Archive for August, 2010

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

The real reason "Juraissic Park" filmed in Kauai...

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Toxic Talk: How the Radical Right has Poisoned America’s Airwaves” by Bill Press.

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

Review: “Toxic Talk: How the Radical Right has Poisoned America’s Airwaves” by Bill Press.  (Thomas Dunne Books, 2010).
Bill Press is host of the nationally syndicated Bill Press Show, also on Sirius XM, and writes a syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. He is the former co-host of MSNBC’s Buchanan and Press and CNN’s Crossfire and The Spin Room. Press lives in Washington, D.C.”

I wasn’t familiar with Bill Press, though I’m certain I’ve seen him as a “talking head” on television at some point.  I snagged this book from the “new arrivals” section at the library, and figured I was due for a primer on Conservative “talk radio”.

Despite the seemingly inescapable derisory tone of pundits (the author of this book being one of this pundits), the book is a good overview of the major personalities and events that have led to the astonishing dominance of the talk-radio landscape by Conservative blowhards large and small.  I found the book highly informative and useful, even while wishing the author weren’t such a talk personality himself.  On the up side, however, we are hearing from a man who’s been in the business and has worked with more than a few of the people he profiles.

The book gives us a history of the talk radio revolution, and then breaks out into mini-biographies of the players in Conservative talk, including second- and third-tier personalities.  (Fox News is not left out of the discussion, of course).

The tone of the book aside, Press cites reliable sources for some great debunking of the many whoppers told by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the others (a practice that would be much more fun to read were the lies not so disturbing).

“Toxic Talk” is a light read, and breezes by pretty fast.  Part of why I wanted to read it is that it’s been dawning on me that many of the people I engage in debate are carrying around crazy ideas that I have been slow to appreciate.  Understanding that these ideas are out there and knowing where they are coming from is just plain good information to have!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Sunset in Bratislava” The not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

The view from the bridge that evening in Bratislava.

One evening in late Summer, 1987, I stood at the center of a massive iron bridge watching the sun set behind Bratislava castle.  Looking down I caught a glimpse of two men in a canoe slipping beneath me on the dark, fast waters of the Danube.

It’d been a long day.

“Dave” and I had left our campground outside of town early that morning to find A) a pair of wire-cutters, and B) a place where we could make an international call to the number in The Netherlands we’d memorized in case of emergency.

The solenoid on the starter of our Peugot camper van was out, and we still had secret compartments packed full of Christian books that we hadn’t had a chance to deliver to our contacts in Czechoslovakia (having only had time to make one midnight contact in Ostrava before the starter began acting) up.

We were stuck behind the iron curtain with a load of smuggled, illegal books in a city that — despite it’s size — had no more than a handful of locations where one could make an international call.  Earlier in the day I’d found a pair of Russian-made wire cutters at a huge department store downtown, and Dave tried to call our home base from the International Hotel downtown.  But the phone that was supposed to be manned 24 hours a day just rang and rang.  So now we were killing time, watching the sun set behind the castle on the hill until we could try another phone call.

As we leaned on the heavily-painted edge of the bridge, I began to make a sort of mental list of all the hardships and anguish this trip had put me through.  It was like I was writing up a bill to present to someone, to the person or persons who owed me for my trouble.  In the next moment a question rose up from the river in the form of my internal voice: “Who are you going to give that bill to?” it asked.  “Who owes you for that?”.

Immediately I knew the answer:  Nobody.  There was no-one I could hold accountable for my situation: stranded in a Communist country with a load of contraband hidden in a broken vehicle we could allow no mechanic to touch.  I had made every choice that led me to this day, and every person that was part of the preparation and execution of this “literature trip” had every right to assume that I was making those choices based on my own deeply-held convictions.  But I hadn’t, really.  It was painfully clear that I had relied on the confidence and assurance of others, and had, in essence, put my own liberty at risk for other people’s reasons.

In that moment I understood all too clearly that my pattern of “deferring to amateurs” could not continue.  I had to take responsibility for my own life.  It was up to me to know why I was doing whatever I was doing, because when the time came to answer for it, there would be no-one standing beside me, no-one else to blame and no-one to bail me out.

Looking back on it now, this was a critical moment in my movement away from the Christianity that had brought me to that summer of being one of God’s smugglers.

It was late that nigh, around midnight, calling from the central train station (the Hotel’s phone office had closed by then), that we finally got through to our base, and I got permission to “hot-wire” the damn van and get the hell out of Czechoslovakia.  We missed the last tram out of town, and walked the dark miles back to our campground in a light drizzle.  In the morning, I stripped one half of our set of jumper cables, got that van running, and we didn’t turn it off until early the next morning in an autobahn rest area in West Germany.

It was some months later, on a Winter night back in the U.S., that the final, weakened supports for my religiosity — after 15 years of belief — quietly collapsed.

Of course the ending of that story was the beginning of another 15 years of searching for the reality to replace the make-believe.  And though I now feel like the “big” questions of life have been answered, in a way I feel like I have only just recently emerged from the various spells of belief and magical thinking that we humans are so prone to, to stand, at last, ready to face the reality of my own life, and of our existence on this spinning planet as it hurtles around the sun.

That afternoon on the Bratislava bridge, I felt that mental “bill” slip from my fingers and float down into the swift, roiling current of the Danube, to be carried away to the place where all forgiven debts go.

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Some species don't like standing in line, but they'll do it.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism” by Anatol Lieven

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

“America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism” by Anatol Lieven, Oxford University Press, 2004.

This is an important book.  Fortunately, it’s also a darn good read and a well-researched book.  (I’ve noticed that several of the books I’ve read lately, though incredibly dense, are shorter that I originally anticipated as the last 50-odd pages are the notes to the text!)

Lieven lays out the cultural and political history of what he calls our “national creed” and our “national antithesis”, the former being our aspirations toward individual liberty and participatory democracy, and the latter being our messianic willingness to force our ways upon other cultures around the globe.  The author neatly weaves in his knowledge of European history to draw illuminating parallels to our own progress as a nation from our founding to the present (in this case, 2004 — still in the middle of the Bush years).

The author lets us know that this book is written for an international audience that wants to understand why the most powerful nation on earth behaves the way it does.  And, boy, is our split-personality behavior set out for us to consider!  Yet the tone of this book strikes me as completely fair, and motivated by a deep admiration for the many (and undisputed) good things that America both represents and does in the world.  In that sense, it satisfies my own American vanity in the same way that I might enjoy the attention of a doctor on whatever concern brought me into his or her office.  The prescription, however, is always another matter.

The main target of concern for the book is, naturally, our high-keyed nationalism, which is growing in a hothouse of disdain for the views of anyone not of American citizenship: “Nationalism therefore risks undermining precisely these American values which make the nation most admired in the world and which in the end provide both a pillar for its current global power and the assurance that future ages will look back on it as a benign and positive leader of humanity”.

And the final chapter of the book is dedicated to the problems of our un-questioning support of Israel and the implications that this has for our expressed interest in both the suppression of Islamic terrorism and our need for allies in that battle in the Muslim world.

Along the way is a great primer on the basis of our particular form of Conservatism and how this has fed the view that, as God’s chosen nation, we don’t have to listen to a thing anybody else says about us.

Lieven’s descriptions make things make sense:  his is clear, concise, engaged and even in tone.  He has an international viewpoint that offers important perspective, particularly as it applies to our myopic belief that we can simply transfer our capitalist democracy into any foreign neighborhood:  “Historically speaking, there is little reason to believe that many of these societies are capable of supporting true democracies now or that the kind of democracies they might create would be able to bring about rapid and stable economic growth.  This is not to say that authoritarian rule is any kind of universal recipe for economic success either.  What it indicates rather is that we actually know very little about universally applicable rules for human progress, assuming such rules exist at all.”

I can highly recommend this book.  It’s everything I like in a book of this kind: informative, enlightening, intelligent and dense, like a meal that is flavorful, nutritious and filling.  Yum.

In closing, I’ll include a few selected quotes from the book:

“Daniel Bell’s words of 1963 remain true today: “What the right wing is fighting, in the shadow of Communism, is essentially ‘modernity’ — that complex of beliefs that might be defined most simply as the belief in rational assessment, rather than established custom, for the evaluation of social change.  But it is precisely those established ways that a modernist America has been forced to call into question.””  P. 91

“The tragicomic aspect of the situation of politically conservative American religious believers is that the laissez-faire capitalism which they support is not only undermining their economic world, but through the mass media and entertainment industries is also playing a central role in biting away at their moral universe.”  P. 127

“American liberal writers have expressed a certain bewilderment about the way in which, over large areas of the United States, growing economic and social desperation on the part of many White workers leads them to vote not for progressive liberals, but for right-wing Republican candidates.  The radical capitalist economic policies pursued by these politicians then contribute still further to precisely those economic trends which are corroding working-class incomes, status, and self-respect, leading to yet more radical conservatism, and so on and on: a kind of political perptuum mobile.”  P.220

‘If the middle classes continue to crumble, they may therefore take with them one of the essential pillars of American political stability and moderation.  As in European countries in the past, such a development would create the perfect breeding ground for radical nationalist groups and for even wilder dreams of “taking back” America at home and restoring the old moral, cultural and possibly racial order.”  P. 221

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Which Century are We In?” by the-not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

I’ve jumped in a couple of times on the New York City Muslim “Community Center” debate this week.  Having become so engaged locally in political debate with the TEA Party, my primary impulse was to defend the freedom of religion pronouncements of our Constitution, and, well, use that as a hammer to pound these Conservatives that have portrayed (literally) President Obama as one who is “shredding the Constitution”.

Setting aside the extreme xenophobia that such a debate always brings out (the church in Florida scheduling a “Burn the Koran Day”, for example), I understand the unease that people feel.  The difference is, I think, that I feel an unease about any religious structure, be it Muslim or Christian, Mormon or Scientologist, as they are all monuments (to varying degrees) to irrational belief.

But on another level, churches are expressions of human community, and to the extant that this is what they represent, I am supportive.  Of course, we never get one without the other.

Leaving for now the completely irrational, our more general fear of Muslims is that they will not assimilate — that they will remain a separate society within our own.  Of course, there is truth in this, particularly among immigrants.  But this has always been the case with any immigrant population to one degree or another.  I calm myself from this fear with the fact that it is generally the second generation that become, truly, “American”.  That transformation performed, to a great extent, by the nearly irresistible appeal of our consumer society.

We are now, and have always been, a mix.  The conservative strain in our culture seems to have been forged mostly in the southern states, based on a shared Scots/Irish root system that was traumatized by the disaster of the American Civil War (not to mention earlier dislocations and humiliations in the “old” country).  So that even among these that think of themselves as true and historic Americans, there is a certain communal isolationism that is distrustful of modernity and dismissive of the “elites” of New York City, Washington, D.C. and, well, the rest of the planet.

History has a power that is largely unrecognized in our daily lives, and issues like the (so called) “Ground Zero Mosque” bring all sorts of historic memory to the surface.  Not just the recent memory of 9/11, but even our ancient human tribal nature that distrusts and violently rejects the “other”, the “outsider”.  We like to think that we live, now, in the age of reason, but I am reminded time and time again that our thin veneer of modernity rests upon the impulses and instincts of ice-age humans.  As Chrisopher Hitchens likes to say, our problem is that “Our adrenal glands are too large, and our frontal lobes are too small”.  To put it another way: we shoot first and ask questions later.

I spent a bit of time this week in a running argument on Facebook with a conservative friend (and his friends) because I thought they should stop believing things for which there was no evidence.  Of course they just called me a socialist, changed the subject, or referenced sources that were more factories of make-believe than repositories of evidence.  They felt politically attacked, but my point was the more basic one I keep making: that we can’t have a reasonable discussion of an important issue if one side or the other is ready, willing and eager to say whatever is in their mind that is not supported by evidence.

Of course a great source of the anti-science, anti-intellectual force in our society is the conservative, religious right, rooted in the American South which was not only defeated in the Civil War, but also humiliated and marginalized by the same “East coast elites” that the conservative movement criticizes today.

As I ponder the power of history, I realize that there are consistent parallels between the personal and the cultural: we are comfortable with what we are born into, and it is only through effort (a willingness to abandon the cherished falsehood for the better answer) that we progress as individuals and as a species.

In “America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism” by Anatol Lieven (reviewed this week), the author offers a quote from 1963 by Daniel Bell:   “What the right wing is fighting, in the shadow of Communism, is essentially ‘modernity’ — that complex of beliefs that might be defined most simply as the belief in rational assessment, rather than established custom, for the evaluation of social change.  But it is precisely those established ways that a modernist America has been forced to call into question.”

We see this same struggle against “modernity” in the Muslim world.  The major difference between “them” and “us” being that the American religious right is stuck in the 19th century, while Islam appears to be stuck in the 12th.

So the question becomes this: how do we all move together into the 21st century?

t.n.s.r. bob

CARTOONS FROM THE REV

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

Hmm...must be a "Localvorus Rex"!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Naked States” t.n.s.r. bob

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

This 2000 documentary follows a New York photographer (Spencer Tunick) as he sets off (with his girlfriend and a camera crew) across America to photograph his signature nudes-in-public-places in each of the 48 contiguous states.  From Chicago to Fargo, the Sturgis motorcycle rally to Burning Man, he finds models in singles and in pairs, ending at a Pfisch concert where he gathers 1,000 naked people and photographs them on an old military runway.

My bias as an artist who has a lot of experience asking strangers to model for him notwithstanding, this is a remarkable film.  For one, the photographs that he takes are great.  But the other great part of the film is the handful of interviews with the models, each revealing the reasons for their decision to take their clothes off for a stranger (for a promised print of the photograph).  Some of these stories are deeply touching, and in some cases deeply transformative of the model him or herself.

Tossed in are some bits with Spencer’s attorney as he wages battle against the occasional public nuisance charges slapped on his client, and the dynamic between “fearless” Spencer and his (generally) supportive girlfriend.

To me the most powerful aspect of this film is the revelation of a kind of simple humanity, both in the visual power of that many people of all shapes and sizes naked in public and in the reservoir of willingness in so many of us to dare, to express, to be and to be a part of something greater than ourselves, even if it’s just for a moment.  Even if it’s just for a single photograph of our naked selves standing in the center of a city street.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Resisting Reason” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

I’m wondering if our relationship to our own rationality isn’t a tense one.

Imagine what must have been the shock (during our human evolution) of that first moment of self-awareness: of being separate from nature and other animals; of being different, and differently endowed?  Can you not easily imagine (If you had been that early human) stopping in your tracks as if you’d been smacked between the eyes by an elephant femur?  Your world would never look the same again!

Imagine further that the moment occurred before you had a verbal language to express your shock and awe?

Of course we can’t know when that “moment” arrived in our ancestry, whether before or after language.  Or, for that matter, whether it was any different in kind or quality then what other sentient animals experience (for it seems certain that other primates, whales, elephant and dolphins, for example, have some sense of the world that they might happily share with us if they had a functional alphabet).

The acquisition of verbal language must be key, for before that we had all the same feelings we do as  modern humans, but no way to reference them, to THINK about them.  In the same way that we cannot access the memories (that must surely exist) of our own time in the womb and our first years of life, we would have had no way of cataloguing thoughts or evaluating concepts.  Verbal language was the operating system that made our minds the existential computers they have become.

Along the way we learned to cook our food, which supercharged our physical evolution (downsizing our primate guts and enlarging our human brains).  So that, in the end, we had these busy, fertile brains that were able to function as language-based filing systems for all of the emotional impulses and sensory inputs of our heretofore purely animal existence.

I wonder if our animal natures didn’t respond to the imposition of language (and the resultant organizing system it allowed) a bit like the early peasant who threw his Sabot (wooden shoe) into the big, modern machine.  For (as with any sort of progress) each new invention spells the end of a previous way of life, in ways small or large.  Each step we made into language and conceptual thought took us that many steps further away from our animal nature.  Even today, we humans have a stubborn tendency to look backward to a romanticized idea of our innocent past, be it the Biblical Garden of Eden, the small-town life of 19th century middle America, or an earlier version of Photoshop.

For whatever reasons, I have hitched my intellectual wagon to my reason, and have given it the authority to act as gatekeeper to my mind.  I have decided that I want the clearest view of reality I can get in the time I have.  And it seems more than a touch ironic that this would set me at odds with so many of my fellow hominids.  For we are prone to believing all sorts of things that we have carried with us — without question — from our deep past.  There are entire swaths of our modern American society that think nothing of judging the world by some interpretation or other of an ancient holy text.  We are loathe to let go of our beliefs in aliens, or miracles or communications from the “spirit” world.

We would judge none of these things too harshly were we to discover them among a “primitive” tribe, yet we find them among us modern (and civilized) people, who in the same breath can make a casual reference to DNA, or evolution or the latest discovery of modern medical science.  In a sentiment I attribute to Norbert Elias book “The Civilizing Process”, we carry a thin layer of modernity laid upon our (much deeper) ice-age psyches.

Each step into rationality is a step away from magical thinking.  And believe me, I understand the fear that each of those steps can dredge up from the primitive soul.  But I’m a curious type, I guess.  It’s in my genes, a general trait of our species.  At the same time, we are like any other animal that craves safety and predictability.  Perhaps the tensions that exist between our adventurous, aggressive natures and our contemplative, fearful animal selves are like the electrical bonds that keep neutrons and protons spinning around their nuclei.  (They spin at incredible speeds, ever at risk of flying off into space, which, if they could think about it, and talk about it, might freak them out a bit).

Every step into the unknown is, obviously, a step further away from what is known.  So for each truth of science I acquire, I will likely weaken the bond of a religious or mystic belief.  (Even the incurious understand this on an instinctive level, I would say).  And so, even in modern society, with all of its benefits, there are thousands who mistrust or even resist the new product, discovery, or truth.

There are, in short, a lot of us who are yet to be convinced that learning to talk and to reason was such a good idea in the first place.

t.n.s.r. bob

OP/ED FROM THE REV: “What if it’s You?”

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

(NOTE:  This opinion piece of mine ran in the Las Cruces Sun News on August 10, 2010 under the title: “Bias in America: What if it’s You?”)

If your blood pressure shoots up at the mention of the name “Obama”; if you can’t stand to watch network news because of its “left-leaning liberal bias”, and if you think Fox News is the only reliable source for “fair and balanced” news, I have a serious question for you:  Have you ever considered that it might be you that is biased?

We’ve become so used to the epithets that partisan mimics throw around that next to no-one is actually bothering to ask themselves if what they’re being told is, well, true.

Personally, I’ve taken to fact-checking every story that finds its way into my e-mail box.

Generally I’ll go to a site like FactCheck.org or Snopes.com.  This was particularly effective during the last Presidential campaign, where — to my chagrin — I would find that even my preferred presidential candidate (though consistently hewing closer to the truth than his opponent) was not always getting all his facts exactly right.  That being said, when I recently referenced FactCheck.org in an on-line posting, I was immediately attacked for using a source funded by a “lefty organization”.  When even facts are attacked purely on the basis of their source, and not on their actual merit, where, I ask you, does this leave us?

The conservative right has, at this stage of its long life, managed to build a fortress of data that somehow manages to be impregnable to the entry of facts or perspective.  By “data” I mean surveys and studies so obviously selective and skewed as to be of no use except as supports for on-air blowhards as they build their brands (based, it seems, on the alchemical idea that if enough people believe a falsehood, it is somehow miraculously turned into truth).

Based on what I have observed in the recent “debates” over health care reform, the opposition, in particular, seems to have made a decision that facts are only to be respected when they support their own arguments, and attacked when they don’t.  As an example, the preposterous notion of “Death Panels” persists (and refuses to die itself).  This is a perfect example of a sliver of fact being turned into an entire dining room set, for the original idea (supported at the time by Republicans as well) was to merely compel insurers cover end-of-life discussions between patients and their doctors.  It takes a certain kind of intellectual sleaziness to “Hitler-up” such a simple, humane idea up into a tyrannical attempt by our own government to murder grandma.  Such twisting of reality is the immoral act of one who cares not a whit about truth but only about winning, the truth be damned.  (And a kernel of truth does not a bushel make).
The step that any thinking person needs to take in the face of such manipulation, then, is to check the data (that comes across your T.V. or into you e-mail in-box) against the totality of the information out there.  The fact is that it only takes a cursory web search to get the sense of what is bogus and what is factual.

To help you out, here’s a clue to a story’s credibility:  If in any part of it the phrase “I don’t understand why the mainstream media is ignoring this story!!!” appears, there is most likely a reason: it’s probably not a valid story (there are, of course, notable exceptions, but as a general rule, this phrase should raise a warning flag).

This is one of the concepts we all need to get clear on: probability.  There is, indeed, the theoretical possibility that President Obama is not native-born.  It is also possible that he is a Martian.  Neither assertion can be completely, unequivocally disproved.  Both, however, are equally improbable.  And for us to advance as a society, we must stop diverting so much of our energies into chasing after the improbable.  (Let the “wild goose” be – we need all intellectual hands on deck)

Now to be clear, I get this sort of thing from the “left” as well, so a responsible citizen has to exercise at least a basic level of diligence and check the facts.  (Sometimes this means wading through the dozens of repetitive postings on partisan blogs and getting to a reputable news source to find an opposing critique).

I don’t expect that all of us will ever believe all the same things, or share the same political views, but how so many people can spout clearly false second-hand nonsense (based on two parts truth and 98 parts hysterical knee-jerk reaction) is, frankly, beyond me.

This is one of the reasons I keep picking on the poor TEA Party:  how can I take them seriously when over 90 percent of them actually believe that President Obama is a Socialist (a claim that makes actual, real socialists laugh), and perhaps just as many believe (or are inclined to believe) that our duly-elected President is not an actual American citizen (despite the fact that there is zero actual evidence to support their belief?)

As citizens we all share a responsibility to work towards some sort of shared vocabulary and standard of evidence that will allow us to make the critical decisions about the kind of country we want to live in.  But a lot of us aren’t even trying, and it is those people who are the greatest threat to our survival as a nation.

Is one of them you?

(Bob Diven is an award-winning artist and performer and longtime resident of Las Cruces.  He writes as the not-so-reverend bob on his blog at: http://thechurchofbob.com/boblog/)