Politics, Technology, and Language

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

Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

8 Out of 10 Americans Still Crazy

Posted by metaphorical on 30 January 2011

First the good news: The number of Americans who believe that humans evolved over millions of years without God’s active intervention is greater than ever. The bad news: it’s still less than one-sixth the population.

Two and a half times as many—40 percent—hold a strict creationist view that God created humans sometime in the last 10,000 years. The rest hold a hybrid belief that acknowledges evolution while still asserting that “God guided the process.”

Gallup has apparently been asking people since 1982 to choose between

Human beings have developed over millions of year from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process

(1982: 38%; 2010: 38%)

Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part of this process

(1982: 9%; 2010: 16%)

God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so

(1982: 44%; 2010: 40%)

I’m characterizing that squishy middle ground as not believing in the theory of evolution, because the theory of evolution makes no reference to God and describes a mechanism that weighs out the future without a divine finger on the scale. But Americans themselves aren’t so clear on what constitutes a belief in evolution. In 2009, Gallup asked this:

Do you, personally, believe in the theory of evolution, do you not believe in the theory of evolution, or don’t you have an opinion either way?

The result:

On the eve of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, a new Gallup Poll shows that only 39% of Americans say they “believe in the theory of evolution,” while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36% don’t have an opinion either way.

Anyway, the split in the more exacting three-way question runs pretty strongly along party lines. A majority of Republicans reject evolution entirely, while only a third of Democrats do; only 8% of Republicans believe in the theory of evolution, while 20% of Democrats do.

Maybe the most shocking stats of all: 22% of all those with postgraduate degrees are strict creationists, 37% of all college grads are. While those numbers are lower than among those without college degrees, given the strong self-selection that probably takes place, it would seem that college changes few minds about creationism. So much for the powerful liberal hegemony in academia.

Posted in education, language, politics, pop culture, religion | 4 Comments »

Specify type of seder

Posted by metaphorical on 2 April 2009

The late comedian Richard Jeni had two jokes I always wanted to see come together.

1. On going to war over religion: You’re basically killing each other to see who’s got the better imaginary friend.

2. The Web brings people together because no matter what kind of a twisted sexual mutant you happen to be, you’ve got millions of pals out there. Type in, ‘Find people that have sex with goats that are on fire,’ and the computer will say, ‘Specify type of goat.’

Nowadays, the two jokes have hooked up, at the Kinky Sedar, the fourth annual one of which will be this Sunday. According to an excellent article in the Jewish Forward,

When about 100 Jews gather in Brooklyn on April 5 for a pre-Passover Seder, they will pay homage to their enslaved ancestors not with the traditional sinus-clearing horseradish, but by spanking each other with wands of chocolate licorice.

They will recount the story of Passover with a liberal dose of double entendre; they will break from the Haggadah reading to play a grown-up version of show-and-tell, in which guests showcase their “most-treasured kinky item” — be it a restraint, a whip or a pair of spiked heels; and they will sing a sex-positive version of “Dayenu,” with lyrics like, “If she only dressed in leather/Bright and shiny patent leather/If she only dressed in leather/Dayenu.”

There won’t be any goats of course. That’s prohibited by Jewish law—in fact, sex with animals seems to be one of only a few sexual practices prohibited by the Torah. (In his excellent book, Superstition, Robert Park notes that “If the universe was designed for life, it must be said that it is a shockingly inefficient design.” Along the same lines, if the Bible was designed to offer guidance about sexual practices, it’s a shockingly inefficient design.)

In any event, there won’t be any sex at all at the sedar:

Kinky Seder guests, who are encouraged to dress in “fetish attire” — no jeans, no sneakers, please — are likely to be disappointed if they’re expecting an orgy to break out at the Seder. While KinkyJews-sponsored events occasionally involve on-site sexual experimentation, the vast majority do not, members say.

And yet, somehow, the sedar manages to offend almost everyone. It’s even condemned by what must be the leading exponent of Jewish sexuality, a rabbi whose own book, The Kosher Sutra, has surely offended many of his fellow chosen people.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the author of “The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets for Reigniting Desire and Restoring Passion for Life” (HarperOne), said the notion of a kink-themed Seder is disrespectful to both the sanctity of marital relations and to the Passover holiday.

“Can you imagine the outrage if a group of people decided to commemorate African-American slavery by having an orgy?” Boteach asked. “This wasn’t a joke. Millions of God’s children were sold on the block, and here you are trivializing evil with this vulgar celebration.”

(By the way, rabbi, nice exaggeration on the “millions of God’s children.” There were all of 600,000 Jews in slavery in the first place, or at least, that’s how many were in the Exodus. There were probably only a few million people in all of Egypt, and of course most of them were godless, in your view.)

Anyway, the important thing is that the good rabbi is all for sex. In an article last January in the Jerusalem Post, he wrote:

Judaism, alone among the religions of the world, deeply endorses the passionate sexual interaction between man and woman.

The “alone among religions” is probably an exaggeration as well, but it’s more than atoned for by his wonderful double-entendre, the joy of which is dimmed only be the likelihood that it was unintentional.

Jewish, and in general, religious positions (pun intended, or at least retained intentionally—hey, they’re hard to avoid when writing about sex), seem be all over the place.

In fact, religiously-justified assertions about sex seem to match the very definition of a continuum—for any two ideas about what’s right and wrong, or allowed and forbidden, there’s a third idea held by someone, that falls somewhere in between.

People seem to just make up what they think the rules are. Tthat seems to be true of religious law in general, but all the more so when it comes to sex. (I know people who are strictly kosher at home, with the four sets of plates and everything, but will eat anything in a restaurant. Similarly, consider evangelical Christian willingness to lie in bed with Dick Cheney, despite his support for his lesbian daughter, when lesbianism is one of the few sexual practices that the Bible might unequivocally condemn.)

We have a name for specify-type-of-goat people: libertine. And we have a name for people like Rabbi Boteach: hypocrite.

Posted in language, Orwell, religion | 1 Comment »

Palin vs McCain vs Reality

Posted by metaphorical on 5 September 2008


“Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.”

“I’m not going to pretend I know how all this came to be.”

Sarah Palin, Alaska Gubinatorial Debate, October 25, 2006

MR. VANDEHEI: Senator McCain, this comes from a Politico.com reader and was among the top vote-getters in our early rounds. They want a yes or no. Do you believe in evolution?


First Republicans’ Presidential Candidates Debate, May 2, 2007

Global Warming

“I will clean up the planet. I will make global warming a priority.”
John McCain, Boston Globe, January 7, 2008

“The same human activity that has brought freedom and opportunity to billions has also increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Increased atmospheric carbon has a warming effect on the earth.”

—Republican Platform, August 26, 2008

“A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I’m not one though who would attribute it to being man-made.”
Sarah Palin, Newsmax, August 29, 2008


“There are billions of barrels of oil underneath the ground up there on the North Slope including ANWR. In Alaska alone we can supply seven years of complete crude-oil independence, and eight years’ supply of natural gas for Americans with ANWR (and) other areas of Alaska that we want to allow for development. That’s proof that Alaska can be a significant player in the world market.”

“ANWR would take five years to begin providing crude oil to our pipeline. But you have to consider that if we’d started this five years ago, then we wouldn’t be in this position right now. And who knows where we’re going to be in another five years.”

Sarah Palin, Investor’s Business Daily, Friday, July 11, 2008

I also believe that the ANWR is a pristine place and if they found oil in the Grand Canyon, I don’t think I’d drill in the Grand Canyon.’’

John McCain,June 2008

Additional oil production resulting from the opening of ANWR would be only a small portion of total world oil production, and would likely be offset in part by somewhat lower production outside the United States. The opening of ANWR is projected to have its largest oil price reduction impacts as follows: a reduction in low-sulfur, light crude oil prices of $0.41 per barrel (2006 dollars) in 2026 for the low oil resource case, $0.75 per barrel in 2025 for the mean oil resource case, and $1.44 per barrel in 2027 for the high oil resource case, relative to the reference case.

—Department of Energy report “Analysis of Crude Oil Production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” May 2008

Off-shore Drilling

“[W]ith those resources, which would take years to develop, you would only postpone or temporarily relieve our dependency on fossil fuels.

John McCain, May 2008

“[Offshore oil drilling would] be very helpful in the short term resolving our energy crisis.”

John McCain, June 2008

The projections in the OCS access case indicate that access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030.

—2007 Department of Energy report “Impacts of Increased Access to Oil and Natural Gas Resources in the Lower 48 Federal Outer Continental Shelf.”

Posted in language, Orwell, politics, religion, technology | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

White men can’t jump – or be terrorists

Posted by metaphorical on 28 August 2008

Compare and contrast:

Police in Aurora, Colorado – 12 miles due east of Denver – stop a pick-up truck being driven erratically the day before the start of the Democratic National Convention.

According to news reports, “In the back of the vehicle, officers found two high-powered rifles, one with telescopic sights, a spotting scope, a flak jacket, camouflage clothing, a bulletproof vest, boxes of ammunition, three fake identity cards, two wigs, two walkie-talkies and a quantity of the drug methamphetamine, a form of speed known as crystal meth.”

The men are, according to the police, members of the Aryan Nation. One of them, named Adolf, of all things, is a wanted fugitive. “He tried to escape by jumping from a sixth-floor window, breaking his ankle in the attempt. He has a long history of convictions for drugs and violence, and when arrested, police found he had the key to handcuffs in one hand and a ring with a swastika emblem in the other.”

Put these guys on hold for a moment. Now let’s recall the Lackawanna Six, the American citizens of Yemani extraction who, according to Dina Temple Raston, author of the book The Jihad Next Door, “were influenced by a known terrorist, Kamal Derwish, who enticed them to travel to Afghanistan – a decision they regretted upon arriving at the camp.”

That’s all those guys did – go to a training camp in Afghanistan in the spring of 2001. True, “investigators recovered a rifle, and a telescopic sight” from the house of one of them. From his house. Not from and erratically-driven car, with a known target 12 miles away. Wikipedia says that even “the FBI Special Agent in charge of the investigation, Peter Ahearn, stated that there was no specific event triggering the arrests.”

One group you pick up as terrorists. The other you arrest on nothing more than a weapons charge. Which is which? The answer is simple and just what you’d expect. The white guys trying to kill a black man get the weapons charge. The six Arabs who haven’t done a single thing during the 4-8 months you investigate them, them you convict of terrorism.

Posted in language, Orwell, politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

And this is why we need to teach ethical theory in schools

Posted by metaphorical on 22 June 2008


One day, a poor boy who was selling goods from door to door to pay his way through school, found he had only one thin dime left, and he was hungry.

He decided he would ask for a meal at the next house. However, he lost his nerve when a lovely young woman opened the door.

Instead of a meal he asked for a drink of water! She thought he looked hungry so brought him a large glass of milk. He drank it so slowly, and then asked, ‘How much do I owe you?’

‘You don’t owe me anything,’ she replied. ‘Mother has taught us never to accept pay for a kindness.’

He said, ‘Then I thank you from my heart.’

As Howard Kelly left that house, he not only felt stronger physically, but his faith in God and man was strong also. He had been ready to give up and quit.

Many years later, that same young woman became critically ill. The local doctors were baffled. They finally sent her to the big city, where they called in specialists to study her rare disease.

Dr. Howard Kelly was called in for the consultation. When he heard the name of the town she came from, a strange light filled his eyes.

Immediately he rose and went down the hall of the hospital to her room.

Dressed in his doctor’s gow n he went in to see her. He recognized her at once.

He went back to the consultation room determined to do his best to save her life. From that day he gave special attention to her case.

After a long struggle, the battle was won.

Dr. Kelly requested the business office to pass the final bill to him for approval. He looked at it, then wrote something on the edge and the bill was sent to her room. She feared to open it, for she was sure it would take the rest of her life to pay for it all. Finally she looked, and something caught her att ention on the side of the bill. She read these words ..

‘Paid in full with one glass of milk’

(Signed) Dr. Howard Kelly.

Tears of joy flooded her eyes as her happy heart prayed: ‘Thank You, God, that Your love has spread broad through human hearts and hands.’

There’s a saying which goes something like this: Bread cast on the waters comes back to you. The good deed you do today may benefit you or someone you love at the least expected time. If you never see the deed again at least you will have made the world a better place – And, after all, isn’t that what life is all about?

Now you have two choices.
1. You can send this page on and spread a positive message.

2. Or ignore it and pretend it never touched your heart.

If you don’t get “inspirational” spam like this at least once in a while, you lead a truly blessed life. Meanwhile, I’m sick, not so much of the spam, as the stupidity, bordering on turpitude, of the specific message.

Are we being exhorted to emulate the young milkmaiden’s example because it is virtuous and right, or because we will be repaid just when we need it the most? Is there moral reasoning that goes beyond the pragmatism of simple self-interest?

Christians labor under a similar confusion — Christ’s own messages give mixed signals at best. Should do good things for their own sake, or in order to ascend to Heaven? The argument for our very belief in God’s existence wallows in the same mudbath of unclear thinking. Leaving aside its circularity, we’re told to believe in God else we suffer the eternal fires of damnation. Pragmatism, nothing more.

Dr. Howard Kelly, as far as we can tell, had no inclination to alter his patient’s bill except for her being the person who was generous to him when he was in need. Indeed, that’s essential to the story, because if he routinely wrote down large bills, then the actions of this story become unremarkable, or at least, the story would be entirely about Kelly’s saintly nature, and not the unnamed patient.

How much better a story it would be if Kelly didn’t recognize the name of the town, and had written a hundred times in the past on bills, “Paid in full with one glass of milk,” and this one time — unbeknownst to him — it was read by the woman who gave him the milk.

As it stands, either the story has no point, or Kelly’s actions don’t provide an example we ought to emulate, or—and this seems to be the real message—we ought to take a slightly longer-term view of our own selfish best interests.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s the lesson my erstwhile spammer meant to teach. But his blatant moral confusion shows that he needs a lesson of a different sort anyway—day 1 of Ethics 100, wherein we learn the difference between things that are inherently good and those which are merely good as a means.

Posted in education, language, Orwell, religion | Tagged: , , | 53 Comments »

A Brief History of History

Posted by metaphorical on 3 March 2008

Are students abysmally ignorant? Of course they are. Are they more abysmally ignorant than ever? That’s not so clear. The NY Times is far from the only publication taking a new survey at face value, but it does such an exemplary job of it, let’s start with them.

History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens


Published: February 26, 2008

Fewer than half of American teenagers who were asked basic questions about history and literature during a recent telephone survey knew when the Civil War was fought, and one-quarter thought that Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World sometime after 1750, not in 1492.

The results of the survey, released Tuesday, demonstrate that a significant proportion of American teenagers live in “stunning ignorance” of history and literature, according to the group that commissioned it. Known as Common Core, the organization describes itself as a new, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization that will press for more teaching of the liberal arts in American public schools.

We get the usual litany of teen ignorance: one-fourth failed to identify Adolf Hitler, only 4 out of ten 10
could pick the name of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” from a list of titles, and “only about half knew that in the Bible, Job is known for his patience in suffering.”

It seems to me that in a nation where half of all adults reject the truth of evolution in favor of the six-day theory of creation, the fewer teens who know their Bible the better. But let’s leave that aside.

Arguably the two most serious educators in the new group are its co-chairs, Antonia Cortese, of the American Federation of Teachers, and Diane Ravitch, who now teaches in at the Steinhardt School of Education of New York University but was assistant secretary of education in the elder Bush’s administration. According to the Times, they’re leading the charge against NCLB.

The group argues that President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law has impoverished America’s public school curriculum by holding schools accountable for student scores on annual tests in reading and math but in no other subjects.

But over on the History News Network, Ravitch wrote

I cannot now speak for the board, as the organization is just getting underway and board members have yet to articulate their areas of agreement and disagreement.

The Times later says:

In a joint introduction to their report, Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch did not directly blame the No Child law for the dismal survey results, but argued that the law has led schools to focus too narrowly on reading and math, thereby crowding time out of the school day for history, literature and other subjects.

“The nation’s education system has become obsessed with testing and basic skills because of the requirements of federal law, and that is not healthy,” Ms. Cortese and Dr. Ravitch said.

Yes, certainly Ravitch, and probably the rest of Common Core, take issue with the way NCLB tests knowledge.

However, it is increasingly clear that the law’s relentless focus on raising scores in the basic skills of reading and math has the effect of reducing time for all other studies.

But she also says,

The board of CC is not opposed to testing. We view it as a necessary but not sufficient part of education.

I would prefer to see development and implementation of more thoughtful kinds of testing than those that are now in general use; in particular, I would hope for new tests that call on students to describe, analyze, explain, and demonstrate what they know and can do, not just asking them to pick a bubble.

That’s a lot more nuanced a view than the Times represents. But let’s cut to the chase.

Are things getting worse? And is NCLB to blame? Prof. Ravitch doesn’t seem to entirely think so. She wrote,

it appears to me that the telephone sample of 2007 were somewhat better informed than their parents’ generation of 1986. In 1986, only 32% knew that the American Civil War occurred in the half-century between 1850-1900 (this was NOT a trick question!); now, 43% do. In 1986, 64% could identify the main holding of the Brown v. Board of Education decision; now, 71% can. On most questions of a factual nature, the proportion who answered correctly was either higher or the same, seldom lower. So perhaps the pressure to improve history education over the past 20 years was making some headway.

NCLB is not uniquely responsible for causing loss of knowledge of history. The 1986 survey demonstrates that the problems of “I don’t know” existed long before NCLB.

The Times couldn’t be bothered to compare the 2007 survey with the 1986 results, even though it knew enough of the earlier study to say, of the newer one, “The questions were drawn from a test administered by the federal government in 1986.”

The point of history, the Times, sadly, needs to be told, is to learn from it.

The Times even acknowledged, though it didn’t know what to make of it, that in the 2007 study, “Ninety-seven percent of teenagers correctly picked Martin Luther King Jr.” as the man who said, “I have a dream,” and an astonishing four-fifths of all teens knew the plot of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The lesson seems clear: students learn what we teach them. But the newspaper of record would rather take a swipe at No Child Left Behind in the course of an article that, starting with its headline of “History Survey Stumps U.S. Teens,” mainly consists of blaming the victim.

Posted in education, journalism, pop culture, religion, the arts, Times-watch | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

After 500 years of progress, we’re still waterboarding people and stoning them to death for adultery

Posted by metaphorical on 19 February 2008

Q: Which is worse, adultery or witchcraft?

A: They are equally bad, and should both be punished by death.

That seems to be the news from the Arab world.

A couple of weeks ago, Amnesty International reported on two sisters that face execution by stoning in Iran. Does Iran really stone people to death? For adultery? The answer to both questions seems to be yes. A news report from last July, “Iran confirms man stoned to death,” describes just such a case.

In the case of the two women, Amnesty International seems at least as concerned about some of the legal niceities of the case. For example, there’s the double-jeopardy fact that the women were already convicted and sentenced to floggings and prison.

The five were tried in March 2007 and sentenced to flogging for “having illicit relations”; Zohreh also received five years’ imprisonment for forming ‘a centre of corruption’. But after the floggings were carried out, fresh charges of “committing adultery while being married” were brought against Zohreh and Azar Kabiri-niat. On 6 August 2007. Both were found guilty and were sentenced to death by stoning.

The witchcraft case comes from Saudi Arabia.

Saudis to Execute a Woman for Witchcraft


BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — A leading human rights group appealed to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Thursday to stop the execution of a woman accused of witchcraft and performing supernatural acts.

Besides sounding more appropriate to the middle ages than the 21st century, what the cases have in common is an appalling lack of due process.

A new lawyer representing the women told journalist Marjan Lagha’i that, “the case has fundamental problems, since a person can not be tried twice for the same crime. Yet these two sisters have been tried twice in the same case, and two sentences have been issued for them… the circumstances that are required to prove adultery – confession by the accused on four different occasions that can be corroborated by the testimony of four eyewitnesses to the alleged crime – are entirely absent, and there is absolutely no legal document in this case that a judge can use to issue a stoning sentence… Given that I view this sentence to be against the principles of Sharia, as well as the criminal laws [of Iran], I have filed an official objection, and I have asked that the Head of Judiciary review the case once again.”

To be sure, in a case of witchcraft, it’s hard to imagine what would actually count as due process.

“The fact that Saudi judges still conduct trials for unprovable crimes like ‘witchcraft’ underscores their inability to carry out objective criminal investigations,” said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Here in the U.S., we don’t stone people to death or kill them in any other way for adultery, but due process is still a bit of an issue for the Bush administration. And it’s come up in the context of yet another gruesome medieval practice — waterboarding, a favorite form of torture going back to the Spanish Inquisition.

Last week, in testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee, Steven Bradbury, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, made the case that waterboarding is not torture, at least, it’s not under the laws in effect when the CIA conducted waterboarding. As Muckraker reports:

The CIA’s use of waterboarding was legal and not torture, a Justice Deparment official argued this morning, because it was a “procedure subject to strict limitations and safeguards” that made it substantially different from historical uses of the technique by the Japanese and the Spanish Inquisition.

The question, in other words, is whether the “safeguards” and “strict limitations” make the American version of waterboarding something other than torture.

According to Malcolm Nance a former instructor at the Navy’s training program, they do not. Another Muckraker link quotes Nance as saying:

Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.

What’s needed to settle this dispute is some form of due process. In the U.S., that comes in the form of legislative oversight of the executive’s possibly overzealous questioning of prisoners.

The problem is, Bradbury won’t tell the House Judiciary what are the differences between American 21st century waterboarding, and the Spanish Inquisition’s. Bradbury’s reason is that the information is classified, even though the committee members have the highest possible security clearances, and even though, as Bradbury acknowledged, Congress has a Constitutional duty of oversight. The Muckraker story has a link to this YouTube video. The relevant exchange between Bradbury and NY representative Jerry Nadler comes a bit after the 5 minute mark.

Of course, there’s no comparison between actually stoning someone to death, and merely convincing them you’re drowning them. But drawing out subtle distinctions of “time limits” and “medical oversight” sounds a lot like Scholastic angel-pinhead-dancing more appropriate to 12th or 16th century Spain than modern-day America.

Of the witchcraft case, Human Rights Watch says it

underscores shortcomings in Saudi Arabia’s Islamic legal system in which rules of evidence are shaky, lawyers are not always present and sentences often depend on the whim of judges.

The video of Bradbury ducking Congressman Nadler’s questions equally looks to involve shaky rules of evidence and the whims of administration lawyers. That’s no way to call such a government “modern,” whether it’s in Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the U.S.. And calling ours a “Justice” Department seems more than a little Orwellian.

Posted in Orwell, politics, religion | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Pure as the driven slush

Posted by metaphorical on 29 January 2008

I was once told, by someone in a position to know, that the largest adult video — a euphemism for “porn” — store in the U.S. was in a suburb of Salt Lake City.

If you think about it, it’s hardly surprising. But here’s a story that is so neatly perfect along those lines that if it doesn’t strain credulity, it at least stretches the known boundaries of the irony universe.

Former sanitizer of rental movies is accused of paying teens for sex

Daniel D. Thompson’s business catered to Utah residents offended by something as racy as a PG-13 movie. Now the former film sanitizer is accused of a crime by Orem police that is far more salacious than any date movie.

Thompson, 31, and Isaac R. Lifferth, 24, were arrested in Orem this week on suspicion of having sex with two 14-year-old girls. Orem police say the teenagers wanted to earn money to move out of their homes and offered sexual favors to men.

For a while, Thompson’s company, CleanFlicks (itself a kind of racy name, no?), and a later one, Flix Club, actually edited movies without anyone’s permission and rented out the cleansed versions. You can imagine it didn’t take Hollywood too long to sue. So now CleanFlicks is a kind of Netflix for “great movies in every category that don’t need any editing to be safe and enjoyable for everyone,” as its website puts it.

Anyway, back to the 14-year-olds. Apparently the girls told an older friend, herself all of 16, that they were willing to have sex for money. The friend contacted, among other people, Lifferth, who she had had sex with “on multiple occasions,” though whether for fun or profit the story doesn’t say.

Thompson formerly operated Clean Flix – a business in Orem that edited feature films to remove or alter conduct deemed inappropriate for children or discriminating movie-goers. The store closed in December after threats of legal action from Hollywood studios.

Hard as it is to imagine, the story actually gets better.

The booking documents state Thompson told the 14-year-olds that his film sanitizing business was a cover for a pornography studio. He asked the girls if they would participate in making a porn movie, but they refused, the documents state.

Police found a “large quantity” of pornographic movies inside the business, along with a keg of beer, painkillers and two cameras hooked up to a television. … He said pornography found at the business was for “personal use,” according to the documents.

I don’t know which is better, the idea that this latter-day Bowdler, who made money by cleansing movies of anything lascivious, is himself a pornographer, or, even sweeter, that this guy who made his living by raping movies would himself be guilty of statutory rape.

It does remind me, however, to remember Freud’s theories of repression. It’s not too much of a simplification to say that according to it, puritanism is often a cover for the basest of desires, often acted upon, in secret of course. It’s no coincidence that the Larry Craigs are so often engaging in the very behavior they’re busy legislating against, or that the preachers who are most aggressive in collecting money to help the poor have enriched themselves the most.

Sure, there are plenty of puritans who are sincere in their beliefs and live saintly lives. You tend, though, not to hear about them, which is consistent with the parallel virtue of Christian modesty. By the time some family-values minister or other professional Christian has made himself into a public persona by excoriating others for not living up to piously prudish ideals, he is likely to be the furthest among us from them himself.

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Fish I’s

Posted by metaphorical on 24 January 2008

Two news reports this week call into question the wisdom of eating fish, a small but important part of my diet, leaving me uncertain what to do.

Let me start by acknowledging that most people do not accept a fundamental premise of this post, namely the connection between reason and diet. Such people may pay lip-service to ideas (such as that animals think and feel and are generally sentient in a way fundamentally like ourselves) that should lead them to change their dietary habits. But the principles don’t in fact inspire any change. For most people, dietary change based on respect for animals is not, as William James put it, a genuine option. I’ll discuss that a bit later on.

I’ll start with the simpler of the two stories, reprised in an editiorial in today’s NY Times.

Tuna Troubles

Many New Yorkers have come to love the convenience, taste and aesthetic appeal of sushi. But as The Times reported Wednesday after testing tuna from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants, sushi made from bluefin tuna may contain unacceptable levels of mercury, which acts as a neurotoxin.


If you regularly eat as few as six pieces of tuna sushi a week, you may be consuming more mercury than the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

As it happens, I might be one of those people. (It’s hard to say. I have sushi 2-3 times a week, and usually include one tuna maki in my order. Is a maki 1 or maybe 2 pieces, as the Times is counting them, or all 6? Who knows. This kind of imprecision in a investigative piece is maddening.) I also sometimes have fresh tuna in other forms, such as salads.

Why do I eat fish at all? I was a strict vegan for three years, with some of the usual reasons but not all of them. In addition to concerns about my own health and that of the environment, I objected on grounds of cruelty to how animals were reared, and how they were killed, and how many were reared and killed for food. But I didn’t object, per se, to the general idea of humans killing animals for food.

Fish by and large live in the wild, and the conditions of farmed fish, such as catfish, are not the miserable ones that cattle, hogs, and chickens endure. And while death by driftnet is surely painful, it’s probably not worse than the death a fish would experience naturally. Mercury concentrations raise a big concern, but otherwise, from a health point of view, I’ve found an enormous difference between fish oil and animal fats.

So the same fish that get caught in those driftnets largely escape the net of objections that led to my veganism. Which brings us to the other report, also summarized in a Times editorial, this one from Monday.

Until All the Fish Are Gone

Scientists have been warning for years that overfishing is degrading the health of the oceans and destroying the fish species on which much of humanity depends for jobs and food. Even so, it would be hard to frame the problem more dramatically than two recent articles in The Times detailing the disastrous environmental, economic and human consequences of often illegal industrial fishing.

Sharon LaFraniere showed how mechanized fishing fleets from the European Union and nations like China and Russia — usually with the complicity of local governments — have nearly picked clean the oceans off Senegal and other northwest African countries. This has ruined coastal economies and added to the surge of suddenly unemployed migrants who brave the high seas in wooden boats seeking a new life in Europe, where they are often not welcome.

The second article, by Elisabeth Rosenthal, focused on Europe’s insatiable appetite for fish — it is now the world’s largest consumer. Having overfished its own waters of popular species like tuna, swordfish and cod, Europe now imports 60 percent of what it consumes. Of that, up to half is contraband, fish caught and shipped in violation of government quotas and treaties.

If current fishing practices are unsustainable, they are wrong. Period. And a consumer such as myself ought to consider his or her contribution to that wrong. Ultimately, it is our purchasing dollars that sustain any unsustainable practice, whether it is unsustainable in practical terms, such as mechanized fleet fishing, or in terms of cruelty, as the factory farmed cattle industry is.

The “ought” is a moral one, of course. For anyone to feel its force, however — for it to have any practical consequences on behavior — it has to be what William James called a genuine option. James, arguably the founder of modern psychology, spelled this out in a seminal essay, “The Will To Believe.” (There are copies of the essay here and here.)

Without delving too deeply into James’s theories (which deserve a post of their own, at the least), I’ll note that for him, a genuine option has to, first and foremost, be a live one. He describes live options this way:

Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature,–it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not one of the Madhi’s followers), the hypothesis is among the mind’s possibilities: it is alive. This shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker. They are measured by his willingness to act. The maximum of liveness in hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably. Practically, that means belief; but there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all.

The example an interesting one. My first year as a grad student, I taught discussion sections for the big Intro to Philosophy class. The instructor was the department chair, Laird Addis, a proselytizing atheist. Though an atheist myself, I found his hard-sell offputting and his condemnations of religion alienating. He did, though, offer our clean-scrubbed Iowa farmboys and -girls a useful thought experiment. “Would you be a Christian if you were born in India or Iran or China or Cambodia?” he asked. “Surely the odds would be a lot lower.”

Custom, culture, habit, and peer pressure combine to give us many of the beliefs we have. My own odds of being an atheist would surely be lower were I not a third-generation one.

James himself says,

It is only our already dead hypotheses that our willing nature is unable to bring to life again. But what has made them dead for us is for the most part a previous action of our willing nature of an antagonistic kind. When I say ‘willing nature,’ I do not mean only such deliberate volitions as may have set up habits of belief that we cannot now escape from,–I mean all such factors of belief as fear and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship, the circumpressure of our caste and set.

I live eternally in the hope that my fellow humans can cast off our prejudices and passions, imitations and partisanships, and the circumpressures of caste and set, and see cows, hogs, and chickens as we see dolphins and dachshunds. For my part, I’m going to rethink the question of tuna, yellowtail, and the even the shrimp that go into my tempura rolls.

Posted in animal-rights, journalism, language, philosophy, politics, pop culture, religion, Times-watch | 6 Comments »

Christians hog-tied? You decide

Posted by metaphorical on 24 December 2007

“I know this is probably a very controversial thing, but may I say to you, ‘Merry Christmas!’”

That’s Mike Huckabee, playing the Persecuted Christian card.

It’s hard to imagine a more heavily celebrated holiday anywhere on earth than Christmas in America, and it’s hard to imagine a less controversial thing to say than “Merry Christmas.” You don’t hear “Have a good Yom Kipper” from people who don’t knowing if you’re Jewish. You don’t tell someone to have a good Ramadan without first asking if they celebrate it. But every store clerk and fellow elevator passenger can tell you to have a merry Christmas without giving it a second thought. And it is, after all, the only full-on religious day that’s a U.S. national holiday.

And yet, the right-wing fundamentalist Christians sure feel persecuted. And it sure serves some politicians’ political ends to ensure that they do.

And so we have Huckabee saying, “What’s wrong with our country, what is wrong with our culture, is that you can’t say the name Jesus Christ without people going completely berserk.”

And so we have him declaring that “Merry Christmas” is a controversial thing to say.

Robert Parry had a good rant about this two years ago. He reprises it and adds the Huckabee angle over on Consortiumnews.com.


By the way, if, like me, you were one of the half-dozen or so people who hasn’t actually seen the bookcase-in-the-shape-of-a-cross tv ad, and doesn’t really get how blatant and offensively pandering it is, take a gander:


(And if you want to see the crazy people deny the imagery, check out the National Ledger, which calls it “a ‘white’ bookshelf, nicely lit, with Christmas ornaments in a corner of one cubby that is visually impossible to change in shape.”)

In the words of Huckabee himself, in the ad: “At this time of year, sometimes it’s nice to pull aside from all of that and remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ and that I win the Iowa caucuses.”

Okay. Maybe he didn’t say that last part. But it’s what really matters, isn’t it Mike?

Posted in journalism, language, politics, religion | 5 Comments »

“Do we really want this—to live eternally?”

Posted by metaphorical on 16 December 2007

A reasonable question, but not one you would expect the Pope to be asking. Bob Parks noticed this in his unending and endlessly useful “What’s New” newsletter of 14 December.


Under Pope John Paul II, from whom so much was expected, there was little progress. However, in his second encyclical letter to the faithful last week, “On Christian Hope,” Pope Benedict XVI, reveals an unexpected side. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he had headed the Vatican office once known as “The Inquisition,” and was the defender of traditional Catholic doctrine. About “eternal life” he now asks: “Do we really want this – to live eternally? It appears more like a curse than a gift.” Elsewhere he finds: “The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is – in its origins and aims – a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history.”

Here’s more of what the Pope said, in his second Encyclical Letter, Spe Salvi, a title which apparently comes from Rom 8:24, “Spe salvi facti sumus”—in hope we were saved.” I’m quoting extensively, but it’s still only a little of a very long essay. Paragraph breaks are my own, for easier reading.

Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment.

To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable.

This is precisely the point made, for example, by Saint Ambrose, one of the Church Fathers, in the funeral discourse for his deceased brother Satyrus: “Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin … began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labour and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.”

A little earlier, Ambrose had said: “Death is, then, no cause for mourning, for it is the cause of mankind’s salvation.”

To some extent, this is simply the usual confusion about infinities. We can no more imagine living forever than we can imagine a set of infinite numbers, to say nothing of a set of numbers even greater than a set of infinite numbers.

Then there are the additional puzzles about eternity. During this eternity – and the word “during” is already misleading, as if it has an endpoint – would we have new experiences? Or simply relive the old ones? If the latter, than every experience we could remember would be remembered an infinite number of times, which certainly seems unpleasant, even if each of them were pleasant in an of themselves. After all, even a great experience could have been made better by just the right choice of word, by a look, by a gesture. An eternity of remembering seems like an eternity of remorse and regret.

This Pope is willing to squarely face this hard truth:

To eliminate death or to postpone it more or less indefinitely would place the earth and humanity in an impossible situation, and even for the individual would bring no benefit. Obviously there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence. On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely, nor was the earth created with that in view.

I have always found all of Christianity’s talk of infinities to be meaningless, and this is the wellspring of much of my atheism. Omnipotence and omniscience are incompatible with one another; the classic paradox along those lines has never been effectively resolved. And if an omniscient Christ, knowing how many people would eventually die in his name, for naught, as the Calvinists battled Roman Catholics, and each enslaved the Africans, and on and on, chose to die on the Cross anyway, then wasn’t he the morally worst human being to have ever lived?

Eternity have always been impossible to imagine, as has a disembodied soul. The soul, after all, is the form of man; as such, it is indistinguishable in you and in me. Only the body differentiates. (Hence, as Aquinas argues, each angel is its own species, since they are distinct souls yet disembodied.) The idea of each of us, individually, sitting at God’s side, for all eternity, is, then, doubly meaningless.

It’s nice to see this Pope address some of this, and I like the way he does it. After quoting Augustine, he says,

I think that in this very precise and permanently valid way, Augustine is describing man’s essential situation, the situation that gives rise to all his contradictions and hopes. In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown “thing” is the true “hope” which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity.

The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it.

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt.

It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.

To some extent, the Pope is simply substituting one infinity for another – the infinite ocean of love for eternity, and, for the infinite number of natural numbers, perhaps the infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1.

But he is onto some poetical, if not analytical, insight when he talks about both desiring and not desiring life. We push on in life, even knowing that it’s end is death.

We cling to life, without knowing why. We do so out of fear, but also out of hope, unjustified hope. In our ambivalence, time stops. Yet it starts again, and for no reason at all. And yet, could it be any other way? Life is meaningful only if it ends, love is meaningful only if it can be lost. And yet a single moment of joy can give us hope, a reason to reject death or statis in each moment of life. For each moment of life, we hope for a next one, just as, for each number, there is a next one. It is an infinity of hope, which is faith.

Posted in language, philosophy, religion | 5 Comments »

Writing considered harmful to the soul

Posted by metaphorical on 17 November 2007

I had another run-in with Judaism tonight. The kid was in town with a couple of her friends for a terrific afternoon at the Cloisters. We took them out to an early dinner at a nearby Indian vegetarian Kosher restaurant. It’s pretty new and I hadn’t been there before. I didn’t know what their wine situation was, so I grabbed a bottle from the rack on my way out the door.

I was hopeful when I saw the menu not listing any beer or wines, but no dice, they have a license. They were willing to open our bottle anyway, but first, a question. “Is the wine Kosher?”

No, and guess they would have had to throw out any glasses into which it was poured, but I suspect that even if we’d also brought glasses, it would have been a no-go. What kind of religion gives a darn not only what goes on in the kitchen but what the customers do out front?

The same kind, I guess, that won’t let you write a note to yourself in the notepad you always carry around, if the writing is done in a synagogue.

It was earlier this year at a friend’s daughter’s bas mitzvah. It was one of those orthodox ceremonies where people kiss each other hello right in the aisles and then launch into long, full-voice conversations, right in the middle of yet another prayer in a three-hour service. That’s okay, but writing down something so that you won’t forget it is verboten.

“Writing is work,” I was explained. Well, often it is, and often it isn’t. And you know what? Talking is work if you’re a radio DJ. Kissing is work if you’re, well, a person for whom kissing is work.

What kind of religion thinks it can identify an entire activity like writing or talking or walking and say whether it’s work or not, independently of any context? Pulling a lever 4 times a minute, 240 times per hour, is a lot of work if you’re on an assembly line, but it’s apparently vastly entertaining if you’re in a Las Vegas casino.

Unfortunately, there’s no context in which I can find Judaism entertaining these days. It’s just annoying and simple-minded, for the simple-minded.

Posted in religion, writing | 1 Comment »

The freedom to exclude some religions from the freedom of religion

Posted by metaphorical on 14 September 2007

“While the survey shows Americans highly value religious freedom, a significant number support privileging the religion of the majority, especially in public schools. Four decades after the Supreme Court declared state-sponsored religious practices unconstitutional in public schools, 58% of respondents support teacher-led prayers and 43% favor school holiday programs that are entirely Christian. Moreover, 50% would allow schools to teach the Bible as a factual text in a history class.

“The strong support for official recognition of the majority faith appears to be grounded in a belief that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, in spite of the fact that the Constitution nowhere mentions God or Christianity. Of course, people define “Christian nation” in various ways — ranging from a nation that reflects Christian values to a nation where the government favors the Christian faith. But almost one-third of respondents appear to believe that the religious views of the majority should rule: 28% would deny freedom to worship to any group that the majority considers ‘extreme or on the fringe.’”

  — Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center

The First Amendment Center periodically surveys Americans about their Constitutional rights, and a new survey was just released. It’s being widely reported by USA Today and others but some of the scariest numbers are ones that haven’t changed significantly over the past decade or more.

  • 34% think the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants
  • 24% think Americans have too little religious freedom
  • 39% strongly disagree with the assertion that the news media tries to report the news without bias, and 36% strongly agree with this: “The falsifying or making up of stories in the American news media is a widespread problem.”
  • 25% strongly disagree with the idea that newspapers should be allowed to freely criticize the U.S military about its strategy and performance.
  • 28% believe that the First Amendment’s freedom of worship “Was never meant to apply to religious groups that the majority of the people consider extreme or on the fringe.”
  • 46% strongly agree that “The nation?s founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation.”
  • 38% strongly agree that “The U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation.”
  • 33% strongly agree that “A public school teacher should be allowed to use the Bible as a factual text in a history or social studies class.” (Another 17% mildly agree.)
  • 42% strongly agree that “Teachers and other public school officials should be allowed to lead prayers in public school.” (Another 16% mildly agree.)

Unfortunately, there was no question asking whether citizens should have to take a test regarding their knowledge of the Constitution and have their citizenship revoked if they fail.

The full report is here.

Posted in language, Orwell, politics, pop culture, religion | 4 Comments »

When is sex politics?

Posted by metaphorical on 30 August 2007

Craig allegedly peeked through a crack in the door and then took the adjoining stall, where he “tapped his right foot” and then moved his foot to touch the officer’s shoe.

Combined with other moves by Craig, Karsnia said, “I recognized this as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct.”

 — Star news services report on 27 August 2007

I talked yesterday to my friend Pam, an ex-girlfriend who relocated to Idaho two decades ago. Apropos of nothing, she asked, “Is the gay Craig fiasco news in New York?” I had to ask her what she was talking about. At first I just assumed she meant one of the many fundamentalist anti-gay gay minister scandals. It turns out she was talking about her U.S. Senator.

Today, though, there’s at least four stories at nytimes.com, including one that’s blurbed on the front page of the print paper. Interestingly, it’s what we call a second-day story….. that is, it’s all about aftermath, and mostly assumes the reader knows the basic facts of the scandal.

I didn’t, not really. (It’s not entirely my fault. An Aug. 28th Editor & Publisher article takes up the question of “How Did News Outlets Miss Senator’s Arrest for Nearly Three Months?”)

Anyway, here’s what happened. On 11 June, Craig entered a stall in a restroom at the Minneapolis airport and checked out his stallmate for a sexual encounter. He was arrested, and, earlier this month, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. A USA Today story notes that that charge requires conduct that “will tend to, alarm, anger or disturb others or provoke an assault or breach of the peace” and questions whether any of his behaviors meets that standard.

The Seattle Times gives more of the mating ritual details than the Star news service:

According to the report, an undercover officer entered an airport restroom stall on June 11 and saw Craig standing outside for about two minutes. “Craig would look down at his hands, fidget with his fingers and then look through the crack into my stall again,” wrote the officer, Sgt. Dave Karsnia.

The officer said Craig entered the next stall and placed his roller bag against the door. “My experience has shown that individuals engaging in lewd conduct use their bags to block the view from the front of their stall,” the officer wrote.

The officer said Craig tapped his right foot, “a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct. … [Craig] moved his right foot so that it touched the side of my left foot which was within my stall area.”

Craig then passed his left hand under the stall divider into Karsnia’s stall with his palm up and guided it along the divider toward the front of the stall three times, the complaint said.

[UPDATE: Pam sent a link to some audio of Craig’s arrest interview, made available by KTVB in Boise.]

The second-day developments are these: Mitt Romney has distanced himself from Craig with the same speed he would presumably use to get away from someone making restroom advances toward him. Craig was co-chair of the U.S. Senate Mitt Romney for President campaign. Craig has already given up his position on one Senate committee, and some senators, including Republican ones, are calling for Craig to step down. They may or may not be influenced by the coincidence that this summer, the head of McCain’s Florida campaign was charged with soliciting gay sex in the restroom of a public park. (Oh, and Guiliani’s Southern regional campaign chair’s name was one of the many on the D.C. Madame’s rolodex, and his campaign’s South Carolina chair has been indicted on drug charges.)

Craig is regretting his guilty plea and, absurdly, blaming the Idaho Stateman for its “witch hunt.” (As it turns out, the paper didn’t print anything until the senator pleaded guilty.)

The Editor & Publisher’s question about how this went unreported for three months is just the tip of the iceberg.

Detailed accusations against Craig had been available since last year through an Internet-based activist who had a hand in outing several Republican politicians, including former Rep. Mark Foley, the focus of a House page scandal.

The activist, Mike Rogers, went public last October with allegations that Craig engaged in sexual encounters with at least three men, including one who said he had sex with Craig twice at Washington’s Union Station.

The Idaho Statesman went even further back into Craig’s life, talking to other men who claimed they were solicited by him.

It also mentioned a scandal in 1982, in which a male page reported having sex with three congressmen, and Craig — although not named by the youth — issued a statement denying any wrongdoing.

Rogers noted that some politicians, when confronted with evidence about same-sex encounters, have acknowledged their homosexuality — such as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and the late Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.).

Others persist in denial, and Rogers contends they are fair game for exposure if they vote against gay-rights causes.

That is, then, the question. Are those of us who, say, argued that Clinton’s sexual proclivities weren’t proper fodder for a independent prosecutor’s investigation, in a position to turn around and go after Craig for his? The obvious answer is that Craig is the one who has, for decades, argued for making the details of someone’s sexual interests a matter of concern for the body politic. Clinton did not.

Slate’s John Dickerson picked up on that theme effectively in an article yesterday:

Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason, seized on the Craig affair to make a version of this argument in the Los Angeles Times, where he said that the GOP should get back to its fundamental principles as articulated by Barry Goldwater. Republicans should stop trying to tell people what to do in their bedrooms and bathrooms, either by stinging a Singing Senator or passing an amendment banning gay marriage. This drew criticism from the National Review’s John Hood, who argued that Gillespie had misappropriated the memory of Barry Goldwater. “I’m going to go out on a not-very-long limb here and suggest that if Sen. Goldwater was still around,” wrote Hood, “he’d be urging Craig to take personal responsibility for the disrepute he has brought upon himself and the Senate.”

We don’t have to guess about what Goldwater would do. During the 1964 presidential campaign, he faced almost precisely the same issue. In October, the Goldwater campaign learned that Walter Jenkins, LBJ’s closest aide, had been arrested on a “morals charge” in the YMCA bathroom. According to J. William Middendorf’s account of that campaign, A Glorious Disaster, Goldwater’s aides wanted to use the scandal against Johnson, who was well ahead in the polls. Jenkins was not only a security risk—open to blackmail— but long before he was arrested, there were allegations he’d used his influence with then-Vice President Johnson to get an Air Force general who had been busted on a morals charge reinstated. The Goldwater aides even tried out slogans: “Either way with LBJ.” Goldwater insisted that they make no use of it. The story never came up during the campaign.

This may say more about Goldwater’s personal decency than it does about his governing philosophy. Jenkins had served in Goldwater’s Air Force Reserve Unit, and as Goldwater later wrote, “It was a sad time for Jenkins’ wife and children, and I was not about to add to their private sorrow. Winning isn’t everything. Some things, like loyalty to friends or lasting principle, are more important.” Mitt, you’re no Barry Goldwater.

Neither is Larry Craig. Oh, and by the way Pam, yes, the Craig story has hit New York. Finally.

Posted in journalism, language, politics, religion, Times-watch | 3 Comments »

When religous nut cases fight, everybody wins

Posted by metaphorical on 20 May 2007

This year, watching the Republican side of the presidential race just never stops being fun. When Giuliani was leading in the polls, his views on abortion went under the microscope—and the scalpel. Now maybe it’s Mitt Romney’s turn.

Mitt Romney has sprinted ahead of presidential competitors John McCain and Rudy Giuliani in a new Iowa Poll of likely Republican caucus participants.

The Des Moines Register poll shows Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, is the top choice of 30 percent of those who say they definitely or probably will attend the leadoff Iowa caucuses in January.

(I looked at Giuliani’s flip-flopping on abortion last week; and the political complexities of Romney’s Mormonism back in April.)

According to The Politico, the poll has McCain and Giuliani vying for second place. It places McCain ahead, 18 percent to 17, but it has a margin of error of almost 5 percent. That’s not enough to put anyone close to them: “None of the other eight GOP candidates on the Iowa Poll list have support in double digits.”

Last week, Romney gave the commencement address at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. Are Christians ready to vote for a Mormon?

That’s the question facing legions of evangelicals as they gird their loins for battle in the Bible Belt political primaries. They are waiting to see if Romney will publicly address their concerns about his deep Mormon faith.

As Terry Mattingly, a “senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities” noted this week, he’s not addressing them yet. So when it comes to accepting his Mormonism, maybe not.

Robertson’s own Christian Broadcasting Network which is headquartered on the Regent campus, apparently includes Mormonism on its “How Do I Recognize a Cult?” Web-site page:

It states, for example, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a “prosperous, growing organization that has produced many people of exemplary character. But when it comes to spiritual matters, the Mormons are far from the truth.”

It’s not just the fundamentalist nutjobs who place Mormonism outside the bounds of Christian faith. Mattingly notes, “The Vatican, for example, refuses to recognize the validity of Mormon baptisms.”

The feelings are apparently reciprocated.

Mormons do believe that the Old and New Testaments — as read by traditional Christians — are packed with errors and that Mormonism is the one true faith. Mormons believe that their president is a living prophet and that faithful mortals, in the next life, can achieve godhood. Thus, Mormons reject or redefine the Trinity, teaching that this world’s Father God has both a literal body and a literal wife.

So it seems that there’s plenty of tinder, and we can only hope that Romney’s new poll standing will be the spark that sets it off. If so, here’s a taste of the religious right-wing conflagration we can only hope for:

Bill Keller of LivePrayer.com, for example, bluntly states that the teachings of the “Mormon cult are doctrinally and theologically in complete opposition to the Absolute Truth of God’s Word. There is no common ground. If Mormonism is true, then the Christian faith is a complete lie.”

Posted in politics, religion | 1 Comment »

Ding, dong, the wicked witch is dead

Posted by metaphorical on 15 May 2007

“I shudder to think where the country would be right now if the religious right had not evolved.” — Rev. Jerry Falwell, televangelist

For my part, I shudder to think where the country is right now because the religious right evolved, to use a word you wouldn’t expect to see come from Falwell’s mouth. After all, students at Liberty University, which Falwell founded, are required to take a class in creationism.

So out of touch was Falwell with reality that, as the AP reported today,

He dreamed that Liberty would grow to 50,000 students and be to fundamentalist Christians what Notre Dame is to Roman Catholics and Brigham Young University is to Mormons.

Notre Dame teaches science, Jerry, and leaves religious nuttiness to the religion classes. But being out of touch with reality was Falwell’s hallmark. There was his campaign against Tinky Winky, which, Falwell’s National Liberty Journal characterized as, “a gay role model and morally damaging to children,” as the AP put it.

More than once, the tenuousness of Falwell’s grasp of reality harmed his own cause, such as when,

In 1999, he told an evangelical conference that the Antichrist was a male Jew who was probably already alive. Falwell later apologized for the remark but not for holding the belief.

Then there was the incident on which the movie “The People v. Larry Flynt” is based.

In 1984, he sued Hustler magazine for $45 million, charging that he was libeled by an ad parody depicting him as an incestuous drunkard. A federal jury found the fake ad did not libel him, but awarded him $200,000 for emotional distress. That verdict was overturned, however, in a landmark 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that even pornographic spoofs about a public figure enjoy First Amendment protection.

As Positive Atheism notes on its page of Jerry Falwell Quotations, the good minister blamed “civil libertarians, feminists, homosexuals, and abortion rights supporters for the terrorist attacks of Tuesday, September 11, 2001.”

Here are some quotes attributed to Falwell after 9/11:

God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve. — Jerry Falwell

When a nation deserts God and expels God from the culture … the result is not good. — Jerry Falwell

I sincerely believe that the collective efforts of many secularists during the past generation, resulting in the expulsion from our schools and from the public square, has left us vulnerable. — Jerry Falwell

The ACLU’s got to take a lot of blame for this. — Jerry Falwell

Even Billy Graham apparently found him sanctimonious, as the AP reported:

The Rev. Billy Graham once rebuked him for political sermonizing on “non-moral issues.”

Politicizing religion, and injecting religion into politics, was Falwell’s legacy, to our great detriment. For example,

In 2006, Falwell marked the 50th anniversary of his church and spoke out on stem cell research, saying he sympathized with people with medical problems, but that any medical research must pass a three-part test: “Is it ethically correct? Is it biblically correct? Is it morally correct?”

For Falwell, of course, this was really a one-part test. It’s a further mark of his conflation of reality and unreality that he thought the Bible offers an unequivocal judgment about the probity of stem cell research, which has the potential to develop into the ultimate fishes-and-loaves approach to medical cures.

In a self-aggrandizing press release quickly issued on ChristianNewsWire, Rob Schenck, a Virginia evangical preacher, called Falwell a “religious Dutch uncle” and described him as “a bold, unapologetic, uncompromising voice for Biblical truth that pushed the envelope and challenged secular culture to its limits.”

It’s hard not to notice that the world’s problem with people like Khomeini, Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Taliban is precisely that they are similarly challenging secular culture to its limits. They are, of course, Falwell’s allies in the great battle between reason and unreason, next to which all other ideological battles pale by comparison. One of unreason’s great warriors died today. Fundamentalists of all stripes should mourn his passing.

The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country. — Jerry Falwell

Posted in politics, religion | 1 Comment »

Happy birthday, Thomas Huxley. You won your debate, just not here, not yet

Posted by metaphorical on 4 May 2007

I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth.
— Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)

Today is Thomas Huxley’s birthday and I’m sure he’s been spinning in his grave from the moment last night when three hands went up in what passed for a debate among 10 Republican candidates for president.

The YouTube link is here. Even though seeing’s believing, here’s the NY Times transcript of this new low in American politics.

MR. VANDEHEI: Senator McCain, this comes from a Politico.com reader and was among the top vote-getters in our early rounds. They want a yes or no. Do you believe in evolution?


MR. VANDEHEI: I’m curious, is there anybody on the stage that does not agree — believe in evolution?

(Senator Brownback, Mr. Huckabee, Representative Tancredo raise their hands.)

SEN. MCCAIN: May I — may I just add to that?


SEN. MCCAIN: I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.

By the way, an interesting thing seems to have happened at the NY Times, when it comes to the three names.

As best I can reconstruct after the fact, Katharine Q. Seelye at the Times blogged the event while it was happening.

In her original version, the three weren’t named, though they’re there now. And so at 9:13 a commenter asked, “who were the idiots to raise their hands for not believing in evolution?” At 9:19 came the question, “Who are the ones that raised their hands they don’t believe in evolution? There were several.” And at 9:26 another said, “I hope the NYT or someone puts up a list of who exactly put up their hands to indicate they didn’t believe in evolution.”

The names, as I say, are in the text now, in square brackets, and appear as a note in the transcript, as above. They also appear in the Times’s main article on the debate, which got an opening-page photo, but the text begins on page 20 (it also has a different name in print and on the Web): ” ’08 Republicans Differ on Defining Party’s Future.”

Thomas Huxley, you’re remember, was Charles Darwin’s stand-in and pit-bull during the debate with Archbishop Samuel Wilberforce that, for England at least, settled the issue of evolution almost 150 years ago. (Samuel is the son of the abolitionist William Wilberforce, subject of the play Amazing Grace, currently on Broadway. Huxley was the grandfather of Aldous of Brave New World fame.) That it could still be alive today is shameful.

After reading The Origin of the Species, Huxley wrote to Darwin:

And as to the curs which will bark and yelp — you must recollect that some of your friends at any rate are endowed with an amount of combativeness which (though you have often & justly rebuked it) may stand you in good stead — I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness.

In their debate, Wilberforce famously “ridiculed evolution and asked Huxley whether he was descended from an ape on his grandmother’s side or his grandfather’s.” Huxley’s answer is recorded by posterity in the quote above, but, as a very nice Huxley biography notes, “Huxley’s own retelling of the tale was a little different, and quite a bit less dramatic:”

If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence & yet who employs these faculties & that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.

Where was Huxley on the stage last night as three simians posing as candidates raised their paws? Where was the outrage from seven other candidates as a mockery was being made of 2000 years of scientific progress? What was wrong with them that they are afraid to face the truth, afraid to face lunacy and call it what it is.

Some say the three candidates have rendered themselves ineligible to lead the nation; I say all 10 have. I can see where the phrase “presidential timber” comes from—the lot of them are all dumb as wood.

Posted in education, Orwell, politics, religion, technology, Times-watch | 7 Comments »

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.

Posted in language, religion | 12 Comments »

Romney raises funds and questions

Posted by metaphorical on 11 April 2007

Mitt Romney’s religion may be even more puzzling to the average American than we think, and it may be even more frightening than we know.

That’s not exactly the message Kenneth Woodward was trying to convey in an op-ed piece in Monday’s NY Times, but it’s one of the big take-aways. Mitt Romney may also be prone to exaggerate, to such an extent that he wanders near the prevarication border. My guess is that also wasn’t supposed to be one of Woodward’s main messages.

The blurb on Woodward describes him as “a contributing editor at Newsweek” who “is writing a book about American religion since 1950.” As such, his piece, “The Presidency’s Mormon Moment,” describes some “popular reservations” and confusions on the part of the public about Mormonism. It compares Romney’s run to JFK’s 1960 presidential run, in which his Catholicism was raised as a campaign issue. Woodward’s message is “relax:”

none of these popular reservations about the Mormon Church are reasons to vote for or against Mitt Romney. History was bound to have its Mormon moment in presidential politics, just as it had its Catholic moment when Kennedy ran. Now that the moment has arrived, much depends on Mr. Romney.

What depends on Romney, Woodward believes, is the educating the public and dispelling false stereotypes and notions about Mormonism. “57 percent of respondents to a recent CBS poll said they know little or nothing about Mormon beliefs and practices. Mr. Romney needs to be their teacher, whether he likes that role or not.”

Among the reasons Americans distrust the Mormon church is Mormon clannishness. Because every worthy Mormon male is expected to be a lay priest in voluntary service to the church, the demands on his time often leave little opportunity to cultivate close friendships with non-Mormon neighbors. A good Mormon is a busy Mormon. Those — like Mr. Romney — who serve as bishops (pastors of congregations) often find it difficult to schedule evenings at home with their own families.

“Families?” Plural? Oh, wait, that’s another false notion.

That some voters still confuse the Latter-day Saints with fundamentalist Mormon sects that continue to practice polygamy and child marriage is another reason the candidate should take the time to set the record straight.

Yet if conventional Christians think there’s something unconventional about Mormonism, they may not be far off the mark, despite the attempts of Mormons to minimize—the phrase “paper over” comes to mind—the differences.

Any journalist who has covered the church knows that Mormons speak one way among themselves, another among outsiders. This is not duplicity but a consequence of the very different meanings Mormon doctrine attaches to words it shares with historic Christianity.

For example, Mormons speak of God, but they refer to a being who was once a man of “flesh and bone,” like us. They speak of salvation, but to them that means admittance to a “celestial kingdom” where a worthy couple can eventually become “gods” themselves. The Heavenly Father of whom they speak is married to a Heavenly Mother. And when they emphasize the importance of the family, they may be referring to their belief that marriage in a Mormon temple binds families together for all eternity.

And not just Mormons in general, but Romney in particular.

Thus, when Mr. Romney told South Carolina Republicans a few months ago that Jesus was his “personal savior,” he used Southern Baptist language to affirm a relationship to Christ that is quite different in Mormon belief. (For Southern Baptists, “personal savior” implies a specific born-again experience that is not required or expected of Mormons.) This is not a winning strategy for Mr. Romney, whose handlers should be aware that Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals know Mormon doctrine better than most other Americans do — if only because they study Mormonism in order to rebut its claims.

Romney’s inclination to minimize —somehow the phrase “paper over” comes to mind again—differences between himself and the voters he’s pursuing, came up again just the other day. The Times headline does such a good job of stating the problem you almost don’t have to read the article: “Is Romney a Hunter? Depends on What Hunt Is.” (Even better would have been, “That All Depends on What the Definition of Hunt Is.”)

Here’s what Romney says:

When asked on Tuesday about his stance on guns, Mr. Romney, as he has more than once, portrayed himself as a sportsman, a “hunter pretty much all my life,” who strongly supported a right to bear arms.

He even trotted out some remembrances, recalling that in hunting with his cousins as a teenager, he struggled to kill rabbits with a single-shot .22-caliber rifle. When they lent him a semiautomatic, it got a lot easier, he said, drawing laughs from an appreciative crowd in Keene, N.H. The last time he went hunting, he said, was last year, when he shot quail in Georgia and “knocked down quite a few birds.”

“So I’ve been pretty much hunting all my life,” he said again.

And here are the facts:

But on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported that Mr. Romney had in fact been hunting only twice: once during that summer when he was 15 and spending time at a relative’s ranch in Idaho, and again on the occasion last year, a quail shoot at a fenced-in game preserve in Georgia with major donors to the Republican Governors Association.

Romney’s got a serious problem with the truth, in other words. And maybe he’s just stupid—hasn’t he noticed that the American public has lost its patience withpresidents who pathologically lie about matters great and small?

How hard is it to say, “You know, I’ve only hunted a couple of times in my life, but I enjoyed it immensely. And the way I read the Bill of Rights, immense enjoyment of it is a cherished right, protected by the Constitution itself, just like the freedoms of speech and religion.”

But if Romney doesn’t seem to greatly value the truth, he also just doesn’t seem to get the message of voter fatigue from the current administration. The Times reported just today that

Mitt Romney made his most extensive remarks on military and foreign policy on Tuesday, saying that if elected president he would push to add at least 100,000 troops to the armed forces and significantly increase military spending.

Mr. Romney restated his support for President Bush’s troop buildup in Iraq, saying the alternative would bring chaos to the region and “present grave risks to America.”

Mr. Romney devoted the bulk of his proposals to beyond the Iraq war. This year, Mr. Bush requested a military budget for 2008 of $481.4 billion, excluding money for military operations, an 11 percent increase over last year. If approved, it would elevate military spending to levels unseen since at least the 1980s, when adjusted for inflation.

Mr. Romney said an additional $30 billion to $40 billion a year over the next few years was needed to “modernize our military, address gaps in our troop levels, ease the strain on our National Guard and Reserves and support our wounded soldiers.”

If it seems that the Times is taking Romney’s candidacy very seriously, that’s because it is, and not without good reason. As it reported in yet another story, this one from last Friday, “Mr. Romney had brought in more than $20 million, vaulting ahead of his better-known rivals for the Republican nomination, Senator John McCain of Arizona and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor.”

At the start of the first quarter of this year, for example, Mr. Romney lent his campaign $2.35 million to pay for an elaborate demonstration of just how fast he could raise money from others. He rented the Boston convention center, furnished it with more than 400 laptop computers, loaded each with custom software and had more than 400 telephone lines installed.

He invited 400 wealthy supporters, including dozens of chief executives he knew through business connections, to a reception at an adjacent hotel. The next day each sat down before a personal-contact list loaded into an assigned laptop, with dozens of technical support staff and campaign finance advisers standing by to assist. Reporters watched from the sidelines for hours as Mr. Romney’s supporters raised $6.5 million.

The Times doesn’t make a separate point of it, but it’s interesting that Romney did only a little more than money-launder $2.35 million, turning it into dollars that came from a source other than his own personal wealth, which is considerable. After all, while $6.5 million is a lot more than $2.35 million, a fundraising overhead of 36% is neither healthy nor scalable. As is appropriate for such a religous candidate, though, it was more than a little awe-inspiring, in both the sense of great fear and reverence.

“It was a great show,” said Ron Kaufman, a White House political director under the first President Bush.

Mr. Kaufman said he walked out thinking, “That was the most impressive thing I have ever seen.”

Posted in politics, religion | 3 Comments »

Democracy, science, and the Golden Calf

Posted by metaphorical on 11 March 2007

One of my best friends’ daughters had her bat mitzvah yesterday. At their synagogue the initiate picks the day’s reading from the Torah. She then gives a talk about it—the morning’s sermon, if you will (though most rabbis annoyingly can’t keep themselves from commenting on it afterward, making sure we know who has the upper hand in their houses. This one was no exception.)

Her reading was the story of the Golden Calf, from Exodus.

To refresh your recollection, Moses is up on the mount with God for longer than the Israelites expected, and it’s the last straw from some of them. Moses has dragged his people out Egypt (from slavery, sure, but it’s the only home they know). He’s insisted they worship this totally inanimate insubstantial God. And now he has seemingly abandoned them in the middle of the desert, somewhere between home and promised land. So they complain to Aaron, Moses’s nebbishy brother. Facing a revolt, Aaron has everyone give him their gold earrings, which he melts down into the Golden Calf. God sees his people worshiping an idol, which is a pretty serious offense. He and Moses are quite upset. God tells Moses to get some folks together for some smiting. Moses has his people, the Levites, punish the people.

The bat mitzvah girl thought God was overly harsh. Her first argument was that they were still worshiping God, just differently. Her second was that since the 10 commandments weren’t yet received, the people weren’t sinning, since they hadn’t really assimilated the rule against idol-worship. They didn’t really know better yet, was her argument.

She and the rabbi then debated the issue, in the sense that he told her what he thought, and she stood there and listened. If I understood him correctly, the rabbi said that the punishment of the people was really God teaching Moses a lesson. Neither of them mentioned what that punishment consisted of—the slaughter of 3000 people, including friends and neighbors. Some lesson. God was ready to kill everyone and start over, as with Noah, but Moses persuaded him otherwise.

Whatever you believe or don’t believe about the Judeo-Christian God, I myself find the Golden Calf pretty hard to understand as a religious story. One of my college teachers read the Bible as a collection of political lessons, and for me, this is a great place for that.

God in the Bible is always the source of legal authority. In a democracy authority comes from a free people coming to an agreement with one another about what the law is, but for an authoritarian society, such as that of the Israelites, a ruler’s authority comes from God. In a democracy, God is the social contract and the law is a covenant with one another. For Israel, the covenant was between God and Moses and the law was handed down from God. Moses was in charge because he had God’s ear.

On this understanding, Aaron, Moses’s delegate while he was on the mountain, faced a revolt. He forged a compromise. Moses returned in time to reassert his authority. He killed his enemies. Perhaps Aaron would have been amenable to democratic rule. We’ll never know. Moses returned and his authoritarianism persisted for many generations.

It’s no coincidence that the Bush administration is the most authoritarian this country has had in decades, probably ever, and that it is the most religious. It’s also no coincidence that it is opposed to science.

Science, as it was invented by the Greeks and has been perfected over five centuries since the Enlightenment, is the democratic process of determining what it is rational to believe. It is an agreement we have made with one another to share our perceptions and intuitions, and to reason from them, all in a way that can be shared, which is to say published and replicated.

The opponents of science would rather get their standard of belief from authority. The fundamentalist Christians choose a book, the fundamentalist Muslims do the same (but a different one); other anti-science people can choose yet a third and a fourth authoritative source of belief. It doesn’t much matter.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in language, philosophy, politics, religion | 10 Comments »