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October 9, 2005 - The Week Ends Oddly Enough

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The point, perhaps not made well but attempted anyway, in The Fire Below, was that in looking behind the flow of news stories - a scandal here, a terror warning there, and way over there a speech of note - sometimes you could tease out something of a pattern that let you get a sense of the real cultural dynamics at play. The contention was that the scattered events all pointed to an underlying conflict, and one as old as we've had the ability to think, and then been told too much of thing "thinking" stuff is dangerous.

That conflict tied together the Bush speech and the issues folks had with the woman he nominated to the Supreme Court - he seemed to be saying we all are over-thinking this and we should just trust him. And as laid out with citation after citation, it seems a good number of people just couldn't help themselves. They wanted to think things through, and wanted someone deciding the scope and the limits of the laws of the land to do the same.

Friday Bush was asked about these people and said this: "When she's on the bench people will see a fantastic woman who is honest, open, humble and capable of being a great Supreme Court judge."

He seemed to think that was a fine answer.

The message? "Trust me, confirm and then see if you're surprised or not - and you folks of little faith will see you were right to blindly trust me." People are grumbling about that still.

Here's some representative grumbling from the pro-life (anti-abortion) side, from the Reverend Thomas J. Euteneuer, president of Human Life International


Last year Bush asked faithful Catholics to fight for him, campaign for him and vote for him and they did in record numbers; now the President lacks the stomach to fight for the values of those who put him in office.

Bush 41 asked us to read his lips, with disastrous results. Now, Bush 43 is asking us to trust him in a gamble with the lives of millions of unborn babies, with the health and well being of mothers, with the fate of our nation. Pro-life Catholics gambled on Bush last November, the odds do not look in our favor.


It seems Catholic Church has its usual faith in the Holy Trinity, but is having a problem with its faith in George.

But here an odd thing, they don't seem to have the American-style faith in the Holy Bible. The Catholic bishops of England are pretty much telling the American fundamentalists not everything in the Bible is literally true: "We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision."

Okay. Now they've abandoned God.

From the Catholic, gay, conservative but anti-Bush Andrew Sullivan: "Anyone who believes that the world was literally created in six days a few thousand years ago is not expressing his or her 'religious beliefs.' Believing something that is demonstrably and empirically untrue is not religion. It is simply superstition or lunacy. It has nothing to do with faith in things we cannot know. The notion that it should actually be taught in public schools as science is beneath even debating."

Yeah, well Bush really is too a man of faith. Consider the man he appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Department of the Interior Paul Hoffman, who last year overruled geologists at the Grand Canyon National Park and instructed the park's visitor centers to stock a creationist book that explained how God made the canyon six thousand years ago, deciding a flood to wipe out "the wickedness of man" would be a fine idea. The Park Service says that it really could be so. So THERE!

And Sullivan calls this superstition or lunacy.

Why, in central Pennsylvania, in the Dover trial, they're still arguing the inadequacies of evolution and geology in science - arguing science itself, that stuff of the mind, is inadequate and dangerously subversive. Bush and Senator Frist and John McCain have all come out and said science classes in public school in the United States should teach both side of the controversy - science may explain a lot and be kind of cool, but it may be inadequate and dangerously subversive because some things show it's "scientifically plausible" that much of what science hasn't figured out yet was thought up and plopped down here by the old, bearded white man in the sky, or some intelligent designer.

As before - faith (and trust) versus reason (and inquiry), the apple that tasted so good and got us kicked out of Eden, Galileo and the Catholic Church, Voltaire mocking religion and being denounced, Darwin and Huxley all the way to the Scopes trial, to Dover in Pennsylvania this month - this all had not been resolved, and may never be resolved. It's just one long argument, over and over.

The argument escalated when, on Friday, October 7th, Sam Harris' item There is No God (And You Know It) was all over the place - The Huffington Post and Yahoo News and elsewhere. This is an excerpt from An Atheist Manifesto, a book due to be published in December, but somehow it appearing now is a shot across some bow or another.

Harris picks up on the bread- and-butter of cable news on television in America, the abducted cute kid or blond teenage girl of the week –


Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture, and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of six billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl's parents believe - at this very moment - that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?



But they do believe it. If you can deal with being a voyeur who gets his or her jollies watching parents in agony claiming God will make it all better, over and over, you can watched the interviews. They're on the screen all the time. Yeah, this turning to the Devine protector is a "defense mechanism" of course, even if this entity (or whatever) is something that is neither demonstrably nor empirically present. It's a matter of faith.

And the kid is still dead. Then it becomes trying to understand God's will, and if that fails, accepting His "will" on faith. He knows best, after all.

The other staple of cable news? Disasters! Hurricanes bring good ratings. And what of science versus faith here?


Consider: the city of New Orleans was recently destroyed by hurricane Katrina. At least a thousand people died, tens of thousands lost all their earthly possessions, and over a million have been displaced. It is safe to say that almost every person living in New Orleans at the moment Katrina struck believed in an omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate God. But what was God doing while a hurricane laid waste to their city? Surely He heard the prayers of those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there. These were people of faith. These were good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. Only the atheist has the courage to admit the obvious: these poor people spent their lives in the company of an imaginary friend.

Of course, there had been ample warning that a storm "of biblical proportions" would strike New Orleans, and the human response to the ensuing disaster was tragically inept. But it was inept only by the light of science. Advance warning of Katrina's path was wrested from mute Nature by meteorological calculations and satellite imagery. God told no one of his plans. Had the residents of New Orleans been content to rely on the beneficence of the Lord, they wouldn't have known that a killer hurricane was bearing down upon them until they felt the first gusts of wind on their faces. And yet, a poll conducted by The Washington Post found that eighty percent of Katrina's survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God.


One wonders why. Perhaps one should ask Bush and Miers.

And this is works for those who have the "wrong" faith:


As hurricane Katrina was devouring New Orleans, nearly a thousand Shiite pilgrims were trampled to death on a bridge in Iraq. There can be no doubt that these pilgrims believed mightily in the God of the Koran. Indeed, their lives were organized around the indisputable fact of his existence: their women walked veiled before him; their men regularly murdered one another over rival interpretations of his word. It would be remarkable if a single survivor of this tragedy lost his faith. More likely, the survivors imagine that they were spared through God's grace.


Interesting, Allah is as useless as Jesus. And these disasters make folks believe even more fervently. Harris says, smugly, only the atheist recognizes "the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved."


Only the atheist realizes how morally objectionable it is for survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Because he refuses to cloak the reality of the world's suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is - and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all.


Yeah, yeah, but people of faith regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. That's our fault, or no one's fault. And then they assure each other God is both omniscient and omnipotent? So what's up with that?

The problem:


If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil. Pious readers will now execute the following pirouette: God cannot be judged by merely human standards of morality. But, of course, human standards of morality are precisely what the faithful use to establish God's goodness in the first place. And any God who could concern himself with something as trivial as gay marriage, or the name by which he is addressed in prayer, is not as inscrutable as all that. If He exists, the God of Abraham is not merely unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.

There is another possibility, of course, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: the biblical God is a fiction. As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor. Only the atheist has realized that the biblical god is no different. Consequently, only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world's suffering at face value. It is terrible that we all die and lose everything we love; it is doubly terrible that so many human beings suffer needlessly while alive. That so much of this suffering can be directly attributed to religion - to religious hatreds, religious wars, religious delusions, and religious diversions of scarce resources - is what makes atheism a moral and intellectual necessity. It is a necessity, however, that places the atheist at the margins of society. The atheist, by merely being in touch with reality, appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors.


As you see, Harris thinks too much, and he gets all logical. His position is that atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious. The problem as he sees it? We live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle.

No Supreme Court nomination for him, or even a job with the Park Service.

But it's odd this hit the wires this week - or maybe not.

The Big Speech

Midmorning Thursday, in another "trust me" thing, the president gave his long-awaited speech in which he was going to explain everything about the war in Iraq. Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, tells me that in fairness I should note that when reporters asked about the speech ahead of time - if it was going to be about Iraq - the White House said no, it will be about the War on Terrorism, but will also cover Iraq. And so it did, but since they are one in the same to the White House, there seems little point in noting the distinction.

As before, the speech seemed to be a halftime pep talk, a "we can win this thing" exhortation - but the coach didn't diagram any new plays or suggest different coverage patterns on defense, and he certainly didn't change the lineup at all. He didn't mention the score. He may not know the score.

And by late Friday everyone had moved on. The most complete analysis of the speech, point by point, came from Juan Cole, the University of Michigan professor of Middle East studies there, who writes that "Bush's attempt to conflate the regimes he doesn't like with al-Qaeda makes nonsense of his whole vision." Knowing the area, the conflicts, the players and reading and speaking the languages, Cole ended with this: and "as for the rest of your speech, it is all made up as you go along, just like your whole administration."

He didn't like it. Something about the facts and logic.

Cole will never be appointed to anything in this administration.

Who will? Try a second-rate angry Hollywood actor, one of the few who defends Bush as a great man. See this White House Press Release, Friday, October 7, 2005, Nominations Sent to the Senate: "Ron Silver, of New York, to be a Member of the Board of Directors of the United States Institute of Peace for a term expiring January 19, 2009."

Yep, peace is at hand. Add your own comments about meritocracy being an outmoded concept, like competence and any sort of background. Loyalty trumps that stuff. Silver's films are listed here. A long time ago he supported the New Jersey liberal Democrat, Bill Bradley. Ah well.

Terror in the Tubes

There was the terror alert concerning the New York Subways - trust us, this is serious, but ride them anyway. That was still being discussed Friday, along with the Friday bomb threat at Washington Monument (hoax) and the Friday bomb threat up in San Francisco on BART, their subway system (hoax). Folks are nervous.

Of course everyone Friday talked about how New York mayor Bloomberg and his men said the threat was specific and credible, and the Department of Fatherland Security (yeah, couldn't resist) said the threat wasn't credible at all, and the FBI disagreed. You heard that stuff all day. (See New Yorkers Baffled Over Differing Stances on Terrorist Threat.) Who do you trust? What do you take on faith, in this case, faith in the leaders you elected to assess these things?

It seems the threat had been out there for days. Why act now? Put on your tin-foil hat, but note these items:

TV news chief held terror threat story at request of officials (Newsday) –


WNBC-TV news veep Dan Forman says he held the report about a possible terrorist threat to New York City after hearing from two federal officials and one local official. "They stressed if we went ahead with the story, people could be placed in harm's way," he says. "We believe we served our viewers well [by not broadcasting the report on Tuesday]."


Craig Crawford here (CBS Public Eye) –


Even more disturbing to me in yesterday's subway warning was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's comment that a news outlet had gotten the story two days earlier but agreed to withhold releasing it until the government gave the green light. Perhaps Bloomberg's position on this will turn out to be credible, but his claim that the extra time was needed for law enforcement to handle this threat seems worth questioning.

The result was that a news media outlet was persuaded to join a conspiracy of silence until the government was ready to announce the news, which happened to coincide with White House strategy for Bush's speech and also just so happened to serve as a neat distraction from Rove's latest bad news.

Perhaps there was nothing nefarious going on in this case. But as things stand, it is very difficult for the media to initially explore these specific threats to make sure we are not being duped. I don't see how that makes us any safer.


Oh, ye of little faith! See also Whom Do You Trust? (CBS) for more on this matter.

Do you just trust the president in Harriet Miers?

See Gingrich: Conservatives can trust in Miers - or see this: "Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, yesterday [Monday, 10/3/05] held a conference call with conservative leaders to address their concerns about Miers. He stressed Bush's close relationship with Miers and the need to confirm a justice who will not interfere with the administration's management of the war on terrorism, according to a person who attended the teleconference."

So it's really about having someone on the Supreme Court, a swing vote, who won't rule against the president's right to imprison anyone he selects for as long as he likes, without charges, or who won't rule against the claim the administration has the right to approve torture and kidnapping (or as we call it, "extraordinary rendition")? Maybe she knows of some other things she can help him with, stuff he shouldn't have done, in a legal sense, as it were. Well that's possible.

One never knows. And knowing anything is getting harder.

Monday the 10th the BBC runs that documentary with this:


"President Bush said to all of us: 'I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, "George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan." And I did, and then God would tell me, "George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq ..." And I did. And now, again, I feel God's words coming to me, "Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East." And by God I'm gonna do it.'"


Did he really say that?

1.) White House Denies Claims of 'Divine Order' for Bush
2.) Abbas Says He Never Heard Bush Talking about Religious Reasons to ... (Palestine News Agency, Palestine)
3.) Yes, George Bush did tell me he was on a mission from God (Times Online, UK)

We know less and less every day. Maybe faith really is the answer.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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