Category: Culture

Why Calvin is Cool


I just read your infomercial and browsed through your e-monastary and related e-inn. I’m still giggling, albeit to myself lest my wife think me mad. You are one unusual fellow — a calvinistic Baptist (odd enough) doing pulpit supply at a Presbyterian church! I had heard that Baptists and Presbyterians co-congregated back in the early days but thought the practice had long since died out. (It’s much more fun now to rest in the assurance that my beliefs are the only correct ones.) Your desire to be close to a pub makes you an extremely rare sort of Baptist — one who does not eschew the brew as most Baptists do (in public anyway).

Anyway, I’m thoroughly enjoying your writing and your sense of humor. And I’m asking for advice. We have lived in this area for more than 11 years. We sporadically attended a Sovereign Grace Baptist church about an hour’s drive away, but never felt like we belonged there. We have “experimented” with Arminian baptists and calvinistic Presbyterians, but the cognitive dissonance has always been more than we could bear. However, desperation for Christian fellowship and a keen desire for our teenage son to spend his last at-home year (we hope) in a church where his parents are actively involved is driving us back to a large Baptist church (ironically, the one J.B. Moody pastored twice around 1900 when he spoke of “tautological tomfoolery” regarding the notion of a “local church”).

Our first Sunday back was yesterday and we were once again confronted with all the things that drive us nuts — new-fangled Bible translations, loud applause after every “special” song, praise dancing, really really shallow Bible lessons in Sunday School, and so forth. We don’t know if we should just ignore these things and be “missionaries to the Southern Baptists” or run like hell from their worldly ways. Or is our discomfort with these things God’s way of pointing out our own pride and a weird sort of orthodoxy-based phariseeism? I’m almost through with C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” and am newly reminded that our earthly journey is hardly a black-and-white one. Sounds like you’ve wandered and wondered a bit over the years, so I’m wondering what you think about our predicament.

If you’re ever in Hot Springs, give me a shout — we’ve got a great little German place downtown and I’d love to hoist a few with you and discuss what it would take to get you to pastor a new church here. I would even do a praise dance on 5th Sundays…

[Jacques d’Nalgar]

PS — “tautological tomfoolery” is from an address to the SBC J.B. Moody delivered here in Hot Springs around 1900. It’s published in a collection of sermons titled “My Church” (ISBN 0879210303) that used to be a standard text in Baptist libraries.

Painting by Flemish school (unknown, 15th and 16th centuries). or or

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All imperialism


It’s Sunday morning. Why aren’t you in church? I hate to bring this up again because I got flamed big-time on the last occasion, but here’s an excerpt from Charlie Reese’s editorial in today’s local paper:

All imperialism, even the American form, is ultimately based on social Darwinism, a belief not openly stated these days that we are a superior people and therefore must inevitably rule in one way or another the inferior others.

Earlier in the last century, this was openly admitted. Read this quote from Frederick Courtney Selous, a British colonialist who played a large role in establishing Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

“Matabeleland (a part of future Rhodesia) is doomed by what seems a law of nature to be ruled by the white man, and the black man must go, or conform to the white man’s laws, or die in resisting them. … The British colonist is but the irresponsible atom employed in carrying out a preordained law – the law which has ruled upon this planet ever since … organic life was first evolved upon the earth – the inexorable law which Darwin has aptly termed the Survival of the Fittest.”

Of course, today there is no Rhodesia, and Zimbabwe is ruled by black people, as is all of sub-Saharan Africa. The British Empire, upon which in the past the sun never set, no longer exists. What happened to the survival of the fittest?

Well, intellectuals, whether British or American, are inevitably out of touch with reality. It didn’t seem to occur to them that even a person who couldn’t read Latin or solve a simple equation could nevertheless wield a machete and shoot a rifle. An illiterate man can eradicate a lot of intelligence, experience and education with one 10-cent bullet. He can undo the work of years in a second. The Europeans didn’t voluntarily abandon their colonies. They were driven out by people they had considered inferior.

The code word we use for superiority these days is “democracy.” It is democracy that is superior to all other forms of government, and therefore we are doing people a favor to spread it while, like the British, exploiting their natural resources and cheap labor. We will eventually meet the same fate as the British. The Philippines have already kicked us out. Sooner or later, the Japanese will tell us to get out of Okinawa and other parts of Japan. Even one day the South Koreans and the Germans will say, “Go home.”

In my opinion, we are living in a world that has rationalized that there is nothing to strive for but “what’s in it for me.” To get back to the title of your religious tract, what we see all around us is exactly what happens… The best defenses of Christianity I’ve read weren’t based on whether or not evolution was/is good science, but on the basis of philosophical reasoning. C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” and Elton Trueblood’s “A Place To Stand” are excellent answers to the old question of “Is the universe – and us in it – some kind of cosmic accident?” If you’re really interested in “What happens to the Gospel…” then read what they have to say.

—–Original Message—–
From: Monroe Pastermack
Sent: Sunday, August 14, 2005 10:56 AM
To: ACS Listserv
Subject: I just came across this religious tract

Do any of you have comments?
As I recall it came form the Newsletter of the Flat Earth Society.

What Happens to the Gospel if Evolution is True?

SIN: No objective basis for determining right and wrong. Even if one believes there is a God, and believes in evolutionary naturalism, that God is not personally involved in His creation. (He works through natural laws), and therefore He has no knowledge or care of personal lives, deeds or misdeeds.

SAVIOR: Belief in a Savior cab be little more than a psychological exercise since there is no responsibility for sin to be saved from. Why do I need a Savior -and from what?

SALVATION: At best, salvation may provide the illusion of hope, but this life is all that there is. At worst, as many evolutionists have pointed out, “dreams” of salvation distract people from “realizing their full potential here and now.”

SCRIPTURE: The Bible is nothing more than a records of what the ancients believed -beliefs which may have been helpful at one time in man’s evolution, but which are now outmoded by better standards. Evolutionists who accept God . and choose in Scripture accepting what they like and rejecting as myths those things that don’t suit them, according to their subjective tastes. Organized religion ends up striving for “unity in diversity” as a result of all these subjective tastes getting together.

Christopher Chui

Detail from 1867 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Napoleon and His Staff in Egypt. or or

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True believers

I think that for most people, their religion, philosophy, life’s ambition (or whatever you want to call their primary sense of purpose) has degenerated into a football-fan spectator sport. It no longer matters whether you’re a good steward of the environment, or whether you’re building good relations with your neighbors, or whether you’re gainfully employed or, better yet, employing. It just matters that you’re rooting for the winning team and accumulating as many toys along the way as you can.

I think that when things get really, really tough again — then we’ll find out who the “true believers” are. If history is any guide, there won’t be many. There is a thread of dissent that runs throughout the history of Christianity — when it became easy (after Constantine) or popular (right now) to be a Christian, then the basic message of the Gospel gets subverted and perverted by the artificial traditions of men and a lot of really stupid books like the “Left (your mind) Behind” series. There is/was always a small population of dissenters (heretics according to the Establishment church) who preserved the texts and ideals of Christian orthodoxy (and not the Greek kind) despite horrific persecutions — the kind that aren’t supposed to happen to “true believers” because they’re supposed to get whisked outa here in a fantastical rapture before things get really, really bad (but only for the bad guys).

Personally, I think our Republic began dying during the Civil War. I know that slavery was bad and the war ended that (at least in a legal sense), but a lot of our ideals about personal and regional independence were destroyed as well. Don’t know if it’s related to this conversation or not, but here’s an interesting excerpt from a letter President Eisenhower penned to his brother, Edgar Newton Eisenhower, on 8 November 1954:

Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this–in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything–even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

Neither side has men the caliber of Ike and Harry any more. Even if they’re out there, I’m not sure they can lead us out of the mess we’re in. Depressing as hell, ain’t it?

Photograph of Eisenhower, by Richard Avedon: or or

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Don’t you realize?

It’s really very simple. George W. Bush IS God, or at least speaking directly for Him. What I can’t quite figure out is why God can’t pronounce “nuclear” or string together a coherent, gramatically-correct sentence (to paraphrase Molly Ivins). Anyway, nearly half of the country acknowledges Bush’s deity and the other half are hell-bound infidels who don’t matter anyway. You’re either with Bush or you’re an enemy of the state. End of story, end of discussion. If you can even engage the blindly devoted in a discussion…

Photograph of GW from or or

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Evangelism 101

This is from part of President Daniel Bliss’ speech when the cornerstone of College Hall was dedicated at the Syrian Protestant College (now American University of Beirut) in 1871:

“This college is for all conditions and classes of men without regard to color, nationality, race or religion. A man, white, black, or yellow, Christian, Jew, Mohammedan or heathen, may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution for three, four or eight years; and go out believing in one God, in many gods, or in no God. But it will be impossible for anyone to continue with us long without knowing what we believe to be the truth and our reasons for that belief.”

Photograph of Daniel Bliss from or or

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Trolling for fools

With Trembling Finger

By Hal Crowther, circa November 2004


I used to take a drink on occasion with a network newsman famed for his impenetrable calm — his apparent pulse rate that of a large mammal in deep hibernation — and in an avuncular moment he advised me that I’d do all right, in the long run, if I could only avoid the kind of journalism committed to the keyboard “with trembling fingers.” I recognized the wisdom of this advice and endeavored over the years to write as little as possible when my blood pressure was soaring and my face was streaked with tears. The lava flows of indignation ebb predictably with age and hardening arteries, and nearing three-score I thought I’d never have to take another tranquilizer — or a double bourbon — to keep my fingers steady on the keys.

I never imagined 2004. It would be sophomoric to say that there was never a worse year to be an American. My own memory preserves the dread summer of 1968. My parents suffered the consequences of 1941 and 1929, and my grandfather Jack Allen, who lived through all those dark years, might have added 1918, with the flu epidemic and the Great War in France that each failed, very narrowly, to kill him. Drop back another generation or two and we encounter 1861.

But if this is not the worst year yet to be an American, it’s the worst year by far to be one of those hag-ridden wretches who comment on the American scene. The columnist who trades in snide one-liners flounders like a stupid comic with a tired audience; TV comedians and talk-show hosts who try to treat 2004 like any zany election year have become grotesque, almost loathsome. Our most serious, responsible newspaper columnists are so stunned by the disaster in Iraq that they’ve begun to quote poetry by Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. They lower their voices; they sound like Army chaplains delivering eulogies over ranks of flag-draped coffins, under a hard rain from an iron sky.

Yeats’ “blood-dimmed tide is loosed.” The war news has already deteriorated from bad to tragic to pre-apocalyptic, which leaves no suitable category for these excruciating reports on the sexual torture of Iraqi prisoners. Fingers, be still. In less than a year, the morale of the occupying forces has sunk so low that murder, suicide, rape and sexual harassment have become alarming statistics, and now the warriors of democracy — the emissaries of civilization — stand accused of every crime this side of cannibalism. Osama bin Laden has always anathematized America’s culture, as well as its geopolitical influence. To him these atrocities are a sign of Allah’s certain favor, a great moral victory, a vindication of his deepest anger and darkest crimes.

Where does it go from here? The nightmare misadventure in Iraq is over, beyond the reach of any reasonable argument, though many more body bags will be filled. In Washington, chicken hawks will still be squawking about “digging in” and winning, but Vietnam proved conclusively that no modern war of occupation will ever be won. (Vietnam clip) Every occupation is doomed. The only way you “win” a war of occupation is the old-fashioned way, the way Rome finally defeated the Carthaginians: kill all the fighters, enslave everyone else, raze the cities and sow the fields with salt.

Otherwise the occupied people will fight you to the last peasant, and why shouldn’t they? If our presidential election fails to dislodge the crazy bastards who annexed Baghdad, many of us in this country would welcome regime change by any intervention, human or divine. But if, say, the Chinese came in to rescue us — Operation American Freedom — how long would any of us, left-wing or right, put up with an occupying army teaching us Chinese-style democracy? A guerrilla who opposes an invading army on his own soil is not a terrorist, he’s a resistance fighter. In Iraq we’re not fighting enemies but making enemies. As Richard Clarke and others have observed, every dollar, bullet and American life that we spend in Iraq is one that’s not being spent in the war on terrorism. Every Iraqi, every Muslim we kill or torture or humiliate is a precious shot of adrenaline for Osama and al Qaeda.

The irreducible truth is that the invasion of Iraq was the worst blunder, the most staggering miscarriage of judgment, the most fateful, egregious, deceitful abuse of power in the history of American foreign policy. If you don’t believe it yet, just keep watching. Apologists strain to dismiss parallels with Vietnam, but the similarities are stunning. In every action our soldiers kill innocent civilians, and in every other action apparent innocents kill our soldiers — and there’s never any way to sort them out. And now these acts of subhuman sadism, these little My Lais.

Since the defining moment of the Bush presidency, the preposterous flight-suit, Fox News-produced photo-op on the USS Abraham Lincoln in front of the banner that read “Mission Accomplished,” the shaming truth is that everything has gone wrong. Just as it was bound to go wrong, as many of us predicted it would go wrong — if anything, more hopelessly wrong than any of us would have dared to prophesy. Iraq is an epic trainwreck, and there’s not a single American citizen who’s going to walk away unscathed.

The shame of this truth, of such a failure and so much deceit exposed, would have brought on mass resignations or votes of no confidence in any free country in the world. In Japan not long ago, there would have been ritual suicides, shamed officials disemboweling themselves with samurai swords. Yet up to this point — at least to the point where we see grinning soldiers taking pictures of each other over piles of naked Iraqis — neither the president, the vice president nor any of the individuals who urged and designed this debacle have resigned or been terminated — or even apologized. They have betrayed no familiarity with the concept of shame.

Thousands of young Americans are dead, maimed or mutilated, XXX billions of dollars have been wasted and all we’ve gained is a billion new enemies and a mouthful of dust — of sand. Chaos reigns, but in the midst of it we have this presidential election. George Bush has defined himself as a war president, and it’s fitting that the war should be his undoing. But even now the damned polls don’t guarantee, or even indicate, his demise.

Conventional wisdom says that an incumbent president with a $200 million war chest cannot be defeated, and that one who commands a live, bleeding, suffering army in the field is doubly invincible. By this logic, the most destructively incompetent president since Andrew Johnson will be rewarded with a second term. That would probably mean a military draft and more wars in the oil countries, and, under visionaries like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, a chance for the USA to emulate 19th-century Paraguay, which simultaneously declared war on Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay and fought ferociously until 90% of the male population was dead.

What hope then? Impeachment is impossible when the president’s party controls both houses of Congress, though Watergate conspirator John Dean, who ought to know, claims in his new book that there are compelling legal arguments for a half dozen bills of impeachment against George W. Bush. Peer pressure? At the White House, world opinion gets no more respect than FBI memos or uncomfortable facts. Many Americans seem unaware that scarcely anyone on the planet Earth supported the Iraq adventure, no one anywhere except the 40-50 million Republican loyalists who voted for George Bush in 2000.

Among significant world leaders he recruited only Great Britain’s Tony Blair — whose career may be ruined because most Britons disagree with him — and the abominable Ariel Sharon, that vile tub of blood and corruption who recently used air-to-ground missiles to assassinate a paraplegic in a wheelchair at the door of his mosque. (Palestinians quickly squandered any sympathy or moral advantage they gained from this atrocity by strapping a retarded 16-year-old into a suicide bomber’s kit. Such is the condition of the human race in the Middle East, variously known as the Holy Land or the Cradle of Civilization.) Says Sharon, oleaginously, of Bush: “Something in his soul committed him to act with great courage against world terror.”

The rest of the known world, along with the United Nations, has been dead set against us from the start. But they carry no weight. Thanks to our tax dollars and the well-fed, strong but not bulletproof bodies of our children — though mostly children from lower-income families — George Bush and his lethal team of oil pirates, Cold Warriors and Likudists commands the most formidable military machine on earth. No nation, with the possible exception of China, would ever dare to oppose them directly.

But the Chinese aren’t coming to save us. Nothing and no one can stop these people except you and me, and the other 100 million or so American citizens who may vote in the November election. This isn’t your conventional election, the usual dim-witted, media-managed Mister America contest where candidates vie for charm and style points and hire image coaches to help them act more confident and presidential. This is a referendum on what is arguably the most dismal performance by any incumbent president — and inarguably the biggest mistake. This is a referendum on George W. Bush, arguably the worst thing that has happened to the United States of America since the invention of the cathode ray tube.

One problem with this referendum is that the case against George Bush is much too strong. Just to spell it out is to sound like a bitter partisan. I sit here on the 67th birthday of Saddam Hussein facing a haystack of incriminating evidence that comes almost to my armpit. What matters most, what signifies? Journalists used to look for the smoking gun, but this time we have the cannons of Waterloo, we have Gettysburg and Sevastopol, we have enough gunsmoke to cause asthma in heaven. I’m overwhelmed. Maybe I should light a match to this mountain of paper and immolate myself. On the near side of my haystack, among hundreds of quotes circled and statistics underlined, just one thing leaped out at me. A quote I had underlined was from the testimony of Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg trials, not long before Hitler’s vice-fuhrer poisoned himself in his jail cell:

“… It is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”

Goering’s dark wisdom gained weight when a friend called me and reported that Vice President Cheney was so violently partisan in his commencement speech at Westminster College in Missouri — so rabid in his attacks on John Kerry as a anti-American peace-marching crypto-communist — that the college president felt obliged to send the student body an email apologizing for Cheney’s coarseness.

If you think it’s exceptionally shameless for a man who dodged Vietnam to play the patriot card against a decorated veteran, remember that Georgia Republicans played the same card, successfully, against Sen. Max Cleland, who suffered multiple amputations in Vietnam. In 2001 and 2002, George Bush and his Machiavelli, Karl Rove, approved political attack ads that showed the faces of Tom Daschle and other Democratic senators alongside the faces of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. And somewhere in hell, Goering and Goebbels toasted each other with a schnapps.

Am I polarized? I’ve never been a registered Democrat, I’m sick of this two-party straitacket, I wish to God it didn’t take Yale and a major American fortune to create a presidential candidate. The only current Democratic leaders who show me any courage are Nancy Pelosi and old Bob Byrd — Hillary Clinton has been especially cagy and gutless on this war — and John Kerry himself may leave a lot to be desired. He deserves your vote not because of anything he ever did or promises to do, but simply because he did not make this sick mess in Iraq and owes no allegiance to the sinister characters who designed it. And because his own “place in history,” so important to the kind of men who run for president, would now rest entirely on his success in getting us out of it.

Kerry made a courageous choice at least once in his life, when he came home with his ribbons and demonstrated against the war in Vietnam. But Sen. Kerry could turn out to be a stiff, a punk, an alcoholic, and he’d still be a colossal improvement over the man who turned Paul Wolfowitz loose in the Middle East. The myth that there was no real difference between Democrats and Republicans, which I once considered seriously and which Ralph Nader rode to national disaster four years ago, was shattered forever the day George Bush announced his cabinet and his appointments for the Department of Defense.

I’m aware that there are voters — 40 million? — who don’t see it this way. I come from a family of veterans and commissioned officers; I understand patriots in wartime. If a spotted hyena stepped out of Air Force One wearing a baby-blue necktie, most Americans would salute and sing “Hail to the Chief.” President Bush cultivated his patriots by spending $46 million on media in the month of March alone. Somehow I’m on his mailing list. (Is that because my late father, with the same name, was a registered Republican, or can Bush afford to mail his picture to every American with an established address?) Twice a week I open an appeal for cash to crush John Kerry and the quisling liberal conspiracy, and now I own six gorgeous color photographs of the president and his wife. I’m sure some of my neighbors frame the president’s color photographs and fill those little blue envelopes he sends us with their hard-earned dollars.

I struggle against the suspicion that so many of my fellow Americans are conceptually challenged. I want to reason with my neighbors; I want to engage these lost Americans. What makes you angry, neighbor? What arouses your suspicions? Does it bother you that this administration made terrorism a low priority, dismissed key intelligence that might have prevented the 9/11 catastrophe, then exploited it to justify the pre-planned destruction of Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with al Qaeda? All this is no longer conjecture, but direct reportage from cabinet-level meetings by the turncoat insiders Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill.

If the Pentagon ever thought Saddam had “weapons of mass destruction,” it was only because the Pentagon gave them to him. As Kevin Phillips recounts in American Dynasty, officials of the Reagan and first Bush administrations eagerly supplied Saddam with arms while he was using chemical weapons on the Kurds. They twice sent Donald Rumsfeld to court Saddam, in 1983 and 1984, when the dictator was in the glorious prime of his monsterhood.

This scandal, concurrent with Iran-Contra, was briefly called “Iraqgate,” and, yes, among the names of those officials implicated you’ll find most of the engineers of our current foreign policy. (They also signaled their fractious client, Saddam, that it might be all right to overrun part of Kuwait; you remember what happened when he tried to swallow it all.) Does any of this trouble you? Does it worry you that Dick Cheney, as president of the nefarious Halliburton Corporation, sold Iraq $73 million in oilfield services between 1997 and 2000, even as he plotted with the Wolfowitz faction to whack Saddam? Or that Halliburton, with its CEO’s seat still warm from Cheney’s butt, was awarded unbid contracts worth up to $15 billion for the Iraq invasion, and currently earns a billion dollars a month from this bloody disaster? Not to mention its $27.4 million overcharge for our soldiers’ food.

These are facts, not partisan rhetoric. Do any of them even make you restless? The cynical game these shape-shifters have been playing in the Middle East is too Byzantine to unravel in 1,000 pages of text. But the hypocrisy of the White House is palpable, and beggars belief. If there’s one American who actually believes that Operation Iraqi Freedom was about democracy for the poor Iraqis, then you, my friend, are too dangerously stupid to be allowed near a voting booth.

Does it bother you even a little that the personal fortunes of all four Bush brothers, including the president and the governor, were acquired about a half step ahead of the district attorney, and that the royal family of Saudi Arabia invested $1.476 billion in those and other Bush family enterprises? Or, as Paul Krugman points out, that it’s much easier to establish links between the Bush and bin Laden families than any between the bin Ladens and Saddam Hussein. Do you know about Ahmad Chalabi, the administration’s favorite Iraqi and current agent in Baghdad, whose personal fortune was established when he embezzled several hundred million from his own bank in Jordan and fled to London to avoid 22 years at hard labor?

That’s just a sampling from my haystack. Maybe I can reach you as an environmentalist, one who resents the gutting of key provisions in the Clean Air Act? My own Orange County, N.C., chiefly a rural area, was recently added to a national register of counties with dangerously polluted air. You say you vote for the president because you’re a conservative. Are you sure? I thought conservatives believed in civil liberties, a weak federal executive, an inviolable Constitution, a balanced budget and an isolationist foreign policy. George Bush has an attorney general who drives the ACLU apoplectic and a vice president who demands more executive privilege (for his energy seances) than any elected official has ever received. The president wants a Constitutional amendment to protect marriage from homosexuals, of all things. Between tax cuts for his high-end supporters and three years playing God and Caesar in the Middle East, George Bush has simply emptied America’s wallet with a $480 billion federal deficit projected for 2004 and the tab on Iraq well over $100 billion and running.

“A lot of so-called conservatives today don’t know what the word means,” Barry Goldwater said in 1994, when the current cult of right-wing radicals and “neocons” had begun to define and assert themselves. Goldwater was my first political hero, before I was old enough to read his flaws. But his was the conservatism of the wolf — the lone wolf — and this is the conservatism of sheep.

All it takes to make a Bush conservative is a few slogans from talk radio and pickup truck bumpers, a sneer at “liberals” and maybe a name-dropping nod to Edmund Burke or John Locke, whom most of them have never read. Sheep and sheep only could be herded by a ludicrous but not harmless cretin like Rush Limbaugh, who has just compared the sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners to “a college fraternity prank” (and who once called Chelsea Clinton “the family dog” — you don’t have to worry about shame when you have no brain).

I don’t think it’s accurate to describe America as polarized between Democrats and Republicans, or between liberals and conservatives. It’s polarized between the people who believe George Bush and the people who do not. Thanks to some contested ballots in a state governed by the president’s brother, a once-proud country has been delivered into the hands of liars, thugs, bullies, fanatics and thieves. The world pities or despises us, even as it fears us. What this election will test is the power of money and media to fool us, to obscure the truth and alter the obvious, to hide a great crime against the public trust under a blood-soaked flag. The most lavishly funded, most cynical, most sophisticated political campaign in human history will be out trolling for fools. I pray to God it doesn’t catch you.

Hal Crowther is a former writer for Time and Newsweek, the Buffalo News and the North Carolina Spectator before parking his column at the weekly Independent in Durham, N.C., and The Progressive Populist, among others. He won the H.L. Mencken Award for column writing in 1992. Write him at 219 N. Churton St., Hillsborough, NC 27278.

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Vanished like the strange times we lived

Strange Days

By Jacques d’Nalgar, October 11, 2004


1974 was the year I graduated from ACS. We were one of the last classes from those strange days between the wars of 1967 and 1973 and the horror that almost erased Lebanon, a time and place that 30 years later, still weaves itself into my thoughts and dreams every day. By my senior year there were only two or three of us left who had started out together in the first grade; many families left after the wars and during the preludes to civil war that followed. Those of us who remained were the first witnesses to the end of ACS as an island of Americana in a foreign land, and the beginning of an evolution for the school that continues to this day.

As young children, we grew up in a time when the US embassy hosted Fourth of July celebrations at the beach, complete with twist contests, fireworks, and free Cokes and hot dogs. Streets were named after American presidents. American sailors were a common sight in Beirut when the Navy fleet visited each year. By the time we graduated, the fleet visits were a fading memory, Coca Cola was banned, and tear gas from anti-American riots at AUB wafted over our beloved ACS campus.

As teenagers, we were never preoccupied with the great political and military upheavals that were playing out in the region. In some cases, we followed them as you would an athletic spectacle; I still have a collection of Arabic newspapers from the “Ramadan War” of 1973. If we had bothered to notice, we’d have seen suffering and humiliation beyond comprehension, but we were far more concerned with homework and pop quizzes and acne and the traumas of real and imagined romances. During my senior and junior years at ACS, Larry David (our wonderful band director, now deceased) hired a train to take us to a beach near Sidon. Coming and going, the train would stop to board PLO escorts, armed with Kalashnikovs, for safe passage through refugee camps. We were more interested in the machine guns than we were in the men who carried them.

As Americans, we were typical creatures of our popular culture and we pursued hamburgers, pizza, and rock and roll with the same intensity as our stateside cousins. We were the sons and daughters of straight-laced missionaries, diplomats, and petroleum engineers, but we were growing up during those strange days when the facade of Norman Rockwell’s world was crumbling around us. We wanted to look like the hippies and Vietnam protesters we saw on television, so we grew long hair and wandered the ancient suqs to find used Army jackets. We rolled up notebook paper and pretended to smoke pot; some did more than pretend.

We came from different parts of America and Europe (there were few Lebanese students in those days) and were thrown together in the mélange of cultures that defined life in Beirut. As diverse as we were in terms of our geographical and economic backgrounds, at ACS it all boiled down to two distinct tribes – “day students” and those wild people who lived in the BD. Ours was, by comparison, a relatively normal existence. We went home each night to mothers and fathers, dinners around the kitchen table, and all those sundry little things you never again take for granted once you’ve left the sanctuary of home and family. We envied boarding students, with their seemingly bohemian lives, unfettered by the watchful eyes of uncool parents. I now suspect many would have traded their freedoms for our drab routines of home life – and some home cooking.

My last visit to Beirut was in 1978. In four short years everything had changed. The suqs were abandoned, their stone columns deeply eroded by bullets and shrapnel. I nearly wept as I stood in the ruins of Community Church; our baccalaureate service and countless others before it had been held in that majestic old structure. We used to walk home late at night and now we were afraid to be out after the sun went down. The neighborhood rooster had been replaced by a too-close 50-caliber machine gun. The Lebanon I had known was no more. ACS was empty. A few of the caretakers looked familiar and the banyan tree in front of the high school was a bit larger, but the courtyard and playgrounds were strangely silent.

Three decades have passed since graduation. By all accounts Lebanon and ACS are again thriving. But they are not the places of my youth, the sights and sounds and smells that still haunt my dreams and color my perceptions of the world around me. I now live in Hot Springs, the same small Arkansas city where Bill Clinton grew up; his stepfather sometimes sits behind us in the catfish diner down by the airport. About 20 miles from here is a small community that exists in name only. All that’s really left is an old church building and a cemetery. Everything else has disappeared under a lake built by the Corps of Engineers. Once a year, the descendants of the town’s residents gather for a picnic in the churchyard, to take care of the graves, sing a few hymns, and swap stories. For me, ACS is a lot like that. The buildings are still there, but the school that we once knew so intimately has vanished like the strange times we lived in. Thirty years later, we use e-mail and reunions to seek out our classmates and other alumni as touchstones, confirmations that those fleeting days, however strange, were real and still somehow meaningful…

For today’s students and teachers: whether you are there for many years or only a few months, ACS will have a profound affect on you that you may spend the rest of your life trying to understand. Embrace your culture, breathe deeply the history and humanity that surrounds you. There is no place on the planet as enchanting and exhilarating as Lebanon. May your ACS days be as strange as mine were, but in ways unique to you and the times you live in.

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