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Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics

Artist: Nisvan

Since Buddhism has been a topic of discussion here lately (On Religion and Buddhism at Docudharma), I thought I would weigh in from another perspective and talk a little about my experiences with Buddhism and the spiritual realm. 

The title of this essay comes from a book of the same name1 which discusses the role that mind-altering drugs play in spiritual practice.  The book is a collection of essays written by western Buddhist teachers and religious scholars such as Jack Kornfield, Allan Hunt Badiner, Lama Surya Das, Huston Smith and Stephen Batchelor.  They all relate personal anecdotes of how psychedelics opened the doors to higher consciousness. 

From the Foreword:

It is undeniable that a significant proportion of those drawn to Buddhism and other Eastern traditions in the 1960s (including the present writer) were influenced in their choice of religious orientation by experiences induced by psychoactive substances such as marijuana and LSD.  Despite the fact that experimentation with such drugs was illegal, potentially dangerous, and unmonitored, the startling shift in consciousness it occasionally provoked was considered to be worth the risks involved.  Now, thirty years later, many of these Buddhists are priests, meditation teachers, therapists, college professors, and writers: respected members of the very society against which they rebelled in their youth.  Yet although they often eschew the use of psychedelics themselves and warn others of the dangers of abuse, few would deny the role of these substances in opening their eyes to a life of spiritual and religious meaning.

LSD and mushrooms played a significant part in my path too. Twenty-some odd years ago, as a freshman in college, I took my first acid trip.  I was with my boyfriend (my first “true love”) and a group of friends from my dorm.  I was a little wary because I believed what they taught me in grade school about the Dangers of LSD.  However, the risk of losing my mind was outweighed by my curiosity and a certain amount of peer pressure. I really wanted to try this with my friends.

So it began… when the effects started coming on, we all went outside and the first thing I noticed was how ALIVE I felt.  It blew all the drug propaganda out the window.  I didn’t lose my mind, I found it.    All my senses were functioning at 110%.  I remembered learning in physics class about the visible light spectrum – 400 nanometers (violet) to 700 nanometers (red). I thought about how I might be seeing slightly beyond the normal range maybe 390-710 nm or more.  It got me really curious about how this drug was interacting with my brain and nervous system.  This experience influenced my higher education thereafter.  I became very interested in the mind/body problem – took lots of psychology and neurobiology courses – and I ended up with a PhD in Pharmacology. I’ll talk more about that another time. 

For the next few hours we wandered around campus and I looked at all the familiar scenes with fresh eyes.  Everything was magical and marvelous…and then after a while I started wondering if my companions were having a similar experience.  I tried to put in words how I was feeling – practically indescribable – and I realized they didn’t get me.  Everyone was in their own little zone.  It started bothering me that no matter how close I felt to someone, I would never be able to get inside their head to see their view of the world nor they mine. 

That started the bum phase of the trip.  I felt so isolated and alone.  These friends, even my lover, became strangers.  I didn’t really KNOW them.  Our relationships seemed so superficial.  In fact, I was realizing how superficial my whole life had been to that point.  All the things I thought were important for getting ahead in life were artificial, materialistic shams.  I felt as if I had bitten the forbidden fruit of knowledge and was being cast out of Eden (religious myths and themes like these are common in psychedelic experience).  Once you take LSD you can’t go back to your old comfortable reality.

So in the aftermath of that trip, when I was still feeling a little blue, I talked about it with someone else that was with me that night.   I told him of the loneliness and the shocking realization of my superficial life.  He said that it sounded like “Zen”.  “What’s Zen?”, I asked, picturing monks with shaved heads.   Soon I was off to the book store.  I picked out Zen Buddhism – writings by D.T.Suzuki2.  On the third page of the first chapter I read this, “Even when death is conquered, one is left alone, and the loneliness is sometimes more unbearable than the struggle itself. One may not be conscious of this and go on indulging in the momentary pleasures that are afforded by the senses.  But this being unconscious does not in the least alter the facts of life.”  Bingo!  I found that the book explained a lot of the things I was feeling.  It was very comforting to know that people had been having the same existential crises for millennia and that there was a way of dealing with it and reaching a higher state of consciousness.  This LSD experience was just a point of departure along the Way. 

Many years and many trips later, I don’t consider myself a Buddhist but I have studied and practiced many varieties of Buddhism and yoga all of which I attribute to my experiences with psychedelics.   I have adopted and crafted my own practice for enlightened living using bits and pieces from all the traditions.  They are all shades of the same essence to me. 

Most recently, I have been learning a form of Tibetan Buddhism called Dzogchen and also Mahayana Buddhism which emphasizes the Bodhisattva path.  Lama Surya Das has a couple of books I highly recommend in this regard – Awakening the Buddha Within, and his most recent Buddha Is As Buddha Does about becoming a bodhisattva.  I have to say his story in “Zig Zag Zen” was the best.  He was a 60’s Woodstock hippie before traveling to the East and starting his spiritual training.  I’ll leave off with his words of advice about tripping (it seems to apply in general too):

The Zig Zag Zen Commandments

1. Take care. Watch your step. Be careful.
2. Just say maybe.
3. Find a way to have your own spiritual practice and experience.
4. Awaken your mind, open your heart; learn to see clearly and to love.
5. Go on this journey with a friend, even a guide, if possible.
6. Lighten up while enlightening up. Don’t take yourself too seriously, or it won’t be much fun.
7. See everything as impermanent and like a dream.
8. Be mindful. Be vigilant and intelligent about your experiments.
9. Don’t cling to anything.
10. Don’t rely on mere words and concepts. 

1Badiner, Allan Hunt, ed. Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002.
2Barrett, William, ed. Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki.  New York: Doubleday, 1956.

Take the Poll – I swear we can not see usernames in the responses.


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Beware, liberals, progressives, Democrats and Independents….

I first wrote this blog about two years ago. At the time, Karl Rove and the Republican Party seemed indomitable. Fortunately, Rove and the Republicans have gone into remission. But, much like cancer, we must constantly guard against any recurrence, and if the Rovettes reemerge, quickly bring to bear all the antidotes available to drive the forces of the Right into oblivion. Be warned, Rove continues to lurk behind the lines, a ready reserve to join the battle of 2008.

I believe debate is a wonderful thing. We should all contribute our point / counter-point arguments on issues of importance…Democrats, Republicans, Independents, alike.

Unfortunately, for America “debate” is not the method that is carrying the day.

The Republican Party (Karl Rove as its orchestrator) has learned an important truth. The country is divided into roughly equal parts of left, right and middle.

The Right is able to marshall its forces into one coherent voting block by invoking certain triggers (gay marriage, God, liberal, unpatriotic, raise taxes, cut and run, gun take away, etc.) that consistently bring out the Right-wingers to march in lock-step against the Left throughout the election process. The Right is able to express its deepest thoughts and strongest convictions in two to three word bumper stickers.

Rove’s, and the Republican Party’s approach is calculated to drive voter apathy in the non-believer while it acts as red meat to the Party faithful. It is a perfect strategy for getting a candidate elected. If the Democrats, the center and the left fail to heed the warnings of previous years, the Democratic Party can easily go down to defeat in 2008.

It doesn’t matter to Karl Rove that 66% of the public loathes what the Republican Party stands for…his job is to market the turd that he carries around in his four-color box. His role is to turn out all thirty or thirty-five percent of the people that the lock-step, Republican Party owns. In the process, Rove is happy if he attracts some of the middle or if not attracted that he, at least, infects the center / independents with a sense of apathy that causes them to stay home on election day.

Rove is a genius at what he does.

The Middle (Independents) are rudderless without an obvious or apparent leader and few thought-out, defined positions on most matters…just not fully Left, nor fully Right…an unreliable and uncertain partner in most elections, one without strong, steerable partisan views but one that can help or hurt on specific, well defined (magnet) issues. Centrist and independents reject many of the core messages of the Right and the Left. From Rove’s perspective, he would rather poison these people on the process and not take a chance that he may be able to attract  the support of this undisciplined group. It is too difficult to predict whether the middle will lean to the left, lean to the right, or just remain on the sidelines. If the center is not a guaranteed Republican vote, Rove would rather eliminate the possibility that some or all will vote for the Democratic candidate.

The Left (Democrats) being democratic go for the “big tent” approach. On the surface, everyone is welcome in the Party. Each is welcome to his or her own ideas as long as they fit into the loose framework of democratic and Democratic ideals. Consequently, the Party is a Party of many uniquely different people / ideas.

The Democrats are thinkers.  They love their own policies, philosophies, and views. Democrats believe that their ideas are universal ideas and welcome all to join-in. They believe that they can win everyone over to their (the Democrats) point of view. Consequently, Democrats speak in big ideas, intellectually fashioned programs, analyzed and nuanced actions to make life better for all Americans, the peoples’ of the world.

Much debate transpires within the Democratic ranks…many ideas are exercised.  Some are rejected by the masses; others evolve and are embraced as ideals / goals of the Party at large.

Unfortunately, the ideas, ideals, and goals of the Democratic Party are not often structured into “lock-step” marching orders that lead and direct the Party soldiers throughout a campaign (and in today’s world the entirety of the reign of a President like George W. Bush, from the day he first announced throughout the entire reign, it is all the campaign). Democrats are expected to think for themselves, not just follow mandated from on-high Party dogma. Democrats, to their great disadvantage with today’s electorate, have failed to characterize each of their respective views in one or two word phrases that are code-word triggers for Party members to act in a way-certain.

Consequently, the Democratic Party approaches any election day with a variety of complex ideas for voters to contemplate but no clear-cut instructions on voting. The Democrats have few “code words” that evoke a level of passion that equals millions of radical evangelicals listening-in on thousands of Sunday morning gay-bashing sermons.

Democratic candidates are usually bright, engaging to talk with, and learned in their professions. If elected, most can and will do an intelligent and beneficial job for our people, our society and the world. But the problem is that bright, energetic people don’t get elected.

The perfectly rounded and tapered (if somewhat smelly) candidate, a product of better marketing strategies too often prevails. When you break it down on post-election morning, you can only marvel and exclaim…Ol’ Karl, if nothing else, is one hell of a marketing manager. He is able to package any turd into a viable candidate for any office.

Thoughtful debate!  The Party better field a marketing team with the strength and the mandate to out-Rove, Rove and/or his decendents. Else the 2008 elections will come under the Rovian spell and will be lost to an engaged Right.

Eros vs. Thanatos

(pico and srkpy, back to back. this is why you come here. at 20:48, edt – promoted by Turkana)

The final paragraph of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (1930) always chills me:

The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. It may be that in this respect precisely the present time deserves a special interest. Man have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety. And now it is to be expected that the other of the two “Heavenly Powers” eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary. But who can foresee with what success and with what result.

Freud added the very last sentence in 1931, when Hitler’s threat had already become clear.

His use of language pointing to the present moment produces an uncanny effect, for while he is surely pointing to his own historical moment, the reverberation of the “present time” and “now” ensure that this foreboding ending forever taps on the reader’s particular historical moment, as if every age were a moment of crisis. And perhaps it is.

Freud understands the unfolding of history as the struggle of Eros, instinct of life, and Thanatos, the instinct of destruction, a struggle without end. His is not the Enlightenment view of history as steady progress toward a perfectible future.

After all of these dark years of BushCo, we find ourselves in the throes of Thanatos, the death drive. The current unrest, anxiety, frustration, unease, rage, pick yer negative affect, we feel only reveals our existence at the threshold of destruction. Will Eros reemerge? And “who can foresee with what success and with what result? We felt the rush of that possibility with the midterm elections. And now we feel despair.

I’d like to delve a little bit into Freud’s notion of civilization and see how the economies of the pleasure principle might help us analyze and transform our times.

For Freud, the formation of civilization crucially requires the willing exchange of happiness in the form of freedom for the security to pursue a more limited happiness: “Civilized man has exchanged a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security.” This exchange is the very upsurge of the communal body and the rule of law:

The replacement of the power of the individual by the power of a community constitutes the decisive step of civilization. The essence of it lies in the fact that the members of the community restrict themselves in their possibilities of satisfaction, whereas the individual knew no such restrictions. The first requisite of civilization, therefore is that of justice–that is, the assurance that a law once made will not be broken in favor of an individual.

The security provided by civilization is primarily the equalizing principle of law; it is about legal structure and not the state monopoly on violence. Civilization requires the renunciation of certain instinctual aims, and forces these aims to be expressed otherwise, encrypted and articulated in other forms. For Freud, all of the fruits of civilization–ethics, art, science, law–are essentially metaphors replacing renounced instinctual aims.

In the place of unacceptable instinctual urges, we translate the energy we would invest in those aims into other forms of expression that are acceptable to, and in fact expressive of civilization itself. Think of this as a kind of conversion experience of the unacceptable into the exemplary. Neat trick, eh?

The aggressive instinct that must be curtailed, however, seems to haunt every scene, like the threat of violence encrypted in David’s Lynch’s Technicolor suburbs. This encrypted menace is the death instinct streaking through everyday life, and it is to this substratum that the politics of fear, or trauma politics appeals.

It is easy enough to repurpose the sexual instinct into a form that advances civilization; in fact, at first it seems that Eros is not just in service of civilization, but the other way around:

Civilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind.

But as Freud progressed in his work, he realized that shadowing the instinct for life, was Thanatos, the instinct for death, the articulation of a “non-erotic aggressivity” that is both powerful and obscure, and that is detectable only when it is intertwined with Eros. Civilization is not just the the servant of Eros, but the stage-setting for a clash of the titans:

Civilization must present the struggle between Eros and Thanatos, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species.

This clash of titans is the propelling tension that accounts not just for historical movement, but individual development as well, and the mechanism of its movement is captured by Freud’s theory of the pleasure principle.

The Pleasure Principle in a Nutshell (well, in a blockquote box! with free glosses from yours truly!)

  • The pleasure principle is thought by Freud to be the automatic regulatory principle of mental events and thus strongly influences our actions.
  • The aim of the pleasure principle is the “avoidance of unpleasure or a production of pleasure.”
  • Originally, the child can only interpret this in the most literal form: immediate gratification. As responsibilities increase, this tendency for immediacy begins to yield unpleasure.
  • The reality principle intercedes to modify the pleasure principle and take into account the demands of reality. This modification allows us to go through present unpleasure for future pleasure. Imho, it marks the entry of the human being into figural understanding, substitution, and translation–into an economy of psychic investments and symbolic operations.
  • Considering the symptoms of traumatized WWI vets, Freud was led to wonder about mental events that didn’t operate according to the economics of the pleasure principle: When there is a trauma, “the pleasure principle is is for the moment put out of action.”

    Trauma exposes us to the sway of the death drive and repetition compulsion. The death drive is the principle of destruction which aims even at the destruction of every system and economy. Hence, Freud views it as beyond the pleasure principle and threatening to the very coherence of the communal body and body politic.

NB: You may have already noted that there is a crucial asymmetry in the two drives–the one for pleasure and the one for death. Remember that Freud thinks this is an eternal structure without resolution. Thus “progress” is always constructed and contingent, but the regression of the death instinct is actual–that is, death and destruction are in many ways irreversible. This is why we always seem to be fighting an uphill battle. IMHO.

Can we analyze our present political moment and the Rs and Ds according to the economy of the pleasure principle?

Perhaps it seems that the Rs, as the deniers of reality operate strictly under the sway of the unmodified pleasure principle. Immediate gratification. Present pleasure and complete disavowal of the social unpleasure that is growing. We could also imagine that our anemic Ds are also operating according to the immediate demands of pleasure, caring more about this news cycle and that poll, then the overall health of the nation, globe, and even party. They have not let their behavior been influenced by the reality principle–the reality that most of the US population is against the war, want the troops out and voted the Ds in to accomplish that or at least rigorously try to accomplish that.

But I don’t think that we can account for the extreme disconnect between the will of the people and the actions of their elected representatives this way. Rather, our government is operating completely under the sway of the death instinct that both mirrors and exploits the national, post-9/11 PTSR (post-traumatic stress response). That is, the insane BushCo agenda is the articulation of the death drive, and the incomprehensible weakness and repetitive destructive behavior is a kind of political repetition compulsion. This kind of trauma politics and the importance of heightened emotional states for politics is the subject of much excellent work right now in different ways: Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason, Drew Westen’s The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine

Naomi Klein’s analysis of the shock doctrine and the rise of disaster capitalism allows us to clearly see the orienting principle of the death drive. It also allows us to glimpse a possible reason why the Rs have been so successful, aside from sheer cheating and criminality….

They have adopted the rhetoric of Eros, the life instinct, while being completely propelled by the death instinct. They are “pro-growth,” “pro-life,” “pro-family values,” pro-more-is-good. The moreness of more that guides them, sheer greed and imperialistic hunger, is not about increasing pleasure and expanding the possibilities for survival, it is the rapid cell division of a cancer. It is the proliferation of a toxic overgrowth that eventually kills.

Given the asymmetry that I described above between Eros and Thanatos, and the regressive negative feed-back loop of the politics of fear, how can we transform the politics of fear into the politics of possibility, of hope? How do we shift from the aneconomic kamikaze movement of the death drive to the just struggle of Eros?

It turns out that the threat of harm crystallized in fear, and the promise of desire and love are both potent times for the reinscription of our mental events. What I’m suggesting is that in this raw emotional state one is primed for fear and desire, and that desire is the opening for the other narrative we seek. (Possibly interesting trivia: The French term for the female orgasm is la petite mort–the little death.)

A helpful clue comes from the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, who in “Self: Clues from the Brain” is discussing how one heightened emotional system trumps and shuts down the others, but how (sexual) desire overrides almost every other system. I’m putting “sexual” in parenthesis, because I’m thinking that the pleasure principle is a metaphorical construal of this sexual nature of the drive:

Both eating and sexual arousal are decreased by activation of systems involved in fear and stress. But once aroused, sexual desire can override many other brain systems–people risk all sorts of adverse consequences for a sexual fling … Not only does the arousal of an emotional state bring many of the brain’s cognitive resources to bear on that state, it also shuts down other emotional systems. As a result, during intense emotional arousal,learning is coordinated across systems in a very specific manner, ensuring that the learning that occurs is relevant to the current emotional system. (301-2).

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2003 Oct;1001:295-304

I take this to be a kind of neuroscientific rendering of the struggle of Eros and Thanatos. The importance for us is that it means that fear can be overcome by desire and that both fear and desire prepare the listener for a kind of learning that creates a feed-back loop upholding the particular heightened emotional state.

We need to turn the voters on.

The U.S population is afraid. Not just of “terrorism” but because of the uncertainty of everyday life, the lack of economic security, healthcare, savings, good education, opportunities, the open-ended nature of our Iraq occupation, the overwhelming menace of the climate crisis.

But they are also desirous of a new direction, they are primed to hear the message of Eros. They want protection, yes, but the also want the protection and hope that comes from the feeling of a true future, with the allure of fulfillment. They want the protection and hope that comes from working together for a just and equitable future, a future of possibility, not just of more, more, more, without meaning.

Dems need to step out of the losing economy of repetition compulsion, tolerate the present unpleasure of working for funding only a withdrawal with date certain. They can make this step just by recognizing the reality principle–that the majority is with them, supporting them, hungering for, desiring a politics of fulfillment and not fear. Responding positively to their constituents, they can create the positive feed-back loop of the politics of a new direction, a just direction. A just direction which crucially includes a proliferation of possibilities for the sublimation of the drives. Dems need to support funding not only for health and education, but for the arts, and innovative living styles and arrangments, new forms of culture. This need is not of a second order, but vital to the functioning of a robust, progressive political form.

So is this all I’m saying–MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR? Not only and not quite, because I think it’s of prime importance to remember that embodied existence has to constantly acknowledge the alluring streak of the death instinct, and it is not something to which progressives are immune. We can’t just bracket violence, death drive, aggression and think it’s something that others do. This is why I always say:


That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t sleep at night or feel good about what you do, but it does mean that even as we strive to offer another narrative, a viable possibility for a just future, we have to be eternally vigilant to the violence, real and discursive, that we all do. Imho, the true force of progressivism is always beginning your analysis with a recognition of the harm that is being done to someone, somewhere by our principles, practices, and politics. The minute we think that justice is done is when we have failed it.

Thus the eternal struggle of Eros vs. Thanatos as the motor of justice and the granting of our responsibility to the future and to all the others on this big blue marble.

FAQ revision request

This diary will self-destruct shortly.

I was looking at our FAQ, and I had two things I thought should be added.

First of all, a list of Admins and Contributing Editors.  I know I can suss out who most of them are via the blogroll, but I didn’t know, for example, that pyrrho was one.  Not that this is a problem, but if I don’t know, probably newcomers don’t either.

Second, could we put up our current I/P policy there?  The FAQ doesn’t reflect it.

Top Commander in Afghanistan Doubts Taliban Ever Defeated

How bad is the situation in Afghanistan?

So bad that U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, doubts the Taliban were ever defeated in the first place by the 2001 invasion. The invasion that the American, Afghan, and Pakistani officials once described as a success and the Taliban as a “spent force”.

“The question is, were they ever defeated, and I don’t think they ever were,” McNeill said.

McNeill is quoted in a story by the Washington Post that reports of an emboldened Taliban carrying out more attacks with a greater reach – right up to provinces ringing Kabul, the Afghan capital.

After six years of the United States being distracted by Iraq, the Taliban is gaining the advantage and the U.S. doesn’t have the strength nor resources to stop them.

Fighting and holding ground “is a problem for us,” McNeill said. “We’re not all the force we should be, both in size and capability.” Boosting Afghan army and police forces is a key goal because indigenous forces typically are the most effective in fighting a counterinsurgency, he said.

McNeill seems to stating that the US and its NATO allies do not have enough troops in Afghanistan (about 35,000) to hold territory taken from the Taliban. If I didn’t know any better, I would think McNeill was asking for more troops, but instead he probably knows that will fall on the deaf ears of the Commander in Chief Guy. So, instead, the hope is that the weaken Afghan government will be able to muster a large enough army and police force to be able to stand up to the Taliban and stop them.

What does Afghanistan think about the U.S. plan to Afghanize the war? Apparently not much and neither does the United Nations. According to Bloomberg news, the UN is advocating talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and President Hamid “Karzai said earlier this week his government is encouraging Taliban rebels not linked with the al-Qaeda network to join a process of national reconciliation.” The problem is determining just who is linked to al-Qaeda and who is not.

BBC News reports that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is “keen to promote reconciliation” with the Taliban and the Afghan government “is putting out feelers, trying to work out whether there is a genuine desire for contact among the central leadership of the Taleban.” And, really despite the optimism of Gen. McNeill, “senior officials at NATO and the UN say they are interested in the idea of formal discussions between the government and the Taleban, provided that the Afghan constitution is respected.”

The Bush administration is softening its ‘no talks with terrorists’ line too. In his recent visit to Afghanistan, Deputy Secretary of State, John Negroponte said, “We would think that this proposal for talks should be handled in such a way by the government of Afghanistan… that it does not in any way undermine or prejudice all the important political, social and economic accomplishments that have occurred in this country since 11 September 2001.”

And is it any wonder that everyone now seems willing to negotiate with the Taliban? According to the UN, the rebels control seven out of 12 districts the Helmand province, the Taliban’s stronghold area in southern Afghanistan. And according to the Washington Post story, the Taliban’s surge has increased attacks more than 80 percent in June and July from the same period last year.

Analyses by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, a project funded by the European Commission to advise private aid groups about security conditions across the country, found “a significant monthly escalation in conflict” in the first half of the year. Attacks by armed opposition groups increased from 139 in January to 405 in July, according to the project’s director, Nic Lee.

Every month there’s a 20 to 25 percent increase in offensive activity,” he said, adding that attacks in June and July were 80 to 90 percent higher than the same period last year, showing a general escalation in the conflict, rather than seasonal fluctuations.

“Attacks have spread across the entire southeast border area, with a rapid escalation in the east, and in the last four months in the center” around Kabul as well, Lee said. “These guys have the strategic intent to take back the country.”

Gen. McNeill surmises that the increase in attacks isn’t so much the doing of the Taliban or other insurgents, “but more likely was related to criminal activity, narcotics trafficking and tribal disputes. And in some cases, he said, levels of conflict are up because more NATO, U.S. and Afghan forces are pushing into areas of the country where they had never operated. There are an estimated 50,000 international troops here, about half of them American. ‘Logic tells you the number of incidents you report are going to be increased,’ he said.” As if increased activity of drug traffickers is a positive compared to the resurgence of the Taliban.

So while the UN presses for negotiations and Karzai has feelers out, his spokesman is mimicking Cheney’s last throes rhetoric. Humayun Hamidzada describes the increasing attacks as “acts of desperation” according to the Washington Post. “If you go and blow up 20 civilians, what does it show? Does it show strength? It shows their weakness. It’s no resurgence. It’s just showing who they really are.”

What the Taliban really are is a force keeping US/NATO forces on the defensive and forcing Gen. McNeill looking for ways to buy more time. After six years of occupation, he is looking for “faster development” to win Afghan hearts and minds.

“The will of the people is incredibly important to anybody who is waging a counterinsurgency operation, and I think the will of the people could have a finite shelf life,” he said. “If we can continue to show some steps of progress, especially in the business of reconstruction, then we can hang on to the people for a tad longer.”

But, time is running out and rather than negotiating from a place of strength, the Afghan government seems desperate to negotiate with the surging Taliban. As Afghanistan NGO Safety Office Nic Lee remarks:

“The Taliban has already fought one war for this country, and they were quite successful,” eventually ruling for five years, Lee said. “You don’t do that without learning how to do things: establishing supply routes, isolating Kabul, how to target aircraft.”

In an insurgency, he said, “you don’t have to win, you just need to make sure the other guys don’t, and they have time on their side.”

Or, as George W. Bush said back on April 17, 2002:

As the spring thaw comes, we expect cells of trained killers to try to regroup, to murder, create mayhem and try to undermine Afghanistan’s efforts to build a lasting peace. We know this from not only intelligence, but from the history of military conflict in Afghanistan. It’s been one of initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure. We’re not going to repeat that mistake.

In the United States of America, the terrorists have chosen a foe unlike they have any — they have never faced before. They’ve never faced a country like ours before: we’re tough, we’re determined, we’re relentless. We will stay until the mission is done.

Mr. Bush – we’re overextended, we’re distracted, we’re floundering. History in Afghanistan is repeating Mr. Bush, on your watch.

Cross posted at Daily Kos.

Easy Things, Simple

From MLW

A lot of people say I’m confusing, and at least one reason is easy problems are no fun… once it’s easy, why bother. Well, I do know reasons to bother with them, so here are some easy things:

Health Care: we should have nationalized health care.

Drug War: There is no drug war… drugs should be legal along with medical care.

Abortion: Abortion is a serious and grave personal decision, as is the decision to have open heart surgery. Its also a medical decision for a person to ultimately make for themselves on consultation with a doctor.

Guns, War and the Military: I will not say that military is necessary in the world, but right now, the power of the world is still in GUNS. That’s just a fact of life.  As for war, all war involves war crimes, which are some of the most horrific crimes known to humanity, and should only be undertaken fully realizing the crime one has willfully endeavored to engage in.  The “noble purpose” is soiled, at best, and better be very important… in short the enemy really better be a hitler.

Libraries: are good things, lets have lots of them and fund them really well…

Education: I think it is good for parents to have choices about schooling, what school their child attends. I also think that school districts should have to support home schoolers… yes this is simple.

Socialism: We all support socialism to some degree… a catch all often being police, most people understand why we should not have a privatized police force, but instead have a socialized one (well, on paper).

Borders: We need a world where there are borders, to enable regulation, e.g. regulating the bringing of fruit into California, but the borders ought to be super permeable, like, “sign this guest book” permeable.

Free Trade: This would be good except that it’s not so much about freedom at the moment, but about treating parts of the world like slaves. Still, in the long run I imagine a freely traveled world, and that would include trade. However, when the world is normalized with respect to labor costs a bit more, it won’t make sense to ship cheap goods from halfway around the world, and we will have by then a return of local production.

Government: There isn’t any government. Government is dead. No one governs us. The shadow plays on the cave wall still, but Government is dead.  What there really is, is Common Infrastructure, and an organization to manage it using democratic input from the members of the common.

Technology and the Environment: Technology can be green. The use of poisonous technology is primarily a problem due to people that actually want to harm the environment… other than that, we can always green our technology. Biology is an evolution driven technology, and it is, obviously, “green”… so I take it as clear enough that the rest of our technology can be clean… it can clean our water, it can make healthy food.  The fact that we don’t use such technologies is a choice… and amazingly enough, due to a desire to control, oppress, and ultimately harm the environment as a misguided display of power.

What’s difficult is how are a bunch of dogmatists in this world going to make it to the liberating reflection which exemplifies our future era?

Profiles in Literature: the Book of Job

Greetings, literature-loving dharmosets!  Last week the series had a guest poster who tackled a close reading of one of Edith Wharton’s best known works, The House of Mirth.  This week we’re going to crawl into the WayWayback machine to address one of history’s most baffling short stories.

Why do people suffer?  If there is a God, and he does have a ‘plan’, why do people who believe in him find themselves suffering the same indignities as people who don’t?

I have no interest in the religious side of this question (I’m an atheist), but the it makes for fascinating art. If you think religious texts aren’t appropriate fodder for literary analysis… well, then this ain’t the essay for you!

Otherwise, join me below for a trip through ancient Edom.

“I read the Book of Job last night – I don’t think God comes well out of it.” 

— Virginia Woolf

The world’s religions have no shortage of parables, poems, fables, histories, and biographies, so why should we bother with Job, a relatively minor piece (in dogmatic terms) of obscure cultural origin?  The plot is relatively straightforward, if confusing and uneven; the poetry is good but you can certainly find better; and no one can seem to agree on what it was intended to mean.

Yet no book of Jewish scripture (for that matter, no book of the Bible) has inspired such a wide array of admirers and analysts, including psychoanalyst Carl Jung, playwright Neil Simon, philosopher Lev Shestov, pundit William Safire (generally ugh, although his reading is interesting)… enough people to merit a three volume study of Job’s impact that includes Hobbes, Spinoza, Pascal, Voltaire, Goethe, Blake, Kierkegaard, Melville, Dostoevsky, and Camus.  Notice this list includes a span from conservative Christians to atheists.

I have my own theories why, but first let’s back up and discuss the history of this disjointed text, and how it came to achieve such a high place in Western thought. 

On Edomites and Textology

Scholars aren’t 100% sure where Job originates, but one thing is fairly certain: neither the story nor its central character is Jewish, which makes its inclusion in the Jewish scripture an interesting choice.  The present form of the story describes Job as an Edomite, living in a kingdom located roughly on the border of southern Israel and Jordan. 

According to tradition, “Edom” derives from Esau, the older brother of Jewish patriarch Jacob (much as Arabs are traditionally linked to the older brother of Jewish patriarch Isaac).  The archaeological record is unfortunately scant.

As for the text itself, it’s undergone significant meddling between its likely origins as an oral tradition and its modern form.  For one thing, we’re fairly certain that an enterprising scholar (or community of scholars) felt that the bare story of Job was too unclear theologically, so they added a new character and possibly rewrote some of the lines.  How we know this will become clear when we discuss the plot.

Oddly enough, these “clarifications” backfired: Job is still a baffling piece of literature, and the contradictions and discomforts stem in part from the sections added as “clarifications”.  It’s as if, attempting to simply a text for general readership, the scholars created a Frankenstein’s monster of terrible depth. 

On Boils and Potsherds

Job is the great work of Suffering, and its pages have been dogeared by a hundred generation of readers trying to understand why bad things happen.  Here’s the plot in a nutshell:

To prove a point, God allows one of his most upstanding people to be the target of some seriously brutal suffering.  Job (the target) knows he’s done nothing wrong and cries out to heaven for justification.  Eventually God comes down in a whirlwind, tells Job to shut up, and rewards him for passing the test.

Got that? It’s simple enough (if baffling) on the surface, but as with many texts of this depth the devil is in the details.

Literally: the plot is set in motion by none other than Satan, in his very first appearance as a literary entity.  But the word “Satan” actually means “Accuser”, and whoever he is, he’s not a fallen angel or proprietor of the hottest property this side of the Sahara.  As far as the story is concerned, Satan is God’s prosecutor, testing the abilities of the human race to “fear God and shun evil.”  The trials of Job start off as a glorified bet:

Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” (1:8-12)

With those words, Job’s formerly happy existence becomes a living hell.  His property is stolen or destroyed, all his children are killed in freak accident of nature, and – after God wants to declare victory, but Satan ups the ante – his body becomes infected with oozing, itchy boils. 

Now the story really begins: the plot shifts away from this prose prologue into an elegant poetic structure, as Job’s three friends try to convince him about how to deal with his misfortunes. 

Job curses his miserable existence, but his friends have other ideas.  Eliphaz believes that God makes no mistakes, and good people are rewarded for good just as bad people are condemned.  Job isn’t amused, and you can practically hear his anger seething out between clenched teeth:

I will not keep silent;
I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit,
I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.

If I have sinned, what have I done to you,
O watcher of men?
Why have you made me your target?
Have I become a burden to you? (7:11, 20)

Friend #2, Bildad, replies with more of the same, arguing that God’s actions are just by nature.  He couches his argument in some pretty, imagery-laden verse, but beneath the poetic platitudes he’s implying that Job has to repent, because obviously he’s done something wrong to merit all this catastrophe.  Job’s bitterness pours out in response:

It is all the same; that is why I say,
‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’

When a scourge brings sudden death,
he mocks the despair of the innocent.

When a land falls into the hands of the wicked,
he blindfolds its judges.
If it is not he, then who is it? (9:22-24)

Friend #3, Zophar, has none of the tact of the other interlocutors, and blasts Job for his arrogance in assuming he’d done nothing wrong.  Now the text settles into its pattern, as the friends continue, in order, to berate Job for his wrongheadedness while Job proclaims his innocence and the unfairness of his suffering.

First Eliphaz, then Bildad, then Zophar,
then Eliphaz, then Bildad, then Zophar,
then Elipahz, then Bildad, then Elihu.. wha?

Who the hell is Elihu?

We’re 32 chapters in, and a previously unmentioned character has decided to butt into the conversation – with a prose prologue to introduce him in a slipshod, unconvincing way (“He was there all along, really!  He just didn’t like talking over the other people!”)  The newbie, whose name means “My God is He” – how’s that for subtle? – starts ripping into everyone, Job and friends alike, for not understanding the nature of divine justice.  Job doesn’t have to repent for anything – he simply has to recognize that understanding divine justice is so far out of his cognitive abilities that he shouldn’t presume to know better.

As if on cue, God enters stage left, in a whirwind (heck of an entrance!)  Rather than argue with Job about the rightness or wrongness of his punishment, God puts their relationship into some perspective:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand…

Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb? (38:4, 8)

And then God invents snark:

Surely you know, for you were already born!
You have lived so many years!  (38:21)

And with that, trembling at the mighty boom from the whirlwind, Job accepts his fate.  God says, “I win!” and gives Job everything back, including a new set of children and blemish-free skin.  Finita la commedia


I’m troubled, I’m puzzled, I have more questions than answers-and that, I suppose, is why the Book of Job has been required reading for almost 3,000 years.

— David Plotz, Slate

There are so many directions we can go with this text –  if it’s been rich enough to inspire thousands upon thousands of pages of discussion through the centuries, I certainly can’t but scratch the surface in a blog post.  Some areas of particular interest:

Sin and Punishment: One of the radical things about Job is that it disconnects the notion of earthly misfortune from sin.  Depending on how you approach it, this is either extremely discomforting (the world around us follows no understandable logic, and we’re all randomly-squashed ants!) or extremely comforting (a natural catastrophe that takes the lives of thousands of people is not anyone’s fault, so fuckwads like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson can shove it).  Besides, why should the Almighty care about earthly peccadilloes that barely register?  On the flip side of the coin, you didn’t get that promotion because you prayed, and you didn’t find your keys because you’re “a good person”.  As Elihu explains,

If you sin, how does that affect him?
If your sins are many, what does that do to him?

If you are righteous, what do you give to him,
or what does he receive from your hand? (35:6-7)

Language: more so than any Biblical text outside of Genesis, Job concerns itself with the role and function of language.  Apart from the framing device, the book is almost entirely dialogue, foregrounding conversation and speech above an action-less plot.  When God finally appears, it’s in the form of a disembodied voice. 

But it recognizes itself as a literary text, too.  In a nice moment of ancient Meta, Job hopes that future generations will recognize him for the blameless soul that he is:

Oh, that my words were recorded,
that they were written on a scroll,

that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead,
or engraved in rock forever! (19:23-24)

This eventually leads to one of the text’s most interesting paradoxes: if the moral of the story is that divine justice is beyond our understanding, surely it must be beyond our language, too.  This is doubly true since language, even in the Bible, is considered a corruption – or an inferior form of human understanding.  How does the book deal with this?

The Sublime: The limitations of language are in part a reason for God’s non-response response.  If divine justice were explainable, he’d explain it; but it isn’t, so he doesn’t.  Instead, God relies on imagery – giant oceanic Behemoths, creation of the cosmos, booming whirlwinds – to carry a sense of what Job is dealing with.

Basically, Job has a meltdown.  Faced with the enormity of creation thrust in front of him, his neurons overload and he reaches a better understanding of the enormity of the Ineffable.  Kant called this type of meltdown “the Sublime” and recognized that it could lead to the annihilation of a sense of self in the face of the Absolute. 

The Sublime, of another sort: Why does this text inspire so many contradictory responses?  Part of the reason is that the theology (or more accurately, the theodicy) is so unsatisfying, and it has to be: as we just noted, if it were explainable, it could be explained.  And yet it all starts with a bet – in fact, the text explains to us exactly why Job is suffering, then berates Job for trying to understand the nature of his suffering!  Satan shows us his cards, Elihu tells us we can’t see the cards.  What gives?

Punishment that is not punishment, justice that is not justice, an explanation that is not an explanation.  Job loops back on itself with visions of a universe outside our understanding while seeking to make it understandable, and the more you contemplate its mysteries, the more you find yourself sinking into incomprehension.  In the end, faced with such an agonizing push-and-pull of ideas, your brain suffers a meltdown.


It’s just my reading, but I think this is the source of Job‘s greatness: its inscrutable nature forces the reader to reenact Job’s own meltdown when faced with the divine.  Since the text can’t deliver a whirlwind to each of our homes, it creates a cognitive whirlwind by beating us up with an incomprehensible theodicy, and we’re left cowering in the corner.  But as with Job, this also precipitates our breakthrough in understanding the Ineffable on a higher level.

And even if you find that you don’t get quite the same uneasy feeling reading the book, you can still enjoy one major aspect: at its center stands the best-written, most vivid character in all Jewish scripture.  Job appeals to readers because he is so recognizably human, and his suffering and his indignation still feel potent some thousands of years later.

My eyes have seen all this,
my ears have heard and understood it.

What you know, I also know;
I am not inferior to you.  (13:1-2)


New International version of Job, which is the version I used for this essay
– Fully illustrated Job by William Blake (a must-see!)
– Excellent essay by Slate’s David Plotz in Blogging the Bible (and a much better close reading than I’ve written here)
– Essay on Job by G. K. Chesterton (early 20th century author of popular novels like The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare)
Putting God on Trial, a comprehensive website on Job by the author Robert Sutherland

Thank you for reading!

Text of Job from the New International translation, linked above.  All images courtesy Wikimedia Commons, with images hyperlinked to their original sources.  Cross-posted as always on Progressive Historians and Daily Kos.

35% of the Iraqi population is either dead, maimed or a refugee **update

            1 in 3 people is the stunning reality of this war and no one speaks for them
I wish to inform and hopefully to move you. I have gathered this information from various sources, UNICEF, the United Nations, WHO, medical journals and relief organizations. The figures are often based on estimates along with some verifiable reports and eye witness accounts because hard figures are difficult to gather. I tried, whenever possible to use multiple sources. Additionally, the UN places the prewar  population of Iraq at 22 million. With numbers so large they are already incomprehensible, understand  it is very likely the toll is greater than we can imagine or ever be able to document.
You are invited below the fold where I hope we will find a sense of proportion and perspective and most of all outrage. 
I am constantly astonished by the number of people who either have no clue or simply do not want to know what we have brought to Iraq with Operation Iraqi Freedom. Since 2003 nearly 3 million Iraqis have fled their country, with more than 100,000 leaving every month. The figures vary, but it is now thought the number of displaced Iraqis still in country number number in excess of 2.2 million. Every day the civil war intensifies the numbers go up exponentially.
The countries taking the largest number of refugees are Syria and Jordan. Syria is a Sunni country, a dictatorship ruled by the Baath party, with ties to terrorist groups and a poor human rights record. About half the refugees entering Syria are Christians and the rest comprised of Shia and Sunni.  Jordan is a constitutional monarchy, no ties with terrorists, with fewer human rights violations and politically better for the refugees. They will experience really for the first time how a country moves toward democracy and how representative government works. The problem is neither country can stand the strain of more than a million refugees. Jobs, food, housing, education and medical are all strained to the breaking point. We have said we will help. In first nine months of 2007 only 133 of the planned 7000 Iraqi refugees were allowed into the United States. Since 2003, the U.S. has resettled less than 1,500 Iraqi refugees.European nations like Sweden have taken thousands more.
In addition to the obvious toll on the refugees and their hosts, relief organizations report nearly half of all refugees are children. UNICEF also tells us displaced children are at the greatest risk for death, not just refugee children, but children displaced in their own country. In fact the burden of this war on Iraq's children is staggering.
UNICEF also informs 1/2 of the Iraqi population is under the age of 17, children who will ultimately suffer the most. After years of the UN sanctioned embargo and the first Gulf War Iraqi children and their mothers are chronically malnourished. Now 1 in 8 Iraqi children die before their 5th birthday. Again from UNICEF, 2003 report, of the more than 122, 000 reported deaths of children under 5 more than half are infants. Maternal mortality rates have tripled. There are 10's of thousands of orphans and abandoned children living on the streets and countryside, many left to starve. Children are hit so hard because of the lack of food, custodial parent, clean water, sanitation and lack of health services exacerbating the ravages of childhood diseases like measles.  In 2004 we spent princely $37 per capita in Iraq for medical needs.
Now there is a cholera epidemic sweeping thru Northern Iraq, it should reach Bagdad the first week of October. There are 7000 people sick now, when it hits the capitol the the number will raise dramatically and the epidemic will likely sweep south into the rest of Iraq. The sanitary facilities are in disrepair, water supplies are spotty and not clean. Water purification plants themselves may be contaminated with bacteria. The only effective way to deter the epidemic is to introduce chlorine into the water supply to kill the bacteria causing cholera. The 100,000 tons of chlorine so desperately needed to purify water systems sit on the border with Jordan not shipped because of concerns it will be used to make explosives. There are between 5 and 6 million people in Bagdad, all at risk and again children, the sick and the elderly are the most vulnerable. A cholera epidemic we are ill equipped to handle and it would seem incapable of stopping.
The dead, the best estimate say more than 1,000,000 Iraqis have perished, today an Iraqi civilian is 58 times more likely to die a violent death than before the war started. All to save them from Saddam? In the 28 years Saddam was in power he killed about a million Iraqis, it is now generally accepted George Bush has exceeded that number. In addition more than 1.5 million seriously injured, burned, blinded, maimed and broken.
Those numbers represent 7.7 million people, 35% of the Iraqi population is either dead, maimed or a refugee.
Let me try to help you wrap your mind around those numbers. 7.7 million people represents  more than the combined populations of our 10 least populous states,  D.C., Wyoming, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Hawaii and Vermont. Twice the population of Los Angeles, roughly the combined populations of Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix and San Diego. Add a destroyed infra-stucture and on going Civil war to the deadly mix. We have no comparisons in this country, not even our own Civil War. In recent memory consider Hurricane Katrina, 1.5 million people affected with 1836 confirmed deaths, a tragedy simply dwarfed by the tragedy in Iraq.
We see the flag draped coffins and for every one of our dead there are 300 dead Iraqis, 300. For every soldier who comes back wounded and maimed there are more than 53 Iraqis just like him. The emotional toll on both is unimaginable.
I don't know how one puts this in proper context, how do you find ways to convey the monstrous enormity of what we have done. How do you get people to understand it just isn't about US, it isn't about our dead and wounded, it isn't about oil or WMDs or who is right or wrong, or freedom and democracy or any of the other excuses why we invaded or are staying. it is about the 22 million INNOCENT people of Iraq we are literally liberating to death.

OPOL (not quite an Essay)

I just responded in a a thread to one of your detractors.

  I find nothing “RADICAL” about OPOL  (1.00 / 1)

He is just a run of the mill 60’s nostalgist spouting cliche talking points and  dated iconography.

Maybe he would have been radical 40 years ago.
by: Dharmando @ Tue Sep 25, 2007 at 10:34:18 AM PDT


I call Bullshit. (4.00 / 1)

I may have butted heads with him about one thing, but the man believes what he says, and actual IDEALS don’t change with time.

If more people had not sold out & laughed at it as you have done, the world would be a better place.

OPOL cares about the world.  Do You?

by: Diane W @ Tue Sep 25, 2007 at 14:10:17 PM PDT

Yeah you pissed me off, and I did not realize that it was your one year anniversary when you posted the same day as when the shit went down. (I am being vague so as not to drag up old shit too much, you know what I mean.)

But if you remember past that I was one of your most outspoken supporters, prior to that day.

Much to my surprise I still am.

You get so very much right.

So if the reason you are not at MLW is my fault, consider this a genuine apology.

Its not my Place, it is Maryscotts, but if you left on my account, then I guess its ok for me to say:

Please come back.

I am still in the process of living, and I can get things so very wrong, even with the best of intent.

Besides, we Hippies need to stick together.

Even if you won’t come back, I have thought long and hard, and think you deserve this Public Formal apology anyway.  I know this is your new home, but I miss your cross postings, really I do.

I was a bitch.

I AM sorry.

Pony Party, “not enough for a separate essay” edition ;)

Jenny McCarthy, the beautiful actress you may remember from movie appearances in ‘Dirty Love’ or ‘Scream 3’, or numerous television appearances (oh, yeah, and the whole ‘Playboy’ thing…) has recently gone public about 2 aspects of her life.  She has a 5-year-old son who is autistic, and she has been dating actor Jim Carrey, whom she calls an ‘autism whisperer’.

From the linked Yahoo!News article:

“He’s actually helped Evan get past some obstacles I couldn’t. I sometimes call him the autism whisperer. He speaks a language Evan understands, and Evan feels safe with him.”

She details her 2 years of experience with Evan’s diagnosis and progress in a book, “Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism.”  She has also started a website, which i have not been able to access, called  A quick perusal of autism-related websites offer mixed reviews on Ms. McCarthy’s assertion that autism is curable.  But she told People Magazine that she intends to “[use] my big, giant, controversial mouth to blow the lid off a lot of things related to autism to give moms hope,” she said. “It is so needed.”

I guess there could also be debate as to whether it is, indeed, ‘hope’ that these moms need.  But for trying to bring eyes and interest to a topic that could sorely use both…good on ya, Jenny!

As always, please don’t feed the ponies….

So without further ado, the floor is yours.


Statistics 101: Cluster analysis of the US Senate

reposted from dailyKos
How do the senators line up?  Are there groups of Senators with similar records (other than the obvious Dem vs. Rep?)

There’s a statistical tool to answer questions like this: It’s called cluster analysis.  It takes a group of subjects (here Senators) and some method of saying how similar they are (here, ratings from various groups) and tries to put the subjects into groups.

There are LOTS of subtleties, some of them (along with results) are below the fold

here are several key questions to answer in a cluster analysis:

  1. How to measure similarity

  2. How to link a person to a cluster

  3. How to figure out how many groups there are

But all cluster methods are about finding, well….. clusters.

OK, let’s take these three one at a time:
1) How to measure similarity:
  Here, I took ratings on each Senator from 10 groups, as collected by the Almanac of American Politics 2006.  The ten groups each rate each senator for 0 to 100.  The groups:
  Americans for Democratic Action: A general, liberal group
  Am. Civil Liberties Union: In favor of individual rights and civil liberties
  AFSCME – A large union of public employees.
  League of Conservation voters – pro-environment
  ITIC – a group of information technology providers – mostly toward the conservative end
  Nat’l Taxpayers’ Union – For lower taxes
  Chamber of Commerce of the USA – pro-business
  Am. Conservative Union – general conservative group
  Nat’l Tax-limitation Commission – for lower taxes
  Christian coalition – well, you know

Then, a measure of similarity is the correlation between their scores. Two senators with identical ratings will have correlation = 1, with completely opposite ratings, -1. 

2.  How to link people

Linking two people is easy: We start by linking the two who are closest to each other.  But how do you measure the closeness of groups? There are a number of methods.  In single linkage, you measure the shortest distance – that is, the shortest distance between anyone in the two groups.  In complete linkage, you count the longest distance.  In average linkage, it’s the average distance.  Average distance is often a good choice.

Another method, which I use below, is k-means clustering, where we specify a number of clusters, and the computer finds the ‘best’ solution for that number of groups
3. Number of groups

Here, intuition plays a role.  We can look at multiple numbers of groups and see what patterns emerge.

Before all that, though, let’s explore a bit.

I include all the people who were senators in 2004 and weren’t newly elected.  Later, we can look at who got kicked out.  There are 95 such senators.

There were (get this) 43 Dems and 56 Repubs and 1 indep. in total  TIMES HAVE CHANGED!  Among the 95, there were 42, 52 and 1. 

The 10 organizations all ranged in rating from 0 to 100
Group Mean  Std Dev
ADA 59.8 38.9
ACLU 39.1 32.5
AFS 51.2 44.0
LCV 45.5 44.24
ITIC 80.1 22.7
NTU 45.3 28.6
COC 75.9 23.5
ACU 53.0 41.0
NTLC 53.2 40.3
CHC 55.3 45.78

when you seen std. deviations almost as big as means, and you know that the minimum is 0 and max 100, you suspect bimodality:

Density plot of ratings

This is a density plot of each groups ratings, and, indeed, a lot of them are bimodal: A lot of senators get low ratings, and a lot get high ratings, with few in-between.

OK.  First, let’s try a two cluster solution.  This splits nearly perfectly along party lines, cluster 1 was 42 Dems, 1 Indep (Jeffords) and 1 Repub.  Cluster 2 was 51 Repubs

Who’s the one Republican in with the Democrats? Lincoln Chafee

Seems that cluster is at least working, even if it’s not revealed anything too surprising.

We can also plot the scores on each of the groups, by cluster. 


Here, cluster 1 is all the Dems, one Indep (Jeffords) and Chafee.
Cluster 2 is just the Repubs.

What about 3 clusters?

Three clusters

In this analysis, cluster 1 has 6 Dems and 3 Repubs, cluster 2 has 49 Repubs, and cluster 3 has 36 Dems and Jeffords.

Who’s in that first, mixed cluster?

Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Evan Bayh (D-IN), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Snowe (R-ME), Collins (R-ME), Baucus (D-MT), Ben Nelson (D-NE), and Lincoln Chafee (R-RI)

A four cluster solution was not that useful, but it did put John Kerry (D-MA) in a cluster by himself. Otherwise, it was identical to the three cluster method

A five cluster solution, however, is interesting:

five cluster

Clusters 2 and 4 (red and blue) are all Republican, clusters 1 and 3 (black and green) are all Dem. (plus Jeffords) and cluster 5 is 1 Dem and 4 Repub. 

Let’s try clustering within party

These two clusters were quite similar on most scores, but cluster 2 is lower on several: ITIC, COC, NTIC, CHC.  Cluster 1 (moderate-conservative Dems) has Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Evan Bayh (D-IN), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Baucus (D-MT), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Lieberman (D-CT), Carper (D-DE), Stabenow (D-MI), Schumer (D-NY), Murray (D-WA) and Cantwell (D-WA).

And on the other side?

There was a rabid right wing cluster, and a more moderate cluster (with only 5 people): Snowe and Collins of ME, McCain, Specter (PA) and Chafee.

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