Musings of the Great Eric

Archive for August 2007

Saying Good Bye to Alberto Gonzales

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I don’t recall exactly when he became Attorney General. Nor do I recall anything that happened during his tenure that I can now comment on. In fact, I can’t even recall if I even liked the man. But he’s gone now, so good bye… wait, I’m sorry, I suddenly can’t remember his name.

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Written by Eric

August 27, 2007 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Politics

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Mother Teresa – An Atheist?

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Letters Reveal Mother Teresa’s Secret:

But now, it has emerged that Mother Teresa was so doubtful of her own faith that she feared being a hypocrite, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips.

In a new book that compiles letters she wrote to friends, superiors and confessors, her doubts are obvious.

Shortly after beginning work in Calcutta’s slums, the spirit left Mother Teresa.

“Where is my faith?” she wrote. “Even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness… If there be God — please forgive me.”

Eight years later, she was still looking to reclaim her lost faith.

“Such deep longing for God… Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal,” she said.

As her fame increased, her faith refused to return. Her smile, she said, was a mask.

“What do I labor for?” she asked in one letter. “If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.”

I find this to be kind of a sad aspect of the argument that many of the religious make in defense of “faith”. That being that their belief drives them to do good things. But the flip side of that is Teresa’s own words. Without a belief in God, she asks: “What do I labor for?”

I’ll put a side for a moment any cynical views of the woman, and simply grant that she went far above and beyond what any of us can possibly claim to have done in helping others. But could she really not conceive of any reason to do it without God/Jesus driving her to do it? Is not helping your fellow man a worthwhile and worthy end in of itself?

To the devoutly religious, it seems it isn’t.

Written by Eric

August 24, 2007 at 10:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

1 in 4 Americans Don’t Read Books (And Those That Do, Don’t Read Much)

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I don’t know if our reading habits are a symptom or a cause of the problems that plague our society, but without question it’s representative of them:

One in four adults say they read no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Tuesday. Of those who did read, women and seniors were most avid, and religious works and popular fiction were the top choices.

Written by Eric

August 22, 2007 at 1:22 pm

Notes on American Exceptionalism

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A couple of weeks ago, I got into a discussion about geopolitics with my dad over dinner. We touched on a number of topics, ranging from the rise of China to the 2008 Presidential candidates and things of that nature.

Now, my dad is a smart guy, and we don’t actually have a lot of disagreements. Further, he actually has a unique perspective on the whole globalization thing – he heads a division with a good number of employees in India (and isn’t too happy about it). But towards the end of the conversation, after I’d expressed the many things I’m pessimistic about*, he basically offered this: “Yes, but there’s just something special about Americans.”

Now, here’s the curious thing about that. Though my dad has seen much of the US, he’s only been outside the country twice. Once almost 15 years ago during a family trip to Japan. And not again until a few years ago, when he took a business trip to India. Which begs the question of what he’s basing that opinion on, exactly. (I asked – mostly he’s comparing “Americans” to the code monkeys he works with in India. Given that, I can hardly blame him, but that’s hardly a representative sample of India’s population, let alone the world population.)

Indeed, most people who espouse views of American exceptionalism seem to have little experience with anything other than America, if any at all. Most who do have experience limited to tourism – but realistically, going up the Eiffel Tower doesn’t really tell you much about what the French are like or how they live. So given that Americans don’t have much of anything to compare themselves to, one might wonder exactly why so many believe that America is so exceptional.

The reasons become evident once you start to think about it though. From our first day of elementary school, we’re taught that “My country t’is of thee a sweet land of liberty” – the “home of the free and land of the brave” that “belongs to you and me”. The founding fathers are practically mythological heroes. America’s greatness is reinforced in ever history lesson, in every movie, by every politician. Almost all the media we consume is made by Americans for Americans It’s not surprising that the message sinks in.

Certainly, none of it really stands up to scrutiny. The “land of the free” actually offers considerably less freedom than many other first world nations, by pretty much any metric you might use (case in point). The “land of opportunity” has less social mobility than Europe, and more of our citizens lack basic necessities. “Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses longing to be free” has given way to the pronounced xenophobia that currently dominates Republican party politics. And especially given all that, I find the level of jingoism displayed by Americans frankly disturbing, as it should be to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with history. “My country, right or wrong” has paved the way for some horrifically wrong things.

But the more interesting thing to me is an observation I’ve made about how my own opinion was formed, and how I’ve come to such a different conclusion than my dad.

I can’t confess to have done that much more world traveling (yet!) – though I’ve done slightly more of it than he has. Instead, I think the chief difference is the digital generation gap. I’m exposed to the rest of the world, constantly. One of my best friends lives in the UK (depressingly, I don’t get to talk with her that regularly anymore though). I have friends I do still talk with daily though – in Canada, Australia, Norway, and every region of the US. I debate my views in global forums. Granted, the majority of the participants are American and the rest are English speaking, but it’s a far, far more diverse range than fills my immediate circle in the real world. When a major event happens elsewhere – whether flooding in England or elections in France – I get to here descriptions of it from people who live there, in their own words, unfiltered by any media and often in response to direct questions by me. I read international news and international blogs. The internet is truly a global medium. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly less US-centric than the mainstream media from which my dad’s generation gets most of their perspective from.

For example, take the healthcare question. My opinion on universal healthcare systems vs the train wreck in the US is based on talking directly with people who live under them. I don’t rely on Michael Moore nor Rush Limbaugh nor CNN to tell me what it’s like in those countries, I hear it from people who live there. It exposes right wing propaganda about choice and wait times under these systems exactly for what it is – a myth. In fact, most people who have universal healtchcare seem to be horrified at the idea of American healthcare (and honestly, I can’t blame them). From the earliest days I began learning of the issue, I had the benefit of a global perspective. Many still do not.
In general, here’s the conclusion I’ve drawn: all people are basically the same. Across geography and culture, people have the same drives and motivations. Every culture has its innovators, its ambitious, and its risk takers. We share the same range of attitudes and intelligence, and our problems stem from the same human flaws. The US has risen to a world power not because of some innate difference that separates Americans from everyone else, but rather a set of fortuitous circumstances that Americans were able to exploit. We’re nothing special.

I originally titled this post “The Death of American Exceptionalism” but I think that might be a bit of an overreach. I don’t expect nationalism will ever disappear completely. But, it’s possible that my generation will break out of the bubble that previous generations have lived in, and develop a more global perspective on problems both home and abroad. And that gives me the tiniest bit of hope.

    * Basically, peak oil, and our ability to act with enough foresight to avoid disaster when the shit hits the fan.

Written by Eric

August 17, 2007 at 8:00 am

Posted in Politics, Society

Americans Now View Fat as Normal

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Perhaps my well meaning advice about how to lose weight came just at the time when people stopped caring?

Carrying a spare tire or two around the waist has become socially acceptable in the United States as the population’s waistlines have expanded, according to a study released on Tuesday.

Economic researchers from Florida State University and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found the weight of the average woman rose by 20 pounds (9.2 kilograms) or 13.5 percent between 1976 and 2000 — but their ideal weight also edged up.

In 1994 the average woman tipped the scales at 147 pounds but she wanted to weigh only 132 pounds — but less than a decade later the average woman weighed 153 pounds but said her desired weight was 135 pounds.

Written by Eric

August 9, 2007 at 5:25 pm

Posted in Health, Science, Society

Who Deserves the Blame for Iraq?

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And on yet another similar note to what I was driving at in We the People, I just came across an article in Time magazine which asks an important question: Shouldn’t the American Public admit to having been wrong in Iraq?

Americans are unhappy with President George W. Bush right now. In the New York Times/CBS News poll, his approval rating dipped to 29% during July before nosing back up a point. Approval of Bush’s handling of what is delicately called “the situation in Iraq” is only 25%. By 53% to 39%, we disapprove of the way he is handling the war on terrorism. “Looking back,” 51% say that the U. S. “should … have stayed out” of Iraq, while only 42% think the invasion was “the right thing.” Two-thirds of Americans think our “efforts to bring stability and order to Iraq” are going somewhat or very badly, and the same fraction think we should withdraw in part or completely.

[…]

Just after 9/11, Bush’s approval rating was as high as 90%. Only 5% disapproved. In the spring of 2003, when Bush launched the war, deposed Saddam Hussein, occupied Iraq and declared victory, public approval of his conduct of the Iraq “situation” rarely dipped below 70%. As the “situation” went south, so did Bush’s poll numbers, until now he faces snarling or sullen disapproval from two-thirds of the electorate.

[…]

This is not all the fault of the pundits or of “Washington” or of politicians. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq was scandalously unilateral, but it did in fact have the support of most American citizens, which surely egged him on. The ensuing disaster is partly the fault of those Americans who told pollsters back in 2002 and 2003 that they supported Bush’s war and then in 2004 voted to re-elect him, which he took, quite reasonably, as an endorsement of his policies. Millions of Americans now apparently regret those opinions. But unlike the politicians and the pundits, they do not face pressure to recant or apologize. American democracy might be stronger if they did.

In the lead up to the Iraq war, there’s no question that the American people were deliberately lied to by the Bush Administration and the right-wing media machine with regards to the actual level of threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Bush misled the country into making a disastrously wrong decision about Iraq.

But here’s the 800 lb gorilla in this scenario. All the information necessary to make the right decision about Iraq was publicly available in 2003. In fact, there was a sizable minority (myself included) that saw through the deception early on – and I apologize for not speaking loudly enough on it at the time.

Bush can and ought to be blamed for his lies and deceptions in pursuing his predetermined course of action. But the American people allowed themselves to be misled in this way. The people could have challenged him, questioned him, devoted considerable debate to the most serious course of action Bush was proposing. Had they done so, they’d have come to an entirely different conclusion than the one Bush was selling and withdrawn their support for the war before it even began. That makes We the People culpable in the outcome.

Blaming “Bush”, “the government”, “the media” or even “the Democrats (for not standing up to Bush at the time)” might make us feel better about the situation we find ourselves in. But civic responsibility could have put a stop to this right at the beginning, and the blame for lack thereof lies squarely with the people.

On another note, the author of the article touches on another root cause (the root-root cause, perhaps?) for many of our country’s ails:

Although–or perhaps because–I manufacture opinions for a living, I am always amazed at the things people are willing to express opinions about. Is the “surge” working? Is there likely to be a terrorist attack in the next few months? Are “most of the insurgents in Iraq today … under the command of Osama bin Laden”? These are not matters of opinion. The correct answer may be unknown (e.g., the success of the surge), or it may be known perfectly well (e.g., bin Laden does not control most of the Iraqi insurgents), but one thing the correct answer is not is a matter of opinion.

What is true doesn’t matter nearly so much as what people feel is true – even about totally objective questions. Truthiness in a nutshell.

Written by Eric

August 6, 2007 at 1:21 pm

Posted in Politics

Tagged with

"The Government"

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I just stumbled across this quote from Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which sort of speaks to what I was attempting to get at with We the People:

“Do you know who is responsible?”
“Why of course, it’s the government!”
“Jill, ‘the government’ is several million people.”

Have I mentioned how much I love Heinlein? I think it’s about time I re-read that book.

Written by Eric

August 6, 2007 at 11:14 am

Posted in Politics