The Best Of The Dish This Weekend

Dec 21 2014 @ 9:30pm

Christmas Past and Christmas Present

I hope to be doing some more torture blogging this week (and a Merry Christmas to you too!) but a couple of quick notes for tonight. The first is that, of course, no one at the CIA will suffer any consequences for their astonishing attempt to spy on their Senate overseers:

The five C.I.A. officials who were singled out by the agency’s inspector general this year for improperly ordering and carrying out the computer searches staunchly defended their actions, saying that they were lawful and in some cases done at the behest of CIA director John Brennan.

So we discover that it was Brennan himself who directed that the CIA spy on the Senate staffers! And it’s worth recalling why he resorted to that violation of the basic constitutional order. He did so because the staffers had come upon the CIA’s own internal report on the torture program, and it came to the exact same conclusions as the Senate Report, i.e. that the progam was obviously torture and completely ineffective. The so-called “Panetta Report” utterly devastated Brennan’s continuing view that torture provided good intelligence and all but proved that the CIA had no utilitarian defense of their barbarism whatsoever. And so Brennan panicked.

He needn’t have. It’s clear that the CIA’s place in our “democracy” will not be dislodged any time soon. President Obama has not the slightest qualms about employing war criminals and working closely with them. He never has. Opponents of torture are, for the president, “self-righteous.” And the system, in any case, ensures that the CIA always polices itself and will therefore always exonerate itself:

A panel investigating the Central Intelligence Agency’s search of a computer network used by staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who were looking into the C.I.A.’s use of torture will recommend against punishing anyone involved in the episode, according to current and former government officials … While effectively rejecting the most significant conclusions of the inspector general’s report, the panel, appointed by Mr. Brennan and composed of three C.I.A. officers and two members from outside the agency, is still expected to criticize agency missteps that contributed to the fight with Congress.

Notice that the “panel” has a built-in CIA majority. And the CIA will never allow anyone in its employ to be held accountable for his or her actions – least of all the chief conspirator in this attack on the Senate, Brennan himself.

There is one person missing in all this: the president. He has allowed his own CIA director to violate the constitution and to lie to the public in defending the torture program’s effectiveness. After a report proved that American torture was sadistic and useless, the president allowed his CIA director to stand up and say the answer to the latter question is “unknowable”. This is not a neutral stance, and never has been. It is a classic example of truthiness versus the truth. It is a stance that reaffirms that we live in only the appearance of a democracy, but that the deep state of the US is a law unto itself. It is a position that one agency in government is beyond any accountability. It is a recognition that this president, like all the others, reports to the CIA and not the other way round.

Watching this truth unfold in front of my eyes these past ten years has been a revelation to me and a bitter rebuke to whatever naivete about American democracy and decency I once held. I don’t think anyone can truly believe in either American decency or democracy as long as the worst war criminals are not just left unpunished, but celebrated, defended and even promoted. And what the CIA will learn from this is surely that it can get away with anything. It can allow 9/11 to happen and war crimes to be committed and have nary a single soul so much as fired. The greatest intelligence failure in modern times and the greatest moral failure in modern times … and no one will ever be so much as demoted.

That’s absolute power. And it corrupts absolutely.

Some posts worth revisiting from the weekend: the Internet hoax of Pope Francis’ endorsement of animals in heaven; the existential life of an acorn; Wilkinson on how Santa is “an exercise in losing your religion“; and Dean on being a writer on the web today.

The most popular post of the weekend was Glenn Beck: Better Than Marina Abramovic, followed by Santa Is A Lie I Will Tell My Son.

I’d like to thank Michelle and Will for filling in for me last week, and all the Dish staff for their hard work while I was on a listening tour of new media experiences in NYC. If you were not fully aware of how deeply a group effort this blogazine is, I hope you are now. Or as this new subscriber artfully puts it:

I fucking love you. I fucking love your website. I fucking love what your staff does. You’re all fucking invaluable. Great fucking year, and keep up the good fucking work.

Which leads me to one Christmas request: we exist on subscriptions alone. So if you are a constant reader but haven’t yet subscribed, this is your moment. You can also give a Dish subscription as your last-minute gift, timed to arrive by email on Christmas Day.

And see you in the morning.

(Photo: In this digital composite image a comparison has been made of London at Clapham Junction in 1926 (Archive, Topical Press Agency) and Modern Day 2014 (Peter Macdiarmid) at Christmas time.)

We’ll Meet Again

Dec 21 2014 @ 8:57pm

The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,The Colbert Report on Facebook,Video Archive

So I arrived at the usual spot on 54th Street without knowing quite what to expect (and not for the first time). The clue – we were told to memorize the tune and lyrics of “We’ll Meet Again” – didn’t require much prep on my part. The song is close to a national anthem in England – which may be why Samantha Power and I seemed to be the only ones really belting it. So I arrived a little lubricated and was assigned to “Group 4″ in an office on the second floor. Meandering up the stairs, I stumbled in and realized, the way you do, that since all my fellow Group 4’s were sitting in a row and not saying much, that I was going to have to shake hands with every single one of them, and introduce myself. Like some strange dream set in someone else’s office, Charlie Rose, Katie Couric, Mark Cuban, Peter Frampton, and Jeff Bridges were the openers. Eventually I said hi to the dude sitting on the desk nearby – Michael Stipe. Then, just like at Studio 54, Kissinger, the tiny, reptilian war criminal, showed up, merging into the cocktail hour like a lizard on a sun-drenched rock. Next door, I could see the “face” of Barry Manilow. Around the corner, I saw a woman get out of a Big Bird costume. And what do you say exactly when Terry Gross just wanders up and says hi? That you’re busy hiding from Paul Krugman?

I had one obvious option – the beautiful and long-limbed ballet dancer, David Hallberg. Maybe I could talk to him. Even though an injury had robbed us all of the sight of him in tights, at least I could talk with him. And so we made jokes most of the night, and bonded in the face of so much celebrity wattage. It is, in case you’re wondering, impossible to interact with any of these people in any natural way. What on earth am I going to say to Mark Cuban, for Pete’s sake? Meeting the super-famous, in a context where you have nothing in common but a very gifted booker, is at first bewildering and then really boring. A reader writes:

Andrew, you were on the spot: did David Hallberg ever take his hands off Katie Couric? I’m sure she was cool with it, but I’m curious. :)

My impression was that Couric couldn’t take her hands of Hallberg. But I got the last dance.

And, of course, I choked up a little in the rehearsal. I fell in love with Colbert the first night of the show. Even blogged it:

Read On

A Poem For Sunday

Dec 21 2014 @ 8:27pm
by Alice Quinn


“The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928):

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

(From Christmas Poems, copyright (symbol) 2008 New Directions Publishing Corporation. Image: Piero della Francesca’s unfinished painting of the Nativity Scene, via Wikimedia Commons)

Fare Thee Well, My Honeys

Dec 21 2014 @ 7:33pm
by Michelle Dean

Andrew asked me to guest-blog here the day before The New Republic hit the skids. Both events came out of the blue for me, so they’re linked in my mind now. All week I’d meant to getting around to commenting on the weirdness of it, but then the Sony hack and North Korea came crashing into the news cycle, and here we are at my last post.

What I want to say has little to do with TNR. It’s more about about how that entire mess, as it unfolded, made me feel as someone who writes online but has aspirations to do more than just blogging with her life. And the way it made me feel was: shitty. And shitty primarily because many of the people who were railing on about the loss of the magazine – and for whom it seemed to be no answer that the thing had not yet shut down – could not hide their contempt about people who came to writing in any way other than a staff job at one of these intellectual magazines.

I know many ex-TNR staffers who walked out said they were totally open to the internet. I don’t think they are lying, per se, though I think it’s having your cake and eating it too. Nonetheless, it does not excuse the unconscious snobbish clubbiness about what felt like everyone else on the Internet. Primarily, their contempt emerged in asides. It emerged in the snide mentions of Gawker and Buzzfeed, the former of which has employed me, the latter of which employs many (great) writer and reporter friends of mine. Julia Ioffe, one of those staffers, was insistent that for her Buzzfeed was not “a slur” but it did rather get used that way. It felt telling she had to defend against it. And the contempt also emerged in the rhetoric about the greatness of the magazine, specifically the argument of the open letter the staffers wrote about how “the promise of American life has been dealt a lamentable blow.”

Read On

Quote For The Day

Dec 21 2014 @ 6:45pm
by Dish Staff

“[T]he close unity of Incarnation and Cross should be kept in view. Christ came first as a baby, one totally dependent, a pure recipient (and rather like the adopted child example above – unplanned in the extreme). As receiver of the gifts of material comfort, human love and approval, and earthly power, Christ’s reception is marked by self-abnegation at every turn. The truest receptivity of the gifts of others will take the form of suffering; suffering a gift which redefines the form of one’s life completely. A gift, which comes unbidden and may wreak change upon the recipient, finds its most extreme form in death, which Christ accepted with open arms, even while acknowledging its conflict with his own desires: ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’ The Incarnation, the voluntary stripping of the Word’s divine prerogatives, foreshadows and even anticipates the Cross, the stripping of life itself, a surrendering posture of utter receptivity which creates the passive material of Resurrection.

For human gift-giving, there’s actually not that much of a practical parallel I can draw here, except that we should feel a little unburdened from the twin Laws of giving the perfect present and perfectly defining one’s taste. We tend to see the season merely as an affirmation of the lives or identities we have chosen, but there’s a disruptive element, too. We identify both with the one whose gift was rejected and as those who did (and still do, at least partially) the rejecting. It’s a time which aims to celebrate not reciprocity in relations, but asymmetry – that oddly-apportioned set of shoes from an uncle, for instance. We can’t live too much in that world now, but we think back on a story of an absolute gift, one beyond the logic of return and exchange, and we look for the new in Advent, too: new beginnings, unexpected gifts, even an intrusive houseguest or two,” – Will McDavid, “Gifts Beyond Reciprocity.”

Face Of The Day

Dec 21 2014 @ 6:01pm
by Dish Staff

Giovanni-ready-weich-Kopie-1 2

Sara Barnes captions:

Photographer Rebecca Rütten is interested in the paintings from the Renaissance period and contemporary fast food culture like Taco Bell and McDonalds. You wouldn’t think that the two would intersect, but in Rütten’s series Contemporary Pieces, they do. The German artist combines elements of the traditional with greasy burgers and fries. ”I became enamored with the eroticism, presentation and charisma of paintings from the Renaissance Period. In the Late Renaissance, Italian and Dutch painters dealt with the middle and lower classes,” she writes in a statement about the work. To Rütten, fast food represents the two social groups. “To eat healthy is expensive,” she continues. “However, one can buy large amounts of food at a fast food restaurant for a comparatively low price.”

Rütten asked tattooed and pierced friends to model for her and recreate the poses of laborers, gypsies, and prostitutes in Caravaggio paintings. The exquisite and dramatic images are simultaneously beautiful and repulsive. For every flower or fancy goblet there are mounds of saturated fat. It’s not only a culture clash, but a fusion of foodstuffs associated with lower class and fine items for the upper crust of society.

It’s A Miracle!

Dec 21 2014 @ 5:23pm
by Dish Staff

Or maybe not. Recently Matt Lewis, as part of a longer discussion of modern belief in miracles, mentioned one from his own life:

For instance, once, many years ago, I went out late at night try to start my car and go somewhere (this was at a time in my life when my night didn’t begin until, say, 11 pm). If my car had started, I would have backed onto Maryland’s Route 17, as I always did when heading south, and I would have been hit by a speeding car. Now, I always backed onto the road, but this was not a problem since you could see for a long distance. Except, on this particular night, seconds after my car didn’t start, another car flew by without its headlights on. There is no doubt that something was technically wrong with my car. Had I summoned a mechanic at that instant, he could probably have quantified the reason my ignition failed to start. There would have been a scientific or mechanical reason.

But why did it happen at this very moment when I was in danger? Perhaps it was only a coincidence. But I’d like to think it showed that God intervened, that he has a purpose for me.

Damon Linker asserts that what Lewis describes isn’t really what traditionally has been meant by miracles – instead, his story merely is a form of “soft providentialism” – and goes on to run down the critique of miracles leveled by early modern philosophers like Hobbes, Spinoza, and Hume. How those arguments have shaped the world in which we live:

Read On

Mental Health Break

Dec 21 2014 @ 4:20pm
by Dish Staff

Watch as fog fills the Grand Canyon:

by Dish Staff

Last week marked three hundred years since the birth of George Whitefield, whom Thomas Kidd, author of George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father, describes as “the greatest evangelist of the eighteenth century, and the best known person in colonial America prior to the Revolution.” More background from Kidd:

George Whitefield, born on Dec. 16, 1714, was a Church of England minister who led the Great Awakening, a series of Christian revivals that swept through dish_whitefieldBritain and America in the mid-1700s. Whitefield drew enormous audiences wherever he went on both sides of the Atlantic, and his publications alone doubled the output of the American colonial presses between 1739 and 1742. If there is a modern figure comparable to Whitefield, it is Billy Graham. But even Mr. Graham has followed a path first cut by Whitefield.

What made Whitefield and his gospel message so famous? First, he mastered the period’s new media. Cultivating a vast network of newspaper publicity, printers and letter-writing correspondents, Whitefield used all means available to get the word out. Most important, he joined with Benjamin Franklin, who became Whitefield’s main printer in America, even though Franklin was no evangelical. Their business relationship transformed into a close friendship, although Whitefield routinely pressed Franklin, unsuccessfully, about his need for Jesus.

In an interview, Kidd draws out Whitefield’s importance for American history:

Read On

Bright Ideas

Dec 21 2014 @ 1:28pm
by Dish Staff

Today is the shortest day of the year, leading Brian Handwerk to examine the health benefits of sunshine:

Light treatments using both natural light and artificial lamps have some history as preventative measures and even as treatments for diseases linked to vitamin D deficiency. And moderate exposure to natural light usually produces an appropriate amount of vitamin D, although the exact amount varies greatly with climate, skin pigment and other factors. … “The most interesting recent development to me is the [number of] probable other beneficial effects of a bit of sun exposure or time outdoors,” says epidemiologist Robyn Lucas at the Australian National University. Lucas was lead author of a World Health Organization study about the global health burden due to UV exposure. “There are recent studies showing beneficial effects on blood pressure, development of obesity and modulation of immune function to be less autoreactive, so lower incidence of autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis.”

One recent study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology suggested that exposing skin to sunlight can reduce the risk of stroke or heart attack, possibly because it alters levels of nitric oxide in human skin and blood. When the sun shines, small amounts of this messenger molecule are transferred from the skin to the circulatory system, dilating blood vessels and lowering blood pressure, the research posits. And in preliminary work in laboratory mice, nitric oxide released by UV exposure seemed to help curb weight gain and lower the risk of diabetes—although the researchers caution that they can’t yet be sure whether the effects translate to people.