Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Rise of an Oligarchy

Paul Krugman's post in the New York Times yesterday (subscription only) spells trouble for the future of democracy and equality in America. The only economic group seeing rising wages is the top 1%. The wages of the rest of America are stagnant or falling:

Ben Bernanke's maiden Congressional testimony as chairman of the Federal Reserve was, everyone agrees, superb. He didn't put a foot wrong on monetary or fiscal policy.

But Mr. Bernanke did stumble at one point. Responding to a question from Representative Barney Frank about income inequality, he declared that "the most important factor" in rising inequality "is the rising skill premium, the increased return to education."

That's a fundamental misreading of what's happening to American society. What we're seeing isn't the rise of a fairly broad class of knowledge workers. Instead, we're seeing the rise of a narrow oligarchy: income and wealth are becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small, privileged elite.

I think of Mr. Bernanke's position, which one hears all the time, as the 80-20 fallacy. It's the notion that the winners in our increasingly unequal society are a fairly large group — that the 20 percent or so of American workers who have the skills to take advantage of new technology and globalization are pulling away from the 80 percent who don't have these skills.

The truth is quite different. Highly educated workers have done better than those with less education, but a college degree has hardly been a ticket to big income gains. The 2006 Economic Report of the President tells us that the real earnings of college graduates actually fell more than 5 percent between 2000 and 2004. Over the longer stretch from 1975 to 2004 the average earnings of college graduates rose, but by less than 1 percent per year.

So who are the winners from rising inequality? It's not the top 20 percent, or even the top 10 percent. The big gains have gone to a much smaller, much richer group than that.

A new research paper by Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon of Northwestern University, "Where Did the Productivity Growth Go?," gives the details. Between 1972 and 2001 the wage and salary income of Americans at the 90th percentile of the income distribution rose only 34 percent, or about 1 percent per year. So being in the top 10 percent of the income distribution, like being a college graduate, wasn't a ticket to big income gains.

But income at the 99th percentile rose 87 percent; income at the 99.9th percentile rose 181 percent; and income at the 99.99th percentile rose 497 percent. No, that's not a misprint.

Just to give you a sense of who we're talking about: the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates that this year the 99th percentile will correspond to an income of $402,306, and the 99.9th percentile to an income of $1,672,726. The center doesn't give a number for the 99.99th percentile, but it's probably well over $6 million a year.

Why would someone as smart and well informed as Mr. Bernanke get the nature of growing inequality wrong? Because the fallacy he fell into tends to dominate polite discussion about income trends, not because it's true, but because it's comforting. The notion that it's all about returns to education suggests that nobody is to blame for rising inequality, that it's just a case of supply and demand at work. And it also suggests that the way to mitigate inequality is to improve our educational system — and better education is a value to which just about every politician in America pays at least lip service.

The idea that we have a rising oligarchy is much more disturbing. It suggests that the growth of inequality may have as much to do with power relations as it does with market forces. Unfortunately, that's the real story.

Should we be worried about the increasingly oligarchic nature of American society? Yes, and not just because a rising economic tide has failed to lift most boats. Both history and modern experience tell us that highly unequal societies also tend to be highly corrupt. There's an arrow of causation that runs from diverging income trends to Jack Abramoff and the K Street project.

And I'm with Alan Greenspan, who — surprisingly, given his libertarian roots — has repeatedly warned that growing inequality poses a threat to "democratic society."

It may take some time before we muster the political will to counter that threat. But the first step toward doing something about inequality is to abandon the 80-20 fallacy. It's time to face up to the fact that rising inequality is driven by the giant income gains of a tiny elite, not the modest gains of college graduates.

Darfur Gets Worse

While we are bogged down in Iraq in a war of choice gone bad, a truly tragic human situation is unfolding in Africa. This from the New York Times:
The chaos in Darfur, the war-ravaged region in Sudan where more than 200,000 civilians have been killed, has spread across the border into Chad, deepening one of the world's worst refugee crises.

Arab gunmen from Darfur have pushed across the desert and entered Chad, stealing cattle, burning crops and killing anyone who resists. The lawlessness has driven at least 20,000 Chadians from their homes, making them refugees in their own country.

Hundreds of thousands more people in this area, along with 200,000 Sudanese who fled here for safety, find themselves caught up in a growing conflict between Chad and Sudan, which have a long history of violence and meddling in each other's affairs.

"You may have thought the terrible situation in Darfur couldn't get worse, but it has," Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said in a recent statement. "Sudan's policy of arming militias and letting them loose is spilling over the border, and civilians have no protection from their attacks, in Darfur or in Chad."

Monday, February 27, 2006

Healthcare Again

I just noticed, via Kevin Drum, this post by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell is a writer for New Yorker and the author of Tipping Point. He once argued in a Washington Monthly article against universal healthcare, but he has changed his mind:
The bigger reason is simply that I woke up one day and realized what much smarter people than me (Adam Gopnik) realized a long time ago, which is that the idea of employer-based health care is just plain stupid--and only our familiarity with it and sheer inertia prevent us from rising up in rebellion. I always try to think of a suitable analogy and fail. The closest I can come is to imagine if we had employer-based subways in New York. You could ride the subway if you had a job. But if you lost your job, you would either have to walk or pay a prohibitively expensive subway surcharge. Of course, if you lost your job you would need the subway more than ever, because you couldn't afford taxis and you would need to travel around looking for work. Right? In any case, what logical connection is there between employment and transporation? If you can answer that question, you can solve the riddle of the U.S. health care system. And maybe I'll change my mind back.
Go to his blog page for links to the Washington Monthly article and another article on healthcare he wrote for New Yorker.

Wal-Mart CEO to Governors: Don't Force Us to Provide Healthcare

Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott, Jr., addressed the nations Governors last week and pleaded with them to not pass legislation aimed at forcing Wal-Mart to provide better health care to its workers. More than 20 states are currently considering such legislation.

I hope the states do not back down. There is a far bigger issue than Wal-Mart here; Wal-Mart is just the poster child for what is wrong with the nation's healthcare system. What is wrong is that no one wants to take responsibility for providing economical and just healthcare in the country. Once, big companies did that for their workers. It didn't help everyone and coverage varied from company to company, but a solid core of America's families had good health care and benefits.

Those days are gone in the global economy. Companies can't, or won't, provide generous benefits because they are competing with companies around the world who pay lower wages and provide fewer benefits. And no one has learned how to compete in this world stage better than Wal-Mart. They have become the largest employer in the country and one of the world's most profitable companies by not paying their employees well and by not providing them with good benefits. And in order to compete, they have forced other companies to do the same. (And I know this over-simplifies the issue. Wal-Mart is a service company, not a manufacturing company. Service companies typically pay lower wages.)

What is lost on most American's, especially the one's who talk about the wonderful benefits of the free market, is that most of the countries we "compete" with provide free, or nearly free, government subsidized healthcare to their citizens. And the only just and economically viable solution in our country is for us to do the same. The cost of healthcare, and the ability to negotiate prices for drugs and services, needs to be born by the nation's taxpayers so that everyone pays a fair share, and so that everyone in the country has access to healthcare.

Wal-Mart can't solve this problem. And I for one, do not think the answer is for Wal-Mart to become like General Motors. But Wal-Mart's political clout is enormous. And we need them, and other companies like them, to feel the heat until they see the light. The fact that Wal-Mart's CEO feels the need to address the nation's governors on this issue tells me that we are moving in the right direction. We need every state in the union to go after Wal-Mart.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Troubling Words from Iraq

The news of the mosque bombing and its repurcussions is not good. But I find these words especially troubling:

In Baghdad, Shiite boys and men abruptly abandoned classrooms, homes and jobs to muster outside the headquarters of the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the heart of Sadr City, the slum named for the cleric's father.

"This is a day we will never forget," said Naseer Sabah, 24, who had left his job at a pastry factory without changing clothes to join the black-clad Shiite militia fighters clutching pistols, Kalashnikov assault rifles and grenade launchers outside Sadr's headquarters. Thousands converged on the Sadr offices, on foot or in buses and pickup trucks packed with armed men hanging out the windows.

"We await the orders of our preachers," teenagers around Sabah cried.

"We are the soldiers of the clerics," Shiite protesters chanted in Karrada, another of Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods.
Awaiting the orders of our preachers? Soldiers of the clerics? What kind of distorted religious vision is this when clerics, of any religious persuasion, are ordering people to war?

Republican "Version" of the Facts

Thanks to Star Tribune's Katherine Kersten for a rare moment of honesty about the way Republicans think. In response to DFL criticisms of the TV ads run by Minnesota Families United, Kersten says: "The DFL isn't bothering to present its version of the facts in an ad of its own." Its "version" of the facts? There are facts: like scientific facts and the facts on the ground in Iraq - where we are on the verge of civil war. And then there is the Republican "version" of the facts. In total honesty she can ask why Democrats just don't make up their own version of the facts.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Cross in Early Christianity

The most recognizable and important Christian symbol is the cross. But when did Christians begin to use the cross as their significant symbol? I ask the question because in my ten days in Rome visiting the sites where it is possible to see early Christian art, not once did I see a cross. Not in the catacombs, not in the Vatican Museum collection of early Christian artifacts, not in the ancient city of Ostia where there is artwork on the floor of a house - chalice and fish - that might have been Christian, not in the early artwork in the church Giovanno e Paulo, and not in the artifacts used to build the foundation of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trestevere. At all of these sights it is possible to see other early Christian symbology: the fish, the anchor, the orante, bread and cup, and more, but no crosses anywhere.

It would be tempting to conclude that the cross was not an important symbol yet. And I have heard it said that the cross really wasn't an important symbol until after the conversion of Constantine, who conquered under the sign of the cross, and forever changed the relationship of Christianity to the state.

But it isn't quite that simple, it seems. I am reading Robert Grant's book Greek Apologists of the Second Century, and in a discussion of the writings of the apologist Justin "the Martyr" he notes that Justin "defends" the cross of Christ by arguing that the cross occurs in nature, scripture, and in human society. So somebody was using the cross, apparently. And Justin's writing would have been contemporaneous with some of the art and artifacts I was seeing in Rome. So how prevalent was its use in art, writings, and in the minds of early Christians?

This is the kind of thing that I wake up wondering about in the morning.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Fukuyama says Neoconservatism is Dead

One of the architects of Neoconservatism, Francis Fukuyama, says in a Sunday New York Times Magazine article that thanks to Bush, neo-conservatism is dead. He also says that his contribution to the movement was misunderstood, and that those implementing neoconservative policy in the Bush Administration were extremely naive. It is all worth reading, but I particularly liked this quote:

We need in the first instance to understand that promoting democracy and modernization in the Middle East is not a solution to the problem of jihadist terrorism; in all likelihood it will make the short-term problem worse, as we have seen in the case of the Palestinian election bringing Hamas to power. Radical Islamism is a byproduct of modernization itself, arising from the loss of identity that accompanies the transition to a modern, pluralist society. It is no accident that so many recent terrorists, from Sept. 11's Mohamed Atta to the murderer of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to the London subway bombers, were radicalized in democratic Europe and intimately familiar with all of democracy's blessings. More democracy will mean more alienation, radicalization and — yes, unfortunately — terrorism.

But greater political participation by Islamist groups is very likely to occur whatever we do, and it will be the only way that the poison of radical Islamism can ultimately work its way through the body politic of Muslim communities around the world. The age is long since gone when friendly authoritarians could rule over passive populations and produce stability indefinitely. New social actors are mobilizing everywhere, from Bolivia and Venezuela to South Africa and the Persian Gulf. A durable Israeli-Palestinian peace could not be built upon a corrupt, illegitimate Fatah that constantly had to worry about Hamas challenging its authority. Peace might emerge, sometime down the road, from a Palestine run by a formerly radical terrorist group that had been forced to deal with the realities of governing.

If we are serious about the good governance agenda, we have to shift our focus to the reform, reorganization and proper financing of those institutions of the United States government that actually promote democracy, development and the rule of law around the world, organizations like the State Department, U.S.A.I.D., the National Endowment for Democracy and the like. The United States has played an often decisive role in helping along many recent democratic transitions, including in the Philippines in 1986; South Korea and Taiwan in 1987; Chile in 1988; Poland and Hungary in 1989; Serbia in 2000; Georgia in 2003; and Ukraine in 2004-5. But the overarching lesson that emerges from these cases is that the United States does not get to decide when and where democracy comes about. By definition, outsiders can't "impose" democracy on a country that doesn't want it; demand for democracy and reform must be domestic. Democracy promotion is therefore a long-term and opportunistic process that has to await the gradual ripening of political and economic conditions to be effective.

As I said in a recent post, we want democracy in the Middle East and around the world; it's a good thing. But it is going to be a rocky road in the short term. And I agree with Fukuyama that "Radical Islamism is a byproduct of modernization itself, arising from the loss of identity that accompanies the transition to a modern, pluralist society." We see the same phenomenon in fundamentalist Christianity, but for the most part without the same violent response. It is going to take time for it to work its way through the system.

I agree also that we can't impose democracy on other countries, and we particularly can't do it using the barrel of a gun. If we want to promote democracy around the world then we need to act like a democracy and uphold the highest standards of human rights, participate respectfully in the family of nations, and use our considerable financial and human resources to build relationships and improve the lot of suffering humanity around the world. If we plant the right kind of seeds, we stand a much better chance of seeing the flowering of a democratic world.

When Religion and Science Collide

I missed this article last week in the Los Angeles Times, but it provides a fascinating account of Mormon belief and scripture, and the way it is being challenged by modern science. The story begins with what the Book of Mormon says about Mormon origins in America:
According to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an angel named Moroni led Joseph Smith in 1827 to a divine set of golden plates buried in a hillside near his New York home.

God provided the 22-year-old Smith with a pair of glasses and seer stones that allowed him to translate the "Reformed Egyptian" writings on the golden plates into the "Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ."

Mormons believe these scriptures restored the church to God's original vision and left the rest of Christianity in a state of apostasy.

The book's narrative focuses on a tribe of Jews who sailed from Jerusalem to the New World in 600 BC and split into two main warring factions.

The God-fearing Nephites were "pure" (the word was officially changed from "white" in 1981) and "delightsome." The idol-worshiping Lamanites received the "curse of blackness," turning their skin dark.

According to the Book of Mormon, by 385 AD the dark-skinned Lamanites had wiped out other Hebrews. The Mormon church called the victors "the principal ancestors of the American Indians." If the Lamanites returned to the church, their skin could once again become white.

Over the years, church prophets — believed by Mormons to receive revelations from God — and missionaries have used the supposed ancestral link between the ancient Hebrews and Native Americans and later Polynesians as a prime conversion tool in Central and South America and the South Pacific.

"As I look into your faces, I think of Father Lehi [patriarch of the Lamanites], whose sons and daughters you are," church president and prophet Gordon B. Hinckley said in 1997 during a Mormon conference in Lima, Peru. "I think he must be shedding tears today, tears of love and gratitude…. This is but the beginning of the work in Peru."

In recent decades, Mormonism has flourished in those regions, which now have nearly 4 million members — about a third of Mormon membership worldwide, according to church figures.
The problem: Jewish DNA has distinctive markings. DNA testing on native Americans has found none of those markers:
In the 1990s, DNA studies gave Mormon detractors further ammunition and new allies such as Simon G. Southerton, a molecular biologist and former bishop in the church.

Southerton, a senior research scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia, said genetic research allowed him to test his religious views against his scientific training.

Genetic testing of Jews throughout the world had already shown that they shared common strains of DNA from the Middle East. Southerton examined studies of DNA lineages among Polynesians and indigenous peoples in North, Central and South America. One mapped maternal DNA lines from 7,300 Native Americans from 175 tribes.

Southerton found no trace of Middle Eastern DNA in the genetic strands of today's American Indians and Pacific Islanders.

In "Losing a Lost Tribe," published in 2004, he concluded that Mormonism — his faith for 30 years — needed to be reevaluated in the face of these facts, even though it would shake the foundations of the faith.

The problem is that Mormon leaders cannot acknowledge any factual errors in the Book of Mormon because the prophet Joseph Smith proclaimed it the "most correct of any book on Earth," Southerton said in an interview.
The faith of some Mormons has been severely shaken by these findings, according to the article. But some in the church have come up with an ingenious response:
Officially, the Mormon Church says that nothing in the Mormon scriptures is incompatible with DNA evidence, and that the genetic studies are being twisted to attack the church.

"We would hope that church members would not simply buy into the latest DNA arguments being promulgated by those who oppose the church for some reason or other," said Michael Otterson, a Salt Lake City-based spokesman for the Mormon church.

"The truth is, the Book of Mormon will never be proved or disproved by science," he said.

Unofficially, church leaders have tacitly approved an alternative interpretation of the Book of Mormon by church apologists — a term used for scholars who defend the faith.

The apologists say Southerton and others are relying on a traditional reading of the Book of Mormon — that the Hebrews were the first and sole inhabitants of the New World and eventually populated the North and South American continents.

The latest scholarship, they argue, shows that the text should be interpreted differently. They say the events described in the Book of Mormon were confined to a small section of Central America, and that the Hebrew tribe was small enough that its DNA was swallowed up by the existing Native Americans.

"It would be a virtual certainly that their DNA would be swamped," said Daniel Peterson, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, part of the worldwide Mormon educational system, and editor of a magazine devoted to Mormon apologetics. "And if that is the case, you couldn't tell who was a Lamanite descendant."
Intelligent Design apparently has a Mormon equivalent.

There are lots of Christians who think Mormons are not really Christian, and as this article points out there are Mormons who believe they are the only true Christians. But both "traditional" Christianity and Mormonism share the same problem when they read their scriptures as science. All scriptures are historically and culturally bound documents. They reflect the scientific worldview of their day, and their "science" is bound to be found wrong as time goes on. Which leaves believers with a choice of learning to read scriptures in a different way or deciding to live inside a bubble of ignorance. Having faith does not and should not require you to turn off your brain.

Government Invocations Make Comeback

A front page article in the Star Tribune says that some twin city suburbs have reintroduced non-sectarian prayer at the start of meetings. The City of White Bear Lake is one:

White Bear Lake City Council Member Tony Feffer, one of its key advocates, said he was inspired after hearing the invocation said at a session of Congress commemorating victims of Sept. 11, 2001. He thought an invocation at the council seemed like a good way to set a positive tone and keep city issues in the forefront.

"We're there as elected officials to serve the interests of those who elected us," Feffer said, adding that sometimes "personality issues" and partisanship get in the way of the real issue at hand.

One of the significant values of prayer and silence in community is the way it can connect and unite those who are present. The White Bear council member is right -- if the community shares a common theological understanding or if there is enough trust in the community and its leadership to know that a particular faith perspective is not being forced on people who may not share it.

The problem is that this kind of common understanding and trust is rare in the public forum today. There is more religious diversity and there is less trust between religious conservatives and religious and secular liberals. But a city council could do its community a service by intentionally educating the community on the value of prayer and silence and by truly reflecting the spiritual diversity in the community in these moments.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Government is not the Problem

I sent this commentary piece off to the Star Tribune this morning:

Two articles in Monday's Star Tribune, one on the front page about our country losing its competitive edge in telecommunications and the other on the front page of the Local Section about the high cost of building roads in the state of Minnesota, have a common theme. They both demonstrate the moral bankruptcy of today's Republican Party.

Since Ronald Reagan, the mantra of the Republican Party has been: government is the problem. We need to get government out of the way; we need to starve the beast; we need to give the people their money back since they know what to do with it better than the government! Well, it's hard to argue with this as a political strategy; it worked. We have Republicans in charge of the government at both the state and national levels.

But as a governing strategy for the well-being of the country this mantra has been an absolute failure. The reason is simple. In a competitive and dangerous world, there are some things, like defense, that only the government can do. And there some other things -- like creating a world-class competitive infrastructure, and guaranteeing a highly educated workforce, and delivering an efficient and fair health care system -- that can only be done well with government involvement and investment.

This is the unifying message of the two articles. Why are we falling behind other countries in the world in the delivery speed of our communications? Shouldn't our commitment to free-enterprise solutions leave other countries' state-run communications systems in the dust? The reality is that our hodge-podge of free-market solutions is putting us at a competitive disadvantage with countries that have made a huge government investment in telecommunications technology. And why is our Governor's Transportation Secretary moaning about not getting enough federal dollars for road construction and proposing to borrow money to build roads? How ironic. Why not let the free market take care of it.

The truth of the matter is that the Republican Party's mantra that the government is the problem is a lie - and they know it. How else does one explain the explosive and historic growth in the size of our federal government at the hands of a Republican President and Congress? And why else is our Republican Governor proposing to borrow massive amounts of money to fund road construction. They both know that in order to remain competitive in the world economy that government has a vitally important, and large, role to play. And so they are spending government money at a breathtaking clip, while at the same time they are bad-mouthing the government.

But their schizophrenic behavior regarding what they say and what they do is leading us down a black hole of bad government practices and enormous debt. Our President can't stop talking about making tax cuts permanent while his Congressional compatriots are cutting back room deals that lard the budget with bridges to no-where. Some of these projects are probably worthwhile and necessary. But how would we know? Republicans can't bring themselves to talk openly about what we really need and what it is going to cost. And it is the same story with our Governor. He will never raise our taxes, although he doesn't seem to mind a fee increase here or there, or an increase in property taxes. And he is perfectly O.K. with borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to build roads, and why not? He is not asking us to pay for it.

What we need from our Republican leaders is the truth, and perhaps they need to start by admitting it to themselves. We need our government. We need national defense, a world-class communications and transportation infrastructure, an efficient healthcare system, an educated workforce, and it is all very expensive. Who is going to pay for it? A leader with moral integrity would come to the American people and the state of Minnesota and say that this is what we need, this is what it is really going to cost, and this is the sacrifice and investment in our future that we are going to ask every citizen of our state and country to make now. We are not going to lay it in the laps of our children. Will we ever hear anything like that from our Republican leaders?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Greatest Foreign Policy Failure of our Generation

The Iraq war is looking more and more like it is going to go down as the greatest American foreign policy debacle since the Vietnam War. Today's newspapers all tell the story. Knight Ridder has the story about the toll on American lives and military equipment:
There are always costs in a war, human costs and hardware costs, and as we draw close to beginning the fourth year of our operations in Iraq, it's time to tally those costs one more time.

As of this week, a total of 2,270 Americans have lost their lives in Iraq, the great majority of those losses suffered in combat. The number of wounded has reached 16,653, just over half of those marked wounded but returned to duty.

A little-known cost is in vehicles lost in combat. Just for the U.S. Army alone that number has reached nearly 1,000. The cost for replacing those totally destroyed vehicles and overhauling thousands more worn out by heavy use totals $9 billion in this year's proposed defense budget and in the off-budget emergency wartime supplemental budget Congress passes twice each fiscal year.

Since the Iraq combat operations began in the winter of 2003, the Army has lost 20 M1 Abrams tanks; 50 Bradley fighting vehicles; 20 Stryker wheeled combat vehicles; 20 M113 armored personnel carriers; 250 Humvees; and some 500 Fox wheeled reconnaissance vehicles, mine clearing vehicles and heavy- and medium-transport trucks and trailers.

The bulk of these losses in tracked and wheeled vehicles were to the ubiquitous improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that the insurgents employ to such deadly purpose.

To that equipment toll, for both Afghanistan and Iraq, add 27 Apache attack helicopters; 21 Blackhawk utility helicopters; 23 Kiowa Warrior assault helicopters; and 14 big Chinook cargo helicopters.
The Los Angeles Times tells us how the Iraq war is turning Iran, a member of the "axis of evil," into a world power:

The Islamic government in neighboring Iran watched with trepidation in March 2003 when U.S.-led troops stormed Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime and start remaking the political map of the Mideast.

In retrospect, the Islamic Republic could have celebrated: The war has left America's longtime nemesis with profound influence in the new Iraq and pushed it to the apex of power in the region.

Emboldened by its new status and shielded by deep oil reserves, Tehran is pressing ahead with its nuclear program, daring the international community to impose sanctions. Iran is a Shiite Muslim nation with an ethnic Persian majority, and the blossoming of its influence has fueled the ambitions of long-repressed Shiites throughout the Arab world.

At the same time, Tehran has tightened alliances with groups such as Hamas, which recently won Palestinian elections, and with governments in Damascus and Beijing.

In the 1980s, Iran spent eight years and thousands of lives waging a war to overthrow Hussein, whose regime buffered the Sunni Muslim-dominated Arab world from Iran. But in the end, it took the U.S.-led invasion to topple Iraq's dictator and allow Iranian influence to spread through a chaotic, battle-torn country.

Now Iraq's fledgling democracy has placed power in the hands of the nation's Shiite majority and its Kurdish allies, many of whom lived as exiles in Iran and maintain strong religious, cultural and linguistic ties to it. The two groups sit atop most of Iraq's oil, and both seek a decentralized government that would give them maximum control of it. A weak central government would also limit Sunni influence.

The proposed changes have aggravated ancient tensions between the two branches of Islam, not to mention Arabs and Iranians. Neighboring countries have historical and tribal links to Iraq's Sunnis.

"A weak Iraq is now sitting next to a huge, mighty Iran. Now the only counterpart to Iran is not a regional power, but a foreign power like the United States," said Abdel Khaleq Abdullah, a political analyst and television host in Dubai. "This is unsustainable. It's bad for [Persian] Gulf security. It's given Iran a sense of supremacy that we all feel."
The Washington Post tells us about a major oil deal between Iran and China:
China is hastening to complete a deal worth as much as $100 billion that would allow a Chinese state-owned energy firm to take a leading role in developing a vast oil field in Iran, complicating the Bush administration's efforts to isolate the Middle Eastern nation and roll back its nuclear development plans, according to published reports.

The completion of the agreement would advance China's global quest for new stocks of energy. It could also undermine U.S. and European initiatives to halt Iran's nuclear plans, possibly generating friction in China's relations with outside powers.

Never in their wildest neo-con fantasies did they see any of this coming. Absolutely the worst President ever.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Losing Hearts and Minds in Turkey

Via Laura Rozen, Knight Ridder reports that this film has been wildly popular in Turkey:
A Turkish-made film that portrays American soldiers in Iraq as brutal and callous killers is setting attendance records in Turkey and has just opened throughout Europe.

From the opening seconds to the dramatic conclusion, the movie, "The Valley of the Wolves - Iraq," portrays Americans as wearing the black hats.

In one scene, an American doctor, played by actor Gary Busey, is furious because troops keep killing Iraqi prisoners before they reach the Abu Ghraib prison. The doctor's problem? If the Iraqis are dead, he can't harvest their organs to send to Israel.

The movie, the most expensive production in Turkish film history, has been a runaway success in Turkey since it opened Feb. 3. Would-be viewers must wait weeks for tickets. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to Turkish press reports, recommended the film to friends after a private screening. His wife noted, "It's a beautiful film."

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Complementarity of Science and Religion

I am continually astonished when I read a story like this from today's Washington Post:
Inside the flagship lab of the National Center of Atmospheric Research, a dozen home-schooled children and their parents walk past the offices of scientists grappling with topics from global warming and microphysics to solar storms and the electrical fields of lightning.

They are trailing Rusty Carter, a guide with Biblically Correct Tours. At a large, colorful panel along a wall, Carter reads aloud from a passage describing the disappearance of dinosaurs from the earth about 65 million years ago. He and some of the older students exchange knowing smiles at the timeline, which contradicts their interpretation the Bible suggesting a 6,000-year-old planet.

"Did man and dinosaurs live together?" Carter asks. A timid yes comes from the students.

"How do we know that to be true?" Carter says. There's a long pause.

"What day did God create dinosaurs on?" he continues.

"Six," says a chorus of voices.

"What day did God create man on?"


"Did man and dinosaurs live together?"

"Yes," the students say.

Mission accomplished for Carter, who has been leading such tours since 1988. He and the other guides counter secular interpretations of history, nature and the origin of life with their own literal reading of the Bible. And they do so right at the point where they feel they feel science indoctrinates young people _ museums.

I wonder what the consequences will be of raising children in this kind of a bubble, where their "truth" is so divorced from the truth of the rest of the world. I wonder how many of their parents went to public schools - I would imagine most of them - and what happened that they lost faith in those schools. I wonder about the future of our country, when a significant minority of its citizens believe that science is the enemy of religion.

My own view is that science and religion complement each other and need each other. Both spring from the same deep human aspirations to understand the truth about our existence on earth and to improve the quality of our lives. Science helps us know how we came to be here, who we are in the biological and psychological sense, and what we can do technologically to improve our lives. Religion raises the important questions of why we are here, what is the meaning of our existence, and what we can do spiritually to improve the quality of our lives.

Both science and religion can be dangerous - because humans can be dangerous. Science can give us the means to destroy ourselves; religion can give us the will to destroy ourselves.

I love science, as a lay observer of it all. I love learning about evolution, quantum physics, entimology, horticulture, and everything else I can soak in. The world is endlessly fascinating and there is nothing in my religious faith that feels threatened about the findings of science. At the same time, I know that there are spiritual questions that science cannot answer -- although, it is true that the findings of science continually challenge us to rethink our spiritual place in the world. But I can't imagine raising my children to be afraid of that. How can you ask the right spiritual questions and find the right answers if you don't know the scientific truth about our world?

U.N. Urges Closing of Guantanamo

This should be at the top of the plank of the Democratic Party. Restoring faith in America's commitment to human rights, beginning with the closing of Guantanamo.

Democracy is a Good Thing, Right?

Isn't democracy great? Back in the good old days, the United States didn't really care about supporting democracy around the world. We cared about what we perceived as our strategic interests, like winning the Cold War and guaranteeing a steady flow of oil to our country. So we regularly propped up brutal dictators like Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Shah of Iran and the Saudi royal family, and we took down democratically elected leaders like Allende in Chile who leaned to far to the left for our tastes.

But the times they are a changing. The Cold War is over and democracy has broken out in Russia and in most of its former satellite states. In some countries, like Russia the Ukraine, it seems to be not going very well; but in in others like Poland and Czechoslovakia it is flourishing. All in all the spread of democracy in this part of the world has been a plus for us and for the world.

But in the Middle East it is a different story. Palestine just had free and fair elections and it brought Hamas to power, radically Islamisist and vowing to overthrow Israel. In Iraq, a new democratically elected government is apparently going to be installed that is more friendly to Iran than its "liberators." Egypt is experimenting with democracy and the results are frightening both us and Egypt's goverment; radical Islamic parties are winning local elections and would easily win a national election. The same thing would happen in Saudi Arabia.

Do we really want to support the spread of democracy in the Middle East? In a commentary piece in today's Washington Post, Shibley Tehlami of the Brookings Institution talks about the risks of democracy in the Middle East and our goverment's approach there. The University of Maryland professor says the United States has been extremely naive to underestimate the strength of radical Islamic sentiment:
In Arab politics there are primarily two organized power groups: Islamic organizations, drawing their support from a disenfranchised public mobilized by the mosque, and governing elites. Sure, there are many other organizations, sometimes even ones whose aspirations match those of large segments of the public, but their chances will remain small. This we have ascribed to bad governments always forcing the choice between themselves on the one hand and the Islamists on the other.


It isn't that democracy is not possible in the Arab world. In fact, the remarkable thing about the Palestinian elections was that they were free and highly contested under difficult circumstances. Over 20 percent of the candidates, including those of Hamas, were female. The ruling elites accepted defeat and stepped aside. In the limited parliamentary success in Egypt, government candidates lost in a majority of the districts contested by the candidates of the Muslim Brotherhood -- and the results stood.

But in this historic moment Islamists remain the most well-organized alternative to governments, a situation that is unlikely to change soon. And current governments are not popular: A survey I conducted in October with Zogby International (in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates) asked Arabs which world leaders they admired most (outside their own countries). The only leader who received double-digit support was French President Jacques Chirac (for his perceived defiance of the United States on Iraq). No sitting Arab ruler received more than 2 percent. A plurality of Arabs believe that the clergy plays "too little" a role in Arab politics. There is a vacuum of leadership that will inevitably cost governments in truly free elections.

This leaves U.S. foreign policy with limited choices. Full electoral democracy in the Middle East will inevitably lead to domination by Islamist groups, leaving the United States to either continue a confrontational approach, with high and dangerous costs for both sides, or to find a way to engage them -- something that has yet to be fully considered. Given this, skepticism about the real aims of these groups should be balanced by openness to the possibility that their aims once they are in power could differ from their aims as opposition groups. This requires partial engagement, patience, and a willingness to allow such new governments space and time to put their goals to the test of reality. Hamas, in fact, could provide a place for testing whether careful engagement leads to moderation.
I agree. While we have every right to expect Hamas to accept a two-state solution with Israel and disavow support of terrorism, they should be given time to experience the reality of being a governing power and having to deliver promises to their people and having to deal with their more powerful neighboring states. I think it would be a mistake to immediately cut off all aid to their goverment. Even if political considerations force us to do it in the United States, we should allow and implicitly encourage other governments to support Hamas for a time. We should constructively engage them and encourage them to bring Palestine peacefully into the family of nations. We need them to succeed.

It is in our long term interests to support democracy in the Middle East, even though it is going to be very dangerous in the short term. Our past support of brutal sectarian dictators in the Middle East has contributed to the rise of a radical brand of Islam. (It is not our fault, though; the opposition could have chosen peaceful Islamic resistance.) We are not trusted, and rightly so. But if we truly encourage the flowering of democracy and creatively engage the new governments in Palestine, Iraq, and those that are going to arise elsewhere, there is no reason to expect that they will not eventually moderate their positions and open their countries to all the benefits of trade and peaceful diplomacy. And if we don't believe this is possible, what have we been doing in China for the last 30 years?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Federal Grants to Religious Groups Fall, Study Says

Despite the Bush Administration's much ballyhooed Faith-Based Initiative, a study by the nonpartisan Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy found that the total amount of money dispensed to religious groups fell between from 2002 to 2004. The Bush Administration is planning to rebut the results of this study.

Peace Church Can't Agree on Killing of Deer

Dayspring Church is a retreat center in Maryland affiliated with the Church of the Saviour, a small discipleship-oriented peace church founded by Gordon Cosby. The retreat center's forested grounds were facing the same problem that many forests around the country are facing, especially those surrounding urban areas: too many deer. In most parts of the country, deer have no natural predators, and they are overgrazing on the forest undergrowth and threatening the very health of the forest. Short of waiting for a crash in the population due to disease, the only way to keep the herd in check is hunting. But, according to this Washington Post article, this did not sit well with some of the members of the church. And even after a year and a half of Quaker-style meetings, the church was unable to come to a unanimous consensus on what to do with the deer, so the majority prevailed and the herd was thinned by hunting.

Growing up in central Pennsylvania among pacifist Brethren who all hunted, it took a long time for me to realize that there might be any moral inconsistency here. But I also grew up in farm country where livestock were raised and slaughtered so we could eat, and for a pacifist who isn't a strict vegetarian, there is a certain moral inconsistency every time we sit down at the dinner table. We take another life in order to extend our own. Living in the country, or in a small town in rural America, this reality of life and death and what it takes for us all to live is difficult to ignore. We are raising those pigs so we can kill them and eat them.

Growing up and living in urban areas, it is possible to be blissfully ignorant of all of this. I still remember our daughter Meagan's, now 19, first live encounter as a child with a cow. When told that the milk she was drinking came from one of those animals, she angrily insisted that her milk "did not" come from a cow, it came from the store. Meagan was, and is, a child of the suburbs if there ever was one. And I have had more than one experience of a suburbanite talking to me about the barbarity of hunting while we were chowing down on a slaughtered cow, or pig, or chicken. Unless you are Dick Cheney, hunting at least involves the concept of fair chase. For the farm-raised animal, there is nothing fair about their fate.

But all around the U.S. the suburbs are encroaching on the country. Deer and bear and coyote are increasingly showing up in suburban backyards. Deer in particular are causing major environmental damage in many parts of the country -- on farms, in forests, and in suburban gardens and parks. In some states, major tracts of forest are being fenced off to keep the deer out and allow the forest to recover. That works, but only in conjunction with hunting to thin the deer herd. For the health of our forests and for the health of the deer population, hunting is necessary. Even on the beautifully forested grounds of pacifist-run retreat centers.

Want to learn more about the reality of the deer overpopulation in America and the damage it is doing to the ecosystem? Read this article in Audubon by Ted Williams, the best environmental writer in the country.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Ohio Board Reverses Stand on Curriculum That Challenges Evolution

Even the Republican Governor questioned the legal merits of the curriculum.

Censorship in China

Online companies Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have been under the gun recently for cooperating with Chinese information restrictions in order to have a business presence in the country. A US House Committee is going to begin hearings today on the issue. But freedom of expression does appear to be growing in China. In a story in today's New York Times about press censorship and the government-forced closing of a popular journal, I saw this remarkable quote:
"At the turning point in our history from a totalitarian to a constitutional system, depriving the public of freedom of speech will bring disaster for our social and political transition and give rise to group confrontation and social unrest," the letter said. "Experience has proved that allowing a free flow of ideas can improve stability and alleviate social problems."
Who said this? "A dozen former Communist Party officials and senior scholars, including a onetime secretary to Mao, a party propaganda chief and the retired bosses of some of the country's most powerful newspapers." And there was this from Li Datong, the editor of the closed journal Freezing Point:

"The propaganda office is an illegal organization that has no power to shut down a publication," Mr. Li said in an interview. "Its power is informal, and it can only exercise it if people are afraid."

He added, "I am not afraid."

From half a world away, it is difficult to get a sense of how much political freedom there really is today in China. This article leads me to believe that real progress is being made. It also seems to confirm the idea that economic freedom and political freedom go hand in hand. The Chinese government may have wanted the benefits of granting economic freedoms without granting the rights of free expression, but you can't have one without the other. And ultimately, there is no way they are going to be able to keep the lid on the internet, without the kind of major Tienamen Square kind of crackdown that would set their economy and their image way back.

For this, and maybe only this, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger deserve some credit.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Science, Wasps, and Roaches

Carl Zimmer is a scientist who writes for the New York Times as well as numerous other magazines. He has a great blog called The Loom. In a recent post he had a fascinating story about a particular kind of parasitic wasp that paralyzes its prey, a cockroach, just enough so it can lead it to its burrow where it then lays its eggs on the cockroach. It is a fascinating read:
I collect tales of parasites the way some people collect Star Trek plates. And having filled an entire book with them, I thought I had pretty much collected the whole set. But until now I had somehow missed the gruesome glory that is a wasp named Ampulex compressa.

As an adult, Ampulex compressa seems like your normal wasp, buzzing about and mating. But things get weird when it's time for a female to lay an egg. She finds a cockroach to make her egg's host, and proceeds to deliver two precise stings. The first she delivers to the roach's mid-section, causing its front legs buckle. The brief paralysis caused by the first sting gives the wasp the luxury of time to deliver a more precise sting to the head.

The wasp slips her stinger through the roach's exoskeleton and directly into its brain. She apparently use ssensors along the sides of the stinger to guide it through the brain, a bit like a surgeon snaking his way to an appendix with a laparoscope. She continues to probe the roach's brain until she reaches one particular spot that appears to control the escape reflex. She injects a second venom that influences these neurons in such a way that the escape reflex disappears.

From the outside, the effect is surreal. The wasp does not paralyze the cockroach. In fact, the roach is able to lift up its front legs again and walk. But now it cannot move of its own accord. The wasp takes hold of one of the roach's antennae and leads it--in the words of Israeli scientists who study Ampulex--like a dog on a leash.

The zombie roach crawls where its master leads, which turns out to be the wasp's burrow. The roach creeps obediently into the burrow and sits there quietly, while the wasp plugs up the burrow with pebbles. Now the wasp turns to the roach once more and lays an egg on its underside. The roach does not resist. The egg hatches, and the larva chews a hole in the side of the roach. In it goes.

The larva grows inside the roach, devouring the organs of its host, for about eight days. It is then ready to weave itself a cocoon--which it makes within the roach as well. After four more weeks, the wasp grows to an adult. It breaks out of its cocoon, and out of the roach as well. Seeing a full-grown wasp crawl out of a roach suddenly makes those Alien movies look pretty derivative.

I find this wasp fascinating for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it represents an evolutionary transition. Over and over again, free-living organisms have become parasites, adapting to hosts with exquisite precision. If you consider a full-blown parasite, it can be hard to conceive of how it could have evolved from anything else. Ampulex offers some clues, because it exists in between the free-living and parasitic worlds.

Amuplex is not technically a parasite, but something known as an exoparasitoid. In other words, a free-living adult lays an egg outside a host, and then the larva crawls into the host. One could easily imagine the ancestors of Ampulex as wasps that laid their eggs near dead insects--as some species do today. These corpse-feeding ancestors then evolved into wasps that attacked living hosts. Likewise, it's not hard to envision an Ampulex-like wasp evolving into full-blown parasitoids that inject their eggs directly into their hosts, as many species do today.

And then there's the sting. Ampulex does not want to kill cockroaches. It doesn't even want to paralyze them the way spiders and snakes do, since it is too small to drag a big paralyzed roach into its burrow. So instead it just delicately retools the roach's neural network to take away its motivation. Its venom does more than make roaches zombies. It also alters their metabolism, so that their intake of oxygen drops by a third. The Israeli researchers found that they could also drop oxygen consumption in cockroaches by injecting paralyzing drugs or by removing the neurons that the wasps disable with their sting. But they can manage only a crude imitation; the manipulated cockroaches quickly dehydrated and were dead within six days. The wasp venom somehow puts the roaches into suspended animation while keeping them in good health, even as a wasp larva is devouring it from the inside

Scientists don't yet understand how Ampulex manages either of these feats. Part of the reason for their ignorance is the fact that scientists have much left to learn about nervous systems and metabolism. But millions of years of natural selection has allowed Ampulex to reverse engineer its host. We would do well to follow its lead, and gain the wisdom of parasites.

There is simply no end to the wonder and beauty of nature, although the cockroach might beg to differ.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Buck(shot) Stops Somewhere Else

Just one comment on the Cheney shooting affair and credit to Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo for commenting on it here. But I want to reiterate the point. According to Cheney spokesperson Mary Matalin in the Washington Post:
On the other hand, he was not careless or incautious or violate any of the [rules]. He didn't do anything he wasn't supposed to do.
As a life-long hunter I can tell you that this is not true. It is your responsibility to know where the other members of your hunting party are, and to know the safe zone for shooting. On numerous occasions when I have been grouse hunting with my son, I have passed up shots on birds because I wasn't sure where he was. This is also why I never shoot at deer when they are running through the woods; I can't possibly know what is behind the animal. If I shot and hit someone, it would be an accident, and it would be my fault.

Hunting accidents do happen. Fortunately, the man on the receiving end of Cheney's shot is going to be o.k. But it is disengenous for Cheney or a spokesperson to claim that he wasn't being careless. He was, and he violated one of the basic rules of hunting.

Is there anything at all these people can just tell the simple truth about?

Minnesota's Marriage Amendment again

In this morning's Star Tribune, Robert G. Kennedy, the chair of the department of Catholic Studies at St. Thomas University makes the Catholic case for supporting a constitutional amendment to define marriage. He says in part:
Given the experience of Massachusetts, it seems foolish to argue that a constitutional amendment is not necessary to preserve before the law the traditional definition of marriage. Most knowledgeable people will agree that, sooner or later, in the absence of such an amendment marriage is likely to be redefined by the courts. The principal point of disagreement between them is whether this would be a good thing or a bad thing.
My question for the professor is -- how does preserving before the law the traditional definition of marriage help marriage? Existing marriages between a man and woman are in no way threatened by same-sex marriage. "Civil" same-sex marriage simply grants the same legal rights to same-sex couples as men and women now have in marriage. Granting civil rights to same-sex couples doesn't force churches to recognize their weddings and it has not affect whatsoever on my marriage to my wife or any other "traditional" marriage.

The argument that he also makes that granting legal recognition to same-sex marriage would open the door to "a Pandora's Box of mischievous consequences," like polygamous marriages is a red herring. Who is arguing for legal recognition of polygamy? A few old-school Mormons, maybe. The legal standard is two consenting adults, end of story.

If the professor really wanted to protect marriage, and base his argument on an appeal to Christian scripture, then he ought to be working on a marriage amendment to put an end to divorce. In the one unambiguous statement Jesus makes on marriage, he says nothing about same-sex marriage. He says that there should be no divorce (although compare the earlier version in Mark 10 with the later Matthew 19 and you will see that the church was already qualifying Jesus' statement). Which is really more threatening to the institution of marriage: divorce or same-sex marriage? It is divorce by a long shot.

So why not work to put an end to divorce? Because even the most conservative Christians have come to realize that as "sacred" as marriage is, there is something even more sacred--the well-being of the individual. We have come to recognize in our society that there is a higher value at stake here, higher than the religious definition of marriage, higher even than the will of the majority or the power of the state: the dignity, rights, and well-being of the individual. And in the interest in honoring and protecting the rights, dignity, and well-being of the individual, we allow men and women to marry... and we allow them to divorce.

In the interests of honoring and protecting the rights, dignity, and well-being of gays and lesbians, we ought to grant to them the same legal rights.

I do agree with professor when he says that religious leaders "who try to rally their people in support of legislation are not subverting the democratic process; they are participating in it." As a liberal Christian clergy, I am engaged in the same democratic process. As long as we are not seeking to "establish" a religious position as the legal position, there is nothing wrong with using whatever influence we have in the political realm.

Minnesota's Marriage Amendment

Another Minnesota Legislative session is about to begin and the right wing is getting ready to try to force another vote in the House and Senate on a bill that would get the ball rolling on a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to a man and a woman. Nevermind that there is already legislation in place that defines a marriage in this way, the institution of marriage in Minnesota is in such jeapordy that it can only be saved by a constitutional amendment.

In the last session, the Republican Governor and House backed a constitutional amendment bill, but the DFL-led Senate blocked it. The same will happen again. Republicans seem to think this helps them on election day by motivating the right-wing base to turn out. They may be right that it turns out their base, but in the last election it also turned out moderates and liberals -- who still hold the numbers in Minnesota -- and they in turn "turned out" 13 Republican Representatives. It was a colossal failure as a legislative strategy (and it wasn't the only issue as Republicans also were systematically dismantling public education in the state and that cost them, as well).

So I say, let them go after their amendment. It will remind voters once again of their bigotry, intolerance, and willingness to waste time on issues that don't matter while they ignore schools, infrastructure, and jobs. One more election ought to be enough to give us a Democratic Governor and Legislature.

U.N. Report: U.S. Abusing Guantanamo Captives

From the Los Angeles Times:
A draft United Nations report on the detainees at Guantanamo Bay concludes that the U.S. treatment of them violates their rights to physical and mental health and, in some cases, constitutes torture.
It is impossible to calculate the damage this has done to our image abroad. Whatever moral highground we once had as a beacon of democracy and human rights has been shattered by the Bush Administration's illegal detention and torture of prisoners. And it's not just isolated cases that can be blamed on a few bad apples. It's systemic; it's policy.

Cheney Shoots Fellow Hunter

I can't wait to see Saturday Night Live this week.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Catholic Diocese Ordains its first Married Priest

The Los Angeles Times reports that the Catholic Diocese of San Bernadino, California, ordained its first married priest, a former Episcopalian priest who is married and the father of two. Slowly, but surely, change is coming in the Catholic Church.

Evidence for Parallel Universes

The Los Angeles Times has a lengthy piece this morning on an Australian evangelist, Ken Ham, who is packing churches in America with his in-your-face message to science that evolution is wrong. Here is an excerpt of a session with Ham speaking to 2,300 elementary aged kids:

"Boys and girls," Ham said. If a teacher so much as mentions evolution, or the Big Bang, or an era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, "you put your hand up and you say, 'Excuse me, were you there?' Can you remember that?"

The children roared their assent.

"Sometimes people will answer, 'No, but you weren't there either,' " Ham told them. "Then you say, 'No, I wasn't, but I know someone who was, and I have his book about the history of the world.' " He waved his Bible in the air.

"Who's the only one who's always been there?" Ham asked.

"God!" the boys and girls shouted.

"Who's the only one who knows everything?"


"So who should you always trust, God or the scientists?"

The children answered with a thundering: "God!"

Ham apparently packs them in at churches around the country and rakes it in with speaking fees and the sale of DVD's and books. He also has a radio show heard on more than 1000 Christian stations. Ham also tells his crowds that the teaching of evolution is the root of all social evils:

When pastors dismiss the creation account as a fable, he says, they give their flock license to disregard the Bible's moral teachings as well. He shows his audiences a graphic that places the theory of evolution at the root of all social ills: abortion, divorce, racism, gay marriage, store clerks who say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."
Ham and his vast audiences offer the firmest evidence possible that there such things as parallel universes. It's the same sun up in the sky; the time is the same; it's America; but stepping into their worldview is stepping into another universe. There, the earth and its inhabitants just appeared intact, finished, and ready for us to send spaceships to the moon. There is only one history textbook, one science textbook, one religious textbook, and happily it's all the same book. And any "fact" that seems to trouble the brain can simply be ignored. It is, in fact, a wonderfully simple universe. Thinking is definitely discouraged. Smiling children are everywhere.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Cartoon Controversy

I have to confess that I have mixed feelings about the controversy regarding the cartoon images that were printed, first in Denmark, of the founder of Islam, Muhammad. On the one hand, I place a high value on free speech. Free speech is an essential component of a healthy open society. And I think free speech is particularly important in the religious arena, where claims about ultimate truth and salvation are frequently made. Religion has enormous power in the lives of people all around the world. And that power needs to be questioned, tested, and occasionally it even needs to be laughed at to keep it from taking itself too seriously. Long live Monty Python's Life of Brian!

On the other hand, when one is in a forest in the middle of a draught, is it smart to start a fire when you know that the slightest spark could burn the whole forest down? I am reminded of an admonition of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthian church that "All things are lawful, but not all things are benificial." And I wonder about the wisdom of publishing cartoons in what was already a flamatory environment.

If you read this Washington Post account of how the cartoons came to be printed, it appears that they were intended as a provocation. The Danish newspaper invited political cartoonists to draw Muhammad as they "saw him" as a way of challenging what they perceived as self-cencorship and fear at insulting the growing Muslim community in Denmark.

In addition, in recent years there has been a rising tide of anti-immigration fervor (some of it specifically directed at Muslims) in Denmark, and much of Europe. In Denmark, this culminated in the election in 2001 of a new right-wing goverment that immediately clamped down on immigration. Even before the cartoons were published, tensions between the Muslim community and the government and the largely Christian population were already heightened.

In the midst of this tension, the newspaper printed the images, certainly knowing they would be offensive to Muslims. Of course, they could, because Denmark is a free country and "all things are lawful." But should they have done what they did given the political climate? That is debatable.

What is not debatable is that the same government that was swept into power on the strength of anti-immigration sentiment, was initially deaf to Muslim protests, as was the paper. What is also not debatable is that the protest was eventually fanned into a conflagration by repressive Islamic governments who saw value in fanning the flames of anti-western sentiment. As the New York Times reports, a meeting in Mecca in December among Islamic goverment officials led to "organized" protests in Syria and Iran. These kinds of protests in repressive regimes against outside enemies, be they fascist, communist, or religious, are necessary means of channeling anger and dissent away from the home goverment.

All of which is to say that there is plenty of blame to go around. A more prudent newspaper editor might have decided that given the climate, publishing the cartoons could wait. A more sensitive goverment might have at least listened to the initially peaceful Muslim protests. And the repressive goverments that have tried to use this to their advantage, well, they are just doing what you would expect them to do.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Homosexuality and the Reading of Scripture

I was reading an article in the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal about concerns by some conservative Catholics that the new Pope Benedict won't deal firmly enough with the homosexual issue in the Catholic church (in particular it was a reply to Richard Neahaus, once a liberal Protestant but now a neo-conservative Catholic writer), and I came across this paragraph:

It is true, however, that like many Catholics, Commonweal is engaged in the difficult task of discerning whether new understandings of homosexuality are compatible with the gospel and the church’s moral tradition. We look first to the church for guidance and instruction. But since God’s presence in the world is not confined to the church, we also look to the lives and testimony of our friends and neighbors. No one should pretend that reconciling homosexual love with the church’s teaching is easy or perhaps even likely; and no one should assume it is impossible. God, we are convinced, is both faithful and known to confound expectations...
Protestants, of course, would substitute "scripture" everywhere it says "church" (following Luther's admonition to follow sola scriptura). We look first to the scriptures for guidance and instruction... And it is true, of course, that it is not easy to reconcile the "practice" of homosexuality with the words of scripture. One needs to ask, of course, what was understood about homosexuality in its historical context. The Jewish and Christian writers certainly had no way of knowing that homosexual orientation could be genetically influenced.

But it is also helpful to remember that homosexuality is not the only issue that cannot be easily reconciled with scripture. The idea that we could organize society as a democracy, that slavery is morally wrong, that women might be equals in society and in church, all of these are ideas that cannot easily be reconciled with scripture. But somehow we have done it, because, as the Commonweal article suggests, God's presence is not confined to the church or to the scriptures. We have learned new truth beyond what is contained in scripture. We have learned to see the deeper insights in the scriptures that value each individual as a "good" creation and a child of God and that challenge us to practice love and justice in our homes, churches, schools, and communities.

It is this history of progress in human rights and spiritual insight that makes me confident that we will one day look back on the battle regarding homosexuality much as we now do regarding slavery. But the battle did (and does) have to be fought.

Republicans Without Integrity, part 2124

There is literally no end to stories of corruption and deceit coming out of Republican Washington. From the NYTimes:

George C. Deutsch, the young presidential appointee at NASA who told public affairs workers to limit reporters' access to a top climate scientist and told a Web designer to add the word "theory" at every mention of the Big Bang, resigned yesterday, agency officials said.

Mr. Deutsch's resignation came on the same day that officials at Texas A&M University confirmed that he did not graduate from there, as his resume on file at the agency asserted.

Evangelical Leaders Join to Fight Global Warming

Good for them. From the New York Times:

Despite opposition from some of their colleagues, 86 evangelical Christian leaders have decided to back a major initiative to fight global warming, saying "millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors."

Among signers of the statement, which will be released in Washington on Wednesday, are the presidents of 39 evangelical colleges, leaders of aid groups and churches, like the Salvation Army, and pastors of megachurches, including Rick Warren, author of the best seller "The Purpose-Driven Life."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

NSA Wiretapping

I watched some of the testimony of Attorney General Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday. It is clear that the Bush Administration believes it has the "inherent" power to do whatever it chooses, Congress be damned. It was amazing for me to see some of the Republican Senators, like Cornyn from Texas, supporting the President on this. Hillary could be President in a few years; they have to know this, and unchecked Presidential power ought to strike fear deep in their hearts. On the other hand, Specter and some of the other Republicans and Democrats were practically begging Gonzales to suggest legislation that would make the NSA surveilance indisputedly legal. But King George sees no need and Gonzales brushed them off.

Back from Rome

I arrived back from Rome late Saturday night, led worship on Sunday morning, hosted a SuperBowl party Sunday night, and am still recovering from jet lag. But Rome was great. It was particularly impressive to see the immensity of the Roman Empire, still obvious to see 2000 years later, the catacombs of the early Christians and their art, and to think about how we got from Jesus crucified by Rome to the Holy Roman Empire to today. Much to think about, and eventually, to write about.