Friday, November 9, 2007

Do Unto Others they will do unto you once elected.

It sounds like a pretty nice idea when it's called the Golden Rule, but it's a bit more seedy when it means "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." If there was ever any doubt that politico-preachers are more about power and prestige than principles, this settles it. It's one thing for someone to say "John Kerry is a douchebag but I'm voting for him anyway," because pragmatic Americans are frequently in a position of having to decide among less-than-ideal options. But when your convictions are ostensibly based upon the will of the infallible and omnipotent creator of the universe, you have substantially less freedom to be expedient. If Giuliani is a sinner, or force of evil, or whatever the hell Pat Robertson used to call pro-choice divorcees before he endorsed one of them, then it seems to me you don't really have the authority to endorse him, even if he is preferable to the other demons that populate the field. Not that preachers have any business opining on politics anyway.

(The middle guy in The Onion sketch couldn't have been more on the money: "I don't know whose credibility this ruins more." Bingo.)

Update: Jackie and Dunlap break it down:


Thursday, November 8, 2007

Chuck D

That is, Charles Darwin, not the guy from Public Enemy. It's amazing how little respect the former gets in America these days. Marty Klein has a few pointed observations (emphasis added):

Say what you will about the Brits (the food isn’t their only fault), they gave the world parliamentary democracy. Not to deny their imperialism and funny hats, but they have often been an island of sanity (literally) in a world gone mad. And every day of my visit last week, I had some of that sanity in my hand.

Their 10-pound ($20) bill features a picture of Charles Darwin on the back.

Can you imagine that in the U.S.?

I call these [antiscientific] opinions lies because when confronted with the evidence that they’re wrong, these people almost always say, “I don’t care about your so-called facts. I know what I know.” Worse, they spread these lies via government websites, “decency” campaigns, and TV shows.

One of the most tragic accomplishments of the Bush Administration is the cultural devaluation of knowledge. Facts are no longer seen as special. In a single decade, the scientific enterprise—the thought process that lifted human beings out of caves, cannibalism, and the fear of fire—has been nakedly politicized, reduced to the level of just another opinion.

As teacher Bob Riggins says, “Do you believe in evolution?” is the wrong question. It suggests that there is a choice. It implies that “believing” and “not believing” are, on some intellectual level, equivalent. But they aren’t.

Evolution’s history and contemporary processes have long been established as knowledge. In fact, you can see evolution easier than you can see intercourse causing pregnancy or the moon causing tides. The next time you get a drug-resistant flu or infection, you’re seeing evolution in action. And when you drop your pen, does it fall because of “gravity,” or the floor god Calvin? Does not believing in gravity make it any less real?

In England, people don’t discuss whether or not they “believe” in Darwin or Evolution. Millions of them are good Christians.

But in today’s America, more people believe in the reality of the Rapture than in the reality of Evolution. As Richard Kliman says in Philip Roth’s new novel, Exit Ghost, “these are people who don’t believe in knowledge.”

Defend Science.
Defend Science.

By the way, though I am no fan of strict dichotomies, I must accede to the claim that the battle lines have been drawn. Materialism, science, humanism, call it what you will: a worldview that relies on observation rather than revelation is incompatible with religion in any true sense of the word. Here is a fantastic critique of the often-espoused pseudo-moderate apologia of those who believe otherwise. (This is a clear case of pandering, as Brownback almost certainly does not believe in their compatibility; he just doesn't want to admit that he is a fundamentalist to those who don't already know it.) Such arguments are big on heart, to give them the benefit of the doubt, but undeniably small on brain. An excerpt:
To say that there is no conflict between faith and reason, therefore, is to say that the propositions one holds to be divinely revealed do not contradict the propositions knowable according to the standards of science or philosophy. Whether this is really the case depends, obviously, on just which propositions one thinks were divinely revealed and which are knowable in science or philosophy. If it turns out that a proposition one holds in faith is contradicted by a proposition known by reason, then one must either rework one’s theology, giving up on the idea that God revealed the proposition in question, or else show that the scientific or philosophical arguments that contradict that proposition are in fact inconclusive by scientific or philosophical standards.
Although the author offers a half-hearted defense of theism, it is notable that by his own logic this argument is scientific (or whatever we should call human-derived knowledge), and is thus no defense of religion as conventionally practiced. In fact, like all arguments that turn on the convenient convergence of rational belief with religious practice, it is a near deathblow to the rationale for religion, depriving it of its saving grace: What can it show us that we can't figure out ourselves? He says so himself:
To relegate normative questions to the realm of faith would be to deny the existence of an objective morality knowable by human reason—and in this way the virtues, natural law, and human rights become indistinguishable from whatever putative divine commands any crackpot may say he has lately received. This is not a view that anyone, especially someone involved in public life, should want to defend.
Matt Taibi also has a great piece in Rolling Stone that talks about the fairly recent Dover trial: our generation's Scopes trial. He makes an interesting an often-overlooked point in that while some of the more conciliatory intellectuals may pretend or even believe that the faith vs. reason conflict need not end in epistemological Armageddon, true believers are astute in realizing that it must. And they are equally right to fear that they will lose. Cognoscenti have no credibility in claiming that secular knowledge will not obviate and obliterate the current alternatives, as well they shouldn't:
"Dr. Alters," he said, "were you aware that Professor Steven Weinberg once said that 'I personally feel that the teaching of modern science is corrosive to religious belief, and I'm all for that!'"

"An unfortunate remark," said Alters, shaking his head and squirming. The look on his face said, "Can we move on?"

But Muise didn't: He rattled off more quotes from prominent scientists, including one from Gould ("Before Darwin, we thought that a benevolent God had created us") -- who, Muise noted with obvious pleasure, had once written a foreword to one of Alters' books. Alters shrugged it off, calmly sticking to his contention that evolution was not an indictment of religion.

As Alters gave his denials, Muise turned to the gallery and, for the first time that afternoon, evinced a small smile. That smile spoke volumes. It said, "At least my clients know when they're full of shit. But these eggheads . . ."

Muise had a point. His defendants and their ID theory had come under attack for an obvious reason: Just because you say in a court of law that you're not creationists doesn't make it true.

Now Muise got to say the same thing to those superior-sounding intellectuals who flew into God's country and insisted, under oath, that they weren't enemies of religion. You can yell it at us till you're blue in the face, the lawyer seemed to be saying, but we who really believe know better.

To blue-state intellectuals like Alters, Kitzmiller v. Dover was just another clash with religious loonies of the same primitive sort found in the original Scopes trial, die-hards determined for some incomprehensible reason to drag us back to the Stone Age.

But to the defendants in this case, Kitzmiller was a chance to turn Scopes on its head. If what Scopes' defense attorney Clarence Darrow accomplished eighty years ago was to expose the narrow-mindedness and anti-intellectualism of the Bible Belt, lawyers like Muise were out to show the opposite in Kitzmiller -- that most scientists secretly hate God, laugh at his followers and would like to stamp out both for all eternity, only they don't take Christians seriously enough to be straight with them about this.

Both sides were right[.]

But the real victory of the defense was in forcing men like Alters to insist with a straight face that Darwinism is not incompatible with religion. Technically this was true, of course, but it was striking that it was exactly the same kind of feeble technicality as the contention that ID has no literal connection to God or the Bible. A technicality like Clinton not sleeping with Monica Lewinsky, like John Kerry owning a rifle. Technically true -- but fooling no one.

Intelligent design may very well have been conceived as an end run around the Supreme Court, and in a matter of weeks, it will likely be exposed as such, when the Honorable Judge John E. Jones III rules in favor of Kitzmiller et al. in the Dover case. [Note: Judge Jones, who had close ties to Republican politicians sympathetic to ID, was suspected to be as favorable to the ID cause as anyone you could find on a federal bench. Nonetheless, his ruling was brutal. While he needed only rule on the impropriety of the particular case, which was obvious and could have been accomplished on a technicality rather than the heart of the legal issue, he chose instead to rule broadly and harshly on the impropriety of ID itself, essentially closing the door to similar cases in the future. He also lauded the ACLU prosecutor's devastating cross examination of the key expert ID witness, Michael Behe, as "textbook."]

But ID is also revealing itself here in Pennsylvania in another form. It's having a coming-out party as a deliberate satirical echo of the great liberal lie of the modern age: the idea that progressive science and religion can coexist.

For a century or so since Nietzsche, popular culture in the West has operated according to an uneasy truce, in which God both is and is not dead. We teach our children the evidence-based materialism of science and tell them they can believe in God and a faith-based morality in their spare time if they like.

And in some parts of the country, we celebrate Scopes as a victory over ignorance, while still insisting that we do not also celebrate it as a victory over religion. What these endless Scopes sequels tell us is that somewhere many years from now we're going to hit a fork in the road, beyond which this have-it-both-ways philosophy isn't going to fly anymore. Is God dead, or isn't he? Are we believers, or not? They know what we think. They just want us to come out and say it.

Almost anywhere else in the developed world, the notion if True Belief is quaint. But in the US, God is not dead quite yet. But make no mistake about it, it's Nietzsche or the Bible. I know who I'm pulling for.



Well, what else can I say:

You can find out more about the "carried interest" tax rate here. Needless to say, it has been greatly misunderstood by many who have opined on it. Further, while organizations like MoveOn are pushing this as a major populist issue (which it is) the implication is that this is a Republican thing, which it apparently is not. While a Dem introduced the bill to close the loophole, support for it on his side of the aisle has been less than convincing. Notably, Chuck Schumer of New York (he's close to Wall Street types, so this is obviously uncomfortable for him) has opposed the bill. We'll see what the Dems do, but if this bill doesn't pass it will (and should) seriously damage their credibility as the party of common people, especially in juxtaposition to Republican "elitism."


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Elephant In The Room

[While it occurs to me that the title is probably the most cliche of all political puns, I still thought it was rather clever at the moment.]

Biden finally says what few others have had the balls to mention. I love that man.

Biden is not as wonkish on policy as my ideal candidate would be, but he's not full of shit either and that counts for quite a bit these days. Here is an excellent piece on Biden. It's wordy, but substantial. It also reminds us of his significant personal faults and past political transgressions (and some might claim it glosses over these), but all in all I think it's the portrait of a man who has the foundations of knowledge and character to be a good president. I think I like him for putting his foot in his mouth occasionally because he does so out of what seems to be unaffected candor, and he responds to his own unfortunate outbursts by neither denying nor eschewing his positions, but simply apologizing where it's warranted.

In short, vote Jackie Broyles.


Friday, November 2, 2007

Constitution 102

I have already posted excerpts on this, but when a presidential front-runner like Mitt Romney says at the Republican debate--to copious applause, no less-- that it is acceptable for traditionally defined constitutional civil rights to take a back seat to the exigencies of safety, it bears repeating. [For some reason, I can't find a clip of him saying this. I saw the clip originally on the Daily Show, which has done a heinously amateurish revamp of their site and it is now almost impossible to find anything.] More excerpts below, and here is the full article.

When President Bush signed the Military Commissions Act into law in October 2006, he dismissed objections to its Draconian and tyrannical provisions with one very simple and straightforward argument (emphasis added):
Over the past few months the debate over this bill has been heated, and the questions raised can seem complex. Yet, with the distance of history, the questions will be narrowed and few: Did this generation of Americans take the threat seriously, and did we do what it takes to defeat that threat? Every member of Congress who voted for this bill has helped our nation rise to the task that history has given us.
That paragraph summarizes the Bush movement. Because the threat posed by The Evil Terrorists is so grave, maximizing protections against it is the paramount, overriding goal. No other value competes with that objective, nor can any other value limit our efforts to protect ourselves against The Terrorists.

That is the essence of virtually every argument Bush supporters make regarding terrorism. No matter what objection is raised to the never-ending expansions of executive power, no matter what competing values are touted (due process, the rule of law, the principles our country embodies, how we are perceived around the world), the response will always be that The Terrorists are waging war against us and our overarching priority -- one that overrides all others -- is to protect ourselves, to triumph over Evil. By definition, then, there can never be any good reason to oppose vesting powers in the government to protect us from The Terrorists because that goal outweighs all others.

But our entire system of government, from its inception, has been based upon a very different calculus -- that is, that many things matter besides merely protecting ourselves against threats, and consequently, we are willing to accept risks, even potentially fatal ones, in order to secure those other values. From its founding, America has rejected the worldview of prioritizing physical safety above all else, as such a mentality leads to an impoverished and empty civic life. The premise of America is and always has been that imposing limitations on government power is necessary to secure liberty and avoid tyranny even if it means accepting an increased risk of death as a result. That is the foundational American value.

It is this courageous demand for core liberties even if such liberties provide less than maximum protection from physical risks that has made America bold, brave, and free. Societies driven exclusively or primarily by a fear of avoiding Evil, minimizing risks, and seeking above all else that our government "protects" us are not free. That is a path that inevitably leads to authoritarianism -- an increasingly strong and empowered leader in whom the citizens vest ever-increasing faith and power in exchange for promises of safety. That is most assuredly not the historical ethos of the United States.

The Bill of Rights contains numerous limitations on government power, and many of them render us more vulnerable to threats. If there is a serial killer on the loose in a community, the police would be able to find and apprehend him much more easily if they could simply invade and search everyone's homes at will and without warning. Nonetheless, the Fourth Amendment expressly prohibits the police from undertaking such searches. It requires both probable cause and a judicial warrant before police may do so, even though such limitations on state power will enable dangerous killers to elude capture.

Our country is centrally based upon the principle that we are willing to assume risks in order to limit government power. Numerous other amendments in the Bill of Rights are grounded in that same principle. And, of course, that is the central belief that drove the founders to risk death by waging war against the most powerful empire on earth. Objectives other than physical protection matter greatly. We have never been a country that ignores other objectives and asks only, as the president put it, did "Americans take the threat seriously, and did we do what it takes to defeat that threat?"

The president's mind-set is utterly contrary to core American principles. Historically, the worst mistakes America has made -- those instances in which it has departed most radically from its ideals -- happened not when Americans failed to take seriously enough some Evil lurking in the world, but, to the contrary, they occurred when our government leaders exaggerated the threat of Evil and accordingly induced overreactions among citizens.

Historians will almost certainly ask about the Bush presidency: Did America adhere to its values and principles when defending itself against the threat posed by terrorism, or did it succumb to fear, overreaction, and violate its core beliefs in pursuit of illusions of maximum protection?

To put it another way...

This is an excellent recap of the point by David Foster Wallace, but since it's probably not linkable without a subscription, I will plagiarize the point below. [Of The Atlantic, Harper's, and The New Yorker, I'm not sure why The Atlantic seems to be notably more protective of their online content. I hate to do this, but this is the way media works nowadays.]
Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

Here are a few things I've quoted before.

No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices.
-Edward R. Murrow

We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine. And remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to associate, to speak, and to defend the causes that were for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage, and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the results. We proclaim ourselves indeed we are, defenders of freedom where ever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
-Edward R. Murrow

One of our greatest leaders once told us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. We should remember that.

Somewhat relevantly, this is not a model of government:

Non sequiturs below: