Thursday, December 30, 2004

Bringing Back Concentration Camps

You have to subscribe to see this article, but do it-- it's pretty appalling. I found it through Informed Comment.

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.

Survivor Stories

This morning I was listening to television news that shared some of the stories of miraculous survival: the scuba divers who felt the tsunami go right over them while they were underwater; the woman from Australia who couldn't hold on to both of her small children, so she let the five-year-old go -- and the little boy, against all odds, was able to hold on to something, and survived to be reunited with his mother. It's the only thing that makes it bearable. I don't want to think about the man whose baby was swept out of his arms by the force of the water; or the father who was grieving that he couldn't save any of his three children; the mother who lost all four of her kids; the local children who danced with glee at finding fish wriggling in the the exposed sea bottom as the trough of the tsunami came ashore, completely unaware of the danger they were in and that none of them escaped. Or the entire families where neither mother, father, or children were left alive to tell the story.

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

A Political Blogger I like

Hey, that's tougher than you might think. I tend to like people who are not knee-jerk one side or the other all the time, who can see the shades of grey, and who don't spent their time name-calling. If I want to see people called ugly names I'll go read Usenet. The poster there, calling himself Publius, apparently grew up conservative, but later became more progressive, and he can speak both languages, as it were. I can relate to that.

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 Commentators on Prisoner Abuse

This article has several links about what conservative writers are saying about the abuse and torture of prisoners -- and most appear to be saying that the whole thing is overblown, etc. One, however, made a
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.

An Animated Map of the Tsunamis

This is a graphic of how the tsunamis travelled from the epicenter of the earthquake to where they hit on shore.

Hold On to Your Seat Belts

I ran into this while surfing last night -- the "Rapture Index" is actually quite an old site; it's been around since 1993. As anyone who follows me on email forums knows, I have no use for apocalyptic thought, not even of the Baha'i variety. To my mind, one of the best things about being past the year 2000 is that there has been a significant drop of people running around predicting the Calamity -- except for Peter Khan who thinks it has come in the person of Alison Marshall.

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

Was God in This Disaster?

I cried when I read this article -- which is an unusual reaction for me, really. Here's part of it:

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?"

Negative Attention

Last night I happened to be cruising through Planet Baha'i's archives -- it's not a forum I visit often, and it's probably been a couple of years since I even posted there. It's a conservatively-managed forum where I have to mind my p's and q's, although I did see an improved level of discussion from what they once had.

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

Earthquake and Tsunami

Of course, by now there's nobody that hasn't heard of the big earthquake near Indonesia and the following tsunamis that have hit several places along the coast of Asia, and islands in the Indian Ocean. I really never know what to say about such terrible disasters -- it's too big to deal with a disaster that wipes out thousands of people in the blink of an eye. When 9/11 happened it took half a day for the emotional impact to really hit me -- one of my online friends was shocked to find me posting to one of my groups like nothing was happening. But it's like my brain was stunned "O.k., this happened and it's big", but the actual meaning hadn't really penetrated yet.

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.

An Umbrella in the Shitstorm

I note that Juan has, today, commented on the "shitstorm" following his comments on the Martini Republic article, saying he should have made it clearer that he didn't endorse their views of the IraqtheModel weblog. Well, shoot, honestly it was pretty clear, to me anyway, what he was saying. The critics were basically putting every word from that article in Juan's mouth -- and really were going off the main point anyway, which was about the danger of manipulation in cyberspace. One of the features of that danger is that it is very difficult to prove for sure who, and why the person is manipulating. Some people just enjoy shit-stirring and have no better reason than that, but there are a few that have a particular purpose in mind, and some of those probably have somebody behind the scenes backing them. Another problem is that paranoia can take over in a tense situation (I'm talking mostly about forums now, which is where my cyberspace experience is) and people are looking for agents provocateurs everywhere and accusing the innocent.

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

Just for Fun

Torture Scandal

As a result of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, several FBI documents detailing prisoner abuse in Guantanamo Bay have come out. It's pretty clear, in some of them, that the FBI was trying to cover its own behind on this one i.e., they didn't want to be blamed for what was going on. The original documents are here.

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

The Final Word on Christmas

Hope you had a nice one. This article makes a nice follow-up to the last comments I posted about Christmas. It is so much easier to argue about symbolic matters, such as creches on the courthouse lawn that it is to actually look at the teachings of Jesus and apply them in our lives. Christian fundamentalists want to make religion easy; it's not. All you have to do is believe and "get saved" -- such a good deal; how could anybody pass it up? The spiritual life means continual struggle towards an ideal. The Sermon on the Mount isn't a bad place to start.

As 'Abdu'l-Baha' said "Would that all were truly Christian!"

Why We Cannot Win

Just read it. This is the basic reason I was against the war, because I feared it would turn into exactly such a mess. When you take over a country, and the people opposing you aren't really distinguished from the people you are trying to help -- that is, they both are coming pretty much from the general population, you are going to end up killing innocent people in the process, thereby making even more people hate you and willing to fight you, it can go on indefinitely with no resolution. Every person you kill has ten or so male relatives who just aren't going to care why he got blown up, but just that the Americans did it. I just can't see any way this is going to end well.

A Slower Pace

One thing I'm noticing about blogging is that it works at a much slower pace than the stuff I've done before. Cyber-events on forums can move very quickly; conversations on unmoderated lists can be almost like chatting "real time". Email can zing back and forth many times a day, and certainly will if there's a hot debate going on, which is how it can get to be so absorbing and the old "Get a life" adage applies. Also, the feedback is immediate, or at least within the same day you post.

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.

Baha'i Email Lists

I promised earlier, to give reviews of various Baha'i forums -- and I started thinking "Why am I doing this?" I'm not sure anybody's looking at my blog, except friends who are already very familiar with these places, so it's probably a waste. I had the thought yesterday, that I spent my time on Baha'i forums to get over the shock I felt about what I found on the web about the Baha'i administration, and that maybe I need to talk about my experience in these groups to, in some way, "get over" my experience there. Not that it was all bad; quite the contrary, much of it was good. I started out very naive and idealistic, full of righteous anger, but willing to debate or talk to anyone, willing to make a friend out of anyone who was halfway sympathetic. And, I learned so much -- new texts, new ideas, new friends; it was like a whole new world opening up. But, I also got worn out from emotionally-draining battles, had major head-trips played on me, had friends viciously turn on me, made some mistakes that I really regret. Now, with 20/20 hindsight, it didn't have to be that way -- someone who picks one or two good lists can get the intellectual stimulation, without getting tangled up in the dark side of Baha'i cyberspace -- and by "dark side", I'm not talking about anyone's ideology, but the sort of game-playing I mention above. I threw myself into everything headlong, without using much caution, and I rapidly became well-known, which made me a target. Just to be reassuring, my experience is rather atypical. After all, as the previous post about Juan and the "shitstorm" shows, the blogosphere is not without its nasty fights, but the vast majority of us are unlikely to become visible enough for anybody to attack. In Baha'i cyberspace, I became a big fish in a little pond, and was rather unprepared, and probably ill-suited by temperament, for the role.

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.

The Wingnut Shitstorm

I've been reading up on what has been called the "wingnut shitstorm" about a post of Juan's a little over a week ago. Really, I'm astonished -- to see Juan, our Juan, called things like "fascist", "anti-democratic", and "an apologist for terrorism". (!) I've watched Juan post on email forums for five years, and delved into his postings that go back nearly ten, and there are few people who take freedom and democratic values more seriously than Juan Cole. When he was posting on Baha'i forums, the conservatives there thought he was rather too committed to things like freedom of expression and individual rights. In fact, when I saw him called "fascist", I laughed out loud. In our circles, one of his critics tried to tag him as a "libertarian".

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

Baha'i Blogs

I happened to find the site -- which I suspect is already familiar to experienced bloggers, but to a novice like me, it seemed pretty cool. I checked out the top 100 blogs list, in which the blogs are given their status by the number of links. Juan comes up at #78. Then I put "Baha'i" into the search, and was amazed to find that the posts I'd just made a few hours before were already there. There were a couple of "Teach the Faith" sites, and a few that consisted mostly of quotes from the Writings. Good news is that Juan's translations of the houri tablets are very popular on these. Either folks haven't heard of his controversial reputation in the Faith, or they don't care -- I hope very much the latter.

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.

Who is trying to ban Christmas?

I'm actually supposed to be doing my pre-Christmas housecleaning, but the computer is more interesting -- in fact, almost anything is more interesting than housework. But I can across something in the "Boy, is this guy an idiot!" department. One of the worst aspects about both sides of the political spectrum is the silly paranoia about the other side. Of course, the religious right is always acting like liberals are trying to ban Christianity. (You know, some liberals actually are Christians.)

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

Change for the Better?

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.
Roaming Around the Blogosphere

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.

So, what makes you a Baha'i?

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.

Fruit of the Grapevine

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've just been doing lots of messing around today with the blog; I put the "Who links to me" link in. I don't, of course, have many who link to me -- I haven't written much here, and haven't promoted it much. I was surprised to have any at all, outside of my own home page.

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.
Reviews of Baha'i Cyberspace forums

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.

I just went casually surfing around to see if Baha'is have really caught on to the whole weblog phenomenon. Not many specifically Baha'i blogs around, although there are quite a few by Baha'is who post on a variety of topics, and mention the Faith in passing -- a couple of these are by guys well-known in the Baha'i cyberspace community. Another thing I found was several mentions by ex-Baha'is, mostly kids who grew up Baha'i but no longer are involved in the Faith. The attitude among them mostly seems to be "It was a good way to grow up, but now that I'm an adult, I've found that it's not my thing." Only one of them mentioned any of the standard liberal issues as a factor in their leaving. Well, I hang with a whole different crowd. Somebody who has really moved on doesn't spend time on Baha'i forums -- even the most strident ex-Baha'i there still has an attachment of sorts, even if a negative one. You haven't really gotten over the Faith, if you are still denouncing it.

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've been going through a quiet phase online -- everywhere, not just this weblog, obviously. The weblog's a project that never really properly took off. Maybe it would have, had blogging been around when I first came into cyberspace and had so much to say. In fact, it might have been better had I done it that way, and not gotten into so many emotionally-draining battles on email forums, usenet, and posting boards. But, water under the bridge . . .

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.