Wednesday, December 30, 2009

'What Darwin Never Knew'

NOVA's "What Darwin Never Knew" was a real treat. The segment covering HOX genes was too summary, but overall the 2 hour Evo-Devo special was superb and reminds me why PBS is our only, if tiny, answer to the BBC. Watch.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Broken Chamber


Paul Krugman sees the harbinger of a terminally ill body upon looking at the Senate.  So do I.  The level of dysfunction due to the antidemocratic power structures that rule the chamber - in plain sight - have peaked since Republicans became the minority in 2006.  The filibuster is now used to threaten roughly 70% of legislation.  Any time the minority party wants to throw a wrench in the democratic process they have taken to it, without castigation from the public for choking majority rule.  It is no matter that they are currently outnumbered by 150%, the minority now wields kill-power without fearing reprisal.  The filibuster has become a given tactic on virtually every piece of legislation.

Of course it has - if the majority were to pass a good bill that was efficient and improved conditions for the American public, they would be rewarded electorally for governing effectively.  So as long as there are no public rebukes, it will always be in the political interest of the minority to derail any potential progress brought by the majority.  Regarding the healthcare bill, and last nights cloture vote, Krugman warns:

"the fact that it was such a close thing shows that the Senate — and, therefore, the U.S. government as a whole — has become ominously dysfunctional.  After all, Democrats won big last year, running on a platform that put health reform front and center.  In any other advanced democracy this would have given them the mandate and the ability to make major changes.  But the need for 60 votes to cut off Senate debate and end a filibuster — a requirement that appears nowhere in the Constitution, but is simply a self-imposed rule — turned what should have been a straightforward piece of legislating into a nail-biter.  And it gave a handful of wavering senators extraordinary power to shape the bill.  

Now consider what lies ahead.  We need fundamental financial reform.  We need to deal with climate change.  We need to deal with our long-run budget deficit.  What are the chances that we can do all that — or, I’m tempted to say, any of it — if doing anything requires 60 votes in a deeply polarized Senate?"

We, the most powerful democratic nation, are watching the machinery of government breakdown to the pace of, well, a filibuster.

Here fo the full article.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Universe We Glimpse

Shown here is a breathtaking 6 minute space flight, zooming outward from the Himalayas, past the planets, and past the galaxy all the way to the edge of the known universe, before zooming home again.

The model reflected in this video is based on real mapping data.  Watch this video in full screen.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Stop The Insanity... End Minority Rule

If you were to ask me what should be done in a hypothetical situation 8 years from now, when a Republican controlled Congress is trying to privatize social security and increase spending (as they delight in doing while they're in power), while simultaneously deregulating the banks and cutting taxes for the wealthy, I would say "filibuster."

Of course I would want a filibuster, it's a powerful way to stop the other side from getting what they want in a patently anti-democratic way.  If the case could be made that it would be "better for the country" to stop the legislation aforementioned, then by all means, filibuster!  Isn't it great to have the filibuster in our arsenal?

No. It is breaking the institution of Congress, and vastly diminishing the power of our democracy.

"It means the minority party has a continual stake in Congress not really working, because that means the president can't really succeed... The filibuster will end when Congress decides that it wants to be an effective, powerful institution again. But that's the only incentive Congress has to end it. So long as it's simply a question of partisan power, someone will always be in the minority, and so someone will always see the filibuster as serving their interests."

-Ezra Klein has written an simple explanation that all should read... Click here to Read the full article.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Beautiful Vision Of The Galactic Center

The music is so... spacey.
WATCH:

(Click on the video while playing to watch in full)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Roger Ebert Slams Superstitious Creationists, and New-Agers'

Roger Ebert rips into the trendy New-Age phenomoenon, leading into a broader polemic on creationism, politics, and the media.  His critique of the way our media treats manufactured controversies, the evolution "debate" (which is, of course, nothing even resembling a debate), and religious literalism is refreshing.  Particularly so when it comes from a well-known TV personality:
  • "My only purpose today is to state early and often that if a Presidential candidate believes early humans used saddles to ride on the backs of dinosaurs, as they are depicted at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, that candidate should not be elected President. 
  • And if a candidate counts among close friends and advisors anyone in communication with the spirit world, that candidate should not be elected President. 
  • And if a candidate accounts for the fact that humanoid and dinosaur bones are never found at the same level in the fossil record by evoking the action of sediment after the Great Flood, that candidate should not be President. 
  • And if a candidate has a spirit guide, consults his or her Chart and takes more than a passing amusement in the horoscope, that candidate should not be elected President. 
  • I would be much relieved if the MSM would subscribe to these guidelines now, when our minds are clear, and not muddle them later in the fray of an election. Serious belief in either the New Age or Creationism should be as much a cause for ineligibility as -- why, not being born in the United States."
Read the full article HERE.

Probable Pair-Instability Supernovae Explosion

Scientists seem to have observed the explosion last year of a 200 solar-mass star. Stars this big are rare today but are thought to have been common in the early universe.  The heavy elements forged together in that massive nuclear furnace were detected in surprising amounts, leading scientists to regard Supernovae SN 2007bi as relevant to the early evolution of the universe.
"The heavy elements spewed into space in the deaths of similar early, massive stars may have stunted the growth of later stellar generations. That's because gas clouds containing iron and other heavy elements tend to fragment into smaller knots that give birth to relatively lightweight stars like the sun.... 
Though some less-massive stars also spew metals when they die, pair-instability supernovae are especially prolific polluters. "One such explosion can pollute an entire small ancient galaxy," Gal-Yam told New Scientist...  The dwarf galaxy where SN 2007bi occurred seems to have low metal content, the team says, which might explain how the star that went supernova was able to form."




Stars born with more than about 140 times the mass of the sun die as "pair-instability supernova" that spew heavy elements into space (Illustration: NASA/CXC/M Weiss)
Stars born with more than about 140 times the mass of the sun die as "pair-instability supernova" that spew heavy elements into space (Illustration: NASA/CXC/M Weiss)
More at New Scientist. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Better Than Fantasy

These are some great Hubble images that Alan Taylor at Boston.com put together. Click on the animation to go to the collection.
I know the Eagle Nebula is super-serialized at this point, but it never ceases to shake me when I stare at it.  Each of those little 'pinches' diverging from the main column of gas and dust covers an area larger than the Solar System, and contains a star being born before our very eyes.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Protest

Andrew Sullivan has abandoned the caricature of what used to be the conservative movement... with a bang!  His announcement reads powerfully - a blistering critique of the modern Republican party which has itself become a factory of farcical policies, inherently venomous to American principles.

I will never agree with Sullivan's accomodationism when it comes to religion and superstition, but in his summary description of the impulses governing the modern conservative movement, he has been bang on:

  • "I cannot support a movement that claims to believe in limited government but backed an unlimited domestic and foreign policy presidency that assumed illegal, extra-constitutional dictatorial powers until forced by the system to return to the rule of law. 
  • I cannot support a movement that exploded spending and borrowing and blames its successor for the debt. 
  • I cannot support a movement that so abandoned government's minimal and vital role to police markets and address natural disasters that it gave us Katrina and the financial meltdown of 2008. 
  • I cannot support a movement that holds torture as a core value. 
  • I cannot support a movement that holds that purely religious doctrine should govern civil political decisions and that uses the sacredness of religious faith for the pursuit of worldly power. 
  • I cannot support a movement that is deeply homophobic, cynically deploys fear of homosexuals to win votes, and gives off such a racist vibe that its share of the minority vote remains pitiful. 
  • I cannot support a movement which has no real respect for the institutions of government and is prepared to use any tactic and any means to fight political warfare rather than conduct a political conversation. 
  • I cannot support a movement that sees permanent war as compatible with liberal democratic norms and limited government. 
  • I cannot support a movement that criminalizes private behavior in the war on drugs. 
  • I cannot support a movement that would back a vice-presidential candidate manifestly unqualified and duplicitous because of identity politics and electoral cynicism. 
  • I cannot support a movement that regards gay people as threats to their own families. 
  • I cannot support a movement that does not accept evolution as a fact. 
  • I cannot support a movement that sees climate change as a hoax and offers domestic oil exploration as the core plank of an energy policy. 
  • I cannot support a movement that refuses ever to raise taxes, while proposing no meaningful reductions in government spending. 
  • I cannot support a movement that refuses to distance itself from a demagogue like Rush Limbaugh or a nutjob like Glenn Beck. 
  • I cannot support a movement that believes that the United States should be the sole global power, should sustain a permanent war machine to police the entire planet, and sees violence as the core tool for international relations.


Does this make me a "radical leftist" as Michelle Malkin would say? Emphatically not. But it sure disqualifies me from the current American right.
To paraphrase Reagan, I didn't leave the conservative movement. It left me.
And increasingly, I'm not alone."

Bravo Mr. Sullivan.

Intelligence Squared Debate: Atheism Is the New Fundamentalism

Richard Dawkins and A.C. bring the pain:

Click to redirect to Youtube video with parts 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

On the Origin Of "Intelligent Design" - The Darwin Debates

Tomorrow, Monday November 30th - 2009, the "Origins of Life Debate" will take place at the Saban Theatre, in West Los Angeles, at 7:30.  Sternberg and Meyer will be debating Shermer and Prothero, the former are proponents of creationism disguised as intelligent design, the latter will be defending science.

I have been asked by the one of the organizers to cover the debate.  Tickets are cheap, $10 for students and $20 general admission, so if you're close by, I strongly urge you to come!  It's going to be a fun night.

Friday, November 27, 2009

QFTD

I just remembered hearing Lawrence Krauss say this, I think it was at AAI 09...  Makes me smile every time.


"Forget Jesus... The stars died so you could be here today..."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Filibuster Is Anti-Democratic

The Nation's recent editorial Filibustering The Public makes it quite plain: the filibuster is nothing, if not anti-democratic.  It's really as simple as this:

1)  Democracy = Majority Rule
2)  Filibuster = A Minority 41 Senators Have Final Say = Minority Rule

People think that if a 51% majority rule is good, then a 60% majority, well gee... that sounds even better!  Except what this structure actually means is that a 41% minority can stop any democratically supported policy dead in it's tracks.

This is the reason that a handful of special interest (insurance-lobby) senators get to play 'King of the Senate' while ruining an already dilute bill that well over a 50% majority support.  It really is despicable, and it's time for real change.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The God Crisis


As far back as I can remember contemplating the nature of the world on any serious level, I have been an atheist.  Of course, I didn't know there was a word for it, I simply felt the same thing towards God that I felt towards the tooth fairy.  For a time, I assumed that everyone felt the same way as they grew up and shed the superstitions we like to believe as children.  But that was short lived, of course.  I soon realized that there was a particular implausible story that even adults clung to.  In the past years, beginning with 9-11 and accelerating during my time at university, speaking up against religion and its encroachment into the classroom and the state became a worthy and consuming goal.

Last week, I attended the Atheist Alliance International conference.  It had been their largest meeting to date.  The speakers included scientists and luminaries, philosophers and activists.  The impressive coalition included cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennet, Pharyngula's PZ Meyers, Eugenie Scott, and the always witty Bill Maher.

A few years ago, author Sam Harris told this convention's hall full of atheists, that we shouldn't be using the term "atheist" to describe ourselves.  I agree, and I rejoice in Harris' dedication to reason and science, but I couldn't disagree more with his corollary argument that we should  advocate for reason and science "under the radar."  We've been under the radar, it hasn't worked very well.  Harris was referring to the fact that atheism is not an affirmation of anything, but rather a negation of certain beliefs: we don't say we're non-astrologers, non-racists, or a-Zeusians, we simply refuse to believe such nonsense.  However, I'll use the term here for the sake of expediency.

American atheists and agnostics outnumber all (American) Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hinduscombined, so how many lobbying firms do we have in Washington?  You might imagine my surprise when Sean Faircloth, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America, gave me his sobering answer: one ... his own.  That's right, in the face of the Christian lobby and the religious right - with more money than "god" in their coffers - we secularists are an insignificant speed-bump.  That we have reason and the constitution on our side won't make enough of a difference, if we don't organize.

It's a (bad) joke we tell each other: organizing atheists is like herding cats (we're no flock of sheep).  I can see the malformed logic behind this, and many repeat the meme, but the reality is that there's no reason this should be true.  Heterogeneous groups are quite capable of organizing behind a cause, or a movement.  Luckily, I felt a sense of growing urgency and frustration at this year's conference.  No longer can we afford to play nice with those who refuse to be reasonable.

This is 2009, we now know more about our world than we have throughout all of human history.  We live in the golden age of science.  Yet, in an America where pundits and politicians so often revel in American "exceptionalism," an NSF survey found that:

- 50% of adults don't know that the Earth orbits the Sun, and takes a year to do it.

- 53% of adults were unaware that the last dinosaur died before the first human arose.

- only 53% of adults knew that: "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals."
(Lawrence Krauss quipped that Sarah Palin is a member of this last group, as he hit us with these figures.)

Worse, one political party has become distinctly anti-science, and the other doesn't have the guts to make it an issue, likely from fear of being labeled as the "intellectual elite"  (the phrase has come to be derogatory, somehow.)

So allow me to make some blunt observations that might not be politically correct, but are nevertheless obvious:

-Non-believers tend to be well-educated, scientifically minded, and smarter than average: 93% of the National Academy of Sciences do not believe in a personal God, yet roughly 80-90% of the general public do.
  
-In countries where there is a high standard of living and education, as more than one AAI speaker pointed out, roughly 80% of the population are non-believers (Sweden, Norway, Denmark etc.).
 
With the state of our education system being what it is, other countries are on a future trajectory to out-compete us in science and technology.  Since science and technology have accounted for roughly half of per-capita GDP growth over the last 50 years, it's hugely unpatriotic to do nothing in the face of moneyed interests pushing superstition into the classroom and public policy.  During his talk, PZ Meyers pointed out that the single most important indicator of scientific ability is math.  If I made a habit out of making bad puns, I might say, "Houston, we have a problem..."

Eugenie Scott, who fights to keep creationism and it's reincarnation "intelligent design" out of the classroom, gave a harrowing talk regarding the state of science education.  She explained in breathtaking relief, how after many courtroom defeats, lawyers and lawmakers opposed to evolution are becoming increasingly clever at achieving their goal of teaching creationism in the classroom (they are evolving to circumvent previous rulings).  In some states, this problem is growing discouragingly quickly.  What should really frighten us is that, even with the current laws in place, some teachers are intimidated by controversy into simply skipping over evolution, which is thefoundation for all biology.

Another topic that seemed to arise frequently in my conversations with conference attendees, was the frustration that it has become fashionable to hold completely irrational beliefs in addition to the mainstream theologies.  After reading the mission statement for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, I decided to replicate the exercise Dawkins describes:  I went to a local bookstore and counted about eight good books on astronomy, but around 25 on astrology.  I didn't see one on biology (although they probably had On the Origin of Species somewhere), but I found an entire section full of books on how to beat cancer with vegetables and herbs, crystal healing, "Eating Right for Your Blood-type," how to cultivate your "third eye", and similar nonsense.  These kinds of beliefs aren't harmless, they're outright dangerous, especially when they convince someone's mother to decline cancer treatment for "faith-healing", or to forgo vaccinating her children.

All of this paints a bleak picture.   In fighting against it, Australian author and critic Russel Blackford suggests that in certain cases, it is entirely appropriate to mock people for what they believe.  I couldn't agree more.  It has become trendy to be completely irrational, and 'cool' for teens to be "down with Jesus;" therefore, secularists should do everything in our power to make it un-cool.  We must get past this ill-advised notion that we should "respect" other peoples beliefs.

If Sarah Palin believes that the Earth is six-thousand years old, we should make her say it aloud and then promptly laugh at her.  No other category in our discourse deserves the privilege of being off-limits to skeptical inquiry: not politics, not art, nothing.  There is nothing moral, nor mature, about playing "nice" when the other side is content to sabotage the constitution and the classroom, where the future minds of our nation are being formed.

I'm pretty sure we Americans don't want to be a laughing stock, mocked by other nations for refusing to modernize.  It doesn't feel nice to be laughed at.  It's effective.  In the U.K., religion stays well out of politics, in fact, politicians deliberately avoid it for fear of being mocked.  In America, religion is invasive to all aspects of politics.

Will we falter in science and technology due to an increasingly anti-science political atmosphere and an ever decreasing will to fund research?  Maybe not, but it has me scared enough to become ever more active in advocating for science, reason, and evidence based public policy ... something even religious moderates should join us in fighting for.

The preceding was originally published on The Huffington Post.  You can find links to my other articles on the feed to the right...

Census Worker Hanging... What Pelosi Warned?

On September 12th, part time census worker Bill Sparkman was found hanging in the woods of rural Kentucky with the word "fed" written on his chest.  His death has prompted speculation that the incident is politically motivated.

If it is revealed that his death was indeed a homicide (as an unnamed official has alleged) and not a suicide, then the media and the public have a very important challenge ahead.  Since polarizing political turmoil often leads to the level of crisis before the parties involved decide to moderate, the question is whether our nation can change course in time to avoid more bloodshed.
Our country is being polarized by conscious forces down the road to extremity -- the corollary of which has historically been violence.  Those who are stoking the irrational fears which most of us chuckle at every day (I needn't really name them all), tend to be well educated and successful individuals.  As such, they are undoubtedly aware of how venomous ideas are capable of manifesting themselves: violently.  Yet Republican lawmakers, cable hosts, and radio personalities are riling up fears that a Manchurian-Kenyan-socialist and his secretly anti-American comrades are planning to turn this country into the Fourth Reich.  They lend credibility to the idea that the Democrats want to kill your grandmother, and that the 2010 census will lay the groundwork for FEMA's secret concentration camps.
When an individual comes to believe these malignant distortions, it then becomes rational for them to kill in defense of country; just as when one comes to believe that exploding themselves amongst a group of civilian infidels is a righteous act commanded by God, that person can then justify acting.  Beliefs are powerful catalysts.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently warned of the consequences of hateful rhetoric, she was promptly lambasted by the right.  Similarly, Janet Napolitano was bullied by the right, until she apologized, for a D.H.S report that warned of rising right-wing extremism in response to the election of Barack Obama.  Conservative voices are always heard feigning outrage when such cautionary statements are made... "How dare you imply these things! I could not foresee that calling a man 'Tiller the baby-killer' on prime-time could lead to his demise!"
We don't have all the facts regarding Bill Sparkman's death.  Yet if this tragedy turns out to be unrelated to politics, that would be beside the point.  The fact that, upon hearing of this incident, politically minded people wonder whether the death was a result of right wing invective is telling.  I can't recall a single murder over the last eight years that immediately led us to ask whether left-wing extremists, riled-up by the Democrats in Congress or the main-stream-media, were responsible.  Yet we have seen multiple such incidents this year on the other side: the shooting at the Holocaust Museum, Dr. Tiller, etc.
We must be careful not to blame these acts of violence on Congressional Republicans or Conservative commentators.  We can, however, make them share the responsibility of creating and fueling the malformed beliefs that rationalize acts of violence.  With adequate will, the public can force Fox News to own responsibility for continuing to actively distort and manipulate the truth, propagating dangerous beliefs.  A large enough movement might force advertisers to go elsewhere.  And the other news networks could conceivably challenge and correct conservative (and liberal) politicians who intentionally distort the facts.  Is this wishful thinking?  I don't know.
Do not misinterpret this as a call for censorship.  Political speech, even hate speech, is protected under the first amendment.  Free speech, however, does not exempt you from public ridicule.  The mocking, teasing, and ostracizing of those who spread hateful or dishonest beliefs is not childish or immoral, it is effective.  Those who act cynically and childishly do not deserve public "respect"  (to our servile media, "respect" means exemption from being challenged).
When Glenn Beck muses of poisoning Nancy Pelosi, he and his network should be forced to own his distaste.  When lawmakers lie about a bill's content, their trespasses should be more visibly outed.  Presently, those who engage in this behavior know they can get away with it.

Remember when Imus was fired for making a racial slur?  That seems so insignificant today... At least relative to calling our black president a racist Nazi (the irony is not lost on some of us).





I have feared for a while now that these dangerous beliefs will metastasize until they infect the right person, who will then decide it's time to assassinate Pelosi, or another amongst the leadership. President Reagan had more Secret Service protection than does the Speaker, yet the bullet still managed to find its target. I realize that it's a horrid thing to say. For that reason, I have kept my mouth shut thus far. However, I fear the circumstances are flirting with exactly this level of gravity, so I think it's important to say.


We should all hear Speaker Pelosi's warning with unfiltered attention.
Update - November 24th, 2009:  Fortunately, the officials in the Sparkman case now say his death was a suicide.  We might breathe a sigh of relief for rural Kentucky, but the point of the article remains urgent as ever.  In fact, since publication, the rhetoric has only worsened. 

The preceding was originally published on The Huffington Post.  You can find links to my other articles on the feed to the right...


Rep. Wilson's Insincere Apology - Hardball


Today on Hardball, Chris Matthews made what is easily the most cogent observation I have yet seen in the MSM, regarding Rep. Joe Wilson's unrestrained attack on President Obama.  Last Wednesday, Rep. Wilson accused the president of being a liar by shouting from the bench during the president's Joint Congressional Address.


Wilson promptly apologized to The White House for failing to "control his emotions," suggesting that the outburst was spontaneous and unplanned.


Initially, I had no intention of commenting on the story, which I saw blanketing news coverage on T.V. and on the Internet.  Yet, Matthews made the point that other pundits who commented on the story should have made, or at least considered.  Namely, he suggested this was, almost certainly, not an "emotional outburst" or failure to restrain oneself from spontaneity, but a planned, attention-grabbing gimmick that Rep. Wilson had strategically calculated.


There are no shortage of pundits and political analysts who make their livings by guessing the political motives of elected officials, and yet, to my knowledge, Matthews is the only one who has questioned, by insinuation, the sincerity of the apology made by Wilson to The White House Chief of Staff (though many have pointed out that Wilson's accusation was, in itself, dishonest).


More concerning is that, in all probability, Wilson's calculation will prove accurate, and he and his party will gain politically from the uncivil act (whether through Congressional distraction from health care, campaign contributions, or another spectacle to fire up the conservative base).


We should all run the exercise of imagining the media reaction, were a Democrat to have shouted "liar" at President Bush during one of his State of the Union addresses, especially one in which the topic was the Iraq War.  The result is clear: they would have been politically skewered, not only by Republicans, but by the MSM  (obviously, one can not rise to the challenge of PROVING the reaction, however, anyone who remembers the then dogmatic climate, and the "patriotism" attacks on other lawmakers who chose to question President Bush's policies, would likely agree).  This double-standard should be noticed and addressed.


Why are Republicans able to frame the issues in ways that are favorable to them, even within the left-leaning media outlets, and frequently when the methods themselves are dishonest?  Why do Republicans, within the media, excel in getting away with far more egregious acts than Democrats ever would?  It is one of their most impressive talents as a party.


Click to Watch Video:




Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy



The preceding was originally published on The Huffington Post.  You can find links to my other articles on the feed to the right...


A National Failure - Our Health Care Conversation




    Nothing should exasperate those who worked so feverishly to elect President Obama, as well as to hand the Democrats the most substantial majority since the Congress of 1977, so much as the inexcusable, sickeningly weak lack of conviction and force the leadership has shown in passing significant health care reform. It is possible, of course, that President's most recent Joint Congressional Address could light enough of a fire under the Democratic caucus to pass comprehensive reform, but other factors have doomed the process as a failure. Even if an acceptable bill is to pass both the House and the Senate, our national consciousness has been debased, not raised. What's worse, the President's momentum and approval ratings have been damaged, making it harder to affect the urgent change that is needed in the areas of financial regulation and climate change. The Republicans, as always, bear a huge portion of my outrage, but when you have the kind of numbers the Democrats currently have in Congress, you can't blame it all on them.

    After the election, I started every morning energized and delighted to participate in the conversation; nothing could pry me, for better or worse, from my routine of coffee and pundits in the morning (I hope you won't find me unserious if I say), until now.
    Any unrepentant news-junkie could sense the direction of the national debate change this August. Republicans in small corner boxes uttered platitudinous talking points with increasing, if characteristic, smugness. They smelled blood.
    Surely, they had run this exercise before, the difference being, in this case, the level of chilled cynicism with which these elected officials were willing to see their own constituents. In fact, Republicans have calculated and relied upon the farcical credulity of their base in shaping this debate; a strategy that, dishearteningly, has worked not only on the inane Republican fellowship, but on a broader herd of Americans than they could have wished for. All the while, the Democrats and the administration let them, if not helped them, mislead and confuse the American public.
    President Obama and his party have been profoundly careless in failing to anticipate the level of opposition that reform would face, and have allowed the other side to frame the issue in surprisingly effective, even if strange and untruthful, ways. There is an argument to be made in excuse of this carelessness: that the level of temerity with which the opposition has been willing to lie and stoke fear in the population was unforeseeable. I am not persuaded. Since American journalism is now dominated by conflict and seconds-long catch phrases, the Democrats should have had their messages and talking points prepared long before the national debate turned to health care.
    What we had in this great country was the perfectly auspicious moment for health care reform. What we'll likely get is a diluted joke of a bill. Even though the President reaffirmed his desire for a public option before Congress, it would be shocking if it were included in the final bill. I hope to be proven wrong.
(Most serious supporters of reform regard the inclusion of the "public option" as the indicator of a truly effective bill. It is the only effective way to control costs that are spiraling upwards, and tame an insurance industry all too happy to hold the reigns while they steer themselves to delicious profits. The public option would be the honest competitor, the civilizing influence, on an industry where free-market competition has done nothing to keep costs low for the consumer. The CBO (Congressional Budget Office) estimates that the public option would save $150 billion over the next ten years. The health insurance industry is stomping its feet and throwing a tantrum at the mere mention of the public option, because they are fully aware of its potential to bring down costs, and thus shrink their vast profit margin. And lawmakers are running scared. The amount of money these corporations have poured into the coffers of the blue-dog, centrist Democrats who are integral to passing a bill, has clearly been well worth the investment.)
I digress...
    I have always been wary of, and irritated by, those who say "worse it is now, than ever before." How "back in the day," debate was more respectful, and substantive. Romanticizing the past is such a fallacious human habit; though it seems right, in this case, to invoke the meme.
    There are people, many people, who believe that the secretly-Kenyan President Obama would kill your grandparents, and euthanize Sarah Palin's down-syndromed-son (a "death-panel" having adjudicated the matter). These shining examples of an uniquely American credulity believe that health care reform would mandate sex-changes, and encourage people to sweet, cost-saving suicide. There are people who believe that Democrats are modeling reform after Nazi eugenics, while the governor of Texas tries to win re-election by threatening secession from the union, threatening a war with these great United States, not because he believes it possible, but because that sort of thing really makes his hyper-conservative constituents horny. Then there are those great many who received a mailing from the RNC, not exactly a fringe organization, suggesting that health care, once passed, would be provided to Democrats but withheld from Republicans on a partisan basis.
This has to be rock bottom. (Doesn't it?)
    Mainstream-right-wingnuts have won the contest to scream the loudest. Their mission to spread verminous lies and distortions over the airwaves (so kindly provided by the very science they despise), is a resounding success. For our country, however, it is an unspeakable failure.
    Notice that this failure is independent of actual policy differences - the national debate has focused light on policy and heavy on the ridiculous allegations with which the saboteurs saturate our media. President Obama certainly tried to stem the spread of insidious idiocy tonight, and he didn't do a bad job of it.  However, in my opinion, he didn't go far enough to address the other factors that control the national conversation.
    He would have done well to call out those who could be revealed, objectively, as canting hypocrites and partisan assassins. It may be harsh, and it may indeed be unprecedented (I am not enough of an historical expert to say), but if the right-wing-mainstream can behave so dishonestly, so cynically, so blatantly motivated by the destruction of an individual at the expense of a nation's best-interest, then, by all means, set some precedent, Mr. President.
    Try something like: "Minority Leader Boehner, you deride government involvement in health care so vehemently... would you please stand and tell the chamber how much you think it would cost you, as a 59 year-old smoker, to purchase health insurance for yourself, if you were suddenly unable to rely upon Congress' government-run health plan?" I can imagine him turning an even redder hue.  Of course, individually, he would likely be charged an incredible rate, unaffordable for the majority of Americans.
    Every elected Republican that we hear berating government's involvement in health care is, of course, ON a government plan. The president could have asked Republicans why they don't choose to buy private insurance in their own states, to avoid the "rationing" or the "death-panels" or bureaucratic interference with their doctor-patient decisions, which they claim are inevitable under the current plan(s). He should have asked why, if government run health insurance is so terrible, do we offer a single-payer system to our veterans, and Medicare to our seniors. He should have shamed them publicly and forced them to answer for their behavior.
    The complicity of the media in this embarrassing debacle is also inexcusable. The news-show formula, juxtaposing one talking head with another from the opposing side, gives the appearance of equal footing to both arguments. You can put a sane person on one side and a "birther" on the other, a scientist on one side and a global-warming denier on the other, but these are not sound equivalencies. The weeks of attention that cable news spent discussing death-panels, and birthers, and tea-parties, should go down in our history as one of the low points of American journalism. The civic duty of every journalist is to disseminate facts to the American people, not to give equal opportunity to every ideologue seeking a platform. We see too much of the latter these days (from our increasingly servile media), and the special interest groups are masterfully taking advantage of it. What we end up with is a spectacle which might be good for ratings, but squeezes any chance of substantive debate out of the public gaze.
    And so, down goes intelligent debate, a victim of death-panels, and corruption, and a uniquely American brand of ignorance. This negligence on the part of the media, and a continuing reluctance on the part of the Obama administration to fight back, has allowed Republicans to incite their shockingly credulous base to flood the country with fallacious, dishonest beliefs.
    Our president would do better if he were vastly more aggressive than we have seen him be thus far. Both the Republicans, and the media, perceive this administration's reluctance to get down and fight as a major weakness... they are right. It is not morally superior to abstain from the partisan fight if the result is that millions of Americans remain uninsured and our country goes broke from spiraling health care costs. During the Clinton years, approximately 95% of insurance-industry money was used to pay out claims (ex-industry exec. Wendell Potter says), that is now down to 70-80%. Nobody needs to point out the sustainability disaster waiting for us around the corner, we are all anticipating its danger.
    Mr. President, your speech was good, but not good enough. We need more of a fight out of you and the Democrats in Congress. This must be make, not break.

The preceding was originally published on The Huffington Post.  You can find links to my other articles on the feed to the right...


Don't, Please: An Atheist's Defense


Charlotte Allen is wrong about everything; except this: I'm an Atheist, and I'm angry. Recently, the Los Angeles Times suspended their editorial judgment and ran Allen's bigoted op-ed, an exercise in blatant insecurity and panic. In it, Allen rants angrily for an entire article in an attempt to trivialize the Atheist movement on the basis that we are boring, even if angry, fanatics who whine about being oppressed. Allen is apparently incapable of seeing the irony in beginning her article with the claim that Atheists are "crashing bores," and then fuming about them all throughout her 1,300-word fatwa.
Allen is not inclined to argue her point rationally, resorting repeatedly to the childish schoolyard name-calling she so decries. Apart from the "crashing bores" remark, she characterizes non-believers as unpopular "excruciating snoozes" belonging to the "pity-poor-me" school of atheism and "boohoo victimhood." The entire tirade is a lesson in misrepresentation. It is designed only to appeal to the limbic part of our brains, not to debate a position within the framework of reason, much less honor.
    Allen, author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus, lest her predilections be unknown, claims that fellow author Terry Eagleton's new book, Faith, Reason, and Revolution, takes Atheists "to task... for indulging in a philosophically primitive opposition of faith and reason that assumes that if science can't prove something, it doesn't exist." I insist, in turn, that we take Charlotte Allen, herself, "to task" for this ridiculous allegation. I challenge Allen to name a single reputable Atheist, or scientist, who makes the claim that because science can't prove something, it does not exist. Just one would suffice, but she will, unsurprisingly, fail to respond to this challenge, for no such reputable person exists. Science is not in the practice of denying things for which there exist no evidence, only explaining phenomenon based on evidence. However, it does not follow to infer that because science cannot disprove the existence of Apollo, the Sun god Ra, the ghost of Elvis Presley, and the "flying spaghetti monster," that we should give credence, not to mention unquestioning respect, to belief in these entities. If Allen finds it acceptable that we do not believe in thousands of other historical (and contemporary) gods and religions, then, as Christopher Hitchens so piercingly puts it, let her defend her God, the Christian god (or any god), as the right one, the superior one; so that the followers of all other creeds may burn in hell for an eternity, for inadvertently picking (or most likely, being born into) the wrong belief.
    The title of Allen's critique, "Atheists: No God, no reason, just whining - Superstar atheists are motivated by anger - and boohoo victimhood," exposes her hypocrisy outright. Nowhere does she give an example of an Atheist being motivated by anger, or victimhood. Quite the reverse, she is blind to her own argument as she spews vitriol throughout. The quotes she cites are either taken out of context, with some clever editing, or false altogether. Sam Harris is quoted as saying "that it 'may be ethical to kill people' on the basis of their beliefs." This is a blatant misrepresentation. Harris, in fact, makes plain that only if one believes that the canon they subscribe to is the divine word of god, does it become ethical, or seem reasonable, to kill someone for their religious belief. Suicide bombing anyone?
    Just as treacherous is Allen's mockery of what she calls "atheist victimology: Boohoo everybody hates us 'cuz we don't believe in God. Although a recent Pew Forum survey on religion found that 16% of Americans describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, only 1.6% call themselves atheists, with another 2.4% weighing in as agnostics." First of all, the percentage of Atheists within the U.S. has no bearing on our alleged whining about victimization. Second, claiming the contentions Atheists have with the status quo are trivial, simply because our market share is low in comparison to believers is ridiculous. If you take as fact the figures upon which Allen's phony argument relies, mindful that they are based on peoples' admitted beliefs, non-believers would then total 4% of the American population; by comparison, Jews make up 1.3% of the population (ARIS, 2001). Hemant Metha, moderator of Friendly Atheist, points out that no periodical would ever print Allen's argument, if the target were any other subset of the population. He asks what would happen if he wrote, "Here's why I can't stand Jews:
  • They're boring.
  • They keep complaining about being oppressed.
  • They keep talking about the same damn things all the time -- holocaust this and Israel that.
  • They always claim they're victims.
  • They only constitute a small percentage of Americans -- probably because they can't win over any converts...
  • They want affirmative action for their kind -- one representative from the "pity-poor-me" school of Jews even said they need "safe spaces" at colleges...
  • They're not rational. They're just angry. Angry because they think the world is unfair to them..."
And so on. These are the same logistical constructs that Allen employs, and yet it is clear that no reputable publication would ever print these arguments. Were they ever to be published (substituting any other minority) their author would quickly be labeled a hateful, bigoted ignoramus.
    Furthermore, consider Allen's mockery of the oppression Atheists certainly do face. Would she mock the fact that a professed non-believer would be beheaded in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or Iran; and in other Muslim countries, if not beheaded, certainly jailed or socially ostracized? To be sure, the oppression and subjugation in our great nation is of a far different magnitude, but I can't think of a reasonable person who would deny its existence. Oppression, for millennia, has been the domain of the faithful. Allen actually disputes Sam Harris' observation, that "no person, whatever his qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that... God exists.' The evidence?" she replies, " Antique clauses in the constitutions of six -- count 'em -- states barring atheists from office." Forgive me for being a bit informal and sarcastic here and saying: "Oh my God..." Does she sincerely believe that the judicially overturned clauses in the constitutions of six states are what Sam Harris is referring to? I think not.
    "Maybe atheists wouldn't be so unpopular if they stopped beating the drum until the hide splits on their second-favorite topic: How stupid people are who believe in God," she snaps. Who, pray tell, is beating the drum? Who, for millennia, has beaten the drum of fear into the hearts of followers, relentlessly, lest they stray from the one true word of god himself? I dare say she cannot find one prominent non-believer, who claims that people who believe in a concept that's been "drummed" into them every day since birth are stupid. One can find the specific belief itself unfounded or misinformed, but that's where it stops. A stupid person can believe in god, but so can a smart one.
    Allen then makes a very revealing mistake, in calling the legal wrangling over education what it actually is: "Darwinism vs. Creationism" (F.Y.I. the word is evolution, not Darwinism). Take note that Creationists have long since changed the name of their lobby, having lost their case in the judiciary, to "intelligent design," which they argue, does not have the implicit religious element that "creationism" has. Whether you think it has religious implications or not, it's not science, and there is no controversy over that. To be sure, keeping religion out of the classroom is an issue that Atheists are passionate about. "But haven't atheists heard that many religious people (including Pope John Paul II) don't have a problem with evolution" she asks. Well, that may be, but the assault on science in the classroom can't be attributed to anything other than a religious movement. By the way, plenty of believers are passionate about keeping the classroom secular.
    Finally, let's take Allen to task for perhaps the most insulting, most egregious offense propagated by her angry complaint: that the arguments which Atheists put forth in support of their belief are the equivalent of "lobbing a few Gaza style rockets accusing God of failing to create a world more to their liking ('if there's a God, why aren't I rich?)" I challenge you, Ms. Allen, for nothing less than the defense of your very credibility, please name one prominent Atheist who claims this as the foundation for their belief. I submit that you can't. By the way, is it just me, or did you just compare us with terrorists? That makes me angry, so I guess I'm one of your "angry atheists" (though I prefer Secular Humanist to that ancient and weighted misnomer).
    Don't, please, speak as if you understand non-believers when you haven't represented a single one of us honestly. Don't, please, cleverly quote scientists, and philosophers, and rationalists, and journalists, if you're not going to reflect their actual views with your citations; it's surprisingly easy to read what they've written and be truthful about it. Don't, please, disparage and mock Atheists, or Agnostics, or Secularists, or anyone for that matter, and then go on claiming they should raise no objection to the very treatment, or worse, deny its existence. Don't, please, invoke emotion over reason in support of your argument, and compare us to terrorists. Don't, please, do all these things, and I won't be an angry Atheist. Rational people can only argue with the truth, Ms. Allen, so perhaps that puts us at a disadvantage, but we will argue our point, we will not be disparaged, nor will we be silent any longer. We've just realized, with your help, that we're a massive portion of the voting bloc, and we won't soon forget it.


The preceding was originally published on The Huffington Post.  You can find links to my other articles on the feed to the right...