Saturday, May 31, 2003

From the big house to the bigger house

Thanks to Teresa Nielsen Hayden for her comments to the previous post -- especially since I agree with her last one 100%! When I wrote about how I thought that leftists and evangelical Christians can talk to each other if they tone down the rhetoric, it reminded me of a good example of this I read about recently, concerning efforts to stop prison rape. I meant to blog this at the time, but for some reason I didn't, but hey, here's my segue.

I was very gratified to read the story, because prison rape is something that's really disturbed me for a long time. The jokes nauseate me. But it was one of those things that got lost in the polarization of the culture wars. Thanks to the threefold increase in crime in the '60s and '70s, plus a backlash against extensions of the rights of the accused, I've spent just about all of my politically conscious life with nearly all politicians wanting to be tough on crime. Worrying about prison conditions was something only far leftists did.

But Christianity is the wild card here. Prison ministry, of course, is a Christian tradition all the way back to St. Paul, and many Christians like our own Peter Nixon still do it and get to know prisoners as human beings. But perhaps an even more relevant phenomenon is how many Christians actually used to be in prison. There are quite a few ex-convicts at Christian Assembly, despite -- or perhaps because of -- its general moral strictness. Even though they now regard criminal behavior as sinful, you can't have gone through the criminal-justice system from the defendant's point of view and maintain a cavalier attitude about those still inside. And what with the sheer number of people who've been locked up over the last 30 years, ex-cons are likely to go on being a significant part of church communities.

The fact that prisoner rights is no longer strictly a left-right issue gives me hope not only for domestic prisoners but for the sort of war-prisoner shennanigans I wrote about in the last post. It's harder for American Christians to identify with the terrorist suspects, because they're foreign, accused of very serious crimes, and, of course, are Muslim. But the prison-rape article suggests that conservative Christians understand that you can lobby for prisoners without being in favor of crime, which is a good start.

Speaking of constructive engagement with Christians, I recently checked out the book The Meaning of Jesus, which Telford has been on my case for a long time to read, and we're going to blog our way through it. I'm not sure how exactly this is going to work, but watch this space.
In defense of Godwin's Law

I don't like to get into political debates on this blog -- the religious debates are taxing enough. But I can't get this post from Teresa Nielsen Hayden out of my mind. She links to an article from an Australian paper saying that the U.S. military is planning to try the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay through some sort of military tribunals and, if need be, execute them in situ. The paper headlines this story, "U.S. Plans Death Camp."

Teresa says, "If this story is accurate, we're going to have to repeal Godwin's Law." Meaning the informal Internet rule that you lose an argument once you compare your opponents to Nazis. Not surprisingly, this set off a long argument in her comments section about whether "death camp" is really an appropriate term, whether Nazi analogies are apt, and whether this story is accurate at all, since the paper it comes from is apparently not that reliable.

Looking back over history, I don't know if there's ever been a war where there haven't been some dubious things done to "suspicious persons." During the Civil War, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and locked a lot of them up without trial for the duration. During WWI, sedition laws convicted some people just for handing out protest flyers. During WWII, of course, there were the internment camps. During the Cold War... well, you know. It points up the depressing fact that the liberal theory of criminal justice, which assumes that it's better to let some guilty people go than to punish the innocent, is irrevocably opposed to the mindset of war, which takes the exact opposite viewpoint.

The encouraging part of this, though, is that the historical examples show that the slope isn't nearly as slippery as a lot of people are afraid it is. All these things that I described were later reversed and repudiated, and they did not signal the beginning of a policy of general oppression of citizens. In fact, all of them happened in a period of expansion in people's understanding of constitutional rights. Sedition laws, for instance, had long been accepted as congruent with the First Amendment, but by now we just assume that ain't so.

I don't say this to argue for complacency -- in fact, quite the opposite. What bothers me about running straight to the Nazi analogy, without considering the more applicable analogies, is that it not only paints the government with ultimate evil but with ultimate power. You can see that happening among some of the commenters on Teresa's post, spinning theories about how Bush is going to throw the election in 2004 and turn America into a police state. One even seems to think the only way out of it is a violent coup. No wonder some of them are talking about fleeing to other countries.

I sympathize more now with Marc Cooper's complaint after hearing too much of this from his fellow lefties. It not only makes them depressing conversationalists, it also makes them pretty useless as opposition. The people who have done the most to stop government abuses of power have worked within the system, at the quotidian business of politics, law and media. They did not do it by giving up on American society and thinking they were ruled by Satan. Moreover, painting Bush as a Nazi isn't going to get you anywhere with people whose subjective impression of him might be more positive, or people who are justifiably afraid of terrorists. Really, we can't know what's going on in Bush's heart, or what secrets he might be keeping. What we do know is when there are policies that we oppose.

As alarming as it is to think of the government abusing its power, it's even more alarming to think of the opposition whose job it is to stop these things immolating itself in paranoia and defeatism. The left's spiritual forebears faced down power without skipping the country or plotting coups, so there's really no excuse for doing otherwise now.

Friday, May 30, 2003

Around the 'sphere

Somehow my energy is not very blog-directed today, so I'll avoid having to come up with original material by pointing to some good stuff elsewhere:

Lynn Gazis-Sax on teen sex, here and here.

An essay on the origin of Gidget (via L.A. Observed).

A study on jealousy and gender.

Peter Nixon on a cardinal's harsh words.

The Washington Monthly on the purgatory that is modern dating. I especially identified with this part:
Take, for example, this star-crossed couple who poured out their story of dueling social semiotics to a women's magazine a few years ago. Both sides agree that he invited her out on a dinner date, and that they had a wonderful time until the bill was presented. "When the dinner check came, I took it," explained 32-year-old Charlie. "But Susie reached for her wallet. 'Can I help pay?' she asked. My heart sank. I was sure she didn't like me. I figure if a woman wants to split the check, she's telling you that she wants to be friends. After that, the evening ended kind of awkwardly. I didn't know if I should kiss her or anything, so I kind of hastily said good-night."

Susie, 28, told the reporter that she saw the encounter very differently. "I offered to split the check because I didn't want him to feel obliged to pay for me. I figure if he had really liked me, in a girlfriend/boyfriend way, he wouldn't have taken my money--not on the first date, anyway. And I guess I was right: he didn't try to kiss me or say anything about another date."

Yeah, this is why the check is the part of a date that I most dread. There is no good way to deal with it any more.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

News from Academe

My mother, a university professor, sent me a call-for-papers that she found relevant:

Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs

Ed. by the University of Minnesota Blog Collective
Smiljana Antonijevic, Laura Gurak, Laurie Johnson, Jim Oliver, Clancy
Ratliff, Jessica Reyman, Sathya Yesuraja

The editors invite submissions for a new online edited collection
exploring discursive, visual, and other communicative features of weblogs. We are interested in submissions that analyze and critique situated cases and examples drawn from weblogs and the weblog community. Although we are open to a wide range of scholarly approaches, our primary interest is in essays that comment upon specific features of the weblog and that treat the weblog as always a part of a larger community network.
Categories around which essays may cohere include:
--Social and Psychological Perspectives
--Visual Features, including Interface Design and Navigation
--Rhetorical and Linguistic Features of Weblog Discourse
--Pedagogical Implications
--Intellectual Property
--Race, Class, and Gender
--Intercultural Communication
Because blogs, like the Internet, have a global reach, we encourage an international scope as well.

Along with this being the first scholarly collection of its type focused on weblog as rhetorical artifact, we are also taking an innovative
approach to publishing and intellectual property. Weblogs represent the power of regular people to use the Internet for publishing. The ethos of blogging is collaborative and values the sharing of ideas; bloggers are not dependent on publishers to get their words out. In the same manner, the editors of this collection will publish the collection online. We will use a peer-review process to ensure scholarly quality. But like a weblog, the collection will be available to all, although authors will retain their own copyrights. We intend to obtain a version of a Creative Commons license.

The members of the collective welcome the opportunity to discuss the scope of the collection or directions for essays with prospective authors. We may be contacted at

I'm not turning up a page at that address, but it could be interesting. I just hope they don't blog in the same academic-speak that the email is in. (I suppose they might have tailored the message's language to academics.)

On another note, she also sent me this:
CFP: The Slayage Conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer,
Nashville, Tennessee, May 28-30, 2004

David Lavery and Rhonda Wilcox, coeditors of Fighting the
Forces: What's at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Slayage:
The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies, solicit your
proposal for the Slayage Conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer,
sponsored by Middle Tennessee State University. Visit the in-
development conference website at We welcome a 250-word
proposal or a completed paper on any aspect of BtVS or Angel from
the perspective of any discipline--literature, history,
communications, film and television studies, women's studies,
religion, philosophy, linguistics, music, cultural studies, and others.
We invite discussion of the text, the social context, the audience,
the producers, the production, and more. For a lengthy but not
exhaustive list of possible topics, go here: and/or
examine the in-development Encyclopedia of Buffy Studies at All proposals/essays must exhibit
strong familiarity with already published scholarship--in Fighting the
Forces, in Reading the Vampire Slayer, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
and Philosophy, in Slayage, etc.

Now, in this case I am finding a website. I have a feeling that actually reading the articles would cause some sort of brain damage but the titles are certainly entertaining:

Dissing the Age of Moo: Initiatives, Alternatives, and Rationality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Teen Witches, Wiccans, and “Wanna-Blessed-Be’s”: Pop-Culture Magic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Surpassing the Love of Vampires: Or Why (and How) We are Denied a Queer Reading of Buffy/Willow

"I'm Buffy and You're . . . History”: The Postmodern Politics of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Oh, I should make some witty remark. But I'm sure you'll think of your own.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

The whole truth

Today I somewhat rashly jumped into a discussion provoked by this Josh Claybourn post:
What religion does not believe that all other religions are wrong? Even Unitarianism, which essentially combines many faiths, believes all other religions are wrong. After all, since other religions believe theirs is the only way, than each religion, as well as atheism, must believe that something is wrong in all religions. They're mutually exclusive. So why single evangelicals out? If it's because of the "vituperation," that too is unfair since Islam carries much more of it than most evangelicals do.

He has a point -- certainly everybody has fundamental beliefs that they believe everybody who disagrees is wrong about. But as I (and others) tried to explain in the comments, there's some variation depending on what you mean by "religion" and what you mean by "wrong."

On the latter point, I referred to a conversation I had with Telford after I blogged Acts 17 and wondered, "To what extent did/does God communicate with people outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition?" According to Telford, the idea that God really didn't do anything in the world outside of what's recorded in the Bible doesn't square with what early Christians and Jews believed. The popular concept of a "high god" even in polytheist traditions may be the Holy Spirit at work. In this line of thinking, pagan knowledge is on the right track but is incomplete.

Many liberal Christians take the idea farther, seeing God as working different ways in the world but tailoring his message to different people in different circumstances. Mahatma Gandhi also essentially believed this, as does the Baha'i faith, a remarkable 19th-century offshoot of Islam:
Bahá'u'lláh taught that there is one God Who progressively reveals His will to humanity. Each of the great religions brought by the Messengers of God - Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad - represents a successive stage in the spiritual development of civilization. Bahá'u'lláh, the most recent Messenger in this line, has brought teachings that address the moral and spiritual challenges of the modern world.

Of course, in accommodating all these faiths Bahaists and others do think other religionists are wrong if they believe that God was talking only to them. And it also means tossing out certain idiosyncracies of the various faiths. Christians who object that God could not have been saying contradictory things in different places and times might consider their own faith. Christianity is seen as an "evolution" of Judaism -- Jews were right once, but now they're out of date, so we can toss over certain Old Testament rules. By the same token, Muslims see themselves as a further evolution of that line, and Baha'ists yet another step.

So while it's true that different religions disagree, I think there are degrees and types of disagreement. And getting back to Josh's complaint, I think what bothers people about certain Christian assertions of wrongness is how strident and extreme they are. The article he cited quotes Christians teaching how Islam is "a very evil and wicked religion," and calling Muhammad "demon-possessed," which is far different from Paul's diplomatic pitch to the Athenians. It's true that many Muslims are just as bad, but Jesus explicity rejected "he did it first" as an excuse...

One disadvantage to not getting cable channels any more is that I missed Annika Sorenstam's remarkable run last week. Nonetheless, I have opinions about it, and I think Andrew Sullivan makes a good point:
She is also not attempting to deny the obvious: that there are significant differences between men and women. .... But what we have in common as human beings vastly overwhelms what differentiates us as members of one gender or another. Sorenstam is a pioneer in accepting this, and reveling in it. She's not indistinguishable from the men; but she is competitive with them.

This often gets lost in arguments about gender: yes, their averages are different in various ways, but you can't treat everybody like they're the average. Just as women are generally shorter than men but I'm taller than half the men I meet, the physical disadvantage a strong woman has isn't that much greater than a smaller man has compared to a bigger man.

Take a look at the golf statistic where men have the greatest advantage: driving distance. On the men's tour, the average ranges from Hank Kuehne's 315.3 yards to Loren Roberts' 262.1. If you look at the LPGA's list, which Annika unsurprisingly leads, you see 31 players who drive within the same range as the men.

I don't have any big problem with there being separate tours for men and women, but I do think this shows that players who fussed about Annika playing in a men's event were being silly. It does not violate any concept of gender, or of gender difference, to say that the best female golfer in the world can compete against the best male golfers. As one TV commentator remarked, the LPGA is almost too easy for Annika. She dominates that tour even more than Tiger Woods dominates his: she won 13 times last year, vs. Tiger's five wins. There was no reason to think she wasn't good enough for the field, and she certainly showed that she was.
Elephant's memory

For some reason I had an urge this weekend to go to the San Diego Wild Animal Park. I've been there before and it's very cool, but I also seem to be fighting some virus again, and the trip just seemed too strenuous. So I decided to check out the local L.A. zoo, which I've never been to before.

I've always had mixed feelings about zoos. My mother tells me when she was growing up she lived near the D.C. zoo, and it really depressed her. She particularly remember the big cats kept in small cages, pacing and pacing with nowhere to go. I'm pretty much a bleeding heart when it comes to animals -- I don't even like to kill bugs -- so I know what she means.

Fortunately, zoos in general seem to have improved a lot since my mother was a kid. I don't know much about zoo history, but I get the impression the industry's moved from exhibiting animals as a sort of freak-show attraction toward education and preserving endangered species. So while animals in a city zoo like L.A.'s still don't have a lot of space, they seem to be kept with their needs more in mind. Social animals are kept together in groups structured after wild ones, solitary animals are kept apart, and the pen is designed to suit their comfort. The ocelot's domain, which basically consisted of a cliff with a series of ledges and clumps of greenery, looked like a place my own cat would have really enjoyed: lounging on one of the ledges in the sun, pouncing on anything that moved. Looking at the tiger sleeping in a lush clump of grass in the fan-palm grove they'd planted for it next to an artificial waterfall, I thought I wouldn't mind spending the afternoon there myself.

Nonetheless, there were protestors hanging around the front gate, with handmade signs about an elephant. "They ejected Ruby!" said one; "Separating the herd is unethical, unhealthy," said another.

I went back and Googled to see what I could find about this. Apparently Ruby is an African elephant who was sent to a breeding program in Knoxville, and activists are upset because that will separate her from Gita, her companion in L.A. for 17 years. A letter reprinted on Indymedia says:
We all know that elephants have a rich social life. In the wild, elephants work as a community. For example, when the herd is disturbed, it clusters around the matriarch and hides the calves in the middle. The matriarch decides whether to flee or charge. If the matriarch is wounded, the other elephants mill about in a panic. They usually refuse to abandon their leader no matter what.

Elephants in the herd may attempt to raise and support another elephant that has fallen. These remarkable creatures have even been observed carrying dead comrades and burying them under branches.

This is true -- elephants do form very strong social bonds. Then again, so do humans, and we often find ourselves separated from each other. Another article points out that Gita is actually an Asian elephant, and so is from a different species. Interspecies friendships certainly happen -- hey, I still miss my cat -- but you do have to think Gita will probably be better off with another Asian.

A disruption in a relationship is not to be taken lightly; I've certainly had to deal with a lot of it myself lately. But generally, it says something good about the conditions of zoos if this is the sort of thing protestors are getting worked up about these days.