Friday, October 30, 2009

The Backbencher Institute of Christian History, Lesson 1

New York Time columnist Ross Douthat used the occasion of Pope Benedict's invitation to conservative Anglicans to join the Catholic Church to wish for a new crusade against Islam. Douthat's take is that "What's being interpreted, for now, as an intra-Christian Skirmish may eventually be remembered as the first step toward a united Anglican-Catholic front-not against liberalism or atheism, but against Christianity's most enduring and impressive foe.

Actually, Christianity's most enduring and impressive foe is western imperialism. Western imperialism, either by brute force or through a subtle co-opting of the Church, has often come close to defeating Christianity. However, there has always been a group of Christians(sometimes small and sometimes opposed by the hierarchy of their church) who have continued to fight western imperialism. They have been do so since literaly day one and may they continue to do so.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Book Review

I like to travel and I am always looking a way to add depth to my travel experience. In an effort to do so, I read Rick Steves' Travel as a Political Act. Steves is most famous for his PBS travel show and a series of travel book he writes about visiting Europe.

The best part of the book is the large middle section where he goes to various countries and sees how they address certain issues. For example he goes to Switzerland and the Netherlands to study drug policy. Steves also goes to Morocco and Turkey to learn about moderate Islamic countries and he travels to Iran to learn about the United States' current enemy. While usually he usually concentrates on Europe, Steves' does detour to El Salvador to learn about libertation theology and the role that globalization and U.S. Foreign policy play in the developing world.

Steve's book does present a lot to think about and how travel can force to confront some delicate issues. While encouraging people to travel to begin the process of confronting long held beliefs, Steves is short on ways to do that in the specific countries he visited(perhaps that is what his travel books are for).

Even if I travel to only a few of the places that Steves visited, his book does encourage me to travel more and increase the opportunities to step out and learn directly from other cultures.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

We Might Need to Stop Using the Term Dog Pile

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great piece in the New Yorker comparing professional football with dog fighting. Gladwell's point is that dogfighting and football are like because both are predicated on fact that the participants court severe injury to please others. Football players are particularly susceptible to severe long term brian damage. Eventually society deemed dog fighting illegal and abhorrent because the culture at large could no longer stomach getting its entertainment at the price of suffering dogs. Gladwell wants society to look at the immense suffering professional football players go through and wants to consider if our entertainment is worth the suffering of other people.

I find myself torn. I played and continue to like football. However, I have long been aware of the brutal damage the game inflicts on its participants. As the article points out there are few good solutions to stop the brain damage football players endure. The NFL tries to modify its equipment and change its rules to keep its players safe. I applaud this effort and the intent to keep the players safe.

The problem, though, seems to be one of physics. NFL players are bigger and faster then were just a few years ago. When the collide they collide with great force. I once had the opportunity to watch an NFL game from the field, and the speed and violence of the game was frightening to behold. The only way to counter the inherent violence, and the damage it causes, is to shrink and slow down the game. Only by limiting the size and speed of the players can the basic physics of the game be changed.

Elections Have Consequences

The Senate joined the House and today passed the Matthew Shepherd hate crimes legislation. The bill was attached to a defense appropriations bill and 58 Democrats and 9 Republicans voted for the bill. Russ Feingold(D-WI) opposed the bill because of elements relating to Afghanistan in the defense appropriations section and Robert Byrd(D-WV) was not present to vote.

Also from the hill today comes word that the healthcare bill that goes to the Senate floor will probably have a public option. Most moderate Democrats appear mollified by the knowledge that they will have a chance to vote to strip the public option provision. If a public option is in the bill then its opponents need 60 votes to strip it out of the bill, and if it is not included proponents need 60 to insert it. This news makes it very possible that the final bill will include some form of a public option.

This is good news and a reminder of why many of us worked, contributed money, and voted for President Obama and the Democrats.

Book Review

My vacation reading was Richard Aldous' The Lion and the Unicorn. The Lion and the Unicorn tells the story of the rivalry of Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. These two men dominated British politics during the Victorian era. During the second half of the Nineteenth Century, these two alternated power and the office of Prime Minister. Stoking their rivalry is the fact that the men were complete opposites and personally detested each other.

I found it fascinating to reed how two people can dominate a political scene for so long. It is impossible for the American political scene to experience such a thing as the rivalry between Disraeli and Gladstone. The idea of the separation of powers and term limits for President mean that the most powerful person in the country never has a consistent rival and is off the political scene within a decade. Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neil were the two most powerful rival politicans in the 1980's but they never faced off directly. All of their conflicts were indirectly through the press and through campaigns. Disraeli and Gladstone regularly faced each other in direct debate in the House of Commons. The closest American analogy that I can come up with is when Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun dominated debates in the Senate during the Antebellum period. However none of the three 3 ever became President.

Gladstone and Disraeli debated every major issue in British politics. The clashed over budget issues and the role of religion in public life. The two debated electoral reform and the questions surrounding Ireland. In foreign affairs, Gladstone and Disraeli had some of their most explosive clashes over issues regarding Turkey and the Middle East, and relations between the great powers of Europe.

Spicing up the political rivalry between the two is the personal qualities of both protagonists. Disraeli was a flamboyant dandy who also wrote popular novels. On one trip to the Middle East, Disraeli came back with a "butler, a pirate outfit, and a case of the clap." Gladstone, on the other hand, was a stern, upright, and pious man. His only weakness was that he frequented some of London's most notorious red light districts searching for what he called "rescue cases."

The book is well written and easy to read. Unless you just be happen to be a geek about British politics and history like I am then you don't need to view this book as vacation reading. However, it is one of the best books on the subject of British political history that I have read.

Liturgygeek was concerned on finding out who was the lion and who was the unicorn. The title is an illusion to a scene in Lewis Carroll"s Through the Looking Glass. William Gladstone is the lion and Benjamin Disraeli is the unicorn.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Catching up on Iowa

While I was on vacation, two major events occurred in Iowa politics. The first is the former Governor Terry Bransted left his position as president of Des Moines University and started the process of "fully exploring" the possibility of running for governor in 2010. Branstad's theme is going to be saving the state budget, which is currently in such terrible state that Governor Culver ordered 10% across the board cuts. Yet I am not sure what exactly Branstad offers to fix the situation. When he was Governor, Branstad worked with Democrats in the legislature to raise the state sales tax. However, I can't see anybody coming out of today's Republican party being willing to do anything about the budget. Culver already ordered cuts and I can't imagine any Republican doing anything more that the current governor is doing.

If Branstad does win the GOP nomination then I think he is the clear favorite to win the Governor's Mansion. However, I think Branstad will be bloodied by the GOP primary. Branstad does have a moderate record as governor that included raising the sales tax and Branstad did have a pro-choice Lieutenant Governor for half of his time in office. The modern Iowa GOP does not tolerate either of those positions and Branstad's Republican opponents are already lining up to take shots.

The other big news is that Sen. Chuck Grassley(R-IA) might have a big name challenger. Former First Lady Christie Vilsack is exploring a possible run for Senate. Ms. Vilsack certainly gives off every intention of running by saying "I think I am well qualified to serve." Vilsack definitely has the policy chops and the popularity to be a formidable challenge to Grassley and Grassley's popularity has dipped over his role in the health care debate. I still think Grassley is the favorite to win but Vilsack is the most formidable person that Democrats can probably nominate.

As a personal note, Liturgygeek serves on the board of the Iowa Intiative, which is a program to reduce unintended pregnancies in the state of Iowa, and where Christie Vilsack serves as Executive Director . After Ms. Vilsack called Liturgygeek a couple of times, I tried to convince Liturgygeek to invite Christie Vilsack to our wedding but Liturgygeek was not as enamored with the idea as I was.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Blogging by the Bay

I am back to blogging after spending some much needed time off on vacation. Liturgygeek and I celebrated our 1st anniversary by traveling to the Bay Area. I always enjoy visiting Northern California, and because I spent part of my boyhood in Marin County, I find that visiting the Bay Area is always special.

We spent the first part of our trip in Sonoma so that we could visit Liturgygeek's moms and family. Our big trip during this portion of our vacation was out to Point Reyes. As a boy, my family visited Point Reyes often and my dad liked it so much that he spent a couple of years searching for a Point Reyes lighthouse figurine. Unfortunately we visited on Tuesday and the lighthouse is closed on Tuesday. We did get some nice views of the ocean and the deer that live on the cliffs above the Pacific. Beside the deer, other wildlife that we could see from Point Reyes included some whales. The whales were a little ways off the coast but we could see them blow water when they surfaced.

The famous San Andreas fault runs right through the Point Reyes National Seashore. Even though the fault caused both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes, I was not afraid to stand on the active fault line. The blue post I am standing beside marks the fault.

After a great first part of the week in Sonoma, we spent the last part of our trip in the city of San Francisco. I feel a little weird visiting San Francisco. In many ways I remember an idealized version of the city from boyhood, and I have to struggle to accept the reality that the city is great on its own merits and not as some fantasy from my childhood that never existed.

Perhaps it is because we spent a lot of time way from the usual tourist precincts but on this trip I found that I really became entranced by San Francisco. It began to move from the mythological city of my childhood to a city that I as an adult can appreciate and enjoy.

We explored the Mission District and we went down to the farmer's market at the ferry building. It is sad to report but the farmer's market in San Francisco far outclassed any type of market that I have seen in Iowa. We sampled a type of olive oil flavored with truffles that was absolutely fantastic. We have plans to order some to be shipped for us to have in Iowa.

As a cosmopolitan city, there are always major events. The President's Cup golf tournament was played during the week we there. Even though Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson played, we did not see them. Our trip also coincided with fleet week and the sky above San Francisco roared as the Blue Angels thundered above the city. During the fleet week there is an air show and a parade of ships. The picture below shows an SFFD fireboat and a U.S. Navy ship.

No vacation is complete without a ballgame and this year's ballgame was the Atlanta Falcons vs. the San Francisco 49ers. It was not a fun game because the Flacons stomped the Niners 45-10. However, the experience was great. We had a good time with some wild fans and just hanging out. Candlestick Park is starting to show its age but in a league of ultra modern stadiums it is fun to visit an NFL stadium whose claim to fame is the greatness of the team that plays there and not the bells and whistles of the scoreboard.
We stayed at two great places. In Sonoma we stayed at the Jack London Lodge. The rooms had a quaint and rustic feel but they were nice and comfortable. The breakfasts on the patio was nice and the hot tub was very nice. In San Francisco, we stayed at the Cornell Hotel. The Cornell is located at the corner of Powell and Bush; Right on the cable car line. It is a small but comfortable hotel. While we stayed there, it felt like we were staying at an undiscovered gem in the heart of San Francisco.

I like food and we ate out well. We ate at Guy Fieri's restaurant Johnny Garlics. It had the feel of a chain restaurant and was kitchy because it was an outlet for the Fieri empire but the food was good. Liturgygeek has a friend that owns a restaurant in Sonoma called Maya. The pork chop was amazing and one of the most flavorful pieces of meat I have ever eaten. We ate supper twice in the Mission District. The first place was an Indian place called Dosa. I am not a big fan of Indian food but it was very good. The other place is called Foreign Cinema and it was great. It is the type of place that can only be found in San Francisco. The food was fantastic and they play movies on the wall while you eat. Finally, the best breakfast I had was at Brenda's French Soul Food. The had beignets to start and then large servings of New Orleans style breakfasts.

Well, that does for my summary. There was too much we did on the trip to give an adequate summary. Oh well, I guess I will have to make another trip.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

Liturgygeek and I are celebrating our wedding anniversary today. While this is a happy day for us, we remember that gay and lesbian couples are prevented from enjoying the full rights and responsibilities of marriage.

98 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are seeking to change this unjust reality. To ensure that U.S. law recognizes full and equal marriage rights for all couple the have introduced The Respect for Marriage Act. Rep. Jerald Nadler(D-NY-8) is the lead sponsor of this act.

The Backbencher recognizes Rep. Nadler and all 97 of his colleagues as this week's Backbencher of the Week for their work in giving full marriage rights to all Americans.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Debate is On

Prime Minister Gordon Brown agreed to debate Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in a televised debate before next year's general election. If this debate would occur this would be a new development for British politics. Televised debates, though common in many other countries, are not a part of British campaigns.

I don't really like this development. I think it cheapens the debates in the House of Commons where the party leaders clash weekly during Question Time. Also, every major government initiative is debated is Parliament. The government presents its agenda and the opposition parties critique the government and offer its alternatives. In the UK, Parliament is supreme and I fear that a televised debate will further reduce Parliament's relevance.

I am also not a fan of televised debates. I have watched American style televised debates since I became politically aware in my teens. Rarely are the debates edifying. The goal in an American debate is to avoid a campaign killing gaffe and deliver a glib and snappy put down to the opponent. Positions and issues are not clarified and the debates are not very informative.

My criticisms not withstanding, I do hope they show the debate on C-SPAN.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Justice in America

Legal authorities in Switzerland caught film director Roman Polanski and are holding him for extradition back to the United States. After pleading guilty to raping a 13 year old girl, Polanski fled after a plea deal fell through. A strange combination of Hollywood types and neo-con columnists in the Washington Post are defending Polanski. In bit of glaring obliviousness Woody Allen is among those defending Polanski.

There may be legal reason that might mitigate the issues that surround Polanski's sentence. That is why we have lawyers and appellate courts; to argue and decide these cases. However, we should not lose sight of what he confessed to doing. Polanski admitted that he gave a 13 year old girl a combination of wine and quaaludes and then raped her. Not only is this illegal but it is morally reprehensible. There could very well have been misconduct on the part of the judge and prosecutor, and if there is then Polanski's lawyers have a professional and legal obligation to bring any possible misconduct before the court in an effort to defend him. What is not needed is a bunch of morally oblivious Hollywood and Washington elite defending the indefensible.

Meanwhile in Texas, Governor Rick Perry(R-TX) fired 3 members of the State Forensic Commission. The commission was scheduled to listen to evidence related to the case of Cameron T. Willingham but the meeting had to be cancelled. In an article in the New Yorker, David Gann makes a very compelling case that when the state of Texas executed Willingham they executed an innocent man.

In Washington D.C., Federal District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly granted a habeas petition filed by a Kuwati citizen named Fouad al-Rabiah. In her ruling, Judge Kollar-Kotelly declared that American interrogators tortured al-Rabiah even though they had no evidence that he was guilty of anything more then being in Afghanistan during the U.S. invasion. In fact her ruling seems to indicate that U.S. officials knew his torture induced confession was unreliable but they held him in custody anyway. In other words, we tortured a man we knew was innocent.

In the U.S., if you are rich, powerful, and famous then there are plenty of rich, powerful, and famous people who will defend you. However, if you poor or of the wrong skin pigmentation then there is no greater crime you can commit then to be innocent when the government thinks you are guilty.