Friday, November 05, 2010

Companion Volume to Born into the Wrong World Published 
The Beauty of Ordinary Lives is a 42 page tribute to my parents, a companion volume and supplement to my autobiography Born into the Wrong World. It is  available at and  at

Buy at 
From the Preface:

       I was fortunate in that I chose my parents well. John Wilfred Cauthen and Nancy Beulah Harris Cauthen were ordinary folks from rural Georgia. They taught me what unconditional love was by their words and actions.  I will be forever grateful to these wonderful people who demonstrated the beauty of ordinary lives. This little booklet is a loving tribute to them. I focus on their last years as they confronted the necessity of giving up the home they loved and moving to a nursing home to spend the rest of their days.
        Suitcases in the car, it was time. Mother held the kitty and said a long, sad, lingering farewell to her "Baby." My Dad gave me a big, tight hug, flung wide his long, skinny arms, and exclaimed with passionate resignation, "Goodbye, old house." I led one and then the other to the car, put the old, ugly wheelchair that had been Rosalie's in the trunk, and got in beside them. We all took one last look at their home place and drove off. When we arrived, Mother remembered something Rosalie had said when she came to make this her home years before. "This is the place where you come to wait to die."
    Some time ago my Mother told me about a couple several years ago stopping in their driveway and coming to the door. They asked directions to the nursing home where we now sat. In the back seat of that car sitting very still and drawn up was a sad, unsmiling old grey-haired woman looking very scared and downcast. It took little imagination to figure out what was going on. Now I sat at the door of this same unwanted but needed refuge, somewhere to live that was not and could not be home, a place both forbidding and welcoming, a sanctuary that promised care and safety without ceasing to be dreaded as the place you go when nowhere else will do, where you don't want to go but go anyway because you have to, the place where you come to wait to die.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Announcing the Publication of the Revised Standard Version of My Autobiography

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

What's Wrong with this Country Anyway?

Let's get one thing straight:  By and large, generally speaking, for the most part, what the American people want is increased governmental benefits,  lower taxes, and deficit reduction.  You might be able to get two out of three, but nobody knows how to achieve all three. This helps explains the contradictions, absurdities,  and confusion seen so widely today.

Some rave and rant about the deficit and want a smaller government that spends less. But when asked what they would cut, they are short of specifics that would make a significant difference. Well, of course, there is always the tried and true waste, fraud, and abuse, and  there may be inefficiencies in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, etc. 

But the big bucks are elsewhere. We could cut Social Security Benefits.
Oh no, either we or our parents or grandparents depend on that.
What about Medicare? No, of course not, for the same reason that we can't deeply touch Social Security?

Medicaid? Well, no, too many poor people depend on that.

Ah, then, you want to cut the mammoth defense budge?
Hell, no, are you crazy?

OK, you want to reduce the deficit but don't want big cuts in either of the Big Four -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Defense. Your only alternative is to raise taxes!

Now you are getting crazy even weird. Taxes are too high now.

So it goes, The swingers who have voted against the ins in the last two elections and put Democrats are poised in 2010 it appears to turn out the ins once again. Independents and others in this class apparently have no defined ideology so they go back and forth between parties and persons apparently based on how the world is treating them at the moment, gut feelings, self-centered sentiments --presentism and selfishness, I call it. Because Obama came in promising change, hope, and a politics transcending party in the midst of the greatest depression since the 1930's not of his own making and did not make us all prosperous in two years, these fickle, confused, gut-driver party switchers want to be rid of the President and a Democratic Congress.

They can't get what they want--smaller government with lower taxes, greater benefits, and deficit reduction--so they act out of anger, rage, full of contradictions, confusion, ignorance, and incompatible demands.

As the most colorful New York  gubernatorial candidate summarized  his platform, "Rent is too damn high."  That's about as good as it gets in 2010 as I prepare to vote shortly.

Hooray for American democracy!

Quasi-acerbic Comment for the Day

A certain segment of the Republican party appears not to accept the moral and political legitimacy of Democrats, especially Barack Obama, to govern. It is contrary to the grain of the universe, a cosmic mistake. In their eyes Republicans clearly represent the powers, principles, and people that should be in charge. All this gives intensity, even rage, to the very fact that a Democratic President and Congress are presently in office.

Theological Question of the Day: Was Jesus saved?

Is there any New Testament evidence that Jesus ever accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal Savior?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Obama's Folly

President Obama seems determined to do what  many others over the centuries have failed to do: win in Afghanistan.

 The obstacles are many and formidable:
an enemy that  retreats into sanctuaries in Pakistan;
an offense limited to stealth drone attacks in these sanctuaries;
a Pakistani military that is unable or unwilling to destroy them;
a Pakistani government that is obsessed with India, unstable, and
     limited in what in can do to attack fellow Muslims without risking
     overthrown by militant extremists;
an American public that is tired of the endless conflicts with Muslim 
     nations and losing confidence in our ability to restore peace, order,
     and justice in that troubled, complex land;
billions spent in these wars in Muslim nations that badly needed
     at home;
a partner in Karzai who is corrupt and surrounded by corruption---we   could go on.

The larger context is that we fight these wars with volunteers and deficit financing, a situation that costs the rest of us very little at the moment. But I worry about a situation in which presidents can wage wars which are personally costly for a few but with little or no personal burden for the rest of us.

My impression of the military is that for the most part their standard line is the same as it was in Vietnam--give us more troops, a clear definition of our mission, and a little more time.

We face a cruel dilemma. On the one hand, our leaving might result in another Taliban and disaster for the masses of Afghan people, especially women and children. On the other hand,  we face the prospect of staying there indefinitely with no assurance that we can ever make things right.

There is no good solution, only bad, worse, and catastrophic options. But which is which? If we knew, would the political situation allow its implementation?

Is this a glimmer of hope?

Or is it like all those false hopes when Israel has talks with Palestinians?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Obama: Intellect Over Feeling, Being Cool Over Being Passionate

Consensus: When Clinton said he felt our pain, he appeared to be really hurting. When Obama says it, we don't doubt his truthfulness, but he does not come across as feeling it deeply in his heart. This jibes with my frequent criticism that he sounds too much like a professor and not enough like a politician. I don't expect him to be a prophet. That is another vocation.
I wonder sometimes if deep in his heart he is an idealist who wants everybody just to get along, despite his schooling in and sometimes practice of  "Chicago politics." He does not want to offend anybody-- Republicans, big business--remember FDR who said they hate me; I welcome their hatred. He wants everybody to like him--generals, bankers, school kids, dogs, and canaries. Now cooperation in ventures that promote the national interest and the common good is a wonderful thing. But sometimes one has to get nasty in the spirit of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove to be successful. 

Would it help if we saw more of the latter in Obama's pragmatic political practice?  I wonder.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What's Wrong With These People Anyway?

Johnny came home with a black eye, a bloody nose, and a few loose teeth. His Mother was horrified, but Johnny said, grinning from ear to ear, "Yeah, Mom, but you should see the other guy!"

That appears to be what the Democratic message gets boiled down to this fall. "If you think we are bad, the other party is worse."  Although it convinces me, that is not an inspiring slogan. But will it work for independents and swing voters?

Please explain to me why these coveted voters swing back and forth tossed about by "every wind of doctrine." (1) Why would folks who voted for Obama and Democrats in 2006 and 2008 say they plan to vote Republican this November?

I have voted for one Republican in my entire life beginning with 1948 until now. I preferred  Republican Russell Peterson to be governor of Delaware in 1968. He was by far the most progressive candidate, whose like are totally extinct today. Every other time the Democratic candidates were more in line with my ideology and values, although sometimes I have had to hold my nose while pulling the lever.

I suppose that many people are less ideologically oriented than I am or have an outlook that is more in the middle, since admittedly I am  well toward the left and got paid while I was articulating a point of view in some detail. Folks in the middle could more easily than I tilt between parties as circumstances and issues change.

I suspect however that a lot of swingers react on the basis of what is happening to them at the moment, what they feel in the gut. The "in party" must be responsible if I can't find a job, pay my mortgage, or send my kids to college. So I will vote them out. If unemployment were at 4.8% and their incomes were rising, and times were good  all around,  presumably they would reward the party in power. So a president and his  majority party are in large measure victims or beneficiaries of fate  but with limited control over what is going on in the world during their tenure.

So despite all the good things Democrats have done, the times have not been kind to them, and they may get punished come election day.

"Yeah, I know, but I have seen the other guy."
(1). . .  so that  we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Ephesians 4:14.  (RSV)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Average Americans and America's Problems

Decades ago a prominent historian noted that we have contradictory attitudes about the great mass of the American people. On the one hand, we think of them as gifted with common sense, full of practical wisdom, fair-minded, and of sound character, who--given all the facts and sufficient time-- usually make reasonable political decisions. On the other hand, we see them as driven by emotion, short on knowledge, subject to demagogic appeals, and capable of great mischief in the voting booth. I confess that both of these conceptions are resident within me.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that at the moment the latter, less flattering posture dominates. Tea Party success is only the beginning. Voters are angry with incumbents, the government, the direction the country is going, and are in an ugly, rebellious mood. However, this outlook is generating something less than a rational, effective political response. Folks don't know, don't believe, or have forgotten that the consensus of economic experts and knowledgeable analysts  was that, while the bailout of banks was regrettable and distasteful, it was necessary to rescue the economy from disaster. It was done primarily not because the  elite bankers were worthy but in order to save the rest of us as well. The hole was in their end of the boat, but all of us would have drowned if the ship had gone down. But the outrage in the guts of the masses--for good reasons from a limited perspective (theirs)--expresses the feeling that we had a bailout for Wall Street but not for Main Street.

The deficit is widely decried, but it may be impossible to rescind the Bush tax cuts  that disproportionately benefit the rich and super-rich, although their continuation would  would greatly  increase the deficit over time and would not generate the kind of economic growth defenders claim.

Have people forgotten that under Bush two wars were started and put on a credit card? The same was true of the prescription drug bill for seniors. All these contributed mightily to the deficit Republicans now scream about.

Voters prefer Democrats and their economic policies to Republicans and their economic policies but say they they will vote for Republican candidates this fall.

An article in a political journal today warns us not to underestimate the vote-getting power of Christine O'Donnell because she comes across as an "average American!"

An Illinois Senator years ago said that his constituents want lower taxes and greater benefits. So far as I know, this is still true of voters.

We could go with this listing of examples that do not commend the rationality and virtue of the masses in our present context, but let us move on.

Apparently voters think that if the players are replaced, things will get better. Depending on  the replacements, there may be a grain of truth in this. But the deeper, more intractable reality is that the political system is tainted with corruption. Wealthy corporations and the rich generally have far too much influence.  Out of necessity for reelection purposes, members of Congress lust for money and prostitute themselves to get it. Powerful lobbies, often representing parochial interests inimical to the common good,  e. g., the NRA, shape legislation, inordinately charm regulatory agencies into furthering their interests, and threaten and cajole legislators into doing their bidding. Yet the great masses show no inclination to support the fundamental transformation of the political system that justice and their own economic interests require. People rightly vote their values too, but some of them--like the attitude toward gay and transgendered people--are reactionary and stubbornly resistant to progressive change.

Witness the fact that although presidents since the time of Teddy Roosevelt  have advocated universal health insurance, only this year was this goal nearly accomplished and only in a deeply flawed manner at that.
A one-payer system--some kind of Medicare for all that would be the most efficient and effective way to assure coverage for all--is nowhere in sight.

Oh practical, fair-minded, wise, reasonable, virtuous masses, where are you when you are so badly needed.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Do Religious Nut Cases Deserve Global Attention?

So, an extremist pastor of a congregation of 50 is going to burn copies of the Koran on 9/11, what is the big deal? Why is he being interviewed? Why is this world-wide news? OK, profit-driven, audience-seeking, sensationalist-loving media know that this is a good way to arouse emotions, get viewers, and attract advertisers. OK, it is a bad, bigoted, foolish thing to do, but why give this fanatic a global audience with interviews, pictures, and repeated exposure day and night.

Do we not remember that in the early 1950's when the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was published, burning parties were held by fundamentalists  all around whose allegiance was to the REAL Bible, the King James Version, which transliterated the original term as  baptism instead of rendering its English meaning as immerse, to dip -- a clear instance of theological bias Baptists tolerated without protest.

A Duke professor who was on the translating committee called this Bible burning progress because in the old days they burned the translators! Holy Book burners, flag burners, bra burners, and the like are--like the poor--always with us. Such folks are generally a small minority whose historical and social influence is minimal.

So how should we deal with the Koran burners? Condemn them but give them no more press than is absolutely necessarily. Now if 10,000 churches and synagogues, the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, the President of the United States, and other such notables around the world should preside over mass burnings of the Koran,  then that is news, big news, bad news. But one pastor of half a hundred or less in Florida? Let's have some sense of proportion about all this.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Drugs, Drug Czars, and Bad Policy

Bob Bennett was the first Drug Czar. Yesterday on TV he said that  he (the first) and all subsequent Drug Czars were opposed to the legalization of marijuana. Stronger forms are now, he reported, and concluded that use would increase if it were legally available. OK, but I would like to know by his logic why alcohol and cigarettes should not be made illegal too.  They both do far more social harm than pot ever did or ever will, yet they are legal.

The reason that pot is illegal and alcohol and tobacco are legal is that the latter two are socially accepted, while marijuana is not.

We tried outlawing alcohol and found that it spawned widespread flaunting of the law by otherwise decent citizens and a crime wave run by underworld gangs who got rich. We abandoned the experiment because it did not work and kept only timid or unusually scrupulous folks from consuming the forbidden fruit.

The logic and experimental evidence are clear. But social and political readiness lag behind. Maybe one day we will get rational about all this, but don't hold your breath.

A more extensive case is made at:
This essay was written about ten years ago, but the arguments remain essentially the same today.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

To All WHo Think the Free Market is Self-Regulating.

OK, if all the bad medicine being sold, all the products being recalled, including cars, eggs, baby cribs -- all with potential to injure or kill were not enough to justify government intervention to protect people from greedy or careless capitalists, here is another reason why laissez faire capitalism is dangerous.

The fact that so many medical instruments used in hospitals look alike and are interchangeable leads to errors that can and has killed patients or made them much sicker. Efforts to force manufacturers to design tubes, e. g., for a distinctive purpose -- feeding or introducing fluids in veins, etc. are being resisted because it might affect their profit margins.
Advocates in California got legislation passed in 2008 that would have mandated that feeding tubes no longer be compatible with tubes that go into the skin or veins by 2011. But in 2009, AdvaMed, the manufacturers’ trade association, successfully pushed legislation to delay the bill’s effects until 2013 and 2014 or until the international standards group reaches a decision. 

Three cheers for an interventionist government to protect life, health, and to promote the common good. 

Phooey on you, Milton Friedman, and all your kind.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Is Obama a Muslim? Cultural Idiocy Running Wild

That perhaps one in five Americans believes that Obama is a Muslim  boggles the mind. It ia monument to prejudice, unscrupulous political opportunism, willing ignorance of the invincible sort,  downright lying, and deliberate deceit.

Have the professors and perpetrators of this nefarious falsehood forgotten that  two summers ago Obama was being excoriated for belonging to the Christian church pastored by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright?

He is not a Muslim, but what if he were? The Constitution forbids a religious test for office. Thank goodness the Constitution was written when it was. Such a marvelous document would never be accepted today.

Prudence might suggest that the President join a church, not that that would quell the idiocy abroad, but it might help a little. As Mark Shields said tonight on the PBS News Hour, Americans want their president to belong to a church but to wear their religion lightly.

Senseless Furor over Building a House of Worship

Even more exasperating than the media frenzy every summer about what Bret Favre will do  (I don't give a %$@!) is the near hysteria in some quarters over the building of a mosque near the site of the 9/11 attack. The objections have no basis whatsoever unless one assumes the identity of the Muslims who attacked with Islam as a whole. Many critics who protest that they do no such thing end up doing it anyway de facto,  or else their objections are groundless and silly.

A compromise is that they they have a right to build, but it is unwise and insensitive to do so. Why? There are mosques all over New York City that nobody objects to them. Yet some, including the governor of the state, seem to think that just placing the house of worship a little further away would honor both the First Amendment and the sensitivities of those who are offended. Perhaps in sheer pragmatic terms that is the best way to resolve the issue, but it ignores principle in favor of feelings and misguided conceptions.

Some of the analogies are just plain dumb as well as committing at least one logical fallacy. The notion, e. g., that it would be like building a memorial to the Nazis next to Treblinka or Auschwitz is paraded by politicians more interested in political effect that rational soundness. But Nazis were evil as a whole, while Islam as a whole is not identical with a few radical extremists whose interpretation of the Koran is generally regarded by scholars as an insult to a great religion. Would we accept the identity of the Ku Klux Klan, whose symbol was a cross, with Christianity?

President George W. Bush took a sensible view and called Islam  a religion of peace that could not be identified with a terrorism. I wish the former president would emerge and say a strong and healing word to the  protesters, among whom are many Republicans.

By the way have we forgotten that the US has been killing Muslims on a regular basis in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, amounting to hundreds of thousands of combat troops and civilians. Leaving aside Afghanistan for the moment, every person killed in Iraq by Americans is a horrible and unnecessary tragedy completely unjustified by either moral principle or national self-interest.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Opinion Research and "the Fallacy of Misplaced Concretion"

Twice in recent days I have been called and asked to participate in an opinion survey. The first time I agreed, and soon I was being asked things like "Do you think the country is going in the right direction?" At first I protested that my opinion was more complicated than that but soon learned that the caller would accept only the answers on the survey. We proceeded a while until I finally asked how many more questions there were. She answered that she would read faster! In exasperation I said I did not intend to answer any more question. What is wrong here?

By insisting that all answers be of the yes or no type or at best a multiple choice option, the fullness of the whole is distorted. Reality  (or at least my opinion about it) does not conform to these categories. The assumption behind them  commits what  A. N. Whitehead called "the fallacy of misplaced concretion (FMC), to wit, an abstraction is made from a totality and the abstraction is identified  with the whole concrete reality in all its complexity and with all its ambiguities, paradoxes, and contradictions (a paradox is a contradiction when used by a theologian).

My refusal to answer in the simplistic terms offered annoyed me and frustrated the questioner, who was only doing what she was told.

The second time I just said no and ended the matter.

Is the country going in the right direction? Yes, in my opinion, in some respects, e. g., the changing attitudes toward gays and lesbians. In other respects, in my view, we are going in the wrong direction, e. g., toward a more dysfunctional politics and  a meaner  less civil society. A mere yes or no will not suffice, unless we are willing to commit the dreaded fallacy. In letters to the editor, radio talk shows, TV punditry, sermons, and daily conversations, the FMC is committed a lot!

The best these surveys can do is to assess a general mood regarding what the respondents feel is the most important factor to them at the moment, a sort of  universalized gut feeling about things.
The next time I am called, I think I will say just say no and refer them to my blog site.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Big Corporations are Unpatriotic

Large corporations are sitting on huge sums of cash but do not invest them  because of their uncertainty about the future, e. g., government regulations and the like. Meanwhile, profits are high and are staying high because of labor saving efficiencies and by shipping investments and jobs overseas. All this is occurring while unemployment in this country is high and no prospect of anything but slow change for the better for workers.

Hence, I conclude that big corporations  are unpatriotic. They love the country only to the extent that it provides a location and opportunity to make money. The goal is a high return on investment. The means are providing goods and services in return. If that were widely and fully understood, we might do better in trying to channel their efforts into ways that serve the good of the country and not simply the interests of shareholders.

And while we are at it, should we  laugh or cry at the complaint of conservatives that government cannot do anything right? They point with glee to every blunder, inefficiency, and failure of government  while neglecting to mention such things as the BP oil spill, the constant recall of faulty products, including baby cribs that kill infants, drugs that do more harm than good, and other such inconveniences.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Irrational Non-exuberance

We do not sufficiently appreciate, I fear, the dilemmas that prevent rational decision-making to solve problems in ways that promote the common good.

The rational solution for health care would be to provide Medicare for all. This would be more efficient and provide good services at lower costs, especially if people were forced to pay for expensive treatments that have not shown to be sufficiently effective to merit public subsidy. But such a solution is not politically possible.

It seems clear that gifts to doctors from drug companies lead to more prescriptions for expensive  brand-name drugs rather than much cheaper but equally effective generics. But so far no legislation has been passed to accomplish that. My experience has been that some doctors don't take cost of drugs into account  but out of habit prescribe what they are most familiar with or what they have been bribed to do. I have educated a few doctors myself on this score.

The best way to reduce oil consumption would be a carbon tax on producers and a tax on gasoline on consumers. This would reflect the true (full) costs of consumption and make energy alternatives attractive to investors. But the rational solutions are not politically possible because of the power of oil companies and the love affair of Americans with cars and cheap gas.

If we want to reduce obesity, we could make unhealthful  foods more expensive by eliminating corn subsidies and taxing obesity-producing foods. But this is not politically possible.

We could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives if we had begun decades ago to make tobacco an illegal product and enable a transition for growers and give producers of cigarettes time to find alternatives. But political exuberance for that rational solution was lacking. Rates of smoking now vary by class and education -- the higher the less use of cigarettes, whereas puffing away was a  standard feature of movies decades ago, associating it with sophistication.

Ideally, we would treat Palestinian interests equal to those of Israel, but don't because of conservative Christian religion and the power of the Israeli lobbies. Sensible gun control is impossible because of a persisting frontier and rural mentality, aided and abetted by  the political power of the National Rifle Association.

More politically feasible  are measures that provide more information but are less effective in inducing behavioral changes.  Information on labels and restaurant menus about calorie and fat content is good but relatively ineffective in changing what people eat. Public information campaigns on the merits of conservation and healthy eating habits presuppose that facts about what is good and bad for health will persuade people to change their habits cannot be bad. But how effective are they?

In short, in many cases what is effective and good for most is politically impossible because of the powerful self-interests of short-sighted  citizens and the rich and powerful -- especially large corporations and well-organized special interests like the National Rifle Association, the Israeli lobbies, and  regional Cuban voting power. On the other hand, what is politically possible is relatively ineffective in promoting justice and the common good.

Wouldn't it be refreshing to see some rational exuberance for what is both effective and in the common interest? Tomorrow I will tell you about some other utopian dreams.



Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Working Class Whites Discriminated Against

Our elite universities and colleges practice discrimination in their admission habits, not against blacks or women but against working class and poor whites, especially if they are Christians. Check it out:

It's Jobs or Lack of them that is Obama's Problem. Forget the Sophisticated Punditry

Generally speaking, presidents are judged by how well the economy is doing, especially how voters themselves are doing. They tend to generalize from their own situation and pronounce presidents worthy of reelection on that basis, unless some some overriding international crisis (like the Iranian hostage mess) or a hated war takes precedence. Never mind the passage of health care, financial reform, and the like. How I am doing in terms of my own economic welfare is the chief determinant of voting habits.

So forget all that ephemeral day to day stuff the TV and newspaper pundits suffocate us with. Look at the employment numbers, wages, and income for the masses. It's stupid not to recognize that it is, has been, and likely will be the economy as it plays itself out in the body of citizens who express their own level of economic satisfaction in the voting booth.

Friday, June 11, 2010

System if Corrupt

Risks, Reason, and Reality

We, the American people, need to get real about risks in these modern times. Lately, we hear that we have to find out why the BP oil spill happened and take steps to see that it never happens again. Nonsense! Every human activity from walking, driving buggies, riding in automobiles at high speeds on crowded highways, flying over oceans in jet planes on up to sending astronauts to the moon is fraught with the possibility of mishap. This becomes ever more true as we move toward more complex, large-scale technological systems, e. g., drilling for oil a mile deep into the ocean.

Risks are reducible, and we ought to have the most effective kind of stern and intelligent oversight and regulation that human wisdom can devise. The safety systems should  operate with integrity and not at the bidding of those whose profits might be reduced. But under the best possible conditions we humans can manage, accidents and devastation will be occasional features of human life. 

Politicians and pundits and citizens take note. We could, of  course, try living in caves as hermits, but then there are bears, bats, and bugs, not to mention snakes, and other inconveniences.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Does Israel Have a Right to Exist?

Hamas is condemned because it refuses to accept the right of Israel to exist. A good case can be made for Hamas on historical and moral grounds. It may  have been a mistake to establish the state of Israel in 1947 by bringing in thousands of mostly European Jews to a land largely populated by hostile Arabs and where few Jews had lived until well into the 19th century. Jewish possession of the land had been lost for more than a thousand years.

The result has been constant hostility, hatred, wars, and violent conflict with no end in sight. It is the source of Muslim hatred of Europe and America,  constant turmoil, and a threat to peace in the entire region. The notion that Palestine belongs to the Jews on the basis of a divine promise three thousand years ago is plausible only to those who find it plausible, including Jewish and Christian fundamentalists. Granted, some solution was needed for the constant persecution of Jews in many lands including Europe and America, but in my opinion the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine was probably  not it.

 A distinction needs to be made between accepting the moral right of Israel to exist and the full acceptance of the fact that Israel does exist, will exist, and must be dealt with accordingly with all the implications thereunto appertaining.

For practical reasons Hamas needs to come to terms with Israel as a reality, no matter how much they despise the fact. But pragmatism does not flourish in the presence of deeply rooted ideology and hostility toward Jews. The refusal of Hamas to  accept  this inexorable reality practically, if not theoretically and morally, is fraught with dire consequence for Jews and Arabs. To contest the full implications of the actuality of Israel as a Jewish state is futile and will be the source of continuing bloodshed and hateful agitation on and on. Sending missiles to explode in the cities of Israel solves nothing and perpetuates hatred and retaliation.

On the other hand Israel needs to stop the settlements and withdraw to their 1967 borders. This swap of land for peace needs to be accompanied by some plan, probably internationally mediated, for compensating Palestinian refugees for loss of their homes and livelihood because of their expulsion from Israel in the years following Jewish statehood. Israel needs to start treating Arabs in their territory with decency, and full respect and guarantee them all civil and personal rights that Jews have.

This is not likely to happen on either side. This, after all, is the Middle East where too few are willing to say with Yitzhak Rabin “enough of blood and tears.” So "two communities of suffering" (Edward Said) will continue to suffer and bleed and hate  until reason or sheer exhaustion leads to a resolution tolerable  to both if not loved  or welcomed by either.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

News Channels Have too Much Time to Fill

Having so many full-time news networks is not necessarily a good thing. To fill all this time, they focus on "breaking news" with reporters on the spot to follow events as they happen. The result is that frequently trivial occurrences are noted with a solemnity that far exceeds  newsworthiness.

When a catastrophe occurs, every boo-boo is captured, every failure noted. The current oil spill is a good example.
The assumption of journalists seems to be that immediately upon a catastrophe, all relevant institutions should be so perfectly prepared and organized that all the right things begin to happen at once without any gaps  and proceed without error until every issue is resolved. Unfortunately, the world does not operate like that. Institutions are imperfect, and leadership is fallible and sometimes incompetent  and often negligent. Having this pointed out twenty fours hours a day does not necessarily serve the public good, given the excesses that so much time allows.

Commentators demand explanation for every perceived failure and often seem to know infallibly what ought to be happening and what everybody should be doing to correct things. No mercy is shown and the recognition that some problems are complex and difficult to resolve is almost totally absent. Journalists appear to lack any comprehension of their own fallibility and ignorance.

The gaps in time between  "breaking news" events are filled with commentary from an innumerable host of folks who presumably  but frequently do not have something worthwhile to say. Political critics are omnipresent, though they are as often wrong as right and are sometimes silly. Gov. Jindal of Louisiana who thinks we have too much government and too many regulations is getting air time to criticize Obama for not doing enough.

Some of the critics sound as if they think Obama should be out there on the rig shouting orders to engineer and executives and directing every move. They seem deaf to the rejoinder that the government does not have the know how or the equipment to stop the oil flow. The only sense I can make of all this is that they want him to be louder and angrier.

 The  larger context is that too much attention is paid to ephemeral events that pass quickly into the trivia of history. The worst example is when all else is dropped to focus attention on a police chase in California followed by helicopters for an hour until the culprit is stopped, runs out of gas, or crashes.

Maybe the news channels should be forced to show Bugs Bunny cartoons half the time. The world would be no worse off and might even get along better. It certainly would be more high-class entertainment and much less boring than a constant diet of  "breaking news."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Misplaced Anger at the Tea Party

The Tea Party is right be to mad. We all ought to be, but it is important to be mad at the right things. The are mad about the bailout of the huge banks. I am too, although I was convinced that it was necessary to save all our hides. But too small a price was demanded from the banks, and too little has been done to reform the practices that let to the mess we had to rescue them from.

They want less government and less spending

Private Splendor, Public Squalor

Roger Cohen's column today noted that there are more "cellphones in India than toilets. Almost half the Indian population, 563.7 million people, is hooked up to modern communications, while just 366 million have access to modern sanitation, according to a United Nations study."

This reminded me of John Kenneth Galbraith's 1958 book The Affluent Society.  He pointed out that post-World War  II America had become rich in private goods but poor in public goods. This describes precisely the nature of present-day politics and cultural values. We value clever private cell phones more than child care support for working-class parents with low incomes. Our roads, bridges, and infrastructure generally crumble while ever more advanced cell phones are put in the hands of kids as soon as they can push the buttons and lift the device to their ears.

We have the latest electronic technology, splendid cars and television sets,  the most advanced medical care  and an abundance of private consumer goods without end available for those who have money but no universal health care to which every citizen is entitled from birth regardless of economic circumstances.

Is there something wrong here?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Babel, Pentecost, and Politics

I have always been struck by the contrast between Babel  (Genesis 11:1-9) and Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11). In the former, all people spoke one language but ended up in confusion, unable to understand one another. In the latter, diverse people who spoke  in different ways all could make sense of what the others were saying.

Which is the current state of American  politics most like?  Problem: How can we make political speech more like Pentecost and less like Babel?

Mail your answers on a postcard attached to a 2010 Lexus. Winner will be given a free meal at Cracker Barrel.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Exegesis Follows Belief, Although Exegesis Is an Important Determinant of Belief

The recent election of an openly lesbian candidate, The Rev. Mary Douglas Glasspool of Baltimore, as bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Los Angeles is the latest chapter in Anglican turmoil.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury,  denounced anti-gay prejudice but said the Anglican Communion was not in a position to approve same-sex marriages. "Changing the Anglican theological position on homosexuality would have to be based on the most painstaking biblical exegesis and on a wide acceptance of the results within the Communion," he wrote.

What the Archbishop neglects is that people do the exegesis. Exegesis  most often follows from what the people doing the exegeting believe, not the other way around, although the latter is not inconceivable or without real examples. When people accept same-sex love as legitimate, exegesis will provide the biblical foundation for it. 

The problem is not fundamentally exegetical but that many Christians believe that homosexuality is wrong. Otherwise, they would deal with the issue the same they do with the Scriptural approval of slavery, the stoning of male children, killing men engaging in sex with men, and the subservience of women --  to mention a few examples where clear textual evidence is present.

The text matters, of course, but other things matter more. Supremely what matters is the whole set or theological and moral beliefs  Christians have come to have at a given point, for whatever reasons, the text of Scripture being among the most important of such reasons.

What Christians who approve of same-sex love need most is not more and better exegesis but to find non-exegetical ways to change hearts and minds. When that happens, the foundational and sustaining exegesis will be forthcoming. Selah!

Hint: The best, but not unfailing, way to change minds is to demonstrate the deep and immense suffering caused by the church's traditional attitude.

For the assumptions underlying these claims, see:

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why Churchill Ordered an Attack on the French Navy in WW2

Nothing illustrates the ironies, complexities, ambiguities, tragedies, paradoxes, and contradictions of history than a little known episode of World War II. Noteworthy also  are the uncertainties that accompany many momentous decisions in the life of individuals and nations. Cf: Søren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr.

After France signed an armistice with the Nazis  in 1940 and agreed to call their Navy to French ports, Churchill was afraid that eventually all these ships would fall into Nazi hands  and used against Britain, insuring victory for the Germans against them. Commander of the French fleet Admiral Darlan assured Churchill that he would scuttle all this ships rather than let the Germans have them, but Churchill doubted that he would actually do it, and he needed certainty. Some evidence indicates that Admiral Darlan would have done what he promised.

Meanwhile, Churchill's pleas to Roosevelt for 50 old warships went unheeded because Roosevelt thought that Britain and the American ships  would fall to the Nazis. Churchill demanded that French ships be put under British control or sailed away to safe Allied ports. When a deal could not be worked out, Churchill ordered an attack on French vessels at a naval base in the French-Algiers port of Mers-el-Kebir. destroying a number of French ships and killing 1,300 French sailors—more than the number of French soldiers killed by the Germans at that point in the war. The British public approved;  the French were outraged, and Germany used the event for propaganda purposes. Roosevelt was now convinced of British resolve and capacity and sent the ships and other military supplies to aid Britain.

The  uncertainties, ironies,  complexities, ambiguities, tragedies, paradoxes, and contradictions of history: they are all there. 

See: Secrets of the Dead: Churchill’s Deadly Decision, PBS, May 12, 2010

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Absolutism: Gun Rights and Terrorists

Absolutism is a position that holds under any and all conditions, allows no exceptions for any reasons, circumstances, or possibilities. An absolutist is one who holds such positions.

Should known or suspected terrorists be permitted to fly on airplanes?
Should known or suspected terrorists be permitted to buy guns?

Reasonable people would say no to both questions.

There are folks in Congress who answer no to the first question but yes to the second.  Absurd? Yes. But it illustrates the nature of absolutism.

The National Rifle Association and those in Congress it has bought or sufficiently intimidated are absolutists, along with any who might be absolutists by conscience or conviction.

Beware of absolutists in politics -- and religion.

For a delightful look at terrorists and their right to buy guns, see:

 or Toles' cartoon in the Washington Post:

Monday, May 03, 2010

Sarah Palin Right About Something?

Her I'll let somebody else say it:

Insufficient Information and Bad Thinking

Suppose 87% of the people in  Strange county jail are people with bright fuchsia eyes though they constitute  only 2% of the population. Seems like something is wrong here. But suppose that 87% of the crimes in the county are committed by people with  bright fuchsia eyes. As my Dad would say, "That brings on more talk."  Doesn't seem so wrong, unjust, or unexpected now does it?

We need all relevant information to avoid confusion and bad thinking.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

I Am Opposed to Celebrating Independence Day: A Response to the Furor Over Confederate History Month

Since I did not  support Confederate History Month (though a southerner), I am opposed to celebrating  the Fourth of July. This is a nation whose original constitution regarded enslaved black people  as 3/5 of a person, a nation that committed near genocide against Native Americans. Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. Only property owning white males voted. The vote was not given to women until 1922. Women still do not have equal rights in all areas of life. Many churches deny them ordination to the ministry; their pay  in many jobs still lags behind that of men. Homosexuals have been and still are treated badly and often are subject to violence and cruelty, denied basic rights, e. g., to marry.

We are still a racist county in many ways. Theologians both North and South defended slavery on the basis of Scripture and natural law well into the middle of the 19th century.  Slavery existed in both North and South.  Especially New England, but also  New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, got wealthy in the slave trade. 
To this day, it's difficult to find an old North institution of any antiquity that isn't tainted by slavery. Ezra Stiles imported slaves while president of Yale. Six slave merchants served as mayor of Philadelphia. Even a liberal bastion like Brown University has the shameful blot on its escutcheon. It is named for the Brown brothers, Nicholas, John, Joseph, and Moses, manufacturers and traders who shipped salt, lumber, meat -- and slaves.
Soil, climate, and the invention of the cotton gin, not moral superiority, accounted for the persistence of slavery longer in the South than in the North. When the state of Georgia was founded, slavery was prohibited, but envy of wealth in  slave states led to its legalization.
The treatment of laboring people has been ghastly and often violent. Wage workers were left in their old age to fend for themselves. Sometimes their economic status and quality of life were no better than that of some Southern black slaves, whose masters provided for them until they died.
I will mention our imperialism only in passing but will point out that we have participated in the overthrow of democratically elected governments. Especially notable was the  deposing  of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh by the United States' Central Intelligence Agency, leading to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the threat we now face regarding nuclear weapons in Iran.

Let us move on to the  unnecessary and profoundly tragic wars in Vietnam and Iraq. We are the only country to use a nuclear weapon against another, though that was probably no worse than the Allied and US bombing of Dresden in WWII. How does the honoring of Confederate soldiers differ from honoring those who fought in Vietnam and Iraq?

On second thought I will gladly celebrate Confederate Day and the Fourth of July  if they are set aside as a time for confession of sin and commitment to fruits meet unto repentance.

Profiling and Clear Thinking

Suppose than in Banktown, 90% of the bank robberies are committed by white men 80 and older with beards. (For the record I fit that description.)  Would it make sense for police to pay close attention to people who fit that profile hanging around banks? But wouldn't that  be race, age, and beard profiling? The question illustrates the confusion surrounding the current discussion. We are supposed to be against all sorts of profiling, right?

Perhaps a relevant distinction (than which nothing is more useful) would be helpful. If profiling means focusing suspicion (stopping, questioning, detaining, etc.) on people merely because they fit a  particular profile and for no  reason relevant to the crime or other offense at issue, that is prejudice, is wrong. and should be prohibited, as in "driving while black."

If, however, the profile is relevant to the crime as suggested in the example given, profiling would be sensible policing and should be commended and promoted. If would be foolish to ignore white men 80 and over with beards when they are in or near a bank in Banktown.

Sometimes a relevant distinction can clear things up beautifully.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Confederate History Month and Yankee Bias Against White Southerners

If Yankees would get off this Confederate thing, I would be happy to let it alone. But Frank Rich prompts me to say something more.

I think the reason they go on about it so is that they equate the essence of the Confederacy with pure evil, allowing no room for anything good anywhere on anybody's part, whereas America is regarded as at worst  ambiguous, i. e., containing both good and evil and at best Edenic. I am inclined  to all view all history as ambiguous with some situations being much worse or much better than others.  Southerners historically have had a greater sense that all history  is marked by  tragedy and evil based on their own experience of poverty, defeat, devastation, suffering, and the moral burden of having sponsored and defended slavery.

What Yankees often don't recognize is that the very effort of Southerners to find some glory in the Lost Cause, to focus attention on states rights and the Constitution, along with the  ruses to justify secession, etc. often  have been and are an effort to escape  the memory and guilt of slavery. Such disguises are rationalizations which themselves  acknowledge by implication that slavery was morally reprehensible and indefensible. It is the South working through its own hurting conscience, to expiate its sins through evasion instead of through contrition, confession, and "fruits meet unto repentance."  This is how Confederate History Month should be celebrated.

Southern experience has been more like that of the rest of the world in contrast to the sense of American (Yankee) exceptionalism (not  as prevalent since Vietnam and Iraq) which had viewed America as that new thing in history, free, innocent, and sponsoring high ideals in its founding documents. In this scenario the South has been the exception to American exceptionalism, the other and inferior America, those odd people down there with the funny accent. It has been America's perennial problem because of its cultural backwardness, poverty, and as the primary locus of slavery and racism. As I like to say, prejudice against white Southerners is the only bias white northern liberals allow themselves without guilt, it being in their estimation not a slanted view but a recognition of plain facts.

In the current ranting I see a failure to distinguish between slavery and racism. Racism is pervasive north and south, east and west, even if it is more easily exploited especially in small towns and rural Dixie. Nobody today defends slavery, but racism though widespread is more subtle and often expressed in code and nearly everywhere and always denied by the accused.

As a southerner I pledge that every time the Confederacy is mentioned, I will at once fall on my knees, look heavenward, and wholeheartedly denounce slavery as  ugly and evil if every time Yankees mention America they will denounce the near genocide of Native Americans, the internment of the Japanese in WWII, the witch trials in Salem, the denial of the vote to women until 1922,  and the exploitation of  wage labor in the industrialized states and the violence against unions. All Jews must likewise at the mention of Israel denounce the forced expulsion of Palestinians in 1947-48, the occupation of Palestinian territory since 1967, the apartheid it continues to practice, and the building of settlements in Palestinian territory. A full confession would include repentance for the  appropriation of ancient Canaan and the Jewish jihad of Esther 9.

But I forgot that  all other history is morally ambiguous; only the Confederacy is pure evil with no redeeming features.

PS  Southerners will get an extra star in heaven for putting up with Yankee self-righteousness and condescension. We are--white and black--often not expected to be very bright. I have had more than one Northern white woman confess to me later that the first day in class when she heard my southern accent, she was not sure I could be smart enough to teach her anything. With pride Augustine would appreciate, I can confidently say that it took only three or four days to demolish that illusion.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Redemption from Sin

In a weak moment I bought a package of Oreo cookies. It was a bad thing to do, I admit, but now that I have them, what should I do?

1. Take them back for a refund.
No, that would just make them available for someone else to buy and gain weight, take up my time and the time of grocery clerks, use gas going there, etc.

2. Give them to the food cupboard.
No! That would just lead others into temptation. I should take only good, nourishing items to the food depot, like broccoli.

3. Throw them in the garbage.
No. My Mother told me never to waste food.

4. Let them stay in the cookie jar until they spoil.
No, see  3.

5. Eat them myself.
Yes. That way I will be punished for my sin by gaining weight and getting my arteries clogged. Otherwise, they will just be there tempting me. Eating them is the only way to get rid of this temptation.

Wow! I am glad I reasoned my way through this. It has been bothering me.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Barbour is right! In the End the Flap Over Confederate History Month Does Not Amount to "Diddly"

In these prickly times in which sensitivities are all on steroids, one--especially a white southerner--hesitates to say anything  about the Civil War and the Confederacy lest it offend somebody. Nevertheless, in fear and trepidation I assert that the Governor of Mississippi Haley Barbour has a point in asserting that the furor over  Virginia Gov. McConnell's call for the observance of Confederate History Month in the final analysis does not add up to "diddly."

Actually, the Virginia Proclamation as amended is not so bad. See:
Numerous other southern states have had similar proclamations and observances over the years, including my native state of Georgia. As a child I marched down the streets of Griffin in observance of Confederate Memorial Day for reasons I neither understood nor thought much about.

There are so many facts, facets, aspects, dimensions, complexities, paradoxes, contradictions, ambiguities, and the like regarding the Civil War era that it is probably impossible for anyone to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the matter. Conversely, most any reasonable statement is likely to contain at least a partial truth. So here goes.

In the Washington Post  Eugene Robinson--a journalist I deeply admire and usually wholeheartedly agree with--wants a "reason to 'honor' soldiers who fought to perpetuate a system that could never have functioned without constant, deliberate, unflinching cruelty."

One of my Great, Great Grandfathers and two Great Grandfathers were Confederate soldiers. One --Cash Clay--died in an Illinois prison of smallpox. They owned no slaves, but like many other poor white southerners were recruited to fight a war for an institution they had no personal stake in. I don't know what their views on slavery were. Nor do I know what their attitudes were about women voting. I am pretty certain that my moral, political, and religious views would be in  deep conflict with many of their own. Were  all Union soldiers paragons of virtue and void of abhorrent views on race, women, and slavery? All understanding of history must begin with the proposition that "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God," although certainly some have sinned more grievously and some sins are far worse than others.

What attitude would Robinson have me take toward my ancestors? While condemning slavery, would it be inappropriate for me to honor  or at least remember their bravery, their sacrifice -- which is what most Proclamations I have read call for? They also call for understanding the past, seeking reconciliation, and the like.  One can certainly deal with slavery during Confederate History Month. Here is McConnell's statement in this year's Proclamation:
WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history;
OK, that was added after an uproar about its omission, but did anyone suspect he was shaky on the subject?

It just seems to me that a special burden is put on southerners to disavow slavery every time they mention the Confederacy, as if there might be some doubt. If I speak of Jefferson and Washington (whose birthdays the nation celebrates), am I obligated to say that they owned slaves, and I think slavery is really evil. If I speak of Colonial Massachusetts, must I disavow the stoning and hanging of alleged witches or think it was wrong that Roger Williams was driven out. Granted the Confederacy had slavery at its center and that is an important distinction, but which of us is still suspect on the slavery question?

If you asked my ancestor soldiers what they were fighting for, I have no idea what they would say. They might agree with the Confederate Shelby Foote quoted who responded to a Yankee's  similar question by answering, "Because you are down here," i. e., you are in my territory with guns trying to kill me.

My forebears--like we all often are--were caught up in a maelstrom of events profoundly tragic over which they had little or no control and about which they doubtless had a limited understanding.  The speeches of Abraham Lincoln probably come as close as is humanly possible to a  comprehensive and profound understanding of the meaning of it all.

Slavery may be America's "Original Sin," as Robinson claims, but the atrocious  treatment of Native Americans is right up there as a mighty contender for the dishonor and began about as early.

I was born in rural Georgia in 1930. I have never heard  anyone I knew as a child or now or indeed in all America in  my generation offer a defense of slavery or greet it with approbation. How many times must we say that it was horrible, cruel, evil, and despicable? Apparently every time the Confederacy is mentioned.

I don't care for Confederate History Month. Much of the rhetoric I hear from its most ardent supporters is distasteful to me. But is there no place in our discussion for relativity, proportion, and even a little tolerance for what we don't like?

The immediate situation needs to be put in a larger historical context to gain a deeper understanding. The 20th century saw the development of American exceptionalism. In this vision, the South is the "other America," those people "down there" who are different (read: inferior) to us. The North is the primary location of a distinct sense of being innocent, free, successful, democratic, and devoted to high principles -- not like those older countries from which we came and the rest of the world.  The South has been the regional exception to this exceptionalism. Indeed, the South, unlike the North (the real America)  has known poverty, defeat, and shame over slavery and has sought for some way to find solace in the alleged values of an agricultural society with its devotion to tradition, religion, virtue, and honor. The North in a long-enduring southern counter-myth, by contrast, was  materialistic, greedy, and ruled by a frenetic capitalism that left the laboring classes at the mercy of the rich, the powerful, and the destructive forces of the impersonal market. Vietnam and now Iraq have taken some steam out of the most ambitious versions of the  American exceptionalist myth, but it is still around, even if in a weakened and chastened form.

So perhaps what we see in the current devotion to Confederate History Month is a way for the South to seek some meaning in the "Lost Cause" in the bravery, sacrifice, and honor of their soldiers and leaders. When northern liberals denounce the whole business with shouts of racism, we see remnants of the old American notion of exceptionalism and its feeling of superiority to that "other America" -- the exception to the real America while forgetting the racial and other sins of its own, including its participation the destruction of Native Americans and the appropriation of their land.

So  a little humility on both sides would help as we come to understand that neither region is yet free from the stained heritage and myths of the past. North and South still have stuff to work out in their own psyches. Whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives, northerners and southerners perchance need to come to a deep internal recognition that those realities--the Confederacy, slavery, the Civil War--lie 150 years or more in the past and have decreasing efficacy in the stream of real life today, except as magnified by imagination and unresolved feelings. Perhaps we might then turn our attention to the real threats, destructive forces, and constructive opportunities of the moment.

Meanwhile, until we all are more fully redeemed, let the Confederates have their history month . I assure you no one  will defend slavery or segregation and no politician will advocate racial discrimination. In the larger scheme of things April will soon pass and, the whole thing will not amount to "diddly."

PS The literature on these topics is vast. I will suggest only one book:
The Burden of Southern History
C. Vann Woodward, 3rd ed.(Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2008).
For an interesting review see:

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Short Lesson in Metaphysics

Everything that exists can be divided into two classes: peanut butter and not peanut butter.

Peanut butter comes in two forms: creamy and crunchy and is either  natural (ground up roasted peanuts only) or processed (salt and/or sugar or other ingredients added).

Everything else is not peanut butter.

Any questions?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Christians and Violence

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Aesthetics, Realism, Symbolism, Ethics, and the Morphology of the Spirit

OK, I am just showing I still know how to speak professor-ese,  by which it is possible to parade obscurantism as profundity. Here is what I have in mind:

In the front of my church is a beautiful stained glass Apostles cross in vivid colors. It gets the morning sun which makes it brilliant. Aesthetically, it is splendid. The symbolism is clear. But realism is absent. The actual historical cross was probably ugly, dirty, rough-hewn, and splintery.  A replica would probably not be chosen for exhibition in that choice spot, visible at all times to  worshipers.
What is going on here? How do aesthetics, symbolism, and realism relate to the enhancement of piety and  the promotion of faith and good works?

Guernica is a Picasso classic. Paul Tillich says it exhibits the estrangement manifest in all forms of modern life. The painting depicts the 1937 bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by German bombers, who were supporting the Nationalist forces of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Interpretations vary and are many in number, generally having to do with the tragedy and suffering of war.

Now imagine that instead of this painting we had a professional-quality vivid color photograph of a battle scene or a bombed out area with bodies, brains, blood, guts, and limbs in horrible, grotesque display. Would it or could it have the same moral and spiritual power of Picasso's great work? Would we hang it in our living room? Would any museum want it?

Is it missing the point badly to suggest that a realistic picture of the horrors of an actual battlefield might convey more powerfully the estrangement in modern life and the awfulness of war? Does a painting like Guernica  perform  a kind of aesthetic cleansing without loss of symbolic power that makes it acceptable to display in living rooms and other places great art can be admiringly shown without tasteless offense?

No picture or painting has much meaning apart from some background knowledge of its historical and cultural setting. The more we know, e. g., about the context of Guernica and its forms and elements, the more significance it has and the more interpretations it generates. Can only a work of art like this create all these possibilities while a literal depiction cannot? How do aesthetics, realism, symbolism, and ethics relate to the human spirit in  terms of power to inform, elevate, and transform our grasp of meaning, purpose, and duty?

I suspect I have raised more questions and provoke more interpretations than my capacities can handle. But it is interesting to think about it, n'est-ce pas?

Monday, March 29, 2010

One And A Half Cheers for the Health Care Reform Bill

The recently passed health care bill has much that is good in it, which readers will know about without being reminded here. But compared to the ideal, it is pretty bad. But it is probably the best possible under present political conditions, which are themselves pretty bad.

Hence, I am prepared to give not three cheers but one and a half to celebrate its passage. A one-payer, Medicare for all would be simpler, more efficient, and would guarantee every citizen health care.

The employer-based system was a war-time exigency that allowed employers to give benefits instead of raising wages, which was prohibited under war time rules.  It is complex, inefficient, clumsy, generates many inequities, and leaves millions uncovered . Additionally, it proves that the free market is not appropriate for providing health care, for reasons any economics textbook will enumerate when stating market limitations.

But it continues out of inertia and because of the political power of those who benefit from it, e. g., health insurance and drug companies and many individuals and families who have good coverage and are fearful of change. (Mine is free, except for co-payments under the generous spousal provisions  of my wife's former employer-- The University of Rochester.)

I wanted the present measure to pass and watched every vote in detail on C-Span2, the principle being that when the ideal is impossible, the best presently achievable is usually better than nothing.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Do We Have Rights, And How Do We Know?

A letter to the editor in my local paper argued that health care should not be considered a right. Her reasoning was that such a right is nowhere specified in the founding documents. This is a great advance over the mere assertion that this or that is a right. To make such conversations meaningful, we need a definition of what a right is and on what basis it is to be affirmed. Otherwise, we have a mere exchange of opinions but not much light thrown on the matter.

Unfortunately, the usual situation is that anything that anyone  strongly believes the government should provide is asserted to be a right. This is not helpful. My proposal is that instead we should claim that something, e. g., health care is a need and that all have a just claim on available resources. I speak here of rights to specific goods and services not the more fundamental rights, e. g., human rights, civil rights, legal rights, etc., discussed next.

This would not, course, automatically resolve all the issues. We would still still have to establish what a need is, whether health care is one, and whether the need should be met by private or public (governmental) means and so on. But it would provide a basis and process for debate that would not be as empty as the mere assertion that something is a right.

We can responsibly speak of rights. I would suggest two types: natural rights and constitutional. The former are those that belong to us by virtue of our being human.  Since they are based on reason, they  are controversial and open to doubt and dispute. But if we are to make claims based on nature, I suggest they be kept to a minimum, such as those mentioned in the Declaration of Independence,  i. e., "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I would add  equality and justice and leave it at that.

Constitutional rights are those specified in the American Constitution or implied therein as determined by judicial review and ultimately by the Supreme Court. On this basis rights can be established by legislation and court decisions, e. g., the Miranda rights. Interestingly, those legislated and enforced are the most knowable, certain, and specific but most likely to be mistaken, whereas natural rights are less knowable, have less concrete  specificity, and the least guaranteed enforcement as such but have the greatest universal validity.

There are also, of course, rights by recommendation and adoption, such as the United Nations' Declaration of Universal Rights. Earlier were Roosevelt's Four Freedoms and other proposals for the recognition of rights. These tends to function more as ideals to be attained not claims guaranteed by some authoritative body with power to do so.

The issues regarding are more complicated than this, but perhaps this suggests the beginning of a ways to approach the overuse of the term for anything anybody feels strongly about.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Quasi-Acerbic Comments for the Day

 Politicians should be forbidden to speak of "the American people." The assumption is that Americans are of one mind, i. e., hold opinions  on the issue in question identical with those of the politicians speaking. The truth is that Americans hold many different opinions about almost any policy question you can name.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Why Can't We Take Effective Steps to Conquer the Superbugs?

We all know that superbugs are emerging that available antibiotics cannot kill.  The overuse of antibiotics spurs evolutionary adaptation and the production of newer versions of bugs more resistant to treatment. Doctors overprescribe antibiotics, sometimes at the insistence of patients who demand them despite the futility of their use.

What is not so well known is that most antibiotics are used on animals.

A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that in the United States, 70 percent of antibiotics are used to feed healthy livestock, with 14 percent more used to treat sick livestock. Only about 16 percent are used to treat humans and their pets, the study found.

Why doesn't Congress do something about this? Apparently because the agribusiness lobby is too powerful. The Obama administration has not shown any determination to take them on. 

Just one more sign of our dysfunctional democracy.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

We Have Met the Enemy -- US! (Pogo)

Of course, the Senate is in gridlock, bound by partisanship and meanness of spirit. Of course, Senators are beholden to special interests who provide them money and to groups who guarantee votes. Of course, the Senate is strapped by arcane, anti-democratic rules.  And, of course. the whole system is shot through with corrupting influences of money, quest for power, and self-preservation.

But behind that is we the people who are self-centered and selfish, thinking primarily of how law and policy will affect us. Most people have health insurance they like and are only weakly concerned about the millions who have none at all, especially if providing it to them will exact a cost from them in taxes or premiums. We are good at rationalizing our views in ways that mask our egocentric thinking and demands and making us look like good, patriotic, right-thinking folks.

Missing or weak in all the actors who shape our laws is a concern for the common good, what benefits society as a whole, promotes opportunity, justice, and equality for all. That is a matter values, of morals -- the province of religion and culture. As Daniel  Moynihan reminded us, it is culture that finally rules not politics.

Churches, are you listening? Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and others whose faith mandates compassion, mercy,and  justice, especially for the poor and down and out, are you listening?