Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Fragile Heterosexuality

According to Meghan Rourke in Slate, many believe that "a husband who finds his libido gone in the wake of the delivery room merits the same scorn [as] a man who leaves a woman after finding out that she has a black grandparent."

Believe it or not, I'm close to living both sides of this equation. Close, but not quite.

I didn't really see my first child being born. My face was planted firmly in my wife's armpit as she was pushing out our first daughter. My only thought was that I needed to keep breathing until the next push. It was true that I got to see the afterbirth, the placenta, and the doctor stitching up my wife's highly exposed vagina. The only thing I really remember about these events was the nurse saying "that's a really juicy one" when she got a look at the placenta. But that didn't really bother me. My wife's a nurse and I had learned that nurses were "like that." Where I came close to the guys who lose in the article is that I developed this fantasy that having sex with my wife would be a form of incest now that the baby was born. I forgot the logic, but it was something weird like having sex with my wife was the equivalent of having sex with my daughter. But I didn't give the fantasy a lot of energy and it lost its grip on me in a couple of weeks. So I can't say that I'm as big a putz as the guys in the article.What about these guys then? I have a thought. People focus so much on the straight/ gay divide that they overlook the fragility of heterosexual attraction. A lot of heterosexual guys--maybe most guys--find that their relationships with other guys to be a lot more satisfying, intimate, trusting, and physically comfortable than their contact with women. Their sexual orientation is heterosexual because they like fucking women but they aren't particularly comfortable with women's bodies, don't like being around women that much or don't enjoy talking to them. Being sexually oriented toward women doesn't mean enjoying women and a lot of guys find women to be repulsive, dangerous, threatening, etc. Consequently, a lot of heterosexual guys make heterosexual sex safer by constructing all kinds of symbolic and ritual barriers to keep it from "infecting" the rest of their lives. They have all kinds of fetishistic requirements for their wives and tend to sexually "disown" their wives if they step outside those boundaries. Guys who are super focused on their wive's looks are a good example of this. Now, there are few experiences that are more "outside" the usual lines of a guy's life than childbirth. So, it's understandable that guys with a fragile heterosexuality would be turned off by childbirth. In fact, I wonder if childbirth is so traumatic for them that they are less attracted to women in general and would have to retreat to (even more) masturbation. In that case, Meghan Rourke is right and they should be given a pass on the birthing scene.

As for the race side of the equation, it turns out that I did figure out that the rumors of a black grandfather in my first wife's family were probably true. My first wife "S" had olive skin and this wild-for-a-white-woman hair that she was always trying to tame with various perms. Finally, she had her hair straightened about a year after our divorce. At the time, I thought that "S" had straightened her hair just like so many black women did. About a decade later, it hit me that the family rumors were probably true and that she was partly African-American. So what would have happened if I had figured this out while we were married? Probably nothing. One of things that was really compelling about "S" was her powerful sense of the ugliness and injustice of white racism. By the time we got married, I had bought into that view wholeheartedly and would have grown into seeing her as partly African-American.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Michael Yon's Iraq Counter-Offensive

Now playing on your newspapers, television screens, and monitors--the pro-war counter-offensive!!! War supporters of all stripes are striking back after a summer of bad news from Iraq was topped by Cindy Sheehan's vigil at George Bush's toy ranch. It looks like the counter-offensive is going to come from all sides. President Bush gave speeches, took sports journalists for a ride around Crawford, and even went toe to toe on his mountain bike with Lance Armstrong. Likewise, talk radio hosts did a lot of macho chest-thumping about the betrayals of Cindy Sheehan. Even mild-mannered David Brooks tried his hand at cheerleading the nascent Iraqi constitution. In a recent NYT, Brooks argues that breaking Iraq up into theocratic, regional mini-states would be a good thing. Too bad he doesn't mention that the Sunni mini-state would be a Taliban version of theocracy.

But Bush, Limbaugh, Hannity, and Brooks lack their former punch. There's a certain extent to which establishment conservatives have worn out their welcome. The audience no longer hears the conservative message that we invaded for the right reasons, that we're creating a new Iraq that will be a role model for democracy in the Middle East, and that we're preventing future terrorism. It's as if the fog of administration lies (where is Dick Cheney by the way?), poor planning, combat deaths, terrorist attacks, and disarray in the Iraqi government has enveloped American spokesmen for war, making them look confused and ineffective.

If conservatives are going to rally support for the Iraq war, they need a fresh personality to present their case. The current candidate is Michael Yon, a writer blogging from the front line in Mosul. Yon's case is simple but compellingly presented. It's American soldiers like Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla who justify the war in Iraq. In his Aug. 25 account of an operation in Mosul, Yon focuses on one patrol of Kurilla's unit and devotes his narrative to separating LTC Kurilla from the discredited bureaucratic apparatus. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the overall mission in Iraq are absent. The "Army" itself is mostly present through the clumsy way it informs families of a soldier's being wounded or killed. Yon romanticizes LTC Kurilla by making him different from everyone else invested in the war. When a man gets wounded, Kurilla calls the family personally to make sure they know that their soldier/ loved-one will be okay. Where the Army would just throw new officers into the fight, Kurilla takes them with him for three weeks before he gives them a command. When the shooting starts, Kurilla's trainees cower for protection, but Kurilla himself keeps fighting even after he's hit three times. He’s the farthest thing from a chicken-hawk. Kurilla is respected by both Americans and Iraqis. He has a legendary sixth sense for knowing who is a terrorist. He's a "warrior" and the presence of men like Kurilla guarantees that the U. S. will beat the terrorists in Iraq despite the foolishness of the Army, American policy-makers, and bumbling Iraqi politicians. With men like Kurilla, Yon believes that we can't lose.

The dispatch ends with Kurilla being flown out to Germany with a sergeant in the company who had also been wounded. Then, Yon delivers his punch line on Kurilla.

"Make no mistake about Kurilla--he's a warrior, always at the front of the charge. But it's that battle-hardened bravery that makes him the kind of leader that Americans admire and Iraqis respect. Like the soldiers of Deuce Four, Iraqis have seen too much war to believe in fairy tales. They know true warriors bleed."

The Bush administration might have believed its own fairy tales about being hailed as liberators and greeted with flowers, but the men and women on the ground have really proved themselves in battle. For Yon, the soldiers on the ground justify the war and Yon himself was inspired to pick up a weapon at a key moment in the fight.

The build-up for Michael Yon as a pro-war spokesman is that he "gets" the war better than the mainstream media. According to MSNBC:"There is actually good reporting coming from Iraq -- check out Michael Yon's blog, for example. And it's possible to get a clearer picture of the strategic picture than most big media accounts provide."

The claim that Yon provides any kind of strategic picture is entirely false. Thursday's dispatch focused entirely on one patrol. There was no indication of whether Operation Lancer Fury succeeded or not (beyond mentioning the capture of a few "suspected" terrorists), no mention of how Operation Lancer Fury fit into the American military's over-all approach to Mosul or the Sunni Triangle, and no evaluation of the strategic picture in general. For Yon, the strategy is LTC Kurilla. An essential American in the same way that Molly Pitcher, Andrew Jackson, Lawrence Chamberlain, and Teddy Roosevelt were essential Americans, Kurilla personae is the larger picture. It's Kurilla's character, bravery, skill, determination, experience, and consideration for others that differentiates the U. S. from the terrorists and guarantees victory no matter how badly the higher-ups screw-up. Yon believes that we can expect to win in Iraq as long as the focus is on Kurilla and men like him rather than the Bush administration and the Republicans. Realizing that all of the romance has gone out of the mission, Yon does his best to pump new romance into the soldiers carrying out the mission.

Ultimately, however, Yon can't escape from the same problem that's dogging other conservatives. The soldiers just aren't getting anywhere. Kurilla's patrol wounds and captures one terrorist, but a couple of Americans get wounded in the process. The other terrorists get away. It also turns out that the terrorists are courageous and well-trained. Rather than surrender, one captured man attempts to fight his way out of a building despite being seriously wounded. Other captured terrorists inform Kurilla that they've been on training patrols (much like their American counter-parts) and had been training for three months to carry out missions like sniping. The terrorists are so well entrenched in Mosul that they can afford to give newly arriving jihadis extensive training missions. Despite Yon's best efforts to promote optimism and support for the American mission in Iraq, his account is still discouraging. Despite the best efforts of outstanding men like LTC Kurilla, the American mission in Iraq is bogging down in a way that is allowing the global jihadis to establish a permanent presence. Right now, Iraq is worst than Vietnam. It's a quagmire in which the enemy is gaining strength and positioning itself for more attacks outside Iraq.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Half-Assed War Weakens U. S.

President Bush said tonight that withdrawing from Iraq would weaken America. Of course, he was taling more about his Iraq policies than the ideas of his domestic opponents. There's nothing more clear than that the Iraq war has weakened the United States. Deciding that they could wage a minimalist war, the Bush administration launched a major invasion without building up the American military first. Then, the Bush administration failed to increase American forces in Iraq after the first fiascos of the occupation--the failures to quell looting, contol borders, clean up ammo dumps, and fully occupy restive Sunni areas. Because of the half-assed character of the occupation, ever larger streams of militant fighters began to come to Iraq to fight the harried occupation forces. Still refusing to increase the American commitment to Iraq, the Bush administration now finds that controlling the continually growing insurgency requires the efforts of most of the active American military. As a result, the commitment to maintaining the mission among the American military has weakened (thus reports of plans to downsize) while the global terrorists and insurgents become more dangerous.Bush administration stupidity, dishonesty, and evasiveness have also weakened the United States by wearing down the patience of the American public. Fed-up with the scatter-shot lies of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, the broken promises of first military and then political magic, and the pointless sweeps of insurgents who return a week later, the American public now won't allow the U. S. to increase its forces enough to actually defeat the Sunni insurgents. As a result, public willingness to fight in Iraq is decreasing just as the threat from the global terrorists who've camped out in Western Iraq has begun to grow. The incompetence of the Bush administration has weakened the U. S. to the point where the prospects of dealing with the terrorist threat in Western Iraq have declined dramatically. We would have done better if we had never invaded Iraq or had withdrawn immediately after capturing Saddam. Hell, we would have done better if Cincy Sheehan were president and George Soros were secretary of defense.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Did "Men" Kill Jesus?

Yesterday, I overheard the sociologist in the next office say that it was "men" who killed Jesus? Now my sociologist friend is well . . . a sociologist. But that shouldn't lead us to dismiss her thoughts. Certainly, the idea that "men" killed Jesus is better than the original anti-Semitic idea that Jesus was killed by "the Jews." The Jewish high priests called for the arrest of Jesus and then they called for the death sentence once Jesus was arrested. However, the high priests should not be identified with the Jewish people as a whole. Ordinary Jews had been highly receptive to Jesus' ministry from the beginning. Large crowds followed Jesus around the Sea of Galilee and even larger crowds received Jesus when he entered Jerusalem. Christians all over the world still celebrate that reception as Palm Sunday. The Jewish religious leadership was involved in killing Jesus, not the Jewish people in general.At the same time, it cannot be denied that it was males who killed Jesus. The Roman authorities arrested Jesus in the expectation of securing the acquiescence of the Jewish religious authorities in Roman rule. Then Roman soldiers carried out the torture and execution of Jesus. It was a small thing for Rome to exchange the life of one obscure religious fanatic for a little more stability in a new province. For the soldiers, it was somewhat of a joke as they put the crown of thorns on the head of Jesus. Not being impressed by the idea of this man's divinity, the Roman soldiers felt little compunction in using him as a pawn in maintaining imperial rule. In another exchange, Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss in exchange for thirty pieces of silver to give to the poor. In this sense, the death of Jesus was brought about by a series of exchanges that created alliances between the Jewish authorities, the Romans, and Jesus' own followers. According to the New Testament, God himself was also involved in his role of Father in the betrayal and death of Jesus. The Jewish religious leaders, Romans, and companions may have been responsible for their actions, but God was orchestrating events to bring about the sacrifice of Jesus. Once again, there was a strong element of exchange. God demonstrated his love for humanity by allowing his own son Jesus to die with the purpose of relieving mankind of their sins. In return, God demanded that people believe that Jesus was god and that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. In the course of bartering his son in this way, God was implicated in betraying Jesus to his enemies. Thus, Jesus asked God why he had "forsaken" Jesus when he was on the cross. It is difficult to discuss the betrayals involved in the death of Jesus without mentioning Peter and the other male companions of Jesus. In the chaos surrounding the arrest of Jesus and the efforts to round up his followers, Peter specifically denied allegiance to Jesus. Likewise, nobody among the rest of Jesus' male followers testified to their allegiance in the days leading up to the execution. Indeed, Jesus' followers hid in a room while Jesus was being crucified. In many ways, the betrayals of his closest followers struck more profoundly at Jesus than the Romans or the Jewish religious hierarchy. They had left their families for Jesus, followed Jesus in his ministry, seen his miracles, and been in constant conversation with him. In the moment of crisis, however, the followers of Jesus chose life in the flesh over life in Jesus. They had never fully accepted the ministry of Jesus.To the contrary, Jesus' female followers stayed with him until the bitter end of crucifixion. Female followers like his mother Mary and Mary Magdalen never denied their allegiance to Jesus. The women among his followers did not hide from the authorities. They did not attempt to avoid the scene of execution and went to visit the grave of Jesus after he was buried. Having stayed close to Jesus, the female followers were the ones privileged to see the empty tomb. Then, the female followers were visited with the first revelations of Jesus' resurrection. Even at that point, the male companions refused to believe what the women told them about the resurrection and would not believe until Jesus revealed himself directly to them. The contrast between the faith of the women and the skepticism of the men was very telling. If refusal to believe is the human element in killing Jesus, then the males were still killing faith in Jesus up to the moment of direct revelation.The question of Jesus and men can be taken up from both sides. We can ask ourselves if there was anything about the person, bearing, message, or actions of Jesus that would offend men in general. Conversely, we can ask ourselves whether there was anything about males that would have been sensitive to Jesus. Was there anything in male psychological qualities, customs, interests, education, or sexuality that would lead men in general to be inherently hostile to the message of Jesus and therefore predisposed to kill Jesus or a figure like Jesus? Is there anything about men which would make them Christ-killers?Needless to say, the message of Jesus was not gender specific. Jesus did not make any statements that were critical of males. However, there was a radical devaluation of the world that can be seen as opposing the interests and values of males on several levels. This can be seen clearly at the beginning of his ministry when Jesus encounters James and John working as fishermen on their father's boat. Jesus called for the young men to follow him and they left their father and followed Jesus. From the point of view of Jesus, God was their "true" father and it was appropriate for James and John to follow God in the person of Jesus rather than their earthly father. By valuing God infinitely more than the earthly father, however, Jesus was interfering with the male privileges and interests of James and John's earthly father. Jesus was interfering with the authority that older men had over their sons. He was interfering with the responsibility that the earthly father had for providing for his family and he was interfering with the earthly father conduct of his fishing business. If the father of James and John had been skeptical of Jesus' claim to authority, he would have sought to revenge himself on Jesus.As his ministry progressed, Jesus began to interfere with other prerogatives of males in Jewish society. Jesus himself ignored the Sabbath injunctions and, perhaps more importantly, denied the right of men to enforce religious law. Calling out "let he who is without sin cast the first stone," Jesus rescued a prostitute from the men who were about to have her killed. Once again locating the primary locus of power in God, Jesus denied that men like the Pharisees and Sadducees had legitimate authority to judge others in relation to God's law. Implying that these men had defied god's law themselves, Jesus emphasized that they were in no position to judge others who had disobeyed God. In this sense, Jesus was undermining one of the important social powers of men in Jewish society.In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus further radicalized his devaluation of the earthly in ways that undermined the interests and authority of males. This is especially the case with the invocation to "resist not evil." If men were to "turn the other cheek," give others their cloak as well as their coat, and walk two miles with those who compel them to walk one, then they were not allowed to defend themselves and their families against the aggressions of others. They could not defend their own or their family's honor legitimately and they could not exert themselves to maintain their family's interest in lands, trade, and money. Jesus set himself even more against male prerogative when he argued that people should "take no care" for their food and clothing. The immediate target of this stricture was labor. Jesus stressed that the birds counted on God to provide for them and that people should do the same: "Behold the fowls of the air for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns." The same was true of "the lilies of the field." "They toil not; neither do they spin." Jesus was talking here of both male and female labor, spinning as well as sowing, reaping, and gathering into barns. However, the secondary implications of this doctrine work strongly against males. Because Jesus believed that people should count on God to provide for them, all the machinations concerning property were tainted with impiety. When men inherited, bought, sold, maintained, and husbanded property, they were relying on themselves rather than God to rule the earth. Buying and selling, which were largely the prerogatives of men, carried the stain of impiety just as much as labor. This was the underlying doctrine behind Jesus' condemnation of wealth in the parable of the wealthy young man and his attack on the money changers in the temple. When they bought and sold property, men were following the ways of the earthly fathers rather than the heavenly fathers. In many ways, the ministry of Jesus can be considered as a determined assault on male identity, privileges, and prerogative and Jesus made enemies of those men whose privileges he attacked or mocked. First, there were the fathers of his disciples, then the Pharisees whose efforts to enforce religious laws he defied. As his ministry developed, he made enemies of the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman imperial authorities allied to them. Even his closest male followers were willing to betray him. Perhaps the men who killed him did so in the name of all men.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Worse than Meaningless

In a way, meaninglessness is the ultimate in the way of death. For the things human do to have meaning, they must have an impact beyond the person who does them. We in the United States worry about whether the service of our soldiers is meaningful, especially those who have died in Iraq. Did the combustible experiences of American soldiers, the hard living and hard dying in Iraq, serve a purpose for the U.S., Iraq, or humankind in general? Is it going to make things better in some way? If not, then the soldiers would have died a kind of double death. Not only will they die, but the last full measure of their devotion will not have meant anything for posterity. In the United States, both sides of the war debate refer somewhat indirectly to this issue. Those who support the war speak of meaninglessness as an implication of a policy they oppose--withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. They argue that the sacrifices of our fallen soldiers, more than 1,800 of them, would be "meaningless" if the U.S. withdraws from Iraq without accomplishing the original mission. The focus is more on protecting the current policy than redeeming the lives of the soldiers. For their part, those who oppose the war worry that the lives of American soldiers are being wasted, but we focus their energy most on the people doing the wasting--on Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. Here, it is no accident that Cindy Sheehan's vigil is at George W. Bush's ranch rather than at the graves and military hospitals spread throughout the country.I'm one of those who opposes the war, but I don't want to focus so much on the failures of the Bush administration here. For this post, it is the implications of those failures for the American dead that spur me to write. What's now happening is that Western Iraq, parts of Baghdad, and areas to the north of Baghdad are becoming strongholds of international jihadis. Neither the Bush administration nor the American military makes much pretense anymore that the U. S. is seeking to eliminate either the international terrorists or the indigenous insurgents aligned with them. We don't expect the nascent Iraqi government to defeat the terrorists either. Much like we hoped that the South Vietnamese government would be able to defend itself before we withdrew in Vietnam, we're now waiting for the Iraqi government to be able to defend itself against the insurgency. The Big Picture is that significant parts of Iraq are becoming key components of the apparatus of global terror. Just like bin Laden and his friends got their initial experience in fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, thousands of jihadis are gaining terrorist experience and skills fighting against our military in Iraq. It seems almost inevitable that future 9-11 attacks on the U. S. and Europe will emerge from the wave of jihadis getting hands-on experience in Iraq now. As the situation stands, the American invasion of Iraq has been a tremendous spur to global terrorism. We've spent hundreds of billions of dollars and sacrificed tens of thousands of our troops, our Iraqi allies, and Iraqi civilians and we've made the terrorist situation worse, probably much worse. As a result, it is necessary to acknowledge that right now, the deaths of our 1,800 soldiers in Iraq have been worse than meaningless. Their deaths have been worse than meaningless because their efforts were part of an invasion that made things worse. Not only has the sacrifice of their lives been part of a process that has created the spectre of long-term civil war for Iraq, it has heightened the danger of terrorism for their homeland in the United States. This is intolerable. It's monstrous, maybe more monstrous than the war itself. It is an insult to our dead (and to the families who grieve their loss) that their deaths should be part of such a horrible failure. None of the soldiers who died wanted to give their lives to raise the chances for more terrorist attacks in the future. It's unspeakably unjust that their deaths should be connected to such a future. More terrorist murders should not be the meaning of their devotion and patriotism.There's a way that all of us are responsible for the deteriorating conditions in Iraq, in particular the lying Bush administration, the delusional neo-cons who came up with the invasion scheme, and the right-wing zealots who form the core of Bush's support. But we shouldn't forget the feckless Democratic leadership, the cringing mainstream media, and see-no-evil moderates. By failing to oppose or failing to oppose with any conviction, they all bear a heavy responsibility as well. I even think that I and my fellow war opponents bear some blame for not being better at opposition, for not figuring a way around the onslaught of invasion propoganda. All this point, however, I believe that the dead call to all of us to rethink the Iraq situation again. And again and again if necessary. We owe to those who have fallen to do a better job of ensuring that the Iraq invasion is not a blight on this country's future for decades to come. The Bush administration and their supporters need to take responsibility for their failures, even in their own hearts if they don't have the courage to do so in public. They need to decide whether their commitment to the conservative cause is more important than their commitment to the national well-being, whether working to head off the next wave of terrorist attacks on the U. S. is more important than preventing Democratic gains in the 2006 elections, and whether they really want to honor the sacrifices of the dead or just use them. Conservatives have control of the U. S. government. They need to start acting responsibly and rethink our government's strategy in Iraq. They must not let the sacrifices of our troops be for less than nothing.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Bush Kills Patriotism

Last spring, I had the disturbing privilege of reviewing history essays by students from Eastern Kentucky. Like a lot of rural areas, Eastern Kentucky provides a disproportionate number of soldiers for the American military. I remember one young woman saying that men from her family had served in the military for every generation going back to the American Revolution. What was distinctive about the essays though was the extent to which these rural Kentucky students had abandoned that patriotism. Some students compared the global terrorists to revolutionaries like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Others argued that the Patriot Act was just as bad as terrorism. I've always opposed this war, but I was frankly stunned by the student papers. President Bush has been conducting the war on terror in a way that's been calculated to divide this country and cut the United States off from the rest of the world. Just as the Bush administration has destroyed out credibility in the world, he's also killing patriotism in this country. It's a sad thing.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Past the Point of Pointlessness

President Bush said yesterday that pulling American troops out of Iraq would send "a terrible signal to the enemy." If that's the case, I'm surprised that Pres. Bush hasn't given the order to withdraw every last soldier. That's all the occupation has been about, "terrible signals to the enemy." The first signal that the occupation was going to be poorly managed was the failure to quell the looting that broke out after American tanks rolled into Baghdad. More signs of incompetence followed. There was the failure to restore electricity before summer, the failure to secure borders with Syria and Saudi Arabia, the failure to identify and secure the thousands of ammo dumps, and the failure to spend money for economic reconstruction. There was also a failure to change strategies. Even though the remnants of the Saddam regime proved formidable as an underground force, the Bush admininstration did not adjust its resources and strategies to the new reality. It was the same old, same old. Certainly, that was a signal to the enemy.Bush let the Saddam left-overs and global jihadis know from the outset that the occupation of Iraq would be half-baked, half-hearted, and poorly managed. That's the signal that Muslim fighters have been responding to as they come into Iraq. The stench of incompetence is the strongest possible sign that you can be beaten.

As conditions stand now, the U. S. position in Iraq is weakening. Some parts of Western Iraq have been turned into a vast training camp where global terrorists receive hands-on experience against the American military. The U.S. maintains enough of its code-named offensive operations (Thunder, New Market, Quick Strike, whatever) to keep the insurgents occupied, but not enough to gain the upper hand against them. As a result, the U. S. is in a position where there's no good options. The current commitment can't be maintained because the occupation has passed the point of pointlessness for the American public. What are we doing there? What are we accomplishing? How can we win? When are we going to get out? These are questions for which the Bush administration has no credible answers. Having so many signals of their incompletence to everyone involved, the Bush administration can't be trusted to get things right in Iraq. That's why their poll numbers have been falling.At the same time, we really can't prudently decrease our military commitment. That would leave Iraq as a whole in a state of civil war. Even worse, it would allow jihadies to use Western Iraq as the staging ground for the next series of 9-11 strikes. Two years of war, a couple thousand American deaths, and tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths and all we would have to show for it would be another Afghanistan. But we can't increase our forces either. Having blown their credibility sky-high with their delusions of empire, cronyism, and manipulation, the Bush administration can't plausibly ask the American public for a higher level of engagement. Given the unfortunate fact that the top American leadership has set four-year terms, the most likely prospect is three more years of festering conflict that saps American resources without accomplishing anything. I imagine that the jihadis have gotten that signal as well.

God is Dead But the Name Lives On

I'm an atheist. I haven't had a belief in any kind of deity for thirty years now. To me, there's no Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, no spirit of the river, Sun, or moon, no first cause, no Zeus, no Odin, No Idea or Form, no self-actualizing Hegelian Spirit, no Being with a big German "B", no Don Juan, no transcendental--No nothing. I'm not sure about the evolutionary concept of development, but I'm dead certain that Genesis and all its derivatives down to creation science are totally mistaken if not completely ludicrous.

I'm not sure that many other people believe there is a God either. Having lived in Bible-belt Kentucky for fifteen years, I've come close to thinking that people here don't believe in the Christian God. Little things make me think this. My Catholic relatives view the truth of the Da Vinci Code as too obvious for comment. Christian students can't grasp the Middle Ages because they are so repulsed by the idea of an always-present God miraculously intervening in the everyday. A Methodist minister sees the same problem with his parishioners and uses a Sunday sermon to argue for the existence of the miraculous. To no avail. A student decides not to write on the Sermon on the Mount because he doesn't want his disbelief to ruin church for him. All of these are stories of sincere Christians who don't particularly believe in the Christian god. But that doesn't mean that they don't care about religion. Many things connected with religion are crucially important to them--church, the Pope, preachers, songs, the Bible, sharing religion with immediate family, the fellowship with other church members, the good deeds associated with the church, and memories of growing up in the church. All of these things are powerfully sustaining. Even though I'm a long-time atheist who is repulsed by Jesus' doctrine, I still sing "Jesus loves me, Yes I know/ For the Bible tells me so" to myself every once in a while. Likewise, I often hear people talk about how they can't imagine living "without faith," how "comforting" religious observances are, and how important various dimensions of religion are in their lives. For my Catholic in-laws, Catholicism is extremely important for their understanding of their family histories, their Irish ethnicity, and their sense of who they are in the world. But I don't pick up on much God talk or much God sentiment in all the talk I hear about the importance of religion and religious faith.

What does this have to do with evolution? First evolutionary biology completely refutes the Genesis account of the creation of the world. Life wasn't created all at once in six days between six and ten thousand years ago. Life on earth evolved over billions of years while the Earth itself was created as part of a galactic process rather than the direct will of a deity. Anyone who believes that dinosaur dating is accurate--and who doesn't--has already rejected the whole story of Genesis. In refuting Genesis, however, evolutionary biology condemns the whole cultural architecture of Christianity. This is why most Americans say they reject evolutionary biology in surveys. It's not they believe in the Christian god, but that the Christian god is a powerful reference point for everything they value about church and religious experience. So, most Americans choose god over scientific truth even though they don't believe in God because they associate so many important and valuable things with the name of God. God was once alive in the United States. The Puritans saw and felt God and his sidekick Satan everywhere. For better or worse (I think better), God is dead for us but we do not abandon God because so many of the things we value are associated with God. So, we keep the name of God around as a reference point for everything we value about Christianity. Perhaps we Americans have killed God, but we maintain the reference to God, the corpse or mummy of God on the tips of our tongues and reject anything--evolutionary theory, the banning of religion from government property, etc.--that keeps us from referring to the God we don't believe in. People in the U. S. prefer Christianity over evolution, but not because they believe in God. What a country!

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Life and Death of an Important Person

About three weeks ago, on July 19, 2005, my grandmother, Rheta Sollick Johnson West, died in a nursing home in Waverly, New York. She had been sick with congestive heart failure and had been taking morphine to ease the pain and oxygen to help her breathe. My mother worried that she was going to slowly suffocate from the blood that wasn’t being pumped from her lungs, and certainly her suffering was nothing to sneeze at. Nevertheless, instead of gradually suffocating, Grama suffered a sudden collapse of all her systems. So she died quickly. The nursing home called my mother somewhere around 11:00, but my grandmother didn’t last more than five minutes after my mother arrived even though my mother only lived 300 yards away. My grandmother, always Grama to me, was an extraordinary woman in the “ordinary” situations of struggling single mother, wife, grandmother, and caretaker to her friends and neighbors. Her tenacity, determination, and energy allowed her to get through the hardest of times and grow in the grace of good spirits, warmth, generosity, and caring for others. This is what my equally extraordinary mother inherited from her. After my grandmother could no longer care for herself, my mother took her in and cared for her and tended to her for almost fifteen years. That kind of patience and tenacity is not as rare as we’re led to believe, but it is still invaluable.

Raised on a dairy farm outside the crossroads settlement of Camptown, PA, in the northern Poconos, my grandmother married Merkur Johnson in her late teens, lived with him on another dairy farm, and had four children of whom my mother Marlene was third. Born in 1913 and married around 1932 or 1933, my grandmother had a Depression family. But by 1938, Merkur had had enough and abandoned them just as my father’s mother would abandon my father’s family in 1942. In fact, Merkur stayed in jail rather than support his children. Merkur Johnson is almost a blank to me. He eventually moved to Syracuse and ran a tavern while keeping up with my family through the newspapers and his contacts in Waverly. He actually showed up uninvited to my sister Jyl’s wedding in 1978, but Grama’s second husband was the only person who recognized him. Myself, I only saw Merkur once, in the nursing home while I was visiting Grama. As fate would have it, they ended up in the same nursing home at the same time, completely unaware of the presence of the other. But Merkur was asleep when I stopped by his room. So I never spoke to him in person. He had a reputation as a distant man—even his family said that they didn’t know him well-- and he ended up purposefully starving himself to death at the age of 89 rather then continuing to live in the nursing home.

Soon after Merkur’s departure, my grandmother followed the well-worn path of leaving the farm for towns and factories. She moved about 25 miles to the towns of Sayre and Athens, PA in the “Valley” formed by the coming together of the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers, and started to work in the Blue Swan textile mill. With help from her family, a friendly butcher who donated meat, and others, Grama raised her family through first the Depression and then WWII. This took a powerful vitality and forcefulness and her determination showed in all of her pictures as a young mother. In the picture I remember best, Grama’s brown hair was pulled up and she was looking into the distance with what could best be described as a “steely gaze.” She was a good-looking woman who nobody would want to cross. Even my mother, who endured a number of beatings from my father to get her point across, never crossed my grandmother and would get up at 4am to travel just because my grandmother said so.

My grandmother’s story started to get happier during the war. She took up with a divorced soldier and bricklayer named Wayne West and married him after the war was over. Wayne (hereafter “Pop”) was a hard-drinking, hard-working man who fought with Patton in the Battle of the Bulge and who had a permanent aura of sweetness, affability, and happiness about him. He was a born grandfather. While going through some of my grand-mother’s pictures, Pop casually mentioned that he had saved her life and I imagine that he was right. They had a good life together. Sometime after my grandmother’s youngest son, my Uncle Raymond, graduated from high school and started working at Ingersoll-Rand, her and Pop moved from the “Valley” to Northern New York and settled in a trailer on Rt. 11 between Canton and Potsdam. The four colleges in the area were undergoing a dramatic expansion and Pop had plenty of work from the spring to the fall and good unemployment checks to keep them going through long North Country winters. They kept in close touch with my grandmother’s family as her children married and had their own kids. When I was young, the three oldest of the grandchildren (myself, my younger brother Vic, and cousin Alan) stayed with Grama and Pop for two or three weeks at a time. Jyl and Ryl and the twins Kim and Kay stayed for shorter periods as did Uncle Donald’s and Uncle Raymond’s kids. Pop was a skilled bricklayer who could handle most masonry jobs and he and Grama rarely argued about anything except his drinking and even that source of friction diminished over time as Pop stopped going to bars and stopped getting drunk. Pop’s primary demand on Grama was heavy meals of meat, potatoes, and gravy every night and he had a belly to show that those demands were met. Grama and Pop were pleasantly fat, sociable, and lived easily with each other and the world even though they saw its troubles plainly. Now that globalization has given employers such an upper hand, this kind of good life is available to a more and more narrow group. It would be progress if more people could live this way again.

Grama and Pop lived a sit-com life without the pratfalls. Being happy, getting along easily, having good-natured-friends—this was something I craved as a child and have always tried to build into my life. Grama and Pop were the only examples of this kind of living that I knew outside the family sit- coms that I so eagerly watched. The Dick Van Dyke Show, Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, and I Love Lucy all modeled a life that I wanted to have but could not see in the chaos and tension of my abusive, unloving, insanely jealous father, my harried mother, and my seven brothers and sisters. Grama and Pop were the only people I knew who actually lived this way and I’ve always tried to recreate the easy familiarity of their lives in my own little world. There are even times when I think it works.

Leaving farming and leaving the valley came at a price for Grama though. Even when she was well into her 70’s, Grama would drive through the countryside with me, look at the cows in the rocky North Country fields, and talk about how she had always wanted to own a dairy farm and always wanted to milk cows every morning. Her and Pop built a happy life but it didn’t mean quite as much to her as the warmth of the cows she knew as a young woman.

I didn’t know that until I was well into my thirties. I also never saw the care that Grama gave to the older people in her neighborhood as they got older. First, Ethel and her husband died, then the Whites who owned the store at the corner, then the woman who lived in the trailer, and finally some other women that I didn’t know. None of this happened during our summer visits, but we knew that Grama nursed all of these old folks all the way from the time that they stopped being able to care for themselves until their deaths. I not only did not see, but did not understand. My mother was 19 when I was born and only one of her friends has died even though I’m 51 now. It’s only been since my mother started taking care of Grama that I’m getting an idea of the strength and the commitment that it took my grandmother to nurse many of her older friends as their health failed. But I realize now that developing the strength to nurse her older friends was the primary way in which my grandmother grew as a middle-aged woman. It was a noble thing. When Grama’s own mind began to slip into depression and Alzheimer’s in 1990, one of the saddest things about her decline was that there was nobody like her in the neighborhood to help her out the way that she had helped many others. It turned out that my mother was the only one who had the emotional strength, patience, and loving generosity that my grandmother had so matter-of-factly found in herself. And it was my mother who took my grandmother in and my mother who looked after her everyday in the nursing home until she died. I don’t know how my mother feels, but this is where my mother shows herself as a true daughter. On the day my grandmother died, I told my mom that any mother would be proud of the way my mom had cared for my grandmother. I guess I should have emphasized that her mother would have been proud too.

Grama was six years older than Pop, but he aged more quickly than her. He died suddenly from a massive heart attack at age 66 and before Grama had any gray hair on her head. Pop’s diet certainly contributed to his early death, but bricklaying is hard manual labor because of the heaviness of the bricks and the awkwardness of the positions in which bricklayers handle them. Pop talked about how many of his bricklaying friends died within a year of their retirement. And that’s what happened to him as well.

Vic, Alan, and I stopped going to visit Grama and Pop for such long stretches when we were twelve or thirteen. The trailer got a lot smaller as we hit puberty and fishing with Grama and Pop lost its allure as girlfriends, peer groups, and high school sports began to call. We saw them more often when they visited us over Christmas and during the summer holidays than up at their trailer. Vic and I still had an affection and trust in them that we hardly had for anyone else in the world, but Grama and Pop’s wasn’t a place in the same way it had been. However, this condition was only temporary for me. Anxious to get away from my father and his anger and turmoil, I started going back after my sophomore and junior years in high school. Gradually, Grama and Pop’s became a refuge for me away from my family and I visited them almost every time I came home from North Carolina or Michigan or Philadelphia. They even visited me once in Ann Arbor after Susan Thorne and I got married, something my parents never did. By the time Pop died, they were my closest relatives.

I didn’t visit my home town much in the decade that my grandmother was in the nursing home. I’ve always been reluctant to expose my daughters to either the tension of either my mother’s house or to my father (who still lives in Waverly). Driving eleven hours with two kids to be tense has never seemed very appealing or fruitful for me. Seeing my grandmother out of her mind with Alzheimer’s was also painful to the nth degree. But I know why she had such a long goodbye from the time she first showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s in 1990 to her death today. The same strikingly good health and vitality that kept her going during the Depression also kept her going after she could no longer care for herself, long after she started wondering why she just couldn’t die. I told my daughter Katie in the wake of my grandmother’s death that all of us human beings have weaknesses and that our weaknesses can cause enormous damage. I should have added that our strengths can also curse us. That’s what I feel happened with my grandmother. The physical strength that had blessed her life for 75 years became a curse after she started to develop Alzheimers. Good health just wouldn’t let her out of its grip.

The funeral services were simple and affecting. The Methodist minister came to my mother’s house to collect materials for her funeral sermon and we spent almost an hour telling stories about her. Then, at the funeral, I got to see my cousins from the Camptown area before we took Grama’s body to the French Azilum cemetery to be buried. The settlement of French Azilum was started by John Nicholson as a speculative scheme. Nicholson was a Philadelphia entrepreneur and partner of Robert Morris during the early 1790’s who still gets cited in history books because he failed for $6 million. But, he was neither as good nor as valuable a person as my grandmother Rheta West, a fact of history that’s important to remember.

2008: Two Dems Running?

Even though I live in heartland Kentucky, I'm still on Eastern Standard time. So, I just thought I'd toss this out before I go bed. If Hillary Clinton runs for President, she's going to be the Democratic nominee. Although moderate hand-wringers will worry, Hillary would run as the presumptive nominee and is already taking political oxygen away from the other pretenders. But the Republican right will be in a quandary. Hillary loathing runs deep on the right. They can't decide whether Hillary killed Vince Foster or slept with him, whether Hillary hates the military or not, and whether Hillary is so conniving that she didn't divorce Bill or so weak that she couldn't bring herself to divorce Bill. But the Republican right doesn't have a strong candidate to put up for the Republican nomination in 2008. Frist grows weaker by the day, Brownback is a weirdo who can't fake not being a weirdo, and Santorum wackiness will probably keep him from being re-elected. Besides, it doesn't look like George W.'s legacy of pointless war, soaring deficits, and wacko initiatives on Terry Schiavo and "creation science" will be a big plus. So what will the right wing of the Republican Party do? They could throw their support to John McCain as the "stop Hillary" candidate. If no right-wing candidate gets traction, they may be stuck with McCain anyway. But, in that case, there would essentially be two Democratic candidates for President. Hillary would be the Democrat and McCain would have to govern as a Democrat if he won because House and Senate Republicans would not support him. Having crossed the Republican right so many times, McCain would have to govern with a coalition of Democrats, moderate Republicans, and marginally conservative Republicans who could be bribed with pork barrel projects. In some ways, it would be a grand alliance, but the base of any McCain governing coalition would have to be Congressional Democrats. If the 2008 presidential election is between Hillary Clinton and John McCain, it basically would be a contest between two Democrats.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

War on Terror as Internal Power Struggle

In the War on Terror, sub-text is far more important than text. The "text" is the struggle between extremist Muslims and the Western world they want to take down a notch. This struggle over global terrorism has little to do with the ability of American and European multinationals to dictate the terms of globalization. Globalization goes back to the 15th and 16th centuries, but the most recent wave of globalization has been more about the efforts of Western corporate interest to impose terms on their "home" populations than on Arab, Southeast Asian, African, or Latin American nations. The outsourcing of labor by American corporations has been especially successful at leveraging far-ranging concessions from the American work force, but European participation in globalization should be seen in these terms as well. Neither the attacks of global terrorists on Western targets nor the ham-handed response of the American government is doing a great deal to affect this dynamic.In fact, I don't view the bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and other global terrorists--shocking and offensive as their attacks are--as major players in the War on Terror. Terrorists organizations just don't have the military or military muscle to have a major impact on the major dynamics of our time. However, the War on Terrorism is having a big impact on Western societies. This is because the War on Terrorism has stimulated a ferocious power struggle among the major social and political forces in the West, especially here in the United States.To make a long story short, the 9/11 terror attacks provided a pretext for what G. William Domhoff calls "ultra-conservatives" to wage non-violent civil war against the urban populations, mainstream media, and university centers. "War" by the way is the favorite right-wing image for their struggles against their domestic enemies and European social democracy. There's the "war against liberalism," "war for the judiciary," war against the "mainstream media," war for this, war for that. Since the end of McCarthism and advent of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950's, ultra-conservatives in the entrepreneurial sector, white Southern population, declining rural areas, and the out-reaches of suburbia have become increasingly dissatisfied with cultural modernization in the U.S. Because the current administration had strong ultra-conservative sympathies, the War on Terror served as a pretext for ultra-conservative social forces to intensify their struggles against the rest of American society.One of the many ironies of the right-wing struggle against modern America is that the right-wingers have so little attachment to the "Western" values they espouse in relation to global terrorists. Referring to "GimmeCoffee's" post above, the American right has struggled against the equal application of the law in relation to working people, blacks, women, the disabled, and accused criminals ever since the 19th century. Like a lot of less "advanced" cultures, American conservatives much prefer a social authority that's unbound by legal limitations. This is attested to be the whole ugly history of lynching, arbitrary arrest, and police violence in the United States. American ultra-conservatives have fought all efforts to apply the law to police forces and those efforts have had a big impact on American popular culture (Dirty Harry, NYPD Blue, etc.). American ultra-conservatives also object to most other elements of modernization--modern science, equal opportunities for women, campaigns against sexual violence, etc. Part of the linguistic confusion of the "War on Terror" is that the main front of the conflict features the anti-Western elements of American society waging war against the more "Westernized" part of society in the name of "Western values."

Dying to Constrain the Enemy in Haditha

What can you say about the Marine casualties in Haditha? There's no shock of numbers. It wasn't like hundreds or thousands were killed. And it wasn't like Haditha had not happened before. The daily dribble of four, five, and six Americans deaths has become routine, so numbingly routine that the news from Haditha is difficult to differentiate from the news from other dusty Iraqi towns. Twenty deaths isn't that much bigger than six. Why pay extra attention to this particular dribble of bad news? The answer is that we owe it to those who died to expose the feeble nature of Bush's approach to the war in Iraq. The only thing that has been hard-hitting about the conduct of the war since the overthrow of Saddam has been the rhetoric that the administration has been directing against its opponents. The military campaign against the insurgents has been half-hearted at best. The campaign in Haditha is an excellent example of the administration's slip-shod approach to the war. In May, the military conducted a campaign in Haditha with the usual sleep sounding code name of "Operation New Market." American troops cordoned off one side of the city so that it could be "methodically searched for enemy fighters, weapons and support structures." Although the town hadn't been occupied by American forces before, American soldiers did not encounter much resistance from insurgents. Here's where the lack of commitment from the Bush administration has an impact. Instead of having an apparatus for continually attacking the insurgents in Anbar province, the American military draws troops from garrisons in towns like Fallujah for the type of operations carried out in Haditha in May. After the operation, the troops had to return to their garrisons rather than occupying Haditha or continuing to press the insurgents. Without the resources to sustain continuous pressure, the insurgents could come back to Haditha. And that's precisely what they did. So what do the armed sweeps and the clear and hold operations accomplish? Basically, the U. S. is seeking to ensure that the insurgents can't operate out in the open. Brig. Gen. Ham of the Pentagon captured the administration position succinctly in his characterization of the insurgents today: "they are dangerous and they certainly have a capability. But whether or not they have an ability to freely operate in that area, I think not." The key is the second sentence. The current American goal in Anbar is to prevent insurgents from operating "freely"--to keep them from openly controlling areas like Fallujah and using them as staging areas for attacks on American forces or centers for insurgent government. It's a stalemate strategy in which the American military has surrendered the goal of defeating the insurgents. We don't have enough troops on the ground to defeat them. Instead, we've retreated to the idea of "constraining" or "containing" them to the extent that they cannot operate "freely."The destruction of the sniper team yesterday is a good barometer of the strategic situation in Anbar. May's Operation New Market did not weaken the insurgent presence in Haditha at all. In fact, the insurgents appear to be more confident in their weapons and tactics now than they did in May. Instead of melting away, they stood and fought and wiped out a sniper team. To my knowledge, that's the first American unit of any size that's been completely destroyed in a combat situation in Iraq. It's probably not a good sign, but it's not a sign that the Iraqi version of Dien Bien Phu is on the horizon. As General Ham suggests, the American military has enough power to keep the insurgents from operating "freely. However, it doesn't seem like our military has the strength needed to accomplish anything more than that.So, that's what the 20 American soldiers died for in Haditha, the objective of constraining the insurgent's freedom of movement. And I would say that we're succeeding in that objective. But it's a Pyrrhic victory. The insurgents grow marginally stronger and Iraq becomes an almost ideal training ground for new generations of terrorist jihadis. The American invasion of Iraq was an enormous diversion from the struggle against global terrorism and Islamic global terrorists have taken advantage of the Bush administration's miscalculation to strengthen themselves in dramatic ways.

Sucking the Air Out of the Room

There's a growing sucking sound out there. Hillary Clinton is starting to take up all the political oxygen in the 2008 presidential speculation. The preliminary speculation is all Hillary all the time. One of the ways that governors and senators begin to become nationally known is speculation about their presidential ambitions. But political talk has focused on Hillary to such an extent that none of the other possible contenders has made any headway. On the Democratic side, there's been no exploratory profiles of ambitious governors like Tom Vilsack, Mark Warner, and Ed Rendell, nothing on John Kerry's chances for a second nomination. No speculation about Al Gore either. What's even more surprising is that potential Republican contenders don't seem to have any breathing space either. After the Terry Schiavo fiasco, Bill Frist has been twisting in the wind, but he's getting about as much national media attention for his suffering as Nancy Pelosi. Not a good sign. Things haven't been any better for other Republican senators. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania published a right-wing manifesto entitled It Takes a Family, but the book seems not to have gathered any national notice. Sam Brownback, George Allen, and other ambitious Republicans seem just as obscure as ever while Hillary's cautious speech to the DLC was micro-analyzed to death. If this continues, Hillary Clinton may end up running against herself, a race that she admittedly could still lose. Either that, or the Republicans will have to hold their noses and nominate John McCain--the only functioning politician with more prestige and gravitas than Hillary.