Entries for January 2007

January 31, 2007

Film talk-3: The film ratings mystery

In watching Oh! Calcutta!, I started thinking about the effect on film quality of the abundance of sex, nudity, profanity, and violence in films that are released these days. I personally find violence the most distasteful of all of these things and will avoid films that are advertised to have excessive amounts of it. When judging a film, the question for me is always whether these elements are essential to the film or, if not and are just added to attract audiences, the film would still be worth watching without those elements, or at least a substantial part of them. A good judge of whether this is the case is what I remember about a film long after I have seen it. If I find it hard to remember if there was any sex or nudity or violence or profanity, it means that the film stands on its own.

This is one reason that I will not see another Quentin Tarantino film. Although Pulp Fiction was hailed by many as a masterpiece (which is why I watched it), all I can remember about it is the over-the-top gratuitous violence and profanity, and copious use of the n-word. That is reputed to be his trademark and it is enough for me to swear off watching any more of his output.

The ratings system also baffles me somewhat. I remember seeing a little gem of a film called The Castle, which had an R rating. This film is an absolutely delightful little low-budget comedy with an almost completely unknown cast from Australia. It features a slow-witted but earnest family that finds surprise and enjoyment in what the rest of us would consider mundane. They own a house right by the Melbourne airport, with the runway ending just across their garden fence. Unlike most people, this family sees this as a very desirable feature because they enjoy seeing planes taking off and landing and can walk to the airport when they need to take a flight or meet someone. When the airport wants to expand, they try to resist having their home taken by the state and that struggle forms the basis of the film.

So why did this film rate an R? There is absolutely no sex, nudity, or violence. As far as I can see, the only reason is because three times in the film, characters use the f-word. But even then they do not use it gratuitously or offensively out of anger, but out of frustration like when the photocopier gets jammed at a critical moment. This is exactly the kind of situation when most people swear, so it was perfectly understandable use. One character even apologizes for using it when he realizes that an elderly female neighbor is present. And yet this wonderful film gets the same rating as Pulp Fiction, which seems to glory in violence and profanity just for its own sake. It hardly seems fair. The Castle is a great film for family viewing but many people won't watch it because of the rating.

I am looking forward to seeing on DVD the documentary This film is not yet rated, which is an expose of the secretive group that rates films in the US and the mysterious criteria used by them to classify films.

One of my other peeves about films deals with the way they begin. I notice when watching very old films how briskly they run through the opening credits, which is something I appreciate. In the old films from the1940s like Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, the film begins with the opening credits which are quickly got out of the way in about a minute with just the main people (actors, producer, director, screenwriter, music director, cinematographer) listed, leaving the more detailed credits to the end. And even then, the number of people are far fewer than nowadays. This is one of my favorite things about old films, the fact that they get down to the business of telling the story so quickly and without fuss and pretentiousness.

In the 1960s with films like Fail Safe, they sometimes had a brief opening sequence before going to the quick credits and then getting back to the film proper. This is fine too.

What I can't stand nowadays are those films that drag out the opening credits interminably, interspersing each and every name (and there are many more names now) with a brief segment of the film, so that it seems as if by the time the director's name mercifully comes on, we might be ten minutes into the film. I find this annoying and distracting and wish film makers would stop this practice.

On the other hand, there are some modern films that have no opening credits at all or just the title of the film, leaving all the credits to the end. I think that both the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series were like this. You might think I would prefer this, but I don’t. The reason is that I tend to remember actors' faces and find it distracting when I see a character appear onscreen whom I know I have seen before somewhere and cannot remember the name. When I read the opening credits for actors and see a familiar name, that prepares me for when the actor appears and thus don't get distracted trying to remember what his or her name is or previous films were.

Sometimes the opening credits are like a short film in its own right and this can work, especially for comedies. For example, the Pink Panther or the Ice Age series opening animations are like cartoon shorts, and that's fine. My complaint is with what appears to be opening credits run amok, serving no purpose than to draw attention to the person creating the credits. The opening credits in Monty Python and the Holy Grail are a wonderful spoof of this mentality, where the credits creator inserts text about his sister being bitten by a moose, and gets fired.

I realize that not everyone will share my pet peeves but here is my appeal to film makers: Stop with the long and elaborate opening credit sequences that do not really add value to the film and get the main names out of the way as soon as possible. Thank you.

POST SCRIPT: Documentary on the dialogue about terrorism

What promises to be an intriguing documentary titled What is said about. . .Arabs and Terrorism is going to be shown in two parts on successive days at two different locations in Cleveland. Director Bassam Haddad will be available to answer questions after both screenings, which are free and open to the public.

Part I: Tuesday February 6th at 6:00pm in the Dively Community Seminar Room, Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, UR 112,Cleveland State University, 1717 Euclid Avenue.

Part II: Wednesday February 7th at 5:00pm
in Strosacker Auditorium, Case Western Reserve University, 2125 Adelbert Road.

Sponsoring organizations:

Case Western Reserve University: Center for Policy Studies, Share the Vision Committee, Case Democrats, Middle East Cultural Association, Muslim Student Association, Undergraduate Student Government,

Cleveland State University: Cultural Crossing, Dean of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences, Middle Eastern Studies Minor Program.

For more information, see the website for the film or contact Dr. Neda A. Zawahri 216-687-4544 or Dr. Pete Moore 216-368-5265.

January 30, 2007

Film talk-2: Beatty, Hitchcock, and Oh! Calcutta!

I have been using the Case film library to catch up on some old films that I had always meant to see but missed when they first came out, either because they were made before I was born or because they did not make it to Sri Lanka.

I saw two Warren Beatty films, the comedy Shampoo (1975) where he plays a Beverly Hills hairdresser who sleeps with all his clients, and the drama Reds (1981), based on the life of a radical and idealistic American journalist John Reed, whose eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution was told in the book Ten Days that Shook the World.

I like Warren Beatty and find his films always enjoyable, but as I watched these two older films it struck me that although the settings and stories of his films differ considerably, he is always pretty much playing the same character, an appealing and well-meaning person who is never quite in control of his own life's direction but instead is buffeted by the events and people around him. This is true whether he is playing a gangster in the drama Bonnie and Clyde (1967), an old West entrepreneur in the drama McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), a football quarterback in the comedy Heaven Can Wait, a disillusioned politician in the comedy Bulworth (1998), a hairdresser in Shampoo, or a World War I-era radical journalist in Reds.

Perhaps he stepped outside these characterizations in the films I have not seen but since these are his best-known films, his cinematic persona seems pretty much set. Of all these films, Heaven Can Wait is my favorite, a very good comedy that has, as a bonus, a fine turn by one of the great actors, James Mason.

I also watched the Alfred Hitchcock film Foreign Correspondent (1940). Although I am a fan of Hitchcock and have seen nearly all of his directorial works, I did not think this one of his better films. It may be that I am not a fan of overtly propagandistic films and this film had elements of that. It was filmed in 1940, after World War II had started in Europe and prior to the US entering it. The film clearly aimed at getting Americans to be more alarmed about the state of affairs in Europe but the way it did this was a little too ham-handed. The opening scene which is a paean to the work of foreign correspondents and the closing scene in which the correspondent in London appeals to Americans for action while the lights around him go dark because of the bombing, were both too obvious for my taste. And even the closing credits just after that scene had the Star-Spangled Banner as the soundtrack.

There is nothing wrong with art having a political message and one could argue that all art is political. In fact, I like political films a lot and have already written about my enjoyment of The Manchurian Candidate (the original one, not the ghastly remake) and V for Vendetta. Reds is another political film that I found quite enjoyable,

But the problem I had with Foreign Correspondent is that the politics is not well done. To be fair, though, it was only at the very end that Hitchcock got preachy but that was enough to leave a sour aftertaste.

The final film I watched recently in my old-films binge was Oh! Calcutta! (1972). This was a filmed version of a musical comedy sketch revue that featured a lot of nudity and sexual content and created a sensation when it was first staged in the late 60s. Of course, such plays and films would never be shown in Sri Lanka, which created a great sense of curiosity there about it, so I finally decided to see it.

The film is awful. I found the music uninspiring (even though the credits included John Lennon and Peter ("PDQ Bach") Schickele), the comedy was only mildly funny and that too in parts, and the dances were just ok. In short, it was clear to me that the claim to fame of this production was that it was pushing the envelope of sex and nudity of that time. Now, much of it comes off as just crude, and there is little sense of shock anymore.

POST SCRIPT: Battle in Najaf

The reports of the battle that took place over the weekend in Najaf have some strange aspects to it. Initial reports say that Iraqi forces supported by US tanks and helicopter gunships killed 250 militants in a fierce battle that lasted many hours. There seemed to be very few casualties on the US and Iraq side. Some Initial reports describe the dead as 'militants', members of a Sunni apocalyptic cult that was seeking to kill prominent Shiite clerics in that city. Others argue that it was a Shiite group. The invaluable Juan Cole tries to disentangle the conflicting narratives.

Why an armed militant group would take on the Iraqi military in a relatively open area as a date palm orchard where they could be easily picked off by the supporting helicopter gunships seems puzzling. There seems to be a whole lot of confusion about who the dead were and what they represented.

In any conflict, I tend to view with great suspicion any reports of 'fierce' long battles in which one side sustains huge numbers of casualties and the other side next to nothing. These kinds of lopsided death tolls usually are signs that the side with low casualties is hiding their losses or that mostly civilians were killed, even though there may have been actual militants also among them. Initial reports of battles almost always come from the official military, which has a vested interest in minimizing civilian deaths. I usually suspend judgment on such stories until reporters and medical personnel and human rights workers are able to reach the areas and provide independent and relatively unbiased reports.

Meanwhile, some idea of the methods used by the Iraqi security forces in patrolling Baghdad, and their relationship to the US forces, can be obtained from watching this British TV report. It contains some rough scenes but sadly we have become accustomed to seeing dead and wounded, and people being assaulted. (Thanks to Glenn Greenwald.)

January 29, 2007

Film talk-1: Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove

Despite the heading on this blog, I realized that I had not been writing about films for quite a while. The reason is simple: I had not been seeing films over the past few months. This was because I was reading a lot of books as part of serving on the Common Reading Book Selection Committee. This is Case's committee to select the book that will be sent to all incoming students in the summer of 2007 and the selected book also forms part of the basis for orientation, fall convocation, and the First seminars.

This is a great committee to serve on because you get together with other students, staff, and faculty, all of whom love to read and talk about books. In serving on this committee over the past few years, I have been introduced to a lot of great books that I might not have read otherwise. This year saw a particularly good selection which I will write about once the final choice is made. But because the books were so good, I found it hard to tear myself away to my other love: films.

But in the last two weeks I watched some old films that were worth writing about.

Fail Safe is a great 1964 film based on a book of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. I have never understood how two people can collaborate on a novel because a novel seems like such a personal creation. But I digress.

I had read the book back in the 70's but had never seen the film. Its premise is the same as that of the much-better known Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, which also came out the same year. I wonder how it came to be that two studios decided to make two films with such similar themes in the same year. It seems weird to me. But I digress again.

Both films deal with the situation that arises during the cold war when a US nuclear bomber squadron begins a mission to attack the Soviet Union. In Fail Safe the cause is malfunctioning equipment while in Dr. Strangelove the cause is a psychotic US General who wants to start a nuclear war. But in both cases, technical malfunctions and cold war paranoia (at least initially) between the US and Soviet political and military leaders hinder attempts to get the fleets called back, despite their joint frantic efforts once people realize the seriousness of what is going on.

They are both wonderful films, though quite different in their approach to the same scenario. Dr. Strangelove, which I have seen numerous times over many years, is the ultimate black comedy, getting laughs from a potential nuclear catastrophe, with director Stanley Kubrick getting brilliant performances out of Peter Sellers (in three roles, Dr. Strangelove being one), George C. Scott, and Sterling Hayden.

Fail Safe, on the other hand, plays it straight and there is not a laugh to be had in the whole film. Instead director Sidney Lumet, with a small cast, created a small, tight film that kept me completely absorbed throughout, even though I knew how it would end because I had heard that it was faithful to the novel. In the film, the US president (played by Henry Fonda) and his Soviet counterpart and their respective military and civilian advisors find that, even after overcoming their initial mutual suspicions and starting to cooperate, it is hard to reverse events that could lead to a nuclear catastrophe. Their machines of war have taken on a life of their own that relentlessly drives events.

Both films are anti-war in the best sense of the word. In Fail Safe, the US and Soviet leaders and most of their advisors are portrayed as thoughtful, humane, reasonable, and intelligent people, and yet they cannot control events. It made me think of the present. The current leadership in the US, Israel, Iraq and Iraq can none of them claim to have any of these desirable qualities and yet they are the ones we have to depend on to try and avert a catastrophe in the Middle East. It does not give one hope.

If any of you have not seen Fail Safe or Dr. Strangelove, you should check them out. They are true classics, in that they are timeless.

POST SCRIPT: The battle for Haifa Street

I wrote recently about how disturbing it was that nearly four years after the invasion of Iraq, US and Iraqi forces were still fighting pitched battles on a boulevard right in the capital Baghdad. According to Lara Logan of CBS News (who has done some terrific reporting), that battle raged for two weeks and may even still be going on. She appealed to her colleagues to spread the word about the video, which shows and important battle that is symptomatic of the stalemate that exists there. (You have to watch a commercial first.)

January 26, 2007

Martin Luther King, Jr. on Vietnam/Iraq

(Today Case has its annual Martin Luther King celebration ceremony. Joan Southgate will be the speaker at Amasa Stone Chapel at 12:30pm. See here for more details.)

I have written before about the disturbing similarities between current US actions in Iraq and past US actions in Vietnam. Recently I went back and read the transcript of Martin Luther King's speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence delivered on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.

The speech reinforced my sense of the similarities, both of the war and our responsibilities as individuals. Replace the names Vietnam with Iraq and China with Iran and the speech could be delivered today. It is quite eerie, really, showing how little we have learned from the past.

I have excerpted a few key segments below to give you a flavor of his ideas, but it was not easy because his whole speech reads like one long, smooth argument and to pick out bits is to destroy the flow of words and ideas that he had so carefully put together, so I urge everyone to read the whole thing.

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.
. . .
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
. . .
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.

This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words:

"Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism."

If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. It will become clear that our minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony and men will not refrain from thinking that our maximum hope is to goad China into a war so that we may bomb her nuclear installations. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horribly clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.

The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.

Of course, even though the written words are powerful, Martin Luther King was famous for his oratory and one has to hear him speak to get the full effect. In the clip below of small excerpts of a similar speech given by him, you can sense why he was able to turn out hundreds of thousands of people to march for a cause.

The video clip begins with an annoying 30 seconds of Bill O'Reilly telling various people to shut up and that all of us who oppose the war should also shut up, before cutting to excerpts of MLK giving a speech on the Vietnam war and why it is the duty of everyone to not be quiet but to speak out against it.

Although that opening bit is annoying, the clip dramatized the sharp difference between the shallowness and meanness of people like O'Reilly and the deep and compassionate humanity of Martin Luther King.

I still cannot listen to King speak or read his speeches without feeling a deep sense of regret. That he was killed in 1968 at the young age of 39 has to be one of the greatest tragedies that the US suffered, because we missed the flowering of a great intellect. Who knows what he might have been able to achieve if he had lived a full life. He would have been just 78 now, younger than some of the people currently in public life.

King had a very rare combination of intellectual power, political activism (he was not a mere armchair theoretician), and a love of people and humanity. There is no doubt in my mind that he was the greatest American of the 20th century. No one else comes even close.

POST SCRIPT: The answer to the prayer question

On Tuesday, Mr. Deity explained why evil and suffering is necessary, on Wednesday he tried to explain to Jesus what the crucifixion was about, and yesterday, Mr. Deity finds that creating special effects is not as easy as it looks in the movies.

In today's final episode, Mr. Deity explains to Jesus what happens to all the prayers he receives. (Take a close look at the book Mr. Deity is reading at the beginning.)

January 25, 2007

Israel, US, and "the lobby"-4: A broader discussion needed about the Middle East

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

The media in the rest of the world, including Israel, have much more balanced coverage of Middle East politics that does the US media. The Tony Judt article I wrote about before, for example, appeared in Ha'aretz. News media in the US tiptoe around the Israel government, seemingly afraid to make any serious criticism of its policies. During the Israel-lobby debate, Judt said described how when he wrote an article about the lobby, the editors of a "well known North American newspaper" called him and said that they needed to know if he was Jewish before they published it. He also pointed out that debate itself was noteworthy for being sponsored in the US by a foreign publication, The London Review of Books. It was this same publication that published the Mearsheimer and Walt article after The Atlantic, that originally commissioned it, decided not to publish it.

As another example, Israel's open defiance of UN resolutions are rarely mentioned in the media here while the US has argued that such defiance by other countries like Iraq is grounds for military action. And in July 2006, California state legislator Tom Hayden gave an example of the way the lobby works when he reflected on events in 1982 when he was influenced by "the lobby" to take a position on the previous Israeli invasion of Lebanon that he knew was wrong and now regrets. He said that the current debate on the role of the Israel lobby had persuaded him to reveal now what had happened to him then.

What is also interesting is that AIPAC boasts about its influence with the US government when it is fundraising but reacts angrily when others point to that same influence as an example of its power. But the sense that AIPAC speaks for all American Jews may be on the wane as some become more determined to stake their own ground in the debate. Philip Weiss, writing in the New York Observer in the wake of the furor over Jimmy Carter, says that progressive Jews are trying to break the stranglehold that AIPAC has had so far on discussions in the US about Israel and the situation in the Middle East. He talked about the New York visit of two people from that region who are trying to spread the word about the conditions in the occupied territories.

The situation these men describe is worse than apartheid. "Three and a half million people live without any rights," said the Israeli, whose own sister was killed by a suicide bomber. "You want to stop these people [suicide bombers], you should give them a reason to live."

The campaign by the U.S. Jewish leadership to smear Jimmy Carter will one day be taught in history books, as an effort by a privileged elite to suppress the truth. Slavery and segregation also had powerful defenders who misrepresented those conditions. Despite all their well-connected efforts, these people will lose for two simple reasons: the facts are against them, and a movement has begun to discover those facts. The progressive Jews jamming the temple last night are the evidence. (emphasis in original)

I have written before about how the US is really a one party state with a pro-war/pro-business platform, with two factions differing on some social issues. Its policy concerning Israel is part of that one-party consensus so one should not expect any changes when there are changes in the leadership in Congress as occurred in the last elections. Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco has looked at the positions on Israel and the Middle East of the top Democratic leadership and concluded that "The election of a Democratic majority in the House and Senate is unlikely to result in any serious challenge to the Bush administration’s support for Israeli attacks against the civilian populations of its Arab neighbors and the Israeli government’s ongoing violations of international humanitarian law."

We already see examples of this with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards both trying to curry favor with AIPAC by refusing to criticize Israel in even the mildest way, and beating the drums for war against Iran, despite the lessons learned from what happened in Iraq. It will be interesting to see if any candidate for president in 2008 takes a stand that runs counter to AIPAC or to any of Israel's current policies in the occupied territories.

The state of affairs of the Palestinians in Gaza right now is a scandal. The people there are essentially being punished for the crime of voting in a government that Israel and the US do not approve of. Reporter Gideon Levy writing for Ha'aretz says that Gaza is becoming like Darfur, with the exception that at least in the case of Darfur, at least some in the West are paying attention to their plight. Another Ha'aretz reporter Amira Hass lists all the mind-boggling restrictions that Palestinians currently experience on a day-to-day basis. It is not hard to imagine the humiliation that all these indignities must be causing each and every day.

Periodically, the US sends some envoy, such as the Secretary of State to the Middle East to "revive the peace process." Condoleeza Rice made such a trip just last week and blathered on about getting the two sides to talk, etc. I rarely pay any attention to US government officials or the media references to the state of the "peace process." Until such time as a real solution is proposed by the US for the Middle East, these trips should be viewed for what they are, just window dressing, to give the impression that something is being done while in reality the construction of more and more Israeli settlements in the occupied territories makes the possibility of a viable Palestinian state even more remote. I have written before about the way that by its existing settlements, Israel has already created a kind of Swiss-cheese like region in the West Bank, with settlements and roads carving out non-contiguous regions for the Palestinians to live in, so that they have to go through Israeli checkpoints to get from one region to another.

This issue goes well beyond the question of the role of AIPAC in American politics, although that is part of the problem. The real problem is that as long as the American mainstream media does not describe the situation in the occupied territories in a way that resembles reality, there will be no reason for the American public to demand of its government that it pursue policies that have a chance of bring peace to the Palestinian and Israeli people. And so the violence will continue, and even escalate, and the American public will continue to be baffled by the failure to find a solution.

A real solution would have to have the following features: (1) Withdrawal by Israel to the pre-1967 borders; (2) The currently occupied territories of the West bank and Gaza made into a fully autonomous state; (3) the internationalization of Jerusalem; (4) full recognition of the state of Israel; (5) security guarantees (with the stationing of international troops as buffers if necessary) for the Israeli and Palestinian states until the growth of bilateral trade and other links between the two states makes a peacekeeping force unnecessary.

Oddly enough, comedians like Jon Stewart seem to understand what it would take to get a solution in the Middle East. Why is it so hard for others?

I believe that there will never be peace in the Middle East until the Palestinians have their own viable state, something at least closely resembling what I have outlined above. Until those policies are implemented, all talk of a "peace process" is pure wind.

POST SCRIPT: Let there be light?

On Tuesday, Mr. Deity explained why evil and suffering is necessary, and yesterday he tried to explain to Jesus what the crucifixion was about. Today, Mr. Deity finds that creating special effects is not as easy as it looks in the movies.

Tomorrow: How Mr. Deity treats prayers.

January 24, 2007

Israel, US, and "the lobby"-3: The silence in the US

(See part 1 and part 2.)

It is undoubtedly the case that most Americans, especially those who are critical of Israeli government policies, find it difficult to discuss the US-Israel relationship in the same way that they might discuss, say, the US-Pakistan relationship. Ira Chernus writes about how non-Jews in the US are reluctant to talk about Israel-Palestine issues, and gives them advice in an article titled How to talk to your Jewish friends, an article that was triggered by the appalling lack of action by the US government when Israel unleashed its massive assault on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, and the silence of Americans who failed to demand that the US government call for an immediate ceasefire to stop the killing. Condoleeza Rice's statement that the death and destruction caused by the fighting in Lebanon signaled the "birth pangs of a new Middle East" was as grotesque a statement in the midst of crisis as was Marie Antoinette's reputed "Let them eat cake."

Chernus says:

When one hears criticism of any action of Israel by elected officials and the mainstream media in the US, it is almost always very cautiously worded and qualified by saying that the other side is worse. It seems as if public officials and media personalities in the US are afraid that criticizing Israel government policies is to risk being called anti-Jewish, although Jews as people, the people of Israel, and the actions of the Israel government are three different things and one can criticize the third without inferences being drawn about the other two. One has to look to the peace movements in Israel (10,000 of whom marched in Tel Aviv against the invasion of Lebanon on August 5, 2006) for criticisms of the actions of the Israeli government.

This is not the case in the rest of the world. The Economist magazine gives two main reasons for the near-unanimity of almost unconditional support among US elites for anything that Israel does.

Why is America so much more pro-Israeli than Europe? The most obvious answer lies in the power of two very visible political forces: the Israeli lobby (AIPAC) and the religious right. AIPAC, which has an annual budget of almost $50m, a staff of 200, 100,000 grassroots members and a decades-long history of wielding influence, is arguably the most powerful lobby in Washington, mightier even than the National Rifle Association.

"Thank God we have AIPAC, the greatest supporter and friend we have in the whole world," says Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister. The lobby, which is the centrepiece of a co-ordinated body that includes pressure groups, think-tanks and fund-raising operations, produces voting statistics on congressmen that are carefully scrutinised by political donors. It also organises regular trips to Israel for congressmen and their staffs.

What Chernus says is true. One is far more likely to find critiques of Israeli government actions in Israeli newspapers like Ha'aretz than in the mainstream US media. As another example, see this blistering critique titled Stop the Jewish Barbarians in Hebron of the way that Arabs are being treated in Hebron, that appeared in the Jerusalem Post by Yosef Lapid, a holocaust survivor and former Israeli justice minister.

When we decide, and rightly so, to never under any circumstances compare the behavior of Jews to that of Nazis, we are forgetting that anti-Semitism only reached its height at Auschwitz. It had existed, was active, frightening, harmful and disgusting. . .in the years that preceded Auschwitz too. And behind shuttered windows hid terrified Jewish women, exactly like the Arab woman of the Abu-Isha family in Hebron.

It is unthinkable that the memory of Auschwitz should serve as a pretext to ignore the fact that living here among us are Jews that behave toward Palestinians exactly the way that German, Hungarian, Polish and other anti-Semites behaved toward Jews.

I am not referring to crematoria or pogroms, but rather to the persecution, hounding, stone-throwing, undermining of livelihood, scare tactics, spitting and contempt.

It was all of these things that made our lives in the Diaspora so bitter and harrowing, even before they began the wholesale killing of Jews. I was afraid to go to school because little anti-Semites lay in wait on the way and beat us. In what way is a Palestinian child in Hebron any different?

This kind of article shows the wide range of discussion that exists in Israel, but one would be hard pressed to find its equivalent in the mainstream press in the US. Critics of the AIPAC lobby charge that it is responsible for stifling the debate in the US and as a result the search for meaningful solutions to the problems in the Middle East have been hindered, leading to the chronic instability and violence.

But the signs are that this situation is changing.

Next: How the Mearsheimer-Walt article and Carter book has broadened the discussion.

POST SCRIPT: What do you mean, three days on the cross?

Yesterday, Mr. Deity explained the reasons for allowing so much suffering. Today he asks Jesus for a really big favor.

Tomorrow: Mr. Deity has trouble turning on the light.

January 23, 2007

Israel, US, and "the lobby"-2: An old state with an adolescent mentality

(See part 1 here.)

Tony Judt, one of the panelists in the public debate I wrote about earlier, was himself the center of another furor concerning the Israel lobby. Judt had strongly criticized the American intelligentsia (including those who call themselves liberals) and the Bush administration for its failures in Middle East policy.

On October 3, 2006, Judt was scheduled to give a lecture titled "The Israel Lobby & US Foreign Policy" before a public audience at the Polish Consulate offices in New York, which often sponsors such kinds of forums. But according to reports, the event was cancelled after the consulate received a phone call from Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL. This led to many academics protesting at what they perceived as censorship, with over a hundred of them writing an open letter, suggesting that the ADL was trying to silence a critic of its lobbying efforts.

Judt has written before in The country that wouldn't grow up that he sees part of the problem as that the Israeli political psyche has got stuck in what, for an individual, would be characterized as an adolescent phase.

By the age of 58 a country - like a man - should have achieved a certain maturity. After nearly six decades of existence we know, for good and for bad, who we are, what we have done and how we appear to others, warts and all. We acknowledge, however reluctantly and privately, our mistakes and our shortcomings. And though we still harbor the occasional illusion about ourselves and our prospects, we are wise enough to recognize that these are indeed for the most part just that: illusions. In short, we are adults.

But the State of Israel remains curiously (and among Western-style democracies, uniquely) immature. The social transformations of the country - and its many economic achievements - have not brought the political wisdom that usually accompanies age. Seen from the outside, Israel still comports itself like an adolescent: consumed by a brittle confidence in its own uniqueness; certain that no one "understands" it and everyone is "against" it; full of wounded self-esteem, quick to take offense and quick to give it. Like many adolescents Israel is convinced - and makes a point of aggressively and repeatedly asserting - that it can do as it wishes, that its actions carry no consequences and that it is immortal.

The kind of adolescent political thinking that Judt describes is familiar to me. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala community comprises 15 million people, a comfortable majority in a country of 20 million. The Tamils are only about 4 million. But a sizable group of the Sinhala people are constantly fearful that the ethnic Tamils of South India (who number about 60 million) will make common cause with their ethnic counterparts in Sri Lanka and march (or presumably swim) across the Palk Strait, the narrow strip of water that separates southern India from Sri Lanka, and take over their country and destroy the Sinhala people. Although this notion is quite preposterous, it is symptomatic of the adolescent sensibilities of this particular body politic that this fearful group of Sinhala people are easy prey for chauvinist politicians and can be easily riled up to take extreme measures against the indigenous Tamils under the flag of 'saving' the nation from the Tamil threat, and thus have prevented any meaningful peace moves in Sri Lanka.

Of course, to assume that the AIPAC (or the ADL) speaks for the entire American Jewish community is as false as assuming that the Bush/Cheney administration and their fundamentalist Christian base speaks for the entire American public. The reality is that AIPAC, like all lobbies, seeks first to increase perceptions of its own power and influence because that is what leads to greater fundraising success, while at the same time advancing the interests of a narrow slice of those people in America whose politics aligns with a narrow slice of the Israeli political spectrum, especially that associated with the hard-line politics of people like Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud. But the ability of lobbies like AIPAC to stifle criticisms of Israeli policies may be on the wane as more and more 'mainstream' people, like Jimmy Carter, are speaking out.

What the Carter and Mearsheimer and Walt and Judt episodes make increasingly clear is that while the ability of groups like AIPAC to limit debate within Washington and within the mainstream media remains strong, it is losing its ability to do so with the wider audience in the country as a whole. It used to be that the threat of being labeled an "anti-Semite" (if one was not Jewish) or "self-hating" (if one were Jewish) was enough to discourage many people from criticizing the actions of the Israeli government. For example, As Alexander Cockburn writes "Carter has been stigmatised as an anti-Semite, a Holocaust denier, a patron of former concentration camp killers, a Christian madman, a pawn of the Arabs, an advocate of terror."

But such charges are not gaining much traction anymore. Cockburn thinks that this is due to a changing political landscape in the country, if not in Washington.

The Israel lobby retains its grip inside the Beltway, but it’s starting to lose its hold on the broader public debate. Why? You can’t brutalize the Palestinian people in the full light of day, decade after decade, without claims that Israel is a light among the nations getting more than a few serious dents. In the old days, Mearsheimer and Walt’s tract would have been deep-sixed by the University of Chicago and the Kennedy School long before it reached its final draft, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux wouldn’t have considered offering a six-figure advance for it. Simon & Schuster would have told President Carter that his manuscript had run into insurmountable objections from a distinguished board of internal reviewers. But once a book by a former president with weighty humanitarian credentials makes it into bookstores, it’s hard to shoot it down with volleys of wild abuse.

In this failure to stifle acceptance of Jimmy Carter's book and the Mearsheimer and Walt paper, AIPAC is experiencing a fate similar to that other lobby that is constantly pushing for more and wider war in the Middle East, first in Iraq and next in Iran and Syria. This other lobby is led by so-called 'think tanks' like the American Enterprise Institute and its message is disseminated by 'opinion journals' like the Weekly Standard, National Review, and the New Republic, and picked up and amplified by the major news outlets. Although this group exerts a powerful influence on the White House and Congress, it is out of step with broader American public opinion on what to do about the war. This is why there is an increasing disconnect between what the US government and Congress is proposing to do about Iraq and what the general population is demanding. The pro-war lobby, like AIPAC, is finding that its reach is limited to an ever-shrinking circle centered around Washington, DC.

Next: The silence in the US

POST SCRIPT 1: Suffering explained

One of the most troubling questions for believers in a god is how to explain evil and suffering. Now Mr. Deity reveals the reasons. You really must see it. It's a riot.

Tomorrow: Mr. Deity explains to Jesus the thinking behind that whole 'dying on the cross' thing.

POST SCRIPT 2: The Mamas and the Papas again

As another tribute to the late Denny Doherty, here's The Mamas and the Papas singing the somewhat eccentric and self-referential song Creeque Alley.

January 22, 2007

Israel, US, and "the lobby"-1: Apartheid in the occupied territories?

The Washington Post had an interesting article that said how in 1941, David Ben-Gurion, one of the founders of Israel came to Washington DC and spent ten weeks in a hotel trying his best to get just a fifteen minute meeting with President Roosevelt to press the case for creating the state of Israel. He failed. The article used this to chart the steep rise of Israel's influence in the US since then.

Discussions about the extent of this current influence, and whether it is a good thing for the US, Israel, or the Middle East in general was brought center stage in March 2006 by the article The Israel Lobby by academics John Mearsheimer of University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard. (I have written about this before here.)

The article provoked an angry reaction, with some people accusing the pair of being anti-Semitic, which in turn threw up another group who came to their defense. This resulted in what Mearsheimer and Walt always said they wanted and which was not happening: a public debate on the role of pro-Israel lobbies such as the AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on American politics.

In fact, a fascinating face-to-face debate was held on the topic The Israel Lobby: Does it have too much influence on US foreign policy?. The panelists were John Mearsheimer (Professor of Political Science and the co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago), Shlomo Ben-Ami (former Israeli foreign and security minister), Martin Indyck (Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution), Tony Judt (Professor in European Studies and Director of the Remarque Institute at New York University), Rashid Khalidi (Professor of Arab Studies and Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University) and Dennis Ross ( Fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy). The moderator was Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

(You can see the full debate here and read the transcript here. Although long, viewing the debate is well worth it because it covers important questions.)

During the debate Mearsheimer pointed out an example of the problem, and that was that Dennis Ross (who has been a lead negotiator for the US State Department on Middle Eastern affairs) and Martin Indyck (who used to be US Ambassador to Israel) were simultaneously members of the Israel lobby while at the same time working for the US government in Middle East negotiations. Mearsheimer claimed that this destroyed the credibility of the US as an 'honest' broker in the negotiations, since as a result US proposals were often first vetted and approved by the Israeli side before they were even considered for presentation to the Palestinians. So 'negotiations' with the Palestinians, instead of being something where both sides were expected to concede something, essentially became a process in which the Palestinians were presented with a fait accompli.

Apart from the predictable allegations of anti-Semitism laid against Mearsheimer and Walt by people like Alan Dershowitz, there were also more thoughtful examinations of The Israel Lobby article and the ensuing debate, by people like Philip Weiss writing in The Nation, Michael Massing writing in the New York Review of Books, and former CIA analysts Bill and Kathleen Christison. The last two essays pointed out that not all the criticisms of Mearsheimer and Walt came from one side, and that people like Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, themselves vocal critics of Israel's policies in the occupied territories, had critiqued Mearsheimer and Walt on the grounds that they gave too much credit for Israeli influence. Chomsky and Finkelstein argue that while current US and Israeli policies are detrimental to peace, both feel that it is the US that is the dominant partner in the US-Israel relationship and that Israel follows US dictates in the Middle East, not the other way around as critics of the lobby assert.

The recent attacks on former president Jimmy Carter for his book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid has brought the debate about the power of Israeli lobbies in US politics to the surface again and shed more light on the complex issues of the relationship between Israel and the US. Some have taken strong exception to Carter's use of the word 'apartheid' to describe what is happening in the occupied territories. Others have described it as a kind of Bantustan. As Alexander Cockburn points out, the outrage over the use of this word is somewhat disingenuous. "Israeli writers have used the word apartheid to describe arrangements in the occupied territories for years. Hundreds of prominent South African Jews issued a statement six years ago making the same link." (italics in original)

Whatever one calls it, the similarities of the situation in the occupied territories now with what happened in South Africa are too disturbing to ignore and there is no doubt that the conditions of the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are truly awful and that the US government has done little about it except for some perfunctory and symbolic wringing of the hands, seemingly content to let the government of Israel do what it wishes with the people and lands under its military control.

John Pilger describes the appalling conditions right now in Gaza as a result of the embargo imposed on the people there, who are being punished by the US, Israel, and Europe for the crime of voting for parliamentary leaders who were not to their liking.

A genocide is engulfing the people of Gaza while a silence engulfs its bystanders. "Some 1.4 million people, mostly children, are piled up in one of the most densely populated regions of the world, with no freedom of movement, no place to run, and no space to hide," wrote the senior UN relief official, Jan Egeland, and Jan Eliasson, then Swedish foreign minister, in Le Figaro. They described people "living in a cage," cut off by land, sea, and air, with no reliable power and little water, tortured by hunger, disease, and incessant attacks by Israeli troops and planes.
. . .
The excuse for the latest Israeli terror was the capture last June of an Israeli soldier, a member of an illegal occupation, by the Palestinian resistance. This was news. The kidnapping a few days earlier by Israel of two Palestinians – two of thousands taken over the years – was not news. A historian and two foreign journalists have reported the truth about Gaza. All three are Israelis. They are frequently called traitors. The historian Ilan Pappe has documented that "the genocidal policy [in Gaza] is not formulated in a vacuum" but part of Zionism's deliberate, historic ethnic cleansing. Gideon Levy and Amira Hass are reporters on the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. In November, Levy described how the people of Gaza were beginning to starve to death: "there are thousands of wounded, disabled, and shell-shocked people unable to receive any treatment… the shadows of human beings roam the ruins… they only know the [Israeli army] will return and what this will mean for them: more imprisonment in their homes for weeks, more death and destruction in monstrous proportions."

Philip Weiss writes in the New York Observer about the reasons why the word apartheid might be justified for the state of affairs in the occupied territories

As I went downtown to see the play "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" last night, I read the Forward's coverage of Jimmy Carter's much-awaited book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Forthcoming from Simon & God bless them Schuster. The article said that supporters of Israel are most upset by the characterization in the title, apartheid. That characterization used to upset me too, as being tendentious and emotional, till I went to Hebron last summer, the second largest city in the West Bank, where Arabs cannot set foot in large portions of the city center, and met a South African church worker who had lived through apartheid and who said that the conditions of the Israeli occupation were worse than apartheid. The people in the occupied territories have lived under Israeli administration for 40 years and had two elections in that time, yet we call Israel a democracy.

I believe that there will never be peace in the Middle East until we have a situation in which the Palestinians have a viable nation of their own in which they can live with dignity.

Next: An old state with an adolescent mentality

POST SCRIPT 1: Editorial cartoon round up

Bob Geiger rounds up editorial cartoons from around the nation and it is clear that Bush's credibility is in free fall. Don't miss Walt Handelsman's animation at the end.

POST SCRIPT 2: The Mamas and the Papas

Denny Doherty of the 60s rock group The Mamas and the Papas died over the weekend, leaving Michelle Phillips as the lone survivor of one of my favorite music groups. I don't know of any other group that blended four voices together in harmony as well as they did. Their hit Monday, Monday, in which Doherty sang the lead, was one of their best. Here is a video of them performing that song in 1966. (Thanks to Crooks and Liars.)

January 19, 2007

The Bible as history-7: The danger of too much information

(For the earlier posts in this series, see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 6.)

In the series of posts regarding the issue of how reliable the Bible was as history, the conclusion that was reached was that almost all the information before about 650 BCE was probably false. In other words, there was almost no evidence for the existence Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, the exodus, etc. And as the film The God Who Wasn't There points out, the evidence for a historical Jesus is also very weak.

The interesting question is why this lack of historicity of much of the stories in the Bible is not told to people. It must surely be the case that religious scholars are aware of the lack of archeological and other reliable sources of evidence for the major events that are described in the Bible. Religious leaders seem to be treating the relationship of Biblical events to history differently from its relationship to science.

The topic of the impact of science on religious doctrines has not been avoided. This may be partly because science has an unavoidable impact on daily life and its implications for all other areas of knowledge cannot be avoided even if one wished to. But as a result of being forced to deal with science, religious scholars and apologists have managed to finesse the fact that modern science has cast doubt on the miraculous events described in the Bible, so that nowadays a religious person with a scientific perspective can avoid giving any credence to stories about seas being parted, sun being kept still, people rising from the dead, water being turned into wine, and so forth, without being considered an apostate. The success of these efforts can be seen in the fact that the wealth of scientific counter-evidence to the miracles of the Bible has not stopped even many scientists from continuing to be religious. So why have theologians not taken the same attitude with the archeological counterevidence to Biblical history and found similar ways to confront the lack of historical evidence?

Perhaps it is because the actual story of how the Bible came about tells people too much for comfort. As I pointed out earlier, the present day Bible was the codification of documents produced by priests around 650 BCE, long after almost all the events it purportedly claims to record. It was seemingly produced with the goal of convincing King Josiah to enforce strict monotheism on his people, and the strategy worked. But in order to have this effect, the documents created a narrative that emphasized god's obsession with stamping out the worship of other gods. In order to achieve people's compliance, the priests created an image of a god who was fierce and authoritarian, demanded total obedience, and had no scruples whatsoever in committing genocide on people who happened to disobey in any way. It also shows a god who was extraordinarily vain and thin-skinned, needing constant praise and using any slight as an excuse to indulge in wholesale massacres. It is not a pleasant picture of god but as a literary device to scare the daylights out of people and get them to fall in line, it was pretty effective.

If you tell people the real story of how the Bible came about, you would take away much of its power. Take for example the ten commandments, that pillar of modern-day religious fundamentalists who would like nothing better than to have it displayed in every classroom, courthouse and other public places. They are venerated by a great number of people (even if they are less than conscientious about actually following them). For people of my generation, much of its impact comes from the visual image of Charlton Heston as Moses in the film The Ten Commandments going up a mountain and seeing god in the form of lightning etch those words on two stone tablets.

That image gives the commandments an authority that would disappear if people were told that these commandments were hatched in some back room by a group of priests who had a specific political agenda. People could argue that they might be still good ideas and should be observed but there is no question that the story of Charlton Heston Moses getting them directly from god on a mountain gives the commandments a certain heft they would lose if replaced by a more realistic story of them being scribbled in a backroom somewhere by people trying to advance their cause.

The actual history of how they came about, however, explains something that always puzzled me about the ten commandments and that was its curious mixture of grand but vague requirements, combined with quite petty and even impossible requests. (Note: there are different versions (.pdf) of the ten commandments and I'll use the King James' version.)

The first four commandments (roughly "Don’t have any other gods, don't make or worship any images, don't take god's name in vain, keep the Sabbath holy") seem a little excessively self-focused for a presumably omnipotent being, as if god was suffering from an inferiority complex and needed constant reassurance that he was numero uno. But if your main goal in writing the commandments was to enforce monotheism on the population and get people to dump their dependence on other gods, it makes sense to make the list of commandments top heavy with obedience to one god.

Only the sixth through ninth commandments ("Don't kill, commit adultery, steal, or lie") can be considered universal rules or morality and all are easily understood.

The fifth and tenth commandments are vague and not operationally clear. The fifth ("Honor your father and mother") is one that I can enthusiastically support now that I am a parent, while the last ("Don't covet your neighbor’s house, wife, servants, ox, ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s") seems unusually wordy. The wife-coveting thing seems like it could have been subsumed under the adultery commandment, while the rest could have simply been listed as "Don't covet other people's stuff." Envy seems like a pretty minor sin, too, hardly worthy of inclusion in such a major-league list.

One gets the sense that the priests had agreed initially that ten was a nice round number for commandments and that by the time they got to the final one they, like any committee, had got exhausted by trying to get consensus on the other nine, and so just slapped together a laundry list of items just to get it over with so that they could go home and have a beer.

One notable omission from this list is the absence of any prohibition against homosexuality, something that causes present-day anti-gay activists some anguish since they have to go digging in obscure Biblical passages to find support for their cause. Why would the priests leave it out, since condemnations do occur in other passages (such as Leviticus 18:22) that outline detailed rules of behavior? It must be quite irritating to anti-gay zealots that the prohibition against simple envy makes the top ten list while homosexuality does not. My guess is that homosexuality was not uncommon then and existed among the priests as well (just like it does now), and they did not want to come down too hard on a practice that they themselves their colleagues indulged in.

Understanding the history of how the Bible actually came about makes its content much more intelligible to me. But I can see how this knowledge can be quite unsettling to believers and thus why religions that depend on the Bible as the basis for their organization are not too keen on trumpeting this information.

POST SCRIPT: Gary Larson

I can never think of the scene where Charlton Heston as Moses parts the Red Sea in the film The Ten Commandments without remembering and laughing again at the cartoon by the amazingly imaginative Gary Larson, which shows Moses parting his hair by standing in front of a mirror and stretching his arms wide, exactly the way Heston does.

January 18, 2007

The Bible as history-6: The Bible as propaganda tool

(For the earlier posts in this series, see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.)

Few people read the Bible cover to cover. That is understandable. For one thing, it is very long. Second, the language is hard to follow. Third, it can be quite confusing with lots of characters and places involved, even more so than a Tolstoy novel. Fourth, interspersed with the stories are huge and boring chunks that are of two kinds: one consists of sequences of 'begats', which trace the genealogy of people, and the other consist of rules that god has said that people should live by.

So while the Bible is the best selling book of all time, it is also probably the least read. It is kind of like the religious equivalent of Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

One can see why current religious leaders are less than enthusiastic about publicizing the actual historical record of the Bible and prefer to keep people believing the Biblical myths. After all, three of the major religions of the world, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, all draw inspiration from these same set of now-discredited stories and draw their lineage and even their sense of identity from them. To lose them is to have their followers go through a fairly excruciating re-evaluation of self-identity and about what they can believe and not believe in the Bible.

One of the puzzling things about the faith of those who do not take the Bible literally is the basis for their choice about what to believe and what not to believe. It can be argued that if the authors of the Bible can make up stories about god doing all kinds of fantastic things like making the Sun stand still, parting the seas, rising from the dead, the exodus, and so forth, haven't they pretty much ceded their right to be taken at face value on anything? Why should we take their word for other things? This problem becomes even more acute when, as the previous posts in this series showed, even those events that are not miracles but supposedly simply a bland recounting of history are also revealed to be fiction.

In fact, this is the problem for any modern person. Once you concede that any portion of the Bible may not be correct, you have to confront the decision of where to draw the line at reinterpreting its message.

The established religions have tried to draw a fine line between an unchanging Bible and modern sensibilities by 'closing the canon' at some point, by decreeing that the books that they selected as authoritative were the final revelations of god, not to be tinkered with any further. The Jewish canon was closed around 200 CE while the Christian canon was closed later.

This is why the Bible is not like an encyclopedia, subject to periodic revisions, with discredited stuff being omitted and new material added. Doing so would dilute the supposed timelessness of the message and open up endless and acrimonious debates about what should be included.

But at the same time, the religious establishments have informally allowed people to reinterpret Biblical passages to take into account modern scientific analysis. So in some sense, while they have officially closed the canon, they have unofficially opened it again. This is what has resulted in the many diverse religious denominations and sects within the mainstream religions, each interpreting the Bible in its own way but all claiming to follow the same religion.

But not all are pleased with this freedom to pick through the Bible to find an interpretation that suits you. This is seen, quite rightly, as detracting from the more powerful idea of the Bible as the unerring, unchanging word of god. One can thus understand the appeal of religious fundamentalism. Life becomes very simple of you believe that your religious text was directly written or at least dictated by god, that it is infallible and true in every detail however slight. If one turns one's face against all modern scientific and historical analysis, then there are no pesky contradictions to deal with. Any contradiction with the Bible is a problem for the other sources of knowledge, not for the Bible or one's faith.

But even for the Biblical literalists there lurks danger within the Bible itself, which explains why even fundamentalists do not tend to read the Bible very closely.

Next: The danger of too much information.

POST SCRIPT: Beyond parody

Some political commentators are so completely wacky that they don't even know when their legs are being pulled and thus they get dragged into stranger and stranger territory. Watch Stephen Colbert having fun with Dinesh D'Souza (author of a new book The enemy at home: The cultural left and its responsibility for 9/11), getting him to agree that FDR (yes, FDR!) was partly responsible for 9/11 and that in the current wars, liberal Americans are on one side, and terrorists and conservative Americans are on the other.

The first part of Colbert's interview is here and should be immediately followed by the second part.

If the second part does not load automatically, click below

People like D'Souza not only have no sense of how to interpret history, drawing far-fetched links between Yalta and Afghanistan, they don't even have a sense of humor, making them perfect patsies for Colbert's brilliant interviewing skills. D'Souza comes across as a total doofus.

Alan Wolfe reviewing D'Souza's book says "Like his hero Joe McCarthy, he has no sense of shame. He is a childish thinker and writer tackling subjects about which he knows little to make arguments that reek of political extremism. His book is a national disgrace, a sorry example of a publishing culture more concerned with the sensational than the sensible."

I wonder about people like D'Souza and Ann Coulter. Is there no bottom to the levels of idiocy that they can sink to, no end to the stupidity or even hatefulness that they can utter? Aren't they embarrassed to say things that are so obviously crazy? Or is it that they can depend on a core of supporters, and more importantly, financial backers, who are willing to provide them with a platform come what may?

January 17, 2007

Christians and Christianists

Many Christians have problems with people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, and resent their mixing up church and state, the spiritual and the secular. For example, in remarks on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on the August 22, 2005 broadcast of his TV show 700 Club, Robertson essentially called on the US government to murder Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, although he used the word "assassination" and the euphemism "take him out" instead of the more blunt but accurate word murder.

ROBERTSON: There was a popular coup that overthrew him [Chavez]. And what did the United States State Department do about it? Virtually nothing. And as a result, within about 48 hours that coup was broken; Chavez was back in power, but we had a chance to move in. He has destroyed the Venezuelan economy, and he's going to make that a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent. You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don't think any oil shipments will stop. But this man is a terrific danger and the United ... This is in our sphere of influence, so we can't let this happen. We have the Monroe Doctrine, we have other doctrines that we have announced. And without question, this is a dangerous enemy to our south, controlling a huge pool of oil, that could hurt us very badly. We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with. (my emphasis)

Basically, when Robertson says that "we" should kill Chavez, he is asking the US government to do it.

Many, if not most, Christians in the US were repulsed by Robertson's comments and some were quick to say that he was not a Christian because of the actions he was advocating. But if we cannot pin the label "Christian" on him, what exactly is he? The label 'radical cleric' was tried for a while but did not catch on.

Way back in 2003, the blogger Tristero came up with a good name, suggesting that the term Christianist be used to describe people like Robertson and Falwell and Dobson.

Christianist and Christianism are best understood as being in parallel with Islamist and Islamism. We have all become familiar with the term Islamist which has to be distinguished from the label Muslim. The latter represents anyone who is an adherent of the religion of Islam. Islamism is a political movement inspired by the religion Islam and which seeks to make principles based on its interpretation of Islam the basis for the organizing of civil society. In this terminology, the Taliban are Islamists but most Muslims are not. As Tristero emphasizes, Islamists are not necessarily violent although some high profile Islamists like Osama bin Laden are.

So thus Christianism is a political movement inspired by the religion Christianity and which seeks to make principles based on its interpretation of Christianity the basis for the organizing of civil society, and Christianists are those who pursue such a policy.

The advantage of this kind of labeling is that is avoids having to make judgments about who is a true believer and who is not. Whether one has the right to adopt the label of Christian may be viewed by some as a moral issue, depending on whether one is living according to the principles of Christianity, which was why some people said that Robertson cannot be a Christian when he calls for the murder of foreign heads of state.

But applying Tristero's system of labels removes this judgmental question. While there may be disagreements about whether Robertson is a "true" Christian or not depending on your tastes, he is definitely a Christianist since he clearly wants to run this country according his version of Christianity. Similarly while Muslims may debate whether Osama bin Laden is a "true" Muslim or not, it is pretty clear that he is an Islamist.

This seemed to me to be such a useful terminology that I was surprised that when Andrew Sullivan used it casually in this sense last November, it provoked angry charges in the blog world (from Glenn Reynolds and Ann Althouse and Hugh Hewitt) that it was insulting to Christians and even "hate speech" (although Sullivan himself is a practicing Catholic). Even more oddly, as Glenn Greenwald points out, these charges of bigotry against Sullivan came from the very people who routinely use the term 'Islamist.' Greenwald reminds us that:

Tristero made the same basic distinctions made by Sullivan, which Althouse, Reynolds and Hewitt are incapable of understanding (or unwilling to understand, though I think it's the former) -- namely, that Christians (like Muslims) can be divided into three groups: (1) those who believe in the religion ("Christians/Muslims"); (2) those who seek to have their religious beliefs dictate politics and law ("Christianists/Islamists"); and (3) those who are willing to use violence to enforce compliance with their religious beliefs ("Christian fascists/Islamofascists" - or "Christian terrorist"/"Muslim terrorist").

This sounds like reasonable and neutral and useful language to me. And it looks like these labels are going mainstream. So we might soon see analogous words popping up for Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and people of other religions who similarly believe that their versions of their own religious beliefs should determine public policy for everyone, and thus control the nature of civic life.

POST SCRIPT: The Mac cult

It has been alleged that Mac users are like a cult, slavishly loyal to the brand and unthinkingly hostile to alternatives. I too use Mac computers and like them a lot. I cannot see myself ever switching to another operating system. But I do not quite see myself as a Mac cult member, mainly because I am not an avid adopter of new technology. I do not have an iPod or even a cell phone and only started using a (very basic) PDA because my work requires it.

So I was bemused at all the fuss about the announcement last week about Apple's new iPhone which combines the features of a cell phone, iPod, and web browser. I saw the news items and kind of shrugged it off. But then I went to the Apple website and saw the presentation by Steve Jobs about the new device and understood the reasons for the hype. There is no doubt that Apple does three things very well. Its devices are undoubtedly pleasing to the eye, they are easy and intuitive to use, and they have very imaginative marketing. The iPhone really is a very cleverly designed device.

After watching Jobs talk about the iPhone and showing what it can do, even I thought it would be nice to have one. Of course, there is not a chance that I will spring $500 or so for it, because basically I do not want or need a cell phone or an iPod. But the fact that even someone like me was so drawn to the device says something about the power of Apple to make something that people feel they must have.

See Jobs' introduction of the iPhone at MacWorld and judge for yourself. It is quite a show.

January 16, 2007

Rudeness on the web

The mass media tends not to probe too deeply into sacred cows (like religion and patriotism) and when it does so, seems to carefully select only those targets which will not alienate the majority of its customers. People writing on the internet, however, are much more likely to skewer a broader range of ideas, which is something that I welcome.

While public figures have long been fair game for ridicule even in the traditional mass media, a trickier issue arises with the internet, which has created a whole new class of what might be called semi-private individuals. We now have people who are not public figures in the traditional sense of the word writing in personal web pages and blogs which are, in effect, public but often the material is intended for a limited audience. When people write about the minutiae of their lives, their meetings with friends, their children's achievements, etc., they are in a different class from a politician who makes a speech that is reported in the newspapers or broadcast on TV. While the politician is clearly a justifiable target for close scrutiny and their ideas are open to ridicule, should the same hold true for the average poster on Facebook or the obscure blogger?

In my wanderings around the internet, it seems as if a consensus has emerged that the answer is 'yes', that anyone who posts on the internet is seen as being fair game for the kind of treatment that was once reserved for public figures.

But while the people in the mainstream media (apart from the silly talk shows) tend not to use ad hominem attacks, people on the internet will resort to name-calling and obscenities at the slightest provocation. I am often amused at how quickly people get angry and resort to abuse on the web. If one reads the comments sections on many blogs, they rapidly degenerate into name-calling. (This is not true of this blog where commenters are generally very polite and thoughtful.) It is interesting to see why this is so.

I think this may be because before the web people had few options for being part of the public discourse. If one wrote to the papers or called in to a radio show about some issue, there were filters that prevented people from using language likely to offend or from saying outrageous things. That left only private conversation where the rules of language were fairly clear and where people generally instinctively knew how to express themselves in each situation. In private conversation, people generally feel free to use much coarser language than in public, if they are with people whom they know will not be offended.

With the web, one suddenly has the ability to address the whole world while still having the anonymity that provides an illusion of privacy, and this may explain why discussions can degenerate so rapidly into mudslinging and obscenities.

I personally do not get offended by the kind of language one finds on the web. After all, it surely cannot be a secret that people at all levels of society know and use expletives. It surely is no secret that journalists and politicians and even people who act like pillars of rectitude use coarse language in private.

Although I do not use expletives on a routine basis, I am no innocent and know the words. And yet in 2005, when I reproduced an important article about hurricane Katrina, I felt obliged to do some cleaning up of the language. In the article, one person was quoted as saying "Get off the f------- freeway." Now the original report did not have the dashes, which were inserted by me. I am certain that all readers of this blog know what letters they stand for. In doing this, I was following newspaper conventions of using euphemisms and dashes to replace words that are considered offensive by some, and thus practicing a form of self-censorship.

But my doing so really made no sense. Both reader and writer know what the word is so why does inserting dashes make it less offensive and more acceptable? What exactly was gained by me replacing the last letters of the word with dashes? The only reason I can come up with is so as to avoid offending someone who had led a very sheltered life and did not know the word (and these days that would probably mean a child who has barely learned to talk) and who happened to come across my blog, read the uncensored word and had to ask someone else what it meant, thus causing me to be the cause of that person's loss of innocence. This scenario is unlikely, to say the least. Such a person is also likely to ask why there was a sudden outbreak of dashes, creating a similar problem. Any reader of my blog is almost certain to know the kinds of words I know, so there really was no reason for my self-censorship, except that by abiding by this quaint convention, I had used a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card to escape censure by some language prude out there in cyberland.

It is hard to explain why I felt obliged to do this kind of editing. It was not because this blog is hosted by a university website and therefore I felt a sense of obligation to act with some propriety. I would have done the same thing on a commercially hosted site. The only reason I can think of is that this is a relic of my upbringing, the sense that using words like that is not appropriate in polite company or in public. I just feel a vague sense of discomfort in writing those words, which is why my blog entries do not use them.

But my sensibilities can only control my own writing and not what I read or watch or hear. I am not offended by, and have no problems with, people who use expletives freely and I have little sympathy for those who reach for their smelling salts and tut-tut about civility when what they seem to be really objecting to is criticism of their cherished ideas or policies. As I said before, I agree totally with Salman Rushdie that no ideas should be immune from scrutiny and what words one uses should be left as a choice for the user. For example, the Rude Pundit writes political commentary that is very incisive but his language is often very rude!

Ultimately it is the quality of the argument and the ideas that matter, not how one says it. But how one says it has an effect on one's ability to influence others. If used judiciously vulgarities and profanities and expletives can be very effective in making a point, but used indiscriminately or routinely, they can lose their punch. Just as good actors do not use gestures unthinkingly but carefully select their movements to enhance what they are trying to convey, so should writers view language.

January 15, 2007

Remembering the legacy of Martin Luther King

(On this day in which we remember Dr. King, I thought I would repost something that I wrote last year.)

It is good on a day like this to recognize the importance of resurrecting an essential aspect of the message that Dr. King sought to convey. It is clear that there is a need to remove the layers of gauze that have covered his legacy and blurred the increasingly hard edged vision that characterized the last years of his life.

Most people focus primarily on his "I have a dream speech" given at the March on Washington in 1963. It is important to realize that he did not retire after that oratorical triumph but went on to speak and act in ways that were often different from his pre-1963 positions. His new emphasis on a class-based analysis of American society, his drive to unite the problems of black people with poor and working class white people, coupled with his opposition to the war in Vietnam, were a radical departure from a purely race-based civil rights struggle, cost him some support and alienated some former allies, and are what some believe precipitated his assassination.

Since his death in 1968, the mass media have increasingly portrayed King as primarily a visionary and a dreamer of a non-racial America, and some have even argued that that his dream has essentially come true, apart from some minor remaining problems. To read his last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community is to be jolted by the piercing clarity of his wide-ranging analysis of the real problems, what needed to be done to resolve them, and the immense obstacles that lay in the way of reaching the goal of a free and fair society. It is also important (and rather chastening) to note that nearly everything that he said four decades ago is still relevant today.

What is particularly striking about King's writings is his ability to keep in balance the tension between a hard-eyed and realistic appraisal of the problems faced in trying to achieve justice (derived from his study of politics, economics, history, and philosophy) and his deep-rooted optimism in the innate decency of human beings (derived from his religious faith).

He saw that the successful multiracial coalitions that formed in the civil rights struggles and which culminated in Selma and the Voting Rights Act were just the first phase of the struggle and that these focused around the issues of treating African-Americans decently but not necessarily equally. People of all races were appalled at the lynchings and beatings, and the legal remedies that were proposed did not cost anything and could be supported fairly easily. He wrote that "There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels, and other facilities with whites." But he pointed out that "the absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the same thing as the presence of justice."

King noted that when the issue switched to the second phase, from that of simple decency to one of equality, much of the multiracial support evaporated as the cost of the remedies for generations of injustice became clear. "The discount education given to Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions of people is complex far beyond integrating lunch counters."

King praised the thousands who rushed to battle the brutalities of Selma, "heedless of danger and of differences in race, class, and religion." But he also realized that they represented "the best of America, not all of America" and "Justice at the deepest level had but few stalwart champions. . .The great majority of Americans are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price for eradicating it." He realized that while equality was the common goal of everyone, even the word was interpreted differently by whites and blacks. "Negroes have proceeded from the premise that equality means what it says. . .but most whites. . .proceed from the premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement.''

It is startling to see how well King's analyses of the status of African-Americans in US society hold up three decades later, despite all the other changes that have taken place during that time. King realized that generations of slavery and other forms of discrimination and subjugation had taken its toll on the financial, intellectual, and other resources on the African-American and thus required an enormous and concerted effort from within their own community in order to "overcome his deficiencies and his
maladjustments." But he rejected out of hand the suggestion (currently enjoying a resurgence) that the poor conditions under which they lived "can be explained by the myth of the Negro's innate incapacities, or by the more sophisticated rationalization of his acquired infirmities (family disorganization, poor education, etc.).''

He was no sentimental believer that this appalling state of affairs would disappear by itself once the institutionalized roadblocks had been removed and a legally 'color blind' society had been created. He saw that the problems went much deeper than that. "Depressed living standards for Negroes are not simply the consequence of neglect. . .They are a structural part of the economic system in the United States. Certain industries and enterprises are based upon a supply of low paid, under-skilled and immobile nonwhite labor. Hand assembly factories, hospitals, service industries, housework, agricultural operations using itinerant labor would suffer economic trauma, if not disaster, with a rise in wage scales.''

In other words, powerful economic and political interests benefited from the depressed state of poor people and would strenuously resist any attempts to improve things.

He realized that achieving equality for African Americans required a massive expenditure in education, housing, and employment for blacks, but always emphasized that this must be done within the context of a general anti-poverty program meant for all poor people, of all races and religions. It is a big mistake to think of King as a leader of only black people. When he was killed, he was becoming an outspoken national leader of all people, which was what made him really dangerous.

He had his disagreements with other elements in the civil rights struggle. The main criticism leveled against the non-violence movement led by King (by critics such as those in the Black Power movement) was that it reinforced the stereotype of African-Americans as passive and meek. They argued that changing this perception required African-Americans to separate from whites and forge a more militant identity. King disagreed strongly with this analysis. In an interview, King said that "there is great deal of difference between nonresistance to evil and nonviolent resistance.'' He pointed out that anyone who had been involved in the civil rights struggles would know that nonviolent resistance, far from being passive, was a strong, determined, and effective response to injustice.

He pointed out that violent resistance was futile because its ultimate goal, the total separation of blacks and whites in the US, was absurdly unrealistic. The power of the state was overwhelming and could brutally crush any serious challenge to its authority. If the general public, black and white, did not personally identify with the struggle for justice, then they would passively stand by while this power was unleashed to crush any opposition. He knew from the history of wars in general (and World War II and the Vietnam war in particular) that the general public would passively accept massive injustice and cruelty and horrific destruction on even innocent civilians unless they identified in some way with those at the receiving end of the violence. And the only way "that the pressure of public opinion becomes an ally in your just cause" was if they themselves were touched by the struggle, at some deep level.

King argued that while some notable victories had been won by violence (for example, the American revolution among many independence struggles in former colonial countries), such models were not applicable to the civil rights struggle because "those fighting for independence have the purpose to drive out their oppressors." King argued that blacks and whites had to live together in a post-racist US, and the only way they could do that with any sense of common community was if they joined together in the struggle to create such a society. And he saw a united, non-violent struggle as the way to get everyone working together.

It is this firm conviction in the power of non-violence as an effective strategy, coupled with a basic sense of generosity and fairness in his outlook, his desire to see the best in even those who opposed him, that was the key to his success as a coalition builder. He was always inclusive in his thinking, trying to find ways in which to form a common cause with those who shared his basic belief in justice and equality. But he could also be scathing in his appraisal of those with whom he felt he had nothing in common, and fierce in his denunciation of the few deep-rooted racists who could not be won over.

Martin Luther King was always conscious of the importance of trying to maintain balance between the tensions pulling in different directions. He said that "a strong man must be militant as well as moderate. He must be a realist as well as an idealist." Even the subtitle of his book Chaos or Community shows his realization that the future of society lay in a delicate balance. King's murder removed from our midst someone who could hold people and movements together while moving towards a common goal and thus take us towards community. While we have not quite reached chaos in his absence, there is an urgent and deep need for a new generation of leadership that can point us towards community again.

In addition to his religious faith, Martin Luther King seemed to draw his strength from two sources: his wide reading and scholarship, which enabled him to always place people and events in a deeper and more meaningful context; and his ability to see the best in people. After the march in Montgomery, observing the demonstrators who were crowded together in an airport terminal, he noted "As I stood with them and saw white and Negro, nuns and priests, ministers and rabbis, labor organizers, lawyers, doctors, housemaids and shopworkers brimming with vitality and enjoying a rare comradeship, I knew I was seeing a microcosm of the mankind of the future in this moment of luminous and genuine brotherhood."

His vision of what a society should be and what must be done to achieve it is as relevant and vibrant as ever. His call to action is as compelling now as it was when he first made it.

January 12, 2007

Challenging the sacred

Author Salman Rushdie recently reflected on an aspect of his own education, in opposing an attempt by the British government to pass legislation for a ban on incitement to "hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds."

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

Rushdie thinks this is a good thing and he has the courage of his convictions, writing things in his novel The Satanic Verses that led to him receiving a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini for blaspheming Islam. But it is good to remind oneself that not all people enjoy this kind of argumentation on a personal level. Some will enjoy the verbal swordplay, the cut and thrust and parry of ideas that the debating societies of Cambridge and Oxford are famous for, and which provide the training for future leaders of England who must excel at the parliamentary debating style. But such an approach is not for everyone since not everyone is comfortable exploring ideas in the context of a ferocious battle of wits.

I agree with Rushdie on the basic premise that no ideas should be immune from criticism and that no one has the right to expect to be shielded from ideas that they might find repugnant. But how one closely scrutinizes ideas depends a lot on the situation. In a classroom, I think treating other people's ideas with derision or contempt is not appropriate and is likely to shut down thought rather than encourage it. People's ideas and their identities may be too closely intertwined to enable the neat separation between ideas and people that Rushdie envisages. I don't think you can be "savagely rude" about someone's ideas without also being seen as being savagely rude to that person. Perhaps it is possible with very carefully chosen words, but difficult to carry out in spontaneous conversation. If I say that an idea is stupid, am I not implying that the speaker must be stupid to have held that belief in the first place?

This is particularly the case where religion is involved. In my seminar class on the Evolution of Scientific Ideas, we discussed the Rushdie quote in the context of the science-religion conflict that we were discussing. If someone thought (as some in the class did) that all religious faith, or any specific religious faith, was irrational, could they say that without religious believers feeling that they were being labeled as irrational people? On the other hand, believing that religion is irrational is a perfectly legitimate point of view, so if the speaker feels constrained not to say such things because of the conventions of politeness, then he is effectively being censored. The range of views in the discussion become artificially narrowed, depriving all the participants of a growth opportunity.

In my class, we decided that the way out of this dilemma is to first establish a good atmosphere in the class so that people felt respected as individuals and think of the whole groups as their friends. In that situation, people are likely to word their ideas in ways that do not gratuitously offend (such as saying things like "that idea is stupid") while people did their best not to feel offended if their cherished ideas were critiqued and found wanting. In other words, we would try not to offend others or to be easily offended, while at the same time not avoid expressing unpopular or unpalatable ideas.

Achieving this requires that people assume good intentions on the part of others in the conversation. But establishing such a cordial atmosphere where people can speak frankly without causing offense is only possible in small groups where personal relationships can be established.

Things are different in public life and it is in this situation that I think Rushdie's position is wholly justified and even admirable. In addition, in public discourse there is necessarily a distance between ideas and people that can act as a kind of protective shield. If, for example, someone on TV ridicules Mormons and says that they are stupid, then although all Mormons are being attacked, any individual Mormon watching does not have the sense of being personally targeted as being stupid. They can console themselves with the notion that the speaker is mistaken because he has not met non-stupid Mormons like themselves.

Public figures like politicians and televangelists, of course, have put their own ideas out for public view and cannot separate themselves from them. Thus when their ideas and actions are directly criticized, they can justifiably feel that they are being personally attacked. But having their ideas and actions held up for public derision and scorn is part of the price they pay for entering the public arena and they go there willingly. It may be unpleasant but they are not forced into that position and they have to take their lumps.

For example, professional comedians depend on parody and satire and even ridicule and derision for their humor. (See comedian Craig Ferguson on TV evangelists like Pat Robertson.) One has to grant them this license, because humor is a powerful weapon for cutting though the fog of ideas and making points effectively. The humor of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report would be far less sharp and effective if they had to worry about the feelings of the public figures they skewer.

I have mixed feelings about Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G. and Borat) when he is working with ordinary people. Although he is obviously a gifted comic and I find him to be very funny, my amusement is mixed with some discomfort. However much I might dislike the views of the people who are ambushed by him, tricking ordinary people into looking foolish in front of a mass audience does not seem quite right somehow.

Again, Rushdie is perfectly right is saying that no ideas should be shielded from criticism. But it seems to me that when doing so in the private sphere, one should be circumspect about how one says things. The more one is challenging someone's core beliefs, the more one should try to spare that person's feelings. There just seems to be no point in upsetting people when it can be avoided by more careful use of language and by showing some consideration, while not avoiding the issues.

Next: Rudeness on the web.

January 11, 2007

Bush speech on Iraq

I almost always avoid watching formal speeches live. You have to listen to a lot of verbiage before getting to the gist. I find it far more efficient to read the transcript afterwards, though that means I miss the nuances that the spoken words provide.

But since Bush's latest speech was highly advertised as showing a new way forward, I tuned in. You can read the transcript here. As far as I can tell, there was little that I would consider 'new' but this may be my fault for being a policy wonk and following this topic closely. Maybe others will find it new and hopeful.

The main new development is, as widely reported before the speech, to increase the number troops in Baghdad by 17,500 troops and those in Anbar province by 4,000. He said the reason that this strategy is new is because while earlier the troops could clear areas, they could not keep them clear once they moved on. The new levels will enable them to 'clear and hold.' Also, earlier the US troops had too many restrictions on where they could operate. The hope is that these changes will enable the troops to bring the levels of violence down and thus allow development to take place, thus undermining the destabilization strategies of the insurgents. The rest of the speech seemed to consist of dire warnings about the consequences for the US and the world if the US 'failed' in Iraq, plus the now-obligatory digs at Syria and Iran.

It seems to me that this 'clear and hold' strategy was tried before so it is not really new. Will it now work with the new higher levels of troops? I have no idea. What is not a hopeful sign is that right now there rages a pitched, long battle in Baghdad on a major thoroughfare just 1,000 yards from the Green Zone. If this is the state of affairs in the capital city nearly four years after the invasion and with 140,000 troops in the country, can another 21,500 tip the balance and bring order?

Also, the implication that US troops will now operate with fewer restrictions sounds ominous, since the earlier 'hearts and minds' strategy had failed.

Meanwhile the can has been kicked down the road for another year, because Bush has said that the Iraqi government will take full charge of security by November. So presumably we will have to be patient until then to see if the 'new' plan has worked.

There have been some disturbing suggestions that the option of escalating troops levels may have been chosen because Bush did not like the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group's approach and this was definitely something that went counter to their proposals. The Washington Post reports that:

How to look distinctive from the study group became a recurring theme.

As described by participants in the administration review, some staff members on the National Security Council became enamored of the idea of sending more troops to Iraq in part because it was not a key feature of Baker-Hamilton.

Choosing a policy of troop escalation as a means of thumbing one's nose at the ISG seems extraordinarily childish and irresponsible on a matter of such gravity. Normally such an allegation would be dismissed out of hand. The very fact that a major newspaper finds it worth mentioning indicates how low the opinion has sunk of this administration's decision-making abilities and motives.

somalia.gif Meanwhile, there is an ominous development in Somalia. News reports say that US special forces are now operating on the ground in that country, operating from their base in Djibouti, the tiny country on the northwestern tip of Somalia, which separates Somalia from Eritrea.

This suggests that the Ethiopian armies might be running into trouble.

POST SCRIPT: If they'd only listen to him. . .

Problems are so simple to solve if you happen to be a neoconservative theoretician. Michael Ledeen (whom I have written about before here and here) in one very brief column tells everybody exactly what they should do to solve the problems the US is facing in the Middle East.

He tells the lazy, shiftless Iraqis that they should get off their butts and start running the country: "[S]omebody should compel the sleepy defense ministry in Baghdad to pay the Iraqi troops. . . Maliki et. al. say they want sovereign authority. Fine. Let them act like a government and pay their employees."

He tells the lazy, shiftless US soldiers to get off their butts and do some patrolling: "We’ve got lots of soldiers sitting on megabases all over Iraq. They should be out and about, some of them embedded, others just moving around, tracking the terrorists, hunting them down. I don’t know how many guys and gals are sitting in air-conditioned quarters and drinking designer coffee, but it’s a substantial number. Enough of that."

He tells the lazy, shiftless Cheney/Bush team to get off their butts and start invading other countries: "[T]he only way to demonstrate a will to win is to go after the Iranians and the Syrians, as well as the terrorists already inside Iraq."

And to top it off, he tells the lazy, shiftless Iranian people to get off their butts and overthrow their government: "We should propose a better solution to the Iranian people: revolution, leading to their freedom."

He alerts us to the fact that he is going to give us more valuable suggestions in the future because he ends up with "if we want to win, that’s the first step. Anybody ready?" (my emphasis).

And then, exhausted by giving all this advice, Ledeen lay down on the couch in his air-conditioned home, drank some designer coffee, and watched some football.

In future columns, Ledeen is going to solve the problem of global warming ("People should stop doing things that cause global warming"), crime ("Policemen should solve crimes and arrest all the criminals"), cancer ("Researchers should do experiments that will lead to a cure"), dark matter and dark energy ("Physicists should shine some light on it so that they can see it better"), and poverty ("People who are poor should go out and get jobs instead of sitting on their couches, drinking designer coffee, and watching football").

I can hardly wait.

January 10, 2007

When god talks to people

When things look grim in the world, you can always look to Pat Robertson to cheer things up with some new lunacy and he rarely lets you down. Just recently, Robertson said that god has been speaking to him again and there is much merriment in the country. According to CNN:

Evangelical broadcaster Pat Robertson said Tuesday that God has told him that a terrorist attack on the United States would cause a "mass killing" late in 2007.

"I'm not necessarily saying it's going to be nuclear," he said during his news-and-talk television show "The 700 Club" on the Christian Broadcasting Network.

"The Lord didn't say nuclear. But I do believe it will be something like that."

Robertson said God told him about the impending tragedy during a recent prayer retreat.
God also said, he claims, that major cities and possibly millions of people will be affected by the attack, which should take place sometime after September.

The funny thing is why would god tell him just the problem and not how to solve it? During these cozy chats, Robertson never seems to have the sense to ask god for more details about the impending attack so that the disasters might be minimized. We need to give him some journalistic training so that he will ask the when, where, how, who questions that will give us usable information.

Although his past predictions have not turned out well, this does not stop the irrepressible Robertson from continuing to make them. The millions of viewers of his show who send him money presumably take his claims seriously, despite the lack of details. But the interesting question is how the rest of us respond to his claim that god speaks to him.

As an atheist, this question is easy to answer. Since we don't believe in a god, anyone who says that they received a message from god about anything can be dismissed as either simply lying, or mistaken (because they took some random event or a coincidence as a special message from god), or delusional (because they were dreaming or in an otherwise less than fully rational and conscious state of mind) or, in the most serious cases, psychotic. I tend to agree with the TV character House who in one episode about a faith healer tells a colleague: "You talk to god, you're religious. God talks to you, you're psychotic."

So for atheists the obvious and easy conclusion is that Robertson must be either psychotic or an insatiable publicity-seeking liar who knows that this kind of thing will propel him into the news, since his chats with god occur too often to be taken as mistakes or temporary delusions.

But if you are a believer in a god who can and does act in mysterious ways in the world, on what basis can you judge if god is talking to some chosen people or even to you? Some have said that Bush feels that god talks to him too. How can religious people judge if that is true?

This is not a trivial matter since people have been known to shoot up other people and claim in justification that god told them to do it. If people are psychotic, they need help before they can harm themselves or others. And yet, news reporters are willing to flatly report the statements of a public person like Robertson without asking the obvious follow-up question about whether he is certifiably insane, despite the clear indications that they don't believe him. If they did, they would ask him questions like "What does god's voice sound like? What were you doing when he spoke to you?"

Suppose someone said that Abraham Lincoln spoke to him or her on a regular basis. Since Christians believe in an afterlife, they should have as little difficulty believing in this as in believing that god speaks to people. But anyone claiming to have cozy chats with old Abe would be immediately looked upon askance, and such an assertion would cast serious doubt on their sanity. But a similar statement about god speaking to them does not raise the same warning flags. Assertions by some people that god speaks to them are received with an indulgent smile but are not openly dismissed as crazy either.

Why is this? I can see no rational reason for this casual attitude except to think that even devout Christians, in their heart of hearts, really don't believe any of this stuff about god speaking to people but don't want to come right out and say it. Richard Dawkins in his latest book The God Delusion quotes a believer who describes what I think is a common attitude among religious believers. (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the link.)

Every thinking person, perhaps, is assailed at times with religious doubt. My own faith has wavered many a time. But I never told anyone of my spiritual aberrations for two reasons: (1) I feared that I might, by mere suggestion, disturb and damage the life and hopes of some fellow being; (2) because I agree with the writer who said, 'There is a mean streak in anyone who will destroy another's faith.'

It is very much an 'emperor's new clothes' syndrome. The vast mass of people keep their doubts and skepticism to themselves, possibly out of fear that others will confess their own skepticism and the whole house of cards will collapse, leaving them with an existential void that they are not equipped or prepared to fill.

This is another reason why it is such a relief to be an atheist. Once you require evidence for assertions of fact, it becomes so much easier to distinguish the credible from the crazy and to simply say so.

POST SCRIPT: Cell phones and driving

I just went to a memorial service. It was for a lovely and talented 24-year old woman, the daughter of a friend and former colleague and who was also a classmate of my own daughter. I was told that she apparently lost control of her car and crashed into a pole. She was supposedly using her cell phone when it happened.

It is always hard to tell in such cases if the cell phone use was the direct cause of the accident or not. All I know is that when I see the great sadness that has descended on all her family and friends, I felt the need to ask all readers of this blog (and through them the people they know) to not take the chance.

I am hoping the day will come soon when putting away the cell phone when you begin to drive becomes as automatic as putting on your seat belt.

January 09, 2007

How freedoms are stolen away

I have written before about how this government has steadily and stealthily taken away the rights that have been taken for granted. The latest atrocity, though seemingly minor when compared to the awful Military Commissions Act was done stealthily, by means of the infamous 'signing' statements, whereby the President issues a statement while signing a bill into law. Usually, these statements are meant to provide guidance to the executive branch on how to interpret the law. But Bush has used these statements to counter the intent of the law or even to assert new powers for himself.

I have already written about the loss of habeas corpus which Jeffrey Toobin also writes about in an article in the New Yorker.

We have already seen that the government is guilty of torturing those in its custody in the infamous case of Jose Padilla, where it is clear that the government's goal is to destroy him as a human being. This new article explains why he was forced to wear blinders and sound-proof ear muffs on his way to see a dentist.

"From 1950 to 1962," [Alfred] McCoy writes, "the CIA became involved in torture through a massive mind-control effort, with psychological warfare and secret research into human consciousness that reached a cost of a billion dollars annually - a veritable Manhattan Project of the mind." This research amounted to "the first real revolution in the cruel science of pain in more than three centuries." This "black budget" research has never stopped and elements of it were rushed into practice after 9/11.

No need for thumbscrews, racks, phone-crank generators to the genitals or Black & Decker drills. This was "no-touch torture," using extreme isolation and sensory deprivation to create confusion while establishing in the subject's mind the sense that any pain is self-inflicted, that he had chosen the course that led to the pain he was suffering. All it required was extended periods of time and the total elimination of all stimulation and human contact other than that of the jailer and the interrogator.

Padilla spent 21 months in a South Carolina brig especially re-designed after 9/11 to handle interrogation cases like his. A 10- cell wing was devoted solely to Padilla. The windows of his cell were blackened, and he wasn't allowed a clock or calendar.

McCoy says the no-touch torture chamber "has the theatricality of a set with special lighting, sound effects, props, and backdrops, all designed with a perverse stagecraft to evoke an aura of fear... The psychological component of torture becomes a kind of total theater, a constructed unreality of lies and inversion, in a plot that ends inexorably with the victim's self-betrayal and destruction..."

"As a result of his experiences during his detention and interrogation," the New York Times quoted psychiatrist Dr. Angela Hegarty as saying, Padilla "has impairments in reasoning... complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation."

For more grim details of the inhumane treatment Padilla has received, see here. For other examples of torture by the US, see here

And now, after previously asserting his right to conduct warrantless wiretapping of phones, Bush has declared that he now also has the right to open people's mail without a judge's warrant. "That claim is contrary to existing law and contradicted the bill he had just signed, say experts who have reviewed it."

This further erosion of the rights of citizens will probably be ignored by a nation that is either apathetic to the loss of rights that earlier generations fought so hard to enshrine into law or so fearful of terrorism that they are willing to trade away all their rights for a spurious sense of security.

I found on the web this extended quote from Milton Mayer's book They Thought They Were Free, The Germans, 1938-45 that shows how a similar creeping erosion of freedom happened at another time and place.

What no one seemed to notice. . . was the ever widening gap. . .between the government and the people. . . And it became always wider. . . the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting, it provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway . . . (it) gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about . . .and kept us so busy with continuous changes and 'crises' and so fascinated . . . by the machinations of the 'national enemies,' without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. . .

Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, 'regretted,' that unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these 'little measures'. . . must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. . . .Each act. . . is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.

You don't want to act, or even talk, alone. . . you don't want to 'go out of your way to make trouble.' . . .But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That's the difficulty. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves, when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. . . .You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things your father. . . could never have imagined.

It is a chilling reminder of how easily people be persuaded to accept things, provided they can be made fearful and the changes made gradually.

POST SCRIPT: Somalia update

The US Air Force has joined the Navy in carrying out operations in Somalia, against purported al Qaeda targets. The Ethiopian troops, already inside the country for a month are facing guerilla attacks, which are being urged on by Ayman al Zawahiri, who is using the Iraq and Afghanistan examples as rallying cries.

Concern is being expressed at the consequences of Ethiopia being seen as a US puppet. It does not help that Ethiopia is a Christian-led country in a heavily Muslim area. It is not hard to see how a US-Ethiopian alliance can be stigmatized as a new Crusade.

January 08, 2007

Words and actions

One of the things that often puzzles me about some public figures is how insensitive they are to what their words might seem to people who are suffering. Bush seems to be a classic case.

When questioned in December 2006 about how he is handling things, he says that "I'm sleeping a lot better than people would assume."

This is a curious thing to say, and extraordinarily insensitive when you think about it. After all, tens of thousands of US soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed or injured as a result of his decisions. You would think that a person who had the weight of his decisions on his hands would worry at least a little about it and spend at least some time tossing and turning wondering how to improve the situation.

And yet, Bush goes out of his way to say that it does not bother him. What is baffling is why he would say it even if that is true. Surely he must realize that the families of the dead and injured US soldiers would expect him to not be so insouciant about it. Surely for the sake of sparing their feelings he would say that he does lose sleep wondering how to make sure their sacrifice was worth it. And yet, it seems to him to be more important to convey his own confidence that he is right than be concerned about how it might be perceived by others who are directly affected by his decisions.

In an interview with Buzzflash, Justin A. Frank, M.D., author of the book Bush on the Couch says that this is typical of sociopathic behavior:

A sociopath is. . .a person who can be very charming, but psychologically is so massively defended against experiencing guilt that he cannot feel empathy. If you don't feel guilt, you can't empathize, because you never can feel concern about having hurt somebody else, or anybody else suffering. Guilt reins in destructive behavior. But if you don't have any guilt, you don't have to feel any anxiety or anything that will hold you back in terms of being destructive or being hurtful. And that leads you to being unable to feel empathy, because empathy actually threatens your safety.

If you feel somebody else is in trouble, then you may feel you are obligated to do something about it. That's something that is anathema to a psychopath, and it's certainly anathema to Bush. So he is really incapable of feeling empathy. What he has figured out, with the help of his advisors, is to run as a "compassionate conservative" so he looks like a person who's empathic. And his affability is what fooled a lot of people into making them feel that he really was connected to them, because he's so charming. That is classic psychopathy.

This kind of insensitivity extends to other public figures. Recall former Secretary of State Madeline Albright saying in 1996 that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children as a result of the US-imposed sanctions was "worth it", or the current Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice saying last month that that Iraq is "worth the investment" in American lives and dollars.

I am not naïve. When they say "worth it", they are referring to their calculations about the willingness of the American public to continue to support their actions. And in Rice's case, the families of the dead might feel even worse if they said the Iraq war was not worth it. But by saying these things in this way, they are insensitive to the fact that in the deals they have weighed and found satisfactory, the huge price involved being paid is by others. You would think that they would phrase their responses in such a way that it does not cause needless anguish to those actually paying that price through the deaths of their loved ones. Instead these political leaders come across as cold and callous and calculating.

In the early days of the Iraq war, Bush's aides tried to portray a person who worried about the consequences of his actions. On April 2, 2003, as the initial invasion of Iraq was in full swing, aides tried to portray a president who "spends a lot of time stewing about the families of the slain, the safety of POWs and the flow of humanitarian aid into Iraq." So far so good. But then they botched it by adding that "People who know Bush well say the strain of war is palpable. He rarely jokes with staffers these days and occasionally startles them with sarcastic putdowns. He's being hard on himself; he gave up sweets just before the war began." (my emphasis)

So Iraqi and American families are asked to sacrifice the lives of their loved ones for his war and in return Bush gives up sweets. Even when they try, they end up trivializing.

It has now been nearly four years since that war began. Iraqi and American lives are still being "sacrificed" and in his upcoming speech on a "new" policy in Iraq, we are told that Bush will call for an escalation of the troop levels in Iraq and emphasize the need for all of us to "sacrifice."

I don't believe that the sacrifices will be anything of the kind we normally associate with the word. We are not going to be asked to pay more taxes to fund an expansion of the war without driving up the debt. We are not going to have the draft reinstated. We are not going to be asked to tighten our belts and do without in any way. We are not going to be asked to do anything tangible because with Bush's general job approval ratings now at only 30% and approval of his handling of Iraq at an astoundingly low level of 23%, it is unlikely that he will ask people to experience any real pain. When coupled with a very recent poll showing that "For the first time, more troops disapprove of the president's handling of the war than approve of it. . .Barely one-third of service members approve of the way the president is handling the war", it shows that the bottom has dropped out of Bush's support for this war, something that he cannot help but realize.

I have long believed that there is no proposition, however idiotic, for which you cannot obtain about 10-20% support in opinion polls. For example, a recent Associated Press poll finds that 25% of Americans believe that 2007 will see the second coming of Jesus! (Jesus' General astutely surmises that these must be the very same people who still approve of Bush's handling of Iraq.) So Bush's support has gone about as low as it can go. These editorial page cartoons pretty much sum up what people in general feel about the likely escalation (aka "surge") that is to be announced soon in his speech.



In his much-hyped speech about what he is going to do next, what we will likely be told is to expect more of the same, apart from shifts in personnel. I expect to hear that the US occupation is going to be long and costly and that we must be patient and not expect any results from this 'new' plan for at least 18 months, which means that it will effectively last for more than two years, or until Bush leaves office and his successor is left to clean up the mess.

The 'sacrifice' asked of us will be to give up the right to criticize the actions of the worst president in US history.

POST SCRIPT: Misleading people about global warming

In August of last year, I wrote of how there were powerful economic forces that had a vested interest in creating confusion about global warming, in ways that were similar to how the tobacco industry tried to cloud the issue of whether smoking caused cancer.

It has now been revealed that:

ExxonMobil Corp. gave $16 million to 43 ideological groups between 1998 and 2005 in a coordinated effort to mislead the public by discrediting the science behind global warming
. . .
Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists' strategy and policy director, said in a teleconference that ExxonMobil based its tactics on those of tobacco companies, spreading uncertainty by misrepresenting peer-reviewed scientific studies or cherry-picking facts.

Dr. James McCarthy, a professor at Harvard University, said the company has sought to "create the illusion of a vigorous debate" about global warming.

The ExxonMobil executives do not care if future generations (even their own children and grandchildren) suffer from the effects of global warming as long as present profits are high.


January 05, 2007

A troubled start to 2007

I am by nature an optimist but frankly I do not see much good lying in wait in 2007. Peace shows no sign of breaking out anywhere.

In Sri Lanka, the conflict between the Tamil Tiger separatists and the government seems to be intensifying again, with the attempts at talks by the Norwegian mediators going nowhere.

The situation in Iraq shows no signs of easing and the idea of escalating the war there by sending in more US trooops seems to be the option that is being favored by Bush.

Afghanistan seems to be unraveling, with some analysts foreseeing increased strength for the Taliban and that the US will be defeated by the insurgency there.

All these things have been steadily worsening situations. What alarmed me over the break was a new conflict, the sudden invasion by Ethiopian troops into Somalia, to depose the government of the Union of Islamic Courts. At first blush, this seems like a regional conflict that has nothing to do with the US but in actuality the US is quite deeply involved in it and this recent development is not a good sign, since it indicates a further escalation.

somalia.gifTo understand what is involved there, we first need to look at the map, which immediately shows why the US is concerned about what goes on there. Somalia occupies a very strategic position on the horn of Africa. It overlooks crucial bodies of water (the Red Sea and Arabian Sea) across which lie Saudi Arabia and Yemen and the Gulf states.

Then we need to look at the history of the country. Somalia has been a country with an unstable government for some time, battling with its neighbor Ethiopia, suppressing secessionist movements, and subject to periods of being ruled by military coup leaders like Mohammed Siad Barre (1970-1991), and after he was overthrown, being in a state of near anarchy, with warlords and clan leaders battling for supremacy.

In 2004 a truce was cobbled together and a shaky transitional government was formed by the warlords, but it failed to establish any security or provide basic services. In June 2006, this transitional government was overthrown by an Islamist group that seized control of most of the country and the capital Mogadishu. It crushed the power of the warlords and set up the government called the Union of Islamic Courts and managed to bring some sort of order and security. In many ways, the UIC reminds me of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a group that advocates enforcement of a strict Islamic code on its people but is also able to provide security and basic services. It puts the Somali people in the tough position of having to balance the disadvantages of strict religious rules enforced in all aspects of life against the advantage of security and the promise of a reasonably ordered society.

It is the UIC government that was routed by the Ethiopian armies over Christmas. Its followers have dispersed but not disarmed. The Ethiopian armies have restored the fragile transitional government that was dominated by the corrupt warlords that was routed by the UIC six months earlier.

Here is the danger. It is clear that the Ethiopian government, which is pro-US and whose powerful military is supplied by the US, is acting as a proxy for the US in this conflict, although they have their own goals as well. But Ethiopia has its own internal ethnic problems as well as a long-standing border conflict with its northern neighbor Eritrea (which broke away from Ethiopia in 1993) and its government has a reputation for brutality. Furthermore, Ethiopia has had wars with Somalia in the past so they are not likely to been by the Somalis as a disinterested party.

The Ethiopians have indicated that they will stay in Somalia as long as the weak transitional government needs them but the history of what happens to foreign invading forces who don't leave immediately is not a pleasant one, as we should have all learned from the bitter lessons of history but which countries seem to repeatedly ignore.

What happens if the UIC supporters, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, regroup and wage an insurgency against the Ethiopian forces, as they have threatened to do? There are already signs that this is their plan. The ability of the Iraqi insurgency to hold off the US forces cannot help but encourage them in the belief that they can do the same to the Ethiopians. If the Ethiopians start sustaining losses in a guerilla war, what are the options available to them and the US? Have the Ethiopians withdraw, allowing the UIC to regain power in a country that has great strategic value? Or reinforce support for the Ethiopians and give them the green light to unleash massive casualties in an attempt to eliminate all UIC sympathizers? Or even directly send in US forces? The US navy is already involved and acting in concert with Ethiopian forces.

The ethnic and religious and clan politics of Somalia is, if you can imagine it, even more complicated than in Iraq. (See this excellent analysis of the Somali situation by Eric Margolis. Justin Raimondo also provides some useful background and history.) By throwing its support behind the corrupt and warlord-backed transitional government (the very warlords who were behind the killing of 18 US troops in 1993 that was dramatized in Black Hawk Down), the US has reversed course, deciding that the warlords it once opposed and hunted down are now its friends, or at least preferable to the Islamists.

If there is one lesson that Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught is to tread very warily into the sectarian disputes of other countries. The US in its seeming determination to prevent an Islamic government emerging in the strategic horn of Africa has, through its proxy Ethiopia, got involved in another dangerous and volatile situation that does not look at all good for the future.

I fear that the people of Somalia are going to end up like the beleaguered people of Afghanistan, constantly buffeted by outside powers in a geostrategic game. And the US is opening up a third front of involvement in an Islamic country even while the other two fronts are going badly.

Not a good way to start 2007.

January 04, 2007

Cults and Religions-2: Is secrecy the difference?

In the previous post, I showed how some journalists and media pundits like Christopher Hitchens and Jacob Weisberg think that believing in Mormonism indicates stupidity and disqualifies the holder of the right to high office. Weisberg states "Such views are disqualifying because they're dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is." I suspect that many people share that view.

This is an interesting argument. But it raises the obvious question as to why beliefs in mainstream religions are not considered dogmatic or irrational or absurd. Why should believing in Mormonism be considered be considered outside the bounds of acceptability while believing in Christianity or Judaism or Islam is not? For that matter, why is the Church of Scientology or the Unification Church or the Hare Krishnas seen as so outlandish by many people?

Weisberg makes a stab at addressing this problem:

One may object that all religious beliefs are irrational—what's the difference between Smith's "seer stone" and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It's Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference. The world's greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor. (my emphasis)

Basically he seems to be saying that although Mormonism may be a fraud just like Christianity and Judaism, its problem is that it is not old enough. If the fraud is old and opaque enough, that would pass muster. That is really such a weak argument as to not be an argument at all. It is the kind of reasoning one comes up with when one has already decided on the conclusion and is now scrambling around to justify it by any means possible.

The reasons for popular disdain cannot lie in the nature of the beliefs itself, that the beliefs of Mormonism or Scientology are so bizarre as to be beyond the pale. If one is a Christian or Jew or Muslim or Hindu, one is already committed to believing things so bizarre (the virgin birth of Jesus or that god spoke to Moses via a burning bush or that god dictated the Koran verbatim to Mohammed) that one would have to be disqualified from sitting in judgment on the credibility of the beliefs of others. So while I have little idea of what Mormons actually are required to believe (for all I know they believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster), I cannot see how it could be any more preposterous than the beliefs of other so-called mainstream religions. It seems to me that once one has abandoned the need for any scientific evidence for one's beliefs, all bets are off and you might as well believe in fairies and unicorns.

So what makes something a cult and something else a religion? It cannot be the existence of a prophetic leader. It is true that most modern-day phenomena that we call cults tend to be founded by a charismatic leader. One thinks of cult leaders David Koresh and Jim Jones for example. While it is true that Mormonism was also founded by a so-called prophet Joseph Smith, so also was Christianity and Judaism and Islam, and yet we do not label those as a Jesus cult or Moses cult or Mohammed cult.

It is tempting to conclude that the difference between religions and cults is based purely on size and acceptance, that as cults become established, are around for a long time, and grow in size, they become mainstream and thus accepted by the community at large. It seems as long as a large number of people believe in something, that belief, however preposterous objectively, becomes viewed as reasonable. If every other person in your community is a member of a particular group, it is hard to see that group as different and threatening, the way that a very small group can be seen.

But there may be something more tangible that divides those groups that we call religions from those we call cults. It could be argued that cults tend to have secrets that are revealed only to the initiated, and that there is some tangible repercussion, if not punishment, for leaving the group once you had joined.

With mainstream religions, there is really no secrecy as to what being a member involves. You can know before going into it what being a Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim or Jew means. And you can leave the group later if you want to, without being shunned or ostracized or threatened or worse. But with groups like the Mormons, there are secrets that only Mormons supposedly know. When I visited Salt Lake City, for example, the main tabernacle was closed off for non-Mormon visitors and the Mormons apparently have rituals that are not revealed to non-Mormons.

Again, this may be a factor largely determined by size. When groups become large, as the mainstream religions became over time, it becomes hard to keep its internal secrets from becoming public knowledge. Even now, one can find some of the secrets of the Mormon religion on the web, put there by former members, with all this revelatory activity triggered by Andrew Sullivan's post that more than 43% of the population would not vote for a Mormon because they do not consider them to be Christians. This spread of information is inevitable these days and perhaps if Church of Latter Day Saints made all its beliefs public, the Mormons would be more accepted.

But returning to the original question of whether Mitt Romney being a Mormon is sufficient reason for him not being considered suitable for being president, being a member of a group that had secrets has not disqualified others in the past. After all, both George Bush and John Kerry were members of a secret society at Yale and many Presidents have been Masons. And yet, there is clearly some discomfort with the idea of having a Mormon president. Perhaps that will pass with time, the way that Kennedy managed to overcome objections to his Catholicism, an objection that seems far-fetched just a little over forty years later.

As more and more Mormons become visible and are seen as being just like others, being a Mormon might not be a negative factor for holding high office. After all, George Bush takes great pride in being a very religious Christian and see where that has taken us. It is hard to imagine that a Mormon could be any worse.

January 03, 2007

Cults and Religions-1: Should a Mormon be President?

I was involved in a discussion recently about what differences, if any, existed between those beliefs that we label as religion and those we label as cults. The formal definition of the word cult (as given by Merriam-Webster) seems to cover religion as well since it says: "1: formal religious veneration, 2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; 3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; 4: a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator, 5 a: great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially: such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad b: the object of such devotion c: a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion."

Apart from definition 4, which struck me as a rarely-used meaning of the word, the rest of the definitions seemed to cover religions as well, with the only possible distinctions arising from the words 'usually small' in 5c and 'unorthodox or spurious' in 3. Is a cult then merely a religion that has not (yet) attracted a large number of followers or something that is simply looked down upon for no objective reason?

But while there may not be a clear dictionary distinction between a cult and a religion, it is clear that the words have a different emotional impact, with the word religion having a neutral flavor to it, while the word cult definitely has pejorative connotations.

The question of cults versus religions came up in the context of speculations about Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2008. It turns out that he is a Mormon and some have suggested that the country is not ready for a Mormon president, alleging that the Church of the Latter Day Saints is a cult.

Take, for example, this exchange between Hugh Hewitt and Christopher Hitchens. Hewitt asked Hitchens his opinion of the incoming senate majority leader Harry Reid, who is also a Mormon.

CH: A Mormon mediocrity, and extraordinary, sort of reactionary, nullity.

HH: Now isn't that bigoted to say a Mormon mediocrity, Christopher Hitchens?

CH: No, no. I'm always in favor of pointing out which cult people belong to.

HH: You see, I think that is very, very harsh and offensive, but I will allow the Mormon listeners to call you on that.

CH: No, he's a Smithite, for Heaven's sake. I mean, he believes that some idiot found gold plates buried in the ground.

HH: But it is religious bigotry to call that out. And do you make similar comments...

CH: No, it's not me who says he's a Mormon. Excuse me, it's he who says it.

HH: I know that, but I still think...

CH: I say that anyone who believes that stuff is an idiot.

HH: I know you believe that, but isn't it sort of randomly bigoted to bring that out and throw it onto the table?

CH: Not at all, no. It's essential to point out...

HH: I disagree.

CH: Especially at a time when people are always saying it's the Republican Party that's run by religious crackpots and nutbags. And it's very important to point out these people have a big foothold in the Democratic Party, too.

HH: I think that's terribly religiously bigoted. I think that is up there with, like, saying about Jesse Jackson that he's African-American in the course of commenting on him.

CH: Well, I don't really see how he could keep that a secret, how one could...

HH: Well, it's not a secret that he's a Mormon. It's just sort of a random attack on a guy's faith. I don't like Reid at all, but...

CH: No, I think less of him because of the stupid cult of which he's a member. I would say the same if he was a Scientologist.

As another example of the strong feelings against Mormonism that some have, take Jacob Weisberg writing in Slate:

There are millions of religious Americans who would never vote for an atheist for president, because they believe that faith is necessary to lead the country. Others, myself included, would not, under most imaginable circumstances, vote for a fanatic or fundamentalist—a Hassidic Jew who regards Rabbi Menachem Schneerson as the Messiah, a Christian literalist who thinks that the Earth is less than 7,000 years old, or a Scientologist who thinks it is haunted by the souls of space aliens sent by the evil lord Xenu. Such views are disqualifying because they're dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.

By the same token, I wouldn't vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism. The LDS church holds that Joseph Smith, directed by the angel Moroni, unearthed a book of golden plates buried in a hillside in Western New York in 1827. The plates were inscribed in "reformed" Egyptian hieroglyphics—a nonexistent version of the ancient language that had yet to be decoded. If you don't know the story, it's worth spending some time with Fawn Brodie's wonderful biography No Man Knows My History. Smith was able to dictate his "translation" of the Book of Mormon first by looking through diamond-encrusted decoder glasses and then by burying his face in a hat with a brown rock at the bottom of it. He was an obvious con man. Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don't want him running the country.

The attitudes of Hitchens and Weisberg that Mormonism and scientology are beyond the pale of 'respectable' beliefs are apparently shared by many people and in the next post we will see how well they withstand close scrutiny.

January 02, 2007

The joy of free thinking

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging. New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.)

There is scarcely a week that does not pass without some interesting new scientific discovery about the nature of life. You open the newspaper and read of observations of light emitted by distant stars from the very edges of the known universe, light that must have been emitted almost at the very beginning, over ten billion years ago. Such research puts us in touch with our own cosmic beginnings. See this video for images from the Hubble Space telescope of the deep field that shows galaxies nearly 80 billion light years away. It is at once humbling to realize that we are but a speck in the vast regions of space who occupy a flicker of time, while also exhilarating that despite these limitations of space and time, we have been able, thanks to science, to learn so much about the universe we live in.

Just recently there was the discovery of the fossils a possible new Hobbit-like people who lived in a remote island in the Indonesian archipelago about 18,000 years ago. Then there was the discovery in China of an almost perfectly preserved bowl of noodles that is about the 4,000 years old. Discoveries like these shed light on how evolution works and how human society evolved.

Similarly, the discoveries that come from studies of DNA tell us a lot about where humans probably originated, how we are all related to one another and how, despite our common origins, the species spread over the Earth and diversified. The fact (according to the September 21, 2005 issue of The Washington Post) that we share over 90 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, lend further strong support (not that it needed it) to the evolutionary idea that chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestry.

I enjoy reading things like this because it reminds me that we are all linked together by one great biological evolutionary tree, with the various animal species being our cousins, and even things like worms and bacteria being somehow related to us, however distantly. Some people may find the idea of being related to a monkey repulsive but I think it is fascinating. The ability of science to investigate, to find new relationships, to explore and conjecture and come up with answers to old questions as well as create new questions to investigate is one of its greatest qualities.

And for me, personally, being an atheist makes that joy completely unalloyed. Shafars (i.e., secularists, humanists, atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, and rationalists), as well as religious people who interpret their religious texts metaphorically and not literally, do not have any concerns when new headlines describing a new scientific discovery are reported in the news. They do not have to worry whether any new fact will contradict a deeply held religious belief. They do not have to worry about whether they need to reconcile the new information with any unchanging religious text.

On the other hand, the same news items that give us fascinating glimpses of scientific discoveries undoubtedly create fresh headaches for those whose religious beliefs are based on literal readings of religious texts, because each new discovery has to be explained away if it disagrees with some dogma. There are people who devote their entire lives to this kind of apologetics, to ensure that their religious beliefs are made compatible with science. The website Answers in Genesis, for example, is devoted to making Young-Earth creationism (YEC) credible. So it goes to great lengths to show that the earth is less that 10,000 years old, all the animals could have fitted into Noah's Ark, and that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans.

One has to admire the tenacity of such people, their willingness to devote enormous amounts of time, sometimes their whole lives, to find support for a belief structure that is continuously under siege from new scientific discoveries. It must feel like trying to hold back the tide. (See this site which tries to fit the astrophysical data received from light emitted by stars that are billions of light years away into a 10,00 year old universe model.)

Of course, scientific discoveries come too thick and fast for even the most determined literal apologists to keep up. So they tend to focus only on explaining away a few questions, the kinds of questions that the lay public is likely to be concerned about, such as whether dinosaurs existed concurrently with humans, the ages of the universe and the Earth, whether the size of the Ark was sufficient to accommodate all the species, how Noah coped with the logistical problems of feeding all the animals and disposing of the waste, how Adam and Eve's children could multiply without there already being other people around or indulging in incest, and so on.

But the rest of us don't have to worry about any of that stuff and so can enjoy new scientific discoveries without any cares, and follow them wherever they lead. It is nice to know that one can throw wide open the windows of knowledge and let anything blow in, clearing out the cobwebs of old ideas and freshening up the recesses of the mind.

It is a wonderful and exhilarating feeling.

January 01, 2007

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

(Due to the holidays, I will be taking a break from blogging.

Today's is reprinted from a year ago, since I don't think I achieved any of last year's resolutions, although some I may never know due to government secrecy.

New posts will begin on Wednesday, January 3, 2007.)

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, 2005 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, from the dramatic visual footage on Monty Python's Flying Circus.

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: 2006 in retrospect

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow reviews the past year (part 1 and part 2.)