Saturday, October 10, 2009
John Lennon singing his song from "The Beatles" with Eric Clapton on lead guitar, Keith Richards on bass, and Mitch Mitchell on drums. The performance is from the Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus in London in December 1968.
The movie's most sublime moments come when Mark discovers the pastoral advantages of rank duplicity. In the film's imaginary world, since everyone tells the truth all the time -- to bosses, dates, police officers, and patients ("You'll probably have another heart attack in the next 36 hours and then die very soon after that") -- there's no denial, illusion, hope, nor ultimately joy. People don't know how to make up stories, so the only movies are dry regurgitations of historical events. Coke commercials admit that it's too sweet; Pepsi commercials say that you should buy it only if there's no Coke. Then one day Mark tells Frank (Jonah Hill), a suicidal neighbor, that he shouldn't kill himself because it's all going to work out -- and Frank, who like everyone else in the world has no concept of a lie, instantly believes him and cheers up, forever. Mark whispers equally sweet somethings into the ears of squabbling couples and discouraged nursing home residents. A word from Mark, and their faces bloom, as does his own as the pleasure of sheer benignity captivates him. It's one of the most moving sequences I've ever seen in a movie.
Theological complexities accumulate during the worldwide spiritual awakening Mark ignites by telling his dying mother that she needn't fear the nothingness of death because she'll live forever in paradise. Improvising desperately, he announces that a Man in the Sky causes everything. Mark's off-the-cuff stabs at systematic ethics and explaining why the Man permits or causes suffering are unsatisfactory as humanity gets almost immediately to work devising workarounds. You don't get into heaven after three sins? Then make the most of the first two! As a theologian and church builder, Mark encounters the same problems as St. Paul, who had to address the question of why people shouldn't sin plentifully so that God's forgiveness would abound. Lovesick and discouraged, Mark finally retreats into his ill-gotten mansion. After his hair and beard grow, he looks like Jesus, which makes you think that his friends Frank and Greg (Louis C.K.), who have inexplicably moved in, are disciples.
A somewhat pat ending doesn't disguise the movie's seriousness of purpose when it comes to matters of faith and belief. Some may be offended by the idea that religion didn't exist until a man started lying. And yet who's to say where Mark got his inventive powers to begin with? Eh? Anyway, it's not a movie about the emptiness of religion but the fulsome power of hope, dreams, and yes, even illusion. Great cameos, too, including Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a bartender and Ed Begley, Jr., I'm pretty sure, as a sidewalk preacher.
Friday, October 9, 2009
Israelis, Palestinians wary of Obama the NobelistAnd yet the reporter, Richard Boudreaux, can't back that up. From the Palestinian side, he reports only these statements:
Both sides in the Mideast conflict worry that President Obama's enhanced prestige as a peacemaker may work to their disadvantage. Israel's Shimon Peres congratulates a fellow laureate.
"This man has not accomplished anything to deserve this prize," Hafez Barghouti, editor of the official Palestinian Authority newspaper Al Hayat al Jadida, wrote in a commentary. "On the contrary, he went back on his position on the Palestinian issue." The prize, he added sarcastically, "may be an incentive for him to start working for peace. Therefore, I want to congratulate him in advance."So the Fatah journalist makes fun of Obama and the Hamas resident caricatures him. No enhanced respect whatsoever in evidence among Palestinians.
Judgment of Obama was harsher in the Gaza Strip, whose Hamas rulers shun the goal of a peace accord with Israel. "He backs Israel, and whoever backs Israel is a partner in war crimes," said Jihad Rayes, a 55-year-old Gaza resident.
The favourite is Sima Samar, an Afghan human-rights activist [shown here], with Piedad Córdoba, a Colombian senator who has pushed for peace in her country, not far behind.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Follow the burqa. Where she goes, you will probably find normalized wife-battering, serious child abuse, including honor killings too—as well as polygamy, and a pathological hatred of Jews, Israelis, Hindus, Americans, and all other infidels. There you may also find terrorist cells or supporters of terrorism.
President Barack Obama is prepared to accept some Taliban involvement in Afghanistan's political future and will determine how many more U.S. troops to send to the war based only on keeping al-Qaida at bay, a senior administration official said Thursday.Back in the day, that would've been Henry Kissinger whispering to the reporter in the parking garage. Today, whoever the senior leaker is, it probably means no Afghanistan surge as requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It means that the Vice President, who favors maintaining current troops strengths while relying increasingly on counter-terrorism efforts to track down al-Qaeda and its enablers, may have the edge in the agonized reappraisal now so flamboyantly underway in the White House. It means we're probably coming home from Afghanistan over the next few years.
And it means Obama really is the new Nixon.
In January 1969, President Nixon took office with over half a million Americans fighting in Vietnam. The antiwar movement, an increasingly antiwar Democratic Congress, and voters' growing skepticism about the war convinced him that the U.S. would have to withdraw its troops and that South Vietnam would have to resist communist aggression by itself, albeit with continued U.S. aid and materiel. Interestingly, military historian Bob Sorley's account of how Mr. Nixon and his McChrystal, Gen. Creighton Abrams, prepared South Vietnamese forces to fight on their own is making the rounds at the Pentagon. Its principal teaching for Obama: Withdraw U.S. forces if you must, but train our allies well, and never, never, never let them run out of bullets as the Watergate Congress did South Vietnam in 1973-75.
Although the contention within the agonizing administration don't reflect well on the President Formerly Known As No-Drama, it probably couldn't be helped given the immensity of the policy shift he appears to be contemplating. Ever the wonk, he seemingly doesn't want to be confined by any prior assumption or statement, such as:
We're there, so we have to stay. I said this was the good war during the campaign, so we have to stay. I'll look weak if we go, so we have to stay. My critics say it's the front line in the battle against terrorism, even th0ugh I don't think it is, so we have to stay.
With the lives of so many Americans and Afghans in the balance, Obama should be commended and supported in his search for the right, as opposed to the easy, policy. It's as if he's learning in a few weeks of earnest confabs (beginning, I'm convinced, with the White House-sanctioned leak 18 days ago of the essentially pessimistic McChrystal report) what it took us from 1961-69 to learn from our experience in South Vietnam: It's ultimately up to the people of Afghanistan to determine, with appropriate support from their friends in the event of foreign interference, who their leaders are.
If a Taliban government, or one in which the Taliban share power, doesn't threaten our interests, then it's not a vital concern of ours -- though our heart must weep for Afghan women who may again be subject to Taliban-style Islamic apartheid. If Afghanistan does threaten our interests, then we have to be prepared to go back. After the Vietnamese communists began violating the Paris Peace Accords in the spring of 1973, President Nixon might well have resumed a significant U.S. role, via massive air strikes at least, but Watergate made it impossible. If Obama gets out of Afghanistan on his terms, as a popular President making a rational, careful call rather than a politically imperative one, it will be easier for us to return if necessary. The risk is that our re-intervention would end up being the result of a terrorist strike emanating from Afghanistan. Should we indeed deescalate the good war, the key question will be how vigilant and ruthless a counter-terrorist the President would be willing to be.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
African bishops attending a Vatican meeting are speaking about the election of Barack Obama in divine terms—putting them very much at odds with many of their U.S. counterparts.
Archbishop Gabriel Charles Palmer-Buckle of Accra, Ghana said Wednesday that there was "a divine plan behind" Obama's election.
"It's like the biblical story repeating itself," he told reporters, citing the Old Testament figure Joseph, who after being sold into slavery in Egypt ends up becoming a top official.
"We believe God has his own plans. God directs history," he said of the U.S. election. "We pray that it (Obama's presidency) brings blessings for Africa and the whole world."
Before too long, the GOP will, in my view, come back to the conservative idea that we should withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq as soon as we responsibly can, even at some risk. You cannot return to limited government without unwinding the empire. The neocons will fight very hard and try to find some pliable hood-ornament to maintain their Christianist base for neo-imperial expansion. Watching these forces fight will be fascinating. Hagel could take on the neocons; maybe Huntsman. Ron Paul's conservatism is not dead. It's one of the few signs of life out there.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
The war in Afghanistan is eminently more winnable than was Vietnam. The Taliban is far from universally liked or admired.Eminently more winnable? The Viet Cong, architects of the Hue massacre, and Stalinist North Vietnam were, by implication, "universally liked [and] admired?" One hardly knows what to say.
Reviewing the clash, the "Huffington Post" demonstrates its own profound unfamiliarity with liturgical worship by speculating that Hannity was lying just because he said that he went to mass Saturday night and yet couldn't remember what the sermon was about. It would've been a little bizarre if he had.
When Hannity visited the Nixon Library several years ago on Ash Wednesday to launch a book, he was concerned enough about not getting to church that he asked an Episcopalian, namely me, to conduct a brief service for him and his staff. I had to rush over to the parish I was then serving to get some ashes and actually talked myself out of a speeding ticket by saying I had to impose them on Sean Hannity.
What is clear, from the preponderance of information provided by those directly involved in the unfolding events, is that President Richard Nixon — overriding inter-administration objections and bureaucratic inertia — implemented a breathtaking transfer of arms, code-named Operation Nickel Grass, that over a four-week period involved hundreds of jumbo U.S. military aircraft delivering more than 22,000 tons of armaments.
Mr. Nixon earned the ire of the Arab oil sheiks and the undying affection of Israel's prime minister:
As for [Golda] Meir herself, to the end of her life she referred to Nixon as "my president" and told a group of Jewish leaders in
Washingtonshortly after the war: “For generations to come, all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the bringing in the materiel that meant life to our people.” United States
Hat tip to Mike Cheever
If we're lucky, we stand by one another in adversity more dependably than Job's wife. But what if we're not married? What if we're not allowed to be? What if we're married, and it's not working out that well? Where is our shield against sorrow, the balm to ease our suffering? When it comes to human community and connection, surely our God in Christ recognizes a broad range of alternatives to loneliness and solitude. Indeed perhaps the one good thing to be said for suffering is that it can draw us closer to one another and our God. My Sunday sermon is here.
An ugly war, like every war; but a just war, less poorly led than is said, and a war that can, with the right choices, be won.
Monday, October 5, 2009
Citing the U.S. experience throughout the Cold War of “always press[ing]” the Soviet Union on human rights while talking “with them about reducing their nuclear arsenal,” Clinton said that “we’ve been very clear in supporting the legitimate aspirations of Iranian people and speaking out forcefully against irregularities of their electoral process.” The responsibility of statecraft is to support both U.S. interests and human rights, she said.
Dire Straits, performing in Sydney in April 1986
I acutely recall being in a department store in San Diego in 1979 and hearing "Sultans of Swing" for the first time on the PA system, Mark Knopfler's evocative, tightly focused song about a Dixieland band performing in a south London club.
"Tunnel of Love," the first song on 1981's "Making Movies," is notable for Knopfler's long, liquid fingerstyle solo. The eight-minute studio version expanded to 14 minutes on Dire Straits' 1984 live album "Alchemy." A shorter version, not quite as good, appeared on the band's "Live at the BBC" album. When iTunes finally released "Alchemy" last month to coincide with the release of Knopfler's latest solo album, "Get Lucky," I was dismayed to find that it included the "Live at the BBC" version of "Tunnel of Love."
My complaints about this bait and switch to iTunes and on Knopfler's web site have been unavailing. The song is famous for opening with a few bars of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical "Carousel," which is duly noted in the songwriting credits. On "Alchemy," before Knopfler swings into the meat of his solo, he quotes Leonard Bernstein's "Maria" from "West Side Story." It's more subtle on the "BBC" version of the song. Could the longer version have fallen afoul of Bernstein's executors?
In any event, this YouTube version is also outstanding. Oh, those long, wasted, wonderful hours of air guitar!
Why are we at odds with Iran? The main reasons are our lingering resentment over its seizure of U.S. hostages in 1979, its support of international terrorism and threats against our friend Israel, and the virulent anti-American stance and rhetoric of its theocratic regime and especially its presidential front man. The Carter administration broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in the spring of 1980, in the midst of the hostage crisis. In 2002, President Bush said it was part of an "axis of evil" that included Iraq and North Korea.
How could Iran hurt us? Iran doesn't represent a hundredth of the danger to the U.S. and our interests that the Soviet Union did, with its 50,000 nuclear weapons and support for anti-U.S. revolutionary movements around the world. Iran does support anti-Israel and -U.S. aggression and terrorism in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and its leaders have directly threatened the U.S. with suicide bombs. Still, it's hard to see how Iran represents a strategic threat of any kind, much less one of the dimensions posed by the Soviet Union (which whom our formal diplomatic relations were nonetheless uninterrupted throughout the Cold War).
Could detente with Iran follow deterrence? Perhaps the U.S.-Soviet example is again instructive. Beginning in 1969, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger envisioned a policy toward the Soviet Union that became known as detente. Moscow was providing substantial support to enemies of the U.S. in North Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere. Mr. Nixon believed he could use the inducement of better trade and cultural relations with the U.S. to persuade the Soviets to pull back in Vietnam and participate in strategic arms control agreements. The policy succeeded when it came to arms control, and possibly even in Vietnam when twinned with U.S. military muscle. There's evidence that after President Nixon ordered bombing raids against North Vietnam in May 1972, Moscow pressured Hanoi to make a deal to end the war. Tragically, the time line could never play itself out because of the weakening of Mr. Nixon's Presidency during Watergate.
Is there a package of inducements the U.S. could offer Tehran to persuade it to suspend its nuclear weapons program and cease its threats against us and Israel? That depends on whether Iran is engaged in a quasi-apocalyptic project against Israel and the West or, instead, would be willing to act rationally in pursuit of its security and economic interests. George Will argues that one reason Iran is intent on deploying nuclear weapons is that it fears a U.S. invasion such as the one we mounted against Iraq in 2003. Its fear is warranted. Would its intentions change if it had a reasonable expectation that the U.S. and Israel wouldn't attack? If we could make it worth Iran's while to remain a non-nuclear power, why in the world wouldn't we?
What is keeping the U.S. from reestablishing diplomatic relations with Iran? My guess is that it has mainly to do with politicians' emotions and political gamesmanship. Wouldn't President Obama look weak if he reached out to Iran more than he has already? Why should we reward the mullahs for their despicable behavior? Shouldn't they continue to be ostracized for threatening Israel? When it comes to our cold war with Iran, our policy would appear to be governed largely by our anger. Last I checked, relations between nations are supposed to be governed by cool, carefully calculated self-interest. If indeed we are coming to a place where we think that Iran can be deterred -- that is, that it would behave rationally when confronted with efforts to contain its ambitions -- then we should naturally be curious about how its leaders might react to more constructive stimulus.
Especially if our policy is based on waiting for the Iranian people, heirs of one of mankind's greatest civilizations, finally to get the government they deserve, it would be good to remember that there are those who believe that the Soviet Union began to die not when confronted by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s but when welcomed into the club by Richard Nixon. Fresh air and sunlight could be as toxic in the councils of the mullahs as it was for the Kremlin.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
As much as the philandering and possible abuse of power (the office fling is so often a crime of convenience), it was Mr. Letterman’s incongruous blending of the serious and the comic that seemed to crackle with the public and commentators. This wasn’t an exception, however.Memo to the Times ombudsman: Here's the definition of "philandering" from Merriam-Webster:
to have casual or illicit sex with a woman or with many women; especially : to be sexually unfaithful to one's wifeAccording to Stanley's own reporting colleagues (all six of them; it took that many to get their story so wrong), Letterman has not been accused of adultery. Nor does the available record contain any evidence of "casual or illicit sex." As for the appallingly inappropriate accusation of criminality, Stanley doesn't stop there. She reports:
By Friday morning some commentators were likening Mr. Letterman’s behavior to that of Mr. Polanski, and they weren’t joking.How is it not a joke to make a tasteless and unjust comparison between a convicted rapist of a child and the victim of an alleged act of blackmail who had a series of adult girlfriends before getting married?
[Defense secretary Robert] Gates says "the only way" to prevent a nuclear-capable Iran "is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons, as opposed to strengthened." But to accept that formulation requires accepting two propositions that would tax the White Queen's powers of belief.
One is that possession of nuclear weapons would make Iran less secure. Question: If Saddam Hussein had possessed nuclear weapons in March 2003, would the United States have invaded Iraq? Iran's leaders probably think they know the answer.