Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Verschärfte Vernehmung

From Andrew Sullivan in Atlantic Monthly:

'...The phrase "Verschärfte Vernehmung" is German for "enhanced interrogation". Other translations include "intensified interrogation" or "sharpened interrogation". It's a phrase that appears to have been concocted in 1937, to describe a form of torture that would leave no marks, and hence save the embarrassment pre-war Nazi officials were experiencing as their wounded torture victims ended up in court. The methods, as you can see above, are indistinguishable from those described as "enhanced interrogation techniques" by the president. As you can see from the Gestapo memo, moreover, the Nazis were adamant that their "enhanced interrogation techniques" would be carefully restricted and controlled, monitored by an elite professional staff, of the kind recommended by Charles Krauthammer, and strictly reserved for certain categories of prisoner. At least, that was the original plan.

Also: the use of hypothermia, authorized by Bush and Rumsfeld, was initially forbidden. 'Waterboarding" was forbidden too, unlike that authorized by Bush. As time went on, historians have found that all the bureaucratic restrictions were eventually broken or abridged. Once you start torturing, it has a life of its own...'

Read the rest.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Friday Kitty Blogging

Ian develops a bunch of old photos of Electra today edition.

Also, as a bonus, a photo of three more potential members to the family that I took last year. This gang of misfits showed up at our front door last summer and hung out for a day or two, encouraged no doubt by our giving them tins of cat food. Probably a good thing that they moved on (we never saw them again) otherwise we would have been stuck with seven cats. But they were a friendly sort.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Smells like...Victory (Updated)

Apparently the curriculum at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University is more varied than I thought:

'...A small group of protesters gathered near the funeral services to criticize the man who mobilized Christian evangelicals and made them a major force in American politics -- often by playing on social prejudices.

A group of students from Falwell's Liberty University staged a counterprotest.

And Campbell County authorities arrested a Liberty University student for having several homemade bombs in his car.

The student, 19-year-old Mark D. Uhl of Amissville, Va., reportedly told authorities that he was making the bombs to stop protesters from disrupting the funeral service. The devices were made of a combination of gasoline and detergent, a law enforcement official told ABC News' Pierre Thomas...'

Gasoline and Detergent. That's the problem with my studying the Bible at bedtime. You get sleepy and tired, and you nod off right before the part in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus starts talking about Napalm.


Here is the myspace page of Mark D. Uhl, Soldier of Christ. Some deep thoughts:

'...When you are reading something or in a conversation with someone not everything is to be taken literally. If you are in a conversation with someone and they tell you to "Go f*ck yourself" do you go ahead and do it? No, for you know when they gave that command they did not mean it literally but they got their point acrossed [sic]. Instead you try to learn from what encouraged them to say that in order to make yourself a better person. If you translate that in this way why would you not do the same with the Bible?

EXAMPLE: Matthew 5:29 "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell."

Think about it...'

A meme that I've noticed developing lately is a reversal of the 'literal' interpretation of the Bible as a means of supporting the theology of fundamentalist Christians. I read more and more from people that are using what are traditionally more secular analytical approaches to analyze scripture in order to create interpretations that support any number of borderline insane theological views. This reminds me of what my brother posted earlier on the methods of the Christian Left and their (annoying) tendency to create a theology so devoid of any real base that it resembles warm oatmeal. Except now the Christian right is doing it to justify all sorts of wonderful craziness. I'll post more on this later.

But first, Glenn Greenwald posted yesterday, with a followup today, on the results of a poll released yesterday that found that 13% of American Muslims favor attacks on civilians during times of war. Needless to say many on the right are freaking out about this newly discovered danger in our midst. However, Glenn points out another poll taken back in 2006 of other American groups' reaction to the same question:

'Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified? [the same question asked to the American Muslim group]

Answers: (Total responses of Often and Sometimes)

Total Public: 46%
Total Catholic: 56%
Total White Protestant: 49%
Total White Evangelical: 49%
Secular: 35%'

So I guess I missed the part about 'torture' in the Sermon on the Mount as well. I really need to spend more time reading after I've had some coffee.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Idiot Box

And yet another edition of 'You've Gotta be Shitting Me' from the producers of 'Amateur Hour at the White House':

'... Al Hurra television, the U.S. government's $63 million-a-year effort at public diplomacy broadcasting in the Middle East, is run by executives and officials who cannot speak Arabic, according to a senior official who oversees the program.

That might explain why critics say the service has recently been caught broadcasting terrorist messages, including an hour-long tirade on the importance of anti-Jewish violence, among other questionable pieces...

...The station's gaffes have included broadcasting in December 2006 a 68-minute call to arms against Israelis by a senior figure of the terrorist group Hezbollah; deferential coverage of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial conference; and a factually flawed piece on a splinter group of Orthodox Jews who oppose the state of Israel, according to the Wall Street Journal, which has reported the network's travails for months...'

Friday, May 18, 2007

Talking Trash to Jesus

In the Gospel of Mark, the most interesting characters are the women. They are pretty much the only characters that get adjectival descriptions, and they are more developed than the other persons in the gospel (save for Jesus, ‘natch), offering a great point of comparison to the traditional disciples. For though most of the women in that Gospel follow the tenets of discipleship extremely well, the 12 named disciples come across rather badly. Actually they come across as complete twits. Interestingly, Mark often uses the same Greek words for ‘disciple’ when describing the female characters in his book as the male followers of Jesus, including the twelve.

One of the best stories in the Gospel is that of the Syrophoenician woman, Mark 7:24-30 (It’s the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28, who uses Mark’s Gospel as his source for the story, modifying it to suit his different theology). This story is quite unique in the New Testament, for several reasons. Let’s go through it:

‘…From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre [some manuscripts add ‘and Sidon’ here] He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs…’

Ouch. So that’s one unique point. Jesus tells the woman to go screw herself, calling her a ‘dog’ which is a nasty insult, especially in the language of the time. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen elsewhere in the New Testament.

‘…But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs...’

Ooooo. Snnnaaap. Yeah, OK, it’s pretty subtle especially to 21st century ears, but in the 1st century it’s pretty radical stuff, especially for a woman. Much of the ‘snap’ is lost to our ears, as the response relies on colloquialisms that have been passed through oral tradition and repeatedly translated. But still, we now have a second unique element to the story, again not found elsewhere. Someone talks back to Jesus, essentially turning his insult right back at him. But she doesn’t insult him back – instead she plays on the wording of his insult to make her own point, which I’ll get into in a bit.

’…Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone…’

And that leads to a third unique element of the story. This is the only time in the New Testament that a character ‘bests’ Jesus in a game of verbal repartee, which in all the Gospels is one of His greatest strengths. (Read any of the stories where he gets on the mat with the scribes and Pharisees.) And so a mother gets her wish, despite Jesus’ initial ‘reluctance.’

So what does this all mean? There is a traditional interpretation, along with several more contemporary ones, but they all hinge on one essential fact – the Syrophoenician woman is an outsider, an ‘other’ if you will. Reading the text one sees the descriptions about the character:

1. She is from the region of Tyre [and Sidon]. Several commenters [such as Sharon Ringe] note the language and history of the area and come to the conclusion that she is an urban elite – therefore she is rich, not poor.
2. She is a she
3. She is a Gentile, and not Jewish
4. She is ethnically different as well.

The traditional interpretation is that since, contextually, this story is in the section of Mark where Jesus brings his ministry to Gentile lands, the story is an awakening for Jesus, in that he realizes that he can and should bring his message to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Jesus, being Jewish, needs to be made aware of this idea, hence the challenge of the woman, and her effectively ‘teaching’ him [the only instance where that happens]. So the key characteristic of the woman is her ‘Gentile-ness.’

But as I’ve alluded to above, other more recent interpretations focus on the other aspects of her ‘other’-ness. Some, such as Ringe, take the position that her other-ness is her elite status, and that is what pisses of Jesus: she comes from an elite that economically persecutes the Jews. Some, such as Kinukawa, focus on a more traditional feminist reading relating to the context of the other women in the Gospel – so in that interpretation it is her gender that makes her an ‘other’.

I have noted two things from reading these different interpretations of this story. First is the common focus of ‘other,’ and the second is that every interpretation has only focused on one adjective of her ‘other’-ness. I have read no interpretation that provides equal weight, say, to her being both rich and female, despite Mark’s laying out four different descriptions of her character.

I was reading about all of this when my brother posted on his experiences in Rwanda. Reading his post, illustrated by Psalm 137, made me reflect on my own vaguely similar experience in Cambodia, back in 1995. Truly the most messed up place I’ve ever visited, back then Cambodia was a society that needed institutionalization, and all it was getting was a group of NGOs running around distorting the economy beyond the wildest dreams of Keynes. I was in one of the many half-assed memorials to the genocide, a cemetery outside of Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek. I had to bribe my way onto the site, and found a bunch of cows grazing among the graves, and in the center of the site a bizarrely cheesy golden stupa filled with human skulls like from some shopping mall of the damned. What capped the whole experience was the letters written on every single skull: ‘IK’ – which are Khmer initials for ‘young Cambodian’ – and are also my own, somewhat uncommon, initials.

Cambodia’s genocide was also somewhat unique in the annals of 20th century genocide; from the Armenian genocide at the beginning of the century to Rwanda’s at the end, genocide was about eliminating the ethnic ‘other’ in a spasm of societal breakdown and insanity. But Cambodia’s was different than all the rest – there was no ethnic other in Cambodia, for the society was ethnically homogeneous. Instead the Cambodian society made its own others: urban versus rural; educated versus uneducated; religious versus secular; men versus woman; young versus old. ‘Others’ were created out of whole cloth when existing categories proved insufficient.

Cambodia’s genocide is the most frightening to me for that reason – it proves that simply working to eliminate hatred and intolerance of people in different categories is ultimately fruitless. If we eliminate one ‘other’, nothing will stop us to come up with a new one. Even Jesus needs to be taught to get past his knee-jerk feelings about the ‘other’; that doesn’t bode well for our learning the lesson as well.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." - Albert Einstein

Two recent blurbs from an article in this week's New Yorker make me wonder why I have spent the past year studying the Bible:

'...A large survey in 2001 found that more than half of American Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians believed that Jesus sinned—thus rejecting a central dogma of their own churches...'


'...Surveys by the Barna Research Group, a Christian organization, have found that most Christians don’t know who preached the Sermon on the Mount...'

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

R.I.P. Jerry Falwell

So there I am, busy as all get up, composing in my mind a new post – just about wrapping it up, actually – on the story of the Syro-Phonecian woman in Mark. I was planning on writing it today, and then all hell breaks loose. First of all I read about Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson’s visit to the White House to go over Iranian foreign policy with the President:

‘…I heard about this danger [from Iran] not only at the White House but from other pro-family leaders that I met during that week in Washington," he said. “Many people in a position to know are talking about the possibility of losing a city to nuclear or biological or chemical attack. And if we can lose one we can lose ten. If we can lose ten we can lose a hundred, especially if North Korea and Russia and China pile on…’

He is now spending the entire weeks worth of Radio addresses on ‘Radical Islam’s Impact on America,’ to help listeners ‘better grasp the danger’

Of course then while I started writing about that one, I read about Chuck Norris’ new column at World Net Daily, where he is advocating a religious test for elected officials. It’s apparently quite a problem:

‘…these organizations and individuals [Godless groups like Atheist organizations and the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, all lumped together] would love nothing more than to help society look with disdain upon Christianity and, ultimately, make its components illegal. In fact, right now, they are coalescing and rallying at least 5 million of their troops to mount counter offensives to Christianity…’

So of course I started to work on that topic.

And then of course Jerry Falwell dies.

What to say. I met him back in 1985, in the process of getting thrown out of one of his ‘prayer meetings.’ He struck me as a consummate speaker, very sure of himself, and a complete demagogue. To paraphrase Atrios, one hopes that he finds God to be more forgiving than he believed Her to be.

Several sites have decided that rather than writing long angry screeds, that they will just let his history speak for itself. Carpetbagger and Rude Pundit have already started. Some choice highlights from them and others:


‘…In this message, Falwell intoned pompously, 'I want to use the Bible alone as our guide. It is never worthwhile to give man's opinion...The answer to the whole subject can be found in Genesis 9:18-27.' Falwell went on to explain that Ham, the son of Noah, had seen Noah naked one day. When Noah discovered this, he cursed Ham's son, Canaan: 'A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.' Falwell explained that Ham later became the progenitor of the African race.

"He rambled on, still using 'the Bible alone' as his guide: 'The true Negro does not want integration...He realizes his potential is far better among his own race...We see the hand of Moscow in the background...We see the Devil himself behind it...It will destroy our race eventually...In one northern city, a pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife ...It boils down to whether we are going to take God's Word as final.'

"Oblivious to the hatefulness of his sermon, Falwell concluded: '...If we live in constant fellowship with the Lord, He can enable us to live Christ-like before others.'"


‘…After Southern Baptist Convention President Bailey Smith tells a Dallas Religious Right gathering that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew,” Falwell gives a similar view. “I do not believe,” he told reporters, “that God answers the prayer of any unredeemed Gentile or Jew.” After a meeting with an American Jewish Committee rabbi, he changed course, telling an interviewer on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “God hears the prayers of all persons…. God hears everything.”…’

Mid 1980’s:

‘…Falwell supported apartheid in South Africa, called Desmond Tutu "a phony," and urged his followers to buy Kruggerands…’


‘…Falwell is forced to pay gay activist Jerry Sloan $5,000 after losing a court battle. During a TV debate in Sacramento, Falwell denied calling the gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Churches “brute beasts” and “a vile and Satanic system” that will “one day be utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in heaven.” When Sloan insisted he had a tape, Falwell promised $5,000 if he could produce it. Sloan did so, Falwell refused to pay and Sloan successfully sued. Falwell appealed, with his attorney charging that the Jewish judge in the case was prejudiced. He lost again and was forced to pay an additional $2,875 in sanctions and court fees…’


‘…The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a $200,000 jury award to Falwell for “emotional distress” he suffered because of a Hustler magazine parody. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, usually a Falwell favorite, wrote the unanimous opinion in Hustler v. Falwell, ruling that the First Amendment protects free speech…’


‘…he ordered that all of the employees of his empire had to join his church. And that they all had to tithe ten percent of their earnings to said ministry. So, like, if you were offered $20,000 to clean the Toilets of Jesus' Love, it was automatically reduced to $18,000 because of the enforced goodness of your heart…’


‘…Falwell is criticized for using his “Old Time Gospel Hour” to hawk a scurrilous video called “The Clinton Chronicles” that makes a number of unsubstantiated charges against President Bill Clinton — among them that he is a drug addict and that he arranged the murders of political enemies in Arkansas. Despite claims he had no ties to the project, evidence surfaced that Falwell helped bankroll the venture with $200,000 paid to a group called Citizens for Honest Government (CHG). CHG’s Pat Matrisciana later admitted that Falwell and he staged an infomercial interview promoting the video in which a silhouetted reporter said his life was in danger for investigating Clinton. (Matrisciana himself posed as the reporter.) “That was Jerry’s idea to do that,” Matrisciana recalled. “He thought that would be dramatic.”…’


‘…Falwell tells a pastors’ conference in Kingsport, Tenn., that the Antichrist prophesied in the Bible is alive today and “of course he’ll be Jewish.”…’

Also, 1999, as he starts his complete descent into insanity:

‘…Falwell becomes the object of nationwide ridicule after his National Liberty Journal newspaper issues a “parents alert” warning that Tinky Winky, a character on the popular PBS children’s show “Teletubbies,” might be gay…’


‘…Falwell describes global warming as a conspiracy orchestrated by Satan, liberals, and The Weather Channel…’

Of course he will remain infamous for his September 11th comments, blaming Americans, specifically

‘…Pagans, abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America…’

Prior to that, on September 9th, while listing the events happening around the world that were indicators of the Rapture, one of his top was the increase in speed of transportation. He closed that sermon:

'...If you're not ready, repent and receive Jesus Christ as Savior. As Tim LaHaye might say, "Don't be left behind." The Bible says that He will come "as a thief in the night." (1 Thess. 5:2)...'

Falwell was a thief in the day. And She came for him today. I wonder if he repented.

Look like jesus christ
Act like jesus christ I know
Here’s your jesus christ
I’m your jesus christ I know

Bleeding to death again (my bleeding heart)
Stuck in the heart again (goes out to you)
Somebody nail my hands (I needed pain)
Somebody take my hand (I bleed again)

I knew it all along and now
We’re screwed forever (screwed forever)
Shake these demons off my back
And I can make it better (make it better)
But I can’t go on knowing I am
Permanent on this holiday
I think you know what I am saying

I became the big disgrace
I know that I’m the ugly face
I need some time to reconcile
I need some time to heal a while

You’ll be sorry when I’m gone
I guess you knew this all along

-Bob Mould, JC Auto, 1993

Friday, May 04, 2007

R.I.P. Wally Schirra

As poor serendipity would have it, Wally Schirra died this past Wednesday. No, he didn’t make it to the moon, as I had drunkenly insisted earlier (see post below), but he was the only astronaut to fly in all three of the earliest American space programs: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. The picture above is from his final mission, Apollo 7. His generation is passing, and is being replaced by those who use their NASA underwear to go on long road trips to shoot each other, like rejected plot episodes from Desperate Housewives.

On the subject, here is a link to a cool image of all objects in our solar system greater than 200 miles in diameter. (Link courtesy of Incoming Signals, which doesn’t post nearly as often as it should). Note the large number of Trans Neptunian objects discovered in the past few years. Our neighborhood is filled with large balls of rock and ice that we are only just now becoming faintly familiar with. We’ve got a long ways to go.