Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for April 15th, 2007

Keeping faith with the truth

Posted by metaphorical on 15 April 2007

I remember the first time I ever watched a daytime talk show. I was in the University of Iowa student union of my college, killing a few minutes before my next class. So it had to be before 1981.

Right near the communal newspapers and some couches was a large television. It was playing the Phil Donahue show, at the time perhaps the only widely syndicated talk show; this was long before Oprah, Jerry Springer, and all the rest. Wikipedia suggests that the genre got its big push in 1976 when Donahue moved his show to Chicago. I gather at some point Donahue’s shows got more sensationalistic as the genre did, but at the time, he was a fairly sober, liberal guy who was exploring nooks and crannies of American culture that didn’t usually show up on tv.
(For example, Wikipedia says, “In 1984, Donahue introduced many viewers to hip-hop culture for the first time, as a program featured breakdancing for the first time on national television, accompanied by a performance from the rap group UTFO.”)

On the day I first saw his show, Phil’s guest was a religious opthamologist who claimed that she had patients who could see through a glass eye. Donahue was incredulous. He asked her several times about it and she stood her ground. Finally, he asked, do you mean to say, you, a board-certified opthamologist, who went through college, then medical school, an internship, special training in opthamology, a residency, you’ve been educated in colleges and hospitals for 12, 15 years, and you’re saying that someone can see without an eyeball, that they can see out of an empty eye socket?

The opthamologist looked straight at Phil and said, “With the Lord, all things are possible.”

It was quite a moment for me, a third-generation atheist from New York City.

In discussions of religion, the Maginot line between believers and atheism is the question of whether God intervenes, or may intervene, in the world in a way outside the natural causal chain of events. The atheistic belief is that, by definition (of “nature” and “cause,” among other things), that can’t happen.

Some people believe there are no deathbed atheists, so it should come as a surprise that if there’s a Belgium through which religious belief is evading that Maginot line, it lies in the medical profession. But as it turns out, the doctors are doing at least as much of the marching as the patients.

Doctors and faith
U. OF C. HEALTH STUDY | Physicians believe God can help patients get healthy

April 10, 2007
BY JIM RITTER Health Reporter

A majority of American doctors believe God or another supernatural being intervenes in patients’ health, a study has found.

And nearly two in five doctors believe religion and spirituality can help prevent bad outcomes such as heart attacks, infections and even death, according to the University of Chicago nationwide survey of 2,000 physicians.

54% of doctors surveyed believe God or another supernatural being intervenes in patients’ health.

I would like to ask those 54 doctors whether people can see out of eye sockets if it’s the will of the Lord. After all, once you let the door in for God to do his good deeds, what’s the difference between that and a surprising heart attack recovery? Is one any harder than the other for God? Is God less motivated to let people see?

What I would like, in other words, is for religious people to have the courage of their convictions, whatever they are. There are plenty of religous people who don’t believe that “God intervenes in patients’ health” or in anything else in the world. But, it’s my experience, they tend to hide that belief, perhaps because Occam’s Razor and common sense suggest a further step of omitting God from any cosmological understanding of the world.

Then there are the religous people who do believe that God intervenes in the world. They are the ones I most would like to see have the courage of their convictions, the courage to say that people can see through eye sockets.

At least the current Pope has the courage of his convictions.

Hell makes a comeback

This news item got remarkably little coverage in the U.S.: Pope Benedict XVI has reinstated hell as a real place where the heat is always on. This seems to contradict his predecessor, John Paul II, who said that hell is not a place but the state of those who separate themselves from God.

The Pope’s views are expressed in a new book, Jesus of Nazareth. As such, the Pope is speaking personally, not ex cathedra. The AP reports,

Benedict stresses that the book, which he began writing in 2003 when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is an expression of his “personal search for the face of the Lord” and is by no means an official part of Roman Catholic Church doctrine.

“Everyone is free, then, to contradict me,” he says.

Still, contradicting your predecessor, who, after all, was infallible, can make for some complications, so the Vatican is pedaling backwards as fast as they can. The Australian reports that

Vatican officials said the Pope – who is also the Bishop of Rome – had been speaking in “straightforward” language “like a parish priest”.

He had wanted to reinforce the new Catholic catechism, which holds that hell is a “state of eternal separation from God”, to be understood “symbolically rather than physically”.

Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, a church historian, said the Pope was “right to remind us that hell is not something to be put on one side” as an inconvenient or embarrassing aspect of belief.

I can’t speak to the doctrinaire correctness of either Pope’s views, but I think he’s right to insist on the reality of hell from a practical point of view. Without the fear of hell to keep people in line, mainstream Christianity starts to fall apart. At least, that was the experience of Carlton Pearson, a 54-year-old evangelical minister who, as a fourth-generation classical Pentecostal preacher once had one of the largest churches in Tulsa, as he described in an August 2006 interview with Keith Morrison of Dateline.

Pearson: I know that we had about 5,000 – 6,000 people come through there every week. And every seat would be filled.

Collection income was up to $60,000 a week. And during the nineties, Carlton put on huge revival meetings. He called them Azusa conferences, “Azusa” after the name of the original Pentecostal crusade 100 years ago.

At Carlton’s Azusa, as many as 40,000 people would fill the bleachers over seven days, and sell out all the hotels in the city.

Oral Roberts personally baptized one of his children and in 2000 he was invited to the White House. He was made a Bishop by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops.

But then he started questioning the Christian concept of hell.

And then one day, it happened. Bishop Carlton Pearson was sitting in the living room of his big house in Tulsa having his dinner in front of the TV set.

There was a news story on about the refugee crisis in Rwanda.

Pearson: And you saw these African people—mostly women and children walking slowly back trying to come home. There was no light or life in their eyes. It was a horrible thing for me to see. Swollen bellies and skeletal bodies, emaciated… and then the babies looking at the mom and the mama looking out in space. It was sad. And I’m sitting there with my little fat-cheeked baby and my plateful of food, watching my big screen TV. A man of God, a preacher of the Gospel, and Evangelist, and I’m looking at those people assuming that they’re probably Muslim and going to Hell. “’Cause God wouldn’t do that to Christians,” I’m thinking…

Pearson: They deserved hell.

And then, right at that moment, Carlton had his revelation.

Pearson: And I said, “God I don’t know how you’re gonna call yourself a loving God and allow those people to suffer so much and then just suck them into hell.” And I believe it was the Spirit of God in me saying, “Is that what you think we’re doing?”

Morrison: You heard this voice.

Pearson: Yes, sir. And I said, “That’s what I’ve been taught”

He talked back, he says, at that voice in his head.

Pearson: “God, I can’t I can’t save the whole world.” And that’s when I heard that voice say, “Precisely. That’s what we did. And if you’d tell them that they are redeemed, you wouldn’t create those kinds of problems. Can’t you see they’re already in Hell?”

Clear as a bell, says Carlton, he heard god telling him to preach this new message that hell is a place in life, and that after death. Everybody is redeemed. Everybody.

Pearson started to preach that there was no hell. But if you’re already redeemed, maybe you don’t need to go to church. So Christian leaders, including his mentor, Oral Roberts, denounced him.

And it was more in sorrow than in anger that the old evangelist sent his favorite student a long letter of rebuttal.

“This doctrine is as dangerous as any I’ve come in contact with in 66 years of ministry,” wrote Roberts. “Give it up, I pray, I beseech, I plead.”

And so did worshippers. The couldn’t handle what he called the Gospel of Inclusion.

And then, it was an avalanche. His great army of friends and colleagues departed.

The massive congregations melted away. Within a few months, the 6,000 who had crowded the pews on a Sunday had shrunk to a cold and lonely few hundred. Of course, collections dried up, too.

He couldn’t meet the payroll. The Azusa conference dwindled away too. The big Gospel singers, who’d once clamored to perform on Carlton’s stage, now shunned it. In 2004, the conference sputtered its last and died.

This American Life devoted an entire episode to Pearson back in 2005, which it called “Heretics.” You can download it for 95 cents at that link or stream it for free. It’s an hour of your life you’ll never want back.

In 2004, the Pentecostal bishops declared Pearson a heretic. But Pearson is back on the mend, sort of. He lost his big church, but a new one, formed with the few remaining parishioners who stuck with him, seems to be viable, albeit much, much smaller. He has a book out, God is Not a Christian.

But his life is dramatic evidence that in practical terms, the current Pope knows how to keep the people in the seats and the money coming in. You can bet that Jesus of Nazareth will sell a lot more copies than God is Not a Christian. And I guess a daunting number of them will be bought by doctors.

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Our national pastime

Posted by digglahhh on 15 April 2007

It’s no accident that the canonical dismissal of George Bush (the first, as it happens) was a baseball metaphor—that he “was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” As baseball is a metaphor for life, life is a metaphor for baseball. Professional sports, for better and for worse, are reflections of the societies in which they are played.

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson walked past baseball’s color line onto the infield of Ebbet’s Field. As another season of major league baseball hits its stride, it’s time to look at the dark truth lurking inside our sunny conception of baseball as “the national pastime.”

1.Disparity of resources

It seems obvious that richer teams will do better, but the question of whether dollars-spent translates linearly to success in the Major Leauges has been the subject of much debate. Within the mid-range payrolls, there is plenty of room for savvy general managerial skills to make a bigger difference than finances, but at the top and bottom of the distribution there’s not much argument. The teams with the very highest payroll are often the best and the teams with the lowest payrolls are almost always the worst.

The NFL, which has created an unparalleled following with it “any given Sunday” excitement, has a pay structure in which the gap between the sport’s highest and lowest payroll is smaller than the gap between baseball’s highest and second highest payrolls. How égalité!—perhaps a little too much so. Baseball’s notion that certain teams have inherent market advantages, and deeper pockets, independent of quality of play is more in keeping with the ideological underpinnings of American society. As is the reluctance to institute salary caps (à la the NFL) or meaningful revenue sharing systems. The supporters of the free market are almost always those with the most bountiful resources and in baseball, not surprisingly, more often times, the invisible hand dons the World Series ring.

2.Better living through chemistry

Is it surprising that performance-enhancing drugs have run rampant throughout the sport? The hankering for home runs over pitching duels is a poignant metaphor for contemporary cultural values. America has chosen, as its pastime, the most individualistic of team sports. It is the one that is most closely tied to numbers and the one in which you can most precisely measure an individual’s performance. Unlike basketball, hockey or soccer, a play begins as an individual showdown between batter and pitcher. The switches from offense to defense are deliberate and orderly, not instantaneous and unpredictable. Baseball’s individual nature and reliance on precise statistical would make it capitalism if it had to be portrayed as an economic system. Soccer’s low scoring, team-oriented style that produces many unsung heroes has a socialist feel to it. Americans are not interested in soccer, though it is the most popular sport in the world.

If the biochemical hybrids that are assaulting some of the sport’s most esteemed records are objects of public scorn, they still exemplify our love affair with simulacra, and our reactions to the subsequent scandals exemplify a national cognitive dissonance. In this country, images of success and health are a greater priority than the real thing, hence eating disorders, stomach stapling, personal “deficit spending” and myriad other behaviors endemic to and reflective of the U.S. value system.

As consumers of sport, culture, or product we Americans revere outcome more than process. So, we destroy our health, minds and integrity to show the uncritical and awestruck observer how pretty, wealthy or strong we are. Those who raise suspicion are dismissed as bitter, jealous or Luddites. It is in just as much bad taste to question the achievements of a player who comes out of nowhere to put up forty plus homerun seasons, as it is to disparage corporations using “creative accounting” practices to create an inaccurate picture of their wealth. Then when the inevitable scandal ensues, we tar and feather the perpetrators for taking advantage of our trust and innocence. The public was simply mislead by Mark McGwire, and Kenneth Lay on Enron’s “success” too… To an astute observer, only the naive could have been genuinely shocked to find that baseball players were using disingenuous means to succeed, all the while getting praised for their conditioning regimens or that our government was manufacturing a war on an innocent country all the while proclaiming to be the defenders of all that is moral.

3. From green card to line-up card

For decades, America has attracted the best and the brightest from around the world. When we provide laboratories and tenured chairs for scientists who go on to earn Nobel Prizes, everybody wins. When we strip-mine India and the Philippines of most of their trained nurses, only we win.

Baseball exhibits more than a little of each of these models. Should we be surprised to learn the dirty truth hidden beneath the veneer of successful Latin American ballplayers? The decrepit ball fields of Latin America are pillaged for any semblance of athletic talent. Players are harvested in bulk and coerced to sign English contracts without translation. Once property of professional teams, these players are exploited just like any other natural resource indigenous to Central and South America. The Vladimir Guerreros are then paraded as the Horatio Algiers of professional sports. The truth is that Latin American scouts fish not with rods, but nets, insuring that the success of a statistically insignificant minority will define the situation of a wretchedly under-served majority. It is far simpler and cheaper to harvest Latin players in bulk hoping to find some diamonds in the ruff than to invest time, money and risk into domestic prospects who have legal and financial counsel and command market value for their potential.

Many are quick to dismiss these concerns by saying the game provides Latinos with opportunities beyond those available in their homelands, yet that destitution exists largely because of American foreign policy in the first place. Latino youth are herded by droves into MLB organizations, completely unaware that they are entirely expendable. Even those who prove themselves must contend with the pride of front offices, eager to justify the investments in domestic blue-chippers that they choose to make.

4. “All men are created equal”

Some champion baseball’s history as a bastion of progress and equality, noting that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier seven years prior to Brown v. Board of Ed. However, from first team to last, it took another 15 years for, the Boston Red Sox to finally sign a black player. Front office racism resulted in several teams passing on Robinson himself, as well as Willie Mays and other legends of the game. The first black coach wasn’t until 1962, the first black manager, 1975. Thirty-seven years after integration, Hank Aaron received death threats while chasing Babe Ruth’s career homerun record. Today, black players comprise a mere eight percent of players on Major League rosters and six percent of players on Division I collegiate baseball teams.

Avenues that open the game up to women are limited, girls are encouraged to pursue softball at a young age (that’s where the scholarships are) and MLB has not taken much initiative to develop a women’s professional league, like the NBA did.

Baseball’s identity as a national pastime goes beyond the innumerable youngsters who pound their mitts on Little League diamonds and sandlots. It speaks to who those children are and what they are willing to sacrifice on the path to the Big Leagues. It speaks to the American Dream, and the way most of us watch it speed by, like a 98 mile per hour fastball, without a realistic chance of us catching up to it.

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