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September 2004

Shaun of the Dead

First, Chris Crook tonight asked that I mention him in my blog so that he would feel important.

Last night Valerie and I went to see zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead and really, really enjoyed it. The movie is hilarious and clever and cleverly hilarious and hilariously clever. And it's a well put together film.

Five popcorn kernels
3 film reels

The Common Ground of the Common Good

I was just reading Anna Quindlen's column at the end of Newsweek and she was decrying the current state of political rhetoric. There is also an article in there about how blogs are adding to the rhetorical clutter.

These things convict me, because from the beginning of this blog I have intentionally used hyperbole to frame my criticisms of the Bush administration. I do think that from time to time I have posted very thoughtful, well-argued pieces that lacked hyperbole but made some of the same points. I'm still rather proud of my two posts in mid-April explaining my view of the role of government. If you weren't reading this blog back then, you ought to look at those in the "Politics" category down near the bottom of that page.

A few months ago I came to the conclusion that what we seem to be lacking currently is any sense of common ground. I think that through most of the history of this country we've had some shared sense of the common good that we were all (or most of us) working for, despite our party affiliation. We disagreed about how to get there. Did you generate more common good by creating opportunities for self-advancement and entrepeneurship or did you generate more common good by government entitlement programs?

But I'm not sure that we all share this sense of common ground. Maybe it was first attacked by the radical leftists a generation ago, but in reaction to them it seems that the radical rightists have done more to destroy this sense of the common good. So many seem to be out only for themselves and their own. This is the only thing that can explain the continued assault on public education by the far right. You hear it in their casual conversation where they want everything for their kid but aren't concerned at all for what other kids get (this is especially true in the on-going school finance debate in Texas). I see the far right as unconcerned with the general welfare and more concerned with what will keep them and theirs safe, protected, and prosperous but let's damn the poor, the gays, and Iraqi civilians.

Is there a common ground anymore? Any shared sense of the common good or the general welfare? Is it that we not only disagree on approach, we even disagree on what the fundamental principles are?

Maybe this is politics in the postmodern. It seems that we don't even share a narrative anymore, which is itself evidence of postmodernism. Look at the recent debates about Vietnam. As so many my age have said, we have always understood the national agony over Vietnam to have been about soldiers feeling that they committed horrible actions in a war that was morally ambiguous. That's what we've learned from every movie from The Deer Slayer to Forrest Gump and everything we've read by Timothy O'Brien, David Halberstam, etc. It's also what our parents told us. Yet that very narrative is being disputed by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

And let's consider more about our narrative. Is Martin Luther King, Jr. a great American hero and a seminal figure even in Christian history? That's what my youth learn, that he's the most significant Baptist of the twentieth century. But I don't think these views are shared by all.

How is the Civil Rights Movement understood? As a significant advance in human rights and an important chapter in Church history? Or as the ruin of a civilization and way of life? It's not that you hear the latter articulated exactly, but you do hear it implied in many people's words.

Thomas Jefferson -- liberal hero, conservative laissez-fair icon, or morally corrupt human being?

Is American history forever stained by the original sins of slavery and genocide against the native peoples? Or should we gloss over these because they only happened in the past and instead celebrate our grand and glorious history, forgetting its stains?

These are just examples, but I feel that we are now a nation that lacks a coherent narrative from which we can even frame our sense of common good.

I'm not advocating for a totalizing narrative; that's impossible and even un-democratic in this day and age. But it seems that we must find a way to communicate to each other and frame some sense of common purpose if our political debate is going to be meaningful.

But the sense of narrative is just one example. What are our common principles? Do we share anything in common? Are there none at all? Or have they just become lost in the clutter? Or is even articulating shared ideas itself an impossible task?

Economic Injustice

I was reading Christian Century , and it was reporting on the recent meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. I went and read the report issued by WARC at the close of their meeting. It is a powerful document, and I encourage you to read it. Here's one excerpt:

We perceive that the world today lives under the shadow of an oppressive empire. By this we mean the gathered power of pervasive economic and political forces throughout the globe that reinforce the division between the rich and the poor.

Not in this report, but in a separate place the WARC called attention to the fact that studies show that the basic needs of all humans -- clean water and sanitation, prenatal and infant/maternal care, basic education, immunizations -- can be met for only about $80 billion dollars a year. That is far less than the annual income of the world's billionaires, which is around $1.5 trillion dollars or even less than the estimated tithe of all current churchmembers in the United States.

Seeking Philosophical Input

I've avoided any philosophy posts for the six months this blog has existed. Maybe I should create a separate blog? Also, I'm not in contact, really, with my philosophy colleagues, so I don't know who might even be interested in this post.

Matt, one of my youth, who is 17, and I started a philosophical conversation tonight. His background is computer programming and lately he's been getting into more philosophical ideas and wanted to know/read some things. So, I've agreed to teach him philosophy if he teaches me calculus, which I never had and regret not having.

I had first given him Alan Turing's paper on the Turing Test and John Searle's Chinese Room response. I've always been pretty convinced by Searle's response, though I've always had one or two questions I'd like to pose to Searle. Matt had an insight. I probably won't put this the way he put it. He can write a program that though the same program will run and look differently when instantiated in different operating systems. What if intelligence is like that? He thinks that Turing wasn't trying to say that comptuer intelligence will look like human intelligence, but that it will be different because it is in a different os, but will still be intelligence.

I've never heard anyone put it that way before, but I think it a good defence of Turing and something I'd like to pursue further.

Biking to White Rock & Other Miscellany

I hope posting something new doesn't stop the lively and encouraging debate going on in relation to the last post. The number of comments it has received have now surpassed those posted in the great barbecue debate I got going in late June.

Thursday night Erin, MC, Kristen, and I went to see some of our favourite people in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. MC got the start time wrong! Which is a VERY grave sin in my book (that makes me think that I ought to creat my own geography of hell like Dante, look for that in a post soon). So we missed the very beginning. Visually it was quite interesting, but the story was unwieldy and the acting wasn't so strong, probably because it was all done in front of a blue screen. Angelina was kick ass. The end really sucked and kinda soured the whole movie.

Mom & Revis arrived Friday and we had a great weekend. Friday night we went to a party at Ben's & Leland's. Saturday morning we went bicycling down to White Rock Lake from near my house. Revis has biked for awhile, but Mom has only started recently. Kelli, my sis, told me I'd have to tell her what Mom's biking outfit looked like and how Mom biked, since we haven't ridden together in 20 years. Mom looked great and biked well. She had lots of fun, we all did. She loved the views of the lake and the fact that the trail makes you feel like you are in the country, despite being in the middle of Dallas.

Saturday afternoon we went to the Stockyards in Ft. Worth. It is kitschy, but we had fun whiling away the hours. I took them to various great places to eat while they were here: Fish City, Matt's in Lakewood, and Joe Willy's. They left Sunday after church.

Last night the youth went paintballing. This was my first time to paintball, though I've always wanted to do it. We had a blast I'be got a good bruise on my right hand. And we are all looking forward to doing this again. Next time I'll make sure that Anthony, Jeff, and Peter are on my team.

This weekend I re-watched Angels in America. It was as inspiring now as it was last December when it was on HBO. It recently won every Emmy in the mini-series category. I think that it was the best picture of 2003, it just couldn't compete for an Oscar because it was on tv.

Kerry's Plan

Did you see John Kerry's speech this morning? I caught most of it. He was outlining his plan for the war on terror. It was a very good speech. He detailed many of the mistakes of the current administration, including their lack of funding for various security measures, slowness to reform intelligence, etc. Then he outlined a multi-point plan of measures his administration would take.

Most of the speech was very practical, but what struck me was the overall vision of the war on terror that he has. One section of the speech said that in order to win this war, we have to understand our enemy. What are their aims? Their aim is to reinstate the Muslim empire that would stretch across parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia, and to make this an Islamic fundamentalist empire. In order to overthrow the current regimes they need to recruit members and their way of doing this is by striking at those governments, Israel, and the West, especially the United States. They hope to draw the US into doing things that will help them in their battle to recruit more volunteers and to destabilize the region.

I've heard nothing this coherent from the administration. They don't seem to understand the larger issues of the war (see the various convention speeches, especially Giuiliani's for evidence). The administration seems to be concerned only with striking back at those who've attacked us (or that they can convince Americans are a threat) without regard for how this plays in the Arab & Muslim worlds.

Kerry then rightly points out that the war on terror will involve not only military engagement but will, like the Cold War, mean engaging all aspects. What we need to be doing is discrediting the terrorists by showing that we are not the Great Satan. This means helping with economic development & disease, engaging in diplomacy, putting pressure on Arab governments to reform, etc.

I find this to be the right vision for moving forward. Finally today I felt excited about John Kerry. He is an intelligent man who does grasp the larger intellectual issues of this age. It sounds like he's actually read some scholars on the Middle East (since we know that W claims not to be much of a reader, I'm guessing he hasn't).

Finally we have two clear visions of the future to choose between. I'm going with Kerry's.


I started feeling really stressed yesterday, and it has continued today. You can feel the tension in my body, particularly in my back. It is partially because I have a lot of stuff to catch up on and get done at work. Today I made it through most of my list, which was exciting. But also because Mom & Revis are coming this weekend and stuff at the house isn't ready.

You see, neither of my showers has been in complete working order since St. Valentine's Day weekend. It is a constant reminder that life's been in something of an uproar and mess since then. Both showers sprung leaks at that time. The leaks got fixed pretty quickly, but the holes in the wall haven't been patched or tiled back over. Mike, the building supervisor at work who does odd jobs for folks, has been saying he was going to get to it ever since. Well, he started work today. But he had to leave because his mother-in-law got sick, so right now neither is working at all! And Mom & Revis never saw the guest bathroom after I finished remodelling it last winter.

In August the garage door broke. We thought we had it fixed, but it wasn't. Since last Wednesday, when we tried to fix it again, it has been completely unusable, basically in the same state of disrepair it was when it first broke!

The fence between me and a neighbor that's been leaning for over a year finally fell. It is really the neighbors' fence, but no one lives there at the moment. I'd be willing to split the cost of fixing it, but there is no one there to go talk to about it.

And I've not gotten around to painting the trim on the new back door (it broke last October, I had the money to shop for a new one in April, and the installation was completed in July) or the tuck-pointing that I did on the side of the house LAST FALL! And some critter seems to be crawling under my house, though I've not heard or seen anything other than the disturbed dirt and bricks near one of the vents.

For the whole last year I've been playing catch-up on house projects and haven't been able to make the improvements I've been wanting to make. Plus I need brake work on the car, probably new tires, and definitely new glasses.

Just keeping up with work, having a social life, taking care of a house, and finding time to rest is overwhelming. So, you teenagers, quit trying to grow up too fast.

Why Don't You People Look More Resurrected?

Read this in Willimon last night:

When you think about it, the quality of the church's life together is evidence for the truthfulness of the resurrection. The most eloquent testimony to the reality of the resurrection is not an empty tomb or a well-orchestrated pageant on Easter Sunday but rather a group of people whose life together is so radically different, so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that something decisive has happened in history. The tough task of interpreting the reality of a truth like the resurrection is not so much the scientific or historical, "How could a thing like that happen?" but the ecclesiastical and communal, "Why don't you people look more resurrected?"

On another, but related topic, later, when discussing the ordinations of Acts 6, he writes:

The church also showed an awareness that leadership drawn from the oppressed [the ordinans were drawn from the Hellenist community that thought they were being neglected by the Jewish leadership] may do the best job of representing the interests of the oppressed. In the church's current debates over who should be ordained and how, does the church continue to display this missional vitality?

This does raise some good questions, especially for those church's who use ordination to exclude people from leadership and draw their leadership only or mostly from the powerful in their congregation -- the well-to-do straight, white, male businessman, lawyer, doctor, etc.

Amazing Race

Watched last night's finale with Phil & Kelley. It was intense and fun. Chip & Kim won, and I was going for them at the end. I've always thought that they were nice but that Chip is dumb. And the weird thing is that they ended up winning because the night before they had come in the Calgary airport third and discovered that the flight the first two couples had booked before going to the hotel had ended up being delayed. At least the obnoxious Christians Brandon and Nicole didn't win. Since they kept saying that God was in control of the game and if God wanted them to win, they would, I really wanted to see an interview with them afterwards and for someone to ask them if God still loved them because they didn't win! And though Colin & Christie played hard, they revealed their viciousness last week, so I'm glad they didn't win.

Has anyone discovered any good new tv shows to watch?

Wilco at Sunset

This weekend was the third annual Austin City Limits Music Festival. It was my first time to attend what I hope will become an annual tradition. Incredible!

Five of us Royal Laners attended sorta together -- Blake, Phil, Nathan, Kenny, and myself. We stayed in different places and had different arrangements, but hung out a lot of the time there. I stayed with Dan DeLeon, ym at Highland Park.

First I want to comment on the festival itself. It was so cool and so Austin. The food court was all local restaurants. It was reasonably priced and the food was great (a vegetarian could have had a blast). There was stuff on sale and it was all local craftspeople, local record store, etc. The only nationally corporate presences were a Gibson guitar tent, ATM's from Bank of America, and hospitality tents with lots of free goodies from SBC and Cingular who were the sponsors but not in an obtrusive sort of way. The beer for sale was Heineken, Lone Star, & Amstel Light (I don't think that Shiner or Ziegenbock, who are from the area, make cans but only glass bottles which are forbidden in the park). The whole thing was very well laid out, organized, and efficient. You could park downtown and take a free shuttle to the festival and back. These ran all day and were very efficient. The city and police and all seemed to be cooperating with the festival and assiting it instead of being moronic.

It was really, really hot, though. The hottest days of the year in Texas were this weekend, which is weird.

But the music was great. 130 artists performed on eight stages through three days. Though I overheard or saw bits of various artists, these are the ones I really sat and listened to, along with some comments:

Ryan Adams

Sheryl Crow -- I've never really liked Sheryl Crow, to the dismay of some friends, like Tim. But she was quite enjoyable live.

Soundtrack of Our Lives -- Though I had heard their name, I'd not heard any of their music. This was one of the best performances of the festival and it was early on Saturday. They really rocked.

Old 97's -- I really like their music, but this performance was just mediocre.

Modest Mouse -- Recently Nathan burned me an album, and I liked it. I was hoping to be wowed by them and to decide they'd be a new favourite band, but their set sucked ass. I think it was just the wrong setting. I think they would have played better in a small venue where you could chill out while listening. Instead they drew a huge crowd full of annoying people who wanted to see them for the first time, probably, and who got in the way of those of us who had camped out at the Cingular stage all day preparing for the final performance of the day.

Dashboard Confessional -- This was my second time to see them, and their stage presence has improved dramatically over the last year. Plus they rock even more and aren't as whiny as they used to be.

The Pixies -- Now I was never into the Pixies when I was younger, but know their influence on my generation. This was probably the most anticipated performance of the festival and was really great. Even not knowing all the music, I felt its energy and power.

Calexico -- On my way over on Sunday morning the radio folk recommended going to see this show, so I did. And I'm quite glad of it. They were fantastic. I thought their mix of sounds was unique. I rushed right over to teh Waterloo Records tent and bought their album, Feast of Wire. And the cd is great too. It is more mellow than the live performances, which really got you moving. I highly recommend this band if you haven't heard them.

Ben Kweller -- His was a fun show, though I was around a lot of people who were moving and talking the whole time, and that was annoying.

Elvis Costello -- Same annoying group of people, so I wasn't enjoying myself at all. I finally got up halfway through the set and went over to the complete opposite side of the park and leaned up against an embankment and just laid there listening and that was MUCH better.

Wilco -- Clearly the best performance of the festival, and it drew the largest crowd (over 100,000 people were in attendance at the entire festival every day according to one report I heard). They played as the sun was setting and it was the perfect music at the perfect moment.

Cake -- Oddly was on the third stage though they had a massive audience, too large for the sound system of that stage and it was difficult to hear. The crowd kept yelling for them to turn it up, but I don't think up front they could hear us on the edges and in back. About half the crowd ended up leaving. Cake themselves seemed pretty down and depressed about life, the music industry, etc. and so I don't think this was the best set they could have done.

Ben Harper -- I sat way back in the back on a ridge and just mellowed out at the end of three wonderful but tiring and hot days. It was a great way to end, and he sounded fabulous.