Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The 'Fraidest Generation

My latest newspaper column:
One difference between ISIS and those American preachers who claim the Bible requires murdering homosexuals: none of our presidential candidates have attended an ISIS convention. The pastors represent Christianity the same way ISIS represents Islam; that is, for zealots who interpret their holy book literally, to whom progress is anathema and otherness intolerable, they absolutely do. At the fringes of humanity there have always been people whose projection of their own secrets and fears leads to attacking others. ISIS takes it to sickening, but not unprecedented extremes. 
The mindset that leads Ben Carson to call evolution a lie planted in Charles Darwin’s head by the devil, or to Ted Cruz saying that we must never have a president who doesn’t begin each day on his Christian knees, or has Michele Bachmann suggesting rounding up Jews and converting them to Christianity because end-times are nigh, is merely a less fully devolved form of the self-righteous certainty that leads ISIS to do what they did in Paris. If preachers haven’t murdered here, they’ve fomented it in Africa. And danced, ugly, on the graves in Paris. “Conservatives” demand that Muslims speak out against “their” terrorists. When their would-be leaders genuflect before homicide-justifying Christian homophobes, they’re silent. 
Now, just as we refused entry to Jews during WWII, so Republican candidates and Congress dwellers, along with, sadly, some Democrats, demand we stop admitting Syrian refugees. Are Japanese-American style internment camps unthinkable? Not to everyone. Forced wearing of special I.D? Jawohl! Between childish insults of his competitors because that’s what makes America great, Donald Trump claims that if Parisians had been weaponized, the attacks wouldn’t have happened. Right. A fanatic wearing a suicide vest would see an armed concert hall and say, “Geez, a guy could get killed in there.” Far from turning off his followers, Trump’s bombast has increased support among brave American exceptionalists, abandoning our values with astonishing ease. They call Obama “weak.” What is it when they cave on our most basic principles? Claiming patriotism, they deny the power of America’s ideals. We’ve become the ‘fraidest generation. 
Terrorism won’t stop anytime soon, nor will terrified reactions to it, including discarding the standards that have actually made our country great, Mr. Trump. Turning our backs on all Muslims is exactly what ISIS wants from us. Against those governors, Republican patriots all, afraid of welcoming women and children, they’ve already won. These are people fleeing horrific fanaticism, people who fear ISIS more than we do. Screening is already rigorous, and not just, per Jeb and Ted, ironically, for Christians. Here’s a braver response, from the husband of a woman murdered in Paris. It puts us and our politicians to shame. So does this. And these ill-informed, fully Foxolimtrumpified Texan bullies disgrace us all.   
For its depth and detail, this comprehensive article about what ISIS wants is worth your time. Because their goal is to maintain a caliphate, holding territory is critical to their movement, which means that taking back their land is, indeed, of strategic importance. But done by whose troops? Not ours, the article suggests; our presence in Iraq spurred the creation of ISIS, after all. Plus, in the same way certain evangelicals who can’t wait for the end of this life see conversion of Jews as the path to the Apocalypse, so ISIS sees their death, along with ours, in war, on a battlefield convenient to their land. Which raises the central question: would American troops in Syria really prevent people from exploding their suicide vests here? Maybe the answer lies in recalling the results of our invasion of Iraq in the first place. 
Without doubt, the battle with radical Islam requires military action, and although the foot soldiers in Syria should be from that region, American power is indispensible. But in the end, it’s a battle of ideas. When we divest ourselves of our beliefs that might properly be called exceptional – religious freedom, diversity, education, generosity, our Constitution – we lose not just ourselves, but the very war we’re fighting. Letters to the editor, of late, display fear and claims that our president, choosing smarter ways to fight terrorism, is a traitor. We’ll never learn.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Rest Of The Story...

I've been wondering what happened to those conjoined twins whose brains Ben Carson separated, the doing of which propelled him to "gifted hands" fame. And now I know.
... But according to news media accounts two years after the surgery, one boy was discharged from the hospital with signs of severe neurological damage and remained in a vegetative state; the other was developmentally delayed.  
The twins’ mother, Theresia Vosseler, described in a subsequent interview with a German magazine being racked with guilt for seeking the separation surgery that left her sons so impaired she had to send them to live in an institution. 
In 1993, Vosseler told Freizeit Revue that she flew to Baltimore with “a healthy, happily babbling baby bundle and came back to Ravensburg with two lifeless, soundless, mentally and physically most severely damaged human bundles.” 
“I will never get over this,” said a bitter Vosseler. “Why did I have them separated? I will always feel guilty. . . I don’t believe in a good God anymore.” ...
Yes, the emphasis at the end is mine. Pretty profound: this "miracle" on which Carson has based his claims of his own glorification by God, by which he sees God as working through him, ended in disaster for the babies and faithlessness for their mother.

The article details several other procedures and outcomes and repeated assurances by Carson that God guides his hands. The same God that created the problems in the first place guides Carson's hands. And leads, in virtually all cases, to what most people would consider disastrous outcomes; and, in some cases, ethically questionable decisions to have proceeded at all.

What a guy, that God. Double whammy: conjoins the twins, sends Carson to make them worse. One must conclude that God was more interested in working the grift along with Carson, than in the lives of the kids he created. Maybe gets a cut of the royalties. How else to explain it?

Well, far be it from me to make this about God. The point, I think, is that it's yet another example of Ben Carson's self-delusion, of his certainty that he's God's chosen one, the belief in which justifies whatever he says, no matter how outrageous, no matter how devoid of understanding. And, in his professional career, despite the damaged children he left in his wake. It takes a special kind of mind to think that way.

[Image source

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tip 'O The Hat

If we have to be involved -- and, based on recent history, I'm not sure that we do or that it'll work out in our favor -- this is the way to do it, rather than with US troops doing the fighting.
SINJAR, Iraq (AP) — Kurdish Iraqi fighters, backed by the U.S.-led air campaign, launched an assault Thursday aiming to retake the strategic town of Sinjar, which the Islamic State group overran last year in an onslaught that caused the flight of tens of thousands of Yazidis and first prompted the U.S. to launch airstrikes against the militants...
Those people, and many more in the region, are the ones who have the most at stake; without their will and their troops, there's nothing we can do to change the course of history there. Well, that's not entirely true: as we've seen, we're quite capable of making things much, much worse, and of picking the wrong horses to ride. Ronald Reagan taught us that with the progenitors of al Qaeda, George Bush followed suit with his tragic stupidity in Iraq.

And now President Obama seems to be succumbing to the same concept; so far, at least, and as far as we know, it's only a handful of special forces. And maybe they can manage to help the Kurds, et al, without getting killed themselves. But sending in "just a few" is like telling her you'll only put in the tip... Someone's damn close to getting fked.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Whiners, In Three Flavors

Here's my latest newspaper column. It begins with a local issue, but it's a universal theme:

Here are some random thoughts. First: It’s not an infringement on your religious freedom if, as a tax-funded employee of a tax-funded school you can’t pray on the fifty-yard line of a tax-funded football field after a tax-funded football game. It would be, however, if the government were to tell you (or a Seahawk!) you couldn’t pray on your own time pretty much anywhere else. Why is that so hard? 
Initially I thought that football coach in Bremerton, humbly spiking himself in midfield because football is all about God, sounded like a decent if misguided guy. (He couldn’t wait till he got home? He needs other spectators besides God?) Now, as he’s made national headlines and all the Constitution-hating zealots in the country including members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus (!) are lining up behind him, and he’s promising to take this “all the way to the end,” I’m not so sure. He’s another Kim the Clerk: heroic martyrdom thrust upon him, reluctantly ready to ride it all the way to Fox “news.” 
Naturally, Satanists demanded equal time, and were predictably shouted down. Instead of parading outside the stadium, I wish they’d gone straight onto the field to do their ceremonial thing, because I’d like to know what would have happened. And what if it’d been Muslims? Do those who yelled at them sense the teeniest bit of hypocrisy? Of course not. To them this is a purely Christian nation. 
If you believe in religious freedom for all, and if you want public property to be a showplace for pious exhibitionism, you must do it impartially: be welcoming of prayers and displays by all flavors of faith, or of none. Enforcing that concept isn’t persecution; it’s what freedom from governmental preference demands, which is a problem for the fifty-seven-percent of today’s Republicans who want our country to become a Christian theocracy. Ted Cruz seems unhappy that non-believers are even allowed to vote. Be president? Unthinkable. When theocracy happens, who’ll decide which beliefs will remain acceptable? Pat Robertson? 
Since the argument won’t end until the Rapture, or the playoffs, let’s move on: How revelatory is it that all Republican candidates in the recent “debate” decided (correctly) that their voters would rather hear them attack the moderators than answer questions? I’m among those who found several of the questions the CNBC moderators asked to be embarrassing and inappropriately framed, opening themselves to justified criticism; but there were also many substantive (or, as the aggrieved call them, “gotcha”) questions. The candidates punted, lied, or simply dismissed facts that refuted their claims. 
Perpetual prevaricator Ben Carson characterizes questioning of his fabrications as “political correctness,” or smears by fearful secular progressives. Even his “business manager” admitted Carson lied about his connection to a bogus Bible-based supplement company. (Ironically, hawking phony cures is the best argument for Republican candidacy in his résumé.) Even Megyn Kelley mocked the candidates’ post-debate demands. Cruz got the biggest applause of the night when he bleated about unFoxorific questions, while dishonestly claiming only softballs were tossed to Democratic candidates. Previously puffing predictions of potently pounding Putin, they whined, wailed, and wilted before weightless words. Here, presumably, is how they’ll handle threats from actual enemies.  
Demonizing inquisitive media is indispensible to their game plan, because, as with all inconvenient truths, avoidance is easier. Good reporters, like expertise, are soft targets for hard cases. And it works: deep journalism is becoming scarce as ice in Greenland. 
Finally, though Ben Carson confuses its meaning, I do agree political correctness has gone amok, another trend that won’t change anytime soon. Along with uncritical acceptance of “alternative” medicine, it’s among several proclivities that I find discouraging at the edges of today’s liberalism, especially as it applies to the tender sensibilities of college students. Trigger warnings. Demanding uncontroversial speakers. And now, at U Dub, guidelines for inoffensive Halloween costumes. I believe in avoiding ethnic and racial slurs, and I try not to offend people (today’s mendacious Republican icons and their credulous supporters excepted, as public service). But if frangible college kids can’t handle discomforting ideas, they’ll never learn to distinguish fake “news” from reality. Then what?  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Most Successful Promotion In History

No, it's not a joke. Plus, now Donald Trump has jumped in with both neurons; upped the ante, even.

Yup. Not only did the evil plot work, it went back in time to do it.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Morality And Religion: Mutually Exclusive?

I've written here and elsewhere many times, many ways, that the trope that there's no morality without religion is bogus. That, in fact, doing "good" out of fear of eternal punishment and/or expectation of reward is inherently immoral. That doing "right" out of empathy, for no other reason than understanding that right is right, is true morality. So it's nice that there's a study (thanks for the heads-up Dougie) backing it up. Not that it's in any way unexpected:
Morality is often associated with religion, but new research reveals that children from religious households are actually less generous than kids from a secular background. 
This conclusion comes from a study of over 1000 children from around the world, published in the journal Current Biology. The project was led by Professor Jean Decety, a neuroscientist from the University of Chicago, who didn’t originally aim to compare moral behavior. “I was more interested in whether I would find differences in empathy or sharing depending on the culture,” he says. “It turned out to be a really interesting finding.” 
While previous research has examined generosity in adults, Decety’s work shows that upbringing shapes morality early in life. This includes altruism – actions that benefit a recipient at a cost to the donor. Children learn religious values and beliefs from their family and community, through rituals like going to church. If religion promotes morality, kids from religious households should have stronger altruistic tendencies...
It's an interesting study. As with all such experiments with human behavior, I'm sure criticisms can be made; and it's hard to say the extent to which giving away stickers (read the linked study) translates. Same with meting out punishment. Still, it's noteworthy that in the same situation with the same parameters, kids (lots of them) raised with religion and those without behaved in significantly different ways.

The linked article, which links to the study as well as several other worthwhile sources, also points out another obvious thing I've said many times in many arguments with religionists: there are strong evolutionary benefits to having empathy. You don't need to make up sky people to see it.

Not that it'll change minds.

[Image source]

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

David Brooks, Jeb(!), and Colon Health

My dad, or someone, used to tell this joke:

Three old guys are talking about the woes of ageing. One says how hard it is to pee; he stands there for a long time, dribbles, really annoying. Another says he's always constipated, takes forever to move his bowels. The third says, well, for me it's all like clockwork. Every morning around 7 am I have a nice full piss. 7:30 I have a big bowel movement. And around 8, I wake up.

David Brooks put me in mind of this when he gave some advice to Jeb(!) on talking TV Sunday:
If I were him I'd lead with his strengths. And just say, "I'm boring. I'm boring. Is our problem in Washington we don't have enough boringness? No. We've got too much craziness. And so I'm going to be a sedative. I'm going to be a laxative, I guess. You know, I'm going to calm you down.

It's not the dumbest thing Brooks has ever said (who can count them?), but it's right up there: drug us to sleep, then cause us to shit ourselves. Well, in his defense, it's a unique strategy, and it can't make Jeb(!)s campaign any worse.

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Monday, November 2, 2015


Too good to make you click a link. But it's from here.

Important Distinction, If Useless

Ignorance vs anti-knowledge. They aren't the same, and the latter has become the central motivation of today's Republican party. This opinion piece says it well.
... Fifty years ago, if a person did not know who the prime minister of Great Britain was, what the conflict in Vietnam was about, or the barest rudiments of how a nuclear reaction worked, he would shrug his shoulders and move on. And if he didn’t bother to know those things, he was in all likelihood politically apathetic and confined his passionate arguing to topics like sports or the attributes of the opposite sex... 
... At present, however, a person can be blissfully ignorant of how to locate Kenya on a map, but know to a metaphysical certitude that Barack Obama was born there, because he learned it from Fox News. Likewise, he can be unable to differentiate a species from a phylum but be confident from viewing the 700 Club that evolution is “politically correct” hooey and that the earth is 6,000 years old. 
And he may never have read the Constitution and have no clue about the Commerce Clause, but believe with an angry righteousness that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. 
This brings us inevitably to celebrity presidential candidate Ben Carson. The man is anti-knowledge incarnated, a walking compendium of every imbecility ever uttered during the last three decades...
The author goes on:
The current wave, which now threatens to swamp our political culture, began in a similar fashion with the rise to prominence in the 1970s of fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But to a far greater degree than previous outbreaks, fundamentalism has merged its personnel, its policies, its tactics and its fate with a major American political party, the Republicans... 
... Buttressing this merger is a vast support structure of media, foundations, pressure groups and even a thriving cottage industry of fake historians and phony scientists. From Fox News to the Discovery Institute (which exists solely to “disprove” evolution), and from the Heritage Foundation (which propagandizes that tax cuts increase revenue despite massive empirical evidence to the contrary) to bogus “historians” like David Barton (who confected a fraudulent biography of a piously devout Thomas Jefferson that had to be withdrawn by the publisher), the anti-knowledge crowd has created an immense ecosystem of political disinformation...
This is, of course, exactly what I've been saying, surely less well-articulated, for years. It defies understanding and, except for the fact that it's undeniably true, belief. A democratic republic can't long endure when one of its two political parties has turned entirely to promoting such anti-knowledge, such a concerted effort to denigrate expertise. It's a transparent admission that they can't win by appealing to an educated public; and it explains their commitment to degrading public education, among other things.

Sadly, no more than I, the author has no suggestions of what might lead to change; nor, like me, evinces any sense of hope that it ever will.

[Image source]

Sunday, November 1, 2015

It's Sunday. Pass The Plates

Living in the kill zone, as it were, of the Cascadia subduction zone, and reading about the potential disaster it represents, a question occurs to me, for the creationists out there: why?

I've had conversations about the obvious flaws in the perfectly designed humans by the perfect designer, and the answer is always the same: it was fine until the fall. Had Adam and Eve not shown a desire for knowledge, we'd not have hemorrhoids, cancer, birth defects, Alzheimer's, bicuspid aortic valves, or halitosis.

Okay. Mighty tough love, bringing havoc for one mistake by the parents of us all upon all generations henceforth and forever more. But, hey, it's religion.

But what about before all that? When God created the heavens and earth, why the hot liquid core in this corner of the universe? Why the tectonic plates, slipping and sliding and wiping out innocents by the thousands, tens of thousands, capriciously, randomly? No matter the timeline -- days or millennia -- that little engineering feat, that intelligent design preceded mankind, preceded "the fall." So, again, why?

Seriously. The Bible, which creationists take literally, tells us God designed the earth before he got around to us, even if only a couple of days before. So wtf? Since he doesn't make mistakes, it was part of a plan, one that pre-dated Adam and Eve. And if he saw it coming and ordered up such calamity, then A and E's transgression was part of his plan, too. Or do religionists believe he retro-fitted Earth's core after the apple adventure, even further to foul the fair? I've never heard that claim. Have you?

Which would seem to confirm what I've said here, and elsewhere, many times and many ways: if there's a creator, he's either incompetent or indescribably evil; there are no other options.
Meanwhile, we on the west coast of the USA, home of liberals, giving succor to the poor and hungry, await the evidently inevitable. Nice going, God.

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