‘Politics and world affairs’ Posts

The Unbeliever’s Dilemma

Monday, October 26th, 2009

A new atheist ad campaign hits the New York City subways this week. A group called the Coalition of Reason is sponsoring posters declaring that "A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?" The campaign aims to give non-believing New Yorkers assurance that they're not alone. This seems unnecessary in New York; the anonymous donor might have spent his or her money better in some Bible Belt city, someplace where nonbelievers really do feel marginalized. But it did get me thinking.

The "million" figure comes from the famous 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, which found 15 percent of respondents claimed to have no religious affiliation. In terms of New York's population, that points to roughly a million people. While the numbers may lack precision, there are certainly millions of Americans who don't believe in God. President Obama's acknowledgment of nonbelievers in his Inaugural Address was a small but significant gesture towards recognition of this population.

But awareness campaigns can go only so far. Nonbelievers in a country dominated by religious people will always labor under the near-impossibility of being able to prove a negative.

The term "atheist" and the question "Do you believe in God?" pose an oppositional conundrum similar to what occurs when I ask, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" In asking the question that way, I'm stipulating that you have beaten your wife at some time in the past, regardless of whether you have since stopped. Similarly, if I say "I am an atheist" or "I don't believe in God," the very phrasing puts me in opposition to something I don't recognize as existing – theos, a god, a supernatural being.

Hence the term "atheist" defines me according to a belief system I don't accept; it places me in a world in which there may be an entity people refer to as "God," and in which I am something like a scientist who doesn't accept a certain theory because he believes the evidence is inadequate or has a rival theory. But that picture does not accurately describe a naturalistic worldview. In my conception, a naturalistic worldview by definition does not stand in opposition to some competing worldview. It isn't one of a number of possible theories posited to explain some phenomenon; rather it has defined a supernatural worldview out of existence. "Naturalistic" means "with reference to what is." In nature, in the world, in the universe, there are things that are. Of course, there is much that is unobservable to us, and perhaps some things that we will never observe. Still, these things are. Anything else is speculative or imaginary.

Saying "I don't believe in God" is somewhat better than using the term "atheist," because it at least refutes the superstition implied in the term "belief." But it suggests that the alternative, "believing in God," is somehow of equal logical weight. The oppositional conundrum still applies. The term "belief" itself is weighted. In its religious sense, "belief" means trusting in the existence of supernatural beings and events that one has not personally observed (and which, since they are supernatural, are also, to a naturalist, nonexistent, hence unobservable). To a pure naturalist, this kind of "belief" is an almost meaningless concept. Opposing it is like arguing with the wind.

Miracles are a prime example. These are fictional phenomena that, by definition, defy natural law, or else real phenomena that witnesses could not explain because the necessary scientific knowledge is or was not yet available. "Believing in" miracles means accepting a supernatural origin for (currently or formerly) unexplained phenomena. This was understandable in pre-scientific cultures. It is far less understandable today. Angels are another example – fictional characters firmly "believed in" by some of the same adults who are just as sure Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are made up. As with miracles, there is no logical explanation for such beliefs. Logic isn't relevant – people believe these things on faith. Thoughtful theologians often have no problem admitting as much.

Ideally, there should be (philosophically speaking) no conflict between science and religion. They operate on different mental planes. Unfortunately our terminology too often doesn't let us – believers and nonbelievers – see that. Instead we see things in terms of opposition and conflict. We "atheists" and naturalistic thinkers continue to struggle to find accurate and acceptable terms with which to describe ourselves, using a language whose very terms deny the reality we perceive.

To follow a lively discussion on this post or leave a comment, please click over to where it is posted at Blogcritics.

The Re-Education of a Road Trip Nation

Friday, August 7th, 2009

I've been driving a lot this summer, but getting behind the wheel is feeling more and more like a Last Days scenario.

I don't mean the end of the world, although of course that's possible. I mean the end of an automobile-centric way of life. No one has come up with a convincing solution to the dual problems of finite fuel and climate change. One way or another, it seems likely that we're going to be giving up our cars — if not this generation, then next.

Being a city dweller, I have a car mostly for weekends and vacation trips. I also need it for work, but only sort of; if I weren't a part-time working musician, with heavy equipment to lug around to gigs, I'd probably be like most Manhattanites and not own a car at all.

And so, despite being a car owner, I'm a public transportation snob. I think that if you are a patriotic American, or (more important) a patriotic citizen of Earth, and you are not a farmer, you should be living in or near a city and taking public transportation to work. If that's not practical now, you should be actively planning for it. And the governments of the world should be using carrots, then (eventually) sticks where needed, to aim societies in that direction.

Yet there's this nice house in the country, see…

Since my mother retired a couple of years ago to her house in Vermont, I find myself imagining retiring there too someday, assuming the house stays in the family. This actually takes quite an effort of imagination, because the prospects of my actually retiring, at any age, seem quite dim. But still. These dreams and pleasures lie deep in our natures.

Having a spread of land that's our own, whether real or just an aspiration, appeals deeply to our territorial side. Having access, and means, to hit the open road and go where we please when we please, whether it's to visit distant friends or relatives, spend time with nature, or just get away from something — that goes very deep as well. Perhaps it's a manifestation of our essential internal conflict. You know the one: between our earthbound reality and our mental capacity to dream to infinity.

Wherever we get them from, these ideas are not easy to give up, especially for Americans. Our foundational frontier tradition and our Eisenhower Interstate Highway System make sure of that.

So if these kinds of dreams have to die, they will die hard. The white picket fence, the second home in the country, the family road trip… whenever I turn the key in the ignition and roll off this once-Dutch island into the vastness of the mainland United States, I can't help thinking of these hopes and dreams grinding to a halt.

The Sound of Victory

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

This is an MP3 of the sound out our window just after 11 PM when CNN called the election for Obama. There was no crowd in the street, no rally, just the sound of people yelling from their apartments on an average New York City street.

Voting

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

The TV news is carrying stories about poll problems in some locations around New York City, but voting was pretty well organized and non-problematic this morning for us. We had to wait about 40 minutes. One celebrity sighting at the polls: Tim Robbins.


Voting - Nov. 4 2008

Update: Gothamist explains why Tim Robbins was sitting in a folding chair looking annoyed.

Burning the Future: Seeing the Lights Go Off On Broadway

Friday, October 24th, 2008

The powerful new documentary Burning the Future: Coal in America explains how critical coal power is to the US economy and to Americans' energy-greedy way of life. It also focuses on the terrible effects modern mining has on the lives of people who live in Appalachian coal country. Specifically, the film documents the contamination of the water supply and its effects on human health. It also condemns mountaintop removal mining in no uncertain terms.

This modern form of coal extraction relies on heavy explosives to get the coal from the tops of mountains, rather than using large numbers of miners to burrow underground for it. There are some who defend mountaintop mining, but a quick glance at a few photos is enough to convince many that the practice should be outlawed.

The economics and science of coal and coal mining are complex, but in terms of cost to the environment it's safe to say that coal is a dirty source of energy. Most environmentalists believe the US should wean itself off coal.

However, the film raises another, related issue. One certainly sympathizes with people whose lands and water are being polluted, whose children are being sickened, by nearby coal mining operations. But enjoying a modern, comfortable way of life while living in relatively remote areas just might not be sustainable in the first place.

Two scenes in the film brought this home to me. Both occur on a trip to New York City taken by several courageous West Virginia environmental activists who have been invited to testify before a UN commission.

The final leg of the activists' journey takes place via New Jersey Transit. Sitting on the train, one of them observes that she's never been on a train before. To someone who grew up in the northeast, that's almost unbelievable. Never been on a train? Not an Amtrak, a commuter train, a subway train? Never once?

But where she comes from, you have to get everywhere by car. Simple as that. And there are far too many people in this country who have to get everywhere by car.

The second scene occurs when the leader of the activists, the admirable Maria Gunnoe, stands in Times Square, looks up at the huge, brightly lit advertisements looming everywhere, and cries out for New York to turn out these lights. Don't New Yorkers know that their incessant demand for energy is ruining the land elsewhere in the country?

It's a powerful moment. One could, of course, point out that the bright lights of Times Square are one of New York's biggest tourist attractions, and the city depends heavily on the tourist trade. But one can understand Gunnoe's reaction, and one feels in one's bones that she's – at least a little – right.

No, the bigger point the scene raises is that, however much energy might be "wasted" keeping Times Square "Times Square," city residents have smaller carbon footprints than people who live on houses with land.

People who live in houses need cars, every day. They have more rooms to heat and cool than city dwellers do. They might have the proverbial white picket fence, but inside their fences suburbanites waste huge amounts of water keeping their lawns artificially green. People who live in the suburbs or the sticks get none of the economies of scale that come with apartment living. And that was all fine when populations were smaller, gas was cheap, and the effects of our material prosperity on the planet were less well understood. I don't think it's fine any more.

In the film, one of the West Virginians worries that by the time his kids grow up, pollution may have made it impossible for them to continue living where they were brought up. I hope they can, he says.

From a family standpoint, that's sad. But in a way, I hope they can't. I'm certainly not cheering on the pollution, the destructive mining, or the continued dependence on dirty energy. Unless mining and burning coal can be made truly clean, phase it out, for the sake of the planet. But also for the sake of the planet, those country kids should move to a city. In fact, I'll go out on a limb: by the year 2040, unless your business is farming, your family ought to be living in a city.

By then, I hope it'll be really, really hard to find an American who's never been on a train.

Moments of Redemption

Monday, October 13th, 2008

A couple of things happened today that helped, a little, to restore my faith in America as a fit place for humans.

It wasn't the polls, which continued to show Barack Obama ahead in the popular vote and (more importantly) on the electoral map. It wasn't the Wall Street rebound; after all, stocks were due for a bounce after a huge wave of panic selling.

No, I'm talking about little things. Little things that mean a lot.

First, there was a telling moment at an Obama rally in Ohio. "Now, my opponent…" the candidate began. "Boo!" called out some of the crowd. "Now, we don't need that," said Obama, hushing them quickly. "We need you to vote." And the crowd responded with a cheer. Here, in a couple of seconds, was a partisan crowd being reminded of, then drawing upon, their better natures. Primed to grab for the bait, instead they rejected the option to answer in kind the vitriol that's been flaring up at some of McCain and Palin's recent events.

Second was something the economist and journalist Paul Krugman said during an interview on NPR after winning this year's Nobel Prize in Economics. Asked who should have foreseen the severity of the economic crisis, he answered, "I should have." He went on to say that a lot of people should have, and singled out Alan Greenspan for ignoring warnings. But Krugman first pointed the finger at himself.

Mea culpas are far too rare in American society.  In Japan, businessmen who fail at their jobs tend to apologize and resign.  In America, they get golden parachutes and rarely admit personal responsibility. In America, candidates' economic advisers take purely partisan lines and won't admit that an opposing point might have any validity whatsoever.

Paul Krugman did something different today, something more honorable.  It was a very little thing.  But like the Obama crowd's sudden veer towards positivity, it was a bright spot in a difficult and dark time.

Humanity rears its mild, non-hate-filled head. Twice in one day!  Imagine that.

NOTE: Discussion of this post is ongoing at Blogcritics.

The Politics of “Why”

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Children are always asking "Why?" They want to understand what they observe. They want to know what lies behind things. They want to be able to read some order and sense into the world.

As adults, we get out of the habit of asking why. Why? Because "Why?" can be a very uncomfortable question. Growing up means learning to function in society, which requires keeping our relationships with the people around us running smoothly, avoiding offense. That's great for greasing the gears of surface society. But it's bad for real mutual understanding.

Those of us who are politically engaged find ourselves arguing repetitively during election cycles and times of controversy. Back and forth we pitch our opinions, our arguments, even allowing them to devolve into insults and spitefulness. Why?

Maybe because we've grown out of the habit of asking why.

Instead of taking offense at one another's convictions, let's ask each other why. Why do you believe what you believe? You seem so sure of it. But how is it possible that you are so sure of your position, while I am equally sure of the exact opposite position?

My view seems so obvious to me that it shouldn't even need explanation. Yours seems the same way to you. Clearly, we're both making false assumptions about what's self-evident and what isn't. So let's stop assuming. Let's put our cards on the table. Let's be honest with those we're talking with, and with ourselves, about why we hold our opinions.

Have we thought them through? Or did we just inherit them from our parents or fellow students or teachers? Do we like them because they're aesthetically appealing? Because they come from rhetorically gifted writers or politicians or fake newscasters? Because they appeal on an emotional level? Or because they make logical sense?

Are they based on current information, or on old information?

While we're at it, let's go further. Let's not be ashamed to admit the validity of an opposing argument. It's not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of using our brains. An argument can be valid, yet weaker than an opposing argument. Just because I'm convinced I'm right doesn't mean everything you think is idiotic, and vice versa.

What makes us disagree about, say, tax policy? If we both possess basic common sense and a normal amount of compassion for the unfortunate – and let's assume we do – what makes you so sure a certain tax policy is beneficial to society, or fair, and me so sure that your policy is hurtful or unfair? Both of us can marshal some evidence to support our positions. But what is it that puts my argument over the top for me, and yours for you? What's our reasoning behind our opinions? And what are our feelings? Feelings are valid too – we're emotional creatures.

To take an even more divisive example, it's "common sense" to me that if a being can't survive outside its mother's body, it's not an individual, so a woman should have the right to end her pregnancy. And even if we do grant the fetus some rights, they obviously have to be subordinate to those of its mother, who is already a functional, independent human being.

I say "obviously" – but what that really means is, it's obvious to me. It's obviously not obvious to everyone. Some people believe that "life begins at conception" – that as soon as there is conception, there exists a new individual being with the full rights of any born person. But if that belief comes from a religious interpretation, which it usually does, wouldn't enshrining it in secular law be imposing your religious beliefs on me? Can't you understand that? I hope you can, because I've just explained the why behind my opinion.

On the other hand, if the law of the land allows abortion, and you believe abortion is murder, how can you help but oppose that law and want to change it? Can't I understand that? Sure I can, since you've explained why.

Let's try to understand. And without getting angry.

We may never agree on some issues, but if we lay out where our convictions come from, we ought to still be able to be civil to each other, get along, and maybe work towards, say, reducing the number of abortions by discouraging teen pregnancy. Or coming up with a tax policy most of us can live with.

It all starts with asking why.

Cern Burn

Friday, June 20th, 2008

I feel vaguely disappointed that the Large Hadron Collidor, scheduled to go on line in the fall, has been deemed “no threat to Earth or the universe.” I liked the idea of scientists accidentally creating a world-consuming black hole or a cosmos-collapsing quogulum.*

Now we have to go back to worrying about environmental destruction, terrorism, and economic decline – slow, painful ways for civilizations to die. How icky.

*Quogulum (n): a big unexplained science thingie that destroys the universe. I just made it up. Go ahead, use it.

Theater Review (NYC): Dirt

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

There are two compelling reasons to see the new production of Dirt at Under St. Marks. First: after this important play's current run, it's off to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and who knows if or when it'll be back in New York. Second: Austrian-American actor Christopher John Domig's performance is one of those in which a play and an actor's work within the play seem inextricably bound.

Certainly, another actor could perform this one-man show, but while you're watching Domig, you can't imagine it. (Domig is actually responsible for having the play translated into English from the original German, in which the title is Dreck.)

Sad (Domig) is an illegal Iraqi immigrant working as a peddler in a western city. Paul Dvorak's potent translation suggests that the city is New York, but it could be anywhere in the West. Created by Austrian playwright Robert Schneider in the early 1990s in response to the first Iraq war, the character of Sad (short for Saddam) could be any alienated immigrant from a non-first-world country transplanted to any rich city.

On another level, though, Sad's monologue hits very specific targets. Domig's complete fusion with his character makes him a particular kind of Everyman, displaced and struggling, but induced to bottle up his anger and turn it against himself.

DirtThe monologue is punctuated by the phrase "I have no right to…" Sad feels he has no right to shout, to use public toilets, even to sit. "I'd never sit down on a park bench in this city."  Yet, in a tricky and sometimes scary game with the audience, he continually accuses himself of lying. Is his name even Saddam? "The truth is never elegant," he says, and though that may not always be the case for us, we accept – we know – that it is for him.

Whoever he is, he knows he cannot be loved, so he invites hatred and abuse instead because at least it's something. The blatant racism of Austria, circa 1992, may not have an exact corollary in New York City in 2008 – neither does the presence of public toilets, incidentally – but that's all the more reason to see the play now and explore this particular heart of darkness; it's easy to forget that it is always lurking.

The "story" is all interior to Sad's mind, yet the play feels as closely plotted as if it were a cleverly made, multi-character drama. The themes and repetitions in Schneider's language suggest a carefully constructed musical piece, a sonata or symphony. (The action is aided by subtle sound design by Greg Brostrom.) "My name is Sad, but I am not sad…"

When you leave the theater, you're thinking about the excellent performance and the fine writing, but after sleeping on it, you're left thinking, rather gloomily, about what it all means, and how startlingly relevant it remains even though it was written after a different and much smaller war.

Dirt runs through April 26 at Under St. Marks, NYC. Get tickets online or call (212) 868-4444.

Photo Credit: Jordan Craven

Edwards vs. Huckabee – The Match-Up Democrats Would Love To See

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

Republican hopeful Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, would lose badly to any of the top three Democratic presidential candidates, according to the latest CNN poll. He’d lose to Hillary Clinton by 10 points, to Barack Obama by 15, and by a whopping 25 points to former Senator John Edwards.

The fact that Edwards often comes out on top in the electability horse race ought to be as big a story as Huckabee’s ascendance in the Republican field. This is only the latest poll to show Edwards beating potential Republican opponents by larger margins than Clinton or Obama. But Edwards’s populist passion on the stump, hardworking campaign organization (especially in Iowa), and excellent general election poll numbers aren’t getting him into the mainstream media. Why? Mainly because he refuses to accept special-interest money, working instead within the system of Federal matching funds that the other major candidates have declined. Hence he doesn’t have the budget for as much nationwide exposure as Clinton or Obama.

Part of Edwards’s high poll numbers may simply stem from his having fewer negatives than the other top-tier Democrats. A lot of people, including important swing voters, don’t like Hillary Clinton, for reasons that are at root primarily sexist. Obama, despite his star quality, faces a racial barrier, and many consider him insufficiently experienced. Edwards, however, is a white male Southerner, just like the last two successful Democratic presidential candidates.

Edwards is the most progressive of the top three Democrats, and his positions have populist appeal, in line with Democratic America, which, confronted with an enormous health care crisis and disgusted with the persistence of widespread poverty, is swinging generally leftward. Importantly, Edwards also gets points for sincerity, and the American electorate is serious about sincerity, as Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton are finding out to their dismay. (On the Republican side, Rudolph Giuliani has benefitted from being forthcoming about his rather wretched personal life and his support for liberal positions on social issues.)

In sum, Edwards has two big things going for him, and no major negatives except the big one: not enough money. Something is wrong with this picture, but we all knew that.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics where some comments have been posted.

Theater Review (NYC): The Puppetmaster of Lodz

Thursday, December 6th, 2007

With apologies to John Lennon, war is never over, not even if you want it. Case in point: Samuel Finkelbaum, a Holocaust survivor holed up in a one-room flat in occupied Berlin five years after the end of World War II. An imaginative showman and puppeteer with a tendency towards megalomania, Finkel refuses to believe the war is over, and won’t come out of his room. He’s paranoid, delusional, and patently insane, but as imagined by the French playwright Gilles Ségal and animated by the actor Robert Zukerman, he merits our full sympathy and attention for an hour and 45 minutes, intermission-free.

The plot of The Puppetmaster of Lodz could be summed up in two or three sentences, but I’m not going to do it, for two reasons. First: it would be a meaningless exercise unless I gave away the ending. Second: it’s not a very good plot. It doesn’t really make sense. And it’s not why the play is worth seeing.

Finkel is on stage all the time. Much of the action is just between him and his assortment of puppets. The puppets stand in for people from his past: wife, father, doctor, Rabbi, and a whole clothesline of concentration camp inmates. Finkel operates the puppets mostly by moving them directly, though he refers to them as marionettes, and like all good puppeteers, he imbues his dolls with vivid personalities and pathos. Robert Zuckerman in The Puppetmaster of Lodz 1 And like many who came out of the concentration camps alive, he’s burdened by survivor’s guilt, the ins and outs of which he explores through word and action with his puppet characters. The playwright asks whether, in the face of our seemingly endless parade of mini-massacres and mini-genocides echoing the Holocaust through the ages, we are “anesthetized[d] so that we are prevented from reacting, prevented from being moved to rebel?”

Ségal answers (in his program notes) that “facing the encroaching rise of barbarities, we have an obligation to continue to live, to continue to sing, to be happy, to laugh, to laugh, to laugh!” He lives this motto through the complex, disturbing, larger-than-life yet shiveringly weak character of the puppetmaster. And we do, at times, laugh with Finkel, and at the antics of the outside world trying to get him to come out. But the exhortation to live and celebrate is not a simple matter. Finkel asks the big, troubling questions: how can a Jew continue to believe in God after the Holocaust? How can you trust your fellow man? How can you go on living when your loved ones have been brutally destroyed?

War is never over. Even a particular war, one that ended half a century ago, isn’t over. It isn’t over for Finkelbaum in 1950, though Germany has long since surrendered and Berlin is occupied by the Allies. Robert Zuckerman in The Puppetmaster of Lodz 2 It isn’t over for the playwright, who made him up in 1985. It isn’t over for the theater company reviving the play in 2007. And it cannot be over for the audience (the house was packed on a Monday night) watching the drama unfold.

Zukerman’s grand, captivating performance is buoyed by an excellent supporting cast. Suzanne Toren is convincingly caring as the humane, frustrated concierge. Herbert Rubens is grave and avuncular as an old friend who comes looking for the reclusive puppetmaster. Daniel Damiano amuses in multiple smaller roles. Sharing the spotlight with Zukerman are a wonderful set (by Roman Tatarowicz), agile direction by Bruce Levitt, a superb translation by Sara O’Connor, and the puppets, designed by Ralph Lee.

Will Finkel ever get to put on his great puppet masterpiece for an audience of free people? We don’t know, and now we’re back out on the street – the play is over. But the war is never over. Art and imagination – whether Ségal’s invention, or the puppetmaster’s tragic, funny, macabre doll stories, or our reactions to both – can keep the war at bay, for a little while anyway. But they also keep old wars alive, on the stages of our theaters and in the rages of our memories. Perhaps we need them to do this.

For ages 14 and up. Through Dec. 23 at the ArcLight Theater, 152 W. 71 St. Tickets online or call (212) 868-4444. Photos by Jim Baldassare.

Book Review: Saudi Match Point by Paul Ulrich

Saturday, July 7th, 2007

Saudi Match Point bears the hallmarks of a promising writer of thrillers and those of a novice novelist, in roughly equal measure. Drawing on years of experience overseas as a consultant, technician, foreign-aid worker and (self-admitted) government bureaucrat, author Paul Ulrich economically and effectively conveys the heady atmosphere and multicultural boiling pot of Saudi Arabia. He creates colorful characters whom the reader comes to care about, most especially a sheltered young woman whose plight, in a family that adheres to ultra-strict Wahabbi Muslim teachings, is heartbreaking. And he convincingly mixes real geopolitics into fictional situations.

Less convincing sometimes is the naïveté of some of the characters. Ahmad, a telecommunications worker whose beautiful sister becomes Nick’s love interest, decrypts a diplomatic email and wonders, “Was the U.S. government telling its citizens and the world one thing yet secretly pursuing a different agenda?” But the central character is the deliciously named Nick Hansen, a young China expert with the U.S. State Department, assigned to Saudi Arabia to gauge China’s attitudes towards American activities in the Saudi oil industry. That might not sound fascinating, but as a story engine Ulrich makes it work.

Saudi Arabia Map

Nick isn’t very interesting, and the author seems to realize this, for he devotes the greater part of the narrative to the assortment of internationals who surround him – notably a globe-trotting ladies’ man from New Zealand, an intriguing Chinese agent, and two Saudi families, one relatively Westernized, the other highly traditional. Ulrich evokes the cruel repression of women in Wahhabi society and conveys the uneasy coexistence of Western interests and Islamist culture. Some plot elements – the conspiracy Nick stumbles upon, the gung-ho action ending – can seem a little unrealistic. But then, we wouldn’t want to be like Ahmad. In the geopolitics of oil, it seems almost anyone is capable of almost anything.

Ulrich’s promise as a suspense-thriller writer shows mainly in his authoritative sense of place and solid feel for character. The writing style needs smoothing, the plot relies too heavily on coincidence, and the prologue isn’t adequately explained at the end (unless I missed something). But I enjoyed the book, and I got a picture of how things are in an “exotic” foreign land. Not too shabby, especially for a first-time novelist tackling a very demanding genre.

Religion and Morality: A Match Made in Hell?

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

Sam Harris‘s award-winning 2005 book The End of Faith carefully laid out his arguments about the negative influence of religious belief on society and on prospects for a more peaceable world. Extensively reviewed and discussed, it made Harris a darling of the New Atheist movement. It also established him as that modern rarity, a public intellectual.

Last year Harris followed up his book with a monograph called Letter to a Christian Nation, which received a thoughtful summing-up and review at Blogcritics by Tim Gebhart. This more pointed work narrows the focus to one of the first book’s themes: that, while it is Islamic radicals who are responsible for the mayhem that has thrown the world into what threatens to become a neverending state of war, Christian fundamentalist beliefs are just as morally flawed and just as harmful, though at present less spectacularly so.

Letter takes the form of an epistle to the majority of Americans who (according to polls) believe the Christian Bible to be the actual word of God. The End of Faith, while fiercely argued, was, in form, a standard work of popular scholarship, but Letters is a polemical monograph in the manner of Thomas Paine, with the associated virtues and limitations. It’s short – less than 100 small pages – and even more plainspoken than the longer book. Were we a society of readers, its accessibility would likely have made it the more important of the two.

Unfortunately we are not a society of readers. But the more American Christians who receive the gospel of Sam Harris, the better for our world, and having his perspective available in compact, digestible form is a boon. He shows the enormity of the stakes and argues effectively that we must strive for a world less dominated by irrational beliefs. Faith, he writes,

inspires violence in at least two ways. First, people often kill other human beings because they believe that the creator of the universe wants them to do it. Islamist terrorism is a recent example of this sort of behavior. Second, far greater numbers of people fall into conflict…because they define their moral community on the basis of their religious affiliation. Muslims side with other Muslims, Protestants with Protestants, Catholics with Catholics…[Even] conflicts that seem driven entirely by terrestrial concerns…are often deeply rooted in religion.

A key problem is that believers and nonbelievers hold different conceptions of morality. “Questions of morality,” Harris writes, “are questions about happiness and suffering. This is why you and I do not have moral obligations toward rocks.” That makes sense on the face of it, but a lot of people aren’t thinking about “questions about happiness and suffering” when they talk about morality.

To fundamentalists, morality usually means following (or loudly paying lip service to) scriptural commands. Often the commands are cherry-picked. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is much more palatable to twenty-first century Christians than “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters” (Ephesians 6:5). But, whether followed or not, they are taken as dictates from God. Too often it is that, and not any inherent sense or goodness, that leads to the veneration of these laws.

Harris writes that violence is often caused by people defining their “moral community” in terms of their religion, and observes that religion “tends to divorce morality from the reality of human suffering.” I would put it a little differently: for too many people, morality and beliefs become two words for the same thing. Many religious people think that their beliefs, however irrational, are morality.

Scriptural commands such as the Ten Commandments have roots in the evolved biology of the social animals we are. Murder, stealing, and adultery cause suffering and strife in apes as among humans. Increased societal peace (leading to more happiness) and decreased suffering are certainly goals that come into play as morals evolve and harden into scripture. But in complex societies, morals are also honed and shaped by reason. In rejecting reason, fundamentalists subvert morality, with horrifying results.

Before the believers out there start attacking, let me add that irrational beliefs can and do coexist with rational moral thought. Regardless of our religiosity or lack thereof, most of us repeatedly make day-to-day ethical decisions based on common sense and basic human decency. But the small, personal ways in which people create peace and obviate suffering for themselves, their loved ones, their friends and co-workers, stand apart from the larger moral failures that have led to 9/11, unnecessary suffering from AIDS, and the civil war in Iraq. People who believe in 79 virgins or a Rapture – people fixated on an end to history, rather than concerned with actual humanity – have washed their hands of personal responsibility. For them, essential morality has broken down.

Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral – that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings. This explains why Christians like yourself expend more “moral” energy opposing abortion than fighting genocide…[and] why you can preach against condom use in sub-Saharan Africa while millions die from AIDS there each year.

“Clearly,” Harris concludes, “it is time we learned to meet our emotional needs without embracing the preposterous… Only then will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.”

He may be wrong in believing that, in the philosophical conflict between rational thinkers and superstitious believers, “in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.” Unchecked religious fundamentalism may yet result in the end of civilization, but we live in unprecedented times and can make no such assumption.

What is certain, and what the gospel of Sam Harris is helping to make clear, is that our world is awash in religious wars, and we had better learn to think of them that way. As the writer, documentarian, and humanist Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan, pointed out at last Fall’s Beyond Belief conference, there is room to hope “that we are on the eve of a swing in the pendulum, that tomorrow we’ll wake up and we’ll realize that our fellow citizens have been aroused from their stupor, from their fear-based religion and their fear-based politics, to see what we have to do to make this tiny pale blue dot a place of peace and true goodness.”

Book Review: Words That Work by Dr. Frank Luntz

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

“The words of this book,” writes the Republican strategist Frank Luntz, “represent the language of America, not the language of a single political party, philosophy, or product.” Despite what one might expect from the originator of loaded terms like “death tax,” most of his book lives up to that promise of evenhandedness.

Luntz has made a career of spinning political and corporate messages. In focus groups and dial sessions he painstakingly tests words, phrases, speeches and speakers to find the precise language that is most appealing to voters or consumers. The political side of his practice has been mostly for Republican clients, but in this book he tries to keep politically neutral; where his own opinions come through, they’re usually labeled as such. On the whole he sticks to his subject: how using well-chosen words and phrases can strongly influence listeners.

Throughout the book Luntz repeats the mantra, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” That could be parsed in some disturbing ways, but Luntz seems to mean simply, “It’s not what you say, it’s precisely how you say it.” There’s certainly nothing ground-breaking about that idea. The practice of rhetoric – persuasive language – goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. But, on the evidence of this book, people remain as susceptible as ever to having their views and reactions shaped by the way ideas are phrased. It’s good to be reminded of language’s power, and it’s especially useful to read how marketers are using it on us right now.

A glaring example of Luntz’s failure to remain entirely neutral is the persistent use of the word “Democrat” as an adjective, as in “Democrat Party.” This is well understood to be charged and partisan language (otherwise known as fightin’ words) and in this context, where a minimum of scholarly tone ought to be observed, Luntz should – and surely does – know better. He also refers matter-of-factly to his 2005 New American Lexicon as having been written in the service of a “pro-business, pro-freedom” agenda, failing to acknowledge the loaded nature of both of those terms and especially the second. The idea that all Americans agree on what best serves “freedom” is patently silly.

Despite such lapses, Luntz presents much valuable insight and useful advice for his intended audience of policymakers, business leaders, and those who advise or aspire to be either one, regardless of political leanings. (But read on for a way the book can also benefit the average citizen-reader). As in much popular nonfiction, the book is big on enumerated lists: “Ten Rules of Effective Language,” “Myths and Realities about Language and People,” “priorities, principles and preferences that matter to all [Americans],” and the like. Some items seem fairly obvious, like advice to use short words and sentences, or the notion that Americans aren’t big readers. But Luntz convincingly makes the case for including them by providing interesting examples of people shooting themselves in the foot by not recognizing them – e.g. pre-Inconvenient Truth Al Gore talking over the heads of the public – and related observations, like the way older viewers at TV studio tapings watch the actual performance, while their younger compatriots watch through the television monitors. Luntz has certainly amassed a wealth of information in his years of studying the American public.

Some of the conclusions he draws from his research are less obvious and more interesting. The denizens of “exurbia” have acquired great political importance. American consumers don’t respond well to patriotic messages. (And I thought that was just here in the city-state of New York.) Perhaps most interesting, “the vast majority of Americans don’t vote based on particular issues at all.” Sure, we have a vague sense that a politician’s personality and character matter, but probably only the most cynical of us will be unsurprised at, for example, the large degree to which success in a national election depends upon a candidate’s optimistic outlook.

Some view Luntz’s product as callous and cynical manipulation – “spinning lies into truth,” as Daily Kos has put it. Others may take him at face value when he writes that his “language eschews overt partisanship and aims to find common ground.” But either way, the process of developing “words that work” is fascinating, as described by the author in a brief chapter about how focus groups and dial sessions work. (As one who has lived in both Boston and New York I was particularly interested to read that “New York City sessions are notable for their uncontrollable chaos and the frequent use of profanity. New Yorkers like nothing and hate everything,” whereas “trying to get people from New England to say anything beyond a simple yes or no is virtually impossible.”)

Enhancing its implicit claim of accurately assessing what we might call the “sense of the American people” is the book’s extreme currency – it’s aware of the recent Democratic takeover of Congress, for example. Its chapter on “Old Words, New Meaning” notes that since a culture’s use of language is always changing, a language pollster’s work is never done, a point borne out by the fact that Luntz’s discussion of the term “bipartisan” has missed out on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent coining of the term “post-partisanship.” Given a few more weeks before publication, I expect Luntz would have been all over that – approvingly.

Maybe because of being so up-to-date, the book suffers from two flaws suggesting a rush to print. First, it is repetitious, making some of the same points and using the same examples – in the same words – in different chapters. Second, it suffers from far too many misprints and grammatical errors for a book about language. In the early going, these have the effect of blunting the message.

Now for that added benefit. Most of us aren’t policymakers or business leaders, but plain citizens. As voters and consumers we are the intended targets of the “words that work” which marketers like Dr. Luntz use. To put it cynically, we are the “manipulatees.” And with this book Luntz has exposed the magician’s secrets. Read it and you’ll be better able to pick out the marketing-speak all around you, and observe – and quite likely mitigate – its effects on your own mind. And really, it’s everywhere. Seeing the Jackson Hewitt tax preparation chain’s slogan, “Hassle Free Service,” I would never have picked out “hassle-free” as a carefully selected phrase. But lo and behold, here’s “hassle-free” coming in at number two on Luntz’s list of “Twenty-one Words and Phrases for the Twenty-first Century.” According to the book, Americans prefer a product that’s “hassle-free” by a whopping 62 to 38 percent over one that’s “less expensive.” Facts like that abound in this uneven but valuable and fascinating book.

Derailment on the Straight Talk Express

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

Arizona Senator John McCain is the nearest thing the GOP has to a Presidential front-runner at this early stage of the 2008 campaign run-up. But maintaining his trustworthy image and delivering a coherent message may prove difficult for McCain when press, pundits, and political opponents begin in earnest to accuse him of flip-flopping on issues and pandering to the far Right. After six years of Bushspeak, voters are yearning for a straight-shooter. But can McCain’s longstanding reputation for consistency and principle stand up to scrutiny?

As a legislator McCain is best known for pushing campaign finance reform. In the decade since McCain-Feingold was first proposed, however, waging a national campaign has become more and more frightfully expensive, to the point where any serious candidate in 2008 will be thinking very hard before participating in a public financing system whose restrictions might hobble him or her from the start. In 2004, both John Kerry and the Democrats’ early front-runner Howard Dean decided that if they wanted to raise enough money to compete in the crucial early-primary states, they had to opt out of receiving federal matching funds. President Bush’s re-election campaign also declined the funds.

A new incarnation of campaign finance reform raises the matching-fund amounts and tweaks the system so as to – at least in theory – make it more palatable to candidates. But this legislation is conspicuous for McCain’s absence as a sponsor.

No doubt it’s his Presidential ambitions that have induced McCain to drop the issue on which he made his political reputation during the past ten years. Campaign finance reform is certainly lower on the public’s list of concerns now than it was then. The public understands the high cost of campaigning, and it also has more urgent things to worry about. Still, lawmakers like McCain were supposedly pressing for campaign finance reform all along because of principle. Voters may be used to political expedience trumping integrity, but potential McCain supporters are likely to be disappointed in a “straight-shooter” who has turned out to be just like everyone else.

McCain is a canny politician who may find a way to head off such criticism. He may elect to participate in the matching fund program. He may successfully make the case that it’s not realistic for any candidate to do so under the circumstances. He may simply benefit from public indifference, which should never be underestimated. One thing the public rarely will countenance, though, is a frequent flip-flopper, and McCain’s opponents in the primary and (if he wins it) the general election will find ample ammunition for accusing him of being one. His positions have changed on many issues, including some important ethical or “values” issues on which holding to the conservative line is clearly meant to boost the candidate’s appeal to Karl Rove’s far-right “base.”

The most recent example, as The Carpetbagger Report points out, is Roe v. Wade. Formerly opposed to overturning the landmark abortion rights decision, McCain told George Stephanopoulos in November 2006 that “I do believe that it’s very likely or possible that the Supreme Court should — could overturn Roe v. Wade, which would then return these decisions to the states, which I support.” Whatever McCain’s real views about Roe v. Wade may be – and at this point, who knows? – strongly anti-choice voters are likely to see his “conversion” as purely opportunistic.

Two of McCain’s flip-flops have already received a great deal of press attention. First, since sensibly referring to Jerry Falwell as an “agent of intolerance” while campaigning in 2000, McCain has cozied up to the hateful preacher, meeting with him and even delivering the commencement address at Falwell’s cynically named Liberty University. Second, after taking an unequivocal stand against the use of torture, the former prisoner of war caved in to the Bush Administration on the anti-torture law he himself had drafted, enabling the Justice Department to make a strong case that the rules didn’t apply to prisoners held at Guantanamo.

McCain has also changed his mind about Grover Norquist, Bob Jones University, and Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, among other things. Any one of his changes in position may be amenable to nuanced explanation, but their combined weight may be too much even for Wily John to carry into 2008.

Of Virgin Births and Virgil Goode

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

As we approach Christmas – a celebration of a singular instance of human parthenogenesis – George W. Bush is threatening to start World War III (if he hasn’t already). This confluence is producing a series of strange and portentous events. First, an otherworldly fog has enveloped the UK and induced a komodo dragon in a British zoo to conceive offspring without male contact. Also in England, a woman with two wombs has given birth to two babies from one womb and a third baby from the other – apparently the first such instance ever observed.

The rest of the world, meanwhile, has gone topsy-turvy. Students in Iran are protesting against their hardline President because they want more freedom of speech, while presumed US presidential candidate John McCain wants to stamp out blogging as we know it (although he’s done it himself when it helps to make him look good). Meanwhile a Virginia congresscritter with the unlikely name of Virgil H. Goode, Jr. (perhaps himself a product of parthenogenesis?) has come clean with his views on religious freedom in the US. (Hint: he’s against it. The Huffington Post’s take is direct and to the point.)

What would Jesus do? I wasn’t sure, but the Deciderer knows. “I encourage you all,” he said during his news conference yesterday, “to go shopping more.” Caveat emptor!

Arizona First State to Reject Gay Marriage Ban

Thursday, November 9th, 2006

My article on anti-gay marriage amendments is prompting some energetic commentary over at Blogcritics.

McCain Torture Act Passes Senate

Friday, September 29th, 2006

So, I’m working on an article for Blogcritics, see, and man, it’s gonna be great. It’s about some people who make indie music and how they go about promoting it, but it’s got stuff about me in it too, which is always a big plus, right? Plus it’s part travelogue, ’cause I just took a music-related trip to Nashville, and it refers to technology too – it’s kind of all over the place, and man, it’s gonna be one heck of an article.

Problem is, I can’t finish it. I also can’t get to the pile of music CDs and concert DVDs I have lined up ready to be reviewed. All because of what’s going on in that Greatest Dismal Swamp of All, Washington DC, where this country has just formally become a Fascist state.

That’s not hyperbole, folks. Fascism is as Fascism does. At Digby’s blog, Tristero has spelled out what I’d been thinking all along – that Fascism is a matter of quality, not quantity. It doesn’t matter that the tyrannical powers George W. Bush is granting himself, with the blessing of Congress, aren’t being used routinely against the average John or Jane Q. Public. It’s the powers themselves that matter.

My powers of concentration are weakened. I can’t focus on stuff I normally enjoy, or on my work. I can’t look forward with pleasure to the rare free evening ahead of me tonight, or to a party I’m invited to tomorrow, or to my band’s gig on Sunday.

Instead, I’m swatting at chiggers of moral despair, pests that make up an overwhelming swarm: abuse of signing statements, impeachable wiretapping offenses, a spineless opposition, and now John McCain’s (and some Democrats’!) acceptance of a sham compromise that makes the final link in the chain: suspension of habeus corpus.

An election is looming, in which the Democrats can take control of the House and, conceivably, the Senate. The necessity of making this change must be apparent to anyone who cares about the Constitution. It’s the Constitution that made America a great nation in the past, and it could do so again. But even if they manage to win, will Reid and Pelosi suddenly grow spines?

Only if – to mix a metaphor – we hold their feet to the fire. Maybe some of us will have to give up some of our good-timey gallivanting in order to do this. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

DVD Review: Missing in America

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

Few first-time directors get to work with such a stellar cast as Gabrielle Savage Dockterman did with her 2005 independent film Missing in America, now available on DVD. Danny Glover anchors the movie as Jake Neely, a crusty Vietnam vet who has fled his demons to a solitary life in the Pacific Northwest woods. David Strathairn is the ailing army buddy who tracks Neely down and leaves his half-Vietnamese daughter (Zoë Weizenbaum of Memoirs of a Geisha) in the care the only friend he feels he can trust. Linda Hamilton brings earthy humor to the role of a widowed shopkeeper whose life is also transformed by the arrival of the little girl. And Ron Perlman is heartbreaking as Red, a permanently traumatized, mute vet who lives like a wild man in the backwoods.

Yes, it’s a cliché: the unexpected arrival of a child giving meaning to the lives of sad, withdrawn adults. But the film largely overcomes that handicap, thanks mostly to three factors.

First, and least important artistically, is the film’s antiwar message. There’s no explicit reference to current events, but the bitterness expressed by these vets at the senseless destruction of life makes the filmmakers’ point of view quite clear.

Second, Dockterman’s richly atmospheric depiction of the way these people live resonates powerfully not just with veterans but with anyone who has known loss. There really is a community of Vietnam vets, permanently injured emotionally, mentally and physically, who have decamped from society to nurse their wounds in the woods. Vets who’ve never met really can recognize each other without speaking, as those in the film do. Adapted from a story by Vietnam vet Ken Miller, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dockterman and Nancy L. Babine, the film captures the loneliness of life in those rainy woods for war-damaged figures like Neely and Red.

Third, and most important, are the performances, especially by Glover and Weizenbaum. The former breaks somewhat from his more typical action and humor roles to portray the embittered, self-hating, but ultimately salvageable soul at the center of this sentimental drama. He conveys the character’s woes, and the awakening of fatherly love, through expressions and body language more than words. It’s quintessential movie acting, a performance that would probably be mentioned in Oscar speculations if there were a theatrical release.

The catalyst for Glover’s best work here is the talented and adorable newcomer Weizenbaum, a marvelous discovery in whom Dockterman can take great pride, especially since the actress had only been in a few stage productions prior to this film (it was made before Geisha.) Her portrayal of the abandoned girl, Lenny, is funny, touching, and as broad or subtle as the scene requires. (In the commentary Dockterman points out several inspired moments the actress improvised.) The onscreen chemistry between her and Glover is irresistibly heartwarming.

Yes, we’ve seen this kind of thing before, but in Dockterman’s hands – abetted by Sheldon Mirowitz’s mercifully tasteful score – we get our catharsis without feeling overly manipulated, even after a shocking plot twist. And we also learn something about a subculture I, for one, had no idea existed. What I didn’t like was the set-up. Strathairn is a fine actor and has some very touching moments as the little girl’s doting father, but the way his character arrives, reconnects with Neely, and sets the story in motion feels contrived. It’s not until he takes off, leaving the two main characters to get acquainted, odd-couple style, that the movie comes to life.

Another, smaller flaw is an out-of-character display by Lenny, during a scene with Hamilton’s character, of a seemingly supernatural level of empathy. It relates to an alternate ending that was wisely left for the Special Features section.

The Special Features also include a few deleted scenes and the very detailed and enlightening director’s commentary. The short piece about the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC is also worth watching.

Book Review: Why Christians Don’t Vote for Democrats

Thursday, August 17th, 2006

As a public-school-educated, secular Jew living in an overwhelmingly religious and Christian country, I have often wondered where some fundamendalist Christians get the notion that their religion is in any way threatened here. Recently word spread of a lawsuit by Jewish families against a school district in Delaware where non-Christians were essentially run out of town.

“We have a way of doing things here, and it’s not going to change to accommodate a very small minority,” a local businessman told the New York Times. “If they feel singled out, they should find another school or excuse themselves from those functions. It’s our way of life.” A Jewish mother who complained about other students using slurs against her son was scolded at a school board meeting thus: “If you want people to stop calling him ‘Jew boy,’ you tell him to give his heart to Jesus.”

I’ve traveled enough to know that the US population is not on the whole mean-spirited or even overtly racist. But I do believe that the above story illustrates an important fact: where one religion – even a very factionalized one – dominates a society, public institutions (including schools) must be governed and enabled so as to act as a firm check on the tyranny of the majority. In the US, that majority is, loosely-defined, Christian. If his public school won’t even try to protect him from discrimination, where can a little non-Christian boy turn?

Richard Miller’s sharply-worded polemic, Why Christians Don’t Vote for Democrats, presents a different perspective on the nature and value of public schools (and other secular institutions) than what I had imagined was the general view. Without mentioning vouchers per se, it helps explain why the issue has been so polarizing.

Put simply, some Christians – call them fundamentalist, evangelical, or, as Mr. Miller would have it, simply Christians – view state-run public schools as a form of taxation without representation. Just as senior citizens sometimes protest paying taxes for schools in which they have no children, Miller objects to funding schools he believes are filling Christian children’s heads with anti-Christian ideas and being forced to pay again if he wants to put his kids in a private religious school.

This raises the question: if we allow parents to use their tax dollars to put their kids in non-public schools, wouldn’t it be logical to also exempt the aforementioned senior citizens from school taxes? And while we’re at it, shouldn’t a family with six children in the public schools pay higher taxes than a family with only two? This path is strewn with dangers for a society that values egalitarianism.

Fundamentally, are we, as a country, to consider ourselves a single community that puts a high value on education? I can’t legally withhold my income taxes just because I don’t approve of the wars the government is spending them on, or not pay sales tax at the corner store because my state has a corrupt legislature. If we consider education to be a different sort of public good, to be treated specially, and we allow individual families to withhold taxes because of religious beliefs, then what is the justification for public schools anyway? Simply to educate the poor? It’s hard to imagine even basic educational standards being met by the broken stub of a public school system that would remain under that philosophy.

While he reserves his most urgent rhetoric for the school issue, Miller has a whole raft of reasons Christians shouldn’t vote for Democrats, most notably the “values” issues that came to the fore in the 2004 Presidential election. His arguments are carefully organized and obviously deeply felt. But his terminology, and its underlying assumptions, require scrutiny.

Right off the bat, he conflates the terms secular and atheist. A great many Americans believe in the secular state without being atheists, but this book confuses the two terms. That’s more than semantics – it betrays a misunderstanding of what secular means, and of what it means to this country.

As commonly used today, secular has two related meanings, neither of which implies atheism. First, it refers to worldly as opposed to spiritual matters. Second, it means “not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body,” as in secular music. The word simply denotes that part of a life, society, or culture that is not spiritual or religious.

Miller believes Christians are inadequately represented in our secular government because they are not united in their voting habits. Discussing the 2004 exit polling that uncovered the famous “values vote,” he calls it “one hint of a division occurring between secular, or atheistic, Democrats and Christian America.” Through the book he “hopes to communicate to the Democratic Party why Christians don’t vote for Democrats. How do Christians communicate to atheists their legitimate objections to the Democratic Party in a mature and loving way?”

Miller’s stress on communication and kindheartedness is laudable. But the statements quoted above use more terms in questionable ways: Christian America and Christians. In his use of these words, Miller fails to take into account the many who consider themselves Christian but disagree with his take on what Christian really means. The monolithic Christian voting bloc he imagines cannot exist, at least as the American public is currently constituted. For a great many people of faith, religious values are only one aspect of their lives. They have many – and indeed, sometimes conflicting – factors on which to base their voting decisions.

Terminology is also telling in the chapter called “Secular Journalists,” in which Miller objects to the use of the term fundamentalist. “Do fundamentalist Christians,” he asks rhetorically,

have a different theology than other Christians?… Secular journalists seem to indicate that they believe fundamentalist Christians are a small part of Christian America… [but] to suggest [that] only a few Christians believe in the fundamental teachings of the Bible is insulting and offensive to all Christians. The term fundamentalist Christian, as used by secular journalists, is intended to project a derogatory, negative image of all Christians.

It’s true that anti-religious bias exists in some intellectual circles. But Miller’s parsing of the term fundamentalist ignores one whole dimension of its modern meaning, which is “one who believes in the literal truth of a scripture.” This “f-word” may have taken on a derogatory cast for some, and it may not even be the best term for what it describes, but as long as there are many millions of Christians who do not believe in the literal truth of everything in the Bible, we need a word for those who do.

To many, it is the philosophy and teachings of Jesus that matter most. For example, although today’s Republican party is identified with the Christian right, many Christians – indeed, enough to form a majority of Americans – oppose its policies on both moral and practical grounds. Case in point: clergymen of many stripes have united to oppose Republican warmongering, while among the laity, bumper stickers ask “Who would Jesus bomb?” and broadcast convictions like “Jesus was a liberal” and “When Jesus said love your enemies he didn’t mean kill them.” Everywhere you look you see religious Americans joining nonreligious ones in calling for peace. In doing so they explicitly support the positions of the supposedly anti-Christian Democratic party.

Miller concisely states the heart of his complaint in a chapter called “Freedom of Education:”

Secular Democrats want the wall of separation of church and state to be low enough for the state to reach over and confiscate the Christian community’s wealth, but high enough to prevent Christians from benefiting from the very same taxes Christians pay. Secular Democrats do not want the school tax dollar to go to individual students, but to a self-perpetuating, tax-subsidized, secular school, which works to convert Christian students into atheists.

It’s interesting to note that while the law does require him to pay property taxes to fund his local public schools, it exempts his church from those same property taxes. That, in turn, penalizes the nonreligious property owner who must pay higher taxes to make up for all that exempt church property. (And I live in Brooklyn, the “Borough of Churches.” They’re everywhere, man!) Maybe, in some indirect way, the church on my block provides a service for me by feeding some homeless people who might otherwise turn criminal. But in the same sense, doesn’t his school tax dollar provide a service for him by paying for schools to educate all the kids from the parts of society that do not share his beliefs? We have many divisions in our society – but shouldn’t we at least strive to be one nation?

Also, Miller’s conception of what public schools are like does not reflect reality. Almost anyone who has been to public school (and paid any attention in class) will recognize as absurd his claim that the schools try to “convert Christian students into atheists.” Public school curricula, by design, have little to say on the subject. Yet his point does illustrate a conflict in educational philosophy. In the traditional “liberal arts” philosophy to which I and many Americans subscribe, the main point of education is to teach children to think. In Miller’s view, it’s to teach them doctrine. Yet both of these attitudes include their own friction and contradictions.

Church doctrine has been arrived at over two thousand years of debates, compromise, decrees, political wrangling, and wave after wave of horrendous violence. Miller is aware of that history but dismisses it with the simplistic claim that “the theological table of debate has discovered a vast agreement concerning the teaching of the Bible.” (And if you believe that, you probably believe Donald Rumsfeld’s claims that things are getting better in Iraq.) The point is that the doctrine taught in a religious school governed by one particular sect reflects just one perspective among many. Even in a country where Christian sects live peaceably, their disagreements about how to interpret the Bible, live their lives, and worship their deity or deities persist. Although “evangelical” Christianity has certainly been on a roll lately, America remains a multicultural stew of dozens of Christian sects, along with several types of Jews, Muslims, atheists, and others. The voting bloc Miller calls for is a pipe dream.

Our nondenominational public schools too live with doctrinal tension. They have often been used to slant children into specific biases, notably with respect to American history and the relative value of non-Western cultures. Religion creeps in too, in the insertion of “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, in attempts to put nonsense like “creation science” (now rechristened “intelligent design”) into the curriculum, in holiday celebrations that presume Christian religious beliefs to be universal, and, in extreme cases like the Delaware travesty, in outright persecution. So, Miller’s contention that state-controlled schools are, like state-controlled newspapers, “a form of thought control” cannot be fully denied. But the “thought control” is not, as a rule, anti-Christian.

I do not for a minute question Miller’s sincerity, but I fear that he, like many of his less articulate brethren, has fallen prey to the sort of top-down propaganda that recently brought us the much-hyped (and justly ridiculed) idea of a “War on Christmas.” Just like frightened, insecure politicians, some Christian leaders use fear to assert their rule over their flocks. One example is the fear of homosexuals reflected in Miller’s “Values” chapter, where he makes the execrable but all-too-common leap from homosexuality to evil acts:

“Secular Democrats may believe sexual orientation is genetic, but we have yet to identify the gene for pedophilia. Some adults’ sexual orientation is toward children, but this does not necessitate giving the same minority protections to pedophiles we now give to age, sex, color, or creed. Rape is natural in the animal kingdom, but it is also unacceptable to civil society.

He does it again at the very end of the book, predicting that legalized abortion will be followed by legalized infanticide. Intentionally or not, he is engaging in the same form of denigration by association that enables slave societies to view certain types of people as subhuman and not worthy of common rights, including even the right to be alive.

Miller’s other bugbear is the Supreme Court, which, he says disapprovingly, “controls entire areas of law. The President and Congress can make a law, only to have the Supreme Court disagree with it, or effectively veto it.” Well, yes. That’s the whole point. But since Miller doesn’t like some decisions that have come down from recent Courts, he proposes to scrap the whole system of separation of powers with a constitutional amendment to allow the President and Congress to overturn a Supreme Court decision by a two-thirds vote. In effect he’d like to use the Constitution to nullify itself.

“Christians,” he says, “will unite their vote because the political agenda of the secular Democrats is obviously motivated by deeply intrinsic, internalized, and imbedded religious prejudice.” You may need to read the book to decide if you agree with Miller’s claims about prejudice. But you need only look around you to see that his vision of a united “Christian” vote can’t come true in any foreseeable future. And his perception of the Democratic party as the enemy of “Christian America” is looking more wrong by the day, as Americans of all creeds, whatever they may believe about abortion or school vouchers, raise their voices (and prepare to cast their votes) against the Christian-right-backed Republican government that keeps using their hard-earned wealth to kill innocents abroad.