When the Devil’s in the Details: The True Believer’s Conundrum

October 17th, 2014

              Every now and then, I reflect on the plight of the thinking, otherwise rational, truth-seeking, true believer.  At such times, as a thinking, rational, truth-seeking non-believer, I almost feel superior, freed as I am from the kind of questions that my faith-based opposites must contemplate and resolve in order to maintain their faith and their sanity.

              The easy example of the kind of perplexing, mind-boggling “truth” that might agitate the intellects of folks whose faith aligns them with Christian teachings is the holy trinity.  That concept, for those unfamiliar with it, states that God is really three separate entities.  There’s God the Father (he’s the one usually pictured with a long white beard, as Michelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel).  There’s God the Son (that’s Jesus, who is both the son of God and God incarnate, a real human being, who was crucified and died a mortal’s death).  And then there’s the third of the three, the Holy Ghost (as traditional Catholics refer to it) or the Holy Spirit (as most Protestants prefer).

              This three-in-one concept is beyond fantastic in terms of rational intellectual contemplation.  It supposes that some kind of omnipresent force (the Holy Ghost/Spirit) exists along with an omnipotent entity (God the Father) and a deceased real person who was every bit as much God as the other two.  I’m not sure which of the three is the hardest to reconcile with reality; each presents its own intellectual challenge.  Surely the differentiation between God the Father and the Holy Ghost/Spirit must give thinking believers fits.  But the God the Father/God the Son dichotomy isn’t all that easy to wrap your brain around either.  And the relationship between that Holy Ghost/Spirit and Jesus is really every bit as much a challenge, especially if they are really all one entity, as the doctrine states.

              Of course, those troubling questions are supposedly resolved by faith in its purest form.  Faith is “beyond the rational,” as Kierkegaard espoused in his existential musings.  In other words, don’t think about it; just accept it.  And that’s fine if all you are after is a happier way to view reality.  Believing that there is a God (in however many parts; who really cares?), who looks out for us (more or less; he does allow things like Ebola and Isis to exist, after all), and provides an after-life for us that is a better place than we can ever imagine, gives many real humans a way to deal with the harsh realities of life and death that makes it all bearable (most of the time, at least).

              The sense of solace and comfort that a grieving parent may feel at the death of a child, or a spouse at the loss of a life-long partner, or any of us on being told we have an incurable, terminal disease, cannot be shrugged aside as an irrelevancy.  Life is hard.  At times, it can be unbearably so.  Those who can find some relief or hope or even joy in the face of the cruelest of fates should not be mocked for holding on to irrational fantasies.

              But there are more than a few true believers who also fashion themselves to be rational thinkers as well, and for them, any deep contemplation of the holy trinity must send them racing for Thomas Aquinas’s proofs (or devising their own).

              But the holy trinity is really just the tip of the iceberg when considering the imponderables that blind faith imposes.  Consider, for example, the controversy among true believers about hell.  That’s the place that most Christians believe to be the promised after-life for the “unsaved” (or, if you prefer, the wicked) when they die. 

              Hell is never pictured as a pleasant spot.  In fact, it’s supposed to be as bad an existence as can be imagined.  Dante envisioned it as an “Inferno” that was both unbearably hot and icy cold—another irreconcilable dichotomy.

              Suffice to say hell is not a place to want to have one’s soul consigned, especially if it must reside there for eternity.  But, it turns out, there is even controversy about that point.  Back in 1982, Edward Fudge, a Christian minister, published a book entitled, “The Fire that Consumes,” in which he posited that souls that are sent to hell are given a kind of release from the unbearable pain that they must there suffer by being extinguished after a certain amount of time.

              Bear with me here for a minute while I explain.  Reverend Fudge reads the scriptural passages that discuss hell as proving that there is a form of conditional immortality that souls sent to hell receive.  In other words, they get a period of what in lay terms we might call “imprisonment” followed by what we might think of as execution.  And that execution would undoubtedly be welcomed by the soul, since it would be an end to the suffering that is the 24/7 reality of hell.

              Among other scriptural passages on which Rev. Fudge rests his thesis is a verse in the book of Revelations that has Jesus referring to a “second death” for the unsaved.  What else, Rev. Fudge posits, could that second death refer to than the death of the damned soul?  And, of course, allowing for such an extermination would align with the Christian view of a merciful God (probably referring to God the Father), since it would certainly be merciful to put the damned soul out of its misery.

              But, of course, the Bible also portrays God as a vengeful and jealous creature, one who has little patience with non-believers (witness the fate of the Baal worshippers and of Pharaoh’s followers, not to mention Lot’s wife, who had the audacity to look back at the city she was dutifully fleeing from, thereupon immediately being turned into a pillar of salt).

              There’s so much to contemplate when you are a thinking true believer.  It really boggles the mind, especially since none of it has ever been personally experienced or reported on by any living human being, other, of course, than God the Son.


The Gary Hart Saga: When Gotcha Journalism Was Born

October 9th, 2014

              Does the name Gary Hart ring a bell?  Back in 1987 he was a serous presidential candidate when a few reporters from the Miami Herald took investigative journalism to a new low from which it has only descended further over the years.  Matt Bai, a reporter for the New York Times, reviewed the Hart saga in an extended article in the Times’ Sunday Magazine several weeks ago.  It was compelling reading.

              Hart, for those who don’t recall, was a U.S. Senator from Colorado who had cut his teeth politically as a top campaign aide to George McGovern in the 1972 presidential campaign.  McGovern lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon that year (carrying only one state), but Hart came out of the campaign unscathed and was recognized as a policy wonk, long before Bill Clinton made that characterization fashionable.

              He was elected to the Senate in 1974 and quickly established himself as an ambitious young Democrat with expertise in foreign policy and defense spending.  By 1984, he had built a base of support that led him to make a run for the presidential nomination.   The Democrats instead gave the nod to former VP Walter Mondale, who also lost 49 states in Ronald Reagan’s re-election that year.  But, again, Hart emerged unscathed, and by 1987, he was generally regarded as the front runner for the nomination in a likely race against Reagan’s VP, George Bush.  And, in fact, polls taken that spring had Hart beating Bush handily (recall that the Iran-Contra affair had sullied the reputation of Reagan and everyone in his administration).

              At the age of 50, Hart was in his political prime, and his image as a serious thinker, with just a touch of the JFK charisma, seemed to have him destined for the nomination and, to the extent anything can be certain in politics, election as the country’s president.

              Rumors at the time had Hart engaged in extra-marital activity.  No one seemed particularly perturbed about that possibility.  After all, John Kennedy had been suspected of having any number of “liaisons” (perhaps even to include one with Marilyn Monroe), and F.D.R.’s marriage was also presumed to have included dalliances of a similar stripe.  So, too, were Dwight Eisenhower’s and Lyndon Johnson’s to add just a few to what could be a long list.  The point is that those rumors were never the subject of serious journalism and had never been covered in investigative reporting.

              But Hart’s was.  It didn’t help, certainly, that he had issued a challenge to another Times reporter (E.J. Dionne, to whom he had said, “Follow me around.  I don’t care.”).  And Hart was brazen about his licentious behavior, happily allowing himself to be photographed with 29-year-old model Donna Rice sitting on his lap while the two were on a yacht named Monkey Business.

              The Miami Herald then decided to jump on the “story.”  Sullying the journalistic methods and goals of Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who had uncovered the Watergate scandal, the Herald literally camped out at Hart’s DC apartment and documented the comings and goings of him and Ms. Rice.  When confronted with the “evidence” by the reporters, Hart was initially evasive and then foolishly defiant.  The Herald, not about to be put off by Hart’s intransigence, published its account, and within a week, Hart dropped out of the race, his poll support having been cut in half by the Herald’s reports.  Although he half-heartedly attempted to resurrect his campaign in a few primaries, he was a non-factor at the convention and never ran for elective office again.

              Now you may say that Hart cooked his own goose, but it was the media (the Miami Herald in particular) that made a story out of what in the past would have been ignored as “not newsworthy.”  And in reporting what they had uncovered, the Herald reporters introduced a new form of journalism to American politics.  I call it “gotcha journalism,” and in the years since Hart’s demise, it has become a niche specialty that has changed the way we are primed to look at our candidates.  (Interestingly, polls taken immediately after Hart withdrew his candidacy found that nearly two-thirds of Americans thought the media had treated him unfairly, and over half said marital infidelity should not be a factor in assessing a presidential candidate.)

              When we elect presidents (or Senators or Governors or any public officials) what are we looking for?  Does it matter whether the candidate is faithful to his (or her) spouse?  Should it?  My guess is that most Americans when pressed would still say “no.”  Bill Clinton left office with popularity ratings that indicated he could have been elected to a third term were the Constitution not a bar to his candidacy. 

              On one level, we don’t care what our public servants do in their private lives.  And, yet, on another level, we do.  When Anthony Weiner, an otherwise bright and impressive former Congressman from New York, insists on texting photos of his private parts to women other than his wife, we cringe and think less of him.  But should we know about those texts?  Should our media feel compelled to report about them?  Do we want our public servants to be so microscopically scrutinized?

              How much of the thirst for that kind of journalism relates to the baser instincts we, as a society, have allowed to flourish in the years since Hart’s downfall?  I don’t condone Hart (or Clinton or JFK or FDR or anyone else, public servant or private citizen) for betraying marital vows.  I honor my commitment to my wife out of respect for the vows we made to each other 36 years ago.  I think less of friends who have not maintained the same commitment.  But I don’t reject them as human beings or deny their worth in whatever area of expertise or productive activity they may be engaged.

              I was disgusted by Clinton’s outrageous actions with Monica Lewinsky, but, given the opportunity, I would have voted for him again, because I think he would have continued to chart the course for the country I wanted.  Gotcha journalism got Clinton; it got Anthony Weiner; it got Gary Hart.  I wish it hadn’t. 

              In the end, it is certainly true that we get the government we deserve.  It is also true, however, that we get the media coverage of that government that we, implicitly, endorse.


The New Reality: Endless Wars against Ever-Morphing Stateless Enemies

October 1st, 2014

              Who ever thought the days of the Cold War would be viewed positively?  Nostalgia can do that to you—but only if the present is much worse. 

              And, in many respects it is. 

              I am referring to the new paradigm for military engagements.  What the perceived threat of Isil (or Isis if you prefer) clearly establishes, if it hadn’t been realized before, is that we have moved into a new era of never-ending military engagements of one kind or another that will require every bit as much vigilance and military readiness as was ever required of the country during the Cold War.

              You remember the Cold War.  It was that period following World War II when the two nuclear superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, engaged in the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) to ensure that neither country would ever become directly involved against the other in a shooting war.  Yes, it was also a period marked by two bloody and costly regional wars (Korea and Viet Nam), but both were wars that were fought against Communist governments more aligned with China than with the USSR, and neither ever came close to involving nuclear weapons.

              Viewed in retrospect, the Cold War years were, despite the constant sense of pending Armageddon, remarkably peaceful, at least in relation to what could have been the destruction of all civilized life as we know it. 

              We live in a very different world today.  First of all, there is no Soviet Union.  Yes, Russia is still a pain in the butt, acting like it yearns for a return to the bad old days, when over-running neighboring countries and imposing puppet regimes that towed the Marxist line was all the rage.  But in truth, Putin’s Russia is a pussy cat compared to the real enemies the United States and its allies face today. 

              Those enemies are very different for one major reason: they are stateless.  They represent the new paradigm for military engagements, the new picture of war.  And they are far more intimidating for the very reason that they are far less clearly identified.  Isil is a good example.  Who are these guys?  Where did they come from?  What makes them tick?

              Whatever the answers to those questions may be, President Obama has determined that Isil is a threat to the United States.  The validity of that assessment can be (is being) debated, but very suddenly the country is being told that it is in for a long struggle (a.k.a. war) against this new stateless enemy.  Some military experts are predicting that the war won’t end without U.S. troops on the ground.  In other words, get ready for another major shooting war that will last well into a new president’s administration.

              And even as the first major bombing inside Syria was taking place last week, another stateless enemy emerged.  The Khorasan Group, said to be an al Qaeda affiliate (whatever that means), is described as even more threatening than Isil because it has direct designs on attacks inside the United States. 

              And so the pattern emerges.  Militant groups and sects are morphing one from the next, all with the desire to threaten U.S. interests, which is another way of saying that they aim to inflict  terrorist attacks on American soil or against American property and interests.  Think of it this way, today’s beheadings, grotesque and outrageous though they are, may be tomorrow’s car bombs and next year’s dirty bombs and next decade’s nuclear threats.

              When you finally start to realize the enormity of the ever-present and accelerating threat that these stateless militant groups represent, you begin to get nostalgic for the good old days of the Cold War, when heads of state could rely on each other’s sanity to avert the end of civilization as we know it.

              Ah, you say, but at least we aren’t faced with nuclear annihilation with the stateless enemies who threaten us now.  Oh, really?  Don’t be so sure.  Nuclear proliferation has been a major source of concern for at least twenty years (since the fall of the Soviet Union, when nuclear arsenals became the property of the newly created independent states that had been part of the USSR).  Many of those weapons are still unaccounted for, available to the highest bidder or to the entity with ideological compatibility with the rogue states that house them.

              But even if nuclear attacks are far-fetched, and let’s hope they are, terrorism still lurks as a real threat to Americans both abroad and here at home.  Yes, the federal government has been more vigilant since 9/11, and yes we have been spared any repeat of that horrific day, but are we really any safer when we learn that at least two new militant groups are threats to our security?

              And where there are two known groups, can there be any doubt that there are dozens more that are plotting or are at least in formative stages?  We are just starting to understand the existence of this new paradigm.  But those who (for whatever reason) are militantly opposed to what the U.S. is and what it represents are way ahead of us.  And they already understand that being stateless is the modern version of guerrilla warfare.  Consider, for example, the options a U.S. president would have if another 9/11-type attack were carried out by a group that could not be identified.  Or what if it were found to exist in cells in a dozen different Arab states, none of which sanctioned their existence.  Against whom would that president retaliate?  And how would the retaliation, whatever it was, be effective to deter future attacks?

              And so the president declares that the country is again at war.  And while those in Congress and across the nation rightly debate whether he is acting constitutionally (he most certainly isn’t) or wisely (debatable), whether he is being too timid or too bold, whether he has decided to act too soon or too late, the country must also become aware of this new paradigm, one of endless wars against ever-morphing enemies that, because they are stateless, cannot be defeated. 

              When President Bush declared a war on terrorism, he was using a phrase to rally a nation to an ill-conceived war against a nation state (actually two: Afghanistan and Iraq).  Little could he have known that he was really identifying a far more serious and insidious kind of war, one that never can be won, because its enemy can never be truly defeated.

              Yes, we can kill the leaders; we can even defeat the fighters in battle.  But unlike traditional wars that end with a peace treaty or an admission of defeat, in the new paradigm of military engagements, there are never any surrenders and there is never anyone with whom to make peace.  Today the enemy may be in Iraq; tomorrow it may be in Syria.  And someday, it may be here.


Figuring Out What Getting Old is All About

September 24th, 2014

              I think I’ve figured out this aging thing.  I mean not entirely, probably not even mostly, but I think I have a better handle on it now that I am most definitively old in terms of chronological age and in terms of what most people my sons’ ages think of as old.

              For the record, I just turned 68, and my sons are 33 and 31.  They are in the flower of their developing adulthood, while I am in the withering stage of mine.

              But I am not nearly as depressed about it as you might think, mainly because, even at this exalted age (two years from the life expectancy I was born with), I’m in good health and have all of my mental faculties intact.  I’m still productive in my work and still enjoy rigorous daily workouts at my gym.  I still enjoy a connubial relationship with my wife and still haven’t had need for the sexual enhancers that are now the vogue, although I will admit that in recent years I have at least gained an understanding of the basis for their popularity.

              But enough with the borderline TMI; here’s what I’ve come to understand about getting old:

              I first recognized that I was beyond the period of life that I’ll call youthful adulthood when I turned 40.  In that single year, I started to have knee issues from my years of jogging and, faced with the option of going under the knife for arthroscopic surgery, I stopped running and joined my gym, where the aerobic equipment serves to bring me close to the runner’s highs I used to so enjoy.  I also started to notice significant changes in my eyesight, no longer using glasses as an option, but most definitely needing them (or contact lenses, which I then started to wear).  In that same year, I also suffered a torn ligament in my left thumb when I caught a hard thrown football in a pickup game with friends.  And I had my first serious back pain (lasting for several days) that year.

              So 40 was a turning point, to be sure.  But once I accommodated to those physical changes (I’d say deteriorations, but I want to stay positive), the balance of that decade was good, very good, in fact.  I think I was most productive and most engaged in my forties, finally having figured out enough about myself to understand what I wanted to do and how to be most effective at doing it.

              I developed a benign form of chronic lung disease when I turned 50.  Although it subjected me to severe coughing fits for a number of months, it did gradually resolve/dissipate, so that it is no longer an issue.  But then, at the end of that decade, I had my bout with cancer.  I was 59, and I was still working out daily at pretty intense aerobic levels (sustaining my heart rate at around 150 and peaking at 170 just about every day). 

              The tumor was in my neck, where it had probably migrated from my throat.  I had surgery to remove it and then had six weeks of hellish radiation therapy to make sure it didn’t come back.  It hasn’t, and for the last three-and-a-half years, I’ve been considered cured (if you can ever be cured of cancer).  The radiation has caused secondary side effects, some of which have been unpleasant, but for the most part, I am “as good as new” as a post-cancer survivor.

              Except, of course, that I’m not, because in the intervening years, I have gotten firmly into senior citizen status, with discounts available to me at all the local movie theaters.  Other things have also kept me in touch with the aging I have experienced.  In the last three years, for example, I’ve lost most of my hair.  No biggie, you might be saying, but it takes some getting used to, even if no one else cares.  I’ve also developed many more of the “aches and pains” that are the body’s way of saying, “you can’t do that anymore.” 

              Thus, a round of golf now requires a day of recovery to keep my back from barking at me and my knees (which still remain uncut) from wanting to buckle as I climb a flight of stairs.  And an occasional bout of insomnia (a chronic condition I’ve suffered with for most of my adult life) will leave me struggling to stay awake midway through the next day. 

              I also have more trouble remembering the names of actors, perhaps the first sign of what in future years, I assume, will mark the degradation of my mental capacities.  My mother, about to turn 93, suffers fairly severe short-term memory loss, although she is still vivid in her recollection of events from my childhood (and hers!).  I suppose worse things can befall one in one’s dotage than having to be reminded repeatedly what the plans for dinner are.  My mother is still a voracious reader.  On a visit last month I found her to be reading no fewer than seven books, and she was conversant on all of them.

              And so, it’s all relative, this aging thing.  I’m certainly less capable physically in all areas than I was ten, twenty or thirty years ago.  I’ll undoubtedly become even less capable as I age into whatever time is left for me.  And I’m also on the downslope of my intellectual powers, although I still feel comfortable in that area, thankfully.

              In the end, we all get old and wither, unless death comes for us at an earlier age.  I remember my grandmother, who was vital into her 80s, telling me mournfully that she had lived too long, when her mind and body both started to fail her badly.  It’s a fate that awaits me, too, I suppose, if I have that kind of longevity.

              But in the meantime, life is still good, very good, in fact.  And old age, while nothing to be overjoyed about, isn’t as bad as you might suspect.  And, as they say, it sure beats the alternative.