Monday, August 1, 2011

Fear and God

While out and about this weekend, my wife and I happened to be driving along in Little Suamico, when we came upon something that I found rather upsetting. Specifically, a church, with the weekly message on a board facing the road. Nothing unusual there, except the content of the message, which read:
Eternity: Smoking or Non-Smoking
Aha!  The old "God as fire insurance" card is still being dealt from the bottom of the deck by believers.  Between this and the hilarious Christian radio broadcast I caught a few months ago (I listen entirely due to the phenomenon of Hathos - look it up) which praised Jonathan Edwards' comically hyperbolic fire-and-brimstone screed "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" as the greatest sermon ever conceived, I've noticed that Christian rhetoric seems to be ramping up everywhere, taking us back to the scare tactics of yore.  What's next?  Catholics praising Torquemada and calling for a return to the ways of the Inquisition?

Now that I've had some time to reflect upon it, I don't quite know what to make of the message outside that church.  My initial reaction was to take it as a taunt, and an incitement to fear, which has been the greatest ally of religion since the earliest humans saw the bright, hot orb in the sky and began to worship it.  The subtext seemed to be, "Come inside, for we are the only way to avoid burning in Hell after you die."  It's exactly that sort of claim of impossible knowledge, and the presumptuousness that goes along with that claim, that I and other unbelievers find so incredibly offensive.  "We have the truth.  Turn or burn.  Accept Christ or die."  How can anyone take such stuff seriously?  It's as sophisticated as the message you'll see on many such church message boards that reads "Good without God becomes 0."  You don't need to think at all to refute such nonsense.

Having thought about the "Smoking or Nonsmoking" line a bit more, however, I'm starting to think that I'm not really the intended audience.  I mean, sure, if a few atheists see the sign, experience the fear of judgement that I've written about before, and come inside, I'm sure the faithful would be ecstatic.  But I think the real intended targets are the churchgoers themselves.

A person who doesn't believe in God, or is a believer, but not of the Christian variety, is more likely than not to be massively turned off by such a crude message, particularly with its casual, almost nonchalant invocation of torture for all eternity.  That kind of message even irritates more mainline Christians who are either uncomfortable with the idea of damnation or disbelieve in it altogether.  The people who are most susceptible to fear-mongering about the afterlife are the people who believe that Hell is a very real place, and that there is a very real chance that they might go there.  And so the followers go through the vicious cycle of guilt over and over,* constantly trying to assuage that gnawing fear that their God (who "abhors" them, to quote Jonathan Edwards) will discard them into the Pit for all time.  And the clergy of that church are complicit in not only NOT helping to relieve that anguish, but making sure that it continues over and over.  It is simply not good enough to go to church, to do good things, to tithe, and on and on.  Fear is the only prescription.

And so, while I feel the same contempt for whoever conceived of the nasty and brutish little blurb outside that church, I also feel something else: sympathy.  Sympathy for those who are trapped in the cycle of fear made worse by the people and institutions they turn to for consolation.  Someone once said something like, "There's a mean streak in anyone who would shake someone else's faith."  After reading that sign and thinking about it, I must reply, Au contraire.  There's a downright evil streak in anyone who would terrify already frightened people with the threat of Hell.

*Brian Flemming's film The God Who Wasn't There dramatically tells of his own personal struggle with this cycle of fear, and I highly recommend it.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Music XVI

Hey, it's been a while, but I'm back. And in that spirit, I give you a massive guilty pleasure song, but a deadly serious one too, given its subject.

The Cranberries, "Zombie"

Michael Tomasky hits the nail on the head

This is exactly what the President should do:
[T]here are some legitimate legal questions surrounding the use of the 14th Amendment that could lead to political nightmares down the road, like an adverse decision from the Supreme Court. And after all, as long as the GOP controls the House, the odds would be at least decent that they actually would drum up some phony charges and impeach him, leading to a trial in the Senate. But in fact, this would in many ways be a gift to Obama. Calls for impeachment would likely perform the nifty trick of getting both left and center on his side, galvanizing his enervated left flank for battle heading toward reelection and persuading independents that the Republican Party needs to start holding its caucus meetings in rubber rooms (what, impeaching a president for ensuring the good credit rating of the United States?).
If Boehner, Cantor, and McConnell want to keep cow-towing to the dead-ender wing of the Republican Party and destroy the national economy to sharpen a political axe, Obama has to call their bluff with the 14th.  Go on national television, explain the stakes, and then dare them to impeach him, because short of a Supreme Court ruling from a Court that's been very sympathetic to broad executive power arguments in recent memory (which would effectively be a ruling saying that the 14th Amendment doesn't actually mean what it says on its face) the only remedy would be impeachment.

Josh Lyman had the right idea.

H/T: My wife, who spotted the article, and has gotten her fill of my desperation for Obama to just end the crisis by invoking the 14th Amendment.

Monday, July 18, 2011

[Redacted]'s Cycling Adventures, Part I

I used to be quite the cyclist, and I'm trying to start riding more often.  So, when I was invited to go on the 80 km route of the Titletown Bike Tour yesterday, how could I refuse?  Of course, I accepted that invitation a couple weeks ago, before I knew that yesterday's temperatures up here would approach blast furnace levels.   I made the smart choice and didn't even bother asking about the heat index until we were done.  Even worse, we had that annoying southwest wind to deal with - the kind that was blowing the same speed we were riding, meaning even having a tailwind (which should be a wonderful relief on a hot day) ended up basically putting us in a sauna.  That, and I'd completely forgotten that there were three successive rather steep hills at the end of the route.  In short, I am hurting this morning.  But it's a great ride, well staffed and supported, and apart from those irritating hills it's a good route.

So, what did you do this weekend?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

It's on now

A number of district, including my own, are voting today.  If your district is one of them, go out and vote.

Decisions are made by those who show up.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Friday Music XV

Apologies for the slight hiatus this week. Normal blogging will resume next week.

Pet Shop Boys - "Integral"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ruminations on the National Anthem

One of the many reasons I enjoy watching international sporting events is the chance to compare the national anthems of different countries.  There are a few nations with some very stirring anthems - "O Canada" and "Advance, Australia Fair" immediately spring to mind.  "La Marseillaise" is also excellent, but it's rather creepy once you know what the last few lines ("Marchons, marchons! / Qu'un sang impur, / Abreuve nos sillons!") translates into.  A few could probably be replaced by something better, but at least aren't that bad - I'd put the "Deutschlandlied" and "God Save the Queen" in this category, although the British don't seem to realize that "Jerusalem" is a vastly better song, despite it's obvious religious overtones.  It's just a very moving piece of music.  I'm even partial to "Rule, Britannia!" but such imperialistic sentiments are probably inappropriate in the 21st Century.

Which brings me to the rather troubled national anthem of these, our United States.  First off, it's unsingable.  How often must we suffer through trained performers screwing it up before this becomes clear?  Second, the song is almost unique in the world of national anthems, in that it is a description of an event (the shelling of Fort McHenry), rather than simply an ode to the nation and its virtues.  Third, the tune simply isn't (to my mind) all that great.  And, as it happens, there's a much better piece that solves all these problems and is already quite well-known: "America, the Beautiful."

Yes, it invokes the almighty in the refrain, but in the form of a request, not an assertion.  I get a lot less upset at "God shed his grace on thee" than the ridiculous "Annuit coeptis" on our currency, as if we are all certain that God or providence has, in fact, favored our undertaking.  But beyond that, the lyrics are truly moving, especially the fourth verse:
Oh, beautiful for patriot dream,
Which sees beyond the years.
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears.
I still recall Dan Rather breaking down while reciting these words on David Letterman's first broadcast after 9/11, and remarking that "We can never sing those words the same way again."  No, we can't.  If nothing else, the sentiment is perfect for a post-9/11 America.  And the melody is evocative too, unlike the current national anthem, which sounds like what it is: the tune of a drinking song, namely "To Anacreon in Heaven."  Ew.  And so, here in the early 21st Century, we ought to do away with our substandard anthem, and replace it with the first or, better yet, fourth verse of "America, the Beautiful."

And while I'm on the topic of official songs, I'm quite a fan of "On, Wisconsin," but "Maryland, My Maryland" really needs to be stricken as the state song of Maryland.  Why?  Because the song was written by a secessionist hoping Maryland would join the Confederacy.  And it refers to our greatest president as a "tyrant," a "vandal," and a "despot."  Why the Hell is it Maryland's state song?*  And before you say "But, [Redacted], state songs and national anthems are traditions and cannot be changed," check out Colorado.  That's right!  In 2007, the State of Colorado changed their state song to that atrocious John Denver diddy, "Rocky Mountain High," causing stoners everywhere to snicker.  Tennessee has had eight different state songs, and the current one is a 1980 country song by Ronnie Milsap.  I guess "Rocky Top" got boring or something.  "Georgia on My Mind" only became the state song of Georgia in the Seventies.  So while I'm advocating for our national anthem to be changed to "America, the Beautiful," can someone please write a song about Maryland, so that the Old Line State can finally have a non-secessionist state song?

*Also, on an aesthetic note, the song isn't helped by being set to the hokey and groan-inducing strains of "O Tannenbaum."

Friday, July 1, 2011

Friday Music XIV

In light of the mounting debt crisis, and the utter inability of our political leaders to agree on, well, anything really, I have to go in the obvious direction.

R.E.M. - "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Brinksmanship and the Church of Cut My Taxes

Andrew Sullivan posts devastating critique of the GOP strategy on the debt:
For the GOP to use the debt ceiling to put a gun to the head of the US and global economy until they get only massive spending cuts and no revenue enhancement is therefore the clearest sign yet of their abandonment of the last shreds of a conservative disposition. A conservative does not risk the entire economic system to score an ideological victory. That is what a fanatic does. And when that fanatical faction was responsible for huge spending binges in the recent past, for two off-budget wars costing $4.4 trillion, a new Medicare benefit, and tax revenues at a 50-year low relative to GDP and tax rates below the levels of Ronald Reagan, this insistence is lunacy, when it isn't gob-smackingly hypocritical. I say this as someone who was railing against too much spending when these people were throwing money away like it was confetti. "Deficits don't matter," remember?

It seems to me there are two options the president can take. The first is what you are told to do when a criminal or terrorist holds a gun to your head. You surrender.

The point of economic blackmail is that it works. If you have a scintilla of public responsibility and you hold public office, you cannot allow default. And so you give them everything they want. You announce this while declaring you abhor the package but have to back it for the sake of the national interest in preventing catastrophe. You detail and expose the Republican priorities far more aggressively than in the past. You blame the performance of the economy entirely on them from now on out. And you run on a platform of shared sacrifice - of revenue-enhancing tax reform and tax hikes for millionaires. Then you run against the Republicans as hard as you can.

The second option is to bypass them, invoke the 14th Amendment, and order the Treasury to keep paying its debts because an extraordinarily reckless faction wants to destroy the American economy in order to save it (and pin the subsequent double-dip recession on Obama). Bruce Bartlett outlines the mechanism here. He has some other ideas for coping here.

What you probably cannot do is negotiate with economic equivalent of terrorists. What Cantor and Boehner are doing is essentially letting the world know they have an economic WMD in their possession. And it will go off if you do not give them everything they want, with no negotiation possible. That's the nature of today's GOP. It needs to be destroyed before it can recover.
He's right.  It's just shocking to see the GOP and its leaders, like Boehner and Ryan, talking about default so nonchalantly.  But I'd just love to see the President invoke the 14th Amendment, pay the debt anyway, and then dare Congress to stop him.  I can't find a clip, but a guy was explaining that to Chris Matthews yesterday, and pointing out that probably even Congress would not have the standing necessary to challenge it in court, meaning impeachment would be the only remedy.  I'd just love to see that.  Congress impeaching a President for keeping our economy from collapsing.

Sanity, it seems, has gone on vacation.

UPDATE: My wife points my attention to this article, which explains the workings of the 14th Amendment argument.  Money quote:
Writing in the Financial Times in April, Former Reagan adviser and Treasury official Bruce Bartlett said the Obama administration could justify ignoring Congress to ensure the nation pays its debts.
"The president would be justified in taking extreme actions to protect against a debt default. In the event that congressional irresponsibility makes default impossible to avoid, he should order the secretary of the Treasury to simply disregard the debt limit and sell whatever securities are necessary to raise cash to pay the nation's debts. They are protected by the full faith and credit of the United States and preventing default is no less justified than using American military power to protect against an armed invasion without a congressional declaration of war," Bartlett wrote. "Under those circumstances, when default is the only possible alternative, I believe that the president and the Treasury secretary would be justified in taking extraordinary action to prevent it, even if it means violating the debt limit."
However, if Obama were to follow that route, it's still unclear how the courts would rule.

Grim and Saass point to the 1935 Perry v. U.S Supreme Court ruling, which determined that the language in the Fourteenth Amendment does apply to the national debt. What's more, they observe, according to the majority opinion on the case, no act of Congress can undermine promises of debt payment from the federal government.
"To say that the Congress may withdraw or ignore that pledge is to assume that the Constitution contemplates a vain promise; a pledge having no other sanction than the pleasure and convenience of the pledgor," wrote Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who presided over the case.
The plot thickens.  According to that interpretation, Congress is forbidden from doing exactly what they're doing now, i.e. holding a gun to the President's head over the debt.  Again, this seems like the sort of issue where the Supreme Court will just scream "Political question!" and run for the hills.  Or simply say that Congress lacks standing to bring a suit against the President.

Rick Perry: Ignorant of the Establishment Clause


The gist of it is that things are so screwed up that only sky daddy can fix them. Our sins are so bad that only He/She/It can take them away, and blah blah blah.

Yeah, I'll pass. But, please Governor. Please run for President. Just so everyone can see what a massive idiot you are.