Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Quick rebuttals to common Christian claims



Richard Carrier does such a good job with these, doesn't he? This is just a small excerpt from his debate with Lenny Esposito.

Hell yes, I'm a feminist

Here's a great post by John Scalzi:
Hell yes, I’m a feminist.

Mind you, I don’t think this declaration comes as much of a surprise. I think people are aware of my general feelings on feminism, and I’ve not been shy about the topic before, when it’s suited me. ...

I don’t think feminism has been waiting for me. It doesn’t need me as a spokesperson or a leading voice. I don’t believe any woman has been wanting for me to be her “white knight.” As I’ve said before, it’s white knighting to assume women can’t defend themselves; it’s not white knighting to stand with them against the shit thrown their way.

But: I do think it’s important to let women know you do stand with them. I think it’s useful for other men to see it being done. To the extent that I have influence and notability, I’d like to use it standing with, and for, women. At the very least, 2014 showed me that it’s where I want to be standing, and to the extent that it’s useful, be seen standing.

Hell yes, I'm a feminist, too. If you've been here much, you'll already know that. But as Scalzi says, it's still important to say.

These days, the internet seems to be positively infested with sexism and misogyny - a minority of men, yes, but very, very vocal about it. We need to be vocal in opposition to that, too.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

What's wrong with America?



Maybe I should have called this "What's right about TYT?" Of course, I don't always agree with them - heck, they don't always agree with each other (and why should they?) - but these kinds of videos are why I keep watching.



Richard Carrier: Why Christianity is unreasonable



Richard Carrier always does a great job in these, doesn't he? This is part of his opening statement in his February, 2013 debate against David Marshall.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Atheist Ten Commandments

These are actually called the "Ten Non-Commandments," as chosen in this contest from "Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart."

Anyway, from CNN, here are the winners. (My thanks to Jim Harris for the link.)
1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.

2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.

3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.

4. Every person has the right to control of their body.

5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.

6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.

7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.

8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.

9. There is no one right way to live.

10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.

Not bad. Much better than the original set! I think there's one missing, though - a commandment suggested by Mark Twain:
So much blood has been shed by the Church because of an omission from the Gospel: "Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbor's religion is." Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to add that new law to its code.

I'd replace #9 with that, not because the 9th "Non-Commandment" isn't wise, but just because human beings really seem to need Mark Twain's addition.

Of course, many of these aren't commandments at all. And since Christians didn't let the Golden Rule stop them from committing atrocities, it's hard to imagine that this would have worked, either. It's an interesting thought-experiment, though.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Islam or atheism?



This is a debate between Hamza Tzortzis, an internationally known lecturer and debater from the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) and Ed Buckner, who was president of American Atheists at the time (2010).

No, I haven't watched the whole thing - not even close. Heck, this video is almost two and a half hours long! I didn't listen to Buckner at all, in fact. But I thought I'd comment on the opening statement by Tzortzis (in the video, from 6:30 to 33:25 - which was plenty long enough, I assure you!)

Note the question here: Islam or atheism? To their credit, this was sponsored by iERA - one of The Big Debates they promote. I've watched many other debates where the question was Christianity or atheism? - sometimes, even Catholicism or atheism? (if not specifically in the title, definitely in the arguments made by the Christian apologist).

So I was interested to hear what this argument would be like. (As it turned out, it was very similar to Christian apologetics - too similar, in fact. I was quite disappointed.)

To begin with, Tzortzis claims that "critical thinkers" must base their decisions on reason and common sense. But note what he's left out: evidence. Reason and common sense are not enough by themselves. In particular, common sense does not work at all when dealing with questions outside our normal everyday lives. (Try using "common sense" to understand quantum mechanics!)

Do you remember when you first learned, as a very young child, that the Earth was round? I do. I still remember how odd that seemed to me. We were standing on a giant ball spinning rapidly in empty space? How weird was that? That very definitely violates common sense. (If you don't believe me, try standing on a spinning ball sometime.)

It's not at all surprising that our distant ancestors thought the Earth was flat. Why wouldn't they? Both reason and common sense would indicate so. It took evidence to change our minds (and that was long before we had any idea of gravity, any real explanation of it).

Reason and common sense, without evidence, would tell us that the Earth was flat and that we'd come to the end of it if we traveled far enough. Well, nothing is infinite, right?

As it turns out, the Earth is not infinite, but we could still travel infinitely far in one direction without coming to the end of it. The surface might be two-dimensional, but it's stretched over a three-dimensional globe, so endless doesn't really mean infinite, as they assumed. Common sense failed them.

I'll get back to that in a minute, but first there's that bizarre story about Superman in his red underpants, come to check your gas meter. Now, why would you have a problem with that? Obviously, it's because you already know something - quite a bit, in fact - about utility workers (and about Superman, for that matter).

But what does Tzortzis say? "I would argue today that to support the atheist worldview would be equivalent of allowing someone in their red underpants to come and check your gas meter."

Well, OK, he can claim that. But what does he mean by the "atheist worldview." We atheists have a variety of worldviews. The only thing we have in common is that we don't accept the claims of theists (who can't even agree among themselves, note). You can be an atheist without claiming anything at all, yourself.

I'm an atheist because theists like Tzortzis simply haven't made their case. That's a "worldview"? If you told me that a man dressed in red underpants, like Superman, came to check your gas meter, I might very well be skeptical of that story, without evidence. So maybe skepticism is my worldview, but not atheism. Not all atheists are skeptics, sad to say.

(Note that Tzortzis says he's going to wait for Ed Buckner to "provide a good case for the atheist worldview." Obviously, he's simply trying to shift the burden of proof - just like I've heard from countless Christian apologists. Buckner doesn't have to prove that Allah doesn't exist. As an atheist, he doesn't even have to make that claim. Theists are the ones making a claim. If they can't support that claim, we are fully justified in saying so.)

When he finally gets to the "positive case for the Islamic worldview," he's at least getting to the real issue here. But he fails pretty badly, I'd say.

"God makes sense of the origins of the universe," he claims. "Why does something exist rather than nothing?" But even if you had good evidence that your god, or any god, actually existed, you'd still have that same question, just in a slightly different form: Why does God exist rather than nothing?

'God did it' doesn't answer the question, not even close.

"How did the universe come to be?" Well, how did God come to be? Again, it's the same question. He's just added a god in there, for no apparent reason.

"Or do they think that the heavens and the Earth, the whole universe, came out of nothing?" But that's exactly what theists like Tzortzis think. They think that their god created the whole universe out of nothing, and they've still got the question of where their god came from.

Scientists don't claim to know where the universe came from. But that doesn't mean you can just pick whatever explanation you want, without evidence. Scientists don't know, but you don't, either. And your explanation doesn't even answer these questions. It just pushes them back a step.

Keep in mind that the word "universe" means different things. It can mean our universe, which apparently started with the Big Bang (how, we don't know). Or it can mean "everything." Those aren't necessarily the same thing, but it's very typical for theists - Islamic and Christian alike - to conflate the two.

Tzortzis now claims that atheists say that "the universe is just eternal and uncaused." Well, maybe some do, I don't know. (He quotes Bertrand Russell, who was born in 1872 and wasn't a cosmologist, anyway.) Either way, it doesn't matter, because atheists don't need to make a claim about the universe. "I don't know" doesn't mean that you can claim anything you want, without evidence.

But Tzortzis continues, "If we scratch the surface on this statement, we will conclude that it is absurd and irrational, because that would mean that the universe never had a beginning, which would then mean that our history is infinite, that the universe has an infinite history of past events. ... The infinite does not exist in the real world."

Again, this whole argument is meaningless. Even if Bertrand Russell did think this, it has nothing to do with me. But it's ridiculous, too. First of all, if we're talking about this universe, modern scientists do think that it had a beginning. If that was also the beginning of time, it could still be infinite, from what I've heard (time slowing down near the singularity). But I'm no cosmologist, so I'm not going to argue that one way or another.

Remember, our ancestors thought it equally ridiculous that they could travel endlessly far in one direction on the Earth without ever getting to the end of it. But they were wrong. They could. The Earth isn't infinite, but you would still never get to the end of it, traveling on the surface.

They used common sense, but the evidence proved them wrong.

If Tzortzis is using "universe" to mean "everything," then why would there need to be a beginning for that? After all, he thinks his god was eternal and uncaused, so he clearly accepts that possibility. If infinity is "absurd and irrational" as he claims (without backing up that claim, note), then it's equally absurd and irrational when applied to his god. You can't have it both ways.

Maybe it is "absurd and irrational," I don't know. But he doesn't either. He has no more idea of the universe (meaning "everything") than anyone else. Even cosmologists - the experts in that field of study - don't know. Religious believers claim to know, but they can't even agree among themselves, let alone provide any evidence backing up their claims.

Tzortzis continues with some examples of how infinity violates common sense. I agree. It does. But that doesn't mean, necessarily, that it doesn't exist. Nothing in our everyday lives would make us comfortable with infinity, whether the universe is infinite or not. That's just one of the limitations on common sense.

And again, Tzortzis does believe in infinity himself. He thinks that his god is infinite. He doesn't think that his god had a beginning. His god is eternal, right? So if he is right about eternity, his own faith is wrong.

Infinity doesn't matter to me, to my atheism, one way or another. Tzortzis's argument simply doesn't hold up, either way.

So, OK, Tzortzis insists that the universe had a beginning. He's talking about our universe now, I assume, so he doesn't really need all that infinity stuff. If I understand correctly, cosmologists are pretty much in consensus that our universe did have a beginning (in the so-called Big Bang). But now he insists that the universe had a cause.

"Therefore, the number of past events can't be infinite, therefore there was a beginning to the universe, and it logically follows there was a cause to the universe." Well, not necessarily. For one thing, note that "cause" also has different meanings. It certainly doesn't follow that the universe was deliberately created.

But even if he's just talking about cause and effect, that's still not necessarily true. Cause and effect is a common experience in our lives, so common sense expects it. But it doesn't have to be true everywhere. I don't know much about quantum mechanics - no one does who's not a theoretical physicist - but I've heard that cause and effect breaks down (or seems to, at least) at the quantum level.

Furthermore, even if cause and effect was always valid in this universe, we have no way of knowing about any other universes. Note that, in modern cosmological thinking, the Big Bang was the beginning of space-time. Time has to exist before you can have cause and effect (and "before the Big Bang" would seem to be a meaningless concept).

There is so very, very much we don't know about all of this - so very much we may never know. It's just impossible to tell. But Tzortzis claims that he does know,... somehow. He has yet to say how, though.

"Does something come from nothing?" This is another argument which is very familiar to me from Christian apologists. Indeed, so far, I haven't heard anything which doesn't sound like Christian apologetics. Muslims vehemently disagree with Christians, and vice versa, but their arguments sure sound identical!

Can something come from nothing? I don't know. From what I've heard, physicists have a different concept of "nothing" from how we laymen commonly use the word.

Frankly, I don't even know if "nothing" is possible. Have you ever seen "nothing"? How would we recognize "nothing," anyway? Can "nothing" even exist? If you can't answer those questions - with good evidence to back up your claims - how can you assume anything at all about "nothing"?

The really funny thing is that, just like religious believers think that their god is infinite, they also think that he created the whole universe from nothing. Thus, if something can't come from nothing, then their god didn't create the universe - and if infinity isn't possible, then their god can't exist at all. In both cases, they use the logical fallacy of special pleading.

Anyway, Tzortzis goes back to the universe's "cause" again, telling us what we know about it. The fact is, we don't know anything about it - not even, as I noted above, that the universe had a "cause." What he's trying to do, though, is to set up the circumstances by which his faith in his god can be exempted from everything he's said previously.

Keep in mind, too, that - despite his quotes from past philosophers and scientists (David Hume died in 1776, for chrissake, so how would he be an expert today?) - modern cosmologists overwhelmingly reject his argument. What does it tell you when the people who know the most about a subject completely disagree with you?

Similarly, as I've noted before, when you use philosophy to push your religious beliefs, how do you explain the fact that most professional philosophers - you know, the people who know the most about philosophy - are atheists?

People like Tzortzis try to use science and philosophy to convince people who don't know very much about science and philosophy. And they even fail at that, really. They don't convince anyone by these arguments. The people who accept them already believe (almost always, because they were raised from infancy to believe), just like Tzortzis himself.

His arguments didn't convince him. He already had his faith. He's just using them to try to convince others - and again, they're the people who know the least about science and philosophy, not the people who know the most about those fields.

I'm not going to bother much with his claims about the "cause" of the universe. It's just the standard stuff that Christian apologists claim, too - with absolutely zero justification. All he's done is set up his special pleading fallacy.

Yeah, something can't come from nothing, thus it must be his god who created something from nothing. Nothing is infinite, except that his god is infinite. The universe has to have a cause (again, he's careful not to define what he means by "universe"), but his god doesn't need to have a cause. It has to be one god, because,... Occam's razor? Really? That's what he's going with? He either doesn't understand Occam's razor or he thinks his audience won't understand it.

Again, he's using philosophy in a way that the vast majority of philosophers don't accept. But the whole thing is just really disappointing. These are the same tired old arguments we've heard from countless Christian apologists. I was really hoping to hear something new.

I was at least hoping for something better than: it has to be a personal god, because,... how else? "How else can an eternal cause bring into existence a finite effect?" Um, you just said that eternal was impossible? Have you forgotten that already? Or just hope that your listeners have?

And the universe (our universe, he's talking about now) must have been a choice, because time didn't exist yet? Why does that follow? And how can you make a choice without time? How can anyone even think without time? Certainly, cause and effect can't work in the absence of time (which is a good reason to think that our universe did not have a cause).

This, too, is very similar to Christian apologetics. He takes a long time setting up his argument. Heck, he used three different examples to demonstrate how infinity was ridiculous (and then made his god infinite, anyway!). But when he finally gets to his argument, he just rushes through the whole thing with one claim after another. Well, if you think about it very much at all, it falls apart.

It's just a series of claims - some of which directly contradict what he said previously - without anything to back them up. I wish he'd spent less time on the setup and more on his conclusions. But then, if he'd done that, we'd see how flimsy they were.

It's different on paper, because you can go back and check every detail. In a debate, especially when you don't have a video to rewind, it's easy to be convincing to people who already want to believe what they want to believe.

Eventually, he goes right into the cosmological argument, just like so many Christian apologists. The only difference is, he starts explaining how the Koran is divine, rather than the Bible. The arguments are very similar. He just chooses a different book, the book he was raised to believe.

His argument? Muslims like the Koran better than other books. Oh, it's just so eloquent! Well, maybe so. I've never read it. But I've heard a million similar claims about the Bible made by Christians, for identical reasons. (And I've read the Bible, some of it, at least. It's crazy as hell.)

Oh, and because China exists, therefore the Koran must be miraculous. Seriously. That's exactly what he says. And Muslims agree that the Koran couldn't have been written by a human being. Heh, heh. Yeah, that's persuasive, huh? Believers believe in what they believe.

Scholars don't all agree that Mohammed even existed as a historical (rather than fictional) person, yet the Koran is an "evidential miracle," according to Tzortzis.

This just got completely ridiculous. The best explanation for the Koran is that it's a divine miracle. Uh, huh. Well, keep in mind that his entire argument to this point was identical to what many Christian apologists claim. But Tzortzis is Muslim, not Christian, so he has to make some kind of claim to back up his own religion.

Well, I suppose it sounds reasonable to other Muslims, huh? After all, it's always easy to believe what you want to believe, what you were raised from infancy to believe. But I think I can guarantee that it won't convince anyone else.

Finally, he goes back to Christian apologists for his argument that Mohammed was a prophet - the prophet. In fact, he borrows from C.S. Lewis (whose argument wasn't valid even for Jesus, let alone Mohammed): Mohammed was either a liar or he was deluded, or he was both a liar and deluded, or... everything he said was the exact, perfect truth and that exact, perfect truth is exactly what you find in the Koran today.

Maybe Mohammed was just mistaken? Or maybe he didn't exist at all, outside of fiction? There are many other alternatives. Apologists - Christian and Muslim alike - try to ignore that.

Throughout this, Tzortzis keeps talking about "critical thinking" - as he defined it at the beginning of his talk. But there hasn't been the slightest interest in, or concern about, evidence. Much of what he says here could be said about Harry Potter, too. Just because it's written in a book, and just because plenty of people have been raised to believe in that book, that doesn't make it true.

Yeah, it's an old book, and that just makes it worse. Do you believe everything written in the Iliad and the Odyssey? I doubt it. But you probably would if you'd been raised to believe it was true.

As a debate, I didn't like this format. The opening statement was much too long, and it would be impossible for his opponent to point out every problem with it. But a half hour of this - hours, by the time I finished this post - was more than enough for me. I don't know what Ed Buckner said, but I don't need to listen to people who agree with me. What would be the point of that?

OK, I enjoy listening to these debates, and most of my enjoyment comes from the atheist response. But I'm always hoping for something new from theists. After all, my lack of belief isn't going to be tested by an atheist.

Of course, Tzortzis didn't test me much, either. At all, really. I've heard the same thing many times from Christian apologists, and it wasn't very convincing then, either.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

An atheist reads "The Purpose of Christmas"



Steve Shives does a great job with these videos. I always enjoy them. Unlike the other books in this series, he covers the whole thing - which isn't very long, apparently - in one video.

A Barely Christmas Carol



This is just to get you in the Christmas spirit. :)

How Colonel Sanders became Father Christmas

(TPM)

When it comes to weird Christmas traditions, this takes the cake:
Of all the odd mutations of American culture to be exported abroad, Japan’s KFC Christmas tradition may be one of the oddest. This month, KFC Japan will bring in revenue up to ten times greater than what it earns during other months of the year. Life-size Colonel Sanders statues—a staple in the country—will be dressed in red attire and Santa hats. On Christmas eve, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s lines will snake down the block, and those unlucky enough not to pre-order their special chicken buckets a month in advance may have to go without KFC’s signature blend of 11 herbs and spices.

And not having KFC on Christmas in Japan is a real bummer. In what appears to be one of the most successful fast food marketing campaigns of all time, KFC has for more than thirty years maintained a uniquely on-brand alternate history in Japan, one that makes fried chicken ubiquitous on the day of Jesus’ birth.

“The prevailing wisdom here is that Americans eat chicken on the 25th,” a friend wrote from Tokyo last week. He said he has “blown countless Japanese minds” by suggesting that Western KFCs may even close on Christmas. In Japan, where only a tiny fraction of the population is Christian and the holiday is a secular-slash-commercial affair, yuletide cheer goes hand in hand with a Christmas-branded bucket of chicken—or, as the Japanese call KFC, simply “Kentucky.” ...

If America is oversaturated with fast food empires and too well-acquainted with the Old South’s history to reinterpret it as a fun and exotic myth, in Japan there has been no such problem. There are currently more than 1,200 KFC locations in the country, including an “Adult Kentucky Fried Chicken” bistro serving pasta dishes with beer and “KFC Route 25,” a posh KFC in Tokyo stocked with a full whiskey bar. Not to mention the whole Christmas thing. There’s a countdown to Christmas on KFC Japan’s website and banners celebrating “Kentucky Christmas 2014.”

Funny, isn't it? Not that other countries wouldn't be amused by our reinterpretation of them (American 'Chinese food,' for example). But it's still pretty funny.

Decades ago, when I was in Europe, I was surprised by the Japanese tourists I saw there. To a man (and woman), they looked more American than we Americans do - blue jeans, cameras, etc.  It was like they were all wearing a costume - and a pretty nearly identical costume, at that.

Don't get me wrong; it wasn't because they were Japanese. There are plenty of Japanese-Americans, but they didn't dress like that, even when they wore blue jeans and owned cameras. Japanese-Americans looked American. I'm not sure I can describe the difference, but it was obvious.

I suspect that it was just Japanese fashion at the time, but it certainly seemed weird to me.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Prosecute torturers and their bosses

Way to go, New York Times! This is from their editorial yesterday (which had the same title as this post):
Since the day President Obama took office, he has failed to bring to justice anyone responsible for the torture of terrorism suspects — an official government program conceived and carried out in the years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

He did allow his Justice Department to investigate the C.I.A.'s destruction of videotapes of torture sessions and those who may have gone beyond the torture techniques authorized by President George W. Bush. But the investigation did not lead to any charges being filed, or even any accounting of why they were not filed.

Mr. Obama has said multiple times that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” as though the two were incompatible. They are not. The nation cannot move forward in any meaningful way without coming to terms, legally and morally, with the abhorrent acts that were authorized, given a false patina of legality, and committed by American men and women from the highest levels of government on down.

Americans have known about many of these acts for years, but the 524-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report erases any lingering doubt about their depravity and illegality: In addition to new revelations of sadistic tactics like “rectal feeding,” scores of detainees were waterboarded, hung by their wrists, confined in coffins, sleep-deprived, threatened with death or brutally beaten. In November 2002, one detainee who was chained to a concrete floor died of “suspected hypothermia.”

These are, simply, crimes. They are prohibited by federal law, which defines torture as the intentional infliction of “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” They are also banned by the Convention Against Torture, the international treaty that the United States ratified in 1994 and that requires prosecution of any acts of torture.

So it is no wonder that today’s blinkered apologists are desperate to call these acts anything but torture, which they clearly were. As the report reveals, these claims fail for a simple reason: C.I.A. officials admitted at the time that what they intended to do was illegal.

In July 2002, C.I.A. lawyers told the Justice Department that the agency needed to use “more aggressive methods” of interrogation that would “otherwise be prohibited by the torture statute.” They asked the department to promise not to prosecute those who used these methods. When the department refused, they shopped around for the answer they wanted. They got it from the ideologically driven lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel, who wrote memos fabricating a legal foundation for the methods. Government officials now rely on the memos as proof that they sought and received legal clearance for their actions. But the report changes the game: We now know that this reliance was not made in good faith.

The editorial ends with:
The question everyone will want answered, of course, is: Who should be held accountable? That will depend on what an investigation finds, and as hard as it is to imagine Mr. Obama having the political courage to order a new investigation, it is harder to imagine a criminal probe of the actions of a former president.

But any credible investigation should include former Vice President Dick Cheney; Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington; the former C.I.A. director George Tenet; and John Yoo and Jay Bybee, the Office of Legal Counsel lawyers who drafted what became known as the torture memos. There are many more names that could be considered, including Jose Rodriguez Jr., the C.I.A. official who ordered the destruction of the videotapes; the psychologists who devised the torture regimen; and the C.I.A. employees who carried out that regimen.

One would expect Republicans who have gone hoarse braying about Mr. Obama’s executive overreach to be the first to demand accountability, but with one notable exception, Senator John McCain, they have either fallen silent or actively defended the indefensible. They cannot even point to any results: Contrary to repeated claims by the C.I.A., the report concluded that “at no time” did any of these techniques yield intelligence that averted a terror attack. And at least 26 detainees were later determined to have been “wrongfully held.”

Starting a criminal investigation is not about payback; it is about ensuring that this never happens again and regaining the moral credibility to rebuke torture by other governments. Because of the Senate’s report, we now know the distance officials in the executive branch went to rationalize, and conceal, the crimes they wanted to commit. The question is whether the nation will stand by and allow the perpetrators of torture to have perpetual immunity for their actions.

Sadly, they're absolutely right about it being hard to imagine Barack Obama "having the political courage to order a new investigation," especially since Americans, by two to one odds, support torturing prisoners of war.

Embarrassing, isn't it? How disgusting is that! Americans support the torture of prisoners of war! I found it hard enough to believe that we'd sink so low as a nation that we'd torture people in the first place. Now, I'm even more disgusted to discover that nearly 60 percent of us are such cowards and such morons that we actually think it justified.

This is wrong. And the only way we can drag ourselves out of the slime - while teaching my fellow citizens that slime isn't good - is to hold these criminals responsible for their crimes. My respects to the New York Times, not just for getting it right, but for having the courage to take a stand.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

And so it begins



Yeah, that's Glenn Beck, heading even further into delusion and hallucination.

"I'm not crazy." You know, that's what all crazy people say. If you really have to assure people that you're not crazy, you're probably crazy.

And note that this was the guy too crazy even for Fox 'News.' That's pretty crazy, don't you think? Just think of that. Even Fox couldn't take that much right-wing crazy.

But you have to admit that Glenn Beck really gets into the Christmas spirit this time of year, don't you? :)

Have Yourself a Merry Little Mythmas



It's almost Christmas - time for some holiday postings, don't you think? Note that I've been wearing my Christmas hat for a week now, getting into the Christmas spirit. :)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Christmas tree - but not the good kind


Depressing, isn't it? I mean, really, really depressing. Why does a comedy show make me so depressed?

But maybe this will help. This is Elizabeth Warren's speech on the Senate floor:



Of course, she lost. Citigroup got its way,... as usual. But at least she spoke out. At least she was willing to rock the boat.

I wish I could vote for Elizabeth Warren,... for president, maybe? Yeah, that's probably just wishful-thinking, huh? But she's really impressive, isn't she? At the very least, she needs to get enough support that other Democrats will take notice.

After all, running away from their own president, their own party, their own successes didn't help them much last month, did it? Maybe they got more campaign donations that way, but since they still lost, what good was it?

But yeah, expecting Democratic politicians to learn from that experience is really wishful-thinking, isn't it?

I'm depressed.

Ah, Christmas!


Yup. I've been there. :)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Immoral Kombat: The Hurt Liker


Dick Cheney just gets crazier and crazier, doesn't he? Jebus, what a disaster he and George W. Bush have been to our country! Ignorance and ideology, immune to reason and evidence, superbly confident, despite being wrong about pretty much everything, year after year.

This is the problem with faith-based thinking. If you have faith, your dogma simply can't be wrong. No matter what, you'll continue to believe what you want to believe. Therefore, even the most horrendous disasters will not get you to admit a mistake or change your mind in any way.

Of course, you know that Jesus would support torture, right? Well, why not? What's the point of having a religion at all if you can't believe whatever the hell you want to believe? So of course your god is always going to agree with you.

Monday, December 15, 2014

David Christian: The history of the world in 18 minutes



Actually, this is more like the history of our universe in 18 minutes. Fascinating, isn't it?

David Christian is the creator of the "Big History" project, currently being adapted for use in American high schools. (My thanks to Jim Harris for the link.)

I haven't watched the Big History videos - just not enough time for everything - but this video is thought-provoking, isn't it? With a vast universe and an inconceivable length of time, rare events can happen. To us, they might seem magical, but that's because our own experience is very limited in time and space.

If an omniscient, omnipotent god created everything, that amount of time and space would be completely unnecessary (not to mention that, if a universe requires a creator, so does the creator - but that's a different issue).

All of life on Earth is equivalent to the scum on one grain of sand in the largest desert you can imagine. That desert wasn't created for the microbes living in the scum. That would be ridiculous. Those microbes might think so, if they could think at all, but there's no way in hell that would be "intelligent design."

No, the vast size of the universe - in both space and time - explains how exceedingly rare events can happen naturally - occasionally, somewhere. That length of time and that amount of space is hard for human beings to grasp, since it's so outside the reality of our ordinary lives. But it's still true.

When primitive human beings were imagining explanations for the questions they had about the universe, this wasn't the explanation they came up with. No, that has taken science. Sadly, plenty of people still prefer the myths they were taught from infancy.

Cheney has no problem with torturing the innocent

Wow! Just,... wow! I knew that Dick Cheney was an evil bastard, but this is still shocking. This man was Vice-President of the United States of America!
Host Chuck Todd asked Cheney to respond to the Senate Intelligence Committee report's account that one detainee was "chained to the wall of a cell, doused with water, froze to death in CIA custody."

"And it turned out it was a case of mistaken identity," Todd said.

"Right," Cheney responded. "But the problem I have was with all of the folks that we did release that end up back on the battlefield."

"I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that in fact were innocent," he continued.

Todd pressed Cheney, asking if he was okay with the fact that about 25 percent of the detainees interrogated were actually innocent.

"I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective..."

Dick Cheney has "no problem" with America murdering - torturing to death - an innocent man. And he has "no problem" with the fact that one-quarter of the people we tortured were actually innocent. We tortured them for information they did not have.

For any number of reasons, torture isn't right, even if you're only torturing people who do have the information you need. (Was it OK for the Gestapo to torture people during World War II, as long as those people were associated with the Allies or the Resistance? Torturers usually have a reason for torturing people, you know.)

But to be so completely unconcerned about torturing innocent people - killing at least one of them - well, this just blows my mind. I know that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney don't dare leave the United States, for fear of arrest for war crimes, but why aren't they in jail, awaiting trial, here?

In America, both Bush and Cheney are treated as celebrities, rather than criminals. What is wrong with us?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Richard Carrier: the case for atheism



This is a brief, but very good, argument for the claim that a 'God' does not exist.

Of course, atheism is basically just the lack of belief in a god or gods. When it comes to god-claims, we atheists don't have the burden of proof. It's the person claiming that a god does exist who must demonstrate that his claim is valid. If he fails to do so, we shouldn't believe his claim.

(It's also up to him to define 'God,' especially since believers can't even agree among themselves about what a god is, let alone which one exists. If we claim that a god doesn't exist, it's up to us to explain what we mean by 'god.' And that's really foolish, trying to define what we don't think exists, anyway.)

But some people do make the claim that a god doesn't exist, and in America, at least, it's almost always assumed to be the Christian 'God' (who is also the god of the Muslims and the Jews). Carrier does a pretty good job backing up that claim, so while it might not be strictly necessary (the lack of evidence for a god is enough reason to disbelieve), this is valuable, nonetheless.

I'm reminded of Creationism, which can easily be dismissed, based on the complete lack of evidence backing it up. However, there's actually plenty of evidence - plenty of evidence - disproving "Intelligent Design." It's not strictly necessary, given the lack of evidence for Creationism, but a little overkill can't hurt, can it?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Intelligent Design



John McCain on torture



In recent years, I've lost almost all respect for John McCain. He could have helped bring our country together, but instead he pandered to the lunatic GOP base to advance his own political ambition.

Or he could have gone off the rails, mentally, himself, I suppose. Or some of both?

Either way, he's been consistent in his opposition to torture. Of course, he was tortured. Is that what it takes? Does every conservative need to be tortured in order to see how wrong - and how counterproductive - it is?

Do conservatives simply lack empathy? I've noticed before that conservatives with a son or daughter who is gay tend to be more supportive of gay rights. Does it have to be personal for them? Are they unable - or simply uninterested - to imagine themselves in someone else's shoes?

At any rate, McCain is right on this, and he's one of the very few Republicans standing up against torturing prisoners of war. (I'm still shocked by it. America torturing prisoners of war. And even worse, large numbers of Americans supporting torture. Incredible, isn't it? And very, very depressing.)

Cultural imperialism


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Torture: the pushback


Every so often, the old John McCain - the good John McCain - shows up again. Whenever it seems like he's gone for good, having sold his soul to the far right-wing who've taken over the Republican Party, he appears before us like the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Then there's Fox 'News':



Finally, here's Stephen Colbert's take on this:




I'm not sure I can say any more about this. It's just too disgusting. But this is far too important to shrug off.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Torturing prisoners of war


America tortured prisoners of war.

OK, we knew that, I know. But I, for one, still find it hard to believe. America - America - tortured prisoners of war!

When I grew up, we were the good guys. Maybe the Soviet Union would torture people, but never America. Certainly, the Nazis tortured people, and so did Imperial Japan. After World War II, we held trials and found them guilty of war crimes.

And yes, waterboarding is torture. America has considered waterboarding to be torture - when it was done by our enemies, at least - for more than a hundred years. (We did far more than just waterboarding prisoners, but even that is torture.)

As I say, we knew that. For several years now, we've known that the Bush Administration tortured prisoners of war. But now, with the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee torture report, it turns out that the truth was even worse - far worse - than what we'd learned earlier.

Don't read further unless you have a strong stomach. This, for example, is from one article summing up the report:
Interrogations that lasted for days on end. Detainees forced to stand on broken legs, or go 180 hours in a row without sleep. A prison so cold, one suspect essentially froze to death. The Senate Intelligence Committee is finally releasing its review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation programs. And it is brutal. ...

Contrary to CIA’s description to the Department of Justice, the Senate report says that the waterboarding was physically harmful, leading to convulsions and vomiting. During one session, detainee Abu Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open full mouth.” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded at least 183 times, which the Senate report describes as escalating into a “series of near drownings.” ...

In November 2002, a detainee who had been held partially nude and chained to the floor died, apparently from hypothermia. This case appears similar to the that of Gul Rahman, who died of similarly explained causes at an Afghan site known as the “Salt Pit,” also in November 2002. The site was also called “The Dark Prison” by former captives. ...

At the Cobalt facility, the CIA also forced some detainees who had broken feet or legs to stand in stress-inducing positions, despite having earlier pledged that they wouldn’t subject those wounded individuals to treatment that might exacerbate their injuries.

Starting with Abu Zubaydah, and following with other detainees, the CIA deployed the harshest techniques from the beginning without trying to first elicit information in an “open, non-threatening manner,” the committee found. The torture continued nearly non-stop, for days or weeks at a time.

The CIA instructed personnel at the site that the interrogation of Zubaydah, who’d been shot during his capture, should take “precedence over his medical care,” the committee found, leading to an infection in a bullet wound incurred during his capture. Zubaydah lost his left eye while in custody. The CIA’s instructions also ran contrary to how it told the Justice Department the prisoner would be treated.

At least five detainees were subjected to “rectal feeding” or “rectal hydration,” without any documented medical need. “While IV infusion is safe and effective,” one officer wrote, rectal hydration could be used as a form of behavior control.

Others were deprived of sleep, which could involve staying awake for as long as 180 hours—sometimes standing, sometimes with their hands shackled above their heads.

Some detainees were forced to walk around naked, or shackled with their hands above their heads. In other instances, naked detainees were hooded and dragged up and down corridors while subject to physical abuse. ...

CIA officers threatened to harm detainees’ children, sexually abuse their mothers, and “cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.” In addition, several detainees were led to believe they would die in custody, with one told he would leave in a coffin-shaped box.

Detainees wouldn’t see their day in court because “we can never let the world know what I have done to you,” one interrogator said.

That's just a sample from one article which in itself is just sampling the huge, detailed report. America did that. That's what the Republicans did to my country. They turned us into torturers!

Want more? How about this?
The torture used by the CIA were "not an effective means" of extracting accurate information or getting detainees to cooperate, the report found. Not once was there a 24-like ticking time bomb scenario which prompted the use of torture. Even worse, "multiple" detainees who were tortured had fabricated information or provided faulty intelligence under duress, while other detainees who were not tortured provided useful information.

Despite all that, the report says, the CIA deliberately misled the Department of Justice, Congress and the media by claiming that tortured detainees were producing valuable intelligence. The report said that "interrogations of CIA detainees were brutal and far worse than the CIA represented."

Coercive interrogation methods included waterboarding, sleep deprivation for up to 180 hours, nudity, slaps, slamming detainees against a wall. At least three detainees were threatened with harm to their families, including the threat of raping a detainee's mother. And it gets worse.

"At least five CIA detainees were subjected to 'rectal rehydration' or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity," the report reads, documenting in gruesome detail one such example involving detainee Majid Khan. [How did that turn out? Khan tried to commit suicide multiple times, including trying to tear out the veins in his arm with his teeth.]

Sickened yet? Apparently, the CIA itself determined later that 26 of these people were being held by mistake - and two of them had actually been working for the CIA as informants. Not that we should be torturing anyone, but still, how insane is that?

Nor did torture help us catch Osama bin Laden, though after Barack Obama had him tracked down and killed, the CIA claimed that it had. (They lied.) Again, it wouldn't matter if that claim had been true. Do you really think that the Gestapo didn't have their own good reasons for torturing people?

This is what the right-wing Republicans in the George W. Bush administration - including the president himself - did to our country. Even now, many Republicans still support torturing prisoners of war. (Not John McCain, to his credit.)

Fox 'News' is freaking out (here and here, for example) not about the horrific details of America torturing prisoners of war, but about telling the American people that these things happened.

Why aren't George W. Bush and Dick Cheney - for starters - in jail right now, awaiting trial?
According to [Ben] Emmerson ["the U.N.'s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights"], international law prohibits granting immunity to public officials who allow the use of torture, and this applies not just to the actual perpetrators but also to those who plan and authorize it. As a result, he said, the U.S. government is "legally obliged to bring those responsible to justice."

Human Rights Watch's executive director Kenneth Roth also said "unless this important truth-telling process leads to prosecution of officials, torture will remain a 'policy option' for future presidents."

PZ Myers summed this up quite well, commenting on Andrea Tantaros' rant about how 'awesome' we are:
Americans tortured an innocent mentally handicapped man in order to get his relatives to give up information. Americans stuck a hose in a man’s anus and poured hummus into his rectum. Americans ran a deep, dark pit of a dungeon and slowly tortured and killed people.

We no longer get to wear the Awesome badge. It’s gone. We never get it back. We’re going to have to spend centuries trying to repair our reputation, and even if we become secular saints, it’s still going to be a huge stain in our history.

But no, we’re not even going to try to make amends, because Fox News is still our mouthpiece and Dick Cheney still stalks the earth, telling everyone that torture is still the right thing to do.

Frankly, we lost the moral high ground when Republican lies got us to invade an innocent country. After torturing prisoners of war, what right do we have to claim to be better than anyone else?

The George W. Bush administration did this to us. They couldn't have done more damage to our country if they'd been trying to bring America down.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Media counter-errorism


I like this. I like the fact that Jon Stewart readily admits an error - a small error, admittedly, and one which didn't affect his point, but definitely an error. One error, and he admits it.

But I must admit that I particularly liked his reaction to Brian Kilmeade. Kilmeade isn't the only clueless asshole on Fox, and we saw clips from other Fox 'News' personalities who said some incredibly stupid things, but that 9/11 comment really takes the cake, doesn't it?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Race-baiting


It's really incredible that Fox News accuses others of inciting people, isn't it? It's definitely the pot calling the kettle,... er, black.

This is all rather depressing. Heck, it's 2014, for chrissake! Yet since Barack Obama has been president, his right-wing opponents have been pushing racism as a political strategy And they're still doing it.

And all that victimhood crap? Do these people have no self-awareness at all? No one whines about being victims - with so little justification - as much as the white right-wing Christians on Fox 'News.'

Remember, it's time for our annual War on Christmas. LOL

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The history of poop



OK, my title might not be entirely accurate, but it's a fascinating video, isn't it?

How online harrassment became art



Another talk from Skepticon 7 - but this one is depressing and even embarrassing (embarrassing to me as a man and as an atheist).

This is "Surly Amy" - Amy Davis Roth. I'm glad she hasn't let the harassment stop her, but it can't be easy. The haters are a minority, but they're loud and just incredibly obsessive.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Is God outside the realm of science?



Here's another of my favorite speakers, Scott Clifton - again at Skepticon 7 last weekend. (That must have been a great conference.)

I'm reminded of a caller to the Atheist Experience TV show recently. He tried to use the watchmaker analogy to make his case for creationism. As I recall, his example involved finding a metal wing (bird or airplane wing, I'm not sure which). Wouldn't we be justified in deciding that such an artifact must have had a creator?

But later, he admitted that he thinks everything was deliberately created by his god. In his view, even rocks aren't natural, but are just as much deliberate creations as that metal wing. 'God' created them all for a purpose. Thus, nothing is natural.

But if nothing is natural, we have no way of distinguishing a metal wing from anything else. Since everything is created, in his view, a watch lying on a beach is no different from each grain of sand which makes up that beach.

The only way the watchmaker analogy works - and it doesn't work very well in any case - is if we have natural stuff to compare it with. Thus, this is a creationist argument which refutes itself.

Is the supernatural outside the purview of science? Well, does it exist in reality? If so, why would it be exempt from scientific study? If it has absolutely no effect on our universe - which isn't claimed by any theist I've ever heard, anyway - it might be impossible to study, but it would still be within the realm of science.

But doesn't science study the natural world? Sure, but if gods exist, their realm is the natural world. In fact, as Scott Clifton points out, if 'God' created our universe, nothing here is natural - thus, everything in our own universe is artificial, and only the realm which includes the gods is 'natural.'

We separate religious claims from all other claims about reality because religion doesn't want its claims to be investigated. To keep religion happy, even the National Academy of Sciences pretends that those claims are outside its purview.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Matt Dillahunty: Challenging Christianity



Matt Dillahunty does a great job in these talks, doesn't he? This is from Skepticon 7 in Springfield, MO, last weekend.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

(via Pharyngula)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

In many ways, Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. (Shopping is even a part of it these days, as Christmas sales have already started.)

Even in grade school, the myths of Thanksgiving - much more than the history of it - get pounded into everyone. (Part of that is because there's no separation of church and state issues when it comes to this holiday.)

But I was an adult before I heard this, and I can't tell you how profoundly I was affected by it:
From 1616 to 1619, a series of virgin-soil epidemics spread by European trading vessels ravaged the New England seaboard, wiping out up to 95 percent of the Algonkian-speaking native population from Maine to Narragansett Bay. The coast was a vast killing zone of abandoned agricultural fields and decimated villages littered with piles of bones and skulls. This is what the Pilgrims encountered when they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Not a pristine wilderness, but the devastated ruins of a once-thriving culture, a haunting boneyard which English libertine Thomas Morton later described as a “newfound Golgotha.”

My ancestors were among those Europeans who settled in what is now Massachusetts and Connecticut in the early 1600s. In school, I'd always heard that they'd found what they considered to be nearly-empty wilderness, but the implication was always that the natives had a hunting and gathering lifestyle which necessitated a very low population level (in other words, that Europeans simply misunderstood when they thought the land empty).

In fact, the native tribes had already been devastated - nearly wiped out - by European diseases before most of them had ever even seen a European. The land was empty - relatively speaking - because so many of the previous inhabitants had already died in horrendous epidemics.

No one is to blame for that. The Europeans had no more idea of what caused disease than the Native Americans did. There is plenty of blame which can be assigned to other historical events, but not to this. It was a tragedy, made even worse because the natives - at the end of a long line of immigration, themselves - were less diverse genetically than other populations of human beings.

Eventually, they would have recovered from that, and from subsequent epidemics, too. But 'empty' land is a powerful attraction to... well, human beings in general. And the surviving tribes weren't given the time they needed.

As that column continues:
The collision of worldviews [*] is almost impossible to imagine. On the one hand, a European society full of religious fervor and colonizing energy; on the other, a native society shattered and reeling from the greatest catastrophe it had ever known. The Puritans were forever examining their own spiritual state. Having come to America with the goal of separating themselves from polluted forms of worship, a great deal of their energy was focused on battling demons, both within themselves and at large in the world. Puritan clerics confused the Indian deity Kiehtan with God, and they conflated Hobbamock, a fearsome nocturnal spirit associated with Indian shamans, or powwows, with Satan. Because of this special connection many Puritans believed that the powwows, and by extension all the New England Indians, were bound by a covenant with the devil. Indians thus became symbolic adversaries, their very existence a threat to the Englishmen’s prized religious identities.

Meanwhile, the Great Migration of the 1630s was bringing in thousands of new colonists, many of them younger siblings shut out of an inheritance back in England, who were hungry for the opportunity to become property owners in their own right. There was a great need for more land. And so, tragically – and not for the last time in American history – self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology coincided. Indian-hating became the fashion. Religious piety provided a motive for armed violence.

In May of 1637, colonists from Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay, with a group of their Indian allies, set fire to a fortified Pequot stronghold on the Mystic River. An estimated 700 Pequots perished, mostly women and children, and the few survivors were shipped to Bermuda and sold into slavery. On the heels of the virgin-soil epidemics that had decimated the native population, the ghastly specter of genocide had reached the shores of America. In 1675, bloody King Phillip’s War put the finishing touches on what was more or less the total extermination of the eastern woodland Indians.

"Self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology." Yup. It's always easy to believe what you want to believe. And we see how well fear works to cause disaster, even today.

I don't dwell on the past. We can't change the past, and it's important to look forward. Of course, I'm a white descendent of those first 'illegal immigrants,' so that's easy for me to say, isn't it? But look at Islamic countries which are still bitter about the Crusades, for chrissake, blaming their lack of progress since then on everyone else but themselves. Dwelling on the past does no one any good.

Nevertheless, we certainly shouldn't forget the past, and we shouldn't disguise reality with happy myths - even on Thanksgiving. We can't be blamed for our ancestors, and our ancestors can't be blamed for those disease epidemics. But there is plenty they can and should be blamed for, and we European-Americans have benefited from some truly horrific acts (including slavery, of course).

We are not to blame for those acts, but we still benefit from them, even today. Even if your ancestors didn't arrive in this land until centuries later, you still benefit from them. I'm not a Christian. I don't believe we inherit the sins of our forefathers. But we do have obligations. It's just that those obligations are to everyone, and that we need to focus on the path ahead, not back.

Use the lessons of the past to avoid making similar mistakes now and in the future. Recognize the horrors which self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology can cause. Determine to do right to everyone going forward (recognizing that mistakes will still be made, since we're never going to be perfect).

Above all, we need to reject the approach of right-wing apologists like David Barton and the Texas State Board of Education to just rewrite history so that it agrees with what you want to believe, rather than accepting reality.

However, in America, Thanksgiving is more about myths than about history. And we Americans are very resistant to giving up our myths.


*PS. Given the situation, I don't see how that "collision of worldviews" would ever have turned out well. That's not to excuse anything, but just to recognize that people are people. Self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology are powerful motivators. We struggle with them even today.

But that's not to say that a collision of worldviews will always end badly, certainly not. Back then, the native tribes had been - and continued to be - decimated by disease epidemics. That left them too weak to offer much resistance. Plus, we do learn. We aren't the same people as our ancestors. None of us are.

Today's right-wing fanatics look at history - their distorted view of history, at least - and proclaim that Hispanic immigration is going to end with all white Americans - and all black Americans, too, apparently - ethnically cleansed (among other hysterically crazy claims). Yeah, talk about self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology, huh?

But how crazy is that? Historically, America has not just survived, but prospered, from wave after wave of immigration. All of our ancestors were immigrants (even the Native Americans, I'd argue). We became Americans. That's one of the great things America has shown the world.

It hasn't always been easy. There were riots in some American cities when my Irish ancestors started arriving here in large numbers. Now, their descendents protest against other immigrants. (It's the American way, huh? LOL)

The fact is, a collision of worldviews is a good thing, if violence isn't involved. We benefit from competing ideas. Of course, new ideas bring change, and conservatives in general fear change. But that's what brings progress. Stagnation is never good.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

More about the Benghazi report



Here's more about that Benghazi report from the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee. Apparently, not all Republicans are willing to give up on the crazy on this issue.

If it's too crazy for House Republicans, you know it's completely nuts. But hey, crazy has worked very, very well for them politically.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

America's wonderful healthcare system



Insurance companies screw people because it makes them more money. Ironically, they're not in the business for their health - or yours.

And you can't trust them in the slightest. Before 'Obamacare,' you could pay your insurance company for years, but they would still dump you if you got sick with something expensive (cancer, for example). And that's if it was covered at all. (The fine print in their policies is written by lawyers.)

Furthermore, they risk nothing by denying coverage. Even if you're in the right, it takes a lot of money to go to court over such things. For you, I mean. Insurance companies already have lawyers.

If they lose, they're not out anything, because they just have to pay what they should have paid in the first place. So why not deny expensive coverage? There's no downside for the insurance company, none at all.

Unfortunately, you don't find out if you've got a crappy insurance policy until you get sick. At that point, the company wants to get rid of you. Again, the only downside is for you.

'Obamacare' - originally the right-wing Republican health care plan, before the Democrats agreed to go along with it, too - is a very modest step forward, and it was like pulling teeth to get even that much. Not a single Republican in Congress ended up voting for their own health care plan, and even Democrats - like Nebraska's infamous Sen. Ben Nelson - had to be courted and bribed to support it.

At the very least, we need a public option - like opening up Medicare for everyone. (Younger people would have to pay premiums, of course.) But that's completely out of the question in our current, dysfunctional political system.

The Republican Party is why we can't have nice things. Until they crash and burn - and that's going to take progressives who actually bother to vote - we're all screwed.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

GOP debunks its own Benghazi hysteria


So, how much news time do you think Fox 'News' - or most other media outlets - will devote to this?
A two-year investigation by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee has found that the CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and asserted no wrongdoing by Obama administration appointees.

Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the investigation determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, intelligence about who carried it out and why was contradictory, the report found. That led Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to inaccurately assert that the attack had evolved from a protest, when in fact there had been no protest. But it was intelligence analysts, not political appointees, who made the wrong call, the committee found. The report did not conclude that Rice or any other government official acted in bad faith or intentionally misled the American people.

The House Intelligence Committee report was released with little fanfare on the Friday before Thanksgiving week.

"Little fanfare." Remember, before the current immigration hysteria, before the Ebola hysteria, there was the Benghazi hysteria.

Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi! Fox 'News' brought it up at every opportunity. Congressional Republicans held hearing after hearing. Benghazi was the worst thing to ever happen to our country, and Republicans competed on who could invent the most over-the-top Benghazi conspiracy theory.

Undoubtedly, the Benghazi attack was a tragedy. After all, four Americans died. But more than a thousand times as many Americans were killed in Iraq, because we invaded an innocent country based entirely on a lie pushed by the Bush administration. Where are all the hearings about that?

Now, with "little fanfare," the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee has just debunked the Benghazi hysteria. But hey, they won the election. That's what counts, right?

Don't get me wrong. Four American officials died at Benghazi, and we have a duty to keep our diplomatic personnel safe. Whenever we lose people, mistakes have been made - pretty much by definition.

But using such tragedies for political purposes doesn't help us identify and correct any mistakes. Hysteria doesn't help. Politically-motivated conspiracy theories certainly don't help.

But hey, if you care more about political power - and money - than you do about that, those things do seem to work. As I say, Republicans won the election. And Fox 'News' makes money hand over fist.

40 years in prison on coerced testimony

Man, this would be hard to take, wouldn't it? It's hard to even read about.
After nearly 40 years in prison, a man convicted in a 1975 Cleveland slaying has walked out of the county jail as a free man.

Fifty-seven-year-old Ricky Jackson was dismissed from the Cuyahoga (ky-uh-HOH'-guh) County jail and walked out of the adjoining courthouse Friday about an hour after a judge dismissed his case.

The dismissal came after the key witness against Jackson and brothers Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman at trial, a 13-year-old boy, recanted last year and said Cleveland police detectives coerced him into testifying that the three killed businessman Harry Franks the afternoon of May 19, 1975.

This is the only life we've got. He missed his 20s, 30s, 40s, even most of his 50s locked up for a crime he apparently didn't do. Can you imagine?

Incidentally, this is the reason I oppose the death penalty - the only reason, in fact. I have no sympathy for violent criminals, and if the crime was bad enough, I'd pull the switch myself.

But we're not infallible, and we're never going to be infallible. Sometimes, we convict the wrong people.

One more thing: you might think that Jackson really did commit this murder, that the police knew what they were doing,... but how do you know that? In America, there's a presumption of innocence, you know.

And Jackson is a black man. Even today, let alone 40 years ago, black men face an automatic assumption of guilt from many people. "Well, he must be guilty of something," huh? Everywhere in our justice system, even today, there are racial disparities.

Unarmed black men routinely seem to be shot for no reason, too - sometimes by police. Accidents? Well, sure, sometimes. But do you think that race plays no part in 'accidents'? Or in cases like the Trayvon Martin incident where an unarmed black teenager, minding his own business, can be stalked and killed, and the police just shrug it off?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Republicans hid their principles; Democrats feared theirs



I've always liked Howard Dean. It's a real shame that the media torpedoed his presidential bid in 2004 (based on nothing real, either).

Anyway, I wanted to post this video clip because of Dean's comment:
The Republican message was, "We're not Obama." No substance whatsoever... "We're not Obama." What was the Democrats' message? "Oh, we're really not, either." You cannot win if you are afraid. Where the hell was the Democratic Party? You have to stand for something if you want to win.

Amen.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Way of the Mister: Mormon testimony



I never knew any Mormons when I was growing up - not as far as I know, at least. Did they go door-to-door back then?

I've met some since then, of course. They've been nice people, but I can't imagine how they can believe the crazy stuff their religion teaches them.

Actually, some of the young guys who come to my door - in pairs, of course, and never any women - don't really seem to believe it, either. But they risk losing their family if they don't go along. That's a pretty strong incentive not to rock the boat.

Robert G. Ingersoll's Suffrage Address



This is Jenniffer Masterson speaking from Robert G. Ingersoll's "Suffrage Address." She's taking part in the 2013 Ingersoll Oratory Contest. (As good as this is, she only came in fourth in the contest. Yes, there were some excellent speakers. Check out the rest of them here.)

I wanted to post this one, though, because of the topic. Ingersoll was speaking in 1880, but it sounds remarkably modern, doesn't it? Residents of Washington, D.C. are still disenfranchised in America. Voter suppression is still occurring - indeed, it's increasing.

The rest of it, too, could be talking about events today, not 134  years ago. Yes, there has been progress since then, but not nearly enough. And today's Republican Party seems determined to roll back the progress we have made.

The GOP doesn't want people to vote. Many Republicans even admit it. Why shouldn't the rich decide everything? Why let the poor and the ignorant vote?

This is wrong in so many different ways. But let me just point out one of them. If you restrict voting to just the well-educated, politicians will have a real incentive to keep most people poorly educated. If you let only the rich vote, then politicians will have an incentive to keep most people poor.

If everyone is allowed to vote, and most everyone does vote (currently, voter turnout in America is disgraceful), then maybe the smart thing to do would be to make sure that everyone is educated. Of course, that's only if your political party isn't relying on ignorance and gullibility. So yeah, that's not actually how it would work.

Nevertheless, if you object to the poorly-educated voting, maybe you should work harder to educate everyone. If you're actually telling the truth, at least. If that really is your concern.