Thursday, December 30, 2004
I accidentally lost the first version of this post, so some of my initial righteous fury has abated. On reflection, it's clear that Pipes is nothing more than a crackpot, and even most conservatives are not going to jump on a bandwagon to suspend the Bill of Rights for any group of our fellow-citizens. My paleo-conservative husband, trying to jolly me out of my tirade, quipped that perhaps we could improve our quality of life by putting political commentators in camps instead. In spite of what Pipes says, this isn't a "lefty" thing -- the conservatives I know are rather fond of civil liberties.
Also, because he tied his justification of the internment of the Japanese during WWII to current national security, I initially thought he was proposing the same for Muslims (and Juan certainly did, too). Pipes doesn't say that outright, although the implication is certainly there, and I don't get the feeling it would break his heart any if we tried it.
Mostly, the article is trying to justify the singling out of a particular ethnic or religious group for national security reasons. Well, to some degree, they are singled out already -- just ask Cat Stevens. But then, Yusuf Islam wasn't on a watch list just because he is Muslim; he was on it because he rather stupidly supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It would be a little ridiculous, and probably impossible, for the government to watch people just because they are Muslim -- there has to be some other factor that makes them suspect, as well. Even if you tried, you couldn't track down every Muslim in this country; we don't wear tattoos on our foreheads announcing what religion we are. That again, takes us back to watching people who the authorities have reason to believe might be involved in illegal activity -- not just "watching Muslims".
What Pipes really seems to want is for public figures to openly say American Muslims are a threat to national security. He's pissed at this namby-pamby tolerance for diversity, and apologies for past mistreatment of the Japanese. It's war, by golly, and who cares if the innocent suffer? My feeling is that the reticence has more to do with public order; if you paint all Muslims as a potential internal enemy, you are practically begging for an increase in hate crimes.
I was reminded of the old adage that "Those who are willing to give up liberty for a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." No terrorist is anywhere near the threat to America that tossing away our civil liberties would be. The fact is that most of us are not in immanent danger of being "incinerated at our desks". As I noted in an earlier post, there isn't a plausible terrorist target within 100 miles from where I live, so unless the bad guys start hitting Hicktown or Palookaville, I feel pretty secure. Terrorists can kill Americans, that is true, but it would kill what is best in America, to single out a segment of our population, the vast majority of which is completely innocent, and deprive them of any of their rights as citizens, without probable cause and due process of law. In spite of what Pipes says, civil liberties are sacrosanct, if you want to continue living in a free society. Don't be too eager to get rid of the other guy's rights; you could very well be next.
I know there has been a great outpouring of aid from people all over the Internet. This morning, my husband went to his Kiwanis meeting, and his club doubled what they usually send to the Red Cross. I don't think there's any of us, at least that can afford to have a computer, that can't spare some small amount, that we wouldn't even really miss, and could save somebody's life.
My own children are safe, and healthy -- I feel just a bit more grateful for that than usual.
Wednesday, December 29, 2004
I've been real careful so far, about what links I put on my weblog. When I got my main weblog, I rather enthusiastically put up everything I ran into -- a newbie's tendency made even worse by the fact I didn't have a computer at home and was sort of using my link pages as bookmarks. But with this site, I've been bookmarking blogs that interest me, and after going back to them a few times, dropping them if they don't seem to hold my interest consistently. (I find myself dropping more blogs because they simply aren't posted on much, rather than low quality.) And I was determined that only blogs who stayed on the list over a period of time would be linked here.
But where Publius is concerned, I found several articles that were worth reading, and was impressed enough to link -- and I think he's the first link I've got here where I don't know the blogger personally. So, check him out.
Conservative Case for Outrage, which is worth quoting from:
If the prisoner torture should piss off anyone, it should piss off Iraq hawks the most. Although my views of the war are well-known, I know that there were many good-faith supporters of the war who believed strongly in the cause and who believe strongly in democracy promotion. But there is nothing – and I mean nothing – that undermines our efforts and our mission more than the torture of Muslims, especially when that torture is coldly calculated to exploit Arabs’ religious views. The whole thing has a level of sophistication far beyond what nineteen-year old reservists from West Virginia could devise. And to those we most need to persaude, it vindicates bin Laden’s claims that we are hostile to Islam.
You can’t defeat an insurgency – whether in Iraq or in the war on terror, which is essentially a global insurgency – by military force alone. That’s because an insurgency isn’t finite. Its numbers and resources expand and contract with public opinion. (This is the main reason why the whole "so-we-don't-fight-them-at-home" line doesn't make much sense, logically speaking. Our efforts have increased the ranks of those that hate us.) We can raze every city in the Sunni Triangle (and we’re well on our way), but we will never defeat an elastic insurgency if we can’t win the hearts and minds of the local population. If you care about the success of this mission, both in Iraq and more globally, logic demands outrage. I mean, imagine if an Islamic army conquered America. Then imagine if you watched your countrymen get raped, tortured, and murdered by a foreign army who you didn’t really like anyway. Do you think you’d sign up for the Iraq 2.0 police squad or would you join the local insurgency with your family and childhood friends?
Exactly. Besides just the human rights part of it, which should outrage us just as human beings, we are acting against our own stated interests by doing this. And it's not even effective in getting information, which is what it is supposed to accomplish. I'm trying to remember the definition of folly from Barbara Tuchman's *The March of Folly* -- I think this qualifies. Treating prisoners this way is not only inhumane; it is just plain stupid.
First off, apocalypticism is inevitably cruel -- people who are into that stuff actually look forward to a situation where most of the world's population will die, just so their religious views can be proven right. All the death of 80,000 people means on the index is that the rating goes up a couple of notches, meaning the Rapture is just a little closer at hand than it was before the earthquake. If I hear that this person's church has given a generous donation to help the victims, I might forgive them for that.
Secondly, is that it leads to a some rather alarming prejudices in reading scripture. Most of the "indicators" have no Biblical connection whatsoever, but are just a list of various right-wing bugaboos. Among them is: liberalism, loss of civil rights, and several economic indicators. It loks like the theory is that the worst things get in a general way, making people feel insecure, the more likely it is for a dictator (i.e. the Antichrist) to take over. It actually runs parallel to the Baha'is who feel that the Calamity will force the nations to make peace through a global agreement-- except Baha'is believe that will be a good thing, and the fundamentalist Christians think it's a sign of the end of the world.
Finally, focus on the end of the world, no matter how it is conceived is really a waste of time, and a distraction from real spiritual development. There's a world of difference between those whose first reaction to a disaster is to open their checkbooks, or even themselves go and render aid, and those who say "Yep, I knew it, the end is coming any time now." As far as I'm concerned, God's gonna do what he's gonna do -- in the meantime I have my own row to hoe. When God asks me what I did with my life, he's not going to be interested in how accurately I predicted the future, but in the spiritual qualities and virtues I developed.
Tuesday, December 28, 2004
I don't believe that a mass disaster, in and of itself, tells us anything about God. I don't believe in a God who punishes through disaster. The disaster is. That is exactly the way I would understand it, without adding my own interpretation, without supplying a meaning or completing the sentence. The disaster is. The tragedy is. And I need to abide with it, and feel it, instead of seeking an answer, because the answers just make me complacent and take me away from the children on the beach, and the father with the dead child in his arms.
There is no God in the disaster.
I think there is God in the response, in the human hearts of those who are feeling and responding to this, the families and neighbors of the victims, and the rest of us, the bystanders, and us, too. The whole world is feeling it.
I've talked about this issue many times with Grandma -- she long ago rejected the notion of a personal God for precisely this reason. It drives her up a wall for survivors of some accident or disaster to say "God saved me"; her question is "Didn't God think those other people worth saving?" There really is no answer that works when you ask "Why is there such terrible suffering?" or "Why did God allow this terrible thing to happen?" All the conventional answers seem either trite or heartless in the face of terrible suffering. I decided a long time ago that "Why?" is the wrong question to ask -- I'm not sure that suffering people really want an answer to that question; what they want is for the pain to go away. And those of us that watch the suffering don't need to be asking "Why?"; we need to ask "What can I do?"
One thing I have noticed is that every time there is a big clash over freedom of expression or what a Baha'i may or may not say, the initial reaction is restriction of discussion, but once the dust has settled, the lines are drawn more broadly than they were before the conflict, as if people have gotten used to the issues and they aren't so shocking. That happened most dramatically on Beliefnet, but I've seen it elsewhere, too; there's even some history of it in the Real World.
One of the problems of being a public figure -- and not to brag because it's easy to do in a relatively small circle like Baha'i cyberspace -- is that people want your attention, even if it's negative attention. I saw this with Juan when I first came on Talisman; all these people showed up to duel with the Big Guy. Anyway, a person was complaining that I didn't answer some challenges she posed me in private email, citing it as an example of my being closed-minded etc. First of all, I don't debate people in private email; I never have. I might give one response (and in this lady's case, I did that), but if it becomes clear that all they want to do is tell me how wrong I am, or ask me "Have you stopped beating your wife?" kind of questions, then I just don't need that. Public debate can be worth the aggravation if it brings out ideas -- and I've been less and less inclined to do even that, as time has gone on. Lots of people want me to justify myself and my positions, and I once put a lot of time and energy doing that, but it became drearily repetitive. It is emotionally draining to have to justify one's existence all the time. (I could even say that it has become "burdensome" and "spiritually corrosive" -- the warnings that the UHJ has given about arguements with us bad, awful dissidents. Arguing with hostile fundies doesn't do anyone's psyche much good, either.) It is very odd how each individual poster thinks I owe them their very own explanation, or believes that they are the only one in the whole world who ever asked me about this issue or that.
It reminds me of when I show up in a new classroom as a substitute teacher: All the kids, particularly little ones, peek in the door , or while I'm letting them in will ask me a zillion questions about who I am, why their regular teacher isn't there and so on. I always tell them that I'll explain everything once everyone is in their seats and ready to start class, otherwise I end up with 20 repetitions of the same information to each child individually. Same thing online -- these people all want an individual shot at me when chances are that I have already covered the same territory before, in public. Some of my best answers are on Beliefnet’s Unenrolled Baha’is board, since Beliefnet is where I met some of my most hostile challenges, if anybody wants to know.
Monday, December 27, 2004
I sometimes marvel, when I hear of these things, at just what a safe life I live. I'm in rural northern California, which is most unlikely to be hit by terrorists or any other sort of enemy. (Nearby Chico was once considered the most unlikely spot in the U.S. to be hit by nuclear weapons, and some folks are said to have actually moved there for that reason, back in the 60s.) I was told that the nearest possible terrorist target is Shasta Dam, and if a plane crashed into it, it might have a crack or two, but nothing more. (If the dam could be destroyed it would be a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, like the tidal wave this morning.) As for natural disasters, we get floods that we are well-prepared for, when they let water out of the dam -- and the water flows in a very predicatable course. Our house is build on a high foundation above the flood plain, so we can sit out a flood with minor inconvenience. We sometimes feel earthquakes centered elsewhere, which generally amounts to no more than some mild shaking. I understand that there's a fault here that runs horizontally across the county, but it's never caused a big quake -- a four-pointer once, up in the mountains, which I felt like a boat dipping in a wave. I can't imagine what it would be like to live where you have to cope with tornados or hurricanes or even below zero temperatures.
It's a bit early to see much feedback yet, although I expect that anything less than a snivelling apology will be painted as trying to weasel out. Well, that's cyberspace -- I've seen many a post get twisted around into something a person never said. Sometimes it's honest misunderstanding; sometimes it is a deliberate skewering of an opponent. You really have no control over what is said about you out here, and after one good effort to make yourself understood, you might as well forget it unless you want to spend all your time repetitively defending yourself from people who will never believe your defense anyway.
Sunday, December 26, 2004
From what I understand, there's going to be a Congressional investigation -- as there damned well should be. This is America, for crying out loud -- we don't torture people like some Third World dictator. The whole concept of government by law is that the worst scumbag bastard in the world has certain basic rights -- and not having a lit cigarette stuck in one's ear is among them. I was really disturbed, back when the Abu Graib scandal broke how many conservative commentators were complaining about how much attention the story got, implying, of course that it was that pesky liberal anti-war media that kept the scandal in the public eye.
This ought to outrage all Americans, regardless of political outlook.
And if one can't muster outrage out of a sense of human decency, then there is a more self-interested reason: I found myself thinking of a line from the play Man for All Seasons, where Sir Thomas More says that even the Devil himself is entitled to the benefit of law. If you suspend the law to punish the Devil "who would be able to stand in the winds that would blow then?" He then says "Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake." How can we utter one peep, or complain of Geneva Convention violations, if we find at some time in the future, our own prisoners of war are being mistreated? The world will laugh in our faces and republish the pictures from Abu Graib, that's what it will do.
So, the abuses must be investigated, clear to the highest levels of government, and heads must roll -- even to impeachment of President Bush if it can be proven that he approved of these "interrogation techniques". We have to do that, for our own safety's sake.
Saturday, December 25, 2004
As 'Abdu'l-Baha' said "Would that all were truly Christian!"
Weblogs, by contrast, are updated once a day, and sometimes not even that. Instead of opening multiple email, or clicking on several posts on a board, you go surfing from site to site to read the latest entry. Also, a personal weblog like this is a drop in the ocean. When you arrive on an email forum, or posting board, you are already among people that are focused on your subject, and you know you've reached that small circle of 50 or 100 or 300. The only people who even know the weblog is here are people from the forums I'm on, those that check out my main website, and perhaps anybody who might run into it from a search on Technorati or Google. I think I've only got three or four responses since I started the weblog -- and the earlier format didn't have a place for comments; the responses were on email. I haven't heard from anybody since I started becoming active over here again -- of course, at Christmastime I expect folks have better things to do. The forums are slow right now, too.
That's another thing -- one has to be actively posting on a blog if interest is going to keep up, but that means doing an awful lot of writing without hearing from anybody. I guess I'm spoiled; I'm used to the attention. On the other hand, it's certainly a more peaceful way to make one's voice heard in cyberspace. One thing I'm probably doing wrong is that I'm writing too much in too short a space of time. If anybody does meander over here, some of the earlier stuff I've written is likely to be missed. All in all, it's probably a needed exercise in patience.
Another reason to talk about it is that Baha'is in the blogosphere might not have made their way to the forums yet, and in spite of the down side of my experience, I think Baha'is should make their voices heard in as many places as possible: forums, websites, blogs, what-have-you. Real voices, about the real Baha'i experience, both the positive and negative aspects. I firmly believe that this kind of honest and openness can only be good for the Faith in the long run.
There have been Baha'i email lists since the early '90s, but the ephemeral nature of cyberspace is such that most of the early ones aren't around anymore. Baha'i Discuss is an oldie, but one must be an enrolled member of the Baha'i Faith in order to subscribe -- like you have to give your i.d. number and everything. Of course, now there are hundreds of Baha'i lists, on places like Yahoo! Groups. As with everything else in cyberspace, as soon as easy-to-use software comes in, the numbers explode. When I was a raw newbie in late '99, I went looking for the famous Talisman list, and only finding an email address, I had no idea at all how to get on the thing. Nobody had ever told me how to subscribe by email, but very soon after the move to Onelist (later Egroups, then Yahoo! Groups) in December, I signed up. Another advantage to these websites is that archiving is automatic. There are large (and disputed) gaps in Talisman history, simply because those early lists didn't have archives, and gathering all those posts together is difficult. A lot of lists that still have subscriptions managed the old-fashioned way have archives done on Yahoo, or elsewhere. The old lists tended not to be moderated, something that changed as controversy and persistent flame wars became a problem.
I put Baha'i email lists in three basic categories: Academic, Intellectual, and Casual. These tend, now, to be further split along the lines of "liberal-managed" and "conservative-managed". Since I'm finding that this post is getting very long, I think I'll get into the discussion of specific lists next time.
I mean, shoot, I pretty much expect that conservatives are going to trot out old cliches about ivory tower liberal professors and the like, just like the liberals trot out cliches about redneck dittohead idiots with straw in their hair. That's just politics; one can tune it out like white noise. And it's certainly not the first time I've seen Juan criticized, but whoa, this stuff is something else!
And, what sparked all this? Juan commented on Martini Republic's article concerning blog trolling and "astroturfing" (i.e. pretending to be a grassroots blog when you are really well-funded by an interest group) and, still referring to that article, which voices some suspicion about IraqtheModel, which is well-thought-of in right-wing circles. So, almost the whole post was basically recapping somebody else's posting, and all Juan basically said was that deliberate disinformation was likely to be a problem in the blogging world. What's so far-fetched about that? There are people who manipulate, or try to manipulate, cyberspace forums -- and I don't think all of them are just random jerks with too much time on their hands. "Trolling" is an old phenomenon; no reason why blogs would be immune.
Basically, what these critics have done is take Juan's recap of this other article as an outright accusation that the Iraqi blog is being funded by right-wingers in some fashion. If Juan had wanted to make an accusation, he'd have made it outright; he's not exactly shy about stuff like that. Even the references he made to this Martini Republic weblog, only speak of "suspicions".
The Iraqi brothers that write the ITM blog certainly seem to be popular on the right; they are painted as being heros, so the MR article was certainly not wrong about them being "celebrated". By contrast, Riverbend, written by an Iraqi woman who reports a rather bleaker picture of what is going on over there is accused of being a fake and worse. You know, I don't know a whole lot about Iraqis, but I'd bet that folks in that country have different views of what is happening there -- and those differences can actually be honest ones.
Anyway, I found all this flurry of condemnation to really be overkill, considering what Juan was actually saying.
I suppose I should put up all the links to these things, but there's quite a bit, and it's late, and I'm not sure if anybody's reading anyway. If you want to follow the cybertrail, just put "Juan Cole" into a search, and you can't miss it. Do the same with the weblogs you find that way.
Friday, December 24, 2004
Most of the Baha'i blogs, or rather, blogs by Baha'is, are Self-Indulgent Personal Blogs. (If I call them SIPBs, I wonder if that would catch on?) They just mention the Faith in passing. I hate to sound like a schoolmarm, but if people really expect others to read about their cat or problems with their boyfriend, they ought to at least fix the typos and use conventional punctuation. Nothing will send me for the mouse to click away faster; it's almost never worth the effort to figure out what the poor ass is saying when you see bad writing like that.
I also ran into several mentions in passing of "I used to be a Baha'i", and one where a person was investigating the Faith, but turned off by the attitude about homosexuality. It always bugs me to see someone turned off the Faith by something like that; I always want to say "Hey, wait, that's not the end of the story." But, I suppose if that's an important issue for someone, it's for the best, because the mainstream community isn't particularly kind to gays. Although, I have heard of some communities that take a very liberal attitude, but it is very much the luck of the draw. Speaking of which, I posted a quote to talk.religion.bahai today from an abstract of a German academic article that talks about liwat (i.e. sodomy, which is what is actually forbidden in Baha'i law) in Islamic jurisprudence, saying that it most certainly is not "homosexuality", but anal intercourse specifically. While the law "on the books", so to speak, condemn it, in actual practice is was tolerated more often than not. I've spoken about this issue at more length elsewhere in this blog, so I don't think I'll go into it again. It crops up repeatedly on Baha'i forums; Beliefnet, especially. But I found it interesting that this was coming from an article published in a journal dedicated to Islamic Studies, and so it was not discussed in the context of Baha'i politics.
As a Baha'i, I actually am not mortally offended at public displays about Christmas -- even those who clue people in that the was the Christian church's Feast of the Nativity before it became the secularized and tinselly holiday we all know and love (or hate). I vastly prefer religious Christmas carols; I've lived in California all my life and just can't manage to get sentimental about snowmen, sleigh bells, or Jack Frost nipping at your nose. And the annual tiresome controversies over where you can put a creche seem to me overblown. I do think, however, that any religious aspect to Christmas should be kept out of schools, because adults can deal with being offended, perhaps, but it is not right to put children in an alienated position in schools that they are required to attend. Schools also bend over backwards to avoid offending fundamentalist Christian parents about Halloween, too, with things like witches and ghosts largely absent from the classroom, at least around here. It has pretty much turned into "pumpkin and candy season".
I was going to quote the worst of the article, but you'd just better go read the whole thing. It is so full of anti-liberal paranoia -- not only do these nefarious characters want to abolish Christmas, May has managed to drag in just about every right-wing paranoid fantasy about liberals there is, from wanting legal euthanasia to "autocrats directing our lives".
There is one gem I just have to quote: The fact that Christ and Christmas are still so feared and hated can mean only one thing; Christ really was who He said He was.
You know, some liberals actually think Jesus is on theirside -- all that compassion, forgiveness, and caring for the poor stuff that you find in the gospels jives right with the liberal outlook. In any case, it's really a far cry from wanting to accept that this is a pluralist society, and believing that forcing non-Christians to participate (like in school programs, for instance) in a Christian celebration is unjust, and wanting to, as May says, " close down the churches". A basic principle of our Constitution is to avoid "the tyranny of the majority". The problem is that the religious right thinks that Christianity is owed some kind of privileged position in our society, and if they don't have it, then they are picked on, oppressed, and victims of a conspiracy. Well, non-Christians have rights in this country, too; get used to it.
Click on the title of this entry to read the article.
Thursday, December 23, 2004
O.k., I took the plunge and put it in another template. I like this one better, and it has all that cool stuff where people can make comments and all, but the few links I had have disappeared -- and while I managed to figure out how to put links into the old template, I have no idea how to do it with the new one. Since linking seems to be a big part of this whole blog scene that could be a problem. Hmm . . . well, I've figured out technical difficulties before, and hopefully I'll deal with this one. Anybody listening will just have to stay tuned.
The vast majority of blogs, like the vast majority of anything in cyberspace, are dead -- and most of the live ones are pretty crappy. A surprising number of non-English blogs, particularly in Portuguese, for some reason. Blogging seems pretty popular among adolescents and college students, with lots of blogs commenting on the end of the semester, or agonizing about the things young people agonize over. One finds good blogs largely through links from other good blogs. Of course, I frequently check into what Juan is doing -- not only his excellent weblog, which has made him famous (He was already famous in Baha'i cyberspace, of course.), but responses to it -- which are generally positive, with a big flurry of negative comment once in a while from political conservatives.
The problem I have with politics is that, unless you have personal experience about an issue, you end up just having to choose who you believe. Generally, one side that wants to change the status quo will say "X is in terrible crisis, or will be soon, so Y must be done", then the other argues that "X is just fine, and if you do Y there will be terrible consequences." So, unless you have a way of verifying facts (and I wouldn't consider the latest study to hit the news "facts") for yourself, then it just ends up being a matter of who to trust, which is generally determined by one's own internal biases. I don't think there is any such thing as "objective" when you're talking about human beings. Sometimes, when it comes to particular issues, one has to practically predict the future in order to take a side. I generally do believe Juan when it comes to the Iraq War, and I could pretend that it's just a matter of his credentials, but of course the fact I knew and liked him in cyberspace long before he became a blogger has an impact.
Liberals and conservatives see each other through such a haze of stereotypes that I don't bother to call myself either one. (I'm liberal *religiously*, not politically.) One could look at it philosophically -- conservatives tend to have a dimmer view of human nature, etc. But even that's not completely accurate, because there are plenty of libertarian-leaning conservatives that think the common man can deal with things himself just fine, thank you very much, and accuse liberals of being the control freaks for wanting government intervention in their issues. (Word in my neck of the woods is "If you find an endangered species on your land, shoot it before the EPA finds out. Lots of environmentalist horror stories around here.) It all depends on whose ox is being gored, more than any kind of general philosophy, as far as I can tell.
Then, you have your one-issue wonders, who, if you don't jump on their bandwagon think you are a heartless ignoramus, and probably fit into the stereotype belonging to the "other" side. There's a lady harping on the circumcision of male babies in this country, over on Baha'i Beliefnet. I wasn't going to touch that one. She's right; it isn't medically necessary and like any surgery, there is a potential for harm, but it's customary. I had my son circumcised for no other reason than that's what I was confortable with. So, what do I have to say to a person that thinks this is a vast societal evil and a form of child abuse? I think Trevor slept through his; at least he was sound asleep when they took him, and sound asleep when they brought him back.
So, I try to watch politics, so I can vote halfway intelligently and all that, but I feel like I'm more of a bemused observer than someone who is actively involved. Outside of being appalled by this war, there's very little I get too worked up about.
I happened to be surfing today on Amazon, and ran into a book where it said that it is not at all uncommon for Muslims to be deeply committed to the social and ethical teachings of Islam, but who don't bother to participate in daily prayers or any other ritual. Then, I felt better. A good deal of the Internet controversies surrounding the Baha'i Faith have to do with identity really; what being a Baha'i means. But inevitably there are going to be different takes on it, for reasons of culture, if no other. It would be very surprising indeed for Iranian Baha'is, for whom the Faith has been handed down in families for three generations or more to have to same kind of outlook as Western converts. Dual religious identity is extremely common in India (Hindu-Baha'i), but in the West Baha'is get in big trouble for belonging to the Unitarian church.
The "official" definition, based on a letter of Shoghi Effendi's, emphasizes attitude towards the administration. Alison Marshall didn't get thrown out of the Faith for not believing in Baha'u'llah, but for not being "in spirit with the administration". In fact, the implication is that if you don't believe in a broad definition of UHJ infallibility, then you don't "really" believe in Baha'u'llah, either. It kind of amazes me that this strict definition has taken hold, and everything that Shoghi Effendi said in that same letter about determining belief to be a "delicate matter", and that the line "should not be drawn too rigidly" just goes straight over their heads. The only way any religion can be a "world religion" as the Baha'i Faith aspires to be, is to accept a wide variety of Baha'i identities. Which is why I think it worth my while to struggle with my own biases like this.
I ran into non-Baha'i the other day who happened to mention a convivial evening where a Baha'i friend was present -- it sounded like a great deal of fun, where the wine and talk both flowed quite freely. I smiled, but inwardly I was shocked, and then rather ashamed of myself for being shocked. It's not like I'm puritanical; hell, my brother and I were drinking wine and beer when we were quite young kids. Dad used to like to recount how my brother would come home from a hard day at Kindergarten to get himself a Little Oly -- a story which I'm sure is a bit exagerated, but there's a grain of truth behind it.
But I gave it up when I became a Baha'i, because Baha'i law says not to drink -- only bending the rules when I have a pain that can't be taken care of by aspirin, and once or twice for curiosity's sake. (I'd never tasted saki, or Australian beer.) The days when I would drink with friends are many years gone.
It is, of course, none of my freakin' business, and I would never, ever say a word about it to the person, and it's no big deal, really, anyway -- so why did my stomach give a little jerk when I heard this? What is it with Baha'is and alcohol? I've been hearing, ever since I got on the Internet, that Baha'is imbibe pretty freely when they think they aren't going to run into other Baha'is -- that real abstention is just about as uncommon as Baha'is really fasting for 19 days. (No, I don't, but I try, and feel guilty about it.) I've also known Baha'is to cave in to family pressure to drink -- to refuse a drink can come across as pretty unfriendly in some situations.
It's an identity thing. If my husband came home and told me he'd been out drinking and talking with friends, I'd be happy about it, figuring it's good for him to go hanging with the guys and unwind -- he ought to do that kind of thing more often, being an uptight sort of guy generally. But for a Baha'i to do it -- it bothers me; sort of like "Hey, I thought we were in this thing together and you broke the rules." That's it, I guess. A good deal of my Baha'i identity is in Baha'i practice. I don't give a damn what anybody's theology is; when I first became involved in the Baha'i Wars, I kept hearing stories about how prominent liberal Baha'is are "practically atheists" or complaints about feminine theology and the like. Those stories were supposed to turn me off these people, I suppose, but I really didn't care. And I was actually surprised how many Baha'is who think the most important aspect of belief is obedience to the administration; as I've said elsewhere, when I was enrolled, I saw the UHJ as benign, yet distant. I never felt like the main thing the Baha'i Faith had to offer the world was a divinely-guided leadership, unlike those other poor schmucks who only think they are divinely-guided. But we all have biases somewhere along the line, I suppose, and to me the line between Baha'i and not Baha'i is the spiritual disciplines outlined in the Kitab-i-Aqdas. Not that one keeps them perfectly, because no one does, but that one keeps making the effort. Of course, I'm being unfair: What may be a relatively easy bit of self-denial for me may be more difficult for somebody else. Maybe there's even a tiny bit of jealousy there -- I happen to like wine, and talk, and haven't put them together for a good many years.
Wednesday, December 22, 2004
I went looking to find out the history of this whole weblog business; it's older than I thought. Typically, it really took off with the creation of Blogspot, which makes it easy to do. I wouldn't even, to this day, have a website if a great deal of knowledge was required to do it. I still only know the most basic HTML.
It's actually a bit surprising that blogging hasn't become more common in the Baha'i cyber-communities. There are plenty of people who just like to post rants -- a phenomenon that is annoying on forums, but par-for-the-course on weblogs. But it just doesn't seem to have caught on. Well, maybe that means there's room for me to do something out here.
The oldest type of cyberspace forum, I believe, is Usenet. I can't say for certain that Usenet forums pre-date email lists, since email was one of the first things to arise on the Internet, but I do know that it significantly predates the creation of the World Wide Web. I've run into old geeks who recall the days when a person could keep up with all groups on Usenet. Of course, back then, the online community was almost entirely composed of people who knew something about computers, and it was all a foreign language to the rest of us. Usenet is still relatively inconvenient -- you have to sign up for it through your ISP, which may not offer the group you are looking for. Newsreaders are of variable quality, and online posting to Usenet has historically been even worse. I have noted that Google Groups has updated its online format, and that messages appear there more quickly, although navigating through the archives can still be a bit tricky. All three of the Baha'i Usenet groups I'm talking about can be found there.
The oldest Usenet Baha'i forum, and maybe one of the oldest Baha'i forums of any kind is soc.religion.bahai, which is moderated and mainstream/conservative. I got very familiar with its archives when I was doing research for my paper on Baha'i attitudes about the exclusion of women from the UHJ. This topic was discussed virtually non-stop from 1992-98, when it gradually began to appear less often, and finally, after a few years, disappeared altogether. I thought this might be a matter of it being "talked out"; the issue is nowhere near as "hot" as it once was, anywhere in cyberspace. But also, around the same time, one begins to see complaints about censorship and very strict moderating, compared with the days when my old cyberfriend Alma Engles was there. I have posted there very seldom, and the fact that I've had posts, even ones I thought were pretty noncontroversial, just disappear without explanation. By the time I got active in cyberspace, srb had become a pretty boring place. One wag quipped, when one of their discussions came up, that he thought interesting topics were banned there. However, I have noted this last year that heated debate has returned, particularly between Baha'is and Muslims. I suspect that the moderators are more tolerant of external criticisms than internal ones. In any case, I think the group has improved somewhat lately.
The current top three most active threads are titled: "Mendacity", "The Mahdi and the Return of Christ", and "Unrealistic About Morality?".
The first unmoderated Baha'i Usenet group was alt.religion.bahai, created, as I understand it, by a non-Baha'i in 1997. It has now become a rather useless adjunct to talk.religion.bahai, with most of the posts on arb being simply crossposted from there, when folks remember to do it. The top three topics there are: "One Area where Liberty in Limited in the Baha'i Community" (a years-old thread that has been bumped up by a recent post); "Jacques Soghomonian is the Rightful Successor to Mason Remey"; and "Pro-Choice Baha'is and the Racist Origins of the Pro-Choice Movement". There really aren't many discussions there, just billboard sort of posting by folks that have a particular issue to harp on.
Talk.religion.bahai was controversial from its birth, with IIRC, three elections to get it going because conservative Baha'is fought its creation so hard. I'm not sure why it was so controversial, since one unmoderated forum, alt.religion.bahai, was already there, and rendered redundant by the new group. But then, I wasn't there at the time. The story about the creation of trb is on Fred Glaysher's website, but I was never interested enough to get all the ins and outs of that. There also seems to be quite a bit about it in the alt.religion.bahai archives.
Talk.religion.bahai has become a byword for all that is worst in Baha'i cyberspace: the nastiest sorts of flame wars, some of which have been going on constantly between the principles for the last couple of years, repetitive posting, posters that are just plain crazy. There are some decent posters who dislike moderated forums as a matter of principle, and who manage to pretty much ignore the excrement flying around. Other regulars are people who just couldn't function even with the lightest type of moderation because everything they want to do is against the rules of just about every forum that exists. At one time, trb was the place for the conservative/liberal conflict within the Baha'i Faith to play out, but the fundies mostly left, and posters who are just plain anti-Baha'i have been prominent. Every once in a while some naive soul wonders in there looking for information, or some brave fundamentalist puts his toe in the water. And there are still a couple of diehard AO-defenders there doing their thing. A lot of the time, the arguments aren't even about any issue at all -- just personal accusations that end up being a variation on the theme of "Yes, you are" and "No, I'm not." It is virtually a case study about what happens to unmoderated forums in Baha'i cyberspace, and probably unmoderated cyberspace in general. The archives are worth a look though, at least prior to about 2002.
The current most active threads on trb are titled: "The Truth About Joel Marangella's Accession to the Guardianship"; "Susan Maneck Lies"; and "Doug et. al. at SRB".
Next time, I'll talk about Baha'i email lists, which is a much cheerier subject.
Of course, being an unenrolled Baha'i is an entirely different thing. We don't want to "get over it"; this is our Faith. However, I think it's healthy to eventually get over one's anger and figure out how to live a Baha'i life outside the mainstream.
Anyway, I might check out more stuff in the "blogosphere" to see what I can find out there.
I admire the people out there who have so much information, and so much to say about it; I feel rather childish by comparison. Of course, not all weblogs are like that; some of the group blogs are as bad as other types of forums -- either you've got a crowd flaming each other or patting each other on the back for how right and clever they are.
If I had started a weblog earlier in my cyberspace career, it might have looked more like Baha'i Rants, which was started up by a friend of mine. This one ended up being the overflow -- that is, it's where I talk, when I don't feel like having anybody talk back. It also has the advantage of being unspecialized; unlike online forums, there isn't a particular topic one is expected to focus on. As far as I know, this space doesn't have much of a readership, so I'm thinking about just putting stuff up here, even if I do look foolish. I've had positive feedback from my friends, and one private comment from an Baha'i administration defender who wanted to get me into an argument. I never argue with Baha'i fundamentalists in private email; there's no point. In public arguments, at least I know I'm reaching an audience, which might well be worth the aggravation.
But it was bound to happen, that I got tired of my role in Baha'i cyberspace. I remember asking myself, way back when I first started posting, in late '99 and 2000, "Are we all still going to be here doing this ten years from now?" And I knew the answer had to be "No." However, there are always new people coming in, and one part of my role that I feel obligated to continue is to offer them support. My Unenrolled Baha'i list, however, has become pretty much self-sustaining. Until this year, it was very much dependent upon my input, and it's not anymore; it just chugs along fine without me most of the time -- except when I'm obligated to intervene as listowner. I usually try to welcome newbies, too. I may be an old burnout, but there are folks to whom all of the agony and ecstasy is new, and they need support.
I always did feel sort of uncomfortable in the rough-and-tumble of cyberspace debate, although one positive thing that came out of it is that I discovered that I could hold my own in a debate a good deal of the time. But I also discovered that there are those that play really dirty -- and against that kind of thing, no one can win, unless they want to spend their whole lives wasted fuming on the keyboard. I lost a good deal of my naivete -- there are folks out there that just shamelessly lie, something I've never felt comfortable with. That's another thing that wore me out -- I really tried to keep everybody on the liberal/dissident side of Baha'i debates happy. When people got crazy or extreme, I either didn't say anything, or I tried to pacify them. I spent a whole lot more of my life doing that than I should have, which is 20/20 hindsight, since it didn't work anyhow. Susan likes to gleefully point out how the Baha'i dissidents just ended up turning on each other and falling apart, but on the scholarly lists where she likes to do her thing, there's plenty of temper flare-ups and people walking off in a huff. The old "faith-based position vs. academic argument" crops up fairly regularly on those kinds of lists. It's just people, who are generally a pain in the ass, no matter what their beliefs or ideology or credentials.
So, where to go from here? Maybe I should just comment on things that I find out there in cyberspace, which I still read, even though I haven't been posting. I could take a stab at commenting on the news, or even light things, like the new Harry Potter book. (Hey, lots of adults read Harry Potter. Besides, I'm a teacher, and have thus gained some appreciation for children's literature. Just because I'm plotting ways to get Half-Blood Prince before my son doesn't make me a fanatic. :-))
What I've found is that the longer I go without posting, the harder it is to get up the gumption to say anything, anywhere.
Sunday, June 06, 2004
The 1980 election was the first time I was old enough to vote for a President. Those of us that came of age in the 70s got one message loud and clear: Government doesn’t work; it just interferes with people and should get off our backs; it screws things up. I grew up in a family that, with the exception of my maternal grandmother, was unremittingly conservative -- at least when it came to economic issues; there was some variation between individuals when it came to social issues. The man who was my boyfriend in college, and who I would marry, went from being an “uncomfortable liberal” to being deeply conservative. On top of that, I studied economics, a field where most professors were conservative -- although there were still exceptions. At the time I was in college (1977-82) there were still many liberals hanging around, quite visible in a college town, largely shaking their heads over the apathy and conservatism of the new crop of kids. Business Administration classes were packed full; the humanities were a joke -- and nobody who actually wanted to get a job after graduating was going to touch them, at least without getting a “bread-and-butter major” to go along with it. Anyway, that was the environment in which I came of age. And, I think, too, a libertarian attitude rather goes along with my own temperament. My husband once brought home a psychological test (the Firo-B) that was given to kids coming in to Juvenile Hall, and had me fill it out. It described my attitude as “You don’t tell me what to do, and I won’t tell you what to do” -- my problem with having government do things was that it interfered with people’s freedom, and because most folks don’t like their lives regulated or pockets picked, it doesn’t work.
I should probably make clear that I’ve never really been actively political -- I just try to follow events and vote, like any citizen. When I became a Baha’i in 1985, I changed my registration to non-partisan, which is fairly common among Baha’is, who are forbidden to actively engage in politics. But, during this period my political opinions changed from fairly libertarian to quite conservative as I shifted to a harder stance on moral issues. It seemed like conservatism was everywhere -- I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh when his show came out of Sacramento, and he was far less of a jackass than he became nationally. In order to be off the deep right-wing, one had to be a constitutionalist -- a breed that was not uncommon in rural northern California. (I still giggle when I hear mainstream Republican politicians described as “ultra-conservative”; it amuses me how everybody always thinks they are in the middle, and it’s those other guys who are extreme wackos.) My husband subscribed to National Review, American Spectator, and Chronicles of Culture, which I often read. I more than once observed to Grandma, the sole liberal in my life, that I wondered sometimes if I wasn’t taking the conservative point of view for granted, because I was exposed to it so much. As far as I knew, liberals scarcely existed outside academia, the media, and Hollywood -- apart from old geezers from the WWII generation who still saw the Democrats as the “party of the working man” and the Republicans as “the party of the rich”. In fact, it sometimes made me smile how conservatives always seemed to act like they were somehow under siege by liberals in these powerful centers of thought, when it seemed so obvious that liberalism had become marginal in the country and had long lost touch with where ordinary people were at. People started talking about “the L word”. Another aspect was that if I ventured to question any conservative position I’d get “the look” and an hour long lecture about why I was wrong from my husband. So, between being around apolitical Baha’is, and a husband who just expected me to agree with him, I learned not to talk about politics -- I listened a lot, but didn’t talk much.
Then, my first child was born in 1989 -- and strangely enough that affected my political attitudes. It made me somehow very aware of the fragility of life. I’d look at my brilliant and beautiful baby boy, realizing that just one good conk on the head, and everything I loved about him would be gone. When I heard of tragedies on the news, they began affecting me emotionally, when once I would have just said “Gee, that’s sad”, and forgotten it. And, I felt vulnerable. I was financially dependent on my husband, and had never really developed a career of my own. If anything happened to him, my babies and I would be in real trouble -- they’d go into day care, and I’d be struggling all day in some crappy, low-paying job just trying to survive. That is, if the crappy job would even pay for the day care, and pay the rent at the same time. My kids would come home from school to an empty house, and all its dangers. In short, the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality seemed less and less adequate, because I knew how easily my own bootstraps could break. “I’ve got mine, so screw you, go get your own” didn’t seem like a moral way to look at the world.
This seems an odd background for someone who has become so prominently associated with Baha’i liberals online, but I always had a strong liberal streak in my religious approach. I have always been repelled by Christian fundamentalism, and passionately believed in religious tolerance and the God-given right of every soul to explore truth for himself. Where I took conservative Baha’i positions, it was generally because I wasn’t aware of any other option -- when I discovered the options online, it didn’t take long for me to abandon them. Along with my religious explorations, I ran into people who were more liberal politically than anyone I had ever met in real life -- political liberals, instead of being virtually creatures from another planet, are people I know and respect. I can’t say I’m exactly liberal politically, even now -- I’m part of the vast American mushy middle, which is the group that actually decides most elections, when the chips are down. And, I’m voting against Bush, because I hate this war.
Which is far afield from Reagan’s passing, I suppose. It’s just that he was elected at the same time I became a voter, and I’ve traveled such a long way since then.
Wednesday, January 07, 2004
With a quick look through the Baha'i library, and a few other resources I've got, the earliest reference I could find to this notion that criticism must be confined to appropriate channels (i.e. Feast, Convention, and letters to the institutions) was 1988. The first official mention is in the UHJ's *Individual Rights and Freedoms* letter; the first unofficial one was in a talk by Firuz Kazemzadeh in March of that same year. This is an innovation; a response to the fact that Baha'is were finally starting to express themselves in more public forums. Since then, it has been exalted to "fundamental Baha'i principle."
Now, my first individual exposure to the idea came when I was a brand-new believer in 1985. I was told about certain people in the LA area that were criticizing the administration (Oh, gee, ain't it awful!), and that criticism is absolutely forbidden in the Baha'i Faith. However, I was too new to realize that this notion was sheer Kitab-i-Hearsay -- and indeed, it may have been "planted" Kitab-i-Hearsay, originating with Baha'i administrators and being passed on informally, as it was to me. In any case, the idea that criticism is invariably destructive of unity is something that may be embedded in Baha'i culture, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Teachings.
As far as the "channels" go -- they're a joke. Take a criticism through channels, and you are even more likely to bring trouble down on yourself. In fact, the people that got into trouble with the administration did so partially because they actually had more interactions with it that your average Baha'i would. (In fact, it's the reason that other Baha'i dissidents have a stronger focus on the administration that I have had in my writing; it comes out of a difference in experience.) Indeed, letters to the UHJ have actually been held against people and resulted in their being forced out of the Faith. It's the fastest way to get a file started on you.
Even if that doesn't happen, it ends up being a "divide and conquer" sort of strategy, where critics are isolated, and basically told why the status quo must remain. It sounds oh-so-reasonable: Why didn't you just write to the institutions about it? Because nothing happens when you do -- " consultation" in this instance just means the opportunity for them to "talk you 'round".
Baha'i really are in a bind that way: Problem-solving through consultation is a part of our identity. We're a very talkative religion. :-) We piss and moan about the long and boring meetings; they are even a rich source of Baha'i humor. But let anybody try to take those meetings away from us -- as the NSA did with Unit Convention -- and you hear howls of protest. What were *dialogue* and Talisman anyway, other than forums for Baha'i consultation? But speaking openly and frankly, as 'Abdu'l-Baha' and Shoghi Effendi has given us the right to do, puts a believer at risk. Once your opinions are out there, you can be called on the carpet for them. It is assumed that a deepened and sincere believer will know ahead of time what you are not supposed to say. Say the wrong thing, and you are assumed to be undeepened and/or insincere.