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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dick Cheney's imperial presidency.

Charlie Savage, who has been covering the White House's extraordinary expansions of presidential power for the Boston Globe, offers a disturbing portrait of Vice President Dick Cheney, the architect of President Bush's imperium. Savage reviews Cheney's career and the ideas he has promoted ever since Donald Rumsfeld hired him way back in 1969. He writes:

The Iran-contra scandal was not the first time the future vice president articulated a philosophy of unfettered executive power — nor would it be the last. The Constitution empowers Congress to pass laws regulating the executive branch, but over the course of his career, Cheney came to believe that the modern world is too dangerous and complex for a president's hands to be tied. He embraced a belief that presidents have vast "inherent" powers, not spelled out in the Constitution, that allow them to defy Congress.

Cheney bypassed acts of Congress as defense secretary in the first Bush administration. And his office has been the driving force behind the current administration's hoarding of secrets, its efforts to impose greater political control over career officials, and its defiance of a law requiring the government to obtain warrants when wiretapping Americans. Cheney's staff has also been behind President Bush's record number of signing statements asserting his right to disregard laws.

A close look at key moments in Cheney's career — from his political apprenticeship in the Nixon and Ford administrations to his decade in Congress and his tenure as secretary of defense under the first President Bush — suggests that the newly empowered Democrats in Congress should not expect the White House to cooperate when they demand classified information or attempt to exert oversight in areas such as domestic surveillance or the treatment of terrorism suspects.

And if that story doesn't make you feel warm and fuzzy about the tyrants in the executive branch, read Jeffrey Toobin's New Yorker article about how Sen. Arlen Specter finally caved in to White House pressure and gave up on habeas corpus in the vote on the Military Commissions Act on September 28. Habeas corpus is that teeny, tiny, insignificant 800-year-old foundational legal principle written into Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution — "the principal means in Anglo-American jurisprudence by which prisoners can challenge their incarceration," Toobin explains — that Cheney et al. think the amazing war on terror has rendered obsolete. See, the White House believes it should be able to capture any non-citizen, anywhere in the world, at any old time, and keep them locked up without charge for as long as they deem appropriate — and the detainee should never be allowed to sue. Because, as we have seen, our government is so trustworthy! Who needs checks and balances when we have a leader as wise as Dick Cheney.

("Hail to the chief: Dick Cheney's mission to expand — or 'restore' — the powers of the presidency," Charlie Savage, Boston Globe 11.26.06, reg req'd; "Killing habeas corpus: Arlen Specter's about-face," Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker 12.4.06; earlier at Philocrites: "Dick Cheney's omnipotent hand" 5.29.06)

Posted by Philocrites, November 29, 2006, at 07:48 AM | 2 comments

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Five questions about me.

Joseph Santos-Lyons sent me five questions by email. You can read the interview that resulted over at Radical Hapa.

Posted by Philocrites, November 28, 2006, at 09:45 PM | 0 comments

Monday, November 27, 2006

This week at Use words to heal.

Mary Pipher calls on us to avoid using words as weapons. She writes:

Language is weaponized when it is used to objectify, depersonalize, dehumanize, to create an "other." Once a person is labeled as "not like us," the rules for civilized behavior no longer apply. . . .

Progressives as well as conservatives have their way of dehumanizing. They hurl stones when they use terms such as "fundamentalist," "rednecks," or "right-wing conservatives" in derisive ways that allow no room for nuances, individual differences, or empathy with their adversaries' points of view.

I am not interested in weapons, whether words or guns. I want to be part of the rescue team for our tired, overcrowded planet. The rescuers will be those people who help other people to think clearly, and to be honest and open-minded. They will be an antidote to those people who disconnect us. They will de-objectify, rehumanize, and make others more understandable and sympathetic.

Pipher's essay is an excerpt from her latest book, Writing to Change the World.

In the news this week, Don Skinner reports that a Unitarian Universalist church in Finksburg, Md., has been vandalized three times this fall — and vandals in Media, Penn., descrated the rainbow flag at the UU church there. Jane Greer reports on an Oxfam "hunger banquet" sponsored by the youth group at the UU Church of Greater Lynn, Mass. And Sonja Cohen tracks other Unitarian Universalists in the media for the news blog.

Posted by Philocrites, November 27, 2006, at 07:30 AM | 3 comments

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Wednesday: Richardson on new William James bio.

'William James' by Robert D. RichardsonFans of Robert D. Richardson's literary biographies — Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind and Emerson: The Mind on Fire — will undoubtedly share my interest in his latest project, a biography of the psychologist (and religious liberal) William James. For readers in the Boston area: Richardson will discuss William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism at the Harvard Bookstore in Harvard Square, Cambridge, on Wednesday, November 29, at 6:30 p.m. No ticket required.

Posted by Philocrites, November 26, 2006, at 09:39 PM | 3 comments

PeaceBang: Barbara Brown Taylor's 'Leaving Church.'

PeaceBang reviews Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith: "This is a beautifully written book, but as dressed up as it is with deep insights and memorable phrases, it's still just a book about extreme clergy burn-out."

And while I'm mentioning bloggers' book reviews, take a look at Chalicechick and Ms Kitty's reviews of pop novelist (and Unitarian Universalist) Laura Pedersen's so-so trilogy, in which there are apparently UU characters. The books are Beginner's Luck, Heart's Desire, and The Big Shuffle. I read Pedersen's first novel, Going Away Party, and didn't see anything in it to make me want to read more of her fiction. Much more interesting, however, is the fact that her publicist contacted bloggers (like Chalicechick and me) offering review copies.

Posted by Philocrites, November 26, 2006, at 08:23 PM | 1 comments

From bleacher to pew and back again.

Many families have a hard time balancing church with sports schedules. But how does the balancing act play out in the family of the minister — especially when the minister's wife is a sports junkie who has no personal interest in religion? That's the oh-these-modern-times question a column takes up in this week's Boston Globe Magazine — and halfway through it, I realized it was about the family of the wonderful priest who solemnized my marriage. (Small world.)

Mrs Philocrites and I are unlikely to face this particular conundrum because we both come down on the pew side of this cultural divide. And any athletic prowess any future Philo Jr might show will not, I'm sorry to say, be attributable to heredity.

If you're a parent feeling overwhelmed by your kids' schedules, consider contacting Putting Family First, one of the organizations promoted by family scholar (and Unitarian Universalist) William J. Doherty.

("Play-by-pray," Polly Ingraham, Boston Globe Magazine 11.26.06, reg req'd; "What family time?" David Whitford, UU World Nov/Dec 2003)

Posted by Philocrites, November 26, 2006, at 10:02 AM | 0 comments

Friday, November 24, 2006

History Channel's engrossing Pilgrim docudrama.

Wow, did I get sucked in last night by the History Channel's three-hour docudrama, "Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower." (Seeing it on my in-laws' high-definition TV surely helped.) The mix of historical reenactments, narration from primary sources, and commentary by scholars was great, but it never felt "educational" — I was having a grand old time. I found the commentary by Wampanoag Indians and several Native American scholars especially illuminating. (You can order a DVD of the show.)

The only question I had about the show had to do with Separatist religious practices: Although the program showed the Pilgrims praying on several occasions, often with their hands raised heavenward, they didn't pray in Jesus' name. Fausto, PeaceBang, et al.: Do you know anything about how the Pilgrims prayed?

Posted by Philocrites, November 24, 2006, at 12:39 PM | 6 comments

Monday, November 20, 2006

This week at Pilgrims' progress.

Perhaps you've heard that many of New England's old Puritan churches of gradually evolved into Unitarian churches. But did you know that the congregation founded by the Pilgrims in Scrooby, England, way back in 1606 and transported to Plymouth (via the Netherlands) in 1620 is also the ancestor of a Unitarian Universalist congregation? Just in time for Thanksgiving, Kimberly French writes that the Plymouth UUs are celebrating the 400th anniversary of their Pilgrim past.

In the news this week, Don Skinner reports on some of the races in which Unitarian Universalists ran for elected office. The number of UUs in Congress is down to two — Sen. Kent Conrad was reelected in North Dakota; Rep. Pete Stark was reelected in California — but UUs also won secretary of state races in California and Minnesota. Meanwhile, Sonja Cohen tracks other Unitarian Universalists in the media.

Finally, a technical note: Last week, users of the newly released Windows web browser Internet Explorer 7 reported that they couldn't see articles. Argh! Sure enough, IE7 rendered big blank spaces where the headlines and articles were supposed to be. Unfortunately, the only simple way we could find to fix the problem for IE7 creates an annoying but more minor problem in the rendering of the advertising column for Firefox and Safari users. Everyone should now be able to read the site, but my colleagues and I are looking for a more satisfying long-term solution.

Posted by Philocrites, November 20, 2006, at 07:31 AM | 7 comments

Sunday, November 19, 2006

My name is Philocrites and I love LEGO.

LEGO engineer and engineIf Christine, Sean, and Enrique are bravely going to step forward and confess to their dorky love of video games, it's only fair that I acknowledge my abiding love of LEGOs. (I must dutifully note that the company insists they are LEGO® bricks, not "Legos." Whatever.) Here's my new alter-ego, Phil the Train Engineer, and his engine. A striking likeness, no?

My love of the bright plastic building blocks is nothing even remotely like the passion that leads to Amy Hughes's Abston Church of Christ, Holger Matthes's Frauenkirche Dresden, or Christopher Doyle's Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — to say nothing of Brendan Powell Smith's Brick Testament — but that may only be due to the fact that I don't have the disposable income or the floorspace that they have. (A LEGO King's Chapel or Unity Temple would be so cool . . .)

When Mrs Philocrites asked if I had ever thought about a LEGO train, I confessed that I had avoided it because it's sometimes best not to let a cat out of the bag, what with all the opportunities for expansion and new sets and so on. But, thanks to a coordinated birthday extravaganza with the in-laws, that cat is out of the bag. I'm already pondering a Star Wars mash-up: What would a train on Tatooine look like? Hmm.

One reason I find LEGO so gratifying right now is that it involves no computers and no words — a true reprieve from my occupation and its hazards. Ah, the weekend! I'm unlikely to write much about this diversion here, but you may find a LEGO creation or two popping up in my Flickr photostream.

Posted by Philocrites, November 19, 2006, at 11:20 AM | 4 comments

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Unitarian Universalists in 'Second Life' video game.

For the true geeks out there, here are some links to Unitarian Universalist places and events in the make-your-own-reality video game "Second Life." A character named Bizarre Berry is offering an Intro to Unitarian Universalism this Thursday; another character named UU Guru offered a film featuring UU young adults back in September; and someone has built a UU sanctuary — photo here — which I assume is where these events take place.

Never heard of "Second Life"? Here's a Business Week cover story about the phenomenon. (There's a booming economy inside "Second Life" with real-world effects.) Confession: I've learned about "Second Life" entirely through so-called dead tree media and haven't played the game. Who has the time? Rob Walker wrote about it for the New York Times Magazine last month and just last week Matt Gross wrote a travel column about it, complete with housing and dining tips! Atlantic Monthly subscribers will also be interested in Jonathan Rauch's long article about the future of video games: he's looking for the emergence of fine art in the genre.

("My virtual life," Business Week 5.1.06; "Selling to avatars," Rob Walker, New York Times Magazine 10.1.06, reg req'd; "It's my (virtual) world and welcome to it!," Matt Gross, New York Times 11.3.06, reg req'd; "Sex, lies, and videogames," Jonathan Rauch, Atlantic Monthly 11.06, sub req'd)

Update 11.19.06: Oh, yes, see also the first — and very excellent — article I read about "Second Life": "Does your life suck?" (Camille Dodero, Boston Phoenix 7.17.06).

Posted by Philocrites, November 15, 2006, at 07:28 AM | 7 comments

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What is a person? John wants to know.

John is asking Unitarian Universalists how they define "person" — you know, as in "the inherent worth and dignity of every person." Taking a cue from Chalicechick's earlier query about the differences between Shi'ite and Sunni Islam, John is taking responses as moderated comments so none of us will be able to read each other's answers until he has heard from a bunch of us. Head on over, put in your two cents, and come back later to see how the answers diverge.

Update 11.18.06: You can now see how nine of us responded before John revealed our answers. John follows up.

Posted by Philocrites, November 14, 2006, at 06:04 PM | 0 comments

Monday, November 13, 2006

This week at DIY fortune cookies.

Meg Barnhouse got a lame fortune cookie in a Chinese restaurant — what kind of fortune is "Where there's a will there's a way"? — so she set out to make her own. (It's an excerpt from her new collection, Did I Say That Out Loud?: Musings from a Questioning Soul.)

In the news, Jane Greer reports that the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame inducted Unitarian Universalist civil rights martyr Viola Liuzzo last month. Liuzzo, a Detroit UU, was killed by the Ku Klux Klan during the Selma voting rights campaign in 1965. (I retold the story of UU involvement in Selma back in 2001 when a recording of Martin Luther King Jr's eulogy for James Reeb, the other UU martyr in Selma, was discovered.)

Don Skinner reports that the University Unitarian Church in Seattle has raised $284,000 for a social justice fund in honor of senior minister Jon Luopa's 25 years at the church. Don also reports that inspectors could not identify the cause of a fire that destroyed the buildings of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Rock Tavern, New York, in September. And Sonja Cohen, keeping watch over Unitarian Universalists in the media, reports that Pluto's defenders are still fighting for the would-be planet — and, closer to home, that the Community Church of New York is considering changing its name to Community Congregation.

Update 11.14.06: A cautionary note to Windows IE users: Apparently IE 7 is making unreadable. Yet another reason to start using the free and standards-compliant Mozilla Firefox!

Update 11.18.06: In order to fix the IE 7 problem, my colleagues and I have had to tweak the site's stylesheet in a way that unfortunately makes things look a little bit wrong in Firefox and Safari. Everyone can now read the articles, but it's far from ideal — and a long-term solution is quite a ways down the road. Bill Gates: you make me cry.

Posted by Philocrites, November 13, 2006, at 07:41 AM | 6 comments

Saturday, November 11, 2006

I've updated my Guide to UU Blogs.

I'm embarrassed to realize that I forgot to announce long-overdue updates to my guide to Unitarian Universalist blogs, which I completed two weeks ago. Ta-da! If I've listed you, please make sure I've got the details right. If I haven't listed you, it's either because I didn't know about your blog, I forgot, or I thought your blog didn't touch on or directly address Unitarian Universalism. Please leave me a note here or email me if you'd like to propose changes or nominate new blogs for the list.

There are now so many Unitarian Universalism-related blogs that it's hard to keep track. My guide is only one of several out there, including the comprehensive UUpdates, my own UU Blogs Kinja digest, and the new UU Blogsearch.

Posted by Philocrites, November 11, 2006, at 09:16 AM | 2 comments

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Constitutional convention ends; no gay marriage vote.

Religious Coalition for the Freedom to MarryAs expected, the Massachusetts constitutional convention recessed this evening without voting on a petition from approximately 170,000 citizens to place a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the 2008 ballot. If the legislature doesn't vote on the initiative by the last day of its current session, next January 2, the petition is dead and the anti-gay marriage coalition would have to start all over again. If their turnout today is any indication, their enthusiasm for what would be a three-year uphill battle against the growing acceptance of gay marriage in Massachusetts is clearly waning.

Opponents of gay marriageOpponents of same-sex civil marriage argue that "the people," not the courts, should decide on significant changes to the law and to social convention. I am not entirely unsympathetic to this view, although I happen to believe that marriage is good for gay and straight couples alike as well as for their larger community. A wise court finds a way to enlist legislative support for expansions of constitutional liberties — as the Supreme Courts of Vermont and New Jersey have done concerning the rights of same-sex couples. But the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts went around the legislature in changing marriage law and left legislators with no choice but to comply or amend the Constitution (which they are naturally reluctant to do), leaving us caught in an ongoing tug-of-war between populist demagogues on the right and high-minded procedural maneuvering on the left.

Supporters of the Commonwealth's unique court-mandated marriage equality argue that the constitutional rights of a minority should never be put to a popular vote. That's a strong line, too. But it's not an argument that strikes most Americans as persuasive when it comes to gay marriage — so the fact that New Jersey's Supreme Court followed Vermont's lead is a good sign for future progress for same-sex couples. Future advances in marriage equality will come more gradually than in Massachusetts, through extending civil marriage rights in the form of "civil unions." For a while, anyway. Eventually, as people realize that legally binding unions really are extremely similar to "marriage" — and as people realize that they are attending "weddings" and considering same-sex couples they know as "married" — the need for a parallel legal term will fall away. But I don't see a way to skip the social transformation that still needs to take place before most Americans are really ready to accept it.

The Massachusetts legislature did the right thing by not putting the rights of a minority population up for a popular vote, but hopefully other state legislatures will not be put in the bind they've been in. Supporters of gay marriage in other states are left with the important but difficult work of building popular acceptance as a foundation for legal and constitutional protections; without that, courts can't protect people from a democratic backlash.

Here, by the way, are my pictures from today's competing rallies outside the Massachusetts State House.

Posted by Philocrites, November 9, 2006, at 08:54 PM | 17 comments

Mass. gay marriage ban on legislative agenda today.

State House rally for marriage equalityThe Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, which meets today, is scheduled to vote on a citizen petition to ban gay marriage by amending the state constitution. Gay marriage has been legal in Massachusetts since May 2004, of course, so the citizen petition seeks to "unmarry the neighbors," as E.J. Graff puts it. The constitutional convention has opted not to amend the constitution by itself in the last two years, outraging anti-gay marriage groups in the state, so conservative religious groups have launched a voter initiative instead. For the initiative to make it onto the 2008 ballot, it needs merely 50 yea votes from legislators in two consecutive constitutional conventions.

Frank Phillips reports today that House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi may have rounded up enough votes to force the convention to recess before voting on the initiative. Pro-gay marriage groups continue to argue that people's rights should not be put to a popular vote. And if you'd like to put in a good word for gay marriage today, there's a fine rally outside the State House — and good weather for it, too — or you can send some money to MassEquality.

Note: The picture here is from an earlier State House rally; I'll try to post pictures of today's rally this evening.

("Leaders seek to kill gay marriage ban," Frank Phillips, Boston Globe 11.9.06, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, November 9, 2006, at 08:52 AM | 5 comments

Building interfaith bridges of homophobia.

A year and a half ago, I noted the surprising coalition of men in dresses and fancy hats who joined together in Israel to oppose a gay rights march in Jerusalem. Today's Boston Globe reports that the coalition of disgust now has a soundtrack, a duet recorded by ultra-Orthodox singer Benny Elbaz and an unidentified Arab Muslim: "Jerusalem Will Burn!" In an act of self-fulfilling prophecy, ultra-Orthodox men are staging violent riots as part of a campaign to suppress tomorrow's scheduled march.

For more on the perverse interfaith alliance hatred is building in Israel, read on.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, November 9, 2006, at 07:40 AM | 2 comments

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

How did Unitarian Universalist candidates fare?

Okay, folks, if you know of candidates running for election today who are affiliated with Unitarian Universalist congregations, let's pool our knowledge and see how they fared. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn. 5) is the highest-profile Unitarian Universalist running — and it looks like she may lose the only spot in Congress held by a Unitarian Republican. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif. 13) is also up for reelection to Congress.

Who else do you know who ran for election today?

Posted by Philocrites, November 7, 2006, at 10:15 PM | 16 comments

Monday, November 6, 2006

After you vote, check in.

'Vote' posterYou're not too busy. You're not above it all. You're not insignificant. No matter where you live, no matter how gerrymandered your congressional district, you should make your way to your polling place and vote on Tuesday. (Personally, I think you should cast your vote against Karl Rove's politics of division and make the Republican Party suffer for refusing to govern from the center, to say nothing of the Republican-dominated Congress's inability to rein in George W. Bush's egregious abuses of executive power and his disastrous war in Iraq. But you don't need me to tell you how to vote. I trust your good judgment.) After you've voted — or if you've already voted by absentee ballot or by mail — come on back here and check in. What race or races do you feel passionately about?

Posted by Philocrites, November 6, 2006, at 10:11 PM | 26 comments

This week at William Schulz on torture.

William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA from 1994 to 2006, writes that twelve years of interaction with torture survivors and perpetrators challenged and reaffirmed his Unitarian Universalism. His unnerving essay, "What Torture Has Taught Me," questions the Unitarian Universalist affirmation of each person's inherent worth and dignity. (See also Kimberly French's profile of Schulz.)

In the news, Michelle Bates Deakin reports on the conversation late last month between UUA President William G. Sinkford and United Church of Christ President John Thomas. Celebrating the bicentennial of Andover Newton Theological School, they talked about the division of Massachusetts Congregationalists into their two denominations in the 19th century, and they talked about ways they hope to collaborate in the future — but contrary to rumors in the blogosphere, they are not considering merger.

Meanwhile, Sonja Cohen reports on the October meeting of the UUA Board of Trustees. She also keeps the news blog up to date, monitoring Unitarian Universalists in the media.

The Winter issue of the quarterly UU World magazine is in the mail now; here's a sneak preview of the contents. My inaugural "From the Editor" column appears in this issue. You may also be interested to note that has simplified its long and unwieldy URLs into much shorter ones, which should make the links easier to pass along to friends.

Posted by Philocrites, November 6, 2006, at 08:04 AM | 1 comments

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