Friday, June 29, 2007

The iPhone Cometh

I am something of a technophobe. I have used computers for over twenty years but know virtually nothing about how they work or how to fix them when something goes awry, and I almost tremble at the thought of trying to learn. Even my digital watch is too complicated for me to utilize all of its functions properly.

Yet I am still uncommonly excited about Apple's new iPhone that was released to the masses today. No, I do not intend to buy one. At least not while its price is in the stratosphere. But I am dazzled by its elegance and seamless multi-functionality that appears to be so intuitive that even I might be able to exploit most of it. And I cannot help but think that the iPhone is a harbinger of miraculous tools in the future that will enable us to do almost everything we could ever want to do in the way of information gathering, entertainment, and communication from anywhere that we could want to do it. I look forward to them. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing iPhones or worthy competitors come down enough in price that I can afford one.

Here is a link to Apple's 20 minute video showing off the iPhone to grand and glorious effect.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Science vs. Metaphysics

You might say that science tries to discover timeless principles about the temporal, whereas metaphysics tries to arrive at relative statements about the absolute.
--Gagdad Bob

Friday, June 22, 2007

Letter to Dennis Prager

Yesterday Dennis Prager made some observations on his radio program that I responded to by e-mail, and he was gracious enough to reply to the points I made. Here is what I wrote to him:

Dear Dennis:

I am what you would probably consider to be politically "liberal." But I enjoy your program nevertheless because of your consistently intelligent and respectful discussion of so many substantive issues. I am also increasingly convinced that philosopher Ken Wilber is correct when he claims that there are valuable insights stemming from both "right" and "left" political perspectives and that it is wise to seek to integrate these perspectives and their insights. I have found you to be an outstanding spokesperson for a political perspective and for corresponding insights that I have largely shunned until recently but am now giving much more consideration and am struggling to incorporate into my own worldview. That is, as a result of listening to programs such as yours and Hugh Hewitt's and of reading "conservative" writings such as one finds on clinical psychologist-philosopher Robert Godwin's remarkable One Cosmos blog (by the way, one could say that his frequent mention and praise of you persuaded me to give you a serious listen), I have found myself developing a political and more general perspective that is less dogmatically "liberal" and, I would like to think, more reflective of a reality whose complexities transcend staunchly liberal and conservative understandings. I thank you sincerely for the significant role you are playing in this ongoing transformation.

However, I would like to take respectful issue with some of your comments during your opening hour of today's program. First, you said that Karen Armstrong is wrong to assert that all religious fundamentalisms are essentially equivalent in theory and practice. If I understood you correctly, you maintained that there is no moral equivalence whatsoever between Christian fundamentalism that will tolerate criticism and even outright mockery of its teachings and Islamic fundamentalism that will murder people for any perceived disparagement of the faith. I do not necessarily disagree with you here, but I would ask whether you think that hardcore Christian fundamentalists would be much more tolerant than hardcore Muslim fundamentalists if they lived in a society where they had the power to impose their views on everyone. I am inclined, rightly or wrongly, to believe that if Christian fundamentalists held unchecked power in this country, they would not necessarily be all that much more tolerant of mockery, criticism, or even substantive dissent than are Muslim fundamentalists. And if this were true, would fundamentalist Christianity REALLY be that morally superior to fundamentalist Islam, or is it now simply prevented by legal force from doing what it would otherwise do? It would be fascinating for you to discuss this on your program sometime, and especially if you could have Karen Armstrong on and discuss all of this with her. I, for one, would love to hear her explanation and defense of her claim that most religious fundamentalisms are equivalent.

Second, you argued that Robin Williams has shown no moral courage in mocking Christianity but not Islam after 9-11. A caller disputed your claim by stating that Robin Williams has done extensive routines mocking Islam and Islamic terrorists, and I suspect that he is correct. For instance, in just a cursory YouTube search, I found this.

Third, you asserted that the entertainment industry has displayed no moral courage in its failure to offer post 9-11 entertainment that realistically depicts the immoral savagery of Islamic terrorists. The same caller who disputed your claim about Robin Williams countered that "Hollywood" has in fact produced many movies that disparage Islamic terrorists. You replied that even if this is true, it has done so more in terms of comic book scenarios and caricatures than realistic depictions, and it has not been true at all since 9-11. Well, I do not watch a lot of TV or see many movies, but I am aware of several films and TV programs produced since 9-11 that have provided reasonably realistic and unflattering portrayals of Islamic terrorists. Among them are the acclaimed movie United 93, the Showtime two-season miniseries Sleeper Cell, and several seasons of the very popular Fox drama 24.

Furthermore, even if it were true that comics and the entertainment industry in general readily criticize and mock Christianity but not Islam in the wake of 9-11 out of fear for their safety, I wonder if YOU would dare to criticize Islam on your radio show or in your writings if you truly believed that doing so placed you and your family in serious jeopardy from Islamic terrorists. And if you did not speak out against Islam under these circumstances, would you be any less of a "moral coward" than others in the entertainment industry who criticize what they feel safe in criticizing and refrain from criticizing when they think it could lead to deadly violence?

Dennis, I am grateful for your radio program and for the time you have taken to read this overly long letter, and I wish you peace, prosperity, and happiness.

This is how Dennis responded:

Dear steve:

Thank you for the very thoughtful letter. It's an honor having listeners like you.

Some quick responses:

1. Christian fundamentalists often ha control in America and never imposed anything like an Islamic intolerant regime here.

2. Robin Williams did indeed make fund of suicide bombers. That's relatively easy and not comparable to making fun of RC priests in general.

3. United 93 was a documentary-film of one flight. And a great service it was. And it was a rare exception.

4. I have been very critical in both writing and radio of the Islamists, and frequently think of the danger it can put me in.

All the best,

Dennis Prager

I appreciate the fact that Mr. Prager took the time and trouble to respond, especially given the fact that he must be swamped with e-mail every day. However, I still wonder if Christian fundamentalists would not be far more repressive if they had unchecked power, if Robin Williams and other comics have not made much fun of Islam and Islamic terrorists since 9-11, if there have not been numerous "Hollywood" films and TV programs since 9-11 that paint Islam and Islamic terrorists in an unflattering light, and whether Dennis Prager truly feels endangered (say, the way Salman Rushdie undoubtedly feels endangered) for expressing the views he does about Islam and Islamic terrorists.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Matt Taibbi on Liberals

I have just read a provocative new article by Matt Taibbi in Adbusters Magazine. It explains why political "liberalism" is widely disrespected and why we need a "progressive" political movement that fights for the right things in the right ways. I think he makes some very good points, and I am increasingly inclined to agree with his indictment of so-called liberalism. I could spend a disproportionate amount of time I cannot spare struggling to summarize Taibbi's article. Or I can simply excerpt selected portions of it and let the author speak for himself far more ably than I could ever hope to speak for him. The following is the result:

The biggest problem with modern American liberalism may be the word itself. There’s just something about the word, liberal, something about the way it sounds – it just hits the ear wrong...

A lot of it, surely, has to do with the relentless abuse liberalism takes in the right-wing media, on Fox and afternoon radio, and amid the network of newspaper invective-hurlers. The same dynamic that makes the junior high school kid fear the word “fag” surely has many of us frightened of the word “liberal.”...

But between you and me, between all of us on that side of things, liberalism needs to be fixed...

At a time when someone should be organizing forcefully against the war in Iraq and engaging middle America on the alarming issue of big-business occupation of the Washington power process, the American left has turned into a skittish, hysterical old lady, one who defiantly insists on living in the past, is easily mesmerized by half-baked pseudo-intellectual nonsense, and quick to run from anything like real conflict or responsibility...

It shies away from hardcore economic issues but howls endlessly about anything that sounds like a free-speech controversy, shrieking about the notorious bugbears of the post-9/11 “police state” (the Patriot Act, Total Information Awareness, CARNIVORE, etc.) in a way that reveals unmistakably, to those who are paying close attention, a not-so-secret desire to be relevant and threatening enough to warrant the extralegal attention of the FBI. It sells scads of Che t-shirts ($20 at the International ANSWER online store) and has a perfected a high-handed tone of moralistic finger-wagging, but its organizational capacity is almost nil. It says a lot, but does very little...

Here’s the real problem with American liberalism: there is no such thing, not really. What we call American liberalism is really a kind of genetic mutant, a Frankenstein’s monster of incongruous parts – a fat, affluent, overeducated New York/Washington head crudely screwed onto the withering corpse of the vanishing middle-American manufacturing class. These days the Roosevelt stratum of rich East Coasters are still liberals, but the industrial middle class that the New Deal helped create is almost all gone. In 1965, manufacturing jobs still made up 53 percent of the US economy; that number was down to nine percent in 2004, and no one has stepped up to talk to the 30 million working poor who struggle to get by on low-wage, part-time jobs.

Thus, the people who are the public voice of American liberalism rarely have any real connection to the ordinary working people whose interests they putatively champion. They tend instead to be well-off, college-educated yuppies from California or the East Coast, and hard as they try to worry about food stamps or veterans’ rights or securing federal assistance for heating oil bills, they invariably gravitate instead to things that actually matter to them – like the slick Al Gore documentary on global warming, or the “All Things Considered” interview on NPR with the British author of Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. They haven’t yet come up with something to replace the synergy of patrician and middle-class interests that the New Deal represented...

[Vermont Senator Bernie] Sanders agrees, saying that “where the money comes from” is definitely one of the reasons that the so-called liberals in Washington – i.e. the Democrats – tend not to get too heavily into financial issues that affect ordinary people. This basically regressive electoral formula has been a staple of the Democratic Party ever since the Walter Mondale fiasco in the mid-eighties prompted a few shrewd Washington insiders to create the notorious “pro-business” political formula of the Democratic Leadership Council, which sought to end the party’s dependence upon labor money by announcing a new willingness to sell out on financial issues in exchange for support from Wall Street. Once the DLC’s financial strategy helped get Bill Clinton elected, no one in Washington ever again bothered to question the wisdom of the political compromises it required.

Within a decade, the process was automatic – Citibank gives money to Tom Daschle, Tom Daschle crafts the hideous Bankruptcy Bill, and suddenly the Midwestern union member who was laid off in the wake of Democrat-passed NAFTA can’t even declare bankruptcy to get out from the credit card debt he incurred in his unemployment. He will now probably suck eggs for the rest of his life, paying off credit card debt year after year at a snail’s pace while working as a non-union butcher in a Wal-Mart in Butte. Royally screwed twice by the Democratic Party he voted for, he will almost certainly decide to vote Republican the first time he opens up the door to find four pimply college students wearing I READ BANNED BOOKS t-shirts taking up a collection to agitate for dolphin-safe tuna.

But money and campaign contributions aren’t the only reason “liberal“ politicians screw their voters.

“It’s also a cultural thing,” Sanders says. “A lot of these folks really don’t have a lot of contact with working-class people. They’re not comfortable with working-class people. They’re more comfortable with environmentalists, with well-educated people. And it’s their issues that matter to them.”...

Progressive politicians in Washington frequently complain that the political mainstream’s abandonment of working-class issues opens the door for Republicans to seize the ignored middle-American electorate, mainly by scaring them with bugaboo images of marrying queers, godless commie academics, dirty bearded eco-terrorists, and so on...

But having rich college grads acting as the political representatives of the working class isn’t just bad politics. It’s also silly. And there’s probably no political movement in history that’s been sillier than the modern American left.

What makes the American left silly? Things that in a vacuum should be logical impossibilities are frighteningly common in lefty political scenes. The word “oppression” escaping, for any reason, the mouths of kids whose parents are paying 20 grand for them to go to private colleges. Academics in Priuses using the word “Amerika.” Ebonics, Fanetiks, and other such insane institutional manifestations of white guilt. Combat berets. Combat berets in conjunction with designer coffees. Combat berets in conjunction with designer coffees consumed at leisure in between conversational comparisons of America to Nazi Germany.

We all know where this stuff comes from. Anyone who’s ever been to a lefty political meeting knows the deal – the problem is the “spirit of inclusiveness” stretched to the limits of absurdity. The post-sixties dogma that everyone’s viewpoint is legitimate, everyone‘s choice about anything (lifestyle, gender, ethnicity, even class) is valid, that’s now so totally ingrained that at every single meeting, every time some yutz gets up and starts rambling about anything, no matter how ridiculous, no one ever tells him to shut the fuck up. Next thing you know, you’ve got guys on stilts wearing mime makeup and Cat-in-the-Hat striped top-hats leading a half-million people at an anti-war rally. Why is that guy there? Because no one told him that war is a matter of life and death and that he should leave his fucking stilts at home.

Then there’s the tone problem. A hell of a lot of what the left does these days is tediously lecture middle America about how wrong it is, loudly snorting at a stubbornly unchanging litany of Republican villains. There’s a weirdly indulgent tone to all of this Bush-bashing that goes on in lefty media, a tone that’s not only annoyingly predictable in its pervasiveness, but a turnoff to people who might have tuned in to that channel in search of something else...

But to me the biggest problem with American liberalism is that it hasn’t found a new legend for itself, one to replace the old one, which is more and more often no longer relevant...

While it’s true that we’re still fighting against unjust wars and that there’s unfinished business on the fronts of women’s rights, civil rights, and environmental preservation, there’s no generational battle left for America’s rich kids to fight...

The only thing American college kids have left to fight for are the royalties for their myriad appearances in Girls Gone Wild videos. Which is why they look ridiculous parading around at peace protests in the guise of hapless victims and subjects of the Amerikan neo-Reich. Rich liberals protesting the establishment is absurd because they are the establishment; they’re just too embarrassed to admit it.

When they start embracing their position of privilege and taking responsibility for the power they already have – striving to be the leaders of society they actually are, instead of playing at being aggrieved subjects – they’ll come across as wise and patriotic citizens, not like the terminally adolescent buffoons trapped in a corny sixties daydream they often seem to be now. They’ll stop bringing puppets to marches and, more importantly, they’ll start doing more than march...

To me the word “liberalism” describes an era whose time is past, a time when a liberal was defined more by who he was fighting against – the Man – than what he was fighting for. A liberal wielding power is always going to seem a bit strange because a liberal always imagines himself in an intrepid fight against power, not holding it. I therefore prefer the word “progressive,” which describes in a neutral way a set of political values without having these class or aesthetic connotations. To me a progressive is not fighting Mom and Dad, Nixon, Bush or really any people at all, but things – political corruption, commercialism, pollution, etc. It doesn’t have that same Marxian us-versus-them connotation that liberalism still has, sometimes ridiculously. It’s about goals, not people...

Friday, June 15, 2007

Hospital Nightmare

It could be you. It could be your mom, your baby, your sister…. Unfortunately, it was my sister.
--Marcela Sanchez

It has become a big story. As well it should be. On May 9, 43-year-old mother of three Edith Isabel Rodriguez died on the waiting room floor of the Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital ER in Los Angeles. She died after lying there for 45 minutes writing in pain and vomiting blood from a perforated bowel. Nobody helped her. In fact, the only attention she received was from a janitor who periodically mopped up the blood, and from her boyfriend and another patient who called 911 to have Rodriguez transported to another hospital that would help her. Their urgent pleas were rejected and rebuked.

MLK-Harbor is a county hospital for mostly indigent patients. It has a sad history of negligent practice and patient neglect. It tried to pass off Rodriguez' death as that of a "quasi-transient" with a history of drug abuse. That may have been true enough, but it told only a small, whitewashed part of the story. The ER surveillance camera told a larger, much uglier part. Those who have been allowed to see the video say that it revealed Rodriguez' entire ordeal in harrowing detail. It showed her agonizing on the floor. It showed her vomiting blood. It showed the janitor making his rounds to mop up the blood. And it showed the shocking indifference of the ER staff to her plight.

"Here's a person crying for help. Will no one help?" asked noted bioethicist Arthur Caplan. "What kind of a society are we when we can't even render aid to someone who's in their own blood and vomit on the floor and you're mopping around them? It's a kind of morality tale of a society gone cold."

Indeed, what kind of society are we? And what do we do about it?

I believe that incidents like these are not the result of any one cause. They result from many interrelated psychological, social, and cultural causes. Consequently there is no simple solution to the problem. I believe that part of the solution may be deterrence. That is, the hospital personnel who callously let this tragedy happen should be exposed to the public, prosecuted to the fullest extent possible, sued to the limits of their personal responsibility, and permanently barred from the healthcare field.

But beyond that, I believe that we need to see that video, learn everything we can about this awful story and others like it, make ourselves more sensitive to the pain, suffering, and needs of others, and realize that what happened to Edith Rodriguez could happen to us or to someone we love someday if we let it.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Will the Ape Become an Angel?

One of my favorite songs is Stuart Davis' Ladder. I think it is profound and moving and a wonderful lyrical summary of Ken Wilber's integral philosophy. Here is a live version of it on YouTube.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Two Great Singers, One Great Song

I have always cared more for instrumental music than for vocals. This became especially true after I discovered the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early 70's. But after watching American Idol with my wife for the past two seasons, I find myself paying more attention to vocals. Not so much the vocals of so-called "American Idols" as those of truly great singers.

I believe that two of the greatest singers I have ever heard are Aaron Neville and Aretha Franklin. I had heard Aaron Neville for years but never paid much attention to him until I saw a late night commercial for his greatest hits album and heard portions of some of the songs adorning it. When I later heard his full version of Amazing Grace, I was overwhelmed.

I have always loved this song even though I am not Christian. It reaches into my heart and soul like perhaps no other song. But Neville's angelic voice takes it to another level of sheer transcendence. I have read that when Neville performs this song in concert, he touches his audiences so deeply that he leaves most of them in tears. I can understand why. Here is a YouTube clip of him singing it, and here is an excerpt of Aretha Franklin giving a very different but enrapturing rendition of it.

After watching some of Aretha's performances on YouTube and hearing them on Rhapsody, I now understand why she's the "Queen of Soul" and a force of nature with that miraculously powerful and inspiring voice of hers. And after seeing Neville perform a devastatingly poignant version of Randy Newman's Louisiana 1927 on an NBC benefit concert in the summer of 2005 for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, he became my favorite singer of all.