Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Monday, October 31, 2005

The varieties of eerie supernatural evening presences

However you want to categorize alien abduction, the fact that pop culture schlock fills our dreams may be the eeriest part of all.

-- Beam Me Up, Godly Being - Is alien abduction real or a creation of Hollywood? By Karen Olsson,

Pilgrim revisited

Big questions about landscape and history are what we do here best.

In John Brewer's article, “This, that and the other: Public, social and private in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” chapter one in Shifting the Boundaries: Transformation of the languages of public and private in the Eighteenth Century, eds. (Dario Castiglione and Lesley Sharpe. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1995), he sets out to revisit Habermas and Koselleck, German postwar social critics who studied the British eighteenth century.

Habermas and Koselleck study the emerging distinction between public and private in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Looking at the Enlightenment, both see a lost opportunity for a dialogic politics between the state and the private subject.

Asking, Why did modernity have the fixation with both public and private? Brewer concludes: Because, as Habermas saw, “The public sphere had not only placed unprecedented importance on the private but had provided both the grounds and the means by which it could be colonized and invaded.” In short, eighteenth-century Britons claimed to be independent individuals. But whatever they did -- writing letters, talking in little polite coffee house literary societies -- their speech was in fact controlled by the unspoken, constantly watchful rebukes of others.

Brewer thinks the same watchful guardedness is true of the eighteenth-century city as well:

Domestic space is usually presumed to exemplify the sealed off privateness of the modern, bourgeois household. But, if we look at the representations of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century households examined by Simon Schama, if we look at the language used to describe London burgher households built after the Fire of London and examine their configuration, what we discover are domestic spaces configured to look both out and in. (16)

We may acknowledge that eighteenth-century Britons knew that their houses were subject to regulation, and increasingly they deferred to the assertion of vestry surveyors’ rights to delineate their property.

But householders still protested searches. Even if houses looked out, even if houses had to allow for an intermediary zone that was privately owned but publicly regulated, there was still a very real legal sense of a possible zone exempt from outside authority. Notes Maria Luisa Pesante in Chapter 10, “An Impartial Actor, the Private and the Public Sphere in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments,” “Civic humanist writers maintained that, in modern societies, citizens’ private concerns (that is, their rights to and over both things and persons mediated by things) might be effectively by and from governments” (173).

Given the vulnerability of letters to public scrutiny, where was the private identity located? Put another way, where would contemporaries say lay the literary equivalent of the house’s safebox? Brewer wants us to think that there was none – that any description of the individual self was hypocritical, a Kantian construct overlaid on a society that actually infiltrated all aspects of the human self. But perhaps Brewer gets out of it too easily. As another writer in the same volume concludes, contrary to Brewer, “By talking to the reader, by establishing a relationship, a dialogue can emerge. But it is a dialogue where identities remain secret and where interpretation is of paramount importance.” (Malcolm Cook, “Addressing the Public in Eighteenth-Century French Fiction,” Chapter 3). If all aspects of identity were equally vulnerable to outside perusal, certainly contemporaries elided and secreted certain parts of their every-day lives with astonishing deliberation and regularity.

We see from Brewer’s reading of Habermas that it was indeed difficult for the individual could in fact conceive of himself in terms of Kantian subjectivity in the face of this swarming republic of letters. Brewer leaves the option that an individual could allude to his personal and private life by reference to the family and to other secret organizations – playing one off of the next. But that in fact, a regular part of the discourse was a bluff – an allusion to a secret soul that really had no existence.

I want to play with this notion a little. Brewer is trying to convince us that private communities were universally ones whose members were known – families, corresponding societies, boards of editors. They were therefore equally vulnerable to the critique of each other and of some kind of authority, even if their social networks exempted them from the criticism of the state.

But a secret community is one whose members are hidden from view, and sometimes hidden from each other. Such are the self-understandings of the elite Rosicrucian and Freemason communities handled by Koselleck, whose identity was veiled on earth and known in future or past time or in heaven. Freemasons were, at least, differently from coffee-house poets and corn exchange traders, a social sphere that couldn’t be geographically fixed. Traveling aristocrats – international elites of Freemasons – dispersed, Egyptian magic – the gypsy or the Christian pilgrim on the road – could be seen to share a common identity, without being seen to participate in a common language. Any member of the groups could, from the outside, be understood to carry a private language coming from a collective difference, but not from a collective conversation.

Insofar as they could refer to a body of knowledge that had no circulation – not even social circulation between its members – they could claim to possess an excessive Kantian self-direction in excess of other communities. If not even other Freemasons knew of one’s participation in the order, they had no opportunity to correct one’s thinking.

By positing this theoretical ability to self-direct and critique in compliance with a discourse not located in an earthly social sphere, Freemasons bolstered their confidence in the security of their own identity and reasoning, in the same way that the safe-box did for the householder. This was security, and it contrasts with the raging insecurity Brewer notes felt by individuals sending letters who simultaneously knew that their letters would find public lives, that their private selves were vulnerable to invasion.

This is what the language of Freemasonry, as inserted into sacred solitary retreat, did for the aristocrat. And this is exactly what the language of Christian pilgrimage did for the Quaker and the cobbler. In his The Re-Creation of Landscape (London: University Press of New England, 1984), a study of contemporary landscape poetry and painting, James A. W. Heffernan locates Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage as the poet’s own journey (a physical overextension of the Grand Tour through wilder parts of Switzerland) as an attempt to forget his own, and Europe’s, history. Physical travel was a way of escaping social place and contemporary society: it set up a long revolution of the community of God against the City of Man; and it depended exquisitely upon the choices of individuals.

Heffernan goes on to argue that Wordsworth, Constable, and Turner invented a reading of landscape that divorced it from history painting and historical narrative: “Wordsworth locates the shepherd on a distant height with his solitary form etched against the sky: an icon not merely pictorial but religious, the sublime effigy of Christ crucified. Yet this is no ‘pregnant moment’ in a line of historical events. …The result is temporalized space: a description that evokes the fixity of an icon even as it reveals the growth of the poet’s mind, the superimposition of mature experience upon a childhood impression” (93) Landscape seemed for these writers to evade human narrative; to insist on the psychological and religious logic of symbols instead.

Nineteenth-century Britons saw themselves as having independent, self-directed souls, just as much as did Augustine in the fifth century; they had also, as literary critics understand, a heightened awareness of the double-edge by which their letters, diaries and other tools for self-understanding simultaneously compromised that independence. Travel was not a perfect cure for the social soul: but by 1800, circulation was looked on as the best possible cure for local social constraints. In this context, we should read the literary invention of the crowd, and poets’ and novelists’ eerie disjunction with the mass of unreadable faces they encounter in the city (see John Plotz’s study, The Crowd, 1995). The language of civil society was creating an individual who longed to be free of the emotions and opinions of the people around him, and who deliberately created such an alienating experience for himself as he moved about city and country.

The upshot of these premeditated alienations is this: even if nineteenth-century personal identity is a sham, in a postmodern sense of not really being private or independent at all, it was a sham that was intently linked to particular geographies – the geographies of travel. Furthermore, this set of places is, importantly, different from Habermas’s set of town-places that gave rise to the discourse of alienation in the first places.

Travel-place required the participant to perform according to the rituals of independent, Kantian, self-hood – making choices, asking directions, questioning strangers. This individuality was all the more powerful than other contemporary performances of selfhood, because the landscape traveler was constructed, through his psychological readings of the super-historical symbolic landscape, as carrying all the authority of a member of a transient, invisible, secret community. Nor would this community ever critique or question the individual as would a community of letters or the bourgeois family; for this individual was a member of the city of travelers who would only be reassembled in Zion.

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Gods and gays

"I want to be very clear. Focus on the Family is focussed on destroying families who have gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered family members, and it has to end."

Well worth a look: Sneak preview of the 2006 documentary.

Looking like someone who'd save

The New York TImes has a great article about the much neglected theme of the old school conservatism, wary of mass culture, and how it's been poached by those who only *dress* like they were wary of mass culture:

Meanwhile the actual lifestyle choices, like living in New Canaan and sending your children to boarding school, lost none of their charm. But I believe that living that way became more of a conscious choice than it had been. If nothing else, the preppy lifestyle got expensive: private school tuition, handsome real estate, a couple of club memberships and you're deep into millionaire country. You don't just happen, these days, to make or have that kind of money.

Preppies had money, but not necessarily a lot, and they wanted to hang onto what was there, to turn it over to the next generation. Hence their often-overlooked cheapness; in preppy precincts of Connecticut in the 1970's a pair of Lucite salad tongs was a perfectly respectable wedding present. Their curious wardrobes were formed by the same instincts: Madras jackets might and did go out of mainstream fashion but that was no reason to stop wearing them.

We're All Preppies Now, by Carol McD Wallace, Published October 24, 2005

Tell your atheist friends

At the Values Conference, David Hollinger spoke brilliantly about how mainstream Protestants have always been willing to learn from and work with the ethical arguments of secularists. Which is to say, we're okay with them. We've always been okay with them. But are they okay with us?

Giles Fraser argues in this week's Guardian that secular fundamentalists are in a time warp:

Part of the problem is that many born-again atheists remain trapped in a 19th-century time warp, reheating the standard refutations of religious belief based on a form of rationalism that harks back to an era of fob-watches and long sideburns.

I think he packs the punch exactly where it belongs. There *is* a lot of resentment out there among secularists in America. How many folks here have been lumped in with the Religious Right by their own fellow-progressive secularist friends? How many liberal friends do we know who roll their eyes at us, say, "Oh, my friend, you're so intelligent, how do you believe this God crap?"

Fraser goes straight for the real problem here: who's more liable to succumb to institutional group-think in any form, the Christian or the atheist; Fraser wants to deny atheists the claim to being necessarily less encumbered of tradition.

"Of course spiritualism is important, but organized religion? It breeds hierarchy, and they tell you *how* to believe, and they allow for corruption." As indeed do universities, and do all governments, and all human organizations in general. Some religions are capable of imagining change and creating dialogue. But the spiritualist acting as a single agent barely employs his spiritual life to political and social reality at all: only when discussing how our beliefs inform our view of society -- of what is precious, what worth protecting, and at what cost -- do we get at a motive and a means for real social change.

Arguments against Christianity as necessarily about group-think insist that we shouldn't take our beliefs into public. Many of my secularist friends conceive of any public discussion of faith as a slippery slope leading directly into mandatory school prayer, forced creationist curricula, restricted freedoms for Jews and Catholics, arbitrary wars on foreign countries, and federally-mandated skirt-lengths. I suppose redneck religion, the so-called religion of Ashcrofts and Robertsons, would reshape the public sphere in its own image. Enlightened Protestantism has a far higher calling: it means engaging the human rights and social justice ideals we share with secular humanism.

But secular humanism isn't enough to promote social change, at least in my own personal experience. Secular humanism leads me to think that I should be amassing power and money, cashing in my education in the most utilitarian fashion. For me, at least, only my religious calling tells me that the face of injustice and poverty is so bleak, that riches and powerful are so damaging to the soul, that I personally must make a choice to pursue social change, right now, instead, because I can't bear to live in a world where the divide between rich and poor grows monthly, where healthcare is prohibitively expensive for the majority of people in the most developed nation in the world, where unjust wars and unspeakable torture proliferate with federal consent. That's real faith translated into politics: it comes of a religious and political dialogue with intelligence, faith, and the deepest values I have. It's a far cry from the same thing as telling other people that they can't hold hands in public.

Fraser is downright amused by the secularists who think that theirs is the radical and rebellious position:

The joke is that many who were converted at university via Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene think of themselves as agents of some subversive counterculturalism. This is ridiculous to Da Vinci Code proportions. Contemporary atheism is mainstream stuff. As John Updike put it: "Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position."

In our day, the true revolutionaries and visionaries are those who are willing to imagine a better future, even in the midst of this bleak, polluted, corrupt, power-driven world. It's not hard to complain, but it's hard to imagine how to get out.

A task of such proportions requires us to imagine such a thing as a human soul, worthy of recognition and protection; it also requires imagining a kind of institution, which whatever its frailties, is capable of driving political and social change. To be a progressive Christian is to be truly countercultural, truly prophetic, truly political, and truly involved.

The secularist can wait -- he can look for the utilitarian path to change, he can work through official channels or protest with his friends, waving signs and hoping someone will pay attention. The progressive Christian has a divine mandate to accomplish social and political change *now* -- to reach out to individuals, to argue with the media, to work through the vote, to lecture, to write, to do everything in his power to accomplish justice and social responsibility. The life of the soul is too precious to wait.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


So much more needs to be said about how the American open-air revival turned into the theatrical collective worship typified by architecture stolen from football stadiums and gated communities. Witold Rybczynski presents An Anatomy of Megachurches - The new look for places of worship.

Fake News is back

Remember how the White House was filming its own news, with actors as reporters and scripts pre-drafted by Republicans in office?

A couple of months ago this issue disappeared from mainstream debate after popular outcry and representatives' promises to assiduously pursue the issue.

But several revisions of the bill in question later, Fake News is back to stay. No one reports on the failure of regulatory bills but the radical media clearinghouse, AlterNet.

From now forward, the White House feeds reports to reporters, White House stagings end up on your TV screen:

The bill clears the way for TV news operations to continue using snippets of government-produced VNRs for [video footage] in their own stories, as they do currently, leaving the issue of how to identify the material up to station news personnel.

Dianne Farsetta, AlterNet: MediaCulture: A Fake End to Fake News

Molnar warns that US passports will abet terrorists, creeps, scoundrels

Two years ago or so when I was doing privacy law in the history of urban planning, my friend and fellow Berkeley graduate student David Molnar was feeding me with death-doom scenarios in which everything you carried -- from groceries to library books to *passports* -- could be read at a distance outside your house by any passer-by equipped with a radar.

Think you don't care about whether strangers can access your information? Think your life is an open book? Go read some privacy law history. It starts to be a big deal when somebody takes out a lawsuit or a fatwa against you.

Anyway, the American government is now on the side of the lawsuits, fatwas, and creepy stalkers, says Molnar:

In regulations published Tuesday, the State Department claims it has addressed privacy concerns. The chipped passports 'will not permit 'tracking' of individuals,' the department said. 'It will only permit governmental authorities to know that an individual has arrived at a port of entry--which governmental authorities already know from presentation of non-electronic passports--with greater assurance that the person who presents the passport is the legitimate holder of the passport.'

In a recent paper (PDF here), RSA Laboratories' Ari Juels, and University of California's David Molnar and David Wagner, warned that the design of the encryption keys is insufficiently secure. They said that the use of a "single fixed key" for the lifetime of the e-passport creates a vulnerability.

Declan McCullagh and Anne Broache, Passports to get RFID chip implants | CNET

Wal-Mart figure out how to save on healthcare

Among the recommendations are hiring more part-time workers and discouraging unhealthy people from working at Wal-Mart.

Stephen Greenhouse and Michael Barbaro, Wal-Mart Memo Suggests Ways to Cut Employee Benefit Costs - New York Times, 26 October 2005

I remind the reader of the Progressive Era assumption that in the age of the large corporation, the State is the only institution powerful enough to protect the individual.

No individual, family, or private institution can protect life, freedom, and property by apprehending criminals, trying them before a court of law, and incarcerating them.

Nor can individuals and institutions, by themselves, enforce contracts, or fight terrorism, or negotiate and sign treaties with foreign governments, and the like.

These are responsibilities to which only the state can attend.

The Founders wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to define precisely government’s limited, specific role in securing individual rights, and how government should carry out that very important role.

Steve Forbes, The Moral Basis of a Free Society, Policy Review, 1997

The Democratic Party, Young Blood, Vampire Blood

At Alternet, Susan J. Douglas writes that Democrats have missed a key opportunity to react Hurricane Katrina:

Hurricane Katrina not only changed things for the Republicans--it changed things for Democrats too. Katrina exposed the nation's continuing failures to combat poverty and racism; it exhumed, from the '70s, awareness of the country's energy dependency and profligacy; it showed that we can move people in and out of a Big Ten football game more efficiently than out of the path of a storm; it showed that you actually need a functioning federal government; and it revealed our contempt for the elderly and the sick. (Indeed, we desperately need an 80-year-old rapper to proclaim 'George Bush hates old people.')

...Pelosi and the lugubrious Reid are reportedly meeting with mayors and governors to develop a strategy for 2006. But where are the meetings with actual people? Where is Howard Dean's barnstorming of the country, with town meetings everywhere, to get a reality check on the passion of the people?

AlterNet: Hurricane Katrina: Missing the Katrina Moment

Talking to my friend Christopher this weekend, he blames an "age evolution" in the Democratic Party: the same people running the party who lost eight years ago; the same solutions, the same numb wait-and-see attitude. The only thing that could invigorate more of a reaction, more of a take-advantage-of-the-moment attitude, would be a wholesale rebellion by young Dems in their 20s and 30s -- exactly what the Clintonistas accomplished in the early 90s. Which begs the question: who are those young Dems, and do they have the guts it takes to do so?

A woman in the audience at the National Cathedral conference, herself a longtime appointee of the State Department, commented in tears that our panels of outspoken Christian progressive Democrats were the first young leaders of substance she'd seen in the last decade.

I got a chill thinking about her remark in hindsight, because I thought I knew exactly the phenomenon she referred to. Indeed, our panels had courageous young activists and writers pulled from the corners of civilization like San Francisco or Philadelphia where one makes friends. They're also more impassioned and willing to speak from personal trials by far than your average graduate of the Institute of Politics or Harvard Crimson.

I wonder if we've manufactured a generation of leaders too confident in traditional avenues of power, too accustomed to stiff ways of speaking, to work that revolution from within. In which case it will be an awfully long ride till we get a Democrat in the White House. And then the vanguard of courageous peace-and-justice activists on the Party's fringe has a bigger task in front of it than it knows.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A Stock Exchange bidding on Human Life

I feel like I just watched this unfold last week in the movie theater. I was watching The Constant Gardener with Rachel Weiss and Ralph Feinnes, a tear-jerking conspiracy tale of pharmaceutical companies using African bodies for killer drug tests:

The makers of flu vaccine yesterday threatened not to produce enough bird flu vaccine to deal with an outbreak unless ministers agreed to buy more of their products.

Telegraph | News | Firms' threat to limit bird flu vaccine

In the movie version, the struggle was over expendible bodies in Africa, not in the first world. In the movie version, it was all so wet and melodramatic as to be unbelievable.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Watch this plan

-- "Many big visions for new Big Easy,"

Urban planners believe that they can design a city where design - for walkability, for childcare, for affordable housing, for racial integration -- solve most of the 20th century's most bedeviling problems.

Economic planners think they can solve the city's future by enabling free market economics unencumbered by regulation.

Both parties claim that they're being given a free rein in the future of New Orleans. What we really don't know, what we can't imagine at all, is what the fusion of these two utopias will produce.

Both claim to be able to end poverty, inequality, sickness, and ignorance.

For controversy's sake, we might take the failings of both efforts at their face value.

  • Free capitalism will continue to increase the divide between rich and poor.
  • New Urbanism will create biking trails for the health and aesthetics of the rich, but will be forced, as always, to relegate the poor to border lands. In the case of New Orleans, this will no longer be the 9th Ward, which will be turned into a park or wetlands to divert flooding. Instead, the poor will be siphoned to some toxic corner of an oil refinery, a good two hours' commute by public transportation from the city and its amenities.
  • The American health care system will continue to allow free companies to duck out of paying for the workers' health care. This process of privatization/feudalization will be aided by the regulation-free policies of post-Katrina Louisiana.
  • In the face of the coming oil crisis, few families will drive cars out of choice. Streetcars will link the inner circle of elite white suburbs, making the tourist city and consumer city easily accessible to all. Poor black families will be linked by much less frequent connections to the outer city.
  • As schools and child labor are deregulated, the new slums of the refinery lands will lack any education whatsoever, and a new class of worker-children will provide labor for the city's basic food, fuel, and consumption needs, in the shops abounding for sweated goods for the tourist markets.
  • The New Urbanism will monumentalize the disaster of 2005, creating quaint museums where the now-vanished creole culture and indigeonous peoples of the bayou (now dispersed) are memorialized, thus promoting tourism and increasing revenue for the city.

Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.

Urban Soul

Having been accused by a high school alumna who googled me of having turned into a religious zealot, I'm trying to tone down the religious posts on this site and leave it mostly for visual, landscape, and historical speculation, as I start spending more time blogging the other stuff at CrossLeft. But just this last...

Hey ya'll --
here, late night in cambridge, taking a break after a long evening of reconfiguring StreamingChristianity to be more relevant (hooray!! just as many blogs, now more of them actually pertinent to current events and the progressive pilgrim's take...)

amuse yourselves by taking a look at Jesus in Woodie Guthrie lyrics, my #1 nomination when we put together that Soundtrack Album we've been talking about...

(oh, okay then. there *is* a "Save me Jesus" track on my itunes, and here's what's on it):

Say Hallelujah 2:11 Tracy Chapman

Angels 3:58 Wax Poetic Feat. Norah Jones

Girl You Have No Faith In Medicine 3:17 The White Stripes

jesus walks 3:30 Kanye West

Thank You for Sending Me an Angel 2:11 Talking Heads

Someone 4:33 Bob Dylan

Jesus, Etc. 3:51 Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Personal Jesus 3:20 Johnny Cash

God (Interlude) 2:20 Outkast The Love Below

Abraham, Martin And John 3:21 Dion

Good Evening Mr. Waldheim 4:37 Lou Reed

The Man Comes Around 4:26 Johnny Cash

Jesus Was A Communist 1:44 Reagan Youth

King Jesus 2:29 The Five Blind Boys of Alabama Amazing Grace Gospel

Be My Angel 3:17 Mazzy Star

What are your faves??

Pullman to write about Jesus

In news from ekklesia :
Pressed by Dr Williams to explain what had happened to the teachings of Jesus in his books, Mr Pullman said that he had made one mention of Christ in the context of the idea of human wisdom. He then said that he might return to the subject in his next book but he declined to expand.

Rigorous Intuition

Somehow, as I tried to grow up and become an earnest political citizen and stern academic, a great deal of my life in fantasy sifted away.

It would come back from time to time -- vacations in strange places, long drinking episodes of necessary escapism during which I'd write psychotic, dark short fiction. Weekend-long binges of Bollywood and comics.

The saddest thing was that so much of academic literature was bereft of its fantasy for me. Whipped and disciplined in the proper debates of how political parties make and dissolve, my former fascination with alchemy and garden history and folkloric characterization in modern life dwindled. I got really good at figuring out *why* a given academic published. It's to my indignity, but I've been losing my interest in *what* he publishes, unless it has to do with my minute area of British history.

So it was the artists of the Mission District who saved me. Everything was food for them: vandalized bicycles strapped to fences; other artists (who were construed as having personality beyond being the competition, for once); disabled people during play hour.

Under their good influence, I've been trying to revive my fantasy life of late. I've taken to alternating my bedtime reading between Dianne Wynne Jones's children stories and high conspiracy theory, both equally my substitute for Harry Potter (which I can't stand. really, can't you people think of anything *less* visual, subtle, and provocative than JKR?):

The story of a bow-and-arrow hunter, held at bay high in a tree, setting flame to parts of his clothing and tossing them down onto the heads of his assailants until he was half-naked, passing out because of strange fumes emitted by "aliens", is certainly hard to believe, unless one considers it within the framework of the whole parade of stories similar to it. It's a story that belongs to traditional folklore: the hunter who wanders off into strange woods and experiences enchantment.
...Jacques Vallee researched [similar] cases [about the folkloric 'chupas' of South America], travelling to Parnarama to interview witnesses and survivors (at least five people were said to have died from close encounters), and the results were published in his 1990 book Confrontations.
...Vallee writes that the chupas were usually described as small "boxlike UFOs equipped with powerful light beams" which flew over "the wooded areas and the river valleys at night. All of the victims in Parnarama were deer hunters who had climbed into trees during the night, as is frequently the case in that part of Brazil."

Ok, you're groaning. Dear J, you've dropped out of x billion degrees and still you have no sense! But I mean, dude. Can't you see why I love it? Jeff Wells can write about all the nonsensical Bush Satanic Pedophilia Cults he wants; outright bizarreity aside, he takes folkloric meme and psychological symbol seriously, and Levi-Strauss in hand, heads straight for the heart of the beast of American culture.

I love the nice comparisons of poetic devices in the NYT Book Review. I love Harper's when it *dares* to suggest that watching a film *might* be used by US soldiers in Iraq as "military porn" to psych themselves up (heavens forfend! do movies really influence their viewers? say it's not so!). Go back to your David Sedaris. I'll be reading Jeff Wells to sleep for a while longer, surfing away for the few authors who still cause me to wonder...

Hushed suspension has so little place in one's professional career. Hushed suspension encloses so many peripheral facts of one's life. Oh how my daring and imaginative fairy-tale-loving heart yearns for someone to join me in observing the things I can't understand -- why sons are always jealous of their fathers, why people hallucinate aliens, why America twice elected George Bush.

Winnie and the Emotional Plague, A Children’s Story

Once, long ago, the plague was unknown in the Land of Shargi-Lala. Everything started the day when the Sorcerer who built puppet-robots arrived. Nobody knew where he came from: some said he had worked in the courts of kings when there were kings, and some said he was a ventriloquist in Vaudeville when there was Vaudeville. He talked about Hollywood like he’d been there, and he talked about people in Northern California at the Institute for Small Machines and the Foundation for Remote Viewing and the School for Future Soul Manufacture, as if he’d been around when they were inventing great things there too. He seemed to know the Prime Minister personally, and he was close friends with the Pope from their remote childhood together in Western Slovakia. He could also talk about dolls from Japan and opera in Germany, and he was soon introduced to all of the best dinner-parties. Although he rarely said anything, it was universally agreed that when he did it was very, very interesting.

It was soon clear that the Sorcerer was a great inventor. He built dolls that could sing five entire operas by memory after spending five minutes alone with the libretto. He built other dolls that rode riding broncos while swinging lassos. There was a little key in the back of every doll where the wind-up works were connected to a wind-up key, and if you wound them up tight, off they went! As the Sorcerer had more success, his ambitions became greater. The puppet-robots were carefully and cunningly made. They walked around like human beings, and they were programmed to say special things. Because of this, a great change would spread over the land.

In those days, the Land of Shargi-Lala had been populated by many prophets. When the prophets spoke, they talked about wonderful things. Nobody knew whether they were really true or not, because the things the prophets said described how the whole world worked, and nobody had ever seen the whole world at once. But the prophets sounded so right, and their words went straight to the soul, so people went on listening to them all the same. The prophets said, “The poor are just like you or me.” They said, “You have to give up everything for what really matters.” They said, “Democracy means that the people, rather than the tyrants, have the right to rule.” Nobody knew quite whether to believe what they said or not, but they said it so easily, so clearly, so cleanly. When a prophet spoke to a crowd, the people in the crowd felt the blood run warm just under the surface of their skin. They felt their lips grow warm and start to bend into a smile. After the talk they’d leave and go out and find themselves peering into the eyes of other people a little more closely. You’d see ordinary men and women, with their aching backs and empty purses, smiling deeply at the boy who poured them a cup of coffee at the restaurant, wondering what his story was; looking at their husbands and wives with more generosity than before. All this the prophets did when they talked.

When the puppet-robots spoke, they also said things that were easy to understand, and again nobody quite knew if they were true or not. But the effect was different. When a puppet-robot spoke, he said things that sounded right about the nature of the universe. The puppet-robots said, “The poor are always going to be a problem.” They said, “You might have to sacrifice those who want to hurt you.” They said, “Democracy is the best system, and so elected officials are always right.” When a puppet-robot spoke to you, you felt sort of like your third-grade teacher had just told you a proverb that was supposed to be true, and you thought to yourself, oh yes, maybe the world is like they say. They began to look at crowds of people and think, we’re all alike and we all have the same opportunities although I suppose I could have more. And then they would think things through a bit more, and would think, oh yes, and if the puppet-robot was right, and there’s only so much to go around, and if other people are all pushing each other, and if this really is the way things work, I suppose I should pay attention so that I don’t slip behind everyone else.

The sorcerer was very clever and he talked to some of the people in power and eventually they saw that if the puppet-robots were put in charge of running various institutions in the state having to do with the sorting of pieces of paper, then real humans would not have to be subjected to cubicles and fluorescent lights. So the puppet-robots were employed throughout the bureaucracies across Shargi-Lala, and they did quite well. They never became depressed or burnt-out after twenty hours of sorting pieces of paper, as human beings did. Therefore the puppet-robots tended to be promoted to positions of power relatively more quickly than their human counterparts.

Time passed and a great election was being held in the land. Some of the people who ran a political party thought that they might put some puppet-robots up. After all they had done so well in the companies, that now many great skyscrapers had puppet-robots in very high positions of power! Perhaps puppet-robots would do very well in the polls as well. After all, everything they said was so reasonable and sounded so normal.

The sorcerer was very pleased that his puppet-robots were doing so well. So pleased was he, in fact, that he spent a entire month that year inventing new toys for his precious inventions, so that when they went to the polls they would not disappoint anyone who believed in them. He sewed them bright jackets and ties with stars and ribbons on them. He made them shiny chrome toupees so that they too could look glamorous on the broadcast debate. And he made glasses for them that would allow them to see into the souls of people who watched them, so that they would know exactly what to say – in twelve words or less! – to every man and woman they spoke to.

It worked like a charm. The puppet-robot candidate leaned over the poor child in the school where other children screamed all day, staring into his eyes through the sorcerer’s special soul-seeing glasses. The puppet-robot candidate said, “We should pay more attention to you. We would change your teachers and measure your tests ourself!” To the skinny lady with bright-colored skin who had just been out of work, the puppet-robot candidate, squeezing her hand, boomed, “The attorneys who should have fought for your rights you were too busy fighting for the rights of fat people. We will fire them and make more jobs for you!” To the fat man who had lost everything in the stock market, the puppet-robot candidate railed, “Your own money would save you! It is not the nature of the universe that a man works hard and profits nothing. We will find our taxes elsewhere.”

That fall, among many marching bands and parades and hustings, the puppet-robots were elected to every office across Shargi-Lala.

The sorcerer was so excited with the success of his metal children that he immediately went into seclusion for six months, inventing every gadget he could think of for his prize children, which were making him so happy.

There were also special crystal lenses, the size of plates. When people outside Shargi-Lala looked into the lenses, they saw their homes smoking in ruins, their naked infants run over by tanks, their dead uncollected in great wasting piles; famines as their countries had never known. But when people looked into the lenses from the other direction, they saw different pictures entirely, and this is how all the people in Shargi-Lala were taught to hold the lenses. They saw pictures of themselves and their houses and dogs and cats and children, all very plump and provided-for. They saw bad people being rapped on the knuckles and sent into reformatories. They saw Shargi-Lalaese ideas spreading through the world, and people everywhere eating ice cream and driving on Sundays!

The sorcerer had also developed medicines for the water and food and air to make the people content with their puppet-robot ministers. The medicines made people very uncomfortable and scared. They worked because, so long as the people were feeling queasy and ill, the puppet-robots could look straight at them with their soul-seeing spectacles and tell them how they felt. It made people feel confident in their leaders that the puppet-robots had such an intuitive understanding of them. The way it worked was this. The people would walk down the street at night and see someone from a different country, who had just arrived and was looking for a hotel and dreaming of a big foamy bubble bath, and conclude that the foreigner must be dead-set on assassination. For reasons of complaints on this order, many more policemen were commissioned during the regime of the puppet-robots than ever before in the Land of Shargi-Lala.

Some people began to think that all this feeling ill suddenly was a little sad, and certainly unlike anything they’d known in the good old days. They didn’t know quite what was wrong, so various people tried to isolate one thing or another. Some of them began to drink bottled water. Some wouldn’t pet stray cats anymore (the doctors said stray cats could carry a virus, although nobody could ever know what it did, and there were no symptoms, still it was good to be careful). Others began to eat special foods, grown under laboratory conditions, so that no strange substances could have entered. Still others walked around with masks on their faces so as not to breath the contaminated air. And some took special pills that made them feel content all the time, as if nothing were wrong.

But most people kept looking at the magic saucer lenses, and congratulating themselves on what a good job the Land was doing in the rest of the world.

Alas, the medicine began to make everyone ill.
The first sign were the hallucinations. All of a sudden, every corner of the Land of Shargi-Lala began to sprout people with hallucinations. Some said that they saw the talking face of Jesus Christ in a tree-trunk, and it told them how wonderful ice-cream was, and how great the puppet-robots were. Others said they had been kidnapped by puppet-robots with shiny green skin. Others said that it didn’t matter what the puppet-robots did for good or evil because they had been told that they would be swept up by a gigantic hot-air balloon and taken off into outer-space while the planet self-destructed. Some said that they saw Blue, the great ox of Paul Bunyan, in the shapes made by the weather-maps on the television, and that obviously meant that the puppet-robots were making the Land of Shargi-Lala the best it was ever going to be and anyone who disagreed ought to be sent to the border!

Then people began to be blind. First they couldn’t see their husbands and wives anymore. They spent all day and all night at their offices, working underneath the fluorescent lights. Next, they started to think their own children were invisible. If their son went out on a date and came back later that evening, he might well find his father staring straight past him at the wall. Finally it was reported that some whole sections of the Land of Shargi-Lala had forgotten that other whole sections of Shargi-Lala existed! The South Coast forgot to deliver grain to the North Coast, so there was a terrible famine. And then the West Bend of the River Nix couldn’t remember that there had ever been an East Bend of the River Nix, and if there wasn’t another side to the river, what was the point of the bridge? And if there was no point of the bridge, it must have been another cock-eyed scheme by some money-grubbing accountant. So one night, with a marching band and a couple of the West Benders marched to the river shore, dynamite tied with yellow bows being carried by every small child, and the whole town stood around and cheered, and then they blew up the Nix Bridge. A great huzzah was sounded as the brick-and-steel monument to the engineering of the last century toppled into the water. It was lots of fun, and ice cream was served afterwards, courtesy of the mayor’s office. After that, the East Benders pretty much stopped talking to anyone who wasn’t from East Bend.

Lots of people noticed something was wrong, as we’ve said, because they were becoming sick and depressed and blind. Nobody liked being sick and depressed and blind, but the puppet-robots had been telling them for several years now that sickness and depression and blindness were naturally-occurring phenomena, which could sometimes be cured with advanced medical treatment. That sounded pretty reasonable and optimistic. So the good people of Shagri-Lala grinned and bore it as best they could. A couple of people took pills until they could see again, and sometimes they had loud marches of their own (no marching bands), but nobody pays attention to a march unless there’s a marching band behind it (and ice cream), so but most people ignored them and went on feeling queasy.

After a while a couple of folks at the Institute for Alchemy had started to notice. Rather, to be specific, a twelve-year-old advanced post-graduate at the Institute for Alchemy, whose name was Winnie, had noticed something. She didn’t like people being sick all the time, and she wanted to do something about it.

Winnie didn’t receive a lot of encouragement, it must be said. The Institute for Alchemical Studies had started admitting girls only twenty years after most normal institutions had, but it was still a very difficult place for a girl-alchemist, let alone a twelve-year-old advanced post-graduate girl alchemist. She was told a lot of things: people have always been sick! Said her parents. Think about your career! You have exams to take!! said the alchemists on her supervisory committee. You should leave this to more experienced alchemists! said the alchemists who weren’t on her supervisory committee. You’re only twelve! Pointed out her fellow alchemy-students. Other scientists reminded Winnie that alchemy was a moribund art, which had never succeeded in turning base metals into gold, and they were suspicious of its present claims to be able to cure social ills, let alone stop such a great thing as a spiritual plague, even if such a thing could be identified in the first place. Everyone had a different opinion, but nobody believed that anything could be done – and certainly not by Winnie.

But Winnie was convinced that a spiritual plague was eating the Land of Shagri-Lala. Every time she read the morning paper, she thought she saw another sign. Somewhere, animals were being mistreated. Somewhere else, kids were still screaming in school, and but now, instead of reading books, the puppet-robot regime had forced them to take endless paper-sorting tests, without which, their later lives were doomed. People were having hallucinations, or going blind, in enormous numbers. Late one night, Winnie took a pad of graphing paper and a packet of crayons, normally used for documenting her precious-metal spectroscopy experiments. She graphed then numbers of people becoming insane and blind in the history of mankind. There were bumps and peaks and troughs and jiggles, but nothing, no nothing, like the enormous rise in blind insanity that had occurred since the election of the puppet-robots. How could this be?

It seemed silly to blame an entire plague on a couple of puppet-robots. Elected officials, after all, don’t brainwash, they just talk into microphones. In general, they can be quite harmless. Winnie knew nothing of the sorcerer’s experiments. She didn’t know about the water supply. Nobody had told her about the experiments with food and air. And there was certainly no way of knowing about the special bi-polar saucer-like lenses, or the soul-seeing spectacles. The sorcerer’s inventions were too numerous and strange.

So Winnie began her experiments. She had a hundred vials leaned up, each of them extracting a different kind of affection. Puppy love went into a pink vial, tied with a bow. Punch-drunk love went into another vial, decorated with glitter. Using fire and smoke to purify the solutions, she distilled into alembics different solutions -- good sense, horse sense, common sense, and incense. She percolated them through filters. She set them alight. She congealed and condensed the liquids, then evaporated and powdered and numbered them. But try as she might, she could neither isolate nor cure the plague.

That night Winnie fell into a deep slumber. As she was sleeping, an Angel of the Lord came down and fiddled with her chemistry instruments. She’d done everything wrong. He reversed all of the connections, rewired the visualizer, liquidized the powders, uncombined the solutions, and set up an entirely different experiment to run on its own.

So when Winnie woke up, feeling soft and lovely, she looked over at the table where she had been working so fruitlessly. There amidst the pipes and computers screens and vials, trapped in a little spherical alembic of glass, was the emotional plague, isolated at last! It fluttered like a moth and hissed like an angry cat, buzzing quite furiously from time to time, before it died down and rested again. In another little vial on the far corner of the laboratory, neatly distilled, was dripping away a bright green liquid, which Winnie recognized instantly: the remedy.

Winnie had a terrible time convincing anyone to pay attention to her. After crying in her room for a long time, she at last went out to the rugby field where a number of her classmates were playing.

“HEY YOU!” she screamed in a terrifyingly squealy voice.
They stopped kicking the ball and came over.

There were six alchemy students besides Winnie: Scrooge, Muffin, Inchy, Binchy, Che, and Nod.

Inchy was an alchemical technological genius. He was nine, and lived all alone in the midst of an enormous warehouse filled with gigantic whirring machines that turned great turbans that blew sweet winds filled with angel kisses over the garden outside where he grew lovely agave and cactus. When he was eight, he had invented the smallest machine in the world.

Inchy listened to Winnie. “If you really do think you have the emotional plague,” he said gravely, “we’d better test it to make sure.”
“It wouldn’t do to be wrong about something like this!” he said.

The Post-Graduates in Alchemy were totally unwilling to test such a vile thing as an emotional plague on their own pet cats, pet mice, cactus, or ficus trees. They couldn’t conceive of any human beings brave enough to test the emotional plague themselves. So they all sat down next to the rugby field and heaved a collective sigh. What were they to do? They sat this way for a long time, wondering what would become of the emotional plague.

“It would be a great pity if everyone went blind and insane,” said Scrooge.
“It certainly would be lonely,” said Muffin.
“I doubt we ourselves could resist it,” said Che. “The plague that kills one kills all.” Che’s parents had been prophets back in the day, and he was famous for saying powerful things just like that.

Inchy and Binchy sighed at once. They were twins, and they one always knew what the other was thinking.
“We’ll do it!” they said at the same time.

So the alchemical students wrote an enormous petition and betook themselves to the Capital of the Land of Shagri-Lala.

They stood on the steps of the Capital of Shagri-Lala for an entire day. Every time a puppet-robot or his attaché would ascend the steps of the Capital, one of the alchemists would try to talk to him.

(to be continued)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Saw a Ghost

If you're out there, glad you're still out there. Sorry you never got any sleep. Hope it didn't make you hard. Hope I wasn't mean to you the way girls are mean (I know. I was.). You're still some kind of rune for self-rule, which is good.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

What really happened October 13

Making its way across the Blogosphere is Senator Danforth's hesitant suggestion that the Religious Right, and the Religious Left, are equally enemies of the American polis.

October 13, 2005, at the National Cathedral in Washington, Senator Danforth preached a brief homily about "reconciliation." Christians, he said, are called to "reconciliation." He made a few jokes, and answered a few questions, and then he left.

What the Episcopalian News Service did *not* convey in their much-quoted article was the firm the rebuttal that the Senator received. As a panelist at the table that replied, and as the organizer of the conference panel to which the Senator was invited, I am appalled by the Episcopal News Service's "tweaking" of the evening's story to its own ends.

So the panelists who replied to Danforth had to answer the question: what does the Christian do about poverty? Does the Christian lobby for political reconciliation at all costs? Does the Christian tell both Christian right and Christian left to sit down?

Richard Parker of the Kennedy School for Government at Harvard spoke first. Reconciliation, he argued, has been used to tell the liberals to pipe down. The Episcopalian church, he reminded us, has already passed numerous calls for justice towards the poor: when we call upon the church to take its own resolutions seriously, and when we call upon the nation to take human life seriously, we take the merest steps towards fulfilling our duty as Christians.

David Hollinger, head of the History Department at UC Berkeley, then argued that American Protestants have always believed in reconciliation: which has caused them to take strong, liberal-leaning political stands on behalf of affirmative action, inclusion for Jews and Catholics. He reminded us that for half a century, conservative policies of exclusion of the Other have flown in the face of Christian reconciliation. Christian liberals have to act in the public realm in order to bring about those very values of "reconciliation" with those excluded from our society.

I argued that theological reconciliation -- the duty of one Christian to speak to another, much neglected in these days of polarization -- differed greatly from political reconciliation. Christ called us to stand up "right now" for what we believe, and he made clear that defense of the poor and vulnerable was an area that called for our immediate intervention. The gospel requires us to take hard stands, in order to act on the values of the Kingdom of Heaven -- values of compassion and responsibility that are abandoned everywhere by contemporary government policies.

Michael Kazin of Georgetown and Amy Sullivan of the Washington Monthly then spoke on political change, the work of Christian progressives, and the necessity for political involvement in order to effect the changes in policy and the media that we want to see.

"Reconciliation" is a funny word, and a funny thing to tell the Christian progressives who had assembled at the Cathedral to call America to further action for the poor, the disenfranchised, the outcast, and the vulnerable, whom this country has left behind. Danforth seemed uncomfortable that night. He had cut his speaking time from 90 minutes to thirty. He gave a plaintive plea for "reconciliation," and disappeared.

What had made the senator so uneasy? I think I can answer. Several weeks before the conference had sent out a press release: "Religious Leaders Condemn Bush Government for Abandonment of Duty Towards the Poor." I co-authored that press release with a monk friend. After Katrina, we argued, it'd be hard for America to still claim that it was being a Christian nation.

Such a claim made Senator Danforth understandably uneasy. He's always had an easy relationship with the Bush regime, and our political statement seemed to indicate that Danforth, by showing at the Cathedral, supported our challenge.

The Episcopal News Service has a duty towards the church to report conversations fairly. Certainly, on such a sensitive topic, it has the duty to progressive Christians who argue that the church should take a political stand on the side of poverty in accordance with Christ's message. Silencing the voice of dissent in the church is about as far from "reconciliation" as one can get.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

After Disaster

The Christian Socialists have asked me to write about Katrina for the British. Here we go...

In 1756 news of the earthquake at Lisbon reached all parts of Europe. For Voltaire, who most famously explored the earthquake’s destruction in his Candide, the disaster revealed that knowledge and optimism wither in the face of raw chance, provincialism, and greed. In 2001, the demolition of New York’s Twin Towers prompted a national quest for acts of heroism to redeem the martyrdom of the dead.

Now, in August 2005, an American city has been destroyed. What do Americans talk about? Do they emphasize existential despair or national cooperation? It’s now October, and Katrina barely survives as an item of press. The disaster’s memory drifts silently out of sight.

American reactions have veered from outrage to apathy. On the week of Katrina’s arrival, even the patriotic Fox News began to fissure with dissent, as mayors broke into tears on camera, Louisiana legislators accused FEMA representatives of committing “murder,” and rapper Kanye West screamed hysterically at his interviewer.

In the weeks after Katrina, Americans talked less about the kind of moral reckonings New York prompted. Competing claims of local and federal blame were too complex to hold the public’s attention. After a month, serious complaints surfaced only on conspiracy websites.

Did Katrina really tell the world nothing? Disasters usually tell us plenty. Disaster in America, suspects the European and Asian press, may have revealed something deadly and strange in the American conscience.

What is missing, when one examines the American media, is a reckoning with American values as Katrina exhibited them. Moral values inform the choices about whether a society makes plans to take care of its most vulnerable citizens. Without doubt, in New Orleans, the poor, the black, the sick, the incarcerated, and the elderly were left behind.

We might have known this for years, but Katrina laid it bare: America is out of sympathy with the poor. The New York Times insinuates how local charity in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas quickly gave way. After a month, hosts wondered why the impoverished evacuees had yet to move on, recover, and seek work. Local and voluntary provision of charity is, of course, the officially preferred recourse, in these days of neo-Conservatism; no state or federal institution is rushing to supplement their work, nor does the public seriously feel that any should. At the major conservative think tanks of DC, the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation, economists describe poverty as a natural punishment for lack of effort. America, that is, embraces the utilitarian workhouse model that caused so much permanent damage in nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland. Katrina, in this view, merely exposed the poor to a vulnerability from which they ought to have saved themselves.

America has no moral vision left adequate to put these failures into context. Discussion of Katrina died out among San Francisco and New York liberals first. Louisiana was too far away, the mistakes of the Bush government too numerous to bother fighting for this one. Meanwhile, darker forms of opportunism abound in the disaster’s wake. Bush’s economists touted the disaster as a grand opportunity for actualizing their dreamed-of experiments with truly free trade: pet companies will rebuild the city freed of labor and environmental regulations; public amenities from sewers to welfare will be privatized from the beginning. Scientologists and Southern Baptists rush to the disaster scene like a carnival, racing each other to convert the desperate masses. A brave, shimmering new world of free enterprise and individual responsibility mesmerizes the American conscience.

Katrina should have alerted us to how far this ideology could go towards denying the importance of human dignity, urban culture, and human history. Instead, Katrina illustrates that America has reached a stage of apathy from which it is incapable of turning back by itself.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Fight sleep loss among graduate students

For generations now, scholars have wondered about the increasing irrelevance and snideness of graduate student dissertation work. Various forces have been blamed: Francophone linguistic terrorists, the disappearance of ballroom dancing from the compulsory curriculum, the separation from flirtatious eye contact with members of the opposite sex enforced by totalitarian postwar library architecture, class warfare and class envy among transient student bodies, a basic lack of hygiene awareness, and, of course, my favorite: sunlight deprivation.

Important new studies in biology, however, are rushing to link the poor fashion sense, uncomely physique, and bad manners of the academic community to the latest cultural trend among these youngsters -- a sadistic, drug-induced, throbbing, community dance, known in these circles as "sleepwalking."

The Post reports that several bad habits of graduate students may in fact be interlinked:

The analysis of a nationally representative sample of nearly 10,000 adults found that those between the ages of 32 and 49 who sleep less than seven hours a night are significantly more likely to be obese.

The study follows a series of others that have found similar associations with other illnesses, including several reports from the Harvard-run Nurses' Health Study that has linked insufficient or irregular sleep to increased risk for colon cancer, breast cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
--Washington Post

Rudeness, insensitivity, glazed looks, and marginal research can be fought. Put a graduate student near you to bed NOW!

Friday, October 07, 2005


As blogged at Kos, the Dobsons are continuing to spread the doctrine of letting disease kill: now extending the case for murder for the sake of the religious right's God from HIV to Cervical cancer.

I remember, at nine, asking my parents about a Christian Science family down the street, and hearing an earful from my Methodist engineer father about those whose zeal blinded them to God's actual ministry of healing in the torn world.

In college, I read Maimonides and St. Augustine on God's role as a healer, and their meditations on how human healers and educators embody God's ministry in daily life.

As Christians, we were taught to love humanity as God's especial charge to their personal care. How strange to hear those who turn away doctors and medicine claim their unity with two thousand years of monks, teachers, and healers, who taught and healed and fed the poor, loyal to their vows of poverty and obedience and service.

We live in a time when the Religious Right, with its coterie of trained think-tank linguists, have been able to call the kettle white and the night day and get away with it. You know their names, and you know their terms: their words, not ours, have been bandied about in political speeches, have flooded television commercials, have become established in text books and in history as the proper language of American political debate.

It's time that we started using language in its appropriate context, as a major part of our activism: demanding that newspapers, radio hosts, and media stop calling contemporary murderers "pro-life" and "Christian." The battle for life, charity, and responsibility takes place on the battlefield of language.

The Christian concept of "witness" means that believers feel a duty to call out abuse of the Christian community, and to call attention to where they actually see their faith in practice. "Witness" demands critical thinking and outspoken criticism of the abuse of language. Witness, dissent, and rational discourse have been sorely lacking in America of late.

So I have an exhortation for Christians everywhere. In the name of witnessing to our faith, let us call "anti-life" what breeds murder. Let us take back the language of health. "Anti-life" is the best term I can think of for the Dobsons' deliberate ministry of murder.

Call "pro-life" those actors who lobby for the healing of the sick, the feeding of the starving, and the daily redemption of the lost through works of compassion. Take back the term. Explain it when asked. "Pro-life" means healthcare for all. "Pro-life" means affordable medicine. "Pro-life" means encouraging policies that enable doctors to fight diseases that effect the many, wherever they are, however poor or unchurched they are, rather than committing doctors' entire livelihoods to the workings of the free market. "Pro-life" means overcoming our love of abstinent, white American teens for long enough to act in service to those who have other kinds of lives, for whatever reason.

Networking the word

Brother Karekin, our single-handed pr/organization machine, writes me:
good news... Bob Edgar blasted his 100,000 person email list today with our PR piece from last week -- National Council of Churches -- i've fielded about a dozen requests for info today

Great news! Excellent work, Brother. We had a sticky start raising consciousness, and to a great extent, it's Brother Karekin's single-minded dedication that's pulled more publicity through.
I've been talking in the past week to a lot of people about what we're learning from the experience of trying to publicize the Values Conference. Some of the most intense discussions come from talking to Kaliya Hamlin, who will speak on networking at the conference. Kaliya notes that while progressive Christians on the web all go to static webpages and all sign their blogs up for webrings that point readers to other sites, there are no ways of circulating news and information. No email lists attached to the webrings; no news pages for what the entire movement is doing; no major 'meet-up' sites for the movement to tell each other about local meetings.
I should add, that this is exactly what the budding CrossLeft is trying to set up. Although so far, i think we have *one* event posted on our calendar!! it's also been somewhat enabled by sites like and StreetProphets which have more active online forums for discussion of current events.
But *most* activism and information sharing is still coordinated through denominationally-focussed static webpages; the Methodists don't talk to the Episcopalians or the UCC, and only a very tech-savvy individual with a lot of time figures out how to talk to all of them!
Kaliya argues, This is another thing the Religious Right has figured out how to do already. They can disseminate news across a network rapidly because their network is designed for information and event sharing, not just for blasting individual opinions to a single blog's readers.
My hope is that attendees at the conference will take a lot away from what Kaliya says. We'll be posting her paper here on CrossLeft, and (hopefully) podcasting her talk as well as others from the conference. I'd love to see a consciousness-raising moment of big vision spreading from the conference through the progressive Christian movement at large.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Inspiration from Baptist words and deeds in Louisiana

There's been a lot of muttering among non-professional laity about whether a natural disaster of Katrina's proportions would actually summon America into some sort of reckoning with how vulnerable her needy are.

Today, released on
Addressing Baton Rouge Mayor Melvin "Kip" Holden, who spoke about the
city's response to New Orleans evacuees, Medley outlined American
Baptists' relief efforts to meet the unprecedented needs caused by the
disaster, and asked how churches can continue to respond in a meaningful
way. "Katrina unearthed an ugly secret in our country," Medley added.
"How can we work toward an America that is more just and more fair? How
can we speak out for justice?"

Indeed, this is just the issue. The Baptists are speaking to rebuilding in extremely concrete ways: making sure roads are useable, levees are returned to New Orleans, reaching out to families, rebuilding homes and churches, all through the support of church communities helping other communities.

But the message Medley appeals to is the broader concern. Katrina demonstrated that the poor in America of every race dangle over oblivion by a thread.

The contingencies that separate a poor family in America from bankruptcy, starvation, unmedicated illness, unremediable unemployment, and homelessness are as near as the next contingency -- whether it comes in the form of a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or flood; or whether it appears in the sudden illness or incarceration of one of the family's wageearners.

The Baptists have taken an important step among other churches by articulating the lesson Christians must take from Katrina's damage: America is a nation which has broken with Christ's commandments by taking out of place those safety nets designed to provide relief for the most needy.

I pray that other Christians and other churches will act with similar courage in preaching and acting upon this lesson. For political change, poverty and its structural conditions need to be kept constantly in the attention of the media. Courageous action, coordinated publicity, and self-education are our communities' tools.

If we work together, we can use this moment as a platform from which to work for a real social transformation of the nation. Don't let Katrina just be another disaster in history. Let it be an event that inspired us, and showed us what we want to save our children from.

Katrina victims deserve a fair wage

President Bush has rescinded what is known as the Davis-Bacon
Act for that area. The Act requires federal contractors to pay the prevailing
wage for the area. This means that in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and
Mississippi, workers on federally contracted projects will be paid less than
others doing similar work.

From the Episcopalian Public Policy Network

Forget food and healthcare. Jesus wants you to psychologically traumatize the youth of New Orleans!

(Re:The Truth For Youth's campaign to send Christian comic books to the evacuees of Katrina)

Just make sure to spread the word, kids. Not only is Mr. Christ *not* present in the earnest expression of love between two believers, but by participating in acts related to that love, you will send your beloved to hell and both suffer within this lifetime from Mr. God's special punishment of AIDS!

Just remember, kids, Mr. God is mean and wants to fuck you up for desiring affection and beauty. He will smite you and set your teeth on edge unless you play football hard and toe the party line. Just like your paster, your parents, the president, and Pat Robertson!

(Read something more humane about what God requires of you, by the ever-lovely Chuck Currie, UCC seminarian)

Sidebar is back! (sort of)

One of the tricks about having danah's cast-off kick-ass computer is that *everything* works, and then only months later when using a *normal* computer in the school lab do you realize that your sidebar can't be seen by anybody not lucky enough to use Safari as their browser.

Lookie!! -->
isn't it pretty? now remember, tell everyone you know to start using the StreamingChristianity newsfeed...

[later] AARGH!! i got it to work on internet explorer at home, but it *still* don't work here at the university library. anybody got any ideas?