THIS BLOG HAS MOVED AND HAS A NEW HOME PAGE.

Entries for July 2009

July 31, 2009

Birther madness-2: The plot thickens

Yesterday, I pointed out that even if one takes the birthers’ highly implausible claim that Obama was born in Kenya at face value, Title 8, section 1401, subsection (g) of the U.S. Code seems to grant him natural born status since his mother was a citizen who lived in the US for at least five years, at least two of which were after the age of fourteen.

But the birthers have seized upon the fact that the requirement of years of residency in the US of the parent has changed with time. According to the U.S. State Department:

Birth Abroad to One Citizen and One Alien Parent in Wedlock: A child born abroad to one U.S. citizen parent and one alien parent acquires U.S. citizenship at birth under Section 301(g) INA provided the citizen parent was physically present in the U.S. for the time period required by the law applicable at the time of the child's birth. (For birth on or after November 14, 1986, a period of five years physical presence, two after the age of fourteen is required. For birth between December 24, 1952 and November 13, 1986, a period of ten years, five after the age of fourteen are required for physical presence in the U.S. to transmit U.S. citizenship to the child. (my emphasis)

So here's what the birthers’ case boils down to: Obama was born in Kenya in 1961 but his mother was not yet 19 at the time (she was born November 29, 1942 and Obama was born August 4, 1961) so she could not have satisfied the 'five years after the age of fourteen' condition that was in force at the time of his birth. Hence Obama is not a natural born citizen. Hence he is not qualified to be president. In addition, if he is not a natural born citizen, and since there is no evidence that he ever went through the naturalization process for citizenship, that would mean that he is in the US illegally and would have to be deported.

(Without getting too much into the legal weeds here, it is not clear that the courts would even apply this rule in Obama's mother's case because it would seem to eliminate people over something they had no control, purely because they are too young, and this might violate the 'equal protection' clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As is usual in such cases, the courts do not go merely by the language of the law but will likely look closely at the explicit legislative history and language to see if Congress meant to only exclude people who could have satisfied the five year residency requirement but chose not to.)

Kitty Pilgrim of CNN lays out the evidence against the birthers. (If there is any doubt that the birthers are out to lunch, one needs to look no further than the fact that Alan Keyes (Alan Keyes!) is one of them.)

Furthermore, this article in the Honolulu Advertiser should put to rest the speculations that the newspaper announcements of his birth were planted by Obama's people in the US as part of the elaborate hoax. The article says that the newspapers' birth notices are not inserted at the request of the parents or family but taken by them from hospital records. It should also settle the issue of whether Obama's Hawaiian 'Certificate of Live Birth' that has been made publicly available is somehow less than complete and that he must produce the full document or else he is hiding something.

And what about the allegation that Obama's step-grandmother (the second wife of Obama’s Kenyan grandfather) made a deposition that she was present when Obama was born in Kenya? That has also been debunked by Alex Koppelman.

Like all such elaborate theories, the birthers' case first requires you to accept a highly implausible premise. In reality, all this is moot since no reasonable person could doubt that Obama was born in Hawaii. To think otherwise is to create a preposterous scenario in which Obama's mother secretly went to Kenya (without leaving any discernible trail) to deliver her baby there (why?) and yet was savvy and influential enough to create an elaborate scheme with the collusion of Hawaii government officials to have his birth recorded in Hawaii and provide him with faked birth certificates even now. They also must have colluded with two Hawaiian newspapers to run contemporary birth notices of Obama's birth. All this in order to make him eligible to run for president decades in the future.

Remember that even if Obama had been born in Kenya and did not meet the criteria for being a 'natural born' citizen, it would have been easy for him to become a naturalized citizen because his mother was a citizen. The only reason for this elaborate charade on his mother's part is to make him eligible to run for president, the one and only job in the US that requires ‘natural born’ citizenship. If she was ambitious, smart, far-sighted, and knowledgeable enough to go to all this trouble to make her son appear eligible for the presidency, surely she would have simply had the baby in the US and been done with it?

The birthers' would benefit from studying the logic of David Hume who explained how to judge the credibility of extraordinary claims: "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish."

I suspect that Obama and the Democrats are thoroughly enjoying this. Far from being a serious challenge to the legitimacy of his presidency, this issue, coupled with the insulting treatment of the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court that focused so heavily on her Hispanic heritage in a negative way, is serving to further marginalize the Republican Party by making them look like a bunch of xenophobic and nativist loons.

To exploit this issue, one Democratic congressman introduced a bill celebrating 2009 as the 50th anniversary of Hawaii's statehood. Included in the bill is a statement acknowledging that the state is also the birthplace of the current president. This put the Republicans in a quandary. Voting for this ceremonial bill might anger the birthers while voting against or being absent would make them look nutty. The bill passed 378-0, suggesting that Congressional Republicans are realizing that this is getting out of hand.

Will that be the end of the story? Not at all. For birthers, like truthers and those who deny evolution, no evidence will convince them to change their minds. What they will do when they encounter setbacks or counterfacts is expand their theory into even more extreme territory. When the inevitable happens, with a judge throwing out their legal challenge to Obama's birth in Hawaii, they will start asking whether Stanley Dunham really was a citizen. Or if she really was Obama's mother or whether, as part of a secret advanced fertility research program, the egg that was used to conceive Obama was not really Dunham's but was taken from a non-citizen, fertilized in vitro, and then inserted in her. Or if all these arguments fail, suggest that there was a technical fault in the process whereby Hawaii became a state in 1959, invalidating its statehood.

It will never end for the true believers. One can only ignore the birthers. Or better still, laugh at them.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the birthers

And right on cue, here is Jon Stewart to laugh at them.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Born Identity
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJoke of the Day

July 30, 2009

Birther madness-1: Here come the clowns

I was vaguely aware during the election that some people were questioning Obama's eligibility for the presidency because of his Kenyan father, just as others were questioning McCain's because he was born in Panama. Neither candidate made an issue out of the other's birth and I assumed that this issue would die down after the election.

To my amazement some people seem to have become totally convinced that Obama is not constitutionally qualified to be president because he is not a natural born citizen. These so-called 'birthers' are still going on, even gaining steam, aided by some in the media such as Fox News and Lou Dobbs on CNN. Emblematic is this town hall meeting to discuss health care where a woman angrily claims that Obama is not a citizen and that she 'wants her country back'. Congressman Mike Castle (R-Delaware) is then booed by the crowd when he responds that Obama is a US citizen.

It has since emerged that the woman in the video is well-known locally as "Crazy Eileen", who has called Obama the anti-Christ and said she has spoken with angels and aliens. She has been banned even from local conservative call-in radio talk shows.

The birthers are (along with Sarah Palin) becoming a nightmare for the Republican Party, because the Party cannot totally denounce them because the base takes this stuff seriously, while they cannot endorse them because it makes them look like wackos too. Watch how Congressman John Campbell (R-CA) tries to dance around the issue, wanting to pander to the birthers while also not wanting to be seen as a nutcase who believes that Obama is not constitutionally qualified to be president.

Mike Stark of the Huffington Post and firedoglake tries to pin Republican congresspersons down on this question with no success except for one exception. Some of the people literally run away from him or hide to avoid having to answer.

Like most bizarre theories, such as the one that suggests that the events of 9/11 were an elaborate Bush-Cheney-CIA plot, (supporters of which are called 'truthers'), there is a tiny kernel of relevance buried in mounds of rubbish.

The issue is the constitutional qualifications for president which are laid out in Article 2, section 1: "No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States."

The key phrase that the birthers have zeroed in on is 'natural born citizen'. So what is the issue here? Since Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961, and Hawaii became a state in 1959, that should end the matter, no? Well, yes, except that the birthers allege that he was actually born in Kenya and that this whole Hawaiian birth thing was faked. They keep saying that his birth certificate is being hidden and the copies that are being shown are either faked or incomplete, and nothing anyone can say will dissuade them. The Annenberg Political Fact Check project has actually examined the birth certificate and pronounced it genuine, but they think that they are part of the elaborate cover up.

But even if Obama was born abroad, since his mother was an American doesn't that make him a natural born citizen? This is where things get a little complicated. The intent of the drafters of the constitution was to exclude naturalized citizens from holding the office of the presidency. But they lived in simpler times when it was clear how to identify such people. But as time went on and children were being born all over the world to all manner of combinations of citizens and non-citizens, and as the US acquired territories that were not states of the union, things got more complicated and the conditions for being classified as 'natural born' needed to be more precisely codified and this was done in statutes. Title 8, Section 1401 of the U.S. Code lays out all the possible scenarios whereby natural born citizenship can be achieved. The relevant one that applies to Obama's case (taking at face value the birthers' claim that he was born in Kenya) is subsection (g) that grants it to:

a person born outside the geographical limits of the United States and its outlying possessions of parents one of whom is an alien, and the other a citizen of the United States who, prior to the birth of such person, was physically present in the United States or its outlying possessions for a period or periods totaling not less than five years, at least two of which were after attaining the age of fourteen years.

But surely he qualifies under this too, since he had one parent (his mother) who was a citizen (born in Kansas) who lived in the US for "not less than five years, at least two of which were after attaining the age of fourteen years"?

You would think so. But then you would be underestimating the paranoia and inventiveness of groups like the birthers.

Next: The plot thickens!

POST SCRIPT: Meet the birthers

Stephen Colbert gives a leading birther enough rope and she duly hangs herself, revealing her nuttiness in all its glory.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Womb Raiders - Orly Taitz
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTasers

July 29, 2009

The health care debate-5: How other countries health systems compare to the US

(For previous posts on the issue of health care, see here.)

The advantages of single-payer systems over the current US system are becoming increasingly obvious. Another pro-business publication BusinessWeek concedes the advantages of the single payer system as is practiced in France.

In fact, the French system is similar enough to the U.S. model that reforms based on France's experience might work in America. The French can choose their doctors and see any specialist they want. Doctors in France, many of whom are self-employed, are free to prescribe any care they deem medically necessary. "The French approach suggests it is possible to solve the problem of financing universal coverage...[without] reorganizing the entire system," says Victor G. Rodwin, professor of health policy and management at New York University.

France also demonstrates that you can deliver stellar results with this mix of public and private financing. In a recent World Health Organization health-care ranking, France came in first, while the U.S. scored 37th, slightly better than Cuba and one notch above Slovenia. France's infant death rate is 3.9 per 1,000 live births, compared with 7 in the U.S., and average life expectancy is 79.4 years, two years more than in the U.S. The country has far more hospital beds and doctors per capita than America, and far lower rates of death from diabetes and heart disease. The difference in deaths from respiratory disease, an often preventable form of mortality, is particularly striking: 31.2 per 100,000 people in France, vs. 61.5 per 100,000 in the U.S. (my italics)

PBS's Frontline had a program Sick Around the World that looked at the health care systems in England, Taiwan, Germany, Switzerland, and Japan.

The private, profit-seeking health industry knows that their system is terrible compared to what single payer or socialized systems can offer and so they have to obscure and confuse things as much as possible. What has been amusing to watch has been the logical knots that the health industry has been tying itself up in to avoid even the minimal public option that has been proposed, saying that it would drive them out of business. Of course, if their claims that the government cannot run anything properly, that the private sector is far more efficient and will provide better health care at lower cost, then they should not have anything to fear from a public option. Even president Obama, who has been trying to placate the private health insurance industry, found this argument a bit much, saying, "Why would it drive private insurers out of business? If private insurers say that the marketplace provides the best quality healthcare, if they tell us that they're offering a good deal, then why is it that the government -- which they say can't run anything -- suddenly is going to drive them out of business? That's not logical."

The fact that they are trying to prevent a public option shows that the opposite is true. What they really fear is that once you take the profits, the huge salaries and bonuses of their top executives, and their exorbitant bureaucratic costs out of the system, the public system will be cheaper and more efficient and people will flock to it. Because of this fear, they and their lobbyists will first try to prevent any discussion at all of a meaningful public option, such as single payer.

healthreform.gif.jpeg.gif

If forced to concede one, they will try to hobble it by either limiting access to it or put in a lot of restrictions and rules in order to make is as inefficient and expensive and callous as the private system. "Opponents say private insurers could not compete with a public plan that didn't have to make a profit. They argue that private health plans would end up going out of business, leaving only an entirely government-run health care system."

I sincerely hope that this is true. Profit-making entities have no business being in the position of making health care decisions.

What the industry would really like is for the government to mandate that everyone have private insurance and pay for it, and at the same time reserve the right to deny coverage so that they make more profits. Because of this, we should be aware that the public plan that finally emerges from Congress may not be that good because of the amount of money that the health industry funnels to members of Congress. They may try to fob off on us some lousy system that they label the 'public option' that is designed to fail.

We should keep pushing for a single-payer, Medicare-for-all type system. The group Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) has done wonderful work in pushing for single payer and has created a comparison chart of public option vs. single payer. Single Payer Action Network in Ohio (SPAN Ohio) has come up with a plan just for the state that has the following features:

  • Patients get free choice of health care providers and hospitals.
  • When you go to your own personal physician for visits, there are NO premiums, NO co-payments, NO deductibles, NO one excluded. You pay nothing.
  • When you get your prescription filled by your pharmacist, there are NO premiums, NO co-payments, NO deductibles, NO one excluded. You pay nothing.
  • If you need hospitalization, there are NO premiums, NO co-payments, NO deductibles, NO one excluded. You pay nothing.

It beats me why anyone would prefer the current bureaucratic, service denying nightmare of the private, employer-based, profit-seeking system over such a plan.

POST SCRIPT: Tom Tomorrow on health care

One of my favorite cartoonists has been on a tear recently with three strips on health care: one, two, and three.

July 28, 2009

On books, audiobooks, and eBooks

When it comes to new communication technology, I can be labeled as both an 'early adopter' and and 'early abandoner'. I got a Facebook account very early on, and now don't do anything with it. I similarly got a Twitter account and abandoned it. I finally broke down and got a cell phone a couple of months ago under pressure from my family after I was in a few situations where having it would have been really helpful, but I use it only for emergencies and have given out the number to just a handful of people. In the three months since I got it, I have received about three real calls and a half dozen wrong numbers, which suits me just fine.

I think it is already pretty clear that I am a bit slow when it comes to new technology, adopting new things only when I absolutely have to. It is not that I am pathologically averse to new technology. It is just that so many new things come along that I prefer to wait until I feel that it serves a real need before I put in the time to learn the new tool. For example, I was quite happy with a pocket diary to keep track of my appointments until I got in a position where other people needed to make appointments on my behalf. Then I got a PDA (first a Palm and now an iTouch) so that I can sync with an online calendar that others have access to.

The only thing that I adopted fairly early and stuck with is my blog.

All this leads me to the topic of new book forms. I did listen to an audiobook a couple of times when I was driving long distance and it was not bad but the books that I listened to on it were lightweight humor. I usually read more serious non-fiction and that requires me to go back and re-read portions or jump to the index to find related things and audiobooks don't seem to be suited to that. Even with fiction I like to flip back to refer to earlier points and you can't do that easily with an audiobook.

Now we have eBooks. I tried out a Kindle that was loaned to me a few months ago (before the new version came out) because my university is embarking on an trial run to see if they might be good for students to use, so that they can have all their books in one portable device and not have to lug heavy textbooks around. My experience did not convince me enough to buy my own.

There are some good features to the Kindle. The screen was easy to read. You can also change the font size. Purchasing a book and downloading it from Amazon was very quick. Because it is small, about the size of a normal book, and yet has so much capacity, you can basically carry your entire library with you wherever you go.

But the reading experience was not as much fun as I would have liked, though some people really love it. There were also disadvantages. You cannot flip though the book easily, or jump to a page. I was reading Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin about how much of the human body originates from our fish ancestors and the book has lots of figures that are important in understanding how organisms evolved. The figures were hard to see and the labels impossible to read, and could not be enlarged, making it pretty much useless. The newest Kindle has a bigger screen that seems to partially solve this particular problem.

On balance, I did not like the Kindle. I prefer the tactile feel of a real book. After I returned the Kindle, I bought a hardcopy version of Your Inner Fish and enjoyed it much more.

Furthermore, with the Kindle you cannot lend a single book to someone without lending your entire library. This is a real drawback. There are many books that I have bought after I was first loaned a copy by someone who felt I would like it, and I have lent books to people as well. Furthermore, this will dry up the second-hand books market where you can find great old books that are otherwise unavailable. Almost every year, I give away a load of books to the university second-hand book sale and I like to think that others are going to enjoy what I once enjoyed. What are you going to do with all the old books on Kindle once you are done with them?

The new Kindle is also very expensive (about $500) and it locks you into only purchasing books that are offered in digital form by Amazon.

Users had a shock recently when they discovered that Amazon can unilaterally delete books they had already bought.

"It illustrates how few rights you have when you buy an e-book from Amazon," said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer for British Telecom and an expert on computer security and commerce. "As a Kindle owner, I'm frustrated. I can't lend people books and I can't sell books that I've already read, and now it turns out that I can't even count on still having my books tomorrow."

Furthermore, because the font size can be changed, there are no page numbers (these being replaced for each page by a numerical range of numbers that did not relate to anything that I could tell) so I cannot cite a specific page of the book. This is a real drawback for academic use since I quote passages from books a lot and like to give the page numbers to readers so that they can see for themselves the full context of the quote.

I think that before eBooks really take off it needs to be the case that the eBook readers should be much cheaper (even free), and should be able to read digital books from any source.

The old-fashioned books have some real advantages. As Lawrence G. Smith, author of Cesare Pavese And America, says (thanks to Progressive Review for the quote):

The book has existed in its present format--essentially sheaves of paper between a binding of some sort--for over two millennia. It has done so because it is a perfect artifact of information technology. It is portable, permanent, nearly indestructible, easily shared. It suffers no damage near magnetic fields, and when opened its boot-up time is instantaneous--just open it and you are reading; close it and reopen and you are reading immediately once again. It uses no electricity and never crashes. When you are reading its pages, they never go blue or black and you never get a message "fatal error; system shutting down."

Maybe I am just too old fashioned and stuck in my reading ways, the way I continue to subscribe to newspapers. I can see that printing and distributing books, like newspapers, involves enormous costs and a lot of waste since publishers have to guess how many copies to print and how to distribute them. A purely on-demand printing process, where a book is published and bound and sent to the person who ordered it might reduce that.

POST SCRIPT: Bronze age Luddites

Reluctance to adopt new technologies has a long history.

July 27, 2009

The health care debate-4: What the public thinks

(For previous posts on the issue of health care, see here.)

The fact that the current US system is broken and needs a complete overhaul with government involvement is becoming increasingly apparent to almost anyone except for those who have some kind of visceral reaction to the government being involved in anything. It is because of the stark reality faced by ordinary people that, despite the incessant propaganda against single payer public plans by the health industry and its allies in Congress and the media, the polls are pretty clear that people favor a greater government involvement in the health care system.

There is a Quinniapiac poll that shows that 69% want a public option.

A recent New York Times poll also finds that 72% favor "the government offering everyone a government administered health insurance plan like Medicare that would compete with private health insurance plans." The poll also found that "most Americans would be willing to pay higher taxes so everyone could have health insurance and that they said the government could do a better job of holding down health-care costs than the private sector."

Meanwhile, as Bernie Horn points out, in another new poll "Eighty-three percent of Americans favor and only 14 percent oppose "creating a new public health insurance plan that anyone can purchase" according to EBRI, a conservative business research organization. This flatly contradicts conservatives' loudest attack against President Obama's plan to provide quality, affordable health care for all."

To combat the charge that this was a biased poll funded by single payer supporters, we should note the groups that fund the EBRI (Employee Benefit Research Institute): "EBRI's biggest donors include: AT&T, Bank of America, Boeing, General Dynamics, General Mills, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Northrop Grumman, Schering-Plough, Schwab, T. Rowe Price, UBS Financial, and Wal-Mart. EBRI also receives large contributions from the insurance industry, including: Blue Cross Blue Shield, CIGNA, Hartford, Kaiser Permanente, Massachusetts Mutual, Metropolitan Life, Union Labor Life, and UnitedHealth. And who funded this particular EBRI poll? "AARP, American Express, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Buck Consultants, Chevron, Deere & Company, IBM, Mercer, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Principal Financial Group, Schering-Plough Corp., Shell Oil Company, The Commonwealth Fund, and Towers Perrin."

As an ABC News/Washington Post poll showed in 2003, the majority of Americans support a single-payer, government-sponsored health care system, even when they hear the right-wing's alarmist arguments. David Sirota highlighted some key findings of the poll:

  • Question 48 in the poll shows that 79% of Americans say they support "providing health care coverage for all Americans, even if it means raising taxes" over "holding down taxes, even if it means some Americans do not have health care coverage."
  • Question 49 shows 62% say they support a universal health care system "run by the government and financed by taxpayers" over the current system.
  • Question 50 shows 57% say they would support this program even "if it limited your own choice of doctors" (which doesn't necessarily have to be a side-effect of a single-payer system).
  • Similarly, question 51 shows 62% say they would support this program even "if it meant there were waiting lists for some non-emergency treatments" (again, not necessarily a side-effect).

So let's stop talking about "popular opposition" to government involvement in health care. The people who are opposed are the people in the current system who benefit from the sickness of others or have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that involves the government. What they are really scared of is that the public plan will be so popular that everyone will want to join in. Currently estimates of the people who will want to get in can get as high as 119 million, a number suggested by one of the health industry's main lackeys, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).

What the health industry wants is to get their hands on the 50 million or so who are currently uninsured as a new revenue stream. As Robert Parry points out:

The industry's hope is that the government will mandate that those Americans sign up for private insurance and offer subsidies for those who can't afford to pay the premiums.

Fifty million new customers and government largesse to help pay the bills would be a huge windfall for the insurance industry, which otherwise faces a decline in its market because Baby Boomers are reaching the age to qualify for Medicare and because rising unemployment is draining the pool of Americans who have insurance through their employers.

So watch for them to make noises about how they support everyone getting insurance, while at the same time fighting any attempt to change the way the current system works because it has proven so profitable for them.

Since they are aware that the public supports the public option, their strategy is likely to be to make the public option as unattractive as possible.

POST SCRIPT: The Chasers are back

That group of Australian pranksters target torture advocates John Yoo and Dick Cheney.

There was a time when the US was a leader in this kind of political guerilla theater, led by people like Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies. I remember being enthralled by their antics even though I was far away in Sri Lanka.

Remember when they ran the pig Pigasus for president in 1968 under the slogan "Pork Power"?

And who can forget the political theater of the trial that followed the violent Democratic convention of that year? See the documentary Chicago 10 for an excellent encapsulation of the comic drama of that tumultuous event.

And what about the time that the irrepressible Hoffman said that they were going, using meditation, to get the Pentagon to levitate and spin, and the media actually arrived to cover that attempt? Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prize winning book Armies of the Night offered an insider's look at the 1967 anti-war March on Washington that formed the backdrop.

Has this kind of political street theater become another casualty of outsourcing to other countries?

July 24, 2009

The health care debate-3: Why profits should not be a factor in health care

(For previous posts on the issue of health care, see here.)

It is important to realize that in the single payer or socialized systems, everyone is covered and no one is denied coverage for lack of employment, pre-existing conditions and the like. Does that mean that one will be able to have any treatment that one desires whenever one desires it? Of course not. Whenever there is greater demand than resources available, there will always have to be decisions made as to how those resources are to be utilized, and invariably some treatments may be denied or delayed for some people.

The point is that this occurs even now in the private health insurance system that we have in the US. The difference, and it is a huge one, is that the private health insurance decisions about whom and what to treat are made by bean counters who are driven by the insatiable drive to make profits for their companies and who seek every means to deny treatment. There is almost nothing that ordinary people can do when they get shafted by the companies, because they are expert at giving you the run-around.

healthreform2.gif

In single-payer and socialized medicine, decisions about how to allocate resources are made by collectively by physicians, other health professionals, and public policy makers who try to maximize the benefits of the system with the resources they have. There is usually some kind of board that is responsible for the workings of the system, but unlike the boards of directors of private, profit-seeking health insurance companies, they do not personally benefit financially by limiting treatment. And if we do not like how the system is run, then we have power to change things in that we can either vote to give the system more resources (the way we vote levies for schools and libraries) or we can vote for a government that will make the changes we desire. The public ultimately controls the health care system, which is as it should be.

It is also important to realize that in both single payer and socialized systems that are in existence in other countries, people still have the option to buy private health insurance if they want extra services, so those people who want premium services can still have them.

Those who think that they have good insurance now in the US from the profit-seeking private health insurance companies and resist change towards a single-payer or socialized system might be in for a nasty shock when they actually get ill because the health insurance industry has entire teams of people whose sole job is to find ingenious ways to deny coverage. The US health care system is truly wonderful as long as you do not get sick. Reporter Lisa Girion of the Los Angeles Times of June 17, 2009 reports on how the insurance companies cancel the medical coverage of sick people after they are diagnosed, a practice known as 'rescission'.

An investigation by the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations showed that health insurers WellPoint Inc., UnitedHealth Group and Assurant Inc. canceled the coverage of more than 20,000 people, allowing the companies to avoid paying more than $300 million in medical claims over a five-year period.

It also found that policyholders with breast cancer, lymphoma and more than 1,000 other conditions were targeted for rescission and that employees were praised in performance reviews for terminating the policies of customers with expensive illnesses.

Denial of coverage is mostly done by using the infamous 'pre-existing conditions' loophole. Insurance companies will go to great lengths to dig up something, anything, that can be used to deny claims and cancel coverage altogether. "A Texas nurse said she lost her coverage, after she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, for failing to disclose a visit to a dermatologist for acne… One employee, for instance, received a perfect 5 for "exceptional performance" on an evaluation that noted the employee's role in dropping thousands of policyholders and avoiding nearly $10 million worth of medical care."

Michael Moore's film Sicko (see my review) interviewed people whose job was to do this and get rewarded for it by the insurance companies. This should be no surprise. After all, then president Richard Nixon approved of setting up the present employment based private health insurance system only after he was assured by his aide that "Edgar Kaiser is running his Permanente deal for profit… All the incentives are toward less medical care… the less care they give them, the more money they make… the incentives run the right way." The present system is running exactly as they envisaged.

In May 2008 my younger daughter graduated from college so she immediately ceased to be on our health plan. But her job started only in August 2008 so we had to go through the dreary business of shopping around to get temporary coverage for the months of June and July before she got on her new company's plan. That kind of irritation alone should be enough for people to want to ditch the present system in favor of one where coverage is decoupled from one's employment status. For most people, the biggest nightmare about losing their job, or even changing it, is how to ensure health care for them and their families.

But that's not all. When my daughter later went to the doctor for some minor treatment, the insurance company would not pay unless she could prove that it was not a 'pre-existing condition', which meant that we had to go back and get all the documentation about her two month temporary coverage. Even that was not enough and we had to get the paperwork of the coverage she had before that and submit that too. All this took a lot of time and the matter still has not been resolved. In the meantime she left that job and got a new one, so we don't know what will happen now. But if she had not taken the precaution of getting temporary coverage for the two-month period of June and July 2008 (which happens to many people between jobs), and if we had not been conscientious about keeping all the paperwork, they would have simply denied her claims and she would have been on the hook for the entire amount. And there is nothing that we could have done about it.

Suzie Madrak relates an awful story about the hassle she went through when she injured her ankle. Because the injury occurred when she fell while getting down from a truck, her health insurance and auto insurance companies kept passing the buck to each other as being the party responsible for paying for treatment. This kind of thing simply would not happen in a single-payer or socialized system.

Anyone who has had to deal with the health insurance companies knows the aggravation that occurs routinely. The funny thing is that most Americans think this is normal because they have never known anything better. People in countries that have single-payer or socialized health systems never have to deal with an profit-making insurance bureaucracy that seeks to make money by denying treatment.

It is important to always bear in mind one undeniable fact: In the current system, it is that the primary mission of the private health insurance industry is to maximize the profits of their shareholders, not to provide good service to sick people.

The fact that finding ways to deny coverage is an important part of their profit-making strategy emerged once again when during congressional hearings last month, Rep. Bart Stupak, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations asked each of the heads of the major health insurance companies whether he would at least commit his company to immediately stop rescissions except in cases where they could show intentional fraud. All of them said "No", thus confirming that denying coverage to sick people by any means possible is a deliberate profit-seeking policy of these companies.

Unbelievable.

POST SCRIPT: Bill Maher makes a commercial for the American Medical Association

July 23, 2009

Wafergate

Some readers may remember my post on the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation where it is believed that during the communion service, the wafer and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus. I took that idea to its logical conclusion and argued that if true it could be used to clone god.

I also wrote about the huge ruckus that a college student in Florida caused when he did not immediately consume the communion wafer and instead tried to take it back with him to his seat. He got into a scuffle with a woman who wanted him to return it and the student was threatened with violence, comparisons were made to a hostage taking, and there were threats to break into his dorm room and rescue the wafer being held ‘hostage’ by him.

The university even sent in armed guards to be present at future services to prevent any more hostages being taken. The Catholic diocese also sent in a team of nuns as added protection for the wafers, though no mention was made as to whether they too were packing heat.

Well, it turns out that when the Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper recently attended a memorial service in a Catholic church for a deceased dignitary, he may committed the same religious offense as the college student. Watch and see for yourself.

I can guess what happened. Non-Catholics are not supposed to receive communion in the Catholic Church. The prime minister is a Protestant and probably realized at the last minute, when he was in a line where everyone was about to be given the wafer by the priest, that he did not know what the proper protocol was to deal with it. Eating it may have been sacrilegious and refusing it or giving it back might have been seen as rude. As a non-Catholic he realized he was in danger of committing a religious faux pas and poor sap, like all politicians faced with a tricky decision, he decided to punt. He probably felt that the safe thing to do was to put it in his pocket and deal with it later, not realizing that what he did was worse than the other options. As one news report on what is being called Wafergate says:

[T]he handling of the host is no trivial matter. As a non-Catholic, the prime minister should probably have refused communion, and church officials should have been advised of this in advance. But once the communion wafer, considered the body of Jesus, was in the prime minister's hand, it should have been consumed promptly or returned.

Of course, what he should have done when he was called on this was to admit that he had pocketed the wafer out of uncertainty about what to do and simply returned it. Even very religious people realize that their Byzantine rules are not understood by outsiders and would have forgiven him. But again, Harper's political instincts to never admit a mistake kicked in and he denied pocketing it, deciding to brazen it out.

So he either still has the wafer or he has destroyed it in some way and removed the evidence. There is no word on whether the Mounties or an elite swat team of nuns are going to try and stage a rescue of the hostage wafer from the pockets of this infidel.

The were fears that the allegations that Harper pocketed the wafer may have caused some embarrassment for him when he later went to meet with the Pope.

If I were Harper's advisor, I would have suggested that he give the Pope the pocketed wafer and say that he took it because he wanted to give the Pope a special gift, something with more meaning than a typical head of state gift like a painting or vase or an iPod. What could be more special to the Pope than getting a piece of the body of Christ?

POST SCRIPT: The real rulers

Government of Goldman-Sachs, by Goldman-Sachs, and for Goldman-Sachs.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Pyramid Economy
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJoke of the Day

July 22, 2009

The health care debate-2: Combating the health industry propaganda

(For previous posts on the issue of health care, see here.)

In order to effectively combat the health industry propaganda that seeks to preserve the current terrible system, people need to have a clear idea of what the main issues are and get clear on what the various terms mean.

First of all, ‘universal’ coverage, by which is meant that everyone has access to some health care is not enough. It is possible to achieve this by demanding that everyone must purchase private health insurance (the way all drivers must purchase auto insurance) and then providing aid for those who cannot afford it. All this would do is put more victims in the clutches of the rapacious and inefficient private health insurance companies and increase their profits while not improving the system.

So while universal coverage is a necessary condition, it is not sufficient. What is needed is universal coverage that is in the form of either single payer or socialized medicine. But the health industry and their lackeys are so terrified about people learning the truth about those systems that they have filled the debate with distortions that need to be swept away. A good place to start is by looking at this short animation that clearly explains how single payer works and why it is the best system.

Furthermore, not only are such systems not strange, unfamiliar, and complicated, the US has already had versions of them for decades and the people served by them are largely satisfied and would protest violently if they were eliminated.

The single payer system is what we now call Medicare, in that there is a single entity (the government) to which we pay premiums (in the form of payroll taxes) and which negotiates with and reimburses health care providers for the services they provide. In this system, people have the freedom to choose their doctors and hospitals. These are the systems that exist in countries like Canada and France.

The socialized medicine system is the Veterans Administration, in that the health professionals involved (doctors, nurses, etc.) are government employees and the medical facilities are government owned and run. This is the system in countries like England.

In both these systems, everyone who is qualified using simple minimal criteria (by age for Medicare, by military service for the VA) and needs treatment gets it without having to deal with health insurance bureaucrats, without being turned away because of 'pre-existing conditions', without worrying about the fine print in complicated forms, or all the other things that make dealing with the current private health insurance system such a nightmare.

It is interesting that all those who claim that single payer and socialized medicine are awful evils carefully avoid mentioning Medicare or the VA. If they were consistent, they would call for the abolition of those two programs. But they know that would be political suicide. People on Medicare and in the VA system, while complaining that they would like to see the system work better, would nevertheless react furiously to any suggestion of eliminating those programs and putting them back at the mercy of the callous private health insurance industry.

Watch this clip of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at a Senate hearing explaining this point clearly and making John McCain squirm by pointing out that when he and other politicians talk about how awful socialized medicine is, they are attacking the VA. Sanders challenges his fellow senators that if they think that socialized medicine and single payer systems are so bad, then they should propose legislation to abolish the VA and Medicare.

Of course, there are no takers because that whole argument is a fraud, manufactured by the health industry and its Congressional lackeys. As Sanders points out, those systems do not deny health care because you had a 'pre-existing condition' or because you lost your job. As Sanders points out, opinion polls repeatedly show that people want the government to be in the business of health care and they want more things like VA, not less. As he says, the US Senate may be the only body in the entire country that thinks that a private health insurance system is better.

In fact, the simplest health care reform to implement would be to incrementally expand some form of Medicare to eventually cover everyone, perhaps starting with young children.

With Medicare, we already have a working model that is in place and that everyone knows how to deal with. It would be relatively easy to build on it. On does not need to design an entirely new system from scratch.

POST SCRIPT: French health care system

CBS News compares the French health system (which I think would be the best model for the US to follow) with the US system. (Thanks to RCarla)

July 21, 2009

God is everywhere

There is a famous and funny old sketch called the Five Minute University in which comedian Don Novello acts in his character of Father Guido Sarducci.

As he says, when the students study theology at his university, all they will learn are the answers to the two questions "Where is god?" (Answer: God is everywhere) and "Why?" (Answer: Because he likes you). I am beginning to think that the answer to the first question is absolutely correct.

Take a look at this picture of a cut tree stump that is in a churchyard in Ireland. What do you see?

mary tree stump.jpg

Nothing? Just a tree stump that someone has cut in an odd way? Oh ye of little faith! To the devout this looks like the Virgin Mary and they think its appearance is (what else?) a miracle. People are making pilgrimages to pray around it. Over 2,000 have signed a petition objecting to plans to uproot the stump, and want to convert it into a permanent shrine of some sort.

The thing that strikes me is that recently Jesus and Mary seem to be showing up all over the place, in slices of toast, grilled cheese sandwiches, womb ultrasounds, Marmite jar lid, Kit Kat bar, shower curtain, cheese curl, dental x-rays, mugs of hot chocolate, even on the backside of a dog or in bird droppings. Here are yet more sightings.

Such stories, apart from revealing religious people to be hopelessly credulous, also demonstrate how weak some people's faith is, not how strong. It is only people who are really desperate for a sign to bolster their beliefs that will seize on such pathetic things as validating their faith. The woman who saw the Marmite Jesus 'took comfort from the image' saying, "I'm not particularly religious but I like to think it's Jesus looking out for us."

This kind of thing puts religious authorities in a quandary. On the one hand, they realize that if you have too many such sightings, religion begins to look more and more ridiculous. After all, if people start worshipping tree stumps, how can you distinguish so-called mainstream religion from more allegedly primitive religions, such as paganism. Some religions actually do involve tree-worship and the Christmas tree symbol itself likely began as one.

On the other hand, religious authorities cannot categorically debunk all of them as nonsense because their bread and butter depends on people believing that god can reveal himself to people on occasion even if it in this weird way. The problem for the church is that it wants to discourage freelancers and keep a monopoly on what qualifies as a revelation of god and what doesn't as this is the source of their power and money. They tried to walk that fine line on this occasion too.

Local parish priest Fr Willie Russell said on radio station Limerick Live 95FM yesterday that people should not worship the tree. "There's nothing there . . . it's just a tree . . . you can't worship a tree."

A spokesman for the Limerick diocesan office said the "church's response to phenomena of this type is one of great scepticism".

"While we do not wish in any way to detract from devotion to Our Lady, we would also wish to avoid anything which might lead to superstition," he said.

Fortunately for the spokesman, he was not asked what distinguishes this particular "superstition" from all the superstitions that the church expects people to believe, such as that the wafer and wine become transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus when the priest mumbles some words over it. Mary-in-a-tree-stump is nothing compared to that.

Fortunately for the spokesman, he could depend on the 'respect for religion' nonsense to deter 'polite' reporters from asking such obvious questions.

That Mitchell and Webb Look reports on another miraculous sighting.

All these Jesus and Mary sightings and the comment in the above clip that the melon message blew his tomato message out of the water gave me an idea for a new reality TV series, because what the nation really needs is another reality show. This one would consist of people bringing their candidates for an authentic god appearance and making the case for it. Then a panel of theologians would give their comments, and the audience votes for which artifact is an actual miracle of god and then worship the ultimate winner.

I think a good title for the show would be "American Idol". I hope no one has used it already.

UPDATE: Commenter Chris sent me this compilation of a huge number of Jesus sightings. There seems to be an epidemic.

POST SCRIPT: You mean the Earth isn't 6,000 years old?

Watch this statement by Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen (R).

What is amazing is that her statement that the Earth is 6,000 years old is said so casually during a discussion of environmental concerns over uranium mining, as if it was the most commonplace fact in the world and not at all something idiotic and controversial. These people live in their own bubble world.

July 20, 2009

The health care debate-1: Clarifying the issues

(For previous posts on the issue of health care, see here.)

The late Walter Cronkite said, "America's health care system is neither healthy, caring, nor a system." And he was right. It is a rotten structure that has continued purely on the basis of its ability to fool people using smoke and mirrors into thinking it is better than it is. But the structure is so bad that the façade is crumbling and the need for reform cannot be hidden anymore.

As the health care reform debate gathers steam, those who benefit greatly from the current system (drug and health insurance companies, hospitals, and doctors) by making large amounts of money while delivering less than adequate care, and the members of Congress whom they effectively bribe to protect their interests, and the mainstream media which is always obsequious in advancing the interests of the business and political elite, are going flat out to preserve as much of their interests by either lying or fear-mongering or creating confusion. As all the various plans are debated, with their details, it is important to keep clear what the issues are, and the next series of posts will try to do that.

These are the lies and distortion that are spread by the health industry:

  1. The US currently has the best health care system in the world.
  2. The private sector is better than the government at providing everything, including health care.
  3. Single payer or socialized systems are massive, complicated, expensive, bureaucratic nightmares that will not provide timely and quality health care.
  4. There is no freedom of choice under single payer or socialized medicine.
  5. The people in those countries that have single-payer health care systems (which is practically every other developed country and many developing countries) have terrible care and the people in those countries envy what we have in the US.

Expect to hear lots of frightening stories about how terrible single payer and socialized medicine is (although exactly how those plans work will be rarely explained and comparative statistics will rarely be produced) and how strange and confusing it will be for everyone. Expect to hear a lot of anecdotes about the long wait times that the people in those systems encounter. If you want to get the facts about single payer to counter this propaganda, see this FAQ page prepared by the group Physicians for A National Health Program (PNHP).

During all these discussions, the key question that will be avoided at all costs is what value the private health insurance industry adds to the health system. This is because the answer is zero. It is actually more accurate to say it is negative, because these companies are parasites, existing purely to take money out of the system in the form of high bureaucratic costs and profits. Currently the amount of money that is siphoned off by them is estimated at 30% of the total health care budget, far higher than the overhead costs in single payer systems.

All these special interests will try and avoid even mentioning the phrase 'single payer' and refuse to even consider it as one of the options. In fact it is only because advocates have loudly demanded that it be included, to the extent of even disrupting meetings and hearings and getting themselves arrested, that it has had any mention at all.

The only alternative that will be deemed to be even worth discussing is something called a 'public option'. Every effort will be made to make even this clumsy and cumbersome, so as to make the present system look good in comparison and thus preserve the profits of the health industry and confuse the public that this is how single-payer or socialized medicine works.

Last month, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich described how 'Big Pharma' (the large drug companies) is planning to kill even this limited public option, let alone single payer.

I've poked around Washington today, talking with friends on the Hill who confirm the worst: Big Pharma and Big Insurance are gaining ground in their campaign to kill the public option in the emerging health care bill.

You know why, of course. They don't want a public option that would compete with private insurers and use its bargaining power to negotiate better rates with drug companies. They argue that would be unfair. Unfair? Unfair to give more people better health care at lower cost? To Pharma and Insurance, "unfair" is anything that undermines their profits.

So they're pulling out all the stops -- pushing Democrats and a handful of so-called "moderate" Republicans who say they're in favor of a public option to support legislation that would include it in name only. One of their proposals is to break up the public option into small pieces under multiple regional third-party administrators that would have little or no bargaining leverage. A second is to give the public option to the states where Big Pharma and Big Insurance can easily buy off legislators and officials, as they've been doing for years. A third is bind the public plan to the same rules private insurers have already wangled, thereby making it impossible for the public plan to put competitive pressure on the insurers.

But Big Pharma is just one player opposing any meaningful reform. Allied with it are all the other parasites getting rich off the misery of sick people, and their allies and sycophants and enablers in Congress and the media.

Next in the series: Combating the health industry propaganda.

POST SCRIPT: Walter Cronkite

In the wake of the death last week of legendary newsman Walter Cronkite, the current media has rightly eulogized him as representing some of the best elements of journalism. In a terrific essay, Glenn Greenwald notes how the media praise people like Cronkite and David Halberstam after they die, and bask in their reflected glory, while carefully avoiding adopting the very practices that made them exceptional journalists.

The essay is too good to excerpt. You should really read the whole thing.

July 17, 2009

The pernicious anti-tax attitude

The news is full of stories about the budget problems faced by the federal and state governments. But unlike the federal government which has ways to pay its bills without raising taxes, state governments have to balance their books the old fashioned way, by either reducing expenses or raising revenue or both.

But thanks to the anti-tax sentiment unleashed in 1978 by California's passage of Proposition 13, we are now witnessing the fruits of the relentless propaganda over the past three decades that said that taxes are intrinsically evil and that lower taxes are always better.

When times are good and tax revenues are high, people demand that taxes be cut because it is 'their' money. When things turn sour, as they now have, people argue that to raise taxes would be to deepen the recession and that taxes should be cut even more to 'stimulate the economy', a phrase I have come to detest since it usually precedes some scam to siphon off wealth even more to the rich and to destroy the common good. So we have reached the stage when it has become an act of faith that it is always good to lower taxes and it is never good to raise them.

As a result, politicians refuse to consider the option of raising taxes because this is considered political suicide. Since raising taxes is ruled out, is it any surprise that states and the nation are in such a fiscal mess? The only options being considered are to drastically cut services like education, libraries, aid to the poor, lay off state workers like firefighters and police, and so on. But as time has gone by making relatively painless cuts has become harder and harder.

As a result we now see that California cannot balance its budget and is reduced to paying people with IOUs that banks may or may not honor. Ohio too should have had a two-year budget approved by July 1, but since the governor and the legislature could not agree on how to close a $3 billion dollar gap (out of a total budget of about $100 billion), they were forced to pass three one-week interim budgets to tide them over until an agreement was reached.

The Ohio case is illustrative. In 2005, the Ohio General Assembly voted a 21% across the board tax cut. The public interest group Policy Matters Ohio has a table showing by how much the marginal tax rates have been cut since 2004. Of course, now that the state is deep in the red, will the state roll taxes back to their original level in 2004, at least for those in the upper income brackets? Of course not.

As I look over my own state taxes, I notice that over the last few years the amount I paid as taxes dropped from 3.5% of my gross income to just 3.0% (a 14% reduction), even though my income has gone up. But I take no pleasure in the fact that I have more spending money. What good is that to me if valuable services are being cut and the general quality of life is going down? Am I supposed to ignore the deterioration in services and ignore the decay by eating out more and going on vacations?

It seems like people cannot think beyond their immediate interest. Last month, my community recently received its new home valuations and because of the real estate slump, our home and all the others in our area had dropped by about 7%. This means that there will be a reduction in property taxes, thus giving me even more disposable income. When I was at our street block party last week, I approached my neighbor (who is a real estate agent) and said that I wanted to ask her a favor. What I wanted to ask her was to use her access to the real estate database to check on who was the person on our street who had lived there the longest. It was rumored that an ailing housebound 97-year old neighbor was the original inhabitant of her 70-year old house. I thought that if that were true, it would be nice for her neighbors to commemorate it in some way, since she is a very sweet lady.

Before I could even make my request, the real estate agent neighbor said she already knew what I wanted, because so many at the block party had asked her the same question. But what they had all been asking her was to give them sale prices of comparable homes in the neighborhood so that they could request that their home valuation be reduced even more, so that they could pay even less taxes.

Not only was this not at all what I had planned to ask her, the thought had never even crossed my mind to seek a greater reduction that what had already been given to me. I had instead been wondering how the city and state would deal with the reduced revenues.

But it depressed me that what seemed to be on every one's mind was how to exploit the real estate downturn to try to pay even less taxes in addition to the cut they had already received, even if their own income has not declined and it means that city and school employees will not get pay raises or might even be fired, services cut, and the general quality of community life go down. Already the fire department has had to make severe cuts. Of course, these same people will then complain loudly if they are personally affected by those cuts in some way, such as if police and firefighters take longer to arrive in an emergency or class sizes get larger. And when it comes time to sell their house, they will put as high a price on its value as they can.

People seem to think they can have quality of life without paying for it. They do not seem to care about the long-term consequences of the never-raise-taxes policy. They seem think that what is really important is to have more money in their own pockets right now. But my attitude is that because I am not poor, if I have a little less money due to paying higher taxes, I can cut back here and there without feeling any pain. But I benefit a lot more from having safe streets, prompt emergency assistance, better schools, parks, libraries, roads, public transport, and having fewer homeless and hungry people.

Surely cutting back on a few personal frills here and there for those who can afford to is worth it? Are we just going to greedily grab every cent of our money that we can until the social decay is so obvious that it may be too late to do anything about it? Is this how our civilization will collapse, just like former collapsed civilizations, by people sacrificing major long-term common good for trivial short-term personal gain?

There are a few hopeful signs that attitudes are changing. A few local politicians are saying that the tax cuts of 2005 should be rolled back, at least for those in the upper income brackets. The Plain Dealer published an op-ed by Zach Schiller on June 26, 2009 arguing for it, pointing out that lowering taxes had not provided the growth that was promised and that it would be bad to continue with that failed economic model.

I hope this movement catches on.

POST SCRIPT: United breaks guitars

I never fly United Airlines unless I have no choice. In my opinion, it is the worst of all the airlines. So I was not surprised when I heard the story of musician Dave Carroll who was appalled to hear that baggage handlers were throwing his guitar around on the tarmac and had damaged it severely. Of course, when he tried to get United to provide restitution they, following the lead of the health insurance industry on how to deny claims, gave him the classic run-around-followed-by-brush-off routine. As he said:

So after nine months… it occurred to me that I had been fighting a losing battle all this time and that fighting over this at all was a waste of time. The system is designed to frustrate affected customers into giving up their claims and United is very good at it.

But Carroll was not taking it lying down. He decided to compose three music videos about his experience and put it on YouTube. The first became a big hit, generating nearly 500,000 hits within the first couple of weeks and getting the airline to make amends.

It is actually a catchy song and a pretty good video.

People should take this kind of action with their health insurance companies too.

July 16, 2009

The state of the Republican party

Immediately after the last election, I wrote a series of posts on the future of the Republican Party and said that where it ends up depends on the relative fortunes of the four elements within the party and which group or groups gain the ascendancy.

One bloc consists of old-style conservative Republicans, the ones who used to be known as 'Rockefeller Republicans'. They consist of people who are pragmatic, technocratic, more managerial and less ideological in their outlook, people who want smaller government, 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, religion, homosexuality, and immigration are the main concerns. Many of these people belong to the lower and middle economic classes. These people were always the rank and file of the party, the ones who existed in large numbers in parts of the country and gave it voting clout, but they were never the leaders.

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 an earlier post, whose overriding allegiance is to a low-tax ideology (especially for the rich) at whatever cost, and who 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. They see the interests of the US as almost identical to the interests of the hard-line right-wing segments of Israeli politics.

So what has happened since I wrote this? The situation has evolved but not clarified yet, but one interesting feature is how the four groups have started relating to Sarah Palin.

The old-style conservatives seem to have been routed and are even more marginalized than before. At this stage, they look like people unhappy with what the Republican Party has become and not sure if they can bring it back to what they see as sanity or whether it is hopelessly under the control of nutcases and they need to look for a new home. This group hates Palin with a passion, seeing her as perfectly symbolizing the depths to which their party has sunk. They despise her ignorance on the issues, her lack of competence, her fractured logic and syntax, her pride in despising learning, and her anti-intellectualism.

The second group has not grown larger but has grown more militant. It is digging in its heels and demanding to be in the party leadership and will not go back to their former role as mere foot soldiers. This group has always been made use of by their party leaders but never given a real shot at leadership. McCain's choice of Palin changed that. For the first time, they felt that one of their own was close to the driver's seat and they are not returning to the back of the bus. This group loves Sarah Palin and will not tolerate anyone who disparages her, which put them at direct loggerheads with the old-style conservative Republicans. Her abrupt resignation as governor of Alaska has not cooled their ardor. They see that, as they see everything she does, as a clever strategy. Whatever her next wacky stunt may be, it will be trumpeted as another example of her mavericky credentials and her policy of not practicing 'politics as usual'. They fervently hope that she stays in politics and runs for president so that they can rally round her, although such an action probably dooms the party to a massive defeat and gives all the other potential Republican candidates the heebie-jeebies.

Jackie Broyles from Red State Update captures the views of this group precisely:

As for the third group, the Christianists, one does not hear much these days from Pat Robertson and John Hagee and the like. The Christianist leaders seem to be either on the wane or more likely are simply biding their time, waiting to see which of the candidates is most committed to their pro-rich/anti-poor/no-tax policies. They may simply be reeling from the string of sex-related scandals hitting their party and a little wary of aligning themselves too early with someone who may later taint them with scandal. They are political opportunists and although they may like Palin a lot, they love power more and would be quite willing to dump her and align themselves with someone who can win, even if that person is not completely aligned with their religion-based agenda.

The neo-conservatives within the party seem to be lying low too, licking their wounds after they lost the deep access to the high levels of the administration that they had under Bush/Cheney. But one can never write them off. They are always seeking to pursue their war-like agenda. This group is split on Palin. Since they love war and want the US to invade Iran and start fights with practically the entire Muslim world and renew the cold war with Russia, they are attracted to Palin because her own apocalyptic religious views make her sympathetic to these crazy ideas. On the other hand, they are also urbane intellectuals and Palin is simply not one of them. Some are uneasy that she could be a loose cannon they cannot control. Right now the neoconservatives are mostly a media presence on Fox News and other sites. If they think the Republicans are going to be losers for the foreseeable future, watch for them to make overtures to the Democratic Party, where they have some allies.

Probably the best barometer as to the fortunes of these groups is Fox News. The people and views that are given the most prominence on Fox are likely the ones on the upswing. So far, it seems to have dismissed the first group of old-style conservative Republicans and has tried to be the umbrella support group for the other three. It tried to drum up some enthusiasm for teabag parties, opposition to Sonia Sotomayor, and the like but those efforts seem to have fizzled, and so they seem to be resorting to even more extreme scare-mongering to raise the energy level of their supporters.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the Palin resignation

If Sarah Palin thought that she could avoid The Daily Show treatment by resigning just as they went on vacation, she misjudged them.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Half Baked Alaska
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJoke of the Day

July 15, 2009

A Friedman Prize?

As a childhood fan of the Peanuts comic strip, I enjoyed the running gag of Snoopy always beginning his novels with the line "It was a dark and stormy night." It was only much later that I learned that this was a actual opening sentence of an 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

This overwrought style of writing with run-on sentences is considered so bad that it has become famous and is now the source of the annual Bulwer-Lytton prize, awarded each year by San Jose State University to the writer who can come up with the worst opening sentence of an imaginary novel. The 2009 prize was won by David McKenzie whose entry was:

Folks say that if you listen real close at the height of the full moon, when the wind is blowin' off Nantucket Sound from the nor' east and the dogs are howlin' for no earthly reason, you can hear the awful screams of the crew of the "Ellie May," a sturdy whaler Captained by John McTavish; for it was on just such a night when the rum was flowin' and, Davey Jones be damned, big John brought his men on deck for the first of several screaming contests.

It struck me that what we need is a Friedman Prize in honor of Tom Friedman, the world's worst pundit. What makes him so bad? Gonzo journalist Matt Taibbi, one of the funniest writers around, brutally exposes not only the vapidity of his thinking but also the shallowness of his research.

This is Friedman's life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee's signs.

Friedman frequently uses a rhetorical technique that goes something like this: "I was in Dubai with the general counsel of BP last year, watching 500 Balinese textile workers get on a train, when suddenly I said to myself, 'We need better headlights for our tri-plane.'" And off he goes. You the reader end up spending so much time wondering what Dubai, BP and all those Balinese workers have to do with the rest of the story that you don't notice that tri-planes don't have headlights.

Kevin Carey highlights one feature of the Friedman style, as seen above and identified by him in the beginning of a recent Friedman column:

I was at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, a few weeks ago and interviewed Craig Barrett, the former chairman of Intel, about how America should get out of its current economic crisis. His first proposal was this: Any American kid who wants to get a driver's license has to finish high school. No diploma — no license. Hey, why would we want to put a kid who can barely add, read or write behind the wheel of a car?

As Carey says, "Friedman may not have invented the place-drop/name-drop/facile idea three-step, but he's certainly perfected it." So that is one Friedman quality to be emulated by any prize-winning entrant.

Another is the laughably mangled image, as illustrated by Taibbi:

Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn't make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the "illustrative" figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.

Remember Friedman's take on Bush's Iraq policy? "It's OK to throw out your steering wheel," he wrote, "as long as you remember you're driving without one." Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman's analysis of America's foreign policy outlook last May:

"The first rule of holes is when you're in one, stop digging. When you're in three, bring a lot of shovels."

First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the f--- is he talking about? If you're supposed to stop digging when you're in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense?

As Taibbi says in another article, these Friedmanisms are a feature of his writing, not aberrations:

This would be a small thing were it not for the overall pattern. Thomas Friedman does not get these things right even by accident. It's not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It's that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it's absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius. The difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer is that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that's guaranteed, every single time. He never misses.

So there we have the guidelines for submissions for the Friedman prize. The entrant has to imagine that he or she is like this self-important pundit and write an opening paragraph for an op-ed on any topic.

Now if only we can get some organization to sponsor the contest and award the prize.

POST SCRIPT: Alternative medicine

That Mitchell and Webb Look takes on homeopathy and all the other forms of alternative medicine.

July 14, 2009

Science fiction and futurism

While I was completely absorbed in reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, someone else saw me reading it and said that she had started it and had given up. When I asked why, she said that she did not like science fiction in general. But Atwood herself in some interviews has rejected the label of science fiction for her work, saying that she prefers to call it 'futuristic'. She says that she is merely extrapolating from today's science to see what the future might be like and that she does not postulate any radical new scientific ideas.

This started me thinking about the difference, if any, between the genres represented by those two labels. It is not easy to draw a line separating the two.

It seems like if the plots involve development of things like time travel, or the ability to quickly travel intergalactic distances by means of hitherto unknown mechanisms (hyperspace, wormholes, and the like), or human-like robots or fully developed artificial intelligence, then people immediately classify such stories as science fiction, because as yet there seems to be no way of realizing such things.

On the other hand, a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey (and Arthur C. Clarke's books in general) did not incorporate spectacular new scientific developments either but also just extended the science we have now. So using Atwood's definition, we might call those things futuristic too, not science fiction.

Any story that involves contact with extra-terrestrial beings also seems to be automatically considered science fiction, though this need not necessarily involve any major new scientific developments.

It seems to me that while authors of both genres try to predict what the future will be like, the difference might lie in the extent to which developments in science and technology based on extrapolations from the present dominate the narrative. Futuristic stories are those that focus on people and try to predict how society will respond to future conditions, and do not depend that much on some new scientific or technological development to serve as a deus ex machina to solve some problem in plot development.

Conversely, those stories for which the scientific and technological developments are the main source of plot development and interest might be called science fiction.

But pinning down the labels is not a very fruitful exercise. What is clear from either genre is that predicting the future is hard. The easiest way is to extrapolate the present and this can be done in an optimistic utopian way or pessimistic dystopian way.

In the latter case, for example, we might imagine a future in which global warming is unchecked and in which rising oceans and warm temperatures and changing climate have completely changed the global landscape, submerging the currently densely populated coastal areas, and shifting populations and political power to entirely different parts of the globe. Or we might see a future in which we run out of energy and have polluted our world, with fresh water supplies depleted, the land depleted of its nutrients with resulting lower crop yields, and the population being reduced to a much lower standard of living, except perhaps for a small elite. In other words, we might in essence retreat to a medieval model with a few nobles living well and almost everyone else living as peasants. This dystopian model cannot avoid having constant battles between nation-like entities over scarce resources or brutal suppression of the majority to preserve the privileges of the elite.

An optimistic vision might see us as having successfully harnessed new forms of sustainable power (say solar) and united to conserve water, land, and resources, and controlling population growth, resulting in greater well being for the vast majority. I can only see this happening with the kind of global cooperation that comes from some kind of world government, that sees the futility and waste that comes from wars and competing for scarce resources.

One lesson that I have learned from reading science fiction is that if I ever write such a story to not put a date on it. Those writers rash enough to put a date on their creations (1984, 2001) have seen those dates come and go with few of the technological innovations realized, though the human and political questions are still relevant.

Extrapolating the future from the past is risky. For example, in the early days of computers, more power came with larger computers. Early science fiction writers correctly saw that computers would revolutionize life as they became more powerful, but they mistakenly extrapolated that early trend and made the computers of the future more and more massive, and this led to computers becoming large and looming and malevolent presences, as in the films Colossus: The Forbin Project and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Computers became Darth Vader-like entities.

As far as I know, although miniaturization was an idea that was around (for example in the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage) as far as I know no futurist or science fiction writer applied that idea to computers, or foresaw personal computers or communication networks such as the internet, and the democratizing potential of such networks. I know that many of this blog's readers are much more knowledgeable about this genre than I am and I hope they will correct me on this if I am wrong.

POST SCRIPT: The director of Food, Inc talks with Jon Stewart

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Robert Kenner
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

July 13, 2009

Why people believe in god-7: God the moody

For the last post in this series, I want to look at the way god has been characterized through history.

It is a popular belief, especially among Christians, that humans have been created in god's image. Actually, it is the other way around. Humans create god to meet their needs, and as their needs change, then so does their image of god.

Robert Wright has published a new book called The Evolution of God (2009) that I look forward to reading that traces the origins of monotheistic religions. In an interview, he discusses the main ideas. Basically, he sees the Bible and other religious books originating as political documents meant to serve immediate political needs, which explains why god seems so moody, casually committing genocide one day and calling for love and forgiveness the next.

My basic premise is that when a religious group sees itself as having something to gain through peaceful interaction with another group of people, including a different religion, it will find a basis for tolerance in its scriptures and religion. When groups see each other as being in a non-zero sum relationship -- there's a possibility of a win-win outcome if they play their cards right, or a lose-lose outcome if they don't -- then they tend to warm up to one another. By contrast, if people see themselves in a zero-sum relationship with another group of people -- they can only win if the other group loses -- that brings out the intolerance and the dark side of religion.

The western monotheistic tradition began in Judaism but not the way the Bible says. In fact, there is almost no evidence for all the stories about Abraham, the captivity in Egypt, Moses, the exodus, the ten commandments, Kind David, King Solomon, etc. The Jews began as a polytheistic indigenous grouping, just like all the other polytheistic indigenous groupings that occupied the land that we now call the Middle East.

The events in the Bible only start to resemble real history around 650 BCE. In 722 BCE, we know that the polytheistic indigenous people living the northern region known as Israel were captured by the Assyrians. The ruler of the southern region of Judah, King Josiah (649-609 BCE), used the demise of the northern kingdom for his own propaganda purposes against his political rivals, arguing that Israel's capture was due to their infidelity to god. Using the time-honored tradition of assigning supernatural agency to natural or political phenomena. King Josiah created monotheism as a political act, saying that his god was the true god and that people should appease the true god by killing off those who worshipped rival gods, and by killing off their leaders as well. He was thus able to consolidate power over his rivals, and in the process monotheism came into being.

As part of this process, it was during this time that one of Josiah's priests conveniently 'discovered' in the temple some hitherto unknown 'holy' books. And surprise, surprise, this book provided support for all of Josiah's claims to his god's exclusivity and forbade people from worshipping rival gods.

This document, now considered to be that which makes up the bulk of the book Deuteronomy, was then added to over the next 300 years to become the religious book of the Jews called the Torah, the core of the Old Testament, containing the Abraham and Moses stories which are, of course, almost entirely fiction. Thus began the creation of a single narrative that sought to retroactively create a past, justify the present, and to lay the groundwork for a new social order in the future. That is how Judaism really came about.

A possible reason why the advent of monotheism led to the current Bible is given by Daniel Lazare in his March 2002 Harper's magazine article False Testament: "A single, all-powerful god required a single set of sacred texts, and the process of composition and codification that led to what we now know as the Bible began under King Josiah and continued well into the Christian era." (See part 5 of my series on The Bible as History. The whole series describes the fictional origins of what many religious people believe to be history.)

There can be no question that the top religious leaders and theologians and other religious scholars know all this, though lower level priests and rabbis and imams may not. Ordinary religious people are carefully shielded from the true knowledge of how their holy books came about, because the religious authorities risk losing their sinecures if people realized that even the commonly accepted ages of the books, let alone their claims to divine origin, are false, as are their favorite stories about their religious heroes. So religious leaders suppress the truth and perpetuate fiction about how the books came about in order to give divine credibility to what are essentially political tracts.

Priests know that people will hold on to religious beliefs unless they find themselves in an intellectually untenable position. And since in our society religion is a protected belief system, priests know that ordinary believers will rarely encounter views that force them to confront the contradictions inherent in believing in a god.

This is why the 'new atheist' campaign (of which I am proud to be a part) to publicly voice critiques of religion is to be welcomed and why we resist calls for us to not disparage religious beliefs or religious books because we might upset 'good' religious moderates. The true history of religions and their holy books must be brought out into the light if we are ever going to get rid of the pernicious effects of religion.

POST SCRIPT: Betty Bowers on prayer

America's Best Christian explains the prayer concept.

July 10, 2009

Why people believe in god-6: The persistence of belief

Why is it that so many adults in the modern age, with full reasoning powers and all the knowledge that science and technology has made available to them, still cling to the superstitious religious beliefs of their childhood, so much so that they feel the need to even brainwash their own children? Why is it that for most adults, childish beliefs in god do not disappear in adulthood, along with their beliefs in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny?

The case of Charles Darwin is again illustrative. In his autobiography, he says that:

I was very unwilling to give up my belief…But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would be sufficient to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And that is a damnable doctrine. (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow (ed), p. 72, my italics)

Note Darwin's revealing use of the phrase that he became unable to 'invent evidence' that would be sufficient to convince him, even if he gave his imagination 'free scope' to do so. This is what people do: they decide what they want to believe and then invent evidence to support the belief.

What most people lack is the intellectual rigor that was the hallmark of Darwin's way of thinking and which made him eventually realize that his belief was based on his own inventions and not reality. If there is one clear image that emerges from the study of Darwin's life and study of the natural world, it is that he was always looking for higher levels of synthesis, probing his own theories and beliefs for weaknesses, and not ignoring counter-evidence. There can be no doubt that such a critical attitude applied to religion will inevitably lead to disbelief. But most people are not like that, especially when it comes to religious beliefs, and hence they do not reach the stage where they realize that the evidence they invent just cannot do the job required of it. They seize upon any thing that even vaguely provides a justification for whatever they want to believe and leave it at that. Furthermore (as Norm suggested in a comment in response to the previous posting in this series) children do not receive any validation from the adults around them that their skepticism about god is warranted, the way they do when they start to question Santa Claus

Darwin's increasing skepticism about god seems like a natural progression of beliefs as one matures into adulthood, but it seems to be much rarer than it should be. There could be many reasons for the persistence of beliefs in god into adulthood.

  • One is that these beliefs meet certain deep psychological needs. Some people must be receiving some comfort in believing in the existence of even a distant and inert entity like the deist god Deigod. Such people must desperately want an external meaning and purpose to life, and think that only one imposed by god, however otherwise passive, is of any value.

  • For others, the persistence of belief may be due to the fear of death. The idea that on dying we simply cease to exist may imply to them that our lives do not matter. They find this intolerable and seek a way out by clinging to the idea of an indestructible and immortal soul. This naturally leads to the idea of god and/or reincarnation. As Sigmund Freud said, "The religious impulse is ineradicable until or unless the human species can conquer its fear of death."

  • For yet others, it may be just missing loved ones that leads to wishful thinking, hoping that after our physical death we meet them again in the afterlife.

  • Others may continue to persuade themselves that they believe because they are risk-averse and do not want to offend god (if he should exist) by allowing their disbelieving thoughts to come to the surface. Why take the chance? This is the famous, but silly, Pascal's wager idea. Of course, the idea that an omniscient god would not know they had doubts seems preposterous but if one is religious, one learns not to ask such questions.

  • For others, belief may arise for more prosaic and practical reasons. Religion and religious practices such as going to church may form an important part of their sense of identity and social relationships and sense of belonging. They may not want to disrupt relationships with family and friends and the larger community by dropping out of that world.

  • I suspect that most people believe because they were taught to believe as children and simple mental inertia prevents them from changing as they get older. The economist John Maynard Keynes said that, "The difficulty lies not in new ideas but in escaping from old ones." Research in education suggests that students tenaciously cling on to their existing knowledge using ad-hoc justifications despite the best efforts of their teachers to teach them new things. They only give up their beliefs if they have no choice because the contradictions with evidence are too stark to ignore. For most people, their religious beliefs are vague and flexible enough that they can deal with contradictions using ad-hoc explanations invented to solve the immediate problem, without any concern for overall coherence or problems with internal consistency.

A religious friend of mine recently went through a rapid-fire series of misfortunes, including losing his job and having his mother die. In between, he had a small stroke of good fortune. He immediately attributed the last thing as a sign of god's benevolence, to god looking out for him in order to give him some comfort during his time of trouble. It did not seem to occur to him that by that reasoning, god was also responsible for all his bad fortune.

If you are a religious, it is almost reflexive behavior to turn around whatever happens to make it seem like god is looking after you. As an example of this kind of thinking, here is a joke that was sent to me:

There was a little old lady, who every morning stepped onto her front porch, raised her arms to the sky, and shouted: 'Praise the Lord!'

One day an atheist moved into the house next door. He became irritated at the little old lady. Every morning he'd step onto his front porch after her and yell: 'There is no Lord!'

Time passed with the two of them carrying on this way every day.

One morning, in the middle of winter, the little old lady stepped onto her front porch and shouted: 'Praise the Lord! Please Lord, I have no food and I am starving, provide for me, oh Lord!

The next morning she stepped out onto her porch and there were two huge bags of groceries sitting there.

'Praise the Lord!' she cried out. 'He has provided groceries for me!'

The atheist neighbor jumped out of the hedges and shouted: 'There is no Lord; I bought those groceries!!'

The little old lady threw her arms into the air and shouted: 'Praise the Lord! He has provided me with groceries and made the Devil pay for them!'

We should not be surprised by this kind of delusional thinking because it is typical of religious believers. They have been conditioned to think that when tragedy strikes them, god is testing their faith and will eventually reward them if they remain faithful, and if good fortune comes, god is rewarding them now. It's a no-lose proposition for religion, guaranteeing job security for the religious establishment that propagates it.

This is why you cannot really hope to persuade the true believer of the folly of religion by using reason to mount a frontal assault. Their beliefs have to collapse from within, slowly disintegrating because seeds of doubt get lodged in the cracks and start spreading, until one day they suddenly realize that everything makes sense if they abandon belief in god, and the whole religious edifice collapses.

POST SCRIPT: The weird story of Job

Nothing illustrates the ability of religious people to delude themselves into seeing even the most appalling behavior of god as something good than the story of Job. God mercilessly tortures an innocent person more or less for the fun of it, even murdering all his children, and yet this story is seen as a glorification of god and Job.

July 09, 2009

And the Lord said "Thou must spitteth on those who defileth the Sabbath with tape recorders"

Via Pharyngula, I came across this story about the appalling behavior of highly religious people.

It turns out that Orthodox Jews in Israel are upset at a local council in Jerusalem's decision to open a municipal car park on Saturdays and have been protesting in the streets for weeks. Why? Because this would encourage people to drive on the Sabbath, and this is one of the gazillion things that you are forbidden to do if you are an observant Jew.

(I have written before about 'Certified Sabbath Mode' ovens and kosher telephones that provide loopholes to such laws for those who like to consider themselves Orthodox but don't want to be inconvenienced by these weird rules. Presumably no rabbi has as yet come forward with a blueprint for how to make a kosher car but I bet they are working on it.)

Anyway, Australian reporter Anne Barker was sent to cover the car park protests when things suddenly turned ugly. As she writes:

I suddenly found myself in the thick of the protest - in the midst of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews in their long coats and sable-fur hats.

They might be supremely religious, but their behaviour - to me - was far from charitable or benevolent.

As the protest became noisier and the crowd began yelling, I took my recorder and microphone out of my bag to record the sound.

Suddenly the crowd turned on me, screaming in my face. Dozens of angry men began spitting on me.

Spit like rain

I found myself herded against a brick wall as they kept on spitting - on my face, my hair, my clothes, my arms.

It was like rain, coming at me from all directions - hitting my recorder, my bag, my shoes, even my glasses.

Big gobs of spit landed on me like heavy raindrops. I could even smell it as it fell on my face.

Somewhere behind me - I didn't see him - a man on a stairway either kicked me in the head or knocked something heavy against me.

I wasn't even sure why the mob was angry with me. Was it because I was a journalist? Or a woman? Because I wasn't Jewish in an Orthodox area? Was I not dressed conservatively enough?

In fact, I was later told, it was because using a tape-recorder is itself a desecration of the Shabbat even though I'm not Jewish and don't observe the Sabbath.

This disgusting story illustrates the problem with religious people. Ordinary criminals and thugs probably know that their behavior is wrong but simply do not care enough to change. But religious people can act just like criminals or thugs or even murderers and actually feel virtuous about doing so, because they think that god commanded them to act in this way. In their minds it makes perfect sense to even kill people who do not abide by their rules (if they could get away with it) because their holy books say doing so is their duty and they would be pleasing god by punishing the unobservant. As Clarence Darrow once told a group of convicts, "It is not the bad people I fear so much as the good people. When a person is sure that he is good, he is nearly hopeless; he gets cruel – he believes in punishment."

Most people are blissfully unaware of the awful things the Bible advocates and which lie behind the kind of appalling behavior described above. Take for example, Deuteronomy 22:13-21 about how a father should deal with a daughter who is charged with not being a virgin when she gets married. The passage ends as follows:

If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl's virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father's house. You must purge the evil from among you.

Statements like "You must purge the evil from among you" is the justification these religious fanatics use for their vigilante actions like what was done to the reporter.

If such people want to tie themselves up in knots with ridiculous rules because they are credulous enough to obey the instructions in some book written by some unknown person long ago, they are welcome to do so. But they are never satisfied with that. They want everyone else to also follow their rules.

In this regard, there is no difference between fundamentalist Jews or Christians or Muslims, except as to which absurd rules they think are important or which book they consider holy. And it is no use 'moderate' religionists saying that these people are aberrations, and that 'true' religion is benevolent and benign. The religious fundamentalists take their rules for behavior from the same books as the so-called moderates do. There is no way to put a benevolent spin on the vicious and murderous misogyny of the Deuteronomy passage. The only way to combat such pernicious ideas is to denounce the whole idea that 'holy' books have any kind of binding authority or even moral weight.

Will the authorities take strong action against these religious thugs or will they treat them lightly because of the absurd 'respect for religion' attitude that says that allegedly 'religious' people acting on their convictions are exempt from normal rules of behavior? Of course, such indulgence is usually only granted to those people who belong to the same religion as the authorities.

If unchecked, religious people will oppress us all because they think that is what god wants. It is only the modern secular state that can protect the rest of us from these religious fanatics.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on stoning non-virgins

God and Jesus explain why the stoning commandment is a good thing.

July 08, 2009

Why people believe in god-5: The evolutionary origins of belief

Today I want to look at why people believe in god, starting with its origins.

As to why religious beliefs arise in the first place, this is a fascinating and yet open question and any theories are at best speculative. The vast number of gods that have been independently invented in human history (see Machines Like Us for an exhaustive list) suggest that it is quite plausible that there is some propensity to create god beliefs that has nothing to do with the popular perception that religion arose to provide us with a moral code. As Robert Wright argues in his new book The Evolution of God (2009):

People in the modern world, certainly in America, think of religion as being largely about prescribing moral behavior. But religion wasn't originally about that at all. To judge by hunter-gatherer religions, religion was not fundamentally about morality before the invention of agriculture. It was trying to figure out why bad things happen and increasing the frequency with which good things happen. Why do you sometimes get earthquakes, storms, disease and get slaughtered? But then sometimes you get nice weather, abundant game and you get to do the slaughtering. Those were the religious questions in the beginning.

It is possible that a small naturally occurring tendency to assign a causal agent to certain natural events provided a survival advantage that grew over time according to the Darwinian natural selection algorithm. For example, early humans who ascribed thunder and lightning to the anger of some unseen agent and hid in fear in their caves were more likely to survive than those who did not assign agency and wandered about freely in the storm. The natural selection algorithm worked on this advantage so that over the long period of evolutionary time, people have evolved a tendency to believe in causal agents for natural phenomena that make them more easily susceptible to religious-type explanations than to scientific ones, and this tendency would become ingrained and dominant.

It is similar to how we all seem to have a fear of snakes. It seems fairly well established that we have evolved to have an instinctive fear of snakes. Even baby chimpanzees have such a fear, suggesting that this fear developed fairly early in primate development, during the time when the common ancestors of chimpanzees and humans lived.

Once you are susceptible to assigning a mysterious invisible agency to natural phenomena, certain culture-based beliefs can take root. For example, it makes sense to postulate things like a life after death to overcome the fear of death and this, coupled with beliefs about an unseen agency, would lead quite naturally towards a belief in a god-like entity that rules the afterlife.

It is easier to understand why these beliefs, once originated, continue to be perpetuated. While childhood indoctrination by parents and priests and society at large is undoubtedly a major factor in perpetuating religious beliefs, the more interesting question is why children are so susceptible to this particular kind of brainwashing.

There seems to be a clear survival advantage for young children to believe unquestioningly what their parents and other adults tell them. Those children who unquestioningly heeded warnings not to touch fire or to eat poisonous plants or try and play with lions or wade into crocodile infested rivers were more likely to survive than those who rebelled and ignored the warnings of adults. So the propensity of children to believe authoritative adults could easily have evolved to become hardwired in the brain.

The combination of assigning agency to natural phenomena and believing adults makes it easy to understand how religion originated and is perpetuated and why children are so easily indoctrinated into religious beliefs, because they do not distinguish between those adult edicts that are truly beneficial ("Don't pick up snakes") with those that are nonsensical ("If you pray silently to god he can hear your thoughts and will answer your requests" or "If you get together with others and pray for rain, it will rain.")

But what is really interesting is why people still cling on to these beliefs long after they reach adulthood. After all, as we age we develop reasoning capacities that enable us to subject ideas to close scrutiny. As a consequence, there are a lot of childish beliefs we give up as we grow up, like Santa Claus. Children soon figure out for themselves that it is highly implausible for one man to fly around the entire world in one night to deliver toys, going up and down chimneys.

Why isn’t belief in god one of the beliefs we discard, since it has as much evidence in support as Santa Claus?

Next: Why religious beliefs persist.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on Mark Sanford

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Shut Up, Mark Sanford
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

July 07, 2009

Sarah, come back!

My great weakness as a political analyst, and the reason I am often wrong in my predictions, is that I try to think strategically. I keep forgetting that many of the prominent people in politics are divas who think that the normal rules of politics don't apply to them and thus do things that you never anticipate. Just look at the recent list: David Vitter, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, John Edwards, Elliot Spitzer, and Larry Craig.

And of course we have Sarah Palin, the biggest diva of them all. Like everyone else, I was dumbfounded by Sarah Palin's statement on Friday that she was resigning as governor of Alaska. You can read the text of her speech here but you have to view the full 18 minutes of it to fully appreciate what an extraordinary performance it was. It was a classic Palin production: rambling and incoherent, uplifting phrases strung together without much thought to continuity, putting her family in the spotlight and yet whining about the way she and her family have been treated, repeatedly praising her own doggone maverickiness, and pandering to Alaskans by the bucketful.

What the speech notably lacked was a plausible reason for resigning. Basically she said that she had first decided to not run for re-election. She vaguely implied, in another bit of blatant pandering, that her visit to wounded soldiers in Kosovo and Landstuhl were factors in this decision. She then went on to castigate all lame-duck office holders as wasters of taxpayers' time and money by going on junkets and the like. But she was not going to do that, no sirree, because that would be 'politics as usual'.

You would think then that what she would do to defy that stereotype is put her head down and do a boffo job as governor in the second half of her term and accumulate a list of strong accomplishments, by golly. But no, she seems to think that the only way to avoid being a typically profligate lame duck is to not be in office at all, a kind of "stop me before I hurt myself" attitude that is mystifying. She said, astoundingly, that it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars for her to continue as governor, the job they actually voted her to do. Then, after a long and confusing basketball metaphor about how good point guards deal with difficult situations, gosh darn it, she quit, which is not what champion athletes do.

While most of her speech left me baffled, there was one thing that made me wince. She made an odd comment at the end about how much we can learn from children with Downs Syndrome and said that, "the world needs more "Trigs", not fewer". I have known children who have Downs. They are very affectionate and sweet and their families love them. But I don't know anyone who thinks that having Downs is a good thing, to be encouraged, simply because it teaches the rest of us important life lessons. Once again, it seemed like an attempt at using her family as props for her own self-aggrandizement, to show that she was better than anyone else.

So what is going on? Why did she resign? The most charitable explanation that I can think of is that after the heady days of running for vice-president, with the private jets, the fancy hotels, a large staff to cater to her needs, shopping sprees paid for by others, permanently on national media, and so on, the daily grind of retail politics involved in running a small state was just too boring for her.

Or maybe she was clearing her desk so that she could run full-time for president in 2012. Many commentators (even those who are among her strongest supporters) think that if she thought that this was a good strategy, then she has made a serious miscalculation because this will be taken as evidence that she cannot stick to anything for long. Any doubts that this was a terribly bad move were dismissed when Bill Kristol (Motto: "Unapologetically Wrong About Every Thing") thought that this could be good for her and that she might be "crazy like a fox".

There were those who thought that she could be a credible candidate in 2012 if she worked on being a good governor and hunkered down and studied up on the issues that she seemed to be so ignorant of. Clearly she has not made any attempt to get up to speed on any of the big issues. Frankly I could never see that happening. As I said back in December, such habits and interests are formed early in one's life and has been noticeably absent in hers. I think she believes that a breezy confidence in her gut instincts, her strong convictions on some social issues, and her looks were enough to run on, and that winks and smiles and a down-home speaking style of platitudes and clichés and banalities would make voters overlook the lack of substance, you betcha.

The timing of her sudden announcement was also weird. Palin clearly is narcissistic and loves media attention. I would have thought that she would have set up a big press event and had all the national media covering her resignation so that she went out in a blaze of publicity. But among political professionals, Friday evening is the time when it is believed to be best to dump any news that you don't want people to pay attention to. The Friday evening before the July 4th weekend would be an even bigger news black hole. But since she wasn't delivering news that needed to be buried, the timing was puzzling.

Some have speculated that she had to get out quickly before some big scandal breaks but so far nothing has emerged. Either she acted purely on impulse or she decided to take advantage of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report going on vacation on July 3 and not returning until July 13, hoping that other events would intervene and thus she would avoid being skewered by them when they return.

Furthermore, she made the announcement in her back yard before a single local TV camera crew and microphone and, if you watch the last few seconds, the camera pans over the crowd and you realize that there are only about ten people (including some children) there for the big show. It looked like she rounded up a few neighbors for her announcement. The whole thing was clearly rushed. Even her father-in-law was taken by surprise.

As I watched her performance, it struck me once again that she might be suffering from some kind of slight mental instability that I am not competent to diagnose, perhaps some kind of attention deficit disorder or even a little bipolarity. There has always been a slightly manic quality to her behavior, a curious adolescent mixture of chipper, upbeat, self-aggrandizement mixed in with maudlin self-pity. The character of Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard comes to mind.

Others suggest that she is smart enough to realize that she was never going to win higher office and decided to start right now to make money by exploiting her fame before it waned, by going the full-time celebrity route, writing books, giving speeches, and maybe having her own TV show.

One thing that Palin was right about in her speech was in her repeated assertions she does not practice 'politics as usual'. I have never seen anything like her brand of political weirdness.

I never believed that Palin had even the ghost of a chance of winning even the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency. However I was hoping that she would make a run for the White House. It would have provided endless entertainment to see how the other Republican primary candidates would handle her because she has got the politics of victimhood down pat. If criticized for her lack of awareness on the issues, she responds that this is sexist and that women are held to a higher standard. If people point out her lack of experience, she takes this as a slur on the people of Alaska and a denigration of small town values. She hauls her family out as political props when it suits her and then whines when anything is said about them. She loves being in the media spotlight and then complains about her treatment by them.

The Democrats knew that the people who liked her would never vote for them anyway, so her tactics did not really matter to them and all they needed to do was ignore her. She actually helped them by alienating independents. But the other Republican candidates would have been competing with her for the same base of voters, and dealing with her prickliness would have been a minefield for them. You can bet that they are heaving a huge sigh of relief and hoping she really is out of politics for good.

So come back Sarah! I miss you already. Elections won't be nearly as much fun without you. You betcha.

POST SCRIPT: Al Franken

I have been amused at how some political commentators are treating Al Franken, now declared as having been elected as Minnesota's senator, as an intellectual lightweight because he used to be a comedian. In reality, good comedians, especially those who have done stand-up, are pretty sharp. They have to be quick-witted and knowledgeable because they write much of their own material (at least early in their careers) and they have lots of experience putting down hecklers. They also know how to go for the jugular and have killer timing. Jon Stewart has writers for his show for the set pieces, but his background as a standup is what makes him a good interviewer where, if he wants, he can easily make the other person look foolish. Ask Jim Cramer.

Although I think that Franken is going to your standard issue, middle-of-the-road liberal, there is also every indication that he is a policy wonk, so people are likely to be surprised.

Here is a clip where Al Franken and Ann Coulter respond to the question of which character from the past they would have liked to have been. Note how Franken paces his response to Coulter, using pauses to think through his response to get maximum laughs.


Ann-coulter-al-franken - The best video clips are here

You cross a stand-up comic at your peril.

July 06, 2009

Why people believe in god-4: Darwin's problem

In a previous post, I tried to pin down what people actually believe when they say they believe in god. Today I want to look at what goes into religious belief, using Charles Darwin's own journey as an example.

Charles Darwin was encouraged by his father, a successful doctor, to study medicine and was duly sent off in 1825 to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, a leading place for such studies at that time. But Darwin found that he hated the study of medicine, especially the horrors of surgery in those pre-anesthesia days. When his father realized that this was not the field for him, he suggested in 1828 that he matriculate at Cambridge University, get a degree, and then become a clergyman. To get into Oxford or Cambridge University at that time one had to be a member of the Church of England (i.e., an Anglican), the rule being abolished by an act of parliament only later in 1871. Although Darwin had been baptized in the Church of England, his family tradition was nonconformist Unitarians and his father and grandfather were freethinkers.

Darwin felt that he should make a good faith attempt to see if he could honestly accept the doctrines of the Anglican church. In his autobiography Darwin says that he "had scruples about declaring my belief in all the dogmas of the Church of England; though otherwise I liked the thought of being a country clergyman. Accordingly I read with care Pearson on the Creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted. It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible." (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow (ed), p. 49, my italics.)

I think that the key phrase here is "persuaded myself". I think most religious people deep down suspect that their belief in a god makes no sense, or at least know that they really don't understand the things they are being asked to believe, but they are willing to persuade themselves, as Darwin did, to go along with the charade. The key question is "Why?" Why go to all that trouble to overrule an instinctive skepticism that arises from their natural logic and reasoning powers? Why does it never strike them, as it never struck Darwin until he was much older, how illogical it is to say that they believe in what they cannot understand and what is in fact unintelligible?

But there were limits to even Darwin's youthful credulity. Even when he was a believer in the literal truth of the Bible, Darwin could not bring himself to actually rejoice in the contradictions, to make the ridiculous claim that some apologists do, that because the doctrines of religion seem nonsensical, that accepting them is somehow a sign of intellectual superiority, that it indicates that one somehow understands and appreciates deep mysteries. As he said, "I might have said with entire truth that I had no wish to dispute any dogma; but I never was such a fool as to feel and say "credo quia incredibile." ["I believe because it is incredible."] (Barlow, p. 49)

As we all know, Darwin ended up being an unbeliever. He shied away from the label of atheist and called himself an agnostic, the former term being a little too strong for someone who hated confrontations, though it is hard to tell the difference in his case since he said quite clearly in his autobiography that although his disbelief crept over him at a very slow rate, it "was at last complete" and that he "never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct." (Barlow, p. 72)

It seems pretty clear that most adults have no actual reasons to believe in god. They have not in their lives seen god or heard god or witnessed any acts that can be unequivocally ascribed to god. Those who claim to have witnessed miracles tend to ignore plausible alternative explanations. But they lack Darwin's instinct to follow his thinking to its logical conclusion that there is no god.

Those who actually claim to have seen god or had god speak to them are presumed to be delusional and in need of psychiatric help or frauds of the sort who try to sell pieces of toast with Jesus's image on it on eBay. The latest story that I heard of was someone who claimed that a rock fall suddenly revealed a 'hand of god' in a rock formation behind his home and he (naturally) has put it up for sale on eBay.

So why do people believe in god? This really consists of two related questions: Why did such beliefs arise in the first place? And why do those beliefs persist in the absence of any evidence in support of them?

I'll examine these questions in the next post in this series.

POST SCRIPT: David Attenborough talks about god

The noted nature documentary filmmaker has made many people aware of the wonder of nature. He talks about why he does not believe in god. (Thanks to Machines Like Us.)

July 03, 2009

On the pursuit of happiness

On this day before independence day, I am posting again a reflection from two years ago on what to me is one of the most intriguing phrases in the US Declaration of Independence. It is contained in the famous sentence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

I have always found the insertion of the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" as a fundamental right to be appealing. One does not expect to see such a quaint sentiment in a political document, and its inclusion sheds an interesting and positive light on the minds and aspirations of the people who created that document.

But the problem has always been with how happiness is attained. And in one serious respect, the suggestion that we should actively seek happiness, while laudable, may also be misguided. Happiness is not something to be pursued. People who pursue happiness as a goal are unlikely to find it. Happiness is what happens when you are pursuing other worthwhile goals. The philosopher Robert Ingersoll also valued happiness but had a better sense about what it would take to achieve it, saying "Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so."

Kurt Vonnegut in his last book A Man Without a Country suggests that the real problem is not that we are rarely happy but that we don't realize when we are happy, and that we should get in the habit of noticing those moments and stop and savor them. He wrote:

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren. And many of you reading this are probably the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government.

Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess. But it has always been a mess. There have never been any "Good Old Days," there have just been days. And as I say to my grandchildren, "Don't look at me, I just got here."

There are old poops who will say that you do not become a grown-up until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity -- the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam, whatever. Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth. Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, "Today I am a woman. Today I am a man. The end."

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, "You're a man now." So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a man can't be a man unless he'd gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

Good advice.

POST SCRIPT: Mark Sanford: The Movie

Here's the trailer.

July 01, 2009

Why people believe in god-3: What do religious people actually believe?

Apologists for 'moderate' religion always start by saying that they accept science, and begin with arguments for god that seem to be superficially compatible with science, but ultimately end up saying they believe in absurdities that violate almost every major scientific principle, such as virgin births or that people can actually come back from the dead. However sophisticated religious apologists may argue intellectually, they seem to need the same emotional crutch of magical thinking as much as any religious fundamentalist, and desperately want to believe that there is this invisible entity who is looking out for them personally. Religious scientists like Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, John Lennox, and John Polkinghorne all start out arguing on a high intellectual plane, but they end up making almost the very same assertions of belief of the average churchgoer in the pew on any given Sunday.

So what do religious people actually believe? There are no simple answers. In his book God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007, p. 12), Victor J. Stenger tries to pin down the philosophical foundations of people's belief in god. But I am interested in more practical questions.

The vague "Do you believe in god" type questions that are usually asked of believers are useless because it is not clear what people believe even if they say yes. Is it the deist god Deigod or Gosh or the full-blooded, omnipotent, omniscient, miracle working Supergod or (as is most likely) some personally concocted hybrid?

So here are some questions that would help make the discussions more fruitful. I wish that the polling agencies would ask questions like these as this gives a much better picture of what people actually believe.

  1. Is god a (a) material or (b) non-material entity? (i.e., is god made up of the same kind of stuff like protons, electrons, etc. with properties like mass, charge, spin, etc. that every other thing in the universe is made up of, or is he made of something that is non-material?)
  2. Does god exist everywhere in space?
  3. Is god a sentient being like us, with thoughts and feelings?
  4. Can god change the past?
  5. Does god know the future?
  6. Does god know absolutely everything that happens every moment, including every thought of every being?
  7. Can god intervene in events whenever and wherever, to violate natural laws and change their course (i.e. perform miracles)?
  8. Do you believe that you have a soul or spirit that will continue to exist in some form (perhaps reincarnated) even after you are dead?

My experience suggests that most religious people would answer the above questions as follows: 1: (b), 2: yes, 3: yes, 4: no, 5: yes, 6: yes, 7: yes, 8: yes

I also have bonus questions for those who call themselves Christians:

  1. Do you believe Jesus was totally human when he lived on the Earth, with a fully human body, with no powers or abilities not possessed by any other human?
  2. Do you believe that Jesus really died on the cross, with his body experiencing the same changes after death that any human body does?
  3. Do you believe that the same physical body then came back to life?
  4. If the answer to question #3 is 'yes', where is that physical body now?

I suspect that most Christians will answer: 1: yes, 2: yes, 3: yes, 4: heaven.

Of course, all these answers lead to all manner of severe contradictions, either because they are internally inconsistent or they violate basic scientific principles. For example, the idea that god took a fully human form in the shape of Jesus is central to Christian dogma. Otherwise what was the point of the whole exercise? But if Jesus is totally human, how could he perform his miracles? It is to evade this type of contradiction that religious language and concepts like 'kenosis' or the doctrine that Jesus is fully god and fully human are introduced, which make no consistent logical sense but can be interpreted in any way that the situation requires.

As for the second question, we know that our bodies undergo irreversible decay rapidly after death, which is why organ removal for donations must be done immediately. So if Jesus was totally human and his body decayed for three days, how did he recover the use of his organs when his body was resurrected?

There really is no way to escape these contradictions without resorting to saying that Jesus is at least on occasion Supergod.

More sophisticated religious believers know this is a problem and will try to avoid answering the questions I posed, likely retreating to an extreme form of religion-speak suggesting that we do not, and perhaps cannot, know the answers to such questions because god is so deeply mysterious that any attempt to understand his nature in any concrete way is doomed to failure. This non-answer enables them to avoid having to publicly acknowledge any contradictions while privately assigning any properties they want to god that gives them emotional satisfaction. Or they will give the answers I provided and wave away any contradictions by invoking the 'mysterious ways clause' that allows god to circumvent any contradictions in ways that we cannot know.

I know that some readers of this blog are religious. I hope they will take a stab at answering those questions so that we can get a grip on what exactly we are talking about.

POST SCRIPT: Hey, I never promised you a rose garden

God makes Jesus an offer that he thinks of refusing.

Why people believe in god-2: When good physicists get theology

All believers in an even minimally activist god face the challenge of explaining why there seems to be no evidence for his actions, and why the world seems to be understandable and explicable without postulating his existence. They cannot face up to the fact that the logical conclusion is that there is no god, and this is where the vague and cloudy language of theology comes in, trying to mask this fundamental problem.

Physicist John Polkinghorne in his book Faith, Science, and Understanding (2000) pulls the same trick as chemist Francis Collins, biologist Kenneth Miller, and mathematician John Lennox, arguing first for the possibility of a deist god (whom I have called Deigod), and then asserting without argument that this makes it rational to believe in Supergod. But Polkinghorne has a weapon that the other two don't have. He has studied theology formally and so can dress up the same weak arguments in obscurantist language.

Polkinghorne is a highly able and respected particle physicist. He was a former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University and is a Fellow of the Royal Society who, at the age of around fifty, gave up physics and became an ordained priest in the British Anglican Church. So he has studied both physics and theology in considerable depth. In his book he invokes the usual staple of the anthropic principle as an argument for god, which essentially suggests that the universe seems to be exquisitely fine tuned in order to allow for human life to emerge and that this suggests that it must have been designed. It is a popular argument amongst religious scientists. As Polkinghorne puts it:

The wonderful order of the world is perceived…as being a reflection of the Mind of the Creator, and the universe's finely tuned aptness to the evolution of life is perceived as an expression of the Creator's fruitful intent. (p. 22)

Another physicist Victor Stenger in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis has effectively demolished that anthropic argument. But that has not stopped it from being regularly advanced because it has proved very lucrative, especially recently for physicists, with the annual Templeton prize essentially rewarding those who concoct new ways to try and make science and religion compatible, and being repeatedly given to physicists who invoke variations of the anthropic principle.

Some new atheists argue that the Templeton Foundation exists essentially for this sole purpose, to use its wealth to co-opt scientists and journalists to keep on forever discussing the issue of how to find ways of reconciling science with god, thus perpetuating the idea that such a reconciliation is even conceivable. They suggest that we should fight back against the pernicious influence of the Templeton organization by not going along with this strategy and by boycotting these 'dialogues'.

Polkinghorne also goes in to some depth about how the uncertainty principle and chaos and complexity theory, all of which introduce elements of unpredictability into the world, and thus can be postulated as the vehicles of god's action that escape detection. He also invokes consciousness as a deep mystery that is inexplicable without reference to god. All this is to establish the possibility of existence of Gosh (the God Of the Scientific Holes).

But then he too makes the great unexplained leap to assert the existence of Supergod, and says that he actually believes that Jesus rose from the dead and performed the miracles claimed in the Bible, without making any attempt at all to explain what, if anything, the uncertainty principle or chaos or complexity theory has to do with such miraculous, macro-level science-defying events. All of these people think that allowing for the logical possibility of any god at all allows for the existence the particular god they want to believe in.

While I have criticized the books by religious scientists like chemist Francis Collins book and biologist Kenneth Miller for the faults in their reasoning, at least they both write clearly about their religious beliefs, without using the usual impenetrable theological jargon. Physicist John Polkinghorne, on the other hand, while he writes well when explaining physics, because he is also a theologian has the unfortunate ability to revert to the usual theological linguistic obscurity when discussing how god works. Here is a passage from his book:

God's act of creation would not only have involved a divine kenosis of omnipotence, resulting from allowing a creaturely other truly to be itself, but also a divine kenosis of omniscience, arising from allowing the future to be truly open. (p. 150)

The meaning of the above passage was initially incomprehensible to me but I thought that it may be due to the fact that I was unfamiliar with the work 'kenosis', which is the kind of neologism that sprouts all over the place in theology. So I looked up the word in the dictionary and it means "the relinquishment of divine attributes by Jesus Christ in becoming human." So I think that what he is saying is that when God chose to appear in the human form of Jesus, he gave up the powers of omnipotence and omniscience. But why not simply say so? What is the need for things like the "creaturely other truly to be itself"?

If he did speak more straightforwardly and people understood what he was saying, then some obvious questions would arise in their minds. People might ask how Jesus, if he was not omnipotent, could bring Lazarus back from the dead or walk on water or transform water into wine, and all the other tricks claimed for him. Or how, if he was not omniscient, he could know in advance that Peter would deny knowing him. Polkinghorne cannot help speaking obliquely because, to paraphrase taking a cue from George Orwell, religious speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible, designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Reading this kind of passage in Polkinghorne's book brought back memories from the time when I used to indulge in this kind of metaphysical talk as part of my religious training. It is possible to convince oneself that this kind of thing makes sense, as long as one keeps it on a high abstract plane and do not demand concrete examples of what is being said. And of course, one has to want to believe that there is some sense to believing in god.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus the Supergod

Maybe Jesus didn't fully invoke the 'divine kenosis of omnipotence' and become a 'creaturely other truly being itself'.