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Archive for December, 2004

Quote of the day

December 30, 2004 1 comment

What we have here is someone who is arguing that it’s “censorship” not to teach criticisms that are laughably wrong while omitting crucial information. Why should we let someone completely ignorant of evolution dictate how we teach it? We wouldn’t let someone who couldn’t count tell us how to teach math. And if such a person screamed censorship, we’d immediately call them an idiot.

Steve Reuland discussing a Phyllis Schafly column at The Panda’s Thumb. A good read.

Categories: Science

Generosity

December 28, 2004 1 comment

I’m at home, so I get to read the Missoulian daily. That means I come across Mona Charen columns. Today’s was pretty interesting.

America the greedy and cruel

The school movie. What a glorious thing it was to a student eager to avoid real work. The lights were dimmed, and nothing was expected from us except to gaze at a screen. (Later, we understood that lazy teachers liked movies for the same reason.)

But at least the films we saw conveyed good information, unlike so much of the leftist drivel that is marketed to our kids today. I remember in particular the films about American aid to the Third World. I recall those huge white sacks of grain with “gift of the USA” printed on the sides. And the faces of the starving children (Biafra was the starvation current when I was in elementary school), as their bowls were filled with nutritious food. You wondered whether it was too late for those hollow-cheeked, haunted faces.

Silly me. I was proud of the United States for trying to help those people in distant lands. I did not have the benefit of the tendentious, anti-American claptrap that is routinely served up in American schools today.

Hmm, me neither. We watched Saving Private Ryan. Damn those anti-American bastards.

Paging through The New York Times yesterday, I came upon just the same sort of spin in a news story about world food aid. “U.S. Cutting Food Aid That Is Aimed at Self-Sufficiency” announced the headline. Reading on, one learns that, “In one of the first signs of the effects of the ever tightening federal budget, in the past two months the Bush administration has reduced its contributions to global food aid programs aimed at helping millions of people climb out of poverty.” Nowhere in this page 3 article does the New York Times reporter Elizabeth Becker place these cutbacks in context.

The Times does not tell readers that the United States is the world’s largest food aid donor by far. In 2004, the United States provided $826,469,172 — almost a billion dollars — to the United Nations World Food Program. The next largest donor, the European Union, contributed $187,102,068. This, despite the fact that the European Union has a total population of 453 million, compared with the USA’s 281 million, and a gross domestic product that is larger than that of the United States.

Japan was third on the list, giving $126,906,097, and the United Kingdom was fourth, with donations totaling $109,247,050. Iran gave $40,000. The Saudi Kingdom gave $3,345,325 — about the cost of one trip to Paris for the Crown Prince. And Kuwait, the OPEC fund and the Russian Federation gave nothing.

I suppose the reporter could have put it in the context that tax cuts for the rich are more important than food for starving children. I don’t think Charen would have liked that, though. In any case, one point made in the article is that we promised the agencies the aid, then changed our mind:

“We have between five and seven million people who have been affected by these cuts,” said Lisa Kuennen, a food aid expert at Catholic Relief Services. “We had approval for all of these programs, often a year in advance. We hired staff, signed agreements with governments and with local partners, and now we have had to delay everything.”

Ms. Kuennen said Catholic Relief Services had to cut back programs in Indonesia, Malawi and Madagascar, among other countries.

Officials of several charities, some Republican members of Congress and some administration officials say the food aid budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 was at least $600 million less than what charities and aid agencies would need to carry out current programs.

Also, we aren’t talking about the UN WFP, where Charen’s statistics are from. I think that gives me enough of an excuse to use overall economic aid statistics (slightly older ones, though I doubt they’ve changed much). The U.S. is 20th in economic aid per capita and 21st per dollar of GDP (second in absolute dollars, however). We give 15% of what France gives per person.

In any case, I think we can all agree that cutting food aid is not good. Charen would like to obscure that, apparently, but it’s clearly something we would rather avoid.

Back up

December 27, 2004 1 comment

It seems there was some sort of IP routing error causing my site to be down for at least today, maybe for some of yesterday, too. It looks like it’s fixed now.

Categories: Blogging

Rest in Peace

December 25, 2004 Leave a comment

Cpl. Raleigh Smith

December 7th, 1983 – December 23rd, 2004

Categories: Iraq, Personal

Problems

December 23, 2004 4 comments

I haven’t been able to get to Left in the West for a couple days now. Anyone else having that problem?

Categories: Blogging

Happy holidays makes baby Jesus cry

December 23, 2004 4 comments

No, really.

This really is getting absurd. I truly don’t get why people get all up in arms over “happy holidays” or the removal of some Christmas carols in school. I’m of the opinion that Christmas trees and most carols are fine, considering Christmas is a federal holiday because of its more secular elements like Santa Claus. I kinda wonder though, would these people be happy with their kids singing, for example, “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel”? Generally, I think we should do more to include all holiday traditions, but I really can’t understand the hostility this brings out in some Christians.

Enough of that, I wrote this post in order to point out an instance of Bill O’Reilly’s lunacy, courtesy of Media Matters. O’Reilly says this in a Talking Points a couple weeks ago:

Secular progressives realize that America as it is now will never approve of gay marriage, partial birth abortion, euthanasia, legalized drugs, income redistribution through taxation, and many other progressive visions because of religious opposition.

But if the secularists can destroy religion in the public arena, the brave new progressive world is a possibility. That’s what happened in Canada.

On Sunday, the NY Times says this:

Of course, for many conservatives, this controversy is not just about Christmas; it’s a way to talk about a whole float of issues. Bill O’Reilly warned viewers that store clerks no longer saying “Merry Christmas” foretold the imminence of “a brave new progressive world” where gay marriage, partial birth abortion and legalized drugs run rampant.

On Monday, Bill says:

Reporter Kate Zernike uses The Times playbook and blames the dreaded conservatives for causing all the ruckus. She then tries to demean the folks who think Christmas should be publicly respected, writing, “Of course, for many conservatives, this controversy is not just about Christmas; it’s a way to talk about a whole float of issues. Bill O’Reilly warned viewers that store clerks no longer saying ‘Merry Christmas’ foretold the imminence of a brave new progressive world where gay marriage, partial birth abortion and legalized drugs run rampant.”

Of course, Ms. Zernike’s analysis of my column, which is posted right now on billoreilly.com, is misleading in the extreme and she knows it. Anybody who reads it could know it. Just go there, read it and read her article. It’s absurd.

Ok, then. Bill O’Reilly is officially not living on this planet.

Categories: Silliness

Porcupine Tree!

December 21, 2004 1 comment

March 21st, they say.

There are guest appearances by Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth, and Adrian Belew of King Crimson. The final track listing of the 60 minute album is:

1. Deadwing
2. Shallow
3. Lazarus
4. Halo
5. Arriving Somewhere But Not Here
6. Mellotron Scratch
7. Open Car
8. The Start of Something Beautiful
9. Glass Arm Shattering

T-minus 3 months exactly.

Of course, I intend to have it before that. The internets are wonderful.

Categories: Music

HA!

December 20, 2004 2 comments

Poor Patriots.

Categories: Sports

The Meaning of Christmas?

December 20, 2004 10 comments

I used to feel somewhat guilty about Christmas. I stopped thinking of myself as a Christian probably in my junior year of high school. I don’t really know when, I just remember being a Christian as a sophomore and not being one as a senior. The feelings of guilt started maybe a couple years ago, I don’t remember exactly when for that either. Why am I taking part in this? I don’t believe Jesus was any kind of savior. I don’t really subscribe to Christianity philosophically and even if I did I don’t think he said anything particularly interesting, so why should I care when he was born? I felt guilty because I was participating out of greed, not wanting to be left out, and not wanting to upset anyone. So I’ve been thinking and reading about it more lately.

Christmas trees, gift giving, and Santa Claus

First off, we should look at the general history of the central traditions of Christmas in America. Gift giving has sort of an interesting history. Early Christmas rituals consisted of a bunch of lower class types breaking into the houses of the upper class and demanding food and drink. This became less popular, but Christmas was still an occasion of “misrule:” kids (and other members of the lower classes) going out and drinking and generally stirring up trouble. This wasn’t exactly sitting well with the more wealthy people of the city. They tried to turn Christmas into a day of worship, opening the churches, trying to get those people off the streets. It failed, so they needed something different. Washington Irving imagined a kinder, gentler Christmas, with all the classes feasting together at the upper class’s expense. This wasn’t particularly popular either, but it led into Clement Clarke Moore’s Santa Claus.

Santa Claus is based on a supposed Saint Nicholas, from the 4th century:

Most religious historians and experts in folklore believe that there is no valid evidence to indicate that St. Nicholas ever existed as a human. In fact, there are quite a few indicators that his life story was simply recycled from those of Pagan gods. Many other ancient Pagan gods and goddesses were similarly Christianized in the early centuries of the Church. His legends seems to have been mainly created out of myths attributed to the Greek God Poseidon, the Roman God Neptune, and the Teutonic God Hold Nickar. “In the popular imagination [of many Russians] he became the heir of Mikoula, the god of harvest, ‘who will replace God, when God becomes too old.’ ” 8

When the church created the persona of St. Nicholas, they adopted Poseidon’s title “the Sailor.” They seem to have picked up his last name from Nickar. Various temples of Poseidon became shrines of St. Nicholas. 1 “In medieval England… in tiny sea ports we find the typical little chapel built on an eminence and looking out to sea.” 8 St. Nicholas also adopted some of the qualities of “The Grandmother” or Befana from Italy. She was said to have filled children’s stockings with gifts. Her shrine at Bari was also converted into a shrine to St. Nicholas.

The Christian church created a fictional life history for St. Nicholas. He was given the name Hagios Nikolaos (a.k.a. St. Nicholas of Myra).

Saint Nicholas became a cult figure primarily in Holland. It’s generally thought that the Dutch brought the tradition to America in the 17th century, but there’s a lack of evidence supporting this. Instead, it seems that Clement Clarke Moore essentially started the tradition with his “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in 1822. Moore, along with Irving and the Knickerbockers (an upper class group in New York) felt they were sort of under seige:

In short, the Knickerbockers felt that they belonged to a patrician class whose authority was under seige. From that angle, their invention of Santa Claus was part of what we can now see as a larger, ultmately quite serious cultual enterprise: forging a pseudo-Dutch identity for New York, a placid “folk” identity that could provide a cultural counterweight to the commercial bustle and democratic “misrule” of early-nineteenth-century New York.

From Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, my source for most of this section. The idea of Santa Claus would serve to move Christmas into a quieter, more domestic realm, substituting family gift exchange for the food and drink of previous rituals. The gifts started out as money and moved to more commercial items, and business pounced on the idea, marketing gifts heavily during the Christmas season, starting with candies (including, oddly, sugar shaped as cockroaches), moving to gift books and Bibles. Christmas gifts became more lavish and expensive as time went on and eventually people started to wonder if they were spoiling the children by making them holiday so much about them. From that we get the Christmas tree.

Christmas trees are generally considered to have been originally a pagan tradition in which evergreen trees were decorated in celebration of the winter solstice. Christmas was an attempt to convert pagans by including that winter solstice celebration in their traditions, so it’s no surprise that the tradition survived. America picked up the tradition from Germany. Part of the way the American tradition started was with strange Unitarian child rearing ideas, but in general the tradition was associated with the element of surprise; it was a way to give parents more control over the gift-giving ritual therefore reducing concerns over spoiling.

As you can probably see, the evolution of the central Christmas traditions had a lot to do with secular cultural reasons. They aren’t particularly representative of any facet of Christian theology, save for the actual figure of Santa Claus, which I’ll deal with in the next section. It seems to me that those traditions, which make up essentially what Christmas is to me, are easily separable from Christianity, and can be judged on their own merit.

Symbolism and Santa Claus

The general story and procedure around Santa Claus is a good metaphor for atheism, or more specifically secular humanism, in my opinion. First off, Santa Claus is pretty close to a personal god. As Religious Tolerance.org notes:

He is virtually omnipresent. He can visit hundreds of millions of homes in one night.

He is omniscient. He monitors each child; he is all-seeing and all-knowing; he knows when they are bad and good.

Although not omnipotent, he does have great powers. He can manufacture gifts for hundreds of millions of children, and deliver them in one night — each to the correct child.

He is all-good and all-just. He judges which children have shown good behavior and rewards them appropriately. Bad children are bypassed or receive a lump of coal.

He is eternal.

He rewards good and punishes bad behavior.

I would add that his mythology is built upon very spurious grounds: he flies around the entire world in one night, visiting every home, entering through a chimney, on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. Completely absurd, of course. Children believe that readily, as they haven’t developed much of a capacity for critical thinking or questioning authority and they have a pretty good incentive to do so (presents). Essentially, my parents say so, it must be true. Kids get older, they find others questioning the idea, they get punched in the stomach for believing such a thing (er, maybe that’s just me), and the mythology increasingly makes less sense. At this point some parents may suggest that if the child stops believing in Santa, he or she won’t get any presents. Eventually, the kid stops believing, the parents drop the charade, and the level of presents stays the same. Gift exchanging takes on a slightly different meaning – you come to enjoy the thought put into the gifts given to you by your family and friends and enjoy giving gifts yourself.

Isn’t this a great metaphor for the ideal process of rejecting religion in our current Christian culture? The person is born into a Christian household. He or she is a Christian because that’s what the figures of authority (parents, pastor, etc) in his or her life say is true. Eventually the person encounters opposing viewpoints about his or her religion. The person begins investigating and has sort of an epiphany: he or she decides to reject Christianity and become an atheist. Before that (or upon informing said authority figures of the news) though, the person is warned that life will have no meaning, he or she will feel empty, etc. What the person realizes, however, is that life is just as fulfilling with the meaning created by your loved ones and the freedom to make your own meaning. The meaning implied by the metaphor is a respect and love for your family, friends, and by extension, humanity (I realize I’m stepping into the “humanists worship human beings” canard a little, but nothing’s perfect).

Every day after the realization that Santa Claus is a myth that you celebrate the Christmas tradition of gift-giving is a celebration of secular humanism, a celebration of the removal of mystical blinders. Meaning in life for you is the meaning created by your family and friends and by working towards the improvement of humanity.

Of course, you can intepret it other ways. Mabye you like the childhood ideal of Christmas better than the adult one. I can definitely understand that. In that way, Christmas is a warning to all who entertain the idea of leaving a current religious belief. Your life will take a downturn, it won’t be as joyous or blissful as it was before. We’ll call that the fundamentalist fire and brimstone message. Maybe you’d like to reduce the tradition to its basic core: an awakening, a change from clouded thinking to complete clarity. It could be a religious awakening (“born again”) or any kind of general philosophical epiphany. Maybe you see little difference in gift-giving traditions before and after Santa, and you apply that to mean that personal religious beliefs are not practically important to life. Of course, you can also step back, note that this is pretty superficial, commercial tradition, and dismiss the idea that it has some kind of metaphorical meaning.

All in all, the Santa Claus tradition and mythology can be interpreted in many ways; I would guess that most people can apply it in some way to their life. It seems to boil down to change, an awakening, a life changing experience. Most people have had something like that happen to them. I like my humanist interpretation, but you can interpret it in a lot of different ways. It can adapt to any philosophy or religion.

Spirit of Christmas?

At least in the Christmas traditions of my family, Santa Claus/gift giving is the primary tradition. I think that’s generally true for the rest of our country. But what else does our Christmas season represent philsophically? Charity and goodwill towards men (why can I not remember where that phrase comes from?) come to mind. Both of those fit in quite nicely with secular humanist principles:

A primary concern with fulfillment, growth, and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.

A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.

A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.

A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.

A conviction that with reason, an open marketplace of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.

So we’ve found that the main tradition of Christmas and the general spirit can be easily adapted to an atheistic humanist viewpoint. I think that’s sufficient to justify the celebration of Christmas by a secular humanist, as I am. Is there anything from typical Christmas celebrations that should be excluded in a atheistic celebration? Nativity scenes are obviously right out. Maybe some ornaments that depict angels and the like (I don’t recall ever seeing Jesus ornaments….maybe that’s something to think about if this computer science thing doesn’t work out). The name is obviously Christian, but I’m as concerned about changing that as I am with renaming the planets. Though, I like NODWISH. And of course, Festivus.

Commercialism

What is Christmas if not commercial? The lament that Christmas is becoming too commercialized (as a side note, dictionary.com uses Christmas in their sentence using “commercialized”) can be traced all the way back to Harriet Beecher Stowe in the early 19th century. Is this a cause for concern? I would think Christians aren’t especially fond of the materialism of the holiday, at least the ones that think about it. Should a secular humanist? I don’t think so. Surely materialism at the expense of humanity as a whole is not something to be approved of. It’s quite obvious, however, that material goods contribute to the happiness of people, which is something looked upon favorably by secular humanism. So I would suggest it’s fine in moderation. Of course, Christmas is not particularly a time of moderation and an indulgence of American hyper-commercialism during this period could be taken as approval of how some of our goods are made: in horrid third world factories. So, I think secular humanists should at least be cautious and moderate in their Christmas celebrations. Political beliefs may play a more important role. Certainly someone with anti-capitalist leanings shouldn’t indulge in the spectacle of consumerism that is Christmas. Of course, living in a society means you have to engage in its economic system to some degree. Celebration however, is not required. I’m not one of those people though, so this isn’t something I’m going to ponder.

Conclusion

I don’t mean to hijack Christmas and change to any one belief system. I think the fundamental tradition of Christmas in our culture is adaptable to many ways of thinking. To be sure, Christmas will be more meaningful to Christians. It can have meaning to other people, as well, I believe. As it was put in a recent TNR article (sub req’d):

Even so, I empathize completely with the urge to make this season about something more than shopping orgies and hellish travel. Truth be told, the holidays haven’t been the same for me since I abandoned the biblical literalism of my upbringing. (Technically, the slide began when my Sunday School teacher spilled the ugly truth about Santa, but that’s a trauma best left unprobed.) Sure, I can appreciate the season as a widely celebrated time of love and sharing and good will. But a more rational, multicultural spin on the holidays just doesn’t pack the same gut-level oomph as, say, God becoming flesh to save mankind.

Categories: Religion

Moralism?

December 17, 2004 2 comments

Emmet Tyrrell over at Town Hall has some things on his mind about Pinochet.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Justice never sleeps. Or rather, the free-floating moralism that is the left never sleeps.

Ok, he’s going to attack the left from a principled moral perspective. I can’t wait.

The 89-year-old man is, of course, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and his human rights abuses are not even reported in the newspapers as “alleged” human rights abuses. For The New York Times on Tuesday, Guzman’s decision was front-page news — in fact, the day’s major news story with a color picture of Guzman embraced by Pinochet’s emotional opponents.

The photograph dominated three columns! In the body of the Times story, the word “communist” never appeared, only “Marxists.” For all the untutored reader might know, Pinochet’s victims might have been the country’s librarians or butterfly collectors.

Uh, bad start. Marxists are less worthy of life than others.

That word, “Marxists,” appeared in a quote from Pinochet, who said a year ago on a Spanish-language television show: “Everything I did I would do again. Who am I supposed to ask for forgiveness? They are the ones who have to ask me for forgiveness, them, the Marxists.”

The old boy came to power in 1973. For six months before he took over, politicians and private citizens in large numbers had been imploring the military to deliver Chile from President Salvador Allende, a romantic and incompetent Marxist pseudo-intellectual who spent his last year in a drunken haze while economic chaos spread.

Wait, why are we attacking Marxists again?

For the next 17 years, Pinochet, his military and his secret police waged war against leftists, usually within Chile but occasionally abroad through a series of political assassinations. Pinochet’s political assassinations were not as numerous as those practiced by Soviet satellite countries. Nor was his war as bloody as Gen. Francisco Franco’s war against communists and other leftists in the 1930s, but it was brutal enough to offend civil libertarians everywhere, including me.

Ok, better, he was offended by the violations of human rights. He loses a point for qualifying it by saying the Soviets were worse.

Yet, like Franco, he did return his country to democracy. How many communists have done that? Moreover, communism accounted for scores of millions of innocent victims in the 20th century. Pinochet’s regime allegedly accounted for 4,000, not all of them peace-loving progressives.

Ok, there are still problems. Still trying to excuse the murders a little. This principled thing is harder than it looks.

How many has Fidel Castro murdered, tortured and jailed? Today, Castro remains a bloody tyrant and far more of a problem beyond his shores than the general with the absurd sun-glasses and the 18th-century uniforms ever was.

Finally, when Fidel ultimately croaks, he will have left what was once the most prosperous country in Latin America in a heap. Are any of Pinochet’s present-day tormentors demanding Castro’s prosecution for crimes against humanity?

Ok, more relativism; I’m not sure he’s even trying anymore. He gets a bonus deduction for equating Castro’s current situation (current leader of a country, not really in a position for us to prosecute him, tormentors of Pinochet are largely relatives of victims of Pinochet) with Pinochet.

There are two points worth noting here. One is that the left — whether communist or simply glassy-eyed reformist — never tires in hunting down its enemies. The other is that its enemies are always on the right, or at least the perceived right. The old Soviet Bloc countries are filled with retired brutes who did far more damage to the civil liberties and the prosperity of their countries than Pinochet ever did. There is no effort to prosecute these enemies of freedom commensurate with the effort against Pinochet.

Oh, wait, I may have misunderstood what Tyrrell meant. He doesn’t need to be morally principled, the left does. It does clear some things up.

If indeed the prosecution of Pinochet would elevate regard for human rights worldwide, I would be among the first to celebrate Judge Guzman’s decision. Yet it is not the opponents of Pinochet who have made great strides in the elevation of human rights worldwide. Rather, it has been North Americans and Europeans, most notably the English-speaking peoples.

Right now, those people are leading the world in a struggle against tyrants who, unlike an 89-year-old retired general, can actually shoot back. How prominent have Pinochet’s opponents been in the struggle against Islamofascism and the sadistic Saddam Hussein? The answer is not very.

Yeah! And where’s the condemnation of Uzbekistan leader Islam Karimov? His government boils people! How about Saudi Arabia’s beheadings?

Oh, wait, those are friends of the President. We’ll ignore them for now.

In fact, many of those cheering for Pinochet’s neck today blithely lump Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush into the same category they reserve for Pinochet.

There is a great deal of posturing about civil liberties and justice in the campaign against Pinochet. There is also something else. It is difficult to explain, but it is observable. The left worldwide reserves its hostility for people on the right and for America and its allies, who are the real guarantors of the rights of man.

Well then, how did he do? He was a rousing success in holding the left to some kind of moral standards. Unfortunately, he didn’t quit make those standards either. Ah well, just another day at Town Hall.

Categories: World news
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