Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I Voted!

I woke up at 4 am this morning, to the sound of rain. Oh no, not rain on election day! Got up and showered at 5:30, and got ready for the day. I waited till just after 7:30 to go vote, hoping not to have to stand in line. By 7:30, the sun was out and every leaf glistening. "Morning has broken, like the first morning." I decided to walk over to Lincoln School, in case there was any difficulty parking. Right by the school, a car started backing out of its garage unexpectedly and almost hit me--a car with Ron Paul signs all over it. Figures. The crossing guard made sure I got across the street all right, and I felt like it was 1957 and I was walking to school for the first time!

Kristen's friend Sarah W-R was one of the poll workers, and she told me that there had been a considerable line at 7 am when they opened, which had just cleared. There were only 3 people ahead of me. I saw Kristen's name there, marked as Vote By Mail, and they tried to convince me that I had already voted by mail, but I drew my finger along the line and showed them that I was on the line above. Old age, not voter suppression. One poll worker had a sign indicating that she spoke Japanese and another had a sign indicating Chinese.

Obama's name was first on the ballot, and McCain was not second but third, I think. I inked it carefully, and after I took it out, I checked again to be sure that the mark was in the right spot.

By the time I was leaving, another line was building up, as parents came to drop their kids off for school and vote at the same time.

I walked home in the glistening morning sunlight feeling the Hope! feeling the Yes We Can!

My students were asking me yesterday who I planned to vote for. All I would say was, I'm gonna vote for the winner! Please God let it be true! I enjoyed this vote more than any vote I can ever remember. I also enjoyed voting No on Prop. 8. Since when would we vote to take rights away from people?

Now the tension builds!

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees

For several years now, I've been teaching The Secret Life of Bees in my 1A and 1AX classes. Student reaction to the book has been almost uniformly positive, from international students and American students, from white students and black students, and somewhat from men, as well as women. Several times over the semesters, students have wanted to see the movie, but there wasn't a movie. I imagined what a good movie it might make, and when I heard that Dakota Fanning was going to play the lead (at least 2 years ago an internet rumor), I was surprised because she seemed too young.

But she grew up, and the movie was finally made and was released this weekend. Sam and I went to see it this afternoon. (Thanks, Sam! It's not really your kind of movie, but I appreciated your presence.) One of the first things I noticed was that an 11:30 am movie on Friday in south Torrance was quite full, and a substantial portion of the audience was African-American women and couples. Later I read that there is some concern that if it is perceived as a "black film" it won't play to white audiences. I am not too concerned about that. Millions of white women have read and loved the book. In fact, i was more concerned whether black people would accept the movie. There is some controversy about the fact that a white woman wrote a book that some (few) see as co-opting or stealing cultural icons that rightly belong to the black community. Here's hoping that, as in politics, so too in daily life, we can all appreciate a story that involves both black and white people in all their separate and intertwined glory. (Incidently the director and several of the producers, as well as the majority of the actors, of course, are black. But the lead is a white girl, and it's her story.)

So how was the movie? It's hard for me to say, in a way, because I have so internalized and memorized the plot that I can't really see how well the movie stands on its own. The movie stuck quite closely to the book, putting many of the most memorable lines directly into the actors' mouths. And almost miraculously, to me, the feel and tone of the movie seemed close to that of the book. But, as is almost inevitable, some of the depth is lost. A few of the cuts seemed regrettable to me. I have imagined so vividly so many times the scene when Lily and Rosaleen bathe in the creek after a disagreement that it *feels* as if I've seen it. But that scene, with its strong baptism imagery, was not included. Also, the scene when they stop to rest at Lily's church and steal a fan was omitted, as were any details about how Lily springs Rosaleen from the hospital (a much simpler scenario, that the young sheriff was busy flirting when the two walked out) was perhaps more believable, but it took away some of the charm of Lily's personality.

Also, it was more explicit from the beginning that Lily had held the gun that killed her mother, and so the pivotal scene at the end, when Lily runs after T. Ray to ask who really did it is necessarily changed to her asking if her mother had really come back to get her or not. Perhaps that works better, since it makes her quest not one to find out if she did it, but to find out if her mother loved her or not, which is a deeper and more universal quest.

The most significant plot change actually seemed to improve upon the plot of the book: the issue that got Zach in trouble and led to May's suicide. Rather than a fight between young black boys and older white guys over a rumor about Jack Palance bringing a black woman to the theater (though, oddly, the mention of that is left in), what happens is that Zach and Lily themselves sit together in the "colored" section of the movie, and the white guys storm in and abduct Zach. Again somewhat miraculously, he escapes with only a black eye and a few bruises, but is gone long enough to move the plot forward. And also nicely, Zach's mother is one of the Daughter's of Mary, and May learns of Zach's abduction when his mother slips into the house to pray before Our Lady of Chains.

The acting was mostly really good. Dakota Fanning was just right as a barely adolescent girl with a quick mind and a wounded spirit. (She reminds me very much of my niece Hannah.) I couldn't quite see Queen Latifah as August in my mind, but she plays the part well. Perhaps the best jobs were done by the guy who played T. Ray, as a believable angry redneck, whose wounded heart is conveyed with subtlety. I think I was most impressed with the character of May. I could never quite picture someone singing Oh Susannah as therapy, but she hummed it very lightly before dissolving into tears, and her cock-eyed smile and intensity was better than I could have imagined. The weakest character, for me, was June. I had difficulty, first of all, with her appearance and clothing style, since I certainly never pictured June in tight jeans and a form-fitting NAACP t-shirt (nor did I find that believable for the time period.) I also didn't feel that her anger and resentment came across as anything more than simple nastiness.

I wished there had been more period touches, more of a 1964 feel to it. Sam also felt that it didn't feel like he remembers 1964, or even like I remember Auburn, Alabama in 1973. A bit more of the music, and more of African-American culture and the feel of the Civil Rights movement would have made me really feel that I had time-traveled to South Carolina in 1964.

But my final judgment? Better than I expected. And a story I still love.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Last Debate

So we're down to the wire, and this is the last chance these two guys have to talk to the whole country before we vote.

So here's how McCain starts it off. After shoe-horning Nancy Reagan's name into the intro (remember Reagan? remember how warm and fuzzy he made you feel? Remember how old he was? ok, never mind), his first major point is this:

Americans are hurting right now, and they're angry. They're hurting, and they're angry. They're innocent victims of greed and excess on Wall Street and as well as Washington, D.C. And they're angry, and they have every reason to be angry

Wow, the word angry 4 times in the first 20 seconds or so? Guess who's feeling angry tonight? Man, Freud got that projection thing right.

Then he brings up the semi-mythical beast, Joe the Plumber:

You know, when Senator Obama ended up his conversation with Joe the plumber -- we need to spread the wealth around. In other words, we're going to take Joe's money, give it to Senator Obama, and let him spread the wealth around.

I want Joe the plumber to spread that wealth around. You told him you wanted to spread the wealth around.

The whole premise behind Senator Obama's plans are class warfare, let's spread the wealth around. I want small businesses -- and by the way, the small businesses that we're talking about would receive an increase in their taxes right now.

Who -- why would you want to increase anybody's taxes right now? Why would you want to do that, anyone, anyone in America, when we have such a tough time, when these small business people, like Joe the plumber, are going to create jobs, unless you take that money from him and spread the wealth around.

Poor McCain. He thinks that Americans live in fear of someone "spreading the wealth around." Well maybe in Sedona they do. But out here in the flatlands, our biggest fear is that the wealth will keep on doing what it's been doing (statistically speaking) for the past 8 years, which is clumping all up at the very tippy-top. So a little wealth spreading doesn't scare us, Senator McCain. We know how it's gone, we know who has the wealth. And it isn't plumbers who work for it. It's investment bankers who play games with it.

He actually said: "We need to encourage business, create jobs, not spread the wealth around."

Oh that's beautiful. Encourage business, but don't spread any wealth around! Keep it where it belongs--in rich guys pockets!

McCain also revels in his oldness, his memories of things that happened before most Americans were even born. Talking about the urgent need for town hall meetings (the lack of which forced him to call Obama a terrorist), he reminded Americans that this is "the way Barry Goldwater and Jack Kennedy agreed to do, before the intervention of the tragedy at Dallas."

Right. I was in the 4th grade then, and I am eligible for the Senior Special at IHOP. I don't think Obama was even born. Neither were most of his voters. Look it up in your American history book, you bunch of punks!

He also refers to the good things the government did in the Great Depression, as if it were only yesterday.

Then there are the times when he references things that even those of us who try to follow all these things just can't quite follow:

Let me just say categorically I'm proud of the people that come to our rallies. Whenever you get a large rally of 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 people, you're going to have some fringe peoples. You know that. And I've -- and we've always said that that's not appropriate.

But to somehow say that group of young women who said "Military wives for McCain" are somehow saying anything derogatory about you, but anything -- and those veterans that wear those hats that say "World War II, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq," I'm not going to stand for people saying that the people that come to my rallies are anything but the most dedicated, patriotic men and women that are in this nation and they're great citizens.

Hunh? What is this about Military wives for McCain? And Veterans of our many wars? And let's be serious here. Those numbers at "our rallies"? McCain isn't drawing crowds like that. Only Palin is.

He finally got up the courage to accuse Obama of, um, knowing Bill Ayers. And then he said this:

ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy
Get out. Destroying the fabric of democracy? By registering Mickey Mouse to vote? Damn, and when Mickey shows up and flashed his ID, we're gonna have to let that rodent vote! And there goes the neighborhood.

McCain pounced on Obama for saying he'd "look at" offshore drilling, calling it an example of how Obama's "eloquence" was deceiving people. Except that it was McCain doing the deception in this case, because the transcript clearly shows that what Obama had said the paragraph before was:
"And I think that we should look at offshore drilling and implement it in a way that allows us to get some additional oil. "

McCain also used this old tried and true method of casting doubt: compare Obama to...Herbert Hoover? Seriously?

Senator Obama wants to restrict trade and he wants to raise taxes. And the last president of the United States that tried that was Herbert Hoover, and we went from a deep recession into a depression.
All of you out there over the age of 80, who were actually alive when Hoover was president, I know you'll never forget how much you hated Hoover, and you will see that Obama is his direct descendent.

He also tried to scare the bejezus out of us all by telling us that under Obama, our health care will be like Canada's and England's. Nooooo! You mean like where Americans go to get drugs at a price they can afford? You mean like where people who have cancer or their kids have cancer, and all they have to focus on is dealing with the illness, and not also worry themselves sick dealing with insurance companies? You mean where a pregnant woman who needs to go on bedrest doesn't lose her insurance coverage? You mean where people aren't being forced into bankruptcy to pay for a one-week stay in the hospital? You mean where small business owners don't also have to worry about how they could possibly pay for their own insurance, much less that of their employees? That damn terrorist, doing that to us!

He ended up grinning into the camera, telling Joe the Plumber that at $250,000, Congratulations, you're rich! haha. (because everyone knows that don't touch rich. Cindy, now that's what I mean by rich!)

All in all, it was a pitiful performance by an angry old man who is despreately trying to distance himself from his own party (one of his biggest selling points is how often he can disagree with his own party, and he seems to think there's something wrong with anyone who belongs to a party he actually supports).

I can't wait to vote, and to see the results pour in.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Let Me See if I Understand This

Ok, so I'm trying my best to follow the panic of 2008 and the bailout/rescue plan. My understanding is that people got caught up in a price spiral that was actually speculative in nature.

So instead of houses, let's pretend that they were buying Beanie Babies. When my daughter was in late elementary school Beanie Babies were all the craze. At first people bought the cute little stuffed toys for their kids to play with. The manufacturer, sensing a fad, starting releasing "limited editions" and otherwise manipulating the availability of particular versions. So a toy that started out costing $5.99 or so was being re-sold for much more than that. People bought special plastic covers for the heart-shaped tags in order to keep the tag neat because that would add to the value of the toy as a collectible. Many people kept their special ones in custom-designed clear plastic cases and never let little grubby hands near them. The belief was that a $5.99 toy bought today would probably be worth $100 in the near future. A few people actually paid $100 for a single toy.

So suppose I got caught up in that mania. I notice that $5.99 toys can be sold for $12 in a few weeks time. Geez, that's a fast profit. So I buy 1000 of the things. Invest $6000, expecting to sell them later and get $12,000 back. Easy money! A lot of other people are also buying them at the same time, which is one of the things that is already making the price rise.

After a few months, I try to sell my Beanie Babies. But the fad has passed and the market has cooled. It turns out that there are not too many people who really want $100 toys after all. Now I'm stuck with items that aren't worth as much as I expected. In fact, I start seeing them at yard sales for $1.

Well, lesson learned. Now I have a garage full of mistakes.

Except that, unfortunately for me, I didn't actually take that original $6000 investment out of my savings account. I actually borrowed it. Paid for it with my credit card, in fact. And I still owe--well, thanks to the miracle of compounding, I actually owe more than $6,000. I owe $7000. So I have a $7000 debt and a pile of collateral that's worth less, maybe a lot less, than $7000. How much is it worth? Well, in order to answer that question accurately, I have to find a buyer or buyers for 1,000 Beanie Babies. Maybe there aren't any buyers at all. Maybe if I hold a yard sale or put them on ebay, the selling price will be only 5 cents, because the intrinsic value of them is basically nothing at all. No one needs a Beanie Baby.

If this were a story about houses and mortgages, that last sentence wouldn't be true. Housing is a need and houses do have at least some intrinsic value, or at least the land does. How much land is worth depends, of course, on where it's located and what else is around it. There may be lots of land between 2 meth houses in some depraved suburb or inner city that have essentially no worth under present conditions. The taxes on it would be more than its useful value. But for the most part houses are worth something.

What is scarier than houses is paper. Specifically, Credit-Default Swaps, which if I understand the story correctly, were bought and sold like Beanie Babies, except they can't even be played with by bored children. They are promises, backed by nothing at all, that were sold for millions of dollars.

And sometimes they were "leveraged," ie bought with debt.

I think that's what's really gone wrong. Not housing, which people value for a reason, but financial instruments that were of less real value than a Beanie Baby.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Weirder and weirder


"On June 8, 2008 Palin was publicly blessed, with the "laying on of hands" before six thousand Wasilla area church members, by Head Wasilla Assembly of God Pastor Ed Kalnins and on the same day both Kalnins and Palin described, at a "Masters Commission" ceremony at the Wasilla Assembly of God church, how she had been blessed prior to winning the Alaska governorship by an African cleric known for driving the "spirit of witchcraft" out of a town in Kenya, after which town supposedly crime rates dropped "almost to zero."

Sarah Palin's churches are actively involved in a resurgent movement that was declared heretical by the Assemblies of God in 1949. This is the same 'Spiritual Warfare' movement that was featured in the award winning movie, "Jesus Camp," which showed young children being trained to do battle for the Lord. At least three of four of Palin's churches are involved with major organizations and leaders of this movement, which is referred to as The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit or the New Apostolic Reformation. The movement is training a young "Joel's Army" to take dominion over the United States and the world.

Along with her entire family, Sarah Palin was re-baptized at twelve at the Wasilla Assembly of God in Wasilla, Alaska and she attended the church from the time she was ten until 2002: over two and 1/2 decades. Sarah Palin's extensive pattern of association with the Wasilla Assembly of God has continued nearly up to the day she was picked by Senator John McCain as a vice-presidential running mate.

Palin's dedication to the Wasilla church is indicated by a Saturday, September 7, 2008, McClatchy news service story detailing possibly improper use of state travel funds by Palin for a trip she made to Wasilla, Alaska to attend, on June 8, 2008, both a Wasilla Assembly of God "Masters Commission" graduation ceremony and also a multi-church Wasilla area event known as "One Lord Sunday."

At the latter event, Palin and Alaska LT Governor Scott Parnell were publicly blessed, onstage before an estimated crowd of 6,000, through the "laying on of hands" by Wasilla Assembly of God's Head Pastor Ed Kalnins whose sermons espouse such theological concepts as the possession of geographic territories by demonic spirits and the inter-generational transmission of family "curses". Palin has also been blessed, or "anointed", by an African cleric, prominent in the Third Wave movement, who has repeatedly visited the Wasilla Assembly of God and claims to have effected positive, dramatic social change in a Kenyan town by driving out a "spirit of witchcraft."

The Wasilla Assembly of God church is deeply involved with both Third Wave activities and theology. Their Master's Commission program is part of an three year post-high school international training program with studies in prophecy, intercessory prayer, Biblical exegesis, authority and leadership.

Watch Bruce Wilson's video documentary detailing the extreme Religious Right connections to the Wasilla Assembly of God church, "Sarah Palin's Churches and the Third Wave":

The pastor, Ed Kalnins, and Masters Commission students have traveled to South Carolina to participate in a "prophetic conference" at Morningstar Ministries, one of the major ministries of the Third Wave movement. Becky Fischer was a pastor at Morningstar prior to being featured in the movie "Jesus Camp." The head of prophecy at Morningstar, Steve Thompson, is currently scheduled to do a prophecy seminar at the Wasilla Assembly of God. Other major leaders in the movement have also traveled to Wasilla to visit and speak at the church.

The Third Wave is a revival of the theology of the Latter Rain tent revivals of the 1950s and 1960s led by William Branham and others. It is based on the idea that in the end times there will be an outpouring of supernatural powers on a group of Christians that will take authority over the existing church and the world. The believing Christians of the world will be reorganized under the Fivefold Ministry and the church restructured under the authority of Prophets and Apostles and others anointed by God. The young generation will form "Joel's Army" to rise up and battle evil and retake the earth for God.

While segments of this belief system have been a part of Pentecostalism and charismatic beliefs for decades, the excesses of this movement were declared a heresy in 1949 by the General Council of the Assemblies of God, and again condemned through Resolution 16 in 2000.

The beliefs and manifestations of the movement include the use of 'strategic level spiritual warfare' to expel territorial demons from American and world cities. Worship includes excessive charismatic manifestations such as hundreds of people falling, 'slain in the spirit,' and congregations laughing, jerking, and shrieking uncontrollably.

In early 2008 an outbreak of those phenomena commenced at the palatial former ministry estate of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, recently bought up and restored by prominent Third Wave author and leader Rick Joyner's Morningstar Ministries. The (spiritual) "breakout" lasted for many weeks and was publicized in an extensive collection of video footage available on YouTube. Healing services in the Third Wave movement claim to heal the sick and injured through methods that in some cases can appear bizarre - including, as in recent cases involving Todd Bentley, the patient being head butted or kicked by the anointed healer. Recipients of such "spiritual" or miraculous healing make a wide range of astonishing claims - to have been cured of life-threatening illnesses, had joints repaired or replaced, been given gold teeth or gold fillings, regrown stunted limbs and even had deformed skeletal structures straightened and reshaped. Worldwide mission efforts of the movement are built around the idea of combating witches, warlocks, and generational curses, which prevent churches from being able to take root.

Mike Rose, senior pastor of Juneau Christian Center has a long relationship with Rodney Howard-Browne, credited with being the instigator of the outbreak of 'Holy Laughter' around the world, including the Toronto Airport Revival. Thomas Muthee visited Wasilla Assembly of God and gave 10 consecutive sermons at the church, from October 11-16 2005. As both Palin and Wasilla AoG Head Pastor Ed Kalnins have attested, Thomas Muthee 'prayed over' Sarah Palin and entreated God to "make a way" prior to Palin's successful bid for the Alaska governorship. Muthee made a return visit to the Wasilla Assembly of God in late 2008. Thomas Muthee's Word of Faith Church is featured in the "Transformations" video which details an account on how Muthee drove "the spirit of witchcraft" out of Kiambu, Kenya, liberating the town from its territorial demonic possession and enabling a miraculous societal transformation. The "Transformations" video set is used as an argument for social improvement through spiritual instead of human means, and as the best method for fighting corruption, crime, drugs and even environmental degradation.

In the video, producer George Otis declares that after Thomas Muthee and his followers banished the "spirit of witchcraft" from the town, the crime rate in Kiambu dropped almost to zero, along with the rate of alcoholism, and according to Otis most of the residents of the town joined churches. The "Transformations" video has helped spark a network of 'Transformation' ministries and mission organizations and 'transformation' has become a buzz word for change based on supernatural instead of human efforts.

The Third Wave, also known as the New Apostolic Reformation, is a network of Apostles, many of them grouped around C. Peter Wagner, founder of the World Prayer Center. This center, which was built in coordination with Ted Haggard and his New Life Church in Colorado Springs, was featured in an article by Jeff Sharlet in Harpers, May 2005, "Soldiers of Christ." Sharlet was one of the first to write in the secular press about the World Prayer Center which is often referred to by those familiar with the Third Wave as the 'Pentagon for Spiritual Warfare.' It features computer systems that store the data of communities around the world, mapping out unsaved peoples' groups and spiritual mapping information for spiritual warfare. Wagner has his own group of about 500 Apostles in his council and each of these Apostles has ministries under their authority, sometimes hundreds or thousands. Recently various networks of Apostles came together to form the Revival Alliance. Leaders of the Revival Alliance including Rick Joyner of Morningstar anointed Todd Bentley whose Lakeland Healing Revival has recently been a controversial topic in the Evangelical world.

Wagner's top leaders often conduct spiritual warfare campaigns against the demons that block the acceptance of their brand of Christian belief, such as 'Operation Ice Castle' in the Himalayas in 1997. Several of their top prophets and generals of intercession spent weeks in intensive prayer to "confront the Queen of Heaven." This queen is considered by them to be one of the most powerful demons over the earth and is the Great Harlot of Mystery Babylon in Revelation. (The "Great Harlot [or 'whore'] of Mystery Babylon" theme also figures prominently in the sermons of Texas megachurch pastor and Christians United For Israel founder John Hagee, former endorser of John McCain's 2008 presidential bid.) Wagner and his group also claim that the Queen of Heaven is Diana, the pagan god of the biblical book Ephesians and the god of Mary veneration in the Roman Catholic Church. Following the 'Operation Ice Castle' prayer excursion which included planting a flag for Jesus on Mt. Everest, one of the lead prayer intercessors from the excursion, Ana Mendez, reported that there had been dramatic results including, "millions have come to faith in Asia... and other things happened which I believe are also connected...an earthquake had destroyed the basilica of Assisi, where the Pope had called a meeting of all world religions; a hurricane destroyed the infamous temple 'Baal-Christ' in Acapulco, Mexico; the Princes Diana died... and Mother Theresa died in India, one of the most famous advocates of Mary as Co-Redeemer."

Church of the Rock, led by Senior Pastor David Pepper, has taken their youth to participate in 'The Call, Nashville.' This event is held at various locations around the country under the leadership of Lou Engle, also featured in the movie "Jesus Camp." At these events youth are worked into a frenzy of anger and consternation at supposed national moral corruption. Engle, who shuffles while he preaches in imitation of Jewish prayer, is featured toward the end of the "Jesus Camp" video documentary.

The Third Wave movement is cross-denomination and is not synonymous with any specific denomination, nor is it synonymous with Evangelical or Fundamentalist. Although the movement emerged from Pentecostalism, it draws its support from a variety of denominations and religious streams. They believe they are forming a post-denominational church to take the world for the end times. To date, all of the writing and objections to this movement have emerged from other Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who believe the movement to be unbiblical. Also, it is other conservative churches that refuse to embrace the 'outpouring of the Spirit' that are targets of much of the anger of the movement."

You can find more information on the Third Wave movement and additional links to the activities of Palin's churches on www.Talk2action.org in the following articles:

Sarah Palin's Churches and the Third Wave, Part One


Sarah Palin's Churches and the Third Wave, Part Two with embedded video:


The video is also posted at


Sunday, September 7, 2008

And yet more on Sarah Palin

Sorry, this is a bit of an obsession, but I am just so appalled at the choice of this woman. Of course it's not her fault. She was nuts to accept the role, but McCain was absolutely out of his mind to make the offer, and it was his call.

But I just can't get over how bad this decision was. And how unvetted! So of course now we all know that her 17 year old daughter is pregnant. Well, life happens and all that. But now that it has happened, does it strike anyone that maybe this girl getting herself knocked up was a kind of protest or plea for attention? Her Mom had been governor for 15 months, and the state capitol is a long ways from home--Alaska's capital city is practically in a different time zone than the main part of the state.

Given this state of affairs, isn't this another reason for her to say a polite, Thanks but no thanks to McCain's lunatic idea? Don't the needs of her daughter enter into her decision-making at all? In addition to the obvious embarrassment this would open her daughter up to, didn't it cross her mind that maybe the girl needed a bit of hands-on mothering for a while? (If McCain were to win, God forbid, it would seem that the birth of Bristol's baby would pretty much coincide with Inauguration day.)

And then there's Palin's son. Ok, he's in the army now (or maybe it's the National Guard), about to be sent to Iraq. So any mothering she might have done is pretty much over. But it seems that he didn't get much family time before that either. He spent most of his senior year in high school in Portage Michigan (also a long ways from Wasilla.) The ostensible reason was so that he could play some kind of semi-pro hockey. But there are also rumors that he had had a run in with the law back home in Wasilla. A group of 4 boys were arrested for vandalism on a fleet of school buses. Only one was identified by name because the other 3 were juveniles. Lots of folks in Wasilla must know who that guy's buddies were, though. And whether Track left town to let things cool off at home.

And by the way, her reference to him enlisting on 9/11 at first made me think she meant 9/11/01. But actually it was 9/11/07. Oh. Her words are parsed out rather carefully, and she's getting on the job training now in how to be a candidate for national office. Usually you expect that you've already learned how to go on tv and give an interview before you get such a role on a major ticket.

But, yeah, she's totally ready to be president if needed. Yup, yup.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

More on Sarah Palin

So you are in your first major elected position, and you have 4 kids, and then you find out you're pregnant, and then you find out the child will have Down Syndrome. Geez, pretty challenging circumstances.

And then you start hearing your name mentioned as a possible VP. Wow, what the hell is going on here? Are you guys nuts? Uh, my plate is already pretty full.

So against all the odds, crazy old Johnny Mac actually gives you the call. What do you say? What are you thinking?How do you wrap your head around the fact that you might go from part-time mayor of a small town in the middle of nowhere to heartbeat-from-the-presidency in 2 years?

Well, if you are a rational person, using normal thought processes, you don't. You can't. It doesn't make any sense, and you know it. So you say, Thank you so much for thinking of me, I am deeply honored, Senator, but I have to say no thank you.

But if you are an evangelical Christian, a Pentecostal Christian in fact, you have grown used to stories of miracles, of things that just can't happen somehow happening. You have read The Cross and the Switchblade, and you know how people "step out in faith," taking on mortgages to buy properties that are miles over their heads, and then having God miraculously come to their rescue at the last second by having some rich Christian businessman send them an unsolicited check for the exact amount they needed--some fabulous amount of money, right to the penny--$139,853.54 Praise God!

You can see yourself as David to Washington's Goliath, as Caleb, the only one who believed God and disregarded the giants in the land, as the Virgin Mary, for crying out loud, going about your business in boring old Nazareth, from whence nothing good ever comes, and cast John McCain as the angel Gabriel!

You can use your magical thinking and call it faith and get out of the boat and have a go at walking on water.

Right up until you sink like a stone, just like all the other water-walking messiahs out of disrespected backwaters.

Maybe there will be a crucifixion, with liberals playing the part of the Sadducees and Pharisees and the New York Times as Pontius Pilate.

Or maybe you will just fade away, find a likely excuse and give the answer you should have given in the first place--I am honored, but I am not ready to be Vice-President, thank you all the same.

In the real world, Santa Claus doesn't exist, and gravity does, and all the magical thinking in the world won't make a backwater, half-a-term governor into a senior statesman ready to step into the presidency.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah? Really?

Since yesterday morning, when I learned that McCain had chosen a woman named Sarah Palin as his VP, I haven't been able to stop thinking and reading and shouting about it. It is the single stupidest thing I have ever known a politician do.

Oh, it does have some political plausibility. She's a Pentecostal Christian who believes in Creationism and opposes abortion under every and all circumstances. She's pro-guns and anti-environmentalism. So it seems like it might appeal to some folks who mistrust McCain.

But is there any way in hell that anyone can pretend to believe that McCain put Country First in making this choice? Is there any way that people can will themselves to believe that after looking over all possible candidates for Vice President, this PTA mom's name rose to the top of the list on her merits alone? Is this really the second-best person in the country to get that 3 am phone call? Is there anything whatsoever in her resume that would suggest that she's ready to be governor, much less vice president, or God forbid, president? Running New York City doesn't really prepare you to be president. How does running Wusilla, or even the entire state of Alaska (population 683,478, ie a fair-sized American city, but certainly no New York or Chicago. In fact, it would be # 17 if it were a city, between Austin and Fort Worth Texas.)

And I don't care if it sounds un-feminist of me, but no mother worthy of the name goes back to work 3 days after her special-needs baby is born, and then takes on a new job more demanding than anything she's ever done before.

If this doesn't sink John McCain, then it will surely sink the whole country. It is a disgrace to the Republican party, and I wouldn't be surprised if this turns out like that Harriet Miers thing, where a woman manifestly unqualified for the job has to be withdrawn from contention.

I would hesitate to hire a woman with her resume as president of a community college, and McCain is offering her to us as the person he most trusts to take over the reins of the country if something were to happen to him? No way, no how, no McCain!! Go get her, Hillary!!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Irony meter meltdown

Ya know what I particularly love about the indictment of Senator Stephens REPUBLICAN of Alaska? I love that his constituents are all conflicted and stuff about his downfall because he did so much for them. He was a genius at getting federal money for all kinds of stuff in Alaska to make people there happy. He really knew how to get the old pork rolling. He could spend tax money like no one else, and all for the benefit of those poor Alaskans, those staunch rugged individualists who just needed a little hand up or hand out from federal coffers.

Do these guys have no shame, no conscience at all? They gripe and moan about "tax and spend liberals," but what is all this, but taxing and spending? Let's face it, it's really quite all right as long as those tax-purchased projects are benefitting good honest hard-working (you know, white) Americans. It's the idea that "our" hard-earned money is going for "them,"( black or brown people), that "big government" becomes such a problem. The whole fiscal conservative thing is such a crock. If corporations, or small business people, or farmers, or middle class people, all of whom sound pretty white, need money, then that's just our nation at its finest. It's only when some "welfare queen" can be invoked, or some immigrant "popping out an anchor baby" while howling in Spanish, then they get all tight-fisted.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Can't afford clean technology

I heard something the other day about Bush saying that if we make regulations that require industries to produce less pollution, it will cripple our economy, and we can't afford to do things like that.

But that doesn,'t make sense to me. When it comes to a war, everyone always says it's "good for the economy" because it increases orders for all sorts of stuff. Money is being spent, jobs are being created, the economy is humming. However, war is a means by which we produce a lot of equipment in order to destroy things--other people's infrastructure, but also a lot of airplanes and tanks and hummers and other equipment. So we've "helped the economy" by ordering things at taxpayers expense and then destroying them. Wow.

On the other hand, tighter emission standards, for example, would also require spending a lot of money. But spending money is *good* for the economy, remember? And in this case, instead of spending it to bomb and kill and destroy stuff, we would be spending it to keep our own environment cleaner, healthier, more productive. How can that not be a net gain?

If I lived in a city where people threw their garbage and chamberpots out the window (Europe in 1500, say), then sure, sewers and garbage collection would cost a lot more--at least at first! But in the long run, look what that investment (spending) on infrastructure produced--not only cleaner, more pleasant cities, but new jobs, longer, healthier lives, and an overall improvement in the standard of living. Only a moron would prefer to foul the streets with sewage. And yet, if it's the air that is being filled with diesel particles, or CO2, we suddenly can't afford it. The huddles masses of Europe felt they couldn't afford to do anything but throw their feces into the gutter, too--but when they stopped doing that, they also stopped dying of dysentery! Thus a huge jump in productivity.

China is currently growing its economy while pouring life-threatening quantities of pollution into the air. They also think they can't afford to keep the air clean, but they pay with their lives for this savings. Of course, what happens, what always happened, is that the poor pay with their lungs while the rich get the "savings." (Though a city like Beijing is pretty miserable for rich as well as poor.)

Monday, May 26, 2008


There were more instructions, but I'm gonna keep this simple. Bold the books you have read. Italicize the books you've started.

Jonathan Strange & M. Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
One hundred years of solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi: a novel
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler's Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations
American Gods
A heartbreaking work of staggering genius
Atlas shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked: The life and times of the wicked Witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
The Historian
A portrait of the artist as a young man
Love in the time of cholera
Brave new world
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A clockwork orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible
Angels & Demons
The Inferno
The Satanic Verses
Sense and sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist

Gulliver’s Travels
Les misérables
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The curious incident of the dog in the nightime

The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes
The God of Small Things
A people’s history of the United States : 1492-present
A confederacy of dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The unbearable lightness of being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves (what? That's not a book!)
The mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake : a novel
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
In Cold Blood
White teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

(from: http://www.librarything.com/blog/2008/04/librarything-love-and-unread-books-meme.php )

Saturday, May 24, 2008


Several weeks ago some 400 plus children,. plus their mothers, were forcibly removed from Longing for Zion compound in Texas by Child Protective Services. The situation is not easy to deal with--if you stand up for Constitutional rights, it seems that you don't care about the welfare of a bunch of young women (usually called girls by the media) who are being forced to have sex (ie raped) by men old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers. If you stand up against child abuse, it sounds like you don't care about religious liberty and the right to be left alone by the government.

I have wavered and gone back and forth on this--wow, it's really bad how much control those guys have over the women and children, but then wow, it's really bad that the government took all those kids away from their parents without any proof of individual wrong-doing.

Just now it dawned on me what is wrong with what happened: look at who was taken away--the victims. The women and the children. Presumably these are the very ones whom the state is trying to protect. Look who was left in their own homes: the men. If a crime was committed (or many crimes), who should be arrested and taken away? The men. The ones accused of rape. Not the victims. If the crime is having sex with underage girls, why take the girls into custody? Oh sure, I know the answer: to protect them. But if the perpetrators were arrested, the girls would be even safer, not being placed in foster care, where sexual abuse is a well-known possibility.

Why were the men not arrested? Obviously, because you need to have some sort of evidence, some proof, some accusation at least, that this specific man had sex with this specific underage girl. That's what they didn't have.

This is of a piece with the loss of civil liberties since 9/11. Instead of the government having the burden of proof that this specific individual committed this crime, whole classes of people are picked up based on their membership in the class, and assumed to be guilty, with no probable cause, no evidence, and no opportunity for the accused to hear the evidence against them.

Clearly, in Texas, there was no urgency to remove those kids from those homes. This lifestyle has been practiced by these people for 100 years. It would not have hurt to wait long enough to pinpoint an accuser, and have her named the man whom she claimed abused her, and then arrested him and charged him with a crime. And let the girl remain in her own home. Let him be taken away and placed with strangers. Let him do the perp walk in front of cameras while everyone looks at how he dresses and how he wears his hair.

I will never forget a woman telling me about how back in the 1950s, she reported to her teacher that her father was raping her. And how the police car came to her house and took....her. That feeling of guilt and shame never left her. She was the bad girl who had to be taken away.

If a crime has been committed, let's arrest the rapists, the pedophiles, the polygamists. Not the girls.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Ya know what I really like?

I really like the idea of Obama's 2 little girls living in the White House. How amazing will it be for a black woman and 2 black girls to be the First Family? Obama is kind of post-racial, but Michelle is a southside Chicago black girl and so are her kids. To have that as the image of America's First Family will really be Change with a capital C.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Who wants to be a ....president of the US??

Ok, so Obama is having a really hard time with damage control regarding his pastor. Every time he thinks he has "put it behind him," it pops back up again.

But he is not alone is having problems.

Obama can't control his former pastor.
Hillary can't control her husband and former president.
And McCain can't control his temper.

Sheesh. And one of these three will be president a year from now?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Slow Motion Collapse?

You know those videos of the implosion of a building that is being torn down, when they play them in slow mo? Well that's what I feel like I'm watching in economic news lately.

I read this in the NY Times today, after Bear Stearns needs to be propped up by the Fed: "there’s only so much the Fed — whose resources are limited, and whose mandate doesn’t extend to rescuing the whole financial system — can do when faced with what looks increasingly like one of history’s great financial crises."

Yikes, one of history's greatest financial crises? Yikes.

Apparently what happened yesterday and today was a modern version of a bank run. But these days, you don't see farmers and small businessmen lined up outside a local bank in a midwestern city, trying to get their cash out. It happens in virtual space, where no one can see the lines forming and the angry mob gathering.

So, if I understand this article correctly, what's happening now is that much of the bad debt of all the messed up mortgages on property that was appraised and sold far above its real-world value is now being taken on by the Federal Reserve Bank (in other words by the full faith and credit of the US government). The people who sold property which was inflated far beyond any realistic price have their money. The people who bought it will walk away. And who will be holding that empty bag?? Hmmm, that looks like us.

The argument for free-market, anti-regulation, pro-business policies looks like it's circled around, right back to 1929. Except that in 1929, the government wasn't also simultaneously throwing money into a black hole overseas and calling it the Global War on Terror.

It strikes me that we've tried to run an economy on the cheap, on borrowing and debt and buying cheap stuff from overseas. A strong economy is built on things like educating more people (see GI Bill)and building infrastructure here at home that will last (see things like rural electrification, the interstate highway system, and all the bridges and schools and public works built in the post-war period, which we are now watching crumble to the ground while we blow things up overseas.) An educated population and a functioning infrastructure will lead to slow but steady increases in real productivity. Money borrowed against the equity in your home to finance a big screen tv manufactured in Asia will lead to....well, let's see where it leads.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Rational Voters?

Most of us, including myself, like to think that we are pretty rational thinkers, and that we make our decisions on the basis of facts and common sense. So whether it's choosing the brand of peanut butter we buy or who to vote for for President, we claim to have reasons and to have thought the whole thing through.

But actual experimental evidence shows that we are actually pretty irrational in what we do much of the time. Game theory and economics are based on the idea that we are rational actors who can determine what's to our own benefit and who will act on that information. However, people don't act like that in real life. For a quick example, $1 saved is $1 saved, regardless of how we come by it. So if $2 toothpaste is $1 off or if a $20,000 car is $1 off, it's the same benefit. But I would bet that there's no one who would care about saving $1 on a car, while almost everyone would be glad to save 50% of the cost of a tube of toothpaste. And if a $1 item is offered for free, we'd all get excited. And yet in terms of our finances, it's still just $1.

Advertising is built on the fact that we tend to like and trust things that we are familiar with. Advertising long ago gave up on giving us factual data, and instead it works almost entirely at causing us to feel some sort of emotional attachment to a brand. We all like to think that we're not swayed by advertising, but the evidence is against us. We might react negatively rather than positively, but on the whole, advertisers pay big bucks because their stuff works.

Psychologically, we all tend to divide the world into "us" and "not us." This is an essential survival strategy left over from our tribal past, when our survival depended on generalizing quickly and acting instinctively thereafter. For example, if I meet one grizzly bear and it attacks me, the next time I see a bear, I don't have to stop and wonder if this bear is as bad as the last one. I just run. And if I meet a member of another tribe who might kidnap me, I run as well. So we quickly size up whether a person is "one of us" or a dangerous alien.

In politics as well, while we offer reasons for who we choose to vote for, our reasons are likely to be rationalizations rather than real logical reasons. We want someone we can identify with, someone who is "one of us." We respond at a level below the rational to advertising of all sorts, and most of politics is conducted through advertising. Sensible candidates know this, and they go to a lot of trouble to "identify" with us in various ways. We may be reacting to candidates as images of parents or potential spouses or bosses or friends. When Christian conservatives vote for Bush or Huckabee, they are not doing so because they necessarily agree with a flat tax or an opposition to nation-building. It's because they feel, "That's me. That guy represents me." When people hate Hillary Clinton, it's not really because of the details of her health plan. It's because she reminds them of a teacher who humiliated them in 4th grade or the smart girl in class who wrecked the curve in Soc 101.

Our rational brain is the weakest link in our mind. Anything that we have to think about, we do poorly. As long as we're thinking about how to drive a car, we can't really drive. If we have to think about grammar rules, we can't speak fluently. Geniuses in math and science "see" patterns in a flash of insight, and then have to laboriously try to reason their way to a proof after the fact. We are very good at seeing patterns. We are very poor at reasoning analytically. We actually feel the strain of trying to think something through, whereas things that are below the level of consciousness, like speaking our native language or walking or driving a car, are effortless.

One of the arguments against Obama is that people's attraction to him is not based on good solid policy reasons. But no one ever became a Democrat or a Republican or a Libertarian or a Green by a careful cost/benefit analysis. We identify with a certain position at subliminal levels. Those who choose McCain may be responding to his courage in North Vietnam, which tells us almost nothing about how well he'd do as president. Those who choose Hillary may see her as embodying their hopes for a gender-equal society. So what does Obama represent that is so attractive to so many? He's part Tiger Woods and part Robert Kennedy and part Morgan Freeman and he's young and vital and new. He's black and white, he's rich and poor. He's American and foreign. And a lot of people find that more attractive, at a gut level, than a Vietnam vet or a Mormon or a pastor or a nagging mom or a 911 mayor or an actor or a southern populist. They say, Yup, that's us.

And then we hope to God that the person we've projected our hopes into can do the job.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Gunmen and Demons

Once again, we have a story about a man who had some sort of psychological issues or mental illness who snapped and ended up killing 5 innocent people plus himself. In this case, the gunman in question seemed on the surface to be quite normal, and no one ever imagined that he'd go out in a blaze of mayhem like this. How can we explain such incidents? Was he evil? Was he sick? Was he demon-possessed?

In biblical times (and in fact in much more recent times and in pretty much every society on earth, regardless of their theology), the explanation for unreasoned evil has been that a force external to the person, a force that is non-material and malignant, known as a demon, somehow took control or gained influence over the person and drove them to commit an act of violence that cannot be explained by the ordinary vices and passions that occur in everyone. We all understand why a person might take a gun and rob a bank, or why she might kill in a jealous rage. But we don't have any explanation for why a person would cut himself, or why he would not only end his own life but plan ahead to take as many strangers with him as possible. We understand selfishness and lack of self-control and greed. But we don't understand pointless evil like this.

So until recently, the best possible explanation has been that there is some spiritual creature, a non-material source of evil, and that this evil power (or even God himself) sends evil spirits to trouble people and to goad them into doing evil, simply for its own sake. People who are possessed by demons might have to be restrained in some manner, and they might be subjected to aversive treatments, or they might be prayed over or exorcised in some way, but their own lack of culpability is relatively clear to most observers.

Demonic influence was blamed not only for insanity and depression in biblical and other societies, but also for epilepsy, deafness, and many other illnesses. Little by little, the biological basis for epilepsy and deafness and leprosy and paralysis and even depression has come to be understood by western science. We realize that people don't fall into seizures because a demon troubles them but because of chaotic electrical activity in their material brain. We know that nerve damage, and not spiritual factors, are responsible for deafness. We know that it is not sin that causes children to be born blind, but various genetic or developmental factors. While we can't prevent all these diseases, we do know where to look for the origins of them, and it's not karma or the parents' sins or anything else, but simply disease processes in the material body.

In the case of depression or psychosis or suicide or other "mental" states, we are a little less clear. We still believe that not only do we have a body, which includes a brain, but we also have a disembodied "mind" or "soul" or "spirit" of some kind, and if it behaves in destructive ways, maybe it is the fault of the person himself, rather than a biological disease. Or maybe, if we are a fundamentalist, we think there may be an evil spirit involved somehow.

One thing that is interesting to me is that "demon" as an explanation works just as well as "virus" or "chemical imbalance." Until recently, no one anywhere on earth had any ability to see a virus or a brain chemical, and so it made perfect sense to think of these as "spirits." They are invisible, they act in arbitrary and unintelligible ways, and once in a while the placebo effect is strong enough to over-rule them, but most of the time, God's will is done and we suffer the ravages of whatever malign forces run amok in the world we inhabit.

If the Bible were actually God revealing otherwise unknowable facts to mankind, I would expect God to have explained these things. On the other hand, if the Bible is a record of some people doing the best they could to grope towards God and towards justice and righteousness and fairness and an understanding of life, then we could expect just what we have--an intuitive guess that some unknown evil power is at work in some people, to be known as demons. There is nothing in the biblical revelation that goes beyond what all people figured out for themselves about the cause of mental and physical illnesses.

So call it a demon or call it an imbalance in dopamine and seratonin, or whatever the cause of such breakdowns turns out to be. Already we have some drugs that can work on these chemicals in a crude way. Some day in the not too distant future, the diagnosis and treatment of brain states that cause destructive outbursts will improve, maybe to the place that the treatment of leprosy and deafness is at today. Another demon will have been driven out.

But it will be human effort, not an act of God, that will have done it. And both the cause and the cure will be biological, material, not spiritual. Even the placebo effect, that seemingly magical ability of the body to respond to worthless cures, is a biological fact about human brains--that the brain's influence on the body is stronger than we thought, that the brain, being part of the body, effects the rest of the body. It is not an ethereal thing called "mind" somehow magically affecting matter. Mind is what brains do, just as heartbeats are what hearts do.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Conservatives and Progressives

First, I think Progressive is a more accurate term than "liberal" (and not just because talk radio has made the word "liberal" sound like a curse word.) The two terms--conserve vs. progress parallel each other in an interesting way.

And that points to a very interesting thought about why and how people think in conservative or progressive ways. There has been research done recently that actually suggests that these two approaches are brain-based and maybe even genetic> I don't think it's necessary to go that far, since people, including myself, do change their positions.

But I was wondering about what accounts for the linkage between evangelicalism and conservatism. Part of it is related to questions of sexual morality, but the link between laws about sexual morality and conservatism as a political and economic doctrine aren't all that sensible in the first place. So let's leave abortion and gay rights out of it, and look at more classic forms of conservatism, and see why it appeals to the same people who tend to be biblical fundamentalists.

My theory is that both religious fundamentalism and political conservatism are based on the same impulse or under-lying belief: that somewhere, at some time, the truth and standards that should be followed for all time have been written down, and that our role is to take these written rules as the basis for how we behave.

Thus the Constitution and the Bible have the same kind of authority. It is authority that can be read and understood by anyone, that we all have access to and don't need priests or judges to interpret for us, and the ideal state would be one in which we all adhere to what was written in the past in as straightforward a way as possible. (Mormonism takes this to its logical conclusion and actually teaches that the US Constitution is divinely inspired, but most conservatives implicitly believe much the same thing.)So the desire for "strict constructionists" is the same as the desire for biblical literalism.

Thus the same people who believe that the ideal church would be one that was just like in the days of Paul tend to believe that if we just went back to the way things used to be in 1800, our country would be pure and free.

On the other hand, progressives are more like Catholics in some way, in that they believe that as conditions change, our response to them ought to change as well. Not only is it not possible to go back to some idyllic pristine past such as the early church or the early republic, it would not be desirable either.

The church grew from a small local persecuted minority to a world-wide dominant belief, and the US grew from 13 small isolated states to a world power, and as realities change, so must our laws and our way of living, and this is as it should be. Just as the early days of Apple computers, in someone's garage are not the Platonic ideal of Apple, neither is the incipient stages of the United States or the church an ideal state.

The desire for a clear written document that can directly guide our lives, as opposed to a living group of human beings who re-interpret and apply principles to changing conditions is based, I think, in a kind of awe of writing. Writing is so permanent, so seemingly immutable and not subject to change. But in fact, I think it is more the case that written documents are actually less stable than they seem, since they cannot simply be read and applied, but must always be interpreted, and who we are and how we live will necessarily change what we see in a written document.

So this Read-and-obey mentality seems naive to me. It doesn't really understand how reading works, and it doesn't understand how much we impose our own preconceptions on anything we read. It also gives tremendous weight to the ideas of people who are no longer with us, and overlooks the fact that the original writers, whether they were Paul or Jefferson or Shakespeare were fallible men no different than our current leaders (really!). But once their words are enshrined in writing, they take on an authority that would never have been given to the spoken words of the very same individuals.

My conclusion is that the real difference underlying two approaches to government and religion is a different concept of authority. Is authority best held in adherence to a written document that should be simply read and followed in as literal a way as possible? Or is authority inevitably vested in people who re-interpret and re-apply principles to new and changing conditions, perhaps even questioning and changing some of the original ideas as they go?

Addendum: One further bit of evidence of this being an underlying approach to things is that conservatives tend to approach even things like grammar from this same point of view. For example, the understanding of the role of a dictionary probably splits along the same lines, with conservatives seeing the dictionary as a permanent and infallible guide to how we should speak rather than something that changes as our language changes. And they would probably hold out for old shibboleths such as proper use of whom as a standard that, even if they don't meet it, "ought" to be met for philosophical reasons. They also have a visceral attraction to "phonics" as a rule-based and unfailing means of teaching reading.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Free Market Economics

I was reading bits and pieces in The Economist magazine today, and noticing that a lot of smart folks seem to think we may be on the verge of some kind of big economic trouble, based on sub-prime mortgages, lack of liquidity, "the credit crunch" and other things that I may not understand too well. They were talking about how much real trouble banks may be in, and the sub-text was, Remember the Great Depression?

So I was thinking about that, and thinking about how the idea of the Free Market has become a kind of gospel over the past generation or so, and how much good free markets do indeed do. But if banks and other major institutions start losing credibility, if value starts disappearing and panic sets in, as used to be common in the earlier days of a market-based economy, will government be able to intervene, will people want that, and what will happen?

And it occurred to me that a useful analogy might be medical care. A free market economy is sort of like a healthy young person. Most of the time, even if she gets sick, a healthy young person doesn't need any help from a doctor (the government) to get better. You get a cold, you're best off staying away from interventions by doctors and even OTC medicines are a waste of time and money. Like the market, your body is a self-healing, self-correcting mechanism. The flu? Still not much a doctor can do, and though you might feel bad for a while, you will inevitably recover. Just like the economy. The free market lays some low and rewards others, and it all works out for the best.

But this hands-off, laissez-faire approach, while sensible in most situations, isn't an article of faith that should be followed in every circumstance. The same person who can ride out colds and headaches and stomach flu and even pneumonia isn't going to be as lucky with a burst appendix or an aneurysm. The same beliefs that served well in normal ups and downs--"I don't need no damn doctors giving me all kinds of treatments and maybe (likely!) making things worse!"--will serve very badly in a crisis of a different sort. And while colds come and go if left alone (treated they last a week, untreated they persist for 7 days)--burst appendixes are pretty much a one-way trip.

So suppose rather than just normal bubbles of enthusiasm and over-investment and then corrections, something really new and serious happens to an economic system? Suppose, despite protections built into the system after the 1930s, a downward spiral of loss of confidence, lack of demand, falling prices, unemployment, loss of tax revenue, and so on, actually recurred? Would there be anything outside the free market that could intervene, the way a surgeon can intervene when the self-correcting, self-healing system that is the human body is overwhelmed by forces too strong for its corrective mechanism? Obviously, too much intervention, unskillfully done, can make matters much worse. Most of the time, even with a bad stomach ache, you don't need surgery. But if you do need it, you need it bad. And a predisposition to say "Doctors (governments) are the problem, not the solution" will leave you in pretty bad straits.

So I wonder if we're like that healthy young person, who each year is more and more confirmed in her belief that the whole doctor thing is a n unnecessary evil, until she runs into something that she can't handle on her won. And I wonder if the doctor will be available and have the skill to help in a crisis?