Monday, December 8, 2008

I think I may have to retire from reading the news

It has finally happened. It has gotten to the point where I read or watch the news and I find it indistinguishable from reading satire. I submit to you, two recent items.


Okay, it's Sean Hannity. It's Fox News. But this, more than most any serious reports I've seen from them before, is like some sort of absurd self-parody, that Sean Hannity is perhaps unaware of. I actually am having trouble telling whether or not this is supposed to be a serious report. I mean, at least when Fox News usually reports on absurd bullshit, it has some sort of basis in reality. I think they are running out of terrorism stories to scare us with, because I think Sean Hannity seriously just tried to warn his viewers about the imminent threat of vampires. They are all around us.

I wonder how much further removed from reality Fox and their viewership will get in the coming years. It would be frightening if it weren't so ball-raisingly hilarious. I don't know what that means.

2. Another recent item, this one taking place outside of the fantasy bubble of Fox News and inside the realm of what I am supposed to believe is the real world.

For those not inclined to read the linked story, Australia may have just set the most absurd precedent I could possibly ever think of. They have granted cartoon characters with human rights.

I...I don't even know where to begin here. Did this really just happen? Am I dreaming?

Yeah cartoon porn is a little weird on its own, especially so when the cartoon characters depicted are children. But illegal?

Who has been victimized? Bart, Lisa and Maggie are not traumatized because they do not exist. There has been no harm brought to any human children and the fact that someone was punished for this is completely insane. While they're at it, why doesn't the court declare that Homer and Marge are unfit to care for children and take the kids into protective custody. After all, this incest was going on right under their noses.

It just raises the question again: How far removed from reality are these people? I mean, I've become accustomed to assuming that Fox News and parts of the American South are trapped inside of a fantasy bubble and that I shouldn't take anything they say or do seriously (except when it escapes the bubble and affects the nation at large, i.e. in a national election). But the entire nation of Australia now? I just don't know what to do.

And as if it wasn't bad enough that cartoon characters are now treated as people, they're really taking it to its limit. Since, of course, cartoon characters often don't have established ages because they are not real people, apparently if one owns a nude drawing of a girl that looks like she might be below legal age, that's not okay either.

I can imagine the court case now.

Judge: You are charged with the possession of some underaged cartoon titties. How do you plead?

Dude: Not guilty, your Honor. That girl is 18.

Judge: How do you know this?

Dude: Well I created her. She's 18. She just looks kind of young is all.

Judge: Can she produce a birth certificate or other identification to prove that she is of legal age?

Dude: I can draw them for you if you'd like.

Judge: Bitch looks like she's 15. Guilty. For having the audacity to draw something, give us a few thousand dollars, k?

Let's just keep in mind here that comic and animation fans in general, not just guys that are into seeing Bart Simpson's dick, are potentially affected by this. Hell, I'm pretty sure Bart has been naked several times on the actual show. Let's hope Matt Groening and friends have no intention of going to Australia any time soon. But beyond that, what of us who are into more mature comics from artists like Alan Moore? The guy made Lost Girls. Is Alan Moore, perhaps one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, a kiddie porn salesman? I'm pretty sure Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan has a side story at one point about a child prostitute. While I'm not sure if the kid is actually shown naked in the story, one could still say he is being exploited. You know, the fictional child that doesn't exist by any stretch of the imagination. It's been a while since I've watched it, but I think some of the girls in Neon Genesis Evangelion who are supposed to be about 14, are nude at times and in somewhat ambiguous sexual situations a couple of times as well. And I don't think this is terribly uncommon in just regular anime, as opposed to explicitly pornographic anime, which is just rape central. The list goes on.

Perhaps this is making a big deal of nothing. I don't live in Australia, but there have been similar cases brought to trial in America (a citation is eluding me at the moment. Sorry). It may not be something that affects everyone, but it is such absolute nonsense that I can't believe anyone would actually be punished in a real life court of law for it.

I just don't understand.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Question of the Day

When the Mormon Church names the author of this book their second-favorite author, right behind Orson Scott Card, who should be more offended: Mormons, Twilight readers or Orson Scott Card?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

FCC, Meet the Constitution

I bring up the FCC because of this good news; Obama just named Susan Crawford, a strong advocate for the internet and net neutrality, his administration's co-lead on the FCC transition. Apparently, Crawford believes that internet access should be considered a "utility" - under which circumstances telecom companies would be held responsible for providing it faithfully, just as gas and electric companies are currently. I actually think a friend of mine made remarks very much to this effect this some months ago, remarks I dismissed as foolish - maybe he's prescient.

Mentioning the FCC, though, always makes me want to ask: how have the FCC's market-oriented policies never been labelled unconstitutional?

Now, just to be clear, I am absolutely not asking how a body like the FCC came to have the powers it does. I know how that happened: we're a puritanical nation run by anxious, busybody mothers who can't stand the idea that their children might be exposed to a four-letter word before they turn 18. I'm also not asking what practical purpose is served by the FCC; I guess you probably do need a body to regulate, you know, unlawful use of closed frequencies or unauthorized access to flux capacitors or something (it may be clear, in retrospect, that I don't really get what the FCC does). What I'm asking is how none of their "indecency" fines have ever been challenged and brought before the Supreme Court.

I mean, let's put this into perspective. Under the current censorship law (I can't think of anything else to call it), 2005's Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, the FCC is empowered to impose something like a $325,000 fine on every "indecent" act or speech in a public broadcast - that includes anything from a "wardrobe malfunction" to an f-bomb. In what possible way is that not a violation of free speech and free press? Isn't the very purpose of the Bill of Rights to ensure that Dan Rather can get on the evening news and tell me to fuck my mother without getting anything but fired?

You know what, this point seems so self-evident, I'm hard-pressed even to elaborate further. How has censorship not been seriously challenged in a country that claims it has anything like free speech?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On Self-Righteous Pricks

DISCLAIMER: You’re totally allowed to not like Obama. I’m not saying you have to agree with me. I’m just directing this at a certain variety of idiot.

Well Obama has been elected. Glory and hallelujah. Yes we can. Etc. But there are some people out there in Amurica that aren't satisfied with the results. I'm not talking about McCain supporters. I'm talking about the guys that wouldn't have been satisfied no matter what the outcome was. The people that were declaring the outcome of the election to be negative after it became apparent that Ron Paul would never win, which took much longer than it should have for them. I'm not even really talking about Libertarians, whose philosophy I actual agree with in certain areas (I have a blog post planned on this topic for later). I'm talking about these fashionable cynics.

You know the guys. They're usually freshmen in college, at least in spirit. They take an intro to polisci class as an elective and annoy everybody with their retarded bullshit. They think they know more about politics than anyone in the country because they read a blog once. A blog with fucking revolutionary ideas. They insist that Barack Obama and John McCain are totally the same, perhaps using as evidence something vague like "they're in the pockets of the major corporations", and they like to drop truth on people, which basically amounts to being condescending jerks to Obama supporters and parroting political philosophy they read about on the internet, while not knowing anything about how to apply it to current events..

They're not completely wrong about Obama. They're just obnoxious and their ideas are unrealistic. And whether they admit it or not, most of these guys are just trying to be "edgy". They try so fucking hard to be outside the mainstream. It would be cute if they weren’t so goddamned unbearable. These guys, these guys. I tell ya.

Don't use the term Republocrats. It makes you look like a moron.

Don't tell me that Obama and McCain are exactly the same. It makes you no better than your slightly less informed cousin: the dreaded undecided voter. Such over-simplifications are unbelievably naïve.

And for the love of god, under no circumstances should you ever, EVER use the phrase "Wake up, Sheeple!" unironically. This is one of the only phrases in the English language that has the power of immediately letting me know that you are a worthless human being.

Yes, I agree that a lot of core problems with the government will probably not be changed under Obama. I am fully aware of this. Please stop telling me about it. The difference is that I am realistic, so I'm not going to bother getting mad about it. At this point, any sort of progress at all is positive. I don't care how small it is. Obama will (probably) do it, and it will be a step in the right direction. If you want guys like Ron Paul or whatever politician you support to be taken seriously, it's not going to happen now. Stop being shocked and appalled about it. Obama will start to open the door if we’ll let him. As long as we stay on his ass to do the shit we actually do expect him to do, real change will come. Eventually. Change on the level you're talking about doesn't happen overnight without a violent revolution. So either start a violent revolution or calm the fuck down and start trying to make gradual change from within the system. Just being a smug prick isn't going to help anything. Always remember, there is a difference between rational and thought out cynicism and the kind of bullshit you practice. You need to learn this before you go around lecturing "Obamamorons" (or whatever immature haughty word for Obama supporters is in style this week) about their own problems. To quote Carry On:

I thought the ideas we shared could only make us strong
But you're caught up in self-righteousness; it shows in the words of your songs
And now you've separated the best of us, the only ones that seem to care
You forced your ideas where they didn't belong
You separated the scene and that's fucking wrong
Fuck you and your politics
In the real world they don't mean shit
I know you're a fraud
It's only a phase
In time you'll be over it

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Case for Science

By now, some of you must have heard of this case, in which a doctor experimenting with leukemia patients may have accidentally discovered a cure for AIDs.

Now, the language I've chosen there was deliberately optimistic to the point of foolishness - there's no reason (yet) to conclude that this is anything other than a fluke, or that the principle established here can be harnessed in a practical way. It seems fairly likely that AIDs will be with us for a while.

However, this serves to illustrate perhaps the most fundamental law of science: "One sometimes finds what one is not looking for."

Don't recognize that quote? It's from Sir Alexander Fleming, who accidentally discovered penicillin in what may be the greatest medical breakthrough of all time.

Electrical current? Luigi Galvani, playing with frogs. X-Rays? William Roentgen, playing with cathodes. Vaccination? Louis Pasteur, playing with chickens. All revolutionary; all accidental.

What's my point? My point is that a year before each of these discoveries was made, none of these scientists could have stood before a Congressman, hat in hand, and said "Well, you see, Mr. Congressman, there's a good chance I'll make bacterial infections a thing of the past." "It's entirely possible I will render all our most serious pathogens harmless." "Odds are solid that there won't be an Industrial Revolution without me." The average scientist, if forced to give a one-sentence prediction of what his or her study will produce, won't manage anything better than: jumpier frogs. Dead chickens. The Higgs boson.

These discoveries are only revolutionary in retrospect - at the time, it seemed like ordinary men were doing workaday science with middling results. Every year, tens of thousands of studies just like the ones I've mentioned conclude uneventfully, contribute some minor detail to the body of human knowledge, and retire to the archives forever. All studies aren't immediately interesting; all knowledge isn't useful right now.

But it's knowledge. You get it because it's there. You discover it because you can. You learn everything that's out there because none of it is meaningless and some of it might even change the world. You play with mold, you might cure syphilis. You play with marrow, you might cure AIDs. You won't know until you try.

I guess what I'm saying is that whenever we go through a list of studies and grants with a red pen and say "What? $200,000 for bread mold? That's a mistake," we might be firing the next Alexander Fleming. Now, we might not; obviously we have to draw a line, and practicality must rear its ugly head. But nothing was ever discovered by people who said, there's nothing out here. Let's go home.

At Long Last, a Real Debate

This is unlikely to excite anyone else, but I've finally gotten someone to chomp my bait and engage in a serious debate about the history and future of marriage. It's over at EvolutionBlog; my first comment is about halfway down the page, and it's another dozen or so comments before someone gets in my face about it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Other Shoe

And if anyone needed proof that it ain't over yet...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

After the Storm

When George W. Bush was elected our 43rd President, I was 13 years old. It was towards the beginning of my eighth grade year, and I didn't know anything real. I knew I was a Democrat; I knew Gore lost; I knew Bush was stupid, and I knew he shouldn't have won. I felt something like outrage, very dim, akin to the feeling I got when I saw a massacre on TV, or read about the Holocaust; very bad things that were very far away. I was 13, and I thought I'd live forever. This too shall pass.

Less than eight months after Bush was sworn into office, terrorists struck the World Trade Center, killing thousands and spawning an international nightmare. Trapped as I was in an airtight bubble of liberal intellectualism, I didn't know anyone who thought Saddam was involved; I didn't know anyone who thought there were weapons in Iraq. Even I, who knew nothing real, knew something was happening in America. I knew things were moving outside my field of vision, and I knew no one I trusted was controlling them. Something was changing.

By November 2004, I knew a few more things, one of which was that no sane person would elect George Bush a second time. Nobody I knew was wild about Kerry - he was stiff, professorial, uninspiring - but nobody cared what he was. We cared what he wasn't, and that was Bush - Bush, the Antichrist. Bush, the Great Satan. Bush, the Bringer of all Evil, attempted killer of the American Dream. The Democrats could have run a corpse, and the corpse would win. I knew this. I was 17, and I knew it.

Bush won again, and the nightmare began in earnest.

There's no way I can explain to anyone from any other generation what it was like to spend those eight long years in Bush America. Everyone spent eight years, but my friends and I spent those eight years - those formative years, those years where you really learn the way the world works. We spent those eight years learning that the government would do anything it could to own us, and that the best we could hope for was to keep our noses down. We learned that you mustn't grow a beard, or you're a terrorist; we learned that you mustn't smoke a joint, or you're an enemy of the state. We learned that wanting universal health care makes you a communist, wanting universal marriage makes you a fag, and wanting free press makes you a tool of the liberal media. We learned that our enemies hated our freedoms, the greatest of which was to give up all freedom for some tiny measure of safety. We learned that this was one nation under God, and that God loves guns and hates gays and gave us the right to be America, World Police. Bow down, or prepare to be annihilated.

We learned that oil was thicker than blood. We learned that everyone has a price. We learned that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, and only the good die young.

For the first few years, we were angry; we couldn't believe that this ignorant, bigoted oil baron had appealed to the lowest common denominator and won himself a country. We took to the streets, we protested the war, we talked among ourselves of something happening to change this. The cavalry was coming, and the world would soon be right again.

The cavalry never came, and by the time Bush took office again there was no one my age with much hope left. We were starting to realize how good the Clinton years had been; we were starting to think we would never see another surplus, that we would never end this war, that they'd strike down Roe v. Wade and then Fred Phelps would run for office and then nobody would care if Adolph Hitler took the throne.

We were starting to think that the great American experiment had failed. A hundred-year flare of hope and prosperity had sputtered and died, and we'd missed it. No one would ever want to come here again.

Barack Obama's election doesn't mean that we were wrong. It doesn't mean Roe v. Wade is here to stay, or that the poor will be rich, or that the sick will be well. It doesn't mean that my friends and I are free to say what we want, think what we want, write what we want or worship what we want. It doesn't mean that Bush and his kind are gone, or even that they don't have power anymore.

It means, though, that there is another America besides Bush America. It means that things change, and democracy still happens, and there is a chance - a chance - that I have not missed the American Dream. It means there is a chance that something better is ahead - that things do not always get worse.

It means that when I was 13 and I thought, this too shall pass, I was right.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


It's just after midnight, November 4th. One way or another, our future begins today.

That's all.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Bright Side of Life

So today I opened up reddit, as is my wont, and saw a link entitled: "McCain four times more likely to win if Obama loses in PA! Come on, PA, GOTV!" The link led here, or more specifically here, to a site measuring McCain's odds for victory at just under 3%.

Now, a look at the reddit poster's history reveals (to my distress) that he is an Obama supporter, and that the headline was meant ironically. But man. For a second there, weren't you just praying that was someone's serious attempt to be optimistic?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The CommonGood Stock Exchange

I have noticed a trend in my discussions with conservatives and pseudo-libertarians. On non-social domestic issues (that is to say healthcare, not marriage) we often agree on the end point (people getting medical care) but disagree on the way to get there. That disagreement can be boiled down to a two line Mexican standoff that goes something like this.

Conservative: Why would you put your faith in the government?
Liberal: Why would you put your faith in the market?

And let us not kid ourselves, it is faith, on both sides. No true democracy (what the liberal has in mind when he thinks 'government') has existed in modern times, nor a true free market (what the conservative has in mind, not the corporate-welfare system that exists today). If the endpoint is the same, and we only have reality on which to base our premises, then I would submit the following:

Government is more likely to achieve that endpoint swifter, and with far less cost to the public, than Markets.

Before I begin explaining myself, I would like to define some terms. Let us consider any step towards this hypothetical endpoint to have a value equal to 1 unit of CommonGood (CG). Likewise we will consider any step solely towards personal gains to have a value equal to 1 unit of PersonalGood (PG). To rephrase my statement in this light, Government is a body dedicated to the accumulation of CGs at the cost of PGs, whereas the Market is a body dedicated to the maximization of PGs at the cost of CGs.

Businesses, even publicly traded ones, are private institutions. The Enron scandal is but one among many examples of companies putting PG profits (personal or corporate) in front of CG profits. Thus, while Enron CEOs were racking up the dough, they were in turn robbing the public of CGs. This is because companies aren't judged by how well they're doing on the CommonGood Stock Exchange, but by how much money they are making. There is nothing wrong with this (unless you think it is the Market's job to produce social change). Due to that very nature, free (or freeish) markets will always resist regulation. The government, amongst other things, is a public institution. Its very purpose is to accumulate CGs and has built into it mechanisms for ensuring accountability and removal of those converting CGs into PGs.

We are all shareholders in USA Inc., and as such we have the ability to demand transparency and accountability (those necessary treatments for corruption and waste) in a way that we cannot demand from businesses. When the bottom line for the voters is the country, even politicians must take that into account. CEOs only need to watch their own bottom line, and make sure that golden ripcord is within arm's reach.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Where Have All The Dollars Gone?

It may well behoove me to create a titled series - like the "Questions of the Day" - dedicated to clearing up stupid conservative myths that the liberals have not adequately countered. The only problem is that I could write one entry per day, from now until the end of time.

Today's conservative canard: the Black Hole of Government.

Conservative economic rhetoric is still fundamentally based on the principle of Reaganomics - the trickle-down economy. Rich people, they say, should not be taxed more than everyone else, because they're such a crucial consumer group - their money goes into the pockets of hundreds of people they employ and make purchases from, thereby stimulating the economy. They take offense, for example, at the liberal notion that we're simply stopping a millionaire from buying that third yacht - we're not just punishing him, they argue, but they hundreds of people that built it and worked on it and will be required to pilot it for him. That yacht creates jobs, and that millionaire's cash output stimulates the economy. What's wrong with us?

This entire myth is based on a fundamentally mistaken premise, which is that money taken in by the federal government as tax revenue immediately vanishes from the economy. This is an absolute cornerstone of the conservative rhetoric; it's also a ridiculous farce, and I really shouldn't have to point out why. It can be easily countered in four words: the Government spends money.

Almost every dime the government takes in as tax revenue almost immediately re-enters the economy through exactly the ordinary channels. Let's take our defense budget as an easy example: that tax money goes to pay DoD employees, defense contractors, raw-goods manufacturers...tens of thousands of people are employed by our defense budget. Public works - roads, bridges - employ tens of thousands more, as epochal Democrat Franklin Roosevelt understood better than most. Even supposed financial sinkholes like Welfare are going straight back into the pocket of consumers - which, like it or not, poor people certainly are. They take their welfare checks, pay their rent, and make their landlord wealthier - at which point he can, indeed, stimulate the economy by making purchases. The government is not a fiscal black hole; they are simply a hugely wealthy consumer.

Even that small percentage of the American budget that does not go right back into the American market simply goes into overseas markets - in which we profitably participate. Overseas aid, for example - even if we give it in the form of cash - might well be spent on wheat (of which we are the world's largest producer) and drugs (a huge percentage of which are of American make). If that money isn't paid to us directly, there is still no reason to assume we will never see it again. We are members of the global market economy.

In short, it is very, very difficult to remove money from the economy. One of the only long-term ways to do so, in fact, is to stash it in a savings account to accrue interest - and I'm sure no one will suggest our government is doing that. Stop pretending taxation = money lost from the economy. The equation has no merit.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Shotguns are more Democratic or: Why I can't stand this Bullshit about ACORN

I know I may be a couple of news cycles late on this story (I guess we're making things up about Biden now?), but I ran across an article that made me get mad all over again. So. ACORN. Other people have defended ACORN with sense and eloquence, and I won't rehash their arguments here (just link you to them). In the last Presidential debate McCain said (preposterously) that ACORN was "destroying the fabric of democracy." To most people (who understand that the charges against ACORN are bullshit) this seems like a ridiculous statement. But what if, instead of just being overstated rhetoric to stir up anti-ACORN sentiments and set the stage for a post-election blame-it-on-ACORN strategy, it also revealed an essential truth about the way the Republicans view democracy? If you think that more people voting is "destroying the fabric of democracy," what does it say about what you think that fabric is made out of?

I was reminded of all this by a post on Part of that post is an interview with Chris Schoenewald, Chairman of the Albemarle County Republican Committee (Albermarle is the county seat of Charlottsville, VA) in which he discusses the differences between the Republican and Democratic party's methods of voter registration:
We discussed voter registration, and the varied approach each party's campaign takes. "Democrats use a shotgun approach to voter registration. Republicans use a rifle." If Democrats are setting up a voter registration table on the Downtown Mall, for example, "they're registering a lot of Republicans." By contrast, Schoenewald said, "we're going after very targeted people."
Does this mean that the Dems are being sloppy? No. This means that Democrats are more interested in getting more people to vote than they are in getting their own guys to vote. I'm not blaming Mr. Schoenewald for their sharpshooter registration, but it is indicative of a a larger truth. The fact is that the Democrats believe in a democracy where everyone gets to vote, because they have faith that the more Americans who take part in an election, the more likely the party that deserves to will win it. And in this day and age, that means them.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Joe the Plumber: Ordinary People?

I can't possibly imagine that anyone who actually inhabits the Planet Earth is unfamiliar with a man named Joe the Plumber.

For those of you from Betelgeuse who have deigned to fuse your hive computer with the World Wide Web, Joe the Plumber is some random guy from some random place who asked Barack Obama some random question that got him called a socialist. For those of you from Venus who have not brushed up on American politics, a socialist is something most Democrats basically are but don't like to admit it.

I think we're all up to speed. Let us continue.

The question I'd like to raise is about a very popular concept in modern American politics and culture - the "elite." I think we've probably heard more about the so-called in this election than any other in American history - and none of it was very good. When John McCain calls Barack Obama a "member of the liberal elite," he doesn't mean that as a compliment; when Sarah Palin says she's not a "member of the Washington elite," she doesn't mean she wants to join. "Elite" has become synonymous with "elitist" - rich, snobbish, out of touch. The elite, it's implied, are superior sumbitches - convinced their wealth and education make them better than the Average Joe. Or the Average Plumber. see where I'm going with this.

My question, then, is this: what makes the elite, elite?

The reason I ask is pretty personal: when a conservative talks about the "liberal elite," he pretty much means me. I went to a private grade school, attended a competitive high school, and am now in college on my parents' dime - and eager for a position in scholarly academia. I am also - in what many would see as no coincidence - aggressively liberal. The current political discourse, particularly the conservative discourse, would love to argue that those characteristics make me a card-carrying member of the "liberal elite."

But let's take another look at Joe the Plumber - the reason, you may recall, that he was irritated with Obama is because he'd been planning to buy the plumbing business for which he'd worked these last 100,000 years. If he bought it, however, he'd be making more than $250,000 a year, and Obama's tax plan would 'unfairly' increase his tax burden. No sooner had he asked his question than Joe the Plumber became a symbol of working-class ill-will towards Obama; and so John McCain, friend to the working man, echoed Joe's question to Obama. Why?

Now, my father, under whose auspices I might be considered a member of the "liberal elite" made - in a good year - $60-70,000. That was before his retirement, and only during those years in which he sold a book, or made particularly generous royalties. Joe, on the other hand, that blue-collar Everyman, is complaining because he might be about to make over a quarter of a million dollars.

To return to my original question, what makes Joe the Plumber 'working-class' and me 'elite?' Doesn't the working-class cease to become an actual 'class' when it starts running the gamut from six-figure salaries to just above the poverty line? Doesn't the 'elite' stop being 'elite' when the supposedly average characters who hate them make four to five times as much - or does 'elite' perhaps mean more than just an economic class? If so, is the entire vocabulary of this debate faulty? Do these terms have a practical definition?

This is an idea in progress, and I feel as though I have not yet gotten to the heart of the matter. The fundamental paradox, though, is that Americans who are just plain rich - big houses, fast cars, trophy wives - have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the dirt-poor and struggling and said "Washington economic policies privilege the elite at our expense."

Who are they talking about?

UPDATE: Apparently, Joe the Plumber just revealed that he had misunderstood Obama's tax plan, and would NOT be making more than $250,000 a year. What? Ordinary, salt-of-the-earth Americans don't make a quarter million dollars? Will wonders never cease?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Question of the Day: Portrait of the Artist?

More on this to come, but am I the only one who thinks that pictures of yourself are yours to do with as you see fit, under any and all circumstances whatsoever?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Lost Odyssey

This is not about politics, but certainly pertains to the downfall of society as we know it.

Those of you who know me know that I have a strong affection for Ancient Greek and Roman literature, particularly the epics - the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. I often wonder aloud why these don't get adapted into film more often - I mean, there was "Troy," but that wasn't a faithful Iliad adaptation (although I still liked it), and to my knowledge there has been no big-screen adaptation of the Odyssey or the Aeneid in my lifetime. In fact, there has never to my knowledge been a big-screen adaptation of Aeneas' tale.

First of all, I'd like to ask - why not? Even "Troy," which was not terribly well-reviewed, made money hand over fist and became one of its year's biggest hits. Odyssey and Aeneid would both be ideal star vehicles, provided you found someone who could convincingly sound archaic (I'm talking to you, Guy Who Hired Brad Pitt) and lavished millions on the production design and art direction. I mean, these movies have all the makings of another "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, with a completely different cultural milieu.

Apparently, someone heard my cries for help...some genie slumbering in a magic lamp heard my fervent prayers and said "yes, master. You shall have what you wish for. There shall be a film of the Odyssey...

...set in outer space."



Are you being serious? Is this what it's come to? Forget the immense commercial successes of "Troy" and "300" - Hollywood has decided we are all so burnt out on Ancient Greece that the only way to make the Odyssey compelling is to put it in space? It's as though the genie who heard my wish was malevolent - bitter, perhaps, at his imprisonment - and decided to teach me a lesson: be careful what you wish for.

Coming in 2010 - "Troy 2: Troyz n the Hood."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Last Hurrah

So, the moment has passed. The debates are over. Shall we discuss?

Before we get to anything about the content, I want to describe something that happened the first time the two candidates engaged in serious, face-to-face debate. I felt a Great Disturbance in the Force - as though thousands of Tom Brokaws and Gwen Ifills cried out, and were suddenly silenced.

Could Bob Schieffer have shamed his predecessors any more?

I think we were given more serious discussion of the issues during those 90 minutes than during the entire campaign to date. God knows the candidates - both candidates - had to be horse-whipped into providing that substance, but Bob Schieffer was both willing and able to carry that whip. I think he emerges as the winner of the debate - in fact, with his help, the true winner was the viewer. We were able to hold the candidates' feet to the fire and get some serious answers.

Well, okay, maybe I'm exaggerating. It was pretty great, though.

I was particularly pleased that domestic and social issues - which have received such short shrift over the course of this election - finally managed to get a modicum of attention. To my knowledge, for example, abortion has failed to receive even a single mention during any of the previous debates - much to my chagrin, given its central importance to my political philosophy. In fact, I'm not sure I've gotten much out of the debates in general; because...well, because...

I, um...*cough*

I don't actually care that much about the economy.

Now, again, I've exaggerated for effect. Of course I care; I hope to eventually buy a house, or have a job, or even provide my family with multiple meals in the course of a single day. I'm certainly concerned, therefore, that all these goals have been seriously jeopardized by the current financial crisis, and would love to see us elect a President who can mitigate or remedy this catastrophe.

But I don't really know anything about the economy. None of us do; we've all deluded ourselves into thinking we're junior economists, but we're not. I'd be willing to wager not on in 10 Americans can actually explain what really happened here; you'd hear a lot of "subprime mortgages" and "risky lending" and "defaulted on their loans," but you wouldn't hear these ideas strung together in any kind of a coherent sentence. We're not totally sure who Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are, we don't know what AIG is, we don't know whether the bailout will work or not, and if it does work we won't know why it did. We know what CNN told us, but we don't know who they asked, or if they're right, or why they're right. We don't know a damned thing.

Yes, we! You too! Don't lie to me, or yourself. You're not an economist. You didn't even do an economics minor during undergrad. You don't know what's going on.

More importantly (or perhaps more disturbingly), neither do either of our candidates. Now, of course, they know more than we do. They may even be able to define all the terms I listed above, even if they can't say how they all work together. And God only knows they have pet economists waiting in the wings to supply them with quotes about stimulus package this and regulation that. The fact remains, though, that they're not economics professionals; both of them have extensive training in completely unrelated areas. Whichever one of them is elected President is not going to be responsible for creating an economic plan personally; their job will be to hire the right advisors, show good judgment in evaluating advice, and be as educated as possible about the various duties of the Executive Branch. They're candidates for the Presidency, not an endowed chair in Economics.

That's why I get a sense, when watching these debates, that both candidates are simply slapping a Band-Aid on a wound neither one can really mend. They're competing to see who's the better speaker, whose plan is more palatable, which one can make their idea seem to have the right moral foundation (as though that increases an economic plan's chance of success). They're not actually trying to give us the right answer; they don't know it, and we wouldn't know it if we heard it.

That's why I wanted to hear more, this campaign, about abortion rights, and gay marriage, and perhaps about the ethics of war. The economic crisis is our greatest concern, but it will be solved by men whose training exceeds our own by an order of magnitude; when it's finally fixed, we won't even know what's been done (or done right). But when that day comes we will still need a leader with the right priorities, the right set of values, the right amount of dedication to our freedoms. We will still need the right to vote, and the right to freely associate, and the right to freely print whatever views we have. We will still need the right to privacy, and to a fair trial in the event that wrongdoing has occurred.

We can recognize the right man for that job. The other one is more or less a crap shoot.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Question of the Day Corollary: Guilt By Association?

While we're on the subject, what do you suppose would happen if Barack Obama was revealed to have ties with a group seeking independence from America?

Question of the Day: Consequences of Corruption?

Would anyone be surprised if the results of this investigation had no impact whatsoever on the Presidential campaign?

Friday, October 10, 2008

More Than A Legal Institution

For those of you who haven't heard the good news: Connecticut's Supreme Court overturned a legislative ban on same-sex marriage, becoming the third state in the union to rule the legal distinction unconstitutional.

As in California, Connecticut's legislature had previously enacted a law establishing civil unions that were, in theory, legally identical to heterosexual marriages. The majority decision reminded legislators that marriage is not simply a legal institution - it is a social and cultural institution, and "carries with it a status and significance that the newly created classification of civil unions does not embody."

This is a strong argument, a perceptive criticism of why "separate but equal" does not work. It's so perceptive, in fact, that it's a shame it misses the point.

Marriage is, indeed, a social and cultural institution as much as a legal one - more, in fact. It does indeed carry with it a status and significance not embodied by civil unions - and without which civil unions will never have true social legitimacy. The problem, however, is that nobody agrees on what that significance is.

The dissenting opinion of Justice Zarella is illustrative of this point. He agreed with the state's attorney, who argued (to quote the New York Times) that "the plaintiffs had no case because they were free to marry, just not someone of the same sex." He further asserted that the purpose of state marriage laws was to cement a procreative union, which gay marriages (unarguably) are not. "The ancient definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman has its basis as biology, not bigotry," he concludes.

Contrast this with the language used to describe marriage by New York Governor David Paterson, who praised the court's decision: "Marriage equality is not about challenging anyone’s personal values. It is about giving committed couples the basic rights that heterosexual couples have enjoyed for centuries, and official recognition of their commitment."

So what is marriage, then? Is it a procreative union, a social unit, or an 'official recognition of commitment'? Conservatives tend to take one or both of the first two interpretations; liberals tend to take the latter. Who's right?

Is it even possible to be right about something like this?

If the question is, who can make the argument from history and precedents, the conservatives have it locked up. The concept of marriage as a formal recognition of commitment is pretty much brand new; love matches were considered dangerous and irresponsible for most of recorded history. Certainly you should love your partner, although whether that love would precede or follow after the wedding was open for debate; you would never get married because of love, however. To do so risked destabilizing the social order.

The most telling point here, in fact, comes from the historical societies most accepting of homosexual intercourse: Ancient Greece and Rome. Both cultures saw recreational sex with more or less anything as a-ok; neither Greek nor Latin, to my knowledge, has an actual word describing a specifically homosexual individual. They both have words translating to something like "dominant" and "passive," which describe whether you preferred to be the top or the bottom; who was in the other position, however, was considered largely irrelevant. Heterosexual and homosexual intercourse were considered two flavors of the same food, so to speak.

Marriage, however, was unquestionably a social institution, designed to signify a woman's departure from one family and her membership in another. This distinction was important, of course, because the patriarchal family was the basic legal unit; in Rome, for example, your paterfamilias was considered to have total control over your life and possessions. Roman law recognized two types of marriages, but they had nothing to do with sexuality: one meant a woman remained under her father's control, and the other meant a woman passed under her husband's control. In the former arrangement, her children would stand to inherit nothing from their father; the disposition of family property was the main concern in a Roman marriage.

The point, you ask? Well, the point is that when Justice Zarella talks about "the ancient definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman," he's got it right. That really is the ancient definition, sad to say. Not only that, but many modern families handle marriage almost exactly the same way the Romans did: in traditional Italian households, for example, a father must not intervene if his daughter is beaten by her husband. She's joined a new family, and is no longer any of his concern.

To liberals, of course, society has changed to the point where the patriarchal family is no longer the basic social unit. We see nothing wrong with an unmarried individual; we see nothing wrong with a childless couple; we deny that Woman plus Man is the only formula for a stable childhood home. Times have changed; children can happen out of wedlock; individuals can marry late, or not at all. The world is different; society is different. Welcome to progress.

The question, I suppose, is this: can we really pass useful legislation about such a culturally loaded concept? Can our laws really define marriage when we can't define it ourselves?

The solution is obvious, if unorthodox: eliminate marriage as a civil institution. It is too controversial, too cumbersome, too hotly contested for the government to handle. We have to do away with it.

A civil union essentially provides (or should provide) family benefits to individuals with whom one has chosen to form a family. It is not the place of a democratic government to decide how one should choose those individuals; it is not the place of a democratic government to decide how society should be ordered.

Leave marriage out of it. Leave the past behind. Leave the choice to us.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Election season...

...always makes me wish I was Dutch.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Question of the Day: Right-Wing or Wrong-Wing?

McCain keeps saying that "now is the time for bipartisanship." Coming from a Republican, might that not simply mean it's time for a Democrat?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What Does YOUR Copy Say?

Today I want to point out a fundamental error in the conservative view of the government's role: their willingness to ignore the Constitution. As I've pointed out here before, the Constitution stands as a sacred document for Republicans - except when it doesn't, which is more or less whenever it's most convenient. Whether it's true or not, however, they have made themselves the party of the Constitution, which they consider the ultimate incarnation of the Founding Fathers' Will. The Founding Fathers' Will Be Done is so axiomatic a part of the Republican worldview that they take umbrage at the mere notion that some dead guys might not have the deciding vote. (Let's ignore the fact that the Founding Fathers ranged from staunchly deistic to aggressively anti-religious, and would have considered modern Christian Fundamentalism a plague. Hey - it turns out they are as smart as the Republicans claim!)

In this particular case, the Republicans tend to criticize Democrats for their hands-on view of the government; the government's role, they say, is not to step in and help people out whenever it can. The government's role is to get out of everyone's way, and see to it that people make their own prosperity. They often cite these immortal words as a statement of what America should do:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

America exists in order to defend these rights, they say. Wonderful.

There are two problems with falling back on the Declaration of Independence, however. The first is that, sadly, it's not a legal document. It's actually more or less a declaration of war - it states the reasons we mustn't hang out with George anymore, and proposes neither to define nor to institute a government.

Now that you mention it, however, it turns out there's more to the Declaration of Independence than that immortal sentence. It turns out that that's just the beginning of a rather substantial list of self-evident truths! Let's continue:

"— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Governments are instituted among men to secure these rights. The People must institute new government in such form, as shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

It seems that the Founding Fathers - particularly Thomas Jefferson, sometimes erroneously revered as the father of the Republican Party - had fairly concrete ideas about the role of government. So concrete, in fact, that they eventually drafted a real legal document to make sure we understood them:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

We establish this Constitution for the United States of America in order to do these things.

Like it or not, Republicans, your all-hallowed Fathers have weighed in on this particular issue. We can't ask if domestic tranquility is the government's responsibility; we can only ask how best the government can achieve it. We can't ask whether the general welfare is our goal; we can only ask how best to get there. We can't ask whether government exists to make the nation more perfect; we can only ask how best to reach for perfection.

The government has a job, and that job is not to do as little as possible.

Small government can be understood as a means to an end, but it cannot be the end itself. The Constitution has told you what the end must be - and if you revere the Constitution, you have a responsibility to go there.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

There Is No Why

Today, for the first time in a while, I'd like to discuss religion.

Those of you who follow my blog might find this hard to believe, but I actually try to avoid discussing religion whenever possible. There is always a concern that people will think I'm harping needlessly on just one issue, that I've acquired a certain tunnel vision through which I now view the world. The truth is, however, that like Bill Maher - whose film "Religulous" I saw on Friday - I am truly worried by religion, and by the religious debate itself. I find religion, among those who adhere to it, a constant source of frustration and fear at the rising tide of anti-intellectualism.

Today's transgressor: David Wolpe, author of an essay at The Washington Post entitled "Without God, There Is No Why" - available at - and of a recent book entitled Why Faith Matters. Those of you who have discussed this with me in person should have no trouble discerning what my problem might be with these publications; for the rest of you, here we go again.

The review of Wolpe's book seems to imply that he is among the first to argue that despite its flaws, religion is primarily kind and compassionate - the others, this reviewer implies, are content defend faith "by hiding the darkest moments of Western traditions." In fact, any non-believer who has actually had this debate with another human being will recognize this as the standard response to any aspersions cast against religion - yes, there are some dark moments in religion's past, but it has always been primarily a force for good. This is not a groundbreaking approach; this is more or less par for the course.

It's Wolpe's essay, however, that I'd primarily like to address (having actually read it). In "Without God, There Is No Why", he discusses the way his family's experience with cancer brought them closer to God - by providing them with certainty that even this had a purpose. He recalls a story told by Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor, wherein a spiteful guard informed him that "Here, there is no why." It is this greatest of fears, he argues, that God permits us to live without - faith in the divine reassures us that existence, even suffering, has a purpose. "The greatest terror," he writes, "is if the universe presents us with a blank face. Without God, there is no why."

Of my two giant-sized problems with this argument, the first should be more obvious - although it frustratingly never seems to be. Arguing for the need for God and arguing for the existence of God are not the same thing - not by a long shot. Perhaps atheists like Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are partially responsible for fostering this notion, with their lengthy tomes on the evils of religion - the important point, however, is not really the degree of religion's goodness. It is the degree of factual proof behind religious beliefs. A true agnostic objects first and foremost not to acts of evil, but the level of certainty that permits those acts to leave behind a clear conscience, no matter how despicable they may be. Religious violence is dreadful, but it would not be possible were both sides not absolutely convinced their way was right - and it is to that conviction, absent all proof, that a reasonable person must object.*

To put it another way: in what other area of human thought is "well, it would be a lot better if this were true" admissable as a serious argument for truth? Belief is a choice between what is true and what is not - the relative merit of each position is simply not a viable factor.

Which leads me, paradoxically, to objection number two: why is a universe with a purpose necessarily better than a universe without?

This is a question rarely asked by anybody but Chris Hitchens, whose abrasiveness has unfortunately caused him to be dismissed as a serious participant in this debate. If the most common argument for the existence of God is "boy, your life must be pretty grim without the man upstairs," the most common response by far is "well, sure, having a God would be great - but there's no proof!" This is the right notion, but there's something very wrong with our approach - why must we cede this high ground? Why must we always "admit" that for God to impose purpose and meaning on the universe is a good and valuable thing?

Why do we not want the freedom to choose our own purpose?

The idea of a "divine plan," after all, raises as many questions as it does answers. You've heard these all before - why the Holocaust, why Hiroshima, why Darfur. Why would a loving God include such atrocities in his Great Divine Plan? Now, I've had this argument before (especially with Christians, who I'm pretty sure are chiefly responsible for this concept), and a fair amount of eye-rolling usually accompanies these examples - they're considered pat, obvious, the same old atheistic nonsense. God's unknowable, they say; his ways are not our ways. His purpose for us is not always clear, but he always has a purpose.

I find it frankly astonishing that this truly comforts people.

First of all, the Divine Plan and its inclusion of plague and genocide seem to seriously undermine the argument that "God provides morality" (for which there are simply not enough hours in the day - another time, folks). If God demands that you not kill and then kills you by the hundreds of millions, are not the morals he provided totally arbitrary? If God is the ultimate good, why has he laid down rules for moral behavior that are so wildly at odds with his own? Would emulating the greatest good not be the greatest good?

Second of all, which is the more comforting idea: that God has no purpose for you, or that he has a dreadful one? Don't get me wrong - I understand why a dying person might be struggling to find meaning in their life. If I died young, or before doing all the things I want to do, I might question what it all had been for. But if I were in a hospital bed dying of lymphoma, why would I take comfort in the fact that my divine purpose had been to die of lymphoma? If I were Primo Levi, why would I take comfort in the fact the God did not protect me - that he fed me to the Nazis, and that my despair would serve his ends? If I were raped, why would I feel better knowing God held the knife?

I wouldn't. I'd think I got divinely screwed.

I want the freedom to choose my own purpose - to make my own plans, and to live my own life. I want to know that fate is not decided - that vigilance and wisdom can still protect me. I want to know that by fighting human evil, I can keep it from overwhelming me - and that if it ever does, it was not because the fight was always hopeless. I want to ask the question Why, and to hear the answer in a clear voice - my own.

Human beings give purpose to their own lives. This is not a curse - it is the greatest privilege we have. Don't squander it.

*"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

- C.S. Lewis. Spot the irony.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Great Debaters

I suppose I should have known better than to think the media might be honest.

I'm speaking, of course, about last night's debate - which I suppose I should analyze before I analyze the analysis.

I'm going to step right up and say that Obama knocked it out of the park. Of course, I should preface this by saying he started off with the home team advantage - a little less than half the debate was on the economy, an area where Democrats in general (and Obama in particular) have a decisive lead. To add economic questions to any debate is a coup for the Democratic candidate, but this was supposed to be John McCain's night - it's Foreign Policy, where the Republicans are supposed to be right at home.

Key phrase: supposed to be.

Because John McCain was not at home - he was in the past or out to lunch, constantly harping on the Troop Surge when he wasn't defending himself from accusations of outright falsehood. Obama gets points from me for levelling those accusations, and even more points for sticking to his guns on the current Foreign Policy hot spots: the Iraq War and the possible invasion of Pakistan to capture terrorists. He could very easily have taken a middle road on either one of these issues; that would have been both the default Democratic strategy these days and a complete disaster.

First of all, the mere fact that we're winning the Iraq War is a ridiculous and superficial reason to praise it - too many liberals have fallen into that trap. McCain's attempt to paint the Iraq War as both a military triumph and a political irrelevancy was bold, but ultimately unsuccessful. He's counting on unconditional American love of victory, but the American people are frankly not convinced we've won anything - as well we shouldn't be. Obama was right to declare that our reasons were wrong, right to declare that too many lives were lost, and right to declare that the next President should do it differently. A lot of pundits have been singling out key quotes; one I haven't heard is "No soldier ever dies in vain, obeying the orders of his commander-in-chief." An absolute masterstroke! Our soldiers were noble, but our leaders were wrong!

But if I was pleased at Obama's handling of Iraq, it was nothing compared to the glee I felt at his handling of the Pakistan remarks he made earlier (discussed below, in "The Political System We Deserve"). This was an area where Obama could certainly have justified backing down - indeed, I would be shocked if there was not pressure from the liberal establishment to do so. Now, as it happens, I think he's advocating absolutely the right course of actions - but even if he weren't, to back down last night would have been an unmitigated disaster. As it was, John McCain was placed in the unenviable position of accusing the Democrats of war-mongering; how did he think that would play with his base? Did he really think that giving his opponent the opportunity to say "Osama bin Laden must be killed" was a good idea? "Counseling moderation in our pursuit of terrorists has worked wonders for the Democrats...I think I'll give it a shot!"

So, to recap: Obama won. I know it, McCain knows it, everybody knows it.

But an interesting thing happened while I was watching this debate. CNN, you see, adds a lot of nifty stuff to its debate interface - six Analyst Scorecards line the sides of the screen, while a focus-group line on the bottom tracks audience response by party. Even had I not watched the debate at all, I would have been able to tell just by this machinery that Obama was winning. The focus-group lines reached their highest points of the night while Obama was speaking - even the Republicans never got as high for McCain - and the scorecards gave him a dominant lead in points. Four out of the six analysts gave Obama the higher score - two by a considerable margin - and at the end of the night it was 44 Obama, 21 McCain. A decisive Democratic victory.

Or was it?

After the debate, of course, CNN turned to Anderson Cooper for a special edition of 360 wherein he asked the analysts what they thought. Every single one declared the evening more or less a tie.

Their scorecards were still on the screen!

Paul Begala, Democratic advisor and former "liberal" host of Crossfire, awarded the night to Obama by a margin of - if I remember correctly - 12 points to 2. When it came his turn to give an opinion, he said both candidates had been strong - but that Obama represented himself just a little better. Another analyst - Castellanos, I think - gave it to Obama 14 to 10, as any viewer could confirm, but called the event an outright tie. One of the commentators finally remarked that the focus group line had hardly moved, exhibiting no serious highs or lows, and nobody argued with him. By the time I checked my news sites this morning, the media consensus was in: the debate was a tie.

What in God's name happened between 10 and 10:30 last night? Castellanos is a conservative, as is Bennet - the only CNN commentator to seriously favor McCain - so no surprises there. But which of Paul Begala's kids did the Republicans have at gunpoint? Where are they holding the child? Is he or she okay?

Why, oh why, do they think we're so gullible? Why, oh why, aren't they wrong?

UPDATE:'s Debate Report Card actually has McCain scoring slightly higher, mostly by virtue of using almost none of the analysts who scored the debate live. Paul Begala gives Barack Obama a B, and John McCain a C. Yep; that's how I'd translate 12 to 2.

(Paul's child: if you are reading this, call the police!)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Tough On What?

I'll keep this short, since I have one major question and I certainly don't have an answer:

How did we allow the Republicans to become both the tough-on-crime party and the gun party?

I'll elaborate, in case that question hasn't given you serious pause for thought (which it should have). The Republicans have been immensely successful (and not always incorrect) in portraying the Democrats as criminal coddlers, unwilling to punish evil and constantly searching for extenuating circumstances. They have been equally successful in portraying the War on Drugs as the greatest law enforcement enterprise of the modern era. They've been so successful, in fact, that we've actually lost the fight for drug legalization - it's a dead issue, as ruthlessly derided by liberals as conservatives. The parties now disagree only on whether addicts should be treated or imprisoned - in other words, coddled or punished. It's not hard to see where they get their stereotypes - if you really think drugs are immoral, which party looks like they're trying to get things done?

Take, for example, this essay by Jonathan Caulkins in response to an essay by the founders of Erowid:

I should be fair to Mr. Caulkins; I can't really find evidence that he is a genuine, card-carrying, gun-toting conservative. He worked for RAND, but that could go either way - and while there, he apparently authored a study on the ineffectiveness of mandatory minimums. Not exactly a Republican poster child. With that said, his essay articulates a perspective on responsible drug use that I think the modern conservative would find highly appealing:

"Does society have a right to “protect” its citizens from a one-in-six risk of dependence, even though that “protection” denies five times as many people legal access to something pleasurable? The question is parallel to asking whether society has a right to pass a law against riding a motorcycle without a helmet, driving without a seatbelt, or swimming when there is no lifeguard. Note: the issue is not, “If the question were put to a referendum, would you vote yes or no?” Rather, the question is, “If the majority wanted such a law, would it be unconstitutional?” I am no constitutional scholar, but I do not believe access to a recreational activity or substance is a constitutionally protected right that forbids passage of laws designed to protect people from their own poor choices, particularly when sometimes the choices can harm others."

He's responding, of course, to the suggestion that five out of six drug users behave responsibly, without any harm to themselves or others. His argument, quite simply, is that those five must surrender their recreation so that society can be protected from the sixth. Notice the mild tone of contempt at the end there - he's no constitutional scholar, but he's pretty sure you don't get special dispensation just because it's fun.

But wait just a minute. What about guns?

Let's leave aside the constitutional issue for just a moment - because let's face it, the Constitution is an inviolable document when people want it to be and malleable clay when they don't. Right now, the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected. Maybe in a year it won't be. Right now, heterosexual marriage is not constitutionally protected. Maybe in a year it will be. Irrelevant.

Doesn't the fundamental notion that five people's rights must be sacrificed for the protection of the sixth fly in the face of everything the Republicans have to say about gun control? By this compelling conservative anti-drug logic, shouldn't all gun owners voluntarily surrender their weapons so that society can be protected from the fraction that will go out and kill someone? Keep in mind that even the recreational use of guns is violent. They have only one purpose, even to their advocates, and that is to cause harm.

Don't think I've overlooked the fact that Dr. Caulkins' argument is also fundamentally and irredeemably false - we'll return to that in a later post. Don't think, either, that I'm arguing against the right to bear arms - that's a complex debate to which I also hope to return. All I want to ask now is, how can the Republicans have their cake and eat it too? How can they argue that society must be protected from a substance whose side effect is sometimes death, and not from an object whose purpose is always death? How can they ban the drug syndicate's product, but not its most valuable tool?

And by what possible barometer are they tough on crime - and we're not?

Republicans have long claimed that "guns don't kill people; people kill people." By what possible token does that not apply to psychoactive drugs?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Political System We Deserve

I find myself, in recent months and years, becoming less and less convinced that politicians deserve our scorn and disillusionment. Don't get me wrong - I think the current state of the Democratic Party is shameful in many respects. The idea that this nation's liberals have to make do with these washed-up moderates in lieu of genuine representation is almost unconscionable. I'm not convinced, however, that the politicians are to blame for this. They face opposition from both their left and their right, and the middle position they're attempting to navigate satisfies no one - but it's what they need to get elected. Allow me to explain.

It's become an article of faith (no pun intended) that religion has become the decisive factor in this election - one blogger I read said that (my paraphrase) the divide between religious and non-religious, or practicing and non-practicing, has become a more useful categorization than any set of individual demographics. The Republican religious base is so conservative, in fact, that a newly Baptist (try not to snicker) John McCain was inadequate to satisfy them: he needed a bonafide small-town Bible-thumper named Sarah Palin to finish gathering his flock. Sounds fine for the Democrats, right? They don't need the religious vote.

Wrong. The religious vote has become the decisive minority in this election, to the point where the Democratic nominee had to beat the Republican in faith-based politicking in order to become a viable candidate. Fundamentalist Christianity makes up only one-fourth of the American population, but another one-fourth identifies as Catholic, and they're a tough vote to put in a party: the so-called "Catholic vote" has gone to every winning Presidential candidate since 1976, with the exception of George W. Bush (the first time. Not the second. I wish).

So the religious vote has become more than just a Republican issue - it's a nationwide issue, demanding acknowledgement from both major political parties. And what, you might ask, is the biggest issue for religious people? Why, Abortion, of course.

Evidence exists to suggest that Abortion has become a bigger issue for Catholics in this election than in either of the two previous - the Catholic Church has become more aggressive in their indictment of abortion, more insistent that Roe v. Wade constitutes endorsement of genocide, less willing to accept a compromise position. Five years ago, a devout Catholic could reasonably have been under the misapprehension that there was a plurality of Catholic opinions on abortion: now, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi have come under strong fire for similar views ( The reason for this is simple: there is no plurality of opinions. The Catholic Church explicitly forbids abortion - and states that no devout Catholic can support legislation that permits it. Worst of all, most Catholics know it. So long, Mario Cuomo.

The non-religious in America might still insist that religious faith is a private matter, with no bearing on politics; the religious, however, are increasingly unwilling to stomach that position. They - and by they, I mean a majority of the population - insist that the law of the land reflect their morality directly. In light of this, the Democratic Party's Platform on Abortion starts to look like quite a risky move:

"The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right."

Wow. Strong stuff. Stronger, in fact, than any recent Democratic platform on abortion. The Party cannot have been ignorant of the immense risk it was taking: they have totally and irrevocably alienated the pro-life population, with no hope of reconciliation. What do you suppose they would have to do to make up that kind of ground in America's heartland?

"If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and Musharraf won't act, we will."

Quid pro quo, America. Obama supports a woman's right to choose, but he will act decisively against hostile terrorist elements around the globe - while no less a luminary than Sarah Palin hems and haws to Charlie Gibson about the same issue.

Now, to me, this quote came as quite good news - not because I necessarily agreed with the sentiments being expressed, although I'm pretty sure I did (and a hush fell over the liberal crowd). No, it came as good news because a Democrat had distanced himself from the image of the weak-kneed liberal - unwilling to hurt anybody's feelings, unable to do what must be done. Democrats, Obama told us, can be tough on terror. Democrats can get it done.

Then I talked to a liberal friend of mine, who professed himself to be scared by this sentiment - uncertain that Obama should be so willing to invade another country without authorization. I think that's a very valid debate, and one that we as liberals should certainly have - just as soon as we win this election to the Presidency of a country that hates us.

That's right: this country hates liberals. It has exactly the Democratic Party it wants, unless of course it could have none at all.

It is an inability to recognize this that frustrates me about modern liberals. They seem unwilling to acknowledge that we live in a representative Democracy - that the government we have is the one we asked for. It's not that this country isn't producing liberals - it's that this country isn't electing them. You want to get elected in Chicago? Be a Democrat. You want to get elected in America? Be a moderate. This is a simple fact of the current political landscape - the Democrats are drifting to the right because that's what we'll elect.

Am I happy that a pro-choice stance is a political liability that Obama has to make up for? No - but I don't blame him, I blame the people of America. Am I happy that peace has become a bad word, synonymous with weakness? No - but I don't blame the left, I blame the people of America. Am I happy that the Republicans are very successfully spreading the same view of liberals as they did in Reagan's America - high-tax moral midgets without the stomach for tough choices? No - but I don't blame the left, I blame the people of America.

Or I would - if liberals would realize how badly we are losing this war, and how wrong a time to be choosy this is.

We have lost the fight on taxes - the country won't stand for them. We have lost the fight on drugs - the country won't legalize them. Obama hasn't abandoned the staunch liberals because he doesn't like us - he's abandoned us because America hates us, and it will take more than one election to fix that.

So if Obama wants to look tough on terror, let him - if it's that or lose the fight on abortion, I think he's made the right choice. I'm not happy that we have to pick our battles, nor am I happy that we get so few - but it's the truth, and if we can't face up to it we'll be just what they said we were.

If the Democrats are moderate, it's because America is moderate. Obama is as liberal a candidate as America will permit - and for that, I blame America, not him.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

An Open Letter To Richard Dawkins and Company

This particular rant takes the form of an open letter to those biologists fighting the good fight to see evolution remain the foundation of modern life science: most particularly, Richard Dawkins.

It's my strong opinion that evolution has been sorely misrepresented in popular culture, both by creationist demagogues and - more regrettably - by scientists themselves. It is generally spoken of as Evolution, with a capital E, as though it were a force (like gravity) that exerted a discernable influence upon an individual organism. This has led lay advocates of evolution to speak about it almost mystically, and creationists to argue that it has never been observed; it has never been measured. The actor in evolution cannot be seen to act.

Now, the physical sciences are one field where I feel experts and academics have done a considerable amount of due diligence in attempting to make their more esoteric discoveries mainstream. Historians, theologians, and philosophers have not bothered to do so, preferring to complain that they labor in obscurity instead of bothering to produce the kind of intelligent but digestible works the world so desperately needs (I speak as one with designs on a graduate degree in History). This is certainly laudable, and I think all of academia could take a lesson from Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins: the best way to make sure people get good information is to make sure they get it from the right people, instead of whining that they get it from the wrong ones.

The evolution debate, however, has not ended, despite the opinion of every credible biologist (every single one; no exceptions) that natural selection is virtually unchallengeable. Indeed, that opinion itself has come under fire in popular creationist circles; Darwinists, they say, subscribe to a religion of their own. They're unwilling to accept a challenge to this evolution voodoo; they're unwilling to permit discourse of the sort upon which Science claims to be founded.

Biologists: I know you are good scientists who advocate discourse and frown upon the unfair dominance of tyrannical theories. Why are you letting buffoons like Phillip Johnson portray you in this ridiculous light when the first step towards stopping them is so easy?

Please. Tell people what evolution actually is.

I have only heard a single succinct definition in any public forum, from the late Stephen Jay Gould. He was lecturing on common misconceptions about Darwin and Darwinism, and he began by wondering aloud why people find natural selection so difficult to grasp. It's very easy, he argued (and now I am paraphrasing): it is the only possible result of the following three facts:

1. All members of a species are not the same.
2. Some degree of this variation is inherited.
3. Not all members of a species reproduce.

Natural selection is quite simply the name for those three facts. If you agree with all three, you agree with natural selection; and what reasonable person cannot? Who believes that all human beings are identical? Who believes that blonde parents are no more likely to have blonde children than dark-haired parents? Who believes that every human being has children? The simplest and most fundamental human experiences inform natural selection; why make it sound academic?

The beautiful, elegant thing about this concept is that you need agree on none of the mechanics of natural selection to agree with the idea itself. We know, for example, that human variation and its heritability result from genes and their interplay; one need not know this - indeed, one can categorically deny it - and still not have undermined natural selection at all. You can believe that God ordains the degree of human variation, the degree of its heritability, and the power of an individual to reproduce, and all you have argued is that God controls natural selection. It's a logical syllogism, not a force; no evidence exists that could disprove it.

But, you may ask, will there not still exist those who accept all three of our premises and still challenge evolution as we present it? Actually, you (my target audience, who will likely not be reading this) will ask no such thing; you know perfectly well the technical jargon of the "scientific advocate" of "intelligent design." They will tell you, of course, that all those things are perfectly true, and that you are caricaturing them unfairly; everyone can recognize microevolution going on around them every day. What you suggest, Richard Dawkins (they will say), is macroevolution - one species becoming a different species over time. Two different phenomena; one possible, one impossible.

They will say this because there is a fourth premise, one so fundamental a scientist would not think to include it:

4. Life on Earth is quite old.

Because we know, of course, that the difference between micro- and macroevolution (for God's sake, it's right there in the name) is one of degree, not quality. Small change versus big change. And we know, of course, that a big change is simply many hundreds (or thousands, or millions) of small changes accruing over time. And we know, of course, that life on Earth has had billions of years in which to accrue small changes. It follows, then, that millions of big changes could easily have occured; it follows that one organism could easily have come another.

It doesn't follow to them. They're religious zealots.

You know this, and I know this, but the long and dedicated struggle of the Intelligent Design movement has been to convince the world that they are not motivated by religion; that they are simply scientists, educated at the best of universities, trained to challenge faulty theories and prevent intellectual hegemony. Their public persona is smart, thoughtful, academic - and outraged, that the scientific press is being censored in this way. We are real scientists, they scoff, and we're being treated like a religious cult.

They are a religious cult, and we know it; but the failure of their movement depends on the rest of the world knowing it. Presenting evolutionary theory the way I've outlined above will do just that; it will force them to either lie outright, or admit that they're not just creationists, but Young Earth creationists. The former is a depressingly well-represented group in America; the latter, I like to hope, remains a fringe movement. In any case, the least we can do is make this debate honest; it's about religion, not the clash of two scientific methods.

Obviously nothing I've just said will be new to you (you, my entirely fictitious audience of busy important people), but I hope you'll take it under consideration. The publication of The Selfish Gene was a landmark of modern science, and popular scientific literature remains intelligent, extensive, and relatively simple; it could, however, be simpler still. I regretfully think that it must be.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Evolution of a Post-Secular State

In my random journeys through the World Wide Web, I just ran into a discussion by the Washington Post of liberal attitudes towards evolution in the current election. Specifically, the commentator was registering a certain dismay and disappointment at the way Democratic platforms have downplayed evolution - hoping that a combination of "education" and "science" will give their supporters the right idea while offending as few religious radicals as possible. This is similar to the irritatingly tentative way the liberal candidates have of approaching abortion issues - refusing to take a strong position, and emphasizing their respect for alternative belief systems and absolute moralities. Republicans, on the other hand, are not so shy about either issue - they cater to a demographic firm in its convictions, and willing to state unequivocally the difference between right and wrong.

To liberals, this begs one simple question: How did this happen?

The answer is not nearly so simple, to liberals or conservatives. From a very early age, we're raised in a mainstream culture brimming with 20th-century Postmodernism. "Liberal" thinking, we're taught, refers not to a set of conclusions about the world but to a way of reaching conclusions - a value system wherein two opposing views are given equal validity, and even the most foolish of notions is prized for the discussion it engenders. That's why when a good liberal says they're "pro-choice," they really mean it - pro-choice, and not necessarily pro-abortion. In fact, I know a substantial number of liberals who say they're against abortion personally - but are zealous advocates of the woman's right to choose. They argue for a right they hope nobody ever exercises.

The extent to which this brand of liberalism is born from secular moral relativism would surprise many Americans raised in the Post-Enlightenment world. This is because members of the secular community don't really get religion, even those who claim to believe in it. They see religious tolerance as the norm, secular government as an unquestioned political axiom, and faith as explicitly opposed to rational thought. They see religion as just one facet of a well-rounded life - to them, all extra-normal ideas can be corralled into a box labeled "Religious Beliefs" and set aside from politics, science and medicine.

They would probably be offended to be told that really religious people don't think that way - and never have, at more or less any other point recorded history. The truly religious see faith as a canopy over all aspects of human life - to say something is or is not "religious" would make no sense to the genuinely faithful. They believe in God the way we believe in gravity - absolutely, unbendingly, willing to live their lives as though a man who steps off the cliff will fall. I don't need to stick my hand in a circular saw to know it will be cut, and would see any claim to the contrary as mere semantic nonsense. That's the way they believe in God.

The problem is that if you believe in God that much, you're likely to take his instructions fairly seriously - so seriously, in fact, that it's hard to acknowledge any other authority whatsoever. After all, you've been given a user's manual to all Creation by the guy who made it so - what more could you possibly ask for? How could you care about medicine when you know it's God's will who lives or dies? How could you believe in evolution when you know it was God's word that brought us here? How could you allow behavior when you know it's immoral - and even worse, that immoral behavior by a select few could doom all of humanity?

That's the position of religious fundamentalists the world over, and especially the position of American Evangelicals - or Bible Believers, as they call themselves. A large majority of the Republican demographic see the Bible as divinely inspired law - cover to cover, word for word, no contradictions, no confusion. That this belief system strikes most liberals (or even socially conservative secularists) as totally nonsensical is just as totally irrelevant - the Believers relish the outcry from scientists, savor the scorn of liberals, and live for the stings and arrows of religious persecution.

Liberals would say the Believers are perpetrators of religious persecution, not victims - and this is, indeed, a very defensible position shared by the author. Again, however, this is because we are products of Enlightenment secularism - as well we should be, given that our nation's very existence is among the greatest expressions of that ideology. The very basis of democratic government is also the very basis of Postmodernism: that no one individual has unfettered access to the truth, and the closest one can come to it is a synthesis of multiple truths. Democracy is the admission that right and wrong do not exist in a way we can access, and any attempt to force one man's beliefs on another is tyranny. Not all believers in democracy would describe it that way, but take another look: if one man knew both right and wrong, and we could tell who that man was, why would it make sense to put anybody else in charge?

A little less than half of this country has considered that question and arrived at the logical answer: it wouldn't. They have the man: his name is Jesus. They have his opinions: they're in the Bible. They have the consequences of transgression: hellfire, damnation, Sodom and Gomorrah. If America permits wrongdoing - abortion, homosexuality, managed economy - God will make sure we all go the way of the dinosaurs.

See how quickly their view makes sense if you accept their most basic premises? See how quickly secular tolerance becomes ridiculous in the face of moral absolutes? See how quickly one must admit uncertainty and adhere to subjectivism in order to justify any measure of true religious (or even moral) tolerance?

Conservatives see this, and liberals don't, and that's why they can't stand us. We sit up there and waver back and forth, arguing less about what we believe and more about the nature of belief. Conservatism is about right and wrong, truth and falsehood; liberalism is about which wrongs, if any, the government is empowered to right - which falsehoods, if any, the government is able to correct.

That's why we say pro-choice and they hear pro-death; we say pro-science and they hear pro-evolution. They live in a world where black opposes white, abortion is murder, and belief carries the weight of fact - or even law. Ours, by contrast, is a gray and shifting planet. We say pro-choice instead of pro-death because we're not sure when life begins; we say pro-science instead of pro-evolution because sciences are known to overturn themselves from time to time. Our beliefs aren't just uncertain, they're beliefs about uncertainty.

Film, literature, and academia have all been comfortable with this situation for so long that most people take it for granted; take, for example, Jack Cafferty, a liberal commentator for CNN. Recent events at Saddleback prompted him to call McCain "intellectually shallow" for sounding off so confidently about the nature of faith, when "Great scholars have wrestled with the meaning of faith for centuries." Everyone knows moral questions are hard, maybe impossible, right? Simplistic one-liners are a mark of stupidity, right?

Not for a Bible Believer, as McCain seems to know quite well. When you think even children know the truth - the whole truth, every important bit of it - the stupid man is the man who won't say it; the man who dances around, who acts like it's tough when it's the easiest question in the world. Didn't he read the stuff? Wasn't he listening?

He wasn't, and if you think America's fine with that then you don't know America. Not right now. The right wing isn't just religious, it's anti-secular; it's not that they missed the Enlightenment, it's that they rejected it. They want to make America a post-secular state, and we're closer than you might suspect to letting them.