29 May 2010

Link roundup for 29 May 2010

Four Dinners has started his new job as a driving instructor. It's a job packed with thrills. And here's more.

Citizen K looks at San Antonio and Texas music.

100 years after his death, Mark Twain's autobiography will soon be published.

Crime in the US has been strongly declining since the early 1990s, and is still doing so despite the recession.

For Memorial Day, a reminder of what it's really about.

Parsley's Pics has video of hideous abuse on an Ohio dairy farm, and a petition -- be warned, the video is really disturbing.

Military academies suffer from declining standards.

Has teabaggerdom done anything to help the Republicans?

The prospect of repealing DADT is bringing out the worst in the Republicans -- even Scott Brown.

McCain's war record is under scurrilous attack -- from the right.

Republicans lose hope of winning a majority in the House this year (found via Oliver Willis).

Obama seems to have truly awoken from his earlier vain dreams of bipartisanship (found via Green Eagle).

All of the Republican candidates for Governor of Iowa have something in common.

Not just profits over people -- foreign profits over people.

Yet another Bible-thumping, family-values-spouting Republican politician is credibly accused of an extramarital affair. Not news these days, you say? Well, this one's a woman.

My previous post linked to this analysis showing that hard-line right-wingers are less likely to win elections than are moderate conservatives. Now a similar analysis has shown that the same does not hold true on the left -- strongly liberal candidates are about as likely to win as moderate liberals.

Republican Governor Jindal of Louisiana must wish he hadn't gone on record about offshore oil drilling.

A Chinese historian claims that the USSR planned to destroy China with nuclear weapons in 1969, but backed off under US pressure.

Must-read: Liam Fox explains why opposing Islam is not at all similar to racism or bigotry (found via Mad Mike's America).

It's not just the Catholics.

North Dakota offers two embarrassments.

PZ Myers dissects the vapid dishonesty of Francisco Ayala and the Dalai Lama.

The American Academy of Pediatrics toughens its stand on female genital mutilation.

Cleansing the Louisiana wetlands of oil may be impossible.

WASP-12b has only ten million years left.

27 May 2010

The Republicans now: an assessment

A little more than five months before the mid-term election, how do things look for our Republican opponents? As I see it, they have one major factor working in their favor, but several working against them.

Polls taken soon after the passage of Arizona's controversial illegal-alien law showed that a majority of Americans favored it, despite the consensus of the political elite against it. More recent surveys show that support for the law is increasing; Arizona's Republican Governor Jan Brewer, who signed the law, has seen her support in the state rise above 50% for the first time and is now decisively ahead of her likely Democratic opponent in the next election. It's no wonder that Republicans all over the country are now scrambling to advance similar legislation. The right wing knows it has a winning issue here.

Serious border controls and an ID system to differentiate illegals from citizens and legal residents would bring the US into line with how most democracies enforce immigration laws. Given the scale of the illegal-alien problem in the US, such normalization is likely inevitable. Experienced Democratic politicians are moving toward a more mainstream position, although their plan still includes a "path to legal status" (amnesty) for the present illegals and is thus unlikely to be sellable to the public.

I've discussed here how the Arizona law and the left's disastrously-bungled response response to it are creating a golden opportunity for the right wing (please read it if you haven't already -- this is important). This is not the eighties and it is not Europe. Calling people racist for opposing illegal immigration doesn't intimidate them into silence, it just makes them get mad at us. As with the teabaggers, there are certainly some racists involved, but they aren't the mainstream of the movement.

But the right continues to be plagued by the weaknesses which have become so characteristic of it: a tendency toward extremist and nutty positions and candidates, divisions caused by a quest for ideological purity, and bad leadership.

The first problem is exemplified, of course, by Rand Paul. I myself used to be a libertarian for several years and I understand the ideology; Paul's stance on anti-discrimination laws applying to private business is a good example of why I abandoned it. People who take such a stance are thinking in bloodless abstractions and absolutes, divorced from the real-world impact on actual human beings. Just as "pro-lifers" (another revealing euphemism) prefer to talk about "protecting unborn life" rather than about forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, so defenders of Paul's view talk about the absoluteness of property rights rather than about the endless humiliation of black Americans being told they were not good enough to eat at the same lunch counters, sit in the same part of the bus, etc. as whites.

And Paul has plenty of other baggage, such as nutty conspiracy theories and extremist associations. Moderate Republicans are seriously worried about him.

Paul also serves as an example of the problem of divisions over ideological purity. In the primary he was supported by the tea party movement, while the Republican establishment favored his more moderate opponent who would have had a better chance to win the general election. Sarah Palin may now be creating a similar debacle in Washington state. In the Florida Senate race, hard-right support for Marco Rubio drove the more moderate and electable Charlie Crist to simply leave the Republican party and run as an independent. The hard right likes to claim that ideologically-pure right-wing candidates are more likely to win general elections than moderates; a statistical analysis of recent elections has confirmed that just the opposite is true. Again, moderate Republicans worry about the "party of no" image.

As for those leadership problems, the party chairman is a one-man gaffe machine, the RNC has just dumped one of its most effective leaders, the new "America Speaking Out" website is a fiasco, and fund-raising is a disaster.

Again, the November elections will probably turn mostly on job growth, which is continuing to do even better than economists forecast. But we can't afford to get complacent or make mistakes. That's what happened in the recent Massachusetts Senate race.

25 May 2010

Video of the week -- just for fun

"Truth Is Out of Style" by MC 900-Foot Jesus (found originally via Ranch Chimp).

23 May 2010

One origin for all

Systematic genetic analysis of a wide range of life-forms has now confirmed what we were fairly sure of all along. All of the life on Earth -- humans, fish, insects, squid, trees, bacteria, all of it -- is descended from a single common ancestor. PZ Myers assesses the results and explains that a possible alternate hypothesis -- that life originated multiple times but the differences were smoothed out by gene transfer between species -- is not credible (in any case, that would require that independently-originated life forms have the same DNA "language" to begin with, which seems unlikely). For all practical purposes it is now a proven fact that life arose on our planet just once, with every living thing today being derived from that common origin.

One might consider this a bit surprising. The Earth is a big place. Why shouldn't primordial life have arisen multiple times? If it had, we would now see several independent and unrelated families of life on Earth, each with a completely different genetic system (or perhaps not genes at all but other systems for encoding hereditary information). Why didn't that happen?

This relates to another question which has long interested me. Given the number of galaxies in the universe, the number of stars in a typical galaxy, and the likelihood of planetary formation, the total number of planets in the universe is probably on the order of a billion billion. That's a huge number. Given so many planets, we have long been told, life must be abundant in the universe, and even technological civilizations must exist in great numbers. If that were so, given that the universe is over 13 billion years old, many of those civilizations would probably be millions of years older than ours -- some even hundreds of millions of years older.

Considering the technological progress we humans have made in just the last 100 years, civilizations so old would be unimaginably advanced and powerful, so much so that they would probably be easily detectable by us, across interstellar or even intergalactic distances. Yet we have never seen any evidence that they exist. No radio signals, no galactic-scale engineering projects, nothing. As far as we can tell, they just aren't out there.

Let's get back to the planet Earth for a moment. Notwithstanding drivel about intelligent design and irreducible complexity, we know that the process of natural selection is fully sufficient to explain all the development of life from the first primordial self-replicating molecule to the present global ecosystem of millions of species including complex organisms such as our noble selves. The bigger problem is that original self-replicating molecule. Its formation must have been a rather low-probability event, given that it only happened once on the whole Earth.

In fact, consider what we're talking about here. For the process of natural selection and evolution to get started, there had to be a molecule, somewhere, whose effect on its chemical environment was to produce copies of itself. That must have been a pretty odd, very complex molecule with unusual properties. And it couldn't have evolved (evolution requires that the ability to self-replicate already be in place). It must have just formed, spontaneously, by some chance combination of atoms that just happened to arrange themselves into a molecule with those properties.

Isn't that really an incredibly unlikely thing to happen? Isn't that a staggeringly low-probability event?

Such a low-probability event, perhaps, that we would expect it to happen only once, even in an entire universe of a billion billion planets?

I think that's it. That's why we haven't found any evidence of life on nearby planets, or seen any signs of alien civilizations advanced enough to reshape whole galaxies to suit themselves. There isn't any other life out there. There never was.

If I'm right about this, it carries one further implication. As human technology advances in the future, we will spread out beyond the world of our origin -- eventually far beyond. The day will come when the universe which is now lifeless will be brimming with life and awareness.

And all that life -- throughout the universe -- will be able to trace its origins back to that one ancestral self-replicating molecule that existed, billions of years ago, somewhere here on Earth.

22 May 2010

Link roundup for 22 May 2010

Wikipedia's new logo has offended a proud ethnic group (found via Mendip).

If it's not one religion of peace, it's another.

Check this out. What the hell were they thinking?

Stupid Evil Bastard brings us a tale of demon-possessed money and flaming stupidity -- but with a happy ending.

Randy Brogdon, Republican candidate for Governor of Oklahoma, is a loon.

Rand Paul wants Congress to stop a highway project that doesn't even exist. An assessment and blogger debate on Paul and liber-tarianism is here.

The PA-12 election this week was a bad omen for Republicans.

Dissenting Justice argues that this week's election results are not evidence of anti-incumbent sentiment. Alex Knepper agrees. Green Eagle looks at right-wing reactions.

The New Orleans Ladder blog is a good source of updates on the Gulf oil disaster.

Least-surprising headline ever: "GOP sides with big oil".

But Obama isn't being tough enough with BP.

Germans are buying up gold, houses, and land as confidence in the euro currency erodes.

Female joggers in an Australian town attract male lust (found via Mendip).

China's economic boom may be coming to an end.

PZ Myers looks at religious misogyny.

Does it matter whether you grew up as an atheist or were raised religious and became an atheist later?

Brazilian Catholic priest Marcin Michal Strachanowski has been a bit naughty.

Evangelical pastors are miserable.

How does the Bible tell us to behave toward our enemies?

We can't cure the disease by praising the symptoms.

It's foolish to think that all major religions are similar.

I didn't have time to do anything for Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, but the Atheist Camel has a nice collection of pictures up.

PZ Myers has received his first Islamic threat.

Biologists discover two new life forms: a jellyfish crowned with gonads, and an ocean community of microbes the size of Greece.

Male antelopes intentionally deceive females in order to get sex. (Thank goodness no human male would ever do that.)

The British military is trying to develop electro-magnetic force fields to protect armored vehicles (found via Mendip) -- sounds like the idea still needs a lot of work.

21 May 2010

Video of the week -- in the beginning.....

I've long thought it might all have started with something like this.

19 May 2010

Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa

As a follow-up to Sunday's post on the European economic crisis turning political, I can't resist linking to these three items from the British press:

The US Senate has voted 94-to-0 to block the IMF from partici-pating in the Greek bailout. Endless German money may be poured down the rat-hole of propping up the failing euro currency, but American money will not be.

Investors world-wide, worried about the European and Chinese economies, are flocking back to put their money into US debt instruments. They know where the real safe haven is. This will make it easier for the Obama administration to manage the US deficit until our economy is fully re-stabilized.

British analyst Ambrose Evans-Pritchard thinks that the EU's growing "fascism" will soon force Britain to leave.

Looks like things are about to get very interesting over there.

Republicans never sleep!

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, fresh from blocking Democratic efforts to raise the liability cap on BP for the Gulf oil disaster from $75 million to $10 billion, has now proposed a resolution which would deny the EPA the power to regulate greenhouse gases. You can read about it -- and sign a petition to stop it -- here.

16 May 2010

Europe's crisis -- beyond economics

Britain is not the only place in Europe that held a consequential election this month.

Most Americans have barely heard of North-Rhine-Westphalia (German Nordrhein-Westfalen, usually abbreviated NRW), but it's by far the biggest of Germany's sixteen states by population, with 19 million of the country's 84 million people. The state held an election a week ago today, and voters used it to vent their wrath at German Chancellor Angela Merkel's response to the economic crisis in Greece.

Most of us are vaguely aware that Greece has recently been going through one of those skull-grindingly boring but Very Important And Dangerous financial crises which can only be resolved by a government shelling out unbelievably huge quantities of money to "bail out" something or someone. The bailout duly came in the form of massive loans to Greece from the EU, meaning in practice largely from Germany, since it is the EU's largest economy and has the deepest pockets to tap. Greece has already defaulted on its debts several times during previous crises, raising questions as to whether these new loans will ever be repaid either. Worse, there are also fears of similar crises in Spain or even Italy, much larger economies than Greece which would presumably require even bigger bailouts.

The media here have reported all this in bloodless terms of how much those godlike entities known as "the markets" approve of the German government's sober and responsible decision to cough up the cash for the bailout. German taxpayers, however, are steamed. Having already gone through a tough period of belt-tightening as Germany reformed its own economy and dealt with the recent global recession, they now find themselves on the hook for the aforementioned unbelievably huge amounts of money (it works out to around $3,000 per taxpayer) to rescue a foreign country which conspicuously failed to take such measures -- and they may be on the hook for more and more, with no clear limit, if Greece runs into trouble again or similar crises erupt in the other messy and un-Germanic economies of Mediterranean Europe.

A few days after the deal was announced, the NRW election hit, and voters got their chance to punish Merkel. They handed her conservative CDU party the worst electoral result that it had ever received in the state, causing the party to lose its control over the Bundesrat, the upper house of Germany's parliament. The Greens, Germany's biggest non-establishment party, got 12% of the vote, their best result ever. To get a sense of the fury animating the German people and their powerful tabloid media, see here.

The German people never liked the euro, the European Union's artificial common currency, not much relishing the thought of their hard-earned pensions being paid in pan-European Monopoly money instead of rock-solid German marks. Now they are turning against the EU itself, coming to recognize it as a scam which brings them few benefits and requires them to subsidize what they view as undisciplined, disorganized, profligate foreigners.

The EU has always been a project of the political elite, imposed by stealth and high-handed political maneuvers on the grumbling but oddly-passive European masses. At various times, referenda in France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland have rejected this or that move toward "ever closer union", but the elites arrogantly bulldozed aside all opposition and marched on.

The opaque and expensive (and corrupt) EU power structure has managed to make the public in pretty much every EU member country feel that their own nation was being treated unfairly in one way or another, and the recession is now compounding the problem. An example of the depth of the acrimony in which the project is sinking is provided by this recent spat between the EU authorities and Britain, which is a member of the EU but never adopted the euro currency. Britain has contributed £13 billion to help deal with the immediate crisis, but has refused EU demands that it provide a further £50 billion in loan guarantees to help stabilize a currency it doesn't even use. EU officials responded by telling Britain, in spiteful and insulting terms, to expect no help from them if its own currency, the pound, runs into trouble.

Britain does have some serious economic problems of its own, but I suspect that that £50 billion kept at home will be of more value in dealing with them than the increasingly-dubious prospect that Merkel might be able to extract yet another huge pile of cash from Germany's already-furious taxpayers to fund a hypothetical future EU bailout of the pound. If anything, the EU's insults might help Britain's new Prime Minister, David Cameron, unify his own people behind the tough measures which he will need to take to clean up the awful mess left by his predecessor; the British people already resent being bossed around by the EU.

The crisis in Europe is not just economic. The arrogant political elites are solidly pro-EU, but how much longer can they ignore popular disgust with an institution which imposes such huge costs (both in money and in hamstrung national sovereignty) on its core countries? There are votes to be won, millions of them, for any politician bold enough to defy consensus and openly declare that it's time to put this failed experiment out of everyone's misery.

Update (17 May): Read this too.

15 May 2010

Link roundup for 15 May 2010

Ever wonder what's inside a Dalek?

Iä! Iä! Checkmate (found via Mendip).

After the Marah Land Zoo's two zebras died earlier this year, the zookeepers replaced them on the cheap -- by painting stripes on donkeys.

Internet "memes" (I would actually call these "clichés") suck.

What if human sexuality were judged by natural standards?

Four Dinners tells the gripping (and funny) tale of the day he was almost shot.

The Atheist Camel looks at the myth of the angry atheist.

Pharyngula reports on vandalism and intimidation by Republican conventioneers in Maine.

Republican Congressional candidate Brad Goehring would like to issue hunting permits for liberals (found via Mountain Sage).

Jewish groups speak out against comparisons between Arizona's illegal-alien law and Nazism.

Support the right to display the American flag -- on any date.

A slight majority of rank-and-file Republicans favor legislation to fight global warming. Even 47% of teabaggers do.

Today's Republicans are no longer the party of Lincoln.

David Frum analyzes the likely nomination of Rand Paul for Senate in Kentucky.

Religion has real effects on societies.

Tiny Claessen has spent 45 years taking care of the grave of a hero she never knew (found via Mendip).

Four Dinners assesses the British election.

Iran Solidarity is a group dedicated to fighting for the rights and freedom of Iranians (they're gonna be busy).

Right-wingers are overstating the threat from China.

Sue is getting a make-over as her anniversary party approaches.

Lizard species worldwide are dying out as temperatures rise.

Here's more on that Indian yogi who claims he never eats.

"Micromasonry" is a new technique for building organs.

13 May 2010

Video of the week -- bullet time

Some may find this a little disturbing. I do. But it is art. It's also physics, on a time-scale our natural senses cannot perceive.

The return of DemWit

After an almost four-month haitus, she's back.

12 May 2010

The British election (2)

Anyone who has been following this story at all now knows that the Conservative party has formed a governing coalition with the Liberal Democrats. What I will focus on here is some of the less-widely-reported aspects of the outcome.

Despite its name, the Conservative party has little in common with the US Republicans (some info on British political parties here) or even with its own Thatcherite incarnation of decades past. In fact, Cameron now finds himself in a position much like Obama did in January 2009. His predecessor left an utter mess — a recession, out-of-control spending, a huge budget deficit, involvement in an unpopular overseas war, and a profoundly-unpopular policy of tolerance for high immigration. Cameron, however, also has the problem of Britain’s enmeshment in the EU — he’s not his own boss to the extent that Obama is. And unlike Obama, who took office with his party holding large majorities in Congress, Cameron's party does not quite have a majority in Parliament (hence the need for the coalition).

So wish him luck. He's going to need it.

The LibDems' demands reportedly include abolishing one of the more bizarre (to American eyes) features of the British system -- the fact that elections are held not at fixed regular intervals but whenever the Prime Minister chooses to hold them. Cameron may have hoped he could call another election in a few months and perhaps win an absolute majority. If he agrees to this change, he will no longer have that option. The LibDems also want changes in the electoral system which would, in practice, make it difficult for any one party to ever again get an absolute majority in Parliament -- meaning that the LibDems would regularly become king-makers, as small parties in countries like Israel or Italy commonly are.

What about the two smaller parties I mentioned before? Here's a table of the popular vote (scroll down a bit) compared with the previous national election in 2005. The UKIP (nationalist, anti-EU) increased its vote share only from 2.3% to 3.1% of the total, a disappointing outcome. This probably reflects the fact that, in a close election, most people did not want to waste their votes on a protest. If Cameron fails to deliver clear change from the previous Labour government, his party may lose more votes to the UKIP next time -- people are more likely to protest-vote if they see no meaningful difference between major parties.

The BNP (racist, with fascist leanings) increased its vote share from 0.7% to 1.9%, almost three times as large. In absolute terms its 1.2% gain was larger than that of any other party except the Conservatives themselves. However, 1.9% is still not large, and the BNP seems to judge the result a disappointment.

Neither the UKIP nor the BNP won any Parliament seats (here's a list of parties with seats). The Greens and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists showed no significant gains in the popular vote.

All in all, it's a guardedly-positive result. The worst possibility (a BNP breakthrough) and second-worst (Labour retaining power) were averted. Like the US 16 months ago, Britain now has better leadership -- and a daunting amount of work to do to recover from its previous government's foolishness.

Another cartoonist attacked

Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, who once drew a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad as a dog, has been attacked by a Muslim mob -- while delivering a lecture on free expression at Uppsala University. Police responded quickly and Vilks was not seriously injured. More here.

Remember, Draw Muhammad Day is next Tuesday. Everyone sharpen your pencils and imaginations.

A sickening crime

A few days ago three white supremacists in New Mexico abducted a young Navajo man and, among other things, forcibly branded a swastika on his arm. The perpetrators have, at least, been arrested and will face charges.

This is the kind of thing that sometimes makes me wish we could still sentence people to public flogging.

Story found via Parsley's Pics.

08 May 2010

V-E Day

Today, May 8th, is the date that commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany's campaign to enslave Europe in 1945. It had, of course, been clear for a long time that the end was coming. Germany's cities were in ruins from relentless Allied bombing; the Red Army had been steadily pushing back and grinding down the Wehrmacht ever since Stalingrad; the Americans and British had liberated most of western Europe. By the time Hitler blew his brains out in his bunker on April 30, the fruits of his megalomania had already taken the form immortalized in Yevgeny Khaldei's iconic photo- graph above -- Berlin reduced to smoldering wreckage under the Soviet flag.

In addition to launching the most disastrous war in history and murdering millions of people by means of extermination camps, slave labor, and starvation, the Nazi regime ended a century of German pre-eminence in the life of the mind by turning Germany into a place from which scientists and intellectuals fled. By leading Germany into an all-out war against the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States all at the same time (perhaps the most spectacular error in judgment in history), Hitler all but gua- ranteed the catastrophic defeat that followed. The Nazi regime's crimes blackened Germany's name forever. The day of its defeat is indeed a date to celebrate.

Unconditional surrender was signed in Reims, France, on May 7, to formally take effect at 11:01 PM on May 8. Because of the time-zone difference, in Moscow it was May 9 when the war officially ended. For this reason the Soviet Union and its successor states have always commemorated V-E Day, which they call Victory Day (День Победы), on May 9.

Link roundup for 8 May 2010

You've seen the chest-bursting Alien, the Predator, Freddie, Jason -- now prepare to face the most terrifying movie monster of them all (found via Mendip).

Birthers are still doing nutty things.

Greece is summed up in a Venn diagram (found via BlondeSense).

De-regulation is summed up in one photo.

To make your writing easier to read, follow this guide -- put your cursor over the image, then click (found via Mendip).

Another senior Catholic cleric babbles incoherently in yet another effort to shift blame for the Church's mass abuse of children.

The Church tolerates pedophilia, but not "feminism and activism".

Some stories aren't suitable for children.

Politics Plus and Bay of Fundie have more on the Rekers scandal.

Arizona isn't crazy.

It's always been those who take action that bring change, not those who play it safe.

Liberal family values are different from conservative ones -- and better suited to the modern world.

538 looks at the primaries in Ohio and North Carolina, and finds cautious good omens for Democrats in November.

Polls look promising for ex-Republican Charlie Crist's Senate run.

Eli Lehrer debunks right-wing economic alarmism.

US job growth continues to exceed expectations.

Part 4 of Parsley's Pics's series on the John Birch Society is now up, comparing the JBS with the modern teabaggers.

Virginia attorney general and arch-loon Ken Cuccinelli, last seen trying to forbid universities from banning anti-gay discrimination, continues his campaign to destroy intellectual life in the state (sent by Mendip).

If the Shroud of Turin were real, it would mean that Jesus was deformed.

At Purdue University, only one group is intolerable.

It's not only gay people that religious nutjobs want to kill (the pictures and captions were stolen from a joke website, but the opening paragraphs are real).

Religion and human reason are irreconcilable enemies.

It took generations of work to build this huge structure, but until recently no human had seen it.

Can meat ever be humane?

The world now has so much computer data that we need a new unit to measure it.

Exercise improves retention of mental sharpness in old people.

Aubrey de Grey looks forward to the end of generations.

06 May 2010


24 hours after Somali pirates seize a Russian oil tanker, Russian special forces take it back. The US and Europe too have been getting tough with the pirates this year.

Save these girls!

Well, if this doesn't convince the British to vote against the Labour and LibDem parties, I don't know what will -- those parties want to ban "page 3 girls".

05 May 2010

Another one bites the dust!

Oops. Another extreme-right Christian anti-gay bigot has been caught stumbling out of the closet with his pants down. Minister and "psychologist" George Rekers is the man of the hour, and while I don't have the time or energy right now to write a definitive blog post about him, Green Eagle has already done it. Settle in for a satisfying gloat over hypocrisy exposed.

The British election

Tomorrow Britain holds a national election. The Labour party, moribund and unpopular after 13 years in power, is expected to lose, but the other main party, the Conservatives, may not win outright due to a surge by a third party, the Liberal Democrats.

The Conservatives, despite their name, occupy ideological ground similar to the Democratic party in the US (Britain is more socialist and somewhat more socially liberal than the US), while the Labour party is, insofar as the term means anything anymore, more "left-wing". The "LibDems" somewhat resemble our libertarians, most saliently in favoring high immigration (and an amnesty for illegals currently in Britain), but they accept the socialist character of the country and are usually viewed as a leftist party.

But in its recent record, Labour somewhat resembles the Bush administration without the religious craziness. It irresponsibly ran up debt during the good economic times and left Britain ill-equipped to handle the recession. It allowed high immigration to continue despite strong public opposition. And it participated in the unpopular Iraq invasion. Immigration and the economy are the biggest concerns of voters, with erosion of British national sovereignty by the European Union also being significant (an important difference between US and British politics is that in Britain the threat to national sovereignty from a multi-national organization is real, not imaginary). The Labour party is on the wrong side of all three issues.

The LibDems are also on the wrong side of at least two of them, favoring not only an illegal-alien amnesty but deeper integration into the EU and the adoption of the EU's floundering common currency, the euro. The party's surge in popularity seems mainly due to the good performance of its telegenic leader, Nick Clegg, in TV debates. As Conservative leader Dave Cameron has begun hammering the LibDems' on their pro-immigration stance, their poll numbers have begun to subside again. Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown is wounded by last week's gaffe in which he was caught referring to a voter with concerns about immigration as "bigoted", hardening his reputation as an arrogant elitist out of touch with ordinary people's feelings.

Why is immigration such a major issue? Part of the problem is history and identity. Unlike the US, Britain has not experienced high levels of immigration in its modern history, until the last few decades. At present there are 6.7 million foreign-born people in the country, or 11% of the total population; the proportion has not been anything like that high for almost a millennium, and some British-born people of immigrant stock are not well assimilated. Britain doesn't define itself as a nation of immigrants as we do, and has little experience to guide it in dealing with such large numbers of migrants (there are about 2.8 million Muslims, many of whom have proven especially resistant to assimilation). Another real problem is population density. Britain is slightly smaller than my state, Oregon, but has 60 million people, one-fifth as many as the whole US. Density in the north-central English industrial region may be the highest in Europe. Many people feel overwhelmed.

So why isn't Cameron running away with the election? Partly because voting behavior in Britain is often linked to social class, which is much more culturally entrenched than it is in the US; working-class people are suspicious of the Conservatives, and historically they have good reason. The LibDems feel like a fresh new presence, and some voters seem unaware of their actual positions on immigration and the EU.

Another complication is the presence of two smaller parties. The UK Independence Party is dedicated to withdrawal from the EU and also opposes high immigration. If everyone voted purely according to their views on the issues, it would probably win the election. It is, however, new and much less organized than the main parties. It also embraces anti-science crackpottery and, overall, it doesn't give the impression of being ready to run the country. On the American political spectrum the UKIP would fall somewhere between moderate conservatives and teabaggers, but again without the religious loonies.

Then there's the far-right British National Party, whose founder was an open racist and admirer of Hitler and whose current leader embraces Holocaust denialism; it also opposes homosexuality and interracial marriage and favors economic isolationism (though it has also proposed re-annexation of Ireland!) -- in short, the BNP is lunatic-fringe and essentially fascist. But like the UKIP, it could receive a substantial vote in protest at the bigger parties' dismissal of mass concern about immigration and the EU -- a grim warning of what could happen in any country when mainstream politicians refuse to address such concerns.

The best outcome would be a clear victory by the Conservatives. Labour has badly mishandled the economy and pretty much everything else; the Conservatives pose no ideological threat to socialism and do not harbor the kind of paranoids and religious crazies who make our own Republicans so dangerous. The actual outcome will probably be much more complicated.

Andrew Sullivan has a round-up of analysis here.

03 May 2010

Video of the week #2 -- straight talk on religion

I normally keep embedded videos to one a week, but I liked this one so much I don't want to wait!

Video of the week -- the Pope song

It's clever, but be warned -- he does use the F-word a couple of times.

01 May 2010

How the right wing is out-maneuvering us

I was afraid this would happen. The rank-and-file left has fallen prey to a tempting but dangerous error -- under-estimating its opponents. Bloggers vie to see who can be most colorful and dismissive in denouncing everything the right wing says and does as racist, stupid, racist, ignorant, racist, out-of-touch, and racist. Well, a lot of rightists are stupid, ignorant, and out-of-touch, and some of them are certainly racist too, although the sheer over-use of this particular epithet on the left has now become completely unmoored from any kind of realistic perspective. But a lot of them are none of those things.

We've gotten too used to seeing right-wingers do and say stupid, ignorant, and out-of-touch things. As a result, a lot of people on the left have now failed to even notice that the right, whether by strategy or serendipity, has found a winning issue and used it to set a trap for our side -- so they are walking right into that trap.

The tough new Arizona law on illegal aliens has been denounced in all the predictable ways -- it's inhumane, it will create a police- state atmosphere, and it is (of course) racist. On the first point, it certainly will not make illegal aliens happy, but illegal aliens are, by definition, breaking the law by being in the United States, and any effort to enforce any law is going to make the people who are violating it unhappy. Police state? There are already all kinds of situations where the police or other authorities can and do require people to produce documentation either of citizenship or of a legal right to do something or be somewhere. To enforce immigration law, it is obviously necessary to be able to differentiate illegal aliens from citizens. As for racism, the correlation between illegal aliens and Hispanics is dubious -- about a third of the illegal aliens in the US are from non-Hispanic countries, and the vast majority of Hispanic people in the US are citizens or legal residents, not illegal aliens.

Americans are decisively hostile to illegal immigration and do not take kindly to parties that favor it. A Gallup poll this week showed that, of those Americans who have heard of the Arizona law, 51% favor it and only 39% oppose it. An earlier Rasmussen poll found 60% of Americans and 70% of Arizonans in favor (Rasmussen skews a bit more conservative than other pollsters, but not hugely so). And these results are in the face of overwhelmingly negative media coverage, and of a consensus among the elites of both political parties in favor of a soft approach to illegal immigration.

It's worth pausing here to examine that elite consensus. Logically, one would expect Republicans to be tolerant of illegal aliens, and Democrats to be tough -- since illegal immigration serves the inte- rests of big business and the wealthy, while it harms the interests of workers, especially the less-skilled. The 2007 illegal-alien amnesty that failed in the Senate was advanced by Republican McCain as well as Democrat Kennedy, and was strongly supported by President Bush. In fact, rank-and-file conservatives are more hostile to illegal aliens than Republican leaders are -- most rank- and-file conservatives are not wealthy, and object to illegal immi- gration on grounds like national sovereignty and economic self- interest. They are not alone, however. The Rasmussen poll cited above found Democratic voters "evenly divided" on the Arizona law, while Gallup found 34% of Democrats who had heard of the law favoring it -- a minority, but a big one. The political elite is out of step with mass opinion.

An incident in Britain this week illustrated the danger of this. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, of the Labour party (the more leftist of Britain's two main parties) was talking with a working- class urban voter (a demographic group that skews strongly pro- Labour), Gillian Duffy, who expressed worry about immigration into Britain. After the conversation, Brown, unaware that he was still wearing a microphone, referred to her as a "bigoted woman". The result was a media firestorm. Most people in Britain are hos- tile to immigration, for reasons mostly unrelated to bigotry; the political elite, even more than in the US, favor it. Brown's remark became instantly iconic of an out-of-touch ruling class which contemptuously dismisses the British people's legitimate concerns with buzzwords. Labour would probably have lost next week's election anyway, but seems headed for a crushing defeat now.

The polls cited above don't show us how strongly people feel. A slight majority with strong feelings about an issue can have more impact than a large majority which is only luke-warm. The 2007 amnesty plan was defeated by a massive public outcry so intense that the volume of incoming calls as the vote approached caused the Senate switchboard to crash. I was following the story closely at the time, and I don't think I've ever, before or since, seen such a passionate eruption of mass public involvement on an issue. The Senate leaders thought they had the votes lined up to pass the amnesty, but in the end it wasn't even close.

Part of the reason for that outcry was a backlash triggered by the mass pro-illegal demonstrations in several American cities in the preceding months. Some of these attracted hundreds of thousands of participants and featured the display of foreign national flags. It would be difficult to imagine a more effective way of alarming and antagonizing the broad mass of Americans, convincing them that illegal immigration was a much bigger and much more dangerous phenomenon than they had suspected. So far, the most widely-circulated image from the protests against the new Arizona law is a sign bearing the words "If you think I'm 'illegal' because I'm a Mexican, learn the true history because I'm in my HOMELAND". The obvious interpretation of this is that it rejects the legitimacy of US sovereignty over Arizona and claims the state to be part of Mexico. It's a slogan almost calculated to offend, antagonize, and provoke a backlash. The more the left's opposition to the law takes that character and dismisses opposition to illegal immigration as racist, the more of a backlash against the left there will be.

This brings me to the "trap" mentioned in my second paragraph. The Arizona law and the left's reactions to it are serving right-wing political interests in several ways. The most obvious is that, as described above, it has led the left to behave in ways which will provoke popular hostility against itself. Another is that it has brought the illegal-immigration issue into the news, in a way that favors the populist right's preferred narrative. According to this narrative, the elitist federal government has failed to take effective action on the problem, forcing the states to do so. In fact, there has been more effective federal action than is generally realized; enforcement both at the border and at workplaces has been beefed up, and the estimated total number of illegal aliens in the US has declined from 12 million in 2008 to 10.8 million now (though this may be partly due to the recession). But the perception is there. If the Arizona law is ruled unconstitutional, as may well happen, this too will be spun as do-nothing federal authorities obstructing a state's effort to do, at least, something.

Despite rumors, I think Obama and Congressional Democrats are too smart to try to pass another amnesty now, months before an election and with unemployment still high. That would be too obviously suicidal. Nor would it be the best scenario for the right; their opposition would be seen as just one more example of their endless stonewalling of everything Democrats propose. With the Arizona law, it's the right which is being pro-active in favor of a popular cause.

The left is walking into the right's trap. By denouncing all support for the Arizona law as racist, by dishonestly describing opposition to illegal immigration as "anti-immigrant", by accusing opponents of wanting to "round up twelve million people" (the actual favored tactics are border enforcement and employer sanctions, which will drive illegals out as the jobs dry up), much of the left is playing into the right's narrative that the left is elitist, contemptuous of legitimate mass concerns, and out to silence opponents by name- calling. Perhaps worse is the meme now being floated that we can't stop illegal immigration no matter what we do, so such efforts should be abandoned. Americans are not fatalists and do not respect fatalists.

Finally, there is the bizarre and self-defeating habit of thinking of voters in discrete homogenous blocks which can be won or lost en masse. There is "the Hispanic vote", "the black vote", "the women's vote", etc. Many a blog now crows that the right is alienating "the Hispanic vote". First, not all Hispanics have the same views on illegal immigration. More to the point, what matters is the overall picture, not any one segment of it. A policy that loses 5,000,000 votes but gains 20,000,000 is politically successful, even if the former are concentrated in an identifiable group and the latter are diffused across the whole population. A vote cast by a Hispanic citizen is worth exactly as much as a vote cast by a citizen of any other ethnicity, no more and no less.

Will the Arizona law and its fallout be a "magic bullet" issue that brings the right wing back to power? It's possible, but I don't think so. This year's election will turn mainly on the job situation, which is steadily improving and will continue to do so. Congressional Republicans are blundering by obstructing popular Wall Street reforms. Obama is a lot smarter than most right-wing leaders.

But we can't afford to have the right out-maneuver us in any area, especially one which arouses so much passion. The left should oppose illegal immigration on principle. The current de facto position is wrong. It's stupid politics too.

Link roundup for 1 May 2010

Tim Minchin has a catchy new song about the Pope. Don't be put off by the first 30 seconds -- he has a point to make.

For those who don't wish to observe National Prayer Day, there is an alternative event.

Rachel Petterson of Oregon seems to really like dogs. This restau-rant in Australia dislikes certain dogs (found via Mendip).

The Indian military is wasting the taxpayers' money.

Here's something unusual -- actual photos of Hell, the same Hell mentioned in the Bible.

In protest over Comedy Central's cowardice in the face of Muslim threats, May 20 is Draw Muhammad Day (sent by Mendip).

Uh-oh -- it's the quack superbomb.

It's not just your imagination -- we really are surrounded by nuts.

Certain technology is now out of date.

Part 3 of Parsley's Pics's series on the John Birch Society is up. See also part 1 and part 2.

Paul Krugman's predictions about reaction to the Louisiana oil spill are borne out.

The Westboro Baptist Church plans to picket Constance McMillen's graduation.

Maybe big government isn't so bad.

The Catholic Church has its priorities.

A Russian publisher makes what may be the most embarrassing gaffe ever (found via Mendip).

The financial crisis in southern Europe is broadening.

The Bush administration forced the EPA to ignore science.

Chimpanzees deal with death somewhat as we do. More here.

Doctors (and robots) in Britain have carried out the world's first heart operation by remote control.