Monday, April 9, 2007

Another Washington Post Pratfall

Josh Marshall caught the Washington Post shilling for the Republicans yet again. Seems the WaPo editorial board, not the least bit deterred by having been tragically and colossally wrong about the existence of WMDs in Iraq and Plamegate, have decided that Nancy Pelosi "should not attempt to supplant the secretary of state when traveling abroad". Calling Pelosi's statement that she had carried a message of peace to the Syrians a "pratfall", the WaPo editorialists apparently didn't bother to check what the Israeli press had written just days ago. Josh has lots more to say, and I recommend you read it and his links, but here's the punchline:

So we've had a lot of fun over the last few days with the RNC political shop and Drudge leading a lot of dopes around by the nose. But let's hear a bit more about this. The message the Israelis sent to Damascus was intended to convince the Syrians that the Israelis were not planning to attack the Syrians in concert with an American attack on Iran. There was concern in Israel that this might lead to a preemptive Syrian attack. A message like that from Israel to Syria might be very unwelcome to some people in the White House. Did the White House pressure Olmert? If there was no message, why was the existence of the message being discussed by Israeli officials before Pelosi went to Damascus? Will the White House deny pressuring Olmert? And did any of this occur to the folks who write the Post's editorials?

More dirty tricks from the crooked crowd in the White House?

While we're all offering advice to each other, I'd like to suggest that the Washington Post fire the brain-dead Bush sycophants who write their editorials. They're clearly not able to do the most basic fact checking.

Taylor Marsh has some interesting questions about Israeli PM Ehud Olmert's part in all this.

UPDATE: Not to be outdone when it comes to shilling for the Bush Administration, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed claiming Nancy Pelosi committed a felony by going to Syria. Too bad their editorials don't come on paper any more. Their only real value is as tinder for the fireplace.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The First Commandment

Sam Carter and Jack O'Neill discuss the Scriptures.

Image credit: screenshot by Cujo359. Stargate SG-1 is a copyrighted work of MGM Studios

Yes, it's Easter Sunday, and Christians are talking about morals today. If you want to read what some sensible Christians have to say, I'd suggest going here, or here. If you want to read what Dobson, Donohue, Robertson, and other bigots have to say, you're on your own.

But why should the rest of us be left out? I've mentioned before that if you're open to the lessons, you can learn a lot about morality from science fiction. So, in keeping with Christy Hardin Smith's theme, let's look at one of my favorite Stargate SG-1 episodes, "The First Commandment".

In the episode, SG-1 are sent to find another Stargate team, SG-9, who have been missing for some time. Their commander, Captain Jonas Hansen (William Russ), was caught in the too-hot sun of the planet they were assigned to observe and has gone insane. His delusions of grandeur lead him to believe himself to be the Judeo-Christian god, and as a result feels no restraints in pursuing his ambition to "improve" the inhabitants of the planet. He works them to death to achieve his goals, which are really nothing more than to build a temple for him and his harem. He has the members of his team who object murdered.

Predictably, SG-1 stop Hansen before he wipes out the planet's population. In the coda, Jack and Sam discuss her remorse at not having killed Hansen when she had the chance. Jack, who is probably as close to being a non-believer as anyone in SG-1, leafs through Hansen's Bible while he says:

"I generally remember a commandment in here. I think it's the first one..."

"'I am the Lord your God and you shall take no other gods before me'?", Sam asks.

"OK, it's not the first one. I'm talking about the 'no killing' one. No matter what the reason, when you break it you take one step closer to Hansen."

The truth, of course, is that Hansen broke both rules, and it was breaking the First Commandment that led him to break the 'no killing' one.

To anyone who's even mildly educated, this is a familiar story. The Greeks, Hebrews, and countless others have told such tales over time. Joseph Conrad wrote about it, and John Milius rewrote it for Francis Ford Coppola. Stargate SG-1 revisited the theme a few seasons later with the episode "Absolute Power". The reason they are so prevalent, I think, is a rather simple one - it's clear that people can't handle the sort of power gods have because we almost inevitably will end up using them for our own benefit. In the old days when virtually everyone believed in gods the best metaphor to use was to say we didn't have the wisdom of the gods (an arguable proposition if you paid close attention to the Greeks' myths about their gods, but that's another essay). This is why human societies have rules. Call them laws, ethics, or just commandments, they're the things we teach our children and repeat to ourselves so that they, and we, don't end up being a bunch of Hansens. We all need restraints, whether they're provided by external rules or our own conscience, because at heart we're all just hairless chimpanzees with advanced language skills. If you don't know what that means, watch a few documentaries about how chimps act in the wild.

Which brings us back to Christy's theme, which is a government run by Christians who seem to have forgotten what the First Commandment is all about:

Somehow, Machiavelli got to be an interchangeable text with The Bible in someone's mind, and a thirst for power replaced the hunger for working toward salvation. But, and this is a very big but, Machiavelli was meant as a cautionary tale, not a users' manual. Someone forgot to tell Goodling and her fellow Bushies that The Bible is not a text that was ever meant to be cherry-picked as a justification for being able to screw over whomever you please, or as an excuse to be able to do whatever you want, grasping for promotions and chits from the powerful along the way.

Perhaps a review of The Ten Commandments would have helped — the first commandment reads: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." That includes Presidents who say they talk to God, as well as their political power broker minions, too, and not just golden calves — and working hard to curry favor with any of the above is an act that worships power and what you can get from it. Nothing more, nothing less. Anyone who thinks securing earthly power, consolidating one's position and amassing a number of favors owed to you that you can call in when you need them is the point of existence is worshiping at the alter of Gordon Gekko.

Of State ... And Church

James Madison, who wrote the Constitution, once also wrote: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." He understood the limits of human morality, and when he wrote the Constitution he designed the government in such a way that it could be run by people who weren't angels and yet not trample on the rights of its citizens. The Constitution provides a set of rules, commandments if you will, that each branch of government is supposed to enforce on the others. Unfortunately, Madison and those who helped him failed to realize the effect that political parties would have on the process of government. What we have seen in the last few years, with the excesses of the K Street Project, the Black Sites and Guantanamo, Plamegate, the Iraq War, and the sacking of the USA Eight, is what happens when people decide to ignore the rules, and no one else is in a position to enforce them.

So who is playing the role of SG-1 in this little morality tale of reckless war, boundless corruption, and rampant cruelty? We The People are. Freedom isn't something you defend by sending someone else's kids to a place they've never heard of to kill people they have no beef with. You defend it by watching your government, and by changing it when it starts to go wrong. If you're not willing to do that, you can't really claim to be free.

After all, as Stargate once reminded us, it's our country, and they just run it for us.

Well, that's the sermon, folks. Happy Easter, or happy first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring, whichever applies.

UPDATE: (Apr. 9) CHS provides the postscipt to our sermon in her article today:
Who could have possibly forseen a grasping, power-hungry, chief executive more interested in unilateral consolidation of control of the government than in the concerns of the governed? A large number of our nation's founding fathers, that's who.

Unmentionables In The Sunshine

Can I hear an Amen?

UPDATE 2 (Nov. 16, 2008): Recently, I discussed the other commandments, over here.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

In The Nick Of Time

With a new wardrobe and a new companion, The Doctor (David Tennant) resumes his travels.

Image credit: screenshot by Cujo359. Doctor Who is a copyrighted work of the British Broadcasting Corp.

Last night, after a rather longish day at work, I came home just wanting some escapist video entertainment. To me, escapist entertainment usually means science fiction these days. Unfortunately, one of my old favorites, Stargate SG-1, is now "transitioning off the air", which seems to mean that it's been canceled. My new favorite, Battlestar Galactica, is now on hiatus until who knows when, and was barely renewed despite what I think was a very strong season. In short, there's not much quality science fiction available right now. If it's not about explosions, space battles, and women in scanty clothes, most folks aren't that interested in science fiction television these days.

Then, like an answer to a prayer, I discovered that there was, indeed, some new science fiction episodic television available. Thanks to the BBC, The Doctor is back.

For the uninitiated, The Doctor is the main character of the BBC's Doctor Who series. It's about a time-traveling alien who looks like a human being who travels around in a spaceship that looks like a police box. Police boxes, by the way, were telephone booths of sorts that one could use, back in the mid-twentieth century, to call the police. This plot point, which was considered common knowledge in the United Kingdom when the series began but now must be explained even there, is a hint of how long this show has been around. The Doctor is an eccentric person who often neglects the relationships in his life, and who prefers to travel than to stay anywhere. Over the years, there has been a substantial backstory built up about who he is and what it is in his past that has made him the rolling stone he is now. The Doctor has had a series of traveling companions, both human and alien.

Anyone who knows anything about TV science fiction will at this point be saying "New? Are you kidding? Doctor Who has been around since the Sixties." Yes, that's true. In fact, the first episode of Dr. Who aired the week that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. At the time, it starred William Hartnell, an experienced British actor. Unfortunately, Hartnell's health problems necessitated the sort of plot device that every TV producer has probably wished he could have invented: The Doctor re-generated into the form of a new actor, in this case Patrick Troughton. Over the succeeding decades, eight other actors have played The Doctor. The series, with a break from 1989 to 2005, is now in its twenty-ninth season. Scottish actor David Tennant, perhaps best known for his role as Cassanova, is the latest incarnation of The Doctor.

That sixteen year break in production is one of the reasons that this old show is new again. For a time, Britons were bored with The Doctor, preferring EastEnders, I suppose. In any case, the show was put in mothballs after 1989, even though I think that its last few years featured some of its best writing. The version being produced now is more modern - it features the fast pacing, quick cuts, and CGI special effects that are now standard in video storytelling. Comparing it to some of the early Hartnell episodes is a great way to illustrate how much has changed about the art of TV production in the past forty-five years.

As I've mentioned previously, much of what I've learned about morality I've learned from science fiction. Good science fiction has a way of turning an issue around to allow you to look at it from all sides. While it's perhaps best known for its cheesy special effects, Doctor Who has featured some of the best writing in the genre. It's tackled issues as diverse as the Cold War, terrorism, happiness (and Thatcherism, seemingly its opposite), medical ethics, taxes, and the decline of English society.

At his best, The Doctor is a character who is both wise and yet disarmingly eccentric. His fashion sense is, to say the least, curious. In a genre that typically means the weapons our heroes carry are more powerful, The Doctor prevails armed only with his wits and his sonic screwdriver, and with the help of those he can enlist to help him. He is a powerful, willful, but wise personality. Tennant fits the role admirably. He's a terrific actor - often managing to go from seeming out of his depth to completely in control in a matter of moments, with stops at goofy and tragic along the way. The Doctor is a complicated, mysterious character, and as good as some of his predecessors have been, Tennant may be the best of the lot. It looks like Martha, played by Freema Agyeman, will be a worthy companion for The Doctor. She's intellectually gifted, curious, and courageous, not to mention gorgeous.

So, rent the DVD's, find the downloads, or watch the series on the Sci Fi Channel. And who better than The Doctor to put a postscript on this essay:

Now then. Close down the gravitic anomalizer. Fire up the helmic regulator, and finally ... the hand brake!

UPDATE: Wikipedia has a good introductory article about Dr. Who, with a photo collage of the Doctors.