Thursday, September 30, 2010

Love these repressed Republicans!

This guy is an assistant attorney general who seems to be obsessed with a gay college student. He's got an entire blog devoted to attacking this student - calling him "Satan's representative on the student assembly" - and he pickets outside the student's house.

There's an article about this at CNN, too, although the video clip is creepy enough, don't you think?

"Welcome to 'Chris Armstrong Watch,'" Shirvell wrote in his inaugural blog post. "This is a site for concerned University of Michigan alumni, students, and others who oppose the recent election of Chris Armstrong -- a RADICAL HOMOSEXUAL ACTIVIST, RACIST, ELITIST, & LIAR -- as the new head of student government."

Among other things, Shirvell has published blog posts that accuse Armstrong of going back on a campaign promise he made to minority students; engaging in "flagrant sexual promiscuity" with another male member of the student government; sexually seducing and influencing "a previously conservative [male] student" so much so that the student, according to Shirvell, "morphed into a proponent of the radical homosexual agenda;" hosting a gay orgy in his dorm room in October 2009; and trying to recruit incoming first year students "to join the homosexual 'lifestyle.' "

And - get this! - Shirvell defends himself by saying that it's "nothing personal" and that "political campaigns" are always like this. But there is no political campaign here, unless Shirvell is simply hoping for higher office with this kind of thing. (In today's Tea Party environment, anything's possible.) This is simply an assistant attorney general waging a really loony war against a college kid.

Ten to one, Shirvell just can't accept his own homosexual urges. He really is obsessed with this student, but I suspect that he masks his sexual attraction with these loony attacks. These days, you pretty well expect that from every virulently anti-gay Republican, don't you think? It's become the norm. But either way, this really is creepy as hell.

All these "special rights"

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word - Original Spin
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"If we keep giving them rights, there will be fewer rights left for us. That's just math!"

Funny, huh? It's almost as funny as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia thinking that women aren't people, according to the 14th Amendment. Obviously, the amendment could have been written as "All men," instead of "All persons," if Congress had really meant to exclude women. Of course, women didn't have the vote then. Society has changed. But how can you assume that Congress didn't really mean what it said?

And then Scalia thinks that corporations are people. Heh, heh. Isn't that insane? Of course, Scalia wouldn't describe it like this, but it's still the truth. Scalia - and the other far-right justices the GOP has stuck us with - are just as much "activist judges" as any liberal judge. Or even more so, since they willingly overturn precedent. They're only strict constructionists (or originalists, which Scalia apparently prefers) when that agrees with what they want. Otherwise, as with corporate rights, they ignore it, or look for loopholes.

Colbert's comment about "time traveling mind readers" is accurate. It's not always easy to determine what Congress meant, especially since different Congressmen no doubt mean different things. We can only go by the wording of the amendment itself. And society does change. As a practical matter, we simply can't amend the Constitution every year or two. And we do come to see some things, which were formerly taken for granted, as being a violation of our Constitutional rights. That's not an error, any more than opening our eyes doesn't make the sun come up.

For example, when the Constitution was first written, slavery existed in America. Even among free blacks, bigotry was common and very blatant. The 14th Amendment made it clear that African Americans - among others - were citizens and that no state could discriminate against citizens. And yet, discrimination still was widespread, and not just in the South.

For one example, anti-miscegenation laws were common. It wasn't until 1967, almost a century after the 14th Amendment was adopted, that the Supreme Court decided such laws were unconstitutional. Note that this wasn't the first time they'd looked at the issue, either. They'd made the opposite decision in 1883. That seems incredible today, don't you think? Just read the 14th Amendment! If ever there was a slam-dunk decision, finding anti-miscegenation laws to be unconstitutional would seem to be it. How could anyone not see that in 1883?

Furthermore, we commonly hear conservatives charge that "activist judges" are making the law, not interpreting it. Why not just let the people decide these things? Leaving aside the fact that Congress is often far behind the "people" (as their continued embrace of "don't ask, don't tell" just demonstrated), minorities in America still have rights, even if the majority doesn't like it. Loving v. Virginia was decided in 1967. One year later, 73% of Americans still "disapproved" of interracial marriage (only 20% "approved").

And even that was a huge advance from 1958, when, in Gallup's first poll on the subject, 96% of white Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. But minority rights do not depend on majority opinion (except, of course, in the sense that the majority could amend the Constitution and take away those rights - or even bring back slavery). This is why majority opinion shouldn't matter when it comes to gay marriage. You can't use polls, or even ordinary elections, to take away any group's Constitutional rights.

The point is that it shouldn't have taken nearly a century to understand that bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional. The 14th Amendment is clear. True, racism being what it is, the amendment might not have passed if this had been understood back then. But that doesn't negate the facts. If African Americans are citizens, and if states can't discriminate, then anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional. The shame is that it took us so long to see that, not that "activist judges" were "rewriting law."

Now, we do understand that women are people today, whatever the understanding was back then. Women are citizens of the United States, and states cannot discriminate against any group of citizens. Again, this is a slam-dunk. Yes, society has changed enough that we've finally opened our eyes to this. If, 142 years ago, Americans wouldn't have seen it this way, that just means that they hadn't yet opened their eyes. We don't know that that would have been their interpretation (and we certainly can't ask them now), but if that had been the case, they'd have simply been wrong. Their biases would have blinded them to the truth.

So, does this work with corporations, too? Have we suddenly opened our eyes to the truth that corporations are just people? Well, that's what Scalia seems to think. And he's got four other loonies on the Supreme Court agreeing with that. But corporations really aren't people. They're organizations of people, but they're not people themselves. We give them a certain legal standing as, basically, artificial people in order to facilitate commerce, but we don't give them the vote (although we might as well, since we certainly let them buy their way into the political process).

Corporations aren't human beings, and they're not people. They're organizations. They have the "rights" of organizations (so to speak), not the rights of human beings. Now the people who work for corporations are people. Even the owners are, sometimes, people. And they - those who are citizens, at least - have the same rights as anyone else. But the corporation itself doesn't have those same rights, or shouldn't, anyway.

The loonies on the Supreme Court, all Christian - in fact, all Catholic - are also trying to chip away at America's separation of church and state. This is one of the most fundamental principles of the United States Constitution, traditionally accepted by both political parties. And there's certainly no lack of information about how our founding fathers felt about this issue. For the most part, they felt very, very strongly about it. This part of our Constitution was certainly no accident!

But being "originalists" doesn't stop right-wing activists on the Supreme Court, and elsewhere in our nation, from trying to overturn this one. Well, these people only embrace those "traditional values" they agree with.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

God in America

Today, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a survey on U.S. religious knowledge. You know something? We're a remarkably ignorant people - especially since we're easily the most religious developed nation in the world.

Well, maybe that's the reason, huh? As it turned out, atheists and agnostics did best at answering religious questions in this telephone poll, followed closely by Jews. (And I have to wonder how secular Jews identified themselves - as Jews, despite disbelieving in the supernatural elements of Judaism, or as atheists?)

But lest you think there's anything to brag about here, even atheists and agnostics only averaged 20.9 correct answers - out of 32! Remember, that was the best performance of any group. I took their 15-question sample quiz and got 100%. Of course, I probably lucked out on some of the questions, and answering telephone questions is almost certainly more difficult, but still, most of them seemed very basic. Shouldn't we do better than that, especially on multiple-choice questions?

On average, Americans could only answer half of the questions correctly. Education really helped, with college graduates correctly answering 20.6 questions, compared to only 12.8 from people with a high school education or less. (Since atheists and agnostics are better educated, on average, than other Americans, that was part of our out-performance. But even controlling for education, atheists and agnostics did better than any other group.)

Mormons placed third in the poll, correctly answering 20.3 questions on average. But there was quite a steep drop after that. Mormons did the best in answering questions about their own religion, too. But on average, Christians barely got half of the answers right even on questions about Christianity. Atheists and agnostics didn't do all that much better - nothing to brag about, as I say - but then, it's not our religion, either.

Actually, none of this is new. It just reinforces what we already knew. America is a very religious nation and a very ignorant one. But then, in America, religion is valued while knowledge is not, or so it seems to me. In popular culture in particular, faith is always rewarded - over education, over knowledge, over pretty much everything else.

Watch any television show and, inevitably, the rational skeptic is either proven to be wrong or the implication is clearly in that direction. Movies are the same way. Sure, these are just entertainment, but they're part of American culture. Grow up in America and it might seem reasonable to just believe whatever you want to believe.

"The Sharing Knife" by Lois McMaster Bujold

(cover from FantasyBookCritic)

Recently, I finally read the fourth and final volume of Lois McMaster Bujold's The Sharing Knife fantasy. I read the first three volumes some time ago, before I started this blog, so there aren't any reviews here. Therefore, I thought I'd talk about the whole series now.

Actually, I call it a fantasy, but it was apparently a deliberate romance-fantasy crossover story, as she explained in 2008. Well, I don't read romance novels, but there's frequently a lot of romance in fantasy novels, and even in science fiction. I think that's great. After all, I tend to prefer character-based fiction, and romance is generally a part of our emotional lives.

And Bujold is probably my favorite author. I love her long-running Vorkosigan series of space opera (which, uniquely in my experience, has just gotten better as the series has continued). And her The Curse of Chalion, and its sequels, are some of my all-time favorite fantasies. So my expectations were really high when I bought The Sharing Knife, Volume One: Beguilement in 2006.

And maybe that was why I was so disappointed. It started off great, with very appealing characters (Bujold's specialty). The fantasy was interesting, and, as I say, I usually enjoy romance in fiction. However, this romance between an innocent young teenager and a man almost 40 years older - three times her age! - was far too close to child abuse for me.

Yes, May-December romances aren't uncommon, at least not when the man is the elder. There are biological reasons for that kind of attraction, on both sides. But it's even more common to see an older man preying on young girls. And in this case, Fawn is a complete innocent. Even her name gives that impression. And although she's pregnant at the beginning of the book, the events behind that situation just emphasize her youth and her innocence.

Is this typical in romance novels? It wasn't - quite - child abuse. But as I say, it was way too close for me! And there didn't seem to be any reason for such a huge age discrepancy, either. Dag could have been older and more experienced without needing to be nearly 40 years older, certainly.

I had other, lesser problems with the book, too. Dag is supposed to be this tough, experienced lakewalker, but he gets his only intact arm broken by a sneak thief - apparently so Fawn can help him with intimate tasks - in a way that makes him seem anything but capable. And the last part of the book spends way too much time on marriage preparations.

But this was really the only time that Bujold had disappointed me, so I continued with the series. She was still my favorite author, and I felt she deserved my trust. And truthfully, the second volume was much better. For one thing, I suppose I just got used to the age situation. It wasn't such a disappointment, because I already knew about it in book two. And there was an exciting fantasy adventure in Legacy, plus a clash of cultures, which I always enjoy.

Volume three, Passage, was... puzzling. Dag and Fawn travel down the river, collecting followers. I liked seeing Dag train the youngsters, farmers and lakewalkers alike. That's another theme that's always a favorite with me. But this particular story doesn't really go anywhere. And at the time, I had no idea if there were supposed to be more volumes. (Ordinarily, I guess I expect trilogies, and there was nothing to tell me any differently with this series.) So I wasn't in a big hurry to read this book, Horizon, which really is the conclusion.

In this volume, they're traveling back north - with their followers - when they run into trouble. It's exciting enough, and it ends reasonably. I enjoyed the book. But if I don't seem wild about it, that's because we never do understand what these "malices" are. OK, I know this is fantasy, not science fiction. But I'd still prefer some kind of explanation. We get none.

It's hard to avoid comparing this to The Curse of Chalion, which was incredibly inventive and fully satisfying. (There was a romance between an older man and a young girl in that one, too, but the age difference wasn't nearly so great.) Well, The Curse of Chalion was a masterpiece (and so was the sequel, Paladin of Souls), and I know I can't expect a masterpiece all the time.

From any other author, I'm sure I would have been pleased with The Sharing Knife - at least, once I got over my unhappiness with the first volume. It's an entertaining fantasy with appealing characters. But Lois McMaster Bujold can do much better.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Pearls Before Swine

I always knew I performed a public service here. Too bad the Pearls Before Swine name was already taken, huh?  :)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Minecraft: a beginner's guide

My clifftop home (from a later post)

Feb. 2, 2011 Edit: Since this post seems to get more hits than all of my other blog entries combined, I figured I'd add this. Minecraft is now in beta, and there's been a particularly useful addition when starting a game: charcoal. Instead of searching desperately for coal, right off the bat, you can simply mine some stone and make a furnace (eight cobblestone, leaving the center position of the crafting table empty). Then turn wood blocks into charcoal, using planks for fuel.

So I'd gather enough wood to make a crafting table and a wooden pick, then mine enough stone for a stone pick, a stone axe, and a furnace. Use the stone axe to quickly chop more wood, then let the furnace make you charcoal while you work on creating a quick shelter.

Charcoal works exactly like coal for everything in the game (as far as I can tell). And since trees are a renewable resource, and usually abundant, right from the start, this is far easier than searching for coal, especially on your first day, when you're in a race against the clock. For everything else - especially crafting recipes - note the Minecraft wiki. And this link is still pretty useful, too, though it might tell you more than you need to know, right at the start.

OK, the rest of this is still just as I wrote it back in September. And as long as you're here, take a look around. Read a few other posts, too, why don't you? :)

Yes, this game is just as addicting as I'd expected. The past two days, I've done almost nothing but play Minecraft. Well, if you read my previous post, you might have seen that coming. For only $13.66 (1/2 off right now), I highly recommend this game.

But Minecraft is still in alpha, and there are almost no instructions in the game itself. I'm obsessive enough to spend hours searching out information, but what if you just want to give it a try? There are a few basic things you really need to know. Thus, this "beginner's guide" written by me, a complete beginner.

Imagine that you're Robinson Crusoe, shipwrecked on some alien shore. You have nothing but your hands and your wits - and terrifying monsters emerge when darkness falls. When you first start the game, you're standing in a randomly-generated world (a world that continuously generates as you explore it, so you might experience slowdowns at first).

But what the game doesn't tell you - one of the things - is that you have only about ten minutes, real-time, before darkness falls. At that point, you must be under cover with a light source (torches). Monsters are generated in the darkness. If you don't have light, they can generate right alongside you (besides, it would be boring to stand around in the dark for ten minutes, doing nothing, while waiting for sunrise). And if you're not in a secure shelter, they'll come at you from wherever they do generate.

You can always set the game options to "peaceful" (when playing, hit escape - which is also the only way I've found to pause the game - and change the options at any time). But I don't recommend it, at least when you begin Minecraft. The tension of knowing that time is quickly running out really adds something to the gameplay, as does hearing the monsters growling outside your shelter at night, trying to find a way inside. You can always set it to "peaceful" later, if you want to focus on some grand building-project.

Sometimes, the game will generate a winter world, with snow falling everywhere and water turned to ice. That's what I got when I first started the game, and it's probably not how you want to start as a beginner. I was also on a small island, covered with sand, dirt, and grass, and I couldn't find any coal before night fell, so I just re-started on another world. Most worlds are green, brilliant in the sunshine, with trees and rock outcrops close to hand - just what you want to see.

That video shows you what you need to do, but let me describe it here. Right off the bat, you need wood and coal. Trees should be abundant, and you can gather wood with your bare hands (it's slower than with an axe, but you don't have an axe). Coal is relatively common, but can be hard to find when you need it immediately. You need to look at rock outcroppings, sometimes even high up cliff faces. If there's enough exposed rock nearby, there should be coal showing,... somewhere.

But first, stand still, turn in place, and get a fix on your surroundings. If necessary for a clear view, press the "f" key to cycle through fog settings. This is where you'll spawn after being killed (and you will be killed). You won't have tools with you (your inventory will be scattered around your death site - for about five minutes or so), but your buildings will be intact (and any chests full of resources you left there). So before you move, get an idea of where you're going. It's very easy to get lost in Minecraft, especially as trees grow.

At this point, I would head towards the nearest rock outcropping, stopping at the first tree to gather wood. Face the tree trunk and hold down your left mouse button until your bare hand breaks through. (If the wood doesn't immediately jump to your inventory, just move closer to it.) Continue until the entire trunk is gone - or as much of it as you can reach. (The leaves will remain, for awhile. As they decay, they'll shed saplings, which will grow into new trees.)

That video recommends collecting 11 to 15 trunk sections, but three or four would probably be enough to start. Yeah, it's a bare minimum, but you might need the extra time to find coal. And there will probably be trees there, too, so you can get more wood when you have a stone axe, if there's time before nightfall. So harvest one tree and then head to the nearest rocky area.

Coal can show up, as rock with black specks, pretty much anywhere there's stone. Stay close to your spawn point, if you can (you don't have time to travel too far, anyway), but quickly search likely locations. Don't worry about finding the best place to build your fortress. Right now, this is only about saving your butt. Once you have a shelter, you can look around and examine your surroundings at leisure (relatively speaking).

As soon as you find coal, build your workbench close at hand. Press "i" to open your inventory. At the top is a small crafting area. Left-click on your tree trunks to pick up the whole bunch at once (right-clicking will pick up only half of them) and left-click again to place them in the crafting area (right-clicking would drop them off one at a time). You'll see a rather similar graphic - for wood planks - appear in the right side of the crafting area. If you left-click on that, you'll "build" the item shown. Go ahead and left-click continuously until your tree trunks are all made into planks.

[Note: All of these crafting recipes can be found at the Minecraft wiki, as well as descriptions of the various resource blocks in the game. I made notes of all this stuff (I did mention that I was obsessive, right?), but since Minecraft plays in a window, you can always just keep the Minepedia open for reference in another window. (Hit escape to pause the game first. Or, if you alt-tab to switch windows, Minecraft will do that automatically. Yeah, since the game doesn't pause otherwise, that's a good thing.]

Once you have planks, put one in each of the four spaces of your crafting area and build yourself a workbench. Put the workbench in one of the nine spaces at the very bottom of your inventory, and escape out of the inventory. Those nine spaces, with the workbench in one of them, will appear at the bottom of your screen. Press "1" to "9" on your keyboard to select which item to hold in your hand. Then, when you're holding the workbench, right-click to place it on the ground beside you.

Now you can right-click on the workbench itself to open up a larger crafting area. You need this to make tools. Take two planks, put one above the other, and make four sticks. Then take two of the sticks, and three planks, and make a wooden pick. (Check the wiki for the crafting recipe, which will show you exactly how these items need to be positioned in the crafting area.)

Using the wooden pick is just like what you've done previously. When you make it, put it in one of the nine bottom slots, then exit the crafting area. Press the correct number key to hold it in your hand. Then face rock or coal and hold down your left mouse button. I suggest you mine three regular rock squares first and immediately make a stone pick, because that will make your work go a lot quicker than with a wooden pick (reasonably enough, huh?).

If you need to move dirt or sand, perhaps to build steps to get to the coal (jump using the spacebar), make a rock shovel, too. And a rock axe will collect wood a lot faster than your bare hands. Now all you need to do is gather some coal (and some more wood, unless you're really short of time) and dig out a small area for protection. Make torches by putting coal above a stick in your crafting area (either in your inventory or on the workbench). Then, holding them in your hand, right-click to place them on the wall or wherever you need them.

You can close off the entrance to your shelter with rock or even dirt, and then dig it out again in the morning (as the video shows, leave an opening so you can tell when the sun comes up again). Or you can build a door on your workbench using six planks. Place the door from the outside (so skeletons can't shoot through the door, and so you can fight from the inside without accidentally opening it), and  left- or right-click to open or close it. (If you ever want to move the door, take your axe and hold down the left mouse button to chop away at it - just like harvesting a tree trunk. Eventually, the unharmed door will come loose and pop into your inventory again. Go ahead and bring your workbench inside the same way.)

Night, like day, lasts about ten minutes real-time. With extra wood and coal, you can spend the time inside your well-lit shelter digging out more rock and making more tools (they will wear out with use). When the sun comes up, any undead creature that's not sheltered from it will burst into flames. But not everything that appeared overnight will be destroyed by sunlight. Starting on your second day, you'll have to keep your eyes open at all times, at least when outside your shelter.

When you're killed - almost inevitable, at some point - you'll just re-appear back at your initial starting location. That's why it's helpful to know where your shelter is, from that spot. If you're quick, you can even collect your inventory from where you died. But in any case, you won't lose anything you've built or stored in a chest.

If you'd rather build a simple wooden shelter, rather than burrow into a cliff-face that first night, check out this video clip. (You'll still need coal for torches.) But from these humble beginnings, the sky is the limit. There are all sorts of Minecraft videos on YouTube which amply demonstrate that!

If you need help, check out the Minecraft Forum. In particular, note the guides and tutorials in this post. Yeah, even I'm not obsessive enough to read all of that, not yet, anyway.

Friday, September 24, 2010

We Americans need to open our eyes

Tom Toles' commentary:
So in a democracy, people are free to vote for incoherence and are apparently about to. For an example you could look at the new so-called Republican "plan" for dealing with the deficit. Tell me that it makes any sense whatsoever. Really, just try, once you get past its airy platitudes. It will give you a refreshing break from explaining why carbon dioxide doesn't really trap heat.

Unless the economy changes direction completely, Americans need to open their eyes and see a world where there will be continuous downward pressure on wages and benefits. Except for the rich, of course, who are being forced to adapt to an ever-mushrooming share of the wealth. Conservatives who think this is the best of all possible worlds also think that priority number one is squeezing some people back out of the federal health safety net. "Someone else." Someone undeserving. We'll leave for another day a discussion of who they think that someone else may be. What they don't realize is that "someone else" will likely soon be them, and there will be nowhere else to turn.

If you were an objective observer, if there were still such a thing, you might be amazed that a significant portion of the voting public, whose wages, health care and retirement benefits are under ruthless market pressure, are fanatically fighting to make sure nobody will be around to ameliorate the consequences. You might say that having working people so viciously divided amongst themselves over their own interests might just possibly be the rich man's dream come true! High fives all around in the corporate executive suite! Enjoy the funny way corporations have of saying THANK YOU!

New ideas exactly like the old ones

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Postcards From the Pledge
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So, fresh new right-wing ideas are exactly like the old right-wing ideas, the same old ideas that nearly destroyed our country during the Bush years. And we're supposed to be dumb enough to take the Republicans back? After less than two years???

Please tell me that we Americans aren't this dumb!

There's more. The Republicans want to make Bush's tax cuts to the wealthy permanent. That will add $4 trillion to the federal deficit, just in the next decade. That's an up front cost. It comes first (assuming that we really are dumb enough to buy this "Pledge to America").

Then they promise to cut spending later. Remember, "cutting spending" has been a Republican catch phrase for decades - certainly throughout the Bush years,... when they actually increased spending like crazy. But we're supposed to believe them this time.

At the same time, they're proposing to exempt the big-ticket items in the federal budget - Social Security, Medicare, defense spending - you know, the places where we actually spend the money. So yes, they basically promise to cut spending with both hands tied behind their backs!  But we're supposed to believe that they really mean it this time.

There's more. Believe it or not, this "pledge" also promises deregulation, another long-time Republican obsession, but one they actually worked at, last time. But, er, don't we Americans remember how that turned out for us? After all, we're still in the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression (even though we've technically left the recession since Obama took over).

As far as I can tell, the only difference between this document and the stated goals of Republicans throughout the disastrous Bush years is that it emphasizes economic issues and tries to downplay the loony "culture war" social stuff. No, that does not mean that they've changed their minds about all that. It's just that this is a political document, and the economic stuff polls better right now.

Are they right? Are we Americans really this stupid? Of course, Democratic politicians are doing everything they can to help the GOP. Right now, their plan for the November elections is... to timidly hide under their beds.

Get this: they could have held a vote on cutting tax rates for annual income of $250,000 and less, and left a vote on cutting taxes to the very wealthiest of Americans until later. This would have forced the Republicans into either (1) voting to extend the Bush tax cuts except for the wealthiest Americans, or (2) voting against cutting middle class taxes. And then later, of course, they could have voted on increasing the deficit by trillions of dollars just for the benefit of the wealthiest 1% of Americans.

But no, the Democrats would have had to crawl out from under their beds for that one. And besides, it would hardly be fair to force Republicans into making a politically difficult choice, would it? I mean, we all just want to get along, don't we? Why play political hardball - or even softball, as this certainly seemed to be - when you can just lie down and play dead? After all, Republicans would probably like having a doormat on which to wipe their shoes.

Yeah, I am almost as disgusted with the Democrats as I am with the Republicans. How do people this inept at politics ever manage to get elected? But I reserve my greatest disgust for the American people who, if we can believe the polls, either plan to go along with this madness or stay home and pout on election day. Honestly, what has happened to us? What has happened to America?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

We do need to know

Ed Stein's commentary:
Thanks to a combination of the Supreme Court’s overreach in the Citizen’s United case, which opened the floodgates to corporate campaign cash, and the GOP’s successful blockage of the DISCLOSE Act, this election features an unprecedented tide of secret money attempting to sway voters. This unholy combination is  blow to the democratic process, allowing wealthy individuals and corporations with their own agendas to influence the political process, with no transparency or accountability. We’ve already seen how the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch have surreptitiously funded the Tea Party, and how the same Koch family is attempting to derail environmental regulation in California. We only know because enterprising journalists have doggedly followed the money trail, not because those running for election have willingly revealed their sponsors. How many more ad campaigns are secretly underwritten by folks with narrow business or personal economic interests in the outcome? We don’t know, and we won’t if Republicans are successful tomorrow in blocking the next vote to require politicians to disclose the sources of their funding.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Minecraft - I've got to try this!

I don't even have time to continue my Dwarf Fortress game, but I still want to play this. In fact, I just bought it. It's dirt cheap (less than $14), since it's still in alpha. And I want to support this kind of game, even if I don't have time to play it right now.

But I think I'll make time.

This is why I never finish games. I'm always finding something else I want to try. But really, between Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress - and Aurora and UnReal World, too - there are some incredible things going on with indie games that give you the freedom to do whatever you want, the freedom to create your own story.

Re. Minecraft, check out these "Mine the Gap" articles by Quintin Smith at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Fascinating, aren't they? Tell me you don't want to play the game now.

There are a lot of Minecraft videos at YouTube, but be sure to check out this one. It was supposed to be a simple demonstration of building a fireplace in your Minecraft home. However, there turned out to be a slight problem...

Funny, isn't it? I'll bet it was frustrating, too! (Note that I tried embedding it here, but apparently putting two video clips in a single post causes problems at Blogger.)

Voter anger palpable at intentionally anger-stoking rally

"News in Brief" from The Onion:
Tempers in the crowd ran high Monday during a massive rally at the nation's capital aimed at provoking tempers in the crowd to run high. "There is a palpable sense of anger within the American voting public today," media correspondent Janet Hargrove said of the event, which played on such base human emotions as ignorance, fear, and xenophobia to give the impression of a palpable sense of anger within the American voting public today. "It's almost as if thousands of people came to this rally with the intention of being angered, and then were." When asked later about their rage, people at the rally were unable to pinpoint its cause, but expressed a vague desire to "take back America."

Heh, heh. Somehow, The Onion does a better job of reporting this stuff than the "lamestream media," don't you think? Politicians and pundits encourage the anger because it benefits them personally. And we enjoy getting angry because it deflects blame from ourselves.

Oh, sure, we could be angry because we'd been dumb enough to support politicians who cut taxes on the wealthy and created the largest deficit in history. We could be angry because we supported invading an innocent country - when the UN was still investigating those nonexistent WMDs - and put the cost on the nation's credit card. We could be angry because we supported right-wing anti-regulation ideologues and bubble-creating economic policies that caused the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. We could be angry because we eagerly embraced easy-mortgage policies throughout the bubble years.

But since we live in a democracy, these things were our fault (collectively, of course), and we'd much rather find someone else to blame. Politicians pushed tax cuts and waged wars without paying for them, because those things were politically popular. Oh, sure, they convinced all too many of us that we'd be "greeted as liberators" in Iraq, and that the war would "pay for itself." And it was so much fun watching the bombs explode in Baghdad, wasn't it? You really felt like a "patriot" then, I'll bet.

They convinced us to support tax cuts overwhelmingly aimed at the wealthiest of Americans, because we'd get a small part of that, too. After all, Reagan proved that deficits don't matter, right? So maybe we should be angry at ourselves for being dumb enough to buy such ridiculous claims, huh?

But that's just not much fun, is it? It's much more enjoyable to blame someone else. "We" are patriotic Americans who've been victimized by "them." No. Sorry, that's not how it works, not in a democracy. If you voted for politicians who supported these policies, this is your fault. If you let them appoint Supreme Court Justices who think that corporations are just people, too, this is your fault. If you passively watched the legal bribery of our politicians by corporations and the wealthy, without complaining, this is your fault. If you didn't vote at all - and in every single election - this is your fault. (Hey, we all make mistakes. It's just up to us to learn from them. But,... will we learn from them?)

Make no mistake, if you always voted, but you're getting discouraged now and aren't certain to vote in November, what comes next will be your fault. Sorry, but in a democracy, there's no excuse for dodging your responsibilities. I don't care how busy you are. I don't care if it seems hopeless. I don't care if you live in a one-party state, like I do, and your side always loses. I don't care about any of that. Giving up is the worst thing we could do. Apathy is always wrong, no matter what excuses you make for yourself.

This is your nation. This is your world. It's your future we're talking about. People have given their lives for the right to vote. In fact, people all over the world are still giving their lives for that right. No one is too busy to vote, not if they make it a priority. Maybe you feel too ignorant to vote? Actually, that's no excuse, either. If you don't know enough, educate yourself! Leave some of the ballot blank, if you don't know enough about the people or the issues. Heck, leave it all blank if you absolutely must. Just vote!

And maybe you're a Tea Party fanatic, a right-wing Republican who disagrees with me about everything (there are a lot of you here in Nebraska). Maybe you plan to vote for the same people who got us into this mess in the first place. (From what I hear, most Nebraskans are.) I think you're wrong. I think you're the reason we're in this mess - all of these messes, in fact. But I'd still rather see you doing your civic duty and voting. Just vote, dammit!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Christine O'Donnell witch test

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Christine O'Donnell Witch Test
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Another Republican crazy, and this time winning her party's nomination for the United States Senate! Incredible, isn't it? Yeah, this is funny, but it's frightening, too. What has happened to us? What has happened to America?

Did Thomas Jefferson plagiarize Adolph Hitler?

This is funny, but crazy-funny more than ha-ha funny:

GOP congressional candidate from Delaware Glen Urquhart makes the smartest, most-flawless argument ever against that insidious First Amendment
"Do you know, where does this phrase 'separation of church and state' comes from?… It was not in Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists… The exact phrase 'separation of church and state' came out of Adolph Hitler's mouth, that's where it comes from. So, the next time your liberal friends talk about the separation of Church and State ask them why they're Nazis."
I gotta give Urquhart credit for this one. He's totally, totally right. Thomas Jefferson never wrote "separation of church and state." He wrote "separation between church and state." Totally different. "Between" is a good patriotic American preposition. "Of," on the other hand, is a Nazi-sympathizer word. It just sounds anti-Semitic, doesn't it? Henry Ford even used it in the title of the 4th volume of his International Jew pamphlet series. What more proof do you need?

So, the next time your liberal friends ask you for the time of day, ask them why they hate Jewish people so much.

Keep in mind that this isn't some random street-corner loony. This is a candidate, from a major U.S. political party, for the United States House of Representatives. And this isn't an obscure issue, certainly not in these days of the internet. Here's the letter itself, from the Library of Congress. It took two seconds to find.

This is just embarrassing to me, as an American. What kind of people have we become? How could someone like Urquhart not be laughed off the political stage? And this kind of thing has become common these days, as Republicans continue their journey into cloud cuckoo land.

Right club

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I thought Jon Stewart's reaction was right on the button: "What? Karl Rove wants Christine O'Donnell to answer questions about her history? Because it doesn't 'add up'? Wow! Wow!"  Yeah, I'm still mad that the Democrats just let the illegal actions of the Bush administration slide. We didn't investigate all that, because we wanted to let the nation come together in healing...

How did that work for you, Democrats, now that the nation doesn't have those nasty partisan divisions anymore?

Of course, this clip was pretty funny, too, don't you think?

Voter punishment

(Tom Toles)

Here's Tom Toles' commentary, not re. this cartoon, but certainly along the same lines:

Who's the slow learner here?

I have been engaged here in the text equivalent of Ronald Reagan's talking oneself "out of voice and breath," arguing with my clattering collection of cantankerous commenters about the science of climate change. Occasionally someone challenges me to list the evidence for climate change, which I haven't done. GUESS WHY? It's not like the science is a secret! This subject has been studied, written about and essentially settled over the last two decades. Someone who claims to have only seen the arguments of the deniers simply ISN'T TRYING VERY HARD. Science? Scientists? Evidence? Wha? Huh? This weatherman over here says it's all a hoax! Let's call on the cartoonist to restate the encyclopedia-length case in his blog. We don't know how to do research by ourselves! Here's a hint! And another!

Is the American public simply incapable of absorbing facts it doesn't like? And, finally, over the weekend it hit me. YES! Roughly the same proportion of Americans who can't accept the science on climate don't accept THE SCIENCE ON EVOLUTION, EITHER. Duh. Okay, I understand now. And good luck, America, competing in the 21st century. Or even surviving it.

Yes, that's my worry about the American people, too. We just choose what we want to believe, refusing to accept any science - any reality - we don't like.

If you're a layman, like me, the only rational move is to accept, provisionally (as all science is accepted), the consensus of the scientists who specialize in these fields. They're the experts. They have the education, the experience, the knowledge to understand the evidence and correctly weigh it. We don't. They could be wrong, but they're far more likely to be right than any layman - politician, pundit, or otherwise.

And no, picking your own pet "scientist" who tells you what you want to hear is not the same. If you look hard enough, you can find a "scientist" who'll tell you almost anything. Scientists are human beings, too, you know. If you do anything other than accept the current consensus, on any scientific issue, you're just picking what you want to believe. That's not smart. It's not even rational.

And, obviously, most people don't have the slightest idea what the scientific evidence really is. They read arguments by people who agree with them, who present all these one-sided "facts," but they have no idea how those "facts" really hold up. That's not the way to choose a position. I just read a post by a committed Christian who claims that there's overwhelming evidence for a historical Jesus Christ, because he's read one book by another committed Christian who was very convincing (to someone who really wanted to believe it, at least).

We all do this. We tend to read what backs up our existing beliefs, and skip - or disbelieve - what doesn't. Well, when it comes to scientific issues, that's why we have the scientific method. That was designed deliberately to counter our normal human biases. And it works. The proof of that is that the scientific consensus is the same world-wide. Science isn't different depending on where you were born or how you were raised. That's the clear result of the scientific method.

So, for us non-scientists - and scientists, too, who are outside their own field of expertise - the only rational move is to accept the consensus of the scientists who are in the appropriate field. Re. climate change, that means the consensus of climatologists. Re. evolution, that means the consensus of biologists. So what if you don't like what they've decided? Grow up! Suck it up and deal with it! Are you an adult, or not?

I'm often terribly embarrassed by my countrymen, since all too many of us aren't adults, apparently. I tend to agree with Tom Toles. Good luck, America, competing in the 21st century. Or even surviving it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A dirty little girl

This is a powerful post by Miranda Celeste Hale, an "ex-Catholic girl," on her childhood experiences with Catholicism. It's short (I need to learn to write like that), so I recommend that you read it all. But here's an excerpt:

Catholic childhood religious indoctrination is chillingly effective. Its most powerful weapons are guilt and the fear of a literal hell. When a child is taught that the simple act of doubting or questioning any of the Church’s teachings is a sin, and that even the tiniest of sins can result in an eternity spent in a literal hell, they quickly learn to suppress those doubts and to feel intense shame, guilt, and fear when they fail to do so.

Think for a second about how cruel that is. To ensure that the Catholic mind virus is passed down through the generations, the Church is willing to crush children’s curiosity and to stifle or completely destroy their ability to think critically.

Then there is the guilt. According to Catholic teaching, humans are born sinners and cannot help but continue to sin throughout their lives. The only way for a Catholic to atone for these sins is to confess them to a priest, do the required penance, and be absolved. As a child, I obsessively recorded in a little notebook anything that I had said or done that could possibly be considered sinful. Then, when the time came for confession, I would recite this list to the priest, my head hanging in shame, my cheeks burning. ...

The mere act of writing this is making my hands shake and my stomach churn with anxiety. Fifteen years ago, I made the choice to leave Catholicism, something that, among the family and community I grew up in, just isn’t done. This choice was, without a doubt, the best and most liberating choice that I have ever made. However, I do not have a choice when it comes to the ever-present guilt, shame, and anxiety that resulted from my childhood religious indoctrination, and which, to varying degrees of intensity, will always be with me.

I hear this sort of thing from a lot of ex-Catholics. (And this comes from a woman who wasn't sexually abused by a priest.) In fact, I often hear similar kinds of things from people who are still Catholic. It makes me wonder why they haven't left the church, but I suppose that's a big step to take when your whole family is Catholic and you've been indoctrinated with this stuff from the day you were born.

Peas and Cues

That's a neat video, isn't it? From 1930, apparently. Heck, that would have been great in my science classes in grade school. (No, I'm not that old.)

Here's more information about these early films. And you can even buy them here, if you want.

Kentucky Fried Creation

Here's a different look at the Creation Museum at Petersburg, Kentucky. It's pretty funny, but not entirely unsympathetic:

For the uninitiated, the Creation Museum is a 21 million USD attempt to prove Darwin, Science and General Common Sense wrong. It is a museum dedicated to proving that the Bible was literally right and that the universe was created in 4004 BC. Nice vanity year no? Palindromic too. Like custom registration plates for one’s car. Not 4372 BC or 4197 BC. I’m sure God’s plates must read “D00D” or something.

But my fear of shotgun-wielding redneck evangelical Xenophobic christians turned out to be entirely misplaced. Bad science apart, the place was thoroughly pleasant. Our carefully crafted Christian avatars were about as useful as a comb would be to Patrick Stewart.

I am always disappointed when my precisely nurtured stereotypes fail to come true.

Frankly, I'm so horribly embarrassed by the existence of something like this in my own country that I have trouble taking it lightly. Krish Ashok, though, does a good job of putting it in perspective:

So hahaha, LOL and all that at all these creationist duffers etc. But then, the only difference between a 21 million dollar Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY and people who consult astrologers is budget. It’s easier to laugh at dinosaurs eating pineapples than it is to smirk at someone breaking coconuts for Lord Ganesha. One’s own way of life is always superior no? “Our” philosophy was more advanced than this sort of simplistic nonsense no?

It was interesting that I did not find the sort of people Richard Dawkins always seems to find when he goes about pwning creationists. I just found regular folk who didn’t particularly care much about the complexities of the origin of life, the universe and everything else, not even two score and two times. To them one explanation is as good as the other and while we can bemoan this collective failure of rational thinking, there isn’t much one can do except build a better real science museum right next to this one.

Yes, to "regular folk," one explanation is as good as the other, so they just pick the one that sounds good. Would taking them through a real science museum make any difference? I doubt it. Most people just don't think of science as being of any use in their life, and since religion can promise them some vague paradise after death, why not go for it? Does it really matter what's actually true and what isn't?

It's always mattered to me, but I'm in a distinct minority on this, I think. Most people just don't seem to care. Of course, true believers are frustrated by this, too, I suppose. But at least they've got these casual believers on their side. At any rate, it's hard for me to look at the past hundred years or so and not see how critically important science has been. (Would you really want to see your children dying of disease, as in the old days? Why can't everyone see that?)

More importantly, perhaps, I see how valuable the scientific method has been. We human beings find it very easy to fool ourselves, to just believe what sounds good. The scientific method is the best way we've ever found to determine the actual truth, as opposed to just believing what we want to believe. And that's why there's a consensus about science worldwide - and not about religion. (Obviously, if the founders of this Creation Museum had been born in Iran, they'd be just as convinced in Islam as they are now in Christianity.)

But most people just don't seem to care about that. Perhaps they don't want their illusions to be dispelled. They'd rather believe a pleasant fantasy than understand reality. But, you know, reality is really, really amazing. In most ways, the real world is more incredible than those ancient myths. Plus, it really exists, which should count for something, don't you think?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The 50th anniversary of Kennedy's speech

I wish I'd posted this a week ago, because Sunday, September 12, was the 50th anniversary of Senator John F. Kennedy's famous speech on the separation of church and state, when he was running for President in 1960. Before then, no Catholic had ever been elected President, and Kennedy's religion had become an issue.

The text of this remarkable speech is available here, from the JFK Library. Even better, there's a link to an audio file there, so you can listen to Kennedy himself giving the speech. (Note that the spoken version differs slightly from his prepared speech, excerpted below.) I highly recommend it.

The first paragraph is merely an introduction, but it's fascinating, nonetheless:
While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election; the spread of Communist influence, until it now festers 90 miles off the coast of Florida--the humiliating treatment of our President and Vice President by those who no longer respect our power--the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give up their farms--an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space.

50 years later, we remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and the landing on the Moon. But note also this phrase: "the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills." This was, of course, before Medicare, which was signed into law in 1965 by Kennedy's then running-mate, Lyndon B. Johnson. Thanks to Medicare, derided as "socialist" by Ronald Reagan and other Republicans, old people no longer have to worry about their medical bills.

But then Kennedy gets into the real purpose of this speech:
     But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured--perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again--not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me--but what kind of America I believe in.

     I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

50 years later, this sounds radical, doesn't it? Back then, support for America's traditional separation of church and state was the default position in both parties (if frequently violated in practice). These days, even Democratic politicians would hesitate to be this firm, and Republicans have nearly abandoned freedom of religion entirely.

But John F. Kennedy believes in an America where the separation of church and state is "absolute." No pope tells American politicians how to act, and no minister tells his congregation how to vote. No church or church school is granted public funds, and we American citizens don't base our votes on a candidate's religion.

Even then, this was idealistic, but it sounds positively utopian these days. Still, make no mistake, these are traditional American values. Kennedy was no radical.

Kennedy does not mention non-believers specifically, except in this phrase: "where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice" [my emphasis]. And, of course, he doesn't mention Muslims, either. But ponder the spirit behind this paragraph:
     For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew--or a Quaker--or a Unitarian--or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim- -but tomorrow it may be you--until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

This time, it was bigotry against Catholics. Earlier, it was bigotry against Baptists. There was always, certainly, bigotry against Jews and atheists. Bigotry against Muslims is no different, not in the slightest. What we are seeing in America these days is a bigotry that's profoundly un-American.

     That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of Presidency in which I believe--a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.

Imagine that! A President's religious views are "his own private affair." It sounds almost quaint, doesn't it? Yet this was our America, up until relatively recently.

I blame Jimmy Carter for starting this nonsense of parading his religious belief, though Republicans have long since taken the lead on that. Still, every President these days must make a big show of how Christian he is - as if he's running for Pope, instead of President.

And even that doesn't do our first black President any good, with at least one-fifth of us loony enough to think that he's really a Muslim. How crazy is that? (I've asked it before and I'll ask it again, "What has happened to my country?")

Well, listen to John F. Kennedy's speech. It's a great one, well worth remembering. I wish I'd posted this a week ago, but better late than never.

Molly Norris disappears

Molly Norris, who created that "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" on May 20th this year, has been forced  into hiding:
The gifted artist is alive and well, thankfully. But on the insistence of top security specialists at the FBI, she is, as they put it, "going ghost": moving, changing her name, and essentially wiping away her identity. She will no longer be publishing cartoons in our paper or in City Arts magazine, where she has been a regular contributor. She is, in effect, being put into a witness-protection program—except, as she notes, without the government picking up the tab. It's all because of the appalling fatwa issued against her this summer, following her infamous "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" cartoon.

Norris views the situation with her customary sense of the world's complexity, and absurdity. When FBI agents, on a recent visit, instructed her to always keep watch for anyone following her, she joked, "Well, at least it'll keep me from being so self-involved!" It was, she says, the first time the agents managed a smile. She likens the situation to cancer—it might basically be nothing, it might be urgent and serious, it might go away and never return, or it might pop up again when she least expects it.

We're hoping the religious bigots go into full and immediate remission, and we wish her the best.

Disgusting, isn't it? When you can't persuade everyone else that your lunatic views are true, you just threaten anyone who disagrees with you. Oh, yeah, that will convince them, won't it?

What do you think, that if your opinion is the only one everyone else gets to hear, that you might be able to persuade people then? Yeah, you must really have a rational idea there...

The funny thing about this prohibition on drawing Mohammed is that it was meant to keep Muslims from worshiping him, instead of Allah. It's like the "no graven images" command in Exodus (which Christians generally ignore). Believers start to venerate the artwork, the icon, rather than the idea behind it.

But obviously, this is not a concern for people who aren't Muslim. I'm certainly not going to start worshiping Mohammed now, am I? Nor are Christians, or anyone else who isn't Muslim. (And even for people who are Muslim, of course, this should be their own business and no one else's.)

Ironically, these lunatics who threaten cartoonists have started worshiping Mohammed. It's kind of funny, isn't it? They're doing the precise thing that Mohammed was afraid would happen, worshiping him instead of Allah. You can't draw or paint Mohammed, you can't criticize him, you can't do anything that even hints of disrespect, because Mohammed himself has become their god. These extremists have completely turned around Mohammed's teachings.

Well, that's my opinion, but I'm far from an expert on any of this. When it comes to Mohammed's teachings, I don't know and I don't (particularly) care. Muslims have no more evidence than anyone else that the supernatural even exists, let alone their own particular brand of it. Like religions everywhere, they can't even agree among themselves. Like Christianity, like any other religion, it's almost always a matter of how you were raised, what you were taught to believe as a child.

I disagree with them, but they have the right to believe whatever they want. (And I have the right to criticize it.) What they can't do is force their own religious beliefs - whatever they are - on anyone else. Well, they can't do it if we don't let them, anyway. If we're cowardly enough to let this happen, it's our own fault.

You have the right to your own religious beliefs (or disbelief), period. You have a right to express those beliefs. You have a right to gather with people who believe as you do - to worship, if you wish, to debate, or just to socialize. You have a right to teach your children what you believe.

But you do not have the right to tell others what they must believe (although you can try to convince them to your way of thinking, if there's no coercion at all). You do not have the right not to hear contrary views yourself. You do not have the right not to have your feelings hurt. No one else has to respect your beliefs. No matter how sacred they are to you, some people will find them ridiculous - and have the right to say so, just as you can express yourself in return.

And you do not have the right to threaten violence or commit violent acts. Other people have the same rights you do. If you wish to keep your own rights, defend theirs as well.

Well, most of these Islamic extremists have had no experience living in a diverse democracy. For centuries, their own people have lived in autocracies, forced to believe what the rulers believed. That's how they've grown up, so that's how they behave. When the Iranians threw off the autocratic rule of the Shah, they just replaced him with another autocracy. The result has been merely a change in leaders, which is pretty much no change at all.

For those of us in the West, Islam is not the threat. After all, Christianity used to be just like this. Of course, I consider all faith-based thinking to be a threat to civilization, in a sense. I certainly argue against it. But your own belief is still your business, not mine. You're free to disagree with me. (Most people do.) Whether you want to believe in Christianity, in Islam, in New Age inanity, or anything else, you have that right, and I'll defend it.

The real threat is the same as it's always been, the threat of autocrats who want to force their own beliefs on everyone else. This threat can - and has - come from extremists of any persuasion. Muslim suicide bombers are Christian murderers of abortion doctors are Communist gulag commandants. It's all basically the same thing. Liberals are those people who let others decide for themselves, whatever our own beliefs.

Freedom is a good thing, it really is. At least, we haven't discovered anything that works better. People must be free to make their own mistakes. It's the only way.

Richard Dawkins' speech at Protest the Pope rally

Great speech, isn't it? Regarding the claim that Hitler was an atheist, PZ Myers suggests that we look at the guidelines for banned books in Nazi Germany. Along with books dealing with "the false scientific enlightenment" of Charles Darwin, also banned were "All writings that ridicule, belittle or besmirch the Christian religion and its institution, faith in God, or other things that are holy to the healthy sentiments of the Volk." Some atheist, huh?

Now Stalin was an atheist. If you want to use guilt by association, there's your man. So why this false accusation about Hitler? Well, the Catholic and Lutheran churches have a long history of promoting rabid antisemitism in Germany. The Holocaust actually grew out of that kind of religious muck. So I suspect that this is simply a way to attack secularists, while also attempting to divert attention from their own culpability.

And, of course, a good offense is the best defense. The Catholic Church has no valid defense for their actions (not just inaction, since they actively protected these pedophile priests and helped them find victims in new parishes) leading to the rape of countless children. So when you have no defense, you attack. Again, you try to divert attention from your own guilt. (Mea culpa, indeed!)

Edit: Also at Pharyngula, here's a list of Hitler quotes, along with with the note that "It's particularly interesting that he outlawed atheist and freethought groups in 1933." Again, some atheist, huh?

The hate campaign

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Don't ask, don't tell

This is probably the only Lady Gaga video I'll ever post, but she focuses on a serious issue here, the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which is up for a vote in the Senate Tuesday. (It passed the House of Representatives in May.)

It's ironic that DADT has become the conservative position these days, isn't it? And as quickly as national opinion has been changing on this issue - and on gay rights in general - it's pretty clear that it's doomed, at least eventually.

At the same time, though, the Republican Party has been rushing ever further towards the extreme right. You really can't be too extreme for the GOP these days. In fact, right now, nearly every Republican politician is terrified of that dreaded "moderate" label.

And so you have people like John McCain flip-flopping on nearly every position he once held, even denying that "maverick" label he used to embrace. He started running to the right as fast as he could in 2008, and he's been running ever since. But nevertheless, he had a primary fight on his hands this year, because he still wasn't considered to be loony enough. Funny, huh?

But he won't make that mistake again. Even now, he's leading the filibuster against ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Of course, that's another complete flip-flop. During the Bush administration, he claimed he'd go along with military leaders on this one. Well, I've long ceased to have any respect for McCain.

This has always been about discrimination. Right-wing distaste for the "immorality" of homosexuality is the whole point. Seventeen years ago, when Congress passed the DADT law, conservatives angrily fought against it. They wanted homosexuals rooted out of the military with McCarthy Era vigor. But since then, public opinion about homosexuality has changed dramatically.

In the Gallup poll noted above, acceptance of gays and lesbians has increased in every single group - men and women, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, the religious and the irreligious. Acceptance among men age 18 to 49 has increased by 20 percentage points in just four years. As I say, it's increased in every single category.

Therefore, the right-wing doesn't even try to argue the morality of it now (except among themselves). Now, they claim it's all about "unit cohesion" (pretty much the same argument they used to fight integration in the military, too). And now, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is their position, the conservative position. But it's a losing proposition in the long run.

Public opinion is changing this rapidly because gay people have been coming out of the closet (a clear lesson for us atheists, wouldn't you say?). More and more people know someone who's openly homosexual - a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor. And more and more people are discovering that a family member is homosexual. Even conservatives frequently become supportive of gay rights when it's all about their own son or daughter. (It's really tragic when this doesn't happen, but the terrible stories about this also help change opinions.)

This is happening much faster than civil rights for racial minorities, and partly, it might be because that long, difficult struggle came first. But mostly, I suspect, it's because homosexuals look just like you do. In fact, they're often a member of the family - literally. Segregation isn't possible when it comes to gays and lesbians, not really. And it's easier to hate and fear someone you don't know, and someone who clearly looks... alien.

It's telling that anti-Muslim bigotry seems to be increasing, in virulence and in frequency, at the same time that anti-gay hysteria is decreasing. But most people don't have Muslim sons or daughters - or even Muslim co-workers. And Muslims tend to be more distinctive in appearance (not always). It's easy to hate and fear "them." It's harder when "they" are more obviously just like you.

So, yes, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is probably doomed, in the long run. But in the short run, people's lives can still be ruined by it. Let's not be complacent. It's not inevitably doomed on Tuesday, that's for sure. Republicans are filibustering, like they filibuster everything. And these days, any politician or conservative pundit who won't go along with a filibuster is considered a traitor to the party.

In the GOP these days, you're not allowed to have personal opinions that differ from those of the party as a whole (or, at least, of the right-wing loonies, especially those on Fox "News," who currently control the party). In the GOP, obedience is the ultimate virtue. And, as I mentioned previously, you absolutely cannot afford to be seen as a "moderate." That's the kiss of death for Republican politicians right now.

Why do you think that John McCain has flip-flopped on this issue and is now leading the filibuster? He's learned his lesson. When the inmates are in charge of the asylum, you absolutely must demonstrate that you're just as loony as they are, if not loonier. It's the French Revolution all over again. When extremists rule, you can't be too extreme - and it can be a grave danger if you don't appear to be extreme enough. (But these days, Republicans only lose their heads in a figurative sense.)

What's hard to understand is why so many Americans seem to be OK with this. Ordinarily, when extremists take control, they lose elections in landslides. In the past, this has kept both parties near the middle. But that doesn't seem to be happening these days. Republicans have been nominating far-right lunatics, often tossing out mainstream conservatives, but it doesn't seem to be affecting their chances much. Well, this is our fault - too many Americans ignorantly buying into this Fox "News" lunacy, or else just being too lazy or too apathetic to bother voting at all.

There is no guarantee on Tuesday, and there is no guarantee in November. And there's no guarantee that America will prosper, or even survive, either. It's up to us. If we're too dumb, too cowardly, or too lazy, it's all the same. A democracy cannot last if the people aren't smart enough, brave enough, and determined enough to do what's right, no matter what. No excuses! You can't control what other people do, but you can control yourself. So, are you going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?