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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Getting Ugly in New York

The New York senate campaign, pitting an obscure ex-mayor of Yonkers against the woman who has the Republican party trembling, has never promised anything more than theatrics. After all, John Spencer can't possibly beat Hillary Clinton, and everybody knows it. Rumors are that his whole candidacy is just a Trojan Horse to get back his old job. In Yonkers.

But theatrics can be entertaining -- in fact, that's their purpose. (At least if we read Aristotle's bit about provoking fear and pity to create catharsis as "entertainment.") So the question is whether Spencer was just playing his part with gusto when he claimed that his opponent had spent millions on plastic surgery, or whether in fact he truly is a mean-spirited sexist. (Not to mention blind. Any decent close-up shows that the incumbent has plenty of hard-earned and un-Botoxed wrinkles).

Spencer's team is spinning wildly (we'd give links, but are experiencing Blogger difficulty), but the best their candidate can come up with by way of an apology is, and the Egg kids you not, "At least I didn't call her a lesbian."

Even if the guy weren't wrong on the issues, even if his experience were even remotely comparable to Clinton's, he would still deserve to lose just for being such a jerk.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Regarding the Pope

In a novel Father A. once read, a newly-elected Pope keeps a cat in his private quarters; he swears his staff to secrecy about it, fearing that if he is known as a cat-fancier, the faithful will deluge him with their kittens.

The Egg has struggled with Pope Benedict's, um, indiscretion at Regensburg. In the context of his speech, the now-infamous quotation from Emperor Manuel Paleologus is clearly a small (and dispensable) point. He is talking about the role of reason in constructing a system of religious belief, which is precisely the sort of thing that Catholic theology should work at. And yes, he takes a moment in passing to drege up some medieval anti-Muslim rhetoric, cited as a not-very-effective testimony to the putative Western heritage of non-coercive apologetics.

The Pope was clearly having a momentary lapse of memory -- he thought he was a college professor, when in fact he is a Pope. Professors are allowed, even encouraged, to provoke their students with tendentious illustrations and sly asides. Popes, as Benedict will not soon forget, are required to exercise superhuman restraint, and neither speak nor write a word that has not been considered with extreme care. Otherwise, he will be deluged with kittens ... or much, much worse.

On the other hand, we continue to be outraged by the Muslim reaction to Benedict's lecture. It displays a level of intolerance, and a disregard for free speech, that are simply unimaginable to the post-Enlightenment West. In extreme cases, the violence and threats of violence suggest that Manuel Palologus -- not the Pope, mind you, but the dead mediaeval emperor he was quoting -- may have had a point.

Raymond Ibrahim, over at Victor Davis Hanson's righty blog, does a great job on this. Click the link, but here are his money quotes:

In the context of the Pope’s speech, the point in evoking this anecdote was twofold: 1) to show how even centuries ago, there was inter-religious dialogue — a good thing to be preserved; and 2) to show that there is no room for violence where faith is concerned. ... Moreover, the Pope made it a point to mention one of the Koran’s most tolerant verses — “There is no compulsion in religion” [Koran 2:256].

Had the Pope really wanted to defame Islam, he could have quoted from the much more numerous “sword-verses” of the Koran, which most Muslim theologians are agreed have abrogated the more tolerant ones: “Fight those of the People of the Book [Christians and Jews] who do not believe in Allah nor the Last Day, nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth [Islam], until they pay tribute with willing submission, and feel themselves utterly subdued” [Koran 9:29]. Or “When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them — seize them, besiege them, and make ready to ambush them” [Koran 9:5]

Ibrahim goes on to deal with a point that has not been made much by us in the tolerant lefty blogosphere, much less the press, but which is worth considering. Paleologus is right: most of the growth of Islam, in that era, had taken place as the result of military conquest. Growth as the result of trade and migration came only after the initial conquest of Arabia, North Africa, and western Asia. While peaceful growth may be the historic norm for Islam, conquest is the heart of the movement's creation myth.

Christianity is in many ways the reverse. For the first three hundred years, it spread entirely through peaceful, non-coercive preaching, including the willingness of adherents to suffer torture and execution rather than surrender their faith. Converts were, in fact, required to quit jobs such as soldier or judge which might require them to kill another human being. It was only after Constantine that Christianity was even considered compatible with military service. Of course, from that point forward, things began to change, so that well before time of Paleologus (and well afterward) the religion was indeed spread by armies of conquest. So, while conquest and colonization were for a long time the historic norm for Christianity, the heart of the movement's creation myth is preaching and persuasion.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Old Switcheroo

Father A. tries to keep this blog centered on things that everybody cares about -- sex, religion, politics. And maybe a little Latin poetry. But tonight, he's going to go off topic for just a moment, to say one thing:

Watch Battlestar Galactica. Start now.

For those of you whose development was not arrested in adolescence, it's a teevee show, on the Sci-Fi network. About human beings traveling through space, hunted by robots. Sounds goofy, right? And in fact, the original, 1970s Galactica was pretty goofy -- Lorne Greene's lowest ebb, including the Alpo commercials. But the new show is a tense, gutsy drama, with some of the best-developed characters on television.

And these characters have real sex, the kind with with emotions and subtext. They have real politics, the kind with both ideals and compromises. And they have real religion -- the kind with both casual observers and intolerant fanatics.

All this was true last year, too. But this season, things took a wild twist. Without trying to explain a complicated story, let me just say this: All along, it has been possible -- natural -- to think of the story as an allegory for modern geopolitics, in which the human beings are bunch of decent, more-or-less secular people just going about their business, while they are stalked by a shadowy army of inscrutable killers, motivated by incomprehensible convictions about a God the humans don't understand. Pretty much the way the West sees itself in relation to Islamic fanaticism, right?

As of tonight's season premiere, things are suddently reversed. The humans had found a nice safe planet to settle down on, but the robots invaded it. For no special reason. They installed a puppet government, which everybody hates and any decent human being opposes. This government claims it wants peace and freedom, and wonders why the people it is crushing under foot don't greet its soldiers with open arms. Wonders why its human police force is regarded as a bunch of collaborators.

Oh, and the president claims his government doesn't torture, even though one of the main characters had an eyeball plucked out in prison.

So guess what? The robots are shocked when a few humans -- not all, by any means, but a highly motivated few -- begin suicide bombings.

It was an amazing premiere, specifically because, by the end of it, you could feel your guts tighten, as you tried to decide whether you wanted the suicide bombings to go on or not, tried to decide what you would do in the same position, tried to decide what the definition of words like "hero" and "necessary" and even 'war" really were.

Smartest piece of television I've seen in years. Even with robots.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Like Rugs

That's how the Bushies continue to lie, about 9/11, the Iraqi WMDs, and George Tenet. Today's Times (linked above) documents some of the misdirections and partial truths that continue to issue from the lying lips of the President's people.

Per the Times, Woodward's new book, while not perfect in every detail, accurately captures the then-new Administration's lack of concern about pre-attack intelligence, and its continuing effort to blame George Tenet and the CIA for what were in fact its own failures.

My favorite is John Ashcroft's snarky remark that he was never briefed on the impending attack by Tenet, and "I'm surprised he didn't think it was important enough to come by and tell me." Classic half-truth: the CIA head didn't do the briefing perosnally, but Ashcroft was briefed. He was warned, in advance, that terrorists were planning a second attack on New York City. But Ashcroft (who, in all fairness, is clinically insane) was more interested in recording patriotic country songs and draping naked statues with velvet to, I dunno, protect America.