By Daniel Tencer | April 20, 2010 - 9:10 am - Posted in Antics and Pedantics

Rush Limbaugh

From the BBC:

Promiscuous women are responsible for earthquakes, a senior Iranian cleric has said.

Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi told worshippers in Tehran last Friday that they had to stick to strict codes of modesty to protect themselves.

“Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society which increases earthquakes,” he said.

Reading this article, I was struck by a sense of deja vu. I had seen this argument, or something similar, recently. But where? Ah yes — much closer to home. Here’s Rush Limbaugh arguing that the Icelandic volcano eruption is God’s retribution for US health care reform.

You know, a couple of days after the health care bill had been signed into law Obama ran around all over the country saying, “Hey, you know, I’m looking around. The earth hadn’t opened up. There’s no Armageddon out there. The birds are still chirping.” I think the earth has opened up. God may have replied. This volcano in Iceland has grounded more airplanes — airspace has more affected — than even after 9/11 because of this plume, because of this ash cloud over Northern and Western Europe. … Earth has opened up. I don’t know whether it’s a rebirth or Armageddon. Hopefully it’s a rebirth, God speaking.

Granted, Limbaugh is somewhat more cautious in making his argument than cleric Sedighi; Limbaugh doesn’t quite come out and say it point-blank, but the intent is clear. These two political commentators are birds of a feather.

The idea that natural disasters are God’s revenge for anything is something straight out of our tribal past, a shamanistic scam that predates both science and Judeo-Christianity. It is the worst kind of predatory exploitation, feeding on the fears of the uneducated and superstitious.

That this sort of thing goes on in Iran isn’t entirely surprising, given the country is run by an unyielding theocratic regime. But to see this kind of “thinking” aired aloud on one of the US’s most popular radio shows is another matter altogether.

This sort of thing is becoming all too common in the American political debate. It is all part and parcel of a trend towards a growing militant ignorance in American culture. Just look at the creeping disrespect for science, as encapsulated in global warming denialism, and more directly in Glenn Beck’s baffling call to abolish the Department of Education.

Of course Beck and Limbaugh want the Department of Education abolished, and it has nothing to do with the claim that the DoE is an oppressive bureacuracy that takes control of education out of the hands of communities and families.

The commercial success of demagogues like Limbaugh and Beck depends on ignorance. They have everything to gain from a populace that can’t discern fact from fiction, irrational fear from calculated concern. For the rest of us, this is reason to worry. The US has always been a nation that is attracted almost magnetically to profit. So consider, for a moment, the impact of an economy and society where spreading ignorance is profitable.

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By Daniel Tencer | April 12, 2010 - 9:35 am - Posted in Antics and Pedantics

If there’s any one photo that stands out from the countless images of the Polish air disaster, it’s this one of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk hugging Vladimir Putin. Not since Brezhnev used to kiss Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski on the lips during the heady days of communism have the two countries’ leaders engaged in such homo-erotic diplomacy.

This is, at first glance, a good thing. The late President Lech Kaczynski was famously anti-communist and anti-Russian, two things that go entirely hand in hand in Poland. And this famed anti-Russian’s death a stone’s throw from a site where Soviet officers slaughtered 22,000 Polish military and intellectual leaders in 1940 makes for some epically powerful symbolism.

Putin knows this, which is why he announced within hours of the crash that he would personally oversee the inquiry into the crash. He also made sure the cameras captured him embracing Tusk, perhaps even taking of advantage of Tusk’s grief in the hours after the crash to set up a public tableau Tusk wouldn’t have otherwise agreed to.

This is because, in the grand game of Polish history, and in the grieving eyes of Polish nationalists, the circumstances here are too powerful for suspicion not to fall onto Russia. Seventy years ago, Joseph Stalin signed an order killing 22,000 Poles. For five decades, the Soviets claimed it was the Nazis who carried out the massacre. Rumors have been flying for decades that the Soviets engineered a plane crash that killed General Wladyslaw Sikorski in 1943, because Sikorski had been pushing for an international investigation of the Katyn massacre.

So Kaczynski’s death in a plane crash as he headed for a memorial service at Katyn will inevitably feed the same suspicions. Hence Putin’s gesture — perhaps especially important given that just last week he got the Polish nation’s dander up when he declared the Katyn massacre to have been “Stalin’s revenge” for the killing of Russian prisoners of war during the Polish-Russian war of 1920.

“Although I’m convinced the Russians are not to blame, this will worsen Polish-Russian relations,” noted Sovietologist Richard Pipes told the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita. “People’s reaction won’t be based in reason. If this had happened in France, it wouldn’t have had any effect on mutual relations. But because this happened in Russia, at the site of the Katyn tragedy … it will reopen barely healed wounds. First the elite of the Second Republic died in Katyn, then the elite of the Third Republic died in Katyn.”

But so far this seems to be a minority viewpoint. Most of the rest of the analysts say Poland has become a more stable, grounded country since the fall of communism. No one expects a constitutional crisis; the parallels between Poland and the civil war that followed the death of Rwanda’s president in a plane crash in 1994 were roundly dismissed.

Surprising as it is to say this about a historical event in Eastern Europe, I don’t believe this tragedy will be become a political football. Even though Prime Minister Tusk has called it the worst Polish tragedy since the end of World War II, it’s still not even close to the worst disaster to have befallen the Polish nation, and most Poles are aware enough of history to know that.

And for the Polish people, this tragedy will — at least for the time being — remain personal and emotional, rather than political. Lech Kaczynski was one half of a pair of twins who have been famous in Poland since they were child stars. They were both instrumental in the Solidarity movement’s overthrow of the communist regime, and for a time a few years ago, they ran the country in an unprecedented political union, with Lech as president and his twin brother Jaroslaw as prime minister.

The Poles have moved on from the nationalistic era of politics that brought the Kaczynskis to power. They replaced Jaroslaw as prime minister more than two years ago, and Lech’s time as president was pretty much numbered, with Bronislaw Komorowski tipped to win the election that would have taken place this fall. (Komorowski, the speaker of parliamanent, has now taken over as acting president under the Polish constitution, and the election has been moved up to June. Because Polish presidential terms run exactly five years, one effect of this disaster is that the Polish presidential schedule has been permanently altered, with Poles electing their president in the spring from now on.)

One sign of a maturing Poland is that, in the wake of the accident, many prominent politicians are turning the focus away from Russia and blaming Poland. “This is a badly-functioning country,” says Andrzej Olechowski, the co-founder of Tusk’s Civic Platform party. “A country that sends its entire military leadership abroad in a single plane is not a country that protects its leadership well.”

And Jaroslaw Kaczynski still lives. He and his brother were so indistinguishable that, inevitably, some of the photos you’ve seen of the Polish president over the past few days were likely to have been Jaroslaw. And Jaroslaw’s political esteem will have only risen due to this calamity. The most painful part of it for the Polish people will be to be reminded of Lech every time they gaze into the very much alive Jaroslaw’s face.

As for Katyn, it’s amazing the historical import that a small town in western Russia now has on Polish history. Like so many of the tragedies of World War II, the Katyn massacre’s causes and details will remain shrouded in doubt, probably to the end of history. The causes of Kaczynski’s crash will hopefully become more clear, and won’t be kept secret for half a century. But ultimately I’m not willing to make any bets as to what comes out of — and what gets dragged into — the fog of Katyn.

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