Saturday, December 23, 2006

Merry Christmas And Remember to Forget Jesus

The "War on Christmas" has turned out to be a great fundraiser for right-wing Christian organizations. According to the LA Times, The American Family Assn., the Liberty Counsel and other conservative groups have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from the sale of "Merry Christmas" items.

But what about Jesus?

Of course, a big part of Christmas is the nativity scenes of shepherds, wise men, and parents standing aside the cradle in the manger. After all, the Christian gloss on the old Roman Saturnalia is that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus.

But what does the birth of Jesus have to do with Jesus?

The baby Jesus wasn't saying anything yet. It wasn't the baby Jesus who was supposed to have rejected temptation in the desert, spoken the Sermon on the Mount, attracted followers, formulated a "new law" for the Hebrew people, come into conflict with the Temple authorities, or been resurrected after a cruel execution. In celebrating Christmas, Christians seem to be celebrating the least "Christian" part of Jesus, the time when Jesus was least connected to the work and doctrine of his adulthood.

In fact, Christmas seems to be more about creating a personal mythology around Jesus than anything that Jesus would ever say or do. Given the resemblance to the story of Moses in Herod's killing of the young children in Bethlehem, the story of the birth of Jesus in Matthew 2 is one of the most mythological parts of the gospel. That's a big reason why it was easy for popular writers to use Christmas as a hook for stories about failing bankers and jolly old elves flying in the night or songs about the wonders of snow. Christmas has always been about creating and embellishing a "heart-warming story" first.

But why would Christians want the biggest holiday of the year to celebrate something as far away from the core of their religion as the birth of a Jesus? In Christian doctrine, Jesus is the "Word [of God] made flesh." To the contrary, what Christians are celebrating at Christmas is a wordless Jesus. Perhaps that is what Christians in fact mean to celebrate--the silent Jesus, the Jesus whose words no longer have authority in their lives, the Jesus who does not condemn wealth, possessions, authority, social respectability, family ties and other things that most people value in life.

Christianity is a very demanding religion. Even the most simple formulations to "love god with all your heart" and "love your neighbor as yourself" involve breathtaking claims on human affection that religions like that of the ancient Greeks never dreamed of. By celebrating the infant, silent Jesus instead of the Jesus who speaks this particularly harsh doctrine, Christmas gives Christians an opportunity to take an extended break from the adult Jesus and his doctrine just as it gives them a holiday from their jobs, schools, businesses, and other avocations. No doubt, the Christmas "vacation from Jesus" was one of the reasons why our Puritan forebears sought to ban Christmas celebrations. Celebrating Christmas is a way for Christians to be "Christians" and revel in Christian mythology without dealing without everything that's discomfiting about the adult "Jesus." For Christians, Christmas isn't so much about the birth of Jesus as it is about the sense of comfort and release in having Christianity without having to deal with the person of Jesus at all. Christmas is about forgetting Jesus.

This puts an ironic twist on the whole "Merry Christmas" business. If Christmas is about forgetting Jesus, then the secularization of Christmas means that Christians won't be able to forget Jesus during the "holiday season." Instead of celebrating Baby Jesus between Thanksgiving and New Years, they'll be stuck with the Jesus of "woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep" (Luke 6:25) all year long. That's a sure-fire prescription for guilt, failure, inadequacy, and self-doubt and a number of other burdensome feelings. So Everybody! Give your Christian brothers a break. Say "Merry Christmas" and remember that you're helping them forget Jesus.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Harry Potter and the Deathly Scar

Today's announcement that the title for the final Harry Potter book is going to be Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sparked some renewed Harry Potter speculation at the local book store. The question wasn't whether Harry was going to live or die, but whether Harry's scar was a horcrux or a hiding place for part of Voldemort's soul.

If the scar was a horcrux, that would be a neat solution to the dilemna of whether Harry is going to live or die. If the scar is a horcrux, Harry has to die if Voldemort is ever going to be killed. So, Harry has to die and the series comes to a definite conclusion assuming that no one wants to explore Harry's existence after death, whether Harry gets involved in the life of his friends, or not. A second consideration is that Rowling has said that the last word of the last book is going to be scar. Harry's scar obviously has tremendous significance at the end of the book where Harry's fate will be decided. Perhaps, it's significance will be as a horcrux.

However, the scar/horcrux concept is a neat solution that does not quite work. At least in a simple way. If Harry's scar is a horcrux, Harry has to be able to get rid of the horcrux without dying. Because all the horcruxes have to be destroyed before Voldemort is killed, Harry has to live through the destruction of his own horcrux if he is going to be the one who kills Voldemort. If Harry is going to die, there has to be another scenario besides the possibility of his scar being a horcrux.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Dissecting the Surge

One of the good things in life is the wisdom comes out of casual conversation. At Morehead State, I've always been fortunate to have sensible friends with whom I could work out my ideas and theirs. Ed Reeves of Sociology is one of those friends. In talking with Ed on the steps outside our building the other day, I found that one of his other friends had discussed a "graceful exit" option to the upcoming build-up of American troops in Iraq. The Bush administration could increase the number of American troops by 25,000 for a year, claim in Spring 2008 that the U. S. had done everything it could in Iraq, and then begin major troop reductions in plenty of time for the 2008 election.

That makes three basic options connected with the troop buildup.

1. The Dissipation Option. Bush adds 25,000 troops, no progress is made, and the build-up is another embarrassment that hurts the Republicans in 2008. Hillary/ Obama get a ten point win and the Democrats pad their majority.

2. A Graceful Exit. Bush adds 25,000 troops, no progress is made, and the U. S. uses the lack of progress as a rationale for drastically reducing our commitment. The Hillary/ Obama ticket still wins, but the Republicans hold their own.

3. Making the Disaster Worse. Bush adds 25,000 troops, attacks the Mahdi Army militia, and makes the situation in Baghdad even worse than the current nightmare. The American public recoils in disgust, Hillary/Obama landslide, and Congressional Democrats get their biggest majority since 1964.

All of these options and more are being debated in the Bush administration. However, my bet is that the pressure for #3 builds up within the White House bunker. If attacking al-Sadr actually did stabilize Baghdad as the Bush administration hopes, Bush would be able to claim a real victory. So, there will be a lot of pressure from Dick Cheney's office and some military people to go for broke and take option #3. Unfortunately, the odds on the U. S. achieving a higher level of stability are a lot longer than the odds on making things worse. As a result, I conclude that option #3 will make the current disaster even worse and lead to a Republican apocalypse in the 2008 elections.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Evil of Abstinence

What everybody knows. The news that 95% of Americans have had pre-marital sex probably wasn't a surprise to most people. Given that rates of pre-marital sex were high even for people born in the 1940's, it's evident that American teens and singles were leading sex soaked lives even before there was a sex soaked media. I'm glad of it myself. Having been a product of pre-marital sex, I've always had a soft spot for the idea of sex before marriage.

The failure of abstinence. The author of the study, Lawrence Finer, used the results to question the federal government's support of abstinence programs. According to Finer, "the data clearly show that the majority of older teens and adults have already had sex before marriage, which calls into question the federal government's funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for 12- to 29-year-olds." In other words, abstinence programs can't work because teens and singles are going to have sex in the way they've always had sex.

The Evil of Abstinence. Abstinence programs don't harm most young people because most young people listen to peer-group messages encouraging sex instead of the abstinence message of purity and virginity. Of course, the ones who don't listen are the lucky ones. The abstinence message harms those who listen intently to the advocates of purity and sign the pledge to abstain from sex until marriage, but are still involved in sex. Viewing sex primarily in terms of guilt and disease, these kinds of teens and singles are less likely to be knowledgeable about contraception, less likely to see sex in terms of building relationships, and therefore less likely to develop any maturity about sex as they go along. Those who listen to the abstinence message would be more likely to have unwanted pregnancies and less likely to be emotionally ready for marriage on the day of the wedding. Because so few people listen to it, the abstinence message is not one of the world's great evils, but it is still an evil nonetheless.

The Bush Truth Translator

I have no idea why the mainstream media is crowing so much over Bush admitting that we're no longer "winning" in Iraq. After all, the President only retreated to "we're neither winning nor losing," and the meaning of the rhetorical retreat might be that things are getting much worse, perhaps much worse than pessimists already belief.

Here's how the administration's rhetoric has translated into reality so far.

"Mission Accomplished" = "We have not yet begun to fight"

"A Few Dead Enders" = "The remnants of the Hussein regime have quickly organized an effective resistance

"The Insurgents are Desperate" = Insurgent attacks spiked again.

"The Last Throes of the Insurgency" = "We haven't been able to eliminate the insurgency despite continual offensives in al-Anbar"

"Very Tough" = "Baghdad has descended into a state of anarchy while al-Qaeda in Iraq dominates in Anbar.

"History will vindicate" = "I'm still better than Buchanon and Hoover"

This is how the President's latest formulation translates into reality:

"We're Neither Winning Nor Losing" = "It's too late to stave off disaster"

Tough on Hillary

Hillary Clinton lost the support of my 12 year old daughter when the senator from New York talked as if "national security" was a more important issue than global warming during an NPR interview. Maybe I shouldn't have bought An Inconvenient Truth for her after all.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Loaded Dice

The Throw. Today, President Bush threw the dice on his new Iraq strategy--increase the number of troops by 25,000, primarily by keeping the next rotation of troops in Iraq rather than taking them out as planned. Merry Christmas guys!

The Dice. As a result of his own incompetence and cynicism, the dice are heavily loaded against the President and American interests in general. What are the 25,000 troops going to do. If we had 25,000 troops, that would double the number of Americans in al-Anbar but still wouldn't allow us to maintain the continuous offensives and massive economic reconstruction needed to stabilize the province. In fact, it wouldn't come close.

The most likely deployment would be to Baghdad where the additional troops would either be driving around the streets trying to provoke attacks (it's called DAB--Driving Around Baghdad) or launching a major offensive against Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. The former deployment would be pointless; the latter a major disaster. Attacking and defeating al-Sadr would leave the remnants of his fighters fragmented, angry, and ready for the sort of long insurgent campaign being conducted by the Sunnis in Anbar. Defeating al-Sadr would also inflame a big part of the Shiite population into being more sympathetic with or joining a Shiite insurgency. The American military would "win," but the victory would be self-defeating. Just like the all the other American victories in Iraq.

Why Can' t Anybody Say Anything Good About Hillary?

Hillary Clinton is the leading early candidate for the presidency in 2008. Today, a Newsweek poll came out showing her leading John McCain by 7 points at (50-43) and Rudy Giuliani by 1. She's also far ahead of Barack Obama among Democrats at 50-32. Aside from the right-wing attack media, however, there is practically a blackout of any positive news on Hillary. Almost all the items about a Hillary candidacy from the mainstream media, pundits, columnists, and bloggers are bad. She's portrayed as either too much or too little--too polarizing on the one hand, but not charismatic enough, not visionary enough, not moderate enough, not liberal enough.

In addition, Hillary's popularity has grown without her doing much to promote it. Hillary isn't in the media nearly as much as John McCain or Barack Obama, does not say anything particularly noteworthy about the great issues of the day, and has intimidated her closest supporters into silence. There's been no Hillary hype, no Hillary media machine, and no Hillary for Hillary public relations campaign.

As a result of all this, there is a deep gap in our information. Hillary Clinton is the most popular politician in the United States, but hardly anybody has given any thoughts as to why a majority of people support her in head-to-head match-ups. What is it about Hillary that makes her popular even if it doesn't make her as lovable as Obama is on the left or George Bush used to be on the right?

Racism Central High in Kentucky

In many parts of rural America, white supremacist loyalties lead a semi-public kind of existence. White racism is in the public square, but not justified in explicitly racist terms. That's especially the case with the Confederate flag. Confederate flags and Confederate flag paraphernalia have popped everywhere in my home town of Morehead, KY since the flag controversies in Georgia and South Carolina in 2002. The Confederate flags are especially popular as bumper stickers on cars, but can be seen in yards, on shirts, as bandanas, and on motorcycle helmets. If Confederate flags aren't more popular than American flags in Morehead, they're running a close second.

The Confederate "flaggers" have all types of non-racial justifications for their displays that they'll tell you with a little smirk on their faces. For the flaggers, the Confederate battle flag is about regional pride, family, independence, rebel spirit, and opposition to political correctness instead of racism. However, the flaggers know just as well as everybody else that Confederate flags are the pre-eminent symbol of racism all over the South. In adapting the battle flag as a general symbol for everything they like about the South, flaggers have made white racism the uber sentiment that defines all things Southern.

The flag controversy has sprouted back up in Kentucky this week as controversy has erupted over the use of the Confederate flag as a school symbol at Allen County Central High School in Prestonsburg. The all-white high school uses a version of the Confederate flag as its school emblem, features rebel flags at all of its sporting event, and fosters "rebel pride" on its web site right next to educational cliches like "authentic," "interactive," and "learner centered." The few black students and athletes at other high schools in mountainous Floyd County and neighboring Pike County are offended by the flag but don't protest or seek boycotts. Members of the Louisville-based Justice Resource Center travelled to Prestonsburg to talk with the school superintendent about the connection between the Confederate flag and slavery and emphasize the need to prepare students to live in "a diverse society where these symbols have already been eliminated." Unfortunately, their appeals fell on deaf ears as students rallied to the defense of the flag, defending it as "our tradition."

And that's really the core of the issue. Many people in Eastern Kentucky and other rural areas bordering on the South have made the symbolism of slavery and bigotry into the defining element of "their tradition." Of course, Allen Central could embrace its tradition more closely if it just renamed itself "Racism Central High."

Monday, December 18, 2006

What the World Needs Now

More Gaffes from Public Figures: Last week, head coach Jim Mora of the Atlanta Falcons committed the bone-headed gaffe of talking on a radio show about how much he wanted the head coaching job at the University of Washington. Of course, Mora is already being paid a couple mill to coach the Falcons by the now unhappy owner Arthur Blank.

But few people realize how tough politicians, celebrities, and sports figures have it in their almost daily rounds of broadcasts, interviews, and call-in shows. All of these are impromptu forms of entertainment in which the person being interviewed--here the coach of the Atlanta Falcons--is supposed to be interesting, funny, emotionally compelling, or entertaining in some other way without having the benefit of a script or a writer. It's not easy to be creatively entertaining on the spur of the moment like that, especially if you're being asked about something that's personally touchy or something that you don't know anything about as all. A few weeks ago, the campus newspaper interviewed me about the presentation of an artist named Matuschka on my campus. I had gone to the presentation, enjoyed it, and had some vaguely formulated ideas, but I don't know anything about art and I was tired at the end of the week. So I tossed out a couple of boring platitudes and gave up to the disappointment of the interviewer who had been counting on me to say something interesting.

Personally, I think we should be more accepting of political, celebrity, and sports gaffes. If we expect people to say interesting things all the times, then we should also allow for a certain percentage of gaffes to allow for the human element. Maybe they get paid well, but politicians, celebrities, and sports figures are human like the rest of us.

More Brawling in the NBA. Well, David Stern handed down penalties from last weeks big NBA brawl. Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggests was suspended for 15 games while J. R. Smith of the Nuggets and Nate Robinson of the Knicks will sit for 10. Once again, I'm surprised that there aren't more brawls in both pro and college sports. Athletes play at tremendous peaks of intensity seeking to "impose their will" on their opponents and are expected to exercise the super-human self-control needed to stay within the rules of the game. In football and basketball, it's all about manhood--proving that you're nothing less than a man or "the man" and fighting against any aspersions on your manliness. Nobody should be shocked when a player like Mardy Collins loses control and commits a flagrant foul or when Carmelo Anthony steps in on behalf of his teammate. In fact, basketball and football players should be allowed the same emotional flexibility as coaches. Coaches, both professional and college, regularly explode into histrionics--often at their own players. For a variety of perverse reasons--quite often race-- the emotional outbursts of authority figures like coaches are much more acceptable than any loss of control by their subordinates.

Love, Sweet Love. Mrs. RSI says that I should include love in the things that the world needs more of. Who am I to argue with her or with Burt Bacharach? But one of the ways that we create a little space for love is to allow a little more space for the less dignified human emotions and enormous spur-of-the-moment errors. I'm not talking Oprah-like confessions or Bill O'Reilly bombast--just some more openness to the emotional irregularities of the human condition.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Crashing Republicans and Big Gestalt Shifts

The Bush Burden on the GOP. Like the rest of the country, the right-wing dreams of a time they'll be free of George W. Bush. According to an internet Republican styling himself as JackDallas, "a Republican can run, unfettered [in 2008]". There will be no Bush stigma attached to the next republican candidate." If Bush decides to increase the number of troops in Iraq by 25,000 and launch new offensives in Iraq, that won't be the case. What a burden for Republican candidates. Expected to show loyalty to the idea of "victory" during the primaries, Republican candidates have about as much luck selling the war during the general elections as Mondale had in selling higher taxes in 1984. And they'll drag down a lot of Republican candidates for the Senate and House with them. Instead of the McKinley-like long-term Republican majority that Karl Rover originally imagined, the Bush era is going to end in a Hoover-like disaster for the GOP.

The Hillary/Obama Choice. One of the major legacies of the Bush years is going to be either the first female president in the history of the U. S. or the first black president in the history of the U. S. Probably anyway. If the Bush administration drags down Republican candidates to the extent I am forecasting, the GOP nominee in 2008 could be beaten by a potted plant let alone genuinely popular politicians like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Obviously, any Democratic president is going to have a hard time cleaning up the Bush mess, but electing a woman or a black person as President will be a major event in American culture. Too bad the Bush administration is going to make us pay such a high price for our cultural breakthrough.