Archive for August, 2007

Expanding the Iraq War

August 31, 2007

A situation has arisen in Iraq that may lead to the war widening to a neighboring country.

Somebody is supplying insurgents with arms, making things more dangerous for the troops. The goal of whoever is supplying these arms seems to be, ultimately, to destabilize the duly elected, established government. The U.S. State Department has been in contact, trying to prevent the war from widening, but others are talking about the open use of cross-border troops to put a stop to this aid to the insurgents.

Oh. Did I mention that the arms are American? That the neighboring country is Turkey? That the insurgents are members of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that wants to split Kurdistan off from both Iraq and Turkey?

We’re not talking about Iran “apparently” supplying Russian arms to Shia militias, with whom they are very cozy, to kill American troops and bring down the Iraqi government. We’re talking about America “apparently” supplying American arms to Kurdish militias, with whom we are very cozy, to kill Turkish troops and bring down Turkish rule over northern Kurdistan.

Turkey has the American arms, which they took off the Kurdish terrorists now in their custody. They’re not best pleased.

My point isn’t that we’re doing the same thing to Turkey that Iran is doing to us. I don’t think we’re supplying the PKK with American arms, or any other kind. I don’t think the Turks do. My point is that things aren’t always what they seem. What sometimes seems obviously true, based on all available facts on the ground, turns out to be false when additional facts are discovered.

The question is: what if, before there’s time for those additional facts to be found, war has already been started?

UPDATE (9/4/07): According to one report, the Bush admin. will roll out a new public opinion offensive over the next couple of weeks, aimed at building support for war with Iran.

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A Gaping Hole in the God-Shaped Hole Theory

August 30, 2007

mother_teresa.jpg

You’re probably familiar with the concept, made popular in a song performed by Plumb a few years ago now: There’s a God-shaped hole in all of us / And the restless soul is searching / There’s a God-shaped hole in all of us / And it’s a hole only He can fill. The idea, of course, is that all of us have some sort of emptiness inside, yet the discovery of God somehow satisfies this emptiness. We are thereby complete.

But I don’t really buy it, and please forgive me, but I don’t really believe those who do.

For one, there’s the whole problem of what the Bible actually says. Paul talks of the whole creation groaning like a woman in labor for something yet to come, which doesn’t sound very satisfied or complete to me at all. Granted, his context involved God’s Spirit helping us along the way, but the picture of satisfaction is too big a stretch for me.

And for another, there’s the whole Mother Teresa problem.

Momma T was in the news recently (no, she’s still dead). Now most of the people I’ve gone to church with in my life would readily condemn her to hell for being Catholic, which is ironic, since Pope Benedict would probably say “right back at ya!” But when I read through the judgment scene described by Jesus at the end of Matthew 25… well, I’m just saying that if I read that to be true and was making wagers… well, Momma T lived on the sheep side as described by Jesus.

But I digress.

There’s a new book out that reveals Mother Teresa’s hidden faith struggles, in her own private words. These are no “I’m having a bad day” letters, no “all these dying people bring me down” sort of writings. These are words that reveal an inner darkness in one who followed Jesus to “the least of these.” Words like these:

“I have no Faith – I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart – & make me suffer untold agony.”

“Such deep longing for God and … repulsed empty no faith no love no zeal. … Heaven means nothing pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything.”

“What do I labour for? If there be no God – there can be no soul – if there is no Soul then Jesus You also are not true.”

She even talked of personal hypocrisy by describing her public smile as “a mask” or “a cloak that covers everything.”

If there was a God-shaped hole in Mother Teresa, of all people, God didn’t seem to fill it completely. In every education and psychology course I ever sat in, we learned about Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If people like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. never reached the pinnacle of self-actualization, then forgive me for not believing the folks who claim God has somehow filled their inner void and led them to nirvana.

And then, for my last trick, there’s me.

Truth be told (and feel free to hate me if you wish), I have blessings coming out the wazoo. I really do have a tremendous marriage, and we aren’t just faking it. I have two beautiful daughters in two excellent schools, the oldest working on a college degree, and the youngest flying through life like she’s a professional. I grew up in a loving home, and I have priceless friends all over the world. I have a good job in a church filled with neat people. I have a wonderful house in a beautiful neighborhood, and we have nice, dependable cars to get us where we want to go. I live in a delightful community, a place in which people respect me and value me as a leader of some sorts. I have money in the bank, few debts, and good health. I have hobbies I enjoy, and I have significant roles in volunteer groups that serve the hurting, ranging from those living in poverty housing to children who have been abused and neglected.

This is the short list.

And I’m still incomplete. I am not satisfied in the depths of my soul. There is still something missing. And it’s not God.

The implications are sobering.

For one, if my observations are true, how do we adjust to living a life without hope for nirvana? How do we adjust to the sobering reality that life will always be incomplete – that is, without descending into a life of either compromise or depression?

And for another, what am I peddling in church? Am I reduced to “pie in the sky” once more? Or, is there something else to offer for the here and now besides the God-shaped hole theory?

These are my thoughts today. I really need to hear some of yours.

A Brief Question Concerning Business Ethics

August 28, 2007

Reading through the news earlier, I ran across this headline: Wal-Mart Owes Back Taxes…. The headline and the beginning of the article make it sound as though Wal-Mart is doing a bit of cheating as far as paying their taxes.

But there’s catch. Wal-Mart isn’t technically cheating. Well, maybe not. They don’t think they’re cheating. There seems to be a loophole in the tax law in Wisconsin, and this loophole allows Wal-Mart (or any business) to do the ol’ switcheroo and not pay a whole lot of money that they probably should pay. Obviously, the state Revenue office disagrees with the way Wal-Mart is reading the loophole and things are underway to fix this little glitch.

It’s easy to hate Wal-Mart because they are big business and seem to have a shady history as far as putting competitors out of business (and not paying overtime [and selling dog food that is dangerous for dogs to eat]), but okay. Just curious as to the ethics involved in this, as I don’t have a business mind and don’t really understand the whole save-money-any-way-you-can mentality. On one hand it seems smart business. On the other, it seems like a big business trying to get the business of a community without contributing their fair share of taxes.

So my ethics question of the day: Is it fair to demand payment from Wal-Mart even if what they did was technically legal?

Fredo Goes Fishing

August 27, 2007

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whom President Bush calls “Fredo,” announced his resignation this morning.

 It’s hardly news that Gonzales was a controversial and embattled figure.  As Bush’s White House Counsel, before becoming attorney general, Gonzales signed off on the now infamous memos calling the Geneva Conventions “quaint,” approving the use of torture, and advocating the novel theory that the Constitution grants the Executive Branch nearly dictatorial powers, especially in times of war.  At one point, he tried to cajole then Attorney General John Ashcroft into giving legal cover to an illegal espionage program while Ashcroft was seriously ill, in the hospital, and heavily drugged.  (Not to mention the fact that, because of those things, Ashcroft was not even legally the attorney general at the moment, and the guy who was had already told Gonzales no.)

 All that controversy was before he even became attorney general.

As attorney general, he became even more controversial.  Morale among the career attorneys within the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorneys scattered across the country tanked precipitously under his leadership.  Career attorneys — specialists in their various fields — were cut out of decisionmaking, passed over for promotions, or even disciplined for failing to tow the administration line against their better legal judgment.  New hires — not political appointees, but new career hires — were made based not on their legal qualifications, but on their political credentials; to use the phrase used by one of Gonzales’ underlings who was involved, they wanted to hire “loyal Bushies.”

The short summation of Gonzales’ tenure as AG is that he just never understood the distinction between being White House Counsel and being the Attorney General.  The WH Counsel is the president’s lawyer; the AG is the country’s lawyer.  If Gonzales did understand the difference, he never made the transition.  Either one is a fatal flaw in an AG.

The question I find myself asking is: why resign now?

It was clear that Pres. Bush was not going to fire him.  For a variety of reasons, he couldn’t.  It was equally clear that the president was going to stonewall, by whatever means necessary, all attempts by the Congress to find out exactly what the Justice Dept. had been up to under Gonzales.  Gonzales had nothing to fear.  He was free to ride out the rest of the Bush presidency as AG, and all his public statements indicated that was what he wanted to do.

 So why didn’t he?  What changed?  Were there backdoor negotiations between the AG, the president, and the Senate Judiciary Committee?  Did it have anything to do with the recent resignation of Karl Rove?

The Death of the Reader

August 23, 2007

Back in the late ’60s, Roland Barthes declared the “death of the author.” His essay is a fairly important philosophical declaration concerning the way we think and construct our world, but it’s also fairly boring, so I’ll not devote much space here to discussing it. To summarize it badly in two sentences, it goes something like this: writers — to whom we usually grant a god-like status when it comes to determining what their text actually “means” — no longer determine what their text actually means; that job belongs to readers. So there you have it: the author, for all interpretive purposes, is dead.

Apparently, readers didn’t want the task that Barthes was handing them. According to this article from the Associated Press, a solid 25% of U.S. adults didn’t read a single book last year.

This article, which is, ironically enough, very poorly written, fascinated me when I read it. It initially makes it sound as though we are an illiterate nation — full of people who don’t read unless they have a hammer at their heads. But what the article lacks is much of a historical perspective. Other than citing some statistics from the ’90s, it doesn’t tell us how many U.S. adults read how many books in, say, 1950. A really quick google search didn’t turn up anything on how many adults didn’t read a single book in the ’50s. My gut tells me it was more than 25%, though. Feel free to argue with me on that, because honest, I have no idea.

The reason this article caught my eye is that this type of article seems to come out every few months — something about the deplorable state of our reading or writing habits. And the articles annoy me not because of their untruth (because I don’t know that they are untrue) but because of the implied message: we used to be smarter. (At least that’s the message I imply onto the text, which, according to Barthes, is my right!) It implies that reading has some sort of inherent value over whatever else a person decides to do with their time. It seems to imply that the person who reads is somehow a better person that someone who watches television.

As much as I like reading, this message annoys me.

Here’s what I’m actually reading right now. Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon. The Mysteries of Pittsburg, by Michael Chabon. (I’m on a Chabon kick — he’s good.) The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander. All three of those are wonderful books. The Castle in the Forest, by Norman Mailer. Which is horrible but somehow interesting at the same time.

Happy Friday, everyone. 

So What About the Homeless, Anyway?

August 22, 2007

Regular readers know that I am a subscriber to Salon, an online magazine. Salon runs an advice column called “Since You Asked …” The columnist, Cary Tennis, is definitely not the Ann Landers type. His advice is sometimes practical, but often veers off on tangents. I disagree with him maybe a third of the time, and another third I read it and end up scratching my head wondering how the heck his answer related to the question submitted. I found this question, and Cary’s response, interesting, and thought it was appropriate for this crowd and germane to Al’s post from Monday. (Note for new readers: you can read any of the content on Salon by watching a short ad and getting a “day pass”).

The letter writer wants to know whether he is doing a good thing by sitting and eating the breakfast he has prepared for the homeless at the soup kitchen with some of the people he has served instead of accompanying the rest of his church buddies to an expensive hotel for an expensive brunch. He writes eloquently about this dilemma, so I encourage you to read his letter in full, but the essential question is this: how can you live with the discomfort of knowing that other people suffer in such close proximity to you and do so little to help them? Does volunteering really do much, or is it hypocrisy? Short of becoming homeless yourself, what is there to do that is not uncomfortable for the conscience (other than, of course, ignoring the homeless entirely, which is the option most choose)?

A few weeks ago I picked my husband David up from work. On that particular day he had gotten delayed, so I sat in the car outside his office in the backseat feeding the baby while I was waiting for him. Across the street from his office there is a small square park where a number of homeless people “live.” During the hour I was sitting in the car, I saw a woman cross the street and go to the door of a small shop that was set in slightly from the sidewalk (the shop was closed). She pulled out a large purple cloak-type thing which she used to cover herself as she stood with her back to the street. I don’t know how on earth she did it, because she remained standing the entire time, but when she took off the cloak and came out from the shop door, she was holding a small tupperware container of urine, which she dumped into a bush.

I am definitely one of those who is guilty of ignoring the homeless. I justify it to myself that there are simply too many of them, that if I helped them all I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. But I know that my life is really comfortable, and that that does not mean that I deserve comfort. Intellectually, I know that there is not much other than good fortune that separates me from them. Why is it so hard to act on that belief? I do not know where to begin, and like most problems that seem insurmountable, it seems easier to do nothing.  Your thoughts?

Lovin’ An Online Dater: Livin’ It Up While the Species Goes Down

August 21, 2007

Love is a topic much under discussion these days, and in a wide variety of contexts. 

 The one I currently have in view is the romantic variety.  Or, more precisely, the apparently widespread lack thereof.

 Wherever one looks, people are worried about, fretting over, angry about, frustrated with, jesting at, depressed by, oppressed by, and otherwise squicked out by the non-occurrence of romantic love in their lives.  Entire television series succeed for years on end barely mentioning anything else.  Diaries, journals, and blogs fill with the emotional backwash.  Poetry and fiction — some deeply moving, most never seeing the light of day — meditate, even fixate, on it.

 And about a gozillion websites capitalize on it, in the most literal economic sense.

 One of the more interesting ones is Chemistry.com.  Chemistry is sort of the secular counterpart to eHarmony.com, which has a well-known Evangelical Christian bias in its matchmaking.  Chemistry is based on the work of Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies human romantic love and has written several popular books explaining her research, one of which I read some years ago (and found fascinating).

Fisher’s is a strictly scientific approach.  She uses the tools of anthropology, evolutionary theory, and modern neuroscience to explore the phenomena of human attraction, infatuation, and long-term monogamous pair-bonding.  (Admit it.  You get hot when you read “long-term monogamous pair-bonding.”)  These are, she says, the 3 stages of human romantic love, and we have 3 separate neural subsystems for them.

I’m beginning to wonder, though, if there’s anything — scientific, religious, or otherwise — to be done about the supposed increase in the non-occurrence of romantic love.  (And for purposes of this post, let’s assume the increase is not just supposed, but real.  After all, single adults now outnumber married ones in America.)

It may be that Americans are going the way of the panda: that is, maybe we’re just losing interest.

(more…)

Can We All Just Get Along?

August 20, 2007

Rodney King, After the L.A. Riots

The great American philosopher, Rodney King, framed the question in response to rioting fifteen years ago. The resounding answer, should you have missed it, is no. We can’t all get along.

Which is rather depressing.

I would like to live in a world where people learn to get along in spite of their differences. I would also like a magic genie bottle and three wishes, but it seems the genie carries better odds.

I feel sick at my stomach when people are dismissed by others. Labeled. Written off. I believe this tribal practice (you aren’t on “my” side) is at the root of all the problems in the world. It is not good for humans to be alone, but it isn’t so hot when we divide up in camps and stockpile weapons either.

I like the sound of the word “tolerance” instead, but I’m afraid that word is losing its punch, too. In its current usage, it is equally insufficient.

D.A. Carson writes, “It used to be that tolerance was understood to be the virtue that permits, even encourages, those with whom we disagree to speak up and defend their point of view. One recalls Voltaire’s famous dictum: ‘I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.’ In other words, one had to disagree with someone or something before one could tolerate it. But in our postmodern world, tolerance is increasingly understood to be the virtue that refuses to think than any opinion is bad or evil or stupid.”

Is there any place to land between tribalism and agreeing with everyone, someplace between enemy camps and mindlessly holding hands? I hope so, but I’m afraid it lies in a radical word called love, and I’m not sure who all is brave enough to attempt landing in such dangerous territory.

Let me offer an example (and, by the way, you can change conservative to liberal and it works equally well): Most of the people I spend significant face-to-face time with are both politically and religiously conservative. And I’m just not. Most often I go to great lengths NOT to bring this up in conversation, mainly because I suspect one of two things will happen: either I will be written off as the enemy (which is what I primarily expect, along with possible unemployment!), or we will avoid talking about things that really matter to each of us altogether. These seem to be our standing choices.

I hate those choices.

I prefer love instead.

I prefer forming relationships where neither of us will write the other one off no matter what we think or what we do, and no matter how strongly we disagree. Conversely, I prefer relationships where neither of us will avoid discussions of things that are important to us either, no matter how much we want to pretend the other person is just like us, and no matter how “disappointed” we are that the other person hasn’t turned out to be the person we wanted them to be.

Oh, lovers may need some distance periodically. On the other hand, lovers may end up agreeing to disagree. But they don’t draw lines that separate. And they don’t avoid intimate conversation.

I envision the Hungry, Hungry Hippo world to be a world of this kind of love. Several friends who won’t write me off because of things I’m thinking have inhabited this world up to now (though most, but not all, share much of my way of thinking). It has been a comfortable place for me to talk about things.

But I would love for it to grow into a place where ALL sorts of my friends and all sorts of my fellow Hungry Hippo friends’ friends can hang out, too. I imagine a place where we can share all sorts of things because no one would write us off no matter what we’re thinking, while equally being a place where we don’t just accept what is said without a willingness to engage the conversation with our disagreements, too.

A place of love for all people. Maybe even Rodney King will stop by someday.

If all that could happen, I wouldn’t even need that magic genie in the first place.

(If you have an opinion, no matter what it is, please share it with our gang of hippos. Gaggle of hippos? Herd of hippos? Whatever.)

Go ahead. Show ’em yer nuts.

August 14, 2007

Speaking of the environment, there’s this.  It says every food, food additive, and bio-fuel we currently produce (or ever expect to produce) from soybeans can be produced as well or better from hazelnuts.  And since hazelnut bushes are a hardy perennial, they survive all winter (even in Minnesota) and don’t need to be replanted. 

 Plant them once, and harvest for the rest of your life.

 Think about that.  No yearly tillage means no soil erosion.  No fossil fuels burned at planting.  No labor, seed, or other costs associated with planting.  Much lower use of chemicals.

Too good to be true?  I dunno.  But it’s fun to think about.

It’s Not Easy Being Green?

August 13, 2007

For some inexplicable reason, I TiVo Oprah every day. I generally only watch about one out of three episodes, because so many of the topics are too inane … that whole “The Secret” thing, for example, or shows with celebrity guests in whom I am not interested, and all those silly giveaways.

But.

Sometimes Oprah will host a show on a topic that is so important that it makes me very glad that her show has the following that it does. She can give ideas and causes the kind of exposure that no one else can. And so I was really fascinated by a show she did last year (or maybe it was earlier this year, I don’t remember whether it was a rerun or not) about simple things that everyone can do to reduce the amount of damage they are doing to the environment.

Fortunately, these issues are getting more airplay in other media outlets as well. Just this past week, the New York Times ran an article about bottled water. And Salon (just click the ad to read the full article — it is a great, eye-opening one) ran a fabulous piece about plastic bags. These are two things that absolutely everyone is capable of changing in her or his own life — use a reusable container to carry your own water with you, and use reusable canvas or other cloth bags when you shop. David and I have started working on these and other changes in our lives (including switching to cloth napkins and becoming educated about our local recycling program). Earlier this year, Slate ran a series of articles with a ton of information on a number of topics, including transportation and paper waste. So, at the risk of sounding preachy, I encourage all of you to explore the small changes you can make to help save energy and use fewer resources. Several of them are relatively simple, and many will actually save you money you would otherwise be spending, too!

And I haven’t even seen “An Inconvenient Truth” yet. That thing about the polar bears is just too freaking sad.