Friday, December 29, 2006
Outside Popular Evangelical Culture
I have gradually become estranged from the cultural aspects. My theology is still evangelical in essence, though we have always had a more liturgical bent than is common. But not only do I no longer know what the new books and the new performers are, I find that when I am exposed to them I pretty much don't like them. I am increasingly concerned that style is pushing out substance. It is easy to think that when the style does not please, of course; but it is also easy to not notice that when the style does please.
The style of the mainstream denominations neither pleases nor displeases me. As their gradual abandonment of some essentials of the faith in favor of more trendy ideas does displease me, I feel no pull in that direction.
One would think that my alienation would be sharp, but I don't experience it that way. As with other things, I am more puzzled than annoyed.
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Bureaucracy and War
In my frustration at the inefficiencies of bureaucracy, I have often said over the last few years “Y’know, it’s amazing we got all those soldiers to Iraq with a left boot and a right boot each. Getting things done is harder than it looks.” And no, it’s not entirely the fault of systems, as management-types like to say these days. Sometimes it really is the people.
I was speaking on the phone to a repetitive woman who has become guardian over her adult daughter, and I was thinking of Iraq. Being a listener and a good communicator are supposed to be the new skills that officers are supposed to have, and that Americans in general supposedly lack, which torques off the other nations of the world. Yet I imagine being an officer listening to a pleasant but repetitive and tangential person in my military bureaucracy in Iraq. One side of my brain would be saying “we have to get everyone on board, keep morale up, not waste energy in unnecessary confrontation,” while the other half is saying “Buddy, do you not realize that people are friggin’ dying out there while you waste my valuable time? Get off the phone!”
And you know that’s happening somewhere. Someone is smoothing Pentagon or Congressional feathers, selling an idea in a manipulative, telling-em-what-they-want way, not because he’s dishonest or manipulative, but because the people he’s dealing with are idiots and wankers who can’t be leveled with. And the difference is life-or-death for somebody down the line, so you’ve got to do it.
Diplomacy is considered an artful, high-level skill that does such wonders in the world. I suppose it is better than everyone just opening fire on each other. Negotiation, I agree is a high-level and honorable skill – or can be, anyway. But diplomacy is for use on people who cannot endure the truth. You will notice that Jesus was kind, but not diplomatic.
Americans, especially conservatives, indulge in these fantasies of frankness that are not ever going to happen. “You know what we should tell those nutcases? We should tell them that they have one week to start…” Sure, I agree. I would love to give that approach a try for a year. Put up or shut up. Fish or cut bait. Yo, Egypt! These are your two choices! Even if we went back to the old way after, it would be an unspoken threat. The Roman Empire would have a dictator for a year in time of war. Having one year of Donald Trump as president might be just what the doctor ordered.
But it’s never going to happen. That fantasy is as useful as hoping that the Navy Seals develop the power of teleportation. No American president is going to act like that. But it’s good that we keep in the back of our minds that we’re avoiding being candid with other nations, not because they are sophisticated and wise and we are clumsy, but because they cannot endure the truth straight up.
John O'Sullivan reviewed Paul Belien's A Throne In Brussels, which gives a sharp reminder of Belgium's actual history: corruption, treachery, and exploitation. And this, not in the distant past, as with most other western European nations, but throughout the last two centuries, up until the present day. A excerpt of the review:
If there is a scalier royal family than the Belgian branch of the Saxe-Coburgs, the news has yet to reach Debretts. They make the Borgias look like pickpockets and Richard III like a philanthropist. Leopold started the trend. He bribed leading politicians to keep them loyal. He dealt with opposition supporters of the House of Orange by having the military attack them and burn their homes. He made the Catholic Church into a virtual agent of his monarchy by affecting to be its protector. He was the secret owner of two newspapers (one conservative, one liberal) whose editorial line followed his direct instructions. He amassed a vast fortune by misusing government funds for his private interests.Americans tend to focus their ire on France when resenting Europe. Think Belgium instead.
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Very short version: if one side of a conflict has shown it can tolerate a certain level of anxiety, casualties, expense, stalemate, etc, then it is possible that it can keep that up indefinitely. Slight increases are not likely to change their response in the short run. A large increase in perceived cost, casualties, or projected duration is needed to demoralize that party. Not only a change in fortunes, but a perception of change can be sufficient discouragement. For example, the public’s surprize in Vietnam that the North Vietnamese could even launch something as formidable as the Tet Offensive was a discouragement, even though we won decisively. The Spanish defeated superior forces in Mesoamerica because the societies had been decimated (sometimes literally) prior to the arrival of the intimidating looking and sounding Spaniards. The Indians believed the forces of gods and nature were arrayed against them.
Nothing but duration is defeating the American effort in OIF at the moment. We hoped to be gone, we don’t like even temporary stalemates, we get discouraged. An alternative view: Baghdad is in stalemate, and there is fatal violence there. Other than that, not much is wrong in Iraq. We had hoped we could persuade the Sunni Arabs to join a coalition – they won’t. Like the Palestinians, they are insisting that they receive all they think they deserve, no compromise. They may persist in this belief until the ground changes. If we leave, the Shia will wipe them out. I hope it doesn’t come to that. (Alternatively, you could blame it on the Shia for being reasonable about everything but Al Sadr. But I suspect even if he were liquidated, the Sunnis would find some other reason not to come aboard.)
I should deeply resent Google for pushing me toward obsolescence. But it's people like me who really love search engines, who become addicted to them and devoted to them. How can I resent something that gives me such pleasure? The main reason that my DNA made it through to the 20th C was to keep the repository of human knowledge from being lost. There are hundreds, probably thousands of people like me across the country. In previous eras, descendants of people like me referred back to my sort with pride. My descendants, who will be able to murmur "alligator: size, age, and diet" to the chip in their head and get an immediate readout, will wonder what the fuss was about. "Wouldn't it have been better if great grandpapa had just made money instead?"
Saturday, December 23, 2006
The Sadness of NPR Christmas
Christmas kills them. They can access faith only via nostalgia, and that well soon runs dry. Real traditions include Mom, and going to church, and immersing yourself in that whole crowd of idiot relatives. Far better to have your Christmas carols instrumental, where the mood can grip you without the trouble of the lyrics. The programs at NPR are dignified, properly appalled at the deterioration of the season into commercialism and "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer;" into the violent games or garish decorations.
This works well enough for that percentage of their audience that still holds to the Christian faith. We fear no nostalgia, and deplore many of the same things about the season. Instrumental carols and lights that don't blink are fine with us. The secular audience must be okay with this approach as well. Perhaps with NPR guiding the tour they can trust that however close the bus gets to the edge of the road it will not go over into actual religious assertion. We'll get out and take pictures of the view.
I don't have the same sense in my bones for what the Jewish storytellers are experiencing, but it seems much the same. They grew up slightly alientated from the culture's holiday, but having something of their own to build nostalgia around. Now they seem alientated from that as well. And those who had little or no faith tradition - they're trying to find something worth saving in all this. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in your shoe - it's supposed to be for weddings, but they try to make a holiday out of the same sort of elements.
Emotional distance has its advantages, and these makeshift Christmases don't seem to be tragic. There is a sort of courage about them, and shafts of real joy, and the nobility of those who refuse at least to be hypocrites. But story after story in December, as these deeply artistic and sensitive people try to capture the season, carries the theme of searching, of something missing, of arranging the dried flowers as beautifully as possible because no new ones will bloom.
Those of us who are believers are tempted to throw up our hands and say "Oh for Pete's sake! Relent for just a few days a year and allow yourself to be immersed in the faith of your youth. You'll get more out of Christmas that way. It'll do you good. Why is Jesus the one thing you can't keep?" But I think it is our own inattention to the season, our own taking it for granted, that causes us to think this way. We are so aware of how many things pull us away from Christ at Christmas that we have forgotten how dangerous it is for those outside to look in. They sense, as we should know but have forgotten, that to step inside might mean never coming back. If emotional distance does not bring warmth, it at least brings memories of warmth, with no danger of burning.
Women's Tribal Christmas
It's easy for men to criticise and complain, I suppose, because we don't have the instinct/training.
I think this is another one of those tribal thingies. While training and social grace are clearly part of this, the universality of it suggests some biology in the mix. Interestingly, while it occurs everywhere among women, it is not universal among women. A large percentage of women think this is how life should be, another group goes along with less joy but recognising some obligation, and a further group actively dislikes and resists the custom - especially that small gifts part.
But if you work in a situation that is predominantly staffed by women, as both my wife and I are, half your house becomes filled with plates of cookies, small decorative items, and written greetings. The other half is filled with similar items that the women of the house are preparing to go out of the house, to communicate to some other friend or family member that you, too, do matter. You are one of the tribe. My wife compared it to potlach ceremonies of the Pacific Northwest.
It may be one of those instincts by which women make sure that everyone in the tribe has something to eat, and some declaration of group acceptance is signified by making sure that no one feels left out.
Friday, December 22, 2006
Wyman Family Christmas Letter 2006
“Chris Needs A Dog.”
Stories about other people’s pets and other people’s medical conditions are seldom interesting, but we are going to subject you to both. We will try to be entertaining.
Jonathan and Benjamin have been insisting for years that we get Chris a dog, to interrupt his moping every other day. Too much trouble, we said; Chris will graduate HS and leave and we’ll be stuck taking care of the dog. Jonathan eventually offered to take the dog off our hands after Chris left if he couldn’t bring it with him and we didn’t like it. Safe offer for Jonathan – he knew we’d get attached to the dog.
Digger is what you might call a special-needs dog, who grew up with goats and a mule and is afraid of people. This has indeed been therapeutic for Chris, bringing this skittish mutt up to social speed, but this much eccentricity from the dog is something of an overload. When Chris was accepted at UTI in Houston for auto tech next year, he informed Digger “You’re going to be a Texas dog!” Well, fine. Everyone’s happy. Until then we have this large black fur-farm slinking around, startling at most noises and all white objects. Update: Digger is also afraid of Christmas decorations, especially lights.
Alright Huddled Masses! Everyone Up For Volleyball!
This quote is the top banner for Ben’s blogsite, http://www.10-4goodbuddy.blogspot.com/. Mostly humorous, sometimes poignant, Ben has turned into a very clever writer. His film reviews are utterly convincing. We only have to see one movie a year now, because our filmmaker son explains everything.
We were apprehensive about his focus on film, because of the generation we come from. To Tracy and I “I want to be a filmmaker” is an equivalent statement to “I want to be unemployed much of every year.” But – he got a job making films. A real job, year-round, working for the Methodists at this wealthy enormous church north of Houston with health insurance. Last year was the Year Of Five Addresses, including working the Winter Olympics in the Italian Alps in his final semester at Asbury. Now he has another distant address.
Ah well, we had him home for the summer, which was nice.
To Nurture And Enjoy
When businesses and organizations decide to come up with Mission Statements, I head for the exits. Such expressions of corporate will should be pithy and memorable, but seldom are. I came up with a Wyman mission statement, above. It says more than the framed paragraphs we all ignore as we walk through the foyer of a building.
A Tree Grows In Goffstown
For Tracy this was a year of her parents’ medical emergencies, and one of her own. The old Chevy logged a lot of miles back and forth to Scituate. Her dad almost bled to death and had to have his colon removed, followed five months later he had more surgery to have it reconnected. In the meantime Tracy discovered she had a gallstone and couldn’t eat fat for two months until she could have her gall bladder out. Standard surgery; hopefully no problem, but producing anxiety as well as an annoying diet. Just before her surgery, while David was on the road to Texas with Ben, a windstorm blew half a pine tree onto our neighbor’s roof. More anxiety, and mental measuring of trees and where they would fall. During recovery from her surgery half of our big pine tree came down, narrowly missing all wires and valuable objects. Let’s have the other half out, do you think? More sunshine, less anxiety. Expensive, though.
On The Highway At Night, The Whole Country Looks The Same
Between driving Ben and his stuff back from KY, then down to Houston 5 months later, David thought he would get to see the country a bit. While it is true that driving at night avoids traffic, it is also true that traveling this way is mind-numbingly repetitive. The same twenty fast-food establishments are advertised in batches of six on identical blue signs. Mileage signs count their slow progress up or down. Now I know why the RV crowd gets up early – more scenery. Ben and I stayed at several and found that at 8pm, everything is quiet. By 7am, everyone’s gone. We did get to see Bucksnort, TN and Cut & Shoot, TX, neither of which we would have found in NH.
Do not, by the way, tow a car on a dolly for 2000 miles. You won’t like it. We did have adventures and meet nice people because of them.
Boundless Optimism Will Only Take You So Far
John-Adrian already had a good summer job when he got back from NGU, but he wanted a better one – one that would make him some big money. He came home from one set of interviews very pleased with himself: he was going to sell vacuum cleaners. This wonderful company was going to start him with $500 just for doing three demonstrations! We expressed, er, caution about this, but on he went. It was the expected pattern. Three demonstrations and a 4-hour training meeting; and two more meetings. And those first two demonstrations didn’t count somehow, he would have to do more. He eventually got the picture. Next he tried telemarketing. Somehow that wasn’t quite as hoped, either. J-A, who is a business major, learned the valuable TANSTAAFL lesson. Eventually, he worked two jobs and sent some money to his brother Catalin in Romania.
He is planning to transfer closer to home for the rest of college. We suspect there’s a girl in that equation somewhere, though he denies it.
The name troll does not originally come from the mythical monster, but from the fishing term of dragging a lure on a line behind a moving boat. (Jacques: We cannot go ice-fishing, Pierre. I didn’t bring an auger [pronounced oezher for an added joke]. Pierre: So get on the back of my skidoo- we’ll go trollin’). To go trolling online was to drag bait in the form of controversial statements in comments sections, hoping to get someone upset and start an argument.
A person who is trolling, then, came to be called a troll by back-formation, probably taking that form because troller would be a new word, and troll already existed. Enough computer geeks were also Tolkien fans or D&D players that the unattractive reputation of trolls lent itself to describing stupid and difficult commenters. This is called a folk-etymology, though it doesn’t fit the tightest definition of that term. The rural Maine practice of saying “sparrow grass” for “asparagus” would also be a folk-etymology, as would “bridegroom, adopted when “guma” (man) was no longer recognizable.
I take the bait that trolls drag by. I take people’s intentions mostly at face value, and if they are putting forth an opinion, I assume it is their real opinion, not something they have adopted for entertainment purposes. I don’t see the fun in getting people worked up for no reason, so it doesn’t tend to occur to me that a person might be having me on for that purpose. Being pigheaded and opinionated – that I understand. So I proceed with great hope, trusting that sweet reason will win the day. (More fool thou, my sons recite in unison).
Thursday, December 21, 2006
That Guttmacher Study
There’s been some noise this week about the study which claims that 95% of Americans have had premarital sex by age 44, and that this percentage has been quite constant for 40 years. The Guttmacher Institute has a clear social/political agenda in all this, but let’s put that aside for the moment. People can have an agenda and still be accurate, after all.
(The immediate joke at Pajamas Media, of course, was that postmarital sex was also unchanged for the last 40 years at 5%.)
Numbers that dramatic should always raise an eyebrow. It pays to look at what is being measured, and how the data was obtained. In this instance, you will look long before you get the answer to some key questions about the data. After the phrase “surprisingly high refusal rates” popped up – in the context of my being unable to locate the actual number – I began to wonder whether this number was being downplayed, or even hidden. Perhaps not. But it’s hard to find. Refusal rates were 17%-27% for the various studies, averaging 21%. That is not an enormous number for survey studies, as many people just don’t want to do surveys about anything, let alone their sexual history, even for the $40 payment. It would be hard on researchers to expect a much better response.
But such high refusal rates, even if they are expected and common, should sound a cautionary note to researchers. If you are going to make even a tentative statement about 95% of Americans, you should be asking yourself “what about the 20% of Americans who wouldn’t answer at all?” If we could magically obtain that data, perhaps it would be similar to the four-fifths of the people who responded. Researchers do often try to equalize the demographic factors as mauch as they can.
But perhaps the numbers from that group are quite different. We don’t know. It would be easy to make up plausible explanations why people at extremes in any direction would avoid being questioned too closely. The study itself, in reviewing abortion data, goes out of its way to note that abortion data is generally underreported by about 50%, and to caution that people should be hesitant about basing conclusions on their data. Another pink flag.
Next we come to the question of what, exactly, is being measured? The study gives out that (round numbers) 75% of Americans have had premarital sex by age 20. From 20-44 years old, apparently, the total rises to 95%. The original 75% number seems high. But perhaps it’s true. If you are counting up everyone that has ever had sex, even only once or twice, maybe the number climbs that high. But let’s look at the second part of that equation. Of the 25% of the population who has not had premarital sex by age 20, (and note that this is quite a different population than the citizenry as a whole) four out of five of them will have premarital sex over the next 24 years? Don’t some of those people, like, get married over the next few years and stay married until age 44? To qualify as having had premarital sex, that previously chaste group of people would either have to be starting sex right away and then marrying, or having affairs. Does anyone think that is going to turn out to be true for 80% of those people?
Unlikely. So the group of people who get married and stay married are going to pull the average down a lot. Some percentage might have sex before their one marriage, or have affairs, but nothing like 80%.
And they are more than half the cohort we’re talking about. Most of those who marry, marry after 20. Those who marry later have lower divorce rates. Thus, this is more than half the remaining group.
This leaves the people who do not marry before age 44, or marry and divorce. Apparently, 110% of these people are having premarital sex. The people in wheelchairs, the developmentally disabled, the germ-phobics, all of ‘em. Seems unlikely.
Well, someone’s numbers are wrong here – perhaps mine. There’s something major missing from the data. Let’s pretend it’s my bad. Let’s give the Guttmacher Institute the benefit of all doubts here – the missing fifth of the population, the unlikely sudden behavioral change of 20 year-old-virgins, the greater-than expected number of marriages where both people are having affairs, the wheelchairs. Give ‘em all of it.
Oh, and make it retroactive for two generations.
Their goal in this, expressly stated in the study and the press releases, is to stop the government from providing abstinence-only sex education. The institute believes this is a terrible and unrealistic approach and wants to squash it. Their interest is in showing that simply everyone has premarital sex, therefore abstinence-only programs are unrealistic and even dangerous. Not so fast. The one does not follow from the other. Remember that we are counting in this population the people who have had unmarried sex even once or a few times over decades. You get counted in their data for any of it.
Unmarried 40-year olds who had sex twice in 1996 and once in 2002 do not consider themselves “sexually active.” And there is nothing to suggest anything about any type of formal sex education after age 20. No one attempts much of that or collects much data. Any data.
Plus, the original 75% that we breezed past early in the discussion – those kids who had premarital sex by age 20 – Guttmacher is counting the ones who had sex once or twice, and even the ones who had sex once or twice with their fiancee. Technically true, of course. But it’s hard to draw sexual safety conclusions at all from people having sex that infrequently. Theoretically, there’s risk every time. But there’s no actual data on what increases the sexual safety of that subgroup. The groups that we study tend to be highest-risk groups, and what works with them. (Which is fine, by the way. That’s who we should be studying. Go where the problem is. But there is nothing to indicate the results for the high-risk group bears on the general population.)There are several good arguments for some safe-sex, rather than abstinence-only sex education. This study isn’t one of them. But this is exactly the sort of thing that will stick in the mind, and will give the impression of having proved the point.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
The Realist School of Foreign Policy
"If, when reading an article about the debate over Iraq, you come across the expression 'the realist school' and mentally substitute the phrase 'the American friends of the Saudi royal family,' your understanding of the situation will invariably be enhanced."Christopher Hitchens
Why Rate The Presidents?
Mike Pride, editor of the Concord Monitor, had a recent op-ed ranking the presidents of his lifetime. The reasons one would undertake such a project are pretty limited. Someone might ask you for such an evaluation, particularly if you are an historian or a person who comments on political events. Similarly, you might read someone else’s list and be inspired to do your own.
But most likely, you write that article because there’s someone you want to put in last place, usually the current occupant of the office or his immediate predecessor. You hate that bastard, you want everyone to know it, and this is one more chance to kick him. You cover that by rating someone else of his political party surprisingly high. This creates the illusion that you aren’t a partisan hack, and that you really think deeply about these matters. If you want to kick George Bush, you go out of your way to say what a fine fellow his father was, or how underrated Reagan was. If it’s Bill Clinton you want to slam around, it is obligatory to mention that Carter got an unfair bad rap or Lyndon Johnson will go down as one of the great presidents. You don’t have to mean that, of course, but you have to provide a smokescreen.
When average citizens make up such a list – and no one ever asks us, of course – there are some interesting patterns. Younger people seldom make such a list, which shows an admirable humility on their part. The Greatest Generation rates the presidents of their youth very high; there is a strong good-old-days component to their lists. I saw several that were very nearly a chronological list, rating Roosevelt highest, Truman next, then Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson. After that it gets muddled, and partisan politics becomes evident in the later selections. Baby Boomers rank Johnson in the middle, regardless of which way their list slants. They write very ambivalent comments about him. Interestingly, they rank Nixon low but say some nice things about him. He no longer attracts much energy.
The energy attractors are the presidents of the last 30 years, except for Bush 41. The other four attract both laud and condemnation in dramatic fashion. Not shocking perhaps.
I am reminded of an interview with an elderly woman who was interviewed about her life under communism, contrasted with her life in freedom. She thought the communists had been generally bad, but thought well of Stalin. He had gotten them through the war, which was good, and she remembered that there had always been food, then. Not like now.The woman was Ukrainian. I wonder what presidents I will rate highly when I am old.
Design Your Own Father
For those of us with zero full-fathers and/or multiple partial fathers, this is of course problematic. I have always thought my situation, having 3 fathers with serious limitations all, was a spiritual obstacle. It occurred to me Sunday that I might turn the lack into an advantage: design my own father. Perhaps that's what I was starting when I wrote Gardener, below, though I wasn't thinking it at the time. Suspecting that, I don't know if I can write more of it cleanly. We'll see. I'll certainly spin it out, and see how it works.
Monday, December 18, 2006
Iranian Science Fiction Movie
The boy was brought in October to the manor because there seemed no other place for him to go. He was an orphan, he thought. At least, there had been no parent to claim him for as long as he could remember. He had lived with an elderly farmwife – large and coarse and peasant-shrewd – who knew how to support herself with a demanding voice and a disregard for laws she found inconvenient.
He hadn’t liked her, and never less than her last few years when she was weak and wheezing and stopped cleaning herself. Nearly all the work had fallen to him then, and when she died he was glad to be rid of her, though he never spoke this aloud. He might have, if anyone had asked him, but none did.
How he had been apprenticed to a gardener he wasn’t sure. An uncle, someone said, had gotten him the position. The boy hadn’t known he had an uncle, so perhaps it wasn’t true.
Still, there he was, picked up at the train station by a man with a sign, “Jacob Alistair Wood.” He wondered if his middle name really was Alistair, or that was just something they had been told to make him sound more impressive. Alistair. He had never seen it spelled out before, and committed the letters to memory. He was bundled into an old foreign car.
The gardener himself turned out to be an odd, faintly intimidating man; grayed, but not elderly; above middle height, with an adam’s apple and the smell of some ancient aftershave long out of fashion. He considered the boy seriously, nodded and said “good to have you. This’ll be home now.” He spoke briefly to the driver: “Leave his things in the hall and send him out. We’ll see about a room later.”
When Jacob caught up with the gardener a few minutes later, the man greeted him not at all, but described the growth and cycle of the shrub he was tending. He made a few precise clips, checked the bark for disease, explaining all the while, and handed the boy the shears. “Now you.”
“Sir, I’m not sure I understood it all. Could you say it again, sir?”
“Tell me what you heard.” The man said it in that expressionless voice, serious but without anger. Jacob told as much as he remembered, fearful, stuttering, trailing off into apologies.
“That’s most of it. Check just below the branch for discoloration.” He pointed to a short stretch of identical shrubs and walked off. Jacob leaped over quickly and began clipping timidly, afraid to cut – afraid not to. He breathed deeply to calm himself, without effect. Uncertainty was worse than rejection, the thought, though not in those words. To himself, he only asked questions that had no answers. “We’ll see about a room later” – did that mean he might not stay? But “This’ll be home now.” Did he mean it that way? Was he to have a room, or a place in a corner? Or in a shed?
Every hour or so the gardener would check up on Jacob, inspecting his work, commenting on it, then leading him to another task. The commenting unnerved the boy so greatly that he seemed to hear it only at a distance, observing himself and the man as if they had nothing to do with him. A bit lightheaded and forcing himself to remember the words, he stared at the man’s vest buttons. Irrelevantly, Jacob decided he liked the buttons but not the vest.
From others he had received mostly criticism, and so learned to criticize himself. Yet he was observant enough to realize that he was capable of handling tasks that boys his age were not often given, and when in the company of adults found that they sometimes knew less than he. Jacob was secretly proud that he estimated things – a distance, a length of time, a quantity of goods – better than anyone. But either way, he was constantly evaluating, pummeling himself when wrong, deeply gratified when right.
The gardener’s evaluation was like none of this: passionless, with neither praise nor condemnation. Even the raking, which he thought of as simple labor, measured only in quantity, came up for comment. “The smaller rake for this section” and “See how this moss rips up, but this’un doesn’t.” Not until spring did the boy come to see that his mistakes had badly damaged two of the shrubs. Today is was merely “those cuts will direct the growth here, where we want it.”
Sunday, December 17, 2006
I am expanding that to a general rule for life. If you are in an argument with a socialist and say "I used to be a socialist," the demand for your credentials means the discussion is over. If you are arguing about bridges and say "I have a degree in engineering," it will not be the right kind of engineering somehow. Even if it is, and you've been designing bridges all your life and won the "Best Bridge Design" award 3 years in a row.
Today's was "I work with the poor." Well, a lot of people work with the poor, at least part of the time. Merchants work with the poor. Lots of government officials work with the poor. The police and ambulance folk work with the poor. It's not that odd, really. But when someone wants to make a point about the poor - as I did on two blogs today - facts can't be allowed to get in the way.
I don't claim expertise in most of the subtopics about poverty. But sometimes people make assertions that anyone who works in the biz knows to be untrue. Experts can go wrong in many ways - usually by getting some particular set of ideas in their head and fitting everything into that box. Credentials aren't everything. But taken with proper humility, they should mean a little.
Inappropriate Use of Polls
"Will the earth be struck by a major asteroid in 2036?" Not really a poll question. There is a fringey sort of answer that would say if enough people think the asteroid that is coming is going to hit us, we will take steps to make sure that it doesn't. In that sense, the poll indirectly leads us to some useful information.
Is OJ guilty? Will this be a snowy winter? Is Chicago west of Detroit? Some things are just not poll questions.
I bring up these obvious errors because most of the poll questions in the major media are not much better, but we don't tend to notice that. "Do children study more or less than they did thirty years ago?" "Is there more crime than there was ten years ago, or less?"
Pick a country and a disease at random. I pick Turkey, and diabetes. What if next week Newsweek starts in with polls "Are we sending too much aid to Turkey, not enough, or the right amount?" None of us knows how much aid we send to Turkey. But who is going to say "send more?" Unless there is something about Turkey in the news that suggests we should be sending them more, such as a natural disaster, everyone is going to say either "about right" or "send less." On the other hand, who is going to say that we should spend less on diabetes research? Not that we know how much is spent now or how much is needed, but the fact that the question is even asked starts a whispering campaign for the answer that someone wants. Well, let's keep that up for a few months. Tim Russert asks Dick Cheney "Are we sending too much to Turkey?" "Are we spending enough on diabetes research?" Other magazines and newspapers start commisioning polls about it. You can eventually start to get the answer you want.
Oh yes you can. That's why disease research even has PR campaigns, isn't it? That's one of the resons that Turkey even has an embassy here, isn't it? To move opinion. The objection that Newsweek or USA Today or Tim Russert wouldn't engage in that sort of random manipulation isn't the point. Random manipulation isn't the point. The point is, do whispering campaigns work?
"Are we winning the war in Iraq?" That is not a poll question. It is in fact a question that cannot help us win, but might help us lose the war in Iraq. If enough people say "no," then politicians make noises about having to do something different. Plus, our allies wonder if they can trust us. Further, our enemies wonder if they can win by just hanging on a little longer.
Most people in America haven't the faintest idea whether we are losing or winning, but most of them have an opinion anyway. At the moment, most people think it's a stalemate, with smaller percentages saying "we're winning," or "we're losing." To try and improve the quality of the polls, sometimes they will ask people who look like they might know more than the rest of us. History professors. Retired State Dept. officials. Think about it. They don't know more than we do. And we don't know anything. Experts in related fields by necessity have to look at these questions from data which they know which is only part of the story. "Well, the Sunni tribes came to Anbar province later than the Shia..." So what? Even if it's true and the historian is right on the money, it's 2% of the picture.
I have folks who I correspond with who would at this point claim I was advocating suppression of speech critical of the Administration. Really. In fact if you scurry around the comments sections of the blog sites, and the postings of the big leftie blogs like Kos and HuffPo, you can find a lot of people who say that. I work every day with people who believe that. They don't say it every day, but they have said exactly that in the past year. Some people, by which they think they mean someone other than me, want to cut off debate about the war altogether. They don't want to allow anyone to criticise the president. It's scary.
No, it's scary that people believe that.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
Fun At Bob's
There is great esprit de corps in his comments sections as well.
The God Who Is Never In The Middle
When we picture Adam in the garden, we have just come from the story of this mysterious huge thing that created worlds and lights and oceans, and we miss what Eve saw. Adam & Eve don't seem to have much awareness that Whoever it is they are talking to is in charge of much more that just Eden, some animals, and them. He is a very intimate god and quite local. If He is more powerful than they are, He doesn't seem to be so intimidating that they don't dare disobey. A traveling snake-oil salesman is enough to get them to disregard the one they call Lord. This seems to be a Lord of the Manor, or Lord of the Waterfall, not the creator of the universe.
The theme continues throughout the OT. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a pretty local guy. Only occasionally does He remind that He has a side to him that they keep forgetting about. David, Moses, and the Prophets all have some fairly chummy conversations with the Almighty. Yet even they - God's pals - are shown glimpses of His hugeness that stagger them.
Jesus's arrival is very much of the intimate sort, visiting shepherds, walking around telling stories, going to wedding receptions. But even in this homey story there are sword-strokes and fiery darts - sudden comments by Good Old Jesus that open out onto bottomless chasms, reminding them they He walks in worlds they cannot imagine. These are reported often enough that one gets the impression that they were frequent. But as they always seem to surprize His friends, they can't have poured from Him uninterruptedly. The Christ, the Messiah, spends most of the time praying and teaching, but they were used to people like that. Then once a day He does or says something that drains the blood from their faces or confuses them so completely that they are reduced to asking questions that now look dumb (Easy for us to say. We wouldn't likely have done better in their sandals).
Jesus comes back and eats some fish, then ascends in one of those sky-opening, hide-your-face deals that reassure his followers He Is. Really. In John's letters, which we were studying recently, the apostle keeps calling his hearers children, not to belittle them, but to remind them of their intimacy with him, and with God. Children inherit. Children get hugged. John had another aim, drop-kicking the Gnostics who were claiming that they were the real inheritors because they had learned all the secret code-words. He was stressing that it was the regular humble Christians who were God's children, not the toffs. But he could have gotten that idea across without that level of intimacy. Choosing that image was no accident.
A few pages later, Jesus is coming on a cloud in one of those freeze-the-flesh-off-you moments where hordes of folks die and mountains get thrown around like pebbles. All in preparation for his settling down and being king on a throne, where everyone can drop by and see Him.
Never in the middle. God never seems to be medium-big, or medium close. He is either so close and chummy that we drop our guard and forget who He really is, or so huge and dangerous that we draw back in fear. Or both together, interwoven in an impossible braid. But never medium-size, medium distance.
My problem with books of this premise is that it is boring old Dad who is writing them, from the perspective of his admiring children. This Walter Mitty-ish exposure seems perilously close to admitting what a schlemiel you really are. Have some pride, man, and keep your heroic fantasies secret like the rest of us.
So it is with great annoyance that I confess to my children that Daddy is not secretly a spy or world adventurer. I might have made a good codebreaker in the days before computers, and suppose I could have passed as any number of northern European nationalities if I had been remotely good at languages.
I do promise you, however, that if I ever develop the power of time travel or invisibility that spying is exactly is exactly what I will take up, and will make every effort to tell you on my deathbed. But don't tell your mother, because she would worry.
Different categories of insult strike me differently. It is unsavory on many levels to call someone a moron, or idiotic, or stupid. But that sort of attack, though directed against the person instead of the idea, is less objectionable than other insults. It would be better, of course, for disputants to say "that idea is foolish" instead of "you are a fool." But the criticism is at least in category. An idea is being discussed, and questions of stupidity and cleverness are to the point. Even such characterizations as "paranoid" or "smug" can at least be derived from word-choices, tone, and reasoning within the discussion.
It is a greater deterioration to level attacks such as fascist, coward, warmonger, thieves, and the like. These are frequently applied to a group that advocates a particular idea or course of action. While it may at times be justified - there are actual human beings who fit those descriptors - I can't think of a recent use in the public discourse that was reasonable. These hyperbolic statements are generally drawn from no data, and are used merely to show how really, really upset the writer is at these others who are really, really bad'uns. It is a method of exaggerating to attract attention, a verbal screaming. It is rather like those folks who write in ALL CAPS BECAUSE YOU JUST DON'T GET IT!
In my post "Not Their Tribe," I suggested there was some alternative motive which partly explains why the A & H Tribe is not supporting OIF. They might be loyal only to their own tribe, and not America as a whole, perhaps. I don't leap from this to say that they are traitors, or cowards, or selfish. Each of those, while possible, would require high levels of evidence. An actual traitor might well hide behind the principle of freedom to criticize the government. A real coward might adopt religious pacifism as a cover. But this does not mean that all who criticize the government are traitors, nor that all religious pacifists are cowards.
Note: the opposite argument (or is it the contrapositive?), that all accusations of disloyalty are just covers to suppress dissent, has become equally common, and I think from the same people. That is, those who are first to call others "fascist" are also those who are first to claim that whatever they say can't possibly be treasonous, because that's just a ploy to suppress dissent. I do wonder why such people need to make their enemies so large and vile, beyond all reason.
Friday, December 15, 2006
It's a good place to be, because all our old superstitions didn't work, so we're learning to be experimental up here. The Celtics have won four straight, which they have not done in several years. They are arriving. There! I've said it, the spell is broken. They are not yet a good team, but there are only 5 or 6 good teams in the league, so that may not be a problem.
Al Jefferson, a personal favorite of mine, has arrived. Since coming back from his injury his game has been wonderful. Tony Allen - Tony Allen! - had a great night. He is considered a defensive player, and worth having on the floor to limit the effectiveness of opposing guards, but scored a bunch o' points tonight. That is not likely to happen often, but if he can play good defense and have occasional offensive spurts that will be fine. If Wally Szerbiak can accept being 6th man, he belongs there. Stay tuned. There are rumors he's complaining about it.
I don't like to see Green get his minutes reduced again. He needs to play more. Telfair is getting a chance to develop into the starting PG, and Rondo is sitting down because of it. I'm not sure I like that. I think I'd go the other way on that. More Powe, Green, and Rondo. Less Scal, a little less Wally. I love Gomes.
This team is actually - gulp - getting good.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
Ofen and Often
Pronouncing the "t" is an overcorrection, used by frequent readers who suddenly worried about 20 years ago whether they had been saying it wrongly all their lives. They hadn't. Ofen was the only correct pronunciation until recently. But the reemergence of the "t" has been explosive, and at least 25% of the population uses it now. I will hazard a guess that it is people who have more exposure to the archaic word oft that are leading the change.
One of my favorite stories, up in smoke. The idea that Ring Around The Rosie is actually about the plague – “all fall down” meaning falling over dead? It’s completely untrue. The first written versions of Ring Around Roses show up in the late 1800’s, some with posies and falling down, some not. But the Great Plague was in 1346, and later plagues didn’t have the sneezing part. It is not credible that a little poem would be passed down orally, unchanged for 500 years, then suddenly break into half-a-dozen versions that all get written down for the first time.
We believe so many untrue things, and learned texts have been written to try and understand what types of legends we wish to believe. The wet poodle in the microwave (or worse, the baby)? No evidence it ever happened. The rumor that more women get beaten on Super Bowl Sunday? Unh-unh. Why do we want to think so?
Political figures often come up in the rumors. I won’t encourage their spread by even giving examples, but they usually take the form of a president’s secret. Did you know that Bill Clinton hired a special agent whose only job was to…There was a room in the Nixon White House…George Bush has a secret plan to… Please. If it were that much of a secret, how did it filter down to you and me? The political legends should give us insight into countries without a free press, however. In Romania, where the only alternative to the government press was rumor, wild urban legends were news, and are still believed years later. American soldiers in Iraq are frequently told the most amazing news by locals. “Not here, but in Mosul… in Basra… My cousin saw it himself.” What experience do they have with real news?
We should not hold their credulity in contempt. Even though there are no recorded cases of anyone ever poisoning Halloween candy, every year warnings go out, hospitals make their x-rays available, and parents confiscate everything that does not come pre-wrapped. Even though there are no incidents of fires in elementary schools stemming from paper decorations on the walls, policy persists in limiting the amount of paper and how it is to be secured.
We have a peculiar fascination with legends about food. Kentucky Fried Rat, thumbs in the deli sandwiches, pop rocks exploding in your stomach – seldom even partly true. Food that comes from unknown places or strange hands has frightened us for centuries, if Sleeping Beauty is any clue. Perhaps this is behind much of the current furor about genetically modified foods. Rumors about dire plots being hatched in large, faceless corporations also have a long shelf life. Proctor and Gamble has been fighting baseless accusations of satanic involvement for twenty years, and people still believe Nieman-Marcus charged $250 for a cookie recipe.
The internet has given rise to a whole new family of urban legends. Lists of the origin of phrases circulate from time-to-time, usually identified to the 1500’s, or “Shakespeare’s time” or “the Middle Ages.” Supposed explanations of sleep tight, wet your whistle, and raining cats and dogs are often on that list. They are almost all bogus. Only the disputed origin of mind your p’s and q’s is true. (Typeset letters versus pints and quarts. Unknown). We are also entranced by things which, if true, could adversely affect many people. The LSD tatoos, the gang initiation of killing those who flash their lights, the strange viruses we should warn our mailing list about… we know they are probably untrue, but what if it is? Think how many people would be affected. Why take a chance?
Take a chance. Microsoft is not going to give you money, and there is no dying child in England collecting postcards. Distraught parents of missing children start with the police, not the internet; you can check if it’s true through legitimate channels.
To check if something is an urban legend, the best site is www.snopes.com. But I am going to be really bummed if that story about the secret formula for Coke isn’t true.
Evolutionary Psychology - A Disclaimer
In my posts over the last two months discussing American tribes, trust cues, and human behaviors which were designed for the Pleistocene era but persist today, I may have given the impression that I believe these constructs provide a fairly thorough explanation for much of what we do. I don’t.
I do think that we overrate our own rationality, and are subject to primitive schema which we don’t acknowledge. I give things a tribal description because it provides a way of looking at ourselves and each other that is often illuminating. But behavior is multideterminate, and we are not trapped in a narrow range of behaviors. We have predilictions, predispositions, and tendencies, but we are often able to override one desire and replace it with another.
Example: in predator-prey relationships, the potential prey will sometimes display a behavior that puts it at a temporary disadvantage and wastes enormous energy. This seems counterintuitive until one considers a specific case. The stotting behavior of pursued gazelles is frequently used as a dramatic illustration. Gazelles have this pattern of slowing down, then leaping very high as the predator gets closer. This allows the predator to get closer still, and would seem to be to the gazelle’s disadvantage. But the wasteful leap also sends the message “I have energy to burn. You will use much more energy pursuing me than another gazelle.” And as only fit gazelles have the spare energy for the leap, thre strategy seems to work. The predators, not by reasoning but by instinct, gravitate toward the non-leapers, which will cost them less to catch.
Human beings engage in something similar in dangerous situations - sometimes consciously, usually not. People walking through tough neighborhoods adopt a confidence, posture, and speed that says “You may want to mess with somebody, but it’s not me.” The communication “I have energy to burn” also works for the predator, in intimidating those around him. “I have so much anger and fear pain so little that I can hit this wall. Hitting you would be no problem.”
Wastefulness can also be useful in obtaining status resources and attracting mates. (Sorry if you don’t like to look at yourself as being a tribal resource. I kind of like it myself.) Teenage boys leaping onto cars or throwing each other around are communicating “I have such an abundance of physical resources that I can just waste them profligately. I can risk danger because of my skill” This is also true for females, though less so. Old guys don’t go around wasting resources – we conserve them. And now you know why sixth-grade boys do dumb stuff around girls even when they don’t think they like them. They aren’t programmed to have to do that – they can sit back and watch TV instead if they choose – but the behavior is on disc, ready to roll, and if something doesn’t overrule it, it will come out.
Conspicuous displays of wealth may send the same message. “If I can obtain this many bracelets and feathers, which are inedible, you just know I’ve got enough to keep you in mammoth chops, baby.” Self-deprecating humor can also be considered conspicuous waste: “I have so much stability and confidence that I can give it away and not feel the pinch.” Most display behaviors – birdsong, plumage, sports, dancing – are personally expensive and useless in the short run.
But the point is that this wastefulness can be overruled by other parts of the personality – in fact, it frequently is. We don’t have to engage in conspicous consumption. We can decide for a dozen different reasons to conserve resources instead. Understanding the tribal background may give us insight into why we feel a certain way, or why the folks in our lives act a certain way.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Good Long-Term Economic News For The Poor
As it was over the last 25 years it is the poor who will benefit the most. "The number of people living on less than $1 a day [in constant dollars] could be cut in half, from 1.1 billion now to 550 million in 2030." And the number living on less than $2 per day will decline by an estimated 800 million.
Sadly, I Understood This
As a follow up to yesterday's Part D meeting, I am attaching a copy of the notice to non-reassigned duals (on OMPB letterhead) that was mailed to a group of about 300 HCBC-ECI and "at-large" (without case managers) duals. Please distribute this to anyone who works with or may receive a call from beneficiaries in these groups. Also attached is another copy of theexplanation and DHHS recommendations for the reassignment process.
Change One Thing
Change one thing in WWII to improve the outcome. There are few rules, only that it has to be one thing. Intervene militarily when Japan attacks Manchuria is actually many things. We cannot replay history, of course, and the cascade of events you posit would result from the small action is highly speculative. But make a case for it anyway. What cascade of events could flow from your small change?
Example: Britain declares war on Germany over Czechoslovakia looks at first as if it would imply many actions. But we know in hindsight that a declaration of war was the signal that would have activated the German military revolting against Hitler. The Germans might then have solved the whole thing themselves. What would have resulted might have been no better; hard to see how it would have been worse, however. The most likely outcome is less war. It is also only a small change. Britain came very near to a declaration of war at that point, but drew back.
Two days advance notice for Pearl Harbor would be marginal. We had a few hours warning we should have picked up on. We perhaps should have been prepared for such an event anyway. But there was no just-missed chance for us to have found out two days before. But go ahead and make the case anyway. We would have had a Pacific Fleet left. We would have weakened Japan’s air power, perhaps greatly.
My nomination: The Allied Command believes its own codebreakers that the codes for the North Atlantic shipping have been broken by the Germans in 1942. Enormous amounts of shipping were destroyed by German U-Boats, month after month, because they knew where the ships would be. Not just one, but dozens of codebreakers tried to inform their commanders that the codes being used were trivially easy to break. But most high-ranking naval officers believed that changing codes was too much of a difficulty, and not worth the effort, as it didn’t matter as much as those crazy intelligence people thought, anyway. The Allies considered invading France in 1943 instead of 1944 – the Americans pushed hard for this. But the British considered the supply lines inadequate and prevailed against the idea. We even assembled a mock invasion force, to see what the German response would be. They did not move resources to the coast of France. Had the previous shipping from America gotten through, a 1943 invasion would have been likely.
Invasion in 1943 would have avoided the slaughter at Normandy, where the Germans were dug in by 1944. But in 1943, enormous resources were still committed to the Eastern Front. Likely consequences: the Allies arrive at Berlin long before the Russians, leaving more of Eastern Europe free from communist rule. Half or more of the Jews killed in the Holocaust are saved. Patton’s fleeting wish to invade through Romania instead of Italy would have been more possible, freeing even more of Eastern Europe: Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic states, and perhaps even Poland.
Okay, now you try it. Feel free to criticize my suggestions and each other’s. This is for entertainment purposes.
Income distribution, US compared to other nations (Home site is excellent for international economics statistics)
Poverty Statistics Misleading
Patriot Act Paranoia
Anti-US bias in German press (general site is good as well)
Millennials more conservative than boomers
Florida 2000 Myths
Media Bias - statistics
Media Bias - examples
Media Bias - statistics
Media Bias - research
Excellent 2006 Economy - Media Bias
Clinton Accomplishment Myths
Party Affiliation Trends
Israel's Barrier Fence Works
Voter Fraud - example
Voter Fraud - examples
Voter Fraud and Intimidation
Voter Fraud 2006
Clinton's 2000-2001 Recessesion
Who pays taxes, by quintile
The Changing Nature of War
European Left ignores oppression
Swift Boat Vets debunking – debunked
A liberal comes to support OIF
Varieties of Conservatism
New Media in Europe
Middle-East – long view
The Reality-Based Community
Rather's documents used by CBS are forgeries
Security Council resolutions leading up to Iraq. The documents
Election 2004 Results, Demographics
Orwell’s Reflections on Gandhi
Democratic Underground – Evidence they are moonbats
Do As I Say – Author Interview, Liberal Hypocrisy
100 Top Chomsky Lies
Continued Economic Growth
When Torture Saved Lives
Human Rights Watch criticism
Don’t Blame America – London Telegraph
Lancet article on civilian deaths debunked
What waterboarding really is
What international opinion of Dems and Reps really is
Feelings Versus Actual Values
Monday, December 11, 2006
Cold Comfort, Perhaps.
I was assigned a book by C Wright Mills in college. I usually remember what I read and none of this looked familiar, so it must have been among the many assignments I did not, technically speaking, actually do. I recall I passed the course anyway. Which should give all of us Grumpy Old Men who are always complaining about the crap they're teaching kids in college these days a bit of comfort. What is being taught is not the same as what is being learned. Remember?
Today the headlines were remarkably similar “Obama Fever Grips NH,” and “Rapturous Reception For Obama.” My first comment, paraphrased from a cynical liberal at a leftie blog. “Can we observe how he responds to one minor crisis before we elect him president?” Amen, brother.
The breathless excitement is not something common to Republicans, and not always to Democrats. The swooning and heavy breathing were part of the Clinton campaigns, particularly the first, and of course the JFK election. It was present to a lesser extent in the first Carter campaign. No one was swooning, but the man’s likeability was a big selling point here in NH.
It was quite the opposite in the Kerry, Gore, and Dukakis campaigns. Democrats seem to have chosen them more for ideology and a perception of competence than because they were enthused. They complained in some distress, in fact, about how unlikeable the candidates were, and how much it hurt their chances.
Republicans seem to show less variation. They have put forth candidates who were likeable enough, but described more as “amiable” than “charismatic.” No swooning. Dole was seen as an amiable guy, and that’s certainly what one would think of Ford, Reagan, and both Bushes. The GOP requires that candidates have likeability, but are not defined by it. I don’t know what to make of this difference between the parties. Or how Nixon slipped by it. Maybe he was more amiable than I remember, because I was a media-dependent leftie during his presidency.
Today there was a debate whether "confraternizing" was a word. It is important to the story that you know that one of the disputants is from Brazil. My answer:
Spellcheck is usually irrelevant. It's just not that comprehensive. When a word appears in a dictionary, it does not imply that all forms of the word are acceptable. You can check later in the entry to see if confraternize, confraternization, or confraternizing is also listed. In this case it is not, suggesting that these are probably not English words, though "confraternity" definitely is.
However - and this is where it gets interesting - it is usually worthwhile to google a word and see if someone has ever used it, and if it might indeed be acceptable in some circumstances. Googling the various forms of the word reveals that it is used in Portuguese, especially in Brasil. There are uses of it in English, but these generally fall into two categories: translations from Portuguese, where the translator clearly thought the word would be understood in English; and jocular uses, usually in quotation marks, such as "going to a pub and confraternizing with the locals." In these cases the writer's tone seems to indicate that he is making up a big word for humorous purposes.
There is an interesting exception to all this. The words "confraternizing" and "confraternization" are used in English translations from the Latin in a few places, describing the behavior of opposing armies having friendly contact with each other in wartime. This would suggest that the word existed in some form in Latin, which is how it got into Portuguese. In the translations from both Portuguese and Latin, the word seems to describe not just mingling, but distinct groups mingling with each other. This is not apparent in the English jocular senses.
Usage: I would use it only in a jocular sense, and I would preserve the distinction of mingling groups rather than individuals. I would not use the word in a formal setting.
Aren't you glad you asked?
Friday, December 08, 2006
Why Women Aren't Funny
Not Good Enough
I have previously recorded my frustration with the economic proposals of the religious left. The rhetoric is usually of the false comparison variety: how can we let The Rich benefit at all from a tax cut when there are children without health care? No discussion of relative tax burden allowed. What solutions will actually provide better medical care to more people are not to be entertained. The long-term result for children and adults is secondary. No, it’s just “Four legs good, two legs bad; Jesus says it’s evil.” The middle class is instructed to vote money away from rich people to give to poor people. That’s the Jesus way! (Those who believe I unfairly oversimplify their position might check out the direct quotes here, here, here, here, and here.) *
It is simplistic, feel-good theology. Christians do not have that option. What we advocate and work for has to take all foreseeable consequences into account.
For use of military force, a similar Manichean division is brought out. Thou shalt not kill. Jesus said to turn the other cheek. Context, translation, other verses, and the history of Christian theology are out of court. War is Not the Answer. (It certainly was the answer to slavery and the Holocaust.) Even those who make some nod to Just War theory start immediately by assuming that the UN is the proper constituted authority. Kofi 3:16. Ridiculous. We have responsibilities of forgiveness, but the strong also have responsibilities of justice for the weak. We are to avoid sin with all sincerity, but we are not forbidden to take no risks on behalf of the oppressed because there is a chance of harm.
It is simplistic, feel-good theology. Christians do not have that option. What we advocate and work for has to take all foreseeable consequences into account.
There has been a recent flurry of commentary from the religious left about the environment. (There has also been some deeper, nuanced if you will, writing, which I predict will go largely unnoticed.) In this instance, the bare assertion that we have stewardship over all things – certainly true – is being used to put theological language around very standard, and somewhat pagan, environmentalist thought. CS Lewis once noted that it is the job of Christians to put biblical ideas into modern language, not the other way around. Yes, we are stewards. But once it sinks in that we are stewards of both the houses and the termites, the conflict and balance become more complex. Too often we are enjoined to take a certain sympathetic attitude toward Nature, rather than, you know, actually fix anything. Bad water, refusal to use GM foods, and refusal to use certain pesticides remain the main killers.
For Christians, vague “peace on earth, good will toward chipmunks” isn’t enough. We are not allowed the cheap righteousness of warm feelings and liking beauty. It is simplistic, feel-good theology. Christians do not have that option. What we advocate and work for has to take all foreseeable consequences into account.
In an additional irony, their overarching moral principle for the economy is “Just do some good. Whether you are also doing harm is unimportant.” Militarily, the principle is the opposite “Make sure you do no harm. Whether you are doing good is unimportant.” I have more hope for the environmental debate, as both principles seem to be accepted into the discussion.
*Jim Wallis gave the Democratic response to President Bush’s weekly address recently. But its the Religious Right that is encroaching on matters of Church and State. Yup.
Letter to Senators Gregg and Sununu
This is not the time to go all wobbly. Difficulty in Iraq is not the same thing as failing, and we are not failing. The Middle-East is much closer to our vision of self-determination and tolerance than it was in 2003. Do not lose sight of the long view. Victory is not hopelessly out of reach nor beyond reasonable means. That have been no misjudgements that are not fixable.
Even small problems can have dire consequences, of course, and the problems we have in a narrow radius of Baghdad could indeed become catastrophic. But they are not now catastrophic in world terms – there are a dozen places on the globe less stable – they are only disappointing in comparison to what we hoped might happen. Several botched attempts, even if followed by several more botched attempts, are not failure. Setbacks and reversals have preceeded every victory. We have seen far worse than this in every war previous.
That much of the American public does not now support our actions in Iraq is less meaningful than one would think. The American people always grow tired of war after three years – it is predictable. While troops were in Vietnam in 1962, large troop increases did not start until 1965. It was in 1968 that the desire to leave racheted up. Lincoln was nearly defeated in the election 1864 because people thought the war was unwinnable and wanted out. Even in WWII, with enormous general support for the mission, by 1945 there was no stomach to oppose Russia or Japan with more combat – hence Yalta and Hiroshima. In Korea, we refused to go farther than 3 years. Three years and then political weariness is the default position – there is nothing unusual about Iraq in this.
I realize that in a divided country there is need to speak gently and seek consensus. I was nonetheless disappointed in your remarks about the ISG, and I have been a supporter of yours for years. Please consider making more dramatic remarks along the lines of Sen. McCain's assessment of the ISG. As you are well aware, conservatives predicted from the beginning that hamstringing our Rules of Engagement and attempting to please our critics would result in the worst of both worlds. While that is an oversimplification, it has turned out to be true. A reputation for victory must be part of the American information war. Such reputations are not merely an exercise in preening or self-congratulation, but a necessary weapon.
A Thought On Hollywood Liberals
The entertainment industry is already an uncomfortable coalition between the Business tribe and the Arts & Humanities tribe. Performers are expected to have their primary allegiance to the A & H tribe, and they have conflicts in their daily lives with the B tribe. They are expected to uphold the tribe as much as possible in such conflicts, though everyone recognizes that price is a powerful artistic persuader. When you go to battle for a cause, even in small ways, your loyalty to that cause increases. Note how frequently TV, music and film do unsympathetic portrayals of other tribes – business, law, military, southern, religious - but how positively it portrays its own. If you are an undeniably crummy person from the A & H tribe, you will be portrayed sensitively as a complex and tormented character. The black and hispanic tribes get portrayed as either very good or very bad. They are coalition partners in liberalism, but can be chucked at need for a price.
Many entertainers do not originally come from the A & H tribe. They may be drawn equally from the other American tribes. They are accepted on sufferance because of their attractiveness, talent, and/or presentation. Barbra Streisand has a wonderful expressive voice and is a good comic actress. She is not very bright. Her acceptance early in her career into the A & H tribe would likely have been tenuous. At this point in her career she could probably afford switching to whatever tribe she chose. But loyalties die hard, especially when you have paid something for them.
The explanation that entertainers are not generally intelligent always seemed inadequate to me. They are likely distributed across the bell curve as all the rest of us are. But when someone has extreme beauty or charisma, we look for flaws, so that we might feel superior. Those of us who are intelligent are likely to use that as our judgement point. As intelligence is defined so variously, half the population can provide some evidence that they’re in the top 10%. Thus most of us estimate that Attractive Person X is less intelligent than we are, and are often right. But Glenn Close was a Phi Beta Kappa at William and Mary. Meryl Streep went to Vassar and Yale. They would both be A & H tribe members even if they had not been actresses. Stupidity cannot be assumed. It doesn’t hurt you as much in the entertainment industry as it might in some others, which is why it stands out.