Thursday, April 26, 2007

Religious Literacy - A Review

In Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero takes his cue and his title from E. D. Hirsch’s 1988 volume, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, now in its third edition (2002). Prayer and devotion went out of the schools in 1963 with the court case of Abington Township School District v. Schempp, and with it went religion altogether. Prothero insists a correction is overdue. Not in prayer and devotion, however, but the objective study of religion as a school subject.

Hirsch complained that our national dumbing down had begun to eat away at our cultural heritage and he set about collecting facts he believed people need to participate intelligently in modern-day American culture. Prothero, after laying out what he calls the problem of religious illiteracy and showing us what Americans once knew about religion, also provides a dictionary of terms he hopes will address that lacuna.

Like Hirsch, as well as proponents of “Western Civilization” courses in the university, Prothero has to contend with the big question of who gets to speak for the national culture. Before Hirsch and Prothero, there was Howard Bloom’s plea that we stop being seduced by popular culture, postmodern relativity notions and low quality writing and renew our acquaintance with the products of the best and the brightest of our civilization. The problem is just what those products might be. Bloom was attacked on all sides for his biases in favor of “dead white men,” and Hirsch hardly fared better. Prothero, too, will have to answer to people who ask why it is when he says religion he almost always means Christianity – and Protestant Christianity at that. He is scornful of the idea that we offer equal treatment to all religions. His dictionary includes other religions, but his discussion of school curriculum lays overwhelming emphasis on knowledge of the Bible. The reason being, of course, that Protestant Christianity is our cultural heritage, warts and all.

There are several problems with that claim. One is its incompleteness. Protestantism is unquestionably a major part of what has made and continues to make America tick. But it’s not all, and there’s the argument that with only so many hours in the day, and in a school year, more hours of Latin and Greek mean fewer hours of Latin American literature, to pick topics chosen arbitrarily and at random.

Not entirely arbitrarily, of course. The example parallels the struggle between conservative forces who look back at what we were and want to hold fast, and progressive forces who suggest we fix what went wrong and move on. To bring religious studies back into schools, as Prothero wants us to do, would mean cutting time for something else. Where would religious studies stand in competition with music, drama, or sports? Or more math and science, for that matter. Times have changed. Would courses in ecology not draw greater parental support than a course in which one reviewed the books of the Bible (and distinguished between Jewish, Catholic and Protestant bibles)?

Anthropologists describe, and leave advocacy to others. A Martian anthropologist would look at America and simply observe that Americans no longer learn to make quilts and spinning wheels, no longer burn witches and lynch the descendants of slaves, and no longer care as they once did whether one should be baptized as an adult or as a child.

Prothero, on the other hand, spends a chapter reminding us how much “we” used to know, how much a part of a child’s education was comprised of Bible stories. He then speaks of the “predicament” we are in because that knowledge base has been largely eroded. He gives little weight to the fact that a far greater number of us today are Hindu or Jew, Muslim, secularist, atheist, Buddhist, or Catholic than in days gone by.

“Faith without knowledge is dangerous, ” he says (p. 146). Religion is "the most volatile constituent of culture" and "one of the greatest forces for evil" in the world.” Elsewhere he argues that he is neutral about religion – “I write here not as a believer (or unbeliever) but as a citizen” (p. 15). He is a believer, however, and may be located among the knowledge-based Christians (those who seek to understand the message of Jesus) and not among the increasingly numerous and powerful spirit-based Christians (who speak of Jesus as a friend they talk to on a daily basis). This raises the question of where his supporters and detractors are most likely to come from. Will Jews want to sit through classes on the bible where the large majority are born-again Christians? Will the born-again Christians want to hear the view that anti-semitism is found not only in the hearts of some Christians but in the scriptures themselves?

In a perfect world, one would welcome this kind of exchange. But one can only imagine the can of worms we’d open if we put it in the high schools in today’s America. He insists it’s already being done successfully in 8% of America’s schools, but that claim requires closer scrutiny. Prothero’s proposal would require very serious groundwork indeed and would doubtless only work as an elective.. Will non-religious people be convinced of its value? Will spirit-based religionists agree that knowledge about religion (which will inevitably hold their beliefs up to scrutiny) lead to something good? Should we even care what they think? Should we not go with Prothero especially if we think the renewalist wave is not simply a fact but an alarming one?

Prothero gives mixed messages. His chapter on the history of Protestant America suggests a nostalgia for a time when religion took up more space in American life. And this doesn’t jibe with his ignorance-is-dangerous pitch. He suggests that there is something shameful about thinking Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, as if it is on a par with those polls which show an alarming number of Americans cannot distinguish Iraq from Australia on a map. And he is especially critical of people who do not know “their own religious history.” But isn’t that begging the question? If they do not know it, perhaps it is not “their own” anymore, and if he is writing as a citizen and not as a Christian, why should he care?

Whether or not he has a religious agenda hiding in his appeal, however, (and I see absolutely nothing sinister in that – he has every right to advocate religion) I think we should take him at face value when he gives us two non-religious reasons for boning up on things Americans once knew about religion, one political and one sociocultural.

Politically, the case can be made that our ignorance of the differences between Shia and Sunni led to catastrophe in Iraq. Another case can be made that knowing nothing about the role of dispensational premillenialism blinds us to the reasons evangelicals support an aggressive Israeli policy in Gaza and the West Bank. A third, one that brings me around to his side even more than the others, is that we fail miserably to ask interesting questions of Christians who focus more energy on wiping out homosexuality than poverty and follow a war policy but not a turn-the-other-cheek policy.

On the cultural front, a case can be made that a failure to understand the Biblical references and religious argument for civil disobedience in Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail or the moral one in his I Have a Dream speech means we miss a full appreciation of some of the great documents in the history of American democracy. Other examples abound.

Beyond that, what we teach our children, it seems to me, is up for grabs. I agree with Bloom that if you don’t spend some time with Shakespeare, you’re squandering a great resource of the English language. I resonate with much of what Hirsch includes in his canon. And I share with Prothero the wish more people could talk intelligently about Vatican I and II, the separation of church and state, exactly why some people refuse blood transfusions and the like. But I have more than a little trouble shedding a tear that America is no longer what it was when its children were reading the McGuffey readers. Are we really worse off now that Catholics no longer refuse to pray with Protestants, and build parochial schools because the public schools are so antagonistic to Catholicism? Do we really want to go back to the assumption of America as a Christian nation, as we did when Jews could not join country clubs? If the ‘relativization’ of religious beliefs leads Jews to marry out at a rate of 50%, is it really my responsibility as an American citizen to turn the tide?

Prothero’s appeal that we be well-read in our cultural history should be welcome by any and all of us. His argument that there are risks in not knowing about something that figures so prominently in our domestic and international relations also has merit. But he provides no reason why his suggestion that we retire to our sectarian camps to renew our various ultimate truth claims should be taken seriously. Those who find religion a glass half full will agree with him; those who see religion as a source of division will not.

Prothero has delivered on his title to a degree. The book is full of interesting facts. I was raised a Christian but learned of Arminius here for the first time. (Jacobus Arminius, who inspired Methodists and later Pentecostalists and others) focused on the importance of a personal (read: emotional) relationship with Jesus. I had forgotten that the Douay version of the bible has more books than the King James; I thought it was a question of different books. I thoroughly enjoyed the history of the sea change from knowing about Jesus to knowing him personally. By and large, though – and Prothero admits this – he only scratches the surface of facts about religion and seriously short-changes some. (There is no mention of Sufi, of Christian Science, of voodoo.) But except for the promise in his title, that’s not a fair criticism. His book is an appeal more than a repository of information.

As many have pointed out recently, religion is on the rise in America, and the European pattern of ever increasing secularism may be the exception, not the rule. The reason we know less than we once did as a nation Prothero attributes not to creeping secularism but to the shift over time from a knowledge-based Calvinism to a passion-based Arminianism.

The pendulum swings back and forth throughout history between times when we make reason central and times when passion reigns supreme. The current zeitgeist is to talk of scripture passionately, but not really know what it says. Many Afro-Americans who do read carefully refuse to read Paul’s letters in church where he urges slaves to submit to their masters. Most renewal (Arminian, Pentecostal, spirit-based, passion-based – we’re still working out the labels) Christians don’t give it a moment’s thought, or consider it trivial. Knowledge of scripture in their camp is so scanty that they associate sin with sexual behavior and not with their failure to feed the homeless. They can tell you why they oppose homosexuality, but not why they prioritize it and other sexual sins over peace and compassion. Rather than debate the scriptures, they often argue along the lines that a little knowledge is dangerous. No-nothingism lives on, and Prothero’s plan would be a challenge to the those who focus on faith healing, speaking-in-tongues and other joyous expression at the cost of critical thinking.

What exactly would we include in a school curriculum on religion? Who would teach it? Would we have a Vatican I catholic debate a Vatican II catholic? Or would we take the power structure view that there is no division and propagate a falsehood? Would we permit kids to laugh out loud at stories of the Rapture? Or would we insist that respect for religion is necessary? What message are we giving our children, Prothero asks, by keeping silent about religion in the public arena? What message, I ask, would we be giving them if we told them there are ideas which one must not express. Would we keep silent about artistic productions such as the Piss Christ and the Chocolate Jesus? Would we depend on the state to determine what might be said in these religion courses?

It would not take long, I suspect, after opening the pandora’s box that holds religious fervor in check before we would be scurrying back to where we are now, where parents who believe it important to inculcate religious beliefs into their children use the opportunities provided by Sunday Schools, catechism classes, summer camps, the dinner table and prayers and discussions before bedtime. And where the rest of us go back to the gentlemen’s agreement we once had based on a conviction that nice people don’t say nasty things about other people’s religion.

If religion comes out in public, it has to be treated like any other idea. Aired and debated and subjected on occasion to ridicule. Is that what Prothero is after? If so, I doubt most religious people in America will be so quick to support his efforts. If we are going to go on being “decently respectful” about one another’s religious convictions, it is best kept in the private arena where one enters at one’s own risk.

I don’t see how you can have it both ways.

But in the end, my view is one of scepticism about how we might successfully implement his plan, rather than opposition. My guess is that Prothero’s idea will catch hold to some degree in some places. And where it doesn’t, it will generate useful discussion.

That’s all to the good.

April 26, 2007


There are at least two excellent treatments of Prothero’s proposal. One is an
interview on Tavis Smiley which gets at the main points:

Another is David Van Biema’s article in Time Magazine which outlines many of the objections before seconding the motion:,9171,1601845,00.html

There’s also the Jon Stewart interview:

Additional reviews are available on Prothero’s website:

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Pursuit of Happyness: A Review

The best way to watch The Pursuit of Happyness is to unplug the cable connecting your head and heart, or shift to heart only mode and sit back. You’ll soar. So much love. So much appeal to your best instincts to care for the little guy.

There’s so much to groove on. (Sorry if groove dates me; I can’t find a better word.) There’s Will Smith’s face. There’s the man’s affection for his son. The son’s voice when he says, “You’re a good papa.” The fact that the son is played by Smith’s own son and gives you reason to think there might be a gene for good acting. There’s the Italian director, Gabriele Muccino (don’t miss the extra features when you rent the DVD), and the obvious affection between him and Will Smith. There’s the scene with the Glide Memorial Choir and there’s Cecil Williams, played by Cecil Williams. And there’s Will’s face when he gets the news he is unemployed no more.

I assume you know the plot line. The script is based on the book by Chris Gardner who, if his tale is true, busted his ass to get a job with Dean Witter against what seem like impossible odds, including a stint as a homeless man sleeping in the toilet of a BART Station with his son.

Muccino barely knew English when he started filming, but he knew what he wanted to make the story about. You have to be an outsider to understand the American dream, he said. Don’t know about that, but he got it right.

And that brings us to what happens if you plug your head back in at some point. If you do, you begin to understand why gave the film only a 2/3 positive rating. One man’s tale of courage, will power and determination is another man’s tale of everything that’s wrong with the American dream.

In pragmatic America, where philosophy is for sissies, individual effort is often taken for the sole governing factor in success, and not merely a contributing factor. It’s all about being a winner, not a loser, not about making the world a better place to live in. It’s about individual heroes, not groups or institutions. We’ve got John Wayne and Superman and now we’ve got Chris Gardner. One person can make a difference. Michael Jackson builds a fantasy land because he just wants to “help the children” and flies in a dying kid here and there and treats him like a prince. Oprah gives away cars and builds schools in South Africa and tells about it to millions of teary-eyed fans. We see her enabling a whole generation of new Nelson Mandelas. We don’t see the kids who miss out on her generosity.

Charity, the chief virtue of the great religions, goes hand in hand with an acceptance of the status quo. God must love poor people; he made so many of them, the saying goes. And thank God he provided us with so much opportunity to display our generous hearts.

Occasionally Americans pull off things like Social Security and Medicare. We also generate a critical mass of folk who try to tear those institutions down. We’re not much on universal health insurance but as our leaders Tom Delay and Bill Frist reminded us, we have developed the technology to support our life-at-all-costs values. Remember the efforts to keep Terry Schiavo alive?

The communists failed, any Republican can tell you, because they removed incentive. We, on the other hand, know America is Number One because we don’t make that mistake.

But talk about things like this has no place in a rags-to-riches American moral tale. It gets in the way of the tears and the inspiration and the pride. Worst of all, it’s boring.

In Pursuit of Happyness the wealthy are kind and generous and supportive. The poor are thieves. In one telling scene the Gardner character takes a basketball away from his son. Good, you think. A black American father who is reminding his kid not to fall in the trap so many ghetto kids fall into thinking sports will save your ass. Another winners and losers way out for the few with failure for the many. (For the many, there’s the military, of course, which is fine except when the military does what it’s meant to do.) But then he changes his mind and the message becomes, “Don’t listen to anybody. Not even me.” Don’t let anything get between you and your dream.

Really? Not anything? Not a wife and kids? Not a community? Not the pursuit of truth and the maintenance of a pure soul? Not a serious talk with yourself about who you might have to step on to get to the top? What happens to those of us who can’t make it to the top? Where do we sleep?

The models for Chris Gardner are the men with the Jaguars and ringside seats at sports events. The dream home is not a little home with a picket fence but a pretentious as hell mansion – goals he ultimately achieves, by the way.

Then there’s the fact that Gardner wows ‘em with his brilliance in solving the Rubic cube in a short cab ride from downtown San Francisco to Noe Valley. He’s always been a whiz kid. He’s got the stuff, in other words, to make it, given the opportunity. Ah, yes. Star material.

But what have we got with all this Marxist trashing of the American dream and raining on a winner’s parade? It’s a good way to ruin a good cry.

Watch those eyes of Will Smith tear up when the dream comes true. It will restore your faith in mankind.

The winner class, at any rate.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sakutaro Tanino

I went to a talk yesterday by Sakutaro Tanino, the former Japanese Ambassador to China and India (1995-8 India; 1998-2001 China) at the Institute of East Asian Studies at Berkeley. It was one of those local events departments put on when somebody of note comes to town, and not a major speech event. No media involved, an afternoon coffee-chat venue with fewer than fifty people.

Tanino was introduced by T. J. Pempel, professor of political science, who mentioned that Tanino was at Todai during the radical 60s days and he was looking forward to getting more information about that out of him at dinner.

Tanino began with the usual, “Thank you for your very kind introduction…” and I looked for an exit. Just another platitude salad, I said to myself, with little bits of the obvious thrown in as they seemed appropriate to say.

It was that, actually, and I wondered at my naïveté in thinking it could have been much of anything else. Since Tanino is now retired and free to speak as a private Japanese citizen, I was hoping he might take advantage of that freedom. Apparently all those years of training as a diplomat have dictated otherwise.

Which is a tragedy. After the “very kind introduction” bit, which of course I’m being unduly harsh about, he said, “Visiting the campus here brings back some very fond memories. Berkeley and Hong Kong as a young man were the highlights of my life. It has been downhill since. Many wasted times.” The potential for interesting observations was clearly there.

But that was the last of it. What followed was what I have come to think of as a “typical wretched Japanese presentation.” The man coughed and cleared his throat loudly into the microphone, read from notes with reference to “what it says here” on his handout, and alternated between the obvious (China has a very large population and is ruled by a single party) and the obsequious (I am intimidated today to be speaking before the illustrious Professor Scalapino; Prime Minister Singh is a very fine gentleman). All those habits are speech conventions, of course, and seeing duck and expecting swan is my problem. But, I kept thinking, he’s now got total freedom to speak his mind. If not now, when?

The talk was a report of facts available in any encyclopedia introduction to China and India – Japanese investment in India’s stock market is very active; India is trying to tackle environmental issues, the mass media has a role to play…. The kind of fact spewing that makes people bound from the room. Yali Café is only five minutes away, I kept thinking.

Something kept me in the chair. Perhaps it was the image of the man himself. He didn’t look like a diplomat. His hair was shaggy, his clothes were those of a frumpy academic. Would have liked to have him as a grandfather. Or a neighbor to have conversations over the fence with.

At one point, when he was done, a Chinese in the audience asked about the comfort women situation. He prefaced his response with the reminder he was not speaking officially and was now “just a normal Japanese citizen.” He then turned quite sober and said, “The honor of Chinese women is at stake… Japan needs to show deep feelings of remorse, including individual letters to the women concerned.” When the Chinese pressed the issue, however, he retreated into the diplomatic hedge, “I’ve stated my position. For the answer to your question, you need to ask the politicians.”

Made me wonder whether he was feeling a sense of irrelevance in retirement. Wonder to what degree he might have been banished from the village by the power structure before he left. There was a bitterness in his voice.

There were bits of information that were useful to me. The reminder of how annoyed Japan is at being excluded from the UN Security Council. China is the only country representing Asia in the Security Council. All of Asia, especially India and Japan, are not happy about that. It is also the only country representing the developing world. Brazil is not happy about that. Japan can work with India on this issue, he said. Sounded like a talking point for his first meeting with the Indian Prime Minister.

Japanese politicians should avoid careless remarks such as “Japan should work with India to counter the rise of China.” That is “nonsense” (perhaps his first non-diplomatic word.) This is not a zero-sum game and we all have something to contribute. Yeah, yeah.

He defended US support for India’s nuclear development. In a hedge, of course, rather than a statement of personal conviction. “All the Japanese media except for the Keizai Shimbun opposed the development as a double standard. How are we to address North Korea and Iran when they complain?” And then he slipped in the answer. India is desperate for energy development and currently among the world’s biggest burners of coal. What choice do they really have?

He then went off the record. Abe will approve, he said. “And this is off the record… Don’t let this out of this room…because he is a great admirer of India.”

Watching him leak government party line, watching him talk the talk of his country’s diplomatic representative to India, I was watching a man still at work. He may look as if he has been put out to pasture, and he may roundly protest it in indirect language, but he still talks the talk.

Japan still goes to China to outsource its software technology, he said. “We need to address this aggressively.” Why? I wondered. Why choose India over China here? How about a little argument!

China and Japan share the same demographic threat of an aging population. They both look longingly at India which has a “beautiful pyramid” of lots more youth at the bottom than old folk at the top. It also has a predicted 6% growth rate for the indefinite future. If it doesn’t go to war with Pakistan. Its problems are still tremendous. The Japanese Embassy needed its own generator to assure electricity which went off in Delhi sometimes as long as three hours a day with regularity.

China is another story. It’s on its seventh ring road around Beijing already, the envy of Tokyo city planners. All without tolls.

Fitting totally into the Japanese male stereotype, Tanino’s talk was sprinkled with references to golf. When he first went to China, his golf balls used to get caught in water traps all the time. No longer. The water tables have sunk and that doesn’t happen any more. Commenting on China’s growth, it now has hundreds of golf courses, Tanino announced.

Another “almost private citizen” remark – “I am irritated by Chinese oversensitivity (to the Taiwan issue – China has accused Japan of training Taiwanese in Japan to fight a war of independence)” became clearly a position statement: “Taiwan is simply too big economically to be excluded.”

There was a great deal more political cant. “The upcoming visit by the prime minister (of China to Japan) is a sign of positive change.” And the support for government clarity on the comfort women issue was sabotaged when he slipped in the remark, “We thought it was important to involve the average Japanese in the issue.” I had not given much thought to the possibility the Japanese government’s decision to throw the problem into the private sector has grounds other than the need to assuage the right wing by not going too far officially. The fact that three hundred plus women have been given payment and medical assistance was unfamiliar. It illustrates the habit of saying one thing and doing another as a means of providing cover, having your cake and eating it too. And missing the target.

Tanino appeared to endorse Deng Xiao Ping’s remark that the Soviet Union failed because it attempted glasnost and perestroika simultaneously instead of consecutively. China will do it the Chinese way and it will succeed, said Deng. Tanino didn’t come down on one side or the other. He simply cited Deng and moved on.

I came away from listening to Tanino with the usual reaction I have to officials giving talks. You go with very low expectations, pick up a tidbit here and there as they are dropped into the conversation, and try to polish your skills at reading between the lines. You get an idea, at least, of what the talks in official meetings in the foreign ministry are about and some of the actual dialogue. Good that China and Japan have started an exchange program of high school students. Important to show respect for comfort women. Government steps so far are appropriate. China is a challenge. India has a very long way to go. China is to be respected. India is a place you can grow fond of. Japanese desperately need courses in public speaking. Diplomats are not supermen.

Retirement gives lots of time for reflection. How do you rip off the governors on your mind that have entrenched themselves like a counterproductive civil service bureaucracy? How do you rise to the level of a freethinker if you weren’t one before?

T. J. Pempel:

Robert Scalapino:

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Karim Sadjadpour

I went yesterday to hear Karim Sadjadpour speak at a university function on US/Iran relations. Sadjadpour, like Vali Nasr, is making the rounds these days as an Iran expert. Like Nasr he is a Persian-born American citizen who gives the impression of being adept at straddling both his homes. Both speak as Americans and neither hides abiding affection for his first homeland.

Sadjadpour’s presentation was in large part a reprise of his testimony before Senator Biden and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where he described the United States and Iran as being engaged in a game of chicken. Two stubborn hotheaded kids with cars headed for trouble. Not an image of leadership one wants if one has any sense of loyalty or affection for the two parties involved.

In that presentation, Sadjadpour concluded there are two possible courses of action: to create a Cuba-like isolated nation, this time with nuclear weapons, that could last for decades, or a nation integrated into the international community open to influences that would come with foreign investment, a strengthened middle class, and a free flow of tourists and members of the Iranian diaspora.

Before summarizing the ideas he presented yesterday, which I hope will gradually become more broadly familiar to more Americans, let me digress a minute on the man himself. Two things struck me in listening to Sadjadpour and reflecting on how closely his comments paralleled Vali Nasr’s. One is how easy it is to get a clear picture of the world from resources available within the United States. Nothing either has said is radical or hard to swallow, and their views have been publicized in Congressional Reports and news outlets such as the Lehrer News Hour. The question is not how to get good information on Iran; it’s whether we make use of what is available.

The other thought is how fortunate we are to have so many both/and people in the United States who can serve as bridges between nations. It is clear it is not merely rational thinking at work that leads them to suggest compromise and cooperation is wise, but a personal desire for a win-win situation that comes from having two places to call home.

I chafed endlessly at the we-Japanese-you-foreign thinking I lived with during my three and a half decades in Japan and moving from either/or to both/and became a cause I am still dedicated to. By both/and I mean the belief one can identify with and be loyal to one group, including a national one, without being disloyal to another. It simply requires an endless commitment to seeking common ground and diffusing hostility and the weighting of commonality over difference and the facets of an entity which are universal over those which are particular and unique.

I worked hard to convince my returnee students they needed to ignore any and all pressures to slough off their foreign parts to “regain” a Japanese identity. I worked to persuade them they could help to define Japaneseness as readily as anybody who displayed no influence of foreign ideas or cultural practices. I associate the either/or identity choice with provincialism and insist the both/and identity has benefits beyond the immediate psychological one of not having to deny part of oneself. Yesterday, watching an Iranian-American gradually unfold the ways he had come up with to get his American government to work in harmony with his Iranian cultural home, I felt considerable kinship.

A desire to have your cake and eat it too, when applied to nations, makes one a pacifist, of course, and puts one at odds with the kind of jingoism fostered by the Bush Administration. But in addition to the psychological benefits you gain, others gain the political benefit of a bridge between identity groups. The immature and unhappy struggle over whether Barack Obama is black or white in the minds of his compatriots comes to mind – it’s not just the Japanese who think in terms of either/or – and watching Sadjadpour I was struck with the pragmatic advantage of being committed in your person to both/and.

I remember a parting of the ways with an uncle many years ago when I began to show interest first in living in Germany, and later in Japan. There was something disloyal about me that I could be so cavalier about taking up with my country’s enemies. To me, his arguments made as much sense as suggesting we go on fighting the Civil War. It took no time at all for me to develop a sense of belonging to Berlin. To this day I long for a Berlin home that never totally came to be and got derailed when I went to live in Japan instead. But today the thought of dropping bombs on Berlin or Tokyo would be absolutely equivalent to dropping bombs on San Francisco.

It doesn’t always take decades for nationalist animosities to dissipate. For some they simply never form. Iranian Americans today live in fear that the game of chicken played by the bullies Bush and Ahmadinejad can lead to the most unimaginable horror.

I may of course be projecting my personal goals onto Sadjadpour’s, but I don’t think so. He talks with some passion and suggests he understands the challenges. His frequent references to the dignity of the Iranian nation revealed him to be clearly loyal to Iran. He was educated in the U.S., the University of Michigan, as an undergraduate, Johns Hopkins as a graduate, and despite an evident Farsi accent, he speaks a completely native American English. Misquoting Churchill as saying if you’re 18 and not a liberal, your heart’s in the wrong place; and if you’re 40 and you’re still a liberal, there’s something wrong with your head, he quipped, “Here I am caught in the middle at 30, heartless and brainless.” Not the funniest joke, nor the worst. My point is that he joked, not that he bowled them over. His speech may be Farsi-tinted, but his discourse is pure American.

There are strong and weak versions of the postmodern theory that there is no truth, only one personal stake in conflict with another. The strong version is that’s all there is. I take that to be insulting to anyone’s intelligence. The weak version is that it’s always worth considering how much one might be influenced by one’s emotions and one’s personal history.

The presence of strong and weak versions of postmodern theory gives us three ways to go here. We can reject postmodern theory in its entirety and argue there is only good solid objective description on the one hand and sloppy opinionated description on the other. And we have an obligation to accept only the former. We can buy into the strong version and give up entirely ever hoping to find objectivity and surrender to power, hoping in the end one bad bias will keep another in check. Or we can take the middle ground, the version which goes “Just because a totally germ-free surgery is impossible to create doesn’t mean you operate in a sewer” and take two approaches to objectivity. Hold people responsible for finding a neutral position whenever and to the greatest degree possible. And maintain a multiplicity of perspectives, not to keep one bad bias from cancelling another but to keep all sides honest by reminding them of what they’re missing.

I have a tendency to be easily persuaded. I believe and assume the views of the latest author I’ve read. I want to believe people. Especially if they’re good looking and intelligent. I used to fight that and try to force myself into cynical disbelief and suspicion, calling it critical thinking. Lately I’ve decided to let everybody be queen for a day. Allow myself to become a convert on the spot. And assume I’m going to live till tomorrow when I’ll get more information.

That reflection formed a framework in which to put Sadjadpour’s remarks. Anyone looking to separate the facts he brought to the discussion from the man himself would wonder at his conclusion that there is cause for optimism despite the fact that we are working at present with two belligerent and antagonistic government administrations. But they would also have to recognize his even-handedness, I found myself thinking. For anyone, on the other hand, who sees the both/and identity as a reason for assuming he is likely to be working harder to find a way through conflict, there is no problem with his having more than one personal loyalty. The contrary, as I have suggested, is true.

So much for my passing speculations on where Sadjadpour was likely to be coming from and how I might direct my own tendency to get caught up in thinking Iran’s more my kind of place than the Arab world. And to repeat the thought in my head that I came away with after listening to Vali Nasr recently: Why didn’t we take sides with the Iranians and the Shia Arabs of Iraq in the first place and come down on one side of a Civil War? Would we be any worse off than we are today? All of which leaves me wondering how the hell do you deal with the fugitive thoughts that come from giving free rein to any and all gut-level reactions to complex problems?

Enough of that. Let me summarize Sadjadpour’s points with a minimum of commentary. Unless I indicate otherwise, I have tried to keep the statements below in his voice, even if I have played a little loose with his words. I have not been overly fussy about not extending his conclusions in one or two places, but I trust I have not misrepresented his ideas.

Sadjadpour raised four topics: the nuclear standoff, Iraq, US/Iran relations, and internal reform in Iran.

The nuclear issue is clearly issue number one in US/Iran relations, but there is considerable overlap among the four issues. In all of these, Sadjadpour suggests, we seem to overlook the bazaar mentality at work, the idea that the first bid in a negotiation is never to be taken at face value, and that if the United States really wanted Iran to give up its nuclear program it would get serious about negotiating. The United States’ assumption it can have whatever it wants simply for the asking is part of the long history of imperial hubris, from Iran’s point of view. The suggestion is that Iran has determined it has no choice after decades of humiliation but to regain its dignity as a nation of distinction. It doesn’t matter that their methods are self-defeating. They need to be understood for what they are, not what they would signify if carried out by Americans.

The assumption by the West that Iran’s nuclear buildup is a form of militarization overlooks the vivid memory Iranians have of the devastating war with Iraq in which “not a single Iranian family was left untouched.” There is no love of the military and absolutely no desire for moves that could lead to a war.

At the same time, there is no doubt whatever is going on with the nuclear buildup is consequential. To make the point in economic terms, you could take every Iranian citizen out to eat kebabs every night of the week for a year for the cost of the current nuclear program. If what is going on is something other than militarization, we need to know what it is. Unfortunately the cultural distance remains great. From the Iranian perspective, American bullying is stupid and coarse. From the American perspective, Iranian brinkmanship is stupid and suicidal.

The problem is the absence of a diplomatic approach to international relations, Sadjadpour suggests. America paid no attention to Iran in 2003 when there were real offers on the table for compromise, so convinced it was it would win Iraq over for democracy and the spin-off would be that Iran would implode. There was no reason, from the American perspective, to throw a lifesaver to a drowning enemy. With the failure in Iraq, the lack of diplomacy is revealed for what it is, in the Iranian perspective, raw greedy self-interest. And stunning miscalculation.

Given this mutual hostility, and the American belief it was in such a position of power it didn’t need to negotiate, Iran opted for a policy of “controlled chaos” in Iraq. As long as America was bogged down, Iran could hope to gain advantage. This does not mean, however, that Iran can benefit from the complete disintegration of Iraq. The war in Afghanistan already brought in two million Afghan refugees. Like the rest of the Middle East, Iran cannot support the refugees that are likely to pour out of Iraq when all hell breaks loose. Iran will not gain much more from an American defeat than it could from an American victory. The implication is there was never a more conspicuous common ground, never a better moment for the U.S. and Iran to benefit from working together. But America’s stand-alone approach continues to this day to reflect the thinking “first we get Iraq, then Iran.”

The irony is that Iran could so much more readily be brought around with a carrot than with a stick, if only we could shake this aggressive mentality of ours. Iran needs to be understood for what it is. A closer working relationship would give us a better understanding of what is going on with the nuclear buildup, a chance to verify the suggestion it is not about militarization.

America should remember, says Sadjadpour, that Iran is the only country in the region where a democratic election would lead to improvement, and the local populace really understands that. After twenty-seven or more years of living in a theocracy, the Iranians understand better than anyone else in the region the implications of theocratic rule. As one taxi driver in Tehran put it, “You never eat melons (politics) and honey (religion) together.” Iranians, if this cabdriver is any indication, have learned much more effectively by experience what a theocracy means than it ever could from having it imposed on them by a longtime enemy. Particularly when that enemy isn’t imposing democracy anyway, but economic hegemony.

Such experience has made the Iranians ready for the next step in their political maturation. The danger is America’s bungling might well lead to a reversal at this sensitive time. As they did in Iraq with de-Baathification – pushed the secular forces to join the religious forces they once were hostile to to fight the Americans together – America could provide Ahmadinejad and the hardliners with the support they need. Thousands of members of the Baath Party were in the party, as were civil servants in Nazi Germany and fascist Japan, not for ideological reasons, but because they were the sole employer. When the U.S. disbanded the party – and, even worse, the army – they said to these Iraqis, “You will not be part of Iraq’s tomorrow.” The result is the anti-American resistance we see today. If I’m not part of tomorrow, I will make today last as long as I can.

Two-thirds of Iran is under 33 years of age. They don’t remember the Islamic Revolution and the reasons for it. They refer to the ruling council as the “Jurassic Council – a group of twelve men. All dead.”

Iran cannot continue on its present economic course. 80% of its exports are energy related. Consumption is going up with heavy subsidies of $10 billion a year, making oil cheaper than water, while production is going down. Within a decade Iran could be a net importer of oil at this rate. Ahmadinejad is on a suicide course with this populist give-away program. He will very soon need foreign investment, and the ruling elite understands this and will act in its own interest.

Furthermore, the tide is turning on Iranian apathy. In 1997, 80% voted for Khatami and there was no change in policy. In 2000, the voter turnout was still above 70%, and still there was no change. By 2005 apathy had reached a new high and Ahmadinejad was elected. This, Sadjadpour suggests, served to remind the average Iranian of the cost of apathy, and they may be starting finally to move against the status quo to greater reform.

All if the U.S. does not muck it up. Questions from the audience brought up how precisely that might happen, including the possibility that while the U.S. is not in a position any more to launch a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons, it might encourage Israel to do so, or not take sufficient steps to deter it. One wonders what part Israel’s successful pre-emptive strike in 1981 against nuclear facilities in Iraq might play in establishing this mind-set.

An aside here. I’ve wondered for a long time how Israel’s understanding of Arab tatemae (public face) and honne (real feelings), to use those very useful Japanese concepts, really works in regard to these bombastic rhetorical calls to wipe Israel off the map. I can’t help thinking Israel hardliners benefit from ratcheting up the fear, and that there are hardliners who will take short term gains at the cost of long term ones, just as Americans were jerked around by the color-coded terror alerts used by the neocons running America after 9/11.

And isn’t this what is going on now? You profoundly wish Ahmadinejad’s thugs wouldn’t resort to this obscenity of the holocaust denials, but they do. You wish they would start with reasonable first negotiating positions instead. But they don’t. Who, the question is, can find a way to cut through the rhetoric and get on with common causes. The old issue is raised of whether threats are a prelude to violence or a substitute for them, and the stakes are high.

To return to Sadjadpour, Paul Bremer asked him once what he called an “asinine” question. “Do you know only 50% of Iran is Persian?” The implication was we might consider a policy of divide and conquer. First of all, one has to wonder what Bremer and his ilk are about plotting the disintegration of the Iranian nation, even if they had the capacity to pull it off. Secondly, how is it that Americans like Bremer know so little about history? Iran is not the same place as the nations of the post-Ottoman Empire, where ethnicities struggled with the concept of nation. Iran is an ancient nation of multiple nationalities all sharing an Iranian identity. With the exception of the Kurds, nation overrides sectarian divisions throughout the Middle East. The Persian/Arab divide, in particular, is much greater than the Shia divide, according to Sadjadpour.

Another aside here: this was the only time I seriously questioned Sadjadpour’s judgment. Not about the Persian/Arab divide, but about the power of nationalism to override sectarian divisions. All I’ve heard elsewhere suggests the contrary, and I think Sadjadpour may have gotten carried away making the point in connection with Iran.

What Iran wants is respect among nations, Sadjadpour says. Until America demonstrates it has something in mind for it other than setting it up once more as the client state it was under the Shah, the bombast and hardline stance will continue.

Iranians are ruled by two cultural mentalities, one reflected in the clergy, the other in the bazaari. That ought to govern our approach to Iran. But where are the negotiators who know how to talk to clergy and not overlook that they are speaking with bazaari as well? Where are the folk who have the skills to get the price down and make the carpet salesmen respect them in the process?

I have been unabashed about reading the personal into Sadjadpour’s description of Iran and US/Iran relations, not because I don’t believe in objectivity or that he lacks it. But when all is said and done one can’t help notice what’s missing in his account, what might come from a larger contextualization of his information, and what might be said from other binational perspectives. The question has not been answered, for example, what Iran is up to in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Sadjadpour suggested it was a means of regaining national pride. Sunni Arabs, Israelis, all sorts of people, including many who will write and speak from the heart from another pacifist binational bicultural perspective, will argue they’re moving into place to dominate their neighbors, that the buildup has more to do with ruling the neighborhood than with standing up to America.

But that’s beyond what Sadjadpour has to offer and it’s speculation for another day.

Wouldn’t it be great to get Ahmadinejad in a room alone and ask him, “What in God’s name are you thinking?” How about we get Pelosi and Tom Lantos to get back on a plane and do it. In Farsi.

testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

misquoting Churchill

News hour interview with Ray Suarez

brushing aside Ahmadinejad’s letter,8816,1192578,00.html

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

My Chocolate Jesus

Religion, and religious people, what a pain in the ass.

Now it’s John Paul on his way to sainthood because some sad nun in France says he cured her of Parkinson’s. Not her fault. She’s working off the silly pill they slipped into her as a child.

Mother Church itself, that’s another thing. Mother has Mozart’s Requiem on her side, the stained glass windows of Chartres – all those schools and hospitals. But she also has those old men in dresses claiming they’ve got the power to intercede with the Almighty to set aside his laws of nature for a single individual. Not to stop kids from dying of diarrhea at three or becoming genocidal at eleven. But to help one nun get better while thousands of others don’t.

God knows you can’t blame a nun-guy for trying. It doesn’t hurt to ask. But what’s this crap about John Paul having all this clout with the Big Fellow? That old bastard was the conservatives’ tool for bringing power back to the Vatican after John XXIII threatened it with fresh air. Spent his life working against abortion and birth control and liberation theology to bring misery to millions. Worked against bringing dignity into gay and lesbian lives, did our JP. Saint, my left butt cheek.

And they want us to respect religion. You’ve got to admire their chutzpah.

I know there’s another kind of religion. The Mozart kind. The inspirational kind, the focus on something greater than ourselves. Trouble is, the crappy kind has been getting a free ride from the transcendental kind for way too long. It’s time to hit the delete button.

I live in the land of feel-good Jesus jivers. I’ve tried ignoring them, but they’re like a chronic case of the hives. Organized American religion has a one-two punch. Mind control on one side, flat earth bozotude on the other.

No kidding. There’s a Georgia legislator introducing legislation to disallow the teaching in Georgia schools that the earth goes around the sun.

I know it’s not about burning folk at the stake, but it is about stupidity and injustice. While this lawmaker may be an extreme nutcase, have a look at the IRS returns of the Falwells (teletubbies are fags), Robertsons (lesbians are witches) and Dobsons (take those kids away from their gay daddies or they’ll rape them) of this nation if you think they are without influence. Or check out how many times the White House has taken their calls in the last seven years.

No matter how many times the Jimmy Swaggarts and Jim Bakkers are exposed, another opportunist comes along to bilk the gullible. Ted Haggard goes off for some religious “therapy” and in three weeks his church makes the proud announcement that this “curse” of homosexuality with which he has struggled all his life has been “cured.” The Aimee Semple McPhersons and Billy Sundays come and go and until recently their influence has been on the wane. Today, though, Robertson and Falwell and Dobson talk about how lesbians cause hurricanes, and current presidential hopefuls still come kiss their asses when they do.

For a little perspective, we’re not as badly served as the secularists and good religionists in Muslim lands where the cultural value leads to hacking women to pieces and teaching kids to strap bombs to their bellies. At least we can write books and plays and turn them into top grossing movies where Jesus comes home from a hard day walking on water and makes babies with Mary Magdalene. Artists can dream up concepts like the “Piss Christ” and carve two hundred pounds of milk chocolate into an anatomically correct Jesus, and live to blaspheme another day.

Ironically, we’re freer to have at the Christians than the rabid Muslims these days. Norton has apparently refused to publish a cartoon depicting a jihadi driving a Ryder truck with a nuclear bomb in back with the caption: What Would Muhammad Drive? So we yield. Chocolate Jesus OK, Mohammad with a bomb, no can do. It’s not just toxic religion that’s the problem; it’s our own inclination to give in to toxic religion.

Once upon a time, before the apple fell on Newton’s head, before germs, before the earth started moving around the sun, all the world was magic, and there was nobody to keep the religios from dancing on your face.

Then came science, and technology, enlightenment notions of human equality and all that good stuff, and religion had to get off center stage. So to speak. In some places.

Since then, hundreds of books have been written on the battle between science and religion, the compatibility of science and religion, the incompatibility of science and religion, and you can pretty much take a stand in this confrontation anywhere you like. Modernity, like democracy, is taking centuries to unfold and sometimes, as in present-day America, it's one step forward, two steps back.

Like all social science categories, (society, ethnicity, nation, civilization...), the terms culture and religion are highly porous. There’s lots of overlap and sometimes you look at one and see another. At the moment, religion seems best understood as a subset of culture.

Look how we’ve evolved in the U.S. since a few decades ago. When I was a kid, there was no more meaningful distinction than the one between catholics and protestants and we argued often and earnestly over who had the right take on God. Today, the cognitive territory staked out by American enlightenment protestantism is populated by catholics as well. Both value individual human rights over hierarchical authority and both divorce at a rate of 50%. Catholics practice birth control at a rate of 80%.

The line no longer runs between the catholics and the protestants, but between the authoritarians and the non-authoritarians. Toxicity is a cultural phenomenon and both religious groups fit into spaces on both sides of the cultural divide.

Catholic prelates tell the faithful not to vote for catholic John Kerry because he favors abortion rights. Protestants who, when pressed, will tell you catholics are all going to hell, join hands with authoritarian catholics to send the gays back to the edge of town. Culture-contained religion has become a much bigger force than transcendental religion in America.

You may want to argue that this gathering of forces once split over religious doctrine into a new gathering of political forces, with absolutists, both catholic and protestant, on one side, and non-absolutist catholics, protestants, Jews, secular humanists and others on the other side, is a sign not of religious resurgence, but of the colonization of religion by culture, one further step in the withering of religion altogether. But it would be a hard argument to make. Too many people prefer to see politicized religion as strengthened religion. In either case, what is strengthening is the wrong kind of religion. The kind that does serious harm to democracy.

There seems to be no neutral ground. My choice of “non-toxic” as a descriptor marks me as unfriendly to religion even when I'm trying to be friendly. A pro-religion insider would speak instead of the power of religion to channel the best in the human spirit – generosity, kindness, consideration and compassion. Creativity, even. Remember Mozart’s requiem and the windows at Chartres.

But there’s the rub. The spirit behind Mozart has as much in common with the spirit behind Falwell as a stained glass window does to a block of wood. It’s not the Mozarts representing religion in America; it’s the Falwells and the Robertsons and the Dobsons. And the Cardinal Laws.

Modern-day American religion is a two-headed monster. One head dreams of the good old Middle Ages when the world kissed the pope’s ring; the other remembers with great fondness that the world was once flat. As long as that is what religion is, serious people need to get free of this nonsense that we must respect religion.

Fortunately, there are good religious folk speaking out against the rot in their faith community. There’s Charles Kimball, for example, with his When Religion Becomes Evil. And Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelist’s Lament, Bruce Bawer’s Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, Jason Berry and Gerald Renner’s Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, Paul Collins’ The Modern Inquisition: Seven Prominent Catholics and their Struggles with the Vatican, Peter De Rosa’s Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy, Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, Robert Blair Kaiser’s, A Church in Search of Itself, and two books by John Spong, The Sins of Scripture and Rescuing the Bible. Criticism of Islam is harder to find, but it’s there, as attested by Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim and Irshad Manji’s, The Trouble with Islam.

I’m writing about the American cultural war between traditional authoritarians and progressives, but it’s clearly a war which extends way beyond American borders. In Italy the archbishop head of the Catholic bishops’ conference recently suggested extending recognition of gay partnerships in Italy would open the door to incest. Not an ordinary priest, but a biggie in the hierarchy, mind you. Hands across the water from Father Malloy of Saints Peter and Paul in San Francisco, who writes that if gays and lesbians want to marry, they should marry each other. Two ignoramuses on the authoritarian side. Noteworthy is the opposition. In Italy a Turin newspaper carried the story of three priests who referred to the incident as part of the “Talibanization” of the church.

I’m struck with how common the appeal is that we “show respect for religion.”

I suggest there’s an idea that needs to hit the trash bin of history. I think it’s still true in a democracy that one of our most important rights is the right to be an asshole, and that extends even to those caught up in homophobia and the belief God wants them to oppose abortion, euthanasia, birth control or stem-cell research. But when people in positions of power and influence use their religious organizations to cause harm, there’s no reason to give these institutions a free pass. Gay activists have spray painted “(Archbishop) Bagnasco Shame” on the cathedral in Genoa, and some gay leaders have concluded that’s going too far. I’m not so sure.

We’re all so concerned about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater that we forget to ask, as a friend of mine once put it, “Doesn’t that depend on the baby?”

OK, let’s assume there’s a baby worth saving in there somewhere. How do you find him?

One way you can separate out the toxic folks from the non-toxic folks is by listening to what they bring to the foreground and what they shove into the background. Non-toxic catholics focus on Vatican II, on the apology to the Jews, on the admission that Galileo should not have been arrested and prevented from teaching, on ecumenism, on defining the church as the “ecclesia” – the full body of believers, and not on church hierarchy, as well as on the “gift” of the Eucharist and other “mysteries.” Non-toxic evangelicals focus on the Beatitudes. Toxic catholics tell you to close your eyes, take off your thinking cap and leave the moral decision making to Rome; toxic evangelicals focus on the fire and the sword. Two kinds of Catholics; different Vatican Councils. One bible; different pages. Non-toxic religionists understand humanity to be about the endless reinterpretation of their sources of belief; toxic religionists about shutting down the brain and girding the loins for battle.

The toxics get nervous when they see the non-toxics working with the secularists, actually, but the very high correlation between peace and love and justice (non-toxic Islam and Christianity and Judaism, if you will) and enlightenment notions is not an accident. The argument is easily made it was precisely those folks in the non-toxic religious camp who came up with the Enlightenment, and not the other way around. In any case, the rule of thumb is you know a good Christian (Muslim, Jew) when you see evidence he/she is listening for the voice of God, and you know a bad one when you hear him/her tell you he’s heard it and you haven’t.

Non-toxics call natural laws, Darwin’s included, merely the mechanism through which God reveals himself in nature. Not only is there no conflict between science and religion but one takes the same attitude toward God one does toward science. One works with what one has got, and remains open to the possibility more information and deeper reflection will change your view of things. Openness spells freshness, freshness leads to generosity, generosity to compassion. We struggle to elucidate the dichotomies of red and blue, conservative and liberal, traditional and progressive, but the real line in the cultural war is between the open and the closed mind. There is no conflict between science and religion for the non-toxic because the ultimate value for both is an attitude of openness.

The toxic folk lack the imagination to understand a scripture written in a poetic vein by people long removed and far away, who work with different references to express hope and longing in imagination. They lack the most basic understanding of science as tentative explanation, and remain unaware how an immature appreciation of science leads to thinking there had to be dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden and kangaroos on Noah’s Ark. Instead of seeing poetry in these folk tales, as their non-toxic co-religionists do, they try to get their fat feet into glass slippers, and the transcendent turns to dust.

What a waste of perfectly good brain cells. If the evangelical protestants could just learn how to do poetry, they wouldn’t need to read the Bible as if it were an automechanic’s manual, and they’d leave gays alone to sing and dance and build families, they’d join with their non-toxic brethern to temper America’s lust for war, they’d put their money into charity and education instead of the political campaigns of crooks and liars.

The Catholic Church, while less dopey than evangelicals, is still capable of substituting medieval pseudo-science for science as when seeking a sufficient n to establish statistical validity for JPs powers. But she ends up looking like a little girl walking around in mommy’s heels. Cute. But hardly authoritative.

Walking on water? Virgin birth? Whatever gets you off, girls.

But hormonal treatment to kill Tchaikovsky and Michaelangelo in the womb?

Could we have time to think about that some more? Please?

Respect is earned, not given automatically.

When you were about building schools and hospitals, I felt good about you.

Today, you’re more about circling the wagons on your power, and I don’t want to play with you anymore.

I want my chocolate Jesus.

Guess which part I’ll eat first.


John Paul, Saint Candidate: and

Flat earth claims in Georgia:,-earth-flat,-jews-in-control-237370.php

Norton nixes Mohammad cartoons:

Piss Christ: Andres Serrano’s photo, made in 1989 of a crucifix submerged:

Chocolate Jesus:

Talibanization of the Catholic Church in Italy:

Gays should marry lesbians:

Bribing God to break his own natural laws for your individual benefit as opposed, say, to world peace and sparing children from death by diarrhea:

Madrassas as terrorist generators: a contested claim. I may be a victim of Bush Administration thought manipulation here. See, for example:

The issue still remains that madrassas teach doctrine to the exclusion of all other knowledge. Like putting alcohol into your gut where nutrition ought to go.

Making babies with Mary M.: I’m thinking of Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ to The Da Vinci Code, to name only the sublime and the ridiculous poles of that range of fiction.

Southern Baptist hopes for hormonal treatment to prevent homosexuality in the womb: