Friday, April 18, 2008

An Oxymoron from a Nazi and a Moron: No good words for Benedict XVI

On April 19, 2005 then Cardinal Ratzinger delivered a homily to which Our Fearless Leader, Dubya, saw fit to refer in his introduction of now Pope Ratzinger...er Benedict XVI at the White House last Tuesday, April 18, 2008. In that homily the Cardinal stated, "Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and “swept along by every wind of teaching”, looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today’s standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires."

One of the most serious faults of reasoning is allowing some conman with an agenda to set the terms of a debate. "Clear faith" hasn't anything to do with fundamentalism. The Cardinal, now Pope knows as much. He's a well educated and knowledgeable man whose faith, I presume, is "clear". Like most people of "clear faith" Josef Ratzinger has found that faith and reason have come to him together. Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive.

Fundamentalism, however, is exactly the antithesis of Josef Ratzinger's path. It insists on blind faith, not clarity. Fundamentalism insists that reason is faith's enemy, that mindless acceptance of absurd literalism is the true path of belief, and that questioning the Bible and the teachings of your church or preacher is heresy. (And, yes, I too have an agenda about which I’m being far more honest than Benedict XVI.)

So let’s continue to parse the Cardinal/Pope’s homily. Relativism is “letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching’….” in Ratzinger’s phrase but is it? I am an atheist who comes by his lack of faith through a solid grounding in the teachings of the Methodist Church and life-long inquiry into religion. I consider myself relativistic but in a different form than that which Joseph Ratzinger seeks to define. As the starkest example of which I can think, let’s consider abortion.

According to the Catholic Church and certainly in the view of Benedict XVI, life begins at the moment of conception. In that moment an act of god has occurred. I think that the Pope and I could agree that in that moment there are the stirrings of the great mystery of life and that something sublime is occurring but we would be talking of very different things. What to the Pope is an act of god is, to me, an act, sweaty, gasping, straining and delightful, of two people carrying out a biological imperative and the entirely random, haphazard serendipity of male and female cells meeting.

So where does relativism enter the picture? In our attitudes to the results of those stirrings of the great mystery of life.

For about three week of initial development the fertilized egg remains a mass of largely undifferentiated cells. Only in the eighth week does that mass of cells begin to resemble anything like a human baby. And even then the organs are undeveloped and there’s no possibility that the fetus could exist outside the mother’s body. Only after about 12 weeks is the fetus sufficiently formed to be viable outside the mother’s body. Therefore, I don’t think that there is anything “relativist” about acknowledging that the fertilized egg up to the 12th week of pregnancy is entirely a function of the mother’s body. Yet Catholic dogma says otherwise. The dogma here relies on blind faith rather than “clear faith”.

Absurdly, the Roman Catholic Church opposes all methods of birth control. Catholic dogma insists that methods of birth control whether physical or chemical interfere with “god’s plan” as if any god had the time to determine a plan for pregnancy in every copulating couple. I personally have some squeamishness about abortion. I think it far better to reduce or eliminate the risk of pregnancy before the fact than after yet the Roman Catholic Church and certainly Pope Benedict XVI will not hear of birth control as a means for reducing the need for abortion.

Similarly the Catholic Church preaches against a “morning after pill”. The fertilized egg hasn’t even attached itself to the uterine wall to begin developing into a fetus but chemically preventing that attachment is anathema to Benedict XVI. Thus Roman Catholicism places itself in an absurd and self-defeating straight-jacket. Preventing pregnancy is a violation of “god’s will” and abortion is too. Again blind faith paints the Catholic Church into a corner into which “clear faith” wouldn’t have allowed it to go.

But the most troubling aspect of this fundamentalist blind faith is the attitude toward the living. Steeped in the dogma of sin abortion is impermissible even if the life or health of the mother hangs in the balance. The reasoning appears to be that the baby is innocent of all but “original sin“ (a pretty dodgy concept in itself) while the mother is ipso facto a sinner. Therefore, preserving the baby’s life is preferable to that of the mother. Is it any wonder that some have seen a gross anti-feminine bias in this dogma?

So it’s “relativism” to see that a woman might have other children if this fetus that threatens her life were aborted and, therefore, save her. It’s relativism to weigh the two lives and find in favor of the woman rather than the baby. If that’s relativism then so be it. I will proudly wear the mantle of relativist.

And, yet again, comes the con that relativism has has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires." Josef Ratzinger did not become a cardinal or pope without setting his own ego and desires ahead of everything else. To fail to see that this pot is calling all the other kettles black is utter absurdity. I’m sure that he would tell you that he was elected by the holy spirit moving amongst his colleagues rather than by careful pruning of the College of Cardinals throughout most of the last 3 papacies, ruthless attacks on all liberal interpretations of Catholicism and incessant politicking with his colleagues. Convenient how the holy spirit is so in tune with Josef Ratzinger’s ambitions, isn’t it? But the biggest con of all is the characterization of relativism as a dictatorship. One has to expect that one’s audience is willing to jettison all rational thought to accept that oxymoron. Relativism, also known as empiricism, by definition, looks at the circumstances of a given situation and tries to find the least hurtful or most accurate resolution to the situation. It is fundamentalism and dogma that impose an immutable will on the world and all circumstances admitting of no other choice but that dictated by its hidebound inflexibility. It’s dogma that insists that the mother must carry to term a child of rape, incest or one whose continued development jeopardizes her own life, not relativism.

Pope Benedict XVI has taken some pains to distance himself from his past as a member of the Hitlerjugend. What he’s not done is reject the inflexibility of his Nazi past. Certainly he may visit a synagogue or confer with some Imams but Benedict XVI, like Cardinal Ratzinger and young Josef Ratzinger before him believes in a totalitarian dictatorship of his version of Catholicism. In that sense he has merely exchanged Hitler for Roman Catholic dogma. That Dubya should give lip service to the Cardinal’s oxymoron is both typical and blatantly dishonest. For Dubya and his mal-administration to condemn “relativism” when they have parsed the meaning of torture in ways that make Bill Clinton’s parsing of “is” look inconsequential. For a man who insists that his government does not torture people to attack relativism while his top advisors manage the very torture he denies is beyond despicable. But then again, Dubya is probably too “incurious” to realize that he’s contradicting himself. I wonder what Pope Benedict’s excuse is?

Monday, April 7, 2008

So?

So?

So!

It’s just too perfect. When asked about polls that show that 80% of Americans don’t support the neo-fascist, colonial war in Iraq Dick Cheney answered “So?” This is the man who was at great pains to con the American people into believing that the will of the majority required an end to the recounting of votes in Florida in 2000, the man who tries to sell the idea that our invasion and occupation of Iraq was justified at every turn, the man who spouts his support of “democracy” everywhere in the world but in America who now, conveniently, thinks that the opinion of his constituents matters not at all.

And when asked about the toll this war is taking on our servicemen and women, Cheney’s similarly unfeeling answer was, “They enlisted.”

When Marie Antoinette asked a courtier why the Parisians were rioting in the streets she was told the people had no bread. Her reply, “Let them eat cake,” has become a proverbial statement of the insensitive stupidity of the ruling class. Yet in Marie Antoinette’s defense we must say that the word traditionally translated as “cake” probably more accurately meant “rolls” and in her removal from the plight of her subjects she was so uninformed that she could not conceive of a world in which rolls or cake could not instantly substitute for a temporary dearth of bread.

Cheney, however, unlike the Queen of France, knows the situation and doesn’t give a damn. He doesn’t care that young Americans are dying daily to increase the value of his holdings in Halliburton. And he certainly hasn’t the least use for democracy except as a convenient cover for the imperialism that he favors.

They enlisted.

That remark is of a piece with Donald Rumsfeld’s rationalization that, “As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” to explain why the military in Iraq was inadequately equipped. Like the neo-cons’ contempt for actual democracy even as they bandy the word about at every opportunity, Cheney believes in tossing out the phrase “support our troops” while doing nothing to actually support them.

Cheney’s interview with Martha Raddatz confirms that he is probably the highest ranking sociopath in this Administration if not in any American Administration since Aaron Burr.

Any number of my friends and fellow Democrats insist that both Cheney and Dubya must be impeached. It’s far too late for that now but they and their partners in crimes, Con-yo' Sleeza, Rumsfeld, Gonzales and Wolfowitz, should be remanded to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for their war crimes if only to establish that no American, regardless of how thoroughly convinced of his unassailability, is above the law. Cheney would probably plead that his alleged heart condition precludes his imprisonment, that dragging him off to the cell of Slobodan Milosovic as justice demands, would be tantamount to a death sentence.

So?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

1968 I: The Day Our Conscience Died

(I began writing this entry, after a long absence, on April 2nd. Life often interferes with plans, even well-intentioned ones and so it did here. But also I must admit that returning to 1968 to give context Dr. King’s murder is, in many ways, as difficult as living through it was. It is a time that is vivid in memory as is the worst of nightmares. Looking back into the maw of evil in 1968 has taken longer than I thought.)
Last Friday was April 4, 2008. It is one of the saddest anniversaries in American history, the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The anniversary of the day that the conscience of America, the voice of what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” was murdered at the hands of the racists and neo-fascists amongst us. Please don’t mistake any part of that statement as hyperbole. Dr. King was our conscience personified. That doesn’t deify Dr. King. A conscience may be imperfect but most certainly Dr. King called America to its best nature, to fulfill its promise and strive toward its dreams something impossible to say of most of our leaders since.
Let me set the scene for myself and for the nation for you in case you do not remember that time.
On April 4, 1968 I was 3 months short of my 19th birthday. I was a freshman at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, a sleepy hamlet whose chief industry was the college about 10 miles from Utica. I was involved in theatre. That evening I had a rehearsal for a production of Georg B├╝chner’s play, Leonce and Lena. Hamilton still is a private college where Ivy League, particularly Princeton, wanna-bes go when they aren’t quite up to snuff for the more prestigious schools. Hamilton at that time was a men’s school only. The majority of my fellows in the student body of less than 900 were sons of wealth or better than comfortable means.
Most upper classmen were members of fraternities. We freshmen, however, all lived in a horrid cinderblock, prison-like dorm, Dunham. The noted architect, Edward Durrell Stone, designed the building at best on the cheap, at worst as revenge for some wrong done him in the past. It was a “U” shaped building opened toward the east. It was one of 3 Stone-designed buildings on campus in all of which I spent considerable time, which is why I have not the slightest grain of respect for him as an architect.
Apart from the blight of the Stone buildings, Hamilton College had a very beautiful campus, especially when it wasn’t buried in snow. Elihu Root, who’d been U. S. Secretary of War and State and was a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, had been born on the campus. His elderly daughter-in-law still lived across the street from the campus in The Glen House. Her home derived its name from the Root Glen, a piece of early 20th Century landscape architecture as sublime as the Stone buildings were appalling. The Glen itself was a carefully planted “natural” space which had one patch of formal garden just behind the Glen House. Though the Glen was a beautiful delight, that small formal garden was a place of order and peace to one side of the studied rankness and riot of the Glen.
From the specifics of where I was, let me explain how it was.
The year 1968 is the pivot point on which turns American history from September, 1945 to the present. It is the most horrible year in my memory. In 1968 American neo-fascism cemented its position with murder and made the world in which we live today nearly inevitable.
Since World War II we’d given in to our fears: real fears of nuclear holocaust, imagined fears of communist subversion and general fears of a world utterly changed by war, economics and nationalism. We call it The McCarthy Era instead of the Eisenhower Administration and ignore that it might as well be called The Martin Dies Era, The Nixon-Hiss Era, The Apotheosis of J. Edgar Hoover or any one of dozens of other more apt names that don’t have the comforting sub-context of an alcoholic conman who was finally exposed, disgraced and dead; nothing more to worry about.
In 1960 enough of the old New Dealers and Left-wing patriots coalesced around John Kennedy to get him elected president and all too briefly turn the nation from its fears to its hopes and aspirations.
I am not going to do more than brush against conspiracy theories here. Suffice it to say that I don’t believe that all of the people responsible for the assassinations of the 1960s were ever caught or named or have ever paid for their crimes. But regardless of whether my belief is foolish or factual, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Allard K. Lowenstein, Fred Hampton and Robert F. Kennedy sought to turn us from fear toward hope, from resignation to aspiration. When it became clear that they would use power to focus America on its hopes and aspirations, they were murdered and the disciples of fear and resignation profited.
In 1968 if your hair were long enough to cover your ears, you had a beard or a moustache, didn’t wear the "correct" clothes or supported the “wrong” ideas the police could freely stop you without cause. Such detentions were as illegal then as they are today but the society was bent on keeping a lid on any variations from a comfortable norm. Conformity, rigid, debilitating and demeaning conformity, meant security to the many. Those who didn’t fit their rigid norms were treated as Muslims are since September 11, 2001 or Hispanic immigrants are and have been.
The vile Richard Nixon was again running for president spouting specious claptrap about a “secret plan to end the Vietnam War” to pander to the anti-war majority while developing a “Southern Strategy” meant to enfold the racists and other neo-fascists, who’d been allied with the Democrats since the Civil War, in the loving arms of the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan was governor of California, elected on a platform of fear and neo-fascism supported by the likes of Max Rafferty.
The fact was that the nation was in the grip of change, some growing pains if you will. Anyone who was dissatisfied with the status quo was a “commie”, a “subversive” or, regardless of name, someone to be crushed so that nothing might change. Like King Canute, the guardians of the norm were trying to hold back the tide. Unlike Canute, this alliance of wealth, business interests, old pro-fascists, America Firsters and rabid anti-communists had a bloodthirsty eagerness to use force to hold back the tide.
The National Review was the front organ for the more rabid Human Events. The Young Americans for Freedom was the front organization for the John Birch Society. It was a time that grew out of the McCarthy Era and made its progenitor look tame. Still it was not the top-down institutional neo-fascism that’s gripped America since January 20, 2001. In 1968 it was still societal and informal even if in both cases snarling hate for anything that challenged the entrenched norm was the order of the day.
After supper on the night of April 4, 1968, I went back to my depressing dorm room to ready myself for rehearsal. On my way out my suite-mate, Lenny Kornberg, was listening to the radio and told me that Dr. King had been shot. I went to rehearsal not knowing whether he was alive or dead but fearing the worst. By the time rehearsal ended for me some other cast members had brought the news that King was dead.
On returning from rehearsal, I went into my room and shut the door. I sat at my desk numb for I don’t know how long, certainly less than half an hour. I sat there only until the celebration began.
Out my open window I heard voices, then cheers and fireworks. Some of my classmates were having an impromptu celebration of Dr. King’s murder.
I couldn’t take it. I put on my coat, grabbed a flashlight and went out to the quiet and peace of the bench in the formal garden of the Root Glen. By the time I got there I was moving from fury at the scum celebrating in the Dunham courtyard to an overwhelming sadness for my country and my world. I sat on that bench and cried for more than half an hour.
The night had grown misty. I was cold. Eventually I was worn out. I went back to my dorm. The next day I heard and read about the rioting that had erupted. I resolved to place my hope in Eugene McCarthy though I’d be quite happy to have Bobby Kennedy as president too. I crawled into bed believing that there might still be hope that we could salvage America from the fear merchants.
I was wrong.

[P. S. (November 8, 2011)  Not long ago a friend of mine mentioned that he'd read this entry. He asked me how many of my classmates were out celebrating Dr. King's murder that night. I told him that I did not know. It certainly was at least two and, from the cheering I heard rather more than three. Richard then made the point that a group of two or three or four racists was different from having a majority of my fellow students celebrating. On the surface he's correct but that is, I'm afraid, a parsing of the situation that is inaccurate as it is comforting. That anyone was out cheering a murder is pretty appalling. It's the same repulsion I felt at the dancing in the streets the night Osama bin Laden was killed. I'm not sorry that bin Laden is gone. He was a man of disgusting evil made worse by it's veneer of religiosity, much like Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps or Terry Jones. Personally, I'd be privately pleased if any of them were shot through the eye; however, I'm not about to dance in the streets should they be. What is worthy of note is that the college took no action against the celebrants. The incident didn't raise as much concern as fraternity vandalism.

What I would point out an illustrative incident that took place almost exactly two years later. By 1970 Hamilton College had undergone some changes. The coordinate women's college, Kirkland (since absorbed into Hamilton) opened in the autumn of 1968 bringing some civilization to the campus. The times and attitudes were slowly changing toward a consensus for personal liberty though the national slide into fascism was accelerating. We actually had significant numbers of students participating in efforts to keep military recruiters off the campus. On Thursday, April 30, 1970, Richard Nixon went on television to announce that his "secret plan to end the war in Vietnam" included, as all neo-fascist "peace plans" always do, expanding the war into Cambodia. The response from America's campuses was predictable and angry but largely non-violent. That opposition was most definitely growing. Over the weekend Republican President Nixon referred to the protesters as "thugs". On Monday, May 4, 1970, as the school year was winding toward its conclusion, the Ohio National guard under the direction of Republican Governor James Rhodes, murdered four students and wounded sixteen others. Ten days later the Mississippi State Police murdered two black students at Jackson State. Largely in response to the Kent State murders a national student strike gained momentum and reached the Hamilton Campus. A group of my fellow students, motivated by worries that the police and military were now shooting white students like themselves and seeing more of an opportunity for advancement than a way to express a real conviction, convened a meeting in the college chapel.

The student strike committee had commitments of cash for supporting strike activities and there were various resolutions on how to apply that cash to express the opposition of Hamilton and Kirkland students to Nixon's expansion of the war. Among the requests for money was one from the Black Student Union for a modest amount. I don't recall the amount exactly but don't think it was more than $250. The debate went on longer than for many more dubious requests we'd already approved. I rose to advocate for the allotment to the black student group. Another man rose to oppose it and said the we had no idea how "those people" would spend the money. I replied that his statement was the most racist comment of the many I'd heard during that debate. I was generally and loudly booed by hundreds of students for pointing out that they were actually racist and ended up shouting down the entire assembly. The black students did not get any money from the strike committee and no one ever got an accounting of how the white students spent what they'd reserved to themselves. The point is that Hamilton College's administration and its student body in the years from 1967 through 1971 tended toward an easy, passive racism of which the celebration of Dr. King's murder was a stand out example regardless of whether two or two hundred students were out that night setting off fireworks. Not everyone was racist. I knew many who were not. I also know that we were a distinct minority of the student body.]