Happy Trails to Me

As you might have noticed, I’ve (temporarily) turned the blog over to Donna, moonbat, and biggerbox, and tomorrow I’m going to fly home to the Ozarks to visit kinfolk. Since it’s unlikely I’ll be find high-speed Internet where I’m going, I’m going to take a break from blogging until Monday. So be nice and don’t trash up the place too much while I’m gone.

In case you missed it, I posted a new episode of The Wisdom of Doubt earlier today.

See ya next week!

Opening the Western Mind

I was watching Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia) last night on the news say that our country’s intense focus on the Middle East has caused us to neglect other areas of the world. Webb had Southeast Asia in mind, and noted that this is a very important region to us economically. Of course, Webb is right, but I would argue that our Mesopotamian myopia has had some other interesting side effects, beyond intensifying the glaring hatreds and competition between the jihadists of all sides – theirs and our own.

If you look closely, some voices of reason are starting to make themselves more widely known. They’re having the effect of teaching the West something about this mysterious, complex, and misunderstood area, and some things about ourselves. Sara Robinson over at Orcinus recently posted Why People Hate America?, which was triggered by this recent Pew poll, and was largely based on the writings of Ziauddin Sardar, who is…

…an orthodox British Muslim of Pakistani parentage…one of the UK’s more visible public intellectuals. In recent years, Sardar has made a career out of explaining the Muslim world to the Brits, mediating and translating between the Western and Near Eastern cultures on the pages of the Observer and The New Statesman and frequently on BBC news shows as well. (It’s interesing that nowhere in the US media do we have a similarly trusted Muslim media figure who can help us bridge the most important cultural chasm of our times. Wonder why that is?) A iconoclastic outsider, Sardar is unsparing in his critiques of both cultures, issuing insights, warnings, and alternatives on either side that have made him indispensable to a European audience that increasingly sees itself caught in the middle.

I encourage you to read her whole post (as well as the comments). We have had the invaluable Juan Cole for some time now, and it’s good that others are gaining a wider audience, even if this is at times, only through blog writings such as Sara’s.

In a doctor’s office on Monday, I came across an aging issue of Time Magazine, which featured Queen Rania of Jordan. In typical, brief, upbeat, and to the point Time Magazine style, the Queen was asked Ten Questions, and I found some of her answers to be freshing and hopeful:

Q: Do you think that women will ever truly have equal rights in the Middle East?

A: Absolutely, I believe they will. I think that mind-sets are changing in the Middle East. Poll after poll is showing that men see the value of greater female participation and empowerment. We still have a long way to go, but Islam should not be used as a scapegoat. The obstacles that face women today are more cultural. It’s not about the religion.

Q: Will the Arab world ever be free of the kind of mindless violence occurring in Iraq?

A: The Middle East is not just about Iraq. The Middle East has both challenges and opportunities. Many countries in our region are experiencing a massive economic boom. It’s a very youthful region, and the young by nature are hopeful, optimistic and innovative. The world shouldn’t overlook our successes and achievements.

Q: What is the biggest negative about the U.S. invasion of Iraq?

A: The civilian suffering. This conflict has spared no one. It’s incredibly sad to see such a proud and great country broken.

Q: What’s the solution to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

A: First, start with will on both sides–not just the political kind but the kind that comes from the conscience and the heart. To achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East takes guts, not guns.

I was so impressed with these answers, but of course it’s difficult to know how widely held they are, and how much influence people like the Queen have in this region. Her outspokenness and quiet wisdom is emblematic of the rise of the feminine, worldwide, over the last century or so. Our country is part of this, beginning with the suffragettes earlier in this century, followed by the energizing of the feminist movement in the 60s and 70s, and culminating recently in the election of women to high office, such as Nancy Pelosi, and, in the future, possibly our first female president in 2008. I hope to write more about this shortly, and I hope I can do it justice.

Excessive Heat Warning

(Maha has graciously also offered me a set of keys to her place while she’s away. It looks like it’ll be a party! So before I go to digest the latest in her Wisdom of Doubt series, below, and the tech support leave town, here’s my post, cross-posted from my regular playpen, Ratiocination. –Paul, aka biggerbox)

The National Weather Service has issued an Excessive Heat Warning for my home city today. But in reading the news, I see there should also be a warning about excessive heat in Washington, DC. Specifically, at the Department of Justice, in the area around the Attorney General’s pants. They are, once again, quite visibly, on fire.

From the Washington Post:

As he sought to renew the USA Patriot Act two years ago, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales assured lawmakers that the FBI had not abused its potent new terrorism-fighting powers. “There has not been one verified case of civil liberties abuse,” Gonzales told senators on April 27, 2005.

Six days earlier, the FBI sent Gonzales a copy of a report that said its agents had obtained personal information that they were not entitled to have. It was one of at least half a dozen reports of legal or procedural violations that Gonzales received in the three months before he made his statement to the Senate intelligence committee, according to internal FBI documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The acts recounted in the FBI reports included unauthorized surveillance, an illegal property search and a case in which an Internet firm improperly turned over a compact disc with data that the FBI was not entitled to collect, the documents show. Gonzales was copied on each report that said administrative rules or laws protecting civil liberties and privacy had been violated.

Spinmeisters at the DOJ lept into action, assuring us that perhaps Mr. Gonzales had not read the notification that his pants were flammable, that everybody’s wearing flaming pants these days, and besides, they aren’t really large flames.

Justice officials said they could not immediately determine whether Gonzales read any of the FBI reports in 2005 and 2006 because the officials who processed them were not available yesterday. But department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that when Gonzales testified, he was speaking “in the context” of reports by the department’s inspector general before this year that found no misconduct or specific civil liberties abuses related to the Patriot Act.

“The statements from the attorney general are consistent with statements from other officials at the FBI and the department,” Roehrkasse said. He added that many of the violations the FBI disclosed were not legal violations and instead involved procedural safeguards or even typographical errors.

Oh, typographical errors? Well then, nothing to be concerned about, eh, Mr. Buttle?

Gonzales received another report of an NSL-related violation a few weeks later. “A national security letter . . . contained an incorrect phone number” that resulted in agents collecting phone information that “belonged to a different U.S. person” than the suspect under investigation, stated a letter copied to the attorney general on May 6, 2005.

At least two other reports of NSL-related violations were sent to Gonzales, according to the new documents. In letters copied to him on Dec. 11, 2006, and Feb. 26, 2007, the FBI reported to the oversight board that agents had requested and obtained phone data on the wrong people.

Now, I realize that I have a reputation for being a mite tetchy about the rights my ancestors fought the British for, but if I were to find out that the FBI had been snooping around my phone records, without a judge’s permission, for no reason other than a ‘typographical error’, I’d be pretty ticked off. It seems like the very definition of an unreasonable search.

You know, the kind of unreasonable search that the Fourth Amendment says I am to be “secure from”, by a right that “shall not be violated”. I don’t know where Mr. Gonzales starts his enumeration of civil liberties, but me, I think the Bill of Rights is a good place to begin.

Now, odds are that it wasn’t my phone records the Feds were snooping through. Though I don’t know. Somebody, or rather several somebodies, had FBI agents prying into their lives for no good reason. It might have been me. It might have been you. That’s the point. We are not ‘secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’ The safeguards that have been in place to ensure that right shall not be violated have been removed.

In March of this year, the FBI inspector general released a report detailing many abuses. As TPMmuckraker reminds us, at the time, Attorney General Gonzales was quoted as being “incensed”, and order FBI director Robert Mueller to clean it up.

But, as today’s news shows, he’d been receiving reports of such abuses and violations for years by then. And yet, like Louis in Casablanca, he seemed shocked -shocked!- by the news in March.

How could it be that the Attorney General of the United States would tell Congress what he did, and how could he have been surprised by news in the spring of this year that had been being reported to him for years? It seems impossible.

Until one remembers that the legal brains of the Bush administration went to the Lewis Carroll School of Law:

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

The Wisdom of Doubt, Part VI

There is hardly an example of a mass movement achieving vast proportions and a durable organization solely by persuasion. Professor K.S. Latourette, a very Christian historian, has to admit that “However incompatible the spirit of Jesus and armed force may be, and however unpleasant it may be to acknowledge the fact, as a matter of plain history the latter has often made it possible for the former to survive.” It was the temporal sword that made Christianity a world religion. Conquest and conversion often went hand in hand, the latter often serving as a justification and a tool of the former. Where Christianity failed to gain or retain the backing of state power, it achieved neither a wide nor a permanent hold. “In Persia . . . Christianity confronted a state religion sustained by the crown and never became the faith of more than a minority.” In the phenomenal spread of Islam, conquest was a primary factor and conversion a by-product. “The most flourishing periods for Mohhamedanism have been at the times of its greatest political ascendancy; and it is at those times that it has achieved its highest accession from without.” The Reformation made headway only where it gained the backing of the ruling prince or the local government. … Where, as in France, the state power was against it, it was drowned in blood and never rose again. [Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951)]

Religion and government have been closely entwined going as far back as history goes. Every ancient civilization I know of was governed through an alliance of priests and kings. The priests sanctified the power of kings and assured the support and favor of gods for their policies; kings, in turn, saw to it the priests enjoyed protection and status. As a rule, the political/religious establishment accepted no challenges. Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Crucifixion suggested the Powers That Be in Jerusalem saw him as a potential threat to their authority.

In the first three centuries after the Crucifixion, Christianity went from being a small Jewish sect to a loosely organized movement made up broadly scattered communities, mostly gentile, with diverse beliefs. But the patronage of the Emperor Constantine sent what had been a minor religion up to the Big Leagues. In 325 CE Constantine convened the council of bishops at Nicaea to agree which doctrines would become the foundation of Christian orthodoxy to this day. From the reign of Constantine until modern times, Church power and political power in Europe were closely linked. Many of the Church’s most infamous acts of religious oppression were conducted in partnership with political power. In fact, the Spanish Inquisition operated completely under Spanish royal authority, not Rome’s.

My point is that religious authority and political authority have been drawn to each other throughout human history. And I argue that much of the Really Bad Shit attributed to religion really occurred in the nexus between religion and politics. As noted in Wisdom of Doubt, Part IV, history shows us that when authoritarian religious institutions form alliances with political power, the results can be nasty.

In the 15th through 19th centuries Christian Europe explored and colonized much of the planet. Countless atrocities were committed by both Church and crown in the process. By the 19th century the process had taken on a veneer of gentility, however, as Christian missionaries became the (sometimes) unwitting advance troops of capitalistic exploitation. The missionaries gained the trust of the people, challenged and weakened long-established local authority, and taught the “natives” European languages and manners. Then came Money — European and, increasingly, American — and before long the now-Christianized native people were enslaved on plantations and in mines, stripping away the natural resources of their own native lands to enrich far-away moneyed interests. And when the resources were gone and Money walked away, very often warlords and despots stepped in to fill the power void.

In America, religion salved the consciences of slave owners, who reasoned Africans were better off enslaved on plantations than free in Africa because here they’d be Christians. Mary Chesnut, wife of a plantation owner, soothed her own apparent discomfort with slavery by imagining herself a white missionary in an African village.

In 1901, Mark Twain took aim at the collusion of religion and money in his famous essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.”

Extending the Blessings of Civilization to our Brother who Sits in Darkness has been a good trade and has paid well, on the whole; and there is money in it yet, if carefully worked – but not enough, in my judgement, to make any considerable risk advisable. The People that Sit in Darkness are getting to be too scarce ­– too scarce and too shy. And such darkness as is now left is really of but an indifferent quality, and not dark enough for the game. The most of those People that Sit in Darkness have been furnished with more light than was good for them or profitable for us. We have been injudicious.

The Blessings-of-Civilization Trust, wisely and cautiously administered, is a Daisy. There is more money in it, more territory, more sovereignty, and other kinds of emolument, than there is in any other game that is played. But Christendom has been playing it badly of late years, and must certainly suffer by it, in my opinion. She has been so eager to get every stake that appeared on the green cloth, that the People who Sit in Darkness have noticed it – they have noticed it, and have begun to show alarm. They have become suspicious of the Blessings of Civilization. More – they have begun to examine them. This is not well. The Blessings of Civilization are all right, and a good commercial property; there could not be a better, in a dim light. In the right kind of a light, and at a proper distance, with the goods a little out of focus, they furnish this desirable exhibit to the Gentlemen who Sit in Darkness:













– and so on.

There. Is it good? Sir, it is pie. It will bring into camp any idiot that sits in darkness anywhere. But not if we adulterate it. It is proper to be emphatic upon that point. This brand is strictly for Export – apparently. Apparently. Privately and confidentially, it is nothing of the kind. Privately and confidentially, it is merely an outside cover, gay and pretty and attractive, displaying the special patterns of our Civilization which we reserve for Home Consumption, while inside the bale is the Actual Thing that the Customer Sitting in Darkness buys with his blood and tears and land and liberty. That Actual Thing is, indeed, Civilization, but it is only for Export.

An interesting record for a religion whose chief deity-prophet proclaimed that love of money is the root of all evil.

Which brings us to the present. In the last episode of the Wisdom of Doubt, I quoted a speech by Bill Moyers in which he laid out the devious plan of the Right to take total control of America. In brief, the economic plan is to exploit labor and reward the rich and the political plan is to control news media. Next comes the religious plan:

Their religious strategy was to fuse ideology and theology into a worldview freed of the impurities of compromise, claim for America the status of God’s favored among nations (and therefore beyond political critique or challenge), and demonize their opponents as ungodly and immoral.

At the intersection of these three strategies was money: Big Money.

This is a power play as old as civilization itself: The “priests” sanctify the power of “kings” and assure the support and favor of “gods” for their policies; kings, in turn, see to it the priests enjoy protection and status. I think we’ve seen this before.

We could speculate if people are self-aware of their own machinations or if, like Mary Chesnut, they’re mostly bullshitting themselves. I suspect many of those 19th century Christian missionaries were idealists who really believed they were doing God’s work, just as I suspect much of the rank and file of the Christian Right really believe their leadership and their cause are sanctified by God. The leadership itself is a far more interesting stew of denial, repression, and greed, but I’ll leave that alone for now.

What’s most fascinating to me is the way today’s Christian Right has so cheerfully subordinated itself to the causes of political power and “free market” capitalism, neither of which even remotely connect to Jesus’ teachings. It’s as if after all these centuries of compromising Jesus to attain favor and prominence, Christians step into the same old role without a second’s thought. As noted in the previous Wisdom of Doubt episode, disciples of the late right-wing theologian Rousas John Rushdoony are taught that God favored America with the blessing of “biblical capitalism,” and before his downfall the Rev. Ted Haggard used to preach that free market capitalism is the fulfillment of God’s Plan.

The Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy at Cornell University has a web page called “Economics from the Religious Right” with quotes and links showing how the Christian Right has adopted the exploitation of labor and the accumulation of great wealth into their grab bag of “sacred” doctrines.

Hmm, now what was it Jesus said? “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25, New International Version). Does anyone on the Christian Right ever actually read the Gospels, I wonder?

But now let’s flip this discussion over and look at the other side. For two millennia Christians have engaged in real charitable work. Eight centuries ago Saint Francis of Assisi resisted the violence of the Crusades. In the 16th through 18th centuries Franciscan missionaries in North and South America worked tirelessly, often at great personal sacrifice, to protect native Americans from the exploitation and cruelty of other Europeans. Many generations of Catholic nuns dedicated their lives to caring for the sick. In fact, nursing was so closely associated with nuns that until the past 30 or so years professional nurses wore starched white caps whose design evolved from the nun’s coif.

And, yes, at times monasteries and convents housed acts of cruelty also. Religious people are still people. Much of the quality of religious orders, I suspect, depends on whether they are protected by civil authority or must answer to it. And, of course, the non-religious also do good work, and heal the sick and care for the exploited. I’m not one who believes that “they’re nice to other people” is one of religions’ chief claims to fame. Religions, like people, and government, and like any other human institution, are a mix of good and bad, idealism and corruption. If anything, religion seems to have an amplifying effect, bringing out the best in some people and the worst in others. I say any absolute position anyone takes on religion — that it is either entirely bad or entirely good — is one-sided and fanatical.

But, whatever you think of it, religion is not going away. Religion has been with us since we’ve been a species. Many of the arguments of evolutionary biology are probably valid. And many of the arguments against religion by crusading atheists like Richard Dawkins are also valid. However, the notion that if only people could be talked out of believing in God they’d see the light of Reason and Logic is, um, fanciful.

I want to discuss religion as a revolutionary force versus religion as preserver and defender of status quos in a future edition of The Wisdom of Doubt. Right now I just want to note that, historically, institutionalized religions tend to soak up the values and morals of whatever culture they are institutionalized in, and then they reflect those values and morals back at the culture, and so act as positive reinforcers of whatever is clanking about in that culture, good or bad. The Religious Right is doing such a good job of reflecting the ugliest and greediest aspects of American culture that they’ve just about erased Jesus entirely.

Here’s a great example, via Mike the Mad Biologist. Charles Marsh writes:

The worldwide Christian opposition seems to me the most neglected story related to the religious debate about Iraq: Despite approval for the president’s decision to go to war by 87 percent of white evangelicals in April 2003, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts poll, almost every Christian leader in the world (and almost every nonevangelical leader in the United States) voiced opposition to the war. …

… By the time American troops began bombing Baghdad before sunrise on March 20, 2003, the collective effort of the evangelical elites had sanctified the president’s decision and encouraged the laity to believe that the war was God’s will for the nation. Evangelicals preached for the war, prayed for the war, sang for the war, and offered God’s blessings on the war.

Sometime after Operation Iraqi Freedom began, I made a remarkable discovery. I had gone to one of my local Christian bookstores to find a Bible for my goddaughter. On a whim, I also decided to look for a Holy Spirit lapel pin, in the symbolic shape of a dove, the kind that had always been easy to find in the display case in the front. Many people in my church and in the places where I traveled had been wearing the American flag on their lapel for months now. It seemed like a pretty good time for Christians to put the Spirit back on.

But the doves were nowhere in sight. In the place near the front where I once would have found them, I was greeted instead by a full assortment of patriotic accessories — red-white-and-blue ties, bandanas, buttons, handkerchiefs, “I support our troops” ribbons, “God Bless America” gear, and an extraordinary cross and flag button with the two images interlocked. I felt slightly panicked by the new arrangement. I asked the clerk behind the counter where the doves had gone. The man’s response was jarring, although the remark might well be remembered as an apt theological summation of our present religious age. “They’re in the back with the other discounted items,” he said, nodding in that direction.

This takes us back to the quote by Eric Hoffer at the beginning of this post. “It was the temporal sword that made Christianity a world religion,” Hoffer says.

But in another part of the same passage, Hoffer also wrote (in 1951) “The threat of communism at present does not come from the forcefulness of its preaching but from the fact that it is backed by one of the mightiest armies on earth.” It isn’t just religion that is spread by sword and gun. Remove religion as an excuse, and mankind will find more excuses.

The corruption of Christianity in America today is paralleled by the corruption of republican government. Right now, America must choose between being a republic or an empire; I don’t think it can be both. By the same token, Christianity has to choose between what sort of power it wants to be — political or religious? I don’t think it can be both.

Separation of church and state isn’t just a liberal plot to keep Christians out of power. It’s what’s best for religion as well as the state. Separated from the temptations of temporal power, religion is free to be religion. Can evangelicals be made to see the truth of this, however?

Also: See Digby.

Testing, Testing

This is a test, first of all, to see if I remember how to do a post [as I am going to try to back up moonbat in the next few days while Maha is gone]. I think when I do a more substantive post, I’d like to address the question of ‘praiseworthy Republicans’. Where and who are they nowadays? Praiseworthy Republicans seem to be, um, increasingly scarce, but perhaps there are readers who have some stories that fit this topic.

Jawing for War

Peter Baker and Karen DeYoung write in today’s Washington Post (emphasis added):

President Bush, facing a growing Republican revolt against his Iraq policy, has rejected calls to change course but will launch a campaign emphasizing his intent to draw down U.S. forces next year and move toward a more limited mission if security conditions improve, senior officials said yesterday.

Top administration officials have begun talking with key Senate Republicans to walk them through his view of the next phase in the war, beyond the troop increase he announced six months ago today. Bush plans to lay out what an aide called “his vision for the post-surge” starting in Cleveland today to assure the nation that he, too, wants to begin bringing troops home eventually.

Needlenose: “Bush says Godot won’t arrive in Iraq this year, but perhaps in 2008.”

Every now and then, when it’s politically expedient, someone trots out of the White House and declares “substantial withdrawals” are just around the corner. However, this must be a different corner from the one we allegedly turn from time to time, since the substantial withdrawals never happen.

To say that the White House is sending mixed signals right now is an understatement. ABC News reports the Bushies are in panic mode.

ABC News has been told the White House is in “panic mode” over the recent defections of Republican senators on the president’s stay-the-course policy in Iraq.

ABC must have forgotten the Bushies retired “stay the course” as a rhetorical device awhile back, but after turning that corner so many times it’s easy to become confused and disoriented.

Senior Bush administration officials are deep in discussion about how to find a compromise that will “appease Democrats and keep wobbly Republicans onboard,” a senior White House official told ABC News.

It’s not about what’s actually going on in Iraq, see. It’s not about the political situation over there. It’s about the political situation here. That’s what gets their attention. And they will bring the full power and intelligence and talent of everyone in the White House to bear on this problem. We should expect to see spin like we’ve never seen spin before.

Bush’s Id

For a dose of satire, Bush’s First Video Blog is George W. Bush unplugged, by a decent Dubya impersonator, James Adomian. He’s got the sneering contempt down pat:

“I can get away with whatever I want…. All you criticizers: F*ck you – F*ck you hard.”

Channeling his own id in reaction to Bush, is another wonderful, underappreciated, leftie blogger, Chris Floyd at Empire Burlesque. A recent posting:

Death everywhere, death every day, nothing but death and the stench of death and the never-ending agony of the aftermath of death. This is the true and only meaningful context of all the punditry and political posturing around the “issue” of Iraq. While the White House maneuvers to “buy time” for the president and provide “political cover” for continuing the war – and the Democrats make plans to float some “proposals” on “beginning to redeploy some forces” – the cry of an Iraqi grandfather whose entire family was murdered in the bombing at Amerli rips like a knife to the heart of the matter:

“We were wiped out mercilessly, and we blame the Americans, the Iraqi government, the criminals and all the politicians who brought us catastrophe and destruction. They have destroyed everything with their sectarianism and politics.”

These were the words of Zainulabideen Rustam Abdullah, who “lost his wife, three daughters, his grandson and his daughter-in-law” in last Saturday’s attack, the Washington Post reports. I have never read anywhere a more succinct and accurate portrayal of the hell-hole that George W. Bush has created in Iraq with his unprovoked invasion and destruction of that country…

These i-gleanings were brought to you, for your consideration, by moonbat, who will be guest blogging for a few days, by the very gracious i-invitation of your blog hostess, maha.