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"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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Sunday, 24 December 2006
Christmas Break
Topic: Announcements

Christmas Break

There will be no posting here until Tuesday - it's off down the coast for the big family Christmas. If one is to believe the folks who do the window displays at Neiman-Marcus on Wilshire in Beverly Hills, it's all about "finding the surprises."

Christmas window display, Neiman-Marcus, Beverly Hills

Posted by Alan at 00:01 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 24 December 2006 08:01 PST home

Saturday, 23 December 2006
Topic: Perspective


It's Christmas weekend. Be nice. Be kind.

"It's not true that nice guys finish last. Nice guys are winners before the game even starts." - Addison Walker

"If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me." - Alice Roosevelt Longworth

"We all like stories that make us cry. It's so nice to feel sad when you've nothing in particular to feel sad about." - Anne Sullivan

"One of the worst things about life is not how nasty the nasty people are. You know that already. It is how nasty the nice people can be." - Anthony Dymoke Powell

"The only nice thing about being imperfect is the joy it brings to others." - Doug Larson

"It's amazing how nice people are to you when they know you're going away." - Michael Arlen

"When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people." - Abraham Joshua Heschel

"Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind." - Henry James

"In this world, there is nothing softer or thinner than water. But to compel the hard and unyielding, it has no equal. That the weak overcomes the strong, that the hard gives way to the gentle - this everyone knows. Yet no one asks accordingly." - Lao-Tse

"Life is not so short but that there is always time enough for courtesy." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Be kind to unkind people - they need it the most." - Ashleigh Brilliant

"It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'try to be a little kinder.'" - Aldous Huxley

"Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true." - Robert Brault

"I always prefer to believe the best of everybody, it saves so much trouble." - Rudyard Kipling

"Don't be yourself - be someone a little nicer." - Mignon McLaughlin, The Second Neurotic's Notebook, 1966

"Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not." - Samuel Johnson

"If we cannot be clever, we can always be kind." - Alfred Fripp

"If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl." - H.L. Mencken

"If you step on people in this life, you're going to come back as a cockroach." - Willie Davis

"I meant," said Ipslore bitterly, "what is there in this world that truly makes living worth while?" Death thought about it. "Cats," he said eventually, "Cats are nice." - Terry Pratchett, Sorcery

Posted by Alan at 10:58 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Friday, 22 December 2006
The Real Christmas - Getting the Story Straight
Topic: God and US

The Real Christmas - Getting the Story Straight

For the traditionalists at Christmas - not amused by films like Billy Bob Thornton as Bad Santa a few years ago, and the subsequent comedies with dissolute elves or feuding neighbors or magic trains - this year brought them their gift, the earnest and lavishly photographed The Nativity Story. It didn't do that well. Catherine Hardwicke is no Mel Gibson - no blood and guts and unremitting torture. How were you supposed to market this thing? Still, out here in Hollywood there's no end of talk about how to tap an overlooked goldmine - the folks who hate Hollywood, the evangelicals and the religious right, and all the folks who faithfully attend the many giant mega-churches with their soft-rock "Contemporary Christian" services. Look south - Orange and San Diego counties are full of them, and their professional congregations with heaps of disposable income. The parking lots are filled with the newest and largest SUV's, their kids look well-fed and have all the cool new toys and snazzy clothes, and that must mean something. That must mean a new, rich audience to be drained of some of their dollars.

But this year's attempt to tap that market didn't work out. The film in question did just okay for a week and the faded fast. Perhaps the target audience wasn't that large, or perhaps not all that dissatisfied with the secular junk Hollywood produces year in and year out. I could be that they separate entertainment from matters of faith and this is not what they expected from a movie. They may all think the separation of church and state is something that should, after two hundred thirty odd years, be revisited, but apparently they think you don't go to the movies for a God fix. The movies are to provide a secular fix. Or it may be something else entirely. New Line Cinema hasn't yet figured out what went wrong.

The film did generate some comment in the UK when it opened there in early December. Michael White in the Telegraph has an item where he seems to be saying the film may have been just too earnest - "Was there really a stable? Three kings? Any shepherds? Even the gospels can't agree, so maybe it doesn't matter if the kitsch angels and snow globes are all wrong too. It's the way we like it."

New Line Cinema seems to have got the Christmas thing all wrong. Everyone likes the muddled mess of secular and religious, and it was always so, from medieval art to now, especially regarding the nativity -
In the history of art it comes in every form, from intimate, stable scenes to teeming Busby Berkeley spectacles with squadrons of formation-flying angels. "There is a marked difference between Protestant introspection and Catholic display," says Charles Saumarez Smith, the National Gallery's director.

In less elevated terms, it comes conveniently packaged for the modern home, with winking lights and nodding donkeys: singing, dancing, ethnic, edible, inflatable, not to say theologically confused.

On the internet you can buy cribs at which Mary welcomes Father Christmas and a penguin to the manger; the Holy Family look worryingly like the Flintstones; or the baby Jesus is a sort of Eucharistic truffle, robed in chocolate with a vin santo filling.
The film went the other way, as it was "produced in consultation with learned theologians." It was supposed "to cut through centuries of fantasy, embellishment and kitsch, and tells the story as the Gospels do" Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of Billy Graham, said it was "Biblically accurate" and the Catholic News Service rejoiced - "'Hollywood finally gets it right." But getting it right doesn't make for great box office. Getting it right is rather irrelevant in Hollywood - ask any author who has sold the rights to his book and doesn't even recognize the film version, passed through a series of screenwriters' changes and preproduction casting negotiations, then suggestions from the marketing people. Oxford becomes Malibu and the protagonist is not a don but now a woman who runs a catering firm - that sort of thing.

But Michael White is really concerned with something else. What if there is no "right" to be getting right in the case of the nativity? New Line Cinema may have had a bigger problem. Bethlehem may not have been as the Victorians imagined it, "some snowy hamlet in the deep and dreamless sleep of the Home Counties, more Reigate than Ramallah." They changed things for marketing purposes themselves, of course

But here are the problems -
To begin with, it's odd that just two of the four Gospels have anything to say about the Nativity. Mark and John offer no comment at all.

Only Matthew and Luke, both written 60-70 years after Jesus's death, give the story.

And, according to Geza Vermes, Emeritus Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford and author of a recently published study, The Nativity, it isn't even the same story.

"In our traditional understanding Matthew and Luke are nicely fitted together and their contradictions ignored," says Vermes. "But what they say is totally different. And what's more, it appears nowhere else in the New Testament. No repetition. No reference. From which I conclude that it's a secondary addition: a splendid prologue to the life of Jesus supplied by men who had a reason to supply it."
The whole things was a marketing effort, part of the multinational "Jesus was the son of God" PR campaign -
For Matthew, a Jew writing for Jews, the objective was to show how Jesus's birth fulfilled the prophesies of the Torah. For Luke, a gentile writing for gentiles, the objective was to explain Jesus in terms that a pagan audience reared on myths of gods impregnating mortals would understand.

… The Virgin Mary is actually called Miriam - she was Jewish, after all - and her virginal status is important to Luke because it fits the Classical image of maidens begetting divine children.

Whereas Matthew has the details of the birth revealed to Joseph in a dream, Luke has an Annunciation made to Mary by an angel. Western painters stress her detachment from the mess of birth by showing her in seated composure.

Painters of Eastern icons let her lie down. And nowhere does The Bible tell us she wears blue. Her wardrobe largely derives from medieval meditations and visionary experiences, such as those of St Bridget, who had a keen eye for detail.

Joseph is usually depicted as a bit-part actor in the drama and as old, although The Bible does not indicate his age. Some pictorial traditions make him a comic figure and certain cathedrals had a vested interest in adding homely details - notably Aachen, which became the proud possessor of St Joseph's stockings, which had been cut up to make clothes for the infant Jesus. Jesus In paintings, he is usually depicted naked with what would these days be thought an unseemly attention to his penis.

… The Three Kings - only Matthew mentions them. He doesn't call them kings. And he doesn't say how many there are. The earliest nativity scenes show just two, and their number and status were upgraded later, on the grounds that there were three gifts, one of which was frankincense, associated with royalty.

More practically, though, the upgrading of the kings was also connected with the church's desire to allot a role in Christian life to rich potentates (who would otherwise be struggling through the eyes of needles) and get their money.

The kings also symbolized the universal outreach of the Church, to Europe, Africa and Asia. And again, certain cathedrals had a special interest in them: Cologne claimed their bodies and declared them to have died at the respective ages of 109, 112 and 116.

The Ox and Ass There is no mention of them in the Gospels. But if Jesus was born in a stable it would be reasonable to assume their presence. And the first person to make a point of it was St Francis, who is said to have begun the tradition of cribs and nativity re-enactments in the 13th century.

The Shepherds are found only in Luke. Important as a statement of the access ordinary people have to Jesus.

The Star in Matthew but not Luke, and the subject of endless debate as to what, if anything, it might have been. There is no unchallengeable recorded evidence of starry phenomena around this time.
And so it goes. Click on the link for more. But you see the problem New Line Cinema faced. They did eighty percent Matthew, ten percent Luke, and ten percent what's been added on through the centuries. This is what passes for getting it right. Well, both Matthew and Luke agree that the birthplace is Bethlehem, but even that may have been marketing - "important as the fulfillment of prophesy: it establishes Jesus as successor to King David, who was also born there." On the other hand, "Luke has Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem as temporary residents, for the census - which is why they ended up in a stable when there was no room at the inn. Matthew says nothing about a census, stable or inn, and gives the impression that Mary and Joseph are permanent residents in that 'house'."

So what are clerics to do? White chats with them -
Few clerics I approached - including the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster - were prepared to risk a comment. Of those who were, the most forthright was the director of the Catholic Agency for the Support of Evangelism, Mgr Keith Barltrop, who agreed that "Matthew and Luke put their Gospels together in a certain way to make certain points, but a Catholic would believe them to be based on history and essentially true. At the end of the day, it's a matter of faith."

Almost as forthright was the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, who complains that 'our modern minds want photographic evidence: someone at the cribside with a Polaroid to show us what we see on Christmas cards … Well, nobody was there with a Polaroid, and the gospel narratives don't work like that. They don't inform us. They initiate us into an awareness, a way of seeing and being, and that's the way the early church would have understood them."
The film folks should have asked. Getting it right doesn't matter. The target audience my have implicitly realized that - they were bored with the carefulness.

People want the non-boring version, as Alastair Smart in the same issue of the Telegraph explains here -
The most apposite demonstration of our celebrity-obsessed times must surely be Madame Tussauds' Nativity scene of 2004.

The waxwork depicted Victoria and David Beckham as Mary and Joseph with Kylie Minogue as a pert-buttocked Angel of the Annunciation, and - contentiously - President Bush, the Duke of Edinburgh and Tony Blair as the Three Wise Men.

The scene was criticized as both a new low in the cult of celebrity worship and preposterous blasphemy. The display was open for only a few days before James Anstice, a religious protester, decapitated Posh and knocked over Becks on the grounds of 'waging a war against crap'.

Anstice appears to be fighting an unwinnable war. For instance, the Our Lady of the Snows church in Belleville, Illinois, last year displayed a life-size Nativity scene made from Lego.

Kitsch abounds even in Naples, the world capital of Nativity scenes since the 18th century, when the Bourbon king Charles III ordered them to be made there. Today, countless artisans in the city's Old District work all year to construct presepi. For every exquisite, hand-carved Madonna and Joseph, there's a 25-piece scene made entirely out of dried pasta.
Yeah, well, Alastair Smart says the we here on the other side of the pond have them all beat -
The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which has played annually at New York's Rockefeller Center since 1933, is a fine example. More than a million visitors witness this gaudy extravaganza of high-kick dance numbers and skating routines, culminating in the 'Living Nativity' play, for which the vast stage becomes a desert that Mary and Joseph - with live camels, sheep and donkeys for company - cross in search of an inn.
But wait! There's more -
For instance, offers a Nativity Bake Set, which allows you to recreate the manger scene out of gingerbread and cookies; an Outdoor Inflatable Nativity, a 9ft tall display with self-inflating, biblical figures; and, most interestingly of all, a Kneeling Santa, a wooden figurine of Father Christmas humbly, if incongruously, kneeling at Baby Jesus's crib.
And you thought Santa didn't visit Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago, didn't you? Read your Bible - but not too carefully.

But surely someone respects Jesus and wants to get this all right? Karen Armstrong, Saturday, December 23, in the Guardian (UK), says that someone really does -
In 632, after five years of fearful warfare, the city of Mecca in the Arabian Hijaz voluntarily opened its gates to the Muslim army. No blood was shed and nobody was forced to convert to Islam, but the Prophet Muhammad ordered the destruction of all idols and icons of the Divine. There were a number of frescoes painted on the inner walls of the Kabah, the ancient granite shrine in the centre of Mecca, and one of them, it is said, depicted Mary and the infant Jesus. Immediately Muhammad covered it reverently with his cloak, ordering all the other pictures to be destroyed except that one.

This story may surprise people in the west, who have regarded Islam as the implacable enemy of Christianity ever since the crusades, but it is salutary to recall it during the Christmas season when we are surrounded by similar images of the Virgin and Child. It reminds us that the so-called clash of civilizations was by no means inevitable. For centuries Muslims cherished the figure of Jesus, who is honored in the Qur'an as one of the greatest of the prophets and, in the formative years of Islam, became a constituent part of the emergent Muslim identity.

… The Qur'an is horrified by Christian claims that Jesus was the "son of God", and depicts Jesus ardently denying his divinity in an attempt to "cleanse" himself of these blasphemous projections. Time and again the Qur'an insists that, like Muhammad himself, Jesus was a perfectly ordinary human being and that the Christians have entirely misunderstood their own scriptures. But it concedes that the most learned and faithful Christians - especially monks and priests - did not believe that Jesus was divine; of all God's worshippers, they were closest to the Muslims (5:85-86).

… The Qur'an insists that all rightly guided religions come from God, and Muslims are required to believe in the revelations of every single one of God's messengers: "Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob ... and all the other prophets: we make no distinction between any of them" (3:84). But Jesus - also called the Messiah, the Word and the Spirit - had special status.

Jesus, it was felt, had an affinity with Muhammad, and had predicted his coming (61:6), just as the Hebrew prophets were believed by Christians to have foretold the coming of Christ. The Qur'an, possibly influenced by Docetic Christianity, denied that Jesus had been crucified, but saw his ascension into heaven as the triumphant affirmation of his prophethood. In a similar way, Muhammad had once mystically ascended to the Throne of God. Jesus would also play a prominent role beside Muhammad in the eschatological drama of the last days.
Someone call New Line Cinema - there's a film here if they want to "get it right." But then that hypothetical film wound have no audience. Who wants to watch ninety-four minutes of well-filmed mutual respect? There's no market for that now.

Posted by Alan at 21:09 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 22 December 2006 21:13 PST home

Thursday, 21 December 2006
The Voice of God
Topic: God and US

The Voice of God

For those of us who face Christmas in America with dread, or on a good day, when the shopping went well, with ironic skepticism, certain Christmas songs murmuring on the radio are appropriately dreadful. One of those is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Yeah, Judy Garland singing that in her husband's Meet Me in St Louis, from 1944. There was a war on and no one was coming home - unless in a box, or maimed, or mad. The song is one of hopeless hope, one of those "you'll never get what you want" things. It's about "muddling through somehow." What else are you going to do? It's a downer.

The other Christmas song that isn't exactly a downer, but similar, is I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, from another war. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow wrote the words and they were published in 1864. It was put to music shortly after. Each of these items were written, then, at the worst time in a long war. The "World of Christmas" link here tells us this of the Bells piece - "This hymn is full of despair as it was written during the stressful times of American civil war. One can sense it clearly in the next to last stanza. Stanzas 4 and 5 mention the battle times and are hence, often omitted from hymnals."

Of course those stanzas are dropped. Here's the full thing -
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play.
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of Peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had roll'd along th' unbroken song
Of Peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair, I bow'd my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song,
Of Peace on earth, good will to men."

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With Peace on earth, good will to men."
Done right, even done by Frank Sinatra, that might bring tears to your eyes. We here on earth may have screwed up big time, but God is not dead, and he's not dozing off. The good guys will win and the Man in the Sky will make sure of that.

"The wrong shall fail, the right prevail" - but then what if His idea of just who is wrong and right doesn't match what we deeply believe? You have to have pretty big brass balls to tell everyone that you know for certain what God thinks about just who's right and who's wrong. The received text - the Bible - is ambiguous (all those slightly different versions of the creation, and only two somewhat contradictory accounts of the birth of Jesus). Some view the Bible as extraordinarily useful myth, others as the literal word of God - but the latter requires some fancy tap-dancing. Bishop Usher read the text carefully in the late nineteenth century. The world is no more than six thousand years old, and that's that. Take THAT, Charles Darwin and all you geologists. Nowhere is there any mention of gay marriage, nor is there anything much that would help with what to do about Saddam Hussein or the Social Security System. All that calls for a lot of inference.

But that never stopped the fire and brimstone crowd, or perhaps these days the "red state" crowd. We are God's people and the president has said he's doing God's work, as he believes God Speaks through him - "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job."

This sort of thing - "I know what God thinks so what I do is right" - irritates some people no end. One of them is Eric Alterman, the NYU journalism professor and author, who offers this -
I was walking across Central Park on my way to Bible-study class around 8:30 Saturday morning - take that, Red States - thinking about God's role in history. Long story short: I think it's zip, nada, null set, etc. Why? Look at Ahmet Ertegun. What kind of God would have killed him BEFORE the Stones show at the Beacon, rather than after? OK, look at the Holocaust, Cambodia, AIDS in Africa, honor killings for Islamic homosexuals, George W. Bush being the leader of the most powerful nation in human history, half the world living on less than $2 a day ... etc. Is there any justice on this earth? The only possible answer can be: Not that any of us can figure out. And if God is just (and merciful) then clearly, he's not around, or not interested, or non-existent. I don't profess to know whether God exists - personally I think so, because I believe in a kind of intelligent design as the source of the order of the universe - but that is, I think, as far as it goes. What's the upshot of all this deep thinking? Just this: If someone, say, George W. Bush, tells me that he is doing something or has done something because God willed it, I'd tell him to fuck off. Nobody knows God's will or can explain why the universe operates the way it does if the spirit they follow is, in fact, a benevolent one. (And if it's not, well, then it should be resisted as forcefully as possible.) In any case, most of the people throughout history who claim to know God's will have tended to get a lot of the rest of us killed, burnt, raped, tortured, pillaged, thrown out of planes and the like. The crucial distinction in political culture in the world today is between God and the Enlightenment; that is imposed theology or reason. Bush, Osama, Pat Robertson, and Fidel Castro are all on one side of this argument. (Marxism/Leninism is an ideological form of "God.") Those of us who think for ourselves are on the other. I'm all in favor of "religion in politics." This is after all, a religious country, and the most popular religion - Christianity - happens to be on my side in most things. Just don't tell me you know what "God" thinks about anything. You don't. For all you know, he thinks you should go to hell.
Just a note - Alterman is not a Deist, he's proudly Jewish. He's just fed up with the "we know what God really thinks" people. They'd probably say it's resentful envy on his part. God just didn't choose to speak to him. He doesn't talk to New Yorkers, you know. God doesn't think much of that place, as we've all been told, repeatedly. (New York, and specifically central Manhattan, isn't mentioned in the Bible, but no matter.)

Alterman's readers elsewhere aren't hearing much from God either, or so notes Dave Richie in Birmingham, Alabama. Richie also heard no divine word -
Thanks so much for sharing your religious views. My, in such mine fields you choose to tread!

But, no, I don't believe He gives a flying whatever about our "history" nor does He play a significant role. He does not come down here (I think, down) and visit miracles upon us in violation of His own natural laws. The maladies we suffer we bring entirely upon ourselves, i.e., the election of Mr. Bush or the selection of John Kerry.

For Him to interject Himself in these processes would undermine the concepts of intellect and free will. We can neither blame Him for our predicaments nor credit Him with the solutions. It is for us to use His gifts to figure it out for ourselves.

The unholy right wing in this country has chosen to inject God into our public debate from time to time and it has cost them votes, including mine. I have had many of my friends come to call themselves "conservative democrats until these idiots get out of my bedroom!"

I believe you have nailed the lunatic right wing in this country. But, be careful. On the same page you claim "moral superiority." Too tempting to go there, was it not?

Appreciate your courage.

From the ever shrinking Red States, DR
So from deep in God's state this guys thinks God isn't dead, or sleeping - he's just expects us to grow up, and start thinking. Funny, that used to be the mainstream view - God gave us free will and moderately efficient minds. Perhaps, by default, He must have meant for us to use them. Why else would He set things up that way? Times have, obviously changed.

Another reader, Bill Dunlap, from Oswego, Oregon, notices something quite curious -
Speaking of God, Eric, isn't it telling that no one who claims to know God's will or hear God's voice ever hears the Almighty say, "No, no, no don't do that. For My sake, please don't do that."
That is a funny thing, and very convenient. God doesn't say such things? You'd think He might, now and then.

But a brief tangent is called for. Alterman mentions Ahmet Ertegun, and the reference may merit some explanation. Ertegun was the European-educated son of a Turkish diplomat and grew up in Washington. Ertegun died after being injured in a fall backstage before a Rolling Stones concert on October 29, just some weeks ago.

That may seem odd, but Jon Pareles explains it all in the International Herald Tribune with his appreciation, How Ertegun Shaped American Pop Scene -
The sheer improbability of Ahmet Ertegun's career makes it an all-American success story: the tale of an outsider, from Turkey no less, who loved African American music so much that he became a major force in pop history. Points of friction in American culture - class, ethnicity, race, religion - mostly provided him with sparks.

Ertegun, who died on Dec. 14 at 83, was an old-school music mogul, a self-invented character with the urge to start a record company. He was, by all accounts, a charmer: a man of wealth and taste who had stories to tell, a shrewd business sense and a keen appreciation of all sorts of pleasure. He wasn't a musician, but he had an ear for a hit, one that served him for half a century.

When Ertegun and a partner floated Atlantic Records in 1947 with a $10,000 loan from a dentist, it was one among many small independent labels trying to serve the taste of postwar America. But while the others had their handfuls of hit singles and disappeared, Atlantic kept growing. With Ertegun as chairman, the job he held until his death, it was a major label by the 1960s, the home of multimillion sellers like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones in the 1970s and the core of the Warner Music conglomerate that continues to survive in the currently embattled recording business.

David Geffen, an entertainment mogul, said Friday that he had once asked Ertegun how to make money in the music business. Ertegun said he would demonstrate, got up from his chair, hunched over and shuffled slowly across the room. Geffen didn't understand, so Ertegun did it twice more. Finally he explained: "'If you're lucky, you bump into a genius, and a genius will make you rich in the music business,'" Geffen recalled. "Ahmet bumped into an awful lot of geniuses."
So Ertegun, who was born a Muslim, got down with black gospel and gave us Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter, the Coasters, and Aretha Franklin, and then the Stones. He discovered and popularized them all. God works in very mysterious ways. And Ahmet Ertegun missed that last Stones concert at the Beacon. Go figure.

Well, we may never know what God is up to - we're just along for the ride, assuming He expects us to do our best to be decent to each other and as reasonable as we can manage, with the reason He nicely supplied us all, or supplied to most of us. But then, that is a very secular thing to say.

And secularism is bad - Bill O'Reilly says so all the time on Fox News in his rants about the "secular progressives" (he's taken to calling them the SP's) and their war on Christmas that, as far as anyone can tell, O'Reilly made up to keep his ratings high. No one has a big problem with Christmas. They just don't like to be shoved around by the God Squad telling them what to say and how to act. It's free country, damn it. If someone wants to say Happy Holidays to a Jewish friend, why is Bill O'Reilly on that person's case? What the big deal? And his ratings, while slipping, are just fine.

On a more scholarly note, Phillip Blond and Adrian Pabst sort of side with O'Reilly in their column The Problem with Secularism. You know it's scholarly because Phillip Blond is a senior lecturer in religion and philosophy at St. Martin's College, Lancaster (UK), and Adrian Pabst is a research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies. This is not Fox News, people.

And what they're up to is this -
Geopolitically, the resurgence of religion is dangerous and spreading. From Islamic fundamentalism, American evangelism to Hindu nationalism, each creed demands total conformity and absolute submission to their own particular variant of God's revelation.

Common to virtually all versions of contemporary religious fanaticism is a claim to know divine intention directly, absolutely and unquestionably. As a result, many people demand a fresh liberal resistance to religious totalitarianism.

But it is important to realize that this reduction of a transcendent religion to confirmation of one's own personal beliefs represents an ersatz copy of liberal humanism. Long before religious fundamentalism, secular humanists reduced all objective codes to subjective assertion by making man the measure of all things and erasing God from nature.

This was a profoundly secular move: It simply denied natural knowledge of God and thereby eliminated theology from the sciences. Religion, stripped of rationality, became associated with a blind unmediated faith - precisely the mark of fanaticism. Thus religious fundamentalism constitutes an absence of religion that only true religion can correct.
Got it? Secular humanism is bad. It created fundamentalism, somehow or other. And fundamentalism is not really religion. It's a perversion of religion. What we need is to get religion back in the sciences, to mix them up again. Then everything will be just fine - that will cut the legs out from under both the nutty fundamentalists and arrogant scientists.

It's an interesting idea. And they back it up with this -
Darwinism is close to being completely rewritten. Hitherto, it had been assumed that forms of life are the product of essentially arbitrary processes, such that (as Stephen Jay Gould put it) if we ran evolution again life would look very different. However, evolution shows biological convergence. As Simon Conway Morris, a professor of biology at Cambridge University, has argued, evolution is not arbitrary: If it ran again, the world would look much as it already does.

Nor is natural selection now thought to be the main driver of biological change. Rather, life displays certain inherency, such that the beings that come about are a product of their own integral insistence. All of which means that there is no necessary conflict between evolution and theology. Indeed, evolution is no more arbitrary than God is deterministic. Similarly, in cosmology and physics the idea that the world was produced by chance has long been dismissed. The extreme precision of the gravitational constant that allows a universe like ours to exist requires an explanation. Rather than envisioning the world as an intended creation, secular physics posits infinite numbers of multiverses existing alongside our own. Thus, the sheer uniqueness of our universe is qualified by the existence of all other possible universes.

The trouble is that this supposition sounds more bizarre than religion. Moreover, to posit this paradigm leads to the Matrix hypothesis that we are actually only a virtual simulation run by other universes more powerful and real. So religion finds itself in the strange position of defending the real world against those who would make us merely virtual phenomena.

Philosophically, if one wants to defend the idea of objective moral truths, it appears ineluctably to require some sort of engagement with theology. For if there are universals out there, we need to explain why they care about us or indeed how we can know them at all. And if human beings do not make these truths, then it seems an account of the relationship between ultimate truths and human life can only be religious.
You can of course think long and hard about that passage. It comes down to "there's stuff we don't know and patterns we can't yet explain, so there must be a God." But here it is put in thick and academic terms, so it sounds quite impressive. This is quite impressive lipstick on the usual pig.

Their take-away - "In the new, post-secular world, religion cannot be eliminated and, properly figured, is in fact our best hope for a genuine alternative to the prevailing extremes."

In sports betting that is know as covering the spread. In the world of insurance you'd say they're inserting a "properly figured" stop-loss clause. But the "God people" won't like this and the scientists will shrug. No one is going there, this odd middle. But it certainly sounds impressive.

On the other hand, there is the operational. Mark C. Taylor, a religion and humanities professor at Williams College - the Cluett Professor of Humanities there and the author of Mystic Bones - has a few things to say. It's different in the pits - when you're teaching about religion. On the other hand, he was a close personal friend of Jacques Derrida. When Derrida died on October 8, 2004, the New York Times published a snarky obituary of that odd philosopher, and Taylor, outraged by it, and proceeded to write a "correct" obituary to the Times, which they published a few days later. He gets grumpy.

His matching column - both appear in the International Herald Tribune on December 21 - is about what happens when you even talk about all this -
More American college students seem to be practicing traditional forms of religion today than at any time in my 30 years of teaching.

At first glance, the flourishing of religion on campuses seems to reverse trends long criticized by conservatives under the rubric of "political correctness." But, in truth, something else is occurring. Once again, right and left have become mirror images of each other; religious correctness is simply the latest version of political correctness. Indeed, it seems the more religious students become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about faith.

The chilling effect of these attitudes was brought home to me two years ago when an administrator at a university where I was then teaching called me into his office. A student had claimed that I had attacked his faith because I had urged him to consider whether Nietzsche's analysis of religion undermines belief in absolutes. The administrator insisted that I apologize to the student. (I refused.)

My experience was not unique. Today, professors invite harassment or worse by including "unacceptable" books on their syllabuses or by studying religious ideas and practices in ways deemed improper by religiously correct students.

Distinguished scholars at several major U.S. universities have been condemned, even subjected to death threats, for proposing psychological, sociological or anthropological interpretations of religious texts. In the most egregious cases, defenders of the faith insist that only true believers are qualified to teach their religious tradition.
And he tells his tales -
For years, I have begun my classes by telling students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, I will have failed. A growing number of religiously correct students consider this challenge a direct assault on their faith. Yet the task of thinking and teaching, especially in an age of emergent fundamentalisms, is to cultivate a faith in doubt that calls into question every certainty.
No one does doubt any more. It seems that doubt has become politically incorrect. The distinction between the study and the practice of religion gets all muddled. You now cannot talk about what it "is" or what roles it has and does play in cultures. You get in trouble.

Here's what he'd like -
Since religion is often most influential where it is least obvious, it is imperative to examine both its manifest and latent dimensions. As defenders of a faith become more reflective about their own beliefs, they begin to understand that religion can serve not only to provide answers that render life more secure but also to prepare them for life's unavoidable complexities and uncertainties.

Until recently, many influential analysts argued that religion, a vestige of an earlier stage of human development, would wither away as people became more sophisticated and rational. Obviously, things have not turned out that way. Indeed, the 21st century will be dominated by religion in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not.

The warning signs are clear: Unless we establish a genuine dialogue within and among all kinds of belief, ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism, the conflicts of the future will probably be even more deadly.
Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not… Isn't that what Alterman was saying he had concluded walking across Central Park last Saturday?

What would God say about that? We're waiting for his word on the matter, so we can doubt it, as He would like.

Posted by Alan at 20:57 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 22 December 2006 06:16 PST home

Wednesday, 20 December 2006
Rethinking It All - Feckless Reassessments Portending Little Change
Topic: For policy wonks...

Rethinking It All - Feckless Reassessments Portending Little Change

Something is afoot - as Sherlock Holmes would say, "Come, Watson, the game is afoot."

Wednesday, December 20, brought the new issue of the National Review, one of the two journals where one goes to find what Cheney and the neoconservatives think we should think, and what this country really ought to be doing. The other journal is the Weekly Standard, but after Jon Stewart neatly eviscerated its editor, William Kristol, on The Daily Show, those folks may lie low for a bit. Its just no fun to be hung by the absurdity of what you've said is so turning out to be well beyond foolish. Reality and logic do seem to matter after all. They laughed at him. That's no fun.

National Review editor Rich Lowry knows better than to face the guys at Comedy Central. In fact, in a stunning about face from the smug and condescending "we're winning big in Iraq and everyone else is wrong" columns the one always finds in his journal, the new issue brings us this - "Most of the pessimistic warnings from the mainstream media have turned out to be right - that the initial invasion would be the easy part, that seeming turning points (the capture of Saddam, the elections, the killing of Zarqawi) were illusory, that the country was dissolving into a civil war."

What's gotten into Rich Lowry? This is very odd. These folks never say such things. The "pessimistic press" may have been right all along?

On the other hand, the National Review has a website, The Corner, where there's a running stream of analysis from their array of writers. One of them is Stanley Kurtz. He explains the real problem. They were duped. The mainstream media faked them out -
Conservative distrust of the media's very real bias has inclined us to dismiss reports about problems in Iraq that are real.

In the end, I think the media bears fundamental responsibility for this. Had they been less biased - had they reported acts of heroism and the many good things we have done in Iraq - I think conservatives would actually have taken their reporting of the problems in Iraq more seriously. In effect, the media's consistent liberal bias discredits even its valid reports.

... It's a terrible shame that we've come to the point where our ability to believe news reports hinges on a those rare cases where the record shows freedom from liberal bias. The media has discredited themselves, making it tough to take them seriously even when they are right, and that has hurt us all.
Stanley Kurtz should turn down all offers to appear on The Daily Show. His position - that the media's ridiculous and perhaps treasonous refusal to pay more attention to repainted schoolhouses and such things, and its single-minded focus on insurgent attacks, ethnic rivalries, collapsing infrastructure, ineffective government, and corrupt police forces - was the real problem. That single-minded focus on the bad stuff made us ignore them, so we missed the bad stuff, and how were we to know bad stuff was really happening? As "not our fault" arguments go, this one may be beyond parody, actually. Jon Stewart might have trouble with it. What can you say? Sometime the jokes just write themselves, but that doesn't make them good jokes.

And the spin continues. Robert Farley notes here a sudden flurry of conservative arguments that the real problem in Iraq is that our troops have been hamstrung by rules of engagement that are too strict - they have to worry about not killing civilians, particularly women and children, and its driving them crazy and means we'll lose this thing -
Why is this suddenly so popular? The argument carries a lot of wingnut water. First, it emphasizes that the problem in Iraq is that we've been too soft, and suggests that a more hard-line, brutal approach would put the natives in line. Second, it places implicit blame for the problem not on the people who actually designed the rules (the Army, Marine Corps, DOD, and the Bush Administration), but on those who we already know are soft and weak and don't care about American soldiers. Thus, the problem is defined as "Politically Correct Rules of Engagement", suggesting that the villains are likely liberals, Clintonistas, UN-niks, etc. Third, it allows wingnuts to express concern for the well being of the troops in the field, while ignoring the fact that the troops would be much, much safer if they weren't in Iraq, regardless of the ROE.
Where to begin? Brutality is best in dealing with angry insurgency is an approach that doesn't even rise to the level of needing a refutation. The appeal of such an approach is only visceral - it's lizard-brain stuff. But they just throw it out there. As Kevin Drum notes - "One way or another, conservatives are going to find a way to blame the Iraq disaster on liberals. I imagine they'll keep floating one theory after another until they finally find one that sticks." This one may not.

But the president has some ideas. Wednesday, December 20, he held a press conference to let us know what he'd been thinking about - a massive increase in the size of the military, which would take time, and perhaps sending thirty thousand more troop into Iraq, which wouldn't, as we'd keep folks there beyond their return rotation dates (many in their third rotation) and shuffle others around and speed up those in the pipeline. And by the way, "we're not winning" the war in Iraq. On the other hand, we're not losing either. So expect rough times and lots of casualties and he'll get back to us next month with the actual plan to assure victory, and he might even explain what victory in this case means.

The big news was his saying "we're not winning." A month ago he said we were, we surely were.

This may be a grammatical issue -
President Bush's tortured grasp of the English language is legendary, but I submit that during this morning's presser he actually provided an important clue to understanding what it is he's been saying about Iraq. He is speaking in a new tense that the rest of us have thus far failed to note the existence of: the fantasy tense.
The actual exchange went like this -
Q - Mr. President, less than two months ago at the end of one of the bloodiest months in the war, you said, "Absolutely we're winning." Yesterday you said, "We're not winning, we're not losing." Why did you drop your confident assertion about winning?

THE PRESIDENT: My comments - the first comment was done in this spirit: I believe that we're going to win; I believe that - and by the way, if I didn't think that, I wouldn't have our troops there. That's what you got to know. We're going to succeed. My comments yesterday reflected the fact that we're not succeeding nearly as fast as I wanted when I said it at the time, and that conditions are tough in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad.
Ah. Garance Franke-Ruta explains this -
Bush could easily have used the future tense and said, "we will win." Or he could have used an imperative construction: "we must win." But he didn't. He used the present tense and now says that his use of the present tense should merely be understood to mean what "I wanted" and what "I believe that we're going to."

Thus, the present tense when used by Bush lacks its traditional meaning and should be understood, according to the president himself, only as an expression of his desires and beliefs. In short, he is speaking in something that must be understood as "the fantasy tense." The "I believe/I want/I hope this happens" aspect just happens to be implicit, making the tense sometimes hard to recognize.
Is that clear? It isn't? That may be the point.

And there's that other confusion about the recent midterm elections. The president said everyone was wrong about the results of that election. Sure, the Democrats won control of both the House and Senate, but that wasn't a rejection of the war at all - people were really saying they expected a victory, and wanted a change in policy that would give us that. They liked this war lots - they just thought the strategy should be adjusted a little, here and there. The press just foolishly read it the other way.

Steven Benan doesn't agree - "[T]he electorate just isn't where he thinks it is. 70% of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of the war, not because people want a different strategy, but because Bush rejects the one strategy with majority support - get the troops out of Iraq." But he's not the president, is he?

And we have our clear objectives -
  • "We began the year with optimism after watching nearly 12 million Iraqis go to the polls to vote for a unity government and a free future. The enemies of liberty responded fiercely to this advance of freedom."
  • "And I want the enemy to understand that this is a tough task, but they can't run us out of the Middle East; that they can't intimidate America."
  • "What is going to happen is we're going to develop a strategy that helps the Iraqis achieve the objective that the 12 million people want them to achieve, which is a government that can - a country that can sustain itself, govern itself, defend itself."
  • "A free country that will serve as an ally in this war against extremists and radicals."
Or as Matthew Yglesias parses it -
  • We're in Iraq to build a democracy.
  • No, we're in Iraq to find a permanent base for US military forces in the Middle East or, at a minimum, to demonstrate resolve detached from specific policy goals.
  • No, we're in Iraq to build an internally stable government.
  • No, we're in Iraq to create a government that will take America's side in regional disputes.
And his conclusion -
Needless to say these are different and, in some ways, contradictory goals. This is why we're not winning in Iraq and never will. We don't have coherent objectives we're pursuing. And there is no set of objectives such that the objectives are both achievable and worth the cost of achieving them. The sane thing to do at this point is to set a goal of removing American troops from the killing zone quickly and then to start thinking and arguing about how, exactly, this can be done in a way that minimizes risks to the troops and the rest of the region.
But that wouldn't be winning, would it? No one has sufficiently defined what winning exactly is in this case. But we know what it isn't. Perhaps that will have to do.

John Dickerson, the political editor at SLATE, was bothered by something else that occurred to him regarding this press conference - What Has Bush Learned From His Mistakes? His answer is nothing -
At his press conference Wednesday, the president was asked what lessons he's learned after five years of war. He's been asked a version of this question many times since he had such trouble answering it in April 2004. He has tried various responses over the years and none has been satisfying. This morning's answer also fell short: "It is important for us to be successful going forward is to analyze that which went wrong, and clearly, one aspect of this war that has not gone right is the sectarian violence inside Baghdad." [Yes, the sentence structure is odd - AMP]

It is progress of a kind for the president to talk about the need to examine past failures - there was a time when he didn't even admit them - but the answer still failed. First, Bush didn't actually answer the question. He talked about what went wrong, but not what he learned. Second, Bush seemed to suggest that the sectarian violence in Iraq was unforeseen - not so much something that went wrong, but a surprise they didn't anticipate. But war planners did know the sectarian violence was coming. The State Department, Army War College, and CIA analysts all predicted that the Shi'a and Sunnis would go after each other (apparently they've been at it for a while). The president and his team ignored or discounted these assessments.

It's hardly surprising that the president didn't answer a question at a press conference. Bush regularly answers the wrong question at length to give the appearance of answering without actually doing so. He gives a response when what we want is an answer.
And we didn't get one. This is no surprise. He's a politician. What puzzles Dickerson is "why Bush is keeping up this avoidance act while at the same time trying to rebuild his trust with the country." By not answering this specific question, Dickerson says he is trading away "perhaps his only chance to get people to listen to him again."

And he shouldn't do that -
People don't trust the president on the war, and they don't approve of the job he's doing. They haven't for a long time. They think he's either lying to them or that he's out of it. The tricks he has offered to win them back to his strategy - from scaring the public about Democrats and their proposals, to hyping the consequences of not following his policies, to poking his finger in the air - have not worked. This is a problem for him, because in January he will give yet another Big Speech on Iraq. In it he will offer his new strategy for completing the mission.

But why will anyone listen to Bush's new approach?
Yep "fool me once"… no, watch the president saying it himself - "There's an old saying in Tennessee - I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee - that says, fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again."

Close enough, or as they say, close enough for government work.

But we are getting a double dose of spin so we let our guard down -
First, Bush's people are trying to show that the president is working really hard to find the new answer. He has ordered reviews at the State Department and Pentagon and held repeated meetings with military officials. He's also studying the Iraq Study Group plan (even though he has pretty much trashed its major recommendations). Second, the president and his aides are trying to show that he actually understands how grave the situation is in Iraq. On Tuesday, he told the Washington Post that America is not winning in Iraq, matching the candor for which his incoming secretary of defense was praised during his confirmation hearings.
But that is clearly not enough to turn things around. At best that is "only enough to keep people from thinking he's not delusional." It's not a plan. It's looking busy.

The recommendation -
To get people to buy into his solutions, the president has to put candor into his policy review. He has to prove that the new solutions weren't cooked up with the same broken process that cooked up the first batch of bad solutions. Which brings us back to the question of what lessons he's learned. He's been accused to living in a bubble, so who told him things during this round of meetings that he didn't want to hear? Whom did he seek out at the State Department that he would not have in the past? Who yelled at him? Who talked him out of a bad idea? What gut instinct that he trusted in the past has he learned to think twice about? He should answer the question about what he's learned from his mistakes, how he incorporated those lessons into his new policy process, and how the strategy he's put forward is the fruit of that new way of operating. That might - might - persuade some Americans to give him one more chance.
And pigs might - might - fly. Dickerson rightly points out that White House officials and Bush supporters "have always thought questions about mistakes and lessons learned are merely press attempts to make Bush whip himself in public." And they should get over it. That's unlikely. The January "new way forward" speech will just be another speech.

The game is not afoot, really.

Fred Kaplan offers an analysis of what is afoot. That would be "the hottest briefing in Washington these days," a fifty-six-page PowerPoint presentation, Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq. This is by Frederick Kagan, the military analyst of the American Enterprise Institute. The president thinks it's wonderful.

Fred Kaplan does not and explains why in The Urge to Surge -
It proposes "surging" 20,000 extra troops to secure Baghdad as a necessary and sufficient first step to securing and rebuilding the whole country.

It's being taken very seriously in White House and congressional quarters. I don't understand why, because it's not really a serious study. Numbers are grabbed out of thin air. Crucial points are asserted, not argued. Assumptions are based on crossed fingers, not evidence or analysis.

The upshot is that Kagan's surge involves more troops than the United States can readily mobilize and fewer troops than it needs for the kind of victory he has in mind.

He proposes a classic "clear and hold" method to secure the capital. Troops sweep into Baghdad's nastier neighborhoods and clear them of insurgents and other bad guys. Some troops stay behind to maintain security, while others move on to clear the next set of neighborhoods; some of those stay behind, while others move on; and so forth. Once Baghdad is stabilized, still more troops will pour into other troubled cities. Meanwhile, security allows reconstruction to proceed.
This is followed by a detailed analysis of why the numbers just don't work. They don't.

Consider this -
However they're counted, a lot of extra troops are necessary, because not only do they have to "clear" a neighborhood of bad guys, some have to stay there ("hold" the area) while others move on to clear the next neighborhood. (This was the problem at Tal Afar. The city was cleared, but then the troops were called to Baghdad, and the insurgents returned.)

In Kagan's plan, after Baghdad is secure, we have to go clear and hold the rest of Iraq. This means still more troops will be needed, beyond the initial surge, because the troops in Baghdad have to stay there.

Where will these troops come from? Kagan says that the Pentagon will have to expand the size of the Army and Marines by at least 30,000 a year over the next two years. However, according to some very high-ranking officers who deal firsthand with these sorts of issues, the Army can recruit, train, and equip only about 7,000 combat troops a year. This is a physical limit, constrained by the number of bases, trainers, supplies, and other elements of infrastructure.

Kagan writes, "The President must call for young Americans to volunteer to defend the nation in a time of crisis." Given the unpopularity of the president, and of this war, this seems unlikely. After the Sept. 11 attacks, when Bush was at peak popularity, and when the country was experiencing a surge of patriotism, Congress passed a bill expanding the size of the Army by 30,000 troops. Five years later, the Army has actually expanded by just 23,000 troops. It's still 7,000 troops short of that target. How does Kagan expect to attract 30,000 more in just one year, much less to do so two years in a row?

… if Kagan's advice is followed, the surged troops will have plenty on their hands. Kagan writes that they will have to fight the bad guys - and provide food, water, electricity, and other essential services. It's not as if they haven't been trying to do all that for the past three and a half years.

How long will the surged troops have to stay? Kagan writes that "the security situation" "improves within 18-24 months and we can begin going home." But given the way the numbers add up, this seems extremely unlikely. For one thing, they'll have to be replaced by Iraqi soldiers, but if all the American troops are engaged in counterinsurgency, who's training the Iraqis? Current administration policy calls for embedding U.S. advisers within Iraqi units. Kagan is opposed to that policy. He favors expanding U.S. units and having some Iraqi units tag along. He claims that those Iraqis will be trained "much more effectively" his way, "because they will be partnered with and fighting with our excellent soldiers."

This is simply wrongheaded. Indigenous soldiers are best trained by taking the lead in military operations. They gain most legitimacy in a counterinsurgency campaign if the local population sees them as being in charge, not as sitting quietly in the occupier's back seat.

One reassuring moment in President Bush's press conference today came when he said that if he did decide to surge more troops to Iraq, he would do so only if there were "a specific mission that can be accomplished with more troops." Kagan's briefing doesn't spell out that mission, doesn't show it can be accomplished with more troops, at least not with the number of extra troops that are remotely available.
But this seems to be the plan. This is what we'll be told is January is just what we'll do. And that's what is really afoot.

Actually what's really afoot - enlarging our military, already larger than the next twenty militaries in the world, combined - is getting the empire thing right. Getting the number of Imperial Storm Troopers right, and in the right places at the right time, to fight the Rebel Alliance, is hard work when you have to operate in a pseudo-democracy with a somewhat free press and elections at awkward times and all the rest. No, wait. That was Star Wars, where the Rebel Alliance was the good guys - Luke Skywalker and Yoda and all. Things got switched around. How did that happen?

Posted by Alan at 22:03 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 20 December 2006 22:20 PST home

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