Monday, February 28, 2011

Did Viruses Invent DNA?

George Wilkinson mulls over some interesting speculation:
DNA polymerases (the copying enzymes) in the various domains of life are in each case more closely related to viral proteins than to comparable proteins from the other domains of life. These data, and recent appreciation of the life-like capabilities of giant viruses, have led some researchers to an  interesting suggestion:  DNA as a genomic storage compound originated in viruses as a way of evading the defenses of ancient cells.
According to this view, ancient viruses, as with the ones today, could only make copies of themselves by succesfully infecting a host. So they become engines of innovation, using every possible dodge to get their genetic payload inside the host cell. In an early, RNA-protein world, there would not be enzymes to degrade DNA, so a virus encoded by DNA would have a big survival advantage.  This suggests a scenario in which a clever parasite brings along DNA plus the means of copying DNA-- a different parasite at least for bacteria and archaea/eukaryotes-- and hijacks the cell's existing interpretation equipment. The symbiosis of virus plus RNA/protein cell eventually resulted in the modern arrangement of DNA, RNA and protein.
More @ 3QD.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Friends You Keep, Ctd

The Bolivarian republic continues to see no evil:
Not a drop of blood has been shed in Libya in the last three days and the capital is “totally calm,” according to the Venezuelan ambassador to Tripoli.
Afif Tajeldine said the media has been playing four-day-old images and pretending events are occurring today, according to an e-mailed statement sent by Venezuela’s Information Ministry.
“This is the third day in which not a single drop of blood has been spilled in Libya,” Tajeldine said, according to the statement.
which I find unsurprising. More from Reuters:
Revolts in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world are politically awkward for Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez due to his friendships in the region and opposition accusations that he too is a strongman.
His relationship with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has been particularly warm, the pair showering each other with gifts and awards over the last few years.
Is it too much to expect even a few qualifying words from the great emancipator's PR duo?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Rabbi Adam Jacobs Responds to Criticism. Meh.

Rabbi Adam Jacobs has responded to criticism (here is mine) of his flawed "Open Letter to the Atheist Community:"
Regardless of forum or tenor, most responses to the article shared a common starting point, namely, an instruction that I was incorrect in assuming most self-declared atheists to be ambivalent about the existence of a higher, divine power, rather than firmly convinced that no such power exists. While I continue to suspect, based on my own experience and history of interactions, that there are more agnostics (as I understand the term) than 'pure' atheists, it seems, based on these responses, that there are more 'true' atheists than I'd thought. Equally striking was the lesson that there are very many different conceptions of atheism: in the comments section alone, there were at least a half-dozen definitions for the terms atheist and agnostic. It's clear that there is no universal understanding of the concept warranting blanket assumptions about the nature of atheist belief (or lack thereof).
The rabbi's problem with definition seems to be a systemic one. Though it strongly mischaracterized atheists, his letter never suggested that they are ambivalent towards the existence of a higher power, but rather that they are mistaken of their position. Ambivalence means holding simultaneous and conflicting feelings towards something, such as loving and hating a person at once. Ambivalence as applied to atheists would entail a state of conflict over the existence of a creator, with simultaneous positive and negative feelings toward the matter.

Notice how the civility-minded rabbi inserts “self-declared” in front of the label. I have a sneaking feeling he would look strangely at someone were they to call him a self-declared Jew. Is not this vague delegitimization reminiscent of those on the right who will go only so far as to admit President Obama's Christianity is “self-declared?” Not that it's an insult, really. I'd rather my position be self-declared than otherwise. Still, the motivation for phrasing it so oddly is questionable in context.
Jacobs: Equally striking was the lesson that there are very many different conceptions of atheism: in the comments section alone, there were at least a half-dozen definitions for the terms atheist and agnostic. It's clear that there is no universal understanding of the concept warranting blanket assumptions about the nature of atheist belief (or lack thereof). I sincerely apologize for making such an assumption and feel somewhat silly about having done so -- after all, there are myriad paths to religious belief, and I've frequently decried those who make blanket assumptions about all religious believers.
I wish to make this plain for the rabbi: I am a “pure” and “true” atheist. A real, honest-to-God atheist. There are lots of us. I am also an agnostic, and a secularist, and many other things which he is welcome to call me so long as he does it accurately. These labels are not exclusive of each other, and they do have specific definitions which can be learned by spending a few minutes with a respectable dictionary.

The comments section underneath the rabbi's post, however, is not the proper place to find these definitions. Definitions matter! However many paths there be towards adopting the position, paths which are indeed important, the destination is singular: atheism is the lack of belief in God or gods. That is all. It needn't any further complication.
Jacobs: A number of commenters felt it was rude or disingenuous of me to invite open dialogue and then immediately launch into a critique of atheism. To be absolutely clear: I want to have a meaningful and open dialogue in which all participants feel respected and valued for our common humanity despite our obvious differences.
"To be absolutely clear:" meaningful and open dialogue is fantastic. What is not fantastic, or rather unfantastic, is calling for respectful argumentation and thereafter creating a straw-man out of misconceptions that a little due diligence should have aborted.
(h/t Staks Rosch)

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Friends You Keep...

Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez during the special summit on regional conflicts in Tripoli August 31, 2009. Credit: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemr

 - - - - - - - - - - - -
As Saif al-Islam Gaddafi threatens the revolutionaries with “rivers of blood” on the regime's behalf, one hopes Sean Penn and Oliver Stone will feel some indigestion over their buddy Hugo Chavez's relationship with Muammar. The fawning PR duo gives the Venezolano frequent, free, and favorable press, and also alleges that those of us who perceive him as more strong-man than people's man are blinded by a spell of propagandist haze.

This 2009 Reuters release covering the staged celebrations honoring 40 years of Gaddafi's deranged dictatorship should crystallize the irony a little more. Note the conspicuous presence of another Johnny-gone-lately:
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was guest of honor at a military parade to kick off six days of festivities in Libya marking 40 years since Muammar Gaddafi took control of the desert country in a bloodless coup.
Chavez swept into Tripoli's landmark Green Square to mix with dignitaries and joke with the press before greeting the veteran Libyan leader who arrived dressed in military uniform.
The two leaders known for their anti-U.S. rhetoric hugged then sat together, flanked by African heads of state including Tunisia's Zine al Abidine Ben Ali and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and dozens of army top brass.
Whatever we may say regarding unfortunate U.S. expediencies with anti-democratic regimes, thankfully few of us can picture President Obama hobnobbing with tyrants like these. Not quite so much can be said for some Western nations, which lent some winks and nods, if not their leaders:
Military bands from 17 nations including France, Italy and Australia filed past as Italian aerobatic jets zoomed over the Mediterranean in Gaddafi's honor, trailing smoke in the red white and green of Italy's national flag.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Stephen Hawking vs. Philosophy, A Rebuttal

Christopher Norris defends his discipline against Hawking's indictment:
Stephen Hawking recently fluttered the academic dovecotes by writing in his new book The Grand Design – and repeating to an eager company of interviewers and journalists – that philosophy as practised nowadays is a waste of time and philosophers a waste of space. More precisely, he wrote that philosophy is ‘dead’ since it hasn’t kept up with the latest developments in science, especially theoretical physics. In earlier times – Hawking conceded – philosophers not only tried to keep up but sometimes made significant scientific contributions of their own. However they were now, in so far as they had any influence at all, just an obstacle to progress through their endless going-on about the same old issues of truth, knowledge, the problem of induction, and so forth...
No doubt there is a fair amount of ill-informed, obtuse, or ideologically angled philosophy that either refuses or tries but fails to engage with the concerns of present-day science. One can understand Hawking’s impatience – or downright exasperation – with some of the half-baked notions put around by refuseniks and would-be engageniks alike. All the same he would do well to consider the historically attested and nowadays more vital than ever role of philosophy as a critical discipline. It continues to offer the sorts of argument that science requires in order to dispel not only the illusions of na ├»ve sense-certainty or intuitive self-evidence but also the confusions that speculative thought runs into when decoupled from any restraining appeal to regulative principles such as that of inference to the best explanation. To adapt a quotation by Kant in a different though related context: philosophy of science without scientific input is empty, while science without philosophical guidance is blind. At any rate it is rendered perilously apt to mistake the seductions of pure hypothetical invention for the business of formulating rationally warranted, metaphysically coherent, and – if only in the fullness of time – empirically testable conjectures.
A conversation I once read between Mark Vernon and Daniel Dennett puts it more clearly:
On the relationship between science and philosophy, there is model of philosophy that is quite prevalent whereby it is envisaged as, say, the midwife of scientific disciplines - physics and psychology being two examples. Is this how you view your own work on consciousness or would it be better to describe it as a dialogue with modern science, clarifying questions, suggesting further lines of research and so on.

I think the midwife image is just about right. I say, along with many predecessors, that philosophy is what you are doing when you don't yet know what the right questions are. Once you ask the right questions (and know why these are the right questions), your attempt to answer them is not philosophy but . . . whatever it is - science, history, economics, . . . So philosophy is inescapably informal, more like art than science, a matter of imaginatively poking around and trying things out--with plenty of rigorous criticism of those attempts, but still, it's the bold strokes of imagination that do the heavy lifting. At its best (when it is well informed in the discipline whose questions it is trying to refine and improve), it makes significant contributions. But it's chief risk are flights of fantasy that may only divert the fantasists (while diverting the attention of more reality-based researchers from the questions they could more fruitfully pursue).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris Debate Rabbis David Wolpe and Shavit Artson (Kindof)

On February 15th I attended the debate "Is There an Afterlife?" staged by the American Jewish University (the acronym is amusing when pronounced). Against such an existence were Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, interspersedly seated between Rabbis David Wolpe and Shavit Artson who argued the opposing view. The evening would have been better billed as a conversation, given its format, but it was well-moderated and very entertaining.

Hitchens entered last, to a frenzied ovation I felt was a clear tribute to the man, and not an obligatory sympathy of any kind. My feeling is that a large portion of the crowd, if not a majority, was there to see him. That was certainly true for myself - any question of an afterlife having long been settled.

The debate can be summarized as follows: Harris and Hitchens point out that no evidence for an afterlife exists, and that death is an epistemic boundary which is absolute. Hitchens made the point he so often makes that an eternal existence under a cosmic dictator who commands that you stay "at a party which never ends - ever - and also that you have fun doing it," is a scenario most of us would find cringeworthy on closer inspection. So, while belief in an afterlife is largely a manifestation of wish-thinking, we should be careful what we wish for.

Rabbis Wolpe and Artson scoffed and frequently took offense at the alleged "caricaturization" of religion. They took no responsibility for the well-defined beliefs held by most of the religious, opting instead to convince the audience that they were “sophisticated” theists, untarnished by silly beliefs. Every time Harris and Hitchens finished arguing against one religious claim or another, the opposition would predictably chime “but that's not what I believe.”

On many occasions, Wolpe actually responded with such sweeping denialisms as “nobody believes” or “religious people don't say that,” regarding descriptions of the afterlife that many of the Christian and Islamic faithful certainly do believe and declare (think of the rapture or the Mahometan paradise). This continual side-stepping drew objections from both Harris and Hitchens, to no avail.

The moderator, who did a good job in my opinion, repeatedly asked Wolpe to describe his own positive conception of the afterlife, given that he was there to argue for one, but to these prompts Wolpe would only make faces intended to disarm and and then imply “you can't ask me that question, that's not really fair.” Whatever responses he did end up giving seemed more like obfuscation than illumination.

In fact, the only active defense that Wolpe offered was his “feeling, or sense,” that there was something more, something “nonphysical” to human beings which was not explicable on a materialist view. This is a weak type of substance dualism - it only complicates and mystifies, it is incompatible with physics, and it fails to explain anything beyond what is essentially an "it must be due to some spooky stuff" cop-out.

This was the rabbi's only positive argument, and I was sorry that it went unchallenged, since with it he essentially talked himself into a corner. There has been no evidence to suggest that the mind is independent from the brain (Harris did point out that people with brain injuries don't retain their former selves but rather change in often drastic ways). For Wolpe to sense that there is something nonphysical in the universe, whatever it is that is nonphysical would have to interact with Wolpe's brain, giving him the sense of itself, and therefore interacting, physically, with the world. If something interacts physically with the world, then calling it nonphysical seems perfectly ridiculous (even writing the phrase "something nonphysical" feels absurd). Any such physical interaction would in principle be open to scientific study.

To further illuminate the absurd: what happens when a person suffers brain damage resulting from a bike accident at 15 years of age? Upon death, does their whole mind reconstitute as it was before the tragedy? If so, they'll be part of a minority - the majority of souls having had the time to mature through full lifetimes of experience. Do hamsters have little eternal hamster souls? What about bacteria? If bacteria don't have souls, then how is it conceivable for life to have evolved a nonphysical soul out of a purely physical substrate? Did God just drop a soul into early homo sapiens a quarter million years ago, or did homo habilis get a proto-soul? These questions may seem silly. They are... but they are legitimate.

The most patronizing moments of the evening were inflicted by Rabbi Shavit Artson who, every time a chance was given to reply, lamented having the conversation at all. He didn't like the tone. He didn't believe in the argument. He complained about the “cleverness” of the opposition and disparaged what he called the “cartoons” of religion which, perhaps not to reformed Judaism but certainly to religion at large, were exceedingly fair representations of the real thing.

Afterward, I was present when someone asked Artson if he had enjoyed himself. "Not really," he replied after an extended facial contortion. He didn't like nor believe in “religious disputations.” This prejudicial attitude, a kind of a priori sore-losership, was unforgivable. The audience paid for and deserved a lively debate between honest and committed advocates. Hitchens and Harris made their positions perfectly clear, and explained why they felt them worth fighting for. The other side spent most of their time actually denying that they believed the opposite, while never stating what they did believe or why anyone should believe it (which sort of defeats the intended conflict).

Still, it was a great evening thanks to the endless wit from Hitchens, the calm and reasoned argument from Harris, and the occasional cheeky quip from Wolpe (Artson was unredeemable).

The debate has been posted here.

Hitch's biggest laugh was in reaction to an imagined scenario where he and Harris go around attempting to undeceive people of the afterlife as they lay dying. Hitchens observed that, shockingly, people seem to see the opposite as a morally acceptable act when done to himself. “Fuck off!” (his words).

Monday, February 14, 2011

"An Open Letter to People Who Don't Exist"

Rabbi Adam Jacobs has written an “open letter” to atheists in the Huffington Post that misstates atheism and its entailments in a way that can be justifiably called dishonest.  He begins this way:
“My dear atheist friend,
[…] I have had a lot of time to reflect on your position and I'd like to offer a few general observations that I've culled from my experience over the years - not to convince you to change your mind (which, I've discovered, is close to impossible) and not to judge your choices, but rather so that we can understand each other better and possibly "walk back" some of the clamorous dialogue. Certainly we can open by agreeing that all human beings should be respected and, assuming no egregious misdeeds, treated with civility.
The first point I'd like to explore is that there really are no true atheists.”
In other words, “I want to tell you, not in order to change your mind for I've come to recognize that you are impervious to argument, my opinion, which I have spent many years in forming, that you do not legitimately exist. But I'm only saying this so that we may all hold hands and sing happy songs.”  

Just to point out how wrongheaded my new “dear friend” is, imagine if I were to address an open-letter in the following way:
My dear Jewish friend,
I have had a lot of time to reflect on your position and I'd like to offer a few general observations that I've culled from my experience over the years - not to convince you to change your mind (which, I've discovered, is close to impossible) and not to judge your choices, but rather so that we can understand each other better and possibly "walk back" some of the clamorous dialogue. Certainly we can open by agreeing that all human beings should be respected and, assuming no egregious misdeeds, treated with civility.
The first point I'd like to explore is that there really are no true Jews.”
That such an opening would be both factually wrong and hypocritical seems to me inarguable. The definition of a Jew, speaking religiously and not ethnically or culturally, is one who at the very least believes in the singular God of the Torah and does not follow New Testament scripture. Therefore, since millions of such people can be said to exist, one's assertion that, in fact, no “true” Jews exist would be quite flatly wrong (not to mention "true" Jews who can be otherwise defined culturally or ethnically).  Notice that such a claim remains in error whether or not there is a god. I, as an atheist, can no more legitimately deny the existence of Jews than the rabbi can deny the existence of me. 

Mr. Jacobs exposes the extent of his misunderstanding with the very next line:
It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there is no God you would have to have knowledge of the totality of the universe - seen and unseen - and I don't think any of you guys are ready to make that claim.”
Since the rabbi claims to have had “a lot of time to reflect” on the position of atheism, and also claims to have been an atheist himself, one would be justified in expecting from him a proper representation of the position, instead of a straw-man drenched with gasoline and set aflame. The definition of an atheist is one who disbelieves in God, or gods, and not one who claims to know with certainty that God, or gods, does not exist (though such a person would still fall into the category). 

It is true that most atheists would come as close to certainty as proper respect for technicality would allow, that the literal God of the Old Testament, who created Adam, Eve, and a talking snake, does not exist. But if the definition of God is sufficiently malleable, as it so often is, to describe a god who is non-intervening and one that is therefore undetectable, then most of us would shrug and say “okay. I don't believe that. It doesn't mean much or contribute anything. But I can't with full certainty deny the existence of a god so defined.”  

Mr. Jacobs' argument can become really amusing if we play with it a little bit:
It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there are no leprechauns, you would have to have knowledge of the totality of the universe - seen and unseen - and I don't think any of you guys are ready to make that claim.” 
Well, I don't have knowledge of the totality of the universe. I am, however, perfectly comfortable in saying that there is no credible evidence for leprechauns, that I therefore disbelieve in leprechauns, and, since I care about your dignity as a fellow human being, I also feel justified in arguing that your deeply-held belief in leprechauns is ill-advised and you should probably give it up.

Mr. Jacobs continues:
You may want to counter that you have many well-regarded and brilliant personalities who have provided more than sufficient evidence to knock theism back to the Bronze Age where it belongs. Hitchens, Dawkins, Weinberg, et al are big time, unapologetic, capital "A" atheists. I've read many of their books and found much of them to be polemics against Christianity and ill-conceived take downs of classical philosophical and scientific arguments that make the idea of a Creator seem more than plausible.”
Though these books are indeed polemics against Christianity (as well as religion and supernatural creators more broadly), pointing this out does not constitute an indictment of any kind, in fact, this was their very purpose for being written. Furthermore, if the rabbi wishes to argue that the rebuttals of old theistic arguments which these books contain are “ill-conceived,” he'll have to explain why rather than merely declare it. 

I find it slightly shady that the rabbi claims to have read so many of these books and yet repeatedly misstates the position of atheism at such an elementary level. Indeed, in Dawkins' book, there is a very memorable section explaining the spectrum of religious belief, with differing sureties of God's existence ranked on a gradient from 1 (sure of God's existence) to 7 (sure of God's nonexistence). Dawkins:
“I'd be surprised to meet many people in category 7, but I include it for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated. It is in the nature of faith that one is capable, like Jung, of holding a belief without adequate reason to do so (Jung also believed that particular books on his shelf spontaneously exploded with a loud bang). Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist. Hence category 7 is in practice rather emptier than its opposite number, category 1, which has many devoted inhabitants. I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 - I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”
The above sentiment is repeated again and again in the other literature, and this prominence leads me to cry foul. Either our “dear friend” has 1) not read the literature, 2) has read the literature but deliberately misrepresented it, or 3) his reading comprehension is so stunted that to make fun of it would seem almost improper. Maybe the latter (and only innocent) scenario is the case, but I doubt that very much. 

Jacobs goes on to claim that arguing over this subject is pointless, in any case. Why write the article then? Imagine if you heard the following logic from one who claimed the Earth's age was no more than a few thousand years:
You will quote your expert and I will quote mine. Strangely, they disagree ... utterly. At the end of the day, it's always going to be a draw, each of us convinced that our own arguments are superior and that the other is (perhaps willfully) missing the point.”
The thing is, of course, one of us would be right and the other wrong. 

Insulting his reader one last time, the rabbi suggests that “if Darwin himself could find room for belief in a God and stay faithful to his discoveries, maybe the common ground is much bigger than we currently imagine.” Except, of course, this is a lie. One too blatant to be mere oversight. Charles Darwin lost his faith in God, and said that for one to hold the position of ardent theism while simultaneously acknowledging evolution seemed “absurd.” Darwin only said he would not call himself that common misconception of an atheist which the rabbi so kindly straw-manned for us earlier.

So, I'll leave you to chuckle at the craftless dishonesty of a letter that calls for respect and civility while blatantly lying to its correspondents by finishing with Jacobs' own closing:
“We still have a lot to discuss. Let's do it with a caring heart, and open mind and a spirit of appreciation for our shared humanity. 
Sincerely, Adam.”

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Kill, kill."

The outrageous five-year sentence for Antonius Bawengan, a Christian man convicted of blasphemy in Java, is apparently one that is five years too long for some Muslim residents of Temanggung:
Protesters demanded Bawengan be handed over and chanted "kill, kill" outside the court as he was lead away under heavy security.
The angry mob then trashed the courtroom before targeting Christian sites, burning down a number of churches and schools.
Bawengan had been accused of distributing pamphlets which, among other things, "described the Black Stone, or al-Hajaru-l-Aswad, on the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque in Mecca as looking like a woman's genitals."
That's just silly.  The Black Stone does not look like a wom... wait, now that you say it...
Okay.  I'm sure many Muslims would find that comparison offensive, just as I'm sure many Christians would find offensive a pamphlet suggesting that Christ was no more than an attention seeking hippie. But the adult response to being offended is not to throw your critics in jail, to demand their murder, and to burn down schools and churches when the thought police only manage to steal five years of a person's life for speaking freely.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An Explosion of Evitability

“It was like living in George Orwell’s ‘1984.'"

Lawrence Wright's long-form exposure of Scientology is a harrowing relief of the emotional manipulation, unpaid labor, extortion, and violence common within the cult of intergalactic spirits.  In The New Yorker.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Multicultural Mayhem

Prime Minister David Cameron gave a significant speech this weekend at Munich's Security Conference, which has predictably generated more controversy than it deserves. The speech was almost perfect in pitch, with only a few glossings-over that I'll get to in a minute, but this portion is what made Cameron's speech so striking:
"What I am about to say is drawn from the British experience, but I believe there are general lessons for us all.  In the UK , some young men find it hard to identify with the traditional Islam practiced at home by their parents, whose customs can seem staid when transplanted to modern Western countries.  But these young men also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity.  Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.  We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.  We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values. 
So, when a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them.  But when equally unacceptable views or practices come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious frankly – frankly, even fearful – to stand up to them.  The failure, for instance, of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage, the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone when they don’t want to, is a case in point.  This hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared.  And this all leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless.  And the search for something to belong to and something to believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology.  Now for sure, they don’t turn into terrorists overnight, but what we see – and what we see in so many European countries – is a process of radicalization."
It should be said again and again, that it is not bigoted to criticize other cultures for practices that are frighteningly illiberal. What is bigoted is to look away from the face of injustice, when those who suffer under it are of a different hue. It is the double-standard which is bigoted. This is why we must have one secular law for all. This is the downfall of strong multiculturalism.

Cameron did stop just a little short in my opinion, because there is a delicate issue unique to Islam among the large religions that needs addressing: scripturally mandated literalism.

For instance, barring a reformation, there remains a legitimate pathway from text to terror, and the wall that Islamic scripture has built around itself is incredibly effective at prohibiting evolving interpretations of meaning like those that have taken place with respect to the Old Testament. This is a wall that needs demolishing if we are to live in a world with a truly modernized Islam (as 'modern' as an Abrahamic religion can be made) that doesn't take theological commandments to submission and conquest so seriously. 

So, yes, a violent interpretation may be a sick one, but it is one that can be logical given the complete acceptance of certain premises. This is not to tar Muslims, in the aggregate, with Islamism as commanded by scripture, but it is to admit that many of the undesirable behaviors we associate with Islamism, such as the subjugation of women, and the mistreatment of infidel minorities, apostates, and homosexuals are explicitly prescribed in the text, and can be legitimately justified by appealing solely to scripture.

Again, one can find many such immoralities in the Bible, but the Bible does not claim itself to be the final, perfect and unalterable dictation from God himself. We no longer see mainstream Christianity calling for state law to punish non-virgin brides with stoning at the doorsteps of their fathers. The Christian mainstream now applies a modern set of morals to their interpretation of the text. And thank God they do.

Friday, February 4, 2011

"Less Iran than Russia"

Fareed Zakaria in Time:
If Egypt does descend into chaos or become an Iranian-style theocracy, people might look back at Mubarak's regime fondly. Ironically, if Egypt does better and turns into a functioning democracy, his legacy as the dictator who ruled his country before it moved to greater freedom will be more mixed... 
Which will it be? Anyone making predictions with confidence is being foolhardy. Egypt is a vast, complex country and is in the midst of unprecedented change. There are certainly troubling signs. When the Pew Research Center surveyed the Arab world last April, it found that Egyptians have views that would strike the modern Western eye as extreme. Pew found that 82% of Egyptians support stoning as a punishment for adultery, 84% favor the death penalty for Muslims who leave the religion, and in the struggle between "modernizers" and "fundamentalists," 59% identify with fundamentalists. 
That's enough to make one worry about the rise of an Iranian-style regime. Except that this is not all the Pew surveys show. A 2007 poll found that 90% of Egyptians support freedom of religion, 88% an impartial judiciary and 80% free speech; 75% are opposed to censorship, and, according to the 2010 report, a large majority believes that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government... 
I remain convinced that fears of an Egyptian theocracy are vastly overblown. Shi'ite Iran is a model for no country — certainly not a Sunni Arab society like Egypt. The nation has seen both Mubarak and Iran's mullahs and wants neither. More likely is the prospect of an "illiberal democracy," in which Egypt becomes a country with reasonably free and fair elections, but the elected majority restricts individual rights and freedoms, curtails civil society and uses the state as its instrument of power. The danger, in other words, is less Iran than Russia... 
My hope is that Egypt avoids this path. I cannot tell you in all honesty that it will. But much evidence suggests that democracy in Egypt could work. First, the army, which remains resolutely secular, will thwart any efforts to create a religious political order. The Egyptian army may well fight the efforts of democrats to dismantle some elements of the military dictatorship — since the elites of the armed forces have benefited mightily from that system — but it is powerful and popular enough to be able to draw certain lines. In Egypt, as in Turkey, the army has the opportunity to play a vital role in modernizing the society and checking the excesses of religious politics.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Crippled Chamber

Filibustery: Episode One from Newsbound on Vimeo.
Cloture? Quorum? A "60-Vote" Senate? If you're confused by these terms, you're not alone. Take ten minutes and get a handle on the filibuster fundamentals.


"I cannot call to mind a single instance where I have ever been irreverent, except toward the things which were sacred to other people." - Mark Twain

BHL in Conversation with Charlie Rose

Another Call for Consistency

Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz:
The late Arab-American scholar Edward Said appears to have been right. We're all suffering from Orientalism, not to say racism, if the sight of an entire people throwing off the yoke of tyranny and courageously demanding free elections fills us with fear rather than uplifting us, just because they're Arabs. Even the knights of the left and the leaders of the peace camp are issuing declarations of loyalty, continuing to repay Hosni Mubarak for his welcome in the presidential palace even after the entire Egyptian nation has shown him the door. 
Are we afraid that we won't be able to bask in the title of "the only democracy in the Middle East"? Doesn't Egypt deserve democracy too? 
People are scaring us with talk of an Isalmist [sic] takeover of our big neighbor. The Muslim Brotherhood will certainly play an important role in any political democratic structure that emerges in Egypt, and that has to be dealt with. But then, we also have religious fundamentalists in the government. That is the price of a parliamentary democracy. And the previous U.S. administration was intimately linked to fundamentalists, but that's okay too, because evangelical Christians love Israel.