Religion and Politics. A civil discourse.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Registratration, darn it

My apologies for turning on the user registration. With as few people as wander in here, believe me I want posting to this place to be as easy as possible. Please, don't let the registration requirement stop you if you'd like to say something. I really want to hear it.

Leaving the site registration free meant that I was constantly having to "dust" the place for spam posts. Just another examples of spammers screwing up the place for everyone.


Playing Chicken with the Apocalypse

Here it is, another blasted post about the end of the world.  The end of the Democrats, and the end of Republicans.  The end of Coca-Cola, baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet.   It's even about the

end of Canada and televised hockey, so don't start feeling too comfortable up there.  

Blood-dimmed tides?  Check.  Centers not holding?  We got 'em.  Rough beasts?  And how.

All this brought to you with no nukes, no Jesus -- meta or otherwise -- coming down in a cloud, and only the slightest dash of bird flu.

The Apocalypse?  Again?

Those happy few who've read my diaries before may note that I already did a diary called The End of Everything in which I speculated that both science and technology might be running on fumes, with little left to offer in the way of discovery or advancement.   As far as doomsday scenarios go, the one advanced there was pretty definitive.  Do we really need another gloomy, the-sky-is-falling, kiss your children goodbye diary from this "the glass is half empty, and oh by the way it's a leaky glass" pessimist guy?

Yes.  Yes, you do.  And it goes like this...

Just one little thing after another

In 1979, science historian James Burke hit PBS audiences with a jewel of a show called Connections.  The theme of Connections is just what you might expect from the title: the interconnectedness of things, including a great number of things you might not expect.  With tremendous verve, some sly British wit, and a little greasing over the details, Burke went through a series of spirited explanations and often humorous reenactments to show how events that seemed disconnected, actually touched each other at numerous points.  How did a certain type of slate found in Iranian rivers lead to the development of the both the modern monetary system and the atomic bomb?  What could the creation of the stirrup have to do with the fact that people in the UK and US speak English?  Burke's romps through time and space showed how money, diet, science, music, personal relationships, chance meetings, greed, religion, and pure dumb luck all interacted to give us the world we live in today.  Chamberlain stumbles on Little Round Top, and "Dixie" is the national anthem.  Give Mozart a different girlfriend, and we might all be speaking Polish (and no, I'm not even going to try and extend that scenario).

At their best, Burke's extrapolations reflect the "butterfly theory" of history, showing how every stone makes new ripples in the pond.  At their worst (which means the bulk of Connections II, and Connection

III), it's still a fun sort of Six Degrees of Gottfried von Leibniz -- a scientific history trivia fest.

While the bulk of the connections illustrated in Burke's show dealt with events over large spans of time, he also discussed how individual actions could exert great effects at a distance.  For example, take the 1965 "great blackout."  One faulty old relay at a power plant near Niagra Falls caused a blackout that spread across New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York.  Thousands of people were trapped because of that one relay.  Airliners were rerouted, traffic hopelessly gridlocked, and hospitals plunged into darkness.  People hundreds of miles away died because of that little relay.  (Sadly, the one fun fact about the blackout, the baby boomlet that followed, appears to be a myth.)

What was true of our electrical system then was true now.  It's hugely delicate, and so enormously complicated that it often takes months of investigation to get an idea of what happened when something breaks.  We've fixed most of the issues that caused trouble in 1965, but new problems have replaced them.  The electrical grid is like an gigantic circuit board.  Some of it neatly soldered and with nice new chips, other sections are all raggedy bare wires and old flickering tubes.  My father used to complain about those huge flashlights that take 4, 5 or more D-cell batteries.  His rule was "every time you add a battery, you square the odds of the thing really working when you need it."  Our electrical grid is running on a metaphorical googolplex of D-cells.

The grid isn't the only complex system around us.  Consider what it takes to deliver fresh, potable water to a city of millions, water that often starts hundreds of miles away.  Imagine what it takes to treat it, the armies of men and women who maintain the pipes, the equally large facilities for disposing of waste water.  Other systems are just as complex, but less visible.  The corned beef behind the counter of a 33rd Street deli may have been raised in South Dakota.  It ate winter feed trucked in from California and was protected by (or tainted by, depending on your POV) antibiotics grown in a German lab.  It went to a stockyards in Kansas City, got butchered and packaged in Springfield, and spent time in a cooler outside Chicago before both truck and rail were involved in delivering it to your sandwich.  Every day, literal tons of produce, meat, bread, and fixin's pour into the city.

Somewhere out there, there's a rusty old part, or a dead D-cell, just waiting to bring any or all of these complex architectures down.

The Finger on the House of Cards

Tipping point has replaced "the straw that broke the camel's back" in our vocabulary.  Was Hurricane Katrina the tipping point that made the American public realize it takes more than platitudes to be a leader?  Was the appointment of Miers the tipping point in cleaving Bush from his conservative base?

When New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell, wrote his book The Tipping Point in 2000, he had a little more restricted view of the term in mind.  A tipping point in Gladwell's view is not something as massive as Katrina.  It's the tiny things.  The little things that add up.  The final drop that causes a bucket to overturn.

Gladwell illustrated his ideas with examples from a 1990's syphilis epidemic in Baltimore, to the American Revolutionary War.  In this short book, he brought to bear both the terminology of marketing (Paul Revere was effective in raising colonial support before he was a social "connector" as well as an information "maven) and epidemiology.  Behind both sets of terminology is the idea that most changes -- whether it's the spread of a germ, or a technology -- occur when small groups of people change their behavior.  These changes generate little ripples that then spread out and out and out.

You've heard this idea before.  It's not too off from the idea of the old idea of a meme -- a discrete thought or idea that gets transmitted from person to person like a conceptual virus.  It also touches on the idea of "consensus reality," in which we all agree on the rules that make up the world around us.  In many ways, this conceptual world can be just as difficult to maintain, just as complex, as the technological foundations of our civilization.  These are the stories we tell ourselves, and if something contradicts one of those stories... it can cause a kind of mental blackout.  You don't have to look any further back than the aftereffects of Katrina to see that, not only was there huge physical damage and an administrative failure of epic proportions, there was also an epidemic of altered conceptions.  

These ripples of ideas can be more powerful in affecting our actions than any technological breakthrough.  Abolition was brought about as much from a shift in how people thought about slavery as it was by force of arms. So were most other social changes.  Before these changes, even the idea of change is hard to grasp.  After the change, it's difficult to conceive how anyone could have ever thought differently.

Because our world is built as much from ideas as steel, it's also vulnerable to a breakdown in those ideas.  The Rwandan genocide wasn't caused by a natural disaster (though it was influenced by events as diverse as bad weather , a drop in global coffee prices, and the murder of two presidents).  It was a disaster of thought, an epidemic of murder that took more than million lives in one horrible spring.  People were killed by their neighbors.  Students were slaughtered by teachers and teachers by students.  The social bonds, that consensus of normality, was shredded.  The same sort of break down has happened many times before.  It'll happen again.

Like cars running at high speed down a multi-lane freeway, the wonder is not that there are occasional accidents.  The wonder is that it ever works at all.

The Foot on the Accelerator

Speaking of wonder, by now you're likely wondering where I'm going with all this.  I promise you, it's not going to be all vague gloom and doom -- because I'm getting to the specifics.

Only a couple of weeks ago, Jerome a Paris published his Whiny Frog diary, complaining about the lack of attention given to energy issues.  Since then, there have been a series of good diaries from other sources (including Meteor Blades), one of Jerome's dairies has made the front page, and we've had direct feedback from a governor on energy issues in his state.  We've even started on the idea of forming a coherent "open source" energy policy.

It's quite a turn around for the subject.  In fact, considering all the things we have to think about -- all the issues, all the news, all the candidates -- is it too much?  Are energy issues bogarting the recommended list?  Does energy really deserve this much attention?  It does, and here's why.

In 2003, Richard Heinberg put out a little book with the somewhat cute title, The Party's Over.  If that title makes the book seem sort of light and fluffy, the content is anything but.

Heinberg's contention, backed by a small army of statistics, is that not only have we passed peak oil, we've passed the era of cheap energy.  For a century, the world has luxuriated in a bath of readily available hydrocarbons and has, oblivious to the damage we were causing the environment, turned that abundance into a fantastic abundance of food and goods.  We are oil addicts.

It was this wealth of cheap resources that lifted us into the Industrial Age.  Not only did it bring factories making $200 sneakers and iPod Nanos (I love mine), it brought the Green Revolution.  All but the most barren places in the world were made to produce a new abundance of crops.  Even if "a rising tide raises all boats" has been misused by politicians of all stripes, cheap energy really did buoy up world population and living standards.  In fact, the last couple of generations living in the wealthiest countries have experienced a kind of cultural hedonism unthinkable a century before.

Cheap energy has defined how we live, where we live, and who we live with.  It's made the suburbs possible.  It's scattered families over continents.  It's made it possible to transport goods around the world for less than it takes to make them in your home town.  It's also fueled a demand for more cheap energy -- and an unbreakable assumption that such energy is available.  Sure, maybe it means poking holes in the last wild places.  Maybe it's deep ocean hydrates.  Or wind.  Or solar.  Or tidal power.  We plot to put hydrogen fuel cells in our cars.  We plant corn, switchgrass, and soybeans to produce biofuels.

In all of this, we assume there's an "out."  Make the right choices, turn left at the next policy intersection, and we'll reach a happy destination.  We'll be able to keep on keepin' on, doing what we've always done, only better.  Clean, hydrogen cars will sweep into shiny solar powered cities, and we'll all have Playstation 9's hooked up to 100" OLED TVs.  

Ever see one of those cartoons where someone is trying to calculate the way to some fantastical result?  There are a thousand mathematical symbols on the left side of the chalkboard, and the desired result on the right.  In between is that magical phrase: "and then a miracle occurs."  We expect the miracle.

Only according to Heinberg, that's not going to happen.  Despite the presence of the word "party" in the title of his book, the operative word is "over."  According to his numbers, there is no miracle on the way.  Even if we make all the right decisions (and he doesn't think for a moment that we will), the world as we know it is already done for.  Industrial society stormed the planet on the back of cheap oil, and it's about to exit stage right.  High tide has already passed, and as the water starts to go down, it's going to go way down.  Fast.

Think about some of the consequences of this truly post-industrial world (some of this is from Heinberg's book, more from my own fervid extrapolation):

  • Putting the worst first: 2/3rds of everybody dies.  The complex web of fertilizer, fuel, and machinery that makes agriculture possible in many parts of the world, and delivers the bounty of the "breadbaskets" to where enough food can't be raised, falls apart.  Cue the four horsemen.  Without cheap energy, starvation, disease, and war are the inevitable results for most of the world's population.  

  • Dwindling energy resources over the coming decades will lead to resource wars in the Middle East, Asia and eventually in America and Europe. I'll go further than Heinberg: I find it extremely unlikely that nations faced with complete dissolution would not unleash a few nuclear parting shots.

  • Fuel prices become so expensive that it becomes impractical to travel long distances, either by car or plane.  In fact, it becomes impractical or impossible to even manufacture many of the things we take for granted, because the parts can't be brought together at a reasonable price.  In many ways, people's lives look, not like those of their parents, but more like those of a medieval peasant, who lives in a very small space, using products almost all of which are just as local.

  • Chaos.  Plain and simple.  Against the kind of social and technological changes that an abrupt end to cheap energy would bring, there is no social, political, or commercial institution that would survive.  Organized religion might make it, in some alternative Canticle for Leibowitz sort of way, but don't even count on that.

The technical networks that make our lives possible are complex, fragile, and utterly dependent on cheap energy.  The social networks that make our lives possible are complex, fragile, and utterly dependent on cheap energy.  Cheap energy is going to end.  Soon.

Any questions?

Is that it then?  Are we doing nothing but arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?  If Heinberg is right, then yes, we are.  Hold all the marches you want.  Elect who you want.  Take all the recreational products you can get, 'cause buddy, the future is going to suck anyway.  And if you might want to book that trip to Alaska.  The best that Heinberg is able to offer is the idea of a "managed collapse," in which he proposes that with great political courage on our part, and unprecedented international cooperation, we can achieve the same results (most people dead, the rest living in Medieval Land), but do so in a way that leaves the survivors in a softer, greener version of hell.

My message to Mr. Heinberg: that's the one thing I can promise you is not going to happen.  People and institutions will not surrender their lives or their comforts willingly, and certainly not peacefully.  If the end comes as nasty as he suggests, then we better hope that the descendants of cockroaches or squids make better use of our fossilized remains when it comes their turn in another half a billion years.

That's how important this issue is.  We either win on this one (and when I say we, I don't mean Democrats, or Americans, I mean human beings) or we die.  Messy.

We have to devote our energies to filling in that chalkboard.  As hopeless as it may seem, we have to find the miracle in the equation.  So the next time Jerome, Meteor Blades, or someone else posts a diary on energy policy, pay attention like your life depends on it.  Because it does.


Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Theologically Thinking

Today's theological conundrum: did historical figures enjoy a privileged position with respect to spiritual matters?

In other words, did Gilgamesh, Abraham, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, David, Jesus, Peter, Paul or Ringo have better access to spiritual knowledge than anyone living today?

The official answer is: it depends. Certainly most major religions have a central character who is assumed to have a more direct revelation of God's plans and/or the nature of reality. I think it would be a rare Christian who would accept that some follower had a more knowledgeable contact with the Almighty than did Jesus, an unusual Muslim who believed that post-Mohammed leaders knew better than the prophet, and an unusual Buddhist who thought any modern meditator more in tune with the cosmos than ol' Guatama. But while most of these religions would cede peak knowledge to this central character, in each you're likely to find that other characters in the saga are viewed as less than perfect.

Missing from the list of "someone got it right" religions are Jews, and they're missing for a reason. Jews certainly have many important historic figures, but it's been common for centuries for Jewish scholars to believe that later believers could be just as in touch with God as those historic figures.

While I'm a practicing Christian (always practicing, because I never get it right), in this case, I'm Jewish.

While I can't work up the hubris to put my self on par with the understanding of Jesus (hey, I'm a Christian, I do believe he has privileged knowledge), I'm ready to believe that I know God's will as well as Abraham. That I can understand what's expected of all of us better than David or "wise" Solomon. I even believe that it's possible for me to have a better sense of what's right than Peter or Paul -- though I wasn't there to see the storm calmed, nor blinded on the road to Damascus.

There's a slogan offered up by the United Church of Christ: God is Still Speaking. I believe that. And it's no coincidence I currently attend a UCC church.

I very much like the idea that, while we may study the stories of men like Abraham or David to learn about how people in that time struggled to know God, we shouldn't think that they had better access than anyone today. We can, in fact, learn from all of those who came before, and from the thoughtful consideration of the millions of scholars, saints, and scoundrels who came later. Just as we have advanced in our understanding of medicine or astronomy, we should also recognize that our understanding of theology is also more advanced.


Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Beating Creationists

A couple of times now, I've been called on to duke it out with creationists trying to "balance" a school curriculum.  Actually, to be fair, once I was called on, once I volunteered -- loudly.  Several other times I've made my pitch from the audience.

In all cases, I've successfully sent the anti-science crowd packing.  This isn't because I'm brilliant, or because I have enough sheepskin to cover a couch.  It's not because I'm a great orator.  It's because I keep my head and realize: this is not a debate.

Over at kos, DarkSyde has done some nice evolution primers, but this isn't about explaining science.  This is about sending them back humming the theme song to Inherit the Wind.  All you have to do is keep a few things in mind.

  1. It's not a debate because you're not trying to convince anyone.  This is true for several reasons.  First, the folks arguing on the other side often don't believe a word of what they're saying -- they're just there because it's another way to smack down "liberals."  Secretly, most of these people already know you're right.  The ones that don't, the true believers, are your allies.

  2. Don't worry about convincing the school board.  They know you're right too, but every school board member is also sure that they're just a hop, skip, and a jump away from being congressman (or senator, or president).  They're politicians writ small, and they're there to play politics.  They don't care a fig about who's right.

So if you're not there to convince your opponents, or the school board, or even the handful of other community members who have nothing better to do than attend school board meetings on a work night, why are you there?  Don't convince them, embarrass them.  You have to demonstrate that there's nothing to what your opponents are saying but hot air and religious platitude.  Keep smiling, make jokes, and be relentless in your pursuit.  Once you've adequately demonstrated that the emperor is buck naked, or you've backed them into using the "G" word, your job is done.  The school board can relax and go back to wondering how they can skim money from the soda machine contract.

All right, the job is to make these crusaders swallow their own arguments.  So how do you do that?  It's really not that hard because of one big factor: they don't know anything about evolution.  Even better than that, they think they know something about evolution.  This gives you a tremendous advantage.  You know what their arguments are going to be, they don't know diddly about what you're going to say.  This is true even when your opponent's spokesperson has a PhD or MD after their name.  Believe me, if it didn't come from one of "Black Box" Behe's books, or out of a fine quality "Chick" publication, they haven't read it.

So what are they going to say?

The No Evidence Argument

Bet your bottom dollar that your opponent will say there's no evidence for evolution.  They get this from both sides, and the bozos who make their living writing an endless stream of Intelligent Design books lie to them about this every single time.  They've been told there's no evidence so firmly, that they'll just start shaking their head when you give a counterargument.  Again, remember you're not out to convince your opponent, only to make them look bad so they can't foist this hoax on the school.  You can come at this argument from two directions: the fossil record or the panda's thumb argument.  I prefer the fossil record because it's easier to hit in short sentences, and it's guaranteed to draw the parry "even Darwin said the fossil record is incomplete."  Behe makes a big deal of that in his bestselling book, and you should all thank him, because this shows the "intelligent design" position as foolish right off the bat.  You couldn't ask for a better set up line than that, because Darwin delivered his statement in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Just ask them how well physics was understood in 1850.  Would they take a statement made in 1850 as the last word on electricity, rockets to the moon, or computers?  Darwin was smart, but he never claimed to be able to see the future.  Since Darwin's day, we've expanded our knowledge of prehistoric life just as much as we have any other field of science.  And what we've found is millions of examples of evolution. The fossil record is a wonderful, rich, incredible record of life on Earth and our understanding grows with each year (at this point, I usually launch a digression about the ancestry of whales, or discuss dinosaur digs I've worked on).  There is no creature on earth, least of all man, that is lacking lineage in the fossil record.  If you're big on humanoid evolution, feel free to dazzle them with facts about the widespread nature of ancient man, and the sheer volume of fossils that have been found.  Frequently, your opponents will believe that there are only one or two specimens of each species (because that's what they've been told), and these can be explained away by disease or as "freaks."  I've literally had one of these guys argue that the "only" specimen of Neanderthal was "just an old man with arthritis."  Ah, we should always be so lucky.  Catching them in these statements, by showing the real nature of the evidence, can be fun.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics Argument

I think this one has fallen out of favor.  Creationists used to like it because years back it came so far out of left field that it would leave scientists stuttering.  But it's easily demolished, and I think they've retired this one from the official creationist play book.  A thirty second statement along the lines of "the second law only applies to systems where no energy was coming in, and last time I looked there was something up there called the sun" has handled this on the few occasions where it's popped up.

The Common Sense Argument

This is the one you'll get the most, now that creationists are all wearing Intelligent Design clothing.  The whole house of cards created by Behe and the ID crew is based along something very like this: I know the difference between something created and something that's 'natural.'  The typical example is a stone and a pocket watch lying in a field.  You can see that the stone is natural, and you can see that the watch is 'designed.'  How can you tell there?  Well, it's just common sense!  In other words, skip all that science stuff and substitute your own opinion directly.  It's so much easier that way.  And when you look at how complex livings things can be, common sense says they have to also be designed, QED, QEF, WWWWW, ipso facto, etc.  The best thing about this argument is that the guys advancing it think they've got you.  Arrgh!  I never expected the "a single flagellum on a bacterium is too complex to arise by chance, much less a whole organism" argument.  Let me just stagger out of the room and... oh, wait.  One little thing -- your inability to understand how something happens does not mean it can't happen.  You may not know how a jet engine works, but that doesn't cause planes to fall.  In physics, there are many items - maybe even the majority - that defy common sense.  Why is light an absolute speed limit?  How do quarks jump from one spot to another without moving through the values in between?  It's common sense to think that time is the same everywhere.  It's also wrong.  Once, it was common sense to think the world was flat - everyone just knew it was true.  They were wrong, and so are people who think complexity can't come from simple sources.  Given an input of energy and enormous periods of time, simply anything can happen.  To repeat: "common sense" is not science - science often defies the obvious solution.  Likewise, an inability to understand a complex process is not evidence against that process.  Plenty of people don't understand the tax code, but the IRS persists.

Scientists are all conformists who don't like change. .

This can be couched in nice terms that make it seem as if they're challenging the control of the scientific press, or the tenure system at universities.  They may even pull out ideas that had a hard time breaking in as the "standard view" (oddly enough, Copernicus seems to be the go-to guy).  No matter how it's phrased, implicit in this the idea that scientists are all godless automatons, motivated by nothing but conformity to their robot masters.  The response to this one is simple.  Ask them to name a scientist.  Odds are hugely in favor of them naming Einstein.  I've also had Jonas Salk and one Edison (er, okay).  Then ask them if these scientists are remembered because they went along with the way things were, or because they had new ideas.  Every scientist wants to be remembered.  Every professor at every school, every researcher in every lab, every field tech brushing sand away from a bone, is hoping to make their mark.  They know they won't do it by writing a paper that says "yup, the world looks just like we thought."  They're dying to be rebels. And the colleges are dying to hire these mavericks.  The journals are dying to print their papers.  Science thrives on controversy.  If there was one piece of evidence for Intelligent Design, there would be professors clamoring to write about it, magazines lined up to publish it, and new chairs being endowed in geology departments across the country.  But there isn't, and there aren't.  Right now, when it comes to evolution, scientists in the field do all think the same - because all the evidence is on the side of evolution.

The Micro vs. Macro argument

Kind of the "death by a thousand paper cuts" of counter-evolutionary argument.  Your opponent professes to believe in "micro" evolution - changes in colors of moths, that sort of thing.  Generally, they'll say there's no evidence of evolution within a species, but no evidence of change from one species to another.  Of course, your opponent will not have the slightest clue what species really means, but then, neither does 99% of the population (including a good number of biologists), and your luck in explaining it is likely to be no better than mine (unless you have some killer metaphor, in which case, please share).  Instead, you're better off pointing out that all evolution is micro over the short term, macro over the long term.  Lead them down the path of small changes, and you can likely find your opponent admitting to changes that clearly cross the species (and genus, and family) boundaries.  So far, I've yet to meet a real "God created all the species in a fixed state and none of them have ever changed" person.  They probably exist, but they don't bother trying to argue their points in front of school board.  Maybe they're all too busy hosting shows on Fox.  Believe it not, this argument can veer into the "if people came from monkeys, why are their still monkeys?" territory.  You will want to scream when it does.  Bite back the scream, explain how evolution works on individuals and small populations, and move on.  You don't have to say your opponent is an idiot.  If they go down this path, they've done it for you.

The Just a Theory / Closed Mind Argument

This one generally appears toward the end, when the "facts" have failed to hold up the creationists mythical positions.  It can be said a number of ways, but it always boils down to "evolution is just a theory; we owe it to the kids to teach them all the alternatives."  Good luck trying to argue that "theory" in science doesn't mean what they think it means.  The word is in too common coinage for anyone to believe they don't understand the meaning.  Instead, point out that everything in science is a theory.  The idea that the sun is powered by fusion is a theory.  Quantum mechanics is a theory.  In science, we teach the current working theory, the one that's supported by evidence and trial.  We don't offer unsupported theories any more than we offer alternate theories of history.  Someone may believe that Benedict Arnold was a hero and George Washington a traitor (indeed, a great many Brits may do so), but we teach what best fits the information at hand.  There's no obligation to indulge in theories that don't fit the facts.   The emphasis in this argument used to be the "just a theory" section.  Now it's more "we should keep an open mind for the sake of the children" drivel.  At the last meeting, I actually had an English teacher swayed by this, who began to argue that we shouldn't exclude views from the classroom because it wasn't "Democratic."  I answered that facts were not democratic, they were just facts.  I then asked her if she taught that Shakespeare's plays were written by Francis Bacon.  I'm not sure she got the point, but she got mad and started screaming, which was almost as good.  When your opponents are frothing, you've won.

The Obligation to Faith Argument

This one has come up several times, so someone must have put it down on paper.  It runs along the lines of "we have a responsibility to present information that's sensitive to the faith of the majority of Americans."  This from the same people who usually complain about any attempt to be "politically correct."  I go personal on this one, explaining that I am a Christian, but that I find no conflict with my faith.  I also suggest that facts don't change just because the majority finds them inconvenient - although the Right seems to have a slippery hold on reality these days, so that last may not work.

All right, go stick 'em in the eye.  And if things start to get sticky, and they're really huffing and puffing, give them a blast of the old reductio absurdum.  After all, if living things require a creator, isn't It more complex still?  So, who created the creator?

Good hunting.


The Gift of the Democrats

The ultimate problem - the problem at the heart of almost every wrong-headed idea that comes from the right - is that the Republicans have wandered into fantasyland.  By this I don't mean that they are all stumbling along behind Peter Pan, or that they've turned their party symbol into an ear-flapping, flying elephant (though perhaps they have all taken too many turns on Mr. Toad's Bush's Rove's Delay's Dobson's Wild Ride).  

When I talk about Fantasyland, I'm talking about something more serious.  And dangerous.    Warning: there's rough religious waters ahead.

I've made no secret of the fact that I write "speculative fiction."  There are a lot of little niches within this broad section of the fiction universe -- alternate history, cyperpunk, horror -- but the two best known broad categories are science fiction and fantasy.  For better than a century, people have been fighting over these labels.  Is science fiction only something that uses strict extrapolation of facts?  Is it fantasy when it introduces something that can't be reduced to logic and hardware?  I'll give you a much simpler definition: science fiction looks forward, fantasy looks back.

Take a look at the landscape of Lord of the Rings.  Scattered over the hillsides are the ruins of fantastic castles, the fallen remains of enormous statues, the worn down nubs of a civilization that was.  Even discounting the fact that this fantasy is set in the past, it looks even farther into the past.  Typical of many fantasy worlds, LOTR is "autumnal."  Its characters live in the fading days of a great age, with only echoes of a time when godlike deeds were accomplished.  Once men (and other creatures) carved mountains into fantastic forms.  Once there were great kings and glorious conflicts and honor and strength and valor.  Now the world is only a shadow of what was.  The greatest treasures we have are the few remnants of what was.  If we want to look for the best of what can be, we stare backwards into the mists of the past.

That's the way it is in fantasyland.  Wonders are behind you, only drudgery lies ahead.

For Republicans, that era of great deeds lies in some ill formed space between Plymouth Rock and "I Like Ike."  They know there were once giants in the earth.  They know there was once "decency" and "honor" and they believe that those things are now lost.  To build the walls of their fantasy kingdom, they lift a snatch of Adams here, a line of Lincoln there, and stir with allusions to John Ford westerns.  Oh sure, King Ronald postdates the end of this golden era, but he was merely a reminder of earlier days, like Arthur rolling over beneath Glastonbury Torr.

There's nothing wrong with remembering our history.  In fact, it's vitally important that we both recall and learn from the past.  What's wrong is to assume that the source of greatness lies behind us, that we are somehow lesser than the men and women who struggled through World War II, or those who founded our country.

Here's some history we should recall: four thousand years ago, a small group moved from the city of Ur in what is now Iraq to a new home in areas that we would recognize as Israel.  These people, Abram and those who accompanied him, created the basis of the three western religions that dominate our nation and our politics.  In his book, The Gift of the Jews, Thomas Cahill recognizes the enormous importance of what these people accomplished.  It wasn't that they signed a covenant with God.  It was that they made a break with the past.  What they did somewhere between the green valley of the Fertile Crescent and the scrubby hillsides of Canaan was as vital to mankind as the wheel.  They invented progress.

You can catch a glimpse of the difference between Abram's religion and what came before in Karen Armstrong's seminal A History of God.  Other religions of the day were locked into fantasyland.  Read the surviving writings of the Sumerians, or the Babylonians, and you find a rich, fantastic set of tales about the gods and creatures who struggled to bring Earth into being out of the muddy, primordial chaos.  The stories are fascinating, but they all share something in common: man is an afterthought.  All the really important struggles take place in the "before time."  What we do -- the best we can hope to do -- is to emulate the gods, never to equal them.

The gift of the Jews is progress.  Progress in a religion that puts man at the heart of God's plan and puts the future on a more than equal footing with the past.  Sure, the Bible starts with some of those creation stories and associated myths.  However, these are more centered on men, and even then the whole thing is wrapped up in the first few pages.  The Bible is a story of progress, both in the actions of men, and of the understanding of God.  It's a relationship that's always being reinterpreted.  

When I teach my Sunday School class, I tell the high school kids that they should look to the characters of the Old testament as examples of how people once related to God, then I tell them something else: you can do better.  You can understand God's plan for your life better than David.  You can know what God expects of you better than Moses.  You can be in covenant with God in a way that Abraham never imagined.  You can be a better person than any of these characters.  You can be more kind, less cruel, more just, smarter, more thoughtful.  Better.  Any casual reader approaching the Bible will find that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New bare scant resemblance.  That's because this is a religion that looks ahead.  The words are fixed, but our minds are not.  It's all about learning from the past, and forging your connection with God anew.  

The same should be true of our democracy.  Those founders and fighters who brought us to where we are deserve praise for what they accomplished, but they should never be seen as more than what they were.  We can understand how the world works more clearly than Jefferson, Washington, or anyone who laid a pen to the Constitution.  We should look on these men with the respect they deserve, but we should not overlook their flaws, neither should we treat their words as inviolable 'holy writ.'  We should build on what they gave us, not worship it.

When you look to the past as if it is better than the future, whether it is in your religion or your politics, you find yourself justifying murder, defending war, and siding with leaders who committed every crime imaginable while thinking themselves on the side of God and country.  To deify the past is to denigrate civil rights and suffrage.  You cannot elevate the slaveholder without also raising the institution of slavery.

Right now, the Republicans have not looked to the right so much as they have stared into the past.  They've squinted hard enough that they can pretend to see none of the hardship, and only catch the glint of faded glories.  They fumble through history like Cabalists seeking some secret meaning.  They turn actions of fifty, a hundred, or two hundred years ago into causes for war, reasons to hold people interminably, or excuses to deny liberty.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the Republican assault on reason.  Whether it is substituting "intelligent design" for evolution, the constant berating of public schools and teachers, or the old "liberal elite" chestnut, the Republicans are marching under the banner of regressive ignorance.  They fight against stem cell research as much because it represents the future as because it brushes against some tenant of their faith.  Some of them do not see that the past they are seeking to resurrect was a dark place, filled with abuse for all those not in power.  Other's simply don't care.

We have to offer an alternative, to hold up a torch of both liberty and learning.  The Democratic Party is the progressive party.  That has to be our gift to the nation.  We will look fearlessly forward, willing to address the issues of today, not re-fight the wars of the past.  We must defend every inch of progress made in gaining fairness and personal liberty.  We have to understand that the banners of the party, justice, reason, knowledge, science, personal and religious freedom must all advance together, or none of them will advance at all.

We need a good stout dose of science fiction in our mix.  We need its optimism and inventiveness.  We must be willing to try new ideas and reward fresh thinking.  This is, after all, a science fiction nation, a nation of continent spanning trains, and delicate airplanes, and rockets to the moon.  The real gift of the past has been to reward us with the understanding that the future can be better still.

Fantasyland is a dangerous place, where institutions crumble and knowledge fades.  Fortunately for us, the lesson of four thousand years is this: progress always wins.  Let's just make sure it wins sooner, rather than later.  Personally, as much as I love Tolkien, I could do without a dark age of sitting among the ruins, smoking pipeweed, and telling the tales of past giants.