A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Noise of the Day 9/30/09

Gene Lyons on the warmongering of Beltway pundits.
TV news anchors gravely pronounce upon the "Iranian threat," as if a nation whose military budget totals less than 2 percent of ours, and which suffered millions of casualties defending itself against Saddam Hussein's mighty legions, seeks war with the United States. Or possibly with Israel, although detonating a nuclear weapon there would kill countless thousands of Iran's Palestinian clients, destroy some of Islam's holiest sites and bring a devastating counter-strike from Israel's nuclear arsenal. Skeptics are advised that Iran's (very unpleasant) leaders are "madmen," like Adolf Hitler. "Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman," as Cohen famously wrote in 2003, "could conclude otherwise." Never mind that the Post columnist was then invoking the dread specter of Saddam Hussein's (nonexistent) "weapons of mass destruction." Also that we fools and Frenchmen turned out to be correct. Bogus intelligence and vapid cheerleading drove the United States into an unnecessary war.


Rachel Maddow on how the Republicans are shocked, shocked by Rep. Alan Grayson.

Gail Collins on Obama's Olympics trip.
No American president has gone to lobby for the Olympics before. But then no American president had gone on the David Letterman show before. No president had ever made a speech in Cairo before. No president had ever been called a liar by a U.S. representative during a speech to Congress. No president had ever been accused of “following Marxist theory” by Andy Williams, the pop singer we haven’t heard from since “Moon River” was in vogue.

What I'm Reading

Notes on The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, Part III: The Invention of Christianity

These days, proclaiming oneself a Christian can put you in the company of political belligerents, right-wingers and ideologues. Which may be one reason I now choose to call myself an agnostic rather than what my upbringing suggests: a conflicted Christian. But reading Wright's account of the origins of Christianity does reinforce my sense of alienation from the religion in which I was raised.

For one thing, Wright's depiction of the "historical Jesus" is somewhat unsettling: He comes across as anything but the Sunday School "gentle Jesus, meek and mild," or even the appealing, if austere, moral philosopher that I fancied him as in my maturity. If, as Wright does, we take the gospel of Mark as "the most factually reliable of the four gospels" because it's the earliest in composition and hence closest to the time in which Jesus lived, he "sounds rather like other healers and exorcists who roamed Palestine at the time" and "like a classic shaman in a 'primitive' society." Moreover, "the earliest renderings of his message will disappoint Christians who credit Jesus with bringing the good news of God's boundless compassion."
In short, if we are to judge by Mark, the earliest and most reliable of the four gospels, the Jesus we know today isn't the Jesus who really existed. The real Jesus believes you should love your neighbors, but that isn't to be confused with loving all mankind. He believes you should love God, but there's no mention of God loving you. In fact, if you don't repent of your sins and heed Jesus's message, you will be denied entry into the kingdom of God.... In Mark there is no Sermon on the Mount, no beatitudes. Jesus doesn't say, "Blessed are the meek" or "Turn the other cheek" or "Love your enemy."
To be sure, there exists the possibility that what's missing from Mark -- including the Sermon on the Mount -- may have been recorded in another document, known as "Q," that was a source for Matthew and Luke, "and some scholars think it was much earlier, bearing at least as close a connecton to the 'historical Jesus' as Mark does." But in Wright's view of things, what Jesus actually said is less important than what Paul made of his words and his life. "[M]ore than Jesus, apparently, Paul was responsible for injecting [Christianity] with the notion of interethnic brotherly love."
In the Roman Empire, the century after the Crucifixion was a time of dislocation. People streamed into cities from farms and small towns, encountered alien cultures and peoples, and often faced this flux without the support of kin.... The Christian church was offering the spirit of kinship that people needed.... In that letter to the Corinthians that is featured at so many weddings, Paul used the appellation "brothers" more than twenty times.
Wright sees Paul as an entrepreneur, "who wanted to extend the brand, the Jesus brand; he wanted to set up franchises -- congregations of Jesus followers -- in cities across the Roman Empire." As the CEO of Christianity, he used the only "information technology" he had at hand, the epistles, "to keep church leaders in line." And the "brotherly love" that he promoted in his letters was a way of making "churches attractive places to be" and also "a tool Paul could use at a distance to induce congregational cohesion."

Another means to attracting followers among the Gentiles was to rid the church of some of the harsher aspects of Jewish Law, such as circumcision:
In the days before modern anesthesia, requiring grown men to have penis surgery in order to join a religion fell under the rubric "disincentive." Paul grasped the importance of such barriers to entry. So far as Gentiles were concerned, he jettisoned most of the Jewish dietary code and, with special emphasis, the circumcision mandate.
Still, "Paul may have considered himself a good, Torah-abiding Jew, albeit one who, in contrast to most other Jews, was convinced that the Jewish messiah had finally arrived. (In none of his letters does Paul use the word 'Christian.')"

Paul also went out of his way to recruit converts from among the well-to-do. "Though Christianity is famous for welcoming the poor and powerless into its congregations, to actually run the congregations Paul needed people of higher social position." Wright notes that the early convert mentioned in Acts, Lydia, was "a dealer in purple cloth," which was "a pricey fabric, made with a rare dye. Her clientele was wealthy, and she had the resources to have traveled to Macedonia from her home in Asia Minor. She was the ancient equivalent of someone who today makes a transatlantic or transpacific flight in business class." And one of the perks of becoming a Christian was that the churches offered hospitality -- lodging, advice, "connections," etc. -- to other Christian travelers.
Paul's international church built on existing cosmopolitan values of interethnic tolerance and amity, but in offering its international networking services to people of means, it went beyond those values; a kind of interethnic love was the core value that held the system together.
But we haven't quite got to the concept of universal love yet. "If you were outside the circle of proper belief, Christians didn't really love you -- at least, they didn't love you the way they loved other Christians.... Even the people who had introduced this God to the world, the Jews, didn't qualify for the kingdom of heaven unless they abandoned Judaism."

Paul's organizational skills wouldn't have been enough to allow Christianity to survive if he hadn't had a product to sell. That product was salvation: "The heart of the Christian message is that God sent his son to lay out the path to eternal life." The odd thing is that this notion of "Jesus as heavenly arbiter of immortality ... would have seemed strange to followers of Jesus during his lifetime." T
he whole question of heaven, of the kingdom of God, grew more complicated when it became more apparent that the kingdom Jesus preached was not going to arrive in the lifetimes of the first believers.

Wright points out, "In the gospels, Jesus doesn't say he'll return." He refers instead to prophesies in the Hebrew Bible of "a 'Son of Man' ... who will descend from the skies at the climax of history." It took much ingenious reasoning on the part of early Christians to interpret this as Jesus referring to himself. But it "may have been crucial in the eventual triumph of Christianity.... The postmortem identification of Jesus with the Son of Man was a key evolutionary adaptation."
Wright notes, "It is more than a decade after Paul's ministry before Christian literature clearly refers to immediate reward for the good in the afterlife.... Had Christian doctrine not made this turn, it would have lost credibility as the kingdom of God failed to show up on earth -- as generations and generations of Christians were seen to have died without getting their reward."

Of course, the concept of immortal life was not unique to Christianity, so what the young religion also needed to do was provide what other religions also did: "not just a heavenly expectation, but an earthly experience: a dramatic sense of release," a lifting of people's "burdensome sense of their moral imperfection -- the sense of sin." One of Paul's contributions to the selling of Christianity was to define sin "so that the avoidance of it sustains the cohesion and growth of the church." So in the epistle to the Galatians, Paul provides a list of sins, of which only two "-- idolatry and sorcery -- are about theology. The rest are about workaday social cohesion" -- things like adultery, promiscuity, drunkenness, jealousy, envy, anger. Avoiding these sins "makes a blissful afterlife contingent on your moral fiber -- a fiber that, in turn, gives sinew to the church itself."

In the end, the arrival of Christianity also signified a next step in the evolution of god -- the concept of the deity as "protective, consoling, and, if demanding, at least able to forgive." But he cautions against attributing this concept entirely to Christianity. It arose in part because of the development of civilization, which "defused old sources of insecurity" such as attacks from wild animals or the need to hunt for one's daily sustenance, but also created new psychological insecurities.
Christians worship a loving father God, and many of them think this god is distinctively Christian: whereas the God of the Old Testament features an austere, even vengeful, father, the God of the New Testament -- the God revealed by Christianity -- is a kind and forgiving father. This view is too simple, and not only because a god who is kind and merciful shows up repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible, but because such gods had shown up long before the Hebrew Bible was written.... Any religion that grew as fast as Christianity did must have been meeting common human needs, and it's unlikely that common human needs would have gone unmet by all earlier religions.

Christianity was the outgrowth of a particular social system, but that system has radically changed. "When Christianity reigned in Rome, and, later, when Islam was at the height of its geopolitical influence, the scope of these religions roughly coincided with the scope of whole civilizations." But now the world "is so interconnected and interdependent that Christianity and Islam, like it or not, inhabit a single social system -- the planet."
So when Christians, in pursuing Christian salvation, and Muslims, in pursuing Muslim salvation, help keep their religions intact, they're not necessarily keeping the social system they inhabit intact. Indeed, they sometimes seem to be doing the opposite.


Nicety of the Day 9/30/09

Connie Casey recalls the early days of the National Book Critics Circle -- a time when the Mercury News had a (gulp) 12-page stand-alone book section.
“Is this your school paper, honey?” said the publicity director of a major publishing house somewhere in Manhattan’s East 50s. I’d been hired to start a book section for the San Jose Mercury News and given 12 pages to fill in a Sunday tabloid—Arts & Books. Different days. Needless to say, the Merc no longer has a book section. There barely is a Mercury News at all.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Noise of the Day 9/29/09

Steve Coll on the "ink spot" strategy in Afghanistan.
To try to take and control the entire land mass of Afghanistan in the present climate might require as many as five hundred thousand troops, police, and militia, some military specialists believe; in any event, it would take more troops than are currently available, even if Obama goes all in. To adapt to these truths, the Pentagon is apparently migrating toward a modified version of the approach that the Soviets came to as they prepared to withdraw after a similar duration of their own war.
More by Coll on Afghanistan here.

Jon Stewart on indoctrinating school children.
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Noise of the Day 9/27/09

Paul Krugman on the lack of urgency on climate change.
The larger reason we’re ignoring climate change is that Al Gore was right: This truth is just too inconvenient. Responding to climate change with the vigor that the threat deserves would not, contrary to legend, be devastating for the economy as a whole. But it would shuffle the economic deck, hurting some powerful vested interests even as it created new economic opportunities. And the industries of the past have armies of lobbyists in place right now; the industries of the future don’t.


Garry Wills on Obama's inability to bring about real change.
The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial transfer of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the commander in chief, the worldwide network of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the entire national security state, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the cold war and the cold war with the "war on terror"—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to effort at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order.

What I'm Reading

Notes on The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, Part II: The Emergence of Abrahamic Monotheism

When I was a sophomore in college, I was in an honors seminar in which we discussed the Big Ideas of Western civilization. One week, the professor asked us, "Why do we think monotheism is superior to polytheism?" I remember that the discussion fizzled, perhaps because we were in the Bible Belt, where most of us were raised to think that the existence of one and only one god was revealed truth. I was open to the question, but I don't think I came up with an answer, other than that maybe we prefer unity to diversity. Which of course elicited only another "why" from the professor.

It has occurred to me since then that many nominally monotheistic believers have polytheistic tendencies. After all, surveys show that an awful lot of people believe in angels who are more than just God's messengers, but also do things like push people out of the way of oncoming buses and such. And then there's the widespread belief in the existence of Satan, which suggests that a lot of people are Manichaeans without knowing it. And there's also the Trinity, which seems to me a needless multiplication of entities that should have been lopped off by Occam's razor.

I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that according to Robert Wright's reading of it, the Bible -- at least the Old Testament -- is kind of confusing on this monotheism thing. "If you read the Hebrew Bible carefully, it tells the story of a god in evolution, a god whose character changes radically from beginning to end." It not only starts with the "hands-on deity" whom Adam and Eve hear walking in the garden, but also with a god who seems to belong to an entourage of deities: "It talks more than once about a 'divine council' in which God takes a seat; and the other seats don't seem to be occupied by angels." It concludes with a god who is omnipotent, omniscient, solitary
and surprisingly detached from the affairs of humankind -- "indeed there is no mention of him at all in the last book of the Hebrew Bible, Esther." In short, "Israelite religion reached monotheism only after a period of 'monolatry' -- exclusive devotion to one god without denying the existence of others."

Wright also tells us, "It's even possible that Yahweh, who spends so much of the Bible fighting against those nasty Canaanite gods for the allegiance of Israelites, actually started life as a Canaanite god, not an import." He cites evidence that the northern Canaanite god named El may have been a precursor of Yahweh, "that Yahweh in some way emerged from El, and may even have started life as a renamed version of El." Wright notes that in Part I, he has already established that "the ancient world was full of politically expedient theological fusions." In this case, Yahweh "rose through the ranks" because of "a shift in the relative power of northern and southern Israel, of El's heartland and Yahweh's heartland." And "whatever the truth about Yahweh's early history, there is one thing we can say with some confidence: the Bible's editors and translators have sometimes obscured it -- perhaps deliberately, in an attempt to conceal evidence of early mainstream polytheism."

But Yahweh seems to have emerged not only from El, but also from that more notorious Canaanite deity, Baal. Some passages in the Bible, including even the parting of the Red Sea, seem to have curious parallels to myths attributed to Baal.
One initially puzzling aspect of the situation is that Baal, throughout the Bible, is Yahweh's rival. Bitter enmity doesn't seem like a good basis for merger. But, actually, in cultural evolution, competition can indeed spur convergence. Certainly that's true in modern cultural evolution. The reason operating systems made by Microsoft and Apple are so similar is that the two companies borrow (that's the polite term) features pioneered by the other when they prove popular. So too with religions.
In the Bible, "Yahweh beats Baal in the showdown arranged by Elijah, and then later 'appears' to Elijah -- invisibly, ineffably -- on Mount Sinai. ... a milestone in the evolution of monolatry, a way station on the road to full-fledged monotheism." Wright observes that the first Commandment -- "You shall have no other gods before me" -- is a "monolatrous verse often read as monotheistic."

Wright puts the rejection of "foreign" gods, the solidifying of the Israelites' belief into a single god, Yahweh, in the context of the times:
This ancient sociopolitical environment is a lot like the modern sociopolitical environment as shaped by globalization. Then as now international trade and attendant economic advance had brought sharp social change and sharp social cleavages, delimiting affluent cosmopolitans from poorer and more insular people. Then as now some of those in the latter category were ambivalent, at best, about foreign influence, economic and cultural, and were correspondingly resentful of the cosmopolitan elites who fed on it. And, then as now, some of those in the latter category extended their dislike of the foreign to theology, growing cold toward religious traditions that signified the alien. This dynamic has to varying degrees helped produce fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Jews, and fundamentalist Muslims. And apparently it helped produce the god they worship.

Another reason for Yahweh's emergence was that he had always been a god of battles, "the god who could authorize war and guide his people through it ...; he was the commander-in-chief god. So Yahweh would naturally draw popular allegiance from international turmoil." So when Josiah became king around 640 BCE, he destroyed the temples of other gods. "Josiah's reign marked a watershed in the movement toward monotheism. Yahweh and Yahweh alone ... was now the officially sanctioned god of Israelites."

But calamity was about to befall them: the Babylonian exile. And the interesting thing is that this great national catastrophe only made Yahweh stronger. "To think of your god as losing so abjectly was almost to think of your god as dead. And in those days, in that part of the world, thinking of your national god as dead meant thinking of your nationality as dead." So the conclusion was that "the outcome had been Yahweh's will." He must be punishing us for our sins by letting something so awful happen to us, went the reasoning, and "any god that wields a whole empire as an instrument of reprimand must be pretty potent." Maybe even ... omnipotent?
An apt response when a people kills your god is to kill theirs -- to define it out of existence. And if other nations' gods no longer exist, and if you've already decided (back in Josiah's time) that Yahweh is the only god in your nation, then you've just segued from monolatry to monotheism.... Monotheism was, among other things, the ultimate revenge.

Meanwhile, as the Israelites were turning to monotheism as a way of explaining what had happened to them, the Greeks were finding their own path to monotheism through scientific inquiry. "The more nature was seen as logical -- the more its surface irregularities dissolved into regular law -- the more sense it made to concentrate divinity into a single impetus that lay somewhere behind it all." Which in turn inspired a Jewish thinker living in Alexandria, Philo. "Ethnically and religiously he was a Jew. Politically, he lived in the Roman Empire. Intellectually and socially, his world was heavily Greek." Philo's cosmopolitanism gave him an appreciation for what we would now call diversity, and it made him value tolerance in particular.

Tolerance, in fact, was emerging in post-exilic Jewish thought, as evidenced in the books of Ruth and Jonah. The latter happens to be one of my favorite books in the Bible, mainly because it's perhaps the funniest. Not just the whale stuff, but the character of Jonah himself, so put-upon by God's insistence that he go and cry out against Nineveh, and then so ticked off when God changes his mind and decides not to destroy the city after all. God gets one of the great punchlines when he replies to Jonah's pique: "And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle."

As Wright puts it, "Traditionally, this sort of ignorance -- not knowing good from evil -- is what had stirred God's wrath, not his compassion.... In the book of Ezekiel, God was proud of having made Assyria suffer 'as its wickedness deserves.' Now, in Jonah, the suffering of Assyrians gives God no pleasure, and their wickedness he sees as lamentable confusion. This is a god capable of radical growth." (And that aside about the cattle is a hoot.)

God's growth is what gives Wright hope for the world's religions: "when I say God shows moral progress, what I'm really saying is that people's conception of god moves in a morally progressive direction." Which provokes this question:
[I]f the human conception of god features moral growth, and if this refelcts corresponding moral growth on the part of humanity itself, and if humanity's moral growth flows from basic dynamics underlying history, and if we conclude that this growth is therefore evidence of 'higher purpose,' does this amount to evidence of an actual god?
For the moment at least, the question remains rhetorical as Wright returns to Philo of Alexandria and another problem that plagues people of faith: the conflict of science and religion. In Philo's case, it was one of "cognitive dissonance. Philo believed that all of Judaism and large parts of Greek philosophy were true, and so long as they seemed at odds, he couldn't rest easy." So "[w]hile Jesus was preaching in Galilee, Philo, over in Alexandria, was laying out a world-view with key ingredients, and specific terminology, that would show up in Christianity as it solidified over the next two centuries."

One way that Philo went about reconciling Greek science and Jewish religion was to treat much of the latter as allegorical and symbolic -- an anticipation of what most non-fundamentalist believers have had to do. And to explain God's role in the world, he used the term "logos," which meant "word" and "speech" and "account" and "computation" and "reason" and "order." "In his mission to reconcile a transcendent God with an active and meaningful God, Philo would draw on all these meanings, and more." Wright compares Philo to a computer programmer or a video game designer.
Long before modern science started clashing with the six-day creation scenario in Genesis, Philo had preempted the conflict by calling those six days allegorical: they actually referred not to God's creation of the earth and animals and people, but to his creation of the Logos, the divine algorithm, which would bring earth and animals and people into existence once it was unleashed in the material world. ... God himself is beyond the material universe, somewhat the way a video game designer is outside of the video game. Yet the video game itself -- the algorithm inside the box -- is an extension of the designer, a reflection of the designer's mind.

But the video game analogy is inadequate, Wright notes: "However transcendent God is, we can get closer to actual contact with him than Pac-Man could ever have gotten to Toru Iwatani, Pac-Man's creator."
[T]he Logos is a little like the Buddhist concept of dharma: it is both the truth about the way things are -- about how the universe works -- and the truth about the way we should live our lives given the way things are. It is the law of nature and it is the law for living in light of nature. This double entendre is hard for some people to accept, as today we often separate description (scientific laws) from prescription (moral laws). But to many ancient thinkers the connection was intimate: if basic laws of nature were laid down by a perfect God, then we should behave in accordance with them, aid in their realization; we should help the Logos move humanity in the direction God wants humanity to move in.

Of course, we've heard about the Logos elsewhere, in the beginning of the book of John. But that's the next section of the book.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Noise of the Day 9/26/09

Frank Rich on Obama and Afghanistan (and Vietnam).
Though he came to the presidency declaring Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” circumstances have since changed. While the Taliban thrives there, Al Qaeda’s ground zero is next-door in nuclear-armed Pakistan. Last month’s blatantly corrupt, and arguably stolen, Afghanistan election ended any pretense that Hamid Karzai is a credible counter to the Taliban or a legitimate partner for America in a counterinsurgency project of enormous risk and cost. Indeed, Karzai, whose brother is a reputed narcotics trafficker, is a double for Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt South Vietnamese president whose brother also presided over a vast, government-sanctioned criminal enterprise in the early 1960s. And unlike Kennedy, whose C.I.A. helped take out the Diem brothers, Obama doesn’t have a coup in his toolbox.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Noise of the Day 9/25/09

Paul Krugman on the next fight in Congress.
The campaign against saving the planet rests mainly on lies. Thus, last week Glenn Beck — who seems to be challenging Rush Limbaugh for the role of de facto leader of the G.O.P. — informed his audience of a “buried” Obama administration study showing that Waxman-Markey would actually cost the average family $1,787 per year. Needless to say, no such study exists.
Krugman adds a footnote to his column here.

Continuing the subject, Joe Conason on European conservatives who favor climate change legislation.
As a rule, of course, European conservatives tend to be more moderate and liberal, in the modern sense, than those on the American right. That is especially true in the Nordic countries. But even the more radical conservatives in Europe, who tend to emulate American and British conservatism, uphold environmental values and grasp the challenge of climate change.
Rachel Maddow and Jeremy Scahill on why ACORN is the wrong target.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Noise of the Day

David Cay Johnston on the Republican tendency to favor property over people.
Along the Gulf Coast, on the barrier islands on the Atlantic, in below-water expanses behind river levees and in desert communities plagued by flash floods, our federal government is there using tax dollars to help take care of damaged property. But people? Providing a public option so people can buy health insurance through the federal government is "socialism," according to Senator John Kyl, the Republican senator from Arizona, a desert state where flash floods are as permanent a feature of reality as sickness and injury. Will someone ask Kyl why he favors what he calls socialist policies for property, but not people?
Rachel Maddow on how the mainstream media distort the ACORN story.

What I'm Reading

Notes on The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, Part I: The Birth and Growth of Gods

I was raised Methodist, which in my small Southern town was a little lower than the angels -- i.e., the Episcopalians. We could pride ourselves on not being Baptists, but were uncertain where we stood with regard to the Presbyterians. (We had a suspicion they were higher on the social scale, but maybe not much.) I remained Methodist through college, but all it did was make me priggish, conflicted, and sexually timid.

When I left home, I met Catholics and Jews (and sometimes a few Protestants) whose faith was real and profound, integral to their existence in ways that my own had never been. But I knew I could never be like them; I lacked something, perhaps the cultural roots that nourished these friends. My own roots were in the sandy loam of Mississippi and easily dislodged, and in graduate school I flirted with Episcopalianism, thinking that I might find my roots there -- after all, I was an English major. But I gave it up once the novelty wore off of attending services in a church that George and Martha Washington once worshiped in and where Teddy Roosevelt once taught Sunday school.

My drift away from religion had begun.
Occasionally, like the woman in Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning," "I still feel / The need of some imperishable bliss." But the tug toward belief grows fainter as I'm borne along toward my three-score-and-tenth year. There are few questions that religion can answer for me that aren't answered by science, few moral problems that can't be settled for me by law and custom, few insights into humankind that aren't supplied to me by literature and art. Sometimes I feel something listening to religious music -- Bach chorales, Handel's "Messiah," the Verdi Requiem, Brahms' "Deutsches Requiem," the soprano's ecstatic outburst of "Christe" in Mozart's C minor Mass, even the old hymns I used to sing in church -- but the experience is aesthetic, not qualitatively different from what I experience listening to great secular music. Or else it's nostalgia, a sentimental regret for losing something I once thought I had. True, I have prayed at times of stress, but if my words flew up, my thoughts remained below. What comfort I received was in focusing and thereby calming my thoughts, and if I heard a replying voice it was my own.

I can't go all the way to atheism, however. Maybe the immensity of the observable universe suggests that there must be a point to something so vast, so strange, so not me. And so I call myself agnostic for want of a better label. The realization that others find something -- meaning? truth? help? -- in religion leads me to try to understand what it is, which is why I find myself reading books about it.


Like this one. Robert Wright's premise that religious beliefs undergo a process of natural selection, that the ones most useful in helping their believers survive are the beliefs that prevail, would have gotten him burned at the stake at one time. (And still might in parts of Oklahoma and Texas.) But it fits with what I know of history. He asserts that "religion has been deeply shaped by many factors, ranging from politics to economics to the human emotional infrastructure.


Evolutionary psychology has shown that, bizarre as some "primitive" beliefs may sound -- and bizarre as some "modern" religious beliefs may sound to atheists and agnostics -- they are natural outgrowths of humanity, natural products of a brain built by natural selection to make sense of the world with a hodgepodge of tools whose collective output isn't wholly rational.

He begins in prehistory, with the gods of the hunter-gatherers -- a difficult place to start because we know so little about these societies. What we do know is that unlike Jews, Christians, or Muslims, their belief systems weren't "constrained from the outset by a stiff premise: that reality is governed by an all-knowing, all-powerful and good God." And that, "in hunter-gatherer societies, gods by and large don't help solve moral problems that would exist in their absence."
Even if religion is largely about morality today, it doesn't seem to have started out that way. And certainly most hunter-gatherer societies don't deploy the ultimate moral incentive, a heaven reserved for the good and a hell to house the bad. ... There is always an afterlife in hunter-gatherer religion, but it is almost never a carrot or a stick. Often everyone's spirit winds up in the same eternal home.
Their religions also weren't about maintaining social order, because their societies were so small and the threats to them so great that social cohesion was necessary for survival. What hunter-gatherer religions do have in common with the contemporary religions of the world is that "they try to explain why bad things happen, and they thus offer a way to make things better."

These societies also had people who discovered that they could gain power by figuring out what the gods wanted: "Once there was belief in the supernatural, there was a demand for people who claimed to fathom it. ... The shaman is the first step toward an archbishop or an ayatollah." This leads Wright into some very interesting (one might say trippy) speculations on the genuineness of the transcendental experiences claimed by shamans.


No doubt the world's shamans have run the gamut from true believer to calculating fraud.... In any event, there is little doubt that many shamans over the years have had what felt like valid spiritual experiences. .... Evolutionary psychology, the modern Darwinian understanding of human nature, ... explain[s] the very origins of religious belief as the residue of built-in distortions of perception and cognition; natural selection didn't design us to believe only true things, so we're susceptible to certain kinds of falsehood. But ... our normal states of consciousness are in a sense arbitrary; they are the states that happen to have served the peculiar agenda of mundane natural selection. That is, they happen to have helped organisms (our ancestors) spread genes in a particular ecosystem on a particular planet. .... The psychologist William James .... explored the influence on consciousness of things ranging from meditation to nitrous oxide and concluded that "our normal waking consciousness" is "but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness enttirely different." James's position in the book -- that these alternative forms may be in some sense more truthful than ordinary consciousness -- is the properly open-minded stance, and it has if anything been strengthened by evolutionary psychology.

This leads Wright to the "not outlandish metaphysical prospect: there is such a thing as pure contemplative awareness, but our evolved mental machinery, in its normal working mode, is harnessing that awareness to specific ends, and in the process warping it." The main point is that shamans, with their supposed privileged insights into ultimate things, emerged as powerful forces in their societies, whether for good or for ill.
There are people who think religion serves society broadly, providing reassurance and hope in the face of pain and uncertainty, overcoming our natural selfishness with communal cohesion. And there are people who think religion is a tool of social control, wielded by the powerful for self-aggrandizement -- a tool that numbs people to their exploitation ("opiate of the masses") when it's not scaring them to death. In one view gods are good things, and in one view gods are bad things.

But Wright poses another question: "Isn't it possible that the social function and political import of religion have changed as cultural evolution has marched on?" The next step is "The chiefdom, the most advanced from of social organization in the world 7,000 years ago, [which] represents the final prehistoric phase in the evolution of social organization and the evolution of religion." Wright's chapter on the age of chiefdoms focuses on Polynesia, where religion took its role as a supplement to political authority: "Across Polynesia broadly, religion encouraged exacting work and discouraged theft and other antisocial acts." And with the emergence of larger societies, the ancient city-states, the more productive a religion made its people, the more likely that religion was to survive: "So religions that encouraged people to treat others considerately -- which made for a more orderly and productive city -- would have a competitive edge over religions that didn't."

In Mesopotamia, rulers discovered that it was to their advantage to accept other cities' gods as equal to their own.

In an age when people feared gods and desperately sought their favor, an intercity pantheon of gods that divided labor among themselves must have strengthened emotional bonds among cities. Whether or not you believe that the emotional power of religion truly emanates from the divine, the power itself is real.
Thus, "in the ancient world conquerors -- the great ones, at least -- were less inclined to smash the idols of their vanquished foes than to worship them." The next step is to fuse several deities into one: "The melding of religious beliefs or concepts -- "syncretism" -- is a common way to forge cultural unity in the wake of conquest, and often ... what gets melded is the gods themselves." We're on the road to monotheism.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What I'm Listening To

Benjamin Britten, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Brian Asawa (Oberon); Sylvia McNair (Tytania); Carl Ferguson (Puck); Robert Lloyd (Bottom); Ian Bostridge (Flute). London Symphony Orchestra, New London Children's Choir, conducted by Colin Davis.

I have to confess that A Midsummer Night's Dream has been spoiled for me, at least musically speaking, by Mendelssohn. It's what I expect to hear whenever I encounter the play, thanks largely to Warner Bros. and that mad 1935 version with Mickey Rooney as Puck and James Cagney as Bottom. Nevertheless, Britten's version, with its wonderful orchestral variety, grows on me every time I hear it. I sometimes wish that Britten had had Shakespeare as his librettist for everything, instead of people like Myfanwy Piper. (Someday I will find out how to pronounce "Myfanwy," and stop thinking "my fanny" every time I see it.) This is a lovely recording: Sylvia McNair is a sweet-voiced Tytania, Brian Asawa a commanding Oberon, and Robert Lloyd acts splendidly as Bottom. But in some ways the biggest surprise is Ian Bostridge, whom I'm used to thinking of as a rather arty singer; but he's hilarious as Flute/Thisbe.

Noise of the Day

Jon Stewart on Obama's media blitz. (Don't miss the Peggy Noonan bit.)
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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George Packer on the McChrystal report on Afghanistan.
The only surprise is the impressiveness of McChrystal’s analysis. I was wrong in May when I questioned the appointment of a special-operations man to run this war. McChrystal’s report is written in plain English, it’s self-critical, and it shows more understanding of the nature of the fight in Afghanistan than most journalism and academic work.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Noise of the Day

Hunter on the argument that private companies can't compete with the government.
First off, if health insurance companies ran the mail service you couldn't actually expect to send mail anywhere. You would have a list of addresses it was OK to send mail to, and if you wanted to send your packages anywhere else you'd have to deliver it your own damn self.

For Your Consideration

A friend from my high school days sent me a copy of his new book, understanding that I have a policy against reviewing books by people I know. (Surest way I know to lose friends.) But that policy doesn't preclude my letting others know that the book exists, especially when -- as in this case -- I think they might benefit from it.

Claude V. DeShazo is a retired surgeon who, 27 years ago, founded a support group called Renewal for cancer patients and their families. In his book,
Renewal: Finding Your Path to Self-Healing in Cancer, Claude -- I guess I should say, Dr. DeShazo -- shares some of his experiences and those of his patients, and provides some guidelines for dealing with the treatment and recovery process.

Mercifully, I haven't had to face the kinds of crises that the book deals with. (Much knocking on wood here.) So I have no expertise in evaluating the book. But what I've read in it is moving and sensitive and sensible and caring, so I have no hesitation in suggesting that if you're in need of the doctor's advice you should certainly check it out. There's more information on
the book's Web site: www.renewalhealing.com.

Save the Insurance Companies

Monday, September 21, 2009

Noise of the Day

Nate Silver on the odds of passing health care reform.
It's one thing for some combination of the 59 Senate Democrats, plus Olympia Snowe, plus Ted Kennedy's replacement in Massachusetts, plus perhaps one or two retiring Republicans like George Voinovich, to have the intention of passing health care reform. It's another thing to actually do it.

David Neiwert on the connection between right-wing rhetoric and violence.
Accusing Beck and O'Reilly of validating right-wing violence isn't like connecting Marilyn Manson to Columbine -- which is to say, connecting something that only tenuously could be said to actually inspire or advocate violence. It's much more like connecting radical imams to 9/11.

Jonathan Chait on why health care reform may be a success that looks like a failure.
If health care passes, will it be a grand historical achievement, or a crushing disappointment? The answer, I predict, will be both. The American health care system is an indefensible morass of waste and cruelty. The distance between the status quo and the ideal is therefore so vast that we could—and probably will—end up with a reform that massively improves the system, while coming nowhere close to the ideal.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

What I'm Watching

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Did Woody Allen find something new in himself by getting out of New York City? I haven't been a Woodyphile for many years, but this struck me as fresh and funny work. (I haven't seen the films he made in England.) Admittedly, it's the same old neuroses -- though incorporated in Rebecca Hall's Vicky instead an aging male worrywart. And there's nothing particularly new in playing off uptight Americans against volatile Europeans. But the handling of actors is masterly, especially Penélope Cruz, who deserved her Oscar. It's the best work by her I've seen outside of Almodóvar's films.

Noise of the Day

Frank Rich on the real danger posed by Glenn Beck.
Beck is not, as many liberals assume, merely the latest incarnation of Rush Limbaugh. He is something different. That’s why he is gaining on his antecedents — and gaining traction in the country’s angrier precincts.

Steven Berlin Johnson on the digital lifestyle.
The kind of deep, immersive understanding that one gets from spending three hundred pages occupying another person’s consciousness is undeniably powerful and essential. And no medium rivals the book for that particular kind of thinking. But it should also be said that this kind of thinking has not simply gone away; people still read books and magazines in vast numbers.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Noise of the Day

Jamison Foser on Time's cover story about Glenn Beck.
In its new issue, Time features a cover profile of the Fox demagogue, written by David Von Drehle -- a profile that downplays or ignores Beck's defining qualities, draws false equivalencies between liberals and conservatives, portrays obvious lies as simple differences of perspective, and omits Beck's most shocking and outrageous statements.

Jason Rosenbaum on a community organizer arrested for protesting an insurance company rate hike. (Note: I'm aware that there's probably another side to this story, but I post it as an example of how heated things are getting.)
If the insurance companies win, you lose, and if you protest, you'll be arrested. That's health care in this country right now, but it cannot be our future. Reform must work for you, not the industry, and that means no more denying care for pre-existing conditions, coverage you can afford, and the choice of a public health insurance option to increase competition and keep these greedy corporations honest.

Tom Chivers on the 20 worst sentences in Dan Brown's novels.
8. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 3: My French stinks, Langdon thought, but my zodiac iconography is pretty good.
And they say the schools are dumbing down.

Bob Herbert on the revival of racism.
On Nov. 22, 1963, as they were preparing to fly to Dallas, a hotbed of political insanity, President Kennedy said to Mrs. Kennedy: “We’re heading into nut country today.”

What I'm Reading

Notes on The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

It amazes me that I haven't read this book before, considering that I once thought Thornton Wilder was the greatest living writer. (That was when he was living, and I was 16.) Like everybody else's, my high school put on a production of Our Town. I was in it, playing three parts: Professor Willard (who comes out in the first act and gives a boring little monologue about the geological, historical, and ethnographic features of Grover's Corners), Si Crowell (the newsboy who exchanges a few words with the milkman at the beginning of act two) and, in the cemetery scene in the third act, the Second Dead Man (who has one line, "A star's mighty good company," from which I tried to milk all manner of profundity until the director made me stop).

I fell in love with the play, and went on to read The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker. (The latter was musicalized into Hello, Dolly! but it's a pretty good play on its own. There's a charming film version of it, made in 1958, with Shirley Booth, Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine, Paul Ford and Robert Morse.) Wilder's theatrical trick is to break the fourth wall: In each of his plays, someone comes out to talk directly to the audience -- the Stage Manager in Our Town, Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth, Dolly in The Matchmaker. Somehow Wilder manages to make keep this from becoming over-didactic, but I think it betrays something essential about his craft: He thought of himself as more novelist (who manipulates the point of view) than playwright (who is forced to make the point of view that of the audience).

Which is a little sad, because if Wilder is known at all today, it's for his plays. He wrote seven novels, of which The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the second and still the best-known. It won him a Pulitzer Prize (as did Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, making him the only person to win Pulitzers for both fiction and drama) and it was No. 1 on the bestseller list, making him a rich man. (Okay, pause here to reflect on how different the bestseller list must have been in 1928 from what it is in 2009. From The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a subtle, sly work with roots in classical French and Spanish literature, to The Lost Symbol.)

Even if you've never read The Bridge of San Luis Rey, you probably know its setup, which is announced in the novel's opening sentence: "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below." The novel then tells the stories of the five travelers, leading up to their fatal fall, and of Brother Juniper, who witnesses the accident and decides to examine these lives to discern what God's plan might have been in bringing about their simultaneous end.

Wilder tells the stories of the five people himself, rather than through what Brother Juniper discovers about them. Or rather, an omniscient narrator (not necessarily to be identified as Wilder, because the prose style of the narrative is faintly antique) tells their stories. Brother Juniper learns, "The art of biography is more difficult than is generally supposed." The surviving acquaintances of the deceased are reticent or unreliable: "Those who know most in this realm, venture least." And Brother Juniper comes only to the most banal of conclusions: "He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven." We, who have seen these lives in their full complexity and contradictions, are incapable of making such a conclusion.

Even so, for Brother Juniper, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, partly because he commits the heresy of using Enlightenment methods to acquire it.
It seemed to Brother Juniper that it was high time for theology to take its place among the exact sciences and he had long intended putting it there. ... [T]his collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey was a sheer Act of God. It afforded a perfect laboratory. Here at last one could surprise His intentions in a pure state.


But then most readers will come to the account of the travelers on the bridge with similar expectations of finding a moral in the story. After all, one perennial nonfiction bestseller is When Bad Things Happen to Good People. We want to know what it means when catastrophe befalls the innocent. After the collapse of the bridge, Wilder writes, "People wandered about in a trance-like state, muttering; they had the hallucination of seeing themselves falling into a gulf." And who of us didn't feel like that on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001?

That's why the last sentence of the book feels forced to me: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning." I think Wilder set himself too large a task: to reflect upon the propensity to try justifying the ways of God to humankind. But fiction forces closure upon itself, and "the bridge is love" feels trite and sentimental. Moreover, it contradicts what Wilder himself wrote to a former student in a letter: "The book is not supposed to solve. ... Chekhov said, 'The business of literature is not to answer questions, but to state them fairly.'"

I think what kept Wilder from being one of the greats, like his contemporaries Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, was that he started with the idea and tried to find a story to go with it. Theodicy in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the place of ordinary people in the cosmos in Our Town, the arc of history in The Skin of Our Teeth -- big ideas all, threatening to smother the human element in a blanket of intellectualism. Of course, even the greats made that mistake -- think of Faulkner's A Fable or Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, works undermined by too much brooding on the cosmic, too much willingness to let symbolism supplant the simple elements of fiction: character and plot.

That said, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a storehouse of memorable characters and wonderful writing. Wilder acknowledged that he hadn't been to Peru, and that his sources were mostly French, not Spanish. And yet there are times when he seems to be anticipating the work of the great Latin American writers, such as Borges or García Márquez. Take this passage about the Marquesa de Montemayor, for example:
She combed the city for wise old women and poured into her letters the whole folkwisdom of the New World. She fell into the most abominable superstition. She practiced a degrading system of taboos for her child's protection. She refused to allow a knot in the house. The maids were forbidden to tie up their hair and she concealed upon her person ridiculous symbols of a happy delivery. On the stairs the even steps were marked with red chalk and a maid who accidentally stepped upon an even step was driven from the house with tears and screams.


Wilder has a way of slipping in breathtaking bits of detail, as in this description of the long-at-sea Captain Alvarado:
He was blackened and cured by all weathers. He stood in the Square with feet apart as though they were planted on a shifting deck. His eyes were strange, unaccustomed to the shorter range, too used to seizing the appearances of a constellation between a cloud and a cloud, and the outline of a cape in rain.


Or this:
There was something in Lima that was wrapped up in yards of violet satin from which protruded a great dropsical head and two fat pearly hands; and that was its archbishop.


Or this:
It was the hour when bats fly low and the smaller animals play recklessly underfoot.


Now, I ask you: In what contemporary bestseller would you find writing like that?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Noise of the Day

Joe Conason on the ACORN controversy.
To claim that the stupid behavior of a half-dozen employees should discredit a national group with offices in more than 75 cities staffed by many thousands of employees and volunteers is like saying that Mark Sanford or John Ensign have discredited every Republican governor or senator. Indeed, the indignation of the congressional Republicans screaming about ACORN and the phony streetwalker is diluted by the presence of at least two confirmed prostitution clients -- Rep. Ken Calvert and Sen. David Vitter -- in their midst. Neither of those right-wing johns has been even mildly chastised by their moralistic peers. Nobody is cutting off their federal funding.

Rachel Maddow and Cleve Jones on the threat of political violence.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Noise of the Day

Ta-Nehisi Coates on how Obama is uncovering racism on the right.
For black people, the clear benefit of Obama is that he is quietly exposing an ancient hatred that has simmered in this country for decades. Rightly or wrongly, a lot of us grew tired of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, mostly because they presented easy foils for Limbaugh-land. Moreover, again rightly or wrongly, they were used to define all of us.
Andy Kroll on how lobbyists still run Washington.
For all the talk of the flood of small, individual donations to Obama's historic 2008 election campaign, its coffers overflowed with money from financial powerhouses like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase and corporations like General Electric, Google and Microsoft. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Obama still ranks near the top among all recipients when it comes to contributions from the health, defense, financial and energy industries.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Noise of the Day

Jonathan Chait on Ayn Rand and her acolytes.
In reality, as a study earlier this year by the Brookings Institution and Pew Charitable Trusts reported, the United States ranks near the bottom of advanced countries in its economic mobility. The study found that family background exerts a stronger influence on a person’s income than even his education level. And its most striking finding revealed that you are more likely to make your way into the highest-earning one-fifth of the population if you were born into the top fifth and did not attain a college degree than if you were born into the bottom fifth and did. In other words, if you regard a college degree as a rough proxy for intelligence or hard work, then you are economically better off to be born rich, dumb, and lazy than poor, smart, and industrious.
James Surowiecki on financial reform.
The idea of learned helplessness, which was introduced in the late nineteen-sixties by the psychologist Martin Seligman as a result of experiments with dogs, is that when people are subjected to repeated negative events that they have no control over, it’s easy for them to become convinced that they’re permanently helpless, and that there’s no point in trying to change things, because all such efforts are doomed to failure. Certainly Wall Street has subjected the U.S. economy to repeated disasters over the past thirty years, and the fact that we haven’t done anything to change this meaningfully may make it seem that we can’t do anything to change this. But what was doesn’t have to be what will be.

E.J. Dionne on health care for illegal immigrants.
If you saw a woman struck by a car, would you call an ambulance right away? Or would you first ask for her papers to make sure she was not an illegal immigrant? If someone living down the street from you were suffering from the H1N1 flu, wouldn't you want him to get immediate medical help? Would you rather see him in pain and perhaps spread the disease to others in your neighborhood?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Noise of the Day

Glenn Greenwald on how the tea-party protests get it right and wrong at the same time.
The premise of these citizen protests is not wrong: Washington politicians are in thrall to special interests and are, in essence, corruptly stealing the country's economic security in order to provide increasing benefits to a small and undeserving minority. But the "minority" here isn't what Fox News means by that term, but is the tiny sliver of corporate power which literally writes our laws and, in every case, ends up benefiting.

Michael Lind on the racism behind the United States' rejection of social welfare programs.
The original Social Security Act passed only after domestic workers and farmworkers -- the majority of black Americans, in the 1930s -- were left out of its coverage, at the insistence of white Southern politicians. Aid to Families With Dependent Children, a New Deal antipoverty program that became identified in the public mind with nonwhite "welfare queens," was a target of popular resentment for half a century before it was finally abolished by the Republican Congress and President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Noise of the Day

Roger Cohen on the real differences between French and American health care.
So beyond all the hectoring, the main French-American difference on health care is not ideological but a question of efficiency. Both countries use a mixture of public and private. France is at a very far remove from “socialism.” The United States has already “socialized” a significant portion of its medicine. (Nothing illustrates right-wing ideological madness in the United States better than calls from some to “keep the government out of my Medicare!”)

Cory Doctorow on Philadelphia's library closing.
Picture an entire city, a modern, wealthy place, in the richest country in the world, in which the vital services provided by libraries are withdrawn due to political brinksmanship and an unwillingness to spare one banker's bonus worth of tax-dollars to sustain an entire region's connection with human culture and knowledge and community. Think of it and ask yourself what the hell has happened to us.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What I'm Watching

Kiki's Delivery Service
A charmer, more linear, less crowded with mysterious detail than other Miyazaki films such as Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. And hence, I guess, more suited for children -- although I certainly wouldn't want to deprive a kid of the wonders of the other films. I wonder, though, at the mittel-Europäisch detail of the streets and architecture of the city in the film (also found in Howl's Moving Castle for that matter), and the absence of Asian people in the crowds on the street. Why are Miyazaki's cities not identifiably Japanese? Is it the Disney influence, the feeling that a "storybook" film has to look like it was written by the Brothers Grimm?

Noise of the Day

Ronald Brownstein on the disaster of Bush's presidency.
On every major measurement, the Census Bureau report shows that the country lost ground during Bush's two terms. While Bush was in office, the median household income declined, poverty increased, childhood poverty increased even more, and the number of Americans without health insurance spiked. By contrast, the country's condition improved on each of those measures during Bill Clinton's two terms, often substantially.

James Rucker on why fighting back against Glenn Beck is important.
The right wing media machine, of which Beck is now one of the leading members, is the single greatest force standing in the way of change. They have already helped derail the conversation on health care.... And they will do the same to the upcoming debates over clean energy, immigration, and every progressive policy priority. We simply don’t have the luxury of ignoring them. We must challenge them head on, expose their distortions, take away their advertisers, and position their views where they belong: far outside the bounds of any rational political discourse.

Frank Rich on the problems caused by Obama's no-drama style.
Obama’s leadership poll numbers have also suffered from his repeated deference to Congress. Waiting for the pettifogging small-state potentates of both parties in the Senate’s Gang of Six is as farcical as waiting for Godot.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Song for a Friday Night

Noise of the Day

M.J. Rosenberg on what the Garfield assassination can tell us about today's political climate.
The Republicans need to understand that hate cannot be contained in neat little corners or bottled and used as needed. It explodes, whether the haters want a full-blown explosion or not.

Glenn Greenwald puts Joe Wilson's outburst in perspective.
The American Right is indeed dominated by crazed extremists who often seem barely in touch with basic reality and who are at war with core American political values, but Joe Wilson's irreverence is one of the least significant examples of that, if it's one at all.

Joe Conason on the limits of Republican empathy.
Only after her husband began to disappear into the twilight of Alzheimer's disease did Mrs. Reagan perceive the value of the kind of government action they both had spent a lifetime denigrating. Government was the problem, not the solution, according to the Reaganite dogma. But then Nancy realized that federal support for stem-cell research might someday bring relief to patients like her beloved Ronnie, and anguished families like hers. Suddenly, spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on something other than Star Wars wasn't such a terrible idea.

Why I Am a Socialist

Today is a solemn anniversary for the country, but it's also an anniversary for me -- one that brings a mixture of emotions. A year ago this morning, I woke up with a headache and a curious gap in my eyesight. Several hours later, I was in the Stanford Hospital emergency room -- not a place you ever want to be -- and beginning a series of tests. The essential details of my experience are here, here, here, and here.

A year later, I'm about as back to normal as one ever gets from an experience like that. I still gulp a handful of pills (two antibiotics and a B6 tablet to counteract their side effects) every morning, just to be on the safe side. But I'm as active as I ever was (which is not very), don't tire as easily as I did a couple of months ago, and my eyesight has only a slight glitch in it. (Hard to describe. It's kind of like a little wrinkle in the peripheral vision. When I'm driving -- and yes, I drive carefully -- I have to keep scanning leftward because oncoming traffic sometimes disappears into the wrinkle.)

We still don't know what caused the abscess in my brain. It may have been tuberculosis (though I once doubted it) or nocardia. Whatever it was, the treatments -- the round-the-clock IVs, followed by the daily trip to outpatient infusion, followed by the pills -- seem to have worked. Well, one would hope three weeks in hospital, followed by two months in a nursing home, followed by nine months of medication would do something.

But the good thing is that all of this -- tens of thousands of dollars of surgery, doctor visits, MRIs, CTs, endoscopies, broncoscopies, nursing care, rehab therapy, IVs and infusions and pills -- was covered by my insurance: Medicare and an AARP supplemental policy. I'm a happy senior citizen, one who knows that he has benefited from a government program. I'm also aware that I have been paying for it for years through payroll deduction, and am still paying for it in smallish (by comparison with private insurance) monthly premiums.

Oh, sure, I have some gripes about Medicare, but they're minor ones. (For one thing, I could have had my round-the-clock infusions at home instead of having to stay in the nursing home, but Medicare doesn't pay for home treatment -- even though, given the cost of meals and other institutional overhead, it would probably save them some money.) The point is, it works -- and works well.

Which is why I'm so ardent about health care reform and so intolerably annoyed by the sound and fury that has been generated by the attempts to bring it about. Everyone deserves the kind of care and attention I have gotten for the past year, and anyone who says otherwise is a damn fool.