virtually no good options for putting the North Korean nuclear genie back in the bottle, and I am quite convinced that our military options at the moment range from bad to worse (and that the current Administration would be unable to competently execute any military option).

But in the same way that it is a mistake to conclude that the Clinton Administration offer of a carrot was a failure, it is a mistake to conclude that the stick has failed, too. Both may be needed in the future.

All that we can say with any certainty is that paralysis has failed to achieve our objective of a non-nuclear Korean peninsula. And paralysis, if I may say, is unacceptable.
But the president talks a good game. He just imagines he's on the sidelines, when he isn't. Refusing to play and just screaming at those on the field isn't an option here.

And maybe the word count thing wasn't useless information after all. The man is stuck on the stunningly ineffective "Listen, that's unacceptable." It probably didn't even work with the elementary school kids. They almost certainly looked as appropriately shamefaced as they could manage (kids all know how to do that), then went home and played videogames, or did whatever they decided they wanted to do. The same thing happens with adults, minus the feigned shame. They just shrug. Whatever, George.

But the man can do some damage. And he doesn't like how things are - they are not at all the way he knows they are supposed to be. Reality is a problem. It needs to be fixed, of course.

Or it doesn't need to be fixed, as in this from US News and World Report, also, curiously, from Friday the 13th -
Some Republican strategists are increasingly upset with what they consider the overconfidence of President Bush and his senior advisers about the midterm elections November 7 – a concern aggravated by the president's news conference this week.

"They aren't even planning for if they lose," says a GOP insider who informally counsels the West Wing. If Democrats win control of the House, as many analysts expect, Republicans predict that Bush's final two years in office will be marked by multiple congressional investigations and gridlock.

"The Bush White House has had no relationship with Congress," said a Bush ally. "Beyond the Democrats, wait till they see how the Republicans – the ones that survive – treat them if they lose next month." GOP insiders are upset by Bush's seeming inability to come up with new ideas or fresh approaches. There is even a heightened sensitivity to the way Bush talks about advisers who served his father.
This is very curious. There's no Plan B - no contingency planning. You just assume the best-case scenario, and ridicule as defeatist anyone who thinks there ought to be something in place if you're not greeted as liberators and showered with candy and flowers, so to speak. It's much like Iraq. It's that "reality is what we say it is" thing again. Or maybe all the new voting machines have indeed been rigged the right way, and Karl Rove knows it, and so does the president. Which it is - delusional denial of reality or some evil conspiracy to steal the election - doesn't matter much, really. Neither is very comforting.

And what's this "heightened sensitivity to the way Bush talks about advisers who served his father?"

Something is up with that, as Thomas DeFrank explains here, regarding the events at the recent christening of the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush, where the father (41) was with his son (43), and the rivalry was on full display -
For five years, the 41s have bit their collective tongues as, they complain, the 43s ignored their counsel. But as the war in Iraq has worsened and public support for the current administration has tanked, loyalists of the elder Bush have found it impossible to suppress their disillusionment - particularly their belief that many of 43's policies are a stick in the eye of his father.

… "Forty-three has now repudiated everything 41 stands for, and still he won't say a word," a key member of the elder Bush alumni said. "Personally, I think he's dying inside."

… "Everyone knew how Rumsfeld acts," another key 41 assistant said. "Everyone knew 43 didn't have an attention span. Everyone knew Condi [Rice] wouldn't be able to stand up to Cheney and Rumsfeld. We told them all of this, and we were told we don't know what we're doing."
So we seem to be caught in the middle of a battle between a father and a son, regarding which has a better grasp of reality. Lucky us. The president says, again and again, that we will accept nothing less than total victory in Iraq, and the Iraq Study Group, headed by his father's secretary of state, James A. Baker III, says that's not an option and best we can hope for is something else entirely, and the president refers to him as "Jimmy" Baker in the October 11 press conference, as if he's one of those ill-disciplined Maryland elementary school kids who hasn't been doing his homework. We're caught in the middle, and lots of people die. This is not good. It's almost… unacceptable.

Well, what's acceptable and unacceptable can get tricky.

There was an odd thing on the Sunday, October 15 talk shows. Two days after Friday the 13th, the pseudo-moderate conservative columnist David Brooks had this to say on MSNBC, on "The Chris Matthews Show," and he has great access to the White House -
Matthews: David, do you believe the President is looking for an out from his doctrinaire policy of staying the course?

Brooks: Not really, no I don't. I think they're looking at policy options. One of those options is trying to replace the current government which seems to be doing nothing. The second option is some sort of federation which – Joe Biden has suggested as separating Iraq. A third option and by far the least likely is going in with more troops. So there are all different three options… We have much less control over Iraq than we did two or three years ago…
Okay, we have less and less control there every day, but we will stay the course to total victory, and establish a legitimate elected democracy there, even if we have to toss out the guys they elected and replace them with the right guys, guys we know will slap folks around and get everyone to settle down. What? In establishing democracy, democracy is unacceptable?

It seems reality really is what you say it is. You have to pay careful attention to what this man says. It's not "useless information." And it may be time to climb to the top of a mountain or skyscraper and burn all the socks you own that have holes in them, or stand on your head and eat a piece of gristle.

Posted by Alan at 22:07 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 16 October 2006 07:13 PDT home

Friday, 13 October 2006
Why Are Unicorns Hollow?
Topic: God and US
Why Are Unicorns Hollow?
Richard Dawkins is that evolutionary theorist and science writer who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Yep, they have one of those. And he first came to prominence with his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which oddly enough introduced the term meme to us all, and started the whole field of memetics. There is one of those too. But the book was actually about something else - "all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities." Our genes drive our behaviors - they're just working on replicating. And that even explains altruism. Of course altruism should be an unexplainable paradox to the Darwin folks - helping others costs precious resources and can even limit one's own health, and life. So it shouldn't have anything to do with Darwinian survival of the fittest and all. Others had said it was a group thing - individuals were doing what was best for the survival of the population or species. One of Dawkins' Oxford buddies, W. D. Hamilton, said altruism arose as a matter of kin selection - individuals behave altruistically towards their close relatives, as they share many of their own genes. Another fellow, Robert Trivers, had his theory of reciprocal altruism - one organism provides a benefit to another in the expectation of future reciprocation. Dawkins popularized all this and too it down to the gene level - natural selection is "the process whereby replicators out-propagate each other" and that explains all behaviors. And other books followed.

But Dawkins is best known as an outspoken atheist and foe of "Creationism," which he has called a "preposterous, mind-shrinking falsehood." As for religion in general, he has his credentials - Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, vice president of the British Humanist Association and a Distinguished Supporter of the Humanist Society of Scotland. He calls religion a "virus of the mind, and in 2003, the Atheist Alliance set up the Richard Dawkins Award in his honor. He has nothing but contempt for religious extremism - Islamic with its terrorism to Christian fundamentalist and its silliness. He's big on education and consciousness-raising as the main tools for opposing religious dogma. And he invented the term "Bright" to describe his side of things, a bit of improving the image of atheists. Lots of folks resent that, of course.

As for 9/11 and where were are now, he's said this -
Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let's now stop being so damned respectful!
And he certainly stopped. He's through playing nice.

If one is to believe Wikipedia, Dawkins was born in Nairobi, Kenya, had "a normal Anglican upbringing" and just never got the God thing at all. He began doubting the existence of God when he was about nine years old - the customs of the Church of England seemed "absurd" and had more to do with dictating morals than with God. Then he stumbled on evolution when he was sixteen, and that was that - evolution and science could account for the complexity of most everything in simply material terms, and no "designer" was necessary. And the rest is history. From 1967 to 1969 he was out here - assistant professor of zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. Then it was Oxford. The only other detail is the amusing fact that he met his third wife, Lalla Ward, through their mutual friend Douglas Adams, who worked with the woman on the BBC series "Doctor Who," before Adams became famous with the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" stuff. Adams and Dawkins think alike, and their irreverent Brit attitudes match. That's kind of cool.

But Americans never quite got the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy thing - far too clever and too British. There was even the movie - and that bombed. And if they don't get Arthur Dent, they certainly don't get Richard Dawkins, and his actual first name is Clinton, which is really unfortunate. And he's an atheist.

We are a religious people. Consider this from Madison's Capital Times -
The main spokeswoman for a group supporting Wisconsin's proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions has little regard for the separation of church and state, which she calls a "fictitious wall."

"Speaking of it as if it has some kind of constitutional authority is completely bogus," said Julaine Appling, president of the Wisconsin Family Research Institute, at a debate Thursday at Edgewood High School.
So much for the constitution and that pesky first amendment that says the government cannot establish a state religion. The guys in Philadelphia way back when were just kidding? Well, they might have been.

And everyone knows Jesus hates gay folks, and the current House scandal is upsetting, so you find Cliff Kinkaid of the religious right of Accuracy in Media (they set the record straight, of course) saying this - "It's early in the probe, but we may be looking at emerging evidence of a homosexual recruitment ring that operated on Capitol Hill."

But Dick Armey, über-Republican, is getting worried -
Freedom is a gift from God Almighty, and we have a responsibility to protect it. Christians face a temptation to power when we are fortunate enough to have a majority of support in Congress. But government can never advance a faith that is freely given, and it is corrosive to even try.

... And so America's Christian conservative movement is confronted with this divide: small government advocates who want to practice their faith independent of heavy-handed government versus big government sympathizers who want to impose their version of "righteousness" on others through the hammer of law.
Yep, we all believe, but let's not get all crazy here.

Enter Richard Dawkins in a new interview - The Flying Spaghetti Monster - sure to stir things up even more. (As mentioned elsewhere, see this in these pages from August 2005 on this monster, with an illustration.) Now we have an interview conducted by Steve Paulson for SALON.COM - and it's long and nicely outrageous, and worth a careful read. Paulson says Dawkins is religion's chief prosecutor - "Darwin's rottweiler," as one magazine called him - and perhaps the world's most famous atheist. Speaking to the American Humanist Association, Dawkins once said, "I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate." The occasion here is the publication of Dawkins' new book The God Delusion.

Here are some highlights.

Why he became an Atheist -
I started getting doubts when I was about 9 and realized that there are lots of different religions and they can't all be right. And which one I happened to be brought up in was an arbitrary accident. I then sort of went back to religion around the age of 12, and then finally left it at the age of 15 or 16.

So God and religion just did not make sense intellectually and he turned against religion because of that, of all things?

Yep -

Yes, purely intellectually. I was never much bothered about moral questions like, how could there be a good God when there's so much evil in the world? For me, it was always an intellectual thing. I wanted to know the explanation for the existence of all things. I was particularly fascinated by living things. And when I discovered the Darwinian explanation, which is so stunningly elegant and powerful, I realized that you really don't need any kind of supernatural force to explain it.
But isn't he really an agnostic? Well, if you wish -
Well, technically, you cannot be any more than an agnostic. But I am as agnostic about God as I am about fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot actually disprove the existence of God. Therefore, to be a positive atheist is not technically possible. But you can be as atheist about God as you can be atheist about Thor or Apollo. Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.
There goes again, being all logical.

And he's asked about the link between being logical and intelligent and an atheist - isn't that elitist?
It's certainly elitist. What's wrong with being elitist, if you are trying to encourage people to join the elite rather than being exclusive? I'm very, very keen that people should raise their game rather than the other way around. As for citing the evidence, a number of studies have been done. The one meta-analysis of this that I know of was published in Mensa Magazine. It looked at 43 studies on the relationship between educational level or IQ and religion. And in 39 out of 43 - that's all but four - there is a correlation between IQ/education and atheism. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist. Or the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist.

Yeah, yeah, but what is so bad about religion?

That question sets him off -

Well, it encourages you to believe falsehoods, to be satisfied with inadequate explanations which really aren't explanations at all. And this is particularly bad because the real explanations, the scientific explanations, are so beautiful and so elegant. Plenty of people never get exposed to the beauties of the scientific explanation for the world and for life. And that's very sad. But it's even sadder if they are actively discouraged from understanding by a systematic attempt in the opposite direction, which is what many religions actually are. But that's only the first of my many reasons for being hostile to religion.

… I think there's something very evil about faith, where faith means believing in something in the absence of evidence, and actually taking pride in believing in something in the absence of evidence. And the reason that's dangerous is that it justifies essentially anything. If you're taught in your holy book or by your priest that blasphemers should die or apostates should die - anybody who once believed in the religion and no longer does needs to be killed - that clearly is evil. And people don't have to justify it because it's their faith. They don't have to say, "Well, here's a very good reason for this." All they need to say is, "That's what my faith says." And we're all expected to back off and respect that. Whether or not we're actually faithful ourselves, we've been brought up to respect faith and to regard it as something that should not be challenged. And that can have extremely evil consequences. The consequences it's had historically - the Crusades, the Inquisition, right up to the present time where you have suicide bombers and people flying planes into skyscrapers in New York - all in the name of faith.
But, but, but… there are peaceful religion. And here he concedes -
You certainly need to distinguish them. They are very different. However, the moderate, sensible religious people you've cited make the world safe for the extremists by bringing up children - sometimes even indoctrinating children - to believe that faith trumps everything and by influencing society to respect faith. Now, the faith of these moderate people is in itself harmless. But the idea that faith needs to be respected is instilled into children sitting in rows in their madrasahs in the Muslim world. And they are told these things not by extremists but by decent, moderate teachers and mullahs. But when they grow up, a small minority of them remember what they were told. They remember reading their holy book, and they take it literally. They really do believe it. Now, the moderate ones don't really believe it, but they have taught children that faith is a virtue. And it only takes a minority to believe what it says in the holy book - the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Quran, whatever it is. If you believe it's literally true, then there's scarcely any limit to the evil things you might do.
That's not much of concession, but then you have to decide what to teach the kids -
I would say that parents should teach their children anything that's known to be factually true - like "that's a bluebird" or "that's a bald eagle." Or they could teach children that there are such things as religious beliefs. But to teach children that it is a fact that there is one god or that God created the world in six days, that is child abuse.

… Children ask questions. And when a child says, "Why is it wrong to do so and so?" you can perfectly well answer that by saying, "Well, how would you like it if somebody else did that to you?" That's a way of imparting to a child the Golden Rule: "Do as you would be done by." The world would fall apart if everybody stole things from everybody else, so it's a bad thing to steal. If a child says, "Why can't I eat meat?" then you can say, "Your mother and I believe that it's wrong to eat meat for this, that and the other reason. We are vegetarians. You can decide when you're older whether you want to be a vegetarian or not. But for the moment, you're living in this house, so the food we give you is not meat." That I could see. I think it's child abuse not to let the child have the free choice of knowing there are other people who believe something quite different and the child could make its own choice.
So much for Jesus Camp and the next generation of Christian warriors.

And as for science and religion coexisting and getting along together - the moderate American compromise view - where science deals with the "how" questions and religion deals with the "why" questions and we all get along -
I think that's remarkably stupid, if I may say so. What on earth is a "why" question? There are "why" questions that mean something in a Darwinian world. We say, why do birds have wings? To fly with. And that's a Darwinian translation of the evolutionary process whereby the birds that had wings survived better than the birds without. They don't mean that, though. They mean "why" in a deliberate, purposeful sense. So when you say religion deals with "why" questions, that begs the entire question that we're arguing about. Those of us who don't believe in religion - supernatural religion - would say there is no such thing as a "why" question in that sense. Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word "why" does not mean that English sentence should receive an answer. I could say, why are unicorns hollow? That appears to mean something, but it doesn't deserve an answer.

But, but, but… science doesn't say anything about why we're here, and religion does. Doesn't that count for something?

Paulson flat-out asks him, what he, as an atheist, sees as our purpose of life.

Ready? Here it is, the answer to the BIG QUESTION -

It's not a question that deserves an answer.

… If you mean, what is the purpose of the existence of the universe, then I'm saying that is quite simply begging the question. If you happen to be religious, you think that's a meaningful question. But the mere fact that you can phrase it as an English sentence doesn't mean it deserves an answer. Those of us who don't believe in a god will say that is as illegitimate as the question, why are unicorns hollow? It just shouldn't be put. It's not a proper question to put. It doesn't deserve an answer.

… There are core questions like, how did the universe begin? Where do the laws of physics come from? Where does life come from? Why, after billions of years, did life originate on this planet and then start evolving? Those are all perfectly legitimate questions to which science can give answers, if not now, then we hope in the future. There may be some very, very deep questions, perhaps even where do the laws of physics come from, that science will never answer. That is perfectly possible. I am hopeful, along with some physicists, that science will one day answer that question. But even if it doesn't - even if there are some supremely deep questions to which science can never answer - what on earth makes you think that religion can answer those questions?
As you recall, the comic version of this response, is the answer to the BIG QUESTION ABOUT EVERYTHING in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" - after the long search and all the adventures it was… 42. It'll do. If you're going to make things up, or say it was written by someone three thousand years ago and seven translations deep, one thing is as good as another.

This is followed by a great deal on the war between the intelligent design folks and the scientists - our new Scopes trails in Pennsylvania and Kansas - and it's amazing, but it comes down to this -
There are two ways of responding to mystery. The scientist's way is to see it as a challenge, something they've got to work on - we're really going to try to crack it. But there are others who revel in mystery, who think we were not meant to understand. There's something sacred about mystery that positively should not be tackled. Now, suppose science does have limits. What is the value in giving the label "religion" to those limits? If you simply want to define religion as the bits outside of what science can explain, then we're not really arguing. We're simply using a word, "God," for that which science can't explain. I don't have a problem with that. I do have a problem with saying God is a supernatural, creative, intelligent being. It's simple confusion to say science can't explain certain things; therefore, we have to be religious. To equate that kind of religiousness with belief in a personal, intelligent being, that's confusion. And it's pernicious confusion.
Yeah, but why should we even worry about such things?

When the book was first published in the UK the previous month, Joan Bakewell, explained in The Guardian -
These are now political matters. Around the world communities are increasingly defined as Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and living peaceably together is ever harder to sustain. Champions of each faith maintain its superiority to the rest. Recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI show the man in his true colors: an absolutist pointing up with intellectual precision the incompatibility of Islam and Christianity. He did this long before he was Pope, writing the declaration of John Paul II that all religions other than the Catholic faith were defective. Since his election he has demoted efforts at rapprochement with Islam and, on a visit to Auschwitz, failed to address the papacy's collusion with Nazism. The Pope is, of course, held to be infallible by the Catholic Church. Islam's response to all this - "if you dare to say we're a violent religion, then we'll kill you!" - compounds not only the idiocy of rival dogmas but also the dangers. Islam's sharia law invests the law of the land with its own religious and often brutal priorities. Apostasy is punishable by death, as is homosexuality. Christian observance is put under increasing pressure.

Dawkins is right to be not only angry but alarmed. Religions have the secular world running scared. This book is a clarion call to cower no longer. Primed by anger, redeemed by humor, it will, I trust, offend many.
It will certainly do that on this side of the pond.

And why are unicorns hollow? The answer is clear - 42, of course.

Posted by Alan at 22:50 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 13 October 2006 23:08 PDT home

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