Saturday, April 26, 2008

Military Atheist Speculations

Spc. Jeremy Hall is suing the U. S. Army over the harassment he's received for his atheism while he's been serving in the military. Hall seemed to have developed his atheist convictions while in the Army and began to be harassed while serving in Iraq.

Robert Farley of Lawyers, Guns, and Money treats Hall's primarily as a matter of religious freedom:
I really can't imagine a better case than this for a strictly observed separation between church and state. Religious pluralism in the military forces of the United States in inevitable, and every soldier will have a particular understanding of the interaction between religious responsibility (often none) and patriotic duty. The identification of patriotism and military service with any specific understanding of faith is, for reasons that should be obvious, enormously destructive. The idea of browbeating atheists into compliance is appalling in its own right, but is particularly troubling in the context of the War on Terror, which even the President has stressed is not, primarily, a religious war.

Actually, the agenda of the officers who were threatening Spc Hall was broader than that. They were trying to define the United States as a "Christian nation" and Hall's atheism as a kind of dereliction of duty.

When Hall organized a meeting for military atheists in Iraq, Major Freddy J. Welborn started to threaten Hall and the other atheists with rejection for re-enlistment and other penalties. But he also viewed Hall and the others as failing to uphold the Constitution.

“People like you are not holding up the Constitution and are going against what the founding fathers, who were Christians, wanted for America!” Major Welborn said, according to the statement.

Of course, liberals emphasize that the Constitution makes no mention of Christianity at all and that the authors of the Constitution were emphatic about not setting up an official American religion. What Major Welborn was doing was taking the right-wing/evangelical perspective in the national debate over whether idea of the American nation has a Christian base and thereby opposing liberal views on church/state relations. Welborn was not only violating the wall between church and state, he was using his position in the military to promote his right-wing view of religion and punish enlisted men who didn't share that view.

Moreover, there's a chance that Welborn's views are shared more generally within the military. First in Iraq and then back in the U. S., Spc Hall received a number of threats in relation to his views on religion and seemed to believe that he was the target of a general religious hostility.

But why the hostility? Why the threats? Why the warnings from officers? I haven't seen any studies of religious culture within the military, but would like to offer up some speculations.

1. A Bastian of Right-Wing Culture. One possibility is that the right has succeeded in converting the American military apparatus into a bastion of conservative religious culture and hostility to liberal secularism. Given the size and power of the American military, I view the prospect of an aggressively conservative military as a great deal more troubling than violations of the separation between church and state. The perspective of a Francoist American military is frightening in any case and especially frightening if the U. S. withdraws from Iraq.

2. Small Unit Loyalty. I also wonder if officers and enlisted men view religious uniformity as one of the lynchpins of the small unit loyalty that enables soldiers to maintain their morale in depressing and futile situations like Iraq. According to CNN, one commander thought the religious question was so important that he wanted to know Hall's religious views right after a firefight.

Hall was a gunner on a Humvee, which took several bullets in its protective shield. Afterward, his commander asked whether he believed in God, Hall said. "I said, 'No, but I believe in Plexiglas,' " Hall said. "I've never believed I was going to a happy place. You get one life. When I die, I'm worm food."

3. Religion as a Potential Control on Misbehavior. Perhaps officers believe that piety among American soldiers makes them more pliable to commanders. I've seen a lot of reports concerning how angry American soldiers get at Iraqi civilians. Perhaps religion is viewed one way to discourage soldiers from acting on that anger through either killing civilians or fragging officers. Conversely, officers might also think that religious soldiers would be less likely to be paralyzed with guilt over the things they do. If people know they're "right with god," they might not worry so much about the right or wrong of last night's patrol.

4. The Rightness of the Mission. Christianity is a very flexible religion in the sense that it's possible to identify with God the father, Jesus and his self-sacrifice, the forgiveness of sins, the Virgin Mary, any number of Saints, and various kinds of Italian, Irish, German, or Hispanic ethnicities. It's a potent brew. The military is just as loathe to associate itself with Jesus' demands that people "turn the other cheek" and "resist not evil" as the corporate world is to remind us that Jesus hated wealth. But Christianity provides a powerful and comforting rationalizations for "the mission" in relation to ideas of God's will, human rights, and forgiveness for sins. It appears that lower level commanders don't want to do without those rationalizations.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Terrorist I Know

I was interested today in John McCain's demand that Barack Obama apologize for his friendly relations with William Ayers, an "unrepentant" former member of the Weather Underground.

Actually, I know and am "fairly" friendly with a member of the Weathermen myself. Cathy Wilkerson is the sister of a local friend of mine and I've met her three or four times at gatherings where we've talked about stuff like how her daughter was doing in college. Everybody really likes her partner Tip.

But does being friendly with someone mean you know anything about them. Not in the case of Cathy Wilkerson. I've never been interested in 60's radicalism and haven't read anything about the SDS or Weathermen since I went through Kirkpatrick Sale's SDS as an undergraduate. That also means that I haven't read our copy of Wilkerson's own book Flying Too Close to the Sun.

I imagine that Barack Obama wasn't too interested in the past of William Ayres either.

The Dangerous Freedom of the American Police

Today, a judge found three New York City cops not guilty in the massacre of a guy named Sean Bell outside his bachelor party at a strip club in Brooklyn. As often happens, three undercover cops precipitated an "incident," then pumped 51 bullets into Sean Bell's car, killing him and wounding a couple of his friends.

It was hardly a surprise that the cops were acquitted. The witnesses were Bell's friends but a lot of them had rap sheets and they didn't exactly conduct themselves as respectable citizens in the courtroom. That might not have been so damaging with a local jury of everybody's peers, but the lawyers for the cops moved to have the case heard before a judge.

As a result, there was no jury.

The cops might not have been credible either, but they didn't testify.

The issue underlying these kinds of cases is the higher level of aggressiveness that's developed among American police since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since the early seventies, the dominant image of freedom in this country has become the freedom of the police to commit crimes with impunity while they're at work. Movies like LA Confidential, police dramas like NYPD Blue, and reality shows romanticize the hyper-aggressive cop who disobeys orders, breaks the law, and kills people to pursue "justice." The Clint Eastwood/Mel Gibson cop needs freedom from red tape, freedom from supervision, freedom from second guessing, and freedom from considering the costs of so much freedom in the hands of self-righteous, trigger-happy kinds of guys.

At the same time, other images of male freedom have withered on the vine. Who associates freedom with heading a family, working-class leisure, cowboys, or John Wayne anynore? As a result, the freedom of the police has become the pre-eminent image of freedom in our society.

And the invasion of Iraq gave the cops more license than ever. Now, almost any excuse can trigger a violent outburst by police officers. About five years ago, one of my colleagues got screamed at for getting out of his car after he was stopped for inadvertently running a new stop sign. According to the cop's rationalization, the fact that the guy got out of his car led the cop to assume that he was a danger. In my view, the police officer was looking for a reason to intimidate someone and got what he wanted when my colleague got out of his car.

It used to be that blacks and hispanics got all the righteous violence from cops. But they're starting to generalize their intimdation to "respectable white people" as well. To give a minor example, two of the students in my freshman honors class have been tasered and another one was thrown to the ground after a traffic stop just last weekend (without being charged with anything). In fact, reports indicate that police have adopted tasering as a kind of recreational form of torture.

In the current atmosphere of police license, there was no chance that Sean Bell's family would get justice. In fact, there's little chance that anyone would get justice in relation to the police.

Who knows, maybe Peggy Noonan will get tasered next.

Peggy Noonan Hates the War on Terror

One of the amusing things about journalism is the efforts of reporters to derive BIG INSIGHTS from getting on planes, getting off planes, and taking cabs to and from the airport.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed today, Peggy Noonan comes pretty close to hating the whole country because she has to go through a metal detector at the airport.
All the frisking, beeping and patting down is demoralizing to our society. It breeds resentment, encourages a sense that the normal are not in control, that common sense is yesterday. Another thing: It reduces the status of that ancestral arbiter and leader of society, the middle-aged woman. In the new fairness, she is treated like everyone, without respect, like the loud ruffian and the vulgar girl on the phone. The middle-aged woman is the one spread-eagled over there in the delicate shell beneath the removed jacket, praying nothing on her body goes beep and makes people look.

Noonan is so disturbed by a world in which "normal" white people like herself are subject to the same random searches that I'm surprised she doesn't pledge her faith to Osama bin Laden.

What's Noonan going to do if Obama gets elected.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The New New Democrat: The Process Warrior

Today, I'll acknowledge my affinity with the liberal blogger Digby on two fundamentals for 2008.

First, I agree with her the Democratic nominee is going to beat John McCain pretty handily and I've been predicting for months that it's going to be 57-43 and I don't as yet see any reason to change my mind.

Second, I the nomination fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is a good thing. Digby has a post today on how the nomination battle is giving Democrats in states like North Carolina a reason to get excited because their votes are going to have a meaningful impact on the nomination.

The same is true in my state of Kentucky.

There are a lot of other positive effects as well.

The biggest positive effect is that both campaigns are developing much better combinations of discipline and aggressiveness.

The Hillary campaign has put Bill on the Dan Quayle trail of small out of the way places like Morehead, KY and demoted Mark Penn. They've also learned how to hit hard at emerging Obama weak points without worrying about credibility. When Obama foolishly talked about bitter white people and their guns, Hillary shamelessly pandered about learning to shoot from her dad. That's what she needs to do now and it's what she needs to do if she becomes President.

For it's own part, the Obama campaign is learning the parry and thrust of fighting to win each news cycle and the candidate himself had one of his best moments responding to the Jeremiah Wright accusations.

And Michelle Obama was sidelined even more thoroughly than Bill.

More needs to be done. Joan Walsh of Salon correctly observes that Barack Obama needs to follow Hillary's example and start doing a better job of proposing solutions for the problems he would face as president.

But more important than that, Democratic voters need to toughen up and embrace the ups and downs of the political process. A lot of white Democrats out on the streets want harmony, high-minded ideas, and an idealistic focus on policy rather than personality and symbolism. That's great in theory, but it's a recipe for disaster in presidential campaigns and failure in office.

Even more than Democratic politicians, Democratic voters need to realize that most political fighting takes place in the gutter and be willing to see their candidates roll around in the gutter with the Karl Roves, Lee Atwaters, and Bill O'Reilly's of the world.

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame used to joke about engineers becoming "process warriors." But that's exactly what Democratic voters need to become. They need to become "process warriors" who fight with Democratic campaigns and officeholders until the process turns out some progressive sausage for a change.

The Downside of Atheism

I've always been pretty open about being an atheist. I even announced myself as a "stone atheist" at a public forum on Church v State at a forum in 2006.

But the downside of public atheism is that I find myself talking about religion a lot more than I ever thought would be necessary.

Or possible.

For Easter, a local minister was interested in my comments on why I didn't believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

I guess he wanted to spice up his sermon.

Yesterday, a couple of the honors students invited me to a "Questions of Faith" activity in which I was totally out of place.

If it turns out that Christians are right about god, Jesus, hell, and all that, I imagine that I'll be punished by being forced to talk about Jesus for the rest of eternity.

But I guess that why it's hell.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hill By Ten in the Keystone State

The Margin. Hillary won by ten in Pennsylvania today. Ten was as far out as the polls were willing to take her. I was thinking 12 because the polls have been undercounting Hillary in the states she's won. But the Zogby and Suffolk were right and I was wrong.

Keeping On Keeping On. I think it's clear that Hillary should push on. It's evident that Barack Obama is just as capable of self-destructing under pressure as the next politician. So, there's no reason why Hillary shouldn't keep applying the pressure.

The Focus of the Battle. Still the question concerning Democrats now is whether Barack Obama is the guy we really want. Curiously enough, Hillary has finally crossed the presidential plausibility threshold. Even though she's seemingly on the verge of defeat, Hillary has emerged as the default candidate if Obama fails the still lengthy series of tests in front of him. But the nomination is Obama's to lose now.

Wishing for Wish Fulfillment. I'd like to see both Obama and Hillary focus more on what they're going to do as president and I'd like to see the media cover that story as well as the attacks on each other.

Well, I can always dream.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Freedom from Education, Sexy Guns, and Rockette Racism: Why Obama will lose Pennsylvania

Having grown up on the Pennsylvania border, travelled throughout the state, and spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, I know Pennsylvania fairly well.

So, here are my comments on tomorrow's Democratic primary.

1. Hillary by 12. My record as a primary prognosticator is terrible, but my gut feeling is that Hillary will be at the outer edge of the polls if not a little further out. A lot of Hillary's margin depends on how well she does in the Philly suburbs that should be Obama country.

2. Bitter People. Obama really blew it with his "people cling to God, guns, and racism out of their bitterness over the economy statement." Sure, there's bitterness over the economy. Two of my cousins couldn't make their dairy farms in Northeastern Pennsylvania profitable, had to start working in the local Sylvania factory, and died in their forties. But that doesn't have much to do with God, guns, and race.

3. Guns, Freedom, and Sex. Most of the Pennsylvania guys I knew weren't any more interested in God than they were in being gay. But there's a certain extent that the guns represent an element of freedom that's not enjoyed in the tonier Philadelphia suburbs. My Pennsylvania cousins all viewed themselves as having the freedom to reject education, college, and the 60 hour/week world for hunting, fishing, and otherwise focusing on their own enjoyment. There's a lot less of that freedom in the upper middle-class suburbs. I haven't been in contact with my cousins for a long time, but I imagine that guns have also acquired the same kind of huge autoerotic sexual charge in Pennsylvania that they now have in Kentucky. As my students say, a lot of guys are more interested in their guns than they are in women.

4. Multiple sources for Racism. People don't cling to racism out of economic bitterness either. Unlike the South where racism tends to have monolithic roots in regional grievance, family loyalty, and nostalgia for segregation, Northern racism is fed by little trickles of sentiment here and there. For older people like my mom, there's a kind of standing up for the racist past that is Southern-like in its nostalgic rejection of the present. There's also a tribalism of Irish, German, Polish, and Italian ethnic identification that defines blacks as outside their tribe or any tribe. It's easy to underestimate the extent to which ethnic tribalism permeates Pennsylvania families, neighborhoods, schools, and other institutions. Keeping blacks out has been a way to maintain the integrity of the tribe. There's also the Rockette aesthetic racism where white people who haven't been around many black people try to keep blacks from moving into their neighborhoods, workplaces, or families just like the Rockettes tried to maintain an all-white line. In Philadelphia, there was a class dimension to racism as well. White guys liked to vaunt their access to higher income working class jobs than the black guys they worked with. All these little streams of racial hostility add up to a tenacious racism that is unburdened by the horrors of pervasive police brutality, lynchings, and violent resistance to integration.

5. Black Working-Class. Actually, I think Obama's "bitter people" comments indicate that he has just as little awareness of theblack working class guys as he has of rural white people. Barack Obama is the political equivalent of Oprah, Michael Jordan, and Beyonce in the sense that he likes to pose his candidacy as "beyond category"--the Alpe du Huez of presidential candidates. But a lot of black life in an area like West Philadelphia is rooted in a sense of place just like a lot of white ethnic culture. Black life is not racially exclusive in the same way as white ethnic culture (people were nice to me even though I did get mugged once), but it's a kind of geographically, educationally, and ethnically bound life that Obama has little feel for.

If Hillary and Bill hadn't handed the black vote to Obama after South Carolina, she'd have won Pennsylvania by an even bigger margin than I'm predicting.


After buying an Eric Clapton compilation at the new Super Walmart in town, I realized that I'd forgotten just how good "Bell Bottom Blues" was.

Alien Gods, Intelligent Design Prophecies, and Those Little Cell Bits

Although I'm an atheist myself, I'm not a big fan of atheist perspectives like those of the well-marinated Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.

Not that the "Christian" side is any better.

Dinesh D'Souza argues in a column today that the famous biologist Richard Dawkins has been thoroughly tripped up by the complexity of cells.

Here's the gruesome details.

Dawkins argues that evolutionary theory refutes the intelligent design idea that there was a God creating either the universe 4.5 billion years ago or life on earth 3.5 billion years ago.

What makes Dawkins' argument reasonable is that the book of Genesis postulates that the world was created somewhere 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. If the universe is 4.5 billion years old and life on earth is 3.5 billion years old, then it is evident that Genesis is a fable and that the monotheistic religions have no authoritative account of the creation of life.

Evidently an "old earth" kind of guy himself, Dinesh D'Souza counters with the idea that there was an "intelligent designer" behind the formation of life on earth.

But that doesn't make sense religiously. Why makes the "intelligent design" idea better than the highly detailed six day creation plan of monotheism in the Book of Genesis? Perhaps D'Souza thinks that Genesis was a myth told to satisfy the curiosity of pre-literate peoples like the very ancient Hebrews. But if Genesis was all the feeble scientific minds of 10,000 years ago could handle, why haven't there been any prophecies of intelligent design. Joseph Smith came up with 600 pages of new revelations for Mormonism. Why hasn't there been an intelligent design version of the Book of Mormon?

In the final analysis, Dawkins and D'Souza end up in the same place. According to D'Souza, Dawkins thinks that single cells are too complex to be created spontaneously and postulates that some kind of "alien" brought the cells from another planet. That's also what God is for D'Souza, the alien presence that brings the fundamental biological unit of the cell into earth.

But why would cells have to be the fundamental biological unit?

It seems much more reasonable to postulate that cells themselves evolved from pre-cellular bits of matter that formed out of the primordial soup, flared briefly into life, and then died for lack of any kind of stable organization.

As a stable basis for organic development, cells themselves would have been the outcome of eons of evolutionary experiment.

Not unlike the Gods.

RSI Milestone

Yesterday, we did a little height comparison in the RSI household and it turned out that Miss Tween RSI had nosed ahead of her older sister.

That day was always going to come. Miss Teen RSI is barely over 5 feet tall.

Still, it was interesting to see it arrive.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Marginal Effect of Military Analysts

The New York Times had a much cited article today on the retired generals who appear on the television networks as "military analysts."

It's not much of a surprise but analysts like Gen. Montgomery Meigs of MSNBC, Gen. Wayne Downing of NBC, and Maj. Gen. Bob Scales of Fox were all shilling for the Pentagon. They all got a series of special Pentagon briefings, were flown to Iraq, and received talking points for their broadcasts. Far from viewing themselves as objective expert commentators, several of the generals saw their broadcasts as part of a broader "psy-ops" operation by which the Pentagon was manipulating American public opinion to support the war.

What's more, several of the retired generals had huge conflicts of interest because of their financial involvement with defense contractors.

As Glenn Greenwald observes, none of this should be seen as much of a surprise. Greenwald likewise digs out an old NYT story making the same point.

But a couple of observations can still be made:

1. Bush's War Against America. The Bush administration saw the American population as a potential enemy in the war on terror from the beginning. Bush's "you're either with us or against us" rhetoric didn't just apply to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria. "Psy-ops" operations are directed against enemies and potential enemies. The potential enemies included us as well.

Some of this is hangover from the Vietnam syndrome of conservatives thinking that the Vietnam War was lost on the home front rather than in Vietnam. But there is a domestic angle as well. Activist Republicans have long seen their conflicts with liberals as war. Newt Gingrich used to say that politics was "war by other means."

In this way, the Bush administration was getting ready to extend the war metaphor to its relations with the American population as a whole.

Of course, the big question is whether Bush and his cronies saw themselves as being really at war with the American population after public opinion turned against the war.

My guess is that future revelations will show that the Bush administration and conservative activists did turn against the population as a whole after the 2006 elections. There was a lot of noise about eliminating rights and establishing dictatorships from conservative intellectuals like Harvey Mansfield, Thomas Sowell, Gingrich, and Frank Gaffney in 2007. What I think is that future revelations will show that this anti-democratic chatter was also going on in the White House.

Perhaps that noise would have turned into real pressure to curtail American democracy if the Democratic leadership had stood up to Bush on war funding.

At the same time, I think that much of the hostility to the Democratic leadership originated in the public sense of the high constitutional stakes in ending the war. Since summer 2007, the Bush administration has been governing as a rogue administration and the public has a much better sense of the dangers in this than the Democrats.

2. The Campaign Failed in its primary objective. Like so much about the Iraq War, the effort to corrupt the military analysts was a failure. The Bush people weren't able to bag the most important and prestigious of the retired military analysts, Anthony Cordesmann. None of the other guys made much of a mark and I bet most television viewers couldn't tell them apart without a program. The other thing is that the pressure of constant failure from the onset of the insurgency to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the revolt of the generals, and the post-Samarra collapse functioned to turn public opinion against the war despite the best "psy-ops" the Bush administration could muster.

In other words, the whole Bush media apparatus failed in its primary objective of maintaining public support for the war.

But I do think the media campaign from the Bush administration and the right-wing has had an effect. What it's accomplished is to create enough doubt about the consequences of withdrawal that the Democratic leadership decided not to pull the trigger on a confrontation with Bush. Most of that doubt was among elites, but it was still enough to give the Bush administration the opening they wanted to continue the war.

In this sense, the corrupt military analysts were part of a relatively successful effort to buy the Bush administration time to readjust their war strategy and give them some hope that a pro-war Republican would win the presidential election in 2008.

The Significance of the 2008 Election. This sets up the 2008 election as a big deal. I've thought all along that the Democratic candidate would win handily. But there's still a chance that McCain, the conservative media, or the Democratic nominee him or herself could sow enough doubt about the Democrats that McCain could squeak out a win. If that happens, a McCain administration would spend its four years fighting to keep anti-war governing majority from coalescing just as the Bush administration is now. But if a Democrat does win, there's a good chance that the whole pro-war apparatus will go up in smoke and that the Democrats will have a ruling majority and some momentum.

What they would do with that is another question.