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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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Tuesday, 26 December 2006
Late Christmas Presents
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Late Christmas Presents

The week between Christmas and New Years is supposed to be a slow news week. And the day after Christmas we got two conflicting milestones and a new war, or a new proxy war, as we are a bit short on war resources. Maybe people won't notice.

The first was the surprise news that Saddam Hussein will hang soon -
Iraq’s highest appeals court on Tuesday upheld Saddam Hussein’s death sentence and said he must be hanged within 30 days for the killing of 148 Shiites in the central city of Dujail.

The sentence "must be implemented within 30 days," chief judge Aref Shahin said. "From tomorrow, any day could be the day of implementation."
This appeal was, we were told, going to take some time. This is a surprise. It's a bit like the original death sentence, announced a day and a half before the midterm elections across America. These Iraqi judges are quite cooperative. The actually hanging, which will be televised locally (in Iraq of course), might just take place as the president announces his "new way forward," scheduled, tentatively, for sometime in January. Or it could take place during the president's State of the Union speech next month. Either would be fine, the hanging providing great visuals of the "see, I got the bad guy" sort - and we can watch Saddam Hussein's eyes bug out and his neck snap as the president - split screen - tells us all we're winning, and have really won, while the other man jerks about and chokes to death. The calculation would be that Americans would cheer and all the mess-ups - the chaos in Iraq, the unsaved New Orleans, the business with the vice president shooting his good friend in the face with a shotgun and all the rest - would be forgotten. The lifeless body swinging slowly from the rope would rally us all. It's an interesting ploy, a bookend to the "Mission Accomplished" address on the aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego - this time getting it right.

Of course the propitiously announced Saddam Hussein death sentence didn't save Republican control of the House and Senate. But that doesn't mean the concept isn't workable. It just wasn't dramatic enough. The president's political advisor, Karl "Bush's Brian" Rove, is said to be a genius on such matters. This sound like something he has arranged, judging what would sate the blood lust of the American people. He may be right, or he may be surprised that good numbers of people actually can and actually do differentiate between Saddam Hussein, who finally didn't have any weapons of mass destruction and both feared and hated al Qaeda (and the feeling was mutual), and Osama bin Laden, who we all saw on videotape saying he was glad his very own 9/11 plan worked. Early on the president said "you can't really differentiate between the two," but he was only saying you "shouldn't." It seems people did anyway, in spite of the effort to conflate the two. When Saddam Hussein swings, more than a few American's will wonder what's going on here - the major bad guy was never found and this looks like cheap theatrics regarding a secondary problem with a brutal thug, a secondary murdering fraud. He may deserve his punishment, but it's rather beside the point now, isn’t it? Rove may just have to hope folks don’t think this through too carefully.

And as for the blood lust of the American people, that is hard to gauge. We are one of the very few nations in this world who still eagerly practice capital punishment - and it's not just the western nations who have walked away from that. We're pretty much alone. But is the Rove calculation right, that we would all cheer and another man's painful death? That may depend on how much visual and auditory detail we get. It may be that we like the concept of capital punishment in the abstract, without the details, like the criminal's bowels suddenly discharging and that sort of thing. But who knows? It may also be that we have moved on, want to close the book on this war and deal with healthcare and jobs and education and who pays whatever is a fair share in taxes, and with what the government can actually do to fix things and make things fair for everyone. In short, a public execution might be of far less than secondary interest. Fine, hang the man, but what about what we all face in the day-to-day, in the here-and-now? Pointing to the lifeless body swinging at the end of the rope might be counterproductive, or even worse, just beside the point. The public death of Saddam Hussein is a PR gamble. We'll see how that goes.

Of course we'll be told is will be the real turning point in Iraq, bringing closure (a quite useless concept, but quite popular these days). Things will settle down, unless they don't. Sorry about all the other turning points that turned out not to be turning points at all - but this one is the real deal, as is obvious. And the Sunnis, feeling cut out of the current government and in open rebellion, in spite of not having particularly fond memories of Saddam and his sons leading them, will react with shrug and a big "whatever" - or go full out to mess everything up until they get at least a little power back, and the Saudis and Egyptians and Jordanians will fund and supply them. Which is more likely? Your answer depends on how optimistic you are. One should have a positive attitude. One should also prepare of alternative outcomes. Unfortunately preparing for alternative outcomes is considered a sign of weak will and insufficient manliness with the people who have run our country for the last six years. This could be a bumpy ride.

The other day after Christmas surprise was a bit artificial, a curious milestone -
At least 36 Iraqis died Tuesday in bombings, officials said, including a coordinated strike that killed 25 in western Baghdad. Separately, the deaths of six U.S. soldiers pushed the American toll beyond the number of victims in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
So the military deaths, rising steadily in the last three months, now officially exceed the number killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington. One would guess this is something some who think the Iraq war was a useless and almost criminal diversion from the real task at hand - dealing with fanatical terrorists who want to make their points with mass killings of our citizens - finds telling. We doubled the number of dead and what do we have to show for it all? And that doesn't even account for the nearly twenty-thousand of our troops maimed - limbless or brain-damaged. But the matching figures mean little in and of themselves. It's just a bit of statistical ammunition for those who ask what we think we're accomplishing. Within a week or so we will be at three thousand combat deaths. That too is just a number, and will be used to ask the same question. What are we accomplishing? It's a morbid cost-benefit thing.

That's exactly how Condoleezza Rice sees it -
This is a country that is worth the investment because once it emerges as a country that is a stabilizing factor, you'll have a very different kind of Middle East. And I know that from the point of view of not just monetary costs, but the sacrifice of American lives, a lot has been sacrificed for Iraq, a lot has been invested in Iraq.
That's from an Associated Press interview, December 21, 2006. And Merry Christmas to you too, Ms Rice.

Bill Montgomery comments -
I once made the analogy that in the imperialism business troops equal money, so perhaps I'm not in the best position to criticize. But I was trying to sound cruel and heartless for sarcastic effect, while Condi appears to have been utterly sincere - every bit as sincere as when she described Israel's air assault on Lebanon as the "birth pangs" of the new Middle East. (How's the baby doing, Condi?)

Maybe the simplest explanation is also the most accurate. Maybe Condi is just a cold, heartless bitch - as morally numb and sociopathic as her office husband. But these kinds of comments could also simply reflect the incredibly sheltered life Madame Supertanker appears to have led, especially since she entered the pampered, intersecting worlds of the academic, national security and corporate elites.

There's a story from her childhood of young Condi practicing the piano in her comfortable middle-class home in Birmingham's "black bourgeois" neighborhood as her father - himself no great friend of the civil rights movement - stood guard over the house with a shotgun while Bull Connors' men blasted the demonstrators with fire hoses downtown. I have no idea whether the story is true or not, but it certainly resonates with Condi's current public persona, which is - not to put too fine a point on it - detached to the point of catatonia.

Does Condi understand how many deaths, mutilations and wrecked lives lie behind her "investments" and "birth pangs"? Undoubtedly. Does she care? I don't know. But, from a public diplomacy point of view, it would behoove her to show some sign that she has an emotional connection to the rest of the human race - or, if she doesn't, to at least pretend that she does.
Well, she's not even pretending. And you might want to check out that noted Middle East scholar, Juan Cole on The Top Ten Myths About Iraq in 2006. It's not a pretty list.

Here are a few -
1. Myth number one is that the United States "can still win" in Iraq. Of course, the truth of this statement, frequently still made by William Kristol and other Neoconservatives, depends on what "winning" means. But if it means the establishment of a stable, pro-American, anti-Iranian government with an effective and even-handed army and police force in the near or even medium term, then the assertion is frankly ridiculous. The Iraqi "government" is barely functioning. The parliament was not able to meet in December because it could not attain a quorum. Many key Iraqi politicians live most of the time in London, and much of parliament is frequently abroad. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki does not control large swathes of the country, and could give few orders that had any chance of being obeyed. The US military cannot shore up this government, even with an extra division, because the government is divided against itself. Most of the major parties trying to craft legislation are also linked to militias on the streets who are killing one another. It is over with. Iraq is in for years of heavy political violence of a sort that no foreign military force can hope to stop.

The United States cannot "win" in the sense defined above. It cannot. And the blindly arrogant assumption that it can win is calculated to get more tens of thousands of Iraqis killed and more thousands of American soldiers and Marines badly wounded or killed. Moreover, since Iraq is coming apart at the seams under the impact of our presence there, there is a real danger that we will radically destabilize it and the whole oil-producing Gulf if we try to stay longer.

2. "US military sweeps of neighborhoods can drive the guerrillas out." The US put an extra 15,000 men into Baghdad this past summer, aiming to crush the guerrillas and stop the violence in the capital, and the number of attacks actually increased. This result comes about in part because the guerrillas are not outsiders who come in and then are forced out. The Sunni Arabs of Ghazaliya and Dora districts in the capital are the "insurgents." The US military cannot defeat the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement or "insurgency" with less than 500,000 troops, based on what we have seen in the Balkans and other such conflict situations. The US destroyed Falluja, and even it and other cities of al-Anbar province are not now safe! The US military leaders on the ground have spoken of the desirability of just withdrawing from al-Anbar to Baghdad and giving up on it. In 2003, 14 percent of Sunni Arabs thought it legitimate to attack US personnel and facilities. In August, 2006, over 70 percent did. How long before it is 100%? Winning guerrilla wars requires two victories, a military victory over the guerrillas and a winning of the hearts and minds of the general public, thus denying the guerrillas support. The US has not and is unlikely to be able to repress the guerrillas, and it is losing hearts and minds at an increasing and alarming rate. They hate us, folks. They don't want us there.

… 8. "Iraq is the central front in the war on terror." From the beginning of history until 2003 there had never been a suicide bombing in Iraq. There was no al-Qaeda in Baath-ruled Iraq. When Baath intelligence heard that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi might have entered Iraq, they grew alarmed at such an "al-Qaeda" presence and put out an APB on him! Zarqawi's so-called "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" was never "central" in Iraq and was never responsible for more than a fraction of the violent attacks. This assertion is supported by the outcome of a US-Jordanian operation that killed Zarqawi this year. His death had no impact whatsoever on the level of violence. There are probably only about 1,000 foreign fighters even in Iraq, and most of them are first-time volunteers, not old-time terrorists. The 50 major guerrilla cells in Sunni Arab Iraq are mostly made up of Iraqis, and are mainly: 1) Baathist or neo-Baathist, 2) Sunni revivalist or Salafi, 3) tribally-based, or 4) based in city quarters. Al-Qaeda is mainly a boogey man, invoked in Iraq on all sides, but possessing little real power or presence there. This is not to deny that radical Sunni Arab volunteers come to Iraq to blow things (and often themselves) up. They just are not more than an auxiliary to the big movements, which are Iraqi.

9. "The Sunni Arab guerrillas in places like Ramadi will follow the US home to the American mainland and commit terrorism if we leave Iraq." This assertion is just a variation on the invalid domino theory. People in Ramadi only have one beef with the United States. Its troops are going through their wives' underwear in the course of house searches every day. They don't want the US troops in their town or their homes, dictating to them that they must live under a government of Shiite clerics and Kurdish warlords (as they think of them). If the US withdrew and let the Iraqis work out a way to live with one another, people in Ramadi will be happy. They are not going to start taking flight lessons and trying to get visas to the US. This argument about following us, if it were true, would have prevented us from ever withdrawing from anyplace once we entered a war there. We'd be forever stuck in the Philippines for fear that Filipino terrorists would follow us back home. Or Korea (we moved 15,000 US troops out of South Korea not so long ago. Was that unwise? Are the thereby liberated Koreans now gunning for us?) Or how about the Dominican Republic? Haiti? Grenada? France? The argument is a crock.
Click on the link for the other six. It won't make you happy.

But then, the third item from the news the day after Christmas was that, using our advisors, combat aircraft we provided, munitions we provided, the Ethiopian government suddenly bombed the crap out of Somalia in what looked like an all-out proxy war for us - just one more effort by our government to teach us the geography of obscure places. Was this a minor matter? Maybe.

Jeffrey Gettleman in the New York Times opens with this - "Islamist forces in Somalia beat a hasty retreat today to their stronghold in Mogadishu, Somalia's battle-scared capital, crumbling faster than anyone expected after a week of attacks by Ethiopian forces."

We are fighting Islamist forces everywhere, even when we're not. And the UN, again, isn't pleased -
The top U.N. envoy in Somalia urged the U.N. Security Council to call for an immediate cease-fire between Ethiopian forces backing Somalia's weak government and the powerful Islamic militia that controls most of the country, saying talks are the only way to solve the conflict.

Qatar, which holds the council presidency, circulated a draft presidential statement calling for an immediate cease-fire and the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces, specifying Ethiopian troops.

But other council members - including the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and African members Ghana and Tanzania - objected to singling out Ethiopia and calling for an immediate withdrawal, saying an urgent resumption of talks between the parties and a political agreement are essential to achieve stability before foreign forces withdraw.
In short, it's a mess. We used Ethiopia to clean out the bad guys, but the Ethiopians were only doing what they should do, or something like that. It's war, everywhere.

Via a good discussion of this by Matthew Yglesias, relying heavily on the Washington Post coverage of the new Somalia-Ethiopia war, much of this can be untangled. It has to do with the premises of our policy in the Horn of Africa -
… Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia "along with the United States, has accused the [Islamic Courts] movement of harboring terrorists" but this is "an allegation it has denied." Neither Ethiopia nor the United States is prepared to provide names of any terrorists who are being harbored. Meanwhile, "Opposition groups inside Ethiopia say that Meles, an increasingly authoritarian leader, has shrewdly played up the terrorism charges to win U.S. support." We're going along with this because "based in part on intelligence out of Ethiopia, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi E. Frazer has asserted that the Islamic movement is now under the control of an al-Qaeda cell, a claim that regional analysts believe is exaggerated."

… In other words, we're backing Ethiopia's war against Somalia because intelligence provided by the Ethiopian government suggests we should back Ethiopia. But what else would the intelligence say? The US government's conflict with the Islamic Courts began because "the United States financed warlords in Somalia who described themselves as an 'anti-terrorism coalition' but who mostly terrorized local Somalis, who came to despise them." This "anti-terrorism coalition" was nothing other than the exact same warlords who ruined the country in the 1990s renaming themselves for the post-9/11 era.

… Can someone ask Tony Snow or George W. Bush or Condoleezza Rice or Steven Hadley to name the terrorists the Islamic Courts are harboring? To explain what we've tried to do to secure their custody short of backing a full-scale Ethiopian invasion of Somalia?
There's also the State Department's counterterrorism country report on Somalia, which doesn't make things sound "al Qaeda dire" all that -
Somalia’s lack of a functioning central government, protracted state of violent instability, long unguarded coastline, porous borders, and proximity to the Arabian Peninsula made it a potential location for international terrorists seeking a transit or launching point to conduct operations elsewhere.

Regional efforts to bring about national reconciliation and establish peace and stability in Somalia are ongoing. Although the ability of Somali local and regional authorities to carry out counterterrorism activities is constrained, some have taken limited actions in this direction.

While numerous Islamist groups engaged in a broad range of activities operate inside Somalia, few of these organizations have any known links to terrorist activities. Movements such as Harakat al-Islah (al-Islah), Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa (ASWJ), and Majma Ulimadda Islaamka ee Soomaaliya (Majma') sought power by political rather than violent means and pursued political action via missionary or charity work. Missionary Islamists, such as followers of the Tablighi sect and the "New Salafis" generally renounce explicit political activism. Other Islamist organizations became providers of basic health, education, and commercial services, and were perceived by some as pursuing a strategy to take political power.

In the 1990s, members of the Somalia-based al-Ittihad al-Islami (AIAI) periodically committed terrorist acts, primarily in Ethiopia. AIAI rose to prominence following the collapse of Somalia’s central government in 1991, with the goal of creating a pan-Somali Islamic state in the Horn of Africa. In recent years the existence of a coherent entity operating as AIAI has become difficult to prove. At most, AIAI was highly factionalized and diffuse, and its membership difficult to define. Some elements associated with the former AIAI are sympathetic to al-Qaida and maintained ties with it, and may continue to pose a threat to U.S. and Western interests in the region.

Other shadowy groups that have appeared in Somalia are suspected of having committed terrorist acts against Western interests in the region, or considered capable of doing so. Very little is known about movements such as al-Takfir wal-Hijra (al-Takfir), but the extremist ideology and violent character of takfiri groups elsewhere suggest that the movement merits close monitoring.
These are local bad guys. We've decided they're in league with the top bad guys and must be taken out, but the wimpy State Department says they're really not that organized or even connected to anything much.

Yglesias -
So to be clear, unless I'm reading this wrong the number of individuals who've organized, planned, or committed terrorist attacks against the United States of America now being sheltered in Somalia is… zero.

There are Somali groups who've carried out attacks against Ethiopia. And "some elements associated with the former AIAI are sympathetic to al-Qaida and maintained ties with it, and may continue to pose a threat to U.S. and Western interests in the region."

Now ask yourself how many Somali Islamists are going to sympathize with al-Qaeda once US-backed Ethiopian forces have shattered the closest thing to an effective government that country has had since 1991.
We like to make enemies, don't we?

And there's Major Kelley Thibodeau, spokeswoman for the task force of American military personnel based in nearby in Djibouti protesting we didn't do anything, really - "Officially, we haven’t put anybody in Somalia. The Americans don’t go forward with the Ethiopians. They are training Ethiopians in Ethiopia."

One is reminded of Kennedy sending "advisors" into Vietnam. They were just advisors. The rest is history.

See Salim Lone, who was the spokesman for the UN mission in Iraq in 2003, now a columnist for The Daily Nation in Kenya, in the International Herald Tribune with In Somalia, A Reckless US Proxy War -
Undeterred by the horrors and setbacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, the Bush administration has opened another battlefront in the Muslim world. With full U.S. backing and military training, at least 15,000 Ethiopian troops have entered Somalia in an illegal war of aggression against the Union of Islamic Courts, which controls almost the entire south of the country.

As with Iraq in 2003, the United States has cast this as a war to curtail terrorism, but its real goal is to obtain a direct foothold in a highly strategic region by establishing a client regime there. The Horn of Africa is newly oil-rich, and lies just miles from Saudi Arabia, overlooking the daily passage of large numbers of oil tankers and warships through the Red Sea. General John Abizaid, the current U.S. military chief of the Iraq war, was in Ethiopia this month, and President Hu Jintao of China visited Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia earlier this year to pursue oil and trade agreements.

The U.S. instigation of war between Ethiopia and Somalia, two of world's poorest countries already struggling with massive humanitarian disasters, is reckless in the extreme. Unlike in the run-up to Iraq, independent experts, including from the European Union, were united in warning that this war could destabilize the whole region even if America succeeds in its goal of toppling the Islamic Courts.

An insurgency by Somalis, millions of whom live in Kenya and Ethiopia, will surely ensue, and attract thousands of new anti-US militants and terrorists.
He goes on, unhappy, but we have our foreign policy - stir things up everywhere. And this may not even be good for the home team - "Ethiopia is at even greater risk, as a dictatorship with little popular support and beset also by two large internal revolts, by the Ogadenis and Oromos. It is also mired in a conflict with Eritrea, which has denied it secure access to seaports."

One wonders how much of the world we wish to throw into turmoil, with new raging regional wars. That cannot be the plan. But there you have it.

And it was to be a slow news week.


Readers here might note that Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, the base of our new Ethiopian effort, has come up before in these pages - July 11, 2004, Djibouti and the July Surprise. It has come around again. See Stanley A. Weiss, the founder and chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, with After Iraq, A New U.S. Military Model, 26 December 2006, in the International Herald Tribune. This is a discussion of how Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, the brainchild of General John Abizaid, is the new model of "light footprint" US military operations - no massive bases to offend the locals, just "lily pads" for quick operations. Abizaid knows his stuff, and he knows how to work with local cultures. The item was written before Abizaid resigned, as he was one of those generals who opposed the upcoming big surge of tens of thousands of more troops into Iraq right now, as he thought, and said, that would make things worse. There was no longer room for him in the Army as the president saw its role - overwhelming force and swaggering intimidation to get folks to do what we want. Abizaid will be fine on the lecture circuit.

Posted by Alan at 21:58 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 26 December 2006 22:02 PST home

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

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