Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Middle East

Considering that the "About me" section of this blog says that I want to share some of my "passions," some may wonder why I've generally been silent about the attacks being made back and forth across the Israel-Lebanon border by Israel and Hezbollah for the past two weeks. I suppose that my feelings about the whole situation could be described as "passionately conflicted."

One reason is that I feel decidedly inadequate in talking about the situation. My knowledge is nowhere near deep enough to enable me to make my way through the morass of interpretations, propaganda, "spin," exaggerations and outright lies. Although I believe fervently in Israel's right to defend itself (and it's sad that even a supporter of Israel has to innoculate herself against the inevitable demonization by the right), I am deeply troubled by its methods of doing so, and have to wonder if the long-term consequences are worth the short-term gains. The bombing of the U.N. post on Tuesday was especially disturbing, although I can't believe that something of this sort would be done deliberately by any sane government.

In trying to come to some understanding of what is going on over there, I found this article to be particularly useful.

Crimininalizing Jesus

41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

44"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

Matthew 25:41-45
Where are all the good Christians now? Loaves and fishes, anyone? There is also a well-attested tradition in Judaism that the sin for which Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed was not so-called “sodomy” but the fact that they outlawed giving any asistance to strangers, who were in much the same position as the homeless today – dependent upon the kindness of those in the host city.

Shame, shame, Orlando and Las Vegas! I assume that people are still allowed to feed the pigeons, who, like blastocysts, have more rights than fully functioning human beings.

Click on title for full story.

Another U.S. City Outlaws Feeding Homeless People
Even Mayor Supports Homeless Feeding Ban

ORLANDO, Fla. --
Another American city has made it a crime to feed the homeless in certain areas.

Last week, Las Vegas outlawed feeding homeless people at city parks. Now, Orlando is following suit.

Orlando is trying to keep charitable groups from feeding the homeless in downtown parks.

Officials said transients gathering for weekly meals create safety and sanitary problems for businesses.

The City Council voted to prohibit serving meals to groups of 25 or more people in parks and other public property within two miles of City Hall without a special permit.

A group called Food Not Bombs, which has served weekly vegetarian meals for the homeless for more than a year, said it will continue illegally.

The American Civil Liberties Union vows to sue, saying it's a superficial fix that ignores the city's homeless problem.

Two of the city's five commissioners voted against the ordinance, including Commissioners Robert Stuart, who runs the homeless shelter Christian Service Center, and Sam Ings, a retired police officer.

Stuart told The Orlando Sentinel that Orlando is taking a step to "criminalize good-hearted people" who he says are trying to help. He went on to tell the paper that group feedings in the parks had not become unwieldy to the city, as some had claimed.

He said the ordinance says, "Orlando doesn't care," the Sentinel reported.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Arlen, Arlen, Arlen...

You have done this to us so many times before – you get our hopes up that Congress is finally going to stand up for itself, if for nobody else. Then in a couple of days you’ll announce that you have a “compromise” that allows the puppet king and his evil vizier to go on doing just what they’ve been doing all along. However, Arlen, you tease, I still can’t help hoping that this time you’ll stick to your guns and prove me wrong.

Click on title for full story.
Specter prepping bill to sue Bush
By LAURIE KELLMAN, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - A powerful Republican committee chairman who has led the fight against President Bush's signing statements said Monday he would have a bill ready by the end of the week allowing Congress to sue him in federal court.

"We will submit legislation to the United States Senate which will...authorize the Congress to undertake judicial review of those signing statements with the view to having the president's acts declared unconstitutional," Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said on the Senate floor.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I couldn't have said it better myself

Please click on title for full story.
July 18, 2006, 9:39PM
Please keep your religion away from my stem cells

By CRAGG HINES
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

Vainly would you have waited in the Senate's stem cell debate for one of the more enlightened members to rise and state the obvious: "This is an outrage."

No, none of that. It was all too exquisitely polite, as is often the case in that intensely self-regarding body.

So no member dared to note the absurdity of the national legislature actually having to take time, in the 21st century, to discuss such a scientific — and, if you insist, moral — no-brainer.

You can find another, more closely reasoned article, which points out the glaring inconsistency of denouncing research (and any destruction of blastocysts) as murder while blithely allowing "murder" to take place all over the country (as long as it's not federally-funded) here.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God

Bill Clinton qualifies. Jimmy Carter qualifies, although I don’t always agree with some of his more recent stances. Dubya’s response (video here) to a serious question about the turmoil in the Middle East: “I thought you were going to ask me about the pig [the boar that was being roasted for dinner].” Don’t they have pig roasts in Texas? You’d think this was the first one he’d ever been to

I hate to tell you, Dubya, but saying that maybe they should stop does not qualify you as a peacemaker.

I suppose it could have been worse - he could have invited the Arabs and Israelis to talk about their differences while eating some of "the pig" (shudder) On the other hand, that might have brought them together as they were both mortally offended by his cultural insensitivity.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Book Review: Misquoting Jesus


Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman ****

In his introduction to Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman gives a brief account of his own personal journey from unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament text to his present view of it as a “very human book.” He then proceeds to show the reader exactly why we cannot know in many cases what the original text was, the ways in which texts are changed, accidentally or intentionally, and gives several examples of verses whose “original” content is disputed.

While I suppose that the history of the development of textual criticism and the discovery and comparison of various manuscripts over the past several centuries is necessary to the overall thrust of the book, this was the part that I found least interesting although the sheer number of discrepancies (many relatively minor) is eye-opening. However, I believe that two sections of the book are particularly helpful to the general reader in understanding why the differences exist. Chapters 1 and 2 deal with the formation of the Christian canon as well as the mechanics of scribal transmission and that of the New Testament in particular. Ehrman stresses the fact that many of those who were copying the earliest texts of these books were not trained scribes and in many cases may have been barely literate – something that the average person probably doesn't even consider in our modern world of widespread literacy, photocopying and "cut and paste." Chapters 6 and 7, on the other hand, look at the motivations for intentional changes, which were often pure; that is, in many cases the scribe may have believed that he was correcting an earlier mistake or clarifying a text that might otherwise be used to support “heretical” beliefs.

Many readers, I suspect, will be upset to discover that there is a consensus among textual critics that one of the most famous stories in the Gospels, that of the woman taken in adultery, is not original to the Gospel of John. However, as Ehrman points out, that does not mean that it is not a real tradition; like many parts of the Bible that seem out of place, it may have been so well-known and powerful that it had to find its way into the text somehow.

It has always struck me that the belief in the inerrancy of the Bible (or anything made or transmitted by human hands) comes dangerously close to the sin of idolatry. I hope that this introduction to textual criticism, which is carried out by many scholars because of their love of the text and a desire to get as close to the original as possible, will inspire many with a new respect for the many people who did create it and transmit it. God does work through human beings, after all.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson, patriots

If this administration (and its allies in the echo chamber) are as concerned about leaks of classified information as it claims to be, why is Karl Rove still working in the White House, and where are the calls to prosecute Novak under the Espionage Act (not something I support, by the way, since I try to be consistent)? Click on title for full story:

Former CIA officer: Cheney, Rove engaged in 'whispering campaign'
Plame alleges Bush administration officials ruined her career

Friday, July 14, 2006; Posted: 11:01 a.m. EDT (15:01 GMT)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former CIA officer Valerie Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, said Friday they decided to sue Vice President Dick Cheney and presidential adviser Karl Rove because they engaged in a "whispering campaign" to destroy her career.

Plame told a news conference that "I and my former colleagues trusted the government to protect us in our jobs" and said it "betrayed that trust. I'd much rather be continuing my career as a public servant than as a plaintiff in a lawsuit."
To donate towards what will probably be astronomical legal costs in the Wilsons’ pursuit of justice, click here.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Comments on the "You have no civil rights if you're dead" school of thought

These people are such wimps. As one member of Congress said when another used that despicable line on the floor, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

It’s a little late but still close enough to the Fourth of July to remember the Revolution and Declaration of Independence. Let’s listen in on some of our friends on the right as they react in real time:

Dick Cheney: Whoa, Tom – guys! What’s all this about pledging our fortunes? You mean we might lose money on this deal? I wouldn’t have to give up my slaves, would I? (Aside) Maybe the British would give Halliburton some no-bid contracts...if their troops die from the contaminated food and water and these moonbats win, I could claim that I was really working for them all along.

George Dubya: Wait a minute - pledging our fortunes is bad enough. You’re also talkin’ about our lives here! Dad! Is there a nice, safe National Guard unit you can get me into?

Bill O’Reilly: Just remember, if you’re dead you have no inalienable rights, or freedom. And what's all this "endowed by our Creator" stuff? If you mean God, say "God." Are you guys part of the "War Against Christmas" or something?

Bob Novak: (writing) Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock - hey, John, thanks for writing your name so big...

And the Pope thought that he was the only one who was infallible!

Of course, he also probably thought that he was the only one who talked to God.

Justice Department Lawyer To Congress: ‘The President Is Always Right’

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday heard testimony from Steven Bradbury, head of the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel. When questioned by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) on whether the President’s interpretation of the Hamdan case was right or wrong, Bradbury replied, “The President is always right.” Watch it:

Full transcript below:

LEAHY: The president has said very specifically, and he’s said it to our European allies, he’s waiting for the Supreme Court decision to tell him whether or not he was supposed to close Guantanamo or not. After, he said it upheld his position on Guantanamo, and in fact it said neither. Where did he get that impression? The President’s not a lawyer, you are, the Justice Department advised him. Did you give him such a cockamamie idea or what?

BRADBURY: Well, I try not to give anybody cockamamie ideas.

LEAHY: Well, where’d he get the idea?

BRADBURY: The Hamdan decision, senator, does implicitly recognize we’re in a war, that the President’s war powers were triggered by the attacks on the country, and that law of war paradigm applies. That’s what the whole case —

LEAHY: I don’t think the President was talking about the nuances of the law of war paradigm, he was saying this was going to tell him that he could keep Guantanamo open or not, after it said he could.

BRADBURY: Well, it’s not —

LEAHY: Was the President right or was he wrong?

BRABURY: It’s under the law of war –

LEAHY: Was the President right or was he wrong?

BRADBURY: The President is always right.

Note: Funny – I don't remember anyone, including myself, ever applying that standard to Bill Clinton! This is a CULT, the focus of which is a the most pathetic specimen of humanity the worshippers could find.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Book Review: The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman*****

At the end of The Subtle Knife, Lyra was kidnapped by Mrs. Coulter, who we find at the beginning of The Amber Spyglass has turned against the Church and fled to a remote mountain village where she is keeping her daughter in a drugged sleep in order to “protect” her. Will, accompanied by the angels Baruch and Balthamos, insists on rescuing Lyra before he will take the subtle knife to Lord Asriel. After a harrowing escape from Mrs. Coulter and now accompanied by Lord Asriel’s tiny Gallevespian agents, the two determine to travel to the land of the dead to find Will’s father and Lyra’s friend Roger, which will test their courage and strength of will more than anything they have been through so far. Meanwhile, Mary Malone, the physicist and ex-nun who helped them in the previous book, finds herself in another alternate world, where evolution itself has taken a different turn and a conscious species called mulefa has developed.

In the course of the book we will go with Lyra and Will to the world of the dead, at the entrance of which she will be forced to make the great betrayal foretold by the witches and others; witness the final battle between the forces of Lord Asriel and those of the Authority as well as Lyra’s parents’ final grand gesture on her behalf; and end up in a quiet field in the world of the mulefa as Lyra and Will make a momentous discovery that sets the history of Dust (and consciousness) on the right path again.

The Amber Spyglass contains many mature and disturbing themes that parents might want to discuss with their children, such as the nature of death, whether the Authority is really God Himself or only some people’s warped, twisted idea of God, and the fact that sometimes we must give up what matters most to us in order to live a full life. Pullman doesn’t pull any punches or shoehorn his story into a conventional “happy ending,” and of course it’s hard to imagine any of the greatest romances becoming an everyday life together with screaming kids and arguments about the car. The main ideas that this series communicates to me are: 1) True stories are “nourishing,” as No-name the harpy puts it, “truth” meaning much more fact; 2) Keeping promises and keeping faith with individuals is more important than “saving the world” – in fact, that may be what saves the world. 3) We must live in the here and now, whether or not we believe, as Pullman does, that there isn’t anywhere else. (In Judaism we are told that we will have to account to God after our deaths for the things we didn’t enjoy during our lives.)

A major theme of this particular book seems to be cooperation, as time and time again people who start a relationship in mutual distrust come to respect each other and work together for a common good. The society of the mulefa has been accused by some of being like a hippie commune. However, in addition to being a different species which may not have some of the violent impulses that seem to be part of human nature, it could be argued that because they only have one prehensile appendage, a trunk, instead of two hands, the fact that they need to cooperate in order to do many of the things that we can do alone may have caused nature to select for tolerance and the ability to get along.

I feel that this entire series would be perfect for teenagers who are wrestling with their own doubts about the role of religion in their lives, although it should be pointed out to them that Pullman’s almost uniformly negative Church is a fictional one and that most of the best qualities that his characters possess are also valued by most or all religions in their truest forms. I also feel that this book, in particular, can only really be appreciated after at least one rereading, as it is much deeper and more philosophical (to quote another Amazon reviewer) than the first two.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Just in time for the 4th of July...

King George and his minions, declaring war on the freedom of the press. This is a very long post, but worth it. Please click on title for full story.

"Media Matters"; by Paul Waldman

A declaration of war

This week, the conservatives declared war.

Not on The New York Times. Not even on the media in general. No, this week the entire conservative movement -- from the White House to Republicans in Congress to Fox News to right-wing talk radio to conservative magazines -- declared war on the very idea of an independent press.

They declared war on the idea that journalists have not just the right but the obligation to hold those in power accountable for their actions. They declared war on the idea that journalists, not the government and not a political party, get to decide what appears in the press. They declared war on the idea that the public has a right to know what the government is doing in our name.

This is a profound threat to our democracy, and we underestimate it at our peril.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Book Review: Lapdogs

Lapdogs by Eric Boehlert ****

Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, is a devastating indictment of the so-called mainstream media (MSM) for their fawning, credulous treatment of the Bush administration throughout its tenure, particularly but not exclusively in the wake of 9/11 and the lead-up to the Iraq war. With meticulous documentation of his accusations, Boehlert makes mincemeat of the right-wing cry of “liberal bias” and shows that while the MSM may not necessarily be conservative, their fear of attack by the well-oiled right-wing echo chamber means that they effectively are, for the most part, a mouthpiece for the administration. Economic considerations such as media consolidation, cuts in newsroom staff, the drive for profit, and the healthy incomes of many media higher-ups also play a part.

Although he acknowledges honorable exceptions, Boehlert shows over and over again how the media spun administration and right-wing talking points, ignored and marginalized critics and dissenters, and often, when they did do real investigative reporting, as with the NSA wiretapping story and disturbing information about some of Bush’s judicial nominees, only came through when it was too late to make the difference it should have. Reporting of the NSA story or Bush’s probable cheating in the debates, for example, might have led to a different outcome in the 2004 election, but the electorate was denied vital information that might have affected their decision.

Particularly instructive is Boehlert’s in-depth analysis of two similar stories and their diametrically opposed treatment by the MSM: the ignoring of the credible allegation that Bush blew off his National Guard duty (which did not depend solely on Dan Rather’s questionable memos but were supported by careful study of thousands of government documents); and the respect, even deference, shown by the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose claims were easily debunked, contradictory and shown to be partisan by the most cursory examination of their backgrounds.

A depressing and sobering analysis of a true nadir in the history of American journalism.

Note: Considering the hysterical, vitriolic denunciation of the NY Times (and, for the most part, only the NY Times) in the past week over its story about the administration’s investigation of banking records, we can now see what they were afraid of. It remains to be seen whether the foaming-at-the-mouth accusations of treason, etc. will have a chilling effect or make the Times and others in the MSM realize just how stupid they have been over the past five and a half years.

Book Review: The Secet of Castle Cant

The Secret of Castle Cant by K.P. Bath *****

Orphaned Lucy Wickwright is the long-suffering maidservant and involuntary co-conspirator in the madcap exploits of her mistress Pauline, heiress to the Barony of Cant. However, their relatively carefree childhoods are rapidly nearing an end. Amid ominous rumblings of discontent and even revolution, Lucy finds herself caught up in plots against Pauline and the gum-chewing aristocracy of Cant, and must decide where her loyalties lie.

Intelligent and well-written with an original premise (the premodern barony of Cant, tucked away in the creases of modern maps, which allows for modern incursions such as chewing gum and t-shirts), _The Secret of Castle Cant_ is a very promising first novel. The author's strongest suit, in my opinion, is the fact that he, like the best authors for young readers including J.K. Rowling, obviously respects the intelligence of his readers and doesn't write down to them. His "footnotes" and other references to the "history" of Cant also suggest that this world has not just been casually thrown together but carefully developed in his mind.

Pauline and Lucy develop a wonderful friendship that outweighs their original class differences and, while spoiled, Pauline is portrayed sympathetically and is obviously in the process of changing to a better, less thoughless person by the end of the book. Lucy is fiercely loyal and, while her methods for avoiding trouble without strictly lying may be deplored by some parents, her use of them is certainly realistic (I know I did it), and is unfortunately in common use by many adult public figures these days. My only criticism is that boys close to the heroines' ages seem to be portrayed as either stupid or arrogant, but I hope that will be remedied in the next book.

Altogether this was an enjoyable book, and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel.