Monday, May 31, 2010

You Who Wronged

The Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg reports that, this week, yet another federal judge has ordered the Obama administration to release yet another Guantanamo detainee on the ground that there is no persuasive evidence to justify his detention. The latest detainee to win his habeas hearing, Mohammed Hassen, is a 27-year old Yemeni imprisoned by the U.S. without charges for 8 years, since he was 19 years old. He has "long claimed he was captured in Pakistan studying the Quran and had no ties to al Qaida," and that "he had been unjustly rounded up in a March 2002 dragnet by Pakistani security forces in the city of Faisalabad that targeted Arabs." Hassen is now the third consecutive detainee ordered freed who was rounded up in that same raid. The Obama DOJ opposed his petition even though the Bush administration had cleared him for release in 2007. He has now spent roughly 30% of his life in a cage at Guantanamo.

What's most significant about this is that Hassen is now the 36th detainee who has won his habeas hearing since the Supreme Court in 2008 ruled they have the right to such hearings -- out of 50 whose petitions have been heard. In other words, 72% of Guantanamo detainees who finally were able to obtain just minimal due process (which is what a habeas hearing is) -- after years of being in a cage without charges -- have been found by federal judges to be wrongfully detained. These are people who are part of what the U.S. Government continues to insist are "the worst of the worst" who remain, and whose release is being vehemently contested by the Obama DOJ.

You who wronged a simple man

Bursting into laughter at the crime,

And kept a pack of fools around you

To mix good and evil, to blur the line,

Though everyone bowed down before you,

Saying virtue and wisdom lit your way,

Striking gold medals in your honor,

Glad to have survived another day,

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.

You can kill one, but another is born.

The words are written down, the deed, the date.

And you'd have done better with a winter dawn,

A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.

- Czeslaw Milosz

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Eternal Recurrence of the Same

Memorial Day again. You know we're going to find some weapons-grade idiocy on the intertubes about soldiers and freedom and eagles et. al., don't you? Let's see what we...oh, that didn't take long. And gracious, you'll never guess who this year's bullshit is brought to you by:

Yesterday the Palin tweeted the following: "VETERANS,not reporters,give freedom of the press.VETS,not politicians,give freedom to vote.VETS,not campus radicals,give freedom to assemble." She did not mention that she'd stolen it from a 1970 poem.

Sure, she could have just Twitter-twatted the author's name and title of the poem and hoped her followers could figure out how to find it on their own, but honestly, who fucking cares? The real problem is that the sentiment is skullcrushingly stupid and flat-out wrong; anyone with basic honesty and even a modicum of historical knowledge should be ashamed to have their name associated with it. And what are her legions of imbecilic followers going to do anyway, go to a bookstore and see if the guy's collected works are available?

Personally, I think there's something incredibly apt about seeing this classic updated for the social networking age. A synopsis of a poem that was utterly banal to begin with, for those who couldn't handle the complexity of the unabridged text, complete with Twitter punctuation, though most users probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference anyway. It reminds me of Oscar Wilde saying that America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.

What Lies Beneath

Do you think that Beck’s a true believer in his own shtick or a snake oil salesman out to make a buck off the suckers. Or maybe a little of both?

This is everybody’s favorite parlor game. I think for the most part he believes what he preaches. He has everything you need to become a hard-right true believer—recovering alcoholic, oversized spleen, not much of an education, and of course its made him very, very rich. Whether he actually thinks God is speaking through him or not, only he can say. But it’s certainly possible. His megalomania is unrivaled, and he clearly has at least a bat or two loose in the bell tower. But I don’t think he’s as crazy as some of his critics would like to think. He knows exactly what he’s doing. And beyond his admitted ADHD, I have no evidence of clinical diagnosis, though more than one former colleague I spoke to believes he was diagnosed bipolar in the 90s and was prescribed lithium. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter whether he’s crazy or not, or whether he knows he’s spouting horseshit. The important thing is that he has a monthly media footprint of something like 30 million Americans. And that has consequences that cannot be parodied away.

Emphasis mine. From your lips to the progressive blogosphere's collective ears, my friend.

I once had an argument with an academic from France over whether any of our domestic religious fanatics, or at least the ones with political power, actually take their professed beliefs seriously. At one point, he lost his temper and started ranting about "typical stupid, American liberals" who take such things at face value and can't see how it's all a contrived ploy for power and money. So you can imagine how I laughed and laughed when it came out that George W. Bush actually believed enough to call Jacques Chirac and attempt to sell him on the necessity of invading Iraq by talking about Gog, Magog and the Apocalypse. Talk about disappearing into your role!

Maybe it's the Nietzschean influence, but I've always been deeply struck by how irrational people are when you scratch the surface, how little of a role self-awareness and reason play in our actions, how so many of our justifications for them are ex post facto stories we tell to ourselves to help maintain a sense of coherent, lasting identity. Even though it's certainly disturbing to think that someone could pull off such a calculated scam, I imagine it terrifies people even more to have to consider that there aren't necessarily any safeguards to prevent seriously crazy people from gaining wealth, power and influence.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Saturday Shuffle

  1. Mozart -- Clarinet Quintet in A major K. 581, 4th Movement
  2. LCD Soundsystem -- I Can Change
  3. Kasabian -- Take Aim
  4. The Beatles -- Honey Pie
  5. Infected Mushroom -- Forgive Me
  6. Blonde Redhead -- The Dress
  7. Glen Porter -- Transient
  8. The Chemical Brothers -- Three Little Birdies Down Beats
  9. Murderdolls -- Graverobbing U.S.A.
  10. Cold War Kids -- Every Valley is Not a Lake
  11. Ministry -- The Land of Rape and Honey
  12. dead horse -- Peaceful Death
  13. Dntel -- Last Songs
  14. Broken Bells -- Trap Doors
  15. Mint Royale -- Show Me
  16. Golden Bug -- Disco Sensation
  17. The Gaslamp Killer -- Turk Mex
  18. Joachim Witt -- Jetzt und Ehedem
  19. Mother Love Bone -- Bone China
  20. Beck -- Dark Star

Oh, Why Not

Options Studied For a Possible Pakistan Strike

It's no surprise, of course. I'm sure the Pentagon has contingency plans for attacking Canada, Luxembourg and the Faroe Islands; it's just what you do when you're a global empire. But can you motherfuckers at least wait until after the World Cup before starting a war with a nuclear state? I'm not asking for much here!

It must be some inherent element of the American character -- if you're already going broke trying to pay for all the shit you already have, just take out a loan and go shopping for more! It works for wars just as well as houses and cars. Hey, wasn't it fairly recently that we were hearing talk about how democracies don't go to war with each other? Haha, I'm kidding, of course! We haven't been a democracy for a long time.

Anyway, this is easily my favorite part:

They stressed that a U.S. reprisal would be contemplated only under extreme circumstances, such as a catastrophic attack that leaves President Obama convinced that the ongoing campaign of CIA drone strikes is insufficient.

Well, CIA drone strikes are proving to be perfectly sufficient, if you want to piss people off enough to attempt to launch catastrophic attacks in retaliation for their friends and relatives being killed by those strikes. All part of the circle of life, I guess.

But yes, yes, of course, "only under extreme circumstances". Bear in mind that we've seen, in the last few weeks, the spectacle of Democrats looking for even more ways to reduce or redefine what Constitutional rights we have left, all because Republicans went apeshit over an attempted car bomb. In this nation of cowardly pants-wetters, who would doubtless prefer living in a Franco-style military dictatorship as long as beer, potato chips and blockbuster movies were still plentiful, "extreme circumstances" could be a few guys with bushy beards spotted at a fireworks stand next month.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Other Dogs Bite Their Enemies, I Bite My Friends to Save Them

And please don't confuse my point of view with cynicism; the real cynics are the ones who tell you everything's gonna be all right.

- George Carlin

Cynicism often gets a bad rap by being used interchangeably with "jaded". Personally, I think it would be great if we revived the tradition of literally barking like dogs at bullshit artists and other anti-intellectuals incapable of carrying on conversations in good faith. You'll never convince me that people with such a wonderful sense of absurd humor are mere apathetic nihilists.

But still, cynicism in its modern connotations is one of the most common charges leveled against people who profess some degree of pessimism about ideas of progress or improvement. For the record, I don't think it has to be an either/or choice. I still stand by what I said recently, that you can thread a middle path between hope and despair by dismissing "the future" as an abstraction and concentrating on doing what's needed here and now. I might even say that Edward Abbey was on to something when he described a pessimist as simply an optimist in full possession of the facts.

And "full possession of the facts" is what we should be striving for in the first place if we intend to improve on things. Do-gooders aren't going to help anyone if they're too beguiled by the beauty of their visions to notice inconvenient facts, a primary example being: the world does not need our permission to be what it is.

When it comes to hopeful ideas of purpose and meaning in life, people have been openly and publicly using evidence of mindless, pointless suffering against the concept of a personal, loving God and caring universe since the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, at least. Not just the suffering humans endure, but that of animals as well, many of whom only exist to disappear down the gullet of another. We've all heard of wonderful examples of intelligent design such as the wasps who paralyze spiders and caterpillars before laying their eggs in them; when the eggs hatch, the still-living victim is slowly devoured from the inside out. Or the type of worm that can only exist by burrowing into an eyeball. Schopenhauer spent a lot of time detailing this sort of thing, so if you need further material to furnish your existential crisis, he's your one-stop shop.

A friend of mine is one of those who thinks atheists are arrogant for thinking they know enough to draw even provisional conclusions, that we should live in a state of suspended belief just in case some miracle happens to contradict everything we've learned from science and history. But the only way forward for someone who is aware of all the mindless suffering in the world, yet still determined to keep some sort of faith in a higher purpose, is through teleology. You have to justify it all as part of some long-term plan, as necessary steps along the way to something better.

...[T]hat in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they've shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened with men -- but though all that may come to pass, I don't accept it. I won't accept it. Even if parallel lines do meet and I see it myself, I shall see it and say that they've met, but still I won't accept it. That's what's at the root of me, Alyosha; that's my creed.

...While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It's not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to 'dear, kind God'! It's not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible?

...I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing.

- The Brothers Karamazov (34 & 35)

In one sense, I have to smile at the youthful, romantic idealism of Ivan here. There's no one to protest to, and there's no way for you to take your ball and go home. Like I said, the world is what it is, regardless of how that makes any of us feel. But his reaction, however futile, is still preferable to me than that of a person who trivializes and depersonalizes all the horrendous suffering in history by reducing it to stepping-stones. I live a comfortable life as a well-fed, sorta-educated, middle-class, white, heterosexual male in the most affluent and powerful society that has ever existed, and I certainly appreciate that twist of good fortune. How many advantages could one person possibly ask for? But it would be positively obscene to me if I were asked to believe that all the nameless, faceless billions of people who lived short, painful and ultimately unimportant lives did so in order that people like me might enjoy this spoiled, ennui-filled existence. It may have happened that way, but it didn't have to be that way. They were not means to my end, to yours, to any of ours. It seems to me to be, well, awfully jaded and arrogant to think so. In fact, it seems to me that a resolute determination to face the world squarely and see it plainly, without the comforting intermediaries of myth and ego, is actually one of the highest forms of idealism.


Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism:

...[T]his attitude was relatively new. What people admired was wholeheartedness, sincerity, purity of soul, the ability and readiness to dedicate yourself to your ideal, no matter what it was.

No matter what it was: that is the important thing. Suppose you had a conversation in the sixteenth century with somebody fighting in the great religious wars which tore Europe apart at that period, and suppose you said to a Catholic of that period, engaged in hostilities, `Of course these Protestants believe what is false; of course to believe what they believe is to court perdition; of course they are dangerous to the salvation of human souls, than which there is nothing more important; but they are so sincere, they die so readily for their cause, their integrity is so splendid, one must yield a certain meed of admiration for the moral dignity and sublimity of people who are prepared to do that.' Such a sentiment would have been unintelligible. Anyone who really knew, supposed themselves to know, the truth, say a Catholic who believed in the truths preached to him by the Church, would have known that persons able to put the whole of themselves into the theory and practice of falsehood were simply dangerous persons, and that the more sincere they were, the more dangerous, the more mad.

No Christian knight would have supposed, when he fought against the Muslim, that he was expected to admire the purity and the sincerity with which the paynim believed in their absurd doctrines. No doubt if you were a decent person, and you killed a brave enemy, you were not obliged to spit upon his corpse. You took the line that it was a pity that so much courage (which was a universally admired quality), so much ability, so much devotion should have been expended on a cause so palpably absurd or dangerous. But you would not have said, `It matters little what these people believe, what matters is the state of mind in which they believe it. What matters is that they did not sell out, that they were men of integrity. These are people I can respect. If they had come over to our side simply in order to save themselves, that would have been a very self-seeking, a very prudent, a very contemptible form of action.'

Berlin credits the Romantics with the invention of this mentality, and the point I'm making with regard to the last post is that our modern notion of individuality, the right of people to follow their own conscience in religious/contemplative matters and the obligation of others to respect the integrity of that choice even if they disagree with it, is a direct descendant of it, and a thoroughly modern one. Revisionists who pretend that this mindset has always been a prominent feature of the world's great religions make me think of archeologists salting a dig site, though an archeologist would know full well he was perpetrating a fraud. But through the mysteries of human psychology, the people who claim that all religions basically carry the same positive message have apparently managed to convince themselves that they've genuinely uncovered something that was there all along.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Perennial Foolosophy

What exactly do you do when the Dalai Lama appears on "Nightline", and you're not satisfied with his answers?

- George Carlin

The Dalai Lama says that compassion is the common thread that binds the world's religions together and gives them their inherent identity. Thankfully, I've already done the work on this assignment-- I wrote this last year, and I'll point again to a Stephen Prothero column I quoted just a couple weeks ago.

No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same. Capitalism and socialism are so self-evidently at odds that their differences hardly bear mentioning. The same goes for democracy and monarchy. Yet scholars continue to claim that religious rivals such as Hinduism and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are, by some miracle of the imagination, both essentially the same and basically good.

This view resounds in the echo chamber of popular culture, not least on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and in Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller, “Eat Pray Love,” where the world’s religions are described as rivers emptying into the ocean of God. Karen Armstrong, author of “A History of God,” has made a career out of emphasizing the commonalities of religion while eliding their differences. Even the Dalai Lama, who should know better, has gotten into the act, claiming that “all major religious traditions carry basically the same message.”

Of course, those who claim that the world’s religions are different paths up the same mountain do not deny the undeniable fact that they differ in some particulars... It is to deny that those differences matter, however. From this perspective, whether God has a body (yes, say Mormons; no, say Muslims) or whether human beings have souls (yes, say Hindus; no, say Buddhists) is of no account because, as Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda writes, “The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the nonessentials.”

This is a lovely sentiment but it is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous.

Like I said last year, the decision to subordinate all those doctrinal differences to a general, secular ideal of getting along and making an effort to respect the common humanity of people with whom you disagree about almost all matters of importance is a good one. In case anyone was waiting for my opinion, I'm in favor of it, for the record. But it's more than a little galling to see people pretend that this was an inherent part of the nature of religious belief all along while carrying on with the usual sniping at secularists, who, of course, are primarily responsible for getting all these god-addled idiots to take a break from centuries of killing heretics within and infidels without (to whatever extent that's been accomplished).

You're perfectly free to choose to emphasize the aspects of different religious traditions that appeal to an educated, wealthy, cosmopolitan, modern audience and weave them into some inspirational narrative to make your life seem more meaningful. But your version is no more "true" than that of people who imagine that religion is all about thinking the correct thoughts to get a reward and policing other people's sexual activity. Make any other argument for it you want -- it's more conducive to happiness, it's more attractive to a wider number of people, it makes food taste better, it makes babies cuter, and it gets out ground-in stains that normal cleaning agents don't -- but if you're honest at all, stop trying to pretend that all that ugliness, all that intolerance, and all that death somehow had nothing to do with the texts and prophets that were the inspirations, or that they were simply misinterpretations, the results of flawed humans getting their hands on something too pure and beautiful for them to appreciate and understand (until you thankfully came along to finally explain it all for us). Religions have always reflected the full spectrum of behavior inherent in the humans who invented them, from altruism to savagery.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

You Mess with the Bull, You Get the Horns

Score one for the four-leggeds. More like this, please.

Also, the New York Post, which I've always thought of as the Washington Times in greasepaint, a red rubber nose and big floppy shoes, did make me laugh with a terrible pun.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Feelings...Nothing More Than Feelings

On Wednesday, Nihad Awad, executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, released a statement on “Draw Muhammad Day” that begins, “I will be the first to defend anyone’s right to express their opinion, no matter how offensive it may be to me. Our nation has prospered because Americans value and respect diversity. But freedom of expression does not create an obligation to offend or to show disrespect to the religious beliefs or revered figures of others.”

Note the subtle shift: you're free to be offensive if you want, grumble mutter blargh, but you're not obligated to be that way, pointed stare, hint hint. Well, no shit. No one is saying they are obligated to offend other people's religious beliefs or revered figures. They choose to do so, which is part of the whole freedom of expression thing. What was the problem again?

Ah, that's right. You're free to be outspoken on issues that I'm not personally invested in. Well, as Noam Chomsky so memorably put it long ago, Stalin and Hitler were in favor of free speech for ideas they liked. The whole reason for constitutionally protected speech is that almost everyone is tempted to want to carve out an exception when it comes to their sensitivities, and since everyone is grievously offended by something different, it wouldn't be long before there was nothing safe to publicly talk about, except maybe the weather. No, wait, that might lead to volatile disagreements over climate change. Better scratch that too.

You can do it your own way
If it's done just how I say

- Metallica

But no one is really saying it should be illegal to insult Muhammed, Jesus or Bacchus, they're just trying their hardest to pressure people into choosing not to do so. I've been both bemused and amused at reading so many of the typical liberal responses to Draw Muhammed Day, some of which make me think that they'd secretly be glad to see a fatwa declared against Reason magazine. It's nothing new; these are the exact same whining complaints about civility and mean ol' jerks directed at the "New Atheists" (and the only thing new about them is the willingness to not be cowed by public disapproval of atheists who have the gall to not act ashamed of themselves). I particularly appreciate the patronizing efforts of so many liberals to appoint themselves enlightened spokespeople for all the moderate, tolerant Muslims of the world and inform the Prophet-sketchers that they are needlessly infuriating more than a billion people (whereas I suspect a great number of them are just like the tepid believers of any religion: too indifferent and concerned with worldly pursuits to really care one way or the other).

Speaking of obligations, you would think it would be so basic as to need no explication, but people who do not belong to your particular clubhouse are not obligated to demur and show respect to the things you stand for, either. If this isn't obvious to you, then you're probably not all that tolerant and moderate to begin with. See, as a somewhat reasonable person whose first instinct is to assume that other people are also somewhat reasonable, and not impulsive savages who are prone to violent outbursts at the slightest provocation, I want to assume that these moderate Muslims we speak of are capable of looking dispassionately at the situation and seeing that drawing stick figures en masse is an appropriately light-hearted, mocking response to fanatics physically attacking people, issuing death threats, and burning down houses, aimed at showing solidarity and a refusal to be intimidated, and ultimately incapable of affecting their faith in the slightest way unless they choose to let it. I emphasize "response" because this is not a case of someone deciding to gratuitously pick some group at random and do something deliberately offensive for the simple fun of being a dick. Contrary to what Mom always told you as she forcibly separated you from the sibling you were fighting with, sometimes it does matter who started it.

Going along to get along is a perfectly fine thing to do in many situations. Of course, in others, it's more important to speak the truth regardless of the consequences and stand for principles no matter how it inconveniences people, and as Isaiah Berlin taught us, sometimes virtues can end up in conflict with each other. The gulf between them wouldn't seem so vast, though, if people could keep one other thing in mind: being offended really isn't such a horrible thing. Honestly. Take a deep breath, relax your death grip on your narcissistic self-importance, and remember that if your beliefs and sensitivities have any depth to them at all, they're not going to be seriously threatened by someone making rude and/or ignorant remarks about them. Sometimes, in fact, offense can be a good way to be jolted into introspection that you might not have been inclined to pursue otherwise. I read writers every day that I don't necessarily agree with because I still recognize that they're capable of provoking me into thought that I wouldn't find in an echo chamber.

Heart of Hearts

Rand Paul is a nut. But the focus has to be on his nutty political positions and the extent to which other Republicans also believe them (the denials have not been strong so far, aside from McConnell, who already hated Paul), not on his “actual feelings”.

I agree, always have. But to shift the focus just a little, this is also why it's driven me slightly mad to see what a reflexive, thoughtless position it is for liberals to take when confronted with yet another insanely stupid statement from Beck, Coulter, Bush, Cheney, or any in between: They don't really believe that, they're just saying it for attention/money/votes/etc.

Who. The. Fuck. Cares. WHY. The point is, there are plenty of people stupid enough to believe it, it serves a purpose by being put out there, and unless we're all just characters in a novel, it doesn't make the slightest fucking difference what the deepest motivation was for doing it. I suppose it makes one feel superior to have supposedly seen through the charade, but while progressive bloggers pat themselves on the back for not being one of the gullible marks, this stuff has a real-world effect. It wouldn't matter if you could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are utter hypocrites and send them slinking off into obscurity and disgrace. The problem is that there are millions of people who, for whatever reason - no education, no empathy, no logical ability, no relevant experience - find that what they say makes sense to them.

Of course, there is no shortage of liberals who also spend time scrutinizing tea leaves and goat entrails worrying about what Obama is really thinking or feeling way down in his heart of hearts, too. Where does this come from? Why are people so much more concerned with what people are thinking than what they're doing?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

My Cup Runneth Over

I had never heard of Julian Young until I saw this book review by Francis Fukuyama a couple weeks ago. Nietzsche fanboy that I am, I was naturally intrigued, and when I learned that he had two other books on Nietzsche's philosophy of art and religion, I was thrilled; nay, elated.

I had read Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal years ago and really enjoyed it. I lent it to a friend who I never see in person anymore, so I decided to get a used replacement copy. While doing that, I decided to go crazy and buy the rest of his novels, since the used copies were only a few bucks each. I've since been enjoying the hell out of them, too, with Fool being my favorite of the bunch so far.

And since we spend a lot of time on topics like Buddhism, atheism, materialism and the contemplative life on this here blog, I would be remiss in not pointing the way to Owen Flanagan's most recent book, which I also bought and imagine I will enjoy much like I did The Problem of the Soul.

Hell is Other People

The Ten Most Disturbing Scientific Discoveries

The funny thing is, none of the ten are surprising or disturbing to me. What does make me despair is seeing commenters on the Smithsonian's website, of all places, arguing that they ain't descended from no ape, or citing the Climategate faux-scandal as proof against climate change.

Sometimes you find remnants of idealism in the strangest places.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Notable Quotables

But the Iranian atomic energy chief expressed doubts about the emerging international consensus against his country.

"We should be patient because they won't prevail and by pursuing the passing of a new resolution they are discrediting themselves in public opinion," Salehi said.

"I think there are some rational people among them who will stop them from making this irrational move."

The Turco-Brazilian diplomatic effort is a product of growing international consternation with Washington’s fixation on this issue. It is a reflection of just how few non-Western governments take the Iranian “threat” at all seriously. An increasing number of governments does not really believe that the threat exists and they are more willing to say so after the Iraq debacle. Now there are more non-Western governments, including both large democracies and allies, that are in a position to wield influence internationally and many of them have been building constructive trading relationships with Iran at a time when the U.S. and major European governments have gone down the dead-end route of isolation and sanctions...The new nuclear deal will not satisfy the U.S. and our European and Israeli allies, because nothing short of the severe limitation or abolition of Iran’s nuclear program will satisfy most of these governments.

As if it weren't already clear enough that it isn't cooperation nor even compliance that we want. It's submission, the more abject, the better.

Iran, to reiterate for the millionth time, seems like a pretty unfortunate place to live. I am glad the fortune favored my birth with a better address. I sincerely hope that some day the Iranian people enjoy more freedom and prosperity and fairness and so forth and so on, although, as a resident of the world's preeminent blower-upper of shit, I am not about to start lobbing my outrage at the Iranian government. Washington is closer to Pittsburgh, and my arm ain't what it used to be. But Iran is plainly not an expansionist power, however nasty its secret police may be. I'm sorry, but fatuous, preening, first-world moral umbrage is really, really not a justification for war, or whatever action Hitchen's is just barely smart enough not to explicitly suggest.

- A double shot of IOZ

Despite the frustrations that shape life for many Iranians, however, no one I met expressed the slightest desire for foreign intervention.

"Intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has brought nothing but death and suffering," a retired schoolteacher told me in Shiraz. "We don't want that. Above all, we want to preserve peace in our country. We would rather live under a regime we don't like than one that is placed in power by foreigners."

Iranians seem puzzled by the Obama administration's intense focus on their country's nuclear program, which officials in Washington describe as a grave threat to global security.

"What worries us is Pakistan," one man told me. "We don't have anything like the Taliban or Al Qaeda in Iran. Crazy fanatics are not going to take power here, but in Pakistan it could happen any day. We can't understand why the Americans allowed Pakistan to become a nuclear power but are so upset about Iran."

The other theme I heard time and again here is that political change takes time. Perhaps because they have such a long history - 10 times longer than the history of the United States - many Iranians seem ready to wait patiently for change rather than risk plunging their country into upheaval by demanding it immediately.

...In Iran, as in other countries with long histories, many people believe that not all problems have quick solutions, and that some have no solution at all. "In our history we have had many periods that were sad, and other periods that were happy," a woman at an internet cafe in Isfahan told me. "You cannot rush things. What is important is to live."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Last Rights

All of these sensible-seeming regulations lay bare the illogic of the claim that there is “right” to die. This is because if there really is a right to die, why should the scope of who is permitted to commit suicide be limited to the terminally ill, or those who are in pain? If one begins with the premise that there is a “right” to die, then it follows logically that all suicide should be legalized.

...More deeply, this indicates the foolishness of legalizing assisted suicide at all. Indeed, legalizing assisted suicide has the effect of bureaucratizing what would otherwise be a personal, private choice. In sum, rather than increase the scope of personal liberty, legalizing assisted suicide actually shrinks it. Laws like Oregon’s Death With Dignity act say: you only have the power over your own body if a group of doctors and government officials says you do. How is this consistent with the notion of the individual ”right” to die? And where is the dignity in submitting yourself before a panel of doctors who will determine whether you qualify for state-sanctioned suicide?

For someone who calls his column "Epstein's Razor" and tops it with a picture of himself looking supercilious as all hell, you would think this wouldn't be too hard to grasp, so I suspect he's missing the point on purpose.

First of all, "rights" are, by definition, granted (and revoked, let's not forget) by the state, so anyone pressing for the legal right - see, the word "legal" should be a clue here - to do this, that, or the other will obviously be looking to the state to grant it to them. Despite his smarmy attempt to pretend otherwise, this doesn't have anything to do with personal liberty, any more than the absence of legalized gay marriage means that gay couples can't love each other or enter into committed relationships. You can and may die whenever you want, by whatever means you choose, as people always have and will. But if you want to die in a hospital or hospice by means of a lethal dose of highly controlled medication administered by a professional, as opposed to messier, more painful DIY methods, you'll need the state's permission, and the utilitarian standard they've pretty much settled on is a loss of autonomy due to terminal illness. These people are agitating for the right of certain terminally ill patients to die in highly specific circumstances of their choosing, not as a general principle for all citizens at all times.

And while having to petition a panel of doctors to consider your case may be undignified to some, most people who don't have a religious or extreme anti-statist agenda would certainly concur that it beats slowly wasting away in agony while needing a nurse to wash your ass and change your diapers.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sui Generic

Ed takes on what could be a pretty interesting topic - objective quality vs. personal preference in popular music - but unfortunately it degenerates into yet more contrarian hipster ranting.

Honestly, there's nothing objectionable about Radiohead. They are a perfectly average group of musicians making perfectly dull, inoffensive music. There is nothing wrong with them. I find it nearly impossible to imagine someone responding to Radiohead with "Oh God, I can't listen to this horrible racket!" It's the kind of thing young people can listen to while in a car with their parents without offending either.

My first objection, then, is a simple matter of personal taste. I tend to hate things that fit the preceding description. One could say that I am deeply offended by inoffensiveness. I don't hate their music; I hate that they are so boring, so unoriginal, and so predictable. If you are a Rock Musician and the parents of your fans "get" your music – or perhaps even like it – you are doing something wrong. Take a risk. Piss someone off. Hurt someone's ears. Challenge people. Don't just keep churning out boilerplate that makes people say "Oh, how nice." Bands that everyone can find a way to like are, by definition, forgettable.

Mozart. The Beatles. Morphine. Masters of Reality. How long of a list do we have to compile here of musicians both famous and obscure who wrote fantastic music without having to rely on abrasiveness and shock value? As some of his commenters point out, if making your parents cover their ears and grimace is the standard for excellence, I guess GG Allin and Scandinavian black metal bands are the final word on the subject. But even Pantera's most extreme record went to number one on the Billboard charts. What about the children of people who grew up listening to that stuff? What are they supposed to do to rebel? Reinvent big band music? Become nü-crooners?

And which is it? Are musicians supposed to be striving for greatness, aiming to transcend their influences and stretch the boundaries of their genre, or are they supposed to be writing music to please the glowering fourteen year-old with hand-scrawled circle-A anarchy symbols on his skateboard and Hot Topic pants who thinks life in his parents' suburban home is, like, so totally worse than Nazi Russia? 'Cause I can't think of a faster way to consign yourself to irrelevance than to pander to a notoriously fickle audience with the attention spans of fruit flies. Or is it the forty-five-and-older demographic I see eternally fighting it out in guitar magazine letters and YouTube comments over whose favorite band is the bigger sellout for changing their songwriting formula?

I've heard it before! I don't wanna hear it again!

Incidentally, who do we have to thank for this idiotic obsession with novelty for novelty's sake? Is it the punks? Technically, Henry Rollins wasn't talking about derivative bands when he said that, but it could still very well sum up punk rock's anti-tradition attitude. Ironically, the same hyper-individualist refusal to locate oneself within a tradition, the strange insistence on wanting to exist in a vacuum, unencumbered by anything that came before, turned out to lend itself almost perfectly to a disposable consumerist mentality that treats bands and musicians with the same casual disregard as last season's fashions. It's been done before! It's old! It's boring! It's too popular! I need a new shiny object! And often, the same people who make a fetish of novelty lament the fact that the music industry long ago gave up on trying to slowly develop bands and build a loyal fanbase over several years, preferring to sign ten similar bands, throw them against the wall in hopes of one of them managing to stick with a forgettable hit single or two, the profits from which will cover the money invested into the nine failures, who are then unceremoniously dropped and sent packing back to their day jobs (with the one survivor likely to follow in a few years when their follow-up fails to duplicate their early success). It's a great recipe for encouraging conformity and contrived trend-hopping.

I was talking about something like this last year with my co-blogger Arthur, and he wrote:

Schiller wrote about the fundamental contrast in cultural history between what he called the naive and the sentimental -- the original, less sophisticated but more powerful kind of art (Homer, e.g.) and the belated, more sophisticated but less visceral and emotionally powerful (modern) art. Something like a transition from naive to sentimental has happened in rock music, and probably would have happened even if Reaganism and cynical consumerist manipulation had not taken place. Artistic movements that begin spontaneously tend to become more self-conscious and backward-looking as they develop: revolution cools into evolution, and, as with modern jazz, a creeping classicism sets in where once all was anarchy and freshness.

There's nothing wrong with rock music, but expecting it to still have the same sort of novel, dynamic cultural relevance that it did forty years ago is misguided. There is a sense that it's all been done before, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. It's not going to change the world, but there are enough talented songwriters tinkering with the forms laid down long ago who can still change yours if you're open to it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Attention, Internet!

be·mused   [bih-myoozd]

1. bewildered or confused.
2. lost in thought; preoccupied.

As you can surely see now, this is clearly not meant to be just another way of saying:

a·mused   [uh-myoozd]

1. pleasurably entertained, occupied, or diverted.
2. displaying amusement: an amused expression on her face.
3. aroused to mirth.

For god's sake, stop it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

No Dark Sarcasm in the Classroom

After seeing a couple mentions of this "dueling flags" thing in California, I've decided to offer my valuable perspective.

First, let's take a moment to contemplate the wise words of Warrior Soul frontman Kory Clarke, who bellowed, "Don't pledge allegiance to flags, I burn 'em!" Right on.

Secondly, anyone who wears American flag-themed clothing (which I thought was supposed to be disrespectful to the flag in the first place...?) makes me think of Kid Rock. Anyone who makes me think of that stupid, inbred, no-talent-having, slack-jawed yokel is automatically on my shitlist, especially when they're only wearing the aforementioned apparel to be dicks in the first place, so fuck those kids. Like I said, burn all flags. But if that sounds unreasonable to you, well, living in this country provides you Homer Simpsons with endless opportunities to grab your foam finger and try to spell U-S-A at the top of your lungs, from pro wrestling events to watching the teevee and cheering about whoever we're dropping bombs on this week. You can't really blame other nationalities for wanting in on the fun.


Of course, we are talking about the public school system, which is not meant to educate or even indoctrinate, so much as housebreak, to encourage mindless conformity, whether through anodyne "cultural awareness" outlets throughout the school year, or some other expression of collective solidarity on this or that meaningless issue. As long as kids come out the other end as docile employees and consumers, lifelong receivers of baldfaced lies from their superiors, everything is jake. The second they pose an inconvenient question, or show any independent thought, instead of trying to talk with them, bureaucratic feathers get ruffled, and the warden drops the hammer.

Reflexive identification with brand symbols, whether national or corporate, and the ability to quickly form granfalloons and, if necessary, resort to violence, actual or implied, to defend them, are pretty much what life in this shopping mall of a nation is all about, so I don't know what Heywood's complaining about here -- this is what passes for teaching them useful skills. The true independent thinkers have probably either dropped out or are sleeping in the back of the room with iPods in their ears.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I, Trendsetter

As you, my loyal myrmidons, are well aware, I have written quite a few times about my, shall we say, antipathy regarding the word "spirituality". I've done it often enough, and probably will again, that I even created a tag for posts which mention it, "spiritual-not-religious".

So what do I see over at Pharyngula today?

We need a new word is that freethinkers can use instead of having to use the word "Spirituality" to describe this enhanced experience. Some of us cringe when having to use the word "spirituality", when describing our feelings when describing our connection to nature.

Carl Sagan wrote, when speaking of the relationship between science and spirituality: "In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. They very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos....Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality."

Mr. Sagan may have prefered to use a different word, if it existed. The current use of the word Spirituality implies "Spirits", a ghost, an unquantifiable being, supposedly present everywhere that affects human bodies yet, that has never been detected and is unfalsifable. It is an unscientific word and we need a new word to replace it.

Scientility? I ask you, is there any poetry in that? And am I the only one whose brain immediately made the phonetic link to "senility"? Of course, PZ gets more views in five minutes than I get in a month, so now everyone will think I stole the idea. I will be a prophet without honor. But you, you know the truth! (Plus, if there's any money to be had in here somewhere, I'll split it with you if you back me up on this.)

Adding, 5/12: Feel the groundswell:

As regular readers know, I’m not a big fan of the word “spiritual.” But Farcet uses the word differently from most. He doesn’t talk about the spiritual as somehow higher and truer than the material aspect of reality. The Spiritual Enemy goes to great lengths to remind readers to think of their body as “the body that one has rather than the body that one is.” So “spiritual” in his use of the word refers to a point of view that questions society’s usual approach to things and aims at a clearer understanding of true reality, which is neither purely material nor purely spiritual.

That's why I prefer words like reflective, contemplative, and philosophical. And from my vantage point, talking about "having" a body seems to imply a separate, non-material owner. But whatever, minor differences can wait. Point is, the movement is growing!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Come Bite the Apple

While I'm quoting Stephen Prothero, this was a good column too:

What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: Something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word “Koyaanisqatsi” tells us that life is out of balance. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” tells us that there is something rotten not only in the state of Denmark but also in the state of human existence. Hindus say we are living in the “kali yuga,” the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden; Zion, heaven, and paradise lie out ahead.

So religious folk agree that something has gone awry. They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge even more sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it.

Again, we see the belief in a lost Golden Age. This is one of the things I'm most grateful to Nietzsche for: all the time he spent elaborating on the theme that the only thing "wrong" with existence is that we are too limited by our selfish wants and fears to realize that you can't have the good without the bad. We don't all want the same things, and even when we do, we don't want them at the same time or in the same degree. We don't even agree on the same method for obtaining them. Conflict and challenge are inevitable. Suffering is inextricably woven into life's tapestry.

The fundamental faith of the metaphysicians is the faith in opposite values. It has not even occurred to the most cautious among them that one might have a doubt right here at the threshold where it was most surely necessary – even if they vowed to themselves, "de omnibus dubitandum". It might even be possible that what constitutes the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things – maybe even one with them in essence.

The tragedy of human existence is that we still have to live as if there is an essential difference, as if they can be separated.

No, Blake, No

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

- William Blake

But I am not a mystic. I am too enamored of words for that, and of the human body and the oceans of confusion in which it swims. I will confess, however, to wanting mystical things. Though I suspect I could not live with the consequences, I want a memory of a meeting with the Unknown that cannot be rewritten by doubt. But in those rare moments when what goes by God has knocked on my windows and doors, I have been too much in love with the sand dunes in front of me or the woman beside me (or both) to notice.

Apparently such faith as I have resides in visible rather than invisible things—in blackberry bushes and snowstorms and the turn of a hip. When I find myself with a woman I love, what I love is the woman. And when I find myself in a place like the Province Lands, what I love is the place—the sand shifting underfoot, the shooting stars overhead, and the endless rhythm of waves that announce their arrival on shore just before giving themselves up forever.

I've always felt that the mystical perspective is too often an attempt to flee the pain and suffering of life in this transient world of contingent, perishable things to find refuge in something more timeless, a larger, unchanging pattern that comforts with its stability and predictability. I'm not saying it's not understandable, I'm just of the belief that it cheapens those perishable things to subordinate them to some mysterious purpose, to look past them as tiny pieces in a grand scheme. We can't live on that plane; we can only visit it occasionally. There's a beauty in such a vast perspective, to be sure, but I'll always find it preferable to return to contemplating the individual people and particular experiences I love, even though none of them will last. Permanence would destroy the very vitality that makes them so desirable to begin with.

Summer Lightning

Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have.

- Alexander Herzen

I would just add that we menfolk are just as subject to many of the exact same contradictory exhortations to find fulfillment - I've had plenty of well-meaning people tell me that a life without a romantic partner, children of my own, and a more professional, lucrative job is problematic - but otherwise, I agree with Rebecca Traister:

You know what I think? It's all bullshit. Not just the trend stories and the self-help stuff, but the laser focus on happiness itself. I say this as someone who has grown steadily happier as I've aged, but I think I would have said it even more emphatically earlier in my life: I'm just not sure that "happiness" is supposed to be the stable human condition, and I think it's punishing that we're constantly being pushed to achieve it.

...But I would submit also that sometimes dissatisfied is just how life is. And that that's all right.

...Here is what I have deduced so far both from my experiences and from the hissed warnings of those who propel me toward their idea of happiness and simultaneously warn me it will never really be attainable: There will be peaks -- falling in love, seeing new places, enjoying whatever form a family takes, drinking a beer on a warm night, seeing a baseball team win a long coveted pennant. And there will be valleys -- divorces and illnesses, joblessness and money trouble, watching those you love in pain, a ninth inning playoff loss. In those valleys, I'm not sure that it's happiness we first strive for, but rather the power to not get stuck, to move toward just slightly higher ground. A spot within view of a peak will often do just as nicely as a seat atop it.

There is no formula for life satisfaction, no recipe that doesn't produce lumps of discontent or frustration.

That is happiness by my definition, an acceptance of the necessity of discontent -- not merely the inevitability of it, but the necessity. Disasters and heartbreaks aren't merely temporary obstacles, tests of character, or plot devices to make your life's story more interesting; they're not just there to make it that much sweeter when you win at the end, because nobody "wins" and there is no "end".

Also, "happy" isn't the same thing as "giddy". Almost every day, I alternately feel anger, anxiety, and weltschmerz, not to mention any of the other eighty-three problems, but it's fine if I remember that they will eventually ebb without me really needing to do anything about it. I don't know if this is a peculiarly American thing, this strange, ahistorical notion that happiness and success can be on a permanent upward trajectory, but I wouldn't be surprised.

The Cowardice of Solomon

Ah, Democrats. Earnestly trying to split the baby yet again:

“If we are going to have a system that is capable of dealing, in a public safety context, with this new threat,” Holder said on ABC's This Week Sunday. “I think we have to give serious consideration to at least modifying that public safety exception.”

If only they were pretending.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

E Pluribus Amor

So convinced is Erich of the virtues of polyamory that he feels it will, one day, become the norm. "Fifty years ago pre-marital chastity was unquestioned," he says. "Now it seems little more than a peculiarity. One day monogamous relationships may be seen in a similar light."

Yeah, um, I think we can file this away next to hippie communes as something that will only ever appeal to a select group. Personally, I don't know why anyone familiar with the nuances and intricacies of an intimate relationship, and all that goes into making it work, would want to double or triple the drama, and all at the same time, no less! You crazy kids...

Of course, I don't doubt there are people who could make it work. I also don't doubt that most people will never be able to set aside feelings of possessiveness and jealousy over their romantic partners, nor will they be eager to give up the pleasure of controlling someone else's sex life (even if no one wants to admit we enjoy doing that). As the persistence in the belief in a personal, loving god makes clear, and against all evidence, people want to feel special. Everyone wants to be a unique snowflake. Exclusive relationships may not be able to last for a lifetime, but at least for a while, they can make someone feel like they, and only they, are the most important person in the world for someone else, capable of providing something that no one else can. That's no less of an addicting thrill than the urge to have sex with multiple partners. Speaking of which...

“Orgies do happen," he admits. "But they really are not the point of what we do. The point of polyamory is to enable people to have loving relationships with more than one person."

But why, I ask, for a final time, must a loving relationship include sex?

Erich looks at me. "But why," he rejoins "Must it not?"

Look. Do it, or don't do it. There is no "must". But I think what she's really asking you, dude, is: is this really about love, or is it just a rationalization for being unfaithful? I mean, let me reiterate, I'm all for whatever consenting adults want to do. But I have close female friends who are smart, attractive, funny, all that good stuff, and I don't feel the relationships aren't "loving" just because we aren't sleeping together. On the contrary, I'm more than happy to enjoy those aspects while avoiding all the drama that comes along with a sexual relationship. The intellectual and/or emotional intimacy is fulfilling enough for me without adding physical intimacy to the equation. Granted, I'm strange like that, and I have a need for a lot more personal time and space than most, so that kind of distance works for me. But still, I think the problem with monogamy isn't that it's harsh to expect a person to remain sexually exclusive for the duration of a relationship, it's that no one seems to want to acknowledge that, even if it turns into marriage, it's not likely to last much more than a decade, let alone a lifetime. Keeping that perspective in mind from the start would seem to me to make for a happier time together and a less traumatic end.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Ode to Joy

The problem not only with fundamentalist Christians but with Republicans in general is not that they act on blind faith, without thinking. The problem is that they are incorrigible doubters with an insatiable appetite for Evidence. What they get off on is not Believing, but in having their beliefs tested. That's why their conversations and their media are so completely dominated by implacable bogeymen: marrying gays, liberals, the ACLU, Sean Penn, Europeans and so on. Their faith both in God and in their political convictions is too weak to survive without an unceasing string of real and imaginary confrontations with those people -- and for those confrontations, they are constantly assembling evidence and facts to make their case.

But here's the twist. They are not looking for facts with which to defeat opponents. They are looking for facts that ensure them an ever-expanding roster of opponents. They can be correct facts, incorrect facts, irrelevant facts, it doesn't matter. The point is not to win the argument, the point is to make sure the argument never stops. Permanent war isn't a policy imposed from above; it's an emotional imperative that rises from the bottom. In a way, it actually helps if the fact is dubious or untrue (like the Swift-boat business), because that guarantees an argument. You're arguing the particulars, where you're right, while they're arguing the underlying generalities, where they are.

Once you grasp this fact, you're a long way to understanding what the Hannitys and Limbaughs figured out long ago: These people will swallow anything you feed them, so long as it leaves them with a demon to wrestle with in their dreams.

- Matt Taibbi

I thought of that passage while reading this. I'm not sure I agree with Taibbi that the personality type in question doesn't want to be free from doubt; I suspect they may just be too stupid to realize that their own neuroses and lack of intellectual integrity are what prevent them from achieving a relaxed peace with insecurity and uncertainty. It's not that radical of a concept to recognize: it's much easier to blame the entire rest of the world for your unhappiness than to take a close look at yourself.

At any rate, Williamson's screed is an impressively compact example of the genre, in terms of pounds of bullshit per square inch of blog post. We've got the nonexistent War on Christmas, the obligatory ACLU-takin'-away-mah-freedom trope, and the whinging about secular, cosmopolitan elitists from someone who would never dream of leaving the big city to practice what they preach and move to East Bumblefuck, Alabama, where they could marinate in Real Myrrhkinism all the live-long day.

As George Carlin famously said, the only good thing to come out of religion was the music. I love a lot of choral music myself, even though, to paraphrase Zarathustra, I want to meet the man more godless than I so that I may delight in his instruction. I have yet to encounter a fellow atheist who would bother to make a scene, especially at a party or as a guest at someone else's house, over having to listen to Christmas carols or J.S. Bach, but I have indeed known people who base their Christmas shopping around which big-box stores greet you with "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays", or who make sure to underline the "Christ" in the cards they send to you, knowing full well you don't share their beliefs.

Obviously, it's no shock that people who would turn a time of year devoted to good cheer in myriad forms into a partisan pissing match are miserable fucks all year-round. My wingnut relatives are the type of people to politicize absolutely everything, from food to sports to vehicles to lifestyle choices, even though the topic does nothing but provoke them into railing bitterly about enemies real and imagined. Sometimes I feel bad for people who don't have the self-awareness to stop furiously obsessing over topics that only make them even more discontented, who simply don't know what to do with themselves if they're not picking a fight they can never win. Other times, though, life's too short and there's too many good things to enjoy.

Screwed-up people everywhere
But I ain't got time to care!
I feel lovely

- Suicidal Tendencies


If the gods listened to the prayers of men, all humankind would quickly perish since they constantly pray for many evils to befall one another.

- Wise words from Epicurus to keep in mind on this National Day of Prayer.

You're as dumb as all those records you spin
And you're as real as the Shroud of Turin

- For some reason, I was mightily amused by learning that the Shroud is kept behind bulletproof glass. I'm not sure if it was because of imagining someone actually taking the trouble to shoot at a piece of linen cloth, or imagining the worldwide freakout that would commence if someone did do it. Sometimes, it's really amazing to consider how human irrationality hasn't been the death of us all (yet).

Walter Sobchak: Nothing changes. Fucking Nazis.

- As half of the Internet has already said: smoking/possessing pot = child endangerment. SWAT goons storming a house in the middle of the night, killing a dog that was confined to a crate, and spraying bullets around with children present = making the world safe for something or other. Well done, America.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010


This culture is morally hopeless.

...Real Americans don little tri-corner hats and carry on about "freedom" and "the constitution" but all they know about either one is what they learned at Disneyland. They are paranoid about a non-existent invasion of killer immigrants and are freaking out about a non-existent plan to send gun owners to Fema camps. They threaten to kill census workers who ask them how many times they flush their toilets.

But torture? Not a problem. Whether it's administered by the CIA or some minimum wage security guard, they seem to think electric shock, waterboarding or any other sick form of coercion worthy of the worst low rent dictator in the world is just ducky. But only if the subject is unarmed. If anyone tried this with a guy who was packing, the screams of horror at "the government" trying to disarm a law abiding citizen would be heard for miles around. I give up.

I share Digby's anger and despair here, even if I find a slightly more conservative view helps put this sort of thing in perspective. I'll get to that in a moment. First, let me offer this general advice: reading the comments to videos on YouTube will always end in tears. Any thinking, sensitive person will be brought to immense grief by contemplating the legions of subliterate troglodytes with computer access out there. Remember, back in the mid-nineties, the panegyrics to the technocornucopia of the Internet, and how it would raise the general intelligence of all humankind, allowing ordinary folks access to the wisdom of the ages and the latest scientific advances? Did you hear anybody gushing then about how it would make it easier for people to steal music, jerk off to free amateur porn, and giggle at videos of fat girls flying over the handlebars of their bikes? Hold that thought; it segues fairly neatly into the next part.

In science, progress is a fact, in ethics and politics it is a superstition...Post-modern thinkers may question scientific progress, but it is undoubtedly real. The illusion is in the belief that it can effect any fundamental alteration in the human condition. The gains that have been achieved in ethics and politics are not cumulative. What has been gained can also be lost, and over time surely will be.

History is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even an inch-by-inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human needs. Freedom is recurrently won and lost in an alternation that includes long periods of anarchy and tyranny, and there is no reason to suppose that this cycle will ever end. In fact, with human power increasing as a result of growing scientific knowledge, it can only become more violent.

The core of the idea of progress is that human life becomes better with the growth of knowledge. The error is not in thinking that human life can improve. Rather, it is in imagining that improvement can ever be cumulative. Unlike science, ethics and politics are not activities in which what is learnt in one generation can be passed on to an indefinite number of future generations. Like the arts, they are practical skills and can be easily lost.

Many Enlightenment thinkers accepted that scientific advance might slow down or stop, as in previous periods of history; and in that case social progress would stall as well...What none of the thinkers of the Enlightenment envisaged, and their followers today have failed to perceive, is that human life can become more savage and irrational even as scientific knowledge advances.

So let me reiterate: yes, it's abhorrent to see how casually people accept the idea that it's okay for authority figures to jolt someone with thousands of volts of electricity, especially for the most trivial reasons. It's lamentable that, more than two centuries after Benjamin Franklin stated that people who trade essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither, millions of Americans are just fine with other people being forced to show their papers on demand, because hey, it'll never happen to them, fishbelly-white, patriotic, taxpaying, god-fearing citizens that they are.

And yet, and yet, when has it ever been otherwise? The majority of humankind has always been stupid, self-centered and unreflective. My former neighbor was ranting about illegal Mexicans ruining health care for all of us more than a decade ago, and I eventually started speaking to her less and less because I was tired of every conversation inevitably ending up on The Oracular Wisdom Of Lou Dobbs. Did I mention that she was an Irish Catholic, single mother, second-wave feminist? You'd think she'd have a little sympathy for scapegoats and ethnic minorities, but the urge to kick someone lower than you is a powerful one, and apparently very resistant to logic.

Humans have always understood the basic principles of ethics; the Golden Rule has appeared all over the world since time immemorial. The question has always been over who deserves the privilege of being treated with that consideration, and there has always been some out-group that doesn't qualify. Right now, Mexicans - or brown-skinned people in general - are being demonized, but it won't always be that way. Demographically, it can't. And I might suggest that anger and hatred are always going to be louder, gaudier and more aggressive than love and kindness, but that doesn't mean the latter aren't still around. I'm sure there are just as many people out there who would be appalled at the spectacle of a teenager being tased to the cheers of onlookers; they're just not the ones who hang around YouTube's comments.

Deep breaths. There's probably an asteroid out there that will render all this discussion moot one day, so until then, try not to take it all too seriously.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Pompous and Circumstantial

Yet the church leaders are right about one thing: there is often a liberal and secular snobbishness toward the church as a whole — and that is unfair.

It may be easy at a New York cocktail party to sniff derisively at a church whose apex is male chauvinist, homophobic and so out of touch that it bars the use of condoms even to curb AIDS. But what about Father Michael Barton, a Catholic priest from Indianapolis? I met Father Michael in the remote village of Nyamlell, 150 miles from any paved road here in southern Sudan. He runs four schools for children who would otherwise go without an education, and his graduates score at the top of statewide examinations.

...It’s because of brave souls like these that I honor the Catholic Church. I understand why many Americans disdain a church whose leaders are linked to cover-ups and antediluvian stances on women, gays and condoms — but the Catholic Church is far larger than the Vatican.

And unless we’re willing to endure beatings alongside Father Michael, unless we’re willing to stand up to warlords with Sister Cathy, we have no right to disparage them or their true church.

Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope?
Do you think he's a fool?

- Black Sabbath

Yes, and yes. How's that for "sniffing derisively"? And I've never even been to New York or a cocktail party!

I wish I could work up the indignation to tell Kristof to go fuck himself, but if you look at religious belief with a critical eye for any substantial length of time, you can't help but become familiar to the point of boredom with this gambit: define the religion by the individual believers you admire; ignoring, if necessary, the people with all the power and decision-making capabilities. Hey, I understand some Nazis were vegetarian animal-lovers, too...

Let's make it simple. I can respect people who have done some intense introspection and decided that working in poor villages in Africa to marginally improve the lives of their inhabitants is what they really want to do with their lives. I have no problem with people who are moved to action by their perception of suffering and injustice. However. If their main inspiration for doing so is a book of Bronze Age mythology and a belief that a nonexistent god-man commands them to act this way; if they would, in fact, act much differently should they happen to lose their faith, well, then, I don't respect them that much, gasp! If you need to lie to yourself in order to rise above narcissism, hedonism, fatalism, and whatever other -ism you want to name, then I don't consider that to be noble. I respect individuals and direct actions, not labels, organizations and ideologies. Compassion and altruism are universal human values. Subordinating them to one particular cult or another, as if metaphysical rationalizations are the source from which spontaneous empathy flows, is completely ass-backwards. Some people see immense suffering and immediately look for a way to relieve it. Others wait to see if the voices in their heads tell them it's justified to do so. I know which one I would trust.

If anything, I would ask the humanitarian priests and nuns why they aren't appalled enough by the actions of their leadership to leave the church and follow the dictates of their own consciences. Why would they feel a need to bow to an obviously corrupt hierarchy when it comes to questions of morality? What could you possibly feel you have to learn from them?

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Life Imitates Art

The 50cm long Asian swamp eel was allegedly inserted into the unnamed man's bottom, after he passed out drunk, by pals playing a prank on him.

Medics said the eel had devoured his bowels.

Eels up inside ya
Findin' an entrance where they can
Eels up inside ya
Findin' an entrance where they can

Boring through your mind, through your tummy, through your anus, eels!

I swear, I was just watching that video shortly before reading that story. How bizarre.