Back to the Rapture

It has been awhile since I commented on the rapture. (See here for links to earlier postings.) As some of you know, the Rapture is supposedly what occurs before the second coming of Jesus when the true believers are all suddenly spirited into heaven so that they can watch the seven year battle of Armageddon below from the safety of their comfortable La-Z-Boys in the sky. At first glance, this inordinate bloodlust while having other people fight your battles for you looks a bit chickenhawkish, but we’ll let that pass for the moment.

What impresses me about the true believers in the rapture movement is their attention to detail. You would think that once they had wrapped their minds around the idea that one day, millions of people would be simultaneously taken up, leaving even their clothes behind (so you don’t even have to worry about your mother’s admonition to always wear clean underwear in the case of this particular emergency), all other things would pale into significance.

But no. They worry what your loved ones might think when you don’t show up at dinner time and they don’t know what happened to you. People who are raptured would not have the time to make phone calls because they are lifted up and it appears that once you are raptured, you end up somewhere where you cannot contact the people left behind. Of course, the people left behind would have enough other things on their mind to think about you for awhile, what with planes, trains, and automobiles crashing all over the place because their operators had disappeared. Presumably a full-scale world wide emergency would have been declared and everyone would be riveted to the news as the slaughter begins. They may even guess that you have been raptured. But the rapturists don’t want to leave things to chance. So how can you contact your loved ones to tell them after the fact where you’ve won the ultimate lottery?

There’s a solution and that is you pre-arrange to send them an email. The letter that goes to whoever you designate says, in part:

Dear Friend; This message has been sent to you by a friend or a relative who has recently disappeared along with millions and millions of people around the world. The reason they chose to send you this letter is because they cared about you and would like you to know the truth about where they went. This may come as a shock to you, but the one who sent you this has been taken up to heaven…I am sure that there will be a lot of speculation as to what happened to all these people. The theories of some scientists and world leaders will have so much credibility that most of the world will believe them. It will sound like the truth! But, there is only one truth. And, that truth is that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, came back to earth and took with Him to Heaven all who believed in Him and made Him their Lord.

The website explains how this post-rapture email will be sent. It says

We have written a computer program to do just that. It will send an Electronic Message (e-mail) to whomever you want after the rapture has taken place, and you and I have been taken to heaven.

How is this accomplished, you might ask. It’s a dead man switch that will automatically send the emails when it is not reset.
If you wish to do something now that will help your unbelieving friends and family after the rapture, you need to add those persons email address to our database. Their names will be stored indefinitely and a letter will be sent out to each of them on the first Friday after the rapture. Then they will receive another letter every Friday [sic] after that.

I see some flaws in the system. A dead man switch is something that has to be manually operated in order to work. This is the way some machinery (like my electric lawn mower) works. If you let go due to an accident or something, it stops immediately.

But who does the actual resetting with the email trigger? If it done by each subscriber, then what with work, shopping, laundry, and one thing and another, it is easy to see how one might forget to do it and have the email sent out by mistake. You would look pretty foolish if you returned to work the next day just after telling all your co-workers that you had been raptured.

If the resetting is done by some designated responsible rapture person or group, what happens if they are raptured and the emails go out, but you are not raptured? Being selected for rapture is not at all a sure thing, I imagine. Again, you’d be red faced but since the rapture actually had occurred, you’d probably have other things to worry about, such as avoiding being slaughtered by the avenging angels.

I also don’t like the fact that the emails go out weekly, starting the first Friday after the rapture. If the rapture occurs on the massive scale predicted say on a weekend, then people would probably figure out pretty quickly what was going on, so by the time Friday rolls around, the explanatory email would be pretty redundant. And having it come every Friday after that would get pretty annoying to the recipients, however much they might have liked you, as if you were gloating “Nyah! Nyah! I’ve been raptured and you haven’t!” over the people left behind. It would not surprise me if they put your email address on the “reject” list of their spam filter.

So I don’t plan to sign up for this service. Also, frankly, I don’t rate my chances of being raptured very highly. But if you think you might like to subscribe, go here. The service is free. Operators are standing by.

Some other IDC supporters backpedal

Suppose you were given a petition that said: “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.” Would you sign it?

Actually, there is nothing wrong with this petition. It is well known that no theory ever explains all the phenomena that falls within its domain, and Darwinian evolutionary theory is no exception. One could say similar things for quantum mechanics and subatomic phenomena, Newtonian physics and planetary motion, relativity theory and the nature of the universe. All scientists appreciate that scientific knowledge is fallible and that it is very likely that the theories we hold dear now may one day be superceded by newer theories. So all scientists are skeptical of the theories they currently work with, and rightly so.

But the above petition was one that was circulated by the IDC-sponsoring Discovery Institute and it garnered about 400 signatures, Eighty of them were biologists but the rest consisted of mostly philosophers, mathematicians, chemists, computer scientists, historians and lawyers.

The Discovery Institute used this result to argue that there was widespread skepticism about Darwinian natural selection and thus implied that this can be interpreted as support for IDC ideas. This is one of the fallaciousness lines of reasoning put forth by IDC advocates that science consists of just two competing theories, so that the weakness of one can be construed as a strength of its competitor. But some of the signatories are now recanting, realizing that their support for the above petition was being used as support for IDC ideas, something they had not intended.

Some who signed the statement of dissent said that doesn’t mean they support intelligent design.

One signer, Stanley Salthe, a zoologist at the State University of New York in Binghamton, replied “absolutely not” when he was asked if he agrees that there must have been a supernatural designer.

David Berlinski, a mathematician and senior fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture and a sharp critic of neo-Darwinism, also signed the statement of dissent. But in an e-mail message, Berlinski declared, “I have never endorsed intelligent design.

Berlinski’s is a particularly interesting case, because of his extreme closeness to the IDC people.

Other scientists, who had explicitly supported IDC are also now backing off, realizing that there is really nothing there.

And just this week on December 4, the New York Times, in an article headed Intelligent Design Might Be Meeting Its Maker says that despite (or maybe because of) the huge amount of attention IDC has garnered recently with the developments in Kansas and Dover, PA enthusiasm for IDC may be waning.

Behind the headlines, however, intelligent design as a field of inquiry is failing to gain the traction its supporters had hoped for. It has gained little support among the academics who should have been its natural allies. And if the intelligent design proponents lose the case in Dover, there could be serious consequences for the movement’s credibility.

On college campuses, the movement’s theorists are academic pariahs, publicly denounced by their own colleagues. Design proponents have published few papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

The Templeton Foundation, a major supporter of projects seeking to reconcile science and religion, says that after providing a few grants for conferences and courses to debate intelligent design, they asked proponents to submit proposals for actual research.

“They never came in,” said Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, who said that while he was skeptical from the beginning, other foundation officials were initially intrigued and later grew disillusioned.

“From the point of view of rigor and intellectual seriousness, the intelligent design people don’t come out very well in our world of scientific review,” he said.

While intelligent design has hit obstacles among scientists, it has also failed to find a warm embrace at many evangelical Christian colleges. Even at conservative schools, scholars and theologians who were initially excited about intelligent design say they have come to find its arguments unconvincing. They, too, have been greatly swayed by the scientists at their own institutions and elsewhere who have examined intelligent design and found it insufficiently substantiated in comparison to evolution.

Of course, many of us realized long ago that when it came to IDC, there was nothing behind the curtain. I had written back in August (see here) of my feeling that the zeitgeist had shifted and that IDC had run its course. When late night comics and newspaper cartoonists can get an easy laugh by invoking intelligent design, when ‘finger to the wind’ politicians like Rick Santorum turn against you, when influential sectors of the Catholic Church start keeping their distance, when ideological soul mates like George Will and Charles Krauthammer excoriate you, then the writing is on the wall. If the Dover trial result goes against them, that will be another serious blow.

However, it is still too early to tell if IDC is out for the count. The people behind it are determined and have a lot of financial support as well as the support of well known wackos like Pat Robertson (though the latter may not be entirely to their benefit). IDC has had many incarnations in the past. Let’s see what form it will take in the future.

POST SCRIPT: Katrina activist Malik Rahim meeting cancelled

Due to a car accident involving several aid workers in New Orleans, including one death and several people being hospitalized, Malik Rahim, Katrina activist, will have to cancel his speaking engagement for this Monday, Dec. 12th at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland.

Real and phony sacrifice and persecution

It is clear that the people of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) who have been kidnapped and held hostage in Iraq read the Bible quite differently from publicly pious people like the Pat Robertsons in our midst, who seem to see god as their own personal hit man, carrying out revenge on those who annoy them. Robertson sees nothing wrong with advocating cold-blooded murder of a head of state and seemingly wishing for God to actually punish the people of Dover, PA for their rejection of intelligent design. (See Mike Argento’s very funny column about Robertson’s “patwahs” against people who offend him.)

CPT members are not missionaries. They instead seem to want to work quietly to bring about reconciliation, even at the risk of personal harm. Their capture in Iraq happened to coincide with the twenty fifth anniversary of the murder of the four churchwomen in El Salvador. Two of them, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, were from the Cleveland area. These women, along with Archbishop Oscar Romero were murdered by the notorious “death squads” in El Salvador during the reign of terror there, when its government was supported in power by the US. For all of them, their only crime was that they worked to uplift the poor and the downtrodden of that country. Another religious group in Cleveland, the Inter-Religious Task Force on Central America also does wonderful work for peace and social justice in that region.

It is the actions of people and groups like these that make me still have some good feelings about religion, even though I do not believe in a god myself. It is out of respect and admiration for such people that I think I can never be the kind of militant atheist who issues blanket condemnations of religion or actively seeks to undermine other people’s faith. If someone’s beliefs make them spend their lives in the service of the powerless, righting wrongs, and seeking to promote peace and justice and end oppression even at the cost of real danger to themselves, then it is not my place to seek to undermine those beliefs. Religious people like them are, because of the strength of their faith, doing far more for the good of the world than I have ever done or can hope to do. It is what people do because of their beliefs that matter, not just what they believe, and even less what they say they believe.

When Tuxedo MartyrsTM like O’Reilly and Gibson and Falwell cash in for publicity and money by creating phony issues like the so-called ‘war on Christmas,’ it is easy to see how fraudulent their actions are by comparison with these genuine martyrs. They seem to think that because store clerks don’t say “Merry Christmas” to them, or that “holiday” trees are being lit up and not “Christmas” trees, they are being somehow persecuted, that they somehow see themselves as heirs of Saint Stephen. If I ever met these people, what I would ask them is if they have ever suffered, in any tangible way, for their religious beliefs. Have they ever been threatened with death, beaten up, lost their jobs, or had their homes and places of worship vandalized or destroyed because of their Christian beliefs? What is the worst thing that has ever happened to them that they can lay at the feet of anti-Christian actions?

It is an insult to the memory of people like Romero, Kazel, Donovan, Rajasingham-Tiranagama, and the CPT members in Iraq, for Tuxedo MartyrsTM like O’Reilly to equate service to Christianity with trivialities such as how people greet each other in December. I think that the kinds of people who get all worked up over trivial religious symbolism are the very ones who will abandon their beliefs with alacrity at the slightest risk to them personally, either physically or materially. I don’t think they would even have to be threatened with bodily harm. It would not surprise me in the least if O’Reilly, Gibson, Falwell and their ilk immediately converted to worshiping in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster because they believed that the blessings of His Noodly Appendage would improve their ratings.

I don’t think this bunch of religious opportunists realize, or even care, how much they turn people off religion, as long as they have the spotlight on them. When I first came to the US, I was still religious and a believer. But I remember being nauseated by the televangelists with their relentless sucking up to people with money and power, and their lack of serious concern for the poor or for issues of social justice. The public piety of high profile evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, who were subsequently exposed as hypocrites and conmen, was sickening to watch. I was revolted at the crassness and the superficiality of the message such people preached. I won’t go so far as to say that these people started me on the path to atheism, but they certainly made it easier for me to break my strong emotional ties to Christianity and the church. The actions of O’Reilly and company, rather than ‘saving’ Christianity, are simply making it easier for the next generation of atheists to come into being.

POST SCRIPT 1: Who knew?

It turns out that there actually is a war against Christmas. It has been formally declared and everything. There is even a film called The God Who Wasn’t There, produced by Beyond Belief Media that was released in May 2005. This organization’s President Brian Flemming, a former fundamentalist Christian who is now an atheist activist, says “Christian conservatives complain nonstop about the ‘War on Christmas,’ but there really isn’t any such war. So we have decided to wage one, to demonstrate what it would look like if Jesus’ birthday were truly attacked.”

Jesus’ General reviews the film in his own inimitable style.

Meanwhile, Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report also comes to the defense of Christmas.

…And Jon Stewart joins in the fun too, ridiculing O’Reilly for his silliness.

POST SCRIPT 2: Speaker about recent events in New Orleans

UPDATE: Due to a car accident involving several aid workers in New Orleans, including one death and several people being hospitalized, Malik Rahim, Katrina activist, will have to cancel his speaking engagement for this Monday, Dec. 12th at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland.

From commenter Cathie:

Malik Rahim co-founder of Common Ground Relief Collective in New Orleans will be speaking this coming Monday, Dec. 12th at 7:00pm in the Trinity Cathedral Church at 2230 Euclid Ave. in downtown Cleveland. The event is free and open to the public and will take place in the church’s Cathedral Hall. The event is free but donations to Malik and Common Ground are encouraged

Malik will be discussing the state of the south, and specifically New Orleans, after being hit by two catastrophic hurricanes, Katrina and Rita.

For more information about Mr. Rahim or to get involved with his visit please contact

For more information about Common Ground collective, please visit

Interviews with Malik Rahim can be obtained at

The capture of the Christian Peacemaker Team members in Iraq

In regions of conflict, such as Iraq, we cannot depend only on the US media for accurate information. Very often, they are either pursuing their own agenda and/or are easily manipulated and intimidated by the US government. Some of the best sources of news are from the world media and humanitarian groups like the ICRC, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, Voices in the Wilderness, plus some groups that are religiously based. Although the people in these groups are disadvantaged by not being trained reporters, they have a huge advantage in that often they are in the very thick of things, have first hand knowledge of events, and most importantly, are not dependent of developing a cozy relationship with the US military and government which, as recent developments in the Valerie Plame case involving Judith Miller and Bob Woodward have shown, has corrupted journalism to an immense degree. (More about this in a future posting.)

But members of these autonomous groups are always at risk because they lack official protection and even more so because the message they send out may be inconvenient to the US government, which means that they cannot count on the support and assistance of the US authorities. (Last week saw the emergence of even more damaging allegations in the British press that President Bush was contemplating actually bombing the Al-Jazeera news station. I will write about this and the Plame developments later.)

So these peacemaking and humanitarian groups run enormous risks. They may be perceived by the Iraqi insurgents as just more foreign interlopers or even as spies, and by the US authorities and their Iraq counterparts as, at best, inconvenient pests.

This week in Iraq saw the disturbing news about the capture of the four members of the Christian Peacemaking Teams in Iraq and the threat to kill them tomorrow (Thursday) if the US and Iraqi authorities do not release all the prisoners they are holding. Since there is no chance that that demand is going to be met, all that we can hope is that appeals to the kidnappers to not harm the hostages, which are coming on from all over the world and from members of all religions, will persuade the hostage takers that they have more to gain than lose by killing them. I have signed a petition that can be found here, along with a list of other signatories. Signing petitions seems like such a puny and futile action sometimes, but in doing so one is also expressing solidarity with all the other signers. I am a firm believer that people have to learn to act together, even if it is only at the level of signing petitions, in order to achieve peace.

The danger with the kind of anarchy that is currently the state in Iraq is that many actions like the hostage taking are done by small fringe insurgent groups that may not be thinking strategically. When major organizations (say like Al-Quaeda) are involved, they know they have to also think in terms of how actions are perceived globally. So it is possible to hope for rational actions from, and even fruitful negotiation with, such groups even though one may totally disagree with their goals and methods. But when one has a breakdown of civil order and small armed groups start acting on their own without a centralized command structure, then ordinary people are at the whim of local power bosses who may not care what the larger ramifications of their actions are. What I have read is that hostages are passed along like commodities to other insurgent groups, which makes it hard to keep track of whom to negotiate with.

I had not heard of the Christian Peacemaker Teams before this but they are a Canada-based peace group that seeks to achieve peace by acting as witnesses to it. The radio program Democracy Now had a news item that dealt with the group and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote about them last year in the New Yorker magazine, pointing out that this non-missionary group had been monitoring the situation in Iraq and pointing out human rights abuses. So this group was doing valuable work.

On a personal note to illustrate the dangers of doing human rights work in war zones, a good friend of mine, who was also a member of the medical school faculty, was an active campaigner for human rights right in the middle of the civil war zone during the height of the troubles in Sri Lanka. She was gunned down in front of her home in 1989. She was just 35 years old, the mother of small children. Her murder was never solved, leaving us never to know whether it was by the militant Tamil groups or the Indian “peacekeeping” troops that had been sent to Sri Lanka at the invitation of the Sri Lankan government. She had exposed human rights abuses by all groups and they all had motives for wanting her silenced. Like the members of the Christian Peacemakers, Rajini Rajasingham-Tiranagama was motivated to work for peace and justice by her Christian faith. Her religious beliefs enabled her to transcend narrow divisions of ethnicity, language, and religion and see that justice, human rights, and respect for others, are the foundations of a civilized society and what we should strive for.

Private groups that monitor human rights in trouble torn areas have good reason to fear attacks from all sides because such people are a threat to power structures that are based on oppression and which thrive on secrecy. Neither the occupation forces nor the rebel groups like to have their actions exposed to public view. The courage shown by these groups of people is truly inspiring.

The world reaction to atrocities

The way that the media and the big powers react to event like those that took place in Rwanda were also well described I the film Hotel Rwanda. (See yesterday’s posting.)

As long as there were still western tourists and workers and missionaries still in Rwanda, there was some interest and media coverage. News crews were present and western governments sent in troops to make sure that those people got out safely. But once that happens, and westerners are no longer in danger, it is in the interests of the big powers that events like what happened in Rwanda quickly fade from the media screens. And it should be clear to any political observer that the US government is very adept at controlling which events receive high profile media coverage and which don’t.

In the film, the hotel manager who is the hero of the film tells the TV reporter who captured images of the slaughter that he is glad that he has done so and that when people in the west see the carnage they will demand action. But the reporter has to disillusion him, saying that people will simply say “how dreadful” and go back to eating their dinner. It is not that people don’t care, and some people care deeply enough to try to get action taken to solve the problem. But whether actions are taken by governments depends on more than human needs.

Most ordinary people in any country have genuine humane impulses that recoil from gross injustice, and if the events in Rwanda had received sustained media coverage, then there would have been demands that concrete action be taken, either unilaterally by countries that have the ability to do so (like the US) or through multilateral agencies like the UN. But the western powers have little or no interest in countries like Rwanda. It has no strategic, military, or economic value. So once the westerners and the media had been evacuated, it is easy for these governments to ensure that the subject more-or-less disappears from the radar screens of the west. This is done by responding to specific questions on the situation by saying that you regret what is happening, appealing for peace, saying that you are monitoring developments closely, referring the question to the UN, and ensuring that nothing gets done there beyond the passing of some resolutions. After awhile this kind of coverage gets ‘boring’ and the media attention shifts elsewhere.

This was what happened during the Clinton administration, who was president during the Rwandan crisis. Reports are now emerging that the Clinton administration was fully aware of the scale of the atrocities that were taking place in Rwanda in 1994 but pretended ignorance, carefully avoided public use of the word ‘genocide’, and buried the information in order to justify its inaction. The news report quotes a Human Rights Watch spokesperson who says “They feared this word [genocide] would generate public opinion which would demand some sort of action and they didn’t want to act. It was a very pragmatic determination.” And even now, you will find more coverage in the world press than in the US of this news of willful inaction, because the major US media never likes to admit how it is complicit in aiding the agenda of the US government.

Contrast this with what happens when the US government really wants something done, as was the case in Iraq before the invasion in 2003. Then the members of the administration talk about it day in and day out in every possible forum, playing up every atrocity in Iraq as a reason for immediate action. How many times have we heard about Hussein gassing his own people as one of the many, and shifting justifications for the attack? And recall that even this event, talked about repeatedly just prior to the war, actually occurred in 1988, when it was not news here. This was because Hussein was an ally of the US at that time and this kind of embarrassing fact had to be suppressed. The event only became newsworthy when it served an administration purpose.

Or take another classic example. Arguably one of the biggest mass murderers of the second half of the twentieth century was President Suharto of Indonesia. The slaughter he unleashed against his opponents in the late 1960s after taking becoming president of that country was incredibly brutal and widespread, with estimated dead between 500,000 and one million. And then later he invaded and annexed East Timor (which had gained independence from Portugal in 1975) with US government approval and slaughtered many people there too. But it is a safe bet that most people in the US have neither heard of him or the events I am referring to. In fact, during all these events, Suharto would come to the US and be treated deferentially as an honored guest. Why is this? Because Suharto was a good and faithful ally and it was inconvenient to have him brought to justice for his crimes. But how was attention to be diverted from his actions? To see how the US government can control how foreign leaders are portrayed in the US media, compare the way that Cambodia’s Pol Pot and Suharto were portrayed. Edward Herman (who is professor emeritus at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania) has a comparative analysis that is a must read.

Stephen Zunes, professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco in his article US Double Standards in the October 22, 2002 issue of The Nation magazine shows how the US government managed to prevent any multilateral action against Suharto. He says:

For example, in 1975, after Morocco’s invasion of Western Sahara and Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, the Security Council passed a series of resolutions demanding immediate withdrawal. However, then-US ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan bragged that “the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”

Whether the UN acts or not is determined by what the US government wants in terms of its own geopolitical interests. The UN is still useful as a forum for exposing some things that might otherwise be hidden, so it serves some purposes, but we cannot expect it to act on purely humanitarian grounds, however deserving they may be. Once we understand that, we can get to grips with the question of why events like Rwanda in the mid 1990s and Darfur, Sudan now can occur, and the world simply averts its eyes.

We cannot depend on the media, especially commercial media, alone to focus attention for a long time on these situations. We also need other independent organizations, such as NGOs and humanitarian and religious groups, but such actions carry their own dangers, as we will see tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Unbelieving defenders of the faith

James Wolcott points out and comments on an interesting discussion going on in the National Review Online that illustrates how many self-professed ‘defenders of religion’ and supporters of so-called intelligent design creationism are themselves unbelievers but think that religion is useful for keeping in order what they perceive as the lower intellectual classes, those ‘beneath’ them.

Hotel Rwanda and post-colonial ethnic conflicts

Over the weekend, I watched the DVD of the film Hotel Rwanda. This was a film that I knew from the beginning that I should see and would see, but at the same time dreaded seeing and postponed it for as long as I could. I knew that the film would make me both angry and depressed. Angry at the inhumanity that can be generated when people are stupid enough to take the superficial differences amongst as things that are important enough to kill and be killed for. Depressed because the events in Rwanda remind us once again how the world classifies people, nations, events, and regions into ‘important’ and ‘unimportant’ and that these classifications are not based on any measures that are real and tangible, but on how they directly affect the developed world.

But I am glad that I watched the film. It was immensely powerful and well done, with outstanding performances by Don Cheadle and the other (mostly unknown) actors. It is a film that I can strongly recommend. It does not descend into being a political tract but manages to weave a very human story into a political nightmare, without being more graphic than the minimum necessary to convey the horror. As I hate graphic violence, I was particularly relieved about the last point.

For those not familiar with what happened in Rwanda, this was a civil war between two ethnic groups that resulted in an estimated one million deaths. The film chronicles the events in 1994 following the alleged killing of the President of Rwanda (a Hutu) allegedly by members of the minority insurgent Tutsis and the violent rampage that was unleashed by the government, which let Hutu mobs take the law into their own hands and slaughter the Tutsis,

The scenes in which Hutu mobs armed with machetes took to the streets and murdered Tutsis and set fire to their homes while the security forces either took part or stood by and did nothing, brought back disturbing memories of my own experience in Sri Lanka in 1983, though what happened in Rwanda was on a very much larger scale. Still, I could empathize with the feelings of the people in the film when it dawned on them that they had absolutely no protection from the state, that they were completely on their own, and that they had no chance against armed mobs acting with impunity. It would only be sheer luck, and the kindness of friends and strangers, that determined who died and who lived.

What impressed me most about the film was how true it was. Not true in the sense of the literal recounting of facts. I am in no position to judge that because of my lack of familiarity with the details of events in Rwanda. But true in the way that such conflicts arise and the way they are portrayed and dealt with in the developed world. There is one small scene that you should observe closely. In this scene, a foreign TV cameraman (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is at the hotel bar and asks a local journalist what the difference is between a Hutu and a Tutsi and how the conflict arose. The journalist replies that Tutsis are supposed to be taller and have narrower noses. He also says that the Belgian colonial powers favored the Tutsi minority and groomed them into an elite. This caused resentment among the Hutu majority, which retaliated when they obtained power after independence. Two women are also seated at the bar and Phoenix asks them and which ethnicity they are. One replies that she is Hutu and the other that she is Tutsi. Phoenix wonderingly muses “they could be twins.”

And there you have it in a nutshell. Each group of people likes to think of themselves as somehow special and invent qualities that they think distinguish themselves from others groups, however absurd or irrational the grounds for such beliefs. Then colonial powers, wherever possible, use these perceived differences to implement the tried and true “divide and conquer” policies. They build on any traditional mistrust and animosity between the two groups by giving favors to the minority and winning their allegiance, thus fending off any joint action by the two groups to overthrow the colonial occupiers, but breeding lingering resentment in the majority community. This almost inevitably leads to post-independence settling of resentments.

Look at the post-independence ethnic conflicts in many countries and you will see this pattern repeated over and over, too often to think of it as a weird coincidence. It definitely happened in Sri Lanka with the British, for example. That same conversation in the bar would have been perfectly appropriate for describing the history of Sri Lanka too. For me, the worst thing about colonialism was not the looting of the resources of the colonized countries, bad as that was. It was the deliberate and cynical fanning of mistrust and conflict so that the countries were almost guaranteed to reap a harvest of violence and bloodshed once the colonists left or were thrown out. Then the colonial powers could wring their hands in regret at the inevitable conflict that followed their departure and smugly feel that it was their ‘civilizing’ presence that kept the lid on the ‘savage natives.’

This is not to say that the local population did not share in the blame. There were enough so-called ‘leaders’ who were willing to build on these inflamed feelings to gain power, and they in turn had enough followers who could be persuaded that meaningless differences generated largely on accident birth (ethnicity, skin color, religion, language, etc.) were important enough to fight one another over.

To be continued tomorrow…

Post Script 1: Take that!

James Wolcott demonstrates the spirit of the current holiday season.

Post Script 2: The future is already here

In a comment to a previous post, Eldan points out that the very thing I had feared (the sponsorship of novels by companies and industries) has already happened. One day, perhaps I will predict a trend before it actually occurs…

Ads, ads, everywhere…

One reason I rarely watch any programs on commercial TV, and even find commercial radio irritating, is because of the constant interruptions with commercials that disrupt the flow of the narrative. There are very few occasions when I do watch commercial TV, and it is for the occasional sporting event or The Simpsons and then the commercials fit more naturally into the breaks in the action. Actually, since I rarely watch TV, many of the commercials are novel and quite clever and enjoyable when I see them for the first time. But even during a single game, one tends to see the same commercial repeated many times and however amusing they are at first, by the time the third viewing comes around, they are tiresome.

Advertisers are aware of this viewer irritation and with the arrival of technology that enables viewers to skip commercials altogether have sought to find other ways to draw attention to their products. By now, even the most naïve viewer is aware of product placement. When characters place their sodas on the table with the logo facing the camera, when characters get into a car with its badge visible, most viewers know that money has changed hands to achieve this result.

But apparently even this is not enough. Advertisers are now requesting that the scriptwriters for TV shows actually insert dialogue into their scripts to reinforce the placement. In other words, in addition to showing the box of cereal, you can expect characters to start commenting on how good the cereal tastes or how nutritious it is. Or when the heroes take off in their car after the villains, they might comment on how lucky they are that the car can go from zero to sixty in 4.7 seconds or whatever. The program On The Media reports that scriptwriters are so concerned about being co-opted into being adwriters as well that they are asking for protection in their contracts. Bob Harris reports on seeing one of these script placements already in a program.

One does not find this kind of product placement in books, perhaps because authors of fiction are not usually writing under contract for others. Also actually naming a product, as opposed to simply making it visible, is much harder to do discreetly.

But have you considered the possibility that an entire novel’s plot might be an advertising pitch? My mind is not diabolical enough to have conceived of such a scheme but that idea had occurred to devious minds at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA. On The Media reports that this group was concerned that the increasing efforts by consumers to buy cheaper prescription drugs in Canada would eat into the profits of drug companies in the US. Their previous strategy of placing full page advertisements in newspapers warning of some vague danger to consumers was seen as being of limited value.

So Mark Barondess, a consultant to PhRMA, commissioned a novel to be written by first time novelists Julie Chrystyn and Kenin Spivak. Spivak says he was told that the plot was to consist of a group of Bosnian Muslims who, unhappy with the fact that the United States was not supporting Bosnian Muslims against Serbs, launch an attack using tainted drugs on Americans through the Canadian website pharmacies. And many, many thousands of Americans would have to die in the story.

Clever, huh? If the book becomes a bestseller of the kind written by Michael Crichton, then you could see what an effect it might have on public attitudes towards Canadian drugs.

But the plan fell apart. According to Brooke Gladstone, the host of On The Media “Spivak said he chafed under the demand that they dumb down the book to appeal to women, who buy more drugs than men, and that all the terrorists be religious fanatics.”

But writers Spivak and Chrystyn still complied with these requirements only to find their novel being rejected by Barondess and the PhRMA employee on the ground that it was transparent drivel with the potential to backfire.

In fact, PhRMA tried to wash its hands completely of this fiasco, saying that the consultant was acting on his own and that the money paid to the writers, both for writing the book and for killing the commission, was out of the consultant’s own pockets. Meanwhile, the writers have rewritten their work to make it, at least in their own eyes, a better novel. No word yet on when, or if, it will be released.

I see this is an alarming trend. Although PhRMA saw this as an embarrassment and withdrew its participation (or so they say), other industries might not. We should also not assume that only unknown writers will be tempted to write a novel to meet the needs of an industry. The fact that extremely rich actors and celebrities are willing to act in commercials should alert us to the fact that it may only be a matter of time before even best-selling authors start writing made-to-order novels.

It seems unlikely that such novel will promote a particular product. That would be too obvious. It is more likely that it will promote the agenda of a particular industry and be funded by its trade group, like PhRMA. So one can imagine made-to-order novels that denigrate Canadian-style universal health care plans or promote genetically engineered foods.

So the next time some blockbuster novel seems to have a plot that advances the agenda of some industry, it might be a good thing to ask whether it was only the artistic muse that influenced its author. The big industries have the budgets and clout to advertise books heavily and get good reviews placed in influential sources, and turn even the most mediocre novel into a talked-about book.

Best selling author Michael Crichton, who published a book called State of Fear that pooh-poohs global warming does not need to be paid by a specific industry to make money off his books but if some new blockbuster by an unknown author appears that seems to promote some agenda favored by a trade group, it might be good to start asking some questions.

POST SCRIPT 1: Somber milestone

The US today recorded the 1,000th person to be executed since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1977. That the death penalty still exists anywhere in the world boggles my mind. It seems like such a barbaric relic of medieval times.

POST SCRIPT 2: Holiday CircleFest

So as not to end the week on a down note, I thought I would remind everyone that this Sunday, December 4 features Holiday CircleFest, which has a lot of free events including a program of music by the Case University Singers at 7:00pm in the Church of the Covenant, sponsored by the University Protestant Campus Ministries (UPCaM). UPCaM is a terrific organization that I am a member of and support.

Thanks to Paul who brought this to my attention in a comment to a previous post.

Intelligent Design Creationism loses a prominent supporter

Perhaps one of the most significant indicators that Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) is becoming an embarrassment is the defection by US Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Senator Santorum was once one of the most prominent supporters of IDC ideas, even going so far as to propose an amendment to a bill that said “where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.” This kind of language, drafted by people from the IDC-promoting Discovery Institute, has always been the strategy of IDC advocates, to isolate evolution as somehow different from other scientific theories and as an especially poor theory, and to promote IDC by specifically focusing on evolution’s alleged weaknesses. Although the Santorum Amendment never made it into law, the language remained in the conference report that surrounds legislation and supporters of IDC used it to argue that there was federal sanction for teaching intelligent design.

In a 2002 editorial page article in the Washington Times, Santorum went even further and said that “intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes.”

But times change. Senator Santorum is up for re-election in 2006. He is facing a tough race and is currently trailing in the polls. The Dover school board election results may have jolted him into realizing that being seen as an IDC supporter has become an albatross. Whatever the reason, Santorum has made a complete reversal and now says “that he doesn’t believe that intelligent design belongs in the science classroom.” He went on to say “Science leads you where it leads you.” Really.

Whether this reversal helps him win reelection is another matter. What is relevant here is that IDC has become increasingly seen as a political liability.

Of course, the IDC camp can still claim the support of President Bush who said that “he believes schools should discuss “intelligent design” alongside evolution when teaching students about the creation of life.”

But Bush said this in August before his poll approval numbers started going into free-fall. It is not clear how he would reply if asked the same question now. Perhaps, like Santorum, he will suddenly see the light about how science really works and have a conversion. But given all the other issues that are buffeting the White House involving Iraq and torture and the Plame leak and corruption and secret prisons, it is unlikely that he will be asked about intelligent design again any time soon, sparing him the same kind of embarrassment that Santorum has had to undergo because of his abrupt change of heart.

If Bush asks those close to him who are assigned to have an opinion on these matters, his views may not receive much support from even them. When his scientific advisor John Marburger was asked to cite scientific evidence for supernatural design, he replied: “There isn’t any. … Intelligent design is not a scientific concept.”

Of course, that still leaves Senate majority leader Frist who remains a supporter (in a wishy-washy and confused kind of way) of IDC ideas. It will be interesting to see what happens to his views when he is up for re-election or if he decides to run for President in 2008.

POST SCRIPT 1: From denials to “old news”

Once again, political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow accurately captures how this administration deals with bad news.

POST SCRIPT 2: “God’s interns in DC”

Check out this strange news story from ABC’s Nightline about young “interns” who go to Washington to pray 24/7. I am not sure what to make of it. But what is it with all the rocking back and forth? Is this common?