Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Don’t bring the Peace Petition to me

and expect to get a signature. I think I’m being extremely generous in calling the petition, and Rev. Sinkford’s fax to our congressmen childishly naive. Of course, Rev. Sinkford must believe us to be equally naive when he promises “On October 10 we will be walking into your representatives' offices to tell them to end the war...” in his message asking for our signatures. All 435 representatives’ offices, Rev.? Do they allow roller skates in the congressional office building?

Don’t talk to me about whether we should have invaded or not; that ship has sailed. Nor is this about whether the war has been bungled; that dock too is empty. The question here is whether we should cut and run- and that is exactly what Rev. Sinkford demands: “Not another dollar. Not another life.” That position is so deeply immoral that I find it difficult to understand how a highly educated man of the cloth could hold it; I can only hope he’s playing the “ask for the Moon, and they’ll compromise on what you really wanted” game- but I fear, given his history, that he’s serious.

Yes, progress in Iraq is a fraction of what we had hoped for by now. Yes, the government of Iraq has, by their failures, betrayed their courageous countrymen who risked so much by cooperating with the soldiers to root out resistance cells, in going to vote despite the threats. Every person who cooperated- and their families, even the children- lives in danger; every day some are assassinated. Because of the failures of their government, their only security lies in our presence. What are these brave lives worth? Are you willing to answer “Not another dollar. Not another life.”?

There’s nothing new about this situation. Brave Cubans rose up in response to American promises and revolted against Castro... and America lost its nerve at the last moment and withdrew the promised support; they were slaughtered to a man at the Bay of Pigs. Fourteen years after that we left allies behind in our hasty retreat from Vietnam, and again there was slaughter- and our absence as a credible regional threat allowed Pol Pot to slaughter millions in the “killing fields”. Fifteen years after that we encouraged the Kurds to revolt in Iraq, then stood back and allowed them to be slaughtered. Ironically, some of these very victims of our sins of omission were part of the proof that Saddam had once had weapons of mass destruction, as their villages had been gassed. With this history, it is no surprise at all that sixteen years later some are once again declaring our national symbol to be the mark of Cain, our national motto “We are not our brothers’ keepers”- it is just disappointing seeing the President of the UUA chanting that motto.

When mistakes are made, they must be paid for. You can’t just say “Sorry ‘bout that, chief!” and walk away with a clear conscience. You must apologize, yes- but you must also make good what you have destroyed. We have not yet done that; we have barely made a good start. Yes, the cost is dear, but the failure to pay it will be dearer still. We can follow the tradition of the last fifty years- “When the going gets tough, America gets going- in the opposite direction”; or we can at least pretend we’re the men and women our predecessors were and do the right thing by the people who befriended us. It would be so easy to say, as I heard someone around here (not a Unitarian, thank God) say when told that without us, there would be civil war: “So what? The whole damn country isn’t worth a single American life. They’re not even Christian- Hell, they’re just barely white!” Easy- but immoral.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

I have an axcuse this time...

for not posting recently- as you will have gathered if you've read the Chaliceblog, my beloved and I have been in Washington DC- a second mini-honeymoon to celebrate our tenth anniversary!

It was a wonderful trip all the way around. The flight, both in and out, was fine; clear weather and smooth, and as I had been warned ahead of time, I didn't think the pilot was drunk when we weaved around the Potomac and dodged the Washington monument before landing. As we landed in the middle of the afternoon, the shuttle to the Metro and the Metro itself were not crowded. We had dinner that night at Stars, which I highly reccomend.

We spent a day at the International Spy Museum, and I am now drinking tea from my new Smithsonian mug. (which I got a discount on- you are members, right?) We had our anniversary dinner at Zola's.

We spent a delightful Saturday evening at the Brickskeller with CC and the CSO. If you haven't met them, they speak exactly like they write- we both look forward to the next time we meet. GA, anyone?

I had some deep thoughts at the Spy Museum, but I'll share them later; today is a day for laundry, mail, and other return tasks. Oops- there's the dryer buzzer. Later!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

There are no experts on Islam

These are thoughts I’ve had for some time, but were recently jumpstarted by a discussion of the compatibility of Islam and UU on CRAPonSundays . In the course of this discussion, Will says, “In the years since, I’ve tried to learn more about Islam, but to be honest, I’m no expert.” Of course not, Will- there are no experts.

This sounds silly at first blush- there are millions of experts on Islam; we see them everywhere. Even if you limit it to only Imams who speak the language of the Prophet and were raised in that culture, there are many, ready to talk on any subject. Modesty? Here’s an expert saying that many women went topless back in the day- what the Prophet meant was “Put your shirt on.” No, here’s an expert saying scarf and veil are needed... now here’s one saying she has to wear a full Hazmat suit, complete with respirator. Women’s rights? Here’s an expert saying that Islam has full equality between the sexes... but this one says their rights are equal, but different, like she can’t be an Imam... and this one says that they do not have rights, but protections. War? This one says that he’s seeking Conscientious Objector status, as Islam is a religion of peace... that one is declaring Holy War.

If there’s one thing I learned in the pointless forest, it’s that a point in every direction is the same as no point at all. There is no Islamic scholar so well renowned that there isn’t some other equally qualified scholar willing to call him a silver plated idiot. There’s no “Pope” of Islam, no central authority to get the definitive answers from. There’s no agreement on anything but the Five Pillars. No, wait, don’t the Shi’a have eight? So if by “expert”, you mean someone who knows what Muslims believe, then no, there are no experts on Islam.

So what, one might ask- UUs don’t agree on anything, either. But then, UUs don’t claim to believe anything as a creedal test of membership. UUs don’t demand that non-UUs dress and act as if they were. UUs don’t call for the arrest of cartoonists for blasphemy, as the government of Bangladesh just did , let alone calling for their death, as some Imams have. UUs don’t strap bombs to their bellies and blow up teenagers in pizza parlors. And yes, some Imams say that those who call for violence are not “real” Muslims- but who’s to say? There are no experts. How are we to know?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Intellectual rigor?

When debating the existence of God, the illogic of theism is always one of the first things to be brought up. Science, which has given us all the modern wonders is completely logical, internally consistent, and deals only with reality as we see it, not as we imagine it; faith, in the words of our own Davidson Loehr , (who is much, much kinder than many famous atheists), “lacks intellectual rigor”. Any discussion of the supernatural- that which is indefinable, undetectable, unprovable, and yet can still affect the real world- is simply irrational. To actually have theological debates- the classic (though apocryphal) example is “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin”- is just mental masturbation.

Or so it seemed for decades, until the Hubble Space Telescope was orbited. We could now see regions of space we had only imagined before... and that revealed a problem. The real Universe was not arranged the way our infallible math- the logic that traced reality and existence from the Big Bang to the present day- said it should be. The distribution of Galaxies was all wrong; the real Universe had betrayed us. How could this be reconciled?

A solution was found- “Dark Matter”. Dark Matter has gravity, we decided, so it can account for the flawed distribution of matter, but has no other attributes; we can’t see it, it doesn’t block our view of anything else, it doesn’t register on instruments, and in fact we can’t prove it exists at all- we only infer it must be there to make our theology- oh, excuse me!- astronomy work out right. How could I possibly have made a slip like that; it has much more intellectual rigor to it than theism!

Of course, as we are so certain dark matter exists, we can describe it perfectly. Dark Matter is cold, being made of slow, dense neutralinos; it sparked the creation of stars and galaxies in clumps, or “litters“... No, wait, it’s warm and zippy, it formed stars like pearls on a string... some of the debate can be seen here . That’s a lot of stew to make from meat that’s only inferred- I wonder how much Dark Matter will fit on the head of a pin?

But the problematical distribution of matter wasn’t the only shock Hubble had for them; the velocity of wandering stars and galaxies was off, too- way off. They are just moving too fast for the available energy to explain; there must be... wait for it... Dark Energy! Dark Energy is, yes, energy that shines on everything except the instruments that might detect it. It’s undetectable and unproveable, but it’s the only thing that makes the math work out right, so it must exist. Along with the other undetectable stuff. In fact, they might be one and the same!

Of course, these hypothetical constructs must only affect our understanding of the Universe around the edges, right? I mean, we couldn’t base all our understanding of physics on things that are, for all intents and purposes, supernatural, could we? Uh... “Dark matter and dark energy are two of the most vexing problems in science today. Together they dominate the universe, comprising some 96 percent of all mass and energy.”, according to Robert Roy Britt, senior science writer at . So evidently we have a firm understanding of... 4% of the Universe.

Or do we? Matter is made of atoms, which are composed of subatomic particles such as Protons, Neutrons, etc. And those particles can be broken into yet smaller particles... and in this world, normal physics no longer works; a new math called “Quantum Physics” had to be invented to explain it. The smallest of the theoretical particles are called strings , at 10 -35th meters. How small is that? If an electron were the size of our solar system, a string would be the size of a tree... strings have 10, or maybe 11, or possibly 26 dimensions. Yes, yes, we have no proof or even evidence of more than three physical dimensions, but it makes the math work out right; work with us! Why do I bring these up? because “Exotic but widely popular "string theories" of the universe explain dark matter as "supersymmetric particles" that bear no relationship to dark energy,” says Mario Livio, senior scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, here .
My point? Only that the layman whose knowledge of science comes from the odd course taken to fulfill the requirements of a liberal arts degree are the ones most likely to believe that science has all the answers, and that it lacks “intellectual rigor” to believe the unproven and unproveable, and then ridicule others for believing something else that’s unproven and unproveable. Theists have no corner on the “something must be out there” market, and science has no corner on truth.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sweetheart deal for bought a full page ad in the New York Times questioning the integrity of General Petraeus, accusing him of lying in a report he had not yet even given when the ad was written with the headline, “General Petraeus or General Betray Us? (I think a new word has to be invented here- we have “chicken hawk” for those who call for war, but never fought themselves; we need a word for those who loathe the military, and yet believe they know more about war than those who have put their bodies in harm’s way to defend them) Now it appears that “The Paper of Record” gave a 65% discount on the standard advertising rates for such an ad.

According to ABC News , Moveon paid $65,000 for the ad- but the New York Post quotes Abbe Serphos, director of public relations for the Times as saying "the open rate for an ad of that size and type is $181,692." The Post continues , “A spokesman for confirmed to The Post that the liberal activist group had paid only $65,000 for the ad - a reduction of more than $116,000 from the stated rate.

A Post reporter who called the Times advertising department yesterday without identifying himself was quoted a price of $167,000 for a full-page black-and-white ad on a Monday.”

I’m sure there is some simple explanation for this other than that Moveon got a discount because the NYTimes was sympathetic to their position. That just couldn’t be; we all know there’s no such thing as media bias, or that if there is, it happens only at Fox News.


September 24 I quote from this article : “After two weeks of denials, the New York Times acknowledged that it should not have given a discount to MoveOn.Orgfor a full-page advertisement General David H. Petraeus.”

“The liberal advocacy group should have paid $142,000 for the ad calling the U.S. commander in Iraq "General Betray Us," not $65,000, the paper's public editor wrote yesterday.

Clark Hoyt said in his column that MoveOn was not entitled to the cheaper "standby" rate for advertising that can run any time over the following week because the Times did promise that the ad would run Sept. 10, the day Petraeus began his congressional testimony. "We made a mistake," Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis was quoted as saying.

The Times also violated its own advertising policy, which bars "attacks of a personal nature," Hoyt reported.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Movie reviews: Moliere and Stardust

Moliere is a comedy-drama, and a fine example of a genre of book and film I quite enjoy: a tale in the life of a famous historical figure, set in a period of his life about which nothing is known; no “suspension of disbelief” is required. This story “explains” why Moliere was out of the public eye for a time when he already had a reputation as an actor, but was not yet known as a playwright.
Moliere is portrayed as an intense and witty young man, a superb comedic actor who despises his own success because he loves and respects only “serious” theater; this makes him manic and capricious, played with almost a touch of Jack Sparrow. (or as Ginger corrected me, “Jacque Piaf”) This is not the random dissonance of Sparrow, however, but the result of his devotion to his craft.

I cannot come up with a single complaint about this film. The story, though at times fantastic, is well written and well paced; combined with the best ensemble cast I’ve seen in a foreign film it can make you laugh and cry within a span of minutes. As one might expect of a period piece shot in the actual locations, set in a time of elaborate dress and decoration, the visuals are wonderful. Yes, it is a French-language film, but the subtitles were translated colloquially, not word for word, so you get the flavor as well as the content. So even if you don’t speak French, you should see this film before it disappears from your local art theater- but if you do speak French, run out and see it right now!

Stardust is another comedy, a fantasy. There’s nothing serious about this film, nor does it take itself seriously; it’s pure mind candy. but it’s good candy. It’s the kind of film where you just know the cast had a hoot shooting it. For example, from the first second Robert De Niro appears on screen, you know he’s playing a parody of a De Niro character... but as the parody gets more and more over the top, you begin to wonder if he paid the studio to be allowed to play this character. Supposedly a minor character, he should have been arrested for Grand Theft Movie. Michelle Pfeiffer is fantastic as the witch Lamia.

Yes, the plot turning points are all telegraphed; yes, there are holes in the story. Who cares? We’re not talking Shakespeare here, (unless you mean De Niro’s character), we’re talking a couple hours of pure entertainment. Go see it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


I had thought to post about my memories of 9/11, my feelings as I watched it unfold live on television that horrific day, but more eloquent writers have done it better. so I thought instead that I would write of lessons that need remembering. I don’t quite hold with Santayana's quote about those who don’t remember their history are doomed to repeat it, but I do believe that those who don’t learn from history will face preventable tragedy.

For example, we had plenty of chances to learn that terrorism cannot be treated as ordinary crime. We could have learned that from the Munich Olympics, or the failure of Israeli police to stop their bombings, or from our own experiences with embassy bombings and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing... but we didn’t. When our nation was founded, in the days when a musket got off one round every thirty seconds, one could merely react to crime- but today that’s not good enough; we have to stop them before they strike. One can well argue about the exact provisions of the Patriot Act, but something like it had to be passed; we are way beyond the stage where it’s possible to have intelligence and law enforcement agencies forbidden by law to talk to each other, as they were before 9/11. Complaining about warrantless wiretaps is all well and good- but having the ability to place an overseas call to Osama Bin Laden without being intercepted is not liberty but insanity.

There is an old military aphorism that any resolution short of total victory is a defeat. That lesson is well proven by the killing fields of Southeast Asia, and our current troubles with North Korea, and our current predicament in Iraq is a direct result of Bush the elder forgetting that lesson. Maybe it was politically impossible for him to overthrow Hussein in the first gulf war as claimed, but at the end of WW II we were able to leave the Emperor of Japan in place without leaving a dangerously militaristic government behind as a threat- a way could and should have been found to do the same in Iraq while we had the good will of governments in the Middle East.

Another military aphorism is that absolute, overwhelming force is just barely enough; anything less than a total effort wastes men and material even if you win. Had Bush the younger remembered that lesson, all of his other mistakes in Iraq would have been meaningless. A soldier on every street corner, and non-stop reconnaissance and strike sorties would have closed the border and stopped the flow of men and equipment that are now fueling the insurgency. One must either fight a war or not fight a war- never half-fight it! Any leader who fears cries of “disproportionate response” at the expense of lives- both ours and theirs- is unworthy of leading.

One lesson we, as a people, must learn is to finish what we start; the losses in the long run are often higher for quitting than for continuing. Osama Bin Laden himself said that the reason for the 9/11 strike was that since we had cut our losses and run from Somalia, he believed a really big strike would make us run from the whole of the Middle East. There is precedent for this: we know from captured records that the reason for the Pearl Harbor strike was that Japanese military leaders believed that because of our foreign policy record and level of political rhetoric in the 1930’s that we were afraid of war- one debilitating strike and we would be too cowed to enter the war. Even if no future dictator or terrorist attacks because he believes us too weak willed for a long fight, what about our own future Presidents? What if the next President is afraid to go into Darfur because he or she believes that if it turns nasty, we haven’t the will to continue?

Other lessons have been learned. One of President Bush’s few laudable actions was to say early and often that Islam as a religion was not to blame; this helped defuse the xenophobia that normally accompanies a war. There has been no wave of anti-Islam hysteria; those attacks that have occurred are no greater in number than “ordinary” hate crime- in fact, in the last six years more Christian churches have been burned than mosques attacked. When I heard a man I knew who forty years ago called anyone of even vaguely Asiatic appearance “gook” differentiate between “regular Muslims” and terrorists, I smiled.

Another lesson learned is that we, as a people, can no longer go about our business and allow the government to run things unsupervised. I believe that a lot of the viciousness of politics today stems from deep feelings of guilt, that we allowed things to get to this state. My hope is that in future, the tone of political blogs and organizations will moderate as participation increases.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

How we pick our Presidents

I’ve come to believe that most of what’s wrong with our country today stems from how we pick our politicians, from Mayor to President- and I don’t mean the electoral process, I mean how we, the voters, choose who we’ll vote for. To demonstrate this, I’m asking you to tell me the qualifications of your favorite candidates for President, within the following parameters:

Don’t tell me their positions. There are three reasons for this- first, positions are not qualifications; if they were, and you share those positions, you’d be equally qualified, wouldn’t you?

The second reason is that positions don’t tell you they can do, or will do, but only what they want. After all, Chamberlain wanted peace, and he didn’t get it. The lowliest Congressman has more say about whether a given position will be implemented than the President does; at least he can vote on it.

The third reason positions don’t matter is that no one knows what the issues will be during the next term, much less what the right position is. Notice that neither Gore nor Bush told us back in 2000 what they would do about the Patriot Act, or the Iraq War, or Hurricane Katrina.

Don’t tell me about their education. Contrary to popular belief, education does not impart wisdom- if it did, President Bush’s combined GPA and post-graduate degree would place him near the top in this century, ahead of Reagan, Eisenhower, and miles ahead of Truman. Don’t even speak to me to me about intelligence; again, contrary to popular belief, IQ doesn’t impart wisdom, either- according to this article recommended by Snopes , President Bush’s IQ is equal to JFK’s.

Do tell me about their character. George Washington said that character was the only important issue... but he didn’t mean “Does he go to church”, or “Is he a good husband”, or any of the other things that phrase has been twisted to mean in recent decades. He meant “How will the candidate react to the unexpected”, or as a modern politician once phrased it, “I am the most qualified to wing it.” The great challenges of almost any presidency are totally unexpected and cannot be prepared for; what in your candidate’s life leads you to believe that he/she will have the wisdom and courage to do the right thing in the face of an unexpected world class emergency?

Do tell me about his/her accomplishments. If in the legislature, what laws have they written and gotten passed? What positions of trust or leadership within Congress have they won? If in an executive position, how have they shown the type of character I described above? What do their careers in the private sector, if any, tell you?

Frankly, by the standards outlined above, the bullpens of both parties look pretty thin to me. I see several with charisma, which is a sort of qualification, I guess... but not necessarily a good one. I see some executive experience, but no governors from any state large enough to equate to a country. No one with any foreign affairs experience at a decision-level grade; no one who’s been a diplomat, or State Department head.

Nothing better displays the pitiful state of politics in America today than that with the Presidency wide open, no incumbent, no groomed for the job VP, no old war horse in waiting, we could have a list of candidates this long with no clear leaders on it. Never in the course of U.S. history have so many had so little to bring to so important a moment.