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.)
[Read more…]

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.
[Read more…]

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?

“Merry Christmas” or “Season’s Greetings”?

In a comment to a previous post on Thanksgiving and Christmas, John made an interesting observation. He said that, given his reading of my political and religious leanings from my blog, he was surprised that I had used the term “Christmas shopping season” instead of the more generic “holiday shopping season,” since I am obviously not a religious person.

I must admit that I was taken by surprise by his comment. I had written “Christmas” season almost without thinking because I see it as such. But perhaps I should not have been surprised because I am also aware of how touchy the issue of Christmas has become.

For example, a silly person named John Gibson has actually written a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. And Bill O’Reilly, who can always be depended on to waste his outrage on the trivial, has declared that he is going to “save” Christmas by bringing back the greeting “Merry Christmas” and fighting those stores that have promotions saying “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.” A guest on his show suggested that these more generic greetings do not offend Christians, to which O’Reilly replied “Yes, it does. It absolutely does. And I know that for a fact. But the smart way to do it is “Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Season’s Greetings, Happy Kwanzaa.”

Meanwhile, Jerry Falwell, in a fierce competition with Pat Robertson for the Religious Doofus of the Year award, says that he too is fighting to save that holy holiday and that he’ll sue and boycott groups that he sees as muzzling Christmas. Finishing a strong third for that same award:

American Family Association President Tim Wildmon,…wants to see “Merry Christmas” signs displayed prominently “if they expect Christians to come in and buy products during this so-called season.”

And he isn’t worried if they offend people who aren’t Christian.

“They can walk right by the sign,” Wildmon said. “It’s a federal holiday. If someone is upset by that, well, they should know that they are living in a predominantly Christian nation.”

So John was quite justified in being puzzled as to why, in this climate, I was so casually tossing the word Christmas around when everyone seems to be so touchy about it.

To be quite honest, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see people like Gibson and O’Reilly and Falwell and Wildmon getting into a lather about what is the proper thing to say at Christmas. How can adults waste their time on the trivial when there is so much other stuff to think about?

As for me personally, I just can’t take this matter seriously. I have never been offended by other people’s religious beliefs. Perhaps it was because I grew up in a multi-religious society, had friends of other faiths, and celebrated their religious holidays as well as my own. It does not offend me in the least when people wish me greetings that are specific to their own religious traditions or in some neutral terms. What is the sense in being offended by someone who is wishing you well? The words do not matter in the least. It is the sentiment behind it that is important.

I have always liked Christmas as a holiday, especially its focus on children, and its message of promoting peace and goodwill among people. I am glad that even people who do not share its religious orientation still share in the peace and goodwill message. I do not appreciate the fact that it has become largely a merchandizing tool.

I simply do not care how other people view Christmas or how they express their views and it amazes me that some people are using it as yet another means of waging a cultural war. Why are some people so touchy? When someone wishes me “Season’s Greetings,” I take that as a thoughtful gesture of friendship and caring and I am touched by the sentiment. The same goes if they wish me “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Kwanzaa” or “Happy Solstice” or any other greeting from any other religion. I return the greeting in kind, even if I am not a believer in that faith, because all that such an exchange signifies is that two people wish each other well. If someone says to me “Merry Christmas” and I reply “Same to you,” this is not an affirmation of faith any more than “Season’s Greetings” is an act of hostility to religion. To take such greetings as a challenge to one’s beliefs and start a fight over it is to demonstrate churlishness to a ridiculous degree. O’Reilly and his partners in this stupid battle need to grow up.

I am talking here about how the holiday is interpreted in the private sphere of person-to-person interactions. If some company puts advertisements in the paper and tells its employees to greet customers by saying “Season’s Greetings,” why should it offend me? The same thing if they order their employees to say “Merry Christmas” instead. That is not something that bothers me, because such mandated greetings are not borne out of personal care and concern but are just marketing tools and are meaningless in terms of content and intent, whatever the words used. It is in the same category as the mandated “Have a nice day.” You can always tell, by the eyes, the tone of voice, and the smile (or lack of it) if the person is genuinely being friendly or simply saying it because it is required. The actual words are immaterial.

If Bill O’Reilly gets all warm and tingly when a store employee is forced to say “Merry Christmas” to him and gets angry when that same employee is forced to say “Season’s Greetings,” then he is a man in need of serious therapy because he clearly cannot distinguish the real from the counterfeit. I hate to be the one who breaks the news but he should realize that the employee probably does not care for him personally, whatever the greeting.

The question becomes different when we talk of the public sphere because then we are talking about the government taking an official stand on religion and this raises tricky political and constitutional issues. There it seems to me to be appropriate to be scrupulously religiously neutral because I am a believer that a secular public sphere is the one most likely to lead to peace and harmony between diverse groups. Governments are supposed to be representatives of everyone and to single out one particular religion or ethnicity for preferential treatment is to create discord.

But when it comes to private exchanges between people, we should all relax and let people express their good feelings for one another in whatever way they choose and are most comfortable with and not try to make it into a battle for religious supremacy. You can always tell when people genuinely mean well and when they are pushing an agenda, whatever the actual words used. We should learn to accept the former gracefully and ignore the latter.

POST SCRIPT: A Parable of Iraq

Tom Tomorrow has another good cartoon.

Hollywood remakes

I don’t think that I will ever understand the logic by which some films get made in Hollywood, especially the decision on which older films to remake.

Over the holiday weekend, we watched two films that happened to be remakes of films that I had seen in their original versions. One was The Manchurian Candidate starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep (the 1962 version of the film with same name starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury). The other was The Truth About Charlie starring Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton, and Tim Robbins, which was a remake of Charade (1963) starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Coincidentally, both remakes were produced and directed by acclaimed director Jonathan Demme, who made Silence of the Lambs.

Another common feature they shared is that both new versions were simply terrible, which prompted me to wonder why these remakes were ever even contemplated. It seems to me that the main reason to remake a film is because the story is interesting and had promise but the original version was somehow botched and the new director feels that he or she could do a much better job with it. But that did not apply in these two cases, so my question is what were Demme and the other people who backed these productions thinking?

The original Manchurian Candidate was a taut cold-war thriller in which a soldier is captured and brainwashed by Communists during the Korean war in order to make him into someone who would unthinkingly follow instructions so that he could serve a political purpose back in the US. The basic brainwashing plot of the original, as in the sequel, was somewhat far-fetched, but the original film worked as a political satire as well..

As for the original Charade, that was perhaps the best romantic comedy-thriller ever made, with a superb musical score by Henry Mancini as a bonus. I have seen it more than once and have never failed to be captivated by it, even though I know all the plot twists.

In remaking films like this that were so good in their original forms, it was clear that the new films could only fare badly by comparison. What surprised me was how awful they were, especially The Truth About Charlie.

Both remakes kept the basic story lines intact, but updated them and added new wrinkles to make them more topical. In The Manchurian Candidate, for example, the soldier son was now brainwashed during the first Gulf war by a huge business conglomerate. The plot often made no sense at all, with huge gaps in logic and character motivation. The filmmakers seemed to try and overwhelm the viewer by making the story very complicated and high-tech, but all that these devices achieved was to irritate me. The only redeeming feature of the new version was an excellent performance by Meryl Streep, matching in her steely ambition the original performance by Angela Lansbury.

Remaking Charade is even harder to understand. Cary Grant set the standard in playing the suave leading man and no one does the wide-eyed innocent better than Audrey Hepburn. “Classy” is the word that always comes to mind when thinking of either of these two actors. The dialogue was clever and the on-screen chemistry between them was almost magical, despite their age difference of twenty five years. The supporting cast of Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Jacques Marin (who played the French detective), was also first-rate.

In the remake, Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton are nowhere in the same league as Grant and Hepburn, either as actors or on-screen personalities. It actually felt kind of cruel to put them in a situation where they would inevitably be compared unfavorably to those two greats who were at the top of their game. In addition, although sticking to the same basic story line, Demme introduced plot twists and characters and scenes that simply made no sense, with obscure minor characters reappearing for no apparent reason. What the original had in witty dialogue, the remake tried to make up for in gimmicks. It was as if the director was trying for an absurdist effect and failed miserably.

An example of a good remake is Ocean’s Eleven. The 1960 original in that case was just so-so, an excuse for the Rat Pack to hang out together on screen, while the 2001 Steven Soderbergh remake was what a remake should be, taking a poorly executed first attempt and showing how it could be done well.

Doing a remake of a good first effort makes no sense to me. Updating the plot to make it topical does not seem like a good enough reason to do the film over. After all, we can still enjoy classic films the Dr. Strangelove even though the political context that gave it its edge is no more.

But The Truth About Charlie was an absolute travesty, making me want to watch the original Charade again just to rid my mind of the pollution created by the remake.

I am curious as to what readers of this blog who have seen both the original and remake of any film think about this question.

And if you have never seen Charade, try and get hold of a copy. It is a film everyone should see. I am going to see it yet again.

POST SCRIPT: What on earth is going on?

This link takes you to a video that seems to show people in a moving vehicle in Iraq firing machine guns randomly at cars behind them, causing them to swerve and crash and possibly killing the occupants. The bizarre and unbelievably callous nature of these acts is accentuated by the fact that the whole video is accompanied by Elvis Presley singing.

It is alleged by the British newspaper The Telegraph that the shots were fired by members of private foreign security forces working in Iraq. These companies are a law unto themselves, immune from prosecution from either Iraqi or British or American authorities and are said to have caused numerous civilian deaths. This video has sparked calls for an inquiry into the shootings and a British security company Aegis Defence Services says it is also carrying out an internal inquiry, since the video was first posted on its own website, creating suggestions that it was put on the server as a “trophy.”

Thanksgiving and Christmas musings

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to the class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy it. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the history of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have to learn US history in school or did not have the experience of visiting my grandparents’ homes for this occasion, this holiday initially left me cold.
[Read more…]

Catholic Church turns away from Intelligent Design Creationism?

Perhaps the high point for the IDC (intelligent design creationism) movement in recent times was the New York Times op-ed essay on July 7, 2005 by the supposedly influential Roman Catholic Cardinal Schonborn, where he seemed to advocate the IDC position about the alleged weaknesses of Darwinian natural selection. He said “The Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of “chance and necessity” are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.” He even went so far to say that Pope John Paul II’s statement saying that evolution “was more than just a hypothesis” could be ignored.

At that time, this op-ed caused a stir as it seemed like the Roman Catholic Church was setting itself up for another epic confrontation reminiscent of the one that it had with Galileo about Copernican theory. I suggested then that the cardinal’s stance was probably a trial balloon, perhaps initiated by the new Pope Benedict XVI, to see what the reaction might be. The reaction was swift and not good, even from within the Catholic Church.

The Catholic World News reports that:

The director of the Vatican Observatory has lashed out at proponents of the theory of Intelligent Design, the Italian news service ANSA reports.

“Intelligent design isn’t science, even if it pretends to be,” said Father George Coyne. He said that if the theory is introduced in schools, it should be taught in religion classes, not science classes.

In another story news story:

The Vatican has issued a stout defence of Charles Darwin, voicing strong criticism of Christian fundamentalists who reject his theory of evolution and interpret the biblical account of creation literally.

Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the Genesis description of how God created the universe and Darwin’s theory of evolution were “perfectly compatible” if the Bible were read correctly.

His statement was a clear attack on creationist campaigners in the US, who see evolution and the Genesis account as mutually exclusive.

“The fundamentalists want to give a scientific meaning to words that had no scientific aim,” he said at a Vatican press conference. He said the real message in Genesis was that “the universe didn’t make itself and had a creator”.

This idea was part of theology, Cardinal Poupard emphasised, while the precise details of how creation and the development of the species came about belonged to a different realm – science. Cardinal Poupard said that it was important for Catholic believers to know how science saw things so as to “understand things better”.

His statements were interpreted in Italy as a rejection of the “intelligent design” view, which says the universe is so complex that some higher being must have designed every detail.

Further support for evolution came from Monsignor Gianfranco Basti, director of the Vatican project STOQ, or Science, Theology and Ontological Quest who reaffirmed John Paul’s 1996 statement that evolution was “more than just a hypothesis.”

“A hypothesis asks whether something is true or false,” he said. “(Evolution) is more than a hypothesis because there is proof.”

He was asked about comments made in July by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, who dismissed in a New York Times article the 1996 statement by John Paul as “rather vague and unimportant” and seemed to back intelligent design.

Basti concurred that John Paul’s 1996 letter “is not a very clear expression from a definition point of view,” but he said evolution was assuming ever more authority as scientific proof develops.

Cardinal Schonborn himself (in a sermon in October) now seems to be backpedaling from his earlier assertions in the face of all this opposition from within the church itself:

[I]n a lecture given at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna on Sunday, Schoenborn said that it was possible he had not expressed himself clearly.

“Such misunderstandings can be cleared up,” he said, according to a Reuters report.

The 60-year-old cardinal now says that there need not be an inherent conflict between divine creation and evolution. He says that one is a matter for religion, the other for science, and that the two disciplines are complementary.

Schoenborn said: “Without a doubt, Darwin pulled off quite a feat with his main work and it remains one of the very great works of intellectual history. I see no problem combining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, under one condition – that the limits of a scientific theory are respected.”

He explained that in his view, those limits would be overstepped if scientists claimed that evolution proves that there could be no creator. Since science has never made any such claim on evolution’s behalf, it looks like it’s still OK by the Vatican.

But Pope Benedict XVI is still not giving up this fight. On November 11, 2005 it is reported: “Pope Benedict XVI has waded into the evolution debate in the United States, saying the universe was made by an “intelligent project” and criticizing those who in the name of science say its creation was without direction or order.”

But the Pope seems to be missing the point. People are free to believe in any kind of designer they wish. However the practice of science is based on methodological naturalism, which rules out using any supernatural mechanisms in any scientific study of any natural phenomenon.

POST SCRIPT: Too considerate?

A woman tried to open a door to step outside to smoke a cigarette. The catch is that the door was on a plane which was flying from Hong Kong to Brisbane, Australia. She was arrested.