Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Saturday, November 27, 2004

I don't get it

Re: Ukraine

Which part of Eastern European corruption do we not understand?

Please explain again why this administration has the stones to object to anyone else's rigged election.

Or is this why Powell is leaving?

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The god thing

Half my background is Catholic. That isn't the same as practising Catholicism. I don't. There's an undeniable cultural pull, but I also get cultural identity from being a Northern New Englander. The latter identifies me with far fewer hypocrites and pedophiles.

Used to be that anti-Catholicism was the sole remaining fashionable prejudice, easily detectable in Protestants of almost every flavour (with the possible exception of Episcopalians, who are locked into ambivalence on the subject.) Even Catholics can be anti-Catholic. Now, anti-humanism is becoming the religious prejudice of choice, and I could be mistaken for a humanist more than for a Catholic.

Mistaken, yes. Apart from an interest in Buddhism (I like the idea of a religion that requires neither hate nor deity) and animism (no burning crosses there either) I'm a-religious and a-theistic. Reminder, the 'a' prefix means "without," not "violently opposed to." The hostility of the faithful to atheism is as perfect a demonstration of projection as I've ever seen. The "desert religions" have made a career out of hatred and slaughter of opponents for millennia. It's inevitable that they expect someone who rejects them would want to do the same.
Similarly, adherents of the desert religions seem incapable of grasping absence of theology. It is they who have created the straw man of "secular humanism," endowing absence of blind faith with the attributes of blind faith. Regrettably, some fools have accepted the label. No thanks, I'll pass. Absence means absence. To me, the whole idea of faith is one of those quirky bugs in human construction, a mental vermiform appendix. Like the appendix, as long as faith just sits there, there's no reason to disturb it. When it becomes swollen with toxins, you have to cut it out in a hurry before it kills you. Unlike the appendix, diseased faith wiring kills other people as well.

Reading Harold Bloom is a lot like eating my late mother's Christmas fudge recipe. I know I shouldn't. I realise the high fat and sugar content will make my teeth hurt and my stomach upset... yet I eat the stuff up. From this regrettable Bloom addiction I've learnt two things: that Harold Bloom is one of Harold Bloom's premier figures of Western Civilisation, and that "the American religion" may very well not be Christian at all. Bloom's Jewish heritage leads him to heights of paranoia on the subject that even his apostrophes can't match, but I suspect there's something in it. It's even more interesting to discover that there are some Christians still abroad in the land, both evangelical and conventional, that they rather agree with Bloom, and that they call this stuff heresy.

I do so love it when mine enemies fall out: it saves a lot of trouble.

I hold the Marxist-Leninists responsible for the survival — and prospering — of religion in the former USSR and China, and the more self-serving brand of Western consumer secularist for American evangelism as well as a piece of Islamic fundamentalism. The desert religions in particular thrive on persecution: when it doesn't exist, they'll try to invent it. Communism and consumerism alike are guilty of enabling this persecution psychosis.

If one is serious about moving beyond religion, the first step is to resist the impulse to throttle the lot and simply to indulge their fantasy. I'd like to hold an international convention of unbelievers. If we could all agree to let all these faiths have their own way (while we hide under rocks), I think they'd be gone in a couple of generations. Most would kill each other off. The survivors would have a blinding epiphany, realising that no one was persecuting them because no one really cared what boogymen they worried about.

My main problems with religions are:

A. The propensity to kill people who disagree with you. In societies that frown on random killings, that works out to keeping those people out of your neighbourhood, family, workplace or country club. Same input; different output.
B. The habit of avoiding personal responsibility by shifting it all onto God.
C. The irritating obsession with shoving one's beliefs and values down other people's throats.

I have no problem with non-toxic superstitions, whether they involve rabbit's feet, rally hats, or the choice of sans-serif or serif fonts. Should the desert religions detoxify, I'd happily expand my benign tolerance to them.

I think I'll credit my father with my skepticism. On the one hand, his empiricism posed a positive example. On the other hand, he came up with the idea of the boogyman that hid in the back of the cellar of the house we occupied when I was very small. Before we moved, those two ideas collided inside me and I went to see the boogyman. Never found him: it was just a crawl space full of dirt.

Where do I expect to spend eternity? I'll have my ashes spread in the White Mountains, where they'll nourish something growing and sustain the cycle of life for a while.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Name-calling, Blame-calling

The post-election Democratic flurry of blame assignment has concentrated on today's most convenient minority group, the gay-lesbian community. The consensus is that they went "too far, too fast, too soon." A number of pundits have also suggested that gay activists were wrong to call opponents of gay marriage "homophobic." Spokespersons for some of the most vitriolic opponents of same-sex marriage are now calling for "alternatives" and "common ground."

I miss Phil Ochs more each day:
In every political community there are varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberals: An outspoken group on many subjects. Ten degrees to the left of center in good times: Ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally. Here then is a lesson in safe logic.
That surely applies to the Democrats who backed Kerry's non-stance on the principal civil liberties issue of our day and then blamed the people Kerry didn't support for his defeat. If you're a conservative, don't preen yet, for it applies just as well to those who told themselves they were "defending marriage" by voting to keep life partners out of each others' arms when one of them is dying,

Gee, where have I heard "too far, too fast, too soon" before? I think I hear an echo from my adolescence, when the same sort of liberal applied exactly the same safe logic to racial desegregation. Seeing the phenomenon twice in a lifetime reminds me that advances in human freedom never happen on a convenient timetable. Nor do they happen by the will of the majority. Instead, the majority must be dragged to the point of accepting the inevitable, rather like dragging a large dog to the vet for shots.

"Homophobic" is a slur? Funny, it's in this list of phobias. As someone who has spent a good deal of adulthood working beyond homophobia, I recognise it when I see it. From the start of this debate, I've been waiting for one — just one — person to offer a rational explanation of why the marriage of my friends Elaine and Margie threatens my 30-plus year marriage, or anyone's, or the fabric of society. Wherever it has taken place, the world hasn't ended. No institutions have been overthrown, except another blind prejudice.

No one whines louder about the injustice of name-calling than a supporter of a majority culture who suddenly finds out a minority group is calling them names. I remember the uproar when white America discovered the expression "honky." The premise seems to be that it is OK, or at least understandable, for the majority culture to speak of (to name a few) niggers, greasers, fags, dykes and pervs. It is an intolerable outrage against decency for the minority people to speak of honkies, anglos, straights, breeders, and vanillas. The majority culture can actively harm the minority culture with its labels and their enforcement. The latter can only use labels as a defensive subcultural code, since they have no real power to harm the people who make the rules. That strikes me as a huge difference in application, if not in intent.

Let's be honest. This is about fear, as is the greater part of the reactionary agenda world-wide, as has been every period of reaction in history. One of the specifics is fear of this great unknown, homosexuals and their orientation. One can't dodge reality by complaining that gay rights activists use an all-too-precise term.

If you still object to "homophobia," my list contains two other possibilities :

The fear of change

Fear of making changes

This source calls phobias a " persistent, abnormal, and unwarranted fear ... despite the understanding by the phobic individual and reassurance by others that there is no danger. " Phobia strikes me as a perfectly sound description of what the broadcast media call backlash.

It's clear that people who stampeded out against gay civil rights were having some reservations even as they voted. Perhaps they looked to their right and realised they were keeping company with some very troubled people. A look to their left, at least for those who actually know gay and lesbian people, may have brought up the disturbing idea that "they" are just like "us." A moment of reflection might have led to the more unsettling thought that "they" and "we" have more in common than "we" have with extremists whose homophobia is beyond all doubt.

Well, now it's too late to reflect. I don't think I'm the only person who doesn't buy the blame-the-victim riff, and who feels scant sympathy for those who deluded themselves that they were only "defending marriage" and can present "alternatives." The stampeding backlashers brought extraordinarily severe amendments into several states, far in excess of anything warranted even by reasonable concern.

I think [Robert E.] Lee should have been hanged. It was all the worse that he was a good man, had a good character, and acted conscientiously. It's always the good men who do the most harm.
--Henry Adams

My wife had an aunt and uncle, brother and sister. They were devout Catholics who lived together all their lives (both lived past 95) and held a good deal of property in common that passed to the surviving aunt when the uncle died. In at least four of the 11 states, the amendments just passed would make those arrangements illegal.

If we took literally the arguments in "defense of marriage," my wife's late relations should have been prosecuted for failing to marry and procreate, and perhaps for presumptive incest. The idea that two related people might live together without having sex seems oddly alien to evangelicals.

My wife's younger sister should also be imprisoned. At an early age, she had a uterine tumour that guaranteed her infertility. According to the arguments advanced, she was wrong to marry simply because she loved a man, since she couldn't possibly bear children. I haven't had the opportunity, but I long to present both these arguments to opponents of gay marriage, simply to watch the intellectual Immelmann loops they perform to dodge the logical consequences of their positions.

I'm not just for "gay marriage." I'm for a sensible understanding that the state's interest in any domestic partnership begins and ends with its civil dimensions: the fiscal contracts and material obligations of the parties to each other and to third parties. Lawrence v. Texas says that clearly: the consensual private relations of domestic partners are not the state's concern.

We are now offered a choice more revolting than anything since the end of Reconstruction. In that case, southern blacks had to accept Jim Crow as an alternative to gradual extermination.
Despite the belated qualms of the Phil Ochs liberals, gay and lesbian Americans appear to face the same option: accept second-class citizenship, or face the consequences. I'm so sorry that this grim choice is disturbing the moral certitude of more than half those who voted to ban same-sex marriage in their states: too bad. It's better to have your remorse beforehand and avoid error than to live with the consequences of your actions afterward. That, by the way, is a specimen of gender-neutral Catholic moral theology that pre-dates the church's current obsessions.

I can absolve neither the antis who are now queasy about the injustice they've supported, nor the blame-casting Democrats, our two current flavours of Phil Ochs liberal. It is true enough that hypocrisy drives both American politics and religion, but I don't have to like it.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Some Healing Solutions

For Dubya--

Honestly, the idea of Dubya as a centrist out to create his legacy is funny enough to be worth all the angst of the past months. Kerry lost, and in several respects that's good. Second terms haven't been kind to presidents in my lifetime. In this case, this administration will get to reap what it sowed in the first term. Countries have gone broke before and come back, so we'll see about that one.

He's actually doing Item 1 of my proposed agenda: dump Ashcroft. Here's a man who took the job expecting only to bash perverts and wreck several parts of the Bill of Rights, who got stuck with trying to chase terrorists. What John-boy would have done had Sept. 11 never happened is something to think about with awe. What the terrorist game revealed was the man's fundamental cowardice. His body English on several key occasions has been that of someone scared shitless.

Alberto Gonzales? I sat through the patronising drivel that accompanies the nomination of every "deserving" nominee and only one thing struck me:

Gonzales' political career has flourished under Bush's patronage.... "I am grateful he keeps saying yes," Bush said.

Considering the likelihood that the new Attorney general has been chosen to be a yes man, chalk up another one to the unintended humour of Dubya. The only thing missing is having someone call Gonzales "a credit to his race."

3. Surprise everyone and select his Supreme Court nominees on the basis of quality, not ideology. The latter, after all, has been a slippery standard for a long while. Judges expected to do nothing (like Warren) change the world, allegedly liberal judges become conservatives, and vice versa. The transformation that goes with responsibility to a higher principle has been around at least since Thomas a Becket. Since the first writing, smart money is on another string of mediocre ideologues. Again, we run up against the problem of the intelligence of the person at the top. Someone who is limited but secure will usually seek out smarter people as assistant. Someone like Dubya, limited and insecure, will pick people at least as limited as himself unless forced to do otherwise.

4. Get his own side to lower the volume. Have Hannity, O'Reilly, Limbaugh,Coulter, et. al., over to the East Room or down to Crawford one at a time. He could make it clear he appreciates their interest, but he would also like it very much if they focused on real enemies instead of demonising American liberals. A steady diet of little perks and favoured leaks would be available to the cooperative. The uncooperative might be out of sources and ultimately out of work.

5. When the average American thinks "morality," I bet gay marriage isn't front of mind: Janet Jackson is. (I can think of several good reasons to lock her up and lose the key, but never mind.) However, isn't it odd that the media "bombarding" these poor people who evidently can't afford a remote are predominantly Republican, or at least good contributors. Isn't it time for Dubya to call in a chit or two for all the favours he's done them? There are a wide range to taste judgments open to media that fall short of censorship. Dubya should let it be known that he'd like those options exercised, show supporters like Rupert Murdoch that their envelope-pushing offends a majority of adults (and bores the rest). Make compliance with his wishes the key to future benefits or the payback for past ones.

For the Democrats

1. For Crissakes, start now to identify and groom new talent. The results of 2004 show that Americans aren't all that averse to inherited rule (they'll learn) but I am. That's why I've never been comfortable with Kennedys, and that's why I'm not thrilled with Hillary.

2. Get some dialogue going nationally. I believe it's true that the Northeast isn't listening to the South and West, nor is the West Coast, nor vice versa. Actually get people together to explore differences and find common ground.

3. Working quietly, drive some wedges to break up Republican constituencies and issues.

3a. I think the easiest would be to develop a working consensus on gun control that shuts out the animal rights, anti-hunting extremists, absolutely guarantees responsible possession of defined sporting arms, and puts reasonable curbs on arms meant solely for people killing. Yes, I've used guns and hunted. Anyone who has knows the difference between the two types.
So don't bullshit me. This is an issue on which many liberals need to tone it down. Remove the white male complaint that "they'll take my guns away," and you've taken a large pile of fuel from the fire.

3b. If there are any journalists left out there (that is, people who dig around to find out the truth behind spin) let's have a hard look at the actual numbers of evangelicals and the differences between them and fundamentalists. I keep seeing obscure statistical studies that indicate evangelism is shrinking, not growing. When Christians meet in conference, one of the principal topics is how to stop loss, and whether Christianity will survive the 21st century.
The reason that so much of evangelical/fundamentalist rhetoric is the language of a threatened minority is that they are a minority. Very quietly, in the past year, the proportion of Americans who are members of an organised religion fell under 50 percent for the first time. Evangelical/fundamentalist enrollment is said to have fallen in ten years from 20 to 12 percent of that minority of religion members. This is in sharp contrast to the much-cited study of 2000 or so claiming 40 percent of Americans identify as "evangelical Christians." They may tell the pollster that, but they ain't dropping into church or dropping cash in the plate.

3c. Not only are they are a minority, they're a contentious minority. Liberal Democrats have done evangelicals a great favour by seeing only the generic mass of "the religious right. " Right now,
The Southern Baptist Conference is reportedly looking for wiggle room to move a little to the left of more extreme sects. Presbyterianism and Methodism are on the verge of schism over fundamentalist theology as well as social issues. Fundamentalists and Mormons appear to live on the edge of actual bloodshed over their differences. Moreover, as David Brooks has remarked, the majority of those churchgoers don't hold extreme opinions. In much of the country, you join a church as a social, not a theological, activity. Most of this social Christianity is invisible in Manhattan or inside the Beltway. A thoughtful, underground Democratic strategy involving committed believers with progressive politics would exploit and widen sectarian differences. It would increase the apparent distance between the rank and file church members and the intolerant extremists who profess to speak for them. Heck, they might even recruit a few new liberal churchgoers.

Doesn't sound like healing? If you consider religious interference in the state a toxic and divisive trend, it's healing to isolate the poison and treat the body politic.

4. Few people spend most of their time worrying about morality. Insider Democrats need to pay better attention and observe that people upset about social issues are often directing their anxiety, anger and frustration about more basic issues onto matters that seem easier to handle. Democrats understand Rust Belt unemployment fairly well. They seem less aware of a huge geological shift. Much of the Middle West may well be uninhabitable within a generation, since it seems the much-despised 19th century geographers were right. The region is a desert; it won't sustain agriculture indefinitely, and since we've paved over much of the truly arable land further east and west, the whole country could be in deep shit. However, the shit is much deeper and more immediate if you live in much of Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, or the Dakotas. Democrats have long been good at both empathy and solutions in such situations. Get out there, empathise and innovate, and one may find that many of those social issues become less urgent when people's daily problems are being addressed.

5. My wife suggests the Clinton riff on abortion for the present: "safe, legal, and rare." That defuses some of the less committed opposition. There's scope for more grass-roots wedge driving, especially on gender grounds. Most of the people who fulminate and moralise about abortion are men. Most of those who agonise about it are women. It is not unreasonable to suggest abortion, like any surgical procedure, ought to be a last resort. It is long past time medicine took up and resolved the question of what signs exactly indicate sentience, when it begins and in what species. The next step would be a general recognition not of sentimentalised "rights" for embryos, but of fundamental respect for sentience wherever it appears. These are decisions for scientists, not politicians or theologians. One cannot logically oppose abortion, and ridicule protection for cetaceans or primates if the test of our actions is sentience.

Similarly, terminating a pregnancy is ultimately the decision of the owner of the uterus in question, not the state. As I would oppose eugenics, or any state act that directs a woman to terminate a pregnancy, so I must oppose any state act that prevents her from doing so.

On the one hand, I believe the function of an opposition in a free society is to oppose and not to be intimidated out of opposition. On the other, let the other guy start the fight. I'd give Dubya all the rope he needs to hang himself: he won't be long about it.

I do think Dubya's idea of "reaching out" is "do it my way." I'll have a whole other set of ideas once that's proven beyond doubt.