Friday, August 26, 2005
Saddam's WMD Reconsidered: Bush Unfairly Attacked
Don't get me wrong. Like the emerging majority of Americans, I feel the war was a mistake. But I also know we cannot leave the Iraq in it's present condition.
I am no fan of George W. Bush. He is a disaster as president, and his policies run deeply counter to my convictions. (He's an avowed Methodist, but opposes many of the Methodist's social principles.)
Still, many intelligent and reasonable people (dare I count myself among them?) concluded that Saddam had WMD. We did not think this because George W. Bush said so; our opinions were based on credible evidence.
NPR (that bastion of rabid right-wingers) ran a story a few months after the fall of Baghdad, reporting on interviews of Iraqi generals conducted by the US military. Many of them said that, although they did not posses WMD in their units, they knew that another unit did. That is, they believed, along with everybody else, that Saddam had WMDs. I remember listening to the story and thinking it was no wonder we all thought Saddam had WMDs. If the Iraqi military believed it, how could we think otherwise?
It turns out Saddam didn't have them. Much hand-wringing and vitriol has flowed since that fact became established.
We owe it to ourselves as well as to the rest of the world to accurately assess the history of the last four years. If we pretend that we knew all along that Saddam didn't own WMDs, we perpetuate a lie. This lie clouding our minds will render genuine dialog much more difficult.
We must understand the actual situation as well as we can before we can progress to solutions. We must share in the guilt of this war if we are to find ways to end it.
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
Mein Kampf & The Holy Bible
In the 1920's, Adolph Hitler wrote a book explaining his ideas and political philosophy. Mein Kampf sold very slowly until Hitler's election in 1933; then it sold 1.5 million copies. By the end of World War Two, it had sold an estimated 10 million copies.
People bought the book to show loyalty to the Nazi party, not to read it.
Many historians say that, if the book had actually been read, some of the horrors of World War Two might have been averted. We are told (I've never actually read it) that Mein Kampf reveals Hitler as the jew hating, racist, militaristic monster the world came to know through his actions. Hitler's book apparently contains numerous falsehoods and deceptions; if he had been challenged or faced criticism, perhaps history would tell a different story. We'll never know.
What has the story of Mein Kampf to do with us?
Here in the United States of America, there is a book that has sold more copies than any other book in history. In the vast majority of homes you will find this book. More than half the citizens and residents of this country will tell you they ardently believe in the teachings in this book. A vocal minority will say they do not. But, like Mein Kampf, this book is not actually read by many who feel so strongly about it. Of course, I'm talking about the Christian Bible.
Like Mein Kampf the Bible presents a daunting challenge. Like Mein Kampf, the Bible is full of contradictions. Making sense of it requires a lot of effort. Like Hitler's book, it is a lengthy tome.
The vast majority of Biblical literalists have read only snippets of Bible verses here and there; they actually know only those passages selected by their leaders. But to truly understand the Bible makes simple minded literalism impossible. To truly know the Bible requires deep study and a lot of work. I would argue that people allow themselves to feel superior and to think they are living Christian lives even as they endorse policies fostering hatred, ignorance, bigotry and injustice. The only thing that makes this possible is their own self-satisfied ignorance of the actual words of the Bible.
So, like Mein Kampf, the Bible will be the supreme example of the unread authority; the book everybody says they believe in without actually having read it.
Friday, August 19, 2005
Samuel Johnson was Funny, But Wrong.
Read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read people you don't like. Read boring guys and figure out how they could be made interesting. Pick out the errors in the daily newspaper - annoying, aren't they? Read poetry. Read biography. Read textbooks. Read novels. Read the Bible. Read children's books. Read books recommended to you.
Think of your work as a performance; drafts as rehearsals. You wouldn't play the violin for an audience without a little private practice first, would you? You wouldn't want to listen to someone who played without benefit of lessons, practice or rehearsal, would you? Why, then, would you want to inflict your mistake ridden first run-through on your friends?
Write. A writer is one who writes. Daily practice remains the best path to mastery of any skill.
Learn the rules. Sure, grammar, spelling and punctuation are all more or less arbitrary conventions. And, on rare occasions, it is okay to break the rules for effect. But you don't want your readers thinking "That dummy can't spell," in lieu of experiencing your work. And you must fully understand the rules to effectively break them.
Write what you know. A famous writer once said every human being has all the experience needed to be a writer by the age of five. Every child that age should have known love; and has known fear, rage, jealousy and hatred. Avoid what you don't know. If you don't know science, leave it for others. But if numerology is your bag, go for it. If you fake it, people will see through you.
Listen to your critics. Consider and understand first, then choose to ignore the criticism or to change your ways. Don't take it personally. If a critic fails to understand you, consider the possibility you failed to express your message effectively. Consider it, but reject unfounded criticism. Don't change who you are or how you write merely to please another. Please yourself first.
Deliver. Give the reader something he can't or won't get any other way. You imagine for the reader, in greater detail and more dramatically than he fantasizes. You do math for him, you entertain and inform. You do your homework, and the reader reaps the rewards. You bring him something fresh, if only your own personality. Remember, you compete for attention with the television, movies, and the reader's own family and own back yard.
Thursday, August 18, 2005
Language Mavens Unite!
Like a schoolmarm, I reprimand other bloggers for mistakes of spelling, grammar and punctuation. Perhaps "reprimand" is too harsh. I gently point out better modes of expression.
"How petty and picky," you say. "Who made you the internet English maven?"
I critique only serious blogs. The musings of bored housewives and the classic angst of teens, while of some interest, lack the pretensions that invite criticism. But blogs publishing political or social commentary with the intent to inform and persuade beg for language intervention.
Serious communication shows respect. The attempt to inform or persuade begins with the notion of brains in the audience; the assumption readers posses the wit to recognize the truth contained in the writing. The care, or lack of it, taken in the composition reflects the degree to which the author respects the reader. The author's grasp of the elements of writing also marks his or her maturity, education, and intelligence.
Even very minor errors distract literate readers from the message intended by the author.
I find myself thinking, "It's Ronald Reagan, not Regan" instead of whatever the writer meant me to understand.
When I wrote for money, some twenty years ago, I studied writing intensively. I loved A Civil Tongue and Strictly Speaking by Edwin Newman. The Transitive Vampire by Mog Cinders amused, entertained and educated me. I still read about writing. Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss made it to my Christmas list for this year. And no real writer works without the classic Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
I also looked forward to the weekly column on words by Bill Safire, published in the Sunday paper, back in the day.
With the advent of the internet, vastly superior resources now await our pleasure. We see an online guide to English Grammar.
Online encyclopedias, dictionaries and thesauri wait at out fingertips. Word processors check spelling and grammar as we compose. Even blogger contains a spell checker.
One man responded to me by saying, "I wrote in hast." And his next comment "Excuse me, haste." My dear fellow, if the errors result from haste, that tells me you don't feel the effort to communicate accurately important enough to devote adequate time to it. You fail to take yourself seriously, so why should I? What makes your blog different from the teens mooning over the hormonal struggle of adolescence or the endless public worship of one's child seen on so many blogs?
With every word, we demonstrate the standards we hold ourselves to. With every piece of writing, we show the world what we are made of.
"Words are holy," wrote Bill Tammeus in a recent newspaper column. He pointed to quotations like, "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God" (John 1:1).
Now, I may quote scripture, but I don't write it. And I don't expect others to, either. The rare lapse must be forgiven. Please understand this constitutes a plea on behalf of good writing and an explanation of why it matters. No one expects perfection. That's an aspiration; an unattainable but worthy goal.
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Stay at the Table
So when I give in to the temptation to stir up my Sunday School Class, I'm not teaching the Word any more - or am I?
The Bible contains many moral imperatives, teachings, commands and injunctions. Jesus often concerned himself with the powerless and the weak in his community; the widow and the orphan. He Himself was held as a prisoner and convicted of a capital crime.
I believe the moral teaching in the Bible applies to each of us as individuals, but also to us as communities and nations.
Take the Fifth Commandment, for example.
As law-abiding individuals, most people have never killed another human being. But we all belong to the community as well, and collectively we take part in killing all the time. We kill through the state, which acts in our name. (In a modern democratic state, soverignty flows up from the people.) We kill through wars; we kill prisoners held for crimes (such as murder); we kill fleeing suspects. We kill innocents in the pursuit of our enemies; both through the legal process and on the field of battle.
In our country, almost anyone can influence the action of the state. Of course, not everyone who tries will succeed, but the possibility remains. Now, if we as individuals believe that the state violates the fifth commandment, then we must act. The commandment is "Thou shalt not kill." No more, no less. Taken literally, it calls us to act; it is our moral duty to God and ourselves.
The only effective action possible under these circumstances is political protest. For example, camping outside the president's vacation ranch.
A more complex, sophisticated, discerning or least a different understanding of the commandment might not carry with it the need for political action. Or it might require a different kind of action. Moreover, whether or not a specific action will improve matters or make things worse is already the subject of honest disagreement, even among those with shared goals. (Will the killing in Iraq get worse or better if we pull out? Strong arguments exist on both sides.)
In exploring the meaning of the Bible and the commandments, inevitably the requirement for political action will arise sooner or later. As our understanding of Scripture grows, we may feel at one point a compulsion to act, that God wants us to do what we can to stop the killing.
Taken out of context, the fifth commandment is clear and unambiguous. But the context surrounding the commandment includes the listing of several capital crimes.
Of course, a favorite tactic of those who use Scripture to support political agendas is to isolate a sentence or two from the Bible in support of their goals. In these cases, the goals and political predilections come first, and they seek snippets of text after their minds are made up.
A different agenda flows from taking the Bible as a whole; from basing action on the Bible as a complete work, rather than combing it to support prejudices. And yes, the holy book does call us to act. Over and over again, the theme of caring for the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the foreigner repeats itself in the common documents (Old Testament) and the Gospels of Jesus.
We can find texts here and there to support slavery, polygamy, patriarchy, monarchy and so forth. We find commands to stone people to death, to burn dead animals, to refrain from eating certain foods, and so forth. But these contradict the work taken as a whole. The message of the Bible is that ours is a God of love, that He has steadfast love for all of us, and that we need to take care of each other, especially the poor, the weak and downtrodden.
We certainly do not want to draw a line down the middle of the congregation. We know that discussing politics in church will annoy some people and drive others away. But part of the message of the Bible is political. To fully explore the Scripture is to bring political considerations into the room. To deny the call to action is to deny the Word of God.
Sure, it's inconvenient.
Yes, it will aggravate some people. But God does not call us to complacency.
(My own conviction, not endorsed by the church: the message of Jesus is subversive.)
One of the themes at my church is "Stay at the table." The church experience, worship, communion and study are open to all, with no requirements or prerequisites. Membership, contributions, and so forth are not required. We commune freely as we believe God intended, sharing with all who want to join us. And when we inevitably disagree, we stay at the table and share the faith.
Monday, August 15, 2005
The Fifth Commandment and Cindy Sheehan
This question arose in the Sunday School class I taught yesterday.
We watched an excellent video, part of a series on the "Ten Commandments." After the video, I turned to the class and began to pepper them with questions, as is my custom.
Incidentally, this is an adult Sunday School class. Fully unpacking the meaning of this commandment, as with all the others, cannot be done in a 50 minute class. Each commandment, fully considered, is a complex message full of many layers of meaning. At best, we fly over the terrain and spot the major features.
Incidentally, many modern translations say "Do not murder," a phrase with completely different meaning. My own feeling is the correct word is "kill," though I'm no scholar and do not speak Hebrew. My feeling is based on readings of scholars and experts who do speak the language.
The commandment cannot be taken at face value: indeed, the common documents (Old Testament) require the death penalty for many crimes, including adultery and disobedience from sons. We no longer stone people to death for having sex outside of marriage, but we do kill. And not just literally, but figuratively and, in a very real way, socially as well.
After some desultory discussion, and some slow progress in examining the meaning of the commandment for us in the twenty-first century, I grew tired of the grinding pace of the discussion. I caved to a moment of weakness.
"Does everyone know who Cindy Sheehan is?" I asked. I got one blank look out of a dozen people, not too bad. Even she figured it out pretty quickly.
"Do we have a moral duty to try to influence public policy?" I asked. "Does the commandment enjoin us to do what we can to stop the killing when the killing is part of a war?"
"Would there be more killing or less in Iraq if we withdrew our troops?"
We then had a spirited discussion. As usual, I copped out and refused to essay any answers. My goal was to get people thinking, so, "Mission Accomplished."
Friday, August 12, 2005
Speed Limits Overcome
If I wore a hat, I'd tip it to the kind policemen in St. Louis, MO and Merriam, KS; the state troopers in Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee and Florida: all for not giving me speeding tickets I richly deserved.
As for the Kansas City KS police; the Kansas Highway patrol and the city cops in Kansas City MO: I understand you have a job to do and you did it well. You were always polite and treated me with respect as you wrote me up.
As for the Atlanta police: you guys sure have your hands full. I can't count the number of times you ignored me as I blasted past your patrol cars. Of course, it may be because you always had a faster car than mine pulled over at the time.
Now I've turned over a new leaf. On my last vacation, and since, I traveled the speed limit. My friends laughed at me when I told them that, but I don't care. I claim a moral victory; I took control and suppressed the impulses to speed.
Professor Joe Harkins, who taught leadership in the very first graduate class I took, exemplifies the highly ethical life I aspire to. He showed us that speeding (among many other things) is unethical. I finally took that lesson to heart.
Now the cruise control and I are best friends. If I can learn this at age 50+, there's hope for us all.
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
Dialog in Action
I write a lot about dialog. I also post comments on other blogs. Commenting, I:
- Start the conversation
- Learn what I think more clearly
- Present alternate views to another's audience
- Applaud insightful writing
- Point out inconsistency and muddied thinking
- Show the flaws in reasoning
- Discuss hidden assumptions
What about you?
Tuesday, August 09, 2005
Red Flags of Rhetoric
The louder and more forcefully people tell you about themselves, the more likely they lie.
"This won't hurt a bit" means "prepare for pain."
"I'm not crazy!" screamed at the top of one's lungs means "bring the straight jacket."
"I don't care," said with resentful, hurt & angry tones means, "it hurts so much I pretend indifference." I hear that a lot from my kids.
"I'm your friend," I heard as a very young man shopping for a car for the first time. It falls into the same category as "I'm right behind you." Both mean, "Turn you head a little more so you won't see the knife plunging into your back.
"Trust me," and "I'm not a crook" were said by George Bush and Richard Nixon, respectively. To be fair, many others before Bush used the same line.
I don't watch Fox news much, so have no opinion of my own of the fairness of their news coverage. But that banner proclaiming "Fair and Balanced" sounds an alarm. Why do they keep loudly insisting on their own goodness as news providers?
A Rereason Law of Rhetoric: The truth of a claim is often inversely proportional to the vehemence with which it is asserted.
Go in peace.
Friday, August 05, 2005
Gas Prices Will not Impact Habits
"Nah," I said. "People won't give up their SUVs."
But was I right?
Of course, perception is everything in sales and right now, the perception is that gas prices are in control. Well, facts do alter perceptions sooner or later. Even if the news media can only cover one story at a time, facts do become known.
So, let's do some math -- no, no, I mean, I've done some math that I'll share.
Suppose your shiny new SUV cost you $35,000. If you take out a five year loan at 7.5% interest, the monthly payments will cost $701.33. Add $100.00 for insurance: now the cost is $801.33. Add $50.00 monthly for maintenance (over the life of the vehicle) and $20.00 for tax and license, the total monthly cost now comes to $871.33.
As we can already intuit, the added cost of fuel makes a much smaller impact as a percentage of the total cost than we naively assume.
Suppose this SUV gets 16 mpg, and we drive the rule-of-thumb average of 12,000 miles each year. That works out to 750 gallons of gas annually.
When gas cost only $1.25 a gallon, the annual cost would have been $937.50, or about $78.13 monthly. Added to the $871.33 above, the total cost of owning and operating our hypothetical SUV was $949.46. At $1.25 per gallon, fuel constituted about 8.2% of the cost of the SUV.
Suppose now the price of gas doubles to $2.50 per gallon. The annual cost shoots up to $1,875 or $156.25 monthly. The cost of operation of the SUV increases to $1,027.58 monthly, an increase of about 8.2%.
This analysis can be further refined by looking at changes in the cost of living and the various components that make up the cost of living, and also household incomes. Suffice it to say the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security was 2.7% last year. Where I live, SUV loving Johnson County, KS, the median income for a family of four is $65,000. A 2.7% increase works out to $1,755.00, or almost enough to cover doubling the price of gas for 2 SUVs.
Of course, housing and health care costs are growing too, along with many other things. Prices of consumer goods from cars to computers are falling. Many once prosperous Johnson County families now suffer from "Sprint" syndrome -- seeing lucrative jobs evaporate and taking the hit. But even those people, at least the ones I'm personally acquainted with, kept their SUVs.
If we see gas prices of ten dollars a gallon within two years, lifestyles will change. If it takes much longer than that, the changes will work so slowly so as to be barely noticeable, except for some noisy moaning and complaining.
Let me put it another way. We've already heard lots of yells and screams, but the buses remain mostly empty.