29 May 2005

Music of the Spheres

Normally this blog is about the intersection of religion, science, and society. But music falls into that intersection. My wife and I went to a jazz concert last night.

Laurence Hobgood began to weave the tapestry on his piano, threads both fat and thin, some dark, others iridescent, scintillating. The fabric thus established, Rob Amster began painting impressionist touches on the bass, delicately at first like Matisse, then arcing, turning, laying it down in 3D like Jackson Pollock. And behind it all, simmering, Frank Parker cooked like the Iron Chef of Percussion. Together they created a meditation, acoustically re-arranging the brainwaves of the audience, easing us onto the edge of trancendence.

That was the first five minutes. Then Kurt Elling came onstage with his voice. Elling's CDs cannot be played as background music. Your attention is captured by his voice. When he is live, onstage, your attention is riveted. It's not just the sound, it's the intonation, the phrasing, the romantic poetry, the delivery. And he plays with his voice and the microphone. He has fun, and pulls the audience right along with him. Nor is he afraid to touch upon his roots as a Divinity student. In the second of two homages to Duke Ellingtion, he sang "Lord, look down, and see my people through."

It looks like musically, that is what's happening. We no longer have Sinatra with us, but we will be all right. We have Elling. And the best thing is that he is about 15 years younger than I am. There's a good chance I will get to enjoy new Kurt Elling material every now and then for the rest of my days.

25 May 2005

Those Progressive Germans

Let's say you're a Volga German, a Russdeutscher, one of those ethnic Germans who descends from German settlers invited into Russia by Catherine the Great to serve as a buffer between the Russians and the Chechens. Things happen, a couple of world wars, the collapse of Communism, and in the newly independent republics, all the jobs are for the natives, not for the transplants, i.e., the Volga Germans. So, you decide for the sake of your children to move back to Germany, a land neither you nor your parents have ever seen. What happens to you?

Well, since you're now on the dole, the German government gets to decide where you live. They break up your extended family, which has just spent a generation living on one street, and settle each nuclear family in a different city or suburb. Why? To force you to interact with Germany's Germans, to re-Germanize you. It's basically a planned program of intensive assimilation. And it is very effective. Within five years, you give up many of your old ways of dress and speech. Your children are all either in school or have good jobs. Within ten years, all that remains to distinguish you outwardly from the other Germans is your willingness and aptitude for hard work and thrift (fixing up your new house yourself), and a slight accent. And well, maybe you're still more likely to vote CDU than SPD, but not much more likely.

But if you are a Muslim immigrant from the Gulf states, you might wind up on the dole, but there is no intensive program of assimilation for you. You are left in a virtual ghetto, you keep your old speech, and you keep your old values. Except, maybe as a second-class citizen of Germany (even though you may be a third generation citizen), you may become radicalized.

Now maybe intensive assimilation would be poorly received by both the Muslim immigrants and by the native Germans. I know one ethnic German who was assaulted by other Germans in a German city, because he looked "like one of those Turks." Perhaps the new Muslim immigrants would not fare well in the isolation that would be part of an intensive assimilation program. And perhaps the Muslim community would view intensive assimilation as an attempt at cultural (and religious) genocide on the part of the Germans. Or maybe it's just that the German people and government don't want the Muslim immigrants to be assimilated, or just don't care, or maybe they just don't think about it.

Without intensive assimilation of non-ethnic German immigrants, Germany is allowing the creation of a reservoir for radicalism to take hold. Remember that Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 attacks, was trained in engineering in Germany. He was not a radical when he entered Germany, but he was certainly radicalized by the time he left. If Muslims were more intensively assimilated, they would remain Muslim, but they would perhaps absorb some of the West's humanism, rather than merely be repelled by its secularism and consumerism. Such might have been the case with Atta.

Now, I could as well pick on any European country regarding the failure to assimilate new immigrants. I only single out Germany, because I happen to be more familiar with it. For that matter, the United States is no longer very intentional about assimilation, about "The Great Melting Pot." But the American culture is somehow better at assimilating immigrants anyway, mostly because everyone in America is decended from immigrants, unless their ancestors walked across the land bridge between Asia and Alaska at the end of the last Ice Age.

17 May 2005

If I ran Guantanamo

It's too late now, but if I ran Guantanamo, I would turn it into an Islamic Studies Institute. I would hand each new internee a Qur'an in their native language (if such translation were obtainable) with parallel translation into English, and of course, parallel Arabic original text. I would assign each internee an American interrogator, with instructions to both internee and interrogator that the internee is to spend 1 hour per day instructing the interrogator in Islam, according to the internee's best understanding, and according to the Qur'an.

It may sound preposterous, but at least it would get the internees to talk. And it would provide us with a deep insight into how they understand God, Islam, the world, and themselves. We might not get the factual information we seek, but we would get to know our enemies in a profound and human way.

And they would get to know us. I would instruct the interrogators to challenge the internees' erroneous assumptions and conclusions, and I would give the interrogators plenty of backup: psychologists, theologians (of their own faith as well as Islam) philosophers, and sociologists. That way, when the internees are finally released (as most of them have been already) they would have been exposed to a different viewpoint.

Finally, it would get the US better press. Nah. That's hoping for too much.

16 May 2005

Treasonable Bias

Newsweek has retracted its story that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Qur'an. They made a mistake, they say. Meanwhile people have been killed in rioting in Afghanistan, and the US image around the world has been done irreparable harm. Like the calumny against Proctor & Gamble (they were repeatedly accused of encouraging witchcraft until they changed their charming Man-in-the-Moon logo), this story will resurface indefinitely, because so many people either want to believe it, or - more to the point - want others to believe it. I suspect that Newsweek took the attitude that "Yeah, that sounds like something those bastards would do," and printed the story without corroboration. If so, then they have given aid and comfort to the enemy in time of war. If they weren't journalists, it would be treason.

Contain or Kill

A long time ago, I quit watching CBS's "Sixty Minutes." Every week the show would report one or more carefully chosen outrages to get its audience's blood boiling. I decided that I did not need to exercise my "fight or flight" reaction that regularly. Well, this weekend, I screwed up, watched the show, and there it was: an expose on the northern California prison gang, "Nuestra Familia." Our Family, as it is called in English, has its leadership based in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay State Prison's Secure Housing Unit (SHU), and is in the drug-trafficking and murder business. Now, I am normally against the death penalty, and have proposed legislation to substitute social isolation for execution.

But the example of Nuestra Familia shows makes me think I have been too naive. I now think that if a convict commits a capital crime in prison, or engages in a conspiracy to do so, then that convict should be subject to total isolation. By that I mean no contact with other inmates and no visitors (other than his or her attorney), ever. Further, the convict should not be allowed to send anything to anyone anywhere — no messages, no postcards, nothing. Any materials that go into the cell must be destroyed when they come out. That should be sufficient to restrain the convict from committing further capital crimes or engaging in conspiracies to commit them. But if that is not enough, then maybe execution is the only alternative.

On the other hand, the proposal California's Governator is considering is this: disperse the "Generals" of Nuestra Familia from Pelican Bay to other states. The idea is that the miles of isolation from each other will "break up" the gang. The reality is that the gang will nucleate new gangs in other states.

No, I think we should keep Nuestra Familia in Northern California and deal with it there. It's criminally stupid to send their leaders off to teach their tradecraft nationwide.

10 May 2005

Bring on the Filibuster!

It looks like the US Senate will take up the issue of changing Senate rules to permit cloture (ending a filibuster) by a simple majority, rather than by by the currently required 60 votes, at least in the case of voting on presidential nominees to the federal judiciary. The so-called "Nuclear Option" of gutting the filibuster rules is a bad idea for everyone, and a better solution exists.

At issue are some 7 judicial nominations that have been stalled in the Senate, one for nearly four years. The Republicans blame the Democrats, asserting that their threat of filibuster (blocking a vote by endless debate because they don't have enough votes to win it) has caused the delay. But the Republicans are the majority and control the schedule. The Republicans have caused the delay by not bringing the contested nominations to the Senate floor, and forcing the Democrats to begin their threatened filibuster.

The filibuster is available to prevent the majority from tyrannizing the minority. If the Republicans change the rules, the American public will see it for the over-reach and power-grab that it is, and will turn the Republicans out. Even if the Republicans can maintain their majority for an election cycle or two, eventually the Democrats will get back in power. And then, when the Republicans want to filibuster an outrageously left-wing nominee, whatever will they do? The Republican Party has been billing itself as the folks who play by the rules, of late. It now seems they, too, want to change the rules in the middle of the game when when the rules prove sufficiently inconvenient.

To avoid the "Nuclear Option," some Republicans and Democrats are trying to work out a compromise in which Democrats allow four of the seven to come up for a vote, but veto the other three. This would allow the Democrats to effectively control the Senate without being in the majority. Such a compromise is also a bad idea, because it is undemocratic. Although the majority must not tyrannize the minority, neither should the minority dictate to the majority.

What I fear is that the various strategies to avoid a filibuster will (over a couple of election cycles as control of the Senate sloshes between the two major parties) result in a judiciary that reflects the current polarization in American politics. A judiciary of left- and right-wing looney tunes who can't agree on anything of importance.

What I would like to see is a good old-fashioned, talk till you're hoarse filibuster. Debate for days on end, for as long as the Democrats can talk. Either they will make sense, and constituents will tell their Republican Senators to withdraw the nominees, or the Democrats will embarass themselves, and their constituents will tell the Democrats to shut up and vote. Either way, We the People will have been well served.

Why are the Republicans afraid of going through with a Democratic filibuster? Is it because they're afraid their nominees can't stand up to a protracted debate?

08 May 2005

Mothers' VE Day

Mothers' Day and VE Day (the anniversary of Germany's unconditional surrender, which ended WWII in Europe) coincided this year. Sixty years ago today my mother was in America celebrating, because the world as she knew it had been saved. My wife's mother was in the American Sector in Germany, wondering what would happen now that the world as she knew it had been destroyed.

At one point, while my mother was recuperating from an illness, and my wife's mother was preparing to go back to Germany for a while to care for her elder sisters, they were both living with us. It is a tribute to both women that it worked out well enough.

Happy Mothers' Day. And let us remember our heroines and heroes, present and fallen.

06 May 2005

Mr. Faraj, the Libyan

That's approximately what the name Abu Faraj al-Libi means. You may wonder, "Who in Hell is that?" If you aren't continually glued to your TV or internet connection, it's a good question. The coverage of his capture by Pakistani authorities on May 2 was so scant and so short-lived that one could easily not know or even notice that al-Qaeda's Number Three, the current Head of International Operations, was taken into custody. I certainly hadn't noticed. An acquaintance had to tell me, and I had to check it out on Google, because the scant media blip it caused was already over.

If the media had made a bigger deal of it, I might feel more assured that we in what Thomas Barnett calls "The Functioning Core" of globalization have what it takes to suppress al-Qaeda and the other components of the Global Salafist Jihad. But it wasn't a big deal at all. Do we have too short an attention span? Or is it that we have fallen into such a winner-take-all mentality that only the capture of Number One - Bin Laden himself - will capture our imagination?

The combination of our short attention span and our "only number one counts" mentality is what shakes my confidence. The current conflict is what Bin Laden and company call "The Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders," or simply "The Jihad," as if there were no other. The Jihad had been gathering strength for 15 years, striking massive death here and there, but not really getting our attention until the 9/11 attacks. If we get Bin Laden, will we then then turn our attention to other things, and give the Jihad another 15 years to regrow?

01 May 2005

The Power of the Human Mind

Believe it or not, you can actually read this:

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulacity uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phanonmeal pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabridge Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig, huh? Yaeh, and I awlyas thgohut slpeling was ipmornatt.

It turns out that it is merely an internet meme, and does not specifically refer to actual research, although Graham Rawlinson did a PhD thesis on a related topic. You can read the facts about it here. But the point is made. The power of the human mind to do pattern recognition is astounding. A possible explanation of how we do it has been offered by Jeff Hawkins, the inventor of the Palm Pilot and now a researcher in cognitive neuroscience.

It was the idea of whole word reading that got many educationists into so-called whole-language methods of teaching reading, which were failures. It turns out that you need to teach phonics and let the children construct their whole word reading from the bottom up.

What tripped up the educationists, is what trips us all on more occasions than we care to admit. They saw a pattern of behavior (whole word reading) and inferred a way to train and elicit this pattern, which did not work. We often see patterns, yet infer causes incorrectly. We even see patterns that are not actually there, or are there but mean nothing. It's just the way our minds work: we are continually pattern-processing everything we perceive, even before we are conscious of perceiving it.

The implication for Science is that we have to test every conclusion, over and over. The implication for Religion, which deals with things untestable, is that we need to exercise caution, and yes, skepticism. I think of a Fundamentalist friend of mine who showed me his method of Bible interpretation. To him, the Bible interprets itself. All you have to do to understand a particular word or phrase is to find all the other occurences of that word or phrase in the Bible (using a Concordance that gives the original Hebrew or Greek) and compare and contrast them. Never mind that the Bible is not a book, but a library that came together over some 1000 years. It is the record of a people's perceived encounters with God, and what they made of those encounters. During that time their culture, language, and mindset all changed. Merely comparing one portion with another without knowledge of or reference to those changes may cause one to see patterns that are not actually there, and blind one to patterns that are there.

The poverty of that kind of analysis is being impressed upon me with great force as I work my way through the massive three-volume tome, A Marginal Jew by Fr. John P. Meier. It is a minute analysis of all the extant works from the time before, during, and immediately after Christ, in search of the "historical Jesus." Specifically, Meier is after those words and deeds that can be attributed to Jesus with some degree of probability using the methods of historians. The Jesus of Christian Faith is specifically not his object. As a Catholic Priest and Professor, he is well aware that some things are accessible to Faith alone. But he is careful to distinguish those that are accessible by scholarly inquiry, and to pursue them. Not only does he read his Bible minutely in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, he also reads his Josephus in Latin, and the works of other scholars on the same quest in English, German, and French.

After about 6 months, I am about halfway through Meier's scholarly tour de force. He has covered an outline of the difficulties and methods of historical Jesus research (some of which are based on recognizing textual and literary forms and patterns), a biography that sketches only a few probable turning points in Jesus' life, and two major points of the message Jesus uniquely proclaimed. I will never be able to look at my old Bible the same way again. It has become a much richer treasure to me than I had previously imagined.

You might wonder how the Catholic church could place its imprimatur on such a book. It has to do with the Catholic Church's continuous, living tradition of passing on Christian teaching through the generations. For the Catholic Church, the Bible is the major, but not the only element of its Depositum Fidae (Deposit of Faith). This is in contrast to Protestantism, and insulates Catholicism from a narrow Bibliolatry (an idolatrous worship of the Bible instead of, or even parallel to, a true worship of God).

Meier's work stands as the most careful work of pattern processing by a religious person that I have ever seen. The attention to detail, and the level of detail sought are truly inspiring. But then, Meier had the time (and probably the graduate students to help him) to do it. For the rest of us, for most of our activities of daily living, we process patterns on autopilot. We benefit by our autopilot freeing our conscious minds up to do other things. We can lose though, when our autopilot pattern processing tricks us into prejudice.

Justice and Human Nature

Naturalism v. Supernaturalism in pursuit of Justice

He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? — Micah 6:8

Justice. Without Justice there can be no peace. The opposite of Justice is oppression. But what is Justice? Justice for whom?

For the ancient Greek philosophers, and for everyone else since, it comes down to this: To do Justice is to do what is Good for Humankind. What is good for Humankind, of course, is that which is accords with Human Nature. Thus we arrive at the quintessential Humanist question: What is Human Nature? That depends on your theology.

If you believe that human beings are purely natural, evolved only by natural forces selecting variations in response to the circumstances of earth's natural history, you arrive at one set of conclusions. If you believe that human beings are partly supernatural, having been brought into existence (whether through instant creation or gradual evolution) by a God who has certain inconvenient ethical expectations, you arrive at another. On the one hand, we are meaningless accidents, of no more intrinsic value than any other living or non-living thing. On the other, we are made in, and bear the Imago Dei, the Image of God.

The naturalists can be noble. As the only known rational animal, we alone can make choices for ourselves and for all other beings on earth. That is, with our rationality comes responsibility. We should choose with wisdom and caring.

The naturalists can also degenerate into self-loathing. Because of our success as a species, we are covering the earth, re-making its surface, air, and water in our own image, causing the wholesale extinction of species as if we ourselves were a cometary impact on our planet. Since we are only one species among many, the planet would be better off without us.

Implicit in naturalistic self-loathing is the idea that success, dominance, is in itself evil. An idea borrowed (and twisted) unconsciously from Christianity, the repository of supernaturalism. After all, Jesus was not successful or dominant during his public ministry — he was killed by a successful, dominant empire.

The supernaturalists can be noble as well: The sanctity of human life is a Christian idea. Since we are sacred to our Creator, none but our Creator can lawfully take our life from us. Our bodies, and the use of our bodies are likewise sacred: we cannot lawfully be tortured or enslaved.

The supernaturalists can also degenerate into self-loathing. Because we are sinners, unworthy of the salvation freely offered us by God, we deserve nothing beyond the bare necessities to prolong our lives just enough to have an opportunity to accept God's great gift. And those who believe and teach otherwise must be ostracized in the community of faith. (In the past, heretics were killed, but modern Christianity has moved beyond that, thanks to challenges from within the faithful, as well as from the naturalists.

Contemplating the downside offers little from which to choose. The history of both camps has been blighted by malevolence, hypocrisy, and violence. One side can decry the Inquisition, the other the massive genocides under Facism and Communism. Ideologies from both camps have been used as a pretext for war.

On the other hand, the upside potential of the supernaturalists is clearly greater. Instead of being a thing, an object, I am a subject. I am more than an intrinsically meaningless lump of thinking, dreaming, talking meat. I am sacred to my Creator. So are all beings, plant, animal, and other. Imagine living in a world where everything and everyone was treated with a certain minimal standard of reverence, instead of the disregard and contempt we see and experience. That is the upside of the supernaturalist position. The naturalist position has nothing comparable to offer.

As we are swept into the future, naturalism offers the confidence to invent and explore technology and technique. Supernaturalism speaks to the purpose of invention and exploration. Naturalism seeks knowledge in order to understand and to use. Supernaturalism seeks knowledge in order to revere. As we understand ourselves and our cosmos in ever greater detail, let us grow, rather than diminish, in our reverence for each other and our Creator.

And let that reverence inform our administration of justice. I would rather stand before a judge who appreciates the sacred dimension of my being, than one who regards me as miscreant meat.