28 October 2007

Shameful persecution

[I originally wrote this item in April for Enter the Jabberwock, but I'd like to have it on my own site as well, so here it is.]

I’ve been thinking lately about the odd position Christianity occu- pies in the United States. Despite being a majority of 80% to 90% (according to surveys) of the population, some Christians claim to feel besieged by secularism — even to feel that their religious freedom is being taken away. Do they have a case?

Surprising as it may seem, I think they do! Consider the question of religious displays on public property. After all, this is one of the most obvious ways in which Christians can exercise their freedom to assert the dominance of their religion over everyone else’s — to make atheists and followers of false religions feel like second-class citizens when dealing with their own government. Yet no sooner does some government official erect, say, a display of the Ten Commandments in a courtroom or legislative chamber, than the ACLU files suit, and a Soviet-style jackboot of a court ruling descends upon him, demanding that he remove the display. Thus he is forced to acknowledge unbelievers as equals before the law and the state — coercing him to violate his religious beliefs.

Then there is the issue of abortion. Few freedoms are more precious to the Christian fundamentalist than the freedom to force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. Yet in 1973 Roe vs. Wade swept away this crucial freedom with one totalitarian blow. Ever since then, fundamentalist Christians have been coerced — coerced by the power of the state — to permit women to make their own decisions about their own bodies. How long will they have to wait before a more enlightened era restores their precious freedom to control the reproductive behavior of women?

Then there’s homosexuality. Until recently at least some states did recognize basic Christian rights; believers were free to pass and enforce laws requiring homosexuals to be arrested and impri- soned for engaging in homosexual activity in the privacy of their own homes, even though they were disgracefully robbed of the right to apply the Biblically-mandated death penalty in such cases. But in 2003, disaster struck, in the form of the Lawrence vs. Texas case; once again liberty lost out, as Christians were robbed of their freedom to prevent and punish private homosexual behavior. Their fundamental right to force others to live according to Biblical morality was trampled. And we call ourselves a free society? Hah!

Many other examples could be cited. Under the auspices of the obviously Communist-inspired First Amendment, Christians have very little freedom to ban books, movies, and websites which offend them by including sexual content or making unflattering references to the Christian God and religion. They are forced by the state to permit others who want to see those things to have access to them. Believers have had some success at preserving their liberty to prevent scientists from engaging in stem-cell research, but there is every sign that this last freedom, too, will eventually be eroded and lost.

So support the Christian Right — only when they have completely triumphed will our land once again enjoy those liberties which are so precious to us all.

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Link roundup for 28 October 2007

For a religion which believes that its priests' mumbo-jumbo can transform wine and crackers into the blood and body of God, I suppose declaring a giant rat to be a fish is no big deal.

This ad from 1963 celebrates "the making of a man".

Of course the giant fires in southern California were caused by homosexuality. I mean, it's so obvious. Nothing to do with global warming. No sirree.

Forward-looking Muslim leaders have written a guidebook for practicing Islam in outer space. So if you've ever wondered what would be the correct technique for stoning women or beheading unbelievers in zero gravity, there's now an authoritative source.

This posting makes an interesting point about the idea that man was created in God's image.

Wiccans open a school in a small Illinois town -- and are greeted with a hysterical paroxysm of bigotry.

Laws against abortion do not reduce the number of abortions -- they just make them more dangerous. There's only one thing that actually reduces the number of abortions, and the anti-abortion movement is against it.

Well, this woman won't be smoking marijuana any more. I hope the prohibitionists are satisfied.

John C. Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group (thus certainly no socialist agitator or ivory-tower academic) warns that the US economy is becoming dysfunctional, giving the greatest rewards to those who merely move wealth around rather than creating it.

Know the enemy -- an Australian view.

Is the Iran crisis coming to a head? Read this too.

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27 October 2007

Video break

Here's a music video as topical as it is disturbing: The Hills of Los Angeles Are Burning.

Fascist dictators are hot! Putin of Russia does have his admirers. This lady sings (Ya khochu) Takogo kak Putin -- "(I want) Someone like Putin".

Bill Maher takes the mickey out of the recent Republican "values voter" summit/inquisition.

This German optometrist ad would be unlikely to air on American TV. Note: Brille nötig? means "Need glasses?"

For an overdose of cute, check out this lost kitten's mini-meows calling mama cat to the rescue.

And I refuse to spoil this one by trying to describe it in advance. Just go, and watch. Now.

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Murdered for being an atheist

Here's a nasty story from Michigan. Note in particular the behavior of the murderer's family.

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26 October 2007

Life after death?

The idea I'm suggesting in this posting is pure speculation. I have no evidence for it, although as I will explain, I do think there are grounds for considering it somewhat plausible.

Based on our rapidly-advancing understanding of the brain, it's becoming increasingly clear that a human individual's thoughts, emotions, desires, consciousness, free will, and everything else that makes up what we call the "mind", is actually a set of highly-complex patterns of electrochemical activity performed by that individual's brain. These patterns "run" on the brain somewhat as programs run on a computer.

In theory, if an individual human brain could be scanned in enough detail and an exact simulation of that brain created in a sufficiently-powerful computer, the simulation could "run" the same mental patterns just as the organic brain did, so that that individual's mind would have been "uploaded" into the computer. When this is possible, humans will be able to become immortal for all practical purposes, since computer data can be protected from destruction or loss by several methods which are impossible with an organic brain. This concept, which I explain in more detail here, is already familiar to transhumanists and people with related interests.

Mind uploading is part of the group of technological innovations leading to the Singularity described by Ray Kurzweil and others -- the full integration of computer processing power into the human mind, after which human intelligence will reach levels trillions of times greater than what it is today. Kurzweil estimates that the Singularity will be achieved around the year 2045, but for the purposes of my discussion here, it doesn't matter how far in the future it happens.

Now here's the speculative part.

Humans have always longed to defeat death, not only because we fear our own deaths, but because we mourn the loss of others who are close to us. Anti-aging treatments will probably free us from the curse of a limited lifespan within a couple of decades, and later on, mind uploading will make us effectively immortal. But such technology will be of no benefit to people who have already died before it becomes available. Or will it?

What if it turns out to be possible to perform the kind of precision brain-scanning I mentioned above on brains which have already died and decomposed? This would require the ability to detect and record information which does not exist in the present, but did exist in the past. I can't suggest any method by which this might be done, nor give any evidence that it will ever even be possible. But the minds of post-Singularity humans will be to our minds as our minds are to those of insects. We today are simply in no position to declare any limits on what the post-Singularity civilization will be able to achieve. And the motivation will be there. The people of that time will mourn loved ones who died too soon just as much as people today do -- perhaps even more, given their intensified state of consciousness.

If such a thing can be accomplished in the future, then every human being who ever lived will indeed be offered the possibility of eternal life after death -- not in the insipid Heaven of religious fantasy, but in the trillionfold-richer infinity of Heavens which our own enhanced minds will create.

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25 October 2007

Link roundup for 25 October 2007

Ugh. I guess Giuliani really is Catholic.

Here's another example of the administration distorting science for ideological reasons.

Some encouraging signs from Europe on the Iran problem and on Russia.

"Can you imagine one of our guys talking in a foreign language at that level of sophistication?" An interview with Russian opposition Presidential candidate Garry Kasparov.

The Catholic League is taking umbrage about the upcoming movie version of The Golden Compass. Meanwhile, fundamentalists can now get their usual Christmas chip-on-the-shoulder online.

373 electoral votes for Hillary? Here's a graphic look at what a Christian Right third-party candidate could do. Things don't look so hot for Republicans in Congress either.

ChooseDoubt ponders the injustice of the Christian concept of Hell. Ascendance takes another approach to the same issue.

The Senate has voted down another plan to give "a path to legal status" (that is, amnesty) to some illegal aliens. (Note the biased language of the article -- "again dashing hopes for any meaningful action on immigration reform before 2008 elections", as if "reform" can only mean amnesty and as if this is what all right-thinking people "hope" for.) As with the higher-profile amnesty fight in June, public outrage helped persuade Senators -- including some Democrats -- to squelch the bill. Yeesh, it's almost as if people didn't appreciate how illegal immigration enriches American culture!

Besides illegal immigration, we should take a look at offshoring, which also destroys American jobs -- and while it may make products and services cheaper, the quality also often suffers, as the recent wave of revelations about toxic imports from China shows. Some companies are wising up.

Some more thoughts on that Israeli airstrike on Syria.

Most Russians and Ukrainians have an inherited Eastern Orthodox Christian religious identity and are in practice thoroughly secular. There is, however, a Protestant minority which is anything but. Within this group, there has recently emerged a fanatical and violent anti-homosexual association calling itself "The Watchmen on the Walls". Protestants make up a disproportionate share of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants to the US, where they find a society fast becoming as secular as the one they left behind -- and already far more tolerant of homosexuality. Now the Watchmen are becoming active right here in the Pacific Northwest, where recent Protestant Slavic immigrants are concentrated.

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Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week

I have mixed feelings about this. Anyone who's been reading my site for any length of time knows that I consider jihadism (and the broader problem of Islamic imperialism) to be a major threat to Western civilization. Any effort to educate people about the issue is a worthy endeavor. In this case, however, the effort undermines itself in a number of ways.

To begin with, while there are some similarities between the Islamic threat and fascism (Christopher Hitchens does a good job of explaining these here), there are also important differences. The most obvious is that fascism implies a centralized totalitarian regime; fascist movements which have not yet established such a regime usually have its creation as their main immediate goal. Jihadism, by contrast, is a common ideology motivating similar goals and behavior in many different militant groups all over the world, most of which are not linked by any common structure of authority and show little sign of making serious efforts to create one, despite all the rhetoric about restoring the Caliphate. Iran certainly resembles a fascist state in this sense, but its relationship with jihadist groups outside its borders more resembles that of the old Soviet Union with the global Communist movement -- an ideological state linked with a network of ideologically-similar external groups whose roles are something between puppets and allies. Such linked external groups were not a major feature of fascist states such as Nazi Germany. In any case, only a minority of jihadist groups worldwide have such connections with Iran.

More importantly, the term "Islamo-fascism" implies that the jihadist threat is a sort of derivative or imitation of Western fascism as we know it from the twentieth century, which is simply not the case, though there have been some superficial influences. Like some leftists' delusion that jihadism is primarily a form of "blowback" from various Western interference in the Islamic world, it obscures the real nature of the problem. Jihadism is a distinct phenomenon in its own right, far older than fascism or Western imperialism; it is innate in the nature of Islam itself and has been present from the religion's earliest beginnings. As I've said before, if the West had never meddled in the Middle East, if Israel had never been established, and if we imported no oil from there at all, we would probably still be facing basically the same jihadist problem. The same would be true if Western fascism had never existed.

It's understandable that Westerners who know little about Islam try to explain the jihadist phenomenon as a response to some influence from the West, whether as retaliation for Western interference or imitation of a Western ideology. It's also simply wrong. Jihadism can only be understood on its own terms, as an integral part of Islam itself.

Then there's this. What on Earth does educating people about the Islamic threat have to do with global-warming denialism? Aside from the fact that a worthy cause is actually weakened by linking it with the rapidly-collapsing denialist delusion, there is a more fundamental problem which I recall observing, on the left, when I lived in Berkeley in the 1980s. Every demonstration on behalf of any one cause associated with the left consistently evolved into a demonstration for every cause associated with the left. They could never just stick to one subject. A march organized on behalf of, say, gay rights would always attract hangers-on agitating on behalf of the Palestinians, El Salvador, whales, drugs, Marxism, nuclear disarmament, labor unions, and what have you. Supporters of the putative matter at hand who did not also endorse all the other causes would have felt uncomfortable or unwelcome. The right is increasingly plagued by the same phenomenon; any blog posting on the Islamic threat which provokes a long comments thread will soon become overrun with vituperation against liberals, atheists, Hillary Clinton, and so on.

The temptation to claim opposition to Islam as the sole province of the right must be resisted. Islam is even more hostile to the values of Western liberalism than to those of Western conserva-tism, and the efforts of Western leftists to minimize the Islamic threat or to defend or excuse Islamist groups and regimes lead to constant absurdities and contradictions (here's a recent example). Many of the smarter people on the left have already awakened to this and recognize the threat for what it is, and with time more and more will do so. It's a trend that should be encouraged.

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23 October 2007

Fighting back on behalf of science

Black Sun Journal has three must-read postings up on global-warming denialism: here, here, and here. See also this compilation debunking common denialist myths.

Pseudoscience is sometimes defended with "scientific" arguments and claims which can sound like the real thing to the layman. In 2004 such an effort to validate "intelligent design" was put to the test in court -- and fell flat on its face.

Hillary Clinton has made it clear that as President she would sweep away the restrictions on stem-cell research which have crippled progress in that critical field under the Bush administration, and would end the practice of government manipulation of science for the sake of ideology.

21 October 2007

Recent events in Europe

Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defense, is visiting Europe. Interestingly enough, he's spending his first two days in Ukraine.

Mikhail Gorbachev has launched a new political movement in Russia. The group's statement warns that "the potential for free democratic choice and political competition is being limited... This is why social-democrats are uniting to fight for the values of freedom and fairness." Let's hope that this represents, at long last, a counterforce against the Putin regime's drift toward fascism.

Meanwhile, western Europe took a big step away from democracy as the leaders of the 27 EU member states approved a new treaty essentially identical to the EU Constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters in referenda in 2005. The treaty transfers substantial powers from the elected national governments to the central insti-tutions of the EU, which lack democratic accountability. There is still some hope that the treaty can be stopped, since it will need to be ratified in each country. Reports (from a British viewpoint) here and here.

Amsterdam has suffered several days of violent Muslim rioting, apparently triggered by the shooting of a Muslim who had entered a police station and started stabbing police officers. Reports here, here, here, and here. Update: Here's more.

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20 October 2007

Link roundup for 20 October 2007

Jabberwock hilariously dissects an even-stupider-than-usual Chick tract about Halloween.

Tony Blair rocks!

John Derbyshire looks at Chinese demonstration sports for the next Olympics.

The Christian Right now has one more reason to hate the Harry Potter books.

Did you know that the pill is part of the "culture of death"?

Senator David Vitter (R-Diaper) has failed in his latest effort to advance the Christian Right cause.

Daylight Atheism looks at a new breakthrough in quackery.

This is supposed to make people pay attention to speed-limit signs. For some reason I hardly noticed the signs, though.

The Vatican is.....well, it's the Vatican.

Since Congress hasn't gotten around to mandating net neutrality, it seems to me that it's up to the public to punish Comcast for this. Are you one of their customers? Wouldn't you rather have an ISP that doesn't try to decide for you what you should and shouldn't be doing on the internet?

Check out the surrealist art of Jacek Yerka and Stanislav Plutenko.

Taking a stand against proselytizing in public schools sometimes gets results. Unfortunately, the problem is more intractable in the military.

This essay is on-target about the Armenian genocide resolution.

Christopher Hitchens looks at the future of the Anglosphere.

In yet another example of their unusual intelligence, elephants can use subtle cues to distinguish more-dangerous and less-dangerous categories of humans.

Lots of people are linking to this, but it's worth it: Greta Christina on atheist anger.

Few people can claim to understand Islam so well as those who formerly were Muslims. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, probably the world's most courageous atheist, speaks out here.

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19 October 2007

Book review: Ending Aging

Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime, by Aubrey de Grey, PhD, with Michael Rae.

Can the human aging process be stopped and even reversed, allowing the human lifespan to be extended indefinitely -- to centuries or even millennia? In this book, just published in September, Aubrey de Grey makes the case not only that is this possible, but that the necessary technology is much closer to being within our grasp than most would imagine.

De Grey is a biogerontologist who has been working for years on the problem of how exactly aging happens and how it can be defeated. He is also, it's worth pointing out, a very good writer; as you'll see below, the book necessarily deals with details of biology which are unfamliar to the average person and often dauntingly complex, but he succeeds in explaining them clearly so that any reasonably-well-educated reader can understand them. In places, the tale of the struggle to understand the processes at work in our bodies, and the hunt for solutions to problems, has the quality of a page-turning mystery story.

The aging process actually consists of several forms of damage which build up cumulatively in the body over decades, producing the well-known effects by which we recognize aging: declining memory and mental sharpness, weakening muscles, more fragile blood vessels, and so forth. De Grey argues that all this damage falls into just seven categories, and that if each of the seven kinds of damage could be prevented or repaired, the body would stop aging and in many respects even be restored to something close to the optimal functionality of early adulthood. His program for accomplishing this is called Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS).

Here are the seven categories of damage, and de Grey's proposed treatments:

Problem: Mutations in the DNA of the mitochondria (fuel-processing organelles within each cell), causing them to cease functioning; through a complex chain of effects, this causes damage to other cells throughout the organism.
Treatment: Insert back-up copies of the mitochondrial DNA into the cell nucleus, where they are much better protected from mutation and can keep the mitochondria functioning even if the original DNA is damaged. Inserting new genes into cell nuclei is a long-established technology; that's how genetic engineering of animals and plants is done. There are some technical problems with getting the mitochondrial DNA to work across the distance between the nucleus and the mitochondria, but de Grey discusses several promising strategies for overcoming these.

Problem: Formation of cross-links between protein molecules, a process known as "glycation", which causes loss of flexibility in the heart and blood vessels.
Treatment: Drugs which can break down these cross-links have already reached the stage of clinical trials on humans. So far their effects are limited, but the principles are well understood, and with enough investment more effective drugs should be possible.

Problem: Accumulation of chemical waste products inside cells. Our cells contain special bodies called lysosomes which break down and recycle most waste products, but there are a few types, collectively called "lipofuscin", which the lysosomes can't break down because they lack the necessary enzymes. These accumulate over decades, eventually crippling the cell.
Treatment: Use genetic engineering to give the lysosomes the enzymes they presently lack. The genes to produce these enzymes can be found in soil bacteria. (Why soil bacteria? Read the book -- it's fascinating.)

Problem: Accumulation of junk (mostly deformed protein molecules) between cells. The best-known and most serious example is the accumulation of beta-amyloid in the brain, which causes Alzheimer's disease.
Treatment: Use a vaccination-like technique to stimulate the immune system to attack and destroy the toxic substances, just as it normally attacks and destroys invading microorganisms. An Alzheimer's treatment using this technique has shown spectacular success in lab mice and is already in clinical trials with human subjects. Other forms of intercellular junk could be treated with other targeted "vaccines".

Problem: Toxic cells, that is, cells which in various ways damage or undermine the efficiency of the rest of the body.
Treatment: Various, depending on the type of cell. Some carry chemical markers which could enable them to be targeted for destruction by the immune system or by other techniques. Since these cells are involved in a number of major health problems, research on such treatments is already under way.

Problem: Cell depletion. Some types of cells do not divide, and are thus not replaced when they die. Thus the organs made up of these cells, notably the heart and brain, suffer cumulative cell loss over decades.
Treatment: Replace the dying cells using stem-cell therapy. There are several promising approaches already being worked on; one has already succeeded in restoring heart function in sheep after heart attacks, for example. The major obstacle here is not scientific but political (see below).

Problem: Mutations in the DNA of the cell nucleus. As de Grey argues at some length, these are not actually dangerous to the body except that they can turn cells cancerous. Given a long enough life, every person would eventually accumulate enough of these mutations to develop fatal cancer. Thus, in order to truly accomplish the goal of extending the lifespan indefinitely, this problem must be solved.
Treatment: Eliminate the gene for telomerase from the entire human system. Cells without telomerase can only divide a fixed number of times, then they stop. Any cell that turned cancerous would use up its fixed number of possible divisions long before it grew into a tumor large enough to be dangerous. Since there are several categories of cells which need to be able to divide an unlimited number of times in order to keep us healthy, the organs containing those cells would need to be replenished by stem-cell therapy at regular intervals (once a decade, roughly). I must say that this is the one aspect of de Grey's program which I found unconvincing. Eliminating telomerase -- something needed for normal bodily function -- is a much more radical modification of the human system than anything else de Grey proposes, and some of the regular cell replenishments to compensate for this would involve major, invasive surgery. Fortunately, even if de Grey's proposal is impractical, it does not invalidate the overall premise of SENS. Cancer research is already one of the best-funded areas of medical science, and much progress has already been made (de Grey notes that the NCI has set the goal of eliminating death and suffering from cancer by 2015, though he thinks it unlikely that this can be achieved). By various approaches we will continue to make progress against cancer and eventually eradicate it.

In every case, de Grey's proposed treatment is based on well-established current knowledge; in most cases, the treatment he describes or something quite similar is actually already being developed or even at the animal or human testing stage, even if the intent of the work is to address some more specific problem than combating aging in general. Of course, even when the full SENS program is available for use on humans, it will not work perfectly, but it won't have to; extending the vigorous lifespan by even a few decades would allow people to benefit from further refinements and new technology which would be developed during those decades, thus extending their lives still further, and so on.

How long will this take? De Grey is very cautious, but estimates that there is at least a 50% chance that the full SENS program of treatments could be ready for use in humans 25 to 30 years from now; under the best-case scenario it could be as soon as 15 years. Also, treatments for some of the seven forms of damage will become available sooner than others, and each step forward will also lengthen our maximum potential lifespan to some degree, improving the odds that any given individual will live long enough to benefit from the next breakthrough, and so on. And I tend to think that advances in other areas, such as computer modeling, will enable progress to move somewhat faster than he anticipates.

It's important to mention that de Grey is not claiming that SENS can make people immortal. Even if aging is totally eradicated, other causes of death such as disease, accidents, murder, and war will still exist. But there will no longer be a fixed upper limit on how long a person who avoids all these threats can live.

(Other thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil anticipate that innovations outside the field of biology, such as nanotechnology and brain uploading, will eventually achieve something very close to real immortality. Such possibilities are outside the purview of de Grey's book, however.)

The main obstacle to achieving SENS is not technological feasibility but money. The costs involved will be enormous. Only national governments can provide funding on the necessary scale, which they will not do until politicians, and the public on whom they depend for votes, can overcome the reflexive tendency to dismiss the whole idea as implausible. The only way to prove to the mass public mind that SENS is feasible is to actually achieve at least a limited version of it in the laboratory; to stimulate efforts to this end, de Grey has created the Methuselah Mouse Prize, a research prize for achieving a precisely-defined degree of lifespan extension in lab mice; you can read about it here. The book also discusses ways that individuals can contribute to research -- on this, see also de Grey's website. Once clear-cut rejuvenation and lifespan extension are achieved in mice, de Grey believes, the public will understand that the same can be done in humans, and will press governments to provide the necessary funding.

(The book does not try to address the various common objections made by people who think that eradicating aging would actually be a bad thing; on that issue, see de Grey's FAQ here, and also the links under "Objections Answered" in the left sidebar here.)

There is also the maddeningly-unnecessary political obstacle I mentioned, which is the Bush administration's restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research, a subject about which de Grey is scathing. While biological research goes on in many countries, the United States is still by far the biggest contributor, and the fact that stem-cell research in the US has been crippled for years has slowed down overall progress worldwide. Not only are there the restrictions on funding, but fundamentalist Republicans have introduced bills which, incredibly, would actually provide jail terms for scientists working with embryonic stem cells, and even penalties for Americans who traveled to other countries to obtain stem-cell therapies banned in the US (p. 264). Luckily, these bills failed to pass. De Grey also addresses the common right-wing claim that equally-good results can be achieved with adult stem cells as with embryonic stem cells, and explains exactly why this is far from true.

Embryonic stem cells have already been used to cure animal models of multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, stroke, Parkinson's disease, macular degeneration, and several other diseases (pp. 247-248). If it were not for the administration's policy, cures for those affliction in humans might be already available or very close. As it is, they are probably still several years away. Foreign countries and some individual US states have continued to fund research, but progress will really take off only when we have an administration which does not subjugate science to primitive religious taboos.

There is, of course, far more to this book than can be discussed in a short review. My main response while reading it was a growing sense of hopefulness and confidence that human ingenuity can, in fact, accomplish what de Grey says it can. Read the book and see for yourself.

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17 October 2007

Could the Democrats lose?

Lately many have been talking as if it's practically inevitable that a Democrat will win the Presidency next year. But is it? Is there a realistic possibility that a Republican could win the office, and that our present situation -- the incompetence, the reality-denial, the inaction on global warming, the hostility to stem-cell research, the erosion of church-state separation, the appointment of anti-Roe Supreme Court judges, etc. -- could drag on for another four or even eight years?

I think it's unlikely, but it is possible. There are at least four obvious ways it could happen.

The Nader factor: If there is a major third-candidate challenge from the left but none from the right, the Democratic candidate will lose with near-certainty. Such a "spoiler" wouldn't attract many votes, but he wouldn't need to; it would take only relatively few third-candidate voters to "flip" a few closely-divided states from blue to red, costing critical electoral votes. It happened in 2000. There are always a few people on the far left (and the far right, for that matter) who want to act like Samson pulling down the temple if the nominee does not meet their exact specifications. Would there be enough of them to deliver the White House to the Republicans in 2008? It's too soon to tell. At the moment, the Republicans seem more likely to suffer from a third-party attack than the Democrats, but there are still almost 13 months to go until the election. This danger may explain why Clinton made a concession to the hard left by promising a fast withdrawal from Iraq; so far it seems to be having the desired effect.

The Beslan factor: I've long believed that part of why Bush was re-elected in 2004 was the Muslim terrorist attack in Beslan, Russia, two months before the election. On a certain level this was the most horrific terrorist attack of all, since it targeted children. Viewing the ghastly pictures of the attack's aftermath, it was all too easy for the average American voter to imagine something similar happening at his or her own child's school. Probably this horror strengthened the impulse to vote for the candidate perceived as "tougher" -- the man more capable of intimidating, and thus deterring, the Muslims. A major terrorist attack in 2008, even if it is not within the US, could have a similar effect. Clinton's hawkish stance compared with most other Democrats would minimize the loss of votes in such a case, but not eliminate it entirely.

The Bill factor: Many a promising politician has seen his hopes suddenly implode due to a scandal or even just a high-profile embarrassment -- Gary Hart being probably the most memorable example. Hillary Clinton doesn't strike me as the type who would do anything to put her political success at risk -- but her husband has a track record of being reckless about such things. Revelations of a new episode of sexual infidelity on his part could make Hillary Clinton look pitiable and weak, a deadly image for a Presidential candidate. I think that such an event is unlikely -- Bill Clinton is intelligent and has probably learned from the consequences of his past mistakes -- but it can't be ruled out.

The wrong nominee: I'm convinced that both Obama and Edwards are substantially less electable than Clinton. Both of them come across as less experienced, less tough, less savvy about politics and about the complex and dangerous world outside our borders. I have a hard time imagining either of them coming out very well in a no-holds-barred debate with, say, Giuliani. Obama's exotic name and background (especially the Muslim associations), and the disconnect between Edwards's personal wealth and his populist stance, would repel some voters and would certainly be ruthlessly exploited by the Republican attack machine in a general election. (I don't think Obama would lose many votes to racism, not because racism doesn't exist, but because most racists would never vote for any Democrat in the first place.) The polls bear this out; Clinton does better in most one-on-one matchups with likely Republican nominees than Edwards or Obama do.

As I say, I think the odds are that none of these things will happen and that Republican rule will end with the next election. But we shouldn't indulge in over-confidence.

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16 October 2007

Quote for the day

"People die for it. People kill for it. They ignore fact to support it. They champion ignorance to defend it. And worst of all they teach their children to do the same. Faith is a disease; a dysfunction of the mind and of society as a whole. Faith is a dangerous irrationa-lity that has cost millions of lives and will cost millions more. In a world in which we hear so much about respecting others' beliefs this blog is a stand against that idiocy. Faith deserves no respect. Faith deserves to be cured."

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Clinton on foreign policy

This new article by Hillary Clinton in Foreign Affairs magazine is as good a basis as any for assessing what her foreign policy as President would be like. With the exception of one major point, I found it generally reassuring.

To address the most important issue first, there's this:

There is a time for force and a time for diplomacy; when properly deployed, the two can reinforce each other. U.S. foreign policy must be guided by a preference for multilateralism, with unilateralism as an option when absolutely necessary to protect our security or avert an avoidable tragedy. Use our military not as the solution to every problem but as one element in a compre-hensive strategy. As president, I will never hesitate to use force to protect Americans or to defend our territory and our vital interests. We cannot negotiate with individual terrorists; they must be hunted down and captured or killed. Nor can diplomacy alone stop the perpetrators of genocide and crimes against hu-manity in places such as Darfur. But soldiers are not the answer to every problem. Using force in lieu of diplomacy compels our young men and women in uniform to carry out missions that they may not be trained or prepared for. And it ignores the value of simply carrying a big stick, rather than using it.

On Iran:

Iran must conform to its nonproliferation obligations and must not be permitted to build or acquire nuclear weapons. If Iran does not comply with its own commitments and the will of the international community, all options must remain on the table.

This addresses my main concern about having a Democrat as President. The unilateral use of force when necessary is endorsed. The article spends a lot of time emphasizing multilateralism; to the extent that this takes the form of closer cooperation with other countries which share common interests with us, it would be a good thing. Clinton will probably waste more time fiddle-faddling around with the UN than a Republican would, but neither the UN nor any foreign government will have a veto over the use of American military power. Our national sovereignty will not be compromised.

Clinton is firm where the Russian regime is concerned:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has thwarted a carefully crafted UN plan that would have put Kosovo on a belated path to independence, attempted to use energy as a political weapon against Russia's neighbors and beyond, and tested the United States and Europe on a range of nonproliferation and arms re-duction issues. Putin has also suppressed many of the freedoms won after the fall of communism, created a new class of oligarchs, and interfered deeply in the internal affairs of former Soviet republics.....we must make clear that our ability to view Russia as a genuine partner depends on whether Russia chooses to strengthen democracy or return to authoritarianism and regional interference.

While the Bush administration has understandably focused on the Middle East since September 11, the efforts (however unsuccessful so far) of the Putin regime to create a new version of the Soviet threat deserve more attention than they have visibly received. The US should have been far more outspoken in affirming that the independence of countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states is an irreversible reality and that their internal affairs are none of the Russian government's business. Perhaps Clinton would do a better job in this area.

I was encouraged by what Clinton had to say about our country's most scandalous failure under the Bush administration:

Our brave soldiers who are wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq must receive the health care, benefits, training, and support they deserve. The treatment of wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center was a travesty. Those convalescing or struggling to build new lives after grievous injuries need an expanded version of the Family and Medical Leave Act to enable their families to provide the support they need. Beyond health care, it is also time to develop a modern GI Bill of Rights in order to expand professional and entrepreneurial opportunities as well as access to education and home ownership.

This is what "supporting the troops" should mean: concrete action, not just a slogan.

The one major point that concerns me is this, on Iraq:

I will convene the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of defense, and the National Security Council and direct them to draw up a clear, viable plan to bring our troops home, starting within the first 60 days of my administration.

Clinton is far too savvy not to realize that this is a very unwise commitment to make. It's impossible, in October of 2007, to know what the military situation in Iraq will look like in early 2009. Withdrawing might be the best option at that point, or it might not be. We're simply not in a position to know what will happen over the next year-and-a-quarter.

So I would interpret this passage as a political concession to the "withdraw-immediately-and-don't-confuse-me-with-facts" element of the Democratic base, which has been giving Clinton a huge amount of flak over this issue. It's unlikely to be meant as a serious commitment to a specific course of action. Still, given the likelihood that it could encourage the enemy and undermine the work of our own troops, it would have been better if she hadn't said it.

Clinton supports a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict based on a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, but US foreign policy has been paying lip service to that idea for years, and it will not suddenly become any less unworkable (or fatuous) in 2009 than it is now. The US has only limited influence over that situation.

Most of the rest is encouraging: a strong focus on anthropogenic global warming (even the Bush administration has given up on pretending that this problem doesn't exist, but still shows little inclination to do anything about it), an increase in the number of intelligence analysts proficient in Middle Eastern languages (it would help if we stopped arbitrarily firing the ones who turn out to be gay), rolling back the administration's encroachments on civil rights at home, and so on. Clinton wants America to lead the world differently, but does not question its right to lead. I stand by my conclusion here.

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14 October 2007

Link roundup for 14 October 2007

This Baptist minister is a worthy addition to the already-lengthy chronicle of weird fundamentalist sexual behavior. But this case is just sick. "Forgiveness"?!

Yet another recall of dangerous toys made in China (link sent by Mendip). Meanwhile, as the public awakens to the danger, long-embattled American toy manufacturers are so swamped with orders that they can barely keep up.

This story of courage shows us, once again, the quality of the people serving in the US military.

Urban Infidel has a great report, with pictures, on the anti-Ahmadinejad protest in New York City in September.

Cowardice in the Netherlands, bigotry in New Zealand.

Here's an interesting view of the ongoing shift in American politics.

The United States in the 1930s, as seen by Soviet journalists.

Black Sun Journal takes an in-depth look at Ayn Rand.

This creationist project (link sent by Mendip) has achieved something very rare -- it is utterly beyond parody.

I've heard of "catblogging", but.....

The activities of Britney Spears are seldom of any interest to me, but I'm glad she has apparently stuck with her preferred mode of dress despite all the negativity. Speaking of clothes, try to wrap your head around the concept that an actual fashion designer came up with this.

Who says football players don't have a softer side?

Whitest -- rapper -- ever.

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Rethinking Hillary Clinton

A little over a year ago I argued that Hillary Clinton should not be President, and for most of this year I've considered Rudy Giuliani to be the best choice. I don't hold that view any more. Here's why.

What I want from the President (and from the government in general) is to defend and expand personal freedom in domestic policy while also taking a tough stance -- including willingness to use military force when necessary -- against external enemies. In a nutshell: to defend the free society against both the Christian fundamentalist threat within and the Islamic imperialist threat from overseas. Given the ideological views represented by each of the two main parties, this creates a dilemma. Most Democrats could be counted on to support Roe vs. Wade, restore separation of church and state, repeal restrictions on stem-cell research, encourage equal rights for homosexuals, and so forth, but their firmness against the Islamic threat is far more questionable. With most Republicans, the problem is the other way round.

In Giuliani, a popular Republican with liberal views on many social issues, I thought I'd found an answer. But it has become increasingly clear that we couldn't count on him, as President, to do anything concrete to ensure that Roe vs. Wade is upheld (Supreme Court appointments are the only way a President can really influence abortion policy, so it does us no good to have a pro-choice President if his appointments don't reflect that view). Recently he has "seemed receptive" to a more actively-hostile stance. Abortion is not only a high-profile issue but also a good "litmus test" for revealing how a politician is likely to act on other social issues; if Giuliani is willing to appease the Christian Right on abortion policy, it's legitimate to suspect that he might do the same on stem cells, gay rights, et cetera.

If Giuliani has moved away from the political center and toward his party's base, Clinton has been moving in the opposite direction on foreign policy for some time, especially the crucial Iran issue. She is easily the most hawkish and least internationalist of the major Democratic Presidential candidates -- a position reflected in the fact that she is now almost as much demonized on the far left as on the far right.

It's commonly said that Clinton (along with her husband) is too ruthless and Machiavellian. But these are not necessarily bad traits in a President. The President needs to deal with people like Putin and Ahmadinejad and the Beijing thugocracy. Those guys don’t play nice.

Isn't the problem of illegal immigration an argument against voting Democratic? I don't think so. It would be hard for any Democrat -- or anyone at all -- to be worse on that issue than Bush, who fought tooth and nail to pass the amnesty bill back in June. What defeated that bill was a mass popular uprising, not the Republican party as such. For the foreseeable future, regardless of which party is in charge, the struggle to uphold an enforcement-only approach to illegal immigration is going to be waged by the broad mass of the people against the pro-amnesty elite which dominates both parties.

Finally, what about the point I made last year, that Democratic control of the Presidency and Congress would completely shut conservatives out of power, and that this would be as unhealthy in a polarized country as the total shut-out of liberals in 2000-2006?

I think, now, that this is the lesser of two evils. The Republican party is so strongly wedded to the anti-freedom and anti-science Christian Right, and is also so dangerously mired in reality-denial, that in its present incarnation it is simply not fit to exercise power in any area. There are sane, secular Republicans, many of them. Giuliani is certainly one. But they need to take back control of the party from the fundamentalists and re-anchor it in the real world. If a crushing electoral defeat in 2008 spurs them to take on that fight at last, the result will be to restore conservatism to a form that a rational person can support, and revitalize the two-party system. In the meantime, Hillary Clinton as President is our best option.

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12 October 2007

On the fringes

One of the things that alarms me about the right wing in America is a propensity for reality-denial. I'm not talking about issues like the Iraq war or trade policy or abortion, where there are differences of opinion (albeit huge ones). I mean flat-out refusal to recognize clearly-established facts, like evolution or anthropogenic global warming. Mere evidence, it seems, counts for little against the weight of ideology and traditional religious belief. We don't want to believe it, or it would be inconsistent with our world-view to believe it, therefore it is not true.

But, one might object, isn't the left guilty of equal absurdities? What about the September 11 conspiracy theories, or the claims that the Bush administration is "fascist" or even comparable to the Nazi regime (not only ridiculous but seriously offensive to anyone who actually knows anything about the Nazis)? Isn't that equally alarming, and equally dangerous?

No, it isn't, and here's why.

The left's lunatic-fringe ideas are confined to the fringe. We don't see, for example, any serious Democratic Presidential candidate saying things like "9/11 was an inside job" or comparing Bush to Hitler. Democratic control of the government would certainly lead to the ascendance of policies which are deeply unpopular in some circles, but it would not bring people who live and function in a self-created imaginary world into the center of power.

The right's lunatic-fringe ideas are not confined to the fringe. Several Republican Presidential candidates, and at least one President, have stated flatly that they don't believe in evolution, which is really no less ridiculous than saying one believes the Earth is flat. And we've all seen how the current administration resisted accepting the reality of anthropogenic global warming -- a major threat to the world -- for years after it became a consensus among climate scientists and was acknowledged as such by the governments of most of the world's other developed countries.

Reality-denial has even become something close to an explicit ideological stance in a "faith-based" administration where gut instinct is privileged over mere facts and knowledge. Its clearest expression was this now-notorious passage (from the linked article) quoting a Bush "senior adviser", widely believed to have been Karl Rove:

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reali-ty.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

There have always been people who believe that reality works this way, but they are traditionally found in small locked rooms with rubber wallpaper, not in the corridors of power.

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09 October 2007

Link roundup for 9 October 2007

Sixty leading scientists were asked to rank their favorite science-fiction movies. They made a superbly perceptive choice for #1.

Ironwolf has a great collection of quotes on the subject of sin.

Yet another Republican has been caught engaging in sordid sexual solicitation in a public place. Update: see also the strange and sad story of Rev. Gary Aldridge, especially the link with the text "what police discovered".

The latest toxic Chinese export item is Boy Scout badges.

Check out this intriguing survey (by a Christian website) of young Americans' attitudes about Christianity. Among Americans aged 16-to-29, not only are a startling 40% "outsiders" to Christianity, but their attitude toward Christianity is much more critical and hostile than that of any previous generation. And even among Christians within that age group, "many of the negative images generated significant traction." American culture has become significantly more hostile to Christianity than it was even a mere ten years ago.

Here's another example of why we're not getting honest reporting about Iraq.

The Group News Blog has a frightening but informative posting up about stalking.

Behold the official logo of the 2008 Republican convention -- and take some time to savor the comments.

More info is emerging about last month's Israeli raid on Syria. The Bush administration does not come out of this looking very good.

The Muslim presence in Britain is fueling an upsurge in creationist belief which threatens to undermine the teaching of evolution.

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06 October 2007

Babi Yar

I visited Babi Yar on Friday, September 21, just a few days before I left Kiev.

Babi Yar is a huge depression in the ground stretching for the equivalent of several city blocks. At the time of World War II it was just outside Kiev to the northwest, but the city has grown since than and now surrounds it. The Babi Yar area itself is a gigantic park now. I did not see any signs or other markers that said "Babi Yar" on them. If it weren't for the three memorials at the site, you would never know what had happened there.

When the Germans captured Kiev in September 1941, they issued an order for all the Jews in the city to report to a certain point for "deportation". 33,771 Jews obeyed the call (it's typical of German meticulousness that we have such an exact number). They were taken to Babi Yar, forced to dig mass graves for themselves, and then shot. The Germans continued to use Babi Yar as a mass execution site throughout the occupation for groups they deemed undesirable: Gypsies, Communists, Ukrainian nationalists, the mentally ill, and especially Jews. After the war it was estimated that about 100,000 people were killed there; more recent data put the total number of victims at more than twice that figure.

Again, I saw very little at Babi Yar to show that all this happened. The easily-accessible part of the park was full of people, mostly women with small children. It's just an ordinary park to them.

As for the three memorials:

The official Soviet memorial, built in the 1970s, is near the south end of the park; it's a huge, impressive sculpture with inscriptions in Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish commemorating "100,000 Soviet citizens" who died there (Soviet official policy downplayed the fact that Jews were especially targeted by the Nazis). The sculpture, almost Classical in impression, depicts a great mass of human figures in torment.

The other two are the children's memorial in the central part of the park, and the Jewish memorial in the northeast, at the actual site of the great first massacre -- both of these were built after the USSR broke up and Ukraine became independent. The children's memorial is highly visible because it is right in front of the north exit from the park's metro station. It depicts two children's figures with arms raised in vain supplication (a third figure appears to represent a doll), with the simple inscription in Ukrainian "To the children shot at Babi Yar".

The Jewish memorial is in a less-frequented area of the park and there was almost no one around when I was there. It is in the form of a large menorah on a pyramidal base, facing a wide area paved with stone tiles. Ceremonies are sometimes held there (most recently on Sept. 10 -- I saw a photo of it in the newspaper). There is a dedication marker dated 2001 with the name of Moshe Katsav, the President of Israel, and an inscription in Ukrainian, Hebrew and English mourning the murdered Jews.

Before World War II, several million Jews lived in Poland and Ukraine (Kiev's population then may have been as much as 20% Jewish), with a thriving and distinctive culture which had existed in the area for centuries. In just a few years, the Nazis murdered almost all of them. I have now seen one of the places where this happened. I tried to take in the fact that that place was the last thing all those thousands upon thousands of people saw as they were killed, but I honestly could not really grasp it.

Kiev's Jewish history also includes a certain woman who was born in the city in 1898, in a house less than five miles from Babi Yar. She did not experience the Nazi occupation, because her family emigrated to the United States when she was still a child. As an adult she participated in the foundation of the new state created to ensure that nothing like Babi Yar would ever happen again, and later she became its leader. Her name was Golda Meir.

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04 October 2007

Sputnik

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of the first artificial satellite.

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03 October 2007

Link roundup for 3 October 2007

Friendly Atheist has a funny interview with Pastor Deacon Fred.

Here's what can happen when you write in a language you don't quite know.

I guess a life of prayer, penance and quiet contemplation isn't quite what it's cracked up to be.

Check out Russia's new island.

Richard Dawkins discusses the logical connection between faith and evil.

Our screwed-up sense of aesthetics: Could this political poster (click image for larger version) have appeared in the United States? Of course not; naked images, even of healthy and attractive people, are deemed offensive and unsuitable for display in public in this country. No such objections, however, seem to apply to billboards depicting ghastly flayed corpses (yes, that image and others like it have appeared on billboards here in Portland).

Here's why there hasn't been so much news about Iraq in the media lately.

China admits that the Three Gorges Dam may be a disaster in the making. Well, what do you expect, when one of the most gigantic engineering projects on Earth is undertaken by a country which apparently can't manufacture a Thomas the Tank Engine toy safely?

Here's some optimistic speculation about Iran, and about that mysterious Israeli raid on its Syrian catamite-state.

Hillary Clinton has a powerful new ally in her quest to become President: many Christian Right leaders are so incensed at the prospect of a non-fundamentalist-nutjob Republican nominee that they are seriously considering doing for her what Ross Perot did for her husband. (Update: based on this, the impact could be substantial.)

The GOP isn't doing so well with big business these days either. But on the bright side, the era of Christian Right dominance over the party may be ending (found via Seething Mom).

Was Ahmadinejad really wrong to say that Iran doesn't have homosexuals?

Want to do something about the savagery in Burma? Here's one option -- help put pressure on the junta's backers in Beijing.

An ancient and ugly demon is rearing its head in Europe again.

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02 October 2007

The Ukrainian election

OK, it looks like the good guys have probably won, but with such a close margin and accusations of fraud flying around, this thing is dragging itself out like -- well, like our own Presidential election in 2000 did (hanging chads in Kharkov, anyone?). And as expected, Putin is in a snit and not shy about showing it.

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Visiting Kiev: a few more observations

The Ukrainian health plan

Despite eating a much more meat-heavy diet over there than I normally do at home, I lost five pounds during my trip. I attribute this to having cut way back on snacks, and to the fact that I was typically walking three to six miles per day. Well, those are lessons I can apply back here.

$4,371.17

That was the total cost of my trip. This was probably inflated by my insistence on flying only on an American airline and on American-built planes. However, if I'm going to be sealed into a giant tin can and sent hurtling through the sky at several hundred miles per hour, I want to be confident that the workmanship and maintenance on that tin can are the best available (as opposed to, for example, the stuff these goofballs build). Besides, I don't trust foreign-run airlines to enforce no-smoking rules.

Throwing it away

Storefront gambling parlors touting roulette and other games were everywhere; obviously these are legal in Ukraine. Though I oppose laws against such businesses, I found their abundance in a relatively poor country rather sad. Very likely, many of those who waste their money in such places are those who can least afford to lose it.

The beautiful people, take 2

Being back home for a few days, I've been forcefully reminded of another reason Ukrainians are better-looking than Americans: they don't deliberately do things to make themselves ugly. During my entire three weeks in Kiev I didn't see a single tattoo -- not one. And I saw only one person with a piercing. In the US, of course, these repulsive self-disfigurements are depressingly common.

I should also note what is locally referred to as the devushka ("young lady") style of dress, which I would describe as a sort of sexed-up girl-next-door look. Miniskirts were common, as were plunging necklines displaying startling amounts of cleavage. Even after falling temperatures brought out lower hemlines and jeans, it was common for short (or artfully tied) tops to leave at least a couple of inches of midriff bare. So even when no interesting buildings were in view (which is rarely the case in Kiev, actually), there was plenty of sightseeing available.

Getting the most for your kopeks

Though housing is ridiculously expensive (at least in the Kiev city center), most other things seemed to be quite cheap. Bus fare was the equivalent of ten cents. A basket of groceries always cost noticeably less than it would have in the US. A one-liter bottle of good-quality beer at a street kiosk was about a dollar, and I saw packs of cigarettes priced at a dollar and lower. A good lunch including appetizer, beer on tap, and tip, at the kind of restaurant where the waitresses wear uniforms and actually know which fork goes with which course, was $10 to $25 depending on the type of place. I was actually surprised at how slowly I was spending money. On the other hand, many businesses seemed to have terrible difficulty making change, and I often ended up rummaging for coins to pay the exact amount.

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01 October 2007

A solid victory

The "orange" (pro-Western) parties have won by a comfortable margin in Sunday's election for the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) in Ukraine. I note that reports put the Communist party's share of the vote at around 5% -- quite a comedown for those who once ruled unchallenged. And here's an interesting view from Estonia.

This means that the period of divided government is over, and that the "orange" leadership is free to move Ukraine firmly into the Western camp. Vladimir Putin cannot be a happy man today.

Update (2 Oct.): OK, not so fast. The situation has now become murkier, though still hopeful.

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