Sunday, December 31, 2006

How to remember a President

In a radio address on the late President Ford, Bush gives us some tips on how to remember a President:
He always put the needs of his country before his own, and did what he thought was right, even when those decisions were unpopular. Only years later would Americans come to fully appreciate the foresight and wisdom of this good man.
This is, of course, how the American people will come to see Dubya's Presidency. It's very unpopular now, but someday Dubya's stupid, shortsighted detractors will come "to fully appreciate the foresight and wisdom of this good man".

I'm sure he has great faith in this.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Justice is served

Not that anyone is going to shed tears over Saddam Hussein's death, but it looks like all the TV news media are reporting this as justice served at long last. At last, the Iraqis can feel certain that they live in a regime under the rule of law, with the age of tyranny firmly behind them.

But I doubt whether the fall of Saddam is plausibly seen, from an Iraqi point of view, as having been authorized by any applicable law. Similarly for the subsequent establishment of the court system which subsequently tried and sentenced Saddam to death. Saddam's law certainly didn't guide the overthrow of Saddam's law. American law is some other place's law. International law withheld its approval.

One law that applies in any case is the law of the jungle. Has the age of Saddam come to its final end under the rule of law, or just because Saddam the strong man ran afoul of a yet stronger man?

Well, who cares what I think about it. What I'd like to know is what the Iraqis think about it.

Maybe the talking heads will say something about this after the story about the petition to name a Chicago street after James Brown.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Is Jeopardy dumbing down?

I've been distinctly disappointed by a couple of the Final Jeopardies I've witnessed recently. I remember a time, not too long ago, when I found pretty much every Final Jeopardy to be utterly obscure, but a couple of weeks ago my jaw dropped when I saw this one:
This Britishism is a homophone of one of the letters of the alphabet, and is spelled with a consonant followed by a line of four vowels.
One of the contestants actually missed this one.

And just now, I saw this one:
This elevated area, where the Dome of the Rock sits, is also called this, after a different religious building
Two of the three contestants (including the returning champion) missed this one.

I mean, OK, maybe they're a little tricky, especially when you're working under a time limit with that annoying theme music going, but they hardly require the heroic feats of arcane knowledge that were required of Jeopardy champions in the past.

Maybe Jeopardy is under pressure to dumb down, what with all the competitor game shows where you can basically win a million dollars for being able to count to 30. But, come on, Trebek, where's your pride?

It's just so sad.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Quick, someone slap a Bibble up there

Some dude named Chuck Baldwin offers some helpful advice as to What patriotic Christians can do for America.

I read through the article without glancing at the sidebar, so it took me a while to figure out what he was advocating. Baldwin spends the first half or so of the piece talking about how Christians have to avoid allegiances to the two main political parties, the mainstream media, and various sorts of bad theology. Well, fair enough, but the "patriotic Christian" might also like some positive advice as to what sorts of commitments to seek out. Advice which is given here:
Hook up with your local John Birch Society. Join Larry Pratt's Gun Owners of America. Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership is another terrific pro-Second Amendment organization you should be familiar with.

In addition, I recently left the GOP and am now proud to be identified with the Constitution Party. I recommend the CP to my readers. I also like what Jim Gilchrist is doing with the Minuteman Project.
And... that's about it. Guns and keeping out the Mexicans. There may be other concerns floating around, but these are the ones that merited specific warrant.

Well... OK, that does fit in with a certain vision of patriotism.

As for the latter half of the "patriotic Christian" label, that is addressed, in the manner of an afterthought, in two brief sentences about prayer - presumably, asking God to give us guns and keep out the Mexicans. (Earlier in the article, there's also advice to seek out churches that uphold the central Christian ideals, which turn out to be: guns and keeping out the Mexicans.)

Speaking of Christianity-as-afterthought, I greatly enjoyed seeing how the site as a whole expresses its devotion to Jesus, that embodiment of the ideals of guns and keeping out the Mexicans. If you go to the drop-down menu at the top of the page, under "Documents", the last item is "The Holy Bible". This is a link to an online KJV Bible. Except nobody seems to have noticed that the link is broken, so all it really leads to is "File not found" in big red letters.


(I just noticed that site is affiliated with Alan Keyes. That explains a lot.)

(hat tip Jesus Politics)

Behold the voluptuous sea-cow

I'm pretty late to this party, but, oh well.

I heartily recommend this latest creation from Conan O'Brien:

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Can a T-shirt send you to hell?

Saying you don't believe that the holy spirit exists won't do it. Neither will buying and wearing this, but it's probably closer to the mark.

(That's the worst I could find on that website, but there are some other ones that are pretty bad, too. I'm fascinated by this artful depiction of Ann Coulter, which scrupulously conceals the fact that Coulter is actually a sack of centipedes poorly disguised as a man poorly disguised as a woman.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Dream the impossible blaspheme

The Rational Response Squad has issued the following Blasphemy Challenge to all non-believers:
The Rational Response Squad is giving away 1001 DVDs of The God Who Wasn't There, the hit documentary that the Los Angeles Times calls "provocative -- to put it mildly."
Incidentally, I saw that documentary a while back (well before my conversion), and found it pretty underwhelming. Maybe that's partly because I was then part of the choir to which it was preaching, but I also thought that some bits were uncomfortably childish and petty. But, hey, free is free, and this remains a pretty generous giveaway. Back to the Challenge:
There's only one catch: We want your soul.

It's simple. You record a short message damning yourself to Hell, you upload it to YouTube, and then the Rational Response Squad will send you a free The God Who Wasn't There DVD. It's that easy.


You may damn yourself to Hell however you would like, but somewhere in your video you must say this phrase: "I deny the Holy Spirit."

Why? Because, according to Mark 3:29 in the Holy Bible, "Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin." Jesus will forgive you for just about anything, but he won't forgive you for denying the existence of the Holy Spirit. Ever. This is a one-way road you're taking here.
Indeed, Mark 3:29 comes from the mouth of Jesus himself. Unfortunately, the claim that he's talking about denying the existence of the holy spirit is textually indefensible.

I don't know if anyone really knows what Jesus is talking about here, but it's clarified a bit by the context. The set-up for Jesus' declaration in v.29 is given in v.22:
And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, "He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons."
It's in response to them that Jesus says (vv.28-29):
"I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin."
And, in case the reader has forgotten the context given in v.22, a reminder is given immediately thereafter (v.30):
He said this because they were saying, "He has an evil spirit."
So, blaspheming the holy spirit involves something like accusing the holy spirit of being an evil spirit. I'm not sure what it would mean to do that (it's not clear that Jesus is even accusing the people in v.22 of doing it - this could just be a warning), but, at the very least, it seems that blasphemy of the holy spirit involves having certain spiritual beliefs, which might also involve believing in the Abrahamic God.

This pretty much rules out the possibility that any genuine atheist could truly rise to the Blasphemy Challenge. Merely denying the existence of the holy spirit has nothing to do with blaspheming the holy spirit, and whatever this unforgivable sin really is, atheists can't commit it. Blasphemy Challenge is right that this is a "one-way road", but it seems likely that it's not a road that atheists can take. And one consequence of this is that there's nothing an atheist can do to eliminate the possibility of someday undergoing the terrifying process of Christian salvation.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Kierkegaard quotes (II)

The Kierkegaardian pseudonym Johannes Climacus, in Philosophical Fragments, recommends the following as a kind of (you might call it) statement of faith:
"...despite all objections, which I myself have fully considered in a form far more terrifying than the formulations anyone else is capable of posing to me, I nevertheless chose the improbable."
A point of clarification: The context in which this quote appears suggests that the term "improbable" here means not of low probability, but rather, beyond all categories of probability. The distinction between low and high probability is a quantitative one, as opposed to the qualitative distinction (parallel to that between finitude and infinitude) that is meant here. So Climacus' use of "improbable" is nothing like when e.g. Dawkins says that it is "improbable" that God exists. As Dawkins means it, the claim (that the probability that God exists is very low) is a category mistake: the realm of probability is the realm of the empirical, while religious categories are qualitatively higher.

The quoted statement sounds excessively strong, to the point of being prideful. But I kinda feel that the learning curve with respect to arguments contra (and also pro) faith reaches its plateau relatively quickly - I think you can pretty much exhaust all the important moves in the arguments without too much trouble. And if you've done that (a worthwhile endeavor for every believer), and weathered whatever crises of faith as might have popped up, the "objections" get demoted to the status of non-"terrifying" intellectual exercises. (It's impossible to inoculate oneself against crises of faith entirely. But dealing with the intellectual routes into them seems to be a tractable task.)

A piece of trivia: A prof informs me that the original Danish title is better translated as "Philosophical Crumbs". That is an awesome title. Why the hell someone would choose to go with "Fragments" instead is beyond me. Bloody fuddy duddy philosophical translators.... (The Danish, Smuler, even sounds like a crumby word.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Chuck Norris adds new Facts

The man himself has responded to the "Chuck Norris Facts". For example:
Alleged Chuck Norris Fact: "There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of creatures Chuck Norris has allowed to live."

It's funny. It's cute. But here's what I really think about the theory of evolution: It's not real. It is not the way we got here. In fact, the life you see on this planet is really just a list of creatures God has allowed to live. We are not creations of random chance. We are not accidents. There is a God, a Creator, who made you and me. We were made in His image, which separates us from all other creatures.
So, it's not quite as funny as him having a third fist hidden under his beard, but it's a fact that Chuck Norris is a creationist.

There's this curious trend where the tough guys of my youth have grown up to be conservative Christians (Mr. T and Hulk Hogan also come to mind). What's up with that? If he'd lived, would Bruce Lee have gone that way also? It boggles the mind.

Some words from Kierkegaard

From the Journals and Papers:
The more the phenomenon, the appearance, expresses that here God cannot possibly be present, the closer he is. This is the case with Christ. The very moment the appearance expressed that this man could not possibly be the God-man—no, when the appearance expressed that, men even refused to recognize him as a man (See, what a man!), then God was the closest to actuality he had ever been.

The law for God's remoteness (and the history of this is the history of Christendom) is as follows: Everything that strengthens the appearance distances God. At the time when there were no churches and the few Christians gathered together in catacombs as refugees and persecutees, God was closer to actuality. Then came churches, so many churches, such great, splended churches—to the same degree God was distanced. For God's nearness is inversely related to phenomenon, and this ascending scale (churches, many churches, splendid churches) is an increase in the sphere of appearance. When Christianity was not doctrine, when it was one or two affirmations expressed in one's life, God was closer to actuality than when Christianity became doctrine. And with every increase and embellishment of doctrine etc., to the same degree God was distanced. For doctrine and its dissemination is an increase in appearance, and God relates himself inversely. —When there were no clergy but the Christians were all brothers, God was closer to actuality than when there came to be clergymen, maybe clergymen, a powerful ecclesiastical order. For clergymen are an increase in appearance, and God relates inversely to phenomenon.

And this is how it happened that Christendom has step by step become just about the farthest distance possible from God, all under the claim that Christianity is perfectible, that it progresses. Christendom's history is one of alienation from God through the strengthening of appearance, or (as in certain situations we speak of removing someone tactfully and politely) Christendom's history is one of progressively removing God tactfully and politely by building churchs and monumental buildings, by a monstrous doctrinal system with an incalculable host of preachers.

Thus Christendom is just about the greatest distance possible from God.
This is probably too strong, and Kierkegaard says as much elsewhere in more measured moments. It is not that these external circumstances could suffice to automatically cut the individual believer off from God (nothing has that power). But as the edifice of Christendom is raised higher and higher, it becomes less and less likely that the average person will ever face the genuine question of becoming a Christian.

Blessed are you when you are given pizza and a nice toilet

Via the NY Times, some striking examples of church-state-conflating faith-based-nonsense, such as this one:
Life was different in Unit E at the state prison outside Newton, Iowa.

The toilets and sinks — white porcelain ones, like at home — were in a separate bathroom with partitions for privacy. In many Iowa prisons, metal toilet-and-sink combinations squat beside the bunks, to be used without privacy, a few feet from cellmates.

The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs, with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands and real-world food, like pizza or sandwiches from Subway. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting rooms.

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress.
I suppose the "E" in "Unit E" stood for "Evangelical".

"Unit E" was run on tax dollars, and was of course clearly unconstitutional. So much so that, when it was brought to court, the judge not only cut off its funding, but also ordered that the ministry repay the $1.5 million it had already received, on the grounds that "the constitutional violations were serious and clearly foreseeable".

Given that the program was so blatantly unconstitutional, why would anyone have tried it in the first place? I can't help wondering if it occurred to some clever soul that they should give this a shot, so that, in the likely event that it got shot down in the courts, then at least pastors of a certain politicized stripe would have something to get the flock riled up about. After all, it was helping inmates, and wasn't doing any harm.

Well, no harm apart from, say, this:
One Roman Catholic inmate, Michael A. Bauer, left the program after a year, mostly because he felt the program staff and volunteers were hostile toward his faith.

“My No. 1 reason for leaving the program was that I personally felt spiritually crushed,” he testified at a court hearing last year. “I just didn’t feel good about where I was and what was going on.”
This isn't too surprising, given the attitude that many evangelical Christians seem to have towards Catholics. (Are they even Christians? They seem to worship an awful lot of idols. Even so, they still might not deserve to be "spiritually crushed".) Presumably someone who didn't lay claim to any form of Christian faith at all wouldn't have made it into the program in the first place.

Setting aside the political point of view, I'm wondering what, from a religious point of view, could make anyone think this program was a good idea. Are the privileges of "Unit E" supposed to prod the inmates along a path of "spiritual progress" (as judged by the people who run the program, naturally)? Are these material comforts meant to help convince these inmates to love God? I'm not sure how that could work, but maybe they're operating on the logic of Pascal's Wager - except instead of the infinite reward of heaven, they dangle the carrot of private toilets, live music, and food from Subway.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Every second of the night, I live another life

A dream.

This was a long dream, and I only remember this bit of it, which happened at about the half-way mark. I was walking up to my car (a mini landrover?), and I noticed some weirdo loitering nearby, who then started to walk after me as I approached the car. I got in and sat down in the passenger seat; shortly thereafter the weirdo walked up, and I locked the door. He pawed at it for a while, in weirdoish fashion, and then walked over to the driver's side. I then realized that the door was unlocked, but it was too late: he'd already opened it. There was a Club on the steering wheel, so I took it off and brandished it at the weirdo, trying to keep him at bay. Some stressful moments follow, as I fail to get the weirdo to go away. But then, help arrives: a kind man comes up and gets the guy to go away.

And that kind man was William H. Macy.

I forget what happened after that exactly, but he got in the car and we went for a drive. Somewhere along the line we drove the car up a slope until the slope went perpendicular and the car fell off. We didn't get hurt, though. I think it was indoors, in a structure shaped like a halfpipe, except it totally wasn't a halfpipe.

And this reminds me of another dream I had a while back.

This also involved a car and a celebrity. As I recall, I was in a car with Christopher Walken. We were on a terribly important mission of some sort. We didn't complete the mission, because along the way the driver (not me, not Walken) drove us off a cliff. Just when things seemed doomed, I somehow escaped the car, and found myself sitting alive but stranded on a ledge of the cliff. (I dunno what happened to the others.) I had a cell phone, so I called for help. And I guess the person I called was my mom, because shortly thereafter she appeared on the ledge with me. But instead of helping me, she criticized me for getting stuck on the ledge. So I remained stranded, but I must have been OK with that, because after the conversation I curled up with a blanket and pillow (I remember briefly wondering where those came from), and went to sleep.

Motifs: male celebrities, cars, being in cars with male celebrities, being in falling cars with male celebrities. Really cool and talented, but pretty weird looking male celebrities. Plus a hint of maternal beratement concerning things that aren't my fault. I wonder what it all could mean.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

All your praises they shall ring

A while back I saw "I'm Your Man", a recent doc about Leonard Cohen. The movie is based on various singers doing covers of Cohen's music, which turns out to be a recipe for general mediocrity, since only Leonard Cohen can really do Leonard Cohen.

There are a couple of nice exceptions, which are available on YouTube.

First, Antony doing a cover of "If It Be Your Will". (At first I was actually a little unsettled by how very weird-looking he is. But he has a great voice, so I got over it.)

Second, the final performance from the movie, with Leonard doing the singing, at last. When I saw this in the theatre, there were audible gasps when the camera zooms out after the first verse (you'll see what I mean; it's a nice touch).

Friday, December 01, 2006

A long post about The Gay

Gay marriage is now legally recognized in South Africa.
The law was approved by MPs two weeks ago despite objections from religious groups and traditional leaders.

The Constitutional Court ruled last year that the existing laws discriminated against homosexuals.

The Civil Union Act gives gay people the same rights as heterosexual couples.

The ruling was based on the constitution, which was the first in the world specifically to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference.

This is unusual in Africa where homosexuality is largely taboo - notably in its neighbour Zimbabwe.
Whodathunk that South Africa would have beat America to this bit of political progress. But I'm confident America's time will come, because the political stance against legal recognition of gay marriage is just so weak.

It's true that specifically religious arguments based on scripture are relatively difficult to attack (though I think that ultimately the politically most important version--the Christian one--doesn't really work), but these purely parochial arguments can't carry the full weight of anti-gay politics, and need to be supplemented by non-parochial political arguments. So we see the development of arguments based on concepts like "the sanctity of marriage", and these arguments are so thoroughly specious that I think they will certainly collapse in the face of the cruel onslaught of reality.

The American political community is genuinely responsive to reasons--it just takes a while sometimes. I'm going to go out on a limb, and give this process 20 years. This might sound overly optimistic in the current political climate, but back in the day one might well have thought the same thing about mixed-race marriages. (Today's arguments against gay marriage show remarkable parallels with yesterday's arguments against miscegenation, which carried the day in at least some American courtrooms until the Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws in 1967.)

So much for optimism. Against that, I see that the South African debate got caught up in a rather disquieting trend on the liberal side of the gay rights debate:
During the parliamentary debate earlier this month, Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told MPs: "In breaking with our past... we need to fight and resist all forms of discrimination and prejudice, including homophobia."
What we see here is the common liberal assumption--or, let's say, the fantasy--that all moral/political opposition to gay rights is rooted in the psychological phenomenon of homophobia. And, to be clear, let's understand homophobia in the strict sense of an excessive emotional aversion to homosexuality or homosexuals. (The Wikipedia article on homophobia lists "discrimination" as part of the definition of "homophobia". This is a distortion of the psychological concept of phobia, but it's also commonly accepted, and often facilitates intellectually dishonest ad hominem attacks on the part of liberals.)

This liberal fantasy has a number of problems.

Most straightforwardly: it's empirically false. Homophobia is present in some cases, but it's simply false that all the opponents of gay rights are homophobic. There are people who make the moral/political judgment that homosexuality is immoral and needs to be legally distinguished from heterosexuality, and do this as a matter of principle, without any excessive emotional reactions to homosexuality, one way or the other.

And there are also moral problems with this liberal fantasy. For one thing, it at least partially removes people's responsibility for opposing gay rights--after all, it's generally unreasonable to hold people responsible for phobias, and the same ought to hold for homophobia. On a similar note: if the fantasy were true, then it would rule out the possibility of genuine conversation, because you can't reason with a phobia.

And, in any case, the fantasy is a form of insult and condescension towards opponents of gay rights, which makes it less likely that they'll enter into a reasonable discussion with liberals, which in turn reduces the prospects of political campaigns which attempt to further gay rights.

I'm not sure why this liberal fantasy has so much currency, but here's the naughtiest hypothesis that comes to mind. Probably the most common version of the liberal fantasy claims that the homophobia in question is the result of repressed homosexuality on the part of the opponents of gay rights. This is especially problematic, in that it exempts heterosexuals from responsibility for anti-gay attitudes: "heterosexuals don't hate homosexuals; repressed homosexuals hate homosexuals". And I strongly suspect that at least some liberals who hold to this view are themselves repressed homosexuals.

Here's how this would work. Our hypothetical repressed-homosexual liberal is a liberal only as a matter of abstract principle: as a matter of purely abstract principle, he supports equal rights for gays. But he doesn't want to have anything to do with gays in his personal life--his repressed homosexuality makes him homophobic. The way he covers up his repressed homosexual urges is by supporting gay rights in the abstract, and then imagining that all opposition to gay rights can be identified with repressed homosexuality--because if this is the correct theory of the psychological roots of opposition to gay rights, it follows that, as a proponent of gay rights, he himself can't possibly be gay. Thus his liberal attitudes, combined with the fantasy that all his ideological opponents are repressed homosexuals, amount to a very sophisticated strategy for coping with his own repressed homosexuality. "Heterosexuals don't hate homosexuals; only repressed homosexuals hate homosexuals; so as a supporter of gay rights I can't possibly be a homosexual"--he thinks such thoughts, and thus protects his shaky sexual identity.

I doubt this is a particularly common phenomenon, but I'm pretty sure it happens.