Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Bush's Fuzzy Math on Tsunami Relief

President Bush is calling for an apology after UN emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland called the response of the world's rich nations to the enormous tragedy in Asia "stingy."

His argument is that the US gives more in humanitarian aid than any other country, and he's right. So, that should be the end of the story. But, as is often the case with President Bush, what he leaves unsaid speaks volumes.

Here's a key quote from the AP story linked to above:

The U.S. government is always near the top in total humanitarian aid dollars - even before private donations are counted - but it finishes near the bottom of the list of rich countries when that money is compared to gross national product.
Here's another quote from a story in the Washington Post:

Among the world's two dozen wealthiest countries, the United States often is among the lowest in donors per capita for official development assistance worldwide, even though the totals are larger. According to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development of 30 wealthy nations, the United States gives the least — at 0.14 percent of its gross national product, compared with Norway, which gives the most at 0.92 percent.
So maybe we're not so generous after all. The enormity of the disaster and the urgency of the current situation demands a greater response, and we can afford it. The 2005 Federal Budget is in the neighborhood of $2.4 trillion. Surely we can find a little wiggle room somewhere to help alleviate the worst humanitarian disaster in recent memory. Here's a suggestion: the budget for the unworkable Missile Defense shield for 2005 is $9.2 billion. $35M represents a paltry .38% of that $9.2 billion in wasted taxpayer funds. If we were to scrap even one failed missile test, we could perhaps save another 100,000 lives.

Fortunately—our government notwithstanding—the American people tend to be a generous lot. Amazon.com is collecting donations for the American Red Cross on their website, and as of this post, they have collected $2,597,139.80. It shames our government that this amount, collected from a mere 45,370 people, is equal to fully 7.4% of the total aid so far announced by the Bush administration. (UpdateAs of Jan. 2, the total stands at $12,624,585.37!)

Donate to Tsunami Disaster Relief:

American Red Cross



Thursday, December 23, 2004

Onward, Christian Soldiers

On November 3rd, Bob Jones, the president of Bob Jones University (a Christian college most famous for, until recently, prohibiting interracial dating) wrote President Bush a letter congratulating him on his victory. Here are two excerpts from that letter:

In your re-election, God has graciously granted America — though she doesn't deserve it — a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate.

* * * * *

Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ.

The slander that liberals in America are frothing-at-the-mouth atheists who "despise" Christ is, it seems, a common one. I have heard similar comments on Rush Limbaugh's radio show amongst other places (and who could forget Jerry Falwell's rant blaming the 9/11 attacks on "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians..., the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America"?). It is an often-repeated fact that America is the most religious country in the west. A poll from none other than Fox News found that 92% of Americans believe in God (compare that to 61% in Britain).

Let's take what Fox says at face value (wow, I never thought I would say that) and have a look at the election numbers. There were 117,897,556 votes cast for president in the 2004 election. If 8% of the voters don't believe in God, that makes 9,431,804.48 votes from atheists (we'll assume the half vote came from Florida). John Kerry got 57,288,974 votes. Let's assume all atheists voted for Kerry and none voted for either Bush or Nader (an obviously false proposition). That would mean atheists made up 16.46% of Kerry's vote total. Therefore, fully 83.54% of those who voted for Kerry believe in God.

That makes Democrats far more religious than any Western European nation. The problem, it seems, is that Democrats are more likely to believe in things like epistemological modesty and the separation of church and state. According to Bob Jones and his ilk, it is not belief in God that matters. Rather, it is support for the theology of fundamentalist Christians and the legislative agenda they champion that determines who opposes the "agenda of paganism." In his letter to Bush, Jones outlines the legislative goals of the fundamentalists:

Undoubtedly, you will have opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the Congress in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life.... You have four years—a brief time only—to leave an imprint for righteousness upon this nation...
Fundamentalist Christians have been largely successful in their efforts to shape the definition of righteousness to their own ends. Their grass-roots organizing and fundraising efforts are legendary. Sadly, the meek voices of liberal and moderate Christians are eclipsed by evangelical bombast. It is critically important for religious people who do not want to be associated with Bob Jones' brand of hate-filled Christianity to stand up and make their voices heard. The most reactionary elements in American society cannot be allowed to own the definition of morality. (I write this fully aware that not all American's are Christians, but because Christians are by far the most dominant group, they carry the greatest responsibility for religious debate in this country.)

Once upon a time, righteous Christian liberals like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (who is still with us, but truly belongs to an earlier time) helped to shape the moral and political landscape of this country. More voices like these are sorely needed to counteract the intolerance and hate-mongering that all too often pass for expressions of faith.

One place to start is to attack a great weakness of fundamentalist theology: their reliance upon the Bible as the alpha and omega (if you will) in all discussions about morality. You will notice that Jones refers to his desire for legislation "defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life...." Of course, this is coded language. What he really desires is the outlawing of gay marriage, homosexuality, "fornication" and abortion (but you can be sure that opposition to the death penalty doesn't enter into his definition of the sanctity of life). Obviously the Bible must be quite clear on these matters. Unfortunately for Jones, it's not.

The senior minister of Chicago's flagship United Methodist church (disclosure: this minister happens to be my father, and I, the prodigal son) has written an interesting article (.pdf file, requires Adobe Acrobat) on the topic of "Christian" moral values in response to the supposed triumph of these values in the 2004 election (and this illustrates a point: Pat Robertson has his 700 Club beaming out to millions across the land while an important moderate-to-liberal congregation has photocopies of a rinky-dink newsletter in a format not searchable by Google posted on the Internet. This is not the way to win hearts and minds). Dr. Blackwell's focus is on the anti-abortion and anti gay-marriage movements as considered from a scriptural point of view. First he attempts a definition of Christian moral values:

I have two general tests to see if an ethical position is “Christian:” does it grow out of the core of Christian belief and practice based on the New Testament scripture and especially the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ’s teaching; and, is the principle universal in that it transcends particular cultures and epochs and applies to all Christians at all times?
This strikes me as a much better definition than the fundamentalists' total reliance on "inerrant" biblical citations (most often highly selective quotations drawing heavily on Old Testament sources). It also draws one's attention to fact that conservative Christian leaders rarely place any importance on the universality of Christian experience (witness the historical enmity fundamentalists have shown toward Catholics), preferring to focus on theological exclusivity and the over-arching importance of a personal relationship with Jesus.

He has this to say on the subject of marriage:

The anti-gay marriage initiative, often taking the form of defining marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman, is an interesting case. For many of us the conventional marital arrangement is what Jesus refers to when he talks about how a man and a woman shall leave their families and join together as one flesh.

It is curious, however ... that there are very few models for modern marriage in the Bible. Adam and Eve aren’t it. Abraham, Sarah, and the concubines aren’t it. David and Bathsheba don’t help us. Jesus says precious little about it. And Paul advises it because it is better than burning in Hell ... So, marriage of any form is not a major theme in the scriptures.

Of course, in the Roman Catholic Church marriage is forbidden for the clergy and the religious sisters. It is a lesser state, somehow, than being “married” to Christ....

So, there are some “variations on a theme” that ought to caution us from being too hasty to make blanket pronouncements. I think that we can agree that there is great value in monogamous relationships of loving commitment. I consider that a Christian ideal. The fact that some same-sex couples have demonstrated such a covenantal love has been part of my learning over the years. I am interested in us finding ways to encourage such fidelity rather than discouraging it.

This is a crucial point. The moral values here are love and fidelity. How could "between a man and a woman only" possibly be considered a "value"? It is a preference—a way in which some would prefer to see the ideals of love and fidelity restricted—but one that can't possibly rise to the same moral level as the values themselves.

His comments on abortion aren't based on scripture (they couldn't be, as abortion is never once mentioned in the Bible), referring instead to his concept of the universality of Christian tradition:

Undoubtedly, life in some form begins at [conception], and it remains very precious life in all the subsequent forms of development. However, in the past our culture has not treated such nascent forms as full human existence, otherwise we would have established laws that declare every miscarriage as a death, requiring that a name be given, a death registered, and in a religious context, a funeral or memorial service held. No, we might think of a miscarriage as a “loss in the family” because it is death to a certain hope, but it is not considered the death of a viable human life....[T]o assert that there is only one “Christian” way to think about it simply is wrong since Christians think several ways about it.
If abortion is murder, as some would have it, then why isn't miscarriage death? Why not require death certificates? This is a telling inconsistency for a group that prides itself on the infallibility of its source of reasoning.

Here's the article's money quote:

So, what, then, are true Christian moral values? Jesus speaks them in the Beatitudes, the Great Commandment, and the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. I believe that it is universally true for all Christians that we are doing God’s will when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for children, tell the truth, house the homeless, insist upon justice, work for peace, and show mercy. I will be very pleased when we have an election decided on these values.
The emphasis here is on love and ecumenism, not intolerance and divisiveness. These are the values to be found in scripture. So why grant the zealots their definitions and distortions? There can be—and should be—more than one form of political Christianity. At a time when the perils of theocracy are readily apparent, it is vital that there be an energetic counterbalance to groups that insist upon legislating their worm's-eye view of morality.

In mid-January, Dr. Blackwell will convene a conference bringing together liberal theologians with speech-writers for Illinois politicians (including Senator Barak Obama's scribe) to discuss how best to dissemenate a message that can stand up to the religious right while remaining committed to social liberalism and inter-faith dialogue. This is an encouraging move (although a nation-wide effort would help more). It's time for moderate and liberal Christians to start playing political hardball—after all, the other side has been doing it for years.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Parents Television Council Must Die!

On Thursday evening (after putting down my copy of A la recherche du temps perdu, of course) I settled in for an hour of ABC's funny and smart new teen dramedy, Life as We Know It. Instead of my guilty pleasure, I was rudely greeted by an infomercial for St. Jude's Children's Hospital starring Sarah Jessica Parker, best known for playing a haggard, materialistic shrew on Sex and the City.

I did a little research and found out that the show had been preempted, possibly due to complaints from a horrible little group calling themselves The Parents Television Council. It turns out I was lucky to get the St. Jude's cancer special: in Utah the Dec. 2nd episode was replaced by the Billy Graham Crusade (allegedly a coincidence, but you can be the judge).

The PTC is actively campaigning to censor Life as We Know It, and MTV and Sex and the City are in their sights as well, but their real target is any show that they deem questionable (and that's basically everything that's not on PAX). Just what the heck is the PTC, you ask? You may have seen a news report recently about how one group is responsible for 99.8% of the indecency complaints filed with the FCC. Guess who?

Like the PMRC before it, the PTC is a prudish outfit that dresses up right-wing social engineering as concern for impressionable children. The group claims on its website that it is non-partisan; only concerned, as their motto ("Because Our Children are Watching") suggests, with protecting the precious youth of America from the "gratuitous sex, foul language, and violence" that befoul the airwaves.

Surely it will come as no surprise to learn that the PTC's claims to political neutrality are blatantly false. The founder and president of the organization is a man by the name of L. Brent Bozell III. According to his bio on the PTC website, he is "one of the most outspoken and effective national leaders in the conservative movement today." He is also the founder of the Media Research Center, a right-wing media 'watchdog' group founded in 1987 that is largely responsible for popularizing the theory that there is a liberal bias in the American media. The MRC's long list of supporters reads like a who's who of the lunatic right: Rush Limbaugh, Robert Novak, Brit Hume, Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly, Lucianne Goldberg, Jerry Falwell, a guy from the Wall Street Journal editorial board and so on.

But certainly the MRC is Bozell's other job. It doesn't have any bearing on the PTC, right? In theory, yes. In practice, not even close.

It appears that the PTC's main claim to bipartisanship is the participation of octogenarian Steve Allen on its 'celebrity' advisory board. Other members include Billy Ray Cyrus, Naomi Judd, Michael Medved, Jane Seymour and Pat Boone, none of whom, to put it mildly, are known for their liberal views. Most of the advisers are less well-known, but their resumes are telling.

Dr. Robert Shaw is the author of a tome on the evils of permissive parenting, a richly ironic topic considering he would like the FCC to do the job he thinks parents are supposed to do in the first place. Dr. Shaw recently hawked his book on that bastion of liberalism, Fox News.

Gary Johnson is a producer for PAX-TV who, according to his PTC bio, has "co-written a movie based on the true story of Steve Saint, a missionary's son who returns to Ecuador to continue the work of his father and his aunt to bring the word of god to what has been called the most violent group of people on the face of the earth." This horribly-written sentence implies that Ecuadorians in general are the most violent people on the face of the earth. Steve Saint was actually trying to put an evangelical Christian stamp on a group of indians who make up a small part of the 5% of the population of Ecuador that is not Roman Catholic.

Holly McClure is a film critic and family values advocate who makes frequent appearances on Fox News and Pat Robertson's The 700 Club. On her website one learns that she produced a behind the scenes documentary about the making of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and was involved in making special features for the DVD release. There is also this tantalizing tidbit: she wrote the forward to a book about the Passion in which she apparently "describes in detail the miracles that occurred during production [of the film]."

As if this wasn't enough, there's Dean Jones, star of The Love Bug and That Darn Cat who actually wrote an article for christianity.com called Censorship: A Defense (this is not a joke). There's a handy link to this article right on the PTC website. Usually groups who are advocating censorship at least have the good sense to deny that this is what they're up to. Apparently the PTC is proud of the fact.

An enlightening article in the Washington Post (free registration required) sheds some light on the PTC staff. Brent Bozell is described as a "well-connected conservative activist" who "is outspoken about his own values, which include vehement opposition to abortion and gay rights." The PTC was originally started as an offshoot of the Media Research Center and the two organizations share an office space (but they're totally separate, remember?).

The article profiles PTC "entertainment analyst" Aubree Rankin. She won't discuss her political beliefs, but she "majored in politics at Grove City College, a conservative Christian institution in northwestern Pennsylvania whose Web site notes that it explicitly rejects 'relativism and secularism.'"

We also meet PTC executive director Tim Winter who claimed "partial credit when President Bush won reelection last month. 'It's the culture, stupid,' Winter said then. 'Our mission was validated on Tuesday night.'" Truly the epitome of non-partisanship, no?

I don't think any self-respecting person would disagree that there are things on TV that are not appropriate for children. The problem with groups like the PTC it that they want everything on TV to be suitable for kids. Rather than have parents take responsibility for their own children, the PTC wants to create a nanny state to do the job for them.

As dire as this all sounds, the PTC faces an uphill battle. They have powerful enemies, even from within the conservative camp, such as Rupert Murdoch, purveyor of all those sinful Fox programs. They also risk miscalculating the mood of the American people. After all, we love our trashy TV, and not just in the godless reaches of the Northeast and California. Desperate Housewives, a big no-no according to the PTC (who do you think registered all those complaints about the Nicolette Sheridan towel malfunction promo?), is wildly popular—marginally more so in the 'Red States.'

Of course, a show as massive as Desperate Housewives can swat the PTC away like a pesky nuisance. It's the shows like Life as We Know It that stand to lose when subjected to a PTC campaign. The best thing we can do is support good programming and resist the censors who want to bowdlerize American culture, one teen dramedy at a time. It also wouldn't hurt to let our elected representatives know that we don't want the religious right determining what we can and cannot watch. And I thought we were fighting a war against narrow-minded theocracy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Man-Sized Dwarf

It has occured to me that Kevin Weisman, Alias cast member and "I Love the 80s" raconteur, looks like a man-sized dwarf. See for yourself:

Is Man-Sized Dwarf a band? Well, it should be. Either that or a pretentious hipster (I know: renundant) fanzine about the underground music scene of some place like Sacramento.

No offense to Kevin—or Sacramento, for that matter.

Hey, it can't all be sweetness and light.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The Ugly Canadian

Drudge has put a hysterical red link to this story from the Washington Times, which profiles an American company that is marketing a "Going Canadian" kit for prospective world travelers. The kit, which contains Canadian luggage tags and a maple leaf t-shirt, is intended for people skittish about anti-US sentiment abroad.

I say "hysterical" because Drudge is trying to give a whiff of scandal to something that is obviously a joke (just read the article, even the right-wing Times doesn't take it seriously).

The issue of Americans masquerading as bland, harmless Canadians while abroad is, as the Times adroitly mentions, a non-story. People have been doing it for decades. Drudge wants to see this as more proof of liberal treachery and anti-patriotism. The Times wants to have it both ways. They mention the fact that the State Department and many reputable travel publications advise Americans not to flaunt their nationality while abroad, but they also go fishing for comments from politicians and academics in an apparent attempt to turn an acorn into a maple tree, if you will.

Here's a nice quote from the Times article: "Some think anti-Americanism — at least in some spots — is being overblown in the press." You think? I wonder who could be responsible for this ...

I spent most of the last year living in Turkey and I never once pretended to be anything but an American. I never had any problems. The fact is, most foreigners like America and Americans. I can't say how many times I heard "America good, Bush bad." Most people aren't stupid enough to confuse a population at large with the decisions of its government. Maybe that's a lesson that more Americans should learn on their own, by actually taking an interest in the rest of the world.

It is a telling irony that the xenophobes are those most convinced that the rest of the world hates them.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Gallophobia — Word of the Day

gallophobian. Fear of France, French people or French culture. Also, francophobia. See freedom fries, cheese-eating surrender monkeys, xenophobia, hypocrisy
Why is this today's Word of the Day? Because hating the French, much like an exquisite oak-aged Bordeaux, never goes out of style.

So, why do so many of my fellow countrymen hate the French? Perhaps it's their air of condescension and cultural superiority; perhaps it's their inexplicable embracement of American goofballs like Jerry Lewis and Noam Chomsky; or perhaps it's simply that people can't bring themselves to trust a country that's shaped like a hexagon.

Regardless, the gallophobic tendency runs deep in this country. Its argument (insofar as it is actually an argument) usually hinges on culture or politics, and quite often, both.

Gallophobes see the French as a bunch of snooty elitists who turn up their noses at McDonald's and EuroDisney, preferring instead to drink wine with their children and read Michel Foucault for pleasure (and what's not fun about Discipline and Punish?). They are purported to hate Hollywood movies, although if this is true, then why was Sean Penn on the Cannes Palm d'Or judges panel? And if the French claim cultural superiority, then why did this august body bestow the coveted laurel on Fahrenheit 9/11, one of the flimsiest pieces of garbage ever produced by Hollywood? And what about the mimes? The mimes!?!?

Sorry about that. I guess it's clear that cultural gallophobia can be rather tempting. But it needn't be. They say "pride goeth before a fall." In this case, the saying is backwards. The cultural ego of the French is so exaggerated because they have precious little left. Once the home of Charlemagne and the cradle of the Enlightenment, power used to emanate from the six corners of this fabled land. But now, France is just a sad, forgotten corner of Europe looking back in envy at its former old-world glory. Sure their zeal to protect the French language borders on the chauvinistic, but they're protecting it from the encroachment of English. Yes, the French want to speak English! We win! So instead of sulking like school children, we should sit back and watch their hilarious attempts to make hip-hop with the quiet satisfaction of those confident enough in their own superiority that they don't need to proclaim it.

The political strain of gallophobia is a different animal altogether. It is here where one finds both its truth and its ultimate folly. The French are a favorite target of the American right because of their antagonistic and insufferably moralistic stance toward American foreign policy. That the French are hypocrites when it comes to moralizing becomes all the more obvious with each revelation about the UN oil-for-food program abuses or the backroom deals between the French and the Baathist regime.

One thing the right does not seize on, likely because it meets with their approval, is the degree to which French society is much more hostile to Islam than is American society, despite breathless claims to the contrary. And this problem is not unique to France: look at how the Dutch are reacting to Theo Van Gogh's murder. (Granted, his execution at the hands of fanatics is deeply troubling and deserves far more attention in the States than it has received.) After 9/11, despite fears of reprisals against Muslims, the biggest story is what didn't happen. There was no orgy of vengeful bloodletting in the streets, no general call for the expulsion of the Muhammedeans from our country.

In places like France, immigrants can live among the "natives" for generations, they can have French as their first language, and still not be considered French. In America, if you become a citizen, you're an American, or at the very least, your children will be. The openness to cultural identity that can be found as a matter of course in most Americans is a rare commodity in the old world, and this is something we ought to be very proud of.

But, as I mentioned above, the politically oriented gallophobe almost never makes these sorts of arguments. The general complaint is that the French have some gall (get it?) to criticize our administration. This smacks uncomfortably of the inability of this administration or its water carriers to brook any kind of oppostion at all. Gallophobia is an especially virulent subspecies of xenophobia and, as such, it reveals its adherents to be hypocrites of the lowest order. How can you simultaneously harbor xenophobic urges and be engaged in the project of, as George Bush would have it, marching democracy and understanding across the globe?

This is not to say that the French should not be open for criticism. Au contraire, an honest and frank airing of grievences is probably good for both sides. But gallophobia is so rarely honest, more often hinging on the slanderous and the insipid.

Take, for example, Freedom Fries. Do you want to look like the pack of slack-jawed yokels that many Europeans already think we are? Then rename a potato side-dish (that comes from Belgium) for ideological reasons. That makes us look brilliant. At least when saurekraut became victory cabbage we were actually at war with Germany.

At a time when we want to promote our image and way of life to the rest of the world, the last thing we ought to do is look like slavering bigots and Know-Nothings who want to shut out the rest of the world due to our own ignorance and indifference. We already have a president with these leanings, do we really want to expand on that?

Perhaps the most discraceful face of gallophobia is the oft-repeated slander against the bravery of the French soldier. With few exceptions, the French have fought along side us for the past 228 years, proving their valor time and again. And the French have shown grit and determination even in the face of defeat. Any mention of cheese-eating surrender monkeys does great damage to the memory to the brave partisans of la resistance, who, amongst other things, gave a name to most popular game in Washington, D.C.

Every time you hear someone say that the French would be speaking German if we didn't swoop in to save their asses, don't forget that if it weren't for the French, we'd be speaking, well, English, but we'd spell things funny and everyone would laugh when we say "aluminum." Just look at Canada if you want to see what happens to a country that can't throw off the shackles of the British monarchy. I think you know what I'm talking aboot.

Do you have to go to the loo? I don't think so; not in America. Thanks, France!

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

More Troops at Last

Finally the Bush administration has announced that more troops will be sent to Iraq. And only 19 months to the day since "Mission Accomplished." Perhaps over 1,200 U.S. deaths would argue that this move is long overdue. But then again, a troop build-up wouldn't have been such a good policy to tout during a White House run.

I'd like to cut the Prez some slack since he's finally doing the right thing, but he seems to go out of his way to make everything he does look like a cold political ploy.

Well, let's get one thing straight: the administration is not admitting error. The Bush White House doesn't make mistakes.

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