Monday, August 31, 2009

For the Devil's Dictionary

On page 73 of Christopher Buckley's 2008 comic novel, Supreme Courtship, I came across a definition that Ambrose Bierce might have included in his Devil's Dictionary:
Pollsters, n pl. Overcompensated and usually self-regarding political functionaries who instruct leaders what to do, based on the biases of a largely uninformed electorate.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Your wise American people

Like everyone else, I knew of William F. Buckley, Jr. before I knew of his son Christopher. The father was the never-doubting Roman Catholic, Conservative icon, author of God and Man at Yale. I heard him debate at the Yale Political Union around 1962 and was so persuaded by his brilliance and fire that I shot upright in the standing vote to register my opinion that Buckley had won. Then there was "Firing Line" and The National Review, which I even subscribed to for a time. (I also subscribed over the years to The New Republic, Mother Jones, Ramparts, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, The Wilson Quarterly, Foreign Affairs, The New York Review of Books, as well of course as to Time and Newsweek and The New Yorker.)

I'd heard of the son, seen his byline in The New Yorker, then saw him in the bonus material for the feature film "Thank You for Smoking," adapted from his comic novel. But I never read anything he wrote until his memoir about his father (and his mother), Losing Mum and Pup, from which I quoted recently, already knowing that I'd found someone whose books I'd likely enjoy.

In his 2008 comic novel, Supreme Courtship, the President of the United States has just nominated TV judge Pepper Cartwright to fill a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court. Pepper is being prepped by the President's aides:
On a discrete signal from Graydon, Hayden turned to another page of his briefing tome and in a mild tone of voice said, "Judge Cartwright, your father...[is] a minister, down in Texas."
    "First Sabbath Tabernacle of Plano. Giving witness to the Word, twenty-four seven, rain or shine, hell or high water, no sin too small, no crime too dire. Yeaaaah, Jesus!"
    "Sorry?"
    "It's how he begins his Sunday broadcast."
    "Ah. Yes. Growing up in that environment must have affected your own religious views?"
    "Certainly, sir. But as to that, I don't really have any religious views."
    "How do you mean?"
    "Well, Senator, we all keep the Sabbath in our own way."
    "May I ask how you keep it?"
    "In bed with a crossword puzzle, coffee, and a croissant."
    "I see."
    "I could leave out the croissant part at the hearings, if you want, if you think it sounds too French. Want me to substitute bagel? Or is that too Jewish? What about crumb cake? Crumb cake sounds American enough."
    Hayden and the other senators exchanged uneasy stares.
    Hayden said, "Your lack of religious views, again, if I may, I don't mean to...what I'm trying to get at is..."
    "Let me help you out here, Senator. When I was nine years old I watched my momma get hit by lightning. Now, my daddy interpreted that as the Almighty's punishment for playing golf on the Sabbath and built a whole church around it. I drew a different inference."
    Hayden said, "The inference being...I don't mean to pry, but..."
    "That God is a son of a bitch," she said.

She said that?" the President said.
    It was later the same day. He had just handed a worn-out-looking Graydon Clenndennynn a double martini and had poured himself a frosty schooner of beer.
    "Freely," Graydon said. "Gleefully. She's an atheist. Proud of it."
    "Oh, my," said the President..."There have been Supreme Court justices who didn't believe in God. Haven't there?"
    "Yes, but I don't think they presented their views quite so gleefully or vividly at the confirmation hearings..."
    "Hmm," the President said. "Well, maybe it will come off as refreshing. Santamaria [one of the sitting Justices, seemingly based on Antonin Scalia] practically wears his Knights of Malta feather cap to Court. She's honest. Transparent. A breath of fresh Texas air. The people will respond. I know it."
    "Donald, according to polls, more people in this country believe in the Immaculate Conception than in evolution. I don't know why you're always carrying on about the so-called 'wisdom of the American people.' Half of the population seems to me to be demented. Belong in cages..."
    "Maybe it won't come up," said the President.
    "I wouldn't count on that. There are five thousand reporters out there, digging. Like worms."
    The President sipped his beer. "Her father, the TV reverend. He'll balance out the religious aspect. It'll be fine."
    ...
    "God, please, no. He'll start speaking in tongues...She seems fond of the grandfather. Former sheriff. His name is JJ, wouldn't you know? Droopy mustache, big shiny belt buckle, soulful eyes. He'll do. Your wise American people love that sort of thing." [pp. 63-66]

Thursday, August 27, 2009

No longer anonymous

The occasion for Maureen Dowd's column Tuesday in The New York Times on the web ("Stung by the Perfect Sting") was the news that the anonymous blogger who had called Liskula Cohen, "a 37-year-old model and Australian Vogue cover girl, a 'skank,' a 'ho,' and an 'old hag' who 'may have been hot 10 years ago'" might bring [or had brought] suit against Google for letting Cohen know who her tormenter was: "a cafe society acquaintance named Rosemary Port, a pretty 29-year-old Fashion Institute of Technology student."
    When Dowd went on to ask, "Who are these people prepared to tell you what they think, but not who they are?"
    I realized that I didn't want to be one of those people.

–Morris Dean

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fair and balanced

A person of my acquaintance objected to my sic after "Fox News" recently, telling me that "If you want fair and balanced news, you should listen to some of the people on FOX [in all-caps]." This put me in mind of the proof for the existence of God known as the argument from red face and loud voice1:"God said it, I believe it, and that settles it." Of course, in the case of Fox News [sic], the ones who say "we're fair and balanced" are...the people on Fox!
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  1. John Allen Paulos, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up, pp. 63-54

Monday, August 24, 2009

Bill Maher interviews Sam Harris

Bill Maher recently interviewed Sam Harris on "Real Time with Bill Maher." It was Harris's 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, in which I found a for-me pivotal expression of many of my own thoughts about religion. Maher's feature film, "Religulous," was released late last year. You can watch Maher's interview of Harris on YouTube.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

But the greatest joke of all...

...is on those to whom violence has been done "in the name of God":
The three thousand people who perished in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, and all who have suffered or died as a consequence of the resulting wars.
    The women in patriarchal societies the world over whose scriptures proclaimed that they were the slaves of men to be done with however pleased the men.
    The children who have been force-fed scriptural doctrine and ruled by stern, "because I [standing in for God] say so" parents.
    The blacks in the American South whose enslavement was taken to be condoned by the teachings of the Bible.
    The gays and other "deviants" who have been accorded their Old Testament due by fundamentalist enforcers.
    The oddballs in societies like that of Salem, Massachusetts who were drowned, hanged, or burned as witches.
    The innocent men and women who have been convicted by jurors so Biblically intent on taking an eye for an eye that they didn't bother to be sure they had the right person. Like Ray Krone, whose story is told in Jim Rix's 2007 book, Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out. The jury for Krone's second trial was predominantly Mormon, and the "bite mark expert" who presented his mistaken evidence as inspiring "a high degree of [scientific] confidence" was a deacon in the Mormon Church. Juror Rebecca said later, "I'm a Mormon. I had the jurors' names put in the prayer roll at the temple while we were in trial so that we could make proper decisions."
    The scientists (like Galileo) who were shown the instruments of torture by the Church to force them to recant their evidence-based findings.
    The doctors who have been gunned down outside their offices.
And on and on, with no pleasure being taken in the enumeration....

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Greatest Joke Ever Told

Yesterday, in response to Steve's comment that "[God] isn't worth having a discussion over; waste of time and breath," I commented that "on the contrary, it's endlessly entertaining! Surely the biggest joke anyone ever told." Being a slow-witted writer, I of course failed to take advantage of the opening to say instead, the greatest joke ever told. But it did put me in mind this morning (on my walk with Siegfried) of the 1965 feature film directed by George Stevens and released by United Artists (after a lengthy pre-production period involving 20th Century Fox and a cast of characters almost as numerous as the credited actors).
    I'd forgotten that John Wayne played the Roman centurion who comments on the crucifixion, "Truly this man was the son of God." Yes, I'm sure that I saw the film. Must have. Who didn't?
    And given the year of my life, I probably watched it believingly, or at least trying to do so. Steve also commented, "You believe or you don't." I don't know whether he allows for beginning to believe, ceasing to believe, or trying to believe, but people do come to crossroads where they decide to believe or stop believing, or stop trying to do one or the other. I remember somberly reading as a teenager C.S. Lewis's conversion memoir, Surprised by Joy, the very copy given me by my high school English teacher. And there was my own decision, almost two years ago (I may comment on the anniversary on September 9).
    If God isn't worth discussing, then so much greater is the joke on all of us who once believed—and perhaps even greater on those who still do. But not at all of course on those who never wasted any time or breath on the subject. I guess it would be a joke on them only if God actually did exist.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ambrose Bierce on prayer

To try to get away from the depressing spectacle of the "health care debate" (including, alas, President Obama's unexpected weakness in attempting to achieve a political compromise by trying to appease people who won't be appeased—like Senator Charles E. Grassley, “who feeds the death panel smear, warning that reform will 'pull the plug on grandma'”1), I'm reading an entertaining book, John Allen Paulos's 2008 Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up, which in passing quotes Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary (1911):
Pray, v. To ask the laws of the universe to be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
Mention of Bierce immediately follows Paulos's own statement:
Subjective arguments for God's existence generally claim to establish even more than a connection between God and a particular religion. They claim to establish the existence of a personal God [emphasis mine] who cares about us individually, listens to our prayers, and occasionally intervenes with a miracle on our behalf. An understandable wish perhaps, but absurd nonetheless. [pp. 80-81]

Absurd as it is, I have once or twice caught myself beginning to pray for health care reform to become a concerted, rational undertaking.

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  1. From Paul Krugman's column, "Obama's Trust Problem," published yesterday on The New York Times website.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The reason for my recent disappearance

To my regular readers, who may be wondering why I haven't posted anything lately, I think I owe an explanation. The simple truth is that my spirits have been rather down lately over the utter banality and craziness of one-half of the "health care debate" in this country. I don't know which depresses me more, the fact of Fox News [sic] and Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, or the fact that a large number of supposedly adult Americans listen to and believe them.
    And it doesn't help that some of these bewildering (and possibly bewildered) people are my neighbors and relatives. A letter printed yesterday to the editor of a local newspaper castigated another letter-writer, saying, "I don't know where that liberal gets his information, but a recent poll on Fox News says...."
    And a cousin emailed me this morning about a conversation in his extended family:
Yesterday I visited them, and they started telling me about Hitler, and how he wanted to socialize everything. I'm like, "Whoa! Obama is nothing like Hitler. It's irresponsible to compare the two. Hitler was like the most evil person of the 1900's."
    Then they were like, "You know what would happen if the Democrats got their way? They would euthanize H----d's son because he's mongoloid."
    It's not even worth arguing with them anymore. A lot of senior citizens watch Faux News most of the day and listen to AM radio when they aren't watching their crazy propaganda "news." It's mind-boggling how irresponsible some of those crazy right-wingers are. They are scaring people into starting militias, and that shit is dangerous.

Are any of you depressed about this, too? The false rumor-starting, the fear-mongering, the hate-inciting? If you want to unburden yourself a little (as I have here), my comment box is open.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Not to be Louised again....

Let's hope that we don't get Louised again when it comes to health care reform. But did you know that the actress who played Louise in that oh-so-effective 1994 anti-health care reform advertisement was actually for reform...and almost walked off the job when she saw the script she was to perform? At any rate, so reported Judith Warner yesterday on her New York Times blog, titled "Louise’s Second Act":
Fifteen years after she starred in the infamous Harry and Louise ads — the televised spots that are generally credited with having turned the tide of public opinion against Clinton-era health reform — she and Harry are back, angling for a shot at redemption, with a new ad campaign, “Get the Job Done,” in support of the Obama plan.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Who's "The King"?

"I hate these silly polls!" my wife exclaimed. She was trying to do the LA Times Sunday crossword puzzle on the web.
    "What?" I asked.
    "Oh, they've got a picture of Elvis and a picture of Michael Jackson and they ask which is The King. And it flashes."
    "Ugh, yes, they are silly."
    "Maybe if I vote, it'll stop flashing and go away."
    "Might work...Vote for Elvis, of course."
    "Of course!"