Magical Deliverance

 The statement that God won’t allow us to ruin our planet sweeps aside ethics, responsibilities, consequences, duties, even awareness. It comforts us with the anodyne assumption that—no matter what we do—some undefined presence will, through some undefined measure, make things right, clean up our mess. That is seeking magical deliverance from our troubles, not divine guidance through our troubles. So is God really here just to tidy up after our sins and follies, to immunize us from their consequence?

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, 5-8-2013

This week everybody was talking about the Cleveland captives

Last Monday, Amanda Berry, Georgina “Gina” DeJesus, and Michelle Knight were rescued from their 9-to-11-year captivity after Berry escaped and contacted police. The story has been all over the news ever since (to the undoubted consternation of Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, who saw his mega-hyped Benghazi hearings upstaged).

Perversely, when a story gets this much coverage it’s hard to keep track of the facts. Coverage focuses on whatever new detail has just come out, seldom taking a step back to put it all in context for the non-obsessed viewer. The 24-hour news channels feel that they have to keep covering the story or lose viewers, so rather than endlessly repeat the few known facts, they fill the air with speculation. As a result, it’s easy to lose what-actually-happened inside the cloud of what-at-some-point-looked-like-it-might-have-happened.

I rely on Wikipedia to sort it out. We’re not used to thinking of “encyclopedia” and “current events” at the same time, but Wikipedia ends up doing exactly what you need: telling the whole story from the beginning, while constantly updating it with the latest details.

A sub-genre of the Cleveland-kidnapping articles are personal reflections about why stories of captivity and sex-slavery are so arresting, both in real life and in fiction. Slate’s Emily Bazelon expresses just how disempowering this dark fascination can be.

These ordeals are our gothic horror stories, our Bluebeards come to life. I fight my own obsession with them because it fills me with morbid fear and not much else. … [The Silence of the Lambs] terrified me so much that I turned down a summer job I’d wanted as a caretaker on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Suddenly I couldn’t handle the idea of being alone and exposed.

What particularly disturbs Bazelon is the thought of being tamed, of reaching the point where you cooperate with your captor. She recommends the novel Room by Emma Donoghue. Being older and male, I flash back to the related horror of John Fowles’ The Collector, where insane fantasies gradually come to seem like plans any guy might carry out if he had the opportunity.

and whether to intervene in Syria

The situation in Syria just keeps getting worse. NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis estimates the number of killed around 100,000, with 1.4 million refugees leaving Syria and another million displaced within the country. That’s from an original population around 22.5 million (just slightly less than Iraq).

What started out as a revolution against a secular dictator has little by little turned into a religious war. The Assad government has never been particularly devout, but the Assad family is from the Alawite branch of Shia, which lives mainly in the coastal areas north of Lebanon. Alawites are 12% of a majority-Sunni country that also has a sizable Christian minority (13%). Alawites dominate Assad’s secret police, and the revolution’s initial support came largely from the inland Sunni areas.

Worse, the war is starting to look like Al Qaeda vs. Hezbollah, as the roles of the primary Sunni and Shia terrorist groups keep growing. The Guardian reports that “entire units [of the rebel Free Syrian Army] have gone over to [Al Qaeda-linked] Jabhat al-Nusra”.

“Fighters are heading to al-Nusra because of its Islamic doctrine, sincerity, good funding and advanced weapons,” said Abu Islam of the FSA’s al-Tawhid brigade in Aleppo. “My colleague who was fighting with the FSA’s Ahrar Suriya asked me: ‘I’m fighting with Ahrar Suriya brigade, but I want to know if I get killed in a battle, am I going to be considered as a martyr or not?’ It did not take him long to quit FSA and join al-Nusra. He asked for a sniper rifle and got one immediately.”

Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s long-rumored involvement in the defense of the Assad regime is getting more explicit. Which is why Admiral Stavridis asks: “Who do you arm? And what happens to those weapons afterward?”

As reports increase that Assad is either using or planning to use chemical weapons, the pressure for the United States to intervene is growing. But Russia is Assad’s main backer, and China also blocks a UN resolution that an anti-Assad international coalition might gather around. So at best this would be another coalition-of-the-willing, not a true international police action.

I don’t pretend to know how things should play out, but I keep thinking of what General Petraeus said about Iraq in 2003: “Tell me how this ends.” American hawks have a bizarre tendency to think of war as a stabilizing force, when history shows the exact opposite. I’m plenty convinced that the situation in Syria is bad; what I’m waiting to hear is how American intervention makes it better.

Here’s Admiral Stavridis’ assessment:

We do have a fairly recent situation that’s somewhat similar to Syria, and that does not fill me with optimism: The Balkans in the 1990s. If you look at Yugoslavia — a nation that was constructed of different ethnic and religious groups. Tito departs the scene, and the region goes through a 10-year process throughout the 1990s. Several million are pushed across borders, requiring the intervention of tens of thousands of Western and Russian troops to bring the situation under control. I think that might be where Syria is headed.

but I wrote about Benghazi

I’ve been ignoring Benghazi, because as best I can tell there’s no there there. Like most things that turn out badly, you can look back and find bad planning, you can wish it had played out differently, and you can find examples of people spinning in hope that they won’t get blamed. But it has turned into yet another episode in the GOP’s Captain Ahab quest for The Scandal That Brings Down Obama. Just like Solyndra and Fast&Furious before it, Benghazi can’t carry that weight.

In Benghazi Hearings: Congress as Reality TV, I compare Republicans’ handling of Benghazi with Democrats’ treatment of 9-11, where there were plenty of conspiracy theories they could have winked at, but didn’t. I speculate about why: Democrats didn’t want to pander to a minority, because it takes a majority to win elections. But Republicans calculate differently, because their party has been taken over by the Conservative Entertainment Complex. A third of the country is a losing voter-block, but it makes one hell of an audience.

and you also might be interested in …

The death total in the collapse factory complex at Bangladesh has reached 1127 as the search for survivors ends. What I said last week here — that we need to act politically as citizens and not just individually as consumers — gets expanded and elaborated in an article I wrote for UU World.

Wednesday, Senator Whitehouse did something more liberals should do: He used religious rhetoric to denounce religion-based global-warming denial.

So why then, when we ignore His plain natural laws, when we ignore the obvious conclusions to be drawn by our God-given intellect and reason, why then would God, the tidy-up God, drop in and spare us?  Why would He allow an innocent child to burn its hand when it touches the hot stove, but protect us from this lesson?  Why would He allow a badly engineered bridge or building to fall, killing innocent people, but protect us from this mistake? Why would He allow cholera to kill in epidemics, until we figure out that the well water is contaminated?  The Earth’s natural laws and our capacity to divine them are God’s great gift to us, allowing us to learn, and build great things, and cure disease.  But God’s gift to us of a planet with natural laws and natural order has, as an integral part of that gift, consequences.

And he closed by pointing out where the real opposition to protecting the planet comes from:

We need to face up to the fact that there is only one leg on which climate denial stands: money.  The polluters give and spend money to create false doubt.  The polluters give and spend money to buy political influence.  The polluters give and spend money to keep polluting.  That’s it.  That’s it.  Not truth, not science, not economics, not safety, not policy, and certainly not religion, nor morality.  Nothing supports climate denial.  Nothing except money.

Meanwhile in the Halls of Mammon, the Wall Street Journal published Harrison Schmitt and William Happer’s “In Defense of Carbon Dioxide“. Unprecedented-in-human-history levels of atmospheric CO2, they tell us, “will benefit the increasing population on the planet by increasing agricultural productivity.”

So who are these guys? Botanists? Climate scientists? Specialists in global agriculture? No. One is a geologist and the other a physicist, and neither has done research in any field relevant to the claims they’re making. But the WSJ sees fit not to mention their most illuminating credentials: Both are connected to think tanks that get funding from the oil industry.

Media Matters debunks their article in detail, including this graphic from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Conservatives hate it when anyone implies they’re racists, but then they go and do stuff like this: The Heritage Foundation hired a new Ph.D. with a racist thesis, ignored his posting on white nationalist web sites, and made him a co-author on their study denouncing immigration reform.

Kevin Drum (extensively quoting Jonathan Bernstein — a political scientist not to be confused with economist Jared Bernstein) notes the “hack gap” between liberal and conservative economists. There are plenty of bogus correlation-implies-causation points liberals could be making that are comparable to the discredited Reinhart/Rogoff debt-kills-growth argument. For example: Medical costs have been slowing since ObamaCare was passed.

You don’t read stories like “Economist: ObamaCare Already Cutting Health Costs” in the newspaper, though, because liberal economists don’t bend that way. (The recession is the biggest reason for slowing healthcare inflation, and beyond that something is going on that we don’t understand yet.) But conservative economists do. Hence the apparent respectability of austerity economics despite the complete lack of evidence that it has anything to do with reality.

Speaking of austerity, the Washington Post showed its conservative economic bias in an article last Monday. The article reports (correctly) that revenue is up and spending is down, so the government won’t hit its debt limit until October — months later than originally predicted.

That might seem like good news, but it is unraveling Republican plans to force a budget deal before Congress takes its August break.

Say what? A smaller deficit is bad because it’s “unraveling Republican plans”?

If you’re up for some intellectual heavy lifting, Corey Robin’s article in The Nation about the relationship between Nietzsche and the Austrian school of free-market economists (Hayek, Von Mises) is very illuminating.

I had never thought much about whether the economic concept of “value” is connected to the moral concept of “values”, or what the will-to-power has to do with economic power. But the connections are fascinating.

Christian parents of 6th-graders who attend a public school in Arkansas are canceling the official class graduation ceremony (and holding an unofficial one in a church) because they’ve been informed that they can’t do what they did last year: open and close the ceremony with prayer.

In a classic example of privileged distress, the parents have managed to turn things around so that they are the persecuted ones. They’re not being exclusive; they’ve invited everyone to their Christian graduation ceremony. Says one parent: “We’re not trying to be pushy or ugly to anybody, we just want them to know there is a God who loves them. … We just want to take a stand for God because we felt like our rights were taken away.”

To everyone else, it’s obvious that the “right … taken away” from the Arkansas Christian parents is actually a special privilege that no other religious group in America has ever had: the option to insert their religious messages into government-sponsored programs. (I’m sure a lot of Buddhists and atheists also have some uplifting thought that they “just want people to know” and would like the government to provide a platform for.) American Christians are privileged, not persecuted; but their privileges are shrinking, so it feels like persecution to them.

I started with one sermon, so I’ll end with another one: Astronauts explain “the Overview Effect“, the way your point of view changes after you’ve seen the Big Blue Ball from space.

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