Monday, November 08, 2004

Forget 2008 -- Vote Atheist in 2108!

The United States will never be a truly free, just or tolerant society until an atheist is elected president. (I suppose we could settle for an agnostic.)

Why? Consider the converse: If an atheist cannot be elected president, the United States is not a truly free, just or tolerant society. Any religious test for citizenship or leadership, whether de jure or de facto, is a form of tyranny.

Notice that I did not say, "Until an atheist can be elected president." Political "can be's" are a currency that buys very little in the Wal-Mart voting booth aisle. Blacks have been full de jure citizens of the United States for about 135 years, and it's now been about 40 years since the civil rights movement opened the door for serious talk about how "anyone" could grow up to be president, but there has never been an African-American candidate on a major party national ticket. Similarly, American women have been full members of the polity for almost a century, but there has been only one woman on a major party national ticket, and that ticket was trounced. We will know that a Black, a woman or an atheist truly can be elected president when one actually is elected president.

So, perhaps 2108 isn't far enough away. The point is that the United States, along with other western democracies, is moving (more slowly in our case than in others) toward a bipolar religious world: on one side implacable fundamentalists and other determined dogmatists, and on the other a freethinking coalition of atheists, agnostics and watery, undogmatic believers of various stripes, such as Unitarians, ultraliberal Christians, largely secular Jews, Buddhists, neo-deists and the like. The moderate center will disappear. This does not mean that today's dominant sects will become extinct, only that people who may be nominally, say, Roman Catholics, will gravitate toward one pole or the other. They will become either religious reactionaries like today's fundamentalists, or quasi-humanists having much more in common with unbelievers than with the hardcore faithful.

The process of slow migration toward two opposing positions has been ongoing for centuries. Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment; Copernicus, Darwin, Freud. Every chink in the armor of the institutional church simultaneously accomplishes three things: (1) Reduces the pressure on people to be "conventional" church members who bow before social propriety and tradition more than an actual supreme being; (2) Liberates some disgruntled members of the flock, who become free to head for the hills of unbelief; (3) Encourages some worried believers to adopt more hardline positions out of fear that their rock is crumbling.

Today, the migration appears to be accelerating in the United States. Mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Episcopalians, are rapidly approaching schism over the issue of gay rights. In fact, however, the real fissure in these sects is along familiar conservative-liberal lines; even if an accommodation were reached on gay marriage, the groups would tear themselves apart soon enough on another issue similarly pitting the past against the future. Fundamentalists hold more power than ever and are increasingly able to drown out the voices of centrist believers in national debates on "morals" or "values." Nonbelievers, once a tiny, despised minority, are now merely a small, despised minority.

There are two main reasons for the current trend toward increasing polarization. The first is social and pragmatic: Moderation is an ineffective weapon against extremism. Gandhi's policy of nonviolent resistance ousted the British from India because the Brits, though imperialist to the core, were not prepared to launch a genocidal campaign to retain a colony. Similarly, the American civil rights movement succeeded because in 20th century America, for a variety of reasons, firehoses were an acceptable weapon for racist lawmen to use against demonstrators, but machine guns were not. But neither Gandhi nor Martin Luther King would have achieved anything but a speedy execution in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.

In today's America, tolerant religious centrism is the ideological equivalent of passive resistance or civil disobedience. It is effective only if the fundamentalists have little power. Once the reactionaries have achieved a critical mass, centrism wilts. Ripostes such as, "Yes, we should follow God's law, but we shouldn't force it on others," or "True, Jesus said he is the only way to salvation, but he also said to love your neighbor," are useless against adversaries bolstered with the certainty of fundamentalism. Eventually, it becomes easier, and more powerful, to simply declare, "There's no such thing as God's law," or "I don't care what Jesus said and we are not going to run our country on it."

The second reason is more theological: It is logically and emotionally difficult to maintain a somewhat mushy middle position against two adamant extremes. Disbelief is indeed corrosive, as the fundamentalists charge (though this is a good thing, not a bad one). As faith becomes undogmatic, it is often difficult to find a stopping point before reaching agnosticism or vague deism; for many people, the only alternative is to put a stop to the slide by prohibiting all skepticism and enabling dogma to reign supreme. It is a fairly well-known phenomenon that clergy from liberal denominations are sometimes much closer to atheism than their congregations would suspect. Years of study at places like Harvard Divinity School leave such preachers with the conviction that most of the traditional Christian edifice of faith is a mixture of myth, superstition and addled history, just as freethinkers have always maintained. For example, consider the teachings of controversial Bishop John Shelby Spong, author of Why Christianity Must Change or Die and other works. His brand of "Christianity" rejects the divinity of Christ, may even reject the historical reality of Christ, and is just a small step away from asserting that the very notion of "God" is empty. His successors may have the courage to take that final step.

Note that I am not advocating an aggressive campaign to persuade religious moderates to leave behind the remnants of their faith as we prepare for the election of 2108. Each conscience must find its own way in its own time. Barring a catastrophic collapse of western civilization, or a furiously oppressive crackdown by the neo-feudal Bush administration and its fundamentalist partisans, people will continue to move in both directions of their own accord. However, there is certainly no point in Democrats' moving toward the center on religious issues in a misguided attempt to appease the hard right. The center is being slowly deserted; it will eventually become a ghost town. Better to make the freethinking zone as welcoming as possible to the citizens who will inevitably arrive.

Terrorism? Blame Alexander

Alexander the Great never conquered the Arabian Peninsula. He died of illness in 323 BC before he had gotten around to executing a campaign against Arabia.
But suppose he had lived a little longer, enough to invade and, in all likelihood, conquer Arabia? Let's do a quick alternate-history inventory of the possible long-term consequences:
  • An at least partially Hellenized Arabia brought into the orbit of the Mediterranean world
  • Arabia as a province of Egypt or another Alexandrian sub-state after Alexander's death
  • Roman control of, or influence over, Arabia as part of the Empire or a pacified ally
  • The introduction of Christianity into Arabia through the Roman Empire, filling the monotheistic vacuum among the Bedouins
  • No rise of Islam
  • No clash between Christian and Islamic civilizations
  • No 21st century Islamic grievances, or Islamist terrorism.
I admit that this is a stretch, but that's the fun of alternate history. Of course, I haven't sketched all the possible consequences of this change -- there's also a plausible "no Islam = no preservation of Greco-Roman learning = no European Renaissance" chain of reasoning that should discourage those of you with time machines from acting precipitously.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Share a Borscht with Karl Rovevich Rovesputin!

Bushkin campaign strategist/masseur/muppetmaster Karl Rovevich Rovesputin agreed to an interview with this reporter shortly after the concession from John Kerry. Clad in his customary flowing black robes, Rovesputin shared his thoughts while enjoying his noonday meal of borscht, turnips and a cat's head. Following are his observations on the campaign, the election results and what America can expect from the next four years of President Bushkin.

We Wrenched Our Necks: Tell us about the mood in the White House on election day when early exit poll results favored Senator Kerry.

Rovesputin: At first, Czpresident Gyorgy seemed a bit rattled by the reports, and it took three Secret Service agents and a dollop of Crisco to pull his head out of the Oval Office goldfish bowl. But the Czpresident quickly stopped sobbing when I explained my three-point plan for seizing victory: (1) Wait for the actual vote counts; (2) ritually slaughter a thousand black goats; (3) e-mail a software "update" to the voting machines.

WWON: What happened when the tide turned and Florida fell to President Bushkin?

Rovesputin: Jubilation naturally ensued. The Czpresident pulled a flask from between his shoulder blades and enjoyed a copious draught of the finest vodka, or perhaps lighter fluid. When he regained consciousness, I saw him reach for the Czpresidentina, but she demurred, noting that she had not yet recovered from her bad 1997 headache.

WWON: Was Vice President Cheney on hand for the victory party?

Rovesputin: Da, da, the Vicious-Czpresident was celebrating most furiously with a wet towel and one of my incense burners. Later, I found him in the White House kitchen dancing naked to the "1812 Overture," but he stopped when I denounced the composer of that scandalous work as a known deviant and harborer of serf-on-serf phantasies. At that point, the Vicious-Czpresident's wife, who had been luxuriating in the walk-in freezer, threw a rock-hard meatloaf at me and expressed her outrage that I had dared to speak of what should not be spoken of concerning Pyotr Ilyich. She then inquired whether I perhaps had his telephone number, which she might pass on to her daughter, who needed a man. When I replied that Tchaikovsky was long dead, she asked simply, "And?"

WWON: You've been accused of masterminding a dirty campaign against Senator Kerry -- lying about the issues, distorting his record, terrifying the electorate. Do you think those tactics are legitimate?

Rovesputin: America said nyet to Kerry because he is an accursed Bolshevik deceiver, not because of our lies, which were steadfast, resolute lies that showed the Czpresident's leadership in the war against truth. Americans respect a man who knows where he stands, even if he does not always know whether he is standing. Our campaign was based the values of the American heartland: death to deviants, death to infanticidal liberals, death to benighted atheists and death to those who would dare to stand against, or in front of, our holy guns. Excuse me, could you pass the tabasco sauce? I've got a hairball. Believe me, this was an exhausting campaign. I can't tell you the number of Black Masses I had to say just to win Ohio.

WWON: What is the Bushkin agenda for the next four years? Will the President continue to govern from the right, or will he move toward the center in an effort to heal the country's deep divisions?

Rovesputin: Czpresident Gyorgy will unite the American people by reaching out in a spirit of fellowship to all those who will prostrate themselves before him utterly. Of course, there can be no compromise with traitors, Bolsheviks or those who would read books in defiance of the Czpresident's example. The Czpresident prays daily for guidance in fulfilling his mandate, and when I'm not too busy combing out my beard, I answer him.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Seeking Solace in Soviet Music

Thoughts on the election result, number 2.

Springsteen, aging '80s bands, folkies and hip-hoppers are OK for firing up the base before the big event, but when the base is weeping post-event, stronger stuff is called for. Listeners looking for hope that the coming dark years can be endured can do no better than opening their ears to the great music written by Soviet composers during the era of totalitarianism.

Sergei Prokofiev is my favorite composer of all time, and Dmitri Shostakovich is in my personal top ten. These two Russian geniuses lived and worked through the hideous repression of Stalinism (and beyond, for Shostakovich; Prokofiev died the same day as Stalin). Somehow they managed to produce many sublime works that combine great abstract beauty with veiled yet deeply felt indictments of the murderous regime under which they toiled.

Both Prokofiev and Shostakovich made their share of artistic compromises in order to avoid the gulag -- Prokofiev's first wife, sadly, actually was sent away -- but the existence of their rabble-rousing works should not discourage anyone from exploring the profound sentiments of their acknowledged masterpieces. Listen to Prokofiev's tragic, ghostly Violin Sonata No. 1 or Shostakovich's savagely bitter String Quartet No. 8, for example. This is music that understands, that expresses, that feels the grief of an absurd, insane, violent world.

Both these composers were supremely gifted in the delicate art of musical satire. With just a few phrases, a single distorted traditional form, they could convey the raging stupidity of an oppressive bureaucracy. Shostakovich's specialty was the deranged waltz; Prokofiev's, the pompous march. No composer in history was more adept at musical mockery.

I also strongly recommend Prokofiev's War Sonatas (Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 7 and 8) for their brilliant and beautiful depiction of a brutal, mechanized world. Although these works are commonly associated with World War II (hence the nickname), they were in fact begun before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, and are probably "about" the idiocy of Stalinism as much as, or more than, the horrors of the war.

In February, as part of our mini-subscription this season, my wife and I will be attending a performance of the Pittsburgh Symphony that will include Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 6. These are sorrowful, devastating works. The purpose of the program is to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, but I will use the occasion as a lesson in how to wrest meaning from an era of absurdity. If those artists could work through Stalinism, we can work through Bushism.

Welcome Back to the Middle Ages

Thoughts on the election result, number 1.

Many historical comparisons have been made to illuminate our nation's dismaying slide deeper and deeper into Bushdom. The case for the religio-conservatives' takeover constituting a type of protofascism is plausibly made by Orcinus, among others. The transformation of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, with its subsequent decline, is another common analogy.

My view is that America is in the process of changing from a modern, secular, information-age republic to a kind of anachronistic, high-tech medieval republic, and perhaps eventually to a high-tech medieval kingdom. Just consider all the elements from the glorious middle ages that, thanks to the G.O.P. and its fundamentalist base, we have reinstituted in the 21st century:
  • A society in which the throne, the church and the military are the most important institutions and are closely intertwined.
  • A ruler chosen by dynastic succession whose "legitimacy" rests not on his abilities or deeds, but on perceived divine anointing.
  • A small class of extraordinarily wealthy and powerful property owners -- the nobles -- who enjoy the favor of the ruler and who control the lives of the rest of the populace.
  • A huge group of subjects -- peasants, serfs, etc. -- who toil for the property owners, have little say over the way their lives are run, and face economic conscription to fight the ruler's wars, yet accept their lot willingly because they believe it is divine will.
  • A militaristic, crusade-oriented approach to foreign diplomacy.
  • Deep, unthinking religious devotion and a powerful disdain for rationalism and learning except when confined to cloistered corners of society.
So, welcome back to the middle ages! Time to start work on a cathedral, I guess. Need some stone?

Sunday, October 24, 2004

News From the Relativity-Based Community

The latest hard-won confirmation of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity came recently when physicists used careful measurements of satellite orbits to show that "frame-dragging" -- a localized twisting of space-time caused by the rotation of a massive body, such as the Earth -- really does occur. More details for those so inclined (which I hope is all of you). This effect is a direct prediction of General Relativity, and was first worked out in 1918, but has never been observed before.

Enjoy this triumph while it lasts, Einstein fans. If George W. Bush is re-elected, our government's attack on science may continue to the point that our cosmology jumps backward in time from relativity to Newtonianism to a pre-Copernican worldview. Maybe even Flat-Earthism! It's GOP elephants all the way down!

Friday, October 22, 2004

Philip Glass Gets Minimal on GOP Ass

Well, sort of. According to the New York Times, Glass is suing the makers of the pro-conservative "documentary" Celsius 41.11 for using his music without permission in TV ads for the film. Glass claims that the GOP propagandists lifted music from his soundtrack to Powaqqatsi for two different commercials.

The hidden irony here -- hidden from the producers, that is, but no doubt hilariously obvious to Glass -- is that it would be difficult to imagine a series of films more antithetical to the Republican view of the world than the three -qatsi documentaries that Glass scored for filmmaker Godfrey Reggio (the other two are Koyaanisqatsi and Naqoyqatsi). Virtually every image in the triology is an indictment of the smug, corporatist and violent way of life cherished by the right wing (though not only by them -- plenty of the rest of us are guilty too). Go Phil!

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Bush Voters Really, Truly In Denial

Opposing sides in hard-fought election campaigns tend to demonize each other. "Those people" can't possibly be so wrong on important issues, goes the thinking, unless they are ignorant, deluded or just plain stupid. (Or evil, but we'll leave Karl Rovevich Rovesputin out of this discussion.) Then some wise talking head will come along and suggest that no, it's unfair to conclude that one side is dumber than the other, and that sometimes the problem is that people simply disagree about fundamental issues.

Well, not this time. All the Democrats and apostate Republicans who wonder how any sane person could support a president with such a self-evidently dismal record of failure and ineptitude now have good, hard data to support their feeling that something is wrong with the Bushies. A stunning report from the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) proves that when it comes to the most important issue in the 2004 presidential race -- the war in Iraq -- Bush supporters are just plain wrong about the facts.

I won't go into detail on the statistics generated by PIPA's survey of voters, but the bottom line is unambiguous. Here are some of PIPA's own statements of its conclusions:
Bush Supporters Still Believe Iraq Had WMD or Major Program, Supported al Qaeda
[Bush supporters] Agree US Should Not Have Gone to War if No WMD or Support for al Qaeda
Bush Supporters Misperceive World Public as Not Opposed to Iraq War, Favoring Bush Reelection

It doesn't matter how many exhaustive reports are issued showing that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and no capability of making them; a majority of Bush supporters want to believe in the myth of WMD, so they do. It doesn't matter that there is zero evidence of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda -- that the absurdity of suggesting a link is so obvious that Dick Cheney felt compelled to lie during the VP debate and deny he'd ever claimed a link existed -- a majority of Bush supporters want to believe in the link, so they do.

PIPA apparently leans toward denial, rather than ignorance or stupidity, as the most likely explanation for the Bushies' persistence in holding false beliefs. Steven Kull, the director of PIPA, put it this way: "To support the president and to accept that he took the US to war based on mistaken assumptions likely creates substantial cognitive dissonance, and leads Bush supporters to suppress awareness of unsettling information about prewar Iraq."

This is not an election in which both sides have equally clear-eyed views of the facts, and just disagree on priorities or values. One side is mostly wrong about what it thinks it sees.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

If Jane Austen Wrote The X-Files

No, I'm not so mired in fangeek nostalgia that I'm still writing X-Files parodies in late 2004. This piece is actually from my glory days as a self-appointed X-Files humorist in the mid-90s. In that era I didn't have a blog, so everything I wrote was simply posted to Usenet, making it onto the Web only through the occasional intervention of an enthusiastic reader. "If Jane Austen Wrote The X-Files" was probably my most popular work, perhaps because there was a pretty substantial overlap between the Austen audience and the X-Files audience. You may call it recycling, but I prefer to think of it as stubbornly repeating myself until everyone gets the message. By the way, the parenthetical references below are part of the original piece.

Fox by Jane Austen [abridged version]

Fox Mulder, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly thirty-five years in the world with very little to distress or vex him, save the occasional disappearance or demise of a close relation or trusted confidant.

He was the oldest of two children of a most affectionate, indulgent mother, and had, in consequence of his sister's interplanetary elopement, been master of his house from a very early period. His father had left too long ago for him to have more than an indistinct remembrance of his presence, despite hypnotherapy, and his place had been supplied by an excellent man as guardian, who had fallen little short of a father in affection, though he tended to wallow in a fondness for tobacco that knew no satiety.

* * *

Pendrell was standing at one of the windows. Fox turned round to look at him in consternation and hastily said, "Have you any idea of Agent Scully's returning your affection?"

"Yes," replied Pendrell modestly but not fearfully, although his trousers were soiled, "I must say that I have."

Fox's eyes were instantly withdrawn; and he sat silently meditating in a fixed attitude for a few minutes. A few minutes were sufficient for making him acquainted with his own heart. A mind like his, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress; he touched, he admitted, he acknowledged, the whole truth. Why was it so much worse that Pendrell should be in love with Agent Scully than with Deep Throat? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Pendrell's having some hope of a return? It darted through him with the speed of an arrow that Agent Scully must marry no one but himself!

How long had Agent Scully been so dear to him, as every feeling declared her now to be? When had her influence, such influence begun? When had she succeeded to that place in his affection which Deep Throat had once, for a short period, occupied? He looked back; he compared the two -- compared them, as they had always stood in his estimation, Scully a little shorter, from the time of the latter's becoming known to him -- and as they must at any time have been compared by him had it -- oh! had it, by any blessed felicity -- occurred to him to institute the comparison. He saw that there never had been a time when he did not consider Agent Scully as infinitely the superior or when her regard for him had not been infinitely the most dear, well, except perhaps for the occasion on which he had abandoned her to the wiles of the gentleman with the sharp stylus. He saw that in persuading himself, in fancying, in acting to the contrary, he had been entirely under a delusion, totally ignorant of his own heart -- and, in short, that he had never really cared for Deep Throat at all!

Agent Scully and Pendrell! It was a union to distance every wonder of the kind. Such an elevation on his side! Such a debasement on hers! And yet it was far, very far, from impossible. Was it a new circumstance for a woman of first-rate abilities to be captivated by very inferior powers? Was it new for one, perhaps too busy to seek, to be the prize of a man who would seek her? Was it new, at least since Roswell, for anything in this world to be unequal, inconsistent, incongruous -- or for chance and circumstance and massive conspiracies to direct the human fate?

[the manuscript becomes illegible at this point]

Coming next: Sixth Sense and Sensibility

Monday, October 18, 2004

Elmer Fudd Endorses Bush

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania tossed Ralph Nader off the state's presidential election ballot last week because the nominating petitions submitted by the Nader campaign contained thousands of phony signatures, including those of Mickey Mouse and Fred Flintstone.

Not to be outdone, Bush campaign strategist/masseur/Muppetmaster Karl Rovevich Rovesputin announced today that the Bush/Cheney ticket has earned the endorsements of an impressive slate of cartoon characters.

"America's top toons recognize that George W. Bush is a resolute man of iron and that John Kerry is an accursed Bolshevik deceiver," said Rovesputin. "Even the celluloid community is backing the Czpresident over that verminous Trotskyite princeling. Oops, gotta run -- I've got a Black Mass at noon."

The cartoon characters endorsing President Bush include (with comments leaked by one of Rovesputin's disgruntled serfs):

Elmer Fudd -- Inspires Second Amendment true believers; no wascally Democwats will confiscate his 12-gauge unless they pry it from his cold, dead, three-fingered hands. Helps shore up W's low-IQ base. Stridently supports anti-gay marriage amendment in order to camouflage closeted attraction to wabbits in drag.

Brutus, a/k/a Bluto -- Fires up Big Energy as he roars in rage at anyone who would stand in the way of his lust for Oyl. Loves to launch sneaky low blows against sailors who eat their vegetables, but always pays the price in the end by absorbing savage paunch-pummeling.

Yosemite Sam -- A rootin' tootin' jingoist who will wholeheartedly and halfheadedly back any military misadventure. A staunch advocate of the Bush doctrine: "Shoot foot first, ask questions later."

Scrooge McDuck -- As key Bush economic advisor, helped develop master plan for deficit reduction, jobs creation and economic growth: Fill large room to ceiling with shiny gold coins. Invite wealthy friends over. Dive in!

Wile E. Coyote -- Support from this well-known supergenius and outdoorsman should increase the President's standing among both eggheads, i.e., those who can read, and cactus-hugging environmentalists. His "ACME Instant Desert Tree-Dissolving Bomb" touted by Bush administration as milestone in healthy forests management.

Dick Dastardly -- No need to endorse Bush; is already on the ticket.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Screamin' Jay Sells Jeans

Most advertisements for blue jeans are either moronically sexual -- e.g., a young, jeans-clad couple faces a herd of buffalo stampeding through the city -- or embarrassingly banal, e.g., people go for a hike or go fishing while wearing jeans! But I admit that my attention is always riveted when I see (or hear, more precisely) the new Levi's ad featuring the song "I Put A Spell On You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins. The spot is mysterious, slightly creepy and slightly amusing at the same time, and even the fraction of the song heard is mesmerizing. Makes me want to add Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise to the Netflix queue for a reviewing.

Guide to Cool Contemporary Rock

Here is a guide to notable releases in the '00s by a selection of up-and-coming rock bands. What these groups have in common -- besides hype -- is a rejection of the evolving grunge/nu-metal/emo aesthetic of the '90s in favor of older styles from the '60s, '70s and '80s: garage, punk, new wave, and postpunk (and Southern rock in one case!). For purposes of comparison, I've also included ratings for three suddenly resurgent '80s bands: Mission of Burma, Sonic Youth and The Cure.

Exceptional, possibly great (time will tell)
Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day
The Hives, Veni, Vidi, Vicious
Interpol, Turn On the Bright Lights
Mission of Burma, OnOffOn
The White Stripes, Elephant

Enjoyable and entertaining
The Cure, The Cure
Drive-By Truckers, Southern Rock Opera
Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand
The Hives, Tyrannosaurus Hives
Interpol, Antics
The New Pornographers, Electric Version
Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse
The Stills, Logic Will Break Your Heart
The Strokes, Is This It
The Strokes, Room on Fire
The White Stripes, White Blood Cells
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell

Forgettable or annoying
Hot Hot Heat, Make Up the Breakdown
The Rapture, Echoes
Spoon, Kill the Moonlight
Stellastarr*, Stellastarr*
The Vines, Highly Evolved

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Bush's Crusade Destroying Christians

If God sent George W. Bush to Iraq, as Bush and his fundamentalist Christian supporters believe, then God shot himself in the foot.

A report on CNN today makes clear that Bush's crusade in Iraq is having an unintended but disastrous side-effect: the destruction of the Christian community in Iraq, one of the oldest in the world. The recent spate of church bombings in Iraq is only one of the attacks against Iraqi Christians, who are being persecuted for their perceived closeness to Western culture and their non-Muslim dress and cultural habits. Christians are coming increasing pressure to renounce their religion. Now, I can testify from personal experience that renunciation of religion can be truly liberating, but being forced to give up one's faith is to suffer one of the worst crimes that our species can commit.

For many Iraqi Christians, it appears that staying in the country is no longer an option. People are just trying to survive long enough to emigrate. This is the hell that Bush's war has unleashed on his co-religionists. The fact that the bombers and persecutors are evil does not relieve Bush of his own responsibility for their crimes, since he chose to unleash the forces in Iraq that are now ravaging the country.

Bringing chaos instead of order, destruction instead of justice, persecution instead of tolerance -- these are the accomplishments of a leader?

Amphibian Armageddon

The most frightening news of the past week -- worse than the continuing calamity in Iraq, the lousy economic prognosis or the fact that millions of Americans still plan to vote for George W. Bush -- was the release of a study concluding that almost one-third of all known amphibian species worldwide are "threatened," i.e., going extinct rapidly or going extinct a little more slowly. They're all about to croak! Something in the environment has gone horribly wrong, and we have only the beginnings of guesses as to what it could be.

This is the kind of announcement that, if we had a decent government, would be met with a slightly panicky but resolute determination to get to the bottom of the problem and do what is still possible to reverse the decline. Too bad it's also the kind of announcement that elicits nothing more than a dismissive snort from the current administration. "Toads?! Ooh -- eye of newt!" Of course, biologists have been issuing warnings about amphibians' mysterious difficulties for 10-15 years but have never gotten any traction in Washington.

When most people think of the biosphere -- if they think of it at all -- they probably picture it as a sort of gigantic mosaic, with each species of animal, plant or microorganism represented by a single tile in an array of millions. If a species goes extinct, it just leaves a tiny hole. Even if a large group of species disappears, the only problem is an empty patch that's still relatively small compared to the picture as a whole. The mosaic still "works."

The terrible flaw in the mosaic metaphor, obviously, is that its simplistic representation of life fails to convey the huge degree of interconnectedness of species, and the chaotic nature of the biosphere. At some point, removing a species or a group of species does more than leave an unsightly but tolerable vacancy -- it causes many other neighboring species and groups of species to come tumbling down in a cascade of death and disaster. And we have no idea what that point is. The next salamander squished could be the salamander that breaks the biosphere's back, and takes us along with it.

Steal This Meme!

George Washington: Couldn't tell a lie.
Dick Cheney: Can't tell the truth.
George W. Bush: Can't tell the difference.

Actually, please give me credit since this is a brand-new blog that needs to find its way in the world, out among the "Internets."