29 April 2009

A look at the right

My political memory goes back to late Eisenhower and I’ve never seen the GOP in this state before. Even when Goldwater won the nomination the moderate wing of the party remained strong and vibrant. They didn’t lose too much sleep over the Goldwater candidacy because Johnson was going to win whoever the GOP nominated. But this is different. Basically as part the polarization strategy Rove and all these other geniuses some of whom are now whining about the outcome let the Morlocks out of the basement and they’ve taken over the house. This is going to take a generation to work itself out.

a commenter on one of the linked articles below

Over the last few days I've run across a few interesting links about the right wing, so I thought I'd do a sort of mini-roundup of them.

The Republican party continues to lose support, with only 21% of Americans now self-identifying as Republicans (down from 32% as recently as November) compared with 35% who self-identify as Democrats. In fact, Republican support is at its lowest level since 1983. As the party shrinks, it is becoming more conservative; in a pattern typical of declining movements, it's the moderates who are leaving, so that what remains consists of the more hard-line elements.

It looks like John Cornyn was too optimistic when he said it would be "real hard" to prevent Democrats from reaching 60 Senate seats in 2010. With the defection of Arlen Specter, they're already there. Specter's observation that the Republicans have moved too far to the right echoes Ronald Reagan's famous remark, decades ago, that it wasn't he who had left the Democrats but rather they who had left him. In fact, the example of Reagan (a Republican President I have a lot of respect for) sheds considerable light on how far adrift present-day Republicans have gone. Republicans are in a lather over the current Democratic plan to raise tax rates on the richest -- but that plan would still leave those rates lower than they were under Reagan. And Reagan signed and supported the UN Convention on Torture, which explicitly condemns the kind of Bush-era practices that many on the right now defend. Reagan's ghost has become a sainted figure on the right, but if the actual Reagan were to come back today, one wonders if he would be derided as a RINO.

More evidence is now surfacing, by the way, about the actual reasons for the torture. Basically, the real reason Bush invaded Iraq was that Ahmed Chalabi told him that Saddam Hussein was an ally of al-Qâ'idah (any expert on the Islamic world could have pointed out that this was nonsense -- even I could have pointed that out -- but Bush was the kind of guy who "went with his gut" instead of listening to experts). Then, since it turned out there was no evidence supporting such a link, Bush and Cheney needed to produce some; and since none of the captured terrorists were saying what the administration needed them to say, it became a matter of trying to force them to say it by any means necessary.

Moving along.....Ross Douthat has posed an interesting argument that the Republican party might have been better off if Cheney had been its 2008 Presidential candidate. His essay has unfortunately vanished behind the New York Times's registration firewall, but you can read the gist of it here; a response is here.

Republicans, one tends to assume, are at least more patriotic. Some serious doubt is cast on that view by the fracas over Texas Governor Rick Perry's mutterings about secession. 48% of Texas Republicans think, or claim to think, that Texas would be better off being independent, while 51% approve of Perry's remarks; the respective figures for Texas Democrats were 15% and 16%.

On a lighter note, here's a bizarre exchange between Republican Congressman Joe Barton and Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu, an analysis of Republican claims about the national debt, and Fox News being subtly misleading about Obama's position on health-care reform.

It's important not to become complacent. I mentioned above that the last time poll support for the Republican party was this low was 1983. Well, we all remember what happened in 1984 -- Reagan was re-elected in a 49-state landslide. I'm not suggesting that the exact same pattern could repeat itself; the mood of the country, the major issues of the day, and the nature of the two parties are all completely different now than they were then. The point is that things can turn around very fast. It's not so long ago -- right after the 2004 elections, in fact -- that speculation about a permanent decline of the Democrats was rife. The Democrats are riding high now, but one really major foreign-policy disaster could change the whole picture. Or the Republicans could get their act together, cast off the albatross of medieval "social issues", and start focusing on matters which actually resonate with public opinion. Obama seems ready to hand them one such issue on a silver platter -- illegal-alien amnesty. All the Republicans need to do is ditch the pro-amnesty legacy of Bush and close ranks against this, and they'll have the new life they need to rise from the political grave.

Update: Brief notes on the "good riddance to Arlen Specter" meme here and in this comment ("Wyatt Watts"); David Frum, as usual, takes a rational view. Think Progress has a sobering and link-rich assessment of the radical right in its opposition role (found via DemWit). And moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine has something to say about Specter.

27 April 2009

Another step forward

Gay marriage moves into the heartland as Iowa issues its first licenses.

26 April 2009

Center-left nation

The days of Nixon's "silent majority" are over.

"The fall of a deranged git"

Nick M of Counting Cats dissects the most spectacular failure in history.

25 April 2009

Darkness lifting

In this posting a month ago I expressed the hope that over time the Islamic threat will be resolved by Muslims abandoning Islam in growing numbers, first in Europe where they have been directly exposed to non-Islamic values and civilization (and where many have already left Islam, especially in Russia), and eventually in the Islamic world itself.

In Britain there are already enough people who have not only left Islam, but are willing to take a public stand against it, that they have their own organization, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. From their manifesto:

We, non-believers, atheists, and ex-Muslims, are establishing or joining the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain to insist that no one be pigeonholed as Muslims with culturally relative rights nor deemed to be represented by regressive Islamic organisations and 'Muslim community leaders'.

Those of us who have come forward with our names and photo- graphs represent countless others who are unable or unwilling to do so because of the threats faced by those considered 'apostates' -- punishable by death in countries under Islamic law.

By doing so, we are breaking the taboo that comes with renoun- cing Islam but also taking a stand for reason, universal rights and values, and secularism.

Whilst religion or the lack thereof is a private affair, the increasing intervention of and devastation caused by religion and particularly Islam in contemporary society has necessitated our public renunciation and declaration. We represent a majority in Europe and a vast secular and humanist protest movement in countries like Iran.

Apparently there is also a similar organization in Germany. The bluntness and courage of this declaration, like that of other ex- Muslims such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq, stands in sharp contrast to the timidity and vacillation of so many native western European political and religious "leaders", who often seem afraid to stand up for freedom and secularism and civilization lest they offend the barbarians who hate and despise them.

Found via the Citizen Warrior Heroes blog; see also this rousing critique of Islam by yet another ex-Muslim, the Syrian-American psychologist Wafa Sultan.

Link roundup for 25 April 2009

Want to proclaim your love of tofu? Be careful.....

If I were planning a road trip through the Middle East, I'd get a car here. Sent by Ranch Chimp.

Mein Kampf is becoming popular among Indian business students, who see it as a "success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it." Uh, how successfully did that conquest of the Soviet Union work out again? Found via Mendip.

On cutting government spending, Conor Friedersdorf and his commenters have some concrete suggestions.

Charles Blow gives us a useful counterpoint to the hysterics over the recent DHS report on right-wing extremism (a Bush-era FBI report, for example, raised similar issues). Found via a comment here, though other comments sadly illustrate my earlier point that some of PUMA-dom has gone off the deep end. Extremism is a real danger (found via DemWit) and the far right is raising its profile in Idaho, though most locals aren't too welcoming.

There's more craziness in the right-wing blogosphere than anyone could keep up with, but Sadly No is trying valiantly. Here's a good example of their work.

Voting rights are under attack in Florida again.

Republican Senate leader John Cornyn thinks it will be "real hard" to stop Democrats from reaching the crucial 60-seat threshold in 2010.

I haven't had anything to say yet about the recent revelations on torture under the Bush administration, because I'm still digesting the implications. Hilzoy has some cogent comments, and Andrew Sullivan has been covering the issue in depth.

Citizen Warrior has an interesting analogy about Islam, making use of one of my favorite movies.

Ex-Muslim and opponent of Islam Mark Gabriel has had to cancel a visit to the Netherlands due to death threats.

French Muslims march in protest against their local mosque's rector -- he's too moderate.

The Durban II Israel-bashing-fest seems to have been a fiasco. More here, by Michael Totten.

India has a new high-tech eye in the sky to watch the jihadists.

The North Korean threat has re-opened the question of a Japanese nuclear deterrent.

The numbers B-14594 and B-14595 served as the keys to a strange and emotional reunion.

Check out this hyperkinetic illustration of the difference between "Biblical science" and real science (I particularly liked seeing ribosomes in action). Found via Counting Cats.

California researchers are perfecting artificial blood vessels. Found via Fight Aging.

British scientists have developed an embryonic-stem-cell-based cure for blindness caused by macular degeneration. Given the demand which will exist once this is known to be safe, I suspect it will be generally available sooner than the six-year time frame mentioned in the article.

23 April 2009

Assessing Obama and PUMA

President Obama has now been in office a little over three months. How do things look?

Neither the cultists nor the hysterics have been vindicated. I see neither a messianic savior leading us to the promised land nor a closet Leninist leading us to the gulag. What I do see is, frankly, a rather ordinary politician -- centrist and somewhat timid.

(Long-time readers will know that I've had both good and bad things to say about Obama, depending on what he was doing. People who never acknowledge a good move by a politician they dislike, or who always have an excuse for every bad move by one they do like, are merely being partisan.)

I opposed Obama earlier for many reasons: his inexperience, his campaign's class implications, associations like Wright and Rezko, the abuses during the caucuses, the dangerous cult mentality of many of his core supporters, and -- most relevant to the current discussion -- suspicion that he was not a true liberal. On that last point, I'd say the jury is still out.

Liberal and conservative are not just labels. There are substantive and major differences. Should women be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term? Should gays and lesbians have the same legal rights as everyone else? Should finance companies and banks be allowed to run roughshod over the rest of the economy without oversight? Should deep tax cuts for the highest-income people be kept in the face of huge deficits? Should stem-cell research that could alleviate the suffering of millions be held hostage to bronze-age religious taboos? Should the government of the world's most scientifically and technologically advanced nation pretend that creationism and global-warming denialism are worthy of respect? What about FISA?

Obama has, at least rhetorically, been on the right side of many of these issues (and remember also that even McCain, who was no ordinary Republican, was on the right side of some of them). But consider the opportunity last year's election presented. It was a repudiation of the most incompetent and unpopular Presidency since (at least) Jimmy Carter. It brought not only a large (by US standards) popular-vote margin for Obama himself, but also solid Democratic dominance of both houses of Congress. The country was ready for "change". Under the circumstances, we had every right and reason to expect a much bolder and more radical liberal agenda, pushed far more aggressively, than Obama has given us (at least so far). I think that if Hillary Clinton were President, she would be giving us that, rather than compromising principles and wasting effort by trying to "reach out" to conservatives.

I cannot see, by the way, that such efforts have mitigated attacks on Obama from the right at all. How often has he been denounced as a socialist or even a Marxist, by people who clearly have no idea what those words even mean?

On the all-important issue of foreign policy, Obama has not yet had a major test, but there have been two lesser ones. The Somali pirate hostage rescue must be counted as a plus, the North Korean missile test as a minus. On the most serious immediate threat, the Iranian nuclear program, his true intentions remain an enigma.

Obama has not been a disaster, and seems unlikely to become one unless he grossly mishandles some major foreign-policy crisis. He has made some good moves, such as ending the global gag rule on abortion and the Bush restrictions on stem-cell funding -- things any Democratic President would have done. But his caution does, as I noted, represent the loss of a huge opportunity.

So where does this leave PUMA today? It was inevitable that the movement would end up somewhat adrift after the election, since its goal was to influence the outcome. I did hope that we would be able to help pull the Republicans (our allies of convenience in the McCain-Obama race) toward a more sane and centrist position, and ultimately reclaim the Democratic party from the Obama cultists despite their man's having won the election.

So far I see no sign that PUMA is having any substantial impact in either area. The dominant tendency within the Republican party is still off in orbit around Neptune somewhere, pushing religious crackpottery and fulminating against gays and climate science; all the significant efforts to remedy this are coming from moderate Republicans, not PUMA. The Obama cult is eroding on its own, having set expectations so high that they could not be met by any politician, especially a cautious centrist such as Obama is turning out to be (Rick Warren was a wake-up call for many).

Here's what I do see, around the PUMAsphere:

First and most obviously, large-scale infiltration and co-optation by the right. On a number of originally PUMA sites and forums, rightists have arrived in such numbers as to gradually become the dominant presence there. An example is this forum which I once recommended; it is now laced with the same old leftist-bashing rhetoric you'd see on any right-wing site, the actual PUMA posters have left in disgust, paranoid conspiracy-type thinking abounds, and the level of activity has fallen to a fraction of what it once was.

More nuanced but still troubling is the debate over whether PUMA should associate with the "tea party" movement (good discussion here and here). Now, I do think the tea party movement may be a sign of the shift back toward sanity among conservatives that I've been hoping for; their focus is on opposing taxes and spending (which, even if one disagrees with it, is a rationally-defensible point of view) -- not on the nutty stuff. But it is a conservative movement. It has nothing to do with attacking Obama from the left or with the Clinton camp's reasons for opposing him last year. Conservative values are not our values; conservatives are not us.

The second and healthier PUMA trend is what might be called a return to principles, a de-coherence of the movement into natural constituencies. By this I do not mean the rhetorical tendency to link arms with Republicans, dismissing profound philosophical differences as being mere labels; this is the opposite of principled. I mean recognition, within the left, that ideas are more important that personalities.

Keep up the fight for gay marriage, DADT repeal, rollback of abortion restrictions, rollback of Bush-era invasions of privacy, defense of American workers against both predatory corporations and illegal immigration, accountability for the Wall Street robber barons "bailed out" at taxpayer expense, solid Supreme Court appointments (when the time comes) and so on, and never mind if Obama wants to nuance those things to death for the sake of other priorities or because conservatives will throw a fit. Encourage Obama to be firmer when he is on the right side; when he isn't, work around him. Work with whoever else shares whichever of our goals is being fought for. And, yes, accept that this will mean erosion of the identity of the PUMA movement. PUMA arose to win the Democratic nomination for Hillary Clinton and then to prevent Obama from becoming President. Those battles are over. The causes that motivated them remain.

21 April 2009

Not what they wanted to hear

The "Durban II" Israel-bashing-fest went a little off-script this week when a Palestinian victim of false imprisonment and torture spoke out -- but not against Israel.

19 April 2009

The walker and the dancer

Updated (see below)

After my hip-replacement operation in October, I spent a week in a "rehabilitation facility" (actually a nursing home for the elderly, although its facilities were also well-suited for helping people convalescing from surgery) to regain strength and be taught how to cope with the physical limitations which would remain for the first few weeks back at home. When I left, they gave me a walker -- the sort of metal frame with wheels which one occasionally sees being used by people too feeble to stand unassisted, to lean on while walking. I used it for a couple of weeks until I was able to walk normally.

A week ago I took the walker back to the rehabilitation facility. They had not implied that I should return it, but I haven't needed it for months, and I knew they could use it.

Being in that place again, even for just a few minutes, brought back memories -- and more.

As frustrating as it had sometimes been when I had stayed there, being so enfeebled and dependent on strangers to help me with the simplest tasks, I had at least known that I would be leaving in a few days and be back to a normal life in a few weeks. Most of the other residents were all-too-obviously never "going back" to anything. Weakened and crippled by their extreme old age, and in many cases clearly suffering from substantial loss of brain functionality for the same reason, they would never be able to live independent lives again. All of those who were there during my brief stay in October must still have been there when I went back last week -- except for any who had died in the meantime.

It drew my thoughts back to what can sometimes get lost among the distracting issues of the day: the absolute importance of the long struggle ahead, to eradicate this abomination which is now by far the greatest cause of human suffering and death throughout the world.

While that technological revolution may yet take twenty or thirty years to be fully realized (I'm actually more optimistic, given the way computers will revolutionize all of biotechnology in the near future), impressive work is being done right now.

New drugs and less-invasive surgical procedures are continuing to extend the typical lifespan:

When Dorothy Newcombe fell ill with heart disease at the age of 92, her family thought she had reached the end of her natural lifespan.....After a new treatment particularly targeted at the elderly, Dorothy is still going strong.....

At the same time other advances are offering a new lease of active healthy life to the middle-aged. Authors of a new study into the “polypill”, a combination of five drugs, say the treatment could potentially halve the number of heart attacks and strokes among the middle-aged.....

It's important to emphasize that these advances are not merely prolonging the period of decrepitude at the end of life, but adding more healthy years in the middle, so to speak:

Elderly people today were enjoying an unprecedented quality of life and health, and the cost of caring for them would not rise but fall as life expectancy increased over the next few decades.....

The latest evidence indicated that people who lived to great ages did not spend significantly longer in hospital or long-term care homes than those who died younger, suggesting that their overall impact on health costs was negligible. Those who died at 90 had to spend only twice as many days in hospital during their lives as those who died at 45, and there was hardly any differ-ence between those who died in their seventies and nineties.....

Extending an individual's healthy and active life for even just five or ten years means that that person will still exist to benefit from an additional five to ten years of further progress in health and anti-aging technology -- and so on, and so on.

How far can active life -- the kind of life that's trully worth living -- be extended now?

Dorothy is still going strong. She goes shopping with her 94-year-old husband, George, does the housework and is back playing bingo at the local church hall. Dorothy, from Liver-pool, has even managed to dance a few steps of a waltz again.....

Not bad for a 92-year-old who, remember, would already have died from heart trouble were it not for a treatment that only just became available. This is what we can do today. The good news is that far more of us will still be here for the real revolution as it unfolds over the next quarter-century.

Update: Here's an article by a scientist actually working in the field, Prof. David Sinclair of Harvard Medical School, explaining a specific line of current research (one of many) in terms easily understood even by readers without specialized knowledge.

18 April 2009

Link roundup for 18 April 2009

College Humor takes a funny, but painfully accurate, look at internet comments.

See some interesting before-and-after photos (found via Mendip).

Now this is bad driving.

If you have to fly, fly United -- you're less likely to be squashed.

From Russia: a monument to the victims of September 11.

Here's an interesting rundown of the religiosity of European countries. The percentage figure is for people answering "no" to "Does religion occupy an important place in your life?", so the higher a country ranks on the list, the less religious it is.

Britain's Treasury head and many independent analysts expect economic recovery there to start by year-end; prospects for the eurozone countries could be more dire.

Xinhua reports that an attempted Somali pirate attack on Chinese ships has been thwarted by dolphins (found via Nancy). Exit Zero reports a great idea for dealing with pirates.

FiveThirtyEight has a collection of neutral estimates of attendance at this Wednesday's tea parties; total turnout was somewhat over 300,000, concentrated in the South. Interesting thoughts here.

The Crossed Pond takes a sensible look at gays in the military.

"That is why we resisted" -- conservative stances in 1957 and today.

Here's another parody of that "storm" anti-gay-marriage ad; Colbert has one too. But this anti-gay ad seems to be serious (it's getting hard to tell) -- if so, reality has caught up with this.

"Burn the books!" Stupid Evil Bastard has a report from the far-right lunatic fringe (many evidently not Republicans, despite the post title) -- be sure to watch both videos. Some on the Christian Right are conceding defeat, but I'm not relaxing -- that "awash in evil" crack is aimed straight at me and people like me.

Further evidence of unhingement on the right is the odd hinting at secessionism from a few officials in Texas, such as Tom DeLay, who is mistaken about the state's relative economic position. According to Rasmussen (found via Papamoka), 18% of Texans would vote to secede. States can't, in fact, secede -- we settled that in 1861-1865 -- but if those 18% don't like living in the US, they're free to emigrate to somewhere they might find more congenial.

Speaking of people who ought to go somewhere else, some groups are calling for illegal aliens to boycott the 2010 census.

Johann Hari looks behind the façade of Dubai.

Afghan women protesting their country's new "marital rape" law meet a hostile reception. The cleric behind the law explains that it doesn't allow men to actually rape their wives, just starve them into submission.

Julian Sanchez has a fascinating discussion of why fallacious arguments can seem more convincing than valid ones.

Global warming is hitting Australia hard.

Efforts to protect orangutans face many challenges.

Research in Israel could lead to a cure for deafness.

16 April 2009

Europe's coming civil wars

The countries of western Europe seem to be locked in a cycle of thuggishness, aggression, and terror by their Muslim minorities and cowardly appeasement by their governments. Public anger is growing, but with no major political party willing to seriously address the issue, this simmering fury has no way to express itself through the political process. How will it end?

If I had to make a prediction, it would closely resemble the vision set forth in this pseudonymous essay from 2007, "The Danish Civil War". The story it sets forth is a harrowing one, but knowing what I know, I see no plausible way of avoiding such a scenario -- not just in Denmark but in every western European country where large-scale Muslim immigration has taken root.


Well, the big tea-party day has come and gone. Humor aside, how to assess this phenomenon? As I've noted before, there may be the germ of a conservative revival here, but to be considered a major movement, the tea parties need (1) bigger turnouts and (2) a much clearer articulation of what they are for and against. I have not yet seen an estimate of the overall nationwide participation from a neutral source (for obvious reasons, I don't trust estimates from sources which are clearly either pro- or anti-tea-party). Estimates for individual large cities seem to be in the 1,000-to-5,000 range, which would be consistent with 50,000 to 100,000 nationwide. We'll have to wait and see.

As for (2), the message seems to have settled on opposition to taxes and, to a lesser extent, to spending. This is a mainstream conservative viewpoint, but the timing is curious. The Democrats' proposed tax increases for the upper income brackets would still leave those tax rates substantially lower than they were under the administration of that notorious redistributionist pinko Commie, Ronald "hammer-and-sickle" Reagan. The huge scale of current government spending is mostly due to bailouts of the financial sector and efforts to stimulate the economy. It's true that the government has failed to demand enough accountability from the financial companies it is bailing out (or to curb outrages like the AIG bonuses), and that the stimulus plan is badly designed, but those details don't seem to be the focus of the protests.

Some other (pre-15-April) views: Think Progress (found via DemWit) sees astroturfing; Jon Henke rebuts the accusation. An Andrew Sullivan reader says the tea parties mirror the insularity and incoherence of the left in the late 1970s through early 1990s, while another defends them.

Note: light posting this week due to a condition causing severe right-hand finger-joint pain (nothing to worry about -- I know what it is and should be able to get treatment in a day or two).

13 April 2009

The shores of Tripoli, again

A US Navy operation has freed the American captain held hostage by Somali pirates (more here). Tragically, one pirate survived.

Note that talks with Somali "clan elders" had collapsed because the elders objected to arresting the pirates. The new Barbary from which these pirates operate is clearly implicated in their activities.

12 April 2009

Why are they the villains?

Stupid Evil Bastard has posted an interesting challenge. He's been corresponding with a Christian minister who is "genuinely puzzled as to why humanists in general or gays in particular would associ-ate Christianity with bigotry and prejudice. " Excerpts from the minister's e-mails actually seem more concerned with rebutting accusations of "hate" than with seeking to understand why his opponents think of him that way, but nevertheless, the question is genuine, and SEB throws it open to his commenters to answer: "Really, Christians are the bad guys? How did that happen? Aren’t Christians, by definition, the good guys? Can anyone explain? He’s all yours, folks. He wants to know. Can you help him understand?"

Here's my own response:

Interesting question. I do think he throws his own understanding off the scent by focusing so much on the question of whether he “hates” or not. The reason we associate Christianity with bigotry and prejudice and consider Christian fundamentalism the “bad guy” is not so much a matter of their own internal mental state (which in the final analysis is unknowable to anyone but themselves) as the behavior which results from their beliefs.

Who are the people who are agitating to take away women’s right to abortion? Who are the most obsessive and agitated opponents of gay marriage? Who are the people who constantly scold other people for harmless but unconventional sexual behavior or relationships? It’s almost always the religious. We associate them with bigotry and prejudice because they are the active proponents of bigotry and prejudice. Whether they are motivated by “hate” or by some other complex of emotions is barely relevant. The point is, they’re a threat to the rights and happiness of the broader community.

We similarly strive to limit and defeat epidemics, not because we attribute “hate” to viruses, but because they harm people.

That being said, the visible evidence is that fundamentalist Christianity is pervaded by a kind of petty viciousness and mean-spiritedness, in the sense that it always seems to be obsessed with shunning and excluding disfavored groups. They get publicly upset about gays being allowed to marry or gay parents being invited to the White House Easter-egg roll and so forth, because these things are signs of gays being accepted as full members of society on the same level with everyone else, and they can’t stand that. They struggle to defend the right of photographers, fertility-treatment providers, and so forth to refuse service to gay people, of religious groups to refuse to hire them or recognize their relationships, etc. It is all about shunning and excluding. This certainly looks a lot like the mentality which, in an earlier era, fought to keep the rules under which blacks could not drink from the same water fountains as whites — not because they feared there wouldn’t be enough water left for white people, but because it was a symbolic way of saying “you’re lower than us, you’re not as good as us.”* Trying to enhance one’s own sense of self-worth by lowering someone else’s is common human behavior, but not very admirable.

So that would be my answer. Conservative Christians today are trying to make the whole society conform to their taboos in a way that threatens other people’s freedom of action, and they come across as mean, insecure, spiteful people obsessed with shunning and denigrating certain groups, specifically homo-sexuals. That’s why they are viewed as bigots, and that’s why they’re the bad guys.

*In hindsight I could have expressed this point better by saying it's a symbolic way of stigmatizing the outgroup as tainted and "unclean", unworthy to associate with the pure. I think there's a strong element of that feeling in the Christian obsession with exclusion of gays from institutions like marriage, too.

11 April 2009

Link roundup for 11 April 2009

If you need someone to call 911 for you, just hope it's not this guy.

This video is actually from a few years back and nothing to do with the current "tea parties". But it's funny!

You may have seen that vomitous "storm" ad against gay marriage -- now check out Sadly No's version, "Night of teh Living Gheys". Background on the original ad here (sent by Ranch Chimp) -- what I can't figure out is how NOM managed to spend $1,500,000 on that piece of crap. According to the report, 44% of Americans now favor gay marriage, which is pretty encouraging since just a few years ago it was about 25%.

After a long haitus, Jabberwock has another Chick dissection up.

South Carolina resident Mary Sue Merchant's death was not noticed for 18 months -- "not even when the house was sold for back taxes while her decomposing body lay inside.".

Perhaps this is Bush's true legacy: only 53% of Americans now say capitalism is better than socialism, while 20% believe socialism is better. Adults under 30 are almost evenly divided. Michael Boh comments: revolution is coming. More here.

Sometimes delusional far-right-wingers are funny. Sometimes they're scary. See what I mean here and here and here. The last time this kind of mentality was rampant, it culminated in the Oklahoma City bombing. There are already signs that it's turning violent again.

Another milestone on the way to economic recovery: the banking crisis is over.

As the worm turns, Cannonfire throws down the liberal gauntlet to the Obamatardosphere.

Americans are less supportive of gun control than ever (found via DemWit).

Here's an intriguing strategy for keeping business in a community: local currencies. Which raises the question: if Pittsboro, NC can fight recession by having its own currency, then why can't, say, Germany do the same?

British authorities have thwarted a major Muslim terrorist attack in Manchester. Links with Pakistan are suspected.

Danish taxis drivers have had so many problems with Somali Muslim passengers that most now refuse to take them, despite the risk of legal penalties. Meanwhile, Denmark's Prime Minister, in Turkey, bluntly refuses to apologize for the Muhammad cartoons.

A US-born, Harvard-educated Muslim cleric supports Islam's mandatory death penalty for any Muslim who leaves the religion.

Rightists like to ask why feminists don't attack Islamic misogyny. Well, some do.

Not all evangelical Christians are right-wingers (sent by Ranch Chimp).

Christopher Hitchens and Ken Blackwell debate the decline of American Christianity.

Reading the net on the job makes you more productive. I'd say this is already intuitively obvious to any office worker -- and impossible to convince any manager of.

George Will is still being raked over the coals for distorting science.

The evidence is clear: getting fat makes you dumber.

Besides its obvious human benefits, radical life extension will pay economic dividends.

Mary Madigan assesses some current technology pointing the way to the Singularity.

I've long argued that global warming should be tackled via a planetary-engineering approach, rather than by trying to change deep-rooted habits of whole populations (unlikely to help much, even if possible). Apparently Obama is also considering such options. Andrew Sullivan has other ideas.

This new high-tech laser gun can kill millions of disease-spreading mosquitos in a matter of minutes -- without harming other insects or the rest of the environment (found via Exit Zero).

10 April 2009

(Republican) party time!

Gee, maybe conservatives aren't as strait-laced as we thought -- they're getting into teabagging in a big way.

An illusion which has no future (2)

Two days ago I linked to this Newsweek essay on the decline of Christianity in the United States. Here are a few more links that illustrate the point.

Christopher Hitchens reports on creationism's last stand in Texas: "Perhaps more than any one thing, the resounding courtroom defeat that they suffered in December 2005 in the conservative district of Dover, Pa., where the 'intelligent design' plaintiffs were all but accused of fraud by a Republican judge, has placed them on the defensive.....There are some successes that are simply not survivable. If by any combination of luck and coincidence any religious coalition ever did succeed in criminalizing abortion, say, or mandating school prayer, it would swiftly become the victim of a backlash that would make it rue the day. This will apply with redoubled force to any initiative that asks the United States to trade its hard-won scientific preeminence against its private and unofficial pieties."

"Faith groups and individuals" are fulminating over their loss of "religious liberty", which they apparently define primarily as the freedom to discriminate against homosexuals. I suppose one could make a case that, say, a psychologist should have the right to deny counseling to a lesbian, but isn't it rather striking that the right to discriminate and exclude is what's so important to these Christians? (My own view on the persecution of Christians is here.)

Here's a commentary from an at least somewhat pro-Christian viewpoint lamenting that the Christian Right has "surrendered in the culture war". The disquiet over gay parents and their children being invited to the White House egg roll this year is interesting. Again, the Christian Right seems to define itself by its demands that others be excluded and shunned.

Finally, here's Andrew Sullivan on the mean-spiritedness of the "theocon right": "This is how the social right is responding to our times, and to put it personally, my life and the lives and deaths of countless others. One day, they will understand the callousness and bitterness and willful ignorance they currently represent. As civilized society leaves them increasingly behind."

09 April 2009

The amnesty battle, again

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. The issue of amnesty for illegal aliens has been raised again.

Don't be distracted by talk of "fines and other penalties". Any plan that allows illegal aliens to stay in the United States legally is an amnesty -- a stab in the back to American workers (especially in the harsh job market of a recession), and a slap in the face to all the would-be legal immigrants who are following the law and waiting their turn.

When Bush tried to ram this down the country's throat two years ago, we the American people rose up and stopped him cold -- and we can do it again.

Echoing Bush's pathetic rhetoric about bringing illegal aliens "out of the shadows", Obama condescendingly remarked, "I know this is an emotional issue; I know it’s a controversial issue.....I know that the people get real riled up politically about this."

Mr. President, just you wait and see.

08 April 2009

An illusion which has no future

Newsweek posts a most interesting discussion of the decline of Christianity in the United States and what it means. The measure of that decline is stark: from 1990 to the present the percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians has fallen by 10 points, from 86% to 76%. That is, for all the noisy Christian Right activism of the 1990s and the faith-based Bush administration, the number of Americans who call themselves Christian decreased by tens of millions. 24% of the US population, or 72 million people, is no longer even "Christian in name only".

At the same time, those who are "unaffiliated with any particular faith" (a group including not only atheists, but also those who simply aren't concerned enough to decide what religion to call themselves) has doubled to 16% over roughly the same period -- that is, the decline in Christianity reflects mostly an increase in irreligion, not a defection of Christians to some other religion. In the US, the state has always been secular; now society itself is inexorably becoming so too.

Nor do hard times drive people back to religion any more; church attendance has not increased during the current recession.

This trend manifests itself in other, less tangible ways as well. As Andrew Sullivan points out, atheism has become respectable, and a force to be reckoned with; there have always been atheists in this country, but the widely-read books and essays of thinkers like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris have popularized atheism and de-stigmatized it. Most Americans are still religious, or "spiritual" in some vague sense, but far fewer of them now dismiss those of us who are not as some bizarre and evil aberration.

As the Newsweek report notes, the hard-core, fundamentalist minority within Christianity is growing even as the overall number of Christians shrinks. But this is typical of declining ideologies; as the less committed abandon the faith entirely, what remains is the true believers, and some who have long been uncomfortably on the fence will jump into the hard core rather than outward. But this, too, can only weaken Christianity in the long run. The more Christianity becomes identified with cranky and anachronistic rants against secularism, abortion, and gays, the more it will seem alien and repulsive to the secular majority. This effect is already stigmatizing the "Christian" label among young people, to whom the Christian Right's hostility to homosexuals merely seems pointlessly cruel.

Indeed, it seems obvious to me that the decline of religion is rooted in a profound truth which has been at work for centuries: religion is based on a false premise, and the advancement and spread of human knowledge is simply making this more and more obvious to more and more people. For example, in assessing what we are "losing", the Newsweek article states: "Roughly put, the Christian narrative is the story of humankind as chronicled in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—the drama of creation, fall and redemption." But this "narrative" is wrong in its essence. It is perfectly contrary to what we now know is the real "story of humankind" -- the gradual emergence from a purely animal state and the steadily-accelerating rise toward higher civilization, greater knowledge, greater freedom, more humane values, and (through technology) increased power. There was no Garden of Eden, no "creation", no fall, and thus nothing to be redeemed from. The "Christian narrative" is totally wrong in every claim it makes, not just in its surface details but also in its deeper significance. Which makes Christianity itself wholly pointless. In the long run, nothing can save an idea whose time has passed.

07 April 2009

Quote for the day

"The United States is not at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject.....We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding, and seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. And we will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over so many centuries to shape the world for the better -- including my own country."

One is tempted to wonder which aspect of Islam he finds most worthy of "appreciation". Is it the Koran's call to conquer and subjugate unbelievers? The injunction mandating death for non-monotheists? The permanent legitimization and codification of slavery? The explicit subjugation of women? The relentless pattern of aggression and violence against the non-Islamic world for fourteen centuries, except when the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution made the West too powerful to confront? Which of these things "has done so much over so many centuries to shape the world for the better"?

The President also endorses the "Islam is a religion of peace which has been hijacked by extremists" delusion, just as I feared during the election.

It's impossible to tell for sure whether Obama is spouting all this Bush-like drivel because he really means it or because he thinks it's necessary for diplomatic reasons. The fact that his own family has some Muslim background allows one to hope that he knows more about Islam than Bush did, and thus understands the threat better (non-Muslims of Muslim background tend to have the most realistic view of Islam) -- but I'm not counting on it. Most likely he's just making careless assumptions about what Islam is really like, as Americans who lack actual knowledge about it tend to do. If so, let's hope his future education on the subject doesn't cost us too much.


Americans are becoming more optimistic about the economy, with 39% now saying things are heading in the right direction, up from 15% in mid-January.

Arguably people are actually still too pessimistic, since most expect the recession to last at least a year, whereas (as I've noted previously) knowledgeable parties such as Bernanke and the CBO expect it to end in the second half of 2009.

Obama's ratings remain generally favorable. Bear in mind, too, that the public will likely give Obama and the Democrats credit when the inevitable economic recovery arrives, even though the ill-crafted "stimulus" bill will have little to do with it.

05 April 2009

Relentless acceleration

One billion years ago, our ancestors were single-celled organisms in the primordial seas.

One hundred million years ago, our ancestors were tiny mammals probably similar in appearance to mice, though biologically more primitive.

Ten million years ago, our ancestors were apes living in the forests of tropical Africa, probably comparable in intelligence to today's chimpanzees.

One million years ago, our ancestors were proto-humans who made and used stone tools.

One hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors were physically fairly similar to modern humans, but still living in the stone age.

Ten thousand years ago, we were fully human; most of us were hunter-gatherers, though crude agriculture had arisen in at least one region (the Fertile Crescent).

One thousand years ago, we had widespread agriculture, written languages, large states and empires, and some dim beginnings of an understanding of how the universe around us worked.

One hundred years ago, much of the world had an industrial economy, and electric power and high-speed communications were coming into use.

Ten years ago, advanced computer and biological technology were in common use in the developed nations and spreading into the Third World.

= = = = = = = = = = =

A billion years ago, there was very little change even over a typical million-year period. A million years ago, one would not have noticed much progress during a millennium. A thousand years ago, there was nothing like today's routine expectation of new technological advances from one year to the next.

And the relentless acceleration continues.....

Quote for the day

"Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief. The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not the end product of a process of reasoning. The book is true, and if the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book. By contrast, what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence. It really is a very different matter. Books about evolution are be-lieved not because they are holy. They are believed because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence. In principle, any reader can go and check that evidence. When a science book is wrong, somebody eventually discovers the mis-take and it is corrected in subsequent books. That conspicuously doesn't happen with holy books."

Richard Dawkins

Relative acceptance

Do you think legal gay marriage is a radical step? Romania is considering decriminalizing incest between consenting adults.

Before recoiling in horror, consider this: much of the reason the word "incest" evokes disgust is that it is associated with sexual abuse of children. There has also been the recent Josef Fritzl case in Austria, which involved the enslavement and rape of an adult. But the evil inherent in such acts lies in the abuse of the immature or the unconsenting; child molestation and rape are intolerable regardless of whether the parties involved are biologically related or not. There is no real reason to object to sexual activity between consenting adults who happen to be related.

Homosexuality, too, was once stigmatized by association with child molestation. Most people now recognize that homosexuality between consenting adults is a phenomenon unrelated to child abuse and should not be prohibited.

Some will point to the risk of genetic defects in offspring. Leaving aside the question of how large that risk actually is, there are ways to prevent sex from leading to conception, and the law does not prohibit sex (or even reproduction) in other cases of people who could transmit gene-linked medical problems to their children.

The question isn't whether you find the thought repulsive (I do), but whether you believe people should be punished by law for it. In a free society, the presumption should always be that a given form of behavior should be allowed unless there is a clear reason to prohibit it; the burden of proof must always be on those who seek to forbid.

I see no legitimate reason to outlaw any form of sexual behavior provided both parties are adults and freely consenting. Not if they are unmarried, or if they are of the same gender, or if one is considerably older than the other, or if one is paying the other, or even if they are related. It's their own business, no one else's.

As an aside, while the origin of the incest taboo is a much-debated question, it's very unlikely to be instinctive or "simply natural" as most people probably assume. There is no clear evidence of the incest taboo existing in any species other than our own.

Still not convinced? According to the linked article, consenting-adult incest has already been legal in France, Spain, and Portugal for decades. The sky has not fallen.

Like homosexuality, this will always be a minority taste, repulsive to many, perhaps to most. That does not make it wrong.

Provocative, reckless, regrettable, blah blah

As we all know, North Korea went ahead with its missile test. The US and Japan made no effort to shoot the thing down (probably because anti-missile -missile technology is of dubious effective-ness at best, and an unsuccessful attempt to shoot it down would merely have added spice to Kim Jong Il's propaganda coup). So far it looks as though the world's response will be diplomatic protests, UN meetings, economic sanctions -- that is, nothing. If this was a test of what troublemakers can get away with, the powers-that-be in Pyongyang -- not to mention in Tehran, Beijing, and Moscow -- have drawn the worst possible lesson from it.

Granted, an effective response -- such as shooting the missile down immediately upon launch when doing so would have had the best chance of success, or destroying it on the launch pad -- would have risked casualties in North Korea, and there are good reasons for having avoided that. But if the US and Japan knew they were not going to do anything to enforce their ultimatum, they would have been wiser not to issue it in the first place.

Oh, and the North Korean regime says the satellite is transmitting "revolutionary songs", doubtless excruciating. Maybe exasperated space aliens will blow it out of the sky.

Update: 57% of American voters favor a military response, only 15% oppose one. American and South Korean sources deny that the rocket placed a satellite in orbit at all, which supports the view that this was actually a military missile test.

04 April 2009

Link roundup for 4 April 2009

Vamp has a roundup of wacky sex laws.

Stupid Evil Bastard presents a video compilation of actual quotes from fundamentalists attacking atheism and evolution. These are real; I've seen quite a few of them elsewhere.

Here's a graphic illustration of how the international space station was assembled. And I'm glad that most of the things shown in this video (found via Vamp) are very, very far away.

Once again it falls to Richard Dawkins to point out the obvious.

Today is the beginning of the stated 4-8 April launch window for the North Korean missile test.

The abusive Dallas cop I mentioned in the previous link roundup has resigned. This video (sent by Ranch Chimp) illustrates why.

Ta-Nehisi Coates explains the dangers of reality-denial and his own path to overcoming it.

Are conservatives underrepresented in the media?

Here's what we're up against: the distilled essence of medieval, obscurantist bigotry.

Global-warming denialism illustrates the intellectual bankruptcy of (what currently passes for) libertarianism. More here.

Think Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul are nutty? This guy is in Congress too.

Yes, there do exist rational conservatives who are trying to call conservatism back to sanity. Here's David Frum, whose efforts have predictably gotten him bashed by Rush Limbaugh (and some of his own commenters). David Horowitz warns that the right's anti-Obama hysteria is starting to resemble the earlier left's anti-Bush hysteria. And Newt Gingrich thinks Republicans could face a third-party challenge in 2012 if they don't return to their roots.

These British villagers weren't too keen on being visited by Google "snapper cars".

China: the rotting fist in the iron glove.

Andrew Sullivan points out how British conservatism differs from the American variety.

As the Taliban expand their rule across Pakistan, they bring Islamic justice. They dream of bringing it here, too.

Afghanistan is progressing -- it has now reached the Dark Ages.

UFO nuts fall for yet another hoax.

No, marijuana's not good for your brain. But it's not as bad as alcohol.

Stem-cell research in Sheffield, Britain, offers hope of a cure for deafness.

03 April 2009

Iowa for the 21st century

The state supreme court of Iowa has struck down the state's law against gay marriage, explicitly addressing and rejecting all the various standard arguments used to defend such laws. Dissenting Justice in on the case.

With three American states (Iowa, New Hampshire, and Vermont) and one foreign country (Sweden) poised to join the ranks of those jurisdictions which allow gay marriage, the dam really seems to be crumbling. Forward!

Obamateur diplomacy

Let's see. First we had those DVDs for Gordon Brown which don't play on British DVD players. Then there was some unidentified hack at the State Department grossly insulting one of our closest allies. Then there was that button for Sergei Lavrov which was supposed to say "reset" in Russian, but didn't.

And now comes a symbolic blunder bound to make Americans, too, feel denigrated: the President of the United States bows to a foreign king, and not just any king, but the head of one of the vilest and most barbaric regimes on the planet.

Whoever is advising this administration on protocol needs to be fired and replaced, immediately -- and the same goes for that jackass at the State Department, as soon as they find out who it is.

(On the plus side, Michelle Obama and the Queen seem to have hit it off pretty well.)

Me, I'm already worrying about what official gift Netanyahu is going to get.

In the meantime, since no one seems to have mentioned this to Obama, here's a reminder from Counting Cats:

The President of the United States bows before no man.

02 April 2009

NY-20: The result that matters

We don't yet know who will fill Kirsten Gillibrand's former seat in the House -- the vote was so close that the final result will hinge on absentee ballots and court challenges, and will take some time to emerge. The broad implications for the parties, however, are clear enough. In a district where registration leans strongly Republican, and the Democratic candidate started 25 points behind, the final result was essentially a tie. RCP analyzes:

And the tea leaves we can see from either a narrow Republican win or a narrow Republican loss in this district aren't particular-ly good for Republicans. The parties battled to a draw here, but a draw is still an underperformance for Republicans.....if a party is going to sweep competitive House seats in the general election, one would expect it to perform well in the by-elections. Strong Democratic performances in various special elections from 2005-2008 and 1973-1974 presaged very good Democratic years. Republicans had good special election performances in 1993-1994 and 1979-1980. This is a small number of observations, but the trend is there. To be clear, this is a district the Republicans probably should have won with room to spare, even in a mediocre Republican year.

They didn't. In a way, this is the worst possible result for the Republicans. A blowout defeat would have been another push toward re-assessment of the party's present course, strengthening the hand of those who call for reform against those who respond by shouting them down and excommunicating them. A narrow Republican loss, and especially a narrow win, will have far less impact. Rather than spurring Republicans out of the quicksand, NY-20 will help them keep on pretending they aren't in it.

01 April 2009

"Stop Iran -- or I will"

Netanyahu offers some of the blunt realism that got him elected.

Sauce for the gander

Both industrial and financial enterprises are being bailed out by the government, but there's a striking difference in how they're being treated. Dissenting Justice assesses the issue here and here.