Monday, December 31, 2007

Daniel and the Times of the Gentiles

For my daily quiet time, I am going through the Book of Daniel. I am aware of the standard historical-critical approach that applies the book to Antiochus Epiphanes and the Maccabean revolt (second century B.C.E.). I can understand why scholars arrive at that conclusion, since even conservatives relate huge parts of Daniel 8 and 11 to these events. How could you not? The chapters explicitly mention a mad dictator arising out of the Greek empire.

Conservatives diverge from the standard historical-critical approach, however, in their approach to other parts of Daniel. Unlike more liberal scholars, most conservatives see the fourth kingdom of Daniel 2 and 7 as Rome, not the Greek empire (E.W. Bullinger has a unique interpretation of Daniel 7, but I'll save that for another day). In his book Daniel, Dr. Desmond Ford, a former Seventh-Day Adventist, argues that the dreadful fourth kingdom could not be the Greek empire, since Antiochus Epiphanes was not as powerful as Rome even in the times of the Maccabees. Unlike many liberal scholars, Ford also doesn't read the stories in Daniel 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6 in light of the Antiochan persecution, since these chapters do not portray Nebuchadnezzar and Darius as inflexible, wild-eyed fanatics intent on persecuting God's people (as Antiochus IV was). The way the Book of Daniel tells the story, these Gentile leaders are often misled (by themselves or others), and they ultimately repent after God confronts them.

In their treatment of Daniel 11, many conservatives apply part of the chapter to the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, and part to the Antichrist of the end times. Liberals argue, by contrast, that the Book of Daniel views the time of Antiochus as the actual end times. For them, pious Jews expected God in the second century B.C.E. to supernaturally overthrow Antiochus and set up a divine kingdom, which would never be destroyed. So, for liberals, the Book of Daniel contains expectations that were never fulfilled. Conservatives try to preserve the book's divine authority by arguing that it doesn't relate only to Antiochus. For example, in his commentary on the Bible, evangelical pastor John MacArthur places a lot of emphasis on Daniel 11:35. He interprets the verse to mean that God's people will be persecuted between the time of Antiochus up to the time of the end (which, for MacArthur, is yet to come).

Why would the Book of Daniel spend so much time on Antiochus, if Antiochus were not its main subject? Although I understand the liberal reading, I want to play with a proposal that rests on more conservative presuppositions. It's not necessarily original, but it is the fruit of my struggle with the text. Maybe Daniel as a whole is about the times of the Gentiles, which refers to Gentile dominion over the entire earth, particularly the Jews and the land of Palestine. For God, the Gentiles who rule Judah have clear deficiencies. Nebuchadnezzar was arrogant, Belshazzar was an irreverent drunk, Darius was easily misled (and lived in a nation that regarded his decrees as irrevocable, and perhaps divine), and Antiochus was a fanatic. For Daniel, maybe the Antichrist would be another example of a bad Gentile ruler. By overthrowing him, God not only ends the rule of the Antichrist, but he also terminates Gentile rule in general. Under this interpretation, Daniel is not only about Antiochus, but it concerns the overall history of ungodly Gentile rule, starting with Nebuchadnezzar.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Is There Another Way?

This afternoon, I watched Ron Paul on the December 23 Meet the Press. Dr. Paul often makes me ask, "Are there other ways than the status quo to get positive results?"

On some level, his overall libertarianism makes me ask this. Liberals act as if government spending is the only way to ameliorate poverty, to educate children, to clean up the environment, and to help people pay for health care. Whenever Republicans try to cut spending or (at the very least) restrain its growth, liberals are ready to sound the alarm. "People will starve in the streets!" they warn. But perhaps there are other ways than federal spending to deal with poverty and other problems. And maybe government intervention makes matters worse.

As for that episode of Meet the Press, Dr. Paul discussed three specific issues that made me ask this question: foreign policy, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

First, as with his view on domestic policy, Ron Paul believes that a foreign policy of government intervention only makes matters worse. Not only is it costly, he argues, but it also antagonizes other nations. And (contra Rush Limbaugh) he doesn't just mean the Iraq War, for he includes America's involvement in the Middle East as early as the 1950's, when the U.S. helped overthrow the government of Iran. "How would we feel if they were over here?" he asks. To support his view that non-interventionism will encourage peace, Dr. Paul points out that the number of suicide bombers declined after Reagan withdrew American troops from Lebanon. Moreover, he contends that American intervention hinders genuine peace. For him, the American government has interfered in attempts to make peace in the Middle East, since it has disrupted peaceful overtures by the Arab League towards Israel. As far as Dr. Paul is concerned, trade among the nations is the best way to foster international cooperation.

Ron Paul's argument is tempting. Is war the only way to solve our problems with other nations? There is a sense in which attacking someone else can fuel resentment. Is this why there are Islamic nations that hate us? Trade can hopefully make nations more interdependent, which may encourage them to treat one another better. I don't know much about the Arab League's overtures towards Israel, but can the nations arrive at a peaceful solution without our interference? Is the U.S. government making matters worse abroad, as it often does at home?

Second, Tim Russert was grilling Ron Paul on the Civil War. He quoted an article that said, "According to Paul, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery." Ron Paul stood his ground, saying that slavery in America could have ended without loss of life or a massive expansion in government power. According to Dr. Paul, slavery was ending throughout the world, and the Northerners could have bought the slaves if they were truly interested in their freedom. Tim Russert acted as if Lincoln's way was the only solution, and that anyone who disagrees supports slavery. But could slavery have ended through other means?

Third, regarding the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Russert quoted Paul as saying, "Contrary to the claims of...supporters of the Civil Rights Act of '64, the act did not improve race relations or enhance freedom. Instead, the forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of '64 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty." Surprisingly, Dr. Paul stood by this statement. Unfortunately, he did not address how he would stop discrimination without civil rights laws. His main argument was that the Civil Rights Act infringed on property rights and forced people to interact with those they did not like, which (according to him) was not the federal government's responsibility.

Did the federal government make matters worse by forcing the South to integrate, since force can often breed resentment? Was there another way to promote racial equality, without further straining race relations? African-American conservative and economist Thomas Sowell states the following about the 1964 Civil Rights Act:

"Liberals looking back on the 1960s take special pride in their role on racial issues, for civil rights laws and the advancement of blacks out of poverty...But what do the facts show? [A]s for black economic advances, the most dramatic reduction in poverty among blacks occurred between 1940 and 1960, when the black poverty rate was cut almost in half, without any major government programs of the Great Society kind that began in the 1960s. Liberals love to point to the rise of blacks out of poverty since 1960 as proof of the benefits of liberal programs, as if the continuation of a trend that began decades earlier was proof of how liberals saved blacks" (see RealClearPolitics - Articles - Preserving the Liberal Vision).

Was the 1964 Civil Rights Act the only way to improve the lives of African-Americans?

I'm not saying that I oppose the Iraq War, Lincoln, or the 1964 Civil Rights Act. You will find me defending Bush on this blog, and, during Black History Month, I will reflect a lot more on the Civil Rights movement. But I question the notion that massive government intervention is the only way to do things, since it can often inhibit us from thinking outside of the box.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?

Every Sunday, I attend the Latin mass at a conservative Catholic church. For the past several weeks, the priest has been doing a series on apologetics, in which he's given arguments for the Catholic faith's credibility. Last Sunday, he said that Jesus' words are proof of Christianity's validity. "But why should we trust what Jesus says?" he foresaw the skeptic asking. His response was C.S. Lewis' "Lord, liar, lunatic" argument.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis addresses the view that Jesus was merely a good moral teacher, as opposed to being God incarnate. Lewis argued that, if Jesus were not who he said he was (God), then he was hardly a good moral teacher, but rather a madman or a liar. Lewis didn't think that Jesus was the latter two because he said good things and seemed to be stable. Therefore, he concluded that Jesus was who he said he was: God incarnate.

The priest elaborated on some of Lewis' points. He tried to show from the Gospels that Jesus was not insane. According to the priest, Jesus did not demand worship from the Jews, as would a madman; instead, he only revealed his divinity to his closest associates. The priest also pointed out that Jesus was not a radical revolutionary, for he was a humble carpenter. For the "liar" option, the priest disputed that Jesus was lying because he laid down his life, and people are not willing to die for a lie.

The priest then added two other options: myth and non-Christian. In response to those who say that Jesus did not exist, he asserted that there is more proof for Jesus as a historical figure than there is for Julius Caesar. Then, he addressed the claim that Jesus didn't want to start the church. According to the priest, the Gospels say that Jesus did have such a desire, and they are the only records we have of what Jesus taught. The priest dismissed the Gnostic Gospels by saying that they were late and heretical.

I have mixed feelings about the "Lord, liar, lunatic, myth, non-Christian" argument. On the one hand, I like its "take it or leave it" approach. Regarding Jesus only as a moral teacher divorces his teachings from his authority. Without Jesus' divine authority, what is the basis for his teachings? Sure, there are beneficial effects to loving our neighbor, but why should we regard Jesus' view of God and religion as superior to other opinions (e.g., those of the Pharisees in the Gospels), if he indeed lacks divine authority?

On the other hand, if I were a skeptic, the "Lord, liar, lunatic, myth, non-Christian" argument would not particularly convince me. There are plenty of people who believe grandiose things about themselves, and yet they are not necessarily madmen or liars. In fact, some of their teachings sound pretty good. The Dalai Lama is an example. I would say the same about Mohammad. He was sane enough to run a business. He risked persecution, which (according to the standards of Christian apologists) should show that at least he thought he was telling the truth. And he stood up for social justice in Mecca.

Moreover, I thought that the priest was being pretty selective when he was discussing Jesus' sanity. He said that Jesus only revealed his divine identity to his closest disciples. Sure, if you just read the synoptic Gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus often does conceal his messianic and divine identity from the masses. In John, however, Jesus is a lot more public about his divine status, to the point that many of his hearers actually question his sanity (see John 8). Yes, Jesus was a humble carpenter who socialized with publicans, sinners, and Pharisees, as the priest pointed out. But he was also a revolutionary who challenged many of the social and religious customs of his day. And he could be quite rigid on occasion. In Matthew 12:30, he says, "He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad." No middle ground? If I were standing there at the time, my thought would have been, "Who's this fanatic?"

So my reason for believing in Jesus is not that he meets our standards of sanity or propriety. As a matter of fact, some of his statements appear rather bizarre! But they do make sense, from a certain point of view.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Benazir Bhutto (June 21, 1953-December 27, 2007)

I first heard of Benazir Bhutto in the seventh grade, which was in 1989. My social studies teacher was assigning us to write a report about a country that we drew out of a hat. When the hat came to me, I drew "Pakistan."

I was slightly disappointed. I didn't really know much about Pakistan in those days, nor did it interest me. My fascination was the Cold War. I was hoping to draw a Communist country so I could trash it. Or one of those right-wing countries that cracked down on Communism (e.g., El Salvador, South Africa) would also have made a good topic.

But Pakistan? When I came home, I complained to my mom about the country I got, and she tried to show me how lucky I was. She told me about Benazir Bhutto, the country's woman Prime Minister. My mom talked about the oppression that women experienced in many Islamic regions, which made the presence of a female Prime Minister in a Muslim nation quite extraordinary. She also mentioned Prime Minister Bhutto's remarkable beauty. So I wrote the first draft of my two-page report on Pakistan, and I said that its Prime Minister was Benazir Bhutto. My social studies teacher wrote in the margin that she's a woman. Apparently, he also found her gender to be an interesting detail.

I still had a hard time becoming interested in Pakistan, so I switched my country to Vietnam. But what my mom and my social studies teacher said stuck with me.

Years later, I was a junior in college. I went to DePauw University, which is in the small town of Greencastle, Indiana. Somehow, DePauw manages to draw a lot of prominent speakers, even though it's practically in the middle of nowhere. I got to hear both Barbara Bush and Ross Perot in the same week. Shimon Peres also spoke there, accompanied by his handsome security guards (to the delight of many girls). The reason we got such speakers was probably Ken Bode, a nationally-renowned television pundit who also teaches at DePauw.

Anyway, Benazir Bhutto was coming to speak. My political science professor humorously told us about her and her husband's famous scandals, but he recommended that we not ask her about them in the Question and Answer session. I went to the auditorium an hour early to get a seat, and there was a student guide who was giving a tour to a prospective student and her mother. The tour guide said, "DePauw attracts a lot of prominent speakers. In about an hour, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan will be speaking in this auditorium." I flushed with pride. I loved being a student at DePauw at that moment!

I remember watching Prime Minister Bhutto's speech, and she looked the same as she did on television, with her flowing robe and long scarf. She read most of her speech while wearing enormous spectacles. I don't remember much of what she said (I think she mentioned the word "peace" a number of times). But I do recall her answer to one of the questions in the Q and A. A student asked her if she was planning to re-enter public life, and she responded that she didn't really want to. "To be honest, I don't like dealing with people," she said as she chuckled. She was so human at that moment! And, of course, the thought that was going through my mind was, "Well, Prime Minister Bhutto, neither do I!"

But she did re-enter public life. She was concerned about democracy in Pakistan, and she continued to anger Islamic extremists who hated her pro-Western stance. She walked the streets of Pakistan, knowing that her life was in danger. And, yesterday, she was killed by a suicide bomber.

I was shocked. She was somewhat of an institution in my eyes, someone I expected to always be around. I don't know enough about Pakistani politics to say whether or not I agree with her positions (as opposed to, say, Musharraf's). And her scandals make me wonder how a person can be capable of both corruption and nobility, of greed and self-sacrifice. But I can't help but admire her, whatever her flaws may have been.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Last night, I finished Madeleine L'Engle's A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, such that I had a hard time putting it down. What is interesting is this: I didn't experience much pleasure while I was reading A Wind in the Door, but it provoked a lot of thoughts. With A Swiftly Tilting Planet, however, I did experience pleasure, mostly from my desire to understand how the various plot elements fit together. But, strangely, it has not stimulated too many philosophical or theological thoughts in my mind, at least not thus far. At the same time, who knows what thoughts will emerge as I write this post?

A Swiftly Tilting Planet is about a South American dictator, Mad Dog Branzillo, who is threatening to start a nuclear war. Charles Wallace, the prodigious boy of A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, is now 15, and he travels through time with a unicorn to prevent this catastrophe. He does so by entering various people throughout history. He does not possess them, but his mind melds with theirs, such that he absorbs their personalities while influencing them to make certain decisions. So the book has the feel of Quantum Leap and The Butterfly Effect, though there are differences.

Charles first enters a Native American boy, who shelters himself from exposure to a nearby tribe, which has a lot of violence, strife, and murder. He thus becomes the ancestor of a peace-loving tribe in the New England area. That tribe is later visited in the twelfth century by Madoc, the next person Charles enters. According to legend, Madoc fled from Wales with his brother due to his family's violent struggle for the Welsh throne. In L'Engle's telling of the story, Madoc is separated from his brother Gwyddr, yet Gwyddr later confronts Madoc when Madoc is about to marry into the tribe. Gwyddr's goal is conquest and domination, but he flees to South America after he loses the fight with Madoc.

Throughout the story, Charles enters other characters who are somehow connected to Madoc and Gwyddr, including a Welsh Puritan, a Civil War author, and Chuck O'Keefe, the brother of Calvin's embittered mother. Charles' mission is to halt the perpetuation of Gwyddr's war-mongering descendants in South America, and to encourage instead the thriving of Madoc's peace-loving line. Charles succeeds in changing history, since he prevents the birth of Mad Dog Branzillo and causes there to emerge a peaceful leader in South America, one who is committed to the just distribution of the world's resources. Through these seemingly insignificant yet interconnected characters, Madeleine L'Engle stresses a point that appears in many of her works: we are all significant, for our actions can have a major impact on the world, even if we do not immediately see it.

Obviously, Madeleine L'Engle was against war, which she views as the product of selfishness and greed. Overall, she does not address the question of whether or not there are situations in which war is justifiable (e.g., self-defense, protection of the weak, etc.). She does offer some ostensible motives for Mad Dog Branzillo's actions, for she says that he views them as just retribution against the West for its selfish misuse of the world's resources. While she acknowledges that he has a valid point, she emphasizes that war is not the answer, since that would destroy both the United States and South America. In addition, Branzillo's problem with the West is solved peacefully at the end of the book, under another leader. We are also left wondering if Branzillo's motives are truly what he claims them to be, since he does come from a line of acquisitive people. Madeleine L'Engle offers important thoughts about war, but I wonder what she'd want the President to do if a real madman threatened to blow up the world. Going back in time to change history sounds good, but it is not a realistic option.

L'Engle seems to believe that certain ideas are necessary for peace to exist. For her, God loves everyone, people of different cultures believe many of the same things, and divisions are partly the result of a lack of understanding. These ideas play out in her section on the Puritans. She says that God loves the Native Americans as well as the white settlers, and she also presents their religious beliefs as roughly the same. According to L'Engle, both Christianity and Native American religions hold that there was an ancient harmony in the universe that somehow got disrupted by evil. I don't know enough about Native American religion to evaluate this statement. I'm sure that people in all cultures realize that the world falls short of some standard of goodness, but the dispute is how to solve the problem. On the issue of a lack of understanding creating division, L'Engle discusses the Puritan witch hunts. The good characters have powers such as telepathy, the ability to see visions, and knowledge of herbs. L'Engle sees these as gifts of God, but Puritan New England does not share her view!

There is also a good section of forgiveness. Calvin's mother is someone we indirectly encounter in A Wrinkle in Time. She's not that good of a mother. She is bitter with life due to her experiences, and she looks old and worn out despite her relatively young age. Well, we learn that she once had a brother and a grandmother whom she loved very much, and her grandmother told her that hatred hurts the person who hates. She pointed to one of their ancestors, a princess who was abandoned by her royal husband (who married her on false pretenses, out of an impure motive). According to the grandmother, the princess never gave in to hate, and God took care of her through all of her afflictions. Unfortunately, Calvin's mother gives in to hatred rather than trusting God. Still, she gets an opportunity to connect with her heritage (and hopefully heal) in the course of the book, and her actions end up saving humanity from destruction.

So, overall, I really enjoyed this book. I don't agree with everything Madeleine L'Engle says, but she certainly makes me think, even while I'm being entertained.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Wind in the Door

Last night, I finished Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door. I was reading some wikipedia articles about Madeleine L'Engle, and wikipedia's summary of A Wind in the Door was actually pretty good. Unlike the article on A Wrinkle in Time, which focused almost entirely on plot, the one on A Wind in the Door summed up both the plot and the themes.

As I read the wikipedia articles, what really interested me was that I had actually met Meg and Calvin before. When I was at Harvard, I read A House Like a Lotus on one of my flights, and the book was about Poly O'Keefe, the daughter of Calvin (a marine biologist) and Meg O' Keefe (a mathematician). So they married, and Meg apparently outgrew her social awkwardness, though she managed to pass some of it down to Poly. The book was rather realistic, so I had no idea that Calvin and Meg had fantasy adventures when they were younger.

On a surface level, the message of A Wind in the Door is not that complicated. It is that we should view others as human beings with selves, value, qualities, and purpose. L'Engle calls this practice "naming" someone. The most noteworthy example concerns the principal at Meg's elementary school, Mr. Jenkins, who is an extremely unlikable and intimidating character. Meg always feels inadequate in his presence, since she was always called into his office when she did something wrong (or unusual). Moreover, Meg's odd (and genius) brother Charles Wallace is continually bullied at school, and Mr. Jenkins neither interferes to stop it nor recognizes Charles' talents. Essentially, two other Mr. Jenkinses (who are actually demons) pop up, and Meg has to identify the real one. She dismisses the ones who are on a power trip, concluding that the real Mr. Jenkins is the insecure one who feels like a failure, yet has occasionally done some good things (as when he bought Calvin some shoes). Meg discovers that Mr. Jenkins has rarely been allowed to be himself, and she walks him through the process of self-discovery.

At first, Meg sees Mr. Jenkins as a drag on her mission, in which Meg, Calvin, Mr. Jenkins, and other characters find themselves in Charles Wallace's body. Charles has a disease at a cellular level that is threatening his life, and a significant part of saving it is a technique called kything, which is a form of non-verbal telepathy in which people can be themselves. The characters need to kythe in order to communicate, but Mr. Jenkins is not good at it. The reasons are that he is old and reluctant to adopt new practices, and also that he is not secure enough to be himself around others, or allow others to be themselves around him. An angel continually tells impatient Meg that Mr. Jenkins has an important role to play in the mission, even though he is unsure what that role specifically is. In the end, Mr. Jenkins adds depth, helps others understand what is going on, and risks his life for the mission.

For Charles to be cured, a mouse-like part of the cell has to deepen, which entails maturing into a tree. A group of destructive demons, the Echthroi, try to discourage the mouse from performing his role. They tell him that he will have no fun as a tree, that he should try to take over the land, and that nothingness is preferable to his current position. Mr. Jenkins points out that selfishness--seeing oneself as the center, as opposed to performing one's role in a bigger picture--is the root of much destruction in life (e.g., war, etc.). By not deepening, the mouse is actually acting against his own self-interest, since he'll perish if Charles dies.

Those are the plot and the themes. Now for my reactions. Although L'Engle's message appears rather simple, there must be a lot of depth to it. First, I thought that Mr. Jenkins' transformation was rather unbelievable, since he went from a cold, uncaring principal to someone who was willing to sacrifice himself for others. But Madeleine L'Engle may have had a reason for portraying Mr. Jenkins the way that she did. For her, there was a reason that Mr. Jenkins was cold and uncaring. Once he got through his own personal barriers, his true self--the one underneath his cold exterior--could more fully emerge.

Second, I thought that the Echthrois' message to the mouse was contradictory. They were telling him to embrace nothingness, even as they encouraged him to try to take over the land. But you need to exist to rule something, don't you? Again, there may be an explanation for this, but I will probably need to think a lot before I discover it. I've encountered this sort of inconsistency in other stories. In George Lucas' novel Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kanobe says that Darth Vader pictures all of life perishing in an apocalyptic catastrophe; yet, there he is, trying to increase the empire's power and restore order to the galaxy. In the New Testament, the devil seeks to discourage Jesus from going to the cross (Mark 8:33), yet he enters Judas and helps bring about Jesus' crucifixion (John 13:27). Evil doesn't always make sense.

Third, I'm wrestling with Madeleine L'Engle's views on communitarianism. On one hand, she values individuality and resists conformity, almost like Ayn Rand. In A Wrinkle in Time, for instance, the sinister IT enforces conformity and makes everyone do the exact same thing, and he is not tolerant of mistakes. On the other hand, L'Engle seems to argue in A Wind in the Door that people are not ends in themselves (or the center of the universe), since they have roles to perform in a larger picture. I'm sure there's value to what she is saying, but something about it rubs me the wrong way. It strikes me as rather Soviet, or it seems to treat humans as part of a factory, or as cogs in a machine. I know that she's not for making people into drones, but she's not entirely Ayn Rand in her view on humanity.

My final point for today is this: There are many evangelicals who love Madeleine L'Engles' works, since they often incorporate biblical themes. But Madeleine L'Engle has also been on the religious right's hit list, since her works often appear on lists of banned books. I can understand why some Christian conservatives are leery of her fiction. There is one wikipedia article that associates Charles' telepathic ability with New Age concepts about the next stage of human evolution. So Madeleine L'Engle must have been the J.K. Rowling of her day! At the same time, I like the way that she teaches Christianity in an outside-of-the-box sort of way.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Musings 2007

Today is Christmas, 2007. What am I doing today? Yesterday, I was privileged to receive my video of It's a Wonderful Life. This was fortuitous. I could have gotten it after Christmas, but It's a Wonderful Life is Christmas fare, or, more accurately, Christmas Eve fare. As I watched it, I really felt bad for George Bailey. Here was a person who continually helped others, but he never had an opportunity to do what he wanted to do, which was to see the world. I know that the story is fictional, but I'd like to think that George and Mary Bailey got to visit Europe, Asia, and South America at some point in their lives. Of course, the problem is that they would have to leave the Building and Loan to Uncle Billy during their absence, and I can imagine Uncle Billy running the company into the ground. Maybe one of George and Mary's boys (or girls) grew up and helped run the company, allowing the couple to have some vacation time. But where would the Baileys get the money for travel? Well, at the end, George got more than the $8,000 that he needed. Maybe his neighbors wouldn't mind if George and Mary used it to see the world. George did earn this privilege, after all.

Today, I watched a Christmas episode of Highway to Heaven, in which Richard Mulligan (Empty Nest) plays a newspaper columnist who finds the Christmas spirit. I'll watch another episode later this evening, one that reflects Dickens' A Christmas Carol. At the moment, I am taping A Christmas Story. I've never seen it before, and it is a renowned Christmas classic. I'll also watch that this evening. At 3:00, I saw one of my favorite episodes of All in the Family, the one in which a draft dodger spends Christmas with someone who lost his son in Vietnam. It is a tear-jerker!

While watching television, I've been reading two books by Madeleine L'Engle: A Wrinkle in Time and Wind in the Door. I finished Wrinkle last night. I appreciate the books, but I have a hard time experiencing pleasure when I read them, and I don't exactly know why. I appreciate them because they are about God using socially marginalized people for his righteous purposes, and I also like the way that the socially awkward Meg becomes friends with the popular jock Calvin, whose life is not as rosy as we might expect. There is also a character who speaks in quotations, since she cannot come up with words of her own in social situations. I identify with her problem here! Too bad my Latin is not good enough for me to quote Cicero in daily conversation. The books also have jewels of wisdom. For example, in Wrinkle, one of the eccentric characters likens life to a sonnet: a sonnet needs a specific number of beats to be a sonnet, but it can still contain a variety of possible words. I interpret this to mean that there is one righteous path, which can encompass a variety of possible choices.

I went to church this morning. Drawing on Aquinas, the priest talked about the different ways that Christ is united with humanity. He said that a person who has faith yet lives a sinful life is in danger of becoming eternally lost. At the same time, he affirmed that God can still work with such a person, since there is a connection between him and the divine. The priest urged us to develop a deeper relationship with God. His specific steps for doing this included: (1.) Become a Catholic, if you are not one already, (2.) Go to confession, and (3.) Read about the saints. I usually don't feel "fed" by this priest's sermons, since they are rather philosophical and often promote ritualism as a spiritual solution. But they do intellectually stimulate me, which is more than I can say for evangelical and mainline Protestant churches (BORING).

As I was thinking about a topic for today's blog entry, a question entered my mind: Why did Christ come to earth? I remember reading a book by John Shelby Spong, This Hebrew Lord, in which Spong was stumped by someone who asked about Jesus' significance. Evangelicals and other Christians would probably deem this an easy question: they would say that Jesus came to reveal God's will, bring forgiveness of sins, and inaugurate a kingdom of justice for the poor. But these things existed before Jesus came. People already knew that they were supposed to love God and neighbor. God already forgave sins (though evangelicals will probably argue that the blood of Christ was the basis for atonement in pre-Christian times). And people already knew that they should help the poor. What did Jesus bring that was new? Well, he did make God's rules stricter. Now, we can't get a divorce or lust after women. I'm sorry, but I have a hard time getting enthusiastic about a stricter law.

Another topic that came into my mind was Christmas' pagan origin. I grew up in an offshoot of the Worldwide Church of God, which did not observe Christmas. Many argue that Christians transformed a pagan festival (Saturnalia) into the "Christian" holiday of Christmas. Others contend that the pagans were the ones who stole Christmas--from the Christians (see The Celebration of CHRISTMAS ). If Christmas has pagan origins, should it be observed? On one hand, Deuteronomy 12:30 seems to prohibit the use of pagan customs in the worship of God. It says: "Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following [the Canaanites], after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise." On the other hand, the Bible does describe the God of the Hebrews through pagan imagery (e.g., a god who slays a chaos monster), and there is also overlap between biblical and pagan customs (e.g., temples, animal sacrifices, etc.).

I guess that the way I approach this issue is as follows: I myself don't really keep Christmas, since I am usually alone on that day. But I don't have a big problem when others observe it (not that their actions are my business in the first place). God dislikes pagan customs that compromise his character, such as child sacrifice or orgies in worship. But I don't think he stresses out when people set aside a day to fellowship and honor Christ's birth, assuming that they are indeed doing that in their celebration of Christmas (rather than being materialistic). Christmas is a time to think about certain virtues, such as generosity. But we should be generous throughout the year, not only on Christmas.

So these are my Christmas reflections. Maybe I'll have more after watching A Christmas Story--I will have to see. Happy holidays!

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Christmas Wish

Last week, I watched The Christmas Wish on the Lifetime Network. I first saw it nine years ago with my mom, and I had pleasant memories about it, so I decided to watch it again and tape it. Of course, there were details that I missed the first time around that leapt out at me in the second viewing. When I first saw the movie, I didn't know who Debbie Reynolds was. I didn't realize that she was a big-time actress and the mother of Princess Leah. I also didn't know anything about Naomi Watts, since 1998 was before The Ring and Peter Jackson's King Kong. Nine years ago, the only people I recognized on the movie were Doogie Houser and Gunny from Major Dad. But, even though I didn't know who Naomi Watts was, I thought she was really cute.

The movie is about a Wall Street bigshot (Neil Patrick Harris) who moves back to his small town to save his late grandfather's dying business. Because his parents were killed in an automobile accident, his grandparents raised him, and he had pleasant memories of his grandfather. When he goes to his grandmother's (Debbie Reynolds) for dinner with his class-conscious fiance, she reveals to him her Christmas wish: the grandmother was looking through her late husband's journals, and she saw that he visited Lillian every Christmas. She wondered who Lillian was, and if her husband had an affair. So Neil Patrick Harris tries to identify the mysterious Lillian, and he learns more and more that his grandfather was a wonderful human being. In the meantime, he breaks up with his fiance, meets his grandfather's ex-secretary (Naomi Watts)--now a dance instructor with a cute kid, and comes to love his grandfather's business. He starts off as a driven executive who cares only about the bottom line, but he becomes someone who loves his neighbor as himself.

The movie got me thinking about God and grace. At the end of the movie, we learn that Lillian was the person who accidentally killed Harris' mom and dad. She was in a nursing home, and his grandfather visited her every Christmas. I teared up in 1998 when Debbie Reynolds said "I forgive you too, Lillian," and I teared up the second time I saw that scene. In fact, there are tears in my eyes right now as I write about it. But the scene made me think about God and the problem of evil. Believers know from a variety of sources (e.g., the Bible, experience, nature, our own moral code, etc.) that God is good, and yet we wonder how God can permit evil. But there is an explanation, the same way that there was an explanation for the grandfather's behavior. Moreover, Harris changed as he heard the stories about his grandfather's goodness, before he even learned who Lillian was. Similarly, God's goodness can impact us, even though we don't have all the answers.

Regarding grace, one of the characters was someone who worked for Harris' grandfather. She was played by Gunny from Major Dad. This actress usually plays a stiff, formal type of person, much like Carolyn Washburn in the Iowa Presidential debates. Throughout the movie, she gives Harris a hard time. She is fiercely loyal to Harris' grandfather and father (even after their passing), and she doesn't like the cold, cost-effective direction that Harris is taking the company. She also hates Harris' new hot-shot assistant, who wants to throw a struggling family out of its apartment on Christmas eve for being late on rent. Basically, we learn from Naomi Watts that Gunny once embezzled money from the company to pay for an operation, but his grandfather gave her a second chance. Harris is shocked because (1.) Gunny looks like someone who wouldn't steal a pencil, let alone embezzle money, and (2.) his grandfather didn't fire her on the spot. But, as Naomi Watts said, "That's the type of person your grandfather was."

What does this teach me about grace? God's grace is a second chance, and it can inspire love and loyalty. Legally speaking, Gunny deserved to be fired and punished according to the law, but Harris' grandfather showed her grace. She became loyal to the grandfather and the company, and she was more willing to give others the benefit of a doubt, as she did with the struggling family. Christians continually tell me that God's grace should have this sort of impact on me. It should make me want to obey God (i.e., be an extrovert, join small groups, etc.) and forgive (like) those who have wronged me. Unfortunately, things don't exactly work out this way, maybe because God's grace is a theoretical abstraction to me.

Lately, I've been thinking about second chances, especially as I read about Mike Huckabee's treatment of convicted criminals. Huckabee is a Christian who believes in redemption, and he was willing to give convicts a second chance on life. The problem was that they went out and hurt people again. Are there times when grace is not the right thing to do? Grace is good, but sometimes it can go too far.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Bush and Mining Regulation

When the Sago mine disaster occurred in 2006, liberals were quick to blame President George W. Bush. According to liberal mythology, Bush rolled back safety regulations on the mining industry to appease his corporate backers. For liberals, this resulted in a lack of government oversight that contributed to the Sago tragedy, which took the lives of 12 people. Another mining disaster occurred in August 2007, in Utah. What is the liberal solution? Vote Democrat, since the Democratic Party favors more regulations. I have three responses to the liberal narrative.

1. The number of injuries and fatalities at coal mines has decreased under President Bush, according to statistics of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) (see Coal Mine Injuries and Fatalities, 1930 - 2006). During the Clinton Administration (1993-2000), the average number of injuries each year was 8,671. Under President Bush (2001-2006), the number has been 5,511. During the Clinton years, the average number of fatalities per year was 38.75. Under Bush, it's been 32.67.

A liberal blogger points out that mining activity is at an all time low in the U.S., so the percentage of injuries and fatalities has not necessarily declined. Okay, then, let's look at their rates. Under Clinton, the average annual rate of injuries at coal mines was 7.18 per cent. Under Bush, it's been 5.25 per cent. During the Clinton years, the average annual fatality rate was .035 per cent. Under Bush, it's been .032 per cent. So the number and the rate of injuries and fatalities at coal mines are lower under President Bush.

I say this because I am sick of the Clintons and their smug arrogance. Bill acts as if things were perfect under his Administration, and he expects us to swoon at his every word. The Clintons and the media continually tell us how brilliant Bill Clinton is, while they portray President Bush as a dunce. And Hillary has the audacity to criticize Bush's record on mining regulation, when her own husband presided over higher rates of injuries and fatalities at coal mines. The Clintons have no moral authority to criticize anyone, especially on mining policy.

2. On the August 24, 2007 Real Time with Bill Maher, Bill Maher was criticizing Bush's recess MSHA appointment, Dick Stickler, a former coal executive. Michel Martin of ABC and NPR (hardly a conservative) replied that Stickler has actually been tougher on coal companies than many expected him to be, since he has cited a number of them for safety violations. Many liberals assume that the Bush Administration is giving coal companies a free ride, but that is hardly the case.

The AFL-CIO asserts that Bush has sought to cut MSHA's budget, and it states that the number of MSHA staff has declined under his Administration (see here). Well, didn't that one liberal blogger say that coal mining activity is at an all time low (which seems to be true, according to MSHA's statistics--see PDF)? Maybe that's why Bush reduced MSHA's staff for certain years (aside from the fact that some MSHA employees passed away and were not immediately replaced). Overall, Bush seems to have roughly the same amount of inspectors per coal mine as Clinton did, if not more.

3. Who is to say that regulations are the only way to create mine safety? According to C. Gregory Ruffennach's article about mining regulations for the Cato Institute, the number of mining fatalities was actually declining before the 1969 Coal Act, which instituted federal regulations on coal mining. For Ruffennach, the 1969 regulations slowed down the decrease in fatalities because they valued rules over results, made coal miners feel less responsible for their own safety, and fostered antagonism rather than cooperation between the coal industry and the federal government.

Ruffennach offers some interesting documentation for his argument that regulations emphasize rules rather than results. He states that companies that come up with innovative methods for mine safety have to go through a lot of hassle before the government finally approves their proposals (if it approves them at all). Like most libertarians, Ruffennach trusts the free market to safeguard mine safety, since mine owners profit when their mines and miners are intact; when they are not, they lose economically. For Ruffennach, regulations cost mines a lot in terms of litigation, productivity, and paperwork, a cost that they pass on to consumers. While Ruffennach may be an idealistic libertarian, he raises good questions about the effectiveness of federal regulation in protecting miners.

At least Bush hasn't gone as far as Ruffennach would like!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Are Holiness and Success Proofs?

Last week at church, the priest presented his third and fourth reasons that Christianity (or, more specifically, Catholicism) is credible: the holy lives of Catholics, and the rampant spread of Christianity.

The priest admitted that these proofs are weaker than fulfilled prophecy and miracles. In fact, to his credit, he continually acknowledged their deficiencies in establishing Christianity's credibility. Still, he thought that they had some merit, otherwise he wouldn't give a sermon about them.

I'll summarize the priest's arguments before I critique them. For the holiness proof, the priest said that people who follow the tenets of Catholicism will lead holy lives. He acknowledged that not every Catholic is obedient to Christian principles, and that other religions (i.e., Islam) teach morality as well. But he stressed that Catholicism has more renowned holy people than any other religion. For him, the Catholic saints have performed more or better good acts than the practitioners of other creeds. He even pointed to President Bush's praise of Mother Theresa as evidence for Catholicism's moral uniqueness.

For the spread of Christianity, the priest said that Christianity rampantly spread in the first two centuries, in all sorts of countries. He distinguished Christianity from Islam because Christianity's initial success was not due to military force. For the priest, Christianity's spread was an obvious act of God. There is no other explanation.

I have three reactions. First, I partly disagree with the priest that his third and fourth arguments are weaker proofs than fulfilled prophecies and miracles. I can understand why the priest is making this claim, since there are all sorts of moral people in the world, Christian and non-Christian. For the priest, fulfilled prophecies and miracles clearly demonstrate God's stamp of approval on a creed, since they are supernatural occurrences. But, as I said in my posts on these topics, fulfilled prophecies and miracles are not perfect proofs, for ungodly forces can do them too. See Deuteronomy 13:1-3, among other examples. Signs, wonders, and accurate predictions are not ironclad proofs that a prophet is legitimate.

On some level, morality is a more biblical indicator that a prophet is true. Matthew 7:15-20 says: "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits." When Jesus was accused of performing Satanic signs, he appealed to the morality of his actions to demonstrate their divine origin (Matthew 12:24-29).

This brings me to my second reaction. Is Christianity morally unique? Christianity is not the only religion that has moral exemplars, for Judaism and Eastern religions also have stories about holy men or people who do good things. But there has always been something about Christianity that has made an impression on people. In the first few centuries of its existence, pagans marvelled at the love that Christians showed to one another. Christianity was also revolutionary because it brought together diverse people of various nationalities, genders, and classes, as liberal scholars such as John Dominic Crossan and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza have emphasized. There was a lot of social stratification in the ancient world, in both Judaism and paganism. You usually didn't see certain groups eating together or socializing. Jews generally didn't eat with pagans (or impure Jews, for that matter), and Gentiles had a solid class system. But Christianity managed to tear down these barriers and create a family. That impresses me. It makes me think that there actually is something to Christianity. Would such "proof" satisfy a skeptic? Probably not on a philosophical level, but I hope it would lead him to ask questions.

My third reaction relates to the spread of Christianity. I wouldn't be surprised if historians have offered sociological, historical, economic, or psychological explanations for Christianity's spread in the first two centuries. I think I once read an explanation that said the poor liked Christianity because it gave them feelings of hope and value. In evaluations of a religion's success, there are always other possible explanations than "God did it." Some Korean Christians will tell you that Christianity's spread in Korea is an act of God. Others will tell you that Koreans like Christianity because it is more conducive to economic growth, in contrast to the prominent Eastern religions of the nation. In addition, the fact that a lot of people believe something does not necessarily make it true. According to the Bible, Baalism spread to such an extent in ancient Israel that Yahwism became the minority religion. Guess which religion the Bible supported.

One thing that I admire about Christianity, though, is that many people converted even though the religion carried a social stigma. That was true in the first few centuries. Christian doctrine appeared absurd to a lot of people, since the cross was a symbol of shame. Christians were like the Communists in 1950's America--they were persecuted and even killed because people thought that they were undermining society (through not honoring the emperor and pagan deities). And it is true today, as Christians suffer persecution in many parts of the world, at the hands of Communists and Islamic fanatics. There must be something about a religion if people are willing to die for it. Of course, people have been willing to die for non-Christian creeds as well. There are Muslims who fly into buildings. I once read about a non-Christian monk in Vietnam who set himself on fire. So the fact that people die for a belief does not establish it as true. But it certainly does impress me and lead me to ask questions.

I'm not sure what can prove Christianity in a rational or philosophical sense. But there are other factors than the rational and the philosophical that attract me to the religion. In many ways, I am attracted to its content, and I want what it claims to offer. That may not satisfy a skeptic, and there are many times when I ask questions about my faith's credibility. But there is something about Christianity that compels me to keep on believing.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Asperger's and Religion

When I first went to the Asperger's support group in New York, I told the group that I was a student in religion. The facilitator asked me if I had ever studied the theological ramifications of autism. I responded that I had not. In fact, the issue had never crossed my mind.

The second time I went, I got into a conversation with another Aspie about religion. He expressed surprise that anyone on the autism spectrum would believe in God, since Aspies like concepts that are literal, concrete, and tangible. For him, the idea of God was too abstract. Just when I thought that all Aspies were positivists, however, another Aspie joined the discussion and defended the teleological and cosmological arguments for the existence of God. I was relieved!

As with politics, there are a variety of religious beliefs among people with Asperger's. Some are fundamentalists because they like the structure of a world that makes sense and a book with all the answers. Some are atheists because they believe that science contradicts the Bible, and they firmly maintain that science is right while religion is wrong. Their literal minds are not open to seeing the Bible as metaphor or allegory, which is the most common way to reconcile science with religion, and so they reject the Bible. Asperger's doesn't predispose a person to believe a certain way about God. But, as with everyone, the various beliefs of people with Asperger's are rooted in who they are as people.

On some level, that is true with me. Aspies tend to fixate on a few areas of interest, and religion and politics happen to be mine. Asperger's includes a deficiency in social skills, and social isolation is one reason that I believe in God. Although I have problems with evangelicals and evangelicalism, I've always liked the way that they present God as a friend, as someone who loves me and has a plan for my life. Even on days when I do not fit in, I can find a friend in God. Aspies like structure and predictability, and Christianity gives me that. Not only does it provide me with regular rituals such as church attendance, prayer, and Bible reading, but it also assures me that God is in control of my future. I prefer the idea of divine providence to an unpredictable notion that everything happens on its own, without any plan or purpose.

The things that give some Aspies a problem with religion are not really problematic for me. God's utter intangibility does not lead me to reject his existence, since we all accept things that we cannot see or touch (e.g., love, air). Overall, the concept of God makes sense to me. The universe had to come from somewhere, and things have to be exactly the way they are for life to even exist. That tells me that there is a creator and designer.

As far as the contradiction between science and religion is concerned, I don't know what to do with it. I disagree with people who assert that the Bible is not a science or history book. This sentiment is problematic because it projects modern controversies (i.e., creation vs. evolution) onto the Bible, plus I believe that the biblical authors were telling us their thoughts about how the universe originated. They were writing science and history, according to the science and historical standards of their time. I also wish that people who call Genesis 1 a metaphor or allegory would explain what they mean. If Genesis 1 is an allegory, then what is it an allegory for, and how do its various components point symbolically to certain truths?

I guess that, in the end, I try to be open-minded on the question of origins. I'm open to evolution, but I am also willing to hear what advocates of Intelligent Design have to say. But, in my approach to the biblical writings, I tend to go with the theological messages that they are trying to convey, whether or not the stories are scientifically or historically true. The Bible has creation stories about God wrestling and subduing a dragon, and it also has statements that the dragon is just a plaything for God (like a rubber ducky). Both are different, and yet they convey important truths about God's relationship with evil. Truth has a lot of nuances and facets!

But, back to Asperger's and religion, there are things about evangelicals and evangelicalism that bother me. Christianity in general seems to equate being a good Christian with being a social extrovert. "Jesus reached out to sinners, and so we should too," we are told. Evangelicalism also emphasizes community, small groups, and accountability (which I see as social control). Introverts, people with social anxiety, or those who have problems reaching out to others are made to feel as if they are not truly pleasing to God. And, of course, happy happy Christian extroverts get on my nerves anyway. So Christianity has its dark side, as far as I am concerned.

What about the theological ramifications of Asperger's? I don't know. I have thought more about it since the facilitator asked me. My heart goes out to Aspies who cannot get or keep jobs because of their social difficulties, and I am afraid that I will find myself in the same situation. When I try to assure myself that God has a plan for my life, I wonder what God's plan is for their lives. Will God allow them to be consigned to hopeless and unhappy futures? At the same time, God makes all kinds of people for a reason. As Temple Grandin (an Aspie scientist) says, most of our inventors may have had Asperger characteristics, at least on some level. Invention requires spending a lot of time in solitude, and some people are more equipped to do that than others.

But I don't know why some people have to go through hardships, and I'm not entirely sure what God's role or plan is. But I do hope to learn and grow.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

More on Aspies and Politics

I promised that I would write today about Asperger's and religion, but I find that I have more to say on Asperger's and politics. So I'll save my promised post for tomorrow. My apologies to those who were sitting on the edges of their seats waiting for my stirring commentary. But you'll like this post too, I promise.

I guess that my thesis in yesterday's post was this: Republicans are committed to helping autistic people as much as Democrats are. Consequently, unlike a lot of Aspies I have known, I see no contradiction between being a right-wing Republican and having Asperger's.

My topic today is the political preferences of Aspies themselves. Believe it or not, there have been a number of prominent conservatives and Republicans with Asperger characteristics. According to British psychiatrist Michael Fitzgerald, one of them was Sir Keith Joseph, a mentor to Margaret Thatcher who has been dubbed the father of Thatcherism. The July 12, 2006 issue of The Independent states, "Sir Keith Joseph, the father of Thatcherism whose free market principles are still followed to some extent by Tony Blair, had a form of autism that is reflected in his political philosophy, a psychiatrist believes" (see Political Autism?).

Another one may have been Richard Nixon, who was intellectually brilliant and yet displayed a lot of social awkwardness. Some have argued that Thomas Jefferson was an Aspie. Despite his liberal religious ideas, I put him on the right because he rejected a strong central government in favor of reserving power to the states. And then there is Vernon Smith. He is a Nobel economist, a researcher at the conservative George Mason University (which is where conservative economist Walter Williams teaches, when he's not subbing for Rush), and a scholar for the libertarian Cato Institute. And he has talked openly about his Asperger's.

Why do I point this out? There are a number of reasons. First of all, I like to collect seemingly trivial information, in this case, the names of prominent conservative Aspies. That's a symptom of AS. Some Aspies memorize baseball statistics.

Second, there is a strong part of me that rebels against liberal Aspies, the same way that I've always resisted liberal academia. There are many Aspies who act as if having AS automatically entails being a liberal, and I want to scream that such is not the case. For example, Tony Atwood is an expert on Asperger's, and he characterizes Aspies as people who are "usually renowned for being direct, speaking their mind and being honest and determined and having a strong sense of social justice" (emphasis mine).

Well, people will tell you that I am blunt to a fault, honest, and determined. The readers of James' Thoughts and Musings have probably gotten that impression. But I don't agree with "social justice" as the left defines it. I think that much of what carries the label of "social justice" today is actually socialistic injustice. And I am not alone in my view. There are even Aspies who would agree with me.

Aspies can actually have a variety of political persuasions. One blog post, AskAnAspie: Right-wing Aspies?, tries to argue this point, but it doesn't go far enough. It says that Aspies can be libertarians, liberals, atheists, or churchgoers, and it tries to connect those ideologies to Asperger's. Here are a few quotes:

"1) There are a lot of Aspie libertarians. (I'm deliberately using a small 'L' there, plenty of them have issues with the actual Libertarian party.) It's basically a grown-up version of the Aspie childhood rejection of 'Because I said so' arguments by adults.

"2) There are a lot of Aspie hard-core liberals. I put myself in this category. Aspies tend to have a very strong sense of fairness, and if they don't take the libertarian path of constantly defending their own rights, they often wind up working towards defending the rights of other people. And they tend to find concepts like racism and homophobia to be illogical, which they are."

My problem with the list is that it excludes social and cultural conservatives. Maybe it was trying to include them under the label of "churchgoers," but it could have been more explicit if that were its intent. As I think back, I did enter conservatism through a libertarian door. Maybe part of that had to do with the "Because I said so" arguments of adults, at least on a subconscious level. But a lot of my libertarianism came from watching TV and reading. On TV, there were bad kings who showed their badness by raising taxes. This happened on the Smurfs a few times. It was definitely a major theme in Disney's Robin Hood. So I came to see taxes as a bad thing. I also read the speeches of Ronald Reagan and the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and I concluded that more government means not only higher taxes, but less freedom as well. I initially accepted the other parts of conservatism (e.g., social and cultural conservatism, the military-industrial complex, the national security state) because they were part of the conservative package, but I came to believe in them as well.

But, back to my argument. I think that an Aspie can also be a social and cultural conservative. This post implies that Aspies are inclined to throw out tradition because it doesn't make sense, but that isn't necessarily the case. Sure, Aspies like logic and reason, but they also want order. I don't consider myself homophobic, but I maintain that redefining marriage to mean anything and everything will throw society into greater chaos. I believe that strong families and traditional moral values keep society on track, and they are also beneficial. The sexual revolution is not only immoral--it is destructive. People today think that they can have sex with whomever they want, without consequences to themselves and society as a whole. Not only do they divorce sex from love, but they also have kids whom they have no intention of raising (assuming that they haven't killed them in the womb first). So I wouldn't be surprised if there are Aspies who prefer order to this chaos!

I know that this post was rather scattered, but hopefully you got something out of it. Have a nice day!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Asperger's and Politics

Asperger's Syndrome is a form of high functioning autism that includes a deficiency in social skills. It's something that I have. My goal in this post, however, is not to complain about my life or offer a full-fledged description of Asperger's. As I've promised with a lot of topics, I'll save that for another day. What I want to do here is discuss Asperger's and politics.

When I lived in New York, I was part of a support group for people with Asperger's. Most of them were either liberal Democrats or liberals who thought that the Democratic Party was too conservative (you find the latter types mostly in academia). One one level, they were probably liberals because they lived in one of the bluest states of the nation. But they also seemed to believe that liberals would be more accepting than conservatives of people with autism. For them, liberals embrace those who are different. They are more likely to sympathize with people who have problems. If liberals were to rule, the government would provide autistic people with more assistance and services. In the minds of most in the support group, conservatives have tendencies that are Social Darwinist (to say the least). "You have social problems?" they could envision conservatives saying. "Big deal! Learn some social skills, get a job, and take responsibility for your life."

As I've surfed the Internet, I have learned that not everyone associates Asperger's with political liberalism. As a matter of fact, there are conservative Aspies who feel that liberalism actually makes life more difficult for those on the autism spectrum. Liberalism has rules about political correctness. You have to be especially delicate about how you phrase things around a liberal, since you can easily be accused of insensitivity or bigotry. Well, people with Asperger's were not exactly born with the social graces that most neurotypicals take for granted. You can imagine, therefore, why some Aspies may have unpleasant memories of their interactions with liberals. Because of political correctness, some Aspies manage to step on more toes than usual (which happens a lot).

Whom do Aspies or advocates for autistic people support for President? It varies. Dr. Kristina Chew of Autism Vox seems to like Hillary Clinton, since she is one of the Senators who introduced the Expanding the Promise for Individuals with Autism Act. The Act would increase the number of services for children and adults with autism, and it would provide job training for autistic people who are about to enter the workforce. This appeals to me because there are many with Asperger's who have difficulty getting or keeping a job (although there are also many who have found their niche and are successful). Whose Planet Is It Anyway? hates Hillary Clinton and endorses Barack Obama. Its author contends that Obama is open to neurodiversity, whereas Hillary has stated that her goal is to prevent and cure anything along the autism spectrum. There are Aspies and advocates for autistic people who see hints of genocide in this.

And there are Aspies who like Republican Ron Paul. Autism Facts gave him the highest grade of all the Presidential candidates, since he supports research into autism and allowing lawsuits against companies over mercury poisoning, which some believe is a cause of autism. And a mother of a son with Asperger's likes Ron Paul's stance on home schooling. She says that she took her son out of a public school because it didn't stop the bullying that he was experiencing. Her son is now thriving through home schooling (see An Open Letter to Home Schooling Parents on Behalf of Ron Paul by Georgia Clifton). Some see government as the best way to provide opportunities for people with autism, while others prefer freedom from government as a better option.

What interests me is that concern for autistic individuals spans the political spectrum. In the Senate, the other author of the Expanding the Promise for Individuals with Autism Act is Republican Senator Wayne Allard, a friend of James Dobson's Focus on the Family. In the House, a similar bill has been introduced by Chris Smith and Chip Pickering (and others). You've probably seen Chris Smith on news shows, specifically when abortion is debated. He is a fierce advocate of the pro-life position. Chip Pickering is the son of Judge Charles Pickering, one of Bush's judicial nominees whom the left tarred and feathered. And on Autism Bulletin, a responder said that an extremely supportive Republican Senator from Pennsylvania was voted out in 2006 (see Where Do Autism Services Fit in Your Views on the Presidential Race?). I assume he meant Rick Santorum, the legendary conservative Senator who is now a pundit for Fox News. So Hillary is not the only politician who wants to help autistic people. Even people on the right are supportive.

Why is there a bipartisan desire to do something about this? My guess is that both conservatives and liberals know someone who is on the spectrum. Joe Scarborough is an ex-Republican Congressman and a conservative pundit on MSNBC, and he has a son with Asperger's. People tend to be sensitive to certain issues when they impact the ones they love.

So I am a conservative, a Republican, and a person with AS. Tomorrow, I'll comment on Asperger's and religion. Have a nice day!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Julia Carson (July 8, 1938-December 15, 2007)

I know this post is belated, since Julia Carson passed away a few days ago. But I still want to take the time to commemorate this interesting woman.

Julia Carson was the Democratic representative from Indiana's seventh Congressional district. I first heard of her in the summer of 1996. Campaigns were going on throughout the country, and one of them was the race for Congress in Indiana's seventh district. Julia Carson was running against Virginia Blankenbaker, a stockbroker and pro-choice Republican. Maybe the label that best fit Blankenbaker was "country club Republican," though I'm not an expert on political labels.

Anyway, I was an intern for a right-wing political organization, and my boss wasn't exactly thrilled about Blankenbaker. He compared her to Hillary Clinton because she wanted to require military doctors to perform abortions. Being a Republican, he didn't agree much with Carson either, but he thought she'd make a good posterchild for the extreme left. On one occasion, Carson compared not supporting affirmative action to ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, or something bizarre. You know how the left always looks for extreme Pat Robertson statements and argues that they reflect the views of everyone to the right of Hillary? Well, my boss wanted Julia Carson to be the Pat Robertson of the left, if that makes any sense.

To be honest, I've not followed her career all that closely, but what intrigued me about her was that she occasionally did well on the John Birch Society Congressional scorecards. The John Birch Society has a reputation for being an ultra-conservative organization. It supports lower taxes and less government. What's more, it doesn't believe that the federal government should do anything that isn't specified in the U.S. Constitution. It wants the United States to leave the UN. It is generally skeptical of international organizations and treaties because it fears a one world government.

Interestingly, the John Birch Society's constitutionalist, conservative worldview often leads it to embrace positions that many would call "liberal." It believes that greater government entails less freedom, so it opposes the Patriot Act. It is against international organizations and any move to bring the nations together, so it is critical of NAFTA, GATT, CAFTA, and the World Trade Organization. It dislikes the UN and the "new world order," so it opposed the Gulf war under Bush I. It doesn't really care for the Iraq War under Bush II, for that matter.

Who usually does well on the John Birch Society Congressional Scorecards? Ron Paul is its favorite (of course). If I'm not mistaken, he even has the JBS's endorsement in the Presidential race. Tom Tancredo gets high marks. So does Jeff Flake, a libertarian Republican from Arizona. And the Republican Congressman from my hometown, John Hostettler of Indiana, got honorable mention (before he lost his seat in 2006). But what is amazing is that many conservative Congressmen get really low marks. My own representative, Steve Chabot of Ohio, would be considered by many to be a true blue (or true red) conservative, but there are scorecards in which the JBS only gives him three checkmarks. The same is true for Dan Burton, who called Bill Clinton a moral scumbag. And they don't always get the low grades for supporting free trade or the war in Iraq. If they voted for a federal nutrition program for children, for example, they got an "X" on their record. Contrary to liberal rhetoric, most Republican politicians believe that the government should perform some domestic function. But the JBS is pretty purist when it comes to limited government, and it grades accordingly!

And yet there were times when Julia Carson received high marks. On one level, this is not surprising, since, like many Democrats (and the JBS), she opposed No Child Left Behind, the prescription drug bill, free trade with Communist China, and the Iraq War. But she also opposed federal appropriation bills for HUD, HHS, Americorps, and special education. Why? Her voting record indicates that she is a big government liberal, so maybe she felt that the bills did not spend enough. Or perhaps she had a conservative streak that occasionally manifested itself. Read what the wikipedia article says:

"In 1990 she was elected as a Trustee for Center Township (downtown Indianapolis), and was responsible for running welfare in central Indianapolis. Carson served six years as a trustee, creating a $6 million surplus from the office's $20 million debt.[2] [Democratic Congressman Andy] Jacobs has said Carson 'not only took cheats off the welfare rolls, she sued them to get the money.'" Sounds like my kind of woman!

So what did I learn from Julia Carson? Something profound about political labels and how the political spectrum of left and right doesn't always work. I'll still use those labels, but life is not always as simple as Crossfire and Hannity and Colmes.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Roots: The Gift

Roots: The Gift is a two-hour movie that came out during the Christmas season of 1988. It depicts some incidents that occurred between Episodes 2 and 3, a time when Levar Burton had not yet transformed into John Amos. Well, I watched it last night on TV ONE. I was so excited when I saw it was about to come on. I love the Roots series, and I will write about it more during Black History Month. But I was especially excited because I expected a Trekkie's paradise. Not only was Geordi on it, but Captain Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager also had a big role. From the Internet Media Database, I've learned that Commander Tuvok (a black Vulcan) was also on it, but I don't remember seeing him.

There was this one woman, the matron of the house, and she looked so familiar. I was trying to figure out who she was. She turned out to be Ma Walton. I guess Alex Haley had a thing for The Waltons. John Walton, Sr. played a crude, racist manager of a slave ship on the first episode, and John Boy married a black woman on Roots: The Next Generation. Well, Ma Walton was somewhat of a racist on this movie. She admitted that she sometimes had reservations about the institution of slavery, but she felt overall that blacks were inferior to whites and that slavery was a part of God's natural order.

I often wonder why Alex Haley placed people we know and love in these kinds of roles. John Walton, Sr. was a crass racist. Ben Cartwright had Geordi beaten on his plantation. Mike Brady took Kizzy away from her parents and sold her to the Rifleman, who raped her. Burl Ives basically reinstituted slavery after the Civil War. And Ma Walton looked down on blacks. Maybe Haley was trying to humanize the people who supported slavery. They weren't necessarily bad people. They just happened to be wrong. Maybe that was because they learned racism from their youth, or they benefited so much from the system of slavery that they were resistant to change. Of course, there is one factor that undermines my theory: the Rifleman was a scumbag on the movies.

Overall, I thought the movie was corny. It was almost like a caricature of Roots. On Roots, Alex Haley did a good job in appealing to our emotions. You couldn't help but rejoice at the characters' good times, mourn at their tragedies, and become angry at the injustice that they were experiencing. But Roots: The Gift tried to force those emotions out of me through scenes that were not believable. For example, Kunta was playing a camel in a Christmas pageant, and he stood up and said he wasn't a camel--he was Kunta Kinte. I just found myself rolling my eyes throughout the ordeal. I would have liked Captain Janeway, but her contrived drawl was getting on my nerves.

My Time-Warner cable provider gave the movie two stars. I think it would have had two and a half stars if Lorne Greene played Dr. Reynolds, as he did in the miniseries. That would have added some gravitas, and it would have created greater continuity between the movie and the miniseries, making the movie more believable. Unfortunately, Lorne Greene died a year before the movie was made. Instead, Dr. Reynolds was played by someone who was nothing like Lorne Greene. I saw this guy on Highway to Heaven once. In fact, the movie had a few people who were on Highway to Heaven, like the blind girl who was in a coma.

So what was it about Roots that made it spectacular? Was it the music? The recognizable actors? The critique of racism? Well, Roots: The Gift had all of these things, and it still stunk. I'll still keep it on tape, since it is part of the Roots saga, but It's a Wonderful Life will be my Christmas fare next year instead of this movie.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

In the Mold of Scalia and Thomas

Michael Westmoreland-White has a post on "judicial fundamentalists," in which he forecasts a dim future if more justices like Scalia and Thomas get on the Supreme Court. At the present time, I'm not going to try to refute every one of his points. That is a Herculean task that I may revisit in the future. But I would like to offer some comments. Some of them relate specifically to Westmoreland-White's post, and some of them concern the left's overall approach to conservative judges.

1. I guess my biggest problem with Westmoreland-White's post is that it lumps together Scalia, Thomas, Rehnquist, Roberts, and Alito, as if they all believe the same way. Some of what he says about "judicial fundamentalists" does not apply to all of these judges. He says that judicial fundamentalists don't believe that the Bill of Rights applies to the states, but that's not Justice Scalia's view. According to information on answers.com, "Scalia has supported almost two‐thirds of the decisions declaring state and local legislation unconstitutional." Many of those decisions relate to the Bill of Rights. That must mean that Scalia applies the Bill of Rights to the states!

Westmoreland-White says that judicial fundamentalists are against all environmental protection, but Rehnquist supported a decision allowing polluters to be sued for past pollution (see William Rehnquist on Environment). You need environmental protection laws for polluters to be sued, so Rehnquist must have supported them. Also, see Mark Latham's article, "The Rehnquist Court and Pollution Control Cases," which will appear in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law (yes, I'm name dropping here). Latham argues that the Rehnquist Court actually upheld and preserved environmental regulations.

2. Westmoreland-White stereotypes the records of "judicial fundamentalists," as when he categorically states that they favor corporations. You see this tactic often when the left discusses conservative judges. For example, the left accused Priscilla Owen of always supporting corporations, when actually there were cases in which she ruled against them (see JUSTICE PRISCILLA OWEN: MYTH VS). The left called Charles Pickering a racist, even though he sent his own kids to an integrated school, an unpopular move in the segregated South (see here). So I'm reluctant to swallow left-wing stereotypes hook, line, and sinker.

3. Westmoreland-White seems to support judges who interpret the Eighth Amendment as a ban on capital punishment. But the Fifth Amendment says that a person cannot "be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Doesn't that imply that a person can be deprived of these things (life included) when there is due process? Westmoreland-White wants judges who read their liberal opinions into the Constitution, not ones who are interested in what it actually means.

4. Maybe there is actually some reasoning that goes into the decisions of "judicial fundamentalists." For example, liberals act like Bush vs. Gore was solely a political decision, as if the Republican justices were simply voting their political preferences. No, they voted out of judicial deliberation. Florida had certain election laws, which the U.S. Constitution respects. The Florida Supreme Court was invalidating those laws, violating its responsibility to stick with legal interpretation. The Republican justices (including the moderate and liberal ones) corrected this judicial activism.

I'm not saying that Westmoreland-White's concerns are totally unfounded. I just disagree with the scenario he presents. He acts as if appointing conservative judges will lead to a fascist America, and I don't think that's necessarily the case.

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