Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Quotes of interest.

Y'all know from previous posts that I keep an eye on the happenings over at the Raving Atheist. On the one hand, I do this because I often agree with some of his points. I am, after all, a devout atheist. On the other hand, I often think the RA goes too far, and makes questionable logical points that are supported more by venomous rhetoric than anything else. So, hey, there's something for every member of the family.

Recently the RA has been having an argument of sorts with Jill of Feministe regarding New York's Unity Church- a Christian Denomination set up to serve Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and, for all I know, Wookies. Not that I'm making fun of the GLBTW movement or anything, I'm just saying that we're all desperately in need of a new blanket term here. Anyway Jill was, apparently, complimentary of this effort to include those with alternative lifestyles (okay, a blanket term that actually means something. I mean, fuck, Jeffrey Dahmer had an alternative lifestyle, you know?) within the Christian tradition. The RA, on the other hand, couldn't help pointing out that there are some rather lengthy tracts in the Bible that are negative in regards to homosexuality. More elegantly:

Gays, bisexuals and the transgendered don’t escape Leviticus alive. That Sunday School course couldn’t teach GLBTs anything but self-hatred. Unless, of course, the premise of the class is that the Bible is somehow gay-friendly, which you’d have to be really, really stupid to believe. Is Jill suggesting that GBLTer’s are really, really stupid? Recommending that church is like suggesting Jews join a denomination that uses Mein Kampf as scripture, but which has a Saturday School course explaining why der Fuhrer wasn’t actually anti-Semitic and how all those passages suggesting otherwise have been “misinterpreted.”


Now, I think the RA may be going a bit far here in comparing the bible to Mein Kampf, if only because Mein Kampf had a single author and some sort of consistency, whereas the bible is a confused, internally contradictory mass of information in which God seems somewhat borderline. So, in any case, I think there probably is more interpretive room in the bible than in the writings of Adolf Hitler. That said, I do largely agree with the RA's concluding point:

If she believes the crazy myth that salvation is available only to those who accept the resurrection story (presumably the reason she’s not recommending that GLBT’s crash the Hindu or Wiccan religions) she’s in no position to criticize the lesser, subsidiary rules about what behavior disqualifies one from the kingdom of heaven. Everything else is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.


I've always had a hard time understanding how those who believe in some parts of the bible can reject others for the same reason. Once you've accepted that there is a supreme being who has an interest in setting arbitrary rules for humans, how can you criticize any such arbitrary rules?

What's made all this interesting is that Jill has responded several times, and the RA has continued the dialogue. You can see his second and third responses here, if you're curious. It's worth reading through, even if it's such a morass of arrogance that I am somewhat ashamed to share an identity (atheism) with the RA.

Along the way, though, the RA managed to drop two good quotes like porridge from the mouth of an old, senile man. The first neatly sums up my own view of religion in many instances:

"...religion is merely politics in a dress."


Meaning, of course, that religion is just politics disguised as something else. I don't think any student of history would have a hard time seeing at least a little truth in that statement.

The second quote is, if you can believe it, a bit more offensive. And by "a bit" I really mean, "a whole lot."

"...it’s not just “most” intelligent people who reject Bible literalism – it’s all of them. Does Jill know an intelligent person who takes the Wizard of Oz literally? Or Mein Kampf? The Bible is a combination of the two."


I'm not going to say a whole lot about that, save that he has a point about the bible. It is a mixture of both a fantastical tale and a set of authoritative moral judgments that, in other circumstances, would be easily dismissed. I won't go so far as to claim that the bible is in fact as bad as Mein Kampf, but if we ignore the orientation of the moral content, you can at least see his point. As it happens I do think there are some good messages in the bible, as there are in all religious traditions, but I also the think the bible is an insidiously destructive pack of philosophies, many of which we'd be better off without.

So, it's been an interesting week. Go take a look at the circus, have some peanuts, and maybe drop back by and let me know what you thought of the clowns.

Me? I'm going to be somewhere else.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

An invitation, and a desperate cry for help.

Today's episode of Total Drek is, sadly enough, devoid of much actual content. As the title suggests, it consists of an invitation and a request for advice. First, the invitation.

As some of you may be aware, I am a science fiction nut. Of the magazine and journal subscriptions I maintain, my issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact usually gets read first. This perhaps signals a certain lack of professional commitment on my part but, as is often the case, I don't care. As long as I'm getting my work done, and I am, it's nobody else's business how. In any case, I am a science fiction fan and, as it happens, a movie is coming out today. This movie, Serenity, is based on the popular, albeit short-lived, television series Firefly. As it happens, Firefly and, indeed, Serenity are the work of Joss Whedon, who is best known for the dramatic, and quirky, television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So, basically, we have a sci-fi extravaganza hitting the theatres today that was written by a guy who generally, in my view, produces quite good work. I have a good feeling about this film and am quite determined to see it. This determination is only heightened by the fact that, by the end of the day tomorrow, I should have basically finished everything I need to make Monday's huge grant deadline- and so I have a need to blow off a little steam. Especially after that car accident last Saturday.

So, I'm issuing an invitation. Those of you who know who I am, and where I live, are invited to come along tomorrow (Friday) for a viewing of Serenity at one of our local theatres. What time? Where? I have no goddamn idea- just e-mail me or drop by my office and we'll see what we can coordinate. Regardless of whether any of y'all come, my Sainted Girlfriend and I are going.

Secondly, I need some help. Recently, I've been doing some work for a faculty member that is proving to be dramatically annoying. As you might guess, this is becuase it involves programming in SAS. Now, SAS isn't the worst statistical package ever made, but it's hard to imagine one that would be less convenient and effective. In any case, I'm currently in the grips of a weird glitch wherein SAS is detecting the correct number of records in the dataset (1,824) but is not detecting the right number of observations (also 1,824, but SAS is only giving me 303). I'm fixing to use the "truncover" option suggested by SAS itself, but from long experience I know that SAS's idiosyncracies can often only be dealt with by consulting other poor, accursed souls who have been forever-warped by the experience of using SAS. So, yeah, any other SAS users out there have any ideas?

For those who want to know: the data is in an ASCII file originally written for SAS. No extraction program is available. I'm using an infile statement with column locations defined in the input statement. I'm getting the right number of variables, just the wrong number of cases.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Cause: To Take Up or Not?

Some of you may have come to the blog today in the hopes of another installment in our ongoing series, Turner Tuesday. As you'll recall, we dealt with the first chapter of the infamous Turner Diaries during the last edition of Turner Tuesday. Despite your hopes for tales of wacky racists, however, I'm afraid today will not deal with such matters. Instead, I have a special treat for you- a post written by a guest-blogger, my Sainted Girlfriend. She grapples with some interesting issues that I think some of you might find intriguing.

Before I turn the blog over to her, however, I just want to mention something. My Sainted Girlfriend is a Unitarian and she speaks rather highly of the faith. I, on the other hand, am not a Unitarian, and would just like y'all to know that her remarks do not constitute an actual endorsement of the faith from the Total Drek staff. Don't get me wrong- Unitarians are usually a bit more tolerant than a lot of other religious groups, and I approve of this open-mindedness, but my distrust of organized religion is deep and bitter. So, hey, that's fun right?

So, without further delay, please welcome our special guest-blogger!



As Drek has mentioned several times on the site, I identify as a Unitarian Universalist. For me, a sociologist sold on Durkheim, Unitarianism provides the best of many worlds. It provides me with both ritualistic activities and a sense of community, a sense of community that I often feel is sorely lacking in our modern world. Beyond that, however, Unitarianism provides for me a liberal religion that cares more for living in harmony with ourselves, those around us, and the natural world, than for dogmatic creeds and directives. More specifically:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

- The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

The living tradition from which we share draws from many sources:
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.
- Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
- Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

As you can see from the UUA covenant and mission statement, Unitarianism is a very open religion (so open, in fact, that some have claimed it isn’t religion at all, but that’s fodder for another post). This is a significant reason why I have chosen to claim it as an identity. Thus, I was dismayed this past summer when I heard the minister of my church proclaim in a sermon, “Fundamentalism is evil.”

As a Unitarian, a social psychologist, a somewhat reasonable person (I know I’m not always that reasonable, Drek), and as a political and social liberal, I take great umbrage with this claim for several reasons. First, as a social psychologist, I know that there is a very small gap in calling “fundamentalism” evil to starting to label all “fundamentalists” evil. As empirical research shows, once stereotypes become rooted in the brain, it is very difficult to dislodge them, as we probably have all seen in our lives firsthand. Secondly, as a Unitarian, and as someone who attempts to keep an open mind in part because I ascribe to a religion that encourages that behavior, I was shocked to hear the minister of our church reduce a large proportion of the United States, and not an insubstantial population of the world(!) to a stigmatized state. Third, as a reasonable, observant person, I have known non-fundamentalists and fundamentalists alike who were “evil” (I wouldn’t personally choose that term myself), and non-fundamentalists and fundamentalists who were “good” – the law of averages would tell us that. One of my best friends, someone I’ve known since 5th grade, is a fundamentalist Christian, and she is one of the most loving, conscientious, non-evangelical individuals I have ever met. And finally, because I’m all the things listed above, plus the fact that I consider myself a liberal (as in open-minded), I have to say that I think that statements like my minister’s are dangerous and stupid (yes, I realize the irony that I’m judging someone here, but these are my opinions after all). For us as a religion, it will do us far more good in the long run to embrace all types of voices than to ostracize the ones we don’t like (the way I’m reading it now, my minister is open to homosexuals, transsexuals, those of any socioeconomic background, and any racial/ethnic background, but not fundamentalists). If we truly are a religion that searches for truth and meaning and embracing the myriad voices out there in the world, putting up a wall will not help us. It will also not help us convince others who are closed-minded (fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists alike) that perhaps "putting ourselves in each other's shoes and walking around in them" is not such a bad idea. Especially in this time of "red vs. blue" states, deciding to take up a position that those who don’t agree with us are evil is an inherently dangerous thing to do - and perhaps eerily similar to the fundamentalists my minister opposes. We are already so divided that creating more divisions seems extremely naïve to me.

But back to my minister’s comments… Towards the end of our services, we often have a time period in which the congregation can respond to the sermon. We had one of these periods on this particular day. Two responses from members have stuck with me. One retired woman said something to the effect of, “I completely agree with the minister’s whole sermon!” Another member, a middle-aged man, said, “As a Unitarian who considers himself a Christian, I will continue to love my fundamentalist neighbors as myself.” At this point, I became unfrozen from my shock at the whole proceedings long enough to nod my head in agreement. (As an aside, I’m glad that I did this. I was sitting at the front of the congregation as pianist that day, so I’m pretty sure most of the congregation could see my support for that man.) I’m including these member responses as a sign that at least some of the members in the congregation that day did not agree with my minister’s words.

Since this day in church I have recounted this story numerous times to old friends, family, and new friends (Slag). They have all been sympathetic, and a number of them have encouraged me to talk to my minister. Although every time they encourage me to talk to her I agree and feel ready to go tell her how I feel, it has been months (this occurred in June) and I have yet to talk to her, or to return to my church, which is an important place for me.

Recently I’ve found myself in a similar position, but very different situation. In light of male banter to which I was privy, and which perpetrated both male and female stereotypes, I found myself wondering whether I should have said something about it to these men or not. I don’t think they were meaning to be derogatory, and there's every possibility that I completely misconstrued their remarks, but it makes me wonder about how the structures in which we live will ever change if we do nothing when we see it in action.

This all leaves me with the following specific question, “Why have I not said anything to my minister?” And more generally, “What does it mean in situations where I do nothing? And what would it mean for our world if we did nothing?” I think my personal answer to the first and second questions is that usually when I do nothing I’m scared – scared of others thinking I’m wrong, scared of truly verbalizing my beliefs to myself as well as others. However, as a Unitarian and sociologist and liberal and reasonable person and woman, among other things, I don’t feel proud to examine my behavior and find records like this. I’m not always sure when we should speak up and when we shouldn’t; everything is so "PC" in our world today that just saying that someone is physically attractive can be construed the wrong way. So when do we take up “the cause?” When do we decide that something is important enough that we are morally obliged to do something to change it? I honestly don’t know the answer. But I do know that come this Sunday I plan to say something to my minister.

- Drek's Sainted Girlfriend

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Ballad of Jerritt.

Back when I was a wee middle-schooler I knew a boy named Jerritt. Jerritt was a charming red-headed young man who was known for his tendency to lie about basically everything. I'm pretty serious about that, too- one need only have heard his tale of flying an F-16 to realize he had a few problems with reality. I am simultaneously distressed, and amused, to report that he also happened to be a fundamentalist Christian. I will decline to speculate on whether his issues with reality, and his religious faith, were in some way connected. Regardless, Jerritt was a bit of a hanger-on with the folks I ran around with (not the cool crowd, believe you me) and while nobody really cared for him, we also couldn't figure out how to get rid of him.

In any case, a year or two into my high school career young master Jerritt turned up again. This was particularly unusual for me because I changed schools every few years as a kid and, hence, didn't really keep the same set of associates for very long. So, Jerritt started riding my same bus and, since I went to school out of district, this left me with several hours with him every day. You can imagine my enthusiasm. Even better, by this point I had completed my transition to atheism (well, more accurately I was finally self-identifying as an atheist) and thus was now exposed to a new wonder: Jerritt in full-on conversion mode. I think he imagined himself to be a righteous crusader for God. The reality, as I'm sure you can guess, was somewhat less impressive.

As a side note: no, that isn't Jerritt- it's just illustrative.

So, my journeys to and from school became rather unpleasant as they were filled with Jerritt's half-assed preaching. While I have never been particularly evangelical with my atheism, I have always felt justified in responding to preaching in-kind. As you can imagine, this led poor Jerritt into a world of hurt. One particularly memorable incident for me was when he and I made a deal: I would read one of his books explaining why evolution was wrong, and he would read Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. As promised, I read Jerritt's book on evolution and pronounced that it raised a number of interesting challenges to a belief in evolution- but only if you believed in god. Since I did not, and do not now, believe in god, the book's points were essentially irrelevant to me.

At this point I inquired when Jerritt was going to read Darwin's masterpiece and he equivocated. He continued to evade the question for some weeks thereafter. Eventually I pointed out that he had made a bargain to read The Origin of Species and that while I, the "immoral" atheist had kept my word he, the noble Christian, had gone back on his. At this point he told me that god didn't require Christians to keep their word with heathens, such as myself, and renounced any intention of reading Darwin's work. Given that Jerritt also included Christians of other denominations under the category "heathen" and routinely mocked Jehovah's Witnesses, among others, I can only pity Jerritt's other associates.

So, Jerritt was a charmer who gives all Christians everywhere a bad name. After high school I lost track of Jerritt, learning only that he was forced to drop out of the Virginia Military Institute due to his contracting mono, which, amusingly enough given his homophobia, is also known as "the kissing disease." It is, therefore, highly entertaining to me that I now have an update on Jerritt courtesy of an old friend of mine who works in a gun shop. Let's see what he has to say:


Drek,

Ok, somewhere someone is fucking with me.

Yesterday the infamous Jarred came into my shop. This is the second time I've run into him and reason enough for me to move out of Orlando. The last time was shortly after I had come back [from the Marine Corps] and it was at a Best Buy. He still talks as much shit as ever. I'm sick as a dog right now so I played it up to avoid talking to him as much as possible without being rude. The woman he had at the time [i.e. last time] does not look like the one he had this time. Both times I got the impression they were married. This last one was a little more unusual. In the course of this she mentioned she worked at Cabaret (read -- a strip joint) and that some friend of hers from bible camp was shocked to see her on stage. It can't be for the money. According to him he works for his dad's construction company, which should be good money, and has land in Kentucky where they were living before.

1) This implies that she is a stripper
2) I thought strippers were supposed to be hot
3) Mr Right Wing Conservative married a stripper that went to bible camp

Conclusion: There seems to be some truth to the rumor that repressed people go wild later in life.


Speaking personally, I'd just like to add that I'm not sure what I find funnier: the stripper who went to bible camp, or the member of her audience that was at bible camp too.

So what's the point of all this? Eh. No point really. I just felt like sharing.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Here at Total Drek we promote from within.

Many of you who read this blog regularly will recall long ago when I introduced you to my intrepid co-blogger, Slag. It was a bright and positive time when I dreamed of being able to avoid writing in the blog for weeks at a time.

Alas, this never materialized but, hey, every little bit helps, you know?

In any case, following the introduction of Slag you may remember the introduction of Slag's Hot Belgian Girlfriend who, over time, became known by the charming acronym S'sHBG. Eventually, given Slag's desire to flatter his beloved, and my desire to write fewer posts, S'sHBG began serving as the Total Drek European Correspondent who, almost instantly, became known as the TDEC. Unfortunately, due to the vagaries of blogging, the TDEC was forced to rely on Slag to post her thoughts, rather than being able to do so directly.

I am here to tell you what many have probably already noticed: the TDEC is now an official contributor to the blog. She has a profile link and everything. It's an exciting new day for Total Drek for two reasons: with three staff writers we have perhaps truly earned the title "group blog," and, as a consequence, you can expect fewer inane ramblings from me in the future. Lo, and the people rejoiced.

Now, TDEC asked earlier, with no small amount of trepidation, whether or not there would be an initiation rite. Sadly, I don't know her biography as well as Slag's, so I am unable to welcome her in a similar fashion. Fortunately, I have a way around this. As you all know I am both a recent quasi-convert to pastafarianism and have long been interested in the arguments of intelligent design theory. Using these twin intellectual paradigms, I intend to allow the Flying Spagetti Monster to guide me to the truth with his noodly appendages, just as he guided the process of creation to produce all of us- including trees, mountains, and midgets. How am I going to do this? Simple: I'm going to ask Google images to provide me with a pictoral history of TDEC. See, the Flying Spagetti Monster will guide Google to give me the images I need in order from left to right, top to bottom. Simple, eh?

Initially I tried entering "hot belgian girlfriend," but, sadly, this produced no results. Assuming that this was a sign from His Pastaficience that I was missing vital parts of TDEC's character, I next typed in "belgian." What I received seemed unlikely to help:



Given that I do not believe the TDEC herself to be, nor to be responsible for the care of, a huge misshapen bull, I don't think this picture is relevant. I must, in the view of the Flying Spagetti Monster, have been too general.

So, to correct my error, I next tried "belgian girlfriend." My efforts can only have met with the approval of the Flying Spagetti Monster, for the pictures I sought were guided into my hands by His noodly appendages. So, without further ado, allow me to tell you the story of TDEC. Please keep in mind that despite the intervention of our Carbohydratious Lord my efforts at second-sight are likely to be somewhat inexact.



TDEC was born into an unusual family. Her parents were the only surviving result of a misguided attempt to cross-breed humans with muppets. The odd appearance of her parents would teach TDEC, from an early age, the importance of physical attractiveness. Despite their deformity, however, they were gentle and loving parents.



During TDEC's early childhood, her family became swept up in a grass-roots movement intended to bring fire to the huddling masses of Belgium. This movement was a failure primarily because, (A) their graphic design was deplorable and, (B) Belgium already had fire. Nevertheless, this would teach TDEC the value of ill-advised decisions which would, eventually, allow her to date Slag.



TDEC developed an early interest in sports, which led to her unfortunate, "bulky sunglasses and tracksuit" phase. During this period, even her half-muppet/half-human parents were loathe to be seen in public with her.



A wealthy local couple soon took pity on TDEC and attempted to provide the training in the social arts that she was sorely lacking.



This would lead to her introduction to Belgian royalty, as well as her introduction to a woman who looks vaguely like Celine Dion, but with vastly more terrifying teeth.



This new association would eventually lead to TDEC's torrid affair with the heir to the largest sausage factory in Prague. Many of her friends said they had never seen her more alive, or more favorably disposed towards tubes of meat.



The sausage prince, in particular, was happy about her regard for meat tubes.



Sadly this blooming romance would be torn asunder by TDEC's growing fascination with Americans and their huge, elaborately-made golden plates.



Like many before her, she travelled to the United States, expecting to partake of its sensuous bounty.



And instead found only a bit-part in the ill-fated "Blair Witch Project 3: Wiccan Boogaloo." This did, however, allow her to meet Slag.



Who showered her, first, with very small boxes of chocolates.



And then slightly larger boxes of chocolates.



Which impressed her so much, she allowed Slag to take her home to his lovely two-story cottage with attached petrochemical plant.



Where she revealed the truth: that she was actually a member of the ultra-elite Belgian Suicide Commandos who are unique among the military forces of Europe for not merely being encouraged, but actually expected, to die for their country.

Which brings us up to date.

So, please give a warm welcome to the Total Drek European Correspondent. If she still posts after all that, she deserves your support.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

It's not that I don't care, but...

I'm an animal lover in many respects, and find myself particularly happy with dogs. It almost doesn't matter what kind of dog, either- I just love dogs. So, it should come as no surprise to anyone that when hurricane Katrina devastated the coast, I gave money first to the American Red Cross and then to the Humane Society of the United States. Don't get me wrong- despite my love for dogs I remain powerfully human-centric, and vastly prefer to see human lives being saved before animal lives. That said, however, there is a good and pressing need to deal with the animal population in a disaster zone. What is that reason? Well, you know how unreasonable people get when they're hungry? Imagine meeting a pack of dogs who are subject to equal hunger.

Yeah.

So, basically, you have to either try to rescue them, or shoot them. A donation in support of the "rescue" option seemed like the way to go. Unfortunately, however, since then the Humane Society has been sending me e-mail updates on their emergency response. It's been heartwarming, don't get me wrong, but I've also gotten a sense that some folks at the Humane Society may be, for lack of a better term, totally bugfuck crazy. Let me give you an example:


Drek,

On Wednesday, one of our Disaster Animal Response Teams in New Orleans rescued a St. Bernard from a rooftop – a dog they described as the most emaciated animal they had ever seen in all their years of handling animals. The veterinarian who treated the dog was shocked that the animal, who weighed just 40 pounds, was still alive.

Who helped us rescue this animal? It was several National Guardsmen, who heeded our rescuers’ pleas to take them through the water on a tank so they could get up on the roof to save the dog.

But the troops’ actions were not ordered by the National Guard – nor by the White House, the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security, or the state of Louisiana. In fact, despite our repeated requests, none of these entities has formally agreed to marshal their ground forces to help rescue the pets and other animals slowly starving to death in the affected areas.

At a press conference just a few hours ago, I implored the federal government to come up with the nation's first animal rescue plan. Now, I am writing to ask you to give them the same message: Please call or email President Bush and other officials today and urge them to help us before it’s too late.

Time is running out for these animals. Every hour that passes means more pets, locked behind closed doors in the disaster zone, will die of starvation. Our teams are working as hard as they can to reach as many pets as they can - and as we reported to you on Wednesday, we’ve rescued thousands. But there are thousands more.

At this 11th hour, when so many lives are at stake, we are asking you to help. I urge you to contact these government officials today and ask them to help rescue animals before it is too late. Please send an email to President Bush and other federal and state officials who have the power to order National Guardsmen and other responders to assist with food drops, help supply our own operations, and do whatever else it takes to save animals.

One of our rescuers said it best: “We should not have to rely on the compassionate instincts of individual Guardsmen to rescue these animals. We need the full commitment of the government.”

Members of Congress have also been calling on President Bush and the federal agencies to actively assist with direct animal rescue. With most of the human victims of the catastrophe removed from the city, it’s not too late to save animals’ lives. It’s time for the government to recognize the incredible bond between people and their pets, and step in to help.

Thank you so much for your support of our disaster teams, and for all you do for animals.

Sincerely,

Wayne Pacelle
President & CEO
The Humane Society of the United States


It's not that I don't appreciate the sentiment, but when we have a president who regards human life as expendable- so long as it doesn't give him campaign contributions, anyway- and a disaster response that can best be described with the term "fubar," we really need to pick our battles. Asking Bush to attend to the needs of animals in the midst of this kind of human catastrophe is akin to trying to get a four-year-old to stop and wait at a crosswalk and then yelling, "Look! Over there! A kitty-cat and a man giving away chocolate!" I love animals, but can we all focus here just a little?

And with Rita preparing to finish what Katrina started, I think we're going to need all the goddamn focus we can get.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Man Behind the Curtain

The Raving Atheist recently gave us a post dealing with something rather interesting. Specifically, he was discussing an article in Newsday that asked a group of Unitarian Universalists whether or not they believe in god.

As a side note: I think those two sentences should get an award of some kind for sheer link-density.

Indeed, I've had a fair amount of experience with UU's, given that my Sainted Girlfriend is one and she has... um... escorted me to local services from time to time. Additionally, I know the organization is popular among intellectuals due to its provision of community within a context of free-thought and tolerance. Within the blogosphere I'm sure there are numerous UU's, though I only know of one for a fact: the occasional blogger Sarah Elizabeth. So, I was curious what Newsday's Unitarians might have to say.

From the article, it's clear that some of their respondents are pretty intelligent and may enjoy tweaking the interviewer a smidge:

A sky god who willed the chemical origins of the cosmos and Earth's evolving life? The jealous Zeus of massive temper tantrums that is Yahweh on a bad hair day? The vindictive, wantonly cruel God of Christian fundamentalists, who sadistically watches people burn in hell or promises mass slaughter for most of Earth's people in a grand finale of rapture . . . is an unlikely God for Unitarians. In our congregation, half the people are atheists who do not believe in imps, incubi, Satan, archangels, holy or unholy ghosts; the other half believes in some kind of "God." Both believe we are hard-wired to a spiritual dimension that seeks meaning and metaphor through the passage of life and death, which compels us to compassion and justice.


In other words, when you don't believe in god, all invisible friends in the sky are created equal, and none are more or less plausible than others. This is a point I myself made fairly recently. As you might expect, the Raving Atheist was complementary about this remark.

He was less complimentary, however, about UU Janet Hanson's answer:

I have to believe in God because I see so many things -- both good and bad -- done in God's name. God exists in the minds of people. To say that I don't believe in God would be absurd.


The RA responds to Ms. Hanson with considerable scorn:

So God exists in her mind because it exists in the minds of others who say He does things. But what if those people are all doing the same thing -- basing their beliefs on Ms. Hanson's conviction that God exists, a conviction that itself is based only upon her opinion of what’s in their heads? God might just be a belief about what other people believe you believe about what they believe.


In one sense I agree with the RA- believing in something because a buttload of other people do is a pretty stupid reason. On the other hand, I do think the RA is missing something important here. The Sociologist W.I. Thomas wrote, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences," which is often used as a one-sentence summary of social construction. In short, humans collectively decide on the nature of the world, building a set of interpretations and understandings as a group activity. This is not to say (in my view) that an ultimate, single physical reality does not exist, but rather that the webwork of meaning that humans use to interact with that world is produced through social means. Though stated inelegantly, Ms. Hanson has stumbled across a similar revelation. On a certain level, if enough people believe in god then god is socially real, even if he is not materially real.

Okay, yes, I know most religions claim their gods are immaterial, but I trust you understand the distinction I am making between what is real in a person's head (which, after all, includes delusions and hallucinations) and what is real in the outside universe.

I see no particular reason to doubt the social reality of god, given the many things that are done in his name. Men and women have defined god to be real, and he has become real in his consequences for the world. Such a process of social construction can easily be invoked to explain religious devotion- as occurred in a conversation last night between myself, my Sainted Girlfriend, and one of my officemates. We toyed with the notion that Jesus might have been subject to some form of psychopathology, like schizophrenia. Not a new idea, but interesting in that much of what we know of the man Jesus might be the result of centuries of social construction- a process that both generated modern Christianity, and a suitable messianic figure to head it. Might it be possible that other more modern faiths might someday reach a similar level of sophistication, and deify their own unique messiah to a similar extent?

I think it not merely possible, but likely inevitable. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim analyzed religion as a system of signs, totems, and rituals that served to unify and express the group. I see nothing wrong with this definition, as it does sum up many of the apparent functions of religion, and perceive no way that it is incompatible with a notion of god as a socially constructed reality. If this approach to religion has merit, it suggests that the development of religion is a distinctly human process that is unlikely ever to cease fully. Moreover, perhaps it helps explain why religion in public life has become so contentious an issue in the United States. To the extent that Jesus and Christianity are socially constructed, to the extent that god is socially constructed, there is some truth to the idea that they ARE the culture that they stem from. Perhaps the conservatives aren't protecting their god, so much as the group that is, in truth, represented by their god. Perhaps that means that those of us who dispute the role of faith in public life should take greater pains to differentiate between positions we dislike, and people who sometimes hold those positions.

Most importantly we must respect what religion is. For some, saying that god is socially constructed is akin to saying that God is a glorious show put on by what turns out to be simply a man behind a curtain. Yet, just as the Wizard of Oz remarked, "I'm a good man, but a bad wizard," so we too must not misunderstand the value of a socially constructed god. Our socially constructed gods may be lousy deities, in that they have no power independent of ourselves, but they may be good guides. To say that something is socially constructed is not to say that it is fake or stupid, but neither is it inviolable, unchangeable, or "real."

To the extent that our creations benefit us we can accept their goodness while, perhaps, forgiving their theatrical excesses. But, to the extent that our creations lead us to dangerous extremism, it is perhaps wise to remember that they are, after all, merely men cowering behind a curtain.

And this, perhaps, is the greatest lesson the Wizard has to teach us.

As an end note, I just want to observe two things. First, I can't wait to see the e-mail that my L. Ron Hubbard/Jesus comparison is going to generate. Secondly, you really sometimes turn up some unexpected things when you do a google image search for "charity."

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Boring New Era of Space Exploration!

Today, NASA announced the rocket and crew vehicle that will take Ameri-humans back to the moon in 2018. They're serious about promoting this - if you go to the nasa.gov website, it's very clearly and very bigly the first thing they want you to see.

If you think this looks very familiar, you're right - the new "Crew Exploration Vehicle" looks largely like the Apollo Command/Service modules and the Saturn V rocket.

If you have Flash, be sure to check out the Flash feature. The "Cargo Upperstage QTVR" is the most phallic spaceship in the long and glorious history of Phallic Spaceships.

The reaction of the pubilc at large has been a barely stifled yawn. True, we have much more pressing things to worry about right now. But if NASA can't even manage top billing on Google News (even the afternoon they announced the program), they have a lot of work to do convincing the public, and even convincing other space scientists.

I do believe that some manned space exploration is necessary for the future of the world, although I question the wisdom of doing it right now, when robots are doing such a good job for so much less money. In the future, I think private industry will work with NASA for manned exploration.

But in the meantime, let me ask a question.... if we can afford $100 billion for a Crew Exploration Vehicle, and $87 billion for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, can we really not afford $1.6-2.3 billion to save the iconic Hubble Space Telescope?

Monday, September 19, 2005

Stay tuned for Slag's Retrospective Travelogue!

Hello loyal blogreaders.

You may have noticed you were getting a larger-than-usual dose of Slagless Drek this summer. This is because I've been travelling, at various conferences and vacations, away from the Internet. Scientists (and thus science writers) like to hold meetings during the summer, when they don't have teaching responsibilities. Some of my exotic destinations this summer have included Milwaukee, Beijing, and the home of Drek (Drekistan?).

So I'll be unveiling a new blog feature, "Slag's Retrospective Travelogue," telling you about my travels this summer. Stay tuned!

But meanwhile, there is a lot of news to blog about.

A Social Predicament.

As a dog owner I know a number of people in my neighborhood. One of them is a kindly old lady who I often see if I walk my dog early in the morning. (Note that the "if" is pretty big here since I usually go running in the morning but, every now and then, I walk instead.) She and I have become friends of a sort and understand that when I say "of a sort," I mean that she's oddly fond of me.

I happen to know, for example, that her daughter Nola Gene has a Shitzu named Blossom who is blind in one eye. I know that her other daughter lives in Italy with her husband who is in the U.S. Air Force. I know that her family has lived in this city for more than a century and that she is very fond of the area. I helped her granddaughter, Heidi, get the apartment next to mine and am currently aware of her (Heidi's) problems with credit card debt. Finally, I know that this sweet older lady lives next door to a gaggle of undergrads and was tickled pink when they invited her to come and have a drink at their next party.

I have discussed many topics with this sweet older woman, including the true loving message embedded in the New Testament stories of Jesus, and how many modern religious figures do not seem to understand the core of Jesus' teachings. We share a certain amount of disgust with religious intolerance. I'll grant that she seems to think that I am a Christian, but I'm used to people making that assumption. I dress fairly conservatively, say "please," and "thank you," as well as "Ma'am," and "Sir," so I come across as a clean-cut fellow. In many people's minds, this translates to mean "Christian." I suppose I could have disabused my occasional companion of her assumptions but, hell, she's a nice old lady and she doesn't mean any harm. In any case, she apparently thinks so highly of me that she's remarked that she wishes her granddaughters would meet a nice young man like me.

Yeah, if only she knew.

In any case, I have a little problem here and I need some advice. As much as I like this woman, and as fond of me as she is, I have no earthly idea what her name is. I'm entirely serious. I'm terrible with names and at some point early in our acquaintence I simply forgot her name. Unfortunately for me, she always greets me with a cheerful "Hey, Drek!" so I'm absolutely certain she knows mine. So, I'm left in the delicate position of needing a way to get her to tell me her name again- and preferrably without alerting her to my dreadful memory.

Any ideas?

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Confidential (Not at all) to TDEC...

If you were concerned about a lack of contact with Slag over the last few days it's because, characteristically, he misplaced his cell phone charger. Alas, as a result, his contact with the outside world was severely curtailed and he was left at the mercy of both myself and our local hoteliers. It is difficult to say which was less helpful.

He found it this morning while packing up to leave. You should hear from him again soon.

Yep. Lost cell charger. Definitely not for any other reason.

Yeah.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Hurricane Katrina wrap-up.

For today's post first check out the movie available from this update on Crooks and Liars. I know it's old, but it's only five minutes long and is worth seeing. Seriously. If you haven't seen it, you need to.

Then, read this article from the Washington Post on Bush's intent to find what went wrong with the Katrina relief effort. You know... like he went out and found Osama bin Laden.

Then, go read this article from the New York Times explaining how Michael "Brownie" Brown of FEMA just happened to decide to resign. Of course, he denies that he's being made a scapegoat to protect certain other parties.

Then watch this video from this post over at Crooks and Liars. You know- this is where Bush claims that his performace in regards to Katrina was extraordinary.

No, you sanctimonious son of a bitch, your performance was not extraordinary. It was abyssmal. Your entire presidency has been so bad, so appallingly horrid, that the following image seems utterly correct:



You have been an unmitigated disaster for the United States and the world. Even your own spin-czars seem to have realised the full scale of this disaster in that, for the first time, you're finally taking responsibility for something. I must admit, I'm surprised and pleased. Maybe now you'll consider the evidence suggesting that your own policies contributed to this nightmare?

Nah, I doubt it.

Don't worry, though. We have some good advice for you.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Confidential (Sort of) to Slag

Slag: I finally found your voicemail this morning and realized you're in town. Sorry I didn't spot it earlier- the way my phone works, it doesn't remind me that I have voicemail after the first time, and I am quite forgetful. None of this will, I know, come as a shock.

I tried calling your cell, but as of right now the phone company insists that "all circuits are busy." Busy doing what, I can only speculate on, but that's what they say.

So, I'm going to e-mail you a second number to your blog-mail account. Somehow one of us should be able to track the other down. Eventually.

Maybe?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Um... what?

I don't know what I like about this more:

You Are Likely A Forth Born

At your darkest moments, you feel angry.
At work and school, you do best when your analyzing.
When you love someone, you tend to be very giving.

In friendship, you don't take the initiative in reaching out.
Your ideal jobs are: factory jobs, comedy, and dentistry.
You will leave your mark on the world with your own personal philosophy.


Is it that I'm actually a second born, or that I don't even know what a forth born is? We're not talking fourth born here, people, but rather forth born.

Yeah.

Could it be my list of suggested occupations? Who knew factory work, comedy, and dentistry were so closely related? Then again, if you do a bad job at any of those three you stand a good chance of causing someone pain, so maybe they are a little alike.

Then there's also the distressing confusion of "your" with "you're." Seriously, I feel like I'm reading an undergraduate paper here.

And the really scary thing is, by that standard, it ain't half bad.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Turner Tuesday Volume I

Welcome to the first episode of Turner Tuesday, our regular feature where we dissect one chapter of the infamous Turner Diaries. You will remember two weeks ago when I announced this new feature- an announcement that was met by some interesting reactions from some interesting people. In any case, I have not been dissuaded from my plan, so here we go.

In today's inaugural episode we will dissect- big surprise- Chapter 1. Chapter one serves two main purposes within the overall book. First, it introduces the characters and settings in a cursory way. This provides the reader with a reference point from which to understand the following chapters. Secondly, however, it sets the narrative "hook." The narrative hook is some sort of interesting, or appealing, revelation that holds the reader's interest and keeps them reading. So, like a fish hook, it keeps the victim on the line. This first chapter sets this hook in the very first sentences:

September 16, 1991. Today it finally began! After all these years of talking-and nothing but talking-we have finally taken our first action. We are at war with the System, and it is no longer a war of words.


Of course the preceding sentences will grab one's attention- they're talking about a new war, and the causes of a war and its combatants are always a source of considerable interest.

The first sentences also introduce a convention that will continue throughout the remainder of the book: the use of the term "system." When the Turner Diaries refer to "the system" they are actually talking about the government of the United States of America. So, understanding that, we can rewrite the first sentence to read: "We are at war with the United States, and it is no longer a war of words." Or, to be even more accurate, "We are committing open treason against the United States." William Pierce, the author of the Turner Diaries, uses this convention for a simple reason: he does not want to remind his readers any more than necessary that his book is discussing rebellion against the United States. He wants to divorce his readers from that reality- to target them on a faceless "system" rather than the country they live in. He doubtless believed that doing so would make his message more palatable to his intended audience and he was likely correct.

Shortly after these first sentences, our narrator, who remains unintroduced, begins to recount the events that led to his current situation:

...nearly 18 months after the Cohen Act had outlawed all private ownership of firearms in the United States. It was only because so many of us defied the law and hid our weapons instead of turning them in that the government wasn't able to act more harshly against us after the Gun Raids.

I'll never forget that terrible day: November 9, 1989. They knocked on my door at five in the morning. I was completely unsuspecting as I got up to see who it was.

I opened the door, and four Negroes came pushing into the apartment before I could stop them. One was carrying a baseball bat, and two had long kitchen knives thrust into their belts. The one with the bat shoved me back into a corner and stood guard over me with his bat raised in a threatening position while the other three began ransacking my apartment.

My first thought was that they were robbers. Robberies of this sort had become all too common since the Cohen Act, with groups of Blacks forcing their way into White homes to rob and rape, knowing that even if their victims had guns they probably would not dare use them.

Then the one who was guarding me flashed some kind of card and informed me that he and his accomplices were "special deputies" for the Northern Virginia Human Relations Council. They were searching for firearms, he said.


Several details are notable in the above. First, the disarming of the population is supposedly accomplished under the "Cohen Act." Pierce has a habit of attributing anything he regards negatively to those with Jewish names. Thus, the violation of American constitutional rights is accomplished via the "Cohen Act." This is not accidental- it is part of Pierce's effort to instill anti-semitism in his readers. He attempts to do so, however, by simply depicting Jews as evil, rather than by coming out and arguing so. This is an attempt to slip his ideas in through the back door, where his readers are vulnerable, rather than treating them as intelligent human beings. As we will see, this disrespect for the readers is a cornerstone of Pierce's work.

Then again, Pierce probably has no choice since I have a hard time imagining a logical argument that would convince me that all members of an ethnic group are bad.

It is, secondly, worth wondering exactly how the so-called "Cohen Act" could have been enacted, given that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right to bear arms. Granted, there is an argument that the second amendment doesn't guarantee an individual right to arms, but only the right for the States to keep organized militias, but gun ownership is deeply entrenched in U.S. society and that is unlikely to change any time soon. Certainly it will not change by 1991 which, so far as I can tell, was 14 years ago. All this "Cohen Act" nonsense reflects another of Pierce's habits: presenting difficult, improbable events as fact without providing a plausible explanation for how they came to pass. Again, this shows his disrespect for the readers, in essence asking that they just trust him.

Finally, we come to his description of African-Americans which, as always, paints them as violent, stupid, and slovenly. Those in Pierce's description are immediately associated with rape, robbery, and murder and the argument is made that African-Americans naturally commit such crimes whenever their potential victims are not armed and able to defend themselves. Given that many Americans do not own guns, and that most crimes are committed against victims of the same race as the attacker, this argument makes no sense whatsoever. It is additionally rather silly to depict these representatives of the government as being armed with baseball bats and kitchen knives. In the event that large-scale raids were necessary, I think it vastly more likely that they would be conducted by uniformed National Guard units- not by poorly armed, badly identified people essentially picked up off of the street.

Of course, as it turns out, our protaganist does have a gun:

Right after the Cohen Act was passed, all of us in the Organization had cached our guns and ammunition where they weren't likely to be found. Those in my unit had carefully greased our weapons, sealed them in an oil drum, and spent all of one tedious weekend burying the drum in an eight-foot-deep pit 200 miles away in the woods of western Pennsylvania.

But I had kept one gun out of the cache. I had hidden my .357 magnum revolver and 50 rounds of ammunition inside the door frame between the kitchen and the living room. By pulling out two loosened nails and removing one board from the door frame I could get to my revolver in about two minutes flat if I ever needed it. I had timed myself.

But a police search would never uncover it. And these inexperienced Blacks couldn't find it in a million years.

After the three who were conducting the search had looked in all the obvious places, they began slitting open my mattress and the sofa cushions. I protested vigorously at this and briefly considered trying to put up a fight.

About that time there was a commotion out in the hallway. Another group of searchers had found a rifle hidden under a bed in the apartment of the young couple down the hall. They had both been handcuffed and were being forcibly escorted toward the stairs. Both were clad only in their underwear, and the young woman was complaining loudly about the fact that her baby was being left alone in the apartment.

Another man walked into my apartment. He was a Caucasian, though with an unusually dark complexion. He also wore a green armband, and he carried an attache case and a clipboard.


In this passage we see, again, a number of elements introduced. First, we receive the first mention of "the organization," which is the band of white supremacist terrorists that Pierce writes about in such loving terms. In addition to an introduction, the above mention serves another purpose: it describes in concept how a potential band of terrorists could conceal a cache of weapons in relative safety. Indeed, this is one of Pierce's favorite techniques: the blending of narrative, and instruction in terrorism, into the same segment of prose.

Our protaganist is also, obviously, quite clever in that he both kept a concealed weapon, secreted it in a secure place, and practiced the steps necessary to get to it quickly. These are all habits that Pierce would doubtless like to instill in his readers- though he certainly hasn't given them reason to do so.

Or has he? The idea of strange people entering your home, threatening you, and then destroying your property would certainly be enough to make most people long for the means to defend themselves. Perhaps Pierce's connection of the weapons to African-Americans behaving in a way very much like robbers is not entirely accidental. Perhaps he means to threaten his audience with the idea that, if they do not arm themselves, they too will be victimized. Ah yes- the sweet, sweet smell of paranoia!

Another theme that makes a strong appearance here is the treatment of common citizens in a heartless and cruel manner by the legal authorities. The young couple Pierce describes had a weapon hidden under a bed and, as a result, are drug into public in their underwear- clearly a humiliating experience. Further, the female member protests this because their baby is being left unattended- something virtually all of us would object to. The scene is approximately as melodramatic as you could possibly want. The evil, stupid authorities dragging off two good, young kids in their underwear while their little baby cries and suffers in neglect. All we need is a mustage-twirling villian and the setting will be perfect.

Fortunately, we don't have long to wait as a dark-skinned caucasian man enters. This, additionally, gives us two new themes. The first theme is that, even when working in the service of the "System" (i.e. the U.S. Government) African-Americans are too stupid to operate without the supervision of Caucasians. This assertion is, to put it simply, absurd. At the same time, however, the description of the supervisor as "dark skinned" serves as a way for Pierce to separate his good, decent white people off from the corrupt and inferior darker skinned peoples. He simultaneously argues for the necessity of white blood to make a good supervisor, while still blaming behavior he disagrees with on contamination from another race. To do both in a single paragraph is no mean feat.

The supervisor pulls out a metal detector and quickly locates the protaganist's weapon, despite his careful concealment, and the narrator finds himself on a cold street while the raid continues. Of course, if the young couple wasn't enough for you, the situation rapidly grows more ridiculous:

In addition to the couple down the hall, there was an elderly man from the fourth floor. They hadn't found a firearm in his apartment, but they had found four shotgun shells on his closet shelf. Ammunition was also illegal.


Our villian has been quite busy indeed.

So is to become of our unfortunate criminals? Well, the author explains:

...the Cohen Act made him [another individual mentioned in the narrative] liable to ten years imprisonment in a Federal penitentiary if he kept them [guns].

That was the penalty the four of us on the sidewalk were facing. It didn't work out that way, though. The reason it didn't is that the raids which were carried out all over the country that day netted a lot more fish than the System had counted on: more than 800,000 persons were arrested.

At first the news media tried hard to work up enough public sentiment against us so that the arrests would stick. The fact that there weren't enough jail cells in the country to hold us all could be remedied by herding us into barbed-wire enclosures outdoors until new prison facilities could be readied, the newspapers suggested. In freezing weather!

I still remember the Washington Post headline the next day: "Fascist-Racist Conspiracy Smashed, Illegal Weapons Seized." But not even the brainwashed American public could fully accept the idea that nearly a million of their fellow citizens had been engaged in a secret, armed conspiracy.


All this serves several purposes. First, it asserts that many, many individuals would keep their weapons in violation of a federal law outlawing them. This is, quite simply, done to make the reader feel as though opposition to the government would be widespread and, therefore, safer. Secondly, it argues that most Americans are "brainwashed" by the mainstream media. This second point is a crucial one- since Pierce's intent is to foment rebellion against the United States, he must first convince his readers to ignore counter-arguments. Since nobody likes to feel duped, once someone has been convinced of the nefarious intent of most media, they will obviously seek out alternatives with a different message- like Pierce's book. This tactic has, sadly, become more and more popular in some circles.

So, the government has to let most of its detainees go, lacking the space to hold them- an action which, of course, encourages the reader to believe that popular action against the government will be successful. The Organization that Pierce mentioned is divided as to what to do following these raids. Part of its membership advocates for going underground and inactive, but their perspective is not the only one:

The more militant members, on the other hand, were for digging up our weapons caches and unleashing a program of terror against the System immediately, carrying out executions of Federal judges, newspaper editors, legislators, and other System figures. The time was ripe for such action, they felt, because in the wake of the Gun Raids we could win public sympathy for such a campaign against tyranny.


Thus, the core of the book comes clean: the encouragement and waging of a terrorist war against the United States, the "System" that Pierce heaps with so much venom. Yet, despite the clarity of the description, Pierce continues to refer only to the System, and not to the United States, delicately skirting the patriotism of his readers. Indeed, even using it in places to further his treasonous intent:

It is hard to say now whether the militants were right. Personally, I think they were wrong-although I counted myself as one of them at the time. We could certainly have killed a number of the creatures responsible for America's ills, but I believe we would have lost in the long run.

As we began to realize this, we were more discouraged than ever. We had based all our plans-in fact, the whole rationale of the Organization-on the assumption that Americans were inherently opposed to tyranny, and that when the System became oppressive enough they could be led to overthrow it. We had badly underestimated the degree to which materialism had corrupted our fellow citizens, as well as the extent to which their feelings could be manipulated by the mass media.

As long as the government is able to keep the economy somehow gasping and wheezing along, the people can be conditioned to accept any outrage. Despite the continuing inflation and the gradually declining standard of living, most Americans are still able to keep their bellies full today, and we must simply face the fact that that's the only thing which counts with most of them.


So, rather than simply avoiding the admission that he wants his readers to fight their own government, he depicts those that won't as brainwashed sheep who are too satisfied with their full bellies to fight for their liberties. This is a fairly common, and always-dirty, rhetorical trick: rather than defeat the arguments against you, simply claim that those who support those arguments are deluded or corrupt. This approach, attacking your opponent with ad hominem, is often a powerfully effective way to avoid having to defend a weak point. In this case Pierce uses it to try to convince his readers that any who disagree with his plan to betray his own government can't possibly be right because they are, themselves, poor examples of Americans.

As you can guess, Pierce's Organization isn't like that:

Discouraged and uncertain as we were, though, we began laying new plans for the future. First, we decided to maintain our program of public recruiting. In fact, we intensified it and deliberately made our propaganda as provocative as possible. The purpose was not only to attract new members with a militant disposition, but at the same time to purge the Organization of the fainthearts and hobbyists-the "talkers."

We also tightened up on discipline. Anyone who missed a scheduled meeting twice in a row was expelled. Anyone who failed to carry out a work assignment was expelled. Anyone who violated our rule against loose talk about Organizational matters was expelled.

We had made up our minds to have an Organization that would be ready the next time the System provided an opportunity to strike. The shame of our failure to act, indeed, our inability to act, in 1989 tormented us and drove us without mercy. It was probably the single most important factor in steeling our wills to whip the Organization into fighting trim, despite all obstacles.

...

Early last year we began putting a number of new members, unknown to the political police, into police agencies and various quasi-official organizations, such as the human relations councils. They served as our early-warning network and otherwise kept us generally informed of the System's plans against us.

We were surprised at the ease with which we were able to set up and operate this network. We never would have gotten away with it back in the days of J. Edgar Hoover.

It is ironic that while the Organization has always warned the public against the dangers of racial integration of our police, this has now turned out to be a blessing in disguise for us. The "equal opportunity" boys have really done a wonderful wrecking job on the FBI and other investigative agencies, and their efficiency is way down as a result. Still, we'd better not get over-confident or careless.


In reaction to the events Pierce described, his ideal organization molds itself more and more into a violent terrorist group. Here, as before, he provides an introduction to the mechanics of terrorism, showing how only the serious, the committed, the extremists can be allowed in. Similarly, he argues that moles must be driven into the organs of the state to interfere with its activity, and to report on its movements. He, further, glorifies this process, describing it glowingly as "...whip[ping] the Organization into fighting trim, despite all obstacles."

Of course, once more, those who aren't caucasian are depicted as being unavoidably incompetent, with the inclusion of non-white persons in the FBI rendering it less capable. Again, there is no argumentation here- just implication pretending to argument.

Thankfully, this brings us to the end of Chapter 1. So what has happened so far? Our protaganist has appeared, the future of America has been depicted quite unfavorably, non-Caucasians have been blamed for this future, if only implicitly, and the beginnings of a terrorist organization have been shown. Our would-be terrorists, further, are shown as not being criminals, but as being patriots who are trying to rescue "America" from "the System." All of these are themes that we can expect to see carried over into the following chapters, but that is a subject for another day.

Join us again next time when our "heroes" become petty thieves and murderers. No, seriously, they do. That doesn't make them all bad, though, as the narrator comments: "...if we are going to rob liquor stores we have to do it in a socially conscious way."

I don't know about you, but I can't wait!

Monday, September 12, 2005

I am a changed man.

It is well known to most of you that I am a damned dirty atheist. Moreover, I'm not just an atheist, but I'm a painfully materialist atheist. No, this doesn't mean that I'm obsessed with gathering possessions but, rather, means that I doubt the existence of anything beyond the physical universe. This, obviously, precludes the existence of an immaterial soul, a belief in ghosts, or acceptance of any other of the wacky invisible bogeymen that are the mainstay of many religions. What can I say? I'm a hardass.

Or was a hardass, anyway, because I have had a conversion experience. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have been exposed to a new gospel, and a new god, whose grace and magnificence overwhelms me. I have received the good word of the true lord of all creation, He who made the world- the mountains, the trees, and midgets. I have learned of the good works that He does, and I now know the joy of being touched by His noodly appendage. I refer, of course, to the Flying Spagetti Monster, who looks down upon us from on high and promises many rewards in the afterlife, including a beer volcano and a stripper factory. Gaze ye heathens upon his visage and weep, for now you know your true master!



I would speak more of the teachings of the Flying Spagetti Monster but to do so would be sinful as I am not wearing full pirate regalia. To teach His word without wearing the raiment of His pastaficience angers Him and, believe you me, you don't want to anger the Flying Spagetti Monster. To know more about the love of the Spagetti Monster you should spend some time reading the gospel according to his Prophet who has given us a bold look into the birth of makind during the original creation:



Indeed, an aweseome sight. Yet, the majesty of the Flying Spagetti Monster does not end here. In the style of Dan Brown those who worship his Noodleness, the Pastafarians, have discovered the presence of the Flying Spagetti Monster in works of art:



As well as in the observations of the night sky:



A god of such magnificance, such pastaficience, truly is worthy of our adoration. Also, more importantly, He is clearly a superior being to those that others want taught in the classroom. As they say, we must teach the controversy. Also, just as clearly, several members of the Kansas School Board agree. It is, indeed, a bright dawn for Pastafarianism!

I urge you to read more about it, paying special attention to the academic and political endorsements. Equally important, be sure to support the movement by volunteering or purchasing some fine Flying Spagetti Monster merchandise, including a selection of fine car emblems:



And of course, last but not least, be sure and play the flash game. Any religion that comes with an online game is, after all, pretty sweet.

All praises be to Him and His noodly appendages.

Yaarrrrr!

UPDATE: Coincidentally, the guys over at Sore Thumbs have produced a rather charming comic about the Flying Spagetti Monster.

Okay, seriously, I haven't converted to Pastafarianism, though I must confess a rather substantial sympathy towards it. I will, however, observe that the Flying Spagetti Monster is no more ridiculous a choice for supreme being than some other more popular invisible friends.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Bait and Switch

Amidst the ongoing controversy about what went wrong in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, I would like to offer a two-step process to gaining some insight.

First, go read Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael "Brownie" Brown's biography, as given on the FEMA website.

Second, go read this article in Time Magazine.

I guess we shouldn't be surprised. I mean, Bush lied about the weapons of mass destruction- in comparison to that, a little resume padding is nothing.

At least until a city and its populace are virtually annihilated.

I think we've been using the wrong Brownie.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Eloquence.

The following was written by Tim Wise. Mr. Wise is the author of two new books: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005). He lived in New Orleans from 1986-1996.



This is an open letter to the man sitting behind me at La Paz today, in Nashville, at lunchtime, with the Brooks Brothers shirt:

You don't know me. But I know you.

I watched you as you held hands with your tablemates at the restaurant where we both ate this afternoon. I listened as you prayed, and thanked God for the food you were about to eat, and for your own safety, several hundred miles away from the unfolding catastrophe in New Orleans.

You blessed your chimichanga in the name of Jesus Christ, and then proceeded to spend the better part of your meal--and mine, since I was too near your table to avoid hearing every word--morally scolding the people of that devastated city, heaping scorn on them for not heeding the warnings to leave before disaster struck. Then you attacked them--all of them, without distinction it seemed--for the behavior of a relative handful: those who have looted items like guns, or big screen TVs.

I heard you ask, amid the din of your colleagues "Amens," why it was that instead of pitching in to help their fellow Americans, the people of New Orleans instead--again, all of them in your mind--chose to steal and shoot at relief helicopters.

I watched you wipe salsa from the corners of your mouth, as you nodded agreement to the statement of one of your friends, sitting to your right, her hair neatly coiffed, her makeup flawless, her jewelry sparkling. When you asked, rhetorically, why it was that people were so much more decent amid the tragedy of 9-11, as compared to the aftermath of Katrina, she had offered her response, but only after apologizing for what she admitted was going to sound harsh.

"Well," Buffy explained. "It's probably because in New Orleans, it seems to be mostly poor people, and you know, they just don't have the same regard."

She then added that police should shoot the looters, and should have done so from the beginning, so as to send a message to the rest that theft would not be tolerated. You, who had just thanked Jesus for your chips and guacamole, said you agreed. They should be shot. Praise the Lord.

Your God is one with whom I am not familiar.

Two thoughts.

First, it is a very fortunate thing for you, and likely for me, that my two young children were with me as I sat there, choking back fish tacos and my own seething rage, listening to you pontificate about shit you know nothing about.

Have you ever even been to New Orleans?

And no, by that I don't mean the New Orleans of your company's sales conference. I don't mean Emeril's New Orleans, or the New Orleans of Uptown Mardi Gras parties.

I mean the New Orleans that is buried as if it were Atlantis, in places like the lower 9th ward: 98 percent black, 40 percent poor, where bodies are floating down the street, flowing with the water as it seeks its own level. Have you met the people from that New Orleans? The New Orleans that is dying as I write this, and as you order another sweet tea?

I didn't think so.

Your God--the one to whom you prayed today, and likely do before every meal, because this gesture proves what a good Christian you are--is one with whom I am not familiar.

Your God is one who you sincerely believe gives a flying fuck about your lunch. Your God is one who you seem to believe watches over you and blesses you, and brings good tidings your way, while simultaneously letting thousands of people watch their homes be destroyed, and perhaps ten thousand or more die, many of them in the streets for lack of water or food.

Did you ever stop to think just what a rancid asshole such a God would have to be, such that he would take care of the likes of you, while letting babies die in their mother's arms, and old people in wheelchairs, at the foot of Canal Street?

Your God is one with whom I am not familiar.

But no, it isn't God who's the asshole here, Skip (or Brad, or Braxton, or whatever your name is).

God doesn't feed you, and it isn't God that kept me from turning around and beating your lily white privileged ass today either.

God has nothing to do with it.

God doesn't care who wins the Super Bowl.

God doesn't help anyone win an Academy Award.

God didn't get you your last raise, or your SUV.

And if God is even half as tired as I am of having to listen to self-righteous bastards like you blame the victims of this nightmare for their fate, then you had best eat slowly from this point forward.

Why didn't they evacuate like they were told?

Are you serious?

There are 100,000 people in that city without cars. Folks who are too poor to own their own vehicle, and who rely on public transportation every day. I know this might shock you. They don't have a Hummer2, or whatever gas-guzzling piece of crap you either already own or probably are saving up for.

And no, they didn't just choose not to own a car because the buses are so gosh-darned efficient and great, as Rush Limbaugh implied yesterday, and as you likely heard, since you're the kind of person who hangs on the every word of such bloviating hacks as these.

Why did they loot?

Are you serious?

People are dying, in the streets, on live television. Fathers and mothers are watching their baby's eyes bulge in their skulls from dehydration, and you are begrudging them some Goddamned candy bars, diapers and water?

If anything the poor of New Orleans have exercised restraint.

Maybe you didn't know it, but the people of that city with whom you likely identify--the wealthy white folks of Uptown--were barely touched by this storm. Yeah, I guess God was watching over them: protecting them, and rewarding them for their faith and superior morality. If the folks downtown who are waiting desperately for their government to send help--a government whose resources have been stretched thin by a war that I'm sure you support, because you love freedom and democracy--were half as crazed as you think, they'd march down St. Charles Avenue right now and burn every mansion in sight. That they aren't doing so suggests a decency and compassion for their fellow man and woman that sadly people like you lack.

Can you even imagine what you would do in their place?

Can you imagine what would happen if it were well-off white folks stranded like this without buses to get them out, without nourishment, without hope?

Putting aside the absurdity of the imagery--after all, such folks always have the means to seek safety, or the money to rebuild, or the political significance to ensure a much speedier response for their concerns--can you just imagine?

Can you imagine what would happen if the pampered, overfed corporate class, which complains about taxes taking a third of their bloated incomes, had to sit in the hot sun for four, going on five days? Without a Margarita or hotel swimming pool to comfort them I mean?

Oh, and please, I know. I'm stereotyping you. Imagine that. I've assumed, based only on your words, what kind of person you are, even though I suppose I could be wrong. How does that feel Biff? Hurt your feelings? So sorry. But hey, at least my stereotypes of you aren't deadly. They won't effect your life one bit, unlike the ones you carry around with you and display within earshot of people like me, supposing that no one could possibly disagree.

But I'm not wrong am I Chip? I know you. I see people like you all the time, in airports, in business suits, on their lunch breaks. People who will take advantage of any opportunity to ratify and reify their pre-existing prejudices towards the poor, towards black folks. You see the same three video loops of the same dozen or so looters on Fox News and you conclude that poor black people are crazy, immoral, criminal.

You, or others quite a bit like you, are the ones posting messages on chat room boards, calling looters sub-human "vermin," "scum," or "cockroaches." I heard you use the word "animals" three times today: you and that woman across from you--what was her name? Skyler?

What was it you said as you scooped the last bite of black beans and rice into your eager mouth? Like zoo animals? Yes, I think that was it.

Well, Chuck, it's a free country, and so you certainly have the right I suppose to continue lecturing the poor, in between checking your Blackberry and dropping the kids off at soccer practice. If you want to believe that the poor of New Orleans are immoral and greedy, and unworthy of support at a time like this--or somehow more in need of your scolding than whatever donation you might make to a relief fund--so be it.

But let's leave God out of it, shall we? All of it.

Your God is one with whom I am not familiar, and I'd prefer to keep it that way.

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