Friday, March 31, 2006

Soul Surrender: Prayer's Demeaning Power

Leafing through clips of madness I come across this brief AP bit from 1998, datelined Philadelphia: “A teen-ager accused of fatally stabbing his mother and shooting to death two classmates testified today that he had been driven by demons who told him he would be ‘nothing’ if he did not kill.” That was the story of Luke Woodham. The defense didn’t stick. He was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences, plus a bunch of consecutive 20-year terms for aggravated assaults, though Woodham continued his idiotic rationales the moment a camera was turned on him: “The reason you see no tears anymore is because I've been forgiven by God.” His likes aren’t taken seriously for good reason. Calling in gods or demons to pinch hit for one’s barbarism isn’t exactly good form. But how different is that from calling in gods and prayer legions to intercede on one’s behalf in tough times? Why take seriously the claim that prayer can make a difference in one’s life if we’re not ready, as we shouldn’t be, to take seriously the murderer’s claim that Satan made me do it? Leave it to America’s ongoing miasma of religious hysteria to devote millions of dollars and billions of man-hours on figuring out whether a Hail Mary or two can keep John Big Mac’s bypass surgery from crapping out. Read the rest...

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Plausible Deniability: When America Is the Rogue

Expose an individual to violence and depravity long enough and he’s likely either to join in or become numb to it. Something along those lines seems to be happening to the American public regarding those vague vile wars on Iraq, on “terror,” on themselves. The scandals aren’t diminishing. To the contrary. Tales of mayhem and massacres are verging on the routine. But the reaction, aside from obvious discontent and an abandon-the-Bush-ship signal for a slew of once-upon-a-time warmongers, is either more calls for blood from that quickly diminishing corps of diehard Bush brigades (because we haven’t dropped enough bombs in three years) or… tired indifference.
Abu Ghraib, it turns out, was summer camp compared with what has happened beyond Abu Ghraib, what keeps happening since. Americans don’t recognize themselves in their projections on Arab lands. Their little “Support Our Troops” stickers are becoming increasingly ironic badges of imbecility, of insults to Iraqi civilians to whom troop support translates into daily humiliations and outright killings at the hands of trigger-jittered soldiers, who see a suicide bomber behind every bush. So the American public is retreating to itself, as if not looking is a way of staving off the reckoning. Break scandal after scandal. Reveal that GIs may have executed a couple dozen people, some of them too old to fire a weapon, in a mosque, reveal that the president has been having Ngo Dinh Diem fantasies about the Iraqi prime minister. The reaction is the same. A little outrage in a few editorials, a column or two, a few dozen blogs. But from the public at large: Inattention. Focus only on “American Idol.” Grasp for innocence where you can more readily find it, on the sound stage of a Fox Television variety show where it’s still possible to believe that the best talent can still win and the greatest threat to western civilization is the clash between Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell—the dim and dour of America’s moral compass. And for a little relaxation from the tension later on, there’s always Bill O’Reilly and the rest of Fox’s brown-shirted line-up of puff-swaddled bullies. “Support Our Troops” indeed—just as long as they stay out of our faces, the reminders of their inglorious fate safely and soundly distant. Like rogues. The troops are living up to the expectations. And when the press discovers it, the reaction is, of course even more virulent toward the messenger: The media have it all wrong. The media are the enemy. Isn’t that what Bush’s recent PR offensive cheerleading for the war has been all about? Let’s call it waterboarding with whitewash. Read the rest...

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

When Illegal Immigrants Become Heroes

In 1995, Jose Guttierez was a 14-year-old orphan in Guatemala when he decided to do what 700,000 other Guatemalans had done — enter the United States illegally. Two thousand miles and 14 freight trains later, Guttierez crossed the Rio Grande. He was promptly arrested by the Border Patrol. Being a minor and without a family, he was spared deportation and turned over to California’s welfare system. He spent the next four years in foster homes, learning English, attending and graduating high school, getting his medical needs taken care of by the public health system. As the lexicon of neo-flag-wavers would put it, Guttierez was freeloading on the American taxpayer.
When he turned 18, Guettierez got himself a Green Card. He planned to be an architect. Not quite having the means yet, in 2002 he joined the Marines. A year later he found himself shipping off to Kuwait. And in the first hours on the first day of the Iraq invasion, he was killed on the outskirts of Umm Qasr, just inside the Iraqi border. He was the first of 2,322 Americans (so far) to be killed in the war. He is, as the lexicon of neo-flag-wavers like to say, a hero, a patriot, among America’s finest.
So. Which is it? Freeloader? Illegal immigrant? Criminal? Or hero? Read the rest...

Monday, March 27, 2006

Forbes' Billionaires: Wealth and Plutocracy

Forbes’ annual ranking of the world’s billionaires is out along with its familiar faces: Bill Gates at the top with $50 billion, which is more than the total GDP of individual countries like Morocco, Kuwait, Croatia, Luxembourg and about 150 others, or more than the combined GDP of a dozen country or two, depending on where you begin counting (Iceland’s total GDP is a measly $12 billion). Warren Buffet is next at $42 billion, followed by Carlos Slim Helu, at $30 billion, a Mexican with a Lebanese name, and on down the line, including the gang of five Waltons, each of whom clocks in at $15 billion-some for a sum-total of $78.9 billion.
Three years ago there were 476 billionaires. Now there are 793. In a column last week, Michael Kinsley made a couple of observations: “Some people automatically associate great wealth with evil, and they deserve the ridicule they get. But the automatic association of great wealth with virtue is equally fatuous.” He then followed with this equally fatuous line: “It’s probably true that most billionaires have acquired their wealth in ways that make life better for the rest of us.” The last line assumes a cause-and-effect link between wealth and material virtue, or creativity, that adds up to this: The wealthier you are, the more you’ve probably contributed to the general well-being. But the argument is easily defeated on several counts. First, this notion that it’s ridiculous to associate great wealth with great evil. Why ridiculous? Kinsley would not dispute Lord Acton’s adage that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Money is power. Big sums of money is big power. You get the idea. Politicians aren’t corrupt because of the way they go about fighting culture wars on abortion clinics’ doorsteps. They’re corrupt because of the way they go about using their power to direct and divvy up the nation’s wealth—that $2.5 trillion the president and Congress play with in every budget. Power accrues where money does, and with it, the slouch toward corruption. Logically, it’s more accurate to say, as Kinsley does, that the automatic association of wealth with virtue is fatuous, but for a reason that makes the first part of his sentence untenable: Bucking money’s corruptive potential is the exception, not the norm. Therefore, the automatic association of great wealth with corruption (rather than evil, which is a straw word) is anything but ridiculous. Read the rest...