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July 09, 2005
Come back, Sister Virginia, come back
Having first heard about evolution forty-odd years ago, in Catholic school, I've always been confused by the fundamentalist concept of an unbridgeable gap between faith and science. I'll admit the way I was taught conjured some odd images. I remember a nun saying that of course evolution explained how human beings got to be human, but as Catholics we had to believe that at some point God intervened and implanted a human soul. As a fifth grader, I imagined God watching each stage of development, marching in order like in those old Time-Life illustrations, thinking --
Definitely not human.
Not quite human.
Ooh. Very close. Maybe a little less hair.
Yeah, that's it. That's my human.
And then he zaps in the soul.
Which is really what it looks like Michelangelo thought he was doing anyway: Zap.
And the image is no stranger than the idea that my half of humanity is nothing but an overgrown rib.
A couple of days ago, Christoph Schönborn, the general editor of the Catholic Church's Catechism, who once could have been a contender (and maybe still will be), had an op-ed in the New York Times which seemed to suggest that evolution was not "compatible with Christian faith."
This would come as a great shock to a lot of Catholics. The Church's comfort with teaching evolution was only recently reconfirmed:
The sidelines appear to be getting a lot closer.
I read Cardinal Schönborn's piece twice, trying to figure out if his point was less incendiary than it first seemed. Perhaps he was merely evoking Sister Virginia's old caveat: Study the mechanism, but don't forget that God is part of the process. It seemed to be going well beyond that, but I didn't want to over-read it.
But it turns out the background on how the op-ed came to be is even more disturbing than the essay itself:
Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, says it looks like Cardinal Schönborn has been reading the talking points on the Discovery Institute's web page, and now that he mentions it, the essay does sound a lot more like that than like anything anyone has learned about evolution in Catholic schools in the past forty years or so. And it looks less like an attempt to clarify the Church's position than another swoon into the arms of the Christianists.
It's really sad when a 2,000-year-old Church starts going through a mid-life crisis and following its offsprings' fads.
July 08, 2005
I dunno about you guys, but I find it embarrasing to think that we live in a country that's so self-obsessed that every mass tragedy is followed up with a story about how many Americans were affected. Knowing the national identity of the people affted by yesterday's mass murders changes nothing about the way I feel. Every death is tragic.
"Ideas intended to help Americans resist abuse spread to Americans who used them to perpetrate abuse."
If you've been wondering why the same torture techniques seem to turn up every place our military holds prisoners, Jane Mayer may have the answer in this week's New Yorker. Behavioral scientists working in the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) program, used since the end of the Korean War to help American military personnel withstand torture, have been working with interrogators to teach them some of the techniques we feared American soldiers might face if they were captured.
The article expands on recent reporting on the role doctors and mental health professionals have played in interrogations at Guantánamo. And it clarifies a great deal about the techniques used:
Sound familiar? There's another coercive devise we've recently heard a lot about in the SERE toolkit:
The SERE program also uses waterboarding, continual bombardment by loud noise, and sexual humiliation.
Several sources told Mayer that psychologists trained in SERE techniques had advised interrogators at Guantánamo and elsewhere.
One of the most disturbing things about the article is its suggestion that what started out as a stupid means of getting information evolved into pure sadism. As a retired colonel who attended a SERE school as part of his Special Forces training said, "If you did too much of that stuff, you could really get to like it. You can manipulate people. And most people like power."
Worse, when you get to like it, you start finding ways to convince yourself it works. The Boston Globe recently reported on a conference of "spooks, lawmakers, gadget geeks, and military interrogators" that gives a discouraging insight into some of the attitudes prevailing in the intelligence business (and yes, I do mean business). In addition to casual racism, nostalgia for imperialism, applause for references to torture, and basic contempt for ethics and civil rights, you'll find this frightening admission from a private contractor who works for the Army:
Tierney also talks about the need to "control" those impulses, but he does so in a room full of people who applaud the suggestion of electrocuting detainees, and who clearly believe their favorite forms of sadism are also useful and right.
July 07, 2005
Andy, promoting "flypaper," back in the day:
If the terrorists leave us alone in Iraq, fine, he said. But if they come and get us, even better. Far more advantageous to fight terror using trained soldiers in Iraq than trying to defend civilians in New York or London.
In other matters
One of the things keeping me busy today, apart from London, has been a full-pager for the Village Voice on the upcoming Supreme Court battle. So imagine how delighted I am to discover, after finishing the piece and turning it in, that Rehnquist is holding a press conference tomorrow morning.
If he's not announcing his love for Katie Holmes, I've got some rewriting ahead of me...
You knew it was coming even if you didn't know where it would hit. And while the shock isn't as great as 9/11 (how could it be?) the feeling of being trapped in a nightmare that just won't end is even stronger now. Because you knew.
The cold blooded murder of Londoners is no more horrifying than the murder or New Yorkers or Madrilenos -- or Baghdadis. But today's target has a special hold over my emotions. If your mother tongue is English, and you loved stories as much as I did as a child, then London is the city of your imagination, of Mary Poppins and David Copperfield, of London-bridge-is-falling-down and the prince and the pauper. And if you've been there, and visited the places you dreamed about as a boy, and ridden the tube to Picadilly Circus, and climbed the stairs of the Tower of London, and strolled through Hyde Park in the morning fog, then what happened today hurts more than maybe it should, logically.
We are all New Yorkers, we are all Madrilenos, we are all Baghdadis. But I was a Londoner from the time I learned how to read. I know it shouldn't make any difference, but it does.
And so we return to the real war -- the one that can't be fought with F-16s and Abrams tanks, the back alley war of sleeper cells and pipe bombs and coded messages left on Internet chat boards. Of paid informants and "extraordinary reditions." Of torture and hit squads. The dirty war.
The next few days would probably be a good time to stay away from the TV. On top of the televised gore and the stunned faces of the survivors, we'll have to endure the canned Churchillian rhetoric of Messrs. Blair and Bush. Blitzes will be remembered; blood, sweat and tears promised, ultimate victory predicted. The babbling heads of cable news will babble even louder. Conservative con artists will figure the angles and work out the attack lines to use against the liberals -- whatever it takes to drown out the fact that, nearly four years after 9/11, Bin Ladin still lives and Al Qaeda is back in business. Mission unaccomplished.
The same old nightmare, in other words, this time with an English address. And the same sinking feeling as before. Because you know it will happen again, even if you don't know where.
Bad news, for those of you just waking up...
...good coverage from the Guardian here.
July 06, 2005
Contempt of Congress
Under a little-noticed provision of the defense spending bill passed by Congress in May, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld has until July 11 to send Capitol Hill a "comprehensive set of performance indicators and measures of stability and security" two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.It should be reiterated that the failure to provide this information is a federal crime. That is, assuming that the Congress is serious about ensuring that the Bush Administration keeps their promise to provide metrics by which we can judge their performance. Considering the partisan irresponsibility of the current leaders of the legislative branch, I think its safe to assume that this deadline will pass without notice. After all, we're still waiting for them to start Phase II of the pre-war intelligence investigation.
July 05, 2005
If there's something you really need me to see, do not "cc" me or send it as part of a group mailing. My mail program automatically sorts out messages not addressed specifically to me and dumps them in a seperate inbox. Given that I receive literally thousands of emails a week, the vast majority of which are spam, I miss a lot of stuff that gets dumped there. (One of these days I'll start over with yet another "clean" email addy, but they never last long...)
A Brief History of Caucasians
Note--in addition to his duties as a member of the League of Sporadic Bloggers here at TMW, Jack Hitt is a contributing editor at Harper's magazine. He's written a long folio on race (and archeology and the creation myths of our continent, among other things) for the current issue, from which the following excerpt is taken. (He's currently travelling, so I'm posting it for him.) --Tom
Does race exist? Of course it does. We see it every day. Guy steals a purse, the cop asks, What did he look like? You say, He was a six-foot-tall black guy, or a five-and-a-half-foot-tall Asian man, or a white guy with long red hair. As a set of broad descriptions of how people look, race exists as a set of visual cues we all recognize—skin shade, nose shape, eyelid folds, cheekbone prominence, etc. We hold these vague blueprints of race in our heads because, as primates, one of the great tools of consciousness we possess is the ability to observe patterns in nature. It’s no surprise that we’d train this talent on ourselves.
Here’s some fun: My grandmother was Weinona Strom. Her first cousin was Strom Thurmond, which makes the late senator my first cousin, twice removed. It also makes his half-black daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, my second cousin once removed. This is Essie Mae, recently photographed beside her attractive daughter:
Yet the notion of race as an unchanging constant through time is as old as the Bible. When Noah’s Flood receded, the three boys Japheth, Shem, and Ham went out into the world to engender white people, Semites, and all others, respectively. This doesn’t quite shake out into the later notions of white, black, and yellow, but you get the idea. The boys are still with us. The early word “Shemitic” settled down to become “semitic.” And among amateur chroniclers writing in the ponderous style of the town historian, it’s not hard to find references to the “Hamitic race” as a way of saying “black folks.” Japheth never became a common adjective, perhaps because of that thicket of consonants.
More likely, though, it’s because whites appointed themselves the Adamic task of naming the other races. It was not until the Age of Reason that scientists tried to figureout empirically what race meant and how it came to be. The signal year was 1776, with the publication of a book called On the Natural Varieties of Mankind, by German biologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. At the time, Blumenbach’s theory had a certain symmetry that made it the very model of good science. These days, his theory seems insane. He argued that Native American Indians were the transitional race that eventually led to Asians. (Don’t try to work out the geography of this: it will make your head explode.) And another group— which Blumenbach simply conjured from a faraway people, the “Malayans”—evolved over time to become Africans. (Again, if you’re puzzling out the geography, watch your head.) At the center of all this change was the white race, which was constant. Blumenbach believed darkness was a sign of change from the original. All of mankind had fallen from perfection, but the darker you were, the farther you had fallen. As a result, the best way to locate the original Garden of Eden, according to Blumenbach, was to follow the trail of human. . . beauty. The hotter the women, the hunkier the men, the closer you were to what was left of God’sfirst Paradise. Here is Blumenbach explaining the etymology of the new word he hoped to coin:
I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian. . .
Blumenbach’s theory is totally forgotten today by everybody (except maybe Georgian men). All that remains is a single relic, the word he coined for God’s most gorgeous creation—“Caucasian.” The word itself is lovely. Say it: Caucasian. The word flows off the tongue like a stream trickling out of Eden. Its soothing and genteel murmur poses quite a patrician contrast to the field-labor grunts of the hard g’s in “Negroid” and “Mongoloid.” Caucasian. The exotic isolation of those mountains intimates a biblical narrative. You can almost see it when you say it: the early white forebears walking away from paradise to trek to Europe and begin the difficult task of creating Western Civilization.
The number of races has expanded and contracted wildly between Blumenbach and now, depending on the moodof the culture. The basic three have gone through scores of revisions, growing as high as Ernst Haeckel’s thirty-four different races in 1879 or Paul Topinard’s nineteen in 1885 or Stanley Garn’s nine in 1971. Today, we nervously ask if you’re white, African American, Native American, Asian, or of Hawaiian or Pacific Islander descent.
But it wasn’t that long ago that the question would have turned upon races only our great grandfathers would recognize. Let us mourn their passing: the Armenoids, the Assyroids, the Veddoids, the Orientalids, the Australoids, the DaloNordic, the Fälish, the Alpines, the Dinarics, the Fenno-Nordic, the Osteuropids, the Lapponoids, the Osterdals, the Cappadocians, the Danubians, the Ladogans, the Trondelagens, and the Pile Dwellers.
Skin pigmentation changed long ago not only to protect skin from different levels of sun exposure—that’s obvious—but also in order to regulate the amount of vitamin D3 manufactured by the sun just under the skin. This is the theory of Professor Nina Jablonski, a paleoanthropologist with the California Academy of Sciences. So when the first swarthy inhabitants of modern Scandinavia confronted a lack of ultraviolet light, their kind quickly selected out for paler children whose skin would manufacture enough vitamin D3 to keep them healthy. Meanwhile, Eskimos arrived in the Arctic dark-skinned. The local cuisine of seal and whale is rich in vitamin D3, so the skin was never summoned into action. Evolution has one big rule. If there’s no pressure on the system to change, then it doesn’t bother. So Eskimos remained dark. When we look at the different races, according to Jablonski’s theory, what we’re actually seeing is not “superiority” or “good people” or “race.” All that we are seeing, the only thing we are seeing when we look at skin color, is a meandering trail of vitamin D3 adaptation rates.
Slowly, the corporate media begin to pay attention. There's the Newsweek story, of course, which is less specific than Lawrence O'Donnell indicated each week, but still alludes strongly to Rove's involvement:
Now the story may be about to take another turn. The e-mails surrendered by Time Inc., which are largely between Cooper and his editors, show that one of Cooper's sources was White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, according to two lawyers who asked not to be identified because they are representing witnesses sympathetic to the White House. Cooper and a Time spokeswoman declined to comment. But in an interview with NEWSWEEK, Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, confirmed that Rove had been interviewed by Cooper for the article. It is unclear, however, what passed between Cooper and Rove.
It also got a mention in the Times over the weekend, though admittedly buried deep in a story about Bush's July 4 travels:
Karl Rove, his senior adviser, rode the flight from Washington to West Virginia but did not respond to requests for an interview over his reported role in a controversy that threatens to put two reporters in jail. Newsweek had reported over the weekend that Mr. Rove had talked to Matthew Cooper of Time magazine for an article about Valerie Plame, a C.I.A. operative whose name was illegally disclosed by an unidentified White House official in a case now under investigation.
The Times also had a story this morning about Wilson and Plame which doesn't mention Rove at all, but I wouldn't read too much into that just yet. The Times is always initially reluctant to acknowledge other people's scoops, and anyway, the piece reads like something that was in the can last week so somebody could take the holiday weekend off (it's datelined July 1).
* * *
One of the most giggle-inducing talking points of this scandal came early on, as right-wing bloggers in places like Tennessee and Wisconsin began to suddenly pose as well-connected Beltway insiders, assuring their readers that "everyone already knew that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent!" Well, I'm not as in-the-know as our right-wing blogging friends, but I did have coffee not long ago with a writer whose name you would almost certainly recognize (given that you are the sort of person who visits online magazines like this one), and interestingly, this writer--who is genuinely privvy to DC insider gossip--did not put Rove at the very top of the suspects list. Which is only to point out that Rove's guilt in this matter has apparently not been the conventional wisdom in DC that you might suppose. So who knows what surprises await us?
* * *
While I'm on the topic, I'm reminded of the second most giggle-inducing talking point regarding Wilson, which was the argument that Bush did not specifically mention Niger in the State of the Union address in which he famously warned of yellowcake uranium being funnelled from an African country to Iraq. The implication apparently being that the yellowcake allegation was true, it just wasn't coming from Niger, but rather some unspecified other African country...the name of which, despite all the grief the Bush administration took for incompetence and/or lies in the runup to war, was never announced, leaked, or even hinted at by the Administration or any of its apologists.
Occam's Razor is in no danger of being blunted due to overuse by these people.
* * *
Update...more from O'Donnell, who clearly wants to own this story:
(Rove's attorney) Luskin then launched what sounds like an I-did-not-inhale defense. He told Newsweek that his client "never knowingly disclosed classified information." Knowingly. That is the most important word Luskin said in what has now become his public version of the Rove defense.
Astonishingly, I agree with Tierney this morning. Responses to Kelo seem mostly to be breaking down on a liberal/conservative split, with liberals on the approving, or at least ambivalent, side. Which, I have to admit, puzzles me. Personally, I'm glad to see so many of our conservative friends finally beginning to develop a healthy distust of government/corporate collusion (now if only they'd extend it to, say, Halliburton's role in Iraq). I'm just not sure why anyone on my side of the fence would feel anything but disgust. Kelo is essentially a decision in favor of trickle-down economics: clear out the poor folks, bring in some businesses, and if all works according to plan the new tax revenue will make it all worthwhile. But these things often do not work according to plan:
Frank Bugryn Jr.'s family, for instance, owned about 30 acres in Bristol when the city told him in the mid-1990's that it wanted an industrial park on his property. Ms. Bugryn's parents had bought the property in 1939 and left it to him and his three siblings in 1970, he said. Mr. Bugryn, 83, a retired brass-mill foreman, planted about 500 Christmas trees on the property about 10 years ago and watched them grow 20 to 30 feet high. When the government officials came knocking, they told him they wanted to put a distribution center on his property. He was totally unprepared.
July 03, 2005
Business As Usual
While some focused on whom Bush's choice will be, others mapped out strategy for the period after he decides. Senate Republicans made plans to begin hearings as quickly as possible after the nomination, focused not on the candidate's positions on hot-button issues but on legal credentials.This is the exact same tactic they've taken with the seven (of more than 200) judicial nominees that the Democrats blocked. In the face of perfectly acceptable questioning, they refuse to respond and declare the Democrats to be obstructionists. They'll probably get away with it this time too, since even when the Democratic cooalition is its strongest, there are still enough DINOs in the Senate to break a filibuster.
The only way the GOP can get the American people to go along with their plans is through lies, rhetorical misdirection, and stonewalling. Cowards.
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