The Right Doubles Down


A survey of the bloggy scene suggests a rigid, uniform, passionate position that this assassination has nothing whatsoever to do with violent rhetoric and political polarization. It is as if some loony had just randomly shot some schoolkids or ran into a mall killing strangers. If you are looking for reflectiveness, you won't find it, in what strikes me as an ominous sign of a right-wing movement more willing to see its opponents gunned down than ever engage in introspection. Among the most asinine contributions comes from Jack Shafer:

Our spirited political discourse, complete with name-calling, vilification—and, yes, violent imagery—is a good thing. Better that angry people unload their fury in public than let it fester and turn septic in private. The wicked direction the American debate often takes is not a sign of danger but of freedom. And I'll punch out the lights of anybody who tries to take it away from me.

I don't disagree with the sentiment that we should not refrain from robust or colorful or exuberant rhetoric. But constant resort to violent imagery directed at specific and named human targets is not a sign of a lively discourse but of thuggishness. Metaphorically threatening specific people with violence, especially when condoned by established leaders of political parties (like a former vice-presidential candidate), takes rhetoric to a new level. No one is proposing any bans on speech. We are arguing that at this point in time, the rhetoric has become so inflamed and so martial and so violent that the very viability of a respectable, peaceful right is on the table. And when such a difficult subject emerges, Shafer threatens to "punch my lights out." For Pete's sake, grow up.

Byron York:

What a markedly different situation from 15 months earlier when, in the face of actual evidence that Maj. Hasan was inspired by Islamist convictions, many media commentators sought to be voices of caution. Where was that caution after the shootings in Arizona?

Glenn Reynolds:

To be clear, if you're using this event to criticize the "rhetoric" of Mrs. Palin or others with whom you disagree, then you're either: (a) asserting a connection between the "rhetoric" and the shooting, which based on evidence to date would be what we call a vicious lie; or (b) you're not, in which case you're just seizing on a tragedy to try to score unrelated political points, which is contemptible. Which is it?

There is the obvious third option that has occurred to almost anyone not ideologically primed to defend anything Republican. That option – voiced even by Palin apologist Howie Kurtz – is that Palin's words were "highly unfortunate" and certainly regrettable. Does Glenn Reynolds believe otherwise? Does he endorse the gun-sights imagery? Does he see nothing wrong with it in retrospect? Would he have attended the Jesse Kelly "Fire an M-16" to show you want to defeat Gabby Giffords? We know the answer. And it is because he has been exposed as a rhetorician besotted with images of violence and murder that he has to call this obvious inference a "vicious lie." The extremity of his rhetoric reveals nothing but the length of the limb onto which he has climbed.

Radley Balko:

Let’s get the obvious out of the way, here: Initiating violence against government officials and politicians is wrongheaded, immoral, futile, and counterproductive to any anti-government cause. As is encouraging or praising others who do. I ban anyone who engages in that kind of talk here.

But it’s worth remembering that the government initiates violence against its own citizens every day in this country, citizens who pose no threat or harm to anyone else. The particular policy that leads to the sort of violence you see in these videos is supported by nearly all of the politicians and pundits decrying anti-government rhetoric on the news channels this morning. (It’s also supported by Sarah Palin, many Tea Party leaders, and other figures on the right that politicians and pundits are shaming this weekend.

Jay Nordlinger:

If an Islamist blows up or guns down 50 people, shouting “Allahu Akbar” as he does it, you’re not supposed to say that the act has any broad implications at all. It is simply an individual act, end of story. But if a young psychotic in Arizona kills a lot of people, we’re supposed to examine the state of Sarah Palin’s soul.

Again, I think this is a straw man. The dark Islamism behind the Fort Hood shootings was not covered up; it was not downplayed on this page. It led to increased focus on Anwar al-Awlaki's network. In context, it revealed broader dangers, as well as lapses in security. All of which are occurring now. But because the GOP has been fomenting far right extremism for more than two years now, it cannot handle the heat.

Jonah Goldberg:

Let us "hold our fire" and  talk no more of "campaigns." Let us ban the phrase "over the top" even when discussing over the top rhetoric. Never again must we focus on "battleground states" or even cast our eyes on a "battleground" poll. Goodbye ad "blitzes,"  "ad wars," and "air wars" too. Politicians shouldn't "fire when ready" or unready. And aides should never jump on even a figurative grenade. This is the end of to union-launched "offensives" in the "trenches" and the demise of full-on "assaults." Let's not discuss the "nuclear option," and call an end to the "wars" on poverty and cancer. We must liberate ourselves from our "bunkers" and forget "defending our territory" electorally or metaphorically. Likewise, let us never speak again of opening a new "front" here, there or anywhere. Purge from the history books Al Gore's oath to "stand and fight" and John Kerry's schmaltzy "reporting for duty." Alas, I cannot think of what to all this cessation in militaristic discourse, since none dare call is a "truce" or a "ceasefire."

This is such bullshit only a true bullshit artist like Jonah "Liberal Fascism" Goldberg would parlay it. None of this is necessary. What's necessary is a refusal to tie violent language and rhetoric to specific individuals. Palin has been caught red-handed in rank irresponsibility on this front. And any serious political party should have nothing more to do with her, or the toxins and violence she can deploy at will. 

Alex Knepper:

For a man such as Jared Loughner, who professed a belief in CIA mind-control and belonged to organizations claiming that we are all subject to a sinister worldwide Jewish conspiracy, someone like Gabrielle Giffords is not viewed in terms of whether she is a Democrat or a Republican: she is fundamentally a governmental agent of the conspiracy. Those who believe that this had anything to do with partisan politics ought to spend some time researching the conspiracy-theorist community, rather than project their political ideologies onto the rest of the world. There is more on this Earth than is dreamed of in the far-left’s petty ideology.

Ed Morrissey:

Contra David Frum, I don’t see this as a particular moment to reflect on “extreme political rhetoric,” since there’s nothing to connect political rhetoric from either side of the political spectrum to this crime.  I wouldn’t even call for reflection on the continued sales of Mein Kampf or The Communist Manifesto, even though the suspect credits both of these as among his favorites, as they have no causal connection to the actions of a lunatic.  Perhaps, though, this is a good moment to reflect on those who rush to exploit tragedy in an attempt to bully political activists into silence.

The time to criticize “extreme political rhetoric” is when it occurs, and making sure that the people making the accusations aren’t just as culpable as those they attempt to indict.


So our politics used to be less violent because we had different journalists? Well Walter Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News from 1962-1981. During that time, we had a president murdered, we had another president (Ford) who was almost shot on two occasions, and we had another president who was shot less than three weeks after Cronkite stopped anchoring the news. So of the six presidents during Cronkite’s tenure, 50% were or were very nearly assassinated.

Since the networks’ monopoly on television news was busted, we’ve had zero presidents shot. Zero. But political violence is due to FoxNews.

(Photo: US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama(C) observe a 'moment of silence' on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 10, 2011 to honor the victims of a shooting at an Arizona political event that left people six dead. Meanwhile, doctors were cautiously optimistic about the recovery of the shooter's principal target, US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head by the would-be assassin. By Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

“On Extreme Right And Left”

Yes, I used those words to delineate the corrosively caustic and eliminationist rhetoric that can fuel disturbed individuals like Jared Loughner. I did so because it is stupid to deny the vitriol that swamped George W. Bush during and after the recount and then the Iraq war. And there is a defense of heated rhetoric here: what language are you going to use when a president institutes torture or goes to war on empirically false pretenses?

But – and here I return to my recent blog-debate with Pejman – I do believe that the delegitimization and demonization of Barack Obama are in a different league and define the right in ways in which Bush hatred never fully defined the left. George Packer makes an interesting distinction here:

For the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words “treason” and “traitor.” The President isn’t a big-government liberal—he’s a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He’s also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor. Even the reading of the Constitution on the first day of the 112th Congress was conceived as an assault on the legitimacy of the Democratic Administration and Congress.

This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.)

I think that’s right. There are exceptions – congressman Alan Grayson comes instantly to mind; even irony didn’t quite undermine the totality of Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person In The World”; the “Bushitler” stuff was vile, and I said so at the time. But the level of animus toward the new president and anyone supporting him reached preposterous proportions at the beginning of this presidency; the gracelessness from the Congressional leadership on down, from “You lie!” to “death panels” and “palling around with terrorists” … this is a real problem in a country with its fair share of disturbed individuals and much more than its fair share of guns.

The Palin forces, who have fomented this dynamic more viciously and recklessly than any other group, are reacting today with incandescent rage that they could even be mentioned in the same breath as this act of political terrorism. That’s called denial. When you put a politician in literal cross-hairs, when you call her a target, when you celebrate how many targets you have hit, when you go on national television and shoot guns, when you use the language of “lock and load” to describe disagreements over healthcare provision … you are part of the problem.

What we need now is a presidential speech that can affirm the positive aspects of robust debate while drawing a line under the nihilist elements of personal and ideological hatred. But it is clear to me at least that if American politics is to regain its composure, the forces of Palin and what she represents must be defeated. Not appeased or excused for, but defeated in the derelict public square of what’s left of our common discourse.

The Dish At The Atlantic


Today marks the one year anniversary of this blog’s residence at the, after one year at and six years of total independence. I’m really grateful to all of you who’ve stuck with the blog through thick and thin through what is now its eighth continuous year. The last six weeks have been particularly nuts, as the campaign has taken off and I decided to go balls-to-the-wall until this primary season is over. Yep: I put up around 1,600 separate posts in the past month. Forgive me if I’m a bit bleary.

Th Atlantic has allowed me to have a home with real support, fellow-bloggers and writers to cavort with, wonderful editorial guidance with no editorial veto, a now full-time assistant, and a bevy of interns tracking down and highlighting a variety of new blogs, sources, and sites to mine for bloggy nuggets and insight. Video and photography and reader contests have all added to the mix, and I’m hoping to experiment some more in the year ahead. It sounds like a suck-up, but I couldn’t have found a better home. I always knew it was an honor to be welcomed into a magazine with the history and reputation and staff of the Atlantic. I had no idea it would be such a blast as well.

We’ve also soared in traffic. The Dish garnered around 25 million page views in my year at Time. It has racked up a little shy of 40 million page views in the first year at the Atlantic. The last month was almost double our previous record – with 7.6 million page views in January 2008 alone. On Technorati’s list of linked blogs, the Dish has leaped up the chart. Thanks for reading, emailing, nudging, caviling, complaining, praising, forwarding, and suggesting. And the beat goes on …

Best Of The Dish 2007: Why Obama Matters


Well, this isn’t strictly a Dish item, it’s my Atlantic cover-story. But as the primaries approach, and Iowa beckons, here’s my case for talking the Obama candidacy seriously.

When I was going over the page-proofs in October, I had a sinking feeling that I was making a fool out of myself. Clinton was still riding high, everyone in DC assumed that Obama had no serious chance, and the lead time for the piece gave me heart-burn. In the end, writing the piece was an act of faith in what I had tried to understand and witness as I reported and mulled the piece the previous three months. My editor, James Bennet, steeled my nerves and we went ahead. I’m glad we did.

First published on November 4, 2007:

The logic behind the candidacy of Barack Obama is not, in the end, about Barack Obama. It has little to do with his policy proposals, which are very close to his Democratic rivals’ and which, with a few exceptions, exist firmly within the conventions of our politics. It has little to do with Obama’s considerable skills as a conciliator, legislator, or even thinker. It has even less to do with his ideological pedigree or legal background or rhetorical skills. Yes, as the many profiles prove, he has considerable intelligence and not a little guile. But so do others, not least his formidably polished and practiced opponent Senator Hillary Clinton.

Obama, moreover, is no saint.

Continued here. An interview about the essay with Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is here.

Best Of The Dish 2007: A Married Man


First published August 21 2007. Full wedding pics here.

So this is what it feels like? In a week’s time, I’ll be walking down the aisle with my soon-to-be husband. Our families are both coming for the big day. We’re getting hitched in Massachusetts, where I’ve lived every summer for the past decade or so, and which is the only state in the US where civil marriage is legal for everyone. Every now and again, I have to pinch myself. This is real? For me? It is hardly possible that it could be real for anyone. But me? After so long?

A brief personal history. In 1989, as a jejune junior editor at The New Republic, I got involved in an editorial argument about proposed domestic or civil partnerships for gay couples. The idea had emerged in the 1980s, in several major cities, partly because of the trauma of couples torn asunder by hostile relatives in the AIDS crisis. Some social conservatives were understandably worried that by setting up an institution like "domestic partnership," we were creating "marriage-lite", an institution that would spread to heterosexual couples and weaken the responsibilities and prestige of marriage itself. As a gay conservative, I found both arguments compelling. I saw the pressing need to give gay couples legal protection, but I could also see the danger of a easy-come-easy-go pseudo-marriage could pose for the society as a whole. The solution, however, seemed blindingly obvious to me. "Well, why not let gays get married as well?" I asked. "Isn’t that the true conservative position?"

My liberal bosses loved the idea of irritating conservatives with a conservative argument. So I obliged. The cover illustration was the first time a major magazine had put two guys on a wedding cake on the cover. And the piece created a mini-sensation. I enjoyed the buzz, but the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this was not just a necessary change, but a long-overdue one. With straight marriage no longer legally linked to children, and with gays desperately needing integration into their own families and society, it seemed like a no-brainer to me. It was a philosophical decision, not a personal one. I was in my twenties and had no intention of marrying myself. In fact, I was a pretty swinging bachelor. But it was the principle that mattered.

Almost two decades later, after years of intense political debate, after years of personal activism, court cases, Congressional testimony, threatened constitutional amendments, civil disobedience, and a global revolution in marriage rights, the political has now become personal for me. It’s a week away. And I officially have the jitters.

We decided on the most minimalist wedding possible – basically close family only. We’re getting married in the same place – a beach house – that we’re having the tiny reception. It’s a block down the beach from where we live. We have the license, the judge, the clothes, the menu, the photographer (although he hasn’t been in touch lately – gulp), and the rings. I’ve written out the civil liturgy. We’ve settled on the vows. I should relax now, right?

But the other night it hit me for the first time that this is really about to happen. I guess I just put it out of my head until it’s only a matter of a week or so away. My fiance, Aaron, and I have lived together for three years. I have no qualms about our actual relationship. For me, this is for life. But standing up in front of my family and my spouse’s and saying the vows out loud has me in a state of butterflies. I can go on TV and barely break a sweat, but I’m terrified of performing in front of my own family. I’m scared I’ll lose it. I bawled through the last same-sex wedding I went to. When I was diagnosed with HIV fourteen years ago, I assumed this day would never come. And now it has, the emotional impact is a little hard to measure.

You fight for something, never expecting it to happen, let alone to you, and then it does, and it can overwhelm. Taking yes for an answer can be harder than no. Maybe it’s a function of having over-thought this issue for so long; maybe it’s just handling a big family occasion of any sort (Christmas is bad enough). Maybe it’s a lifetime in which my actual relationships have always been private, or so targeted by political enemies I’ve become very defensive. Maybe I’m scared that two decades of passionate advocacy in theory is easier than a simple act in practice. But whatever the reason, going public with my husband – even in front of our supportive families – is suddenly much tougher than I expected. My throat is a little dry. My stomach is a little unsettled.

My sister emailed support:

"Don’t worry, it is natural to stress, I practically had a baby the day before mine! 75 to the church, another 75 in the evening, the food, the flowers, the photos, all those people watching me! On the day it just felt like a dream, I felt like I was letting out a huge breath all day, like that waiting to exhale, I exhaled all day and it was wonderful."

Our wedding is much smaller. My old friend and marriage advocate Evan Wolfson reassured me as well:

"You’re supposed to be in a zombie-state till the beauty of it breaks through."

Are zombies nervous? They never seem to be. They just stagger forward. Oh, well. Here goes …

"I, Andrew, take you, Aaron,
to be no other than yourself.
Loving what I know of you,
trusting what I don’t yet know,
with respect for your integrity,
and faith in your abiding love for me,
through all our years,
and in all that life may bring us,
for better or worse,
for richer or poorer,
in sickness and in health,
till death do us part,
I accept you as my husband
and pledge my love to you."

So revolutionary for some; so simple for me. For the first time in my adult life, I will have a home.

Best Of The Dish 2007: Verschaerfte Vernehmung


This was first posted May 29, 2007:

The phrase "Verschärfte Vernehmung" is German for "enhanced interrogation". Other translations include "intensified interrogation" or "sharpened interrogation". It’s a phrase that appears to have been concocted in 1937, to describe a form of torture that would leave no marks, and hence save the embarrassment pre-war Nazi officials were experiencing as their wounded torture victims ended up in court. The methods, as you can see above, are indistinguishable from those described as "enhanced interrogation techniques" by the president. As you can see from the Gestapo memo, moreover, the Nazis were adamant that their "enhanced interrogation techniques" would be carefully restricted and controlled, monitored by an elite professional staff, of the kind recommended by Charles Krauthammer, and strictly reserved for certain categories of prisoner. At least, that was the original plan.

Also: the use of hypothermia, authorized by Bush and Rumsfeld, was initially forbidden. ‘Waterboarding" was forbidden too, unlike that authorized by Bush. As time went on, historians have found that all the bureaucratic restrictions were eventually broken or abridged. Once you start torturing, it has a life of its own. The "cold bath" technique – the same as that used by Bush against al-Qahtani in Guantanamo – was, according to professor Darius Rejali of Reed College,

pioneered by a member of the French Gestapo by the pseudonym Masuy about 1943. The Belgian resistance referred to it as the Paris method, and the Gestapo authorized its extension from France to at least two places late in the war, Norway and Czechoslovakia. That is where people report experiencing it.

In Norway, we actually have a 1948 court case that weighs whether "enhanced interrogation" using the methods approved by president Bush amounted to torture. The proceedings are fascinating, with specific reference to the hypothermia used in Gitmo, and throughout interrogation centers across the field of conflict. The Nazi defense of the techniques is almost verbatim that of the Bush administration…



Here’s a document from Norway’s 1948 war-crimes trials detailing the prosecution of Nazis convicted of "enhanced interrogation techniques" in the Second World War. Money quote from the cases of three Germans convicted of war crimes for "enhanced interrogation":

Between 1942 and 1945, Bruns used the method of "verschärfte Vernehmung" on 11 Norwegian citizens. This method involved the use of various implements of torture, cold baths and blows and kicks in the face and all over the body. Most of the prisoners suffered for a considerable time from the injuries received during those interrogations.

Between 1942 and 1945, Schubert gave 14 Norwegian prisoners "verschärfte Vernehmung," using various instruments of torture and hitting them in the face and over the body. Many of the prisoners suffered for a considerable time from the effects of injuries they received.

On 1st February, 1945, Clemens shot a second Norwegian prisoner from a distance of 1.5 metres while he was trying to escape. Between 1943 and 1945, Clemens employed the method of " verschäfte Vernehmung " on 23 Norwegian prisoners. He used various instruments of torture and cold baths. Some of the prisoners continued for a considerable time to suffer from injuries received at his hands.

Freezing prisoners to near-death, repeated beatings, long forced-standing, waterboarding, cold showers in air-conditioned rooms, stress positions [Arrest mit Verschaerfung], withholding of medicine and leaving wounded or sick prisoners alone in cells for days on end – all these have occurred at US detention camps under the command of president George W. Bush. Over a hundred documented deaths have occurred in these interrogation sessions. The Pentagon itself has conceded homocide by torture in multiple cases. Notice the classic, universal and simple criterion used to define torture in 1948 (my italics):

In deciding the degree of punishment, the Court found it decisive that the defendants had inflicted serious physical and mental suffering on their victims, and did not find sufficient reason for a mitigation of the punishment in accordance with the provisions laid down in Art. 5 of the Provisional Decree of 4th May, 1945. The Court came to the conclusion that such acts, even though they were committed with the connivance of superiors in rank or even on their orders, must be regarded and punished as serious war crimes.

The victims, by the way, were not in uniform. And the Nazis tried to argue, just as John Yoo did, that this made torturing them legit. The victims were paramilitary Norwegians, operating as an insurgency, against an occupying force. And the torturers had also interrogated some prisoners humanely. But the argument, deployed by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the Nazis before them, didn’t wash with the court. Money quote:

As extenuating circumstances, Bruns had pleaded various incidents in which he had helped Norwegians, Schubert had pleaded difficulties at home, and Clemens had pointed to several hundred interrogations during which he had treated prisoners humanely.

The Court did not regard any of the above-mentioned circumstances as a sufficient reason for mitigating the punishment and found it necessary to act with the utmost severity. Each of the defendants was responsible for a series of incidents of torture, every one of which could, according to Art. 3 (a), (c) and (d) of the Provisional Decree of 4th May, 1945, be punished by the death sentence.

So using "enhanced interrogation techniques" against insurgent prisoners out of uniform was punishable by death. Here’s the Nazi defense argument:

(c) That the acts of torture in no case resulted in death. Most of the injuries inflicted were slight and did not result in permanent disablement.

This is the Yoo position. It’s what Glenn Reynolds calls the "sensible" position on torture. It was the camp slogan at Camp Nama in Iraq: "No Blood, No Foul." Now take the issue of "stress positions", photographed at Abu Ghraib and used at Bagram to murder an innocent detainee. Here’s a good description of how stress positions operate:

The hands were tied together closely with a cord on the back of the prisoner, raised then the body and hung the cord to a hook, which was attached into two meters height in a tree, so that the feet in air hung. The whole body weight rested thus at the joints bent to the rear. The minimum period of hanging up was a half hour. To remain there three hours hung up, was pretty often. This punishment was carried out at least twice weekly.

This is how one detainee at Abu Ghraib died (combined with beating) as in the photograph above. The experience of enduring these stress positions has been described by Rush Limbaugh as no worse than frat-house hazings. Those who have gone through them disagree. They describe:

Dreadful pain in the shoulders and wrists were the results of this treatment. Only laboriously the lung could be supplied with the necessary oxygen. The heart worked in a racing speed. From all pores the sweat penetrated.

Yes, this is an account of someone who went through the "enhanced interrogation techniques" at Dachau. (Google translation here.)

Critics will no doubt say I am accusing the Bush administration of being Hitler. I’m not. There is no comparison between the political system in Germany in 1937 and the U.S. in 2007. What I am reporting is a simple empirical fact: the interrogation methods approved and defended by this president are not new. Many have been used in the past. The very phrase used by the president to describe torture-that-isn’t-somehow-torture – "enhanced interrogation techniques" – is a term originally coined by the Nazis. The techniques are indistinguishable. The methods were clearly understood in 1948 as war-crimes. The punishment for them was death.

Best Of The Dish 2007: Always


First posted August 2, 2007:

Yesterday was almost the Platonic idea of a summer day. The heat had depth and the light had a white glow about it. There’s no cold edge to the air any more, even out here in the often-chilly Cape. We spent the second afternoon in the tidal pools at the end of the peninsula. Dan Savage, his husband and son are staying for the week – alongside countless other gay families here for Family Week. So it was floatie time in the currents. No one in the Savage family has been here before so I had the privilege of introducing them. The nine-year-old’s grin belied his occasional nine-year-old diffidence.

Some people ask me why I don’t travel elsewhere for a summer break. I’ve been coming to the same place for almost two decades. For the past decade, I’ve come here in June and not left till September if I can possibly help it. It’s by no means all vacation. The blog and the column don’t write themselves. In some ways, I seem to work harder here. But it is a break, a change of pace and atmosphere from the Washington bubble. I spent my first full summer here just after I was diagnosed with HIV. It seemed a good place to learn how to die. But it helped teach me how to live, which, you eventually realize, amounts to the same thing.

It isn’t just the gay subtext, although it’s great to have vibrant little patches of counter-culture and post-gay culture vying with each other on a strip of sand. It isn’t just that I lucked out in buying a little beach condo when I could afford one. It’s the larger place itself, the mixture of elements that make up a minimalist, sublime, pure expression of nature and nature’s God. There are really only three elements to the landscape out here: dune and water and air. When you get past the town into the pristine Province Lands National Seashore (thanks, JFK!), there are no dating landmarks, no cars to place you in any decade, no architecture to pinion you to any specific time. Yes, the landscape has changed drastically over the centuries. It isn’t what the Pilgrims first saw. But it is largely as it was at the tip as when Thoreau rhapsodized about it. It is a place where you can leave all America behind.

But time in this timeless place is also acutely present. It’s present because of the enormous, expansive, insistent tides. I live on water, which means the view changes all the time. Every day shifts with the lunar rhythms. My backyard is both an ocean and a desert, depending on the time of day. And it is almost any color you can imagine. That’s what so much light and water will do. In the tidal pools, the timelessness of the scene is intersected with the always-shifting timeliness of the water coming in and out, traveling vast distances of very shallow coastal marshes and dunes, to transform a dusty beach into a blue and green watery expanse in mere hours. There is never any still, even when the air won’t move. That’s why it’s where I’ve asked my ashes to go one day. I want them dispersed into the nothingness on the horizon, to become specks of matter that will experience a pure summer day eternally. They will be there in the rough winter storms; but they will wait for the perfect summer afternoon.

Until then, it is as close as I’ll get to heaven on earth. And one of those places is enough for me.

Best Of The Dish 2007: The Undiscovered Country


Of the 900,000 or so words that have appeared in this space over the last year, most will disappear into the void within minutes, or hours and days at the most. Over the next three days, I’m going to post the four blog-posts I’ve written that, with any luck, might last a little longer. Here’s the first, as part of my blogalogue with Sam Harris. It was first posted on March 14. I’ve taken the liberty of rewriting the final sentence, because in retrospect, it was too easily misconstrued as some kind of jab. But the rest I still stand behind. It’s been a spiritually difficult year for me – after a tough several years. It’s hard to write about, and perhaps important not to write about, but engaging with Sam was one of the highlights of my year, and this response is close to the heart of the matter:

First off, sorry for the dropped ball. Two reasons: mounds of other work and, if I were being completely honest, a bit of a block. I don’t want to go around in circles, so I spent some time re-reading our entire exchange and trying to figure out what the core questions are that I haven’t adequately addressed. I also found myself a little embarrassed in retrospect by the forthrightness of my claims to faith. I feel an unworthy apologist for Christianity in many ways. I’m not a trained theologian nor a priest nor even someone who thinks of himself as a good Christian. The Pope believes I live in mortal sin because I love and live with another man. But I remain a believer in Jesus and in the Gospels and in the church, and I agreed to start this, so I’d better continue. So here goes. You argued a while back that my notion of God "doesn’t have much in the way of specific content (apart from love)." I have indeed held back a little (although God-as-love is no small idea; it is an immense idea). What you have been driving at – rather effectively – is my refusal to say outright that because I believe that Jesus was and is the Son of God, the tenets of other faiths – Islam, Buddhism, Judaism – must be logically false. Mine, you insist, is a solid truth-claim that requires being addressed, especially because these mutually contradicting truth-claims are the source of so much conflict and dissension. You’re right, I think, to judge me "a little evasive" on this score. So let me get less evasive. As a Christian, I do deny Islam’s claim that Jesus was not actually divine. I deny Judaism’s claim that the Messiah has not yet come. I deny any other number of truth-claims held by people of other faiths. And you rightly point out that the nature of the phenomenon we’re discussing – faith – has no universal rubric upon which to rationally decide one claim over another. You want me to engage instead in a discourse about the meaning of the universe that is based on more solid ground – the "real science" of cosmology, biology, chemistry, and ultimately neuroscience – as the key to understanding reality. Or you want me to be more consistent and take the gloves off and start pounding at the Muslims and Jews (and atheists, for that matter) for being so wrong about the most important issue we face as humans.

What is my answer to this?

My first is to insist that spiritual humility and the limits of human wisdom should and do temper my own convictions on matters of faith. I am very much aware that humans have no common rubric by which to judge these religious truth-claims except their internal coherence, their congruence with historical data, their longevity, and one’s own conscience. The last of these is dispositive to my mind, because of the irrational and deeply personal nature of the phenomenon we’re discussing. So I defer to others’ consciences and I’m a reluctant proselytizer. I’m also aware of the hideous human toll over the centuries of excessive religious certainty and intolerance. I’ve read my Locke, and I spent years studying European religious history. I’m not going back to the Inquisition or indeed to the rigidity and certainty of much of modern Islam. This is both a pragmatic and a religious move – pragmatic because I want to live in a peaceful world (I like my iPod and my civil society), and religious because the violence such certainty provokes violates the very teachings of the God I worship. I’m tolerant because I am a Christian.

My second reply is that all these alternative modes of understanding – science, history, etc – are as contingent in the human mind as faith itself. There are small leaps of faith that are necessary for these other modes of understanding to kick in. And all human knowledge is definitionally contingent. You agreed in part but countered that, while contingency is something both religion and science share, some avenues of knowledge are less contingent than others. And you have a point there. The question soon becomes one of relative contingencies. Is scientific thought less contingent than theology?

I think it probably is, which is why I’m fascinated by new research into the brain, evolution, biology, cosmology and the rest. I was intrigued, as I’m sure you were, by the recent piece, "Darwin’s God," in the New York Times Magazine, that posited an evolutionary origin or a neurological accident for the universal human tendency to believe that something is "out there" when, empirically, it isn’t.

So let me discuss that article and see if it helps our dialogue. One non-religious argument for the resilience of religion is that in our evolutionary past, it was more conducive to survival to suspect a threat behind a rustling bush than to dismiss it. So we developed an innate capacity to believe in things that are not there. Another theory suggests that religious faith emerged from the fact that, as social animals, we often have to assume the existence of others’ minds and intentions even when we have no direct evidence for them:

    "The process begins with positing the existence of minds, our own and others’, that we cannot see or feel. This leaves us open, almost instinctively, to belief in the separation of the body (the visible) and the mind (the invisible). If you can posit minds in other people that you cannot verify empirically, suggests Paul Bloom, it is a short step to positing minds that do not have to be anchored to a body. And from there, he said, it is another short step to positing an immaterial soul and a transcendent God."

For much of human history, the theories run, we filled in the gaps in our empirical or scientific knowledge by attributing the inexplicable to magic or superstition or fickle gods. As magic declined and gods became less fickle, monotheistic religion grew. But magic never completely left us (we still do cross our fingers for luck). And as science has grown, monotheism should have surely declined. But it hasn’t. And science – good old science! – offers an answer: our minds may have rationally out-thought religion, but our brains haven’t out-grown it.

We are evolutionarily programmed for faith. Hence the fact that we know of almost no civilizations without religion; and even when religion did decline – in, say, Europe in the twentieth century – pseudo-religions emerged to replace it. Those pseudo-religions, I don’t need to remind you, killed many more than the actual ones. Even in post-modern America, in those places where traditional faith has evaporated, the new age is always dawning.

You could still argue that this is an inherent tragedy of human evolution and that we should still try to resist this pull of the irrational, just as we resist and constrain the evolutionary pull to disseminate our DNA as widely as possible. But in matters of ultimate truth, this isn’t the only option. Let me borrow the words of one scientist of evolution, Justin Barrett, who still has faith:

"Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people. Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural? Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me – should I then stop believing that she does?"

Even if science were to come up with a convincing and exhaustive non-religious explanation of the reason for our continuing to be religious as a species, it would still be unable to account for the enduring, subjective experience of that religion. Faith survives – and it is integral to the human experience. It is as integral to being human as the difficulty of believing, in any serious way, that one day, I won’t exist. That is why, I think, religion is best understood, at its core, as an experiential response to the simple fact of our own death. Once a human being has asked himself, as Hamlet did, "To be or not to be?" a human being has become religious, whether he likes it or not. Death is a place from whose bourne no traveler returns, right? (Except Jesus and Lazarus, of course, but let’s postpone miracles and the resurrection for another exchange, can we?)

Maybe religion is best understood not as The Answer to The Question, but as the only human response to the most pressing human fact – our own death. Oakeshott places religious life in the mode of practice, not in the mode of philosophy. I have struggled with this argument for a long time, but the older I get, the wiser it seems.

You and I will both die. To the question of what becomes of us then, science has a simple answer. We decompose and rot and eventually become dust. But the human mind, because it is human, resists that as the final answer to the question of our destiny. We find it very hard to think of ourselves as not being. That resistance is always there. There is no escaping it. I predict you will feel it at the hour of your death, if you have any time to contemplate it. This resistance to our own extinction is part of science and part of our genetic impulse to survive – but also why we feel ourselves connected to something eternal.

Is this sense of an after-life an illusion? We cannot know for sure. But death isn’t an illusion. And when death is nearest, faith emerges most strongly. You can either see this as a reason to pity people of faith – they’re too weak to look mortality in the face and deal with it. Or you can see this as part of the wisdom of people of faith: we know what we are, and we have reached a way of dealing with it as humans, full humans, not just arguments without minds and bodies. Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.

My own faith came alive most fully when I believed I was going to die young. It came alive as I watched one of my closest friends die in front of me at the age of 31. During that "positive hour," to quote Eliot, I also experienced religious visions, I heard a voice inside of me with a distinct tone that seemed to me divine, I experienced a moment of terrible doubt followed by a moment of complete, unsought-for relief. Maybe all this was a function of fear and existential panic. Maybe it was all a coping mechanism. Maybe it was grief, wrapped up in shame. But I am far from the only person to have experienced such things. Maybe these psychological and spiritual experiences are simply the best way that humans have devised through countless millennia for coping with their own conscious knowledge of their own mortality.

But what that really means is: we have learned how to be human through religion. And how can we not be human? And who would want not to be human? What you are asking for, as I have argued before, is salvation by reason.

Reason can do many things – but saving us is not one of them.