Sunday, June 29, 2008

Embrace the Fog

I've made the observation in the past that Post Modernism, with its love of arcane theory expressed in the form of obscure, specialized terminology, tortured semantics and unparseable language, bears a striking resemblance to Catholic theology. Two essays on the First Things website bear out that observation.

In Scripture as Participation Peter Leithart reviews Matthew Levering's book "Participatory Biblical Exegesis":
From the rise of nominalism in the Late Middle Ages through the modern period, history has been conceived in an atomistic and “linear” fashion. History consists of discrete events, and the forces of historical causation are all immanent within history. It’s not surprising that secularists would gravitate to a linear notion of history, but theologians and biblical scholars have eagerly accepted the same theory. The result for biblical studies, Levering shows, is a gradual but unmistakable drift from theological interpretation of Scripture toward a purely immanent understanding of the history recorded in the Bible and of the goals of exegesis.

He traces this drift by examining selected interpreters of John 3 from Aquinas, whom he arrestingly describes as the last great patristic-medieval biblical commentator, through Nicholas of Lyra and Erasmus, to Raymond Brown. By the twentieth century, historical interpretation of the text has been severed from theological consideration. Brown is an advocate of sensus plenior, but he doesn’t see it as part of exegesis strictly speaking, and in his later work he hands it over to the theologian rather than to the exegete. Levering neatly summarizes the rift between theology and exegesis by noting that neither Scotus nor Ockham wrote commentaries, leaving the task to mystics.

A “participatory” understanding of history, by contrast, recognizes that history is an “ongoing participation in God’s active providence.” To understand history, it’s necessary to consider its “vertical” as well as its “horizontal” dimensions. The implications for exegesis are obvious. If history is purely human, then a nontheological interpretation of the historical record suffices. If, however, “history” is humanity’s participation in God’s providence, then “history” includes robustly theological/metaphysical events and realities, such as creation, the call of Abraham, exodus, exile, return, incarnation, Pentecost, and the ongoing participation in Christ that is the Church. History writing is a record of divine interventions, and if this is history, then a “historical” interpretation of Scripture has to reckon with theological and metaphysical realities.
At times it appears that theological exegesis should be “added” to historical-critical endeavors, leaving the latter modes of exegesis more or less in place. Yet that is at odds with much of what Levering writes. Taken in a stronger sense, Levering is arguing that historical-critical exegesis is simply illegitimate, since the object of its study—immanent history—doesn’t exist. Historical-critical tools, forged precisely to exclude participatory history, need to be retooled in fundamental ways, and all the energy and resources devoted to that centuries-long project should be redirected toward faith-driven theological exegesis. This is what Levering seems to intend, but if so, his proposal is broader than he indicates, because history didn’t stop being “participatory” after the canon of Scripture closed. Should modern historical scholarship as such be abandoned in favor of “theological history”? And what about the other social sciences: If history is participatory, can sociology be anything but “theological sociology”? Aren’t there “vertical” as well as “horizontal” dimensions to economies and polities? A strong Levering thesis sounds quite radically orthodox.

Though centrally concerned with history, Levering also uses “participation” to describe various facets of the practice of biblical interpretation. The goal of studying Scripture is sapiential rather than strictly scientific. Theological interpretation seeks transforming communion with God the Teacher. Biblical exegesis is not interpretation of a dead “text” but a living communion in which the words of Scripture mediate God’s transforming, saving presence. Interpreters should engage in specific “participatory” practices, by which they participate in the Christological and pneumatological realities they study in Scripture. The object of investigation—God’s providential history—is not “out there”; interpreters participate in the reality they study.

To summarize, Leithart/Levering are saying that history is not an objective reality which one seeks to uncover through research, but is created by the observer in accordance with his/her faith commitment. So history bears out Christian truth when you study history from the standpoint that Christianity is true. Is there any clearer way to say it? If this is not a refutation of objective truth, I don't know what is. And I dare anyone to point out to me how this differs in any qualitative way from Post Modernist circularity.

The second article, by Matthew J. Milliner, chronicles the despair of religious academicians over the state of higher education:
There is reason, however, to think this is not the whole story. Were the sixties really a golden age when the humanities were “liberated from religion but not yet subordinated to science and specialization”? The statement caused me to wonder. Might there be a connection between such “liberation” and any subsequent subordination? Furthermore, should the collapse of the humanities, wrenched from any transcendent horizon, come as any kind of surprise? The New Criterion leaves the religious aspect of the academic crisis unexplored, the very perspective that provides a measure of hope. There is a new openness in academia to matters religious, and though frequently artificial and always inconsistent, I find in it cause for excitement rather than despair.

I quoted this paragraph because it highlights a point of overlap between the secular/post modernist and religious/pre modernist academy. Each feels aggrieved by science. Each thinks that science undermines their philosophical commitments and tramples on their authoritarial turf. Each, in their own way, is opposed to some notion of objective truth that science represents.

If the academy is destined to be won by one of these schools, then I'd say that we may as well just close them down. The public is not well served by either of them. Keep the schools of science, engineering and medicine, the useful ones, and scrap the rest. The theological and post-modern schools are really just different strains of literary culture, and until someone can demonstrate to me literature's utility function, then I'd say that they are both just glorified book clubs. Forms of recreation and entertainment.

I recalled a recent hard-hitting article by the Reformation historian Brad Gregory in an academic journal that finally calls “secular confessional history” to task. Gregory mandates a “thick description,” thicker than the kind famously proposed by anthropologist Clifford Geertz. He unearths the materialist assumptions that unconsciously inform so many of his colleagues and makes a compelling case that historians need to “proceed as if the religious beliefs of their subjects might be true.” Examples of such an “open” methodology, at least in my field of medieval history, are not difficult to find. Thinking along the same lines as Gregory, University of Chicago professor (and recent Guggenheim award recipient) Rachel Fulton writes that medieval historians must “explain what it means to have faith and thus to act in the conviction that there is a reality other than that which may be ‘objectively’ perceived.” Her historiographical approach is nothing less than a declaration of independence from postmodern skepticism. Barbara Newman, a medieval historian at Northwestern, goes even further. She represents a new generation of feminist historians, ones unafraid to trample tired orthodoxies. Thus her rather striking declaration: “It was not because of their commitment to feminism, self-empowerment, subversion, sexuality, or ‘the body’ that [medieval woman] struggled and won their voices; it was because of their commitment to God.”

Or consider art historian Jeffrey Hamburger, who recently called for a reconsideration of neglected theological sources in medieval art history. “The critique of theology,” Hamburger wryly suggests, “must itself be deconstructed.” A keen sensitivity to theology is a mark of all of Hamburger’s scholarship. He takes pains to show that, when pitted against theory, theology–long a domain of sophisticated, multivalent textual engagement–can more than hold its own. Hamburger’s rhetoric is all the more interesting considering his position. Tenured at Harvard, his is not exactly a voice from the margins.

Does anyone else see the irony of these religious academicians adopting/coopting the tropes of their post-modern antagonists? So medieval women "won their voices?" What does that even mean? But they've learned to mimic the most important tactic of their opponents. Get students to drink the Koolaid first, then set about to teach them. Don't try to prove or persuade students that Christian religious dogma is true. Make them assume it is true from the outset, and then teach the humanities in a manner that is slanted to that dogma.

A pox on both houses!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Environmentalism is a luxury

Along with nerves and bank accounts, the environmental movement is due for a shock over the dawning reality of continued oil shortages. Robert Tracinski documents the sudden reality check that the Left is experiencing, most recently with the failure of a Senate cap and trade bill sponsored by democrats:
Since the Florida primary, when John McCain decisively pulled ahead and became the presumptive Republican nominee, I have argued
that the passage of some kind of "cap-and-trade" energy rationing scheme is inevitable. Since both McCain and Obama are firm supporters of cap-and-trade, we know that when Congress convenes next year, the new president will ask it to pass the legislation.

But it turns out that cap-and-trade, like Hillary Clinton, might not be inevitable after all.

A few weeks ago, the Senate refused to allow a version of cap-and-trade to come to a vote. The legislation was not expected to overcome a presidential veto, but the vote was supposed to serve as a show of strength by cap-and-trade advocates. The show of strength wasn't very strong. Only 48 senators voted to allow the bill to proceed, far short of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster. Even that number is deceptively high, because ten of the 48 votes were cast by Democrats who oppose cap-and-trade. They flipped their votes only after they knew the legislation would not go forward, in order to save the Democratic leadership from the embarrassment of having the bill fail by a 46-38 vote against it.

Since then, while legislative momentum has stalled on passing "cap-and-trade," momentum is growing to lift restrictions on offshore oil drilling and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The policy now being advocated by many politicians, including McCain, is the exact opposite of cap-and-trade: drill-and-burn.

It seems that the first time Americans begin to experience anything like the economic consequences of global warming regulations -- $4-per-gallon gasoline is just a down payment on the green agenda -- they begin to have second thoughts about whether they really want to reduce their carbon footprints.

Can it really be that easy to defeat cap-and-trade-just to point out, "Hey, this will raise the price of gasoline"? Why does this argument work?

Invoking high gasoline prices works, not just because of the immediate pain it inflicts on politicians' constituents, but because it exploits a fundamental contradiction at the foundation of the current "green" fad.

The contradiction behind the green lifestyle fad is the idea that we can reject industrial civilization -- and the fuel that powers it -- while still enjoying a modern, prosperous, "First World" standard of living.

The more shallow followers of the green fad get around this contradiction through "greenwashing": finding a superficial "green" angle to rationalize buying expensive goods and living pretty much the same opulent lifestyle they enjoyed before. My favorite example is a magazine article on "green" houses that advocated buying more expensive, nicer-looking "architectural grade" asphalt roof shingles, because they won't have to be replaced as often and will therefore -- if you can follow this chain of reasoning -- use less resources over the long run. Maybe so, maybe not. But it gives well-off, upper-middle-class types an excuse not to feel guilty about telling the roofer to go with the upgrade.

If John McCain were a smart politician, and I've yet to be convinced that he is, he would reverse himself on cap and trade just as he has done on offshore oil drilling, leaving Obama and the Democrats to explain to their working class constituents why they have to bear the crushing burden of skyrocketing fuel bills in order to preserve the scenic ocean vistas and ecological values of globetrotting Democratic elites. The cracks in the environmental movement are beginning to show. Even in tourist worshipping Florida, the middle class is getting tired of offshore drilling bans.

It will be preciously ironic if, in the moment of their seeming ascendance into political hegemony, the Democrats are undone by a revolt of the working class masses that cedes ultimate political victory to a new breed of political animal, the WalMart Republican.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Who's afraid of the Daily Kos?

Kos indulges in conservative bashing and some delusional bravado when it comes to the practice of political fearmongering:
The conservative mind
by kos
Fri Jun 27, 2008 at 10:05:31 AM PDT


It must be really scary to be a conservative. To be one, you must live in constant fear of terrorists nuking the United States, of gay people on the verge of convincing you that you really enjoy sodomy, of Spanish becoming the official language of the United States next week, of every African-American voting seven or eight times in the next election, of radical Islam suddenly becoming the latest hip thing among kids across the country, of perpetual lesbian orgies in girls bathrooms in high schools across America, of liberals forcing everyone to become a vegan, of Christians being rounded up into concentration camps, and of Democrats outlawing private property if they were to ever take power again.

They do live in a state of fear, and what's more, they want everyone else to join them hiding under their bed, in their pool of urine.

Oh, they'll talk tough. They'll bluster and pound their chests like the neanderthals they are.

But inside, they are scared little children, terrified of the world, of people not like them, of change.

And they can't fathom any other way to live.

So Liberals have nothing to fear. Except..

1. Intrusive phone taps by shadowy, overzealous intelligence operatives.
2. Being shot by gun-crazed rednecks.
3. Being drafted and sent to fight an imperial war.
4. Being brought before an inquisition perpetrated by Christian theocrats.
5. Being drowned by rising ocean levels.
6. Legalized rape.
7. Rampant violence against Muslims, homosexuals and people of color in the wake of government conspiracies disguised as terrorist attacks.
8. Government internment camps for people who are different or who speak truth to power.

Don't buy any of Kos' bravado and bluster. Politics is always about fear-mongering, and there is nothing wrong with that. People are motivated by fear, as well they should be. When we think we have nothing to fear, as we did for a short period in the 1990s, we are most at risk.

The right politics are those that identify the right things to fear. People are generally pretty bad at identifying risks. Many times we fear the wrong things, but we are more at risk for not fearing the right things. Global Warming may or may not be caused by greenhouse gas emissions, or may or may not be even happening on a sustained, long term basis. But the risk of a catastrophic worldwide depression brought on by a too rigid policy of capping carbon dioxide emissions is a very real threat.

The next four years and the choices we will make in the areas of economic, energy and foreign policy will be very decisive for our long term prosperity and security. I just hope the leaders we elect this year are fearful enough about the right things.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Dialog of the Deaf

The June 14th issue of The Economist carried a fairly lengthy article about interfaith dialog, When Religions Talk (registration required).

Even by The Economist standards, there was a fair amount of throat clearing before sidling up to the apparent issue at hand:
[At] almost all these gatherings, there are some huge subjects that participants either do or don't mention... One is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ...

Another is the rise within the Muslim world of various forms of what Olivier Roy, a French scholar, calls “neo-fundamentalism” (often ascribed to a mixture of Egyptian zeal and Saudi petrodollars) which are crowding out local, more compromising readings of Islam ...
All the while ignoring the real crux of the problem. By definition, religions assert mutually exclusive metaphysical claims; otherwise, there would be no reason for their distinct existence.

One would think, when faced with this Gordian knot of contradictions, that participants in these gabfests -- torture tests for even titanium Random Noun Generators -- would come away with far more humility, and without any certainty.

Far from it, particularly for those whose metaphysical claims lean towards the Islamic, who insist upon curbing anything offensive to Muslim sensibilities.
At this week's meeting in Malaysia, that question was addressed in a way that frightened the relatively few participants whose understanding of civil rights was rooted in a Western, liberal world-view.

Speaker after speaker called for some formal, internationally agreed restriction on the defamation of religion. “I can never accept that freedom of speech is morally right when it offends my faith,” said Prince Turki al-Faisal, a senior Saudi official (and former head of his country's intelligence service). Several participants said there should be a legal regime to uphold an article in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (a UN treaty that came into force in 1976) which states that “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”
Irony meters around the world hit their pegs.

Of the three Abrahamic faiths, none of which look particularly good in this regard, Islam is the most virulent when it comes to non-, or other-, believers. One can start with the admonition to kill all disbelievers* wherever they might be found, and march from there with a goodly distance remaining before exhausting all Islams (other) faith offending contents.

If these interfaith dialogs had any value, they would yield the conclusion so obvious that one wonders why anyone need leave their recliner to grasp it: your religion is every bit as false as all the others.

Fat chance.

* Update: David pointed out there is no admonition in the Quran to kill all Jews. Since I was unable to find the quote, I have corrected the original sentence.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

We flirt with Pollyanna, but we always go home to Cassandra

Phil Bowermaster decries our evolutionarily developed apprehension of future tragedy:
The other night on the podcast, I asked whether there is an advantage to having a bleak outlook on the future. I believe that there have been some historical advantages to having a negative outlook, but that the advantage has been variable throughout human evolution --sometimes you get a boost from being a pessimist, sometimes from being an optimist. But seeing as life was riskier in the short term for our ancestors, the more risk-averse pessimistic outlook took hold. We developed a natural fear of the future not too unlike our natural fear of the other.

In an evolutionary context, fear of the other is not necessarily a bad thing. If were talking about Homo Sapiens vs. Neanderthals or (earlier on) mammals vs. reptiles, an innate revulsion to the threatening other served to keep evolution moving in the right direction. Back then. Today, we need our fear of the other a lot less than we used to. I think it kicks in correctly if, say, you come home and find a stranger in your bedroom. But a "fear" of other cultures, races, religions, lifestyle choices, etc. is not helpful, notwithstanding the fact that major cultural artifacts, lets call them memeplexes, have been developed around this fear. These we know as xenophobia, ethnocentrism, racism, and other delights.

That's all fine and dandy, except that I don't think that our hunter/gatherer forbears had any meaningful concept of the future beyond the cycling of the seasons. Likewise, if the earliest religious traditions are a good judge of early man's proto-philosophy of time, then their concept of the distant future as well was cyclical, although that might be too colored by the impact of agricultural development, which required some planning beyond the current season's harvest. So I doubt that our most primitive forbears had any meaningful fears or hopes for the future.

The idea that the future might be drastically different than the present is a recent phenomenon, historically speaking. The pace of technological change has historically been so slow as to be considered nonexistent, from the perceptual viewpoint of any historical observer. Because of that I would have to conclude that our negative view of future change must be due to the fact that we are living in an environment, rapid social and technological change, that we are not evolutionarily adapted to. We're out of our league, and we know it.

But that is not Bowermaster's chief error in this essay. This is:
Ben Young argues that our obsession with bad outcomes has proven quite effective at reducing them, but that focusing more and more intently on tragedy and disaster acts as a kind of slow poison whereby our net happiness does not increase (in fact, it goes down) even as our circumstances improve. Our aversion to risk and bad outcomes becomes so pronounced that eventually we turn it on ourselves. In the end, it isn't just the optimists who need to be taken down a peg, it is all of humanity.
The irony is that the smart money -- if you look at the long-term trends, and don't just extrapolate to doomsday from your current negative indicators of choice -- says that in the future, the world will be cleaner and people will be freer, healthier, more prosperous, and less prone to violence than they are today; however, that world might not be a terribly happy place. If our fixation with disaster and intolerance of risk continue to grow at the same pace as our overall improvement of the world, the happiest era in the history of humanity might turn out to be the most miserable. (Arguably, we are experiencing something like that even today.)

Like our fear of the other, our fear of the future has limited applicability in our present circumstances. It is an evolutionary artifact which, by and large, needs to be suppressed. We must deal realistically with real threats, just as we need to be alarmed if we come home to find a stranger in our house. But we must recognize that the memeplexes that have built up around our fear of the future -- pessimism, cynicism, fatalism, misanthropy -- are both factually and morally wrong.

Pessimism is the new racism, and we must start treating it as such.

This is just so silly on so many levels. For starters, if Bowermaster thinks future fears are increasing in intensity, then he just doesn't know that much about history. Compare today's angst against the end of days panic that gripped the Jewish nation in the first century. How many people that you know are joining end of world cults, renouncing sex and liquidating their 401k programs to be free of earthly possessions in time for the Apocalypse?

I have been known to take Cassandras to task on this blog, especially those of the "worship of suffering" persuasion. But I've never advocated suspending all skepticism of a rosy future. Long time Duckians/Juddians will remember my epic battles with the forces of rosy optimism regarding the prices of oil, gold and commodities and the fates of the dollar and real estate, on which I was prescient but, I am sad to report, insufficiently pessimistic. To argue that such skepticism is akin to racism in its promulgation of human injustice and suffering is beyond bizarre. It's bad enough that the meaning of racism has expanded beyond its rightful bounds to encompass anything and everything that offends anyone in an officially designated "aggrieved" ethnic group without trying to expand it to modes of thought that don't even have a tangential relationship to race.

Bowermaster misses one very important psychological insight when formulating his curse on pessimism: the notion that our happiness is related to the the level of beneficence in the outcomes we experience in relation to our expectations for beneficial outcomes. Lowered expectations for future success and happiness is actually a way to improve the odds for future happiness. So if anything Bowermaster's advice is counterproductive to human happiness. Does that make him the moral equivalent of a racist?

He also ignores the empirical studies which find that happiness is largely genetic, not circumstantial. So if you can't get happiness genes, take happiness pills, and don't mind the hecklers.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Screwy Theist Tricks

For those of my readers who have ever had the patience to slog through C.S. Lewis's smarmy and tedious attempt to smear the non-believer, The Screwtape Letters, I offer you a glimpse at a paler and far more nauseatingly smarmy imitation, "The Loser Letters", now running at the National Review Online. Mary Eberstadt, the author, apparently thinks atheists are all young males experimenting with disbelief as a way to pick up girls or to fit in with the cool crowd. The letters are written from the point of view of a stereotypical "bright" bemoaning the lack of success in spreading the atheist gospel. This one excruciating example should be convincing enough to save you the ordeal of reading the whole thing:
Dear Major Atheist Author BFFs,

I just LOVE calling You that! Is it okay with You if I do? The Director said it was fine with him, because he knows that the “B” means “Best” and the “F’s” mean “Friends Forever” (and not the You-know-what word, which as You know is verboten in here!). So before going into one more Letter that I hope will help this new atheism of ours get off the ground, let this convert to godlessness tell You just how much You’re all my BFFs, and why it’s so important that You are.

One, I hope Everybody gets that just because I use “BFF” in the plural doesn’t mean I’m taking any one of you for my BFF in particular. This is important! I don’t want, say, Mr. Christopher Hitchens to feel excluded because He thinks I’m talking about, say, Mr. Daniel Dennett as my particular BFF.

If you were able to read that passage without regurgitating your breakfast, then you may be able to handle the whole article. There are others in the series located on the NRO site somewhere. This letter bemoans the damage that is being done to the atheist cause by all the high profile defections to the other side, notably in recent years by the renowned scientist and infamous former atheist Anthony Flew.

Flew's "conversion" is a much overrated victory for the theist side. In this interview with Gary Habermas he explicitly states that he is more akin to a Deist, and that he has not accepted special revelation or any of the tenets of Judaism or Christianity, including the idea of an afterlife:
HABERMAS: Given your theism, what about mind-body issues?

FLEW: I think those who want to speak about an afterlife have got to meet the difficulty of formulating a concept of an incorporeal person. Here I have again to refer back to my year as a graduate student supervised by Gilbert Ryle, in the year in which he published The Concept of Mind.

At that time there was considerable comment, usually hostile, in the serious British press, on what was called “Oxford Linguistic Philosophy.” The objection was usually that this involved a trivialization of a very profound and important discipline.

I was by this moved to give a talk to the Philosophy Postgraduates Club under the title “Matter which Matters.” In it I argued that, so far from ignoring what Immanuel Kant described as the three great problems of philosophers—God, Freedom and Immortality—the linguistic approach promised substantial progress towards their solution.

I myself always intended to make contributions in all those three areas. Indeed my first philosophical publication was relevant to the third. (18) Indeed it was not very long after I got my first job as a professional philosopher that I confessed to Ryle that if ever I was asked to deliver the Gifford Lectures I would give them under the title The Logic of Mortality. (19) They were an extensive argument to the conclusion that it is simply impossible to create a concept of an incorporeal spirit.

But these are the kinds of small victories that Christianity has to be satisfied with nowadays, it seems.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reverends for choice, against God

A recent study has apparently conclusively found there are distinct brain structure and activity similarities between lesbians and straight men, as well as gay men and straight women.

The most likely explanation is gender incorrect exposure to androgens during gestation.

Which makes medical intervention to ensure straight sexual orientation is an eventual possibility.

In response, a couple clergymen recommended doing just that:
Last year, the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote: "If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use." Mohler told the Associated Press that morally, this would be no different from curing fetal blindness or any other "medical problem." The Rev. Joseph Fessio, editor of the press that publishes the pope's work, agreed: "Same-sex activity is considered disordered. If there are ways of detecting diseases or disorders of children in the womb … that respected the dignity of the child and mother, it would be a wonderful advancement of science."

"Same sex activity is considered disordered ..." Hmmm.

As ever, beware the passive voice. By whom is it considered disordered? If God, then that is surpassing odd, since God has created the disorder in the first place, in order for men to punish it in the second.

On the other hand, if it is considered disordered by humans, then isn't just that little but hubristic to be messing with God's plan?

Never mind, of course, that religion has long treated homosexuality as a moral phenomena, when it turns out to have been nothing of the sort.

Finding an in utero treatment to prevent homosexuality is indeed a great advancement for science. But, unmentioned by the august theologians, this makes a mockery of yet another religious moral claim.

Also, one suspects this will gather no congratulations from the LGBTs among us.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Okay, It's not the Odyssey, but still ...

The not-so-little man and I just returned from a five day/50 mile canoe trip with his Boy Scout troop in the Kenai National Wilderness. Despite weather that wasn't always pleasant -- a couple days had more or less continuous rain -- and 16 portages, Eric was a real trooper every inch of the way. He handled everything without the tiniest dent in his sense of humor, never mind actually whining. Speaking of portages, a couple were roughly a mile. Actually, a mile portage is three miles: one transit with the canoe, another with the pack, and the return trip in between. Despite being one of the youngest guys on the trip, with a body weight to payload ratio much less favorable than the bigger guys, he powered through them all.

To put it briefly, I am very proud of him.

This link ( will take you to a map I made of the trip. Here is a screen grab:

The only real downside was in the area of the Moose River, the last two days of the trip. The flat, swampy area around the river meant mosquitos in the kind of swarms nightmares are made of. Thank goodness for DEET.

Here are some pictures:

Eric after his first portage

All in all, there are worse things

The troop leader arranged for a surprise airdrop on the third evening. The rainbow came at no additional charge.

The package contained individually wrapped filet mignon and fresh corn-on-the-cob.

Approaching the end, the scouts broke out the troop and American flags. Eric, unwittingly, is doing a credible George Washington imitation.

Being new to all this, I mostly kept to the background during the trip. However, at this point, I used my fighter pilot experience to cajole the guys and their 11 canoes into a tolerable semblance of a V-formation. Guess which boat I am in.

Absent a short backpacking trip last month, this was my first real experience with both living in the wilderness -- we didn't see anyone other than ourselves until midway through the last day -- and the Boy Scouts.

Regarding wilderness living, I can do with, or without, it. It is a unique experience to get that far off the beaten path, but getting through the daily necessaries takes a whole bloody lot of effort.

The experience the 17 boys got, though, was incredible. Never mind getting to do things most boys scarcely dream of, the whole approach is aimed at building leadership skills. The troop leader issued the bare minimum of instructions (e.g., we are getting up at 0730, and want to be in the boats by 1000). The four adults then stepped back and left the boys, divided into four teams with one overall leader, to their own devices, with a critique after all was said and done. They got to make mistakes, and we were there to keep things from getting out of hand.

At the risk of having the NOW emergency response team show up at my front door with pastel truncheons, the trip made strikingly clear ineradicable differences between boys and girls.

Last month a friend of mine helped lead his daughter's Girl Scout troop on a two-day canoe trip along the Colorado river along the Arizona-California border. He said it was one of the worst experiences of his life. Most of the girls never figured out how to keep the canoes pointed in remotely the proper direction. The days were rife with crying, backbiting, and hysterics. And that was before putting up with camping overnight.

In contrast, over half the boys had never canoed. Yet, despite that, nearly all of them figured out in short order, and with scarcely any instruction, how to stop being headless vectors -- all speed and no direction. With the exception of a couple boys, they quickly cohered into teams: the pack instinct is far greater among boys.

Most strikingly, perhaps, is the difference in accountability. None of the girls really cared whether they could paddle a canoe, or work effectively towards a common goal. Kind of like a dog walking on its hind legs: the point isn't that the dog walks badly, but rather that it walks at all.

Among the boys, though, it was very different. The guys who couldn't figure out how to paddle a canoe, or didn't pull their weight in camp (the same boys in both cases), while not tormented in any way, were clearly viewed as not having the right stuff. One could sense that life just isn't going to go as well for them.

More sadly, it was all too easy to imagine the gulf between these boys and the vast majority of African-American children. Here there were boys whose parents -- emphasis on the plural -- cared enough to get them into Scouting, and enough dads willing to make the trip possible by being there.

The contrast with most African-American boys could scarcely be more stark. And that is before addled city councils prove once again, as if further proof is needed, that "progressive" is the long way to spell "idiocy".

Comparing the boys' obvious joy parading their flags that last mile with fatherless children in the 'hood, who may not see in their whole lives the kind of fatherly guidance the Scouts took for granted in five days was one step of analysis I could have done without.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Geek Chic

Rock & Roll unleashed the primal, the sensual and the animalistic impulses of raw male energy into popular culture. By the 1970s, amid the excesses that followed in rock's wake - disco, funk and country/rock fusion, a small countertrend representing all that rock opposed - emotional repression, control, precision - found expression in the realm of electronic music. The geek finally found his niche in the music scene. Groups like Devo and the Talking Heads explored the appeal of the anti hunk - the awkward, thin, stunted, spastic beta male who found his escape from the demands of the wide open mating rituals of the era in the realms of science fiction and technology.

But before these groups was the trailblazing band from Germany named Kraftwerk, and the song that exemplified the new brand was "We are the Robots" from 1978.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Great Seduction

It's becoming ever more apparent that Barack Obama is exerting a pull on the electorate that goes beyond the normal affinities of partisan interest group politics. He is becoming an object of worship, not so much persuading followers as seducing them. How else to explain this essay by SF Gate columnist Mark Morford?

Is Obama an enlightened being?
Spiritual wise ones say: This sure ain't no ordinary politician. You buying it?

By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist

Friday, June 6, 2008

I find I'm having this discussion, this weird little debate, more and more, with colleagues, with readers, with liberals and moderates and miserable, deeply depressed Republicans and spiritually amped persons of all shapes and stripes and I'm having it in particular with those who seem confused, angry, unsure, thoroughly nonplussed, as they all ask me the same thing: What the hell's the big deal about Obama?

I, of course, have an answer. Sort of.

Warning: If you are a rigid pragmatist/literalist, itchingly evangelical, a scowler, a doubter, a burned-out former '60s radical with no hope left, or are otherwise unable or unwilling to parse alternative New Age speak, click away right now, because you ain't gonna like this one little bit.

Ready? It goes likes this:

Barack Obama isn't really one of us. Not in the normal way, anyway.

This is what I find myself offering up more and more in response to the whiners and the frowners and to those with broken or sadly dysfunctional karmic antennae - or no antennae at all - to all those who just don't understand and maybe even actively recoil against all this chatter about Obama's aura and feel and MLK/JFK-like vibe.

To them I say, all right, you want to know what it is? The appeal, the pull, the ethereal and magical thing that seems to enthrall millions of people from all over the world, that keeps opening up and firing into new channels of the culture normally completely unaffected by politics?

No, it's not merely his youthful vigor, or handsomeness, or even inspiring rhetoric. It is not fresh ideas or cool charisma or the fact that a black president will be historic and revolutionary in about a thousand different ways. It is something more. Even Bill Clinton, with all his effortless, winking charm, didn't have what Obama has, which is a sort of powerful luminosity, a unique high-vibration integrity.

Dismiss it all you like, but I've heard from far too many enormously smart, wise, spiritually attuned people who've been intuitively blown away by Obama's presence - not speeches, not policies, but sheer presence - to say it's just a clever marketing ploy, a slick gambit carefully orchestrated by hotshot campaign organizers who, once Obama gets into office, will suddenly turn from perky optimists to vile soul-sucking lobbyist whores, with Obama as their suddenly evil, cackling overlord.

Here's where it gets gooey. Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.

The unusual thing is, true Lightworkers almost never appear on such a brutal, spiritually demeaning stage as national politics. This is why Obama is so rare. And this why he is so often compared to Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., to those leaders in our culture whose stirring vibrations still resonate throughout our short history.

Are you rolling your eyes and scoffing? Fine by me. But you gotta wonder, why has, say, the JFK legacy lasted so long, is so vital to our national identity? Yes, the assassination canonized his legend. The Kennedy family is our version of royalty. But there's something more. Those attuned to energies beyond the literal meanings of things, these people say JFK wasn't assassinated for any typical reason you can name. It's because he was just this kind of high-vibration being, a peacemaker, at odds with the war machine, the CIA, the dark side. And it killed him.

Now, Obama. The next step. Another try. And perhaps, as Bush laid waste to the land and embarrassed the country and pummeled our national spirit into disenchanted pulp and yet ironically, in so doing has helped set the stage for an even larger and more fascinating evolutionary burp, we are finally truly ready for another Lightworker to step up.

Let me be completely clear: I'm not arguing some sort of utopian revolution, a big global group hug with Obama as some sort of happy hippie camp counselor. I'm not saying the man's going to swoop in like a superhero messiah and stop all wars and make the flowers grow and birds sing and solve world hunger and bring puppies to schoolchildren.

Please. I'm also certainly not saying he's perfect, that his presidency will be free of compromise, or slimy insiders, or great heaps of politics-as-usual. While Obama's certainly an entire universe away from George W. Bush in terms of quality, integrity, intelligence and overall inspirational energy, well, so is your dog. Hell, it isn't hard to stand far above and beyond the worst president in American history.

But there simply is no denying that extra kick. As one reader put it to me, in a way, it's not even about Obama, per se. There's a vast amount of positive energy swirling about that's been held back by the armies of BushCo darkness, and this energy has now found a conduit, a lightning rod, is now effortlessly self-organizing around Obama's candidacy. People and emotions and ideas of high and positive vibration are automatically drawn to him. It's exactly like how Bush was a magnet for the low vibrational energies of fear and war and oppression and aggression, but, you know, completely reversed. And different. And far, far better.

Don't buy any of it? Think that's all a bunch of tofu-sucking New Agey bulls-- and Obama is really a dangerously elitist political salesman whose inexperience will lead us further into darkness because, when you're talking national politics, nothing, really, ever changes? I understand. I get it. I often believe it myself.

Not this time.

Karmic antennae? I admit that I have none, but my bulls**t detector works just fine. And who are these "spiritual wise ones"? Names please! I want to check references.

If you thought the Republicans owned faith based politics, then you haven't seen nuthin yet. If Morford is any indication (I know, he's from San Francisco, which isn't a very good place to find indications of the sensible middle), then Obama's presidency will ooze faith like you haven't seen before. And I do mean ooze. Mike Huckabee's treacly video Christmas Card may have spiked your blood sugar, but Morford's New Age slather threatens to bring on full blown type II diabetes. Can you imagine four years of listening to Obama love talk from such an adoring press corps?

If he isn't outright seducing them, Obama is at least convincing members of the press of his inevitability, such as with this missive from Bryan Appleyard's Thought Experiments:
For me, the two most significant statements about Barack Obama were made by John McCain and Rupert Murdoch. McCain said he was surprised such a young man should embrace so many failed ideas. Coming from a Republican with a wrecked economy, horrific over-spending and a hopeless war to his party's credit, this might seem a bit rich. But what he meant, of course, were the ideas of the postwar centrist consensus that dominated Western politics. This assumed big, economically pro-active governments with mildly redistributive and social engineering programmes. This began to unravel in 1968 and collapsed completely with the elections of Reagan and Thatcher. This neo-liberal phase (combined with the linked but contradictory neo-conservative phase) dominated politics until now - Blair and the Clintons (impossible just to say 'Bill' any more) were both neo-liberals and Blair became a full-blooded necon. Brown doesn't matter. McCain is obviously aware of this historical perspective - Pat Buchanan bangs on about it on TV with varying degrees of coherence and consistency - and is trying to pretend the 40-year reign of the right is intact and sustainable. This means, of course, that he is no conservative, but I've been through that one before. It also means he's in denial about the significance of Obama, which is where Murdoch comes in. Murdoch effectively endorsed Obama in an interview in which he described him as a 'rock star'. This means he has a market reality that is at least as, if not more, potent than any amount of political head-clutching. A big article by Joshua Green (taken from The Atlantic) in The Independent today (but unfindable on their web site) shows how this has happened through his fund raising techniques. These have effectively destroyed the old model of party funding. What Obama means is the forty-year ascendancy of the neocon, neolib right is over and something new, so far indistinct and not necessarily left is rising to take its place. One can see this clearly as long as one doesn't attach any ideological passion to the idea. Neither is right, each corrects the other, that is all that needs to be said. But the emptiness of the McCain sentiment combined with the market savvy of Murdoch's remark make it clear, to me at least, that, with Hillary out of the way, Obama is unbeatable.

Some of us take our cues from "spiritual wise ones", others from Rupert Murdoch. Some of us flip coins or read tea leaves. None of the standard indicators have worked at all this year, so I don't put much faith in anyone's prediction of inevitability.

There may be rational reasons to vote for Obama, especially if his politics align with yours. But I get the feeling that even for his natural ideological constituents Obama's appeal is emotional and irrational. Equally irrational is this impulse to concede to Obama's mighty inevitability, whether one wants to see him elected or not. A week earlier Bryan blogged about the unknowable future and also published his essay on Nassim Nicholas Taleb in the Times Online, who makes the point in his book "The Black Swan" that uncertainty and randomness rules the world in spite of the misguided forecasts of the expert classes.

Perhaps with the increase of uncertainty in the past four years, with the unexpected (by the experts) rise in the price of oil, and the unseen (by the experts) collapse of the housing market people are willing to embrace someone who is brimming with self confidence and hope just to feel certain, for once. The wish for certainty is a powerful, seductive force, as Andrew Sullivan explains in Time magazine. We have a charismatic, attractive man selling certainty, why not give in to him? You know you want to. Things can't get worse.

Can they?

Update: The seduction meme has run far and wide in the pundit sphere. Elizabeth Scalia finds the perfect metaphor for Obama - the Trophy Wife:
Upon taking control of Congress in 2007, the Democrats found themselves running simpatico with those terminally elite nations who sniffed with disdain at American individualism while being strangled by the tentacles of their own statism. Emboldened by these openly chummy alliances, and sensing a GOP in the mood to slit its own wrists and die, the Democrats looked across the breakfast table at Hillary Clinton in her sensible clothes and felt a little disappointed. There she sat — a hard worker, smart, always willing to do what it took to win. By and large, she’d been a good helper, delivering the pretty little votes, raising the pretty big dollars, entertaining, organizing, laughing, gazing, and lying when she had to, for the good of the family.

But in the dazzling company of the left-elites, she looked … old, and worn. She could be a little shrill, and a terror with a lamp or an ashtray. She was shrewish and nagging — forever reminding everyone that she had sacrificed. If some smiled to see her arrive at a party, the smile was perfunctory; they only listened to her tiresome policy talk until they could murmur an excuse and find a prettier, livelier corner with prettier, livelier companions.

Then they spotted — Obama! He was young, pretty, and had a pleasing voice. He looked good in jeans and had just a touch of edginess about him when he smoked. He seemed born to be looked at. Not much real experience in the hard political world — a few turns around the dance floor with glamorous-seeming men — but he appeared eager to learn, eager to get ahead, and because he stood for almost nothing, he would be easy to lead. He hadn’t accomplished much of note, but trophy wives don’t need thick resumes.

As a trophy wife, Obama would be content to let the Democrats pull out of Iraq; Hillary might actually suggest they stay. Obama would be able to sell the socialized health care Hillary couldn’t pull off. Most importantly, Obama would schmooze and photo-op with the elites for whose approval the Democrats so desperately yearned; Hillary was untrustworthy, there. She might snub Ahmadinejad and, like Bill Clinton before her, pledge to jump into a trench with a rifle to defend Israel. Obama would smile and look good while doing neither.


Saturday, June 07, 2008

Stuff you can't make up

Here are two words that I never thought would be combined to describe something - bathtub cheese:
A rare form of tuberculosis caused by illegal, unpasteurized dairy products, including the popular queso fresco cheese, is rising among Hispanic immigrants in Southern California and raising fears about a resurgence of a strain all but eradicated in the U.S.

Cases of the Mycobacterium bovis strain of TB have increased in San Diego county, particularly among children who drink or eat dairy foods made from the milk of infected cattle, a study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases shows.

But the germ can infect anyone who eats contaminated fresh cheeses sold by street vendors, smuggled across the Mexican border or produced by families who try to make a living selling so-called “bathtub cheese” made in home tubs and backyard troughs.
Demand for Hispanic cheeses has skyrocketed in California, where 108 million pounds of legal, properly pasteurized queso fresco and other cheeses were produced last year, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Last year, Moser was concerned enough about dangerous, illegal varieties to launch a public health campaign that included ads on Spanish-language television stations and new brochures that warned families to beware of infected cheese.

Officials seize illegal cheese

Agriculture officials have been cracking down on illegally produced cheese, including more than 375 pounds of so-called “bathtub cheese” seized from an open-air market in San Bernardino last year, according to Steve Lyle, the agency’s director of public affairs. Such cheeses have been found to be colonized with salmonella, listeria, E. coli and M. Bovis TB.

At least they know enough to brand it under a more appealing name - "Queso Fresco". I guess "Queso de Bano" doesn't "cut" it. Bathtub Cheese sounds like something you'd find collecting in the tub's drain trap.

Don't Mexican Americans have enough problems with the legal system to not compound them by smuggling illegal cheese into the country? How good can this cheese be? Does it get you high? It would have to be really good cheese.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Solutions Without Problems

Why do people have such a fetish about uniting disparate things? It may have worked with chocolate and peanut butter, but generally you get something that is less than the sum of its parts.

So it is with the quixotic quest to unite the worlds of Art and Science:
It’s been some 50 years since the physicist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow delivered his famous “Two Cultures” lecture at the University of Cambridge, in which he decried the “gulf of mutual incomprehension,” the “hostility and dislike” that divided the world’s “natural scientists,” its chemists, engineers, physicists and biologists, from its “literary intellectuals,” a group that, by Snow’s reckoning, included pretty much everyone who wasn’t a scientist. His critique set off a frenzy of hand-wringing that continues to this day, particularly in the United States, as educators, policymakers and other observers bemoan the Balkanization of knowledge, the scientific illiteracy of the general public and the chronic academic turf wars that are all too easily lampooned.

Yet a few scholars of thick dermis and pep-rally vigor believe that the cultural chasm can be bridged and the sciences and the humanities united into a powerful new discipline that would apply the strengths of both mindsets, the quantitative and qualitative, to a wide array of problems. Among the most ambitious of these exercises in fusion thinking is a program under development at Binghamton University in New York called the New Humanities Initiative.

Jointly conceived by David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology, and Leslie Heywood, a professor of English, the program is intended to build on some of the themes explored in Dr. Wilson’s evolutionary studies program, which has proved enormously popular with science and nonscience majors alike, and which he describes in the recently published “Evolution for Everyone.” In Dr. Wilson’s view, evolutionary biology is a discipline that, to be done right, demands a crossover approach, the capacity to think in narrative and abstract terms simultaneously, so why not use it as a template for emulsifying the two cultures generally?

What's the point? The two cultures do what they do best by doing what they do best, not by trying to do what some other culture does best? Should airline pilots try to be more like stock brokers? Should cheese makers try to be more like cab drivers?

More to the point, what's the problem? Is literature suffering from it's distance from science? Is science suffering? No. There is no magical middle ground between science and art where some mystical synergy kicks in to enable fantastic realms of new possibilities. Like most border areas it is a dead zone, a no-man's land of barbed wire and trenches. That's what keeps Germans in Germany and what keeps scientists productive.

Proving my point, here is an example, from the article, of what qualifies as a product of the art/science merger:
To illustrate how the New Humanities approach to scholarship might work, Dr. Heywood cited her own recent investigations into the complex symbolism of the wolf, a topic inspired by a pet of hers that was seven-eighths wolf. “He was completely different from a dog,” she said. “He was terrified of things in the human environment that dogs are perfectly at ease with, like the swishing sound of a jogging suit, or somebody wearing a hat, and he kept his reserve with people, even me.”

Dr. Heywood began studying the association between wolves and nature, and how people’s attitudes toward one might affect their regard for the other. “In the standard humanities approach, you compile and interpret images of wolves from folkloric history, and you analyze previously published texts about wolves,” and that’s pretty much it, Dr. Heywood said. Seeking a more full-bodied understanding, she delved into the scientific literature, studying wolf ecology, biology and evolution. She worked with Dr. Wilson and others to design a survey to gauge people’s responses to three images of a wolf: one of a classic beautiful wolf, another of a hunter holding a dead wolf, the third of a snarling, aggressive wolf.

It’s an implicit association test, designed to gauge subliminal attitudes by measuring latency of response between exposure to an image on a screen and the pressing of a button next to words like beautiful, frightening, good, wrong.

“These firsthand responses give me more to work with in understanding how people read wolves, as opposed to seeing things through other filters and published texts,” Dr. Heywood said.

Combining some of her early survey results with the wealth of wolf imagery culled from cultures around the world, Dr. Heywood finds preliminary support for the provocative hypothesis that humans and wolves may have co-evolved.

“They were competing predators that occupied the same ecological niche as we did,” she said, “but it’s possible that we learned some of our social and hunting behaviors from them as well.” Hence, our deeply conflicted feelings toward wolves — as the nurturing mother to Romulus and Remus, as the vicious trickster disguised as Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.

Wow, what a breakthrough!

The idiocy of this supposed idea is thinking that scientists don't read literature, or artists have no grasp of science. The unity of such cultural activities happens within the human mind, not within the subject matter of the disciplines themselves. There is no psychological barrier that prevents an individual from appreciating art for what it provides and also appreciating and understanding science for what it does. One can simultaneously understand how sound waves propagate and at the same time enjoy great music. One doesn't have to write songs about the propagation of sound waves through air to realize the benefits of music and science.

You'll notice that the conflict C.P. Snow wrote about was between scientists and literary intellectuals, not science and literature. There's literature and then there are literary intellectuals. One shouldn't assume the two are more than tangentially interrelated. One is the product of creative individuals, most of whom are dead. The other are uncreative individuals who spin abstract, arcane political theories based loosely on the former and then try to parlay such theories into political and institutional influence and power.

Scientists are beginning to bastardize their own discipline in the same way. A more negatively consequential uniting of science with the narrative literary form than Professor Heywood's wolf study is the dystopian fictional work called "Global Warming" It has already won an Oscar. Who says art and science never mix?