Wednesday, November 30, 2005

God’s Garden

In a comment on a recent post of mine on agency, Mike W. asked if the form of determinism to which I subscribe is ‘defined by an external modifier’ or allows for an ‘internal motivator.’ Here I explain why I don't think a ‘blank slate’—in which people are completely determined by external conditioning—could be the whole story in either a mortal or eternal perspective.

In a purely mortal perspective, I am sympathetic to E. O. Wilson’s position discussed a few posts back: human nature was forged over millions of years of evolution, leaving us an inheritance of deeply-seated emotions and “biased channels of learning.” I would call these influences on us ‘internal’ because they are integrated into our individual biological selves. However, because our ‘selves’ exhibit some plasticity, contemporaneous external conditioning still plays a very important role, and external events can have lifelong impacts: childhood training, fatal accidents, and so on can have a big say on our ultimate mortal fate.

A Mormon eternal perspective adds two things that fundamentally change the deterministic factors that ultimately affect an individual’s final status. The first factor is the existence of an uncreated, eternal, individual ‘intelligence’ beneath whatever biological and cultural legacies we have inherited. This intelligence can be compared to a particular seed that, given the right conditions, will grow into a particular kind of plant. The second factor is reservoirs of time and divine power beyond the grave.

In this eternal perspective, the Father would eventually bring each individual intelligence to its full potential. He would use agents where he could but would expend his own individual time and resources if it were necessary, on earth or in heaven, to provide the conditions for each individual to (deterministically) unfold to its greatest potential. Time and divine power beyond the grave would allow any earthly biological or cultural factors to eventually be overcome. Hence the only factors that ultimately matter would be the uncreated individual intelligence and God’s provision of the needed conditions for its development. Whether I had good or bad parents or Church leaders, had ever heard the gospel, had been killed prematurely, etc. would ultimately not matter to my individual fate. (Whether my parents had been good or bad to me, whether someone shared the gospel with me, etc. would play an important role in determining their individual fate, however.)

I’m far from convinced that any perspective beyond a mortal one corresponds to reality; but if there is an eternal perspective, the version that makes sense to me is that God’s works are like a garden that in the end is perfectly tended: taking the many seeds he is given—which have a range of inherent potentials—he ensures that each is ultimately able to unfold to its best possible final state.

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Kiss of Death

Are you a Mormon parent or leader ever on the lookout for new ways to scare youth into living the law of chastity?

If so, consider adding this story to your arsenal. It may help to persuade your hormone-drenched youngsters that they should not even kiss.

(Hat tip: Drudge Report.)

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Friday, November 25, 2005

Agency in Nature, Agency in Humanity

In an interesting thread on theodicy by LisaB at Feminist Mormon Housewives, the question of whether ‘nature’ or ‘the elements’ have ‘agency’ arose, and at one point several scriptures in the Abraham creation account describing the ‘obedience’ of various subsystems of creation were cited.

While the term “obey” is in fact used in the Abraham creation account, if the scriptures are meant primarily to teach us about the meaning of human life, then I'm not sure we should read too much into the word “obey” telling us something fundamental about the nature of everything in a scientific sense. “Obey” might simply be a user-friendly, non-scientific way of expressing the idea that the Gods worked with or even simply watched over complicated systems—systems operating by natural law, not moral agency—until they were satisfied that they would be stable over the time scales they intended for human history.

Or instead, we could presume a tight connection between ‘agency’ and the scriptural use of “obey,” but turn it on its head and give it a Spinozist twist. Say we know those systems referred to in the Abraham passages operate by natural law; then “obey” is simply a description/definition of the orderly and stable operation of a complex system; then the passages are also teaching us, indirectly, that our own human ‘obedience’ and ‘agency’ are also ultimately nothing more than the orderly operation of a complex physical system operating completely and deterministically under natural law. (I’m guessing this perspective won’t garner many takers!)

(A few other self-centered notes on the FMH thread: I entered it with a quip about the male-centric phrase “man’s inhumanity to man” being used on a feminist blog, but was then persuaded to give a more substantive take on theodicy here and here. I engaged the question about the elements having agency here.)

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Seer Stones for All

In connection with my theorem on the use of seer stones by modern church leaders, Clark reminded us of D&C 130:10-11, in which Joseph taught that everyone in the celestial kingdom will receive a seer stone—specifically, a white stone that will function as a Urim and Thummim (see also here).

It turns out there’s no need to wait for the celestial kingdom; the future is now! These white stones are already available, ahead of schedule. And if you’re like me, you’ll choose a black one instead!

Capable of storing up to 15,000 songs, 25,000 photos, or 150 hours of video, that’s not a bad Urim and Thummim in my book. Especially when there’s no righteousness or burning of the bosom required: if you’ve got $299, your physical eyes and ears will deliver its digital clarity directly and unambiguously to even the most carnal of minds (I guess they call that priestcraft). The only thing it lacks is a wireless connection, but the growing sophistication of mobile phones, Blackberries, etc. shows that this isn’t far off either.

While such devices might give us a glimpse of what might be possible in the celestial kingdom, they don’t give us any insight into Joseph’s seer stone, which is extant and known not to contain any technology like unto an iPod or mobile phone. I’ve already disclosed on the other thread that I don’t think the seer stone played any physical role in the receipt of revelation. But as I said at the end of that thread, I have yet to synthesize what I think some possible weaknesses in my seer stone theorem are. Stay tuned.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Seer Stones Are Used by Modern Church Leaders

Theorem. President Hinckley, his counselors in the First Presidency, and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve use seer stones today.

Proof. The men listed in the theorem are sustained as seers. “…the possession and use of these stones were what constituted ‘seers’ in ancient or former times…” (JS-H 1:35). But “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing” (Morm. 9:9 and many others). Q.E.D. (Note the cute alternate meanings for this Latin abbreviation!)

Remark. Note that Mosiah 8:13 and 28:13-16 are not strong enough to make this argument. From these we learn that possession and use of seer stones are sufficient to call someone a seer, but their language does not entail the necessity of their use. It is from JS-H 1:35 that we learn that use of stones is constitutive of seership.

Something to keep in mind the next time you sustain them. ;->


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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Is There Equality in the Heavens?

Frank asked, “So which matters more, inequality or poverty?” Russell seized on one phrase of my answer: “Let’s face it. Equality is not a value of the heavens.” Citing several proof-texts, he said I was “totally, spectacularly, and ridiculously wrong.” I’ll admit my response was a bit flippant, but if I’m going to be that wrong, let’s not hold back! For the sake of argument, in the venerable spirit of Bible-bashing I’ll cite a couple of other scriptures in response—if only to dig myself in deeper, and maybe learn something in the process.

In eternity, capacities and opportunities to build kingdoms will be exercised, and this requires ‘capital’ in some broad sense, for which the scriptures do not guarantee ‘equality’ as this term is often conceptualized. My original statement referred not to one’s relationship to God—which, as Russell pointed out, would be irrelevant—but instead to “degrees of glory,” as I said in my original answer. I was thinking along the lines of “an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory” not available to all; and even beyond that, highlighting ‘inequalities’ even among those who are “true and faithful,” the parable of the talents. Note that even the profitable servants did not at either the beginning or end of the parable have the same amount, but each received and produced according to their capacity. (I suppose a philosophy of eternal beings that are 'uncreated unequal' underpins this, cf. Abraham 3).

What did equality come to mean with Joseph and Brigham in practice? They had by far the most ‘capital’ (wealth, lands, wives, authority, etc.). Presumably this was because they were most capacitated to do something worthwhile with it. In this light, the scriptures Russell cited might be interpreted in a couple of different ways. (1) They might involve early conceptions of a young, naive, immature Joseph, idealistic in a manner simply not consistent with reality. The latest scripture Russell cited was recorded in 1832. (2) The scriptural sense of ‘equality’ might mean not that everyone has the same amount of ‘stuff’ or ‘capital,’ but instead a condition in which the various grades of intelligences have access to the resources necessary to reach their full potential, and therefore maximize the benefit they can be to others, and therefore maximize the general welfare and prosperity.
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Bannergate: Print Edition

An article on the Banner of Heaven appears in today’s Salt Lake Tribune.

The article features responses to Bannergate from a random John and Julie in Austin. Consider yourself warned: whatever you say on a blog, even as a commenter, could suddenly become more widely read than you realized! If you’re paranoid about such things, it’d be a good idea not to say anything on a blog you wouldn’t want quoted in a newspaper.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Hand-wringing After All: Polygamy’s Pendulum

I said that I couldn’t bring myself to wring my hands too much about 19th century Mormon polygamy. But maybe I will after all—just a little.

Why say more? Two reasons. First, I came across a news story about the French complaints that Muslim polygamy played a role in the riots. This filled in some lacunae in my sketchy memory of the skimpy blurb on MSNBC I mentioned yesterday, and inspired another thought—this time, a hand-wringing one. Second, yesterday’s post generated no comments as of this writing, and for some perverse reason I feel inclined to continue a conversation (well, monologue for the moment) in which there seems to be little interest.

It turns out that what I called “French authorities” were senior conservative politicians whose specific complaint was that youth from large polygamous families become anti-social due to the lack of a father-figure, presumably because the father has to divide his time. (I suppose racism and the ghettoization of minorities would not be the first possible explanations to occur to such conservatives.) Given Mormon conservatism today, I find it interesting that it’s conservatives arguing against large (and polygamous) families.

This inspires the following armchair thesis: the signature Mormon ‘hyperisms’ of social conservatism and patriotism—and associated allegiance to the Republican Party—are lingering overcompensations for our polygamy, resistance to federal authority, and indifference (or worse) to the cause of the Union (Lincoln’s Republican Party famously railed against polygamy and slavery as the ‘twin relics of barbarism’). In the 19th century we were sexually, economically, and politically radical; but a pendulum was deliberately swung all the way to the other side at the opening of the 20th century as our people’s entrance fee to American society.

This hanging pendulum may now be a sort of hangover (forgive the mixed but homophonic metaphor), suspended still in its high unstable extremity, awkwardly now as the society whose acceptance we craved a century ago moves on and forgets the particular norms of the era in which Mormonism’s modern identity happened to be expediently forged. Have we been left holding the bag with this historically contingent socially conservative identity (I’m loving the word ‘contingent’ this week), now irreversibly hardened into our consciousness—once again a peculiar people as the 21st century opens, strange and backward in the eyes of the world?
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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Polygamy’s Bitter Fruit?

One of the great things about a room in Seattle’s Watertown hotel is that its television sits high on a swivel, so that you can turn it around 180 degrees so as to watch it in the mirror while shaving (see the description near the top and fourth picture down here). This morning, over a banner that I think read “Polygamy Problems,” it was briefly reported on MSNBC that some French authorities are blaming their recent marathon of riots on the fact that large Muslim polygamist families are producing too many disturbed young Arab men. This led, of course, to the sort of deep insight that can only come while shaving.

“Disturbed” young men: What, are they mad about all the young women being taken by the powerful, older elite men? So that’s what’s behind these riots. I can see how that could lead to a lot of pent-up frustration…

“Too many” young men: Maybe these French authorities aren’t aware that polygamy is alleged to reduce the overall fecundity of a population. Before I heard of this claim, I used to like to explain polygamy to my bewildered/snickering non-Mormon friends by saying that without its capacity to generate large populations I wouldn’t be here today. Hence the obvious necessity of polygamy: Where would the world be without me? But this claim must be modified if the social scientists’ critique of lower fecundity holds water. I guess now the argument is that, while I might still be present somewhere on this planet without polygamy, I wouldn’t be the high-octane badass you see before you without the genetic and cultural legacies bequeathed by such elites as John Taylor and Nathaniel Jones. Let no one call me a bitter fruit of polygamy!

(Parenthetical 1: This—quality rather than quantity—may be the true meaning of Jacob’s explanation of polygamy, as opposed to the nearly universal (but perhaps naive and short-sighted) interpretation in terms of raw numbers. The corollary is that polygamy undertaken by the unworthy or unfit would be especially abominable.)

(Parenthetical 2: Ancestry that includes John Taylor is—along with ownership of a deluxe leather-bound limited special edition of Mormon Doctrine and fond (and detailed) memories of the Truman Madsen Joseph Smith tapes—another commonality I share with the illustrious Aaron B. Cox that I forgot to mention. Good company.)

While I’ve written tongue-in-cheek here, I must say that contemplating the historical contingency of my particular existence drives home the lesson of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, writ large to apply to the history of my Mormon ancestry. According to Mormon theology my premortal spirit—‘me’ in some sense—still would have ended up here on Earth, somewhere, sometime. But my present phenotype—‘me’ in a much fuller sense—consists not only of heavenly and earthly genotypes, but the epigenetic totality of my experience and unfolding development in the presence of various historical and environmental factors. There may be unpleasant things in our individual and collective pasts; and while we may need redemption or see a need to change directions as we face the future, to contemplate actually erasing our past is as unbearable as the thought of annihilation. For ultimately it would be tantamount to annihilation: there is an important sense in which material alteration of the past would mean that ‘I,’ as I am today, would simply not exist. (This insight into the ‘vale of tears’ that is this mortal probation is perhaps what led BYU professor Eric Samuelsen to call Eternal Sunshine “the most ‘Mormon’ film of the last two years.”)

It is an insight that may translate with greater, even existential force into a Spinozist perspective. Hence in my bones I love and embrace my people and the totality of its history as it was and as it produced me as I am today. I simply can’t bring myself to wring my hands too much about any ‘bitter fruit’ of 19th century Mormon polygamy.
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Monday, November 14, 2005

Spinozist in Seattle

[UPDATE, 8 December 2005: I’m adding an image that shows the Seattle skyline roughly as it looked from my window at the Watertown hotel, and also reminds readers of the source of this post’s title!]

Travel being an occasional part of my work, I thought it might be interesting to start giving a shout out to those places I visit.

You see, reading Ronan’s post about his recent trip to Utah made me feel the loss of a similar missed opportunity. I gave a talk in the Physics and Astronomy department at BYU the last week of September, but by failing to announce that trip here at my blog, I deprived Utah Bloggernacle readers of the opportunity to hear about “Core-collapse Supernovae: Phenomenological Bonanza, Computational Challenge.” I tremble to think of the irredeemable loss caused by this unconscionable oversight!

This time: Seattle. I arrive today and depart Friday morning. I’ve been there a few times before—love the place—but I’m always grateful for sightseeing and restaurant suggestions from the locals (and anyone else with local knowledge). And if by chance you’re attending SC|05, be sure and stop by Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s booth, to learn about the National Center for Computational Sciences, the supernova simulations going on there, and—of course—to say hello.
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Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Harvard Scientist Throws Down the Gauntlet

Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson has a short opinion piece in New Scientist (hat tip to David Bailey, a subscriber to Eyring-L) that describes “three opposing images of the human condition,” and suggests that we should consign religion to the dustbin of history (not his words!).

The three worldviews he lists are (1) the great monotheistic religions, in which humanity is created by and responsible to God; (2) political behaviorism, which sees humans as blank slates molded by historical contingency and moldable by cultural/political/economic systems; and (3) scientific humanism, a “more radical view” (and by far the minority one), which claims that human nature was forged over millions of years of evolution, leaving us an inheritance of deeply-seated emotions and “biased channels of learning.”

He claims that political behaviorism implies communism, which has been tested on large scales and found to be a miserable failure; and that while monotheistic religion remains with us, it is problematic, leaving scientific humanism as the best option:
There is something deep in religious belief that divides people and amplifies societal conflict. The toxic mix of religion and tribalism has become so dangerous as to justify taking seriously the alternative view, that humanism based on science is the effective antidote, the light and the way at last placed before us.

Religions continue both to render their special services and to exact their heavy costs. Can scientific humanism do as well or better, at a lower cost?
If you heard Wilson make these claims and ask this question at a cocktail party, how would you respond?
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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

“Voluntary Suspensions” Required by “Scriptural Theology”

Attempts at systematic theology in Mormonism tend not to stand the test of time; it is the revelatory and historical narratives that retain vitality and endure to be reinterpeted and reapplied on an individual basis in every generation. This means that most believers end up with an ad hoc, informal, often subconscious and implicit worldview. However, philosophers cannot help themselves, and in an interesting post Jim F. describes what he considers a legitimate form of systematic theology. His “scriptural theology” is defined by a method (“keeps its eye on the word of God as its origin”) and a goal (“intimate relation”—understanding and experience of “human being and our relation to God”). I complained that this approach seemed to require “voluntary suspension of the totality of our experience and knowledge, and the urge to integrate it all.”

Jim F. explained further, but I’m not sure I’m really ‘getting it’ yet, beyond recognizing the possibility that what I called an “artificial boundary demarcation” (or might also call ‘putting blinders on’) might be considered instead a helpful focus—on “the God we worship” rather than “the metaphysical god.” I am not yet sure these can be separated. The claim that they can be separated seems to require abandoning (Joseph’s?) claim in the Lectures on Faith that one comes to rely on God because of knowledge of his (metaphysical?) attributes. (Of course, the Lectures on Faith may be the Mormon index case of pathological theology Jim F. argues ought not be done: after all, they were dropped from the canon, in spite of the fact that their presence was responsible for the word “Doctrine” in the title Doctrine and Covenants, as the 1835 edition makes clear.)

In any case, I’ll try here to articulate what I meant by my “voluntary suspension” statement by giving one example in terms of method and one that suggests why “metaphysical questions” might in fact be relevant to the goal of intimacy with God.

First, an example of “voluntary suspension” in terms of method. The word of God teaches me about God’s creation of myself and my world. Presumably I am taught these things in order to convince me that (a) I have a relationship with God, and (b) it is a relationship that ought to be characterized by my obedience to him. However, allowing “the totality of our experience and knowledge” into the picture (scientific evidence in this case) raises the possibility that the scriptural account of creation is inaccurate, with possible consequences for the notions of whether I have a relationship with God or what is legitimately required in terms of obedience. Because I consider science a valid enterprise, I am uncomfortable with a focus on scripture that excludes consideration of the impacts of scientific claims on ‘theology.’

Next, an example of the “voluntary suspension” of questions relevant to the goal of intimacy with God. The word of God teaches me that God has control over the elements, and gives numerous examples and warnings of his willingness to exercise that control as a way of rewarding faith and punishing disobedience. (This is a major difference with the members of one’s family, and reveals an important limitation of the analogy with familial relationships.) On the other hand, our day-to-day observations of the world show that the elements cause considerable pain to innocent others. This raises questions about God’s existence, power, or benevolence, and therefore has potential consequences for my trust in and intimacy with him. By enforcing focus on the word of God, Jim F.’s “scriptural theology” would by fiat exclude from consideration our observations of pain to innocent others; but I am uncomfortable with the exclusion of such obvious empirical input.

I recognize that by legitimizing questions of theodicy based on observations of pain to others, I am at odds with a principle I have previously espoused when it favored me in my guilt—withholding judgment when one is not personally affected. I think I must retreat from that position to some extent, or at least qualify it. Our social interactions are sufficiently complex as to rely not only on direct reciprocity, but also indirect reciprocity and a presupposition of general adherence to cultural norms. In this context the establishment of reputations becomes necessary, and basing them in part on well-established observations that do not directly involve us may become legitimate. (Our proclivity for gossip suggests that in bygone ages or under dysfunctional civil authority it was/is necessary or at least effective, sort of like black markets in dysfunctional economies.) Therefore, it might be argued, it is legitimate to establish a reputation for God based on his observed actions with respect to the elements. I suppose one rejoinder may be that God is not just another member of our society but is a unique outsider above and beyond it (‘Where wert thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ and so on), and could never be in our debt, and therefore the concepts of reciprocation and cultural norms and reputation do not apply to him. Another (related I guess) is that it may be impossible for us to justly evaluate the facts, both because he operates on spatial and temporal scales beyond normal human consideration (‘My ways are higher than your ways’ and so forth), and because we may not be privy to comfort he may in fact provide innocent others in their extremities.
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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Spinozist Musings

On this page—linked permanently on the sidebar for your convenience—I collect links to my more, uh, ‘inspired’ posts on questions of faith and evidence. While some are impatient with such “beginners’ questions” and “threshold issues,” they are important in setting a proper direction, and therefore repay careful and continued consideration.

The identity and nature of the muse that inspired these musings is not clear.
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Monday, November 07, 2005

People of the (newly-forged) Relics

A few days ago I made on offhand comment about “Mormon confidence in and taste for ontological realities.” The true magnitude of that taste for concreteness was subsequently opened to my view during a perusal of the Deseret Book Christmas catalog. Check these out:



The Deseret Book web pages for the Brass Plates and the Liahona reveal that these are not intended as gimmicks, nor mere kitsch. This is indicated not only by the nontrivial price tags ($295 each), but also by the inclusion of an accompanying “certificate of authenticity” (!). Also apparently on the way soon—I kid you not—the Sword of Laban ($345). (Speaking of which, I also note that some are not satisfied with commemorative reproductions: a counselor in a stake presidency once told me enthusiastically of the credence he gave a supposedly well-sourced rumor that the First Presidency retains the Sword of Laban in its vaults.)

I wonder what the FARMS folk think of these newly-forged relics. In the Editor’s Introduction to a recent issue of the FARMS Review of Books, Daniel C. Peterson derives a mocking corollary to Dan Vogel’s hypothesis that Joseph fabricated a crude mock-up of plates to deceive his followers:
But once we’ve posited a previously unnoticed Deseret Custom Design Metal Foundry operating under Joseph's management on the outskirts of Palmyra, that industrial concern also needs to produce the breastplate seen by various witnesses, as well as the brass plates, the Urim and Thummim, the sword of Laban, and the Liahona. One wonders how many skilled metallurgists and craftsmen were available in the area at the time, what the local wage scale was, and why nobody ever seems to have reported the noise and the belching smoke of Joseph’s fraud-producing furnaces.
(According to the Deseret Book online descriptions, the modern masters of curious workmanship busy filling out Peterson’s shopping list have not taken the name Deseret Custom Design Metal Foundry, but instead simply LDS Artifacts.) Despite the disdain this statement manifests for the theory that Joseph may have fashioned a (possibly well-intentioned) fraudulent prop aimed at boosting faith among his intimates who did not share his capacities as a seer, I would not be surprised if hard-core apologists in Peterson’s mold were among those most delighted by these modern celebrations of the transient Nephite artifactual irruptions into the real world that accompanied Mormonism’s birth. Perhaps more than one such apologist will be lucky enough to find one of these treasures under the tree this year!

Reading over what I have written here, I am not sure I should be happy with its unmistakably (if mildly) derisive tone. I wish I could say that I’m merely amused by Mormon artistic tastes and dispassionately following Brother Peterson’s signature stylistic lead. In fact, I suppose questions surrounding the nature of divine manifestations touch a nerve with me. I may simply be proud, fancying myself passionate about verifiable ontologies (I am, after all, a physicist) and rightfully suspicious of inadequately supported ones. Whatever my degree of guilt for intellectual pride, I am frustrated by evidence purposefully withheld: if, in the interest of requiring the exercise of faith, God has seen fit to take the original artifacts unto himself (except perhaps, as noted, the Sword of Laban!), who are we to forge reliquary Towers of Babel as celebratory substitutes? (I’m aware that “reliquary” is, officially, only a noun. I invite you to consider my present use as an adjective not erroneous, but linguistically groundbreaking. ;-> )

If we consider ourselves—like other great monotheistic faiths—‘People of a Book,’ do we mean the text, or the putative physicality of its elusive relics? It is, I suspect, principally the latter. Present-day exercise of authority correlates and governs the details of Mormon life to a much greater extent than the specifics of the Book of Mormon text—and the source of that celebrated authority is not the self-evident wisdom of scriptural precepts and contemporary prophetic teachings, nor the democratically elaborated consent of the governed, but the perceived concreteness of the founding manifestations.
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Friday, November 04, 2005

Technorati Brings Traffic from “Real Media”

If your posts ever refer to articles from the mass media, I recommend getting your blog set up with Technorati (see for example the link on my sidebar). The reason is that the “real media” seem to be setting up links in their articles along the lines of ‘What are blogs saying about this article?’ In the case of the Washington Post, at least, this facility is autmotically powered by Technorati; this resulted in your humble blog here being linked to by the Washington Post twice yesterday (here and here), since I cited two of their articles on Sam Alito. I don’t know how many outlets are doing this yet, or if services other than Technorati are being used, but this is the kind of thing that seems likely to spread. Notice also that cable news channels sometimes have segments along the lines of ‘What are the blogs saying about this?’ All of this suggests that blogging is becoming a permanent and more influential medium.
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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Sam Alito: Two, make that Three Quickies

Two of the first things I read about Sam Alito’s Supreme Court nomination were, while not profound, kinda funny.

The first has to do with my nomination conspiracy theories. Like any conspiracy theory worthy of the name, the part about the Miers nomination being phony from the beginning as a long-prepared distraction is completely untestable. The testable part of my prediction—that the new nominee would be announced on Friday, the same day as the Libby indictment—turned out to be wrong. But that’s only because the White House realized that not even the American people could be fooled by so direct and crass an attempt to keep the indictment of a White House official out of the news. With Rove dodging the bullet, and lingering coverage of the Miers withdrawal the day before as a mitigating factor, they decided they’d be better off with one very bad news day on Friday than with charges of being completely craven in their manipulation of news cycle. Then they could start fresh on Monday, announcing Alito’s nomination before anyone woke up, and dominate the coverage the entire week.

Anyway, to get to the first point (I guess that hasn’t been so quick after all): The timing of the nomination has in fact been effective in submerging the indictments, for which I offer two pieces of evidence, one official and one funny. Quoth the Washington Post regarding the Democrats’ motivation for their closed session stunt: “Democrats were dismayed that President Bush made no apologies after the indictment and that his naming of a new Supreme Court nominee Monday knocked the Libby story off many front pages.” It’s a point made more incisively, however, by the very first thing I read about Alito’s nomination: the rules of this drinking game.

The second amusing thing I read about Alito that first day was the very end of Monday morning’s Washington Post story, a point that should thrill religious social conservatives everywhere:
In the area of church and state, Alito has been consistently supportive of the conservative view that the courts should be more accommodating when considering state entanglement with religion. He wrote a majority opinion in ACLU v. Schundler, holding that a city's holiday display that included a creche and menorah did not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment because it included secular symbols as well, such as Frosty the Snowman.
Wow! Able to demolish the ACLU with Frosty the Snowman! Now that’s what I call a badass conservative judge. Imagine the good for humanity he could do if he were teamed with Spiderman, or Batman and Robin, or the Fantastic Four!

Bonus third quickie, an entire article actually, since it took me several days to get around to writing this: today’s Washington Post amasses piles of anecdotes from his Senate courtesy calls that lead to a devastating conclusion: Sam Alito is a nerd, big time. Even though “Washington is a town of geeks and misfits who, for the most part, suppress their inner dorks much of the time,” Alito apparently stands out, especially in contrast to John Roberts:
Alito has the disadvantage of following John Roberts, who was just as smart but carried himself like a big man on campus: athletic build, quick humor and good looks. Compared with Roberts, Alito looks as if he were in town for a “Star Trek” convention.
While the piece seems to be regrettably tainted by (male) reporter Dana Milbank’s evident mancrush on John Roberts, we can nevertheless be grateful for this stellar example of the elite media’s serious and insightful coverage of this critical confirmation process.
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