Keeping the faith, or, “What?”

Now just … just … I mean … what?

The Malaysian government has reversed a decision to ban a Christian newspaper using the word Allah to refer to God.

The government had threatened to refuse to give the Weekly Herald a publishing permit if it continued to use the word.

The paper’s editor said the word had long been used by Christians to refer to God in the Malay language.

The ruling was immediately condemned by civil rights and Christian groups in Malaysia, who said it infringed their right to practice their religion.

But Malaysia’s internal security department demanded the word be removed, saying only Muslims could use it.

I mean … er … hang on ….


Now the government has back-tracked.

In a fax to the Herald’s editor, the government says it will get its 2008 permit, with no conditions attached.

Father Andrew Lawrence told the BBC he was delighted, saying prayers had been answered.

He blamed politics and a general election expected here in 2008 year for what he said were the actions of a few over-zealous ministers in the Muslim-dominated Malay government.

Religious issues are highly sensitive in Malaysia, which has a 60% Muslim population.

Religious freedom is guaranteed in the law but minority groups have accused the Muslim Malay majority of trying to increase the role of Islam in the country.

Okay, in the first place, I’m sorry: that’s the whole damn article.

But … what?

Let me see if I have this straight. In a country that is 60% Muslim, at a time when minority groups are accusing Muslims of trying to increase Islamic clout in the government, a Christian newspaper is threatened with closure because it uses the word “Allah”?

Okay, okay … even the short BBC News article gives us a glimpse at the deeper issues, such as Malay Christians who use the name, and grandstanding during an election year, and whatever. But still ….

All quiet on the Iowa front?

Question: What does it take to silence politicians?
Answer: Fear.

That’s right. Good, ol’ fashioned, fear. The kind of fear that is mere smoke and mirrors, a sleight of logic built up in one’s own mind. Kind of like being afraid of the Devil.

Chris Cilliza and Shailagh Murray take on the matter of what seems to be a dearth of candidate endorsements among prominent Democrats in advance of the Iowa caucuses later this week. The first part is the kind of pabulum best left in the past, say, when writing filler for the junior-high school newspaper, speculating about the silence of such top Democrats as Al Gore, John Kerry, and … uh … Chuck Grassley. Huh? Oh, well, it’s an Iowa thing. Fine. Never mind.

The second portion is mildly … er … less bad. Okay, that’s not fair. What appears to be Cilliza’s part is as fine a point as any for a superficial dipping of the toe to test the political waters:

The final week before any high-profile election is usually filled with charges and countercharges by the leading candidates — generally delivered via hundreds of television commercials.

But, with the Iowa caucuses just days away, it looks as if not a single truly “negative” ad (or even the more mild “comparative” commercial) will run before Hawkeye State Democrats gather on Thursday.

Negativity is not absent, by any means, from the brawl at the front of the pack, but as Cillizza notes, “Thin gruel, to say the least.”

The Obama campaign, for instance, took an oblique swipe at a labor group’s independent expenditure campaign on behalf of Senator Clinton’s run for the Ticket, accusing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees of “spending millions to stop change”. And Clinton has lashed out, but at President Bush, inviting television viewers to speculate how the year would have gone with a different executive. The Edwards campaign focused its negative energies against American corporations, which is by now standard fare.

Cillizza asks, “Whatever happened to good old knock-down, drag-out politics?” It is, I suppose, a fair question. And Erik Smith, a Democratic consultant whose credentials include former Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt’s 2004 campaign, made the point that unintended consequences make risk dangerous in a tight race:

“In a tight multi-candidate primary, the overriding concern is the ricochet,” Smith said. “Each candidate needs to make their strongest possible closing argument, and there is no appetite for the potential unintended consequences of a negative ad this late in a competitive race.”

Candidates worried about a ricochet need only look back to 2004. In that race, Gephardt and former Vermont governor Howard Dean unloaded on each other for weeks on television, only to watch it backfire as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Edwards shot the gap into first and second place in the caucuses.

Although let’s be clear on this one: Gephardt never stood a chance to begin with. It is, in a way, strange to think that it is the scream that finally hauled Dean into the abyss. Playing Kilkenny cats with Dick Gephardt seems an unwise tactical decision, although there is something to be said with polishing your source’s credentials.

Quite obviously, though, the risk factor is enormous. The ugly spectacle of the Clinton and Obama campaigns fighting over foreign policy hurt them both in July, when John Edwards took the lead in a poll by Des Moines television station KCCI, largely on the merit of his colleagues’ six-point slips over the course of a month.

Perhaps more importantly, though—or, at least, we hope it is—this is a year in which many Democrats and supporters feel the White House is theirs for the taking. A Republican victory, as many see it, will depend on a spectacular dissolution of the Democratic push for the White House. And while the Democratic congressional leadership might be doing their best to help President Bush and the Republicans, the presidential candidates are, for the time being at least, still trying to focus their energies winning.

And while we can only wait to find out what the six days ‘twixt Iowa and New Hampshire will bring, it is enough that the Democratic candidates should remember the simple fact that, in the end, they are all on the same team. It’s not like I don’t have my favorites, and it’s not like one of the front runners doesn’t worry me at least a little. But right now all are polling well against the GOP, and I would support any of the Democratic candidates—yes, even Mike Gravel, if … er … well, yeah—come the general election in November. So for now the outlook is positive for Democratic voters, and it would serve the candidates well to remember that through this primary season. Someone is going to win in Iowa, and if it’s close, as polls suggest it will be, we really need the candidates to keep the larger goal in mind. If someone—especially a front runner—gets blown out of the water, it will not be time to panic, and Democratic voters should, I believe, make a point of actually punishing any candidates who forget this and come out blazing angrily after their colleagues.

So the voters should take note: politicians are human beings, too, insofar as fear is one of the most effective influences around. As long as the candidates are under the impression that everything is on the line, they will hesitate. It will be a matter of discipline if the primary season keeps the front runners in close combat; the potential backlash is far greater than any minor statistical gain that a negative advert can offer. Who will break first? And how much damage can they do, not to their opponents but to an already precarious Democratic Party and our hope for the nation’s future future? That hope, after all, while cynics would, perhaps properly, call it irrational, is what keeps these candidates relevant.

Wow. Look at all those commas.

We, the voters, ought not be afraid. We ought to be willing to say, “We’ll come down to your offices and make an ugly scene.”  We can make that spectral fear of backlash real and true.  Let’s see who breaks first. Let’s see who gets desperate and goes negative against fellow Democrats. If the Clinton-Obama slip in July was not enough to make the point clear, consider Cillizza’s comment about Edwards:

Edwards rode to a surprisingly strong second-place finish in 2004 on the strength of his sunny optimism, and his numbers have moved up of late as he has transitioned back into that message for the final days of this campaign.

In the first place, a note to Mr. Cillizza: “transition” is a fucking noun!

More relevantly, while the decision of the Democratic candidates to lay into Hillary Clinton in November may have knocked the New York Senator off her pedestal, the spectacle was comedic fodder that only hurt the Democrats’ stature—already weakened by Congressional policy failures—in the eyes of many.

This is a time when we need the good vibrations. Save the mudslinging for another day. Remember that, when the time comes for the chosen candidate to make a final run for the White House, just about any truth to be told about the GOP will be seen as mudslinging. The rhetorical arsenals will be burgeoning, and it would be best if, when Republicans head out with their shovels to find something to throw back, they’re not simply echoing the Democratic field.

One of those pictures

I know it’s superficial, but how much does this picture look like a scene from a movie or video game? If e’er a film is made about the death of Benazir Bhutto—and I would guess the chances are at least fair to middlin’—this scene ought to be included in the trailer.

Anjum Naveed, December, 2007

A supporter of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto chants
anti-government slogans in front of a burning pile of wood during
clashes in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Mass rioting following the
assassination of Bhutto has led to the deaths of 38 people and
caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, the government said.
(AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
(December 29, 2007)

Be the best at what you do (a dubious honor)

Whatever you do, make sure you do it better than anyone else. I’m doubting this is the all-time record, but hey ….

When they got Meagan Harper to the hospital, her blood alcohol level was .55 percent — about seven times greater than Oregon’s legal limit for driving.

You just don’t see numbers that high,” said Dr. Mohamud Daya, an Oregon Health & Science University associate professor and emergency room physician.

At that level, some people are so drunk they stop breathing, he said.

Harper has drunken driving convictions in Washington and Multnomah counties and was convicted in Wasco County of operating a boat while intoxicated, said Ryan Chiotti, deputy district attorney in Clackamas County. He said she is on probation for driving under the influence and is awaiting trial on another drunken driving charge next month.

A Clackamas deputy found her passed out in a car at a pizza restaurant on Nov. 28.

Judge Gilroy, for the record, did tell Ms. Harper to get help. And we should hope she finds it, because it seems a rather dubious title to be the Most Dangerous Drunk in Three Counties.

A nod, of course, to the Associated Press and Seattle Times.

Good Christian people

What is the difference between superstition and religion? Is it a quantitative difference? A systematic notion? If you compile a certain number of superstitions under one label, can you call it a religion?

Often the difference is a fundamental matter as old as human association; whatever one person believes, he or she would call a religion. What their neighbor believes, though, if it does not match up, is merely superstition. The underlying theme is one of knowledge and ignorance. If you have the “right” faith, it is knowledge. If you have the “wrong” faith, it is merely superstition, the stuff of ignorant people.

Which brings us to a BBC News report from the town of Reeves, Louisiana:

Christian residents of Reeves have been complaining since the early 1960s about being given the prefix, 666 – known in the Bible as the “number of the beast”.

For the next three months, households will be able to change the first three digits of their phone numbers to 749.

Mayor Scott Walker said CenturyTel’s decision was “divine intervention”.

However, he admitted it helped that Louisiana’s two senators had also lobbied for the change with the phone company and the state Public Service Commission.

“It’s been a black eye for our town, a stigma,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s anything bad on us, just an image,” he added. “We’re good Christian people.”

I agree with Mayor Walker: the fact of the 666 prefix code certainly should not reflect poorly on the town or its residents. Unfortunately, the superstition speaks volumes. These are, after all, “good Christian people” who, apparently, are afraid of their telephones.

And I used to think the Seinfeld episode was stupid ….

The news on drugs

I’m not entirely sure what to make of these. First, FOX News (?!) reports:

Certain marijuana components may suppress the tumors of highly invasive cancers, a new study finds.

In laboratory tests, cannabinoids, the active components in marijuana, were found to slow the spread of lung and cervical cancer tumors, according to researchers Robert Ramer and Burkhard Hinz of the University of Rostock in Germany.

Proponents of medical marijuana believe that cannabinoids reduce the side effects of cancer treatment, such as pain, weight loss and vomiting.

The study, published in the Jan. 2 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, finds that the compounds may also have an anticancer effect; however, more research is needed to determine whether the laboratory results will hold true in humans, the authors wrote.

If, like me, you shook your head while reading that and thought, “FOX is having one over on me”, you can try getting it from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Robert Ramer and Burkhard Hinz write:

Increased expression of TIMP-1 mediates an anti-invasive effect of cannabinoids. Cannabinoids may therefore offer a therapeutic option in the treatment of highly invasive cancers.

In other strange drug-related news … are you ready for this? DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has apparently invented something we never could have imagined: a drug that you snort in order to feel more awake.

Right. Alexis Madrigal brings us this news for Wired:

A nasal spray containing a naturally occurring brain hormone called orexin A reversed the effects of sleep deprivation in monkeys, allowing them to perform like well-rested monkeys on cognitive tests. The discovery’s first application will probably be in treatment of the severe sleep disorder narcolepsy.

The treatment is “a totally new route for increasing arousal, and the new study shows it to be relatively benign,” said Jerome Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and a co-author of the paper. “It reduces sleepiness without causing edginess.”

Orexin A is a promising candidate to become a “sleep replacement” drug. For decades, stimulants have been used to combat sleepiness, but they can be addictive and often have side effects, including raising blood pressure or causing mood swings. The military, for example, administers amphetamines to pilots flying long distances, and has funded research into new drugs like the stimulant modafinil (.pdf) and orexin A in an effort to help troops stay awake with the fewest side effects.

The monkeys were deprived of sleep for 30 to 36 hours and then given either orexin A or a saline placebo before taking standard cognitive tests. The monkeys given orexin A in a nasal spray scored about the same as alert monkeys, while the saline-control group was severely impaired.

Perhaps it is a side note, but Madrigal’s article brings up one other point, and since this entry led off with a bit about marijuana, it only seems fair to mention that, while pot smokers have for years noted that other drugs are legal, including nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine, including the latter on the list often brought scoffing responses. However, as the article notes:

…. [UCLA psychiatry professor Jerome] Siegel said that Americans already recognize that sleepiness is a problem and have long treated it with a variety of stimulants.

We have to realize that we are already living in a society where we are already self-medicating with caffeine,” he said.

Heckling the holidays

A few thoughts on this holiday season.

In the first place, I had not intended to say much specifically about the fact that Christmas is upon us, but it really is hard to ignore the obvious.

In the first place, we must recall that it is the giving, and not the getting, that is important through this season. Focusing on what we get, or what we expect, generally leads to pettiness, as a couple of simple examples will show. Because, in the first place, as they say, “It’s the thought that counts”. Which raises the question of thoughtless—or, if that word is too accusing for you, how about “low-thought” (97% thought-free!)—gifts.

A gift that went by the wayside this year was a small stocking-stuffer my mother had picked up for my daughter. Hairbands. Simple, necessary, and thoughtful. In the end, that gift has been nullified by a self-serve snip job; it didn’t really occur to me that the scissors were that available to my five year-old, but I was wrong. Whoops. No blood, lesson learned, life goes on. But the hairbands are officially useless. Which is a relief, I suppose, because while I’m saying more about it here than I ever would specifically, I’m still curious why so many people—and not just my mother—ignored a simple notion. Many hairbands are held together with a piece of crimped metal. Just look at the display in the store if you’re a shorthair and thus have little or no idea what I’m talking about. I have long held that these crimped sleeves are bad for long hair. Experience teaches that they break and pull out a lot of hair over time. I stopped using them a long time ago for my own hair. And over the years, people have, in kind gestures, provided me with hairbands that I do not use. And like I said, it’s not about this one gift from my mother. Even my daughter’s mother, who allegedly agrees with my assessment of the things, would buy them. I don’t resent the gifts, as such; I’m just glad it’s not something like a tie, where someone might wonder that I never use the gift they gave. And nor is it consistent; neither of the givers I’ve mentioned here are serial offenders on this count.

Myself, I bought a pair of pants the other day, and I’m glad I didn’t buy them as a gift for anyone else. I only bought the pants, quite literally, because they were there, and priced at a whole five dollars. I actually had to ask my brother, who was at the store with me, if I was reading correctly. We puzzled over the price, and then realized there were only a few pairs of these pants left. I did manage to find some in my size, though, and the issue was settled. But as anyone knows, men don’t actually need to try on pants. The size sticker on the leg is all I needed.

It turns out, though, that clearing limited stock was not the reason these pants were five dollars. It turns out that they are part of a signature line, Kenneth Cole’s “Reaction”. When I told a friend about the pants yesterday, she informed me that there is, apparently, a cologne and apparel line by this name; it makes sense, but who the hell is Kenneth Cole, anyway? Well, it turns out he’s a cheap bastard price-conscious designer. Snipping away the tags in order to wash the Chinese-made pants, I realized that the reason the extra buttons were included in a plastic zip-lock baggie more suitable for delivering crack was that the actual buttons sewn to the pants were ready to fall off. I expect to get one wearing of these pants before the poorly-threaded buttons simply fall off. Then again, if I get one use out of these pants, they’ve fulfilled their five-dollar mission.

Bottom line: I’m glad I didn’t buy any five-dollar pants as a gift for anyone else. Really, what would that have said?

And, yes, I understand. For some people, clearance price is what they can afford. And, yes, I understand that when it’s children you’re giving to, merchandise says more than sentiment ever could. “Bling”, as such, speaks louder than love.

And, besides, my daughter picked out some hairbands at the store not too long ago. Her criteria was the packaging, and she insisted on a pack that resembled a crayon box, and had thirty-two or so pastel-colored hairbands held together with crimped metal sleeves. And then, a couple days later, she swiped the scissors from the basket atop the fridge and rendered the question moot.

But when it’s not children learning by our giving the values of commercialization, effective branding, and how to envy the herd, some different rules apply. For years, I’ve had a bizarre relationship with Christmas. I don’t want to be a Scrooge. I’d just rather leave it to people who believe in things like saviors named Jesus Christ.

I’m not a Christian, and have not been for years. From the time I was allowed to make the decision for myself, this has been true. I’m a confirmed Lutheran and a willing graduate of a Jesuit high school, but I cannot recall a time when I ever actually, genuinely believed. Like many, I recall saying some prayers as a child because I was scared silly of God’s wrath, but I got over it. I think. Entering adulthood, I even attempted to withdraw from Christmas. It wasn’t my holiday. I actually tried telling people that they didn’t need to buy me gifts. Contrary to the stories we hear about parents using Christmas gifts to bribe religious faith out of their kids (“I guess that means you don’t believe in Christmas; I’ll just take back all your presents”), the notion that I did not want people buying me stuff actually offended a few people who actually looked forward to giving me stuff.



I mean, what the hell am I supposed to say to that?

Additionally, while I’m not Christian, certain lessons did stick with me through the years. Before I dropped out of college, I worked in specialty retail shop well-placed at a mall in Oregon. And I think it was July, 1994, when I found myself unpacking Christmas merchandise and signs to remind customers to do their holiday shopping early. I remember this because it was disturbing; people were already complaining that Christmas had trespassed on Thanksgiving and was creeping toward Hallowe’en, but July? It just seemed perverse. More than any affront to Jesus or Christian faith or Christmas itself, though, I simply found it a testament of what’s wrong with capitalism. (What? I was still a college student. That’s what college is for, right?) So more than the crass commercialization of Christmas, what has long offended me about the pop-culture holiday is that it’s the time of year we’re supposed to be good and helpful and decent to one another. I remember some of my Christian indoctrination, and part of what stuck is the idea that every day is a fine time for compassion and decency. For some reason, it seems our annual ritual of goodwill—also known as the holiday season—is expected to suffice. This should be especially apparent, since we’re only a couple of weeks away from the official start of political primary season.

And I am, indeed, a child of good fortune. My entire life, in some contexts, and certainly the whole of my comfort and opportunity most recently, depends on the compassion and goodwill of others. Those who know me are painfully aware of how I’ve fallen to pieces over the years, and also how unique are the conditions of my attempted recovery. The idea that anybody should be giving me any wrapped and tied Christmas presents strikes me as absurd. But now, as then, there are those whose hearts, it seems, would break if they didn’t.

The whole spectacle of the Christmas myth and what it brings to those around me is insane. It is a bizarre ritual that I would indict for missing its own point, except that nobody I know really cares, so it seems rather petty to worry about it. After all, as the season reminds, I’m one of the luckiest bastards on the planet, and it’s hard to sincerely complain. And, yes, the hurt that comes with knowing what an utter disappointment I’ve become is more acute during the period between Hallowe’en and the New Year, and drinking heavily for the latter doesn’t seem to help.

If you had what I have, well, of course you would see the absurdity—recognize a certain insanity—about the Christmas season. But, strangely, that’s part of the point. What I have is worth more than I can express, and I cannot wish anything less for anyone else. And I know that sounds paradoxical in a certain way. Again, that’s part of the point. But it should not detract from the obvious. If I am worthy of so much love and compassion and goodwill, it would seem that the same is the least I could wish for anyone else. And this, more than hairbands or five-dollar pants, more than brand-names and “bling”—more than the economic necessity of a yearly ritual providing, in some cases, a fifth of the year’s receipts and more—seems to be the purpose of the season.

A dubious season

‘Tis the season to make the point, I suppose. Harold Meyerson brought us this little gem in Wednesday’s Washington Post:

As Christians across the world prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, it’s a fitting moment to contemplate the mountain of moral, and mortal, hypocrisy that is our Christianized Republican Party ….

…. My concern isn’t the rift that has opened between Republican political practice and the vision of the nation’s Founders, who made very clear in the Constitution that there would be no religious test for officeholders in their enlightened new republic. Rather, it’s the gap between the teachings of the Gospels and the preachings of the Gospel’s Own Party that has widened past the point of absurdity, even as the ostensible Christianization of the party proceeds apace.

There is a spectre haunting American Christianity, and in the grand American tradition it is a Devil of their own making. Satan himself might rise and declare, “I accuse”; the faithful, for all their dependence on this ancient symbol given by their belief the power of flesh and blood, would be deaf to the call.

Meyerson concerns himself with national politics, which is indeed a fitting object for examination. He targets the White House, the House GOP, the Republican presidential candidates. The indictment, on the surface, seems to describe just another day in American politics. Contrasted against the religious faith alleged at the core of GOP support, though, and juxtaposed to the rhetoric of so many Republican politicians, it is a damning accusation, and if the Devil of Christian lore has nothing to say about the course of things, it is because he is so very pleased by what he sees. Any pro athlete will tell you: don’t mess with a winning streak.

The idea of a group so dedicated to Christian expression as to childishly reiterate supremacist ideology a few years ago when the court considered the Pledge of Allegiance seemed odd enough at the time. Treading at the edge of absurdity is the idea that such a Christian expression should reject what Jesus said in order to take up, in a twist nearly infinitely ironic, a superficial jihad: the last thing these “Christians” will do is turn the other cheek. Rather, they would pretend America blameless, assert that no hostility toward our nation and its people could ever be justified, and proceed to fight back until aggression ceases. It’s like the bully who grabs your face and slams the back of your skull against a locker at school. When someone finally hauls off and punches him, he pretends innocence. “I never hit him,” says the bully. And it’s true. Instead, he merely extorted, pushed around, tripped, harassed, threatened, insulted, kicked, vandalized, and stole. None of those actually describe the closing of a fist and throwing of a punch. And in a way, I am brought to recall any number of schoolyard fights where the  aggressor would shove his target, and the intended victim would not have it. “I’m gonna kick your ass,” the bully would sneer. “So go on. Throw the first punch.”

In retrospect it seems almost perverse, but bullies are human too, and will presume themselves innocent and oppressed. After all, psychologists will tell you that few bullies are actually psychopaths; the vast majority of bullies are simply redirecting other conflicts, many of which originate at home.

To a degree, then, we do owe the bullies a measure of sympathy. But how far should that sympathy extend?

It is a valid question because one thing terrifies Americans more than death itself. (And why should death be terrifying, since a majority of Americans, by their Christian faith, look forward to the end of the world?) Generally, Americans are frightened senseless at the notion of being called bigots. Even the bigots don’t want to be seen as bigots. They recognize that their hatred is foul, so they pretend to be holy warriors, righteously xenophobic victims beset by hordes of evil outsiders. Among Americans, everyone, including obvious aggressors, fights defensively. It is tactically wise and politically effective, even and especially when that defensive stance is counterintuitive. One might look at laments coming from various Christian quarters of late and wonder, How can you be oppressed when you’re in charge?

Although the situation seems blatant, the players clearly identifiable in the age of modern media, understanding the factors can be a bit challenging. Ideological currents running back to the early twentieth century, or into the nineteenth, make for discussions unto themselves; speak nothing, then, of those enduring nearly two millennia. Indeed, grasping the logic exercised by modern profiteers prophets can be a tricky issue, as the faith of personal prosperity appeals to contemporary American greed, borrowing as it does from the Calvinism so closely tied to the roots of the nation’s history.

What we must remember, at the outset, is that redemptive monotheism is an appeal to greed. In declaring an abstract concept that cannot be demonstrated true—e.g., the immortal soul—the most important, most valuable, most cherished thing in the whole of existence, redemptive monotheism essentially bribes (at best) the faithful with unverifiable promises. This idea, alternately described as a bribe, extortion, or a gift, is commonly known as Pascal’s Wager. It is not entirely irrelevant to consider that in the hands of twelfth-century theologian Peter Abelard this wager, then called the Slave’s Wager, was considered the weaker argument since it was offered by a theoretical devout Jew.

We should not be surprised, then, that greed is a recurring theme throughout the history of one of the greatest wild-eyed promises ever made. There is in history a coherent story of how we came from rumors of Christ to the present condition, but it is neither easy, friendly, nor definitive. And almost any rational consideration of such a tale would describe it as a tragedy. I say almost because we simply cannot know everything, and someday we might discover or recognize something that changes this measurement of the outcome.

Stay tuned.