Wednesday, August 31, 2005

There Are Limits

Great post by August J. Pollak. (Thanks, Chana.) He details dimensions of the hurricane damage in New Orleans that I hadn't even thought of: the environmental catastrophe; the effect on wooden structures of soaking in water for weeks; etc. Then he makes the political connection:

So even if you are for the war in Iraq, even if you think the President is the glue holding this entire nation together, I simply cannot understand, or for that matter even believe at this point, the suggestion that this is less important than "fighting terror." Nor would I understand you or believe you if you said the money and resources we currently don't have to aid this nightmare were "better spent" protecting us from imagined threats in Iraq.
Two years ago we were told we needed to attack Saddam so one of our cities wouldn't be destroyed. One of our cities was just destroyed. And it appears that many more lives could have been saved, and many things protected, if there was more funding for infrastructure, more devotion to protective efforts, and more National Guardsmen here at home to do their actual job- guarding our nation- rather than deployed in Iraq.

Every idea, even a great one, has a cost. Even a nation with the strength of arms and noble ideals of the USA, has limits to what it can do, has to weigh potential benefits against their costs.

Christopher Hitchens has a new piece in the Weekly Standard, and masochist that I am, I read it. Poor Hitchens is really showing signs of wear and tear. While the thesis of the article is how proud Americans should be of the Iraq war effort and its many positive effects--a nutty, vainglorious and thoroughly Hitchensian position--he also occasionally (can I be reading right?) makes certain halting gestures toward admitting some second thoughts, some failures of prophecy on his own (Hitchens's!) part. One paragraph will make me cross-eyed with rage, which is totally normal and reassuring. Then the next will have me reeling in partial agreement. Like, for instance, Hitch has some pretty cutting things to say about President Bush.

But there's lots and lots of bloodthirsty lunacy too, less artfully stated than Hitchens usually manages. Near the end, he offers up his Top Ten Good Things About Dubya's Excellent Iraqi Adventure, which is pure comedy gold.

(1) The overthrow of Talibanism and Baathism, and the exposure of many highly suggestive links between the two elements of this Hitler-Stalin pact.

Naturally, we had to go to war to make sure that our stated reason for going to war was valid.

(3) The consequent unmasking of the A.Q. Khan network for the illicit transfer of nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea.

Which is a serious matter--a whole lot more serious than all the discredited charges about Saddam's WMD programs. Which begs the question, why didn't we invade Pakistan and currently have A.Q. Khan in custody. But let's move on.

(6) The ability to certify Iraq as actually disarmed, rather than accept the word of a psychopathic autocrat.

See # 1 above.

(10) The training and hardening of many thousands of American servicemen and women in a battle against the forces of nihilism and absolutism, which training and hardening will surely be of great use in future combat.

Did you realize that Iraq was just a warm-up? A preseason war!

Hitchens is the greatest force of nihilism and absolutism in journalism today. This is all a game of Risk to him.

Nope, there are limits.

Katrina the Killer

To compensate for my flippant reference to the hurricane a couple of days ago.

My heart goes out to all the victims of the storm, but the news from New Orleans is giving me particular feelings of melancholy. The wind and rain subsided, the sun peeked out, the harm seemed manageable--then instead of ebbing, the waters kept rising. Everything about New Orleans is unique, including the geometry, and the geometry dealt a cruel blow. I'm afraid that irreplaceable city is lost; for certain, it'll never be whole again in my lifetime.

I spent a pretty fair amount of time in New Orleans as a young man. I went to Mardi Gras, I went to Jazz Fest, I ate wonderful food and drank strong drink and listened to Dixieland jazz and gawked at Bourbon Street strippers. Also, I had the car I was riding in broken into, on two separate occasions, and had some other scary or unsettling experiences there. I'm not complaining; I have some decent stories to tell, and my memories are mostly good and altogether real. It was a great thing to explore the city alone, not knowing many people or having much money, not having resources to ensure my comfort and convenience.

Even though I spent the majority of my time in the French Quarter and Garden District, I knew of the disparity between the tourist areas and the neighborhoods where most people lived. I knew how corrupt city politics were, how bad many of the streets were, how impossible it seemed for basic things to get done in New Orleans. So I'm not shocked at the "demographics of disaster" that the news reports are making clear. New Orleans has Old World charm, along with Third World inefficiency and passivity.

Katrina is worse than 9/11, Daily Kos posted. Perhaps it is. Even if the mayor of New Orleans is mistaken in his fears that thousands are dead there. I'd had the thought earlier today (what a terrible day) that the death of about 1,000 Shi'a pilgrims in Baghdad was worse than 9/11--both events were the result of terrorism, and proportional to the population of the country, today's loss of life in Iraq is worse. But what does it mean to compare that act of terrorism (9/11) with this natural disaster?

9/11 was more shocking--a more unprecedented kind of event, and utterly out of the blue. It was more insulting, a malicious attack by a fairly small group of people. They say "everything changed" that day. Certainly, a huge reservoir of American outrage, anger, and wounded pride was created. And the attacks were so (forgive the word) spectacular; visually unforgettable; destruction raining down from a clear blue sky, on live national TV, leaving such a dramatic gap in America's most familiar skyline.

Katrina may be less sharp a pain, but may be more debilitating. Al Qaeda struck at obvious symbols of our strength: financial and military. Katrina hit us in --I don't know, the analogy is breaking down; part of me says "gonads" and part of me says "soul." We lost the home of Louis Armstrong and Blanche DuBois. 9/11 destroyed a great monument that jutted up into the sky. Katrina destroyed countless low-lying features: row houses, causeways, levees, fishing piers. Whole Gulf Coast communities are simply gone.

Economically, losing a couple of well-known office buildings may wind up hurting much, much less than losing refineries and offshore oil rigs. As much fuss as there's been over how to rebuild Ground Zero, it may be more wrenching to rethink land use policy in large areas where the map has been erased. Middle-class folks are well aware of inconvenience at all our airports, but that may pale in comparison to total calamity at one major seaport.

Has "everything changed" due to Katrina? Due to the suffering of a lot of mostly poor folks in the Deep South? Though all of us will probably suffer at the gas pump, and who knows what all the ripple effects will be.

Ah, shit, I can't write anymore. Katrina was big. And bad.

Highly Evolved

OK, let's not kid ourselves, I'm just trying to get a couple posts in, in the waning hours of August.

Early in the month, a friend called my attention to this Salon interview with philosopher of science Michael Ruse, talking about evolution-vs-creationism. Ruse is pointing out some of the argumentative excesses of science (for example, the rantings of Richard Dawkins, which I've blogged about before) and he's trying to stake out space to allow someone to endorse both science and religious faith. I liked what he had to say. As I've seen argued elsewhere, atheism didn't exist before the Enlightenment. The notion of religion as a distinct and separate pursuit, the optional frosting on the cake of life, was born with the Enlightenment. So the image of creationism and evolutionism as siblings, both born of the same crisis in Western culture, I find compelling. According to Ruse, scientism, positivism, secularism, whatever you call it, is a worldview, quite comparable to a religious worldview in that it dictates modes of thinking, patterns of rhetoric, and certain cultural norms at the expense of other valid norms.

This Ruse interview caught the notice of Butterflies and Wheels, who quickly proceed to belittle Ruse. This is an example of why I lose heart for this type of argument. Ophelia of B&W pretty bluntly admits her ignorance of theology on her way to dismissing it as a serious discipline. This is Richard Dawkins's M.O. as well. In the way of many scientists and analytic philosophers, they are overly literal, clumsy in their use or interpretation of metaphor. Also, they argue by way of snark and bullying, of unacknowledged biases and a distinct arrogance in the face of something they don't know much about.

By the way, I finally finished Louis Menand's book The Metaphysical Club, which deals partly with the response of American intellectuals to Darwin's theories. The response to Darwin got all tangled up with the issues of abolition and emancipation, which were being played out in bloody fashion at about the same time Darwin's theories appeared. Menand makes a convincing case that thinkers like Louis Agassiz were operating out of their sense of racial squeamishness.

This is only a half-formed thought, but Menand makes me identify with philosophical pragmatism, a la William James (pragmatism is a lame-ass tradition, apparently, in academic philosophy circles, but hell, that's probably about my speed). I sometimes feel I make only secondary arguments on these questions. For instance, I have no gut-level investment in Darwin's theories, but I think Darwin is a cornerstone in the edifice of modern science, which gives me health care and automobiles and the Internet and lots of things I DO have an investment in. I feel over my head trying to argue Darwin on the merits. But pointing out hypocrisies or absurdities has the value of engaging one's psychological and emotional biases, not just airless logic. Ideas either work or they don't, in the real social world.

Monday, August 29, 2005

I'm about to criticize someone who wrote a letter to the advice column at, for being self-centered. It's about as fair as shooting fish in a barrel, but what the hell.

"Alone in Louisiana" is a "committed Pagan who believes in a divine, universal creative force and in reincarnation." Her husband is a lifelong Catholic, though, and thanks to his family business they have left the "enlightened West" and settled in small-town Louisiana. Thanks to Twoo Wuv, they've been making it work, but now, Crisis Time: Their son has reached kindergarten age. "Our only option is Catholic private school... Public schools in rural Louisiana are atrocious..." The first big parent-teacher orientation meeting left her in tears, confirming her opinion that the institution of Christianity is "a plague on humankind." How can she subject her child to years of this ghastly brainwashing?

Advice columnist Cary Tennis was more patient than I would have been in his response. While sympathetic, he urges Alone to separate her issues from her son's issues, to try not to think the worst of people she disagrees with, and (he says gently) to lighten up a bit.

Lightening up was NOT the order of the day, however, after this column hit the wires. The words "rural," "Catholic," and "Louisiana" really made a few good multi-culti omni-tolerant Salon readers lose their minds. "Mothers Who Think" has always been a misnomer; it's Mothers Who Tend to Rant and Rave. Not all the Letters to the Editor are hysterical, but a few of them, hoo boy. (Note to self: avoid the Psychiatry Department at the University of Minnesota.)

Where to start? First of all, I would never be a Catholic or a pagan. Admittedly, I haven't known many pagans (there was this one Wiccan gal I worked with, years ago), whereas I have known some Catholics, and some very decent, thoughtful, open-minded Catholics at that. So call me slanted, but offhand, between the pagan mom with her laser beam eyes, and the nuns in their penguin get-ups, I don't know whose bullshit is worse, I really don't.

Second of all, welcome to rural Louisiana, Ms. Alone. You say you've been living there for 10 years? Au contraire, chere. You have been living in the bosom of your family, your groovy husband and sweet baby boy who up to now you've been able to consider just a pint-sized extension of yourself. You haven't been really living where you're living, which is a red state with a particular context that you're going to have to accommodate or else flee. The first day of school is when the rubber hits the road.

According to the original letter, the pagan/Catholic couple met with the school's administration, discussed their concerns, thought they had an understanding, but that understanding was not reflected on Parents-Meet-the-Teacher Day. There's room for competing interpretations here. The letter writer seems to think she's being disrespected; I think what we have is a failure to communicate. There's got to be a meeting of the minds here: to wit, a parent-teacher conference. I'd nominate the father to attend, alone, since he seems to be bilingual in Catholic and Moonbat. Sorry, I don't begrudge the mother her beliefs, I honestly don't, and the teacher has to understand the family's position. But it's such an idiosyncratic position for small-town Louisiana (where out-of-the-broom-closet pagans are rare, I imagine), that I doubt the message has gotten through clearly via interoffice mail. This calls for sitting down with the teacher, looking her in the eye, and telling her what your child needs.

Alone in Louisiana and her defenders at Salon have set up this false opposition of Conscientious Mother versus Evil Agenda-Driven School. That's an intolerable situation by definition. The parents and the school have got to find a way to get on the same side. No decent school or teacher would undermine a mother in the eyes of her five-year-old son.

What a decent school might do is kick the boy out. Maybe no common ground exists. They can't very well allow the Pagan-ness of one student's mother to undermine the overall Catholic-ness of the school. The Catholics don't open schools out of the goodness of their hearts. (Well, Catholics would quibble, but you know what I mean.) And to be fair, Catholic schools don't exist to convert or harrass "committed pagans," but to serve the children of Catholic families, to educate them and inculcate the Catholic faith in them.

I guess my corny advice would boil down to: schools respond to pressure, and families don't have to be passive victims. They can join the PTA, get to know the teachers, volunteer, network, be diligent, etc. These are hard choices, public vs. parochial vs. home school. It's unfortunate, but a fact of American life nonetheless, that where you live dictates what your child's schooling options are going to be. Deal with it. Make the best of your options, or move.

(And hell, thanks to Hurricane Katrina the family may have much worse things to worry about by now.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

All right, time for a little remedial blogging. It's for the integrity of the Archives--if August was a complete black hole, it would ruin the symmetry of things.

In the current issue of the American Prospect, Harold Meyerson looks at five major pundits (Hitchens, Friedman, Kristol, Krauthammer, Hanson) and tallies up their sins against reason, common sense, and journalistic integrity with respect to Iraq. It seems almost cruel, but if our political culture is going to survive and gain (regain?) some sense of health, then this is a needed addition to the record. And here is an excellent statement of how our elite opinion-meisters let us down:

They refused to hold the administration’s conduct of the war and the occupation to the ideals that they themselves professed, or simply to the standard of common sense. They abdicated their responsibilities as political intellectuals -- and, more elementally, as reliable empiricists.

Neglecting facts or rules of evidence is a grave offense in a writer. Holding that Truth is a false ideal and the facts are whatever Power wants them to be--that is the worst kind of nihilism. And that's what Republicans in the Bush era, and at least some of their enablers in the press, are guilty of.