Tuesday, August 30, 2005

In Politics, Morality Loses

Picking up on this commentary by Peter Daou, Digby of Hullabaloo (now probably my favorite left-of-center blog) makes a strong argument for the moral underpinnings of the liberal stance on Iraq, the "war on terror," and foreign policy in general, and, conversely, against the fundamental amorality of a conservative administration that claims the right to invade a country, kills tens of thousands of civilians, destroy the government and the local infrastructure, and transform the nation into a breeding ground for terrorism, all for our own benefit--so that we can "fight them over there instead of over here."

Here's the key paragraph of Digby's post:

I think this is a good way for liberals to think about our government and how the world works. And it can even be done in simple, common sense terms that may just resonate with those who wonder what it is we stand for. And aside from the fact that an amoral superpower is a country not worth living in and one that shames all of us who live within it, moral authority leads to material good as well. A great country behaving in an immoral way makes that country weaker, not stronger. Allies mistrust it and are reluctant to join forces. Enemies are emboldened, not cowed, because they see the country behaving in an almost desperate fashion and perceive that it is much weaker than it is. And when leaders of the most powerful country in the world leave the impression that they care nothing for the world's opinion, the world begins to see that country as a potential enemy instead of a friend.

I'm with Digby (and Daou) on the substance of this issue. I share Digby’s outrage over the Republicans’ success at expropriating words like “morality” and “values” to cloak their evil policies and bamboozle unwary Christian voters into identifying faith with twenty-first-century conservativism.

But I’d be very worried about taking the next step and assuming that reclaiming “morality” for the Democrats (especially in regard to foreign policy) is a winning political position. Unfortunately, I think all the evidence points the opposite way.

In part, the problem lies in the word “morality” itself, which has been rendered almost useless by conservatives’ relentless association of it with private sexual behavior. Current shorthand makes “moral values” synonymous with abortion, gay marriage, and abstinence-only education. I bet most people would be at least briefly confused even to hear the word “morality” used in the same sentence as “war in Iraq.” In a world of soundbites and slogans, this is no small problem.

But there’s a larger problem. To grossly generalize, Americans surely like to think of their country as “good.” In fact, decades of self-congratulatory propaganda have made it almost impossible for any sizeable fraction of the population to even imagine that America could ever do anything “bad.” After all, don’t we all “know” that America invented democracy, that America saved the world from the Nazis and the Japs, that Americans give more to help the world’s needy than anyone else, that America bends over backward to open doors of opportunity for minorities and women, that America has the best health care system in the world, and that poor people in America live in greater comfort than middle-class people elsewhere? Never mind that many of these “facts” aren’t true—“we” believe them.

This designation of our country as “America the good” has become the virtually official position of our culture, as reflected in its ritual acknowledgment in every newscast or political speech. So even raising in public the possibility that the US might be doing something “immoral” in Iraq, or that we need to seriously and painfully examine our behavior there in order to judge its “morality,” is to challenge an assumption that is deeply ingrained in our culture. Getting a hearing for this position would be an uphill battle—especially since it involves a challenge to the audience’s amour propre, which is never a recipe for popular success.

To make matters worse, there’s an equally ingrained assumption (which subtly contradicts the assumption about American “goodness” yet somehow coexists with it) that, in matters of foreign affairs, “morality” equals wimpiness.

Most Americans (again generalizing wildly) readily accept the idea that we live in “a dangerous world,” filled with evil, violent, hateful people (many of them dark-skinned or slant-eyed) and well-meaning but effete appeasers (i.e., Europeans) who wouldn’t lift a finger to defend themselves, let alone us. In such a world, we “good” Americans have no choice but to fight back against the “dangerous” ones by any means necessary. If that means transgressing the lines of “morality” drawn by schoolmarms, ministers, or philosophers, so be it. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, God helps those who help themselves, etc. etc.

The deep acceptance of this assumption at the heart of our culture helps to explain why, when besieged by foreign enemies and dissenters at home, Americans in the late 1960s and 1970s turned not to the “wimpish” moralist George McGovern (with his wistful cry of “Come Home, America!”) but to the “tough-minded” Richard Nixon and his tutor in realpolitik, Henry Kissinger. (Never mind the fact that the “tough-minded realists” had no more idea of what to do about Vietnam than
the “intellectuals” or “idealists,” and that Nixon and Kissinger’s policies prolonged the war, cost tens of thousands of American lives, and did nothing to prevent a Communist takeover of Vietnam. Total failure doesn't shake the believers in “toughness” and “staying the course,” as Iraq is proving yet again.)

The cult of toughness also explains why, for every American who applauded antiwar movies like Born on the Fourth of July, three cheered on the exploits of ass-kickers like Stallone’s Rambo, Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and Bronson’s avenging killer Paul Kersey—mean guys who didn’t hesitate to violate rules, procedures, and the dictates of “morality” in pursuit of violent retributive “justice.”

In the last fifty years, only one presidential candidate has won by appealing to Americans' sense of morality. That candidate, of course, was Jimmy Carter. He won in 1976 only because of the prolonged episode of national retching that followed the Watergate scandal—not due to Nixon’s “immorality” (although I would apply that word) but because of his obvious paranoia and near psychological breakdown. And four years later, Carter was swept out of office, in large part because the Republicans (and the media) convinced voters that his concerns about America's “moral and spiritual crisis,” his calls for energy conservation, and his failure to somehow “take out” the Iranian hostage-takers (at whatever cost to the safety of the hostages themselves) were all signs of his “weakness” and “wimpishness.” It was time for another “tough guy,” in this case a fellow who’d shown (in the movies) that, when necessary, he could punch out a bad guy and do it with a smile.

So I'm with you, Digby, on the substance of this one--but not on the politics. We need to find some way of selling our positions on Iraq and America’s place in the world that doesn’t turn on the word “morality.” In electoral politics, morality is a loser.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Religion + Power = Pat Robertson

The red line people try to draw between religion and politics is really a false one. You can tell this by the fact that everyone wants to draw the line in a different place with a different set of exceptions. People on the right don't hesitate to ascribe policies on the income tax, the UN, and eminent domain to Jesus, but bemoan the way radical leftists have (in their view) taken over the mainstream Protestant churches. Meanwhile, we on the left are horrified when Catholic bishops denounce John Kerry's stand on abortion and Southern Baptist churches distribute Republican literature, but we lionize the great clergymen and -women who helped lead the civil rights and antiwar movements.

There really is no intellectually consistent way to separate religion from politics. If you take religion seriously (no matter what faith you subscribe to), its moral, ethical, and social implications inevitably affect your politics one way or another--and often several ways at once.

So the red line between religion and politics is phony. The real dividing line, I'd contend, is between religion and power.

When religion serves the powerless, the results are edifying, inspiring, and, not coincidentally, consistent with the historical roots of faith. After all (to focus on Christianity for the moment), Jesus and his followers lived among the poor and dispossessed in an arid land occupied by hostile imperial forces. Jesus was not a counselor to kings, generals, or tycoons; he was an advocate of widows, children, the blind and the lame. And when he spoke about wealth or politics, his theme was always helping the needy, bringing justice to the oppressed, and avoiding the corrupting lures of money and power.

On the other hand, when religion serves the powerful, the results are horrific. Naturally so--because the first imperative of power (whether it's held by an unelected potentate, an elected official, or a group or class of people) is to hold onto power and continually solidify that control. Once maintaining power becomes a goal, it almost inevitably becomes the goal--because when the demands of power and the demands of conscience clash (as they always eventually do), the leader who responds to conscience loses his or her grip on power and rejoins the "outs."

For example, it's becoming increasingly clear, with a generational perspective, that the long-term decline of the Democratic Party in the US in the second half of the twentieth century was caused most fundamentally not by the perceived weakness of the party on defense or by social issues like abortion but by the commitment to civil rights established as Democratic doctrine by Lyndon Johnson between 1964 and 1967. The Republican tide began to sweep the (white) South with Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" in 1968, and a solid Republican South has been the cornerstone of that party's national dominance ever since.

Thus does choosing conscience over power, at crucial moments in history, lead to a loss of power. But that only makes sense--after all, that's the meaning of "to choose," right?

Conversely, those who seek power must be prepared to do what it takes to maintain and extend it. This is especially true for American leaders in this age of the "single superpower," an age not unlike Jesus's lifetime when Rome bestrode the then-known world.

To continue its current profligate lifestyle, America needs a constant influx of resources from the rest of the world, including poor workers from Mexico and the Caribbean, cheap products from Asia and Latin America, capital from China, and above all oil from the Middle East and a handful of other suppliers (like Venezuela). Any "responsible" overseer of the American empire must be prepared to do what's necessary to keep those flows coming at a reasonable cost. This includes diplomatic power plays, military attacks and invasions, and leveraging our clout to maintain a tilted playing field in the economic arena.

And if it also includes an occasional assassination--say, the killing of the leader of a relatively powerless South American dictator whose major crime is threatening to disrupt the flow of cheap oil to the United States--that's just one more small reality of power.

Yes, it's unseemly for a supposed man of God like Pat Robertson to call for the murder of another human being. But the fact that Pat Robertson wants the US to murder leaders who stand in its way is the inevitable result of the fact that Pat Robertson has chosen to be chaplain to the world's most powerful people (a role in which it's very hard to picture Jesus).

And let me be clear: When I say, "the world's most powerful people," I don't just mean the conservative Republicans who currently run the government, but all of us who live in, benefit from, and support the American empire. To the extent that we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of being the world's economic, political, and military superpower without assuming the commensurate moral responsibilities, we also join Robertson in wanting our agents around the globe to do whatever it takes to maintain our privileges. We just don't want to hear the messy details.

In the end, the only difference between Pat Robertson and someone like the aging Billy Graham (recent subject of many fawning tributes in connection with his last "crusade" in New York City) is that Graham has usually had the good sense and tact to avoid talking publicly about the crude realities of power. But either way, the result is the same: A clergyman who chooses to serve Caesar rather than Jesus eventually becomes a teacher of Caesarism rather than Christianity.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

It's Midnight and My Team Is Calling

Most summer nights I find it hard to go to sleep without knowing whether my Mets have won or lost. It's especially hard when they're hanging around the pennant race as they are this year. But last night I was exhausted and a little under the weather, and the Mets were playing in Arizona, which meant the game wouldn't even start till 9:40 p.m. I turned off my bedside lamp at 8:30 and fell asleep almost immediately.


Woke up in the darkness several hours later and felt instantly lucid, as sometimes happens when I go to sleep very early. Checked out the LED clock on the front of the cable box and saw it was exactly midnight. Wow, I thought, the Mets game is two hours and twenty minutes old. Probably in the late innings.

I tiptoed out of the room so as not to wake Mary-Jo and turned on the TV in the family room. The stat line at the top of the screen told the story: INNING 9 OUTS 2 METS 4 ARIZONA 1. At that exact moment a Diamondbacks batter facing Braden Looper lofted a routine fly ball to Carlos Beltran in centerfield. Final out of the game. I watched the Mets congratulate one another as the announcer gave a quick recap of the scoring: two-run double by Floyd, homers by Reyes and Diaz.

I was back in bed falling asleep with a smile on my face by 12:02.

P.S. Since this event, the Mets have kept winning--now five straight (on the road no less) including back-to-back blowouts in which they scored a total of 32 runs. Sure is fun to have your team get hot in late August after stumbling through June and July--rather than the reverse.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Friday, August 19, 2005

The More Things Change

When we look around at the cruelty, greed, dishonesty, and cynicism rampant in the world, there's a natural tendency to feel that things must be worse now than ever before. Funnily enough, this tendency is bolstered by vanity; as Robert Frost wrote (way back in 1935), "We have no way of knowing that this age is one of the worst in the world's history. . . . It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God."

The truth is that world is pretty bad, always has been, and probably always will be. Which is not to say that life isn't worth reveling in, or that the good fights aren't worth fighting. It is, and they are.

All of which brings me to my latest summer book report.

While reading an advance copy of The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate by historian Lewis Gould (to be published by Basic Books in November), I was struck repeatedly by contemporary echoes in the stories Gould tells from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. For example, consider what happened in 1935 when President Roosevelt proposed that the US should participate in the World Court at The Hague (one of the internationalist initiatives of Wilson that had been shot down by conservative isolationists after World War I). The proposal would need to be approved by two thirds of the Senate:

By the end of the month, when Majority Leader Robinson scheduled a vote for the following Tuesday, January 27, it seemed as if the administration had prevailed. Over the weekend, however, the combined efforts of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the homespun humorist and political columnist Will Rogers, and the right-wing radio commentator Father Charles E. Coughlin produced a deluge of messages and letters from constituents to wavering lawmakers which changed the outcome. When the votes were cast, the pro-World Court coalition fell seven votes short of the needed two thirds.

Talk about a vast right-wing conspiracy! Just substitute the names Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, and Jerry Falwell for Hearst, Rogers, and Coughlin, and it could be a story from today. All the familiar elements are there: the manufactured fake "outrage" over a proposed liberal policy; the imprimatur of religion (as if Jesus would take a position on the World Court); the grass-roots wingnuts ready for overnight mobilization; and the cross-media coordination around the "issue of the day," all centered on bullying a timid Congress into doing the bidding of the far right.

Now for a more recent example. Gould's recounting, from a senatorial perspective, of the notorious 1964 Tonkin Gulf episode is a reminder of just how egregious an abuse of presidential power it was. As Gould explains, this international crisis grew out of an attack on the US that may have been wholly fabricated:

Whether the shelling of the Navy vessels [by North Vietnamese forces] had actually occurred or not was unclear at the time, but Johnson seized the opportunity to obtain congressional authorization both for an immediate retaliation against North Vietnam and for what amounted to a blank check in Southeast Asia to wage war as he deemed best.

Using his patented arm-twisting techniques, Johnson got J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, to ramrod the Tonkin Gulf Resolution through the Senate, allowing minimal debate and no investigation of the facts on the ground. Johnson went on to use this hastily-passed resolution to justify a war that would last a decade and cost over 55,000 American lives (as well as countless Vietnamese).

In the process, Johnson became the first of four presidents in my lifetime who clearly deserved impeachment on legal, constitutional, and moral grounds (none of them named Bill Clinton, BTW).

Hmm . . . an arrogant president dragging the US into a pointless war based on phony premises . . . where have I heard that one lately?

Historical parallels like these don't make me feel much better about the America of George W. Bush. But I take a modicum of comfort from this thought: Somehow we survived the 30s and the 60s, despite the worst efforts of people like Hearst and Coughlin and Johnson. Somehow we'll survive today, too.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Please Shut Up, Jeff Greenfield

While jogging on my basement treadmill during the afternoon, I generally rove among several TV channels, including CNN, VH1, MTV, and AMC or TNT (if there's a good movie on). I flip most frequently to CNN. But today, to my chagrin, instead of the usual political chat-chat on CNN (which is at least entertaining if sometimes annoying), there was wall-to-wall coverage of the sentencing of serial killer Dennis Rader.

Now, please. Cable TV's obsession with the trial-of-the-week (which of course is always "the trial of the century") bores me to tears, because here is where the ratio of relevant information to sheer melodramatic gush reaches its lowest ebb. I find I can glean all the significant data about these trials in about fifteen seconds. Michael Jackson is a sleazy kook. Scott Peterson is shifty-eyed and looks guilty. And Dennis Rader is a deeply sick, evil man. Do I really need hours of reporting to spell out in elaborate detail exactly how kooky Michael Jackson is, how shifty-eyed Scott Peterson is, and how sick and evil Dennis Rader is? Not really. Nor do I find graphic descriptions of revolting crimes entertaining (I don't go to horror pictures, either).

However, as I surfed back to CNN this afternoon (hoping they'd finally abandoned the Dennis Rader Show and brought on Paul Begala or James Carville to talk about Cindy Sheehan), my interest was piqued by seeing Jeff Greenfield on the set.

I generally like Greenfield's political commentary (although like CNN in general he's been slowly drifting rightward in recent years). But today he was talking about the Dennis Rader case. And after making an observation about "the banality of evil" (the phrase itself has become awfully banal), he launched a theme that actually made me furious. The Dennis Rader case, he opined, would make even opponents of the death penalty rethink their position. After all, why should this man go on living and telling his story to the world? "And which publisher," Greenfield wondered aloud, shaking his head in disgust, "will be the first to offer this monster a book contract?"

Wolf Blitzer picked up on this notion, later asking one of the prosecutors in the case whether there would be any legal impediment to Dennis Rader writing books about his crimes (he got a vague answer) and adding a couple of other remarks about how outrageous it was that Rader should be permitted to revel in his killings in that way.

Well, Dennis Rader is (once again) a sick and evil character. But if Jeff Greenfield and Wolf Blitzer think that book publishers will be lining up to offer him a contract they are full of crap.

In his commentary, Greenfield mentioned several of the most notorious serial killers in history--John Wayne Gacy, Theodore Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Jeffrey Dahmer. None of them has ever had a book published. (You might recall that Kazynski's rambling attack on modern technology was printed in some newspapers, at his demand; it was never published in book form.) And when I scanned the list of hundreds of books about serial killers that are available on Amazon (evidently it's a popular subject), I found that none of them are by a serial killer. Many, many of them claim to offer a glimpse "inside the mind of a serial killer," but they are by journalists, detectives, or what have you--not the killers themselves.

The closest thing I could find to a serial killer's autobiography was something called Final Truth, which is an as-told-to book written by someone named Wilton Earle and based on interviews with a killer named Donald Gaskins. It was published in 1992 by a company called Adept, which I've never heard of and cannot find a website for. We're not talking Simon & Schuster or Random House here.

As someone who has made a living in book publishing for the past twenty years, I deeply resent the implication by Greenfield and Blitzer that mainstream publishers have been profiting by publishing the writings of serial killers. It's a lie.

And coming from two high-paid commentators on CNN, it's especially galling. If anyone in the media is making money from crime stories, it's the cable TV networks. They are the ones who are filling hours of air time with endless regurgitation of details about stories like the Rader killings and the Natalee Holloway disappearance--the more gory and salacious the better--interspersed with outraged cries for revenge, denunciations of "soft" judges and juries, and paeans to the death penalty. Now there are entire networks (Court TV) devoted completely to gladiatorial courtroom combat, and TV stars (Catherine Crier and Nancy Grace) who have built entire careers around titillating crime reportage.

God knows we book publishers have our flaws. But we don't deserve sneers about our professional standards from the folks at CNN.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Friday, August 12, 2005

Would-Be Senator Pirro Comes Out Firing Blanks

For an experienced politician, Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro has gotten her US Senate candidacy off to a surprisingly rocky start.

It's not much fun when your campaign announcement is almost immediately overshadowed by a story about mob-connected businessmen among your past contributors.

And it doesn't help matters when the chief rationale for your candidacy seems to be the complaint (as quoted in The Washington Post) that your opponent is focused on running for president rather than doing her job as a senator:

"New York deserves a senator who has New York's interests at heart," Pirro told a standing-room-only gaggle of local and national media people at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Midtown Manhattan. "Not the divided loyalties of one seeking to satisfy the needs of people in Iowa, New Hampshire or Florida. You can't run for two offices at once," she added.

It's a little hard to see how this charge is going to resonate, given the following facts:

(1) Hillary has not declared that she is running for president, set up an exploratory committee, talked about it with the media, or otherwise shown any interest in running.

(2) Hillary has not even visited Iowa or New Hampshire in the current presidential cycle, unlike such Republicans as Senator Bill Frist and Governors George Pataki, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee, all of whom presumably will soon be denounced by Pirro for neglecting their current duties.

(3) Virtually everyone, Democratic and Republican, who has examined Hillary's performance as a senator has observed that she does her homework, contributes to the legislative process, and defends the interests of New Yorkers. Since her election Hillary has released her inner wonk, boning up on local issues and spending time with voters from all around the state, including some of the most boring rural enclaves you can imagine.

In other words, Pirro's complaints about Hillary ignoring her constituents will ring hollow with anyone who doesn't instinctively froth at the mouth at the mere mention of the name "Clinton." Since Hillary has done nothing to fuel the presidential rumors, Pirro is in effect asking voters to punish the popular incumbent for being talked about by the Washington press.

This strikes me as a pretty slender reed on which to build a campaign.

Because we live in Westchester County (in Bill and Hillary's home town, as it happens), we hear a lot about Jeanine Pirro. She is telegenic and appears in the local media continually, promoting herself and various causes she thinks will appeal to soccer moms (like discouraging teenage drinking). But she is a lightweight--comparable politically to former Representative Susan Molinaro--and her ultimate gig is more likely to be an appointive office in Washington on an expanded role as a commentator on Fox News.

Democrats shouldn't get giddy, however. Hillary's lead will get a lot smaller than thirty points before November 2006. The current poll numbers (and the dismissive news coverage) perfectly set up a spate of "Feisty underdog putting a scare in Hillary" stories next May, when the polls show a margin of 55-45 or thereabouts. If Pirro can trim Clinton's final victory lead to ten points or less, and perhaps land a couple of blows that suggest a vulnerable spot or two, she'll have earned whatever reward the national Repugs have promised her for running.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Unsung Heroes: Black Business Pioneers

It's not often that I find articles in Fortune magazine inspiring, but that's the right word for this story about some virtually unknown civil rights pioneers--six men who were among the first Black executives at leading US companies. The article, by Cora Daniels (which required nearly a year of research), is a powerful reminder of what Black Americans went through just a couple of generations ago: routine institutionalized discrimination, casual slights, and vicious abuse--like the KKK flyers distributed nationwide in 1962 when Harvey C. Russell became the first vice president of a Fortune 500 company: DON'T BUY PEPSI-COLA AND MAKE A NIGGER RICH.

The story is also an important reminder of some truths many Americans in the year 2005 find unpalatable:

1. Legal and social equality for all is not a long-standing American tradition. Just two generations ago, the majority of whites, North and South, opposed it, threw up roadblocks to it, and accepted it only under duress.

2. Government played, and plays, a vital role in ending discrimination. US corporations didn't start recruiting Black managers in the 1960s due to some change of heart or out of "political correctness." As Fortune notes,

It wasn't until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that a handful of black men began trickling into the executive suite. (Black women weren't represented in any numbers until well into the 1980s.)

One of the pioneers profiled in the article, James "Bud" Ward, had a stalled corporate career until the Civil Rights Act forced creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ward leveraged the change into a job as a diversity consultant and eventually, having won the chance to demonstrate his business prowess, rose to senior VP at Marriott. If there'd never been a Civil Rights Act, Ward might have spent his whole career managing dinky motels in the South.

3. Whites didn't reject Blacks for corporate jobs because they lacked qualifications. When Bud Ward graduated from Cornell's hotel management school in 1952, his white classmates got numerous job offers from leading hotel chains. Ward got two offers--one from a small New Jersey restaurant and one from a hotel in Saudi Arabia. The other men profiled in the article were also highly credentialed. They had to outcompete less-well-qualified whites for years before being offered a chance at a top job.

4. The chief legacy of the 1960s is not moral decline, family breakdown, or social decay. It's the long-overdue recognition (by most Americans, at least) that our country had failed miserably at living up to its creed of freedom--and the determination to finally do something about it.

In the decades since then, we've painfully struggled to expand that understand to include other marginalized groups--women, Latinos, the handicapped, Indians, gays and lesbians. But the change started with a few brave Black pioneers in the sixties. And (dare I say it?) many of those who bewail the influence of that much-maligned decade do so because, in their heart of hearts, they're nostalgic for a time when they (or their families) were the "ins" and enjoyed the privilege of pissing on the "outs." That's the kind of "traditional values" too many Americans are still most comfortable with.

Thanks for the reminder, Fortune.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Once Again: The Bible Is Not a Science Text

In this piece on Slate, Jacob Weisberg tries to show why religion and evolution are fundamentally incompatible. I'm with Weisberg on his policy prescriptions--like most sensible people, he opposes having science classes teach "intelligent design" ("creationism in a cheap tuxedo," as one teacher calls it). But he's wrong about evolution and God being irreconcilable concepts. Here's why.

Weisberg starts with a statistical argument:

Look at this 1993 NORC survey: In the United States, 63 percent of the public believed in God and 35 percent believed in evolution. In Great Britain, by comparison, 24 percent of people believed in God and 77 percent believed in evolution. You can believe in both—but not many people do.

First of all, even if it were true that relatively few people believe in both evolution and God, that wouldn't prove that the two concepts are in fact logically exclusive. The negative correlation could simply reflect cultural and social patterns. Most people in Massachusetts voted for Kerry and root for the Boston Red Sox. That doesn't demonstrate any logical contradiction between being a Red Sox fan and a Republican.

What's more, the statistics Weisberg cites don't necessarily support his conclusion that "not many people believe in both" God and evolution. It's true that the numbers he mentions for each set of believers appear roughly complementary: 63 + 35 equals a sum close to 100, as does 24 + 77. But that doesn't necessarily mean that, in the real world, there is little or no overlap between the two groups. To know that, you'd have to cross-check each individual respondent, which the original pollsters Weisberg cites didn't do. So Weisberg is jumping to a conclusion unsupported by the data--a pretty basic logical error that seriously undermines his statistic argument.

Weisberg then tries to make a more substantive argument--that the fundamental concepts underlying evolution and religious belief are logically incompatible. He cites some people who believe this to be true (such as Samuel Wilberforce, the British bishop who attacked Origin of Species in an 1860 review) and sums up his argument this way:

To be sure, there are plenty of scientists who believe in God, and even Darwinists who call themselves Christians. But the acceptance of evolution diminishes religious belief in aggregate for a simple reason: It provides a better answer to the question of how we got here than religion does.

Two things here. First, one would think that the existence of significant numbers of scientists who find evolution and religion perfectly compatible would seriously undercut both Weisberg's statistical argument and his quoting of a handful of religious leaders, like Wilberforce, who think they aren't compatible. What makes Wilberforce a more reliable authority on the question than the Christians who disagree with him? Weisberg doesn't say, and so the two sets of authorities simply cancel one another out.

But the nub of the issue is this: When Weisberg writes that evolution "provides a better answer to the question of how we got here than religion does," he is misinterpreting the purpose of religion. As I've explained before, religion--specifically Christianity--is not a primitive form of science, seeking to explain the physical, chemical, and biological mechanisms by which living things came to be and developed over time. Rather, it's an exploration of the philosophical and spiritual issues underlying human existence: What is the purpose of life? What is the nature of good and evil? How should human beings relate to the universe and to one another? These are religious questions, not scientific ones.

It's true that the Book of Genesis includes legendary material from ancient Jewish tradition that deals with topics now generally addressed by scientists. In the same way, other parts of the Bible refer to material that historians, geographers, and archeologists now study. Some of this scientific, historical, geographic, and archeological material is accurate, while some isn't--which has nothing to do with the validity of the core message of the Bible.

Remember, when Jesus was asked to summarize holy scripture, he didn't respond with the cosmology of Genesis or a technical analysis of how God designed the human nervous system. He said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27). That's the essence of Christianity, not the tale of the six-days' creation from Jewish folklore.

Oddly enough, Weisberg ends up making the same mistake that Christian fundamentalists make. The only difference is, where the fundies say that the science of the Bible is correct, Weisberg says it's wrong. He'd be right if the Bible were a science text in the first place--but it's not. That's why millions of us are Christians in our faith and Darwinians in our science, and find no contradiction between the two.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What Is It About Those Finns?

Here's a lively, detailed article by Robert G. Kaiser in the Washington Post about Finland's network of publicly-financed social services--day care, medical care, education through graduate school--and the social, cultural, and psychological differences between the US and Finland that may help to explain the absence of such services in our country.

Like many commentators on this topic, Kaiser suggests that American diversity is one reason we've never developed a European-style social welfare state. Finland, he writes,

. . . is ethnically and religiously homogeneous. A strong Lutheran work ethic, combined with a powerful sense of probity, dominates the society. Homogeneity has led to consensus: Every significant Finnish political party supports the welfare state and, broadly speaking, the high taxation that makes it possible.

As I say, this is a common enough observation. But less common is any discussion of why having a diverse society makes it harder to win support for universal social services. The embarrassing answer is racial and ethnic prejudice.

I say this because I remember seeing the "liberal consensus" that elected Democrats throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s collapsing in the 1970s and 80s largely due to resentment among working-class and middle-class whites (like my parents, my in-laws, and our neighbors in the white ethnic Brooklyn community where we lived) over the welfare, affirmative action, and other benefits that were supposedly being lavished on "other" people who didn't deserve them. Those "others" were, of course, people of color with whom these resentful whites felt they had little in common. Over the previous generation, they'd moved into one New York neighborhood after another, changing the character of those communities and, in the eyes of the older whites, "ruining" them.

I remember my father-in-law--a kind, thoughtful, and generous family man--becoming a staunch Reaganite, eagerly backing the Republicans' plans to cut taxes and social spending. Later he complained about how the services he received from his local VA hospital (as a proud veteran of World War Two) were curtailed, but I don't think he ever saw the connection--and why should he? The Republicans he voted for were at pains to insist that they were on the side of "decent, hard-working Americans" and were reducing benefits only to "them."

By contrast, Finland's social and ethnic homogeneity protects universal social programs by making it much harder to persuade Finns to see their country as made up of warring groups of "us" and "them" engaged in a zero-sum competition for shares of the national wealth.

As long as we allow the politicians to keep dividing us (by race, ethnicity, geography, religion, and other "identity" markers), we'll have little chance to outgrow the petty quarreling over crumbs that passes for domestic policy debate in this country.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Blogging and Baseball

A couple of notes from a sultry midsummer night:

I'm watching the Yankees game tonight--the Mets don't start till ten p.m., since they're on the west coast--and I'm hoping the White Sox can make their 1-0 eighth inning lead stand up. (I'm one of the many fans who proudly root for two teams, my own team and whoever is playing the Yankees.) I notice that, in the top of the eighth, the electronically-generated billboard on the blue-screen background behind Yankee Stadium's home plate displays an ad for Johnnie Walker Black whiskey. As everyone knows, you can't advertise hard liquor on TV (not due to any law or FCC regulation but because of self-imposed restrictions by the networks and local stations), so this is a clever bit of loophole-sniffing by some ad agency. Wonder how long it'll take for the standards and practices people to shut it down?


Son Matt sent me a couple of kewl Mets links. [See linguistic note below.] The first connects to a website that traces the history of every Mets uniform number--the perfect site for the person who needs to know, for example, who wore number 41 before Tom Seaver. (The answer: four pitchers--Clem Labine, Grover Powell, Jim Bethke, and Gordon Richardson--who had a combined lifetime record of 5-5 for the Amazins.) And who wore 41 after Tom Seaver? Three guesses . . .

The second offers the Mets' won-loss record (and complete National League standings) for every date in their history. An easy way to take a fun tour through many years of futility brightened by occasional glimmers of glory.

The team's history explains the tenacious optimism characteristic of many long-time Mets fans. If you remember the early 60s, you really know how to appreciate, even savor, every little sign of competence, let alone excellence. I'm talking about Met teams that would go months at a stretch without winning a series (not sweeping a series, mind you, just winning one). On this date in 1965, for example, the Mets were 34-78 (a winning percentage of .305) and were not only 30 1/2 games out of first place but also 13 1/2 games behind the ninth-place team (the Astros). The Mets were off on August 9th, having dropped a double-header the day before to the Cubs by scores of 7-6 and 14-10 (notice the characteristic touch of Met genius, scoring 16 runs yet managing to lose both games). That extended their latest losing streak to eight straight games.

Now that's a crummy team. And yet I loved them with all of my 12-year-old heart. Someone had to.


By the way (to wander from the topic of baseball for a moment), when I used the spelling "kewl" in my thank-you note to Matt, he responded this way:

I believe "kewl" is an example of the online form of English spelling called leet (or, technically, 1337). Leet is believed to have been created by hackers, but is commonly used by kids on the internet while instant messenging each other, posting on online discussion groups, etc. The idea is that this form of spelling is more difficult for people who aren't familiar with leet to understand--so hackers created it b/c they may have believed they were under surveillance, and kids use it so that their parents can't understand what they are writing. In leet, numbers are substituted for letters that they bear a resemblance to (so l=1, E=3, T=7, S=5, A=4, O=0, etc.), letters that are phonetically similar may be substituted for each other, random letters may be capitalized, etc. In leet, there are also some entirely made-up words. I find the whole thing very confusing. Kids today . . .

Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive leet entry.

If you're at all interested in language (and not already totally versed in this leet phenomenon), check out the Wikipedia article--it's pretty fascinating.


So I've been sitting here writing for a while . . . the White Sox added a run in the top of the ninth on a Paul Konerko home run, and now the Yankees are threatening in their half: one run in (home run by A-Rod), runners on first and third with two out. The White Sox are bringing in closer Dustin Hermanson to face Bernie Williams.

Meanwhile, Mets starter Pedro Martinez gave up a leadoff triple to the first batter for the Padres in the bottom of the first (a questionable call since the ball bounced off Mike Cameron's glove as he went for the running catch in right field), but somehow escaped without giving up a run. What a guy.

. . . And now Bernie Williams has lined out to first to end the game. Yankees lose! The-e-e-e-e Yankees lose!

I won't stay up to watch the whole Mets game (it won't end till around one a.m.), but at least I have a Yankee loss to smile about in my sleep. (That's the picture found next to the word schadenfreude in the dictionary.)

Blogging and baseball--pretty good combination.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

"Infused with entrepreneurial spirit and the excitement of a worthy challenge."--Publishers Weekly

Read more . . .


What do GE, Pepsi, and Toyota know that Exxon, Wal-Mart, and Hershey don't?  It's sustainability . . . the business secret of the twenty-first century.

Read more . . .