Sunday, February 23, 2014

Ukraine, Putin, and the Anti-Gay Campaign

As the struggle in Ukraine's divided land continues, President Putin has managed to keep the ugly reality of his anti-gay campaign in margins of the coverage of Sochi's Olympic Games. Behind the scenes in Kiev, the tug of war between Putin and the West played out, for this struggle is only one manifestation of a centuries-old divide between civilizations.

Ukraine as the clash of civilizations

Part of the Ukraine drama is the old stand-off between the Slavic-Orthodox East and the formerly Catholic/ Protestant West, now secularized and pluralistic.  As Samuel Huntington’s 1992 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order asserted, these religious, ethnic and civilizational divides are long-standing, powerful, and not about to go away. They simply take new forms.

Ukraine demonstrates this amply, geographically straddling the East-West divide. The western parts of Ukraine were, for centuries, ruled by the Germanic world, the eastern provinces dominated by the Russian Empire. Western and Central Ukraine lean toward close relations with the European Union. Even the main churches, while eastern Orthodox in style, are affiliated with Rome, not Moscow.

Putin is determined to keep Ukraine in the “Russian zone,” pressuring the leadership to knuckle under, because he has decided to renew Russia’s ancient habit of distinguishing “holy Russia” from an always-wayward West. With the flight of the deposed President, the world awaits Putin's next move.

Homosexuality a symbolic East-West flash-point

Which is where the anti-gay campaign comes in, deliberately fostered as a distinctive cultural marker. For strategic purposes gays must be persecuted precisely because the West moves toward including gays openly in society. Yes, homophobia is strong in Russian culture, and bolstered by the Russian Orthodox Church. But Russia (and not Russia alone) now uses anti-gay strategy as a way of distinguishing itself from the “decadent” West.

Scapegoats, alas, are nothing new. They serve multiple purposes. Allegedly embodying “degenerate” values, they clarify what "we" claim as the accepted the social good. They also serve to unify the rest of us, in spite of all our tension-making differences, into a unified opposition to their contaminating influence. Renaissance and Reformation culture found witches a convenient place to off-load the anxiety produced the very changes they fostered.

Putin presides over a vastly changed Russia which suffered a population decline, a massive income gap, a loss of status and a decade of social chaos before he took the reins. He must bolster Russian pride (hence the Sochi Olympics) and reinvigorate Russian identity as what columnist Ross Douthat calls "a rival civilizational model to the liberal democratic West." *

The gays must go, or keep themselves behind closed doors. Or, simply not exist. As a Sochi city official apparently told the press, “We don’t really have any of those here.”

* See "The Games Putin Plays" from the NYTimes, Sunday, February 23, 2014 at

Next week: Civilizational Divide, Part 2

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Noah and Climate Change's Proud Deniers

What with the severe winter, the climate change deniers are out in force, scoffing as Arctic cold swirls around much of the country.

Nothing new here. While back, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla) said he was “proud” to be a climate change denier, and his colleague Tom Coburn (R-Okla) gladly says any idea humans are contributing to the change is "malarky." 

Denial is so brave!

Denial is really cool in a great many circles these days, asserting black is white with relish, and sometimes a smirk.

+ Denial in the face of small island nations preparing to lose their homeland as the rising ocean erodes beaches, infiltrates the water table, and kills beachfront vegetation: climate change scaremongers!

+ Denial fracking's widespread ruination of the water table and degradation of land while helpless property-owners demonstrate how their faucets catch fire: isolated cases! we need to be energy self-sufficient!

+ Denial that polar bears are threatened by receding ice caps: they’re actually thriving!

It’s all about protecting the economy, of course, and “our blessed way" of high-on-the-hog lifestyle which resists the changes necessary for its own long term well-being.

The ancient Hebrew storytellers long ago noted the dynamics of denial. They told stories, and created their own interpretations of how denial happens. Jewish midrash—the interpretative storytelling of the rabbis—says that God postponed the Flood for 153 of Noah's preaching because God really, really wanted humanity to have a chance. But the more Noah warned them, the more stubborn they became in their resistance. 

Reverse Confirmation Bias

This is the phenomenon of "belief disconfirmation syndrome" in which hearing facts that undercut your beliefs makes you hold onto them harder. (2) Biblical writers ascribe this stubbornness to spiritual sources: if you persist in rejecting facts, you’ll be “sent a strong delusion” (1) that traps you in your denial until you and your world hit bottom. The preaching of the prophets becomes the very thing that seals your doom. "How long shall I preach?” says Isaiah; “Till cities are in ruins and fields lie ravaged” says the Lord. (3)

While I don’t believe God sends such delusion, the writers saw the phenomenon itself clearly. We can see it in addicts, dogmatically religious people, radicals of all kinds, left and right, and in the halls of state and national legislatures every day. Change isn’t worth the pain it will cost, even if greater pain may ensue. We’re great at dismissing, demeaning, and ridiculing ideas and facts that don’t fit our preconceptions, even as we slide deeper into danger.

In the ancient story the oceans rise anyway. Inhofe’s pride and Coburn’s politically convenient denial won’t change any aspect of global climate change, except to make it worse by forestalling action.

But enough people who resist denial, accept reality, challenge the deniers, and foster conversation about how we can improve our lifestyle by changing it may save us from the worst possibilities of our own impending Flood.


1.   2 Thessalonians 2:11
2.   For information about the brain as a "belief organ" resisting change, see Andrew Newberg,                Born to Believe: God, Science and the Origin of Ordinary and Extraordinary Beliefs
3.   Isaiah 6:9-12 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Culture of Lies?

A new year in Congress, and the Party of No keeps choosing lies instead of legislature. The latest campaign, in case you hadn’t caught up with the fabrication machine, is that Obama and his administration are “lawless,” so there’s hardly any point in passing laws.

Obama is lawless for three big reasons: 1) he just won’t enforce the current immigration laws;  2) as chief executive, he's delayed enforcement details of that Affordable Care Act  3) he’s become “King” and “Tyrant” by his overuse and promised continuing “rule by Executive Order.” A new year in Congress, and the Party of No keeps choosing lies instead of legislature.

Just a little fact-checking will reveal:  1) The Obama Administration’s enforcement of immigration law is as draconian, if not moreso, than the Bush Administration; 2) the GOP hates what they call “ObamaCare” and should actually applaud delays in its full implementation; 3) Obama uses constitutionally supported Executive Orders far less than Dubya, Clinton and Reagan. (1)  Politicians in both parties fabricate things, of course; but some have adopted it as a major lifestyle pattern. 

Why should we be surprised?

Sadly, perhaps tragically, we live in a culture awash with lies, a culture where style, strategy and effectiveness often take precedence over truthfulness; a media environment where the infamous “truthiness” — the plausibility of a report — too often rules.  Conservative SuperPAC fan Matthew Vadim, when challenged about the lies in attack ads, said that the ads mix "lies, scurrilous rumors and valuable information." What about the people who might be deceived? “It’s up to the viewers to sort it out.” What about the morality of such efforts? “Private organizations are free to try to influence government. One man’s sleaze is another man’s class.” (2)

Surely this is not what the Founders had in mind when the carved out a privileged space for a free press unconstrained by government control.

But it’s not just politics that is awash with lies. Just check out the customer complaints about all too many gadgets, devices and “bargain” goods and services featured in commercials on cable TV and notice the reports of deception, fraud, and corporate stonewalling about such reports.

And the result? 

The guy I hired to shovel the heavy snow this morning started expostulating about how Obama was destroying the Constitution by using "more executive orders than anybody ever." I told him Bush used more than Obama has, and so did Reagan. "I don't believe that." Just like that. "Don't believe it." I said he could check it out. "Don't believe it anyway." He listens to Fox News and Hannity.

This is what the nation is up against. Massive disinformation and so very many people who trust nothing but their own gut opinions, shaped by the confusing onslaught of "lies, scurrilous rumor and valuable information."

In the absence of trustworthy information, passions rule. Democracies are crippled, unable to deal with the challenges that really face them. And it becomes clearer why "Thou shalt not bear false witness" makes serious sense.



1. Charles Blow, "A Pen, a Phone and a Meme" in the New York Times, February 7, 2014.

2. The Daily Show, "Koch Blocked", February 5, 2014,