Saturday, February 25, 2006

Time for another Truthiness Tour?

Remember this?

"The reason why we are doing it is we are sick and tired of seeing and hearing headlines by the mainstream media about our defeat in Iraq," Melanie Morgan, a talk radio host for KSFO Radio in San Francisco and co-chair of Move America Forward, said.

Morgan said the media is "imposing a Vietnam template on this war."

"This is not Vietnam," she said. "War is war, and it's dangerous, and the killing is taking place all of the time. At the same time, where there is danger, there is success and there is a mainstream media that is determined to shut out that success."

It's hard to believe that the infamous radio-escapade to Baghdad's Green Zone was only last July. Seems like a million years ago.

If that isn't enough to tickle the funny bone, you can always cue up this oldy-but-goody from March 16, 2003:

MR. RUSSERT: The army's top general said that we would have to have several hundred thousand troops there for several years in order to maintain stability.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: I disagree. To suggest that we need several hundred thousand troops there after military operations cease, after the conflict ends, I don't think is accurate. I think that's an overstatement.


Meanwhile on Fox's Beltway Boys, Mort and Fred were left whining today that Democrats "want to see us fail in Iraq."

Now, if your occupation is going swimmingly, my bet is you aren't going to be making statements like that. So that probably tells you all you need to know about our "success" in Iraq. And as the condition deteriorates there, we can expect the "blame the left" chorus to elevate.

Then again, for some people, the mosque bombing and subsequent rioting and assassinations last week actually indicate Bush's strategery is working.

Brave New Year

It wasn't long ago that the media was pronouncing Bush's bad 2005 a thing of the past and prognosticating a brighter year in 2006.

So how's that working out?

And, geez, I know it's NewsMax and Dick Morris, but good gosh, man:

Katrina has the capacity to shape the second Bush term in the same way Sept. 11 shaped his first term — not only in rebuilding New Orleans but in taking preventative steps around the nation to bolster our defenses against natural and manmade disasters and terror strikes. Responding to disasters is a source of presidential strength and popularity, and Bush is about to show how it is done.

Update: Wouldn't you know it? The Carpetbagger was thinking just like me:

Never fear, the Bush gang said, 2006 is when everything gets back on track.

Two months in, how's that working out for the White House?

In lieu of the near identical language, I should like to point out, however, that my post came up Yesterday (02/25), and the Carpetbagger's on 02/26. True, he or she at Carpetbaggerreport writes better than me and does better research, but I still think this near simultaneous blog posting, using almost identical language, is a perfect excuse to call for another Blogger Ethics Panel.

I'm Special

You can be, too. Stop by Ciro Rodriguez's place and a drop a dollar or two in the bucket.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Is the "Port Controversy" Good for Democrats?

It's hard to understand the Bush administration's tactics here, even if the substance on the ports issue is not as dire as many in the media and party leaderships are making it out to be. Of course, I didn't and have never quite understood it's motivations in going to war in Iraq so what else is new? But the administration's baffling strategery and rhetoric is threatening to split its party, endanger its media-bestowed "national security" advantage, and thereby hand desperate Democrats a gift horse in the mouth that it would do just as well not to look at. Not surprisingly, some Democrats have jumped head first into the apparent breach, hoping to gain something from the spectacle.

While we would hate to throw the sinking Bush Administration a line, this squabble, and the Democrats' contribution to it, could have unforeseen, and negative consequences for Democrats.

For one, the media reaction I've seen is starting to remind me of the worst pandering and fear mongering we saw between 9/11 and March 2003. For liberal blogs happily linking to Lou Dobbs' rantings and railings against the administration over the past week, be careful. Dobbs is not a friend to liberalism and would just as soon stab it and us in the back as he would be to do anything.

Second, by harping on port security, Democrats run the risk of making it appear as if such a thing as total port security and total fool-proof protection against terrorist attacks exists or could be established. While it's undoubtedly true that "we could do better" on ports and in other areas of securing the homeland, it's hard to foresee the circumstances that would allow us to prevent any and all security threats.

Many Democrats and pundits have correctly made the link between Bush's post 9-11 fear mongering and the backlash such antics have had for his interests in this case. When we say things like "you're either with us or against us" and "bring it on", it's hard to suddenly decide to be cautious and deliberate, fair-minded and rationalistic towards a particular race of people or foreign country.

But Democrats might well corner themselves by echoing the same tough talk and reactionary tactics we've heard and seen from Republicans and their media mouthpieces. When the next attack comes, or when the next security threat appears, Democrats may find as a result of their pandering on this issue, that the public is in no mood to be reasonable or rationale.

On the other hand, is their a risk for Democrats if they don't appear to be taking a strong stand on the issue? If they allow the Republican Congress to buck their president on this, Democrats may feel the GOP would reap the rewards of public support, leaving themselves behind. Again.

I report. You decide.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Happy Conservatives

Lacking anything else to write about, George Will adds a chapter to the press's War on Liberalism. This one contends that conservatives are happier than liberals, based on a public opinion poll.

You probably think I'm going to rail on Will and the column, froth at the mouth at such a blasphemous allegation.

But I won't. For one, if I did, it would prove Will's argument. Second, the column is just too stupid to be legitimately angry over. Third, despite it's stupidity, I don't doubt that at least some conservatives are happier than some liberals, and that therefore, Will may have a point.

I'll get to the column's empty-headedness later, but for now, let me offer some evidence for why conservatives may be happier than liberals. While I don't know any happy conservatives, there are some sound theoretical reasons why they could be happier. First, let's consider some conservative typologies. One type of conservative is the religious fundamentalist conservative. Religious conservatives could be happy people because they have allowed themselves to jettisone all reason. If you don't worry about reason or evidence, if as Sam Harris notes in The End of Faith, there is no evidence that would cause you to change your religious beliefs, than reason really is of minimal importance for you, and you could conceivably be a pretty happy person, believing you go to heaven when you die, to live throughout eternity with your friends and family. As the famous Christian apologist and novelist G.K. Chesterton says in his book Orthodoxy, "an insane person is not someone who has lost his reason, he is someone who has lost everything except his reason". So reason may be holding us liberals back. I'll concede that. Of course, because faith also tends to be joined by strict and, by most measures, unreasonable rules, in real life faith does not always lend itself to happiness. Particularly if church teaches you to be insecure in your salvation. Roman Catholicism and Weslyian Protestantism tend to emphasize the role of works in salvation and the importance of always staying on guard less you lose your faith. Calvinistic Protestants, on the other hand, who preach a version of pre-destination, hold that certain people, believers, are pre-destined to be saved and for them, salvation is assured because God's grace covers us. The latter would theoretically be happier than the former.

The other type of rabid conservative is the racist conservative. I know racism is a heavy charge to levy, but these are the conservatives you will find pushing for English only laws, building a wall on the Mexican border, "invading Muslim countries and making them convert to Christianity"*, and otherwise expressing displeasure when the "other" is benefited by government policy. These people, from my experience, are rarely happy, believing as they do that the world is conspiring against them.

Mainstream conservatives (you might be wondering if I think any exist) are essentially moderate liberals, and probably hold generally libertarian view points, preferring the government not be involved in either the economy or a person's bedroom. Maybe these are the conservatives Will knows. By his column I'm forced to conclude he doesn't know either the religious or racist conservatives.

Which brings us, I suppose, to the moronic parts of Will's column today.

You might be wondering, if, as Will claims, conservatives are just a happy go lucky bunch of folks, where do the Rush Limbaugh's and Michael Savages of the world fit into this picture of conservative utopia? You know, the ones that talk about exterminating liberals, and how "liberalism is a mental disorder"?

Good question. Mr. Will?

Nevertheless, normal conservatives -- never mind the gladiators of talk radio; they are professionally angry -- are less angry than liberals.

Ah. The "gladiators" get a pass. They don't count. Sounds a little selective for this social scientist. If you subset the conservative sample by deleting Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Little Green Footballs, John Gibson, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Bennet, and the WSJ editorial page, then how many conservatives are left?

Anyway, after dismissing the influence of "the gladiators of talk radio"--who only have millions of listeners by the way--Will wraps up the column by charging liberalism with being "scoldish".

You see? Liberalism is a complicated and exacting, not to say grim and scolding, creed. And not one conducive to happiness.

Liberalism as "exacting" and "scoldish"? I thought liberals were "moral relativists". How can we be indifferent, morally relativistic"libertines"** and be "exacting" and "scoldish" at the same time?

Part of the problem we see in Will's worldview is the conventional wisdom of labeling conservatives as defenders of traditional values, as advocates of moral absolution, while labeling liberals as moral relativists. This view denies that both ideological extremes are highly moralistic, "exacting" and "scolding". Conservatives and liberals just care about different stuff. For conservatives, being gay is morally evil. For liberals, saddling our descendents with our debt, and bombing innocent civilians are morally evil. Both philosophies are heavily moralistic.

But the conventional wisdom, spoon-fed to the Deborah Howells and Jim Brady's of the world (Abramoff "directed" money to both parties) by the Republican Noise Machine*** is undeterred.

So when liberals are found to be concerned about an issue and desiring political action, they are labeled as "scolds", while when conservatives mount a challenge to the behavior of others, they are labeled as "conservatives" concerned with "traditional values".

Anyway, my job is done here. After watching some moral relativism on TV, I'll be off to my anger management session.

*see Coulter, Ann
**see O'Reilly, Bill
***see Brock, David

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Paradoxes of Modernity

It's rare I find the Wash Post op-eds thought provoking, but this column by David Ignatius offers two inadvertent, and counterintuitive consequences of globalization, and the worldwide information technology revolution.

The question Ignatius poses is why with the increase in "connectiveness" between world governments and the global community, is U.S. foreign policy continually beset with messiness, be it the aftermath of the "cartoon" riots, the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, the insurgency in Iraq, or the resurgence of fundamentalism, or at least international hostility from the regime in Iran, and so on.

Based on conversations with two international and communications specialists, Ignatius relates two major elements of blowback from increasing international communication and expanding technology.

The first is a tendency for increased trade, technology and communication to widen the divide between the governing and the governed. Governmental, economic and intellectual elites become disconnected from the mass of their populations, setting the stage for major upheavals. Ignatius points back to Iran in 1975 as an example of a country that appeared to be heading successfully into the modern era, only to fall back into medieval Islamic fervor and control. Although Ignatius doesn't go there, and it may not be the case in every society, but the increase in trade and technology has undoubtedly helped widened the gap between the haves and have nots of a society as well, providing an additional source of, yes, class conflict.

The second element is the sad reality that increased technology has too often served as a means whereby ignorance and hate gets spread faster than ever before. Hence the cartoon riots. Ignatius also points readers to the "American blogosphere", having in mind no doubt the responses that poor ombudswoman, Deborah Howell experienced several weeks ago when the Washington Post was caught peddling GOP talking points regarding Jack Abramoff.

Ignatius's complaints about the "American blogosphere" aside, I couldn't help but think that not only do these two elements of connectiveness apply in a negative way just on the "Arab street" or in other parts of the world, but that America itself is a confusing picture of modernity and medievalism colliding. I'm thinking in particular of the rising influence of Christian fundamentalists. Conservatives have been quick and happy to point out that so-called liberal or moderate denominations are stagnating while conservative evangelical churches have been t thriving. While education is increasing, consumer goods more abundant, and developments in science and medicine increasing exponentially, America is at the same time becoming more ignorant and paranoid. The events of 911 obviously had a great impact on the American mood, much for the worse. The dominance of Fox News and her cable imitators have poisoned the well further, although Roger Ailes might validly argue that his network's success is the result of the public mood, rather than a cause of it.

In any event, we seem to be faced with both rapidly expanding technological prowess and education wherewithall at the same time we're busy reverting to 13th century feudalism in our religious dogma and international reactiveness.

A disturbing confirmation of this troubling trend and paradox is China. It's a gospel tenet of utmost sanctity in educated circles that free markets and capitalism lead to greater economic growth and prosperity, which in turn begets political pluralism and democratic freedoms.

But while near enough to truthiness in some cases, China has been a glaring exception, as recent reports about the roles played by Internet giants Yahoo! and Google in China have indicated. Although loosening the grip of the Communist Party's rigid economic dogma in China, Beijing's leaders appear more determined than ever to prevent the next evolution of political liberalization to accompany its economic one.

The disturbing implication is that the U.S. could continue to get richer and more technologically savy, free trade, globalization and all, and still takes steps backward politically, back into the pre-modern era that so many conservatives, especially religious ones, seem only too eager that we embrace at their behest.

One final area of discomfort concerns The Emerging Democratic Majority thesis put forward a few years ago by political scientists John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. The authors basically contend that demographic and labor force trends are moving the Democrats way; the proportion of minorities is increasing, the shift to a knowledge-based economy, and increasing levels of education, among other factors, will help liberalize the future electorate, if not in name, at least in partisan outcomes.

While there is undoubtedly some basis for optimism from increasing education, urbanization, and so on, a political scientist observing the political scene in the 1970's could have been forgiven if he or she had forecast much of the same thing for our own era. Civil Rights reforms had enfranchised large numbers of African-Americans. The voting age was just about to be lowered to 18. Women would continue to enter the labor force better educated and in greater numbers than ever before. More people, thanks to federal aid, were going to college. More people were waiting longer to marry and have children, and on and on. But the last three decades have been, at least in partisan terms, Republican instead of Democratic. Meanwhile, while Republicans have gained across the country, the culture, thanks in part to a changing economy, has gotten more liberal. As Thomas Franks notes in What's the Matter with Kansas?, the conservatives' cultural war has been a bust. Abortion continues. Gays are more accepted. Trashy TV still sells (just ask Fox).

Everything is Paradoxical.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Religious Tolerance:What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

Over the weekend I happened upon a "religious" program, one of the ones usually dedicated to the spreading of conservative politics, but which on presidential weekend, was conservative politics and theocracy to the nth degree.

The guy's remarks went something like this:

The puritans came over on the Mayflower to get away from religious intolerance in the old world, but then were intolerant themselves of religious minorities, such as Roger Williams who was exiled off to Rhode Island to start a new colony of religious dissidents. Later, congregationalists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Mormons, and other religious minorities came in for their own persecution. Then came intolerance for the atheists and secularists.

So far so good, right? Sounds about accurate.

But then the double kicker: the guy proceeds to say something to the effect that, hey, you know, Christians are always hearing how intolerant they are, but the fact is that even though Christians in America were intolerant towards other factions of Christians and other minorities, these groups eventually became accepted, so that proves how tolerant American Christians are. Or something. But now it's conservative Christians who are facing intolerance from other religions and atheists. Intolerable.

So even though conservative Republicans dominate all three branches of government, and an increasing share of state and local governments as well, and despite the fact that conservative evangelicals are said to comprise 35%-40% of the Republican Party, conservative Christians are under seige in America, afflicted, scorned, hated, chased from their homes, disowned, deprived of their churches and bibles, barred from home-schooling, and imprisoned for their faith.

How, despite all the seeming evidence to the contrary, do claims such as this one find an audience? Like the myth of the "liberal media", the myth of the persecuted conservative Christian grows by leaps and bounds by the minute.

Undoubtedly these myths persist because they are incubated within the realms of very secluded, narrow social groupings and associations, whose members are urged to listen only to approved sources of information, not that many members need the urging. The language and psychology of victimization, which the Right is so normally and loudly condemning of, has been adopted by the Right to aid its organizational cash-flow and its political agenda. The fact that the religious persecution myth is trumpeted from a well-to-do establishment of radio networks and cable television stations aids in this process, and may in fact, suggest a vast over-representation of financially and politically induced paranoia among religious conservatives.

Monday, February 20, 2006

President's Day Off

It may not have exactly been Ferris Bueller's Day Off, but I took advantage of the federal holiday to pay a visit to the National Cathedral. First I discovered that the church was not Roman Catholic, but is in fact, Episcopal. However, the church doesn't apparently actually belong to the Episcopals or anyone else. It seems to have a kind of independent status. According to the signs, the church also doesn't have an official membership, although it does provide regular services, including a daily mass, which I happened upon at the end. It turns out the service was officiated by a woman. Most UnRoman Catholic of it, if I hadn't known it already. The woman priest (priestess?) seemed quite gracious to the handful of parishioners who had stopped by to attend the noon-time mass.

The building itself was of course, for someone of my bland vanilla Protestant upbringing, quite impressive. Towering ceilings, colorful stained glass windows. I wandered for a while downstairs in the crypt, among the various smaller chapels, before realizing the main church was up above. Before I went up there, I learned that several people are buried in the church, including Helen Keller (her ashes, actually).

I also spent several minutes browsing the souvenir shop, in particular, the many books for sale. The store was well stocked with a wide range of religious books, many of them of the unorthodox variety. From the interned socialist and famous blind author and activist, to the female priest/ess and the modernist books available, I got the sense the church was lib, welcoming to gays, feminists, and federal bureaucrats working on their PhD's. This is a church I'd probably be happy to attend it it weren't so far from my home base in Columbia, MD.

From the cathedral proper, I went up the road to Bethesda's Landmark theatre and a 1:50 pm showing of Capote. I enjoyed the movie, which was set almost entirely in and around Capote's observation and writing of In Cold Blood. I hadn't realized Capote was friends with Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Just one of the tidbits I learned. Capote and Lee were both southerners, but living in NYC by the time they became famous (Helen Keller, mentioned earlier, was also from the south). The movie and the acting were good, although it was a little long and drawn out, for those of you fond of speedier films.

To wrap up the day I browsed the Barnes and Noble across the street, dutifully purchasing a book of Capote's short stories, although not In Cold Blood, which was on sale, but which I've read before.

So was my day for my benefit only, or did I have some larger good in mind, the saving of a friend who desperately needs to break out from under his family's oppressive rigidity by running his father's expensive car out the back windows of his equally expensive hill-top home? And how come these teens in John Hughes' movies lived so richly anyway?

Bueller? Bueller?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

I'm re-reading The Da Vinci Code. Partly because the movie's release, scheduled for May, has piqued my interest again. And partly because when I read it the first time, I read it mostly for the story, not paying real strict attention to the religious details. Although the religious angle was obviously central to the book's intrigue, and is a high interest of mine, I didn't take the book's various allegations all that seriously. I was just along for the ride.

My initial feeling about it was that while the book did include a lot of what devout Christians, or at least conservative Catholics would consider to be blasphemous references, the end of the book seemed to blur that effect somewhat. So to me the book really didn't come down all that hard on orthodox Christianity, despite the claims of the book's and the author's detractors. It seemed to me that the author's portrayal of the Catholic church in general, and of the secretive organization, Opus Dei in particular, was more sensitive than many popular accounts of the book make it seem. In any event, critiques of the church's origins, the nature of Christ, and so forth, fictional or otherwise, aren't all that unusual, given how little we really know of ancient times without printing presses and Internet connections, and given the Catholic church's sordid history along many other lines, such as the inquisition, the various scandals surrounding many of the popes, it's many false claims that modernity has exposed (such as those surrounding Galileo and the earth as the center of the universe), and so on.

So why the big deal about this book?

Maybe the church thinks people are more attentive to religious detail in non-sanctioned works than they really are. Maybe the fact that the allegations of church fraud and cover-up are so recent has caused it to respond more vigorously to this book than would seem warranted. And of course, that a gazillion copies of the book, hard-cover no less, have been sold has been a critical factor in the church's response (by both Roman Catholic and Protestant it should be mentioned).

Aware that a call for a boycott would undoubtedly stir up greater interest in the movie, the church has been somewhat cautious in its criticisms of the upcoming release, preferring to instead try to counter the book's arguments through its own media outlets and institutions, hoping to ensure that the faithful are kept in line, or at least are given adequate tools to respond so as to make sure their faith is not unsettled. Preaching to the choir, so to speak, rather than taking their complaints mainstream.

In any event, I'm re-reading it hoping to clarify some of the book's religious claims, which the author says are factual.