Wednesday, June 30, 2010

My Problem With Orthodoxy - Reframed

I am greatly attracted to Eastern Orthodox theology, and for one such as I, that is often enough, regardless of what practical difficulties arise. Orthodox worship, I like many elements of. I cannot seem to enter into it easily, but I imagine with practice that would come.

I have held against Orthodoxy its collaboration with any number of evil governments. Because of my Baptist friends in Romania, and the executions of them the Orthodox priests arranged within my lifetime, I have an especial anger; but the pattern has been the same in Russia, in the Balkans. It was not always just infiltration by government agents, forced upon them.

Kaplan's book has given me a new spin on this, and there is much to consider. The Romanian intellectuals he spoke with offered a similar theme about the relation of Orthodoxy to the culture. They divide the Protestant and Catholic West from the Orthodox East more thoroughly than we are used to doing here. They see the underlying culture of Romania as less European, more tied to Asia and the Near East. Kaplan gives numerous examples of cultural tells and political approaches meeting with Romanian officials. Transylvania they consider a middle ground. Romanians want to be Westerners, especially Americans. They point to their Latinate language as evidence of their Westernness.

I have stories on that myself, but a section of the book says it better.

Kaplan quotes Horea-Roman Patapievici
"The task for Romania is to acquire a public style based on impersonal rules, otherwise business and policies will be full of intrigue, and I am afraid our Eastern Orthodox traditon is not helpful in this regard. Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Russia, Greece - all the Orthodox nations of Europe - are characterized by weak institutions. That is because Orthodoxy is flexible and contemplative, based more on the oral traditions of peasants than on texts. Unlike Polish Catholicism, it never challenged the state. Orthodoxy is separated from, yet tolerant of, the world as it is: fascist, Communist, or democratic, because it has created an alternate world of its own based on the peasant village. In this way, Orthodoxy reconciles our ancient heritage with modern glitz."

Indeed, Teoctist, the last leader of a major institution to profess undying loyalty to Ceaucescu, only days before his execution, was still the Orthodox Patriarch in 1998. The church here was continuing its oppression of Greek Catholic Uniates - Orthodox Christians who went over to the pope several hundred years ago. (Historically, Orthodox churches have enjoyed better relations with Moslems than with Western Christians, seeing the latter as a greater threat.)
Intersting, and a pattern I think not limited to the Orthodox. It may be a general rule that people have more enmity toward a local competitor who can be seen, who competes for goods, land, and status from the next village, than toward the faraway oppressor. Only when war is active, and the soldiers of the oppressor become visible, is the anger directed toward them.

(Note, BTW, the inclusion of Greece as an essentially non-Western country. Romanians resent that Truman rescued Greece but not Romania after WWII. They believed they were more suited for union with the West. Interesting question, in light of recent events.)

Which is chicken and which is egg? Does the contemplative, otherworldly emphasis of Orthodoxy allow the state to become oppressive unopposed, or is the flexibility a result of living under oppressive regimes?

My Other Blog

My two oldest sons have read about half of my other blog - that is, if they actually read what is sent them. My younger brother used to read some, but I have started leaving him off, as he doesn't like the nastiness. Occasionally, very occasionally, I will inclued a post to a wide range on my email list.

I have this correspondence of a dozen years with my uncle. He is generally quite liberal: anti-corporate, worried about the incipient fascism of those rubes on the right, convinced of the general stupidity of most conservatives, sure that we have too many people on the planet, trusting in government to mostly get it right keeping rapacious business in check, staunch in his contention that guarranteeing health care to the middle class is a moral imperative, automatic in his belief that any war Democrats got us into was sadly necessary, while those Republicans got us into are mere disguises for empire and enriching business. He does have some occasional conservative or centrist opinions, mostly around education.

He sends me things, and I send him things, and we argue. I comment at much greater length, but a single subject might go on daily for a week, entries on both sides. Some of my best work is in tearing up his arguments. Few read these, if any. He is 85, and never going to change his mind. I take time away from this blog to answer him. I do get some benefit, perhaps, of doing rough drafts, but mostly it is all time that could have been spent more efficiently here. I have at least four posts backed up now, for example. But my correspondence with Uncle Dave, answering back on two of his three emails today, is up-to-date.

It started when Jonathan was a freshman in college. He turns 31 in August. Long time. Not sure the world has much to show for this effort. Why do I do it?

Monday, June 28, 2010


Trying to use up random ingredients in the refrigerator before they go bad seldom makes for great salads. But the standard green salad - lettuce, cukes, carrots - plus slivered almonds and bing cherries worked out great. We kept out the tomatoes, figuring they wouldn't work so great with the cherries.

Eastward To Tartary

I got Robert Kaplan's Eastward To Tartary for Father's Day and have just started it. I liked his earlier Balkan Ghosts, which I may reread. But what caught me right away was Kaplan's start of his journey: Budapest, February 1998. Exactly when I went for the first time, and it is interesting to read him describing the things I saw. He is, as you may guess, not only a better writer but a better observer than I.

Why Futbol Will Never Catch On

I generally love the game. For kids, it's better than baseball, which involves a lot of standing around. But watching the World Cup you can see the reasons why it's never going to make it with the American public.

The first and overwhelming reason is the officiating. There are bad calls in every sport, but in soccer, goals are rare. If you take one away or give one unfairly, it is not just an inconvenience which a team has to adjust to - it's the whole game. To get an equivalent impact in baseball, the umpires would have to get a fair/foul call wrong on a grand slam. Every day of the season. In football, basketball, or hockey, there is no equivalent. While a ref can blow a call in an NBA game that is 101-100 and give the game to the wrong team, notice that this is only in the context of two teams that have played incredibly evenly for four quarters. In soccer, where the entire point is to outplay your opponents enough to get ten good runs on the goal instead of four, hoping that the law of averages will mean that you get a goal, even if 50% of those involve some luck, a bad call gives the game to an inferior team. Often. The Argentine goal on a clear offside and the disallowed English goal are great examples. There were only four games. Two of them had horrible calls.

I grant that it's a hard game to officiate. So get more officials. Use replay. Go electronic. Whatever. With an average of 3 goals per game for the two teams combined, getting those three calls right should be the whole point of refereeing.

The preponderance of foreign names is an obstacle for Americans, sure. But baseball fans have been good at Hispanic names for decades. Hockey fans trip Slavic names off their tongues easily now. It's a contributing problem, but not overwhelming.

The flopping, as I recently noted, makes Americans crazy. Clint Dempsey has learned to flop in the international style, and I recognise why, but I can't say I'm exactly proud of him for it. Pierce and Rondo flop, but they don't lie on the court for three minutes moaning, then get back up and play full speed. Even the European basketball players - much better at flopping than the Americans - don't stoop so low.

The low scoring is an obstacle, especially when games are allowed to end in a draw. You can design your game any way you like, but I don't have to like it. West Ham ties Aston Villa nil-nil. Goodbye.

Soccer is world-wide popular because a lot of countries are poor. The fans played soccer as children because they had nothing else. The beauty they see in it is half nostalgia. I like the game, but then, I grew up on Wide World of Sports, watching wrist-wrestling, jai-alai, cliff-diving, and ski jumping once or twice a year and liking those, too. At least once in awhile.

Bad Patriotic Art

Exactly the sort of thing tha makes me crazy.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Best of November 2006

First off the mark informing you that the village scenes in Borat were not Kazakh, but Romanian.

When the experts wing it, and talk about matters related to their research but not (visibly) affecting the results, they sound just like everyone else, just with better vocabulary. They have the same biases or prejudices as the public as a whole. In this case, they lean left.

Joy in worship. Rather appropriate to run this today. Being deeply New England Congregationalist and Swedish Lutheran by heritage, I have never been much of an enthusiast in worship anyway, except that I like to hoom-boom the bass notes of introductions and preludes or drum with my fingers on the pew in front of me. Not having exciting, moving worship is fairly normal for me. Others may look at pentecostals with mild to intense disdain or envy. I am merely puzzled. (This post was more interesting for the comments).

A link to an excellent article by an ex-jihadist in Canada.

The Two-Year Delay. One of my most important concepts for understanding political effects on the economy. Add in that Congress has more influence on same than the president, and you can cut away an enormous amount of crap that people try to trick you with to elect their favorites and affect policy.

The piece on evolutionary psychology was serious, but I had fun with this.
Thus, getting all the guys in C Building at Lakeview Apartments and raiding one of the buildings over at Elmwood Estates for cattle and wives (while the guys in B Building protect our stash of cattle and wives) is what we are bred for, but is now officially discouraged, because it screws up people’s leases and deposit refunds.

Muslims and Women. One of my frequent soapboxes over at Dr. Sanity’s is that societies which devalue women produce narcissistic young men, who are outraged at the merest perceived slight. It is not good for a young man to pass his mother in status at a young age.

Altruistic punishment and class envy. A touch of class envy, or something quite like it, may be hardwired into humans. Most societies have cues which discourage conspicuous displays of superiority.

A review of Arthur Brooks' Who Really Cares. The main force of the book is twofold: demonstrating that in refutation of the stereotype, conservatives are much more generous than liberals; and discovering why is this? From the introduction through the entire first chapter, assertions leap off every page, begging to be shouted from the housetops. The common myth has it backwards. Conservatives give more by any measure: give more money to both religious and secular causes; give more time, give more blood, give more informal gifts. This is not because they have more money – they have 6% less.

Relative Vs. Absolute Poverty. Rather than attacking from the usual angle of theories of governance, I’d like to stick with the tribal, evolutionary psychological, decision-making interpretations I’ve been fond of lately. Receiving less than the perceived average of the tribe’s resources may set off enormous warning signals in our primitive selves. Until about 1800, few humans experienced any sustained abundance. We may not be well wired for saying to ourselves “looks like my family is going to have enough for a long time - I can relax.” Finding oases of calm in deserts of anxiety may be the default condition for humanity. In that context, receiving less than others may be interpreted as the first step toward receiving nothing.

Hoist On My Own Petard. In which I step back from a previous argument - at least a little.
I am a cradle A&H member, and I used this knowledge, this penetrating of its values into my bones, to make enormous generalizations about it. I know these people, was my refrain. I am one of them. Wasn’t I, then, making exactly the same kind of argument that I had criticized john b chilton for?

Well, hmm. Things look different when you do that, don’t they? I think I now have a little better understanding of his argument, and its strengths, and some weaknesses of my own previous argument.

Those brought up in a group understand its meaning in their generation at a deep level. We are likely to understand the generation immediately preceding us as well, as parts of it went into our formation. The generation following our own, not so much.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Thurber Memoriam For Pippin

Pippin did not bite people - well, maybe a little nip now and then - but she was quite reminiscent of the Airedale in Thurber's short story The Dog That Bit People. The text is put online from the Ohio Historical Society.

It is gratifying to know that Keith Olbermann has caused a surge in Thurber sales by reading some of his short stories aloud on Countdown. As a bonus, I'm sure it will do Olbermann good. I don't link to the videos of these readings because I don't like his rendition. Mine is better, or at least it was fifteen years ago. Tracy has suggested I reprise one of the Thurber's when Ben visits this summer, so that Kyle can share in a family tradition long dormant. Perhaps, but I might lean more to divvying up the roles of Tom Stoppard's "After Magritte," (another tradition), or some Monty Python routines.

Here is an actual picture of Muggs, BTW, who does indeed look like a dog that would suddenly turn on you.

Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State

A brief commentary, not a review.

Andrew Gelman's book has a good deal of useful information. Neglecting some important questions reduces its value.

There is a reminder that all states are purple, and even in states we think of strongly one way or another, it's a 60-40 split. This isn't new - in fact, it should be obvious to anyone who stops and thinks about it a few minutes - but it can't be said often enough. We like our data packed into economical packets, so we are attracted to the largest simplifications we still find satisfying, but these mislead. One of the most intelligent people I know commented with rolled eyes about a trip to Tennessee, and what an obviously red state it was, with its guns, confederate flags, churches with big message signboards, and pro-America bumper stickers. Problem is, Tennessee isn't that red - and she was in the bluest section of it. Good chance those were Democrats in those pickups.

Of considerable interest in thinking about voting preferences and relative, rather than absolute wealth, Gelman notes that the richest states tend to vote Democratic, but the wealthier voters within each state tend to vote Republican. Similarly, in the blue states the poor have higher church attendance - in red states, the wealthier attend. That's a bit more nuanced, a little less predictable, than we are used to describing. These sorts of odd breakdowns, not shocking but not quite what we thought, make up the bulk of the book. If you like that sort of thing, Gelman's got plenty.

Two things left me mistrusting some of his conclusions. He does not break down the voting patterns of the poor into black and nonblack (or white and nonwhite, if you prefer). I get that he is trying to show voting tendencies in terms of purely economic considerations, and racial data would be a complicating factor. But it is likely an important complicating factor. Remember that these voting tendencies are much like the purple states. If 60% of a group votes a certain way that is comparatively significant because in the American context, that's a big split. (Compare to say, Romania, where the UMDR receives almost no votes from ethnic Romanians - it's a Hungarian party.) If African-Americans are disproportionately represented among the poor, and they vote 90% Democratic, that can create a false picture that some trends are economic when they are in fact racial. Perhaps the tendencies Gelman reports hold up even if this adjustment is made, but they would at minimum be far less robust.

Secondly, the Democratic Party is a coalition of groups, far more so than the Republican Party. Thus, popular generalizations about Democratic voters which Gelman debunks might in fact be strongly true about one or more members of the coalition. He is at pains to illustrate that stereotypes about Democrats as wealthy latte-drinking liberals are not true. I believe the numbers he puts before us, showing that Democrats do not dominate among the wealthy, are true. But the Pew research category of liberals, which makes up 19% of the US (and therefore well more than a third of the Democratic Party) are indeed much wealthier than the other groups. I don't have the data on latte, but the stereotype he purports to debunk is in fact true - but only for a large but definable portion of Democrats, not the party as a whole.

Just for sake of guessing, Gelman's misunderstanding of some conservative ideas tells me he is not one. He does not come off as especially liberal, however, and may be an honest broker - a commodity in short supply these days.


Another excellent example of why America is never going to take to international soccer on a consistent basis. I don't think that the flops steal the game from the US, but they are simply so ludicrous - and often honored by referees - that American fans cannot take the competition seriously.

There is a steady undercurrent of complaint about flopping in basketball and stars who get the benefit of calls. That puts off a fair percentage of American fans who prefer to follow college ball instead. Soccer so far exceeds this that it becomes vaudevillian. What a joke.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Radio Commercial

On sports radio, the same commercials keep playing. In the afternoon, there is an spot with a woman's voice making an offer about a natural male-enhancement product.

I'm pretty sure they didn't run the phrase "cutting edge technology" past a focus group.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


John-Adrian shaved his hair short. Those of you who remember his sophomore soccer season may remember the look.

Then he badgered Kyle until Kyle agreed to the same haircut.

At least the remaining dachshund has hair.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Pet Sentimentality

Glen Lake Animal Hospital sent us a sympathy card on the death of Pippin. It includes an insert entitled "Rainbow Bridge." It begins
When a beloved pet dies, it goes to the Rainbow Bridge.
I just knew I was gonna love this. One version of this maudlin exercise is here. I especially liked the part
A pet will suddenly stop and look into the distance...bright eyes intent, eager body quivering. Suddenly recognising you...
That would not be Pippin, thanks. Unless she thought I had food.

There's a Rainbow Bridge website, too, with a Pet Loss Grief Support Center.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Best of October 2006

Horton Hatches A Creed

Why the chicken crossed the road, according to JRR Tolkien.

One of my few comments about gun control.
“There are other factors which overwhelm the gun-law effects no matter what legislation is or isn’t passed. Sports analogy alert: it would be like examining park effects to determine why Barry Bonds hits more home runs than Roger Clemens. There may actually be something there to measure, but specialization, at-bats, and steroids dwarf all other considerations.”
How one's heritage is a rough predictor of violence.

Some Gitmo hypocrisy in The Hearings Officer and The Grapes

Senator Claire McAskill, an auditor, can’t do arithmetic

An example of a Douglas Adams world

Republicans work for you, Democrats fight for you. Sums it all up.

A plug for Life For Sudan. Including the single greatest comment ever on my site.

Only if you are interested in the neurological underpinnings of insight. Brodmann Areas 9/10 and 40 /41 and all that.

No Bark.…which was his 7th-grade science project. I no longer care. The one thing I do still carry around resentfully from that whole event is that his project finished fourth, mostly because the judges - including the school secretary - didn't understand his project. The girl who did a really nice vinegar and baking soda volcano finished ahead of him. It's one of my prime examples of how schools favor girls shamelessly. (Fun comments on this one)

Linguistics discussion Hey, Toro, Toro, including that immediate turn-off to my oldest son, the dreaded phrase "Indo-European."
The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) contructions *penkwe (five – think “pente,” or “quinque” in Latin and Greek), *pnkwstis (fist), and *penkweros (finger) sure look related, and few would doubt that there is an earlier root which gave rise to all of them. In the equally ancient language families which bordered PIE (Uralic and Altaic, the ancestor languages to Finnish, Hungarian, Turkish), the roots for fist or palm of hand are suspiciously similar: *peyngo and *p’aynga. Penkwe-peyngo-paynga. Looks awfully related to me.
and a followup.
But there aren't supposed to be any observable earlier reconstructions beyond the Indo-European, according to most linguists. The linguistic distance is supposed to be too great, and all such connections unreliable.

Except that it's pretty clear, isn't it? One more small point that Greenberg and Ruhlen are right.

Popular Comment Threads

If you can stand it, browse a comment thread from a high-circulation source, like USAToday or Time. An overwhelming majority of the comments do not fully relate to the specific topic, but merely riff on the general topic. These comments are knee-jerk reflexive, just a pathetic announcement of the person's single thought on the subject. If Obama is mentioned, fifty people have to jump in and tell you he's a communist. If Christianity is mentioned, fifty have to announce that all religions are stupid, while fifty more explain the Bible to you. Divorce, abortion, elementary education, psychology - there are apparently a lot of folks with one preloaded comment that they just have to share with the world. As I have mentioned a few times in other posts recently, they just feel they should have something to say, to show they're paying attention, or care, or whatever.

I wonder what they think they are accomplishing. If they were making some new comment, or attempting a precise argument, I can see why the wide circulation would be a draw. But this seldom occurs. People make the most predictable assertions, with no supporting evidence. They simply announce what they believe, and what they think everyone else should hear. As if, somehow, we missed it the first thousand times we heard it in our lifetimes.

I try to imagine what is going through their minds when they type these things.

FIFA Explanations

Americans are puzzled and irritated that FIFA doesn't require referees to give an explanation for their calls. Just blow the whistle and walk back up the field.

Well, sports are supposed to teach you about life, and since the World Cup started in the 30's, most competing countries were ruled by dictators. There's still a few of those, actually. People screw you over, don't explain, and you just have to put up with it.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Church Closing

Next week is the last week of worship for Concord Covenant Church. One of my sons once said that the archetypal music for this New England, middle-aged, Swedish, whitebread congregation would be for all of us to read along while Kathy played the hymns.

More o' this would have been good.

Or this. C'mon y'all

Hey, I can dream, can't I?

Meet The Press

Standing around with a dachshund in arms, I got to see Meet The Press for the first time in my life. My first impulse is to say "they were talking with some people about the oil spill," but actually they weren't and that's the point of this post. They were talking about the various responses to the oil spill - Obama (seldom mentioned by name, just referred to as the administration by the Democrats and this administration by Republicans), BP, the various state governments, the British press.

It irritated me that everyone was clearly slanting their comments to how this was all going to play out politically, rather than practically. It was as if the oil spill was only a virtual crisis, a test or video game to see what kind of score the various big names were going to get, and how that would translate into political power and electoral success.

Here's the scary part: they're right. And the journalists who infuriate us by focusing mostly on that aspect are right, too. People on the Gulf Coast will be actually affected - some greatly, some only indirectly. As the economy of that area will be affected, the rest of the country and the even the world will be slightly affected. But few of us outside the area will be able to identify exactly how we've been affected. People who don't have jobs created in Nebraska won't be able to tie it directly back to Louisiana, they'll just know that they are unemployed, and are more likely to attribute that to themselves and to general political causes than to the oil.

How the players in Washington play their Call of Duty characters will have more lasting effect than what happens with the spill. That may be insane, but it's also true. The elected officials, and all the unelected people who derive from them, play video games called "Afghanistan," and "Cap-and-Trade," and "Healthcare Policy" as well. Deciding who has the right to play those videos affects all of us. Even if the people playing don't realise we are actual human beings. Even if it doesn't matter to them what happens to all us CGI figures on the screen. Even if they make bad scores and accidentally blow up Rhode Island and don't care.

Convincing us that they really truly do believe we are real, and they do care about us, counts for more than actually fixing anything. Anyone who can succeed in getting someone else blamed gets points. Anyone who can look like they are doing something for you gets points. Actual blame and actual accomplishment are important only as energy packs and weapons for your character.

Let me change the game analogy slightly to describe what is happening. This video is played interactively. The gross number of points that you score on any level is unimportant, only the net points more than other players. You can leave a town, or fortress, or racetrack in ruins, but if you got more points in that destruction than your opponent, you win. Every fifth level they tally up the points and decide who gets to keep playing.

It doesn't matter to Obama whether he fixes an oil spill or an economy. All that matters is that he gets more "he tried to fix it" points, and fewer "you broke it" points than his opponents. Washington is all that exists. The rest of us truly are flyover country, mere settings and backgrounds for the competition.

She Ain't Heavy, She's My Dachshund

Pippin's back legs weren't working when I got up in the middle of the night, and by moring this was no better. So I went off to the doggie ER, holding her above the fray of the other dogs. Nice, friendly dogs, curious about that interesting new little guy who had just come in. But Pippin is an irritable, paranoid dog and doesn't welcome visitors.

Even a small dog can get heavy after two hours. Yet, we do what must be done.

We haven't had to put her down yet, but it may come if she doesn't improve by tomorrow. The vet started talking about a neurologist, MRI's, possible surgery if the anti-inflammatory doesn't fix things up. I waved him off. It's a dog, and dogs don't have the same questions of mortality and future prospects that humans do. They only know how they feel this minute. You can't tell them that "it will be better soon." That's meeting the master's need, not the dog's.

All of the other people in the waiting room had at least two other animals, but no children.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Fundamental Attribution Error

Akafred has two in a row for sparking off thought-connections for me. A Sudanese Lost Boy, known to both of us but closer to him than to me, is now thriving in America and in college. Peter asked him to explain Fundamental Attribution Error. Presumably he is taking a sociology or social pyschology course. If that's not a familiar concept to you, you may want to look it up. The link ties in too many other topics in trying to get a good summary, but I don't feel motivation (Jesus Freak version: "I just didn't feel led") to find a better. It's serviceable.

I have long been puzzling why liberals and other anti-corporatists will strain at the gnat - okay, probably a chipmunk or something - of business corruption, lack of competence, and indifference to others well-being, while swallowing the government camel of the same. Why in the world do they trust government to care about them and act nobly? It just seems insane to me when one looks at the record. Government employees - for example, me - are generally about like everyone else. Sometimes they go into fields that happen to be largely government run but don't have to be, such as teaching, social work, or firefighting. Not likely any better or worse than your average plumber or Avon lady. But the magnet of huge amounts of money and authority draws in an enormous number of folks who are worse than average. They like telling other people what to do. They like tinkering with social rules to make us all nicer. They actually believe, with a great show of resigned sighing, that to "get anything done" you have to play the game as it exists, which means bribery, arm-twisting, deceit, favors and fraud. Being ambitious, they usually work their way up to being in charge of the rather decent folk in more modest government jobs. Not that the more modest folks can't catch the spirit over time, of course, switching their energies into changing the system, which never means eliminating corruption and deal-making, but using those things to encourage desired social results. Does anyone who sits and looks at the record for fifteen minutes seriously think that Google, Coca-Cola, and Honda are more corrupt than the governments of any of America's large cities?

I wonder. The government has a face, in the person of the president and our elected officials. Perhaps that alone tricks us into believing that we can have some influence over them, human-to-human. We believe that they must care about us, because after all, they say they do, and know how to strike the right notes when they speak to us. Just like a regular human being. All the faceless people in government get represented by people who are always before us. The faceless people working for IBM just remain faceless, so we automatically - without passing the idea through the more-advanced parts of our brains - cannot imagine them caring about us.

This is playing out big-time in the current spin, with Obama taking on the role of rescuer and judge, showing us how much he cares by going after Big Faceless Entities.

If there is anything to this at all, then notice how much more, how freaking intensely, national journalists must be influenced by this. The government figures are right in front of them constantly throughout their careers, nobly striding forth to deliever justice to the AmPeops. The people offstage, no matter how effective and beneficent, are only the Boys in the Chorus.

Stephen Colbert

Akafred sent this clip of Colbert interviewing Stephen Prothero, author of Eight Religions That Run The World.
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Stephen Prothero
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorFox News

I don't watch Colbert, and don't think I could take large doses of him if this is his usual style, but I see why people like him and think he's funny. He does that hypomanic, smart-ass, clever schtick very well. But my first thought was How in the world can people who like this call Rush Limbaugh arrogant and rude? It's much the same routine, just cast for a different audience. Colbert defenders would likely claim that much of this is self-mocking and part of the humor, and I suspect that's true. But the same would apply equally to Limbaugh. There is a purely stylistic difference revolving around who is being lampooned and what tribal markers are being dropped into the conversation.

As to the video, I wish Colbert had let this very interesting author talk more. But Colbert is more humorous, which I suppose is why one gets a TV show to begin with. And his comments aren't bad, either.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Walkin' In Memphis

One of my all-time favorites

Kid Sports

Neo had a post, touched off by yet another story of a town that wanted to switch entirely to cooperative games, about the lessons learned through competitive sports. I commented there, but thoughts do rattle around in my head whenever the subject comes up. There has certainly been a change over the decades in American culture, but I don’t know if it is as thorough as claimed. In our common mythology, boys used to play pick-up games without much adult supervision and would play for hours, especially in summer. Presently, they play sports highly-supervised by adults, who ruin things somehow. Girls were unwelcome and rare in the old days, while co-ed games until puberty are more encouraged now.

As we can always find data to support a theory already believed, this view has become the common wisdom. I’d like to revisit it and would appreciate your collective knowledge. And - if you have any friends form other sites who might be interested, then - Red Rover, Red Rover, send Tommy right over. All conclusions are tentative, so theories are welcome even if the initial evidence for your idea is scant.

The first great exception to the myth is playground basketball, especially in cities. It is unsupervised, self-organising, and goes on for hours, just as we imagine happened in the old days.

OTOH, game equipment is certainly more standardised now, so even pickup games have more regularity than the games I recall playing in the 60’s and hearing about prior to that. An official size and weight ball in any sport was not a given in my youth, and was regarded as a treasure. Rich kids had sewn, intact footballs, basketballs, and baseballs. We often made due with worn tennis balls or cheap plastic items. (Tug of War with a cheap garden hose is a really bad idea, BTW.) These often required rule adjustments. Fields of play were oddly shaped and required adaptation as well: slopes, streets, bushes. These lend themselves more to informal games of catch and individual tricks.

My sons played both school sports and town sports, more than I did. But in my era we had church leagues, boy scouts, and day camps; the first two of those were even more common in earlier eras than mine.

Girls didn’t play in the defined sports much, but certainly played often in the competitive games of Eggs (Spud), Kick the Can, Red Rover, a dozen versions of Tag, Hide and Go Seek, Giant Steps, Red Light – I’m sure there were others. They rode bikes with us, though any boy and girl who rode out of sight together were subject to immediate teasing. It was these games, more than the sports, which were spontaneous and self-organising. Sports with any group larger than the usual half-dozen from your immediate area were spent in endless arguments about rules and infractions. Not a lot of actual running and throwing got done. The rules of games were more generally agreed upon. Or perhaps the whole dynamic of arguing about it was different with girls present. I seem to recall the girls being the arbiters and setting the rules more authoritatively, though age was an even more powerful vehicle of authority. I suppose there are important adult lessons to be learned from that as well.

My Dad talked about playing for hours when young. But he also talked about having lots of work to do and being isolated from other boys except the Greenwoods on the next farm. I suspect there were Saturday games occasionally allowed to go on for hours, rather than sports every afternoon, and these were well-remembered, taking up increasing memory space as he aged. Kids went swimming – I doubt think that racing was more than an occasional part of that anywhere. Wrestling, breath-holding, and swinging were more likely. In Manchester there was The Ledge, where boys jumped off cliffs into the water of an old granite quarry. The only competition was how high you dared jump from. Oh, and macho posturing and bragging, but that’s a given.

In our town, by the way, the intensity of competition increases with age. In T-ball, everyone bats every inning and runs to first base - no further. It doesn't matter what the rule is about throwing kids out on the basepaths, because it never happens. By minor leagues (up to age 12) however, the game is fully competitive.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


Second thoughts just before publication, after reading about the thuggish treatment of BP by Obama today. He knows that he can kill them on the PR front, just by saying "they won't agree, they won't sign, they don't care," so he can go far beyond what's legal in threatening them. As Joe Biden said "You have no choice." It's pretty close to true. Fair doesn't matter. The law doesn't matter. The Constitution coesn't matter, because BP dares not do anything but capitulate, for fear of destruction. A thoroughly despicable act by the president - I have waited until now, a year-and-a-half into his presidency, to start saying such things, wanting to give him as much objectivity as I could.

So maybe, the correct preface to this essay is the possibility that many in government are not merely miscalculating, or easily mislead, or easily intimidated by polls and loss of dollars, or mildly corrupt. Some are simply sociopathic. Remember Willie Sutton, robbing banks because "that's where the money is?" So, where is there more money or power to be gained - via corruption in corporate America, or in government? And you think the brighter sociopaths aren't aware of this?

Update: I find I am not the only person who thought of the Willie Sutton analogy. And the article highlights, for those who might be tempted to think that this is only wild conservative accusation, that James Carville is saying the same thing.

There are good things about regulation. Conservatives and libertarians don’t like to admit it, but of course it solves some problems. Here’s the thing: there is a law of diminishing returns with regulation. It is great at picking off the low-hanging fruit of incompetent or sly people trying to game the system or deceive the public in some way. Initial regulation is so good that the costs are disregarded as unimportant.

From time to time I receive short rant that circulates on the internet of all the great things about government regulation that conservatives benefit from, such as food and drug safety, medical licensure, labor laws, road safety and the like. James Carville had a whole list of government programs that worked great to counter all the small-government rhetoric. They make a good point as far as it goes. It pays to remember that enforceable standards, even those dreaded top-down enforceable standards, often do a great deal of good.

It is a very natural reaction go back for another bite at the apple. And that is an excellent image, because sometimes many bites at the apple are productive. Yet eventually, regulation comes up against the core of the apple – things that neither government nor informal community agreement can eat or digest very well. To increase regulation at that point– to make people keep taking bites - with the hope of realising the same gains as one got at the beginning is a waste of energy. It is here that David’s comment on Heresies a few posts ago “The leading cause of problems is solutions,” comes into play.

That’s all very general and not very original. This observation about government intervention is not a bold new approach, it is a principle that those who govern need to be reminded of constantly. Everyone knows that red tape, whatever it is, is a bad thing. The problem is noticing its creation. What is the cost/benefit analysis? What might come back to bite us in a decade?

Yet there is a second problem, well-known in Washington and other capitals but conveniently not mentioned. It is the exceptions and exemptions to regulations that cause so much mischief. Politicians love to identify something that has gone wrong and preen before the public with declarations that We will make those bastards in the insurance/auto/pedicure industry pay so that we don’t have any more of this going on. They’ll find they messed with the wrong hombre. But as the legislation goes forward, sectors of the industry are quietly exempted at the behest of one Senator or another, responding to pressure from one lobbyist or another. Some of these exemptions make sense. I work at a psychiatric hospital which is exempted from some requirement that medical hospitals have, because they don’t apply to us and create a lot of cost and headache with no patient benefit. All of these exceptions can be made to look as if the make sense. Laws that say Coke has to jump through this hoop but Pepsi doesn’t are transparently unfair, and no one wants that reaching the news. So they disguise the exceptions as something that looks nice. Everyone who lends money for mortgages has to adhere to Rules 1-10. But if you are lending to lower-income people you are exempt form Rules 3 & 7; lending in distressed areas exempt from 6 & 7; lending to people under 27 exempts you from 3 & 6; if you lend across state lines from Delaware, you can ignore all three. Your type of company gets a competitive advantage, sometimes a large one, over other banks/manufacturers/minigolf courses. It doesn’t matter to you if the whole industry is made less efficient, so long as you keep your advantage.

The name Countrywide may come to mind.

It’s fun to blame lobbyists, but what would you do? Your client has been playing by the rules, but the new rules will put her out of business, in favor of one of Chris Dodd’s friends who gives him cool stuff. Your options are to blow the whistle, seek a similar exemption, find a new exemption, or buy your own Senator.

And when it all blows up, it is not a problem for Senators, because they get to call for more regulation. Which means more exceptions, which are very lucrative. The national debate is We need to regulate (control) these bastards versus Government needs to bug out and let the market work. That’s a very good discussion to have, but it’s not the one congress and lobbyists are having behind the scenes. They are calculating chances of passage, and whether they need to put their energy into passing/blocking the legislation or creating some carveout or loophole.

We want to see these things as a clear choice. But lobbyists, advocacy groups, and legislators have an interest in making things murky to each other to get what they want. Congresswoman X wants to get something in that makes one industry happy without ticking off a related industry enough to yelp. The industry lobbyists want to make it as expensive as possible to oppose them and easy as possible to go along, even reluctantly, so they get Congressman Y to add in an exemption that clouds the issue.


Tough day, with a caseload of manic and/or paranoid females. Very abusive, and quite creative. Most are pretty intelligent, but quite ill at the moment.

When you watch people being abusive to the police on TV, it's quite different when it's right in your face. Trust me on this. Your body responds to the threat automatically, but the mind has to keep everything contained. Practice and training help.

The line staff experience this most days, and it takes its toll on them. Remarkable, kind, forgiving people, most of them. And I think of 19 y/o kids being guards at Gitmo, subject to worse abuse, plus bodily fluids thrown at them. And one more thing: the people abusing them all have high-priced Washington lawyers, looking for your scalp. Because they're saving America, and if the cost of that is you, who cares?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On The Morality Of Nonbelievers

People who do not believe in God, or don’t believe in Him in the same way as theists do, get irritated and insulted at suggestions that they cannot be moral people. That is seldom what is claimed, but they hear it that way. Why they can’t hear it as it is meant I am not entirely sure, but I imagine the following things go into it: some believers actually do make that accusation, or something darn close to it; also, even verging near the sort of insult that one is a seriously substandard person in some way can cause people to shut down their hearing a bit – they do not attend to nuances and precision because they conclude that at bottom, the accuser does not believe them and is merely hiding behind them. The Dostoevsky quote from The Brothers Karamazov
Then could a man be, I ask you, after that? Without a God and without a future life? Then it would mean that everything is permitted, everything could be done?
is often trotted out, usually in some condensed form. This clarifies little, as it needs to be read in its context as a whole argument. Alone, it oversimplifies.

Well, we postliberals get called immoral all the time, and we don’t like it much either. No one likes it, and I get the point that nonbelievers resent it. There is some sense in the Dostoevsky quote, however, and it is worth exploring, even at some risk of offense. Yet I feel obliged to make clear what I am not saying, and acknowledge that nonbelievers can and do act morally.

Let me have a go at that first. There is a set of broad principles of morality that seem to show up worldwide, though their expression can vary wildly. CS Lewis called this expression of Natural Law the Tao. In includes such morality as “The Law of General Beneficence” and “Duties to Children and Posterity.” For those who doubt that universality, I encourage you to read this evidence from his 1944 book The Abolition of Man. The book is worth the read at any rate. It is the most prophetic book of the 20th C, save perhaps 1984.

Put aside for the moment how this Tao came to be. We simply acknowledge that it is there, and that some variation of it is taught in all societies. If one grows up in any group, what would prevent thee from absorbing and acting on these precepts, whether one believed in the prevailing gods or not? Like the multiplication tables or directions on cleanliness or making tea, why shouldn’t the Tao be not only learned but internalised by any native son or daughter? So in that sense, and a very real one it is, a nonbeliever could be more moral than a believer – have adopted and put into action the tribe’s moral precepts more fully.

I imagine there are Christians who might here reply, “ah, but how is one enabled to obey without the aid of The Spirit?” or “they won’t stick to the end in this morality without God, because it’s ultimately not mandatory.” I generally disagree with that, but let’s put it aside for this. It may have some value later.

Contemplating the universe two posts ago – and yes, I used picture-thinking – I focused, as most of us do, on a small blue planet in an obscure corner of a smallish galaxy. For no obvious reason, something called “life” developed there, something dynamic and reproducing itself. Just a curiosity, really. Perhaps one of many with something lifeish, perhaps the only one. No matter. This life responds to its environment. Different versions of it try and carve out survival niches. There’s no point to it, really. It’s just something that happens. Some of the living things stay in one place, others move around – they eat different things, breathe different things. Some are red and some are blue
Some are old and some are new

One branch of them developed neural networks, and eventually, brains. Those of us who have them think they’re pretty special, and make us pretty special, but it’s just an adaptation, like a wing or purple flowers. It’s interesting, but that only has meaning if you have a brain. One superspecialised part of this branch developed brains that keep trying to figure things out. It increases adaptability and survival. There’s not even any guarantee that it figures things out accurately. Approximation would be good enough to establish an advantage and get more coconuts or fish than other creatures. All our knowledge isn’t necessarily true, it’s just useful. Useful for…? Well, for perpetuating ourselves, for no apparent reason. Oak trees don’t care if they are the only one of their kind, or if oakness or even treeness persists. Who cares, really. If oaks disappear on this odd blue planet, what loss is that? None of it has any observable meaning anyway.

This sounds rather depressing, but only because we are the sort of creatures which like ourselves to survive, and second after that, for things we can use or amuse ourselves with to survive. We don’t have a reason for liking that, we just do. It’s a by-product of having a brain that increases survival. It’s quite an accident, in fact, that in a universe that has no discernible, or at least no obvious reason for itself, that there are creatures that survived by finding out meanings. So they quite naturally believe that there is a meaning, and seek one out. It’s the purple flower of these humans. The flower has a purpose in context, but outside its context it’s just an oddity in a big universe.

Along the way, the creatures that worked well together reproduced better than those who worked poorly together. These habits of getting along they started to think of as imperatives, something that had to be taught within the group for survival. Because by this time, they were conscious of themselves and others and saw that some survived and some might not. For no reason at all other than the habit of wanting to eat and not feel pain, they thought surviving would be better than not. Their brains told them this, not because it was true, but because it worked. They began to call it morality, but it was just another version of a fully-opposable thumb. The creatures shared some general idea of what his morality is, even across great distances. They concluded it on the basis of thinking, but it was all post hoc. Like the Electric Monk in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, they believed things because they were programmed to.

We have gotten all the way to morality, even to Natural Law, and we have still not found a meaning for it. It’s just a subprogram among our survival mechanisms. Each group of human creatures has its variant, and believes it to be true. But true has no meaning, only survival.

Do you begin to see why the nonbeliever’s insistence that they can be just as moral as the next guy is true, but it is a truth with no value? It helps the group to survive, but really, why should we care? It helps us to survive individually, but why should we care about that, either? It’s an opposable thumb, the loss of a tail, a purple flower.

Existentialism provides no relief, and these are the dark paths that Nietzsche and others trod. If there is actual meaning, but we might become an Ubermensch by discovering and imposing a meaning on our own existence, why should we bother? It sounds all noble and intellectual fierce, but so what? Those words have no meaning.

We might adopt something else – anything else – which pleases us and be just as well off by any measure. This morality protects its young, but what would be the objection the morality which ate its young? By habit and training that feels very wrong to us, and nonbelievers are as quick as anyone to say it is simply wrong. They don’t do those things, and it is moral that they don’t. They can avoid those things as well as believers.

Perhaps this whole picture is correct, and all of morality simply a dorsal fin. But if so, then everything is permitted, just as Dostoevsky said. That the current crop of nonbelievers don’t eat their children should be a matter of great rejoicing. But what if next year’s crop slips into some other odd branch of this survival tool we call morality and develops post hoc reasoning why eating Junior is okay? It’s no good to even comment on whether that would be moral or immoral. Everything is permitted.

The Christian answer, as I have suggested, may be no truer than the others. It may be just one more variation of photosynthesis. I offer here no defense of that. Perhaps there is some other explanation outside of mankind – no, it would have to be outside of life itself – no wait, it would have to be outside of this accidental planet and even the accidental universe – that would make something in morality real, and true, and valuable. But absent any such, there isn’t anything that qualifies as morality – and there is simply no meaning beyond the masturbatory for a nonbeliever to give himself any credit for having one equal to the believer’s.

As The Backs Go Tearing By

So Fight! Fight! Fight! For the Green & White
As we march on down the field
As the backs - go - tearing by
Memorial's line must yield

We'll buck the line and skirt the ends
As we pile up score on score
So, let's cheer for Manchester
With a Go! Fight! Green & White!
Memorial, good night.

Envisioning the Big Bang

Artist conceptions in science popularizing magazines and science textbooks usually portray the Big Bang as an explosion as viewed from outside. Light radiating in all directions, with cutaways and time markers showing what was happening at one picosecond, or millionth of a picosecond or whatever. Colored billiard balls and whirling galaxies figure prominently. Wikipedia has a standard example. Searching for images brings up a band and a pretty girl from a recent movie, but there are cosmological Big Bang images as well. Sometimes the energy is pictured more like squiggles or a soup.

But optic nerves didn't come into being for billions of years. And what space is the artist picturing himself in to watch this display? The phrase "looks like" or "observer" have no meaning. Particles and forces exist pretty quickly, but they don't look like anything. They couldn't.

I am not being trivial here. Any science writer or science teach would say Well of course these are just representations to aid understanding. No one intends for the pictures to be taken as portraits or even sketches. The reality isn't something wone could actually see. True enough. The reality may be closer to a set of numbers, or equations, or imbalances. Even words don't quite capture this remarkable occurence especially well. If we were to try, perhaps the closest we could come would be "is." We accept the picture-thinking knowing that the pictures only reveal some aspects while obscuring others. Even at later points in the universe, when discussing particles and forces, we revert to pictures because we have no choice with the general audience. Unless one is prepared to do the mathematics and thought-experiments to grasp a more precise reality beneath, there is simply no reason to strip away the textbook picture however much it might mislead.

Exactly the same thing happens in Christian theology, yet there is great objection to, even ridicule of, the image of God as a old bearded man sitting in the clouds on an elaborate chair. Parts of that image are indeed quite ancient, but they were never thought to be the reality. From very early descriptions of human beings perceiving God directly in some way - Moses hiding in the rock, for example - there are no chairs, no beards. When the question is put clearly to believers long before the time of Christ, those pictures were known to be teaching tools, not portraits. The commandment about graven images pops up pretty quickly on the list, dunnit? The descriptors each highlight some aspect of God while obscuring others. We want to move away from some of the problems the pictures create, which is all to the good. But we can do no better than supply other pictures.

As CS Lewis notes in Miracles "The apparent profundity of Pantheism thinly veils a mass of spontaneous picture-thinking and owes its plausibility to that fact." I would say much the same of popular creation physics, which lends itself nicely to Pantheism anyway. Not to say that the theory isn't true. In fact, I believe it myself. But there is no getting away from picture-thinking that obscures as much as it reveals in all discussions of creation, the universe, and ultimate realities. To reject one set of pictures and accept another owes more to fashion than any of us cares to admit. I find old Sunday-School pictures of Jesus to be unattractive, even embarrassing. I think myself quite superior that I don't picture Jesus like that.

I spoke with a friend going to Lutheran seminary years ago who had said, in response to my great suspicion at integrating Native American Spirituality (as if that were a consistent thing) into our worship, "I think we should have as many names for God, pictures of God, words for God as we can." Very church camp, very Lutheran seminary, very 1980's. I countered that not all names or pictures are equally good. The ancient pictures are not a bad default setting, if for no other reason than that they worked over many centuries for people God seems to have encouraged. I am not reluctant to consider new pictures, but I am very suspicious of what might be hidden in pictures congenial to me. And even more suspicious of the ones congenial to you.

A very interesting essay on the topic from the Thomistic Center.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Post 2400 - Political Faux Pas Military Update

I went to a training on understanding military culture today, and the chief presenter made a point dear to my heart. Behavioral Health professionals (that's uh, me, I guess - the names keep changing) should not be among those saying "Support our troops, bring them home," or "I support the troops but not the president" to returning servicepeople. It brands you as someone who just doesn't understand military culture. Less often, going too far in the opposite direction can be a problem as well - anything that injects politics into the situation should be avoided. I wanted to say "and that includes the bumperstickers in your damn parking lot of your agency," but refrained, though I talked about that with the presenters later. They concurred, one emphatically. None of them minded seeing candidate stickers. I suppose everyone can see that there might be many reasons to vote for someone.

In addition to the many people who expressed sympathy when I announced I had a boy going into the USMC, as if he'd gone bad somehow, many folks where I work have also thought they were being nice to me, understanding, when they said "I just wish the war were over." Some were less nice than that, actually.

I'm thinking that when we get training on cultural competencies and diversity, I should start bringing up understanding military culture.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


I suspect Kobe is getting some love on whether he should be on the top 5 of all-time list because he's seen as going head-to-head with LeBron, and people are irritated with James just now.

I don't know as I'd put either of them that high. I don't have either of them in my top ten, though Kobe will likely creep past Baylor and West and get there. LeBron isn't near. It is not only a longevity thing, though a "full body of work" is a big deal. Does he make his teammates better, either on the floor or off? Did his teams win championsips? Was he consistent, was he clutch? The absence of any of those things is not an absolute deal-breaker, but they certainly have to count to the favor of the players who have them. Jordan, Wilt, Russell, Robertson, Kareem, Magic. Is anyone ever going to push one of those guys off the top of the pile? Think what you'd have to accomplish to move one of them. Then O'Neal, Duncan, Bird, and Baylor/West pick-em. Each of those has an identifiable minor flaw in the resume, sure. But so do Kobe and LeBron. Making fans' eyes bug out is cool, but a relatively minor advantage at this level. Once you hit the top 25, we're talking meat on the table for your c.v.

SPIN 125

Ben tweeted a link to SPIN magazine's 125 best albums of the last 25 years. I am unable to comment on the list itself - I mostly clicked through just to see if I recognised any names whatsoever (yeah, a few). But I noticed a similarity to Rolling Stone's Top 500, which I commented on here.

A highly disproportionate percentage of the top 15 were from the earliest years (beginning 1985), as a highly disproportionate percentage of Rolling Stones top picks were from the 1960's. People who write for rock magazines care greatly about firsts, influences, shifts, and fusions. They are much more attuned to durability, and whether that particular branching went anywhere and was copied by others. While one is in the era, just listening to the radio and hearing what's popular, we only care whether we like it. New directions may or may not persist. But those who study like to see patterns develop.

That's my only spoiler. If you click through to SPIN's list, the top 15 are strongly weighten to the 80's and early 90's.

Political Faux Pas

Now on to the part of this series which actually fits the title: I quote part of Kurt's comment under Re-rant: Liberal Christian Hierarchies.
For some reason, we were once talking about Facebook, and this particular friend remarked that she never posted anything political on Facebook. And yet, a month or two after that, there were various posts about global warming and climate change, and a little while later, there was a clip of a video of Barney Frank responding to someone in a town hall meeting last summer (which was noted with approval by this friend of course), and then there were the reflections on the Kennedy funeral, and so on.
Exactly. Many of the comments that all of us make are social or tribal in intent, and don't seem to us to be political at all.

I have half-a-dozen posts over the years recording instances of people just dropping in political assertions - jokes, usually - gratuitously, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to call Newt Gingrich unaware of American history (he is/was a history professor - I couldn't lay off that one) in the context of discussing autism; or emphatically associating global warming deniers with Holocaust deniers in discussing the Shoah; or bemoaning how much better European countries are and how stupid a certain percentage of Americans are for thinking that we're great; of most frequently, sniggering about Bush or Reagan, not making any joke but acting as if some obvious joke has been made. I have found these tossed-off politics-laden comments simply amazing - not that it is amazing that people hold such ideas, but that they consider them noncontroversial things to just say in any context.

I have already noted that similar things happen with religious comments. Pronouncements that sex abuse is of course more common among priests because they are celibate, for example, absent any data. I won't list examples here - you get the idea from the political comments and can likely fill in the blanks yourselves.

But if you look at them as purely social-network comments - communications within the hive or the flock for reassurance - they make more sense. As Kurt noted, they often don't see these ideas as political or religious in any way. They just want to have something to say that sounds as if they know something, so they recite the conventional wisdom.

I acknowledge again that I have heard conservatives do the same thing. Stern and earnest folks assuring me of what "the liberals," as if that were some organised, dues-paying group, are trying to do to society and the church. Creationists rolling their eyes that any reasonable Christian could even think there is anything to evolution, their voices fairly dripping.

Now, in the context of our church closing, I can tally up a bit. We are a Covenant Church, with a wide range of political opinions strongly held. We don't tend to have many bumperstickers, but the car with "Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam" was parked next to the car of the NH chairman of the McCain 2008 committee. Adult study has had people misting up over how inspiring Obama's Dreams of My Father was exchanging friendly comments with a decades-long "US out of the UN" conservative. Our first pastor drove all night with a friend and camped in the car to attend the Clinton inauguration. It's who we are, and it has been good for all of us. Visitors have been known to sit uncomfortably, eyes darting about waiting for womething awful about to descend, until they get it that we can listen anyway. I had a similar experience when I first was going to a Covenant Church myself, trying to artfully change the subject while in conversation with a feminist and a KJV Baptist. It took awhile to realise I didn't need to head them off or soften the tone.

Yet when I look back over the 13 years, I am aware that people left because they could not endure that atmosphere. Many had more than one reason to leave, but the extreme dislike of spending that much time with people they disagreed with on one or many issues was too much for them. Two families were distressed that we didn't work for homosexual rights; the husband of one couple was publicly insulting to those who supported going into Iraq, and never came again after he was privately called on it. The rest of his family followed soon after, and friends of theirs after that, upset that there was so much political bad feeling going on (though they had other reasons as well). On the other side, one very conservative older couple returned to the Catholic Church, but politics wasn't an issue, and a few regular visitors faded out because we were too tolerant of some highly-suspect (to them) theology.

Perhaps that last was typical of us, and applies in the larger cultural context as well. We were bright, talkative, adventurous in thought, listening and open, and liberals just assumed we must therfore be a liberal church. I mean, everyone knows that conservatives can't possibly be like that. They were unsuspicious, thought they were among members of their own hive, and spoke accordingly, without regard to whether it was offensive. Conservatives, both political and theological, are likely more suspicious. After a bit of testing the waters, they decline to join rather than joining and then leaving.


Glenn Reynolds has linked recently to essays about the higher education bubble. Fascinating topic, certainly, especially for those of us who grew up with the plan of four-year liberal arts college always assumed, and who brought up our children with the same assumption. Though in our case, what we assumed for our first two was much more debateable for the boys from Romania, sons three and four. Son #5's path is still yet to be determined.

First heresy: Did the GI Bill ultimately create this higher ed bubble? What had been a seldom-attainable opportunity for most Americans in the 1930's became a real possibility in the 1950's, and by the 1960's and 70's, it was simply assumed if you were above-average in either grades or socioeconomic status, you were going to college. Hard-core free-marketers always claim that government subsidies distort markets and are a bad thing. But the GI Bill is one of those few places where everyone seemed to agree that we all got a lot more back than we put in, both for individuals and the nation as a whole. What if now, 50 years later, it has brought forth this crisis which will have implications for every cohort born after 1985 until the situation stabilizes? My Dad went to school on the GI Bill, as did a lot of other Dads who came off the farm or out of the poorer neighborhoods. We've always called that a major positive for American families. Was it?

Heresy #2: There is also a lot of ink being spilled about schools being increasingly designed against boy-abilities and toward girl-style learning. Recently, the decreasing number of males in college, a trend continuing into graduate school, is seen as a demographic problem for men getting jobs and women finding suitable partners. Perhaps that is not coincidence that this questioning of the actual value of four-year degrees in general, and many areas of study in particular, is occuring at the same time. Parents who have dragged sons through girl-school with much wailing and gnashing of teeth may have been much more hesitant to send them off to four more years, this time at $40K or more per year.

Perhaps the boys are leading, on the cutting edge of job-preparation for the future, not lagging. The crunch is going to come around issues of credentialing - which of course means that special-interest groups pressuring government is going to determine a great deal of where the new economy goes - and what happens to males in particular.

Related: I started opining 20 years ago that feminist resentment was largely driven by women who had followed the directions and played by the rules, excelling in school - which was considered the automatic qualifier to success. We were all told To get a good job, get a good education, not just the girls. Then they left school and found that there were other, less-familiar laws of the marketplace which had seldom been mentioned. Heck, I felt the same way. Those boys and young men they had beaten, beaten fair and square at school, were finding all these other routes to success. Some, such as good-old-boy networks and discrimination, could be systematically attacked and removed. But some of these other routes were perfectly fair and legitimate strategies of their own - fooling around with computer stuff; selling things, repairing things, coaching people. I think that division is even more pronounced now. A sea-change is already occurring, though we don't know where those currents will take us.

Terri, I am thinking of the age of your boys, and expecting that the ground will look different for them when they are 18 than you thought it would when they were born. The outlines of where this is all headed, and what real choices they have, may be clearer in ten years. I am more worried for my own youngest, just entering highschool. I don't know if we'll be able to read the trends in time.

Political Faux Pas - Media Bias

Conservatives have railed for years at similar gaffes, scandals, and culpability being treated differently in the MSM. Can you imagine if Bush had said that, what the uproar would be? Sometimes they even document very close equivalences being trumpeted in one case, buried in another. Now that there's an alternative media, with liberal corners, conservative corners, libertarian corners, and every possble outlook corners, we see that the right-leaning sources do a bit of that when they have the chance as well. I tend to see that more in the comments sections than in the actual essays and posts, but the tendency is there.

When these pitched battles about whether Politician A's comment is in fact better or worse than Politician B's, you can always find one of these cultural buttons, one of the tribal markers I mentioned in the first essay, just beneath the surface. It is not necessarily that people are trying to make one side look bac and the other good (though that certainly happens). Their irrational and emotional responses got called into play by one of those egg-cracking items. Politician A's comment shows that he is not one of us, and we thus perceive it as far more outrageous. If it offends our tribe, well then all Americans should be offended. In fact, if you're not offended, that shows how stupid and morally bankrupt you are.

You may notice that this is how comedians, filmmakers, entertainers, authors, and cartoonists make their living. When you try to pick apart their snark for a logical connection between their insult and reality on the ground, you find that it's not there. It's just ringing people's bells, evoking tribal responses.

Update: Like this poll over at Fox News, which just showed up today. Heck, it doesn't have to be flags. It doesn't matter what you actually say, but if your words can be made to sound racist it's a scandal, because you should have been more careful. But Helen Thomas isn't held to the standard of making absolute double-sure her words can't be misconstrued, because making anti-Israel remarks that could be considered antisemitic is no longer on the tribal out-list for liberals. In fact, some folks think of it as a plus, showing your support for the Palestinians. Both liberals and conservatives might watch the Daily Show, but picking up references from Stewart or Colbert are required for young liberals. Otherwise you might not be seen as a real member of the tribe.

Weak Connections

Maureen Dowd informs us it was society that killed that girl.

Things like that would never happen in a black or hispanic neighborhood. White boys at less-elite schools never even think of things like that, right? Whoever heard of an Arab student having a bad attitude toward women?

No, it all ties in somehow. They go to schools where lacrosse is big. Preppy places. They treat young women with sexual callousness - and have the nerve to do it in an organised fashion - next thing you know, someone is killing their girlfriend.

At least it gives the tabloid writers something to talk about.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Political Faux Pas

In Gulliver's Travels, the Lilliputians went to war against...darn it, "Bl" something, three or four syllables...(Blefuscu - had to look it up)...some neighboring tribe who cracked their eggs on the wrong side. The point being that wars are often fought over unimportant issues, if one takes the long view. From an extremely long view, in fact, much of the motive behind all wars looks small. If someone were to describe an ongoing skirmish in Mongolia, everyone who is not Mongolian might have trouble figuring out who they think is in the right.

Before we look down on too many others, however, it pays to remember that all of us are on the inside in some competition or another, and could hardly be convinced our loyalty and sense of rightness are silly. It is considered a sign of enlightenment to be able to view one's own culture from the outside, and great objectivity to be able to think one's culture is deeply wrong in some way. Yet to step out of one culture is only to step into another. The liberal's suspicion of patriotism in a traditional sense, so well exemplified by Obama's half-hearted "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism," is not the wise objectivity it thinks it is. That is merely the belief of an entire subculture of Americans to which Obama belongs. It is its own tribe, disdaining another tribe for cracking eggs on the wrong end, by wearing flag pins or whatever.

The flag-pin wearing tribe, despite their declaration that they reflect real America, are also but another group with its own signs and countersigns. Politicians stay in office by flashing the signs of as many groups as they can get away with - and as we saw with Obama and the flag-pin controversy, not flashing a sign is itself a sign.

When called on it, tribal advocates become deceitful, trying to pretend that they aren't displaying cultural markers and are just trying to look at things rationally.
A: Some people think that you have to wear a flag pin to be a patriot but we reject that shallow...
B: No, we're not saying that you have to, but if you're the president of the US, why wouldn't you want to...

Peace. It is a cultural marker. The A's rejoice that Obama stuffed it in the face of the B's, all the while pretending that they are only saying that flag pins aren't . The B's seize upon this small thing as indicators of a dozen other beliefs they are sure Obama must have. B's like flags. A's don't. Lots of folks get caught in between. WWII vets who are Roosevelt Democrats and like displaying the flag. Whitebread Republicans who find any sort of display suspect.

To be continued...

World Cup

Writing in ignorance, I would say that France, Spain, Argentina, and Netherlands have the easier Groups and the more straightforward trips to the Round of 16. Group D (Germany, Ghana, Serbia are all good) and Group G (Brazil, Portugal, Ivory Coast) are the most likely to be messy, surprising, and take a top seed (Germany or Brazil) out.

Brazil winning would make me unhappy, as usual. I'm not entirely fond of Germany, France, and Argentina, either - but at least they're not Brazil. I'd like to see England or one of the African teams make a run.

US chances? Good by our standards, below-average by international standards. We are assigned a medium-difficult group with England, but have a reasonable chance of making it out because neither of the other two - Slovenia and Algeria - are that strong. Consistency remains a problem. We can beat nearly anyone, and may have an upset or two. But historically, we also rack up draws or even losses with teams we should put away. Even without Charlie Davies (I could just smack him) and with Altidore not at full strength, we have more scoring threats than any previous national team, I think.

We would face either the first or second place team from Group D if we move through our group. That would be most likely Germany, or Ghana/Serbia if we outperform England in Group C.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fresh Air Fund

Someone at the Fresh Air Fund discovered my blog name and email. They thought that as "a lover of the great outdoors" I and my audience would be interested. So we know right off they don't exactly know me well.

Still, we had Fresh Air kids years ago, and I do have a soft spot for the group. Our experience was quite positive the first year, when we had Keith only. Last name began with an "S," I think - maybe it will come to me. I'd say "Sykes," but that's someone we knew from Romania. The next year we had his younger brother as well at their mother's request, and they argued with each other the whole time. We didn't do it again, which I now regret. A little finesse, and we could have gone back to just having Keith again. My unwillingness to make the effort, I think.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


I have several posts swimming in my mind in incomplete state. Because of work and church committee meetings related to our closing in 3.5 weeks, I haven't been able to organise anything. Try to content yourself with the sidebar in the meantime.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Best of September 2006

This month includes my reasons for the switch to the label "Postliberal."

Decrying the aggressive pantheism of National Geographic
Actually, Gaia-worship isn't quite right. It's more of a pantheism. CS Lewis noted that historically, pantheism is the default religious position, the place that every culture goes when it's giving up its old beliefs. So why does that seem like such an advanced, enlightened view now?

Not prophetic about Joe Biden, but certainly with ironies four years later, The Voice of Saruman.
I caught Joe Biden on Imus this morning. I didn’t know it was he at first, but listening to his arguments, I had that Joe Biden feeling: Gee, this guy is really hitting the president with good arguments. I’m not sure I’ve got a snap answer to that point – I didn’t know that background. Then, just by chance, he wandered into an area that I happened to be reading about last night. And he was wrong on the facts. Wrong in such a way that he either completely misunderstood the document in question, or had read only excerpts. The speaker was earnest. He was forceful. He made sweeping statements with complete assurance. Hmm, I wonder if it’s Biden. I may have recognised the voice better than I thought.

Are oil prices manipulated? Desperately Seeking a Clue
Here we go again with the gas prices. The worldwide price of oil per barrel is coming down. So for that to be manipulated by the oil companies, there would have to be thousands of people at hundreds of companies in on the plan. Including, for example, Ahamdinejad, Hugo Chavez, the Saudis, Gazprom... yeah, they all want a Republican majority really badly.

I can’t think of a better way to shout “Hey! I have no clue how the economy works! It’s all a mystery so I just make simple guesses that I can understand!”

The numbing idiocy of Kofi Annan's farewell address
But most saliently, these departing failures stress how they still believe in the ideals they started with, oh those many years ago when they were young and inexperienced. They state this as a point of great pride, as if their refusal to see with clarity regardless of the deterioration around them were evidence of the noble quality of not having compromised their ideals. Compromising to the point of abandonment all your actual morality, while holding the fantasy vision of what life should be, is seen as a good thing?

Things gone awry in Adult Sunday School
Adult classes nearly always spark off something to post on. Today we had a woman ask the same question she asks every year, but doesn't like the answer. (The instructor contradicted me on this. She thinks a variant of the question is asked every time the woman attends. And they think I'm a hard guy.)
Note: The person mentioned in this essay will show up in an upcoming post about the social aspect of liberalism

The system is that There Is No System
In America, there is no system. That's the American system. That's a gross oversimplification, and I could make a more accurate statement by going on about how there are many systems, all of them complex and interrelated, yada, yada, ya. But taking that approach only encourages people to stick with the same sort of approaches and answers. For purpose of rethinking, it is better to start from the radical statement: there is no system.
Note: an unexpected connection to my recent post “Liberal Christian Hierarchies.”

If you don't love baseball history, don't read How I Will Win at Field of Dreams Fantasy Baseball.
But I’ve still got Monte Irvin hidden in my back pocket, or if someone’s that good and remembers Irvin first, I’ll take Pete Hill. Similarly, Edd Roush or Hugh Duffy are never going to occur to you. If I get driven to having to take them late in the draft, I’ve still got a fine centerfielder. And you’ve got Eddie Bressoud at shortstop because you had his baseball card.

On Parents Getting Smart
From about 25 to 45, I gradually and grudgingly increased my admiration for all my parents, much as pseudoTwain suggested. At about that point I thought I had made peace with who they were and who I was, the good and the bad, and had few open resentments (though certain things would still easily irk me). But since that time, the pendulum has switched back some. Adopting two teenage boys, which echoed the blending of my own family when I was 13 and my brother 10, I came to see clearly exactly what should be expected of you when you are the adult in a difficult situation with a child.

Visiting Liberal Blogs
It is responses like this that keep giving me evidence that for many liberals, there is this enormous importance that their world-view be consistently resupported. There seems this constant wriggling on the hook, with enormous energy invested in what should be simple disagreements. Something more is at stake for them.

Unfortunately prophetic about Sending A Message. How'd that 2006 congress work out for you, Republican stay-at-homes?
They talk a lot about sending a message to Republicans in November, particularly around the immigration and spending issues. I understand that, but have a bit of advice. And this advice works just as well for Democrats: sending a message only works in the primaries.

The progressive Mythology of Robbery. Some history of how progressives feel they have been robbed of their birthright.

The enthusiasm was not entirely for Bill and Hillary per se. They were seen even by their supporters of the time as somewhat flawed representatives of the tribe. Yet even their weaknesses were seen as a more appropriate set of flaws: chuckling hypocrisy about drugs and sex, philosophical incoherence with good intentions. That they were opportunistic and relied on charm were only “what all politicians did.” The Clintons were “one of us,” the New Generation (the Now Generation), finally displacing all those evil old authority figures. And we all knew he was a liar, even then, but people thought his intentions were good. And he was from the right tribe.

Yes, even intelligent people older than 20 thought like this and talked like this. What we now call the mainstream media, so much more dominant then, was chockablock full of ‘em. This is the election of the famous Gallup poll that started examining the beliefs of the media itself, because it had become so obviously and thoroughly partisan. That poll revealed that 92% of the journalists covering the White House had voted for Clinton.

Fiction and Conspiracy Theories
The general premise: No, fiction has not made us more likely to believe in conspiracies, but film may have.

A bit of nostalgia after watching 15 minutes of Bob Dylan – No Direction Home.
I couldn’t get distance from some of the clips, and I couldn’t tell why. Howlin’ Wolf at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival – well who cares? I was 10 years old and never got near the place. Concert footage of New York coffee houses – why would that mean anything? But those clips had my old drug, my favorite drug, the one I’d forgotten I’d ever been addicted to. It was the sound of the crowd. I’d been on both sides of the mike for that sound, and it evoked living in that culture like nothing else.

A bit of history of the Copperheads, or Peace Democrats, with an obvious point.
The Copperhead rhetoric in their press was red-hot in displaying their hatreds and bitterness. "A large majority [of Copperheads]," declared an Ohio editor, "can see no reason why they should be shot for the benefit of niggers and Abolitionists." If "the despot Lincoln" tried to ram abolition and conscription down the throats of white men, "he would meet with the fate he deserves: hung, shot, or burned."

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Imagine A Mystical Limpet

From Miracles, by CS Lewis
Why are many people prepared in advance to maintain that, whatever else God may be, He is not the concrete, living, willing, and acting God of Christian theology? I think the reason is as follows. Let us suppose a mystical limpet, a sage among limpets, who (rapt in vision) catches a glimpse of what Man is like. In reporting it to his disciples, who have some vision themselves (though less than he) he will have to use many negatives. He will have to tell them that Man has no shell, is not attached to a rock, is not surrounded by water. And his disciples, having a little vision of their own to help them, do get some idea of Man. But then there come erudite limpets, limpets who write histories of philosophy and give lectures on comparative religion, and who have never had any vision of their own. What they get out of the prophetic limpet's words is simply and solely the negatives. From these, uncorrected by any positive insight, they build up a picture of Man as a sort of amorphous jelly (he has no shell) existing nowhere in particular (he is not attached to a rock) and never taking nourishment (there is no water to drift it towards him). And having a traditional reverence for Man they conclude that to be a famished jelly in a dimensionless void is the supreme mode of existence, and reject as crude, materialistic superstition any doctrine which would attribute to Man a definite shape, a structure, and organs.