Monday, April 30, 2007

Casting the first stone

Google tossed this old post up to one of my referrals. I am reposting it although it is a year and a half old and some of the links are no longer active. Reading over it again, I recall how badly I was affected by watching a stoning video. I guess if the reader wants to see one it's out there to be had, but verbal descriptions are enough for me. Last week a family member rented the movie Blood Diamond and I had to find something else to do after seeing the savagery of how child soldiers are captured and trained.

So why repost this piece?
Because I want to remind myself and all who read it how close we are to our ugliest impulses. All are complicit. Stoning is not very different from other forms of capital punishment. Even if we as citizens don't personally participate, thanks to a modern, sanitized system, the final responsibility remains with us. This is especially true in representative forms of government. In totalitarian systems we might be able to blame a tyrant.


There is an online video of stoning linked at Pebble Pie. [Link no longer active] I started to watch it but stopped as soon as bloodstains appeared, so I can't report what is on the entire link. What I watched was all I needed. The person being stoned to death is bound in sheets, very much like a cocoon, then stood in a hole up to about the waist. The hole is filled in so there can be no escape and the arms remain bound. The stoning is performed by a crowd of people, presumably ordinary people who want to participate, using rocks, the size of which is also governed by Sharia law. Stones cannot be as small as "pebbles" which would have little effect (no play on words, I'm sure, for the blog host) nor large enough to kill the person with one or two blows, which would bring the punishment to an end too quickly.

This video is not just a documentary. It begins with warnings and other information that lean toward editorial comments, such as "Islam, the religion of peace." These ironic reminders appeared several times in the narrative lest the viewer forget what he is watching.

The images I saw were so haunting that I have been thinking about them for a day. I wish I had not watched as much as I did, but I have been thinking about the editorial screens as much as the content of the video. The comment screens are intended to underscore the savagery of what is being done, associate that level of cruelty with Muslims, and make peace-loving people cringe in horror that they are not even close to that level of barbarity.

After thinking about it, I have not come to that conclusion. As an opponent of capital punishment I find that video to be nothing more than another reason to remain strong in my opposition. As I have stated elsewhere, my objection to capital punishment is not what it does to the subject, but what it does to society, us - you and I, as executioners. In the same way that a very different value system practiced in countries guided by Sharia law seems barbaric to us, our own methods of executing criminals have isolated us from capital punishment in a way that most people cannot imagine they have anything to do with it personally.

A crowd of ordinary people casting stones is not very different from more clinical methods of execution. That execution is more easily understood as what it really is: society turning on one of its own for the protection of some greater purpose, whatever they imagine that purpose to be. We are a generation of meat-lovers but most people, except for hunters and fishermen, recoil at the idea of slaughtering even a chicken for dinner. As a recent link shows there are plenty among us who seem to have little problem with killing other people and celebrating what they have done, but those people are acting in the line of duty, don't you know. [Additional link May 11, 2007: This art "installation" by an Iraqi in America allows web visitors to fire paintballs at him day and night for a month. And they do.] [Followup LINK to the paintball story. Very revealing.] We have improved civilized behavior to the point that we have trained executioners instead of doing the job personally. Likewise, we develop trained warriors to kill designated enemies.

Spare me the indignation about stoning. The practice predates the New Testament. That does not mean I approve. Forms differ in the level of cruelty, but result is the same: society kills one of its own. We who are peaceful and loving have more civilized ways of expressing that love, don't we?

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Lee Iacoca on Leadership

We bought a minivan because of this guy. First of the model year.

We also had to take the kids to New York on vacation instead of going out West. We had to wait several more years to see the Grand Canyon. Why? because Lee Iacoca's face was on the teevee all the time telling about how the Statue of Liberty was all renovated and ready to open to the public once again.

Lee Iacoca is an American hero. He knows how to make things happen. This time I hope he can do what it takes to shake some sense into a lot of people. Chapter One of his book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? is online.

My friends tell me to calm down. They say, "Lee, you're eighty-two years old. Leave the rage to the young people." I'd love to—as soon as I can pry them away from their iPods for five seconds and get them to pay attention. I'm going to speak up because it's my patriotic duty. I think people will listen to me. They say I have a reputation as a straight shooter. So I'll tell you how I see it, and it's not pretty, but at least it's real. I'm hoping to strike a nerve in those young folks who say they don't vote because they don't trust politicians to represent their interests. Hey, America, wake up. These guys work for us.
I have news for the gang in Congress. We didn't elect you to sit on your asses and do nothing and remain silent while our democracy is being hijacked and our greatness is being replaced with mediocrity. What is everybody so afraid of? That some bobblehead on Fox News will call them a name? Give me a break. Why don't you guys show some spine for a change?

Hey, I'm not trying to be the voice of gloom and doom here. I'm trying to light a fire. I'm speaking out because I have hope. I believe in America. In my lifetime I've had the privilege of living through some of America's greatest moments. I've also experienced some of our worst crises—the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the 1970s oil crisis, and the struggles of recent years culminating with 9/11. If I've learned one thing, it's this: You don't get anywhere by standing on the sidelines waiting for somebody else to take action. Whether it's building a better car or building a better future for our children, we all have a role to play. That's the challenge I'm raising in this book. It's a call to action for people who, like me, believe in America. It's not too late, but it's getting pretty close. So let's shake off the horseshit and go to work. Let's tell 'em all we've had enough.


Good luck, Lee. Don't hold back. Tell us how you really feel.
It's good to read what you say, even if no one seems to be acting on it yet.

H/T 3 Quarks

Jessica Lynch Video

Raw footage of the rescue of Jessica Lynch. In front of a congressional hearing in which Jessica Lynch is a key witness, she said "I am not a hero". The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is holding a hearing entitled "Misleading Information from the Battlefield." The hearing focuses on the death of Army Ranger Specialist Patrick Tillman in Afghanistan and the capture and rescue of Army Private Jessica Lynch in Iraq. The Committee examines why inaccurate accounts of these two incidents were disseminated, the sources and motivations for the accounts, and whether the appropriate Administration officials have been held accountable.
If this little girl were one of my daughters I would be so pissed off I couldn't see straight. It's bad enough to let children go to war, but to manipulate stories as blatantly as this one belies the whole reason we are supposed to be in Iraq.
Ugly. Disgusting. Really frustrating.

I'm now expecting some source to question the integrity of this video, as though that in some way might blow away the stench of the whole, big lie.

We already knew about the misrepresentation of Pat Tillman's death. It does my heart good to see that story coupled with this one to underscore the deceitful conduct of this war.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Nour al-Khal and Lisa Ramaci, Upcoming Interviews

Update May 4
You can hear the show online at the website.
Nour remains in hiding in another ME country, awaiting approval of a visa.
The clip is just over twenty minutes.

» Next Time on

"An American reporter murdered in Iraq and the woman who risked her life trying to save him."
Times and availability may vary from market to market, but the scheduled air time is 8:30 to 9:00pm Eastern, Friday evening, May 4.
Nour al-Khal and Lisa Ramaci will be interviewed.
For those of us who have been following their story, this is a must-see.

A broadcaster for 28 years, Brancaccio spent 13 years at Marketplace, which tripled its audience and received a duPont-Columbia University Award (1998) and the George Foster Peabody Award (2001) during his tenure. Before becoming host, Brancaccio served in London as the European editor of the program, covering the continent's economic and political integration. During that time, he also covered diplomatic stories from Europe for the radio service of THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR.

Brancaccio has contributed to CNN, CNBC, and Wall Street Week with Fortune on PBS. His print work has appeared in such periodicals as THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, AND JOURNALISM and MASS COMMUNICATION EDUCATOR.


Update June 29

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Lisa, Nour has arrived in New York.

Friday, April 27, 2007

"...a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."

Thomas Ricks, writing in the Washington Post, reviews an article in Armed Forces Journal. Ricks writes an appetizer. Lt.Col.Paul Yingling provides the meat. These are not moonbats, you know. They're not even politicians. Both are professional military men with years of training.

The passion of the people is necessary to endure the sacrifices inherent in war. Regardless of the system of government, the people supply the blood and treasure required to prosecute war. The statesman must stir these passions to a level ommensurate with the popular sacrifices required. When the ends of policy are small, the statesman can prosecute a conflict without asking the public for great sacrifice. Global conflicts such as World War II require the full mobilization of entire societies to provide the men and materiel necessary for the successful prosecution of war. The greatest error the statesman can make is to commit his nation to a great conflict without mobilizing popular passions to a level commensurate with the stakes of the conflict.

Am I the only one who has noticed that the war in Iraq is really not popular? It seems to me that the "passion of the people" and their willingness to "supply the blood and treasure required to prosecute a war" are more a source of conflict than anything resembling unity. There have been disagreements about many issues in my lifetime, but I cannot recall a time, even in during the Vietnam conflict, that our elected representatives were as badly split over an issue. Even during the Watergate hearings and impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton decorum trumped vitriol.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Melamine Awareness, Updated

I thought melamine meant those old-fashioned plastic plates that didn't break if you dropped them on the floor. Maybe so, but recently it has been in the news because it is a product that in chemical form, among other effects, causes food tests for protein to indicate false postives.
Update: It seems the use of melamine as a filler and cheap food additive is commonplace in China. See addendum at the end of this post.


Yummy! More protein!
It also causes kidney damage and death.

Melamine made the news a week or so ago because it was found in pet foods that were being recalled.
It's a story in progress, but melamine seems to have been fed to hogs as well.
Chickens, too.
And you know who eats ham and chicken...

Melamine is an organic compound that is often combined with formaldehyde to produce melamine resin, a synthetic polymer which is fire resistant and heat tolerant. Melamine resin is a very versatile material with a highly stable structure. Uses for melamine include whiteboards, floor tiles, kitchenware, fire retardant fabrics, and commercial filters. Melamine can be easily molded while warm, but will set into a fixed form. This property makes it ideally suited to certain industrial applications.
Aside from common commercial uses, melamine became a topic of much discussion in early 2007, when veterinary scientists determined it to be the cause of hundreds of pet deaths, because of pet food contamination. Prior to these reports, melamine had been regarded as non-toxic or minimally toxic. However, because of the unexplained presence of melamine in wheat gluten added to mass-produced dog and cat foods, it is the most likely cause. Pet owners report symptoms that are commonly associated with renal failure, which could be explained by the ammonia that may result from the digestion of the melamine.

What is Melamine? by Wise Geek

A nitrogen-rich chemical used to make plastic and sometimes as a fertilizer may have been deliberately added to an ingredient in pet food that has sickened and killed cats and dogs across the country, public and private officials say. A leading theory is that it was added to fake higher protein levels.

Melamine has been found in wheat gluten, rice protein concentrate and, in South Africa, corn gluten, all imported from China, and all meant for use in pet food, the Food and Drug Administration confirmed Thursday.

USA Today (here's an interesting date stamp: 5d 8h ago)

Melamine, the additive suspected in the deaths of pets around the country, was in food given to hogs and chickens in several states, and the Food and Drug Administration is trying to determine if the animals entered the human food supply, FDA officials said Tuesday.

Several thousand hogs have been quarantined and are being tested. The affected farms are in North Carolina, South Carolina, California, New York, Utah and possibly Ohio. A poultry farm in Missouri is also under investigation.

Hog urine has tested positive for melamine in several of those states after it was determined that the animals ate salvaged pet food that originated in factories that produced the tainted food. It is a common practice in the United States to take pet food that does not meet quality standards and reconstitute it into livestock feed, Stephen Sundlof, the FDA's chief veterinarian, said in a conference call with reporters.

Sarah Abruzzese of the New York Times, Times Argus

Across America, thousands of dogs and cats have been sickened or killed by dangerous ingredients contained in the foods that stock our nation's pet food stores.

It's made killing your pet as easy as laying out a generous bowl of food.

And this is more than a pet food story. It's become a story about the dangers posed by the food humans eat every day.

On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration revealed that melamine -- the industrial chemical killing pets -- had made it into hog food in six states and a poultry farm in Missouri. So the question now becomes whether this chemical is also in our pork and our chicken.

Even more disturbing: There is no official word on how melamine got into our food supplies in the first place.

Marcos Bretón, Sacramento Bee

Nancy Lungren of the California Department of Food and Agriculture says meat samples have been taken from some pigs that were slaughtered at the farm. That meat is being analyzed for traces of melamine. Melamine is the chemical suspected of killing and sickening dogs and cats acrouss the United States. Officials of the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration believe that the food was spiked in China with wheat glutens, corn glutens and rice proteins in an effort to boost profits. And those glutens and rice proteins were contaminated with melamine, a chemical used in plastics and some rodent poisons and pesticides. Some critics now question the safety of other imported food products.

KOIN News, Portland

Lots more at the links. More than you want to know.

The free market's a great place, don't you think?
If government would just stand aside and let the marketplace work things out everything would be all better.



Addendum, May 2
From the NY Times

ZHANGQIU, China, April 28 — As American food safety regulators head to China to investigate how a chemical made from coal found its way into pet food that killed dogs and cats in the United States, workers in this heavily polluted northern city openly admit that the substance is routinely added to animal feed as a fake protein.
For years, producers of animal feed all over China have secretly supplemented their feed with the substance, called melamine, a cheap additive that looks like protein in tests, even though it does not provide any nutritional benefits, according to melamine scrap traders and agricultural workers here.

The pet food case is also putting China’s agricultural exports under greater scrutiny because the country has had a terrible food safety record.

In recent years, for instance, China’s food safety scandals have involved everything from fake baby milk formulas and soy sauce made from human hair to instances where cuttlefish were soaked in calligraphy ink to improve their color and eels were fed contraceptive pills to make them grow long and slim.

For its part, Chinese officials dispute any suggestion that melamine from the country could have killed pets. But regulators here on Friday banned the use of melamine in vegetable proteins made for export or for use in domestic food supplies.

Yet what is clear from visiting this region of northeast China is that for years melamine has been quietly mixed into Chinese animal feed and then sold to unsuspecting farmers as protein-rich pig, poultry and fish feed.

Many animal feed operators here advertise on the Internet, seeking to purchase melamine scrap. The Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Company, one of the companies that American regulators named as having shipped melamine-tainted wheat gluten to the United States, had posted such a notice on the Internet last March.

Here at the Shandong Mingshui Great Chemical Group factory, huge boiler vats are turning coal into melamine, which is then used to create plastics and fertilizer.

But the leftover melamine scrap, golf ball-size chunks of white rock, is sometimes being sold to local agricultural entrepreneurs, who say they mix a powdered form of the scrap into animal feed to deceive those who raise animals into thinking they are buying feed that is high in protein.
“It just saves money if you add melamine scrap,” said the manager of an animal feed factory here.

Last Friday here in Zhangqiu, a fast-growing industrial city southeast of Beijing, two animal feed producers explained in great detail how they purchase low-grade wheat, corn, soybean or other proteins and then mix in small portions of nitrogen-rich melamine scrap, whose chemical properties help the feed register an inflated protein level.

Melamine is the new scam of choice, they say, because urea — another nitrogen-rich chemical — is illegal for use in pig and poultry feed and can be easily detected in China as well as in the United States.

“People use melamine scrap to boost nitrogen levels for the tests,” said the manager of the animal feed factory. “If you add it in small quantities, it won’t hurt the animals.”

The manager, who works at a small animal feed operation here that consists of a handful of storage and mixing areas, said he has mixed melamine scrap into animal feed for years.

He said he was not currently using melamine. But he then pulled out a plastic bag containing what he said was melamine powder and said he could dye it any color to match the right feed stock.

He said that melamine used in pet food would probably not be harmful. “Pets are not like pigs or chickens,” he said casually, explaining that they can afford to eat less protein. “They don’t need to grow fast.”

The resulting melamine-tainted feed would be weak in protein, he acknowledged, which means the feed is less nutritious.

But, by using the melamine additive, the feed seller makes a heftier profit because melamine scrap is much cheaper than soy, wheat or corn protein.

“It’s true you can make a lot more profit by putting melamine in,” said another animal feed seller here in Zhangqiu. “Melamine will cost you about $1.20 for each protein count per ton whereas real protein costs you about $6, so you can see the difference.”

Feed producers who use melamine here say the tainted feed is often shipped to feed mills in the Yangtze River Delta, near Shanghai, or down to Guangdong Province, near Hong Kong. They also said they knew that some melamine-laced feed had been exported to other parts of Asia, including South Korea, North Korea, Indonesia and Thailand.

Evidence is mounting that Chinese protein exports have been tainted with melamine and that its use in agricultural regions like this one is widespread. But the government has issued no recall of any food or feed product here in China.

Indeed, few people outside the agriculture business know about the use of melamine scrap. The Chinese news media — which is strictly censored — has not reported much about the country’s ties to the pet food recall in the United States. And few in agriculture here do not see any harm in using melamine in small doses; they simply see it as cheating a little on protein, not harming animals or pets.

As for the sale of melamine scrap, it is increasingly popular as a fake ingredient in feed, traders and workers here say.

At the Hebei Haixing Insect Net Factory in nearby Hebei Province, which makes animal feed, a manager named Guo Qingyin said: “In the past melamine scrap was free, but the price has been going up in the past few years. Consumption of melamine scrap is probably bigger than that of urea in the animal feed industry now.”

And so melamine producers like the ones here in Zhangqiu are busy.

A man named Jing, who works in the sales department at the Shandong Mingshui Great Chemical Group factory here, said on Friday that prices have been rising, but he said that he had no idea how the company’s melamine scrap is used.

“We have an auction for melamine scrap every three months,” he said. “I haven’t heard of it being added to animal feed. It’s not for animal feed.”


Washington Journal had a segment this morning which was very informative.
The interested reader will find lots to think about watching this segment when it becomes available in the archives.

What part of "GET OUT OF HERE!" do we not understand?

I's so tired of writing about this war I want to stop trying. But too many people are dying because US policy will not let it change direction, so fatigue is no excuse for not keeping up the pressure.

There's this growing US government line that Iraqi Sunnis are turning pro-American. So hold your breath and have a look at the most recent major public opinion survey (carried out just last month), 97% of Sunnis oppose the US presence in the country, 97% say that they have little or no confidence in US and UK occupation forces, and 94% say that the presence of US forces in Iraq makes the security situation worse. Only 5% expect putting more US forces into Baghdad and Anbar to improve the security situation (68% expect it to make things worse, 27% think it will make no difference). Only 2% blame al-Qaeda for the violence, and none (at least statistically significantly) blame Sunni insurgents. 94% of Sunnis
say that attacks on coalition forces are acceptable, while 66% consider attacks on Iraqi government forces unacceptable (showing starkly the political line that the insurgent factions are laying down against al-Qaeda). Bottom line: local opinion likely is turning against al-Qaeda, but the beneficiary is more likely to be the insurgency factions than the United States, no matter what the Weekly Standard tells you.

Mark Lynch

And the Tillman/Lynch testimonies are old news for many of us.

I suppose the next development on the national political scene will be the villifiction of these two families by the same voices that have stained the names and reputations of John Murtha, Harry Reid and Cindy Sheehan.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007)

I will leave it to others to write obits for the late first president of modern Russia.
To mark his passing, here is a great story I remember from about fifteen years ago.

The first President Bush on a visit to Russia and was talking with Mikhail Gorbachev. They were discussing how to pick smart men to work with as they did their jobs. Boris Yeltsin was at the time second in command under Gorbachev.
"When I'm looking for someone to work," said Gorbachev, "I want someone with a quick mind, someone who can solve problems in a hurry."
"That sounds right to me," said Bush. "How do you find someone like that?"
"Well one of the things I do is ask them a riddle and see how long it takes for them to come up with an answer."
"Riddle?" said Bush. "Why that's so easy. I never thought of that. Give me an example."
"Sure," said Gorbachev. "How about this: Sisters and brothers have I none, but this man's father is my father's son. Who might that man be?"
"Hmm..." said the president. "I guess that means you are talking about yourself. If If you have no siblings but your father has a son, then you are the only one it can be....right?"
"Exactly," said Gorbachev. "It works every time. The smartest people always get the answer."

So the president comes back to Wasington and among other things is sharing this bit of information with his Vice-President, Dan Quayle. He told him that Mikhail Gorbachev and he were talking and Gorbachev told him how to find the smartest man in Russia.
"Really?" said Quayle. "How so?"
"Easy," said Bush. "Just answer the question to a simple riddle: Sisters and brothers have I none, but this man's father is this man's son."
"...and Yeltsin got it right?" said Quayle.
"He sure did," said the president. "He's the smartest man Gorbachev found."
"Amazing," said Quayle. "I can't wait to ask that riddle to someone."

Later Quayle met a staffer in the hall and said, "Excuse me. I would like to ask you a riddle and see if you can get the answer."
"Sure,"said the staffer, "Go ahead."
"okay, here goes: Sisters and brothers have I none, but this man's father is my father's son. Who do you think this man might be?"
"Hmm.." said the staffer. "I guess it must be you."
"No, silly," said Quayle. "It's Boris Yeltsin!"

Monday, April 23, 2007

Videoa: Super-cooled Water amd Shampoo Stream

The water is at six degrees below zero...
Is that cool or what?
Just watch.
H/T Motion Abbey

You think that's cool?
Take a look at this...

Drugs, Violence, Depression, Heart Disease, Whatever...

Arianna Huffington sees a connection between drugs and violence.

We urgently need a national debate about guns. But we also urgently need a national debate about the epidemic of mood-altering drugs being prescribed to young Americans.

I'll take my teachable moments wherever I can find them. And Virginia Tech has the potential to be one of them.

Reports that Cho had been taking antidepressants once again turn the spotlight on the uneasy question of what role these powerful medications might have played in yet another campus massacre.

Kerry Howley looks at prescription and over the counter drug sales in Reason Magazine.
The system that puts drugs over the counter is driven by profits and patents. Patents--legal monopolies--exist to drive innovation in the drug industry. In order to protect the intellectual property packed in every pill, pharmaceutical companies are granted exclusivity for 20 years from the date they file for a patent. In an industry where the next big thing typically costs between $300 million and $500 million to deliver, patents help keep companies afloat. But as long as there's no competition, drug companies have no incentive to put their products over the counter.

My own view is that the Virginia Tech tragedy has more to do with a broken health care system than anything else.

And who has anything more to do with health care than drug manufacturers and insurance companies?

Just asking.
Trying hard to connect the dots.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Keeping up with Irshad Manji

Irshad Manji is what happens when a Muslim woman gets liberated. Thanks to a plucky personality, quick mind and sixth sense of effective public relations she puts a positive modern face on an ancient faith that has suffered a lot of bad press lately. I became aware of her only recently thanks to Pieter Dorsman. She is the focus of a snip in FP by Preeti Aroon commenting on the Public Broadcasting program Faith Without Fear which focused on Irshad Manji.

All these links are worth a look. No need for me to belabor simple points.

As an aside, Aroon said (twice, already)...

"If Christianity could have its Protestant Reformation, it seems possible for Islam to have one too." Yesterday's program mentioned that the Protestant Reformation was accompanied by its share of violence, which took place over centuries.
Daniel Nexon at Duck of Minerva picked up a good point, namely that it is an unfortunate but common practice for those who don't pay attention to history to conflate the Protestant Reformation with the Enlightenment.

The Protestants, in general, were the back-to-basics religious extremists of the sixteenth century. More of that sort is decidely not what Islam needs.

I'm not arguing that the Catholic Church couldn't get downright nasty and repressive. It could and it did. But Catholic humanism represented a far more tolerant strand of Latin Christianity than early modern Zwinglianism, Lutheranism, or the Reformed Church. We shouldn't confuse pre-Reformation Catholicism with Counter-Reformation Catholicism, nor Protestant movements with later, often Protestant, champions of liberal enlightenment.

I'm currently finishing a book manuscript that points to some interesting parallels between early modern Europe and the contemporary period, yet I cannot stress two points enough:

First, the "does Islam need a Protestant Reformation" question depends on a grossly distorted view of the nature of the Protestant Reformations.

Second, even if the question didn't precede from bad history, the circumstances of the Reformations simply don't travel well to those of contemporary Islam.

Tired old saying: Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it.

If there's anything we don't want it is a latter-day repeat in Islam of a Protestant Reformation. A retrograde fundamentlist extremism is quite enough. In fact, that stripe of back-to-basics religious extremists is what we already see (and face in combat).

What we can pray for is another Enlightenment.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Atheists in Foxholes, Massacres and Other Places

This is a "FYI" post.

The Virginia Tech killings are getting a lot of attention. Even as numbers from Baghdad or Somalia far out weigh those from Blacksburg, Virginia, there is something about domestic mass murder that cannot be ignored. NPR did a piece this morning describing the memorial wall that has been erected on the VT campus, a place where grief can find a collective expression. I was reminded of my own experience at such a place a few weeks after 9/11.

In matters of faith, this might be a "teachable moment" but faith for many people is what Twain described as "believing what you know ain't so." The old line is: For the believer, no evidence is necessary; for the non-believer, no evidence will ever be enough. Here are a couple of links I have come across just to make notes.

Leila Abu-Saba found this at Kos. (I'm copying from her site. As for Kos, I don't "go there.")

We atheists do not believe in gods, or angels, or demons, or souls that endure, or a meeting place after all is said and done where more can be said and done and the point of it all revealed. We don’t believe in the possibility of redemption after our lives, but the necessity of compassion in our lives. We believe in people, in their joys and pains, in their good ideas and their wit and wisdom. We believe in human rights and dignity, and we know what it is for those to be trampled on by brutes and vandals. We may believe that the universe is pitilessly indifferent but we know that friends and strangers alike most certainly are not. We despise atrocity, not because a god tells us that it is wrong, but because if not massacre then nothing could be wrong.

I am to be found on the drillfield with a candle in my hand. “Amazing Grace” is a beautiful song, and I can sing it for its beauty and its peacefulness. I don’t believe in any god, but I do believe in those people who have struggled through pain and found beauty and peace in their religion. I am not at odds with them any more than I am at odds with Americans when we sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” just because I am not American. I can sing “Lean on Me” and chant for the Hokies in just the same way and for just the same reason.

Krista Tippett's radio program from last June came to mind. She interviewed a military chaplain who very candidly stated...

What I saw in Iraq, and I ended up my tour of duty in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. But what I saw in my combat experience, and I've seen through my 22 years, is on the battlefield, using crude numbers, a third of the soldiers were men and women of faith, growing in their faith or coming to a new understanding of faith. A third of the soldiers were indifferent or fatalistic. And that's — that religion on the battlefield bears a lot of looking at. The other third were either indifferent or jettisoning their faith. And many would say to me, very bluntly, "I've lost my faith. I saw my buddy get blown away," or "I was involved in a firefight that killed innocent people, and if there's a good God, He wouldn't let that to happen. So I do not want to believe anymore."

And finally, Gordon Atkinson this morning pointed to someone now reading scripture whose inspiration is, let's just say, atypical. I will let the reader find the link via the Preacher's blog.

Do you get this? Do you know how interesting and rare this is? A man with no real adult connection to the Christian Church is going to read our scriptures and write about what he finds there. This is a spiritual experience/quest for Hugh, who now calls himself a "Christianist." (He explains what he means by that on the new blog) He and I are going to email and talk on the phone during this journey. I guess I'm a kind of guide or mentor for him in this, but I will definitely only be there to give careful feedback when asked. I don't want my insider views getting in the way of his honest writing.

He's no Biblical scholar, so I'm sure there will be many times when he is very unorthodox. So what? Good! That's what I want to hear. I want to hear what a gay man in Los Angeles has to say about this collection of writings that is so precious to us. I'm looking forward to it. I think you'll enjoy it too.

Ethanol Cars as a Public Health Problem

Betcha weren't ready for this. I know I wasn't.
My dad was an auto mechanic. So is one of my sons-in-law. I have learned to be careful about anything that comes out of the car business and this is one more example. That's part of the reason we now only buy second-hand cars. (It helps, too, to have a family member in the business.) Car dealers are the modern version of horse traders.

Ethanol-fueled cars will create an equal or even greater risk to public health than those powered by gasoline, according to a new study. Gasoline emissions are estimated to cause at least 10,000 premature deaths in the United States alone every year. Yet ethanol is no panacea, says Mark Z. Jacobson, the Stanford University atmospheric scientist who conducted the study.

Using sophisticated computer modeling techniques to simulate air quality in the United States in 2020, Jacobson found that vehicles fueled by a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline (E85) increase atmospheric concentrations of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, canceling out the reduction of carcinogens that are prevalent in gasoline but not in ethanol. What's more, E85 can increase ozone in some areas. And that means ugly smog and the deaths associated with higher levels of ozone. Jacobson projects that widespread adoption of E85 would lead to slightly higher mortality rates in the United States (+4 percent) and especially smog-friendly Los Angeles (+9 percent).

And it doesn't matter, according to Jacobson, whether ethanol is made from corn, switchgrass or other plant products—the results remain the same. So we have yet another reason to be skeptical of the prevailing obsession with ethanol. Well, what should we do? Jacobson highlights alternatives such as battery-electric, plug-in-hybrid and hydrogen-fuel cell vehicles, which can derive energy from wind or solar power. He says, "These vehicles produce virtually no toxic emissions or greenhouse gases and cause very little disruption to the land."
Here's an interesting puzzle:
How might the shock-jocks handle this piece of information?
On the one hand, boosting support of ethanol would put them squarely into the patriotism sector, because it "reduces dependence on foreign oil," but it's also something the much despised "tree huggers" like. You know, that commie-infested environmental movement that wants to destroy America. Now we have yet another wrinkle in the argument, that old smog and ozone thing, which everyone knows is part of that global warming clap-trap.
Am I being sarcastic enough?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Video: Parakeet Tricks

Found while surfing at Bereft.

I don't know anything about the blog, but it seems to have a lot of information regarding Iran. I am adding it to the aggregator accordingly.

Deinstitutionalization Hasn’t Worked

I am pursuaded that the tragedy at Virginia Tech was a preventable event.

Hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Americans are eking out a pitiful existence on city streets, under ground in subway tunnels, or in jails and prisons due to the misguided efforts of civil rights advocates to keep the severely ill out of hospitals and out of treatment. The images of these gravely ill citizens on our city landscapes are bleak reminders of the failure of deinstitutionalization. They are seen huddling over steam grates in the cold, animatedly carrying on conversations with invisible companions, wearing filthy, tattered clothing, urinating and defecating on sidewalks or threatening passersby. Worse still, they frequently are seen being carried away on stretchers as victims of suicide or violent crime, or in handcuffs as perpetuators of violence against others.
All of this occurs under the watchful eyes of fellow citizens and government officials who do nothing but shake their heads in blind tolerance. The consequences of failing to treat these illnesses are devastating. While Americans with untreated severe mental illnesses represent less than one percent of our population, they commit almost 1,000 homicides in the United States each year. At least one-third of the estimated 600,000 homeless suffer from schizophrenia or manic-depressive illness, and 28 percent of them forage for some of their food in garbage cans. About 170,000 individuals, or 10 percent, of our jail and prison populations suffer from these illnesses, costing American taxpayers a staggering $8.5 billion per year.

This prescient op-od was written eight years ago.
In the intervening years we have managed to swell the size of that population to include economically advantaged individuals with access to more up-to-date methods to act on their broken and lethal impulses. A growing number of individual and mass killings should be a wake-up call to every thinking person that some part of our system is broken and dangerously in need of repair.

In 1965, Congress excluded most payments to state psychiatric hospitals and other "institutions for the treatment of mental disease" (IMDs) from Medicaid because the Federal Government did not intend to take over what historically had been a state responsibility, and because it intended to implement a system of community mental health centers that would replace the state psychiatric hospital systems. (LINK)

I have no way to validate my suspicions, but my instinct is that this initiative, well-intended though it has been, was quietly promoted by both pharmaceutical and insurance interests, which after defence contractors and agri-business are two of the most powerful (read "well funded") of all special interests.

Patrick Moynihan saw it coming. His was one of the brightest minds that ever served in the Senate, but unfortunately he seems to have no successor to fill his shoes.

The source of the above quote is from a site advocating for more effective treatment for people who cannot pay. I have no problem with that, but I would argue that a greater challenge that has been added to the effective management of deranged people comes from a well-intended but dangerous over-sensitivity to issues of "privacy" and "due process." It's easy to discover plenty of arguments for keeping dangerous people medicated, thanks to the tawdry history of what we once called "insane asylums." Those sites are easy to spot because they are plastered over, very much like the evening news, with advertisements for drugs.

My time is limited this morning, and my thoughts are still in a state of confusion. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that we are missing something. When medical records are not available to their parents and others in loco parentis because of "privacy issues" there is something wrong. When individuals whose behavior indicates they may be a danger to themselves or others are identified, it is better to err on the side of safety than to yield to the fear of litigation.

Do some homework.
Search for "deinstitutionaliztion" and see what comes up.
Join me in learning what works and what fails.
Take a look at HIPAA. Learn about that monster and ask yourself whether the protection of medical information is as important to the community as the dangers that it might engender.
And as you read and learn, ask yourself these questions:
If I were in the insurance business, how might I feel about the costs involved with covering this problem?
If I were selling prescription drugs, would this kind of thing help me to sell more drugs at a higher price or fewer drugs at more competetive (i.e. lower) prices?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Virginia Tech Incident Is About Mental Health

Less than seventy-two hours have passed and we now know that thirty people are dead because a mentally ill person, diagnosed and returned to society repeatedly, was able to plan, document and execute a nightmare conceived in his damaged brain.

This is not about guns.

This is not about evil.

This is not about politics.

This is not about religion.

This is not about immigration.

This is not about the media.

And most of all, it is not about comparing the magnitude of tragedies. (Fred Clark has an excellent, link-filled commentary worth reading and drilling into. Go there when you finish here.)

What we are witnessing, not only with this high-profile event but every day of our lives, is the consequence of a trend set in motion about fifty years ago to change the manner by which we as a society handle (or not handle) those of us who are mentally ill. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Some of the darkest stories of history are about mental hospitals as places of torment and neglect, repositories of human wreckage that also doubled as places to hide political prisoners, abused family members of all ages and connections, and just about anyone without the social skills, political connections, family prestige or financial resources to defend himself.

Mental hospitals were not just hospitals. They also doubled as jails, poor houses, work houses, and closets for those whose public appearance, harmless though it might be, might embarrass or make others uncomfortable. The stories about them are truly horrible (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest comes to mind) as well as the manner in which patient were treated. The words patient and treatment took on twisted meanings that seem inappropriate now. My post a few weeks ago about one man's experience with having been lobotomized in his younger years is a case in point.

One of my closest friends from high school went crazy at the time and had to be institutionalized, but thanks to the trend to releasing such people, however well-intended it may have been, he was left to wander the streets in a mad state, disoriented by what was clearly a mental disorder, having been subjected to ECT more than once, probably medicated and unrealistically expected to self-medicate, drifting from one friend to another in what proved to be a fruitless search for help. His family was not in any position to help him because his father, already a stroke victim, was going to die soon, and his mother had already died. There were no siblings and part of his problem, aside from drug usage and a stint in a monastery from which he was expelled (it was the Sixties, you know), was learning after his mother's death that he had been an adopted child and would never be able to find out who his biological parents were.

But his was only one case. The larger picture was that large repositories of mentally ill people, whatever the reasons, were being dismantled. Cases judged to be worse than his were taking up space in a shrinking pool of available facilities. As I said, this was all done with the best of good intentions, but you know what they say about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions.

Wikipedia has stimulating reading about Psychiatric Hospitals, with an even more provocative link to another article entitled "Anti-Psychiatry."

This morning I have no solutions to the problems we now face with the management and treatment of people with mental disorders. All I know is that when I was a student in college about forty-five years ago I went on a field-trip with a group of other students pursuing courses in Music Therapy. I was studying music ed. at the time , now MT, but I was along for the experience. We spent a day at Georgia's Central State Hospital, once known (together with another one in New York) as one of the world's biggest and worst of its kind.

We were told that thanks to the efforts of a former first lady (it may have been the wife of Governor Vandiver) a large fund had been raised for the renovation and upgrading of the hospital. We saw two large facilities that looked more like hotels than hospitals, new, comfortable-looking, with amenities that even included a place that resembled a lounge or bar, but without the alcohol. It was the first time I had seen an atrium-styled large building with an overhead roof with skylights several stories overhead. It was very impressive.

We were also told that there were places in the hospital where visitors were not permitted to go because conditions were so bad, not only the barbed-wire enclosure pointed out as the place for the criminally insane, but other places that were systematically being renovated and reviewed for updating. I recall an interesting statistic: the "inpatient daily census" (the taxonomy sounded so clinical) was said to be in the thirty-thousand range. That number was larger than the number of students I knew were attending the university where I was studying and it struck me as unbelievable. The facility covered hundred of acres, including a farm where food was grown that was also being used to feed patients. Patients worked on the farm as well. Chickens and eggs from the farm were used in the food facilities.

Sometime between then and now, everything changed. When I checked the website yesterday, that same hospital is now reduced to about five hundred inpatients. Sometime over the last forty years a rolling number in the vicinity of some thirty-thousands have been released to care for themselves or rely on the resources of others. I'm sure some of them did not need to be there. I am personally aware of one woman who worked for me put there as a child because she was judged to be mentally retarded and was not released until a re-evaluation in her twenties revealed that she was entirely "normal" (whatever that means). She was later "released." I don't know the details, but "put out" would probably be a better term. She may be better off because her teeth, which had turned brown from years of over-medication, had to be replaced by dentures. As a middle-aged woman with no education, poor social development and little to serve her by way of personality or looks, the best she could find to support herself was a job in a cafeteria serving line.

As I said, I don't have the solution, but I do know this: Something in the way we handle deranged people has gone badly wrong and the incident at Virginia Tech should be a wake-up call. Finger-pointing is out of order. So, too, is all this yelling about politics, gun-control and other issues that are nothing but distractions from the main problem. My own instinct is that Big Pharma and Big Insurance have a lot to do with this trend. I have known for years that both of these mammoth interests have powerful friends in high places and they quietly keep those friends happy with obscene amounts of money euphemistically called "lobbying" which in reality are nothing more than bribes.

But that's just an old guy bitching this morning. My most heartfelt appeal is not to the politicians but to everyday people who need to back away from events of the last three days and try to see a bigger picture. That picture is one of homeless people and poor people whose numbers are swollen beyond what should be the case if they are expected to contribute to the gross national product. Too many people cannot and will not make any meaningful contribution unless and until they are either appropriately treated or taken off the streets. The real challenge is how best to accomplish that goal.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Barack Obama's Uphill Fight

As I have said elsewhere, I think Obama's run for president is premature. He will be a stronger candidate two or three cycles later, with a decade or more of Washington manure experience in his portfolio. In the meantime his learning curve is getting bent by a storm of myths and urban legends deriving from his name, family history and ethnic origins. My lonely little weeklyvote here at the Pajamas Media widget is a symbolic gesture, cast with the hope that if he fails to get the nomination, someone else will who can take the country beyond the two dynasties that have polarized the nation during the last four terms.

It is noteworthy that those who purport to be the most patriotic are the wellspring of some the most scurrilous claims of the lot. Obama's website keeps busy swatting these poisonous little insects, wasting valuable resources that might better be used to address more substantive issues.

I follow his campaign vicariously by default because the post that I put together last year regarding Barack Obama's religion continues to send me visitors. On any given time that post may represent from twenty-five to fifty percent of all hits to this blog, thanks to the search engines, mostly Google, who seem to list that post at or near the top of the first page of returns, depending on how the search terms were entered. In actual numbers that's about fifty to a hundred a day. Not big numbers by internet standards, but still that many individuals seeking information about the topic for one reason or another, including a few hits from sports or sex sites where people also argue politics. The first time I got a hit from a bondage site I was surprised, but later realized it was the same dynamic as people discussing a variety of topics at their neighborhood bar. Sports, fashion, current events, gossip, whatever...Let's face it. Those people also vote.

This morning I drilled back into one referral and noted a paid ad at the top (different ads seem to pop up with each page load, so this particular ad may not appear) from Human Events linking to yet another suggestive and defamatory anti-Obama piece of propaganda. As I looked at the way that even his pictures were clipped and airbrushed to make him appear as sinister as possible (not easy for someone as telegenic as Obama) I could see that the same fungus of John Birch Society "super-patriotism" that I first learned about forty-five years ago is alive and well, still spewing oily, slimy, bigoted hate in the guise of historical analysis or academic scrutiny. The language is rhetorically more polished after nearly half a century of practice dodging legal defenses against libel, but like botulism in delicious foods, their tainted message still gets through.

It is a sad day in American politics when Snopes has to furnish a lengthy article debunking one email-fed urban myth after another, all of them fired into the cesspool eddies of cyberspace with one aim: to defame, discredit and malign the name and reputation of a United States Senator running for president.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sarrafiya Bridge Comments Summary

Having just received a heartbreaking email from the one Iraqi friend that this terrible war has produced, one of my first reactions to yesterday's tragedy at Virginia Tech was to remember Iraq. As the minutes and hours passed news of the massacre echoed across the country until the full light of media scrutiny was shining on that horrible scene. As the day wore on I kept hearing in the background the same thought...This kind of thing happens in Iraq with least weekly and sometimes daily for several days in a stretch.

I cannot imagine what the effect must be on everyday people. If no one we know personally is involved and our hearts can be broken by the untimely death of strangers, how much more gut-wrenching it must be to have friends and family members fall victim to such losses. The details of the Virginia Tech tragedy have not been revealed, but in the end it makes little difference to the victims, their families and acquaintances. Grief is bigger than reason in the same way that paper covers rock.

And grief knows no boundaries. It's not always triggered by human death. We grieve all kinds of losses. When children get married we grieve for their lost childhood. When pets die we grieve their absence. We watch helplessly as age takes a corrosive toll on those who live into their nineties and beyond, taking physical, mental and emotional health a little at a time...

And sometimes the loss of a landmark (recall the World Trade Center...not just the thousands who died but the image it represented) hits us particularly hard. I know. It's too soon to start looking for symbols. At this writing the the next of kin are still being notified. But if I don't make a note of my thoughts at this moment, I will lose track. Please excuse my jumping ahead.

The destruction of the Sarrafiya Bridge took place on the same day that another explosion killed several members of the Iraqi parliament. In dramatic symbolic contrast the loss of the bridge seems to have grieved Iraqis far more deeply than the loss of a few politicians. Several said as much. The same sentiment is reflected in the email I received...

I have been particularly ‘under the weather’ these past couple of days. Bombing that Sarrafiya bridge somehow touched a raw nerve. I loved that old thing. I must have crossed it many thousands of times in my days. It is even mentioned in a couple of old songs you know! I couldn’t bring myself to think about the incident which took place in Parliament on the same day. I just kept feeling sad about that bridge. Wicked of me, I know… but there you are!!! By the way, do you know if that bridge is Sunni or Shiite?

Well, actually I didn't know. And the distinction was immaterial to the many people in Baghdad who simply loved and used the bridge. (According to my reading, the bridge was built by the British a hundred years ago.) The point was simple. That bridge was trans-sectarian. Asking if it were Sunni or Shiite is like asking if the lady we call the Statue of Liberty was a Democrat or a Republican.

May the grief we feel today rekindle in us the capacity to grieve with people everywhere whose losses also bring them to tears. This is not a time for reason. Grief is bigger than reason. Today is a time to feel.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Best Friends Video -- Pug and Toddler

Remember Jake from a year and a half ago?
He's a pug, one of the most appealing of all the little dogs, and he still lives with us.
(Molly lives here, too, but this post is about Jake. She won't be jealous because they're good friends.)
He won the contest, thanks in part to readers of this blog.
Here's a six-minute visit with another pug and a friend.
It took two years to make these pictures and they will last forever, getting more precious, like good wine, as the years go by.

I looked up Israel Kamakawiwo, the singer you hear in the background, and was inspired to put together another post to him.
Here is the link.

Virginia Tech Killings -- a Minority View

With the grace of the Amish students as they faced their killer in Paradise, Pennsylvania last October, a courageous young Mennonite writer blogs a powerful message inspired by this morning's tragedy in Virginia.

America worships the gun. Today, 33 more were sacrificed on the altar of our devotion to the gun. Specifically to semi automatic handguns. There are already dozens of articles from disciples arguing that the massacre today at Virginia tech could have been avoided if some of the students had been carrying guns so they could shoot the killer before he killed them. We trust the gun more than we trust God.

The brutal reality of our gun fetish is that selling guns and ammo is highly profitable. But it is not simply the fact that the market values short term earnings from gun sales more than the social, cultural, political and long term economic damage that gun violence does to our society. More importantly, the gun industry long ago learned to effectively invest their short term earnings into the social, political and cultural sphere. Their investments in the NRA, especially since 1977 years have returned 10 fold and the results are a culture in which gun ownership is intimately connected with the values of self-sufficiency, responsibility and security that so many Americans identify with. We’ll call these frontier values.

As much as we’d like to wish that the new Democratic congress would seize on this moment to pass some common sense gun laws, the reality is that many of the new members of Congress were partly by actively courting those with frontier values. Unless their constituency shows signs of disconnecting handguns from frontier values, any vote for limiting the sales of hand guns will be doomed.

There follows a reasonable incremental plan to make guns as disagreeable to our culture as smoking, following much the same step-by-step process.

It takes character and courage at a moment like this to speak out for a principle which is certain to be unpopular. I know. I've been there before and I am there once again, in agreement with an unpopular point of view.

Information about the shooter is still not released. Preliminary reports suggest that it was a deranged man, clearly with a character disorder, whose criminal behavior may have been triggered by a relationship gone wrong. One eye-witness of the first killing (of a student and a dormitory resident assistant who intervened) said he was in possession of two handguns. We will have to wait to know more details.

I am reminded of the news report last year that took a look at Intermittent Explosive Disorder. What we call "road rage" or "going postal" are examples. It is an accident of acronyms that Improvised Explosive Device is also called "IED."
Or maybe not.

April 18 addition...

While we're at it, this post is a good place to point out that the tragedy at Virginia Tech is not the most deadly school tragedy in US history. That kind of hype may sell more papers, but it's not accurate.

In 1927 a terrible event in Michigan was by all accounts far worse, not only because it killed more students and left more surviving casualties, but because the perpetrator was a member of the school board and probably spent up to a year preparing his evil scheme. No need for me to go into the detail here, but Wikipedia has a fascinating article worth reading.

As the days go by I think my last link above is also worth a closer look. It seems the perpetrator at VT was a student whose behavior and writing carried warning signs that were not fully appreciated. I'm looking forward to learn if he fits a PTSD profile. We'll see.

Also, illustrating how small our world is, half a dozen people where I work are well-acquainted with Virginia Tech and that area of the state. At this point none is aware of knowing any victims. At least one blogroll contact is also connected by acquaintance and is relieved to know his friend is not among the victims.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Bahrain is Smoking

I don't know much about Bahrain, but these pictures look dramatic to me.
I linked to her some time ago.
She seems to be full of piss and vinegar, or as she says "ditzy, demure yet defiant."
My guess is that she's pretty sharp. She quit blogging for a while, but she's back with a camera. I hope she resumes writing more. But this line says a lot.

Click click run run.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Don Imus as Canary

Most of the time it's just a cigar. But this time it's something else. An outpouring of disgust indicates that the national level of righteous indignation is ticking up a bit, making Don Imus a canary in the mine. I hope the trend continues. Free speech is a sacred principle, but so is the freedom to be left alone. At some point racism crosses the line, becoming the verbal equivalent of molestation. It's no longer about the First Amendment. It's finally about civility. There is a distinction between civil rights and civil behavior. Legal rights are protected, but decency, like beauty, is a judgement call. Thankfully, a critical mass is choosing to raise the bar.

Others more articulate than I are making their voices known. Some are out for blood, but the best among them are simply saying that shapers of public opinion, whose words reach a larger audience than a sports bar or club, should be held to a higher standard than others.

This morning I was amused by the Huffington Post in which one writer complained about the coarsening of our culture as another headline included the word "Fucked." (That kind of envelope-pushing, not far from the manners of Don Imus and his peers, is why Huffpo downloads into my spam folder. I rarely read it closely, but the headlines tell me as much as I need to know about where that end of the political spectrum is going.) Raking through the muck, I did come up with this...

The most important thing to know about Don Imus is that he's a cash cow for Viacom and General Electric. Or was, until his advertisers began peeling away. The only reason that shock jocks are on the air in the first place is that people pay attention to them. They - we - lend our ears and eyeballs to Imus and his ilk because their outrageousness amuses us.
The same could be said of the envelope-pushing by Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and the dozens of other circus acts in the infotainment freak show. Their effect may be to debase discourse, inflame prejudice, sow ignorance, exculpate criminality, incite rancor, ruin reputations, and stoke the right-wing base - but their effect is not their job. Their job is to make money for the corporations that employ them. We may revile them for being Rove's toadies, but we're chumps if we ignore how relentlessly the companies that employ them monetize their noxious shtick.

He's right, of course. It's more about money than content. Not much has changed since Mencken said "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." That is part of the reason that otherwise decent people allow themselves to associate with characters like Imus an his ilk, telling themselves that their more noble ends justify the means of mud-wrestling with a pig.

Sarah Robinson at David Neiwert's blog says it well. Her analysis of the flap is worth reading in full.

For 25 years, the dominant radio format in America has consisted of rich white conservative boys filling the national atmosphere with their putrid bloviations about people who were not rich, white, conservative, or boys. What started out as outrageous bad-boy shock-jock shtick in the 80s curdled into self-righteous rebellion against "political correctness" in the 90s, as a growing number of trash talkers and professional potty mouths joined a national race to the rhetorical bottom. Radio stardom was easy. Forget rock'n'roll -- all you had to do was be willing to spew a little more hate against minorities, foreigners, women, the poor, and liberals than the guy on the next band over, and you could have a mansion in Palm Beach, too.

Addendum, April 16

As the dust settles on this tawdry affair, I'm coming across a reassuring number of places where the message is being repeated: Enough is enough. It's too soon to know, but it's possible that we may be seeing more than empty righteous indignation this time. I hope that is the case.

The local Imus clone in Atlanta was quick to come to his defense with yet another let-the-marketplace-decide toss-offs, carefully avoiding saying anything nice about the man while leaving the impression that his conduct was no big deal as long as he's not hurting anybody. When the chips are down, there is a crowd of faux-political types who wave the First Amendment flag as vigorously as the faux-religious crowd quotes the Bible. When the axe finally fell, he took the occasion to make ad hominem attacks on Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, deflecting attention from the substance and content of the incident, ugly language and the reaction it got. I guess when the marketplace made the wrong call, it was time to talk about something else.

Fred Clark points to an excellent analysis of the Imus affair by movie director John Rogers. I know it's good because there is so much squirming in the comments thread by righteous people (like our local talk-show host) who still want to overlook uncalled-for verbal assault.

For all these years, Imus stayed, barely, on the right side of the power equation. Always gone after public figures, or his bosses ...

... but then he screwed up. He didn't steal power, he used it. Used it to say just shitty things about people who, in our minds, just didn't deserve it. He broke the power equation. And when he did, we balked, even if we don't quite understand why this one got under our skin. The wiring goes both ways. It's actually heartening, because it confirms one of the admirable things about American society at large:

America loves a rebel.

America loves a bad boy.

But America hates a fucking bully.

Read the whole thing.
Thanks, Fred.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

You have a lot on your plate? You don't have a clue.

Remember Amanda Baggs? If not go learn about her first, then continue reading.

This is a woman with a lot on her plate. She opens her post with a single, simple line:

There’s a number of things I haven’t done.

Apparently her appearance on CNN has dumped an avalanche of demands on her and she is trying to respond to it all as best she can despite her limitations. She's not looking for sympathy but patience on the part of others who are waiting. He own measure of patience seems to be supernaturally endless. Autism is just the beginning...

I am not just autistic. I also have a number of other things going on, which I’ll just give the medicalistic labels for here. I have migraines severe and constant enough that in themselves they’d be considered severely disabling. I have wrist tendonitis (and I type to communicate, so that’s more a big deal than it sounds), a jaw that wants to dislocate and causes pain, and some sort of undefined knee problem (the right one pops out of place a lot and hurts when it does that), as well as general joint pain (all of which may or may not be associated with hypermobility syndrome, which I was told I have a few weeks ago). I have some kind of neuropathic or central pain. I have stamina problems (currently classified as chronic fatigue syndrome, but possibly associated with some of the other stuff I have going on). I have asthma. I probably have undiagnosed Tourette’s and OCD (I have tics, obsessions and compulsions, but I’ve never had it diagnosed as anything). I have stomach and bowel problems. I have PTSD. I have movement stuff that has been classified as catatonia. I have complex-partial seizures, although they’re really well controlled and only happen a couple times a year by now. I probably have brain damage from neuroleptics making the movement stuff more obvious. And a partridge in a pear tree.

If you've been too long on the pity pot, either crap or get out of the way. There's at least one person out there with more challenges than you can imagine. Take a deep breath and go read her post.

Supporting the troops his latest plan of escalation, in which he committed 20,000 extra troops to Iraq (including giving orders that 4,000 troops deploy to the Anbar province), was irresponsible.

He committed and deployed troops to Iraq without knowing if he had the funding for them to be there and work out their mission.

As such, the president intentionally put the lives of our brothers and sisters in greater risk by not having the funding they needed. Funding for escalation doesn’t simply mean for bombs and what have you, it means even the money to sustain the troops that are there. I fear the effects of having troops there without the things they need to be even marginally secure.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

You Tube is the Fifth Estate

There have been a number of clever spins on the term but this one will stick. It will stick because each of the "estates" derives from a common purpose. Let's review...

Historically, the first three estates were the state, the clergy and the common people. Each of these had different and often conflicting interests, so that taxonomy was easy to grasp. In modern times the distinction between the original three has dimmed with the advent of global economics, fragmented and conflicted ideas of faith and religion, a large and growing number of institutions both public and private and the notion of a First, Second and Third World. But the idea of a "Fourth Estate" endures.

The "Fourth Estate" is what we call the press, printed and broadcast media, whose mission is to keep tabs on the other three. The press presumably has no hidden agenda other than truth-seeking, uncovering manipulative or subversive activities on the part of the other three groups that might stink in the court of public opinion. The press has for years been the guardian of freedom, the bright light of truth shining in the dark corners of big institutions to reveal whether their inner workings correspond with their public images.

In our lifetime we have seen the fourth estate evolve into just another institution which merits watching and criticizing. Gone are the days when old-fashioned muckraking and hell-raising were the order of the day. Now, thanks to the emergence of a few global giants in what can correctly be called the news industry, what passes for "news" has become a commodity, very much like crude oil, soy beans or orange juice. Unlike other commodities sold by the pound, ton or barrel, news is a wasting asset for which time is not only "of the essence" it is the only essence. Nothing is as worthless as "yesterday's news."

Because it takes money, and lots of it, to send reporters and crews around the world to harvest, package and market ever-more sophisticated stories, the organizations that manage the news have become just another corporate echo of the industrial giants they once kept an eye on. In the same way that agri-business is eating up family-owned small farms, and state capitalism in China is eating up a global marketplace put together by private capitalism's efforts over the last fifty or one hundred years, the news industry is producing a slick, quick, heat-and-eat, homogenized product that resembles the truth about as much as Velveeta Cheese resembles English farmhouse cheddar.

That is why I say that You Tube and its cousins are becoming a real Fifth Estate, a flock of little watchbirds watching the big watchbirds if you will. I won't follow the metaphor any further. Readers are smart enough to work out the rest for themselves. Instead I offer two examples of what I mean.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Emerging Church

When we talk about church these days it's important to get the names and categories straight. Those of us who look for denominational clues to tell us what was really meant by the sign out front have a hard time discovering what is really going on inside the building. My personal experience is that even when you get inside the building, the crowd inside is no more informed than you were as a newcomer, so varied is the mixture.

This is a good trend, by the way. I am encouraged when I see all sorts and conditions of men, women and children doing church together. The first time I saw sneakers peeking out from under the vestments of an acolyte I knew I was in the right place. Same with the young family with two beautiful, well-behaved children. Mom in a comfortable casual dress, with clean, shining long hair hanging naturally with no hint of a vanity cut. Dad in a short-sleeved shirt with both arms so covered with tattoos he appeared at a glance to be wearing long sleeves.

Readers who have never seen anything like this in their home church need to get out more. There's a lot of stuff happening out there that will make you feel old before your time if you're not careful.

Scot McKnight's article in Christianity Today will help you get up to speed. He elaborates on five points that are characteristic of the emerging church.

►Prophetic (or at least provocative)

Aside from alliteration, these five topics are all hot-button issues for serious Christian conversation. Any one of them is apt to spark an argument, which is why the writer has done such a workmanlike job of handling them. With the skill of a snake-handler he says just enough about each of these subjects to de-mystify their various toxic side-effects. (The second one pushes my button, but I have to admit that my own view of the topic tends to be two-dimensional.) That word praxis might have been practice and still fit with the list, but I think the implications of the thirty-dollar word are more nuanced than the vernacular.

The article is recommended reading, but let the reader be aware of the distinction between "emerging" and "emergent." This is the latter-day echo of the old antidisestablismentarianism debate. So don't let yourself get distracted...

To prevent confusion, a distinction needs to be made between "emerging" and "Emergent." Emerging is the wider, informal, global, ecclesial (church-centered) focus of the movement, while Emergent is an official organization in the U.S. and the U.K. Emergent Village, the organization, isdirected by Tony Jones, a Ph.D. student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a world traveler on behalf of all things both Emergent and emerging.

Enough of that. Go to the article, which opens with this delightful paragraph.
It is said that emerging Christians confess their faith like mainliners—meaning they say things publicly they don't really believe. They drink like Southern Baptists—meaning, to adapt some words from Mark Twain, they are teetotalers when it is judicious. They talk like Catholics—meaning they cuss and use naughty words. They evangelize and theologize like the Reformed—meaning they rarely evangelize, yet theologize all the time. They worship like charismatics—meaning with their whole bodies, some parts tattooed. They vote like Episcopalians—meaning they eat, drink, and sleep on their left side. And, they deny the truth—meaning they've got a latte-soaked copy of Derrida in their smoke- and beer-stained backpacks.

Thanks to Sarah Robinson, of all people, for the pointer. See, she's not an infidel after all. I think.