"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, September 22, 2017

Sharing my hearth, thinking my thoughts

but the city casts out
that man who weds himself to inhumanity
thanks to reckless daring. Never share my hearth
never think my thoughts, whoever does
such things.

--Sophocle, Oedipus Rex

I generally avoid citing scripture around here, and this is why:

“Over the last 10 years I’ve just independently studied the Bible and Petra myself, and come to my own conclusion,” she explains. “Over this time I have collected a large amount of what I believe to be solid Biblical, historical, cultural, archaeological, geological, and astronomical evidence, that Petra is the Place of Safety.”

Not because people use the 12th chapter of the Apocalypse of John (I do miss the old names, as Satan tells Constantine) for errant nonsense, but because scripture was never meant to be read in isolation and "independently."  This person may believe her evidence is "solid," but that means nothing to the rest of us, nor should it.  I know this kind of exegesis is rooted in the Protestant Reformation, but I think the kerosene was thrown on that fire by the Romantic Revolution, if only because so much of this foolishness is so American, and American culture is so Romantic at its core.  At least it is after the 18th century, when that revolution reached these shores and we embraced it as our own (it started in Britain, why wouldn't we love that?).

Scripture is meant for a community, not for individuals.  Recall the words of Jesus in Matthew:  when someone offends you, go to them privately and work it out.  If that doesn't work, get a few more people involved; if that still doesn't work, go to the whole community.  The final decision is theirs.  But this assumes there is a community in the first place, that no one is in charge alone, that there is a group and it is a radical democracy.  We are meant to be in community. No one is meant to be doing this alone. And scripture is meant to be for those in the community of believers, not for any one of us on our own, or especially outside a community which can test our reading and argue about it with us. This is a tree with many branches to it.

Of course, the community is not proof against the errors of individuality either.

Hostility toward immigrants isn’t the only area where Bannon’s Catholicism is suspect, although according to Joshua Green, the author of Devil’s Bargain, the new book about Bannon and Trump, Bannon grew up in an observant Catholic family and, despite some dalliances with world religions like Buddhism, considers himself a practicing Catholic.

As America magazine’s Michael O’Loughlin notes in a Washington Post profile of Bannon’s somewhat opaque relationship with Catholicism, while Bannon proclaims that both the Catholic Church and the West are suffering from a crisis of faith and morality, he has been divorced three times and to the best of many of his associates’ knowledge doesn’t attend church—pretty much the definition of a practicing Catholic.
And this explains much of the conservative Catholic movement over the past twenty years, from Bannon to Paul Ryan, who recently told a Catholic nun (who questioned his commitment to the Catholic teaching of the preferential option for the poor because he wanted to decimate the ACA) that he was following Catholic teaching by cutting taxes and getting rid of social programs:

"We exercise prudential judgment in practicing our faith. For me—for the poor that’s key to the Catholic faith. That means mobility, economic growth, equality of opportunity.

I think we need to change our approach on fighting poverty. Instead of measuring success on how much money we spend or how many programs we create or how many people on those programs, let’s measure success and poverty on outcomes."

Except that as far as outcomes go, none of the Republican’s various tax-cutting or welfare-reduction schemes have been shown to reduce poverty or create upward mobility. They aren’t a means to an end; they are an end in themselves.
So apparently Paul Ryan goes to the same cafeteria as Steve Bannon, where large helpings of words like subsidiarity and prudential judgment allow them to ignore Catholic teaching, just as sure as someone who sits in mass every week but uses the Pill. But in their case, it’s not a matter of an individual “sin” that carries little social consequence but of consequential actions that harm whole societies.

Here I would like to tell Paul Ryan that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice. Only, Paul Ryan is not here.  I can probably rely on a nun or two to point it out to him, though.  Which makes good copy for showing Paul Ryan is hardly in line with the community he is ostensibly a member of; but unfortunately, it doesn't make Paul Ryan change his mind.    Nor does it legitimize his ideas, either; at least not from that source.

It is easier to say one is not a good Catholic, than to say one is not a good Christian.  Catholic doctrine applies to Catholics, but not necessarily to others who consider themselves Christian.  Spencer Dew thinks to make this point about what he thinks is the problem:

So is this Christian thought? Is this religion? Decades ago, at the peak of the move to stigmatize contemporary religious claims under the derogatory label of “cult,” scholars spoke of the so-called “cultic milieu,” understood as a kind of shadowy underworld of kooky theories, conspiracy lore, and revamped tales from old times. The king sleeping under the mountain became a UFO under the mountain.

While used as a tool to explain very real religious claims, the larger purpose of this theory was to protect what scholars and much of the public considered to be “real” or “good” religion, the stuff of “mainstream denominations” or the reified Big Five “World Religions” imagined as monolithic structures with clear orthodoxy (and standardized ethics). The “cultic milieu” was not our milieu, such arguments went.

But it is, and Lythgoe’s work makes this strikingly evident: we live in her world, and while we may not agree with her calculations, her faith both in individual rationality (born of the Reformation and reiterated by the Founders of America) and in faith itself (her willingness—even desire—to foreground belief and work backwards at rationalizing) are basic dynamics of thinking within those communities we categorize explicitly as “religious” as well as a few others, which we might prefer to label “secular”—like law or politics.

To dismiss Lythgoe’s thinking as “unchristian” is a theological move, but to dismiss it as somehow representative of “cult” thinking rather than religious thinking more broadly acts as a parallel move—one of an invested believer seeking to mark and protect the boundaries around acceptable orthodoxy.
Yes, it is Christian thought, of a type.  It is religion, of a sort.  "Real" or "good" don't enter into it as far as whether or not we can expunge such thinking from the world by such terms:  we can't.  "V" was right:  ideas are bulletproof.  That's the problem.  But that doesn't mean all ideas are equal.  Dew ties Lythgoe's thought back the Reformation:  well, maybe, but actually it comes more from Romanticism's radical insistence on the authority of the individual.  Luther set up a church very similar to the Roman Catholic one he knew.  Calvin ran Geneva with a firm hand.  Puritans despised individuality more than affirmed it, especially when such individuality created unorthodox thought.  The power of the individual to defy all, even God, is Byron's hero, not one of Luther's theses.  As for the claim that rejection of Lythgoe is simply the act of "an invested believer seeking to mark and protect the boundaries around acceptable orthodoxy," where's the problem here?  Acceptable orthodoxy no longer has the power to enforce its views on the world with the power of government (Luther did pretty much end that, but then again, talk to Calvin and the New England Puritans who haunted Hawthorne so).  But are invested believers not allowed to form their communities and protect their boundaries?  Is "acceptable orthodoxy" illegitimate simply because some community finds it "acceptable"?
Should we dismiss Sophocles as just an invested believer?  He is not wrong; that is how we decide who is with us, and who is against us, whether we should do so or not (Jesus had something to say about that, directly; but that's quoting scripture and inviting exegesis, so I will leave that only raised, and not answered).  Or allow the free use of the "n-word" because only "invested believers" want to "protect the boundaries around acceptable orthodoxy"?  Even if the orthodoxy is not yours?  There is more to this question than simply whether or not Lythgoe gets legitimacy because her views cannot be shown to be absolutely illegitimate by any standard of measure.
Which brings us to the case of the Rev. Robert Lee.  I didn't realize he was a UCC pastor, until this article by another UCC pastor, Daniel Schultz.  Key to Schulz's analysis is that the UCC is a congregational polity, which means the congregation, not a bishop, decides who the pastor will be, and how long she will stay.  This is a point Schultz makes most eloquently:
It makes no difference that the pastor or anyone else thinks they’re going down the wrong road. Congregations get to choose their direction, they get to define themselves. The bolder the confrontation over a matter like this, the stronger the resistance. This is terribly unsatisfying for those who would like to nudge the body of Christ in a certain direction, but it is the reality of working respectfully in community.*
It's the final sentence there I'm interested in.  The factual context is that Lee gave a sermon that bluntly told his congregation to agree with him, or leave; because if they disagreed with him, they were doing church wrong.  I have a "bootleg sermon" on tape that another pastor and old friend sent me back when things weren't going so well for me in pastoral ministry.  I put it in quotes because the "sermon" was not captured in real time; it is completely fictional.  But rare is the pastor who hasn't wished to preach it, at one time or another.  The pastor giving the "sermon" simply unloaded, telling the congregation what was wrong with them and what he knew about them and what he thought about them.  As P.G. Wodehouse once described it, it was like a Scots Presbyterian elder had discovered sin in the congregation, and didn't like it.  The "sermon" was cathartic for me at the time, but also impossible.  It's what almost every pastor wants to say, at some point; but never can, or should.  We are not in charge of the community, we are just responsible for it.  That has to be a warning for anyone who wants to control the boundaries of discourse:  are you responsible, or merely in charge?  But that doesn't mean boundaries cannot be set, or won't be set (more often against outsiders, including pastors, than not).  It just means they have to be set with great awareness that you aren't in charge.  Dew seems simultaneously determined to establish that fact against orthodoxy, and somewhat upset by the fact that he can't set the "proper" boundaries.  But nobody's in charge; at best we are simply responsible.  Which is why I remember, at the heart of matters ecclesiological (pertaining to the church), the words of Jacques Derrida:  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."

It is only in responsibility that we begin to learn the true meaning of Christian humility.  Maybe that's why Christianity is not as popular as once it was.  Maybe that's why what passes for Christianity denies almost all responsibility for others and proclaims the self-worth, especially in terms of wealth, of the individual.  I don't know.  That's another "bootleg sermon" that might seem a good idea to give, but isn't, in reality, either wise or Christian.  Then again, neither are the popular perceptions of even religious faith:

Attempts "to mark and protect the boundaries around acceptable orthodoxy" is exactly what natural disasters fail to do. In fact just the opposite. For when faith and fate look the same, faith has a problem. These natural calamities should remind us that our species continues to exists in the realms of fate, subject to and contending with all the natural forces in the universe. While not denying God, they should remind us that, given such a reality as God, our all too human theological construct of Divine intention is rather meaningless in the face of a category 5 hurricane. The choice of coming under the protection of Divine omnipotence is not yet on offer.
That's one of the comments at the Dew article.  Dew mentions the Lisbon earthquake, the one that shook not just Portugal but Europe (Voltaire especially), and began to shake loose the notion that God was benevolently overseeing nature for the sake of godly Europeans.  Even the Israelites were never so narrowly focused on God taking such care of them, but it became a popular tenet of Christianity for awhile.  Some, of course, still proclaim it, because hurricanes are punishment for the wrong politics, or because some religious leaders (Pat Robertson, from decades back, comes to mind) think prayer can push off calamity (onto someone else, always, but who cares for them?  Another non-Christian "Christian" attitude).  When fate and faith look the same, the problem is not with faith, the problem is with what you think "faith" is, nor is the "protection of Divine omnipotence."  Consider Psalm 29:

A Psalm of David.} Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty, give unto the LORD glory and strength.

2Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.

3The voice of the LORD is upon the waters: the God of glory thundereth: the LORD is upon many waters.

4The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.

5The voice of the LORD breaketh the cedars; yea, the LORD breaketh the cedars of Lebanon.

6He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.

7The voice of the LORD divideth the flames of fire.

8The voice of the LORD shaketh the wilderness; the LORD shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh.

9The voice of the LORD maketh the hinds to calve, and discovereth the forests: and in his temple doth every one speak of his glory.

10The LORD sitteth upon the flood; yea, the LORD sitteth King for ever.

11The LORD will give strength unto his people; the LORD will bless his people with peace.

There's a lot of burning and shaking going on there (let's not forget how much of the American West is, or has been ablaze recently).  Trees breaking, waters flooding (the Lords sits on them, the Lord doesn't stop them), etc.  What does God do in the midst of this dramatic display, all the result of the "voice of the Lord"?  God gives strength to God's people, and blesses them with peace.  Which is not quite the same thing as making the hurricane go hit somebody else, the flood waters to divide and ruing someone else's life downstream.

As I like to point out when I am quoting scripture, Jesus said God knew when the sparrow fell from the sky, and had the hairs on your head counted.  But the sparrow still falls, and knowing how many hairs are on your head doesn't exactly protect you from cancer.  The promises of the "protection of Divine omnipotence" are not an "all too human theological construct" rendered meaningless by encounters with reality.  But neither are the promises that nothing bad will ever happen to you, ever.

At least not in any religious community I've ever been a member of.  Because the only promise I ever heard, was that the community, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, would be there with you:  always.

*Pastor Dan adds a helpful note to his article, indicating the circumstances of Lee's departure from Bethany church are less than clear, and no conclusions based on news reports (which almost all depend on Lee for their information) should be made.  I mention this only so no one is distracted by my reference to this story.  My point is about the necessity and complexity of community, not about the virtues (or lack thereof) of any individual.


This is no time for subtlety.

Mike Pence on Graham-Cassidy:

“I mean the question that people ought to ask is, who do you think will be more responsible to the health care needs in your community? Your governor, your state legislature, or a congressman and a president in a far-off nation’s capital?”

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Aw, goddammit, why'd you have to go and open your mouth?

2008, not 2017

I hate that the internet has turned into a place of outrages and "rants" and more so that I contribute to it, but goddammit, Jeb Hensarling is a purblind idiot!

“The federal government is encouraging and subsidizing people to live in harm’s way,” he said. “I just went to Houston, I visited with some of the survivors, I mean, people whose homes have flooded three times in eight years.”

Hensarling did not mention the role of climate change in making hurricanes more intense and destructive, and instead placed the burden for dealing with the aftermath of hurricanes solely on individual homeowners.

“At some point, God is telling you to move,” he said. “If all we do is force federal taxpayers to build the same home in the same fashion in the same location and expect a different result, we all know that is the classic definition of insanity.”

In the first place, most of the residents and property owners of Houston don't have flood insurance, which is going to be a major problem in reconstruction around here.  In the second place, some of the worst flooding in Houston occurred because of flood control, not in spite of it.  And thirdly, but hardly last, Houston hasn't had 3 hurricanes in eight years, you pinheaded boob!  The last major hurricane here was Ike, and that was nearly 10 years ago!  We have, however, had three 500 year flood events in the past 3 years, and only one of those (Harvey) was a hurricane event.  The flooding problems in Houston have as much to do with flood control (a federal concern, since they operate the major flood control structures around here) as it does with climate change, and more to do with either than hurricanes and obscure "messages" from God.

What was that you were saying about "insanity"?  For a guy who doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground, you really should watch what you say, because you have condemned the entire Texas coast line and well into the inland areas with your stupidity.  We should, what, evacuate the 4th largest city in the country?  And clear out all the cities between Beaumont (also hard hit by Harvey) and Corpus Christi, as well as the agricultural and industrial properties?  And inland how far?  They almost had flooding in San Antonio from Harvey.  You imagine all those people hit by that event had flood insurance?  How many millions will we displace to please you, you cloth-eared git?

And Florida?  We should just abandon the entire peninsula, give it up as a state and let it become a federal holding?

Lord, why did you make some people so stupid?

At least I managed not to drop an "f-bomb."  He's really not worth it.  But, damn is he stupid.

Just to add to this:  I live in a neighborhood which had never known flooding before the 21st century (it was built in the mid-20th century).  In the 16 years I've lived here houses on this street have flooded at least 4 times (maybe 5), and only two of those were due to hurricanes (Ike and Harvey); two were due to rain events not associated with hurricanes or tropical storms.  And we don't live in a  recognized flood plain, or even on the coast (the coast is an hour away from here).

You have to be a complete idiot to say we live here because of flood insurance and that hurricanes are telling us we can't afford that luxury.

Happy Days Are Here Again

In order to save the dams we had to destroy the village

I suppose I should put this in the form of a rant.

I realize this is not just inside baseball to many of you, but under the stitches; still, the problem of flooding in Houston is getting attention in D.C.:

Controlled releases from the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs flooded thousands of Houston homes during and after Harvey. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is demanding the reservoirs’ aging dams be replaced. Jackson Lee called for $100 million in funding to build new flood infrastructure, including replacements for the two dams.

In a statement, the congresswoman said that one of the lessons of Harvey is that, “our infrastructure is ill-prepared for the ferocity of thousand-year weather events and record-breaking rainfall.”

Arturo Leon, who teaches water resource engineering at the University of Houston, notes the old dams would have to come down before new ones could go up. And he warns that, in the interim, the city would be far more vulnerable to flooding than it is now.

“Historically,” Leon says, “the construction of large dams have taken all the way from maybe one to up to five years, depending on the height and depending on the extent of the dams.”

The two dams were built in the 1940s and are rated among the most unsafe in the country. Currently, there are no official plans to replace the dams, but the Army Corps of Engineers is reinforcing them.

The opinions of Mr. Leon are thrown in there for "balance," because there really isn't a valid argument that we replace the reservoirs with something else that doesn't involve removing the dams that create the reservoirs (they aren't dug into the ground, the dams are berms built up around an area meant to retain water during heavy rain events, and discharge slowly).  We really can't leave them "as is," because that just sets up the next flooding event in the same neighborhoods, and the city and county can't really afford to buy up those areas and set them aside for flood control.

The "slow discharge" turned into a second flooding event, as Rep. Jackson Lee noted.  I have friends in those areas, in what were nice neighborhoods that now look like war zones.  I've heard reports via the NYT about the e. coli levels in the flood waters (high; very, very high) that we heard while the waters were still flooding us.  Additional information is about "sand" left behind that's actually industrial sludge (don't know where this is, but not everywhere, I don't think); highly toxic, probably with heavy metals and various chemicals you can't pronounce and shouldn't ingest or get on your skin.  EPA is dithering so badly on this even Harris County Health Department can't get an answer as to what they may be facing, which should be a national scandal on its own.

"Recovery," my ass.

The neighborhoods I started out mentioning are now ruined houses with piles of furniture, sheetrock, insulation, toys, kitchen appliances, kitchen cabinets (stop and think of everything that would take on water in your house, even just up to a level of 3 feet)  in front of every house for four blocks.  No one is living there anymore, they are cleaning out and wondering what to do now, and when will the city be coming to pick up the toxic trash?  Will the houses be destroyed, bought up by FEMA or Harris County or nobody?  Will they be rebuilt, and who will live in them?  How much more "vulnerable to flooding" would the city be without the reservoirs dumping too much water too rapidly into too small a drainage area to confine it?  And frankly, how toxic are many areas around Houston now?  We can't even find out.

This problem isn't going away, but all you will hear about will be the money appropriated for "recovery."  Like the '90's when we were warned those reservoirs would prove to be a problem, not a solution, one day, the solutions may well tax the attention or concern of Congress, and we may be left to await the next 500+ year storm.

Which, if recent history is a guide, will be along sometime next year.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

Getting back to that question about when it's about race and when it isn't, it's really rather hard to see when it isn't:

The irony is that, the occasional high-profile backlash notwithstanding, few people are actually punished or ostracized for expressing Trump-like attitudes. This is clearly true in everyday life, where a sizable number of Americans hold and express white nationalist views but retain their jobs and relationships. It’s also true in the public sphere. Donald Trump is emblematic of this. Five years after stoking a racist conspiracy theory about the legitimacy of the U.S. president, he won the presidential nomination for the Republican Party, with only modest dissent from GOP elites. Put differently, Americans overestimate how much anyone is ever sanctioned for explicit prejudice and racism. The political correctness so decried by Trump and other conservatives is more chimera than scourge.

There is, however, a different, stronger form of political correctness at work in American life, with real consequences for those who violate it. This political correctness targets those who speak frankly about the force and effects of racism. It’s a political correctness based on the offense felt by white Americans, and it’s pervasive and powerful.
Jamelle Bouie is referring to the case of Jemele Hill, who called Trump a white supremacist in a tweet.  This, of course, will not do, and her employer opined that, while she didn't cross a line, she was pushing it.  Which caused, Ta-Nehisi Coates to respond:

 I think if you own a business that attempts to keep black people from renting from you, if you are reported to say that you don’t want black people counting your money; if you say—and not even reported, just come out and say—that someone can’t judge your case because they are Mexican; if your response to the first black president is that they weren’t born in this country, despite all proof ... if that’s the essence of your entire political identity you might be a white supremacist, it’s just possible.
Or, as Chris Rock famously asked:  What do you have to do, shoot Medgar Evers?

As Bouie points out, calling Trump a white supremacist isn't an insult; it's simply stating a fact.  One could argue Mr. Coates was simply stating facts in his most recent essay.  Ah, but as I'm telling my freshman English students even now, there are facts, and there are the interpretations of facts; and the latter really determines what is, and is not, a fact.  Josh Marshall and George Packer think Mr. Coates got his facts wrong, that he gives too much credence to race and not enough attention to other salient factors.  But, as Mr. Bouie points out:

The problem for Hill isn’t that the conclusion lacks a factual basis. The problem is that it offends certain groups of white Americans. It is, in a phrase, politically incorrect. But whereas Trump’s politically incorrect affirmation of white racism is rewarded, Jemele Hill’s was punished. 
Facts follow from interpretation, and interpretation follows from, among other things, power and social position.

If liberal political correctness is overstated, then its mirror image, the force that shuts down frank discussions of racism and racist acts, is understated. Yet it’s this latter force that more powerfully shapes our politics, either in the spectacle of the White House demanding retaliation against critics, or in writing and thinking that seeks to absolve white Americans from any responsibility for racism.

Aye, there's the rub.  And why can't Ta-Nehisi Coates get this, and quit blaming everything on race?  He should blame it on things that don't make white people so uncomfortable.

Or we could realize our discomfort with discussing race is because we don't want to give up the benefit it still offers some of us.

The Ugly American President

The man is a living, breathing caricature:

“In Guinea and Nigeria you fought a horrifying Ebola outbreak,” he said. “Nambia’s health system is increasingly self-sufficient.”

There is no country named Nambia; it was not clear whether Trump had misread the name of Namibia or Zambia.

Alternative three:  he's just that stupid.  If Alec Baldwin had done this first, we'd all say he'd gone too far.

In his remarks, Trump also said that Africa “has tremendous business potential” and cited his “many friends going to your countries trying to get rich.”

But that's "star power!"

“People want to meet him because he’s got star power,” one White House official said. “And he is sort of warm in a more intimate setting. He still says the same things, but he tries to be everyone’s friend. He wants everyone to like him.”

Sure he does:

Just so we're clear:  he didn't mutter it over the dessert course.  He stood up and addressed the room.

Stop the world, I want to get off.

"It's never about money, because it's always about money"

Charlie Pierce put me on to this one, too.  As Deep Throat said (a line William Goldman made up for the script; it's not, sadly, true history; but now it's truer than history):  "Follow the money."

At a weekend donor retreat attended by at least 18 elected officials, the Koch brothers warned that time is running out to push their agenda, most notably healthcare and tax reform, through Congress.

One Texas-based donor warned Republican lawmakers that his “Dallas piggy bank” was now closed, until he saw legislative progress.

“Get Obamacare repealed and replaced, get tax reform passed,” said Doug Deason. “Get it done and we’ll open it back up.”
Why Cassidy-Graham now?  Why tax reform?

Follow the money.

Norm Ornstein and E.J. Dionne were telling Terry Gross yesterday:

Well, by 20 - I think it's by 2050 - 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. That means that 70 percent of Americans will have 30 senators and 30 percent of Americans will have 70 senators. The Senate, which unfortunately is very hard to change the way it was written into the Constitution, radically underrepresents populous states. And it does so more now than it used to. The ratio when the Republic started between the smallest and largest state was 13 to 1. Now it's around 70 to 1 or more.

They didn't even get to the money question.

We are so screwed. 

Speaking (again!) of entertainment

I haven't seen "mother!".  I don't want to see "mother!"  Partly I'm put off by the violence in the third act that I've read about.  Partly I'm no fan of Aronofsky:  "Black Swan" was pretentious, and "Noah" was simply bad (bringing a sudden halt to Russell Crowe's career, and nearly wrecking Emma Watson's.  And as this movie had the worst opening of any movie headlines by Jennifer Lawrence, he may be damaging her career, too.).  But mostly I'm seriously tired of movies that are "serious" and "masterpieces" and "controversial" because they inflict so much violence on the female lead.  Funny how the "male gaze" is such a problem but female actors going through the motions (it's acting, after all) of being emotionally and physically abused and tormented, is "art".

At least when it's not a cheap horror film.

Besides, it sounds like a bad revision of an Albee play, and while all Burton and Taylor did was yell at each other, that was enough.  And any movie that makes people say silly things like this:

After all, who is Bardem’s writer’s-block-ridden character besides a modern interpretation of Jack Torrance, Stephen King’s iconic character who sat in a residence in the middle of nowhere, plagued by demons as he tried desperately—in vain—to create art worthy of praise?

(Is "The Shining" really so old it's no longer "modern"?  And it needs to be retold?)....really deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of disregarded things.*

(That review's conclusion doesn't even make sense, disregarding as it does the baby-eating scene, and Bardem's character ripping out Lawrence's characters heart, only to use it to make another "mother."  Icch.  Even Hugh Hefner's male gaze was never so objectifying of women.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Mole People (Credit: Charlie Pierce)

In the old days, fire protection was provided on a contract basis.  You paid for the protection, you got the fire at your house put out.

So I guess we should go back to that, because I don't want to pay for fire protection on your house, I only want it on my house.  Police protection, too; why should I pay the police to protect you, especially if I never need the police to protect me?  And what's with these public roads? I want my own roads, and get all these other idiots off and out of my way!  Let 'em build their own roads!  I don't want to provide for their transportation!

Honestly, what is wrong with these people?

All hail the mighty state!

Maybe you remember this little gem from it's earlier appearance here.  It's a plaque to be found on the back (IIRC) of a pillar in the back of the Texas Capitol (you really have to go looking for it to find it), placed there by the Texas Division of the Children of the Confederacy in 1957.  So, clearly, a monument from deepest, darkest history erected shortly after the termination of the unpleasantness between the states.  Or 92 years after that war ended,  in order to respond to the nascent civil rights movement, whichever is the truth.

You may not know that Gov. Abbott had agreed to meet with State Rep. Eric Johnson, whose office is near this plaque and who wants it down and departed.  The governor bravely (and inanely) said about statues in general, not this plaque in particular:

"But we must remember that our history isn't perfect," Abbott added. "If we do not learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it. Instead of trying to bury our past, we must learn from it and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Tearing down monuments won't erase our nation's past, and it doesn't advance our nation's future. As Governor, I will advance that future through peace, not violence, and I will do all I can to keep our citizens safe."

Fortunately nobody is coming to violence over this plaque.  Abbott has agreed to meet with Johnson about this matter; but now the Speaker of the House would like to be heard:

Speaker Straus is right:  this plaque is full of lies, and we are not well-served by lies about our history.

Does this mean it will be removed?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

We live in hope.

Make Presidential Licensing Normal Again!

Trump at the U.N. (artist's rendition)

I missed the President's debut at the UN General Assembly, but I turned the radio on just in time to catch some talking head on NPR (Mara Liasson?  Sounded like her, but frankly, they all sound alike) saying Trump actually sounded normal, or "within the norms" of what we expect from Presidents.

Like this?

“Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his own nation,” Trump said of the North Korean leader during his address before the UN General Assembly. During the speech, Trump also said that the United States might soon have no option other than to “totally destroy” North Korea.

Or this?

“I ask every country represented here today to be prepared to do more to address this very real crisis. We call for the full restoration of democracy and political freedoms in Venezuela,” Trump said, pausing briefly as the UN members applauded.

“The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented,” he added.

Trump again paused, expecting another applause. But he had to wait roughly four seconds before receiving a tepid response.

Or even this?

“As President of the United States, I will always put America first,” he said. “Just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.”

Trump declared that “the nation state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition,” and said the success of the global community depends on a coalition of such states that embrace their own sovereignty.

“In America, we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to watch,” he said.

But the President asserted that the United States would not be “taken advantage of” on the world stage.

“The United States will forever be a great friend to the world and especially to its allies,” he said. “But we can no longer be taken advantage of, or enter into a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return.”

“As long as I hold this office, I will defend America’s interests above all else,” he continued. “But in fulfilling our obligations to our own nations, we also realize that each and everyone’s interest to seek the future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous and secure.”

I mean, that nuclear deal with Iran!  We didn't even get naming rights!  Not like that building across the street from the UN that Trump has his name on (but no ownership interest in)!

If making jokes about governmental systems in other countries and giving mock nicknames to dangerously unstable foreign leaders and making a deal for the U.S. that somebody tells Trump is "good" (what does he know?  He thought he'd passed healthcare reform when the House voted) isn't moving back toward a "normal" Presidency, I ask you, good people:  what is?

(And Spencer Ackerman points out he liked Trump's speech better in the original Russian.)

But then it got worse!

“If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph,” Trump said.

“The United States and our allies are working together throughout the Middle East to crush the loser terrorists,” he said.

“That deal is an embarrassment to the United States and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it, believe me,” he said.

“Major portions of the world are in conflict,” he told the assembled heads-of-state. “Some, in fact, are going to hell.”
I was teaching argument to my English class yesterday, and I pointed out that Aristotle's ethos is not just something granted by the audience (that the speaker is of good character and worthy of attention) but established by the speaker, too; and there are various ways of doing this.  "Believe me" is one such effort, I said.  It's a very weak one, but it's Trump's attempt to assert authority on a subject he really knows nothing about, and doesn't want to know anything about.

Believe me.

I'll retire to Bedlam.....

Speaking of being entertained.....

Pizza delivery problems

The problem with film reviews is that they inevitably over-simplify.  If, as "Frank Snepp, a former CIA officer in Vietnam who went on to become an award-winning TV journalist in Los Angeles," says, "Parsing the difference between an anti-colonial insurgency and a civil war 'is fairly easy to explain in print, but I don’t know how you do it in...a documentary,' ”  how much less so can you reduce three hours of film (two episodes, in this case) into a few snappy words, and not leave things out?

This critique by Jeff Stein leans heavily on the words of  Chuck Searcy, an Army intelligence analyst during the Vietnam war.  Searcy's critique references only the first two episodes of the show, and boils down to the fact that what is said in the first episode is not repeated, apparently with sledge-hammer blows, in the second.  Having only seen the first episode, and not yet the second, I can only say:  huh?

The documentary begins with the origins of Vietnam itself, a country created by the French in the latter half of the 19th century.  I'm hesitant to say precisely which year it was created, as the documentary only says the French entered southeast Asia (or was it Indo-China then?) in 1858, and took 50 years to subdue Cambodia, Laos, and the country that would come to be known as Vietnam.  The implication is that the French created the long, thin coastline of a nation, and then set about exploiting it.  Move forward to the 20th century, and Ho Chi Minh is trying to meet with Woodrow Wilson and establish independence from France for his country.  Minh's history is briefly but carefully outlined as he becomes a socialist in France, then reads Lenin and becomes a communist, then eventually returns to Vietnam to start the fight for independence.  As the review points out, the U.S. during World War II connects with Minh to oppose the Japanese, who replace the French briefly as rulers of the country.  But after the war, despite Minh's appreciation for Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, the fear of China taking over Asia as Russia did eastern Europe, turns Truman and all right-thinking Americans against any change in status quo in southeast Asia, which is to say any rule that isn't European and therefore "safe."

Are these things right, or wrong?  Well, the documentary doesn't make them seem right.

This history is not presented as good, sound, inevitable, or for the benefit of U.S. national security.  As one analyst puts it, the U.S. misread the situation entirely, and far from seeing nascent countries emerging, saw only the fear of spreading communism toppling dominoes and setting up a ring around Asia back into Europe.  The Cold War imagery sneered at in the review is simply history:  an illustration of what finally became known as the "domino theory," an idea we hear even Eisenhower (who hesitated to support the French without Congressional authority, which wasn't forthcoming) espouse.  Those of us who know our history even a bit, remember who long the "domino theory" continued to shape U.S. policy, even though no part of it ever proved out by events.

Interestingly, these history lessons are interpersed with memories of the war decades after these events, with Karl Marlantes, the author of one of the best novels about the war, recalling a firefight he was caught in.  Marlantes points out humans are not the dominant species on the planet because we are nice, and rejects explicitly the idea that the military teaches people to kill,  It is only, he argues, finishing school.  These interruptions remind us of what lies in the future for Vietnam, and for us.

The division of Vietnam, glossed over in the review (see what I mean about simplifying?) results from the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu.  I knew the place name from my childhood, but never knew what had happened there.  Essentially the French dug in on the valley floor, indifferent to the jungle covered mountains around them, and the Viet Minh set up heavy artillery all around them, camouflaged from the French jets looking for just such evidence of firepower.  The French were trapped as the Viet Minh rained hell on them, with only airlifts possible to save them and provide supplies.  Previously, we learned, even Sen. John Kennedy, visiting Saigon, had no sympathy for the French or their inability to hold their former colony.  One remembers, in that telling, Michael Corleone in Havana just before Castro arrives, aware already of what the future holds.  Of course that's a fiction, and Kennedy's visit is history, but it leaves the same impression:  we cannot stop this tide of history, and we shouldn't try to.  That was in the 50's, and the Vietnamese independence struggle had been going on for decades.  Bt the time of Dien Bien Phu, however, American attitudes had shifted, and Kennedy, among others, is convinced we have to help the French, at least because they were being slaughtered.

That is the central event which lead to the division of Vietnam into north and south along the arbitrary line of the 17th parallel.  It was a conscious effort to replicate the armistice of the Korean War (with the implication that, once again, commies would only get the northern part, not the whole hog).  The deal was supposed to include a vote to reunify under one government, which  was widely expected to be that of Ho Chi Minh, the communist.  However, Diem took power (through a clearly rigged election; he claimed 92.8% of the vote) and broke off any idea of a unification election.  He had, as the documentary makes clear, the upper hand because he was the only hope the U.S. had of stopping the toppling dominoes of communist countries.  We either supported Diem, or we let Vietnam fall to China; that was the thinking.  At no point does the documentary make this line of reasoning seem reasonable; it is only historical, and it is clearly, as all those jumps forward to the war reveal, leading to disaster.

I have to say, I'd always wondered how we were so stupid.  In 90 minutes, this documentary gave me some answers to that question.  Does the second episode erase that impression?  If it does, it can only be because the audience is being willfully obtuse, or needs its documentaries served with a large side of "My way or the highway."

As for the quality of the documentary itself, aside from whether it pushes your preferred narrative or not, I have to agree (so far) with the headline at Vox:  it is brilliant, infuriating, boring, and hypnotic.  Although I can only claim to have seen the brilliant and boring parts, with just hints of the hypnotic.  But, truth be told, I'm looking to relive my experiences of Vietnam as the "living room war."  That's the way I remember it, and I anticipate a frisson of recognition sometime in the next 16 and a half hours.

Monday, September 18, 2017


In the spotlight, losing our religion

I've mentioned before the Steve Allen (yes, that Steve Allen!) story "The Public Hating."  You can have your "Handmaid's Tale" (or The Handmaid's Tale) and even your 1984.  For my money, Allen's tale was far more prescient and insightful.

All of them, and anybody who quits the Trump administration, should go to a cabin far in the remote mountains of Alaska and spiritually decontaminate for at least a year before they’re allowed to cash in on their opportunistic allegiance with this White House, before they’re allowed to make nice with the side of the aisle they disparaged. A little quarantine for the soul. They should have to wait 18 months before they write a book and promote it on shows hosted by the journalists they’ve trashed and maligned. They should have to serve penance in the name of the people they’ve wronged. Otherwise, what’s to dissuade anybody else from doing the same thing? Evil-based opportunism should not be this lucrative.

Rarely has a man who is in the news for something that has nothing to do with his penis provided as much late-night comedy fodder as Sean Spicer. During his tenure as White House Press Secretary, his pioneering combination of whining and lying was irresistible to hosts and audiences alike. That he was doing these things on behalf of Donald Trump, perhaps the most disliked man in the liberal bastion of Hollywood, only made him more contemptible.

But last night, less than two months after he stopped serving as the mouthpiece for President Trump, Spicer was welcomed into the joke, onstage at the Emmys on a rolling podium styled after the one Melissa McCarthy used to play him in her Saturday Night Live sendup. The gathered celebrities whooped and cheered. After the ceremony, Spicer yukked it up at the Governor’s Ball. He was mobbed by celebrities who wanted selfies with him; even those who have sold their soul can’t resist the appeal of the celebrity selfie.
If we can't hate Sean Spicer on a stage in a stadium until he begins to run around like a bug on a hot griddle, what's the point of a justice system?  Punishment is demanded, and we expect payment in the coin of celebrity (which is the only currency that matters!)!  We can tolerate the Kardashians and Jessica Simpson (she has a line of shoes now!) for being famous for being famous, and even Caitlin Jenner despite the fact she still supports Trump despite everything, but allowing Sean Spicer to go on stage at the Emmy's and dare to try to be entertaining?!  To even hint at the SNL skit that made Melissa McCarthy famous in the first place?!  Who does he think he is????!!!????

Even Chris Cillizza says it was "normalizing" Spicer and that isn't funny at all!  I mean, if even Chris Cilizza says it, it must be the accepted wisdom du jour.  Because, to prove the point of Donald Trump being our first Reality TV President, we must by the standards of reality TV and all that is holy to American celebrity, VOTE SEAN SPICER OFF THE ISLAND!!!!!


Well, at least not in certain circles in Hollywood and on The Daily Beast.  I don't know about you, but I don't think the rest of us give a wet snap.  Somehow the man who ran down Heather Hayer; the judge in St. Louis; the people showing up in Raw Story stories claiming they, too, would run down protestors who dared get in the way of their vehicle ("'X' marks the pedwalk"  Another science fiction story, come to think of it....) seem more contemptible to me than Sean Spicer.    Even Donald Trump is more deserving of contempt, especially since he took the oath of office.

April Ryan, CNN White House Correspondent, insists Spicer must seek "redemption" before returning to the space beyond the nave where the commoner sit and gawk, and taking his place again in the chancel, where only the elect may walk.  He is unclean and must make himself holy (heilige, pure, unscathed, as Derrida reminds us) again.  Actually, it's a little funny and a little sad that the space in front of the camera is a holy space that only the worthy may enter (the Kardashians?  Paris Hilton?) and only the spiritual decontaminated are allowed there when the appearance isn't directly connected with their regular employment, lest they infect our souls with their....cooties, I guess.

Is this really what's replacing religion?  Because I think even the avowed atheists can do better.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The preacher done stopped preachin' and gone to meddlin'!

I want to agree with Josh Marshall, but, coming from a white man, I find this a bit hard to take in full:

But race is never an abstract reality without deep roots in class, gender and cultural factors. Coates’ vision and argument is so unitary and totalizing that any ‘excepts’ or ‘buts’ are not only dismissed but actually marshaled as further proofs of the totalizing premise.

Race has been a central organizing feature of American life – specifically the binary subordination of enslaved people of African ancestry to white Europeans – since the middle and late decades of the 17th century when African slaves first became a core feature of the economic order in the emerging commodity export colonies of what we now call the South. As the late Edmund Morgan explained forty years ago, the dignity and standing of middling whites – something like what we’d today call the ‘white working class’ – was not only buttressed by but was in many ways manufactured out of the subordination and degradation of African slaves. But no unitary explanation can ever capture the fullness or messiness or simply the complexity of human societies. There are exceptions and contradictions and complexities that get crushed by any totalizing narrative, perhaps especially by those which are largely true, precisely because they have so much accuracy, coherence and emotive and explanatory force.
Self-examination is hard; and the end result can sometimes feel like self-negation, like flagellation, like mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa which, especially to those outside the recognition, the realization, the acceptance of responsibility, can seem extreme and unnecessary.

But that's the whole point of self-examination.  The catechism, much as I might reject its soteriology, was not wrong:  "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."  You have to start with the extreme of the desert fathers.  And if Mr. Coates has become "oracular," then maybe the problem is in your heart, not in his.  It is not that Mr. Coates is a prophet from God who deserves your immediate respect and admiration; it is more that, if Mr. Coates has disturbed you deeply with his words, you need to examine why you are so disturbed.  George Packer and Josh Marshall want us to reject Mr. Coates' words and his ideas.  But if we are challenged by them, if they seem to flatten history itself into a singular cause and effect, perhaps that is because we don't really understand the cause and effect of race in America, especially if we are white men (as I know at least two of us are).

A white man in America can say:  "Race has been a central organizing feature of American life."  But a white man in America cannot finish that sentence with any kind of qualifier that lifts some of that burden from his shoulders.

This is our wound.  This is our hidden wound.  This is the wound we keep hidden, at all cost. Yes, the fathers have eaten sour grapes and set their children's teeth on edge; that's the responsibility of the elders to the children.  Humility is hard.  Responsibility is hard.  That does not mean we get to qualify them, to not accept that they are totally and absolutely applicable to us.  We cannot say:  "This far and no further."  We have to complete the journey.

Kind of what I've been saying....

“The pardon is invalid and unconstitutional because it has the purpose and effect of eviscerating the judicial power to enforce constitutional rights.”

From an amicus brief filed with the trial court in the Arpaio case submitted by the MacArthur Justice Center at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.  And, taking dead aim at Ex Parte Grossman:

A group of teachers, human rights lawyers, and legal scholars, in a brief filed by Erwin Chemerinsky, Michael Tigar, and Jane Tigar argues the pardon was unconstitutional as it exceeded the authority granted the president in the Constitution. The brief cites Madison, in Federalist 45, guaranteeing that the Constitution would renounce the “impious doctrine in the Old World, that the people were made for kings, not kings for the people.” Urging that there is a distinction between offenses prosecuted by the sovereign, which may be pardoned, and punishments imposed by courts to protect individual rights, they argue that Arpaio’s victims have a right—rooted in Article III of the Constitution—to have their claims adjudicated, and to receive a remedy enforced by a court. These scholars conclude:

"No President till now has proclaimed that a public official who violated the Constitution and flouted court orders was ‘doing his job.’ The purported pardon is an attempt to exercise a power that even the King of England did not possess in 1787."
And back to what I've been saying, although with specific reference to the due process of laws, another brief notes:

If the President may employ his pardon power to relieve government officers of accountability and risk of penalty for defying injunctions imposed to enforce constitutional rights, that action will permanently impair the courts' authority and ability to protect those inalienable rights. The result would be an executive branch freed from the judicial scrutiny required to assure compliance with the dictates of the Bill of Rights and other constitutional safeguards. 
Now we just have to see if those ideas carry any weight in court.

Kathy Griffin deserves a do-over

I'm sorry, what were you saying about James Comey?

It was unclear whether Mr Trump had received a briefing before making his claims, in which case he leaked British intelligence, or if he jumped to a conclusion without evidence about who was behind the attack.
In a series of tweets, Mr Trump wrote: “Another attack in London by a loser terrorist. These are sick and demented people who were in the sights of Scotland Yard. Must be proactive!
After chairing a meeting of the Government’s Cobra emergencies committee, Mrs May said it was not “helpful” to speculate on an ongoing investigation, and the police were still working to identify who had carried it out.

NPR in headlines this morning reported that the British government is upset by Trump leaking what is classified information in Britain (that Scotland Yard was tracking the perpetrators of this act), and many European heads of state plan to raise this issue with Trump when he meets with them later this year (because he's done it so often).

So what was that about Comey, and Trump's golf swing?

Friday, September 15, 2017

A Thought Experiment

"the courts of America have never been the "President's Courts," but established under authority of the Constitution as a co-equal branch of government to the Presidency. " 
If any other branch has power over the Judiciary, it's the Leg, given Article III's construction, methinks.

I know what NTodd is saying here, and sticking to the text of the Constitution he's not wrong. Congress can establish courts as it sees fit, and give them jurisdiction as it wishes.  There are several types of federal courts which seldom make the news, but which are important in the nation's legal life.  U.S. Bankruptcy Court, for instance, is a federal court of limited, but at the same time worldwide, jurisdiction (depending on the bankrupt before it and its business relationships), but the judges on the bankruptcy bench sit for a set term, not for life.  The District and Appellate Courts which generate most of the headlines (and most of the Supreme Court cases non-lawyers pay attention to) are creatures of Congress, too, but here's where the thought experiment engages:

After Marbury, the Courts established themselves as a co-equal branch with Congress and the Administration.  However, if Congress chose to limit the jurisdiction of the Courts, or even just the Supreme Court (in a more extreme example) so that they could not decide the constitutionality of acts of Congress, could the Courts find that law to be unconstitutional?  Who, in other words, would be the authority then?

This is precisely the kind of case the Courts hate, because it so clearly provokes what the press loves to call a "Constitutional crisis."  But it's a live possibility, and if memory serves there was a time when the idea of such a bill was bandied about (possibly in the Gingrich era, maybe more recently than that).  It presents, of course, the problem of the Court giving itself authority not clearly spelled out in the Constitution; but who among us truly wants to see the Court stripped of its role as arbiter of what is "constitutional"?  That authority is really part of the balance of power, but rather like Emperor Napoleon, it is a power self-bestowed by the courts on themselves, rather than one granted to them by the superior authority of we the people.  Well, it has been now, but that makes it rather more than less like the unwritten constitution of Britain.  And then we're back to the question of who has the authority to enforce its orders in order to preserve the Court's authority as a court (and part of a co-equal branch of government)?  If the President can usurp it, then the courts are subservient to the Administration, and that would seem to violate Article III.  But if the courts don't assert their independence on this issue, who will?  And if they do, will that be a constitutional crisis?

Or will it be the pardon itself?

Dear Mr. President:

Now, about that whole "birther conspiracy" theory you had for so long.

When can we expect an apology for that "untruth"?

And by the way:

The Obama Administration is over, so it hasn't made any progress on any issue since your inauguration in January.  Government is not a business, and you aren't in competition with Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Pedantically yours,