Thursday, December 27, 2007

Winter Solstice

10:14 AM
Total daylight: 5 hours 28 minutes 5 seconds

Later that same day:

Saturday, December 22, 2007

For Your Additional Holiday Pleasure

Another haunting melody, from Irish composer Patrick Cassidy and produced in conjunction with Hans Zimmer for the opera scene from the 2001 movie "Hannibal", titled "Vide Cor Meum" (see my heart). The lyrics, in Italian and English:

Chorus: E pensando di lei
Mi sopragiunse uno soave sonno

Ego dominus tuus
Vide cor tuum
E d'esto core ardendo
Cor tuum
(Chorus: Lei paventosa)
Umilmente pascea.
Appreso gir lo ne vedea piangendo.

La letizia si convertia
In amarissimo pianto

Io sono in pace
Cor meum
Io sono in pace
Vide cor meum


Chorus: And thinking of her
Sweet sleep overcame me

I am your master
See your heart
And of this burning heart
Your heart
(Chorus: She trembling)
Obediently eats.
Weeping, I saw him then depart from me.

Joy is converted
To bitterest tears

I am in peace
My heart
I am in peace
See my heart


For Your Holiday Pleasure

Maksim Mrvica interprets one of the most beautiful and haunting melodies I've ever heard, John Barry's theme from "Somewhere in Time". Enjoy!

Moving day

Actually, moving week. I'll start moving my furniture to my new apartment today in preparation for the closing on my house on Dec 31st. Downsizing is a female canine. I held an estate sale last weekend, which managed to clear out about half of the stuff I wanted to be rid of, but the other half remains. Does anyone want a 90 year old upright grand piano? You can have it for free if you're willing to pay for shipping.

Posting will be extremely light for the duration. Upside is that once I'm ensconced in my new digs I will have the monkey of home ownership off my back for the foreseeable future, so look for posting to return with a vengeance in the new year.

If I don't touch base with you till then, I wish all of the Daily Duck regulars and irregulars a wonderfully happy Christmas, Hannukah, Quanzaa, Solstice and New Year!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The other God speech

For a study of contrasts you couldn't ask for a more striking one than that between Mitt Romney's much talked about four page plea for acceptance into the American religious family circle of trust and Fred Thompson's brief, off hand resume of religious qualifications, which could be scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin, and was delivered with as much ceremony as if it had.
Asked about his religious beliefs during an appearance before about 500 Republicans in South Carolina yesterday, Fred Thompson said he attends church when he visits his mother in Tennessee but does not belong to a church or attend regularly at his home in McLean, Va., just outside Washington. The actor and former senator, who was baptized in the Church of Christ, said he gained his values from "sitting around the kitchen table" and said he did not plan to speak about his religious beliefs on the stump. "I know that I'm right with God and the people I love," he said, according to Bloomberg News Service. It's "just the way I am not to talk about some of these things."

Thompson may seem to share a similar political problem as Romney in that, as a casual, non-observant Christian he doesn't sit well with the pious, orthodox expectations of the evangelical Right, whose support he needs in order to gain the Republican presidential nomination. Yet Governor Romney has crafted and delivered a carefully scripted and positioned appeal to these voters, while Thompson shows an almost contemptible nonchalance about their expectations. Whose strategy is better?

According to Lee Harris, it may be Thompsons:
The Mormon church is not Romney's problem; it is Romney's own personal religiosity. On the one hand, Romney is too religious for those who don't like religion in public life—a fact that alienates him from those who could care less about a candidate's religion, so long as the candidate doesn't much care about it himself. On the other hand, Romney offends precisely those Christian evangelicals who agree with him most on the importance of religion in our civic life, many of whom would be his natural supporters if only he was a "real" Christian like them, and not a Mormon instead.

To say that someone is not a real Christian sounds rather insulting, like saying that he is not a good person. But when conservative Christians make this point about Romney, they are talking theology, not morality. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Mormon creed will understand at once why Romney felt little desire to debate its theological niceties with his target audience of Christian evangelicals, many of whom are inclined to see Mormonism not as a bona fide religion, but as a cult. In my state of Georgia, for example, there are Southern Baptist congregations that raise thousands of dollars to send missionaries to convert the Mormons to Christianity.

Yet if Romney was playing it safe by avoiding theology, he was treading on dangerous ground when he appealed to the American tradition of religious tolerance to make his case. Instead of trying to persuade the evangelicals that he was basically on their side, he did the worst thing he could do: he put them on the defensive. In his speech Romney came perilously close to suggesting: If you don't support me, you are violating the cherished principle of religious tolerance. But such a claim is simply untenable and, worse, highly offensive.

The Christian evangelicals who are troubled by Romney's candidacy do not pose a threat to the American principle of religious tolerance. On the contrary, they are prepared to tolerate Mormons in their society, just as they are prepared to tolerate atheists and Jews, Muslims and Hindus. No evangelical has said, "Romney should not be permitted to run for the Presidency because he is a Mormon." None has moved to have a constitutional amendment forbidding the election of a Mormon to the Presidency. That obviously would constitute religious intolerance, and Romney would have every right to wax indignant about it. But he has absolutely no grounds for raising the cry of religious intolerance simply because some evangelicals don't want to see a Mormon as President and are unwilling to support him. I have no trouble myself tolerating Satan-worshippers in America, but I would not be inclined to vote for one as President: Does that make me bigot? The question of who we prefer to lead us has nothing to do with the question of who we are willing to tolerate, and it did Romney no credit to conflate these two quite distinct questions. There is nothing wrong with evangelicals wishing to see one of their own in the White House, or with atheists wishing to see one of theirs in the same position.

Romney's best approach might have been to say nothing at all. Certainly that would have been preferable to trying to turn his candidacy into an issue of religious tolerance. Better still, he might have said frankly: "My religion is different and, yes, even a trifle odd. But it has not kept Mormons from dying for their country, or paying their taxes, or educating their kids, or making decent communities in which to live."

I tend to agree. Romney's appeal may or may not earn him some marginal support with the hard core evangelical conservatives, but the lengths to which he has to interject religiosity into his political message to earn those votes may detract from his appeal to the larger voting population, who really don't want to be made to care that much about his religious views. The best way to demonstrate that your religion won't dictate your politics is to show the very non-apologetic and matter of fact nonchalance that Thompson displayed. Someone who is willing to give a response to a question about his religion that is about as close to saying "none of your business" as you can without actually doing so is going to be respected by the voters as someone who won't make their religion a matter of government interest.

For the Quantum Theology files

Quantum Theology: a term coined by yours truly to describe the metaphorical similarity between Christian theology and particle physics, due to the unintuitive strangeness by which the investigation of the basic building blocks of matter continually yielded unexpected results in the form of strange and seemingly endless division of particles into sub-particles. Likewise, the casual observer of Christian theology at work is continually astounded by the seemingly endless and unexpected dimensions along which holy doctrine splits into opposing isms.

Today's new ism, via Joe Carter's Evangelical Outpost, is repristinationism:

20. I believe that restoration does not mean repristination and that creation will not be restored to the Garden of Eden but to the Heavenly City spoken of in the Book of Revelations.

So if you happen to overhear a heated argument that includes the term "repristinationist bastard", you'll know that its just Christianity at work.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Irony, Speechified

Mitt Romney's speech aimed at comforting Christians about his Mormonism hit most of the right notes.

It is comforting to know that
As Governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution – and of course, I would not do so as President. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.
Yet, within just a couple column inches, he contradicts himself:
There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do.
How wonderful, to have it both ways. Just as with the Bible or the Quran, one would not have to search the Book of Mormon particularly carefully or long to find divine precepts that collide head on with the Constitution.

Then he raises the very real concern he either has not read, or has not understood, the very Constitution he swears to uphold:
There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.
Memo to Mitt: the prohibition of which you speak is imposed upon the government, not voters. As Christopher Hitchens puts it:
... Romney makes himself absurd by saying that Mormons may not be asked about the tenets of their faith, lest this infringe the constitutional ban on a religious test for public office. Here is another failure of understanding on his part. He is not being told: Answer this question in the wrong way, and you become ineligible. He is being told: Your family is prominent in a notorious church that proselytizes its views in a famously aggressive manner. Are you only now deciding to make a secret of your beliefs? And if so, why? Would he expect a Scientologist to be able to avoid questions about L. Ron Hubbard?
Ultimately, though, Romney, by being just careful about what he did not say as he was about what he did, probably accomplished his goal. According to David Brooks:
It is not always easy to blend an argument for religious liberty with an argument for religious assertiveness, but Romney did it well. Yesterday, I called around to many of America’s serious religious thinkers — including moderates like Richard Bushman of Columbia, and conservatives like Neuhaus and Robert George of Princeton. Everyone I spoke with was enthusiastic about the speech, some of them wildly so.
We will ignore that, according to both Brooks and Romney, only the avowedly religious may be considered serious religious thinkers.

Here is where irony kicks in. As Harry has said, the only good Christian / Mormon / Muslim is a bad Christian / Mormon / Muslim.

Mitt Romney is a bad Mormon: if there is a uniquely Mormon precept he will not toss onto the scrap heap in the quest of electoral favor, he has kept it to himself. Just so with every other candidate.

I doubt there is a non-theist whose concern about Romney's Mormonism rises above the comatose: what is the likelihood of sectarian nonsense from someone belonging to something like two percent of the confessional market? He has no need to mollify those who are the greatest skeptics, somehow without being religious thinkers.

Instead, his ecumenical spackle was directed at his fellow theists, primary among them those that tread the fine line between goodbad and badgood Christianity.

Theists are their own worst enemies.

Unless they are Good Theists, that is.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Bad, but Better than the Alternatives.

A New Push to Roll Back ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

From time immemorial until 1992, the U.S. policy regarding homosexuals in the military amounted to "No way, no how."

Then, one of Clinton's first acts on becoming president was to change "No way, no how" to "Don't ask, don't tell."

As a practical matter, the former policy was a self-defeating exercise in wishful thinking. Mere policy wasn't going to stop homosexuals serving in the military, but that same policy, combined with an overall hostile climate, made gays blackmail security risks, which provided justification for keeping the policy that was the cause of the security problem.

A statutory self-licking ice cream cone, if you will.

"Don't ask, don't tell", a significant climb down from Clinton's goal of eliminating all restrictions on gays in the military, did have the benefits of at least nodding in the direction of reality, thereby removing both the reality and impression of gays as security risks.*

Now, fourteen years on, no small number of general officers are calling for the complete elimination of all barriers to gays serving in the military.
We respectfully urge Congress to repeal the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” the letter says. “Those of us signing this letter have dedicated our lives to defending the rights of our citizens to believe whatever they wish."
Most prominently, Gen Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, initially opposed to DADT, has changed his mind:
“I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces,” General Shalikashvili wrote. “Our military has been stretched thin by our deployments in the Middle East, and we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job.”
Well, maybe.

There are a great many people more qualified to claim that openly serving gays would not undermine unit cohesion: squad, platoon, company, and brigade commanders, for instance. General officers are probably 10 years removed from that environment, and are notoriously likely to get told what they want to hear.

More questionable, though, is the second half of that quote: the good General is, whether he knows it or not, claiming that personnel gains resulting from openly serving gays will outweigh losses by those who, exercising that right to believe whatever they wish, decline to serve in the face of open homosexuality.

If there is a devotional backbone in the US military, conservative Christians form it. No matter how fundamentally mistaken one might believe Biblical injunction against homosexuality to be, it is nonetheless there. It seems a real stretch to assume that further opening the doors to 3% of the US population will outweigh the likely impact on unit cohesion and retention by poking at least 25% of those currently serving.

Any moral equivalence between this and desegregating the armed forces is to give silliness a bear hug. There are no behavioral differences between blacks and whites; skin color signifies nothing with respect to the conformity military service requires.

When the notion that homosexuality is innate, and in no way a moral choice, has so pervaded society that conservative Christians accept it as a matter of course, that will be the time to remove a policy no one any longer cares about.

Until then, just like attempting to impose gay marriage via judicial fiat, it is a bridge too far, way too soon.

(Note: If one wanted a case study for a journalism class of unbalanced reporting, this could easily be Exhibit A.)


* It did have the perverse effect of providing those whose desire for a "free" medical degree exceeded their integrity to make it all the way through med school before "discovering" they were "gay", after all. Instant discharge, no bill.