Wednesday, December 31, 2003

my review of Heim's Salvations and more on pluralism

Here's a slightly reworked version of my review of S. Mark Heim's Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion.

In the bumptious world of scholarly debates on religious pluralism, Mark Heim has been one of John Hick's (An Interpretation of Religion, A Christian Theology of Religions, etc.) most outspoken critics, and his Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion devotes a chapter to a rather brutal deconstruction of Hick.

Heim also tackles Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Paul Knitter, thinkers who, like Hick, see certain unitive elements in religion.

Heim's basic intention is to appear more pluralistic than Hick and Company; his own proposal is founded on an adaptation of Nicholas Rescher's "orientational pluralism," in which "one and only one position is rationally appropriate from a given perspective." Heim argues not for a Hickian salvation-liberation or a common-essence notion like Hick's neo-Kantian "Real," but for the possibility of "salvations."

Heim does this because he feels the usual "convergent" approach of common-essence pluralism squelches the richness and particularity of religions. Heim's "more plural" pluralism also leaves open the question of whether another religious perspective may in fact be wrong.

The analogy Heim uses to illustrate his view is that of travel. Going from DC to New York, for example, is very different from going to Honolulu from the same starting point. The means to get to these places will have to vary (can you take a Greyhound bus to Honolulu from DC?), too. While various itineraries may share the very abstract notion of "travel" in common, the details of such travel are by no means "mere" details-- on the contrary, they become very significant and speak directly to the nature of the journey.

While I appreciate Heim's important contribution to the overall discussion of pluralism and his very clear (if overly punishing) critiques of Hick, I finished the book with a sense that Heim, an evangelical Protestant, arrived at his pluralistic proposal merely as a way to protect his evangelicalism, to which he still stubbornly cleaves (Heim's successive books seem to bear this out).

This childish attachment to old belief is precisely what Hick has been fighting against. Hick's proposal-- indeed, all pluralistic proposals-- demand something of their listeners: that they change. Hick wants us to work at our spirituality. By contrast, Heim is proposing a "live and let live" paradigm, which sounds nice at first blush, but once you realize he's using it to justify his own evangelicalism (which isn't a "live and let live" form of Christianity-- it's an aggressively missionizing form!), you may see Heim as more than a little duplicitous.

Hick's model does have problems; various critics have beaten his "pluralistic hypothesis" to death, and Heim's 1995 Salvations arrived on the scene in time to provide a nice wrap-up and coup de grâce. Heim's book is valuable on this score; his "orientational pluralistic" proposal is also worth study, but I recommend reading Heim cautiously, on several levels.

A couple concluding remarks: First, philosophical models of religious pluralism all inevitably fail because they contain some sort of unitive element that makes them unacceptable. Heim's model is no exception: in the travel analogy, all travel occurs on the surface of a single earth. Heim's model therefore allows for multiple salvations, but still posits a numerically singular reality-- which is something he accuses Hick of when dealing with Hick's "Real." Hick, however, has been at pains to explain that his notion of the Real is not necessarily numerically singular (cf. Hick 1995)-- a crucial nondualistic point often missed in the ongoing debates over Hick.

Second: Hick, Heim, Stephen Kaplan, and others with philosophical models of pluralism all seem to assume that religion has a soteriological dimension. I don't agree with this assumption: philosophical Taoism has no soteriology (swim with or against the Tao; it's all Tao), and so-called "primitive" religions were more about world-maintenance than personal or corporate salvation.

Anyway, I ended up writing tons of notes in the margins of Heim's book. Whether you agree or disagree with Heim, you'll find him thought-provoking and stimulating.

Ryan has written an excellent reply to my previous post about interreligious dialogue and pluralism. A snippet:

...pluralism has always puzzled me. From my very unsophisticated understanding of it, there are two kinds. A weak pluralism doesn't deny normative differences- it just asks everyone to do everyone else the favor of not slaughtering their fellow men over religious differences. This seems perfectly acceptable to me- as long as we keep in mind that it requires us to all adhere to a host of normative claims. It gets very sticky when you start to establish a pluralist community- would you allow missionaries into your ideal pluralist world? Female genital mutilation? How about sex with small children? Multiple wives? From this vantage point, it looks like building a pluralist society becomes little different from building a Unitarian society. And everyone knows the old joke: "What do you get when you mix a Unitarian and a Jehovah's Witness? Someone who knocks on doors every Saturday for no particular reason."

Then there's strong pluralism, which as far as I can discern comes closer to what Nate wrote. This is the "Whether you know it or not, you're all doing the same thing" sort of pluralism. This is the kind of pluralism that uses the word "God" when discussing religions which have no discernible connection with any such concept. There are some types of Buddhists whose views are so incompatible I just couldn't imagine them joining an interfaith discussion table where the common underlying link is assumed to be God.


So I'm still uncertain of how pluralism works, or what the point of it is. I need to do more reading on it- considering it's a very hot concept right now, and theological circles tend to get very giddy at the prospect of interfaith dialogue and whatnot. I guess I'm just partial to studying strong religions- religions that demand obedience from their followers and accept no compromises. When I hear the word "pluralism", I immediately think of light beer, skim milk, or fat-free potato chips. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

There is a pluralism of religious pluralisms, and a pluralism of typologies of religious pluralism. The one I find most useful comes from Kate McCarthy's excellent chapter, "Reckoning with Religious Difference," in Explorations in Global Ethics. McCarthy divides the pluralisms into "convergent" and "nonconvergent" strains.

"Convergent" pluralisms are ones that make use of common-essence terminology, or analogies like "many paths to the same summit." The stress is on commonalities; the goal is important, and the means of achieving the goal are assumed to be secondary at best. While many post-Hick thinkers critique this form of pluralism as "pluralism in name only," McCarthy's label, "convergent," is less critical: the pluralism might or might not reside in ultimate reality, but it's empirically evident in the various approaches/responses to that reality. There's no hypocrisy or self-contradiction in referring to a multiplicity of paths as a form of pluralism.

"Nonconvergent" pluralisms are those that argue for multiple soteriologies (Heim) and/or multiple ontologies/ultimate realities (Kaplan).

As you can see, most pluralistic models (inadvertently?) take soteriology as their point of departure, not the question of ultimate reality. As I suggested in the above book review, I think this is a mistake.

My own feeling, after being exposed to several philosophical models of religious pluralism, is that, in the end, a philosophical approach to a religious question isn't going to be all that constructive. Hick refers to his own pluralistic hypothesis as "a religious view of religion," but this isn't immediately apparent because his hypothesis, which relies so heavily on Kant and advaitic Hinduism, is more of a philosophical view of religion. This makes his proposal both less compelling and less available to the masses; its appeal is largely to academics (or the academically minded) who are, I think, already predisposed to such thinking.

Hick's impulse in creating the hypothesis, however, is indisputably religious, and this is where I'd address Ryan's feeling that pluralism is a kind of thought-Olestra leading to the cosmic anal leakage of religious muddling and mediocrity.

The great gift of pluralism (to the extent we can speak of pluralism as one "-ism") is that it provides a perspective that wasn't as readily available in the old days. Global interconnection through scarily good communications and travel technology has made pluralism not only possible but plausible as a mode of (religious, etc.) thinking in the modern world. Yes, it's primarily the product of Western religious (Christian, liberal, blah, blah) academe, but such thinking had to begin somewhere-- and it's based on a grass-roots intuition held by many. One form of it is: "As a Christian, I just can't believe that a truly loving God would condemn perfectly decent non-Christians to hell." It's an intuition rooted in love-- a love not possible when you've been trained to have a bunker mentality, the stark dualism of Us vs. Them, Sheep vs. Goats, children of Light vs. forces of darkness, enlightened vs. unenlightened, House of Islam vs. House of War.

Religious pluralistic thinking isn't about the formation of monoculture, the melding of all religions into one sopping, near-homogeneous mass. I agree with one of my former profs that monoculture (something the postmodernists claim to fear) simply can't happen: the human impulse to diversity and difference is just too strong. As much as I bash a conformist society like South Korea, I have to admit that SK's people are as varied and unique as any other people, when you take the time to stand back and let the differences become visible. So let's toss out monoculture as the purely imaginary bugbear it is.

But like it or not, initial critiques of Hick were along these lines. Monoculture worries people. The feeling in many quarters was (and largely still is) that Hick's pluralistic hypothesis is some insidious form of crypto-inclusivism. To these people, Hick's hypothesis sounds a lot like he's making some kind of meta-religion, a religion of the Real, a superparadigm into which all other religious paradigms can be fitted and funneled. Salvation, vaguely defined by Hick as "reorientation from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness," offering a "limitlessly better possibility," is the funnel for Christian heaven, Buddhist nirvana, Hindu moksa, etc. This is, after all, how an inclusivistic paradigm works: all other religions are merely inferior versions of my religion, whose underlying principle is working in and through those other religions. The official Catholic stance, post Vatican 2, is inclusivistic: other great traditions can be viewed as ways of salvation to the extent that their tenets reflect Christic reality, which works in and through these traditions. Hick seems to be saying something similar, but on a meta-level: all religions are culturally mediated responses to the Real (his catch-all term for ultimate reality), which some cultures view in terms of personae (e.g. the God of the Abrahamic monotheisms) or impersonae (e.g. ultimate reality in nontheistic Hindu and Buddhist thought, say, nirguna brahman and emptiness).

But other critics saw Hick's hypothesis as crypto-exclusivism. To these critics, Hick's hypothesis ends up being little more than one religious view among many. It does, in fact, exclude people: traditional exclusivists and inclusivists, both of whom Hick sees, unequivocally, as dead wrong in their convictions. And it's true that many pluralists interested in "dialogue" have a tendency to want to exclude hardcore fundamentalists from interreligious discussions, largely because they assume, from the outset, that they know what the fundies will say.

The problem, then, is a fundamentalism in reverse. This discussion is well-known in American political circles, because we're talking about the conservative critique of liberal paternalism, arrogance, and oppressiveness (actually, these nasty traits aren't the unique province of liberals; conservatives and moderates and other folks are all potential assholes in this regard).

While this critique holds water, it means little if we avoid talking about the problems that pluralistic thinking is trying to address. What are some of the fruits of religious exclusivism, especially in its fundamentalist form? Well, fundamentalism is deadly, and we have abortion clinic bombings, Muslim-Christian violence in Nigeria, Buddhist/Hindu/Christian violence in Sri Lanka, and 9/11 as ample proof of this. Even in its nonviolent forms, the fundamentalist meme breeds unhealthy behaviors in its carriers: religious intolerance, racism, homophobia, self-righteousness-- and perhaps most poisonous from the perspective of a largely pluralist, secularized America, a blinkered, inbred worldview, which Koreans derisively refer to as "the frog in the well." Open-mindedness, the unblinkered perspective, is problematic when one becomes tolerant of everything or incapable of making important decisions. But absolute tolerance and fuzzy relativism aren't, to my mind, what religious pluralists such as Hick are advocating. Even tolerant Christian pluralists are likely to freak when daughter Janie introduces her boyfriend with, "Mom, this is Bill, and he's a Satanist." Hick is taking a stance that includes definite notions about what's right and what's wrong.

Religious pluralism isn't working toward the deconstruction of all religions. It's not working toward monoculture or some sort of religious Pangaea. It's not about relativism, though it is about removing the hegemonic arrogance that's the unfortunate (but not inevitable) consequence of the conviction of one's own uniqueness. Pluralism is a direct response to the poison that results from overly black-and-white, dualistic thinking.

As pluralistic rhetoric expands into less-academic circles, I think the tenor of the discussion will become less philosophical (in fact, most interreligious encounter is already on this practical, informal level). People may come to agree that it's not necessary for pluralism to be an "-ism" in a formalized, philosophical sense: pluralism need not be based on philosophical or religious models (though I don't think we should stop exploring models, because you never know what the incidental benefits will be). Personally, I am more and more partial to a "groundless pluralism" that starts from religious practice and expresses itself as a kind of mutual inclusivism, a reciprocal and paradoxical hegemony of truth claims. Of course, without firm foundational principles, there's little on which to base meaningful praxis, but so what? Better the Living Word, the squirming Dharma, than the dead letter, the dry logos.

I think the subtext of John Hick's approach (and Hick's thinking has affected me the most, of all the pluralists I've read) is that a major conversion is necessary, from the tendency to extremism to the tendency to moderation. Such conversions are woefully rare; most extremists convert from one extreme faith to another, never once considering what it might be like to try the moderate approach, the middle way. St. Paul is singularly unimpressive to me because he's a prime example of someone who went from antipode to antipode. When people critique Hick because they think he's formed a meta-religion, they miss the obvious fact that he's a Christian who hasn't tried to establish a splinter Church of Pluralism. That, in a nutshell, is the essential bullshit of the primary critique against Hick. He's not going to extremes; if you read between the lines, he's preaching a middle way, and doing so from an unabashedly specific perspective.

The risk in the pluralistic approach is the risk inherent in all approaches, though: it, too, can become calcified; the mythos of pluralism can crystallize into the stiff and unyielding logos of pluralistic doctrine, dogma, and rhetoric, and at that point pluralism truly does become only one perspective among many-- another example of liberal arrogance, paternalism, and all the rest. This is why, for pluralism to remain viable, it has to remain both plural and dialogical.

Another argument for pluralism, again a result of modern humanity's high level of interconnection, is the realization (perhaps best voiced by Raimundo Panikkar in his The Intrareligious Dialogue) that no religion can any longer afford to view itself as self-complete. This is, to my mind, a valuable Buddhist insight (Panikkar's a Catholic priest with deep background in Hinduism and Buddhism), but the theme of interdependence is by no means unique to Buddhism: the ethics of interdependence are known in all the major traditions.

Where exclusivists fail is in their arrogant belief in their own tradition's self-completeness. Let's be clear: this isn't an academic observation; it's my own personal religious evaluation. Two of the biggest motivations behind interreligious dialogue are curiosity and compassion. These are attitudes bespeaking openness-- something else that's missing from the exclusivistic viewpoint. To be sure, pluralism contains its own exclusivism, but note the nature of its exclusivism, what it's excluding. I'm no utopianist, so I don't believe my own advocacy of religious pluralism is part of a larger struggle that will result in a stable, eternal, happy-happy pluralistic eschaton. Like Panikkar, I believe this is about "dialogical dialogue," a moving process, not a fixed product. Emptiness expresses itself as form; mythos and logos are inextricably connected, not-two. Pluralism has to take a form, but it also has to move, to live. And since we're not talking about relativism, I'll state for the record that I think fundamentalism, while it may have its place in the greater Mystery, is the wrong way to go, and history has given us ample evidence this is so. The move from an extreme position to one of moderation is the hardest move to make, and that's what I think pluralism, at its best, is all about.


Return of Return of the King

Saw this a second time with a friend I'll call M and with BH. The second time I felt it was much better, and actually quicker. Some random disjointed thoughts, and a more substantive, and final, post hopefully comming in the next few days.

BH and I got into a nice discussion in the car on the way back from the film comparing Thomas Covenant to Middle Earth. While I think there's no comparison, many friends are big Covenant fans, and it's a worthwhile comparison. Donaldson does himself a disservice by using many derivative trappings of Tolkien, in particular, the ring. BH pointed out yet another element that Donaldson borrows from Tolkien... revelstone is a pseudo Minas Tirith. Philosophically, Donaldson and Tolkien are not on miles apart, but comming at storytelling with radically differing agendas, and I'm not going into that, though I would suggest that BH might take it up.

But one of the things that distinguishes Tolkien from other Fantasy writers is the completeness of his world. The wonderfully detailed history of his world. Prior to reading LOTR, I remember as a kid looking at the fold out maps in the back of my parents copy and fixating on "here of old was the Witch Kingdom of Angmar" and thinking that was so freaking cool. In the back of my mind, I wondered about that kingdom, it's history etc. Sure enough, there between the lines of the text, and in the appendices, it lies. The Witch King is none other than our dear friend, King of the Nazgul, and Angmar has a very relevant history that ties in not only to Aragorn's ancestry, but also the Barrow Wights from FOTR, unfortunately (but I'd agree necessarily) deleted from the film. And there are dozens of examples throughout Tolkien's world. Jackson has wonderfully preserved this feeling IMHO.

And as for the multiple codas, I think Jackson did his film a disservice. The audience in both viewings seemed to think the movie had ended several times, and perhaps through quicker cuts rather than fading out, waiting several seconds, and fading back in, Jackson could have not jerked the audience around so much.

All in all, anything that can make "The Ten Commandments" look like a nice little flick has accomplished something. And I don't think that anything ever put on film comes even close to ROTK in terms of scale. Another visual example of that struck home this time... the great battering ram, Grond, manned by the forces of Mordor. Wow, that looked amazing. when the flaming head of the battering ram smashes through the gates of Minas Tirith, it's one of those moments that's just visual poetry.

- I'll agree with my friend M that Frodo shouldn't have been smiling when he gets on the ship at the end.

- The orc I'll call "Tumor-head"... if you've seen the movie you'll know what I'm talking about... yuck. Nice touch.

- I'm not satisfied with Jackson's take on Denethor, though I'll reserve judgement until I see the extended version.

- I would have liked to have seen Saruman on screen... in retrospect, I think Jackson should have resolved Saruman at the end of Two Towers.

- Billy Boyd... Pippin... really stood out in my mind. Wonderful performance.

- I was grateful to see that Jackson included the ring on Gandalf's finger at the end of the film.

- Sam should have been in Bag End in the final scene. Oh well.

- Rosie is hot. I'll have to look her up on IMDB and see what else she's been in.

- Although I'd agree that Jackson gets swept up in the glee of battle to the point where BH mentioned he felt the urge to pick up a sword and decapitate something, I think the movie is still eloquently anti-war at points... but anti war from a "sometimes you just gotta do it" vantage point.

- The death of the Witch King of Angmar rocks.

As BH says, all minor quibbles. Amazing film. I think time will judge his LOTR as one unparalleled work, and view the longer DVD editions as THE definitive Jackson take on Middle Earth.

attacking the clones

South Korea is going to ban human cloning (link via Drudge).

South Korea announced Tuesday it would move to ban the cloning of human cells except for infertility treatment, the Korea Times reported.

The bill from the Ministry of Health and Welfare passed the National Assembly Monday and does have some exceptions.

According to the bill, people who perform human cloning, or create embryos for purposes other than infertility treatments, will face up to 10 years in prison.

The selling of sperm and egg cells will be prohibited, while producing human embryos from the deceased will also be banned.

Ah, yes. The thought of some mad Korean scientist making millions of like-thinking, like-acting, like-dressing clones must be abhorrent to the individualistic South Korean mind.


Tuesday, December 30, 2003

"Return of the King"-- movie, not Elvis

I'll try to keep this (relatively) brief, since the Air Marshal can provide much more substantive commentary on this remarkable movie than I can. Some fragmentary impressions of the last chapter of Peter Jackson's magnum opus:

My ass hurt through the final 90 minutes, but the flick was compelling.

The story contains lots of falling humans and orcs, many of whom are deliberately dropped from heights by flying beasts of ill will. This rates a "cool" in my book.

FUCK YOU! REAL MEN DO CRY! Look on the screen and there's proof... every other freakin' scene.

Orc battle cry: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but humongous, catapulted chunks of Minas Tirith erase me!"

Andy Serkis better win SOMEthing, goddammit. Gollum is riveting. Hell, award the team that CGI'ed Serkis as well; they should all win together.

Whoever joked that Sauron's Eye looks like a flaming vagina... was on to something. If a vagina ever became spontaneously self-aware, that's what it would look like.

Coolest scene for my money [NB: I didn't pay for my own ticket; the Air Marshal footed the bill]: Legolas leaping onto an oliphaunt and wreaking havoc.

When Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, God distracted him with a ram. When Denethor tried to immolate himself and his boy Faramir, he got his ass kicked by an angry wizard in a decidedly un-magical manner.

Sweeping battle scenes; very Kurosawa, but without the actual gore.

I was warned that this film had about five distinct endings. The warning was based in fact.

The army of the dead, while cool, just doesn't hold a candle to a Balrog.

I'm trying to imagine what the LOTR series would have looked like if Paul Verhoeven had been in charge instead of Peter Jackson. Given Verhoeven's gore-encrusted reputation as the Brian DePalma of science fiction, I suspect we'd've seen way more exposed and mangled brain matter, blood-squirting amputations, and Liv Tyler's breasts.

There isn't a single scene in which someone takes a dump, despite several scenes involving eating.

When Frodo gets turned into hobbit dim sum by Shelob, and then Sam comes along and removes the webbing that covers Frodo's face, I was reminded of that scene in "Conan the Barbarian" where the wizard (played by Mako) has wrapped Arnold up like a mummy, leaving his face exposed.

During viewing, the Air Marshal noted that the thump-thumping arrival of the oliphaunts (a.k.a. Mumakils) is reminiscent of the arrival of the Imperial walkers in "The Empire Strikes Back."

I'm not usually into blondes, but fair-haired Eowyn of the golden tresses got my penis-vote when she stabbed the Witch King through the face and made him deflate. Poor Eowyn didn't haven't a tenth the ass-kicking opportunities that Trinity did in the Matrix series, but skewing Tolkien's decidedly un-PC tale as a concession to modern sensibilities would have been detrimental to the story. Besides, with so many "fair men" (Frodo, Pippin, Legolas...) running around in this movie, I think there was enough on-screen estrogen to please the female viewership. I know why the caged bird bumps and grinds.

Gimli gets all the good laugh lines, as well he should. He's lucky to be a dwarf in Middle Earth: in the Maximum Leader's world, he'd be chained to a dank cave wall and thrashed by some dude wearing lipstick and a Madonna cone bra while Nine Inch Nails blared at 200 decibels.

The actor who played Denethor reminded me a little too strongly of a young(er) Vincent Price.

It was disappointing not to see Saruman AT ALL in this film.

I was hoping for a scarier Shelob, but Peter Jackson's rendition of her isn't bad. She's a meaner version of the Bugs from "Starship Troopers."

In all, "Return of the King" was le grand spectacle, truly amazing in its scale and adorned with some gorgeous visuals. If you try to compare it to its distant cousins in sci-fi, like the Matrix series and the Star Wars trilogies, LOTR comes out on top in terms of acting quality, and certainly the script's textual pedigree is unimpeachable-- this is Tolkien, for God's sakes.

The movie also had its share of aesthetic and dramatic problems, not least of which was the awkward (but perhaps unavoidable) structure of the multiple codas. As in the other films, the special effects weren't always consistent in quality, though I suspect that Jackson's team had more time to tweak ROTK before its release this year-- it's a smoother-looking film overall. Also, I didn't end up teary-eyed, though I heard plenty of sniffles in the dark from the hardcore Weep Brigade.

[NB: When Frodo threw his arms around Scarecrow and shouted, "I'll miss you most of all!", that's when I almost lost it. But otherwise, I wasn't engaged deeply enough to cry a river. Very few movies or plays produce that reaction in me. "Joy Luck Club" is one such flick (for obvious ethnic reasons: my parents and I have lived some of those stories), and Margaret Edson's incredible play "W;t" is another.]

The above are minor quibbles, of course. In all, I felt that time passed quickly: there wasn't a single boring moment, and ROTK takes its place as a fitting capstone to Jackson's magnum opus. If you haven't seen it yet, I recommend that you do.


sacred anus

Visit Bird Dog at Tacitus for your "HOLY SHIT" moment. This is dark and disturbing. And there's a South Korea connection.


Mahayana follies and interreligious dialgue

Ryan of Ryan's Lair pokes fun at the Mahayana method of "argument." To wit:

1. Make a really dumb assertion. For example, everything is Empty, or the universe is only Mind.

2. Prove your assertion by resorting to a dumb analogy. Suppose I say everything is Mind, and my opponent says "Well, why do I perceive different things if everything is only Mind?" I respond with an analogy: Mind is like the ocean, see. When the wind (objects) blows across it, it creates waves (sense-perceptions) in the ocean. But those sense perceptions are neither different nor not different than the ocean. So you can perceive things as different, but really it's all just Mind. Q.E.D.

3. When your opponent then rips your dumb analogy to shreds, congratulate them for attaining a deeper understanding of Buddhism. In the Lankavatara, the interlocutor challenges the ocean-waves analogy by saying, "Hey, we can all see the ocean, but we can't see this ubiquitous Mind in the same sense." To which the Buddha responds, "I just used that analogy to help stupid people along the path." Implication: Congratulations, you've progressed farther than the stupid people. Now shut up and believe my initial assertion regardless of my inability to prove it.

Two ways that Buddhist philosophy will benefit from its interaction with the West are

(1) a quick-and-dirty introduction to the harsh (but in my opinion necessary) realities of Western skepticism. For a wimpier, populist version of this type of encounter (wimpier in that the skeptical interlocutor doesn't trash Buddhist philosophy quite as thoroughly as Ryan's doing to the Lankavatara Sutra), read The Monk and the Philosopher (Le moine et le philosophe) by Jean-François Revel and Mathieu Ricard.

(2) a better understanding of how rigorous logic actually works. Let's face it: ancient scriptures in most cultures aren't exactly repositories of pure logic. This isn't post-Surak Vulcan we're talking about.

It should be noted that my points (1) and (2) hint at the complexity of so-called interreligious dialogue: to speak of a religious tradition is to speak of more than mere scripture and doctrine; there are philosophical and legal dimensions involved in these encounters. Ryan's sutra-thrash is part of a larger cultural cross-pollination that will produce beneficial results.

A lot of cross-pollination has already occurred. The Kyoto School of Zen derives much of itself from Western philosophy. Zennist Abe Masao (pronounce it "AH-bay") had a famous dialogue with process theologian John Cobb. Zoom backward in time, and you'll discover that Buddhism's entrance into China around the time of Christ (some say about 60 CE) led to an immediate interaction with native Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk belief. Before Buddhism left India, much Mahayana philosophy had already formed through intense dialogue with (or perhaps more accurately, polemic against) preexistent strains of Hindu thought-- not to mention competing schools of Buddhist thought. Modern Buddhist-Christian dialogue, while perhaps not nearly as exciting or dangerous as, say, Jewish-Muslim or Christian-Muslim dialogue, has yielded some amazing new insights and perceptions on the ethical and metaphysical level, primarily as Christians are affected by what they learn. Jewish-Buddhist dialogue is also productive-- cf. R. Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus as a populist example of this.

Some people are of the conviction that dialogue should be about happy blokes sitting around the table and agreeing with each other. I personally think that, if dialogue is motivated by an ethical impulse, a will to peace, then of course it's important to find and/or build bridges between traditions, cultures, worldviews. This is why I consider myself a religious pluralist-- a position arrived at through external and internal dialogue. But at the same time, dialogue can't merely be this rootless, fuzzy, New Age-y attempt at papering over differences, sacrificing what makes traditions unique because we've declared, by professorial fiat, that only the Grand Themes matter, and all else is mere detail. "Seek simplicity, then mistrust it."

S. Mark Heim, who wrote the very provocative Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion, bases his pluralistic hypothesis on Nicholas Rescher's notion of "orientational pluralism." While I disagree with most of Salvations, I like the "travel analogy" he offers as a way of explaining why it's important not to chuck out "mere details." You never know when these details might prove to be constitutive, and therefore crucial for understanding a given tradition (phenomenon, etc.).

I don't have the book in front of me, so let me give you my own awkward version of the travel analogy. Heim is basically presenting a model that allows people of any tradition to make their truth claims (up to and including the exclusivistic claims of religious fundamentalists).

In the travel analogy, "salvation" is represented as a travel destination-- say, Paris or Toronto. Many destinations are possible; it's not as though everyone in the real world is being funneled to Paris. But how we reach a destination is also crucial. If I live in Nebraska and decide to go to Toronto, I can drive if I want. The driving option isn't open to me, however, if I'm in Nebraska and heading for Paris-- I have no choice but to fly.

This makes clear that there's an intimate link between vehicle and destination. Not all methods conduce to all ends. If we think in terms of "better" and "worse," some methods are objectively better for achieving certain ends.

I think there are major metaphysical problems with orientational pluralism and Heim's application of it, not least of which is the neat avoidance of the issue of hegemony-- religious truth claims have, throughout history, tended to be normative: when I make a religious claim, I generally mean for it to apply to you as much as to me: "Christ died for YOUR sins," you see. But to the extent that Heim is pointing out why we can't shove the specifics of religious traditions aside, I think his analogy, and his larger argument, deserve attention. It's far too simplistic to argue "we all believe in the same God" and leave it at that. Pluralists have to be cautious, and while plenty of religious thinkers do indeed make such bumper-sticker statements, there's a lot of history and philosophy that needs to be unpacked before we can really appreciate what the statement is actually saying. In such cases, it's wise to study the person who made the statement, and the circumstances leading up to the statement.

For the curious: if you look up Heim's book on, you'll see I've written a review of it. There are also some links on my sidebar devoted to issues in religious pluralism (cf. some of my essays in the "Sacred and Profane" section). Meanwhile, let me say I can only envy Ryan's ability to comment this incisively on the sutras; my own sutra knowledge is piss-poor. This will change in 2004. Promise.


Monday, December 29, 2003


Is Annika right to worry? Tacitus seems to think so.


weird proto-consilience

In a strange convergence, both Steven Den Beste and Anticipatory Retaliation write profound posts that cover, in some measure, self-organizing systems. Both are worth a read. Check out BravoRomeoDelta's "Mate, Spawn, and Die" post here, and Den Beste's post on intelligence here.

The Maximum Leader, himself a Hobbesian, will be happy to read BRD's concluding paragraph:

It has been roughly 3 billion years or so since living creatures appeared in these precincts. 3 billion years is an awfully long time -- almost too large to contemplate. It is a number of years just about equivalent to the number of seconds in a century. And for every day that critters have been populating this globe, they have been engaged in a literally life-or-death Hobbsean struggle, searching for some minor edge or bit of leverage that would simply allow an instruction set to stay in the game for another round. Anything that has evolved from this long, difficult, and quite often violent process, is a stupendous badass, indeed.

Earlier on in this, the second chapter of the Mother of All Screeds, the Missile Man writes something I find fascinating-- a clever way to distinguish living systems from other systems:

The specific sense in which I'm interested in evolution deals with the notion that a defining characteristic of a living creature is that it is a spontaneously and continuously self-ordering system. Rather than simply breaking down and decaying in the traditional matter of all material things, or even ticking along as a complex, chaotic system, living creatures are, for at least a while, both self-healing and self-sustaining, and try to the best of their limited abilities to fend off the inexorable onslaught of entropy. To be absolutely fair, there are some sorts of non-living systems which are, in a limited sense, locally self-ordering, such as crystal growth. However, such systems do not heal, and as such are not continuously self-ordering and just plain don't make for good discussion in talks about breaking things and killing stuff.

Switch over to Den Beste, and you'll find this:

No one has any idea how neurons determine which inputs are important and which are not, and in turn which important inputs are very important and which are only somewhat important. But though we don't have any idea how they do it, we know that neurons do it. And it's a good thing, too, because intelligence would be impossible without it. The study of self-organizing systems is only beginning, but it will yield very exciting results when the time comes.

It turns out that a lot of kinds of systems are self-organizing. To some extent, markets are self-organizing, for instance. And self-organizing systems quite often have emergent properties, such as Adam Smith's "invisible hand".

And the Hominid once again benefits from his evening tour of the blogosphere.


something you don't see every day

Satan's Anus gets its, uh, anus thoroughly kicked by Dan Darling on the matter of religion-- specifically, Reynolds's characterization of the Church's "position" vis-à-vis Palestine.

Darling's last paragraph says this:

One caveat, however: I want to stress that I don't have anything against Reynolds (or Sullivan, for that matter) on this one. They're both good bloggers and I read them on a semi-regular basis. Unfortunately, in large part because of their backgrounds and worldviews, they tend to get more than a little off-base when it comes to the topic of religion (this is an unfortunate drawback that a number of secular bloggers tend to have, in my opinion, they aren't religious themselves and don't generally know people who are, so they don't understand how religious people think and in many cases what they actually believe) whether it be Christianity or Islam. So if my words seem a little bit harsh here, I just want to stress that I'm attacking the position, not the person.


Return of the King

I am not an Elvis fan. Never really have been. It's not that I don't like Elvis's voice or his music, nor that I disagree with the clever Elvisology articulated by the astute hagiographer Mojo Nixon (y compris his assessment of who the anti-Elvis is); it's more that I can't get past how the King entered parinirvana-- walruslike in his obesity, seated on his porcelain throne, gasping out his last with several pounds of a "claylike substance" impacting his colon-- very likely the strained fatty remains of his beloved cheeseburgers. If only someone from "Fight Club" could have dug in there and extracted the claylike substance, simultaneously saving Elvis's life and obtaining superlative raw material for soapmaking. But a Brad Pitt finger-enema wasn't available that fateful day, and poor Elvis shat himself to death as a result.

People won't let Elvis rot in peace. As I've mused before, this is very likely how Christian resurrection mythology got its start: folks didn't want to let Jesus (the other King) go. As a result, to this day, Jesus and Elvis sightings abound. Catholics take the Jesus thing a step further than the rest of us, and have made transsubstantiation part of their theology so that every mass includes a cannibalistic liturgical moment: eat the body, drink the blood. Yum, yum, spiritual yumminess.

But I digress. Elvis-- the point is Elvis, and that people won't let the rockin' pachyderm go.

While strolling through Old Town Alexandria yesterday with Dr. doCarmo, I heard the most amazing thing: Elvis singing a Nirvana song, "Come As You Are." This was in a used CD and record store; the store owner was raving that Elvis had last been sighted in the Pacific Northwest, jamming with Kurt Cobain (also not dead, in case you were wondering). I lumbered up to the owner and asked him what CD this was, and he showed me the case:

The King

The singer is an Elvis impersonator from Belfast, Ireland named-- wait for it-- James Brown. The guy's doing a series of CDs with the "dead" theme; he's imitating dead singers, but making them sing more recent songs. This particular Gravelands CD cover for "The King" asks:

What would Elvis be singing if he were alive today?

Personally, I think Elvis would still be trying to shit out the claylike substance, forming some impressive hemorrhoids in the process, but James Brown thinks otherwise. His Elvis sings "Come As You Are," but also songs like "Sweet Home Alabama," "Voodoo Child," "Dock of the Bay," and, uh, "New York, New York," which seems to stretch the bounds of plausibility but is consistent with the King's often-baroque proclivities.

James Brown does a mean Elvis impersonation, and when Elvis opened with that Nirvana song, I was rolling. So the Maximum Leader, who's a huge Elvis fan, is getting a copy of this CD as a belated Christmas gift. It's en route as you read this.

The King returns! ALL BOW DOWN!


Sunday, December 28, 2003

death all over the place

Iraqi rebels kill at least thirteen and wound hundreds.

We've got mudslides in California, which seem to have claimed at least seven lives.

The earthquake death toll estimate in the unfortunately-named Iranian city of Bam has risen in 48 hours from an already-staggering 5,000 to a crushing 20,000 to a completely numbing 40,000.

Let's put this in perspective. I went to a suburban high school that had, in 1987, about 1,700 students. There are 23 high schools in my home county (Fairfax County), and they're all fairly comparable in size. Imagine every single student erased. That'd be about 40,000 people.

What makes this so nightmarish is that this is the opposite of the downturn that casualty estimates took in the 9/11 disaster. Estimates began with exaggerated speculation-- remember hearing that the terrorists might have killed well over 10,000 people? In the end, that number was reduced by more than half. My point isn't that 3-4,000 deaths are somehow "less tragic" than a speculative 10,000 deaths; rather, it's that we can expect our citizens and authorities to work in concert, face a grim task, and not give in to initial hysteria. The numbers came down as we got a clearer picture of the situation.

In Iran, it appears to be the opposite: the more we learn, the more grim the situation appears. I hope the estimates there also take a downturn. I remember a quake in Turkey that claimed 15,000 lives, and one in Kobe, Japan that killed around 5,000. These are staggering figures.

Terra firma, forsooth.

Good Christ, an avalanche in Utah.

Death is part of life, but that's little comfort when it visits us as tragedy-- sudden, unexpected. Life is fragile and impermanent; it's important, therefore, to treasure every moment. Not a profound sentiment, I realize, but one that sticks with you over the years because you know it's as simple and obvious as breathing.

GIBBERING THANATOS UPDATE: The mad cow's purchase has been traced to Canada. Will American beef remain banned? Will people cynically assume we're merely trying to pin blame on other countries? The BBC says, "Hold on a minute!" and warns the US not to be too hasty in tracing the thrashing bovine to Canada.


Saturday, December 27, 2003

and the BAD news is...

It appears we have a "mad commenter" out there who's intent on posting large snatches of text from my blog into other people's comment sections (with thanks to C for the heads-up). The Marmot's already been hit with a ton of my junk; other Koreabloggers take note. I don't know if you can clean this up by shutting down comments for a while or banning my name (be careful: some posts show no name, so you might have to ban "blank" as well), but you may need to take steps to clean your comment threads out. I certainly don't go around posting my own blog into people's comments, and while I'm not exactly concerned about my "good name," seeing as I'm pretty low on the blogosphere food chain, I agree this is an annoyance for all who've been hit, and am sorry that it's MY material polluting your blogs.

I suspect this is the work of the intrepid "lux bearer," who loves the flame war and has decided to imitate Emeril and kick things up a notch. Maybe it's not lux, but no one else has appeared quite as sexually frustrated.

Good luck with cleanup, ladies and gents.


Friday, December 26, 2003

and the good news is...

I'm very likely to be sending my Mac to Korea. My brother got me an upgrade from the dinosaur OS 8.6 to the newest OSX, version 10.3. Unfortunately, it's going to mean performing some crucial updates, but that's par for the course. If I can get to Korea, secure a DSL hookup from my residence, and blog from home instead of coughing my life away in those smoky PC-bahng, that will be shweet.

Hope you've been enjoying your Christmas; we had a great one here. Even the cat was living large, dining on people-food.

Blogging will remain sporadic over the weekend, as you might imagine. Maybe I'll throw up a filthy poem or a nasty cartoon in the next few days, but I felt I had to write something a bit more serious for Christmas. I'm sure you understand.

Meanwhile, enjoy the Air Marshal's very insightful review of "Return of the King," posted below. I hope to see it soon myself.


Wednesday, December 24, 2003

LONG LOTR review

Oh, where to begin. Return of the King is an amazing spectacle, and in many ways, I think I really need repeated viewings to absorb all it has to offer. Sitting in the theater I did have a couple unsatisfied moments where I wonder why Peter Jackson did what he did, but overall I thought it was an amazing piece of work.

I really think that the LOTR films have to be evaluated as one work. In addition, I think when the dust settles, it will be the extended versions that should be considered the definitive Tolkien on film. With that in mind, a true review of Jackson's LOTR will have to wait until next fall when ROTK comes out in it's full version on DVD. In any event, I'm going to be inconsistent here and alternately talk about the three films, and ROTK simultaneously.

First of all, I feel that Jackson did an amazing job of remaining true to the spirit of the books. Sitting through Fellowship two years ago, I found myself annoyed at all the little changes, much like many Tolkien fans. But that quickly evaporated for me when I realized just how good that film was. In many ways, I feel that Jackson captured, as well as any filmmaker can, all of the thematic elements crucial to the story, and he did it brilliantly. For example, the colors of the film. The washed out and ethereal view of Elven realms like Rivendel and Lothlorien, capturing beautifully not only the differing nature of Elves and Men, but also giving a visual representation of two of the three Elven rings at work. The lush green look of the Shire, the grey stone look of Minas Tirith, the brown and wooden look of Rohan, and particularly Edoras. The angular stone look of Khazad-Dum/Moria. Brilliantly evoking visually what Tolkien did so well in prose.

Second is the issue of scale. The pure size of things in this film, impossible before modern computers FX, is stunning. Focusing on the third film, look at Minas Tirith, and the Battle of Pelenor Fields. The pure numbers of Orcs, or the sweeping panorama during the charge of the Rohirrim. Or even the Mumakil (giant Elephants) charging. Evoking a little bit of the Hoth Battle from "Empire Strikes Back", only bigger and better. Have to admit the first thing I thought of when Eowyn is galloping between the legs of the Mumakil was of Luke flying his speeder through a walker. Only it looked much better. Go figure, the FX are two generations removed. Even go back to the beginning of the first film, and this is obvious with the Battle of the Last Alliance that opens up the trilogy. The scope of that battle set the tone for the three films, and Jackson crescendos from there

But scale is more than just visual size. Scale for these films is in just about everything. From acting to dialog to plot to emotions. The whole thing is so "Over the top" to use a trite, but accurate phrase, that Jackson approaches the boundary between spectacle and camp. But I feel he never crosses it. Gollum's monologue/dialogue from Two Towers is an example of this. Both times I saw it in the theater, there was a smattering of giggling during this scene. It's just so uncomfortable to watch, but it should be so.

Scale is also about pacing. Jackson likes to build and build and build just to when there should be a climax, and then wait and build it some more. There's internal tension in Jackson's pacing. He's driving with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes so that the movie is both lurching forward and being held back. The end of Fellowship shows this perfectly. In the midst of the battle on Amon Hen, Boromir's death desolves into both a patient and urgent scene, as does Sams plunge into the river. Or in the prelude to the Battle of Pelenor Fields, where Pippin is singing for Denethor while Faramir leads a futile and absurd charge to slaughter. One of the most beautiful moments of film ever.

The films also are very strong in terms of characters. In this respect, I think the films take things in a different direction than Tolkien's writing, but it works. I'll use Aragorn as an example of this. In the book, Aragorn is almost a flat character. He's a mythological hero, with no abivalence towards his fate. He IS king, he realizes it, and he is at peace with his destiny. Witness his initial confrontation with Eomer in the pages of the Two Towers. He claims the title of Kind, and all are awed. Jackson has added a degree of self doubt to Aragorn's character, but it works on film.

Gimly, Legolas, Merry and Pippin all have their place, but they aren't central to the film. While not flat characters, they are definitely in the supporting role. Central to the entire story is the Sam/Frodo/Gollum interaction. Sam is the heart and soul of the story. Never doubting their mission, and though conflicted, always staying true. Frodo and Gollum are flip sides of the same coin. Gollum representing the absolutel corrupting power of the ring. Frodo showing how only his friends are keeping him from turning into Gollum.

And thank God that Jackson kept the phenomenal ending intact. Frodo ultimately fails, and Gollum has a role to play, all within the consistent framework of their characters. Briliant conception by Tolkien, and perfectly executed by Jackson.

Central to characters on film are the actors that portray them. In this, I think the films are good. Sean Astin is perfect as Sam. Viggo Mortensern has Aragorn down pat, although doesn't he look a little awkward while running? Or is that just me. The supporting roles are all well played. Sir Ian McKellan is wonderful as Gandalf.

aside: Max Leader and I saw Ian McKellan play Richard III on stage at the Kenedy Center about 10 years ago. Best live Shakespeare I've seen to date. Noone comes close. Best live performance I've seen to date as well.

Now, Elijah Wood? He's Ok. While not bad by a long shot, I don't think he quite hits a home run with Frodo. And it's unfortunately accentuated, because Sean Astin is right there with him nailing the character of Sam dead on. And then there's Gollum.

So much has been written about Gollum, that I'm not going into it. Suffice to say that it's an amazing performance captured on film. And if Andy Serkis doesn't get some sort of award for it, then it's just another example of how lame the Oscars are.

there has been a lot on line whining about how the films diverge from the book. I'm of two minds about this.

On one hand, film is a different medium than the written word, and Jackson has proven himself a master film maker. Ok, so he shifted the time scale of Fellowship to compact it, and make it less leasurely and more driven. It works. So he made little changes here and there... most of them work well. I would argue that most of his changes involve pacing and scale. Two examples: the elimination of the Saruman confrontation from the beginning of ROTK. It makes sense from the point of view of the pacing of the film. And not knowing it was supposed to be there, the film works fine. Secondly, the character of Faramir in TT deciding to take the ring to his father. He does come to his senses and do the right thing... the difference is that Jackson stretches out his temptation from a fleeting instant to bringing the hobbits to Osgiliath. Jackson doesn't alter substance, merely the mechanism of telling the story.

Now, on the other hand... from watching one of the documentaries on the Two Towers DVD, it becomes apparant that Tolkien broke all the ruled in telling his story, merely because he wasn't aware of the rules for writing a novel. Lots of stuff happens "off stage", there are long sections of exposition, and dialogue, you never see the bad guy, and on and on. But it all works. I would have liked to have seen Jackson have a little more faith in the story and not felt the need to make it more conventional. So the story breaks the rules a little bit. It works on the page, even though many publishers didn't think it would. Couldn't it work on film?

I chose to have faith that Peter Jackson did the right thing with this film, and his take on it. While I may have issue with specific details here and there, I really have no complaint about the overall quality of the films. Nothing short of phenomenal. Whats more, the shear scope of the story, and the visual scale of the film put it in a class all it's own. I think of the three films as three chapters of a larger work. It's very difficult to compare it to any other film. Keep in mind, we're talking about something that's three times as long as the LONG version of Lawrence of Arabia, and much BIGGER.

Ultimately, the question I have to ask myself is if anyone could have filmed a better version of Lord of the Rings. And the answer I keep comming to is No, it couldn't have been done any better.

a Christmas meditation

The exercise in Buddhist metaphysics is one I've performed with students ranging in age from high school to 90 years old. I say to the class, "OK, I'm standing at the white board with this marker. Help me draw a flower by calling out instructions." And so it begins. I usually hear commands like:

"Draw roots!"

"Draw a stem!"

"Draw thorns!"

"Draw petals!"

But I also hear things like:

"Draw dewdrops!"

"Don't forget the soil!"

"Draw rays of sunlight!"

"Draw rain!"

And so I step back after I get a few more comments like that, and ask the class what just happened. Usually, the response is expectant silence, but occasionally someone will say the obvious: "We drew a setting."

The flower makes no sense without its context. It has no meaning, as a flower, without relationality. No flower stands alone, floating in a priori space, pace Plato. As the Vietnamese Thien (Zen) monk Thich Nhat Hanh pointed out in his great little book Living Buddha, Living Christ, the flower is composed entirely of non-flower elements. To which I add: as we can see from the exercise, the flower implies the universe.

You can pick any phenomenon and achieve similar results. Start with a toy truck instead of a flower, if you want. You'll see that the truck, too, implies the universe. All phenomena do, and do so simultaneously. You begin to realize what it means to say that things are intimately interconnected.

It's Christmas. For most Christians, this means it's a time to be mindful about something new breaking into our lives, something with the potential to change us deeply, to make us aware of the profound ways in which we're interconnected. A lot of this gets lost in the shopping shuffle, of course, which is a close cousin to the irony of driving fast and pissed-off because it was a rough morning and now you're late for church.

It's Christmas. Silent night.

Buddhists aren't the only ones who appreciate silence-- I'd like to think that we Christians do, too, even if our faith is, on the whole, a noisier one. While Easter is often hailed as the culmination of the central Christian mystery, where Jesus is present to us in all his Christ-ness, Christmas is a finger to the lips, a call to quietude: we need to look and listen.


The world moves, and we don't see it. Change appears to us suddenly: "My, how you've grown!" But this astonishment is often a reflection of our own unmindfulness, our inability to be present, here and now, for every "here and now." For Buddhists, the deliberate exercise of meditation facilitates the cultivation of the fruits of silence because the body's movement is restricted. This restriction has the strange effect of being liberating: if it's done right, it truly does help to clear the mind.

And this liberation isn't foreign to Christians, especially at Christmas. We don't know when, exactly, Jesus was born; only two of the four gospels have birth narratives, and our folklore has done a good job of squashing the two narratives together in the Christmas pageant (in case you didn't know: the shepherds are from Luke; the wise men are from Matthew; it's Mark and John that have no birth narratives). But it's precisely because we don't know when Jesus was born that we should feel free to take Christmas as something that should be in our hearts not only on December 25th, but every day, every moment of our lives. Something new is always breaking in, and it's only when we're open that we can receive it in its fullness. We achieve this openness through the silence, the awareness, to which Christmas calls us.

This is the walk of joyful mindfulness. Christians might call it a journey of love. Open the eyes, the ears, the hands, the mouth, and the nose. Breathe the air, whether it's warm and polluted right now, or crisp and pure. Close your eyes and feast on the sounds around you, the smells. Tour your bedroom with eyes closed and get to know it in a new way. Hell, tour your Significant Other this way-- I doubt they'll mind.

You're alive. You feel. You breathe and think and laugh. But Christmas means you keep your smile and your silence. Take more time than usual to be attentive, mindful. And in taking the time to do these basic things, other things will naturally happen: the argument you thought you were going to have might not occur. The rush you were going to be in might be averted. The new year, which you thought would dawn so bleak, might prove itself instead to be a bright horizon, brimming with potential and hope.

Those of us lucky enough to celebrate Christmas where it's cold and wintry are blessed because nature herself aids us, like a teacher, in the exercise of mindfulness: the leaves have fallen; the snow covers everything; the world is quiet and still-- there's little to distract us. It's easier to focus. But those of us in warmer weather, those of us in noisier locales, can still take some time for the silence of Christmas. Listen to the beating of your own heart, feel the tide of your own breathing, taste the magnificence (or horror!) of something you just cooked. Experience life.

I'm not a believer in miracles-- I think they're distracting. So my message to you is this: the kingdom of God is found in the ordinary. The Absolute you seek "out there" is in fact found right here, right in front of your nose. It's found in the wisdom that "Allah is closer to you than your own neck vein," or "nirvana is samsara," or "ordinary mind is Tao," or "Zen is nothing special," or

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
(Lk 2:12, KJV)

There's good symbolic reason to portray Jesus' birth as such a humble thing: because it's in the meager, everyday, mundane reaches of reality that human experience primarily lies. A baby in rags, disgraced parents, a stable, a manger, a silent-- but still holy-- night. These are the places where Christ resides. Perfection is written in the imperfection of this strange, terrible, beautiful world. The Absolute is no different from the ordinary. The kingdom of God, which religious thinkers have long characterized as "here and not yet," lies within you, bursts from you, finds its voice through you and all of creation. Christmas preaches stillness, but only so we may better know the dance.

Look, but don't just look-- see. Listen, but also hear. Be silent, be mindful, but be filled with joy!

For when we do this, we all participate in the blooming of something new-- the radiant flowers in the garden of our heart.

Merry Christmas.


[NB: You'll have noticed that I tweaked the essay a wee bit since you last read it. I hope you don't mind. The "Merry Christmas" certainly hasn't changed! I felt there are some things I said awkwardly when I first wrote this piece, and a couple ideas that made sense when I considered them, but which didn't connect well when I expressed them. I hope to have cleaned this up a bit.]



The Marmot posts on a subject close to my heart.


Christmas wishes

In no particular order, here are some of my Christmas wishes:

1. "The Edge 2": Saddam, covered in hot deer blood, running naked and screaming through bear country in the summertime.

2. A two-headed presidential candidate. S/he would, at the very least, appear more honest: contradictory opinions would simply be attributed to the presence of two heads.

3. Bigger balls for South Korea.

4. Smaller balls for North Korea.

5. Smaller hair for both Kim Jong Il and Noh Mu Hyon.

6. A sudden spike in book orders through Only the Chewiest Tumors.

7. A UN with no China, North Korea, France, etc., etc. In short: a UN without members whose leaders run their own countries in ways counter to the UN's democratic principles.

8. A rediscovery of Republican fiscal conservatism.

9. A rediscovery of Democratic intolerance of cultural values that undermine those the Dems traditionally upheld.

10. A news flash stating that every jihadi on the planet has spontaneously exploded.

11. Catnip for the family cat.

12. A cure for obsessive tongue-flicking.


semen found on cookies; Santa blamed

The Maximum Leader reads the same guest blog on Cerebral Bypass and declares it (mostly) beneath his attention.

More LOTR "Return of the King" commentary: Cobb found some fault but enjoyed it overall; Dan Darling (who's a huge LOTR fan to begin with) doesn't care much for the political spin accompanying many people's appraisal of the films, but uses LOTR as a jumping-off point for a very good meditation on Tolkien, war, etc.

I'll probably see the movie this week.

America freaks out as a single cow is discovered to have Mad Cow Disease. Japan and Korea freak, too.

California farts and kills two people in my absence.

(Speaking of my absence, Williamsburg was nice: unseasonably warm, but a great day for strolling along Duke of Gloucester Street and learning how colonists used their rifles to greet each other at Christmastime.)

If you aren't FIRING SCROTON TORPEDOES, you obviously don't have any scrotons.

Meta-commentary on North Korea at Seeing Eye Blog.

Ryan the Buddhologist takes the postmodernist quiz and rates "Theory Slut."

Annika names me Huge Comment of the Week, which makes my nipple hairs wave about like a sea anemone's tentacles. And she's obviously bitten off at least one of Wesley Clark's balls. Clark appears to have been caught in mid-rimjob, slurping up that last clinging dingleberry from Europe's fetid, twitching ass crack. With one ball gone, and Annika poised to bite off the other, Clark better watch his step.

"Xmas" isn't as disrespectful as all that. Having gone to Catholic universites of one sort or another since age 18, I've been acutely aware of this but felt I should share. Anyone who's seen the XP (chi-rho), which always reminds me of the Rx "prescription" symbol, knows what I'm talking about.

From KBJ: more Nietzsche than you can shake your dick at! And in this post, KBJ argues for the consistency of Dubya's judgement.

Glenn has (temporarily???) changed the look of his blog, giving his blog's name a new, ironic, and heavily commentarial spin. In short, I was rolling. Glenn also weighs in on "Return of the King."

"Europe's Enron." Heh.

Andrew Sullivan drops his pants and squeezes out a lovely, steaming turd onto France.

A chunk from Den Beste on the implications of Saddam's capture:

Why did this happen? What was different? It isn't too difficult to figure it out.

What was different was that someone had finally gone beyond diplomacy and soft power and was poised to crush a dictator who had been doing the same kinds of things that Qaddafi had been doing. Qaddafi didn't want to be the next crushee.

It was not "We're all reasonable men here" diplomacy (a la Solana) which ultimately did it; it was a clear and naked threat. Qaddafi was afraid of American military power and afraid of President Bush's determination.

Why did he call the British, rather than the French or the Russians or the EU or the UN? That's another interesting piece to the puzzle. What has developed over the last couple years is that Blair and Bush are doing a superb good-cop/bad-cop act. Blair is the good cop, the "reasonable" one. Unlike Australian PM John Howard, Blair has leftist/internationalist credentials, and has positioned himself to be the only world leader with such credentials who has significant influence with Bush and who has some ability to restrain or deflect Bush. Bush is the bad cop, the cowboy, the moron, the devout Christian, the one with blood in his eye, who also happens to be commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world and appears very willing and perhaps even eager to use it against those he dislikes.

That characterization of Bush is facile and wrong, of course; but he has that reputation in many places and it has actually served us well. Those who oppose Bush keep underestimating him, for one thing. But it also makes Bush a nearly ideal "bad cop", a barely controlled danger who can only be restrained by the "good cop", Tony Blair, through persuasion.

In looking for international allies to try to restrain America and protect himself against invasion, Saddam bet the farm on the French, Germans and Russians and the UN. He bet on the idea that it was somehow possible to force America to act in certain ways against its will, that it was possible for diplomacy in the UN to block American military action. After Bush and Blair and Aznar publicly made their announcement last March that they had given up on the UN and would attack anyway, Saddam lost that bet. And his ignominious capture a week ago made clear just how poor of a bet it had really been, and just how badly he had lost.

Qaddafi didn't want to share that fate and certainly didn't intend to make the same mistake. So when he decided to look for a way to avoid it, he called London. And the unique diplomatic position of the British with respect to the US put British negotiators in an excellent position to wring major concessions out of him. The substance of this agreement is that Qaddafi has totally capitulated. The reason this is important is not merely that an agreement was reached, but that Qaddafi gave up so much in that agreement, because he really needed an agreement.

It appears that the French had told Saddam that they could prevent the US from attacking even if Bush wanted to launch an attack. Because of that, Saddam thought he did not need to give much away.

The British position with Qaddafi, on the other hand, was that they had considerable influence with Washington but no veto over American actions. If you Libyans give us a deal with thus-and-so concessions, we think we can sell it to Bush and we promise to try really hard. We want to work with you here and to help you on this. But if you don't offer us enough there won't be anything we can do to keep the Americans from coming to visit you with extreme prejudice, like they just visited your buddy Saddam.

The paradoxical result is that it was precisely the fact that the British claimed less ability to influence Washington than the French had which made it possible for the British to convince Libya to give far more up. Not for we Brits, you do understand, old boy, but because we still have to sell this deal to that rough-riding cowboy over there who definitely has a list with your name on it.

Den Beste also joins Sullivan in treating France like a toilet.

The JoongAng Ilbo has an editorial titled "Seoul's Little America," dealing with questions surrounding the thorny issue of US troop relocation, and what this means for both property and staffers.

And that's it for the moment.


Tuesday, December 23, 2003


Yup, I'm a big Tolkien fan. Never really liked much other fantasy. Unlike BH, and Max Leader, I never really liked Covenant either. It all seemed too heavy handed and strained. I did like the Gap series, and I thnk that was much better than Covenant, but I'm digressing.

So far, I've loved Jackson's interpretation of LOTR. Haven't had a chance to see Return of the King yet, though, so I'll wait with a big post until then. Probably play hookey from work tomorrow to check it out.

I also have to say, that I think the extended versions available on DVD are closer to what I'd consider a definitive film version of the story. So I'd really have to wait until next fall to see the extended version of Return of the King to REALLY have my say.

But on the whole I think that Jackson nailed Fellowship dead on, but he slightly missed the mark with the Two Towers. I didn't like his take on the character or Faramir, though I understood why he did it. I also didn't like his take on the set up to Helms deep, though I won't go into it here. Visually, I don't think a better Middle Earth could ever be represented on film.

More to come.

Monday, December 22, 2003

nasssssty little hobbitses kicked us in the ballsies, Precioussssss!

Everything I've heard about "Return of the King" has been good. Bombtits good. So I'm hoping to see it when I get back from Williamsburg (leaving Monday morning; there for the evening; coming back Tuesday afternoon). I'm not quite as deep into geek-speculation about LOTR as I am about parsing tropes in the Matrix series, so it's doubtful I'll be writing an extensive review of it on this blog. Perhaps the Air Marshal, who is a much bigger LOTR fan than I am, would care to share his thoughts? Open that mind-sphincter and spew some (b)logorrhea, man!

What kind of work can actor Andy Serkis, whose voice and body talents were the driving force behind the CGI Gollum, expect from now on? Prediction: typecasting into bizarro roles. He should lie low and muck around the indie circuit, in my opinion, now that his bank account is larger than both my buttocks combined.

And given that John Rhys-Davies has proclaimed himself an avid fan of dead white male culture... when can we expect the death fatwa to appear?

Will Elijah Wood ever find as good a role again? Maybe he can follow the likes of Mark Hamill into a career as a voice actor. Will Wood, somewhere down the line, be doing his own "Cock-knocker"-style self-parody?


Sunday, December 21, 2003

holiday wishes

Just be grateful or else, goddammit.


sidebar of madness

I got an email asking what's wrong with my sidebar. From here in NoVA, on this PC, everything looks fine, but I know that different computers render my blog's look differently. If my sidebar (or anything else about the blog) appears to be acting up, please do write in and tell me. This is very helpful because it forces me to root around my template and keep learning HTML.

My previous sidebar woes seemed to arise because my graphics are set as fixed widths, whereas the sidebar itself is set up as a percentage of total screen width (something like 30% sidebar, 70% blog body). On some computers, the 30% sidebar width is too narrow for some of the sidebar pics, which then get shoved below the blog text-- WAY below. To see the sidebar, you have to scroll down past the earliest blog text at the "bottom" of that week's accumulated blogging. So I've solved sidebar problems in the past by shrinking my pics, reducing their width below 200 pixels to keep weirdness from happening.

Maybe this is what's happening again...? Stay tuned. And please write in if you see a problem.


Christmas poem for the family cat

down to one eye
down to one fang
they cut off your balls
but left you your wang
furrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry pussy


not one normally to show off Quizilla results, but... this case, it was about what kind of postmodernist you are. And maybe the quiz is on to something, because:

not postmodern
Whether you harbor some vestige of modernist
morality or simply fail to see the irony in
Reality TV, one thing is clear. You are just
Not Postmodern.

What kind of postmodernist are you!?
brought to you by Quizilla

(Props to Cobb for the link.)


a poem for the troops and those who suffered

BEFORE I BEGIN, I should explain: this isn't going to make you cry. So toughen up and read!

You thought you'd get a white Christmas;
instead you're in Tikrit.
You spend your day in sand and heat;
jihadis give you shit.

I've got a thought to comfort you--
When all is said and done:
It matters that we got Saddam,

Let's fuck him up just like they would
in Cell Block 84:
We'll dress him in a miniskirt
and paint him like a whore!

Let's drop him off a building's roof
and let his bones heal wrong!
Let's stick hot pokers up his ass
and make him sing a song!

Let's put him in a room with Kurds
and leave him there a while!
We'll let them cut holes in his cheeks
and widen out his smile.

Let's stick a glass rod up his dick
just like some fellas did,
then snap that rod while it's inside!
Result: a bloody squid!

Let's take the fucker on a trip
through every ring of hell.
Let's make him feel his people's pain
so that he'll listen well.

And in the end, when it's all done,
when every finger's plucked,
let's give Saddam some viruses
and TELL him that he's fucked.

Yes, I know your duty's tough,
be happy when I say:

Written in honor of all the armed services, American and otherwise, pulling duty in Iraq and elsewhere in the world as they fight against terrorism; and in honor of the people wronged by Saddam, all of whom deserve at least one whack at his shins and teeth with an aluminum baseball bat.

All I want for Christmas? Saddam's mustache. And the upper lip it's on.


Saturday, December 20, 2003

rhetorical cage match

Some quotes from the Cerebral Bypass guest post by ForensicHorologist on all that was wrong with the Iraq war and what we're doing now, with special attention to transnational progressivism (hereinafter "TP"):

On the question of the permissibility of the use of force and who is to decide, as long as there is a legitimate world body whose decisions are discussed democratically, and these decisions are respected by its member states, and this body has enforcement powers of its own, then the answer is elementary. But if the U.N. wishes to be this body, then they cannot depend on the United States to be its principal enforcer. As long as the U.S. continues its go-it-alone, cowboy attitude, irregardless of what this world community says, then it further robs the U.N. of any credibility that it may have once had. If the creator of the U.N. refuses to heed the U.N.'s opinion, who else is likely to?

'Preventive war' is a convenient phrase for 'first strike'. Up to this point in history, the U.S. reputation for never attacking unless attacked itself has kept us out of trouble. This form of [detente] has now been trashed, and any respect we once had has been severely sullied. I remember shortly after the attacks on Iraq started how other nations voiced great concern that they might be next. There would have been none of this if the war had even hinted at the smallest legitimization in the world view. If this were the case, then maybe other nations might know where they stood. Any way you slice it, the attack on Iraq cannot be justified. Don't get me wrong- Saddam Hussein is a despot, and the Iraqi people are better off without him. I am not against him being deposed. I am against the way he was deposed- specifically, the way this war has been conducted. 'Preventive war' is a [coward's] excuse. It would be no surprise to me if sometime in the near future, another country or group of countries (or even a certain terrorist group) decided that they would launch a 'preventive war' against US because we MIGHT be coming after them next. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

Regarding state sovereignty and the international community's responsibility to intrastate human rights violations- as long as the world community holds human rights as dear, if a country's people (as opposed to a country's government, in this instance) ask for interdiction, then they should have it or at the very least have interdiction on their half considered. We are not so naive as to believe that a government, ANY government, always has its citizen's best interests in mind. There must be enforceable accountability of some sort held to all governments.

Let's pit this against Steven Den Beste's dim view (which I now share) of TP:


I think those commentators have made the mistake of taking the leftists at their word. For example, Tacitus comments acidly on leftist claims that Saddam's trial would lack "legitimacy" unless it was handled by some sort of international tribunal. But that's only what they say. What they're thinking is that if this is not handled by an international tribunal, then the concepts of "international justice" and "international law" will themselves lose legitimacy.

For a long time now, transnationalists have been working to establish a world government. Their goal is nothing less than world conquest, but since they do not intend violent conquest, their means has been persuasion. What they hope is to create embryonic manifestations of world government and then to try to talk about them as if they were already established. If they can convince enough people (and the right people) that there even is such a thing as "international law", then it becomes true.

So they push that idea by hiding it. When discussing a nation which refuses to go along with them, they talk about that nation as a scofflaw rather than openly acknowledging the philosophical disagreement about whether there even is such a thing as "international law".

But the events of the last two years have not been kind to the transnationalists. There have been events which they think should properly be dealt with on the international level, but it's all gone wrong.

There was, for instance, their attempts to use the UN as a sort of international parliament. From their point of view the UN is deeply flawed, since the General Assembly has no practical power, and the US has a veto in the Security Council. But it was the best they had, and in a time of World War they demanded that the UN be involved in all decisions about where to fight and what to fight about.

But the US and its (true) allies fought in Afghanistan without even a token consultation with the UN. When the time came for the next major battle of the war, in Iraq, they did consult the UN, but after months of apparently pointless wrangling, they ultimately kissed the UN off and attacked without formal UN approval.

For transnationalists, both results were terrible. And they were reduced to hoping that somehow each of those operations would turn out to be a debacle for the attackers, somehow hoping that the course of events would do what no human agency seemed capable of: punishing the "unilateralists" for their failure to submit themselves to world governance.

"Unilateralism" is a term which the transnationalists have used pejoratively to label many of the actions of the US and its closest allies, who should instead of have embraced "multilateralism". Taken literally, the application of those two terms has been nonsense, since America had the support of many nations both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. But they're being used as code words, with new meanings. "Multilateralism" means submitting yourself to world governance and ignoring your own narrow self interest; "unilateralism" means a refusal to sacrifice sovereignty and an insistence on acting out of self-interest.

When America was wakened from its slumber by a brutal attack on its number 1 city, and when in response it seemed to become pugnacious, nationalistic, and "unilateral", it was a profound threat. America is the most powerful nation on the planet, the sole remaining superpower left standing after the Cold War. Its military power was unmatched; its economy was immense; it led the world in science and engineering; its diplomatic influence was felt everywhere. It was the hyperpuissance and without American acquiescence and submission, the transnational goal of world government could not be achieved.

The US had long been viewed as the biggest problem facing transnationalism, for there seemed little hope that Americans would lose faith in the system which had been so successful. There was an ongoing effort by many transnationalists to try to colonize the future by capturing control of the agenda in America's schools and indoctrinating America's children with the basic transnational concepts, but success was only partial, and it had not progressed very far. Transnationalists had hoped that some major setback might shatter American pride and confidence, and the 9/11 attacks seemed to have that potential. It was perceived by transnationalists that most Americans were oblivious to the negative effects that the transnationalists saw the rest of the world suffering because of American policies, and because of the very existence of the American system. Perhaps now that there had been backlash, Americans might wake up, might start to think about what their government had been doing, might feel shame, and might recognize that they had to stop being "unilateral". For about a week after 9/11, there was an outpouring of sympathy and support, but that rapidly faded when it became clear that Americans weren't reacting the right way. They were not treating the attack as being a clear consequence of prior American policy, and were not thus acknowledging failure. On the contrary, what transnationalists saw was what they viewed as the worst, most atavistic response imaginable. Not only did Americans not come to doubt the wisdom of their system and begin to consider the obviously more-enlightened possibility of world governance, they rather seemed to become militantly nationalistic, with an emphasis on "militant". Their determination and self confidence swelled, and they girded for war.

America was the most important battlefield for the transnationalists. Without political victory in America, they had no hope of success overall. Their only hope was for the "American Street" to lose heart, to become dejected and depressed, to be defeated in spirit. Transnationalists tried to push defeatism and doubt and feelings of failure, but also knew that this was futile unless American actions were met with failure. After the 9/11 attacks didn't make Americans lose heart, they hoped that each successive major action by America might be the one which might deflate these brash, confident, overbearing unilateralists. Thus they found themselves in the position of hoping that America would face defeat.

But I think that was an uncomfortable position for many of the transnationalists, because it put them in the position of hoping that America's enemies would win. Problem was that the two specific enemies we intended to take down-- Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and Baathist rule in Iraq-- were monstrous. The transnationalist goal of a world government is predicated on the idea that establishment of a world government would make the world a better place.


Groups like the Taliban had been a source of discomfort for transnationalists for a long time. If they truly believed that a world government formed of representatives of all of its various nations should have binding power to rule, even to the point of being able to force particular nations or particular governments to forgo their own self interest and to adopt policies intended for the benefit of the world, how could such a thing be possible when so many of the world's governments were corrupt, brutal, and sordid? It was a nagging doubt, a problem where their high ideals didn't somehow seem to survive encounter with the real world. This real world failure was an experience they would face many times as the War on Terrorism progressed.

But before September of 2001, the existence of governments such as the Taliban was a gnawing long-term problem which was not urgent, something which could be rationalized: "Eventually they'll have to be reformed. Once we're victorious and the world government is a reality, we'll be able to use the world government to pressure those nations to improve." However, 9/11 made the issue of the Taliban immediate and undeniable, and presented the transnationalists with an unpalatable choice. They opposed both sides in the looming conflict, but which did they oppose more?

On a strictly moral basis, there was no question that the Taliban were incomparably worse than the Americans. But pragmatically speaking the Americans were far more of a threat to the transnationalist goal of establishing world government, and if the Americans triumphed it would only reinforce American self-righteousness and self-confidence, nullifying decades of slow work aimed at convincing Americans to yield sovereignty to the nascent world government as it already existed in embryonic form. Ultimately the transnational movement swallowed its moral repugnance for the Taliban and embraced the pragmatic judgment that in the long run more people would suffer if America won than if the Taliban won.

For some this was not really much of an internal struggle. Their world view was highly abstract; their compassion was for symbolic groups rather than real people. Not to put too fine a point on it, a lot of leftists had embraced transnationalism mostly because it was an alternative to what they viewed as an ongoing creeping dominance of the world by America. It wasn't so much that they really were dedicated to the transnational agenda as that they hated America and everything it stood for, and would support any alternative that had a credible chance of success.

But there were many in the transnational movement whose dedication to the movement's goals was genuine and was motivated by ethics, and whose ultimate opposition to America was a consequence of their dedication to transnationalism. Whether that meant their political positions were any more coherent or any more grounded in reality is a different question.


...the emergent result was a ceaseless drone of demands for "multilateralism" and a constant wail of doomsaying, a combination of negative spin on events as they unfolded and dire warnings of horrible consequences in future.


It was rather the case that the transnationalists were trying to position themselves to claim "I TOLD YOU SO!" if any of the many dire predictions actually came true. But the problem was that none of them came true; the campaign in Afghanistan was totally unorthodox and amazingly efficient and effective, destroying the Taliban in months, with negligible American/Coalition casualties and an equally amazingly small number of Afghan civilians killed. About the best the transnationalists could do was to try to focus on the few things that didn't go perfectly. (Others resorted to outright lies, such as a notorious leftist attempt to quantify the number of Afghan civilian deaths to show that the number was higher than the number of civilians who died in New York and Washington.)

I think that panic and fear began to affect leftist public discourse strongly in the final stages of operations in Afghanistan. For some it resulted in public hysteria; in others there was incoherent anger. (That's a common reaction to unresolved cognitive dissonance.) Still others turned their eyes to the future, and the next fight.


Thus after Afghanistan there was the ironic dire warning that "Iraq is no Afghanistan." Supporters of the war responded derisively, "Yes, but Iraq is Iraq."

And there were yet again a rising tide of warnings of catastrophe. There would be mass civilian casualties resulting from American bombing. There would be an immense flood of refugees. There would be mass starvation as the flow of supplies was interrupted, plague, an overall humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. The US military would suffer huge numbers of casualties because the Iraqis would defend in their cities, where our advantages in equipment and airpower would avail us nothing. Saddam would use the WMDs he didn't have to slaughter American troops. It would take forever, and besides which the Iraqi summer was even more ferocious than the Afghan winter. Saddam's military was the biggest in the mid-east and would fight hard; the Americans would be forced to pay a steep price in blood for victory. And any attack would be "illegitimate" without UN approval.

The transnationalists had considerable success in selling the idea that many nations would not be able to cooperate with the attackers without passage of a UNSC authorization for war. But the reality is that the US only actually required cooperation from one nation: Kuwait. Any other nations which might cooperate (who actually had something to contribute that we could use) would be welcome, but none were necessary-- not even the UK and Australia. As long as Kuwait was willing to permit its territory to be used as a staging ground for military buildup in preparation for invasion of Iraq, America had the military power to win.


Transnationalists had been trying to push the idea that international-governance/international-law/international-justice already existed as practical realities and that all nations were already required to be subject to them. Yet the events up to that point had made graphically clear that it wasn't true, and such nascent mechanisms of international governance as did exist had not showered themselves in glory even when given the chance to participate.

After the collapse of Baathist government in Iraq, and the transition from conquest to pacification and rebuilding, transnationalists began to demand that post-war administration and rebuilding of Iraq be controlled by the UN. And yet again we saw rhetoric about legitimacy: administration of Iraq would only be "legitimate" if under UN auspices.

But what they really feared was that the legitimacy of the UN would further suffer if it was not included. If the UN was not to have the power to control when wars took place, and not to participate in that kind of rebuilding process afterwards, just what in hell was the UN actually for?

There was also fear by transnationalists of what the US and UK intended for Iraq afterwards. In particular, if fate would not cooperate by handing the Americans disastrous failure in Iraq to shake their self-confidence, it was at least vital to make sure that America did not gain anything. If America largely controlled the rebuilding process and the process of creating a new government there, it was likely that the result would have tangible value to America. If the UN were in charge, that could be prevented.

However, anti-American forces even in the UN were in an increasingly poor bargaining position, and when the US and UK went back to the UNSC they were able to present a "take it or leave it" proposal whereby the UNSC meekly acknowledged the fact that the US and UK were in charge and weren't going to give up control.

Yet again, all the transnationalists could hope for was help from fate. This time it was the insurgency they pinned their hopes on. Any remaining qualms about rooting for the bad guys were long gone; they'd been doing it so long that it no longer felt strange. There were yet more dire predictions, yet more ongoing efforts to portray the situation there as negatively as possible.


Now they face two crises, because their principles are once again coming into contact with reality and once again will fail, and because they will be forced to publicly advocate positions which will discredit them.

They demand that an international tribunal try Saddam, and claim that an international tribunal would have "legitimacy" and an Iraqi tribunal would not. But it is in fact the entire concept of international tribunals whose legitimacy is in peril.

The tribunal which is supposed to try upwards of 50,000 people in Rwanda has been almost completely useless. At the rate at which they've been beginning trials, most of their prisoners will die of old age before facing a court.

Milosevic has turned his trial into a circus. It's been going on since February of 2002 and was originally scheduled to end last May, but it's no longer clear when it will end, unless it ends because Milosevic dies of old age.


Capture and trial of brutal heads of state is a rare event, almost a once-in-a-lifetime situation, but that's what we've got now. If "international law" is to have any legitimacy at all, it must be involved in this trial. If it is left out, its legitimacy will be seriously damaged. Transnationalists who are pushing the entire idea of international law and international justice are in big trouble if Saddam is tried before a tribunal which is not perceived as being "international".

Based on performance in the recent past, there are serious questions of whether international tribunals are capable of holding such trials efficiently and effectively. That's what the Rwanda and Milosevic processes seem to suggest. There's also a non-trivial question of whether such a tribunal would be non-partisan; would it be subject to the same kind of divisive forces as were clearly present in the UNSC?

As many have pointed out, the demand that Saddam be tried internationally is also inconsistent with other rhetoric coming from the transnationalists. As it became increasingly clear that there was no chance of any significant UN role in administering Iraq, there were increasing demands by transnationalists that the coalition turn control over to the Iraqis themselves as soon as possible. Yet when it comes to this trial, those same people, who wanted Coalition administration in Iraq to end by December of 2003 (i.e. now) are also saying that the Iraqis are not capable of giving Saddam a "fair" trial, as part of their arguments for why he should be tried before an international tribunal instead.


The transnationalists have reached the point now where their pronouncements no longer even pass the horselaugh test. Their credibility has been seriously eroded, where key groups which were once thought [to be] honorable advocates, the conscience of the world, are increasingly viewed as partisan hacks. And overall support for their political position has drastically eroded, especially in critical "mindshare markets" like the US.

Which is why it is not really accurate to characterize transnationalist demands that Saddam be tried before an international tribunal as a "power grab". It is rather a last ditch effort to avoid marginalization, irrelevance and total political defeat.


Den Beste's thought this through way more deeply than I ever could; I'm still learning the issues. But I'm basically in agreement with Jean-François Revel, the French thinker who has long contended that utopianism is always the wrong road to take, and transnational progressivism, the idea of creating a world government whose authority transcends the individual sovereignty of nations, definitely falls under the rubric of utopianism.

A couple remarks, though: I'm not willing to condemn transnational progressivists as thoroughly as Den Beste, who, like many conservative thinkers, appears to make a point of questioning their patriotism and ascribing America-hatred to many (if not most) of them. I'm also sympathetic to ForensicHorologist's concerns about diplomatic capital: this isn't an issue we can ignore, nor is it reducible to a simple question of not being afraid of world opinion. There are practical consequences to the loss of diplomatic capital (think: just-averted trade war), and we need to remain mindful of this. I'm not saying we should shrink from the challenge of world opinion, but I do think it's in our interest to discern which fights are necessary and which are wasteful.

But where ForensicHorologist and I probably differ most is in the question of when to ignore world opinion. In the case of North and South Korea, where no solution is palatable and there exists the possibility of nuclear crisis on American soil, it's only right for us to think in terms of our own self-interest, and that's going to mean ignoring not only NK propaganda, but SK screaming as well-- along with Russian pouts, Chinese threats, and all the rest. Backbone is called for. That means friends and enemies alike will get pissed off, but them's the breaks.

And as people like the Air Marshal were preaching long before I believed this gospel, the UN's central irony is the incorporation of member states that, while thoroughly undemocratic and having no real interest in human rights, use the UN's parliamentary format to further their own goals. Until the UN ejects such states (and perhaps this should be up to and including the Chinese tiger), its legitimacy is almost zero in my eyes. The war clarified that for me.