Thursday, December 29, 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011

Could Ron Paul Be A Racist?

Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul has gotten himself into a bit of hot water, with an old controversy over a 'newsletter' he published called the Ron Paul Political Report that contained some racist comments.  Michael Tomasky writes about it at The Daily Beast:

If you’re unfamiliar with the particulars, you should read James Kirchick’s original New Republic piece from 2008. These are not your run-of-the-mill euphemisms. These are blatantly racist comments by, I would hope, nearly any measure. Jews and gays get their moment in the sun, and there are code-word comments of the sort we’ve come to expect about matters like secession, the right of which “should be ingrained in a free society”; but all those are just warm-up acts for the race stuff. The “Special Issue on Racial Terrorism,” produced after the Los Angeles riots, offers many gems, including this advice: “I’ve urged everyone in my family to know how to use a gun in self defense. For the animals are coming.”

I invoke this quote because the “I” in the above sentence is problematic. It would seem, in the pages of something called the Ron Paul Political Report, that that “I” would represent, well, Ron Paul. But he denies authorship—and more. As he said to Borger: “I never read that stuff. I was probably aware of it 10 years after it was written and it’s been going on 20 years that people have pestered me about this...”

So here is the first thing Paul can do, which is to provide an answer to a simple question: If he didn’t write those sentences, who did? Why not say? If he genuinely disagrees with the statements and truly disavows them, there could be no good reason not to name names. He acknowledges that he’s been aware of the sentences for a decade. Well, did he look into the authorship question at the time, when he was made aware? It seems to me that if I were a member of the House of Representatives (as Paul was at the time) and not a racist, and I discovered that racist screeds had been issued under my name, I’d want to know who wrote them. I suppose one could argue that they were written by a friend, and Paul is honorably protecting that friend from scrutiny. I might counter by stating that (again) if I were not a racist and discovered that racist screeds had been penned under my name by someone, it’s not very likely that that someone would still be my friend, on grounds of both his dubious integrity and our incompatibility of world views.

The second thing Paul could do is give a speech, or at least an informal talk, about his actual racial views. Paul has said that he doesn’t hold those views, and that “anyone who knows me” can affirm this to be the case. Well, doctor: a) that’s awfully fuzzy and doesn’t fill in much of the canvas, and b) the vast majority of us don’t know you. So how about filling in that canvas? If his views are as advanced as he assures us they are, there can be no downside.

Or can’t there? Paul will of course take neither of these steps. He won’t do the first because—well, the first theory of the case, hardly discredited to this point, is that he is in fact the author, and he’s clearly not going to admit that. But even if it is someone else, he won’t. It could be someone he’s still close to, someone he’s praised recently, or a dozen other things. And he won’t do the second because among his core supporters, there is utterly no reason for him to answer these questions. Doing so—giving some Obama-style “race speech”—would constitute capitulation to the liberal media, and if he committed that mortal sin, he’d quickly find himself back in the single-digit rooming house where he has flopped down for so many years already. And so, the real reason the truth is likely to remain unexamined, stated directly: Among Republicans and conservatives, there simply aren’t enough people who care whether he’s a racist or not. If there were a demand for an explanation, he would supply one. But there is not.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Between Life and Death

I have been waiting for just the right time to share something special with my readers, and I guess the  Christmas season is as good a time as any.

Hieronymus Bosch, "The Ascent of the Blessed", 1490
I have a friend from New York City, a Jewish woman about my age, that I first met through my wife's family six years ago at a family wedding in Phoenix.  Her name is Judy, and she is smart, witty, and generous.  She had been, by her own account, a non-religious, cultural Jew most of her life.

So, it was a little surprising that, within a very short time of meeting her, she shared with me an experience that she had had about 18 months earlier.  It probably helped that she knew I was a Methodist pastor.

The account following is what she told me at that time (written up later by her at my request, exactly as you read it). This is the first time this has been published anywhere, and I do so with Judy's permission.
On May 20, 2004 in Los Angeles, I had a Near-Death Experience.

I just had taken an anti-hypertensive medication which I had not tried before and, instantly, I started having breathing problems.

I said to Harry, "I think I'll lie down," and I stretched out on the floor. I am not given to napping on the floor.

Predictably, he called 9-11.

I heard the sirens coming closer and I was relieved.

As soon as the EMTs walking into the condo, I said, "I need oxygen."

They put a mask on me and took my vital signs. Vital signs? I had none!

Harry was hysterical. He asked that they take me to UCLA Medical Center, which is where his mother's doctors were. I heard every word clearly.

Yet UCLA was about 3 miles from his condo, in Brentwood in West LA.

They explained that, when a patient was as sick as I was, they legally were required to go to the nearest hospital. In this case, that was St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, about 2 miles away.

Then they said to Harry, attempting to comfort him, I think, "Don't worry, mister, they're just going to declare her DOA."

He did not find this comforting.

We raced to the hospital, siren blaring, and the techs were on cell phones with the ER trauma team.

When we drove into the ambulance bay, the whole team raced out to meet me.

I was rushed into the ER and hooked to many different IVs, in my arms, wrists, ankles.

I was watching everything, in no pain, from above.

I could hear everything.

I was calm.

It was exactly the way the movies show near-death scenes and I was wondering how those writers had known how to describe the experience so accurately and with such detail.

I was in the tunnel, yes, the tunnel they always show in those scenes.

I was being drawn, effortlessly and with no control, toward the light, almost as if a super-magnet were moving me along the path.

People always mention that "light," but it was more of a phosphorescent glow. I am very precise about language. And it was irresistible, literally: I wanted to reach it.

The tunnel was long, however, and I only got about halfway toward the light when I had a conversation.

This was a conversation without words. I would have to describe it as telepathic. I was speaking with a Higher Authority. For lack of more precise definition, I would term that Authority to be God.

I said -- telepathically -- that I wanted to go forward.

And the Higher Authority said that it was not my time, that we human beings deluded ourselves in thinking that we had control of our own lives, but that none of us determined our own destinies.

He told me that we all eventually will go to the same final destination, but we will take different paths to get there and that we do not control the route.

I said that I wanted to see my father, my uncles. I said that I wanted to meet Jesus. (This detail drives my Jewish friends crazy and my Christian friends always are surprised when I tell them this.)

Yet, again, the Authority let me know that it was not my time.

Immediately, there was a huge shout, and the medical team said, "She's back."

I returned to life with no physical effects of the experience.

I had been flatlined for about 20 minutes.

They expected me to have heart damage, brain damage. They put me into Intensive Care for four days to monitor me, and they did not know what to make of me.

I was clear from the moment I came back as to the day, the place, the name of the President.

Eventually, they released me after making me promise that I would be vigilant if I showed any symptoms.

I never have had a sympton relating to the NDE, but not a day has gone by when I did not wonder exactly why I had been sent back to this plane, this dimension, that we call "life."

By now, I've read explanations that so many people who have NDEs have similar experiences because the experience has been suggested by scenes in movies. Another explanation is that this is a delusion of a dying brain -- except that my brain, Thank God, did not die.

I have no personal theories. I simply wonder....
Judy has since come down with serious, life-threatening cancer, for which she is receiving intensive chemotherapy in NYC. She has had several more experiences of a similar nature, which I will share in the future. Her positive spirit and, dare I say it, 'faith', is an inspiration to us all.

Update (12/11/2012):  Judy passed away after a long and courageous battle against cancer on December 7, 2012.  She has, I assume, now completed her journey down that long tunnel....

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

'Living in Truth': A Tribute to Vaclav Havel

A great world citizen died Sunday: Vaclav Havel, the former dissident turned President of the Czech Republic.  Anne Applebaum, one of the best foreign policy columnists with the Washington Post, wrote a wonderful tribute to Havel, which also sums up what we can learn from this distinguished life.

Vaclav Havel
First and foremost, Havel not only opposed the communist regime, he also articulated a theory of opposition. His plays — as turgid, alas, as the communist bureaucrats they are meant to satirize — will not survive, except as curiosities. But his famous political essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” will live forever. The appeal of “The Power of the Powerless” is universal. I have given Havel’s essay to Iranian friends, and I once discussed it with would-be dissidents in pre-revolutionary Tunis. In both places, it seemed — seems — relevant.

In this essay, Havel didn’t talk about marches or demonstrations. Instead, he asked the inhabitants of totalitarian countries to “live in truth”: that is, to go about their daily lives as if the regime did not exist, to the extent that was possible in societies where the state ran all businesses and all schools, owned most of the property and banned free speech and free press. By the late 1980s, “living in truth” was widely practiced across central Europe. The first time I went to Poland in 1987, I stayed with friends. According to the law, I was supposed to register my presence in a private home with the police. “We don’t do that,” my friends told me. “We don’t believe the police have the right to know who stays with us.” I didn’t register — and because thousands of other people didn’t either, that law became unenforceable.

But Havel proposed more than mere civil disobedience. He also argued in favor of what we would now call civil society, urging the inhabitants of totalitarian states to found small institutions — musical groups, sporting groups, literary groups — that would develop the “independent life of society” and prevent their members from being totally controlled from above. This, too, was widely practiced, in Prague’s famous underground philosophy seminars, in the illegal printing presses all across the communist world, in Poland’s independent “Flying University,” and, most successfully, in Poland’s independent trade unions.

Funeral Procession in Prague
Havel also practiced what he preached. But unlike many others, he did so not only before the fall of communism but also afterward. Upon being elected president, Havel stopped wearing blue jeans and started wearing suits. He moved his headquarters into Prague Castle, where he repainted the offices, took down the steel barriers and acquired a set of red, white and blue BMWs (the colors of the Czech flag) to use in his presidential cavalcade. He ceased to be a dissident. He stopped staying out all night at parties. His friends complained he was no fun anymore. This was his second great achievement: He became an establishment politician, and he created, anew, the institution of the Czech presidency.

Havel was different, in the end, from so many of his generation. Obsessed for so long with the tactics of destruction, few of them understood the importance of reconstruction. In fact, victory was not just toppling the old regime, victory was creating the institutions and symbols that would replace it. Because he was far-thinking enough to understand this, he will be mourned deeply and long remembered, across central Europe and beyond.

The Threat--and Promise--of Ron Paul

What would happen if Ron Paul wins Iowa?  Dave Weigel speculates:
If Paul wins Iowa, [the soft treatment] stops. The conservative press, which has been bored but hostile to Paul all year (just see the National Review’s cover story), will remind its readers that Paul wants to legalize prostitution and narcotics, end aid to Israel (as part of a general no-aid-for-anyone policy), and end unconstitutional programs like Medicare and social security. The liberal press will discover that he’s a John Birch Society supporter who for years published lucrative newsletters studded with racist gunk. In 2008, when the media didn’t take him seriously, Paul was able to get past the newsletter story with a soft-gummed Wolf Blitzer interview. (“Certainly didn't sound like the Ron Paul that I've come to know and our viewers have come to know all this time,” said Blitzer.) This was when Paul was on track to lose every primary. It’ll be different if the man wins Iowa.
And the Washington Post has a major article this morning on Ron Paul's new electoral strength:
As the first votes in the Republican presidential race approach, Rep. Ron Paul has become a serious force with the potential to upend the nomination fight and remain a factor throughout next year’s general-election campaign.

Although few think the congressman from Texas has a realistic shot at winning the GOP nod, he has built a strong enough base of support that he could be a spoiler — or a kingmaker.
Ron Paul has always been--and remains--a libertarian outsider to the Republican Party.  Mostly the Republican establishment tolerates him, as long as he doesn't appear to be having much influence.  The conservative media--like Fox News--does everything it can to discredit him and to make him appear like a clown or a lunatic.

Why is this?  Because Ron Paul is a pure, faithful, uncompromising libertarian.  And libertarianism, while useful at times to the Republican Party, is also seen as terribly threatening in other ways.

Libertarianism is a radical political ideology.  According to one of the most respected histories of the movement--Radicals for Capitalism by Brian Doherty (himself a libertarian):
Its eventual goals include the abolition of all drug laws....the abolition of the income tax, the abolition of all regulation of private sexual end to public ownership and regulation of the airwaves, an end to overseas military bases and all warmaking not in direct defense of the homeland, an end to the welfare state, and an end to any legal restrictions whatsoever on speech and expression.

Libertarians' policy prescriptions are based on a simple idea with very complicated repercussions: Government, if it has any purpose at all (and many libertarians doubt it does), should be restricted to the protection of its citizens' persons and property against direct violence and theft....Libertarians' economic reasoning leads them to the conclusion that, left to their own devices, a free people would spontaneously develop the institutions necessary for a healthy and wealthy culture.  They think that state interference in the economy, whether through taxing or regulation, makes us all poorer rather than richer.

Their ideas and policy prescriptions seem unbelievably radical in the current political context.  But in many ways, libertarians argue, the United States was founded on libertarian principles.  The Constitution defined a role for the federal government much smaller than what it practices today, and it restricted government to a limited set of mandated powers.  Their vision of America has been lost, libertarians argue, through a series of expansions of centralized federal power dating back at least to the Civil War...and including as cusp points Progressive Era reforms, the New Deal, and the Great Society.

While the world has undoubtedly turned in some ways in a more libertarian many ways the libertarian movement remains a radical underground whose true influence is yet to come.
The Republican political and media establishment really don't fear a Ron Paul victory, I think, but they do fear his growing influence in the party, especially the ability to act, as the WaPo indicates, as a real political force or kingmaker at next summer's convention.

This is true especially in the area of foreign policy, where the Republican Party has for the last fifty years been very hawkish (as opposed to its pre-WWII history when it was more non-interventionist).  The military-industrial-congressional complex is not AT ALL happy with the prospect of a Republican Presidential candidate who will not grant their every wish.

Since I believe the Defense Department and its related military contractors have become a bloated parasite on the national economy, far exceeding our true national defense needs and realities, I hope Ron Paul wins Iowa!

But please, Congressman Paul, watch your back, because you are making some powerful enemies, and they have some very deadly ways of defeating their enemies.

Update on Weekly 'Rude Awakening' Audience

Here's my most recent weekly audience worldwide:
United States 327
Switzerland 59
Germany 55
Russia 48
Ukraine 38
Philippines 23
Netherlands 21
Canada 17
United Kingdom 11
Australia 10
Thailand 5
Brazil 4
Singapore 4
Ireland 1
Forgive me for posting this, I'm not bragging (because the total number is dwarfed by many bigger blogs), I'm just fascinated by the global diversity of my readership.  Blogging--even by someone as obscure as me--truly is a global village of ideas.  And for my readers, I hope you find your country listed above!

The Obama-Biden-Clinton Foreign Policy

Vice President Joe Biden gave an interview with Newsweek that was really helpful in spelling out some of the Obama Administration's foreign policy goals, it seems to me.  (I have to say that, on the whole--given his vast Senatorial and foreign policy experience, and his unusual 'avuncular' personality--he's been a real asset to this administration.)

On China:
BIDEN: I went to China at the end of August right at the time we had been downgraded. And every press guy in China, every press guy in the world was asking, was I coming to apologize. We had meetings with [Chinese President] Hu [Jintao]. I spent four days with [Vice President] Xi [Jinping]. We were in one of the big halls and the Chinese press guys asked me, why is China still buying U.S. Treasury bills? And I stood up and I said, you don’t have to buy any more. It’s OK with us. Don’t buy any more Treasury bills. I said, let me remind you, you own 1 percent of America’s financial assets—1 percent. You own 6 percent—maybe 7 to 9 percent of American Treasury securities. We don’t need you. It’s OK. Don’t buy them. Go somewhere else. (Laughter.)

NEWSWEEK: Because they have nowhere else to go?

BIDEN: Bingo. Second message was we are a Pacific power. We’re not going anywhere. Now you also live in the neighborhood, and you are an emerging power in the neighborhood. We can coexist as long as you abide by international rules.

Thirdly, we want to see—literally this is what I told them—we want to see you succeed. The reason we want you to succeed is because you’ve got a big problem that we don’t have. You’ve got to come up with 5 million jobs a year to accommodate people coming into the workforce. We have a problem with our safety net, with our entitlements, but you guys? You will have increasingly fewer workers for every retiree.

And lastly, guess what, your economy cannot continue the mercantile practices you have because you’re going to be in real trouble. Not us, you.
On Iraq:
NEWSWEEK: One last question? After we get out of Iraq—and thank God we’re out—what continuing interest and responsibilities do we have there in case the place blows up or Iran threatens it?

BIDEN: Look, our responsibility and interest are one and the same. Our responsibility is to put Iraq in a position and enhance their prospect of them being able to be responsible and run their own affairs.

NEWSWEEK: But we’re not going to intervene again?

BIDEN: No, we are not going to have to intervene again. What would you look for in Iraq? For us to be out of there, have Iraq united, secure within its own borders, not a threat to its neighbors and no one able to fundamentally threaten them. That’s where they are now. I’m confident by our continued engagement with them we can strengthen that, and that’s overwhelmingly in our interest to do that.
On Afghanistan:
NEWSWEEK: What are our vital interests in continuing to fight a major war in Afghanistan?

BIDEN: We were in Afghanistan for two reasons. One is to deal with, curtail, begin to dismantle, and eventually eliminate al Qaeda. Not only from being able to come back into Afghanistan and control Afghanistan but from the region—to decimate al Qaeda.

NEWSWEEK: Almost an impossible goal to achieve.

BIDEN: No—to fundamentally alter their capacity to do damage to American allies and vital U.S. interests, to fundamentally alter that. We have done that. It doesn’t mean they’re not capable....The second reason for us to be in Afghanistan was to make sure that a country with tens of millions of people and nuclear weapons called Pakistan did not somehow begin to disintegrate or fall apart. That is a hell of a lot tougher job.
My takeaway:  The Obama Administration believes, first, that we are in a good position with regard to China.  Second, that we can continue to oversee our interests in Iraq and the surrounding region and still take our military out of there.  And third, that our primary goal in Afghanistan was never Afghanistan itself but the stability--and nuclear security--of Pakistan (I don't believe that al-Qaeda was ever our primary goal in Afghanistan, at least since Obama came to office).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mitt Is Suddenly Omnipresent

Mitt Romney's strategy had apparently been to keep control of his campaign message by hiding out and not giving any interviews to the press.  But with the rise of Newt Gingrich, I think his handlers changed their mind.

Now, Mitt is EVERYWHERE.  He was on almost all the Sunday talk shows, he gave a long interview on Charlie Rose, he appeared on Morning Joe this morning, etc.  What the hell?!  Can't you just have a balanced approach to begin with?  It's not like he drools when he talks or accidentally farts in the chair.

That change from one extreme position to another is not encouraging, Gov. Romney.  It bespeaks of a weird dynamic in your campaign and, frankly, your sense of judgment.

Anyway, when you get him talking, he sounds like a pretty normal Republican, actually fairly moderate, as these things go.  He doesn't scare you, like some of the jokers in that deck.  He does talk as if Barack Obama has been some kind of left-wing radical, which is of course pure nonsense.  But I guess that's campaign boilerplate that he has to do in order to win over some of the hate-Obama crowd in the GOP and the Tea Party.

I think his point that he has been in business and therefore knows how it works is true.  Along with his point that Obama had basically never run anything before he was elected.  Romney has run a fairly large company, he has run an Olympic Games (2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games), and he has run the State of Massachusetts.  And each of these were, on the whole, successes rather than failures.

Furthermore, I find his Mormon faith to be a strength in his life, and a reason to vote FOR him, rather than the opposite.  He has, as far as we can tell, been a great husband and family man, which is a strength.  He comes from a great family as well, with a role-model father who was also a governor and ran for President.

On foreign policy, he leans toward the hawkish side.  Does that mean we're just going to go back to the bad old days of George W. Bush and trying to remake the world in our own image, with invasion after invasion?  How would he differ from the foreign policy of George Bush, if he's listening to the guys who took us into Iraq?   For that matter, how would he differ from the foreign policy realism of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?  This is where I prefer Jon Huntsman and his foreign policy experience.  If Mitt would promise to make Jon Secretary of State, it would ease my mind somewhat about that.

Romney says repeatedly that he cares about the situation of the middle class, and that he accepts the need for a safety net for the poor.  Part of me wants to believe that, given that he helped make possible virtually universal health care in Massachusetts.  Yet, on the other hand, I have yet to hear him say that our economy for the thirty years or so has done for little for anyone but the wealthy in this country.  What does he think about that?  And what is his analysis of why that has happened (allowing him to become very wealthy in the process), and what can be done to change it in the future?  Have we not been moving toward a more free-market economy over the thirty years, and yet things have only gotten worse for most Americans?  What is his diagnosis and prescription for what ails us?   He's certainly not convinced me that he has a real answers to those problems.

You've finally come out of your cocoon, Mitt.  Good, now talk to us.  We're listening.

The Iraq War Is Over

The Iraq War is over.  Or at least, the official historical marker has been planted by our government, as it withdraws the last large group of regular troops from that country and brings the colors home.  What remains of course is the world's largest US embassy (or so it's said), and a very large contingent of private military contractors to protect all the diplomats and spies and aid workers.

US Military Vehicles Line Up To Leave Iraq
All that to say, the war may officially be ended, but our involvement in Iraq goes on...and on....and on, just like every other place around the world we've invaded and occupied over the last century.

I was against the war from the beginning...or more accurately, before the beginning.  I didn't believe the official story of weapons of mass destruction, poised to be used against the West.  It only made sense that that wasn't true.  First of all, we'd smashed Iraq to smithereens ten years earlier, and had continued a huge containment since then, with vicious sanctions and no-fly zones.  Secondly, is it likely that we would have sent hundreds of thousands of American troops in there, if they could have been wiped out by WMD?  Not likely.

So I always figured the reasons were otherwise, mostly oil-related and some strategic, anti-Iranian, pro-Israeli reasons too.  After all, a group of neo-conservative and liberal interventionist hawks had been pushing for regime change there ever since the end of the '91 war, and now these were the folks heading up the Defense Department and Vice-President's office.  So it only made sense that this had been in the works for awhile.  9/11 was just a pretext for them, their 'Pearl Harbor', as they were wont to say.

But there was no stopping that war, once the propaganda machine in Washington got going.  It was a fait accompli.  I had a prayer vigil at my church the week before it began, praying for peace.  Almost nobody came, just my supportive wife and about five other people.  Funny, it didn't work.  All it did for me was to allow me to say, I told you so.  And that is not the outcome I was praying for.

So they got what they wanted.  How'd it turn out?

Not so good, I'm afraid.  Not so good.  Nothing really turned out as expected.  They didn't welcome us with flowers.  Lots of Americans got killed or wounded.  Many, many more Iraqis got killed or wounded.  Iraq hasn't become a Jeffersonian democracy.  Their infrastructure was mostly laid waste.  Iran has more influence now than ever.  The oil is going elsewhere, mostly.  Our American billions (maybe trillions) spent in the process are mostly down the drain.  The Kurds, Sunni, and Shiia are still at each other's throats.

I can surely understand our veterans, their families, and indeed, the American people as a whole, wanting to find some lasting meaning or honor in the adventure.  But unfortunately, it was a blunder and disaster, so that's hard (though not impossible, I suppose) to do.  The soldiers just did their duty, and so that will probably have to be enough.

As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wisely and bluntly put it as he left office recently, "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’as General MacArthur so delicately put it."

Amen to that.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Strengths of Mormonism

As a result of my study of Mormonism (out of curiosity due to the prominence in the Republican field of the Mormons Mitt Romney and John Huntsman), I have written quite a few posts on that religion, trying to explain where it came from and how it differs from traditional Christianity.  I've tried to be gentle and graceful in doing this, but I don't think I've always succeeded.

However, let me comment now on the strengths of Mormonism, because they are considerable.  Here I'm not so much referring to theological belief or truth but rather to sociological aspects, that help to account for not only its ability to be sustain itself over time against quite devastating attacks, but to also continue to grow, both in the United States and around the world.

I'm not sure how to rank these strengths but certainly one of the most important is the Mormon emphasis on marriage and the family, so I'll start with that.  We live, of course, in a time of marital dissolution and family discord, so the Mormon emphasis on these important social units is especially significant.  Marriage is thought to be eternal, as is the extended family.  Weddings are expected to take place in the Mormon Temples, so that they are given an honored place to begin with.

Furthermore, there is tremendous moral emphasis on both premartial chastity and marital fidelity.  This is taught consistently from cradle to grave, both in religious education and in church.  Furthermore, children are seen as a normal and expected part of life, something to be cherished, not to be shunned.  Put these things together, and you have a family stability that sociology tells us is often crucial to economic success and personal happiness in life.

A second strength is one I referred to in the previous paragraph, namely, the emphasis on religious education and formation.  Mormon religious and moral training is life-long.  It begins early in childhood, continues through high school and college as a part of school, and then continues in adulthood at church and in the home.  The beliefs and values are inculcated over and over again, making for a very strong belief- and value-system.

A third strength is the hierarchial, top-down nature of Mormon authority and decision-making.  It is as far from democratic as you can imagine.  All key decisions in the Mormon church are made by the key 15 men at the top, in the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Apostles, and they come down the chain of authority all the way to the individual members at the bottom.  Even in their local congregations called wards, all decisions on every issue are made by the 'bishop' who is the ward leader, a layman appointed to that position by the hierarchy above him.

Because of this patriarchal, hierarchical structure, there are no power disputes, no congregation vote-taking, no uncertainty as to what to do, no taking sides with or against the pastor.  Everything is streamlined and clear.  All Mormons submit obediently to the powers-that-be.  This may seem unattractive to non-Mormons (and who knows, perhaps some Mormons as well!), but it works very well to get things done in the Mormon way.

A fourth strength of Mormonism is the lay--and especially male--participation in key leadership and ritual roles.  In fact, there are no professional clergy as such in the Mormon church.  No pastor relies on a salary here.  Every leadership position is filled by a trained and able layman, and he is assisted by many more layman beneath him.  In fact, every Mormon boy, beginning around age 12, is initiated into the 'priesthood', either 'Aaronic' or 'Melchizadek', and this qualifies him to fulfill ritual and service roles inside and outside the congregation.

As a result, every man feels important in the Mormon Church.  They have a job to do, duties to perform, that everyone considers to be important to their faith.  Nobody sits in the back pew in the balcony, feeling like a fifth wheel.  How women feel in such a patriarchial organization is another question.  But female participation in church is rarely the problem for most denominations anyway.  It's always the men who tend to be sidelined and to drop out.  But not in Mormonism.  I wonder if Joseph Smith and Brigham Young borrowed this from the Masons, to which they both belonged, and which heavily influenced the Temple ritual?

The zenith of this comes about when young men reach the age of 18, and they are sent on their 2 year long mission.  There is simply no equivalent to this in any other Christian denomination that I know of.  It doesn't take much imagination to understand how important these mission trips would be for solidifying young Mormon men into their faith and their Mormon society.

A fifth strength of Mormonism is the presence of sharp membership distinctions and boundaries.  There is nothing wishy-washy about the Mormon faith.  It is black and white, with strong beliefs and moral values, that Mormons are expected to abide by.  And if you stray too far, you will be prevented from going to the Temple, and in extremis, possibly face excommunication from the church.  And there are social penalties in this world, and, they believe, eternal penalties in the next.

There are other Mormon strengths, I'm sure, but I'll stop with these five.  Evangelical Protestants and Catholics share some of these strengths, actually (as opposed to liberal or 'mainline' Protestants, who share almost none of them, unfortunately).  Yet ironically, it is evangelical Protestants who seem to be having the greatest difficulty accepting the possibility of a Mormon President.

There is much to admire in the Mormon faith and tradition (as well as serious problems, particularly in their history, that I've outlined elsewhere).  It is truly a unique product of American history and culture and continues to give Utah and surrounding states a distinct cultural flavor.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Power of Handel's Messiah

A beautiful excerpt from Handel's Messiah, 'For Unto Us A Child Is Born', followed below by remarks on  Handel's life and career.

There is probably no better-known work of classical music in the English-speaking world than Handel’s Messiah. Written in London by George Frederic Handel in 1741, in the unbelievably short time of 24 days, this oratorio of chorus, vocal solos and orchestra has as its purpose the telling of the story of Jesus the Christ. Using passages from the Old and the New Testaments as text, Messiah is a profoundly Christian work of art, arguably the greatest Christian music ever composed.

Messiah consists of 53 separate pieces of music and text in three basic parts. Part one is the Christmas part, dealing with the Old Testament prophesies of Jesus’ coming and then the story of his birth.  Part two deals with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, ending with the resounding Hallelujah chorus. And Part Three deals with the promised return of Christ and the destiny of humanity to offer praise to Christ and the Father in heaven forever.

George Handel was born in 1685 in Germany, in the same year and same country as that other great Christian composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. Handel moved to England in 1712, where he spent the rest of his life and became a British subject. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, the resting place of British kings and great scientists, artists and authors.

Handel himself conducted the first performance of Messiah in Dublin, Ireland, in 1742.  Because he was criticized at the time for charging admission to hear the Bible sung to music, from then on, his annual performances of Messiah were done for charitable purposes, primarily the support of London hospitals.

It is interesting that Handel's career up until 1740, at the age of 55, was primarily in the composition and presentation of mostly secular music, including 42 Italian opera.  Due however to financial problems and sickness, he turned to oratorios, most of which had a religious theme.  And how grateful I am for this change of focus, for we get to enjoy Messiah because of it.

In the above video clip, Sir Colin Davis conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and the Tenebrae choir performing Handel's Messiah. It was recorded in December 2006. The entire audio MP3 version of this recording can be purchased on Amazon for $14 here.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Beyond Politics...And This Life

Here's something a little different from Morning Joe, perhaps in honor of the death of Christopher Hitchens, one of the truly great public intellectuals, as well as aggressive atheists, of our time.

Republican Politics Update--Post Fox Debate

I listened to some of the Republican debate last night but didn't really watch it, so I didn't get the full impact.  From other reactions I read and heard this morning, it sounds like no one really either hurt themselves or helped themselves too much.  So it looks like we'll go into the January voting with the current lineup pretty much in place. 

The ads being run and the on-the-ground campaigning will become bigger factors, particularly in Iowa.  After that, New Hampshire and South Carolina happen in pretty quick succession, and those are fluid races right now.  Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Ron Paul remain the three frontrunners.  One of the conservatives like Santorum or Bachmann could do well in Iowa, but that won't likely translate to the following states.  Jon Huntsman remains a dark horse in New Hampshire, but is unlikely to do much after that.

I was somewhat surprised to see maverick conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan come out with an endorsement of Ron Paul.  After all, Sullivan advocated and voted for Obama in 2008 and still defends him occasionally, although he can be brutally critical as well.  Sullivan has morphed like few others over the last 10 years, particularly going from pro-Iraq invasion to an anti-interventionist position, and also coming to see the folly in standard-brand Republican economics.  As a proud and openly gay man, he of course opposes the Republican anti-gay position.  So in all those ways, Sullivan would naturally lean toward the unwavering positions of libertarian Ron Paul, versus the other Republican frontrunners.  (Interestingly, he could also have gone with Huntsman, who shares many of Ron Paul's leanings, just in a more establishment conservative dress.  He just may yet wish he had.)

The virulent criticisms of Newt Gingrich from across the conservative spectrum remain quite astounding, given Gingrich's conservative bona fides.  But it isn't policy that's the problem there, but something deeper in Gingrich's personality and leadership skills.  Those who know him best, respect him least.  Which is probably the best argument against Gingrich's chances of winning the Republican nomination.  We'll need to wait until the results of the first few contests come in before we know which direction this things is going.

I think there is a growing possibility that you could see a third party run by Jon Huntsman.  He appeals to independent-minded voters, including disenchanted Democrats, and he might just be the candidate for this new Americans Elect organization.  Pair him up with an independent, experienced Democrat--someone like Russ Feingold--and you would have an new race this fall, I think.

So many people are talking about being open to a third-party candidate, particularly in the media, in a way I've not seen before.  It just could be the year when that kind of things actually becomes viable.  People are feeling desperate about breaking through the political deadlock and paralysis afflicting this country.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Attention, Libertarians! Nationalism Isn't Going Anywhere.

Libertarian foreign policy expert Leon Hadar argues that libertarianism needs to overcome its naivité about the strong role of nationalism in the world:
...while libertarian economic policies have been tried out by Washington, with self-described libertarian officials and lawmakers doing the trying, aside from Ron Paul there has been no instance of policymakers of the libertarian persuasion embracing, or even considering, the noninterventionist strategies advocated by Cato. If anything, it is the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that has been trying—and not very successfully—to promote such policies, which Republicans typically bash as “anti-American.”

In a way, underpinning the philosophy of American libertarianism—and mirror-imaging that of 19th century socialism—has been the belief that the political institutions of the nation-state would fade away as the principles of political liberalism and the free market spread worldwide, making traditional foreign policy irrelevant. Nations would focus most of their energies on trading with each other: making money, not war. All we need to do is reduce the power of government over the economy, ensuring that governments don’t have the resources to fight wars. That is a more important goal than considering the intricacies of, say, American policy in the Middle East.

But to paraphrase what Trotsky said about politics, “You may not be interested in foreign policy—but foreign policy is interested in you!” At a time when almost 40 percent of the expenditures of the federal government go to America’s wars and other defense and defense-related tasks, the notion that cutting taxes can bring us to the libertarian Promised Land sounds delusional. That is exactly what President George W. Bush and the neocons tried to do for eight years—and failed. The problem is not going to be solved by reducing Pentagon waste, but only by transforming U.S. strategy in the Middle East.

American libertarians need to recognize what socialists and classical liberals in Europe came to conclude after the two world wars—that nationalism remains a mighty political force that cannot be overwhelmed by the power of markets and globalization. That explains why Bush’s Freedom Agenda helped release the power of tribalism, ethnicity, and religion in the Middle East, as opposed to creating liberal political and economic systems. It also explains why the American people and right-wing elites remain attached to their own form of nationalism, American Exceptionalism.

Such nationalism may not make much sense from the economic point of view that drives libertarianism, yet it is a reality that is not going away any time soon. Under these conditions, libertarians can only do foreign policy by working with other groups on the left and the right, including the members of the somewhat dormant realist wing of the Republican Party, traditional conservatives, and progressive Naderites. This is their only hope to counter the influence of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists.

At the same time, libertarians following in the footsteps of classical liberal political forces in Europe—Germany’s Free Democratic Party comes to mind—need to draw an outline of a pragmatic, less militarized, and less interventionist foreign policy, while still working to strengthen political liberty and free markets at home. In short: advancing Classical Liberalism in One Country.
I'm glad to see this, because I've been thinking along these lines for sometime. There is a powerful streak of utopianism in the libertarian philosophy, that cannot work in the real world. While they can bring a strong and valuable critique in the economic world, especially in our very statist world, their foreign policy thinking is less valuable because it is based on simplistic, utopian assumptions about the way people think and associate.  While it still good to hear a non-interventionist argument, it is also too easy to dismiss it if it sounds 'pie-in-the-sky' and too idealistic.  To have any leverage in our world, libertarian arguments have got to have a strong dose of realism in them. 

People will die for their country--or for their family or their religion or their own personal liberty--every day.  Have you ever heard of anyone willing to die for the free market?

In any case, I still like Ron Paul and his political integrity.  I'm glad he's around, bringing a word of peace and non-interventionism and constitutional fidelity to the table.  Sometimes all he's doing is playing 'devil's advocate', but that's position needs presenting.  He's not always realistic, but given our recent history of global neo-imperialistic actions, he's got a message to tell that Americans need to hear. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Just Can't Embody The Rage

Michael Tomasky, political columnist for the Daily Beast, has this to say about Mitt Romney:

It’s pretty clear by now that Republican voters just don’t want him. Oh, they might yet end up with him. Newt Gingrich is pretty much the last plausible Not Mitt out there—Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum evidently aren’t going to get their 15 minutes, and Ron Paul has his following but also his obvious limitations. And Gingrich could blow it in any number of ways. So it might yet be Romney, but it’s awfully clear at this point that the GOP base voters are desperate for it not to be.

It’s his healthcare plan. It’s his religion. It’s his style. And most of all, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, he just fails utterly to embody the rage conservative voters feel about Barack Obama and his vision of America. That is obviously demand number one that GOP voters are making of the candidates—the most important quality they’re looking for. Romney doesn’t do culture-war rage. Completely lacks the instinct for it.

I feel sorry for Romney every once in a great, great while. He’s like an Impressionist painter who strolled into the salons of Paris in 1905 thinking he was going to blow everyone away only to find that tastes have moved on and no one wants to buy his stuff. The Republican electorate is tired of boring and prudent respectability. The Republican establishment, presumably, is decidedly not tired of those things, especially since respectability often equates to electability. The establishment might yet save Romney. But how? What levers does it have?

Romney’s no longer the default choice, and he has no obvious line of attack against the man who is. I’m not sure I’d bet a dollar on Romney now, let alone ten thousand of them.
That pretty well sums it for me as well.  Mitt is not going to make it, unless something very strange happens. And of course, given the strangeness of this season, that could happen as well.  The wheel keeps turning.

Mitt Romney: "A Perfectly Objective Efficiency Machine"

This article on Mitt Romney's business career, written in the Oct. 31 edition of New York magazine by contributing editor Benjamin Wallace-Wells, is one of the most insightful things I've yet seen on Romney.

Mitt Romney with Bill Bain
 It takes you through his career as a business consultant and private-equity buyout specialist with Bain & Company, in which he personally made hundreds of millions of dollars.  But he and his colleagues also had a genuinely nation-wide impact on the way American business and our entire economy is run.  The article subtitle put it this way.  "At Bain Capital, Romney remade one American business after another, overhauling management and directing vast sums of money to the top of the labor pyramid.  The results made him a fortune.  They also changed the world we live in."

This world of business is quite foreign to me, so I have a difficult time grasping all the lingo and the ideas involved.  But the article is well worth slogging through, for it seems to sketch out the big changes that our economy was going through in the last quarter of the 20th century, that led to the loss of jobs and the shifting of wealth and income to wealthy Americans.  It appears that many of the problems we're grappling with today can be tied to the work of business leaders and consultants like Mitt Romney.

But even more significant is how the author tries to imagine the approach that Romney would bring to the White House:
It is arresting to imagine a Romney White House, inevitably filled with as many former Bain colleagues as each of his other public ventures have been: The ­PowerPoints, the 80-20 jargon, the clinical separation of decision-making from ideology, the detachment of those decisions from moral consequence, a persistent blind spot for people as people. It would represent the final ascension of a perfectly American type, one that has already remade the culture of business. I once asked a Bain colleague of Romney’s how Romney thought of his own core competence. “I think Mitt thinks he’s good at being Mitt Romney,” the colleague said.

But Romney’s career-long commitment to his own particular brand of impersonal decision-making might suggest something personal after all. One great mystery about Romney has been where his Mormonism comes in and what it explains. Maybe the clearest answer comes from taking at their word the businessmen with whom he came up, who say they never saw its influence. Romney’s religion constitutes a minority set of beliefs. Poorly understood and widely mocked, it can provoke suspicions about his motives. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that he has adopted a public persona that contains no detectable motives at all, one that is buried in objectivity, in data, in process. The best evidence of how important Romney’s religion is to him could be how far he has kept it from view. But the character that remains visible is at once uniquely American and a little strange: a perfectly objective efficiency machine.  [Italics are mine--CL]

Monday, December 12, 2011

Top 10 List of Unusual Mormon Beliefs and Practices

Obviously, every religion can seem strange to those outside its doors.  And we often take our own strange beliefs for granted, normalized as they are to us by familiarity.  Yet when traditional Christians encounter Mormonism, there can be a rather shocking reaction to how different some of their beliefs and practices are.  (Obviously, it is also true that Mormons and non-Mormon Christians share many Christian beliefs and practices, given that we share a reverence for and reliance upon the Bible.)

Here's my Top 10 List of unusual Mormon beliefs and practices.

# 10:  Faithful Mormon adults are expected to wear a special 'temple garment' under their clothes at all times. These sacred underwear are thought to provide protection from evil and are a sign of Mormon covenant fidelity and faithfulness.

# 9:  Mormons revere the Christian Bible, but they have added to it three other scriptures of equal value: the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.  Many of their most unusual doctrines and practices come from these other scriptures. In addition, the Mormon President--as the 'Prophet, Seer, and Revelator'--can add new revelations/scripture anytime he feels so inspired (although these days that rarely happens).

# 8:  The sacred Book of Mormon is alleged to have been found on ancient golden plates buried in a hill in upstate New York, just outside of Rochester. Furthermore, Mormons teach that these plates were translated from their original 'reformed Egyptian' language into English solely by the uneducated, 24-year old Joseph Smith.  He did this supposedly by looking into a hat, where his magic 'peep stone' was sitting. The English words appeared miraculously in the stone.

# 7:  Mormons believe that the American Indians are descendants of ancient Jews, who migrated to America (the new Promised Land) from Israel long before the birth of Christ.  The Book of Mormon teaches that these Jews crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a large, Ark-like ship.

# 6:  Joseph Smith taught--and thus Mormons believe--that the original Garden of Eden was located, not in the Middle East, but in Missouri.

# 5:  The Book of Mormon teaches that Jesus appeared after his resurrection to the Indians (ie. Jews) in America, and that Jesus' coming millennial kingdom and New Jerusalem will also be in America (again, probably in Missouri).  This shows the special place that America (and Missouri) has in Mormon theology.

Washington D.C. Mormon Temple
# 4:  One of Mormonism's biggest objectives is to build Mormon Temples all around the world.  Temples are used for the most sacred Mormon rituals, such as baptism for the dead, Mormon weddings, and the Endowment Ceremony.  Mormons believe that deceased non-Mormons can be given the opportunity to become Mormons through the vicarious baptism of living Mormons in their Temples.  This is one of the biggest motivations for the extensive Mormon investment in family genealogy: to find dead family members and have them baptized posthumously for their salvation.

# 3:  The Mormon Endowment Ceremony, conducted in the Temples, has long been controversial for its connection to Masonic traditions.  Before it was eliminated in the late 1980s, the Endowment Ceremony contained a Masonic-like ritual in which a vow was taken, with appropriate motions, that the vow-taker would be subject to having their throat slit and their intestines disemboweled if they ever revealed the contents of the ceremony.

'The Tree of Life' by Steven Loyd Neal, M.D.
# 2: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), the largest Mormon church, teaches that God the Father has a physical body and that there is a Heavenly Mother, who also has a physical body.  Together, our Heavenly Father and Mother produce 'spirit children', who are then incarnated into physical bodies (us).  This would seem to imply 'heavenly sex', and indeed this is supported by a statement by the second President of the Mormon Church, Brigham Young: "[God] created man, as we create our children; for there is no other process of creation in heaven, on the earth, in the earth, or under the earth, or in all the eternities, that is, that were, or that ever will be."

And finally, # 1:    The good news is that marriage in a Mormon Temple guarantees that you will be married for eternity in the celestial kingdom (and possibly, for you men, with many wives, as had the 19th century Mormon polygamists).  And like God the Father and Mother, Mormons will continue to have heavenly--and I do mean heavenly--sexual relations for eternity, producing innumerable 'spirit children' that will populate the unique planet of their father and mother, who have become gods themselves.  (All this has led some to charge Mormonism with effectively being polytheistic in their theology.)

But the bad news is that all non-Mormons will only be non-sexual spiritual beings in the lower levels of heaven.  Better give that some thought before deciding not to become a Mormon (though being an angel is still a lot better than burning in hell!).

[You can see all my posts on Mormonism here.]

Mitt Romney's Star Has Fallen

Mitt Romney needed to have a good debate performance at the recent ABC debate, and the fact is he didn't.  Instead, he came away looking defensive, nervous, uptight, and shallow.  Newt Gingrich on the other hand looked confident, calm, and in control.

Newt Gingrich Explaining His Affairs and Marriages
The Romney campaign is upset, I'm sure.  And that doesn't even calculate in the '$10,000 bet' faux pas that Romney made vis-a-vis Rick Perry.  (What is it about Rick Perry that seems to get under Romney's skin?  Remember the illegal immigrant lawn service issue?  That was also Rick Perry.  It's like he's become Romney's Nemesis.)

I've got to believe that the Romney campaign (and the Republican Establishment behind it) is desperately hoping against hope for a serious mistake on Newt's part, that would deflate his current frontrunner bubble, much like what happened to Bachmann, Perry, and Cain.  And that is certainly possible, because Gingrich is an outrageous-statement-just-waiting-to-happen kind of person.

Yet, it appears to me that Newt is beginning to get his act together in that regard.  What may be more likely is that some scandalous revelation from the past gets dredged up and publicly aired.  (You can best believe the opposition campaigns are intensively searching for such a thing!)

In any case, it could be the Republican primary process is now to the point where it is beginning to congeal, like a bowl of jello that's been in the refrigerator just long enough to begin to thicken, and Newt happens to be candidate on top when that is happening.  And as I wrote before here in November, Newt has serious strengths: intelligence, experience in governing, apparently growing personal maturity, an extreme shrewdness, and an overwhelming self-confidence, which can benefit him in situations like this and against what is turning out to be such a weak bench of candidates.

My personal feeling here is that Romney's star has fallen and cannot be restored.  He has played it safe for too long, has hidden himself from the media and the public, hoping that he could just glide into the Republican nomination.  But that's probably not going to happen this year, when the Republican base is fired up and wants a candidate who is also fired up.  And mellow, steady-eddie Mitt Romney just doesn't fill that bill.  He won't drop out, but he'll be an injured, diminished presence from here on out.

So the Establishment is going to have to look elsewhere.  Will it be Huntsman?  It could be, especially if he does well in New Hampshire.  The Republican powers-that-be might try to ride that horse as far as it will go, hoping that Gingrich at some point stumbles and falls.  Another option would be to hope that Ron Paul does well enough to set up a brokered convention, where the Establishment would seem have more input and influence, and where anything can happen, including a compromise 'dark horse' candidate (unlikely but possible).

This is going to be a very interesting seven months until the Republican Convention.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

If We Get Our Political Act Together, Other Things Can Work Out For America

Here is a column that you're unlikely to have seen but should.  It's by David Ignatius of the Washington Post, an journalist on the national intelligence network, whose output is often overlooked in favor of the most politically oriented columnists.

In today's column, he deals with a new national intelligence assessment of America's future, looking ahead about 20 years.  Here are some excerpts:
A disturbing consensus emerged among the analysts that something closer to the pessimistic scenario should be the base line. Fred Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, the think tank that hosted the meeting, sums up the views of these analysts and of a similar exercise last month by the World Economic Forum when he warns that the biggest national-security threat is “the danger of receding American influence on the world stage.”

My own view (I was asked to critique the presentations as an independent journalist) is that the key issue is how the United States adapts to adversity. That offers a slightly more encouraging picture: Relative to competitors, America still has a more adaptive financial system, stronger global corporations, a culture that can tap the talents of a diverse population and an unmatched military. The nation’s chronic weakness is its political system, which is approaching dysfunction. If the United States can elect better political leadership, it should be able to manage problems better than most competitors....[Bold emphasis are mine--C.L.]
Yet not all is lost, according to what Ignatius is hearing.
Here’s the most interesting footnote to this gloomy exercise. Burrows said that as he discusses his 2030 project with analysts around the world, he finds them much less downbeat about America’s prospects. “The Chinese are the first ones to say that we are too pessimistic about our future,” he reports, and Brazilian and Turkish analysts have said much the same thing.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Conservatives Threaten To Bolt Over Gingrich

The most devastating critiques of Newt Gingrich are coming, not from Democrats or liberals, but from conservatives and Republicans. You would expect to hear negative things about him from Newt's natural foes, and they can be chalked up to politics. But you know this is serious when the damning quotes are coming from his natural friends.

Take, for example, long-time conservative columnist George Will (the closest person we have in America to the late William F. Buckley as a conservative icon and patriarch).  Last Sunday in the Washington Post, Will had this to say about Newt.
Gingrich, however, embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive. And there is his anti-conservative confidence that he has a comprehensive explanation of, and plan to perfect, everything.

Granted, his grandiose rhetoric celebrating his “transformative” self is entertaining: Recently he compared his revival of his campaign to Sam Walton’s and Ray Kroc’s creations of Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, two of America’s largest private-sector employers. There is almost artistic vulgarity in Gingrich’s unrepented role as a hired larynx for interests profiting from such government follies as ethanol and cheap mortgages. His Olympian sense of exemption from standards and logic allowed him, fresh from pocketing $1.6 million from Freddie Mac (for services as a “historian”), to say, “If you want to put people in jail,” look at “the politicians who profited from” Washington’s environment.

His temperament — intellectual hubris distilled — makes him blown about by gusts of enthusiasm for intellectual fads, from 1990s futurism to “Lean Six Sigma” today.
Vanity, rapacity, hubris, grandiose, anti-conservative...those are fightin' words, really.  Pre-20th century Washington inhabitants might have fought a dual over them!  How could anyone apply those words to a Presidential candidate, and then turn about and vote for them? Not likely, I think.

Today, we have two more examples, from Michael Gerson of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times.  There are not two more respectable conservative columnists in all of America.

First, from Gerson:
...adultery is not disqualifying for high office, but it can reveal character traits that might be. Recklessness is relevant. The exploitation of an unequal power relationship — say, with an intern — is relevant. Selfishness and compulsiveness are relevant.

Gingrich’s transgressions were more than a decade ago. But they were not merely private. As speaker of the House, he conducted an affair during the impeachment of a president for lying under oath about an affair. It helped undermine a movement Gingrich had helped to build.

And this indiscipline was not an aberration. It indicated an impulsiveness found elsewhere in his career. Gingrich has a history of making serious charges that turn out to be self-indictments — witness his recent attack on congressional advocates for Freddie Mac, despite having been one of its well-paid consultants. Gingrich’s language is often intemperate. He is seized by temporary enthusiasms. He combines absolute certainty in any given moment with continual reinvention over time.

These traits are suited to a provocateur, an author, a commentator, a consultant. They are not the normal makings of a chief executive.

Everyone deserves forgiveness for the failures of their past. But the grant of absolution does not require the suspension of critical judgment. Gingrich’s problem is not the weakness of a moment, it is the pattern of lifetime.
Policy differences between fellow conservatives is one thing, and those differences are often reconcilable. But conviction of a deficiency of character--"the pattern of a lifetime"--now that is something else.

Finally, David Brooks, admitting how much he and Gingrich agree on basic political worldview, lands a huge punch to the gut of this political giant. After stating how Gingrich loves government too much, how his greed has led him to corruption, and how much his rhetorical style is both bombastic and demogogic, Brook then goes for the jugular:

Gingrich has a revolutionary temperament — intensity, energy, disorganization and a tendency to see everything as a cataclysmic clash requiring a radical response.

I’d make a slightly similar point more rudely. In the two main Republican contenders, we have one man, Romney, who seems to have walked straight out of the 1950s, and another, Gingrich, who seems to have walked straight out of the 1960s. He has every negative character trait that conservatives associate with ’60s excess: narcissism, self-righteousness, self-indulgence and intemperance. He just has those traits in Republican form.

As nearly everyone who has ever worked with him knows, he would severely damage conservatism and the Republican Party if nominated. He would severely damage the Hamilton-Theodore Roosevelt strain in American life.
I think what we are seeing here is the same thing we saw in 2008, after John McCain picked Sarah Palin to be his VP.  Namely, a shot across the bow by some important conservative figures, that if the Republicans pick an unacceptable candidate, then these conservatives will either simply abstain or defect, and take a lot of people with them.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Update on Weekly 'Rude Awakening' Audience

United States  623
Germany  96
Russia  41
United Kingdom  21
Switzerland  20
Canada  16
India  14
Sweden  13
Netherlands  13
France  11
Italy  11
Egypt  7
Latvia  4
Australia  2
Kenya  2

And Now, To Put Politics In Perspective...A Black Hole

This never ceases to blow my mind.
Black Hole, with comparison to our Solar System

Astronomers are reporting that they have taken the measure of the biggest, baddest black holes yet found in the universe, abyssal yawns 10 times the size of our solar system into which billions of Suns have vanished like a guilty thought.

Such holes, they say, might be the gravitational cornerstones of galaxies and clues to the fates of violent quasars, the almost supernaturally powerful explosions in the hearts of young galaxies that dominated the early years of the universe.

One of these newly surveyed monsters, which weighs as much as 21 billion Suns, is in an egg-shaped swirl of stars known as NGC 4889, the brightest galaxy in a sprawling cloud of thousands of galaxies about 336 million light-years away in the Coma constellation.

The other black hole, a graveyard for the equivalent of 9.7 billion Suns, more or less, lurks in the center of NGC 3842, a galaxy that anchors another cluster known as Abell 1367, about 331 million light-years away in Leo.

“These are the most massive reliably measured black holes ever,” Nicholas J. McConnell, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an e-mail, referring to the new observations.

Why Obama Might Win This Election

Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist for the Washington Post and as clear-eyed and sensible as those kind of people come, gives three reasons why Obama might just pull this election out (though Gerson himself doesn't seem to like that prospect):

First, despite their griping, Obama’s base still believes. Support among Democrats and African Americans is solid. Obama’s recent conversion to the old-time Democratic religion of class conflict — preached at Occupy Wall Street tent meetings — has rallied American liberalism. This approach has its limits. A message that shores up support from the left may complicate Obama’s appeal to independents. The construction of a 43 percent floor may also involve the construction of a ceiling not far above it. But Obama’s appeal to the political middle was no longer working. A base strategy was his only credible strategy, and it seems to have prevented a polling collapse.

Second, while voters may be disappointed with Obama’s job performance, they have not turned on Obama himself. His personal approval is strong. Here there is a significant gap between the American public and, well, me. I have often found Obama’s public manner to be professorial and off-putting. Americans seem to think it calm, self-possessed and reassuring. Even in his failures, Obama does not seem hapless. He fully inhabits the public role of commander in chief. And Obama’s commitment to his family — his protection of their privacy and normality — is widely admired....

Third, it is now evident to everyone but Republicans — who report themselves resolutely satisfied with their choices — that the Republican presidential field is weak. In a contest of Romney, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels, iron would have sharpened iron. Instead, the GOP race has been a series of trial balloons, popped by cluelessness, incompetence or impropriety. Each front-runner, in turn, seems inevitable just before becoming unimaginable. These episodes of manic enthusiasm, in retrospect, seem desperate and discrediting.
(For further evidence of fortune smiling on Barack Obama, check out this column today by the often ferocious Obama critic, 'liberal' WaPo columnist Richard Cohen.)

Given the alternatives, unlike Gerson, I am more and more liking this possibility.

Good Newt, Bad Newt

Rich Galen, who was a staffer for Newt Gingrich in the 90s when he was Speaker of the House, has written a good article for the Daily Beast on the 'good Newt, bad Newt' phenomenon.

Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich, Enjoying The Moment
How does the “Good Newt” contrast with the “Bad Newt”? Where do I start? The Good Newt is focused, funny, and professorial. As a Ph.D. in history and former college professor, he likes nothing more than using a speech as a 45-minute syllogism: he states the problem, walks the audience through a set of facts and examples, then delivers the (now) obvious conclusion.

When he has thought about a subject, it is remarkable to watch. It’s not unlike Walter Isaacson’s description of Steve Jobs as being able to create a “reality-distortion field” that drew people into his view of what an iPod, iPhone, or iPad should look like and convince them that they could achieve his vision.

Gingrich can generate a reality-distortion field that covers 2,000 people in a hall and, like Steve Jobs, convince them that they should share his vision.

Paradoxically, that is also when the Bad Newt can rear his ugly intellect.
Actually, Galen never describes what the 'Bad Newt' consists of.  But I think you can immediately grasp it by looking at the picture on this post.  It's the part of Newt that is just like The Donald.

Any questions?

I'm fast getting the feeling that this candidacy is like the tape recorder in the old Mission Impossible shows:  built to self-destruct after it's had its say.

Update:  This comment by Arianna Huffington about Newt was definitely worth posting:
Now that Herman Cain has "suspended his campaign," the race is down to three people: Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich. At this point, the question isn't so much whether Gingrich can beat Romney (he can), but whether Gingrich will beat Gingrich. This task is complicated by the fact that there isn't just one Gingrich. He's a very Walt Whitmanesque candidate -- he celebrates himself, he sings of himself, he is large, and he contains multitudes.

Mitt Romney Is In Big Trouble

Mitt Romney has always been the default nominee in the eyes of many in the Republican Party, and most everywhere else too.  Even when he wasn't leading in the polls, because some other person (Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich) was ahead of him by a few points, Romney was always seen by astute political watchers in the media as the probable, indeed almost inevitable winner down the line.

Why?  Because he consistently does well in the debates.  Because he ran in 2008 and has that experience to help him.  Because he's well funded and well-organized.  Because he's got little or no 'baggage' in his background to trip him up.  Because he's handsome and rich, and has a beautiful family.  Because he's smart and well-educated.  Because, frankly, he's not an adulterer, a moron, or an extreme ideologue, like most of the others.

All that has changed.  Mitt Romney no longer looks like the default GOP nominee, the inevitable winner of this primary season.  The rise of Newt Gingrich has upset this apple cart, making Romney look weak, tentative, and defensive.  All of a sudden, Romney is looking more and more like a loser.

It's an odd perceptual change, if nothing else.  The polls haven't changed that much really.  Romney has been second to whoever else was in first place for months now.  But all of a sudden, it just feels like Mitt is really struggling and losing ground.  Like his defensive ground game is leaving him farther and farther behind in gaining the necessary offense needed to win this contest.

For months now, Romney has avoided the big media interview venues: Meet the Press, Face the Nation, etc.  For a long time, that has almost gone unmentioned.  Now, it is being commented on widely, and people are noticing that Mitt almost looks afraid to expose himself to tough questions.  This became the big story last week when Romney appeared on Fox's Bret Baier Show and came across as testy and defensive, rather than confident and impressive.

It's always been hard for me to understand why the Republican electorate doesn't like Romney.  He is certainly a conservative politician in both domestic and foreign policy, of that there can be little doubt.  So it's something else, perhaps his Mormon religion, perhaps this indefinable personal aura that just turns people off.  They say it's because he's flip-flopped, but I don't buy that as the reason, given there is very little purity in the field of candidates in that regard, and those who are pure (e.g. someone like Rick Santorum) haven't done very well.  Perhaps it's the 'nerd' factor, where Romney comes across as the smart but nerdy kid in the class, but isn't therefore very popular with his classmates.  (Huntsman has a little bit of the same problem, I think.)

The rise of Newt Gingrich, a smart, experienced political operative, has had something to do with this change, obviously.  But whether Newt continues to be the front-runner or not, it still feels like a sea-change for Mitt Romney.  It is no longer possible to say that he's Number One.  Only time will tell if Romney is up to the challenge of actually coming from behind to win.  That's hard to do in both basketball and politics, because once you've fashioned your basic ground game on defense, it's hard to turn around suddenly and become an offensive powerhouse.

For now, though, Mitt has fallen behind.  He is in big trouble.

Monday, December 5, 2011

This is Definitely Not Your Father's Republican Party

So far, with the notable exception of Jon Huntsman (who for some reason is still at the bottom of the polls), every Republican candidate running is either an adulterer, a moron, or an extremist.  And Herman Cain was all three, actually.

Say what you will about Barack Obama, he is none of those three (which is probably why he choose Huntsman to be his Chinese ambassador).

Something is wrong with this Republican Party.  It didn't used to be that way.  (For the record, I voted Republican in '84, '88, and '92.)

The Enemies of Newt Gingrich (Not Who You Think)

Over the last two days, it has become clearer how many enemies Newt Gingrich has in his own Republican Party and Conservative Movement.  They are legion, it appears.  The following comes from Politico:
Newt Gingrich’s critics within the GOP are legion, but for the moment they’re also something else: quiet.

They all remember the last time Gingrich held power, as House speaker: the bombast, the reckless personal life, the arrogance and lack of discipline that bordered on dangerous. Some, like Dick Armey and Sen. Tom Coburn, have made a side career of keeping alive the tales of Bad Newt, with a zeal that said, never again.

But now Coburn — who declared a year ago that Gingrich is “the last person I’d vote for for president” and lacks the character to lead the nation — offers a brisk no comment when approached.

Former Rep. Bill Paxon, who sought to overthrow Gingrich, says he’d rather not revisit the past. Even Armey, the former majority leader under Gingrich turned fierce rival, has an aide say they’re “keeping quiet on Newt, for now.”

It’s a remarkable turnabout for someone whose party tried to drive him from power 14 years ago. It’s not that these detractors want to see him as the party’s nominee, let alone as president. In more unguarded moments, the prospect frightens some of them. A few figure he’s so erratic he’ll self-destruct on his own....

Gingrich’s ego made him want to be constantly at the center of all the action. He was thin-skinned and arrogant in dealing with the press and critics in both parties. He dismantled the House seniority system and accrued power in the speaker’s office, a trend that continued under his successors. And his lack of discipline often resulted in a morning strategy that was discarded by day’s end if not noon, much to the dismay of his own caucus.

Gingrich has fresh problems, too. Despite well-received performances in a long series of Republican primary debates, the familiar grandiosity that made Gingrich an easy caricature for political opponents has re-emerged with his surge in the polls. He credited himself with winning the Cold War and predicted he’ll be the Republican nominee....

Republicans were not always so hesitant to offer up unvarnished views of their former speaker. For instance, in August 2010, Coburn told the Tulsa World that Gingrich was “the last person I’d vote for for president of the United States. His life indicates he does not have a commitment to the character traits necessary to be a great president.”

Appearing on Fox News Sunday yesterday, however, Coburn expressed a reluctance to expound on his concerns, even after he was shown a clip from earlier in the year in which he criticized Gingrich.

Some Gingrich associates are bracing for a display of Old Newt at any moment — the quick-to-anger, nasty man who was so easy for the Clinton White House to caricature, particularly if he starts to face tough questions about his third wife, Callista, with whom he carried on an affair before they married.

But to those who know Gingrich’s powers of persuasion best, there’s a sense that the buyer — whether it’s a House Republican, a GOP primary voter or a swing-state independent — ought to beware.

In 2003, then-Rep. Mark Souder marveled as House conservatives — including Souder — were swayed to vote for the Medicare prescription drug law by a man who had been driven from the speakership. When Gingrich was done making the pitch to a closed-door session of House Republicans, Souder said, “He added that any of us who didn’t support it should report to his office and explain why we could not.”

“I turned to some of my friends and said: ‘This is exactly why we elected him speaker, and exactly why we removed him as speaker,’” Souder continued. “His sales pitch, more than anything else, switched my vote and the votes of others on a bill that still took most of the night to pass while the vote was held open. And Medicare is going broke faster than ever.”
Conservative patriarch George Will was almost begging Republicans and Conservatives to consider anyone other than Newt (esp. Jon Huntsman and, surprisingly, Rick Perry).  His comments about Newt are almost vicious:
Gingrich, however, embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive. And there is his anti-conservative confidence that he has a comprehensive explanation of, and plan to perfect, everything.

Granted, his grandiose rhetoric celebrating his “transformative” self is entertaining: Recently he compared his revival of his campaign to Sam Walton’s and Ray Kroc’s creations of Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, two of America’s largest private-sector employers. There is almost artistic vulgarity in Gingrich’s unrepented role as a hired larynx for interests profiting from such government follies as ethanol and cheap mortgages. His Olympian sense of exemption from standards and logic allowed him, fresh from pocketing $1.6 million from Freddie Mac (for services as a “historian”), to say, “If you want to put people in jail,” look at “the politicians who profited from” Washington’s environment.

His temperament — intellectual hubris distilled — makes him blown about by gusts of enthusiasm for intellectual fads, from 1990s futurism to “Lean Six Sigma” today. On Election Eve 1994, he said a disturbed South Carolina mother drowning her children “vividly reminds” Americans “how sick the society is getting, and how much we need to change things. . . . The only way you get change is to vote Republican.”
Vanity, rapacity, hubris, grandiose....Can we assume that George Will and Newt Gingrich don't meet for coffee on any regular basis?

I don't know how someone like Gingrich becomes the Republican candidate with such vitriolic opposition within his own natural constituency.

Damn, this Republican primary race just keeps getting more and more entertaining.  Before we're through, Obama may be the only one left standing.