... and I saw my devil. And I saw my deep blue sea ...


Hi. Siva Vaidhyanathan here. It's been a while since I served as guest host of Altercation. I have been pretty busy and the various other hosts have been doing so well I figured I could not break into the lineup. But hey, even Melky Cabrera can earn a starting gig on a team of All Stars once he gets his break.

Mostly, I have been monumentally busy. My daughter is 20 months old, and every minute spent blogging is a minute I am not reading or singing to her. So I had to cut down on most of the writing that does not pay the bills. Speaking of writing that does pay the bills, I am working on three books right now. I know, it sounds Altermanesque. I am doing a little book that will serve as a general introduction to intellectual property. I am co-editing a big reference book on intellectual property. And I am writing a major (I hope) book about Google and all the ways it's shaking up our cultures, markets, politics, and lives.

Toward that end, I am doing much of the Google writing out in the open thanks to the Institute for the Future of the Book, which is hosting both my regular blog, Sivacracy.net, and my new "open book" blog, which will be up soon. If any of y'all have thoughts on the future of text, books, education, etc. and Google's influence on any of them, please do not hesitate to drop me a line or leave a comment on my blog.

I just moved from Greenwich Village, USA, to Charlottesville, VA. I love this place. I can't say I ever thought I would leave New York City. But it became clear over the past two years that the city is increasingly designed for millionaires and tourists. I will never be a millionaire. So I might as well be a tourist.

Life in the Village became pretty annoying in the last few years I spent there. Folks, do everyone a favor. When you visit Manhattan, walk. Or take the subway. Or take an MTA bus. DO NOT take those horrifying double-decker tourist buses. The guides make stuff up. The buses block traffic and run red lights. They are noisy and smelly and drive down Bleecker Street so frequently that they choke all the life out of the Village like algae in a golf-course pond.

Anyway, I am now happily employed by one of the finest public universities in the land, the University of Virginia. Later this week (I am writing Altercation every day this week except Wednesday, when Col. Bateman does his thing), I will discuss the greatest higher education fraud perpetrated on the American people: the U.S. News & World Report rankings. But until then, just take my word for it. Virginia is for scholars, and I could not be more happy to be here.

One of the reasons I moved to the University of Virginia was to embark on building what promises to be the premier media studies department in the country within 10 years. To do that, we shall capitalize on our connections and proximity to our nation's capitol. In a few years, if anyone asks you where a student should go to study the relationship between media and policy, tell her about UVa.

That relationship among media actors, policy makers, technological change, and scholarly analysis is pretty interesting and getting more so. The best yearly conversation on those matters is coming up in a few weeks in Washington. It's called The Future of Music Policy Summit. And it's a must-go for anyone interested in music.

There are several ways to look at the involvement of scholars in policy. Scholarship tends to be more relevant and resonant when it engages with matters of public importance. And it's safe to say that policy debates could be richer and more civically engaged if scholars without a conflict of interest played a more significant role in them. (For an excellent example of civically engaged scholarship that SHOULD influence policy but rarely does, see this article by law professor Susan Crawford advocating a better way for the FCC to dole out radio spectrum).

But there is also the danger of scholars and intellectuals who are far too sure of themselves putting their theoretical notions to work in the world. Witness the stunning failures of two professors who just should have remained professors: Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice. Or perhaps the worst of all intellectuals gone political: Woodrow Wilson. Of course, there are plenty of examples of folks who have moved from the academy to the government and left distinguished records both places. Donna Shalala and Ken Galbraith come to mind. Maybe Ben Bernanke will distinguish himself in government the way he has in the academy. But it remains to be seen. These past few weeks have not shown him at his best.

Several excellent books have examined this phenomenon -- what intellectual historian Mark Lilla has called "the lure of Syracuse." One book that is too often overlooked is Tevi Troy's Intellectuals and the American Presidency. Of course Lilla's The Reckless Mind, a collection of essays on the perils of intellectuals who flew too close to the hot suns of political power, is a must-read.

I am a big fan of Lilla's work over the years. That's why I am a bit worried about his forthcoming book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. I have only read the excerpt that ran in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday. But I see already that the book builds on one of the gravest misunderstandings about global cultural history.

Lilla believes that there is something called "the West." Worse, he thinks that within this alleged "West" there is a "We" that conforms to the core tenets of textbook history: "We" were once burdened by superstitions and irrationalities until somehow "we" became enlightened.

Now, I think the enlightenment is a great thing. And I keep waiting for it to show up and triumph here in the United States. I just don't see how one can claim that what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad derides as "liberalism and Western-style democracy" has dominated anywhere for any significant period of time. Heck, this country had a functional democracy (with almost all adult citizens enfranchised and the state generally reflecting the will of the electorate) for a very brief period of time: either from 1965 through 2000 (Voting Rights Act through Bush's unelected takeover) or 1971 through 2000 (starting with the adoption of the 26th Amendment).

Any construction of an intelligible and enlightened "West" must elide all of those messy contradictions within it: Nazism, Francoism (Catholic royalism), Stalinism, radical Serbian nationalism, Jerry Falwell, etc. But mostly, it must ignore the diversity of thought and practice among real people who inhabit "the West." And it must ignore the omnipresence of materialism, secularism, consumerism, rationalism, and even atheism as major traditions in places that could not easily be described as "Western" such as India, Iran, and China.

Basically, East is West. Yet England ain't Ireland ain't Scotland ain't Finland ain't Haiti. There is too much diversity among neighbors for there to be binarity among hemispheres. We willfully misunderstand the world by bifurcating it, as if the entire population of humanity were the subject of some hastily written David Brooks column.

The biggest problem with Lilla's argument is that he assumes that what he calls "political theology" somehow ceased to be a political force in "the West" some time after World War II.

I, for one, am not "puzzled" by cries of theological radicalism from Iran or Saudi Arabia. I have heard them in this country for years. Spend some time in any conservative Baptist church in Texas and you will here the code words, if not the outright proclamations, of political theology. This is not just theologically infused politics like one hears from Barack Obama or Jimmy Carter. This is hard-core millenarianism. And like it or not, it is perhaps the most powerful strain of political thought in the United States today. Catholic versions of it play a role in "Western" places like Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and Mexico. As recently as the multiple campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, political theology dominated the rhetoric of the Democratic Party. And, of course, it is the chosen lens through which George W. Bush views the world. That's why Ahmadinejad reached out to him with a letter. He knew that Bush would "get it."

I don't mean to undermine the claims of political liberalism and liberal theology, both of which have had profound effects from Vienna to Vancouver. But I cringe at claims that immersion in such ideologies somehow blinded us to the limits and weaknesses of their historical influences.

Now, to be fair, Lilla acknowledges the revival of political theology in the West. But he links it most strongly to the growing presence of Islam in Europe.

Look, Islam is not some strange and different thing. To those of us raised outside the three major monotheistic religions of the world, all three pretty much demand the same things from their adherents and predict the same things for pagans, kafir, or whatever you want to call us.

The best way to examine the influence of political theology is to acknowledge its common power within radical Islam, radical Christianity, and radical Judaism. It's there. It killed 3,000 New Yorkers in 2001. But it also blew up a bunch of abortion clinics in the 1990s and assassinated Yitzak Rabin. (Update: There was an attempted bombing in April of an abortion clinic in Austin, Texas. So it's not just the 1990s.)

Enlightenment, or the ability to raise one's political consciousness beyond the provincialism of whatever religious text drives your decisions, is a recent and fragile thing, as Lilla explains very well in his article. But it ain't just a French, German, English, and American thing. A fuller examination of this global struggle would acknowledge that Iran is just as thrown by the recent (1979) emergence of political theology as we are. Persian culture has deep traditions of tolerance and rationalism -- what we would recognize as liberalism. And India was once ruled by enlightened despots like Ashoka and Akbar. India practically invented religious tolerance (although you would not know that to look at it today).

The conflict between political theology and political liberalism is, as Lilla claims, the central conflict of our time. I would add that it is the central conflict of all time. And it ain't just Americans and Europeans who have to deal with it. The front lines of this struggle run through Jakarta, Bombay, Karachi, Cairo, and Lagos. That's where the real story is.

Eric chimes in from Italy:

With regard to the spirited dispute currently under way among Atrios, Yglesias, Farley, Greenwald, Drezner, who has the best links, methinks, here. Drum, Gideon Rose, Democracy Arsenal sparked by O'Hanlon and Pollack, relating to the relative value of the "expertise" of the foreign policy community, this is a former obsession of mine, and was the always implicit/often explicit topic of this book, which I'm told is about to go out of print. It's expensive, alas, because Cornell never published it in paperback, and parts are naturally dated, but I like to think it's useful, and since I'll never see any royalties on it, you can buy it used without guilt.

P.S.: Boy, are these guys going to be in trouble when Bill Kristol (and Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, I. Lewis Libby, John Bolton, Bill Frist, Mitch McConnell, Rick Santorum, Trent Lott, and in the lower house, Speaker Dennis Hastert, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, George F. Will, Bill Bennett, Paul Gigot, Michael Savage, Michael Medved, Sean Hannity, Jonah Goldberg, Rich Lowry, Fred Barnes, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, Tony Blankley, Michael O'Hanlon, Kenneth Pollack, David Brooks, or -- no reason to be sexist about this -- Mary Matalin, Ann Coulter, Condoleezza Rice, and Michelle Malkin) all hear about this.

Just who the heck do they think they are, commenting on a war?

P.P.S.: I suppose everybody knows this already, but this man is a genius.

P.P.P.S.: When I was in Washington last month, I saw this fascinating exhibition I keep meaning to mention. Called "Offering Reconciliation," it was the product of a project by the Bereaved Families Forum for Peace, Reconciliation and Tolerance, a home for Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families who have chosen a path of reconciliation rather than revenge, and organized by the Parents Circle-Families Forum and the Association of Israel's Decorative Arts, it featured 135 ceramic bowls by top Israeli and Palestinian painters, sculptors and photographers. Each artist received the same plain ceramic form, the "Bowl of Reconciliation," to work from. Here are two examples.

Offering Reconciliation, Ilana Goor
Ilana Goor

Offering Reconciliation, Mohammad Said Kalash
Mohammad Said Kalash

Read more about it here.

So Bush's "democracy push" hasn't worked out too well either, concludes a front-page Washington Post treatment. Could that be because it was always nonsense and demonstrably so to anyone who was paying even the slightest attention? The funny thing is if you read the quotes in my column from way back when, it's clear that the MSM reporters understood this. They just define it as part of their job to ignore what they understand to be true on the day after they've written it. This is one of the many mechanisms that allows Bush and company to lie, every day, with virtual political impunity.

Help Wanted:

Eric Alterman is looking to hire a full-time research assistant. Applicants should have excellent research and writing skills, deep knowledge of the media and American history, including particularly the history of postwar American liberalism and also media history, as well as the ability -- and desire -- to work independently. (Living in the New York area is also a must). Pay will be commensurate with experience. Please send a resume, but not an attachment, to whatliberalmedia@aol.com. Thanks.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Charles Pierce
Hometown: Newton, MA


Hey Doc --

"I'll stay a week or two/I'll stay the summer through/but I must be...going."

Weekly WWOZ Pick To Click: "Mosquito Hawk Stomp" (Marty Most). Once again, I have forgotten to hire the Ohio State Marching Band to express in musical formation in the middle of the Champs-Elysées how much I love New Orleans.

Jeebus Christmas, lose yourself in the University of Mississippi's archives for a couple of days and, all of a sudden, you're running for vice president. I'll take the job, but only if President Bateman agrees to the following conditions, which are in no way negotiable:

1) I will have no serious responsibilities whatsoever.

2) I will attend no funeral for any head of state where a substantial free lunch is not provided.

3) In the interest of streamlining government, the posts of vice president and U.S. ambassador to Ireland will be combined into the same job. At which point, I will preside over the Senate, by phone, from the snug of Grogan's public house on Market Street.

I know it doesn't matter, because nobody cares about such things any more, and I know it's no surprise, because these things are now littering the landscape like the leaves in autumn, but this thing right here, from the Sunday NYT?

"Yet Bush Administration officials have already signaled that, in their view, the president retains his constitutional authority to do whatever it takes to protect the country, regardless of any action Congress takes ... senior Justice Department officials refused to commit the administration to adhering to the limits laid out in the new legislation and left open the possibility that the president could once again use what they have said in other instances is his constitutional authority to act outside the regulations set by Congress."

That's an impeachable offense.

It's not even arguable. The president takes an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, and his primary function under that Constitution is to see that the laws are faithfully executed. Period. The idea that the president has a personal constitutional authority to "protect the country" is laughable. It always has been laughable, no matter what his pet lawyers tell him. I would argue that Congress would be within its rights to subpoena the "Bush administration officials" in question and to ask them, under oath, if the president really believes this, and has acted upon it, and, if so, I would initiate impeachment proceedings on that basis alone. This isn't even a close call. Laws passed by Congress are not advisory opinions or staff memos. They are what he's supposed to execute. That function is binding on him by oath. Sweet Jesus, I hate the Democratic Party today.

Name: Gerald Goldberg, MD
Hometown: Valley Stream, NY

To date over 1,100 tons of depleted uranium have been expended by the joint forces occupying Iraq. The majority of this material has been derived from munitions. Most of this material has been deposited in and around Baghdad an area of approximately 30 square miles. In essence Baghdad has been transformed into a toxic nuclear wasteland with background radiation levels over 1000 percent. The half life of the depleted uranium is 4.5 billion years, essentially rendering this region uninhabitable.

The notion that a political or military solution can be imposed on a region that has been transformed into a toxic nuclear wasteland is absurd. Our governments must be held accountable for this human tragedy which is unfolding and the total destabilization of the region that has occurred. The irony of the whole situation is that we are seeing the prophecy of Isaiah play out in front of us.

Name: Bill Moyers
Hometown: New York, New York

Like the proverbial hedgehog, Karl Rove knew one big thing: how to win elections as if they were divine interventions. You may think God summoned Billy Graham to Florida on the eve of the 2000 election to endorse George W. Bush just in the nick of time, but if it did happen that way, the Good Lord was speaking in a Texas accent. Karl Rove figured out a long time ago that the way to take an intellectually incurious, draft-averse, naughty playboy in a flight jacket with chewing tobacco in his back pocket and make him governor of Texas, was to sell him as God's anointed in a state where preachers and televangelists outnumber even oil derricks and jack rabbits. Using church pews as precincts, Rove turned religion into a weapon of political combat -- a battering ram, aimed at the devil's minions. Especially at gay people. It's so easy, as Karl knew, to scapegoat people you outnumber. And if God is love, as rumor has it, Rove knew in politics to bet on fear and loathing. Never mind that in stroking the basest bigotry of true believers you coarsen both politics and religion.

At the same time he was recruiting an army of the Lord for the born-again Bush, Rove was also shaking down corporations for campaign cash. Crony capitalism became a biblical injunction. Greed and God won four elections in a row -- twice in the Lone Star state and twice again in the nation at large. But the result has been to leave Texas under the thumb of big money with huge holes ripped in its social contract, and the U.S. government in shambles -- paralyzed, polarized, and mired in war, debt and corruption. Rove himself is deeply enmeshed in some of the scandals now being investigated, including those missing emails that could tell us who turned the Attorney General of the United States into a partisan sock puppet.

Rove is riding out of Dodge City as the posse rides in.

At his press conference this week he asked God to bless the President and the country, even as reports were circulating that he himself had confessed to friends his own agnosticism. He wished he could believe, but he cannot. That kind of intellectual honesty is to be admired, but you have to wonder how all those folks on the Christian right must feel discovering they were used for partisan reasons by a secular skeptic, a manipulator.

On his last play of the game all Karl Rove had to offer them was a Hail Mary pass, while telling himself there's no one there to catch it.

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