Friday, June 27, 2008

Christ on a cracker

Come and get it!

My colleague's brow clouded up as he recalled his outrage: “I was about as angry as I've ever gotten. I couldn't believe the rudeness of it!” The event had been his son's wedding, and the incident that had sparked his indignation was being denied communion.

“When they told me I couldn't participate, I almost did it just to spite them!”

Ah, yes. That's certainly the spirit of communion, all right.

His son had agreed to his fiancée's desire for a church wedding. She was a Roman Catholic, so the ceremony was one of those hour-long rituals, complete with nuptial mass and Holy Communion. The groom's side of the family was not Catholic, so the guests in attendance were a decidedly mixed group. Under such circumstances, the celebrant normally speaks the words prescribed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to introduce the communion service when non-Catholics are present:
“We welcome our fellow Christians to this celebration of the Eucharist as our brothers and sisters. We pray that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this Eucharist will draw us closer to one another and begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us.... Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Holy Communion.”
In other words, don't get in the bread line. Stay seated and mutter your Protestant prayers, if you wish. My colleague described it as a slap in the face, especially when he realized that his son was also denied communion.

I tried to hide my amusement at my colleague's reaction. Most Protestants seems to pride themselves, at least a bit, for belonging to Christian sects that have supposedly cast off the superstitious excesses and mummery of Roman Catholicism. Frankly, though, once you cross the line to talking to an imaginary friend and expecting him to listen to you, any ancillary mumbo-jumbo doesn't seem to me like a major distinction. In particular, I was puzzled that my colleague didn't recoil from participating in the formal cannibalism of the Catholic rite, since Catholic dogma stipulates quite seriously that the communion wafer become actual human flesh through the miracle of transubstantiation. He wanted his share of cracker-barrel Christ and was damned if he would take its denial lightly.

Reading James Wolcott's blog post about Tim Russert's funeral put me in mind of my colleague's close encounter with Catholic communion. Wolcott described how a clueless Sally Quinn marched up to participate in the communion service during Russert's requiem mass in some kind of wacky tribute to the late journalist:
I wanted to see what it was like. Oddly I had a slightly nauseated sensation after I took it, knowing that in some way it represented the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Last Wednesday I was determined to take it for Tim, transubstantiation notwithstanding. I'm so glad I did. It made me feel closer to him.
If you're not familiar with Sally Quinn's work, don't worry. Her specialty is superficiality. While she has a certain entertainment value, as in this comic communion story, Quinn's special talent lies in projection. She, for example, likes to hector people for perceived failures to adhere to high moral standards. Quinn can do this because she, at least, has risen above her tawdry origins as a non-writer who became a Washington Post reporter as well as the mistress (and later wife) of Post editor Ben Bradlee. Was that social climbing or merely job advancement?

When she's not presiding as arbiter of D.C. social standards, Quinn devotes time to her new hobby of being religious. She is a leading contributor to On Faith, the Washington Post blog devoted to religion. Fortunately for Quinn, just as she didn't need to know much about writing to become a Post journalist, she apparently doesn't need to know much about religion to be a Post religion blogger. Good for her!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fact or fiction in Zimbabwe

Not all black and white

Rhodesia was a British colony in 1965 when its prime minister, Ian Smith, unilaterally declared its independence. Britain had been pressuring its African colony to begin a transition from white minority rule and allow Rhodesia's black majority to participate in the colony's governance. Smith responded with the paternalistic argument that black Rhodesians were not prepared for self-governance and remained at the head of a white minority government for another fourteen years.

Since 1980, Robert Mugabe has done his best to prove that Ian Smith was right (as least in the case of a nation led by Mugabe), turning the prosperous food-exporting Rhodesia of forty years ago into the impoverished and starving Zimbabwe of today. Mugabe is back in the news, of course, prating about his God-given mission to rule Zimbabwe and promising to defy any defeat at the ballot box. Although he came in second in the recent presidential election, Mugabe has since driven his rival to withdraw from the June 27 run-off election and to seek political asylum in the Dutch embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital city. Mugabe likes elections only if he wins them.

Mugabe's Zimbabwe is a fertile ground for mischief-making, even if it's no longer fertile for raising crops. While Rhodesia's white farmers raised enough crops to allow the nation to export them, the disproportionate white ownership of arable lands was a vestige of the colonial era and an unsolved problem for the new successor nation of Zimbabwe. But “land reform” proved elusive and its abuse led to outright expropriation of white-owned farms. Eric Harrison, one of the dispossessed white farmers, describes the outcome of land reform: “They gave it to party members. Some of the party members and politicians had more than one farm.”

Harrison has written his memoirs of his life in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe. They've been published in a book titled Jambanja. Harrison was featured on KSFO's weekend talk show hosted by Barbara Simpson, who styles herself as “The Babe in the Bunker.” As right-wing talk-show hosts go, Simpson is no Melanie Morgan. Since Morgan was cashiered earlier this year (ostensibly for budgetary reasons), Simpson holds up the distaff side of KSFO's rant-radio format. She's pretty far to the right, but occasionally lapses into periods where she emulates a broadcast journalist. Simpson was in this mode on Saturday, June 21, when she had a live on-air interview with Eric Harrison, who was on the phone from Zimbabwe.

Despite his grievances against the current government of his homeland, Harrison was remarkably forthright and balanced in his observation. Speaking about the controversial period of Rhodesia's white-minority rule, he said, “There's two sides to the story. And I'm sure that if I had been born black I would have been on the opposition side.“

Simpson asked him about one of the favorite talking points of the paranoid right-wing when discussing Zimbabwe: “Is there any truth to what I've read and heard that in fact some of the farmlands were given to—I know to the party members—but also to Chinese people and to people from Libya and government officials from those countries? Have you heard of that at all?”

Harrison didn't quite shoot it down, but he pulled it down several notches when he replied, “I've heard of it but I can't verify it.” A lifelong resident of Zimbabwe has heard the rumors about Red China moving into his country, but he hasn't seen it for himself. Will American conservatives ease up on this claim and look for some substantial evidence before they again assert it as fact?

Of course not.

Less than an hour after hearing part of Simpson's interview with Harrison, I punched the buttons on my car radio (it's not healthy to listen to KSFO for very long) and found myself listening to Dr. Stanley Monteith. “Dr. Stan” is a right-wing loon who loves conspiracy theories (9/11, AIDS, fluoride, New World Order, etc.). He was chatting with a South African correspondent who was sharing the “truth” about Zimbabwe. I didn't catch the fellow's name, but he was assuring Dr. Stan that the Chinese communist takeover of Zimbabwe was well advanced. In proof of this, he offered the observation that Chinese consumer goods were available throughout Zimbabwe. (It appears that China is making great progress in taking over the United States, too, then.) And, as the cherry on the sundae, Dr. Stan's interlocutor noted that “China is taking over Zimbabwe's farms.”

A white farmer from Zimbabwe may not be able to confirm the rumor from within the country itself, but it's self-evident when viewed from South Africa. And it's hawked as confirmed fact on right-wing radio.

Barbara Simpson had better get with the program and stop asking questions. Otherwise, KSFO may have to lay her off, too.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Lucky thirteen

What do you believe about nonbelief?

Yoo Chung of Yoo's Ramblings has tapped me on the shoulder and suggested I take a crack at the Atheist Q&A meme, recently seen hanging around at ERV. Nullifidian calls it the Atheist Thirteen, most likely because it consists of ten questions followed by “Tag, you're it!” to three other atheist blogs. Yoo included Halfway There on his list of three nonbelieving blogs, so here I am taking a look at the ten questions and mulling my answers.

1. How would you define “atheism”?

Let's keep it simple. To me, atheism means that you don't believe in God. There are more elaborate definitions, such as the version that applied to the late geometer Edwin Moise, who was asked why he believed there was no God. Moise is reputed to have replied, “You have to have faith!” That's a more robust form of atheism: actually believing that God does not exist, instead of merely lacking faith in his existence. I guess that's why I don't kick too much when people describe me as agnostic. They're trying to be “nice” by soft-pedaling my disbelief, as if that makes me more palatable to the general public. Frankly, though, folks like that make me increasingly inclined to get more militant. God? Hell, no!

2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

God, yes! My family to this day remains devotedly Catholic and I was raised in that tradition. It's a smug sort of Christianity when you belong to the oldest sect of Jesus followers. I attended mass every Sunday (even serving as an altar boy for a time), spent a couple of years in Catholic school, and was cajoled throughout my adolescence by a grandmother who hoped I would become a priest. (When you sacrifice a son to Rome, you get lots of indulgence points up in heaven.) Despite total immersion in Catholicism, it didn't take. Praise the Lord.

3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design,” using only one word?

Cant. As in “empty, hypocritical talk.” Intelligent design is very thinly veiled creationism and represents merely the latest evolution of the campaign by religionists to annex some scientific territory to their god-ridden realm. But they can't.

4. What scientific endeavor really excites you?

It's difficult to keep this down to one answer. I follow developments in medicine because one day they may add some years to my life or those of family members or friends. I've had young, vibrant friends pass away at ridiculously young ages and I yearn for solutions. I am also fascinated with astronomy, astrophysics, and astronautics and am frequently aggravated that telescopes and satellites and space probes and spacecraft have to fight over the measly handful of dollars we allocate to such efforts. If NASA got as much money as the Pentagon loses in Iraq in sloppy accounting practices every year, we'd be able to fund all the robotic and manned space travel anyone could ever want.

5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community,” what would it be and why?

Community? What community? Although not being religious really makes one stand out in our knee-bending society, it doesn't ensure having much else in common. If I were to try to be less dismissive and more constructive, I'd suggest that atheists would probably help themselves and the country by being more forthright. The unwillingness of the “new atheists” to mutter consoling platitudes about the value of religion is a step in the right direction.

6. If your child came up to you and said “I'm joining the clergy,” what would be your first response?

I don't have any children, but a plethora of nieces and nephews (and their offspring) have sprung up in the family. If one of the younger family members told Uncle Zeno that they were planning to go off to the seminary or convent, I'd wish them good luck. And then I'd ask, “What persuaded you that this is a good idea? How sure are you about committing yourself to this for life?”

7. What's your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

The Bible quote from Psalms 14:1: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Christians have cited this to me a few times. I like to point out it's in the Old Testament, which Christians consider to be superseded by the New Testament. Funny thing: Instead of reaching for God-affirming quotes from the New Testament, they invariably defend the Old Testament by declaring that Christians believe in the whole Bible. When I ask them about the Mosaic dietary laws (like not drinking milk while eating veal), they quickly say those laws have been superseded. This typically leads into a frustrating attempt (on their part) to explain how they know what parts of the Bible to believe and what parts to dismiss. The discussion peters out inconclusively.

8. What's your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes among other atheists goes) viewpoint?

Not sure. It may be that I don't balk at the implication that same-sex weddings will clear the way to polygamy. I have no problem with that. It's not a deal breaker. Bring on the n-partner unions.

9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris) who is your favorite, and why?

Dawkins has the qualities I most value in a role model or spokesman: articulate, magisterial, erudite, and serene. Hitchens, on the other hand, is often uncouth. That leaves room in the middle for Dennett and Harris.

10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Think big. I'd choose Benedict XVI. If the pope were to abjure his faith in God, it would be delightfully cataclysmic. I'd pick the Dalai Lama as my second choice. It seems that having people address you as “Your Holiness” is a sure-fire way to get on my list.

Tag? No

The last time I tagged other bloggers with a meme, my buddy Zrk (of Live from Zi) replied, “that reminded me that I need to shut it down.” And a moment later it was gone. Zap!

I will spare others the stress of my regard.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Student: Ready to learn

Teacher: Wish you were here

Sometimes you run into eager students who contact you even before the first day of class. They typically say that they intend to hit the ground running. This particular fellow seemed to fit the mold:
Hello Professor Zeno,

I have enrolled in your calculus class for the summer session. I had a few questions before the course began. I have never been at your school before, so I wanted to ask about how the reading material for the class. Is it possible to purchase the reading material outside of the school? I know school bookstores are a little overpriced, and that I could find a better deal elsewhere. Can you provide me a list of what books we'll need for the course? Also, if you had a syllabus on hand, could I look over it ahead of time? Thank you!

Looking forward to learning from you,

I replied cheerfully with the information DS requested:
Thanks for your message, DS. I think most of your questions will be answered by the attached pdf of our syllabus. It includes the ISBN of our textbook, which is the only book required for the class.

You're right, of course, about the prices of books in the college bookstore. You can often get a better bargain elsewhere. One possibility is Off-Campus Books, which is right next to the campus. You might be able to find a better price on-line, but at Off-Campus Books you can have the book in your possession immediately.

See you next week.

Soon my in-box contained another message from DS:
Thanks for the info Professor. I have one last question. Do you know if there's an abridged version of the book? Also, how different is the new edition from the previous edition? Is it possible to work out of the old edition one?

Thanks Again,

We all know that new editions of textbooks seldom have significant changes. They're mostly designed to purge the used book pipeline. However, the changes are usually sufficient to make it difficult to bridge the gap. I gave DS due warning.
Don't get the old edition. Although the old and new editions are not dramatically different in content, it'll cause you nothing but trouble. The page numbers and exercise numbers are all out of sync. You'd need access to a copy of the current edition to know which exercises you're supposed to do. We're already going to have a very busy time with the course compressed into the abbreviated summer session. Anything that makes it even more complicated should be avoided if at all possible.

The first day of class arrived. Surprisingly, several of my students hadn't acquired the textbook yet. They were at a handicap as we promptly plowed through the first two sections of the text. Summer session doesn't dawdle. It wouldn't be a problem for DS, though, would it? Except he didn't respond when his name was called during the roll. Where was DS?

He wasn't there the second day either. But then a new message popped into my in-box:
Hi Professor Zeno,

I am attending my brother's graduation on Thursday and Friday, and will be gone those two days. I will be back for Monday's exam, as listed in the syllabus you sent me. I just wanted to let you know I was going to be gone those two days. I am not asking for dates to make up the homework assignments or quiz, I just wanted to inform you I was going to be away. Is there anything I need to have or bring on the date of the exam besides calculator, and pencil? Thank You,

Naturally I was delighted to hear from him:
Thank you for your message, DS. We seem, however, to have a problem. I have yet to see you in class and I dropped you as a no-show. There were students on the waiting list eager to add the class and I signed them up, giving them the spots that had been allocated to students who did not attend class yesterday. It's not reasonable to assume you can miss the entire first week and still be retained on the roster. I'm sorry if you assumed this was the case.

DS was contrite and prepared to wiggle a bit:
I understand. If I set aside the graduation, and show up for the class at the end of the first week, is there still room? Or is the class filled to capacity? I was just wondering if it was possible to re-add if there was room. Thanks!

I send him one last message:
The class is filled to its capacity, DS. Enjoy your brother's graduation. Better luck next time.


Why not Feinstein?

Not quite a rhetorical question

The Democratic National Convention was held in San Francisco in 1984. Presumptive nominee Walter Mondale, former vice president under Jimmy Carter, was going to have an uphill battle in his effort to oust incumbent president Ronald Reagan. In an attempt to capture the imagination of the American electorate, Mondale decided to name a woman as his running mate. The choice fell to U.S. Representative Geraldine Ferraro, a congresswoman from New York state. Despite some initial hopes that Mondale-Ferraro could upset President Reagan and Vice President George Bush in the general election, the Democrats never gained much traction. The incumbents enjoyed a landslide victory while the Democratic ticket carried only Minnesota, the home state of its presidential nominee, and the reliably Democratic District of Columbia.

Everyone knew that Mondale had narrowed his list of potential running mates to two names by the time of his party's convention. He had also seriously considered Mayor Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco, who had hosted the national party's convention with aplomb and was widely regarded as a Democrat with a bright future. Mondale balked, however, at the prospect of enduring constant scrutiny over the financial involvements of Feinstein's spouse, investment banker Richard C. Blum. While critics continue to harp on Blum's potential conflicts of interest with his wife's votes as a U.S. senator, Feinstein and Blum have weathered such accusations without visible political or financial damage to either.

Mondale might have hoped for such resilience when it turned out that Ferraro's husband, real estate agent John Zaccaro, had some problems with his tax returns. Or perhaps he wished that he had chosen Feinstein instead. In any case, the first rule of running mates is the same as the cardinal rule for doctors: “do no harm.” Actually benefiting the ticket is a pure plus. Ferraro failed that test in 1984 (just as Quayle did in 1988, but not fatally that year), and today both Obama and McCain are looking for vice-presidential candidates that will, at the very least, not hurt their campaigns and might, in the best case, actually help a little.

Sen. Obama is said to be reviewing prospective running mates with the objective of shoring up his support among potentially disaffected Democratic constituencies: women, Jews, and Hispanics. While Hillary Clinton's strong endorsement at the time of her suspension of her campaign has accelerated the process of reuniting internal factions in preparation for the fall election, an apt choice of vice-presidential candidate could perhaps seal the deal.

Several names have been bruited about. Sen. Clinton is the obvious possibility, but there's the question whether she would settle for the proverbial “bucket of warm spit” (in John Nance Garner's likely bowdlerized description of his job during the first two administrations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and whether Sen. Obama would want to offer it to her in the first place. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico could potentially bring in the Latino voters with his Hispanic heritage and Spanish language skills; Spanish-speaking voters stuck with Hillary throughout the long primary battles and Obama would like to have them on board. Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas is also certain to be on Obama's short list of prime prospects for a running mate. Sebelius is a popular and successful Democrat in a state dominated by Republicans and she would likely appeal to women and Midwestern voters. A Roman Catholic, Sebelius has been chastised by clerics in Kansas for refusing to sign into law anti-abortion measures that she says would unduly restrict women's freedom of choice.

No one is really talking about Dianne Feinstein as a possible vice-presidential nominee and no one has suggested that she is on Obama's list. Perhaps she should be. Feinstein made presidential campaign news recently when she played host to Obama and Clinton's end-of-campaign powwow. A strong Clinton supporter who had signaled it was time to close ranks behind Obama, Feinstein has good relations with both camps. While one might wish (as I do!) that Feinstein were less inclined to give President Bush the benefit of the doubt on his judicial appointments or to be more suspicious of the White House position on FISA, Sen. Feinstein has a well-established record of working effectively with both sides of the senate aisle. Her diplomatic skills are significant.

If Obama were to pick Feinstein, she could bridge the gap between his original supporters and those in Hillary's brigade. Feinstein is Jewish and could strengthen Obama's support among her coreligionists, many of whom seem to find him insufficiently pro-Israel and are being eagerly courted by McCain. Unlike Sebelius, Feinstein would not be seen as someone whom Obama was setting up to preempt Clinton's future as a national politician (whether Hillary has one is another question). Feinstein, after all, turns 75 this year and could run as a senior stateswoman. (Surely the McCain campaign would hesitate to try to use age as an issue.)

Of course, this notion that Feinstein could be a good running mate for Obama runs horribly aground on a terrible reality. The governor of California would appoint her successor in the event she is elected to the vice presidency. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a Republican and no one in the Democratic ranks would want to surrender a prized seat to the opposition. Fortunately, however, there is a simple solution:

Strike a deal with Arnold.

Schwarzenegger has a good working relationship with Feinstein and would undoubtedly relish the prospect of having a friendly voice inside the White House (assuming that his preferred candidate John McCain does not win). To hedge his bets by making a side deal with the Democratic ticket, Arnold could ensure his ready access to the federal executive branch no matter what the outcome of the election. The state of Wyoming provides a useful example. When an incumbent Repubican senator died in office, the Democratic governor of Wyoming was required by state law to choose a replacement from the late incumbent's political party. California has no such law, but there is no reason that Feinstein and Schwarzenegger could not strike a similar deal. If Arnold were to pledge to appoint Feinstein's successor from a list of three names that she would provide in the event of her election as vice president, her senate seat would not switch parties. Schwarzenegger would have no particular reason to balk at such a deal and every reason to avoid reneging and poisoning his future relations with the opposition party (which dominates the California state legislature).

Is any of this going to happen? I certainly don't think so. But I've heard much worse suggestions.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Please lie for me!

The truth is out there

It was a surprise, but not a novelty. I'd had students do this before. They vanish for a couple of weeks, then suddenly reappear in class. Usually there are elaborate excuses, but sometimes they slip back in as if they hope I don't notice they're back (or were ever missing in the first place). This student, however, was not following the typical script. “Gee” came charging right up to me in front of the prealgebra class. I assumed, however, that I was ready for her.

“Well, hello, Gee. May I ask why you're here?”

She had been missing for four weeks. Students don't usually bother coming back after that long an absence.

“I need you to tell my sister I'm enrolled in your class.”

Okay. This was new.

“Actually, it's none of your sister's business, although I dropped you from class for excessive absences.”

“But can you tell her I'm in the class?”

“If your sister asks me, all I can say to her is that I'm not permitted to talk about a student's status.”

“Yeah, that's good! Can you tell her that?”

“I have to tell her that. Our students have privacy rights and we faculty members cannot ordinarily discuss our students with third parties. I can't tell your sister anything.”

“Oh. All right. Is it okay if I sit down?”

“There are desks to spare. Knock yourself out.”

She hustled over to a corner of the classroom and sat down. If Gee was pretending to be a student, she was doing a fairly bad job of it. She had no textbook, no writing implement, and no notebook or paper. She did have her cell phone, of course, which she promptly began to check for messages. It was like old times, before she stopped bothering coming to class.

The rest of the class was unremarkable. We worked over the new material, answered several questions, and assigned some homework. The class period ended and my students began to flow toward the door. Uncharacteristically, Gee stayed put at her desk. I understood why when a woman worked her way into the room against the flow of traffic. She looked like a slightly older version of Gee. The new arrival came bustling up to me just as her younger sister had an hour before. They were very alike, although the older sister had a very serious expression.

“Is my sister in your class?”

“Excuse me? I don't know who you are.”

She pointed at Gee, who was sitting there with an innocent expression on her face.

“That's my sister. Is she in your class?”

“I'm sorry, but that's privileged information. The school's privacy rules don't allow me to discuss my students with outside parties.” Actually, Gee wasn't my student anymore, but I was pretty sure the privacy rules applied to former students, too.

The sister looked unhappy and prepared to argue. Gee sauntered up and proceeded to put her foot right in it:

“You can see I'm right here. Dr. Z told me I had been dropped from the class by accident.”

Stupid girl. Her older sister turned toward her.

“You said you were enrolled. You didn't say anything about being dropped!” She turned back to me. “Is that right? Was Gee dropped by accident?”

“Again, I'm sorry. You'll have to discuss that directly with your sister.”

The older sister was exasperated. Gee had recovered her composure after her flub, smirking slightly when I did not rat her out. Clearly her older sister was the family enforcer and was checking up on her spoiled kid sister. Perhaps Gee was living rent-free at home because she was supposedly going to school. I didn't know the whole story, but I knew that Gee was shirking and her sister was trying to get the goods on her. I decided to be more helpful, while punctiliously observing the privacy rules. I addressed the older sister:

“If you need to know the details of Gee's student record and you don't want to just take your sister's word for it, there's an easy way for Gee to document it for you. All she needs to do is take you with her to the counseling office and ask her counselor to share her academic record with you. If she gives her counselor permission to share her information with you, then the counselor can tell you anything you need to know.” Of course, I could have asked Gee to waive her privacy rights right there and give me permission to clue in her sister, but I was eager to get them out of my classroom. I also figured that Gee's counselor would have a treasure trove of fascinating information, whereas all I knew about was Gee's behavior in prealgebra.

Gee's face went suddenly blank. Her sister brightened.

“Oh! Thank you, professor. Come on, Gee, we need to go to counseling.”

She grabbed her younger sister by the wrist and dragged her out of the classroom.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

John McCain's secret plan

Dark victory

I know that people feel an obligation to predict a close presidential race, but all signs point to a blow-out for Obama. Only an excess of complacency and a string of egregious errors would be likely to usher McCain into the White House and so far Sen. Obama has shown no inclination to crack under pressure. Nevertheless, people must give lip service to the notion that McCain has a fighting chance and the Republican election machinery is grinding its gears and trying to shift out of neutral.

This weekend I received a message about the 2008 Victory Plan that will supposedly propel the GOP nominee toward electoral triumph. According to the National Black Republican Association, the 2008 Victory Plan is elegant in its simplicity: To win, all John McCain has to do is win 25% of the black vote.

Excuse me? Twenty-five percent?. Did someone forget a decimal point between the two and the five? Hillary couldn't rack up 25% against Obama. In what alternate universe can J. Sidney McCain III dream of such a feat?

The delusion known as the 2008 Victory Plan has four steps:
  • Recruit and train black church and community leaders to spread our conservative Republican message
  • Script, produce and air our hard-hitting radio and TV ads for black radio and TV outlets
  • Put up MLK billboards across America
  • Publish and distribute our very effective magazine, The Black Republican

MLK billboards? That's right. They claim that Martin Luther King, Jr., was a registered Republican. While that sounds weird today, it shouldn't be that surprising if it were true. Although no one has turned up a GOP registration card signed by Martin Luther King, Jr., we know his father was a member. After all, the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln, the president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The Democratic Party was the party of Jim Crow and the Solid South. Black voters had every reason to sign up with the GOP.

The National Black Republican Association is nostalgic for the good old days and argues that African Americans should come home to the Republican Party. As cited approvingly by NBRA chair Frances Rice, “the Democrat Party is as it always has been, the party of the four S's: Slavery, Secession, Segregation and now Socialism.” What the NBRA seems to have missed, however, is that Richard Nixon's deliberate “Southern strategy” brought the Republican Party electoral victories in the short term at the cost of abandoning the black voter. Nixon embarked on a campaign to attract the votes of Southern whites who were disaffected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Those measures were pushed by President Lyndon Johnson, a Southern Democrat who broke with his party's racist heritage.

Once established in the White House, Nixon began to pay off his political debts to his Southern supporters with such actions as the Supreme Court nominations of Clement Haynesworth and G. Harrold Carswell. Both nominations were defeated when the former turned out to be insufficiently careful about recusing himself in cases where he had a financial interest and the latter was shown to be an utter mediocrity who had defended segregation. In response to Nixon's solicitous pandering, white voters in the Solid South began to build today's GOP domination of their politics. Local politicians adapted to the trend. Although he had been a protege of Lyndon Johnson, leading Southern Democrats like John Connally abandoned the Democratic Party and signed up with the GOP.

While the Republican Party now holds sway over the Solid South, it's paid a steep price in terms of the African American vote. The party of Lincoln now commands the allegiance of approximately 4% of black voters. In arguing that African Americans should cling to their Republican heritage, the National Black Republican Association is stuck with such ancient talking points as Democratic opposition to civil rights. The NBRA cites such examples as Sen. Robert Byrd's former membership in the Ku Klux Klan, as if his mistakes of many decades ago have any significance in 2008, a time in which Byrd enjoys a 100% rating from the NAACP and is on record as a supporter of Sen. Obama's presidential campaign.

The Republican Party's 25% pipe dream isn't even new. In 2004 Ed Gillespie was chairman of the Republican National Committee and he was touting the GOP's plans to make inroads into the minority community. What was the result of that earlier strenuous effort? George W. Bush's share of the black vote rose from a minuscule 8% in 2000 to an anemic 11% in 2004. The 2008 Victory Plan envisages Sen. McCain more than doubling President Bush's 2004 share of the black vote in a campaign against Sen. Barack Obama. Is this a realistic prospect?

I'm sure I don't need to tell you the answer.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The rise of the Bene Gesserit

They're already here

The phone next to Dad's recliner rang. He picked it up. After saying hello he switched to Portuguese for a few sentences. It was probably family. He switched back to English:

“It's for you.”

That was a surprise. I had recently “gone away” to college. Who knew I was home?

“It's your cousin Maria,” added Dad.

Oh, like that was a big help.

“Which one?” I asked.

I wasn't kidding. If you're Portuguese, then all of your female relatives are named Maria (or Mary or Marie). There's no help for it. Maria may be their first name, middle name, or confirmation name, but it's always in there somewhere.

“Maria Anna,” he replied.

What the heck was she calling me for? I couldn't keep track of the family bloodlines like some of my relatives could, but I seemed to recall that we had grandfathers who were first cousins, so Maria Anna and I would be third cousins. Anyway, what did she want with me? I took the phone from my father.

My cousin and I chatted in English. Her Portuguese was more fluent than mine (she had lived in the Old Country for a while), but her English was fine. She came to the point quickly:

“There's a Grand March the night of the festa and I need an escort. Would you go with me?”

Think fiesta when you see festa and you'll be all right. You won't pronounce it right unless you've heard someone say it aloud (or unless you're Portuguese) because we say it as if it's spelled feshta. (Don't ask me why.) Portuguese communities like to have a festa or two each year (there's always one near the time of Pentecost). There'll be a big informal banquet and perhaps a parade. Sometimes a dance. The Grand March was a kind of processional that preceded a dance.

“I wasn't planning to go, Maria Anna. Can't you get someone else?”

The negotiations began. She was obviously scraping the bottom of the barrel if she was resorting to inviting blood kin (although, when you get right down to it, all Portuguese seem to be nth cousins, sometimes m times removed). There would be goodies at the festa, including massa sovada and filhozes. Yum! Then the deal clincher:

“You don't have to dance with me. Just escort me till the Grand March is done and then you're on your own.”

Anyway, it was a good deed for my loser of a cousin. I felt virtuous.

A few minutes later the phone rang again. Dad picked it up. A moment later he yelled for my kid brother:

“Tim, it's for you! It's your cousin Maria!”

My brother yelled back from the next room: “Which one?”

This time it was Maria Amelia. She's Maria Anna's kid sister. She made exactly the same deal with my kid brother as her sister had with me. My brother and I were both roped into going to the Grand March, but we were allowed to cut loose the moment it concluded.

The Coven

Tradition is persistent in Portuguese communities in the U.S. It lingers today and it was even more robust in the 1970s. Portuguese women encase themselves in black when their husbands die. Mourning becomes their vocation for the rest of their lives. They travel in packs, too, like a murder of crows. There's nothing like a festa for sightings of the black-clad flock.

Portuguese velhinhas (little old ladies) or viúvas (widows) cluster in little groups in the corners of the hall, muttering together. Some of them compulsively click rosary beads, but all of them are watchful. They love festas because their principal hobby is matchmaking. Widowhood frees them up to spend time swapping information about family bloodlines: His father has a drinking problem; he's no catch. Her family's dairy is failing; no dowry there. She has a twin brother; no doubt she'll be infertile. That one is the town whore, but she might be good enough for him, since he's the fourth son in his family and has no prospects at all.

They gossip with their heads together, occasionally chuckling quietly. All the heads snap up when fresh flesh appears on the scene. I created a bit of a stir. Although I had grown up in the county, I had never been to a Grand March before. Who is that boy with Maria Anna?

As the couples strolled in, arm-in-arm, the anemic little band struck up the only tune they knew that they thought was a march: When the Saints Go Marching In. They played it several times while the procession snaked about the hall and eventually everyone was inside and had paraded in front of festive family members and friends. The parents of Anna and Amelia beamed at us. The heads of the little old ladies swung back and forth, checking out the teens and tweens. Eventually they pegged me.

Aha! See the boy with Maria Amelia?

Sure, sure. Timoteo. He's the grandson of Old Man Ferox.

Ha! He's marching with his cousin!

Yes, yes. So that's probably his big brother Zeno marching with Maria Anna!

The college boy? So that's what he looks like.

The bookworm has come to a Grand March!

Poor girls. With their cousins! Couldn't they find real dates?

No, no, it's all right. Third cousins. Old Man Ferox is first cousin to the girls' grandfather.

That's right! That's right! Still ... not the best.

The band gave up on When the Saints Go Marching In and the Grand March ground to an end. My brother Tim was gone like a shot, Maria Amelia spinning like a top in his wake. I took my leave of Maria Anna more politely and made a bee-line to her parents (where Maria Anna was sure not to follow); I knew I could chat innocuously for a few minutes and practice my Portuguese. They asked about college and I inquired solicitously after their health (which was bad, as I found out in detail; indeed, they lingered in robustly horrible health for decades thereafter and were always happy to tell you about it).

The Bene Gesserit were undoubtedly dismayed that the Ferox boys had gone stag so abruptly, bringing their speculations on degrees of incest to a premature conclusion. Fortunately, there were dozens of other boys and girls in the hall. The old ladies watched as people paired off for the dancing, nodding or shaking their heads in swift judgment of each couple.

After a decent interval, I found my brother at the concession stand, pouring Coke down his throat and hanging out with guys he knew from school or 4-H. Tim wanted to stay for a while and go back to the dance floor once our cousins were out of circulation. We negotiated a deal: He could amuse himself for ninety minutes and then we were out of there. It was approximately eighty minutes more than my original offer, but Tim was actually a rather sociable person and didn't regret being at the festa. I got some munchies from the concession stand and settled in for my vigil.

It was not the greatest ordeal of my life. Not too many people knew me, but a few came over to chat and ask me about college. Was Cal Poly a good school? Yeah, I think so, but I'm at Caltech. Do they have a good ag program? That's up at UC Davis; I'm a math major down in Pasadena.

Good times.

My pact with my kid brother soon unraveled. He returned to me and begged for an extension, which I reluctantly granted. Tim kept going back dance after dance to partner with the same girl. The ninety minutes eventually turned into three hours. Even then I was practically dragging my brother to the car so we could get the hell out of there.

Within two years my brother and that girl were married.

Don't mess with the Bene Gesserit.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Desperately seeking surcease

Save me from my job!

You may have heard that ten state attorneys general have asked the California supreme court to stay its ruling in Marriage cases for fear that same-sex marriages in the Golden State will wreak havoc in their own polities. Although one of the petitioners (New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte) has since withdrawn, the remaining nine are telling California's high court that “prudential considerations” suggest that implementation of its decision should occur “in a deliberate fashion and without undue haste”—if at all. While claiming that they do not take a stand either for or against the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages that will appear on the November general election ballot, the attorneys general palpably hope to be spared the ordeal of doing their jobs.

By an odd coincidence (what are the chances?) all signatories to the petition are Republicans. The lead author of the letter to the California court is Mark Shurtleff, attorney general of the state of Utah. Speaking for the group, he declares
[I]t is not surprising that news media in each of our States report on not a few resident same-sex couples who intend to go or are seriously contemplating going to California to marry, if and when the remedy in this case becomes effective, and then returning home. We reasonably believe an inevitable result of such “marriage tourism” will be a steep increase in litigation of the recognition issue in our courts.
That's right: These Republican attorneys general are worried that their workload will increase. They're not ready to deal with these completely unanticipated questions. I mean, who could have ever imagined that it would be necessary for the top lawyer in each state to prepare for possible litigation on same-sex marriages? After all, civil unions in Vermont have existed only since 2000 and gay marriages have been occurring in Massachusetts since 2004. No wonder that the California decision came as a completely unexpected bolt out of the blue.

The attorneys general have an excuse ready to go. You see, Vermont has only civil unions (not marriage) and Massachusetts had Mitt Romney (poor Massachusetts), who insisted that his state's implementation of same-sex marriage under court mandate explicitly restrict it to citizens of Massachusetts. The specter of “marriage tourism” was thus banished, never to appear again! That is, until a few years later. Quelle surprise.

Who are these myopic visionaries and why do they want to be attorney general if they are reluctant to do the job? Let's keep an eye on these people. Expect them to bail out and run for other offices soon. No doubt they'll make strong candidates for governor and U.S. senator based on their heroic service as job-duckers in their current positions.
  • Talis Colberg, Alaska
  • John Suthers, Colorado
  • Bill McCollum, Florida
  • Lawrence Wasden, Idaho
  • Mike Cox, Michigan
  • Jon Bruning, Nebraska
  • Henry McMaster, South Carolina
  • Larry Long, South Dakota
  • Mark Shurtleff, Utah
These GOP lawyers have their fingers crossed that we Californians will let them off the hook by voting to ban same-sex marriages in November. Please, let's disappoint them.

PZ breezes by the bay

A suspicious coincidence

The redoubtable PZ Myers of Pharyngula fame was recently in the Bay Area, ostensibly for a big scientific conference, IEDG 2008: Integrating Evolution, Development, & Genomics. Despite the plausibility of PZ's cover story, the San Francisco Chronicle published bits of information that suggest Professor Myers had a secret agenda as well—a clandestine mission related to his ceaseless promotion of all things tentacular.

IEDG 2008 was convened at UC Berkeley on May 28 through 30, the days immediately preceding the gala Black & White Ball in San Francisco, which was held on Saturday, May 31. The ball is a huge fundraiser for the educational programs of the San Francisco Symphony. It is also, of course, an enormous social event and an opportunity to strut one's fashionable self. While this description may not be likely to bring PZ to mind, graphic evidence was revealed in the Chronicle's story on the contest to choose a party dress for Patricia Sprincin, the chair of the Black & White Ball's organizing committee.

The winning design was a particularly octopoidal little number by British designer Sara Shepherd. Judging from the four tentacles appearing on the front of the gown, one surmises that the dress features a total of eight appendages (making a little allowance for the fact that stylistic license allowed Ms. Shepherd to link two pairs of them into loops). This was clearly a dress designed to appeal to the Bay Area's cephalopod lovers. One suspects that the great international mollusc conspiracy was involved in turning out the vote in favor of Shepherd's entry in the contest. Wherever mollusc-lovers are working in concert, will PZ not be found? Perhaps PZ was summoned to the Bay Area to advise Ms. Sprincin on the proper way to display one's tentacles. We cannot know for sure one way or the other.

Alas, I was not able to confirm the details of PZ's involvement when he held court at the Jupiter brew pub in Berkeley on Friday night. I was otherwise committed and could not make the trip into the university town to hoist a few at the impromptu gathering of Pharynguloids. (Of course, as a nondrinker I would have been hoisting whatever Jupiter offers as its house cola.) Therefore this post is a tissue of unfounded speculations. But one has to admit, it is suspicious in the extreme.

PZ decamped for Seattle on Saturday instead of waiting for the debut of the Shepherd ball gown at the Black & White Ball that evening. It's just as well. The actual event was a telling example of the difference between theory and practice—a lesson that all scientists—and fashion designers!—should try to remember. Patricia Sprincin bravely ventured forth on Saturday night in the gown that the popular vote had selected for her. She did the best she could as the Chronicle's photographer snapped a picture for the next day's newspaper coverage. You can see the result in the accompanying illustration.

It was not a tentacular success.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Old media on new media

Will the circle stay this broken?

A few days ago I received a message from someone at the state capital's only daily newspaper. The Sacramento Bee publishes a regional blog roundup in the Forum section of its Sunday edition. Gary Reed wanted me to know that he was considering my post on Fragile heterosexuality for inclusion in the June 1 roundup. Fine by me.

I picked up a copy of the Bee this morning and discovered that, sure enough, my blog post was there in print form. Therefore, of course, my post also exists in cyberspace, because the Bee has an on-line edition. I couldn't resist: I went to check out the on-line version of the print version of my original on-line blog post.

You still with me?

I love print media. I read voraciously, dispatching dozens of books every year (although it used to be hundreds back when I was younger and the books I read were thinner). I read lots of newspapers, too, although my students seem not to have heard of such things (and those newspapers keep getting thinner as electronic media nibble away at their circulation base).

However, I'm not sure print is the right medium for blog posts. A blog post is rather denatured after translation into hardcopy. For example, readers of the Bee will see a parenthetical remark near the beginning of my article:
(God, you see, hates immorality except in those instances where he expressly condones it.)
What is that all about? In print form it just lies there. However, the original version here on my blog has links to each of the last three words in the sentence. The blog reader who clicks on “expressly” will see the text of Exodus 21:2-7, wherein God offers instructions on managing slaves and notes that the offspring of a slave belong to the master. I linked “condones” to 1 Samuel 15:3, where God explicitly instructs Israel to commit genocide against the Amalekites, killing all men, women, children, and animals. Finally, “it” links to Numbers 31:15-18, wherein Moses passes along God's instructions to the Israelites to save for themselves the virgins of Midian. The first two cases clearly condone slavery and genocide, while the third smacks of rape.

All that is lost in the translation to print.

At the end of my original post I inserted a hilarious Goodie Bag video. Here's my original concluding paragraph:
The preservation of humanity demands that vigorous steps be taken to protect fragile heterosexuality. One potential remedy is the wide dissemination of training videos, such as this timely offering from Goodie Bag, titled Protecting and Maintaining Your Heterosexual House of Cards. It's aimed at young men because their straightness is apparently the most easily threatened. Watch and learn!
Now compare that to the Bee's print version:
The preservation of humanity demands that vigorous steps be taken to protect fragile heterosexuality. One potential remedy is the wide dissemination of training videos, … like one aimed at young men because their straightness is apparently the most easily threatened. Watch and learn!
Watch what? There's no embedded video. No link, of course, but no title either. No printed-out URL. Dead end.

We writers tend to kick and moan when editors lay their rough hands on our copy, however gentle the changes may be, but I do think I am making a legitimate point here. My blog post made the transition to print media only at the cost of a significant portion of its impact.

By the way, the on-line version of the print version of my on-line original did not have any of the links restored. Although I admit it was nice to see my blog post appear in the Sacramento Bee, I regret that the on-line edition of the newspaper did nothing to take advantage of the fact that it was possible to restore the links that were necessarily cut from the print version. The on-line edition of the Sacramento Bee is nothing more, in many respects, than an image of the print edition.

I wonder when they will wake up about that.