Monday, January 24, 2005
Posted 12:45 PM <2003_06_08_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
E-mail from history professor on Robert Putnam, individualism, and
The Putnam reference is pretty interesting, and in fact this question came
in one of my classes this week (I think I was the one who raised it though
Are we really not as individualistic as he says we are? I think Putnam would
say that the compassionate response isn't necessarily evidence that things
changing, or that he's been mistaken. In the book he focuses on the
of joining organizations, those social situations that require people to
longer term, to put up with irritating people, to go along with the
when you don't entirely agree, to work for a greater good down the road--the
kinds of situations that make us into mature, civic-minded people. My guess
that we're seeing at least in part an example of the "minute-man tradition"
our culture--we have an amazing ability to rise up in response to crisis,
are not good at dealing with long-term, deeply rooted social problems (the
aborted War on Poverty being a case in point).
Plus, so much of this volunteerism seems to be couched in distressingly
one-dimensional patriotic language: we are good, and they must be evil.
really not interested in analyzing what went wrong in the larger world to
the evil, or dealing with messy political and social problems long-term.
if this sounds cynical, but there are an awful lot of flags on cars, houses,
around here, and a lot of God and country pieces in the Grand Rapids Press.
a little overwhelming.
Posted 12:44 PM <2003_06_08_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
E-mail from Will R in response to my thought of
the day on religious freedom
A free intellectual/moral marketplace -- a marketplace of ideas, if you
will -- and a free economic marketplace are not the same thing. The
former functions better with less government intrusion; the latter
needs repeatedly to be beaten with a stick to avoid devouring us.
Point well taken about the strip club thing, but -- and don't shoot me
for this one -- I do think they should be protected by the first
amendment. My reason is this: How can we say we are of strong moral
fiber if we come morally unglued as soon as the threat of temporal
punishment is lifted? My nausea over the tepid moral cesspool that is
America could not be greater, and I too agree with conservatives on
that, but the fact is we're no different than we were. The State
carries specific powers that I don't think should be used to enforce
morality, namely the power to revoke liberties and, whether through war
or capital punishment, to kill. If you hold someone at gunpoint and
tell him to do the right thing, that he does so is not a reflection of
his character, merely his desire to survive. The increase of civil
liberties affords the Church a unique opportunity to confront depravity
in ways that were impossible before, because the veil is lifted. People
will say what they really think, and we can answer them in ways we
could not. There should be laws, granted, so that the frontier between
my rights and yours is clearly defined and enforced, but only the
minimum that are necessary.
It is very tempting to apply these principle to capitalism, as our
President likes to do. (An funny side bar: Bush's name in Chinese, a
phonetic transliteration pronounced "boo sure", is a homonym
of "incorrect" or "it is not so".) To some extent they apply, but only
mutatis mutandis. Bush seems to think that it's a few bad apples that
are the problem -- it makes me wonder how many more companies have to
fold in scandal for him to see the need for systemic change. I happen
to think that in the case of corporate governance, the CEO dogs need
shorter leashes. I propose having a board of directors elected by the
shareholders -- the people who really got screwed when Enron, WorldCom,
et al., went under -- and having the authority to hold the CEO to
account, much as the President is accountable to Congress. It may be
that tighter regulation is necessary to effect this, in which case I'm
all for it. I'm not one of those let-the-market-sort-it-out, Wall-
Street-Journal-Editorial-page-is-my-Bible conservatives. The market is
a firehose that needs to be directed by human efforts in order to work
effectively and not put somebody's eye out.
Your comments about de Toqueville's "tyranny of the majority" are good.
Once again, I have been helped in this department by Uncle C. S. He
says the majority of people -- including himself, but also the sort of
people who "think in catch phrases, believe advertisements, and spread
rumors" -- don't deserve a share in governing a hen roost, much less a
government. The Founding Fathers had no intention of letting them
govern; hence the electoral college. Also, the Senate was not designed
to be directly elected, but to be elected by state legislatures. Their
dilemma is spreading power thinly enough to prevent tyranny without
letting the great unwashed influence policy too much. I agree with
Lewis that equality is a necessary legal fiction for avoiding tyranny,
but it is just that -- a fiction. Nature knows no equality. We are
God's equals. I am not Melville's literary equal. Americans seem to
have forgotten that this is a fiction and want to apply it to their
everyday lives, and Christians seem especially susceptible to it. It
seems like everyone and their dog writes a Christian self-help book
these days. Many of these people comment on things they have absolutely
no business commenting on. That there are many cultural voices, and
that they are all equally valid does not mean that everyone who can
read and write has a cultural voice. Many people can neither understand
nor articulate the nuances of cultural debate. They should accept with
gracious humility that God made them for something else and should give
a certain authority to the people God has designed for this sort of
thing, just as I defer to my doctor's judgement about what's wrong with
me. He knows better than me, simple as that. One relatively recent
example comes to mind that illustrates this. There was a golfer a few
years back, Casey something, I can't remember his name, whose swing,
they say, was in the same league as Tiger Woods, but who was excluded
from the PGA tour because of a medical condition that prevented him
from walking the course -- he had to use a cart, which is prohibited by
PGA rules. He could walk fine, but didn't have the endurance for 18
holes. The Supreme Court absurdly ruled that the PGA tour let him use a
cart -- let him cheat, in other words. Having the endurance to walk is
part of the game, but he felt he should be exempt from that because he
couldn't help his medical condition. I can't help that I suck at golf,
but does that mean I have the right to an exemption from the rules? No.
I am not equal to the champions of golf; neither was this guy. Tragic?
Yes. It is a shame that someone who can hit the ball so well should
have such a handicap. Unfair? Not in the least. He simply was not good
enough. The irony is that when everyone plays under the same rules, or,
to put it in legal terms, when all are equal under law, our true
inequalities and differences come out. God made us this way and we
shouldn't try to change it. Each of us is a bundle of unique strengths
and limitations. The limitations are the result of sin, or flaws in
God's creation; he put them in us to keep us humble, to remind us that
there is One who can do all. No one is God but God. We forget that
Posted 12:41 PM <2003_06_08_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
By Nathan VanderKlippe, February 2003
It’s not every day you get paid to be a human penny, rolling down a
super-sized version of one of those mall charity funnels.
But the West Edmonton Mall was opening a new slide called the Tropical
Typhoon, and duty called: I came to work armed with my swimming shorts.
Best to arrive informed, I thought, and called Kevin Hanson, the mall’s
operations manager. He says the big funnel cost $300,000 and is the
only one in Western Canada.
"We like to bring stuff in that’s going to dazzle you a little bit or
amaze you," he explained. Over the past few years, waterpark usage has
stagnated at around 500,000 people annually and the park is trying to
freshen up. It’s investing $1.2 million in renovations and new slides
this year alone.
I had to know what to expect on my first ride, so I asked Hanson.
Little did I know he would throw down the gauntlet.
"We’ve had guys that have made up to four spirals on it before they
drop out the middle," he said. "I would suspect if you’ve never ridden
it, you’ll do one turn before you go out the middle."
Just one measly turn? This man didn’t have much faith in me. I mean,
you get at least six or seven satisfying spirals when you chuck a coin
into one of those charity funnels.
What I needed was professional help. If anyone could help me beat the
laws of nature it had to be someone who knows them inside out so I got
Doug Schmitt, a University of Alberta physics prof, on the line.
"It would depend on basically how fast you were going," he opined. "So
the faster you’re going, the higher your kinetic energy. Basically that
would dictate what level you’d spin around on the funnel."
OK, got it. Minimize the friction, keep up the kinetic energy and see
if this unsculpted body can beat gravity. I have visions of my torso as
a human version of one of those Olympic skeleton sleds, lithely snaking
my way around the funnel’s bowl.
But, I figure, I’ll likely end up looking more like a soggy sack of
These thoughts in mind, I spend 35 minutes in line waiting to mount the
shiny new ride which looks a bit like a UFO being watered by a big blue
straw. I’m surrounded by students from Cardinal Leger Catholic Junior
High who are slip-sliding their way through Valentine’s Day.
Fourteen-year-old Nicholas Rocchio is one of them, and among the very
first to test the new slide when it opened at noon.
His verdict: "it’s the best slide I’ve ever been on!"
Now it’s my turn. I swing my way into the blue tunnel and start
plummeting toward the watery bowl. I close my eyes when I hit and feel
centrifugal force press my back into the plastic. I whip around, then
lose speed and tumble out of the bowl with all the elegance of an
elephant doing his business.
As I clamber up the ladder, I ask the slide attendant how many times I
made it around.
"Four," he tells me.
Nicholas, for all his youthful agility, only made it around twice.
Victory is mine.
Monday, June 02, 2003
Posted 12:04 PM <2003_06_01_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
Why did the chicken cross the road?
GEORGE W. BUSH
We don't really care why the chicken crossed the road. We just
know if the chicken is on our side of the road or not. The
either with us or it is against us. There is no middle ground
I invented the chicken. I invented the road. Therefore, the
crossing the road represented the application of these two
functions of government in a new, reinvented way designed to
greater services to the American people.
Now at the left of the screen, you clearly see the satellite image
the chicken crossing the road.
We have reason to believe there is a chicken, but we have not
allowed access to the other side of the road.
MOHAMMED ALDOURI (Iraq ambassador)
The chicken did not cross the road. This is a complete
don't even have a chicken.
This was an unprovoked act of rebellion and we were quite
dropping 50 tons of nerve gas on it
The chicken's habitat on the original side of the road had been
polluted by unchecked industrialist greed. The chicken did not
unspoiled habitat on the other side of the road because it was
by the wheels of a gas-guzzling SUV.
To steal a job from a decent, hard-working American.
I don't know why the chicken crossed the road, but I'll bet it was
getting a government grant to cross the road, and I'll bet
there is already forming a support group to help chickens with
crossing-the-road syndrome. Can you believe this? How much
can real Americans take? Chickens crossing the road paid for
tax dollars, and when I say tax dollars, I'm talking about your
money the government took from you to build roads for
No-one called to warn me which way that chicken was going. I
standing order at the farmer's market to sell my eggs when the
dropped to a certain level. No little bird gave me any insider
Because the chicken was gay! Isn't it obvious? Can't you
plain truth in front of your face? The chicken was going to the
side. That's what they call it-the other side. Yes, my friends, that
chicken is gay. And, if you eat that chicken, you will become gay
say we boycott all chickens until we sort out this abomination
liberal media whitewashes with seemingly harmless phrases
Did the chicken cross the road? Did he cross it with a toad?
chicken crossed the road, But why it crossed, I've not been told!
To die. In the rain. Alone.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
I envision a world where all chickens will be free to cross roads
without having their motives called into question.
In my day, we didn't ask why the chicken crossed the road.
us that the chicken crossed the road, and that was good
enough for us,
and that's the way it was and we liked it!
Isn't that interesting? In a few moments we will be listening to
chicken tell, for the first time, the heart-warming story of how it
experienced a serious case of moulting and went on to
life-long dream of crossing the road.
Imagine all the chickens crossing roads in peace.
It is the nature of chickens to cross the road.
It was an historical inevitability. I would cross and the chicken
I are cousins.
I may not agree with what the chicken did, but I will defend to
death its right to do it.
To boldly go where no chicken has gone before.
You saw it cross the road with your own eyes! How many more
have to cross before you believe it?
I have just released eChicken 2003, which will not only cross
but will lay eggs, file your important documents, and balance
checkbook - and Internet Explorer is an inextricable part of
Did the chicken really cross the road or did the road move
I did not cross the road with THAT chicken. What do you mean
chicken? Could you define chicken, please?
I missed one?
Monday, May 05, 2003
Posted 12:42 PM <2003_05_04_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
Ventura County Star
February 1, 2003
Freedom to search
Unitarian Universalists find liberation in individual interpretations of God
Tom Kisken; firstname.lastname@example.org
Who or what is God? In a Unitarian Universalist religion that prides itself
on challenging questions, this one is a doozy. It's sparked by a national
controversy spiced by allegations of faulty journalism, the temptation to
pin labels on the infinite and the role of divinity in a faith community
where belief in God is optional.
Howard Bierma, of Thousand Oaks, says he uses the word sometimes, maybe
after someone sneezes or when he has banged a finger, but not to express his
spirituality. He is an atheist and humanist who has been a member of the
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Conejo Valley for about five years
and defines religion as interaction among people aimed at improving
He answers the question of the day this way: "Creation is all random, so I
wouldn't define God."
Bierma's take is a reflection of the spiritual breadth of the 200 or so
members of the Thousand Oaks church and certainly not a cloak identifying
the community. Those attending the weekly services include people who
identify with Christianity, Judaism, pagan religions, Buddhism, humanism,
Taoism and varied combinations. Some prefer phrases like the holy, ultimate
importance or reverence to God.
Their Sunday service is so eclectic that members sing "Amazing Grace,"
the line "that saved a wretch like me," and later discuss the concept
people are born saved. The minister's caveat -- "whatever that means to
you" -- fits virtually every word spoken.
Lee Anne Christensen, of Thousand Oaks, joined because of the church's
openness, because the other members don't tell her how to think. As a child,
she was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She
believes in God as someone or something that provides solace.
Dennis Weiher isn't sure about God but knows he doesn't think of the concept
as a tangible entity. "God is something that is within us all. It's that
part of us that makes us human and connects us to each other," said Weiher,
who is board president for the Conejo Valley church and has been a Unitarian
Universalist for about 40 years.
He sees his religion's diversity as freeing. "It allows people to search
their own spirituality and be supported by others in the community," he
said. "It absolutely gives you the freedom to search without fear of being
castigated or being looked down upon."
The UUs, as they call themselves, came to be 42 years ago when two separate
churches -- the Unitarians and the Universalists -- merged. While
Christianity asks its members to believe in the trinity and Muslims base
their beliefs on the teachings of the Quran, the UUs have no single,
They do ask their members be sympathetic with stated Purposes and Principles
that include an affirmation of the dignity of every person and also a call
of respect for the interdependent web of all existence.
That signature statement was wrapped into controversy when the national
president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. William
Sinkford, noted in a January sermon that the Principles lack religious,
reverential language. He called for people to identify the aspect of faith
that some label as God.
"Put a name to what calls you," he said.
The Forth Worth Star-Telegram newspaper covered the sermon and published a
story that was picked up by papers across the nation, including the Ventura
County Star. It said Sinkford was pushing to include the word, God, in a new
UUstatement of principles.
The Rev. Betty Stapleford, minister of the Thousand Oaks church, received 45
e-mails about the story, ranging from people who liked the God proposal to
those who said if it was true they would have to leave the religion.
Sinkford sent out his own e-mail saying he was misquoted. The paper printed
a clarification acknowledging the association president did not call for a
God amendment to the faith's statement of principles.
It was a big deal because pinning one name on what people believe is holy
constitutes a limit in a community that doesn't believe in limits and
reaches unanimity with the frequency of a solar eclipse.
"If you get together two UUs, you have at least three opinions,"
said. "It would have said, 'This is what you have to believe.' "
Stapleford is walking, talking advertisement of the diversity that
symbolizes her faith family. The doctoral student at Claremont School of
Theology was a Methodist who became a humanist and is now a panentheist,
meaning she sees God as a force that is within every living thing and
connects all life. She's influenced by Taoism and, at her home, has a large
stone Buddha and the kind of gong used in Bali to call Hindus to faith.
She defines being a Unitarian Universalist as not just accepting diversity
but supporting differences in people and together tackling life's biggest
questions whether or not finite answers are possible.
Stapleford doesn't want to limit conversations within her church to one
perception of what is holy or divine. But like Sinkford, she doesn't want to
exclude God either.
"If we give up the right to talk about God, we've let someone else define
what it means for us," she said.
That it means many things to different people is evidenced by one in a
rotation of sayings that accompany the opening page of the Unitarian
Universalist Association Web site.
"You don't have to see God as straight, white and a man," offers the
At least a few UUs would define God as omniscient, said the Rev. Jan
Christian, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura. Others
would say the traditional concept isn't relevant to their lives.
And some use the word as a verb.
"God is how we are to each other," said Christian. "God is
Some UUs talk of holiness as they talk of everything else, with varying
shades of ambiguity. Everything is a question.
Christian acknowledges a few in the faith family know more about what they
don't believe than what they do. But she doesn't buy the notion that
Unitarian Universalists can believe anything. Their beliefs have to be
pointed toward goals that are pursued not only as individuals but as a
"Religion is something that binds people together in community in a search
for ultimate meaning, truth and an ethical way of life," Christian said.
So back to the question. Who or what is God?
Before Christine Blasman of Newbury Park answers, she offers a
clarification. It's not God in her mind; it's Goddess -- a multifaceted
energy that surrounds and encompasses people. She believes in an Earth-based
faith and calls herself a pagan. She was raised a Christian. Her husband was
Jewish. They joined the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Conejo
Valley about seven years ago. They wanted their then-13-year-old daughter to
go a church that taught youth to understand not just one religion but many.
Some at the Thousand Oaks church say they experience the holy as a feeling,
not an intellectual concept. Three members try words to pinpoint their
definition of reverence or of God. Then they try sign language.
Finally, a visiting UU from Manhasset, N.Y., offers an observation that
brings a chorus of agreement.
"We pray," said Sydelle Lopez, "to whom it may concern."
Ventura County's UU churches
There are three Unitarian Universalist churches in Ventura County. Each has
a unique personality. They are:
Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula; services at 10:30 a.m. Sundays
at 740 E. Main St., Santa Paula, 525-4647.
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Conejo Valley; services at 10 a.m.
Sundays at Goebel Senior Adult Center, 1385 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks,
Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura; services at 9:15 and 11 a.m.
Sundays at 4949 Foothill Road, Ventura, 644-3898.
Here are the seven core principles of the Unitarian Universalist
n The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
n Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
n Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our
n A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
n The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our
congregations and in society at large;
n The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
n Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a
On the Net: For more information, try www.uua.org.
GRAPHIC: The Rev. Betty Stapleford of the Unitarian Universalist
Fellowshipof the Conejo Valley welcomes Rhami Christian Ryon Alsadek, 2,
into thecongregation as proud daddy Abdallah Alsadek looks on. Stapleford
wantscongregants to feel free to discuss views of God or what some call
ultimateimportance but not to be forced to accept someone else's
Dana R. Bowler / Star staff
Saturday, May 03, 2003
Posted 6:09 PM <2003_04_27_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
60 above zero:
Floridians turn on the heat.
People in Michigan plant gardens.
50 above zero:
Californians shiver uncontrollably.
People in Saginaw, Michigan sunbathe.
40 above zero:
Italian &English cars won't start.
People in Michigan drive with the windows down.
32 above zero:
Distilled water freezes.
The water in the Detroit River gets thicker.
20 above zero:
Floridians put on coats, thermal underwear, gloves, wool hats.
People in Michigan throw on a flannel shirt.
15 above zero:
New York landlords finally turn up the heat.
People in Michigan have the last cookout before it gets cold.
People in Miami all die.
Michiganders close the windows.
10 below zero:
Californians fly away to Mexico.
People in Michigan get out their winter coats.
25 below zero:
The Girl Scouts in Michigan are selling cookies door to door.
40 below zero:
Washington, DC runs out of hot air.
People in Michigan let the dogs sleep indoors.
100 below zero:
Santa Claus abandons the North Pole.
Michiganders get frustrated because they can't start the Mini-Van.
460 below zero:
ALL atomic motion stops (absolute zero on the Kelvin scale.)
Michiganders start saying..."Cold 'nuff fer ya?"
500 below zero:
Hell freezes over.
Michigan public schools are closed.
Wednesday, April 16, 2003
Posted 3:26 PM <2003_04_13_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
By Steve Rushin
Sports Illustrated, May 28, 2001
The elevated train clatters toward Wrigley Field and a female conductor
drones "Addison is next" and "Stand clear of the opening doors" and
"Parents, hold the hands of your children as you leave the train."
Then--from her sealed box, through crackling speakers--she sighs, "It's a
beautiful day for a ball game."
Exit the station, blinking against the sunlight. A panhandler says, "Help
the beerless?" Chicago cops in checkerboard hatbands tell him to beat it.
The sign outside Hi-Tops bar says WELCOME BACK CUB FANS.
An old man in a John Deere feed cap poses, at Sheffield and Addison, before
a statue of Harry Caray. His wife tries to take his picture, but she can't
find the shutter button. So the old man stands there, stiller than the
statue, while his petrified grin becomes a grimace.
It's the last thing you see before you're swept through a turnstile on a
tide of humanity and into the Friendly Confines. The stadium smells like
concrete and Lysol. An eight-year-old boy in the concourse beneath the
grandstand has the blue lips of a choking victim. Then you see, in his right
hand, a bale of Smurf-blue cotton candy. He smiles, and his teeth are the
color of babershop-comb disinfectant. And you think, Where on earth would I
Follow a shaft of sunlight up a tunnel to your seat. The
thwock-thwock-thwock of batting practice echoes off the bricks. The field is
awesome, a brushed baize poker table. Atop the scoreboard a riot of flags
flutters in the breeze, like the handlebar tassels on a girl's bike. The
beer man arrives unbidden and says, "What'll it be, guys?"
For a couple of brews our change from a 10-dollar bill is one single, soaked
in Bud Light. A tractor drags the infield in circles, which looks right
because the ballpark organ sounds like the calliope on a merry-go-round. We
are drinking beer at noon on Thursday and feeling fully alive, like
fugitives from justice, while the rest of the world is at work in a cubicle.
The Cubs were co-owners of baseball's worst record last year and have lost
six straight games. Still, 36,014 fans are inside the stadium, and there are
filled rooftops beyond the bleachers and, on Waveland Avenue, invisible
figures with baseball gloves and radios. So when Houston Astros outfielder
Richard Hidalgo hits a home run over the bleachers, the ball is regurgitated
onto the leftfield lawn before he can cross home plate, and a cheer goes up
for the Unknown Fan responsible.
A cell phone bleats behind first base, and the shirtless man who answers it
says, "What? I can't hear you. No, I'm at Wrigley, watching these &@#%!
losers lose." But the complaint sounds insincere, halfhearted. So, too, do
those in the men's room: Strangers stand at stainless-steel, trough-style
urinals, each man staring a hole in the wall in front of him, while voicing
his shock and disappointment in this year's lineup--even though the Cubs, as
every one of them knows, haven't won a pennant since 1945.
Shadows travel east across the diamond, from the third base line toward the
pitcher's mound, but here, along the rightfield line, the seats are forever
in sunshine. Four hours into the afternoon, every hatless head in our
section is turning red and painful-looking, like a thousand thumbs struck
with hammers. Nobody cares.
Because Sammy Sosa is rabbit-eared and responds in rightfield--with a head
nod or a flick of the glove--to each lone voice that hollers his name.
"Sammy!" (Nod.) "Sam-may!" (Flick.) This happens every time without fail,
regardless of what's going on in the game, and children sneak down to the
front-row railing to yell "Sam-may!" and have a superstar athlete
acknowledge their existence.
At the seventh-inning stretch, Chip Caray leans out of the broadcast booth
and sings, like his grandfather before him, Take Me Out to the Ball Game. We
sing along: "Well, we'll root root root for the Cuhhh-bees, if they don't
win it's a shame " They don't win. It's a shame. A glum face stares from a
square in the out-of-town scoreboard, on which appear eight letters,
stair-stepped down from left to right, across four empty line scores: They
spell NITE GAME. (Nite is misspelled, like Sox or sno-cone, in the venerable
Just before we exit the ballpark and repair to Murphy's Bleachers bar for
"one more," we cast an eye at all those poor be-nited cities on the
scoreboard: at New York and Los Angeles, Atlanta and Oakland. And we wonder
why, in a free society, everyone doesn't live here.
Monday, December 02, 2002
Posted 10:16 AM <2002_12_01_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
E-mail rec'd, re: Olbermann reax
Most of this information has been widely circulated in rumors and
accounts since Olbermann's departure. To this day, I think it was a
"lose-lose" for ESPN and for Keith Olbermann. His exit led to the
ascent (or BAD scent) of Stuart Scott, which then enlightened us to the
ebonics we never
knew ... or wanted to know ... like "pimp-slapped" and "shakin'
what yo' mama gave ya".
There is no worse hiring in the history of sports television than ESPN's of
Stuart Scott. I cringe with disgust every time I see his ugly, dim-witted
on the Sportscenter set. He is an idiot - but worse, he THINKS he is
knowledgable ... and somehow, he has fooled the ESPN execs. Or, in my
view, fills a quota with a stereotype that keeps black viewers quiet. A
minstrel character, like J.J. on "Good Times", which demeans and
insults black Americans. Rather than promote and reward solid performers and
speakers like David Aldridge and Mike Tirico ... Scott receives the bulk of
the network's "pop" promotion. If I have to hear one more story about
Stuie's glorious athletic accomplisments ... on the little league fields -
joking, he actually does this ... I will vomit. Again.
The intellectual banter of Olbermann and Patrick was classic comedy. It was
truly witty, funny, provocative, and informative. It riveted you on each
episode, and left you eagerly anticipating the next one. Olbermann's fatal
flaw was exactly what he outlined - obsessive compulsive, paranoid, insecure
perfectionism. His career has never quite gotten back to where it was prior
to his departure from ESPN. This may be his first attempt to get back in the
network's good graces, but we've all heard a lot of bridges were burned - by
Olbermann - that may prevent his ever from happening.
Kenny Mayne approaches Olbermann's wit, dry humor, and timing - if not the
vast knowledge of sports history.
Trey Wingo is steadily improving, and Rich Eisen is decent. John Anderson
made significant strides in carving out a niche personality, armed with an
overt sense of humor.
Scott Van Pelt is still a golf reporter doing sports news, but that may be
unfair preconception based on his former role exclusively covering the PGA
Linda Cohn is steady and sharp, and has improved her ad-lib abilities.
Many of the rest are largely unremarkable.
ESPN has done a very good job in hiring women. I have always loved Suzy
Kolber. She is cute as a button, but beyond that - rock solid in football
knowledge ... far surpassing the sophomoric blithering of Stuart Scott. Pam
Ward is the best female play-by-play announcer I've ever heard, better than
many men. She can call men's basketball and football games, and you don't
even focus on the fact that she's a woman. Andrea Kremer always does solid
work, and is highly respected in NFL circles. ESPN has avoided hiring eye
candy, based solely on their appearance, unlike Fox. Some may point out
Melissa Stark, but she is cursed by her stunning looks - overshadowing her
decent, developing skills.
It would be a remarkable media event, and potential ratings boon, for ESPN
bring Olbermann back to Sportscenter. Many faithful, long-time viewers -
myself - would applaud such a move. For Olbermann to take the first step
a forthright apology, regardless of any ulterior motives, demonstrated
humility - at least publicly. More importantly, should Olbermann apologize
directly - in private - to ESPN executives, this may be the tonic required
settle what has been a very ugly divorce.
Bring back Olbermann. Fire Scott.
Saturday, November 23, 2002
Posted 10:34 AM <2002_11_17_nbiermafile_archive.html> by Nathan Bierma
The New York Times
October 20, 2002, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 1; Page 37; Column 2; Metropolitan Desk; Second Front
LENGTH: 1457 words
HEADLINE: Crimes Admitted, But Not Committed;
Confessing Can Seem Easy After Hours in a Hard Light
BYLINE: By JIM DWYER
Yes, the interrogation had taken a long time, but the murderer had freely
answered the questions, the lead detective said, each ghastly detail
cheerfully supplied upon request. "There was no reason to persuade him; he
was very cooperative," the detective, Joseph Di Prima, testified. "The thing
didn't flow from him, because he was slow in responding. All I had to say to
him was, 'What happened next, George?' "
A thousand people had been questioned before that one man, George Whitmore
Jr., answered for the "career-girl murders," the killing of two young women
on the Upper East Side, a crime that all New York had heard about in the
summer of 1963. Mr. Whitmore, as it turned out, had nothing to do with it.
Yet after 22 hours in the custody of detectives who had picked him up in
Brooklyn as a suspect in another case, Mr. Whitmore eventually decided that
he had plenty to say about whatever they wanted to talk about.
"Composed and alert," as a prosecutor later described him, Mr. Whitmore told
interrogators that he had ridden a train to Times Square on Aug. 28, 1963,
then wandered uptown and by chance walked into the building on East 88th
Street, climbed three flights of stairs, and found Apartment 3-C unlocked.
He told the police about assaulting and killing the two young women, Janice
Wylie and Emily Hoffert, and how he had taken the murder weapons, kitchen
knives, and stepped on the blades to break them. He even named the brand on
the three soda bottles that were smashed during the attacks. These were
details only the killer would know, a senior police official announced.
His admission was clear, convincing and totally untrue, a lurid fabrication
that took shape deep in the night. The Whitmore confession was exposed, in
time, by lawyers and reporters who found that the simple, easily-led man had
a solid alibi for the day he claimed to have murdered the two young women.
The spectacular collapse of the case led to important changes, not only in
New York but across the nation.
The Whitmore case weighed heavily in legislative debates in 1965, when the
state dropped the death penalty for most crimes. In 1966, the United States
Supreme Court mentioned the Whitmore confession in the landmark Miranda
ruling, which held that a person suspected of a crime must be informed of
the right to a lawyer and of the right to remain silent. In a television
movie, the Wylie-Hoffert killings were renamed the Marcus-Nelson murders,
featuring a fictional lollipop-licking bald detective named Kojak. A
television series ran for years.
The laws changed. "Kojak" drifted into the thin air of reruns.
And people are still confessing to terrible things that they did not do,
while many people -- maybe most people -- believe that the very idea of
false confessions ranges from the implausible to the utterly preposterous.
Those realities are poised to collide once more. A new inquiry into the
convictions of five Harlem teenagers in the 1989 Central Park jogger case
has come up, so far, with almost nothing to back the original findings of
guilt and with quite a bit that undermines them. The original convictions
were largely based on a series of videotaped statements made by four of the
five teenagers, admitting some involvement in an attack on a 28-year-old
A murderer and serial rapist, who had never been charged in the case, has
come forward to say that he alone attacked the woman, and insists that the
five men convicted of the crime had nothing to do with it. His DNA matches
evidence from the crime.
The Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, has arranged for
additional DNA tests that may yet corroborate the original confessions, but
he has said the tests are a "long shot."
In this case, the classic false-confession argument has been joined. So far,
the polarities of that debate can be roughly summarized in two words:
History provides a few more dimensions to the discussion, even some
insights, though they are not universally applicable. The use of physical
force to obtain confessions was banned in 1933 by the Supreme Court, after
it heard the case of three black men in Mississippi who had been tied to a
tree and whipped until they confessed. The right to counsel has been drilled
into the head of anyone who has ever watched "Kojak," "Dragnet" and all
Despite these changes, false confessions still have a bizarre internal
rationale, a kind of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot logic, representing a way
out for a cornered mind.
In place of the rubber hose, the law grants wide latitude in the use of
psychological pressures -- the kind of cajoling good-cop-bad-cop routines
seen on "NYPD Blue" that are part of standard police training manuals. That
these techniques produce thousands of authentic confessions from criminals
every year is beyond dispute. That these same techniques also produce a
number of false confessions is also beyond dispute.
Who confesses, and why?
Two years ago, a man admitted during questioning that he had used a chunk of
concrete to crush the head of a young woman on a Midtown Manhattan sidewalk.
The case was dropped when a videotape from a surveillance camera in a record
store showed that the man was browsing inside at the time of the attack. The
man, who had psychiatric problems, said he had been pressed hard by his
In California, Michael Crowe, 14, and two friends confessed in 1998 to
murdering his sister in her bedroom. When the defense lawyers argued that
the confessions were coerced, the prosecutor raised an obvious rebuttal: How
could three people each give a false confession to the same crime? Part of
the explanation, say social scientists who examined the case, is that the
teenagers were tricked and told that they had failed a "voice stress" test
that showed they were lying. They were also told that their friends were
implicating them in the crime. Under those circumstances, the social
scientists say, a false confession may seem like an exit ramp from an
impossible predicament, just as a bear might chew off its own foot to escape
from a trap.
As it turned out, the police had already collected the clothing of a
mentally ill 31-year-old man who had been knocking on doors in the
neighborhood that night. Three spots of the victim's blood were found on his
clothes. That man was charged with the killing in May. The charges against
the teenagers have been dropped, and the state attorney general says they
were not involved in the murder.
Just last Thursday, in Illinois, Gov. George Ryan pardoned four men who had
been sent to prison as teenagers for the rape and murder of a medical
student. Two of them had confessed and implicated the other two. None of
them, DNA tests later showed, had anything to do with the attacks. That same
DNA evidence recently implicated two other men. Why did the first group
falsely confess? One man said he figured that at age 17, by cutting a deal,
he would get out of prison by the time he was 23. The second man had an I.Q.
between 65 and 70, according to his lawyer, and quickly buckled under
Nearly 40 years ago, Eric Seiff was an assistant district attorney in
Manhattan when George Whitmore was accused of the career-girl murders.
Today, he is the lawyer for Kharey Wise, one of the five men seeking to
overturn convictions in the Central Park case.
Mr. Seiff, who was not personally involved in the Whitmore case, recalls
pulling out the transcript of questions and answers of Mr. Whitmore.
"I sat down and read it, and I saw nothing wrong with the Q. and A. -- the
whole 50-, 60-page fictitious confession," he said.
Decades later, he watched the videotaped interrogations of Mr. Wise,
conducted by another assistant district attorney, Elizabeth Lederer.
"She was completely professional in her approach," Mr. Seiff said.
Mr. Wise changes his story at several points, each time increasing his
culpability. To Mr. Seiff's eyes, his client is betraying not his guilt but
his eagerness to please, time and again. "You have power against
submissiveness -- and I don't say that to fault Elizabeth Lederer in the
slightest," Mr. Seiff said.
At one spot on the videotape, Ms. Lederer remarked that there was a can of
soda in front of Mr. Wise -- a minor detail, but one she pointedly took note
of, most likely to protect against later claims that the prisoner had not
been fed or given anything to drink during his hours in custody.
As soon as she mentioned the soda, though, Mr. Wise immediately apologized
for having it, and seemed to look for a place to discard it. No, Ms. Lederer
assured him, it was O.K. for him to have it. So he kept it.
GRAPHIC: Photo (Illustration by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)
Wednesday, January 05, 2005
More from Grant Barrett on the evolution of slang (see below for his multi-tentacled bio):
The people who have to look up the meaning of
chillax are people who are disconnected from the common sources of
slang, such as hip-hop or youth culture or technology or the Internet.
If you're on the leading edge of language, such words come with their meaning in context, so you have no need to look them up when you come across them. It's only when the words begin to leave their fostering communities that they encounter
English-speakers to whom they are strangers.
In an essay on Hemingway, John Updike quotes a line Hemingway wrote to
his sister: "All slang goes sour in a short time." (You can find it in
this book). This is exactly right: there are mappable
up-slopes and down-slopes on the bell curve of
hipness/currency/insider-ness. The down slope is where the slang is
sour. Most of us want to be on the up-slope so we can feel and be seen
as connected, hip, with it, cool. So when you get an article blathering
on about "word of the year" with any seriousness, the reader needs to
understand that for a word to be so common as to merit such attention
it is automatically on the down-slope of hipness. To call a term "word
of the year" means someone or some organization thinks it reached some
kind of zenith (or perhaps plateau) that calendar year. If that word is
new to you, you've come late to the party. For anyone who wants to be
on language's leading edge, the word is played. If you're trying to be
hip, you need next year's words, not the ones on that list.
The problem is knowing when or where the peak occurred or will occur
for a particular term, not just for Joe Slangspeaker but for folks
employed in the word trades, too. It's a fool's gambit to predict
chillax or any other word will break through in 2005. It's a
crap-shoot. But it's harmless and fun and no worse than a loony psychic
making bold claims in the tab rags. I'd describe most of the WOTY
announcements in the same way.
The key to getting away with such predictions and to making "word of
the year" lists is knowing that most words are new to most people. Just
two weeks ago in an English-language paper from Trinidad I saw a
columnist commenting on "bling" as a new word. Even on an island that
is inundated with off-island Anglophone media and entertainment, there
are still people for whom "bling"--a five-year-old word now well on its
downward slope of hipness and currency--is a new word. But because of
the way language spreads, even on that down-slope, a good number of
people will be suitably interested, impressed, entertained, and
educated by a word of the year proclamation or a prediction about
upcoming hot words. It'll all be new to them.
FYI, off the top of my head, I'd say that once a term appears in
advertising, it's already over as cool or hip (though, of course, it
will continue to be used long after the the shininess has dulled). Once
it appears in the news-weeklies, it's over or just about so. I'd say
the zenith is upcoming once it appears in large urban newspapers. If it
appears on a MTV program, it's worth keeping an eye on. If it it shows
up in the lyrics of more than one hip-hop artist, there's a good chance
it's on the up-slope. If it appears on the web sites Slashdot,
Metafilter, or Boing Boing, it's probably on the up-slope.
-- Project Editor, "Historical Dictionary of American Slang," Oxford
-- Editor, "Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of
American Political Slang" (2004)
-- Editor, Double-Tongued Word Wrester, http://www.doubletongued.org/
-- Webmaster, American Dialect Society, http://www.americandialect.org/
Tuesday, January 04, 2005
Reprinted by permission of the ACTFL
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL)
2004 Convention – Chicago, Illinois
OPENING GENERAL SESSION
November 19, 2004
Ambassador Michael Lemmon
Dean – School of Language Studies
Department of State / Foreign Service Institute
Language Policy and the State Department:
A Strategic Plan and Roadmap
The theme of this Conference: “2005: The Year of Languages” is testimony to the realization within the language teaching community, the Government, the press and public, that language competency is not only a national security issue, but a broader economic and societal issue, and a shared challenge. It provides us a superb opportunity to explore the dimensions of our common needs and how we can make common cause among ourselves, and with others – Congress, the education establishment and the broader American public – to address them. It is especially gratifying to note the growing level of concern and commitment from Members of Congress who have drafted a number of forward-leaning initiatives in this critical area of national language policy. But we all know that there is a wide diversity of opinion and interests involved; our challenge is to find that creative way forward that takes account of those legitimate differences at the federal, state and local levels and seeks a mutually beneficial outcome that goes beyond a “one size fits all” approach.
But such an undertaking requires a strategic vision and an implementing game plan. In the broad area of language policy and building the capacity to meet emerging linguistic challenges, some of those elements are beginning to emerge. A “national language conference” this past June co-hosted by the Center for the Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland and the Department of Defense, resulted in a draft “white paper” outlining a strategic long-term plan to meet the United States’ need to dramatically increase its collective skills in languages and cultural knowledge.
The strategic vision enunciated in the White Paper is as follows:
Our vision is a world in which the United States is a stronger global leader through proficiency in foreign languages and understanding of the cultures of the world. These skills are strengths of our public and private sectors and pillars of our educational system. The government, academic, and private sectors contribute to, and mutually benefit from, these national capabilities.
The traditional approach to language policy within the USG, as in the country as a whole, has been fragmented and frankly flawed by inadequate interagency collaboration, failure to share expertise and resources, competing priorities and uncoordinated approaches to common problems, and extensive bureaucratic stove-piping. It has emphasized local autonomy over coordinated planning and action. We all know that we need to find a way to address our shared foreign language challenge better than we have done thus far.
We face challenges in meeting both the immediate and long-term needs for language capability—in foreign affairs, defense and law-enforcement—in sum, national security. We also face those challenges in our society here at home in a vast range of contexts across the local, state and federal levels and cutting across the public and private sectors. All of this begs for a more coherent and cohesive national language policy that goes beyond this country’s traditional decentralized approach.
The draft White Paper attempts to address the broad national questions. Let me quickly sketch for you something of what we in the State Department are doing that may be a possible analogue of what might be done in the country as a whole.
We’re implementing a coherent, integrated strategic language plan that involves targeted recruitment, credit in the hiring process for language proficiency, and incentives to acquire languages, improve to advanced levels, and maintain and re-use the proficiency over a career, especially in the critical and difficult languages that are in short supply. This is all coupled with a strong corporate cultural value placed on language proficiency among our officer corps.
One powerful new tool in meeting our “gaps” is our new Language Continuum—a roadmap for implementing new and wide-ranging options for advanced language skill development and to meld the principles of strategic workforce planning and our assignments system. Its role is to help employees and eligible family members plan a career-long integrated approach to language learning, maintenance, and high-level use, and we believe this will be instrumental in meeting the goal we all share in advancing America’s interests.
At FSI, our mandate has always been broad and very general—to train Foreign Service personnel to a required level—usually Level Three (ACTFL Superior)—in speaking and reading in what is now nearly 70 languages.
9/11 confirmed for us something that we already knew: that we need more than that—we need people with even more advanced proficiency, especially in those languages critical to our national security interests and policies—what we are now calling “critical needs languages.” We also need a core cadre able to speak at the more advanced levels required to do what I term “Crossfire” on television in Arabic or Chinese or Farsi or whatever language is needed at the moment.
Ambassador Edward Djerejian, who did a Congressional study of our public diplomacy efforts in the Islamic world, recently noted that with respect to our adversaries we can only reach out and inform them of our views “through learning their language…their culture, and to be able to…listen, understand, then begin to inform, engage and influence...” He went on to opine that “we have failed to listen. We have failed to persuade. We have not taken the time to understand our audience, and we have not bothered to help them understand us….We simply can no longer afford such shortcomings.”
Ambassador Djerejian’s harsh assessment has underscored to us at FSI what we need to do better, and we are working hard to rise to the challenge. For the long-term good of our nation, however, in addition to what language educators in the Government must do, your role as language educators is crucial—to broaden and deepen the pool of language competency available, and to maintain the pipeline of sophisticated and proficient users of foreign languages who can take their place on the national scene, whether in Government at the state, local or federal level, in business or in the private sector providing vital medical, legal, and social services.
The key to America’s success in meeting our shared language challenge will be combining complementary and mutually supportive action in Congress, the “national security community,” and among the broader federal, state and local government entities, NGO’s, and the colleges, universities, and state-and-local educational establishments. This will take serious thought about the articulation of language study from Kindergarten through secondary level to the university and beyond. That will require all of us to embark on an unprecedented level of collaboration and will demand substantial funding from all sectors of government and industry. I have an 8-year old son, and I harbor the hope that he and his generation will be able to partake of the fruits of the new initiatives that are abroad in the land and being fostered by the “Year of Languages”.
This week is International Education Week. Secretary of State Colin Powell has issued a press release on this, which reads in part, “Meeting the 21st Century challenges that confront all countries requires an unprecedented degree of understanding and cooperation among nations and among leaders in every field.” To which, Secretary of Education Rod Paige has added: “…we truly live in an interconnected world. Although we have made great strides forward, we do our students a great disservice if we do not prepare them for a global environment by encouraging them to study foreign languages and cultures.”
I thank you very much for the honor of being part of this distinguished gathering and look forward to talking with you further in another session later today. I am optimistic about the positive outcomes for all of us from this Conference and the visionary program for the “Year of Languages” that has brought together such a superb group of professionals and leaders.
From The Banner, February 2003
By Nathan Bierma
linked from my 4/7/03 B&C blog
It's been 20 years now since USA Today changed the face of newspapers. It appeared as a colorful, pepped-up paper with splashy graphics and thinned-down articles, dispensed from boxes that looked like televisions. Called "McPaper" for its preference for news nuggets and bright colors over news nutrition, its convergence with fast food as a metaphor for our 24-hour society seems complete now that the paper is sold inside most McDonald's.
If ever a moment were to signal the future of newspapers, then, it would be a moment that makes USA Today-now the nation's largest newspaper-look old and tired. Here in Chicago, that is exactly the dream of the two major daily newspapers, the Tribune and the Sun-Times. Last fall, just after USA Today turned 20, the Tribune announced it was launching a daily edition called RedEye that would aim to reach a young demographic of 18- to 34-year old city dwellers and commuters. The Sun-Times quickly countered by throwing together a youth edition of its own called Red Streak.
Though the new newspaper rivalry evoked the golden days when several Chicago street papers went head-to-head, there was no mistaking this attempt by the newspapers to break from their past. The Tribune, which counts older suburban readers as its only reliable following, stated its primary goal was simply to get young people into the habit of picking up a paper. Hooked on television and the Internet, young people have largely failed to inherit the newspaper habit from their parents; less than half of the 18-34 crowd says they read the Tribune at least once a week. So RedEye is simply a matter of survival for newspapers--trying to grow a new generation of readers to stave off the long-anticipated demise of the broadsheet. If the Tribune's new model is successful, youth editions will quickly follow in other cities where the Tribune Company owns newspapers--including Los Angeles, Long Island, Baltimore, and Orlando. RedEye could prove as seminal and influential for the newspaper industry as USA Today has been in recent years.
Still, RedEye looks less like a revolution and more like a homogenized package. It features huge photographs, large type, Tribune news stories that have been chopped in half, and extra entertainment and consumer news briefs. The debut edition promised riders on the "L" train it would offer "news, sports and features to last six stops-maybe seven." As a contributing writer to both the Tribune and its new offspring, I'm especially attuned to the differences in tone; the columns I write as a contributor to RedEye must be half the length, and have twice the zip and hip, as my articles for the Tribune. And although RedEye does not post its content at its Web site--the point, after all, is to get young people away from the screen and picking up a daily paper--the convergence of print and Web is clear; not only does RedEye look like a series of Web pages, but it features a pullout section with printed information from the Tribune-owned entertainment Web site, Metromix.com.
Media critics reacted to RedEye with complaints of its preference for style over substance--and indeed, many young Chicagoans wrote in to say they felt insulted by such a shallow product. But there is a larger lesson for the established papers as they ponder the future of RedEye and thus their own; newspapers must find a way to shed their stuffy conventions and become more energetic and relevant. The more that newspapers fall under the ownership of cost-cutting corporations, the more they are uniformally dull, predictable, and lazily fixated on wars, crimes, and political scandals, rather than edifying the public mind. Both RedEye and the Tribune-and newspapers around the nation affected by the trends they represent-need to rediscover the importance of covering the world with imagination and intellect, to command the public interest and serve the public good.
Interview with Victor Eremita, continued from my 4/7/03 B&C blog
How does your use of a pseudonym parallel Kierkegaard's, who wished to appear idle so as to disguise the pace of his solitary work?
You’re right that the pseudonym Victor Eremita comes from a pseudonym Kierkegaard used, as does the journal entry from which I took the title “Obedient Hound” for my website. In the journal entry, Kierkegaard describes a hound that looks constantly to the will of the master for direction. I liked this image and the general posture of Kierkegaard in “Attack upon ‘Christendom,’” where I found the story. In addition, “Victor Eremita” means “Victorious Hermit” which suits my tendency toward introversion well.
Kierkegaard’s loving attack on the church in Denmark parallels Jesus’ ministry, as he directs his criticism toward those among the people of God who have become seduced by their elevated status within the culture of the church and state. Kierkegaard bore witness to the disastrous consequences of the marriage of church and state that many Christians, on both the left (social welfare) and the right (social values), are currently seeking to recreate. Kierkegaard cried out for a church freed from seeking to manipulate the coercive tools of the state in order to be faithful to God and act as a living example of Jesus’ body in society.
This leads to the practical reasons I use the pseudonym. The primary reason reflects Kierkegaard’s concerns about the seduction of status. I know from experience how easy it would be for me to let my ego be caught up in the self-promoting, copywriting, machine I see many Christian “leaders” fall prey to. Perhaps I’m just extraordinarily prone to this temptation, but somehow I feel a bit more immune to both accolades and criticisms by writing as Victor under the banner "no rights reserved." Can we possibly imagine a scenario in which Jesus would have sought a copyright for the Sermon on the Mount or sued someone over the uncredited use of a parable? If my ideas can make some constructive contribution to the Church, that would be wonderful. (That's why I've finally returned to writing after giving up on my young know-it-all pose nearly 15 years ago.) Yet, I recognize how easy it would be for my soul to become entangled in something that is more about the "my" than the "ideas."
A secondary reason I use the pseudonym is that openly publishing some of these pieces might indirectly (and, in my opinion, unnecessarily) hinder ministry partners I'm involved with. In my day-to-day world, 95 percent of the people I meet in passing would, at least initially, disagree with my grudging support for the Bush administration’s position on Iraq. To continue our work of generously caring for the poor we don’t have to take the time to agree on this issue, or even to discuss the conflict in Iraq.
Why do you say it took 15 years for you to return to writing, and how did you overcome your self-described "young know-it-all pose"?
Ha. I doubt that those reading my houndblog would accept the idea I’ve recovered from the “know-it-all pose.” And they may well be right.
Like many in their late teens and early twenties I was convinced that I pretty much had life figured out. My time in Iraq, and time in a number of other countries around the world, helped me realize how little I knew and how complex life can be. Coming face to face with inexplicable suffering also contributes to humility (I hope to write on this subject sometime). At some point, I also realized there was little point in writing about topics that had previously been written about with greater clarity by authors who were far wiser.
That said, it’s pretty obvious that I think some of my ideas are new enough, and worthy of consideration, or I wouldn’t invest the energy to articulate them. Still, I’m always happy when someone links me to an author who saves me energy because the point I’d been contemplating has already effectively been made.
A quote from theologian Thomas Oden has influenced me in this regard. Oden said he was “once hesitant to trust anyone over 30; now I hesitate to trust anyone under 300.” Oden’s point is that wisdom, unlike scientific knowledge, has not necessarily grown over the centuries. Oden would suggest that the clamor of slogans for sale in our “free” marketplace of ideas often leads to the fruitless pursuit of theological and cultural trends. While Oden himself is under 300 years old, anyone seeking to have their passions wisely directed would do well to read and reflect on Oden’s description of himself as a “movement person.” I recognized myself in Oden’s description and figured I could at least wait until I was over thirty, and had some breadth of experience, to begin writing again.
You write, "Terrorism is the means by which those who feel voiceless seek to communicate." Has the relative affluence of the September 11 hijackers begun to blur the connection between desperation and terrorism? Would a more open and free discourse in Saudi Arabia have eased the pent-up rage they harbored? Democracy also has a track record of undesirable and unintended consequences around the world, as Todd Purdum wrote in the Sunday NY Times earlier in March. How can we be confident that democracy is a feasible and fruitful possibility in Iraq? Isn't the current instability in-and our waning commitment to-Afghanistan a discouraging sign?
It is incorrect to suggest that terrorism has to do with a lack of affluence. Rather, terrorism occurs when people feel voiceless in the governance of their lives. In the American Revolution the cry was “taxation without representation” as the founders proceeded to act in ways that were surely perceived as domestic terrorism by the British. Americans presume that it is fundamental to human nature for people burdened by the costs of government to expect some corresponding influence in the actions of their government. If the leaders of Saudi Arabia managed to create and support a dictatorial puppet government in the United States, our nation would explode in acts of terrorism toward Saudi Arabia. As such the actions of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda simply mirror the actions many of us would take under similar conditions.
While democracy is not the Kingdom of God it is, as Winston Churchill said, “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” One of the beauties of a healthy democracy is that domestic terrorism is curbed when the populace realizes that violence serves only to alienate common people from those who commit it, and therefore diminishes the terrorist’s ability to influence the democratic process. We see how this works in America when both anti-abortion bomb-throwers and anarchist window-breakers are marginalized even by those who share their convictions. If Osama bin Laden had been able to democratically vie for power in Saudi Arabia, there would have been greatly diminished participation in the extreme positions of Al Qaeda (and Americans would probably pay a little more for gas). If Al Qaeda came to influence the Saudi government into choosing to attack America, they would suffer the fate as the Taliban and their electorate would likely vote in ways that would ensure the avoidance of such tragedies in the future.
The rule of law is one often-unacknowledged necessity for the maintenance of democracy. (Thanks to the work of Hernando de Soto, the rule of law is increasingly recognized as a necessity for economic development as well.) If it is possible for a group to take undemocratic control through violence, there will usually be someone willing to grab for power in this way. Without the democratic tradition, and the rule of law, cultures regularly become like our “wild West,” where the quickest guns ruled the day. Most Americans have no idea how fortunate our country is to have built a democracy in which few seek power through any other means than democratic persuasion. Most Americans have little appreciation how radical a break with human history it was for George Washington to twice relinquish power at times when he could have easily set himself up as an American king. Upon hearing of Washington’s intention to step down as Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Army, George III, the defeated King of England, is said to have exclaimed that Washington was "the greatest man alive."
In countries without a tradition of democracy, it may require a benevolent occupying force to deter those who would seize power from threatening the democratic process. After World War II, Americans fulfilled this role in postwar Western Europe and Japan and, to a high degree, continue to do so today. It may very well be necessary for American military bases to be created in remote parts of Iraq and Afghanistan in order to ensure that any antidemocratic attempts to seize power can readily be dealt with. The US will need to be cautious about exercising any further influence on the democratic process in these countries, and the military bases will be justified by the assurance of protection from external threats, but the reality that the strongest military force in the country will, if necessary, intervene if there are militant threats to democracy will not be lost on those seeking power.
Americans desperately need to take the long-term view of our self-interests at this time in history. Christians, who take an eternal view of our self-interests, should be able to take the lead in this. I’ve taken to saying that our typical short-term focus on immediate pleasures have left us “buying box-cutters at Wal-Mart.” What I mean by this is that Americans have been happy to have other governments maintain harsh dictatorships if it meant that we had access to cheap labor and cheap resources. Investing in the long-term will require the promotion of democracies that will, through public policy and unionization, result in Americans paying higher, nonexploitive prices for the products we import. The American standard of living will somewhat decline while the lives of those within dictatorships will slowly improve. In addition to this cost, the US will be required to pay the price in dollars and, at times, in lives, for extending our role in securing democracies around the world.
Americans have great difficulty taking this long-term view if it means a sacrifice in lifestyle. Allow me to make the case for taking on this burden. For those on the right, the investment is worth it because it will significantly contribute to our domestic security by undermining terrorism. For those on the left, the investment is worth it because this type of globalization would address issues of human rights, unionization, and create strong democracies that are able to negotiate with the multinational corporations who are often the beneficiaries of the near slave conditions often maintained by harsh dictatorships. For those following Jesus, the investment is worth it because the time has come to recognize that “loving your neighbor” in the 21st century includes assisting our neighbors to have a voice in the future of their nation, and of the world.
For centuries people around the world have sought to immigrate into countries that share the fundamental freedoms of healthy democracies. I believe it is time for those democracies to bring those freedoms to people who are otherwise repressed. It is important to recognize that these new democracies will not look exactly like those in the West. I can imagine, and even accept, a democracy that decides by popular vote that women have to be fully covered in their dress. As long as adult women are able to fully participate in
the vote - and submit a modification of this law for adoption in a future elections we would need to accept a democracy that might differ and disagree with our own. Many of these countries, particularly Iraq, would need a healthy tension between states rights and
federal requirements if they were to have any hope of holding together a country with extreme ethnic, religious, and geographic differences. In a country like Iraq regional governments would need to be the real power center for the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunni people. It will be exceedingly difficult to hold together a country like Iraq without repression and, despite strong regional tensions, its not clear that the U.S. should insist these countries remain intact except in a very loose knit form.
This spread of democracy will not be easy. Purdum’s article makes this clear. But in general the committed spread of democracy, like G.K. Chesterton said of the Christian faith itself, “has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”