Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Anti-War Rally

It is held today in Washington, D.C. and in other cities around the world. The early media coverage is, as usual, interesting in the way it grasps for "balance". Like giving thousands of anti-war protesters roughly the same number of quotes as a handful of pro-war protesters in the same place. Here is an example.


Hmj sent these to me. They are really funny:

Insurance Claims

Below are actual insurance claim form gaffes found by a UK insurance

"I started to turn and it was at this point I noticed a camel and an
elephant tethered at the verge. This distraction caused me to lose
concentration and hit a bollard."

"On the M6 motorway I moved from the center lane to the fast lane but
the other car didn't give way."

"On approach to the traffic lights the car in front suddenly broke."

"Three men approached me from the minibus. I thought they were coming
to apologize. Two of the men grabbed hold of me by the arms, and the
first slapped me several times across the face. I knee'd the man in
the groin, but didn't connect properly, so I kicked him in the shin."

"I didn't think the speed limit applied after midnight."

"I was on my way to see an unconscious patient who had convulsions and
was blocked by a tanker."

"Mr. X is in hospital and says I can use his car and take his wife
while he is there. What shall I do about it?"

"No witnesses would admit having seen the mishap until after it

"I knew the dog was possessive about the car but I would not have
asked her to drive it if I had thought there was any risk."

"Windscreen broken. Cause unknown. Probably Voodoo."

"The car in front hit the pedestrian but he got up so I hit him

"We had completed the turn and had just straightened the car when Miss
X put her foot down hard and headed for the ladies' loo."

"I had been driving for 40 years when I fell asleep at the wheel and
had an accident. I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at
my mother-in- law and headed over the embankment."

"Coming home, I drove into the wrong house and collided with a tree I
don't have."

"The other car collided with mine without giving warning of its

"I thought my window was down, but I found out it wasn't when I put my
head through it."

"I collided with a stationary truck coming the other way."

"A truck backed through my windshield into my wife's face."

"A pedestrian hit me and went under my car."

"The guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times
before I hit him."

"In an attempt to kill a fly, I drove into a telephone pole."

"I had been shopping for plants all day and was on my way home. As I
reached an intersection a hedge sprang up obscuring my vision and I
did not see the other car."

"I was on my way to the doctor with rear end trouble when my universal
joint gave way causing me to have an accident."

"To avoid hitting the bumper of the car in front I struck the

"My car was legally parked as it backed into the other vehicle."

"An invisible car came out of nowhere, struck my car and vanished."

"I am sure the old fellow would never make it to the other side of the
road when I struck him."

"The pedestrian had no idea which way to run, so I ran over him."

"I saw a slow-moving, sad faced old gentleman, as he bounced off the
roof of my car."

"The indirect cause of the accident was a little guy in a small car
with a big mouth."

"I was thrown from the car as it left the road. I was later found in a
ditch by some stray cows."

Friday, September 23, 2005

Friday Dog Blogging


This is a few years old. Henrietta no longer wears a flea collar and her eyes are a lot more visible now that her cheeks are silver-colored. But otherwise she looks the same.

Today's Deep Thought

From res ipsa loquitur:

1873 dead Americans, $144 billion wasted tax dollars, and an entire country's credibility and goodwill blown to bits around the planet and all they got was another lousy Islamic republic.

They might get a civil war first. Discuss.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Operation Offset

This is the Republican Study Committee's proposal as to how to fund the reconstruction necessary after hurricane Katrina by cutting other federal spending. The real objective is to save the tax cuts for the wealthy and the abolition of the federal estate tax on the inheritances the ultra-wealthy leave behind.

And who is to make the sacrifices instead of Bush's rich base? The elderly, on the whole. The Committee proposes delaying the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill by one year but making the elderly pay for it already by raising the premia as well as by more cost-sharing by the elderly who are unfortunate enough to be ill. Though to be fair to the wingnuts on this committee, they also propose eliminating and/or reducing everything else they happen to hate: The poor will pay more for their federally subsidized Medicaid program (but not the elderly whose nursing-home care is covered by Medicaid, too, as there are too many Republicans with a mom or a dad enjoying these benefits), foreing aid will be cut, including aid to the African continent (have you checked recently what percentage foreign aid is of the federal budget?), and naturally nothing should be given to the National Foundations of the Arts or the Humanities (girlyman stuff) or the Public Broadcasting System (commies!). Read the rest yourselves.

What I found intriguing were the reasons given for various cuts. The most common was the argument that a particular program duplicates the same services available elsewhere, but in several cases the justification was simply that the funding doesn't belong to the federal government. This one, for example, is funny:

Level Funding to Community Health Centers.

This reform would level funding for these federal grants to help medically underserved populations. These programs should be funded locally, not with federal dollars.

Hmm. Medically underserved populations live in inner-city ghettoes are far out in poor rural areas. Local funding?

Other funny justifications abound. Many programs trying to keep illegal drugs away from children are cut or offered reduced funding because studies do not support their efficacy. Yet I see no cuts in the abstinence programs which have been proven to be of very questionable efficacy. And the Legal Services Corporation should be eliminated because, among other things, it has provided "resources for individuals to sue the government for more generous federal benefits".

The problem in trying to pay for the reconstruction effort this way is that those who are going to pay are predominantly the elderly, the poor and various groups who don't carry enough votes to affect the next election. But this isn't a problem for the wingnuts on the Republican Study Committee; instead, it's another chance to forward the wingnut ideology. Operation Upset.

For an alternative proposal that might suit the Democrats, see Think Progress.

Some Fun...

Go to Crooks and Liars and watch a video of Phil Donahue making Bill O'Reilly sad.

What Is News?

Molly Ivins has, as usual, an excellent new column, this time on the ten most important topics not covered very well in the American media. She says:

I have long been persuaded that the news media collectively will be sent to hell not for our sins of commission, but our sins of omission. The real scandal in the media is not bias, it is laziness. Laziness and bad news judgment. Our failure is what we miss, what we fail to cover, what we let slip by, what we don't give enough attention to - because, after all, we have to cover Jennifer and Brad, and Scott and Laci, and Whosit who disappeared in Aruba without whom the world can scarce carry on.

The number one not-covered item is how the Bush administration moves to eliminate open government. Molly points out that this item has been hard to cover because the process has been in little drips and drops and at no one point in time has there been a clear major step towards an authoritarian government. But the results are all there for any journalist to see:

Gene Robertson, a great news editor, says we tend to miss the stories that seep and creep, the ones whose effects are cumulative, not abrupt. This administration has drastically changed the rules on Freedom of Information Act requests; has changed laws that restrict public access to federal records, mostly by expanding the national security classification; operates in secret under the Patriot Act; and consistently refuses to provide information to Congress and the Government Accountability Office. The cumulative total effect is horrifying.

The whole list is worth reading.

Another way of looking at the question in my title is by following foreign news sources. There are days when I think that the British, for example, live in a different world from the one we inhabit here; so different are the news that are discussed and the slant the discussion takes. If you can access news from several other countries you start getting a better understanding of what is omitted in any one of them, including the U.S..


If you live anywhere along the probable route of Rita, please leave. Take your family, friends, pets and neighbors and leave. If you have two cars lend the keys of the second one to someone who doesn't have a car. Then leave. If you can't leave find a high place. My blessings on all of you.

There are still uncollected corpses in New Orleans.

How Democrats Voted on Roberts

From LATimes:

By a vote of 13-5, the Senate Judiciary Committee today recommended that the Senate confirm the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to be chief justice of the United States.

Three Democrats joined all 10 Republicans supporting the nomination. The full Senate is expected to vote on the nomination next week, with little doubt that Roberts will be confirmed, and in time to take his seat on the high court bench in time for its first session of the term, on Oct. 3.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, was among the last whose vote was in question to disclose her decision, as the committee began its final pre-vote debate on Roberts. She voted against confirmation.

She was joined by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Joseph Biden of Delaware, and Richard Durbin of Illinois, all Democrats. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the panel, and fellow Democratic Sens. Russell D. Feingold and Herbert Kohl, both of Wisconsin, voted in favor of confirmation.

Explaining her decision, Feinstein, a California Democrat who has at times aligned herself with the party's moderates, said she had been disappointed with answers Roberts had provided during committee hearings. She said he had had the opportunity to distance himself from particularly conservative approaches he had taken to social policy ad legal issues as young aide in the Reagan administration's Justice Department and White House.

She also said that when asked about abortion, he had answered that he had used language much like that of Justice Clarence Thomas, when Thomas was confirmed, indicating that he had no quarrel with the precedents the court had established.

"I became concerned that the phrase 'I have no quarrel' is a term of art of equivocation," Feinstein said, adding: "I'm the only woman on this committee and when I started I said that would be my bar, and he didn't cross that bar."

I still would have liked to see what Roberts said on those cases the Bush administration refused to release to the committee members. Next time even more information might be withheld and the Democrats would have a tough time arguing that it should be offered given that they surrendered on Roberts.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

News From Penisland

A joke courtesy of the Heretik about some recent events in the liberal blogosphere: First a group of feminist bloggers (smart ones, too) published a letter about John Roberts and then Armando on Daily Kos sort of gave an answer to it. The gist of the interaction has to do with the importance of the pro-choice stance in the Democratic Party. Armando thinks that the party should be a big tent, with room for people who don't believe in the woman's right to choose but who are otherwise in agreement with Armando. The idea is to use them to get into power and then somehow ignore them on all the so-called social issues. This is probably easier said than done, and the pro-life Democrats are quite likely to vote with the wingnuts on any women's rights issue. Which of course makes the whole big tent strategy meaningless for anyone whose first priority is the rights of women: the tent will collapse on them.

The real question is whether the woman's right to reproductive choice is one of the tentpoles or not, among ideals such as economic and racial justice, gay and lesbian rights and environmental protection. If it no longer has this role then the big tent might end up spacious indeed as most pro-choice women stop bothering to vote.

The political game question is quite different. It has to do with the idea of getting into power and winning with the idea of grabbing all those independents who hover in the middle and would be Democrats if only the Democrats were more like the wingnuts. This might make sense if there indeed are many such independents, all "single-issue" voters on abortion which I very much doubt. Those voters are already voting for Republicans.
The costs of such an unlikely victory are fairly high if you happen to be a feminist, for "social conservatives" are not just against abortion. They are pretty much against the whole idea of equal rights for women (and gays and lesbians). They are opposed to mothers in the labor force and gender equality in education. They are opposed to same-sex marriage and to a military consisting of anything but heterosexual males. And so on.

Then there is the "single-issue" voter argument. Should the Democrats cater to those who vote on the basis of a single issue such as abortion? Armando would say no. I always find it interesting to read comments threads about the care and feeding of the single-issue voter. The single-issue pro-lifer is taken seriously, explained carefully and seen as eminently wooable. The single-issue pro-choicer is often asked to make the necessary mature compromises for common good, and then many of these pro-choicers try to explain why they can't make thse compromises, why certain issues are like water and bread for them, necessary for anything else even to register much. Some use examples such as whether a white supremacist would be welcomed with open arms into the Democratic big tent. The answers this elicits explain carefully how this country now agrees that racism is bad but the question of women's rights is still debated. The point this misses (among others) is the way pro-choice women feel when their political opponents are embraced by those they thought were on the same side. Betrayal might a be a good summary of this feeling.

Politics does involve compromising and some things are best done holding ones nose. But it is hard to see what remains of the Democratic ideas if compromising means letting go of the idea of equal opportunity, and that is what I believe social conservatism ultimately means. For women, at least.

Ares and Friends?

I haven't talked much about my divine pals recently, largely because I've been hiding from them. There was this little incident at a cocktail party on Olympus having to do with snakes and underpants, and I'm not popular these days. But Ares dropped by. Did I tell you that he is still HAWT! And thick as a board.

I made the mistake of telling him all my blogging woes, especially my current frustration that silly right-wingers get things published in the New York Times and I can't even get an answer to the angry and educational e-mails I send them. Ares offered to toss a few thunderbolts on the newspaper's headquarters which I nixed.

Talking about blogging with him was a humongous mistake, because he suddenly decided that what this world needs is a Greek guygod blogger called Ares, and that the cushiest way of getting there would be for him to co-blog with me. With me. On my blog. Which would be renamed "Ares and Friends".

I made excuses. My blog was too puny for his greatness, too wimpy, too snakey. He waved them all aside (with most of my good china on the dining-room table), he would fix all these problems, he would insert the sorely needed humorous and upbeat element, he would post lots of pictures of naked women with Ares in action, he would become a billionaire and so on. He would write long posts on baseball (about which he knows nothing).

There was only one thing to do. I told him about the war in Iraq and urged him to go and see George Bush for an advice-giving session. It almost worked, but he's still sleeping off the nectar in my spare bedroom.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Sexism Hurts Men, Too?

Well, I happen to think that this is true, but I recently read it in a different context, a medical one:

In a somewhat unexpected finding, societal male dominance over women -- patriarchy -- may help explain why men have a lower life expectancy than women worldwide.

British researchers analyzed rates of female murders and male death rates from all causes in 51 countries in Europe, Asia, Australasia, and North and South America. The prevalence of violence against women was used to indicate the extent of patriarchal control in each of the countries. Socioeconomic factors were also taken into consideration.

The study found that women lived longer than men in all 51 countries. The study also found that those countries with higher rates of female murders (indicating higher levels of patriarchy) also had higher rates for male death and shorter male life expectancies, compared to countries with lower female murder rates, the researchers said.

In fact, statistical analysis showed that variations between countries in rates of violence against women accounted for close to half (49 percent) of the variation in male death rates, the researchers noted.

Lots of examples here about the difficulties of studying something that doesn't have an easy measurable equivalent (patriarchy) and of the use of data outside laboratory conditions. Most social science studies use such data, of course, and it is almost always possible to argue that a study may not have taken into account all possible explanatory causes or controlled for them adequately. For example, the study I'm discussing here seems to have taken into account poverty rates and such, but did they also check to see if the male mortality rates correlated with male murder rates? And what about female mortality rates in general? Did they show the same pattern as the male rates?

Perhaps they did all these things. Which means that I should dig up the original study and look at it. Sigh. Maybe I will if I feel especially good.


It looks like a Democrat accidentally got a Republican memo on the soundbites to be used on immigration. See Raw Story.

The Mrs. Degree

The New York Times gives us a little article with the title: Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood. These types of articles are a recurring event, happening every few years since the 1970's: the story how highly educated women are deciding not to work, after all, or not to work full-time. The story is also always written as a purely private decision, astonishingly pristine in having nothing to do with the way the labor market is structured or the fact that it is women who are expected to care for the children, or indeed having nothing to do with anything else except the young women themselves. They just wake up one morning having decided that they don't want to be lawyers or physicians or economists, after all.

It is very hard to judge the relevancy or validity of such stories because of this recurrent appearance. It can't always be true that suddenly women are acting differently than they have just done, and mostly these stories appear to be planted to have the newspaper's circulation go up.

So I am hesitant to interpret this newest wave of the same story as indicative of actual change. In fact, if you read the article carefully the fact that this is not a change in actual behavior is fairly obvious. For example:

For most of the young women who responded to e-mail questions, a major factor shaping their attitudes seemed to be their experience with their own mothers, about three out of five of whom did not work at all, took several years off or worked only part time.

Then contrast this to the survey results the article talks about, a survey about two Ivy League colleges, which found that sixty percent of the interviewed freshmen and seniors (all women) planned to take at least some time off or to work part-time. Exactly the same percentage as with the mothers' cohort!

Then you might point out, if you are a sharp-eyed reader, that this means that forty percent of those interviewed don't plan to take any time off at all, and that the time others plan to take off may not amount to much more than a few years. In fact, if you read the article really carefully you will find that seventy percent plan to continue working either full-time or part-time, and that among the remaining thirty percent some, at least, are only planning a short career-interruption.

Just think about this. Then think about the title of the piece: Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood. Hmmmmmm.

And then think about this bit:

Yet the likelihood that so many young women plan to opt out of high-powered careers presents a conundrum.

"It really does raise this question for all of us and for the country: when we work so hard to open academics and other opportunities for women, what kind of return do we expect to get for that?" said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, who served as dean for coeducation in the late 1970's and early 1980's.

It is a complicated issue and one that most schools have not addressed. The women they are counting on to lead society are likely to marry men who will make enough money to give them a real choice about whether to be full-time mothers, unlike those women who must work out of economic necessity.

It is less than clear what universities should, or could, do about it. For one, a person's expectations at age 18 are less than perfect predictors of their life choices 10 years later. And in any case, admissions officers are not likely to ask applicants whether they plan to become stay-at-home moms.

I can almost hear the gently purring threat there: We should weed out those applicants who plan to take any time off during their working lives, because they are going to waste the education and our investments in it. Because this would be hard to do based on what naive eighteen-year old students say, let's just use sex as a proxy and weed out most women.

This is an argument that was once used to set maximum quotas on women in medical schools. It was believed that the expensive training, federally subsidized to boot, should be only available for a few women because allowing women to enter freely would fritter away the expensive education on people who will never wield the scalpel. Similar arguments are brought out all the time to "explain" why there are so few women in whatever area of the society you might look at.

We don't do this with men. Men are brought up to expect that they work full-time all their lives, that they are somehow not capable of taking breaks and staying with their children, and we don't even ask young men entering college about their home-family balance plans. Because it is not seen as their problem. Or their choice, but it is a choice with a very large price tag in terms of lost retirement income, for example.

I probably shouldn't have written about this story, given that it is a nonstory as I have demonstrated above. But I find it annoying how these stories are written, the woman deciding on her very own or at most thinking about her mother's role in the family and wondering if she should replicate it or not. The writer could have mentioned how the media has been full of articles and books discouraging women by writing about the horrible difficulties of combining career and family (but only for women) and of articles and books about the solution of opting out (but only for women). The writer could have mentioned how the maternity leave is still about three months long and how very few companies allow highly educated people to work less than eighty hours a week. Or stressed a little more the 24/7 upbringing of girls into the care-giving role in this country and the almost total lack of societal support for this.

But it is more fun to just make up a story and go and interview some people (mostly those who are not planning to work full-time) and then to suggest that this is a really severe problem for the elite colleges, one having its roots in the young women themselves. Though it's not really a problem at all because the young women themselves don't see it that way, perhaps because at eighteen thirty is really, really old and most of ones life will take place before that age! Perhaps because they are mostly eighteen and have not spent very much time thinking about the issues and absolutely no time at all trying to live them. Maybe next time they should interview those fifty-something educated women who have actually lived through this all, or even some women who don't have the luxury of deciding on anything but full-time work without any career considerations. Though naturally this would be a lot less fun and interesting to debate.
Thanks to sb for the link.

President at a Precipice

Say that very fast a few times. Then apologize to anyone who happened to be within your saliva range. The title comes from one description of yet another bad poll for George Bush.

The USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll suggests that George is not the likeable president the so-called liberal media likes to tell us. In fact, his disapproval rating is at a new high of 58%, and he is doing poorly even in the category of boldness: for the first time the majority doesn't find him that strong or decisive as a leader.


The survey shows signs of friction between the two most pressing concerns on Bush's agenda: the Iraq war and Katrina recovery.

A 54% majority says the best way for the government to pay for hurricane relief is by cutting spending for the war. Just 6% support spending cuts in domestic programs, as Bush has suggested.

Nearly two-thirds of those polled, 63%, say some or all of the U.S. troops in Iraq should be withdrawn. A record-high 59% say it was a mistake to invade.

Those polled also want an independent panel to study what went wrong with the Katrina unrescue efforts, not the kind of Republican panel we are going to have. This by a four-to-one margin. Hmmm.

But Bush doesn't care about focus groups. He told us so.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Value of Blogging

"To blog" is an unfortunate term, like the sound one hears when someone is trying to swear at you with a hot potato in her mouth. It's not elegant, not like "write" or "pen". So well suited for what I try to do.

Some days I like blogging a lot less, though. For example, today the New York Times has decided to start charging a fee for its opinion columns. This means that if I want to choke and vomit over Tierney or Brooks I have to pay for it. That may sound fair to some of you, but then you can't read my masterful dissections of the same vomit. (Hint: You can donate me ten bucks by pressing that little symbol in the right column, below the hurricane one. Of course after you have donated all your other disposable income to the hurricane rescue operations. Don't do this if you are poor!)

This may be the beginning of a trend of charging, and the final outcome is to lock all amateurs and goddesses out of the sources of evidence. I'm sure someone would like to do exactly this.

One reason why I think so is this excellent article. It discusses the purpose of political blogs, the need to triangulate between the blogs, the political machinery and the traditional media, and it tells us how much better the wingnut blogs are doing in all this, largely because they are marching to the commands of the top of their hierarchy and feeding on the soundbites sent down by Hannity and Limbaugh and so on. The lefty-liberal bloggers, sadly, are like cats walking on their own and about as easily herded together. But as the article says we really must learn to do better to have more influence on the public discussion.

Where I differ from Daou Report is explained by the place where I sit. Though I'm a fairly widely-read feminist blogger, I'm but a tiny speck as a political one. Well, not so very tiny but you get my point. I'm not one of the big boys and neither the Democratic establishment nor the traditional media is likely to check out what I say every morning. Nothing much is getting triangulated here, but I hope that something else is happening, perhaps a debate, a discussion about the need to include women's points of views more, a discussion to start finding the political machinery that we need and the access to the traditional media we simply don't have.

That's when I feel like a really ambitious and powerful divine, which isn't often. The reality is much more limited, but still useful: to at least join the conversation, to name things which may not yet have names so that the phenomena they are attached to can be discussed. This is what we all smaller bloggers are doing, and I believe that it is useful or at least fun.

For a feminist blogger this quote from the Daou Report article is also a point of divergence:

After a year of my life spent at the intersection of pre-blog and post-blog political thinking, and with Bush getting the second term he craved, one question has preoccupied me since last November: What is the scope of netroots power? Put differently: How influential are bloggers?

It's a difficult question to answer. First, there's no consensus on metrics. Second, blogs serve many purposes, some of which are more social than political. Third, the use of the Internet in political campaigns cuts across so many areas that it's easy to confuse netroots influence in the communications and messaging realm with other Internet-based political applications such as organizing and fundraising. Fourth, 'influence' is a hazy term. (Bolding by Echidne)

For us feminists the borderline between "social" and "political" is much hazier than it is in the mainstream (malestream?) conversation. Much which really is political avoids the limelight of the big liberal blogs because it appears to be social, and feminist blogs can point this out. This also means that writing about our everyday lives, about what happened in the streets, in the kitchens, in the bedrooms or in the boardrooms can be deeply political and may ultimately convert more people to a certain political view than the discussions about the campaign promises of the next Democratic candidate. It is this wider sense of political that many feminist bloggers employ, and if what they do is not seen as political blogging then we are defining the term too narrowly.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Big Dawg Barks

I never really liked Bill Clinton but at least he had the necessary skills to run a country. On most days. Now he has opened his mouth and out came some not-so-nice statements about the current administration:

Former President Bill Clinton, asked by President Bush to help raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, offered harsh criticism of the administration's disaster-relief effort on Sunday, saying "you can't have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle-class people up."
"It's like when they issued the evacuation order," he said. "That affects poor people differently. A lot of them in New Orleans didn't have cars. A lot of them who had cars had kinfolk they had to take care of. They didn't have cars, so they couldn't take them out."

"This is a matter of public policy," he said. "And whether it's race-based or not, if you give your tax cuts to the rich and hope everything works out all right, and poverty goes up and it disproportionately affects black and brown people, that's a consequence of the action made. That's what they did in the 80's; that's what they've done in this decade. In the middle, we had a different policy."

This after having cavorted around in the company of Bush The Elder, mind you. Bill always knew how to polish both sides of the apple. In many ways he truly was the best Republican president we have had.

Now I await for all sorts of angry comments from my faithful readers...

A Little Sunday Sermon

The United States is a predominantly Christian country. Most people believe in a god and the majority appear to believe in angels, too. The religious right tells us that the politics and the laws of this country should reflect its Christianity, and the natural inference to draw is that these should somehow follow the tenets of this religion.

But things get confusing when we hear (via Bobo's World) that most American Christians don't know their own religion very well:

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation's educational decline, but it probably doesn't matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that "God helps those who help themselves." That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin's wisdom not biblical; it's counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.

Asking Christians what Christ taught isn't a trick. When we say we are a Christian nation—and, overwhelmingly, we do—it means something. People who go to church absorb lessons there and make real decisions based on those lessons; increasingly, these lessons inform their politics. (One poll found that 11 percent of U.S. churchgoers were urged by their clergy to vote in a particular way in the 2004 election, up from 6 percent in 2000.) When George Bush says that Jesus Christ is his favorite philosopher, he may or may not be sincere, but he is reflecting the sincere beliefs of the vast majority of Americans.

This isn't that astonishing. Most religious people in this world appear not to know the tenets of their own religion or what its leaders might be doing. - I remember listening to a radio interview to do with Aceh during the time when various Islamist policies were attempted there. One of them was the use of shariah law in place of a secular legal code. The ordinary people interviewed in the program were happy to hear about the possible use of shariah; they expressed a strong need to do something about the lawlessness on the streets, the rapists and the muggers. But the religious expert also interviewed stated that the use of shariah would ban playing cards, alcohol and would punish adulterers more harshly. And indeed, these would have been the major changes to the laws already in force in Aceh, with the exception of extra whippings etcetera.

This may not be astonishing, but it is very worrying. It means that the voices of authority within the religious sphere have the power to misinform. There are few built-in safeguards to correct anything that is said from the pulpit or its equivalence in other faiths. Still, the very act of uttering something in this context makes it more weighty, more to be trusted, than the statements the same people might make in their private roles. Or in their political roles.

It is also difficult to debate a religious authority if all that the outsiders can use are the written tenets of the religion, yet these tenets are not widely known or perhaps even followed. This pretty much makes real debate impossible, should it not already be so by the unspoken code that religions must not be criticized.

As the article I quote points out, the Christianity of many Americans is better seen as an identity than actual adherence to Christian teachings. Such an identity is moldable, and the religious right has effectively molded the idea of Christianity into something that requires, among other things, that the faithful always vote Republican. Religion has entered politics, yes, but even more it is the politics that have entered religiosity. What to make out of this all is unclear to my divine eyes.