Saturday, September 29, 2007

All Sane Conservatives are Now Liberals

Have you noticed? All sane conservatives are now liberals.

We see them all the time now. The ex-Reagan officials like Paul Craig Roberts who repudiate the administration's conduct of warrantless surveillance, among other things. The battalion of retired generals speaking out against our ill-conceived escapade in Iraq. Past and present officials of the justice department appalled at the politicization of law enforcement. Even Bill Buckley has registered his patrician displeasure.

Conservatism has retreated into a bunker so far to the right of reality, that these lifelong Republicans and defenders of the establishment find themselves on the right side of liberaldom, happily playing footsie with the likes of Keith Olbermann and Amy Goodman. Their core beliefs have not changed, but they sure are taking a fresh look at who is lucid enough to partner with in achieving their goals. It is as if they fell asleep of an evening safely in their suburban McMansions, and woke to find themselves deep behind enemy lines with Birkenstocks where their wingtips used to be.

Dazed they are. Glassy-eyed, filthy, malnourished, and too shell-shocked to speak. We find one unconscious, face down in the grass. We roll him over.

"My God, he's a rational conservative."

"Poor blighter."

"Let's get him back to the commune."

We feed him vegan organic miso broth to renew his strength and let him soak in patchouli scented baths.

Several days later, when he has recovered sufficiently, we come to speak with him. He knows now that he is in the hands of liberals. He is filled with trepidation. If even half of what Ann Coulter has said is true, what monstrous fate awaits him?

We meet in a light-filled solarium, the window curtains billowing in the morning breeze. An angelic child brings a fresh pot of herbal tea and scampers away.

So begins our attempt to recruit this once-mortal foe. We do not hope to convince him of the merits of socialized medicine, affirmative action, or legalized marijuana per se. We ask only that he join us in pledging commitment to reason-based policy-making. To set out our case, we first offer our perspective on why he has been cast out, why the American body conservative is convulsively expelling its rational elements in a desperate bid for self-preservation. It is a tale of an ancient pas-de-trois between conservatism, rationality, and established authority.

The instinct of conservatism is at least as old as human tribalism. It is a tendency towards prudence, risk aversion, and skepticism about change. Studies have shown that people who identify as conservatives are inclined see the world in black and white. This is likely to be genetic, and is not to be disparaged. When the cornered woolly mammoth turns to charge, natural selection does not favor the hunter who pauses to consider the nuances of enraged woolly mammoth behavior, but rather he who runs like hell.

Archetypal conservatism is joined at the hip with rationality for the simple reason that acting like an idiot is dangerous. It leads to broken bones, starvation, and uncomfortable venereal diseases. So conservatives have historically been deliberate, cautious, and above all, sensible. It does not make them very much fun at parties, but it keeps them out of trouble.

Conservatism's bond with established authority is less fundamental, but strong and ancient in its own right. Historically, as ever more complex civilizations proliferated, conservatism became practically synonymous with the interests of the establishment, both kingly and priestly. These were the forces that guaranteed the stability and safety that conservatism values. Did this attachment to the establishment strain the bonds of conservatism's marriage with rationality? No, because rationality was a tool of the ruling classes, employed for the creation of state infrastructures like legal codes, military organization, and systems of trade. So rationality served the needs of the establishment.

The rise of science as a formal discipline--as opposed to something that medieval barbers did on occasion by accident--only enhanced the utility of rationality to established authority. Nothing insures stability like prosperity. America's brief history is a perfect example. Science has given us mechanization, industrialization, and the ability to develop our natural resources. The result has been an unprecedented explosion of highly distributed wealth. Despite numerous unnerving social and economic upheavals engendered by the blistering pace of our growth, on the whole mouths have been filled, roofs erected, and physical safety insured to a degree that would once have been thought impossible. Thus conservatism, rationality, and the establishment have been skipping hand in hand (in hand) through the ages all the way to the bank and a little candy store called World Domination. It's been such a successful partnership that many conservatives consider affiliation with the establishment to be an inherent facet of their belief system.

But what if the establishment stopped behaving in ways that ensured long term security?

Consider the challenges facing America right now, and our reactions:

  • As the economy goes global, the lion's share of growth goes to nations that are behind the curve, like China and India. It is impossible for the U.S. to maintain its economic preeminence without borrowing beyond our current means, effectively mortgaging our future. Does America have the discipline and self-restraint necessary to soften the inevitable landing? If you're wondering whether discipline and restraint are something we can purchase with a credit card, I think you have your answer.

  • A huge proportion of our wealth has been derived from the easy availability of natural resources. Now supplies are tightening, yet industry is loathe to disembark the gravy train before it has come to a complete stop. It is difficult to think of a resource that isn't becoming scarce--water, oil, metals... Oh well, at least there's still plenty of coal. Wait, why does that ring a bell?...

  • Oh, right: coal is our death warrant. Science tells us that there's a global environmental crisis on our doorstep. If it isn't addressed, there will be massive dislocation. Thankfully, it appears the impact will be disproportionally borne by brown and black people--I use the term "people" loosely--who live in lands far from us. Still, it will be ugly. There will be flooding, starvation and masses of refugees. Refugees will be issued torches and pitchforks for effect. Thankfully, we Americans have recognized that we are the biggest single cause of this impending disaster, and we are responding to the challenge in a manner consistent with our historical role as a beacon of freedom and compassion: we are erecting electrified fences along our borders. That ought to deter the riff raff.

There is a common thread in all these examples. Our Republican leaders and prayer-obsessed middle America are desperately trying to preserve the status quo at the cost of longer term stability. It's not like it's in their nature to think long term in any case. The end of the world is never more that six years away for senators, and evangelical Christians expect to be raptured long before campaign season arrives. So rational conservatives must now regard the wide fanatical eyes of their once-staunch allies with profound uneasiness. If the Republican party and salt -of-the-earth America have thrown reason under the bus, where does security lie? Can America resist global pressures indefinitely? Or must we accede to change--gradual or not--to insure a secure future?

Don't take too long to think about it, for as the lords of the establishment discard the ballast of reason, they become drunk on the thrill of liberation. Their personal ideology is a far more permissive guide to decision making than the sour and unimaginative counselor we call reality. Perhaps they will awake to the danger they court, but more likely, hopelessly enamored of license, they will become increasingly untethered, and will pilot our ship of state gleefully over the falls.

So here you are. Your erstwhile friends may hold the reins of power, but they have deserted the field of reason, and it so plainly and completely belongs to the left that to be rational is to be liberal as well. I'm sure that's not an easy notion to swallow, but there it is.

And if the idea of being pitied by liberals causes you to recoil in revulsion--have no fear. For we need you as much as you need us. Surely you realize we are incapable of surviving on or own. Inevitably we will end up coddling terrorists. We will get so stoned that we'll forget to plant crops. We will cut ourselves when trying to use scissors. We need your cynicism, your common sense, and your facility for accounting.

You might as well join us. You're already here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

America's Diary: the Osama bin Laden Entries

Editor's Note:
The following are selected entries from America's diary relating to Osama bin Laden, covering the period from 9/11/2001 to mid 2007. On September 12, 2007, Only Sayin' received an anonymous package containing America's diary. Entries date from early 2001 to mid 2007. The accompanying note indicated that the diary was obtained by a country that "used to be a friend," and was provided so that we might see the "real America." To support its veracity, the note indicates that the diary was located under a pile of sweatshirts on an upper shelf of America's closet, along with two bottles of Mike's Hard Lemonade, birth control pills, and a box of never-sent love notes addressed to Australia.

The diary runs to several thousand pages in five volumes with hand-illustrated floral-themed covers. When the material came into our possesion, we naturally assumed that we had hit upon a treasure trove of enormous historical significance. However, review of the material quickly dispelled such idealistic notions. Our editorial staff was unanimous in the opinion that the America revealed in these volumes is so petty, so shallow, and so self-absorbed that to release the material publicly would be devastating to our national psyche. Thus, in light of the recent controversy regarding the degree of America's committment to the capture of Osama bin Laden, we are reprinting only a handful of entries relating to the Al Qaeda mastermind.

The rest we have burned.


September 11, 2001

Dear Diary,

OMG. This has been like the worst day of my life! Somebody just blew up the twin towers, the pentagon, and crashed another hijacked plane. The news keeps playing it over and over again. Why don't they show something to take everyone's minds off all these horrible things?

My life is ruined. I am seriously going to kill myself.

Russia and Germany called, but I just let it go to voicemail. I can't talk to anyone right now. Even that bitch France called.

Where in New York are the twin towers? Not where the shopping is, I don't think. Definitely not Broadway. At least the Hard Rock Cafe and the Disney store are OK.


September 12

Dear Diary,

Today I found out that it was Osama bin Laden that did it. He is totally gross in his picture. All those people are gross. Why can't they shave? They look like they never take a bath. They're crazy and they ruined everything. Mexico was supposed to have a party on friday, and now it's cancelled. Everybody is acting totally sad and depressed.

I am SO pissed off. I'm going to catch that dickhead and fly an airplane into him, and set him on fire and then put him out and do it all over again. We'll see how he likes it and all his stinky arab friends.

I'm swearing a pact right now. I will burn his ASS!


September 21,

Dear Diary,

There was big concert about 9/11 on television. It was kind of wierd--there were no commercials.

Dave Mathews is totally hot! I would do him in a second!


September 27, 2001

Dear Diary,

I am SO frustrated! I've been looking everywhere for OBL, but I can't find him! He is such a pussy! And now everyone's laughing at me cuz he kicked my ass and I can't do anything about it. When they see me they act all serious and sad, and they're all like they're my best friends and offering to help me. Even France put her arm around me today!!! How yucky is that?! GOD I HATE THAT BITCH!!!!

I am going to show all of them. I am going to explode like a super bitch, and they all better watch out.

P.S. I was totally in a horrible mood today. Only Britain sat with me at lunch. I know I keep saying I'm through with him. He is such a LITTLE BOY, but at least he has good taste in ME! Told him I'd go with him to the Group of Eight summit next week. You should have seen how happy he was. Pathetic.

Maybe I'll get a better offer.


October 7, 2001

Dear Diary,

I feel fantastic. I told you I was gonna kick some ass, and today I started. I rolled into Afghanistan like a bitch on wheels. You should have seen the look on the other countries' faces. They were totally freaked out. When I woke up in the morning, all I could think about was kicking OBL's nasty, sweaty ass, but from almost the second I starting whipping Afghanistan, I swear I completely forgot about that towelhead faggot. I mean, I was rolling over a whole country! There were bodies flying everywhere, stinky little Arabs screaming for their mommies and shitting themselves if I even looked at them.

What do I care about catching one gross little Arab when I can kill a whole country full of them?

P.S. Got pretty carried away by the excitement. Have a vague memory of sucking face with Spain during the artillery barrage. My imagination?


November 20, 2001

Dear Diary,

So now Afghanistan is like totally conquered. Fabu, right? Not! What a shithole! There's absolutely NOTHING to do there! It smells and the bathrooms are disgusting and the food is gross and they eat with their hands out of the same dish! Like I'm going to put anything in my mouth when those nasty hands have been there. Everybody acts all weird and refuses to speak English.

I'm totally boooooooooored. OBL is hiding in the mountains, and I'm bombing the shit out of him, but this place is so crappy that I swear you can't even tell which parts have been bombed and which parts haven't! And I don't even know if it's doing anything. Meanwhile, all the other countries are all like "We support you!" and "You go!" but I have a feeling they're actually happy that I'm off in the middle of nowhere just so they can do stuff without me behind my back.

If they think they can ignore me I will teach them a lesson they will never forget!


Decmber 2, 2001

Dear Diary,

I am so done with Afghanistan. I can't believe I even wasted my time on that. Not sure what's happened to OBL, but whatever. Loser.

I've been thinking about a way to really bring down the house. Stay tuned!


July 9, 2002

Dear Diary,

I totally hate this year! Afghanistan was completely unsatisfying. I am ready to tear those Arabs a new one, and now all the sudden everyone's like "Hold on for a minute, let's talk about this..." LAME-O! Even my so-called friends are frustrating me. If they were really my friends, shouldn't they help me? Instead we all have to do this conflict resolution bullshit at the UN. What a crock. It's all run by loser countries like Egypt and Nigeria--of course THEY"RE all like--ooh, let's resolve this conflict. Let's TALK about it. PUSSIES.

Well they better duck. This girl is just getting started.


February 16, 2003

Dear Diary,

I told England today that I'm going to attack Iraq. I could tell he was peeing his pants. But I was wearing my new turquoise halter top with the spaghetti straps. I looked so HOT. I leaned over to give him an eyefull, and he was like, just say when...

As if! How about never, girlie boy? Does that work for you?

Some of the other countries don't want me to do it. God, I hate it when they try to control me. I made up some bullshit that Iraq and OBL were friends. Whatever. It'll shut them up.

I am so psyched! Iraq is going to rule! Told Israel about it. He didn't say much, but I could tell he was impressed.

Super-secret: Israel is totally hot!

Pros: Kicks ass almost as much as me, great hair.

Cons: Jewish


March 18, 2003

Dear Diary,

Game on! Guess all the other countries know who's boss now. The looks on their faces were priceless. My posse is totally kissing my ass. Like they could do anything without me. Everyone's shitting bricks. Even France was speechless for once, that pansy. She can suck my ass!

Who's your daddy now, OBL?

I am so happy!


September 13, 2007

Dear Diary,

BEING ME IS THE WORSE THING EVER! I HATE MY LIFE! Iraq is so sucky! They totally don't appreciate anything I've done for them. All the other cuntries have been ignoring me. Even England stopped calling me. Like I care what he does. And then Australia called to say that Osama was on tv. I was like, Hello? ANTM is on! You're lucky I have TiVo or I'd flip out on you!

Why does everyone hate me? I didn't start all this--OBL did. Am I supposed to just lay down and do nothing. NFW!

Well I. Do. Not. Care. What they think. I don't need their help, and I will NOT be ignored.

I think Iran's been talking about me behind my back...

Friday, September 07, 2007

Why Social Conservatives Can't Keep It in their Pants

These are tough, tough days to be a social conservative. The home town fans back in Iowa, Colorado, the Florida panhandle, and all the other medieval backwaters of this great country are hanging their heads in shame because their team is getting slaughtered out there. You can't swing a dead cat in a public lavatory without hitting a deeply conservative, self-righteous, holier-than-thou congressman, senator, or mega church pastor, leaving the true believers to wonder--why?

"Why, Oh why, Lord?" they beseech in prayer, "The perpetual aura of remonstrance that emanates from my curdled visage serves only to bring order and obedience to the narrow confines of this humble home. Thus I selected these my public servants, these Godly warriors, these paragons of probity, to serve as my proxies and enforce the same sour rectitude on my town, my state, and this whole nation. I empowered them so that they might bring low the mighty Babylon of Hollywood, so that they might purge the filthy halls of that Gomorrah on the Potomac, so that they might drive the accursed liberals from the reeking dens where they plot, fornicate, and watch masterpieces of Italian cinema on DVD. I charged them to raise high the torch of decency, restore the fear of god, and enshrine your holy will in law."

"So why do they keep getting caught in public restrooms with their peckers out?! I mean, forgive me Lord... but son of a bitch, I'm having a hard time seeing the bigger plan here."

These and other questions I will soon answer. But first a warning, a second warning, a lament, an apology, and finally a profane sentence fragment.

To our young readers of the Only Sayin Scouts Club, I must ask you to leave now. Things here are going to get ugly fast. Go to some wholesome site that society deems more appropriate for those of tender years. Like this. Or this. Or how about this?

Are they gone? OK. Much of what follows will deal with the difficult subject of SEX. Like all writers, I want to be read and appreciated by as large an audience as possible, and I realize that by selecting SEX for my subject matter, mass appeal will be out of the question. But the issues at hand are of profound importance to the public weal. It will be dry reading and a hard slog. This is medicine I serve, not candy. But I know in my heart that what I say will serve to better inform the citizenry on these critical matters, and an informed populace is the foundation of good government.

So SEX it must be. Sometimes just good old fashioned boy-on-girl action, conducted in such physical manner as to allow--nay, compel--continuous eye contact between partners. Sometimes it will be boy-on-boy, or girl-on-girl, or girl-girl-boy. Or with people who are not quite boys or girls. Or with toys, outfits, leather and/or latex, in locations not limited to the home, public and non-public areas of hotels, office buildings, or mass transportation systems. It may also be necessary to say "pecker" again. I really can't tell yet.

For all of this I am very, very sorry. But what the hell.

Let us return now to several of the "why's?" that events like Larry Craig's arrest bring to mind.

First, a pedestrian topic too central to be ignored: Why a public restroom in an airport? This question has been explored from many angles in the news and on talk shows. Some explanations focus on the psychological dimension, emphasizing the anonymity provided by that locale and the sense that it is a welcoming setting for furtive acts. Others prioritize the logistical advantages of using a transportation hub as a meeting venue. Analysts more inclined to accentuate the mechanical and practical dimensions in these matters highlight the element of physical convenience. A bathroom is after all a forum in which all the relevant anatomical appendages and orifices (query copy editor: orifi?) are exposed and accessible. Amidst all the rationalizing, some shrewd commentators argue that an airport bathroom is a terrible choice of location for a sexual tryst. They note that it would seem, given the well-documented symbiosis between terrorists and civil aviation, that only the naive would consider airport bathroom stalls to be a suitable location for secretive acts. I mean, isn't that the first place you would expect a terrorist to go to give the bomb a final check? That major public figures would expect to be discreetly blown in such a place may be testament to the compulsive allure of risk. I hope that's the explanation. Because what are we to think about the competence of those charged with providing for our security if a Senator privy to the innermost operational secrets of the Homeland Security Department is confident that he can have illicit anonymous sex in an airport toilet?

All of this is valid insight, and we are indebted to our beloved media punditry for the enlightenment they bestow. Yet, mind-bogglingly, they have ignored the elephant in our living room. Which is this: Who seeks sex in public restrooms!? Public restrooms are revolting. I'm not even comfortable knowing that the soles of my shoes are touching the floor in a public bathroom. I function as if I have lost both arms in a combine accident, manipulating all handles and controls with my elbows. I tentatively open each stall door with nauseous trepidation and the expectation that what I am about to see will be paramount to a fresh tableau of ritual murder, and in this I am seldom disappointed. And, if all I am told is true, these bathroom hookups result in such varied and energetic skin-to-surface contacts that, as far as I'm concerned, these people might as well be licking the floor and bathing in the toilets. I find this image shattering. Never, in contrast, has a semen-stained hotel bedspread seemed more innocuous, even appealing. From this perspective, what we're dealing with here is not lewd conduct, but the same kind of mental illness exhibited by those that play with their own feces.

But there is a much more important question. Why is it that there seems to be a disproportionately large number of social conservatives amongst the religious and elected leaders whose mugshots festoon our nation's news dailies? Is it coincidence? Perhaps it's just a false perception, stemming from the fact that those who run for office on a platform of incorruptibility naturally garner the most attention when they fall off the wagon. I suspect that the voters of Massachusetts have a pretty good idea what Barney Frank does of an evening at his condo in South Beach, though they may opt not to meditate upon the visual.

As we ponder this question, let us expand our sphere of inquiry to include moral failings beyond the licentious behavior of men who do not know each other meeting in washrooms strewn with human waste. For such examples of promiscuity are mere peccadilloes elevated to the level of the reprehensible only by the hypocrisy they reveal. Though conservative radio doesn't give a lot of airtime to rants against avarice or the neglect of the poor, mainstream social conservatism does proscribe activities beyond homosexual conduct. Indeed, the hands of right wing leaders keep showing up in all kind of places that those hands were certainly not elected to be. Yes, primarily on other mens' asses. But also on the asses of teenagers and children, and on the asses of other mens' wives, and on the asses of women that are not their own wives. And if you see an ass without a hand on it, you can bet the absent hand is somewhere else that is wasn't elected to be. Like in the till. Or on the take.

An aside: Notably absent from this list is abortion. I'm sure if Larry Craig could have an abortion, he certainly would have had one when he saw that badge underneath the stall divider. But he, like most right-wing social conservatives, is a guy, which may be a factor in the low incidence of abortion scandals among socially conservative public figures. We were keeping a close eye on Ann Coulter in this regard, but it turns out that she is a guy as well.

With this oh-so-modestly broader view of what constitutes bad behavior, it is astonishing to consider how many prominent public figures have been violating the traditional values they profess to treasure. For every name you recognize--Larry Craig, David Vitter, Ted Haggard, Ralph Reed, Jack Abramoff, Tom Foley, Tom DeLay, Randy Cunningham, John Doolittle--there are hundreds at the state and local level whose hypocritical transgressions never show up on CNN. And let's not leave all those pedophilic Catholic priests out of the mix. They count too.

So--is it coincidence? Is it a misleading perception?

It isn't. In fact there is incredibly simple, obvious, and intuitive reason that those who align themselves with social conservatism are far more likely to engage in inappropriate behavior than those who call themselves liberals. It is not rocket science.

You see, we all have urges. Our urges may be violent. (I have an almost irresistable urge to bitch slap John McCain.) Or our urges may be covetous (Sure, I'm the parking attendant. Just give me the key.) They may be benignly sexual (Julie Andrews, if you're reading this, call me at 555-5153.) Or perversely so. (Bring the nun's habit and a single, live she-goat.) Some people process these urges in successful, healthy ways. Generally, that means shining as much conscious light on them as we can, asking ourselves why we feel the way we feel, and determining whether it would be appropriate to act upon them, or whether there are channels for our urges that would allow us acceptable modes of fulfillment.

This is why so many of my lovely and accommodating girlfriends have worn the nun outfit.

But there are many people who have never been able to bring their urges out into the light. Why do they lack the skills of introspection? They may be the product of a household where feelings were hidden. They may never have learned the value of critical thinking. Or perhaps they were never exposed to the arts and literature, where we can connect with and learn from the internal struggles of others. And the repercussions of their stunted emotional state are likely to be exacerbated because the same factors that make self-examination impossible--loveless parenting, for example--also tend to amplify their less-savory natural urges.

And so we grow up, until one day we are ready to take our place as citizens. Timidly we peek out around the frayed, gauzy edges of our newly rent chrysalis. We are innocent, our minds unmade. We understand so little of what government is and how it works. We know only that it exists to constrain us so that some will not bring harm to the rest, and that we want it to constrain us no more than is required to achieve this end. We watch people streaming by on the street, their faces like ciphers, unreadable. What would they do if allowed to give free reign to their inner desires, we wonder? Would they try to molest us in the mens' room? Might they molest our children? Would they steal from us, and cheat us? How can we know? How can we judge?

And then the solution comes to us. What, we ask ourselves, would I do if I could give free rein to my inner urges?

That is how it happens. That is why social liberals want to expand civil liberties, to enlarge freedom of action and thought. Because they can only assume that the balance of humanity would use that freedom to do good, just as they would. This is how many conservatives of the libertarian stripe have found their comfort zone as well. It takes great confidence in the essential benevolence of man to advocate for the abolishment government controls.

And that is how so many social conservatives, doubtful of their ability to control their own base desires, projecting their own weakness and confusion on the rest of humanity, come to be what they are. That is why they rail for strictness in the home and to have morality encodified in law. They perceive an imminent threat from which we must be protected, but cannot grasp that the source of the danger lies within themselves.

Does this mean that the mass of those who appear to be values-obsessed Republicans are in fact pedophiles-in-waiting, repressed homosexuals, thieves but for the opportunity? Far from it. They are, like all people everywhere, generally decent, doing their best to get by and willing to live and let live. But it does mean that there is something in their experience with their family or with their community that leads them to believe that people are not to be relied upon to contain their malign urges.

No, it is not hard to identify those who pose the greatest danger to us. Like all who are incapable of self-examination, they are oblivious to their own transparency. They are the ones that shout the loudest, that spew warnings of moral decay and transgression, that seek to harness the fear they engender to advance their own power and influence, that seek to raise an army of the self-righteous to march on the seat of wickedness and hypocrisy.

Imagine their shock when they realize that the seat of wickedness and hypocrisy is made of porcelain. That they themselves are the one besieged and the army they raised waits for them. Right outside the stall door.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

What is the Sound of One IED Exploding?

How could the surge be "working" when we don't know what it's supposed to do? Is a tactic a tactic if there's no strategy?

It is a koan worth meditating upon as we follow the ebb and flow of day to day events in Iraq. Much as someone afflicted with Parkinson's disease has the sense that their personality is being replaced by an assortment of tics and spasms, so our military regards its own limbs as they flail involuntarily amidst the rubble and deserts of Mesopotamia, obedient to a central nervous system that fires with all the purpose and predictability of the hiccups. Those within the military may not perceive this as failure. They see orders transmitted, reconnaissance performed, soldiers deployed, insurgents killed (they sure looked like insurgents...), soldiers safely back to base--for the men in uniform, this is a good day at the office. But keep in mind, even an epileptic seizure is a marvel of anatomical engineering. But perhaps one might be forgiven for looking at the thrashing victim and wondering, what exactly is the plan?

To all who take a passing interest in the Iraqi mess, and particularly to the families of the soldiers who want to see their sons and siblings properly used and returned with the correct number of fingers and toes, accept my apologies; the picture I paint is not edifying. It offers no moral clarity, none of the honor due to those who fall short against overwhelming odds, not even the lukewarm satisfaction that comes from the good try. It is a picture of pointlessness, of a chicken with its head cut off dashing around the farmyard.

That we have no strategy in Iraq follows naturally from the fact that even the half dozen architects of this stupidity never agreed on the goal. Some wanted to secure Iraq's oil. Some had rosy delusions of remaking the geopolitical face of the middle east. Some wanted to scare the hell out of would-be terrorists. Some saw the potential to endlessly harvest political hay. And some were driven by vendetta. All that these disparate goals have in common is their unattainability. Yet each interested party felt their goals could be served by invading Iraq. It was a profoundly unlucky confluence of personalities, authority, and agendas, catalyzed by the fear-induced malleability of the public in the wake of 9-11.

So we went to war for a host of sometimes-conflicting reasons, all of which were either fantastical or could never be used to prop up political support for the effort. The fact that the administration repeatedly offers a stay-the-course rationale as lame and discredited as fighting terrorism says a lot about the political marketability of the other justifications for this war. The Iraqi occupation is a teetering skyscraper built on a flawed foundation, and the only realistic, sensible goal is to somehow disassemble the structure and try to restore the critical elements of the status quo ante--balance of power most importantly.

But virtually no one in politics or the media--with the possible exception of Joe Biden, bless his gaffe-prone heart--is prepared to publicly acknowledge how difficult the road ahead will be. There is a lot of self-righteous energy coming from the left, demanding immediate withdrawal of the troops. Indeed, it is clear that the Democrats owe their control of congress to the public enthusiasm for ending this war. But withdrawal is not a strategy anymore than a surge is a strategy, and please pardon me if I am hesitant to allow the American electorate to directly manage the details of our foreign policy. Who among the common clay will be available to guide our ship of state if there's an international incident during the season finale of Dancing with the Stars?

It is difficult to blame our public servants for being reluctant to accept this barrel of political toxic waste that the President is so eager to pawn off. It would be political suicide. And George Bush, who has already slit his own wrists on this issue and has nothing to lose, cannot rise above the pitiful needs of his own ego and alter course. What is he trying to accomplish, I often wonder? Is he single-mindedly, brilliantly pursuing some goal that I am too blind to see?

Let's not be overly generous. There is in fact less going on inside the man than meets the eye. That he is missing that humanizing element that would allow him to empathize with those outside his immediate family is obvious for all to see by now. When we think of wartime Presidents like Lincoln, Roosevelt, Wilson, Eisenhower and Johnson, and the agonies they endured as they weighed the deaths of soldiers and civilians against the goals they hoped to achieve, we don't envision George Bush in that mix. He operates in a more remote manner, watching our forces careen around Iraq, seeking a personal fulfillment in military action that he could never get from diplomacy, and waiting for a moment when, for some reason, he believes honor has been satisfied, and we can say we are proud and strong. He believes that when he feels that, somehow America will feel it too. That is the goal: to feel good about ourselves.

Thousand of U.S. soldiers killed and maimed. Tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, hundreds of thousands displaced. Countless billions of dollars wasted. Our army broken. American moral stature decimated. If we're not feeling good about ourselves yet, I'm not sure what it's gonna take...

Sunday, September 02, 2007

A Futile and Hysterical Rant on Behalf of Reason

Big excitement: I have discovered why it is that I find the anti-rational stance of religious fundamentalists so irritating. This discovery is not of the scientific variety, but if it were, would that not be a most delicious irony? So I will pretend.

I have scientifically proven that the fundamentalists are irritating.

This is a major breakthrough for me. It comes after many fruitless years of plotting philosophical battle against my prayer-blind foe. How I labored to craft some few pithy words so irresistibly persuasive that the scales would fall from the eyes of even the most fervent evangelicals, words to convey that the earth is not 8,000 years old, that yes, we are monkeys, and that while the end of the world is indeed nigh, it will be a lot less like a sound-stage Hollywood musical than the rapture they envision. Like de Soto, Ponce de León, or Faust, my quest for the withering repartee that would end all debate became an obsession. And like those tragic heroes, I drank the bitter dregs of futility.

For the conflict between religion and reason must ever defy resolution. They do not even share the common language in which to attempt reconciliation. If one side is speaking German, the other is echolocating like bats. But just as bats and Germans will bump into each other sometimes, religion and reason may now and again collide. Or perhaps we should think of reason and religion as separate armies that should be disinclined to battle, but cannot refrain from probing each other to establish position. And inevitably, where there is contact blood will be shed. It would be shame to lug all those guns around for nothing.

I have always been devoted secular humanist. In college I had a velvet-embossed black-light poster of John Locke on my wall, and valued it nearly as much as my bong. My personal loyalty to reason is unwavering. But reliance on rational debate proves to be secular humanism's Achilles heel when its opponents refuse to acknowledge the supremacy of reason. Surely, I might say to my evangelical counterpart, reason has to be the lingua franca of a multi-faith society? No, he could respond, when a conflict arises, my faith trumps reason. Certainly, I retort, we can all agree that reason is the more practical tool? What is practical for me, answers the person of faith, is to sustain this rape-induced pregnancy, so that I may enter heaven some day. I might make a tactical retrenchment: OK, I will allow you your conveniently white, male, 60-something god, but surely you won't advocate a literal interpretation of the Bible's more implausible passages?

Wanna bet?, replies the fundamentalist.

I can pound away for all eternity, but in the faithful there is no stud into which to drive the nail of reason. Stalemate is the only possible result.

I should point out that despite my apostasy, I am a big fan of spirituality. If the fundamentalists are so appalled at the notion that we are mere Baboons that have mastered the craft of indoor plumbing, they should spend less time acting like animals by wishing death on Muslims and burning school books, and more time practicing love, compassion and tolerance. These are the values that let us transcend everything that is unavoidably crummy about this life, like venereal disease and the Department of Motor vehicles. It is worth noting that Jesus--who was a bit of a doormat but a hard guy to dislike--was obsessed with this love and compassion stuff. I'm not sure when the fundies made that a members-only benefit. Or how they gloss over the fact that he was a socialist hippie.

So my concept of spirituality and Christianity's rest on very similar foundations. Perhaps organized religion is an example of a perfectly respectable product ruined in the rollout. The instruction manual--this arrogantly named "bible"--is an absolute mess. I don't know whether the problem was the writers they hired or the translation, but things were bad enough when Christianity came factory-assembled by certified catholic priests; whose brilliant idea was it to let people do the assembly at home? (Martin Luther, please report to the principal's office...) If we were just trying to put together a ping pong table we could acknowledge that we're missing a package of screws, call customer service and move on. But this bible is supposed to be infallible. You've got people reading it all day--on the train, at lunch, before bed--trying to figure out how to fold flap A of first Corinthians into slot B of the book of Joshua... People! It will never work! The thing's like 5,000 pages long and translated from the Aramaic. I hope you all kept your receipts and the original packaging.

In reality, the bible never had the smallest chance of successfully reflecting the essence of the religion it purports to represent, for at the center of religious thought lies the unknowable. Some call it god, some call it Buddha. (On three or four occasions of inebriation my friend Gordon believed he was the one holding the marionette strings of the universe. Only the sound of the jail cell door closing prompted him to reconsider.) But regardless of how we name the central mystery, all morality flows from the humility, weakness and vulnerability we feel when our lives are subject to forces we cannot control or understand. Forces that seem intent on subjecting us to every imaginable cruelty and mockery, holding out some secret, shiny gift and jerking it away each time we reach for it, until fortune finally relents and lets us open the box to reveal the coronary embolism that is the just recompense for our patience and suffering.

It's a funny thing about the unknowable: you can't really know much about it. The big mistake made by the tag-team of biblical authors was that, in their attempt to annotate and illuminate, they created the false impression that the great mystery might in fact have a solution, thus opening the door to all the religious tyrants and bullies who have claimed special knowledge. So much for humility.

Ironically, the one thing that could equip today's intellectually stunted mall walkers to grapple with real spirituality is the one thing they most revile: science. The experiences of science are the mental calisthenics that prepare us to assimilate challenging esoteric concepts. Consider an example: If we have confidence in atomic theory, it comes from our ability to extend our immediate senses into ever higher levels of abstraction. We believe what we see with our eyes. We extend that to what we see through a microscope, and from there to what we "see" with an electron microscope, and so on until we are watching particles in quantum space with the same comfort and confidence as we might watch a baseball game. This ability to connect the abstract and the concrete without conflating the two could go a long way towards preserving the peace outside of abortion clinics. Because once you get comfortable with the notion that you don't know anything and that you never will know anything, you become a lot more reticent about telling other people what to do.

It is more than a trivial tautology to note that because science is based on what we detect with our senses--whether directly with our ears or via interstellar listening devices--it is great at bringing us products that address the needs of our senses. Researchers study pain therapies and develop drugs that really do reduce pain. We study coolants and build refrigerators that provide us with undeniably frosty beers. We synthesize plastics that keep our hoagies fresh and which keep the rain off of our heads.

And this brings me to the indisputable validation of my rightful disgust with the fundamentalists. You see, I don't want any of the benefits of membership in their club. I don't want to be saved. I don't want to be forgiven. And I will not cherry pick their faith for whatever elements may be to my advantage and try to leave the rest on the table. But they want to have it both ways. They want the air conditioners that my science invented to cool their obscenely spacious Texas homes. They want my computers to furtively surf gay porn. They want my televisions to watch the puerile Hollywood tripe that tomorrow they will condemn as immoral. They want my snack food preservatives and then they want my tummy tuck surgeries because those snack food preservatives worked so damn well. They want my Oxycontin, my fuel injection systems, and my electric air fresheners.

But they do not want my evolution. They do not want my geology that proves the earth is about 5 billion years old. They do not want my climate studies that suggest there's a problem with the aforementioned fuel injection systems. They will not confess that all these things--the ones they love and cling to and the ones they reject--are all of a kind and can not be sold separately.

They keep breaking into the bubble wrap and taking just the parts they like. And it is irritating.

Though it gives me some satisfaction to put my finger on the source of my long-standing exasperation, I realize no ground is thus gained in the battle between reason and faith. There still remains the core, unsolvable conflict of belief, a difference of of opinion, where there can be no right or wrong.

Except for this small point: I am right. And these pie-eyed, pamphlet wielding, shallow-thinking, holier-than-thou, sickeningly-wholesome-yet-closeted-homosexual, re-virginized born-agains who reconstructed their own hymens through the power of prayer are wrong.

I sure hope they do not hold with equal certainty that the reverse is true. Because if that's the case, this trouble will be with us for a long time.