Thursday, December 27, 2007


I'm sad that this apparently decent woman has been killed. I'm worried that this bodes very badly indeed for the people of Pakistan in the near future, and perhaps for the people of the United States more indirectly. I heard George Stephanopoulos (sbbing for Charles Gibson) intimate that the US had a lot to do with her semi-triumphant return to Pakistan recently. Apparently the point of backing her was that she was both pro-Western, moderate, and popular, and that we were trying to hedge the Musharef bets we've been placing for the past several years. He is clearly on his last political legs, and we wanted to put someone civilized in play because we can't afford to have Pakistan (like Iraq but with nukes) go the way of Iraq.

I think the coverage of this story that most appalled me was the Today show replaying footage of Ann Curry laying into Bhutto for risking her own and other people's lives in her return. I have no idea what gave Ann Curry the idea that it was her job to tell Bhutto how to live, but she didn't just "ask tough questions," she literally attacked her for her decision. And I have no idea at all why NBC/Today thought it would be cool to replay this wholly inappropriate line of questioning in response to her death. It looked like, "I told you so!" Really weird.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Long theology post

Joseph Campbell, who wrote extensively about the power of myth, said that both atheists and fundamentalists make the same mistake about the things they read in sacred books. Atheists read something like the book of Jonah, for example, and say, it couldn't have happened like that, and therefore it's a lie. Fundamentalists read it and say it's true, so it actually happened exactly like that. Both misunderstand what sort of literature they are reading. It's not history and it's not science. It's symbolism, metaphor, myth. And so it is neither factual nor a lie, neither literally true nor literally mistaken. It's meant to speak to the spirit and not the intellect.

The Bible is a record of how the spirit spoke to men (and perhaps women) in ages past, written down as best they understood it. There is change and development and contradiction in it because people's experience of God changed and developed and improved (and at times, no doubt, regressed.)

God moved people of old and spoke to them in ways they were ready for. In the end of the Bible, we are clearly shown that in times past, God spoke through the prophets, but now His spirit dwells within us, and not in a chosen people or a tent or a sacred building or a collection of old writings. Jesus didn't leave a manuscript, he left a bunch of people who had experienced God in Him. Emmanuel means God with us. Not God up in the sky or God in a book or God in only one person. God with us.

Paul stumbled upon an incredible idea for an ancient Jew: that God cares just as much about Gentiles as he does about Jews. That was a complete overthrow of the entire Old Testament. Paul read the OT in a radically new way, turning the meaning of stories on their head. The story of Sarah and Hagar (mothers of Isaac and Ishmael) is presented in such a way as to make Hagar (mother of the enemies of Israel) stand for Israel, and Sarah (mother of Israel) represent Gentiles (Gentile believers in Christ.) It was, I believe, an authentic spiritual insight, it was God's word to Paul and to us through him. But that doesn't make his opinions about women speaking in church or covering their heads equally significant to us today. It's not. It doesn't make his request for his cloak and his scrolls the word of God. It doesn't make his own admittedly subjective opinion about divorce and remarriage binding on everyone in the world.

The Bible is a record of how people were moved and inspired by God. But the Word of God is living--it's not a book. It can best be seen in a person, Jesus Christ. But even He was limited by the time and culture in which He lived. In fact, He doesn't seem to have even seen beyond the nation of Israel in what He said and taught. So in that sense, Paul went beyond Him.

That process should continue. God didn't stop moving people to new depth of insight in 66 AD. That's one excellent point that Catholicism makes. God continues to move people to see the gospel in new and more mature ways. There's no reason to think that the oldest form of Christianity is the best--living things grow and develop.

Yet in many ways Catholicism has also missed what the spirit is saying to people today. The idea that because having as many children as possible was once the moral and unselfish thing to do, it still is today, is simply wrong, in my opinion. The belief that individual human babies were in sperm led to condemning condoms and masturbation (condemnation that all Protestants accepted as well until maybe 1940 or so)--but now that we know otherwise, it's just silly to try to pretend otherwise. The belief that loving homosexual relationships are evil is no longer tenable. (And if the Catholic church isn't living proof of what happens when you try to suppress people's sexuality, I don't know what is.)

Catholicism teaches me that my ultimate responsibility is to follow my own conscience. Commonsense and some attempt at spiritual maturity teach me that I can't believe things that I don't believe. So I'm stuck with what my own spirit suggests to me is in accord with the spirit of God. Some of it is derived from things in the Bible, and some of it is not. It's Catholic, but not necessarily what the Pope teaches. Confusing and even chaotic, but it's the best I can do.

I would say that God is being revealed progressively through human history. God is able to be revealed more and more in and through us.

This is an experience I had several years ago. I was starting to lose my faith in God as I had imagined Him, and I was starting to suspect that what we call "God" is not exactly a free-standing entity. And this alarmed and disturbed me. So as I struggled with the idea that God didn't really exist in the way I had supposed, I (somewhat contradictorily) addressed this question to God: "God, are you separate from me?" The answer I thought was the "right" (orthodox) answer was, "Of course!" But that's not how it went. As I asked that question, I clearly and immediately "heard" this response: "Do you want Me to be?"

That's quite a question. Do I want to be separated from God? Gee, that can't be good. Then why do I want God to be separate from me? Why do I want God to be separate from humanity? Suppose God's one and only dwelling place is human beings, humanity, us? Jesus certainly hinted as much, with all that talk about what you do to the least, you do to Him, and how you keep the law is to love your neighbor.

If I think about most of the things that God is credited for, such as providing food, saving people from death, bringing people back to life, forgiving sins, etc. turn out, on closer inspection to nearly always come by way of human hands. Even in the Bible! God hardly ever smites people himself--he gets some people to do all the smiting. He doesn't mete out his own justice--he sends people to do it. Even the most supernatural of events, such as water from a stone or children raised from death, require a human intermediary. In the NT, every single "divine" thing that Jesus did, he also told his disciples to do, including forgiving sins and laying down his life for others.

The project that I think humanity is at work on is becoming One, by which I mean feeling and acting for each person as we feel for those nearest and dearest to us. In tribal societies, this is a reality--what is good for the tribe actually compellingly feels to be what's good. In organized religion and nationalism, we see this sense of identification and willingness to live and die for others expanded to a much larger group. But this enlargement comes at the cost of a strong sense of Us vs. Them, and often involves a stronger sense of alienation and disregard for all those on the outside of the circle.

Hence, while it's noble for a man to die for his comrades or for the abstraction of his country (more noble than for him to refuse to serve), his nobility is played out on the field of engaging in large-scale murder of "the enemy." Further enlargement of one's identification and loyalty beyond family and tribe has turned into a greater evil, in that much more hatred and destruction can now be guiltlessly done in the name of God and country. But that sense of the nobility of stepping beyond self to unity with a greater whole is real. It's just that until, in really practical terms, this identification is with all humans, or even, as the Tibetans believe, all sentient creatures, there is always an Us vs. Them that poisons the Oneness.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.

That they all may be One, as thou Father in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.

Non-believers are often much better at sensing this and responding to it than believers, who are taught to divide humanity into "saved" and "unsaved," perhaps the most pernicious division of all. Believers are incapable of sincere, single-minded response to the needs of others, because they always have a sense of "ought" and a sense of their own goodness and a sense that their kindness is somehow a bribe or a message that might bring this lost soul to God--and unbelievers feel the hidden message behind all the things that Christians might do for them. On the other hand, a complete reprobate might stop and help his neighbor change a tire without any hidden subliminal message. They feel a connectedness, a sense of mutual responsibility and interdependence, rather than a "moral obligation." These are the folks who will say, Lord when did we see thee hungry and feed thee? And Jesus will say, Whatever you did for the least person, you did for me. Because the dwelling place of God is with mankind. Emmanuel, God with us.

(copied and saved from 2 discussion board posts I made.)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Good movie week

This week I've watched two movies on DVD and one at the theatre, and all 3 of them were great. On DVD I watched Wag the Dog, an oldie but goodie. Of course I had heard the plot--and the similarities with the Clinton administration--but I had never seen it. It holds up well, although surprisingly, fashions actually have changed in the past 10 years. Dustin Hoffman is a riot.

Then I watched Little Miss Sunshine for the second time. The first time I saw it in Maine with my nieces last January, and this time I watched it with Kristen. It is such a wonderful movie. It's a strange combination of rather raunchy humor and very moral and uplifting message. It leaves you feeling so hopeful about humanity.

Then today, Kristen and I went to see Juno, about a 16 year old girl who gets pregnant and decides to have the baby. It's so snarky and quirky, and yet again, despite some raunchy language and a few naughty bits, very moral, and very uplifting. It would be easy to make the adoptive mom just a stereotype, and in a way she is--the yuppie woman who is so perfect and who seems to want a child almost as an accessory. But she has depth, and in the end, when her husband (who is well developed throughout the movie) turns out to be kind of a loser, she shows herself to be worthy of the trust that Juno placed in her. The relationship between Juno and her Dad is sweet, as is the stepmother, who really sticks up for her.

So after 3 hits in a row, I am taking a chance on one more: Arctic Tale, which I rented. I was really looking forward to this when it came out, since it was advertised all over the place. But to my surprise, it never even played at any of the local multiplexes. So I plan to watch that this weekend and hope I can keep the string going.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


I love shopping at New Balance shoe store. A few years ago, I bought a pair of shoes and after several months of wearing them daily, I started having pain in the bottom of my heels. I went back to buy a new pair of insole supports, and explained why I needed them. The salesman noted that actually, I probably needed a new pair of shoes in a more supportive style. Ah, I thought, another hundred dollar pair of shoes! But the guy said, we can take these old ones back and you can just pay the difference. I was stunned. I'd worn them for months!

As a result of that one good transaction, I, my husband, and my daughter have bought all our shoes there ever since. They are instantly comfortable, and today, when I bought new insoles again, the pair they sold me didn't fit quite right. I went back an hour later, and they cheerfully let me exchange them for a better pair.

Their customer service is excellent, and their product is the best.

"Buying" a Cellphone

Almost everyone in America has a cellphone. Certainly every college-age person. So when Kristen's cellphone stopped working, I knew we needed to buy her a new one as soon as possible. Since we've been on our current plan for more than 2 years, and since we've received various notices that we're eligible for a free new phone, I thought it should be relatively simple to go to an AT &T store and just buy a phone.

I thought wrong.

It turns out that you basically can't just buy a cellphone, at least not at any sane price. We went to the nearest AT&T store and explained our situation. We don't want to change our contract in any way, just buy a new phone to use. The guy talked in code for a few minutes, ending by suggesting that we open a new line in order to get a discounted phone. How much would a new line cost? Oh, only $10. $10 per what? Uh, per month. For how long? Well for 2 years. And how much of a discount would that buy us? Like $150 cheaper. And what would we do with that line, since we already have 3 lines and 3 people? Oh, it would be a ghost line. Just to get the discount. Wait, you're suggesting that I spend $240 over the next 2 years in order to get a $150 discount? His response: I'm not saying you should do it, but that's what some people do.

Translation: I confuse some people so much that I trick them into paying $240 to save $150, but since you can multiply, never mind.

We gave up and waited till the next day, during which we did a bit of research to find out if there are sane and simple ways to just buy a phone at a reasonable price. Turns out that the answer is essentially no.

You can get phones in one of three ways: get a phone below cost in exchange for signing a 2 year contract, pay what the sales persons sneeringly refer to as "retail" (ie over $300 for a piece of equipment that you know isn't worth that much), or buy a pay as you go phone for somewhere around $50~$75 and then pay 10 cents per minute to use it.

This last option would be fine for people like Sam and me, who use cellphones mainly for quick calls to check on things. (And even these have hidden tricks built into them, it appears, like $1.00 per day charges that apply only on days when you use the phone. wth?) But Kristen often calls just to chat, and talks for as much as an hour at a time. And I don't want her to worry about the cost every time she makes a call.

So we went to 4 different AT&T stores and Circuit City, in a feeble attempt to find out if there was a way to avoid signing up for an additional 2 years of service and still get a phone for under $100.

As a last resort, we went to Radio Shack, which had two advantages: it has multiple phone services available, so that you can directly compare costs, if you don't already have a provider. (We wanted to continue with AT&T not because it's necessarily good, but because Kristen's phone line is a $10 a month add-on to my basic service.) The other advantage of Radio Shack is that the guy who waited on us was really knowledgeable and also low-key and didn't seem like a scam-artist.

What we ended up doing was adding 2 years to Kristen's line (but not to the contract as a whole) and getting a phone for only $16, which was actually the sales tax only. Even if we take into account the $10 per month, the most we paid for this phone was $216. And of course, she can use it freely. We hesitated about the 24 month thing because she hopes to spend several months in Italy next Fall. But we figure she'll just have to get a pay as you go phone that works in Europe or something. It's only 10 weeks.

But my question remains: why do they have to make it so damn hard to simply buy a phone? Why the long-term contracts? As Kristen pointed out, cellphones may be obsolete within 2 years. And if it's such a good deal, why do they have to basically trick you into staying with them for 2 years up front? And once you've fulfilled that obligation, why do they make it impossible to avoid a second 2-year commitment? They don't seem to trust that their service would be good enough that you would willingly buy it. If they sold their phones for a realistic price, instead of the vastly inflated "retail" price which they then "discount" to give you a sensible price for your phone, maybe people would buy more phones! Is the whole aura of shell-game really necessary?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Election Anxiety

Suppose that Huckabee gets the Republican nomination and Hillary gets the Democratic nomination. What a mess that would be. All the Christians will feel compelled to vote for Reverend Huckabee, and all the liberals will have to vote for Hillary, and it will be presented as a choice between Jezebel and Saint Michael or something. Fearfully, Huckabee would probably beat Hillary, especially after the hate-Hillary machine gets cranked up. The funny part of it all is that Hillary is actually too *moderate* for most real liberal/progressives.

I really don't want to contemplate the idea of President Huckabee.

From a distance it would seem like there's no possible way the Republicans can win in 2008, after the mess Bush has made of the last 8 years. But if it were Huckabee vs. Hillary, I can see it happening. In my worst dreams.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

This can't be good

Long queues formed outside branches of Northern Rock today as anxious customers waited to withdraw savings after the bank was forced to seek an emergency bailout from the Bank of England.

Savers went in person to Northern Rock's branches to withdraw their money, after facing difficulties contacting the bank on the phone or via the internet.

Customers who manage their money on the internet were blocked from seeing details of their account, including statements, when they tried to log in.

This morning Northern Rock gave warning that its profits would fall by 23 per cent, and its shares have dropped by nearly a quarter in value, after problems in the global credit markets forced it to ask for emergency financial support.

William Gough, 75, arriving at a Northern Rock branch in Central London this morning, said he did not believe the bank’s assurances that his savings were safe and intended to withdraw his funds.

“They’re telling us not to worry but we’ve heard it before, with Marconi”, he said, referring to the collapse of the telecoms equipment firm in 2002.

“At the time I put the money in I wouldn’t have imagined something like this would happen,” Mr Gough said while joining the back of a 40-strong queue.

Customers queued for up to an hour and, as news of the Bank of England bailout spread, the throng inside the branch was so dense that some struggled to open the door. from the London Times

I continue to hear things about the economy that look really grim. A run on the bank? A literal panic? When is the last time something like this happened? I can't find any reference to a bank run in the Anglo world since the Great Depression.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The war in Iran has begun

Office of the Press Secretary
August 28, 2007
President Bush Addresses the 89th Annual National Convention of the American Legion
Reno, Nevada

[. . . ] The other strain of radicalism in the Middle East is Shia extremism, supported and embodied by the regime that sits in Tehran. Iran has long been a source of trouble in the region. It is the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. Iran backs Hezbollah who are trying to undermine the democratic government of Lebanon. Iran funds terrorist groups like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which murder the innocent, and target Israel, and destabilize the Palestinian territories. Iran is sending arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan, which could be used to attack American and NATO troops. Iran has arrested visiting American scholars who have committed no crimes and pose no threat to their regime. And Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.
Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. And that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies around the world to isolate the regime, to impose economic sanctions. We will confront this danger before it is too late. (Applause.)
Shia extremists, backed by Iran, are training Iraqis to carry out attacks on our forces and the Iraqi people. Members of the Qods Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are supplying extremist groups with funding and weapons, including sophisticated IEDs. And with the assistance of Hezbollah, they've provided training for these violent forces inside of Iraq. Recently, coalition forces seized 240-millimeter rockets that had been manufactured in Iran this year and that had been provided to Iraqi extremist groups by Iranian agents. The attacks on our bases and our troops by Iranian-supplied munitions have increased in the last few months -- despite pledges by Iran to help stabilize the security situation in Iraq.
Some say Iran's leaders are not aware of what members of their own regime are doing. Others say Iran's leaders are actively seeking to provoke the West. Either way, they cannot escape responsibility for aiding attacks against coalition forces and the murder of innocent Iraqis. The Iranian regime must halt these actions. And until it does, I will take actions necessary to protect our troops. I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran's murderous activities.(Applause.)
We seek an Iran whose government is accountable to its people -- instead of to leaders who promote terror and pursue the technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.

There is a lot of talk about the fact that the United States is preparing to make a first strike attack on Iran with the hope of taking out not only possible nuclear development sites, but the entire military capability of Iran. The plan is to do this assumed to involve little need for ground troops. In fact, it can probably be done almost like a computer game, with the American soldiers sitting at a console somewhere far away.

But based on what the President told the American Legion, to predictable applause, that confrontation has already begun. The use of the word "confront" is relevant, because the Senate also passed a resolution using that same term in regard to Iran, 97-0. So much for Democratic resistance to the plan for endless war. Lieberman is the author of that bill.

I read elsewhere that Israel sought and received assurance before supporting the war in Iraq that Iran would be next on the list, to be followed by Syria.

But who is listening? Who is protesting? Who is even paying attention? The Today show shows us young women whose skirts are too short for Southwest Airlines, and the evening news offers us heart-warming stories about Marines who are also artists or soldiers whose legs were blown off but who still run marathons.

I don't think this war will be quite the piece of cake that Iraq was. I seriously fear for the future of my country. We seem to be positioned for a replay of both the Great Depression and World War 2. And Congress seems to have taken Ambien, sleeping through the whole thing.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Training an Army

Brian Williams on tonight's NBC news reported on a situation that goes to prove what I've been saying about Iraq for years now. The report, from Richard Engel, is about the Kurdish region of Iraq, more properly called Kurdistan. The people there want a separate country, because they are not Arabs and they don't consider themselves Iraqis. They have a strong sense of national identity and a strong loyalty to the Free Kurdistan cause.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Kurdistan has been allowed to have its own army, called the Peshmerga. The Peshmerga actually believe in the cause for which they are fighting, and their loyalty is straightforward and undivided--they want a free and peaceful homeland.

What I've been saying is that it doesn't take months and months, nay years and years, to train an army to "stand up" if in fact the soldiers want to stand up for what you're asking them to stand up for. The reason we can't get "Iraqis to stand up so that we can stand down" is that the people we're trying to stand up are not interested in whatever agenda it is that we're trying to "train" them for. It hasn't taken the "insurgents" (whoever they are) long to train their men and put a backbone in them. And it also hasn't been difficult to get the Kurdish army, protecting Kurdish people, to acquit themselves like men and to provide real security for their own people.

This should be a sign to us that whatever the hell it is we're trying to "train" the Iraqi police and army to do, they don't want to do it, and therefore we will never succeed in "training" them to want to.

We train soldiers and Marines in something like 6 months. It's easy to do, because they come in wanting to be U. S. soldiers and Marines, because they actually believe in what they are being taught.

Apparently what is going on in Iraq is something else, some kind of passive aggressive resistance by the "trainees," who want a paycheck maybe, a job maybe, but who deep down simply don't buy what it is we're selling. So they vote with their backbone, by collapsing every time the trainers' backs are turned.

The Iraqi politicians don't want the program we're pushing on them either, or they wouldn't all be on vacation or simply absent.

So we've done what at least some, maybe even most, Iraqis wanted, which is to remove Saddam. And now whatever we thought was in it for us, they have no intention of giving us. So we either raise the war to a whole new level, basically forcing our positions upon a conquered people, or we leave. Like they used to say about Vietnam, declare victory and go home No WMDs, no more Saddam, job done!

We will only find out what all those half-trained Iraqi soldiers really believe in and want when we see what they're willing to die for. And it sure as hell ain't for us. Maybe it will be to keep the Kurds out of Kirkuk. Maybe it will be to keep Iran out of Baghdad. We'll never know till we get out of the way and let them stand up on their own two feet, or slink down on their own asses.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mother Teresa's lost faith

Mother Teresa's letters-- in which she apparently confides that she had no sense of God's presence, no feeling of faith or consolation, no assurance of the reality of God or heaven or the human soul--are about to be published. I had heard previously that this was the case for her, but it seems that the length and depth of this "dark night" is a bit of a shock to almost everyone.

It is not to me. And I think it is real evidence that she is a saint, by which I mean an enlightened person, one who has actually reached union with God, or spiritual marriage as it is called in the Catholic tradition. Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa, and most familiar to me, Saint Therese of Lisieux, all felt this emptiness and silence. Buddhists would understand it better, perhaps, as the end of the ego and of the sense of separation between one's self and what one understands as God.

I think that the great secret of mystical experiences is that at the end, there is a great emptiness. Images of God, voices of God, are all delusions and idols. God as one has imagined Him simply no longer exists. He has been entirely internalized. So the double-mindedness is over. The ability to have an internal dialogue with this Other is gone. Both Saint Teresa and Saint Therese talk about prayer turning into simply silence, resting on some inchoate sense of God. But finally, even that sense evaporates. Then there is no inner Other, nor any sense of an outer God in Heaven. There is only One. All the drama and fireworks is over. There's no push or pull, no ought or should. No Law. No sin. No guilt.

Faith is not meant to be eternal. Nor is hope. Only Love endures. But with no sense of the Presence of this Other, there is no One to love or to be loved by. One must simply act from love. If one's theology insists that this is a defect, then this state will be experienced as painful, as it apparently was in Mother Teresa's case. But I think it's painful because the endpoint of mystical prayer has been covered over in the western tradition. Those who reach it think they have gone astray, and they keep silence to avoid scandalizing or harming others.

Perhaps it is the providence of God that Mother Teresa's letters were not only not destroyed, as she intended, but are being published for all to see.

The truth is: The Son of Man is the Son of God, and there is no Other. There is no God to be found anywhere else but in one's own self and in the wounded selves of others. Jesus knew that and viscerally experienced it on the cross when he found Himself forsaken. The Law, the Prophets, and even faith itself are only means to this burned out but open-hearted end.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Make Love Not War

One last thought about war. Isn't it odd that most people feel vaguely ashamed of sex. Yet what's so shameful? Sex expresses love or desire, or even a bit of aggression, it creates pair bonds that hold families together, it relieves tension and stress, and it creates new life once in a while. Almost everyone needs and wants sex on some sort of regular basis. It feels good and gives mutual pleasure and usually no one gets hurt. Yet it is a source of shame.

While war, which kills and maims and brutalizes, is a source of pride.

Men are expected to be proud of their brave deeds killing other people, and to blush in shame over the fact that they got naked with a person they love.

Something has gone badly amiss.

War, what is it good for?

I am reading Flags of Our Fathers, written by a son about his father and 5 other men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. His description of the battle of Iwo Jima is extremely vivid and detailed--descriptions of men literally cut in half by bullets, the top half of a body standing upright in the sand, and the incredible number of men killed, more Americans in a few days than in the entire Iraq War so far.

One of the things that struck me is the extreme youth of the "men" who were fighting. I always thought that calling them "our boys" was a kind of odd thing, but in fact, they were boys, most of them Kristen's age, many of them younger. Too young to drink, too young to vote, too young to marry, but old enough to see unspeakable horror (flamethrowers used to burn men alive in front of their eyes, buddies with their guts in their hands, heads rolling from bodies). What must it have done to the survivors?

I wondered about the eagerness and willingness of so many young men to volunteer in WW2, but a little thinking about the great Depression makes it a little more understandable. A kid who was 18 in 1942 was born in 1924 and was 5 years old when the stock market crashed. His entire childhood was spent seeing his father and uncles struggle to find work. His family probably could barely afford to feed him, and the odds of going to college or starting a career must have looked pretty grim. Then along comes Uncle Sam, offering steady work and prestige--become a man, save the world, be a hero! After watching his father's humiliating struggle to stay afloat, this must have looked like a great opportunity. And for many young men, it really was. 18 and 19 year old kids were given heavy equipment to operate, tanks and trucks and even airplanes. And thousands of excess workers were killed during the war, so that those who came back intact really did have a much brighter future than their elders ever had.

An article in this month's Harpers Magazine discusses whether war has now become obsolete. It speaks of war as a cultural choice, not a part of human nature. Human beings have to breathe and eat and have sex, but they don't have to wage war. One of the oddities of the viewpoint in Flags of Our Fathers is that it partakes of the WW2 opinion that the Japanese fought unfairly. It is rather striking that the Japanese are pictured as barbarians because they refused to surrender and were willing to fight to the last man and to undertake suicide attacks. This struck American soldiers as an unfair, unsporting position.

The fact that there is such a difference of opinion as to how the game of war ought to be played makes it clear that it really is a cultural construct. The Americans didn't think they were playing dirty pool when they used tanks of gasoline to send sheets of fire into a position where they knew Japanese soldiers were hiding. But they were horrified by the fact that the Japanese didn't need the assurance that at least some of them would come back from a mission alive. The Japanese also committed many atrocities--mistreating prisoners, whom they believed to be shameful cowards because they had surrendered. But while the Japanese were cruel to individual soldiers and apparently to captured cities in China and elsewhere, were they any crueler than the men who firebombed Tokyo and nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Is torture less cruel when done at a distance?

Is it really possible that the human race is beginning to reach the point at which wholesale war such as the American Civil War, WW1 and WW2, in which millions died, no longer seems supportable? The war in Iraq is really notable for the very small number of Americans killed (and probably the number of Iraqis killed is relatively insignificant compared to say Russia in WW2). And yet large numbers of Americans oppose this war. Imagine if we were losing this number of men, not in years but in days. Would anyone support such a cause?

Sure, radical Islam would like to attack us, but there is no threat that Islam will mass millions of soldiers and actually invade our country. Islam doesn't have a military. It has martyrs. Rather a different concept. And it is clear to the rest of the world that Islam is attempting to live in the past, in an imaginary 12th century golden age or something. It may nip at our heels and cause some trouble, but it's a far cry from the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. Or the United States or Great Britain.

The only country in the entire world today that actually contemplates using military force to invade and pillage other countries is the United States. And even our appetite for such adventures seems to be waning. Young men (and women) of today really do have better options than 17 year old children of the depression had. The propaganda that it is sweet and lovely to die for one's country is slowly losing its hold on our imagination.

Perhaps like slavery and child labor and wife beating, war will gradually come to be seen by almost everyone as immoral and self-defeating. It can't happen too soon.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Putting 2 and 2 together

In a previous post, I wondered about why the WTC buildings pulverized into dust rather than collapsing into big chunks of concrete and rebar. And I pondered the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis-Saint Paul. Now it occurs to me that the way that bridge collapsed provides further evidence that something other than gravity brought down the WTC.

The I-35W bridge was approximately 64 feet above the river below. That's the equivalent of 5 to 6 stories high. And when concrete and steel fall that far, it remained almost entirely intact. It fell in huge chunks, and it did not turn to dust at all. Obviously the World Trade Center is much higher--110 floors and 1368 feet in all. (12 feet per floor. But the individual floors fell onto the floor below, pancaking, as we are told. So each floor was falling only 12 feet at a time. When a slab of concrete falls 12 feet, it does not crumble to dust. It falls in maybe 2 or 3 or 6 large chunks. And then the next floor falls, again only 12 feet, and there is more weight and there would be more fracturing, and so on. (And it seems certain that fire, no matter how hot, would not turn steel and concrete to fine powder either.)

If the powder occurred at the ground level, after the top floor had jounced down 109 times, breaking up more and more as it went, then perhaps we could credit that the effect of gravity had crumbled the top floors to dust. But in the pictures, we can see clouds of dust roiling out of the building long before it reaches the ground. The building vanished before our eyes and was reduced to a fine powder.

We now know for certain that chunks of concrete remain intact when they fall 6 stories down. Let's assume that these large slabs fell another 6 stories. Would they be talcum-like dust yet? No? Another 6 or 12 stories? Would they even be brick size chunks? Remember, we saw with our own eyes this week that after the first 6-story fall, the slabs of concrete remain almost 100% intact.

We also know that human beings are not broken into tiny bits by such a fall either. Almost everyone survived a 60 foot fall. And we know from the space shuttle and from accidents in which parachutes fail to open that human bodies can fall not only 1300 feet but 10 times that, 13,000 feet, and not disintegrate. (In fact, people have *survived* falls from airplanes without a parachute!) Now of course, a human being standing on the 50th floor of the WTC is about to be hit by 60 floors of concrete before falling the final 50 floors down, so of course, we would expect any human remains to be crushed and mangled, perhaps beyond recognition. But we would not expect that body to be vaporized or turned to dust.

So I am forced to wonder if the WTC was blown apart by something other than fire and gravity.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Good for the Economy

I have been thinking about the collapsed bridge in the Twin Cities, and the fact that the cost of maintaining our crucial infrastructure seems so expensive that it is out of reach or not politically feasible.

Given that a country has a finite amount of tax revenue to spend, it seems obvious to me that when it is spent on one thing, it is not available to spend on something else. (Of course, the amount of tax revenue available is adjustable, simply by growing the economy and/or raising tax rates. But realistically, it's not easy to squeeze more money out of taxpayers, and being anti-tax and anti-government is a kind of religion in the United States since at least the time of Ronald Reagan.)

So the easy and obvious assumption is that every dollar spent on the military in general and the war in Iraq in particular is one dollar that is unavailable not only for touchy-feely things like education and health care but also harder core things like highways and bridges.

And yet there is a common belief that "war is good for the economy." How can this be? Well, they tell us, war creates jobs, spurs spending, money is transferred from the government (which got it from taxes of course) to corporations, and these corporations then hire workers and pay them wages, and that all this is economic growth. And in a way, I suppose it is. But if the government can create jobs and strengthen the economy by spending money, why would it do so better spending it on tanks and planes that will be used up in a war than it would spending it on roads and bridges right here at home (or schools, or health care, or whatever you care to imagine, museums or monuments)? It appears to my naive eyes that there is no positive benefit to spending government money (ie taxes) on military equipment. And it further appears that once the money is spent, it matters a lot whether that money has gone for something that is durable and will contribute to further economic growth, rather than something that has no real use to our citizens.

If buying airplanes and helicopters Humvees and then using them up is the road to a strong economy, would it be beneficial to build such equipment and just blow them up in our own desert in Nevada? Certainly everyone would agree that buying equipment and materials and then destroying it so that you can build and buy more is a huge waste of taxpayers money.

And surely everyone would agree that a working bridge or highway is of more use to us than a bunch of ruined and used up military equipment. (It's also more use than a bunch of functioning military equipment for that matter.)

So how is war helpful to the economy? The old-fashioned reason for war was to acquire booty. A more modern purpose is to acquire land or resources. If you gain something tangible from the war, such as access to resources (oil, for example), then the cost of warfare may be offset by the expected gain. (And of course, if someone else is trying to take away your liberty or your resources or land, then you fight not to gain something but to keep from losing something.)

Apart from some expected gain if you win a war, war can only hurt the overall economy. Taxing people and then using the taxes to pay them to build materials which are then used for non-productive purposes is a losing game. (If it's not, then why not just tax people and pay them to build materials and then throw the products away. Clearly, while this would increase employment, it's like the New Deal make-work projects only worse. At least the New Deal built hiking paths and wrote books and so forth.)

The overall principle is no different than it would be for the economy of a household. If I spend my money on remodeling my house, then when I'm done, I have a more valuable and usable house. If I spend it on buying materials that will make me more productive (such as a car or a computer or education) then I increase my earning power. If I spend my money on things that are not of lasting value (such as vacations or gambling or fashion) then when I'm done, I have less money and no greater ability to be productive. This is what military spending amounts to. While there may be some beneficial side effects (maybe some antsy young men get trained in some skill or maybe some new technology is invented), the bottom line of military spending is that it is throwing money away. And spending on infrastructure (or education or health or public works) is investing that some money in something of long-term value to the citizens whose money it is.

Thursday, August 2, 2007


I am always amazed when I consider what a wealth of blessings have been left to us by those who went before us. Think of how much money it took to build the interstate highway system, the NY subway, the thousands of public libraries and public schools. All we have to do is maintain them. I look at the library on my campus, and the thousands of volumes of books still there that some other taxpayers provided for us. Now, it is up to us to add the new volumes that make it a usable collection, and we balk at it.

The words "crumbling infrastructure" just took on new urgency with the collapse of a major bridge in a major city. The collapse of levees in New Orleans was of course an even bigger disaster, but we could comfort ourselves that this was some kind of 100 year flood, an act of God that could not be anticipated. But when bridges have a series of reports indicating that they are in bad shape, and nothing is done, it is our own fault. Our parents paid taxes to build these things. If we don't want to go back to the day of ferry boats and dirt roads, we have to pay whatever it takes to maintain our physical infrastructure.

Business people cry about taxes, but the infrastructure those taxes support is what makes their generation of wealth possible. There are smart people in the backwaters of Brazil too, but without good infrastructure (and a good legal system), ideas and hard work won't make you rich. Everyone pays taxes so that everyone can live better. And when we don't our infrastructure inevitably falls apart.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Credibility and Conspiracy Theories

The concept of "Conspiracy Nuts" began after the assassination of Kennedy, when anyone who didn't accept the findings of the Warren Commission could safely be written off as a Conspiracy Nut.

The same brush-off has been resurrected to deal with questions about what happened on 9/11. And perhaps both "conspiracies" are a product of the same mind set. Perhaps if we took any event that is reported in great detail and subjected each detail to careful and critical scrutiny, we would begin to doubt our own existence.


Nevertheless, I have some unanswered questions which lead me to doubt the official conspiracy story. (Keep in mind that the official story involves a conspiracy involving dozens of people on several continent and a series of amazing coincidences.)

So here are my wonderings.

The first thing that strikes me is the small number of people on all 4 of the planes that crashed that day. I have flown on a number of occasions before and after 9/11, and for at least 20 years it has been extremely unusual for there to be more than a handful of empty seats on any commercial flights in this country. Airlines simply cannot stay in business if they fly half empty flights coast to coast on a regular basis. In 2006, the percentage of seats filled on average was around 80%.

The planes that crashed on 9/11 each had between 181 to 224 seats available.

Flight 11 (Boston to LA) had 76 passengers and 5 hijackers (=81 passengers) and at least 100 empty seats

Flight 175 (Boston to LA) had 56 passengers (including the hijackers) and at least 125 empty seats.

Flight 77 (DC to LA) had 53 passengers + 5 hijackers (=58 passengers)and at least 128 empty seats.

Flight 93 (Newark to San Francisco) had 37 passengers (including 4 hijackers) and about 144 empty seats.

Think about the likelihood of 4 flights, on a beautiful fall morning, leaving at a convenient hour and traveling between major coastal cities being so empty. When is the last time you've gotten on a commercial flight and 3 or 4 empty seats for each passenger? I haven't seen fill rates like that since the 1970s!

Did the terrorists mercifully choose half-empty flights to minimize the number of deaths? Was there some other reason that the flights they were on were eerily empty? I don't have an answer, but this does strike me as a surprising coincidence.

The other big question in my mind is why the WTC buildings not only collapsed, but exploded into a cloud of dust. When I saw the buildings come down on live tv, my first thought was, Oh my God, it's like Columbine, they had planted explosives in there!

Now I have some doubts whether that would have been possible, because apparently it takes a lot of manpower and a lot of time to wire buildings for demolition. Perhaps it was done, but I'm inclined to think it wasn't. But is it possible that some other mechanism was used? I read a website about the possibility of some sort of high-energy lasar type systems that the military has created.

It is hard for me to believe that layers of concrete and steel pancaking onto one another would literally disintegrate to such an extent that no bodies were found but only tiny fragments. By way of comparison, after the Challenger blew up in midair and crashed into the ocean, the shuttle was found nearly intact in the ocean and all the bodies were recognizable as being still belted into their seats. That space shuttle was a lot higher up than a tall building, and yet in their fall to earth they didn't vaporize. And that was an actual explosion, not a "collapse."

There are many other loose ends, but these two questions, based on commonsense observations, put me in the Conspiracy Nut category.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Pat Tillman and Conspiracy

Pat Tillman was an NFL football player who walked away from a lucrative contract to serve his country after 9/11. An Army Ranger, he expected to be sent to Afghanistan, but his first deployment was to Iraq. Apparently at some point Tillman, an educated and thoughtful guy, came to the conclusion that the invasion of Iraq was "fucking illegal," in his words. He was re-deployed to Afghanistan (any connection to the fact that he was a well-known guy and had some strong opinions?)and while there, he was killed.

The first story that was presented to the public was that he had died as a hero in combat against the enemy. He was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart and a story was created to support the belief that he had died from enemy fire That story was a fabrication. Within a few weeks, it was revealed that in fact he had died in a "friendly fire accident," caused by the fog of war. However, his own family did not believe that it was an accident, and continued to push for answers. The President claimed "executive privilege" on further details of the incident, which is surpassing strange if it was simply an accident.

Now more details have been released. The AP is reporting that he was killed by 3 bullets to the forehead, and that Army medical examiners believed that it appeared to be a crime rather than an accident since the bullets were fired from as close as 10 yards. They also reveal that there is no evidence that there was any enemy fire at all in connection with his death, and that the Lt. General who was questioned about the incident contradicted himself and others as well as claiming to have "no recollection" more than 70 times.

It has also been revealed that Tillman was opposed to the Iraq war and opposed to Bush, urging comrades to vote for Kerry. He also was an admirer of Noam Chomsky, who opposes U. S. Imperialism, and had made plans to meet with Chomsky when he returned home. (Chomsky has confirmed this, as has Tillman's mother.) He never did return home for that meeting.

So questions have been raised, questions I am inclined to credit, as to whether there could have been an order from above to silence this guy. We know for absolute sure that there was a conspiracy involved in covering up the actual facts of his death. Would military leaders risk their own careers in order to cover up their men's mistakes? Or is there something far more sinister here? If it is simply a mistake that is being covered up, why would the president need "executive privilege"?

This is a very disturbing story.

AP report.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sexual morality

Christian ideas of sexual morality are based upon standards set down somewhere between 1500 BC and 50 AD. A lot has changed since then, to put it mildly. The Old Testament seems to me to have echoes of a conflict between pastoralists and agriculturalists (see Cain and Abel, and some comments about how Egyptians hated shepherds, for example.) It is also set in a time when patriarchy was just coming into its own, perhaps as a consequence of the transition away from a herding economy to a settled agricultural one. So the standards of morality were based on the need to pass land on from father to son, to have clear lines of patrimony, and to maximize fertility in order to "subdue the land." Women are treated as useful chattel.

Catholic teaching also reflects an overwhelming concern with making sure that people have the maximum number of children. Thus birth control, abortion, masturbation, and homosexuality all seem immoral because they detract from the imperative to have children. (Of course celibacy is a possibility, but actually priestly celibacy was imposed in order to prevent church property from being passed down to sons.)

Interestingly, Protestants and even people with no religious concern at all also had felt a moral imperative to have lots of children until fairly recently. Some American presidents had 8 or 9 or more. It was a sign of wealth and success. It was a sign of manliness to father large broods, and a sign of womanly competence to mother themn to adulthood. People viscerally wanted large families. The moral rules actually coincided with their inner moral sense that childlessness was selfish and immature and irresponsible. People needed children economically.

In the United States in particular (and no doubt Canada and Australia as well) the sense of a large unpeopled land made people uneasy. The idea that wilderness is attractive and appealing is very recent indeed. "A howling wilderness" is how people in the 1700s and 1800s perceived unsettled land. So having as many children as possible made instinctive sense to people.

But clearly both our reality and our inner sense of things have changed. We instinctively know that having more children is not economically necessary or helpful and that the world doesn't need as many more people as possible.

So our feelings about sexual morality no longer coincide with what we read in ancient documents. It takes real mental energy to explain why it's wrong to masturbate or to use birth control. (Protestants only became comfortable with birth control witin the past 60 years or so. In the past everyone knew that only a man having extramarital sex would have need for a condom.) The availability of safe and effective birth control makes pre-marital sex an attractive choice, whereas in the past pre-marital sex meant a child without the necessary support and a disaster for the "unwed mother" economically and thus socially. Now it doesn't mean any such thing.

If the spirit of God were moving among people today, leading them to look for the most loving and considerate answers to questions of sexual morality, would S/He not react to society as it actually is, rather than as it was 3000 years ago? Catholics in their millions have felt led by the most moral of considerations to use birth control and limit their families, and it's only the leadership which is stuck on old mores from old conditions. Most Christians who think much about it see the sense in allowing 2 men who love each other to form a family and adopt children. Surely this is more moral than condemning them to a life of shame and furtive unttached sexual encounters. Most Christians have already thrown in the towel on birth control, and pre-marital sex is condemned only in the faintest of ways. It is obvious to me that the hardline on abortion and homosexual relatinships are a rear-guard action that will whimper to an end within the next 30 or 40 years.

God in times past spoke through the prophets, but today His spirit resides within us, and we know that it is moral to have sex only with a person you are lovingly committed to and to only have as many children as you can provide with a strong start in life, and that they are not workers to help you but dependents whom you must nurture for 20 or more years.

Sensitive and thoughtful unbelievers probably have a keener sense of what today's sexual morality really entails than do people with their heads in an ancient book looking for rules. They hear what the Spirit has to say right now.

Let the Generals decide?

One of Bush's frequent statements is that he doesn't believe that "politicians in Washington" ought to be running the war, and that he prefers to let the military decide what ought to be done.

He is completely wrong, both constitutionally and common-sensically (again!)

The Constitution very wisely puts the decision to declare war in the hands of "politicians in Washington," ie Congress. Congresspersons have to stand for election and they have to be able to face their constituents and explain to them why their sons and daughters should die in this war. The principle of civilian leadership is the difference between military dictatorships and democratic societies. The Constitution also makes the President, a civilian, a politician in Washington, the commander in chief. The military answers to a civilain leader, not the other way around.

From a practical point of view, it is also foolish to ask the military to decide what should be done. There's an old daying that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Similarly, if you ask a surgeon what to do about cancer, what do you think she will suggest? The military has a very specific job: to fight wars using military might. Every problem they face will have to be answered by the only tools they have--soldiers, tanks, bombs, bullets and so on. The military cannot negotiate or conduct diplomacy. It can retreat but it can't end a war on its own. So if you ask a general what he needs, what will his answer be? More troops, more weapons, more fighting. What else could he possibly say?

The fact that Americans have been swallowing the propaganda coming from the politician-in-chief in washington is extremely worrisome.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Health insurance

I've been thinking about the concept of "health insurance" in America, and it seems to me that "insurance" is the wrong model. In the past, ordinary health care (which was mostly ineffective) was rather inexpensive as well. Back in the early 60's when I was a child, it cost $3 or $5 to see the doctor. Minimum wage was around $1, so this was 3 to 5 hours work for a very low-end worker. Nowadays, the co-pay is between $5 to $20, which is 1 to 4 hours pay for that same low-end worker. But insurance is paying quite a bit more. So even for ordinary doctors visits, most people feel the need for insurance.

And even more than doctors visits, many people, including me, need several prescription drugs to maintain their quality of life, whereas 40 years ago there were very few effective drugs for things like asthma (ask me how I know!)

So for many people, health expenses are not some imponderable possibility that might strike like a tornado or earthquake without warning. They are a predictable cost of living. And needing checkups and screening tests are not random events that may or may not occur. They are as inevitable as brushing your teeth.

I understand the libertarian/economic argument that one of the reasons health care costs have risen so fast is that the ordinary consumer is sheltered from feeling the full effect of them, and thus market pressures are somewhat absent. If you received food without paying for it item by item, but rather through some employer-paid benefit, and if it didn't matter whether you bought ground beef or sirloin steak as far as your own costs, then food prices would probably become unmanageable too.

But it does seem to me that the insurance model is misplaced. It made sense in a time when you could pay for a doctor visit and still pay your mortgage that month, and when insurance was for unexpected catastrophes such as cancer or a car accident. But most people who are insured these days are covered for all sorts of ordinary predictable expenses. And that means that the price of those predictable expenses are far higher than they would otherwise be, because billing the insurance and getting reimbursed are big expenses for doctors, which they must add to their prices (I remember when a doctor's wife could handle the bookkeeping and the cost of the visit was tossed in a drawer of $1 and $5 bills, to be simply counted up at the end of the week.) And the insurance companies must also make a profit.

So although some claim that governmental bureaucracies are inevitably wasteful and inefficient, I don't see how they could possibly be worse than medical costs that must build in a profit for the drug companies, the doctors' corporations, the insurance company, and the hospital. There are vast inefficiencies and tons of paperwork in coding and billing and processing payments and invoices that no one can understand. And it is a simple fact that Americans, by one means or another, manage to spend more per capita on health care costs than any other country, and yet not have any better results or even as good a life expectancy or infant mortality rate as countries spending less.

Also, or current "system" (if it even deserves the name), redistributes some of the costs of health care, but it does so very unevenly. Employers are expected to pick up a large share of insurance costs, but doing so makes them seem uncompetitive. Those companies that don't do their "fair share" of this unwritten agreement can cut their costs and pass them along to taxpayers (I'm thinking WalMart for example) but a company like Ford Motor has a long tradition of good benefits and so looks like a bad investment, since they are now stuck paying retiree benefits. Meanwhile Japanese and other carmakers don't have to add that to the cost of their cars, since it is already part of the tax burden shared by the entire country.

So I could ask the question like this: is health care expense more like a tornado, which might hit at random and from which you need to be protected, or is it more like public education, something that benefits everyone and which can be done effectively by spreading the costs across the entire community in order to make sure that no one goes without?

My conclusion is that it is an expense that will fall on almost everyone and which is vital to us as a community and a nation, and so the costs should be shared evenly. No company should be able to shift its share onto others, and no one should be denied coverage because they might need to use it!

If health care were provided to all at minimal cost and supported by taxes, there would be fewer millionaire CEOs and more middle-level government employees. People who wanted to start a business or quit their day job for something a bit risky would be able to do so with far less anxiety, and this alone might trigger a wave of creativity and entrepreneurship. Small employers would not be competing with larger employers or foreign companies on an uneven playing field. And since everyone would be covered, the idea that a pre-existing condition makes you uninsurable would come to a well-deserved end.

(It strikes me as criminal that insurance companies treat individuals who need insurance as if they were lone rangers--the insurance company is spreading the risk among the millions they insure, so why do they single the individual out and make them pay far more than if they were part of a "group.")

I don't see any reason why under a government run system, there couldn't also be private doctors for those who could pay, and for those who wanted things like face lifts or breast augmentation. I don't see how a not-for-profit system of covering everyone could cost more than one that also has to provide huge executive salaries, and advertising costs, and all sorts of clerical inefficiency, and dividends for shareholders. How could it? Do private colleges cost less than public ones? The idea that things done privately are cheaper is just a dogma put forth by conservatives, with no real evidence. Compare Blackwater to the Army and see which one costs more. The private companies pay their soldiers of fortune $100,000 a year. How can that be cheaper?

Could there be problems and bureaucracies to deal with? Sure, but there already are the same problems with insurers. And we leave working people with no means to pay their medical bills. And it's not like this has never been tried. Most developed countries already do this, and life has not fallen to sub-Saharan levels in Canada or England or Japan. The current system is a millstone around the neck of American productivity. It's time to create a real system of health care, not health insurance.

Let's see how this goes

So I made myself a blog to talk about my knitting. But I spend a fair amount of time posting comments on various political and theology boards, and I thought maybe it would be fun to have a place where I can initiate my own posts and try my hand at writing about my thoughts, mostly to clarify them for myself. If it's boring, I can stop. If no one reads it, but if it's fun, that'll be ok. So off we go.