Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween 2010

It's a scary Halloween, isn't it? After recent decades - and the past ten years in particular - conservative ideology should be safely buried. After all, is there anything conservatives got right in recent history?

They claimed that cutting taxes on the rich would cause our economy to boom and the deficit to decrease. They were wrong - horribly wrong - on both accounts. They claimed that regulation was unnecessary, that corporations would just naturally do what was right. They claimed that we'd be greeted as liberators in Iraq, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that the war would "pay for itself."

Nothing should be as thoroughly dead as conservative ideology, yet it's climbing out of its grave before the earth has even settled. And if we can believe the polls, we Americans seem to be greeting it with open arms. Even that graveyard stench of fear, religious bigotry, and racism doesn't seem to matter. Well, zombies are popular these days, I guess.

I hope you're enjoying your Halloween. You're not getting too many Tea Partiers, are you?

Yesterday's Rally to Restore Sanity

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) was yesterday. I wasn't there, and I didn't watch it. Too much else to do. But it sounds like a great time was had by all.

Estimates of the number of participants are all over the place, from 150,000 to 6 billion (the latter probably a little high). As far as I can tell, "more than 200,000" is a reasonable estimate. Plus an unknown number of people attending satellite rallies in other cities, of course.

The official website has tons of photos. So do sites like BuzzFeed, where I got these samples. I don't know if these are actually the "100 best signs" at the rally, as they claim, since I've seen many others that are at least as good. But they have a nice assortment in one place.

The Examiner has the full text of Jon Stewart's closing remarks, and it's well worth reading. Here's an excerpt:
I can’t control what people think this was.  I can only tell you my intentions.   This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear.  They are and we do.  But we live now in hard times, not end times.  And we can have animus and not be enemies.

But unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke.  The country’s 24 hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems but its existence makes solving them that much harder.  The press can hold its magnifying up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.

If we amplify everything we hear nothing.  There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats but those are titles that must be earned.  You must have the resume.  Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people but to the racists themselves who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate--just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe not more.  The press is our immune system.  If we overreact to everything we actually get sicker--and perhaps eczema.

And yet, with that being said, I feel good—strangely, calmly good.  Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false.

They say that people who watch the most news tend to feel that crime is far more common than it really is. Maybe it's the same way with politics. This Tea Party lunacy gets covered by the media because it's extreme. Heck, that's why I post about it here. Could we Americans be more rational than it seems?

That's not what the polls seem to indicate, although that might be partly a matter of apathy. Say what you like about the Tea Partiers, they're not apathetic. But is the choice really between insanity and laziness? What about rational people who are both sane and willing to participate in our democracy?

Well, isn't that what this rally was supposed to demonstrate, that there are more of us than you might think? It's easy to get discouraged, with Fox "News" braying propaganda day and night, with anonymous attack ads everywhere you look, with pollsters forecasting a turn back to the GOP, the same people who nearly destroyed our country, after less than two years of relative sanity.

But we're not alone. Our nation is badly split politically, yes. But most of us are decent people. And when you think about it, being able to work together despite our differences is a liberal position. It's the foundation of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. It's the foundation of racial equality and integration. Even conservatives are more liberal than they might wish to recognize. Their rhetoric might be hateful, but that's just fear talking.

And on the other side of the aisle, note that working together, compromising when necessary, does not mean that you shouldn't stand up for your beliefs - and certainly not that you shouldn't have any beliefs at all. Vigorous debate is actually a good thing. You can be a partisan activist without being insane, you really can. Of course, you might not ever get on TV...

And that brings me to this great quote from the New York Times' article on the rally:
But beyond the goofiness, the rally seemed to be channeling something deep — a craving to be heard and a frustration with the lack of leadership, less by President Obama than by a Democratic Party that many participants described as timid, fearful, and failing to stand up for what they see as the president’s accomplishments.

“I’m proud of Obama, but the Democrats in Congress, they’re just running for cover,” said Ron Harris, a lawyer from Laguna Beach, Calif., who came to celebrate his 64th birthday. “They couldn’t sell bread to a starving mother if God was standing next to them.”

Heh, heh. Great, isn't it? I guess there's one thing all of us can agree on, that we're disgusted with Congress.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

It's time to choose

I might note that Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity is taking place today. Let's all hope it does some good.

What does it profit a man?

From Jonathan Chait:
Let's sum up the economic situation. Unemployment is high, and average Americans are in a desperate, fearful situation. Meanwhile, corporate profits are at record levels:
Profits have surged 62 percent from the start of 2009 to mid-2010, according to the Commerce Department. That is faster than any other year and a half in the Fabulous ’50s, the Go-Go ’60s or the booms under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Meanwhile, the most popular analysis of our economic troubles -- not just among furious, self-interested business tycoons but more moderate elements of the political elite as well -- holds that the primary problem is that the Obama administration is too hostile to business. It's quite remarkable.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have the worst of both worlds. A top-heavy economy is causing them massive grief among suffering voters, and the only people who are actually doing well are lambasting them as socialists.

I was reading the other day that American corporations are sitting on a trillion dollars of cash, yet they're not hiring and they're not investing in their businesses. Analysts expect they'll use much of that money for stock-buybacks, mostly because that will increase the value of stock options owned by management.

So the rich will continue to get richer, while the middle class struggles to hold its head above water. But the wealthy are furious that their taxes might increase to where they were ten years ago. No, they certainly weren't hurting back then, but they've made out like bandits from the Bush taxcuts - and the Bush deregulation - and now they believe they deserve it.

According to supply-siders in the GOP, tax cuts for the rich were supposed to create a booming economy and pay for themselves (kind of like the Iraq war). Neither turned out to be the case. Instead, flush with cash, the wealthy created bubbles in arcane financial instruments, and we ended up with record-breaking deficits and the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. And now they want to try it again!

Not long ago, Wall Street was begging the government for bailouts, just to keep the whole financial system from melting down - and taking our economy with it. But now that their jobs are saved, now that the stock market is booming again, they're not interested in helping anyone else. Well, you see, they deserved the help. The rich always think they deserve special privileges, just like they deserve their wealth - even when they inherited it!

Weird, isn't it? What's even weirder is that most Americans go along with them. This is still a democracy, so the top 2% of Americans couldn't force this on us if we didn't let them. Of course, most of us don't have a clue about economics.

According to a recent Bloomberg poll, most Americans are surprisingly ignorant about this stuff:
The Obama administration cut taxes for middle-class Americans, expects to make a profit on the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to rescue Wall Street banks and has overseen an economy that has grown for the past five quarters.

Most voters don’t believe it.

A Bloomberg National Poll conducted Oct. 24-26 finds that by a two-to-one margin, likely voters in the Nov. 2 midterm elections think taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program won’t be recovered.

Why are we so ill-informed? We believe just the opposite of reality by a two-to-one margin! That's just astonishing, don't you think? You can blame the Democrats for not communicating the truth more effectively, or you can blame the Republicans - including, of course, Fox "News" - for misrepresenting the truth to advance their own political ambitions. But fundamentally, this is our fault. After all, the truth has not been hidden from us, not at all.

So here's the deal: The stock market is booming and American businesses are flush with cash, but Barack Obama is accused of being hostile to business. The wealthy are doing great, thanks to effective government action that saved our economy from complete collapse, but they accuse Obama of being a socialist. 40% of Obama's stimulus package was middle-class tax cuts - cutting taxes to 95% of working families - but the overwhelming majority of Americans think he raised their taxes.

And Americans blame Obama for losing billions in the TARP program, even though (1) that was implemented before he became president and (2), rather than losing money, we'll make a profit on it. Obama's stimulus package, and the other emergency measures initiated when he did take office, stopped an economic collapse that appeared to have no bottom and turned our economy around. Admittedly, unemployment remains sky-high, but we're out of the recession, with the economy growing for the past five quarters. But few Americans actually believe that.

It's just incredible, don't you think? Why is Obama facing this kind of response? Is it just the fact that he's a Democrat? Is it the fact that he's a black Democrat? What's the explanation? And how can we have an effective democracy when the electorate is this ignorant and ill-informed?

Of course, a lot of people benefit by keeping the electorate ignorant and ill-informed. In fact, there are billions of dollars flowing into efforts to keep us this way.

Climate change: How do we know?

That's a great graph, isn't it? It's from NASA's Global Climate Change website. It shows atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, mostly from ice cores, for the past 650,000 years. Of course, we've known about the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide since the mid-1800's.

Will this change any minds? Of course not. Climate change deniers - and I believe that includes every single Republican running for the U.S. Senate - aren't that rational. If they were, they'd accept the scientific consensus, as least provisionally.

Picking anything other than the scientific consensus is just believing what you want to believe. And since Republicans don't want to do anything about it, they choose not to believe the science. It's exactly the same thing as sticking your head in the sand in order to believe that you're in no danger.

There's lots more information available at NASA, including several more graphs. But this one is particularly dramatic, isn't it? Too bad we don't seem to be smart enough to pay attention.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Turn back now?

"Cryoburn" by Lois McMaster Bujold

(cover image from

I suggested, in my last book review, that a series nearly always declines, as the author continues to write new books without having anything new to say. But in her Vorkosigan series of space opera, Lois McMaster Bujold has shown us just the reverse.

True, her first books, Shards of Honor and The Warrior's Apprentice (both published in 1986) were great fun, with very appealing characters. But Bujold just got better and better, eventually writing such superb works as Mirror Dance (1994), Memory (1996), and A Civil Campaign (1998).

The last book in the series, Diplomatic Immunity (2002) was not up to that extraordinarily high standard, which was disappointing, but not surprising. It was still good, just not great. She really didn't seem to have anything new to say, so I wondered if this author - my favorite - was actually mortal after all.

Now she's written Cryoburn (2010), the next book in the series, set seven years after Diplomatic Immunity. Miles Vorkosigan and his bodyguard, Armsman Roic, are on the planet Kibou-Daini, attending a conference on cryonics - freezing people for later revival. Miles is on assignment as Imperial Auditor, and if you're familiar with this series, you'll know that he has first-hand experience with the process.

On the surface, the novel is an entertaining adventure. It starts out great, with Roic a prisoner of kidnappers who attacked the conference and Miles hallucinating, wandering lost in the pitch black corridors of a vast cryofacility. A lesser author would require a lengthy flashback to explain the situation to her readers, but not Bujold. She really does a great job with this, letting us know what's going on without interrupting the story.

Miles soon encounters a helpful youngster with problems of his own, and the story takes off. However, I must say that the last half of the book is less successful than the first. For one thing, the situation, while important - and even a bit dangerous for some of the characters - isn't the empire-shaking kind of thing we've seen Miles tackle before.

In fact, Miles concludes his assignment relatively early in the book, and just sticks around to help some newfound friends. For Miles, the adventure seems rather low-key, or even... ordinary. Second, I missed a lot of familiar characters from previous books. For the most part, it's just Miles and Roic, and we don't learn anything new about either of them. Lord Mark and Kareen Koudelka show up unexpectedly late in the book, but seen mostly through the eyes of a child, they appear rather distant and reserved.

As an adventure, the story isn't bad, but it really doesn't fulfill its very promising start. I'd say it's as good as the previous novel, but not at all up to Bujold's highest standards. However, that's just what's happening on the surface. There's a deeper meaning that pervades the book and gives it considerable significance. It's here where Bujold really does have something new to say.

The underlying meaning, IMHO, seems to be that time marches on. It's been seven years since Diplomatic Immunity, and Miles and Ekaterin now have four children. Rather than reveling in his adventures here, as his younger self might, Miles is anxious to get back home to his family. We learn that Gregor and Laisa also have children, and that Taura, whom we first met so memorably in "Labyrinth," has already died of old age.

The entire planet of Kibou-Daini is filled with people who aren't exactly alive, but aren't dead, either. They remain frozen, expecting to be revived when old age can be cured, and meanwhile, corporations hold their votes. The power this gives those corporations is immense - and it's certainly relevant to today's political environment - but there's also the question of what this does to their heirs.

On this planet, the dead don't shuffle off, leaving the world to the young. Indeed, they almost-literally try to freeze time. And that situation is not just an excuse for the adventure here. It's part and parcel of the meaning that underlies this whole book. Time marches on. We may regret that, but it happens. It might even be a good thing, though it can be very hard on us personally. At any rate, it's just the way things are.

I'm not sure how Lord Mark and Kareen Koudelka fit into that theme, though I suspect they do. Seen mostly through the eyes of a child, they appear to be rather forbidding adults. (Perhaps that's the whole point.) So many years after we last saw them, they're still together - described as "partners," not husband and wife - but we don't get to see what they think or how they feel, or even what kind of arrangement they've made of their lives. That was quite disappointing, I must say. After all, I've come to care about all of these characters.

But in general, the underlying theme of this novel raises it above the previous book in the series. It's rather bittersweet. Everything ends. We all die. Just as we have a beginning, we also have an end. That's life. Time can't be stopped, can't even be slowed. Clearly, Miles is not the same character he was in previous books. He's grown up. Well, so have we readers, no doubt. It's been 24 years since the first books in this series were published, and none of us will be getting those years back again.

Cryoburn isn't one of the best books in the Vorkosigan saga, but it's still entertaining. And it's certainly thought-provoking. For that alone, it's worth a read. Does it imply anything about the future of the series? I don't know, but that's certainly possible. And I'm not even sure what I think about it. Of course, nothing lasts forever...

Note that Cryoburn is a standalone novel that could be read without knowing anything else of the series. But I don't recommend it. It's not a good place to start, and you'd miss the most powerful parts of the story. The Vorkosigan series is character-based fiction, and you really need to know the characters to get the most out of it. I highly recommend reading this series in order of publication, starting with Shards of Honor and then The Warrior's Apprentice.

Alternatively, you could sample the series in Bujold's Borders of Infinity (1989), which contains three superb Miles Vorkosigan novellas: "The Mountains of Mourning," which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novella, the aforementioned "Labyrinth," and the title story, "The Borders of Infinity." If you like those stories, you'll like the series. If you don't like them,... well, I guess there's no hope for you. :)

The Great Post-Partisan Pumpkin

(RJ Matson, 10-26-2010)

I'm sorry to say that I see this as fantasy, too. For almost two years, Barack Obama has bent over backward trying to work with Republicans. But you can't compromise with people who see compromise as treason.

There may still be rational Republicans, I don't know. But if there are, they're running scared of the extremists who've taken control of the party. The GOP tried to use fundamentalist Christians just as they had southern white racists. But their wooing of the latter drove out moderates, and the religious right grabbed control. Now the Tea Party - which is pretty much the same people, only with a different battle cry - has completed the extremist putsch.

Now, the combination of ignorance, bigotry, and culture war mentality makes it impossible for Republicans to work with a black man they've labeled a socialist, a Kenyan, and a Muslim. If you take their rhetoric as reality, how could you compromise with a man - with a whole party - bent on destroying America? The lies of Fox "News" are great for pumping up the base, but disastrous for trying to help govern our nation.

I don't feel any sympathy for Republican politicians, but they are trapped by their past actions. There's not much they can do to calm the monster they've created, so even if some of them haven't completely lost their minds, they still can't work with the president, or with any Democrat, not without being crucified by their own base. If you compromise, you're labeled a "moderate," which is the kiss of death in today's GOP. (Of course, there's plenty they could do, but not without giving up their political ambitions.)

All that has been obvious for some time now, don't you think? So when will it sink in at the White House? I know that Obama campaigned on bipartisanship, on bringing civility and compromise back into our political system, but it's simply not working. And meanwhile, he's failing to rally his own base. The president has the world's biggest bully pulpit, but he hasn't been using it to lead. In fact, he seems to have expected Congress to lead the country, which is beyond bizarre.

And when the Democrats lose the House of Representatives next week, it will be all over. After that, we'll see nothing but a politically-inspired witch hunt in the House. Republicans say it themselves. They're determined that Barack Obama will be a one-term president, no matter what it takes.

I'm absolutely astonished that the American people seem to be going along with this. Ignorance, cowardice, or gullibility, I don't know how to explain it. Yes, I was astonished when we re-elected George W. Bush in 2004, even after we saw what a disaster he was for America. But this is even worse. What has happened to us?

Extremists are normally punished at the ballot box. That's what tends to keep our political parties somewhere near the political center. But these days, the Democratic Party has the center all to itself. The Republican Party keeps getting more and more extreme without paying any political price at all. This is our fault. If we the people are dumb enough to let this happen, we can't blame anyone else.

I know there are still a lot of rational Americans, but where are they? I really hope Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity tomorrow will get them off their butts. Because right now, it's the loonies - and the gullible, scared elderly - who plan to vote on Tuesday. If rational Americans can't be bothered to get off the couch, America is going to be in big, big trouble.

And we won't have anyone to blame but ourselves.


"Do you know how motivated stupid people are?" So I guess being apathetic is smart? Heh, heh. I don't think that was Aziz Ansari's intention.

Pretty much all excuses for not voting boil down to laziness. You don't want to take ten minutes - if that - out of your day, so you invent an excuse for not doing the right thing.

Oh, my vote won't make any difference. So what? It's your duty to vote. You can't control what other people do, but you can control what you do. So vote. Besides, if you don't vote, you have no right whatsoever to complain about anything. Indeed, we who vote will have every right to complain about you.

After all, it was you who gave us the Iraq War and the current economic collapse. It was you who deregulated the banks and gave us record-breaking deficits. It was you who decided Citizens United and it was you who let money corrupt our political system. Voters may have made some wrong choices, but no one's perfect. It's the non-voter who's really at fault.

Oh, what's the use? Both parties are exactly alike. Yeah, right. That's why they so vehemently disagree. If Al Gore had been elected president in 2000, instead of George W. Bush, tens of thousands of innocent people in Iraq would still be alive. That's just one consequence out of millions. In a democracy, our decisions matter.

And if you don't like a political party, you can change it. After all, the Democratic Party used to be the party of slavery and segregation, solidly entrenched among southern white racists. Democrats changed that. They rose above their former base, most notably by passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, knowing that it would cost them the South.

Oh, ordinary people can't change anything. No politician and no political party is going to be perfect, but if you think you can wave a magic wand and instantly fix everything,... well, grow up! Change is hard. However, the religious right has recently demonstrated how hard work and persistent voting can wrest control over an entire political party. Do you think they're the only people in America who can do this? I happen to think that they're completely wrong about nearly everything, but at least they're willing to work for what they believe.

Oh, I don't like politics. Again, so what? Voting is your duty as an American citizen. You don't have to like it. You just have to do your part. And you know something? Politics might be a terrible way to make decisions, but the alternative is violence. You may not "like" politics, but you'd better hope you never have to suffer the alternative. Compared to that, politics might be the most wonderful invention of all time.

Oh, I don't know enough about the candidates and the issues. This was my excuse when I was young. But it's fallacious. What I discovered is that you won't ever know enough until you start voting. You're likely to feel like a complete idiot in the voting booth at first, not knowing how to vote in many races. So if you don't have a clue, leave those parts of the ballot blank. Vote for what you do know and vow to do better next time. But at least show up and act like a responsible adult.

Oh, I'm too busy. No, you're not. Trust me. Voting is very easy and takes no time at all. And people make the time for things they consider important. Once you realize that voting - in every election, no matter how minor - is important, you'll make the time. No one will ever pay attention to you and your peers unless you reliably vote. Look at how much attention senior citizens get. That's because they vote.

All of these are feeble excuses for laziness. You want the privileges of democracy, without having to get off the couch. You want to be free to do what you want, without doing the maintenance required to keep those freedoms. Sure, you're busy with your own life. Aren't we all? But you have a duty, a duty shared with every other citizen, to do this small part - ten minutes of very easy effort every so often - to keep our society peaceful and healthy.

If that's too much to ask, you don't deserve to live here. Maybe you'd prefer Somalia.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Oh, Chute!

Click to embiggen.

Stomp with the knees, never with the back

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And from The Far Left Side:

Democrats vow to run away

Once again, The Onion gets it right:
Conceding almost certain Republican gains in next month's crucial midterm elections, Democratic lawmakers vowed Tuesday not to give up without making one final push to ensure their party runs away from every major legislative victory of the past two years.

Party leaders told reporters that regardless of the ultimate outcome, they would do everything in their power from now until the polls closed to distance themselves from their hard-won passage of a historic health care overhaul, the toughest financial regulations since the 1930s, and a stimulus package most economists now credit with preventing a second Great Depression.

"There's a great deal on the line, and we know it isn't going to be easy for us," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), speaking from the steps of the Capitol. "But if we suffer defeat, we will do so knowing we cowered away from absolutely anything we produced that was even remotely progressive or valuable in any way."

The stimulus package gave a tax cut to 95% of working families in America and stopped an economic collapse that looked to have no bottom when Barack Obama took office. But Republicans lie about it, so of course the Democrats are running away from their own accomplishment.

Wall Street fought tooth and nail against financial regulations designed to prevent another collapse like this one, and today is lavishing money on a Republican Party which vows to return to the same deregulation that created bubbles in mortgages and arcane financial derivatives (and, just incidentally, gave these people obscene profits before they collapsed our economy and had to be bailed out by the American taxpayer). So, naturally, the Democrats are hiding under the bed, if not actively attacking their own program.

And after campaigning for decades on health care reform, Democrats finally succeeded on their campaign promise, passing a very conservative reform bill almost identical to Republican plans in the 1990s - and a bill that lowers the federal deficit, to boot. Among other things, now health insurance companies can't kick you out if you get sick. But it's unpopular among gullible, Fox "News" watching seniors - who won't be affected by its provisions at all, but who reliably vote - so Democrats... are running away. Oh, we're so very sorry we kept our campaign promise!

The Onion might be satire, but you can't get any more accurate than this. And keep in mind that these are the same Democrats, by and large, who went along with the worst excesses of the Bush Administration, including deficit-busting tax cuts for the rich and starting two wars in the Middle East, one against a completely innocent country, simply because they feared the president's poll numbers.

These are the same Democrats who decided not to investigate the crimes of the "loyal Bushies" in the previous administration, letting the Republicans completely off the hook and able to start fresh at deceiving the American people. Oh, gosh, we wouldn't want to look too aggressive, would we? Republicans might look at us with those sad, puppy-dog eyes. Let's give our opponents - who nearly destroyed our country the previous eight years - a chance at a fresh start. I'm sure they'll be nice to us then.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) acknowledged the task would be difficult, but said Democrats would remain steadfast in permitting their opponents to deride the accomplishments of the $787 billion Recovery Act, even as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reports that the 2009 measure has created millions of jobs.

"While the stimulus isn't a cure-all, we owe it to the voters to scatter like pigeons whenever the Republicans grossly mischaracterize it as a wasteful giveaway," Pelosi said. "Their sleazy, cynical distortions may win them votes in the end, but we will not let that happen without doing whatever it takes to sit idly by and let them get away with it."

According to party leaders, the Democrats are putting their sweeping new health care law at the top of the list of accomplishments to back away from, mainly by allowing its most popular provisions—federal subsidies to make health care more affordable; allowing children to stay on their parents' insurance until age 26; and rules that prevent sick people from being denied coverage—to be summarily dismissed as "Obamacare."


"It's the ninth inning now, and Democrats are finally getting serious about hiding in the weeds at the slightest mention of last year's credit-card legislation, which put an end to predatory lending schemes that are universally considered repugnant," [James] Carville said. "Now that's smart politics, right there. The chips may be down, but they're still finding a way to curl up like a bunch of pathetic little hedgehogs and piss all over themselves the moment any sort of challenge is mounted."

Am I bitter? Hey, I'm still disgusted that the Democrats couldn't even muster up the gumption to separate tax cuts from the wealthiest of Americans from tax cuts for everyone else, everyone making less than $250,000 a year, and vote on the latter before the election, letting their opponents campaign on deficit-busting cuts for the top 2% of earners in the nation.

I guess when they run away, they really run. Frankly, I'm surprised they can run so fast without a spine.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Food insurance insurance

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Stephen Colbert has just been getting better and better, don't you think? In fact, I had a hard time deciding which clip from last night's show to embed here. Well, why don't you check out Invisible Inc. and decide for yourself whether I made the right choice.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What, no assault rifles?

OK, these Tea Party folk just get crazier all the time, don't you think? And they claim that Democrats are the fascists? What has happened to our democracy?

A couple of weeks ago, private security guards of U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller (AK) threw a journalist to the floor, handcuffed him, and "arrested" him - at least until the real police arrived and made them release the man. His crime? Asking Joe Miller a question.

They claim that he was trespassing at a private event, but according to news reports, it was a town hall meeting to which the public had been invited. And apparently, they weren't even real security guards. Now they claim to be security "agents," and that's why they don't need a license. In other words, they were just a bunch of toughs pushing around a journalist who was asking uncomfortable questions.

Do you know what's really scary? This is how these Tea Party folk are acting when they're winning. Heck, the latest poll shows Rand Paul 13 points in the lead. (Miller isn't doing as well, but it's another Republican, incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, that's the problem.) So how will they act if they actually lose an election?

Is that when the guns come out, as they keep threatening?

Gee, I wonder why the GOP would say that?

I don't know

"I don't know" is a perfectly respectable answer when, indeed, we don't know. It doesn't mean that we won't ever know, and it certainly doesn't mean that we should stop looking for answers. "I don't know" might not be a very satisfying answer, but it's often the only accurate one.

It does not, in particular, mean that "God did it." Rationally, we can't just invent a comforting fairy tale to cover up the gaps in our knowledge. Long ago, when people didn't know what the sun was - and "I don't know" wasn't emotionally satisfying - they assumed it must be a god in a golden chariot. After all, what else could it be?

Now we know how wrong that was. But this kind of error persists today, despite centuries of finding natural explanations for what used to be considered supernatural (and never once the reverse). We don't know what caused the universe, if indeed it had a "cause" at all. But "I don't know; therefore God must have done it" is fallacious reasoning. In order to rationally believe that "God" did anything at all, you must have evidence for that belief. Belief must always be based on knowledge, not ignorance.

And no, I don't know that a god or gods don't exist, either. I don't know that leprechauns don't exist, or flying unicorns, or werewolves. There's probably an infinite number of things I can't prove don't exist. But in all cases, unless I have good evidence that they do exist, it would be irrational for me to believe they do. Pretty clearly, that would be just wishful thinking.

That's why I call myself an atheist, rather than an agnostic. I'm an agnostic, too, of course. At least, I completely agree that I can't rule out any kind of god, not even the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But why would I "believe" in anything without evidence? And if you don't believe in the supernatural, you're an atheist. That seems clear enough.

It's also true that we don't ever know anything for certain, at least without even the slightest possibility that we could be wrong. Some things are more certain than others, and we can often be sure beyond any reasonable doubt, which is a good practical standard for "knowing." But, theoretically at least, nothing can be known to such a certainty that we wouldn't change our minds given sufficient evidence that we'd been wrong.

So let's not nitpick here. I "know" that the Earth is round (roughly speaking) and that it revolves around the Sun, since there's abundant evidence of this. Of course, I can think of several possibilities where this could be wrong, but since there's no evidence behind them at all, I can easily dismiss them as explanations of the real world.

Evidence is the key. We can still be wrong - we remain fallible - but evidence-based thinking is demonstrably superior to any other way of determining the truth, especially when it's combined with the careful procedures of the scientific method. There's still a lot we don't know (and I hope that will always be the case), but "I don't know" doesn't imply anything else at all.

It certainly doesn't imply that you know.

Democrats are such easy prey

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Indecision 2010 - Revenge of the Fallen - Sean Bielat & Ken Buck<a>
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Monday, October 25, 2010

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Best correction ever?

What might be the best correction ever comes from Amanda Hess:
This blog post originally stated that one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive. In fact, the statistic applies to black men who have sex with men.

Heh, heh. I got this from Jonathan Chait, who comments:
I really hope that correction went up before her parents read the original item. And I don't mean that they'd necessarily worry about the race of her sexual partners. I'm just saying that if you have enough sexual partners to break them into sub-categories about which you can draw meaningful statistical inferences, you're probably not living the kind of lifestyle your parents prefer.

Of course, the humor of this typo does not detract from the importance of Hess's blog post. It's a serious issue. I'm not otherwise familiar with her blog, but this post is nothing to laugh about.

I do, however, applaud the fact that she can keep her sense of humor, despite these grim statistics. That's certainly admirable.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The flood of secret money

I'm seeing more and more political cartoons about the flood of anonymous money flowing into our political system, thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions. But that's all, just outrage from a handful of people. Doesn't this matter to the rest of us?

If you're a Republican, are you just happy that the flow of anonymous money is going to Republicans (something like 8 to 1 over Democrats)? Doesn't the effect on our democracy worry you at all? Maybe you think that the wealthy are better people than the rest of us, pretty much by definition. But does this apply to corporations? Saudi Arabian sheiks? Foreign governments? When it's hidden from sight, anything is possible.

And how about those loony Tea Partiers, who see conspiracy in every government program or policy speech by our scary black president? Doesn't vast amounts of anonymous money, flowing secretly into our political system - and into their own organizations, in fact - trip any alarm bells? Do they just not care? Or do they plan to use these right-wing corporations like corporate Republicans plan to use them? You know, the secrecy might make that difficult. And big money has a way of seducing even people who started with the best of intentions.

Or is it just ignorance and apathy? Don't know and don't care? Do you just shrug and say that both political parties are corrupt, and there's nothing we can do about it? Since you don't want to get up off the couch, not even to vote, is it easier to just give up? Oh, what's the use, huh? We thought we'd have "real change" after 2008 (like decades in the wrong direction - and human nature - could be overcome so effortlessly), and now we're depressed. Actually working to change things is just too hard, isn't it? It's easier to whine about what's going wrong.

I'm seeing the outrage in political cartoons, but where is it in the rest of us? Do the Republicans have us all figured out? After all, they did learn from the Vietnam War, even those who stayed as far from the fighting as they could get. They learned that young people won't care what happens, as long as they aren't worried about being drafted to fight. They learned that Americans in general won't care, as long as they don't actually have to pay for a war, or for... anything else, really. They learned not to let body bags be shown on TV. These are not exactly the lessons I'd hoped they'd learn! How about you?

And what have Republicans learned about my fellow Americans these days? That we're easy to scare and still far more bigoted than we'd like to admit? That our ignorance of our own history is profound? That we're short-sighted and easily distracted? That we believe what we want to believe, and all the evidence in the world won't matter to that? That dumb, ignorant, and cowardly people are easy to lead around by the nose, especially if you give them enemies to hate?

It's really not the extremists who bother me, but the vast number of ordinary Americans who go along with this stuff. What has happened to us? In the past, extremists would be punished at the ballot box. There's a reason why the John Birch Society was a fringe group, even in the GOP. And it would take more than two years to forget who screwed up our country so badly. But now, I'm seeing outrage from political cartoonists, but apathy and disinterest from most Americans.

The polls continue to look bad for rational people. Even complete lunatics like Sharron Angle are polling well (admittedly, Christine O'Donnell seems to be a step too far, at least in Delaware, though she's polling far better than she should be). The only people who seem fired up are the same people who got us into this mess in the first place. What has happened to the rest of us? Have we all lost our minds, or just our courage?

Guess what I see?

I see mindless rhetoric, unfair and unbalanced "news," and, yes, a complete load of crap. But you knew that, didn't you?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Animal farm

I don't think it odd that Glenn Beck was at this meeting. After all, Fox "News" is the propaganda arm for these people (and Beck wasn't even the only participant from Fox). But what does it say when Supreme Court Justices are intimately involved in political events like this?

After checking the attendee list at Think Progress, I don't believe there were Supreme Court Justices at this latest meeting. However, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia apparently attended previous meetings. And Thomas' wife is a right-wing political activist accepting large anonymous donations from people who could well be affected by Supreme Court decisions.

Keep in mind that it was Thomas and Scalia, along with three other right-wing Republicans on the Court, who made George W. Bush president in that notorious 5-4 decision in 2000. (Funny, that was pretty much the only "states' rights" argument they haven't supported.) So how does it feel to know that some Supreme Court Justices are Republican political operatives, working hard to impose their own right-wing vision on our country? Does it give you a lot of faith that their decisions will be made based only on the law?

And how about that 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, just this January, that overturned precedent and resulted in a flood of corporate cash supporting Republican political candidates this year? Knowing that Supreme Court Justices have become active in Republican politics, are you confident that the decision - which, as I say, overturned longstanding precedent on a narrow 5-4 vote - was really based on the law?

What does it say when our Supreme Court becomes just another institution filled with partisan political operatives? This is unprecedented. After years of Republican efforts to pack the Court with young, right-wing justices, almost every important decision from the Supreme Court these days is narrowly decided, 5-4. That's bad enough in itself. But now we've got sitting justices who are also active in right-wing politics.

Frankly, it seems to me as if Republicans are deliberately destroying America's system of government. I wonder why the Tea Party folk aren't upset about this? They claim to revere our Founding Fathers, but they're supporting the complete destruction of our founders' 200-year-old vision.

It's not just the separation of church and state - and the 14th Amendment, too - that are under relentless attack, but our entire system of government. Political activists in the Supreme Court, a flood of anonymous money into politics, and constant filibusters in the U.S. Senate (which has effectively ended rule by the majority and removed the Vice-President's Constitutional duty to break ties) - all of these seem to be part of the same effort to destroy our political system.

It's scary times, isn't it? I thought things were bad during the Bush Administration, but it seems to be getting worse all the time.

By ballot or bullet

From Texas - why am I not surprised? - comes this report of another lunatic Republican:
Republican congressional candidate Stephen Broden stunned his party Thursday, saying he would not rule out violent overthrow of the government if elections did not produce a change in leadership.

In a rambling exchange during a TV interview, Broden, a South Dallas pastor, said a violent uprising "is not the first option," but it is "on the table." That drew a quick denunciation from the head of the Dallas County GOP, who called the remarks "inappropriate."

Of course the Republican Party distanced itself from its own Congressional candidate. But why did they call the comments "inappropriate"? After all, we've seen this kind of thing again and again, from signs held at Tea Party rallies, like the photo above, to Sarah Palin targeting opponents with crosshairs and calling on her supporters to "reload." And what do you think taking assault rifles to political rallies was all about?

The threat has been clear. If they can't win by majority vote, they'll use violence. Of course, this is only from the lunatic fringe, but the lunatic fringe is the GOP these days. I'm not saying the majority of Republicans would support violent insurrection, not at all. But they do wink at these kinds of threats. And their rhetoric about Barack Obama in particular seems deliberately designed to provoke violence while still preserving plausible deniability.

The only reason the Dallas GOP objected to that statement is because it wasn't subtle enough.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Who else?

They get dumber all the time

You thought Christine O'Donnell was dumb for not believing in evolution because she hasn't seen a monkey evolve into a human being? Well, she's apparently not the only one.

From TPM:
Have you ever seen a half-monkey, half-person? No? Well neither has Glenn Beck, which is how he knows evolution doesn't exist.

On his radio show today, Beck wondered how many people in the country believe in evolution, and said he doesn't: "I don't think we came from monkeys. I think that's ridiculous. I haven't seen a half-monkey, half-person yet."

Fairness is not weakness

Thanks to Susan Jacoby, The Spirited Atheist, for the link to Robert H. Jackson's closing statement at the Nuremberg trials in Germany, in 1946. Jackson was the chief prosecutor from the United States.

Here's an excerpt:
Of one thing we may be sure. The future will never have to ask, with misgiving, what could the Nazis have said in their favor. History will know that whatever could be said, they were allowed to say. They have been given the kind of a Trial which they, in the days of their pomp and power, never gave to any man.

But fairness is not weakness. The extraordinary fairness of these hearings is an attribute of our strength. The Prosecution’s case, at its close, seemed inherently unassailable because it rested so heavily on German documents of unquestioned authenticity. But it was the weeks upon weeks of pecking at this case, by one after another of the defendants, that has demonstrated its true strength. The fact is that the testimony of the defendants has removed any doubt of guilt which, because of the extraordinary nature and magnitude of these crimes, may have existed before they spoke. They have helped write their own judgment of condemnation.…

"Fairness is not weakness." Compare this with our cowardly refusal to try most accused terrorists in an open court of law. Instead, we hold them without trial, incommunicado, accused of unknown crimes by unknown accusers. At best, we run them through military tribunals which have become a mockery of justice.

How will history judge us today? As a timid little people, unwilling to stand for anything at all, let alone what has traditionally made America great? Certainly, we're far less than we were. No "greatest generation" us. And I fear we're not the worst, since things seem to be headed downhill rapidly.

What has happened to us? How did this happen? I just don't understand it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Clay Bennett

I've posted political cartoons by Clay Bennett a few times before, but I thought I'd give him his own post this time. He really does a remarkable job, don't you think?

Check out his page at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Here's another great one:

Or maybe this one, which is, sadly, all too true:

"Deceiver" by C. J. Cherryh

(Cover graphic from FantasticFiction)

One problem that's almost inevitable with series fiction is that authors continue to write new novels despite having nothing new to say about their setting or their characters. No doubt there's a strong financial incentive, for the author and the publisher both, to continue a successful series. But I suspect that authors also fall in love with their fictional worlds, just as we readers do, and can't bear to give them up.

Deceiver is the 11th in C. J. Cherryh's superb Foreigner series, which started with the latter novel in 1994. I might call it cerebral science fiction, since there's far more introspection and conversation than action. But it's not at all boring. After a malfunction in their colony ship left them hopelessly lost, humans settled on the atevi planet, trying to make friends with the natives. But misunderstanding on both sides led to disaster.

Centuries later, humans and atevi live completely apart, with one human translator, Bren Cameron, as the sole point of contact. It is through his eyes that we discover this well-conceived alien society where his hosts cannot like him - literally cannot, since they don't feel that emotion. Atevi don't have "friends." Their society is based on a hierarchy of man'chi, which is an emotion human beings cannot feel. Superficially, the two species are quite similar - similar enough for inter-species sex, in fact - but their differences are profound.

C. J. Cherryh makes this work. She shows us very likable aliens who can't "like" us back. And she makes the whole idea seem very plausible. Yes, we think, this society could work. Since the initial contact between the two species ended in war, there's plenty of tension between them. Obviously, that would be the case even if they were exactly like human beings. But this difference, the fact that neither side can feel what the other feels, makes inter-species contact a minefield that can blow up at any moment.

As you can tell, I love the series. But I've been wondering how long it can last. The seventh novel in the series, Destroyer, was quite entertaining, but it didn't seem to tell us anything new. However, the following book, Pretender, was excellent, since it turned the focus to Cajeiri, an alien child, and showed us how man'chi might change during adolescence. But again, after that, neither of the last two books, Deliverer and Conspirator, seemed to add anything new. Yes, they were well-written and quite entertaining. But was Cherryh running out of new insights?

Well, apparently not. There's no shortage of insights in Deceiver. In a way, it's odd, because this novel begins just two days after Conspirator ends, and little time elapses from its beginning to the end. Also, there's even less action than in the previous stories, and some of what does occur is off-screen. The whole thing is mostly just internal monologues, as the main characters think about what's going on. I know it doesn't sound interesting, but it really is.

Partly, that's because much of this introspection is from the point of view of Cajeiri, the eight-year-old alien child and son of the atevi leader. We're seeing a very bright atevi boy grow up. But more than that, this is a boy who'll be a powerful leader himself someday, likely heir to his father and ruler of the whole world. And he's an atevi who's spent considerable time as a child among human beings, which makes him not at all typical.

Cajeiri has been a main character in the last few books, but he really steals the show in this one. And although he has a reputation for getting into trouble, he's really beginning to grow up now. In fact, he's starting to think through problems like his father, Tabini, and great-grandmother, Ilisidi, the two most powerful atevi anywhere. Watching him do this is fascinating.

There's more. For one thing, we get to see some of the problems of man'chi, as a couple of Cajeiri's guards have trouble attaching to him. This is something we really haven't seen before. And we get to see Lord Geigi through atevi eyes - Cajeiri's - rather than through Bren's, which gives us a different perspective than we've seen before. All of this is new and all of it is very welcome to the series.

Of course, Bren Cameron is still a major focus of this novel, if not so much the only focus as he was earlier. And Bren has a great insight near the end of this book, an insight that's actually very relevant to the real world. As usual, he's just thinking to himself:
   He had to be smart enough first to figure Machigi accurately and then to get a self-interested and arrogant young lord to do a complete turnaround in his objectives, his allegiances, and his—

   Well, Machigi's character was probably beyond redemption. He would be no better than he had ever been. The question was, in self interest, could he act in a way compatible with the interests of the aishidi'tat?

Get that? Machigi has been the bad guy, the enemy. He's not going to suddenly become a different person. Bren can't hope to change his character. No, Bren's goal is simply to make him act differently, to act in a way that furthers Bren's purpose (which is generally to strengthen the aishidi'tat, the atevi government, and keep the peace).

Frankly, we could only hope that our leaders in the real world would begin to understand this kind of thinking. Instead, we make enemies and then hold onto them like long-lost friends. Look at Fidel Castro, in Cuba. Did we ever try to change his behavior by offering him an alternative? (Obviously, we weren't ever going to change his character.) But, in fact, we seemed to want him to continue as our enemy.

What kind of people want enemies? What do you want most in all the world, someone to hate? And what, we can't put that desire aside even to further our own purposes? Well, you can see why this part of the novel struck me so powerfully. It's another insight, only not just into this fictional world. It's an insight applicable to the real world, too. Great stuff, huh?

Most of this book is just people thinking. And when they're not thinking, they're talking. If you must have nonstop action, this book - this whole series - won't appeal to you. But you probably know that already, if you're considering Deceiver. Really, you must read this series in order. If you want to try it out, get the first volume, Foreigner. Don't try to start in the middle.

As you can tell, I was very pleased with this book. The worst thing about it is that it ends abruptly. It's not even a cliffhanger. It just seems to... stop. There isn't even an attempt to wrap things up. It's very odd, because it seems like the book could have been wrapped up to create a reasonable ending point, and quite easily, too. After all, we seemed to be at a good place in the story for something like that. So why wasn't it?

I suppose I'll have to wait for the next volume to find out. But I hope it's like this one. I hope C. J. Cherryh continues to have new things to say about the Foreigner universe.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Iceberg dead astern!

Bob Englehart's commentary (excerpt):
In all the huffing and puffing from the extreme conservative wrong wing, I still haven't heard what they would've done constructively to fix the country in 2008 and 2009, not that I really want to. Hindsight is not only 20/20, it's cheap and cowardly. Real wisdom is demonstrated in the moment. The Republicans were on President Obama's case from the day after he was elected, yet they offered no alternative other than to do nothing and let the country's financial system collapse.

We seem to have forgotten what it was like when Barack Obama took office. I mean, I know we Americans have no long-term memory at all. We've not only forgotten the lessons of the Great Depression, but seemingly even the entire Bush administration, which was one disaster after another, ending up in a complete economic collapse only two years ago.

But are we really that ignorant about events less than two years ago? Honestly, how embarrassing is that? When Barack Obama took office, this economic collapse seemed to have no bottom. Our entire financial system was frozen, the stock market was crashing to new lows, and we were losing more jobs every month than we had the month before.

Obama's steady hand on the tiller steered us away from complete calamity. In fact, things started to turn around remarkably quickly (jobs, too - still losing jobs, but fewer every month). Unfortunately, his stimulus package wasn't big enough, especially considering that state and local governments were cutting spending even faster. And 40% of it was tax cuts to the middle class which (1) was not nearly as effective as direct government spending, and (2) somehow got him no credit at all with the people whose taxes he cut (while the Republicans' tax cuts for the wealthy seem to be wildly popular with the non-wealthy, too).

Unfortunately for our nation - and, likely, the world - Republicans quickly regrouped as the "Party of No." There is no chance at all for additional stimulus now, especially considering Democrats so cowardly they won't even vote on tax cuts for the middle class, for fear of reminding voters that they exist. And the party line on the right is that the stimulus did nothing. Yeah, believe it or not, this argument seems to work,... on Americans who can't even remember what they had for breakfast.

And apparently, there aren't enough of us who can remember. Or, at least, enough of us willing to get off the couch and actually vote. I fear for my country.

Sex dungeon


No deep meaning to this. I just thought it was funny.

The economic argument

From PZ Myers:
It's like the old joke, "What do you call alternative medicines that have been shown to work? Medicine." What I'm asking here is what should you call supernatural explanations that actually work and lead to deeper understanding of the universe…and the answer is science.

You can extend this to all pseudoscience. If it worked, no one would be more enthusiastic about it than scientists, since it would open up a whole new area of research. If it worked, it would be science.

If fortune-telling worked, fortune-tellers would be the wealthiest people on the planet - and not just from fleecing the gullible. If people really could talk to the dead, they would learn things that no one living knows - and easily produce the evidence to demonstrate that. Think about it. Nothing would be easier than to conclusively demonstrate that you could talk to dead people, if indeed you actually could.

And as a practical matter, possessing any of these magic powers would be a huge survival advantage to human beings. Therefore, the ability would have quickly spread through our population thousands of years ago, becoming stronger all the time. We wouldn't have to wonder if ESP existed, because it would be obvious. If it really did exist, everyone would be using it as commonly as we use our hearing and our eyesight.

Believing in these things now is just wishful-thinking, just the gullibility of fantasy-prone personalities. It's just magic. And magic is either a clever trick or pure fantasy, never anything real. Enjoy fantasy in fiction, if you wish. I certainly do. But I never mistake it for reality.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


The dumbest libertarian quote ever

OK, I know there must be rational libertarians out there somewhere, but I never seem to encounter any who don't go completely off the deep end, following their political philosophy to its most absurd conclusion.

Take, for example, the following quote. Apparently, libertarians in New Hampshire are upset about an action by the state Division for Children, trying to protect an infant from an abusive father. Maybe they have reason, maybe they don't. I'll let the citizens of New Hampshire figure that out.

But check out this post by Tom Scocca at Slate. Here's an excerpt:
The ones who made it into the Concord Monitor, anyway, are sad crackpots. "The fact that there are documents about it is meaningless," one told the paper.

The most amazing voice from the anti-tyranny forces, though, belonged to a woman named Amanda Biondolillo, from Concord:
"The family should be left to resolve it on their own," Biondolillo said. "Or private enterprise - private companies can contact the family and say, 'We heard you were hitting your kids. Can you stop that?' "
Is Amanda Biondolillo a prankster who shows up at protests to say things to make libertarians look like morons? Her online presence looks sincere. But: really? Private enterprise! The solution to domestic violence is for there to be private companies that will go around telling people to please stop hitting their kids. Oh, the parents will say, we hadn't thought of that. We will stop hitting the children now.

Do you see why I have a hard time taking libertarians seriously? In moderation, they could probably contribute to our political discourse. But have you ever known a moderate libertarian? I haven't. Once they jump on the libertarian bandwagon, they always seem to ride it right over a cliff.

I don't care what your political philosophy might be - reasonable, rational people keep in touch with the real world. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice? Yes, it is. In the real world, when fanatics start talking like that, it's always more about extremism than it is about liberty.

Private property is good, in moderation. We still need laws. We still need government regulation. We still need a social safety net. Arguing about "capitalism" and "socialism" abandons reality for rhetoric. The fact is, we need both.

Our nation seems to be awash in extremism right now, with nothing too batshit crazy for the Tea Party types. And sadly, this kind of environment seems to draw libertarians out of the woodwork. True, the vast majority of Tea Partiers aren't libertarians. In fact, they're the same right-wing fundamentalists who brought us George W. Bush. But the crazy does seem to attract libertarians, doesn't it? Like a moth to a flame.


The above cartoon was apparently inspired by Ophelia Benson's post here. An excerpt:
John Haught says, in God and the New Atheism, that gnu atheists get faith all wrong, at least from the point of view of theology, which
thinks of faith as a state of self-surrender in which one’s whole being, and not just the intellect, is experienced as being carried away into a dimension of reality that is much deeper and more real than anything that can be grasped by science and reason. [p 13]
You know…there’s a problem here. I would like to say something sober and restrained about that; I would like to give a cool, sarcasm-free account of what I think is wrong with it, for once; but I find it very hard to do that, because it seems so babyish. I can’t get past the babyish quality, because if I do, there’s nothing left. It’s babyish all the way down. And that’s typical of Haught, at least in this book. It’s just packed with baby talk.

But I’ll give it a shot. The trouble is (obviously) that “a state of self-surrender” is indistinguishable from a state of self-deception, and is the sort of state to invite self-deception. An experience of being carried away into a gurgle-gurgle sounds just like either a hallucination or a powerful daydream. Period. There’s nothing else to say about it. That’s what’s so babyish – Haught has dressed it up in the usual boring purple language to make it look significant and meaningful and maybe even true, and that’s just silly.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Do tell

From Tom Toles: people were like this giant INVISIBLE group that was right there amongst us all along, but everybody was pretending they weren't. This worked out nicely for straight people who didn't want to have to think about what they didn't want to have to think about. Well, what do you know, gay people got tired of pretending, because a) nobody likes pretending and b) it occurred to them that they might like the same legal and social rights as heterosexuals. Conservatives promptly labeled equal rights for gay people "special rights", meaning rights for somebody who wasn't them.

The good news is that progress has been, by historic standards, fairly swift. What may be the strangest residue of that progress is Don't Ask, Don't Tell. While you can argue that it served a bridging function while a tradition-oriented establishment came to terms with a new reality, history will look back with blinking incomprehension at a policy that will seem to have been thought up by a preschooler, along the lines of "If I cover my eyes, can you see me?"

So straight people have had to think a few thoughts that make them squeamish in coming to terms with all this. Sorry about that. But now that you've had those thoughts, you can stop thinking about it now! If you KEEP thinking about it, maybe you have other issues.

He's right about all of this, but I want to comment on the first paragraph. Nonbelievers have also been this giant invisible group in America.

Wonder about the "giant" part of that? Well, even admitted atheists and agnostics are as numerous in America - far and away the most religious developed nation on Earth - as Jews, Muslims, and Mormons combined. And three times that many Americans describe themselves as "nothing in particular" when it comes to religion. How many of those are nonbelievers who simply don't want to admit it? Most, I suspect.

Our being invisible has worked out well for organized religion and for believers who don't want to think about it very much, but how has it worked for us? Many of us are forced to pretend belief, because we're worried about our jobs, about our election prospects, or about our children being bullied in school. And politicians are so unconcerned that we even see a president declaring that we shouldn't be considered patriots or even citizens of our nation.

Can you imagine the uproar if any politician, let alone the President of the United States, had said this about Jews or Mormons or even Muslims? OK, these days we see all kinds of lunacy directed against Muslims, but it still would have been front-page news. Yet there are far more of us nonbelievers in America, and yet politicians feel completely free to disparage us. (Heck, in the GOP it's probably a requirement. I doubt if a Republican could get nominated for any position these days if he was willing to grant citizenship to atheists and agnostics.)

Recently, Carl Paladino, the right-wing Republican running for governor of New York, made disparaging remarks about homosexuals. There was a huge uproar, and he was forced to apologize. Can you imagine this happening if he'd made similar remarks about atheists? What's the difference? Well, can you imagine that there would have been an uproar over similar anti-gay comments before gays had started coming out of the closet? That's the difference, I suspect.

A humorous aside here. Paladino made his anti-gay remarks to a small congregation of Orthodox Jews. When he later apologized, the rabbi complained that he'd "folded like a cheap camera." Here's his comment:
I was in the middle of eating a kosher pastrami sandwich. While I was eating it, they come running and they say, ‘Paladino became gay!’ I said, ‘What?’ And then they showed me the statement. I almost choked on the kosher salami.

No one thinks it's odd that Paladino would try to appeal to this tiny fringe of a minority religion. Certainly, any antisemitic comment would be unthinkable. Our nation has advanced that far, at least. There is still plenty of discrimination against gays, of course, but even far-right candidates - at least in a general election in a state like New York - must be careful of what they say. This, too, is progress.

But how did that happen? We didn't see any progress at all when gay people were invisible. It must have taken a lot of courage to come out of the closet, especially at first. Heck, it still takes courage, at least here in Nebraska. But now that gay people aren't invisible, now that we see they're our friends and relatives, attitudes are changing - and rapidly (you might well wish that progress was quicker, but this is lightning fast for social issues).

We nonbelievers should learn from this. OK, there are some differences. Non-belief isn't something innate, like race or sexual orientation (although I seem to have been an atheist all my life). But as long as we stay invisible, people won't realize that we're here, that we're their friends, their co-workers, their family. It's easy to deny civil rights to some faceless enemy. It's not so easy when it's your son or daughter. It's not so easy when it's the friend you've known since grade school or the co-worker you talk to every day.

Visibility isn't an option for everyone. For some of us, it's a lot easier than for others. But if it's an option for you, please consider it. You don't have to tell everyone, and if you do, you don't have to rub their noses in it. Even I don't do that, not everywhere. Not everyone has to be an outspoken "new atheist." The gay community did just fine with diversity. Some gay activists were a lot more aggressive than others, and many weren't really "activists" at all. But even telling their parents was a big step - and an important one...

...Because every step they took made it easier for other gay people. They still have a long way to go, but they're clearly on the way. We nonbelievers argue among ourselves about tactics, but there's room for diversity in our community, too. The so-called "new atheists" might be too aggressive for you, but at least they're becoming visible. And visibility must be the first step.

We can learn a lot from gay rights, don't you think?