Archive for category Zeitgeist

It’s the End of the World as We Know It and We Don’t Feel Fine

The world’s coming to an end.  

Don’t believe me?  Look at our current popular culture.  In a myriad of ways the world is ending – alien invasions, zombie apocalypses, diseases, natural disasters, ancient prophecies coming true – at least according to our popular culture.  The TV series Supernatural had the good old fashioned apocalypse with Lucifer and Demons and the gates of hell and angels and celestial battles.  Buffy the Vampire slayer prevented the end of the world at least 8 times.  Angel, literally, ended its run with all hell breaking loose.  In some of these stories, the end is narrowly averted, in others it is narrowly survived; the absurd movie 2012 showed characters who managed against all odds to survive, while The Day After Tomorrow featured a similar end of the world scenario with equally improbable survivors.  The masterful series The Walking Dead shows the end of the world in horrific detail, including the utter breakdown of moral order.  TNT is airing Falling Skies, a turgid, derivative series in which aliens destroy the world and humans fight back.  Battlestar Galactica was a lengthy, grim meditation on what happens after the world ends, how society breaks down, how social standards and norms are casually, or not, abandoned and how other standards are maintained.

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories have been around a long time, but I think something has changed in both cultural context and story content.  The grand silliness and derring-do of 1990s era disaster movies (Deep Impact, Armageddon) have given way to a deep anxiety.  Watch an episode of The Walking Dead and the profound cultural anxiety is difficult to miss; Falling Skies, turgid though it may be, is a product of a deeply anxious culture, uncertainly negotiating turbulent changes.  Supernatural, which developed parallel plots about the end of the world and dysfunctional family systems, portrays a deeply unnerved cultural world in which the girl next door is really a ravening, sexually insatiable demon and the boy next door is a ghost.  Although an otherwise awful film, 28 Weeks Later aptly portrays, as Richard observed when we discussed zombies, the cascading failure of our best laid plans.  Time again, these apocalyptic tales confront us with our cultural anxieties – our society has lost the ability to cope, to manage crisis, to adapt and grow.  Torchwood, an otherwise frothy sci fi soap, indulged in the dark ruminations on the end of all things in its previous seasons.  This season, which premieres Friday, promises to be equally dark.  Discovery runs a whole host of survivalist shows (Man vs. Wild, Survivorman, etc) in which hosts are dropped into nature and they have tips on surviving; one episode in particular was set in an abandoned former research city in the far north of European Russia.  The world is ending and we may all need to learn to forage for berries and these shows teach us how.  The BBC’s short-lived Survivors told the story of people who survived a horrific flu pandemic and how they coped in the wasteland that was post-apocalyptic England. 

All these pop culture products share a similar, profound, anxiety about the end, uncertainty about what comes next and whether our actions matter.  Read the rest of this entry »


The New Pornography

Because emotionally distant Church careerists just dont thrill the coeds anymore.

Because emotionally distant Church careerists just don't thrill the coeds anymore.

Romance at BYU has gone downhill since my admittedly short stint there.

Crossposted at The Bloggernacle Back Burner

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Death Penalty And Medical Ethics

I’m opposed to the death penalty. I make no secret of that. It strikes me as an entirely too flawed and permanent solution that can and is frequently applied to the wrong person. DNA testing has exonerated entirely too many people for me to be comfortable with the death penalty’s continued use; research shows it is not fairly applied, and that persons of color are more likely to receive the death penalty than are whites. And worse, from my perspective – once it is applied it can never be made right. We can release a wrongfully convicted person from prison and provide them some financial compensation and other attempts to really create restorative justice. Once you kill someone, there’s no taking it back. If we find out we convicted and executed the wrong person after their dead, we can never make it right.

I’d not considered it from a medical ethics standpoint until today. From PalMD at the Denialism blog:

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The Expression of America’s Psyche

Last night, Bill Moyers interviewed Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power. It’s worth the time to read the whole transcript. In particular I was struck by this exchange – it began with Moyers reading a quote from Bacevich’s book:

BILL MOYERS: I was in the White House, back in the early 60s, and I’ve been a White House watcher ever since. And I have never come across a more distilled essence of the evolution of the presidency than in just one paragraph in your book.

You say, “Beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, “the occupant of the White House has become a combination of demigod, father figure and, inevitably, the betrayer of inflated hopes. Pope. Pop star. Scold. Scapegoat. Crisis manager. Commander in Chief. Agenda settler. Moral philosopher. Interpreter of the nation’s charisma. Object of veneration. And the butt of jokes. All rolled into one.” I would say you nailed the modern presidency.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, and the – I think the troubling part is, because of this preoccupation with, fascination with, the presidency, the President has become what we have instead of genuine politics. Instead of genuine democracy.

We look to the President, to the next President. You know, we know that the current President’s a failure and a disappoint – we look to the next President to fix things. And, of course, as long as we have this expectation that the next President is going to fix things then, of course, that lifts all responsibility from me to fix things.

One of the real problems with the imperial presidency, I think, is that it has hollowed out our politics. And, in many respects, has made our democracy a false one. We’re going through the motions of a democratic political system. But the fabric of democracy, I think, really has worn very thin.

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Nice Guys Don’t Shoot Up Churches You Stupid Woman

Okay, so this pathetic whack job shoots up a Unitarian church and they interview someone who knows him and she says:

“He never went anywhere. He never had anybody over. Just, it was really quiet. He rode a motorcycle and you know he would go out on the weekends on his motorcycle, but other than that, you never heard from him,” Melissa Coker told WVLT-TV.

Coker told The Associated Press that Adkisson had been a truck driver, but she didn’t think he’d been working steadily in the past six months.

“He’s just a really, really nice guy,” Coker told the AP.

I’m sorry Ms. Coker, but you obviously don’t know shit about what makes a person nice; someone who shoots up a church is NOT a really, really nice guy. He’s a fucking pathetic whackjob.


Are There Non-Egregious Bush Crimes?

Everyone except a few bloggers has probably forgotten, if they ever knew, that last April Barack Obama made a half-hearted pledge to prosecute at least some of the crimes committed by the Bush administration. In response to a question from a DailyKos blogger, he answered carefully:

What I would want to do is to have my Justice Department and my Attorney General immediately review the information that’s already there and to find out are there inquiries that need to be pursued. I can’t prejudge that because we don’t have access to all the material right now. I think that you are right, if crimes have been committed, they should be investigated. You’re also right that I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt because I think we’ve got too many problems we’ve got to solve.

So this is an area where I would want to exercise judgment — I would want to find out directly from my Attorney General — having pursued, having looked at what’s out there right now — are there possibilities of genuine crimes as opposed to really bad policies. And I think it’s important– one of the things we’ve got to figure out in our political culture generally is distinguishing between really dumb policies and policies that rise to the level of criminal activity. You know, I often get questions about impeachment at town hall meetings and I’ve said that is not something I think would be fruitful to pursue because I think that impeachment is something that should be reserved for exceptional circumstances. Now, if I found out that there were high officials who knowingly, consciously broke existing laws, engaged in cover-ups of those crimes with knowledge forefront, then I think a basic principle of our Constitution is nobody above the law — and I think that’s roughly how I would look at it.

Never mind. At the recent Netroots Nation convention, close Obama adviser (and University of Chicago Law Professor) Cass Sunstein backed away from the notion of going after any Bush officials, or Bush himself, for crimes such as torture and unlawful surveillance. The exchange with Sunstein was detailed by The Nation’s Ari Melber. Melber wrote that Sunstein rejected any such prosecution:

Politicians, legal experts and progressive activists grappled with Republican abuses of power at the third annual netroots convention on Friday, debating how an Obama administration might restore the rule of law. Cass Sunstein, an adviser to Barack Obama from the University of Chicago Law School, cautioned against prosecuting criminal conduct from the current Administration. Prosecuting government officials risks a “cycle” of criminalizing public service, he argued, and Democrats should avoid replicating retributive efforts like the impeachment of President Clinton–or even the “slight appearance” of it. Update: Sunstein emailed to emphasize that he also said and believes that “egregious crimes should not be ignored.”

Are violations of the Constitution, torture and illegal surveillance therefore non-egregious crimes? What would be an egregious crime, then? Sunstein didn’t say. How about “planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of wars of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing.” That was the principal charge at the Nuremberg Tribunal.

See below for video and an update…
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Prayer for a Deadlocked Convention

A thrilling aspect of this election cycle is that practically every day I get email from either Bill or Hillary Clinton.

Never before have I had this sort of intimacy with an American President and an international celebrity.

Just this afternoon Bill took time out from the campaign to send me the following note:

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Are you good or evil?

The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the more famous pscyhology experiments (another is the Milgram experiment) – it revealed an alarming ability of people previously deemed “normal” to engage in shocking, abusive, cruel behavior but also that similar persons would submit to that abusive behavior.

The SPE was planned and conducted at Standford University in 1971.  The plan was simple: a group of volunteers would participate in a prison simulation for 14 days, each earning $15/day.  There were 9 guards who worked three shifts and initially 9 prisoners.  The volunteers subjects were largely indistinguishable from one another in terms of their “profile” – mostly white, middle class men who were either college or graduate students.  Before participating, the men went through a psychological profile to determine their emotional fitness; all the men fell well within the normal range, and would by almost any measure be judged psychologically healthy.  The roles of guard and prisoner were randomly determined, not assigned.

The experiment was scheduled Read the rest of this entry »


Knowing, or not, and Remembering, or not

I’ve read about it a number of times but I don’t know that I’ve ever blogged about it.

The It in question is the Challenger study by the very bright Ulric Neisser.

Neisser, who is a scholar specializing in memory, had his students in 1986 record their memories of the Challenger explosion – he asked them to record how they heard about it, what they heard, what they felt, what they saw. Then, some two and a half years later, interviewed the same students about what they remembered.

Neisser discovered something profound: almost none of the students remembered accurately. Most were off by some small details, some specifics, but 25% were completely wrong. Not even a little close. Interestingly, when shown their diaries from two after the event, a number of the students denied the accuracy of their diaries and defending their inaccurate memories. One student said, “That’s my handwriting but that’s not what happened.”
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Experience as a Predictor of Presidential Greatness

Come one, come all pundits on this blog, to a penetrating quantitative analysis of Presidential greatness versus experience at–

(scroll down to “Is an Experienced President a Good President?”)


Conclusion: no correlation whatsoever!

My meditation:

According to this data, LBJ, with 27 years in the Congress, is the number two most experienced president and for my money, he was an exceptionally poor one. He was effective in the Senate but not in the White House. His presidency was proof positive AGAINST the argument that effective legislators make effective executives. Dramatic evidence that the executive and legislative arenas require two radically different skill sets.

Reagan on the other hand came from the executive branch, with eight painfully long years as governor and a whole lifetime on the campaign trail, but nonetheless for my money was one of drop-dead dumbest, silliest, clumsiest, least effective presidents in American history, running neck and neck with Bill Clinton in every department except intelligence–a most valid comparison oft-noted by presidential historians.

Reagan authorized arms for hostages, birthday cakes to the Ayatolla, a totally rogue-nation CIA that pandered to Iraq and armed Iran, coddling Saddam Hussein and other megalomaniacal tyrants all over the globe. Even while preaching the gospel of fiscal conservatism the Gipper ran up the greatest federal debt in the history of the world and then, for his last act, casually blew off the opportunity for total superpower nuclear disarmament offered to him on a silver platter by a genuflecting Gorbachev at Reykjavik–far and away the single greatest presidential blunder in all of American history–by many orders of magnitude more colossally stupid than anything Dubbya has ever done. In so many, many ways–fiscal, economic, domestic, foreign, environmental–Reagan set the stage for the eventual disintegration of America as a world power. What Dubbya has completed, Reagan began.

So I would be contrarian as to what constitutes, “effective” let alone, “great.” The dead-wrong-as-usual conventional wisdom is that Reagan was effective because he won two elections by large margins, reversing the polarity of the Congress, just as Clinton did 1992. This was the so-called Reagan “revolution.”

But I don’t buy that “effective” means “effective at winning elections” or “effective at political survival purely for its own sake”.

To me, “effective” means succeeding at some clearly defined political policy objective AND ALSO dealing adroitly with unforeseen contingencies–per Abraham Lincoln during the civil warm, or FDR during the Depression. “Effective” would in its penultimate expression mean being quite willing to LOSE an election in order to do the right thing for the country. It means having both vision AND stamina AND imagination AND integrity AND grace under pressure, all working together seamlessly.

Bill Clinton had no defined political policy objectives whatsoever, beyond longevity for himself in elected office. He was an airhead. He did exactly whatever pollster Dick Morris told him to do just about as mechanically as Dubbya did whatever Karl Rove told him to do, or Ronald Reagan did whatever his advisors thought General Electric and Bechtel–which supplied virtually his entire top management team–might wish him to do. Clinton’s single great domestic triumph is said to have been skillful “triangulation” of the Gingrich congress–e.g., promoting NAFTA on behalf of the military-industrial complex, and officiating over “the end of welfare as we know it.” Selling the poor mostly black folk down the river in order to fill up the campaign warchests and win elections.

But I don’t see much logic in crediting Clinton for balancing the budget or stimulating the economy. The ephermeral uplift of the 1990’s was very simply the ground swell of business cycle itself combined with a “perfect storm” of circumstance and convergent technology which temporarily spiked productivity even as energy prices and therefore inflation were at a cyclical low. Clinton was no more responsible for the behavior of the energy price/inflation cycle or the business cycle than Jimmy Carter was responsible for the behavior of OPEC.

Bill Clinton was “adroit” in handling unforeseen crises only inasmuch as he was shrewd enough to back down on whatever he had recently set out to do (gays in the military, national health care) or sufficiently timid enough to procrastinate on indefinitely (genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda)–either pulling back or flat giving up whenever a challenge proved difficult or dangerous. His greatest asset was his spectacular survival instinct whenever it was necessary to extricate himself–again and again; and again and again and again and again–from entirely self-engendered personal career crises, such as draft dodging, then Whitewater, then Geniffergate and Travelgate and Monicagate–et al. Wall to wall Bimbogate across two decades in elected office: the hidden “agenda” of the Clinton administration that presidential historians have long since conveniently forgotten….

We could very defensibly argue that the best president may well be the one who is so timid, so cautious, so utterly devoid of imagination, ideas, hutzpah or vision, so perfectly incapable of taking ANY initiative that he basically withdraws into a tortoise shell of inertia for his entire term. We want not the person “First in His Class”, but rather the phlegmatic student who SLEPT through class. We should aspire not to youthful idealism, but to advanced old age bordering on senility. Eisenhower would be the penultimate example. (“Is he ALIVE?”) The best offense is a strategy of uncompromising, isolationist, tortoise-like defense.

Are not the best presidents, like the best doctors, those wise and shrewd and zen enough to do nothing at all–to let time and the immune system do their work with minimal interference– as opposed to those who, like JFK declaring what would become the Cold War with his adolescent grandstanding and saber-rattling (“Let’s invade Cuba–that’ll show em!”), LBJ/Nixon in Vietnam, Truman in Korea, bush I and Bush II in Iraq, all making it their foremost priority to drive the nation straight into war at any cost whatsoever to the country and the people?

[Editors note: is this actually a back-door argument FOR the value of “experience”?  That depends upon what we mean by “experience”….]

What conventionally “great” Presidents do is make war, not policy or legislation. Nothing like a national security crisis to bring one’s personal approval ratings out of the toilet.

As Edward Abbey put it we have had “Roosevelt’s war”, then “Truman’s war”, then what might be called either “Kennedy’s War”, or “Johnson’s War,” or “Nixon’s War”, then “Bush War I” and “Bush War II”.

Our ambitious young men can think of nothing so glamorous as leading the nation into war.

But I would suggest that the conventional definition of “effectiveness” and “greatness” be reversed.

Instead of the hutzpah to rush into war, let’s acknowledge that true greatness is having the wisdom–and courage–to skillfully avoid it.



Go in Peace, Good Friend

Author Madeleine L’Engle died last week – I read about it but couldn’t bring myself to blog about it.

From her obit.

In lieu of flowers, a memorial gift may be made to Crosswicks Foundation, Ltd, 924 West End Ave, apt 95, New York, New York, 10025. This is just an option, and we encourage you to honor her memory in any way you choose.

Read a banned book!

A Wrinkle in Time  was on the first real books I read myself.  According to the ALA, it is number 22 in the list of banned books.


Bush League War Drums Beating Louder on Iran

Bush League War Drums Beating Louder on Iran
By Ray McGovern
t r u t h o u t | Guest Contributor
Friday 24 August 2007

It is as though I’m back as an analyst at the CIA, trying to estimate the chances of an attack on Iran. The putative attacker, though, happens to be our own president.

It is precisely the kind of work we analysts used to do. And, while it is still a bit jarring to be turning our analytical tools on the US leadership, it is by no means entirely new. For, of necessity, we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) have been doing that for almost six years now – ever since 9/11, when “everything changed.”

Of necessity? Yes, because, with very few exceptions, American journalists put their jobs at grave risk if they expose things like fraudulent wars.

The craft of CIA analysis was designed to be an all-source operation, meaning that we analysts were responsible – and held accountable – for assimilating information from all sources and coming to judgments on what it all meant. We used data of various kinds, from the most sophisticated technical collection platforms, to spies, to – not least – open media.

Here I must reveal a trade secret and risk puncturing the mystique of intelligence analysis. Generally speaking, 80 percent of the information one needs to form judgments on key intelligence targets or issues is available in open media. It helps to have been trained – as my contemporaries and I had the good fortune to be trained – by past masters of the discipline of media analysis, which began in a structured way in targeting Japanese and German media in the 1940s. But, truth be told, anyone with a high school education can do it. It is not rocket science.

Reporting From Informants

The above is in no way intended to minimize the value of intelligence collection by CIA case officers recruiting and running clandestine agents. For, though small in percentage of the whole nine yards available to be analyzed, information from such sources can often make a crucial contribution. Consider, for example, the daring recruitment in mid-2002 of Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister, Naji Sabri, who was successfully “turned” into working for the CIA and quickly established his credibility. Sabri told us there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

My former colleagues, perhaps a bit naively, were quite sure this would come as a welcome relief to President George W. Bush and his advisers. Instead, they were told that the White House had no further interest in reporting from Sabri; rather, that the issue was not really WMD, it was “regime change.” (Don’t feel embarrassed if you did not know this; although it is publicly available, our corporate-owned, war-profiteering media have largely suppressed this key story.)

One former colleague, operations officer-par-excellence Robert Baer, now reports (in this week’s Time magazine) that, according to his sources, the Bush/Cheney administration is winding up for a strike on Iran; that the administration’s plan to put Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the terrorism list points in the direction of such a strike; and that the delusional “neo-conservative” thinking that still guides White House policy concludes that such an attack would lead to the fall of the clerics and the rise of a more friendly Iran.

Hold on; it gets even worse: Baer’s sources tell him that administration officials are thinking “as long as we have bombers and missiles in the air, we will hit Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

Rove and Snow: Going Wobbly?

Our VIPS colleague Phil Geraldi, writing in The American Conservative, earlier noted that in the past Karl Rove has served as a counterweight to Vice President Dick Cheney, and may have tried to put the brakes on Cheney’s death wish to expand the Middle East quagmire to Iran. And former Pentagon officer, retired Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who worked shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the most devoted neocons just before the attack on Iraq, has put into words (on speculation several of us have been indulging in with respect to Rove’s departure.

In short, it seems possible that Rove, who is no one’s dummy and would not want to be required to “spin” an unnecessary war on Iran, may have lost the battle with Cheney over the merits of a military strike on Iran, and only then decided – or was urged – to spend more time with his family. As for administration spokesperson Tony Snow, it seems equally possible that, before deciding he had to leave the White House to make more money, he concluded that his stomach could not withstand the challenge of conjuring up yet another Snow job to explain why Bush/Cheney needed to attack Iran. There is recent precedent for this kind of thing.

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