Monday, July 25, 2005

Random Thoughts on the Roberts Nomination

I've been on the road a lot over the past week, and so I heard a lot of radio news reports during the time of the Roberts nomination to the Supreme Court and the days afterwards. Listening to several different interviews with people who know Roberts (many of them self-described "liberals"), it became increasingly clear that there was a well-planned campaign with clear talking points for friends of Roberts. The agreed line is: he's exceptionally smart, nice, and fair. The strategic craftiness of the Bush Administration thus also became clear. They confused the media all day long beforehand with clever leaks focusing on someone else, then hit everyone unprepared with a white male insider. The Roberts supporters were much better prepared, and his potential opponents were left grasping for some way to dent a juggernaut of framing and conventional wisdom that had already become established.

Of course, I realize that the chances of defeating Roberts in the Senate are pretty hopeless. However, I still think it is worth it for Democrats to mount a fierce fight, as much as they can, by asking him as many questions as possible in an attempt to pin him down. My impression is that he is a pretty far-right guy with lots of elite business connections and some scary social issue and civil liberties positions as well. I am not convinced by the line that he is as good as we can expect from the Bush Administration. It is utterly predictable for this Administration that the first nomination would be quite conservative...they will only back down and nominate someone more reasonable/moderate under exceptional pressure, which looks unlikely. But I think it is worth a struggle at least. After all, this is a lifetime appointment to the Court.

For what it's worth, I heard an interesting theory from a conservative Republican friend of mine back in Nebraska...this friend has some pretty substantial connections and experience in the state party structure. He speculates that Bush may have nominated Roberts with the intention of making him Chief Justice when Rehnquist retires, which may not be too long from now. Vetting him so easily through the current process will make it a breeze for his later confirmation as Chief Justice, thus installing a young far right conservative for a very long time. It sounds like a plausible idea to me, and I fear my friend may be right about this...

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Shop Costco

The NY Times today reports that Costco treats its people way better than Sam's Club (a subsidiary of the Wal-Mart empire). It's not the first time journalists have pointed this out: last year I heard an NPR report about Costco's good labor policies (no union busting, good wages and benefits). That report, too, mostly took the form of grousing by Wall Street analysts about how foolhardy it was to pay so much and to charge so little, keeping Costco's profit margins smaller than what was possible.

Well, I say good going, Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco! Ignore the critics and pay for your employees' health insurance. It's the right thing to do.

On the same topic, the recent Frontline documentary "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?" is worth checking out, even though I'll bet you already know the answer. What made this documentary interesting to me was that it focused on Wal-Mart's role in squeezing suppliers and in sending American jobs overseas-- and said virtually nothing about the notorious labor abuses that many people talk about when they discuss Wal-Mart. The most striking part of the documentary is when the narrator goes to Long Beach, a major port in California, and asks the communications director what's coming in (from China) and being shipped out. Coming in: every manufactured good you can think of, from toys to clothes to electronics. Going out: raw materials, like cotton. Said the communications director: "We export cotton; we bring in clothing. We export hides; we bring in shoes. We export scrap metal; we bring back machinery." Is this 2005 or 1705?

Monday, July 18, 2005

Aikman's other book...and something better by Wallerstein

At the same time thirdpartydreamer took up the task of reading David Aikman's book on Christianity in China, I agreed to look at his other book, A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush. I did find a few interesting things...although not nearly as much as thirdpartydreamer found in that other one. (And the present book does include some nice, complimentary photos of Bush--take that, Michael Moore!--including his staged "turkey" platter surprise in Baghdad in 2003...)

Man of Faith is basically a themed biography of Bush. The author adopts a tone of reverence mixed with apology, and the book reads to me like the uncertain product of someone struggling to be careful with the facts while still portraying his subject as essentially good. For example, on Bush's murky college and post-college years, we find that time period introduced as follows: "The career of George W. between 1964, when he entered Yale as a freshman, and the summer of 1986, when his life decisively turned around and he gave up drinking alcohol, were years when millions of young American men indulged in drinking and womanizing." (p. 39) Hmmm...I guess that explains it! What a peculiar way of contextualizing those years... Well I suppose, given W.'s later tendency to bad-mouth the youth culture of the 1960s, perhaps it does kind of make sense that his spiritual biographer should also deflect criticism of W.'s own life by, in essence, blaming the society he lived in (I can't say "grew up in" because he was, after all, already an adult...)

On the whole, I'd say this book is a waste of time to read...slow moving, boring, and full of mild, incurious adulation. The ease with which the author lightly brings up and then casts aside all of the more serious critiques of W.'s choices and actions (strange ommissions in his National Guard record, for example) insures that there will be nothing really insightful or earth-shattering for most readers. (No investigative reporting here!) I did learn at least one thing: the importance of W.'s defeat in a Congressional election of 1978, in which he was skewered by an opponent who invoked Christian conservative themes (p. 60). Apparently, the lesson was not lost on Bush, and he never made the mistake again of letting an opponent out-Christian him. Given the importance of this experience, I guess ultimately it is hard to draw any line between W.'s "spiritual journey" and his political journey.

So I don't really recommend this book...but I do have an alternative suggestion: Immanuel Wallerstein's The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World. Framed in the language of the author's academically-famed "world-systems" approach to history, this book lays out the present situation of the U.S. in world affairs rather nicely. It provides a fresh perspective on current topics such as globalization, terrorism, and racism. It also does a good job of initiating a conversation about how activist-intellectuals can be involved in shaping the world for the better over the next few decades. And the book is quite readable, far from the dense, erudite volumes on the Modern World-System, which made the author famous back in the 1970s.

Friday, July 08, 2005

China's Jesus underground

Review of: Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power, David Aikman (2003).

I must confess that I picked up this book in an antagonistic spirit. Aikman is a conservative evangelical who’s just been hired to teach at Patrick Henry College (the new college designed to send home-schooled Christian men into government service—women are admitted to the school, but are not expected to pursue careers. Check out the school’s website, or see the recent New Yorker article on PHC). Since he styles himself a China expert, and boasts an impressive set of credentials (Ph.D. in History from the University of Washington, former Time reporter in Moscow and Beijing), I thought his take on Christianity in China might be worth checking out…even if his oeuvre contains such dubious entries as the recent George Bush is the Messiah or whatever it’s called (okay, it’s Man of Faith: the Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush).

Aikman’s thesis here is that Christianity is spreading like a brush fire in the People’s Republic today, especially in the form he considers the most promising: the underground house church. House churches he contrasts with the state-approved and state-controlled congregations affiliated with the Three Self Patriotic Association (the government’s Protestant outfit) and the Catholic Patriotic Association (the government’s Catholic outfit). He relies for his information on the members of the underground churches themselves, and participates uncritically in their boosterism. One suspects that Aikman overestimates how pervasive underground Christianity really is—not to mention how likely it is that Chinese Christians will change the way the People’s Republic interacts with the world (curbing its human rights abuses and bringing it in line with American foreign policy, as Aikman assumes Christianity will naturally do).

Aikman does provide evidence, though, of a thriving underground community of Christians in China. Or “communities,” more precisely, since a number of the Protestant factions are divided by irreconcilable differences of doctrine or practice, some contending that others are dangerous cults. Some of the groups (the Weepers, the Shouters) have wonderfully evocative nicknames reminiscent of early Protestant sects, names that underline the kind of catharsis the church members experience in their meetings. These folks are no strangers to speaking in tongues, miraculous healing, and the like.

Though Aikman focuses mostly on these charismatic Protestant sects, he also includes one chapter on the Catholics, and it reveals a great deal about the relationship between the government and religion. In recent years the Communist Party and the Vatican seem to have arrived at a kind of d├ętente. Certain issues still pique each side (the Vatican’s continuing recognition of Taipei as the legitimate government of China, for example), but the Vatican has not excommunicated the priests consecrated by the state Catholic association, and the Communist party, in turn, turns a blind eye when the state-approved clergy quietly pledge their allegiance to Rome. These days, the biggest problem that crops up for the Catholics is that occasionally rival power structures exist in the same place: one city might have an underground bishop consecrated in the bad old days of severe oppression in the 1960s and 1970s, and a Catholic Patriotic Association bishop consecrated with the government’s blessing. I wonder if the Party finds the underground Catholics less threatening than the Protestants because Catholics, even underground, respect some kind of human authority, albeit centered in Rome rather than Beijing. The underground Protestants, by contrast, must seem like faith-healing, epiphany-seeking loose cannons.

Some things in this account are unsurprising: for example, women far outnumber men in the underground Christian movement. Nor should anyone be surprised that the growth of these communities has been fueled in part by persecution (more than once, Aikman’s interviewees reference the early Christian theologian Tertullian’s aphorism that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”). Entrepreneurship also plays a role. In the southeastern port city of Wenzhou, held up as “China’s Jerusalem,” the high level of private enterprise combines synergistically with active and visible house churches; Aikman contends that within a few hundred feet of any major cathedral in Europe, you can find Wenzhou Christians selling something.

Which brings us to the unexpected bit: many of these Chinese Christians have missionary aspirations. Big time. They see themselves as the ideal candidates to bring Christianity “back” to the Muslims of the Middle East, to break into the “10/40 window” (the band of earth from 10 degrees above the equator to 40 degrees below it) that evangelical Christians worldwide see as their next big challenge. In a big meeting in Beijing a few years back, the Chinese Christians surprised the international evangelicals present by announcing their “back to Jerusalem” goal to have 100,000 Chinese missionaries active outside of China by the year 2007. You can understand the foreigners’ surprise: American missionaries, the largest constituency of global missionaries at the moment, number about 40,000 in any given year.

So here’s the obligatory deprecation of the book’s level of scholarship: its author does not demonstrate that he can read Chinese (he cites no Chinese-language documents), and it’s not clear how good his spoken Chinese is, either (like many journalists, he usually obscures the presence of his interpreter when he’s reporting conversations). The copyediting is sloppy: on p.155 someone takes a stand based “on principal,” for example. What’s more, for a China expert, Aikman makes a few baffling mistakes—e.g., “Peking is the name of China’s capital city before the Communists renamed it Beijing in 1949.” (er, not exactly: Peking is just an alternative Romanization of the same two characters that constitute the name Beijing. Before the Communists, the Nationalists called Beijing Beiping [Northern peace], not Peking).

One thing that bothered me throughout the book was the emphasis on evangelism as Christians’ greatest responsibility. There are a lot of stories here about distributing Bibles, baptizing people in bathtubs, and spreading the gospel generally, but what about feeding the hungry, tending the sick, clothing the naked and other biblical acts of giving? A country that is experiencing the kind of economic dislocation that China is, where some are getting very rich while others sink into abject poverty, where health care is increasingly inadequate and inaccessible to the rural population, seems to offer a great opportunity for Christian service. Have the underground Christians seized this opportunity, or bypassed it in their eagerness to convert others? I would have liked to hear more about what kinds of social service these communities perform.

These criticisms aside, though, the book is a useful insight into the active Christian communities in China, which are populated by more than a few incredibly brave and tenacious individuals.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Hypocrisy at the College Republicans Meeting? Who Would Have Guessed!

Don't miss Max Blumenthal's interesting article published by The Nation entitled "Generation Chickenhawk," which details the author's experiences at the national convention of the College Republicans. Yes, the article is scathing and mean, but I kind of feel like the CRs deserve it given their support for an immoral war they won't risk their own lives for. For those readers here in Philadelphia, note that one of the students interviewed, possibly the most obnoxious one of all, is from right here at the Wharton School.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Thoughts on Patriotism and Virtuous Concertgoing

Since today is the 4th of July, I cannot help but reflect on a year's worth of my own rumination on "patriotism," that bedrock of politically-correct thinking. When I was a kid, I loved symbols of patriotism: the songs, the flag, etc. I think it was partly the feeling of belonging that these symbols gave me. Over the years, I reconciled any doubts I had about patriotism, defined in the dictionary as "love of and devotion to one's country," by interpreting patriotism either as believing in high ideals such as democracy and justice, or working for the good of the country as a whole.

But as time goes on, I find it harder and harder to simply accept patriotism as an unquestionably good thing. No matter how we try to redefine what it means--and I applaud such efforts to a point--it seems to me that it is increasingly difficult to defend from an ethical point of view. Why should we care more about people in our country than people elsewhere? In our heart of hearts, where our deepest values reside, how can we defend drawing moral lines at political borders? In Robert Jensen's words, perhaps we need to say
"goodbye to patriotism" in order to really serve the ideals and good we seek.

A slogan that many good people put on signs a few years ago said, "Peace is Patriotic." I can see the point, and I agree that our country is better off if we pursue peace rather than war. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that peace doesn't need patriotism to legitimate itself. Several months ago, I decided that "peace is peace"...totally defensible on its own as something worth striving for. Tacking on "patriotism" may be a good PR move, but it is ultimately meaningless. Or, in another sense, it is worse than meaningless because it further reinforces the notion that favoring the U.S. and Americans in our moral calculations is a good thing. It might seem pragmatic in the short term to invoke patriotism to stop a war (although, truth be told, it didn't seem to convince very many people at the time), but in the long run we must look to express deeper and more defensible values.

I attribute a large part of my discomfort with patriotism to my Christian faith. That may sound strange given that so many people link "God and country" in such promiscuous ways, despite the utter lack of Biblical or theological grounding for it...and the predominance of hyper-patriotic expressions among Christians visible in the public sphere. However, it really comes from deep within my spiritual and faith life to question patriotism. If we really have faith in Jesus Christ and his message, we must be willing to put our Christianity above any allegiance to one country or another. Christ's message is universal and does not belong in any way, shape, or form to Americans alone...I cannot imagine having "faith" in my country in the same way that I have faith in God and Christ. (Maybe that's why having an American flag in our church sanctuary really bothers me.)

To be sure, I am grateful to live in a country that allows the free exercise of religion, but I refuse to believe that being a good Christian means always supporting American policies or actions. In fact, I believe it is quite the opposite. We Christians are called to scrutinize our country from the position of our deeply-held values, just as any other citizens in a free, democratic society should. So today I celebrate the ideals our country was founded on and its continued flourishing, for sure, but also hope and pray for all other peoples of the world at the same time.

Okay, now about the "virtuous concertgoing" part...this is really unrelated to the patriotism theme, except that this particular weekend Philadelphia (where I live) has hosted not just the usual Fourth of July celebration but also the U.S. site of the "Live 8" concert a few days ago. Now I am in total agreement with the goal of the Live 8 organizers that we should forgive the debt of the poorest countries in the world. What concerns me about this event are two things: First, I am disturbed supporters of the movement are not being sufficiently open and critical about efforts to attach various conditions to the debt cancellation on the part of elite interests in the wealthy countries. In the name of "accountability," provisions that keep poor countries poor (perhaps akin to what is often called structural adjustment) are apparently being forced on countries that receive debt relief (if I am wrong about this, someone please correct me). We may end up entrenching poverty as much as we help alleviate it. Read this for someone else's more extended discussion of these issues.

Second, I have mixed feelings about rich celebrities and the wealthiest countries in the world are throwing parties for themselves in order to draw attention to global poverty. To be sure, there were some good messages thrown in during the concert, alongside advertisements for corporate sponsors, etc. But in observing the people going to and from the concert here (and reading quotes in the local newspaper), it seemed that most people were just having a fun day of free entertainment outside. If anything, they could imagine that they were doing something about poverty (a weird kind of moral safety valve) while they were having fun. The way the newspaper reported it, the story was all about how successful the event was in terms of logistics and promoting the city. The only visible complaint was that some people didn't like having to wait "40 minutes" for a train home afterwards. (To be sure, some people may have waited longer, but then don't you expect a transit system suddenly swamped with a million people at the same time to experience a little congestion?) I'm sure that actual poor people in various parts of the world will be glad that so many Americans (and Canadians, Japanese, Brits, Italians, etc.) had such a nice day out in the sun and fully sympathize with their travails.

I do hope that this event has mobilized people to care about alleviating global poverty--and perhaps even motivate them to ask some critical questions about the conditions our elite representatives are imposing--but I fear from my own observations that Live 8 may not have done it. Any other thoughts?

Friday, July 01, 2005

Economic interests of majority may not be served by voting Democratic

That, at least, is the conclusion of economist Stephen Rose, whose latest paper, "Talking about Social Class: Are the Economic Interests of the Majority of Americans with the Democratic Party?", is linked to in the title and discussed in a post from Donkey Rising. I'm posting this having given the paper only a cursory look, but I've long suspected that the widespread belief, voiced most recently by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas?, that most Republican voters are voting against their economic interests, is missing something. Rose attempts to quantify the number of voters who benefit economically from policies generally supported by Democrats--social safety net programs, curbs on corporate power, and other governmental programs. Adding up these groups does not result in a majority who would benefit from Democratic policies. I am uneasy about his methodology (and I need to read the paper more carefully), but I think Rose is on to something important here.