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Entries for December 2008

December 31, 2008

Why religion should be criticized

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in October 2007.)

Much of the recent attacks on religion have come from those with a scientific background. But there are many atheist scientists (such as the late Steven Jay Gould) who have not wanted to criticize religion the way the current crop of atheists are doing. They have tried to find a way for science and religion to coexist by carving out separate spheres for religion and science, by saying that science deals with the material world while religion deals with the spiritual/moral world and that the two worlds do not overlap. Gould even wrote an entire book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life based on that premise.

This is not a new argument. Such appeals from high profile individuals tend to recur whenever there is a science-religion flare-up, such as during the evolution controversy leading up to the 1925 Scopes trial concerning the teaching evolution in schools. Edward J. Larson in his book Summer for the Gods (1997) writes (p. 121-122):

When the antievolution movement first began in 1923 [James] Vance [pastor of the nation's largest southern Presbyterian church] and forty other prominent Americans including [Princeton biologist Edwin G.] Conklin, [American Museum of Natural History president Henry Fairfield] Osborn, 1923 [Physics] Nobel Laureate Robert Millikan, and Herbert Hoover, tried to calm the waters with a joint statement that assigned science and religion to separate spheres of human understanding. This widely publicized document describes the two activities as "distinct" rather than "antagonistic domains of thought," the former dealing with "the facts, laws and processes of nature" while the latter addressed "the consciences, ideals and the aspirations of mankind."

This argument, that the existence of god is something about which science can say nothing so scientists should say nothing, keeps appearing in one form or another at various times but simply does not make sense. Science has always had a lot to say about god, even if not mentioning god by name. For example, science has ruled out a god who created the world just 6,000 years ago. Science has ruled out a god who had to periodically intervene to maintain the stability of the solar system. Science has ruled out a god whose intervention is necessary to create new species. The only kind of god about which science can say nothing is a god who does absolutely nothing at all.

As Richard Dawkins writes (When Religion Steps on Science's Turf, Free Inquiry, vol. 18 no. 2, 1998 (pp. 18-9), quoted in Has Science Found God?, Victor J Stenger, 2001):

More generally it is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science's turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.

There is something dishonestly self-serving in the tactic of claiming that all religious beliefs are outside the domain of science. On the one hand, miracle stories and the promise of life after death are used to impress simple people, win converts, and swell congregations. It is precisely their scientific power that gives these stories their popular appeal. But at the same time it is considered below the belt to subject the same stories to the ordinary rigors of scientific criticism: these are religious matters and therefore outside the domain of science. But you cannot have it both ways. At least, religious theorists and apologists should not be allowed to get away with having it both ways. Unfortunately all too many of us, including nonreligious people, are unaccountably ready to let them. (my italics)

Victor Stenger in his book God:The Failed Hypothesis (p. 15) points out that the idea that science and religion occupy separate spheres is also in contradiction to actual practice: "[A] number of proposed supernatural or nonmaterial processes are empirically testable using standard scientific methods. Furthermore, such research is being carried out by reputable scientists associated with reputable institutions and published in reputable scientific journals. So the public statements by some scientists and their national organizations that science has nothing to do with the supernatural are belied by the facts."

Dawkins and Stenger make a strong case. So why are some scientists supportive of such a weak argument as that science and religion occupy distinct and non-overlapping domains? Stenger (p. 10) suggests a reason:

Nevertheless, most scientists seem to prefer as a practical matter that science should stay clear of religious issues. Perhaps this is a good strategy for those who wish to avoid conflicts between science and religion, which might lead to less public acceptance of science, not to mention that most dreaded of all consequences – lower funding. However, religions make factual claims that have no special immunity from being examined under the cold light of reason and objective observation.

Is that it? Are scientists scared of criticizing religion for fear of upsetting the gravy train that funds their research? That is a somewhat cynical view but not one that can be dismissed easily.

Another possible reason may be (as I argue in my book Quest for Truth) that scientists are simply sick of arguing about whether science is compatible with religion, find it a time wasting distraction from their research, and use this ploy as a rhetorical escape hatch to avoid the topic whenever it arises.

Yet another reason may be that scientists do not generally know (or even care) what other scientists' religious views are. A scientist's credibility depends only on the quality of the science that person does, and all that is required for good science is a commitment to methodological naturalism within the boundaries of one's area of research. A scientists' attitude towards philosophical naturalism is rarely an issue. Because of this lack of relevance of the existence of god to the actual work of science, scientists might want to avoid altogether the topic of the existence of god simply to avoid creating friction amongst their scientific colleagues. As I said before, the science community has both religious and non-religious people within it, so why ruffle feelings by bringing up this topic?

But while I think that it is a good idea to keep religion out of scientific discussions since god is irrelevant when one is interpreting experimental results or comparing theories, there is no reason why scientists should not speak out against religion in public life. If we think that religion is based on a falsehood, and that the net effect of religion in the world is negative, we should not maintain a polite and respectful silence towards it. We actually have a duty to actively work for its eradication.

I think that Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789) gave the best reason for campaigning against religion when he explained why he did so:

Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack it, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.

Exactly right.

POST SCRIPT: Rationality and religion

"Rational arguments don't usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people." Here's another great little video clip from the TV show House, that packs a lot of meaning into a couple of minutes.

December 30, 2008

Why we can easily do without religion

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in October 2007.)

The recent appearance of best-selling books by atheists strongly criticizing religion has given rise to this secondary debate (reflected in this blog and the comments) as to what attitude atheists should take towards religion. Some critics of these authors (including fellow atheists) have taken them to task for being too harsh on religion and thus possibly alienating those religious "moderates" who might be potential allies in the cause of countering religious "extremism". They argue that such an approach is unlikely to win over people to their cause. Why not, such critics ask, distinguish between "good" and "bad" religion, supporting those who advocate good religion (i.e., those parts of religion that encourage good works and peace and justice) and joining with them to marginalize those who advocate "bad" religion (i.e., who use religion divisively, to murderous ends, to fight against social justice, or to create and impose a religion-based political agenda on everyone.)

It is a good question deserving of a thoughtful answer, which you are unlikely to find here. But I'll give it my best shot anyway.

Should religion be discouraged along the lines advocated by these books, by pointing out that evidence for god's existence does not rise above the level of evidence for fairies and unicorns, highlighting the many evils done in religion's name, and urging people to abandon religious beliefs because they violate science and basic common sense? Or should we continue to act as if it were a reasonable thing to believe in the existence of god, thereby tacitly encouraging its continuance? Or should religion be simply ignored? The answer depends on whether one views religion as an overall negative, positive, or neutral influence in society.

If you believe, as atheists do, that the whole edifice of religion is based on the false premise that god exists, then it seems logical to seek to eliminate religion. As believers in the benefits of rationality, we believe true knowledge is to be preferred to false knowledge. In fact, there is much to be gained by eliminating belief in the supernatural since that is the gateway to, and the breeding ground for, all manner of superstition, quackery, and downright fraud perpetrated on the gullible by those who claim to have supernatural powers or direct contact with god. I offer TV evangelists as evidence, but the list can be extended to astrologers, psychics, faith healers, spoon benders, mind readers, etc. All of them claim to provide a benefit (perhaps just emotional and psychological) to their followers, just like religion does, but few argue that that reason alone is sufficient to shield them from criticism.

Those atheists who argue against seeking to undermine belief in religion and favor the other two options (i.e., tacit support or ignoring) usually posit two arguments. The first point is really one of political strategy: that by criticizing religion in general we are alienating a large segment of people and that what we should preferably do is to ally ourselves with "good" religion (inclusive, tolerant, socially conscious) so that we can more effectively counter those who profess "bad" religion (exclusive, intolerant, murderous). The second is that religion, even if false, can also be a force for good as evidenced by the various religious social justice movements that have periodically emerged.

I have touched on the counterarguments to the first point earlier and will revisit it later. As to the second point, that religion can be justified on the basis that even if not true it provides other benefits that make it worthwhile, discussions around this issue usually tend to go in two directions: comparisons of the actions of "good" religious people versus that of "bad" religious people, or comparisons of the actions of religious people with that of nonreligious people. But such discussions are not fruitful because they cannot be quantified or otherwise made more concrete and conclusive.

I prefer to argue against the second point differently by pointing out that every benefit claimed for religion can just as well be provided by other institutions: Provides a sense of community? So do many other social groups. Do charitable works? So do secular charities. Work for social justice? So do political groups. Provide comfort and reassurance? So do family, friends, and even therapy. Provide a sense of personal meaning? So does science and philosophy. Provide a basis of morality and values? It has long been established that morals and values are antecedent to and independent of religion. (Does anyone seriously think that it was considered acceptable to murder before the Ten Commandments appeared?)

Now it is true (as was pointed out by commenter Cindy to a previous post) that religious institutions do provide a kind of ready-made, one-stop shop for many of these things and new institutions may have to come into being to replace them. Traditional groups like Rotary clubs and Mason, Elk, and Moose lodges, that mix community building with social service, may be the closest existing things that serve the same purpose. The demise of religion may see the revival of those faltering groups as substitutes. Some countries have social clubs that people belong to that, unlike in the US, are not the preserve of only the very wealthy. England has the local pub that provides a sense of community to a neighborhood and where people drop in on evenings not just to drink but to meet and chat with friends, play games, and eat meals. The US has, unfortunately, no equivalent of the local pub. Bars do not have the family atmosphere that most pubs do, though coffee shops may evolve to serve this purpose. It may be that it is the easy convenience of religious institutions that inhibit people from putting in the effort to find alternative institutions that can give them the cultural and social benefits of religion without the negative of having to subscribe to an irrational belief.

I cannot think of a single benefit that is claimed for religion that could not be provided by other institutions. Meanwhile, the negatives of religion are unique to it. We see this in the murderous rampages that have been carried out over thousands of years by religious fanatics in dutiful obedience to what they thought was the will of god. I am not saying that getting rid of religion will get rid of all evil. But it will definitely remove one important source of it. The French philosopher and author Voltaire (1694-1778) had little doubt that religion was a negative influence and that we would be better off without it. He said: "Which is more dangerous: fanaticism or atheism? Fanaticism is certainly a thousand times more deadly; for atheism inspires no bloody passion whereas fanaticism does; atheism is opposed to crime and fanaticism causes crimes to be committed."

While the evils done in the name of religion are often dismissed as aberrations by religious apologists, they actually arise quite naturally from the very basis of religion. When you believe that god exists and has a plan for you, the natural next step is to wonder what that plan is, what god wants you to do. To answer this, most people look to religious leaders and texts for guidance. As political and religious leaders discovered long ago, it is very easy to persuade people to believe that god expects them to do things that, without the sanction of religion, would be considered outrageously evil or simply crazy. (As an example of the latter, recall the thirty nine members of the Heaven's Gate sect who were persuaded to commit suicide so that their souls could get a ride on the spaceship carrying Jesus that was hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet that passed by the Earth in 1997.)

The belief that god is solidly behind you and will reward you for obeying him has been shown to overcome almost any moral scruples or inhibitions concerning committing acts that would otherwise be considered unspeakable. The historical examples of such behavior are so numerous and well known that I will not bother even listing them here but just look at some of the major flashpoints in the world today, where the conflicts (even if other factors are at play) are undoubtedly inflamed by perceptions that people are acting on behalf of their god: the vicious cycle of killings in Iraq between the Shia and Sunni, between Israelis and Palestinians, between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland (now thankfully abating), and between Hindus and Muslim in India.

Just recently, certain Islamic groups have called for the death of a Swedish cartoonist who is supposed to have drawn a cartoon disrespectful to Islam. This is yet another example of how religion seems to destroy people's basic reasoning skills because for some religious people, it seems perfectly reasonable that they have to fight and kill to defend their god's honor.

The obvious response to this call to avenge god by killing the cartoonist is to point out how absurd it is that humans think they have to protect their god's interests by fighting and killing people. Do such believers think that god is some kind of mobster boss who has to have goons to carry out his wishes? Pointing this out would reveal the impotence of god and ultimately the absurdity of the idea of god. After all, any rational person should be able to see that if their god has the abilities they ascribe to him, he should be quite capable of taking care of himself. He can not only kill the offending cartoonist but even wipe the entire country of Sweden off the map to drive the lesson home that he will not be trifled with.

But our 'respect for religion' attitude prevents us from pointing out such an obvious truth, because it gets too uncomfortably close to revealing the absurdity of the underlying premise of religion. So instead what happens is some theologian is trotted out who argues that what their religious book is 'really' saying is that it is wrong to kill, despite the existence of other passages in the same religious books that have been used to argue to the contrary. And so we end up with yet another dreary debate between the so-called 'moderates' and 'extremists' about what god is 'really' like and what he 'really' wants from us.

This is why religion is bad. Not only is it false, it is dangerously false. Believing in such a false idea requires people to abandon rational thinking and makes even murderous intentions seem noble to them. If, as I argue, all the claimed benefits of religion can be provided by other institutions, and it has negatives that are solely its own creation, then it is hard to see what utility religion has that makes it worth preserving. I think that the conclusion is quite clear. The best selling atheist authors are, in the long run, doing us all a favor by directly confronting religion and showing that we would all be better off without it.

December 29, 2008

Film: The Road to Guantanamo

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in September 2006.)

Last Sunday, I saw the powerful film The Road to Guantanamo (directed by Michael Winterbottom) at the Cleveland Cinematheque, that precious jewel in University Circle which screens films that one cannot see anywhere else.

The description of the film says that it is a "harrowing mix of documentary and reenactment. It traces how three British Muslim men who flew to a wedding in Pakistan in late 2001 ended up in Afghanistan, where they were arrested by Northern Alliance soldiers and accused of being Al Qaeda fighters. Though never charged with any crime, they spent two years in the American military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, before being released. Their testimony anchors this sobering film that won the Best Director prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival."

The film differs from the normal documentary format, which usually consists of news footage mixed with talking heads, with a "voice of god" voiceover narration. Since the film deals with the treatment these people received in prison camps in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, which the Bush administration has gone to great lengths to keep reporters, lawyers, and human rights groups out of, there was no way that the filmmakers could have obtained any actual video news footage of their treatment in captivity.

So they went instead for the dramatic re-enactment, with actors and sets used to provide a visual representation of what the three young men (all in their early twenties) said they had experienced. And what the film revealed was the various forms of torture that the men experienced while in US custody.

There was no attempt by the filmmakers to claim that the film was anything more than what it clearly showed on the screen, which was the story as told by the three men. But Joanna Connors, the Plain Dealer Cultural Critic, clearly took offense at the film, using surprisingly harsh language in her February 15, 2006 review to denounce it. I say "surprising" because Connors is, if her previous film criticisms and columns are any indication, somewhat "liberal" in her outlook, and thus her reaction sheds an interesting light on how journalistic professionals see their role, which was the topic of last week's series of posts on the media. (I have written elsewhere about the useful role that such 'tortured liberals' play in advancing the pro-war agenda.)

Connors' review said the following:

[I]n the last few years, the multiplex has become the new Op-Ed page, a place for blunt, straight-up polemics on war, the environment, elections and other divisive subjects. Where films labeled documentaries once signaled "factual," they now abandon all pretense to following journalistic methods and leave audiences in the dark, so to speak, about what is true and what is opinion.

Winterbottom's film tells [the young men's] version of what happened. Take note: It is their version, without any supporting evidence from neutral observers -- say, human rights groups or journalists -- or rebuttals from the British or Americans.

But Winterbottom doesn't make that clear, or clear enough, given that he shows U.S. soldiers, and others, administering torture so brutal it makes the photos from Abu Ghraib look like fun and games.

Winterbottom blurs the line between propaganda and truth by using several documentary techniques: The shaky hand-held camera, the extensive on-camera interviews with the three men, the location shooting (except for the scenes at Gitmo, which were shot in Iran) -- all signal "news" to audiences. He mixes these with "dramatic reenactments" of the events using actors, a cheesy technique straight out of "Crime Stoppers."

Then Connors reveals how far she has bought into the administration's arguments that in this "war on terror", anything goes and normal legal safeguards, let along human rights, be damned.

Are the men telling the truth? Who knows? Their story has enough holes to justify their capture, imprisonment and interrogation. On the other hand, the refusal of the United States to allow lawyers into Guantanamo on behalf of the prisoners and news accounts about Abu Ghraib, secret CIA prisons and violations of international law weigh heavily on the other side. (my italics)

The idea that people can be kept in jail for three and a half years, not allowed to see families or lawyers, and subjected to torture (what she coyly refers to as "interrogation") just because their story has "holes" is an amazing testimony of the power of this administration's rhetoric of the 'war on terror to cow even 'liberals' to go along with them. Are the three men telling the truth? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that they were not charged with anything for the entire time of their long captivity, and then when they were sent back to Britain they were released immediately by British police who could not find any reason to charge them. So the presumption has to be that the men were telling the truth. Does the phrase "innocent until proven guilty" not mean anything to Connors? And even if they were guilty of something, does she feel that it would that justify the treatment they received?

This kind of call for a fake balance is the result of the media propaganda model. While the suffering endured by the prisoners is very real, there is no evidence whatsoever that these concerns "weigh heavily on the other side" as Connors asserts. The Bush administration seems quite gleeful and unconcerned about violating all the norms of behavior and is pushing for even more leeway to use torture.

Connors sums up: "Whatever one's views on the war or one's political views, the enflamed, out-of-control situation in the Middle East makes releasing this movie deeply, almost unforgivably irresponsible."

'Unforgivably irresponsible'? Really? It is interesting that the administration has permanent license to make repeated unrebutted and unsubstantiated statements (which the media dutifully repeats) that claim that everyone they catch is an 'evildoer' or 'bad guy' or 'terrorist'. These are staples of the current news and the lack of balance is not denounced as "irresponsible." This is because the administration is always given the presumption of credibility, despite their shameful record of lies and deception. And yet, one person makes a film telling the story from the point of view of the prisoners, and suddenly there are demands for 'balance'. This is a good example of how journalists internalize certain attitudes and do not realize they are serving in a propaganda system.

Given the state of the news media, it may be that this kind of documentary is the way of the future. One can see why mainstream journalists are worried by these developments and oppose them. The director of the film Michael Winterbottom has created successful commercial films (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, 24 Hour Party People, Welcome to Sarajevo are among his credits) and uses his skills at dramatization to bring the events to vivid life. He knows how to create a dramatic impact. Since he is not a professional journalist (at least as far as I am aware) he may not have internalized the need to provide the kind of phony 'balance', which in actual practice means tilting the story heavily in favor of the government's version of events in order to garner the approval of mainstream journalists.

The visual power of film is probably what arouses the concern and ire of those who support the government. Paul Krugman describes in his September 18, 2006 column in the New York Times, the torture that prisoners of this administration undergo. He writes:

According to an ABC News report from last fall, procedures used by C.I.A. interrogators have included forcing prisoners to ''stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours''; the ''cold cell,'' in which prisoners are forced ''to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees,'' while being doused with cold water; and, of course, water boarding, in which ''the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet,'' then ''cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him,'' inducing ''a terrifying fear of drowning.''

And bear in mind that the ''few bad apples'' excuse doesn't apply; these were officially approved tactics -- and Mr. Bush wants at least some of these tactics to remain in use.

I'm ashamed that my government does this sort of thing. I'd be ashamed even if I were sure that only genuine terrorists were being tortured -- and I'm not. Remember that the Bush administration has imprisoned a number of innocent men at Guantanamo, and in some cases continues to imprison them even though it knows they are innocent. (my emphasis)

These are strong words. His description of the methods or torture are disturbing but lack the kind of emotional punch that a visual representation can provide. When you see some of the very things described by Krugman on the screen, you are filled with revulsion. You wonder how any human being can treat any other human being like that.

This is why these kinds of documentaries are powerful. And dangerous. And why they will be opposed and denigrated by some members who see themselves as the guardians of the "objective" media.

See The Road to Guantanamo if you can. And see our tax dollars at work in the service of barbarism.

Shutting down Guantanamo and places like it around the world is an urgent need.

POST SCRIPT: Year in review

I normally find the year-end review stories in the media extremely tedious and skip over them, except for the lists of those who died. But I give an exemption to cartoonist Tom Tomorrow.

December 26, 2008

Merry Christmas or else!

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in December 2005.)

In a comment to a previous post on Thanksgiving and Christmas, commenter John made an interesting observation. He said that, given his reading of my political and religious leanings from my blog, he was surprised that I had used the term "Christmas shopping season" instead of the more generic "holiday shopping season", since I am obviously not a religious person.

I must admit that I was taken by surprise by his comment. I had written "Christmas" season almost without thinking because I see it as such. But perhaps I should not have been surprised because I am also aware of how touchy the issue of Christmas has become.

For example, former Fox News host John Gibson has actually written a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. And Bill O'Reilly, who can always be depended on to waste his outrage on the trivial, has declared that he is going to "save" Christmas by bringing back the greeting "Merry Christmas" and fighting those stores that have promotions saying "Season's Greetings" and "Happy Holidays." A guest on his show suggested that these more generic greetings do not offend Christians, to which O'Reilly replied "Yes, it does. It absolutely does. And I know that for a fact. But the smart way to do it is "Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Season's Greetings, Happy Kwanzaa."

Meanwhile, the late Jerry Falwell, as always locked in a fierce competition with Pat Robertson for the Religious Doofus of the Year award, said that he too was fighting to save that holy holiday and that he' would sue and boycott groups that he saw as muzzling Christmas. Finishing a strong third for that same award:

American Family Association President Tim Wildmon … wants to see "Merry Christmas" signs displayed prominently "if they expect Christians to come in and buy products during this so-called season."

And he isn't worried if they offend people who aren't Christian.

"They can walk right by the sign," Wildmon said. "It's a federal holiday. If someone is upset by that, well, they should know that they are living in a predominantly Christian nation."

So John was quite justified in being puzzled as to why, in this climate, I was so casually tossing the word Christmas around when everyone seems to be so touchy about it.

It is truly pathetic to see grown people like Gibson and O'Reilly and Falwell and Wildmon getting into a lather about something so trivial as to what is the proper thing to say at Christmas.

I just can't take this matter seriously. I have never been offended by other people's religious beliefs. Perhaps it was because I grew up in a multi-religious society, had friends of other faiths, and celebrated their religious holidays as well as my own. It does not offend me in the least when people wish me greetings that are specific to their own religious traditions or in some neutral terms.

When someone wishes me "Season's Greetings," I take that as a thoughtful gesture of friendship and caring and I am touched by the sentiment. The same goes if they wish me "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah" or "Happy Kwanzaa" or "Happy Solstice" or "Happy Festivus" or "Happy Newton Day" (the great physicist Isaac Newton was born on December 25) or any other greeting from any other religion on any occasion. I return the greeting in kind, even if I am not a believer in that faith, because all that such an exchange signifies is that two people wish each other well. If someone says to me "Merry Christmas" and I reply "Same to you," this is not an affirmation of Christian faith any more than "Season's Greetings" is an act of hostility to religion. To take such greetings as a challenge to one's beliefs and start a fight over it is to demonstrate churlishness to a ridiculous degree. O'Reilly and his partners in this stupid battle need to grow up, even if it is of dubious value in terms of ratings and garnering publicity.

I simply do not care how other people view Christmas or how they express their views and it amazes me that some people are using it as yet another means of waging a cultural war. What is the sense in being offended by someone who is wishing you well? Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow reports on the kind of petty and absurd incidents that this ridiculous hyping of the 'war on Christmas' spawns.

I was a grocery store, waiting in line to check out. The man in front of me approached the cashier with a cart full of groceries. The cashier said "Happy Holidays!" Well, it goes without saying that the man was furious at this. How dare she not say "Merry Christmas". He literally stormed out of the store in anger, leaving his groceries behind for the employees to put away. As he was leaving, he said "I'll never shop here again!"

No doubt the man saw himself as a 'true' Christian. Whatever our views on this topic, can we at least all agree to not take our annoyance out on employees such as shop clerks and cashiers and waiters? These people are usually underpaid and overworked (especially during this time of year), usually have no say about company policy on how to greet people, and are routinely treated with lack of consideration, if not discourtesy and outright rudeness. People should never use their power as customers to vent their spleen on such employees, who have no option but to bite their tongues for fear of losing their jobs.

If some company puts advertisements in the paper and tells its employees to greet customers by saying "Season's Greetings", why should it offend me? The same thing if they order their employees to say "Merry Christmas" instead. Such mandated greetings are just marketing tools and are meaningless in terms of content and intent, whatever the words used.

If Bill O'Reilly gets all warm and tingly when a store employee is forced to say "Merry Christmas" to him and gets angry when that same employee is forced to say "Season's Greetings", then he is in need of serious therapy because he clearly cannot distinguish the real from the counterfeit. I hate to be the one who breaks the news but he should realize that the employee probably does not care for him personally, whatever the greeting.

I have always liked Christmas as a holiday, especially its focus on children. I am glad that even people who do not share its religious orientation still share in the peace and goodwill message. I do not appreciate the fact that it has become largely a merchandizing tool.

The question becomes different when we talk about the government taking an official stand on religion because this raises tricky political and constitutional issues. There it seems to me to be appropriate to be scrupulously religiously neutral because I am a believer that a secular public sphere is the one most likely to lead to peace and harmony between diverse groups. Governments are supposed to be representatives of everyone and to single out one particular religion or ethnicity for preferential or adverse treatment is to invite discord.

But when it comes to private exchanges between people, we should all relax and let people express their good feelings for one another in whatever way they choose and are most comfortable with and not try to make it into a battle for religious supremacy.

You can always tell when people genuinely mean well and when they are pushing an agenda, whatever the actual words used. We should learn to accept the former gracefully and ignore the latter. It is like the ubiquitous "Have a nice day". You can always tell, by the eyes, the tone of voice, and the smile (or lack of it) if the person is genuinely being friendly or simply saying it because it is required.

POST SCRIPT: Communion Whine

It looks like this War on Christmas lunacy has spread to England. Marcus Brigstocke delivers the appropriate smackdown.

December 25, 2008

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Baxter and I would like to wish all the readers of this blog our best wishes for the season. May all of you find peace and happiness.

We live in a world divided by conflicts based on religion, ethnicity, and nationality. All such divisions are of human creation, have at best merely superficial meaning, and all came into being within the last four thousand years or so, a mere instant in the vastness of time that life and the universe have existed.

If everyone were to realize that, we can truly move towards a just and peaceful world.

So let's spread that message.

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December 24, 2008

Betraying both principles and friends- the famous Milgram experiments.

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in February 2007.)

During the McCarthy-era HUAC hearings, some people who were called up to testify but did not want to inform on their friends and colleagues and name names, refused to answer questions using the Fifth Amendment, which says that people cannot be forced to give evidence that might incriminate themselves. While this was effective in avoiding punishment, others felt that this was a somewhat cowardly way out. The Hollywood Ten, including Dalton Trumbo, decided to use a more principled but risky strategy and that was to invoke the freedom of assembly clause of the First Amendment that says that people have a right to peaceably associate with those whom they please and thus do not have to say who their friends and associates are or otherwise inform on them.

In those charged times, this right was over-ridden and they went to jail for various lengths of time. Albert Einstein was actively involved in fighting these anti-communist witch-hunts and approved of using the First Amendment for this purpose. Writing in 1954 in the book Ideas and Opinions (Crown Publishers, New York, p. 34), he said:

Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify, i.e., he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin. … This refusal to testify must not be based on the well-known subterfuge of invoking the Fifth Amendment against possible self-incrimination, but on the assertion that it is shameful for a blameless citizen to submit to such an inquisition and that this kind of inquisition violates the spirit of the Constitution. If enough people are ready to take this grave step they will be successful. If not, then the intellectuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.

This kind of situation where one is compelled to turn in one's friends is not uncommon, either in real life or in fiction. Harry Potter fans will recognize it in book four Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Karkaroff reveals the names of other Death Eaters to the Council of Magic in the Ministry of Magic (a group remarkably like the HUAC) to avoid being given a life sentence in Azkaban under the dreaded Dementors.

But back in real life, Dalton Trumbo's letter reminded me of the famous and controversial 1962 Stanley Milgram experiment. Psychologist Milgram was interested in answering the question: "How is it possible that … ordinary people who are courteous and decent in everyday life can act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience … Under what conditions would a person obey authority who commanded actions that went against conscience." His interest in this question was triggered by the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann who claimed in his defense that he was just following the orders of the Nazi government. Milgram was interested in the question of whether people would follow orders that went against their basic human instincts.

Most people have heard of this experiment in which test subjects, perfectly ordinary people, were willing to apply increasing amounts of voltage to an unseen person despite hearing the victim's increasingly distressed screams of suffering. The screams were fake but the subjects did not know that and their willingness to impose so much pain has been marveled at.

Although I too had heard of the Milgram experiment, its full force did not hit me until I saw actual footage of the experiment as it is being carried out. The first segment (out of five) of is shown below but you really must see all five to get the full impact of it.

The video showed that the subjects were not callously or sadistically increasing the pain they were inflicting on the victim. In fact, most had the normal aversion to inflicting gratuitous pain on others, were really anguished, and wanted to spare the victim further suffering. They kept asking if this was the right thing to do and repeatedly sought reassurance that they were not causing harm.

What made them continue to inflict increasing levels of pain was that the person giving the instructions looked very official and respectable and authoritative, dressed in a white lab coat and speaking in a calm but firm manner. The clincher was that this official person told them that they were not responsible for the outcome of the experiment or the health of the victim, and that the official took full responsibility for both. This shifting of responsibility away from themselves enabled 60-65% of the subjects to overcome their qualms and push the shocks all the way to the highest level, despite the fact that they thought the victim had a heart condition, and to ignore the screams of the victim and his pleas to stop the experiments.

This is precisely the danger. As long as people feel that they are not responsible for the outcomes of an action, as long as there is some official-looking person telling them that all this is quite proper and normal and they are absolved from the consequences, they seem willing to do things that their basic human instincts tell them is wrong.

This explains why so many otherwise decent people are willing to condone the use of water-boarding and other forms of torture that are being carried out by the government. They have been reassured by the president, vice president, other high officials, and 'respectable' opinion makers, and that everything is fine and under control, that the victims are not really suffering any real harm and that these actions are necessary in order to achieve some greater good.

As Milgram himself reported:

Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

This brings us back to the question I posed at the beginning of yesterday's post as to whether we would be willing to inform on our friends just because some government official asked us to. For myself, I hope that I would say no. The older I get, the more I value friends and the less I trust the motives and intentions, let along the competence, of the government and other official agencies to do the right thing.

The request to betray a friend is an ignoble one. But it is unlikely to come in the form of a bribe offered by some sleazy person in a dark alley. Instead it will come in the open, by very proper and official people, and the offer will be wrapped in the flag and decorated with bows that appeal to one's honor and duty and patriotism. Failure to inform on a friend may well result in one being called disloyal and even a traitor. And 'tortured liberals' play important roles in this persuasion, providing an intellectual cover that makes people who instinctively revolt against violating their deeply held principles feel that they are somehow extremists and outside the norm.

As I said, in actual extreme situations there is no knowing what we will do. It is possible that I could be coerced into doing things that I think are wrong. But the action will still be wrong. Most of us do not have the internal resources to resist the more subtle pressures brought to bear on us by the modern coercive state and its propaganda arms. We have to systematically create those resources.

The Milgram experiment suggests to me that what gives us the strength to challenge authority is the availability of others to support us in our actions, to reinforce in us the belief that we should do the right thing whatever the authority figures might claim. And friends are our most valuable resource in this fight. I wonder what the result would have been if the people applying the shocks had had a friend with them.

In the end, friends are all we have. When we betray them, we become nothing and have nothing.

POST SCRIPT: Have friends, live longer

A study found that having good friends leads to more tangible benefits. It found that "People with extensive networks of good friends and confidantes outlived those with the fewest friends by 22 percent." Close relationships with relatives or children did not have the same effect on longevity.

"[T]he authors of the report speculated that friends may encourage older people to take better care of themselves—by cutting down on smoking and drinking, for example, or seeking medical treatment earlier for symptoms that may indicate serious problems.

Friends may also help seniors get through difficult times in their lives, by offering coping mechanisms and having a positive effect on mood and self-esteem."

December 23, 2008

Friends

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in February 2007.)

Here is a hypothetical scenario to ponder. Suppose one day government agents, say from the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security, come to you and say that they suspect that one of your close friends is a terrorist sympathizer and that they would like you to act on their behalf, secretly observing your friend and reporting all his or her activities to them. Would you do this?

There are some problems with this scenario. I do not think it is standard practice for government agents to enlist amateurs to help them in such ways because they are unlikely to be good covert operatives and are very likely to give the game away. But given the level of paranoia and fear-mongering that has been deliberately created and the disregard for civil liberties and fundamental rights that characterize government actions these days, variations on the above scenario are not as far-fetched as one would like to think.

I have also written before that extreme hypothetical situations such as this one are not good ways of predicting how one would act if such a situation would actually arise because it is hard to predict how one would behave in situations which are far removed from those with which one is familiar. But such extreme hypothetical situations are useful devices to think about what principles one lives by.

If faced with the above scenario of betraying one's friends, for some the choice will be simple. If the law requires us to cooperate with the authorities and inform on our friends, then that is the right, even honorable and patriotic, thing to do. Although they may disagree with the law, they may feel that they are compelled to follow it, that it is not our prerogative to challenge the law. While we may work to change it, good citizenship requires us to follow the law that is on the books and to obey, or at least cooperate with, the authorities charged with enforcing them.

But it is not that simple.

I started thinking about this about three years ago when a letter that Dalton Trumbo had written to a friend in 1967 was published in Harper's magazine (March 2004, page 30). Trumbo, who died in 1976, was a very successful screenwriter who refused to testify and name people as Communists or collaborators before the McCarthyite-era House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings. The film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) dealt with the events and atmosphere of that time.

As a result of his refusal to name names, he became one of the original Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who were blacklisted by the Hollywood studios and could not get work anymore. He was also convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced in 1950 to 11 months in prison. After being released, he lived abroad but his work was still sought after and his screenplays appeared under pseudonyms and fronts until 1960 when influential actors like Kirk Douglas got him re-instated. One of his screenplays (under the pseudonym "Robert Rich") even won an Academy Award in 1957 for the film The Brave One.

In his letter, Trumbo makes some important points about the nature of the choices that we have to sometimes make:

[A] prominent and liberal producer was quoted as saying: "Look, you people are simply stubborn and foolish. Regardless of what you think of informing it has become a part of the law. The committee and its requirements are part of our time; they are the country; they are the flag. That's the way it is, and those who refuse to recognize this no longer arouse sympathy; they only isolate themselves and prevent their voices from being heard."

The more I think of that the more I disagree with it, and the more puzzled I become about the workings of the mind that produced it.

I know and can read the First Amendment as well as anyone. I know it is the basic law of this country. I know that if it goes, all will go. The Warren Court has carefully and specifically outlined the exact method by which persons can refuse to inform. It is almost as if the court had decided to provide citizens with a textbook on how to avoid turning informer.

Thus the court has presented us with a dilemma that lies at the heart of all philosophies and religions, the dilemma best symbolized in the Faustian legend: yield up your principles and you shall be rich; cling to them and you shall be less prosperous than you presently are.

That's the problem: choice. Not compulsion. Committee or no committee, law or no law, capitalism or no capitalism, movies or no movies, it is the constant necessity to choose that dogs every action of our lives every minute of our existences.

Who is it then who compels us to inform? The committee does not come and ask us to change our minds and give them names and reinstate ourselves. Who is it that denies us work until we seek out the committee and abase ourselves before it?

Since it is neither the court nor the law nor the committee, the man who compels informing can only be the employer itself. It is he, and not the committee, who applies the only lash that really stings - economic reprisal: he is the enforcer who gives the committee its only strength and all its victories.

Disliking the nasty business of blacklisting but nonetheless practicing it every day of his life, he places upon the country and his flag the blame for moral atrocities that otherwise would be charged directly to himself. And thus, since informing has nothing to do with the law and the country and the flag, and since the necessities of his life, as he sees them, oblige him to enforce what the committee can never compel, and since without his enforcement that committee would have no power at all, - what he actually said is that he is the law and the country and the flag.

Then in a moving series of montages, Trumbo reflects on the wide range of jobs he has had all over the country and the wide variety of people from all walks of life that he has met on that journey.

And if I could take a census of all the Americans I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on, if I could ask them one simple question: "Would you like a man who told on his friend?" – there would not be one among them who would answer, "Yes."

Show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country. Such men are to be watched; I cannot imagine they are not watched.
….
I look back on two decades through which good friends stood together, moved forward a little, dreamed that the world could be better and tried to make it so, tasted the joy of small victories, wounded each other, made mistakes, suffered much injury, and stood silent in the chamber of liars.

For all this I am grateful: that much I have; that much cannot be taken from me. Barcelona fell, and you were not there, and I was not there, and perhaps if we had been the city would have stood and the world have been changed and better. But we were here, and here together we remain, and our city won't fall, and if it should, better that we lie buried among its ruins than be found absent a second time.

Every time I re-read Trumbo's letter I am moved by its eloquence. It is a powerful statement about what good friends, acting together, can achieve and our responsibility to our friends.

POST SCRIPT: The shoe hurled around the world

I have not written anything about the incident where an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at Bush. There was more than enough chatter about it elsewhere. The best commentary that I encountered was by Bob Garfield on the weekly radio program On the Media.


December 22, 2008

The problem of tipping

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today's post originally appeared in November 2005.)

I have been traveling a lot recently on work-related matters and this requires me to do things that I don't routinely do, such as stay in hotels, take taxis, eat at restaurants, and take airplanes.

I generally dislike traveling because of the disruption that it causes in one's life and the dreariness of packing and unpacking and sleeping in strange places where one does not have access to the familiarity and conveniences of home. But another reason that I dislike these kinds of trips is that they force me to repeatedly confront the phenomenon of tipping.

I hate the whole practice of tipping. One reason is structural in that tipping enables employers to avoid paying workers less than the minimum wage, let alone a living wage. People who work forty hours per week at the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour make about $11,000 a year (Note that in terms of inflation adjusted dollars, this is the lowest rate since 1955.) But there are exemptions from even this low rate for those jobs where there is an expectation that the employee can earn at least $30 per month in tips. Some jobs pay about half the federal minimum wage rate and employers can justify this practice by arguing that tips more than make up the difference between this and what is necessary to support themselves and their families. But note that all you need is to be able to get $360 per year in tips to be not protected by even the currently miserable minimum wage laws.

I feel that people should not have to depend upon the kindness of strangers (which is what tipping is) to earn a living wage. Anyone who works full time should be able to make enough to live on, which in the US means roughly doubling the current minimum wage, although there is strong regional variation.

I hate tipping because it seems like it is meant to force people to be nice to me. In general, I find people to be nice and polite and helpful without the need for extrinsic motivators for such behavior. I think that almost all people are like that and do not need to be paid to extend the common courtesies of life to one another. People smile, greet each other, assist each other if necessary, all because we feel a sense of empathy and oneness with those around us, not because we expect some reward.

But when I tip someone, I feel as if I am implying that that person performed that act of kindness or service because of the expectation of payment. And to me this cheapens that human interaction, transforming it into a commercial transaction. Unfortunately, I don't know what to personally do about it. I tip people because I know they are not paid well and depend on tips to make ends meet. But if at all possible, I try to bury the tip so that it is not obviously an exchange of money between the person being tipped and me. In restaurants, I add it to the bill and pay by credit card so that no money directly changes hands between the server and me.

But in some cases, you cannot avoid a cash exchange so I try to avoid situations where the tip is the only money that exchanges hands, but instead is part of the overall cash payment. For taxis, for example, I can add it to the fare so that I am not due any change and so can act like I am paying just the fare. If that is unavoidable and I have to give a cash tip to a person that is not part of a payment for other goods and services, I try as much as possible to do it when the recipient is not there, like leaving it on a restaurant table when leaving, or leaving it in a hotel room when checking out.

But there are some situations, such as with porters and hotel doorpersons and bellhops, where the tip cannot be so disguised. I try as much as possible to avoid those situations by doing things myself as much as possible and if I cannot do so, tip as unobtrusively as I can.

We do not live in an egalitarian society. Society is stratified by class and wealth. But tips seem to rub everyone's noses in that reality in a particularly revolting way. The jobs that depend on tips seem to me to encourage servility and an almost feudal sensibility, throwing us back to a former age where the 'noble lords and ladies' dispense largesse to a fawning and grateful peasantry. Fortunately I do not spend time in places where wealthy people hang out and where there is an expectation that you will be waited on hand and foot and treated obsequiously. I live largely in a world where people carry their own bags, do their own chores, and open their own doors, or do so for others simply out of politeness.

Perhaps I am overreacting to what is 'normal' practice, seeing a deep social problem where none exists. But then I wonder how I would feel if the university did not pay me a living wage but instead had tip jars in each classroom and I had to depend upon satisfied students to give tips after each class supplement my income. A colleague tells me that in the old days of the Greek philosopher-teachers, students would pay them for each class if they were satisfied, so this is not an unheard of practice. What would that do to the student-teacher relationship? I cannot imagine that it would be good. So why is it good for other relationships?

What I would really like is for everyone to be paid a living wage.

POST SCRIPT: Sand sculpture

I have always been impressed with the time and effort that some people put into such temporary things as sand sculptures. Here is one in Italy where tons of sand was used to create a huge nativity scene which includes approximately 200 figures and 100 animals.

December 19, 2008

Beware of the 'tortured liberal'

The reason I usually disdain labels like liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican that are bestowed on people by the media is that their main purpose is to establish the author's bona fides with specific segments of the population as a means of influencing them on what to think about a particular issue. For example, many people who consider themselves liberals take their cues from what prominently labeled 'liberals' say. So if you can get a 'liberal' spokesperson to advocate a policy, many liberals will take it seriously even if the policy is antithetical to their values. This was on prominent display during the lead up to the Iraq war, when many so-called media liberals were swept along by the hysteria of that time.

Media analyst Edward Herman writing in 2002 astutely identifies the value of people like the allegedly 'leftist' Christopher Hitchens to furthering the aims of the pro-war one party state.

Christopher Hitchens is a real asset to the war party, because he is a facile writer and covers over by vigorous assertion and imagery his new reactionary politics and the feeble intellectual defenses he musters for it. His value is enhanced by the fact that he is a "straddler," that is, a man in transition from an earlier left politics to apologetics for imperial wars, but with a foot still in The Nation's door and a harsh critic of Kissinger and Pinochet. He is therefore presentable as a member of the "rational left" or left that has "seen the light." Such folks are much honored by the mainstream media.

I have noticed that in the lead up to wars, National Public Radio (frequently labeled as 'liberal') becomes effectively National Pentagon Radio, so enamored do they become of military strategy and hardware. In 2003, I could barely listen to their Pentagon correspondent Tom Gjelten, so pro-war was his coverage, so admiring of the technical prowess of the US military, that he seemed to forget about the devastating toll on ordinary people at the receiving end of all the so-called 'smart bombs' that he rhapsodized about.

Or take another allegedly 'liberal' commentator, the Washington Post's columnist Richard Cohen. His relentless navel-gazing and total self-absorption is on display in his column on Tuesday, November 21, 2006 (Page A27), where he talks about how he was for the Vietnam war before he turned against it, then describes how he was similarly for the Iraq war before he turned against that too. Despite his fascination with himself, he does not even see the clear pattern that he himself describes: That he always supports the wars the pro-war party wants, bleating his timid opposition only when it is too late and public opinion has turned conclusively against it.

Things are precisely the same with Iraq, and here, too, I … originally had no moral qualms about the war. Saddam Hussein was a beast who had twice invaded his neighbors, had killed his own people with abandon and posed a threat -- and not just a theoretical one -- to Israel. If anything, I was encouraged in my belief by the offensive opposition to the war -- silly arguments about oil or empire or, at bottom, the ineradicable and perpetual rottenness of America.

On the contrary, I thought. We are a good country, attempting to do a good thing. In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic. (my italics)

It is incredible that Cohen thought that violence against other people was justified because it would make us feel better. Also he says his support for the Iraq invasion increased because he was annoyed by what antiwar activists were saying. For such people it is always about them and their feelings, and not about others. We should kill people in other countries because it will make us feel good. Of course, we should use violence in a 'prudent' manner, whatever the hell that means, because we are (of course) good people.

Do not be surprised when people like Cohen (like Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon) use their belated critiques of the management of the Iraq war to re-brand themselves as being 'war critics' in order to promote the next war. They will wave their 'liberal' flag as a cover to hide their past and disguise their true role. This mindset is endemic in the ruling class.

David Edwards of Media Lens writing in February 2003 warned us to be careful of the ‘tortured liberal’ in the media: "There is nothing tortured about it - media fortunes have long been made by mastering the 'liberal' art of appearing to care while doing nothing to oppose those who clearly do not give a damn. This is what earns the nod from the powers that be."

The role of these 'tortured liberals' is not to demand that governments abide by the constitution, international law, and accepted legal and moral principles, but instead to persuade the public to go along with whatever geopolitical policies the one party ruling class determines is necessary. They do this by creating a fake consensus by excluding those who disagree. Right now the goal is to get people to believe that before the war 'everyone' thought that invading Iraq was either a good thing to do or unavoidable. This is manifestly false. In fact, the opposition to the war worldwide was overwhelming.

On February 11, 2003, prior to the Iraq war, we had a forum at Case where many speakers (including me) exposed the fraudulent case being made for war and its immorality and illegality, let alone the absence of credible evidence. None of us were full-time journalists or analysts, merely ordinary people with day jobs. If we, simply by not limiting ourselves to the US mainstream media, could see through all the lies being spread, why could not these so-called liberals in the media? Because they are 'tortured liberals' who, as Edwards points out, know exactly what role they must play to keep their privileged positions.

Media analysts Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon just released their annual list of The Stinkiest Media Performances of the Year and the "WHO WOULD HAVE PREDICTED?" award goes to the New York Times:

The Times op-ed page marked the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion in March by choosing "nine experts on military and foreign affairs" to write on "the one aspect of the war that most surprised them or that they wish they had considered in the prewar debate." None of the experts selected had opposed the invasion. That kind of exclusion made possible a bizarre claim by Times correspondent John Burns in the same day's paper: "Only the most prescient could have guessed ... that the toll would include tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed, as well as nearly 4,000 American troops; or that America's financial costs by some recent estimates, would rise above $650 billion by 2008." Those who'd warned of such disastrous results were not only prescient, but were routinely excluded from mainstream coverage.

Note that the people I have criticized are considered 'moderate' commentators, so-called 'reasonable' people, 'centrists', 'liberals', and even 'leftists'. I am not even bothering to analyze the ravings of people like Michael Ledeen and William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer or third-tier pundits like Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and the like.

Given the drubbing that the Republicans have received in the last two elections we should not be surprised to see even the neoconservatives trying to disguise their past and move into key positions in the Democratic party, in order to continue to give their views some clout. They will be aided in their transition by the mainstream 'liberals' in the media who will not be so rude as to dig up their past statements.

Because they all benefit from a mutually convenient agreement to forget the sordid roles they have played in the past.

POST SCRIPT: Requiem for a campaign

Matt Taibbi, one of the best gonzo journalists around, sums up the McCain campaign:

It sounds strange to say, but this election season may have done to the word "Republican" what 1972 did for the word "liberal": turned it into a poisonous sobriquet that no politician with bipartisan aspirations will ever again welcome. The Republicans didn't just break the party — they left it smashed into space dust. They weren't just beaten; the very idea of Republican conservatism was massively rejected in virtually every state where large chunks of the population do not believe in the literal existence of a horned devil, and even in some that do.

The ironic thing is that the destruction of the Republican Party was a two-part process. Their president, George W. Bush, did most of the work by making virtually every mistake possible in his two terms, reducing the mightiest economy on Earth to the status of a beggar-debtor nation like Pakistan or Zambia. … But John McCain and Sarah Palin made their own unique contribution to the disaster by running perhaps the most incompetent presidential campaign in modern times. … Instead of a plan, they had an endless succession of dumb ideas scrapped at the 11th hour in favor of even dumber ones.

You should read the whole thing.

December 18, 2008

No more benefit of clergy

In England in the Middle Ages, clergymen, monks, and nuns were exempt from the jurisdiction of secular courts and could be tried for offenses only in ecclesiastical courts, a practice known as giving them the 'benefit of clergy'. While that legal exemption has ceased to exist, it seems like we still grant religious people a similar benefit, the exemption now being from the 'laws' of logic and reason.

In Tuesday's post, I described the highly intricate rules that observant Jews have to follow if they are not to contravene what they are told to be god's dictates, as interpreted for them by their priests or rabbis, and risk being struck down by a thunderbolt if they should so much as turn on a stove without first checking to see if a current was already flowing. What is interesting is that people who don't give a passing thought to the nitpicking rules of their own religion are often incredulous about the nitpicking rules of other religions.

For anyone outside that belief system it seems incredible that people could take such rules and prohibitions seriously. It is undoubtedly true that many people, who in other areas of their lives would be highly skeptical of arbitrary rules laid down by authority figures based on old documents of uncertain origins, swallow without question the claims of their own religious authorities. Why is this? Why do such people not apply the same critical thinking and the same appeals to reason and evidence to these rules that they would apply elsewhere?

I think it is a consequence of an over-expansive interpretation of the 'respect for religion' trope. All that 'respect for religion' should mean is that people are perfectly free to believe whatever they want and to practice their beliefs as long as they do not harm others. If they want to tie themselves up in all kinds of knots about when and how they are allowed to turn their stoves on and off, they are perfectly entitled to do so.

But 'respect for religion' as commonly understood has become much more than that. It has come to mean that the rest of us must treat these beliefs and practices as reasonable. As a result, such beliefs are never questioned because all the others who think such rules silly, when confronted with believers who follow them, nod our heads and act like their behavior is perfectly rational. We keep our incredulity to ourselves. We have allowed the words 'religion' and 'god' to give the most absurd ideas and practices a veneer of intellectual respectability.

It is bad enough that we treat the evidence-free idea of god as something reasonable to believe in, we are also expected to hide our amazement that any 21st-century person would even want to worship a god who views lighting a fire on the Sabbath or taking a communion wafer out of a church or the transgressions of similarly petty and arcane Muslim and Hindu and other religious rules as worthy of punishment.

As a contrast, if someone we knew suddenly adopted the practice of, every hour on the hour, spinning around in a circle shouting "Wubba! Wubba!" and explained to us that a space alien had visited him and told him to do that, we would view him with concern as having become unhinged. But label that practice with the word 'religion' and the space alien with the word 'god' and suddenly the act is transformed into something that requires respect and deference and the person even becomes admirable for being so devout and faithfully observant. If left unchallenged, over time that 'religion' might acquire a mass following, the way all other religions did.

Journalist H. L. Mencken had the correct attitude. Writing a couple of months after the Scopes monkey trial ended in July 1925, he strongly defended Clarence Darrow against those 'moderate' religionists who had criticized his questioning of William Jennings Bryan, because Darrow had made all religious beliefs look silly.

Mencken wrote:

The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

I do not know how many Americans entertain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan, but probably the number is very large. They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities. Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish. Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.

What should be a civilized man's attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings. That is what Darrow did at Dayton, and the issue plainly justified the act. Bryan went there in a hero's shining armor, bent deliberately upon a gross crime against sense. He came out a wrecked and preposterous charlatan, his tail between his legs. Few Americans have ever done so much for their country in a whole lifetime as Darrow did in two hours.

People should be perfectly free to practice their religious beliefs as they wish. And common courtesy demands that we should not actively seek out such people and pour scorn on their beliefs and practices. But if people make absurd and unsubstantiated statements in public as religious leaders and their followers routinely do, they should not expect to be immune from challenge or contradiction, any more than a person who makes any other statement on any other topic that is unsupported by evidence or reason.

Merely because a statement springs from religious beliefs should not give it any immunity from the normal rules of discourse. It should not have the benefit of clergy.

POST SCRIPT: The best Christmas movie

Forget It's a Wonderful Life. You need to watch The Ref (1994) with Denis Leary, Judy Davis, and Kevin Spacey. It's hilarious.

In this clip, the first four minutes are the opening credits containing seasonal schmaltz that leads you to expect the usual fare, before the film suddenly veers off. (Language advisory.)


December 17, 2008

Examples of political chameleons

In Monday's post, I spoke about how we can expect to see the political chameleons of the one-party ruling class try to camouflage their past in order to blend in with their new political environment. Glenn Greenwald, easily one of the best political analysts around, sees right through this strategy. He reveals the truth about people like Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, who use their home in the allegedly 'liberal' Brookings Institution to help pursue this goal.

To lavish themselves with credibility -- as though they are war skeptics whom you can trust -- they identify themselves at the beginning "as two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration's miserable handling of Iraq." In reality, they were not only among the biggest cheerleaders for the war, but repeatedly praised the Pentagon's strategy in Iraq and continuously assured Americans things were going well. They are among the primary authors and principal deceivers responsible for this disaster.

But as always, Tom Friedman provides the clearest example of such shameless self-serving revisionism. Greenwald points to what the so-called 'liberal' New York Times columnist was saying in 2003 justifying the invasion of Iraq on PBS's Charlie Rose show:

We needed to go over there basically, and take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble. . . .

And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going from house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: which part of this sentence do you understand? You don't think we care about our open society? …

Well, Suck. On. This. That, Charlie, was what this war was about.

We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could [my italics]. That's the real truth.

And guess what? People there got the message, OK, in the neighborhood. This is a rough neighborhood, and sometimes it takes a 2-by-4 across the side of the head to get that message. But they got the message and the message was, "You will now be held accountable."

What does Friedman say now (November 29, 2008) was the reason for the Iraq war?

It’s a reminder of the most important reason for the Iraq war: to try to collaborate with Iraqis to build progressive politics and rule of law in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, a region that stands out for its lack of consensual politics and independent judiciaries.

Really? That is what you thought all along? He seems to have replaced those revenge-filled early words with pompous platitudes. Observe how he has conveniently forgotten the sordid past and his own role in it, switching from insane bellicosity (what he called 'the real truth') about teaching those dastardly Muslims a lesson by hitting Iraqis on the head with blunt objects (just because they are the most convenient target), to noble goals of collaborating to create a model civil society. He can make such a switch effortlessly because he has had so much practice at it.

Friedman, like many mainstream commentators both 'liberal' and 'conservative', has no compunction about people in other countries getting killed in wars to satisfy his own lust for destruction or some weird private geopolitical theory. Here he is writing in 1999 (New York Times, April 23) about the need for heavier attacks on Serb civilians during the conflict over Kosovo:

Let's at least have a real air war.... It should be lights out in Belgrade: Every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road, and war-related factory has to be targeted. Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (the Serbs certainly think so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set back your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too.

Bill O'Reilly (whom most people would consider to be at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Friedman) said something very similar six days later, showing how united the pro-war one party ruling elite is.

I believe that we have to go in there and drop leaflets on Belgrade and other cities and say, 'Listen, you guys have got to move because we're now going to come in and we’re going to just level your country. The whole infrastructure is going.'... Any target is OK. I'd warn the people, just as we did with Japan, that it’s coming, you’ve got to get out of there, OK, but I would level that country so that there would be nothing moving—no cars, no trains, nothing.

Notice again the smug arrogance of power, writing with the confidence that no other country can make similar threats against their own country. Would they approve of their own neighborhoods being flattened by bombs because another country did not like some US policy? Do none of these people know or care that what they are advocating, the destruction of civilian infrastructure like water, electricity, and sewage systems that have no direct military value, is a war crime?

The Geneva Conventions (Protocol 1, Part IV, Chapter III, Article 54) says quite clearly:

It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.

The examples I've given above can be multiplied. Chris Floyd chronicles Friedman's relentless bloodlust while media critic Edward Herman similarly calls out 'leftist' Christopher Hitchens as another pro-war demagogue who vociferously supported the wars started by Clinton and Bush despite the heavy toll they inflicted on civilians, and even gleefully joked about Afghanistan being "the first country in history to be bombed out of the stone age."

This is why the labels liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, have such little value in most discussions. They are merely the veneer to disguise one party rule and the desire to impose American will and power on the rest of the world, whatever the cost on ordinary people.

POST SCRIPT: Media complicity with the one-party state

Why is it that members of the war party get so much air time in the media while anyone who critiques the policies of the one-party state gets shut out? Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman clearly laid out how it works in their classic 1988 book Manufacturing Consent. A documentary of the same name was made in 1992 that presents the key arguments in a very entertaining manner. It is well-worth viewing.

Here is a short clip from that documentary that explains how the very organizational structure of the programs on TV prevents any real discussion of important issues, to be replaced by the uttering of conventional wisdom platitudes.

This is why only extended commercial-free discussions that allow for in-depth analysis, such as Bill Moyers's program Buying the War on PBS, are the only things worth watching on TV.

December 16, 2008

'Certified Sabbath Mode'

In our family we tend not to throw away stuff that can still be used but recently had to reluctantly conclude that our electric stove, which came with our house when we bought it twenty years ago and looked pretty old even then, needed to go to that Great Range in the sky. The filaments in both ovens had burned out and two of the four stove top burners had also stopped working, turning this huge apparatus into little more than a hotplate.

When shopping for a replacement we noticed that the phrase 'Certified Sabbath Mode' was often advertised as a selling point. The fact sheet did not say what this meant but I was intrigued and immediately went to Google where I found a very long and detailed explanation (with footnotes and citations) provided by Rabbi Avrohom Mushell.

There were several technical terms in Hebrew that I did not understand but as far as I could gather the basic problem faced by highly observant Jews is how to obtain hot food on a Jewish holiday ('Yom Tov') because originating a flame is considered to fall under the list of prohibitions on such days and that rules out lighting a stove.

As Rabbi Mushell explains:

Turning on an electric stovetop to warm food will initiate the flow of electricity to the burner. The halachic authorities have determined that electricity used as heat or light is considered fire. Therefore by turning on the burner one is creating a new fire. … Turning the dial on your electric stovetop may also initiate a light or icon on a control panel which would otherwise be off. This may be a transgression of kosev, writing, as well as molid. Even when the electric burner was left on from before Yom Tov, if one wishes to adjust the temperature of the burner there is also reason for concern. This is because, as a rule, one does not know if there is electric current running to the element at the time they wish to make the adjustment. Even when there is an indicator light showing that a burner is on, this may not be an indication that electricity is flowing to the burner at that moment. Rather it is indicating that the element is set to maintain the desired setting which it will maintain by going on and off at pre-determined intervals. As a result when one adjusts the temperature upward on Yom Tov they may be initiating the flow of electricity at a time that it was otherwise not flowing. As mentioned earlier, this would be prohibited because of molid.

So what to do?

To circumvent this prohibition, an electrician can install an indicator light which is attached to the actual flow of electricity to the burner. This will indicate when there is current flowing to the burner. When there is electricity flowing, one may raise the temperature in order to enhance cooking.

But that is not all, as the Rabbi warns us. Turning the stove off is also risky:

Lowering the heat setting on an electric stovetop on Yom Tov is also not without its halachic perils. We know that extinguishing a burning log is the melacha of kibui. Lowering the heat setting of a stove on Yom Tov may be associated with the melacha of kibui. Therefore, this can only be done when it is for the benefit of the food, so that it will remain warm but not burn. One may not turn the burner off completely. However, if there is an indicator light showing when power is flowing to the burner, one must be careful to lower the burner only when the indicator light is off. Once the indicator light is off, one may also turn the burner off completely.

But stoves with the Certified Sabbath Mode feature have taken care of this problem in an ingenious way that avoids having to keep track of whether a current is actually flowing or not at the time when one adjusts the controls.

Sabbath mode ovens are designed to bypass many of the practical and halachic problems posed by the modern oven…. Some Sabbath Mode ovens are designed to work with a random delay. This feature allows one to raise the temperature on Yom Tov at any time, regardless of when power is flowing to the oven. This is because when one adjusts the dial or keypad, it is not directly causing the temperature to change. These "instructions" are being left for the computer to read at random intervals. The computer will then follow the "instruction" to raise the temperature. Therefore, this action is only causing a grama, an indirect action, which in turn will cause the temperature to be raised.

A cynic might say that priests have conveniently found a way to allow people to have their creature comforts while pretending to adhere to religious commandments. Whatever, it is clear that the simple, timeless, universal, and harmless act of cooking food has, thanks to priests, come to be believed by some religious people to be riddled with dangers that only those same priests can protect them from. The Rabbi even has an FAQ section to deal with such subtleties as: Can I set the timed bake feature on Yom Tov? May one turn off their stove or oven to conserve energy on Yom Tov? Can I open and close a standard oven door at any time on Yom Tov? Must I wait until I see the glow plug glowing to open the door to my gas oven on Yom Tov?

To me, this is a compelling demonstration of the power of all organized religions to get people to worry about the most trivial things, to spend enormous time and effort to try to interpret and follow arbitrary rules written down by unknown people millennia ago and collected together in books like the Bible and Koran.

And it furthers a self-serving goal for all religious institutions. Once their priests have got people worrying about whether this or that minor action is going to make their god angry and imperil their souls, those people are less likely to ask themselves really dangerous questions such as: Why would I worship a god who cares so much about such petty issues? And even if I do believe in a god, why would I think that priests and other religious authorities know any better than I do about what god wants?

POST SCRIPT: Penn and Teller explain why the Bible should not be taken at all seriously


December 15, 2008

Political chameleons

In analyzing politics in this country, the key to unlocking its underlying structure is to realize that what we have is essentially a single pro-war/pro-business party and that the Democratic and Republican 'parties' are merely factions of that one party, differing mostly on some social issues or on tactical matters. This underlying unity ensures that there is continuity in the overarching attempt to create an economic and political empire, using the military to achieve that goal when other means fail.

But ordinary people do not like not having choices in their leaders so we need to have a two party façade and this means requiring people to think of themselves as Democrats and Republicans, even strongly partisan ones. But only the middle class takes these labels seriously. The poor suspect that the entire system is rigged against them and in favor of the rich, while the very rich know this for a fact.

Servicing this system is an entire class of people who do not really care about party labels or even political philosophy as such but have very narrow agendas that can be advanced whichever party is in power. This is why they can so easily shift back and forth between the two. Because the Democrats are now in control and in a position to dispense favors, look for media institutions like Fox News to shift its views and change its programming to be more favorable to Democrats. Its owner Rupert Murdoch cares mostly about making money and in other countries has shown himself quite capable of shifting his political allegiances depending on who can do him the most good. We already hear stories that Murdoch dislikes the way Fox News operates and despises Bill O'Reilly.

We can also expect to see a lot of people who once enthusiastically supported Bush and Cheney start maneuvering to portray themselves as critics in order to wheedle their way into the new administration. They will be aided in this by the media, which likes to see the permanent establishment class run things. Some of the agendas of these political chameleons are personal. For example, there is a whole industry of political commentators, analysts, and think-tankers whose main goal is to stay in the media eye, to be highly visible. That is how they earn their living. Such people will now shift their views, tacking to the prevailing winds.

During the heyday of the Bush-Cheney fiasco, these people found all kinds of reasons to justify the concentration of executive power, the Iraq war, torture, extraordinary renditions, lack of oversight of the financial and environmental sectors, and the undermining of responsible government by the placing of party hacks and ideological loyalists in important positions, especially in the Departments of Justice and Environment. Now they talk about the 'excesses' of the Bush-Cheney administration, that 'mistakes were made', that some people were 'overzealous', and so on. Very rarely will you see any acknowledgement that they were accomplices in, and enablers of, all of it.

You already saw this happening with attitudes towards the Iraq war because that fiasco became plain to see much earlier. The fundamental problem that the single pro-war/pro-business party faces is that the general population is not unthinkingly pro-war (or pro business) so the one party leadership has to keep finding new ways to convince them that although past wars were usually disasters, the next war is a good and noble cause that must be fought.

One strategy is to make people think that even those who opposed the previous wars support the new proposed war. This process has already started. The way the warmongers do this is to now advertise themselves as having been either against the Iraq war or critical of it. They then try to extrapolate this tenuous claim to make it seem like they always took a principled stand against the war. They will then be described in the media with the preamble "Even fierce critics of the Iraq war such as …" This puts them in the position of supporting the next war from the position of being 'antiwar activists' and thus allow the warmongers to suggest that the next war must be a good one if it has persuaded even such 'principled opponents' of previous wars.

The neoconservatives will be among those who try to make this shift. In my series on the future of the Republican party, I foresaw a bleak time ahead for Republicans because of the intramural battle for the leadership by the old-style conservatives, the neoconservatives, and the Christianists. One thing that might save that party is if the neoconservatives see little likelihood of it getting back in power soon and abandon it. Their departure will enable the old style conservatives a better chance of regaining their former leadership role since religion by itself does not really provide a governing political philosophy.

The neoconservatives will then try to re-enter the Democratic party which was their original home anyway, because the old-style Republican conservatives who once dominated that party were always a little leery of the kinds of reckless foreign adventures favored by the neoconservatives. They will try to do this by rewriting history. They will shift positions and start to claim that they had reservations about the war all along. The more brazen will say that they opposed some or all of the Bush-Cheney policies. They will be aided in their makeovers by the Obama administration's centrist let's-get-along mindset, which will prevent them from taking a too critical look at the past of those people.

But if you look back at the actual record, you will see that these so-called opponents were initially strong supporters of the Iraq war, shifting to merely tactical criticism of how the war was conducted by the Bush administration when it became clear that it was going badly.

Next: Examples of such political chameleons

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert chimes in on the 'War on Christmas'


December 12, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-14: The once and future queen?

It is time for me to leave that seemingly inexhaustible well of material that is Sarah Palin, though it is clear that we are not going to be free of her presence any time soon. There is no question that Sarah Palin was the phenomenon of the election. When was the last time that the losing vice-presidential candidate garnered so much continuing media attention after the election, totally eclipsing the winning counterpart?

The last question that I want to explore before moving on is whether she represents the future of the Republican party.

It is often the case that post-mortems of losing campaigns can be quite nasty, as people try to wash their hands of any blame for the debacle and seek to salvage their reputations so that they can hook up with future campaigns. What is startling about the McCain campaign infighting was its particularly vicious nature and that this process started even before the election was over. I think it is because there are some within the Republican party who recognize the long-term danger that Palin represents. The brutal internal sniping that erupted is a sign that they think her rise should be nipped in the bud.

On her side, there were reports that they think McCain campaign advisors made serious tactical errors, that she saw defeat looming and was distancing herself from him in order to maintain her own future political viability and laying the groundwork for her own presidential run in 2012, that she blames the McCain staff for her disastrous introduction to the nation and for the public relations fiasco over her $150,000 clothes shopping spree.

On his side, leaked reports say that McCain was annoyed with her and that his staff thinks that she is the main reason the campaign lost. People close to McCain have called her a 'diva' who had 'gone rogue' by pursuing her own agenda and going off-message, and some have even called her a "whack job". But the McCain camp's attempt to blame Palin for their loss is a bit disingenuous since he is the one who freely picked her.

Her inability to think or speak coherently seemed to come as a big surprise to the McCain campaign, and her unwillingness to quickly study up on the issues suggested an intellectual laziness.

"Her lack of fundamental understanding of some key issues was dramatic," said another McCain source with direct knowledge of the process to prepare Palin after she was picked. The source said it was probably the "hardest" to get her "up to speed than any candidate in history."

It is clear from her ignorance on so many issues that she has not shown any interest in national and international affairs all her life, and had to learn to deal with them only after being nominated for vice-president. But such habits and interests are formed early in one's life and without that desire to know such things I am not convinced that she can get up to speed within the next few years.

It was notable that even a few days before the election she still could not give a correct or even coherent answer to the question of what the vice president's role was, even though she had first flubbed that question when it was posed to her months earlier when her name was first floated as a possible running mate for McCain. The US constitution is notable for its conciseness. How hard would it be to read the few sentences that deal with the very post to which you are aspiring? She seems to think that a breezy confidence in your gut instincts is all you need.

It is now clear that even during her vice-presidential debate where her supporters think she acquitted herself well, she was reading much of her answers from notes and using pre-packaged responses whatever the question. If you go back and look at her interview with Katie Couric, you see that she frequently looks down at her lap, as if taking a quick peek at something.

She also lacks self-discipline. One example of this is her continuing to buy expensive clothes for her and her family after the scandal about them broke. The other is her tendency to repeat falsehoods (such as the story about the 'bridge to nowhere') after they have been exposed.

As we have seen in the few interviews she gave before the election, when asked a question, instead of pausing a moment to consider what point she wants to make, she has the unfortunate tendency of immediately launching into a blizzard of words and phrases without having a clear endpoint in mind, so her answers meander all over the place, a stream of consciousness monologue that is both oddly captivating and grating at the same time.

She squirts words out like a squid squirts ink when it is cornered, creating a cloud of incoherence. Take this recent example when she was trying to explain away the issue of whether she thought Africa was a country:

"My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska’s investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars."

Dick Cavett writes:

What will ambitious politicos learn from this? That frayed syntax, bungled grammar and run-on sentences that ramble on long after thought has given out completely are a candidate’s valuable traits?

What on earth are our underpaid teachers, laboring in the vineyards of education, supposed to tell students about the [above] sentence, committed by the serial syntax-killer from Wasilla High?

Some have responded that this pre-occupation with Palin's shaky grammar and syntax is an elitist obsession of those with expensive educations. But there is a huge difference between being plainspoken and expressing your ideas in the vernacular, and saying things that no one can make any sense of. Jim Hightower and the late Molly Ivins are examples of people who know how to wield Texas colloquialisms and regional idioms like scalpels, using breezy language to skillfully dissect any issue to quickly expose the underlying core. The problem with Palin is not that she says things badly but that we cannot tell, without careful parsing of her words, what idea she is even trying to convey.

Language can be an important clue as to the state of one's thinking. George Orwell said it best in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

Sarah Palin is a textbook example of the point Orwell is making. An immersion course in grammar and syntax by itself is not going to help Palin become a clear thinker, although it would help her to not embarrass herself so much. Her use of language indicates that her problems go much deeper, to her very thought processes. The Republican party would be unwise to place its future in such thoughtless hands.

As the Republicans jockey to see who will lead the party in the future, look behind the actual names and faces that are bandied about and focus on which of the three groups (the old-style conservatives, the Christianists, and the neoconservatives) are supporting them. The key struggle to watch is the extent to which the Christianists are successful in convincing the more traditionally religious base of the Republican party that they represent their values, or whether other religious leaders who are dismayed by the current dominant coalition of end-timers and neoconservatives will successfully challenge the Christianists for the leadership position.

Which group emerges as the victor of that struggle will tell you which way the party is moving.

POST SCRIPT: Brain teaser

I received this interesting puzzle and thought I'd pass it on. I will post my solution in the comments.

December 11, 2008

On being a contented loner

I have a confession to make: I am a bad Facebook friend. Although I have a Facebook account, I don't do anything with it. From time to time someone will request that I be their friend and I almost always say yes even if I know them just remotely or they are just a friend of a friend. But to accept them as a friend is about the only time that I even log into my Facebook account. I have the vague sense that I should be doing more with the site, that somehow I am neglecting my Facebook friends, but am not sure what I should be doing.

So why did I join Facebook at all if I was not going to do anything with it? It started long ago when I read about Facebook in an article, when it was still limited to a few ivy league schools. I was intrigued by the concept because I felt that there were not enough avenues for students at Case to meet and socialize and I felt that Facebook might be a good thing to get started here. Since I was not quite sure how it worked, when the opportunity arose for non-ivy leaguers to join up, I was one of the first to do so to check it out. It seemed like a good thing and I recommended to the computer and student affairs people here that we should consider promoting it strongly amongst our students.

Of course, Facebook exploded in popularity without any help from us, and so I let the matter drop and forgot about my account. But after some time people discovered that I had a Facebook account and I slowly started getting requests to be friends. It seemed to me that the polite thing to do was to say yes. After all, how can you say be so churlish as to say no to a request from someone to be your friend? And so my list of Facebook friends slowly grew. Of course, the total number of friends I have is still tiny, in the double digits, unlike some people who have thousands. But I still feel guilty that I am ignoring this small group of people who took the trouble to reach out to me and I sometimes wonder what they think of me ("What a jerk. He never calls. He never writes. He never tells us what he is doing or feeling at the moment.") I have thought of closing my account but that seems even ruder, like abruptly moving to another city and not giving people a forwarding address. So I am stuck.

(I am also puzzled by the occasional request to be a friend from people whom I do not know in the least, with whom I have no common Facebook friends, and who live in places I have never even been to. Why would they ask a stranger to be their friend? Is there some social networking dynamic that I am not aware of that is causing this?)

My problem is that I am somewhat of a loner. I do not actively seek out the company of people. (This is consistent with the post last week about how my writing pegs me down as an introvert.) I am perfectly content with my own thoughts and books and the internet. I do enjoy occasional socializing with friends, but even then I prefer conversations with a few people than large and noisy parties. If I do attend such a party, I try to find a few congenial companions and spend the entire evening in their company. I enjoy meetings with colleagues at work provided the meetings are not too frequent or go on for too long. After about an hour I start looking forward to going back to the solitude of my office where I can sort out my thoughts and put them into writing.

I also still do not own a cell phone, which shocks many people. When asked why, I reply truthfully that my job is such that emergencies do not arise and people do not need to contact me at short notice. Also my habits are fairly regular so that people can usually reach me at my office or at home. Furthermore, I have lived all my life quite happily without a cell phone and am not convinced that it has suddenly become a can't-do-without item. In short, a cell phone has not become a functional necessity for me and I try to not clutter up my life with things I don't need.

But there are two other major reasons that I usually leave unsaid. The first is that I hate talking on the phone. I am much more comfortable writing an email to someone or speaking with them face-to-face than picking up the phone and calling them. If I have to talk to people on the phone because the matter is too complicated to write about or requires a personal touch, I tend to get to the point quickly, and when the matter is settled, try to end the call as politely as I can.

I don't know why I dislike phone conversations but I know I am not alone in this. Recently on some blogs the discussion turned to this topic and almost all of the bloggers said that they hated talking on the phone too. This is perhaps not too surprising. Bloggers, after all, are people who like the written word and have chosen to express their thoughts in writing.

The other reason that I do not have a cell phone is that I like to be left alone. There are many times when I simply do not want to be contacted. Once you have a cell phone, the presumption becomes that it should always be on, that you should always have it with you, answer all calls immediately, or call back within a few minutes. I have noticed that people get annoyed and frustrated when they call someone's cell phone and it is not answered or they do not get an immediate callback.

There is an explosion of new ways of being in contact, social networking systems such as Twitter and Second Life being just two. I steadfastly refuse to join any of them unless I absolutely have to.

I did join Second Life out of curiosity when it first came out and because Case was getting deeply involved in it, but stopped doing anything with my avatar soon after, thus repeating my unfortunate Facebook experience. I am probably now as much a social pariah on Second Life as I am on Facebook.

I am not a total Luddite who rejects all new technology. If I need something I will use it. Recently I actually initiated a private social networking group on Ning (thanks to help from Heidi) to facilitate the organization of a college reunion, so I can and will use these devices if I feel the need.

I am well aware that I am fighting the tide on this one. Eventually, everyone will be on many social networks with everyone else, each person constantly aware of what other people are doing. And scattered here and there will be these isolated individuals like me who have no clue as to what is happening all around them.

That realization is a little disturbing. I like to think of myself as a social being and the thought that I am actively shunning avenues for being in touch with other people is troubling, suggesting that I am somewhat of a misanthrope. But not really. I do not hate or distrust humankind. And I am also not like Linus of Peanuts fame when he said, "I love humanity! It's people I can't stand!"

I really do like people and humanity. I just don't want to be in touch with a lot of them all the time and there does not seem to be any word other than 'loner' to describe people like me.

POST SCRIPT: Christmas cheer for the godless

British comedians like Ricky Gervais and Robin Ince have organized a program of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People: A Rational Celebration of Christmas.

[Gervais's] motivation is as benign as it is pro-rationalist. "I wanted to do events around Christmas for people who don't have any belief, to show that they're not bitter, Scrooge-like characters. Everyone is going to be approaching the evening from a passionate scientific perspective rather than from a bashing-the-Bible slant."

For Ince and his missionary friends, the word that needs to be spread is that the universe is wondrous even without faith in a divine plan. Dawkins will read from his book Unweaving the Rainbow, "which is about how science makes things more beautiful and more exciting - not less".

But by holding this rationalist jamboree so close to Christmas, are they not guilty of provocation?

"If it riles people," says Ince, "it does so because they're fools. Anyone who feels we are 'stealing Christmas away' would just be half-witted. Some people are desperate to be offended."

For those who do not know Robin Ince, here is a clip that I have shown before where he compares evolution with creationism and intelligent design.


December 10, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-13: The case against Palin

Should Sarah Palin be the next Republican nominee for president?

It is clear that she thinks she is up to the job. She says that whether she should be president or not depends on what god wants.

Palin told Greta Van Susteren Monday on Fox News that her faith will guide her on a 2012 run. "I'm like, O.K., God, if there is an open door for me somewhere — this is what I always pray — don't let me miss the open door," she said. "Show me where the open door is, even if it's cracked open a little bit, maybe I'll plow right on through that and maybe prematurely plow through it."

But like all delusional religious people who say they seek a sign of god's will, she will see what she wants to see. It is clear that Palin thinks god has big plans for her and will view random events as god 'cracking open' doors for her. She likely thinks that McCain selecting her is already a sign of that.

I recall a study that compared competent people and incompetent people. One reason the incompetents were incompetent was that they were incompetent at judging their own competence. They had a breezy and unshakeable confidence in their own abilities and so never felt the need to work to improve themselves, whereas competent people were better able to judge their strengths and weaknesses and thus recognized which areas they needed to develop themselves in.

Palin strikes me as someone who is completely oblivious to her shortcomings. Her vanity and sense of entitlement, coupled with her tone deafness to the image she creates, has provided endless material for comedians.

The biggest example was, of course, her $150,000 shopping spree at upscale stores and the way she responded when the news broke.

When Politico reported on Oct. 21 that Palin had spent $150,000 for clothes for herself and her family, the governor had been all wounded innocence. At a campaign stop in Tampa, she said, "These clothes—they're not my property, just like the lighting and the staging and everything else that the RNC purchased. I am not taking them with me. I am back to wearing clothes from my favorite consignment shop in Anchorage, Alaska." Publicly, McCain aides backed up Palin, saying that a third of the clothes had been returned immediately, before they were worn in public, and that the rest would be donated to charity. Privately, however, McCain's top advisers fumed at what they regarded as Palin's outrageous profligacy. One senior aide said that Nicolle Wallace had told Palin to buy three suits for the convention and hire a stylist, but thereafter Palin had "gone rogue," as the media buzz put it. She began buying for herself and her family—clothes and accessories from top stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. A week after she announced that she was going back to her consignment shop she was still having tailored clothes delivered. According to two knowledgeable sources, a vast majority of the clothes were bought by a wealthy donor, who was shocked when he got the bill. Palin also used low-level staffers to buy some of the clothes on their credit cards; the McCain campaign found out last week when the aides sought reimbursement. One aide estimated that she spent "tens of thousands" more than the reported $150,000, and that $20,000 to $40,000 went to buy clothes for her husband. Some articles of clothing have apparently been lost. An angry aide characterized the shopping spree as "Wasilla Hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast," and said the truth will eventually come out when the Republican Party audits its books.

Such things invite ridicule. Maureen Dowd writes:

As Michael Shear reported in The Washington Post, on top of the $150,000 first cited in F.E.C. filings, Palin spent “tens of thousands of dollars” on more clothes, makeup and jewelry for herself and her family, including $40,000 in luxury goods for the First Dude. The campaign was charged for silk boxers, spray tanners and 13 suitcases to carry the designer duds, Shear reported, adding that one source said, “She was still receiving shipments of custom-designed underpinnings up to her ‘Saturday Night Live’ performance” in October. Silk boxers and custom-designed underpinnings? Sounds like Sarah and Todd were treating the vice presidential run as a second honeymoon."

There had been other warning signs (that the McCain camp would have easily discovered if they had bothered to vet her) that she liked having others pay for her high style of living, such as her practice as governor of getting a per diem for staying in her own home and having taxpayers pay for her family's travels and luxury hotel accommodations even though they had no official function.

She also courts controversy because of her habit of not thinking things through. For example, she gratuitously dismissed scientific research on fruit flies when she had no need to. She seems to be unable to resist the sarcastic one-liner that gets immediate laughs, and that is a recipe for trouble.

The latest fiasco was when she was speaking about Thanksgiving while a turkey was being slaughtered behind her. People wondered how Palin could be so oblivious to the poor scene being set. Instead she just rambled on and on, seemingly delighting in the sound of her own voice, whether she has anything to say or not. Jay Leno joked that the reason for the photo op fiasco was that the turkey couldn't bear listening to her anymore and said "Please kill me now."

Even if the more outlandish stories about Palin (such as her not knowing that Africa is a not a single country) are not true, her problem is that she has now acquired a reputation for deep ignorance that they are seen as plausible, and that image will be hard to shake off.

As a counter-example, in mid-September John McCain had an interview with a Spanish-language newspaper in which it seemed like he did not know that Spain was in Europe or that it was a US ally in NATO. But after some initial eye-rolling by commentators, that story did not gain much traction because it was highly implausible that someone like McCain would be so ignorant about geography. Even McCain's critics looked for plausible alternative explanations for his strange comments. But if the same thing had happened with Palin, people would easily believe that she does not know that Spain is not in Latin America. That is not a good reputation for a national leader to have.

The real problem, as I said above, is not that Palin is ignorant about many things that she should be aware of. All of us are. The problem is that she seems oblivious to the fact that she is ignorant and hence is unlikely to improve. If the Republican party does choose her, they will be taking a huge political gamble.

Next: The once and future queen?

POST SCRIPT: Talk on Israel-Palestine

The well-known Middle East scholar Norman Finkelstein, who has long advocated for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders, will speak on:

Israel and Palestine: Roots of Conflict - Prospect for Peace

The talk is on Thursday, December 11, 2008, 6:30 pm in the Ford Auditorium, Case Western Reserve University. This is in the Allen Library building at the corner of Euclid and Adelbert.

The talk is free and open to the public.

December 09, 2008

Preachers, faith healers, and other conmen: The story of Marjoe

I watched a fascinating Academy Award-winning 1972 documentary called Marjoe, that follows the 'farewell tour' of Marjoe Gortner, a Pentecostal evangelical revivalist preacher. Marjoe (named after Mary and Joseph) was born in 1944 to Pentecostal preacher parents. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were also evangelists and his parents noticed early in his life that he had a precocious self-confidence and good mimicry skills. They had the idea of making him a child preacher, publicizing a story of him at the age of three being visited by the Holy Ghost and speaking in tongues while having a bath.

Whether this story was made up out of whole cloth or whether the clearly playful Marjoe was merely mimicking what he had seen others do at revival meetings was not clear. What Marjoe does admit is that he himself never ever believed, even as a child, that he had any special spiritual experience or that god was speaking to him, despite all the adulation he received as some kind of child prophet. Instead his parents had to relentlessly coach him and made him, under threat of punishment, memorize his lines and worked out codes and signals for him to use as cues while he was preaching. He was ordained soon after.

The parents took this show on the road in the Midwest and the South when Marjoe was four, and the child evangelist was a sensation. The sight of a little boy, with blue eyes and hair consisting of tight golden curls dressed in a suit, preaching hellfire, damnation, and salvation grabbed the attention of the public and the media, and his parents milked the attention for all it was worth, even arranging for him to officiate at a wedding before he was even five. This caused a bit of a stir legally and eventually led to California requiring marriage officiators to be at least 21.

This lucrative racket went on until Marjoe was fourteen by which time the novelty was beginning to wear off. His father absconded with all their money and Marjoe himself ran away to California and became a bit of a drifter until he was befriended by an older woman and got back to a somewhat steadier life.

In the mid 1960s, he decided to return to preaching to the same audiences as before but with a new message of civil rights and social justice. But the audiences did not want to hear that. Needing money, he returned to his roots, becoming once again a hellfire and damnation Pentecostal preacher, using his still considerable reputation as the boy preacher to gain access to the revival circuit. Using many of the stage techniques of the rock stars (particularly Mick Jagger) he aspired to be, he put on quite a show for the faithful, and he soon had people speaking in tongues, going into seizure-like trances, and being 'cured' of their illnesses again. He made enough money doing this to have to work only for six months of each year, spending the other six loafing on the beaches.

In this book excerpt he explains in detail how he operated, how he got people 'speaking in tongues' and 'healed'. He also explained some of the appeal that these revival meetings had.

During his years on the Bible Belt circuit, he came to see the Evangelical experience as a form of popular entertainment, a kind of participatory divine theater that provides its audiences with profound emotional rewards.

"The people who are out there don't see it as entertainment," he confessed, "although that is in fact the way it is. These people don't go to movies; they don't go to bars and drink; they don't go to rock-and-roll concerts -- but everyone has to have an emotional release. So they go to revivals and they dance around and talk in tongues. It's socially approved and that is their escape."

But after four years of this, he did not have the stomach anymore for this charade and he explains what turned him off. "I'd see someone who wanted to get saved in one of my meetings, and he was so open and bubbly in his desire to get the Holy Ghost. It was wonderful and very fresh, but four years later I'd return and that person might be a hard-nosed intolerant Christian because he had Christ. That's when the danger comes in."

So at the age of 26, he went on a farewell tour for two years, but this time to create an expose of the revivalist preacher racket which he knew so intimately from the inside. He was accompanied by a film crew with whom he shared, in confidence, the tricks of the trade: how you get people worked up, how you 'cure' them, how you know when to hit them up for money. The documentary was the end the result and it is quite gripping.

I had mixed feelings while watching the film. I despise the so-called preachers who shamelessly fleece poor people, calling on them to 'sacrifice for Jesus' and to show their 'love for Jesus' by giving money they cannot spare in order that the preachers can live well, buying expensive cars and extensive properties around the world. Behind the scenes, it is pure business, these sharks greedily counting the day's takings, coldly calculating what would sell, what would make people give more, devising gimmicks to gain market share from their competitors, and developing techniques to increase revenue.

But at the same time one cannot but help feel pity for the people who attend these meetings and get caught up in the emotions, so much so that they cannot see that they are being played for fools and suckers, and to be exposed as such in the documentary. These are clearly desperately needy people, looking for hope and meaning in their lives, emotionally vulnerable and ripe for plucking by con-men and women. To watch them be so easily convinced that Marjoe, who does not believe any of this stuff, is god's conduit through which the 'Holy Ghost' passes to them, and as a result to hear them 'speak in tongues' and collapse on the floor shaking in the grip of the 'Holy Ghost', is to be amazed at the power of delusion, at the ability of people to believe what they want to and need to believe.

It seems to me that there are only two kinds of people involved in this phenomenon. A few cynical money loving preaching and faith healing exploiters and their support teams, and the vast number of gullible saps who do not realize that it is not their souls these preachers seek to lift but their wallets.

It is worthwhile to note that Sarah Palin comes from this world. I wonder which part.

POST SCRIPT: Praise the Lord and pass the collection plate

Here is the opening segment of the documentary Marjoe, where you can see the child Marjoe do his stuff.


December 08, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-12: Puppet or puppeteer?

The key issue that will determine the future of the Republican Party leadership is whether it will revert to the control of the old-style conservatives that can reclaim the support of numerically large social values base, or whether leadership of the party will remain with the new alliance of Christianists and neoconservatives, united under the banner of Sarah Palin.

At present, it seems like the latter are firmly in control. These people don't worry too much about whether Sarah Palin is competent, since they feel they can 'manage' and 'control' her. Randy Scheunemann is a neoconservative and PNAC project director who is a strong supporter of Palin and was the person assigned to brief her on foreign policy (which did not turn out too well, to put it mildly). He is also strongly anti-Russia, a paid lobbyist for Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, and someone who pushed for a strong US reaction against Russia over the conflict with Georgia over South Ossetia even though it has become clear that Georgia provoked it.

Under his tutelage, Palin's first important meeting that took place just before her convention speech was with the board of directors of AIPAC, a leading member of the Israel lobby. So clearly, the neoconservatives seem to think that in Palin they have someone they can influence.

Republicans who think Palin is the future also planned a secret meeting to be held two days after the election to plot long-term strategy. It is clear that they are going to use support for Palin as a litmus test to determine who, in their Manichaean worldview, is with them and who is against them.

Jim Nuzzo, a White House aide to the first President Bush, dismissed Mrs Palin's critics as "cocktail party conservatives" who "give aid and comfort to the enemy".

He told The Sunday Telegraph: "There's going to be a bloodbath. A lot of people are going to be excommunicated. David Brooks and David Frum and Peggy Noonan are dead people in the Republican Party. The litmus test will be: where did you stand on Palin?"

Mr Frum thinks that Mrs Palin's brand of cultural conservatism appeals only to a dwindling number of voters.

He said: "She emerges from this election as the probable frontrunner for the 2012 nomination. Her supporters vastly outnumber her critics. But it will be extremely difficult for her to win the presidency."

Mr Nuzzo, who believes this election is not a re-run of the 1980 Reagan revolution but of 1976, when an ageing Gerald Ford lost a close contest and then ceded the leadership of the Republican Party to Mr Reagan.

He said: "Win or lose, there is a ready made conservative candidate waiting in the wings. Sarah Palin is not the new Iain Duncan Smith, she is the new Ronald Reagan." On the accuracy of that judgment, perhaps, rests the future of the Republican Party.

Those of us who think Palin is utterly inept and incompetent based on her performance are aghast that anyone would seriously consider her to be their candidate for president. These backroom power brokers who support her are not stupid and cannot be blind to her obvious deficiencies as a national leader, even though she does have some crowd appeal. So what can they be thinking?

The fact is that politics has a long history of people who think they are so clever that they can control a useful, popular, but politically ignorant puppet leader, usually a woman. Such attempts almost always have a bad end. We have seen this played out in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka, a charismatic Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959. His party's leaders responded by appointing his widow as his replacement although she had no background whatsoever in politics. Their thinking was that she would be a figurehead who would reap the sympathy of voters and keep their party in power while they could control her from behind the scenes. While serious political analysts ridiculed the idea of a total novice being thrust into national leadership, what happened was that Sirimavo Bandaranaike turned out to be a shrewd manipulator of power who outmaneuvered and outlasted all her would-be puppeteers, and retained leadership of the party for over three decades, serving three terms as Prime Minister.

But while she proved to be a tough and wily politician, her previous lack of any interest in politics or even a coherent political and economic philosophy resulted in an ad hoc and chaotic style of governing, driven by personal whims and vendettas and intrigues, lurching from one policy to another, based on short-term tactics and no real long-term strategy.

The Christianists and neoconservatives backing Palin risk a similar fate. She reminds me of Mrs. Bandaranaike, someone with no coherent political or economic philosophy, ignorant and uninterested in national and international issues, but who knows how to appeal to a particular segment of voters, has shrewd political skills, and a lust for the trappings of office that she will use to her advantage. Those who support her thinking that she will be malleable to their agenda may be in for a nasty surprise once (and if) she gains power. In Alaska, she already has a reputation of someone who has no qualms about using people to propel her to higher office and then turning her back on them, and treating anyone who disagrees with her as an enemy to be destroyed.

So we should not be so quick to write her off as a political force.

Next: The case against Palin

POST SCRIPT: Proposition 8 – The Musical

Despite the passage of Proposition 8 in California and similar defeats for gay rights in Arizona and Florida on election day, there seems to be a surge in support for gay rights.

Watch Proposition 8 – The Musical, starring John C. Reilly and Jack Black as Jesus.

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

December 05, 2008

The internet is watching you

Recently I came across two sites that made me realize that the internet is getting too smart for its own good.

One is the site Typealyzer. You insert the URL of a blog and it does a Myers-Briggs type analysis of the personality of the author.

The results of a Myers-Briggs analysis places the subject along four axes:

Favorite world: Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).

Information: Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition (N).

Decisions: When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).

Structure: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).

So I inserted the URL for this blog into Typealyzer and got the result that I am an INTP-type, broadly classified as 'The Thinker':

Private, intellectual, impersonal, analytical and reflective, the INTP appears to value ideas, principles and abstract thinking above all else. This logical type seeks to understand and explain the universe--not to control it! Higher education often holds a particular appeal to this type who tends to acquire degrees and amass knowledge over the entire course of life. Abstract or theoretical subjects are usually the INTP's cup of tea, and academic or research careers may seem attractive to this type. From science and math to economics and philosophy: just name the discipline, and you'll find INTPs perched on the loftiest rungs of theory and analysis. In whatever field they choose, INTPs take on the role of visionary, scientist or architect, and they usually prefer to make their contributions in relative solitude. The mundane details of life may be the INTP's undoing, since this type lives in a world guided by intuitive thinking. Often perceived to be arrogant and aloof, the quiet and sometimes reclusive INTP may have to struggle in the personal realm, as well, for feelings are not this type's natural forte.

I then compared this with one of the many quasi-Myers-Briggs assessments available on the internet for free (you have to pay for the real thing) and got the result that my personality type is INTJ.

Of course, each of the four axes is a continuum and few people are at the very extremes of each. The strengths of my individual preferences were given as 44% Introverted, 50% Intuitive, 25% Thinking, and 89% Judging. These can be expressed qualitatively as moderately expressed introvert, moderately expressed intuitive, moderately expressed thinking, and very expressed judging.

The Myers-Briggs site describes the two types in the following way:

INTP: Seek to develop logical explanations for everything that interests them. Theoretical and abstract, interested more in ideas than in social interaction. Quiet, contained, flexible, and adaptable. Have unusual ability to focus in depth to solve problems in their area of interest. Skeptical, sometimes critical, always analytical.

INTJ: Have original minds and great drive for implementing their ideas and achieving their goals. Quickly see patterns in external events and develop long-range explanatory perspectives. When committed, organize a job and carry it through. Skeptical and independent, have high standards of competence and performance – for themselves and others.

The URL analyzer seems to be in pretty good agreement with the more detailed questionnaire-based analysis. The main difference is the last quality that switched from the T in the blog analyzer to the J, which switched me from the umbrella category 'Thinker' to the 'Scientist'.

Since I was in the mood for navel-gazing, I also tried GenderAnalyzer, that says it uses Artificial Intelligence to determine the gender of the author of the home page of a blog. I did it twice over a couple of weeks and the first time it returned 77% male and the second time 83% male.

I am not sure how to interpret the results since the basis of the algorithm used is not given. Presumably it does some kind of textual analysis of key words in comparison with a database of some sort.

But what would be a 'good' result? If for some reason a reader really wants to know the gender of the author, the closer you get to 100% accuracy the better. But from the view of the blog's author, that may also mean that you are highly gender-stereotypical in your language and/or choice of topics and/or views on them, depending on what the algorithm does. Should an author be aiming for 50% so that one is writing in ways that are free of gender bias?

Jesus' General (from whose site I first heard about this) who proudly claims that he is "an 11 on the manly scale of absolute gender" was horrified to find that he scored only 72%, lower than even some women bloggers, and he took the necessary steps to raise his manly score.

There also seem to have been a few anomalous results for some well-known people.

What all this tells me is that the internet knows us better than we think or may like.

The old cartoon joke "On the internet no one knows you are a dog" may no longer be true. It not only knows you are a dog, it can even tell the breed.

POST SCRIPT: Put down the duckie!

One of my favorite Sesame Street music segments.

December 04, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-11: The last straw

As this series has tried to show, there was an increasing divergence between the vision of the Republican party as seen by the old-style conservatives and that seen by the new alliance of Christianists and neoconservatives. Looking back, it seems inevitable that the tension would become too great and the party finally snap.

It was Sarah Palin that was the last straw. We saw how towards the end of the campaign, many leading old-style conservative Republicans, their party's intellectual backbone for so many years, abandon their party and support Obama, citing McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as the reason for their defection. I suspect that that was not the sole reason but that their disillusionment had been brewing for a long time and this was the defining event that pushed them over the edge.

The split over Palin resulted in bitter and public infighting within the Republican party, with many stalwarts jumping ship. The website Talking Points Memo has put together a nice graphic and quotes from the many Republican stalwarts who distanced themselves from the McCain-Palin campaign, particularly because of their reservations about Palin.

Andrew Sullivan is a good example of someone for whom the scales fell from his eyes. When reading the excerpt below written after the election, it is good to recall that he was one of the most gung-ho of conservative supporters of Bush and his policies, especially the Iraq war, who believed without any evidence that Iraq was behind the anthrax attacks, and who heaped vitriolic ridicule on all those of us who expressed concerns that the Bush administration was leading the country into a ditch.

He now makes an about-face and puts the current old-style conservative view most brutally:

Let's be real in a way the national media seems incapable of: this person should never have been placed on a national ticket in a mature democracy. She was incapable of running a town in Alaska competently. The impulsive, unvetted selection of a total unknown, with no knowledge of or interest in the wider world, as a replacement president remains one of the most disturbing events in modern American history. That the press felt required to maintain a facade of normalcy for two months - and not to declare the whole thing a farce from start to finish - is a sign of their total loss of nerve.

It happened because John McCain is an incompetent and a cynic and reckless beyond measure. To have picked someone he'd only met once before, without any serious vetting procedure, revealed McCain as an utterly unserious character, a man whose devotion to the shallowest form of political gamesmanship trumped concern for his country's or his party's interest. We need a full accounting of the vetting process: who was responsible for this act of political malpractice? How could a veep not be vetted in any serious way? Why was she not asked to withdraw as soon as the facts of her massive ignorance and delusional psyche were revealed?

The Palin nightmare also happened because a tiny faction of political professionals has far too much sway in the GOP and conservative circles. This was Bill Kristol's achievement.

It was a final product of the now-exhausted strategy of fomenting fundamentalist resentment to elect politicians dedicated to the defense of Israel and the extension of American military hegemony in every corner of the globe. Palin was the reductio ad absurdum of this mindset: a mannequin candidate, easily controlled ideologically, deployed to fool and corral the resentful and the frightened, removed from serious scrutiny and sold on propaganda networks like a food product.

This deluded and delusional woman still doesn't understand what happened to her; still has no self-awareness; and has never been forced to accept her obvious limitations. She cannot keep even the most trivial story straight; she repeats untruths with a ferocity and calm that is reserved only to the clinically unhinged; she has the educational level of a high school drop-out; and regards ignorance as some kind of achievement. It is excruciating to watch her - but more excruciating to watch those who feel obliged to defend her.

Her candidacy, in short, was indefensible. It remains indefensible. Until the mainstream media, the GOP establishment, and the conservative intelligentsia acknowledge the depth of their error, this blog will keep demanding basic accountability.

Even I have not have been so harsh in my critique of Palin but this just shows how resentful the old-style conservative Republicans feel about being squeezed out of the leadership. What the Palin selection did was to confirm in their mind that the party had passed the point of no return, that their worst fears were confirmed. Robert Draper of GQ magazine gave one of the many insider views at how the Palin choice was made and the disaster it had become.

Such reports must have persuaded the old-style conservatives that their party had completely abandoned any commitment to basic competence or traditional conservative philosophy in favor of short-term expediency and neoconservative ideology. They could no longer shut their eyes to the plain fact that Republican party had been taken over by deeply unserious people with a wrong vision for the future.

POST SCRIPT: The failure of the credit ratings agencies

Some time ago I wrote about the role of the credit rating agencies in creating the subprime mortgage mess.

Last week, PBS's NOW had a good 25-minute program on this topic.

December 03, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-10: The rise of neoconservative influence

The neoconservatives reached their pinnacle of influence with the election of George W. Bush in 2000.

The neoconservatives succeeded in planting key people in important positions. To the extent that we can discern any coherent political philosophy, Bush seems to be not a neoconservative himself, but through Dick Cheney and other key people in the Department of Defense, State, and NSA (such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, David Addington, Elliot Abrams), the neoconservatives have been able to achieve many of their goals.

Aided by the events of 9/11, they used and accentuated the fear and paranoia generated by that attack to create a mindset within the administration and the country that the US was at war with pretty much the entire Muslim world, especially in the Middle East, that this war must be won by any means necessary, and that the way to do that was to project American power, to show the world that America cannot be trifled with.

Looking back, it is amazing how so many people within government, the Congress, and the media, people who should have known better and in fact did know better, allowed this revved-up national sense of bloodlust to misdirect attention from al Qaeda, the organization behind the actual 9/11 attacks, to an attack on Iraq which had nothing to do with it and in fact was at odds with al Qaeda.

As a prime example, here is what so-called 'moderate' New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was saying in 2003 justifying the invasion of Iraq:

We needed to go over there basically, and take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble. . . .

And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going from house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: which part of this sentence do you understand? You don't think we care about our open society? . . . .

Well, Suck. On. This. That, Charlie, was what this war was about.

We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That's the real truth.

And guess what? People there got the message, OK, in the neighborhood. This is a rough neighborhood, and sometimes it takes a 2-by-4 across the side of the head to get that message. But they got the message and the message was, "You will now be held accountable."

This puerile macho posturing was what passed for serious analysis in the mainstream media. But it fit in perfectly with the neoconservative mindset because in their grand plan, Iraq was the first on the list of Middle Eastern countries that they wanted to dominate, followed by Iran and Syria, with the idea that Saudi Arabia would then naturally fall into the US orbit. So the fact that Iraq was innocent of the 9/11 attacks was deliberately obscured.

Getting the Bush administration to start the unprovoked, illegal, and immoral war with Iraq was the major 'success' of the neoconservatives and as a result of it, the Republican party has received strong support from them, that group seeing it as the best vehicle for advancing their agenda. In order to solidify their influence, they have provided the intellectual cover for this administration's deliberate expansion of presidential power and authority, seeking to remove all judicial and congressional oversight.

It is this increased role and influence of the neoconservatives within the Republicans that poses a significant problem for the party.

Any political party needs a political philosophy, an ideological and intellectual base around which it can define its political and economic strategy. While the religious social values base provide the raw voting numbers for the Republican party, religious views by themselves are not sufficient on which to base a governing philosophy.

For a long while, the political philosophy of the Republican party was provided by the old-style conservatives. Things began to change with the rise of Christianist leaders like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and the like who veered away from traditional religious concerns and added on three new features: a determined commitment to low tax policies, a total aversion to any government aid to the poor, and a belief in an 'end times' theology which sees the world as ending soon with Armageddon and Jesus's second coming.

It was this last crazy belief that played a significant role in shifting the ideological base within the Republican party. The old-style conservatives are not particularly religious (and definitely not end-timers) and are uneasy with the many excesses of the Bush administration and its naked power grab. As a result, the crazies of the religious right now found themselves moving closer to the crazies of the neoconservatives because in both visions, the dominance of Israel in the Middle East and the subjugation of its Muslim neighbors play important roles in their eschatology. The neoconservative crazies saw Israel's supremacy as a desirable foreign policy end in itself, while the religious crazies saw it as a signal, the immediate precursor to the really desirable end they fervently wished for, the end of the world.

As a result of this shift, what we have seen within the last decade or two has been the rapid decline in influence of the old-style conservative group within the intellectual and political leadership of the Republican party and its replacement by the neoconservative group, the key factor being the shift of allegiance of the Christianist leadership from the former to the latter. As a result, we saw the abandonment of a non-interventionist foreign policy with one that seemed to actually seek out confrontation with other countries to be used as vehicles for the projection of raw military power. The sophistication and education of the neoconservative crazies gave intellectual cover to the most outrageous policies, even to the extent of having 'serious' discussions of what kinds of torture was allowable and what was not.

In the last eight years, the old-style conservatives have seen almost everything they value being overturned by their party: A huge rise in government spending leading to record deficits, reckless and illegal wars started, the alienation of traditional allies, government breakdown as ideology replaced competence as criteria for job selection, violations of the constitution and rule of law justified by the most extreme arguments, people's individual liberties trampled upon cavalierly, and finally the collapse of the economy due to reckless deregulation and a cavalier attitude towards the public trust.

While these changes may have been distasteful to them, for a long time the old-style conservatives seemed to be willing to go along with it as a winning electoral tactic, and they could delude themselves that they still had some influence within the party leadership. They were willing to remain silent and to even provide cover for some of the changes. Thus one found traditional old-style conservative Republicans bending logic into pretzel shapes trying to explain how the Bush policies could be consistent with what their party had always stood for, even though this was manifestly false.

But there had to come a breaking point and the last election provided it.

Next: The last straw.

POST SCRIPT: Finding the right Christmas gift

It helps when everyone knows what you really want.

December 02, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-9: The neoconservative problem

The struggle for the future of the Republican party has four groups vying for dominance.

One group consists of the old-style conservatives, people who want smaller government and fiscal restraint, balanced budgets, rule of law, respect for personal liberties, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

The second group is the rank-and-file social values base for whom guns, gays, abortion, stem-cell research, flag, the Bible, and immigration are the main concerns. Many of these people belong to the lower and middle economic classes.

The third group is the Christianist leadership, people like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and John Hagee, who claim to speak for the social values base but, as I argued in the previous post in this series, whose overriding allegiance is to a low-tax ideology (especially for the rich) and who vehemently oppose any government programs that provide assistance to the poor.

The fourth group is the neoconservatives. The neoconservatives are the wild card in American politics, wreaking havoc wherever they go. Their interests lie less in domestic policies and more in creating a muscular foreign policy. They dream of America exercising hegemony over the world, using its might to destroy its enemies. They are firmly convinced that America is a force for good in the world and should not be shy about using its military, political, and economic muscle to dominate it.

In particular they want to remake the Middle East, to secure its oil supplies and change the governments of those countries that they perceive as threats to Israel, since they view the interests of America as identical with those of Israel (especially the hard-right spectrum of Israeli politics), and that what is good for one country is good for the other.

Neoconservatives seem to think the end justifies the means and if they need to, they will support the shredding of constitutional protections, committing torture, starting illegal wars, abusing the powers of government, and the administration accumulating almost dictatorial powers in pursuit of their objectives. A world dominated by sheer America power is their dream.

The neoconservatives have been around for a long time and eventually in 1997 created an organization headed by William Kristol and somewhat grandiosely titled The Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Their mission statement can be found on its website.

The Project for the New American Century is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to a few fundamental propositions: that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; and that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle.

The PNAC intends, through issue briefs, research papers, advocacy journalism, conferences, and seminars, to explain what American world leadership entails. It will also strive to rally support for a vigorous and principled policy of American international involvement and to stimulate useful public debate on foreign and defense policy and America's role in the world.

For a while the neoconservatives wandered in the political wilderness, searching for a home. They are not particularly politically partisan, except for tactical reasons for the purposes of executing their long-term political strategy. Many of them are socially liberal and have been Democrats in the past, belonging to the strongly anti-Soviet/anti-Russian wing of that party that used to be headed by Senator Henry 'Scoop' Jackson. (Leading neoconservative Richard Perle was a staffer for Jackson for over a decade.) Many are not religious at all but believe in the utility of religion as a powerful means for influencing people to adopt particular political positions and keeping them in line.

They neoconservatives tried to influence the administration of George H. W. Bush (1988-1992) but did not have much success. That administration was dominated by so-called 'realists', people who dealt with the world as it was and not as they wished it to be, and who pursued a multilateral foreign policy based on alliances rather than on unilateral projections of American power. Ray McGovern, a long-time CIA analyst who worked in that administration and gave George H. W. Bush his daily intelligence briefing, says that the neoconservatives were then called "the crazies" and kept at arm's length.

The neoconservatives may be crazy but they not stupid. They don't care too much about who actually is the titular leader of the country or what party is in power. While they seek actual political power, they also believe that they can influence policies through occupying senior policy-making positions in government and dominating the discussions in the opinion-making media. They did the latter by building up their so-called think tanks and using them to gain prominence as media analysts. (For more analysis on how this works, see my series on the propaganda machine.)

After their failure to significantly infiltrate the administration of Bush Sr., the neoconservatives tried to move in with Democrats and influence the Clinton administration (1992-2000) to adopt their hard-line military interventionist policies, but again met with only limited success.

But then they hit the jackpot following George W. Bush's victory in 2000.

Next: The rise of neoconservative influence.

POST SCRIPT: On being #1

Lewis Black comments on some American preoccupations. (Strong language advisory.)

December 01, 2008

The future of the Republican Party-8: Compassionate conservatism versus brutal conservatism

(For the previous posts in this series, see here.)

If you look at his Wikipedia page, it becomes clear that Mike Huckabee is too pragmatic on economic issues for the Christianists. He is someone who as governor of Arkansas sought to find ways to solve the social problems that he faced, even to the extent of cutting deals with Democratic leaders rather that sticking rigidly to the lower-tax ideological script demanded by the Christianist leaders.

In late 1996, Huckabee campaigned for ballot Amendment 1, a plan to adjust property tax rules to make school funding more equal across the state, and Amendment 2, a constitutional amendment increasing the state sales tax 0.125 percent to improve the state's park system and natural resources.

On April 1, 1999, Huckabee signed into law a three cent increase in tax on gasoline and a four cent increase on diesel. Attached to the bill was a bond issue to pay for highway construction.

Huckabee also seems to be genuinely progressive on race, concerned about the state of the environment, and interested in trying to improve the conditions of the poor.

Huckabee proclaimed 1997 as a year of racial reconciliation by saying "Let every one of us make it our priority to bring reconciliation, not so much that we can force it or legislate it, because we cannot, but that we begin in each of our own lives to purpose in our hearts that we will not harbor anger, hostility, prejudice, bigotry and racism toward any person."

Huckabee signed legislation to create a health insurance program which extended coverage to children of lower-income families, to be funded in part by Medicaid, SCHIP, and a tobacco industry lawsuit settlement. The program, ARKids First, reduced the number of uninsured children to nine percent (compared with 12 percent for the nation) in 2003. Also in his first year as governor Huckabee signed a partial birth abortion ban and a $7.6 Million Smart Start program for primary school students to learn "the basic skills of reading, math, and character."

He was also not too hard-line on immigration issues.

Huckabee supported a 2005 bill by Arkansas State Representative Joyce Elliott to make some illegal immigrants eligible for scholarships and in-state college tuition, while vehemently opposing a bill sponsored by Arkansas State Senator Jim Holt which would deny state benefits to illegal immigrants, calling it "un-Christian."

All these actions were taken as signs of his lack of ideological purity and earned him the deep ire of the low-tax ideologues.

[T]he Club for Growth argues Huckabee increased state spending 65.3 percent (1996–2004) and supported five tax increases. . . Ernest Dumas of the Arkansas Times, a consistent Huckabee critic, responded . . . [that] Huckabee was "the biggest taxer and spender in Arkansas history." Former Arkansas State Representative Randy Minton (R) has said; "[Huckabee's] support for taxes split the Republican Party, and damaged our name brand." The group has pointed out that Huckabee publicly opposed the repeal of a sales tax on groceries and medicine in 2002, signed a bill raising taxes on gasoline in 1999, and signed a $5.25 bed-tax on private nursing home patients in 2001.
. . .
The Club for Growth accuses Huckabee of being a liberal in disguise, saying Huckabee increased state spending 65.3 percent (1996–2004) and supported five tax increases.
. . .
The Cato Institute, a libertarian non-profit public policy research foundation, gave Huckabee an "F" for spending and tax policy in 2006.

And this is the main hidden fault line that is dividing the Republican party. For all their professed concern about religion-based social issues, this group's fundamental allegiance is to an extreme form of free-market economics that serves mainly the interests of the very rich class. Any candidate that they approve of must support lower taxes (especially for the top echelons) and oppose any and all government programs that seem to benefit the poor.

These religious leaders have striven over the years to convince Christians that wealth is a sign of virtue and poverty is a sign of god's disapproval. Hence, by eliminating government assistance programs, poor people should be left to fend for themselves, to prove that they are worthy by raising themselves out of their situation without any assistance from the government, while the well-to-do deserve to be rewarded for their obvious good character by being given even more tax cuts and other benefits. These Christianists seem to take literally Jesus's words, "For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him." (Matthew 25:29)

They have partially succeeded with this message but they may be pushing it too far and alienating some of their base. Many Christians are not as callous as the Christianists are. They may think that they are entitled to a good life simply by virtue of being born-again Jesus lovers but they also believe in being their neighbor's keeper and are not comfortable turning away from people in dire need. They take Jesus's story about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) as a prescription for action. Many are also concerned about the state of the environment and worry about the excesses of greed that have led to deep inequalities.

Huckabee's understanding of Christianity seems to push him in the direction of being an actual 'compassionate conservative' even though he remains religiously extreme, and the low-tax, ideology-driven religious right leaders did not want to have anything to do with him. While Huckabee may have fit the bill as far as social issues goes, he was too pragmatic and lacked gut-based, ideological approach to decision-making and the steely-eyed determination of Bush, McCain, and Palin.

In their rejection of Huckabee, these Christianist leaders are revealing a major fault line within the Republican party and showing themselves to be out of step with the values of many of their followers. Their rejection of the Huckabee candidacy reveals clearly more than anything else that their desire to serve the very rich triumphs over their so-called religious values.

This major schism within the Republican party is compounded by the rise of neoconservative influence within it, and this is what has driven the party off the rails.

Next: The Republicans' neoconservative problem.

POST SCRIPT: The Modern Apostle's Creed

What liberal Christians really believe.