May 01, 2008

Two-for-two

A couple of stories of people getting it right:

1. "Nun offers mercy, but robber gets jail"

Sister Muriel Curran faced the man who shoved her to the ground and ripped away her purse three years ago. She quoted Scripture. She thanked him for the guilty plea that spared her a trial. And she asked a Baltimore County judge not to send him to prison.

"There is possibility and hope -- I believe in it, it's what I'm about -- in rehabilitation and a future," the 78-year-old nun said yesterday, explaining that she has difficulty believing in a penal system that sometimes leaves criminals worse off than before they went to prison. ...

Asked after the hearing what had inspired her unusual approach to the man who left her with broken bones and deep bruises, unable to fully raise one arm and incapable of living on her own any longer, Sister Curran answered simply.

"The Gospel," she said. "You hear that cliche -- 'What would Jesus do?' -- but if you live it, you've got to believe it." ...

Yesterday, on the morning he was scheduled to go to trial, Dodson pleaded guilty to one count of robbery. The decision spared the nun the trip to the witness stand that she said she would have dreaded.

Reading from a card, Sister Curran quoted a letter in the Bible from the Prophet Jeremiah: "For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, not for woe! plans to give you a future full of hope."

Turning to face Dodson, she said, "That is my hope for you, Charles. I would like to give that to you."

2. You may have heard about the "virtual slavery" case of the John Nash Pickle company in Tulsa, Okla. Journalist John Bowe tells this story in his book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. I haven't read his book, but I just listened to a recounting of this story, including interviews with Bowe, on public radio's This American Life. This account, presented by host Ira Glass, also includes interviews with many of the 52 Indian steelworkers exploited by the company as well as with the man who first began to help them -- a lay minister at the local Pentecostal church named Mark Massey.

Once Massey realized how these men were being exploited, he provided a few of the men with housing to get them out of the miserable company barracks and he met with company managers to try to reclaim the mens' passports, which the company had confiscated. Massey quickly found himself in way over his head with little idea of what to do, but he didn't let that stop him. He hired the only lawyer he knew. He moved the rest of the Indian workers into his own house. He organized churches and the local Indian community to provide meals.

Here's what Massey told Ira Glass:

"Our churches have been good to help foreign missions, but when the foreign comes into our own district, our own comfort area, we're not always ready to accept. ... I know we can't help everybody but I think everybody's given a little portion that they can do. And I know we can't turn around and change the world tomorrow, but just what's put in our little field here, our little corner, I feel like we're responsible for, so I felt like that was put in my corner. ..."

The whole This American Life story is about half an hour. It's worth the time. It's not every day that you hear a story that includes among its heroes a lawyer, a Pentecostal minister and a government bureaucracy. Nor is it every day that you get to hear a story with 52 happy endings.

Apr 29, 2008

The Guinness Book

Os Guinness has popped up on my screen here twice in the past week, so I suppose we should see what's going on with him.

I first encountered Guinness through his entertaining and insightful little book, The Gravedigger File. In that book Guinness shamelessly borrows the mirror-image, devil's eye view of C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters (if you're gonna steal, steal from the good stuff) for a breezy discussion of what he calls there "the subversion of the modern church."

I'd forgotten most of that book, but one thing that has stuck with me over the years since I read it was the Devil's maxim: "Remember 10-10-80."

How many times I have watched him listen to devastating reports in cold silence and then utter the words: "Remember 10-10-80." It is simply the shorthand for his own axiom: Win over 10 percent of the church to be a counter-elite on our side, reduce 80 percent of the church to a state of passive acceptance (either cowed or complacent), and we can disregard the active resistance of the remaining 10 percent (part of which is the lunatic fringe anyway).

This latter 10 percent is a particularly important category. It allows us a margin of error. It also takes into account all those exceptions to the trends we are manipulating successfully. If such exceptions were ever to amount to more than 10 percent, we would have to bring in the contingency plans. But for a long time we have been well within this limit.

That formula seems to me a useful rule of thumb that's applicable well beyond the particular case of religious vitality. (It might apply, to pick just one example, to the current question about whether America is "ready for" a black or female president.)

Anyway, Guinness' name popped up last week due to his involvement with the latest "Evangelical Manifesto," which apparently goes public next week. Sarah Posner discusses the document in her invaluable FundamentaList, linking to this whiny attempt to pre-empt it from Olaskyite Warren Smith.

Smith's knickers are in a bunch because the theologically conservative professors, theologians and pastors involved in producing this manifesto (to be called, apparently, "The Washington Declaration of Identity") didn't kiss the rings of the politically conservative activists, media moguls and other self-appointed bishops who claim to speak for and in lieu of all such theologians and pastors. Smith thus claims the authors of the document "shunned" people like Charles Colson, James Dobson, Tony Perkins and Beverly LaHaye. He suspects this is because of their political views and not because none of those people are actually involved in the leadership of the church (nor does it occur to him that those four might not have been consulted because, to put it mildly, they aren't actually all that bright).

"Why not let voices from the 'conservative' or so-called 'pro-family' wing of the evangelical movement have input?," Smith asks, arguing that their input would have broadened the document's appeal, making it "truly historic."

So, yes, Warren Smith is a concern troll. And he's not even very good at it.

What's really going on here is that this forthcoming document is an effort to reclaim the word "evangelical" as a religious term rather than as a political one. It is, in other words, a critique of partisan demagoguery masquerading as religion -- a critique of exactly the sort of thing that is practiced, professionally, by the very people Smith complains were "excluded" from writing up that critique.

For a foretaste of that critique, let's turn to the second time Os Guinness came across my screen this week. Will Hinton has been reading Guinness' latest book, The Case for Civility, and provides this excerpt:

I am angered by organizers of the Religious Right who play the victim card and appeal openly to Christian resentment. ...

But whether "victimization" then or a "war on Christians" now, such tactics of the Religious Right are foolish, ineffective, and downright anti-Christian. The problem is not that these people are theocrats, but that they are sub-Christian. They do not violate the separation of church and state so much as they violate Christian integrity. Factually, it is dead wrong for Christians to portray themselves as a minority, let alone as persecuted. Christians are as close to a majority community as any group in America ...

Psychologically, victim-playing is dangerous because it represents what Nietzsche called "the politics of the tarantula," a base appeal to resentment. But worst of all, it is spiritually hypocritical, for nothing so contradicts their claim to represent "Christian values" as their refusal to follow the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth by playing the victim card and finding an excuse not to love their enemies. Shame, shame, shame on such people; and woe, woe, woe to such tactics.

Ouch. It's one thing for such a critique to be published in a book and another thing altogether for it to be published as a document signed and endorsed by dozens of prominent theologians and church leaders.

If the leaders of the religious right seriously want to protect themselves from such a critique then they're going to need smarter concern trolls.

(One final caveat: I suspect that, overall, this manifesto will be about as effective as all such "declarations," which is to say not very. We evangelicals are an unruly and disorganized bunch, and these attempts at consensus building by petition are about as close as we come to church polity. The idea is to write something reasonable, sound and persuasive, and then to get as many different "gatekeepers" as possible to endorse it in the hopes that readers will see a name they recognize in the list of signatories and thus regard the statement as worthy of their consideration. It doesn't work very well, but no one has yet come up with a better approach so we keep doing it. As a form of church governance, it's far less efficient, far less decisive, far less authoritative, and infinitely preferable to the Catholic magisterium.)

Apr 27, 2008

Puffy shirt

Identity theft is, at best, an enormous hassle for the victim. At worst it can be devastating. Victims' "credit rating" can be destroyed, forcing them to pay the PPR (poor person's rate) for everything from credit cards to insurance.

For the life of me, though, I can't imagine a circumstance in which being the victim of identity theft would force one to don a pirate costume and sing for tourists in a bad theme restaurant. That's not how it works.

For those readers fortunate enough or wise enough not to be acquainted with American television, I'm referring to this Freecreditreport.com ad. The song is catchy, the premise is puzzling. (But at least not inhuman, like this similar ad, in which our singing pirate advocates checking your beloved's credit rating and, if it is low, breaking up with them. True love, apparently, must first consult the opinions of Transunion, Equifax and Experian.)

I suppose the idea is that our troubadour's low credit rating has forced him to take a second job in order to pay the premium prices of the PPR, and that the only second job available to him was the pirate gig. Or something like that.

While I applaud the revival of jingle-based advertising, FreeCreditReport.com's campaign is based on an absurd lie: the idea that you are responsible, in any way, for fraud committed against a third party by criminals pretending to be you.

Imagine that I put on a pair of glasses and some fake bushy eyebrows and I walked into Warren Buffet's bank. "Why hello there Mr. Teller at Warren Buffet's Bank," I would say. "As you can see from my glasses and bushy eyebrows, I am Mr. Warren Buffet. Please withdraw $20 million from Mr. Buffet's, which is to say my, account, and give it to me, Mr. Warren Buffet."

That, in its simplest form, is what "identity theft" means. The above scheme is unlikely to succeed, but a related scam -- a kind of protection racket based on that scheme -- has proved immensely successful in extorting money from consumers every day.

This secondary scam isn't run to defraud money from banks, it's run by banks to defraud money from their customers. The name of this racket is "Identity Theft Protection."

In this scam, Warren Buffet's bank tells Mr. B. that they are liable, at any moment, to hand over all of his money to the next person who walks into their lobby wearing glasses and fake bushy eyebrows. The bank, they explain, would be helpless to prevent such an occurence. However, for a small fee -- say $20 or $30 a month -- the bank would be willing to offer him Identity Theft Protection. In exchange for this fee, the bank explains, they won't give Warren Buffet's money to anyone who can't prove he really is Warren Buffet. Otherwise, it seems, they can't be expected to distrust or doublecheck anyone who makes such a claim. So the bank is trying to charge an additional $240 or $360 a year to do what it's supposed to be doing anyway.

The bottom line here is, as Kevin Drum put it, "You Own You": "When identity thieves open an account in your name it should be the bank's problem -- not yours." Kevin neatly summarizes the ID-theft protection racket:

For their part, the major credit-reporting bureaus -- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion -- don't seem to care much about the accuracy of their credit reports. In fact, they actually have a positive incentive to let ID theft flourish. Like mobsters offering "protection" to frightened store owners, credit-reporting agencies have recently begun taking advantage of the identity-theft boom to offer information age protection to frightened consumers. For $9.95 a month, Equifax offers "Credit Watch Gold," a service that alerts you whenever changes are made to your credit report. Experian and TransUnion offer similar services. In effect, customers are being asked to pay credit agencies to protect them from the negligence of those same agencies.

One way to cut down on identity theft would be to require commercial credit-reporting bureaus to offer services like this to all their consumers for free. After all, the credit-reporting agencies are the ones who are failing to ensure that their reports don't unfairly penalize victims of ID theft.

That whole article is worth reading for a sane corrective to the bizarre, upside-down view relentlessly promoted by the moneylenders and credit reporting agencies desperate to blame the victims and to put all of the responsibility for preventing identity theft on consumers. That view -- the official one, not Kevin's -- is simply insane. It makes no more sense than arguing that Ronald Reagan was responsible for the bank robberies in Point Break just because Patrick Swayze was wearing a Reagan mask when he committed them.

One more level down, the infectious jingles sung by FreeCreditReport.com's Beck impersonator are also based on another, even more insidious lie -- the notion that one's "credit score" is a worthwhile, accurate or reliable measure of trustworthiness. Failure to make timely payments is one possible reason for a lower "score," but so is the failure to have large amounts of disposable income. By confusing and falsely equating those two things -- being untrustworthy and being poor -- our current obsession with credit scoring feeds into the mythology that the poor are poor because they are less deserving, less moral, less worthy than the rest of us.

A credit score, in other words, is not just an inaccurate and misleading metric; it's also an evil one.

Apr 25, 2008

L.B.: Still unsaved

Left Behind, pp. 426-430

From here on the rest of Left Behind is all building up to the big final scene in which the Antichrist, like Chekhov's gun, finally goes off. The end of Chapter 23 here is part of this build-up, an attempt to create and sustain suspense leading up to Buck's next encounter with Nicolae Carpathia.

Bruce Barnes has just finished providing Buck with a short checklist of things the Antichrist will do during his rise to power: Form one world government based in Babylon, one world currency, one world religion -- pretty much all the things that Nicolae had announced he was instituting earlier that same day.

"Did you see the news today?" Buck asked.

"Not today," Bruce said. "I've been in meetings ..."

This could have been played for laughs (intentional laughs, I mean), or it could have been written as an eerie reveal -- "Everything you just predicted has already happened!" -- but this being Left Behind, we instead get a half-page explanation of the workings of Bruce Barnes' answering machine.

No, really:

Buck told him what had happened at the U.N. Bruce paled. "That's why we've been hearing all those clicking sounds on my answering machine," Bruce said. "I turned the ringer off on the phone, so the only way you can tell when a call comes in is by the clicking on the answering machine. People are calling to let me know. ..."

Sometimes I almost feel sorry for the authors. Here they finally arrive, albeit belatedly, at this Big Reveal, a moment they've been building up to for hundreds of pages. Two major characters finally come to accept the terrifying reality they've both feared for some time but didn't quite dare to believe and then ...

And then the authors just can't help themselves. They immediately steer off into a discussion of the clicking sounds an answering machine makes when the ringer is turned off. Even when they're not actually on the telephone, they wind up talking about the telephone. (I'm starting to wonder if maybe all this telephony has to mean something, that maybe it's some kind of deeper theme the meaning of which, like the recurring bears in John Irving,* simply eludes me.)

This brings us to the "bullets won't stop him" portion of the monster movie. Here Bruce plays the role of the Spooky Old Man in the village who knows all the legends about the local monster, its strengths, weaknesses and super powers.

"The Antichrist is a deceiver. And he has the power to control men's minds. He can make people see lies as truth."

Buck told Bruce of his invitation to the pre-press conference meeting.

"You must not go," Bruce said.

"I can't not go," Buck said. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime."

"I'm sorry," Bruce said. "I have no authority over you, but let me plead with you, warn you, about what happens next. ..."

I can't help but wonder if Bruce were talking to a member of his congregation, would he begin by saying, "I do have authority over you?" I don't think I've ever heard someone use the word "authority" in this context. Usually when taking this line of argument, a person will say something like "I can't tell you what to do," or "I can't make up your mind for you." I can't imagine someone instead saying what Bruce says here unless that person were a military officer or an overbearing CEO or someone else who is accustomed to exercising authority over others.

For some reason, when someone says, "I can't tell you what to do," it never strikes me this way. It never seems as though they're suggesting, "I can tell some people what to do, but you don't happen to be one of those people." Yet that is what Bruce's phrasing seems to imply. It seems as though he's saying, "As a senior pastor, I have authority over my congregation, but since you're not yet part of that congregation, I can't yet give you orders." It's the sort of comment that would make me extremely reluctant to join this man's church.

Bruce is convinced that the Antichrist is Up To Something, yet, despite all his prophecy study, he isn't sure exactly what.

"He undoubtedly has ulterior motives for wanting you there."

"I'm no good to him."

"You would be if he controlled you."

"But he doesn't."

"If he is the evil one the Bible speaks of, there is little he does not have the power to do."

If I'm following this correctly -- and at this point I'm fairly sure I'm not -- it seems that in the LB-verse we humans have free will when it comes to our dealings with God, but not when it comes to our dealings with Satan.

"I warn you not to go there without protection."

(I'll refrain here, but I'll be disappointed if this isn't pounced on in the comment section.)

"I warn you not to go there without protection."

"A bodyguard?"

"At least. But if Carpathia is the Antichrist, do you want to face him without God?"

... "I don't think I'm going to get hypnotized or anything."

"Mr. Williams, you have to do what you have to do, but I'm pleading with you. If you go into that meeting without God in your life, you will be in mortal and spiritual danger."

Ah. Only God can protect you from the Antichrist's mind-control mojo. Here then, neatly laid out, are The Rules for the big final scene unfolding over the next two chapters. Buck will be going to meet the Antichrist who is sure to turn him into the devil's pawn by using his mind-control powers. Unless, that is, Buck instead invokes the counter-spell of divine providence.

I say "counter-spell" because here again LaHaye & Jenkins' notion of spiritual warfare is difficult to distinguish from sorcery. The Antichrist can cast a spell that we are powerless to resist. That would mean we're all doomed except that we can invoke the magic words spell, which God is powerless to resist, and thereby compel God to cast his counter-spell against the Antichrist.

It's kind of like a cosmic game of rock-paper-scissors. Antichrist beats human beats God beats Antichrist.

This is strange theology, to say the least, but if one agrees to go along for the ride without trying to reconcile any of this with conventional or biblical Christianity then these Rules work well enough as a premise for the coming showdown with Nicolae.

In order to maintain the suspense surrounding that showdown, the reader has to be kept in doubt about the state of Buck's soul. This requires something of a departure from the standard tropes of didactic evangelical fiction. This scene cannot end with Buck's conversion, since that would spoil the is-he-or-isn't-he? drama of his encounter with Carpathia.

It's interesting that the authors thought it necessary to up the ante here. They've insisted all along that salvation -- saying "the prayer" and invoking "the transaction" -- is the most important thing in the world. Up until now I'd have thought that, for them, "Without God in your life, you will be in mortal and spiritual danger" could have stood alone as a statement for anyone. Yet here that statement is qualified, "If you go into that meeting without God in your life ..."

This is an odd inversion of the old evangelist's cliche. At some point you've probably heard an evangelist ask some variation of this question: "If you were to stand before God and He were to ask you why He should let you into His heaven, what would you say?" Here, instead, Bruce is in effect asking Buck, "If you were to stand before Satan and he were to ask you why he shouldn't take you to Hell ..."

"If you go into that meeting without God in your life, you will be in mortal and spiritual danger."

He told Buck about his conversation with the Steeles and how they had collectively come up with the idea of a Tribulation Force. "It's a band of serious-minded people who will boldly oppose the Antichrist."

There's no ellipsis there, nothing omitted between those two paragraphs.

So let's recap, according to Bruce: 1. The Antichrist can control the minds of anyone who isn't born again; 2. Buck isn't born again; 3. Buck is about to meet with the Antichrist.

Given all that, Bruce decides the best course of action is to tell Buck all about his super-secret anti-Antichrist guerrilla squad and to provide him a list of the founding members. Genius.

I suspect the idea here has to do with what Bruce and the authors regard as a more compelling sales pitch. A personal relationship with a loving God just doesn't seem as exciting as the idea of being recruited into an army, into God's commando squad.

The Tribulation Force stirred something deep within Buck. It took him back to his earliest days as a writer, when he believed he had the power to change the world. He would stay up all hours of the night, plotting with his colleagues how they would have the courage and the audacity to stand up to oppression, to big government, to bigotry. He had lost that fire and verve over the years ...

If you've ever seen the disturbing documentary Jesus Camp, then you have an idea of how effective this kind of recruiting-proselytization can be. That sort of stirring, heart-pounding call to be a part of some greater cause is what the authors seem to be shooting for here. Note though that Jenkins' clumsy prose again accidentally reveals more than it intends. Staying up late, "plotting ... how they would have the courage and the audacity" is the end point here. Such late-night plotting offers all the thrills and none of the discomfort that comes from actually doing anything that might require courage or audacity.**

But while Bruce has no qualms about telling a reporter all about his top-secret resistance squad and its top-secret plans to undermine the new OWG, he draws the line at letting Buck sit in on their meeting:

"I'm afraid not," Bruce said. "I think you'd find it interesting and I personally believe it would help convince you, but it is limited to our leadership team. Truth is, I'll be going over with them tomorrow what you and I are talking about tonight, so it would be a rerun for you anyway."

So Buck can't come to the meeting because they'll be discussing things that only the leadership team can discuss and which he's already heard anyway. Huh?

Bruce offers a lukewarm invitation to their Sunday church service:

"You're very welcome, but I must say, it's going to be the same theme I use every Sunday. You've heard it from Ray Steele and you've heard it from me. If hearing it one more time would help, then come on out. ..."

Worth noting here that this is, I believe, the only time in the entire book that anyone other than his dead wife calls Captain Steele "Ray."

Buck stood and stretched. He had kept Bruce long past midnight, and he apologized.

"No need," Bruce said. "This is what I do."

"Do you know where I can get a Bible?"

"I've got one you can have," Bruce said.

So Buck departs, still unsaved and thus still uncloaked in godly protection from Nicolae's evil powers. Will he be saved in time? The suspense is killing me. (No, wait, that's the writing. I knew something was killing me.)

The chapter closes with a final two-paragraph vignette inside the exclusive leadership team meeting.

Bruce told the story of Buck Williams, without using his name or mentioning his connection with Rayford and Chloe. Chloe cried silently as the group prayed for his safety and for his soul.

The point of view for this scene is a bit confusing. Thus far the pattern has been for every scene to be from either Buck's or Rayford's perspective. Yet Buck isn't present for this scene, so it can't be from his POV. And the narrator mentions that Chloe is crying, so it can't be from Rayford's POV either since, as a rule, he never notices when his daughter is crying.

Chloe is crying because she knows Bruce is talking about her boyfriend. But I also like to think she's crying because she's smarter than Bruce and she realizes that Pastor Moron has put all their lives in jeopardy by telling her unsaved boyfriend all their secrets before he goes to hang out with Mr. Mind Control. ("The minds behind every military, diplomatic and covert operation in the galaxy, and you put them in a room with a psychic.")

- - - - - - - - - - - -

* Seriously, what's with the bears already? I finished A Prayer for Owen Meany and I thought, "That was beautiful and, for once, no bears." But then I started wondering what the absence of bears might mean ...

** This is why I find the manipulation of children in Jesus Camp horrifying, but I'm not terribly worried about their "revolution" succeeding. As with most of the theocratic strands of American Christianity, I'm more concerned with what the leaders of such groups are doing to their own followers than I am about what they might actually do to the rest of us. This is true of those leaders as well -- they're far more concerned with manipulating their followers than with changing the rest of the world. That doesn't mean, of course, that we can afford to be completely unconcerned with their external agenda and its effects on their external victims, but in opposing that agenda we have always to keep in mind that such groups internal victims are no less real, and no less victims. That's why, for example, I've tried here to focus my criticism on LaHaye & Jenkins as the peddlers of this dangerous nonsense and to avoid, for the most part, mocking their millions of followers.

Apr 24, 2008

Nuclear TFWOT

(That's Thursday Flamewar Open Thread, of course.)

So who said the following, and in response to whom?

"It is not probably prudent ... in today's world to threaten to obliterate any other country and in many cases civilians resident in such a country."

Apr 22, 2008

Election prediction

So yes, I voted this morning. Had I realized that the past six weeks would be like this I would never have complained so much in the past about our primary being too late to make any difference.

Our polls close at 8 p.m. or, rather, when the last person in line by 8 p.m. finishes voting -- and there will be lines.

I've seen dozens of opinion polls in the past week. Taken together, they point to a single undeniable trend, so let me make a bold prediction: John McCain will win the Republican primary here in Pennsylvania.

You heard it here first.

As far as the Democratic side, the only clear trend the polls seem to agree on is that the candidates' names are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

In any case, starting tomorrow we shouldn't have to put up with another visit from Chris Matthews et. al. any time soon. That's something every Pennsylvanian can agree to celebrate.

Apr 21, 2008

Who do we shoot?

Here's one of my favorite scenes from John Ford's film adaptation of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Muley and his son confront The Man who has arrived to evict them from their Oklahoma farm. Muley, played by John Qualen (the condemned sad sack fom His Girl Friday), clings to his shotgun:

MULEY: You mean get off my own land?

THE MAN: Now don't go blaming me. It ain't my fault.

SON: Whose fault is it?

THE MAN: You know who owns the land -- the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company.

MULEY: Who's the Shawnee Land and Cattle Comp'ny?

THE MAN: It ain't nobody. It's a company.

SON: They got a pres'dent, ain't they? They got somebody that knows what a shotgun's for, ain't they?

THE MAN: But it ain't his fault, because the bank tells him what to do.

SON: All right. Where's the bank?

THE MAN: Tulsa. But what's the use of picking on him? He ain't anything but the manager, and half crazy hisself, trying to keep up with his orders from the east!

MULEY: (bewildered) Then who do we shoot?

A host of demagogues these days are eager to answer Muley's question. "Want to know who to blame?" they ask, "We'll tell you."

"Shoot the Mexicans," says Lou Dobbs. "Shoot the lazy blacks on welfare," says Grover Norquist. "Shoot the atheists," says James Dobson. "And the gays," adds his chief politico, Tony Perkins. "Shoot the Islamofascists," say Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and the rightwing bloggers. "Shoot 'em all," says Fox News.

None of those suggestions, of course, are of any use to Muley or to his contemporary counterparts, because none of those scapegoats are really the source of their problems. But the demagogues don't give a rat's ass about solving Muley's problems. Their only concern is making sure that he keeps his shotgun pointed somewhere else, somewhere that doesn't threaten the status quo.

Such demagogues are con artists. And they're good at it. But recognizing that is where things get tricky and difficult to talk about.

Good con artists are difficult to prosecute. This is true, in part, because getting conned is viewed differently than being the victim of other forms of crime. There's a sense of shame, or at least of embarrassment, on the part of the victims, so they're less likely than other crime victims to report the crimes. Con artists know this, and they exploit it -- sometimes compounding that embarrassment by working a con that relies on the mark's greed or chauvinism or some other trait they are unlikely to be proud of and thus making the victim feel complicit in their own victimhood.

It's never easy to tell someone they're being conned. "You've been hoodwinked. You've been had. You've been took," Malcolm X said. "You've been bamboozled." But nobody wants to hear that, even if it's true. Especially not if it's true. It sounds too much like, "You've been a sucker." Or even, "You've been stupid." It seems to add insult to injury so people reject both the message and the messenger. Even if that means continuing to subject themselves to the ongoing injury of the scam. They are, after all, accustomed to it.

Consider, for example, the state-run lotteries. These "games" (scratch-off cards? What joyous fun!) are exempt from federal truth in advertising laws because they aren't fair games -- the pay-out is woefully disproportionate to the odds. Having to explain that the state-sponsored lottery is a stacked deck and a bad bet would likely result in fewer people "playing" (Wheee!), and thus a reduction in the revenue from these lotteries.

That exemption and the lotteries themselves are con games. Yet no politician is ever going to say that. To say that would cost that politician votes across the board. Those who don't waste their money on the lotteries would realize that such a politician was threatening to cut off a sleazy-but-significant source of state revenue that doesn't cost them a penny. That would mean, for them, either an increase in taxes or a reduction in services -- not a popular message. Those who do "play" the lottery would interpret "You've been hoodwinked" as "You're stupid," and that's not going to win many votes either.

The demagogue/con-men wouldn't be sitting idle, either, if some recklessly principled politician were to take such a stance. They would attack that politician as, of course, an "elitist," portraying her or him as sneering and condescending to the salt-of-the-earth, just folks, red-blooded Americans of the heartland. "You've got a chance to keep your farm, Muley," they would say. "You just need to win the lottery. But those elitists don't want you to have that chance. ..."

That cry of "elitism" always follows any attempt to cast light onto what Rick Perlstein calls "The Big Con." A chorus of such cries greeted Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter With Kansas? That book offers an insightful look at how the scapegoating of "liberal elites" has become an integral aspect of maintaining the Big Con. It was thus bitterly ironic, but not at all surprising, that the scapegoaters seized on its publication as a chance to attack Frank as an "elitist" or "limousine liberal." "You see that, Muley?" the demagogues said. "He thinks there's something wrong with you. We like you just the way you are."

This brings us, of course, to Barack Obama and the ridiculousness of the past week here in the Keystone State. At a fundraiser in California, Obama was asked, in essence, "What's the matter with Pennsylvania?" His answer echoed much of Frank's analysis:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. ...And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

That is, among other things, an astute summary of many of the bugbears and distractions the demagogues employ in order to keep the red states red and the shotguns pointed somewhere else.

It was entirely predictable that the demagogues would respond to Obama the same way they responded to Frank. "Elitism!" they cried, tripping over themselves in their best attempts to convey offendedness, desperately trying to brand Obama as a "latte liberal." (The fact that the epithet for a prominent candidate of mixed-race heritage turned out to be "latte" is, of course, a wholly innocent accident of alliteration and it would be wrong to read anything more into that.)

"Then who do we shoot?"

Muley's question is still, more or less, the question asked by every dispossessed, disenfranchised and desperate American family, by everyone whose life seems to be a series of long-odd, low-payout gambles in a rigged game.

We need to be able to talk about this. The Muleys of this world have been ill-served. They've been hoodwinked. They've been had. They've been took. They've been bamboozled. And they will continue to be treated the same way until we find a way to address this honestly.

So we need to be able to talk about this. We need to become the kind of people who are capable of talking about this. If the past week is any indication, we're not there yet.

Apr 19, 2008

Cleaning the lake

Here is the passage I was looking for the other day when I instead stumbled onto that bit about cheese sandwiches. This is from Philip Gourevitch's award-winning history and meditation, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.

The desertion of Rwanda by the UN force was Hutu Power's greatest diplomatic victory to date, and it can be credited almost single-handedly to the United States. With the memory of the Somalia debacle still very fresh, the White House had just finished drafting a document called Presidential Decision Directive 25, which amounted to a checklist of reasons to avoid American involvement in UN peacekeeping missions. It hardly mattered that [UNAMIR commander Maj. Gen. Romeo] Dallaire's call for an expanded force and mandate would not have required American troops, or that the mission was not properly peacekeeping, but genocide prevention. PDD 25 also contained what Washington policymakers call "language" urging that the United States should persuade others not to undertake the missions that it wished to avoid. In fact, the Clinton administration's ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, opposed leaving even the skeleton crew of 270 in Rwanda. ...

A week after UNAMIR was slashed, when the ambassadors of Czechoslovakia, New Zealand and Spain, sickened by the barrage of irrefutable evidence of genocide in Rwanda, began pushing for the return of UN troops, the United States demanded control of the mission. But there was no mission to control. The Security Council, where Rwanda conveniently occupied a temporary seat in 1994, could not even bring itself to pass a resolution that contained the word "genocide." In this proud fashion, April gave way to May. As Rwanda's genocidal leaders stepped up efforts for a full national mobilization to extirpate the last surviving Tutsis, the Security Council prepared, on May 13, to vote once again on restoring UNAMIR's strength. Ambassador Albright got the vote postponed by four days. The Security Council then agreed to dispatch 5,500 troops for UNAMIR, only -- at American insistence -- very slowly.

So May became June. By then, a consortium of eight fed-up African nations had proclaimed their readiness to send an intervention force to Rwanda, provided that Washington would send 50 armored personnel carriers. The Clinton administration agreed, but instead of lending the armor ... it decided to lease it to the UN -- where Washington was billions of dollars in arrears on membership dues -- for a price of $15 million, transportation and spare parts included. ...

By early June, the secretary-general of the UN ... had taken to describing the slaughter in Rwanda as "genocide." But the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights still favored the phrase "possible genocide," while the Clinton administration actually forbade unqualified use of the g-word. The official formulation approved by the White House was: "acts of genocide may have occurred." When Christina Shelley, a State Department spokeswoman, tried to defend this semantic squirm at a press briefing on June 10, she was asked how many acts of genocide it takes to make a genocide. She said she wasn't in "a position to answer," adding dimly, "There are formulations that we are using that we are trying to be consistent in our use of." ...

Shelley was a bit more to the point when she rejected the denomination of genocide because, she said, "there are obligations which arise in connection with the use of the term." She meant that if it was a genocide, the Convention of 1948 required the contracting parties to act. Washington didn't want to act. So Washington pretended that it wasn't a genocide. Still, assuming that the above exchange took about two minutes, an average of 11 Tutsis were exterminated in Rwanda while it transpired. ...

Clinton's brain trust then produced an inventive new reading of the Genocide Convention. Instead of obliging signatory states to prevent genocide, the White House determined, the Convention merely "enables" such preventive action. This was rubbish, of course, but by neutering the word "genocide," the new spin allowed American officials to use it without anxiety. Meanwhile, the armored personnel carriers for the all-African intervention force sat on a runway in Germany while the UN pleaded for a $5-million reduction of the rental charge. When the White House finally agreed to the discount, transport planes were not available. Desperate to have something to show for the constant American protestations of concern about Rwanda, administration officials took to telling reporters that Washington was contributing to a public-health initiative in Uganda to clean up more than 10,000 Rwandan corpses from the shores of Lake Victoria.

Four years later.

Ten years later.

Apr 18, 2008

L.B.: Transactions

Left Behind, pp. 424-426

As Bruce and Buck go around in circles, spiraling closer to Buck's eventual conversion, I find myself reimagining this scene set in "The Box" from Homicide: Life on the Street, with Andre Braugher in the role of the Rev. Det. Bruce Barnes Pembleton. The authors' notion of evangelism isn't that different from the manipulative mind games employed by Braugher's jesuitical policeman when interrogating suspects. It wouldn't seem out of place if, instead of asking Buck to pray, Bruce slid a yellow legal pad across the table and told him that it was time to make a formal statement.

Alas, the scene as actually written has none of the propulsive urgency of that excellent police drama:

"Nobody can force you or badger you into this, Mr. Williams, but I must also say again that we live in perilous times. We don't know how much pondering time we have."

"You sound like Chloe Steele."

"And she sounds like her father," Bruce said, smiling.

"And he, I guess, sounds like you."

I'm not sure if that's supposed to a be little meta-joke there, a winking acknowledgment to the reader that the past 400 pages are filled with repetitious dialogue from often indistinguishable characters.

Bruce's assertion there about "perilous times" in which we can't know "how much ... time we have" is another reminder of how premillennial dispensationalism is shaped by the denial of death. His remark is an accurate statement about the fragile human condition in every place and time. The Bible is filled with such reminders of our mortality. To the PMDs, however, those reminders do not apply to every place and time, they are relegated to this future time period, this other "dispensation." Here in our dispensation, what PMDs call the "Church Age," we can ignore such thoughts of our own finite time by clinging to the hope of, as Irene Steele put it way back on Page 4, "Jesus coming back to get us before we die."

I suppose that's reassuring, provided one doesn't stop to consider that the mortality rate for all humans, RTCs included, is a constant in every time and "dispensation." What mortals these fools be.

"Let me take a different tack," Bruce says:

"I know you're a bright guy, so you might as well have all the information you need before you leave here."

Buck breathed easier. He had feared Bruce was about to pop the question, pushing him to pray the prayer both Rayford Steele and Chloe had talked about. He accepted that that would be part of it, that it would signal the transaction and start his relationship with God -- someone he had never before really spoken to.

"Pop the question" is a strange phrase there, though less theologically troubling than the rest of that paragraph. The motif of God as the patient, wooing lover of humanity is a frequent and, to me, favorite biblical image. Betrothal isn't a bad metaphor for the kind of commitment and relationship Buck is considering here. Or, rather, for the kind of commitment and relationship Buck might have been considering were it not for the metaphor that supercedes that one here and throughout Left Behind -- the idea of a "transaction" initiated by "the prayer." Not just prayer, but the prayer -- the right prayer, the Magic Words.

I can't begin to unpack all the many ways that "transaction" is the disturbingly wrong word in the paragraph quoted above, but let's note that this notion of a transaction would seem to imply that Buck would be the one doing the redeeming here. That's not how we Christians usually think of this.

The authors' magic-words notion of prayer also explains what they mean here when Buck says that God is "someone he had never before really spoken to." Prayers not properly formulated and precisely addressed (with the correct ZIP+4) simply don't count. Foxhole-prayers and desperate cries addressed to "if there's anyone out there" don't count. God doesn't listen to things like Renan's agnostic's prayer ("Oh God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul"). Nor does God listen to any supplicant who doesn't pronounce his name precisely right.

Years ago I was arguing with a fundamentalist friend over the meaning of Acts 4:12, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." This meant, he said, that salvation was impossible unless one spoke that precise name, the name of "Jesus Christ of Nazareth." Teasing him a bit, I reminded him that the book of Acts was written in Greek, and that Peter was most likely speaking in Aramaic, so if salvation required the pronunciation of that precise set of syllables, then saying it in English wouldn't seem to count. This clearly troubled him. I'm fairly sure he went home to look up those magic words in Greek and Aramaic, reciting them again just to be safe.

"I don't mean to be morbid, Mr. Williams, but I have no family responsibilities anymore. I have a core group meeting tomorrow and church Sunday. You're welcome to attend. But I have enough energy to go to midnight if you do."

[Insert gratuitous Ted Haggard joke here.]

Core group meetings (and super-ultra-inner-core group meetings) and church services make up Bruce Barnes' agenda these days now that he has slid into the "senior pastor" role left vacant by the disintegration/rapture of his boss. That raises the question of who now is serving as New Hope Village Church's visitation pastor. That ministry is more important than ever here in the traumatized post-Event world. Every family in the new congregation, every family everywhere, is now struggling to cope with the loss of their children. Others would still be in painful limbo -- their traveling spouses missing for more than a week now, whether raptured or dead in a plane crash no one yet knows. Those people are all going to need the attention of a minister in some form other than prophecy classes and Sunday services. The need and the pain of such people would be the dominant fact facing any church in the days, weeks and months after such an epic tragedy, yet this dynamic is completely absent from the authors' portrayal of the life, schedule and agenda of New Hope church.

We've noted before that the United Nations scenes in LB are completely unrealistic, bungling every aspect and detail of how that institution works and what actually goes on there. The authors' laziness, lack of research and failure of imagination is inexcusable, but their ignorance in that case is at least understandable, since neither of them has any actual experience or familiarity with that institution.

Yet the scenes in this book set in the offices of Global Weekly or New Hope Village Church are also wholly unreal. Such scenes also botch and bungle the details, the rhythm, the culture and the daily life of those institutions. This is confounding. Jerry Jenkins was, for years, the chief editor of a monthly magazine. Tim LaHaye has been, for decades, the pastor of a church. Despite their own histories with such institutions, their portrayal of them still seems as alien, lazy and ignorant as their portrayal of the U.N.

This is baffling. It's like listening to someone describe himself inaccurately while looking into a mirror. (Perhaps that explains it, actually.)

Anyway, I nominate poor, shattered Loretta to fill the now-vacant position of visitation pastor. She's visibly broken and short on answers. That should make her much better at the job than Bruce ever was.

Bruce spent the next several hours giving Buck a crash course in prophecy and the end times. ...

What this means for readers is a summary of the authors' description of the Antichrist, accompanied by a fevered description of Buck's increasing anxiety:

Buck's blood ran cold. He fell silent, no longer peppering Bruce with questions or comments. He scribbled notes as fast as he could. ... His fingers began to shake. ... Buck was overcome. He felt a terrible fear deep in his gut.

I'm starting to worry about his health. Buck's anxiety here stems from the similarities between the Antichrist that Bruce describes and Nicolae Carpathia:

At one point he thought of accusing Bruce of having based everything he was saying on the CNN report he had heard and seen, but even if he had, here it was in black and white in the Bible.

The CNN report is, of course, fictional. So too is this version of the Bible and its purported description of "the Antichrist."

Antichrist stories are, in a sense, a bit like vampire stories. Just as every new storyteller must reinterpret the vampire legends, deciding which parts to keep and which to revise (crosses, garlic, sunlight, mirrors, wood, running water, invitations, etc.), so too every new Antichrist storyteller must do the same -- whether, as here, in fiction or in purportedly non-fiction "prophecy" studies. Both kinds of stories are based on various, sometimes contradictory legends and neither (despite LaHaye's claims) can rely on any actual or canonical account that establishes the "real" characteristics of such monsters.

Because of this, as this series of books progresses, it's interesting to watch the dynamic in this passage reverse itself. Here Bruce and Buck begin to realize that Carpathia's actions closely parallel those supposedly prophesied in the Bible. Such similarities exist, at this point, because the character of Carpathia and his actions are based on those prophecies.

Yet because those prophecies of the Antichrist's actions are also largely a creation of the authors' imagination, the influence and the similarity begins to reverse itself as the Left Behind saga develops. The Antichrist they find "literally" prophesied in the pages of the Bible comes to resemble Nicolae rather than the other way around. They start projecting their own fictional character back into their convoluted prophecy scheme. More on this much later, when we get to some of the sequels (if the Lord tarries and/or we live that long).

I've commented before on the strange way that the authors (and many of their fans) seem to regard these books as evidence that these biblical prophecies are true. That wouldn't be the case even if these books were, as the authors claim, a fictional narrative devised to illustrate the fulfillment of those prophecies.

But that's not really what these books are. They are a fictional narrative concocted by the authors to illustrate the fulfillment of prophecies which were also concocted by the authors. They are two opposing mirrors, with nothing in between.

Apr 17, 2008

Open thread

... I was reminded of a conversation I had with an American military intelligence officer who was having a supper of Jack Daniel's and Coca Cola at a Kigali bar.

"I heard you're interested in genocide," the American said. "Do you know what genocide is?"

I asked him to tell me.

"A cheese sandwich," he said. "Write it down. Genocide is a cheese sandwich."

I asked him how he figured that.

"What does anyone care about a cheese sandwich?" he said. "Genocide, genocide, genocide. Cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich. Who gives a shit? Crimes against humanity. Where's humanity? Who's humanity? You? Me? Did you see a crime committed against you? Hey, just a million Rwandans. Did you ever hear about the Genocide Convention?"

I said I had.

"That convention," the American at the bar said, "makes a nice wrapping for a cheese sandwich."

From We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch.

Apr 15, 2008

Old news

I want to link to a couple of items from today's paper, so let me first reassure you that I'm not trying to turn into Will Bunch and don't intend to make a daily dose of local news a regular feature.

Neither of these stories, mind you, is anywhere near as important as this or this or this, but I haven't yet gotten to the point where I can discuss those without sliding into a profanity-filled tirade. I can't yet offer any more helpful comment than to point out that these people are perverse and monstrous and, based on their own words, their own admission, the question is not how long they should be allowed to remain in office but how long they should be forced to rot in jail. These motherless bast...

OK, no. See? Still a bit too sputtery to discuss all of that. Soon, though. For now I'll just stick to a couple quickie notes from today's paper.

- - -

Here's the AP's follow story on the government-sponsored research on using sewage sludge to try to neutralize lead-contaminated soil.

The mix of human and industrial wastes from sewage-treatment plants was spread on the lawns of nine low-income families in Baltimore and a vacant lot next to an elementary school in East St. Louis, Ill., to test whether lead in the soil from chipped paint and car exhausts would bind to it.

The research conducted in 2001 and 2002 was funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Agriculture Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The idea being tested here might be a good one. The way it is being tested is troublesome for two big reasons, neither of which has anything to do with the ickiness of sludge. The foul smell here comes from something else.

First, and most obviously, this is a test, an experiment. This research was being conducted to find out whether or to what extent, if any, mixing such sludge with contaminated soil might be effective in neutralizing the toxic lead present there. The people conducting this research, in other words, were doing so because they do not yet already know whether or to what extent this might be effective. That's what "research" and "experiment" mean. Yet when they arranged for this research with those nine families in Baltimore and the hundreds of families whose children attend that East St. Louis school, the researchers didn't present the technique as experimental -- they told those families that they already knew that this method would be effective. They didn't already know this. What they told those families was not true.

Second, the researchers also reassured those families, with greater confidence than they could claim, that they were certain the sludge itself posed no additional threat. That was probably true, but not the certainty it was presented to be. Those families had the right to be informed of the distinction between pretty sure and certain.

The research being conducted here was worthwhile, noble even. These families were already living in a toxic environment and the researchers hoped, suspected and believed that they might have a way to help with that. That's what they should have told these families.

The most scandalous thing here has nothing to do with the researchers or with sludge. The deeper scandal is the problem those researchers were trying to address: That it is not unusual in this country for poor, black children to live their lives surrounded by the toxic threat of lead. Researching a potential way to neautralize that toxin is one step up. Conducting that research dishonestly and unethically is two steps back.

- - -

The other piece of news from today's paper isn't really new, just an astonishing bit of local history from 40 years ago -- a look back at former Delaware Gov. Russell W. Peterson's decision to end the military occupation of the City of Wilmington.

This is one of those things that I initially had to read and re-read to convince myself that I'd read it right. The what? In the rioting that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. 40 years ago, Delaware's Gov. Charles L. Terry Jr. called in the National Guard to patrol the city. OK, I get that. That happened in a lot of cities in the spring of 1968. But in Wilmington, the National Guard troops stayed for nine and a half months. The troops patrolled the city until Terry was voted out of office.

Peterson, a Republican of the sort that's much harder to find these days, campaigned on the promise that he would end the military occupation of this American city. Peterson's speech, given just before taking office, strikes me as worth quoting today:

What has happened in Wilmington is a warning not only to the citizens of Delaware but to all Americans. The deeply disturbing fact is that many citizens not only favored, but demanded the military patrols.

American tradition says, “It can’t happen here.”

Our experience in Delaware tells us that, to an alarming extent, it has happened here. History tells us that when people voluntarily accept military controls, for any reason, they often end up losing their own freedom.

Apr 14, 2008

Perfectly safe

From today's paper: "Bill would restrict voting to property owners."

Last week, [Republican State Rep. Deborah] Hudson introduced House Bill 358, a one-line bill that would restrict voting in school-tax referendums to those who actually pay the tax. Only citizens who live in the district and own property there would be allowed to vote in referendums, though renters and other nonproperty owners living in the district still could vote in school board elections.

But by Thursday, Hudson learned that there was a problem with her bill: the Constitution.

Oh, right, the Constitution. Pesky that.

Makes one wonder whether the elementary schools Rep. Hudson attended were adequately funded. Maybe they couldn't afford history or social studies teachers when she was in school. Or math and economics teachers -- since she also seems to think renters don't contribute to paying property taxes.

- - -

This Dude will not abide.

"Your friends got brains in their heads," the ridiculous Officer Rivieri says, "they know when to shut their mouths."

Unfortunately for Rivieri, those friends also had a video camera. And a YouTube account. Here's to the Internet for making it slightly more uncomfortable to be a bully with a badge. (via Avram at Making Light)

- - -

Also from today's paper: "Study didn't warn families of sludge risks."

BALTIMORE -- Scientists using federal grants spread fertilizer made from human and industrial wastes on yards in poor, black neighborhoods to test whether it might protect children from lead poisoning from the soil. Families were assured the sludge was safe and were never told about any harmful ingredients.

Nine low-income families in Baltimore row houses agreed to let researchers till the sewage sludge into their yards and plant new grass. In exchange, they were given food coupons as well as the free lawns as part of a study published in 2005 and funded by the Housing and Urban Development Department.

... There is no evidence there was ever any medical follow-up.

... Another study investigating whether sludge might inhibit the "bioavailability" of lead -- the rate it enters the bloodstream and circulates to organs and tissues -- was conducted on a vacant lot in East St. Louis next to an elementary school, all of whose 300 students were black and almost entirely from low-income families.

In a newsletter, the EPA-funded Community Environmental Resource Program assured local residents it was all safe.

"Though the lot will be closed off to the public, if people -- particularly children -- get some of the lead-contaminated dirt in their mouths, the lead will just pass through their bodies and not be absorbed," the newsletter said. "Without this iron-phosphorus mix, lead poisoning would occur."

Soil chemist Murray McBride, director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute, said he doesn't doubt that sludge can bind lead in soil.

But when eaten, "it's not at all clear that the sludge binding the lead will be preserved in the acidity of the stomach," he said. "Actually thinking about a child ingesting this, there's a very good chance that it's not safe."

I suppose it's important to keep in mind the big picture here, remembering all the lives this research might save in the future due to all we're learning about syphilis lead poisoning.

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