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Entries for January 2006

January 31, 2006

Revisiting The Manchurian Candidate

Some time ago, after watching awful remakes of The Manchurian Candidate and Charade, I went on a rant against Hollywood remaking films that were excellent in the original. What was the point, I asked? How could the remakes not come out looking worse than the originals?

Calming down from that exhilarating bout of righteous indignation, I wondered if I may have been too overwrought and overestimated the quality of the original Manchurian Candidate. After all, I must have been in my early teens when I first saw it and I have often had the experience of revisiting books and films that I enjoyed when younger to find them disappointing the second time around. I had no such qualms about Charade, having seen it several times, most recently a few years ago. It is a certifiable classic, a must-see for anyone who loves films.

So I checked the original Manchurian Candidate out again to see if my memories were reliable. I can report that the original is still excellent and far superior to the remake. But it was interesting to me that my appreciation of it was very different this time around.

The first time, I saw it as a straightforward thriller and enjoyed it as such. This time around, I was much more taken by the political elements that it portrayed. This change in sensibility is understandable, given that in my teens I was not as interested in politics as I am now.

The politics were satirized by having the main political characters be somewhat over-the-top. The Communist brainwashers were portrayed as cold-blooded villains who had no sense of decency at all and killed without compunction, laughing while doing so. In one scene, the Communist brainwashers want to test the effectiveness of their brainwashing by having the brainwashed person kill someone. The Chinese person asks the Russian head of the spy program in America to have one of his agents killed in the test. The Russian head refuses, not because he is horrified at the thought of sacrificing one of his own people, but because he is already currently understaffed and doesn't know if he can get a replacement!

The complexities of the cold war are also brushed over by having the Russians, Chinese, and Korean Communists portrayed as one big happy family engaged in evil against the US, ignoring the ideological tensions that existed between those countries at the time.

Meanwhile, on the American side, one of the evildoers was a parody of Senator Joseph McCarthy, portraying him as more of a buffoon and less sinister and malevolent than the senator who went on the witch hunt.

I had forgotten how good Laurence Harvey was in the original, giving depth and complexity and even sympathy to his character in a way that the sequel did not. Harvey was often criticized as a somewhat cold and wooden actor, but here he managed to turn that to his advantage and actually eke some good comedic moments from that persona.

What I mainly liked about the original was that all the gaping plot holes in the sequel that made it absurd were explained away by a few lines of dialogue here and there in the original. I hate it when films don't take the trouble to make the plotlines coherent and believable, and assume that audiences won't notice when things don't make any sense.

The only area in which the sequel was superior was in the motivation of the character (played by Janet Leigh in the original) who was the love interest to the Sinatra/Washington character. In both films, the initial meeting of the two was mysterious and seemed to hint at some secret motive for the woman to force her attentions on the man. But in the original that storyline was abandoned and not developed the way that the sequel did.

So after examining the replay, my original verdict stands: Remaking The Manchurian Candidate was a colossal mistake.

POST SCRIPT: Putting the terrorist threat into perspective

Glenn Greenwald over at Unclaimed Territory has another good post supporting my contention (see here and here) that we need to look at the terrorist threat rationally, and not be swayed by the irrational hysteria that is being pumped up.. Greenwald says "The cause of this irrationality, this inability to view the terrorism threat with any perspective, is not a mystery. Terrorists like Al Qaeda deliberately stage attacks which are designed to instill fear in the population far beyond what is warranted by the actual threat-level posed by the terrorists. That's the defining tactic and objective of terrorists. Fortunately for the terrorists, in the United States, Al Qaeda has a powerful ally in this goal: the Bush Administration, which for four years has, along with Al Qeada, worked ceaselessly to instill in Americans an overarching and excessive fear of terrorism."

He quotes historian Joseph J. Ellis who in a New York Times op-ed says: "My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic...Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so."

January 30, 2006

The rapturites among us

After I wrote about the rapture letters, I viewed the film The God Who Wasn't There (thanks to Aaron Shaffer (Manager of the Freedman Center) who loaned me the DVD) and the filmmaker included an interview with the creator of that letter writing site. He seems like a nice guy who sincerely believes that the rapture is going to occur in his lifetime. The film also says that an astounding 44% of the American public, like him, are either certain or think it very probable that the rapture will happen in their lifetimes! You can see the relevant clip from the film here.

This statistic is quite amazing. If you think about it for a minute it means that almost every other person you pass on the street, almost every other co-worker or fellow student believes that it is certain or extremely probable that she or he is going to be whisked into heaven within the next couple of decades. Who are these people? Where are these people? Are we living in two parallel worlds in which one group of people whom the rest of us are unaware of have this truly bizarre notion that Armageddon is going to occur very soon?

I must confess that I have never personally met anyone who has openly expressed such a belief. But a friend who reads my blog and had until then had never even heard of the rapture happened to mention this to a co-worker who casually said that yes, she believed in the rapture. My friend was stunned that this seemingly normal co-worker believed in this bizarre notion.

But even though I have never met a rapturite (rapturist? raptor?), I am curious about them. Do they buy life insurance? Do they worry about their children's and grandchildren's future? Do they plan and save for their retirement and old age? The US is notorious for the low savings rate of its people. Is this because so many people feel they do not have to worry about the future because they are going to be raptured away? It would interesting to do a number of correlation studies between people who hold rapture beliefs and all these other things.

Is this also why, as a nation, the US seems to be so cavalier in its attitudes towards protecting the environment and on global warming and energy and other resource conservation? Other nations take the threat of global warming far more seriously. Are the rapturites in the higher echelons of government? This would be serious because then would influence major policy decisions. Lest you think this is far-fetched, it was not so long ago that James Watt, President Reagan's Secretary of the Environment, seemed to echo rapturite ideas.

I have not been able to find another source for the 44% statistic quoted in the film but the popularity of beliefs that strike me as bizarre no longer surprises me. After all, many people believe in miracles (89%), the devil (68%), hell (69%), ghosts (51%), astrology (31%) and reincarnation (27%), for none of which does there exist any empirical evidence whatsoever.

It can be argued that believing in the rapture is no more preposterous that the standard religious belief in a god who can intervene in the natural world, and that would be true. But the policy consequences can be very different. All these other religious beliefs have been around for a long time and are compatible with people having long term goals and interests. Atheists and non-rapture religious people can share common concerns about the environment and work together to create a better world for future generations. The rapture belief is particularly unsettling because it is such a short term belief and can have serious negative policy consequences that affect us all. Having such a large number of people subscribing to such beliefs can throw a real wrench into any planning for solving long range problems.

In the short term, it can lead to some wacky ideas. For example, there was a recent report that a group of evangelical Christians are planning a Biblical theme park in Israel that could also serve as a launching pad for the rapture.

If a crackpot idea appears on the horizon, can our old friend Pat Robertson be far behind? And sure enough, behind that theme park idea is that go-to man for every loony idea related to Christianity, whom I have come depend upon for a supply of black humor. Robertson can even explain why Sharon had a stroke. He says: "Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is being punished by God for dividing the Land of Israel. Robertson, speaking on the “700 Club” on Thursday, suggested Sharon and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated by an Israeli extremist in 1995, were being treated with enmity by God for dividing Israel. “He was dividing God’s land,” Robertson said. “And I would say, Woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the E.U., the United Nations or the United States of America. God says, This land belongs to me. You better leave it alone.” (See the video here.)

Why is Robertson so adamantly opposed to any plan for a future Palestinian state? One explanation for this is that the rapturites believe that the expansion of Israel is a precursor to the coming of the rapture and thus strongly oppose any plan that involves even the remote possibility of creating a Palestinian state, showing once again how damaging rapture beliefs can be.

This particular piece of Robertson buffoonery was too much for the Israeli government that until then had seemed to be willing to play along with the rapture idea (even though the rapture itself foretells a particularly nasty end for Jews) because of the booming Christian tourist industry it generated in Israel. They cut Robertson out of the deal. Whereupon he immediately apologized, proving that old adage "money talks."

The Porpoise-Driven Wife

Bill O'Reilly warned us that allowing gay marriage would eventually lead to interspecies marriage and for once he was right, as can be seen from this story of a woman who fell in love with, and eventually married, a dolphin.

If some religious people are having conniptions over gay marriage, imagine what they will say over this. Can the Armageddon be far behind?

(By the way, whoever at Media Matters came up with "The Porpoise-Driven Wife" deserves a prize for the best headline of the year.)

January 27, 2006

The Role of Blogs in the New Media Age-2

Blogs are highly idiosyncratic and so hard to talk about except in terms of our own personal response to them. Clearly there are different types of blogs: those that dwell on the personal lives of the authors, those that highlight particular issues (e.g., evolution and intelligent design), those that seek to provide perspective and commentary on current events, those that provide longer, more analytical pieces, those that just provide an avenue for venting, those that provide an outlet for creative talents, such as fiction, poetry, and art, and other reasons to numerous to mention.

Why do people blog? What is the benefit? Again it is hard to generalize but here are my reasons. (I should note that I did not start a blog with these benefits in mind. I started it simply out of curiosity and the challenge of trying something new. I discovered these benefits only after the fact.)

The main benefit for me personally is that writing regularly forces me to sort out my ideas and clarifies my thinking The truth of E. M. Forster's remark “How can I know what I am thinking until I see what I say?” becomes more and more apparent to me the more I write.

The blog also provides me with practice for improving my writing. I have been focusing in the past on clarity and logical thinking, but more recently I have been trying to see if I can write with better style, with more wit and humor, with better choice of words and structure. If readers have not detected any improvement in these areas, it just shows how far I have to go!

The blog also acts for me as a repository for ideas and sources that may be otherwise forgotten or misplaced. When I want to recall some fact that I have written about, the blog is the first place for me to look and it provides me with a place to direct people to look. In my TV appearance (see below), I spoke about the accuracy comparison between Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Brittanica. When asked for the source of the study, I could not recall it immediately but it took only a few seconds to find that post on my blog with the relevant link, and send that information to the other panelists.

The blog also provides me with the first draft of writing for many topics. When the Dover trial verdict was announced, I was able to cobble together an op-ed piece from my blog entries in just a little over an hour because I had been writing about it already. The information was there, all I had to do was work on editing it for appropriateness. Because of the speed of the writing, it enabled me to get it published in a timely manner. I am planning on writing a few other pieces for publication, using the blog entries as initial drafts.

But perhaps the biggest benefit for me as a blog author is that I have been able to connect (and reconnect) with people whom I would have never met otherwise.

One obvious advantage of blogs in general is that it provides a much larger potential readership for people with ideas. I now read a much wider range of writers and cartoonists than I ever did before.

In my role as a reader of other people's blogs, the advantages are huge. It saves time in reading newspapers and watching TV. I almost never watch TV news or the talk shows, but thanks to sites like Crooks and Liars and onegoodmove I get pointed to just the bits (both serious and funny) that interest me.

The blog provides me with access to knowledgeable people who write well on important topics. The mainstream columnists like David Brooks or Maureen Dowd or most of the other people who are published in the op-ed pages of the Plain Dealer hardly ever have anything interesting or new to say. I can read the first paragraph and guess the rest. But blogs like Informed Comment, Unclaimed Territory, Talking Points Memo, and Justin Raimondo mix sharp and perceptive commentary with useful information. And they write well too.

Finally the blogs provides knowledgeable and specialized information on topics that I am interested in and alerts me to news I might have missed, often gleaned from the foreign press or less well known sources.

In my appearance on Feagler and friends, we had a cordial discussion about blogs but I sensed some skepticism about the value of blogs from the editor of the Plain Dealer and the host Dick Feagler, who is a traditional newspaper columnist. I don't if I managed to persuade them otherwise, but we did have some follow up email communication after the show and I think Dick Feagler started to become more open to the potential benefits of blogs.

POST SCRIPT: Talking about blogging on TV

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on WVIZ channel 25's Feagler and friends show at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton and Denise Polverine (editor in chief of Cleveland.com) will also be on the program.

January 26, 2006

The Role of Blogs in the New Media Age-1

Today marks the one year anniversary of this blog. I had no idea when I started it with a very tentative posting on January 26, 2005 where it would go or that it would take the shape it currently has. I had no idea, though, that it would be as much fun, as useful (to me at least), or require as much time and effort as has turned out to be the case. One thing that it has done that surprised me is that it has made me almost addicted to reading, researching, and writing about the things that I care about and that, I believe, is a good thing.

(Sandy Piderit and Vincenzo Liberatore gave me some welcome encouragement on my first feeble attempt. Jeremy Smith's comments on my first posting had some excellent advice which I have followed and would recommend to others thinking about blogging.)

This personal anniversary coincides with some local media attention on the role of blogs in the new media age. Two weeks ago I appeared on the Cleveland NPR affiliate WCPN 90.3 to discuss this question and then last week I taped a show for the local PBS affiliate WVIZ channel 25 program Feagler and friends with Doug Clifton (editor of the Plain Dealer) and Denise Polverine (editor-in-chief of Cleveland.com). (See below for details about its broadcast on Friday and Sunday.)

In preparing for both these shows, I started thinking about the role of blogs. What role are they likely to play in the media of the future and what uses do they serve for the authors of blogs and the readers of blogs? It seems a bit strange to be pontificating about blogging after doing it for just one year. But blogging is one of those fields where the cliché "In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king" applies. Most people are surprisingly unaware of what blogs are so even someone with relatively slight experience (like me) is perceived as an "expert." So in this two-part series, here are my opinions on the topic, for what it is worth.

Some of the more obvious benefits of blogs are the following:

  • They can focus and maintain attention of stories that the major media do not highlight or follow up (Like the plan to bomb al-Jazeera during the attack on Falluja in April 2004, or the Downing street memos of July 23, 2002 of the meetings between the US and UK governments to fix the intelligence in order to support the attack on Iraq, or the story of US and UK complicity in Uzbekistan torture.)
  • They can immediately correct the record when there are attempts by interested parties to mislead the public about important facts and the mainstream media does not act (example: NSA wiretapping, who benefited from the Jack Abramoff payoffs, the war on Christmas)
  • Can clarify complicated issues like the Valerie Plame leak.
  • It can be a rich source of material for future historians. In the past, people wrote a lot of long letters to each other and historian have used these to get an idea of what people really thought, as opposed to what they formally published. Such voluminous letter writing is rare now, but blogs probably will give historians a good idea of how ideas germinate and propagate.

But there are other benefits as well. It enables many more people to resurrect an older model of news and commentary, that of political pamphleteers and political newsletters like the one created by iconic journalist I. F. (Izzy) Stone. Victor Navasky writes that although Stone

"never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world. His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain.

"But Izzy also got and made news by reading the dailies, the wire services and such, and then following up where others had not thought to tread. He once told David Halberstam that the Washington Post was an exciting paper to read "because you never know on what page you would find a page-one story."

Most modern day newspapers and journalists don't do that kind of close reading of documents, focusing instead on reporting on what people say at news conferences. Perhaps they lack the resources or it isn't glamorous enough for them to do this kind of painstaking work. It requires a certain kind of passion and attention to detail to do that and bloggers are the people who are filling that niche, with individual bloggers specializing in their chosen areas of expertise. The internet enables such people to access an audience without going through all the hassle of printing and circulation, and we, the general public, can easily benefit from their research, quickly and efficiently.

For example, in its heyday, the weekly circulation of Stone's newsletter IF Stone's Weekly was 70,000. The top blogs, like daily Kos now get a half million visits a day! If I. F. Stone were alive today, I think he'd be the top-rated blogger too. It would have been a perfect fit for him.

This success of blogging has ruffled a lot of feathers in the mainstream media. As Glenn Greenwald comments:

The principal benefit from the emergence of the blogosphere is that it has opened up our political discourse to a much wider and more diverse group of participants. Previously, establishment journalists and their hand-picked commentators were the sole vehicle for the dissemination of political opinions. The only commentators and opinions which received any real attention were the ones which establishment journalists deemed worthy of attention. Those who were outside of the club of established journalists were ignored and unable to have their opinions heard.

All of that has changed with the blogosphere. The blogosphere is a hard-core and pure meritocracy. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your pedigree is. You either produce persuasive arguments and do so with credibility, or you don’t. Whether someone has influence in the blogosphere has nothing to do with their institutionalized credentials and everything to do with the substance of what they produce. That is why even those who maintain their anonymity can be among the most popular, entertaining and influential voices. The blogosphere has exploded open the gates of influence which were previously guarded so jealously by the establishment journalists.

For precisely that reason, many establishment journalists have raging contempt for the blogosphere. It is a contempt grounded in the fallacy of credentialism and a pseudo-elitist belief that only the approved and admitted members of their little elite journalist club can be trusted to enlighten the masses. Many of them see blogs as a distasteful and anarchic sewer, where uncredentialed and irresponsible people who are totally unqualified to articulate opinions are running around spewing all sorts of uninformed trash. And these journalistic gate-keepers become especially angry when blogospheric criticism is directed towards other establishment journalists, who previously were immune from any real public accountability.

As I said on the TV show on the relationship of blogs to newspapers in the new media age, there will always be a place for traditional journalists who actually go out into the field and collect the primary information. Most bloggers cannot do that. Although an increasing number are attempting to do this kind of journalistic function, they lack the financial resources and official credentials that can get them in the door of official functions.

The people who are endangered are the columnists and the writers of op-ed opinion pieces. Because what blogs have revealed is that there are a very large number of articulate, literary, informed, clever, and sharp-witted writers out there who are worth seeking out, much better than the ones delivered to my doorstep every morning.

POST SCRIPT: Talking about blogging on TV

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on WVIZ channel 25's Feagler and friends show at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton and Denise Polverine (editor in chief of Cleveland.com) will also be on the program.

January 25, 2006

David Horowitz busted again

Most people are by now aware of David Horowitz's publicity-seeking gimmicks, where he runs around the country trying to scare everyone with lurid tales of left wing academics gone wild, abusing their power by terrorizing conservative students. As long-time readers of this blog know, I became part of this story when I wrote an op-ed piece that appeared in the March 4, 2005 issue of Plain Dealer about one such tale that I looked into and could not substantiate. This story was picked up by Media Matters and went national, and Horowitz supporters (and he has some supporters who seem to verge on the fanatical that seem almost cult-like) posted nasty comments, even threatening legal action against me, which was rather funny. I think Horowitz's supporters are hoping I'd be eaten by bears, the fate of the children who made mock of the Prophet Elisha.

(For those of you not familiar with the Elisha story, you can read it in the Bible in 2 Kings, Chapter 2, verses 23 and 24. Elisha was on his way somewhere when "there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head." You might think that merely being called "baldy" by little children is hardly something that would faze a prophet of god, but Elisha, showing the same kind of peevishness as Horowitz, gets mad, murderously so. "And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them." This act of horrific vengefulness against forty two little children for their childish insensitivity is attributed by the Bible to God, which should give pause (but won't) to those who argue that the Bible is the source of all morality.)

As a result of my op-ed, the publication Inside Higher Ed investigated the charges I made and found that the facts of the story were far from what Horowitz had alleged. Horowitz acknowledged that he had not checked the facts of his story before making it public. For all the details of this somewhat bizarre episode, see my earlier posting The strange story of David Horowitz and the "Bush-as-war-criminal" essay.

You would think that after that episode, Horowitz would be careful to carefully check his stories in the future before going public. That would be the path taken by a prudent person. But you would be wrong. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed finds him being, if possible, even more cavalier with facts. (Thanks to commenter George for alerting me to this.)

On Tuesday, January 11, Horowitz testified at a Pennsylvania legislative committee in favor of his pet project, the so-called Academic Bill of Rights, and told another two stories of academic abuse. But as Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik writes:

David Horowitz, the conservative activist who has led the push for the hearings in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, admitted that he had no evidence to back up two of the stories he has told multiple times to back up his charges that political bias is rampant in higher education.

For example, Horowitz has said several times that a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University used a class session just before the 2004 election to show the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, but he acknowledged Tuesday that he didn't have any proof that this took place.

In a phone interview, Horowitz said that he had heard about the alleged incident from a legislative staffer and that there was no evidence to back up the claim.
...
The other example Horowitz was forced to back down on Tuesday is from the opposite end of the political spectrum. He has several times cited the example of a student in California who supports abortion rights and who said that he was punished with a low grade by a professor who opposed abortion. Asked about this example, Horowitz said that he had no evidence to back up the student's claim.

In the interview, he said that he didn't have the resources to look into all the complaints that he publicizes. "I can't investigate every story," he said.

Fair enough. None of us have the resources to investigate every story either. That is why one should only write and speak about the stories that one can investigate, or for which one has at least some documentation. Or, failing even that, to at the very least say that what you are saying is based on a rumor. Most people assume that people have some basis for whatever they say and one has to respect that trust and make it clear when one is merely guessing or passing along a rumor. What is inexcusable is to do what Horowitz did, and go round making wild charges and acting as if you have supporting evidence, all the while knowing that you do not have anything to back it up.

But Horowitz's reasoning is so bizarre one has to really wonder as to the level of his contact with reality. Here's his defense:

Horowitz noted that when he publicizes such stories, he does not print the names of the professors involved, and that he has stated many times that a professor involved in such an incident would be welcome to write a rebuttal that he would post on his Web site. "I have protected professors. I have not posted their names and pilloried them. My Web site is open to them," he said.

So he publicizes stories of doubtful veracity about anonymous people and then expects those people to rebut them! And when no rebuttals appear, he assumes that the stories must be true?

That's a great journalistic innovation. Let me try it: I have heard that there is a professor in Ohio who forced a student to kneel on the ground and hit his head on the floor repeatedly, at the same time singing the Beach Boys hit song "Good Vibrations." Okay, the story is on my website. If I don't get any rebuttals, I'll assume that it is true and will thus have a terrific scoop. See how easy it is?

But Horowitz has one last defense, the one that is always resorted to by those caught in such embarrassing retractions: that although the stories may be fake, they represent "deep" or "essential" truths.

Even if these examples aren't correct, [Horowitz] said, they represent the reality of academic life. "Is there anybody out there who will say that professors don't attack Bush in biology classrooms?" he said.

This was also the defense adopted by James Frey whose life story in his memoir A Million Little Pieces was revealed by the website The Smoking Gun to be to be filled with fabrications and falsehoods. In an interview with Larry King, Frey accepted that he had altered details of his life, but defended its "essential truth."

It won't work for Frey and it won't work for Horowitz. If academic abuse is so rampant, then it should not be hard to find documented cases of it. You cannot make up stories, unless you are a writer of fiction and label it as such. To do so and claim it as reality is simply wrong.

Okay, all you Horowitz fans out there who prowl the internet seeking to defend your dear leader from people who question his veracity, it's your turn. I have seriously dissed your leader again. Show your fealty to him. Let's hear some more legal threats!

Or at least unleash the bears.

POST SCRIPT: Capote

I recently saw the film Capote and it was excellent. It was a fine portrayal of how author Truman Capote essentially sacrificed his soul in order to get the right ending for his groundbreaking "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood. It is a sobering reminder of what I read sometime ago, that writers will often be driven to sell even their grandmothers for the sake of their craft.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and the rest of the case were terrific. I have yet to see a performance by Hoffman that is not first-rate. Although he usually plays a supporting role in films, the first film I saw in which he had a major role was Flawless in which he plays a female impersonator lounge singer saving up for a sex-change operation who ends up having to give voice lessons to a hard-bitten, macho policeman played by Robert De Niro. There's a film premise you are not likely to see every day. Although this film did not get much publicity, it is well worth seeing on video.

Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to be like John Cusack, having the ability to select scripts that are complex, interesting, and original.

January 24, 2006

The threat of terrorist attacks - 2

The recent release of an audiotape by Bin Laden offering a truce in the war may be used to kick off the election year season of ratcheting up the fear of terrorism.

In his message bin Laden points to attacks in other countries and promises a new attack on the US and explains the reason for not doing so earlier:

As for the delay in carrying out similar operations in America, this was not due to the failure to breach your security measures. Operations are in preparation, and you will see them on your own ground once the preparations are finished, God willing.

The Bush administration has reacted to the tape with its usual bluster, and the mainstream pundit class has responded along fairly predictable lines, vying with each to show who has the most macho response. As James Wolcott says: "What a pathetic, posturing, blowhard country we've become. Yesterday a new audio surfaces from Osama bin Laden, the man many speculated was dead. The media and political response was a phony show of "strength" and an embarrassing self-contradiction. Now it doesn't take a terrorist expert to understand that when a charismatic figure who was instrumental in the deaths of 3000 Americans and remains [un]apprehended four years later extends a "truce" to the U.S., that this is hardly a sign of weakness. It is a gesture of supreme, serene hauteur."

Justin Raimondo, Editorial Director of the excellent website Antiwar.com has a reasoned take on this latest development. He begins by pointing out that whatever one might think of bin Laden, he is nothing if not consistent in his behavior and seems to be a man of his word.

The "preparations" [bin Laden] talks about may be just about finished: at least, that is how it seems to me. If you examine bin Laden's past pronouncements, and the public statements of al-Qaeda, a clear pattern emerges: there is a warning, followed by an attack - and a claim of responsibility. Bin Laden's public persona is very consistent: he says what he intends to do, then he does it. We have no reason to disbelieve him, or to assume he'll break the pattern this time.

Another pattern of behavior is that he always offers his enemies a way out: in the past, he has said that a change in U.S. foreign policy would have to mean a corresponding change on his part.

Raimondo then points out something that is often ignored in the media but has been clear to anyone who has actually read the statements of bin Laden, that while willing to execute murderous missions, bin Laden and al-Quaeda are not lunatics acting irrationally, but rational people carrying out a strategic plan that has well-defined goals.

[The videotape] confirms what analysts such as [Michael] Scheuer [a 22-year veteran of the CIA, counter-terrorism expert and the author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror] have long said: that al-Qaeda launched its global insurgency in order to secure certain specific and strictly limited goals, the primary one of which is to rid the Middle East of Western military and political dominance. By announcing that the U.S. would henceforth not be interfering in the affairs of other nations, we would effectively bring the insurgency to an end - and the threat of terrorism against the U.S. homeland would cease. This bin Laden pledges, on his word as a Muslim. It would be foolish to believe he doesn't take such a vow seriously, or utter it in all sincerity - just as it would be equally foolish to disdain his threats as baseless boasting.

Of course, according to the demonological view of bin Laden, which depicts him as an irrational monster entirely without any strategic sense - or even any genuinely religious conviction - he is not capable of sincerity. The offer of a truce had barely been uttered before it was rejected by the U.S. government, which announced that it doesn't "negotiate with terrorists." We negotiated with Stalin, with Hitler, with despots of every size, shape, and hue - and yet to do so with bin Laden, even if indirectly, is impermissible.

What bin Laden offers is straightforward:

We do not object to a long-term truce with you on the basis of fair conditions that we respect.

We are a nation, for which God has disallowed treachery and lying.

In this truce, both parties will enjoy security and stability and we will build Iraq and Afghanistan, which were destroyed by the war.

But bin Laden is pessimistic that his offer will be accepted for reasons that reveal an understanding of the workings of what President Eisenhower once presciently warned of - the power of the "military-industrial complex."

There is no defect in this solution other than preventing the flow of hundreds of billions to the influential people and war merchants in America, who supported Bush's election campaign with billions of dollars.

Hence, we can understand the insistence of Bush and his gang to continue the war.

Even during the Tiger and other insurrections in Sri Lanka, I never understood the hardline position of ruling out negotiations. If you don't negotiate with your enemies, then how will you ever know what really drives their thinking and actions? After all, if the negotiations don't succeed or are done in bad faith, you always have the option of going back to war. War always has to be the last resort.

Many people will not be aware (this news surfaced briefly and then disappeared) that soon after the events of 9/11 when bin Laden and al-Quaeda had been fingered as the culprits, the ruling Taliban government in Afghanistan said that the "government knows the whereabouts of militant leader Osama bin Laden and has him under their control. A Taliban official said 'Wherever he goes, there are people assigned to him, and he cannot move around without their permission' " They offered to turn over bin Laden and others to the US but "added that bin Laden would not be turned over to the U.S. unconditionally, and said the Taliban would need to see firm evidence of bin Laden's guilt before they would even consider any handover."

The Taliban spokesman further said that "only an Afghan court can decide whether to turn him over to the U.S. or try him within Afghanistan itself. "

What was Bush's response to this offer? Summary rejection. "There's no need to negotiate" Bush said, and went to war in Afghanistan.

And so here we are, more than four years later with bin Laden still making threats and the US stuck in hopeless wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps the Taliban were not negotiating in good faith. But we will never know the answer to that question because that path was never explored.

The rejection of the Taliban offer by the US could not have been because the US had no links with the Taliban government because there is story behind even this story.

It turns out that the US government and the oil giant Unocal had been in secret negotiations with the Taliban for nearly a year to construct an oil pipeline from Turkmenistan to India that passed through that country. But the talks broke down in August 2001 because the Taliban also wanted help in rebuilding their country but the US wanted to only build the pipeline and have nothing to do with helping Afghanistan restore its ravaged infrastructure.

Could it be that the events of 9/11 provided the Bush administration with an ideal opportunity to militarily overthrow the Taliban government and replace it with a new pliable one (like the present Karzai government) that would carry out the US government's wishes on the pipeline, and this was why offers of talks were rejected out of hand? It is interesting that both Hamid Karzai and Zalmay Khalilzad (the Bush Administration's ambassador to Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban and now US ambassador to Iraq) were both consultants to Unocal. You can read the story of the oil pipeline negotiations (which also involves that bottomless cesspool of corruption that is Enron) here.

I think it is clear that bin Laden is fully confident that, given Bush's track record and the state of political discourse in this country, Bush will not take him up on his offer of a truce. That must mean that this new statement is designed more to show the rest of the world that he, not Bush, is the reasonable person. When the next attack occurs, he will tell the world that Bush could have prevented it, but didn't. And so more innocent people will die in the endless cycle generated by these propaganda wars.

We have to shift the whole focus of this debate from military posturing to realizing that terrorism is at root a response by the militarily weak to a political problem with political causes and hence must have a political solution that is arrived at by a realistic examination of the issues at hand and negotiations with the relevant parties. As Raimondo says:

How can we win the "war on terrorism"? It is the task of Sisyphus, in the context of current American foreign policy: in short, it cannot be done. If we define "victory" as the cessation of enemy activities aimed at the West, however, it is clearly within reach, but only if we venture outside the narrow parameters set by American policymakers, who somehow believe that global hegemony is a legitimate goal - except when it is pursued by someone else.

Raimondo takes direct aim at the foolish notion that al-Quaeda hates us for who we are and will not rest until all American women wear burkas and all American men grow beards.

No, they don't hate us on account of our much-vaunted modernity: neither Madonna nor Sex and the City has set this jihad in motion. It isn't Brokeback Mountain that enrages or concerns them: it's all about our foreign policy of untrammeled aggression, our unconditional support for Israel, our support for tyrants from the Saudis to the butchers of North Africa, and our policy of enforcing a regime of low-priced oil on our regional satraps. As long as our rulers persist in this course, they endanger us all - and what is clear beyond any doubt is that we have no reason to believe they can protect us from the consequences of their folly.

Of course, even the idea of actually reading the statements of bin Laden and of carefully examining the al-Quaeda manifesto will be horrifying to some and painted as soft on terrorism at best and treasonous at worst. Somehow people have been trained to respond on the basis of perceptions and stereotypes and hysteria rather than clinically examining the situation before them and rationally weighing the options.

In Sri Lanka, the twenty-year old war finally resulted in a two-year truce when the government wearied of trying to wipe out the Tigers militarily, realized it was hopeless, and after years and years of refusing to talk with the Tiger leaders, started negotiations. Unfortunately, the aftermath of the tsunami and a change in government resulted in the negotiations almost breaking down and the risk of war and terrorism is dangerously increasing. But there are lessons to be learned from that and many similar experiences world wide, which is that fighting a determined and committed guerilla enemy is usually a war of attrition in which conventional armies and strategies, especially those fighting in a foreign country that has different language, culture, religion, and customs, are at a huge disadvantage.

Bin Laden says he is willing to wait us out if we choose not to negotiate, and he can point to a track record on patience with what they did to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. As he says:

Do not be deluded by your power and modern weapons. Although they win some battles, they lose the war. Patience and steadfastness are better than them. What is important is the outcome.

We have been tolerant for 10 years in fighting the Soviet Union with our few weapons and we managed to drain their economy.

They became history, with God's help.

You should learn lessons from that.

The message of this tape signals an ominous development. It calls for careful examination and a reasoned response. Unfortunately, what we are likely to see instead, especially in an election year, is a competition to see who can look and speak the toughest.

POST SCRIPT: Hide! The sky is falling! Or something...

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, on target as usual, gives us Fear Factor: The terrifying world of the average conservative.

January 23, 2006

The threat of terrorist attacks-1

I have posted in the past about how the current administration likes to keep the populace in a state of constant fear. Succeeding in that task, persuading them that each one of us is under imminent threat enables the administration to undertake the systematic dismantling of the hard-won rights and civil liberties that underly societies that are truly free. It also enables them to rally voters to their side. I argued that we should fight this fearmongering.

Some of you may have noticed, for example, that since the elections were over in November 2004, we have not seen any dramatic announcements of terrorist plots, changes in the color-coded alert system, etc. (Quick quiz: Do you know what the current color is? Do you even care?) But there will be congressional elections this year and I anticipate that there will be an increase in the reporting of vague threats against major cities as those campaigns get underway. The rising bellicosity about Iran seems to be the preamble.

I should emphasize that in making this assertion, I am not underestimating the threat of future terrorist attacks in the US and elsewhere. Sadly, I think that future terrorist attacks are not only highly likely, they are almost inevitable. The recent release of the bin Laden audiotape (more on this tomorrow) only confirms this pessimistic view. What I am arguing is that you cannot fight this kind of terrorism with bluster and attacks on countries like Iraq that, as needs constant repetition, had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and nothing to do with al-Quaeda.

Terrorists seek to frighten ordinary people. They do that by hitting 'soft' targets (places where people just congregate, without any special military or political or economic significance that warrant extra security) as dramatically as possible, so as to frighten people into thinking that they are not safe anywhere.

What complicates matters for anyone planning such a major attack and can deter them, just like for any ordinary criminal, is how to escape undetected after the act has been committed. It is this that largely restricts the options and opportunities for criminals to create a dramatic and deadly event.

But once a group has crossed a threshold and feels its grievances to be strong enough to be able to recruit people for suicide missions, and that soft targets of civilian populations are worthy targets, then the biggest deterrent against attacks is gone, and society is utterly vulnerable. Once people don't mind, and even seek, dying for a cause, you have little defense against them and one's safety options become highly limited.

This happened in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers. Once the sense of grievance among the Tamils was high enough that the Tigers could recruit members for suicide missions, they were able to attack targets, even highly guarded ones, with impunity. They were able to kill high ranking politicians and military figures, even the Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, as well as high profile targets like the parliament, the Central Bank, and the main airport. And the Tigers were patient, another important weapon in their arsenal. As one can imagine, after all these attacks, there was a tight wall of security around the President of Sri Lanka. But the Tigers patiently planned and waited for years while one of their cadres established an innocent identity that enabled him to get close to President Premadasa and one day he exploded a device that killed him and the President, among others.

It strikes me that what is going on with al-Quaeda is similar. The sense of grievance among their members is huge enough that they seem to have no trouble recruiting people for suicide missions. This is especially so since they have the added incentive (that the Tigers do not use) of claiming that god is on their side and approves of their actions. The US attack on Iraq also seems to have become one of their best recruiting messages, enabling them to convince their followers that the US has evil designs on the entire Middle East and the Muslim world and its resources. They seem to be also very patient. And they are not hesitant to attack 'soft' targets if need be.

If I think that an attack is almost inevitable, why am I saying we should not live in a state of fear? Because the threat is random, and should be placed in the context of other random threats and we should respond accordingly. For example, I know with certainty that large numbers of people will die in car crashes this next year, many of them due to no fault of their own. It will be just a random event. I know with certainty that many people will die in other kinds of accidents or be murdered. Many people will die due to hurricanes and earthquakes. And again it will be due to no fault of their own. Another random event.

Any one of those people who die in such random events could be me. In fact, the probability that I will die due to one of these causes is much greater than that due to a terrorist attack. And they will all be random. So why should I live in fear of a terrorist attack more than these other things? It does not make any rational sense.

The administration argument that we should be willing to give up all rule of law and to effectively declare Presidential actions to be above the law is going to be successful in the court of public opinion only insofar as we are driven to a state of almost panic-like fear about death by terrorism. It may be true that by creating an almost police-like state where anyone can be arrested, detained indefinitely, tortured, and even killed without recourse to law we might marginally improve the chances of avoiding a terrorist attack. Is that a deal we want to make? At least shouldn't we have a say in whether such a deal is made?

All of us make trade-offs involving risks, costs, and benefits. For example, we are told that eating certain foods, avoiding others, getting lots of exercise, stopping smoking, and doing a whole host of other things may increase our lifespans. But there is no guarantee. We are instead talking about very small changes in probabilities and we all decide which ones are worth doing and which ones are too onerous and take the fun out of life.

Extra safety can almost always be obtained, but often at an extreme price. How much are we willing to pay? Some people (Jonah Goldberg and his ilk come to mind) are willing to let other people pay the high price to increase their sense of safety, but I am assuming that most of us have not sunk to that level. (This cartoon by August J. Pollack captures the Goldberg mindset exactly. Pollack follows it up with a survey sent to Bush supporters asking them how far they are willing to go in their support for Bush.)

This does not mean that I think we can do nothing about terrorism. Tomorrow I will look at other options.

POST SCRIPT: Fighting bad science reporting with actual data

George Mason University's STATS website is doing a valuable service. It is looking carefully at sensational science-related news stories and checking if the data actually match the claims of the reports.

See, for example, its 2005 Dubious Data Awards where they set "The Record Straight on the Year's Biggest Science Reporting Flubs," which include the meth drug scare, poison popcorn, and today's teenagers supposedly alarming obsession with illicit drugs, alcohol, and sex.

January 20, 2006

Religion and respect

Last month I posted a tongue-in-cheek article about the "rapture letters". Most readers found it amusing but I was gently upbraided by one who said that I was making fun of the deep and sincere beliefs of many people and not being respectful of them.

It is undoubtedly true that I was having fun at the expense of the believers in the rapture but that exchange with the commenter caused me to think about the relationship of religion and respect.

In some respects, all the major religions are in principle fundamentally disrespectful to those of other faiths. For example, most Christians and Jews and Muslims believe that there is some special benefit that accrues to them from their beliefs that is not available to members of other religions. This benefit may be in the form of entering heaven or being raptured or whatever. Such people may not go out of their way to publicize this special benefit but it is there nonetheless. Members of each religion believe that those with other beliefs are simply wrong.

Is such a view disrespectful of the faiths of other people? I believe it is. If I believe that god likes my religious group specially and is going to give us a big reward when we die, while sending members of other religious groups straight to hell or someplace equally unpleasant, that belief inherently disrespectful of the beliefs of others, even if I don't explicitly and openly declare it.

Actually, it could be argued that the atheist approach is the most respectful to all because the future that the atheist envisages is exactly the same for everybody, atheist or otherwise. In the atheist framework, there is no preferred group at all. There is no advantage to being an atheist, except the intellectual peace of mind that comes with not having to worry about how to reconcile the workings of the natural world with existence of a supernatural deity.

I have often wondered why (say) some religious people are so touchy about anything that they see as disrespectful towards their religion. I remember in Sri Lanka there would be periodic uproars because some business in the West had adopted the image and name of the Buddha to market some product or service. There would be demonstrations and protests and marches. I could never see the point of it. If you are happy with your own religion, why do you care what other people say about it?

All this phony fuss about the so-called war on Christmas is another example of this. If I was a born-again Christian (or the equivalent in Judaism or Islam or any other theistic religion) and believed that when I die I was guaranteed to go to heaven or be raptured or the equivalent, then frankly I would feel pretty content and not care one whit what other people say or believe about my religion. After all, my own future is secure, and it is the people who are sneering at me that are sure of going to hell. One should feel sorry for them, rather than annoyed and angry.

Conversely, since I am an atheist, it does not bother me in the least if some people think that I am heading to eternal damnation. The effect on me is the same as if they say they believe in unicorns or the tooth fairy. I would have the same lack of reaction if people should mock atheism.

While writing the last sentence, I tried to think of a concrete example of what someone might say to mock atheism, and failed. I realized that it is hard to actually mock atheism since it does not have a belief structure that can be parodied or ridiculed. It is simply the absence of belief in a god. One can reject it, but it is hard to ridicule it.

POST SCRIPT: Appearing on TV tonight (See update below)

UPDATE: At the taping today, I was told that the broadcast of this show would be at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29.

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on TV tonight (Friday, January 20, 2006). It will be at 8:30pm on WVIZ channel 25's Feagler and friends. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton will also be on the program.

The taping is this afternoon and I am assuming that the show will be broadcast tonight and not next week.

January 19, 2006

Morality exists independently of, and prior to, religion

There were some very thoughtful and lively comments to yesterday's post on the topic Should atheists come out of the closet?

It was suggested that one of the other reasons that atheists might feel uncomfortable about revealing their point of view is because of the common perception that morality is derived from religion and that to say one is an atheist is to run the risk of being thought to have no moral standards and be capable of any atrocity.

This view does persist in the face of evidence (and arguments) to the contrary. For example, Marc Hauser and Peter Singer in their paper Morality Without Religion reported on the results of survey of 1500 people, asking the following questions:

Consider the following three scenarios. For each, fill in the blank with morally "obligatory," "permissible," or "forbidden."

1. A runaway trolley is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the trolley onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is ____________.

2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond, and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is _________.

3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical care, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital. There is however, a healthy person in the hospital's waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person's organs, he will die but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person's organs is _______.

Taken the quiz? Here are the results of the study:

If you judged case 1 as permissible, case 2 as obligatory, and case 3 as forbidden, then you are like the 1500 subjects around the world who responded to these dilemmas on our web-based moral sense test [http://moral.wjh.edu]. On the view that morality is God's word, atheists should judge these cases differently from people with religious background and beliefs, and when asked to justify their responses, should bring forward different explanations. For example, since atheists lack a moral compass, they should go with pure self-interest, and walk by the drowning baby. Results show something completely different. There were no statistically significant differences between subjects with or without religious backgrounds, with approximately 90% of subjects saying that it is permissible to flip the switch on the boxcar, 97% saying that it is obligatory to rescue the baby, and 97% saying that is forbidden to remove the healthy man's organs. . When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that can not account for the differences in play. Importantly, those with a religious background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists.

Gregory S. Paul did a transnational study that argues that being religious actually leads to negative social consequences. In his study titled Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies published in the Journal of Religion & Society Volume 7 (2005), he finds:

Large-scale surveys show dramatic declines in religiosity in favor of secularization in the developed democracies. Popular acceptance of evolutionary science correlates negatively with levels of religiosity, and the United States is the only prosperous nation where the majority absolutely believes in a creator and evolutionary science is unpopular. Abundant data is available on rates of societal dysfunction and health in the first world. Cross-national comparisons of highly differing rates of religiosity and societal conditions form a mass epidemiological experiment that can be used to test whether high rates of belief in and worship of a creator are necessary for high levels of social health. Data correlations show that in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and antievolution America performs poorly.

Robert T. Pennock in his book Tower of Babel argues that the idea that morality is derived only from religion does not make logical sense. He says (p. 331):

Let us suppose...that moral values comes only from God's authoritative word, that moral value is by definition that which God commands. If so, then if God commands us to love one another, then loving one another is morally good, by definition. However it is equally true on this view that if God were instead to command us to hate and enslave all those who are of a different race then, still by definition, the hate-filled slave - holder would be morally good and praiseworthy. Similarly, if God were to have created us such that our purpose was to kill each other for fun, then the peacemaker would be a demon and the serial murderer would be a moral saint, again by definition. Indeed, the creationist will likely say that such ideas move beyond irreverence and into blasphemy and that it is impossible to think that God would ever command such immoralities. However, notice that such a reply would contradict itself in the mouth of someone who says that morality is merely that which God commands...Plato's point is that this view - that God's authority as the origin of value - is fundamentally flawed. It is rather the second view that makes more sense, namely that God commands something because it is indeed good. That means, therefore, that goodness must have a basis that is independent of God. The lesson for us here is that...the existentialist fear is ill-founded - the possibility of value, purpose, and meaning are not lost even if God does not exist.

Of course, I do not expect these arguments to persuade anyone who is convinced that it is only belief in god that prevents people from torturing and killing people, without even pausing to reflect on the seeming contradiction that it is a supposedly religious President Bush who actually authorizes both these things.

POST SCRIPT: What Christians think about atheists

One intrepid atheist blogger (Lya Kahlo) spent two months at Christian websites and chat rooms engaging the natives in dialogue about what they thought about atheists, and compiled an interesting set of lists. Of course, Kahlo does not claim any scientific status for this highly idiosyncratic survey.

Kahlo reports on the 11 most common misconceptions about atheists:

1. Atheists hate god/are jealous of theists

2. Atheists are arrogant and don't want anything "superior" to them

3. Atheists have never experience religion

4. Atheists have never read/don't understand the bible

5. Atheists just don't want to receive the truth

6. Atheists are bitter/angry

7. Atheists just don't want to admit they sin

8. All atheists support abortion/evolution/liberal politics/communism/fascism/etc

9. Atheists are gay

10. Atheists want to destroy/limit religion

11. Atheists think they know everything

There are also lists of the five most common excuses for having no evidence of the existence of god, the 14 most commonly used fallacies, and others. Check out the site. There are some surprises. It's fun.

January 18, 2006

Should atheists come out of the closet?

Some time ago, I posed the question on whether atheists should "come out." I was reminded of this recently when I was involved in a discussion some time ago on the topic of whether atheists should 'come out of the closet.' The implication of the question was that stating openly that was one was an atheist could have negative repercussions on one's work and family and social life, the way that being openly gay could. Of course, no one was suggesting that atheists experience anything close to the repression and harassment that gays experience. But it was clear that many people in the group kept their atheistic beliefs private for fear of negative consequences.

I was surprised by this because I have not personally felt any negative consequences. But this may be that the university setting in which I work is generally more accepting of heterodox views than the community at large.

But the interesting point that arose was that many of the people who hid their atheist beliefs said that it would be much more socially acceptable in America to say they were Hindus or Jews or Buddhists than to say that they were atheists. Despite the current anti-Islam sentiment in the US, even saying one was a Muslim was seen as being less discomfiting to the listener than being an atheist.

Why is this? Why would atheism arouse stronger negative feelings than belonging to a completely different religion? And it is not just in the US that this happens. I recall during the first Gulf war in 1991, CBS News correspondent Bob Simon was captured by some Islamic group but was subsequently released unharmed. He said that during his captivity his captors asked him whether he was a Jew and he acknowledged it. Simon said he felt that the fact that he was religious, a 'man of the Book,' made it safer for him than if he had said he was an atheist.

During the discussion on atheists coming out, someone made a very enlightening remark. He said that he recalled seeing the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the militant atheist who was responsible for the case that resulted in school-sponsored prayer being outlawed from public schools, on TV talk shows. He said she would love to get the audience all worked up and hissing at her with her provocative statements. Then she would tell them "You hate me because I am the embodiment of all your doubts."

That makes sense. All religions depend on faith, the willful act of belief in something that cannot be discerned. Faith implies belief in the absence of, and counter to, evidence. Such an effort necessarily involves the suppression of doubt. When a person of one religion encounters someone from another, it is relatively easy to think that yours is the 'right' faith and the other person's is the 'wrong' one. The other person is not challenging the very act of faith, but just the details of that faith.

The greater challenge to faith is not a competing faith, but doubt. When persons of faith encounter an atheist, that brings them face to face with their own doubts and that can be much more disconcerting.

POST SCRIPT 1: Praying for other people's souls

After my op-ed on intelligent design was published in the Plain Dealer following the Dover case, I was woken up at 5:30am the next day by someone who had clearly disliked my article. The point of his call was to tell me to read some book (presumably in favor of intelligent design) and he proceeded to spell out the name and the author. I interrupted to ask him if he knew what time it was and he replied "I can only pray for your soul."

When people say they are praying for someone else's soul, what they really mean depends on the context. When friends and members of my family say it, they really do mean it and are worried that my atheism is going to bring me to a bad end. I am touched by their concern and appreciate the thought.

But when someone who is obviously annoyed with you or disagrees with you says it, then you know it is insincere. When such people say it, what I think they are really saying is "I can't wait for judgment day when I can see you rot in hell and gloat over you." But because such people feel the need to preserve a publicly pious face, they sanctimoniously say "I will pray for your soul" instead.

Here's my advice to such religious people. If someone annoys you, do not expect to get any appreciation when you say that you are praying for their soul. If that person is an atheist, he or she will probably laugh at you (internally if they are polite people) for saying this, because atheists don't think they have an immortal soul, remember? And if that person is religious, he or she may be offended at the implication that you are tighter with god than they are and have some sort of say in what happens to their soul. Nobody likes a "holier than thou" attitude. Just ask the Pharisees, if you can find one in your neighborhood. Or better still, ask Pat Robertson.

POST SCRIPT 2: Bush on Global Warming

President Bush, looking surprisingly like actor Will Ferrell, shares his views on global warming. (Thanks to reader Anne for the link.)

January 17, 2006

Suffer little children

Glenn Greenwald's blog Unclaimed Territory has become a must-read for me. He writes passionately, knowledgeably, and well about legal matters, and particularly the protection of civil rights.

His recent post is another excellent analysis of the way that people who should know better are complicit in the eroding of civil liberties and the rights protected in the constitution. Rather than merely being at the edge of the slippery slope, these people have slid completely down it and are now wallowing in the muck at the bottom.

Here are some key points of Greenwald's essay to whet your appetite to read the whole thing:

There is a widespread, tacit assumption that no matter how apathetic and inattentive Americans become, there is still some line which they will not allow the Government to cross when it comes to exceeding or abusing the limits of government power. That assumption has taken a huge beating over the last four years, and is now in serious doubt.

Americans have sat by more or less passively by while this Administration detained American citizens and threw them into a military prison without charges being brought, without a trial, and without even allowing them access to a lawyer. Many are basically indifferent to revelations that the Bush Administration is eavesdropping on American citizens in secret and with no oversight of any kind. And worst of all, a sizable portion of the population is acquiescing to the fact that we have a President who was just discovered breaking the law, and rather than expressing shame or remorse once he was caught, has vowed to continue doing it based on the theory that he has the right to violate the law and that it's for our own good.

It is sometimes hard to put one’s finger on exactly what motivates such passive acceptance of these obvious government abuses, but Jonah Goldberg puked up a paragraph last night in the Corner which really captures everything that is rancid and decaying in our country and which casts an ugly though illuminating light on all of this.

In his little item, Jonah was talking about - and, of course, defending - the strip searching of the 10-year-old girl in the case where Judge Alito ruled that the search warrant issued to the Police authorized searching of the girl. Jonah then went further - much further - and defended all strip-searching of all children, even without a warrant, whenever the Police thinks the kids' parents are "drug dealers":

STRIP SEARCHES [Jonah Goldberg]
I understand the need for following the procedural niceties, but as a plain moral common sense issue, if you are a drug dealer and keep drugs on the premises with your child, you get zero-point-zero sympathy from me if your kids are searched, warrant or no. It may be wrong for the cops to do it. But you are not a victim for choosing a life where you can rationally expect to expose your kids to far greater risks than a search by a polite cop. The kid's a victim -- of bad parents.


....

Thanks to the ceaseless fear-mongering of this Administration, we are becoming - excuse the grotesque imagery - a Nation of Jonah Goldbergs, scared and lazy creatures who sit around believing that the Government is justified - even obligated - to act literally without constraint against the Bad People, the ones who are deemed to be Bad not pursuant to any "procedural niceties" but simply by the unchecked decree of the Government. These Jonah Goldbergs love to talk tough. But they are repulsively coddled and effete, whining about every perceived petty injustice which affects them but breezily endorsing the most limitless abuses of others, as long as the "others" seem sufficiently demonized and far enough away.



It is truly nauseating to watch the basic principles of our country, which have preserved both liberty and stability with unprecedented brilliance over the last 200 years, be inexorably whittled away and treated like petty nuisances by the depraved Jonah Goldbergs among us. It is a mindset based on a truly toxic brew of glib self-absorption, sickly laziness and profound ignorance, and it is being easily manipulated by an Administration which is demanding - and acquiring - more and more power in exchange for coddling and protecting the little Jonah Goldbergs of the world.

I think that what differentiates people who value and fight to protect constitutional protections from those who are willing to have them compromised is whether you are willing and able to imagine yourself in the situation of the people at the receiving end of this treatment and how you would feel if it happened to you and your family and friends, even if you are a person who has never done anything that could be even remotely described as of questionable legality. As Greenwald says:

What makes Jonah’s post conclusively reflective of not only his ideological corruption but also his severe character flaw is that Jonah would never be quite as breezy or casual about lawless strip searches if it was him or his daughter being subjected to them.

But Jonah is convinced that abuses of this sort will never happen to him and he therefore doesn’t care that they happen to others. To the contrary, he eagerly wants other people - the alleged, suspected "drug dealers" and "terrorists" and other Bad People - to be subjected to those abuses because he thinks it will protect him from bad things. That’s why I described his thinking as a mindset based on fear and petty selfishness. He is willing to give up and even denigrate the most basic liberties of our country because he thinks he doesn't need them and would be better off without them.

Notice that Goldberg's acceptance of what must have been a traumatic experience for the child is because of an allegation against the father. In this, Goldberg's position is similar to that of John Yoo, now a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and before that a former deputy assistant attorney general in the office of legal counsel of the Department of Justice where he wrote a memo on September 25, 2001 justifying Presidential power to do practically anything he wants, which has since been interpreted to include the torturing of captives around the world. His views seem to have got even worse after going into academia.

Listen to this exchange in an debate with Douglass Cassel at the University of Notre Dame (audio available):

Cassel: If the president deems that he's got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person's child, there is no law that can stop him?

Yoo: No treaty


Cassel: Also no law by Congress - that is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo...


Yoo: I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that.

So there you are. People like Goldberg and Yoo are not only happy to acquiesce in the torture of adults who are suspects, they are even willing to have a suspect's children be brutalized, as long as the President thinks it is a good idea. Yes, we are truly a nation that values families.

In a speech yesterday to The American Constitution Society and The Liberty Coalition (full transcript here), former Vice President Al Gore made the following point:

Can it be true that any president really has such powers under our Constitution? If the answer is "yes" then under the theory by which these acts are committed, are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited? If the President has the inherent authority to eavesdrop, imprison citizens on his own declaration, kidnap and torture, then what can't he do?

The Dean of Yale Law School, Harold Koh, said after analyzing the Executive Branch's claims of these previously unrecognized powers: "If the President has commander-in-chief power to commit torture, he has the power to commit genocide, to sanction slavery, to promote apartheid, to license summary execution."

Whatever happened to that quaint notion that this is "a government of laws, not men?"

POST SCRIPT: Other examples of moral courage

Last week I wrote about Hugh Thompson, Jr. For more about his rescue of Vietnamese civilians from slaughter, and others in the US military like him who spoke out at what they saw as wrong actions, and how badly they were treated because of their courageous acts, see here. Clancy Sigal writes:

They include Army specialist Joseph Darby, of the 372d Military Police Company, who reported on his fellow soldiers who were torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. His family has received threats to their personal safety in their Maryland hometown. And Captain Ian Fishback, the 82d Airborne West Pointer, who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tried vainly for seventeen months to persuade superiors that detainee torture was a systematic, and not a 'few bad apples', problem inside the U.S. military. In frustration, he wrote to Senator McCain, which led directly to McCain's anti-torture amendment. I wouldn't want to bet on the longevity of Captain Fishback's military career.

Thompson's death also reminded me of Captain Lawrence Rockwood, of the 10th Mountain Division. Ten years ago, Rockwood was deployed to Haiti where, against orders, he personally investigated detainee abuse at the National Penitentiary in the heart of Port au Prince. He was court-martialed for criticizing the U.S. military's refusal to intervene, and kicked out of the Army. While still on duty, he kept a photograph on his desk of a man he greatly admired. It was of Captain Hugh Thompson.

January 16, 2006

IDC now being attacked by some religious fundamentalists

Judge Jones' ruling in the Dover, PA has suddenly brought to light what had only been hinted at before, that not all religious people, even evangelicals, were happy with IDC ideas and strategy. Some fundamentalists were unhappy with the IDC movement's minimalist strategy of claiming only a few supernatural interventions in the evolutionary process. They felt that IDC should go further and argue for the complete Biblical story of creation and be open about the fact that the designer was the Christian god.

In what must be the unkindest cut of all, even some members of the group known as "creation scientists" such as Hugh Ross are applauding the Dover decision, agreeing with the judge that IDC is not science.

Hugh Ross and his group called Reasons to Believe think that their version of creation science is science. They accept the theory of the Big Bang and an old Earth and Universe but believe that "God supernaturally and miraculously created Adam from the "dust of the earth" (not a pre-existing being) just as described in Genesis 1 and 2. Adam and Eve were the first humans, and from them came the entire human race."

This collection of views puts Hugh Ross under the umbrella of "Old Earth Creationists" (OEC), as opposed to Young Earth Creationists (YEC) who believe that the Earth and the Universe are less than 10,000 years old. The YEC view can be seen at sites like Answers in Genesis.

IDC people had been seeing themselves as a "wedge," a way of getting into the scientific tent and thus allowing explicit creationists in later. In this model, the IDC forces were the vanguard, the Marines if you will, establishing the beachhead, with the YEC and OEC and other anti-evolutionists providing the backup forces to consolidate the gains. So this attack by some members of the OEC, equivalent to being shot at from the rear by your own troops, must really hurt. In fact, IDCer William Dembski has complained about it.

In Australia, where IDC seems to have made some inroads, Nathan Zamprogno on his website The Baliset Palimpsests has an interesting take on the relationship between IDC and YEC and argues that the wedge strategy may be backfiring. He points out that it is the YEC people who are the people who actually go out and evangelize. The YEC folks are the foot soldiers, so to speak, of the fight against secular science while the IDC people are like armchair generals, directing it from their think-tanks and institutes. But the IDC wedge, rather than dividing secular science from religion, may have had the unintentional effect, by hogging all the religious media attention to its own worldview, of dividing the religious community itself, tempting Christians to choose IDC-type thinking by implying that YEC and OEC views are fringe and extremist, almost cult-like. Zamprogno implies that at some point, YEC and OEC adherents might turn against IDC as not being in their own best interests. Zamprogno's prediction may be in the process of coming true.

Meanwhile, the journal Science identifies Evolution in Action as its 2005 Breakthrough of the Year, highlighting again how strong the consensus is in the biology community that evolution is the paradigm they want to work with.

I have noticed another significant shift since the Dover case judge's ruling. Newspaper editorials are coming out and saying flatly that intelligent design should not be in science classrooms. (See this one in USA Today, for example.)

Before the ruling, journalists were following their cautious and curious strategy of 'balance', which seemed to mean treating IDC and natural selection as somehow close to equal status as theories in biology. Judge Jones' ruling seems to have relieved them from them that particular burden. They now have judicial cover to say what has been obvious to other observers for a long time, that IDC is a religious-based belief that has no scientific standing.

It's about time.

POST SCRIPT: Mazes

I have always loved puzzles and particularly mazes. But as a child I was only aware of the paper maze puzzles. It was only when I saw the Laurel and Hardy film A Chump at Oxford that I learned that there were real mazes that people can actually walk their way through, rather like the last challenge in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Ever since then I have wanted to walk through one of these mazes but have never had the opportunity.

Here are aerial views of some amazing mazes made in corn fields (Thanks to The Progressive Review). They look pretty intimidating. I assume that there is some rescue mechanism for those who get hopelessly lost. Of course, there is a surefire way of finding your way through any two-dimensional maze.

SPOILER ALERT: MAZES SOLUTION COMING UP!

If, from the beginning, you walk so that you keep your right hand in contact with the wall on your right, you will eventually get to the end point, although this might not be the quickest solution. Of course, you can do the same thing with your left hand and left wall. The key thing is not to change hands anytime.

An alternative approach is that at every intersection you encounter in the maze, you either turn always to the left or always to the right.

January 12, 2006

IDC losing yet more support

There are signs that even more people are feeling that introducing Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) ideas into science classes is not something worth fighting for. The Cleveland Plain Dealer deputy editorial director Kevin O'Brien, who would have been the most likely person on their editorial board to support IDC writes in a December 28, 2005 column:

What's with these Intelligent Design people? For years, they've been lampooned as anti-intellectual, marginalized as religious nuts, and voted out of office whenever they've managed to sneak in under the radar. Now they've taken a solid whipping in federal court. And just watch: They'll be back for more.

[A]s taxpaying members of the public, Christians have just as much right to a say in educational policy as anyone. But if they hope to be effective, they have to make an argument that's scientifically valid.

Intelligent Design isn't it. Neither the existence of a higher power nor its participation in the origin of life can be observed or measured, which is what science is all about.

Nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, who identifies himself as a religious conservative, says in a December 28, 2005 Washington Times column that he actually welcomes the judge's ruling:

The decision by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III to bar the teaching of "intelligent design" in the Dover, Pa., public school district on grounds it is a thinly veiled effort to introduce a religious view of the world's origins is welcome for at least two reasons. First, it exposes the sham attempt to take through the back door what proponents have no chance of getting through the front door. Judge Jones rebuked advocates of "intelligent design," saying they repeatedly lied about their true intentions. He noted many of them had said publicly their intent was to introduce into the schools a biblical account of creation.

This leads to the second reason for welcoming Judge Jones' ruling. It should awaken religious conservatives to the futility of trying to make a secular state reflect their beliefs. Too many people have wasted too much time and money since the 1960s, when prayer and Bible reading were outlawed in public schools, trying to get these and other things restored. The modern secular state should not be expected to teach Genesis 1, or any other book of the Bible, or any other religious text.

Both O'Brien and Thomas acknowledge that the US is built on secular principles and that Christians should stop trying to make it into a theocracy. O'Brien says:

This nation's founders wisely drew up a secular system of government, but they understood that the system they created was geared to a moral people who were capable, especially in their public lives, of restraining themselves.

And there's the key for Christians living in today's America: Our fight should not be to win control of government institutions - even so small an institution as a classroom - so as to restrain others. Our fight should be to win control of the nation's culture by persuading Americans to see the value of restraining themselves. (my emphasis)

Thomas agrees, saying:

Culture has long passed by advocates of intelligent design, school prayer and numerous other beliefs and practices that were once tolerated, even promoted, in public education. People who think they can reclaim the past have been watching too many repeats of "Leave it to Beaver" on cable television. Those days are not coming back anytime soon, if at all.

Thomas recommends that those people with strong religious beliefs who are concerned about what they are being taught in the secular public schools should do what they should have done all along: take their children out of the public schools and put them in religious schools or home school them.

I have long been writing that a secular public sphere with great freedom for the private practice of religion is the system that has the best chance of promoting peace among the various religious beliefs. I had not expected such ringing support for this view from such unlikely allies as O'Brien and Thomas. It is very welcome.

POST SCRIPT: Crash

After my postings on race and prejudice, a reader kindly sent me a DVD (thanks, Josh!) of the film Crash (the 2004 film written and directed by Paul Haggis, not a different 1996 film having the same name), thinking it would appeal to me. I saw it and can report that it is a terrific film, with an excellent ensemble cast, including the minor characters. It captures how race is the prism through which most people instinctively initially view things, even though they may know better intellectually. It also shows the unpleasantness and damage that such unreflective responses can cause. It shows how people are complex in their motivations. If you haven't seen it, check it out.

January 11, 2006

The pettiness of some congressional bribes

In following the Abramoff affair in the media and other past scandals, I was struck by something that Adam McKay gave voice to, and that is the relative smallness of the amounts used to bribe these congresspersons. It is not that the fact that some of these Congresspeople can be bribed but that their price is so low. According to the New York Times: "Alice Fisher, an assistant attorney general, said Mr. Abramoff offered up gifts to government officials that included an all-expense paid trip to Scotland "to play golf on a world-famous course, tickets and travel to the Super Bowl in Florida, tickets for concerts and other events in Washington, repeated and regular meals at his upscale restaurant, and campaign contributions.".

Dinners, concert and Super Bowl tickets, seem to me to be rather cheap to buy off a congressperson who earns $158,000 per year and in addition has enormous perks and extremely generous benefits. Why would anyone run the risk of being accused of taking bribes just for the sake of a steak dinner and whiskey or whatever it is they eat and drink at "upscale restaurants." Even if one was a glutton, how much could it cost? $100? $200? And the same for concert tickets. Surely they could afford it?

Maybe the campaign contributions were large. And the trip to Scotland could perhaps run into a couple of thousand dollars, but surely if they really, really wanted to play golf at a famous course in Scotland, they could have afforded to on their salaries.

I think that it cannot be just the amount of money involved, although money has to be a contributing factor. It must also be the fact that being bribed is used as a marker of the fact that you have power, and some people like others to think that they are important and have the sense of power over people and events.

I think that being offered a bribe must be gratifying to the ego of such people. I also suspect that being offered a bribe someone who you think is important (because they are rich and/or celebrities and/or powerful and/or well-connected) is more valuable than being offered the same bribe by just regular people.

For example, if I offered to take a congressperson out to dinner at a fancy restaurant in return for doing me a favor, he or she would probably laugh at me or be insulted or even have me arrested. But if Donald Trump took that congressperson out for the same dinner, he probably would be granted the favor. The fact that someone supposedly important is paying attention to you, is spending some of their precious time with you, is fawning over you, gives much greater weight to the occasion and makes you feel important too, and generous (and even indebted) towards them. So you do them the favor. You take the petty bribe.

There are some people who do take bribes having a significant value. People like the Republican congressman from San Diego Randy "Duke" Cunningham who resigned after being found to have taken millions from defense contractors to steer contracts their way. (See a video of a conversation between MSNBC talk show hosts Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough where the latter, who used to be a Congressman, is candid about the blatant quid pro quo that exists between lobbyist payoffs and the favors they get in return.) There are also people in lower profile occupations who enrich themselves by taking a large number of small bribes from many people. These people clearly see bribes as a revenue stream, a steady augmentation of their income.

But for the others in all professions and in all walks of life who take relatively small bribes despite being paid well, I suspect that ego and a feeling of power play a big role.

One occasionally hears or reads about college professors who are approached with bribes for grades. I cannot imagine that the bribes offered are significant enough to make it worthwhile in any tangible sense, so I suspect that if professor succumbs to this kind of temptation, he or she does so for the same reasons given above, because it appeals to his or her sense of importance.

In all my years of teaching in both Sri Lanka and the US, I am happy to report that have never been approached with anything that could be even remotely construed as a bribe. Whether this is because my students have very high ethical standards or they think that my power ego is too weak or unworthy of being flattered, I cannot say. But I am thankful all the same.

POST SCRIPT: Britain taking the lead?

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair is often derided as 'Bush's poodle,' eager to please his master by doing everything asked of him. But veteran journalist John Pilger points out that when it comes to criminalizing dissidents and opponents, Blair (and England) may be slightly ahead of the US.

January 10, 2006

Mad Max takes on evolution

Over at Pharygula, biologist P. Z. Myers comments on a Playboy interview with Mel Gibson where he is asked:

PLAYBOY: So you can't accept that we descended from monkeys and apes?

GIBSON: No, I think it's b***s***. If it isn't, why are they still around? How come apes aren't people yet?

Myers comments:

Someday, I really want to sit down and have a conversation with one of these many people who use the "If we descended from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?" argument. It's so stupid, so easily rebutted, and so indicative of a complete lack of thought about this argument they have jumped into, that I'd honestly like to find out what they are thinking. There is some fundamental misconception floating about in the creationist universe that underlies their objections, and you know, it seems to me that it is so basic and so simple that it ought to be addressed in elementary school.

I don't think that this misconception arises out of a benign ignorance, except maybe for very young children or those who haven't thought about it much. Rather I think that it is a willful decision not to seek the answer. After all, do people like Mel Gibson really think that the hundreds of thousands of biologists around the world have never thought of this argument? Does he expect that when they read his interview, evolutionary biologists are going to slap their foreheads and say "My God, he's right! Monkeys and apes are still around! How could we have been so stupid and overlooked the significance of this fact all these years? Evolution is obviously wrong!"

It always amazes me when people trot out these "obvious" arguments against evolution (the second law of thermodynamics is another example) and think that they have demolished it. Can't they at least give a little credit to the intelligence of the scientific community that maybe, just maybe, this argument had occurred to them too and that they were not convinced? What would have prevented Gibson from going to any biologist and asked her or him how the biological community felt about that argument against evolution. What he would have learned is that evolution does not say that humans are descended from monkeys and apes. What we share are common ancestors. Monkeys and apes are our cousins, evolutionarily speaking, not our great-great-…-grandparents.

Gibson does not have to accept the biologist's answer. But then at least he could say something sensible like "I asked biologists about this and they replied X but I disagree for reasons Y and Z."

But instead Gibson comes across as an idiot, the kind of person who went to school at the Unlearning Annex. I think that such people do not really want to know the answer. They have built a fortress around their minds and will keep trotting out these arguments, along with Mount Rushmore and the bacterial flagellum, as a kind of mantra, a charm to ward off dangerous ideas and to reassure themselves that what they already believe is correct.

As the old saying goes, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

Documentary: Persons of Interest

The synopsis of the documentary Persons of Interest says:

After the Sept.11 terrorist attacks, more than 5,000 people, mainly non-U.S. nationals of South Asian or Middle Eastern origin, were taken into custody by the U.S. Justice Department and held indefinitely on grounds of national security. Muslim immigrants were subject to arbitrary arrest, secret detention, solitary confinement, and deportation. Many were denied access to legal representation and communication with their families. 
During a period when the U.S. government has made every effort to depersonalize these detentions, refusing to reveal the names or even the number of immigrants detained, the voices of those affected - their testimonials and experiences -become our only window into the human costs of post September 11th immigration policies. 
Following an unconventional format, Persons of Interest presents a series of encounters between former detainees and directors Alison Maclean (Jesus’ Son) and Tobias Perse in an empty room which serves both visually and symbolically as an interrogation room, home, and prison cell. Through interviews, family photographs, and letters from prison, the directors have fashioned a compelling and poignant film, allowing those affected a chance to tell their own stories.

You can see a photo of the people and their families here and read their individual stories here.

By allowing this kind of thing to happen to non-US nationals during the post-9/11 xenophobic hysteria, it made it easier later to commit similar violations of US citizens' rights, and we see that creeping encroachment on civil liberties happening right now.

January 09, 2006

The courage to stand up for what is right

It takes enormous courage to stand up and oppose one's peers when they are doing something wrong, especially so when it is in the middle of a war and you have to make a snap judgment. Hugh Thompson Jr. was a person who had that kind of rare courage. He was a young 24-year old helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War who came across fellow American soldiers in the process of massacring Vietnamese civilians during the infamous My Lai massacre in March 1968. The events that immediately preceded his arrival were described this way:

As the "search and destroy" mission unfolded, it soon degenerated into the massacre of over 300 apparently unarmed civilians including women, children, and the elderly. [Commander Lt. William] Calley ordered his men to enter the village firing, though there had been no report of opposing fire. According to eyewitness reports offered after the event, several old men were bayoneted, praying women and children were shot in the back of the head, and at least one girl was raped and then killed. For his part, Calley was said to have rounded up a group of the villagers, ordered them into a ditch, and mowed them down in a fury of machine gun fire.

0107-01.jpg

When Thompson came upon this scene while the massacre was in progress, he "put his helicopter down between the soldiers and villagers, ordering his men to shoot their fellow Americans if they attacked the civilians." He had only a two-man crew (Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta) with him so the three of them ran the real risk of being easily overwhelmed and gunned down by the Charlie Company troops doing the massacring. (A company can have anywhere from 62 to 190 soldiers.) After staring down his fellow soldiers, Thompson called in other helicopter support and they airlifted the few remaining survivors to safety.

(In the photo, Thompson, Jr., left, and his gunner Lawrance Colburn are seen leaving the My Lai Memorial, in Quang Ngai, Vietnam, March 15, 1998 after a reunion with two female villagers they rescued during the massacre. Glenn Andreotta was killed in combat a month after the My Lai event. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit, File)

Although Thompson reported to his commanders what he had seen, the story of the My Lai massacre remained secret and no action was taken until journalist Seymour Hersh reported it in November 1969, 18 months later, creating a worldwide uproar.

For his actions, rather than being hailed for an act of extraordinary courage, Thompson "was shunned for years by fellow soldiers, received death threats, and was once told by a congressman that he was the only American who should be punished over My Lai."

This is the war mentality at work that says that any atrocity must be defended if it is committed by "our side." As I have said before (see here, here, and here), war brutalizes all of us by making us ignore our common humanity and sense of normal human decency and tempts us to justify the unjustifiable purely on the basis of some warped understanding of "supporting our troops" or patriotism. We see the same phenomenon at work now, except that Arabs and Muslims in general, and Iraqis in particular, have replaced Vietnamese as people who are less worthy.

Thompson did not fall into that trap. He saw the Vietnamese civilians for what they were, ordinary people like you or me. "There was no way I could turn my back on them," he said.

Thompson and his fellow helicopter crew members were belatedly recognized for their courage in 1998 with the Soldier's Medal. He died of cancer on January 6, 2006. He was 62 years old.

It is easy to recognize and honor physical courage. But physical courage combined with the kind of moral courage demonstrated by Hugh Thompson is rare indeed.

(A friend of mine pointed to the recent death of Frank Wilkinson, who was victimized during the McCarthy era for standing up to the Congressional bullies of the early 1950s. It is interesting how people who stand up for their principled beliefs and are willing to pay the price are always the ones whom history recalls favorably, while those who go along with whatever the hysteria du jour are viewed with contempt.)

POST SCRIPT: Interview on blogging

I will be interviewed on Tuesday, January 10, 2006 on Cleveland's NPR station WCPN 90.3 program 90.3 at 9 which runs from 9:00am to 10:00am. The topic will be blogging. There is a live audiostream which you can get at the WCPN website.

January 06, 2006

Fighting the fear-mongers

Glenn Greenwald is guest blogging over at Digby and has an excellent piece titled Attacking Bush's only weapon: Fear that extends what I wrote two days ago. He quotes a Bush speech delivered on October 6, 2005 where Bush says:

"The militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region, and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia. With greater economic and military and political power, the terrorists would be able to advance their stated agenda: to develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate Europe, to assault the American people, and to blackmail our government into isolation."

"Our enemy is utterly committed. As Zarqawi has vowed, 'We will either achieve victory over the human race or we will pass to the eternal life.' And the civilized world knows very well that other fanatics in history, from Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pot, consumed whole nations in war and genocide before leaving the stage of history.

"The murderous ideology of the Islamic radicals is the great challenge of our new century. Yet, in many ways, this fight resembles the struggle against communism in the last century

….

"With the rise of a deadly enemy and the unfolding of a global ideological struggle, our time in history will be remembered for new challenges and unprecedented dangers."

Greenwald then analyzes the speech and others like it by Bush and Cheney and the rest of the administration and what they are trying to achieve. He really nails it.

Islamic terrorists here, as always, are depicted as omnipotent villains with quite attainable dreams of world domination, genocide, and the obliteration of the United States. They are trying to take over the world and murder us all. And this is not merely a threat we face. It is much more than that. It is the predominant issue facing the United States -- more important than all others. Everything pales in comparison to fighting off this danger. We face not merely a danger, but, in Bush’s words, an "unprecedented danger" -- the worst, scariest, most threatening danger ever.



And literally for four years, this is what Americans have heard over and over and over from their Government - that we face a mortal and incomparably powerful enemy on the precipice of destroying us, and only the most extreme measures taken by our Government can save us. We are a nation engaged in a War of Civilizations whose very existence is in imminent jeopardy. All of those plans for the future, dreams for your children, career aspirations, life goals - it’s all subordinate, it’s all for naught, unless, first and foremost, we stand loyally behind George Bush as he invokes extreme and unprecedented measures necessary to protect us from this extreme and unprecedented threat.



It is that deeply irrational, fear-driven view of the world which has to be undermined in order to make headway in convincing Americans that this Administration is engaged in intolerable excesses and abuses of its power. The argument which needs to be made is the one that we have seen starting to arise in the blogosphere and elsewhere: that living in irrational fear of terrorists and sacrificing our liberties and all of our other national goals in their name is the approach of hysterics and cowards, not of a strong, courageous and resolute nation.

Greenwald goes on to say what must be done to counter this fear-mongering and the paralysis that it induces:

What must be emphasized is that one can protect against the threat of terrorism with courage, calm and resolve – the attributes which have always defined our nation as it has confronted other threats. Hysteria and fear-mongering are the opposite of strength. The strong remain rational and unafraid.

In a rational world, the basic principle of risk is that it equals impact times probability: "In professional risk assessments, risk combines the probability of a negative event occurring with how harmful that event would be." But the Administration has spent four years urging Americans to ignore that way of thinking and instead assent to any Government measure, no matter the costs or comparative harms, as long as they are pursued in the name of fighting this Ultimate Evil.

In fact, it is now essentially prohibited in good company to even raise the prospect that the threat of terrorism is exaggerated. It is an inviolable piety that there is no such thing as overstating the terrorism risk. One is compelled to genuflect to, and tremble before, the paramounce of this Ultimate Threat upon pain of being cast aside as some sort of anti-American, terrorist-loving loon.

The Administration has managed to get away with the Orwellian depiction of fear as being the hallmark of courage, and conversely, depicting a rational and calm approach as being a mark of cowardice.

In order to persuade the population that George Bush must not be allowed to claim the powers of a King, literally including the power to break the law, Bush opponents must attack that fear as the by-product of weakness and cowardice which it is. A strong nation does not give up its freedoms or sacrifice its national character in the name of fear and panic.

It is a great article. You should read the whole thing.

For those who are worried about being killed in a terrorist attack, you should see this site which gives you the statistics of all the other ways we can be killed. The point of this is not to frighten people more but to help them keep things in proportion. There are about 15,000 murders in the US per year, five times the number killed on 9/11, (and this happens every year) yet most people do not get paralyzed with fear at the thought of being murdered by criminals. We just go on with our lives.

POST SCRIPT: Combating obfuscation

One of the things that have puzzled me about the Bush Administration's decision to wiretap people without warrants is "why"? The law allows for emergency situations since the government can wiretap first without a warrant and ask for retroactive approval from the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court within 72 hours. The court has shown a great deal of deference for administration requests for wiretaps. From 1979 through 2004, the FISA court has approved 18,742 warrants and rejected only four! So why did the administration not apply for warrants?

My suspicion is that they wanted to wiretap people that they suspected that even this highly compliant court would find objectionable. Who could such people be? Here are my guesses:

1. Journalists
2. Political dissidents (antiwar activists, peace and justice movements, etc.)
3. Politicians

There have been some attempts at obfuscation about the seriousness of the warrantless wiretapping program by the NSA. For a good list of the baseless arguments that are being made (such as "Bush did not violate the law" and "Every President did it") and the actual facts of the case that rebut them, see here.

January 05, 2006

When the going gets tough, IDC gets weird

I wrote on December 20, 2005 of the smackdown that US District Judge Jones delivered to the intelligent design creationist (IDC) people in his verdict on the Dover case. The judge closely examined the testimony provided by a key IDC witness, Michael Behe, author of the IDC bible Darwin's Back Box, and wasn't persuaded.

After he had given his testimony, Behe seemed quite smug about the way that he had presented his side of the case, feeling that he had also demolished the arguments against IDC. He writes:

[I]t was actually all rather exhilirating [sic]. I rather enjoyed myself on the witness stand, because I got to explain in very great detail the argument for intelligent design, and the other side had to sit there and listen.

The cross examination was fun too, and showed that the other side really does have only rhetoric and bluster. At one point the lawyer for the other side who was cross examining me ostentatiously piled a bunch of papers on the witness stand that putatively had to do with the evolution of the immune system. But it was obvious from a cursory examination that they were more examples of hand waving speculations, which I had earlier discussed in my direct testimony. So I was able to smile and say that they had nothing more to say than the other papers. I then thought to myself, that here the NCSE, ACLU, and everyone in the world who is against ID had their shot to show where we were wrong, and just trotted out more speculation. It actually made me feel real good about things.

Unfortunately (for Behe), the judge did not share Behe's high opinion of his own testimony. P. Z Myers at the excellent evolution website Pharyngula provides a nice deconstruction of the way the judge viewed Behe's testimony. Here are some choice excerpts from the judge's verdict:

Dr. Haught testified that this argument for the existence of God was advanced early in the 19th century by Reverend Paley and defense expert witnesses Behe and Minnich admitted that their argument for ID based on the "purposeful arrangement of parts" is the same one that Paley made for design.

...

Moreover, it is notable that both Professors Behe and Minnich admitted their personal view is that the designer is God and Professor Minnich testified that he understands many leading advocates of ID to believe the designer to be God.

...

Professor Behe remarkably and unmistakably claims that the plausibility of the argument for ID depends upon the extent to which one believes in the existence of God.

...

Professor Behe admitted that his broadened definition of science, which encompasses ID, would also embrace astrology.

...

Moreover, cross-examination revealed that Professor Behe's redefinition of the blood-clotting system was likely designed to avoid peer-reviewed scientific evidence that falsifies his argument, as it was not a scientifically warranted redefinition.

...

We therefore find that Professor Behe's claim for irreducible complexity has been refuted in peer-reviewed research papers and has been rejected by the scientific community at large.

In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not "good enough."

We find that such evidence demonstrates that the ID argument is dependent upon setting a scientifically unreasonable burden of proof for the theory of evolution.

So the judge says that Behe's testimony was extremely effective for the opposing side! It helped the judge determine that IDC was a form of creationism, that it was thus a religion, and that teaching it in science classes was unconstitutional.

After such a humiliation, you might expect that Behe would lie low for awhile and thoughtfully examine what had gone so terribly wrong. But no, he is back again on TV on December 23 saying even weirder things. First he trots out that old standby, the Mount Rushmore analogy, which I have already pointed out (here and here) proves nothing.

Then when he is asked who the designer is, he replies: "Well, as I've said since 1996 when I published "Darwin's Black Box," I'm a Catholic. I think a good candidate for the designer is God. But that is not straight - that's not a conclusion that you come from, from the structure of the bacterial flagellum."

Along with Mount Rushmore, the bacterial flagellum is another IDC staple, a poster child for intelligent design, and is trotted out repeatedly at every opportunity. The amazing thing is that it was first introduced by Behe in 1996 as an example of design, and thry keep plugging it over and over even though evolutionary biologists have strongly challenged his assertion that its appearance is inexplicable according to natural selection. (I'll write about this in another posting.)

Then the interview gets interesting as the interviewer asks: "What would be the other options if it's [i.e. the designer's] not God?" and Behe replies: "Well, you know, other things that would strike us as, you know, as pretty exotic, you know. Space aliens or time travelers or something strange." (My emphasis)

That's pretty exotic, all right. The IDC people have to be pretty desperate if they are now mixing the most hackneyed plot devices of science fiction into their religion. This is what happens when you feel the pressure to come up with new arguments after ten years of pushing the same old ideas. Behe should have stuck with Mount Rushmore and the bacterial flagellum, trite as they have become. At least they have the air of sophistication. Or perhaps he should abandon his Roman Catholicism and convert to the Raelian religion, since he seems open to its basic tenet about space alien intervention.

POST SCRIPT: No Fly Lists

James Moore writes about the secret government at work. He says: "I have been on the No Fly Watch List for a year. I will never be told the official reason. No one ever is. You cannot sue to get the information. Nothing I have done has moved me any closer to getting off the list. There were 35,000 Americans in that database last year. According to a European government that screens hundreds of thousands of American travelers every year, the list they have been given to work from has since grown to 80,000."

January 04, 2006

Frightening people to subvert the Constitution

Those who justify giving the government sweeping powers of spying, arrest, detention, torture, and even killing usually resort to three kinds of arguments.

td051224.jpg The first is the extreme hypothetical: concocting some bizarre scenario ("A nuclear bomb is going to explode in New York City in one hour and only a captured terrorist knows where it is and how to defuse it.") in which the only options seem to be torture or worse. The second is scaremongering, using inflammatory language to exaggerate beyond recognition either the powers of terrorists in general or some specific threat that was supposedly foiled by the authorities (Remember that Jose Padilla was originally supposed to have plans to detonate a 'dirty bomb.' That charge has been quietly dropped.) The third is to argue from the negative ("We don't know, or can't tell you, how many dastardly plots have been foiled or deterred by these government actions so we should fall on our knees in thanks to the government for carrying out these illegal actions that may have saved our lives.")

It is curious how these apologists for government abuses display a kind of whimpering, fearful attitude that requires them to view the President as their protector, rather than finding strength within themselves, and in their neighbors, the legal system, and the Constitution.

As examples of the above points, see this exchange between former Republican Congressman Bob Barr and current Republican Congressman Dana Rohrbacher on the CNN program Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer on December 16, 2005. (You can see the video here.) I have highlighted some key portions and corrected some obvious misattributions to some of the statements.

Barr forcefully makes the case far better than I can why the government wiretapping story is a scandal. Rohrbacher, on the other hand, weaves all those three strands of arguments into his responses, falling back on the usual hypotheticals, scaremongering, and distortions to essentially argue that the President can do whatever he wants, irrespective what the laws and the Constitution says. Notice how often Rohrbacher brings up the foiled plot to "blow up the Brooklyn Bridge." Barr gives him his comeuppance on this right at the end.

BLITZER: Americans spying on Americans. In a story first reported today by the "New York Times" and confirmed by our own sources here at CNN, President Bush is said to have authorized the super secret National Security Agency to conduct electronic eavesdropping here at home. The president is saying only that he won't discuss ongoing intelligence operations. 

Joining us now are two conservative Republicans who have very different views on this issue. From Atlanta, the former Congressman and CNN contributor, Bob Barr, and from Capitol Hill, California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. Congressman Barr, what's wrong with what the president has decided to do?



BOB BARR, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: What's wrong with it is several-fold. One, it's bad policy for our government to be spying on American citizens through the National Security Agency. Secondly, it's bad to be spying on Americans without court oversight. And thirdly, it's bad to be spying on Americans apparently in violation of federal laws against doing it without court order. 

So it's bad all around, and we need to get to the bottom of this.

BLITZER: Do you agree, Congressman Rohrabacher -- I suspect you don't.

REP. DANA ROHRABACHER, (R) CALIFORNIA: No. What's really bad is the fact that we have an evil opponent who wants to blow us up and that six months after 3,000 of our American citizens were slaughtered right in front of our eyes, that we were confronted with this challenge. I'm really sorry that we have this kind of evil enemy that wants to slaughter us, but I'm very happy that we have a president that, six months after they slaughtered 3,000 of our citizens, he decided to follow up on a lead that was given to our people by breaking up an al Qaeda cell in Pakistan, and followed through on that to make sure that there wasn't another imminent attack, and thus probably saving many thousands of American lives. We can be proud of President Bush for protecting us. 


BLITZER: Congressman Barr, what do you say? 



BARR: Well, the fact of the matter is that the Constitution is the Constitution, and I took an oath to abide by it. My good friend, my former colleague, Dana Rohrabacher, did and the president did. And I don't really care very much whether or not it can be justified based on some hypothetical. The fact of the matter is that, if you have any government official who deliberately orders that federal law be violated despite the best of motives, that certainly ought to be of concern to us. 



ROHRABACHER: 9/11 is not a hypothetical. We are at war.

BARR: No, but the hypothetical is the -- the other cases you were talking about. 


ROHRABACHER: Bob, now that we are at war, that is not hypothetical. We have an enemy that has decided that they're going to terrorize the American population by committing mass murder. That is not hypothetical. We are at war, and sometimes at war you -- 



BARR: No, what you were saying, Dana, is that there were other case -- those are hypothetical -- 



ROHRABACHER: No, that's not -- Bob, you haven't read this. No, that's not hypothetical at all. One of the cases that was involved in this, was someone who was attempting to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge and because of these wire taps, we were able to stop that. 



BARR: No, you're wrong there, Dana. First of all --



ROHRABACHER: And by the way, how do we know who wasn't deterred from blowing up other targets. The fact is --



BARR: Well, gee, I guess then the president should be able to ignore whatever provision in the Constitution as long as there's something after the fact that justifies it. 



ROHRABACHER: Bob, during wartime, you give some powers to the presidency you wouldn't give in peace time.

BARR: Do we have a declaration of war, Dana? 



ROHRABACHER: You don't have to do that. 



BARR: We don't? That makes it even much easier for a president.

ROHRABACHER: No, you just have to make sure that the people of the United States understand that we are at war. They understand that al Qaeda slaughtered 3,000 of our citizens -- more people than the Japanese slaughtered at Pearl Harbor. 



BLITZER: Congressman -- let me interject for a second, Congressman Rohrabacher. 



ROHRABACHER: Sure. 



BLITZER: Everything you say is true, but why not go through the process of either getting new legislation authorizing this or let the court orders be fully implemented? In other words, before the NSA goes and eavesdrops on Americans, get a court order? 



ROHRABACHER: First of all, let us note that all this eavesdropping on Americans were that, there were some people living in the United States, whether they're American citizens or not -- we don't know how many are American citizens -- that were involved with contacts overseas. This is eavesdropping on people who were doing international calls and the list that we got, came from what -- came from an al Qaeda cell that we broke up in Pakistan. 

I am very pleased that our president didn't wait around but, instead, ran right forward immediately to try to follow up on this and find out what they were planning. I believe he probably thwarted several major attacks by doing that.

BLITZER: Congressman Barr, do you want to respond to that? 



BARR: Here again, this is absolutely a bizarre conversation where you have a member of Congress saying that it's okay for the president of the United States to ignore U.S. law, to ignore the Constitution, simply because we are in an undeclared war. 

The fact of the matter is the law prohibits -- specifically prohibits -- what apparently was done in this case, and for a member of Congress to say, oh, that doesn't matter, I'm proud that the president violated the law is absolutely astounding, Wolf.

ROHRABACHER: Not only proud, we can be grateful to this president. You know, I'll have to tell you, if it was up to Mr. Schumer, Senator Schumer, they probably would have blown up the Brooklyn Bridge. The bottom line is this: in wartime we expect our leaders, yes, to exercise more authority. 

Now, I have led the fight to making sure there were sunset provisions in the Patriot Act, for example. So after the war, we go back to recognizing the limits of government. But we want to put the full authority that we have and our technology to use immediately to try to thwart terrorists who are going to -- how about have a nuclear weapon in our cities?

BARR: And the Constitution be damned, Dana?



ROHRABACHER: Well, I'll tell you something, if a nuclear weapon goes off in Washington, DC, or New York or Los Angeles, it'll burn the Constitution as it does. So I'm very happy we have a president that's going to wiretap people's communication with people overseas to make sure that they're not plotting to blow up one of our cities. 



BLITZER: We're out of time, but Bob Barr, I'll give you the last word. 



BARR: Well, first of all, or last of all, this so-called plot to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge was bogus because it had to do with a group of idiots who were planning to dismantle it with blow torches.

Rohrbacher has to know full well that there was no plot to "blow up" the Brooklyn Bridge but keeps saying it because of the scary image it produces in people minds, especially when coupled with repeated mentions of nuclear weapons. The plot that was supposedly uncovered was a plan to use blow torches to bring it down, a harebrained scheme is there ever was one. Note that in the original news story on this on June 15, 2004, this was relegated to a passing mention near the end of the article, which indicates how insignificant this threat was viewed then. It is only later that people like Rohrbacher, in their efforts to support unbridled presidential power, have elevated this to a major plan to "blow up" the bridge.

People like Rohrbacher know that if you repeat a falsehood long enough, it becomes part of the public consciousness. This is why you need journalists who know the facts and can (and more importantly will) challenge such falsehoods as soon as they are uttered. Unfortunately not many do. It tends to be the bloggers who are keeping track of the details.

As Atrios points out:

"They keep reminding us that Bush's illegal wiretap plan uncovered a dastardly plot to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge. Said plot involved bringing down the Brooklyn Bridge with blow torches. It's rather like busting me for my evil plot to blackmail the world's governments for ONE MILLION DOLLARS by threatening to send the moon crashing into the Earth.

But, either way, that isn't the issue. The president broke the law. Repeatedly."

January 03, 2006

2006: The Year to Say "Enough is Enough!"

The past decade has seen the systematic whittling away of civil liberties, the bypassing of judicial due process, and even the condoning of torture, all in the name of fighting the war on terrorism. It is time to fight back, to say that these actions are setting a dangerous precedent, by giving the government almost unlimited power over the lives of ordinary people. These creeping encroachments on rights long taken for granted lay the groundwork for an authoritarian system of government.

We need to start exposing these actions, so that people become increasingly aware of how far down this dangerous road we have gone. As a start, we can begin by examining a lesser known story (at least in the US) of how the Tony Blair government in England and the US government have been complicit in the torture that has been going on in Uzbekistan.

Craig Murray was once the UK ambassador to Uzbekistan. His complaints about the Blair government's complicity with the Uzbek government in torture got too much for the British government, which set about unsuccessfully trying to smear him, but they did manage to remove him from office.

He has now written a book that the British government has tried to suppress because it contains incriminating evidence about how the CIA passed on to England information received from torturing prisoners in Uzbekistan.

In a preemptive response to this attempt at suppression, Murray has released those documents to bloggers so that the news will be out and impossible to suppress. You can read the story and the documents, which also reports on the US government's strong support for the brutal and repressive Karimov government in Uzbekistan, at the Blairwatch website. Thanks to the internet, the documents have now been mirrored on so many sites around the world that the British government will be unable to suppress them though they will undoubtedly try to punish Murray severely to deter future whistleblowers.

As the Blairwatch website says: "Craig Murray stood up for what many of us believe, and it cost him his Job, his health, and his professional reputation. The least we can do his stand by him as he defies the UK government's attempts at censorship, and possible prosecution."

The Memory Hole website (which performs an invaluable service on keeping track of documents and photos that become politically embarrassing and the government would like us to forget) has the documentation about the US government's cozying up to the Karimov government, as well as that government's acts of torture and repression.

Why are the UK and US governments so cozy with Uzbekistan and Karimov, despite its appalling reputation? Here's a clue: Uzbekistan currently possesses about 600 million barrels of proven oil reserves, but this is soon expected to increase." It also "has estimated natural gas reserves of 66.2 trillion cubic feet (Tcf)." While not making the top 10 rankings in either oil or gas reserves, these are sizeable.

(Note: There are also calls in England for a parliamentary inquiry into another allegation of torture by British secret agents, in Greece this time. England seems to be also rapidly using 'anti-terror' legislation to justify giving its security forces extraordinary powers over its citizens.)

Greg Saunders has more on this that is well worth reading.

POST SCRIPT: Talk on the Collapse of Intelligent Design

Case's Department of Biology is pleased to present:

The Collapse of "Intelligent-Design": Will the next MONKEY TRIAL be in OHIO?

A talk by Ken Miller, Brown University

Tuesday, January 3, 2006
Strosacker Auditorium
Case Campus
7 pm

Details:

Kenneth R. Miller PhD was the star witness in the recent Dover "Panda Trial" in Pennsylvania where Judge John E Jones found "intelligent-design" to be a religious view, not science. He is the author of a bestselling high school biology textbook that was subject to the Cobb County, GA disclaimer sticker that warned students that evolution was "a theory, not a fact." The stickers were removed by court order in 2005. Miller is also author of the bestseller, Finding Darwin's God.

Questions from the audience will be entertained and the event will be webcast.

Free and open to the public

Contact: Patricia Princehouse 216-368-8585, evolution@case.edu