Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hooray for the Ancient Amazon Farmers

Keywords: Indians; Amazon; rainforest; Orellana, terra preta; black soil; archaeologists; slash-and-burn

Everyone is dismayed because the Indians living in the Central have been burning huge tracts of every year – but there’s astonishing new reason for hope. To explain, I have to go back 9,000 years to the time when there was an extensive civilization in South America.

have assumed that there could not have been a real civilization in that area, contrary to the reports of one early explorer named , who in 1542 had led an expedition searching for , the kingdom of gold that supposedly lay hidden in the jungle. He found no , but towns that stretched as far as 15 miles. There were many roads and highways, and some very large cities. The land was as fertile as in Spain.

A few years later, Spaniards returned to the Amazon, but found nothing resembling the civilization that Orellana had reported. In retrospect it seems likely that the first explorers had imported their diseases, which swept through the Indian populations, killing almost everyone. Only lately have the traces of roads and raised fields been discovered.

The present Indian population practices agriculture — not by choice but from necessity. The thin, yellow soil of the region is infertile, and the heavy rains wash away its nutrients, so that after a few years the farmers must move on, burn another part of the rain forest, and try to raise enough food in their new plots to feed their families. Archaeologists believed that no real civilization in that area had been possible, for only settled agriculture can support cities and large populations. They assumed that the current slash-and-burn system was all that had ever been possible.

But not so. In the Bolivian Amazon region, the land is a savannah, interspersed with “islands” of forest. When these forests were investigated, it became clear that they were places where people had lived in large numbers, for the soil was bursting with shards of pots, including huge vats that had been used to cook meals for hundreds of people. These archaeological sites were hundreds, even thousands, of years old. Moreover, there were stripes connecting them that could be seen from the air. These had been roads in ancient times.

Next the scientists explored the inland regions of the Brazilian Amazon, where they found large areas where the soil was remarkably different from the usual yellow dirt. As much as ten percent of the land is actually rich, dark soil called “.” As the photo shows, this soil is often two feet deep, and occasionally even two meters. It is full of pottery shards dating back possibly even 9,000 years, plus food scraps and other plants that had been used as much. This rich soil had been created intentionally by the inhabitants, and it remained rich throughout the whole period since then. It is so fertile that the owners today even mine it and sell it to other farmers. The dark color comes from the remarkable component that makes it so special: charcoal. The people did slash-and-burn, to be sure, but the way they burned the wood was special: call it "slash and char.” They built mounds around the logs so that they burned incompletely, creating , which they mixed into the soil. (Complete burning, on the other hand, reduces the plant material to ash, which can be swiftly washed away by rain.) Because the terra preta was so fertile, the ancient farmers did not have to move on and burn new patches of jungle, but could live in settled towns of large population size as long as 1,000 or even 3,000 years continuously. This discovery, if applied today, could confer the same blessings on contemporary farmers.

To explore this old technique, , of the University of Beyreuth, replicated the method experimentally, comparing it to current techniques. With the traditional slash-and-burn methods, there was nothing growing anymore after the first harvest. In another plot, he applied mineral fertilizer, but it too failed to produce enough grain to support a family. But where they applied additional charcoal, there was a big improvement, and when charcoal and mineral fertilizers were applied together, the crop was 880 percent higher then just the mineral fertilizer without charcoal. The charcoal seems to hold the nutrients in the soil.

There’s an even more astonishing discovery, too. In the areas where the owners are mining the ancient terra preta soil and selling to their neighbors, the old terra preta regenerates itself! A farmer digs into the soil but leaves 20 cm of it, which he allows to rest for about 20 years, with new vegetation falling on it. At the end of this time, the dark soil is the same as it was before the mining took place. Apparently there are some kinds of micro-organisms in the soil that allow the soil to grow. If this secret can be unlocked, scientists think the technique could be used all around the world, boosting . Not only would it bring slash-and-burn methods to an end, but it could help feed the world’s population, save the rain forest, and even help protect the earth’s climate, for terra preta is an excellent , absorbing and holding carbon dioxide in the earth. To some extent this could compensate for the disastrous destruction of the rainforest.

That research is worth celebrating! Hooray for those brilliant ancient Amazon farmers – and for today’s archaeologists!


Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Canadian Peace Movement Today

Keywords: Canadian peace movement; Canadian government; Pearson; Chretien; Lloyd Axworthy; Responsibility to Protect; Douglas Roche; Paul Martin; Stephen Harper; Rick Hillier; nuclear weapons; Ballistic Missile Defence; war resisters; Muslims; American deserters; World Peace Forum; Lebanon War; terrorism; civil rights; state terrorism; Douglas Roche; Afghanistan; Kandahar; Canadian Peace Alliance; Taliban; cluster bombs; department of peace; militarism and environment.

I intend to give an overview of the current state of in Canada. However, I’ll start by portraying Canadian government policies before 9/11 as a baseline for comparison.

Before 2001, the country had been doing a great deal that was right. For example, the government often consulted with citizens and NGOs, and one actually felt heard. Also the government frequently funded NGO conferences and other public peace events. Today, the main remnant of that consultative process is the Ottawa-based Canadian Peacebuilding Coordinating Committee, which holds briefing meetings a couple of times a year.

Canadians like to bask in the warm memory of being a great peacekeeping nation. Since the days of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, the country had regularly contributed to UN peacekeeping operations around the world. The period 1996-2000 was an especially constructive period, for those are the years when served the Liberal Chretien government as Foreign Minister with immense creativity. He elevated “human security” as a principle in foreign policy by assigning priority to the rights of human beings rather than States. He was a strong advocate of Canada's tradition of multilateralism. His greatest success was the , an international treaty to ban anti-personnel land mines, for which he was rightfully nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He also campaigned against the use of child soldiers and the international trade in light weapons.

Axworthy wanted to formalize international laws defining the conditions under which the international community should intervene militarily in a state that failed to protect its own citizens. He convened a group of specialists who hammered out a doctrine called “,” which the UN is gradually coming to recognize as the guideline.

And, as concerns Canada’s nuclear policies, the country had deliberately refrained from becoming a nuclear weapon State (though it could have done so) and did not allow other countries to place their nuclear weapons on its soil. Moreover, Canada is the home of the vigorous anti-nuclear-weapons campaigner , (see photo) who long served as Ambassador for Disarmament and then as a senator between 1998-2004. In 1998 Roche founded the Middle Powers Initiative, comprising eight international peace organizations, which he continues to chair as the world’s most prominent advocate of nuclear disarmament. Canadians have a lot to be proud of — at least in their recent past.

Then came 9/11. Of course, the tragedy influenced Canada’s government, but even so, many of its subsequent decisions were reasonable. Shocked by the attack on its neighbor, Canada agreed to send troops to Afghanistan to pursue . There was no reason to expect that five years later, Canadian forces would still be there, bearing a disproportionate burden, fighting in the Kandahar region to protect the new government from resurgent warlords and Taliban fighters. Since 2002, 44 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have been killed in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, the Canadian situation could be worse — and would be if Prime Minister Chretien had not refused President Bush’s requests to send troops to the Iraq war. Chretien wisely argued that his military contributions to Afghanistan were enough, and that Iraq might be an unnecessary war. At the time, his refusal made Canada unpopular in Washington, where the invasion of Iraq was generally applauded. Actually, the Canadian peace movement can hardly claim to have mobilized public opinion against the Iraq invasion, for most citizens decided against it on their own. Chretien could read the polls perfectly well, and had excellent arguments justifying his refusal to participate.

Nor was this the last time when Canada would keep its distance from Bush’s policies. In February of 2005, Paul Martin, Chretien’s successor as prime minister, announced that Canada would not participate in America’s program, a scaled-down version of Reagan’s “Star Wars” project, which is widely considered a first step toward the weaponization of space. Canada’s refusal greatly pleased peace activists everywhere, who had been appalled when Bush essentially tore up the 1972 ABM Treaty.

On the other hand, more recent Canadian governmental trends are less satisfactory to the Canadian public, which continues to take pride in the country’s strong peacekeeping tradition. Since Prime Minister Harper has taken control of the government, and most notably since General Rick Hillier has taken control of the Canadian forces, there has been a decisive shift away from peacekeeping and toward war-fighting. Today, Canada is one of the countries that is contributing the very least to UN peacekeeping operations. There are only about 55 Canadian soldiers overseas today serving in peacekeeping roles, in addition to some civilians and police. Instead, the government boasts of Canada’s role in Afghanistan, where the troops are in the most dangerous zone of the country. Unfortunately, their task is clearly one of combat, not policing. This situation has become a quagmire, stimulating the only serious controversy that is taking place today in Canada among peace activists.

Here I want to discuss eleven aspects of the peace movement’s ongoing work.

1. . This continues to be the ultimate concern of most peace activists, though one might easily become discouraged, for there has been little discernable progress toward disarmament. On this very weekend, Doug Roche’s Middle Powers Initiative is hosting the Fourth Article VI Forum in Vienna, an international governmental and civil society gathering that is trying to save the Non-Proliferation Treaty from continuing violations — not only by non-nuclear States such as Iran, but especially by the Nuclear Weapons States, which have broken their NPT promise to disarm their arsenals. Indeed, the Bush administration keeps trying to go in the opposite direction — toward upgrading US weaponry. Nevertheless, there is new hope that this trend can be halted. For example, four prominent Americans — Sam Nunn, William Perry, Robert McNamara, and Henry Kissinger — have recently published an article insisting that disarmament is required to reduce the risk of obliterating civilization. This nudge from ex-hawks may be helpful.

Moreover, people who speak in public can detect a new readiness in their audiences to hear unpleasant facts. This openness accompanies the extraordinary disdain in Canadian public opinion toward the Bush administration’s conspicuous failings. For example, people are more prepared to recognize the harmful environmental and health effects of depleted uranium, for they have heard about its impact in Iraq. This makes them more open to considering comparable effects here in Canada, where much of the uranium is mined and processed. There is more awareness of the whole nuclear fuel cycle, rather than just focusing on the final uses of fissile material as weapons.

2. Ballistic Missile Defence. BMD was a topic of intense debate a couple of years ago, and it may not entirely be behind us — at least if the Harper government wins a majority of seats in the next election and gains a free hand to pursue its own agenda. Already, some activists worry that Canada actually is more deeply involved with BMD than Paul Martin’s refusal had suggested.

3. American in Canada. At present there are probably about 5,000 American military deserters in Canada. About 30 of them have applied for refugee status and are warmly supported by the War Resisters Support Campaign (WRSC), an organization with branches in several local communities. The Canadian government, on the other hand, is less hospitable now than it had been during the Vietnam War, ostensibly because today’s deserters had not been drafted but had enlisted in the military voluntarily. When war resisters have requested refugee status, they have wisely argued that it is an illegal war. Still, they have all been denied refugee status and have not been given official work permits. However, none of them have been deported. If they do manage to stay five years in Canada with a creditable record, they may become landed immigrants. Only a few of them have returned home, and those have not been severely punished. In view of the Iraq War’s unpopularity, the US Army and Air Force generally offer lenient punishments to returning deserters when negotiating with their Canadian lawyers.

4. Anti-war . The days of huge demonstrations are behind us, but significant rallies still occur occasionally, such as on March 17, when thousands marched in Toronto, protesting against both the Iraq War and nuclear weapons. These events are important because they capture the attention of the media. However, in the big cities the organizing is usually done by Marxist (often Trotskyist) anti-war activists who neither offer alternative solutions nor point to the root causes of problems. Instead, their analyses tend do be simplistic, focusing on the culpability of the United States to the exclusion of all other causes. (Actually, however, Canadian demonstrations could be worse. At least they are not organized by such radical but socially conservative movements as the one led by Ramsay Clark in the United States, or the “Respect” coalition led by George Galloway in Britain.)

In smaller Canadian communities, the movement is composed of politically moderate anti-war groups that spontaneously organized or resurrected themselves after a hiatus of years. These are groups in such places as Salt Spring Island, BC; Lethbridge, Alberta; Fort Smith NWT; and the Doukhabors in Grand Forks, B.C. Such local groups often are in dialogue with Muslims — especially moderate sects such as the Ismailis. (In Britain, on the other hand, leftist activists have oddly aligned with the most conservative Muslims.)

5. The World Peace Forum. Last summer Vancouver put on a big peace conference that lasted all week and attracted over 5,000 people from around the world. Though the city initially agreed to fund it, a new city council reneged, and much of the money came from a private donor, Dr. , a political scientist based at UBC, who generously supports all kinds of peace and disarmament projects.

6. The Lebanon War and Relations with . Because last summer’s war occurred quickly, there was not enough time for Canadian activists to get into full swing opposing it. The new Harper government unequivocally supported Israel, though Canada has a number of strong ties to Lebanon. This government reaction means that Canada can no longer function as an honest broker in the Middle East. Among Canadian peace activists, there is considerable sympathy for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

7. Civil Rights and Terrorism. Although initially sympathetic to Americans in the aftermath of 9/11. public opinion in Canada is less preoccupied with terrorism than in the United States. Still, peace activists have generally sought to defend civil liberties against the government’s anti-terrorist actions. Of course, all Canadians have come to recognize that the shameful case of Maher Arar was totally inexcusable. Though he was a Canadian citizen, the US government deported him to his native Syria, where he was tortured and eventually released. Although the Canadian government has apologized and offered compensation to Arar, the Bush administration still refuses to do so.

Since 1991 there has been legislation allowing the government to detain indefinitely and/or deport foreign nationals who are deemed threats to national security. Six such individuals were held on so-called “” for up to nine years in a special prison near Kingston. Conditions there were far better than in, say, Guantanamo Bay, but the Canadian supreme court has ruled that such prolonged detentions are illegal, so the detainees have been freed, except two, who are under house arrest.

There has not really been a debate among peace activists about the proper conduct of States against violent non-State actors, such a militias in civil wars and terrorist networks. Many activists cling to the simplistic notion that “State terrorism” is the main source of violence in the world, whereas in reality almost all wars now are civil wars that may even include actions by suicide bombers. Clearly it is essential to attack the “root causes” of these extremist movements by rectifying social injustice and by respecting the human security of oppressed people. Clearly too, the best way to handle terrorists is through good policing. However, no proper debate about methods has taken place.

8. Canada’s Military Role in Afghanistan. Of all foreign troops in Afghanistan, the Canadian troops have been experiencing the strongest resistance. The area around Kandahar, which they are attempting to defend, is populated largely by Pashtuns. Although the Pashtuns constitute only about one-third of the Afghan population, they are the group most sympathetic to the Talibans. In Baluchistan, inside Pakistan, Talibans openly maintain offices, though they operate only clandestinely in Afghanistan proper, in the border area and around Kandahar. Musharraf’s government does not acknowledge that the Talibans function so freely in Pakistan, and it may be possible to push him to subdue them.

In any case, the debate within Canada concerns the duration and appropriate nature of military commitment to the Afghanistan mission. Canadian troops are definitely fighting a war, and not really winning it. Most activists, including the main umbrella organization, the Canadian Peace Alliance, demand that the troops be brought home now, but parliament has endorsed an extension of their mission until 2009.

On the other hand, a significant number of Canadian activists (and I am among them) would rather see the Canadian mission returned to its traditional peacekeeping role. This would involve a policing function to protect vulnerable citizens in Afghanistan. Warlords and Taliban fighters would be caught and prosecuted as criminals, but not pursued as enemy combatants. Canada’s contribution would involve more economic and social development projects, plus a leadership role in offering new mediation initiatives to the war’s losers, who are excluded from any power-sharing within the government. One Afghan-Canadian, Dr. Siddiq Weera, is in his home country making exactly such contacts. He reports that the insurgent groups are willing and eager to negotiate instead of fighting against what is essentially a Northern Alliance regime. There was a good discussion of this policy last summer in Vancouver’s World Peace Forum, but a clear majority of Canadian activists still prefer a “troops out now” policy.

9. . Canada took the leadership several years ago in establishing a treaty against landmines. Demining operations around the world have already made considerable progress. Now a number of NGOs, notably Mines Action Canada, have been meeting, planning an initiative to ban cluster bombs as well. Such bombs were used by Israel and Hezbollah during the recent war in Lebanon. An initial conference took place in February at the invitation of Norway’s government, and we can expect the campaign to increase during the next year or so.

10. Department of Peace. Activists in several countries, including Canada, are now demanding that, instead of dispersing peace-related activities in a number of ministries, as at present, a new Department of Peace be created, with cabinet-level power comparable to other ministries, such as Defence and Environment. The US movement has already made quite a splash on that issue.

11. Financing militarism. The world’s annual military budget has now reached the greatest amount in history — $1.14 trillion. Canadians activists have always questioned expenditures for heavy weaponry and increasingly now they oppose buying equipment that pollutes the environment. There is a growing awareness that is a major source of greenhouse gases. I predict that in the near future, peace activists will work closely with environmental activists. By emphasizing the linkage between these two issues, we have a good chance of making progress, for today the threat of climate change is the top political issue. My own activities will be directed along those lines.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Growing Fond of War

Keywords: war; Clausewitz; Drew Faust; loving war; Chris Hedges, Robert E. Lee, Ken Burns

What a contrast! I’ve spent the day reading about war — first General Carl von ’s On War, and then this evening ’s article, “We Should Grow Too Fond of It: Why We Love the Civil War.” The two writers are not at all alike, except that they both love war.

I should have read Clausewitz (see photo) many years ago but never got around to it. I had thought of it as a how-to-do-it manual for wannabe generals. Well, I guess it really was intended as such, but it doesn’t offer much practical advice. In fact, he states explicitly that you can’t give any hard and fast rules about how to proceed because war is full of surprises and chaos. Sometimes you should advance, sometimes retreat, and the only real advice consists of encouraging mental and emotional qualities that may pay off in the heat of . He admonishes the leader to “remember that the God of War may surprise him.” Be bold. Be a military genius if you can. Exercise resolve. Talent is mostly mental, so practice manoeuvres so as to become habituated to war — “less to accustom the body than the mind.”

And so on. I found his maxims were mostly platitudes. (Even his famous “War is a continuation of politics by other means” seems self-evident to me. Who ever supposed war was anything else?) What I did not find anywhere was the slightest criticism of warfare. Not only is war an inevitable fact of life, but it provides glorious opportunities for warriors to fulfill their personalities. Clausewitz reveals his values straightforwardly:

“Of all the noble feelings which fill the human heart in the exciting tumult of battle, none are so powerful and constant as the soul’s thirst for honor and renown. NO doubt in War the abuse of these proud aspirations must bring about shocking outrages, but their origin is certainly to be counted amongst the noblest feelings of human nature. Other feelings, such as love of country, fanaticism or revenge may rouse the great masses but they do not give the Leader a desire to will more than others. Is a Commander destitute of the love of honor even conceivable?”

As you may have guessed, I did not find that I’d missed anything valuable because of failing to read the general earlier in my career. He has nothing to offer peacemakers – and would be stupified at the idea that we make it our business to bring peace into the world.

It was a great relief and pleasure to turn, then, to the other writer on war today, Drew Gilpin Faust (see photo). I had come upon her name by chance, discovering with surprise that she is the new president of Harvard University. She’s a social liberal whose appointment was surely made as a statement of rebuke to the heavy-handed previous president, Lawrence Summers, famous for making apparently sexist and racist gaffes. Evidently her biography includes a youth marked by radical anti-war political activism.

Faust writes beautifully, powerfully evoking emotions — at least MY emotions — about her topic. She’s a historian of the . Not only does she acknowledge loving that war, but she explains why others feel the same way about the Civil War, which has become far more popular over the years. The number of books published on the subject has doubled over time.

Initially, however, her article dealt not with the popularity of the war today, but rather with its appeal at the time. Her title comes from a comment made by as he watched the battle at Fredericksburg, that if war were not so terrible, “we should grow too fond of it.” He was not alone in this opinion; lots of other people, including the soldiers themselves, showed the same enthusiasm. For example, one review before the war began anticipated that it would bring “a sublime and awful beauty — a fearful and terrible loveliness — that atones in deeds of high enterprise and acts of heroic valor for the carnage, the desolation, the slaughter.”

People expected that it would cleanse the greed and corruption into which Americans had fallen. In 1861, the Richmond Enquirer editorialized that

“a season of war... calls out new ideas and kindles new and more elevated emotions and sentiments. It appeals to all that is noble in the soul... It revives the slumbering emotions of patriotism, with all their generous joys. It restores the general brotherhood. It destroys selfishness. It begets the spirit of self-sacrifice. It gives to sufferers a portion of that ecstasy which martyrs feel... [M]any virtues will glow and brighten in [war’s] path, like fragrant flowers in the wilderness.”

Oh my. It was unclear to me which way Professor Faust was heading with her own analysis. Obviously she had assembled a number of pages about the gushing enthusiasm of Americans for the Civil War — ironical pages that discredited those enthusiasts — but she had already acknowledged loving that war herself, so it seemed she would wind up ridiculing herself. But that was not the direction that her argument took.

She points out that the love of war has contemporary relevance. For example, Ken Burns’s famous documentary history of the Civil War came out just when President George H.W. Bush was entering war against Iraq.

“Operation Desert Storm, with its quick, seemingly easy, and, in US terms, almost bloodless victory, brought war back into fashion in America. The bitterness that had followed Vietnam and the rejection of war as an effective instrument of national policy had been challenged throughout the Reagan years. But the slow rehabilitation of war in the course of the 1980s culminated in 1991’s dramatic victory.”

We want to experience war vicariously, she said. She quoted Mark Grimsley that “Battles alter history. They decide things.” She quoted Ken Burns as describing himself as above all “a historian of emotions,” where emotion “is the great glue of history.” And, speaking to and for her professional colleagues, she admits:

“Despite our dispassionate, professional, analytic stance, we have not remained untouched by war’s elemental attractions and its emotional and sentimental fascinations. We count on these allures to build a sizeable audience for our books. In both the reality and irony of our fondness for war, we are not so unlike the Civil War generation we study.”

She is not ridiculing her professional colleagues; she is charging them with something more serious. She is preoccupied (as I have been ) with ’s description of his addiction to war, which he characterizes as “a force that gives us meaning.” She adds, “And humans crave as much as life itself. ”

It is, as she points out, brave to acknowledge loving war. But the essential thing, as Hedges insists, is to challenge the myths about war, the glorification of it as a source of meaning. At first, it seems that she justifies her work as a historian on the argument that by exposing the irony of attraction and repulsion against war, historians undermine myth and question meaning and unexamined purposes. “In acknowledging its attraction we diminish its power. Perhaps we can free ourselves to construct a different sort of narrative about its meaning. But I am not sure.”

Indeed, she is not sure — and in the end she seems to reach the opposite conclusion. She says that telling

“[s]eductive tales of glory, honor, sacrifice provide one means of making war possible... We as writers create that story; we remember that story; we provide the narrative that by its very existence defines war’s purpose and meaning. We love war because of these stories. But we should ask ourselves how in the construction of war’s stories we may be helping to construct war itself.”

Wow. It was brave just to acknowledge loving war. But it is far braver to take responsibility for a gravely immoral act: to participate, by practicing one’s scholarly profession, in creating the mythology that perpetuates war itself.

Brava, President Faust.


Monday, March 19, 2007

Monbiot's Reply to Climate Change Deniers

Keywords: climate change; skeptics; George Monbiot; cosmic ray theory; cloud cover; sunspots.

I keep receiving messages from an old friend who does not believe in climate change. He hopes somehow to convert me to his skepticism. I think that's a terribly irresponsible thing to do, for if climate change is really happening, the future of the world depends on our changing our ways immediately. It may already be too late, but definitely there is no time to waste with hokey pseudo-science.

Evidently there was a recent TV show in Britain by people who claimed to be scientists and who disputed the evidence. I can't waste time with this kind of stuff, but fortunately, rose to the occasion and wrote a reply in The Guardian. (See his photo.) I don't normally do this, but here I will simply paste in his article. Read on.

George Monbiot
Tuesday March 13, 2007
The Guardian

Were it not for dissent, science, like politics, would have stayed in the dark ages. All the great heroes of the discipline - Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein - took tremendous risks in confronting mainstream opinion. Today's crank has often proved to be tomorrow's visionary.

But the syllogism does not apply. Being a crank does not automatically make you a visionary. There is little prospect, for example, that Dr Mantombazana Tshabalala-Msimang, the South African health minister who has claimed Aids can be treated with garlic, lemon and beetroot, will be hailed as a genius. But the point is often confused. Professor David Bellamy, for example, while making the incorrect claim that wind farms do not have "any measurable effect" on total emissions of carbon dioxide, has compared himself to Galileo.

The problem with The Great Global Warming Swindle, which caused a sensation when it was broadcast on Channel 4 last week, is that to make its case it relies not on future visionaries, but on people whose findings have already been proved wrong. The implications could not be graver. Just as the government launches its climate change bill and Gordon Brown and David Cameron start jostling to establish their green credentials, thousands have been misled into believing there is no problem to address.

The film's main contention is that the current increase in global temperatures is caused not by rising greenhouse gases, but by changes in the activity of the sun. It is built around the discovery in 1991 by the Danish atmospheric physicist Dr Eigil Friis-Christensen that recent on Earth are in "strikingly good agreement" with the length of the cycle of .

Unfortunately, he found nothing of the kind. A paper published in the journal Eos in 2004 reveals that the "agreement" was the result of "incorrect handling of the physical data". The real data for recent years show the opposite: that the length of the sunspot cycle has declined, while temperatures have risen. When this error was exposed, Friis-Christensen and his co-author published a new paper, purporting to produce similar results. But this too turned out to be an artefact of mistakes - in this case in their arithmetic.

So Friis-Christensen and another author developed yet another means of demonstrating that the sun is responsible, claiming to have discovered a remarkable agreement between cosmic radiation influenced by the sun and global cloud cover. This is the mechanism the film proposes for global warming. But, yet again, the method was exposed as faulty. They had been using satellite data which did not in fact measure global cover. A paper in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics shows that, when the right data are used, a correlation is not found.

So the hypothesis changed again. Without acknowledging that his previous paper was wrong, Friis-Christensen's co-author, Henrik Svensmark, declared there was a correlation - not with total cloud cover but with "low cloud cover." This, too, turned out to be incorrect. Then, last year, published a paper purporting to show cosmic rays could form tiny particles in the atmosphere. Accompanying the paper was a press release which went way beyond the findings reported in the paper, claiming it showed that both past and current climate events are the result of cosmic rays.

As Dr Gavin Schmidt of Nasa has shown on, five missing steps would have to be taken to justify the wild claims in the press release. "We've often criticised press releases that we felt gave misleading impressions of the underlying work," Schmidt says, "but this example is by far the most blatant extrapolation beyond reasonableness that we have seen." None of this seems to have troubled the programme makers, who report the cosmic ray theory as if it trounces all competing explanations.

The film also maintains that manmade global warming is disproved by conflicting temperature data. Professor speaks about the discrepancy he discovered between temperatures at the Earth's surface and temperatures in the troposphere (or lower atmosphere). But the programme fails to mention that in 2005 his data were proved wrong, by three papers in Science magazine.

Christy himself admitted last year that he was mistaken. He was one of the authors of a paper which states the opposite of what he says in the film. "Previously reported discrepancies between the amount of warming near the surface and higher in the atmosphere have been used to challenge the reliability of climate models and the reality of human-induced global warming. Specifically, surface data showed substantial global-average warming, while early versions of satellite and radiosonde data showed little or no warming above the surface. This significant discrepancy no longer exists because errors in the satellite and radiosonde data have been identified and corrected."

Until recently, when found to be wrong, went back to their labs to start again. Now, emboldened by the industry, some of them, like the film-makers, shriek "censorship!". This is the best example of manufactured victimhood I have come across. If you demonstrate someone is wrong, you are now deemed to be silencing him.

But there is one scientist in the film whose work has not been debunked: the oceanographer Carl . He appears to support the idea that increasing carbon dioxide is not responsible for rising global temperatures. Wunsch says he was "completely misrepresented" by the programme, and "totally misled" by the people who made it.

This is a familiar story to those who have followed the career of the director Martin Durkin. In 1998, the Independent Television Commission found that, when making a similar series, he had "misled" his interviewees about "the content and purpose of the programmes". Their views had been "distorted through selective editing". Channel 4 had to make a prime-time apology.

Cherry-pick your results, choose work which is already discredited, and anything and everything becomes true. The twin towers were brought down by controlled explosions; MMR injections cause autism; homeopathy works; black people are less intelligent than white people; species came about through intelligent design. You can find lines of evidence which appear to support all these contentions, and, in most cases, professors who will speak up in their favour. But this does not mean that any of them are correct. You can sustain a belief in these propositions only by ignoring the overwhelming body of contradictory data. To form a balanced, scientific view, you have to consider all the evidence, on both sides of the question.

But for the film's commissioners, all that counts is the sensation. Channel 4 has always had a problem with science. No one in its science unit appears to understand the difference between a peer-reviewed paper and a clipping from the Daily Mail. It keeps commissioning people whose claims have been discredited - such as Durkin. But its failure to understand the scientific process just makes the job of whipping up a storm that much easier. The less true a programme is, the greater the controversy.


Green Evangelical Liberals?

Keywords: right-wing Christian; Evangelicals; John McCain; Rick Warren; Barack Obama; Billy Graham; purpose-driven life; pro-choice; climate change.

There’s a crack in . I’ve been reading about how the issue of has split them. I’m not able to imagine the logic involved. Apparently the evangelical Christians became a concerted political movement during ’s campaign. He didn’t claim to be one himself, but he said he endorsed what they were doing – which won their support just when they were planning to become a major political force within the United States. They certainly did! Maybe it’s because I live in Canada that I was not particularly aware of the trajectory of this movement. What I do seem to remember is Reagan’s statement that trees cause pollution – or something like that — which didn’t sound very green but which didn’t impede his election. Nowadays being is a divisive issue among Christian right-wingers.

There’s something unsettling about the rhetoric of the Christian right. It’s not their political rhetoric but their religious imagery that seems harsh. I had lunch with two women friends after church (mine’s a rather deviant Anglican parish) a couple of weeks ago and they agreed that they find it easier and more pleasant to converse with atheists than evangelical Christians. Actually, I guess that’s true for me too but I try to resist feeling that way, since I don’t want to rule out spiritual conversations unless they become actually accusatory. But I certainly know understand how they feel.

So I have to admit to being glad that the Christian right is now dividing in two. But it’s odd that global warming is the issue. The National Association of Evangelicals used to line up with the to defeat all kinds of environmental legislation. Recently, however, some of them have come to recognize that something must be done to halt climate change, so there’s a big fight going on within their movement. They will probably be unable to agree on endorsing any presidential candidate, for reasons that have to do both with the nature of the most prominent candidates and their own divided opinions.

is the front-runner, but he is not an Evangelical himself and has even dismissed them for being narrow minded and rigid. He says he dislikes their influence within the Republican Party. Then there’s a senator named Brownback and a former governor named Huckabee, who are long shots, though apparently conservative in their religious orientation. More popular and hence more electable is Rudy Giuliani, but he’s pro-choice and he had a messy divorce not long ago. Quite a dilemma!

It seems there’s a popular Evangelical leader named (see photo) who runs something called the church in Southern California and who has written the most popular religious book yet — . The book’s simplism grates on my nerves, though I basically agree with the message that purpose is essential, and that it has to be sought spiritually. (I’d just prefer a little more modesty from the people who think they have found it.)

It seems that Warren invited to his enormous church recently and provoked outrage within his congregation. For one thing, Obama is a Democrat, the kind that lost all political traction at about the same time that Reagan was elected. (Lots of liberals in the United States have been ashamed to call themselves the “L word.” Soon the shoe may be on the other foot. Conservatives in the post-Bush era may avoid the “C word.”) Obama is . But on the political stump he often talks in Christian rhetoric — yet a language that I feel comfortable around. He’s an authentic, pluralistic, liberal Christian. So what’s he doing addressing an Evangelical congregation?

There has been a precedent for Rick Warren to take this position. He’s following in the footsteps of , who was an Evangelical but who made a big point of distinguishing himself from fundamentalism. (This I did not know until I started looking around the Google entries on Evangelical politics.) Graham’s discourse was religious wherever he went, including to prayer breakfasts in Washington. Yet apparently he did not rub many people the wrong way. (As I recall, he used to rub me the wrong way, but that was when I was still trying to get over my raw fundamentalist upbringing.) I wasn’t attracted to him, but he must have had some good political values. So Rick Warren is apparently taking a page from Graham’s book — a good idea, it seems to me. He’s going to rid the Evangelicals of some of their , yet leave room for a respectful kind of spiritual discourse within US elections. At least, that’s what Obama is going to accomplish, and I’m glad that some of the Evangelicals are ready to move in his direction.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

From Metta Pangloss

Keywords: Candide, Dr. Pangloss; theology; Viktor Frankl; challenges; problems; heaven; Karl Popper; G. K. Chesterton; gratitude; problem of evil; theodicy.

My old friend Ken wrote a private letter in response to my blog about atheism. I’m going to put two of his paragraphs here without giving his surname, in case he doesn’t want publicity, and then reply to each one. Ken writes;

“I read your blog about current discussions re faith and . I have just read , The End of Faith, and am much impressed by his critique of religion as the basis for belief systems which are not only unsupported by evidence but also which support ideas which lead to violent conflict. An example is Christian fundamentalist support for Bush's unquestioning support of Israel (based on Book of Revelations assertions about the role of Jews being present at the end times, apparently to be given the choice to convert or go to Hell.) He argues there is too much politically correct tolerance for views which are detrimental to world peace (e.g. treatment of infidels as recommended in the Koran). He recommends Buddhism as a means to discover the truth about our spiritual natures (meditation leading to an awareness of the lack of duality, the false idea we have of the subject/object distinction). I haven't read Dawkins but I think Harris is more explicit about the detrimental consequences of some religious commitments.”

I haven’t read Harris and probably won’t. I’m much more interested in imagining what the divinity may be like than in reading the theory that he/she/it does not exist. The non-existence theory doesn’t explain anything that I find problematic. Naturally, I’m not promoting just any old . I quite agree with most of this paragraph, which criticizes religions that are all too familiar to me. (I was brought up a fundamentalist.) I also endorse , but my endorsement is worthless since in fact I am not good at meditating and haven’t really discovered much about myself from it. (I’ve spent hundreds of hours meditating, though not well, so far as I can tell.)

I distinguish between belief and faith, where is acceptance of propositions as factually correct. I don't have many firm beliefs, since I don’t know what to believe about . All I can say is that whatever I believe is bound to be 99% wrong, just as my beliefs about cosmology are totally inadequate, as are my guesses as to how many dimensions there are or how many universes exist. Nobody’s theological beliefs can possibly be correct. We’ll never know what is so. Therefore, I try to hold my theological beliefs lightly.

On the other hand, I trust that whatever is so is good. If I could comprehend the truth about ultimate reality, I’d be satisfied. That sense is ,” which is quite different from belief. I have a lot of faith. Yes, I guess my faith amounts to a certain Panglossian confidence that the universe is ”unfolding as it should.”

I don’t have any hesitation when it comes to reciting the liturgy in church because I don’t see it as something that should be believed or disbelieved. I don’t think it makes me a hypocrite if I say that Christ rose and is sitting on the right hand of God. That’s not a proposition but a metaphor. I see the liturgy and most biblical teachings as , as metaphor. It’s meant to move me, to put me in touch with aspects of reality that I can overlook too easily, spiritual experiences that are worth cultivating. You don’t have to believe a poem. That’s beside the point. But some poems can work better than others. Some worship services move me and make me a better person, whereas other services fall flat — though that may be because of my own shortcomings, not because the event was intrinsically pedestrian. It’s pretty subjective, so individuals differ in their responses.

Ken continues:
“I was interested to see you believe that the world, or universe, is perfect,
and is unfolding as it should. This sounds a bit like in
, based on the philosopher Leibniz, I believe. His view was that God
is a perfect being, and as such could only have produced a perfect world. I
marvel at the wonder of creation, as it has evolved, but this evolution has
brought with it a humanity capable of self-destruction, given the advance of
technology and the absence of a moral evolution that would assure the
rational management of human affairs according to humanitarian ethics.”

But since I was busy and didn’t answer immediately, Ken must have concluded that I was offended, so he sent this follow-up letter:

“I regretted my remark about your idea of the universe as perfect
and unfolding as it should, as I recall, comparing it to Dr. Pangloss. That
was impertinent if not insulting. I should have asked you how you sustain
your belief in the face of the destruction caused by humans, a part of the
universe? If I offended, please accept my apology. I think your frankness
in expressing yourself on your blog is admirable and I learn from it.”

Now I am not a bit offended. I think Pangloss’s statement of faith (that “this is the best of all possible worlds”) is a clever, amusing little epigram — and not half bad as a working attitude. It’s a belief, and I’m not wedded to any particular propositions about ultimate reality, but as a general orientation, as a declaration of trust, it’s pretty close.

To oversimplify, it seems to me that if you believe in God, you have to decide whether he/she/it is really in charge of everything or whether there are some opposing principles at work determining causality. There are three possibilities: (a) you either accept that God’s behind everything that’s going on, or (b) you divide the divine force into separate entities that have control over particular domains — say, the way the Greeks believed that their gods had jurisdiction over specific areas (Poseidon over water, Athena over wisdom, Aphrodite over sex, etc.). Or (c) you can divide it into just two categorios – a good God and a bad Satan, the way did. Everything was a struggle between the dark and light spirits.

Having been a , I have rejected this good-versus-evil worldview. And I cannot imagine being a polytheist. I have nothing against the idea, but I couldn’t take it seriously as a plausible hypothesis. So what I have left is the strong sense that the universe is a seamless whole, working interactively as a complete system, of which not a single component is truly independent of all the rest. Everything in the universe is connected to everything else. I think that’s actually what physicists say, and if they didn’t, I’d still believe that it’s so.

There's one question that has to be addressed by anyone who trusts such a notion of God: the . The problem of -- of justifying God's ways to humanity. If God is all good and all powerful, why does she make the world so full of suffering and mistakes? By taking the view that I do, I am obliged to say that there is meaning in suffering, that it's part of a larger purpose that we simply cannot recognize. I don't have any trouble holding that perspective. Suffering and errors and accidents are not part of my scheme, but good things can come out of bad, and bad things come out of good, and that goes on forever, so we can never say whether something was good or bad in the long run. The long run is never over.

(It's like the Chinese story about the horse. A farmer's horse gets loose and runs away. “What bad luck!” say the neighbors. The next day the horse returns, leading a whole string of wild ponies. “What good luck!” say the neighbors. The farmer's son tries to break one of the ponies but falls off and breaks his leg. “What bad luck!” say the neighbors. But then the local warlord is recruiting soldiers to go fight for him. All the other young men in the village are conscripted, but because the son's leg is broken, he is not. “What good luck!” say the neighbors.) What is good or bad? There's no way to know. You just have to have faith.

From my point of view, it’s not that there’s a single God out there someplace separate from us, making the universe go. It’s that the whole thing is a system — not just the sub-atomic particles and galaxies but the souls and the music and the psychological experiences, the desires and hatreds, the violence and the peace, the diseases and the medical sciences, the poets and the genocidal dictators — everything, everything. The whole beautiful, amazing, interacting intelligent shebang. And the intelligence that is this system is what I call . I don’t know whether it was a “creator” who set it going, or whether it always was going, but there’s something beautiful and wise being expressed in what is going on and I can't help saying, “Thank you!” dozens of times every day.

's “proof of the existence of God” went like this: I feel , so there must be someone to be grateful toward.” That's not exactly logical but it feels true to me. (See his photo.)

I also don’t know whether God interrupts the flow of what’s happening in order to change its course. If I utter a petition, requesting a particular outcome, is God going to perform a miracle to answer my prayer? I rather doubt it, just as I doubt that anyone will be punished in for not doing the right thing. I just sense that whatever the outcome is, it’s part of a system that’s working very well and so I had better appreciate its goodness if I can. Who am I to say what the outcome should be? If the leaves fall off the trees, do they complain about it? If the alligator eats the gazelle, does the gazelle conclude that God made a mistake? If so, the gazelle’s complaint is also part of the perfectly working system. And if I hate nuclear weapons or racism, that hatred is part of the system too. But that doesn't make my political attitudes right or wrong in any transcendent sense.

Mostly I think of the universe as a fabulous . If we’re immortal souls, we need some problems to solve, so we’ve set it up (or she/he/it set it up) so we can find and problems to work on, and you can win or lose big time. You can get to be prime minister or win a Nobel prize, or marry Brad Pitt, or you can become alcoholic or step on a landmine or run down a pedestrian. Are these payoff “fair” or are they just part of the larger problem you’re supposed to work on? I don’t know.

When I was seven years old my theology came to me one Sunday morning and basically it’s the same one I’ve been living ever since. We were in Sunday School class and my grandmother was the teacher. Someone asked what is like, and she said it is where you go when you die, if you’ve been good. And in heaven there are no problems. No suffering. No scarcity. Everything that you want, you can have instantly, without effort.

I decided right then that such a place would be so boring that I would refuse ever to go there. What could you possibly do there? I demand a place with problems. That’s the only kind of place that would be interesting or fulfilling.

But how many problems do we need to make the world interesting? About as many as we have now. Actually, for many people I think there’s really a . Why else would they waste time lying around on a beach doing nothing? was my philosophy teacher and he said that the main thing a scientist needs is a good nose for problems. You have to look hard to find problems that you can work with. I think we’ve got some excellent problems these days. I am working hard to solve war and peace and climate change, and I’m having a wonderful time. I have a woman friend who’s a physician; she thinks the world is a terrible place because there’s disease and pain and poverty. But what a terrible world it would be if there were NO disease or pain or poverty – if we all had to lie around on clouds strumming harps, or whatever people are supposed to do in heaven! Practicing medicine, or social work, or planning economic development strategies or resolving conflicts are more fun.

I like 's metaphor: Life assigns challenges uniquely to each of us. (He didn’t say “God,” but rather “Life,” but either word works and I usually say “God.”) We have to pay close attention to figure out the meaning of each situation — what the possibilities are that we’re supposed to address. Frankl reached that insight while in a death camp. I remember that when I was giving birth, I was saying, “Okay, the only thing I can do in this situation is suffer. Bring it on, then, God, and let me see how well I can suffer.” Of course, in that situation there was a purpose behind the suffering — my baby — but the same challenge can exist even if there’s no hope of having it all turn out well. The challenge is to do the best you can, and trust that doing so is your contribution to the universe — which is worth it.

Thanks for asking, Ken. This is my favorite topic.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bush's Support for al-Qaeda’s Buddies

Keywords: Bush administration; Middle East strategy; Iran; Syria; Hezbollah; Prince Bandar; Saudi Arabia; John Negroponte; al-Qaeda; Nasrallah; George Friedman; Seymour Hersh.

Today I’ve read two surprising articles about the administration’s new Middle East policies — and they look contradictory to me. But then, who expects logic?

The first article is a new Stratfor article by analyzing the meeting of US, Iranian, and Syrian diplomats in Baghdad on March 10. As he points out, they all deny that there is anything much afoot — but that only proves that these talks are actually rather promising. That they are taking place at all is evidence that Bush is looking for a settlement in Iraq and is keen enough for it to swallow his pride and negotiate with the groups that he most fears and hates. Back room negotiations have probably gone on for a while, but these talks are fully announced, which is a good sign that they are going well. Sure, that’s only Friedman’s guess, but it sounds plausible to me.

He also points out that there is a window of opportunity for such talks right now because the Democrats have failed to formulate a coherent policy in Iraq, which reduces the prospect that they will force imminent changes in US strategy.

Friedman further argues that there are reasons why Iran needs to reduce the danger in the course that the reckless President Ahmedinejad has been pursuing. Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi has warned his countrymen not to underestimate the United States, which is a “wounded tiger.” Besides, the is still years away from real, and is not interested in becoming a global suicide bomber just to please Iran. Hence the Iranians have their own pressing reasons to negotiate a solution to the crisis. Syria, on the other hand, is not the key player in these negotiations.

Thus Friedman’s reading of the situation is that an agreement may be approaching between the US and the most powerful Shiite countries in the region.

Maybe so, but that does not mean the US is suddenly playing nice with the Shiites. Far from it, if we listen to , investigative journalist extraordinaire. In a March 5 piece in The New Yorker, Hersh explains the new Middle East strategy of the Bush administration in quite different terms. He had interviewed numerous people in Washington and the Middle East, including Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. He says, remarkably, that the United States is funding three dangerously aggressive Sunni jihadist groups that are keen to “take on” Hezbollah and the Shiites more generally.

This is quite a reversal, of course. After the Iranian revolution of 1979,m the United States broke with Iran and cultivated closer relations with the leaders of the Sunni Arab states, especially Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. However, emerged from the extremist Sunni groups in Saudi Arabia. The US invasion of Iraq was influenced by the theory that the majority of the population there was Shiite and could, therefore, form a dominant political force in a newly democratic state, thus balancing the influence of Sunni extremists. As we have seen, however, the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri al- is hardly able to offer this kind of balance or stability. Besides, the Iraq Shia are more deeply influenced by their Iranian brethren than the Washington neoconservativs had expected. The outcome of the invasion has been a strengthening of Iranian influence. Moreover, the close relationship between Hezbollah and Iran gives the United States government every reason for anxiety about their declining position in the region. And in the Middle East, the Sunni states are terrified about the Shia resurgence.

Hence the new US strategy: support the Sunni who may very well attack the Shiites. explained this to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January as a policy of separating “reformers” and “extremists” in the Middle East. Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah are, by her definition, the main extremists. (Syria’s population is mainly , but members of the Alawi sect.) Bush has been pointing out the dangers posed to American troops by Shiite terrorist incursions across the border from Iran into Iraq. In fact, however, the casualties inflicted on Americans in Iraq by Sunnis is far greater than anything Iran has done.

(see photo) is the Saudi national security advisor, but his influence in Washington remains strong. He served there as Ambassador for 22 years, forging a friendship with the Bush family and with Cheney. He and the other Saudi royals are intent upon halting the growth of Shiite power in the Middle East. They have deep pockets, as well as long-term friendly relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sunni extremists, the Salafis, who regard the Shiites as apostates. Bandar’s fingerprints are all over the new Bush administration strategy.

American, European, and Arab officials told Hersh that the Siniora government of Lebanon had allowed US aid to end up in the hands of Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. These groups are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah, Hersh says. They all have ideological ties with al-Qaeda.

A senior Lebanese government official acknowledged to Hersh that there are al-Qaeda types operating in Lebanon. That government is unable to get rid of them, nor can it meet their demands.

, a former CIA agent in Lebanon, had been severely critical of Hezbollah in times past. However, now he worries about the trouble coming from the Sunni side. He told Hersh, “We’ve got Sunni Arabs preparing for cataclysmic conflict, and we will need somebody to protect the Christians in Lebanon. It used to be the French and the United States who would do it, and now it’s going to b Nasrallah and the Shiites.”

People in Washington see the new Bush administration strategy as resembling the Iran-Contra scandal. Congress is not being briefed on the full extent of the US-Saudi covert operations. Hersh has inferred that John Negroponte’s career change was influenced by the parallels that he saw between the current situation and that earlier one. Negroponte had been the director of Intelligence, but he did not see eye-to-eye with Cheney, and was considered too much of a stickler for ethics, so he gave up that position and took a second-level job as deputy secretary of state.

So what does all this add up to? Beats me. On the one hand, President Bush is running cover operations against the Shiites, funneling money to support their arch enemies, three jihadist Sunni militias with ideological links to al-Qaeda, without congressional authorization. This risky maneuver can bring even more disgrace upon him, just as the scandal humiliated Ronald Reagan.

At the same time, the Bush administration is negotiating with those same Shiite states, and there is some reason to hope that a genuine breakthrough to peace may result. Which is the genuine strategy?

Is this logical or am I missing something?


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Losing Faith or Losing Religion

Keywords: atheism; Richard Dawkins; ex-Muslims; Zen master; Luc Brisson; Jesus; Greek gods; mythology; metaphor.

A big article in today’s Globe and Mail (which I cannot identify because it already is in the recycling bin) claims that we are in a big period of considering . He has to be right. I hadn’t notice before, but I keep getting into conversations about the loss of , or about religious , or about a righteous antagonism toward one or all religions. Something is in the air. A lot of it comes from current books by (see photo), who simply hates religion. I have not read Dawkins himself, but I can hardly avoid reading other people's opinions of him. Apparently he is railing against a simplistic view of God that nobody except fundamentalists have believed anyhow for centuries. But the current concern that religions contain irrational elements seems to go beyond Dawkins, troubling lots of people nowadays.

Item: the same copy of today’s Globe has an article about people in Germany who are organizing themselves to promote their own values as “.” It doesn’t say what they do believe, but it’s clear that they resent being lumped in with a that they explicitly gave up years ago.

Item: I had a conversation with a dear friend who defines herself as an atheist now, but who used to pray in her youth. One day, she says, she suddenly realized: “There’s nobody listening.” That seems to have been the moment when she stopped being religious. Her change was not like my own, in that she seems instantly to have dropped any interest in ascertaining what ultimate reality might be all about, whereas many times a day I keep questioning what my place may be in the grand scheme of things — what it is that I’m supposed to be doing with my life. I wonder how it feels not to think that there are answers to such questions.

Item: Another conversation took place three weeks ago when another old friend told me that life is “empty and meaningless.” He actually meant that we each supply the meaning of our own lives, and presumably the meaning of the universe. In that sense we are God. So he didn’t really intend to be representing a nihilistic view, though that’s how it seems to me. If I “create” meaning then it’s not out there calling me, speaking to me, demanding anything of me. I don’t believe that I make up meaning; instead, I discover it. (When I’m lucky.) However, such a discovery always should be tentative and probably should not be shared with others readily, lest I get carried away with convincing others that it is right. There’s such a thing as having too much faith – too much conviction about the meaning one discovers.

Item: Just now I’m off to meet a friend who’s a . She seems to believe too that we’re all part of God. Except she doesn’t believe that there actually IS a God as creator. The universe always was here. That’s okay. I don’t care whether there was a moment when God created the universe. My faith is that there is , a directionality in what is going on, and that the directionality even includes what seems evil. What would it be like to not believe that – to suppose that everything happens randomly without any underlying pattern? I can’t imagine what that opinion would feel like.

Item: For a month or six weeks, ’s e-mail list has been the site of a conversation about Christians’ doubt. It seems that many parishioners are concerned because they doubt the virgin birth, the , the of Christ to heaven, and a lot of miracles. The discussion began when one woman asked whether she’s still entitled to belong to Holy Trinity, given the extent of her doubts. Others replied by saying that it’s perfectly normal to doubt; they doubt too. Indeed, they add, we’re supposed to experience doubt because that’s part of the spiritual journey. But oddly, they hadn’t been talked about it before, at least in my presence. Why is it happening now?

Item: If a Christian hadn’t worked through these questions before, she is going to have to think it through now. has presented enough material evidence to make it necessary for everyone to consider whether she believes that Jesus’s are on this world or not. If not, what happened to them? If was caught up in a cloud and sucked off this planet by God, what happened to him when he got to about 30,000 feet? Did he go to the moon, or to Mars, or where? Most Christians have avoided such questions until now.

The answer to these questions for anyone who cannot become an atheist, or at least a non-Christian, is to make these stories into and . That’s what I did about 40 years ago. I didn’t give up on God and I didn’t even renounce the theological messages of Jesus, which admittedly are pretty obscure, so I may not understand them correctly. I just read them as inspiring stories that point to some kind of deeper truth and that may even give me tips on how to live well on this earth, in this society. Never did I doubt that what’s going on — the whole universe as it’s working out now — is excellent, perfect. But I don’t have to believe in any historical anomalies for that to be true.

This is not the first time such a solution has been handy for rescuing a dying religious tradition. When was put to death it was for casting doubt on the truth about the gods on Mount Olympus. But by the time Aristotle was writing, he didn’t really discuss the gods. His philosophy was rationalistic and sometimes even empirical. So the were losing faith in their , just as we are apparently in a period of doubt ourselves.

The French philosopher claims that it was actually philosophers who saved these Greek myths. They did so by reinterpreting them as allegories rather than as empirical facts. Various new meanings could be attributed to these gods. For example, Zeus could represent reason and Athena could represent art. They could even be personifications of natural substances. Thus Poseidon represents water and Dionysus represents wine. Transforming material persons and historical events into myths and allegories allows us to appreciate them in other ways.

Unless you're an ex-Muslim, or a Richard Dawkins. If you are, I don't know how to help you.


Friday, March 09, 2007

The Naked Archaeologist Finds Jesus

Keywords: "Lost Tomb of Jesus”; Simcha Jacobovici; Jerusalem; Talpiot; Jesus; James; Maria; Mary Magdalene; Mariamne; Matthew; Magdala; ossuary; DNA; patina; tau

Got your attention, didn’t I? Well, will hold your attention rapt from the minute you look at his new film, . It’s the most fascinating TV show I’ve seen for years. Jacobovici is not really an and certainly not , but a talented Israeli-Canadian filmmaker who always wears something that looks like Muslim prayer cap.

Is the story true? Well, you must judge for yourself. Most people, I suppose, prefer to believe it’s untrue, but not I. The thesis seems more credible than I expected before seeing the show. Probably it’s because Jacobovici, the director and protagonist, is smart, scholarly, easy-going, committed, pleasant, and (I think) honorable. We get to watch him investigating an astonishing mystery — live, unrehearsed and unscripted.

In 1980 a tomb (see photo) was accidentally uncovered by a construction crew in , a suburb of Jerusalem. It contained ten ossuaries 2000 years old. In six of them were inscribed roughly the names of those whose bones were in each box. The Israeli antiquities authorities took the ossuaries, catalogued them, removed the bones and had them buried in sanctified ground. The boxes themselves have been kept in storage ever since and the was sealed. Ten years or so ago the BBC produced a documentary about it. And two years ago, Jacobovici began work on his own doc, prompted by directing a film about an that turned up suddenly in museums — supposedly that of , the brother of Jesus.

For about 100 years, at the time of Christ, the Jewish practice was to place the shrouded corpse for one year in a family tomb cut out of rock. Then the mourners would come and move the bones to a stone box (ossuary) which would be put into a special hollowed-out area of the cave, where it would remain forever — or anyway until the archaeologists arrived 2000 years later.

The Talpiot tomb contained bone boxes inscribed with the names of , son of Joseph; ; (a rare nickname for Joseph, mentioned in the Gospel of Mark as Jesus’s brother; Matthew; , and , son of Jesus.

The adoptive father Joseph was not represented in the family tomb. Nobody can identify this Matthew as a member of Jesus’s family, but the name appears regularly in his mother’s genealogy. The most difficult name in the collection was that of Mariamne — a Greek version of Mary that was the term actually used to refer to , or Mary from the Greek-speaking town .

One ossuary had gone missing after the discovery of the tomb in 1980; Simcha believed that it might have been the James bone box.

Jacobovici does his sleuthing well. We follow his bold search for the sealed tomb, which he opens and crawls inside to explore. He also uses scientific evidence well. He asks a to calculate the odds that these particular names, all of which had been famous in ancient times, would all occur together by chance and match the identities of Jesus’s known family. (The answer: about 1 chance in 600.) The odds get even more remarkable if you count Mariamne and James.

He had comparisons made between the of the James ossuary and that of one from the presumed family tomb. They matched, whereas shards from other locations did not. This lent weight to the argument that the James box had indeed spent centuries in that very tomb. He antique dealer who had bought the James ossuary claimed he had procured it in about 1980; again, this suggests that the box was stolen the same year that it was initially uncovered. (There is evidence in the other direction, however. Though the inscription on that box had certainly read “James, the son of Joseph,” a forger may have added the phrase, “and brother of Jesus.” The dealer is being charged with , and during a photo may been found that dates back to the 1970s, before the tomb was discovered. If that proves to be the case, there is no way that the box can be authentic.)

Simcha found bone residue from the Jesus and Mariamne boxes and had the analyzed by scientists who were not told the names of their subjects. Though they could not identify the nucleus DNA, they could compare the mitochondrial DNA. It revealed that these two individuals did not have the same mother. To be buried in the same family tomb, they must have been husband and wife, not siblings.

If Jesus was a husband, he might also have been a father – the parent of Judah. Jacobovici explains that the lives of Jesus and his male kin would have been in danger, since he was considered a claimant to the Davidic throne. To protect the child, Jesus and his followers would have kept his identity secret. though there are several hints in the Gospels, such as mention of a little boy who cuddles with Jesus at the dinner table.

Along the way, Simcha discovers some cultural aspects of that original community. Notice the entrance to the tomb: There’s a above the door with a circle under it. We see additional symbols of this kind on two of the other ossuaries of Judeo-Christians. There is also an X mark on several ossuaries – not the shape of a Christian that we might recognize today. According to the Israeli museum curator, the cross was not used as a Christian symbol until the fourth century. However, Jacobovici argues that this is not a cross but rather a “tau” letter – the last letter in the alphabet. Its significance is that this is the end, finished. Jesus said, “I am the alpha and omega ” — in Hebrew, the “aleph and tau.” He thinks that the symbolic cross actually evolved from this x rather than originating as a representation of the crucifixion.

I learned a lot from this narrative — especially about Mary Magdalene. She was mentioned in the Bible 14 times, always as an honored person. The story that she was the adulteress whom Jesus saved from being stoned, or a prostitute, or the woman who anointed his feet and dried them with her hair, these are all stories invented to discredit her centuries after her death. She was actually the sister of Martha and the Apostle Philip. She and Philip were missionaries who preached to the Greek Jews. She healed and baptized, and was considered an apostle herself. She wrote a Gospel and Philip wrote the Acts of Philip, but both texts were burned by the increasingly patriarchal church authorities after their death. So powerful was her influence after Jesus’s death that one of the biblical historians interviewed on the show said that she was the real founder of Christianity. I had not known that women had been ordained during the earliest years after Jesus died.

I checked Google to see how people are reacting to this surprising story. Naturally, there are more critics than believers. It is clear from the rhetoric of the critics that this archaeological exploration upsets them greatly. There can be grounds for skepticism, of course, but the only evidence that strikes me as powerful is the alleged photo of the James ossuary dating back to the 1970s. If you take James out of the set of ossuaries, the statistical improbability of this particular combination is reduced. But it still remains remarkable. Jacobovici says that the fact that clinched the case for him was the discovery of Mariamne’s name as the correct one for Mary Magdalene. To me, that is indeed a powerful piece of evidence for, rather than against the argument.

What I hope is that someone properly recorded the location of the bones they buried in 1980. Someone has to go dig them up and perform DNA tests on them. What would we expect to find from the DNA of a guy like Jesus? Would half of the chromosomes twinkle or glow under the microscope? I can hardly wait.

But I should not joke. Simcha Jacobovici himself does not approach this research in any way that could offend anyone. He’s Jewish, but he shows exactly the same respectful attitude that the Christian theologians and biblical scholars express in the film. This project is not about settling scores against the devout. Yet it is mainly the devout who will be shocked by the film.

Never mind that. Let the research go forward. I find myself laughing with delight at each new discovery.


Monday, March 05, 2007

Shame is the Master Emotion

Keywords: Tom Scheff; shame; loss of face; embarrassment; humiliation; Greeks; Homer; Howard Becker; commitment; throw good money after bad; George Lincoln Rockwell; American Nazi; L. Ron Hubbard; Scientology; deviance; civil inattention; Goffman.

writes about the . He pointed out something a while ago that’s far more important than people generally acknowledge. He says that the most powerful emotion in shaping our lives is – or rather our desire to avoid and suppress it. Not guilt but shame — a loss of credibility in the eyes of others. Loss of face. Moreover, he points out that when shame arises in a social situation, almost nobody points it out. Even psychiatrists rarely draw attention to it in a therapy session but instead help the patient cover it up. That tendency refers to a concept that Goffman introduced — “.” If you’re caught doing something embarrassing, people will look away until you’ve recovered and will appear not to have noticed. That’s an important social obligation.

The truth is, whenever shame arises, it is a terrible problem, and pointing it out only makes it worse. Even anger is more acceptable and, as Scheff notes, it is often aroused as a way of hiding shame. We’d much rather be angry than humiliated. His interesting book Bloody Revenge explores historical cases in which whole societies cover up their shame by belligerence. For example, World War I arose like that. He quotes letters exchanged during the pre-war period showing that what people were feeling was that their nation’s “honor” was in jeopardy, and the way to avoid mentioning that was to work up rage.

I think that it’s true — shame is a terrible experience, one that we’d vastly prefer to suppress than almost any other, including guilt. We want honor, dignity, credibility in the eyes of others. So we hide embarrassment if we can. Yet it can come flooding up, even when we’re alone, and we may mutter something aloud or clench our fists and tighten our abdomen until we can subdue it again.

Certain cultures are supposedly more sensitive to shame than others: Japan, for example. And China. Also, the were motivated by shame issues far more than by guilt. The warrior culture of Homer’s epics, for example, rarely reflected about moral obligations. They were driven primarily by a desire to look good, to win praise as heroic fighters. But that doesn’t mean that we today are much less oriented toward shame ourselves; we are. But we try to re-frame any aspersion on our honor as an issue of morality (guilt) rather than social esteem (shame).

My friend Paul Ekman pays a lot of attention to using proper terminology about affects. He’s a top psychologist specializing in emotion, and he insists that are very brief things, lasting only a moment or at most a few minutes. I don’t think shame is so fleeting.

Also, according to therapists, if you want to reduce the power of an old traumatic memory, you can do so by re-living it a few times, feeling the full force of its power, and eventually it will wane. Again, I don’t think that’s true of shame. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, full of shame about something embarrassing that I said or did sixty years ago. Usually I try to lie still and stay with it until it goes away; that takes an hour or so, and even so the feeling of shame never diminishes. When I recall it the next time, a month or a year later, it is still intense. I have asked other people whether they have such collections of shameful memories and they always admit that they do, so apparently I’m not unusual.

If the emotional management of a memory at midnight is a psychological problem, the public management of disgrace is a social problem — one that can even assume historic proportions. This happens because of the normal human tendency to get “stuck with one’s own story.” So far as I know, everyone does it – not just screwed-up individuals. Commitment usually is not a mental decision but rather an objective situation that happens to us.

On this point, the sociologist once wrote a brilliant article called “Notes Toward a Concept of Commitment.” He pointed out that often happens unintentionally. We become constrained by the consequences of our own decisions – even decisions that we did not fully comprehend at the time. For example, we can paint ourselves into a corner. Or we can dally too long in deciding to quit an unpleasant job, so that we’ve built up too large a pension fund that is not portable and thus no longer can afford to change jobs. Commitment is the recognition that we’re stuck with some bad decisions we made and cannot now undo.

Another example: I never began Peace Magazine with the intention of spending the rest of my life on it. The commitment was something that happened to me, not something I consciously chose. I began putting time and money into it until finally I’d invested more than I could afford to lose. I’d also forgone important professional opportunities for the sake of the magazine, and I could no longer catch up with my colleagues. This experience taught me the meaning of having to “throw good money after bad” to keep from losing everything already invested. I don' regret it now, but I'd never have set out to do this with my life.

On the other hand, commitment can be created intentionally as an objective circumstance, by making a “.” Suppose, for example, I want to quit , but I know my own weakness. I change my future incentives by putting $5000 in escrow, authorizing you to donate it to a charity if ever again you discover that I have smoked. This objectively changes the payoff for my future behavior, thus keeping me committed even if my good intention wanes.

Even short of placing monetary side bets, we can commit to a future plan by declaring our intentions in such a public way that we will feel shamed by the failure to carry it out. This probably works only when the expected shame is certain to be intense.

I remember reading a Sunday magazine article many years ago about , the leader of the back in the 1960s. (See photo.) The author had known Rockwell as a flamboyant youth who enjoyed shocking people and was always “on stage.” He would pretend to hold all kinds of outrageous opinions for a while. People who knew him would just grin and let his absurd arguments pass without comment. But he did it once too often. In the company of some people who didn’t know him, he claimed to admire . Instead of laughing at his act, these strangers took him seriously and were appalled. Rockwell couldn’t bring himself to stop and say that he was just kidding, so he kept it up. The more his reputation grew, the harder it became to back down. He found himself committed to this act, not intentionally, but because others took it seriously. He proselytized, building up a group of self-proclaimed Nazi followers who marched in racist parades with him. Too proud to retract anything, he pretended to feel no shame but flaunted his defiance, strutting on the political stage several years until finally he was shot dead in the street, a tragic victim of his own hyperbole.

I fully understand being trapped by defending a public persona of my own injudicious creation. Indeed, something similar actually happened to me long ago when, for about three years, I became a Scientologist. Here’s how it happened. I was married to Bob Spencer. (Even my marriage was not exactly intended — a commitment resulting from circumstances that made it hard to break up – but that’s another story.). Bob was a psychology graduate student who dabbled in , and so I followed him into that experimentation, which was not initially altogether preposterous. The theory held that we retain unconscious memories of traumas, including prenatal ones, that still influence our lives. Though I never benefited from the effort to recover such memories, I do remain open to the possibility that there is some truth in the theory. (For example, I am claustrophobic — a problem that may have originated in the birth trauma.) Anyway, the experimentation seemed harmless at first.

It might have remained harmless had we not committed ourselves, “burning our bridges behind ourselves” by making public lifestyle changes that were hard to reverse. Bob left university and wanted to go to Phoenix, where was teaching a growing flock of disciples. Though our marriage was already rocky, I went along, alarming my friends and family, who were quick to classify this practice as a cult. It soon became apparent that they were correct, for the Dianetics became — an increasingly outlandish exploration of past lives in other solar systems. Bob moved away, leaving me in Phoenix without resources. The wilder Hubbard’s publicized theories became, the more one was ostracized for holding to them, and hence the more mutually dependent we Scientologists became. The practice itself was neither harmful nor beneficial, but the shame of becoming a deviant community was exceedingly harmful. In my mind’s imagery, I see it as an ice floe that I heedlessly walked onto just before it broke off and started floating away. There was no easy way to return to land.

Shame is disreputable status that virtually everyone, however rational, can acquire. Adopt an odd position on any issue and it may happen to you quicker than you imagine. Deviance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. More than anything else, it is a condition of impaired conversational status. If you discredit yourself by espousing an off-beat theory, others will tolerate you and discuss it with you rationally — up to a certain point. If the evidence runs against your position and you cannot be dissuaded by reasoning, however, a time will come when others discount your comments. Once labeled as a “crank,” you will be excluded from serious discourse. This can be extremely hard to reverse, for every reputation takes on a life of its own, A frank foreswearing of the deviant ideology will restore your membership in normal society, but only with a substantial loss of prestige. Everyone remembers your past poor judgment and wonders whether your present normality is entirely reliable. It’s hardly surprising that most people’s opinions match the consensus of others more than their independent reflection.

At one extreme there’s the pathology of “mind control,” where the group demands excessive conformity. At the other extreme, there’s the pathology of the committed crank ideologue who cannot reconsider the deviant position that he has taken. Discredited for his extreme views, he feels shame — yet he would feel even more intense shame if he backed down and admitted his errors. Hence, like George Lincoln Rockwell, he is stuck with his story.

The trouble is, there is no easy way of helping an ideological crank surmount his deviant status. It does no good to remind him that he’s becoming regarded as a crank — that only increases the amount of shame that he’ll have to incur by renouncing his wacky views. On the other hand, reasoning with him won’t work either, for the nature of his predicament is that he’s stuck with his previous story and must defend it at all costs. Probably the kindest way of helping him recover his credibility is to practice “civil inattention” by acting as if his disgraceful blooper or ideology were too trivial even to notice.

This can be hard to do – and even so it may not work. I am dealing with two friends right now who are in that position. On matters of climate change and energy policy, both of them initially took positions that were significantly off-beat but still arguable at a time when the evidence was less complete than now. One of them, for example, believes that there is no such thing as climate change, and insofar as there is any warming of the planet at all, it is caused by the sun, not people. Over time, as more evidence has accumulated, scientists have almost universally reached a consensus and my friend has been “stuck with his story.” To recant would be even more humiliating than to continue defending it. Over time, his view has skidded into the category of “crackpot ideologies.” However, I don’t want to say so because that would emphasize how far his ice floe has drifted away from mainstream science — and hence how humiliating his renunciation would be.

How do you help people get off a losing ideology without losing face? Help me if you know how.