Entries for December 2005

December 30, 2005

My new year's resolutions: I want to be on ALL the naughty lists

A long time ago, President Nixon, descending into paranoia, maintained an "enemies list" that was leaked to the press. But Nixon had by then become so unpopular that being on Nixon's enemies list was actually seen as a badge of honor. Humorist Art Buchwald expressed his outrage at not making the list, despite all the articles he had written making fun of Nixon. Buchwald said that as a result of this omission his wife was being snubbed by society and he could not get the best tables in restaurants, which were being reserved only for people on the list. "What kind of government is this" he fumed "that does not even know who its real enemies are?"

I was reminded about this when I was reading that the Bush administration is also now spying and keeping track of people who were protesting the war and other actions of the government. Some of you would already know about the government spying on people who attend demonstrations, and the Pentagon spying even on elderly Quaker antiwar activists, seeing them as a threat. (see here for the video.)

Then on December 22, the New York Times reports that "Undercover New York City police officers have conducted covert surveillance in the last 16 months of people protesting the Iraq war, bicycle riders taking part in mass rallies and even mourners at a street vigil for a cyclist killed in an accident, a series of videotapes show...The officers hoist protest signs. They hold flowers with mourners. They ride in bicycle events. At the vigil for the cyclist, an officer in biking gear wore a button that said, 'I am a shameless agitator.' She also carried a camera and videotaped the roughly 15 people present. Beyond collecting information, some of the undercover officers or their associates are seen on the tape having influence on events."

We all know how dangerous Quaker grannies can be, don't we? We have seen dramatic visual footage (on Monty Python's Flying Circus) of how vicious gangs of grannies can terrorize entire cities with their purse waving assaults.

And don't get me started on the real menace that cyclists pose. I'll bet al-Quaeda has a secret plan to create massive traffic jams in major cities by having their infiltrated agents ride two abreast on busy streets during rush hour on so-called "bike rallies."

Then, as now, the purpose of such government surveillance actions is largely to intimidate people into not taking part in civic actions. They probably want this surveillance information to be leaked. The purpose is not to make people feel secure, it is to make them fearful, wondering who among them is an informer or a spy. That is how you undermine people's solidarity, by making them suspicious of each other and fearful of taking any collective action that might be construed as being "subversive", however law-abiding it might be.

So what should we do in response? Aaron Freeman in his post Spy on me, make my day has it exactly right. He says: "I want my daughters to have FBI files. I want them filmed by hostile government agents during mass protests against injustice. If they get lucky, they'll be tear-gassed; not so much to do damage, just enough to make a good story. Like I was tear gassed as a child."

He said that he acquired this attitude as a child from his mother.

When I was eight my mother led our whole family into the marches against segregation in Chicago. The FBI spied on us then, too. In the sixties, the Bureau claimed to be looking for "communists," now they're hunting "terrorists," but they look for enemies among the same group of Americans: protesters, we who dissent. At civil rights marches there were countless guys in suits taking movies and snapshots of us all. Sometimes it was the FBI, sometimes the Chicago Police Department's in-house anti-subversive unit, the Red Squad. My mother taught us to smile a wave at the camera. Even at eight we understood they meant to scare us. I was in Catholic schools at the time so I was well acquainted with the notion of stuff going on my "permanent record."

But my mother wanted protest on our permanent records. She insisted that she and her children be counted among those whom bullying law enforcement did not scare.

I am overwhelmingly proud of my childhood dissent. I wear the suspicion of the FBI as a badge of honor.

I'm with Aaron. While we should be fighting this pervasive government snooping, we should also not be intimidated by it. So here are my new year's resolutions:

I want to be on every government and private list of dissenters, of people who are marked for protesting the war and the rampant violations of civil liberties.

I want to be filmed at antiwar meetings and demonstrations. If the people filming the proceedings for the spy agencies call out my name, I will make sure to give them a good shot of my smiling face for their files for future identification and will even wave to them.

I want my signatures on petitions to be noted.

I want this blog to be monitored by the NSA, the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, and god knows all the other agencies currently spying on people.

When the government uses its databases to list the names of people involved in peace and justice movements, I want my name to appear repeatedly.

I also want to be on such silly lists such as O'Reilly's enemies list and the one of people 'waging war on "the holiday formerly known as Christmas".'

If I do not make those lists, then it means that I have failed in my task of speaking out for justice and peace and civil liberties.

The only way to safeguard civil liberties and constitutional freedoms is by everyone valuing them, protecting them, and using them. As Judge Learned Hand said:

Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.

POST SCRIPT: Best wishes for 2006

Well, I have completed almost one full year of blogging, having done my first post on January 26th. The statistics show that I have had a total of over a quarter of a million hits during this period. I have made 220 posts and written nearly a quarter of a million words.

All these numbers are far more than I had anticipated when I started this. I would like to thank all the people who visited, read, and commented. It has been a real pleasure.

I wish all of you the very best for 2006.

December 29, 2005

The Danger of Apathy

In a series of recent posts (most recently The Loyal Citizen's Contract with the American Government, I have been sounding the alarm about the dangerous encroachment on civil liberties and traditional concepts of the rule of law by the current administration. Many people do not seem to be alarmed so why am I? Once again, we have to look at history and learn from it to see where this road might lead.

In a recent article, Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration, shows how far the current administration has gone in emulating the kinds of regimes that were once routinely condemned for their human rights violations. He bases his article on three books: Our Endangered Values (Simon & Schuster, 2005) by former President Jimmy Carter; Nikolaus Wachsmann's Hitler's Prisons (Yale University Press 2004); and Robert Higgs in Resurgence of the Warfare State (Independent Institute 2005).

Roberts says:

Carter reports that the deception, naked aggression, and torture that define the Bush administration have caused a tremendous setback for human rights throughout the world. At an international human rights conference in June 2005, "Participants explained that oppressive leaders had been emboldened to persecute and silence outspoken citizens under the guise of fighting terrorism...The consequence is that many lawyers, professors, doctors, and journalists had been labeled terrorists, often for merely criticizing a particular policy or for carrying out their daily work. We heard about many cases involving human rights attorneys being charged with abetting terrorists simply for defending accused persons." Carter is especially disturbed that the Bush administration is encouraging these abusive policies in the name of "fighting terrorism."

Who among us ever expected to hear an American president, vice president, and attorney general justify torture as essential to the protection of the American way of life? Carter quotes attorney general Alberto Gonzales, who sounds more like a third world tyrant than an American when he dismisses the Geneva Convention's provisions as "quaint." Bush threatened to veto any congressional limitation on his right to torture, and Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon declared that "the president, despite domestic and international laws constraining the use of torture, has the authority as Commander in Chief to approve almost any physical or psychological actions during interrogation, up to and including torture.

Dr. Burton J. Lee III, President George H.W. Bush's White House physician is also quoted as follows:

Reports of torture by US forces have been accompanied by evidence that military medical personnel have played a role in this abuse and by new military ethical guidelines that in effect authorize complicity by health professionals in ill-treatment of detainees...Systematic torture, sanctioned by the government and aided and abetted by our own profession, is not acceptable...America cannot continue down this road. Torture demonstrates weakness, not strength...It is not leadership. It is a reaction of government officials overwhelmed by fear who succumb to conduct unworthy of them and of the citizens of the United States.

Roberts finds disturbing parallels to darker times in Wachsmann's book:

Wachsmann's book is a detailed history of the conflict and cooperation between the traditional legal/judicial/prison system on the one hand and the police/SS/concentration camp system on the other. He does not mention George Bush or Bush's "war on terror." However, the similarities leap off the pages.

Just as 9/11 was a crystallizing event for Bush's seizure of executive power to suspend civil liberties, detain people indefinitely without evidence, and spy on American citizens without warrants, the Reichstag fire of 27 February 1933 was followed the next morning by Hitler's Decree for the Protection of People and State. This decree became the constitutional charter of the Third Reich. It "suspended guarantees of personal liberty and served as the basis for the police arrest and incarceration of political opponents without trial."

In a frightening parallel to our own situation, Wachsmann writes: "Various police activities during the 'seizure of power' clearly damaged legal authority. Indefinite detention without due judicial process was incompatible with the rule of law. But, on the whole, there were no loud complaints or protests from legal officials." I read this passage the same day I heard on National Public Radio University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner defend President Bush's use of extra-legal, extra-Constitutional authority to protect the people and state from terrorists.

The precedent for Alberto Gonzales' declaration that Bush is the law was Reich Minister of Justice Franz Gurtner, who agreed in a cabinet meeting on 3 July 1934 that "Hitler was the law." Bush's claim that extraordinary powers are necessary for him to be able to defend our country under extraordinary circumstances is identical to Hitler's claim that he was entitled to ignore the rule of law because he was "responsible for the fate of the German nation and thereby the supreme judge of the German people." What is the difference between Hitler's claim and the US Department of Defense's claim that President Bush has the right to violate domestic and international laws?

Wachsmann's book shows that it is extremely easy for extraordinary measures in the name of national emergency to become permanent. 
Germans did not understand that the Decree for the Protection of People and State was the beginning of legal terror.

The point that Roberts is making is not that the US now is like Nazi Germany. But what he is saying is that we should all be concerned when the government starts asserting the right to do anything it wishes in the name of "protecting" the people. People should not acquiesce with this simply because they do not see themselves as potential targets of the government. That is a temporary state can change in a second. All someone has to do is whisper to the authorities that you are a threat and your personal safety and security from arbitrary government action are gone.

The issue is never whether we personally feel safe and secure but whether the constitutional principles and the rule of law on which our permanent safety and security depend are jealously safeguarded.

(The great state of Ohio, which sometimes seems to me like it has never seen a bad idea that it could not make even worse, is in the process of passing its own version of the USA PATRIOT act. Commenters Barry and Brian have given useful links here and here on the consequences.)

As I said in response to a comment to the previous posting, there is no real threat to this country, nothing anywhere close to the massive destruction that was possible during the cold war. People instinctively realize this because they go about their lives with no thought of terror attacks. It seems to me that we have a level of threat similar to that of a large criminal conspiracy, like organized crime gangs. I think people have more to fear from crime and auto accidents than from a terror attack, but we handle those using the civil legal system.

I do not feel terrified at the thought of an impending terrorist attack. It may happen somewhere sometime but the probability of any given individual being harmed by it is so small as to not be worth considering. Maybe it is because I lived through the Cold War and through civil wars, where the danger was much more real.

But I have also lived through times in a country where the government declared emergencies and suspended all rights and liberties and judicial oversight and where extrajudicial actions by the security forces were routine. I find that much more scary. When the government and the security forces are against you, and the judicial system has abandoned oversight, then you are really alone and helpless.

This is why I am so concerned about the real civil liberties violations that are currently being institutionalized and becoming permanent. And it is hopeful that the concerns about this are cutting across party lines. Roberts is a Republican as is Bob Barr, former GOP congressman and Republican leader, who also slams the administration in an op-ed piece.

Other Republicans incensed by this encroachment of the constitution can be seen here, which reports:

Bruce Fein, a conservative constitutional scholar and former deputy attorney general in the Reagan Administration, said yesterday that the president is flouting the Constitution and may have committed an impeachable offence. Norm Ornstein, a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, echoed Fein, saying, "I think if we're going to be intellectually honest here, this really is the kind of thing that Alexander Hamilton was referring to when impeachment was discussed."

I am seeing the word impeachment being used more and more frequently as the revelations keep emerging.

December 27, 2005

The Loyal Citizen's Contract with the American Government

It seems like not a day passes without a new allegation of the Bush administration trampling on civil liberties, violating the law, and disregarding the constitution. I had been collecting links to write about my concerns about all this but the list kept expanding too rapidly for me to keep up, with fresh allegations appearing while I was still pondering what to say about the earlier ones.

One of the things that concerns me is the willingness of so many people to give up cherished and bitterly won freedoms and constitutional protections in return from some vague assertion from the government that these measures were taken to 'protect them.' It seemed like they take the position that there is nothing that the government can do in the name of security that they would oppose. David Brooks' op-ed column in the New York Times on December 22, 2005 plumbs new depths in finding rationales for the president to do almost anything in the name of national security, and to pooh-pooh any quaint notions of judicial oversight. (Sorry, this article is not available online.) The Wall Street Journal reports that some observers say this willingness to give up all pretence to civil liberties has its roots in the decision to attack Iraq.

"From the beginning, the folks who thought it was a good idea to go into Iraq have found good reason to think that all other Bush policies, from torture to domestic surveillance, are justified," said Robert Levy, a conservative legal scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute.

The arguments justifying these increasingly drastic encroachments on the liberties and freedoms Americans have taken for granted take the form of creating some extreme hypothetical scenario under which the violation of rights seems to be the only option available in terms of "security" and "efficiency." Then the leap is made that these violations should become the norm.

Benjamin Franklin's prescient warning that "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security" seems to have no effect on such people.

The Rude Pundit says that if you really think that this administration can do no wrong, then go ahead and proudly sign "The Loyal Citizen's Contract with the American Government" below and mail it in to the appropriate agencies. This pledge brings together the actions that are currently being taken in the name of protecting our security. (The Pledge is reproduced with permission from the Rude One. (Warning: The Rude Pundit generally uses very rude language, but not in this pledge)

"I (the undersigned) believe President George W. Bush when he says that the United States of America is fighting a 'new kind of enemy' that requires 'new thinking' about how to wage war. Therefore, as a loyal citizen of President Bush’s United States, my signature below indicates my agreement to the following:

"1. I believe wholeheartedly in the Patriot Act as initially passed by Congress in 2001, as well as the provisions of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act. Therefore, I grant the FBI access to:

"a. my library records, so it may determine if I am reading material that might designate me an enemy of the nation;

"b. my financial records, including credit reports, so it may determine if I am contributing monetarily to any governmentally proscribed activities or organizations;

"c. my medical records, so it may determine if my prescriptions, injuries, or other conditions are indicative of terrorist activity on my part;

"d. any and all other personal records including, but not limited to, my store purchases, my school records, my web browsing history, and anything else determined as a 'tangible thing' necessary to engage in a secret investigation of me.

"I agree that I do not need to be notified if my records have come under scrutiny by the FBI, and, furthermore, I agree that no warrant is needed for the FBI to engage in this examination of my personal records. Additionally, I agree that the FBI should be allowed to monitor any groups it believes may be linked to what it determines to be terrorist activity.

"2. I believe that the President of the United States has the power to mitigate any and all laws passed by the Congress and that he has such power granted to him by his status as Commander-in-Chief in the Constitution as well as the 2001 Authorization of Military Force, passed by the Congress, which states that the President can use 'all necessary and appropriate force' in prosecution of the war. Therefore, I grant the United States government the following powers:

"a. that the National Security Agency, under the direction of the President, may tap my phone lines and intercept my e-mail without warrant or FISA oversight;

"b. that the President may hold me or other detainees without access to the legal system for a period of time determined by the President or his agents;

"c. that the President may authorize physical force against me or other individual detainees in order to gain intelligence and that he may define whether such physical force may be called 'torture':

"d. that the President may set aside any and all laws he sees as hindering the gathering of intelligence and prevention of terrorist acts for a period as time determined by the President, including, but not limited to, rights to political protest.

"I agree that the Judicial and Legislative branch should be allowed no oversight of these activities, and that such oversight merely emboldens the terrorists. I also agree that virtually all of these activities may be conducted in complete secrecy and that revelation of these activities amount to treasonous behavior on the part of those who reveal these activities to the press and the citizenry.

"3. Finally, this document is my statement that I believe the President of the United States and the entire executive branch, as well as all departments and agencies involved, as well as all of its personnel, will treat these powers I have granted them with utmost respect. I believe that these powers will not be abused, nor will any of the information I have given them permission to examine be misinterpreted. However, should such abuse or misinterpretation occur, I agree that such actions are mere errors and no one should be subject to investigation, arrest, or employment action as a result.

"My consent freely given,
"(Your signature)"

Anyone willing to sign?


Tom Tomorrow completes his year in review.

December 22, 2005


Due to the holiday season and to the fact that I need to write some articles for publication, this blog will be updated only sporadically over the next two weeks. The regular schedule of weekday postings will resume after the New Year, on Tuesday, January 3rd.

Today, here are some short items.

New member of the family

baxter1.JPG On the right is Baxter, the latest addition to our family. We brought him home on Monday, December 19. He was born on September 14, which makes him just 3 months old.

My op-ed published

The Plain Dealer has today published an op-ed by me titled Has the intelligent design movement passed its peak? dealing with the Dover IDC case. Thanks to the fact that I have been writing about these things on this blog, it only took me an hour or two to collect all the information together and write the piece. This was one of the benefits I foresaw in maintaining this blog, that it could serve as a repository for ideas that could serve as a first draft for publications.

What was strange is that when I write for online posting, I put in links to the original sources of quotes, facts, etc. I had to strip all those out for the op-ed piece, so newspaper readers have to take my word for it that I was not making stuff up. So although online material is still viewed with skepticism in some quarters, the printed stuff actually has less information.

Cheap laptops for the world

Read about the new $100 laptops that can be powered by a hand crank and can be used in poor areas where there is little electricity. The machines will run open-source software.

You can see an image of the laptop here.

This strikes me as a wonderful gift to the poor areas of the world, because the machines will be given free to poor schoolchildren. The inventors (MIT's Media Lab) should be credited for making their devices freely available. I think it is terrific when scientists, engineers, inventors, and universities use their tremendous skills for the benefit of those who do not have access to this kind of advanced knowledge.

Mona Lisa smile

From the BBC we learn that:

A computer has been used to decipher the enigmatic smile of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, concluding that she was mainly happy.

The painting was analysed by a University of Amsterdam computer using "emotion recognition" software.

It concluded that the subject was 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful and 2% angry, journal New Scientist was told."

When I read that I was 64% intrigued, 25% amused, and 11% surprised.


The always helpful and tech-savvy people at Case are slowly nudging me into the 21st century. First Jeremy Smith got me started on blogging and now Aaron Shaffer (Manager of the Freedman Center) interviewed me for my first podcast.

A podcast, which has just been declared 2005's Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary, is defined as "a digital recording of a radio broadcast or similar program, made available on the internet for downloading to a personal audio player". The word is derived from a combination of "broadcast" and "iPod". The chief benefit of a podcast is that once downloaded, it can be listened to at your convenience.

Aaron and I spoke about blogging and a lot of other things, lasting for about an hour, just so that I could get a sense of how podcasting works. I will try my hand at it some time in the future, if I can think of something that would benefit more from the spoken rather than the written word.

If you are curious about what Aaron and I spoke about, or are curious to hear what I sound like on radio (hint: terrible), the podcast has been posted on the Freedman Center blog here.

I am not sure what I would use a podcast for, at the moment. It would have to be for something where actual sounds were preferable or easier to create than the written word. A dramatic reading of a speech of the kind done by Harold Pinter or an interview would be appropriate, as would be anything involving music. But do not fear. There will be no podcasts of me singing.

Looking back on 2005

One of the things I dislike about the end of the year are the dreary "year in review" features in the media. But I will make an exception for Tom Tomorrow.

December 21, 2005

End of the Road for Intelligent Design?

As readers are probably aware, the federal judge in the Dover, PA case ruled yesterday (Monday, December 19, 2005) that the school board's action in trying to introduce intelligent design creationism (IDC) ideas into its science curriculum violates the Establishment Clause and is thus unconstitutional. In a previous posting where I discussed the constitutional issues, I said that I had expected this result. What I had not expected was that the judge's ruling would be so sweeping and comprehensive. It went in detail through the history, the science, and the philosophy of science issues involved

Although it was written using judicial terminology, in essence it was the equivalent of a slap upside the head to the board that adopted the pro-IDC policy, saying in effect "How could you do such a stupid thing? Any idiot can see that intelligent design is a religious and not scientific notion. And you are liars, too!"

To recapitulate the key features of the case on which the judge based his ruling, the Dover school board had adopted a policy that, commencing January 2005, required teachers to read the following statement to students in the ninth grade biology class at Dover High School:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin's Theory of Evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families. As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.

The science teachers refused to read this statement, saying:

You have indicated that students may 'opt-out' of this portion [the statement read to students at the beginning of the biology evolution unit] of the class and that they will be excused and monitored by an administrator. We respectfully exercise our right to 'opt-out' of the statement portion of the class. We will relinquish the classroom to an administrator and we will monitor our own students. This request is based upon our considered opinion that reading the statement violates our responsibilities as professional educators as set forth in the Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators[.]


I believe that if I as the classroom teacher read the required statement, my students will inevitably (and understandably) believe that Intelligent Design is a valid scientific theory, perhaps on par with the theory of evolution. That is not true. To refer the students to 'Of Pandas and People' as if it is a scientific resource breaches my ethical obligation to provide them with scientific knowledge that is supported by recognized scientific proof or theory.

In light of the teachers' refusal, school administrators became the ones to read the statement to students.

The concluding section of Judge Jones' verdict is below, with the emphases added by me. I will comment on other aspects of the ruling later. (The plaintiffs are the parents who challenged the school board policy and the defendants are the school board.)

The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board's ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs' scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

To preserve the separation of church and state mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Art. I, § 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, we will enter an order permanently enjoining Defendants from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID. We will also issue a declaratory judgment that Plaintiffs' rights under the Constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have been violated by Defendants' actions.

In later postings I will explore other features of the judge's 139-page ruling. It provides a good history and analysis of the legal history of religious challenges to the teaching of evolution. Many of the issues he discusses will be familiar to readers of this blog because I have discussed them in the past. But the judge's ruling brings a lot of that content together in one narrative.

Lesser known culture wars

The so-called 'war on Christmas' not making you angry enough? Here are some other culture wars that might be more appealing to you.

December 20, 2005

Wikipedia as good as the Encyclopedia Brittanica?

In my seminar courses, students are expected to research and write papers on topics related to science. Invariably, many of them will submit papers that cite Wikipedia as a source for some assertion. I tell them that Wikipedia is not a credible source for authoritative information and should never be used when submitting any paper.

The reason for this is that wikipedia is an open source encyclopedia where absolutely anyone can edit and update entries and the submissions are largely anonymous. Since there is no identifiable and authoritative person behind the information, there is no way to judge the credibility of the information. This contrasts with things like the Encyclopedia Brittanica which solicits articles from experts in the fields and the resulting articles are then peer-reviewed and vetted by editors to ensure quality in both the content and the writing.

So my message to students has been quite simple: no to Wikipedia and yes to Encyclopedia Brittanica.

My anti-Wikipedia stance received some support from the recent disclosure of a hoax by an author who wrote a scurrilous biography of someone that contained palpable untruths. The person whose 'biography' was faked discovered its existence and was justifiably incensed, and his actions subsequently led to the unmasking of the hoaxer.

But then comes along another study that compared the accuracy of entries in Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Brittanica and found them to be comparable. Aaron Shaffer has a nice entry on this that compares the two and finds that on some measures, Wikipedia may be even better.

So should I change my advice to students and allow Wikipedia? The answer is no. As long as the articles are anonymous, they remain a no-no for academic publications. Academia has no use for anonymous information. Much of our work is based on trusting the work of our peers. The assumption is that someone who has a responsible position in an academic institution has too much at stake to willfully mislead or even be sloppy in their work. Signing their name and giving their institutional affiliation means that the institution now also has a stake in the information being correct.

Having said all that, I must add that I like Wikipedia and am impressed with the whole concept and with the quality of the information that it provides. I often use it myself to learn about things quickly. It is an interesting example of 'the wisdom of crowds,' how when a large enough number of people are actively involved in something, the resulting quality of the finished product can be quite high. It is a highly intriguing experiment in information democracy.

So my advice to students is to use it to get a quick overview of something and to get started on learning about it. But then to go to some authored source for substantiation and citation. Because although Wikipedia may be right most of the time, in academic discourses, who said it is sometimes as important as what is said.

December 19, 2005

Biblical inerrancy

Last week there was an interesting program on NPR's Fresh Air. Host Terry Gross interviewed Bart Ehrman, chair of the department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, on his book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why in which he describes how the text of the Bible has been modified down through the ages. It was a very interesting interview, worth listening to online.

The fact that the words in the Bible have not come down to us unchanged is beyond dispute. Scholars have had access to various manuscripts written at various times and in various original languages and there are clear discrepancies between the versions.

On one level, it should come as no surprise that the manuscripts differ. It was only after the development of mass printing that we take for granted the idea that all copies of the same text should contain the same words. Before that, copies were laboriously done by hand, by the few literate people who happened to be available to do this tedious work. So simple human error was always a factor to deal with.

But Ehrman explained that not all the changes were inadvertent or simply outright mistakes. Sometimes changes were introduced deliberately. Some stories, for example, started out as contemporary anecdotes that were not part of the text, but the scribes wrote them in the margins as interesting things to be considered. But then later scribes took those marginal notes and added them to the text of later copies.

Other changes were introduced as a result of doctrinal squabbles. As theologians down the ages debated the various characteristics of Jesus and God, there were tussles by each group to try and ensure that their interpretation was reflected in the text and some scribes seemed to have accommodated this by making appropriate adjustments in the wording.

Yet other changes came about as attempts were made to bring the various versions into a coherent form and minimize the discrepancies. For example, Ehrman says that the early manuscripts have greater differences among them than the later ones.

Furthermore, the original authors of (say) the four Gospels wrote them at different times for different audiences and saw them as self-contained, integral works portraying their individual visions of Jesus. But that led to discrepancies between the Gospels that become obvious when the four books are placed in sequence and read together. Ehrman points out that the Christmas story we now have is a composite of the stories found in the different Gospels and that the story of Jesus' final days are also widely divergent.

Ehrman says that many of these differences are irreconcilable. There is no reasonable way in which the current texts can be read to make them all consistent. One has to learn to live with these inconsistencies by understanding the role that human beings have played in the creation of the Bible.

This view causes no problems for those Christians who see the Bible as addressing deep truths about god's relationship with the world. Such people do not lose any sleep over differences, seeing them as incidental to the main messages that the Bible seeks to convey.

But Ehrman's view is anathema to those who believe in the Bible's inerrancy. Such people, seem to have a need to believe that the Bible has to be accurate in every detail, however minor or trivial, and can be read as a historical and scientific document. Religious fundamentalists believe in an inerrant religious text and so they will go to extraordinary lengths to try and reconcile the discrepancies, even if it requires doing gross damage to common sense. (See here and here for a debate for and against Biblical inerrancy.)

The person debating in favor of inerrancy says that:

"Inerrant" means "wholly true" or "without mistake" and refers to the fact that the biblical writers were absolutely errorless, truthful, and trustworthy in all of their affirmations. The doctrine of inerrancy does not confine itself to moral and religious truth alone. Inerrancy extends to statements of fact, whether scientific, historical, or geographical. The biblical writers were preserved from the errors that appear in all other books.

The original Hebrew and Greek autograph copies of the Bible were inerrant. Certainly the copies of copies which have come down to us contain errors common to the craft of the copyist as do all English versions. However, with diligent study, we can ascertain the original words of the inspired writers. Consequently, the doctrine of inerrancy applies to the biblical text in our day as well - insofar as the Bible has been accurately translated.

Inerrancy is fundamental to the doctrine of biblical authority...If the Bible contains mistakes, then it is unreliable as a true guide to matters of salvation. If mistakes exist in one part, mistakes may just as easily exist in another part. If the Bible is a mixture of truth and error, then it is like any other book and simply not deserving of any special attention.

If the doctrine of inerrancy is not true, then the Bible lacks the very criteria and credentials necessary for authenticating its divine origin. Human beings would be incapable of distinguishing between it and all other religious books which seek acceptance by men (e.g. the Koran, Book of Mormon, the Vedas). If the biblical writers demonstrate incompetency and fallibility in matters of ordinary knowledge where uninspired humans can check their credibility, then their infallibility in all other areas is discredited.

The idea that we can "with diligent study" infer the exact text of the "original" version of the Bible is hard to sustain, given the diversity of its authors and the long period of time in which it was written and the vast numbers of people involved in copying, translating, and selecting the books that we now call the Bible. As Ehrman says, the earlier versions of the texts contain larger discrepancies than the later ones, so picking out the "original" text becomes an impossible task. One can only believe in the inerrancy of the Bible if one feels that god was looking over the shoulders of all these people all the time, either ensuring accuracy, or deliberately creating anomalies for some inscrutable reason.

In this respect, believers in Biblical inerrancy are remarkably similar to those Muslims who believe that the Koran is divinely inspired and written. In his book The World's Religions, Huston Smith says that the story of the Koran's creation is that over a period of twenty three years, the angel Gabriel dictated the words of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed who would recite these words, which were then "memorized by his followers and recorded on bones, bark, leaves, and scraps of parchment, with God preserving their accuracy throughout." (p. 232) It was only after about two hundred to three hundred years that the form of the Koran that exists today was put together.

Salman Rushdie in his novel The Satanic Verses incurred the wrath of the late Ayatollah Khomeini for blasphemy against Islam. Khomeini issued a "fatwah" against Rushdie that basically called, with a three million dollar bounty, for the religious faithful to kill the author, who as a result was forced to go into hiding for many years. In Rushdie's novel, one of the people copying down the Prophet's words starts to suspect that the Prophet might be making this stuff up and to test this theory, starts deliberately changing words, and even though he reads the words back to the Prophet later, for a long time the Prophet does not recognize the changes. One can see how this idea would incense those who have a fervent belief in the inerrancy of the Koran.

One can image that Christian believers in Biblical inerrancy are no less annoyed with scholars like Ehrman who flat out say that all kinds of human factors have played a role in creating the Bible we have today and that it cannot possibly be inerrant. Who knows, maybe Pat Robertson (who is the mirror image of Khomeini) might issue a "Patwah" against Ehrman.

December 16, 2005

Harold Pinter Analyzes US Foreign Policy

In his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy on December 7, 2005 playwright Harold Pinter spoke of Art, Truth, and Politics. (You can read the text of his speech or watch it here. I strongly recommend watching it. My previous comments on the speech can be found here and here.)

In the political part of his speech, Pinter does a clinical analysis of the lies that propelled the US into attacking Iraq and then shows how it fits into a long historical pattern. He talks about many things that will be strange, especially to younger people in the US, because this kind of historical analysis is very rarely seen in the media here. And yet history is the only way that we can make sense of events, so Pinter's speech fills an important void. He says:

Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America's favoured method. In the main, it has preferred what it has described as 'low intensity conflict'. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued - or beaten to death - the same thing - and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed. This was a commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to which I refer.

The tragedy of Nicaragua was a highly significant case. I choose to offer it here as a potent example of America's view of its role in the world, both then and now.

I was present at a meeting at the US embassy in London in the late 1980s.

The United States Congress was about to decide whether to give more money to the Contras in their campaign against the state of Nicaragua. I was a member of a delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua but the most important member of this delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of the US body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to the ambassador, later ambassador himself). Father Metcalf said: 'Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre. They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist activity.'

Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and highly sophisticated man. He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles. He listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity. 'Father,' he said, 'let me tell you something. In war, innocent people always suffer.' There was a frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not flinch.

Innocent people, indeed, always suffer.

Finally somebody said: 'But in this case “innocent people” were the victims of a gruesome atrocity subsidised by your government, one among many. If Congress allows the Contras more money further atrocities of this kind will take place. Is this not the case? Is your government not therefore guilty of supporting acts of murder and destruction upon the citizens of a sovereign state?'

Seitz was imperturbable. 'I don't agree that the facts as presented support your assertions,' he said.

As we were leaving the Embassy a US aide told me that he enjoyed my plays. I did not reply.

I should remind you that at the time President Reagan made the following statement: 'The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.'

The United States supported the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua for over 40 years. The Nicaraguan people, led by the Sandinistas, overthrew this regime in 1979, a breathtaking popular revolution.

The Sandinistas weren't perfect. They possessed their fair share of arrogance and their political philosophy contained a number of contradictory elements. But they were intelligent, rational and civilised. They set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families were given title to land. Two thousand schools were built. A quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than one seventh. Free education was established and a free health service. Infant mortality was reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.

The United States denounced these achievements as Marxist/Leninist subversion. In the view of the US government, a dangerous example was being set. If Nicaragua was allowed to establish basic norms of social and economic justice, if it was allowed to raise the standards of health care and education and achieve social unity and national self respect, neighbouring countries would ask the same questions and do the same things. There was of course at the time fierce resistance to the status quo in El Salvador.

I spoke earlier about 'a tapestry of lies' which surrounds us. President Reagan commonly described Nicaragua as a 'totalitarian dungeon'. This was taken generally by the media, and certainly by the British government, as accurate and fair comment. But there was in fact no record of death squads under the Sandinista government. There was no record of torture. There was no record of systematic or official military brutality. No priests were ever murdered in Nicaragua. There were in fact three priests in the government, two Jesuits and a Maryknoll missionary. The totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States had brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 and it is estimated that over 200,000 people had been victims of successive military dictatorships.

Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world were viciously murdered at the Central American University in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. That extremely brave man Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It is estimated that 75,000 people died. Why were they killed? They were killed because they believed a better life was possible and should be achieved. That belief immediately qualified them as communists. They died because they dared to question the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression, which had been their birthright.

The United States finally brought down the Sandinista government. It took some years and considerable resistance but relentless economic persecution and 30,000 dead finally undermined the spirit of the Nicaraguan people. They were exhausted and poverty stricken once again. The casinos moved back into the country. Free health and free education were over. Big business returned with a vengeance. 'Democracy' had prevailed.

But this 'policy' was by no means restricted to Central America. It was conducted throughout the world. It was never-ending. And it is as if it never happened.

The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.

Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn't know it.

I have little to add to this. Pinter reminds us that the only gift that a writer has to offer is to speak the truth as he or she sees it, however uncomfortable it may be to the listener. Most people in the US will be horrified by what he says because they do not realize the extent to which the governments they elect carry out policies that they would oppose if they knew what it really was, instead of the way it is presented to them by the government and relayed to them by an uncritical media. Such people, if they are skeptical, should look at the historical record and see if it bears out Pinter's charges. Willful ignorance about the facts of history only further guarantees that history will be repeated.

December 15, 2005

Truth in Art and Science

In his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy on December 7, 2005 playwright Harold Pinter spoke of Art, Truth, and Politics. (You can read the text of his speech or watch it here. I strongly recommend watching it.)

He says:

In 1958 I wrote the following:

'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.'

I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?

Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.
But as I have said, the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot.
Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.
A writer's life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don't have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection – unless you lie – in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.

Reading and listening to Pinter's words, I was wondering if what he said about the relationship of art to truth applies to science and truth too. At first blush, it seems no. We tend to believe that science can tell the difference between what is real and what is unreal, between what is true and what is false.

But a close examination of the nature of scientific development says that it is not so easy. While science is evolving and becoming more effective and successful in controlling the environment, its relationship to truth is also 'forever elusive.' We march forward but we are not sure if truth is the reward that awaits us at the end or indeed if there is an end at all. But like the artist, we cannot stop in the search for truth. (These ideas are explored in depth in my first book Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs.)

In Pinter's words about political language, I hear echoes of some things George Orwell said in his essay Politics and the English Language. But whereas Orwell became somewhat compromised later in life, becoming effectively a propagandist for the British government and even becoming an informant to the British government on 'crypto-communists,' Pinter's vision and burning desire to speak truth to power seems to becoming even purer and more uncompromising with advancing age. It is clear that he is a man who does not care what powerful people think of him. He is going to speak the truth, come what may. In the end, that is the only real gift a writer has to offer.

The great American journalist I. F. Stone recognized that speaking truth to power means that you become a pariah in the circles of power and he said that journalists should desire this. Stone said:

To be a pariah is to be left alone to see things your own way, as truthfully as you can. Not because you're brighter than anybody else is - or your own truth so valuable. But because, like a painter or a writer or an artist, all you have to contribute is the purification of your own vision, and add that to the sum total of other visions. To be regarded as nonrespectable, to be a pariah, to be an outsider, this is really the way to do it. To sit in your tub and not want anything. As soon as you want something, they’ve got you!

This explains a lot about the pusillanimity of the current crop of big media journalists who, unlike Stone, crave access to the political powerful and want to be invited to their parties. Pinter, on the other hand, is clearly someone who also thinks the label of pariah is a badge of honor. I am not sure if Pinter and Stone were friends, but it is hard to imagine them not hitting it off.

December 14, 2005

Harold Pinter's speech and the creative arts

Playwright Harold Pinter gave his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy on December 7, 2005. Because he has been operated for throat cancer and is not well, he delivered the televised speech from England. His voice was hoarse and he was in a wheelchair but the speech was riveting. It was a lesson in how to give a great talk with the minimum of motion, and people who are interested in developing good rhetorical skills could learn a lot from him. You see a master of words and pauses and inflection, the trademarks of his success on the stage, use them here to brilliant effect as he stares at the camera, occasionally gestures with one hand, and moves easily between art and politics. Once I started listening to his forty-five minute speech, I was riveted. (You can read the text of his speech or watch it here but I strongly recommend watching it.)

The title of his talk was Art, Truth, and Politics and I will comment on each aspect in sequence. Today I want to reflect on the way that he said he creates his plays. Tomorrow will deal with the role that truth plays in art and politics and science and the day after I will write about his blistering analysis of US foreign policy since World War II and Britain's complicity in it, later. This starts about ten minutes into his speech. There was a lot of meaty stuff in his presentation, much food for thought, and much to be admired about his skill with words.

I have always been intrigued by the way extremely creative people, artists such as novelists, playwrights, painters, and sculptors especially, envisage and create entire works of art out of nothing. I am particularly intrigued by the works of novelists and playwrights, because they use words to achieve their ends.

I have read some writers say that they start by simply creating a few characters and a rudimentary plot and that the characters and novel develop a life of their own and the story evolves along with them. The writers say that they cannot predict how events will end. Pinter seems to start with even less. He seems to start with just a word or phrase or image, and take it from there. He says:

I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.

Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.

The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is 'What have you done with the scissors?' The first line of Old Times is 'Dark.'

In each case I had no further information.

In the first case someone was obviously looking for a pair of scissors and was demanding their whereabouts of someone else he suspected had probably stolen them. But I somehow knew that the person addressed didn't give a damn about the scissors or about the questioner either, for that matter.

'Dark' I took to be a description of someone's hair, the hair of a woman, and was the answer to a question. In each case I found myself compelled to pursue the matter. This happened visually, a very slow fade, through shadow into light.

I always start a play by calling the characters A, B and C.

In the play that became The Homecoming I saw a man enter a stark room and ask his question of a younger man sitting on an ugly sofa reading a racing paper. I somehow suspected that A was a father and that B was his son, but I had no proof. This was however confirmed a short time later when B (later to become Lenny) says to A (later to become Max), 'Dad, do you mind if I change the subject? I want to ask you something. The dinner we had before, what was the name of it? What do you call it? Why don't you buy a dog? You're a dog cook. Honest. You think you're cooking for a lot of dogs.' So since B calls A 'Dad' it seemed to me reasonable to assume that they were father and son. A was also clearly the cook and his cooking did not seem to be held in high regard. Did this mean that there was no mother? I didn't know. But, as I told myself at the time, our beginnings never know our ends.

'Dark.' A large window. Evening sky. A man, A (later to become Deeley), and a woman, B (later to become Kate), sitting with drinks. 'Fat or thin?' the man asks. Who are they talking about? But I then see, standing at the window, a woman, C (later to become Anna), in another condition of light, her back to them, her hair dark.

It's a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author's position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can't dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man's buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

This approach to writing totally boggles my mind because when I write I always have more or less the whole thing planned before I even start. Of course, the very act of writing and seeing your words on paper influences the work, but in my case all it does is perhaps change the order of things to make things clearer, choose words and sentences to make the points better or suggest new avenues to explore to fill in gaps in the sequence of the argument.

Of course, all my writing is non-fiction, and I have felt that my inability to start without such a clear map is why I have felt that I could never be a fiction writer. But why do I think I am unable to be one? Do I think that the world of writers is divided by some intrinsic qualities into those who can write without a map and those who can't? I used to think so but a little reflection persuades me that I am not being consistent in this view.

When I teach physics, I often find students not even begin to try and solve a problem if they cannot see all the way to the end. If after staring at a problem for about five minutes and not see a solution leap into their mind, many give up, feeling the problem is impossible for them. As a result, students often feel that they can either do physics or they can't, as if it is an intrinsic quality. I tell them that I don't think physicists are born like that. Instead they have learned that when confronted with a problem, they need to start out tentatively trying out an idea, seeing where it goes, backtracking, trying new avenues, and so on, until they arrive at a solution. The form that the final solution takes may be a surprise to them. In other words, it is important to start even if you cannot see the end.

If that is what I tell students who are learning physics, why am I not applying that same lesson to my own fiction writing? The reason is that with physics, I have done it and know it can be done but with fiction, I have no such successful experience to draw upon. And the reason for my lack of success is because I have never tried. In this respect, I am just like my physics students. Perhaps what I need to do is simply start a work of fiction and see where it goes, to take that leap into the unknown, and develop the experience.

I am reminded of the words of Gordon Parks (photojournalist, cinematographer, movie director, novelist, poet, music and ballet composer, quoted on his 88th birthday in 2000.)

I think most people can do a whole awful lot more if they just try. They just don’t have the confidence that they can write a novel or they can write poetry or they can take pictures or paint or whatever, and so they don’t do it, and they leave the planet dissatisfied with themselves.

I think Parks is right. We have to learn to be unafraid to take that first step into the unknown.

December 13, 2005

Back to the Rapture

It has been awhile since I commented on the rapture. (See here for links to earlier postings.) As some of you know, the Rapture is supposedly what occurs before the second coming of Jesus when the true believers are all suddenly spirited into heaven so that they can watch the seven year battle of Armageddon below from the safety of their comfortable La-Z-Boys in the sky. At first glance, this inordinate bloodlust while having other people fight your battles for you looks a bit chickenhawkish, but we'll let that pass for the moment.

What impresses me about the true believers in the rapture movement is their attention to detail. You would think that once they had wrapped their minds around the idea that one day, millions of people would be simultaneously taken up, leaving even their clothes behind (so you don't even have to worry about your mother's admonition to always wear clean underwear in the case of this particular emergency), all other things would pale into significance.

But no. They worry what your loved ones might think when you don't show up at dinner time and they don't know what happened to you. People who are raptured would not have the time to make phone calls because they are lifted up and it appears that once you are raptured, you end up somewhere where you cannot contact the people left behind. Of course, the people left behind would have enough other things on their mind to think about you for awhile, what with planes, trains, and automobiles crashing all over the place because their operators had disappeared. Presumably a full-scale world wide emergency would have been declared and everyone would be riveted to the news as the slaughter begins. They may even guess that you have been raptured. But the rapturists don't want to leave things to chance. So how can you contact your loved ones to tell them after the fact where you've won the ultimate lottery?

There's a solution and that is you pre-arrange to send them an email. The letter that goes to whoever you designate says, in part:

Dear Friend; This message has been sent to you by a friend or a relative who has recently disappeared along with millions and millions of people around the world. The reason they chose to send you this letter is because they cared about you and would like you to know the truth about where they went. This may come as a shock to you, but the one who sent you this has been taken up to heaven...I am sure that there will be a lot of speculation as to what happened to all these people. The theories of some scientists and world leaders will have so much credibility that most of the world will believe them. It will sound like the truth! But, there is only one truth. And, that truth is that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, came back to earth and took with Him to Heaven all who believed in Him and made Him their Lord.

The website explains how this post-rapture email will be sent. It says

We have written a computer program to do just that. It will send an Electronic Message (e-mail) to whomever you want after the rapture has taken place, and you and I have been taken to heaven.

How is this accomplished, you might ask. It's a dead man switch that will automatically send the emails when it is not reset.
If you wish to do something now that will help your unbelieving friends and family after the rapture, you need to add those persons email address to our database. Their names will be stored indefinitely and a letter will be sent out to each of them on the first Friday after the rapture. Then they will receive another letter every Friday [sic] after that.

I see some flaws in the system. A dead man switch is something that has to be manually operated in order to work. This is the way some machinery (like my electric lawn mower) works. If you let go due to an accident or something, it stops immediately.

But who does the actual resetting with the email trigger? If it done by each subscriber, then what with work, shopping, laundry, and one thing and another, it is easy to see how one might forget to do it and have the email sent out by mistake. You would look pretty foolish if you returned to work the next day just after telling all your co-workers that you had been raptured.

If the resetting is done by some designated responsible rapture person or group, what happens if they are raptured and the emails go out, but you are not raptured? Being selected for rapture is not at all a sure thing, I imagine. Again, you'd be red faced but since the rapture actually had occurred, you'd probably have other things to worry about, such as avoiding being slaughtered by the avenging angels.

I also don't like the fact that the emails go out weekly, starting the first Friday after the rapture. If the rapture occurs on the massive scale predicted say on a weekend, then people would probably figure out pretty quickly what was going on, so by the time Friday rolls around, the explanatory email would be pretty redundant. And having it come every Friday after that would get pretty annoying to the recipients, however much they might have liked you, as if you were gloating "Nyah! Nyah! I've been raptured and you haven't!" over the people left behind. It would not surprise me if they put your email address on the "reject" list of their spam filter.

So I don't plan to sign up for this service. Also, frankly, I don't rate my chances of being raptured very highly. But if you think you might like to subscribe, go here. The service is free. Operators are standing by.

December 12, 2005

Some other IDC supporters backpedal

Suppose you were given a petition that said: "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged." Would you sign it?

Actually, there is nothing wrong with this petition. It is well known that no theory ever explains all the phenomena that falls within its domain, and Darwinian evolutionary theory is no exception. One could say similar things for quantum mechanics and subatomic phenomena, Newtonian physics and planetary motion, relativity theory and the nature of the universe. All scientists appreciate that scientific knowledge is fallible and that it is very likely that the theories we hold dear now may one day be superceded by newer theories. So all scientists are skeptical of the theories they currently work with, and rightly so.

But the above petition was one that was circulated by the IDC-sponsoring Discovery Institute and it garnered about 400 signatures, Eighty of them were biologists but the rest consisted of mostly philosophers, mathematicians, chemists, computer scientists, historians and lawyers.

The Discovery Institute used this result to argue that there was widespread skepticism about Darwinian natural selection and thus implied that this can be interpreted as support for IDC ideas. This is one of the fallaciousness lines of reasoning put forth by IDC advocates that science consists of just two competing theories, so that the weakness of one can be construed as a strength of its competitor. But some of the signatories are now recanting, realizing that their support for the above petition was being used as support for IDC ideas, something they had not intended.

Some who signed the statement of dissent said that doesn't mean they support intelligent design.

One signer, Stanley Salthe, a zoologist at the State University of New York in Binghamton, replied "absolutely not" when he was asked if he agrees that there must have been a supernatural designer.

David Berlinski, a mathematician and senior fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and a sharp critic of neo-Darwinism, also signed the statement of dissent. But in an e-mail message, Berlinski declared, "I have never endorsed intelligent design.

Berlinski's is a particularly interesting case, because of his extreme closeness to the IDC people.

Other scientists, who had explicitly supported IDC are also now backing off, realizing that there is really nothing there.

And just this week on December 4, the New York Times, in an article headed Intelligent Design Might Be Meeting Its Maker says that despite (or maybe because of) the huge amount of attention IDC has garnered recently with the developments in Kansas and Dover, PA enthusiasm for IDC may be waning.

Behind the headlines, however, intelligent design as a field of inquiry is failing to gain the traction its supporters had hoped for. It has gained little support among the academics who should have been its natural allies. And if the intelligent design proponents lose the case in Dover, there could be serious consequences for the movement's credibility.

On college campuses, the movement's theorists are academic pariahs, publicly denounced by their own colleagues. Design proponents have published few papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

The Templeton Foundation, a major supporter of projects seeking to reconcile science and religion, says that after providing a few grants for conferences and courses to debate intelligent design, they asked proponents to submit proposals for actual research.

"They never came in," said Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, who said that while he was skeptical from the beginning, other foundation officials were initially intrigued and later grew disillusioned.

"From the point of view of rigor and intellectual seriousness, the intelligent design people don't come out very well in our world of scientific review," he said.

While intelligent design has hit obstacles among scientists, it has also failed to find a warm embrace at many evangelical Christian colleges. Even at conservative schools, scholars and theologians who were initially excited about intelligent design say they have come to find its arguments unconvincing. They, too, have been greatly swayed by the scientists at their own institutions and elsewhere who have examined intelligent design and found it insufficiently substantiated in comparison to evolution.

Of course, many of us realized long ago that when it came to IDC, there was nothing behind the curtain. I had written back in August (see here) of my feeling that the zeitgeist had shifted and that IDC had run its course. When late night comics and newspaper cartoonists can get an easy laugh by invoking intelligent design, when 'finger to the wind' politicians like Rick Santorum turn against you, when influential sectors of the Catholic Church start keeping their distance, when ideological soul mates like George Will and Charles Krauthammer excoriate you, then the writing is on the wall. If the Dover trial result goes against them, that will be another serious blow.

However, it is still too early to tell if IDC is out for the count. The people behind it are determined and have a lot of financial support as well as the support of well known wackos like Pat Robertson (though the latter may not be entirely to their benefit). IDC has had many incarnations in the past. Let's see what form it will take in the future.

POST SCRIPT: Katrina activist Malik Rahim meeting cancelled

Due to a car accident involving several aid workers in New Orleans, including one death and several people being hospitalized, Malik Rahim, Katrina activist, will have to cancel his speaking engagement for this Monday, Dec. 12th at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland.

December 08, 2005

Real and phony sacrifice and persecution

It is clear that the people of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) who have been kidnapped and held hostage in Iraq read the Bible quite differently from publicly pious people like the Pat Robertsons in our midst, who seem to see god as their own personal hit man, carrying out revenge on those who annoy them. Robertson sees nothing wrong with advocating cold-blooded murder of a head of state and seemingly wishing for God to actually punish the people of Dover, PA for their rejection of intelligent design. (See Mike Argento's very funny column about Robertson's "patwahs" against people who offend him.)

CPT members are not missionaries. They instead seem to want to work quietly to bring about reconciliation, even at the risk of personal harm. Their capture in Iraq happened to coincide with the twenty fifth anniversary of the murder of the four churchwomen in El Salvador. Two of them, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, were from the Cleveland area. These women, along with Archbishop Oscar Romero were murdered by the notorious "death squads" in El Salvador during the reign of terror there, when its government was supported in power by the US. For all of them, their only crime was that they worked to uplift the poor and the downtrodden of that country. Another religious group in Cleveland, the Inter-Religious Task Force on Central America also does wonderful work for peace and social justice in that region.

It is the actions of people and groups like these that make me still have some good feelings about religion, even though I do not believe in a god myself. It is out of respect and admiration for such people that I think I can never be the kind of militant atheist who issues blanket condemnations of religion or actively seeks to undermine other people's faith. If someone's beliefs make them spend their lives in the service of the powerless, righting wrongs, and seeking to promote peace and justice and end oppression even at the cost of real danger to themselves, then it is not my place to seek to undermine those beliefs. Religious people like them are, because of the strength of their faith, doing far more for the good of the world than I have ever done or can hope to do. It is what people do because of their beliefs that matter, not just what they believe, and even less what they say they believe.

When Tuxedo MartyrsTM like O'Reilly and Gibson and Falwell cash in for publicity and money by creating phony issues like the so-called 'war on Christmas,' it is easy to see how fraudulent their actions are by comparison with these genuine martyrs. They seem to think that because store clerks don't say "Merry Christmas" to them, or that "holiday" trees are being lit up and not "Christmas" trees, they are being somehow persecuted, that they somehow see themselves as heirs of Saint Stephen. If I ever met these people, what I would ask them is if they have ever suffered, in any tangible way, for their religious beliefs. Have they ever been threatened with death, beaten up, lost their jobs, or had their homes and places of worship vandalized or destroyed because of their Christian beliefs? What is the worst thing that has ever happened to them that they can lay at the feet of anti-Christian actions?

It is an insult to the memory of people like Romero, Kazel, Donovan, Rajasingham-Tiranagama, and the CPT members in Iraq, for Tuxedo MartyrsTM like O'Reilly to equate service to Christianity with trivialities such as how people greet each other in December. I think that the kinds of people who get all worked up over trivial religious symbolism are the very ones who will abandon their beliefs with alacrity at the slightest risk to them personally, either physically or materially. I don't think they would even have to be threatened with bodily harm. It would not surprise me in the least if O'Reilly, Gibson, Falwell and their ilk immediately converted to worshiping in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster because they believed that the blessings of His Noodly Appendage would improve their ratings.

I don't think this bunch of religious opportunists realize, or even care, how much they turn people off religion, as long as they have the spotlight on them. When I first came to the US, I was still religious and a believer. But I remember being nauseated by the televangelists with their relentless sucking up to people with money and power, and their lack of serious concern for the poor or for issues of social justice. The public piety of high profile evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, who were subsequently exposed as hypocrites and conmen, was sickening to watch. I was revolted at the crassness and the superficiality of the message such people preached. I won't go so far as to say that these people started me on the path to atheism, but they certainly made it easier for me to break my strong emotional ties to Christianity and the church. The actions of O'Reilly and company, rather than 'saving' Christianity, are simply making it easier for the next generation of atheists to come into being.

POST SCRIPT 1: Who knew?

It turns out that there actually is a war against Christmas. It has been formally declared and everything. There is even a film called The God Who Wasn't There, produced by Beyond Belief Media that was released in May 2005. This organization's President Brian Flemming, a former fundamentalist Christian who is now an atheist activist, says “Christian conservatives complain nonstop about the ‘War on Christmas,’ but there really isn’t any such war. So we have decided to wage one, to demonstrate what it would look like if Jesus’ birthday were truly attacked.”

Jesus' General reviews the film in his own inimitable style.

Meanwhile, Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report also comes to the defense of Christmas.

...And Jon Stewart joins in the fun too, ridiculing O'Reilly for his silliness.

POST SCRIPT 2: Speaker about recent events in New Orleans

UPDATE: Due to a car accident involving several aid workers in New Orleans, including one death and several people being hospitalized, Malik Rahim, Katrina activist, will have to cancel his speaking engagement for this Monday, Dec. 12th at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland.

From commenter Cathie:

Malik Rahim co-founder of Common Ground Relief Collective in New Orleans will be speaking this coming Monday, Dec. 12th at 7:00pm in the Trinity Cathedral Church at 2230 Euclid Ave. in downtown Cleveland. The event is free and open to the public and will take place in the church's Cathedral Hall. The event is free but donations to Malik and Common Ground are encouraged

Malik will be discussing the state of the south, and specifically New Orleans, after being hit by two catastrophic hurricanes, Katrina and Rita.

For more information about Mr. Rahim or to get involved with his visit please contact

For more information about Common Ground collective, please visit

Interviews with Malik Rahim can be obtained at

December 07, 2005

The capture of the Christian Peacemaker Team members in Iraq

In regions of conflict, such as Iraq, we cannot depend only on the US media for accurate information. Very often, they are either pursuing their own agenda and/or are easily manipulated and intimidated by the US government. Some of the best sources of news are from the world media and humanitarian groups like the ICRC, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, Voices in the Wilderness, plus some groups that are religiously based. Although the people in these groups are disadvantaged by not being trained reporters, they have a huge advantage in that often they are in the very thick of things, have first hand knowledge of events, and most importantly, are not dependent of developing a cozy relationship with the US military and government which, as recent developments in the Valerie Plame case involving Judith Miller and Bob Woodward have shown, has corrupted journalism to an immense degree. (More about this in a future posting.)

But members of these autonomous groups are always at risk because they lack official protection and even more so because the message they send out may be inconvenient to the US government, which means that they cannot count on the support and assistance of the US authorities. (Last week saw the emergence of even more damaging allegations in the British press that President Bush was contemplating actually bombing the Al-Jazeera news station. I will write about this and the Plame developments later.)

So these peacemaking and humanitarian groups run enormous risks. They may be perceived by the Iraqi insurgents as just more foreign interlopers or even as spies, and by the US authorities and their Iraq counterparts as, at best, inconvenient pests.

This week in Iraq saw the disturbing news about the capture of the four members of the Christian Peacemaking Teams in Iraq and the threat to kill them tomorrow (Thursday) if the US and Iraqi authorities do not release all the prisoners they are holding. Since there is no chance that that demand is going to be met, all that we can hope is that appeals to the kidnappers to not harm the hostages, which are coming on from all over the world and from members of all religions, will persuade the hostage takers that they have more to gain than lose by killing them. I have signed a petition that can be found here, along with a list of other signatories. Signing petitions seems like such a puny and futile action sometimes, but in doing so one is also expressing solidarity with all the other signers. I am a firm believer that people have to learn to act together, even if it is only at the level of signing petitions, in order to achieve peace.

The danger with the kind of anarchy that is currently the state in Iraq is that many actions like the hostage taking are done by small fringe insurgent groups that may not be thinking strategically. When major organizations (say like Al-Quaeda) are involved, they know they have to also think in terms of how actions are perceived globally. So it is possible to hope for rational actions from, and even fruitful negotiation with, such groups even though one may totally disagree with their goals and methods. But when one has a breakdown of civil order and small armed groups start acting on their own without a centralized command structure, then ordinary people are at the whim of local power bosses who may not care what the larger ramifications of their actions are. What I have read is that hostages are passed along like commodities to other insurgent groups, which makes it hard to keep track of whom to negotiate with.

I had not heard of the Christian Peacemaker Teams before this but they are a Canada-based peace group that seeks to achieve peace by acting as witnesses to it. The radio program Democracy Now had a news item that dealt with the group and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote about them last year in the New Yorker magazine, pointing out that this non-missionary group had been monitoring the situation in Iraq and pointing out human rights abuses. So this group was doing valuable work.

On a personal note to illustrate the dangers of doing human rights work in war zones, a good friend of mine, who was also a member of the medical school faculty, was an active campaigner for human rights right in the middle of the civil war zone during the height of the troubles in Sri Lanka. She was gunned down in front of her home in 1989. She was just 35 years old, the mother of small children. Her murder was never solved, leaving us never to know whether it was by the militant Tamil groups or the Indian "peacekeeping" troops that had been sent to Sri Lanka at the invitation of the Sri Lankan government. She had exposed human rights abuses by all groups and they all had motives for wanting her silenced. Like the members of the Christian Peacemakers, Rajini Rajasingham-Tiranagama was motivated to work for peace and justice by her Christian faith. Her religious beliefs enabled her to transcend narrow divisions of ethnicity, language, and religion and see that justice, human rights, and respect for others, are the foundations of a civilized society and what we should strive for.

Private groups that monitor human rights in trouble torn areas have good reason to fear attacks from all sides because such people are a threat to power structures that are based on oppression and which thrive on secrecy. Neither the occupation forces nor the rebel groups like to have their actions exposed to public view. The courage shown by these groups of people is truly inspiring.

December 06, 2005

The world reaction to atrocities

The way that the media and the big powers react to event like those that took place in Rwanda were also well described I the film Hotel Rwanda. (See yesterday's posting.)

As long as there were still western tourists and workers and missionaries still in Rwanda, there was some interest and media coverage. News crews were present and western governments sent in troops to make sure that those people got out safely. But once that happens, and westerners are no longer in danger, it is in the interests of the big powers that events like what happened in Rwanda quickly fade from the media screens. And it should be clear to any political observer that the US government is very adept at controlling which events receive high profile media coverage and which don't.

In the film, the hotel manager who is the hero of the film tells the TV reporter who captured images of the slaughter that he is glad that he has done so and that when people in the west see the carnage they will demand action. But the reporter has to disillusion him, saying that people will simply say "how dreadful" and go back to eating their dinner. It is not that people don't care, and some people care deeply enough to try to get action taken to solve the problem. But whether actions are taken by governments depends on more than human needs.

Most ordinary people in any country have genuine humane impulses that recoil from gross injustice, and if the events in Rwanda had received sustained media coverage, then there would have been demands that concrete action be taken, either unilaterally by countries that have the ability to do so (like the US) or through multilateral agencies like the UN. But the western powers have little or no interest in countries like Rwanda. It has no strategic, military, or economic value. So once the westerners and the media had been evacuated, it is easy for these governments to ensure that the subject more-or-less disappears from the radar screens of the west. This is done by responding to specific questions on the situation by saying that you regret what is happening, appealing for peace, saying that you are monitoring developments closely, referring the question to the UN, and ensuring that nothing gets done there beyond the passing of some resolutions. After awhile this kind of coverage gets 'boring' and the media attention shifts elsewhere.

This was what happened during the Clinton administration, who was president during the Rwandan crisis. Reports are now emerging that the Clinton administration was fully aware of the scale of the atrocities that were taking place in Rwanda in 1994 but pretended ignorance, carefully avoided public use of the word 'genocide', and buried the information in order to justify its inaction. The news report quotes a Human Rights Watch spokesperson who says "They feared this word [genocide] would generate public opinion which would demand some sort of action and they didn't want to act. It was a very pragmatic determination." And even now, you will find more coverage in the world press than in the US of this news of willful inaction, because the major US media never likes to admit how it is complicit in aiding the agenda of the US government.

Contrast this with what happens when the US government really wants something done, as was the case in Iraq before the invasion in 2003. Then the members of the administration talk about it day in and day out in every possible forum, playing up every atrocity in Iraq as a reason for immediate action. How many times have we heard about Hussein gassing his own people as one of the many, and shifting justifications for the attack? And recall that even this event, talked about repeatedly just prior to the war, actually occurred in 1988, when it was not news here. This was because Hussein was an ally of the US at that time and this kind of embarrassing fact had to be suppressed. The event only became newsworthy when it served an administration purpose.

Or take another classic example. Arguably one of the biggest mass murderers of the second half of the twentieth century was President Suharto of Indonesia. The slaughter he unleashed against his opponents in the late 1960s after taking becoming president of that country was incredibly brutal and widespread, with estimated dead between 500,000 and one million. And then later he invaded and annexed East Timor (which had gained independence from Portugal in 1975) with US government approval and slaughtered many people there too. But it is a safe bet that most people in the US have neither heard of him or the events I am referring to. In fact, during all these events, Suharto would come to the US and be treated deferentially as an honored guest. Why is this? Because Suharto was a good and faithful ally and it was inconvenient to have him brought to justice for his crimes. But how was attention to be diverted from his actions? To see how the US government can control how foreign leaders are portrayed in the US media, compare the way that Cambodia's Pol Pot and Suharto were portrayed. Edward Herman (who is professor emeritus at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania) has a comparative analysis that is a must read.

Stephen Zunes, professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco in his article US Double Standards in the October 22, 2002 issue of The Nation magazine shows how the US government managed to prevent any multilateral action against Suharto. He says:

For example, in 1975, after Morocco's invasion of Western Sahara and Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, the Security Council passed a series of resolutions demanding immediate withdrawal. However, then-US ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan bragged that "the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success."

Whether the UN acts or not is determined by what the US government wants in terms of its own geopolitical interests. The UN is still useful as a forum for exposing some things that might otherwise be hidden, so it serves some purposes, but we cannot expect it to act on purely humanitarian grounds, however deserving they may be. Once we understand that, we can get to grips with the question of why events like Rwanda in the mid 1990s and Darfur, Sudan now can occur, and the world simply averts its eyes.

We cannot depend on the media, especially commercial media, alone to focus attention for a long time on these situations. We also need other independent organizations, such as NGOs and humanitarian and religious groups, but such actions carry their own dangers, as we will see tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Unbelieving defenders of the faith

James Wolcott points out and comments on an interesting discussion going on in the National Review Online that illustrates how many self-professed 'defenders of religion' and supporters of so-called intelligent design creationism are themselves unbelievers but think that religion is useful for keeping in order what they perceive as the lower intellectual classes, those 'beneath' them.

December 05, 2005

Hotel Rwanda and post-colonial ethnic conflicts

Over the weekend, I watched the DVD of the film Hotel Rwanda. This was a film that I knew from the beginning that I should see and would see, but at the same time dreaded seeing and postponed it for as long as I could. I knew that the film would make me both angry and depressed. Angry at the inhumanity that can be generated when people are stupid enough to take the superficial differences amongst as things that are important enough to kill and be killed for. Depressed because the events in Rwanda remind us once again how the world classifies people, nations, events, and regions into 'important' and 'unimportant' and that these classifications are not based on any measures that are real and tangible, but on how they directly affect the developed world.

But I am glad that I watched the film. It was immensely powerful and well done, with outstanding performances by Don Cheadle and the other (mostly unknown) actors. It is a film that I can strongly recommend. It does not descend into being a political tract but manages to weave a very human story into a political nightmare, without being more graphic than the minimum necessary to convey the horror. As I hate graphic violence, I was particularly relieved about the last point.

For those not familiar with what happened in Rwanda, this was a civil war between two ethnic groups that resulted in an estimated one million deaths. The film chronicles the events in 1994 following the alleged killing of the President of Rwanda (a Hutu) allegedly by members of the minority insurgent Tutsis and the violent rampage that was unleashed by the government, which let Hutu mobs take the law into their own hands and slaughter the Tutsis,

The scenes in which Hutu mobs armed with machetes took to the streets and murdered Tutsis and set fire to their homes while the security forces either took part or stood by and did nothing, brought back disturbing memories of my own experience in Sri Lanka in 1983, though what happened in Rwanda was on a very much larger scale. Still, I could empathize with the feelings of the people in the film when it dawned on them that they had absolutely no protection from the state, that they were completely on their own, and that they had no chance against armed mobs acting with impunity. It would only be sheer luck, and the kindness of friends and strangers, that determined who died and who lived.

What impressed me most about the film was how true it was. Not true in the sense of the literal recounting of facts. I am in no position to judge that because of my lack of familiarity with the details of events in Rwanda. But true in the way that such conflicts arise and the way they are portrayed and dealt with in the developed world. There is one small scene that you should observe closely. In this scene, a foreign TV cameraman (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is at the hotel bar and asks a local journalist what the difference is between a Hutu and a Tutsi and how the conflict arose. The journalist replies that Tutsis are supposed to be taller and have narrower noses. He also says that the Belgian colonial powers favored the Tutsi minority and groomed them into an elite. This caused resentment among the Hutu majority, which retaliated when they obtained power after independence. Two women are also seated at the bar and Phoenix asks them and which ethnicity they are. One replies that she is Hutu and the other that she is Tutsi. Phoenix wonderingly muses "they could be twins."

And there you have it in a nutshell. Each group of people likes to think of themselves as somehow special and invent qualities that they think distinguish themselves from others groups, however absurd or irrational the grounds for such beliefs. Then colonial powers, wherever possible, use these perceived differences to implement the tried and true "divide and conquer" policies. They build on any traditional mistrust and animosity between the two groups by giving favors to the minority and winning their allegiance, thus fending off any joint action by the two groups to overthrow the colonial occupiers, but breeding lingering resentment in the majority community. This almost inevitably leads to post-independence settling of resentments.

Look at the post-independence ethnic conflicts in many countries and you will see this pattern repeated over and over, too often to think of it as a weird coincidence. It definitely happened in Sri Lanka with the British, for example. That same conversation in the bar would have been perfectly appropriate for describing the history of Sri Lanka too. For me, the worst thing about colonialism was not the looting of the resources of the colonized countries, bad as that was. It was the deliberate and cynical fanning of mistrust and conflict so that the countries were almost guaranteed to reap a harvest of violence and bloodshed once the colonists left or were thrown out. Then the colonial powers could wring their hands in regret at the inevitable conflict that followed their departure and smugly feel that it was their 'civilizing' presence that kept the lid on the 'savage natives.'

This is not to say that the local population did not share in the blame. There were enough so-called 'leaders' who were willing to build on these inflamed feelings to gain power, and they in turn had enough followers who could be persuaded that meaningless differences generated largely on accident birth (ethnicity, skin color, religion, language, etc.) were important enough to fight one another over.

To be continued tomorrow...

Post Script 1: Take that!

James Wolcott demonstrates the spirit of the current holiday season.

Post Script 2: The future is already here

In a comment to a previous post, Eldan points out that the very thing I had feared (the sponsorship of novels by companies and industries) has already happened. One day, perhaps I will predict a trend before it actually occurs...

December 02, 2005

Ads, ads, everywhere...

One reason I rarely watch any programs on commercial TV, and even find commercial radio irritating, is because of the constant interruptions with commercials that disrupt the flow of the narrative. There are very few occasions when I do watch commercial TV, and it is for the occasional sporting event or The Simpsons and then the commercials fit more naturally into the breaks in the action. Actually, since I rarely watch TV, many of the commercials are novel and quite clever and enjoyable when I see them for the first time. But even during a single game, one tends to see the same commercial repeated many times and however amusing they are at first, by the time the third viewing comes around, they are tiresome.

Advertisers are aware of this viewer irritation and with the arrival of technology that enables viewers to skip commercials altogether have sought to find other ways to draw attention to their products. By now, even the most naïve viewer is aware of product placement. When characters place their sodas on the table with the logo facing the camera, when characters get into a car with its badge visible, most viewers know that money has changed hands to achieve this result.

But apparently even this is not enough. Advertisers are now requesting that the scriptwriters for TV shows actually insert dialogue into their scripts to reinforce the placement. In other words, in addition to showing the box of cereal, you can expect characters to start commenting on how good the cereal tastes or how nutritious it is. Or when the heroes take off in their car after the villains, they might comment on how lucky they are that the car can go from zero to sixty in 4.7 seconds or whatever. The program On The Media reports that scriptwriters are so concerned about being co-opted into being adwriters as well that they are asking for protection in their contracts. Bob Harris reports on seeing one of these script placements already in a program.

One does not find this kind of product placement in books, perhaps because authors of fiction are not usually writing under contract for others. Also actually naming a product, as opposed to simply making it visible, is much harder to do discreetly.

But have you considered the possibility that an entire novel's plot might be an advertising pitch? My mind is not diabolical enough to have conceived of such a scheme but that idea had occurred to devious minds at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA. On The Media reports that this group was concerned that the increasing efforts by consumers to buy cheaper prescription drugs in Canada would eat into the profits of drug companies in the US. Their previous strategy of placing full page advertisements in newspapers warning of some vague danger to consumers was seen as being of limited value.

So Mark Barondess, a consultant to PhRMA, commissioned a novel to be written by first time novelists Julie Chrystyn and Kenin Spivak. Spivak says he was told that the plot was to consist of a group of Bosnian Muslims who, unhappy with the fact that the United States was not supporting Bosnian Muslims against Serbs, launch an attack using tainted drugs on Americans through the Canadian website pharmacies. And many, many thousands of Americans would have to die in the story.

Clever, huh? If the book becomes a bestseller of the kind written by Michael Crichton, then you could see what an effect it might have on public attitudes towards Canadian drugs.

But the plan fell apart. According to Brooke Gladstone, the host of On The Media "Spivak said he chafed under the demand that they dumb down the book to appeal to women, who buy more drugs than men, and that all the terrorists be religious fanatics."

But writers Spivak and Chrystyn still complied with these requirements only to find their novel being rejected by Barondess and the PhRMA employee on the ground that it was transparent drivel with the potential to backfire.

In fact, PhRMA tried to wash its hands completely of this fiasco, saying that the consultant was acting on his own and that the money paid to the writers, both for writing the book and for killing the commission, was out of the consultant's own pockets. Meanwhile, the writers have rewritten their work to make it, at least in their own eyes, a better novel. No word yet on when, or if, it will be released.

I see this is an alarming trend. Although PhRMA saw this as an embarrassment and withdrew its participation (or so they say), other industries might not. We should also not assume that only unknown writers will be tempted to write a novel to meet the needs of an industry. The fact that extremely rich actors and celebrities are willing to act in commercials should alert us to the fact that it may only be a matter of time before even best-selling authors start writing made-to-order novels.

It seems unlikely that such novel will promote a particular product. That would be too obvious. It is more likely that it will promote the agenda of a particular industry and be funded by its trade group, like PhRMA. So one can imagine made-to-order novels that denigrate Canadian-style universal health care plans or promote genetically engineered foods.

So the next time some blockbuster novel seems to have a plot that advances the agenda of some industry, it might be a good thing to ask whether it was only the artistic muse that influenced its author. The big industries have the budgets and clout to advertise books heavily and get good reviews placed in influential sources, and turn even the most mediocre novel into a talked-about book.

Best selling author Michael Crichton, who published a book called State of Fear that pooh-poohs global warming does not need to be paid by a specific industry to make money off his books but if some new blockbuster by an unknown author appears that seems to promote some agenda favored by a trade group, it might be good to start asking some questions.

POST SCRIPT 1: Somber milestone

The US today recorded the 1,000th person to be executed since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1977. That the death penalty still exists anywhere in the world boggles my mind. It seems like such a barbaric relic of medieval times.

POST SCRIPT 2: Holiday CircleFest

So as not to end the week on a down note, I thought I would remind everyone that this Sunday, December 4 features Holiday CircleFest, which has a lot of free events including a program of music by the Case University Singers at 7:00pm in the Church of the Covenant, sponsored by the University Protestant Campus Ministries (UPCaM). UPCaM is a terrific organization that I am a member of and support.

Thanks to Paul who brought this to my attention in a comment to a previous post.

December 01, 2005

Intelligent Design Creationism loses a prominent supporter

Perhaps one of the most significant indicators that Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) is becoming an embarrassment is the defection by US Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Senator Santorum was once one of the most prominent supporters of IDC ideas, even going so far as to propose an amendment to a bill that said "where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject." This kind of language, drafted by people from the IDC-promoting Discovery Institute, has always been the strategy of IDC advocates, to isolate evolution as somehow different from other scientific theories and as an especially poor theory, and to promote IDC by specifically focusing on evolution's alleged weaknesses. Although the Santorum Amendment never made it into law, the language remained in the conference report that surrounds legislation and supporters of IDC used it to argue that there was federal sanction for teaching intelligent design.

In a 2002 editorial page article in the Washington Times, Santorum went even further and said that "intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes."

But times change. Senator Santorum is up for re-election in 2006. He is facing a tough race and is currently trailing in the polls. The Dover school board election results may have jolted him into realizing that being seen as an IDC supporter has become an albatross. Whatever the reason, Santorum has made a complete reversal and now says "that he doesn't believe that intelligent design belongs in the science classroom." He went on to say "Science leads you where it leads you." Really.

Whether this reversal helps him win reelection is another matter. What is relevant here is that IDC has become increasingly seen as a political liability.

Of course, the IDC camp can still claim the support of President Bush who said that "he believes schools should discuss "intelligent design" alongside evolution when teaching students about the creation of life."

But Bush said this in August before his poll approval numbers started going into free-fall. It is not clear how he would reply if asked the same question now. Perhaps, like Santorum, he will suddenly see the light about how science really works and have a conversion. But given all the other issues that are buffeting the White House involving Iraq and torture and the Plame leak and corruption and secret prisons, it is unlikely that he will be asked about intelligent design again any time soon, sparing him the same kind of embarrassment that Santorum has had to undergo because of his abrupt change of heart.

If Bush asks those close to him who are assigned to have an opinion on these matters, his views may not receive much support from even them. When his scientific advisor John Marburger was asked to cite scientific evidence for supernatural design, he replied: "There isn't any. ... Intelligent design is not a scientific concept."

Of course, that still leaves Senate majority leader Frist who remains a supporter (in a wishy-washy and confused kind of way) of IDC ideas. It will be interesting to see what happens to his views when he is up for re-election or if he decides to run for President in 2008.

POST SCRIPT 1: From denials to "old news"

Once again, political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow accurately captures how this administration deals with bad news.

POST SCRIPT 2: "God's interns in DC"

Check out this strange news story from ABC's Nightline about young "interns" who go to Washington to pray 24/7. I am not sure what to make of it. But what is it with all the rocking back and forth? Is this common?