Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas 2009

The Star of Bethlehem, by Edward Burne-Jones (1890)

Folk say, a wizard to a northern king
At Christmas-tide such wondrous things did show,
That through one window men beheld the spring,
And through another saw the summer glow,
And through a third the fruited vines a-row,
While still, unheard, but in its wonted way,
Piped the drear wind of that December day.

--From Prologue of the Earthly Paradise, by William Morris

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Christmas Spirit

Modern Warfare 2 and PTSD

Not to be all holier-than-thou and all, and I certainly know that not all gamers confuse fantasy with reality, but is anyone else troubled by the fact that Call of Duty's Modern Warfare 2 is the highest selling video game in Europe and the USA this Christmas Season, even beating out FIFA 10, even though soccer is the world's most widely followed sport? Is this really Christmas fare...?

I guess the main reason I find it troubling is because there are soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq who are doing their fourth, and even fifth tours of duty. The brunt and burden of this war is being placed upon the shoulders of a small set of families while the rest of the nation has been asked to make no sacrifice whatsoever. Moreover, the realistic action portayed in MW2 is precisely the kind of thing, which, when it occurs in reality, afflicts our troops with PTSD. It reminds me of paintball weekend-warriors who would never dream of actually enlisting themselves. I'm sorry, I'm not anti-gaming or anti-escapism, but I think there's something obscene about this kind of thing while there's an actual war going on.

From Time magazine, on December 14th, A Mounting Suicide Rate Prompts an Army Response:
The recently released figure for November show that 12 soldiers are suspected of taking their own lives, bringing to 147 the total suicides for 2009, the highest since the Army began keeping track in 1980. Last year the Army had 140 suicides.

Although Army officials don't blame the spike on repeated deployments to war zones, evidence is mounting to the contrary. Only about a third of Army suicides happen in war zones, officials note, and another third are among personnel who had never deployed. But that means two-thirds of Army suicides have deployed, many returning home with mental scars that make them prone to take their own lives, the Army's No. 2 officer said last week...

Nearly 1 in 5 soldiers — more than 300,000 — comes home from the wars reporting symptoms of PTSD. Army officials also acknowledge that substance abuse, fueled by repeated combat tours, and a war-created shortage of mental-health professionals, contribute to mental ills that can lead to suicide...

Chiarelli, the Army's top suicide fighter, finds the challenge daunting. "This is horrible," the Army vice chief of staff said recently. "The challenge of suicides," added the former top U.S. commander in Iraq, "is without a doubt the toughest that I have had to tackle in 37-plus years in the Army."

Chiarelli has singled out abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs by soldiers as a mental-health issue that can lead to suicide. "I think there's a link to substance abuse in some of the issues we're seeing," Chiarelli said last month. A recent Army study shows that the percentage of soldiers in Afghanistan taking antidepressants and other mental-health drugs nearly tripled — from 3.5% to 9.8% — between their first and third deployments.

The Army's corps of substance-abuse counselors is hundreds short of the number of trained personnel needed. "I have been pounding the system to say we have got to sit down and determine what we need after eight years of war," Chiarelli said. That shortage has made it tougher "to handle what I think is a higher rate of substance abuse today than eight years ago." Why is it higher? "I think it's only natural you're going to see that as soldiers come back [from war], you know, with the dwell time that they have [before returning to war], that we're going to have a higher rate." Last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said pressure on the Army means that for the next two years, soldiers will continue to ship off to their next combat tour without sufficient rest at home.
The Hidden Front - Combat PTSD

Today's Boston Herald cover story:

911 on video game obsession

Prof: Games are fun, but play down pain of warfare

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Oil Well Plug

Exactly two years ago I put up a post about peak oil and the ramifications that are likely to result from reaching it.

I mentioned my good friend Joe in that post, and now I'd like to put in a plug for his new blog. Based in Madrid, Joe is now writing about this topic in Visions of Another Time - an exploration of peak oil and its repercussions for tomorrow. If you're interested in what all this means in practical terms, and also what the impact of the falling US dollar is going to be, this blog will be a good one to keep an eye on.

They ain't makin' many Jett Rinks anymore... Jimmy Dean in Giant

Monday, December 07, 2009

A Bit of Reciprocity Would Have Helped...

As much as I hate to admit it, I think the Swiss referendum that put a constitutional ban on the new construction of Islamic minarets on mosques may have been reasonable.

First, a story from around these parts... As you head eastbound towards Boston on Route 2, the highway begins to rise steeply shortly after you've crossed Interstate 95, and it hits its apex at a point in Belmont where the vast panorama of Boston and Cambridge suddenly appears before you as the rustic woods and ponds of Concord and beyond recede behind... Right at the crest of the hill stands an enormous Mormon Temple, a massive grey stone edifice with a towering steeple crowned by an enormous sculpture of the angel Gabriel blowing his trumpet.

It positively dwarfs everything else in the area. A much smaller Lutheran church on the other side of the highway has gamely erected a large cross which they illuminate at night, but it barely makes an impression compared to the behemoth across the way.

The construction of the temple was controversial from the day it was proposed. I have to say quite frankly that it seems very much out of character in this area, although I have an appreciation for the size of the Mormon community in Belmont. I do confess to feeling a certain sense of disquiet as I pass by it, but as a Catholic, I also realize that I need to feel an extra bit of sensitivity in this area.

For example, I must remind myself every time I see the gargantuan St. Francis de Sales church in Charlestown, perched upon a hill as if dropped there from some dreary place in Northern Ireland, and visible for miles around in every direction, that the Yankee WASPs allowed us to build our churches much larger than theirs when we arrived as largely unwelcome immigrants in this country, even though our faith was most distasteful to them. They lived true to their ideals of religious liberty and allowed us to build our churches, hospitals, and schools on a vast scale even though we were officially still preaching extra ecclesiam nulla salus at the time. When you drive through a city like Providence, RI, this is even more visible, as the enormous Catholic churches to be seen in every direction make everything else in Roger Williams' old city seem miniscule in comparison.

Civic and religious leaders in the USA have almost always stood by the principle of religious tolerance, realizing that an attack on any one religion could easily be directed against another, or against all. Why, therefore, do I think the Swiss decision is defensible?

Maybe I don't have a particularly good reason, but my gut tells me this situation is quite different somehow. Both the Vatican and the Catholic bishops of Switzerland, increasingly wary of the creeping militancy of the secular left in Europe, and wanting Islam as an ally in their advocacy for conservatism on cultural issues, have criticized the results of the referendum stating:
"The decision of the people represents an obstacle and a great challenge on the path of integration in dialogue and mutual respect.. and increases the problems of coexistence between religions and cultures... the measure will not help the Christians oppressed and persecuted in Islamic countries, but will weaken the credibility of their commitment in these countries."
That may all be true, but as far as mutual respect and peaceful coexistence is concerned, perhaps a bit of reciprocity is in order from the Islamic world, and perhaps that reciprocity needs to be insisted upon by the West with sharper emphasis and alacrity.

Those who immigrated to the USA in years gone by knew that they needed to assimilate to the Enlightenment/Protestant-ethos in America to at least some extent. Catholics who managed to flourish in this country while abiding by those principles, thriving more than the churches of Europe at the time, were even accused by the Vatican of the heresy of Americanism, but skillfully hewed to the same course just the same.

Switzerland itself may do a better job than most, but at least a few European nations have had great difficulty in assimilating their Muslim minorities, and much of that is their own fault, but at the same time Europe seems to be going through a great crisis of identity right now, and when a continent in which a dwindling population of even more dwindling faith encounters a growing minority population with a vibrant faith (which can also be quite militant at this point in history), I wonder if the Swiss can be forgiven for wanting to keep Switzerland looking like Switzerland. Europe is not beholden to commit cultural suicide.

Although Andrew Sullivan on his Daily Dish found this decision to be quite bigoted, I'm more inclined to agree with one of his commenters who wrote:
I have no problem with anyone wanting to practice their religion so long as it hurts no one else. And I also have no problem with the Swiss being unwilling to listen to “Allahu akbar, etc.” at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and nightfall. The Roman Catholic church down the street from me has a carillon that rings the hours. I like it; it’s pretty and it provides a useful function for the entire neighborhood. But, if it broadcast its priest intoning “Introibo ad altare Dei” every time Mass was said, I’d be on the phone to City Hall every time I heard it.
Sullivan responded by pointing out that none of the minarets that are currently in Switzerland are issuing calls to prayer. Yes. For now. Ultimately, though, what are they for? They are not merely for architectural decoration. I give some creedence to the argument that they are edifices of thriumphalism.

The problem of reciprocity is outlined very starkly in the December 7 issue of America in an article by David Pinault called Hidden Prayer in Yemen: Islam and the problem of religious intolerance (subscription only). Until we see some signs of a reforming spirit within Islam that allows for some reciprocity regarding the free exercise of other faiths in Islamic countries, I think decisions like those made by the Swiss can be defended to at least a certain extent, although anyone who still reads this blog can feel free to contradict me without recrimination. Some excerpts from Pinault's article, which described the necessarily furtive and underground practice of Christianity in Yemen.
Unfortunately, the plight of Christians in Yemen is not unique. In Iraq, Saudia Arabia and other countries in the Muslim world, freedom of worship is severely restricted, and the number of Christians has dwindled. The values of pluralism and diversity are dismissed in favor of a strict adherence to the rule of the Koran, which sees any visible Christian presence as an attempt at evangelization. Yemen is emblematic of an Islamic culture that fails to see the spiritual growth that can come from encounters with people of other faiths.

The government does not prohibit foreigners from private Christian worship, but authorities are intent on discouraging conversion from Islam. I heard reports of young Muslim men, apparently commissioned by the Yemeni government, posing as potential converts in an attempt to lure Christian foreigners into proselytizing. In one recent case, a Christian Ethiopian working in Sanaa as a day laborer gave an Arabic text of the New Testament to a Yemeni who feigned interest in the faith. The result: three months in jail followed by deportation.

Consequences can be far harsher for Yemenis who genuinely desire to convert. In a culture where religious identity is equated with loyalty to family, clan and nation, conversion from Islam is seen as treason, a threat to Yemen ’s communal identity—hence what one Muslim cleric described to me as al-khawf min al-tansir, “the fear of Christianization.” (Tansir comes from the root nasrani, “Nazarene.”) Muslims caught flirting with the “Nazarene” faith are routinely arrested, imprisoned and made to reaffirm their allegiance to Islam. Others suffer violence at the hands of their own
families—“the only way,” as one American resident told me, “in an honor/shame society for a father to erase the stain of shameful behavior on the part of his children.”

Violent hostility to religious minorities is a problem in other Islamic countries as well. In Iraq in recent years, terrorists have used death threats against indigenous Christians in Mosul and elsewhere in northern Iraq to extort payment of what is known as the jizyah. This is the discriminatory tax imposed on “People of the Book” — Jews and Christians living under Islamic rule — in accordance with Chapter 9, verse 29 of the Koran: “Fight against those who do not believe in Allah…from among the People of the Book, until they pay the jizyah and have been humiliated and brought low.”

Enforced during the height of Islamic political power in the days of the caliphate, collection of the tax was abandoned by secularizing governments of the modern Middle East. But some of today’s Islamist movements view the jizyah as a marker of the resurgence of Islam. For years, Paulos Faraj Rahho, archbishop of Mosul’s Chaldean Catholic community, had made jizyah payments to local militants on behalf of his diocese’s Christians. Finally, as the security situation in Iraq improved, he refused any further payments, a decision that led to his kidnapping and murder in 2008. Eventually a member of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia was convicted of the crime. Under such pressure, almost half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country.

Analogous developments are occurring in Pakistan. In April 2009 Christian day laborers residing in an impoverished part of Karachi known as Khuda ki Basti found warnings chalked on the walls of their neighborhood: “The Taliban are coming.… Be prepared to pay jizyah or embrace Islam.” When the Christians registered their defiance by erasing the threats, ethnic Pashtuns living in Karachi attacked the neighborhood, killing an 11-year-old boy and injuring several men and women. The assailants torched homes and set fire to copies of the Bible...

Several years ago, in a conversation with Ali Abdullah Saleh, president of Yemen, Pope John Paul II petitioned for the construction of a church in Yemen’s capital. The president promised he would see to it. Nothing has come of the promise.

There are no churches in Saudi Arabia either, despite the presence of over one million foreign Christian workers and a personal plea from Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. Pope Benedict noted that in the 1990s the Italian government permitted the construction of a Saudi-financed mosque in Rome, a short distance from Vatican City. Yet so far Saudi Arabia’s leaders have refused to follow suit and recognize the right to freedom of worship in their own country. Anwar Ashiqi, a Saudi religious scholar, summarizes the government’s position:
“It would be possible to launch official negotiations to construct a church in Saudi Arabia only after the pope and all the Christian churches recognize the Prophet Muhammad.”

I raised this issue in a conversation in June with a Sunni imam in Yemen’s capital. An affable individual in his early 30s, this imam directs a mosque in Sanaa and is known as a hafiz (someone who has learned by heart the entire Koran). When I pointed out the disparity—mosques in Rome, no churches in Sanaa—he said this struck him as right. Islam, he stated, is
al-din al-niha’i (the final, definitive religion). But Christianity and Judaism, he said, were religions from the past, outdated and superseded. “They may be permitted to exist,” he continued, “but they shouldn’t be allowed to propagate.” A church in Sanaa might attract Yemeni Muslims, thereby facilitating al-tansir: the propagation of the Nazarene faith. Better, he said, to keep Yemen as nearly as possible 100 percent Muslim.

What this imam articulated was an attitude I encountered in all too many conversations in Sanaa: a resistance to religious pluralism. By pluralism I mean the notion that spiritual paths alternative to one’s own have value; that these alternatives have something to teach us, even as they challenge us by their difference; and that one’s religious identity and spiritual life are deepened by the self-reflection triggered in the encounter with diversity. Such encounters can take place only in settings where freedom of worship is allowed to flourish. In hindering the construction of Christian churches, countries like Yemen impoverish their own Islamic faith.