30 July 2014

The Middle East conflict

Here are a few updates on what has been going on while the MSM have been focusing on Gaza.

In northern Iraq, the Sunni extremist group ISIS has launched an attack on the largely Christian city of Qaraqosh (known as Bakhdîdâ in Arabic), population 50,000.  They failed to capture the city, which locals attribute to it being defended by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, not by the useless army of the failed Iraqi state the US is still trying to prop up.  Nevertheless, ISIS has seized the agricultural land adjacent to Qaraqosh, evicting the farmers and stealing their property, and are bombarding the city with mortars.  Most of the population has fled to the Kurdish autonomous enclave, the only safe haven nearby.  They have reason to be wary of ISIS.  The Kurdish enclave, with a population of five million, has already taken in over 300,000 non-Kurdish refugees from the ISIS advances.

In Syria, ISIS now controls about 35% of the country's territory including much of the oil-producing area.  Not content with murdering those who resist them, they have staged mock crucifixions with the corpses in order to terrorize local civilians.

The death toll from the Gaza operation is now somewhat over 1,000.  Estimates of total deaths from the civil war in Syria range from 110,000 to 160,000, with 6.5 million civilians displaced, a third of whom have fled to other countries.  There seem to be no reliable figures for the death toll of the ISIS offensive in northern Iraq, but ISIS boasted of murdering 1,700 Shiite prisoners in cold blood after its first major victory alone, and there have been reports of mass beheadings in areas it controls.

Compared with the real Middle East conflict , the violence in the Gaza Strip is on a small scale.  But the real conflict is less newsworthy because, to be blunt, it can't be used to condemn and demonize Israel.  And I think we all know what's really going on there.

27 July 2014

Link round-up for 27 July 2014

Sabrina the Teenage Witch is getting married.

I fart in your general direction, very loudly (found via Mendip).

The Bible is a source of morality.  Well, consider its authorship.

Just what the Republicans needed -- Todd Akin is back with more stupidity.

Here in Portland, these sick freaks are targeting children as young as five to recruit into their perverse lifestyle.

Right-wingers demand to know what I think about Islam, but react oddly to the answer.

A 2009 terrorist plot failed because the terrorist didn't change his underwear.

SEB has video of Louie Gohmert's venture into theology.

Southwest Airlines stupidly creates a PR disaster out of nothing.

If you doubt there's a war on women, look at Texas.

Don't believe every headline you see.

Small-town America is dying.  Here's why.

One plan works, the other does not.

Some food companies are cutting out GMO ingredients.

The Republican candidate for Governor of Oregon is way out there.

The fundies are now harassing moderate Christians for not being totalitarian enough.

Sue Obama?  Bah.  Here's a Presidential lawsuit with actual merit.

Here's yet another reason why prostitution must be decriminalized.  The "Swedish model" gets it wrong.

Conservatives dare not look at themselves honestly -- they're too much like what they despise.

Here's how some British see the United States.

Oxfam reports on how unequal the world has become -- for example, the richest 85 individuals own as much as the poorest 3,500,000,000 (found via Politics Plus).

When Victorian gentlemen wanted to indulge their ignorance, vulgarity, and evil, here's where they went (found via Mendip).

We're not the only country with dingbat legislators -- check out this British MP.

Here's more on the looting of the corpses of MH17 victims.

ISIS orders women in Mosul to wear full veils, or else.  American readers will note similarities between their rhetoric and that of our own fundies.  A UN report that ISIS had ordered mass clitorectomies is still being disputed.

India's public-crapping problem isn't just due to lack of toilets -- there's actually a cultural preference for it.

The Chinese regime pushes stronger brainwashing to combat Western concepts like "democracy, universal values and civil society".

Ken Ham pontificates about alien life and makes a fool of himself.

Wildfires rage in the sizzling heat of.....Siberia?

This year's May and June were the hottest May and June ever.

Here's a good clear explanation of natural mimicry and how evolution produces it.

25 July 2014

The Republican boom fizzles

One of our best political blogs, Booman Tribune, has a couple of encouraging posts up this week.  Booman notes that polls on this year's elections are not falling into line with prognostications for a big Republican comeback, and even speculates that 2014 could see the beginning of the Republicans' final collapse, though he's far from actually stating it as a prediction.

It's easy to see why the pundits expect the Republicans to do well.  They're the out party, which usually does well in off-year elections, especially in the sixth year of a two-term Presidency.  The low turnout in off-year elections favors Republicans anyway, 2010 being a dramatic example.  Most of the Senate seats being contested this year are held by Democrats, which means that only the Republicans have many chances for picking up new seats.  The economic recovery from the 2008 Bush crash is still sluggish.  The President's approval ratings are still poor.  Everything favors the Republicans.

But so far the actual polls aren't looking so promising, certainly not for their dream of winning a Senate majority.  Intrepid hog-deballer Joni Ernst is behind in Iowa, if only a little.  We lead in Michigan, New Hampshire, and Colorado, which is expected, but also in Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Alaska, and Kentucky, which is less expected.  (I'd particularly enjoy seeing Mitch McConnell, the man who declared that his party's top goal would be to make Obama a one-term President, voted out while Obama is still in office.)  Granted, a lot of these leads are narrow, but it's not looking like a Republican wave.

For Governorships, the Republicans leads are surprisingly narrow in solid-red states like Oklahoma and Kansas, where even many prominent Republicans have turned against the execrable Brownback.  In New Mexico Susana Martinez is tied with her Democratic challenger -- and Wisconsin's dreadful Scott Walker could be in trouble (Martinez and Walker are sometimes touted as 2016 Presidential candidates).  Crist is ahead in Florida.  The numbers in Texas don't look as good, but we always knew that was a long shot (when the Republicans can't hold Texas any more, we'll know they're finished), and Davis's large lead among women could indicate the start of a cultural shift there -- women and men live in the same families, and people discuss politics.

And traditional assessments of the fundamentals fail to consider the teabaggers' rage at the Republican establishment for defeating their flaming-nutball primary challengers in Kentucky, South Carolina, and especially Mississippi.  The party establishment created a monster and it is now turning on them, with results that are hard to predict.

Gerrymandering will probably let the Republicans keep the House (if they lose that, then the final collapse Booman describes has likely begun).  But even so, this year looks a lot less bad than anticipated -- and in 2016 all the fundamentals will favor our side, while the Republicans may well be even more extremist and divided than today.

23 July 2014

Video of the day -- highways in the sky

There is a great beauty in visions like this.  Think of the skill and precision it takes to keep all this traffic flowing safely and in proper order, day after day, year after year.  Yes, barbarians may destroy something every now and then, but in the larger scheme of things they're mere cockroaches beside the vigorous life of a civilization our ancestors even a century ago could hardly have imagined.

20 July 2014

Link round-up for 20 July 2014

A large and fitting tribute to Monty Python is unveiled in London (found via Mendip).

Check out the comments -- these people exist.

Republicans really shouldn't try to talk about other planets.

What if everybody ate each other?

The TSA explains to its agents what country the District of Columbia is in (found via Mendip).

Louie Gohmert explains why God exists, with predictable results.

Is this the face we want patriotism to have?

Dave Daubenmire has a few questions.  Really stupid ones.

Spread the word -- boycott Eden Foods.

The Postal Service gets the job done.

It's never a good idea to refuse to listen to scientists.

The FBI thwarts a planned terrorist attack in Utah.

PZ Myers answers those stupid questions religious people think are so clever.

Over 100 Kansas Republican politicians and activists turn against Sam Brownback.

As Americans abandon religion, fundamentalists become more arrogant and aggressive (found via F169, where I have a few comments).

Crime in Detroit is way down, and the police chief knows why.

RedState showcases the internal war among Republicans -- more of this, please.

James Dobson is still around, sniping at non-traditional families.

A Christian school fights for the right to discriminate against gays, and a mayor pushes back.

An idiot who wants to frack Yellowstone is running for Governor of Wyoming.

The CHP, accused of police brutality, seizes the evidence.

The owner of Hobby Lobby is pushing religious indoctrination in public schools (link from Shaw Kenawe).  In Canada, one student fights such indoctrination and wins.

Here are some great aerial videos of Welsh castles (found via Mendip).

The Irish Atheist looks at history and modern hatreds.  In Belgium, too, an echo of Europe's dark past.

Germans en masse are rejecting the Catholic Church.

"Putin -- damn you!"  Dramatic photos from the MH17 crash site.  Russian-backed rebels are tampering with evidence and stealing the bodies.  Europe is taking a harder line against Russia. Update:  Apparently pro-Russian rebels have looted credit cards from the passengers' bodies.

Sochi redux:  Russia's costs for hosting the 2018 World Cup are skyrocketing.

Finding a girlfriend can be difficult, but I don't see the point of this (found via F169).

These two have more in common with each other than with the murderers on either side.

Here's a look at Kurdistan's progress and its drive for independence.

Reminder:  The real issue in Gaza is that it's being run by people like this guy.

The expulsion of Arabs from Israel in 1948 was a normal action for that time, but Israel is always held to a different standard.

ISIS threatens Iraqi Christians, and is apparently crucifying Christians in Syria.

Could robots help treat one of our most intractable social problems?

If life had a creator, he was pretty incompetent.  We humans can do a lot better.

18 July 2014

MH17 -- another Putin disaster

First off, let's be clear that yes, we do know beyond any real doubt that it was the Russian-backed "rebels" in eastern Ukraine who shot down MH17.  They've been shooting at Ukrainian military aircraft in the same area on a regular basis recently.  They have the "Buk" anti-aircraft system, supplied by Russia, which is capable of hitting planes at airliner cruising altitude.  A recording of rebel officers discussing having shot down a plane, then finding out that it was civilian, has been released.  The Putin regime has made a feeble effort to blame the Ukrainian government, but Ukrainian forces have not been using anti-aircraft weapons for the simple reason that the rebels are not using aircraft.

Here is a good report on what's currently known and on world reactions, and here's some video of the crash site -- real video, not the sanitized images the US media give you with human corpses edited out, so be warned.

This is ultimately Putin's fault.  He made the decision to supply powerful military weapons to what are basically the Russo-Ukrainian equivalents of the trigger-happy morons who rallied around the Bundy ranch back in April and are now freaking out at random school buses in Arizona.  It was easily foreseeable that some gargantuan fuck-up like this would be the result.

Of the 298 people killed, 154 were Dutch and at least 17 were from other European countries.  So much for Putin's efforts to discourage Europe from joining in US sanctions against Russia.  The sanctions are to punish Russia for supporting the rebels, and that support has now hit Europeans hard.

Putin is now all the more strongly confirmed as what the Ukrainian crisis and the corruption-riddled Sochi Olympics revealed him to be -- a dangerous and reckless bungler.  He will remain an embarrassment and liability to Russia as long as he stays in power.  Let's hope that won't be much longer.

17 July 2014

Video of the day -- the wrong bus

"The fear on their faces!"  This clown is a Congressman.  Found via Politics Plus.

Edit:  I'm misinformed -- Kwasman is a candidate for Congress and currently a member of the Arizona legislature.  The point stands, and I suspect his chances of becoming a Congressman have dropped a little.

16 July 2014

A question on espionage

By now, most people who follow the news are aware that the NSA's spying has caused a serious breach between the US and Germany, the most important country in western Europe.  The NSA surveillance in Germany -- a NATO member and close ally of the US, remember -- was so comprehensive that even the personal cell phone of Angela Merkel, the Chancellor, was tapped.

Germany has now arrested two intelligence employees on suspicion of spying for the US, and is expelling the top CIA official in Germany, a high-profile rebuke.  The Germans are so outraged about the spying that they have brushed off Obama's requests to resolve the dispute through private diplomatic channels and are insisting on conducting the whole conflict in public.  They are openly talking about taking broader countermeasures against US intelligence-gathering.  This is the worst breach between the two countries that I can remember.

(My greatest disdain, I must say, is reserved for those who want to blame Edward Snowden for revealing the spying rather than the NSA for conducting the spying.  The problem is the unethical activity, not the whistleblower who lets us know it is happening.)

My real question is, what good is all this spying doing anyway?  It doesn't seem to have given us any advance warning of any of the important things that have happened lately.  The US government didn't seem to know in advance that Putin was about to invade Crimea.  It didn't seem to know in advance that ISIS was going to launch a major offensive and seize much of northern Iraq from the US-backed Maliki government.  It didn't seem to know in advance that Hamas was about to launch a new terrorist onslaught against Israel.  It doesn't seem to have any more of a clue than anyone else where Boko Haram is keeping all those abducted schoolgirls.  I guess it does know whenever Angela Merkel orders a pizza, but if all this spying isn't giving us any special or in-advance knowledge of things that actually matter, what good is it?  Yes, espionage is necessary, but can we at least focus on trying to cover hostiles more effectively and stop spying on allies, which makes them justifiably angry and creates conflict for no reason?

13 July 2014

Quote for the day -- what the righties really hate

"So why are conservatives fighting so hard to make contraception harder for women to obtain? Because they don't think people — young people, poor people, unmarried people, gay people — should be able to enjoy 'consequence-free sex.' Because it's sex that they hate — it's sex for pleasure that they hate — and they hate that kind of sex more than they hate abortion, teen moms, and welfare spending combined. Knowing that some people are having sex for pleasure without having their futures disrupted by an unplanned pregnancy or having their health compromised by a sexually transmitted infection or having to run a traumatizing gauntlet of shrieking 'sidewalk counselors' to get to an abortion clinic keeps them up at night."

Dan Savage

Link round-up for 13 July 2014

Here's a map of unfortunate place names (found via Mendip).

Road signs are easily subverted.

Fireworks and idiots don't mix, or shouldn't.

There are reasons to vote Republican, sort of.

It's OK for Catholics to have sex, as long as it's within marriage and they try really hard not to enjoy it.

Join the protest against the wicked killing of this.....dinosaur?

One graph says it all about the effect of Obamacare.

Christians claim to have absolute truth, but can't agree on what it is.

Teabaggers pontificate about space travel, with amusing results.

Bruce Gerencser looks at creation and Noah's flood.

To right-wingers, even a new Planet of the Apes movie is just another opportunity to be disgusting.

Sometimes sex can be too much of a thrill (NSFW).

Murrmurrs and Hot for Jesus have their say about the Hobby Lobby decision, while Senate Democrats prepare to act.

Progressive Eruptions looks at a pair of holy warriors.

Green Eagle debunks the Republican meme that the Supreme Court keeps "rebuking" Obama.

Fundamentalist Baptists go to extreme lengths to shield child molesters and torment victims.  More religious child abuse here.

We could still learn a lot from, yes, Karl Marx.

Clarence Thomas demonstrates why there must never again be a Republican President to give us another Clarence Thomas (link from Mendip).

Intrepid Iowa hog-deballer Joni Ernst talks crazy.

Start with comment #13 on this Republican post and keep going.

On average, children raised by gay parents turn out slightly better than the general population.

Don't be fooled -- libertarians are just a variant of Republicans.

Under Pope Francis, the Vatican is still obstructing efforts to bring molesting priests to justice.

Axelle Despiegelaere lost her modeling contract after posting a photo of herself with a gazelle she had shot in Africa -- a sign of how socially unacceptable sport hunting has become in civilized nations.

Guess the country.

Naughty graffiti goes back a long way.

If you live in certain parts of Turkey, your ISP might be a donkey.

Iraqi Kurdistan takes further steps toward independence, including seizing oilfields from the imploding Iraqi state.

Most Muslim leaders reject the ISIS claim to the Caliphate.

The Ganges isn't India's only filthy holy river (link from Ahab).

No faggot penguins please, we're Singaporean.

Science's increasing knowledge of how consciousness works is making religion obsolete.

Death is not as simple as we think.

10 July 2014

Courageous President, resolute people

Soon after Hassan Rouhani took office as President of Iran last August, he brought about a breakthrough in nuclear negotiations with the West.  This was not completely unexpected.  He had run on a platform of improving relations with the West, and dismantling the nuclear-weapons program was the key to achieving this and getting relief from the damaging economic sanctions the West had imposed.  But would he, or could he, do anything about the brutal internal repression in Iran?  That was much less clear.

Iran's government is an Islamic theocracy in which the highest official is not the President, despite his title, but rather the Supreme Leader, a religious office currently filled by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The President does have real power and is elected by the people, but the religious establishment is not above banning candidates it doesn't like and rigging elections, as in the case of 2009 when Rouhani's predecessor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a standard-issue Israel-hating Islamic religious nutjob) was "re-elected", triggering the Green Movement, mass street protests which were among the largest in world history.  It was these protests which intimidated the theocrats enough that they refrained from blocking Rouhani's election in 2013, despite their hostility to his reformist tendencies.

Most of the machinery of internal repression in Iran is outside the President's official jurisdiction, but as in the US, a popular President can exert influence even on issues outside the formal scope of his office.

Lately Rouhani has begun doing this.  In May, for example, the regime imposed tighter hijab rules (there is a constant tension in Iran between women pushing the limits of the Islamic dress code and theocrats trying to enforce it more strictly), and several young people were arrested for making a dance video.  As public exasperation over these repressive measures mounted, Rouhani spoke out:

"Do not interfere in people’s lives so much, even if it is out of compassion," Rouhani said at a health insurance conference on May 24 arranged by the administration. "Let people pick their own path to heaven. One cannot take people to heaven through force and a whip. The Prophet [Mohammad] did not have a whip in his hand."

Religious hard-liners pushed back hard in Friday prayer speeches in mosques across the country, which are a regular venue for making the theocracy's official positions on issues known.  But rather than backing down, Rouhani made further criticisms of, for example, internet censorship (see again the link which has much more detail).

A couple of weeks later, during public protests calling for the release of political prisoners, Rouhani pithily twisted the theocrats' tails again (details here) and his Minister of Culture ridiculed the way authoritarians' suspicion of new communications technologies leads to continual backwardness (a problem which contributed to the fall of the USSR).  Again the conservatives reacted with alarm, denouncing Rouhani's view that "we don't take people to Paradise by force" as "liberal and modernist", which are apparently very bad things.

Rouhani's cabinet appointees are another example of his efforts to reform Iran domestically.  See for example his Minister of Science (who has authority over education and research), whose liberalizing actions have provoked conservatives to try to impeach him.

But the most startling confrontation has arisen over an issue that is also a liberal-vs-theocrat battleground in the US -- contraception.  Surprisingly, Iran for many years has had government-guaranteed access to birth control (scroll down about halfway), even in remote villages which are visited by traveling gynecologists for the purpose.  But last month Supreme Leader Khamenei announced a change of course, supporting a proposed law banning many forms of birth control, and declaring a goal to increase the population from its current 77 million to 150 million.

Rouhani has now denounced the proposed law as a potential violation of human rights and declared that his administration will oppose it -- despite that fact that this means directly opposing the will of the Supreme Leader.  It takes real courage to stand firmly for free public access to birth control in a political system whose Scalias and Alitos are nominally his superiors in authority, and have armies of thugs at their command as well as a proven willingness to use torture and murder to crush their enemies.

So there is no longer any doubt -- Rouhani is indeed trying to reform Iran domestically despite great obstacles and risks.  And the key to his ability to do so is popular support.  Remember, the Ayatollahs aren't afraid of the United States.  They're afraid of a recurrence of this:

Certainly his victory is not assured, and it's unclear just how far he really wants to go.  But a courageous leader can take on even very powerful reactionary forces if the public is forcefully and actively supporting him.

Remember, Iran is potentially a country of enormous influence.  Historically its culture and language have great prestige in the Middle East.  Even under this wretched theocracy it is one of the most advanced countries in the area -- it has a convincing nuclear-weapons program and a space program, it conducts stem-cell research, it manufactures cars, it teaches evolution in its schools without reservation (putting it ahead of places like Louisiana), it guarantees access to birth control (until and unless Khamenei gets his way).  Only de-fang the theocrats and lift their internal repression, and it would probably advance as rapidly as Spain and Portugal did after the end of fascism there.

I haven't yet heard of Rouhani taking any action on the murderous repression of gays or the persecution of the Baha'is, but perhaps that will come next.  He has a lot of targets to choose from.

[The majority of my information on this comes via Iranian blogger Kaveh Mousavi, who provides a very valuable insider's view of what's happening in Iran, from a secular perspective.]

08 July 2014

The first superpower and its founder

If you want to understand a nation, study its history.  Here is a leader about whom most Americans know little if anything, but who shaped his country and region, and the world we all live in today.

In 549 BC the city of Ecbatana, capital of the Median Empire, fell to the Persians and the Median king Astyages was deposed.  The Median Empire had been one of the four big powers of the Middle East, the others being Babylonia, Lydia, and Egypt.  The Persians had been a minor people, divided between the kingdoms of Persia and Anshan -- in fact, they had been vassals of the Median Empire, so the Persian war on Media was really a rebellion against an overlord.  After this startling victory the Persian king, Cyrus, took Astyages's place as ruler of the Medes.

(I'm citing all proper names in their Greco-Latin forms because those are what you'll see in most English-language sources on this period.  The forms in the original Middle Eastern languages were quite different.)

One detail of what followed was almost equally surprising.  The normal treatment meted out to overthrown kings at that time was death by impalement, but Cyrus merely packed Astyages off into retirement with a pension.

The Medes were a people closely related to the Persians and probably saw the accession of Cyrus as more a mere change of leadership than a foreign conquest -- the distinction between the two counted for so little that later the Greeks indiscriminately referred to Persians as "the Medes", and modern Persian-speaking Iranians are probably descended from both.  Cyrus went on to an impressive series of further conquests of quite different states and peoples including Lydia, the great Babylonian Empire including what we now call Syria and Israel (at that time Babylon was the world's largest city and most advanced civilization), and the wilder tribal peoples to the east and northeast of Iran proper.  In just 20 years he built an empire comparable in size to that of the much later Romans.  No state even approaching such a size had ever existed before (even China, ancient as a culture, did not become a unified state until 221 BC).  He did not conquer Egypt, but his son and successor Cambyses added it to the Persian Empire a few years after his death.  He is known to history as "Cyrus the Great".

Cyrus and later Persian kings held this huge empire (in its final form, actually larger than the later Roman Empire) together by a combination of two strategies.  One was humane (by the standards of the time) treatment of defeated enemies, of which his mercy to Astyages was the first example.  Whenever possible Cyrus left the existing leadership and forms of government in conquered countries intact, eschewing plunder and massacre but demanding loyalty to himself and payment of tribute.  Wiser heads respected the forbearance which they themselves would never have shown had the positions been reversed, and accepted Cyrus's rule; in a few cases local leaders mistook it for weakness and rebelled, and in such cases, to discourage similar behavior elsewhere, Cyrus sometimes descended to the brutality normal for that era.

The other strategy was exploitation of local religions.  In Babylon, for example, Cyrus capitalized on suspicions that the existing king Nabonidus was not a legitimate heir to the throne by declaring that the Babylonian god Marduk had sought him out to liberate the "noble Babylonian race" from Nabonidus's oppression, and to restore the temples which the old king had neglected.  The Persian Empire rapidly developed a sophisticated propaganda department which found ways to use the religion of each conquered country to legitimize Persian rule.

An example of Cyrus's style of rule is found in the Old Testament.  After the conquest of Babylon, it was he who freed the Israelites from captivity there to return to their own land, and even paid for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.  Since Egypt was still an independent and rival state in his lifetime, it was useful to him to have a loyal population in Israel near his border with Egypt.

Cyrus was the true inventor of the giant multicultural universal state, a form identified in the Western mind with the Romans. The Persian Empire ultimately unified an astonishing variety of peoples -- Central Asian nomads, Ionian Greeks, seafaring Phoenecians, Arab Bedouins, monotheistic Hebrews, Indus Valley kingdoms, the (even then) ancient civilization of Egypt, the business-savvy metropolis of Babylon, and many others.  It extended from the Indus river in modern Pakistan to Cyrenaica in modern Libya, an east-west span greater than that of the modern continental US.

In modern times we think of empires as oppressive and instinctively side with smaller groups opposing the rule of more powerful ones, but in ancient times, when the independence of small states usually meant constant pointless warfare, incorporation into a giant state with the power to keep peace and order meant much better lives for most people, however humiliating it may have been to their local rulers.

The pax Persica helped spread ideas and knowledge.  Babylonian banks (a concept unknown elsewhere) set up branches throughout the Empire, something which would have been impossible under a hodgepodge of squabbling local states.  As travel became safer and easier, Greek scholars in increasing numbers went to Babylon to study its astronomy, medicine, and history, helping to trigger the spectacular rise of Greek science.  A vast system of qanats (underground aqueducts) irrigated the arid Iranian plateau (thousands of them are still in use today, 25 centuries later); under Persian rule, the qanat system was introduced into Egypt.

Cyrus the Great was not by any stretch of the imagination a modern democrat or liberal.  He was a product of his time; he ruled as a king and demanded the respect due to one.  But he was a startlingly just and humane man for his time, and he left the Middle East a much better place than he found it.

The Empire faced its first major crisis a few years after Cyrus's death, when a minor member of the royal family took the throne as Darius I after the deaths of Cyrus's two sons (the history of these events is murky and intriguing, but they were both probably killed by Darius).  Revolts broke out against the perceived usurper, but Darius managed to hold the Empire together and went on to become its most capable and important king after Cyrus himself.

The Persian Empire is mostly known to Westerners as a menacing presence to the east of ancient Greece, one which launched several unsuccessful efforts to conquer the Greeks.  The Persians thought of Greece much as we now think of Afghanistan -- a small, remote, mountainous country inhabited by wild and formidable warriors, maddeningly defiant of even the armies of the superpower.

But that conflict was ultimately the Empire's doom.  When Alexander the Great invaded it in 334 BC, his goal was not to destroy it but to capture it intact.  Alexander, one of the greatest generals who ever lived, took Cyrus the Great as his role model and dreamed of establishing a common civilization of Greeks, Persians, and the other peoples of the Empire and someday beyond.  What the world could have gained if he had succeeded, we will never know.  But he died young, with no clear successor; his generals divided the Empire, and the Middle East fell back into an age of quarreling smaller states.

To modern Iranian nationalists (who form the most important opposition to the present theocracy), Cyrus the Great is a hero and inspiration, an almost mythical figure, representing Iranian nationhood and civilization dating back ages before the dawn of Islam.  Even history as ancient as this can be very much alive and relevant in the present.

(For another episode from Persian history, a thousand years after Cyrus but still long before the coming of Islam, see here.)

06 July 2014

Link round-up for 6 July 2014

Poisoning pigeons in the park?  I prefer taunting teabaggers on the 'tubes.

Perhaps this is why ads are so bad.

Conservatism proclaims itself as ugly, smelly, and dirty.

Why is the South such an economic failure?  Maybe Lincoln screwed up.

Drought drives Texas to desperation and six-legged toads.

Teabaggers and libertarians attack each other -- more of this, please.  Will teabagger rage throw away Cochran's Senate seat?

Ken Ham builds straw man, makes idiot of self (again).

More bloggers weigh in on the Hobby Lobby decision -- Frank Moraes, Politics Plus, Brains and Eggs, Horizons, and Chauncey de Vega at Daily Kos.  All have interesting angles, though I think it's Booman Tribune that nails the real issue best.  Hobby Lobby's own stance is profoundly hypocritical (found via Progressive Eruptions, which has more).  And right-wingers are making idiots of themselves defending the ruling.

The wealth of the rich depends on the prosperity of society.

Teabaggers try to express themselves verbally.

Anti-vaccine stupidity is now killing more children than gun accidents (found via Earth-Bound Misfit).

Ignorant racist fattards call for revolution, hardly anyone notices.

The Obama administration continues its tough stance on illegal aliens (and teabaggers, confronted with this, resort to reality-denial).

The latest arrogant EU move makes it more likely that Britain will leave.

Iran has begun exporting cars to Russia.

Defying Maliki and the US, Iraqi Kurds prepare for formal independence, but Maliki has found an ally -- Syrian dictator Asad.  ISIS has a new weapon in its brutal war against non-Sunnis -- water.

Don't forget Obama's role in making the Syrian mess this much less ghastly.

China's one-child policy is destabilizing the country.

Frank Moraes looks at the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger.

Here's a taste of what ancient Greek art actually looked like (found via F169).

Most of the plastic we dump in the oceans is disappearing, and that's not a good thing.

04 July 2014

Happy Independence Day!

It's a holiday much given over to fireworks, barbecues, and mindless flag-waving, but as always, I hope Independence Day will serve as a time for remembering what the United States at its best is really about (it's the mindlessness which is bad, not the flag-waving).  To me, it's summed up in this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The rest of the Bill of Rights protects various specific rights, and they remain important (the level of electronic snooping we endure nowadays might have been prevented by more respect for the Fourth, for example), but it's the First Amendment that lays down the principles so fundamental that, if we were to lose them, America would no longer be America -- separation of church and state, and freedom of expression.  Those principles have always been under attack, of course -- the Founders well knew that they would be, which is why they put them in the most prominent position.  But there have also always been those who defended and expanded them, and that's the tradition we belong to.

And part of that tradition includes a right to spend a lot of our time being silly and self-indulgent (in loftier language, "the pursuit of happiness").  This has never been a country where Correct Thought is blared from red banners strung across the public square and politics worms its way into everything.  A big part of Americanism is keeping politics and policy out of everyone's hair so we can focus on our personal lives and have fun.  "The personal is political" is at least a strong contender for the most anti-American slogan ever conceived.  The personal is personal, and a free society leaves it alone to be so.

(See also earlier posts on Americanism and renegade culture.)

Firework safety reminder

Fireworks can be fun, but don't let them be launched by minors, morons, drunks, or teabaggers.  I suspect this person is at least two of those:

02 July 2014

Inside the theocracy

As ISIS rule spreads through northern Iraq and adjacent parts of Syria, local residents are getting a taste of theocracy:

On June 23, the Assyrian International News Agency reported that ISIS terrorists entered the home of a Christian family in Mosul and demanded that they pay the jizya (a tax on non-Muslims). According to AINA, "When the Assyrian family said they did not have the money, three ISIS members raped the mother and daughter in front of the husband and father. The husband and father was so traumatized that he committed suicide.".....Since the fall of Mosul, a litany of evils has replaced the liturgies of the Christians there: a young boy ripped from the arms of his parents as they ran from the ISIS advance and shot before their eyes, girls killed for not wearing the hijab.

I should point out that some of these stories haven't been independently corroborated, but given what we've already seen of ISIS's treatment of Shiite Muslims, they hardly seem surprising.  Islam does mandate tolerance for the existence of "People of the Book" (Christians and Jews), but this tolerance is conditional on their accepting Islamic rule and second-class citizenship including paying the jizyah, and no such tolerance is allotted to other religions or to the non-religious.  Everything ISIS is said to have done so far is in line with what God repeatedly commands the Hebrews to do to various unbelievers in the Old Testament.  What we're seeing here is simply what happens when the adherents of Abrahamic faiths really believe and follow what their sacred texts say.

Not surprisingly, great numbers of people have fled Mosul since ISIS captured it, some heading for nearby smaller towns, though these are not safe either.  The one true safe haven nearby is the self-governing enclave of Iraqi Kurdistan, where 300,000 people have already fled, straining the Kurds' resources and threatening them with a permanent refugee problem on their hard-won soil.  Not all those who have fled are Christians.  No non-Sunni can feel safe under ISIS rule, and many Sunnis do not wish to live under a grim totalitarian theocracy that engages in mass beheadings and worse.  Remember, ISIS was actually expelled from al-Qâ'dah for excessive brutality.

ISIS is also fighting to expand the swath of territory it controls in Syria.  There are over six million non-Sunnis in Syria, including Christians of various kinds, Alawites, Shiites, Druzes, and others.  Where religion is concerned, no matter how bad things are, it is always possible for them to get worse.