Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Sam Harris, Andrew Sullivan Blogalogue

This should be interesting.

I imagine this will come up later, but allow me to state what I believe to be Sam Harris's point about, and problem with, religious moderates and religious moderation:

The great theistic religions: Judaism; Christianity; and Islam base their authority and legitimacy on sacred texts. And these texts do not convey any sense of religious moderation and in many cases, appear to flatly condemn it.

Furthermore, and consequently, religious moderation is essentially the process whereby a religious adherent dilutes his or her faith with the increases in knowledge and human sympathy garnered from two centuries of human and material experience, and not a posture born from a reading of the texts themselves.

As a sort of religious moderate, I have to concede that this argument is pretty valid. I've "coped" with this issue by assuming that the religious experiences I've had are valid, even if the sometimes literal intellectual assumptions I once made about the text are not. There tends to be a lot of all-or-nothing thinking in the worlds of religion and politics (maybe you've noticed). The religious moderate, or religious liberal, or post-modern Christian (we come in a variety of appearances and terminologies) basically rejects this paradigm completely. As such the Bible is one text among many that contribute to our spiritual experiences and sense of community. And like any other text, writer or institution, it is assumed to be, and in our experience does in fact demonstrate itself to be, a book that reflects many of the usual subjective human understandings, attitudes and wishes, which in turn require our careful examination.

It's not a perfectly rational answer. But life doesn't always lend itself to neat, rational answers. And in fact it rarely does.

In this vein, here are some religious sites you might find interesting.

An interview with the pastor of my church.

A post-modernish exploration of Christianity and other religious faiths.

A self-described progressive Christian blog.

Media Propaganda and The Carnage of War

Judea Pearl, the mother of journalist Daniel Pearl, has an op-ed in today's NYT.

In it, Pearl warns of the dangers posed by the Arabic news-station, Al Jazeera, particularly its latest manifestation in English and carried over American satellite television.

She cites in particular the air-time provided to a Muslim cleric who has given religious sanction to suicide bombers and Islamic terrorist organizations and campaigns, the kind of which were responsible for the killing of her son in 2002.

Considering the depth of her loss, Pearl's column is a rather measured response to the threat she believes terrorist-sanctioning and celebrating media represents.

Still, she references a few anecdotes about Al Jazeera's coverage of the Middle East that I think are applicable to American cable television and are as such worthy of further discussion:

But what should concern Westerners is that the ideology of men like Sheik Qaradawi saturates many of the network’s programs, and is gaining wider acceptance among Muslim youths in the West. In its “straight” news coverage on its Arabic TV broadcasts and Web sites, Al Jazeera’s reports consistently amplify radical Islamist sentiments (although without endorsing violence explicitly).

For example, the phrase “war on terror” is invariably preceded by the contemptuous prefix “so-called.” The words “terror” and “insurgency” are rarely uttered with a straight face, usually replaced with “resistance” or “struggle.” The phrase “war in Iraq” is often replaced by “war on Iraq” or “war against Iraq.” A suicide bombing is called a “commando attack” or, occasionally, a “paradise operation.”

Al Jazeera’s Web site can be less subtle. On Dec. 12, after religious leaders and heads of state all over the world condemned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran for staging a Holocaust denial conference in Tehran, the headline on the site read, “Ahmadinejad Praised by Participants of the Holocaust Conference in Tehran, but Condemned by Zionists in Europe.”

In short, Al Jazeera’s editors choreograph a worldview in which an irreconcilable struggle rages between an evil-meaning Western oppressor and its helpless, righteous Arab victims. Most worrisome, perhaps, it often reports on supposed Western conspiracies behind most Arab hardships or failings, thus fueling the sense of helplessness, humiliation and anger among Muslim youths and helping turn them into potential recruits for terrorist organizations.

While Pearl is probably right to point out the lack of "straight news" on Al Jazeera, let's take a trip back in time to the pre-Iraq invasion coverage by CNN, "The Most Trusted Name in News" (from Glenn Greenwald):

On January 26, 2003, Wolf Blitzer held a panel discussion on CNN to discuss [Scott] Ritter’s war opposition. Ritter was not present, but Peter Beinert, the pro-war Editor of The New Republic, and Jonah Goldberg, the pro-war pundit from National Review, were invited to urge the invasion of Iraq, mock Ritter’s anti-war arguments, and smear him with a series of personal attacks.

Neither of these young, great “experts” who were urging the country to war had any experience with the weapons inspection process or with Iraq. Joining them was Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Robert George of The New York Post, both of whom also supported the war and whose level of expertise on these matters was equal to Beinert’s and Goldberg’s.

Blitzer began the segment on Ritter by describing him as “an outspoken critic of a possible war against Iraq [who] was arrested in 2001 for allegedly communicating over the internet with an undercover police officer who was posing as a 16 year old girl.” Blitzer's question for the panel: “Is Scott Ritter's credibility now destroyed?” Brazille’s answer: “Absolutely. It shows that he has poor judgment.”

George went next and accused Ritter of having been paid “hundreds of thousands of dollars from Saddam Hussein's regime,” so everyone could safely ignore anything Ritter said because he was an agent of Saddam – “a pro-Saddam guy,” in George’s words. George was referring to a documentary produced by Ritter that was financed by an American citizen of Iraqi descent and which contended, correctly as it turns out, that the U.N. inspection process had “defanged” Iraq’s weapons program.

But the fact that Ritter’s film was financed by an American business man of Iraqi origin – and, more to the point, that Ritter then became an outspoken opponent of the war -- was continuously used by war advocates to smear the former Marine as an agent of Saddam Hussien’s. Thus, with the smear on Ritter’s loyalty firmly in place, arguments by Ritter that there was no convincing evidence of Iraqi WMDs, and that Iraq could not pose a threat to the U.S., could be easily ignored.

Beinert followed George and immediately said:

Yes, I agree. I think that he didn't have any credibility to begin with. I mean, this is the guy who never really explained, as Jonah said, why he flipped 180 degrees and became a Saddam mouthpiece. So for me it's irrelevant. I never listened to what he had to say on Iraq to begin with.

Once the Great Iraqi expert, Peter Beinert, was done smearing Ritter’s credibility and making clear that he could be safely ignored on the issue of Iraqi WMDs, Goldberg uttered: “Yes, I agree with everybody,” and then added:

He's now just basically joined Pete Townsend on the Magic School Bus. . . . Pete Townsend of the WHO has also been implicated in child porn and things of that nature. But as everybody said, Ritter's credibility, just on the basics of Iraq, was completely shot and now there's even less reason to listen to him.

The brilliant work of this expert panel complete, Blitzer decreed: “Let's move on now.”

Pearl goes on to question Al Jazeera's attachment of the prefix "so-called" to the "war on terror", and the changing of "war in Iraq" to "war on Iraq", again as if American media is any less guilty for carefully manipulating the use of words and images to put foward a certain "choreographed" world view.

Pearl also worries that Al Jazeera transmits a Manichean, us-against-them, good-against-evil view of the world to its listeners.

Well, it's hard to imagine she keyed in those words without recognizing the irony of an American president who has framed the Iraq war, domestic surveilance programs, overseas detentions and torture strategies, and other questionable efforts in precisely those terms and an American media that has largely taken that craftsmanship to heart.

Finally, at the bottom of Pearl's concern is the media's role in the promotion of views that lead explicitly to the devaluing of human life. But again, when American leaders and American media promote wars (or "liberations") on, against, or in Middle Eastern lands, unconcerned with the loss of civilian life (justified or minimized by the us-against-them, good-versus-evil framing), it's hard to exactly demand that Al Jazeera and the people of those lands not resort to the form of violence that works to their advantage.

Pearl is aghast that terrorist promoting clerics are given air time by seemingly oblivious media managers. But as Glenn Greenwald discusses today, Americans' view of war has changed considerably in the last several decades. In short, because our wars have largely been high tech, low risk affairs, Americans have become largely sheltered from their brutality and destructiveness. And naturally, this is why suicide bombings are so offensive to the western mind, and why the us-against-them, good-against-evil meme continues to be used and play out on both sides of the world and everywhere in between.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Why, No, Now That You Mentioned, I Haven't

Josh Marshall:

You've probably already seen some of the news about the Bush White House engaging in a seemingly unprecedented spree of firings of US Attorneys across the cou[n]try.

Nope. Nada. Please keep us informed.

Here's more. Some more. And some more.

And gosh, that Atrios sure is funny. He's such a kidder.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Born Again

I'm grateful and encouraged when conservatives such as Rod Dreher openly express their disgust with the Bush Administration, when formerly loyal allies in the press and pundit worlds who have slavishly backed God's Own Party and its Leader finally begin to react to the chaos and craziness their devotion has helped spawn and enable.

It's especially revealing that said dissenters are now employing words like "fraud" and "mendacity" in addition to words such as "haplessness" and "incompetence". It's even more riveting when the Republic Party's ground-troops are going so far as to wonder if those dirty, commy hippies they long criticized might end being right after all, or at least worthy of engagement and consideration instead of blanket condemnations and concentration-camp style imprisonment.

But I do worry, at least a little, that this change of heart on the part of some conservative spokespersons is the product of the Iraq war now being seen as a "failure" for America and by Americans. In other words, I wonder whether their political awakening stems from their embarassment over America's image.

I wonder, though, if, let's say 150,000 Iraqi's had been killed in the invasion and the WMD's had not turned up, but within a few months or even within a year a reasonably stabile coalition government had been set up in Baghdad that was sufficiently, publically grateful for America's war of choice, would these arm-chair warriors feel the same disappointment? Is the growing disenchantment with the Iraq war a reflection of Americans' shameful of the fact that America has launched a war it is now destined to "lose"? Do we care more about winning or losing or how our acts have affected ordinary Iraqis?

NFL Report Cards

Another weekend of NFL playoff football is over, but let's talk about what I want to talk about: the broadcast crews.

In keeping with apparent NFL tradition, we got Fox's and CBS's "B" crews on Saturday and the "A" teams on Sunday, saving the best for last.

Colts/Ravens, CBS
Broadcast Team: Greg Gumbel, play by play; Dan Dierdorf, color
Grade: C
Greg is a better play by play guy than his NFL Network brother, Bryant, but at one point Peyton Manning is being chased by the Ravens defense (which ought to shut up and play sometime) and on the run throws a pass towards the sideline which Gumbel immediately decrees to be incomplete all the while the national televised audience is watching the ball being caught at the sidelines by a Colts receiver. What a maroon. To his credit, though, Gumbell catches his gaffe and apologizes profusely.

At another point, as Ravens' QB Steve McNair is about to be sacked he throws the ball into the ground. Don't they usually call this "intentional grounding"? No flag is thrown and our CBS crew doesn't make any comment.

Eagles/Saints, FOX
Broadcast Team: Dick Stockton, play by play; Darryl "Moose" Johnston, color; Tony "Goose" Siragusa, sideline reporter
Grade: Stockton/Johnston B
Siragusa A

Stockton and Johnston are serviceable and unremarkable. But the Goose criticizes the Saints for having Drew Brees throw three straight times in route to a three and out while their running game led by Deuce McAllister has just been shredding the Iggles. Why not just run the Deuce says the Goose? Even though McAllister did end up piling up the yards, the Goose was correct and insightful here. The Goose also later pointed out how more successful the Saints and McAllister were running the ball when they were running behind fullback John Carney.

Seahawks/Da Bears, FOX
Broadcast Team: Joe Buck, play by play; Troy Aikman, color
Grade: A
These guys are just money.

Patriots/Chargers, CBS
Broadcast Team: Jim Nantz, play by play; Phil Simms, color
Grade: A-
These guys are just money, too.

Overall Grade: B
Generally good coverage but low babe quotient. Where is Bonnie Bernstein these days? And since this wasn't ESPN, no Rachel Nichols or Suzie Kolber.