Monday, August 1, 2011

Fear and God

While out and about this weekend, my wife and I happened to be driving along in Little Suamico, when we came upon something that I found rather upsetting. Specifically, a church, with the weekly message on a board facing the road. Nothing unusual there, except the content of the message, which read:
Eternity: Smoking or Non-Smoking
Aha!  The old "God as fire insurance" card is still being dealt from the bottom of the deck by believers.  Between this and the hilarious Christian radio broadcast I caught a few months ago (I listen entirely due to the phenomenon of Hathos - look it up) which praised Jonathan Edwards' comically hyperbolic fire-and-brimstone screed "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" as the greatest sermon ever conceived, I've noticed that Christian rhetoric seems to be ramping up everywhere, taking us back to the scare tactics of yore.  What's next?  Catholics praising Torquemada and calling for a return to the ways of the Inquisition?

Now that I've had some time to reflect upon it, I don't quite know what to make of the message outside that church.  My initial reaction was to take it as a taunt, and an incitement to fear, which has been the greatest ally of religion since the earliest humans saw the bright, hot orb in the sky and began to worship it.  The subtext seemed to be, "Come inside, for we are the only way to avoid burning in Hell after you die."  It's exactly that sort of claim of impossible knowledge, and the presumptuousness that goes along with that claim, that I and other unbelievers find so incredibly offensive.  "We have the truth.  Turn or burn.  Accept Christ or die."  How can anyone take such stuff seriously?  It's as sophisticated as the message you'll see on many such church message boards that reads "Good without God becomes 0."  You don't need to think at all to refute such nonsense.

Having thought about the "Smoking or Nonsmoking" line a bit more, however, I'm starting to think that I'm not really the intended audience.  I mean, sure, if a few atheists see the sign, experience the fear of judgement that I've written about before, and come inside, I'm sure the faithful would be ecstatic.  But I think the real intended targets are the churchgoers themselves.

A person who doesn't believe in God, or is a believer, but not of the Christian variety, is more likely than not to be massively turned off by such a crude message, particularly with its casual, almost nonchalant invocation of torture for all eternity.  That kind of message even irritates more mainline Christians who are either uncomfortable with the idea of damnation or disbelieve in it altogether.  The people who are most susceptible to fear-mongering about the afterlife are the people who believe that Hell is a very real place, and that there is a very real chance that they might go there.  And so the followers go through the vicious cycle of guilt over and over,* constantly trying to assuage that gnawing fear that their God (who "abhors" them, to quote Jonathan Edwards) will discard them into the Pit for all time.  And the clergy of that church are complicit in not only NOT helping to relieve that anguish, but making sure that it continues over and over.  It is simply not good enough to go to church, to do good things, to tithe, and on and on.  Fear is the only prescription.

And so, while I feel the same contempt for whoever conceived of the nasty and brutish little blurb outside that church, I also feel something else: sympathy.  Sympathy for those who are trapped in the cycle of fear made worse by the people and institutions they turn to for consolation.  Someone once said something like, "There's a mean streak in anyone who would shake someone else's faith."  After reading that sign and thinking about it, I must reply, Au contraire.  There's a downright evil streak in anyone who would terrify already frightened people with the threat of Hell.

*Brian Flemming's film The God Who Wasn't There dramatically tells of his own personal struggle with this cycle of fear, and I highly recommend it.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Music XVI

Hey, it's been a while, but I'm back. And in that spirit, I give you a massive guilty pleasure song, but a deadly serious one too, given its subject.

The Cranberries, "Zombie"

Michael Tomasky hits the nail on the head

This is exactly what the President should do:
[T]here are some legitimate legal questions surrounding the use of the 14th Amendment that could lead to political nightmares down the road, like an adverse decision from the Supreme Court. And after all, as long as the GOP controls the House, the odds would be at least decent that they actually would drum up some phony charges and impeach him, leading to a trial in the Senate. But in fact, this would in many ways be a gift to Obama. Calls for impeachment would likely perform the nifty trick of getting both left and center on his side, galvanizing his enervated left flank for battle heading toward reelection and persuading independents that the Republican Party needs to start holding its caucus meetings in rubber rooms (what, impeaching a president for ensuring the good credit rating of the United States?).
If Boehner, Cantor, and McConnell want to keep cow-towing to the dead-ender wing of the Republican Party and destroy the national economy to sharpen a political axe, Obama has to call their bluff with the 14th.  Go on national television, explain the stakes, and then dare them to impeach him, because short of a Supreme Court ruling from a Court that's been very sympathetic to broad executive power arguments in recent memory (which would effectively be a ruling saying that the 14th Amendment doesn't actually mean what it says on its face) the only remedy would be impeachment.

Josh Lyman had the right idea.

H/T: My wife, who spotted the article, and has gotten her fill of my desperation for Obama to just end the crisis by invoking the 14th Amendment.

Monday, July 18, 2011

[Redacted]'s Cycling Adventures, Part I

I used to be quite the cyclist, and I'm trying to start riding more often.  So, when I was invited to go on the 80 km route of the Titletown Bike Tour yesterday, how could I refuse?  Of course, I accepted that invitation a couple weeks ago, before I knew that yesterday's temperatures up here would approach blast furnace levels.   I made the smart choice and didn't even bother asking about the heat index until we were done.  Even worse, we had that annoying southwest wind to deal with - the kind that was blowing the same speed we were riding, meaning even having a tailwind (which should be a wonderful relief on a hot day) ended up basically putting us in a sauna.  That, and I'd completely forgotten that there were three successive rather steep hills at the end of the route.  In short, I am hurting this morning.  But it's a great ride, well staffed and supported, and apart from those irritating hills it's a good route.

So, what did you do this weekend?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

It's on now

A number of district, including my own, are voting today.  If your district is one of them, go out and vote.

Decisions are made by those who show up.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Friday Music XV

Apologies for the slight hiatus this week. Normal blogging will resume next week.

Pet Shop Boys - "Integral"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ruminations on the National Anthem

One of the many reasons I enjoy watching international sporting events is the chance to compare the national anthems of different countries.  There are a few nations with some very stirring anthems - "O Canada" and "Advance, Australia Fair" immediately spring to mind.  "La Marseillaise" is also excellent, but it's rather creepy once you know what the last few lines ("Marchons, marchons! / Qu'un sang impur, / Abreuve nos sillons!") translates into.  A few could probably be replaced by something better, but at least aren't that bad - I'd put the "Deutschlandlied" and "God Save the Queen" in this category, although the British don't seem to realize that "Jerusalem" is a vastly better song, despite it's obvious religious overtones.  It's just a very moving piece of music.  I'm even partial to "Rule, Britannia!" but such imperialistic sentiments are probably inappropriate in the 21st Century.

Which brings me to the rather troubled national anthem of these, our United States.  First off, it's unsingable.  How often must we suffer through trained performers screwing it up before this becomes clear?  Second, the song is almost unique in the world of national anthems, in that it is a description of an event (the shelling of Fort McHenry), rather than simply an ode to the nation and its virtues.  Third, the tune simply isn't (to my mind) all that great.  And, as it happens, there's a much better piece that solves all these problems and is already quite well-known: "America, the Beautiful."

Yes, it invokes the almighty in the refrain, but in the form of a request, not an assertion.  I get a lot less upset at "God shed his grace on thee" than the ridiculous "Annuit coeptis" on our currency, as if we are all certain that God or providence has, in fact, favored our undertaking.  But beyond that, the lyrics are truly moving, especially the fourth verse:
Oh, beautiful for patriot dream,
Which sees beyond the years.
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears.
I still recall Dan Rather breaking down while reciting these words on David Letterman's first broadcast after 9/11, and remarking that "We can never sing those words the same way again."  No, we can't.  If nothing else, the sentiment is perfect for a post-9/11 America.  And the melody is evocative too, unlike the current national anthem, which sounds like what it is: the tune of a drinking song, namely "To Anacreon in Heaven."  Ew.  And so, here in the early 21st Century, we ought to do away with our substandard anthem, and replace it with the first or, better yet, fourth verse of "America, the Beautiful."

And while I'm on the topic of official songs, I'm quite a fan of "On, Wisconsin," but "Maryland, My Maryland" really needs to be stricken as the state song of Maryland.  Why?  Because the song was written by a secessionist hoping Maryland would join the Confederacy.  And it refers to our greatest president as a "tyrant," a "vandal," and a "despot."  Why the Hell is it Maryland's state song?*  And before you say "But, [Redacted], state songs and national anthems are traditions and cannot be changed," check out Colorado.  That's right!  In 2007, the State of Colorado changed their state song to that atrocious John Denver diddy, "Rocky Mountain High," causing stoners everywhere to snicker.  Tennessee has had eight different state songs, and the current one is a 1980 country song by Ronnie Milsap.  I guess "Rocky Top" got boring or something.  "Georgia on My Mind" only became the state song of Georgia in the Seventies.  So while I'm advocating for our national anthem to be changed to "America, the Beautiful," can someone please write a song about Maryland, so that the Old Line State can finally have a non-secessionist state song?

*Also, on an aesthetic note, the song isn't helped by being set to the hokey and groan-inducing strains of "O Tannenbaum."

Friday, July 1, 2011

Friday Music XIV

In light of the mounting debt crisis, and the utter inability of our political leaders to agree on, well, anything really, I have to go in the obvious direction.

R.E.M. - "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Brinksmanship and the Church of Cut My Taxes

Andrew Sullivan posts devastating critique of the GOP strategy on the debt:
For the GOP to use the debt ceiling to put a gun to the head of the US and global economy until they get only massive spending cuts and no revenue enhancement is therefore the clearest sign yet of their abandonment of the last shreds of a conservative disposition. A conservative does not risk the entire economic system to score an ideological victory. That is what a fanatic does. And when that fanatical faction was responsible for huge spending binges in the recent past, for two off-budget wars costing $4.4 trillion, a new Medicare benefit, and tax revenues at a 50-year low relative to GDP and tax rates below the levels of Ronald Reagan, this insistence is lunacy, when it isn't gob-smackingly hypocritical. I say this as someone who was railing against too much spending when these people were throwing money away like it was confetti. "Deficits don't matter," remember?

It seems to me there are two options the president can take. The first is what you are told to do when a criminal or terrorist holds a gun to your head. You surrender.

The point of economic blackmail is that it works. If you have a scintilla of public responsibility and you hold public office, you cannot allow default. And so you give them everything they want. You announce this while declaring you abhor the package but have to back it for the sake of the national interest in preventing catastrophe. You detail and expose the Republican priorities far more aggressively than in the past. You blame the performance of the economy entirely on them from now on out. And you run on a platform of shared sacrifice - of revenue-enhancing tax reform and tax hikes for millionaires. Then you run against the Republicans as hard as you can.

The second option is to bypass them, invoke the 14th Amendment, and order the Treasury to keep paying its debts because an extraordinarily reckless faction wants to destroy the American economy in order to save it (and pin the subsequent double-dip recession on Obama). Bruce Bartlett outlines the mechanism here. He has some other ideas for coping here.

What you probably cannot do is negotiate with economic equivalent of terrorists. What Cantor and Boehner are doing is essentially letting the world know they have an economic WMD in their possession. And it will go off if you do not give them everything they want, with no negotiation possible. That's the nature of today's GOP. It needs to be destroyed before it can recover.
He's right.  It's just shocking to see the GOP and its leaders, like Boehner and Ryan, talking about default so nonchalantly.  But I'd just love to see the President invoke the 14th Amendment, pay the debt anyway, and then dare Congress to stop him.  I can't find a clip, but a guy was explaining that to Chris Matthews yesterday, and pointing out that probably even Congress would not have the standing necessary to challenge it in court, meaning impeachment would be the only remedy.  I'd just love to see that.  Congress impeaching a President for keeping our economy from collapsing.

Sanity, it seems, has gone on vacation.

UPDATE: My wife points my attention to this article, which explains the workings of the 14th Amendment argument.  Money quote:
Writing in the Financial Times in April, Former Reagan adviser and Treasury official Bruce Bartlett said the Obama administration could justify ignoring Congress to ensure the nation pays its debts.
"The president would be justified in taking extreme actions to protect against a debt default. In the event that congressional irresponsibility makes default impossible to avoid, he should order the secretary of the Treasury to simply disregard the debt limit and sell whatever securities are necessary to raise cash to pay the nation's debts. They are protected by the full faith and credit of the United States and preventing default is no less justified than using American military power to protect against an armed invasion without a congressional declaration of war," Bartlett wrote. "Under those circumstances, when default is the only possible alternative, I believe that the president and the Treasury secretary would be justified in taking extraordinary action to prevent it, even if it means violating the debt limit."
However, if Obama were to follow that route, it's still unclear how the courts would rule.

Grim and Saass point to the 1935 Perry v. U.S Supreme Court ruling, which determined that the language in the Fourteenth Amendment does apply to the national debt. What's more, they observe, according to the majority opinion on the case, no act of Congress can undermine promises of debt payment from the federal government.
"To say that the Congress may withdraw or ignore that pledge is to assume that the Constitution contemplates a vain promise; a pledge having no other sanction than the pleasure and convenience of the pledgor," wrote Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who presided over the case.
The plot thickens.  According to that interpretation, Congress is forbidden from doing exactly what they're doing now, i.e. holding a gun to the President's head over the debt.  Again, this seems like the sort of issue where the Supreme Court will just scream "Political question!" and run for the hills.  Or simply say that Congress lacks standing to bring a suit against the President.

Rick Perry: Ignorant of the Establishment Clause


The gist of it is that things are so screwed up that only sky daddy can fix them. Our sins are so bad that only He/She/It can take them away, and blah blah blah.

Yeah, I'll pass. But, please Governor. Please run for President. Just so everyone can see what a massive idiot you are.

What a Day!

Already we've got Mark Halperin going for the gold and calling the President "kind of a dick" on MSNBC's air. But then, as if the universe itself were trying to do bloggers and ironists a HUGE favor, I read this:
Chris Hansen, the host of NBC’s To Catch a Predator, was himself caught on camera with an apparent mistress in Florida. The sting was arranged by National Enquirer, and it shows Hansen, who is married with children, with Kristyn Caddell, a blonde television anchor 20 years his junior. He took her to a dinner at the Ritz-Carlton in Manalapan before spending the night at her apartment. The couple apparently met four months ago.
Oh, man.  So many directions to go with this one.  The irony is  I suppose the only thing that could have made it better would have been if a disapproving, moralizing, middle-aged news anchor could have come up to the table and asked Mr. Hansen what he has to say for himself.  Or if his wife had been in another room watching the video and had come out to confront him.

And all of this the day after the President slapped down the Boehner/Cantor/McConnell cabal.  Shorter version: "I killed bin Laden, now let's make a freaking deal."  Shorter Boehner/Cantor/McConnell: "Take your deal and shove it."  And yet Mark Halperin thinks Obama's the one acting like a dick.  Oy.

Now, I fully appreciate that both of these stories aren't so much news as meta-news.  That is, they're stories about the people who make stories that matter.  But in this case, Halperin and Hansen have something in common, specifically, and I don't think this is just my opinion, they're both jerks.  Hansen was just begging for a fall after years of that disgusting television show that only got put out to pasture when it caused a guy to kill himself while the cameras rolled outside.*  Halperin, on the other hand, has always been an incredibly glib reporter (remember that he once said John Edwards thinks Obama is "kind of a pussy" so he has a history of just this sort of thing) and not a terribly good one to boot.

The way this day is going, maybe we'll get some karmic justice for Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity as well!  Who can tell?

*For more on that subject, I highly recommend this article by Esquire's Luke Dittrich.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

We Spent $3,700,000,000,000...

...and all we got was a decade of war.

I don't know about you, but I could think of some better uses for that kind of money. Although when it comes to Afghanistan, I'm becoming more and more certain that setting the money on fire would be better than continuing to fund a corrupt and incompetent government. And how many times do we have to hear stories about entire planeloads of cash just up and disappearing before it stops?

Today's bonus music is Bad Religion, "Let Them Eat War." It seems appropriate.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

New York, New York

I had thought of interrupting my weekend to post about the New York legislature's historic passage of same-sex marriage, but I figured it could wait.

I've said before that I haven't yet heard an argument against marriage equality for homosexuals that isn't at least implicitly religious.  What other reason is there to care?  Apart from the obvious and sensible cultural prohibitions against rape, incest, and child molestation (which have nothing whatsoever to do with religion), there's really not much reason to care at all about anyone's sexual proclivities.  There are few things more offensive and laughable than the absurd notion that extending a social institution like marriage to gays and lesbians is some sort of a threat to the institution.  How?  What difference did it make to my marriage that a few million more people can get married today than could last week?

More to the point, and I think this is why a few brave Republicans in the New York legislature came around on this issue, letting gays and lesbians enter the institution of marriage is, ultimately, a conservative position.  Rather than wanting to tear down the institution (the radical position), homosexuals are simply asking to join the rest of us in having access to the estate of marriage.  Conservatives should be applauding that.  These people want to join in an institution that promotes societal values of love, care, and loyalty.

At the same time, I suspect that that is precisely why some on the political Right oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry.  Think about it.  Much of your homophobia in society is based on some very powerful stereotypes.  Namely, that all gay men are pedophiles (read the arguments the Boy Scouts made in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale and you'll see what I mean - the BSA essentially argues that gays shouldn't be allowed in because they all want to rape young boys) and that homosexuals in general are more promiscuous than heterosexuals.  The first of these is a category error.  The second is an outright falsehood created by idiots.  Allowing homosexuals to marry each other destroys both of these stereotypes.  Child rapists aren't interested in getting married, nor are people who just want to have a lot of casual sex with many different partners.  Instead, we're all going to find out that gays and lesbians are a lot like heterosexuals: Some are interested in monogamy, some aren't.  And homosexual rape has a long, long way to go before it's anywhere near as prevalent as heterosexual rape (or rape condoned by the very same religious institutions opposing equality for homosexuals, i.e. the Catholic Church).  Once you destroy those myths about gays and lesbians, all you have left is the "ew" factor.  Some people don't like to think about the way homosexuals have sex.  Then again, those same people would probably be appalled at the way some straight people have sex.  But in any case, it isn't the role of the government to regulate what two (or more) consenting adults do in private.  The government's reach in that sphere extends only so far as these three questions: 1) Is it incest?  2) Are all involved adults legally able to give consent?  3) Has such consent been given?  That's it.

New York, at least, seems to have gotten that message.  And so, in honor of New York's historic achievement, I give you Roy Zimmerman performing "Defenders of Marriage."  Enjoy.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Music XIII - Killswitch Engage Edition

Looking back at the music I've posted on various Fridays, it's been an eclectic mix to say the least.  Punk Bad Religion, twice), American metal (Metallica), indie rock (Guster and Bloc Party), classic rock (Mark Knopfler), even some Billy Joel doo-wop.  But, alas, the time has come to turn the volume up to eleven.  I've been to my share of concerts, but seeing Killswitch Engage perform in a fairly small venue was probably my favorite.  Nothing like some good, loud, obnoxious metalcore to get you pumped up for the weekend.

"Rose of Sharyn"

"Self Revolution"

Quitting is the Republican Way

First Sarah Palin resigned as Governor of Alaska, and now Eric Cantor and John Kyl quit Joe Biden's budget negotiations just as soon as it becomes painfully obvious that revenue increases are the only way out of this mess.  All class.

New GOP slogan: When the going gets tough, quit baby quit!

The Church of Cut My Taxes is still on the march.  President Obama should use this opening to push for an outright repeal of the Bush tax cuts.  Then, and this is crucial, don't flinch.

The Republicans want to bring a gun to the table, metaphorically speaking.  It's time the President brought some artillery of his own.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Jon Stewart vs. Fox, Round Two

Stewart was absolutely on fire last night.  How on fire?  This on fire.

Concealed carry quick thought

I don't know about you, but the thought that the person next to me on the sidewalk could be strapped doesn't exactly fill me with a sense of safety.  In fact, I will feel manifestly less safe when the law goes into effect.

I'm sure a whole lot of gun owners will feel more macho and self-confident, though, so I guess it's all worthwhile.

Now we just wait for the inevitable "accidental" shooting, or the first crime committed by a person with a concealed carry permit, etc., etc.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

This Karzai is a lemon

Leslie Gelb blows up at Hamid Karzai:
Ambassador Karl Eikenberry spoke for all Americans, hawks and doves, in publicly slamming President Karzai last weekend. Soon to depart Kabul, the ambassador couldn’t stand another minute of Karzai’s gratuitous attacks on an America that is bleeding itself in lives and dollars for Afghanistan’s freedom. So, he had a few undiplomatic words for the Afghan leader he has long despised in private. Eikenberry’s unmistakable point was this: If Karzai persists in trashing the United States, he will succeed only in convincing more and more Americans to say “enough,” let’s get out of Karzai’s hell hole as quickly as possible. Indeed, if Americans were to hear Karzai’s ingratitude as often as they were exposed to Anthony Weiner’s private parts, U.S. troops would be on their way out of Afghanistan next week.
Considering the persistent rumors of Karzai's ties to the opium trade and his ridiculous remarks of late, I'd say that's not such a bad idea.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Fear of Dying

Professor Costica Bradatan published an excellent piece in the NYT this weekend, and as a philosophy nerd I simply have to share it.  But Professor Bradatan's subject isn't metaphysics or epistemology, it is death.  Money quote:
There is a point beyond which philosophy, if it is not to lose face, must turn into something else: performance. It has to pass a test in a foreign land, a territory that’s not its own. For the ultimate testing of our philosophy takes place not in the sphere of strictly rational procedures (writing, teaching, lecturing), but elsewhere: in the fierce confrontation with death of the animal that we are. The worthiness of one’s philosophy reveals itself, if anywhere, in the live performance of one’s encounter with one’s own death; that’s how we find out whether it is of some substance or it is all futility. Tell me how you deal with your fear of annihilation, and I will tell you about your philosophy.

Furthermore, death is such a terrifying event, and the fear of it so universal, that to invite it by way of faithfulness to one’s ideas is something that fascinates and disturbs at the same time. Those who do so take on an aura of uncanny election, of almost un-human distinction; all stand in awe in before them. With it also comes a certain form of power. This is why, for example, one’s self-immolation (meant as political protest) can have devastating social and political effects, as we saw recently in Tunisia, when 26-year-old Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire. This is also why the death of those philosophers who choose to die for an idea comes soon to be seen as an essential part of their work. In fact their deaths often become far more important than their lives. Why is Socrates such an important and influential figure? Mostly because of the manner and circumstances of his death. He may have never written a book, but he crafted one of the most famous endings of all time: his own. Any philosophical text would pale in comparison.
Bradatan makes a very serious point here.  I once read a philosophical paper (I can't remember the title or author, or I'd give full credit here) which argued that there are multiple different fears which make death and dying so terrifying for most people.  Those fears included the fear of the process of dying, the fear of judgment, and the fear of annihilation.  Each of these is completely understandable, but let's take a moment to unpack them.

The fear of the process of dying is obvious - death involves organs shutting down, and the processes of life ceasing.  It's perfectly natural to presume that there's going to be some pain, perhaps even excruciating pain, involved.  To provide a very personal example, take the case of my grandfather, who died a year and a half ago from an catastrophic stroke.  He collapsed and was, essentially, dead when he hit the floor.  The suddenness of it was brutal.  But, despite that, I distinctly remember feeling a measure of relief at the funeral.  Relief that Grandpa hadn't been made to linger in pain and misery.  Similar sentiments were expressed aloud by other mourners.  We humans may naturally fear death, but part of that is apprehension of the area between "alive" and "not alive."  The shorter the interval between the two states, we seem to acknowledge, the better.

Fear of judgment is a different matter.  Partly, I would argue, it's a matter of people being programmed from very early ages (in most cases) to believe that there is an omniscient, omnipotent being who can and will pass judgment on everyone without exception after they die.  This serves a few purposes.  First, there's the obvious position that religion, by hypothesizing a universal judgment after death, promotes good behavior here on Earth in order to avoid punishment or attain paradise in the hereafter.  But more subtly, it appeals to the innate desire for justice that most humans seem to have.  Whether or not you believe that "the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice" (and I have very serious doubts about that sentiment, much to the dismay of my Hegelian friends), there is an appeal to the idea that, in the end, all accounts will be settled, and all wrongs made right.  This yearning for just deserts to be given out is always overheard when theists confront atheists.  "If there is no God, then it doesn't matter how bad you are while you live.  You could be as bad as Hitler and just kill yourself before you got punished, and nothing bad would ever happen to you."  It feels good to imagine that Hitler and other evil humans are in Hell, eternally suffering for their misdeeds.  But knowing that others are suffering for their sins requires one to believe that the same fate is possible for oneself, hence the fear of judgment.

Finally, the trickiest one.  The fear of annihilation isn't talked about like the process of dying and the possibility of judgment.  In fact, it's rarely talked about at all, and the philosophers who have done the best job of addressing the fear of nothing beyond this life tend to be, well, not very uplifting.  Certainly the nihilists have their thoughts, as do the existentialists.  Personally, I think Sartre and especially Camus do the best job of confronting the fear of annihilation.  The Myth of Sisyphus is probably the most frank discussion of death and nothingness in an indifferent universe that can be found.  Even theists, fearing that their faith is misplaced, worry over the possibility of a great nothing beyond this life.  Kierkegaard gave serious thought to that sentiment, as did Pascal (although I share Hitchens' disgust for Pascal's hucksterish and disingenuous Wager, which laughably presents the issue of God's existence in the same way a used car salesman would, i.e. "What do you have to lose?").  We don't want to believe that the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov was right and that all that awaits us beyond the grave is death.  But the possibility is there, and this is what Bradatan is addressing.  Our response to our natural fear that there is nothing, simply nothing, after our short lives end, is the defining characteristic of our personal philosophy.

Consider some possible responses to this fear.  Sincere theists, for instance, deny it with faith.  They honestly believe and positively assert that there is something more beyond this life.  Most atheists (myself included) are agnostic on the question of what happens after death - we simply do not, and by definition cannot while we draw breath, know what happens after we die.  But, having no evidence to suggest otherwise, we must at least prepare ourselves for the eventuality that there is only nothingness, which is exactly what there was before we were born.  It would be very curious if there were some sort of eternal state of being which extended forward in time but not backward.  But the very idea of anything being eternal is scientifically and metaphysically absurd.  Even the stars in the heavens will eventually burn out.  The universe itself will end, whether by heat death, a big rip, or a big crunch, all of this reality will pass away, albeit in a very, very, very long time.  It makes no sense to me to say, without any evidence, that I could somehow outlive the universe that I am a part of.  This is why I tend towards the existentialist branch of thought when it comes to annihilation.  I don't at all share Sartre's Marxist leanings (which he himself realized were in conflict with his individualistic philosophy), but I do agree with him that, at the very least, I need to live with the assumption that this is the only shot at living I am going to get, and I had better make the most of it.

That being said, I don't want there to be nothingness.  Who could?  It's not really possible to escape the fear of nothingness, because the mind simply recoils at the thought.  At best, it's extremely difficult for our minds to comprehend our own nonexistence.  Speaking personally again, I find the thought of never again seeing my wife, of a separation from her for all time, to be one of the most awful possibilities my mind can conceive.  It does not comfort me in the slightest that if I am annihilated, I will not be conscious and aware of that separation from her.  If wishing an eternal afterlife into existence could make it so, then I wouldn't have to worry about it, because we all would have wished it into existence.  But, if there's any point of philosophy that has really stuck with me, it is the existentialists' argument that the universe is coldly indifferent to its inhabitants.  It is neither malevolent nor benevolent in its workings, it simply is what it is, irrespective of how we feel about it.  Sometimes the dealer tosses you aces, and sometimes the dice come up snake eyes.*  There's no right or wrong to it.

That's my answer to Bradatan's challenge.  I concede, it isn't a happy one.  My wife sometimes confronts me on the subject of philosophy, and she has a valid point.  The gist of her argument is this, "Thinking about things like nothingness and the end of life clearly isn't making you happier.  So why not think about something else, or change your mind?"  My response is always the same: "I can't."  On this score, I concede I envy the very religious.  They may be deluding themselves, and they may be believing on no evidence whatsoever, but self-deception usually has the benefit of making the individual happy.  On some level, I would be very comforted it I could believe that there is a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient father-like God to spare me from nothingness after I die.**  I'd be a lot happier if I could believe that my wife and I could be together for all time.  I don't think anything would make me happier.

But I can't.  Nor can I simply not think about it.  In my mind, at least, I have to think about it.  Mortality is inevitable.  It's coming, and there's nothing anyone can do about it.  I'm certain about very few things in this life, but the fact that it will end is one of them.  The best I can do is remain agnostic about what happens after that end, and at least prepare myself for the potential for nothingness.  And, more importantly, live my life to the fullest possible extent, because I have no reason to believe I will get a do-over.

*Holy mixed metaphor!

**On another level, I'd be a lot less comforted if that God were as dictatorial as his followers say he is.

H/T: Sullivan.

Shooting fish in a barrel

Hitch takes down David Mamet.*  One of them is a playwright with no apparent sense of politics or timing (defending Sarah Palin when she's on the downturn doesn't speak well to either, anyway), the other is probably the greatest living polemic writer on the planet.  It almost doesn't seem fair.  And from the first clause ("This is an extraordinarily irritating book, written by one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason."), you know Hitchens isn't taking any prisoners.
Some of David Mamet’s unqualified declarations are made even more tersely. On one page affirmative action is described as being “as injust as chattel slavery”; on another as being comparable to the Japanese internment and the Dred Scott decision. We learn that 1973 was the year the United States “won” the Vietnam War, and that Karl Marx — who on the evidence was somewhat more industrious than Sarah Palin — “never worked a day in his life.” Slackness or confusion might explain his reference to the ­Scottish-Canadian newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook as a Jewish courtier in the tradition of Disraeli and Kissinger, but it is more than ignorant to say of Bertrand Russell — author of one of the first reports from Moscow to analyze and excoriate Lenin — that he was a fellow-traveling dupe and tourist of the Jane Fonda style.

Propagandistic writing of this kind can be even more boring than it is irritating. For example, Mamet writes in “The Secret Knowledge” that “the Israelis would like to live in peace within their borders; the Arabs would like to kill them all.” Whatever one’s opinion of that conflict may be, this (twice-made) claim of his abolishes any need to analyze or even discuss it. It has a long way to go before it can even be called simplistic. By now, perhaps, you will not be surprised to know that Mamet regards global warming as a false alarm, and demands to be told “by what magical process” bumper stickers can “save whales, and free Tibet.” This again is not uncharacteristic of his pointlessly aggressive style: who on earth maintains that they can? If I were as prone to sloganizing as Mamet, I’d keep clear of bumper-sticker comparisons altogether.

*Full disclosure: Mamet, despite his recent incoherent political rantings, is the author of probably my favorite play, Glengarry Glen Ross, for which he won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize.  I own the film adaptation, and I see performances whenever I can.  But like the tragically flawed hero of that play, Shelley "The Machine" Lavine, Mamet's been on the decline for quite a long time now.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday Music XII

Puddle of Mudd - "Drift and Die"

But wait! Yesterday was Captain Picard Day! As my friends and family well know, there may be no bigger fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation than I, and in that spirit, I give you The Picard Song:

Adventures in stupid jokes

"I'm also unemployed."

Says the multi-millionaire running for President.

Oy vey.  I don't read anything into it other than Romney attempting a joke and making a perfect three-point landing on FAIL.  But still, it's just remarkable that he would actually say this to people looking for jobs.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why we don't need more people owning guns

Idiots like this: Man uses shotgun to blast off painful wart.
Murphy, who told the court he found gun under a hedge, reportedly fortified himself with several pints of beer, stretched out his left hand, and aimed the gun's barrel.
Murphy told the Telegraph that the beer wasn't to blame for his shot taking off more of his finger than he intended. He places blame on the weapon's recoil.
Despite the inherent risk of using a gun when a scalpel would do, Murphy told the Yorkshire Post he was surprised by his disfigurement.
"I didn't expect to lose my finger as well when I shot it but the gun recoiled and that was it. The wart was gone and so was most of my finger. There was nothing left, so no chance to re-attach it."
But surely no one in Wisconsin would EVER combine beer (practically the state beverage) with firearms, right?

You stay classy, Timothy Dolan

The former Archbishop of Milwaukee and current Archbishop of New York is, to put it mildly, an idiot.  I'm sorry.  It might be seen as impolite or worse in some circles to call a man of the cloth names.*  But if the shoe doth fit, then verily must The Most Reverend** Archbishop wear it.  To wit, this is what he wrote on his blog on the website of the Archdiocese of New York regarding impending marriage equality in New York state:
Last time I consulted an atlas, it is clear we are living in New York, in the United States of America – not in China or North Korea.  In those countries, government presumes daily to “redefine” rights, relationships, values, and natural law.  There, communiqués from the government can dictate the size of families, who lives and who dies, and what the very definition of “family” and “marriage” means.

But, please, not here!  Our country’s founding principles speak of rights given by God, not invented by government, and certain noble values – life, home, family, marriage, children, faith – that are protected, not re-defined, by a state presuming omnipotence.

Please, not here!  We cherish true freedom, not as the license to do whatever we want, but the liberty to do what we ought; we acknowledge that not every desire, urge, want, or chic cause is automatically a “right.”  And, what about other rights, like that of a child to be raised in a family with a mom and a dad?

Our beliefs should not be viewed as discrimination against homosexual people.  The Church affirms the basic human rights of gay men and women, and the state has rightly changed many laws to offer these men and women hospital visitation rights, bereavement leave, death benefits, insurance benefits, and the like.  This is not about denying rights. It is about upholding a truth about the human  condition.  Marriage is not simply a mechanism for delivering benefits:  It is the union of a man and a woman in a loving, permanent, life-giving union to pro-create children.  Please don’t vote to change that.  If you do, you are claiming the power to change what is not into what is, simply because you say so.  This is false, it is wrong, and it defies logic and common sense.
North Korea?  What the hell is this man talking about?  Amy Davidson of The New Yorker explodes on the bit about a right to a mom and dad:
This is, speaking very charitably, a non-sequitur.  There are all sorts of reasons children are raised in families that don't include "a mom and a dad;" Dolan must know that.  Same-sex marriage isn't one of them.  Maybe Dolan believes that divorce, in any circumstance, violates a child’s rights; how about children adopted by gay parents—does he believe that their rights would be protected by lingering in foster care, bounced from non-home to non-home? Would he prefer that those born to gay or lesbian parents had never existed? If so, that is a pretty tangled position for a Catholic (or even for a writer of North Korean communiqués).  Does he think that children should be taken away from gay parents (or single widowed parents, for that matter) who have loved them all their lives to be given to any heterosexual, or even just heterogeneous, couple? And even if he agrees with all of that, what on earth does it have to do with same-sex marriage? Allowing two people who love each other to marry will not stop people who don’t love each other from separating, or from getting married in the first place. Neither marriage nor love is a scarce resource. And yet Dolan talks as though there were thieves in his house.
Dare I say it?  Amen.  Does Dolan not realize the pervasive and delicious irony of men of the cloth, (who are by definition virgins who don't know the first thing about marital love or child-rearing in practice) appointing themselves the arbiters of what is and is not acceptable with respect to marriage and raising children?  How in the world would Dolan know what is or is not good for marriages and children?  I'm pretty sure that chastity-bound clergy are the very last people on Earth whose counsel we should seek on such things.

Moreover, did you notice that Dolan dragged out the old chestnut natural law line about the purpose of marriage being the procreation of children?  Again, I would ask, how would he know?  But beyond making smartass remarks, I do have a serious point to make here: If the ultimate purpose of marriage is to have children, then a whole lot of people who are married now shouldn't have been allowed to get married at all, if you follow that logic.  I guess my wife and I shouldn't have bothered getting married, since it's been four years now and we have no children, and aren't planning on any at this time.  Would Dolan prefer that we'd just shacked up instead?  But what do you expect from a church where premarital sex is a sin, using birth control or a condom is a sin, having sex while married but not intending to get pregnant is a sin (apparently), and basically you're supposed to have one child per sexual encounter?  But don't you dare point out that the people making and enforcing these ridiculous standards of purity can't seem to keep themselves away from small children.  The chutzpah is unbelievable.

What of couples where children are an impossibility due to infertility or other reasons?  They cannot procreate children, and according to the natural law argument, cannot fulfill the ultimate purpose of marriage.  By the way, that would include my own parents, who, after being unable to have children, proceeded to do something truly wonderful and adopt my sister, my brother, and I over a span of 15 years.  I'm sure Dolan would be willing to amend his definition of marriage to include straight couples adopting children,*** but that's not what he wrote, because only by limiting marriage's purpose to the procreation of children can you explicitly write the definition of marriage to exclude gay people.  What nonsense.

The North Korea line still really bothers me, if only because Dolan seems completely blind to how headsplittingly ironic it is that someone implicitly invoking the "because God says so" argument would accuse the other side of being like North Korea.  I'm pretty sure the people in favor of gay marriage aren't appealing to the authority of a celestial Great Leader and his son, the Dear Leader.****  It couldn't possibly be that this cleric is just trying to associate gay marriage with North Korea in a transparent attempt to poison the well.

Maybe they should teach basic logic in seminary.  Add that to the list of required courses right after "Keeping Your Hands Off Children 101" and "Advanced Keeping Your Hands Off Children 220."

In case I haven't made my case plain enough, I really, really don't think a bunch of repressed virgins in Roman collars are qualified to pass judgment on the sexual conduct of others, or to speak on matters of marriage and child-raising.  It's a category error.
*Although men of the cloth, it must be said, have been doing quite a bit to make sure they are called even worse names of late.  I'm pretty sure "pedophile" and "accessory to child rape" trump "idiot."  Just saying.

**Maybe it's the fact that I'm an atheist, but I do find it amusing that styles of address for Roman Catholic clergy get more absurd the higher up you go.  A priest is called "The Reverend Father."  Fine.  Bishops and Archbishops are referred to as "The Most Reverend," "Your Excellency," or "Your Grace."  Getting a little overblown there, but whatever.  Cardinals are "Your Eminence," which almost seems like a step down from "Excellency," but what do I know?  And finally, "His Holiness," is reserved for the Pope, which is really for the best, because at least that way the number of people on Earth who claim to be holy and infallible is only one more than the number who actually are.

***I suspect this is because straight people adopting children has become acceptable and even fashionable of late.  However, I have, on a few isolated occasions, been told by very devoutly religious people that my status as an adopted child means that, 1) my birth parents didn't love me, 2) my adoptive parents can't love me the same way that other people's parents love them (they wouldn't trouble themselves to explain why), and 3) God doesn't love me, because I'm essentially a bastard child, and it says in the Bible that blah blah blah.  My mental response to such blather usually rhymes with "chuck two," but ordinarily I just tell people that if such hideous thoughts are what their religion compels them to believe, perhaps for humanity's sake they ought to consider just what sort of God they're following.

****That line is ripped wholesale from Hitchens, I confess, and is entirely accurate.  Kim Jong Il (the Dear Leader) is not the true head of the North Korean state, but rather is only head of the party and the army.  His long-dead father, Kim Il-Sung (the Great Leader), is legally still the head of the state.  All songs and art must be in praise of the Dear Leader or the Great Leader.  Failure to pay homage is punished severely.  Does this sound familiar?

This is Tim Pawlenty's tax plan


Yeah, because the people at the top are hurting soooo much in this economy.  The Church of Cut My Taxes has a new acolyte.  One wonders if these people even live on the same planet as the rest of us.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The sick and twisted "values" of Michelle Bachmann

Some people, somewhere, may be asking: Just how crazy is Michelle Bachmann?

This crazy:
In April 2005, Pamela Arnold wanted to talk to her state senator, Michele Bachmann, who was then running for Congress. A 46-year-old who worked at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Arnold lived with her partner, the famed Arctic explorer Ann Bancroft, on a farm in Scandia, Minnesota. Bachmann was then leading the fight against gay marriage in the state. She'd recently been in the news for hiding in the bushes to observe a gay-rights rally at the Capitol. So when members of the Scandia gay community decided to attend one of Bachmann's constituent forums, Arnold, wanting to make herself visible to her representative, joined them.

A few dozen people showed up at the town hall for the April 9 event, and Bachmann greeted them warmly. But when, during the question and answer session, the topic turned to same-sex marriage, Bachmann ended the meeting 20 minutes early and rushed to the bathroom. Hoping to speak to her, Arnold and another middle-aged woman, a former nun, followed her. As Bachmann washed her hands and Arnold looked on, the ex-nun tried to talk to her about theology. Suddenly, after less than a minute, Bachmann let out a shriek. "Help!" she screamed. "Help! I'm being held against my will!"

Arnold, who is just over 5 feet tall, was stunned, and hurried to open the door. Bachmann bolted out and fled, crying, to an SUV outside. Then she called the police, saying, according to the police report, that she was "absolutely terrified and has never been that terrorized before as she had no idea what those two women were going to do to her." The Washington County attorney, however, declined to press charges, writing in a memo, "It seems clear from the statements given by both women that they simply wanted to discuss certain issues further with Ms. Bachmann."
I thought the old "Help, I'm being kidnapped" trick was something five-year-olds tried when they were in the car for a really long time.  But the article goes further, exposing Bachmann's education by a teacher of dominion theology, i.e., the idea that Christians should be in charge of everything, while she was at Coburn School of Law at Oral Roberts University.*
At Coburn, Bachmann studied with John Eidsmoe, who she recently described as "one of the professors who had a great influence on me." Bachmann served as his research assistant on the 1987 book Christianity and the Constitution, which argued that the United States was founded as a Christian theocracy, and that it should become one again. "The church and the state have separate spheres of authority, but both derive authority from God," Eidsmoe wrote. "In that sense America, like [Old Testament] Israel, is a theocracy."

Eidsmoe, who hung up the phone when asked for an interview, is a contentious figure. Last year, he withdrew from speaking at a Wisconsin Tea Party rally after the Associated Press raised questions about his history of addresses to white-supremacist groups. In 2010, speaking at a rally celebrating Alabama's secession from the Union, he claimed that Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun understood the Constitution better than Abraham Lincoln.

Reading Eidsmoe, though, some of Bachmann's most widely ridiculed statements begin to make sense. Earlier this year, for example, she was mocked for saying that the Founding Fathers "worked tirelessly" to end slavery. But in books by Eidsmoe and others who approach history from what they call a Christian worldview, this is a truism. Despite his defense of the Confederacy, Eidsmoe also argues that even those founders who owned slaves opposed the institution and wanted it to disappear, and that it was only Christian for them to protect their slaves until it did. "It might be very difficult for a freed slave to make a living in that economy; under such circumstances setting slaves free was both inhumane and irresponsible," he wrote.
This is the kind of stuff Bachmann takes seriously.  Even better, there's the classic story of the homophobe whose anti-gay demagoguery strikes close to home with their own relatives.
In the statehouse, Bachmann made opposition to same-sex marriage her signature issue. Both she and her husband, by all accounts her most trusted political adviser, believe that homosexuality can be cured. Speaking to a Christian radio station about gay teenagers last year, Marcus, who treats gay people in his counseling practice, said, "Barbarians need to be educated. They need to be disciplined, and just because someone feels this or thinks this, doesn't mean that we're supposed to go down that road."

In 2004, Bachmann gave a speech warning that same-sex marriage would lead to schoolchildren being indoctrinated into homosexuality. She wanted everyone to know, though, that she doesn't hate gay people. "Any of you who have members of your family in the lifestyle, we have a member of our family that is," she said. "This is not funny. It's a very sad life. It's part of Satan, I think, to say that this is gay."
She was clearly talking about her 51-year-old stepsister, Helen LaFave, who had lived with her partner, Nia Wronski, for more than 15 years. As Bachmann became the public face of opposition to same-sex marriage, her relationship with her stepsiblings grew strained. "Helen always liked Michele, always," says Linda Cielinski, one of Bachmann's other stepsisters. "They lived together as teenage girls. They were very close at that time." Bachmann's anti-gay activism, Cielinski says, "was a hit to the gut."
But it's okay!  Bachmann polled her family to see if they agreed with her that her own stepsister is "part of Satan."
And so, in April 2006, when the Minnesota Senate judiciary committee met for a hearing on Bachmann's proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, Helen LaFave, Wronski, and several relatives including Cielinski were all in the gallery. "I wanted Michele to put a face to this whole thing," says Cielinski. "These were family members she was hurting." They didn't intend to talk to the press—LaFave has always shied away from media attention—but journalists quickly learned who they were and surrounded them. (LaFave declined an interview request, citing concern about the effect of the controversy on her 87-year-old father, who is still married to Bachmann's mother.)

The ensuing brouhaha further tore at the family. In a Star Tribune story headlined "Bachmann, stepsister hold opposing views," Bachmann claimed that she'd polled her siblings and stepsiblings, and that six of the nine agreed with her. Her stepbrother Mike LaFave was horrified. "The reality was she hadn't taken a family vote count, nor would my family ever do such a thing," he says. "I just find it terrible that when Michele was taken by surprise by a question she wasn't prepared for, the first thing she did was throw not only my sister but her whole family under the bus."
Exactly how inhuman do you have to be to take a poll of your own family to see if they agree with you that your own stepsister is evil?  This is what she means by "family values?"  Her values are depraved.  I always tell people that my family values are simple: I would walk through fire to help my family, especially my sister and my brother.  Michelle Bachmann went on the radio and called her own stepsister a "barbarian," and then justified it by saying she'd called a vote, and most of the family agreed with her.  What the hell is wrong with these people?

How dare she lecture anyone about her so-called family values?

*The fact that Oral Roberts has a law school ought to be a minor national disgrace.

A query for the Wisconsin Supreme Court


If the Open Meetings law is no longer in force, and the legislature can pass laws while openly flouting that law, what other laws aren't in force anymore?

If anyone gets ticketed or arrested this week, they should just say, "I'm sorry officer, but now that an explicitly written law has been ruled meaningless by the state's highest court, who's to say what's actually law and what isn't!"

Nice can of worms those four justices just cracked open, don't you think?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Debate summary

Aaaaaand, go!

Obama is evil.  Tax cuts are the answer to everything.  We need to cut spending, but don't you dare ask for what specifically should be cut.  Holy crap, Obamacare is bad for deep and sinister reasons we won't bother to explain.  Attacking Libya was bad, but it's also bad that we're not attacking Libya more.  We would be better off if the American financial and automobile industries had been allowed to fail completely, even if that meant millions more unemployed.  Bailouts are bad, but huge tax breaks and subsidies for corporations are totally acceptable.  Obama is somehow in bed with both unions and big corporations. Gays are bad, Muslims are worse.

That's pretty much all you need to know.  My initial reaction: Meh.  Nothing substantive was said.  The personalities, at least, provided some interest.

Romney is still a flip-flopper, albeit more effective.  Apparently would have opposed invading Afghanistan back in 2001.  I bet.  He doesn't seem to grasp what effect huge bank failures and the death of GM would have had on the economy.  His distinction between Romneycare and Obamacare was absurdly thin.  But he does come off looking like the only serious candidate on stage.  His smirk while Pawlenty tried to squirm out of the "Obamneycare" line was classic, but he might want to watch it.  It was just that sort of thing that got Al Gore into trouble in the debates with George W. Bush.

Pawlenty either lacks the courage of his convictions or is a classic case of good man/lousy politician.  He's fine attacking Mitt Romney when Romney isn't standing next to him (like, for instance, on a Sunday morning talk show), but shrinks from that attack three times while on stage with Romney.  Was that an attack of conscience we saw on stage, or simply cowardice?  The first option is admirable in a person, but fatal in a politician.  The second is desirable in neither a person nor a politician.  Either way, no one will be impressed at him for backing off an attack 24 hours after starting it.  To quote Tony Blair, "Weak, weak, weak!"  Also, is it just me, or does everything he says come out awkwardly?  His voice, his sentence structure, the way he looked from the moderator to the camera to the crowd, it all conveyed a sense of nervousness and discomfort.  Perhaps it was because Romney was on stage, unlike in South Carolina?  If Republicans think Obama is too professorial, what must they think of Pawlenty?  And if he's gun-shy of attacking Romney, his campaign is over.  He can't out-Tea Party Bachmann.  His only path forward is to destroy Romney and then unify the party under his banner.  So far, that's not appearing likely.

Bachmann is aggressive, but still crazy.  Telling people to "take it to the bank" is a nice sound bite, but guaranteeing the repeal of the ACA is a pretty ludicrous statement.  There's this thing called a "filibuster" that she, being in the House rather than the Senate, apparently doesn't understand.  She's just launching her campaign, so she's still in the "all style and no substance" phase, and getting away with it.  No specifics at all, even compared to the rest of the group, which is saying something.

Santorum: Wackjob.  Good luck with that Federal Marriage Amendment, pal.  As my wife and I joked last night, "One, it doesn't have the votes.  Two, it still doesn't have the votes.  Three, it's a horrible idea to get the government in the business of defining marriage, not to mention discriminating.  Four, even if it weren't a horrible idea, it still doesn't have the votes."  My favorite Santorum complaint is that Google is biased against him.  Word of free advice, Rick: You might want to avoid saying the word "Google" at all costs.

Gingrich has given up.  It was written all over his face.  It's over and he knows it.  That "loyalty oath" crap was ludicrous, insane, bigoted, and he should be on his knees issuing retractions and apologies to anyone who will listen this morning.  But I'll settle for him dropping out of the race, which he inevitably will.

Herman Cain still hates Muslims, and is still a joke candidate.  I'm sorry, but there's a word for people who take his candidacy seriously: They're called "idiots."

Ron Paul has this unfortunate quality of having some very cogent, insightful things to say, but then immediately following them up with statements that can charitably be described as nuts.  Someone said in a review of his performance last night that "his act is wearing thin."  Yes it is.

In short, I think the two serious candidates on stage were Romney and Bachmann, who will garner the support of the "Stop Romney" crowd.  If Rick Perry decides to run, then Bachmann has a fight on her hands for that constituency.  That may be conventional wisdom, but in this case I think it's on the money.  No one else on that stage looked remotely serious as a contender for the presidency.  Naturally, I'd love to see Santorum or Cain win the nomination, because I think Obama would defeat them in a laugher, but that's not going to happen.

Gary Johnson and Jon Huntsman could threaten Romney, but they weren't on that stage.

I still want some debate moderator to ask this question: "You are all prating on about more and more tax cuts.  But taxes are at their lowest real percentage since the fifties, and we've just had a decade of huge tax cuts.  If tax cuts really are the solution, why wasn't the last decade the best in American history?"

Monday, June 13, 2011

WISGOP also kicks puppies

No, really.
The budget bill slated for an assembly vote tomorrow and senate vote on Thursday exempts scientific researchers from all state animal cruelty laws.  The Wisconsin Humane Society opposes this change because it is unnecessary and dangerous. Wisconsin law already exempts bona fide scientific researchers from the statutes prohibiting animal mistreatment in section 951.02 of the Wisconsin statutes, and poisoning in section 951.06.  The budget bill amendment is broader and would exempt researchers from the entirety of Chapter 951, the criminal laws relating to animal cruelty.  Chapter 951 includes provisions that require proper shelter, food and water and prohibit stealing animals, animal fighting, and abandonment.

Unlike the false rumor about research dogs in the budget bill a few months ago, this is a real and dramatic change that could become law this week.
Animals are a cause near and dear to me.   My wife and I are proud to volunteer at a local cat adoption center, helping find loving homes for cats who've been surrendered, found as strays, or seized from animal abusers and hoarders.  Our life has been vastly brightened by the addition of our very mischievous black cat (who, I'm proud to say, we rescued from a very unfortunate situation) two years ago. Many of my fondest memories growing up are of the two dogs* my family had during that time. So my objectivity on this matter is, well, pretty much non-existent.  But I don't see how this change in the law does anything to help get Wisconsin's fiscal house in order.  It just seems like giving sadists who torture animals a pass.

Bona fide research already gets a pass to do necessary work.  Surely that is enough.

H/T: Wisconsin Humane Society.  Bonus H/T to my wife for emailing me the press release.

*We had a Skye Terrier, and later a Shih Tzu.  I doubt two more different breeds (personality-wise) exist, but they were both wonderful companions.

Bet he didn't see that coming...

Harold Camping had a stroke.

I normally don't like to indulge in schadenfreude, but in the case of morons who were only weeks ago telling the world to convert to their religion or suffer eternal damnation, I will happily make an exception.

Random baseball trivium

Tony LaRussa managed his 5,000th game this weekend, which makes him second all-time in that category.  Wow.

Unfortunately, he has quite a ways to go to get to most all-time, since Connie Mack managed 7,755 games.  Only 17 more seasons* to go, Tony!

*Assuming Major League Baseball has no work stoppages and does not change the number of games in the season.

While watching Morning Joe...

...I heard Joe Scarborough say something rather silly.  I don't have a direct quote, but the upshot was that Jon Huntsman's candidacy is helped by the fact that, as former US Ambassador to China, he can tell us what China has done in the last decade to be so successful economically relative to us.

Hell, I've never even been to China, and I can tell you the answer to that, Joe.  Here goes: They don't care about their workers, they can throw people they don't like into prison or worse, they use forced labor, they have a command economy,* they pirate our goods, and they don't give a rat's ass about the environment.

Not helpful.

*But, Governor Romney, I thought command economies didn't grow relative to free-market economies!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday Music XI - Billy Joel Edition

There's always an extent to which one's musical taste is owed to exposure at an early age, for better or worse. And, like so many people, my love for the various hard rock and punk acts can probably at least partially be chalked up to rebellion against parental authority, even if my parents didn't really care that much what I listened to (within reason). On the other hand, I can think of two musicians where my appreciation for them is entirely due to my parents exposing me to them frequently when I was very young. One was Harry Chapin (and I really need to do one of these on him as well), and the other was one William Martin Joel. When I was taking piano lessons, I wanted to be Billy Joel. Then, well, I learned the electric guitar and I wanted to be in a metal band, but I never did lose my taste for Billy the Kid.


"Uptown Girl"

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Bush Tax Cuts, 10 Years In

Slate's Annie Lowrey gives us an ode to a "colossal failure."  First, the list of promised benefits from ol' G.W. himself:
In 2001, the Bush administration inherited a few years' worth of budget surpluses, so it decided to cut income tax rates, double the child-care credit, and sharply reduce the levies on investment income. The economy then slowed, even entering a brief recession. As a form of stimulus, the administration doubled down, expanding and hastening the 2001 changes. Bush promised that the tax cuts would do a whole lot more than put money in people's pockets—which, in fact, they did. He said they would "starve the beast," forcing Congress to reduce the size and scope of government. He promised they would increase the prosperity of all Americans. He also vowed: "Tax relief will create new jobs. Tax relief will generate new wealth. And tax relief will open new opportunities."
Well, this is almost unfair.  We all know how the story ends, because I'm pretty sure no one is going to be celebrating the first decade of the 21st Century as a time of prosperity, new wealth, and new opportunities.  But let's let Lowrey tell it:
What about the president's claims? Take his pledge that the cuts would spur job growth. To be fair, we'll ignore employment changes during 2008, the year the Great Recession seized the economy. During the 2001 to 2007 business cycle, America's economy enjoyed 52 straight months of job growth. But it was sluggish—in fact, the slowest rate of jobs growth on record since World War II, and just one-fifth the pace of the 1990s.

Then there's wealth. Put simply, the aughts were a decade of income stagnation: The tax cuts failed to bolster most taxpayers' earnings, even before the recession hit. Median real wages actually dropped from 2003 to 2007. Household income from business-cycle peak to business-cycle peak declined for the first time since tracking started in 1967. As documented by my colleague Timothy Noah in his series "The United States of Inequality," this did not hold true for the nation's billionaires and millionaires. Garden-variety high-wage earners saw their income go up. And incomes for the top 1 percent skyrocketed. For some people, obviously, the cuts "generated new wealth," in the president's phrase. But overall, inequality got worse.

That leads to the third metric: Did the cuts "open new opportunities"? It's a vague phrase, but one way to measure it is to look at job growth—and there's nothing to see there. Another way would be to say that the cuts benefited "job creators" (to use the current en vogue phrase), like the nation's start-up businesses. But the number of private-sector jobs created by young companies fell during the Bush administration.

Unfortunately, the tax cuts never translated into robust economic growth, either. Indeed, the aughts saw the worst growth since World War II. From 2001 to 2007, annual GDP growth averaged just 2.4 percent per year, lower than in any other postwar business cycle. The contrast is starker still when judging against the previous decade. In real terms, GDP grew half as much from 2001 to 2010 as from 1991 to 2000.
And Lowrey doesn't even mention that when the tax cuts were passed, they were sold as being "temporary," with a sunset provision to force Congress to renew them or let them expire, a trick that was later used with the horribly-named PATRIOT Act.  Of course, then Republicans vowed to make it political suicide for anyone in either party to oppose the renewal of the Bush tax cuts, even for a Democratic president (so it seems, anyway) and the cuts became de facto permanent.  Thank the Church of Cut My Taxes for that.  But Lowrey's wrap-up is pretty damning in and of itself:
OK, a final attempt at celebration. Did the tax cuts stimulate the flagging economy in the early aughts? Sort of. Tax cuts give a mild boost to the economy, but not a big one. "After the tax rebates in 2001, 2003, and 2008, households [spent] between 25 and 67 cents more for each dollar of tax cut," William Gale of the Tax Policy Center writes. That makes tax cuts "a relatively weak way to help the economy compared to increases in government purchases, for which each dollar of increased deficit turns into an additional dollar of spending."

So, to recap: The Bush tax cuts were followed by low GDP growth, negative median wage growth, and little job growth. Even before the Great Recession, growth in the Bush business cycle was the weakest since World War II. And the cuts cost about $2.6 trillion between 2001 and 2010, according to the Economic Policy Institute—adding to a debt future generations of taxpayers will pay for, plus interest.

By Bush's own metrics, then, the tax cuts were a failure. But perhaps that is because Bush chose such absurd metrics and made such silly promises about tax cuts' economic omnipotence in the first place. To state the obvious, tax cuts are not magic. They can help a strong economy get stronger or help a weak economy pick up some steam. They also have a direct impact on the government budget. But they cannot goose employers into adding millions of jobs, pay for themselves, and arrest the growth of government, all while delivering everyone cupcakes. So perhaps the best we can say about the Bush tax cuts is that they did exactly what we should have expected them to do.
Really?  Tax cuts don't have superpowers?  Stop the presses!  We've got to tell the Republicans Church of Cut My Taxes.  They've been telling us all these wonderful, mystical things that tax cuts can do, and it turns out that even after a decade of sticking with them, they just haven't delivered.  They did, on the other hand, make the rich a lot richer while doing sweet exactly nothing to help the other 99% of income earners.

I particularly enjoy the irony that the supposed party of "small" government had their way for the better part of a decade, and yet actually expanded the bureaucracy more than any administration since Johnson, not to mention launching two hugely expensive wars.  But this time, they say, they really mean it.

Maybe we should all be a little more skeptical the next time the Church of Cut My Taxes tells us that more tax-cutting will save the economy/create jobs/shrink government/feed the hungry/save the whales/give us all a pony, etc.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Filming the Police II

Still hazardous to your health, especially when they're trying to keep this video from becoming public:

Radley Balko has the story:
Miami Beach police did their best to destroy a citizen video that shows them shooting a man to death in a hail of bullets Memorial Day.

First, police pointed their guns at the man who shot the video, according to a Miami Herald interview with the videographer.

Then they ordered the man and his girlfriend out the car and threw them down to the ground, yelling “you want to be fucking paparazzi?”

Then they snatched the cell phone from his hand and slammed it to the ground before stomping on it. Then they placed the smashed phone in the videographer’s back pocket as he was laying down on the ground.

And finally, they took him to a mobile command center where they snapped his photo and demanded the phone again, then took him to police headquarters where they conducted a recorded interview with him before releasing him.

But what they didn’t know was that Narces Benoit had removed the SIM card and hid it in his mouth, which means the video survived.
In other words, in the aftermath of what looks to be a firing-squad style police shooting, the cops were very concerned with destroying the only video evidence of the incident. To the point that they destroyed his phone and took him into custody.* I wonder why.

I suspect this will be one of those cases where Dad29 and I actually agree on something. Law enforcement officers need to think before using deadly force. And the impulse to immediately destroy the evidence after using such force is not a good sign.

*I'm pretty sure a court could have a field day with the videographer's detention, since it certainly appears to have been involuntary, and the police had neither a warrant nor probable cause to arrest him for a crime they had witnessed. Filming the police, even when they themselves may be breaking the law, is not a crime.

H/T: Sullivan.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

About that Weiner

See, I've tried to avoid the topic, not out of any political desire to see Congressman Weiner spared the scandal, but just because I don't particularly wish to turn my blog into a stream of ribald double entendres, however amusing they may be.  Alas, that ship has sailed.

A few things should be pointed out. One, I'm not sure Weiner broke any law, other than the law of common sense.  This isn't a case like Eliot Spitzer or David Vitter (still a member of the Senate), who got caught using prostitutes.  Two, it matters that Weiner has never built himself on a holier-than-thou, family values facade of BS like a great many GOP cheats and perverts did (Chris Lee, Ted Haggard, Mark Foley, Newt Gingrich, Vitter, Larry Craig, Jimmy Swaggart, etc.).  In other words, there isn't the disgusting air of hypocrisy around Weiner that there was around the guys I just named.

But it doesn't matter that much to me.  Weiner should still resign.  Why?  Because it looks and is creepy.  I'm sorry, if this scandal doesn't fall squarely under the definition of "conduct unbecoming" then that phrase fails to have any meaning whatsoever.  It's about a higher standard existing for our leaders.  It's one thing to cheat on your spouse.  So long as you haven't been parading around as some sort of paragon of virtue and family values, I don't have a problem with adultery, politically speaking.  It isn't a disqualifier.  Sending creepy photos to really quite young women over the internet is another matter.  Maybe I'm making a distinction without a difference, but this Weiner has got to go.*

*Sorry, couldn't help myself.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Entering the world of 140 characters

I just joined Twitter, something I had sworn never to do.  Capper, this is all your fault.

@R3dacted, for those of you who care.

And no, the "abuse of Twitter" label is not a mistake, because I foresee Twitter becoming an easy outlet for the font of pithy one-liners in my head.

#AccordingtoPalin is trending

After the Paul Revere gaffe, and the creepy fallout involving some of her supporters trying to edit the Wikipedia page on Paul Revere to fit her version of events,* it wasn't hard to see these jokes coming.

Some of the better ones include:
The moon landing of Lance Armstrong shows what ordinary Americans can do when government just gets out of our way.
The free market wouldve solved that whole slavery thingamabob way before 1860 if taxes on the top 1% were lower.
That first one was courtesy of Jon Stewart.  I have a feeling this hashtag will be going strong for a while.

*I thought Conservatives hated post-modernism?  Sullivan says it best:
One of the most pernicious and dangerous features of Palin is her clinical refusal to understand reality, to accept error, to acknowledge when the facts she has cited are not actually facts, but delusions. And her vanity and pathologies are so deep she will insist that black is white until her minions actually find a source to prove it.
H/T: Andrew Sullivan.

Republicans: Still not serious about the economy

Blocking the nomination of a Nobel Prize-winning economist for governor of the Federal Reserve until the nominee is forced to withdraw.  Classy.
"It is time for me to withdraw, as I plan to inform the White House," Diamond, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in an opinion piece published in the New York Times titled, "When a Nobel Prize isn't enough."

The top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, Richard Shelby, has criticized Diamond, saying he lacks monetary policy experience.

At a May 12 committee hearing, Shelby said Diamond "is not the right person for this job," citing his lack of "appropriate background or experience" and his support of "bailing out the big banks during the crisis" and additional stimulus measures.
Can we disqualify Shelby from sitting on the Banking Committee for being a massive idiot?  I'm not a huge fan of bank bailouts, but I'm pretty sure that if the big banks hadn't been saved, the economy would be a whole hell of a lot worse now than it is.  But isn't that always the case with the GOP?  Mitt Romney continues to say we shouldn't have saved Chrysler and GM.  He is effectively telling us that he would have been okay with literally millions of lost jobs that would never return, and the complete annihilation of the American auto industry, which dates back more than a century.  Who can take such stuff seriously?  Probably the same people who can take this seriously:
But at the May 12 hearing, Shelby contended that "we are a nation awash in talented and capable people. Surely the president can find another nominee with the level of experience and temperament necessary to garner bipartisan support."
Excuse me, Senator Shelby, but you just blocked the nomination of a guy with a fucking Nobel Prize in Economics.  America may be "awash in talented and capable people" but I don't think you find Nobel laureates on every street corner.

"It's a pity since Diamond's work on labor markets would be of importance to the committee," said Michael Gapen, a former Fed economist now at Barclays Capital. "This was a case of politics winning out over pragmatism." 
That's putting it mildly.  I would call it the Republicans realizing that the only way they can defeat this president is if the economy is still doing badly in 2012, and doing everything in their power to kill the recovery.  If their dog and pony show on raising the debt ceiling (which even the Ryan plan would require) doesn't prove that, I don't know what does.