Archive for June 2nd, 2006

I was digging around the letters in the Gazette for signs of creeps and heroes, but apparently the paper has realized how I’m using its letter and has filtered all the interesting mail from its pages, leaving me to pore over corn syrup support and bison management and seat belt laws. Issues very important to the community, no doubt, but not exactly 4&20 fodder.

No, to get a good laugh, we have to turn to the Missoulian, and even dip back a week or so to the essay penned for the paper’s “Religion” section by the good – er, mediocre – Frenchtown pastor, Fred Emery, “Evolution Proponents Threaten Our Freedom.”

I made none of this up. I swear.

But if we reject the belief that our Creator gave us rights, not the government, then we could even end up like Nazi Germany. What protects us is our codified belief in creation and our Creator.That belief is under assault today by the belief in evolution. Evolution provides no protection, no guarantee of human rights. If evolution gains total ascendancy in America, the control of our rights shifts from our Creator to our government. Then a simple majority vote can take those rights away. It could happen here. Only America is founded on a belief in the Creator.

Good stuff, this. I don’t understand the connection between evolution and Godlessness. No one ever claimed that evolutionary theory disproves a God. Just that man is evolved from other organisms. Yes, this theory does contradict a few irrelevant and minor Biblical verses, but it wouldn’t be the first time science or reason or common sense did that. (Else we’d see an awful lot of folks around town with millstones hanging around their necks.)

Those seeking to remove references to God, Creator, and Jesus Christ from the public arena may not understand the danger that will unleash. Your rights, my rights, their rights could be lost. Nobody would be safe. Therefore, everyone should protect the belief in creation and Creator even if they don't personally share that belief. Every atheist should support creation.

Last time I checked, it was the Constitution that guaranteed our civil rights. Which Bush is infringing upon. And he’s a devout Christian. You know what I’m saying? I trust our legal system more than – well – guys like the author of this intellectual roadkill.

Stevensville’s John Winston wrote in a few days later to refute Emery’s claims, taking it a lot more seriously than I can, and spending more time thinking about the basic premises of Emery’s arguments.

[Emery] takes Jefferson's sole mention of a “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence and stretches it like Saran Wrap to cover a rambling string of contradictory statements, turning that single word into a “creation belief” on the part of the Founders.Jefferson was a Deist, which is nothing like Emery's sort of Christian. The Declaration of Independence was a “separation decree” from the English monarchy, not law. Creationism is never mentioned; simply that man's basic rights are inborn, not given by a despot's whim. “Creator” is a phrasing tool. “Creator” was neither an endorsement of creationism nor a condemnation of evolution, which theory did not exist in 1776.

The Declaration says: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Emery then leaps to an alternate-universe U.S. government, morphed into Hitler's Third Reich, all our rights gone because the theory of evolution has standing. How? Such standing rejects a “codified belief in creation and our Creator.”

There is no such “codified belief.” Such codification, i.e., a law, flies directly in the face of the Bill of Rights, which does codify the immunities of individual citizens. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Next, Emery loses all touch with reality: “Only America is founded on a belief in the Creator.” Even the Muslims found their theocracies on such a belief.

Finally, Emery wants his own theocratic Reich: “Our only guarantee is an imposed belief in a Creator who is bigger than government as the Declaration of Independence says.” No, it doesn't, and that concept is in total violation of the First Amendment.

Such are the political debates among Montanans. Really, why did the Missoulian even print Emery’s trash? The essay was poorly considered, poorly written, and…wrong.

In today’s “Links…” I posted to a graduate student who claimed that journalism is broken. It’s an important post, representing an idea that has been flying around the country in the past couple of decades. The style of contemporary journalism just doesn’t work — the Iraq War, the infringements on our rights by the administration, all these events have been abetted by traditional media sources. Not that the New York Times or the Washington Post or Time has been consciously aiding the administration’s lies, spin, and deceit (I wish I could say the same about Fox), it’s just that their “objective” approach forces them to weigh “both sides” equally and prohibits them from interpreting the facts, from telling us what the facts mean.

The most egregious example of how reporting has screwed up an issue is global warming. In the Fresh Air interview with Al Gore, Terry Gross mentions a study that monitored both scientific journals and traditional media outlets for articles on global warming. In the peer-reviewed scientific journals not a single author denied that global warming was influenced by human activity. However, in the traditional media outlets more than half the stories cited studies claiming that global warming was the result of a natural process. (Intelligent Discontent has a post about the study.)

Got that? A bunch of academic hacks and pay-for-results corporate shills produce reports of dubious scientific value, which are then given equal weight by newspapers and television in their striving for “objectivity.”

In other words, they got the facts wrong.

In a similar way, the Missoulian did a disservice to the community by running Emery’s essay. It’s shoddy. It’s specious. It’s wrong. It’s political. (Don’t think for a second that the anti-evolution crowd really cares about Creationism; they just want to force fundamentalist Christian doctrine into public schools.) It’s not a “legitimate” viewpoint. It’s not “balanced” or “objective” to print the incoherent ravings of a extremist propagandist. By printing the essay, the paper is validating the essay’s ideas, implying that’s it’s worthy of interest.

Let’s face it: traditional media doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. Even when journalists blog, like the Gazette’s Ed Kemmick, only sometimes do controversial or meaningful ideas get batted around. Most of the time it’s stuff meant to be inoffensive. Like ant soccer, the spelling bee, or computer passwords, the kind of ticky-tack odds and ends that fill an Andy Rooney segment or that clutter up the back pages of a small-town newspaper. And when Kemmick – or whoever – does address a civic issue, he pushes his opinion across as inoffensively as possible. “How to run a city, maybe.”

Ed, of course, is a fine writer, a good journalist by today’s standards, and a mensch. But I think we thirst for real insight. Real opinions, informed opinions. And meek, inoffensive reporting where “balance” is a keyword doesn’t satisfy. Papers should be dedicated to great ideas and truth-telling.

*climbs down from the soapbox*

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God Laughs & Plays

A few weeks ago David James Duncan read from his new book, “God Laughs & Plays,” in the University Ballroom on the campus here in Missoula. Six hundred people attended, an astonishing figure for a reading in this world dominated by television, film, and the Internet. The keynote reader for the Montana Festival of the Book draws maybe half that many. The largest reading I ever attended was a double bill featuring James Welch and Bill Kittridge – then the pillars of the writing community – with the crowd spilling out of the doors of the Old Post, the same crowd that got the Second Wind reading series booted to the Union Club.

The crowd came, not to see David James Duncan – I've been to his readings before, a few dozen fans, no more – but for his book.

It's an odd book to draw such a crowd. It's a rough plank of a book, fractured essays, written whimsies, interviews, excerpts, spontaneous writing. And it's about God. But not just about God, but about reclaiming Christianity and religion from politics and, more specifically, from fundamentalist extremists. And the crowd was largely made up of Christians.

There's been some talk in the blogosphere lately about whether the left can include Christians among their numbers. This reading indicates that they already are – judging from the desire for an alternative path than conservative Christian fundamentalism expressed by the crowd's presence. What does DJD offer them? And could it provide the basis for a new Christian movement based on compassion instead of hate?

It's a funny book to base a revival of compassionate Christianity around. It's uneven, amateurish at times. DJD plays with ideas and terms he's not too familiar with – hopelessly losing touch with “neocon,” lumping all of Bush-era conservatism under its banner. Sometimes, too, I think he plays fast and loose with scripture. At times, he sounds like a naif, suggesting, for example we base a Christianesque New World around communal living arrangements – like the Sixties, but without the drugs.

But…yes…I think at the book's core is a joy and earnestness that should be central to the morality as the foundation of a nonviolent, peaceful social movement that the left, the country, and the world desperately needs.

Let me explain Duncan's “ideology” — really an anarchic spiritual romp – by yanking quotes from all over the book, from different essays and topics, and try to build a framework to hang these ideas on…

First, the problem with life as we live it here, in the US:

The…Suburban Consumer Citadels so many of us live in grow increasingly nonsensical, even if you happen to be one of the winners in the system. The Fossil Fuel Empire grows ever more violent and demonic. You put busted glass and surveillance cameras on top of the safety walls and a paid guard at the locked gate of your Republican Golf Community, and you still get robbed silly by the insurance scammer, the pool boy, and the guy who mows the lawn. Or every time you misplace something, you think you're robbed. It's stupid to live this way if you have any spiritual aspirations at all! Wouldn't you like to be able to live your Christian ideals all day long? Wouldn't you love not to be forced, as we all are daily, to use products produced under toxic or inhumane conditions, often by children and always by the poor? Isn't it time to dream a better dream?

This is the part of the book where Duncan suggests we should live in communal villages akin to Christian mystics' enclaves in late medieval Europe. Um, not happening on a wide level. Not without some calamity to force us out of our tract housing. Regardless of DJD's solution – and he'd probably be the first to say he was just suggesting, just throwing ideas out there – he's pretty much described the horror of modern life: even if all our material desires are satisfied, it don't do nuthin' for us. And agree completely that fear of losing what material possessions we have makes us paranoid. Thus, the ease with which the administration foisted the Global War on Terror on all of us. Thus the ability of mega-churches to recruit from suburbia: they don't ask their parishioners to really give anything up. Christian fundamentalism is the easy way – you get to belong to “God's Movement” without having to fight for social justice.

I should add that DJD grew up as a Seventh Day Adventist, so he was forged in a fundamentalist family. His parents still belong to the church. He is intimately familiar with what makes these groups tick. DJD on Christian fundamentalism:

The chief problem is the arrogance of folks who think that in possessing a book, a dogma, the letter of a Law, they possess the Truth. For me, love is the truth and the expression of love, in any form, is allegiance to Christ. Love, as I see it, is nondogmatic, essentially self-giving, and endlessly sensitive to the needs, nuances, and happiness of others. Most dogmatists, on the other hand, believe they're the Chosen People, and that it's their duty, while “marching as to war” with a “Mighty Fortress” of a “God,” to browbeat the rest of us into embracing the same close-minded Chosenness, or else become Other. The logical outcome of the various fundamentalisms is an endless series of holy wars to decide who is the most truly “chosen.” No fundamentalism is capable of loving its neighbors, let alone its enemies. What's more, in Matthew, chapters 6 and 7, Jesus lists about twenty attributes of fundamentalists and evangelists as examples of how not to live a life. You won't hear Pat Robertson quoting Matthew 6:5 on TV, for example.

DJD dislikes fundamentalism mainly because it's a human construct:

…theologies are man-made, whereas humans and Creation are not. Revelation is a gift, and the body and Creation are gifts, and each helps us unwrap and cherish the other. Without the Creation-gift to inspire and true us, human belief becomes mere human projection.The Armageddonist's rejection of the world-as-gift is such a projection: an obsession with the “end Days” is surrender not to God but to men with exaggerated reverence for their own fragmented understanding of holy write.

His primary inspiration for spiritual awareness is nature. And in the book he does devote much space to describing the divinity of fly-fishing, for example. Elsewhere he claims that “mysticism” — the “search for union with God by spiritual contemplation and self-surrender,” according to my dictionary – is needed in today's religion. Old-time saints and hermits and yogis to pepper the landscape and bring excitement and freshness back to US religion. Basically, I see it as a call for individual spiritual enlightenment apart from the church and body politic, immensely personal, private.

Duncan feels that Christian fundamentalism has become politicized and in thrall to conservative power. Not only that, but together they're creating a Jungian “national psychosis”:

Corporations now have the rights of medieval kings and queens, and conservatives and fundamentalists have their own pundits and media. When a neocon patriarch proclaims that removing mountaintops, breathing mercury, and worshiping Immutable Dams are more important to American and ecosystem and soul health, right-wing religious loyalists, by gosh, vote in the good 'ol boys who'll keep the Golden Calf Dams standing and mountains and mercury falling.

The cofather of psychoanalysis, C.G. Jung, was a great admirer of Jesus. He struggled hard to love his German neighbors back in the early 1930s. But by 1934, Jung had concluded that when psychosis reaches a national scale it has become more powerful than truth, more powerful than reason, and far more powerful than any truth-telling individual.

[snip]

Every time I read my list of the fruits by which we know this administration, a bunch of Bush people simply stand up and walk out in a fury. As they see it, my list of the specifics of their president's trashing of Creation is a gratuitous trashing of their president….Rather than support a president who would stop unleashing the horrors they're infuriated to hear listed, Bush backers simply want us to stop upsetting them with the dread deeds of their man.

Such people have become closed systems. The biological devastations caused by their own vote is not something they want to know about. A question for us writers is: should we go on telling them? I don't claim to own the high ground on this quandary, but I do go on telling. I do so because I don't feel that Jesus was just gratuitously trashing humanity when He warned that the fruits of our deeds shall save or condemn us. I believe He was giving us guidelines for the soul's salvation. This makes it my responsibility, in the attempt to love a neighbor named Bush and his followers, to point out the horrific consequences of his administration's actions…

To their heats' credit but their imaginations' disgrace, many who are unaware of these devastations insist upon remaining unaware. This, I believe, is the kind of mental impasse C.G. Jung was referring to when he said that national psychosis is more powerful than our power to change it.

This is probably a good time to mention Bush and his allies. And those who support them.

There is no man or woman, no nation, no mortal power on earth capable of “ridding the world of evil” as George W. Bush has vowed to do. The desire is preposterous. To act upon preposterousness with vast military might is evil. To acquiesce in such evil is somnolence.

Against fundamentalists' attempts at censorship and criminalizing “immoral” behavior, Duncan recommends, not defending the immediate object of extremist attacks, but to question the hypocrisy characteristic to fundamentalist belief:

…for literary reasons I am compelled to point out that a theologically simplistic, politically motivated, mass-produced cult is out to simplify and “improve” our literature, art, science, sexual choices, Constitution, culture, and souls, and that I see no more effective choice, in defending ourselves against these “improvements” than to confront the theological basis of the cult itself. By confining ourselves to trying to defend those whom organized fundamentalism attacks – gays and evolutionists, for example – we feed ourselves right into the teeth of the “Christian Right's” propaganda machinery.

[snip]

The belligerent mind-set and self-insulating dogmas that enable politicized fundamentalism to proliferate are neither complicated nor invulnerable to criticism. To treat the earth as disposable and the Bible as “God,” turn that “God” into a political action committee, equate arrogance and effrontery with “evangelism,” right-wing politics with “worship,” aggression with “compassion,” disingenuous televised prattle with “prayer,” and call the result “Christianity,” is, as I read the words and acts of Jesus, not an enviable position, but a fatal one.

DJD isn't calling for the elimination of fundamentalists – what they would have with us through conversion or criminalization – instead he believes that we are necessary for them, that, by our examples, we can help:

The God of politicized right-wing fundamentalism, as advertised daily by a relentless array of media, is a Supramundane Caucasian Male as furious with humanity's failure to live by a few randomly selected dictums from Leviticus as He is oblivious to the “Christian Right's” failure to live the compassion of the gospels and earth stewardship of both testaments. As surely as I feel love and need for food and water, I feel love and need for God. But these feelings have nothing to do with Supramundane Males planning torments for those who don't abide by … “moral values.” If the “Christian Right's God” is indeed God, then all my spiritual heroes from Valmiki and Laotse, Bodhidharma and Socrates, Kabir and Mira Bai, Rumi and Hafiz, Dogen and Dante, Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich, Eckhart and the Beguines, Sankaracharya and Aquinas, Black Elk and Chief Joseph, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Thoreau and Muir, Shunryu and D.T. Suzuki, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, to Merton and Snyder, will be consigned to perdition with me – for the One we all worship is an infinitely more loving, infinitely less fathomable Being.

Based on the lives and words of the preceding heroes and on the Person and gospels of Jesus Himself, I believe humanity's situation to be rather different. I hold the evangelical truth of the matter to be that contemporary fundamentalists, including first and foremost those aimed at Empire and Armageddon, need us nonfundamentalists, mystics, ecosystem activists, unprogrammable artists, agnostic humanitarians, incorrigible writers, truth-telling musicians, incorruptible scientists, organic gardeners, slow food farmers, gay restaurateurs, wilderness visionaries, pagan preachers of sustainability, compassion-driven entrepreneurs, heartbroken Muslims, grief-stricken children, loving believers, loving disbelievers, peace-marching millions, and the One who loves us all in such a huge way that it not going too far to say they need us for their salvation.

How can we help? For this answer, DJD finds inspiration from his craft:

In the slender classic, An Experiment in Criticism, that indefatigably Christian lover of non-Christian literature, C.S. Lewis, wrote that access to uncensored literature is critical because we are not meant to be imprisoned in a single, isolated self. “We demand windows,” he wrote. “[And] literature…is a series of windows, even of doors…Good reading…can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; 'he that loseth his life shall save it.' We therefore delight to enter into other men's beliefs..even though we think them untrue. And into their passions, though we think them depraved….Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality….In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself….Here – as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing – I transcend myself, and am never more myself than when I do.”

[snip]

Literature's sometimes troubling, sometimes hilarious depictions of those annoying buffoons, our neighbors, may be the greatest gift we writers give the world when they become warm-up exercises for the leap toward actually loving our neighbors. Ernest Hemingway's is the definitive statement about this. “Make it up so truly,” he said, “that later it will just happen that way.” This, I dare say, is Christ-like advice, not just to those practicing the artform known as fiction writing, but to anyone trying to live a faith, defend the weak, or sustain this world through love.

In order to write well – and I can relate this from first-hand experience…admittedly maybe not the “well” part – a strong sense of empathy is needed. You really have to “live” the characters to bring them to life. And the best way to do this is be an astute observer of the human traffic that flows around you in your everyday life. And to constantly challenge the assumptions with which you cage yourself into a rigid intellect. This exercise makes you curious, open, and tolerant, because you learn to inhabit others.

It may seem that this task Duncan sets us, to break the nation from its collective sleep-walking, its “national psychosis,” is too much. But remember, we are not alone. And we're right:

Too many of us forget, in part because corporate-controlled mass media try to make us forget, that an event such as the worldwide protest against the Iraq War in February 2003 was unprecedented in history and bespeaks a marvelous global yearning for change. On a single day, hundreds of millions of people marched in more than six hundred cities worldwide, nonviolently begging the U.S. not to go to preemptive war and create an unholy quagmire. The website of photos of several hundred of these marches moved me to tears – but got no media play in America. Some believe a billion people marched that day: one of every six earthlings. The smallest estimates say it was more than six hundred million: two and a half times as many people as live in the States.The “prayer president's: remark about the greatest peace march in world history: “I don't listen to focus groups.

Jesus's remark about it: “Blessed are the peacemakers.

Despite the lengthy excerpts and the hodge-podge nature of everything, it's a fairly simple suggestion that David James Duncan puts forward. Christian fundamentalism is not Christian; you already know what it is to be a spiritual being – we all love; and we simply need to be confident in the simple and true goodness of compassion, selflessness, and love, and to act on these truths. More than that is out of our control.

I admit I am not a Christian. I do not believe Jesus was the (capital-ess) Son of God. I am a “humanistic agnostic.” All the religious books, and all the religious rules, and all the religious moralizing seem too small to contain a Creator. If humans can explain it, it can't be true.

But I feel the tenets of Christ are true. Probably because it's a cultural thing. Maybe not. I also like Buddha and Osensei and the others. I prefer Martin Luther King as a role model to GW Bush. I think it's everybody's responsibility to care for each other. I believe in forgiveness and understanding. I also know it's much better to be calm than angry. These are simple things. Not always easy (as anyone who reads this blog know), but simple.

For those reasons, I feel that Duncan's book has hit on some essential points. His spirituality focuses on Christianity, but it allows others to co-exist, even differ from his beliefs. He preaches tolerance and empathy, not divisiveness and hate. This is a kind of belief that can include gay-rights' activists and Christian homemakers, artists and union workers, crabby bloggers and organic farmers. It's a big tent.

That's exactly what we need.

One last quote to carry us away with. It's a quote to hold on to when we're challenged by those who blindly support the administration and its self-destructive policies. People who support war and the eradication of the environment, who support authoritarian principles like torture and government intrusion, people who prefer to win at any costs rather than be decent. People who would turn our core values against us, who see in our strength weakness:

To define compassion as dissident does not alter the Compassionate. To define mercy as unpatriotic or nonstrategic does not change the eternally Merciful.

I'll add. To define honesty as treason does not alter Truth. To define love as deviant does not alter Love. To define peace as weakness does not alter Peace.

Links…

I put up some new pages, including contact info and some info about where "4&20 blackbirds" came from

Intelligent Discontent has forever altered the landscape of Montana politics: he’s endorsed Tester. Actually it’s a very good read, with bullet points on what makes Tester the better candidate. Well done.

Right-wing bloggers become unhinged over Haditha. Somehow it’s all our fault…go figure.

Meanwhile the Iraqi government says US forces “habitually” kill Iraqi civilians. (And pets.)

Journalism is broken.

Sara has an excellent post analyzing the Idaho 1st Congressional District race. There’s a chance – a chance! – that we could see a Democrat win this seat…

The cost of overeating: the numbers. I believe Budge asked for these figures a while ago…

This RFKjr article in Rolling Stone means we can take off our tinfoil hats: “After carefully examining the evidence, I've become convinced that the president's party mounted a massive, coordinated campaign to subvert the will of the people in 2004.” Digby weighs in.

Wired:Crashing the Wiretapper’s Ball.”

Update on the woman who lost custody of her son because of her participation in a satiric religious event for the Church of the SubGenius. The original judge has recused himself; outlook is good.

Kevin Drum on the estate tax.

The “white civil rights” movement grows around the immigration issue.

Jesus was a socialist!

Is “Mad Max” becoming reality in Iraq?

America wins the spelling bee! Up yours, Canada!

Yes, yes, I’m a Sox fan, but there are too many Yanks and Sox leading the All-Star ballot. Go vote for the deserving players. (And vote often – you can vote 25 times. It’s kinda like being a Republican.)

Sports Illustrated’s World Cup special is out! Which team does it curse? Brazil! The US!




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