Monday, November 26, 2012

It Looks As If the Pope and I Aren't Going to Be Friends After All

I don't think I'm going to be reading Benedict XVI's new book about the birth and infancy of Jesus. On the Amazon page for that book, there is an excerpt from Chapter 1. That excerpt was enough for me. As some wise man has said frequently, you don't need to drink the whole ocean to know that it's salty. (Oh yeah, that's right -- it's me! I'm the wise man who came up with that one.) You don't need to read an entire book to know that it's silly.

In the excerpt, as you can see, Benedict comments upon the meeting of Jesus and Pilate in John, chapters 18 and 19, with reference to some other passages from the Bible. And as you can also see if you read chapters 18 and 19 in John, Benedict gets a lot out of those passages which wasn't in them to begin with. For example, three sentences from Benedict say: "All this must have seemed like madness to the Roman judge. And yet he could not shake off the mysterious impres­sion left by this man, so different from those he had met before who resisted Roman domination and fought for the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. The Roman judge asks where Jesus is from in order to understand who he really is and what he wants."

It's good that we have Benedict to "interpret" things for us. Because the Bible actually doesn't say that it all must have seemed like madness to Pilate, nor that Jesus gave him a mysterious impression, nor that Pilate could not shake off this impression, nor that Jesus was different from others Pilate had met, nor why Pilate asked where Jesus was from.

Of course, this sort of thing is familiar to anyone who's heard a certain type of Christian sermon, where the pastor or priest first reads a passage from the Bible somewhere between one and ten verses long, and then proceeds to comment upon that passage for half an hour or longer. Assuming you're not speaking to an audience composed of linguists, historians or textual critics, and sometimes even then, it's very hard, maybe impossible, to go on for so long about a passage so short without straight-up making stuff up. Now, I have no problem with this as long as you are clear that what you are presenting is historical fiction, as I was clear when I called the book I wrote about Pilate and Jesus what it is: a novel.

When theologians do it they call it exegesis. The Methodist theologian Ben Witherington calls it exegesis. Here Witherington describes some of his adventures preceeding the publication in 2011 of the Pope's book about Jesus during the Holy Week. To his obvious great excitement, he was chosen by someone connected in some way with the Pope to participate in a discussion of the Pope's new book: 4 Catholic scholars, 1 Jew, and just 1 Protestant. Witherington doesn't make clear whether he was asked to take part in this discussion or just told that he would do so. I assume it's the former, but he doesn't actually say. (See what I did there, kiddies? I could have indulged in exegesis, but I didn't, I actually confined myself to the information contained in Witherington's written account.) Witherington says that he had to read and digest the book in a great hurry in order to be ready to participate in this discussion. He doesn't say whether there was such a hurry because he was the Vatican's 12th choice to be the token Protestant. Poor puppy, I wonder whether such a thing even occurred to him. He just says, "I considered this an honor. Somebody out there must trust me as an exegete and a theologian."

And he considers the Pope to be a very great exegete indeed, and happy happy joy joy bla bla bla. Not only do these people believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, disturbed in this belief neither by modern scholarship nor common sense, they applaud each other for embellishing greatly upon the Bible, they dress up their common wish not to want to know with academic jargon, they praise each other to the skies as great theologians, and insist that a great theologian, a great Student of He Who Is Not, is a great intellectual, just as much as Nietzsche or Russell or Sartre is, the better, I think, to drown out the derisive laughter of those few brighter people who have troubled to look in upon their little academic fiefdom.

In that excerpt from his new book Benedict refers to Pilate as "The 'enlight­ened' Roman judge, who had already expressed skepticism regarding the question of truth (cf. Jn 18:38)" To me, that one question of Pilate's, "What is truth?" alone makes him the most interesting character in the entire Bible, the only one who might actually be thinking about things in a challenging and deep way. (Not that I assume that Pilate ever actually posed such a question, simply because the Bible states that he did.) To Benedict it makes him worthy of derision, of being called "enlightened" only with that word in quotation marks. So, for all his elegant prose and imposing jargon, Benedict is anti-intellectual. Like a snake-handling televangelist, but better-spoken. What a shame. He and I can't be friends, it's just not in the cards. Each of our raisons d'etre is to oppose the other and what he stands for.

And "exegesis," at least when it refers to Bible interpretation, is Greek for "pulling stuff out of your butt."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Last Night's Dream Was Sort of Like a Symphony in Three Movements Plus a Coda

1st Movement: Menace Intrudes Upon Beauty I was driving a car which was not large -- it could have been a Saturn Ion like the one I drive in real life -- on a crowded road which wound through a very picturesque urban landscape. It could have been Edmondton, Alberta, Canada, parts of which are very picturesque and have winding roads.

Less nice was that a very large vehicle was following very close, so large and so close that I had no idea what kind of vehicle it was. All I could see in the rearview mirrors was a patch of sheetmetal painted silver grey, somewhere below the windshield. Its impatience to pass was clear, and I would gladly have given it room, but I had no room to give: I was as close to the vehicle ahead of me as I was going to get, the shoulder was too narrow to pull off and the lane to the left of us -- this was a very nice four-lane avenue with trees and manicured grass in the middle -- was as stacked-up as we were.

Finally I pulled into the parking lot of a discount-warehouse type store, and an enormous silver-grey bus zoomed past on the road from behind me with its bus-horn blaring. Jerk!

2nd Movement: The Menace Increases But So Does the Beauty and Tenderness Inside the wholesale discount store, which had many low-ceilinged stories and walls of concrete blocks buttressed by rude timbers, and which reminded me of a place where poultry or rabbits were inhumanely raised, I was soon being pursued by a crime organization. I didn't know what I had done to offend them. My only guess was that maybe the maniac who'd been driving that silver-grey bus was one of them. Many of the people inside the store, which seemed to belong to the gang, were members of the gang, but they weren't being obvious: rather, they did their best to blend in with the customers and sneak up on me. A young man pushed me into a corner. He was smiling in a very strange way, which might have been meant to be threatening. He was saying equally-enigmatic things which might have been threats. I really wasn't certain whether this young man was a gangster or just very odd. But since he was not letting me pass peacefully out of the corner, I felt I had to punch him in the face. This left him groggy, and I was able to get away. I felt bad about punching him, but I felt that my life was in danger and that I had to do some desperate things to stay alive.

At this point I was joined by my girlfriend. I was upset with myself for getting her into this situation, and determined to keep her from all harm. She was not any specifically identifiable person from real life. She was very pretty, bearing a slight resemblance to the actress Lauren Ambrose -- slight enough that it was unlikely someone would mistake one of them for the other. Her hair was cut into a very short pageboy, and she was wearing a simple dress with a denim jacket over it and sneakers. I felt a very great tender affection for her.

No matter how many flights of stairs we descended, it seemed, looking out the windows, that we never got much closer to the ground. At this point I seemed semi-aware that I was dreaming, and I got angry with myself because in real life we would have been out of that building long ago by now. I was determined to get out in spite of the unrealistic frustrating aspect of the dream stairs. On the 2nd floor we found a parking garage. We broke into a huge old Cadillac, I hotwired it and we drove right through one of those concrete-block walls, falling to the ground without injuring ourselves, and with the Cadillac right side up and still running, and I drove us to a nearby mall.

3rd Movement: Love Flees We were inside the mall. If the gangsters weren't in the mall already, they would be very soon. We had no money. I told my girlfriend that we would have to steal clothes that looked very different and change into them, and then go to a salon and change the colors of our hair and dash out without paying, in order to save our lives. And so we did exactly that. With our appearances changed, we held each other tight and felt each other's hearts pounding. My girlfriend said that if we could get a hundred miles away in any direction, we probably would be safe. I told her it was unfortunately more like five hundred miles in most directions and a thousand miles in some directions.

Coda: I Tell Mr Smug What's What A white-haired, pink-faced man with a long pointy nose and an unpleasant smug smirk was about to write The Meaning of the Dream into a an enormous book with a quill dipped in ink. In his opinion the dream had meant something about how dogs rule and cats suck. I said, "Hold on there smug guy. There are people like you who love dogs and hate cats, and there are people who love cats and hate dogs, and then there are people like my beautiful girlfriend here and I who love both cats and dogs and post pictures like this
on the Internet."

Monday, November 12, 2012

Hey There, Paul Krugman!

You didn't endorse Obama, didn't campaign for him, criticized him during the campaign with no apparent thought at all about whether the criticism came at politically inopportune moments, and the only Presidential administration you have worked for was Reagan's, that's right, REAGAN'S!

And now that Obama has managed to get re-elected by a wide margin even without you getting your hands dirty by helping him, you've got some advice for him.

Well I've got some advice for you too: sit back, relax, enjoy a nice steaming-hot mug of STFU and stop constantly stepping on the dicks of the political pros as they try to actually accomplish something. Because that's what politics is about, it's the part you never could handle, never wanted to have anything to do with: accomplishing things, doing what is possible, dealing with what is rather than lecturing the world about what should be. The latter is your job. Just please don't confuse it with politics. And please stop telling Obama what will and won't work politically. It's like a man blind from birth grabbing Picasso's brush arm as he tries to paint and lecturing him about art. Obama knows what he's doing, and it's difficult enough as it is. With "advisors" like you, he really doesn't need saboteurs. Please, Paul, at long last, take your appropriate place in politics: work for the Green party. Be Ralph Nader's successor, the Great Stupid Third-Party Hope. Unless and until the US gets proportional representation. Then working for the Greens won't be silly and useless at all anymore, and you'll have to find something else to do, something appropriate to your talents, as they say.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Wrong Monkey Endorses Obama/Biden 2012, And The Straight Democratic Ticket

-- just in case that wasn't already perfectly clear to everyone.

Like some others on the Left, I am a bit disappointed in the current administration for a few things: ramping up the insane, inhumane War on Drugs; being a little too cozy with some big businesses, and too accommodating with Republicans, most of whom have made it clear they have absolutely no intention of reciprocating.

Unlike those few turnips who are voting Green or Socialist or another party to the left of the Democrats, besides grasping the concept of proportional representation, and the fact that we don't have it yet in the US, as I explained in my previous post, I understand that politics means compromising to achieve something rather than sticking strictly to my ideals and accomplishing nothing, or worse than nothing, as that nincompoop Ralph Nader and his nincompoop followers did when they helped W take the Presidency in 2000. (Nota bene, as usual, I did not say that W was elected President, because I don't think he was.) And unlike them, I can see the huge obvious differences between Obama and Romney, and between Democrats in general and Republicans in general. Democrats actually want government to help people who need help. Republicans want to work people to death at sweat-shop wages and let them die in the streets -- or the ER's, as the case may be. Democrats respect women. Republicans say that their "religious freedom" includes their right to push women's rights back to the 19th century. Many of them, let's be clear, are not only against all abortion, they're against all birth control. Romney and Ryan won't go on the record with this last bit, but neither will they call out and denounce the whackos in their party who are the record in this way. Romney and Ryan also won't distance themselves from the birthers and the racists. Decent people who are more than half-witted need to send the Republicans a real message here. Not just in the Presidential race but all the way down the ticket.

Get out and vote! I know that many of you already have: help get others to the polls. Let's do this, hard. Let's show the whackos that the grown-ups are still in charge.

(And then after the election we can start to get on Obama's case to end the Drug War, and to be more serious about financial and corporate regulation and the environment and so forth. And we can promote a change to proportional representation. After the election. One thing at a time. I repeat: politics means compromising to achieve something rather than sticking to your ideals and thereby accomplishing nothing or worse than nothing. Vote Democrat.)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Proportional Representation

Since 2005 the Chancellor of Germany has been Angela Merkel of the CDU, the Christian Democrats, the conservatives, a party which has very much in common with the Republicans in the US, including, traditionally, a very cozy relationship with the petrochemical industry and the disdain for less-poisonous forms of energy generation which goes with that relationship. But Merkel broke dramatically with that position. She has supported a massive change to green energy. When she took office as Chancellor in 2005, the percentage of electricity in Germany generated by renewable means was around 10%, in 2011 it was over 20%, as we speak it's over 25% and growing fast. By comparison, when W was "elected" in 2000, a little less than 9.5% percent of the electricity in the US was generated by renewable means, and when Obama was elected in 2008 the percentage was about exactly the same. Now it's somewhere between 12.5 and 15% and growing, which is definitely a nice improvement, but Barack, of the more forward-leaning, progressive, green-friendly of the major parties in the US, is not even close to keeping up with the conservative, traditionalist Angela when it comes to being green. What's going on here? Are Germans just more intelligent?

No. I've been to Germany, and believe me, they're just as stupid as anyone else. But they have something that we don't have: (I feel like the Wizard of Oz here) proportional representation. In Germany, any party polling over 5% in an election gets a share of the national, statewide or local legislature chosen in that election, and since it hardly ever happens that one party gets over 50% of the vote, they have to come up with a coalition of parties of over 50%, and that coalition forms the administration. One of the things this means is that in Germany, (or France, or Belgium, or Italy, or Norway, or Finland, or a lot of other countries) if you vote Green, you're not throwing your vote away. This in turn means that a lot more people vote Green in countries with proportional representation than here in the US with our quaint antiquated winner-take-all system, although popular support for renewable energy is as strong here as elsewhere. And in turn that means that no political party in those countries can ignore the Greens anymore. Not even the Christian Democrats in Germany, the party of Helmut Kohl, appropriately named because Kohl means coal and traditionally the Christian Democrats have just looooooved coal and been paid very well to do so. Even before he retired back in 1998, Kohl was forced to say publicly that the Greens weren't so bad, something which sounded downright bizarre coming from him, something which since then Christian Democrats say quite often, especially when they're not getting along so well with the Social Democrats. The Greens have made it into national administrations in quite a few countries as the junior partner of the Social Democrats (Joschka Fischer, the most prominent single German Green politician so far, was Gerhard Schroeder's Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor from 1998 to 2005), into state and local administrations in coalitions with the Social Democrats and with others, sometimes in coalitions with the Christian Democrats, (or whatever the conservative party is called in a particular country) sometimes in coalitions of three or more parties, as the senior partner in some places, and the next Chancellor of Germany could conceivably be a Green. That's the sort of thing that can happen in a country with a political system which lets you vote for a third or forth or fifth party without throwing your vote away.

The sort of system we don't have yet, remember, so first things first: vote for Obama if you haven't yet, and for every other Democrat you can; and then support a Constitutional amendment to let you vote Green if you want to, or Socialist or Pirate or (shudder) Libertarian -- there are Libertarians (Free Democrats, they're called) in the Bundestag along with the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats and Leftists and Greens, and Pirates will surely be in the next one, elected next year -- or anyone else you might happen to like better than the candidate put up by either the Democrats or the Republicans, without throwing your vote away. Imagine such a thing.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Yet Another Idiot From Real Life!

IDIOT: I wish I lived in a swing state. Not only would Obama and Romney actually care about my vote, my vote would count! My vote has been written off by the media and the two major presidential campaigns. I voted third party! I voted against the status-quo and for real change!

ME: Well aren't you special! Now, if you want to do something which could actually lead to real change, support amending the Constitution so that we have proportional representation like they have in many other countries, where voting for a third or fourth or fifth or sixth party is not throwing your vote away.

IDIOT: How would that weaken the two party system? You think for one moment the two parties will do anything to help third parties? Every time congress passes a law about campaign finances or elections, it's for one reason and one reason only: protect incumbents! If you vote democrat or republican, you're just enabling the status quo, voting for more dead soldiers, and voting for fewer civil liberties!

At this point I considered giving up, but I gave it one more try:

ME: Seriously, how would proportional representation weaken the two-party system? It would completely do away with the two party system.

IDIOT: How so? Would the two parties still control the debates? Would they still control how money is spent on campaigns? Would incumbents still get free mailings?

It's depressing. Some things are so simple that I don't know how to explain them. I don't have the patience to be a teacher of morons.