Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Atheist Experience: childhood indoctrination

This is an excerpt from the Atheist Experience TV show, episode #638, with Tracie Harris and Matt Dillahunty.

If you're curious about that radio interview Tracie is talking about, it's on YouTube, too - here and here. (Note that it's only about 15 minutes long. The interview ends halfway through the second video clip.)

But it really is pretty funny. The radio host, Todd Friel, who doesn't seem to be too bright in any case, just can't seem to understand Christopher Hitchens' point.

But why not? It seems perfectly simple to me. My parents may have created me, but they don't own me. Even when I was a child, I wasn't their property. I always had at least some rights.

We used to accept slavery (for other people, of course, never for us). Well, the Bible approved of it, so of course it was moral. But we know better now. How can you even argue otherwise?

I don't believe in a god - any god, let alone any specific god - because I've never seen any good evidence that such a thing exists. But even if I granted everything in Genesis (which I don't, remember), what difference would it make?

I still wouldn't be that god's property. I still wouldn't be obligated to obey him, let alone worship him. That's a ghastly idea! I'm not a slave! If he has good reasons why I should do something or not do something, then he can convince me with those reasons.

Or, of course, he could hold a gun to my head. He could threaten to torture me for eternity if I don't do exactly what he says. And I'd probably do it, too, if I thought the threat was real. But I'd only be pretending to worship such a tyrant.

Well, that's all hypothetical. There is no god. Or, to put it as fairly as I can, there's no good evidence for a god, or for anything supernatural. Everything that we have evidence actually exists is natural pretty much by definition.

The history of the Democratic Party

Do you think I only do my ranting here? I wish! No, this is a great outlet for getting things off my chest, and I really should learn to control myself elsewhere. But... all too often, I can't.

For example, I read my local newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star, every morning, and I can seldom resist the temptation to comment there, too.

True, I try to make it quick. I generally just write what comes to mind, without doing much research. It's usually quicker than writing a blog post, but it still takes time. And that's in addition to the time I spend here and in my Yahoo discussion groups - and everywhere else, too!

So I thought I'd post an example here, thereby killing two birds with one stone. :)

This morning, in a comment to a letter to the editor, "Extrano," a frequent right-wing commenter, posted this:
Before you fight, perhaps it would be wise to see where the parties actually stand.

Historically speaking, the Democrats were founded by slave-owner Andrew Jackson and have been the party of banking, slavery, bigotry, and big spending for more than 180 years. They only started to cover up their overt racism in the last fifty years.

Hey, I'm sorry, but I just couldn't let that stand. (Yeah, it's a curse, isn't it?) This was my reply:
OK, but let's look at those last fifty years, Extrano. Note that African Americans used to vote Republican. Funny, huh? I wonder what other changes there have been?

In 1964, Democrat Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act outlawing government-sponsored segregation. At the time, the South was solidly Democratic, as it had been since the Civil War. The right-wing "Dixiecrats" were furious that we were finally granting civil rights to African Americans.

Northern Democrats knew that this would lose them the South, but they passed the bill anyway. (Note that many Republicans, eager to see the Democratic Party destroy itself, helped them do it.) For Democrats, it was, after all, the right thing to do. Republicans were gleeful. This was their chance! So they developed their "Southern strategy" of deliberately wooing white racists. (Google it.)

And it was wildly successful. They took all those Dixiecrats, all those white racists, all those religious fanatics, all those hate-filled conspiracy enthusiasts from the Democrats. Now, the South is solidly Republican.

True, wooing white racists lost Republicans the African American vote, but they're less than 13% of the population. They lost the Northeast, too, which had formerly been the Republican base. Moderate Republicans turned off by deliberate appeals to hate-filled fanatics started leaving the party.

But they didn't lose Wall Street. By sucking up to the rich, they still had all that money. And gaining the South more than made up for losing... rational people, educated people, intelligent people. Sure, scientists used to be 40% Republican, and now they're less than 6% Republican. But America has far more bigots than scientists, so it's still a win, right?

The Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln was indeed admirable. But that was a long time ago. And the Democrats used to be slave-owners and racists, true. But the Democrats deliberately stood for civil rights against the racists in their own party, knowing that they'd lose the South and yet doing the right thing anyway. That's pretty admirable, I'd say.

The Republicans, on the other hand, did what helped them the most politically, regardless of what it did to our country. They thought to use those people - the racists, the fundamentalists, the homophobes, the conspiracy enthusiasts, the anti-immigrant fanatics, the fearful, the ignorant, the hate-filled, the gullible.

Well, there are a lot of them. And angry people actually get off the couch and vote. So this was hugely successful for them. Republicans have dominated nationally most of the time since, even despite such disasters as Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. They've taken all of America down their right-wing path.

But this was so successful that those angry, crazy, bigoted people - formerly just the loony fringe - took over the entire Republican Party. Now, these people are the Republican base. They thought to use these people, but now these people control the entire Republican Party!

So yeah, go ahead and remind us about history, Extrano. But don't stop at fifty years in the past. Today's Republican Party isn't the party of Lincoln, and today's Democratic Party isn't the party of southern white slave-owners. People who stick with the Republicans because that's their family tradition might want to remember that.

Yes, I'm long-winded there, too, aren't I? (That's another curse.) And even so, there's much I didn't say.

For one thing, I didn't make it clear - as I would have here - that I didn't mean to tar all Southerners with the same brush. And obviously, the South today isn't the the South of 1964, either. But this was a comment in a local Nebraska newspaper, and there is a limit to what I can say.

And the general point is still valid. Looking at history is fine, but not if you just pick and choose. And there's a reason why the Republican base is the way it is, why people who would have been on the fringe in an earlier Republican Party control the party these days (well, they and the super-wealthy).

For all its faults - and they are legion - I still remember the Democratic Party standing up for what was right, rather than what would help them the most politically, clear back in 1964. And I see the Republican Party even today doing the reverse of that, encouraging bigotry, hatred, paranoia, fear-mongering, conspiracy-thinking, superstition, and un-American and anti-American thinking for political advantage.

It's easy to scare timid, fearful people. It's easy to make bigots suspicious and resentful of others. It's easy to push foolish hobgoblins among the gullible. It's easy to encourage hatred when people are hurting. It's easy to re-direct anger onto scapegoats. It's easy to lie to the ignorant and the ill-informed.

Politically, all those things are proven winners. But are they the right things to do? What do they do to us as a people? Is this really the kind of America we want? That's what Republican leaders never seem to ask themselves.

Democrats are far from perfect, but they look pretty good in comparison. For pretty much the same reasons I wouldn't have been a Democrat in the 1800s, I won't be a Republican today.

I probably wouldn't be able to resist, either

Friday, December 30, 2011

Robert Reich and six GOP lies about the economy

This is actually from September. It's Robert Reich, formerly Secretary of Labor, speaking at the Summit for a Fair Economy in Minneapolis.
The lies Reich debunks:

1) Tax cuts to the rich and corporations trickle down to the rest of us. (No it doesn't and it never has.)

2) If you shrink government you create jobs. (No, you get rid of jobs that way.)

3) High taxes on the rich hurts the economy. (No, the economy grew when the US did this under Eisenhower.)

4) Debt is to be avoided and it is mostly caused by Medicare. (No, if debt is properly used to grow the economy, it becomes a smaller part of the budget because of increased revenue, and Medicare has the lowest overhead of any health insurance plan out there.)

5) Social Security is a Ponzi scheme (No, it's solid for 26 years. Social Security is solid beyond that if the rich pay the same percentage in social security taxes as the rest of us do.)

6) We need to tax the poor. (This is what Republicans have been proposing when they say any "tax reform" needs to involve all Americans because poor people pay no income tax. The poor have no money and taxing them will not solve our budget problems.)

Note that he makes a couple of especially good points at the end - first, that cynicism is the greatest enemy we have. I hear a lot of cynicism from progressives these days. "Oh, both parties are the same. Oh, all politicians are alike. Oh, it's useless to vote, because nothing ever changes." Whine, whine, whine!

The fact is, this is exactly what the right-wing wants you to believe. Why do you think they've been stonewalling everything in Washington? They're the anti-government party. They run on the platform that government doesn't work. So everything they can do to make government dysfunctional helps them politically - yes, even when they're responsible for it!

They cut funding for the SEC and other regulatory agencies to the bone. And then they argue, when those agencies are ineffective at preventing abuse, that we don't need any more regulations, that we just need to enforce the ones we have. I know you've heard that. Right-wing loons repeat that mantra over and over again.

Of course, when regulatory agencies are starved of money and staff, and, especially - as they were during the Bush years - when they are headed by anti-regulatory ideologues, they aren't going to be very effective. But that's what the Republicans want. They want to convince you that government can't do anything right. They want you to be cynical about America's institutions.

And they do their best to keep Democrats from voting. We've all seen those restrictive voter ID laws they try to pass. Do you really think that's the only way they try to keep you from voting? Of course not!

The truth is, they work very hard to persuade progressive voters that none of this matters, that voting is a waste of time, that all politicians are alike. Hard? Sure it's hard! But when you give up, they win. When you give up, you let the wealthy have their own way by default.

Reich is absolutely right that cynicism is the greatest enemy we have. He's also right about demagogues. When times are bad, that's when people turn to demagogues. When people are hurting and scared, they turn to extremists who convince them that other people - Jews, blacks, gays, Muslims, immigrants, feminists - are to blame for their problems.

As Reich points out, these same scapegoats are always offered up by demagogues. Well, if you're not offered a scapegoat, you might start to blame the people who really are responsible for your misfortune - and often enough, that includes you, yourself.

If you voted for George W. Bush or, worse yet, didn't bother to vote at all, you're partially responsible for much of this. But you don't want to believe that, do you? The Republicans certainly don't want you to believe that. So they offer up scapegoats.

Reich does a good job here. He's absolutely right. But how many people will ever hear him. He's facing the right-wing propaganda machine, led by Fox "News" and other big-money media outlets. It's not hopeless, never think that. But it's not going to be easy, either.

Well, if you wanted easy, you should have stayed in the womb.

The top ten GOP moments of 2011

Sometimes, the Democrats actually transcend their normal political ineptness. This, I think, is one of those times.

Of course, look at the material they had to work with!

I still think that Herman Cain's political ads should have been included in here somewhere. But I suppose they had to draw the line at ten.

And the really funny thing is that Michele Bachmann isn't included at all. Or Rick Santorum. They really did have an embarrassment of riches to work with.

Late Christmas gift

Ron Paul today

A few days ago, I blogged about Ron Paul's past, notably his crazy and extraordinarily vile newsletters. But what about Ron Paul today?

Well, it turns out that he's still crazy - and maybe still vile. Here's TPM:
In this new article from Reuters we see that some mainstream journalists are turning from ‘Ron Paul’s history of racist newsletters back in the day’ to the fact that his current ideas are … well, they may not be explicitly racist but they’re still seriously whacked.

Let’s remember back to early September, particularly the debate on September 7th. I flagged this little nugget at the time but it got very little attention. This was when Rick Perry was still a real candidate and the border fence and immigration in general were a big to-do between Romney and Perry.

But there was a key moment when Ron Paul was asked about the fence. He was against it, which is sensible enough. But his reason for being against it wasn’t that sensible or even that sane. As I noted in my live blog, Paul’s objection was that the fence could end up being used to “keep us in” after the financial collapse; specifically its real purpose might be to stop Americans from “leaving with their capital” after the breakdown of law and order in the USA.

Now you don’t have to be that deeply steeped in the arcana of the militia movement and the extreme conspiratorial right to know where this kind of thinking comes from. It’s right there with the FEMA concentration camps, the black helicopters, the post-economic collapse race war and the like.

Think about this. Paul’s worried about the fence because after America’s disastrous 100 year experiment with a central bank (the Fed) collapses in Mad Max style rioting in the streets, the government will be trying to keep good Americans from fleeing to Mexico with their capital. Over the fence. With their capital. To Mexico.

That Reuters article has more:
The man who might win the Republican Party's first presidential nominating contest fears that the United Nations may take control of the U.S. money supply.

Campaigning for the January 3 Iowa caucuses, Ron Paul warns of eroding civil liberties, a Soviet Union-style economic collapse and violence in the streets.

The Texas congressman, author of "End the Fed," also wants to eliminate the central banking system that underpins the world's largest economy.

"Not only would we audit the Federal Reserve, we may well curtail the Federal Reserve," Paul told a cheering crowd of more than 100 in this small Iowa city last week.

Paul, 76, is facing questions for racist writings that appeared under his name two decades ago, which he has disavowed as the work of "ghost writers."

But Paul's dark-horse presidential bid ultimately could founder, analysts and others say, because of increasing questions about how his unorthodox vision of government would work in the real world. ...

Non-partisan analysts say his economic proposals - drastic spending cuts, elimination of the Federal Reserve and a return to the gold standard - would plunge the country back into recession.

"Paul appeals to people whose knowledge of major issues is superficial (and) he sees conspiracies where there are none," said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist at Potomac Research Group, an analysis firm. "If he does well in Iowa, which is likely, it will be an enormous embarrassment to the Republicans."

The Republican Party is an embarrassment, as far as I'm concerned, so I'm not worried about that. But this is seriously crazy stuff. This is conspiracy theory run amok among angry, but ill-informed, people.

Again, from TPM:
Ron Paul denies he has anything to do with the fringe extremism published under his name in a series of newsletters and there’s little in his public rhetoric to link him to many of the most offensive passages. But the conspiracy theories he does talk up personally are plenty eye-opening on their own.

The most notable of recent years has been an elaborate international plot to build a highway connecting the United States, Canada, and Mexico as a prerequisite for creating a combined state, the North American Union, with its own currency.

The above theory — which is entirely fictitious — isn’t some issue at the margins of Paul’s campaign, either, it was a central part of his 2008 platform. He included a section about it on his official candidate website:
“NAFTA’s superhighway is just one part of a plan to erase the borders between the U.S. and Mexico, called the North American Union. This spawn of powerful special interests, would create a single nation out of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, with a new unelected bureaucracy and money system. Forget about controlling immigration under this scheme.”

The NAFTA superhighway has long been a popular icon in conspiracy theory circles, much to the chagrin of various elected officials working on actual unrelated highway issues. Rick Perry caught a lot of heat over his attempt to build a Trans-Texas Corridor from critics who believed it was part of the grand plot, among them Ron Paul, who took to extremist Lew Rockwell’s site to denounce the effort. It got so bad that Perry had to deny the plot in an interview with right-wing news site Human Events in 2006. ...

Paul teamed up with other fringe legislators, most notably former Rep, Tom Tancredo (R-CO) and Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA), to introduce legislation denouncing the nonexistent superhighway, even as both the Bush administration and the top ranking Republicans on the relevant transportation committees insisted there was no basis to the theory. Paul took their denials as further encouragement he was onto something and insisted that federal officials were using “secret funding” to advance the project.

The North American Union and NAFTA Superhighway are part of a theme for Paul, who often warns of shadowy efforts to give up US sovereignty to international authorities. It’s a tradition with roots tracing back to the radical anti-communist John Birch Society in the 1950s and 1960s. Richard Hofstadter, who wrote a seminal essay on far-right movements in 1964, “The Paranoid Style In American Politics,” described their worldview as a belief that “the old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots.” It’s a pretty good description of Paul, an old school John Birch Society supporter who recently spoke at their 50th anniversary gathering. In 1990, he appeared in a Birch-produced video on the United Nations, unearthed recently by researcher extraordinaire Andrew Kaczynski, in which he warned the UN was plotting to “confiscate our guns” and “repeal the Second Amendment.” ...

Paul’s warnings of an international plot to replace the American dollar are also a recurring issue, despite a lack of any evidence of such a move. He recently questioned Ben Bernanke about whether he had discussed plans to craft a world currency, a widespread conspiracy theory in recent years that Michele Bachmann has also denounced. Much of its spread is based on a misreading of news stories on how some countries are looking to diversify their currency reserves beyond the dollar, an issue that has nothing to do with the creation of a new form of money. These fears are echoed in Paul’s old newsletters, which warned that President George H.W. Bush was planning to print a sinister “New Money” that would be instituted under martial law to an unwilling public.

Are these theories the same racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic ravings contained in Paul’s newsletters? No. But they come from the same fever swamps of far-right fringe groups, militias, and conspiracy theorists and are a crucial animating force behind Paul’s political movement. It’s worth noting that many of the most pressing threats he identifies to the United States are, in fact, imaginary.

It's been my experience that you can't convince conspiracy enthusiasts of anything. A complete lack of evidence is just a sign, in their eyes, of how well the conspiracy is working. Conspiracy enthusiasts simply love conspiracies, and the crazier the better.

But this should give sane voters - assuming that any are actually planning to vote in the Republican primary in the first place - real pause. This is seriously crazy stuff. But what about the vile?

Well, I noted in my first post that Ron Paul is not denouncing the enthusiastic support he's been getting from white supremacists. He says that he doesn't agree with them, but he'll take advantage of their support.

And that's been his position with anti-gay extremists, too:
Ron Paul has faced a torrent of criticism in recent weeks over newsletters printed in his name during the 1980s and 1990s which contained racist, anti-semitic, and homophobic content. He is also on the hook for accepting the support of fringe right-wing groups. While Paul dismisses these concerns, his campaign seems to have no problem working with and enjoying the support of anti-gay extremists, including one supporter who has called for the implementation of the death penalty for homosexual behavior.

Paul’s Iowa chair, Drew Ivers, recently touted the endorsement of Rev. Phillip G. Kayser, a pastor at the Dominion Covenant Church in Nebraska who also draws members from Iowa, putting out a press release praising “the enlightening statements he makes on how Ron Paul’s approach to government is consistent with Christian beliefs.” But Kayser’s views on homosexuality go way beyond the bounds of typical anti-gay evangelical politics and into the violent fringe: he recently authored a paper arguing for criminalizing homosexuality and even advocated imposing the death penalty against offenders based on his reading of Biblical law. ...

Kayser’s allegiance to the Paul campaign may reflect who the campaign has chosen to sell Paul to the churches. Mike Heath, who became Ron Paul’s Iowa state director this fall, has spent his career on the Christian right. In Iowa, Heath has focused on outreach to the religious community in the state, where Paul has made an effort to target evangelical voters.

Heath spent 14 years running the Christian Civic League of Maine (which has since changed its name). As a prominent figure in Maine, Heath slowly alienated the Christian right in the state with his extreme tactics. In 2004, for example, he launched a witch hunt to out gay members of the Maine legislature, asking supporters, according to the Portland Press Herald, to “e-mail us tips, rumors, speculation and facts” regarding the sexual orientation of the state’s political leaders, adding, “We are, of course, most interested in the leaders among us who want to overturn marriage, eliminate the mother/father family as the ideal, etc.” The result was that his own organization suspended him for a month.

“He’s a well-known conspiracy theorist about the ‘gay agenda,’” says Travis Kennedy, chief of staff for the House Democratic Office in Maine, who says Heath was a big figure around the capital for many years. Heath made more enemies than friends, says Kennedy, whose “offensive and aggressive” tactics put off even his allies on the Christian right. In 2007, Heath played a big part in opposing a sexual orientation anti-discrimination ballot measure which ultimately passed by a wide margin. On Heath’s new job in Iowa, Kennedy said, “I’m not surprised he’d be hired in a state far away from Maine. He has a pretty poor reputation around here.”

From 2008-2010, Heath served as chairman of the board of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality. AFTAH is a fringe, anti-gay organization and has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for promoting false information. For example, the organization and its founder, Peter LaBarbera, have published false reports about LGBT people, including allegations that they live shorter lives and that they are prone to pedophilia. LaBarbera disputes the SPLC’s label.

“Peter LaBarbera is among the most fringe elements of the anti-gay industry in America today,” Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, wrote in an email to TPM. “You’d be hard pressed to find another group that is so singularly focused on telling lies about LGBT Americans.”

It’s unclear if Ron Paul ascribes to some of Heath’s anti-gay beliefs. Paul’s newsletters do contain several quotes smearing gay Americans as well as the AIDS epidemic. Recently, a disenchanted former Paul aide described an instance when Paul refused to use the bathroom of a gay supporter. But whatever Paul’s beliefs, Heath’s work on his campaign is another strike against a candidate with a history of associating with fringe elements of the right.

Note that the Republican Party in general has a long history of wooing racists with a wink and a nod, while publicly proclaiming their abhorrence of racism. Their racist supporters knew exactly how to take this, that their candidate agreed with them, but couldn't come right out and say so, because of all this "political correctness" going around.

This seems to be the same tactic. And whether Ron Paul really does ascribe to these views, or whether he's just trying to use these loons to further his own political ambition, is almost immaterial. After all, the Republican Party tried to use racists and religious fanatics in their notorious "Southern strategy." But now, those people are the Republican base. Those people control the Republican Party.

It's very dangerous to try to use extremists - if that's actually what Ron Paul is trying to do - because you come to depend on them. You come to need them - at least in part because they drive away more rational people.

By wooing white racists, Republicans gained the South, but they lost support of African Americans (admittedly, only 13% of the population) and lost the Northeast, too - which had formerly been the Republican stronghold. Politically, it was still a huge win, because they gained far more than they lost - but that's only because losing your mind and losing your soul aren't political concerns.

I know that none of this will matter in the slightest to Ron Paul supporters. They seem to be immune to reason and evidence both. His supporters really do tend to be conspiracy enthusiasts, and they're loyal, if nothing else. They'll overlook anything they don't want to hear.

But although they're faithful, they're also limited in numbers. Ron Paul is an issue only because the Republicans seem to have no one else. Well, they've got Mitt Romney, who'll be whatever he has to be to get elected - but they don't like him. And the people they do like are so batshit crazy that apparently even Republicans can't stand them for long enough to actually vote for them.

I don't know. This is a very dangerous time in America. Republicans are doing their best to keep the economy in the toilet, which makes it very hard for the incumbent president. (Most voters are so ignorant about what's going on that this tends to work very well for the GOP.)

But when you've got nothing but crazies on the other side, we could well vote ourselves into complete disaster. Well, we already did that once, with George W. Bush. But Bush looks positively sane next to these people.

If you think times are tough now, just wait until we get a President Bachmann, or a President Gingrich, or a President Paul - especially with a Congress filled with Tea Party loons!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Priests brawl in Bethlehem

This is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Apparently, fights occur every year between the rival priests.

But what's really funny is this quote from the Bethlehem police (via the BBC):
"No one was arrested because all those involved were men of God," he said.

Maybe if they arrested these brawling priests, instead of treating them with such exaggerated, and unwarranted, respect, they wouldn't have this problem.

This is also pretty funny (or pretty sad, I can't decide):
The 1,700-year-old church, one of the holiest sites in Christianity, is in a bad state of repair, largely because the priests cannot agree on who should pay for its upkeep.

I'll tell you what. Kick out all of these priests and appoint atheists, or maybe humanists (who tend to be a little better at organizing, I suspect), to care for the church. We'd respect it as a historical structure and see that it was treated right - without fighting like a bunch of drunk monkeys!

Bad Democrats

On Tuesday, Sen. Ben Nelson (NE) announced his retirement. I'd always voted for him - very, very reluctantly - as the lesser of two evils.

But this past year, I'd finally decided that I just couldn't do that anymore. Oh, I certainly wouldn't vote for one of the loons the Republicans have running for this seat, but I didn't want to be even partly responsible for Nelson, either. Not anymore. I'd had enough.

So when I heard the announcement, I guess I agreed with this mailing sent out by Jim Dean at Democracy for America:
I can't say I'm sad to see him go. He's played a major role in slowing down, stopping, or outright defeating some of the most important progressive reforms Democrats have tried to pass. He blocked real bank reform, stalled the fight against climate change, and killed the public option just to name a few.

Good riddance Ben Nelson. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

However, this does mean it's likely we'll get an actual Republican replacing Senator Nelson in Nebraska --- and one less 'Democrat' in the Senate makes it harder to keep the majority we need to stop a John Boehner Tea Party driven House.

It ups the ante for progressives like us to step up and make the difference by replacing other Senate Republicans with progressive fighters this year. It starts with making sure we do absolutely everything we possibly can to elect Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts. And that's exactly what Democracy for America is going to do.

Contribute $10 right now to help DFA replace bad Democrats like Senator Ben Nelson with great progressives like Elizabeth Warren.

Yup. I agree completely, not just about Ben Nelson, but about Elizabeth Warren, too.

But the Nebraska Democratic Party - yes, there is a Democratic Party in Nebraska, though I can understand how you might be surprised to hear that - wasn't nearly so appreciative. Today, Jim Rogers, the NDP executive director, sent out an email titled "Bad Democrats":
Yesterday, some Democrats in the establishment couldn't resist and reminded us what's wrong with Washington.

Excuse me? "The establishment"? You're the Nebraska Democratic Party. You're the establishment! Democracy for America seems to have relatively little power even in the Democratic Party and hardly any at all in Washington (unfortunately).

The day after Ben Nelson announced he was not seeking re-election, they decided to attack him. In their eyes, his votes to pass historic Wall Street Reform and Health Care Reform just weren't good enough.

Democrats labeling each other as "bad" and "good" Democrats makes compromise in Washington harder and only foretells more gridlock.

Right. It's not Ben Nelson regularly joining Republican filibusters that creates gridlock, huh? (Can you imagine the Republican Party standing for one of their members joining a Democratic filibuster even once? How about the GOP spending vast sums of money to keep that disloyal party member in office? They may be crazy, but they're not that inept, at least not politically.)

And note that Nelson did everything he could to water down both Wall Street reform and health care reform. True, a Republican would have been even worse. But they're Republicans! At least we can fight against Republicans. At least progressives' political donations don't go to support Republicans.
Here's what a Democrat in the senate means to Nebraska: Senator Nelson's record includes a secured STRATCOM that will bring jobs to Nebraska, new veterans clinics, a new veterans' hospital in Omaha, health care reform and the end of Don't Ask Don't Tell.

Yes, Nelson was always pretty good at bringing home the pork. That always makes a politician popular.

As for health care reform and the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, well, other Democrats were finally able to twist Nelson's arm. But he did his best to water down those Democratic proposals first.
But that didn't stop one establishment group from attacking Ben Nelson. Rather than try to help build up grassroots support for Democrats in Nebraska, they attacked... [that DFA email was copied below] In the view of these Democrats, Nebraska is a hopeless cause -- they expect "one less Democrat" even before anyone has announced they are running to replace Senator Nelson!

Again that "establishment group"? Apparently, the Nebraska Democratic Party is borrowing more than just their political opinions from the Republicans.

And Democracy for America didn't say that Nebraska was a hopeless cause, just that it was less likely a Democrat would replace Nelson. They're right. Nelson himself had a hard fight ahead of him, and he delayed this decision long enough that the Democrats will have to scramble to find a replacement.

Heck, they might have had to scramble, anyway. The fact is, Democratic politicians in Nebraska are scarcer than hens' teeth.

Whatever the Nebraska Democratic Party has been doing in recent decades, it hasn't worked. Having Ben Nelson as the top Democrat in Nebraska certainly hasn't worked. The Democrats have a hard time even finding someone willing to run for many statewide offices, since the odds are so badly against them.

Anyway, I wasn't too happy with that email, so this is what I sent the Nebraska Democratic Party in reply:
I'm afraid I agree completely with Jim Dean, not with you. If the Democratic Party is dumb enough to support a senator who regularly joins Republican filibusters, I'm certainly not dumb enough to give them money.

I don't require that a politician agree with me about everything. Who does? But if there's no difference between Democrats and Republicans, why should I care?

You can look at this in two ways. First, if the Nebraska Democratic Party doesn't stand for anything, then why would anyone want to be a Democrat? The other way is this:  Ben Nelson has been the top Democrat in Nebraska for years. How has the party fared during that time? Are you happy with the number of Democrats in office? How has Nelson been for Democrats in our state?

I do support Barack Obama, but look at what timidity has done for him. When he took office, we were all clamoring for change. Instead, he behaved like a typical Democrat, too spineless and too eager to appease Republicans and Wall Street both. Now, all that enthusiasm is gone. He squandered a unique opportunity to lead our country and maybe even deliver that change he promised. (Admittedly, Democrats like Ben Nelson were no help!)

Do you wonder why Democrats are so enthusiastic about Elizabeth Warren. It's because we get so few candidates like that. Win or lose, she's inspiring. But the Democratic establishment will keep throwing up candidates like Ben Nelson. Or maybe they throw up themselves. [pun intended] They may have the money, the wealthy friends, and the corporate support to compete with Republicans in our money-trumps-all political system, but it does our state no good, it does our country no good, and it does the Democratic Party no good.

I guess I'm not going to be making any friends, huh?

But we Democrats have a hard time here in Nebraska, and it's getting even harder. Maybe that's because we don't seem to stand for anything. Maybe that's because we don't offer an alternative to the GOP. Maybe "not quite as crazy as a Republican" isn't such a winning slogan for a political party.

Wouldn't you like a straight-talking politician for a change? Even if you didn't agree with him, it would be refreshing (which might be why Chris Christie became popular).

Wouldn't you like a politician who stood up against corporate money and dared them to do their worst? (They will, anyway.)

Wouldn't you like a Democrat who stood up for what he believed, who wasn't afraid to argue our side of these issues, whatever the polls said?

Frankly, here in Nebraska, such a Democrat couldn't do any worse. When what you're doing isn't working, don't you think it's time to change course?

Democrats ban cheerfulness

From The State (SC):
Two South Carolina legislators say state employees shouldn't have to answer the phone with Gov. Nikki Haley's mandated cheery greeting unless it's truly a great day in South Carolina.

Democratic state Reps. John Richard King and Wendell Gilliard have filed legislation saying no state agency can force its employees to answer the phone with, "It's a great day in South Carolina," as long as state unemployment is 5 percent or higher. Their bill also would prohibit requiring the greeting as long as all South Carolinians don't have health insurance.

At a September meeting, Haley ordered her Cabinet agencies to embrace the greeting, saying it could help change the mood of state government.

Heh, heh. I have a feeling that Stephen Colbert, who grew up in South Carolina, is going to jump all over this when he gets back from the holidays. What do you think?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Voter ID denied to 93-year-old

The Young Turks have been on a roll recently. It's been hard to resist posting most of their videos.

Militarizing local police departments

Rural states tend to vote Republican these days, and they also have more political power per capita than urban states (thanks to the two senators per state rule). For both reasons, Congress tends to shovel a lot of pork at rural states.

But as Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian point out, this isn't just a problem of waste. The whole idea of militarizing our police departments should bother every American.

The war on religion

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ron Paul's vile newsletters

Today, Ron Paul claims that he didn't write the vile stuff in his own newsletters - Ron Paul's Freedom Report, the Ron Paul Political Report, the Ron Paul Survival Report, the Ron Paul Investment Report - and direct mail appeals that made him millions of dollars.

He not only claims he didn't write them, he claims he didn't even read them. We're actually supposed to believe that he cared that little about what was going out under his name! Even more unbelievably, he claims that he doesn't know who did write them. He just made money off them - and became a hero to white supremacists nationwide.

And yet, as the above video shows, he used to talk them up all the time.

How vile are they? Here's TPM:
It’s hard to overstate just how extreme these publications are, from comparing blacks to zoo animals to speculating about Israeli involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Paul denies having written or read the offensive material in question, but even a casual glance at the newsletters would have revealed their basic formula. As a recently uncovered direct mail piece advertising the newsletters demonstrates, the most out there passages were the chief selling point, not out-of-context asides.

The New Republic has put together a collection of the vilest passages, conveniently organized as racist, anti-gay, antisemitic, survivalist, conspiracy theories, and other anti-government paranoia.

And it's not just the newsletters, either. It's direct mail appeals, which Ron Paul also denies writing, which nonetheless made him a great deal of money:
In a signed appeal to potential subscribers in 1993, Ron Paul urged people to read his publications in order to prepare for a “race war,” military rule, and a conspiracy to use a new $100 bill to track Americans.

The eight-page mailer obtained by Reuters via Jamie Kirchick, who unearthed Paul’s newsletter archives in 2008, is mostly focused on a rambling conspiracy theory about changes to the dollar. But Paul tries to bolster his credibility on the issue by noting that his newsletters have also “laid bare the the coming race war in our big cities” as well as the “federal-homosexual coverup on AIDS,” adding that “my training as a physician helps me see through this one.” He also condemns the “demonic fraternity” Skull and Bones, a Yale secret society that “includes George Bush and leftist Senator John Kerry, Congress’s Mr. New Money,” and “the Israeli lobby that plays Congress like a cheap harmonica.”

Given that the most shocking racist and homophobic content from his actual newsletters is reprinted in the span of just one eight-page mailer, it offers a stark picture of just how focused the publication was on these conspiracy theories. You can read the full letter here.

In the letter, Paul warns that the federal government is planning to put chemical tracking agents in new currency as part of a broader authoritarian plot and that he had personally witnessed future designs for currency while serving in Congress.

“The totalitarian bills were tinted pink and blue and brown, and blighted with holograms, diffraction gratings, metal and plastic threads, and chemical alarms,” he writes. “It was a portable inquisition, a paper ‘third degree,’ to allow the feds to keep track of American cash, and American citizens.”

Ron Paul's fanatic young supporters won't hear anything against the guy. He's their Messiah, leading them to the Promised Land. Any and all criticism just bounces off that obsessive devotion. They simply refuse to believe anything bad.

But his older supporters are also enthusiastic:
The American Free Press, which markets books like “The Invention of the Jewish People” and “March of the Titans: A History of the White Race,” is urging its subscribers to help it send hundreds of copies of Ron Paul’s collected speeches to voters in New Hampshire. The book, it promises, will “Help Dr. Ron Paul Win the G.O.P. Nomination in 2012!”

Don Black, director of the white nationalist Web site Stormfront, said in an interview that several dozen of his members were volunteering for Mr. Paul’s presidential campaign, and a site forum titled “Why is Ron Paul such a favorite here?” has no fewer than 24 pages of comments. “I understand he wins many fans because his monetary policy would hurt Jews,” read one.

Far-right groups like the Militia of Montana say they are rooting for Mr. Paul as a stalwart against government tyranny.

Mr. Paul’s surprising surge in polls is creating excitement within a part of his political base that has been behind him for decades but overshadowed by his newer fans on college campuses and in some liberal precincts who are taken with his antiwar, anti-drug-laws messages.

The white supremacists, survivalists and anti-Zionists who have rallied behind his candidacy have not exactly been warmly welcomed. “I wouldn’t be happy with that,” Mr. Paul said in an interview Friday when asked about getting help from volunteers with anti-Jewish or antiblack views.

But he did not disavow their support. [my emphasis] “If they want to endorse me, they’re endorsing what I do or say — it has nothing to do with endorsing what they say,” said Mr. Paul, who is now running strong in Iowa for the Republican nomination.

He doesn't disavow their support because these are the same people he's been wooing - and making millions from - for decades. Paul is a 76-year-old white man from the Deep South (admittedly, he was born in Pittsburgh), a man who was in the extremist fringe of the GOP when that was still just a fringe.

From that same New York Times article:
In May, Mr. Paul reiterated in an interview with Chris Matthews of MSNBC that he would not have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing segregation. He said that he supported its intent, but that parts of it violated his longstanding belief that government should not dictate how property owners behave. He has been featured in videos of the John Birch Society, which campaigned against the Civil Rights Act, warning, for instance, that the United Nations threatens American sovereignty.

In the mid-1990s, between his two stints as a Texas congressman, Mr. Paul produced a newsletter called The Ron Paul Survival Report, which only months before the Oklahoma City bombings encouraged militias to seek out and expel federal agents in their midst. That edition was titled “Why Militias Scare the Striped Pants Off Big Government.”

An earlier edition of another newsletter he produced, The Ron Paul Political Report, concluded that the need for citizens to arm themselves was only natural, given carjackings by “urban youth who play whites like pianos.” The report, with no byline but written in the first person, said: “I’ve urged everyone in my family to know how to use a gun in self-defense. For the animals are coming.”

And Think Progress points out that Paul defended these newsletters and never denied authorship until just recently:
When the newsletters first arose as an issue in 1996, Paul didn’t deny authorship. Instead, Paul personally repeated and defended some of the most incendiary racial claims in the newsletters.

In May 1996, Paul was confronted in an interview by the Dallas Morning News about a line that appeared in a 1992 newsletter, under the headline “Terrorist Update”: “If you have ever been robbed by a black teenaged male, you know how unbelievably fleet of foot they can be.” His response:
Dr. Paul denied suggestions that he was a racist and said he was not evoking stereotypes when he wrote the columns. He said they should be read and quoted in their entirety to avoid misrepresentation…

In the interview, he did not deny he made the statement about the swiftness of black men.

“If you try to catch someone that has stolen a purse from you, there is no chance to catch them,” Dr. Paul said.

Paul also defended his claim, made in the same 1992 newsletter that “we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males in [Washington, DC] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal” Paul told the Dallas Morning News the statistic was an “assumption” you can gather from published studies.

Paul’s failure to deny authorship was not an oversight. He was repeatedly confronted about the newsletters during his 1996 campaign and consistently defended them as his own. ...

Contrary to his statements to CNN last week, it was not until 2001, that he first claimed that newsletters were not written by him. He told the Texas Monthly in the October 2001 edition that “I could never say this in the campaign, but those words weren’t really written by me.” The reporter noted, “until this surprising volte-face in our interview, he had never shared this secret.”

There is no evidence that Paul denounced the newsletters in clear terms until he ran for president in 2008 when he said “I have never uttered such words and denounce such small-minded thoughts.” Paul has never explained how this blanket denial squares with his vigorous defense of the writings in 1996.

It's not just liberals saying these things, either. Here's an excellent column by David Frum, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. (Although I disagree with him about most things, he's one conservative I can respect - if not for his support of Bush.)
Paul's core following has been small but fervid. However, Paul now is gaining a larger following, especially among younger voters attracted by his message of drug legalization and his comprehensive -- if utterly wrong-headed -- explanation of the country's economic crisis.

Unexpectedly, young voters seem also to appreciate Paul's grandfatherly anti-charisma: his self-presentation as a good-natured old codger, charmingly baffled by the modern world. The ill-fitting suits, the quavering voice and the slack-jawed laugh all support the image of an anti-politician, the lone voice of integrity in a sullied word.

There is however a flaw in this benign image of Paul: the now-notorious newsletters published under his name in the early 1990s. Paul collected nearly a million dollars in one year from newsletters suffused with paranoia, racial bigotry and support for the period's violent militia movements. ...

Paul now claims that he did not write the newsletters, was unaware of their contents at the time and now has no idea who did write them.

It's fair to say that almost no one who has followed the controversy believes that Paul is telling the truth about any of this. The authorship of the newsletters is an open secret in the libertarian world ...

But is this all there was to it? Maybe not:
Yet Ron Paul is something more (or less) than a racist crank. As Michael Brendan Dougherty aptly observed in the Atlantic last week:

"As crazy as it sounds, Ron Paul's newsletter writers may not have been sincerely racist at all. They actually thought appearing to be racist was a good political strategy in the 1990s. After that strategy yielded almost nothing -- it was abandoned by Paul's admirers."

A fellow libertarian offers more detail on Paul's racism-as-strategy. Paul and his circle aspired "to create a libertarian-conservative fusion ... [by] appealing to the worst instincts of working/middle class conservative whites by creating the only anti-left fusion possible with the demise of socialism:  one built on cultural issues. ... [The strategy] apparently made some folks (such as Rockwell and Paul) pretty rich selling newsletters predicting the collapse of Western civilization at the hands of the blacks, gays, and multiculturalists.  The explicit strategy was abandoned by around the turn of the century, but not after a lot of bad stuff had been written in all kinds of places."

Don't get the idea, however, that racism-as-strategy was some brief, futile dead-end for Paul. Paul exploited bigotry throughout his career, before as well as after the newsletter years. As Dave Weigel and Julian Sanchez reported in the libertarian magazine Reason, "Cato Institute President Ed Crane told Reason he recalls a conversation from some time in the late 1980s in which Paul claimed that his best source of congressional campaign donations was the mailing list for The Spotlight, the conspiracy-mongering, anti-Semitic tabloid run by the Holocaust denier Willis Carto until it folded in 2001."

Crane is the president of the premier institution in the libertarian world. If his recollection is correct, Paul was appealing to consumers of Holocaust denial for political purposes half a decade before the newsletters commenced.

Nor is it wholly accurate to describe Paul's strategy of appealing to the extremes as "abandoned." Ron Paul delivered the keynote address to the John Birch Society as recently as the summer of 2009. He is a frequent guest on the Alex Jones radio program, the central station for 9/11 Trutherism. As I can attest first-hand, anybody who writes negatively about Paul will see his email inbox fill rapidly with anti-Semitic diatribes.

Not all the "bad stuff" of Ron Paul's newsletter period was racist, exactly. Some of it was just general-purpose paranoia, designed to trick money out of the pockets of the fearful and gullible.

Ron Paul's supporters may never believe it - or just not care - but the evidence clearly indicates that Paul knew exactly what kinds of vile stuff he was pushing. Whether he believed it himself or just used it for political advantage and financial gain, well,... does it really matter?

From TPM:
At the end of the day, does it matter if Ron Paul’s actual fingerprints are found on the original of the direct mail piece that went out in his name, over his auto-pen, selling his newsletters, and making him money? Hard to see why we need forensics for what is plainly obvious: Ron Paul was trafficking in some of the most noxious extremism of the early ’90s.

And the Washington Post, which gave him "three Pinocchios" for his claims, made this good point, too:
Paul offers implausible explanations for why so many derogatory statements made it into his publications, insisting he knew nothing about them. It’s hard to believe that a man who wants to oversee the entire U.S. government — albeit a smaller version — would provide zero oversight of his publications, or even bother to read them from time to time.

This is the guy you want running our country? I guess you were serious about drowning America in a bathtub, weren't you?

Philosophy and the Atheist Experience

Do you like philosophy? I don't, not really. And maybe this will demonstrate why.

This video clip is from the Atheist Experience TV show, episode #593, with hosts Matt Dillahunty and Tracie Harris. The whole show is available here, or you can watch it in nine 10-minute segments (the first of which is here).

It's all very interesting, but my purpose today is not to post the whole episode. So I'm starting with the above clip, segment #3, where their caller is Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM).

This particular clip is just the beginning of the discussion, which goes on for several more clips (here, here, here, and here). But if you like philosophy, you might find them interesting.

Heck, I don't like philosophy, and I still find it interesting. But it demonstrates, I think, my biggest problem with philosophy. Science is grounded in evidence, but philosophy seems to be just words. And although the intention is admirable, no doubt, I have to wonder if philosophy ever actually accomplishes anything.

Do philosophers ever come to a consensus, the way scientists do? Philosophers ask the questions, but do they ever get any answers - at least, answers they can all agree on? If not, what good is it?

Now, I thought this discussion was very interesting,... but not especially useful. They started off in complete disagreement, and that's how they ended up, too.

Make no mistake, I think Matt Slick was wrong and Matt Dillahunty was right. Well, that's not a big surprise, is it? But I understood the point Dillahunty was making. (Note that I really like Tracie Harris, and if you watch the whole show, you might see why, but she didn't have a part in this particular discussion.)

But again, I don't think any of this is actually useful. Slick was trying to prove the existence of God through philosophy,... and he still is. Dillahunty's objections had no effect. Well, you might not be surprised at that. But do philosophers ever come to a consensus?

Because scientists do. Science is based on evidence, and when the evidence is there, scientists generally accept it. Oh, they won't change their minds easily, and they'll certainly search for alternative explanations, but evidence grounds scientists in reality.

As far as I can see, philosophers don't seem to be grounded in anything. It's all words. And yes, it might be logical, but logic by itself isn't necessarily valid. Many things throughout history have seemed logical to intelligent people, but were still wrong. Well, science can be wrong, too, but the scientific consensus has a much greater chance of being right.

And that's why I just can't get on board with philosophy. I thought this was a very interesting discussion, even an entertaining one, but was it useful?

But maybe I'm wrong about this. Do philosophers ever come to a consensus the way scientists do? If not, then I'd say that philosophy is not a good way to try to determine the truth. If philosophers can stick with what they believe, despite what other philosophers say - and it's all just competing arguments, right? - then who can say what the truth really is?

Science works. Does philosophy?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Hitchslap #26 - preying on the dying

I don't know if that was Christopher Hitchens' last breath, though he didn't have too many more of them. But I know he stayed rational until the end.

A three-year-old gets it right

"Some girls like superheroes; some girls like princesses. Some boys like superheroes; some boys like princesses. So why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different color stuff?"

Good question, huh?

Why worry about income inequality?

Cenk Uygur is absolutely right. And Republicans now want to eliminate estate taxes altogether! Apparently, they look at inherited wealth and think it's just great that wealthy heirs will never have to work a day in their life. They look at income inequality in America and want to increase it.

And when it comes to the banks, note that CEOs aren't being paid for doing well. They've got golden parachutes, so even when they're fired for doing a terrible job, they still get tens of millions of dollars for that. Not to mention free health care and other perks.

Seven big American banks - including Bank of America, which is struggling to avoid bankruptcy - are set to give out record bonuses this year, breaking even last year's records. Bank of America is forecast to increase compensation by 7%, despite the truly disastrous performance of its stock.

But the rich in America don't have to do well. They're above all that. They make these decisions for each other, in interlocking boards of directors, so they just scratch each other's backs. And no matter what, they've got the Republican Party in their pocket (and all too many Democrats, too).

Well, money runs our political system. You can't win elections without it. And if you make the people who have all the money angry, you're going to find some brand-new "grassroots organization," funded by anonymous corporations, running constant attack ads in your district.

If our country is to survive, we Americans have to be smarter than this. But it doesn't look like we are, does it?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas! Or, if you prefer, Happy Holidays! I don't care. It's entirely up to you.

But I do celebrate Christmas. Here in America, Christmas is a secular holiday. For many Americans, of course, it's also a religious holiday, but that's their business, not mine.

I understand that, if you believe in some other religion - or if your family traditions are simply different from mine - you might not celebrate Christmas. Certainly, Christians do their damnedest to make the holiday all about them (something we atheists need to resist, I'd say).

But I'm always glad to wish my Jewish friends a Happy Hanukkah. (Whether that's actually appropriate, I don't know, but I'm sure they all understand my good intentions.) I'm always willing to say Happy Winter Solstice or Happy Kwanza or... Happy Saturnalia, I guess.

But really, Happy Holidays pretty well covers it all, doesn't it? And obviously, when I say "Happy Holidays," I don't mean to exclude Christians. Of course not! Pull that stick out of your butt and understand that I'm just trying to wish you well.

Of course, the vast majority of Christians understand that. It's only the professional Christians, the right-wing Christians on talk radio and Fox "News," who seem to have a problem with Happy Holidays. And in general, I think I'd prefer that their holidays be miserable, anyway. Heh, heh.

But I usually say "Merry Christmas." It is, after all, my holiday, too. It's a federal holiday here in America and, given our Constitution, that pretty much makes it secular by definition. And as you know, Christians didn't invent the holiday. They just changed the name.

The church tried to capture an existing holiday for its own exclusive use. But Christmas has been struggling towards freedom for many years. Santa Claus, snowmen, lighted trees, elves, eggnog, candles, flying reindeer, candy canes, mistletoe, Jingle Bells - there's very little about Christmas these days that's not secular.

But if it's a religious holiday for you, no problem. Merry Christmas. You can believe whatever you want. We may need to agree to disagree, but so what? I wish you well, whatever I might think about your belief.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Not a happy holiday for everyone

I often enjoy AaronRa's videos, and I had to post this when I saw it. It makes you think, because we've all got people we care about.

And there are a lot of good people in the world, like the people who did their best for this little girl. That's important to remember. You don't often hear about those people, the ones who don't cause trouble, the ones who don't cause pain.

People make the news when they do something terrible, but there are far more people who do good, or who at least try to do good. Even people you disagree with are generally not bad people. For the most part, we're all trying to do the best we can.

Inside my Minecraft home

OK, after posting screenshots of the setting of my latest Minecraft home, I had a request to show the inside. My pleasure! :)

But don't expect too much. I'm not particularly imaginative, and it's a small house. As I noted before, I'd intended to build a multi-story structure, but at the top of this cliff, I apparently ran into a height limit in the game. In fact, that's why my house has a flat roof, because I couldn't go even one block higher.

At any rate, this is the front door. (As always, click on the images to embiggen.) There's a small swimming pool in the foreground, and the stairs down to my wheat farm on the right. The stairs are glassed-in on the outside, which lets me look for monsters on the way down. And after first experiencing the torrential rains here, I put a roof over that, too.

This is the master bedroom - just a bed, table, and bookcases. I like a lot of light in the house (note even the glass roof), so there's not much room for paintings or other wall decorations. And although I thought about putting a wool rug on the floor, I never got around to it. Interior decorating isn't my forte.

You can see the back door in that picture, too. It opens to the south, to the bridge which leads to my animal pens. Turning, you can see the other side of the room:

This is my dining room/kitchen. Again, it's more functional than decorative. The cabinet holds my food, with the oven just beneath it. And the stairs to the basement runs along the south wall.

The basement itself is rather empty. There's a crafting area in one corner, but that's about it. Oh, that hole in the foreground contains the ladder leading, eventually, to the top of that glass-enclosed elevator to the docks, which I showed in the first bunch of pictures:

Maybe this isn't as decorative as most Minecraft homes, but it works for me. At this point, I'm more concerned with exploring. First, I want to find a deep crevasse, so I can do some mining. The only one I've found so far is not very deep or very long. But if I can find the right spot, I'll probably build a little home there, too, either hanging onto the side of the crevasse or dug a little bit into it.

I'd also like to find a large, flat area of dry ground, so I can build a more elaborate structure, perhaps a walled farming community, or a fort or something. There are only small patches of dry ground around here, and most of them are on the sides of cliffs! I need to find a continent somewhere, if I can.

Certainly, Minecraft worlds are big enough for everything. My biggest worry will be getting lost while exploring. As it is, by the time I get down a cliff, I usually find myself somewhere completely unexpected. I really need to make a map! (But for that, I need a compass, and for that, I need redstone.)

Friday, December 23, 2011

The straw Vulcan

I liked the question at the end of this. Did this kind of thinking create straw Vulcans on TV and in the movies? Or are straw Vulcans what made people think that this is what rationality really is?

This is the third presentation I've posted (see also here and here) from Skepticon IV, which was held at Missouri State University last month, and they've all been great. In fact, I created a new Skepticon tag for such posts, since I'm clearly going to have to watch more of these presentations.

I'm not sure how many of them I'll post - especially those from previous Skepticons - since they're longer than most of the clips I like to embed here. But I've been really impressed by what I've seen so far, from Rebecca Watson, Greta Christina, and now Julia Galef.

iBle - the new Bible

This is almost too realistic to be funny. OK, it's still funny, but it's especially appropriate during the Christmas season.

Obviously, when it comes to Christmas, I probably disagree with devout Christians about most things. But we still might agree on the idea that Christmas has become too commercial. However we might disagree about the "reason for the season," we probably agree that it's not to "shop until you drop."

But there's a reason why Christmas - and other holidays, too, to a lesser extent - has become more and more a shopping extravaganza. Businesses make a profit from that, so they have a real incentive to push it.

Stores start advertising even before Halloween sometimes, and many companies make their entire profit the last couple months of the year. Media companies push Christmas, because they make money on advertising. The media would no more question commercializing Christmas than they'd admit that it doesn't really matter who wins a sports match - and for the same reason.

The idea behind gift-giving is fine, no doubt, but we are constantly encouraged that way only because people make money from it. It's funny, but there's a very selfish reason behind this push to be generous. And we're gullible enough that people often go into debt to finance Christmas in the manner to which the media have convinced them is appropriate.

My parents used to tell me that, when they were children, they typically received one toy at Christmas. Mom said she received a doll one Christmas,... and the doll clothes the next Christmas.

When we were kids, we had lots of gifts under the tree, but that paled next to the mountain of gifts my nephew and nieces received in later years. Partly, that was a matter of increased family wealth, of course. But a lot of it was different expectations of Christmas, too, I suspect.

It's not just gifts, since we're constantly urged to spend money on decorations and everything else, too. And it's not just Christmas, since we are increasingly bombarded at nearly every holiday to spend more money. Well, as I say, it's a conspiracy - or maybe just a synergy - between the media and other corporations. Everyone wants a cut of the pie, and it's to everyone's benefit that the pie be as large as possible.

I suspect that even non-profit groups benefit. When there's lots of money flying around, it's easier for pretty much anyone to snag some of it. We tend to be more generous at Christmas, at least in part because we're already spending a lot of money on other things.

But does this benefit you and your family? It certainly doesn't if you go into debt. It certainly doesn't if this leaves you short of money to save for your retirement - or for your children's education. Whatever the real "meaning of Christmas," is it all about money? Not for me.

My Christmases have gotten so much better since I stopped exchanging gifts. Oh, I'd still give gifts if there were young children in the family, of course. And for older children, I send money. Even for adults, I might give a token gift of candy or flowers. I'm not a fanatic about this.

But there used to be a lot of stress at Christmastime. I'd spend weeks worrying about what gifts to buy, struggling to get just the right thing for everyone. Then, at Christmas, at least half the time my gifts would clearly fall flat - and I'd be given things I didn't really want, myself.

Eventually, I realized that we were giving each other items that we simply didn't want badly enough to buy for ourselves - just because that's what we'd been led to believe was the right thing to do at Christmas.

And I don't like to shop. Some people do. Some people apparently love to shop. But not me. For me, it was an unwelcome chore, and a stressful one. You can't imagine how much nicer my Christmases are these days!

I love Christmas. I don't necessarily love everything about it, but it's always been one of my favorite holidays. But I've never liked being manipulated by other people for their own advantage, and that's what seemed to be happening at Christmas. There was a reason why Christmas was becoming too commercial.

Well, I'm not a parent, either, and Christmas is all about children. So maybe that has something to do with it. At any rate, you can celebrate Christmas any way you want. I have no desire to dictate to anyone else, none at all. But this works for me.

Control the news, control the narrative

From The Raw Story:
The incident occurred mere moments after the House went into session. Hoyer made a motion for a vote on the Senate’s payroll tax cut extension, which would extend the lower rates for another two months, but the Republican presiding over the House did not acknowledge the motion. He instead adjourned the House, then got up and walked out.

“As you walk off the floor, Mr. Speaker, you’re walking away, just as so many Republicans have walked away from taxpayers, the unemployed, and very frankly, as well, from those who will be seeking medical assistance from their doctors, 48 million senior citizens,” Hoyer can be heard saying.

“We regret, Mr. Speaker, that you have walked off the platform without addressing the issue of critical importance to this country, and that is the continuation of the middle class tax cut, the continuation of unemployment benefits for those at risk of losing them, and a continuation of the access to doctors for all those 48 million seniors who rely on them daily for help.”

And that’s when the audio cut out. Seconds later, footage faded to a shot of the capitol from outside.

Moments later, someone at C-SPAN took to Twitter and explained: “C-SPAN has no control over the U.S. House TV cameras – the Speaker of the House does.”

It’s for reasons just like this, one might infer, that Boehner told C-SPAN back in February it would not be allowed control its own cameras.

Republicans have learned a lot from Fox "News." Control the media and you control the narrative. They're not there yet, not completely, but they seem to be getting closer all the time.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Atheist Experience: is this moral?

An excerpt from episode #725, with Matt Dillahunty and Tracie Harris.

30 years of People for the American Way

People for the American Way is a great organization. Check it out.

My Minecraft home

Here's my latest Minecraft home (click on the images to embiggen). It's on top of a tall cliff - in fact, I was going to build a house with several stories, but the game wouldn't let me build higher than the clouds. (That's something new, I think.)

My wheat farm is to the bottom left, and I've got a couple of animal pens to the south, on the other side of the bridge. I started this game on a previous version, when livestock continued to spawn during the game, so I'm a bit short of animals now.

And this part of my world is so full of sheer cliffs that it's hard to lead animals up here, too.

Here's the north side of my home, at night in a thunderstorm (that's why the clouds look black). I probably should have waited for a clear night to take a picture, huh?

At any rate, it shows the glass-enclosed elevator (ladder, really, though it feels like an elevator), leading down to my boat dock. In all of these pictures, you can see the moss hanging from the topmost cliff, since this whole area is filled with marshy terrain.

I wanted a world with cliffs, because I was planning from the start to build a clifftop home. But this area has almost no flat ground, and what little there is contains marsh or desert, with a lot of water everywhere. So far, I haven't found any continents.

But I haven't explored too much yet, and that's something I really need to do.

This is looking at my house from the southwest, still at night, during that same thunderstorm. As you can see, the terrain is nothing but cliffs, pretty much.

I tend to get so involved with building that I forget about exploration. And by the time I get this far, I start thinking about creating a different world. Heh, heh. Yeah, I'm always beginning games, without getting too far in them.

Incidentally, if you're thinking about playing Minecraft for the first time, you might want to check out this video tutorial. Note that there's no tutorial in the game, and this guy starts things out with the most basic stuff.

You'll still need the Minecraft wiki bookmarked, though. You can make all sorts of things in the game if you know how, but it can be frustrating to rely on trial and error. And even experienced players can't always remember everything.

Brother Sam Singleton, the atheist evangelist

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

An envelope of cash


Guess what? A Congressman accepting an envelope, from a corporate CEO, with $60,000 in it is not actually against the law!

But maybe it will be discouraged in the future:
Rep. Don Young (R-AK) didn’t break any rules when he accepted $60,000 — far over the $5,000 limit — in donations to his legal fund from entities that were controlled by the same family, the House Ethics Committee found this week. But they’re making sure that other members can’t exploit the same loophole in the future.

Young, according to the House Ethics Committee’s report, received the donations in an envelope from fishing buddy Gary Chouest, who is president of a marine transportation company.

“When it comes to campaign finance law, that’s clearly a violation,” Public Citizen’s Craig Holman told TPM. “It’s well established as a violation of that type of rule.”

The House Ethics report makes it clear that donations to legal funds from entities controlled by one individual will be counted together in the future, even though they cleared Young of any violations.

Well, better than nothing, I guess.

The GOP's payroll tax fiasco

Believe it or not, even Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal is criticizing House Republicans for their stance on the payroll tax cut compromise worked out in the Senate.

Of course, the paper, which is owned by the parent company of Fox News, is just unhappy about the political aspects of it, how this will affect their goal of getting Republicans elected in 2012:
GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell famously said a year ago that his main task in the 112th Congress was to make sure that President Obama would not be re-elected. Given how he and House Speaker John Boehner have handled the payroll tax debate, we wonder if they might end up re-electing the President before the 2012 campaign even begins in earnest.

The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double play.

Still, when even your own side is criticizing you (and make no mistake, the Wall Street Journal is just as much a propaganda organ for the Republican Party as Fox News), you know there's something wrong!
If Republicans didn't want to extend the payroll tax cut on the merits, then they should have put together a strategy and the arguments for defeating it and explained why.

But if they knew they would eventually pass it, as most of them surely believed, then they had one of two choices. Either pass it quickly and at least take some political credit for it.

Or agree on a strategy to get something in return for passing it, which would mean focusing on a couple of popular policies that would put Mr. Obama and Democrats on the political spot. They finally did that last week by attaching a provision that requires Mr. Obama to make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days, and the President grumbled but has agreed to sign it.

But now Republicans are drowning out that victory in the sounds of their circular firing squad. Already four GOP Senators have rejected the House position, and the political rout will only get worse.

I thought a couple of things here were particularly funny. The first is this:
Their first mistake was adopting the President's language that he is proposing a tax cut rather than calling it a temporary tax holiday. People will understand the difference—and discount the benefit.

Funny, but I'm pretty sure I never heard the Wall Street Journal call the Bush tax cuts, which were also scheduled to last for just a set period of time, a "temporary tax holiday." I wonder why not?

The other point is better made by TPM than me:
A mostly irrelevant side note to the Wall Street Journal editorial everyone’s talking about is that they don’t seem to know what policy they’re talking about.

“House Republicans yesterday voted down the Senate’s two-month extension of the two-percentage-point payroll tax holiday to 4.2% from 6.2%,” the editors wrote. “They say the short extension makes no economic sense, but then neither does a one-year extension. No employer is going to hire a worker based on such a small and temporary decrease in employment costs, as this year’s tax holiday has demonstrated.”

They seem to have their payroll tax cuts mixed up. The two percent holiday that’s been in effect for the past year, and the extension Congress is fighting about right now, are both to employees’ share of the Social Security FICA tax. The theory behind the policy is that by increasing worker take-home pay, the cut provides suffering consumers with additional purchasing power, and thus stimulates demand, which is exactly what this sluggish economy needs.

Earlier in the year, President Obama proposed broadening this tax cut to include the employer share of the Social Security FICA tax. That policy operates on the theory that reducing cost-per-employee will create the incentive for job creation. It’s a weaker theory — a lot of big employers are already sitting on a bunch of cash, but aren’t hiring because they don’t have enough customers (see above about demand). But this is what the Wall Street Journal’s editors seem to think has been going on all year — and they’re completely wrong.

You might be surprised that the Wall Street Journal got something this simple wrong, but if you think of them as the newspaper equivalent of Fox News, I'm sure you'll understand it.

PS. Note that this payroll tax cut does not affect the financial soundness of the Social Security Trust Fund. You hear that sometimes, but it's a complete lie, since the fund will get the same amount of money, either way.

The Democrats had proposed paying for it with a "millionaire surtax" - a small tax increase on that amount of a person's income which was above a million dollars a year (only on that part in excess of $1 million per year, note), and of course Republicans wouldn't stand for taxing the wealthy. But even the compromise made up the cost of this payroll tax cut to Social Security.

This would not weaken Social Security at all!