Monday, April 20, 2009

Theological Musings

DaisyDeadhead asks in comments:
Did you get lost in the garden or what?
Yeah sort of. The bigger issue is trying to make complicated arguments and finding my thinking and writing not really up to the task. Then there's my idea of editing, which apparently goes something like: wait long enough to publish your long-winded post and probably nobody will read it anyway:-) I'll read over what I've wrote long ago and a publish it so I can go on to the next thing.

Continuing my habit of pointing to two rather unrelated things and drawing some sort of specious relationship, today I want to point primarily to two articles. Occasionally my Bloglines blog reader will update to an old post on some of the blogs I read. That happened recently with Keith Hart's blog The Memory Bank which pointed to a post made in November of 2008, Notes on the counter-revolution. So that's the first article I want to talk a little about. The second is an article by Jeff Sharlet in May's Harper's Magazine, Jesus Killed Mohammed: The crusade for a Christian military. I subscribe to Harpers and I've never figured out exactly how much on their Web site is available to people who don't subscribe. My hunch is that the article is behind the fire wall; I still want to talk about it.

I discovered Kieth Hart's blog, Memory Bank, by way of Jeremy Weate's Naijablog last autumn. Memory Bank has become a real favorite and I enjoy Hart's tweets too. Notes on the counter revolution was published on his blog in 2008, but from the text it seems it was written in 2003 when Hart was Visiting Professor in African Studies and Anthropology at Northwestern University. In the piece one of the threads Hart picks up is being invited to a public meeting of a Committee against War and Racism. Hart remarks that he'd affected a dismissive attitude toward American progressives. On the train trip to this meeting Hart picked up pamphlet by Eliot Weinberger called 9/12 published by Prickly Paradigm Press. Prickly Paradigm Press is an outgrowth of Prickly Pear Pamphlets Hart started in Cambridge in 1993 with Anna Grimshaw. Hart writes:
All of this was passing through my mind while the Chicago Transit Authority train made halting progress toward Howard (a place chiefly known as the nearest source of booze and sex for the inmates of that dry Methodist town where I now earn my living). And it came to me then, not an original thought, but original to me. That we are living in fascism now. I recall a book of essays about America between the wars, called The Aspirin Age. A major theme was fascism then Huey Long, Father McLoughlin etc. And I realised what Weinberger’s pamphlet had demonstrated, that the Bush clique were a continuation of that thread, only this time with the corporate state within a state, the Pentagon in tow (fueled by two-thirds of American taxes), with the most irresponsible American corporations in charge and with fundamentalist Christianity as a vision for fixing the world. I understood more fully why my American friends were depressed. I could still hang on to my own vision of the liberal democratic tradition, but I can also now embrace more fully the vision of the American and European left. America has come under the control of fascists.
I think he's right about the "take over" and think in those terms in my own mind. But the word "Fascism" is so incendiary as to be almost useless in discussion. I haven't found a good alternative. David Neiwart has looked very carefully at the various strains of rightist politics in the USA. He's called people like Rush Limbaugh "para-Fascists" with the prefix meaning "near," I suppose. Trying to find a link to a reference to "para-Fascism" I landed over at his blog Orcinus and the big volume of threads on Fascism. This post A little more about Fascism provides evidence about how hard it is to talk about an American Fascism rigorously. I saw that at Daily Kos there's a conversation with Neiwert where he succinctly defines proto- and para- Fascism:
Proto-fascism is the full constellation of fascist traits arranged in nascent and semi-nascent forms. It’s essentially fascism waiting to mature. Basic examples: The Ku Klux Klan, the Patriot movement.

Para-fascism is something like quasi-fascism: An assemblage of some of the traits that make up the fascist constellation, but not all of them. Thus movement conservatism is para-fascist in the sense that it has a number of the fascist traits, but not all of them – particularly not essential traits like the open embrace of an ethic of violence.
Political scientist, Dr. Lawrence Britt's The 14 characteristics of Fascism is a handy reference if Fascism's meaning is very unclear. There are legitimate arguments about good definitions of the term. But there's a general understanding--being much too loose interpreting Neiwart's careful definition of para-Fascism as "sort of"--is how I agree with Hart's observation.

I voted for Barack Obama enthusiastically, but I never thought his administration would represent some sort of restoration. Optimistically I imagine an Obama administration might provide a little more space to turn the ship of state from the brink. I waver between pessimism and optimism. There's no doubt any turning will take time and it's hard to predict in advance where we'll wind up.

There's a lot to Sharlet's piece on the evangelical transformation of the military. One point that stood out to me was how important the Vietnam War and it's aftermath was to this transformation. Sharlet connects the lessons of guerrilla combat in the Vietnam conflict to a tactic of "infiltration" by fundamentalist Christians in the ranks of secular institutions. The Vietnam era perhaps was a catalyst, but Sharlet's own research shows that Abraham Vereide, the founder of The Family was keen on the tactic of infiltration long before Vietnam.

Sharlet previously wrote a book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. You can get some of the gist of what that's about by reading Sharlet's 2003 Harper's piece Jesus plus nothing: Undercover among America's secret theocrats. Talking about "infiltration" by fundamentalist Christians gets me pegged as some sort of conspiracy nut. It is difficult to talk about American Fascism, there's plenty of nuance and the broad brush approach glosses over important distinctions, just as there are important distinctions between fundamentalist Christian groups. I'm not at all sure of the extent or the various ways fundamentalist Christian organizations are related to one another. But from my own experience as a young man caught up in pentecostal and fundamentalist Christianity, I saw of evidence for the employment of strategic infiltration. It seems fair to say that at least some well-connected Christian para-Fascist groups use the strategy of infiltration.

In his recent article Sharlet relates the views of "another veteran serving in the Senate"--I wonder who?--who relates the rise of fundamentalism in the officer ranks of the military to the racial integration of the institution. The military had become split along racial lines so religion became a way for "white men at the heart of military culture to come to an understanding of themselves based on something other than skin color."

Sharlet also points to the waning days of the Reagan Administration and a rule change. Prior to the change the military had apportioned chaplains based on the demographics, so Presbyterians, Catholics, Methodists, Southern Baptists, etc. were all represented as separate categories. In 1987 the rule change lumped Protestant denominations together as simply "Protestant." Sharlet notes:
Today more than two thirds of the military's 2,900 active-duty chaplins are affiliated with evangelical or Pentacostal denominations.
The "take-over" didn't just happen, but was implemented.

I don't equate Christianity, even fundamentalist Christianity with Fascism. I know from listening to Keith Hart's Cambridge lecture on International development that Hart doesn't use such a broad brush to paint fundamentalists and Pentecostals as Fascists either. He points to the collusion of interests: of corporate state within a state, the bloated Pentagon, irresponsible and larcenous corporations to new variations of Christian fundamentalism which all together make such a toxic brew.

I've remarked many times here that I don't believe in God. My religious friends have a hard time believing me when I say that. I am not hostile to religion and was raised as a Christian. There's much in various religions I find good and beautiful. As a result many of my atheist friends have a hard time believing me when I talk about not believing in God. I'm just not sure how to think and talk about God. And it seems that thinking and talking about religion is something else entirely. Nevertheless these are subjects that I think about.

It was a surprise to me in reading Sharlet's piece that my reactions to the Christian views expressed there were not so much from the point of view of an un-believer as from the point of view of my understandings of Christianity. Of course, as an un-believer my point of view is suspect, still it seemed curious to me how I was approaching the topic.

Now with president Obama it's the Republicans yelling "Fascist." This doesn't mean Americans right and left are joining together in anti-Fascism. The opinions of what constitutes Fascism are highly divergent. The Editors at The Poor Man Institute have ridiculed Republican commentator Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Change relentlessly. The Editors even have a book Liberal Fascism out. It's only five bucks to download and I probably will. Satire makes me laugh and laughter can indeed shift our perspectives. Keith Hart makes and important point about American Fascism that it's a vision for fixing the world. In that light it's perceived as a very good thing, but the ideology makes me recoil, nevertheless it's serious business.

Compassion is a emotional reaction to the suffering of others, profound enough that we want to do something to alleviate the suffering. The Christian soldiers in Sharlet's piece believe God building a new nation through their efforts and sacrifices. That point of view is not something new to Christianity, to other religions or even among atheist ideologues. Karen Armstrong was one of this year's Ted Prize winners. In her talk she said that compassion is central to all the world's religions. Certainly, the compassionate stream of Christianity is also very long and ancient. It's easier to imagine that the violent stream and compassionate stream of historical Christianity run parallel and never meeting. But the metaphor of streams suggest they necessarily merge just as waters do. Perhaps what brings them together is the emphatic impulse to repair the world. It's important to feel you are doing good, but divergent ideas of what "doing good" means is often baffling in their differences.

Tonight I read a very moving piece in The Walrus, No Small Mercy: How a Rwandan genocide survivor made peace with the man who almost killed her (HT: Africa Unchained). The stories of Alice and Emmanuel are told in their own voices. For both worshiping in churches is something they did prior to the genocide and after. Religious belief is meaningful for both. But their story of forgiveness doesn't refer to God, the stories are deeply human.

Religious beliefs for many, if not most, people provides overarching themes to make sense of the world. Quite diverse sets of beliefs become attached to religion. There are atheists who seem to imagine that by disposing of God other beliefs that many atheists also object to will become unattached and fall away. That seems wishful thinking to me. People have to make sense of the world and religion is one way we do it.

Still it's important to for consensus across divergent religious beliefs. The founders of the USA were particularly concerned about this and our Constitution prohibits the establishment of religion in order that there be a framework for democratic consensus without state religion. Sharlet's article reveals that many in the officer ranks consider their oath to defend the Constitution secondary to a religious mission.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus reviewed Reza Aslan's book How to Win a Cosmic War. Lewis-Kraus quotes from Aslan's introduction in re the USA warring against Muslim extremists that what's needed is:
"to strip this ideological conflict of its religious connotations, to reject the religiously polarizing rhetoric of our leaders and theirs, to focus on the material matters at stake, and to address the earthly issues that always lie behind the cosmic impulse."
Many Americans are probably unaware of the extent of religious extremism in the United States military. Sharlet's article helps to shine a light where attention is urgently needed.

Monday, April 06, 2009


Blogging holds an attraction to me, but apparently it's not at all addictive. I seem to be writing posts that don't really come together on a theme. I still have some ideas about that; Buddhist economics, religion, social change, etc. But not tonight.

The news of the shooting deaths of three Pittsburgh police officers has made national headlines. Much has been made of the paranoid politics of the shooter. The attention seems a good thing in as much as we're infamous for The Paranoid Style in American Politics and the economic situation increases my worry about it. The fact of the matter is when it comes to tragedies that get a lot of press, I know that I have to step back and put my toe in the water gradually. I avoided TV Saturday, even still I heard the TV footage of the gun fire. Skimming the paper today I was moved to tears reading about the slain police officers. So I went outside to play in the garden.

The daffodils are in full bloom. This particular picture is from last year about this time, but there are daffodils all over. Most of the daffodils come from digging bulbs from that patch, remnants of a garden planted long before my time at this place. In the summer that patch grows up to bramble and golden rod, but underneath it all is a carpet of Ornithogalum or Star of Bethlehem. those bulbs spread wildly and so at various times I've not been too fond of them. Now I sort of marvel. I suspect just a few bulbs long ago came in the mail and were planted. Or perhaps it was a friendly gift; either way the vast territory now covered probably began with just a few bulbs.

Last Spring I dug a bed along the front of the property. While I had long wanted to plant along the front, I hadn't until then. My father never wanted me too, in part because he thought the surveyors hadn't allowed enough space in the front and the fields. Last year they planted corn in the field right in front. When the farmer plowed he turned the tractor on our plot when he plowed and left deep ruts. I mow--as much grass as there is to mow--with a walk behind mower and ruts are a pain in the neck. So I cut the sod off all along the front. I dug up some lilac suckers and planted them at the front edge of the bed and seeded the rest with sunflowers, flax and some other stuff. What I seeded in didn't thrive, especially the length near the corn planting. I think the run off form the rains simply compacted the soil too much. Nevertheless I was please to discover this Spring that every lilac sucker had lived.

Over the years I've grown various sorts of ornamental grasses on the property. So I thought to dig those and make a hedge on the field side of the line. That's been slow going. Really it seems I can only manage to dig one large clump, divide it up and plant it a day. I'm almost done, just another 15 or 20 feet to plant. But in the meantime I also have to attend to the bomb craters left where I've dug the grasses. Oh and there's plenty more transplanting to do.

Over the years I've worked in my dear friend Cora's garden too. Cora is such a delightful person I simply enjoy visiting her. There's also something very special about the place where she lives, it's enchanted. Always there seems a bit of magic interacting with that space. For one thing there's a steep gorge with a small creek that runs hard in the rain, so there's a lot of stone around. I like rocks.

Sometimes when people visit my place they ask where I got all the rocks. I dug them up. The back part of the property is very rocky ground. For many years I cursed the rocks because it makes any digging very slow going. Still over the years seeing how nice stone walls as stepping paths are, now I only wish I had the gumption to dig more. I don't really, only what's unavoidable, well then of course when I come upon a rock. I say the rocks sing to me, but it's not as if I hear a tune, rather it's more thinking of a spot where the rock would fit well in the garden.

I had arranged to meet Cora in her garden on Friday afternoon. It rained hard on Friday so I went anyway. Cora's husband had used a back hoe to dredge the creek bed in a stretch to lower the water table near their garage. Cora reacted with some disturbance. In part because a nice stand of Forsythia lay mangled under the soil from the creek bed.

The soil around here can be quite heavy with clay in parts. The area right around where I live was known for its pottery making in earlier days. In places in my back garden, in between areas of very stony ground, are veins of clay quite suitable for making pots. That's true of Cora's garden too, although her place is close to the Allegheny river and the clay is of a different sort than by my house.

The soil from the creek bed was rocky and full of shale in some parts, and the ground upon which it was laid quite sticky with clay. It might seem that trying to grade the area and untangle the broken bushes buried under soil in the rain made little sense. But once I began the wet almost seemed an advantage. The ground was so soft that as I pulled the rocks out I could chuck them to the stream embankment and they stay put. There wasn't enough stone to make a proper wall, but enough to secure the stream bank so the soil wouldn't erode right away back into the stream. In between the rocks will provide good spots for planting. Once I had gotten the bigger rocks out in a small section I used a grape hoe to grade throwing the smaller rock on top of the larger ones. I was covered in mud from flinging rocks and soil. To my amazement I was able to grade the whole length, probably 75 feet or so long, before dark.

I was pleased.

Back at home one of the areas where I gathered ornamental grasses was along a section of the back boundary planting behind an old stone barn foundation. Years ago I'd planted three lilacs and a line of Forsythia. Outside the barn foundation, a dairy barn, they must have dumped stones and cinders for years to keep the mud down from the cows. So there was a long section between the lilacs and the Forsythia I hadn't planted to shrubs because the digging was so rough. I had wanted to extend the lilac hedge between the existing lilacs and the Forsythia. First I had to dig up the grasses and then also attend to dividing perennials planted too just to get the soil reasonably level. It's been probably six years since I dug in those beds to any extent.

People often say you can improve the soil. Here in the USA the approach is very often to buy bales of peat moss. I've bought many bales of peat moss over the years. I'm not sure it's really a very environmentally friendly thing to do as the bogs the peat comes from are sensitive ecosystems. But the truth be told the real reason I don't use peat moss anymore is I could never afford the money and time to incorporate it into the soil in the quantities needed to really make a difference. The best way to improve the soil I've found is to grow a variety of plants in the area to be mended. Digging in the back bed after six years I was impressed with how much more friable the soil is after six years.

So finally today I'd prepared the soil enough to gather a batch of lilac suckers to plant. Earlier in the week I had also dug up some Forsythia suckers to lengthen that section of hedge too. The suckers are small, so it will take a few years for them to grow into size. I've been spreading the perennials about. Years ago I got a packet of Rudbeckia seed--All Sorts--from Thompson and Morgan. They were pretty Black-eyed Susans, but only one of the species in the mix lasted over the winters. I think it must be Rudbeckia fulgida, I'm not certain however. They bloom a week or ten days later than the Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' I've planted and are taller. 'Goldsturm' is a selection of Rudbeckia fulgida, and the differences between the plants makes me think my identification might be wrong. Whatever the species is, it spreads. While Black-eyed Susan's may not be my favorite flower the great drifts of them in bloom really are pleasing. So in my lilac garden I dug up some plants. I didn't think there were so many there, but in no time I had a big arm load which I carried up to the front boundary. It seems a bit boring to pull apart the older plants, but I must have planted over five hundred in the front bed. I know from experience that these little divisions establish quickly.

I used to start lots of plants under lights to set out. One of these years I'll get back to that because I always enjoy having the variety, I especially find it nice for vegetables. Alas, for the last few years I haven't bothered. One of the discouragements was I was getting acquisitive and planting seeds for plants needing more care than I would give them. So the variety of flowers I'm growing now isn't as diverse as I want. For the last few years I've planted more and more beds with plants that grow with little care. Still the list of species like that is long and I've been busy spreading plants around.

So for the last few weeks I've been delighting in the dirt. The frogs at my little pond are peeping. These are little tree frogs, we call them Spring Peepers. Later in the season Green Frogs will sing. In the Spring I seem to have endless ideas of things to do in the garden, but by June I'm worn out. The pace of growth accelerates and by June it's a verdant season of grass. Ah but the Spring puts on a splendid show here in Western Pennsylvania. Sometimes, especially when the trees are in bloom,it's excruciatingly beautiful.