Entries for June 2010

June 30, 2010

Is cheerleading a sport?

In the seminar that I teach that deals with scientific revolutions, one of the difficult questions that we grapple with is how to distinguish science from non-science. In other words, if we have two boxes, one labeled 'science' and the other 'non-science', can we establish some criteria that will enable us to take any given theory and determine which of the two boxes it should be put into? To be able to do so requires us to establish the existence of both necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be considered science.

If we have only necessary conditions, then any theory that does NOT meet those criteria is definitely not science so it goes into the non-science box. But if it does meet just necessary criteria, all we can say about it is that it may or may not be science. i.e., we do not know which box to put it into. So for example, the commonly accepted idea that scientific theories are materialistic and generate predictions that can be tested are necessary conditions. This is why any theories involving supernatural entities or that are untestable tend to be immediately classified as non-science. But all theories that are materialistic and testable may not be science. For example, the idea that soccer fans are intrinsically rowdier than football fans is not a scientific theory (in the usual sense we use the words) although the methods of scientific investigations (such as statistical analysis and correlations) may be used in seeing if it is in fact a true statement.

Similarly, if we have criteria for sufficiency and a theory meets those criteria, then it goes into the box marked science. But if it does not meet the criteria, it may or may not be science, so again we do not know which box to put it into. As an example, if we say that a theory is science if it has been cited as the reason why its inventors were awarded a Nobel prize, then quantum theory would be scientific without a doubt. But what about the theory of relativity? It has not been cited in Nobel awards so by our rules we cannot definitely say if it is or is not science.

This is why we need BOTH necessary and sufficient conditions to be able to make unambiguous statements that theory A is science while theory B is not science..

One would think that it might be easy to simply make a list of necessary conditions and say that if a theory meets ALL of those necessary conditions, then that is sufficient. But it is not that simple. What complicates things is that any demarcation criterion that tries to distinguish science from non-science would have to be such that all theories that are commonly accepted as science (such as Newton's laws of motion) would meet the criteria and be included while those that are commonly thought to not be science (say astrology) are excluded. Trying to ensure that existing theories go into the correct boxes is where the difficulty arises because there are always difficult marginal cases.

Finding necessary and sufficient conditions for science has been so difficult that some have declared this problem to be either insoluble or not worth the effort to solve it.

In teaching these somewhat abstract concepts of necessary and scientific conditions, I try to give my students a more down-to-earth parallel by posing to them the question: Is cheerleading a sport? This usually generates a lively discussion and they soon realize that in order to answer this question, they need to arrive at necessary and sufficient conditions for what makes something a sport or non-sport and they quickly discover that it is hard, if not impossible, to do so. And the difficulty is exactly the same as that confronting demarcation criteria for science. While it is possible to make prescriptive lists of conditions for what constitutes a sport, what complicates things is that whatever conditions we arrive at should also be such that things that are commonly accepted as sports (say tennis and soccer) and those that are not (drinking a beer or taking a nap on the couch) fall, using those criteria, into the correct boxes. And there are some tough marginal cases, not just cheerleading. Is chess a sport? Is the card game bridge a sport? (Both have applied to be part of the Olympic games.) How about video games?

It turns out that my classroom discussion question of whether cheerleading is a sport is not a purely academic exercise. It is actually being argued before a federal judge in Connecticut. The reason is that Quinnipiac University has been accused of subverting the requirements of Title IX, the federal legislation that requires colleges to provide some level of equity in support of women's athletics. The university cut costs by classifying the high-numbers, low-cost, women-dominated cheerleading as a sport, enabling them to eliminate other women's sports (such a volleyball) that cost more per student. The women's volleyball team has challenged the university's classification of cheerleading as a sport and this is what has led to the lawsuit.

In arguing the case, we see the same necessary and sufficient arguments surfacing.

While physical effort and ability are a given for many of the high-level gymnasts who cheer, Title IX has specific criteria for what counts as a sport when it comes to equity in athletics: a program must have a defined season, a governing organization, and feature competition as its primary goal. Competitive cheer is not recognized by the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) as a sport. Nor does it have a governing body: two versions of organizations that have filled the role have been associated with Varsity Brands, Inc., a for-profit company that sells cheerleading gear and hosts up to 60 "national championships" a year. To amplify its case that competitive cheer can indeed count as a varsity sport, Quinnipiac has joined with seven other schools to form the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association, which is intended to be a new governing body for the sport. Four more schools need to sign on for it to be recognized as a legitimate governing body, and the sport itself to be seen as "emerging."

It looks like what Title IX has tried to specify are just necessary conditions which, as we have seen, can only definitely say if cheerleading is not a sport. It is not clear if it says that if an activity meets ALL the necessary conditions, then that is sufficient to make it a sport.

Whatever the outcome, Quinnipiac University should be ashamed of itself for trying to subvert the spirit of Title IX and eliminating women's volleyball.

But what I am really curious about is how the judge is going to arrive at a verdict. Will he be able to specify necessary and sufficient conditions and thus arrive at demarcation criteria, something that has so far eluded my students and me? If so, I will gladly say that you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

POST SCRIPT: Who is an atheist?

June 29, 2010

The rotten US health care system

Just last month I went for a routine physical examination followed up by routine blood tests and a bone density scan. According to my health insurance plan, all these were supposed to be fully covered. Of course, being a veteran of the bureaucratic health care system in the US, I know that nothing is 'routine' here and so before I did any of these things I had to spend some time making sure that I was going to a doctor covered by my insurance plan and that the blood-testing laboratory and the bone-density measuring facility were also covered procedures done by approved facilities.

After everything was over, I received bills charging me the full amount for both the blood tests and the bone density scans. This meant that I had to call the insurance company to find out what had gone wrong. After fighting my way through the thicket of the voice mail jungle to get a real live person, they said that one of the bills was due to an error by their processing office and the other was due to a wrong process code entered by the laboratory. (It fascinates me that these errors always seem to favor the insurance companies, never the patient.) So then I had to call the laboratory and tell them to re-submit the bill using the correct code.

Of course, I was not surprised this happened because I have had enough experience with the absurdly bureaucratic US system to know that this kind of hassle that patients go through is the norm. In fact, I fully expect that there will be more glitches and more bills requiring more phone calls from me. All this for relatively trivial and 'routine' processes. For other people, things are a lot worse. The wife of a friend of mine died after a long illness. In addition to dealing with his grief, he now has to deal with the enormously complicated details of who should be paying for what aspects of her care. Dealing with all the paperwork and bureaucracy is practically a full-time job.

Let's not mince words. The US has one of the lousiest health care systems in the developed world. (For my previous posts on this topic see here.) This is not just my opinion. It is supported by numerous studies, the latest of which finds that the US ranks at or near the bottom on most measures when compared to six other countries (Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) in the quality of the health care its people receive. This will, of course, come as no surprise to those people who have paid close attention to this question and seen through the propaganda of the lucrative health industry and their bogus arguments about hip replacements and wait times and the like. (The organization Physicians for A National Health Program gives a lot of great information.)

A Business Week news report on the new study says:

Despite having the costliest health care system in the world, the United States is last or next-to-last in quality, efficiency, access to care, equity and the ability of its citizens to lead long, healthy, productive lives, according to a new report from the Commonwealth Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based private foundation focused on improving health care.

According to 2007 data included in the report, the U.S. spends the most on health care, at $7,290 per capita per year. That's almost twice the amount spent in Canada and nearly three times the rate of New Zealand, which spends the least.

The Netherlands, which has the highest-ranked health care system on the Commonwealth Fund list, spends only $3,837 per capita.

The report also debunks the most common sound-bite made by supporters of the US system, that supporters of single-payer don't really know how awful other systems are. The converse is true. People who have experienced health care in any of those other countries (like I have) are the ones who are amazed at how awful the US system is, because only they realize how much better it can be, and is elsewhere.

Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine, commented that "as a physician and public health practitioner, I have routinely spoken out in favor of health care reform in the U.S. The responses evoked have not always been kind. Prominent among the counterarguments has been: 'You should see what health care is like in other countries.'"

"This report utterly belies the notion that the former status quo for health care delivery in the U.S. was as good as it gets. Others have been doing better and we can, and should, too," he said.

In fact, the UK with its (gasp!) 'socialized medicine' turns out to be at or near the top.

U.S. patients with chronic conditions were the most likely to say they got the wrong drug or had to wait to learn of abnormal test results.

Overall Britain, whose nationalized healthcare system was widely derided by opponents of U.S. healthcare reform, ranks first, the Commonwealth team found.

An American physician now working in Canada gave the commencement address to newly minted doctors at the University of California at Irvine and he made some interesting comparisons with his experience working in the US.

It was interesting for me, as an American physician practicing in Canada, to see the recent negative depictions of the Canadian system in TV ads and lay media, depictions that bore absolutely no resemblance to the actual environment in which I practice daily. My reality is very different. I can see any patient and any patient can see me – total freedom of practice. My patients' parents have peace of mind regarding their children's health. If they change jobs or lose their job altogether in a bad economy, their children will still get the same care and see the same physicians. Micromanagement of daily practice has become a thing of the past for me. There are no contracts, authorizations, denials, appeals, reviews, forms to complete, IPA's, HMO's, or PPO's. Our Division's billing overhead is 1 %. My relationship with the hospital administration is defined by professional, not financial, standards. I have no allegiance to any corporate or government entity, nor does one ever get in between me and the patient. This environment, which some denigrate as the ever so scary system of "socialized medicine" allows for more patient autonomy and choice than was available to most of my patients in California. (my emphasis)

That is not at all to say that I practice in a medical utopia. There is no perfect health care system. The Canadian system has its own set of difficulties, challenges, and shortcomings, and Canadians are also looking to significantly reform their system. But as physicians, we have to enter the debate and we have to enter it objectively, salvaging it from the bias, misrepresentation, and demagoguery that has characterized it. Health care should not be a liberal or conservative issue, for disease, disability, and death do not recognize political affiliations.

As a socially conservative Christian myself, my belief that health care is a fundamental human right, and my efforts on behalf of single payer universal health coverage stem from my faith, and not despite it. My faith calls for personal morality, but also for societal morality – how do we treat the sick amongst us, the weak amongst us, the least amongst us?

Some form of single payer health care system (whether socialized or not) is what the US needs. Now.

POST SCRIPT: This is the best the US can do?

It amazes me that the corrupt, wasteful, and greedy health insurance industry in the US is what some people want to preserve.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Inethical Basterds
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care Reform

June 28, 2010

What the McChrystal affair reveals about the media

One initial reaction of the mainstream media to the Rolling Stone article that got Stanley McChrystal fired as commander of US forces in Afghanistan seemed to be "Rolling Stone? Rolling Stone?" They couldn't understand why the person in charge of the war in Afghanistan gave so much access to what they saw as a hippy-dippy magazine that mainly covers rock music and popular culture. The issue with the McChrystal article had Lady Gaga on the cover and, as you can see, the article in question did not even get top billing, suggesting that the magazine itself did not realize what its impact would be.

lady gaga.jpgBut the journalist Michael Hastings is no hippie who had gone to Afghanistan mostly for the high-quality opium and talk to the US top brass in between puffs. He was correspondent for Newsweek in Afghanistan for two years before being transferred to cover the 2008 elections, is very familiar with the people there both among Afghans and the US, and even has a brother serving there now. Furthermore, Rolling Stone has had a long history of covering politics from unusual angles because they hire good reporters who seem to be given much more freedom and time to do their work in unorthodox ways. Hunter S. Thompson used to write for them and Matt Taibbi, one of the best current reporters around, works for them

A second reaction was much more revealing. The mainstream media couldn't understand why Hastings had burned all his bridges by publishing his article containing the explosive quotes by McChrystal and his macho 'Team America' denigrating the civilian leadership. By doing so, Hastings had ensured that he would not be granted future access to other important people and, even worse, may have ruined it for other 'respectable' reporters as well. Why, they wondered, had he not cleaned up his article by sanitizing it and making sure that they all looked good, the way that that nice reporter Bob Woodward does? That way he could ensure, like Woodward, that important people would be eager to talk to reporters, knowing that they would be well portrayed.

David Brooks, someone who, like Woodward, epitomizes the corrosive schmoozing culture of Washington and has also benefited by it, bemoans the effect that the Hastings article, which he dismisses as 'gotcha' journalism, will have on the friendly conversations that currently occur between reporters and the people who cover them. "Government officials will erect even higher walls between themselves and the outside world. The honest and freewheeling will continue to flee public life, and the cautious and calculating will remain."

Brooks gets duly taken to the woodshed by his Nemesis, Matt Taibbi, who points out that the explosive quotes were embedded in an important story about the confusion within the administration over the policy to be pursued in Afghanistan. (See Stephen Walt's analysis of this angle.)

Of course Brooks himself almost certainly never even considered the newsworthiness of McChrystal's perhaps-unilateral expansion of the Afghan war; I doubt his thinking about this issue even went that far. I'm almost certain that to him this is a matter of decorum, that what he doesn't like about the Hastings article is that it violates what I'm sure are deeply-held ideas of how a reporter should behave toward a large strapping man with immense political power and a snappy uniform.

Hastings did the opposite of what Brooks would have done in the same situation -- instead of wetting himself in the presence of all those stars and epaulettes and spending long Saleri-esque nights dreaming up new descriptive bon mots for the General… Hastings did his job and let the public decide what sort of news, and on-the-record comments, it is and is not ready to handle.

The media insider flap over the Hastings article illustrates the important difference between beat reporters (assigned by major news outlets to cover on a daily basis a specific area, the White House, Pentagon, business, etc.) and one-off reporters working for magazines. Matt Taibbi reveals why beat reporters and their publications have become so vapid.

For quite a long time political journalism, particularly in Washington, has been reduced to an access-trading game, where reporters are rewarded for favorable coverage of those in the know with more time and availability.

This symbiotic dynamic affects not just individual reporters but whole publications and news channels; it's a huge reason why reporters have in general resisted challenging political authorities. Nobody wants to be the guy who gets not only himself but his whole paper shut out of the access game. Since many recent politicians have made good on this implied threat (George Bush's shut-out of the Washington Post's White House reporters is a classic example), what we get is coverage that across the board fails to ask hard questions and in general treats leaders with a reverence they don't always deserve.

Or we get the other thing: partisan coverage in which the right-wing guys hammer the Democrats and the lefties hammer the Bushes and the Cheneys. That's a sort of Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact approach to the access question. You agree to forswear attacks on your own team, then you can get all the access you want from the guys in your locker room. A lot of outlets make this choice and that's why we get the impression that news coverage is negative, because there is in fact a lot of screaming and finger-pointing on the airwaves — but mostly that's partisan entertainment, not a healthy free press challenging authority.

Taibbi points out that it doesn't have to be that way as long as news organizations are willing to call the politicians' bluff.

I do think we'd all be better off if news organizations stopped choosing teams and worrying about access and started doing what Hastings did, which is risk the shut-out. It's hard to write something that you know is going to put you straight into Siberia with your sources five minutes after the piece comes out. I certainly don't do it very often. Most reporters don't. But if we all did this more often, what we'd find in the end is that politicians would come calling and offering access anyway. In the end, they really do need us as much as we need them.

Barrett Brown hopes that the Hastings article is a sign of the future.

[The article] was written by a perfect specimen of the new breed of journalist-commentator that will hopefully come to replace the old breed sooner rather than later, and which has already collectively surpassed the old guard by every measure that counts—for instance, not being forever wrong about matters of life and death.

McChrystal and Co. would have exhibited far better judgment had they looked into Hastings’s career and writings and come to the obvious conclusion that this sort of journalist has nothing to lose in reporting a series of demonstrable facts. Unlike many of this country’s most respected commentators, Hastings did not spend the better part of a decade repeating conventional wisdom about our allegedly unprecedented success in two wars that have already proven to be abject failures, and thus he has no reason to simply take the word of some or another confused presidential administration that everything is under control, or will be after some additional expenditure of blood and treasure.

You cannot be a good journalist if you are working as a beat reporter for any of the major news organizations. They are all, almost by definition, careerist hacks.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show's take on the flap

Of course, you knew that Jon Stewart would be all over the story.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
McChrystal's Balls - Honorable Discharge
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

June 25, 2010

The low tax rates in the US

Every year when I do my taxes, I also do a small extra calculation to see what percent of our gross family income goes as taxes. It amazes me that the number comes out to less than one third. This low rate would make sense if I were poor. But I am not. I have a good job, as does my wife, and our combined income puts us well above the median income for families in the US, which in 2008 was around $52,000. In fact, as I have discussed previously, our whole concept of what constitutes the 'middle class' is hopelessly out of whack with how income is really distributed.

Bear in mind that in calculating my total tax liability I include federal, state, and local taxes, and also social security, Medicare, and property taxes. Furthermore, I do not use an accountant to find loopholes or use any fancy tax shelters and the like to reduce my liability, the way that very wealthy people do. Our finances are so straightforward that I have always done my own tax returns. Yet despite the lack of any determined effort to find ways to reduce taxes, I still pay what seems to me to be an absurdly low rate.

This is why I have so little patience with those people, often people like me or even better off, who use phony tax arguments to constantly whine about how the taxes in the US are too high. They are not. These people seem to start from the assumption that the justifiable amount of tax is zero and anything above that is an imposition. You hear these people saying things like every dollar they get in their paychecks is 'their' money and that anything taken out from it in taxes is tantamount to the government 'stealing' their hard earned income. Because these people have dominated the discussion, they have convinced everyone that all taxes are bad and any politician who raises them risks defeat.

But this argument is bogus. When I take on a job and sign a contract to have my employer pay me a certain amount of money, that is not a zero cost arrangement. For the company to exist to offer me the job and for me to be able to accept requires the existence of a huge infrastructure. Simply to exist, the company needs roads and bridges and lights and water and electricity and police and schools and fire protection and a whole range of other government services. For me to reach a stage where I am capable of doing the job requires those same services. All those things require money and just because I do not pay for them at the moment of use does not mean they cost nothing. The cost is hidden from us because they are paid using our taxes. These costs are factored in by employers when they negotiate the contract. So what is 'taken out' of our paychecks is what was 'put in' to cover all these costs. The taxes we pay is not 'our' money that is taken away from us, it is basically a bookkeeping device to show us how much money was essentially loaned to us to cover the cost of the very things that enable us to earn the money in the first place. If the costs of all those services were paid for elsewhere by the tooth fairy, our salaries would likely be correspondingly lower.

The fact that costs are factored into the process of determining salaries should be obvious. This is why a job in New York city will likely pay more than the identical job in a small rural town, because to live in a big city simply costs more, especially for housing. We could have a system where the city levies a 'housing tax' that reduces your take-home income by a certain amount and uses that money to subsidize your housing costs so that you recover the money at the back end. The net result in terms of take-home pay would be the same but people accept the former arrangement because they themselves are paying the extra costs for housing and it seems like they have a choice as to how they spend 'their' money. It does not come out of their paychecks and is thus not seen as a tax.

But certain public services cannot be paid for by individuals at the point of receiving the service. How would you pay for roads and streetlights and police? The debate about taxes should be not be the silly one about the amount of taxes we should pay, as if there is some magic number, but about what public services we want to have and at what level and the degree of progressivity of the tax code that we think is fair. The taxes we pay will naturally flow out of that discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Atheism-inspired rock song and video

The song Bombastic Mind by the band Mental Health has been chosen as one of 40 songs taking part in the Storm The Charts campaign in the UK. By purchasing it starting on Monday, June 27, you can help it reach #1.

It is actually a pretty good song and if the embedded video below does not work, you can see the video here.

The band's website is here.

June 24, 2010

Bogus concern for the poor

The last few decades have seen massive giveaways to the very rich in the US that has resulted in huge increases in the inequalities in income and wealth. See these charts for how bad the situation has become. Even in the last year when almost everyone was badly hit by the economic recession, the millionaires and billionaires saw their wealth jump by almost 20%.

But whenever there is any suggestion of narrowing the gaps, the arguments raised in opposition are fascinating. Suddenly, the very rich people start arguing that those going to be most affected by tax policies aimed at them are actually the poor people. It is quite amazing how there is always a surge in solicitousness for the welfare of the poor whenever the wallets of the rich are threatened.

For example, when suggestions are made that in order to close the budget deficit, the marginal tax rates on the highest income brackets should be raised, we are told that the people who would be hurt most by this move are the people at the low end of the income scale, whose income is in the lowest tax brackets. Why? Because supposedly if you increase taxes on the rich, they will have less money to invest in businesses and so businesses will have less capital and thus will not hire more people or will even close, throwing people out of work. These arguments are usually made in the form of these kinds of just-so stories, without supporting evidence.

When it comes to farm subsidies, they are always sold as essential in order to protect the 'small family farmer', a phrase that conjures up a mental image of dad on the tractor, mom baking bread, and the children before and after school cleaning out the barn and feeding the chickens on a small farm that the family has owned for generations, when in reality these subsidies are mostly giveaways to the same large agribusiness that are destroying the environment, keeping livestock in inhumane conditions, and actually driving genuine small family farms out of business.

As another example, the estate tax is imposed on people who die leaving enormous amounts of wealth to their heirs, people like Paris Hilton. The very wealthy, the only ones affected by this tax, have long tried to repeal it and again tried to make out that they were acting on behalf of poor people. They again invoked the small family farmer, who had struggled hard to make a living all his life and after his or her death, the so-called 'death tax' was going to be so onerous that the descendants would have to sell the farm to pay off the tax. This is totally bogus. No one could produce even a single example of such a case. To pay any estate tax, the estate would have to be worth more than $3.5 million.

Recently there have been moves to close a loophole that enables the managers of hedge funds and investors in derivatives, the people behind the recent financial collapse who made enormous profits (Making Big Bucks by Betting on Collapse by Carl Ginsburg in the May 16-30, 2010 issue of CounterPunch), to pay only 15% in taxes on this income instead of the top rate of 35% they would have to pay if those profits were treated like ordinary income. On NPR I heard one person opposing closing this loophole, saying that doing so would harm (surprise!) poor people. Why? Because hedge funds provide financing for (among other things) construction and thus taking some of their huge incomes as taxes would mean less money for building projects and thereby put construction workers out of work. So closing a loophole that prevents vastly wealthy people from paying their fair share in taxes is now argued to be a move aimed at construction workers. Again, no evidence is given to support this argument.

BP is playing the same game. In order to pay for the damage caused by the Gulf oil spill, they are being asked to not pay dividends to their shareholders. Suddenly we are hearing that the people who would be harmed most by not paying dividends would be the old pensioners in England who depend on the BP dividend to keep them from starvation and freezing in the cold English winters. In reality, the largest shareholders in BP are big institutions, with Wall Street banking giant JP Morgan Chase topping the list.

Just last night, the auto industry obtained an exemption from oversight by the new consumer watchdog contained in the financial industry regulations to protect consumers that are being sought in the wake of the financial meltdown. Their argument to for special consideration? That they represent the 'neighborhood auto dealer', that they are 'Main Street and not Wall Street' (to use a current populist cliché), when in reality more than 70% of the loans they offer are backed by the same big Wall Street firms.

The image that the very rich try to impose on the rest of us is that what they constantly seek to do with their money is find opportunities to invest in new business and create new jobs, when in reality what they do is use their money to make more money by financial manipulation. They don't care even if, as it often does, their greed results in low wages or throws people out of work because of the pressure to squeeze more profits out of them. When they do spend their money, it is on luxurious living, so perhaps it results in more business for yacht makers and a few people in the service sector such as high-end restaurants, hotels, and places of entertainment.

What these examples illustrate is that the one thing that very rich people are good at is spinning stories that can make their naked greed and self-interest seem like civic mindedness.

POST SCRIPT: Bill Maher's New Rules

The only thing that is working in favor of Obama and the Democrats, despite their terrible performance in office so far, is that the Republican Party has gone crazy. American conservatism has been hi-jacked by demagogic know-nothings who pander to and fuel the most paranoid and xenophobic fears of people. See this video by Bill Maher on the difference between British and American conservatives.

June 23, 2010

Today Arizona, tomorrow the US

One of the things that seems obvious to me but most people seem unaware of is that the US is a country in deep decline and if no corrective action is taken soon it will end up just like many other failed empire in history, collapsing from within due to a combination of hubris, arrogance, and greed.

The facts are clear. The country is engaged in two simultaneous, expensive, never-ending wars, in addition to maintaining a costly global military presence. It is spending way beyond its means, running up huge deficits by avoiding raising taxes to pay for its military while simultaneously enriching the already wealthy. It has become an oligarchy where a small elite loots the public treasury for private gain while the people are distracted with the stupid and trivial and hateful. (Hey, look over here, we need to stop someone getting an abortion! Over there, a couple of gays are trying to marry! The borders are being overrun by dangerous brown people! Let's post the Ten Commandments on every public building! Obama is a Muslim/Kenyan/Socialist!)

Such behavior has typically been the precursor to the end of past empires (the Roman one immediately comes to mind) and there is no reason to think that this time it is going to be any different. But it is also a sad truth that the oligarchy of declining empires never recognizes that the end is nigh and that they need to change course. They think that either this time is unique, that this empire is too big and too powerful to fail, or they think that they can continue their looting for a little longer and let someone else fix the damage.

The current situation in the state of Arizona is a good leading indicator of what the US as a whole will be like in the near future. Writing in the July 2010 issue of Harper's magazine (subscription required), Ken Silverstein describes a state in which we can see the results of anti-tax, pro-elite, tea party policies run amok, and which has resulted in a legislature "which is composed almost entirely of dimwits, racists, and cranks." As a result, the state's public sector is crumbling and they have no resources to deal with the collapse of the private sector as a result of the mortgage debacle and the resulting decline in the economy.

[T]he capitol's dingy, unshaded plaza is bare save for a few small rosebushes and some patches of dry grass. The buildings themselves have been plagued by plumbing problems and leaks.

Recent figures show that 61.5 percent of Phoenix mortgages are "underwater," with commercial real estate in even worse shape. It is unlikely that a major office building will be erected in Phoenix in the next five years. Since its peak in 2006, the state's construction industry has lost roughly 113,000 jobs, a drop of almost 50 percent. The official unemployment rate is above 9 percent, but that figure nearly doubles when people who can't find full-time work and people who have given up are factored in.

The anti-tax zealots in Arizona have created a major crisis:

A horrific budget deficit has been papered over with massive borrowing and accounting gimmickry, and the state may yet have to issue IOUs to employees and vendors. All-day kindergarten has been eliminated statewide, and some districts have adopted a four-day school week. Arizona's state parks, despite bringing in 2 million visitors and $266 million annually, have lost 80 percent of their budget, with up to two thirds of the parks now in danger of closure. The legislature slashed the budget for the Department of Revenue, which required the agency to fire hundreds of state auditors and tax collectors; lawmakers boasted that these measures saved $25 million, but a top official in the department estimated that the state would miss out on $174 million in tax collections as a result.

The three state universities have scrapped whole degree programs and may soon have to shutter entire campuses. Funding for GED programs and adult-education courses has been reduced to zero. Arizona has furloughed more than 15,000 state employees and has closed thirteen of eighteen highway rest stops.

Meanwhile, Arizona removed more than 300,000 adults from state health coverage and terminated one health-care program for 47,000 poor children. Funding was slashed at the agency that deals with reports of child abuse and neglect, and also at Children's Rehabilitative Services, so that parents of children with cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, and a number of other conditions are now required to pay 100 percent of treatment costs.

To plug the budget deficits, the state has resorted to short-term and short-sighted measures like selling off public assets.

[T]o raise cash, the legislature has pursued a series of wild sell-offs and budget cuts. It privatized the capitol building and leased it back from its new owner, an arrangement that brought in substantial revenue but over time will cost Arizona far more. The legislature has sold off numerous other state properties at bargain prices, and has put up future lottery revenues as collateral on a $450 million loan.

In addition to selling the state capitol, the legislature has examined auctioning off dozens of other properties—among them the house and senate buildings, the offices of the secretary of state and the treasurer, and most of the state's prisons, including maximum-security units and death row.

With the state facing such a huge budgetary crisis, what has the legislature of 'dimwits, racists, and cranks' been focused on? I'm glad you asked. The measure that has received the widest publicity is the new law that requires police to stop suspected illegal immigrants and demand to see their papers; anyone not carrying acceptable proof of citizenship can be arrested for trespassing and thrown in jail for up to six months. But they have also banned the funding of any ethnic-studies programs in the public schools, prohibited "intentionally or knowingly creating a human-animal hybrid." declared February 8 the "Boy Scout Holiday," provided discount fishing-license fees for Eagle Scouts, and approved a constitutional right to hunt.

They are presently considering measures to allow faculty members to carry guns on university campuses and to force President Barack Obama to show his birth certificate to state officials if he runs for re-election, and are seeing if the use of prison inmate labor can solve some of their infrastructure problems by getting them to fill potholes, keep golf courses open, and refurbish public buildings. And of course, they are debating that cherished staple of nutty politics, whether to post the Ten Commandments at the entrance to the old state capitol.

The trouble with an oligarchy running things is that they have no commitment to the public good. Silverstein quotes one local resident: "People who have swimming pools don't need state parks. If you buy your books at Borders you don't need libraries. If your kids are in private school, you don't need K-12. The people here, or at least those who vote, don't see the need for government."

That's how the oligarchy thinks and if they are allowed to continue to run the country, the decline of the US will be slow but not imperceptible. The signs are already there. Pollution of water supplies, decaying roads, unrepaired bridges, public transport reduced, parks closing, library hours and services cut back, public education funding cut, and so on. And once all those options are exhausted, the selling of public assets. It is just a matter of time before naming rights are sold to national institutions. The Lincoln Monument, brought to you by Goldman Sachs! The Budweiser Grand Canyon!

Arizona is the future.

POST SCRIPT: Polluting our water supply

The destruction of natural resources goes on apace. There is a new documentary out on HBO called Gasland that talks about how allowing companies to freely use a new method of extracting natural gas called 'fracking' has resulted in people's water supply across enormous parts of the country being polluted with concentrations of natural gas sometimes strong enough to cause the water to catch fire, as well as containing poisonous chemicals.

The Daily Show had an interview with the director Josh Fox.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Josh Fox
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

June 22, 2010

Fashion and foot binding

The novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (2005) is the story of the lifelong friendship, starting from childhood, of two women in early 19th century China as each undergoes major life changes, one moving up the socioeconomic ladder, the other down. Told through the eyes of one child who begins life as the daughter of a poor farmer and rises, through marriage, to become a noblewoman, it gives insight into the curious and sometimes brutal life of the various classes of women in the patriarchal Confucian system.

The book describes the hidden and secret world of women in that gender-segregated society, its superstitions and rituals, and the rigid hierarchy and roles that people, especially women, were assigned to. Women were meant to stay in the home and drilled with the rules known (p. 24) as the Three Obediences ("When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son") and the Four Virtues ("Be chaste and yielding, calm and upright in attitude; be quiet and agreeable in words; be restrained and exquisite in movement; be perfect in handiwork and embroidery") so that they will grow into the ideal of a virtuous woman. Women are told repeatedly from birth that they are worthless and any woman who does not bear sons is treated even worse than normal.

But what I found truly horrifying were the descriptions dealing with the binding of feet. I had been aware of course of this terrible practice but to have the process described in detail in the novel was chilling and makes one wonder how such a barbaric standard of beauty could have even been conceived and implemented except as a means of dominating women and breaking them both physically and in spirit.

The ideal of the perfect foot sought by the binding process seems grotesque now:

Of these requirements, length is the most important. Seven centimeters – about the length of a thumb – is the ideal. Shape comes next. A perfect foot should be shaped like the bud of a lotus. It should be full and round at the heel, come to a point at the front, with all the weight borne by the big toe alone. This means that the toes and the arch of the foot must be broken and bent under to meet the heel. (p. 26)

This result was obtained by brutally binding the feet of very young children with tightly wound bandages. Children started undergoing this process around the age of six or so, and it is, as you can imagine, not only excruciatingly painful but dangerous, with death from gangrene and permanent crippling not being uncommon. Even when "successful" the result was women whose mobility was impaired. To be quite frank, I found those sections too difficult to read and skimmed them. The descriptions of little children screaming in pain as their mothers put them through this process was just too much for me to take. This is another example of adults callously violating the bodily integrity of children by imposing their own beliefs on them.

How could such a terrible practice ever become seen as the norm or even desirable? From the point of view of men, having women who were restricted in their movements may have been seen as good thing as it enabled them to dominate them more easily. (The efforts by the Taliban and other Muslim fundamentalists to deprive women of education and keep them virtually prisoners in their homes seem to serve a similar purpose.)

But how did it happen that women also internalized this as a desirable standard of beauty? It is suggested that the practice began with wealthy women and that the very negatives associated with it, such as impaired mobility, were seen as signs of wealth and privilege since it implied that one was a woman of leisure who had servants to do all the work on one's behalf.

But as is often the case with fashion, what begins as an extravagance to be flaunted by the wealthy is then adopted by everyone as the standard and that may be why foot binding took hold among almost everyone in China except the servant classes, who were needed to do work. Thankfully the abolition of the Chinese monarchy and the creation of a republic in 1912 resulted in the banning of the practice, and after the Communist Revolution of 1949 the ban was even more strictly enforced so I believe (and hope) that the practice has disappeared altogether.

While reading the novel, it struck me that this kind of practice took place in the west too, though in less extreme forms. The kinds of clothes women wore in Victorian times, with highly restricting corsets, suffocating layers of petticoats, and ornate wigs and makeup were also a means of flaunting the fact that one had nothing better to do than spend vast amounts of time and money paying attention to one's appearance.

Nowadays, fashions are not so physically constraining but there are still things that are the result of rich people's lifestyles being adopted by others. For example, take the idea that one's wardrobe must be changed frequently. To be seen in the same outfit more than once, let along many times, is to commit a fashion faux pas. This strikes me as absurd. It seems logical to me that if someone looks good in an outfit, they should wear it many times. Just because rich people can afford to purchase vast numbers of outfits and discard them after one or two wearings does not mean that this is not a silly and wasteful practice. But it becomes positively ruinous for people who internalize this as good fashion sense but cannot afford it.

The spending of vast sums of money on accessories and makeup and hairstyles and other 'beauty' treatments are other examples of rich people's extravagances being adopted by people who cannot afford them.

As anyone who has seen me and the way I am dressed and groomed will immediately realize, I am not really an expert on fashion so there may be other contemporary examples of women going to extremes (either physically through plastic surgery or cosmetically or sartorially) that I am unaware of, purely because they have internalized a concept of beauty that has as its source nothing more than the flaunting of wealth and privilege.

I am not saying that one should not take care of one's appearance or try to look nice. But what we talking about here goes well beyond minimal requirements or common sense.

POST SCRIPT: The metrosexual danger

David Mitchell points out easy it is for men to look well-dressed and warns that those few men who pay too much attention to their clothes and grooming risk ruining it for the rest of us.

June 21, 2010

The great discovery of religions: Be nice to others

In the debate that is currently being waged between accommodationists (those who believe that science and religion are compatible worldviews) and new/unapologetic atheists like me who argue that they are not, the accommodationists usually argue that each area of knowledge is separate and has revealed different truths that complement each other. But what are these great truths that religion has supposedly revealed? Here they are vague but recently the Dalai Lama wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled Many Faiths, One Truth where he takes a shot at addressing this. (Thanks to commenter Ross for bringing my attention to it.)

The results are, to say the least, underwhelming. What the Dalai Lama says he finds is that despite their superficial differences and beliefs in their own superiority that has led to hostilities at various times in history, all religions reveal a common feature: the importance of compassion.

That's it? This is the great truth revealed by religion? Thousands of years of study by theologians all over the world and the end result is that we should be show compassion to one other? This is something that was likely known to agrarian societies about 10,000 years ago and even to the earlier hunter-gatherers, long before any of the current religions came into being, simply because of its utilitarian value. It is also something that any child now would discover for himself or herself simply by playing with others.

Compare that banal discovery with the truths that science has revealed in just the last few hundred years. Sean Carroll helpfully provides a list. (Thanks to commenter kosmofilo for the link.)

Over the last four hundred or so years, human beings have achieved something truly amazing: we understand the basic rules governing the operation of the world around us. Everything we see in our everyday lives is simply a combination of three particles — protons, neutrons, and electrons — interacting through three forces — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong nuclear force. That is it; there are no other forms of matter needed to describe what we see, and no other forces that affect how they interact in any noticeable way. And we know what those interactions are, and how they work. Of course there are plenty of things we don’t know — there are additional elementary particles, dark matter and dark energy, mysteries of quantum gravity, and so on. But none of those is relevant to our everyday lives (unless you happen to be a professional physicist). As far as our immediate world is concerned, we know what the rules are. A staggeringly impressive accomplishment, that somehow remains uncommunicated to the overwhelming majority of educated human beings.

That doesn’t mean that all the interesting questions have been answered; quite the opposite. Knowing the particles and forces that make up our world is completely useless when it comes to curing cancer, buying a new car, or writing a sonnet. (Unless your sonnet is about the laws of physics.) But there’s no question that this knowledge has crucial implications for how we think about our lives. Astrology does not work; there is no such thing as telekinesis; quantum mechanics does not tell you that you can change reality just by thinking about it. There is no life after death; there’s no spiritual essence that can preserve a human consciousness outside its physical body. Life is a chemical reaction; there is no moment at conception or otherwise when a soul is implanted in a body. We evolved as a result of natural processes over the history of the Earth; there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior. There is no Natural Law that specifies how human beings should live, including who they should marry. There is no strong conception of free will, in the sense that we are laws unto ourselves over and above the laws of nature. The world follows rules, and we are part of the world.

The Dalai Lama deplores the fact that religions have long been intolerant of one another and used violence to further their aims. But these kinds of articles usually contain an obligatory swipe at atheism and in his attempt at this bogus balance, he takes a swipe at new atheists, saying "Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs."

So while religious believers have carried out murderous rampages against people of other faiths and unbelievers many times over history, what we atheists are guilty of is making 'blanket condemnations' of religion. i.e., we have used words and ideas to advance our goals. Oh, the horror!

One does not like to criticize the Dalai Lama or even make fun of him. He seems like a nice guy who smiles a lot and advocates peace. But his op-ed is nothing but platitudes, designed to give ecumenical religious people something to feel good about by claiming for it some special benefit that does not really belong to it.

POST SCRIPT: Trailer for Star Wars, Episode VII?

(Thanks to Pharyngula)

June 18, 2010

Liberal democracy and religion-5: Israel's bleak future as a democracy

The brutal behavior of the Israeli government in boarding an aid flotilla and killing some of the people on board and then justifying the action may have come as a shock to some but should not. For a long time, it has been clear that Israel is sliding further and further into becoming an authoritarian state based on religious orthodoxy that treats the Palestinians in the occupied territories with practices that strongly resemble the abhorrent apartheid policies that used to be practiced by South Africa.

Because of the rising influence of orthodox Jews, Israel has started making rules based purely on religion into laws that everyone, believers and non-believers alike, must follow. Recently Benjamin Netanyahu used the Bible to support his claim to be able to build in East Jerusalem.

Peter Beinart's article describes how Israeli politics is moving farther and farther away from a liberal democracy.

Hebrew University Professor Ze’ev Sternhell is an expert on fascism and a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize. Commenting on Lieberman and the leaders of Shas in a recent Op-Ed in Haaretz, he wrote, “The last time politicians holding views similar to theirs were in power in post–World War II Western Europe was in Franco’s Spain.” With their blessing, “a crude and multifaceted campaign is being waged against the foundations of the democratic and liberal order.” Sternhell should know. In September 2008, he was injured when a settler set off a pipe bomb at his house.

The article goes on to say that the demographic trend of Israel's Jewish population is going to make things even worse.

Israeli governments come and go, but the Netanyahu coalition is the product of frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society: an ultra-Orthodox population that is increasing dramatically, a settler movement that is growing more radical and more entrenched in the Israeli bureaucracy and army, and a Russian immigrant community that is particularly prone to anti-Arab racism. In 2009, a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 53 percent of Jewish Israelis (and 77 percent of recent immigrants from the former USSR) support encouraging Arabs to leave the country. Attitudes are worst among Israel’s young.

While Israel still has a somewhat free press, there have been increasing efforts to suppress freedom of speech, going so far as to detain at the borders and then bar entry to the West Bank to Noam Chomsky when he had been invited to give a speech. The government even destroyed all copies of a newspaper that had an investigative report on the 2008 assault on Gaza. Uri Blau, the journalist who wrote it, even had to go into hiding, perhaps because it would have had stories like this one from a United Nations report:

Israeli ground troops ordered around 110 Palestinian civilians into a single home in Gaza City’s Zeitun neighborhood and ordered them to stay indoors on Sunday. On Monday morning, Israeli forces repeatedly shelled the building, killing at least 30 of the civilians inside. It then refused to allow ambulances to retrieve the dead and dying people for days.

What is going to happen is that as Israel comes more and more under the sway of its increasingly Orthodox religious right wing population, it will pursue even more racist policies towards the Palestinian people and become an even greater international pariah.

Instead of putting pressure on Israel to move in a more liberal democratic direction, the Israel lobby in the US actually encourages the authoritarian trend by trying to make sure that every politician in the US seeking high office swears unswerving loyalty to Israel. As a result, we have the executive and legislative branches willing to express support for almost any actions by Israel, even if it might harm the long-term strategic interests of the US. The way it manages to pull this off is by making it seem as if the interests of the US and Israel are identical. Glenn Greenwald recently highlighted New York senator Charles Shumer's abhorrent views where he states that he supports the Israeli government's view that the entire population of Gaza should be punished right up to the point of starvation. And the audience of Israel supporters in the US actually applauded him. Other US politicians and commentators have followed suit without any outcry at all, let alone at the level reserved for Helen Thomas when she said objectionable things about Israel.

In an interview, historian Tony Judt expresses his views on the long-term danger to Israel of depending on the unconditional support of the US and discusses how its current psyche of victimhood came into being.

In the case of both Israel and Iran, we see how easy it is for two countries that once showed promise of becoming liberal democracies to be steadily driven away from that under the sway of religious groups. As a result, the future of that volatile region looks exceedingly bleak.

If the appeal of religion is not nipped in the bud before religious groups can gain in strength, it seems like only a matter of time before those groups gain power and influence, with potentially disastrous results.

POST SCRIPT: Pandering to the Israel lobby

Each election season, we have the spectacle of politicians pandering away to Israel and the last presidential election was no exception, as this The Daily Show demonstrates.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Indecision 5768
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

For more on pandering to Israel, see clip here.

June 17, 2010

Liberal democracy and religion-4: The Iranian case study

Iran provides a good case study of how unstable liberal democracies can be when faced with concerted efforts by powerful forces determined to undermine them.

Americans were taken by shock when students occupied the US embassy in Teheran in 1979 and held embassy employees captive for 444 days. Ever since they have been bewildered by references of Iranians to the US as "The Great Satan" and have asked themselves the question "Why do they hate us?"

If they read the 2003 book All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer they would understand better what the rest of the world has long known. The book reads like a spy novel, describing in great detail the CIA-backed coup that in 1953 overthrew the popular elected leader Mohammed Mossadegh and gave Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran) and his brutal secret service known as Savak such autocratic power that they suppressed democratic institutions and allowed foreign companies to continue exploiting Iran's natural resources in return for providing them with military hardware.

The book recounts the history of Iran and the events that led to the coup. In a nutshell, a succession of corrupt Iranian rulers had allowed a British oil company exclusive rights to export the country's oil with no oversight and paying just a pittance to the Iranian monarch. The British oil company executives and technicians lived in luxury while the Iranian oil workers lived in slums of indescribable squalor. As nationalist sentiment rose in the 20th century, there came demands for a representative parliament (knows as the Majlis) to be formed to take away some of the power of the monarch, redress some of the grievances, and obtain a fairer share of oil revenues. But the oil company, backed by the British government, high-handedly refused to deal with people they considered barbarians.

When the charismatic nationalist Mossadegh was elected prime minister by the Majlis in 1951, he immediately nationalized the oil industry and was hailed throughout the country as a great hero who was finally reclaiming the resources that rightly belonged to the people.

The British government, under the racist and imperialist Winston Churchill, set about trying to overthrow him and managed to use anti-Communist fears to persuade the newly elected Eisenhower government and the newly created CIA to take the lead in the venture. And they succeeded is doing so, conniving with the Shah to overthrow Mossadegh and do so while the Shah fled the country, and then restoring the feckless Shah to the throne, giving him and his puppet prime ministers control of the country. It should be remembered that in their fights with the British (and also the Russians), Iranians had seen the US as their friend in the anti-colonialist struggle, and so the CIA-backed coup against them was seen as a shocking betrayal.

The name of the oil company at the center of the intrigue and exploitation was the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which later changed its name to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and yet later, after the coup, returned to Iran as British Petroleum. (Yes, BP was a greedy and unscrupulous corporation long before the Gulf oil spill.)

After overthrowing Mossadegh and placing him under arrest for the rest of his life, the Shah of Iran ruled dictatorially and brutally until he was overthrown by the followers of the religious extremist Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and had to flee the country again. When President Carter allowed the Shah into the US, outraged Iranians saw this as a repetition of the 1953 history in which the CIA would once again connive with the exiled Shah to engineer a coup to return him to the throne. In order to prevent that, they occupied and ransacked the US Embassy in Teheran, which had been a center of coup planning in 1953.

For the purposes of this series of posts, the point I want to make is that Mossadegh was a believer in liberal values, such as the freedom of speech and the press and the right to demonstrate. He was personally religious, though not a zealot, but believed in secular government. It was his support for liberal democratic values that enabled the enemies of Iran, including the CIA, to foment dissent and opposition by bribing military officers, journalists, media owners, politicians, thugs, and religious zealots to destabilize the government. They did this by creating the impression of popular opposition to his rule by organizing street demonstrations against Mossadegh and even getting some of the thugs to pretend to be counterdemonstrators in favor of Mossadegh and have them deliberately destroy property so that ordinary people would get disgusted with him. Mossadegh did not clamp down on demonstrations or suppress opposition media against his government even though they were being instigated and paid for by the CIA, and thus he was deposed.

Kinzer says (p. 210) that buoyed by their 'success' in overthrowing the government in Iran, the CIA then went on to undermine governments in Cuba, Congo, Chile, Vietnam, and elsewhere. So now, whenever you hear of 'popular' protests against governments that the US does not like, such as that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, you would not be far wrong in inferring that the CIA is playing at least some role in creating the impression of dissatisfaction. The classic book Inside the Company: CIA Diary by former CIA agent Philip Agee (1975) describes in detail the tactics the CIA uses and how they foment 'spontaneous' outbursts of opposition. It is a must-read.

So after the Shah's brutal dictatorship from 1953 to 1979, Iran has been led by an illiberal, religion-dominated government consisting of mullahs and otherwise highly religious people, not quite an outright theocracy yet but dangerously close to becoming one. But it has managed to survive all manner of external attacks, ranging from an invasion by Iraq (led by Saddam Hussein who was then backed by the US that supplied him with money and material and defended him at the UN) that resulted in a war that lasted from 1980-1988 and took a terrible toll, to sanctions and other destabilizing efforts led by the US.

The only window of government which even approached that of a liberal democracy was the period 1951-1953 under Mossadegh.

The demoralizing inference is that liberal democracies cannot survive unless people are willing to defend it with the same fervor that religious fanatics seem to be willing to put forth to defend theocracies.

POST SCRIPT: Philip Agee describes how the CIA subverts democracy

June 16, 2010

Liberal democracy and religion-3: The European model

What is happening in Europe is an interesting example of the tension between religion and liberal democracy. The countries in western Europe are only nominally religious. As Dan Barker, co-chair of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said recently in a talk at CWRU, people in those countries usually enter a church only three times in their lives, and on two of those occasions they are carried in. It is surely no accident that these countries are also stable liberal democracies.

I think that a strong case can be made that lack of religious fervor is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for liberal democratic values to flourish. The US is perhaps the only country in which fairly strong religious beliefs co-exist with liberal democratic values and this is because of the existence of the first amendment to the constitution which has at least partly managed to keep any single religious group from imposing its will on everyone.

But even the western European countries face threats due to the rise of overtly religious practices. The introduction of blasphemy laws in Ireland is one example and the growing Islamic population and their increased adoption of overtly religious practices like wearing full body coverings for women is causing stress to their secular societies, many of which do not have many overt signs of public religiosity. The most recent Dutch election results saw gains for political parties that seek to ban further immigration of Muslims because the immigrants are strongly religious and the Dutch see this as a threat to their secular way of life.

It is clear that France especially sees the rise of overtly religious practices as a threat to its secular principles. For example, it has taken a strong stand against the wearing of religious veils. A French parliamentary committee has said that "requiring women to cover their faces was against the French republican principles of secularism and equality." The French parliament condemned the Islamic full face veil, saying that it is "an affront to the nation's values of dignity and equality." Meanwhile a French Muslim woman was fined for driving while wearing a veil on the grounds that since the veil restricted her view it prevented her from driving safely. France has even refused to grant citizenship to a man because he forced his wife to wear the full Islamic veil.

France is not only targeting Muslims. The French parliament passed by (276 to 20) a 'secularity law' in 2004 that banned the "wearing of Muslim hijabs, Sikh's head coverings, large Christian crosses or crucifixes, Jewish yarmulkes, etc. Small Christian jewelry is permitted." France has also banned the wearing of Sikh turbans in schools

Meanwhile Belgium has banned the burka.

Switzerland has also started taking steps, such as banning the construction of any new minarets.

While I personally dislike of overt symbols of religiosity, I think that such actions are going too far. I think the US constitution has it just right, requiring the government be strictly neutral is relation to religion, neither supporting and promoting it nor actively undermining it. Going by that principle, banning a form of dress purely because it is religious seems to me to be wrong.

Of course, strict neutrality as required by the constitution is often violated. In practice, the US government does provide considerable support for religion by granting religious groups tax-exempt privileges, allowing religious symbols (especially those associated with Christianity and Judaism such as crosses, menorahs, and ten commandment plaques) on government land, praying at government functions, and the like. The Supreme Court decision on April 10, 2010 allowing the Mojave Cross on public land is one such example. (One month after the verdict the cross was stolen and has not been found so far.)

As a result of treating religious beliefs as deserving of special treatment, religious people think that they have the right not to do anything that is against their religion. So for example, we have some pharmacists in the US claiming that they should not be forced to dispense contraceptives or other medications because they feel that that is going against god's will.

So what should we do about this? A good start is to not give religions any special privileges at all. Religious beliefs and religious organizations should have exactly the same status as any other beliefs or organizations. The fact that you have religious reasons for something should not count in the slightest. Behaviors based on religion should get no special treatment at all, either positive or negative.

In the UK, a High Court judge has done a great service for this cause by upholding the dismissal of a relationship counselor who refused to give sex therapy for a gay couple because of his religious beliefs. The dismissed person, so used to having religious beliefs pandered to, whined that, "because of my Christian beliefs and principles, there should be allowances taken into account whereby individuals like me can actually avoid having to contradict their very strongly-held Christian principles." But why should the fact that he has 'strongly-held Christian principles' be at all relevant or be more significant than strongly held principles that are not based on religion? If he had strongly held tribal allegiances against some ethnic group, should they be accommodated? Of course not.

If his Christian beliefs are so meaningful to him, he should get a job where they are not violated. He has no right to expect society to accommodate his private beliefs just because they happen to be religious. Once you allow that exemption, then you are faced with the impossible task of determining which religions and which religious beliefs should be accommodated.

The problem with religious people is that they want society to grant their beliefs special status. The judge rightly said in his ruling that legislation for the protection of views held purely on religious grounds cannot be justified, adding that to do so was irrational and "also divisive, capricious and arbitrary." The judge rejected a plea by the former Archbishop of Canterbury that judges should be sensitive to religious issues, saying that "this appeared to be an argument that the courts ought to be more sympathetic to the substance of Christian beliefs and be ready to uphold and defend them."

Rules are often bent to accommodate purely religious beliefs, which strikes me as wrong. Any exemption to a rule should be such that it is based purely on secular grounds. So for example, if the US military has a rule that requires all soldiers to wear certain headgear, Sikhs should not have been given an exemption simply because it violates their religious beliefs. If any exemptions to standard headgear are given, they should be based on reasons that make sense apart from religion and provide options that are available to everyone, Sikh or not.

The less we accommodate religious beliefs the better.

POST SCRIPT: Resurrection of Touchdown Jesus?

touchdownjesus.jpgYesterday I wrote about how lightning destroyed the 62-foot roadside statue known as Touchdown Jesus. Church officials now say that they will rebuild and restore the statue.

I don't know if this is a wise move. I would have thought that to religious people, a direct lightning strike would be seen as a sure sign from god that even if he does not actually hate Jesus, he really dislikes tacky and ostentatious statuary. They are risking really ticking him off by building a replica and inviting maybe a plague of frogs next time.

My advice to them would be to build something small and tasteful, like a statue of Baal or a golden calf or something. I hear that god likes those.

June 15, 2010

Liberal democracy and religion-2: How to avoid conflict between the two

Based on the examples I gave yesterday, I would argue that religion and liberal democracy are fundamentally incompatible. The reason is that democracy is a system of social organization that is based on rules that are arrived at either by consensus or by some democratic process. The ideals of liberalism are not given by god but have been arrived at over centuries by people trying to find the right balance between personal freedoms and the need for an orderly society. There is no higher authority for any law or constitution than the consent of the governed. If one wishes to change the laws, then one has to persuade ones fellow citizens of the benefits of the change and get them to agree in sufficient numbers.

The laws of religion, on the other hand, are supposedly given by god and usually written down once and for all in some text. They do not usually evolve with the times, except within limits. While there may be some flexibility in interpretation of these laws, they are non-negotiable in principle. The idea that there is a supreme, all-knowing power who knows best and lays down the rules pretty much eliminates the possibility of negotiations and compromise, a bulwark of the liberal democratic process.

Liberal democratic values can flourish only in those countries where religious beliefs are weak or non-existent. As long as religions and religious authorities are kept out of power, then democracy can exist. The problem of religion in liberal democracies is what to do when religious groups threaten to use the processes of democracy to take over the power of government and then impose their religious practices on everyone. When confronted with this possibility, you are forced into a choice between allowing undemocratic forces to exploit the democratic process to force everyone to live in a theocracy with its denial of basic freedoms of democracy, or using undemocratic means (such as banning religious parties) to prevent such a theocratic takeover. Neither of these outcomes is desirable since liberal democracy dies either way.

Is there a solution? I believe that the best thing to do is to not let religion gain a foothold in the first place. The only way to do so that is consistent with liberal democracy is to use our freedom of speech to show that religious beliefs are false, the idea of rights and values given by god makes no sense, and that no reasonable modern person should take religion seriously. If we can do that and make religion less appealing, then it becomes highly unlikely that religious political parties will ever gain power. After all, it is unlikely that any political party today that bases its platform on the sayings of Greek gods will win any elections because those gods have been discredited. It is not necessary to ban the worship of Greek gods or throw its believers in jail because believing in such gods is now seen as ridiculous.

This is where the current accommodationist policy of not criticizing religion, and even praising it for its supposed good qualities, shows its greatest weakness. It actually increases the likelihood of an eventual theocratic takeover by making religion seem like a good thing. What is worse, people bend over backwards to give religious special privileges that other groups don't enjoy, such as tax-exempt status, and by pandering to religious leaders and practices, thus giving them greater credibility and actually enabling them to get even stronger. When we treat religious beliefs with reverence and act like religion is a force for good, we make political parties based on religion more likely to flourish and grow.

People who seek to avoid offending religious people by not criticizing their beliefs are thus in a bind. They cannot oppose religious political parties because of their religious basis since they claim that religion is a good thing. It is then hard to later turn around and oppose religious groups when they look likely to seize power and impose their religious rules on everyone.

Gideon Levy points out the dangers of increasing theocratization in Israel and of the special privileges that it currently gives to some religious groups, like being able to avoid serving in the military. He places the blame for this squarely on secular people who misguidedly treat religions as deserving of special treatment.

Orthodox society and its leadership should not be blamed for this. The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have the right to do everything they can to impose their faith on the secular majority. It's the secular who are to blame. Just as it's not yeshiva students' fault that they are not drafted, but rather the fault of the secular majority that allows this, so it is with the other aspects of our lives. We, the secular people, are to blame for all this. We're the ones who give in.

Robert Fisk talks about the increasing influence of religious groups in Israel's military.

Take Amos Harel's devastating report in Haaretz which analyses the make-up of the Israeli army's officer corps. In the past, many of them came from the leftist kibbutzim tradition, from greater Tel Aviv or from the coastal plain of Sharon. In 1990, only 2 per cent of army cadets were religious Orthodox Jews. Today the figure is 30 per cent. Six of the seven lieutenant-colonels in the Golani Brigade are religious. More than 50 per cent of local commanders are "national" religious in some infantry brigades.

There's nothing wrong with being religious. But – although Harel does not make this point quite so strongly – many of the Orthodox are supporters of the colonisation of the West Bank and thus oppose a Palestinian state.

And the Orthodox colonists are the Israelis who most hate the Palestinians, who want to erase the chances of a Palestinian state as surely as some Hamas officials would like to erase Israel.

Fisk is wrong about one point, led astray by his own liberal democratic thinking. There is something wrong with being religious for the very reasons this series of posts makes and which he himself demonstrates in his article – religion and liberal democracy makes bad bedfellows.

This is why it is important in liberal democratic societies for us to prevent such scenarios from unfolding and the way to do that is to use the process of open discussion to show up religion for what it truly is, a waste of time and resources, a holdover of thinking from the dark ages, and a burden on society. If enough people can be persuaded that religious beliefs are useless and that those who hold them are as much holdovers from primitive thinking as astrologers and those who make decisions based on chicken entrails, then it is less likely that political parties based on them will ever be in a position to take over state power. And liberal democracy can be preserved by liberal democratic means.

Next: What is happening in Europe.

POST SCRIPT: Touchdown Jesus, R. I. P.

Why does god hate Jesus?

June 14, 2010

Liberal democracy and religion-1: Are they compatible?

I have argued repeatedly that science is incompatible with any religion, unless one claims that religion is nothing more than just a grouping of like-minded individuals who feel the need to engage in theological discussions and common rituals, similar to groupings of social and business clubs. As soon as you introduce a supernatural agency that is unconstrained by the laws of science that everything else operates under, you have abandoned the scientific worldview. So the answer to the question of whether religion is compatible with science is a simple 'No'.

But is religion compatible with liberal democracy? At first glance, it would seem that the answer is yes. After all, a characteristic quality of a liberal democracy is about not imposing any ideology on people but respecting their personal freedoms as much as possible. The freedom to believe in whatever one wants to should surely be considered a basic right. But that is not what I mean by compatibility. After all, we know that there are many religious scientists but that does not mean that science and religion are compatible, only that it is possible for a human mind to simultaneously hold two incompatible beliefs. The key question is whether at a fundamental level, the goals and ambitions of religion will inevitably collide with the ideals of liberal democracy.

I am a firm believer in the virtues of liberal democracy. But for all its virtues of tolerance for diverse views and support for fundamental freedoms and basic human rights, it has an Achilles heel: that it allows authoritarian and even dictatorial groups to use that very tolerance of diverse views to gain power and, having done so, seek to do away with the very freedoms that enabled them to freely gain power in the first place.

This can happen in two ways. In the first, a party can come to power with a covert agenda, giving lip service to the principles of liberal democracy but then subtly undermining those values. We see that currently happening in the US as both major parties steadily undermine the constitution by denying such fundamental rights as to be free of torture, the right to a speedy trial before a judge and one's peers, the right to habeas corpus, the right to a lawyer, the right to personal privacy, and so on. While publicly praising the rule of law and the virtues of the constitution and boasting about their own adherence to those values, the Obama regime, like the Bush-Cheney one before it, has sought to undermine liberal democracy by increasing the king-like powers of the presidency, even asserting the right to execute people just on his say so.

The other way liberal democracies can be undermined from within is if a political party openly states its desire to replace democracy with an authoritarian system. This is what is more likely to happen with religious groups. Suppose for example, a political party with an overtly religious agenda seeks to win elections on a platform that says they will impose religious laws on the country if they gain power. Since religion is considered a good thing by many, and the majority of people are religious, it is not at all improbable that such a religious political party can win substantial support.

These are not merely theoretical concerns. We have seen this happen in countries where religious groups have taken power through the democratic process. The very fact that Sarah Palin can openly state that she wants the US to be governed by the laws of the Bible and not have people react in horror is a sign of the possibility of this scenario playing out in the US.

The religious groups do not have to gain total power. As long as they have sufficient clout that political leaders feel the need to pander to them, liberal values suffer. The various 'blue' laws restricting activities on Sundays are instances of where religious groups have succeeded in imposing their will on everyone else.

Religious apologists talk about the tolerance that their religions preach but the fact is that when religious groups attain state power they seek to impose their own religious beliefs and practices on everyone and liberal democratic ideals die. The reason that the Catholic Church was able to unleash the power of the Inquisition to torture and murder heretics was because state power was available for its use. Can we doubt that if the Catholic Church gains state power anywhere today it will try and impose its doctrines about abortion and contraception and homosexuality on everyone? How can it do otherwise since they think these doctrines are based on god's commandments?

In Sri Lanka, although it remains a democracy (though not a liberal one), the desire of the government to pander to the Buddhist majority has resulted in similar impositions. For example, full moon days are considered holy days because of the myth that the Buddha obtained enlightenment on such a day. When I was living there, the government ordered that all places of entertainment (theaters, bars, clubs) had to close on those days because these things might distract people from praying and meditating. The radio would play only somber music. In other words, the government legislated what everyone, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, should do purely on the basis of what the most powerful Buddhist leaders demanded.

Of course, the cases of Islamic countries immediately come to mind. Almost all countries where there is an Islamic majority, even if they are not outright theocracies, impose varying levels of Islamic rules on everyone. We know how bad actual theocracies can be from the examples of the Taliban in Afghanistan and regimes like Saudi Arabia.

The problem of what happens when religious parties use democracy to gain power can be seen in Algeria. After achieving independence from France in 1962, its elected president was overthrown by the military in 1965 and the country was led by a succession of military leaders for the next two decades. But after moves to restore democracy, the first ever parliamentary elections held in 1991 was won by a fundamentalist religious group called the Islamic Salvation Front. To prevent a theocratic takeover, the military cancelled the election and seized power again, throwing the country into a bloody civil war that has continued intermittently ever since.

The Islamic country in the Middle East that progressed the most was Turkey under Kemal Ataturk who created a secular republic in 1923, stripped religious leaders of their power, closed religious schools, abolished Sharia law and introduced a secular legal code, and discouraged the veil and other traditional clothing and encouraged western dress. But religious groups have recently grown in dominance, gaining a plurality in recent elections. The current leadership has gained significant clout by downplaying its religious motivations and the country is struggling with what to do if religious parties gain a total majority and seek to impose Islamic-based laws on everyone. It would be a tragedy if Turkey ended up like Algeria.

So is a liberal democracy a state of unstable equilibrium, always in danger of getting pulled to the two extremes of religious or anti-religious authoritarianism?

Next: How does one avoid a theocratic takeover?

POST SCRIPT: Testing Galileo's claim

All of us know that if you drop a hammer and a feather, the hammer will hit the ground first. Students are told that this is because of air resistance and that in its absence they will fall at the same rate. Apparently the Apollo 15 astronauts tested this on the moon and I was unaware of the existence of the video showing this until very recently.

You can see the movie and read the NASA webpage that discusses the experiment.

June 11, 2010

The strange appeal of the Spelling Bee

My adopted hometown Cleveland has a serious self-esteem problem despite the fact that I have found it to be a nice place to live and raise a family and have been very happy here. Of course, it has many real problems that it shares with other mid-sized cities in the northeast, such as the poor economy, the effects of the housing crisis, schools in trouble, and declining population coupled with rising unemployment.

But what really seems to stick in the craw of this sports-obsessed town is that it has not won a major national sporting championship since 1964, when it won the NFL trophy before it became the Super Bowl. The near misses since then have only added to the feeling that there is some curse on the town, perhaps as a result of their baseball team insisting on retaining the ghastly Chief Wahoo logo despite regular protests that it is a highly offensive caricature of Native Americans. It amazes me that some fans are so attached to that awful logo that any suggestion of removing it brings them out of the woodwork with angry letters to the newspapers..

Cleveland's best shot at a major national title seemed to be an NBA championship with LeBron James, but their second serious try at it fell short again this year even before they reached the finals, and with James now a free agent and heavily recruited by other teams, the city is glum.

So it was with some pleasure that our local newspaper The Plain Dealer reported last Saturday that one of our own, 14-year old Anamika Veeramani, had won the 83rd the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship, after coming fifth the previous year. Her path to victory lay in her ability to by correctly spell "such tongue-twisters as nahcolite, a white mineral consisting of sodium bicarbonate; epiphysis, an end part of a long bone in higher vertebrates; and juvia, a Brazil nut." Her final winning word was Stromuhr, which is apparently a tool that measures the speed of blood through an artery.

The paper has been covering her victory tour the whole week. While I am pleased for her and her family for her success, I must admit that the appeal of this contest completely eludes me. Spelling words, like naming state capitols, could be an amusing parlor game to while away a few minutes but how could such a contest ever have gripped the imagination of so many people that the event actually gets national TV coverage?

Over at Mother Jones Kevin Drum is equally puzzled at the popularity of this contest and in his investigation finds that the kinds of words that are thrown at the contestants these days are a far cry from those of the past. In 1930, for example, words that contestants stumbled over were blackguard, conflagration, concede, litigation, breach, saxophone, license, and primarily. As he says, these are words that nowadays "probably wouldn't show up in the first round of a district competition, let alone in the final round of the nationals." In fact, all the words that knocked out the students in the final round in 1930 were ones that any reasonably literate adult would be able to spell today. The list of winning words since 1925 provides a fascinating window into the evolution of difficulty. Even though I read quite a lot, since 1986 I had heard of only two or three of the winning words and never encountered the words that Anamika Veeramani spelled this year and would not get correct even a single one of them, except by sheer luck and guesswork.

Has the vocabulary of our teenagers actually got so good that now we need to test them with esoteric words that one is unlikely to ever use? One of Drum's commenters, however, gave out the secret for this evolution.

Don't be too impressed with modern young spelling champs. Back in the late 80's when I was in junior high, I participated in the regional spelling bees from which winners went to the national bee (now televised on ESPN). I had the good fortune to qualify 3 years in a row for the regional contest for the greater Philadelphia area and learned the "game."

The game was that you can officially be asked any word from some version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. So, it's it's impressive when a 12 year old kid spells a crazy word. However… they give all contestants a thin pamphlet of study words for practice. During my first year, my parents overheard that all words in the competition came from the pamphlet (I can confirm this from subsequent competitions). The pamphlet is thin enough that a studious competitor can study and memorize it within a few months. This is how the modern spelling feats are explained in the televised competitions.

So in order to draw viewers, the sponsors of the contest seem to have rigged it to create amazement at the ability of young people to spell words that even adults have never heard of.

I recall seeing the documentary Spellbound a few years ago, that tracks a group of children as they work their way through the competition. I was impressed at the deep dedication of the children and their families as they spent hours and hours and hours each day over weeks and months drilling on the words. I was also depressed that they were devoting so much of their time to such a useless activity.

I can understand the need for contests of intellectual skills to at least partially balance the emphasis on athletic competitions in schools. But there must be other intellectual contests that have more intrinsic value. Surely among intellectual skills, the ability to spell obscure words must rank near the bottom in usefulness? I can understand, for example, a Scrabble contest. That is a game where you need to be able to draw upon a vocabulary of both ordinary and obscure words but also use strategy and ingenuity in placing them. A spelling competition involving a given list of esoteric words seems so incredibly pointless.

The format of the spelling bee also seems unfair, since all contestants do not spell the same words and an unlucky contestant may get knocked out by chancing to get a tough word early. A game in which all the contestants write down the words they are asked to spell would be fairer but would not provide the visual drama that TV requires. Perhaps people like to see children sweat under pressure, the agony of getting it wrong and being bumped, and the relief of getting it right, all of which you can see in Spellbound. I felt really sorry for them.

The fact that the whole thing is aimed at TV ratings also explains the controversy that erupted at this year's event when the organizers, in order to maintain the proper pacing of eliminations to fill their allotted TV time slot, invoked an obscure rule that seemed grossly unfair to the participants. Frankly, I do not understand the details of what the complicated controversy was all about and did not feel like spending a lot of time on it, but Shaquille O'Neal was involved, if you can imagine it.

There is one other thing that is puzzling. It strikes me, as a casual observer, that a lot of the students who reach the nationals are of Indian origin. In fact, 40 percent of the winners since 1985 seem to have ethnic Indian names. In addition, they seem by their names to be of South Indian ethnicity, in particular the Tamil community, which has a worldwide diaspora. What is that all about? Why is this particular group so attracted to this contest? Even though I am an ethnic Tamil, I have no idea as to the reason. Was there some memo that I did not get?

The whole thing strikes me as weird.

POST SCRIPT: Ricky Gervais on how and why he became an atheist

At the age of eight, it took him only an hour to figure out that there was no god.

(Thanks to Machine Like Us.)

June 10, 2010

Legality and morality

In this last post (I think) on the attack on the Gaza flotilla, I want to respond to a comment to a previous post in which Eric wondered why I was not paying more attention to the question of the legality of what happened with the blockade, the flotilla, and the attack on the Mavi Marmara, saying "I would think that the questions should start with legality, and if the laws don't accurately reflect morals, maybe then they should shift to morality as we address the shortcomings in the law. But laws don't originate in a vacuum. Moral questions often have many wrong answers and no right one, or vice versa. Legal questions may be (are) open to interpretation, but they (theoretically) have a right answer and a wrong one."

Eric is right that legality may be easier to judge than morality, but this is true only when it comes to everyday life because there we have a commonly accepted legal framework and agreed-upon legal institutions to adjudicate cases, and the contesting parties agree to abide by the verdict and suffer any consequences.

But when it comes to actions by governments, the reverse is true and questions of morality are often far easier to determine than those of legality. The reason that you never get very far arguing on the basis of legality when criticizing governments is because they consider themselves to be supra-legal entities accountable to no one. It is only an impartial and international judicial hearing that can resolve issues involving governments, but both Israel and the US have ruled out even an impartial inquiry, let alone a trial before (say) the International Court of Justice. The US has even said that the 'inquiry' led by Israel would not allow the Israeli commandos to be questioned, making an even greater mockery of the process.

Furthermore, governments have the ability to make the law seem to justify anything that they do. Humorist Art Buchwald once wrote that the problem with the legal system is not incompetent lawyers but that we have too many competent lawyers.

A competent, first-class lawyer can tie a case up in knots, not only for the jury but for the judge as well. If you have two competent lawyers on opposite sides, a trial that should take three days could easily last six months. And there isn't a thing anyone can do about it.

Peter Casey discusses the implications of this when it comes to high profile issues like the Gaza flotilla and how it is always possible to find people willing to argue legal points to a stand-off and then claim that the resulting inconclusiveness justifies the action.

What Buchwald was on to is the practice of "polishing the turd," an indispensable art of the legal advocate. When two accomplished turd-polishers are pitted against one another, the jury – or the public – will not know what to believe. Further, when dealt a hand of bad facts by his client, an experienced and creative defense counsel will ply this skill by converting obvious and incriminating facts into an impossible puzzle of uncertainty.

In its many trials in the court of public opinion, Israel and its supporters have become adept at polishing turds. The process begins with asking and answering the question, "Did the law allow us to do this?" If the answer is "yes," as it always will be, its critics are terrified of leaving that claim un-rebutted. And so, like moths to a flame, they respond. Once they do, the defenders of Israel's actions are on safe ground. They don't need to prove ironclad, irrefutable legal justification. All they need to do is persuade the target audiences that the law, the facts, or both are so complicated that anyone, especially in the heat of battle, could have made a mistake.

Take the case of the US government torturing people. Has consensus been reached that it is illegal? No, that 'debate' still goes on because Bush-Cheney could find lawyers like John Yoo and Alan Dershowitz to argue that torture is perfectly legal and then have that discussion drag on endlessly and inconclusively until people get sick of it and stop paying attention. In the same way, Obama has now got lawyers to say that it is perfectly legal for him to order the murder of anyone, even American citizens, anywhere in the world.

All governments claim that what they do is legal. It is precisely because governments have this sense that the law is whatever they say it is that lures them into ever more extreme actions which results in moral judgments being easier to make.

I am sure that the US could argue that invading Vietnam and killing half a million of Vietnamese and destroying that country was legal. Reagan would have argued that his invasion of the tiny nation of Grenada was legal. I am sure that Stalin felt that his orders to send people to the gulags where they died in huge numbers was legal. Slavery in the US was perfectly legal. It was even enshrined in the ultimate legal document of a country, its constitution. I am sure that Hitler's lawyers argued that murdering Jews was perfectly legal according to German laws. I could go on and on with the list of all the appalling things that governments have done while arguing that they were legal.

But can anyone doubt that all these things were deeply immoral?

Frankly, I don't give a damn if any of those actions were legal. They were horrific, morally repugnant, and deserve unreserved condemnation. It is for this reason that I come down especially hard on governments that act badly because the people harmed by them have no recourse except to appeal to world opinion or have a more powerful entity take their side. But that latter path is unlikely and even when successful can lead to wars, which often make things even worse. But in the case of the US, and also Israel as long as the US is its patron, even that option is ruled out for the people at the receiving end of their actions because no one has the power to force them to do the right thing. That is why they can, and do, act with impunity in world affairs, like rogue states.

In this particular case, I think the siege that Israel has imposed on Gaza (which began long before the 2008 assault) is morally reprehensible. Israel is slowly but steadily starving the population of 1.5 million by allowing only one-fourth of the supplies it used to receive in 2007, even though even that amount was insufficient to adequately meet basic needs. In addition, the massive military assault in 2008 that destroyed a huge amount of its infrastructure such as fresh water supplies, electricity, and medical facilities means that Gaza requires even more supplies than normal in order to repair and replenish what was lost.

The Israeli siege is designed to collectively punish the entire population of Gaza, irrespective of whether they are aged or infants or sick, for electing Hamas as their government, by deliberately restricting food and other essential supplies to keep them in a state of semi-starvation and deprived of the essentials of life. This partial list of items that Israel has prevented from reaching Gazans, that includes flour, sugar, milk, diapers, toys, sweets, spices, toilet paper, diapers and baby wipes, feminine hygiene products, etc., has to be read to be believed to appreciate the sheer meanness, pettiness, and cruelty of the siege policy. The list reveals a deeply immoral mindset on the part of the Israeli government and makes abundantly clear that this policy was deliberately designed to humiliate Gazans and make their lives miserable by denying them the most basic of everyday items that we take for granted.

The policy decision to starve the Gazans was made at the highest levels in Israel and articulated in 2006 by Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Ehud Olmert, the then Prime Minister, who said: "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger."

Is the use of such starvation tactics to punish a civilian population legal? Do we need to even have such a discussion? I don't give a damn if it is legal or not. To me this is obviously a moral crime of the highest magnitude.

All this is taking place on top of the state of apartheid that Israel has imposed in the rest of the occupied territories, and its attempts to marginalize the Arabs who still live in Israel. Egypt is also part of this shameful blockade of Gaza and it is widely believed that it does so because it is a client state of the US, the second largest recipient of US aid (mostly military) after Israel, and helping Israel enforce the blockade on Gaza is part of the deal. Egypt has also become Israel's client state by proxy through the US.

The US is the most powerful country in the world and is Israel's protector and they feel that they are unaccountable to no one. Countries like North Korea and Iran may appear to be reckless and thumbing their nose at world opinion but they know that there are some lines they cannot cross because more powerful governments are able to do them serious harm. No such restraint exists with the US, or with Israel as long as the US unhesitatingly supports it. The only counterweight to lawless behavior by them is worldwide outrage.

That is why I support the efforts to end the siege of Gaza by those courageous people who went unarmed as part of the flotilla to dramatize the monstrous injustice that is being perpetrated. Was what they were doing illegal? Again, I don't give a damn. I see the people in the flotilla as worthy successors to Gandhi and his followers who picked up salt (an acknowledged and deliberate illegal act) to dramatize the injustices they faced from the British. I see them, to pick something closer to home, as successors to the unarmed civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama in 1965 who were brutally beaten by the police on what has come to be known in the civil rights movement as Bloody Sunday. I see them as successors to the unarmed civil rights demonstrators who sat at lunch counters and in the front of buses and were attacked by Bull Connor's police force using attack dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

I do not get deeply into the weeds of legal issues when it comes to governments because they will not agree on the legal principles to be used or submit themselves to courts and verdicts. They will instead use those interminable discussions to deflect attention away from the blatant immorality of their actions. What I do in such cases is comparative analyses, asking "what if…" questions, by switching the roles of parties. The role reversals do not always match up perfectly, but usually they are close enough that they reveal when people are taking a stand on a tribal basis (by twisting legal interpretations to make their own tribe appear to be in the right) and when they are doing so on the basis of some moral and legal principle applied even-handedly.

When, as was the case with the Gaza flotilla, large numbers of ordinary people from all over the world, with no particular ideological or religious or tribal allegiances, are willing to risk their personal safety to take action against a wrong that does not affect them personally but whose injustice they feel deeply, you know that you have an immoral policy on your hands.

Israel's siege of Gaza and its apartheid policies in the West Bank are deeply immoral and any discussion of their legality should be seen for what it is, a side issue and a distraction.

June 09, 2010

The resistance on the Mavi Marmara

I had hoped to move on to other topics today but several commenters have raised some questions that I will respond to today and tomorrow. One is why some of the people in the Mavi Marmara resisted when those in the other boats, such as the Rachel Corrie, did not and were taken captive without violence. Thus, it is implied, the people who tried to repel the boarders were responsible for the ugly turn of events.

One of the people on the Mavi Marmara who did offer resistance was a former US marine named Ken O'Keefe whose first-person testimony as to what happened and why he did it is worth reading in full. Here is a part of it:

I remember being asked during the TJP Human Shield Action to Iraq if I was a pacifist, I responded with a quote from Gandhi by saying I am not a passive anything. To the contrary I believe in action, and I also believe in self-defence, 100 per cent, without reservation. I would be incapable of standing by while a tyrant murders my family, and the attack on the Mavi Marmara was like an attack on my Palestinian family. I am proud to have stood shoulder to shoulder with those who refused to let a rogue Israeli military exert their will without a fight.

And yes, we fought.

When I was asked, in the event of an Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara, would I use the camera, or would I defend the ship? I enthusiastically committed to defence of the ship. Although I am also a huge supporter of non-violence, in fact I believe non-violence must always be the first option. Nonetheless I joined the defence of the Mavi Mamara understanding that violence could be used against us and that we may very well be compelled to use violence in self defence.

I said this straight to Israeli agents, probably of Mossad or Shin Bet, and I say it again now, on the morning of the attack I was directly involved in the disarming of two Israeli Commandos. This was a forcible, non-negotiable, separation of weapons from commandos who had already murdered two brothers that I had seen that day. One brother with a bullet entering dead center in his forehead, in what appeared to be an execution.

I knew the commandos were murdering when I removed a 9mm pistol from one of them. I had that gun in my hands and as an ex-US Marine with training in the use of guns it was completely within my power to use that gun on the commando who may have been the murderer of one of my brothers. But that is not what I, nor any other defender of the ship did. I took that weapon away, removed the bullets, proper lead bullets, separated them from the weapon and hid the gun. I did this in the hopes that we would repel the attack and submit this weapon as evidence in a criminal trial against Israeli authorities for mass murder. I also helped to physically separate one commando from his assault rifle, which another brother apparently threw into the sea.

I and hundreds of others know the truth that makes a mockery of the brave and moral Israeli military. We had in our full possession, three completely disarmed and helpless commandos. These boys were at our mercy, they were out of reach of their fellow murderers, inside the ship and surrounded by 100 or more men. I looked into the eyes of all three of these boys and I can tell you they had the fear of God in them. They looked at us as if we were them, and I have no doubt they did not believe there was any way they would survive that day. They looked like frightened children in the face of an abusive father.

But they did not face an enemy as ruthless as they. Instead the woman provided basic first aid, and ultimately they were released, battered and bruised for sure, but alive. Able to live another day. Able to feel the sun over head and the embrace of loved ones. Unlike those they murdered. Despite mourning the loss of our brothers, feeling rage towards these boys, we let them go.

Unarmed resistance was undoubtedly ill-advised in the face of heavily armed commandos. As the cliché goes, you don't take a knife to a gunfight. But to blame the people on the boat for the violence is like asking why some people resist being robbed even when confronted with an armed assailant. The strong sense of injustice felt by victims of a crime, coupled with the instinct to defend oneself and protect one's property is strong and can overcome the desire for self-preservation. No one would accept a defense that an assailant should be exonerated from the charge of murder because he was forced to kill because the victim defended himself or herself from attack.

In response to the suggestion that Israel's deadly reaction was justified because they were provoked by this attempt to break the siege of Gaza, I will quote Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail written in response to those white clergymen concerned that the actions of the civil rights movement were provoking violence. In it he said, "In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? ... Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber."

What some seem to be arguing is that people must immediately agree to any Israeli demand, whatever it is and whenever and wherever it occurs, otherwise they are deemed responsible for any ensuing violence. Why does Israel or the US have this unique privilege of expecting immediate and unconditional surrender? Right now Iran and North Korea have every right to feel they are under threat of attack because of the relentless belligerent language emanating from Washington. They have every right to suspect that the CIA is funding and fomenting internal resistance and opposition to their governments. Does this give them the right to board any boats in international waters beyond their maritime boundary and search them simply because they have suspicions that they might contain material to be delivered to their opponents? Should the people in such boats immediately capitulate to those demands and agree to have their boats taken for search and inspection and confiscation of the goods? If the people resisted and were killed, would we claim that the Iranians and North Koreans were justified in killing them?

Robert Fisk draws another parallel, comparing Israel's actions with those of the Somali pirates now threatening all shipping off the coast of their country, and the determined effort of Israeli propaganda to paint all the aid activists as militant jihadis.

In the next post, I will examine the issues of legality and morality.

POST SCRIPT: A song for atheists

Steve Martin composed a song for us atheists because he felt sorry that we don't have one. (Performed with the Steep Canyon Rangers at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz Festival.)

June 08, 2010

When an American is not really an American

A truly astonishing feature of the non-reaction by the US government to the killing of an American by Israeli forces on the aid flotilla is how willing some people are to abandon their fellow citizens if the alternative is criticizing Israel's actions. The latest example is the Republican Senate head John Cornyn defending the killing of Furkan Dogan.

Recall the situation when two unarmed Americans were detained by North Korea for crossing the border into their country or the efforts currently underway to get the release of three unarmed Americans who were arrested by Iran for crossing their border. Can you imagine the US reaction if any one of those people had been killed by the governments in the process of capture, despite the fact that they had committed an illegal act in crossing the border without permission? Would it have mattered at all if the North Koreans or Iranians had said they had been killed while resisting capture?

John Cole explains why the US seems so unconcerned by the death of one of their own, especially someone who was killed in such a brutal fashion as with four bullets to the head and one to the chest, which suggests an execution-style killing. He says that we now have two classes of people: "real Americans" and "not really Americans".

What people don’t realize is just how nuanced America has become about citizenship.

When we decide if someone is a real American, worthy of all aspects of citizenship and defense by the government, we look at the totality of the situation. We look at what kind of citizen you are, what you believed in, what you were doing at the time you were shot four times in the head at close range by a foreign army as they stormed a ship in international waters, and a variety of other factors.

Not only was [Dogan] not an American, but we should tinker with the Constitution so this never happens again. Now had his parents emigrated to a more American country when he was two, like, for example, Israel, then this story would be a lot different. But as it was, it is clear that he was not sufficiently American for our government to get upset about his death.

Second, you have to look at what Dogan believed in to establish his American credentials. He was against the Israeli blockade, and as we all know, there is nothing more un-American than opposing Israeli policy. Had he been doing something more real American, like delivering bibles to Iran or proselytizing in Yemen, then we could be outraged over his death. As it was, he had it coming.

Stephen Kinzer poses this question that starkly illustrates how isolated the US and Israel are in their view of the world:

Quick, name the rogue state in the Middle East. Hints: It has an active nuclear-weapons program but conducts it in secret; its security organs regularly kill perceived enemies of the state, both at home and abroad; its political process has been hijacked by religious fundamentalists who believe they are doing God's will; its violent recklessness destabilizes the world's most volatile region; and it seems as deaf to reason as it is impervious to pressure. Also: Its name begins with "I".

How you answer this riddle depends in part on where you sit. From an American perspective, the obvious answer is Iran. Iran seems alone and friendless, a pariah in the world, and deservedly so given its long list of sins. In Washington's view, Iran poses one of the major threats to global security.

Many people in the world, however, see Iran quite differently: as just another struggling country with valuable resources, no more or less threatening than any other, ruled by a regime that, while thuggish, wins grudging admiration for standing up to powerful bullies. They are angrier at Israel, which they see as violent, repressive and contemptuous of international law, but nonetheless endlessly coddled by the United States.

Kinzer says that there is so little to differentiate Israel from Iran that what is needed is for the US to treat both in identical fashion. Of course, that will never happen as long as the US government is subservient to Israeli interests. As Alexander Cockburn writes, the willingness of the American government and Congress and major media to sacrifice their own to appease Israel and its loyalists in the US has reached laughable levels.

As the TV networks here give unlimited airtime to its apologists, the message rolls out that Israel is permitted every illegal act in the lexicon of international law, from acts of violence against a civilian population (the people of Gaza, starved under permanent blockade) to piracy on the high seas and the lethal attacks by Israeli commandos on the relief flotilla. The guiding purpose in this tsunami of drivel is that the viewers should be brainwashed into thinking Israel somehow has the right and the duty to act at will as the mad-dog of the planet.

The public White House response to Israel's international piracy was comical in its wimpishness. "The United States deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained and is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy," deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton demurely declared in Chicago.

A friend of mine gave a good parody of the servile posture of the US government and press: "I think," he wrote to me, "that matters are close to the point where if Hillary Clinton and a group of senior American officials were meeting the Israeli leaders for negotiations, and Netanyahu expressed his displeasure at the American positions by pulling out a gun and shooting her dead, then having the entire American delegation beaten to death by his security guards, there would probably be a small item buried in the next days' American newspapers that due to conflict with the Israelis, Obama had decided to nominate a new Secretary of State."

Black humor, no doubt. But it does raise the question of exactly what Israel can do to the US and still not face any repercussions.

POST SCRIPT: Five minutes with A. C. Grayling

The BBC has a series where they have rapid-fire five-minute conversations with people about the topics they are associated with. I found this one with philosopher A. C. Grayling to be terrific and only partly because his attitude to life seems almost identical to mine.

He looks like exactly the kind of person I would love to talk with over a cup of coffee.

June 07, 2010

More eyewitness reports emerge of attack on Gaza aid flotilla

Now that some of the people kidnapped and detained by Israel after its raid on the aid flotilla are being released, they are speaking out and horrifying stories are being told. Of course, we know that what people say immediately after a traumatic event can often be unreliable which is why what is needed is an impartial investigation to get at the truth of the claims and counterclaims. But since the US and Israel have taken the absurd position that Israel should conduct the inquiry, we can forget about getting the truth from that source and have to depend on other sources.

The London Independent has tried to piece together the sequence of events and provides the most detailed report that I have seen so far. It is chilling.

But one thing is fast becoming clear – many of the dead were shot multiple times at point-blank range. One was a journalist taking photographs. "A man was shot… between the eyebrows, which indicates that it was not an attack that took place from self-defence," Hassan Ghani, a passenger, said in an account posted on YouTube. "The soldier had time to set up the shot." Mattias Gardell, a Swedish activist, told the TT news bureau: "The Israelis committed premeditated murder… Two people were killed by shots in the forehead, one was shot in the back of the head and one in the chest."

A report from the London Guardian describes how the passengers were treated, in particular recounting a ghastly story that Israeli commandos pointed a gun at a one-year old child in order to coerce the ship's captain.

An Algerian activist, who giving only a first name of Sabrina, accused Israeli commandos of taking a one-year-old child hostage.

"They point a gun to his head in front of his Turkish parents to force the captain of our ship to stop sailing," she said.

An Algerian, Izzeddine Zahrour, said the Israeli authorities "deprived us of food, water and sleep, and we weren't allowed to use the toilet".

"It was an ugly kidnapping, and subsequently bad treatment in Israeli jail," he said. "They handcuffed us, pushed us around and humiliated us."

Other reporters on board the ships also describe what happened that disputes Israel's version of events. Tellingly, all the journalists on board had their video confiscated by the Israelis. This BBC report describes the experience of a British citizen on the boat, and this Gulf News report provides more details

Max Blumenthal provides evidence that rather than the killings being the result of a bungled operation in which the Israelis were taken by surprise at the resistance they received, the Israeli Defense Forces detailed its violent strategy in advance as part of its domestic political agenda.

Statements by senior Israeli military commanders made in the Hebrew media days before the massacre revealed that the raid was planned over a week in advance by the Israeli military and was personally approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. The elite Israeli commando unit known as Unit 13 was tasked with carrying out the mission and its role was known by the Israeli public well before the raid took place. Details of the plan show that the use of deadly force was authorized and calculated. The massacre of activists should not have been unexpected.

Why didn’t Israel’s leaders choose to deal with the flotilla in a more judicious fashion? Were they that stupid, or just crazy? From the details of the plan it appears that Netanyahu and his cohorts had envisioned Entebbe Part Deux, a daring anti-terror raid that would lift the sinking morale of the Israeli public while intimidating Iran and the Arab world. Though Israel may be more isolated than ever as a result of the massacre, the Netanyahu administration is reaping considerable political benefits at home.

We see once again that whenever the US or Israel gets caught doing something outrageous and morally indefensible, the discussion in the US immediately shifts to questions about legality (i.e., was the order to waterboard and otherwise torture prisoners legal? Is holding prisoners indefinitely without access to family or lawyers legal? And so on.) and attention is deflected away from the moral outrage. But this seems to work just one way. If international law can be used in their favor, it is seized upon. If it goes against, it is ignored. And when a country perceived as an 'enemy' of the US or Israel (say North Korea or Iran) does something, the illegality is simply taken for granted and moral outrage is heaped on the country.

Former US Ambassador Edward Peck, who was one of the people on board the ship attacked by Israel, talks about this phenomenon:

I just got off a radio interview. One of the things that distresses me is the extent to which Israel has been successful in, for example, getting Americans to ask questions as to why the passengers on that big Turkish ship attacked the Israeli soldiers.

I said, wait a minute, wait a minute, they were defending the ship against people who were attacking it. You've got it backwards. There are civilians, men and woman, on a Turkish-flagged vessel, in international waters. And here comes a group of heavily armed -- forget the paintball story -- heavily armed guys who are going to take over the ship by force and then take it to Israel, where the passengers don't want to go. And so they pick up deck chairs and other things to fight off these heavily armed -- and by the way, masked -- commandos, and somehow they become the attackers. So, that depresses me a little bit.

Leaving aside the horrible bloodshed and all, it becomes a war of words. Americans are reading what comes out of Tel Aviv, which is carried in the American press… So, all of a sudden, the people on the Turkish ship are described as terrorist, Israel-hating, Hamas supporters, murderers and killers.

Peck also says that after being forcibly taken to Israel he was told he was going to be deported because he entered that country illegally! This is the Orwellian world that we enter when we accept Israel's version of events and of what is legal and illegal. As Anthony Dimaggio says in his discussion of the legal issues, "Media outlets are more than happy to obfuscate international law in order to absolve Israel of criticism." Former British ambassador Craig Murray also weighs in on the legal question.

Next: When is an American not really an American?

POST SCRIPT: Glenn Greenwald smacks down Eliot Spitzer

I have written before that Eliot Spitzer is one of those people whom I am sorry that his personal life removed from politics. But in this interview with Glenn Greenwald, he shows that like all other reflexively pro-Israel apologists, he is perfectly willing to check his principles at the door and use his reasoning skills in defense of Israel's actions. But Glenn Greenwald has the facts and arguments on his side.

June 04, 2010

Update on the Gaza aid flotilla attack

More news about what happened on the aid boats that were attacked by Israel is emerging even though, as Stephen Zunes describes, Israel tries to prevent the release of any information that they have not filtered:

The Israelis confiscated all of the passengers’ cameras, laptops, cell phones, and other personal devices. The world, therefore, can only see some carefully edited versions from cameramen that accompanied the Israeli commandos. What won’t be seen, for example, will be the accounts of eyewitnesses of commandos with stun guns assaulting passengers who nonviolently formed a ring around the ship’s bridge, the savage beatings of elderly pacifists as they lay on the ground, and other acts of excessive violence.

An Al-Jazeera reporter who was on board one of the ships gives an eyewitness account of what happened during the assault, and of his detention. Other reporters are still being held, as are their laptops, cameras and cell-phones and those of their passengers.

Here is another harrowing account by a survivor. More stories will inevitably start to come out and the rest of the world will see and hear them in great detail, even if people in the US and Israel hear mainly the Israeli version of events. And because of this ignorance, when the next attack on Americans comes as a result of some person seeking revenge, people will be puzzled and wonder "Why do they hate us? It must be because of our liberal values."

Glenn Greenwald has a must-read update on the attack on the flotilla (with important links to the news dribbling out about what happened on the boats) that says that one of the nine dead was a 19-year old American who had four bullets to the head and one to the chest. The US response? "State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said the U.S. has made no decision on a response to Dogan’s death." Of course. Since he, like Rachel Corrie and the sailors on the USS Liberty, was killed by Israeli forces, his death obviously doesn't count since clearly Israel is the one country in the world that has been given the green light by the US to kill Americans.

As Justin Raimondo says:

The reason for this peculiar passivity is because, contra Hillary, protecting the welfare of American citizens is not considered a fundamental responsibility of our government insofar as it means protecting their welfare against the government of Israel. In any conflict between American and Israeli interests, Washington’s instinctive response is to uphold the latter and ignore the former.

An American is killed as heavily armed soldiers of a foreign nation board a ship in international waters, firing live ammunition at the passengers as they rappel onto the deck. Among those passengers: a former US ambassador, a former US colonel and Pentagon official, several members of the European parliament, a member of the Israeli Knesset, and members of parliament from several Arab countries.

This was no "accident." The Israeli government knew precisely what it was doing, it knew there were Americans on those ships, and chose to go in guns blazing: it was the equivalent of spitting in Uncle Sam’s face.

After all, how dare those Americans try to freeze the building of settlements in what is "Greater Israel"? How dare Obama tell us what we can and cannot do?! We’ll show them! Let’s kill a few. Don’t worry – they won’t retaliate. We own them: and they know it.

In view of the Obama administration’s shameful crawling, one can hardly disagree.

Greenwald also has a scathing attack on the tribal mindset that permeates the thinking of so many people that causes them to abandon commitment to any principles as soon as 'my' side is criticized. He lists many Democratic politicians, usually progressive on many issues, who are prisoners of this tribal mindset and vice president Joe Biden has to be added to that list since he too speaks approvingly of the attack on the flotilla. Robert Scheer talks about his own experience at the receiving end of this tribal thinking when he dared to criticize Israel's actions in the past.

Greenwald has a great quote by Noam Chomsky where he elaborates on how oppressor countries create a narrative in which they are the victims in order to justify their actions.

In one of his many speeches, to U.S. troops in Vietnam, [Lyndon] Johnson said plaintively, "There are three billion people in the world and we have only two hundred million of them. We are outnumbered fifteen to one. If might did make right they would sweep over the United States and take what we have. We have what they want." That is a constant refrain of imperialism. You have your jackboot on someone's neck and they're about to destroy you.

The same is true with any form of oppression. And it's psychologically understandable. If you're crushing and destroying someone, you have to have a reason for it, and it can't be, "I'm a murderous monster." It has to be self-defense. "I'm protecting myself against them. Look what they're doing to me." Oppression gets psychologically inverted; the oppressor is the victim who is defending himself.

Journalist Jeremy Scahill effectively debunks the pro-Israeli propaganda advanced by the former mayor of New York Ed Koch who, as usual, tries to divert the discussion into all manner of side issues.

Raimondo makes the comparison that should obviously occur to anyone: "Imagine if Iran had done this. Washington would have reverberated with the sound of thunder emanating from the White House, and the attack fleet would already be steaming toward the Gulf, taking up position. That the culprit was Israel, however, puts a whole different face on the matter, at least as far as our government is concerned: they’re content to let the Israelis "investigate," and let the matter drop."

One wonders is there is any action at all that Israel can take that would elicit criticisms from its supporters in the US.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show's view

Jon Stewart tries to salvage some grim humor from the tragedy of the flotilla and the plight of Gazans.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Clusterf#&k to the War House - Korean Peninsula & Middle East
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

June 03, 2010

The pro-Israel propaganda machine swings into action

Ran HaCohen describes the propaganda effort in the Israeli press to get Israelis to line up behind the government after the flotilla disaster, just the way the US press gets Americans to line up behind theirs whenever any outrageous act by them is revealed. But this strategy only works with people who will reflexively side with you on a tribal basis whatever the facts, and are merely looking for justifications for doing so. Everyone else will see it for what it is, lies.

But as Patrick Cockburn writes, such efforts carry a serious downside:

The problem is that nobody believes Israeli propaganda as much as Israelis. Pro-Palestinian activists often lament the fluency and mendacity of Israeli spokesmen on the airwaves and the pervasive influence of Israel's supporters abroad. But, in reality, these PR campaigns are Israel's greatest weakness, because they distort Israelis' sense of reality. Defeats and failures are portrayed as victories and successes.

When you feed your supporters lies to make them feel good about themselves and get them to rally to your side, you are merely setting yourself and them up for even greater failure in the future, because you will not learn from the past. After all, if you are always right, why change anything?

America's reflexively pro-Israel apologists have swung into full gear to make sure that people realize that when it comes to Israel, any criticism of any action constitutes betrayal. One such apologist is Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic who seems to be feel that our sympathies should lie, not with the dead and wounded in the raid, but with the Israeli people because they feel bad about the way they botched things.

There's real pain in Israel today, pain at the humiliation of the flotilla raid, pain on behalf of the injured soldiers, and pain that the geniuses who run this country could not figure out a way to out-smart a bunch of Turkish Islamists and their useful idiot fellow travelers. And no, there is no particular pain felt for the dead on the boat; the video of those peace-seeking peace activists beating on the paintball commandos with metal bars pretty much canceled out whatever feelings of sympathy Israelis might have otherwise felt.

Yes, I am sure that the shame and humiliation felt by people in Israel because the world sees their government and their military as bunglers is much harder to bear than the grief of the relatives of the dead and wounded. Note the contrasting of the phrase 'paintball commandos' with 'metal bars', again to suggest that Israel is always the underdog, always fighting pluckily against a vastly more powerful enemy. For the record, you can see a photograph (courtesy of the IDF or Israel Defense Forces) of all the alleged weapons that were found on the ships.

The Irish Times reports that "[Israeli] Ministers said in a statement they regretted the loss of life in the raid, but blamed activists who they said assaulted soldiers who boarded the ship for any fatalities." So the Israeli government has the audacity to argue that people repelling armed boarders in international waters with whatever lay at hand are to blame for the violence. If the roles had been reversed and heavily armed Palestinians had boarded an Israeli passenger ship, then any resistance put up by the unarmed people, even if ill-advised and futile, would have been hailed as courageous and heroic (like the passengers on flight 93 on 9/11 who tried to take on the hijackers), and there would have been total condemnation of the killers.

It is curious how the 'paintball guns' killed and wounded so many people while the 'metal bars' yielded not a single death on the Israeli side. I am surprised that the Israeli government did not suggest that maybe those devious and dastardly aid activists killed each other just to make Israel look bad, because Goldberg would have dutifully believed that too.

Even more extreme than Goldberg is Jennifer Rubin writing for Commentary for whom even Obama's groveling to Israel is seen as insufficient. Rubin is very clear about what she expects from all of us:

There is a single question that every individual, group, and nation must answer. To borrow from the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman: if you are not with Israel, you are against her. And if you do not oppose with every fiber of your being and every instrument at your disposal that which intends the Jewish state harm, you are enabling her destroyers.

Note that what you are supposed to side with is not justice or peace or human rights or other quaint concepts, but Israel. Even when the troops of that country, like pirates, board boats in international waters and murder unarmed aid workers (and please, let's not hear any more of this nonsense that kitchen knives and wooden sticks constitutes arms when facing heavily armed commandos), you have to agree with whatever Israel says. Rubin might be surprised at the number of American Jews, especially among the young, who by her standard are 'against Israel' and 'enabling her destroyers'.

One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.

Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled.

People like Rubin are living in the past when critics of Israel's policies in the US could be muted because people feared being labeled anti-Semitic. That accusation has been so cheapened by repeated use against even mild criticism that no one cares anymore if they are labeled as such. It is seen for what it is, a rhetorical intimidation tactic.

Commenting on Rubin's ultimatum to everyone to get with the program and support Israel or else irrespective of what that country does, satirist Tbogg says, "This must be what it is like to be trapped in an arranged marriage to a serial killer."

POST SCRIPT: Another aid ship on the way to Gaza

The Irish Times also reports that another aid ship is on the way to Gaza, with some high-profile passengers on board.

The Rachel Corrie, which has five Irish nationals and five Malaysians aboard, is due to arrive in Gazan waters over the coming days, a spokeswoman for the Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign said. It became separated from the main aid flotilla after being delayed for 48 hours in Malta due to logistical reasons, and is currently off the coast of Libya.

Nobel laureate Maireád Corrigan-Maguire, former UN assistant secretary general Denis Halliday, film maker Fiona Thompson and husband and wife Derek and Jenny Graham are the Irish nationals on board the Rachel Corrie.

Speaking from the ship today, Mr Graham said the vessel was carrying educational materials, construction materials, medical equipment and some toys. "Everything aboard has been inspected in Ireland," he said. "We would hope to have safe passage through."

Some of you may remember Rachel Corrie. She is the young American woman who was run over and killed in 2003 by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer when she was trying to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes by the Israeli government.


June 02, 2010

More on the attack on the Gaza aid flotilla

I have discussed in the past (see here and here) that all governments know the value right after a major event of controlling the message and getting their version of the story out first, especially if it is false.

The least effective way to do this is to actually own the media or practice overt censorship because then everyone sees propaganda for what it is. The most effective, as in the US, is have the aid of sycophantic major media that will self-censor and bias their reporting towards the point of view that puts their own country and government in the best light.

In other countries, where there is at least one major media outlet that may be willing to take a critical look, the government has to take quick steps after events that make the government look bad, like the murder this week by Israeli troops of peace activists on the aid flotilla. What Israel did was to immediately confine the people it captured on the boats, at last for a day or two, so that their version of events is suppressed while pro-Israel sources get to set the storyline. They did a similar clampdown during their assault on Gaza in 2008.

But as Glenn Greenwald points out, such a policy directly contradicts the ludicrous Israeli claim that they are the true victims in this incident:

Isn't it strange how Plucky, Democratic Israel goes to such extreme lengths to prevent any media coverage of what they do, any journalistic interference with their propaganda machine, in light of the fact that -- as always -- They Did Absolutely Nothing Wrong? Is physically blocking the media from covering what happens the act of a government that is in the right? Thomas Jefferson answered that question quite some time ago:

Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues of truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is freedom of the press. It is therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.

Israel is now not only detaining the victims of its aggression, but also threatening to prosecute and imprison them. Israeli Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said yesterday: "All those who lifted a hand against a soldier will be punished to the full extent of the law." So when Israel seizes ships in international waters and kills anyone who resists (and others standing near them), that is an act of noble, plucky self-defense. But those who fail to submit completely to this lawless and barbarous act of aggression are the Real Criminals who will be prosecuted and imprisoned "to the fullest extent of the law." In other words, not only is Israel -- which seized ships in international waters and killed civilians -- the Real Victim, but the Real Criminals are those on the ship.

Former CIA intelligence analyst Ray McGovern adds some interesting background about the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty that I wrote about yesterday. He says that Israel had actually planned to kill off every single one of the US servicemen on the vessel and was only prevented from doing so because one sailor managed to get a distress message off to the US Sixth Fleet.

The Israelis later insisted that the strafing and torpedo attacks were accidents in the fog of war. However, U.S. intelligence intercepted Israeli conversations at the time showing the attacks were deliberate, and their nature and persistence showed clear intent to sink the Liberty and leave no survivors.

Israeli commandos clad in black were about to land from helicopters and finish off what remained of the Liberty crew when Seaman Terry Halbardier (later awarded the Silver Star) slid over the Liberty's napalm-greased deck to jury-rig an antenna and get an SOS off to the Sixth Fleet.

Israeli forces intercepted the SOS and quickly broke off the attack. But 34 of the Liberty crew were killed and over 170 wounded.

To avoid exacerbating relations with Israel, the U.S. Navy was ordered to cover up the deliberate nature of the attack, and the surviving crew was threatened with imprisonment, if they so much as told their wives. When some of the crew later called for an independent investigation, they were hit with charges of anti-Semitism. (my emphasis)

There is a poignant link of that 1967 attack with this week's attack on the aid flotilla:

One of the surviving crew of the USS Liberty, decorated Navy veteran Joe Meadors, was with the "Freedom Flotilla" when it was attacked on Sunday night. Meadors is past president of the USS Liberty Veterans Association. The State Department tells us that Joe Meadors survived this latest Israeli attack. At last word, he sits in an Israeli jail.

McGovern points out that Obama's cowardliness and timidity towards Israel is only going to make things worse and increase that country's reckless behavior as it accelerates its aggressive campaign of building settlements in the occupied territories and fomenting war fever against Iran.

As President, he has backed down at every significant moment when Netanyahu thumbed his nose at Obama or at Vice President Joe Biden.

Obama knew about the "Freedom Flotilla" and its plan to bring supplies to Gaza. And he had to be aware of Israel's threats to attack the relief ships. But, like Uncle Remus's B'rer Fox, Obama "don't say nothin.'"

More and more people around the globe are seeing Obama as subservient to the Likud Lobby, perhaps not as enthusiastically as Bush was, but still unwilling to put action behind his occasional words of dissatisfaction. Important players in the Middle East, as well as increasingly assertive countries like Turkey and Brazil, conclude that the policies and behavior of Tel Aviv and Washington are virtually identical.

Right on cue, Washington is dutifully playing its assigned role in the cover-up that has already begun, which is to block any concerted international action against Israel:

The United States has blocked demands at the UN security council for an international inquiry into Israel's assault on the Turkish ship carrying aid to Gaza that left nine pro-Palestinian activists dead.

A compromise statement instead calls for an impartial investigation which Washington indicated could be carried out by Israel.

The Americans also blocked criticism of Israel for violating international law by assaulting a ship in international waters in the security council statement proposed by Turkey, the Palestinians and Arab nations. (my emphasis)

Of course Obama thinks that Israel can conduct an impartial inquiry of its actions, just as I am sure he thinks that BP should conduct the impartial inquiry into the gulf oil disaster.

Ken Silverstein of Harper's magazine outlines the predictable way that media coverage in the US will play out and the kinds of things that Israel's reflexive apologists in the US will say, and concludes "Give it up, guys. When you starve and imprison the West Bank and Gaza, deny equal rights to your growing Arab population, repeatedly flout international law in launching military attacks that kill civilians, etc etc etc the word democracy either doesn’t apply or has no meaning."

Whether it is the case that the US is Israel's puppet or the other way around is becoming irrelevant. The US and Israel are seen by the rest of the world as conjoined twins engaged in lawlessness, and the inevitable consequence will be more attacks on the US by those harmed by Israeli actions and see the US as its patron and enabler. While this collusion may please those who want create the impression that the interests of the US and Israel are identical, it can only be of concern to those who care about peace and justice.

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert nails the Sunday morning talk shows

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sunday Morning Fact-Checking - Jake Tapper & Bill Adair
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorFox News

June 01, 2010

The latest atrocity by Israel

There is nothing that I can add to Glenn Greenwald's description of Israel's descent into becoming a brutal nation that ignores international law and just plain human decency, as it continues its strangling of the people of Gaza with their blockade. This blockade, imposed after the deadly assault on Gaza in December 2008, destroyed a lot of its infrastructure such as water and power supplies and hospitals, and the aid flotilla was trying to both ameliorate the awful conditions as well as draw attention to the plight of Gazans.

Of course the US government and Congress and major media in the US, enablers of Israel's out-of-control belligerence, will downplay this appalling crime by giving huge amounts of coverage to the Israel government's justifications for its appalling actions which will consist of claiming that they are the true victims. Watch how Obama and Clinton will dance around this issue, just after expressing anger at North Korea and threatening punishment for the sinking of a South Korea warship Cheonan that killed 46 sailors.

As Greenwald says, "Just ponder what we'd be hearing if Iran had raided a humanitarian ship in international waters and killed 15 or so civilians aboard."

Recall how these same groups downplayed, covered up, and sent down the memory hole even the 1967 Israeli attack on an American warship the USS Liberty that killed 34 US servicemen and reduced that state-of-the-art intelligence gathering ship to scrap. This 2005 report, prepared on behalf of the survivors of the attack, gives with footnotes the details of what happened. Note that the Liberty was not equipped for fighting and so could not defend itself.

On June 8, 1967 while patrolling in international waters[2] in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was savagely attacked without warning or justification by air and naval forces of the state of Israel.[3]

Of a crew of 294 officers and men[4] (including three civilians)[5], the ship suffered thirty four (34) killed in action and one hundred seventy three (173) wounded in action.[6] The ship itself, a Forty Million ($40,000,000) Dollar state of the art signals intelligence (SIGINT) platform, was so badly damaged that it never sailed on an operational mission again and was sold in 1970 for $101,666.66 as scrap[7] .

Israel acknowledged the following facts without qualification:
a. USS Liberty was an American ship, hence a neutral vis-à-vis the June 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors.[8]
b. USS Liberty remained in international waters at all times on June 8, 1967[9] .
c. The attacking Israeli forces never made a positive identification of the nationality of USS Liberty before unleashing deadly force in their attack on the ship.[10]

At approximately 0600 hours (all times local) on the morning of June 8, 1967 an Israeli maritime reconnaissance aircraft observer reported seeing "a US Navy cargo type ship," just outside the coverage of the Israeli coastal radar defense net, bearing the hull markings "GTR-5".[11] This report, made to Israeli naval HQ, was also forwarded immediately to the Israeli navy intelligence directorate.[12]

Throughout the remainder of the day prior to the attack, Israeli reconnaissance aircraft regularly flew out to USS Liberty’s position and orbited the ship before returning to their bases in Israel. A total of no fewer than eight (8) such flights were made.[13]

At approximately 1050 hours, the naval observer from the early morning reconnaissance flight arrived at Israeli air force HQ and sat down with the air-naval liaison officer there. The two officers consulted Janes’ Fighting Ships and learned that the ship reported earlier in the day was USS Liberty, a United States Navy technical research ship.[14]

From 0900 hours on June 8, 1967, until the time of the attack five hours later, USS Liberty maintained a speed of approximately five knots and a generally westerly-northwesterly course.[15]

At 1400 hours, while approximately 17 miles off the Gaza coast, USS Liberty’s crew observed three surface radar contacts closing with their position at high speed. A few moments later, the bridge radar crew observed high speed aircraft passing over the surface returns on the same heading.[16]

Within a few short moments, and without any warning, Israeli fighter aircraft launched a rocket attack on USS Liberty. The aircraft made repeated firing passes, attacking USS Liberty with rockets and their internal cannons. After the first flight of fighter aircraft had exhausted their ordnance, subsequent flights of Israeli fighter aircraft continued to prosecute the attack with rockets, cannon fire, and napalm. [17]

During the air attack, USS Liberty’s crew had difficulty contacting Sixth Fleet to request assistance due to intense communications jamming[18]

The initial targets on the ship were the command bridge, communications antennas, and the four .50 caliber machine guns, placed on the ship to repel boarders.[19]

After the Israeli fighter aircraft completed their attacks, three Israeli torpedo boats arrived and began a surface attack about 35 minutes after the start of the air attack. The torpedo boats launched a total of five torpedoes, one of which struck the side of USS Liberty, opposite the ship’s research spaces. [20] Twenty-six Americans in addition to the eight who had been killed in the earlier air attacks, were killed as a result of this explosion.

Following their torpedo attack, the torpedo boats moved up and down the length of the ship (both the port and starboard sides), continuing their attack, raking the ship with cannon and machine gun fire.[21] In Malta, crewmen were later assigned the task of counting all of the holes in the ship that were the size of a man’s hand or larger. They found a total of 861 such holes, in addition to "thousands" of .50 caliber machine gun holes.

Survivors report that the torpedo boat crews swept the decks of USS Liberty with continuous machine gun fire, targeting communications equipment and any crewmembers who ventured above decks.[22]

Damage control firefighters, who had already risked their lives merely by appearing on deck, had to abandon their efforts because their fire hoses had been shredded by machine gun fire.[23]

Survivors also report that the torpedo boat crews fired on the inflated life boats launched by the crew after the captain gave the order "prepare to abandon ship."[24] This order had to be rescinded because the crew was unable to stand on the main deck without being fired upon and the life rafts were destroyed as they were launched.[25]

The defenseless crew, initially unable to report their plight or summon assistance and with only themselves to rely upon, fought heroically to save themselves and their ship. In recognition of their effort in this single action, they were ultimately awarded collectively one Medal of Honor, two Navy Crosses, eleven Silver Stars, twenty Bronze Stars (with "V" device), nine Navy Commendation Medals, and two hundred and four Purple Hearts. In addition, the ship was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

Many countries have been retaliated against and even invaded by the US for far less provocation, but this attack, so brazen and outrageous, did not provoke any serious reaction.

If such a deadly and unprovoked attack by Israel on a US ship did not result in any repercussions, should we be surprised that Israel takes the view that it can do anything it likes to anyone anywhere and that the US will support it?