Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas: A Defense

I hear much from my colleagues in academia about how horrible Christmas is. Their complaint is a valid one. The problem is that their complaint is limited, one-sided and narrow.

In brief, the standard academic critique of mChristmas is that it trivializes our emotions with false and shallow sentimentality, and helps to foster a culture of greed, commercialism, excess, and rampant spending on things we neither need or want. No observer of the contemporary Christmas season can deny that there really is much false sentimentality and corrupt consumerism at Christmas time. This is true and those things are rightly condemned.

The problem is that academics are very narrow-minded. They reduce everything to a singular phenomenon, a unified purpose, and they are often incapable of seeing outside the colored goggles of their favorite ideology. In general, anything enjoyed by a majority of people is frowned upon and dismissed by the professors who sit atop their ivory towers feeling smug and superior, above the common and duped rabble.

They might try looking more deeply.

I know few - if any - people who are really concerned with presents and hallmark card sentimentality. Most people find Christmas a time to remind them that what matters most in life is Peace on Earth and Good Will toward all. Yes these phrases have been abused and over used. That does not drain them of their meaning.

Christmas reminds us to cherish our loved ones, to value our relationships, to reach out to those in need. Undoubtedly we should do this all year long. We should always value our relationships, cherish our loved ones, help the poor and needy. No doubt the pretentious critics of Christmas will bellow at me that "we don't need a special day for this stuff! We should always bear peace and good will." Indeed we should. But reminders help.

A special season devoted to what is best in human nature is a reminder to always be our best. We too easily get lost in the hustle of everyday life. Setting aside a day, indeed, an entire "season" to remember what matters most in life, can be a powerful motivator for the rest of the year.

By all means let us damn consumerism. Let us fight false sentimentality tooth and nail and refuse to participate in it. But this is only a superficial surface. What Christmas has always been about is none of these vile things.

This Christmas let us turn to the message of Peace, Joy, Love, and Good Will that Christmas is really all about. Let us join Ebenezer Scrooge and learn to honor Christmas in our hearts and keep it all the year.

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Norad Follows Santa around the world

This has become one of my favorite Christmas eve traditions:

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Dickens reminds us what Christmas is really about; and it's not what you think!

[What follows was originially posted last year]

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is rightly heralded as a classic that expresses the true meaning of Christmas. But not often for the right reasons.

Most film versions of the classic are overly sentimental. But the Scrooge we meet in the original novel is a man who is utterly devoid of any genuine relationships with other people. He is both dead to himself, and as a consequence dead to others. As Dickens remind us, he is "secretive, solitary, and self-contained as an oyster."

A Christmas Carol is not a Hallmark card about a stingy fellow who learns to be jovial and kind. It's a tale about the willing blindness of a man who will not listen to himself and thus shuts himself off from his fellow human beings.

The larger point is that for Dickens personal growth and transformation is inseparable from social justice and communal responsibility. If we ignore ourselves we will ignore the plight of our fellows. If we awake to ourselves, we cannot help but be moved to aid others when we can. Personal transformation and social justice are intimately linked.

In this vein the following 1972 Animated version of Carol is the best representation I have seen of the book. The film even uses as the basis for its "look" original illustrations from the 19th century.

This film not only gets the novel's concern with social justice and the plight of the poor, but also provides us with images that are very surrealist, reminiscent of a Dali painting or a Bergman film in some ways. The novel itself has these qualities, but they are not usually well captured in the various films.

Enjoy it! And remember what Dickens' Christmas Carol really has to teach us about the holiday season:

Monday, December 14, 2009

Santa Claus

The Christmas Holiday is flooded with images of Santa Claus. I have been thinking a great deal about this lately. No image is a better center for negative and positive reactions to the Christmas Holiday.

For those who see Christmas as too commercial, Santa is an easy target. The rotund and Jolly image of Kris Kringle is used to market and sell just about everything and then some. Clearly a big commercial plug, the Saint is often thought to be nothing more than a sales pitch.

Santa has also been a favorite target of some Christians who think that the modern Christmas is a purely pagan or secular celebration, with Santa usurping the role of Christ and leading our Children astray.

These reactions are perhaps understandable, but they are historically inaccurate. Santa Claus has been around far longer than the companies that use his image to sell products. Commercialism is neither the origin nor essential nature of Father Christmas.

Furthermore, Christmas has never been an exclusively Christian holiday. The pagan, Christian, and secular have long and happily co-existed as part of the yuletide season. Be that as it may, if people find Christmas too secular, too commercial, too sappy, or too ... whatever, that is their prerogative. I have no interest in defending the Holiday against those who do not care for it. Neither do I care to defend Santa Claus to those who do not wish to "play Santa" for their children. There are many parents who teach their children that Santa brings them gifts on Christmas eve and there are many who do not. I see no evidence that either practice is harmful or damaging to the children in question. So whether one likes Christmas or not, whether one embraces Saint Nick or not, is not my concern.

What I would like to address is what Santa Claus is about. What makes us tell our children stories about a magical saint who brings them toys? What makes children embrace the idea with so much joy? Why do we participate in this odd ritual of pretend? What, exactly, does Santa Claus represent for children?

An easy answer is that Santa brings toys and kids love toys. But that will not do. If it were just about toys, kids would love toys from whomever and not particularly care about Santa himself. But this is not what we find. Just talk to a child at Christmas time and you will see that it is the big man himself that matters to them, far more than the toys he brings. Why should this be so?

I have though long and hard on this matter over the years, and it seems clear to me that Santa is an an image of divinity. This may sound a little silly and strange. But it is actually not too hard to believe. Children approach Santa with just that mixture of awe, love, reverence, and fear, that most peoples traditionally approach their deities.

Santa, furthermore, clearly has the qualities of divinity. He is immortal, he lives in a magical place "up there," he is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. The Saint flies through the sky, can enter any home, "sees you when you're sleeping, knows if you've been bad or good," he even judges you "naughty or nice." To top it off, Santa even has the long white beard of the traditional sky-father deity!

Children, of course, would not call Santa divine; they would not think he was a god, or an image of God. But that is irrelevant. The attitudes children have toward Santa Claus, the qualities he possesses, make him an image of the divine.

So for those who do enjoying sharing Santa Claus with their children, think about what you are really sharing ... without knowing it you are imparting to your children a conception of divinity. A conception that, at its best, is really a rather positive one. In most portrayals Santa Claus is a kind, non-judgmental, and generous man. Perhaps by sharing him with our children, we are helping them to value these qualities, and to see them as the path toward the divine.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Saint Nicholas Day a day for Social Justice

Today is St. Nicholas' Day. I think it is good on this day to take some time to reflect on generosity, love, care, and giving. But more than that. Today is also a day for reflection upon social justice and helping those in need.

Nicholas is remembered primarily as the protector of children and the poor, those who could not defend themselves and needed a protector. It is little remembered sometimes that St. Nick is not simply a figure who gives gifts to children, but who helps those who are socially marginalized and in real danger of slipping through the cracks.

The most famous story about St. Nicholas tells of his "gift" of gold in the stockings of three daughters. The gift prevented the girls from being sold into slavery! St. Nicholas did not simply bestow trinkets but battled for social justice. Another famous tale informs us that Nicholas raised back to life three abandoned children who had been murdered by an inn keeper. In both cases St. Nicholas comes to aid and protect those who have been abused and neglected.

Let us reflect upon those who suffer from injustice and poverty. Let us call upon the spirit of justice, care, and generosity that St. Nicholas embodied. Let us try to let that spirit live and work in us this holiday season.

Here you can see the Saint himself arrive to greet adoring admirers:

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sound and Fury

My Blog turned a year old on November 20th. My readers may have noticed a sharp decline in the number of posts I write.

This is partially due to the fact that I'm applying for tenure-track teaching jobs and trying to finish my dissertation. But there is another explanation.


By that I mean that the Obama administration has made no important changes in policy. Climate change? Nothing. Health care? We shall see, but nothing much to report yet, foreign policy? More of the same. The economy? Look around you! It's no better either.

The political debates that people seem to care about are Sarah Palin and Levi Johnston, or perhaps the drama of John and Kate!

It's a sham.

I will have more posts up once the dissertation is done, but in the meantime let us hang our heads at the lack of progress of this administration and the continuing foolishness of the media.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Faith and Health Care reform

As we get closer to the something called "health care reform," let us take another look at the moral case for health care as a human right, as well as the question of religious faith and "health care for all:"

I'm quite fond of Rev. Adam Hamilton and I find his claim that justice - and for those who believe it, the God of justice - demands that all be cared for to be undeniable. No decent human being can deny this.

The Other fellow seems to have no argument at all. He simply repeats lame and false claims about "big government" and "paid abortions" and other nonsense. I really wish that one of these "anti-health reform" folks would for once actually consider the facts, offer a real argument, or provide at least some accurate data!

The weakest aspect of the argument offered by Lou Dobbs and by Hamilton's opponent is a failure to distinguish between the quality of care provided by the United States top notch doctors and hospitals as opposed to the lack of coverage provided for millions of Americans.

The argument is that America has the best health care because we have the best doctors, so why change it? We do have great doctors and wonderful hospitals. But the argument here completely misses the point. The Problem with our health care system is not the skill of our doctors, but the fact that millions of people don't have health insurance, or have health insurance that denies their claims. The issue is NOT the quality of care, but the lack of coverage.

Finally, the idea that health care must be rationed if it is extended to all and sundry, is absurd. Some countries, most notoriously Canada, have long waits. But many others countries (check out Japan, France, and Germany) have wait times as short as ours but still have universal health care coverage that costs less than ours.

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Ladainian Tomlinson shines again

I just want to celebrate the fact that the great Chargers running back, Ladainian Tomlinson, still has a little something left.

Perhaps its because he learned just before the game that his wife is preganant and he will be a dad for the first time. Surely something has put fire in his step again:

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bonfire Night: The Fight against Authority

The English tradition of Bonfire night, celebrated tonight, remembers the FAILED attempt to blow up the king and Parliament by angry religious Zealot, Guy Fawkes. It has its place I'm sure.

But ever since the graphic novel - and especially the film - V For Vendetta, the Fifth of November has taken on a new meaning. Bonfire night has become a night to celebrate defiance of authority in the name of individual freedom.

As a graphic novel, and more so as a film, V for Vendetta is an enjoyable but flawed product. It is in turn silly, delusional, and cheesy. But I like to be reminded that we must be wary of power structures, and ready to stand against them.

We must remind ourselves that power structures are everywhere. These structures attempt to decree from on high, how we must life, what is wrong and what is right, what is normal and what is "beyond the pale." We give them too much power. It is we, and not the power structures and systems of domination that should determine how we live and what we are.

Reflect a little this November 5th. Think about how power structures stifle freedom and what we can do to change that in our own lives and communities.

Remember, Remember the fifth of November .....

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Monday, November 2, 2009

Three Days of Death

For those of you who follow the liturgy, today is All Souls Day. Yesterday was All Saints Day, and the day before, of course, was Halloween.

I don't make it to church all that often. I attend a little more than the Easter & Christmas type, but not much; maybe 6-8 times a year. But I usually make it on All Saints day. I have find it interesting to contrast the two folk (as opposed to religious) holidays that fall on the last day of October and the first day of November respectively.

Halloween is largely about death and our fear of it. Halloween treats death as something terrifying, evil, and often coming to get us. Images of ghosts, zombies, skeletons, and other undead creatures abound. They are always vile, horrific, and ready to make us like them. Halloween reminds me that we fear death and run from it, but that we are ultimately doomed to be overtaken by it. Death is scary.

We should not downplay this aspect of death. We are frightened by it, we are uncomfortable with it. Halloween allows us to recognize and explore this fear. It is important that our radical unease with death be experienced first.

What comes after Halloween, however, changes the picture. The Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead is also marked by images of ghosts and skeletons. These images are, however, not so scary. For the Day of the Dead, death is something to be embraced and celebrated, reflected upon. We remember our dear departed and celebrate the fact that, though no longer living, they remain powerfully with us. Death need not be scary, but is a natural part of the celebration of life.

All Saints Day and All Souls Day have the same theme as the Day of the Dead. We celebrate not only the memory, but the continuing presence of the departed in our hearts, minds, and lives. We honor their memory and continue their work. When our time comes, we to will depart this life, but we also will leave a legacy and a presence behind.

It is important that we come to a place where we accept death as natural. We must learn to embrace it and to end our fear of it. But we cannot do this without fully confronting our fear of it, without recognizing this fear, without battling our demons.

It is very important that Day of the Dead and All Saints Day follow Halloween. We cannot make peace with our mortality until we have looked at it and our fear of it head on.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Happy Halloween

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History of Halloween

As we go into Halloween Weekend, I thought I would share this video from the History Channel on the History of Halloween. Let us celebrate the holiday with a little perspective on its past and meaning:

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Senate Bill retains Public Option!

The Public Option will be in the Senate Bill! The compromise? States can choose to back out. So that means that you Rick Perry and you Bobby Jindal will be the ones who get to choose to harm the people of your states and sell them out to your insurance company overlords!! Ha!!!! In more sane states, we will finally have some relief from corporate villains who have been denying our claims!

Harry Reid announces the decision:

I think this is a reasonable move. Let states who fear "big government" refuse the option if they wish. They will quickly learn that they need and want a public option after all. In a couple years, the states that have a public option will being do much better with coverage and costs than those who refuse it.

To be honest, however, and despite the tea-baggers, I don't think may States will refuse the public option.

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The Origins of the Financial Crisis

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Water World: The Future is NOW

Bangladesh is on of the first countries suffering the worsts of Global Warming; it won't be the last.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Halloween Movies

As we approach Halloween I find myself watching the classic films of the holiday. Not Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers, but rather the Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and the Mummy.

These films are rather cheesy of course. The acting, largely the result of actors of that era being trained for stage and silent films, is poor by our standards, the effects far outdated, and the story lines are often rather weak - although I confess I find these films endearing for these reasons.

But these films have shaped what Halloween monsters are. The Draculas and Frankensteins we see trick or treating every year are the versions from these films. They have had a remarkable cultural impact. There are a number of factors that explain their enduring appeal.

These films are rather primal, touching basic fears and struggles.

First, each of the classic universal horror films deals squarely with death, fear of death and longing for death. The lines are a bit campy, hence Bela Lugosi's Dracula tells us "To die, to be truly dead ... that must be wonderful," and "there are far worse things awaiting man than death!" But most films of that or any era could not face death so head on. The fact that these are "monster films" gives them free leeway to actually explore our struggle with mortality.

Second, the power and danger of sexuality is strongly dealt with. Whether it's the Wolfman's desiring to "devour" his love interest, or the strongly implied lesbianism of Dracula's Daughter (an odd, but must see film), sex is presented as something bubbling below the surface. The characters try to control their libido, attempt to master it, but all too often fail as the force of their passions carries them to a dangerous place.

Third, there is a fear that science and technology may harm us. We hear again and again in these films that "modern science" does not permit the existence of this or that monster. Most tellingly, in The Mummy we are told that one must violate ancient graves because of "science you know." Each of these films fears that we have lost something ancient and essential because of our advances, and we are in real danger for having lost it.

Fourth, and finally, the classic horror films question and examine the notions of "normalcy" and "the other." In some, e.g. Dracula, "the other" is dangerous and must be destroyed. In many others - see Tod Browning's Freaks especially - , e.g. Frankenstein, the other is simply misunderstood and it is the "normal" people who are dangerous, vile, and destructive. The angry mobs in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are eerily reminiscent of today's "Tea-baggers" who fear shout and hate.

Because these films are "horror" or "fantasy" they explore issues that more mainstream films at that time did not. They remain worth watching for this reason. They look at issues we must still examine, they wrestle with conflicts we still struggle to understand.

So, do yourself a favor and watch some of the classic Universal Horror films this Halloween.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I have not forgotten Health care reform

My readers may have noted that I have not posted on Health care reform for a while now. In part this is because I am attempting to finish the initial draft of my dissertation and also because I have started the process of applying for Tenure-Track jobs. Also, I've needed a break from the political battles of our world in order to restore a little sanity to my life.

I will return to the topic of health care reform very soon. For now I want to wait and see what the final bill ends up looking like. That Olympia Snowe voted for the Baucus bill does not encourage me. That bill does not encourage me. There is nothing in it to control costs or ensure that claims submitted to insurers are actually covered. A health care bill is not reform simply because a member of the other party casts a vote for it. Health reform in reality, and not merely in name, would actually lower costs and expand coverage; it would actually help the people.

Let us wait, however, and see what happens. The Senate HELP bill is far promising, as are the bills in the House. For now, let us call, email, write, sign petitions, and protest. Let our Senators know that we demand a strong public option, an employer mandate (with small businesses exempt), and real change for a broken system and an ailing populace.

More on this to come as the bills reach their final form.

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ken Burns: Beauty is Democratic

I was unable to see all of Ken Burn's National Parks: American's Best idea on PBS, I watched 3 of the 6 Episodes. I did manage to see clips from the other episodes and plan to watch them all when the Public Library gets a copy.

I'm mixed on Ken Burns. His documentaries are far too long, too sappy at times, and can have long stretches of sheer boredom (The exception here is Burn's Baseball, which was fantastic from start to finish). On the other hand, his documentaries always include fine interviews, great images, and remarkable observations. They are always worth watching despite the problems. National Parks is standard Ken Burns in all respects.

Two things stood out for me. First, there was a great deal, particularly in the first episode, about finding God in nature. John Muir played a large part here. The nature mysticism in the first episode was never sufficiently developed, but it was quite well done. Americans like John Muir and Walt Whitman developed a particularly American theology in which God is to be found right here in the beauty, power, and sheer grandeur of nature. That Burns touched on this tradition at all is remarkable, for Americans have lost much of it. As the documentary stressed, finding divinity in the land is the defining feature of Native American spirituality. A continent as beautiful as North America naturally gives rise to such a theology of divine immanence.

Second, the major idea of the film is that "big government" is not always bad. In fact, Burn's documentary makes a strong case that only a strong federal government can protect the public good.

James Poniewozik, writing for time Magazine, captures this perfectly:

The miniseries starts in the mid — 19th century, when nature lovers began urging that the expanding nation set aside areas of wilderness to remain undeveloped and unspoiled. Their cautionary tale was Niagara Falls, which by the 1860s was "almost ruined" — overrun by hucksters and tourist traps, with nearly every good view privately owned. Unless the government acted, advocates like naturalist John Muir warned, Yosemite and Yellowstone would end up the same way. "To Europeans," reads narrator Peter Coyote, Niagara "was proof that the United States was still a backward, uncivilized nation."

Government intervention! Private-sector-bashing! Americans trying to impress Europeans! These and other pinko motivations would secure a permanent federal handout for Yogi Bear and his picnic-basket-redistributing comrades. You can imagine how the proposal might go down were the parks starting from scratch today. Socialized nature, controlled by tree czars?

And in the decades that followed, there were battles — with drillers, ranchers, developers — over and over (and over: The National Parks is gorgeous, but at 12 hours, it sometimes gives new meaning to the term geologic time). When FDR created Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943, a Wyoming Senator likened the plan to Pearl Harbor, while a local journalist compared it to Hitler's Anschluss.

Burns and writer Dayton Duncan make plain which side they're on. (The subtitle is a hint.) A section on the battle to create a park in the Smoky Mountains contrasts schoolkids collecting pennies for the effort with logging companies bankrolling ads and "frantically cutting the old-growth forests ... to extract everything they could before the land was closed to them." Speaking to critics this summer, Burns said, "If there were no national parks, [the Grand Canyon] would be a gated community."

The national parks — and The National Parks — are based on ideas that are classically, if not radically, communitarian: That the free market doesn't always act in the public interest. That it's good that every American shares ownership of and responsibility for the most exclusive properties in the country. And that it is right for people — through government — to protect them from business interests and even from the people themselves (like the early visitors who shot game and scratched their names on ancient rocks). A series on a public-TV network that calls a government program America's best idea? Has no one alerted Rush Limbaugh?

It is a good time to remind Americans that federal government is not always bad. To the contrary, big business is a serious threat to Democracy. Privatization puts power, wealth, and property into the hands of a few, public services and resources - like National Parks - spread power, wealth, and property to all of us. "We the People" own the national parks. This is a truly democratic idea. And that idea makes Ken Burns new documentary well worth viewing.

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Monday, October 5, 2009

Saint Francis of Assisi: Make me an Instrument of Your Peace

I am officially late with this post. Sunday ended a couple minutes before I got to my blog. But this Sunday was the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. I've always honored the man.

People are fond of St. Francis for a number of reasons. For some it is Francis' "humble faith" in his God, for others it is his love of nature and animals. For still others it was the great Saint's commitment to love and peace. All of this is true to the man, and all of it meaningful.

But I want to focus on something else about Saint Francis: his vision of unity. Francis believed in a world where all things were united. All things, for him, were part of the same eternal reality to which they were forever linked. This "unity" is what inspired Francis' empathy and compassion for the sufferings others: for the lepers whom he strove to nurture, the poor whom he tried to comfort and even the wealthy and powerful from whose ranks he departed with joy.

One simply cannot live and love as deeply as Francis of Assisi unless one grasps the underlying unity of all creation. Too often we see divisions, separations, conflicts. Saint Francis saw past all of this, past the absurd and often tragic ways we break ourselves apart from each other. He was a man who saw all things as one, and who saw in everything the stamp of its Divine Creator.

Let us remember Saint Francis of Assisi; let us try to see something of the unity that he devoted himself to.

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Mr. Gandhi still speaks to us

Yesterday was the 130th anniversary of the Birth of Mohandas K. Gandhi. Let us remember the man, let us recall what he stood for, and let us hear what he still has to teach us.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Corporations are people too

We live in a country dominated by corporate power and corporate interests. Our corporate masters buy and sell our politicians (look no further than corporate prostitute Max Baucus), bombard us with advertisements that endlessly impact our behavior, and slowly but surely solidify and expand their power at our expense.

A sad reminder of how beaten down we are by corporate power is the legal fiction that corporations are persons. The Law allows corporations to be given all of the privileges of persons. They have the same legal protections; Corporations are legal persons.

This is, of course, absurd. And no less a right-wing hero than Milton Friedman has argued that corporations are not "folks." How could they be? I cannot arrest, kill, or harm a corporation, nor can a corporation vote .... or can it?!

A new case before the Supreme Court would radically change the way corporations operate. Corporations already own most our politicians. Current laws, however, forbid corporations from publicly opposing or supporting candidates. This means that corporate money cannot directly fund attacks on or praises for a particular candidate. Any person in the corporation can do, but the corporation itself cannot. This is a very necessary, and all too rare, check on corporate power.

The Average candidate and average voter cannot compete against the vast monetary power of corporations. If Corporations can directly endorse or oppose candidates, then democracy does not stand a chance.

Bill Moyers explains:

The Supreme Court is returning early from its summer recess to consider a potential watermark case that could overturn a century of campaign finance restrictions and clear the way for unregulated spending by corporations on political campaigns. The case, Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission, has grown from a limited question about a political documentary to a broad challenge to the government's right to restrict corporations from spending money to support or oppose political candidates.

Encompassing questions on First Amendment rights, the power of corporations and the influence of money on political elections, it's no wonder the case has created an assortment of strange bedfellows. Conservatives and liberals appear on both sides, either to defend the government's right to restrict corporate political advocacy or, on the other side, to argue that such regulations are a violation of the First Amendment.

A good description of the issue at hand. Moyers' continues:

At the center of this case is a 2008 political documentary, HILLARY: THE MOVIE, which sought to portray then presidential contender Hillary Clinton as a dangerous threat to the United States. The Federal Election Commission considered it an electioneering communication, funded by a corporation, and therefore subject to McCain-Feingold restrictions.

When the case appeared before the Supreme Court last session, in early 2009, the question was only whether HILLARY: THE MOVIE was an electioneering communication, but the case has grown in the re-argument. According to the NEW YORK TIMES' Adam Liptik, "some of the broader issues implicated by the case were only glancingly discussed in the first round of briefs, and some justices may have felt reluctant to take a major step without fuller consideration." The court asked for a re-argument, specifically as to whether the court should overrule two previous decisions that upheld the government's right to limit certain types of corporate political advocacy — the 1990 decision in Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce, which upheld a Michigan state law, and the 2003 decision in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, which upheld McCain-Feingold.

Let us step back for a moment. People have rights. We have the right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. I would argue that we also have rights to a basic standard of living, including: food, water, shelter, and health care. Buildings, on the other hand, do not have rights; they cannot exercise them. Rocks, bricks, and cars have no rights for the same reason. But the Lawyer for the Corporations argues that Corporations - which are no more "persons" than rocks or bricks - are being denied their right to free speech under the current law!

I must say this loudly and clearly A CORPORATION IS NOT A PERSON. A corporation is a legally protected contract arrangement in which a group of individuals have come together and formed a charter which gives them limited liability and tremendous financial resources. The people forming the charter have rights, but a corporation exist only in the realm of legal entities and has no rights whatsoever.

But the absurdity factor is the least of our problems. Corporations have resources beyond even the imaginations of most real people. If Corporations are allowed to directly promote and support or oppose and attack particular candidates, then the real people cannot have a chance to compete. Democracy will have been utterly undermined and perhaps even destroyed.

At some point, we have to say enough is enough. We have to refuse to give up another one of our rights to make corporate profits larger and corporate investors and CEO even more absurdly wealthy. It is time to put our foot down. It is time to end the long process of Corporations growing full, vampire-like, on our weakened and violated bodies.

But why stop with campaign finance? Let's send a firm message to all the corporate stooges in government.

Begin with the most foul, the most vile, the most blatantly servile of corporate owned puppets; Max Baucus. This guy wrote a bill so generous to the health insurance industry that they could not have in their wildest dreams have hoped for it! Let the voters in Montana know, this guy is a whore for corporate cash. He has no shame and must be voted out of office. The man disgust me. He should disgust us all.

So there we are. After Baucus we know for certain that elected officials are nothing more than servants to their corporate masters; we shall see whether the Supreme Court is equally ready to sell out real people for imaginary ones.

Either way, the time has come to turn the tables on this "den of thieves."

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Eternal life: A Weak Vision

Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell by John Shelby Spong
1 of 5 stars

John Shelby Spong is a poor writer and not much better a thinker. I have read several of his books and it is always the same deal. Spong presents unoriginal ideas as his own unique discoveries (when far greater minds have articulated these ideas long before). It gets worse. He congratulates himself for his "great knowledge" of science and history and then proceeds to explain science and history in a superficial and often factually inaccurate way. This book is no exception, as we see the arrogant Spong brag about how much he knows and then make false claims like saying Newton understood that his science undermined supernaturalism. Spong apparently never bothered to learn that Newton was interested in alchemy, Bible prophecy, and had puritanical religious views.

Even worse: Spong presents the history of religion as an outright self-deception in which human beings torture and persecute each other, all to protect themselves from their fear of death. In Spong's world religion is nothing more then a hateful, cruel, and oppressive tool wielded for nothing but destruction. Spong does this in every book, and he once again shows that he has no understanding of history whatsoever. This one sided negative portrait of religion is just plain silly, and Spong - who claims to be so learned and well-read - should actually know better. Spong clearly sees himself as superior to the great theological minds of the past. In order to keep up this illusion, Spong weaves an utterly unhistorical narrative in which all thinkers in Christian history hold the views and posses the intellectual acumen of Fred Phelps and John Hagee. Anyone who has ever read Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, or other great “doctors” will see instantly that Spong's portrait of past Christian thinking is uniformed and foolish.

Spong's positive conclusions are not much better. He argues that God is "not an external being 'out there'" but "the ground of being, and source of love." I agree with that assessment. Unfortunately Spong NEVER explains what these terms mean and leaves us with language designed to give us the warm fuzzies, but lacking any substance. For instance, Spong tells us that God is "our true selves" or the "depth of our self-consciousness," but says nothing whatsoever about what that might mean or how this works. He appeals frequently to Paul Tillich but seems incapable of understanding Tillich’s ideas or his arguments. Many Christian thinkers, for several centuries now, have rejected the supernatural conception of a person-like deity. But this does not stop Spong from presenting this as his own unique discovery. Even more disturbing, and unlike other thinkers with similar views, Spong offers no argument for his “discovery” or any real explanation of what it means.

Spong next discusses Meister Eckhart, and it is clear he does not understand the Meister either. He presents Eckhart as a man who discarded all doctrine and creed in favor of "feelings" about "the God within," this is a superficial and silly reading of the great mystic and only shows, once again, that Spong is incapable of anything but shallow readings of past thinkers. The mystics, for Spong, point us to an "eternal life" which has "neither heaven nor hell."

Finally, after an autobiographical chapter in which he portrays himself as a great hero who has overcome the narrow and ignorant religious past, Spong finally states his conclusion. It is very weak. Spong tells us that we "participate in eternity" because we are one with everything and our self-consciousness goes beyond space and time. This is an impersonal immortality in which the "essence" of what we are - our knowing and our loving - is essentially eternal. Furthermore, all though there is no "place" where we will socialize with those we loved and knew in life, our essences are interdependent and so we are eternally part of each other just as we are part of God.

This conclusion is not unreasonable. I believe something like it myself. But Spong offers no clarification of his position and no argument for it. He does not tell us how this differs from personal immortality except to say there are no heavens and hells where rewards and punishments are delivered. Does any memory survive? Personality? Spong does not say. And why should we believe something like this "eternal life" is real? Spong simply seems to think we can "feel" the truth of his claims. That is not very convincing.

Far better minds have argued for this impersonal "eternal life" on far better grounds. And these thinkers don't share Spong's conceit, nor his shallow understanding of the past and past thinkers. I recommend Paul Tillich, Rudolf Otto, or even J. A. T. Robinson over this dismal effort.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

The case for Vegetarianism

First full disclosure. Strictly speaking I'm not a vegetarian. I eat Seafood, eggs, and dairy. I don't eat poultry or beef, and my eggs and dairy are free-range, local, and organic, but still, more strict vegetarians and, of course, vegans might say I am not "really" a vegetarian. I am what is sometimes called a Pesci-Vegetarian (I eat fish and other seafood, but no other meat).Now to the argument.

I begin with a negative claim: I do not think it is always morally wrong to eat animals. It is natural and some groups of people (e.g. Eskimo living in the Alaskan wilderness) must eat animals to survive. It seems to me, however, that we have good reasons to refrain from eating some animals.

The special features that human beings possess are typically regarded as giving them special moral status. In philosophy we call this "personhood" and speak of those who have these properties as "persons." The relevant moral features for attributing personhood to a being are: Self-awareness, rational decision making, and the ability to think abstractly.

Some animals appear to have these faculties, perhaps not to the degree that we have and exercise them, but they have them to a degree. For instance, there is good evidence that Chimps, Dolphins, and some Whales have these capacities and are therefore "persons"

Of course most of us don't eat these particular animals - although they are often hunted and killed for human use - so it may not mean much. But we don't eat Dogs and Cats either (at least not in Western cultures) and pigs are as intelligent as dogs so why do we eat Pigs? We regard Dogs as too smart and too lovable to eat, if pigs are comparable on both these points, then we have no rational ground for eating pigs. If we lived in an environment where we had to eat meat to survive and pigs were the the only - or one of the few - animals we could kill and eat, this would be perfectly understandable. But we live in a technological society where we can live in full health and receive full nutritional value without eating Pigs. So what then is the case for eating them?

There is, in fact, a good case against eating mammals in general. The late Carl Sagan argued convincingly in The Dragons of Eden that "love seems to be an invention of the mammals" (67). Given the fact that mammals give live birth and their young need an extended period of care by their parents, love is an evolutionary necessity that begins with mammalian life.

We humans place a great value on love. We consider it the most wonderful thing we can experience, the meaning and value of our life. Many even declare that "God is love." Clearly the ability to love is something quite remarkable. Of course, lower mammals don't "love" in the strict sense. The argument is that the genesis of love is present in the mammals. Mammals also have the highest intelligence of animal life.

Most mammals certainly don't qualify as persons, but the qualities of personhood are present in most of the mammals we eat; albeit in a rudimentary and primitive form.

As I said before, none of this would be a problem if we had to eat mammals to survive or to be healthy. But we don't. There is extremely strong evidence that a vegetarian diet is not only healthy, but healthier than a carnivorous diet.

None of this of course applies to poultry. And I have no argument against eating poultry in principle. We must remember, however, the cruel treatment of animals in commercial factory farming.

The following video is typical of Factory farming (Warning there are graphic images here):

This to me is the main argument. Eating animals is not, at least for me, a serious moral failing. But the cruel, brutal, and painful way factory farms treat animals is absolutely horrifying. I think we have a moral duty not to support factory farms. Of course, one could buy all ones meat from small local farms that treat their animals with far greater compassion. In fact, this is what I do with my eggs and dairy and for this very reason. But many cannot afford this. And I still think my argument that we should avoid eating mammals because of the level of their intellect and their capability of feeling love (at least at some level) holds even for well treated mammals.

Finally, it follows from this that we cannot morally kill animals to wear them as fur or leather either. Many people have a gut reaction to all of this. They hold that we simply have a right to eat animals, to treat them however we want, and to use them for whatever purpose we see fit - no matter how cruel our treatment of them. In response I ask some questions, what are your arguments for this? On what grounds do you believe we can torture animals by forcing them into horrible living conditions? On what grounds do you bestow on human beings the right to freely abuse other creatures?

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bishop Gene Robinson takes Obama to task

In this clip Bishop Gene Robinson explains why Obama's understanding of "inclusiveness" is misguided. The Bishop also shares his thoughts on health care reform and the public option:

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Robert Reich calls for action

In this brief video, Robert Reich explains the public option and why he believes it is essential to real reform. He ends with a call for action.

Please act everyone! Call, write, tweet, and email your representatives. March, rally, spread information! Do everything you can!!! This is a chance for something real in health care reform we cannot let it slip away.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Healing of America: Book Review

The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care by T.R. Reid

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best book on Health insurance coverage that I have ever read. Anyone who wants to understand what is wrong with the current system of health insurance in the United States and what the genuine options for reform are must read this book.

The well-known facts of the troubles with our health care coverage are here: Millions uninsured, millions more under-insured, homes lost and personal bankruptcies endured even by the fully insured, premiums rising three to four times as fast as wages, more and more claims partially or wholly denied by health insurance companies, and our GDP being eaten up by the huge costs of our private health care system.

Unless one is ideologically blind or simply radically uniformed, these facts are well known, well documented (Kaiser family foundation, various Harvard studies, Commonwealth, WHO, CBO) and all too real to millions of suffering Americans. What is less well known is how other countries provide better insurance companies.

No other country spends anything like what we do on health care. Despite this, nearly every other industrialized country has better outcomes; longer life-spans, more healthy years after 60, less infant mortality, and better treatment for chronic ailments and they do all this while providing basic health care coverage to every man woman and child in their country.

This is where Reid's book makes its best contribution. In the United States both Liberals and Conservatives frame the debate as a contest between "socialized medicine" and our current "free-market" health care system. Liberals point to the abuses of a private-for-profit system and argue that we must have a single-payer system, a system in which the government pays all the bills (though doctors and hospitals are still private). Conservatives rage against this, fearing long waits, rationed care, and diminished quality.

Reid demonstrates that this debate between single-payer and free-market approaches creates a false dilemma. There are a number of ways in which other nations provide universal and affordable health care. Some of these countries use single-payer and some do not. The facts are clearly against the conservative claim that the free-market is best for health care coverage. But equally the evidence strongly suggests that a single-payer is not necessary for universal coverage and quite possibly not even the best way to provide it.

Reid travels to a number of countries: France, Switzerland, Japan, The United Kingdom, and Canada. Each of these countries has better health care outcomes than the United States, covers everyone, and pays far less than we do. But here is the twist: They do not all use "socialized medicine."

The UK is closest to a socialized system with their NHS. This system does have problems with funding and sometimes results in long wait times for elective surgery. But it reports higher satisfaction than the American system. likewise, Canada offers a single-payer model in which doctors and hospitals remain privately owned and operated but the government acts as the sole insurer. This system too has better outcomes than the United States. There are, however, real problems with limited resources, long waits for elective procedures, and underfunding.

A better model is found in France and Germany. Both countries use something called the "Bismark" model. This model relies on private doctors, private hospitals, and even private insurance. But the private insurance in France and Germany is nothing like its American counterpart. In these countries the government controls prices that doctors and hospitals charge, insurance companies are required by law to cover every claim sent to them, and are non-profit social businesses; they don't make money for CEOs and investors. Furthermore, Employers are required by law to cover their employees and everyone is legally required to buy insurance.

France and Germany have far better health outcomes than the United States (and even than England and Canada) for far less costs. Even better, France and Germany have shorter wait times than not only Canada and England, but also the United States. Everyone is covered and patient satisfaction is very high. This is what happens when the profit motive is removed from health care.

Reid concludes with a moral case for Universal and affordable health care. It is, he argues, simply a moral duty for a society to cover all its members. A civilization that allows only those who can afford it access to care is neither democratic or fair. If we wish to fulfill our moral duty we must recognize the right of all to affordable health care.

Reid did a documentary on the same theme as this book for Frontline. It is well worth seeing and can be found in its entirety here

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Reclaiming Labor day

Labor day is nothing more than a day of grilling burgers, drinking beer, and - for may - not even getting the day off work. This is very sad. Labor day was originally a celebration of the labor movements. Organized labor greatly improved conditions for working people.

Not too long ago, workers worked 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week, year around. They had no workman's comp, no overtime, few holidays, no pensions, no benefits, no unions, no minimum wage and many worked as children before the labor movements abolished child labor.

Labor day was supposed to be a reminder of what workers achieved and a reminder of the importance of their rights. Sadly, no one thinks of these things any more when they celebrate labor day.

The following video from The History Channel on the origins and meaning of labor day is very informative. In it, we learn a little about the labor movement and how hard many working people fought for more humane working conditions.

If you look around you this labor day, you will find that the day has lost its meaning. Many Americans work on labor day (hardly fitting for a day in honor of workers' rights), and the dignity and rights of working people are not even thought about, let alone celebrated.

Labor day was meant to provide national recognition for working people: living wages, caps on hours, 2 days a week off, overtime, workman's comp, unions ... the great achievements of the labor movement are what we need to remember. Sadly, we live in a time where giant corporations and their tools in Washington have long been at work crushing unions, making sure wages don't go up too much, and undoing the rights of working people everywhere.

This Labor day, let us do more than light up the BBQ and drink cheap beer. Let's return power to the labor movement. Let us stand up together and demand that Washington listen to working people and not merely obey their corporate masters.

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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bill Moyers to Obama: "You are a weakling and a coward."

In this video clip Bill Moyers says, more clearly than any yet have, what is wrong with Barack Obama. In short, Mr. Obama is a coward. He is too frightened of Republicans, big corporations, the media, the "tea-baggers," and even his own Party. Mr. Obama is going to compromise away the lives and prosperity of the American People.

Here is Bill Moyers' video essay:

Remarkable! Bill Moyers is the most honest man in journalism and I thank God we have him. Barack Obama was elected largely by the efforts of liberal groups and the support of progressive members of congress.

But now, according to White House sources, Obama is going to drop his support (weak as that has been) for the public option and scold liberals who say they won't vote for a bill without a robust public plan. In short, Obama is going to complete what has so far has been the central tendency of his Presidency, he is going to throw those who elected him under the bus.

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Monday, August 31, 2009

The Horror of the Dinner Plate

NOW interviews the director of Food, Inc.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why I am NOT boycotting Whole Foods

John Mackey the founder and CEO of Whole Foods is a free-market libertarian about health care reform. He recently pinned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal arguing that any "public-option" and all heavy government regulation of health care must be resisted.

I have often argued against such a view on this blog and I continue to think it is both false and very dangerous. That said, I fail to see why Mackey's having such views would lead to a large-scale movement to boycott whole foods. But such a movement exists, and it is large - check it out on facebook.

Admittedly Mackey's views reflect the "pro-rich" and "pro-corporate" outlook that is doing so much harm to so many people. But most places we shop are run and founded by people who share these views. Mackey is also, to some degree at least, anti-union ... but again, is this cause for a boycott? I am pro-union. But I don't care about trying to change the minds of people like Mackey, I care about fighting for legislation that will make it easier for people to form unions and give unions greater legal protection.

As CEOs go Mackey is actually not too bad. Whole Foods is a big supporter of animal rights - even PETA likes them! - and environmental ethics - Mackey himself donates an impressive amount to such causes. And Whole Foods treatment of its employees is better than most. Honest. Mackey actually has a pretty responsible view of the social role of business and wrote a good article on it I have used his ideas when teaching business ethics. I don't agree with Mackey's views, but he is far from the poster child for corporate greed and irresponsibility. If we must boycott Whole Foods, then we must boycott far more companies than we might be willing or capable of boycotting.

The real problem, however, is that a boycott of Whole Foods misses the heart of the problem. It is relatively easy to wag our fingers at "greedy CEOs" and even to refuse to shop at their stores. But such actions do NOTHING to actually repair our damaged political system. Our system is designed to put profits over people, to favor corporations above the public good, and to subsidize big business with tax-payer dollars. It is this system we must change.

We need to work toward changing the political system so that it no longer favors the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the rest of us. We need to work hard - not to let Mackey know we hate his views on health care coverage - but to actually make viable and effective health care reform law.

Rather than boycott Whole Foods I intend to work hard to change the political system that screws people. Boycotting Whole Foods is, in the end, pointless. Mackey may have whatever views he would like ... who cares?! Let's change the system, we won't change Mackey's mind.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Faith and Health Care reform

A while back I wrote a blog post in which I asked my readers to imagine how Jesus would have treated people who came to him to be cured if he operated like a Health Insurance Company (See "If Jesus were a Health Insurance CEO." I think that the question of religious faith and universal health care is an important one.

On that note, I am going to refer the reader to two pieces from the Washington Post "On Faith Panel"

First, Jim Wallis explains the rules for Health Care found in Leviticus, the basic idea was that everyone in Israel must have health care whether they could afford it or not.

See Wallis' piece here

Second, Aana Marie Vigen argues that anyone who follows Jesus is committed to making sure that all people have access to health care. In other words, Health care is a right. Furthermore, Vigen argues that a strong public option is the best way currently under discussion to ensure the christian duty to provide affordable and universal coverage.

See Vigen's piece here

I confess that I cannot understand how anyone could claim to be a follower of Jesus and think it is acceptable to live in a world where anyone is denied care, or even in a world where people regularly fall into debt and go bankrupt because of their medical bills. This seems utterly wrong for those who follow a man who preached "good news to the poor" and spent all his time healing the sick (without asking for a premium by the way).

As for the public option? A public option is a proposal that if passed would simply be a government funded insurance option that would force private insurance companies to provide better coverage at lower costs. The CBO estimates that no more than 12 million people would enroll in said public option. The bills that include have crafted in a way that it can't have an unfair advantage over private plans, and public plans work well in other countries and even in our own (Medicare) without any of the horrors that its opponents fear. Nor is it too expensive, simply reversing the Bush tax cuts, or cutting unnecessary subsidies by medicare to private insurance companies, or curbing unnecessary military spending, or not invading another country like Iraq, would provide far more than enough money to pay for the change. All a public plan will do is cut costs, and improve quality of care.

And people who follow the healer from Nazareth oppose this?!

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