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Friday, April 29, 2005
SETI: It Rhymes With "Yeti"

"Hello, Dominos?"

Recently I downloaded the seti@home screensaver program. It's a very clever example of distributed computing, and a very ambitious project. It takes radio telescope data from the Arecibo antenna in Puerto Rico and links thousands of home computers around the world together, using them to filter through the constant hiss of extraterrestrial static, trying to detect a radio signal from another civilization. The hard drive of my computer is currently whirring away at top speed, crunching numbers for the SETI program.

I should feel good about that, but I don't. The truth is, I don't really know why I downloaded the program. I think SETI is a noble effort, and has a very interesting idea behind it, but I doubt that the SETI program has any real scientific merit.

SETI makes several big assumptions that its backers just aren't able to prove. First, it assumes that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, and it also assumes that this intelligent life is technologically advanced enough, and has the inclination, to beam radio signals directly at our planet. The existence of extraterrestrial life might be deemed very possible or even very likely by scientists, but at this point it is pure speculation. And while the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence might be proven through the SETI program, it can never be disproven.

SETI boosters view themselves as rational types, not flying saucer crazies or Bigfoot hunters. Supposedly, these are people who value scientific evidence and who do nothing at all just on faith. Yet the SETI community relies on distressing amount of faith, speculation and wishful thinking:

[W]e are a hundred-year-old technology in a ten-billion-year-old galaxy. At the [SETI]workshops Harvard physicist Paul Horowitz summarized things very well; he said: “If it happens at all, there always has to be a first contact between two technological civilizations. Statistically, it is extremely unlikely that our first contact with an ETI civilization will also be its first contact with an ETI civilization. Thus the advanced technology we detect will have experienced this type of encounter many times before. It already may have established a galactic protocol for information interchange, to which ab initio transmissions by Earth will have no chance of adhering. Thus we justify our asymmetrical listen only strategy by recognizing our asymmetrical position amongst galactic civilizations. We are among the very youngest!”

There are no statistics that support this line of reasoning. How do you know we're "among the very youngest"? The only planet that we know has life of any kind is our own; it might seem likely that life occurs on other planets, and perhaps it does. But we have no basis for comparison. While convergent evolution on Earth has independently yielded wings and fins and eyes many times -- which makes them seem to be natural paths of adaptation -- the sort of intelligence we possess seems to have emerged only once in our 4-billion-year-old planet's history. That sort of intelligence might be common throughout the galaxy, but there is no way to say. Perhaps there are other kinds of intelligence, freakishly different from our own, that are not technological in nature; or perhaps intelligence simply isn't a favorable adaptation in the long term.

The bitter truth is, SETI lacks one of pillars of a good scientific theory: the principle of falsifiability. I have criticized the Intelligent Design kooks for this very flaw, and it's silly not to rap the SETI folk for the same thing now. Just as there is no room in Intelligent Design to disprove the existence of God, you never get to a point in SETI research where you can safely conclude that there is no one out there.

Even putting that aside, I also have grave doubts about the SETI program because it's very limited in the kinds of signals that it is capable of looking for. Since the dawn of radio in the 1920s, our stray terrestrial broadcast signals have been radiating out into space at the speed of light: our radio signals have seeped out about seventy-five light-years, and our television signals have made it some sixty light-years. The SETI best-case scenario is that some advanced civilization will intercept our feeble broadcasts and send us a big, loud, omnidirectional signal in return (a scenario popularized by Sagan's bestselling novel Contact.)

Many people believe that we're trying to find the same kind of random broadcasts from alien civilizations that we're accidentally sending out, but that isn't true. The universe is just too noisy, and signals meant for terrestrial consumption are too weak, for that to happen.

What SETI is really looking for is a big, blaring radio signal that is blasting at us with such power that we would be unable to miss it in the galaxy's background noise. And even then, we'd hear it only if our directional ear was pointed in that direction at the right time.

It seems like too many ifs to take seriously. I wish I could be a big fan of the SETI program, but wishing isn't everything.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005
I Wanna Hold Your Hand

Abdullah, there's something I've always wanted to say to you. Your eyes are like limpid pools of sweet crude oil..."

President Bush, stung by sliding poll numbers, today announced a new energy policy:

Comparing U.S. dependence on overseas oil to a "foreign tax on the American people," President Bush on Wednesday proposed a series of energy initiatives, including more oil refineries and nuclear plants, to combat the problem.

This is a shift from yesterday's energy policy, which was apparently to walk around the ranch in Crawford, holding hands with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Monday, April 25, 2005
Wonkette: Behind The Times Again

Our old friend Wonkette reprints a post from the hopelessly out-of-date Kuro5in, who's concerned that no one has written a book about how to survive a zombie attack.

Are you kidding me? Have these people never heard of Max Brook's landmark The Zombie Survival Guide : Complete Protection from the Living Dead ? That book is chock-full of useful zombie-fighting advice. Don't believe me? Here are some of the topics discussed in the book:

1. Organize before they rise!

2. They feel no fear, why should you?

3. Use your head: cut off theirs.

4. Blades don’t need reloading.

5. Ideal protection = tight clothes, short hair.

6. Get up the staircase, then destroy it.

7. Get out of the car, get onto the bike.

8. Keep moving, keep low, keep quiet, keep alert!

9. No place is safe, only safer.

10. The zombie may be gone, but the threat lives on.

When the zombies attack, you and I and Mr. Brooks will survive. Wonkette and Kuro5in? They're zombie meat, baby.

Don't Run Away, I Want To Rule You
We have certainly entered a new era of the papacy when the newly elected pontiff must reassure people that he isn't a fanatic. Benedict XVI's public statements since his election have been carefully crafted to display a cool and moderate demeanor. In contrast with his statements as cardinal, no dissenters have yet been threatened; modernity has not been denounced as sacrelige; and Vatican II, a Council for which Benedict never tried to disguise his contempt, is getting token mention in his public statements. But this is understandable. He is the Pope, and now he wants a chance to rule the laity before he scares them all away.

The public face he has shown these first few days has been assiduously moderate; it's a spiritual makeover courtesy of the Vatican Press Office.

Recently we took a look back at John Paul I, a short-lived Pope who, like John XXIII, was famous for his kindliness and humility. He was succeeded by John Paul II, who was also considered to be a man of great faith (even by the lofty standards of the papacy) as well as a reasonably humble fellow.

But Benedict XVI. What to say about him?

Well, certainly he understands that humility is expected of him. On the day of his election, he described himself as merely "a humble worker in the vineyards of the Lord". And CNN reports today that in an address to German pilgrims in Vatican City, he prayed that he wouldn't be elected:

"At a certain point, I prayed to God 'please don't do this to me,"' he recalled. "Evidently, this time He didn't listen to me."

It would be churlish of me to point out the obvious, but I'm going to do it anyway: God doesn't get a vote at the conclave. Cardinal Ratzinger's colleagues were casting the ballots. Perhaps he should have spoken to the other cardinals before going to the supervisor.

It is said that the Holy Spirit is at work during the conclave, and I would like to believe this -- just as I would like to believe in the idea of Papal Infallibility. But there have been too many greedy and corrupt popes for me to believe it.

While I believe that the Church is a holy institution, it is also a human insititution, and worldly politics interfere all to often with God's business. It may turn out that Benedict XVI is in fact a humble man, but I find it difficult to believe. No humble man describes himself that way. I still believe this pope more closely resembles Bernard of Gui than John Paul I. But we'll see.

Friday, April 22, 2005
The Right-Wing Cringe Machine
When the lovely Mrs. Uncle Mike and I were expecting our daughter, we went to a number of check-ups and ultrasound tests. It was all very exciting but it was a little nerve-wracking. It isn't until the ultrasound tech starts magically peering into the womb that a certain feeling hits you, a feeling that will become very familiar to you as a parent: a mix of tingling excitement and creeping dread. You always want the best for your child and hope that everything goes well; you want her life to be a marvelous and extraordinary adventure. But at the same time you recognize how cruel and random the world can be, and you realize that you can't protect her from everything.

Meghen Cox Gurdon, writing in the National Review, says that worrying about your child is for sissies, and she proclaims that our soft, abortion-friendly liberal culture is making the miracle of birth into pure drudgery.

...Take the business of having babies here in the United States, which is a particularly joyless one, I’m finding, at least in the first two trimesters of pregnancy, and when compared to my own experiences in other countries.

“Congratulations!” said my doctor in Japan, when I was in the early stages of expecting Molly.

“Lovely!” applauded my doctor in England, when Paris was on the way.

“Hurrah, another one!” beamed my Canadian ob/gyn first with Violet, then with Phoebe.

Here in the States? Oh, my goodness. First you get asked what insurance coverage you have. Then they calculate your due date, ask your age (and sound alarmed when you tell them what it is, if you are me), then the very next line of inquiry is about testing for abnormalities.

“Oh,” I said deprecatingly, waving a hand, and sitting down on the examining table during my first visit to the doctor’s office. “No thanks. I don’t want genetic testing. I’ll just have the baby I get.”

The nurse practitioner looked concerned. “But don’t you want to be prepared?”

“Be prepared for what?” I said, trying to shrug nonchalantly. I could feel my smile faltering under the force of her worried gaze. “I mean, I’d rather just assume all is well and deal with something awful if it happens.”

The nurse frowned. “Most couples prefer nowadays to know. Then you’d have a chance to…” she paused. “Be prepared.”

I don’t know why I felt compelled to discuss this on her level, but some situations just bring out one’s inner coward. “You mean, like reading up on my baby’s condition, or organizing special equipment or something?” I said. As the words left my mouth I knew I had conceded something I hadn’t intended to concede.

“Yes,” she said. “Like that.”

A flunky approached with a syringe and vast number of empty glass vials. “Wow,” I remarked, pulling up my sleeve, “that’s a lot of blood you’re taking. What’s it all for?”

The nurse smiled reassuringly. “Just a few tests. The usual.”

Now, there's two really funny things about this passage. First, this woman actually named her oldest son "Paris". And conservatives complain that liberals are feminizing male culture?

Second, the countries that cheerfully welcomed the news of her pregnancy were Japan, England and Canada, those dreadful states that embrace "socialized medicine" -- systems of nationalized health care that conservative publications like the National Review have been denouncing for decades as crumbling, faceless, inefficient and indifferent monuments to the paternalistic state. By contrast, it is America's privatized patchwork of health-care that is depicted as inefficient and overly cautious.

I had the same thought reading this piece that I got reading Naomi Wolf's loony pregnancy memoir Misconceptions: namely, was your baby born on the same planet that mine was? Wolf's book was all about how pregnant women are being treated like cattle by our patriarchal health-care system. Now Gurdon (or Cox Gurdon, or whatever) argues that our alarmist culture is trying to make parents worry unnecessarily about the health of their unborn children.

Meghan honey, I hope you're sitting down, because I've got news for you: normal parents don't have to be encouraged to worry about their children. It's universal, and it cuts across ideological lines like a sharp knife through a piece of Stilton. Mrs. Uncle Mike and I bypassed the genetic testing too, for the same reasons you did, but no one -- no one -- second-guessed that decision. No one darkly suggested that we should "be prepared" and no nervous "flunkies" were wandering around rattling trays of unwanted medical tests.

What's truly amazing here is how convincingly Gurdon argues against her own thesis without even knowing it. Conservative orthodoxy has become so deeply ingrained in its acolytes that every question always has the same answer. And to them, anyone who says otherwise is a traitor.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005
You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave
I've talked to a number of protestants who are bewildered by the dismay that liberal Catholics feel about the election of our new pope, Benedict XVI. The dismay was augmented by the fact that he was elected so quickly. Liberal, by the way, is an increasingly relative term these days; anyone to the left of Benito Mussolini can now be described as a liberal. The shock and the feelings of dread have been palpable. It seems clear to many Catholics that the reforms of Vatican II have been officially burned at the stake.

Andrew Sullivan made a very amusing analogy: imagine that George W. Bush had served four terms in office, and that his successor was Karl Rove. That's how it feels to us.

Protestants might also ask, if you're no longer welcome in the church, why don't you just leave?

Here's the answer: the church is more than your religion: it's your home, your spiritual family. A huge, diverse, dysfunctional family to be sure; a family that you can disown and pretend not to know, but pretending will only get you so far. You can't quit your family, no matter how you try.

"So on we worked," as A.E. Robinson wrote, "and waited for the light." We might wait a long time, but I think the light is worth waiting for. We may not see it in our lifetimes, but the Church is only 2,000 years old. We can't give up so easy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Go In A Papabile, Come Out A Pope
Okay, Nemo. You were right and I was wrong. They picked Ratzinger. How they did or why, I can't say.

It's a bit stunning to me. Perhaps I simply underestimated the extent to which John Paul II had packed the College of Cardinals with conservatives. Perhaps I took too literally the indications coming from the Vatican that the next Pope would be an optimist, a diplomat, someone who could reach out to the world. Perhaps I didn't imagine that the cardinals were so completely out of touch.

Andrew Sullivan, who clearly feels very deeply about this issue, sums it up for a lot of American Catholics:

This was not an act of continuity. There is simply no other figure more extreme than the new Pope on the issues that divide the Church. No one. He raised the stakes even further by his extraordinarily bold homily at the beginning of the conclave, where he all but declared a war on modernity, liberalism (meaning modern liberal democracy of all stripes) and freedom of thought and conscience. And the speed of the decision must be interpreted as an enthusiastic endoprsement of his views. What this says to American Catholics is quite striking: it's not just a disagreement, it's a full-scale assault....his response to dialogue within the church is to silence those who disagree with him. He has no experience dealing with people en masse, no hands-on experience of the challenges of the church in the developing world, and complete contempt for dissent in the West. His views on the subordinate role of women in the Church and society, the marginalization of homosexuals (he once argued that violence against them was predictable if they kept pushing for rights), the impermissibility of any sexual act that does not involve the depositing of semen in a fertile uterus, and the inadmissability of any open discourse with other faiths reveal him as even more hardline than the previous pope. I expected continuity. I didn't expect intensification of the fundamentalism and insularity of the current hierarchy.... For American Catholics, I foresee an accelerating exodus. But that, remember, is the plan. The Ratzingerians want to empty the pews in America and start over. They will, in that sense, be successful.

To which I can only say: amen to that, brother.

Go In A Papabile, Come Out A Cardinal
On November 29, 1268, Pope Clement IV died, and the papacy was vacant for nearly three years. The cardinals who were charged with selecting a new pope simply couldn't reach the requisite two-thirds majority on any candidate. They met periodically and debated, but nothing happened for a long time.

The head and burgesses of the town of Viterbo, where the conference was being held, finally hit upon a clever solution: they locked the cardinals up and refused to let them out until they agreed on a pope.

Even in captivity, the cardinals were still unable to settle on a candidate, and the burgesses then decided that more strenuous measures were needed: the food rations issued to the cardinals were cut in half.

When that didn't work, the cardinals were fed only bread and water. It wasn't long before they were able to agree on a compromise candidate.

That sort of negative reinforcement hasn't been used for centuries, but the cardinals have traditionally been kept in less than comfortable digs while they deliberated. A 70-year-old man sleeping on an uncomfortable cot has to be interested in getting on with the job so that he can go back to his comfy home -- which might be thousands of miles away.

But in 1996 Pope John Paul II instituted changes to make the cardinals more comfortable and to make their job easier. The cardinals no longer sleep on lumpy cots; they stay at a modest but comfortable residence hall adjacent to the Sistine Chapel. The most important change, however, is the one that allows a pope to be elected by a simple majority after thirty ballots (around 12 days), rather than a two-thirds majority that had previously been required (regardless of the number of ballots already cast).

This change makes it more likely that hard-liners who might hold a slight majority in the conclave will hold out and wait until 30 ballots have been cast, when they will be able to force their candidate in with a simple majority. The old two-third rule forced the cardinals to reach a consensus, and usually they did so quickly. There hasn't been a really long conclave since the early 19th century.

It remains to be seen if the cardinals will abandon their desire for consensus in order to allow for a more political victory. But if the conclave is still in session next by next Monday, a hard-liner might be the pope soon after.

I wonder if all the wingers who have been clamoring for a right-wing pope will be happy when they have one who declares -- as Ratzinger has declared many times -- that only Catholics are going to heaven?

Monday, April 18, 2005
Cable News Abhors A Vacuum
This morning the Vatican conclave began in Rome, and everyone in the world seems to have an opinion about how it will turn out. I've read a number of media reports that say Cardinal Ratziner is now the front-runner for the papacy (it should come as no surprise that the National Review favors him). Nemo -- wherever he is these days-- is probably chuckling softly to himself and rubbing his hands together with evil glee. You may remember that he had named Ratzinger as a probable successor to John Paul II about a year ago, and I had shouted no, no, no, silly nondenominatioal protestant, you know nothing of these things; Ratzinger is too reactionary, too controversial, a 21st-century Bernardo Gui; the church wants stability. The church wants an Italian moderate.

Now, I will go out on a limb here and say I still don't believe Ratzinger has a prayer. But the truth is, I don't really know. Nobody does. When you see media reports naming so-and-so as a front-runner, it's useful to remember that the cardinals themselves cannot talk to anyone about the selection process. To do so carries the penalty of automatic excommunication. Similarly, anyone working anywhere near the cardinals is sworn -- and I mean literally sworn -- to secrecy.

But I don't know is a phrase that isn't allowed in the hallowed halls of CNN and Fox News. It's better to be dead certain in front of the cameras anyway, because the news media is just passing through this story. Soon there will be another celebrity murder and / or sex scandal, and another sensational trial, and another beloved TV sitcom will be cancelled, and the news media will inflate the importance of those events beyond all recognition. They will weep and rend their garments and wonder aloud how the world will continue. But that's okay, because there will always be another event that they can inflate.

And deep down they know that the world will continue, one way or another.

Friday, April 15, 2005
What Ever Made You Think, Girls, That You Could Have It All?
Home Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day-Care, Wonder Drugs and Other Parent Substitutes got a flattering write-up in the National Review recently. Guess what the book is about?

Yes, you've guessed it. Neo-Victorians are once again trying to re-establish women's proper role as hearth angel, keeper of the cookie jar, and stay-at-home mom. The book's author, Mary Eberstadt of the Hoover Institute, begins her tome by writing about how it was possible for her to take time from her kids to write a book about how moms don't spend enough time with their kids:

I am an at-home mother of four whose "fieldwork" consists mostly of fifteen years or so spent around sandboxes, schools, carpools, baseball games, and the like and whose intellectual work is conducted by fits and starts and at odd hours in the basement, one wall over from the washing machine and another removed from the Nintendo set-up. I haven't had a "real" office in more than twelve years. Until very recently motherhood also meant that I did very little writing apart from the occasional essay or review. Today things are different. Three of my children are at school all day long and the youngest is on the verge of it, so there is more time for reading and writing than there has been for most of the last fifteen years. I have a part-time paid baby sitter who is upstairs while I am down, a husband who often works at home, and older children who also help with the youngest one. Thus the "how" of the book.

Translation: I'm not a hypocrite. I'm not a bad mother. I'm not.

But reviewer Myrna Blyth leaps to Eberstadt's defense. "Oh, dear," she frets. "Would any father, even the most devoted, writing a book about America's children ever have to explain his work habits so exhaustively?"

Well he might -- if the book was about how fathers should give up their careers and stay home with the kids.

It is exactly this glib hypocrisy that has flummoxed liberals for so many years. Just as conservatives can simulataneously attack George Soros as an anti-Semite and also as "a Jew who managed to escape the Holocaust", so can conservatives admonish women for abandoning their kids and -- when you object -- claim that you're holding them to a double-standard.

It's hard to say if Blyth is aware of just how disingenuous her claims sound. I have to imagine she is aware (she doesn't come off as a complete idiot); and this says something important about arguing with "movement conservative" versus an old-school conservative. To the movement conservative, the movement is everything; the only goal is winning, by whatever means necessary. And if that includes lying and conniving even within the framework of a book review, so be it.

These Days, Satire Is Almost Impossible
...but Tom Toles pulls it off. This cartoon will give you a much-needed laugh.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005
The Nightmarish World Of 1980

"Run for your lives, humans!"

In honor of its own 25th anniversary, CNN has been doing lots of retrospectives about big news stories of the last quarter-century. Today CNN talks about the state of technology in 1980.

Apparently, 1980 was a strange and savage world, where the living envied the dead. People were forced to paw through dusty volumes of bound papyrus for information, and pteranodon attacks were all too frequent:

In 1980, telephones were stuck to walls, facts were found in books and people had to browse shelves in a record store if they wanted to buy the latest music. Now, access to all of that and more is found by just reaching into our pockets.

Really? Okay, I just emptied my pockets, and here's what I found:

$1.95 in change (including a Sacajawea coin and a Canadian nickel);

1 piece of Brach's butterscotch candy;

1 wadded up Kleenex;

1 packet of sugar

"For a long time people have thought of information as being a destination," says Scott Shamp, director of the New Media Institute at the University of Georgia.

"You had to go to a book, you had to go to a library, you had to go to a shaman. ... But now, with new mobile technology and wireless technologies, information is turning into a companion."

Hello, a shaman?

What part of 1980 were you living in?

A Bunch Of Lawyers Were Just Standing On A Streetcorner One Day, Until Someone...
Because it is useful to know the tune that the devil plays, here's a link to Dr. James Dobson's "Focus On the Family" radio show. The April 11 program features an interview with another right-wing kook named Mark Levin. Mark's hawking a new book called "Men In Black: How the Supreme Court Is Destroying America", a black-helicopterish screed against the legitimacy of the federal judiciary -- particularly the Supreme Court, who Levin characterizes as "a bunch of lawyers" who "got appointed" to the highest court in the land.

That's right, Mark. A bunch of lawyers were just standing on a streetcorner one day, until someone -- and we don't know exactly who -- drove by and threw a box full of black robes at them. Then the lawyers set themselves up as an oligarchy.

I don't know the particulars of the "No Child Left Behind" act, but does it include additional funding for remedial civics classes?

As Dr. Dobson listens eagerly, Levin outlines his plan to bring federal judges to heel. First step: term limits! That's right. Twelve years on the bench and you're out. That includes Supreme Court justices. Oddly, though, Levin expresses the hope that Antonin Scalia will be named the next Chief Justice. Hasn't he been on the Supreme Court for more than 12 years?

Maybe the 12-year limit only applies to judges Mark Levine doesn't like.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005
A Hungry Coelacanth Is Very Much Alive
Rep. Chris Shays is a political coelacanth.

Specifically, he is a toruighe rationabilis ("moderate Republican") -- a weird and reviled creature that is still occasionally hauled from the depths of Congress to be tossed, gasping, onto the deck. Shays gets attention on Capitol Hill because he's become such a novelty, but he is as much a part of the past as saddle shoes and Watch Mr. Wizard are.

Shays has been complaining lately that Majority Leader Tom DeLay's shenanigans are going to cost the Republican party dearly in 2006. I suspect Shays is right -- but I also suspect the wingers don't care. The possibility of political martyrdom is shimmering before them, and they look as if they're ready to lunge for it.

A couple of months ago I joked that the conservative nostalgia for the olden days -- when they were pimply outsiders who were shunned by society -- was a form of masochism. Truth is, I was only half-joking. Wingers have a deeply-ingrained and, frankly, a deeply weird martyr complex. And now that they are in power, it's really starting to show.

It is most evident in the Tom DeLay situation in the House of Representatives. Anyone with eyes can see that DeLay is corrupt and crude and politically tone-deaf. No public servant with a lick of sense pays his wife and daughter $500,000 a year and expects to get away with it. No public servant with a lick of sense stands in the well of the House and calls for retribution against federal judges, just because they made a series of rulings that you disagree with.

But common sense didn't get the wingers where they are today. The glue that seems to hold the conservative factions together is a shared sense of outrage and, more importantly, a shared sense of martyrdom. No matter how much power they accumulate, no matter how much money they make, it is still important to them to feel like outsiders, pariahs, "peasants with pitchforks" to borrow Pat Buchanan's phrase. They depict themselves as plain-speaking salt-of-the-earth types who love NASCAR and country music and who are therefore shunned by the ivory-tower elitists who run Hollywood, the media, and the country. Their sense of outrage was always fueled by the suspicion that people were laughing at them.

Shays is one of the few Republicans who wants DeLay to resign for the good of the party, but the wingers in Congress will have none of it. They believe they can prevail by going on the offensive -- by insisting that all accusations against DeLay are politically motivated, part of a scheme by the monstrous Liberals -- who, as we all know, control everything.

The Democrats have signalled that they want to make DeLay the poster child of the 2006 campaign. That the Republicans are eager to oblige shows just how pronounced their martyr complex is.

Don't worry about the Coelacanths, though. They're pretty good at survival.

Monday, April 11, 2005
"Behold How He Loved Him!", Part III
The mouth-breathers over at Townhall.com are working overtime to heap praise on John Paul II. Doug Giles chimes in, even though he admits that he doesn't particularly like Catholics:

Even though I disagree with Catholicism’s  soteriology, and from a fashion and function standpoint I don’t get their funky hats or the Elvis-like papal robes, or their elaborate walking sticks, I’ve got to admit that I appreciate John Paul II’s accomplishments for the human collective and his unwavering moral convictions in the face of amoral, bossy and prissy secularism.

Doug is being deliberately ambiguous here by choosing the word "soteriology", which refers to the formal study of the idea of salvation -- the doctrine of who gets saved and how. I suspect he is using it as a theological code word. What he means is, Catholics are going to Hell because they are not "born-again" Christians. However, he has left himself a window of plausible deniability, should he be questioned. "No," he might say, all innocence, "I just feel that a just God wouldn't force people to unnecessarily suffer the pain of purgatory".

Uh-huh. Sure, Doug.

So, having decreed that John Paul II was more or less a stand-up guy, in spite of having been Catholic, Doug then weighs in with his recommendations for the April 18 conclave:

I’d like to see the next pope keep an old school devotion to the Christ of the Bible, teach the word of God (as is), and maintain a traditional view of life, sex and marriage, not prostrate himself to the “progressives.”

I’d like to see the next Pope exchange his white robes for a black leather cape like Morpheus had in The Matrix and trade in the Popemobile for a Harley Fat Boy.  At least on the weekends.

I’d like to see the Catholic Church let the next guy get married, as St. Paul said was a minister’s right, to a girl like Salma Hayek and have some kids.  This in turn would, hopefully, cause thousands of other priests to follow that which is normal.

I’d like to see the next pope take that gold-plated shepherd’s staff and publicly pulverize any priest who has committed an act of pedophilia and then personally escort such a Judas Priest to the papal dungeon to a) be executed or b) be forgotten forever.  Can I get an amen? 

No, you can't.

Let me get this straight, Doug. You want an "old school" Pope -- who dresses up like Batman, rides a Harley, is married to Salma Hyeck, has kids, and who kills people?

I'll alert the Vatican.

Saturday, April 09, 2005
Powerline Runs Out Of Juice
The confederacy of dunces over at Powerline.com have been riding high since their speculations about the phony 60 Minutes National Guard memos turned out to be true. Instantly, they became the toast of the right-wing media. But overnight success can be as much a curse as a blessing, and the Minnesota-based bloggers now apparently believe that they are all eight feet tall and bulletproof. They have seduced themselves into believing that all memos that reflect poorly on Republicans are phony, because Republicans are too good, too virtuous, and too heroic to be anything but honest and above-board.

Thus they boldly proclaimed this about the Terri Schiavo memo that was circulated among Capitol Hill Republicans last month:

It does not sound like something written by a conservative; it sounds like a liberal fantasy of how conservatives talk. What conservative would write that the case of a woman condemned to death by starvation is "a great political issue"? Maybe such a person exists, but I doubt it. And who would send an anonymous missive to all 55 Republican Senators, commenting on political tactics and strategies? That seems very odd. Who would send a memo to Senators like Lincoln Chaffee, Arlen Specter and Olympia Snowe, to the effect that "the pro-life base will be excited?" That requires an extraordinary level of political obtuseness.

Hmm, let's take these points one at a time.

Q: What conservative would write that the case of a woman condemned to death by starvation is "a great political issue"?

A: Maybe the same conservatives who did push-polling in South Carolina during the 2000 primary, accusing John McCain of fathering a mixed-race child.

Q: And who would send an anonymous missive to all 55 Republican Senators, commenting on political tactics and strategies?

A: That would be Bob Darling, who up until Thursday was senior legal counsel for Senator Mel Martinez. He was not, as the Powerline bloggers speculate, a file clerk, a staff assistant, a college intern, or the "Comic Book Guy" from the Simpsons.

Q: Who would send a memo to Senators like Lincoln Chaffee, Arlen Specter and Olympia Snowe, to the effect that "the pro-life base will be excited?" That requires an extraordinary level of political obtuseness.

A: Looks like you answered your own question, Poindexter.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005
"Behold How He Loved Him!", Part II
Jonah Goldberg can't help himself:

The name Goldberg might be a hint: I'm not Catholic.

What?!? Well, I don't suppose that stopped you from loving this pope, Jonah.

But that didn't stop me from loving this pope. So much has already been written about the humble man appointed to the most awe-inspiring job in the world, it seems silly to repeat all of the encomiums and accolades. Karol Wojtyla was a funny, lighthearted man by all accounts, so I think he'd get it if I merely said "ditto" to all of the wonderful things said about him.

Well, probably not, but thanks for showing up.

Some of John Paul the Great's detractors saw his "social conservatism" as a contradiction to his criticism of capitalism run amok, or regarded his opposition to the death penalty as at odds with his opposition to abortion. John Paul confounded so many because his views on these and other issues were unswervingly consistent with a vision of the world bound not by the ideological categories of the moment but by the standards of eternity.
Point of privilege here, Jonah.

First, as you so astutely pointed out, you're not Catholic. You don't get to dub him "John Paul the Great". The leaders of his own church will decide whether or not he merits that honorific.

Furthermore, the issues John Paul so ably articulated -- abortion, the death penalty, contraception, capitalism run amok -- are positions the church taught long before John Paul II's papacy.

I'm glad that so many people suddenly love the pope, but the winger histrionics are getting embarrasing and a bit offensive. Honor the pope, praise the pope, pray for the pope -- but don't worship the pope. And please, please, please, don't smother him in honey. It attracts bees.

"Behold How He Loved Him!"
In the winger press, they just can't say enough about the Pope. You need a life vest to keep from being swept away in the torrent of crocodile tears. Just as everyone is Irish on Saint Patrick's Day, everyone suddenly seems to be Catholic now that John Paul II has died. Pat Robertson -- who a few weeks ago denounced mainstream Christian denominations as "the weak, watered-down churches of the north" -- was suddenly effusive in his praise:

"I am deeply grieved," said Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson, responding to the news of the pope's death. "John Paul II has been the most beloved religious leader of our age -- far surpassing in popular admiration the leader of any faith."

Robertson described the pope as a man of "great warmth, profound understanding, deep spirituality, and indefatigable vigor" whose personal magnetism brought all Christians together in new bonds of mutual understanding. "I pray for the cardinals of the Catholic Church," the CBN spokesman said, "that they might have God-given wisdom in selecting the successor to this great man. Their task will not be easy, but with God all things are possible."

The spectacle of Pat Robertson publicly grieving the loss of the Pope, like Jesus weeping over the body of Lazarus, is laughable. If the evangelicals loved the Pope so much, why are they recruiting missionaries to steal his sheep?

Go and discover what the Lord is doing in Brazil! The Holy Spirit is sweeping through the fifth largest country in the world. According to one religious source, evangelical Christians now number almost 15% in Brazil, the most populous Catholic country.

Yes, you read that right. The born-again Christians who are now noisily mourning Pope John Paul II are the same ones who are sending missionaries to places like Brazil to convert the Catholics to Christianity. Brazil, you see, is 70% Catholic.

Catholicism has been so deeply ingrained in Latin American culture that the Vatican has pretty much taken the region for granted. But with evangelicals aggresively making inroads there, it is quite possible that the next Pope will be Latin American. The Vatican no doubt welcomes the laudatory comments by guys like Robertson. But they are keenly aware of just who is moving in on their turf.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005
Tell Me What Your Name Is, And I'll Tell You Who You Are
A new Pope will be selected later this month, and the Holy Father's first decision will be a deceptively simple one: he will be asked to select his papal name.

A papal name isn't actually required; it did not become customary until the 10th century. And any name is okay, with the exception of Peter, the name of the first Pope. Some papal names fall in and out of favor; "Pius" was all the rage among popes in the late 19th - early 20th centuries; "Urban" was hot in the middle ages, and "Clement" was very big through the 17th and 18th centuries.

Newly-anointed Popes often choose names that reflect their influences, the saints or papal predecessors who were a model to them. But not always. John XXIII chose his name because it was his own father's name. Centuries earlier, there had actually been an anti-pope who declared himself John XXIII. Paul VI chose to revive a name that had been dormant since the 16th century.

As we noted earlier, John Paul I was the first Pope with two names, and it was deliberately chosen to honor John XXIII and Paul VI. John Paul II, in turn, kept the name to honor his ill-fated predecessor.

Will the new Pope's name provide a clue to the direction of his papacy? Maybe. An obvious choice might be John Paul III. That would certainly signal that he's willing to follow in the footsteps of the popular John Paul II, and it might also indicate an unwillingness to put his own stamp on the Vatican.

If he chooses the name Pius XIII, that would send a clear signal to the world that Vatican II was a mistake and that the Church should carry on as if it never happened. Conversely, if he chooses John XXIV, it might signal a desire to continue the reforms of Vatican II.

If a Pope wants to strike out on his own path, he might consider reviving one of the popular names from centuries past. Clement XV has a nice ring to it. But if they elected me Pope, I would probably want to revive a more obscure papal name: I'd be Pope Hilarius II, or the deliberately unpronouncable Sixtus VI.

Let's hear Sylvia Pogolli pronounce that one every morning.

Monday, April 04, 2005
Cafeteria Conservatives
On Saturday I watched the network coverage of John Paul II's death, and it was evident that there was very little for the news anchors to say, once the initial announcement had been made. The death itself was no surprise; the tradition-bound Vatican had a very clear protocol for moving forward; the Pope's successor is likely to be someone of a similar theological bent; the live video feed from Saint Peter's Square was somber, but not dramatic enough for the TV news channels.

So there was nothing to do, really, but crank up the TV news echo chamber. On NBC, Brian Williams asked guest after guest what John Paul II's legacy was going to be, and he clearly wanted people to swing for the fences. He single-handedly brought down communism, said some. Others suggested that he saved Catholicism from irrelevance. Still others opined that was the single most important religious figure of the 20th century and one of the most important people of the century. Analyst after analyst tried to add to what had already been said -- long after there was nothing left to add -- and for a little while it seemed inevitable that someone would go for the ultimate, embarrassing eulogy: he was the most important person who ever lived, and how the earth will keep spinning on its axis now, I don't know. Thankfully, it didn't quite come to that. One theologian gently suggested that we shouldn't exaggerate John Paul's accomplishments because that ends up minimizing his legacy in the long run. The theologian was quickly pushed off to the side in favor of more eager claimants.

Don't get me wrong. This Pope was enormously influential and enormously popular. There is no question in my mind that he will be canonized -- sooner rather than later -- and he will be referred to in history as Pope John Paul the Great. But wall-to-wall TV news coverage demands exciting new developments in rapid-fire intervals. Without that, the TV newsies start feeding on themselves.

Over at Town Hall, the mouth-breathers are in awe of the Pope, even though most of them secretly believe all Catholics are going to Hell because they're not born again. But today the wingers were eager to anoint John Paul II as one of their own, as Ronald Reagan's tag-team partner (Margaret Thatcher having been momentarily forgotten):

Though Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan will be remembered as the pope and the president who defeated Communism, the exact nature of their relationship has remained elusive. Some journalists have posited a “holy alliance” between the two, with the CIA briefing the pope each Friday. Others, like George Weigel writing in National Review, have argued that “there was neither alliance nor conspiracy [but] a common purpose born of a set of shared convictions.”

This Pope was a doctrinal conservative. There's no question about that. But it's important to remember that the Catholic church has always been socially conservative on certain issues. It was, after all, Paul VI who wrote the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the prohibition on artificial contraception. It was Paul VI who mobilized Catholics to combat the Roe v. Wade decision (and I still remember the slides they showed us in the church basement that year -- snapshots of hideously burned and mangled fetuses that made a huge impression on me at the time). And the Church has always been staunchly anti-communist.

But Catholic social teaching simply does not mesh with American notions of liberal or conservative. When the Church spoke out against the nuclear arms race, and against cuts in aid to the poor in the early 1980's, conservatives sneered that Catholics should stick to arguing over the mysteries of transubstantiation and leave politics to the grown-ups. And while the American media eagerly trumpeted the Pope's sharp criticisms of Communism, it usually didn't give much play to the Pope's criticisms of laissez-faire capitalism and the accumulation of material wealth for its own sake. Pope John Paul II talked very eloquently about Communism being a debased system because, as the church often says, economies exist to serve people, not the other way around. But Catholic theologians also recognize that there must be a moral dynamic to any economic system:

Those who maintain that simply by one or other type of legal arrangement of property ownership, public or private, all difficulties will be solved, are wrong, for neither the ideologues of socialism nor of capitalism grasp that specific steps must be taken that the worker not “feel that he is just a cog in a huge machine moved from above...”. “The Church’s teaching has always expressed the strong and deep conviction that man’s work concerns not only the economy but also, and especially, personal values”. In other words, work is not just an economic action; it is primarily something about the human person. It has economic consequences to be sure, but it arises from and affects man and society at many and deeper levels than the economic.

Liberals who disagree with conservative church teachings are often derided as "Cafeteria Catholics". But conservatives are clearly cherry-picking their issues as well. You might keep that in mind while conservative evangelicals clamor around "their pope".

Saturday, April 02, 2005
The September Pope

Tonight the world's attention is turned to the Vatican, and everyone wonders when the moment will come -- the moment when the huge brass doors will swing shut and the bells begin tolling at Saint Peter's and the announcement will come over Vatican Radio that the Pope has passed from this world into the next.

But tonight I find myself thinking not so much of John Paul II, but his predecessor, John Paul I -- a very humble, kindly man who was beloved by the laity but who raised deep suspicions in the Vatican bureacracy during his 33-day reign.

His name was Albino Luciani. He was not well-known but he was well-liked: charming and affable, a man who liked to laugh and who had no interest in the trappings of the papal office. His hero was Pope John XXIII, the famously unpretentious man of the people.

Luciani was a compromise choice between the hard-line conservatives, who had opposed the reforms of Vatican II, and the liberals who wanted to push the already shell-shocked church even farther. Luciani was seen as right-leaning moderate who wouldn't make waves. He was probably the only Cardinal in attendence who did not secretly dream of being Pope himself (in fact, he hadn't even bothered to get a haircut before the conclave began, and in photographs taken the day of his election, Vatican minders tried to hide his unruly mop of hair under his skullcap)

He was an instant hit with the people. His easy smile, his gentle demeanor, was a contrast to the stolid Paul VI. And in his first Angelus address, he demonstrated his humility and his humanity. He talked briefly about why he had chosen the name John Paul I:

Then there was the question of the name, for they also ask what name you wish to take, and I had thought little about it. My thoughts ran along these lines: Pope John had decided to consecrate me himself in St. Peter's Basilica, then, however unworthy, I succeeded him in Venice on the Chair of St Mark, in that Venice which is still full of Pope John. He is remembered by the gondoliers, the Sisters, everyone.

Then Pope Paul not only made me a Cardinal, but some months earlier, on the wide footbridge in St Mark's Square, he made me blush to the roots of my hair in the presence of 20,000 people, because he removed his stole and placed it on my shoulders. Never have I blushed so much!

Furthermore, during his fifteen years of pontificate this Pope has shown, not only to me but to the whole world, how to love, how to serve, how to labour and to suffer for the Church of Christ.

For that. reason I said: "I shall be called John Paul." I have neither the "wisdom of the heart" of Pope John, nor the preparation and culture of Pope Paul, but I am in their place. I must seek to serve the Church. I hope that you will help me with your prayers.

It's difficult to imagine Paul VI or John Paul II talking about how much they blushed, but the people loved it. And the choice of the name "John Paul I" was seen as a wonderful choice, bold and modest at the same time.

It was such a shock to all of us when it was announced on the radio one morning that the new Pope was dead. The Vatican reported that he had died in his sleep, his face peaceful and composed, his hands holding a copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.

Only later would it be revealed that these little details had been fabricated by the Vatican press office.

And only later would it come out that John Paul I had been ill for some time; that the papacy had been a strain on him; that he had been regarded as an intellectual lightweight who not only wrote letters to historical figures like Jesus but also to fictional characters like Pinnochio.

He was seen within the Vatican as clumsy and naive, a sort of Inspector Clouseau in white vestments. And after assuming the papacy he suddenly seemed dangerously liberal, in the eyes of some, in his view of contraception. There were rumors that he might overturn Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae -- the document that had recently outlined the Church's stand against artificial birth control.

John Paul I would frequently ask visitors why the College of Cardinals had elected him. He predicted that he would not reign long, and that his replacement would be "the foreigner", the young Pole who had sat across from him at the August Conclave -- Karol Wojtyla, who would soon become John Paul II.

Because of this, rumors circulate to this day that John Paul I was murdered. I can't vouch for this, although I am certain that Nemo has an opinion.

John Paul II has been Pope longer than almost any other, but I still miss the gentle, laughing man whose reign was shorter than almost any other. John Paul I always struck me as the underdog, and I can't help but love the underdog. I'm grateful that he was pope, even for a little while. Perhaps he was not a great pope or even a great man, but he remains one of the great question marks of history.

Friday, April 01, 2005
Threat, Threat, Threat
The life of a young woman came to an end today: I'm glad that the media began using photos of her as a happy young bride, not the blank, staring Symbol Of A Larger Debate that she had become.

A legal fight that has been quietly raging for seven years came to an end today as well. But Terri Schiavo's death will clearly not be the last chapter in this bitter saga, only the latest one.

Here's Tom DeLay's reaction to the news:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush on Thursday urged the country to honor Terri Schiavo's memory by working to "build a culture of life" while House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said "the men responsible for this" will be called to account.

The Florida woman, who suffered severe brain damage after a heart attack 15 years ago, died Thursday. The feeding tube that had been keeping her alive was removed with a judge's approval on March 18.

DeLay appeared to condemn judges who at both the state and federal level declined to order that Schiavo be kept alive artificially.

"This loss happened because our legal system did not protect the people who need protection most, and that will change," the Texas Republican said. "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today. Today we grieve, we pray, and we hope to God this fate never befalls another."

Who, exactly, are "these men"? How, exactly, are they to "answer for their behavior"? Are they going to be imprisoned? Shot in the head? And who, exactly, will sit in judgement?

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