Embryonic research in the fray.

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Oct. 20 2005 6:54 PM

Stemming the Tide

Embryonic research in the fray.

Buy and Cell: William Saletan reports that two recent experiments demonstrate that human embryonic stem-cell research may be attainable without killing embryos. Saletan suggests that this development could divide the religious right—"opponents of embryo killing from opponents of in vitro fertilization."

Has the report changed any minds in the Fray? You bet. Here's Chad-B:

I now withdraw my objections to stem-cell research, based upon this new technique of withdrawing one cell out of eight, and leaving a viable embryo behind. There are still many ethical issues to address, but at least in this case, I am satisfied that we are no longer killing one human being for the sake of another (and worse yet, forcing everyone to fund such insanity, like it or not).

So here we are, at the beginning of the high road. As I have said here countless times, it would not take long for us to find an ethical road to ES cells, and therefore there was little justification for taking the low road. In that respect, I feel that I have been shown correct.

If Bush had half a brain (a big if), he would pounce on this opportunity. Throw some big number at stem cell research, while rightly proclaiming that the value of keeping the high ground was worth the almost non-existent wait.

Arlington2 thinks that opponents of embryonic stem-cell research were never that concerned with the destruction of embryos. Rather ...

that humans are tinkering with God's plan for human life.

Only God should be able to create life, they believe. To be theologically consistent, they have to maintain that all life is sacred, every fertilization a heavenly miracle. This might explain why they're opposed to abortion in cases of rape or incest, or in circumstances where a baby will be born with spina bifida or a similar deformity…

Opposition to stem cell research is driven mostly by religious fears about humans supplanting God's authority. If we can unlock the secrets of life and death, much of the mystery, some might say superstition, goes away and religious leaders hold far less power over their followers. If medicine gains the ability to cure almost any disease, the opportunity to advise people, "It's in God's hands now. All we can do is pray," really diminishes.

People might turn to other people, doctors and researchers, when they needed help instead of asking the reverend what they should do. Doctors might be the new gods. Secular humanism could take over. More to the point, churches and clergy could be forced to stay out of medical affairs and attend to spiritual matters, which I would say is where they belong in the first place.

A bunch of fraysters tried to untangle the pro-lifer's fave—the oft-cited but amorphous "sanctity of human life." Trebuchet_ takes a stab:

Sanctity of Life is a human construct that belongs to God, not Nature, and Science deals with Nature, not God. Theologians should have been warned sixty years ago that Nature and science would not share their view on Sanctity of Life any longer when Oppenheimer declared "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

More on the sanctity of life from popzealot here.

Assassin of the Week: To Strawmen_of_America for a takedown of Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg's "Illiberal Prosecution." To Weisberg's contention that Bush opponents should suppress their schadenfreude, SoA retorts:

Leaks are classic tools of manipulation and misinformation. Do you honestly think that any "administration source" in the White House can talk to a New York Times or Washington Post reporter without its being known to Karl Rove or one of his deputies? Do you honestly think that Rove hasn't thought of using "leaks" as ways to get his message out?

Let's say Bush has had to regroup on Iraq. It's far better, politically, to have Bush just keep repeating the same bromides as before and have a "highly placed source" explain the administration's new thinking. That way the public doesn't hear the president admit he was wrong and the chattering classes think they're getting inside dope--exactly the inside dope Rove wants them to get, which counteracts the common charge that the administration is out of touch with reality.

The leak regarding Valerie Plame Wilson was not specifically intended as payback against her husband, and it certainly wasn't intended to harm her. It was intended to suggest that the CIA, which detests the administration (and the feeling is mutual), was sending its own guy to Nigeria to get the answer it wanted--cooked intelligence, exactly what the administration was being accused of. That is exactly how Novak used it in his column, and how Libby and Rove hoped that sympathetic journalists like Miller and Cooper would use it. In a moment of carelessness, the leakers overlooked the fact that Ms. Wilson was an undercover agent and that they were potentially violating the law by disclosing her CIA employment.

But their "leak" wasn't, as you seem to believe, a gold nugget unearthed by fearless and enterprising journalists determined to get the whole truth in front of the public. It was a Beltway political ploy using hand-picked reporters as administration tools. And so are most of the other "leaks" reporters are likely to happen upon. You see, "leaks" serve the interests of both sides. The politicians get a message across in a particularly persuasive way (by pretending they tried to hide it), and the reporters get a story with an element of drama in it. It is at least arguable that the public interest would best be served by stopping this charade.

Betty_the_Crow turns in a quality effort on White House plumbing as well.

Fray Survivor: The tribe has spokenSawbones has been booted … and Urquhart has been traded from the Foxfur Tribe to the Horsehead Tribe for alexa-blue, Alan Embree, and a conditional 2008 draft choice … KA3:45 p.m.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

How to Piss Off an Iraqi: According to Christopher Hitchens,

Just ask one, no sooner than you have been introduced: "So you're an Iraqi? How absolutely fascinating. Do tell: Are you a Kurd or a Sunni or a Shiite?" This will work every time…

But if Anonymous_Veteran wanted to piss off an Iraqi ...

I'd invade their country. Then, after the smoke cleared, I'd fail to restore peace, electricity, running water or economic stability. Also, instead of helping the Iraqis rebuild their country, I'd force them to accept brutally liberal economic policies and give reconstruction contracts to American companies in a process so rife with corruption and malfeasance that millions of dollars intended to be spent on rebuilding Iraq would simply be lost—unaccounted for. I would disband the Iraqi Army, too, just to put another 500,000 people out of work and dismantle what could have been the core of a working Iraqi security force. I would put expatriate Iraqis, especially criminals and CIA cronies like Ahmed Chalabi, in important positions of power. Then, in order to give the country "freedom," I would retreat behind the walls of a fortified complex, where in the luxury of Saddam's old palaces I would "guide" and "help" Iraq's "elected" government write a "constitution."

Fingerpuppet takes aim at "Hitch's ethnographic diversion," his calling the American media out for their "insistence on using partitionist and segregationist language that most journalists would (I hope) scorn to employ if they were discussing a society they actually knew":

Well, so what? I think the salient issue is why anyone in the Bush administration—people who certainly should have been aware of the ethnic and historical specifics of Iraq, even if they characteristically didn't—thought that blowing the lid off of this roiling ethnic stew would be at all likely to give rise to a peaceful and prosperous democracy. Or that it should be expected to take place while the meter was running on the American taxpayers back home. That Hitchens acknowledges that "civil war leading to partition" is still a distinct possibility in Iraq is, I think, an open admission of the shameful lack of judgment that went into conceiving and planning the Iraq war.

Care to discuss Iraqi-hyphenates? Post here.

Scopes II: Hanna Rosin's Dispatches from the Intelligent Design hearings in Harrisburg, Pa., (a must-read, in the parlance of "The Note") have fraysters sounding the secularists' drumbeat. Here, randy-khan turns in a smart effort, comparing ID proponents to "the Erich von Daniken crowd"—those who assert that extraterrestrials have been on the scene of human history for ages.

An awful lot of "Chariots of the Gods?" consists of descriptions of particular artifacts, earthworks, etc., followed by a statement that ancient peoples could not have done this with the technologies they had and a question along the lines of "Who else could have done it but visitors from space?" ID follows the same pattern, substituting evolution for the (in)capabilities of ancient peoples and an amorphous Designer for space visitors.

The problem, in both cases, seems to me to be a craving for an answer combined with a lack of imagination. (I know, it's a strange thing to say about Von Daniken's acolytes, but I think it's true nevertheless.) Space visitors, like a Designer, are a deus ex machina that lets you have an answer without the trouble of digging deeply into the real story. The story of science, of course, is looking for the real story, in all its complexity, and finding that story requires the ability to see things better, more imaginatively, than other people. In other words, "it looks designed, so it must be" is a cop out, not an explanation.

As for me, I still don't know why they scratched the Nazca lines into the ground in Peru, but I don't feel compelled to believe they were put there to guide spaceships in the absence of a definitive explanation. After all, a lot of things that previously were unexplained have become explained in my lifetime. And I must admit to feeling a little sorry for people who are incurious enough to simply accept ID (or visitors from space) rather than wanting to really understand the world around them.

MatthewGarth hopes that Rosin's daughter "doesn't stop thinking how great it is that a katydid looks like a leaf. For two reasons: one scientific, one emotional":

Science: I took my 6-year-old to visit an entomologist friend in her lab--beetles, nifty ones. And the great thing about real science is that it is more interesting than design. After all, with a designer, there's nothing surprising about the reason why one thing looks like another. A bug looks like a leaf or a car in Richard Scarry's world looks like a carrot. With a designer, the answer to why? is "he wanted it to look that way." But without a designer, you get to ask: How the fuck is that even possible? There is a lifetime of wonder and pleasure in trying to answer such questions. Think of that fish with the glow-in-the-dark lure that hangs off its head. Sure, the designer seems capricious, but the fact of design is boring. ID makes science boring.

Emotional: I know why stars twinkle. But I want my world full of people who are still struck by that. Many of them are kids, others are poets, others are friends who are having a good day and have, for whatever reason, noticed something wondrous. I'm sure Noa will want to know why things are the way they are, but it has to be a matter of both/and, not either/or. Put it this way, I can tell myself that the dimensions, including time, unfold from the singularity with the big bang, but I'm not one of those folks who can meaningfully think it. I rely on others to help me understand even that much, and I rely on a fairly highly tuned emotional register to come to grips with time scales so vast as to render me insignificant.

Finally, fozzy offers a mathematical take on what Rosin refers to as ID's "perfectly tautological argument" hereKA11:40 a.m.

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Monday, October 17, 2005

Above the Fold: There's been precious little written in the Fray on yesterday's NYT piece on Judith Miller, but tman did his reading and has determined that ...

Given the very substantial doubts about the veracity of Miller's claims and her efforts to prevent both the grand jury and the Times from access to information needed to assess her truthfulness, both the Times and Patrick Fitzgerald should take action. The Times should terminate her employment unless she provides the Times access to her notebooks, which are arguably the property of the Times, and answers reporters' questions about her testimony. Fitzgerald should either i) recall Miller to testify her other sources on the ground that Bennett's misrepresentation vitiates any agreement on his part not to question Miller about them or ii) indict her for perjury. There certainly is probable cause to believe that Miller's grand jury testimony is knowingly deceptive.

Diogenes_Bob takes up the what-will-Bush-do-without-his-brain question, namely what happens to the White House's political culture if Karl Rove is indicted. DioBob reasons that it's no big deal because ...

For all the worship that Karl Rove gets for being an effective political strategist (ie, dirty trick specialist) the simple fact is that his greatest talent is getting his candidate elected, and it seems pretty clear to me that everything else he does causes more negative reaction than positive. Look at the poll numbers lately. That's a direct reflection of Karl Rove's effectiveness, as everything this administration has done so far is motivated more by political thinking than policy wonking, and political strategy is clearly in the hands of Rove.

With the possible exception of midterm damage control, Rove's job with this president is largely finished. One would think that a Supreme Court appointment would fall squarely into Rove's wheelhouse, but he was apparently too distracted by the Fitzgerald investigation to factor into that decision. Since last November, the most curious question has been whether Rove will take on an '08 primary contender and, if so, when?  

Bag Packer: The notion that critiques of the war from liberal hawks are more substantive because they're somehow more perspicacious is absurd to IOZ (emphasis added):

One of the more curious beliefs of the convetionally wise is that post hoc reconsideration of prior support for the criminally violent solution to a nonexistent emergency isn't merely expiative but exculpatory. Turncoat former war supporters gain retroactive credibility in inverse proportion to their prior congenital wrongness. Thus does every beltway bullshit review of George Packer, say, note approvingly something to the extent of: Packer's account is all the more credible because he is a liberal hawk and was a supporter of the Iraq war.

Which is a little like an internist advertising himself as a particularly qualified physician for having once advocated both Lamarkianism and the four humors.

A cautionary note: it's a bad idea to read too much into the conviction of the changed minds that their intellectual journey imbues their present opposition to the war with greater moral rightness than the opposition of those who rather glibly proposed from the outset that no war conceived of and executed by the psoriatic flakes of the late, great Reagan machine under the cheerleading of a demented legacy Whiffenpoof could be anything other than an unmitigated disaster. Much of their conviction in this regard is the good, old-fashioned zealotry of the converted, who always believe themselves to be the purest and holiest of the flock.

To Packer's credit, he was early in shining unfiltered light on the failed "post-war" reality in Iraq. But IOZ is correct that the Tom Friedmans and Packers—opinion-makers who, in Packer's words, "came down on the pro-war side, by a whisker"—are getting a free ride.

It sort of reminds Fraywatch of the penultimate scene in Quiz Show in which a congressional committee is congratulating Charlie Van Doren for fessing up to his participation in the scandal; it isn't until a scruffy New York backbencher pipes in, "I don't think an adult of your intellegence should be commended for simply, at long last, telling the truth," that we hear a voice of reason.

Liberal hawks can spar with IOZ here.

Fray Suirvivor: The field is set, and the first immunity challenge has been unveiled:

Each tribe member will find what they regard as their best post ever and copy and paste it along with its url in response to their tribe post below. That means, of all the posts you've ever made in the fray, each of you will go back and pick the one post of yours that you think is your very best post. You may also explain in 50 words or less why you think it is your best post. Your best post entry is due Tuesday (tomorrow) no later than 12 noon Pacific Time. The best of the best, as judged by rob_said_that, will win immunity for his or her tribe.

Fraywatch looks forward to reading the morning odds for the Horsehead and Foxfur tribes … KA3:20 p.m.

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Thursday, October 13, 2005

Getting Religion: Longtime frayster Shrieking_Violet can sensibly thread the needle of a combustible issue with the best of them. Responding to Christopher Hitchens on the purported absence of a religious test for political nominees, SV first applauds Hitch ... 

He is an artist with the sledgehammer, not the scalpel.

He scores a few points, too. Like most Americans who dwell outside the Realm of the Megachurch or other aggressively sectarian faiths, I find the obligatory kowtowing and pandering to people who believe literally in myth and magic to be maddening. The fact that a large percentage of Americans want to write 21st Century law based on a selectively literal interpretation of Ancient Hebrew sacred texts and some overheated rhetoric from St. Paul is a sick joke. It's not even reasonable theology, for Christ's sake, let alone reasonable politics. It's enough to make a reasonable person want to flee to Old Europe.

But despite her "secular half-hearted Episcopalian" bent, SV cautions Hitch against his aggressively anti-theistic screed:

For all the black days in the interwoven history of Church and politics, it might behoove Hitchens to recall that revolutions inspired by atheist appeals to "reason" racked up a far bigger body count in the 20th Century than either Osama Bin Laden or Eric Rudolph could ever hope to achieve. Lenin. Stalin. Mao. Pol Pot. Not a choir boy among them.

Modern secular liberalism is built upon the principles of Enlightenment humanism, but it is also a rather clear, linear outgrowth from the more radical aspects of the Christian message. When Germans beat their swords into plowshares, learned to love their neighboring nations, and built social services to care for their citizens, they were led not by secular revolutionaries, but by a party known as the Christian Democrats. When Abolitionists railed against slavery, and when Civil Rights marchers challenged the hierarchy of racism, they were led by Christian ministers. The very core of modern Western Civilization is composed of a trust in reason and science, tempered by a faith in the values of peace, compassion, and brotherly love, and a humility regarding our role in the universe that precludes absolutism.

The latter half of this equation is the legacy of Christian theology. And it's the latter half that Hitchens and his Trotskyite-cum-Neocon fellow travellers so conspicuously lack…

…why does Hitchens, the enlightened prophet of secular reason, fall for this shtick like a rube at a sideshow?

Perhaps for the same reason that a generation of rational secular people in the West fell for communism while Stalin was systematically disappearing a generation of Russians into slave labor camps. He thinks a little too damn highly of his rational secular philosophy and he has no damned faith, hope, or love in his jaundiced soul.

Get thee to church, Hitch.

Check out responses from Varian, here, who puts SV in the "odd position defending Christianity," and from Lyger, here.

Play the Feud: Fraywatch hereby announces an open casting call for the First "Fray Survivor":

fraysters are separated into two eight-person tribes and engage in team competition once a week to win immunity. The losing team goes to tribal council and votes one of their members off. Eventually, the tribes are merged and the contestants compete for individual immunity. The last 7 fraysters voted out serve as the final jury and vote for who, between the final 2 remaining fraysters, should win.

Prospective contestants should respond in the above post. The winner of FS1 will receive a probationary star for 90 days … KA12:00 p.m.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Worship as Sport: Since Larry David exposed the black market of High Holiday tickets in the season premiere of Curb Your Enthusiasm, it's only appropriate that rob_said_that wonders if "skyboxes are far behind" at evangelical megachurches:

Viewing these images of the megachurch in action, I got the feeling that they've kept everything bad about the scale of Gothic and Renaissance cathedrals but little of the good. In fact, it's all about scale. How big can we make it, how many people can we fit into it, how small can we make people feel individually yet how big as a group?

…In these modern megacathedrals (or, in some cases, dihedrals, since some of them look as swept as jet wings), where are the arcades, the columns, the clerestory windows, the pendentives holding up the dome, all the fine details that furnish you with eye candy. If you're in one of these football stadiums like the one in Houston, the stage-altar has been reduced to the level of a detail: you can only see the pastor on the Jumbo-Tron. (Question: are they going to feature instant replays?) Will wealthy supporters be able to view the service from skyboxes, where they can sit outside in a private loge or retire indoors to view the service on HDTV while noshing on the full buffet?

Rob may be half-joking about the skyboxes, but it underscores his larger point that

What these megachurches do preserve of the cathedral tradition is the notion of class hierarchy. In the old system, the apportionment of seating reflected the notion of a structured society: God was at the top, the clergy were next to God, the wealthy nobility were next to the clergy in the pews (but just across the altar rail), and the common folk milled about in the nave…

For stewartandall here, "these churches reflect suburban culture and its demands for comfort above transcendence," and the_count remarks that "the new architecture mirrors the new religiosity in america":

where once you might have strolled among quiet cloisters, alone but for the echoes of your footsteps (and perhaps, god,) you now have conference rooms, where you confer with men…

where once you might have found solid stone walls resonating with a sense of timelessness and permanence, you now find drywall or, at best, concrete. it seems everywhere, you're reminded that you are in the house of man, a house of men.

sure, one might say it encourages congregation and fellowship. and call me conservative if you must…but i've always considered religion a profoundly personal affair…

sadly, these new "churches" seem to me to discourage personal communion and deep reflection--opting instead for the frenzied mob and the herd mentality, where peer pressure and peer reinforcement drown out the quieter, and perhaps truer, message(s) of christ.

to my senses, these new "churches" combine all that's wrong with religion with all that's wrong with secularism--and the religiosity birthed is the sort that exalts and congratulates man, the sort that, far from bringing god into personal lives, relegates god's existence (dubious as that already seems) to mere pages in a book--law to be propounded from above rather than love graced, to effuse from within.

Here, haikured offers a more mainline assessment:

A fundamental problem for designing a modern cathedral that is inspirational or awe-inducing is that massive architecture has now become common-place. In the middle ages, a cathedral was a scientific marvel, and probably by far the biggest enclosed space a person would go into. Now even houses have "cathedral ceilings", not too mention what we routinely see in shopping malls, government buildings, and sports arenas. So people are harder to impress. But there is also a difference of focus. Entering an old cathedral, attention seems drawn upwards, to the space itself, whereas the altar and whoever is on it often seems somewhat small, and at various corners completely obscured and hard to hear. The main event is the enclosed sacred space, which is felt even when the church is empty. In new mega-churches, the "main event" is clearly what is happening on the stage.

A handful of Mormon readers dropped into the Fray to comment on Witold Rybczynski's observations  about the Conference Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in downtown Salt Lake City. Halcyon writes:

I come from the Mormon tradition where a striking dichotomy separates the cookie-cutter, mundane architecture and decor of the standard meetinghouse from the overly ornamented temples. (Newer "mini-temples" have also earned the nickname McTemples for being vanilla replicas of one another.)

Rybczynski wisely lists the conference center in Salt Lake City as an example of uninspiring, stadium-style places of worship. What he does not mention is that the conference center replaces the tabernacle (home of the eponymous Mormon Tabernacle Choir) as the primary meeting place of the saints, thus, the prominent organ pipe, which is the hallmark background for the choir. The conference center doesn't begin to compare with the other historic and architecturally stunning buildings on temple square: the Salt Lake temple with its many spires and intricately carved granite, which took 40 years to build; the tabernacle, an engineering feat built by the sweat of 19th-century pioneers who carved each wooden nail by hand; and the assembly hall, a minor gem of its own.

I am certain there are ways of interpreting soaring naves and radiant clerestories in a modern way. However, I'm just as certain that building styles borrowed from the corporate HQ vernacular and big-screens and stages replacing altars and pulpits also borrowed from the corporate, whether you attribute them to motivational gurus like Tony Robbins or the rockstar packaging and promotion employed by any major record label. Regardless, such architecture replaces the intimate and inspirational "places apart" with the nondescript and quotidian.

And noname7800 enlightens us on the origins of Mormon religious architecture:

The LDS Conference Center may indeed share many characteristics with other "Mega-Churches," but what Mr. Rybczynski may not know is that it comes from a very different architectural geneology. Almost 150 years ago, critics were making the same architectural complaints that Mr. Rybczynski does (secularized, lacking religious symbols, un-church-like) about an earlier Mormon "mega-church": the Salt Lake Tabernacle. In the 1860's, this building held 8000 people and had no internal, supporting columns. The sea of pews and the blank white oval dome made the building sparse and stoic.

The Conference Center is not a new idea in Mormon culture, it is a continuation of an earlier ideal: gathering to hear the Word trumped the need for religious ornamentation. Community over ostentation; preaching over architecture; function over form.

Worship broad transepts and austere eaves hereKA11:55 a.m.

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