Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Brilliance of Jonathan Schell


by: Jonathan Schell, The Nation

President Barack Obama faces many challenges, including an economy in crisis and two wars in the Middle East, as he begins his administration.

I see the work of gods who pile tower-high the pride of those who were nothing, and dash present grandeur down.
- Euripides, in The Trojan Women, referring to the fall of Troy

The inauguration of Barack Obama, "whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant," is both a culmination and a beginning. The culmination is the milestone represented by the arrival of a black man in the office of president of the United States. That achievement reaches back to the founding ideals of the Republic - "all men are created equal" - which have been fulfilled in a new way, even as it resonates around a world in which for centuries white imperialists have subjected people of color to oppression. The event fully justifies the national and global jubilation it has touched off. This much is truly accomplished, signed and sealed.
The beginning is, at the very least, the beginning of post-George W. Bush America, and fact-tempered hope rather than joy must be the keynote. In this context, the event is like a candle that has been lit in a dark and gusty room. How high its light will blaze is anything but clear. For the election of this unreasonably talented and appealing man occurred together with a remarkable array of crises, of which the economic one is only the newest. A man and an hour: a familiar matchup. A lot has been said about the man. Analyzing the makeup of the new administration has become the new Kremlinology, and a good deal of ink has been spilled pondering whether the avatar of "vision" has opted instead for the status quo, whether the fresh breeze from the hustings has already stagnated in the swamps of the capital, whether a bold campaign platform is being traded in for mainstream governance. And it is true that a centrist drift has been unmistakable. Joe Biden as vice president, Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Robert Gates as defense secretary and Larry Summers as chief economic adviser - these are hardly fresh faces. The $275 billion tax cut as part of the stimulus plan was not calculated to please the Democratic "base." Yet other appointments, especially those to environmental posts, have suggested a more venturesome presidency. And public expectations are high: nearly 80 percent of the people are hopeful about his presidency.
But what of the hour - the broad shape of the new world that Obama and all of us will face? If only the economic crisis were involved, the path ahead would have something of the known and familiar. Economic cycles come and go, and even the Great Depression eased up in a little more than a decade. But this year's crisis is attended by - or embedded in - at least four others of even larger scope. The second is the shortage of natural resources, beginning with fossil fuels. Oil prices have fallen sharply from their peak of last summer, but does anyone doubt that when the economy bounces back those prices will rise with it?
A third crisis - less on the public mind, perhaps, because it is so old it is taken for granted - is the spread of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. The problem is not so much an arms race (though Russia has just announced a step-up in its production of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the Defense Department is bent on modernizing the US arsenal) as arms seepage, arms osmosis, owing to the deadly know-how that is spreading from brain to brain in a kind of virtual pollution.
A fourth crisis is the ecological one, comprising global warming, the wholesale human-caused annihilation of species, population growth, water and land shortage, and much else. Like nuclear danger, the planetary ecological crisis threatens something that has never been at stake before our era: the natural foundations of life on which humans and all species depend for survival. Economic and military ups and downs are for a season only. Extinction is forever.
Cutting across all these crises is a fifth that will be of immediate concern to the new president: the failure of the American bid for global empire and the consequent decline of American influence abroad. The roots of the American will to empire go deep into history but reached full flower in the Bush administration. The bid has run aground in the sands of Iraq and in the mountains of Afghanistan, among other places. Even in the unlikely event that Obama escapes those quagmires without precipitating new fiascoes, the appetite for military takeovers of other countries (an idea already thoroughly discredited more than a generation ago in Vietnam) is going to be dead for a long time. The world is not going to be run by the Pentagon, and everyone knows it. The downfall of overambitious, overreaching empires is an old tale. Yet if the other crises on the agenda are to be addressed, the world must be run somehow or other. The reason is not that anyone loves world government but that the problems present themselves on a global basis and will not yield to provincial solutions. The American decline thus creates - or perhaps merely accentuates - a global political vacuum. It will not be enough to mouth the words "cooperation" and "multilateralism." Something more muscular, something more definite, will be required. (In this effort, by definition a common one, the United States must of course play a significant role.)
The Gordian Knot
The contemporary crises are interwoven, forming a kind of Gordian knot. The world does not have the luxury of dealing with them seriatim. Consider the relationship of the collapsing economy to the collapsing environment. Joseph Stiglitz has noted that economists are wondering if the graph of the economic crisis will eventually prove to be V-shaped or U-shaped; but he argues that it will prove to be L-shaped. Indeed, there can be neither a V, a U or any other upward-turning graph if the remedy does not include a green revolution and a sustainable-energy program. A dirty recovery, even if possible, would be worse than no recovery. It would be the quickest path to a bigger bust. The upturn cannot in truth be "re-" anything - short of revolution - for the just-crashed "successful" economy, excellent as it was in producing cheap goods, was also producing environmental catastrophe. (Paradoxically, the recession, by cutting back on fossil-fuel use, may have done more to ease global warming than electric cars or solar panels could have done in a comparable period.) Environmentalists have long observed that if China tries to reach Western standards of living along the automotive, carbon-gushing Western path, the planet will be cooked to a cinder in short order. Now we are all in a sense in the Chinese boat. China can't have the economy we so recently had, and we can't have it again either. We'll all have to have something quite different.
The same is true of US military power, discredited by the Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires. Additional follies of this sort also have become unaffordable. To the extent that America is to be powerful in the twenty-first century, it will have to be so by cultivating a quite different sort of power.
At a glance, this tangle of crises might seem merely to be the result of a colossal accident - a world-historic pileup on the global thruway. Yet in addition to being interconnected, the crises have striking features in common, suggesting shared roots. To begin with, all are self-created. They arise from pathologies of our own activity, or perhaps hyperactivity. The Greek tragedians understood well those disasters whose seeds lie above all in one's own actions. No storm or asteroid or external enemy is the cause. Today, the economic crash is the result of investment run amok: the "masters of the universe" are the authors of their own (and everyone's) downfall. The nuclear weapons that threaten to return in wrath to American cities were born in New Mexico. The oil is running short because we are driving too many cars to too many shopping malls. The global ecosphere is heading toward collapse because of the success, not the failure (until recently), of the modern economy. The invasion of Iraq was the American empire's self-inflicted wound - a disaster of choice, so to speak. All we had to do to escape it was not to do it. Here and elsewhere, the work of our own hands rises up to strike us.
All the crises are also the result of excess, not scarcity. Too much credit was packaged in too many ways by people who were too smart, too busy, too greedy. Our energy use was too great for the available reserves. The nuclear weapon overfulfilled the plans for great-power war, making it - and potentially ourselves - obsolete through oversuccess. The economic activity of humanity - the "throughput" of productivity, to use James Gustave Speth's term for the sheer quantity of natural stuff processed by the economy and dumped back into the ecosphere - was too voluminous to be sustained by fragile natural systems. The environmentalists' word "sustainability" applies more broadly. The collateralized debt obligations, the oil use, the spread of WMDs, the military pretensions of empire: all are "unsustainable" and crashing at once. Taken together, the crises add up to a new era of limits, which now are pressing in on all sides to correct overreaching.
All the crises (but especially those that are endangering the ecosphere) involve theft by the living from their posterity. It's often said that revolutions, like the god Saturn, devour their children. We are committing a slow-motion, cross-generational equivalent of this offense. My generation, the baby boomers - ominously nicknamed "the boomers" - has been cannibalizing the future to provision the present. Though we are not killing our children directly, we are spending their money, eating their food, cutting down their cherry orchards. Intergenerational justice has been a subject more fit for academic seminars than for newspaper headlines. The question has been, What harm are we doing to generations yet unborn? But the time frame has been shortened and the malign transactions are now occurring between generations still alive. The dollars we have spent are coming directly out of our children's paychecks. The oil we burn is being drawn down from their reserves. The nuclear weapons we cling to for a dubious "security" will burn down their cities. The atmosphere we are heating up will scorch their fields and drown their shorelines. A "new era of responsibility" must above all mean responsibility to them. If it is true that all the crises are part of this larger crisis, then the economic crisis may simply be the means by which the larger adjustment is being set in motion, in effect dictating a forced march into the sustainable world.
All the crises are characterized by double standards, which everywhere block the way to solutions. One group of nations, led by the United States, lays claim to the lion's share of the world's wealth, to an exclusive right to possess nuclear weapons, to a disproportionate right to pollute the environment and even to a dominant position in world councils, while everyone else is expected to accept second-class status. But since solutions to all the crises must be global to succeed, and global agreement can only be based on equity, the path to success is cut off.
Finally, all the crises display one more common feature: all have been based on the wholesale manufacture of delusions. The operative word here is "bubble." A bubble, in the stock market or anywhere, is a real-world construct based on fantasies. When the fantasy collapses, the construct collapses, and people are hurt. Disillusion and tangible harm go together: as imaginary wealth and power evaporate, so does real wealth and power. The equity exposed as worthless was always phony, but real people really lose their jobs. The weapons of mass destruction in the invaded country were fictitious, but the war and the dying are actual. The "safety" provided by nuclear arms is waning, if it ever existed, but the holocaust, when it comes, though fantastical, will be no fantasy. The "limits on growth" were denied, but the oil reserves didn't get the message. The "uncertainty" about global warming - cooked up by political hacks and backed by self-interested energy companies - is fake, but the Arctic ice is melting anyway.
A New Stance Toward Reality
One day someone will undertake a comprehensive study of how all these bubbles grew and why they were inflated at the same time. It will be a story of a crisis of integrity of the institutions at the apex of American life. It will recount how the largest government, business, military and media organizations, as if obedient to a single command, began to tell lies to themselves and others in pursuit of or subservience to wealth and power. Individual deceivers must arrange their untruths by themselves, by flat-out conscious lying, self-deception or a combination of the two. Huge bureaucracies have wider options. Banks, hedge funds, ratings agencies, regulatory agencies, intelligence services, the White House, the Pentagon and mainstream news organizations can grind inconvenient truths to dust, layer by bureaucratic layer, until the convenient lies that had been wanted all along are presented to the satisfied money- or war-hungry decision-makers at the top. The study of these operations will be a story of groupthink; of basic facts relegated to footnotes; of wishes tweaked into facts; of deepening secrecy; of complex models, mathematical or ideological, used to supplant, not illumine, reality; of new offices created to draw false new conclusions from old facts; of threat inflation; of the sinking careers of truth-tellers and the rising careers of truth-twisters. It would be interesting, for instance, to compare the creation of the illusions of the real estate bubble with the creation of the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. In both cases contrary facts were readily available at the base of the system but were filtered out as the reports went up the chain. For a somewhat contrasting, top-down model, the White House method for suppressing the truth about global warming within government agencies is instructive. In that case, the science was duly gathered but often squelched at the last minute by political appointees editing the reports.
A concluding chapter of the study will note that the rudiments of a new stance toward reality began to be articulated. Its motto can be the famous comment a senior Bush adviser made to writer Ronald Suskind, whom he belittled as belonging to the "reality-based community," which, the adviser said, believed that "solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." But that was no longer true, for "we're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." Over at the American International Group, the recipient of $152.5 billion in federal bailout funds, then-chief Maurice Greenberg was saying much the same thing in happier days: "This is never going to get any better than it is today. We're so big, we're never going to swim against the tide. We are the tide." In short, the relationship between observation and action had been reversed. Reality was not the field of operation in which you acted, and whose limits you must respect; it was, like a play or movie, a scenario to be penned by human authors. Fact had to adjust to ideology, not the other way around.
Obama, of course, cannot wait for such a study to appear. He must batter his way out of the various bubbles and lay his hands on what is real immediately. It will not be easy. His election has done part of the job, but the mists of illusion still hover over the land. Fantasies of wealth and power, not to speak of superpower, die hard. Happy hour is more pleasant than the morning after. For bubble thinking was projected beyond the deluded institutions to national politics as a whole. The falsehoods that led to war, the fact-averse ideology that inspired the bid for empire, the investments based on fictitious ratings and the denial of the evidence of global warming: none of these grew in a vacuum. They were supported or tolerated or insufficiently discredited by the media and other organizations that inform and constitute the mainstream. The credit and debt booms were national, corporate and personal, symptoms of a nation living beyond its means at all levels. The facts of global warming, it is true, were increasingly accepted by the public - but not by the president it put in office, and there was little appetite for measures, like a gas tax, to cut back carbon emissions. As global warming intensified, the iconic American vehicle of the era was the gas-devouring, pseudo-military Hummer - an imperial auto if there ever was one. The grandiose conceptions of American power found a ready audience, as reflected in election results. They linger still as troops shift, with Obama's blessing, from the unpopular Iraq quagmire to the better accepted Afghanistan quagmire.
In short, the mainstream, like a river that jumps its bed and ravages the countryside, has overflowed the levees of reality and carried the country to disaster after disaster in every area of national life: military, economic and ecological. These depredations have paradoxically led a groggy public to yearn for the stability that Obama's centrist cabinet choices seem to promise. But they know - Obama, who denounced the "dead zone that politics had become," told them in the campaign - that these appointees had a hand in creating the ills they are now charged with addressing.
"Reality" has bifurcated in a manner confusing to politicians and citizens alike. On the one side is political reality, which by definition means centrist, mainstream opinion. On the other side is the reality of events, heading in quite a different direction. If Obama makes mainstream choices, he is called "pragmatic." And it may well be so in political terms, as the poll results attest. But political pragmatism in current circumstances may be real folly, as it was on the eve of the Iraq War and in the years of the finance bubble preceding the crash. Smooth sailing down the middle of the Niagara River carries you over Niagara Falls. The danger is not that Obama's move into the mainstream will offend a tribe called "the left" or his "base" but that by adjusting to a center that is out of touch, he will fail to address the crises adequately and will lose his effectiveness as president.
The difference between merely political pragmatism and the real thing is illustrated by the recently ended career of George Bush. From 2001 until 2006, he and his party dominated politics. Karl Rove's dreams of a permanent Republican majority looked feasible. The values voters, the soccer moms, the Reagan Democrats and so forth were all lining up. But another key "constituency" - one that never appears in any poll result - was quietly turning against him. It was the constituency of the real. The adjustable-rate mortgages were heading south, the energy markets were nonplussed, the warlords of Afghanistan were restive and the skidding Greenland ice shelf was voting with its feet. These were the votes that undid him. To paraphrase the old saying, Bush won power but lost the world. In the short run, the arts of delusion and deception (including self-deception) can keep politics and reality apart, but in the long run the two must meet. And then it is politics, not reality, that must adjust. Euripides understood that, too.
Hence Barack Obama's victory on November 4. He must be clear-eyed as well as brave if he is not to squander it. In this era, political safety can spell danger, for himself and for the country and world. As he faces the Himalayan problems of the twenty-first century, he should look on his stratospheric approval ratings with a wary eye. They could mean that he is adjusting too much to the rogue mainstream and not adjusting it enough to the real world. For him putting aside "childish things" means a wide berth to the dead zone. Doing so will require a toughness, even a ruthlessness, that has nothing to do with bombing villages in faraway countries. No poll can tell him what trade balances are going to be or what the people of Afghanistan or the carbon molecules are going to do, but he would be wise to let them be his masters. The path of ruling through illusion has been tried and failed. It is not open to him. He should figure out what's wrong with America and the world, honestly and directly communicate his findings to the public, do his best to fix things and then let the results speak for themselves. It's a very simple prescription - but light-years away from anything that has been tried in the United States for a very long time.
Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at Yale. He is the author of "The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger."

Here are some reviews of this great author's latest book "The Seventh Decade"

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
kudos to Schell, again, November 18, 2007
Winslow Myers "Beyond War volunteer" (USA) - See all my reviews Since he published The Fate of the Earth, Jonathan Schell has shown himself to be the most cogent and unflinching thinker on the planet about the dilemmas of nuclear weaponry. He has evolved an elegant style that gets beyond the portentousness, perhaps unavoidable given the subject, of his earlier classic. But like The Fate of the Earth, The Seventh Decade is composed in a style of high responsibility, as if our lives were dependent upon the success of his arguments, which in a sense they are. This latest book is perhaps his best yet. In a kind of dividend of the main direction of his thought, he provides the clearest analysis I've seen of our government's ultimate rationale for the invasion of Iraq, set in the larger context of American global strategy. In a refreshing refusal to demonize Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, Schell calmly untangles their motivations from the record of events and policy statements, and shows why their larger strategy of total American military domination of the globe, while well-intentioned and even daring, has not only not worked to slow nuclear proliferation, but has actually accelerated it. Schell shows exactly why our post-9/11 American experiment with empire as a way to protect ourselves from both other nuclear powers and from terrorism contains built-in contradictions that doom our hegemonic intentions to inevitable failure. He returns to the bizarre but exhilarating moment of Reykjavik 1986, where Gorbachev and Reagan came close to agreeing to give up their nuclear arsenals altogether, as not only a tragic might-have-been but a model for future efforts. In the end, because Schell faces all the difficulties and complexities directly, this turns out to be a hopeful book about a terrifying subject: p. 14" "Not since the world's second nuclear bomb was dropped on Nagasaki has history's third use of a nuclear weapon seemed more likely." If only our leaders would take a quiet day to reflect alongside Schell! But they probably won't, unless we citizens get involved and ask new questions of presidential candidates, like: Is it realistic to think we can solve the nuclear dilemma by endlessly maintaining our double standard of nukes for the "good guys" and no nukes for the "bad guys"?

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A Must Read For the Concerned Layperson and Expert Scholar Alike, December 25, 2007
Bruce Roth (Atlanta, Georgia) - See all my reviews I thoroughly enjoy reading Schell. He is a brilliant wordsmith and master of metaphor. Schell's keen insight added a new dimension to my understanding of the history of nuclear weapons and their proper role in our future security. There is nothing arcane in The Seventh Decade. It is filled with interesting, informative, and important lessons from history that Americans in particular must be mindful of in order to avoid sharing the fate of every previous great world power, and humanity in general must learn in order to avert causing its own doom. Bruce A. Roth Founder of Daisy Alliance ( Author of "No Time To Kill" No Time To Kill

7 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Overemphasizes the Past, November 26, 2007
Loyd E. Eskildson "Pragmatist" (Phoenix, AZ.) - See all my reviews Schell is undoubtedly correct asserting that the threat of nuclear weapons has increased since 9/11 - the risk of Pakistan's weapons falling into terrorist hands is real, Iran's possible weapon-making is a frequent front-page news item, and North Korea continues to threaten. Schell also argues that the U.S.'s switch from diplomatic pressure to military action to enforce non-proliferation creates additional pressure for Iran and North Korea to continue their efforts; worse yet is the administration's refusal to take first use of nuclear weapons off the table. In addition, the Bush administration upset Russia just prior to 9/11 by pursuing "Star Wars" (SDI) and expanding NATO to include some previous U.S.S.R. areas, Japan is rethinking its "no nuclear weapons" policy in light of North Korea, and Taiwan is probably considering such as well due to China's continual threats and the U.S.'s unwillingness to offer iron-clad guarantees for Taiwan's security. Meanwhile, Brazil announced in 2004 that it was enriching uranium for power uses - a process that only needs to be extended to create atomic weapons, Britain is undertaking a $40 billion or so updating of its nuclear submarines and weapons, and the U.S. is also spending billions on its own updating. The shortcomings of "Seventh Decade" (of nuclear weapons) are that most of its pages are spent on actions 30+ years prior, it contains little if anything new, and it offers little in the way of recommendations.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Faith in Mozart and Updike

When I got up this morning, I thought that I would write about Mozart and my love for his music. Appropriate because today is Mozart's birthday. I have recently been quite enamored with the genius of his music, lately becoming quite preoccupied with Mozart's piano sonatas(my late Uncle Charlie's favorite). One of my uncle's favorite books was "In the Beauty of the Lillies," a novel by John Updike which describes a pastor's severe crisis with faith. This afternoon I learned that Updike(my favorite author) died at the age of 76 of lung cancer. His writing was meticulous and marvelously descriptive. I found some very interesting interviews on Youtube. Here is John with Charlie Rose:

Here is an interview with the Boston Globe:

Here is perhaps his last TV interview:

Jay Parini of The Guardian wrote this great piece about Updike today:

knew John Updike a little. When I was in high school, I sent him a letter asking about some aspect of his novel The Poorhouse Fair (1959), which I adored. He replied generously, with care and kindness. We corresponded occasionally, and met once for lunch in Boston. I saw him now and then at various literary occasions. He was a shy, slightly awkward, gentlemanly person, with a courtly and self-effacing manner that seemed out of place in the noisy and boisterous world around him.
He was also, of course, one of the luminous figures – with Bellow, Mailer, Vonnegut, Sontag, Snodgrass - of his literary generation. I have in my study a dog-eared row of Updike's novels, story collections, poetry volumes, and fat compilations of essays that stretches the width of the room. Year after year, from the delicate early stories and novels of life in small town Pennsylvania, through his countless adventures in other fictive arenas, Updike never ceased to produce books that found a wide readership and critical acclaim - although many shrewd critics, such as James Wood, offered cogent dissenting voices.
For my money, the best Updike lies in the early work that he set in Pennsylvania. I grew up nearby, in a small town, and 'identified' - as they say in high school classes - with his heroes. Nobody caught the special smell and taste of the air in that part of Pennsylvania, its quality of light, the appeal of its surrounding woods and undulant farmlands, as well as Updike did. Pigeon Feathers (1962) is perhaps still his best volume of stories in this regard. The Centaur (1963), too, is unforgettable as a portrait of high school life in the 1950s. Updike's father was a high school teacher, and he knew that world as well as anyone - from the inside out. The ennui and frustration of living in rural Pennsylvania suffuse Rabbit, Run (1960) and the remaining three Rabbit novels. The four of them, taken together, form a vivid tapestry of life of a certain kind, a certain era.
Updike hit the bestseller lists with Couples (1968), which caught the sexual amorality of the 1960s in wealthy suburbia with an almost visionary energy of perception. I reread this novel many times, marvelling at how the author lovingly evoked the surface details of life, and how he slowly but surly creative narrative momentum.
Narrative momentum was often a problem in his novels. I had trouble finishing them, especially toward the end. I wouldn't happily reread A Month of Sundays (1975) or Memories of the Ford Administration (1992); nor have I any urge to revisit S. (1988) or Brazil (1994).The last few novels did not tempt in the slightest, although I dutifully paid for and began each of them.
But Updike could be a fine critic, too. One always looked forward to his reviews in the New Yorker, as well as his essays on art in the New York Review of Books. I recall with genuine relish his early essays on Karl Barth, Borges, Nabokov, and others. And yet I doubt I shall revisit most of his criticism. (Great critics, I suspect, are rarer than great novelists or great poets.)
What I prized most about Updike, though, was his marvellous ear for a sentence. In the stories especially, he caught the shimmer of light on the grass, for example, with uncanny skill. He could describe a twitching face, a wrinkled elderly hand, a fond gesture of affection, with shocking ease. I doubt I shall ever forget the painful stories about a family coming apart in Problems (1979); 'Separating' is one story I've read again and again through the years, with increasing admiration.
My guess is that he will long be remembered as a master of the short story, the American equivalent of Maupassant. He will also be considered as a faithful reporter of his era, one of those writers who live fixedly in their own time, paying a kind of rueful but affectionate attention to its idiosyncrasies, its foibles, and its passing glories.
John, your gentile and perceptive spirit will be missed. Your literary brilliance will live on forever!
Back to Mozart, Garrison Keillor shared an interesting Writers Almanac segment today about Wolfgang Mozart, who died a pauper and was buried in a mass grave.

It's the birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born in 1756 in Salzburg, which is now in Austria.
Mozart's father, Leopold, was one of Europe's leading music educators, and he took Mozart and his sister on tours throughout Europe. Young Mozart began composing original work at age five. During a trip to Italy, Mozart amazed his hosts when he listened only once to the performance of a Gregorio Allegri composition and then wrote it out from memory.
Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781, and in 1782 he married Constanze Weber. The couple had six children, but only two of them survived into adulthood. Mozart continued to compose music, and he wrote his famous opera The Marriage of Figaro (1786).
No one knows for sure why Mozart died at age 35. Many people speculate that he died of mercury poisoning while being treated for syphilis. Others think he died from eating badly cooked pork. Some insist that Mozart was murdered by his rival, Antonio Salieri. Mozart was buried in a mass grave because the country was battling an outbreak of bubonic plague, not because his family could not afford a proper burial.
Mozart said, "When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer — say traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep — it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best, and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not, nor can I force them."
That last quote is marvelous. Here is to great minds :)
p.s. The great writer Kurt Vonnegut was slammed by Fox's James Rosen in his obituary. I wonder how the mainstream will paint Updike? Interesting.
Is this fair and balanced??

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bus Driver Shocked at Non Believers

England (ChattahBox) – A bus driver has refused to drive his route, due to a collection of new advertisements by an Atheist organization, that has been putting it’s message across the sides of buses.
Ron Heather, a 62 year old Christian man, says he was horrified by the slogans, which he had been shocked to see plastered to the side of his bus.
“I was just about to board and there it was staring me in the face. My first reaction was horror. I’d heard about this silly campaign in London but I had no idea it was coming to Southampton.”
The messages started appearing after a collection of Christian slogans were plastered all over London, from subway stations, to bus benches, and were created by comedian Ariane Sherine, and activist Richard Dawkins. They read “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying, and enjoy your life.”

They got the Advertising Standards Association involved and they failed to take God's side:

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has said that an athiest bus poster campaign does not break the advertising code. The ASA comments follow complaints led by Christain Voice, an anti-gay evangelical movement that claim that the advert's claim that God "probably" doesn't exist was misleading.
There will not be an investigation and the case is now closed.
In a statement the ASA said it had "carefully assessed" the 326 complaints it received.
The ads have appeared on 800 buses across Britain.
"There is probably no God," they read.
"Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
The £140,000 campaign also uses ad space on the London Underground and two large LCD screens on Oxford Street. It has been funded by leading humanists such as scientist Richard Dawkins and is the UK’s first ever atheist advertising campaign.
The ASA code of conduct requires advertising to be factually correct and some Christians claimed the statement should capable of substantiation to comply with the rules.
"Some complained that the ad was offensive and denigratory to people of faith," the ASA said today.
"Others challenged whether the ad was misleading because the advertiser would not be able to substantiate its claim that God 'probably' does not exist.
"The ASA Council concluded that the ad was an expression of the advertiser’s opinion and that the claims in it were not capable of objective substantiation.
"Although the ASA acknowledges that the content of the ad would be at odds with the beliefs of many, it concluded that it was unlikely to mislead or to cause serious or widespread offence."
A Christian fundamentalist preacher known for his homophobia had led complaints against the ad campaign.
Stephen Green, leader of Christian Voice, has protested at Pride events.
"The advertisers cannot hide behind the ASA's 'matters of opinion' exclusion, because no person or body is named as the author of the statement," he said last week.
"It is given as a statement of fact and that means it must be capable of substantiation if it is not to break the rules.
"There is plenty of evidence for God, from peoples' personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world.
"But there is scant evidence on the other side, so I think the advertisers are really going to struggle to show their claim is not an exaggeration or inaccurate, as the ASA code puts it."
Mr Green claimed that the Bible would be immune from any questions of substantiation.

What did a blogger says on the Daily Echo?
Pressure group Christian Voice has questioned the campaign but the Methodist Church said it was a ‘good thing’ to engage people in debating the deeper questions of life. good old methodist and they got it right its good to have an open debate, because there is no god or gods its all man made.

Well, people should not be afraid to engage in such questions. It may help bring people together when they realize we are all in this together, with or without divine pampering.

And here is Richard Dawkin's comments on all of this:

OXFORD, England -- All they are saying is give atheism a chance. Earlier this month, 800 buses rolled out of depots across Britain plastered with advertisements cheerfully informing people that "there's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
Sponsored by the British Humanist Association, the campaign is the brainchild of a comedian who had seen Christian messages on buses, looked up the Web sites of the organizations behind them and found warnings that, as a nonbeliever, she was destined to go to hell.
The campaign's highest-profile backer was Richard Dawkins, a biology professor at Oxford University and the author of "The God Delusion," a defense of scientifically based atheism that became a bestseller in Britain and the United States. Dawkins pledged to match donations to the campaign up to $8,250 -- a figure that was quickly reached.
Passionate but gentlemanly, with a professorial air, Dawkins spoke recently with the Los Angeles Times in his Victorian-era home in Oxford.
Question: Were you surprised that so many individual donors responded to the campaign to mount bus advertisements? Answer: I'm surprised and delighted but also somewhat embarrassed.
The original target was 5,500 pounds (about $8,250), which I offered to match and we thought that we'd be lucky to get. . . . It would have been enough for buses for a brief period in London. What happened was huge numbers of people gave small sums -- 10 pounds, 15 pounds. ... The final figure is something like 130,000.
That's why I said I was embarrassed, because that is too much money to spend on a bus campaign. ... I was actually in favor of diverting the money to something else, which I thought the donors would approve. But other members of the group felt that (as) the money had been given for the bus campaign they were legally obliged to spend it on that campaign.
The campaign's Web site quotes you in "The God Delusion" as saying that even the declaration "There is no God" is a statement of faith, and that "reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist." Doesn't that make you more of an agnostic than an out-and-out atheist?
I don't think that total atheism is a totally rational position. Anyone that definitely says there is no God -- you can't rationally say that any more than you can say there are definitely no unicorns, there are no dragons, there are no fairies. ... To the extent that I'm an "a-fairyist" or an "a-unicornist," I am an atheist.
The bus advertisements tell people to "relax" because there is no God. But now is a time of economic stress for a lot of people who might derive some comfort from their religious beliefs. Isn't this an insensitive moment to deprive people of that comfort?
Yeah, it probably is. When this slogan was dreamed up, not by me ... that was before this economic crisis. I wasn't happy even then with the slogan because it seemed to me to have a whiff of hedonism about it. I think I'd have preferred something like, not "Enjoy your life," but "Spend your life doing good," or something more high-minded.
Do you see any redeeming values in religion or a belief in God?
You can find individuals who are religious who are also good people, and even people who do good things motivated by religion. I suspect you'll find a lot of missionaries all over Africa and New Guinea and places who are doing good in one form or another. But I don't think there's any general reason, any logical pathway, that goes from being religious to being good. ...
Q: For those people who are willing to give up religion and belief in God, what would you recommend as a substitute worldview? A: As a worldview, scientific rationalism. Q: As also a way of answering moral questions? A: Religion should not be a way of answering moral questions either, and to the extent that it is, it should not be relied upon.
Nobody should get their morals from the Bible or the Koran. It's true you can find good bits in the Bible. But how do you decide what are the good bits? The answer is on non-biblical grounds. So we have some non-biblical way of deciding that. ...
The scientific way of thinking and reasoning can also be deployed in moral reasoning. ... Science can't tell you what's right or wrong, but it can help you think more clearly in your reasoning about what's right or wrong.
Q: There are some scientists who don't feel that science and religion are mutually exclusive. Do you see any way to reconcile the two? A: The very fact that there are individual scientists who are religious means that somebody can reconcile them. I think it's hard to reconcile.
When you meet a scientist who claims to be religious, you want to ask them exactly what it is they believe. Many of them turn out to be religious in the Einsteinian sense: They have a sort of reverence for mystery, for the wonder of the universe, the deep mystery of the base cosmos, those kinds of things. It doesn't mean they believe in any kind of conscious, supernatural intelligence. It most certainly doesn't mean that they believe in any sort of creature who can hear your prayer and read your thoughts and forgive your sins. ...
A few of them actually believe in the resurrection and the virgin birth. They're a complete mystery to me. I think they must divide their minds.
Q: How do feel your books have been received in America? A: Very good. Sales have been terrific. It makes me wonder whether America's religiosity has been exaggerated.
I go there quite a lot, and my impression increasingly is that there are two Americas, and it's almost pulling apart, like two species. And it's not just a regional thing; it's not just red states and blue states. ...
You go to a town, whether it's an intellectual center like New York or San Francisco, whether it's somewhere like Kansas or Oklahoma, and even in the places where you don't expect it, there are plenty of people there who are intellectuals who feel, perhaps, beleaguered. And when somebody like me comes into town to give a talk, they flock in, and I get huge audiences, very enthusiastic.
And they tend to say to me in the book signing afterwards, nearly over and over again, I get thanked. "Thank you for coming to Little Rock," or whatever it is. "I finally realized there are other people like me in this town." They go to the auditorium and they find themselves surrounded by like-minded people.

So it's time to make up your own mind on this. More importantly, don't forget to be compassionate and honest when you relay your feelings to others about this. My toughest challenge will be with my wife because she is a believer who feels sorry for me because I have too many questions. My son is caught in the middle. I still go to church, but for the fellowship and the positive encouraging atmosphere.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I'm listening to Woodward and Bernstein on MSNBC and they are talking about the hope of a psychic shift in the country and that Barack Obama's enthusiasm may bring about this sense of renewal.

A poem I wrote this morning while thinking about the inauguration:


we are looking for hope
hope that makes us smile
hope that makes us dream
hope that comforts us

we are looking for love
love that fills the void
love that fills the heart
love that gives us peace

we are grasping for peace
a peace of mind that lasts
a kind of spiritual map
a kind of kindness that lasts

i am looking for promise
i am looking for optimism
i am looking for positive change
i am looking for a better world

god speed barack obama

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ayn Rand Etc.

Watch this interesting Phil Donahue episode from the 1970's.

This is very good. Guest Ayn Rand(best known for The Fountainhead and other great books) explains why belief in the promise of heaven may decrease the probability in a belief in doing all we can now to make THIS life better and more meaningful. If we can rationalize that it doesn't matter on this Earth what we do, then we can get into a dangerous area. What also bothers Rand is religion's preoccupation with some sort of end of the world scenario. Of course, Christ comes to save us all in the event of a nuclear holocaust. I wouldn't bet on it. I think we are responsible for our own actions here on Earth.

Here is what one Amazon reviewer said of Rand's "For the New Intellectual,"

For The New Intellectual, by Ayn Rand, is one of the better philosophy books I have read. It is comprised of the title essay, and 3 chapters dealing with Rand's three best novels: We The Living, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged. In the title essay, Rand makes an excellent case for the need of a new breed of intellectuals. Her objectivist philosophy ties in well with the writing, lending the power of reason and logic to her sometimes extreme statements. Of the final three chapters, I found the treatment of Atlas Shrugged to be the most impressive. Rand gives commentary on many of the great speeches and conversations from the book, ending with the amazing "This is John Galt Speaking" speech. While her comments are short, they lend insight into what she intended the different pieces to portray to the reader, and what they mean to her. On the whole, I think 'For The New Intellectual' is a pretty good book. Only the first 50-60 pages are her philosophical writings, but the rest of the book is a valuable tool for anyone who is a fan of her novels. I would recommend 'For The New Intellectual' to anyone interested in learning more about the objectivist philosophy and anyone who has read her novels.

or this review:

This is definitely the best book I read in a long time. Ayn Rand's Objectivism philosophy is fascinating to anyone that loves freedom, capitalism, and reason. This is not a book that any closed-minded socialist-like thinker should read (i.e. people that believe in increased federal government control over our lives). This book rightfully criticizes the intellectuals of the 20th century that promoted socialist programs and even socialism itself. Ayn Rand was a real thinker that reminded me of how great this country was and still could be if we return to what we were when this country was created by our democratic, capitalist, and intellectual founding fathers. I am looking forward to the Atlas Shrugged movie that is in the making.

Definitely a woman with her own mind. Kind of interesting that she had sort of an anti-liberal bias. I'll have to read up more on this philosophy of objectivism. Seems to fit in nicely with the Dawkins, Dennett and Harris crowd.
Looking forward to the Obama inauguration. A lot of people have faith in this man and the whole world is watching. Expect a tremendous speech on Tuesday. :)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Farwell to Bush

Did you catch George W. Bush on Larry King last night? He and Laura talked in the comfortable confines of the library in the Whitehouse. How comfortable is George around books? Really.

It was a nice folksy interview, but Bush didn't want to touch on the hard questions like capturing Bin Laden or the true character of Dick Cheney. This song is from one of my favorite musician/poets John Gorka

Brown Shirts

Brown shirts here in the White House
Brown shirts up on top of the Hill
Brown shirts can you hear them marching I swear they are marching still
Brown shirts for the good of the country
Brown shirts pride all over the land
Brown shirts give us law and orders
You'll know when you raise your hands
Brown shirts is this how it all started?
Brown shirts oh no worse than their kids
Brown shirts sure they're tough on the bad guy
Though they made him what he is

Bridge: Brown shirts Brown shirts They're a little more subtle now
Brown shirts than the "house painter" man
Brown shirts speak of God as their witness
But they would kill Jesus again
Brown shirts here in the White house
Brown shirts in their black limousines
Brown shirts over here in the New World
With fresh red unspeakable schemes

This song summarizes my feelings about both Bushes.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Let's Not Elect Any More George Bush Types as President

This article was written before Obama won the election, but speaks loudly about how incompetent George W. Bush really is. I got motivated to write this post after my Mom sent me an article in about this same theme. I find most interesting how they talk about Bush being sort of a privleged bully spoiled by wealth. They also delve into the Myers Briggs take on his personality. Very interesting. What are your thoughts bloggers???

We've seen America at its best and our government at its worst. Millions of Americans are beginning to realize where they fit in our democracy under Republican governance: nowhere.
—John Kerry (speaking of the Katrina disaster)

America has not always been fortunate in its statesmen. Arguably, in fact, the majority have been mediocrities, elected only because electoral politics are not about identifying and selecting the most capable leaders, but rather about identifying and selecting the most politically acceptable representative. There have, however, been a few great presidents, as well as a good many lousy ones. A strong case could be made that Bush is the standout incompetent among the failures; but that's not the case made here. Rather, our interest here lies in trying to understand what has made for such gross incompetence in the Bush administration. If we can keep these issues more in the forefront of our minds in the next election, we might be able to avoid the next Bush before he (or she) gets to the primaries. And that would be a very good thing.

"I trust that God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.”— George W. Bush

Why is George Bush president of the United States, despite his manifest unsuitability for the job? One explanation would be this: he was socially promoted. Social promotion occurs in the schools, of course, when parents or teachers are concerned that the negative social impact of being held back a grade in school because of poor academic performance would outweigh the benefits of repeating a grade. Among the wealthy, and especially among the politically-connected wealthy, social promotion of various kinds occurs because it's simply unthinkable that among the elite there could be any mediocrities, let alone failures. Politicians such as George Bush senior, now long past the days of his own lackluster presidency, are something like the fathers of high school football athletes reliving a lost (or never existent) glory. Their sons have to be stars because nothing less will satisfy their own dreams of greatness by proxy.
In the midst of a family dynamic of inflated expectations insert one mediocre male. Rear him to tales of family greatness. Bring him up in an environment where want and need are utterly unknown. Give him every advantage, and isolate him from the remotest possibility of failure. Send him to elite schools where his sense of superiority is further reinforced, and then hand him every professional success on a silver platter. What sort of individual will you end up with? The material of great leadership, or something else altogether?
When dealing with anything as complex as a human being, good answers to questions such as these can be hard to find. Some individuals rise far above the expectations we may have for them, despite their circumstances. Others fall below even our lowest expectations. Much seems to depend upon native character and aptitude; but when there is little native character or aptitude, then the results sometimes really are rather predictable. And so they apparently were with George junior: a spoiled, arrogant, and irresponsible adolescent grew to become a spoiled, arrogant, and irresponsible adult. Actions and their consequences have no reality for him. How could they? The human toil and the exhaustion of natural resources that lie at the root of most contemporary wealth do not have a human face or any physical reality for him. Why would they? And so Americans woke up one morning in the wake of a massive hurricane to discover the unthinkable: George Bush, surrounded by the flattery of sycophants, as hopelessly lost in the face of disaster as an adult human being could possibly be, barring a childhood spent on a deserted island.
So a first generalization to be drawn might be this: when considering a child of privilege for a leadership role, one might do well to ask "Has native aptitude or life experience done anything to season this person, and raise them above a hopelessly superficial and shallow understanding of the realities of life?" If the answer is "no", then don't vote for that child of privilege. Children of privilege can amuse themselves with many more harmless pursuits than the misadministration of the presidency of the United States.
Now, it has long been recognized that those with a hunger for power are not necessarily those whom it would be most desirable to endow with it; and there is, to a lesser degree, a parallel recognition that those who most lust after wealth are those most likely to be crippled by its attainment (think, for example, of the myth of King Midas). In the former case, the power is typically sought as an adornment of the ego, and recognition of the responsibility that must accompany the exercise of power is disdained. In the latter case, those apt to attain wealth are likely to be narrow and selfish to begin with, and the attainment of wealth often acts to further reinforce these traits by isolating the individual from the economic and social realities that everyone else must deal with.
Rather ominously, a majority of US politicians are quite wealthy; and, obviously, the majority have a lust for power.
Interestingly, we can today go far beyond the truth of these insights, thanks to some progress in the psychology of personality, to attain yet deeper insight. It happens that we now know something about the sort of person who lusts after power.
A number of studies have grown out of a personality assessment tool known as the
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). More specifically, MBTI research has show that one personality type (known as ESTJ) is especially drawn to wealth and power . Unfortunately, ESTJs tend to make poor choices for a leadership role, and can't really be trusted to do the right thing with wealth, either. Bush, unfortunately, is an ESTJ, so far as that assessment can be made in light of known traits.
Let's see why that's an especially bad thing in a president.
To begin with ESTJs are extroverted. Unless carefully coached, extroverts tend to:
Act, then think
Talk more than listen
Prefer breadth to depth
That is, the extrovert is apt to make fast but poor decisions because there tends to be little intellectual depth behind his choices. Bush, of course, is an extrovert, and is famous for "trusting his gut", another way of saying that there's no thought or wisdom behind his decisions. (He is also well-known for being a "C-student" and for having no interest in reading).
Next, Bush is a "Sensor." Sensors are strictly interested in what can be seen, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted. They have little imagination, and therefore are incapable of good anticipation and long range planning. (Note the excuses made for not anticipating the events of 9/11, and similar excuses made in the wake of Katrina. "Who could have anticipated this?") Sensors are also "traditionalists", who tend to look backward, clinging to the past instead of seeing the possibilities of the future. Thus, their thinking tends to be rigid and inflexible, and they are prone to be petulant and stubborn. At best, they tend to be limited to consideration of what is happening in the narrow present; and, as part of their lack of imagination, they like the very concrete. (Bush has a passion for numbers.)
Bush is also a "thinker" type, not in the sense of being an intellectual, but rather in the sense that he tends to be devoid of both empathy and compassion. (He has been carefully coached to present a different public persona, but is known to be cold, critical, and a crisp disciplinarian in private.) Caring deeply about other people doesn't come naturally to him. Bullying, however, does come naturally to the ESTJ. Malaysian academics who conducted a study of lawyers and administrators found that the most common personality type was the ESTJ (29%). Interestingly, the Australian recruitment firm, TMP Worldwide, found that 18 per cent of employees said they had been bullied - and that the worst offender was the legal profession, where 33 per cent of employees said they were experiencing bullying tactics from their bosses. Also interesting is the fact that lawyers are twice as likely as the general population to be alcoholics. (See this
A young George Bush exhibits classic ESTJ behavior on the rugby field at Yale. (Photo first appeared at:

Finally, Bush is a "judger." He tends to see things in terms of black and white, is inflexible, and authoritarian. Because judgers love to make decisions, extroversion is a poor trait to bring into combination with this trait. This is the sort of person likely to want thought police, with or without the excuse of terrorism. There can never be enough "law and order" for such persons, provided that they're the ones making the laws.
(Interestingly, all of these traits may well be in play in the adoption of political conservatism as a political orientation and religious fundamentalism as a belief system, but that's an essay for another day.)
So a second generalization to be drawn is this: beware any ESTJ in a position of authority, particularly a position of authority that requires vision and long-range planning.
To summarize: what we have in George Bush is a child of privilege who, as an ESTJ, lusts after power, but who lacks all aptitude for its exercise in a role such as the presidency, where aptitude for vision and long-range planning are essential. This worst of all personality types for such a role was powerfully negatively reinforced by the sociopathic tendencies that frequently arise in the families of the wealthy (attitudes of superiority, intolerance of criticism, and social , economic, and intellectual isolation). The result: among the most incompetent presidents in US history, and a catastrophe for both the United States and the world.

And one great quote from William Rivers Pitt(a guy I have interviewed on a conservative radio station) from the article Mom sent me:

Your greatness will be defined by how we rise to overcome and undo what you have done. Your greatness will stand forever if we never, ever forget the hard, bitter lessons you taught us. We are responsible for this republic, for our Constitution, and for each other. We are our brother's keeper. You taught us that by becoming our Cain. You nearly slew us, but here we stand, and we defy the place in history you would relegate us to. We defy you, and by doing so, we rise.

Amen Brother

Saturday, January 3, 2009

John Lithgow

One of my favorite actors is John Lithgow. His exceptional level of talent gives me great faith in the positive potential in human beings. Perhaps most commerically famous for his wackiness on "Third Rock from the Sun," the man has much more substance than what comes from the mainstream. His real genius comes from the live stage, broadway, his current play is "All My Sons," which transcends the tripe of the laugh track TV shows exponentially. Check out a great interview with Lithgow at Bill Moyer's site at:

Do you remember Lithgow from "World According to Garp" and the Twilight Zone airline passenger? He is one of the greatest actors in the world and can be mentioned along with greats such as Olivier, Stewart and Malkowvich. I was somewhat confused when John sold out to commerical TV and did the dumbed down Third Rock. He is much better than that----much much better.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Atheists Trashed by LA Times Opinion Piece

This is from the LA Times today. A surprisingly biased opinion piece.
America’s most irritating atheist is at again. That tiresome Michael Newdow and a bunch of other anti-God types have filed suit to bar prayer and references to God at President-elect Barack Obama’s swearing-in on Jan. 20. Newdow also filed lawsuits to remove prayer from President George W. Bush’s inauguration ceremonies in 2001 and 2005, and you may also remember him as the crank who tried to get the phrase “under God” eliminated from the pledge of allegiance.
At least when he went after the pledge of allegiance in 2005 he could halfway make an argument that there is an expectation, particularly for school children, that it be recited regardless of a child’s beliefs. But the oath of office? That’s one person’s vow to make. Millions of people are not being asked to say it too (and in fact should politely keep quiet while he does it).
Named in the suit filed by Newdow, 17 other individuals and 10 groups, according to the
Washington Post, are Chief Justice John Roberts, who will administer the oath; Saddleback church Pastor Rick Warren, who will give the invocation; and Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who will give the benediction. Wow, this inaugural is shaping up to be one big religious hurly-burly. Liberals who support gay marriage are upset because of Warren will have a prominent place at the ceremony. Conservatives are upset because Obama will have a prominent place at the ceremony. And now atheists are upset that God will have a prominent place there, too. Obama wasn’t kidding when he said he’d bring everyone together.
But back to Newdow et al. If you don’t believe God exists, then why doesn’t it follow that phrases like “so help me God” have no meaning? And if that’s the case, then why does something meaningless matter? I have news for Newdow -- even if he managed to bar all religious references from public life it wouldn’t matter. The Soviet Union tried that; all it did was send religious fervor underground until communism ended and it came roaring back.
Besides, what would Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts be expected to do if Obama were to defy a ruling in Newdow’s favor, snatch away the Lincoln Bible and swat him on the hand? Scott Walter, the executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, hit the nail on the head when he said in a statement:
Newdow's lawsuit over the inauguration is a lot like the streaker at the Super Bowl: a pale, self-absorbed distraction. And anybody who looks at it carefully can see there's not much there.