Monday, December 31, 2007

Farewell and Adieu 2007

Pretty soon 2007 will be complete and a new year will be upon us, hopefully a better one. Before we break on through to the other side, take a look at this JibJab video, summarizing the year. I would post it directly here, but JibJab does not allow embedding from their site or from their Youtube channel.

Here's wishing everyone a happy New Year.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Olbermann's Special Comments

Countdown with Keith Olbermann has been running a compilation of the host's best Special Comments of 2007, in part as a reflection on the end of the year and, I expect, as a promotional for his upcoming book.

Among the compilation of Special Comments, this one from May 23, 2007 is my favorite. After regaining control of Congress in the mid-term elections of 2006, the Democrats gave in to Bush's push for a surge in Iraq and failed to do anything to reign in his power. Olbermann has been no friend to the leadership of the Republican party, but in this Special Comment he directs some of his most scathing criticism of the year toward the Democrats and what he calls their "Neville Chamberlain moment." I hope the Democrats are listening to Olbermann's words because they so eloquently describe the frustration felt by those of us looking for a change of direction in this country. And if the Democrats continue down this slope of appeasement, running to the center and acting as inferior versions of Republicans, they may find that those of us who were waiting for them to make a change, the ones they will depend on to put a Democratic presidential candidate in the White House in 2008, will have given up and moved on.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas in Fallujah

As we settle in to celebrate the birth of capitalism, here is a video of Billy Joel and Cass Dillion performing "Christmas in Fallugiah." The video includes the lyrics as subtitles.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Six Million Dollar Man

Among other '08 campaign news like the Obama-Clinton cat fight, Giuliani's various scandals, and Huckabee and Romney's race to see who is more god-like, there is a little item that deserves a lot of attention. Ron Paul, the Republican candidate who has made waves by coming out against the war, had a record breaking fundraiser that generated $6 million via online contributions in twenty-four hours.

The mainstream media has largely ignored Paul and those within his own party have sought to downplay him. Watch this video of Ron Paul explaining in smart, articulate language his views on the war and Middle East relations:

Last week, John Stossel, a commentator mostly known for his conservative pieces for 20/20, did an extensive interview with Ron Paul and ABC decided to keep it off the air, placing it on the web only. This stinks of giving Paul and his ideas the run around, although with the online nature of his campaign, distributing the interview on the web may play right into the momentum of his popularity and allow the interview more exposure than it would have gotten if it had merely been broadcast over the airwaves.

I'm not sure how I feel about Paul. I agree very much with his statements on the war and West-Middle East relations and his position on ending the drug war, decriminalizing prostitution, and allowing homosexual marriage. There are other issues that I don't agree with, such as his stance against public health care, but what I find most compelling about the man is his commitment to reason. Paul is not asking what Jesus would do, nor is he hiding behind the flag or the deaths on 9/11, and he is willing to engage in debate rather than accusing those with dissenting opinions of siding with terrorists. This is exactly what the Republican party needs. With minimum media coverage, Paul gathered $6 million in one day, and it's likely that many of his contributors are not very wealthy. This tells me is that there is a grass roots movement here and it's ready to burst out onto the mainstream.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

KEYC Binge Drinking Special

Last week, KEYC and Fox Mankato ran a special report, Binge Drinking: Personal Choice or Everyone's Problem?, a panel discussion with local law enforcement, representatives from Minnesota State University Mankato, and substance abuse experts. While the special was mostly well done, there was a serious gap in the discourse of their discussion. Noticeably absent from the panel were local bar owners and other alcohol producers and providers. The entire debate was terribly one-sided and even the representative if the MSU students on the panel seemed to toe the administration's line. As someone who is always looking for the unspoken assumptions, in this special report the assumption it is right in the title. The special supposes that binge drinking is a problem and that local government must police this action. I am not convinced that this is the case.

Of course binge drinking occurs and lots of people engage in it. But is it a problem? No one is tricked into drinking. MSU and other universities spend lots of money each year educating young people on the possible consequences of drinking. And no one is consuming alcohol under the assumption that it is good for them. There is no Vitamin C in Captain Morgan and Guinness does not build strong bones. For those who binge drink, the act of getting intoxicated is itself the point. To wag our fingers at binge drinking behavior is to miss the underlying reason for it. If there were another substance that were legal, readily available, and caused the same effect, people would use it. Alcohol is the means, not the end, to achieving a state of inebriation. The desire to cause this effect on ourselves is nothing new and a lifetime of warnings on the dangers of binge drinking will do nothing to quell it.

Yes, students have died from binge drinking. But if we're going to get upset about deaths resulting from personal choices, let's be real. The major causes of death in our culture come from preventable cancer and heart disease, largely a result of sedentary lifestyles combined with poor dietary choices and smoking. Is this not just as severe, if not more severe, of a problem? Why not host a special called Cholesterol: Personal Choice or Everyone's Problem? and ask what can be done to curb the consumption of dairy and red meat? Of course, we'd look at the producers of that special like they were crazy.

I have already commented at length on this topic in response to the Mankato city council's new regulations. But what is worth reiterating is that, yes, this is a matter of personal choice and personal choice and freedom come with consequences, sometimes tragic ones. But let's hold individuals accountable for their actions, not construct a paper tiger out of a few bad choices.

Binge Drinking: Personal Choice or Everyone's Problem? can be viewed online here.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Romney's Speech

Today Mitt Romney gave a speech on the place of religion in regard to his run for President of the United States. It is a difficult speech to evaluate because it alternates insightful, well thought, and (mostly) Constitutionally-based ideas on the free exercise of religion with some extraordinarily boneheaded statements about the legacy of religion in public affairs.

Romney pleas for the separation of his religious affiliation from his run for president, referencing John F. Kennedy's famous speech in which he explained "that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith. Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin."

Sounds good. But then Romney makes statements like "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone." Near the end of his speech, Romney says "We can be deeply thankful that we live in a land where reason and religion are friends and allies in the cause of liberty, joined against the evils and dangers of the day."

This is such an idiotic statement that it is hard to take the rest of the speech seriously. Organized religion, particularly those descending from Abraham, have been the enemy of freedom in all its conceivable forms: freedom of thought, freedom of action, freedom of expression, and so on. The European trade of African slaves was based upon religious (and Biblical) ideas of African inferiority. Women and homosexuals have been and continue to be persecuted and victimized by religion. The faithful have threatened and even killed scientists, philosophers, and artists for their ideas, discoveries, and creations. Religions and religious institutions demand obedience to their authority above all others. Jehovah is not a freedom fighter. He is a tyrant.

Also troubling is Romney's half-baked summary of American religious history. At first he gets it right, recalling that America's founders "came here from England to seek freedom of religion. But upon finding it for themselves, they at first denied it to others . . . Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths. In this, they were very much like those of the European nations they had left."

Again, this sounds good. And again, Romney stumbles by claiming, "The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'under God' and in God, we do indeed trust. We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests.'"

There are a number of things wrong here. First and foremost is Romney's understanding of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The "elimination of religion from the public square" is exactly what the Founders had in mind. When the government puts up a monument respecting a particular faith, such as a reproduction of the Ten Commandments, it is showing a religious preference and establishing a state religion (If they do it in some sort of educational or inclusionary context, there is some wiggle room, but not much). The references to the god of Abraham on legal tender or in the pledge (which was not added until the 1950s) do violate the First Amendment and ought to be removed. To rephrase my contradiction of Romney's statement, the Founders intended to remove religious allegiance or rule from the functions of government. To rephrase it yet again, they intended to set up a secular state. The foundation of the state, to use Romney's words, was not based on faith. It was based on reason, and these two are unhappy bedfellows.

Romney's abhorrence of secularism is where he goes most off track. He claims that "in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It's as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They are wrong."

Romney misunderstands secularism and in rhetoric he comes a step closer to the "radical violent Islam" that he rallies against a couple of times in the speech. A secular state is one in which religion has been removed from the affairs of the state. It does not repress people of faith but it also does not make laws based on the rules contained in their holy books. Religion is not, in that respect, a public matter but a private one. And Romney's wording here, that "religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life" is exactly the point that he was making when he claimed earlier in the speech "that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions."

Buried in the middle of the text is Romney's most important point in the entire speech. He says, "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. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith." Aside from refuting his criticisms of secularism, this statement puts the religious debate in its proper place. Being the first Mormon to have a serious shot at the White House, this speech was probably inevitable. But ultimately Romney's personal faith, and the religious labels carried by his fellow candidates, should not be the method by which presidents are selected. Their ability to lead, dedication to justice and reason, understanding and respect for legal process, and vision for the future of the country are far better criterion for evaluating their competence for office.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Linkin Park: The New U2?

I've been a fan of Linkin Park since their first album. I found their music aggressive but thoughtful and they mixed the hip-hop and rock sounds with more success than other groups that have penetrated the mainstream.

My one gripe with them, up until now, has been the quality of their music videos. They seemed to fall prey to the tendency to use music videos as an excuse for elaborate special effects that have little to do with the meanings of the song. This vice is nothing new to the music video format and the bulk of popular music is so brain dead (what I like to call the American Idol-ization of the American music scene) that the visuals might as well be random. But when a group like Linkin Park does it, it's even more aggravating because such potential is being squandered.

But now Linkin Park appears to have realized the power of combining music with the visual image and two videos off of their new album, Minutes to Midnight, are extraordinary in their use editing and camera work, and they use the cinematic form to conspire against the empty, cold glitter of MTV and mainstream American music.

What I've Done
This video strikes me in its use of editing, juxtaposing images to create meaning. The lyrics to the song take on additional meaning. As a song in and of itself, "What I've Done" could be considered a personal mediation on the singer's own sins, but the video connects that guilt with footage of social injustice, prejudice, and environmental catastrophes. By doing so, Linkin Park is connecting the personal role individuals play, be it as active soldiers or passive consumers, in perpetuating inhumanity.

Shadow of the Day
This video reminds me of something U2 might produce in its tone and style. Again, the lyrics are not obviously about revolution, but juxtaposing the song with scenes of civil unrest makes as powerful a political statement as the music of Rage Against the Machine.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Beware of Bears

Two stories broke this past week, one in regard to Christianity and the other in regard to Islam, that nicely demonstrate the link between these two religions as well as a key difference in the way they interact with those who dissent or offend them.

In the Sudan, an English school teacher has been found guilty of blasphemy for allowing the students to name a classroom teddy bear "Muhammad." The Sudan court has sentenced her to fifteen days in jail with deportation to follow, although she could have spent as long as six months imprisoned or suffer forty lashes in public. If that did not sound insane enough, a few days later a crowd of 10,000 Muslims marched outside the presidential palace, calling for the teacher's execution.

The day before the Sudanese story broke, Phil Donahue, president of the Catholic League, appeared on the CBS Early Show to endorse a boycott of the film The Golden Compass, a fantasy film based on the series of children's fantasy books by Phillip Pullman. The book and the film adaptation feature, among other creatures, talking polar bears. Pullman is an avowed atheist and his books have been viewed as anti-Catholic. For example, the villains of the book belong to an elite society called The Magisterium. This is the same name for the Catholic Church's "divinely appointed" authority to teach the truths of religion. Pullman's books and the upcoming film are viewed as an attack on the Church, and Donahue is doing what he can to derail the box office returns of the film and prevent the sequels from being made.

So both Christians and Muslims are scared of bears, non-real ones at that. But what is more revealing here is their frantic reactions to try and shut up any opposition. The children in the Sudanese classroom did not choose the name "Muhammad" out of spite, but because it was their favorite name. The children who view or read The Golden Compass are unlikely to turn into atheists overnight or to even catch the criticism of the church unless it is explained to them. But the adults involved are aware, consciously or unconsciously, of how fragile and weak their belief systems are, and they will declare war on anything, even something as innocuous as a teddy bear, that even hints of a threat. Religious fanatics are, at their core, cut of the same cloth.

The difference between Christians and Muslims is in their methods. Where the Sudanese Muslims threaten (and sometimes carry out) acts of violence, Christians stay within the realm of peaceful protest (anti-abortion bombers aside). The reason for this is not religiously based. A few centuries ago Christians were engaging in exactly the same kind of barbarism that the Muslim-controlled countries engage in now. The difference is that Christianity has lost much of its power in the West, compared to where it was 500 years ago. The Muslims and the Christians have many of the same rules in their so-called holy books, but the Christians largely don't follow them, especially rules on blasphemy and adultery. As secularism has liberated the West of its slavish and unnecessary devotion to Christianity and the powers of reason and enlightenment have introduced progressive ideas like freedom of religion and protection of free speech (especially unpopular speech), the believers have been put into a position where it is easier and more productive for them to protest against threats by entering into the marketplace of ideas. The Muslims need a reformation or a religious enlightenment before their cultures can catch up and allow for the competition of ideas to flourish.

It is important to note that in both examples, the teddy bear and the film, the religious fanatics do not want a marketplace of ideas. Donahue is not just seeking to make parents and others aware of the subtext of The Golden Compass. He wants to stop the film from being seen and stop further films from being made. Similarly, the protesters in Sudan chanted "No tolerance: execution!" Neither group wants contradictory opinions to be allowed to exist. In the West, Christians have only entered into the marketplace of ideas because they have been forced to by other cultural influences. I suspect the same will be true of Islam.