Friday, August 17, 2012

You Think?

Headline on article posted by The Wrap today at 12:49 p.m.: "Bomb Threat at Showings of 'Expendables 2' Prompts Police Response."

Chris Rock's College Of Preachers

Appearing Aug. 9 on Terry Gross's "Fresh Air," comedian Chris Rock on what he learned from his paternal grandfather, the Rev. Allen Rock:
I used to hang out with my grandfather all the time. Because he used to have to pick me up from school sometimes or, you know, drive me to my mother's or whatever, but - so I would be with my grandfather a lot. I used to watch him write his sermons. He writes his sermons pretty much the same way I write my act. He would never write the exact sermon. He'd always write the bullet points, whatever would hit him, and he would write it when he was driving. And I probably come up with half of my standup when I'm driving....
His preaching, it's weird, it's not a lot different than my style on stage. And he let things move him and he, you know, he never locked into, you know, exact words, and he tried to, you know, to bring a little Bible but also try to bring in something that is happening to people today; that way the Bible went down a little bit smoother, if you can relate it to their lives. No, he was a pretty good preacher....His vocal style was...old-time black preacher. And the Lord said!, you know, so I take what he said and turn it down a little bit...
[W]hen you grow up with a preacher, it's almost like--it's like seeing a magician stuff the rabbit in his side jacket. Like, I knew all the tricks....I don't think he thought of it as tricks, but every job becomes a job, and you figure out shortcuts and you figure out, you know, ways around things. I mean, I could watch a preacher now...I watch [Joel Osteen and TD Jakes....I can see when they're preaching, and I can see when they're...kind of losing the crowd and have to go to something. I can tell when they make audibles and have to go to something else so they can get the crowd back.

[I watch them half] for performance reasons and half of it just because I like a good sermon, and [you're] always looking - A, a good sermon's always great, and, B, you know, these guys, they're always - they have this task of coming up with a new with new material every week....

I like how a preacher can talk about one thing for an hour and ten minutes. I keep trying to figure out how I can do that in stand-up. So, how I can, like, OK, how can I just be funny about, you know, jealousy? You know, a preacher will pick a topic, and they'll run with it for the whole sermon, like, and, you know, take you on a ride talking about literally one thing. And I just love that style. So I'm always-- I've always been trying to figure out how do I do that in stand-up.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lazy Maze Of Summer

The labyrinth, awaiting mid-summer pilgrims at St. John's Episcopal Church

What Passes For Courage

The Economist calls Rep. Paul Ryan "a brave man" for his deficit reduction plan. I'm astonished by what passes for courage among pundits. The accolades he received when he died notwithstanding, Sen. Ted Kennedy wasn't brave for voting for massive government spending as a Democratic senator from Massachusetts. What would've been risky for Ryan, as a tea party-supported congressman from a conservative district, would've been backing entitlement reform with means testing, prudent post-Cold War defense procurement cuts, and some new revenues, if only by closing appalling loopholes -- in other words, by supporting Simpson-Bowles. But no. As the Economist itself writes:

Mr Ryan was...wrong to vote against the proposals of the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission, which he did on the grounds that it wanted to close the deficit partly through an increase in tax revenues. He believes that the gap should be closed wholly through spending cuts. Because Mr Ryan, in true Republican fashion, wants to increase spending on defence, everything else—poverty relief, transport infrastructure, environmental protection and education, for instance—will have to be squeezed intolerably.

Playing to the GOP's stingy base, which demands cuts for the poor and uninterrupted federal goodies for itself, is about as edgy as wearing a Yankees jersey in the Bronx. Of course Barack Obama didn't have the guts to accept the commission's recommendations, either, and it was his commission. At the moment there appears to be more courage at the weekly meeting of the St. John's Boy Scout troop than on the major parties' tickets.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Jesus Is Not A Macroeconomist

Erika Christakis commits poor exegesis:

As near as we can tell, Jesus would advocate a tax rate somewhere between 50% (in the vein of “If you have two coats, give one to the man who has none”) and 100% (if you want to get into heaven, be poor). Mostly, he suggested giving all your money up for the benefit of others. And Jesus made no distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor; his love and generosity applied to all.

Jesus promoted generosity and radical self-sacrifice as individual virtues that would have been meaningless if not freely offered, as his sacrifice of himself was. He never endorsed and probably never imagined government agents and leaders seizing 30-45% of people's income and using the proceeds to pay their salaries and expenses while spending the rest, often discerningly but sometimes not, on the public's behalf. Jesus actually lumped tax collectors with prostitutes as exemplars of sin. Unlike our decent, diligent IRS agents, they were notoriously corrupt in first-century Palestine, Still, I'll bet they came away from most transactions with less than 30-45% of their victims' worldly goods.

I'm for a government that's generous toward those in need because it's good for the strength and stability of our society. I hope Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists agree that a decent and wise state is also a compassionate one. While I don't resent paying taxes, it's not because I think confiscation of my property has anything to do with Christian ethics but because I believe in representative democracy and count on our leaders to make smart decisions about national security and those who need help while discerning the tipping point where taxation and the size of government impede a free-market economy's capacity to grow and produce wealth and jobs. It may be 27%, 39%, or 55%, but it's definitely not 100%. Let's please leave our LORD out of that strictly technical calculation. Anyway, he's actually concerned with what each of us does for those who suffer by using our remaining resources and free will. We can't outsource our consciences to Congress.

"Be The Bread"

Jesus saying he's the bread of life ("They who come to me never will hunger") always strikes me as a riddle. Do we ever feel permanently fed by our spiritual experiences? If we have to come back each week for a Eucharistic or doctrinal tuneup (and the church definitely hopes we will), where's the permanence in that? How's what God's serving any different from In-N-Out Burger? Fr. Tom Herbts and his brother Franciscans suggested one answer. In what St. Bonaventure called "the furnace of love," we become the bread and make of our lives and world what Fr. Tom called the very substance of heaven. My sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost is here.

First Triton In Space, Too?

I just learned that Sally Ride taught physics at my alma mater from 1989-2007.

Three Growth Spurts Urgently Needed

I've got just one question for Messrs. Obama and Romney. Five or six percent annual GDP growth would put people back to work, eliminate the federal deficit (as consistently strong growth did in the 1990s), and reduce both debt and cultural and social anxiety. Without a vibrant economy, we can't lead, we can't inspire, we won't be just and fair to one another, and our whole civic life becomes impoverished. How do you folks plan to address this crisis, nationally and globally?

Instead, according to Ben Smith via the "Dish," we get this:
President Obama himself invoked an old story about Romney strapping a dog to the roof of his car. The Chairman of the Republican National Committee shot back with a jibe about Obama having eaten dog as a schoolboy in Indonesia. Biden suggested that Republicans want to put voters back "in chains." Romney demanded Obama takes his campaign of "division and anger and hate back to Chicago." Obama's spokesman called him "unhinged." The atmosphere bristled with conflict, Twitter spilled over with gleeful vitriol, and the campaign reached the sort of fevered political moment when it feels like anything can happen.
Such as me sitting home in November unless somebody grows up.

Paul Ryan And The GOP's Hardening Heart

As most conservatives swoon over Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's choice to run for vice president, David Stockman, Ronald Reagan's first budget director, isn't impressed:

Mr. Ryan showed his conservative mettle in 2008 when he folded like a lawn chair on the auto bailout and the Wall Street bailout. But the greater hypocrisy is his phony “plan” to solve the entitlements mess by deferring changes to social insurance by at least a decade.

A true agenda to reform the welfare state would require a sweeping, income-based eligibility test, which would reduce or eliminate social insurance benefits for millions of affluent retirees. Without it, there is no math that can avoid giant tax increases or vast new borrowing. Yet the supposedly courageous Ryan plan would not cut one dime over the next decade from the $1.3 trillion-per-year cost of Social Security and Medicare.

Instead, it shreds the measly means-tested safety net for the vulnerable: the roughly $100 billion per year for food stamps and cash assistance for needy families and the $300 billion budget for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled. Shifting more Medicaid costs to the states will be mere make-believe if federal financing is drastically cut.

Likewise, hacking away at the roughly $400 billion domestic discretionary budget (what’s left of the federal budget after defense, Social Security, health and safety-net spending and interest on the national debt) will yield only a rounding error’s worth of savings after popular programs (which Republicans heartily favor) like cancer research, national parks, veterans’ benefits, farm aid, highway subsidies, education grants and small-business loans are accommodated.
No means tests for entitlements plus cruel safety-net shredding that will punish the poor while saving virtually no money. That's the Tea Party platform in a nutshell, as Timothy Noah wrote in January when he listed all the big-government programs these so-called conservatives love.

There's actually a difference between being conservative and being selfish. In his book Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent, E.J. Dionne describes a telling split between tea party thinking and the more compassionate conservatism proclaimed and sometimes practiced by Republicans in other eras:
While 50 percent of white evangelicals and 46 percent of Christian conservatives said 'it is not a big problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others,' 64 percent of Tea Party supporters felt that way."
That's two-thirds of the Ryan fan club saying to those who lack the opportunity to thrive, "I've got mine. It might not be your fault you don't have yours, but pound sand anyway." The new America?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Issa Trope

Nixon library director Tim Naftali's critics claimed he was out out to get 37 because he was a leftist. Go run an Alger Hiss museum, one famously sneered.

But if you want to hear some real red meat, some classic Nixon-baiting, liberals are pikers these days compared to the new breed of conservatives. Listen to what Orange County's own Rep. Darrell Issa said on Monday evening while defending House Republicans' lawsuit against Attorney General Eric Holder over the so-called fast and furious debacle:
It's the Nixon standard. Are you entitled to cover up your own wrongdoing?...Nixon decided this a generation ago. You cannot commit crimes, including lying to Congress, and then cover it up and expect it to be covered by executive privilege.
Don't think Issa turned this trope to impress liberals. He said it on Fox News, and he made the point twice, in spite of two efforts by host Greta Van Susteren to quiet him and end the segment. Last year, he called the Obama administration "Nixonian." One assumes these talking points weren't composed by Ken Khachigian, former Issa consultant and Nixon factotum.

Monday, August 13, 2012

On Second Thought

Our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters learn that with marriage comes the inevitable deluge of nosy questions about having children.

God And Men And Women At Columbia

Spirituality + psychology = peace.

Fourth Sequel a-Bourning

Disagreeing with some critics' blah reviews, Ramin Setoodeh lists seven reasons to see Tony Gilroy's excellent "The Bourne Legacy." Here's the eighth: It conspicuously sets up a fifth Bourne film in which Matt Damon's Jason Bourne could join Jeremy Renner's new genetically enhanced super-antihero, Aaron Cross, to rescue Joan Allen from scandal and ruin.

Bourne screenwriter Gilroy got to direct "Legacy" after Paul Greenglass, who made no. 2 ("The Bourne Supremacy") and 3 ("Bourne Ultimatum"), bowed out. Damon's willing to be Bourne again if and when Greenglass directs. But other veterans of the Greenglass "Bournes" did appear in Gilory's movie, including Allen, who has a brief but intriguing scene as CIA official Pamela Landy.

At the end of 2007's "Ultimatum," she and Bourne exposed the illegal black ops program that trained Jason to be an assassin. The action of "Legacy" occurs at exactly the same time, as yet another batch of CIA boneheads work desperately to shut down and cover up the even creepier black ops program to which Renner's Aaron Cross belongs. In "Ultimatum," Landy's the triumphant whistle blower. In her scene in "Legacy," we learn that the tables have turned. The sinister forces she exposed are again in control, while she's evidently under indictment for assisting alleged traitor Jason Bourne.

I can't imagine that either the filmmakers or Allen would bother with a 45-second Landy subplot if they weren't hoping to tease Bourne out of retirement, perhaps in concert with Aaron Cross, for another two hours of tightly-wound, high-tech, cold-as-steel truth and justice rectification, the ultimate super-spy buddy movie. With a bow to Bob and Bing, they could call it "Road to Langley." Moby could record the fourth (by my count) version of "Extreme Ways," the best spy movie theme song ever. Here's his third, recorded for "Legacy" with a 110-piece orchestra.

Leak And Lies

Joseph C. Goulden, a Washington, D.C. attorney who says he still admires Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for their Watergate reporting, says that according to Max Holland, they lied about their most important source:

In their first book on Watergate, All the President’s Men, published in 1974, [they] depicted Deep Throat (who they did not name) as a selfless, high–ranking official intent on exposing the lawlessness of the Nixon White House. Deep Throat, they wrote, “was trying to protect the office [of the presidency] to effect a change in its conduct before all was lost.” A secondary goal was to prevent the FBI from being corrupted by being drawn into a White House cover–up.

That statement turns out to be 100 percent false, according to Max Holland, whose exhaustively researched work is a must-read for any person interested in the tangled scandal that drove President Nixon from office....

As Holland authoritatively establishes, Felt (who died in 2008) turns out not to be an altruistic hero, but a scheming bureaucrat who yearned to replace J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director, and did so by staging a smear campaign in an attempt to discredit rivals for the job.

Dancing In The Vesper Light

DJ and Duane Gomer, dancing to Sinatra at a St. John's Church fellowship dinner on Saturday

They Got Just The Exhibit They Bargained For

Nixon operatives' rearguard maneuvers continue over the Nixon library's Watergate exhibit, which opened to the public in 2011. Below is my response to a History News Network post claiming that those now controlling Nixon's foundation hadn't tried to derail the exhibit:

No account of the controversy over the Nixon library Watergate exhibit is accurate if it ignores the ruthless tactics that the Nixon foundation board and staff used against the federal director, historian Tim Naftali. Not only did they try to derail the exhibit. They tried to derail Naftali's career. As a matter of fact, by launching and losing the last battle of Watergate, Nixon’s men earned every square inch of their new exhibit.

Their attacks on Naftali began in the fall of 2009, not because of the exhibit but because he had invited John Dean to give a speech. Nixon White House operatives hated Dean for helping send their friends to jail for their Watergate crimes. When my successor as foundation head and Richard Nixon’s last chief of staff, Kathy O’Connor, endorsed a mature and constructive response to Naftali's Dean invitation, they belittled and marginalized her.

Those who now seized control of Nixon’s foundation had a different plan for Naftali. An item appeared on the foundation web site saying that he should go run a museum for traitor Alger Hiss. Operatives recruited Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former Nixon aide, to put a secret hold on the nomination of a new U.S. archivist to pressure or get rid of Naftali. A former foundation employee who'd opposed the NARA handover wrote a column associating Naftali with "the left." Another operative filed a FOIA request to read his e-mails. Yet another accused him publicly of sending coded signals about his sexual orientation. That operative’s wife publicly accused Naftali of leaking prejudicial Nixon tapes to the media.

When Naftali offered one of Nixon's daughters a tour of the library's new quarters, she accepted only to denounce him in front of her fellow foundation leaders and demand that he leave. A top NARA official and the director of the Reagan library even joined in trying to broker Naftali’s resignation, claiming that the public would be permitted to see his Watergate exhibit if he’d quit.

Thanks to these spirit-of-Watergate tactics, we’ll never know if Naftali could have been persuaded to install a more nuanced exhibit. As he battled back, he told friends that the Nixonites were trying to “clean house” – to use their purported insider contacts to get rid of him. Having raised the stakes to that level and lost, the Nixonites were bound to end up with an unstinting exhibit. It would have made for another historic scandal if David Ferriero, the archivist of the U.S., had buckled to political and financial pressure and permitted the rewrites demanded by a Watergate truth squad that included convicted perjurer Dwight Chapin -- especially when one of its demands was to block museum visitors from seeing videotape in which Chapin claimed that Nixon had been in on 1972 campaign dirty tricks from the very beginning.

It’s of course true that abuses of power occurred in prior administrations. It will be up to historians to assess the significance of so many being aggregated in one wartime administration and whether Nixon’s massive foreign and domestic policy achievements outweigh the shame of Watergate and resignation. But getting a more balanced and yet still accurate Watergate exhibit into the Nixon library won’t just be a matter of overcoming the influence of Nixon skeptics in academe. Archives officials would also need Nixon foundation collaborators who themselves don’t have so much to lose when it comes to the sober judgment of history.