Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Paris - Sonic Jihad
David Bazan - Fewer Moving Parts
Todd Steed and the Suns of Phere - Heartbreak and Duct Tape
Starflyer 59 - Leave Here a Stranger
Mustard - Eureka Grande
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Location: Illinois, United States

The peaches, apples, plums and pears are guarded by ferocious bears.

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J.K. Rowling
My Secret - Frank Warren
Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi

31 August 2006

Katrina Revisited

30 August 2006

This Is What A Terrorist Looks Like

According to a new poll, a pretty significant number of people in the U.S. support racial profiling at airports. Of the 1,080 surveyed, 60 percent said authorities should single out people who look "Middle Eastern" for security screenings at such locations as train stations and airports.

I can clearly understand that. It's not like a white person has ever committed an act of terrorism in the United States.

Except for this one.

And this one. And this one. And this one.

Not forgetting this one. And this one. And this one. And this one. And this one.

And also this one. And this one. And this one. And this one.

As well as these ones. And these ones. And these ones. And these ones.

In the words of Chris Rock, I'm not afraid of al-Qaeda. I'm afraid of Al Cracker.

Update: How could I forget these guys?

29 August 2006

Of Christian Nations

Why God might particularly favor a nation whose economy is founded foursquare on the seven deadly sins is a mystery that has not been explained. -- Wendell Berry

There is a widely held view among certain Christians in the United States that their country is a Christian one. What such Christians generally mean is that many of the founding fathers were committed Christians and that the documents which founded the United States grew out of their religious convictions.

Many credible historians would disagree with that. They would tell you that many of the founders of this country were Deists.

Notes Farrell Till:

Such a view of American history is completely contrary to known facts. The primary leaders of the so-called founding fathers of our nation were not Bible-believing Christians; they were deists. Deism was a philosophical belief that was widely accepted by the colonial intelligentsia at the time of the American Revolution. Its major tenets included belief in human reason as a reliable means of solving social and political problems and belief in a supreme deity who created the universe to operate solely by natural laws. The supreme God of the Deists removed himself entirely from the universe after creating it. They believed that he assumed no control over it, exerted no influence on natural phenomena, and gave no supernatural revelation to man. A necessary consequence of these beliefs was a rejection of many doctrines central to the Christian religion. Deists did not believe in the virgin birth, divinity, or resurrection of Jesus, the efficacy of prayer, the miracles of the Bible, or even the divine inspiration of the Bible.

These beliefs were forcefully articulated by Thomas Paine in Age of Reason, a book that so outraged his contemporaries that he died rejected and despised by the nation that had once revered him as "the father of the American Revolution." To this day, many mistakenly consider him an atheist, even though he was an out spoken defender of the Deistic view of God. Other important founding fathers who espoused Deism were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, James Madison, and James Monroe.
Many of the founders of the United States, it seems, had far more in common with Unitarian Universalists than they did with conservative American Christians.

But there is another answer for such Christians. Jesus of Nazareth is the central figure of Christianity. Many of his followers mistakenly assumed that Jesus would be a powerful political figure who would overthrow the Roman empire. Zealotry, in fact, was one of four Jewish sects at the time of Jesus. This sect objected to Roman rulership and many Zealots sought to violently eradicate it.

Jesus, in contrast, did the exact opposite. Rather than overthrow the Roman empire, he set up a different kind of kingdom, a kingdom whose law is summed up by two commandments: love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.

Thus, to claim that a group of colonies violently overthrowing its government is built on a Christian foundation is a bit like saying that a man who cheats on his wife is a good husband.

Free Music?

So this is interesting. Late this year Universal Music Group may be offering its music catalogue for free through a downloading service.

BBC reports:

Under the agreement, Spiralfrog will offer Universal's songs online in the US and Canada.

New York-based Spiralfrog will launch its service in December and make its money by carrying adverts on the site.

Spiralfrog aims to take on market leader Apple's iTunes service, which charges 99 cents per song in the US.

"Offering young consumers an easy-to-use alternative to pirated music sites will be compelling," Spiralfrog Chief Executive Robin Kent said.

Mr Kent, the former head of the Universal McCann advertising agency, added that his research suggested that in return for free music, young people would be willing to endure adverts - as long as the brands and products were relevant to them.

'Shrewd move'

US-based music industry legal specialist Josh Lawler said news of the new service was "inevitable".

Spiralfrog will have to find a way to pay artists from the advertising dollars they are generating

Josh Lawler, music industry specialist

"It's a very shrewd move by Universal," he told BBC News.

"The music industry is going to a point where all delivery will probably be some form of downloading or streaming."

Figures from the International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI) estimate that for each legal download, 40 are done illegally.

Mr Lawler added that the success of Myspace had underlined the power of the internet to make or break artists - as well as proving that advertising-based formats can work.

Funding question

But while Spiralfrog is discussing possible deals with other big record firms, questions still remain over how the artists featured on Spiralfrog will be paid.

"The internet is very much a viable media, but the trick is going to be getting it off the ground in the first place," Mr Lawler added.

"Spiralfrog will have to find a way to pay artists from the advertising dollars they are generating.

"But they're not necessarily going to know how many advertising dollars there are and so some artists are going to be hesitant about it," he said.
I'm not sure what to make of this yet. But Universal has a huge music catalogue, which includes the likes of Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, U2, Eminem, 50 Cent, Van Morrison, Kanye West, and, lest we forget, Jimmie's Chicken Shack. I have no idea how Universal will be able to pay for such a bawdy shenanigan, but I have every intention of taking advantage of it come December.

24 August 2006

Friday Random Ten

Pedro the Lion - A Blueprint of Something Never Finished
Radiohead - There There. (The Boney of King Nowhere.)
Eminem - Rhymin Wordz
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Warrior
Modest Mouse - Blame It on the Tetons
Dave Matthews Band - Drive In Drive Out
Beth Thornley - Double Wide
Moby - Signs of Love
Alison Krauss - No Place to Hide
Cloud Cult - 6 Days to Madness

Just Checking

So there were eight planets. Then there were nine. Then there were twelve. Now we're back down to eight? Is that correct? I feel like I'm stuck in a bad math problem.

23 August 2006

Birth Bangs

Sorry for the dearth of posts. I started a music blog, so I've been doing that a bit lately. So far it's managed to hold my interest longer than the last music blog I started, which lasted approximately three weeks.

Check it out if you want. There's lots of free, legal mp3s. It's still a work in progress, particularly in the links department. But it's a start, dammit.

The People's Republic of Wasp Jerky brings you Analog Rhombus.

18 August 2006

Boo Part 3 (A Healthy Distrust)

It's August. Bush is in Crawford on a "working vacation." His polls are in the tank. Congress is in revolt. The economy is going soft. The next elections don't look good. Cheney is off in Wyoming, or wherever he goes. It's 2001. No, it's 2006. - James K. Galbraith

The latest terror plot continues to unravel. The "liberal media" doesn't seem to have noticed. They're too busy trying to sell us fear:

While the media is asleep, James K. Galbraith examines the plot, or the seeming lack thereof:

So, there must have been training. That means there must be a lab, or labs. There must have been trial bombs. There must be various bits and pieces of equipment used to mix the chemicals and set them off. There must be a manual. There must be a testing ground. And each one of the young men under arrest must have been to these places. Interestingly, it must have all happened, too, without a serious accident, injury or death among the conspirators. If so, they are a lot more competent than the Weather Underground ever was, in my day.

Arrests were made at night, catching the culprits at home. Houses have been raided, and are being searched. So far as we know at this point, no bombs have been found. No chemicals. No equipment. No labs. No testing ground. Maybe this will come out later, but it hasn't so far, even though the authorities seem anxious to tell just about everything they know.

Now, in order to get on an airplane, even the most devout suicide terrorist needs a ticket, and these generally must be purchased with money. Apparently, not one ticket had been purchased by the detainees. One little-known feature of airline security (in the United States, anyway) is that people traveling on one-way tickets bought at the last minute get special scrutiny at the gate. Those tickets are also (a lot) more expensive. If you want to pass unnoticed, you will buy your ticket round-trip, in advance, and also save money like everyone else. Actually, if you didn't know this already, you're not fit to be let out of the house.

Further, to get on an international flight from Britain to the United States, in these days of the modern nation-state, you need something else. It's a document called a passport. Apparently, some of the detainees don't have them. Someone lacking a passport can, I think, safely be excluded from the ranks of potential suicide bombers of UK-to-US flights. They could, of course, have a counterfeit or be operating in a support role--but so far we are not being told of any counterfeit documents or any support operation. And to pass security you would use a different person to carry each chemical you needed. For twelve flights, that's twenty-four people.

As for the suspicious parents, friends and neighbors--it's technically possible that the bombers' security was so excellent that none existed. It's just that, in dealing with young people swept up in a fervor of religious hatred, the odds are extremely low. Of all the Islamic groups, Hezbollah in Lebanon is the only one that maintains effective military security, which it does by isolating its fighters as completely as possible from the civilian population. But these young men were picked up at home; they were well-known and yet apparently suspected by no one at all.

As to threats: A joke going around the Manchester Airport on August 10 was that at least the IRA would remember to call. What's the point of a suicide bombing if no one knows what it's for? The downing of twelve airplanes would be horrific to those on them (including me, as it happened), but it wouldn't put a dent in Western capitalism. It would have to be part of a much larger, ongoing, unstoppable campaign. Otherwise, why bother? A once-off attack shows the weakness, not the capacity, of the plotters, and in the end it strengthens not them but the governments they attack. After 9/11, terrorists should know this.

Finally, confessions. Twenty-four suspects have been arrested, according to some reports. Nineteen have been named. Happily, the detainees were taken alive. Unlike the man arrested in Pakistan, we may presume (I trust) that they are not being tortured. Therefore, they will have a chance to make an uncoerced statement of their intentions in open court. By then the authorities will have found the labs, testing grounds, airline tickets and passports. Credible witnesses too will have emerged. By then the young zealots will have no expectation of acquittal or mercy, and nothing to lose. We may therefore confidently expect them to face the judges and declare exactly what their motives and intentions were. If they do that, I'll eat my hat.

In short: Could this case blow up? Could it turn out to have been an overreaction, a mistake--or even a hoax? Yes, it could, and it wouldn't be the first one, either. I'm not saying it will, necessarily. I'm not accusing the British authorities of bad faith. I'm not suggesting the plot was faked--at least, not by them. But dodgy informants and jumpy politicians are an explosive mixture, easily detonated under pressure. Everyone knows that.
Meanwhile, Larry Beinhart reminds us of something Democrats don't seem to have ovaries to say, that Republicans are bad for national security:

Every Democrat running for national office -- and local offices too, why not? -- should say, "I'm running because Republicans are bad on national security."

Then they should go on to say, here's why I'm saying it:

1. 9/11 happened on their watch. Of course, we can't say, absolutely, that it would not have happened if they had not been asleep at the wheel. But we can say that they did not do all they could have done to prevent it. We can say that Bush literally pushed away the warnings.

2. George Bush and the Republicans failed to get Osama bin Laden. We got both Hitler and Hirohito in less time than we've been chasing bin Laden. Every day that bin Laden's out there, he's proof that you can attack the United States and get away with it. That's a bad message to send, and believe me, people in the terrorist world have heard it loud and clear. That's very bad for national security.

3. George Bush and the Republicans gave Osama bin Laden what he wanted. Bin Laden wanted the US to get into a quagmire. He wanted our troops tied down in an Islamic country so that an insurgency could do to them what the Afghanis did to the Russians and to the British before them.

A modern, hi-tech army is very good at invasions. It's also good for fighting back against other armies. But a modern hi-tech army is not good at occupying a country against the will of the population. Even if the army is as violent and ruthless as the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan were.

Friday Comics Blogging

16 August 2006

Boo Part 2 (Weapons Of Mass Distraction?)

The recent string of arrests in the U.K. are sure to bolster the faith of some that the U.S. treatment of terrorism is somehow working. Neo-Contastic writes that "it seems as if everyday our government in concert with the British parliament are constantly thwarting the attacks of Arab fascist, terrorists. On both US and British soil, our governments are arresting these pathetic, terrorists before they can attack."

The most maddening thing about this logic is it distracts from how little progress the current administration has made in defending this country. Liquid bombs? This isn't new information. It was planned 11 years ago. Why is it suddenly a threat again now? Why are liquid bombs only a threat to airplanes? What about buses? Subways? Trains? Why the fuss over the Mexican border? Sneaking into the United States from Canada is as easy as riding in the trunk of a car. As Keith Olbermann said after Katrina, BushCo has proven that they're incapable of protecting us from a biological hazard called standing water. God help us when someone really wants to do some damage.

Of course, the key word may be distraction. Greg Palast has an interesting take:
How odd. They just caught the British guys with the chemistry sets. But when these guys were about to blow up airliners, the USA was on YELLOW alert. That's a "lowered" threat notice.

According to the press office from the Department of Homeland Security, lowered-threat Yellow means that there were no special inspections of passengers or cargo. Isn't it nice of Mr. Bush to alert Osama when half our security forces are given the day off? Hmm. I asked an Israeli security expert why his nation doesn't use these pretty color codes.

He asked me if, when I woke up, I checked the day's terror color.

"I can't say I ever have. I mean, who would?"

He smiled. "The terrorists."

America is the only nation on the planet that kindly informs bombers, hijackers and berserkers the days on which they won't be monitored. You've got to get up pretty early in the morning to get a jump on George Bush's team.

There are three possible explanations for the Administration's publishing a good-day-for-bombing color guidebook.

1. God is on Osama's side.
2. George is on Osama's side.
3. Fear sells better than sex.

A gold star if you picked #3.

The Fear Factory

I'm going to tell you something which is straight-up heresy: America is not under attack by terrorists. There is no WAR on terror because, except for one day five years ago, al Qaeda has pretty much left us alone.

That's because Osama got what he wanted. There's no mystery about what Al Qaeda was after. Like everyone from the Girl Scouts to Bono, Osama put his wish on his web site. He had a single demand: "Crusaders out of the land of the two Holy Places." To translate: get US troops out of Saudi Arabia.

And George Bush gave it to him. On April 29, 2003, two days before landing on the aircraft carrier Lincoln, our self-described "War President" quietly put out a notice that he was withdrawing our troops from Saudi soil. In other words, our cowering cowboy gave in whimpering to Osama's demand.

The press took no note. They were all wiggie over Bush's waddling around the carrier deck in a disco-aged jump suit announcing, "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED." But it wasn't America's mission that was accomplished, it was Osama's.

Am I saying there's no danger, no threat? Sure there is: 46 million Americans don't have health insurance. IBM is legally stealing from its employees' pension plan and United Airlines has dumped its pensions altogether. Four-million three-hundred thousand Americans were injured, made sick or killed by their jobs last year. TXU Corporation is right now building four monster-sized power plants in Texas that will burn skuzzy gunk called "lignite." The filth it will pour into the sky will snuff a heck of a lot more Americans than some goofy group of fanatics with bottles of hydrogen peroxide.

But Americans don't ask for real protection from what's killing us. The War on Terror is the Weapon of Mass Distraction. Instead of demanding health insurance, we have 59 million of our fellow citizens pooping in their pants with fear of Al Qaeda, waddling to the polls, crying, "Georgie save us!"

And what does he give us? In my own small town, the federal government has paid for loading an SUV with .50 caliber machine guns to watch for an Al Qaeda attack at the dock of the ferry that takes tourists to the Indian casino in Connecticut. The casino dock is my town's officially designated "Critical Asset and Vulnerability Infrastructure Point (CAVIP)." (To find the most vulnerable points to attack in the USA, Al Qaeda can download a list from the Department of Homeland Security -- no kidding.)

But that's not all. Bush is protecting us from English hijackers with a fearsome anti-terrorist tool: the Virginia-class submarine. The V-boat was originally meant to hunt Soviet subs. But there are no more Soviet subs. So, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin have "refitted" these Cold War dinosaurs with new torpedoes redesigned to carry counter-terror commandoes. That's right: when we find Osama's beach house, we can shoot our boys right up under his picnic table and take him out. These Marines-in-a-tube injector boats cost $2.5 billion each -- and our President's ordered half a dozen new ones.

Lynn Cheney, the Veep's wife, still takes in compensation from Lockheed as a former board member. I'm sure that has nothing to do with this multi-billion dollar "anti-terror" contract.

Fear sells better than sex. Fear is the sales pitch for many lucrative products: from billion-dollar sailor injectors to one very lucrative war in Mesopotamia (a third of a trillion dollars doled out, no audits, no questions asked).

Better than toothpaste that makes our teeth whiter than white, this stuff will make us safer than safe. It's political junk food, the cheap filling in the flashy tube. What we don't get is safety from the real dangers: a life-threatening health-care system, lung-murdering pollution production and a trade deficit with China that's reducing mid-America to coolie status. Protecting us from these true threats would take a slice of the profits of the Lockheeds, the Exxons and the rest of the owning class.

War on Terror is class war by other means -- to keep you from asking for real protection from true menace, the landlords of our nation give you fake protection from manufactured dangers. And they remind you to be afraid every time you fly to see Aunt Millie and have to give up your hemorrhoid ointment to the underpaid guy in the bell-hop suit with a security badge.
Again, this doesn't mean people don't want to blow things up in the United States. But neither does it make George Bush trustworthy or competent. If this series of arrests has proven anything, it's that law enforcement and good old fashioned detective work works. A war on terror does not.

11 August 2006

Boo (Or A Convenient Truth?)

So a new terror plot has been foiled. Or so I'm supposed to believe. I'm sorry, but I just have a hard time buying it. When an administration has been as dishonest as this one has, when an administration has cried wolf as many times as this one has, and when the British government has been this in bed with our administration, it's a little difficult to take them seriously.

Why release this information now, right before midterm elections? Why is this threat serious enough to raise the terror alert to red for the first time ever, but not serious enough for the President to return from his vacation? Why is it that liquid explosives are now suddenly a threat, even though they were suspected in the foiled 1995 plot to blow up U.S. airplanes? Why has it been safe to bring liquids on planes for the past five years? And why is it that I'm supposed to believe George Bush can keep me safe, when it was George Bush who was asleep at the wheel five years ago?

I don't mean to suggest that there wasn't a plot to blow up planes, or that people don't want to blow up planes. But all these busted terror cells and terror plots and terror alerts do seem to happen at convenient times.

I think it's time we revisit Keith Olbermann's report on these matters:

And some thoughts from Rigorous Intuition:

The crawl on MSNBC Thursday night read Terror in the Sky: Mass Murder on an Unimaginable Scale! Well, no; and I mean no to everything.

There is no terror in the sky, unless you're Iraqi or Lebanese, or reside in northern Israel or any of the world's other free-fire zones and might expect to see death fall from it. Or unless we can include the sky itself, churning with strange weather and unwholesome artifacts, and a sun that now seems to burn an alien white. Because if we look up, we may just catch our breath.

The mass murder never was, and the unimaginable scale! was imagined more than ten years ago, and given the name Project Bojinka. Substitute the Pacific for the Atlantic, and toss in the assassination of the Pope and the crashing of a plane into CIA headquarters for good measure, and you have a thwarted operation that's earned its exclamation point. But 2006 isn't 1995, and today citizens of the great crusader nations must be reminded, repeatedly and at the pleasure of their minders, just how vulnerable they are, and therefore dependent upon the same dark mills of empire that intentionally exacerbate those vulnerabilities.

"Weeks before September 11th, this is going to play big," boasts a naturally unnamed White House official in the AFP story "Bush Seeks Political Gains from Foiled Plot." Bush and Blair conferred last weekend on the "imminent attack" (though neither man was sufficiently moved to break off their vacations), and the White House tooled its response to Joe Lieberman's defeat at the hands of a "far left" cut 'n runner accordingly. The thwarting of the plot (with a man inside, as is the custom in plots both thwarted and unthwarted) became itself a time bomb, rigged to detonate in the faces of populist leaders who even modestly reflect the now conventional wisdom that the war is an abject failure (at least according to how failure is conventionally understood). This would be a reminder and an example that the threat is real, though the threat was no less real - and possibly more real - when Bojinka was foiled in 1995.

Last night on the RI forum, "sunny" wondered "So, if the plot was foiled, why was the terror alert raised? That in itself tells me everything I need to know."
And from Americablog:

Do I sound as if I don't believe this alert? Why, yes, that would be correct. I just don't believe it. Read the article. They say the plot had an "Al Qaeda footprint." Ooh, are you scared yet? What that really means is that they found NO evidence whatsoever that the plot had anything to do at all with Al Qaeda, but the plot simply made them think "gosh, this is something Al Qaeda would do." That's what a footprint means. Nice, but no cigar.

Were these guys totally innocent? Probably not. But there's no reason to believe they were any more Osama's right-hand than Jose Padilla, the famed dirty-bomber who I think is now only being charged with jay-walking or something. Then there were the famous six Muslim-American guys in New York state, supposedly operating their own al Qaeda cell. Not so much. Or how about the Al Qaeda cell in Florida trying to blow up the Sears Tower? Oh that's right, they were just some demented friends squatting in a warehouse and "thinking" about it. And then there's the famous plot to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge - with a single blow torch.

Bottom line: Joe Lieberbush lost. The message is spreading across the land that incumbents who embrace the president are in serious trouble. And the Republicans needed to divert attention, to stop this meme in its tracks, and lo' and behold we have our first terror alert that I can recall since the last election, and it's our first ever Red Alert! What a coincidence!
I'd like to not be so sceptical. I really would. But I'm not seeing any reasons not to be. Thoughts?

Friday Comics Blogging

09 August 2006

The Cross And The Switchblade

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, what we need to do is take the battle to the Muslim heathens and do unto them before they do unto us. Strike first, strike hard, no mercy sir. Freedom isn't free. These colors don't run. God bless America." (Matthew 5:38-42, NIV)

(h/t: Stuff I Notice)

07 August 2006

The Annotated Sufjan

One of my favourite music blogs is The Torture Garden, which is a great place to visit if you're a fan of Radiohead, The Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, My Brightest Diamond, Beirut, Final Fantasy, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Decemberists, and other such fine acts. This week Shane, who runs the site, offers us annotations of songs from the latest Sufjan Stevens disc.

Also check out his song by song explanations of Illinoise and his collection of rare Radiohead and Arcade Fire tracks. Good stuff.

04 August 2006


A rich man came to Jesus one day and asked what he should do to get into heaven. Jesus did not say he should invest, spend, and let the benefits trickle down; he said sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and follow me. Few plainer words have been spoken. And yet, for some reason, the Christian Coalition of America—founded in 1989 in order to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Judeo-Christian values that made this the greatest country in history’—proclaimed last year that its top legislative priority would be ‘making permanent President Bush’s 2001 federal tax cuts.’ —Bill McKibben

In last August’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, writer Bill McKibben had an essay entitled The Christian Paradox. In it, he explores the disconnect between a United States that is supposedly Christian, and its very unChristian behavior.

Here’s my favourite bit:

Ours is among the most spiritually homogenous rich nations on earth. Depending on which poll you look at and how the question is asked, somewhere around 85 percent of us call ourselves Christian. Israel, by way of comparison, is 77 percent Jewish. It is true that a smaller number of Americans—about 75 percent—claim they actually pray to God on a daily basis, and only 33 percent say they manage to get to church every week. Still, even if that 85 percent overstates actual practice, it clearly represents aspiration. In fact, there is nothing else that unites more than four fifths of America. Every other statistic one can cite about American behavior is essentially also a measure of the behavior of professed Christians. That’s what America is: a place saturated in Christian identity.

But is it Christian? This is not a matter of angels dancing on the heads of pins. Christ was pretty specific about what he had in mind for his followers. What if we chose some simple criterion—say, giving aid to the poorest people—as a reasonable proxy for Christian behavior? After all, in the days before his crucifixion, when Jesus summed up his message for his disciples, he said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they’d fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner. What would we find then?

In 2004, as a share of our economy, we ranked second to last, after Italy, among developed countries in government foreign aid. Per capita we each provide fifteen cents a day in official development assistance to poor countries. And it’s not because we were giving to private charities for relief work instead. Such funding increases our average daily donation by just six pennies, to twenty-one cents. It’s also not because Americans were too busy taking care of their own; nearly 18 percent of American children lived in poverty (compared with, say, 8 percent in Sweden). In fact, by pretty much any measure of caring for the least among us you want to propose—childhood nutrition, infant mortality, access to preschool—we come in nearly last among the rich nations, and often by a wide margin. The point is not just that (as everyone already knows) the American nation trails badly in all these categories; it’s that the overwhelmingly Christian American nation trails badly in all these categories, categories to which Jesus paid particular attention. And it’s not as if the numbers are getting better: the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last year that the number of households that were “food insecure with hunger” had climbed more than 26 percent between 1999 and 2003.

This Christian nation also tends to make personal, as opposed to political, choices that the Bible would seem to frown upon. Despite the Sixth Commandment, we are, of course, the most violent rich nation on earth, with a murder rate four or five times that of our European peers. We have prison populations greater by a factor of six or seven than other rich nations (which at least should give us plenty of opportunity for visiting the prisoners). Having been told to turn the other cheek, we’re the only Western democracy left that executes its citizens, mostly in those states where Christianity is theoretically strongest. Despite Jesus’ strong declarations against divorce, our marriages break up at a rate—just over half—that compares poorly with the European Union’s average of about four in ten. That average may be held down by the fact that Europeans marry less frequently, and by countries, like Italy, where divorce is difficult; still, compare our success with, say, that of the godless Dutch, whose divorce rate is just over 37 percent. Teenage pregnancy? We’re at the top of the charts. Personal self-discipline—like, say, keeping your weight under control? Buying on credit? Running government deficits? Do you need to ask?
The questions McKibben raises here are important ones. It’s no secret that Europe is the most atheistic continent on the planet (although I don’t think anyone is keeping tabs on Antarctica). You don’t have to go very far amongst Christians in the States before you run into someone who thinks Europe is a godless cesspool of filth and immorality. After my wife and I got back from Venice last year, she mentioned to some well meaning Christian person that that city is eroding further into the ocean each year. Her comment prompted this person to point out Europe’s immorality, and that this is the sort of thing that happens to those who don’t build on strong foundations (I’m not kidding—this person seriously made that allusion).

But if that’s the case, and if the U.S. is such a Christian nation, as so many Christians seem to think, then why are the godless Europeans better at following the teachings of Jesus than we American Christians?

03 August 2006

Rich Christians In An Age Of Hunger

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.Matthew 19:23-24

I'm tired of being white trash, broke and always poor
Tired of taking pop bottles back to the party store
I'm tired of not having a phone
Tired of not having a home to have one in if I did have it on
— Eminem

When we humans think about wealth, we have a tendency to compare ourselves to people who are wealthier than we are. Every year magazines compile lists of people who are a lot richer than we are: movie stars, politicians, musicians, professional athletes, and so on. And let’s face it, here in the United States there are a lot of people who are richer than us.

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to forget that we are wealthier than most people on the planet. Subconsciously, I think we all know that. Or perhaps it’s just that these issues have been at the forefront in the past few years, what with Bono and the One Campaign and so on.

Still, it’s a little sobering to realise just how rich we are. According to the Global Rich List, for example, I am the 242,608,696 richest person in the world, which puts me in the top 4 percent. On a planet with more than 6 billion people, that’s pretty wealthy indeed.

Admittedly, this statistic fails to consider a lot. Am I more rich because I don’t have children, or less rich because I have a wife in graduate school who only works as a T.A.? Am I more or less rich because I rent instead of paying a mortgage? Less rich because I live in a suburb on the outskirts of Chicago, which has a much higher cost of living than, say, Tennessee? Or more rich because I would undoubtedly make less money living in an area with a lower cost of living? Am I wealthier by virtue of living in a wealthy country, where I have easy access to cheap goods made in Chinese and Indian sweatshops? Do I consider that a person living in Central or Eastern Europe making an average of $300-$600 U.S. dollars a month might have a better life than someone in the United States making minimum wage, because the cost of living is so much lower there?

And while it’s certainly important that we consider those things, it’s also important that we not let them distract us from the real point: most of us living in the United States are very wealthy, wealthy enough that we should be making a real difference in the lives of people who are really living in poverty. It’s a shame that we aren’t.

But I suppose we shouldn’t let that distract us. Jesus was, after all, more concerned with gay marriage and swearing on television than he was with the poor.