treason

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Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Revenue, here is a Sons-of-Confederate-Veterans option for vanity license plates (h/t: Salon):

20140219-georgiaplate1.jpg

I wonder if they'd object to someone choosing this ID:

20140219-georgiaplate2.jpg

Badwater

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The first wave of runners in the Badwater Ultramarathon begins at 6am local time in Badwater, California. Badwater is an endurance running event whose completion is no minor accomplishment. From its below-sea-level start in Death Valley to its finish 135 miles later on the slopes of Mount Whitney, difficulties abound for even the most dedicated runners. Interestingly, though, one of the primary challenges--the region's extreme heat--seems rather less extraordinary in light of recent high temperatures across the nation: it's 84° in Death Valley for the race's start, with a projected high of 108° today.

Here's the trailer from the documentary Running on the Sun (2000) about Badwater:

Digby comments on the GOP's voter-suppression effort, calling it "shocking in its brazenness:"

I have long wondered why the Democrats haven't seemed to take this seriously. It's been happening in slow motion, but it's been happening in plain sight. [...]

It's not that I care so much that the Democrats win. But I really care that Americans are allowed to vote and have their votes counted and I expect that most people care about that too. In this regard there is a big difference between the two parties: the Republicans have organized around suppressing the vote while the Democrats have organized around expanding it. The problem, as usual, is that the Democrats haven't been nearly as good at it. [...]

One would have thought the 2000 election would have been enough to energize them to protect the franchise, but it clearly wasn't. Let's hope it doesn't take another stolen election to convince them.

Addicting Info informs us that Republicans in Luzerne County PA have elected white supremacist neo-Nazi Steve Smith as committeeperson:

You can photo-shop a Hitler mustache on Obama, and pretend that you're fighting totalitarianism, if you want. But here's what a real live Nazi looks like; and he's an elected Republican official:

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You know, we've had to listen to a lot of nonsense about President Obama and Dems being Nazis, for quite a while now. Granted, many of Obama's critics call him a Muslim, Socialist and Communist, all seemingly without the vaguest notion of what those terms mean. But I've often thought there was something extra buried in the Nazi accusation; and it's called 'projection.'

Projection is the act of attributing feelings or beliefs you possess, but cannot admit to, onto others. It's usually known as an unconscious action, but if engaged purposely in a political climate, it can be a very effective tool.

Steve Smith: Republican Tool.

comics lit

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In comics as literature, part 1 GeekDad's Jonathan Liu is assembling a list of graphic-novel classics:

In the world of comics, just as with novels or kids' books, there are some stories that transcend the realm of "hey, it's just entertainment" and become Serious Literature. I'm not saying that they can't include a few laughs (though some are solemn), but that you can tell there's something under the surface, whether through the subject matter or the language or the artwork.

And here's the best part: there's a lot of them. I'll share some of my old favorites and recent discoveries with you over the course of a few posts, but I guarantee you that there are so many more that I haven't read (or even heard of) yet, and I'm counting on you readers to fill in the gaps on my own shelves.

He ventures a few of the classic graphic novels: Maus, Sandman, Watchmen, and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics trilogy. It's tough to disagree with any of those choices, but I'm curious to see what books he adds in future installments.

Outside magazine asks are minimalist shoes good for kids? (h/t: runblogger), and answers by pointing out that minimalist shoes "reinforce the healthy running technique kids were born with:"

...namely, striking the ground with the fore foot, not the heel. Watch a video of a toddler running and you'll see they do this naturally. It's only when we start wearing thick-soled, heavier shoes that we re-program ourselves to run differently; heel striking has been linked to knee, hip, and lower back pain.

A commenter wrote that kids should play barefoot to prevent flat feet, mentioning the study "The Influence of Footwear on the Prevalence of Flat Feet" (PDF) from the British Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery:

The distinctly higher incidence [of flat feet] in children who used footwear suggests that shoe-wearing predisposes to flat foot.

Our cross-sectional study suggests that shoe-wearing in early childhood is detrimental to the development of a normal or a high medial longitudinal arch. [...] We suggest that children should be encouraged to play unshod and that slippers and sandals are less harmful than closed-toed shoes.

Paul Krugman comments that "the austerity death spiral in Europe" should have taught us something:

When the private sector is frantically trying to pay down debt, the public sector should do the opposite, spending when the private sector can't or won't. By all means, let's balance our budget once the economy has recovered -- but not now. The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity.

He notes that "the austerity drive in Britain isn't really about debt and deficits at all; it's about using deficit panic as an excuse to dismantle social programs:"

And this is, of course, exactly the same thing that has been happening in America.

In fairness to Britain's conservatives, they aren't quite as crude as their American counterparts. They don't rail against the evils of deficits in one breath, then demand huge tax cuts for the wealthy in the next (although the Cameron government has, in fact, significantly cut the top tax rate). And, in general, they seem less determined than America's right to aid the rich and punish the poor. Still, the direction of policy is the same -- and so is the fundamental insincerity of the calls for austerity.

The big question here is whether the evident failure of austerity to produce an economic recovery will lead to a "Plan B." Maybe. But my guess is that even if such a plan is announced, it won't amount to much. For economic recovery was never the point; the drive for austerity was about using the crisis, not solving it. And it still is.

Chris Mooney discusses the reason why conservatives attack scientific findings about why they hate science, suggesting that "if I'm wrong, then the press can happily go on doing what it has always done:"

Splitting the difference between the political left and the political right, and employing "on the one hand, on the other hand" treatments that presume we're all equally biased, all equally self-interested...just in different directions.

The trouble is, I've presented a substantial body of scientific evidence suggesting that this simply isn't the case. More specifically, the science I've presented suggests that the political right and left are quite different animals; that they perceive the world differently and handle evidence differently; and most importantly, that the polarization and the denial of science in modern American politics are fundamentally the fault of the authoritarian right.

"It is very natural," Mooney observes, "that a lot of people...don't want to accept what I'm saying. The problem is, where is the scientific counterargument to what I'm saying? [...] So what do conservatives have to say in response to this science?"

Honestly, the objections are quite weak, and frankly provide a wealth of new evidence in support of the book's argument--that conservatives tend to simply reject science and evidence when it threatens their beliefs. The main conservative counterargument relies on little more than misrepresenting the book and its arguments.

He wonders, "So what's left?"

Not much, other than the standard conservative distrust of what academic scientists are up to--coupled with a rather stunning amount of overconfidence. After all, conservatives seem to think that they are competent to critique--not in the scientific literature, but in the media and on blogs--an entire field. And then, to dismiss it based on those critiques.

Mooney continues,

At least at the present time, it certainly does look like the available evidence leads to a conclusion that many people don't want to accept.

I'm very sorry about this, but hey--that's what journalists are for. And indeed, that's what anti-authoritarian liberals are for. And frankly, conservatives really ought to get used to it.

Politico's VandeHei and Allen report on GOP cries of "blatant bias," adoringly quoting Haley Barbour and Ari Fleischer and observing that "Republicans cry 'bias' so often it feels like a campaign theme:"

It is, largely because it fires up conservatives and diminishes the punch of legitimate investigative or narrative journalism. But it also is because it often rings true, even to people who don't listen to Rush Limbaugh...

Not that it is true, mind you--just that it supports their persecution complex. At American Prospect, Paul Waldman points out that working the refs continues to work for the Right:

VandeHei and Allen's article is a masterpiece of unsupported claims, false equivalences, speculations about what news stories "imply," and Republican complaints taken not as complaints but as truths. [...]

Let's examine this, shall we? The bias charge, they say, "often rings true." But is it true? Well, that's a complex question, so why bother trying to answer it at all? It feels true, so that's good enough. The "imbalance" in coverage, which has been alleged by Republicans but we don't know is actually true, is nevertheless doing "unmistakable damage to Romney." Really? Any evidence for that? Nah, but it sure feels true.

Media Matters explains what 'liberal bias' claims are really about, snarking "Republicans? Alleging liberal media bias? Pardon me while I find some pearls to clutch:"

The conceit behind this whole affair is that Haley Barbour and Ari Fleischer told Allen and VandeHei that "liberal bias" is real and it's devastating, and Allen and Vandehei believe them...

People who level the "bias" charge aren't looking for balance. They're not interested in journalistic good practices and they certainly don't give a damn where a story appears in the Washington Post. They're looking to game the refs.

It's all about discouraging journalists from turning a critical eye on Republicans and conservatives, lest they be tarred with the "liberal bias" epithet.

Salon calls the Politico article a "deeply stupid piece" that "could be the latest installment of Breitbart's whiny, posthumous 'Nobody Vetted Obama So We Have to Do It, By Printing Stuff We Know is False!' investigative series." It's useful to remind ourselves that these same "liberal media" outlets haven't given Obama a week of positive coverage in almost a year (h/t: Eric Boehlert), as the conservative "cottage industry" of media grievance "that pays the bills for talk radio, fills endless hours of commentary on Fox News, and produces content for right-wing authors" remains dominant. Pew studied the media from January to early April this year, concluding the following:

Of all the presidential candidates studied in this report, only one figure did not have a single week in 2012 when positive coverage exceeded negative coverage--the incumbent, Democrat Barack Obama. [...]

While Republicans have jockeyed for their party's nomination for the last year, the Democratic president has been hammered with negative press coverage. And it's coverage whose harsh tone has been matched only by its week-in and week-out consistency.

Behold the liberal media.


update (6/1):
James Fallows examines Pew's research into press coverage of Obama and Romney, noting that "At no time in the past year has coverage of President Obama been as positive as that of Governor Romney:"

Indeed, at no time in the past year has it been on-balance positive at all.

You can argue that negative coverage of the administration is justified. You can argue that incumbents are -- and should be -- held to a tougher standard, since they have a record to defend. But you can't sanely argue that the press is in the tank for Obama, notwithstanding recent "false equivalence" attempts to do so.

Amazonian

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The Nation looks at Amazon's effect on the book publishing ecosystem, observing that [Jeff] "Bezos understood two things:"

One was the way the Internet made it possible to banish geography, enabling anyone with an Internet connection and a computer to browse a seemingly limitless universe of goods with a precision never previously known and then buy them directly from the comfort of their homes. The second was how the Internet allowed merchants to gather vast amounts of personal information on individual customers.

In the face of ebooks and economics, the piece proclaims that "The bookstore wars are over:"

Independents are battered, Borders is dead, Barnes & Noble weakened but still standing and Amazon triumphant. [...] Last year it had $48 billion in revenue, more than all six of the major American publishing conglomerates combined, with a cash reserve of $5 billion. The company is valued at nearly $100 billion and employs more than 65,000 workers (all nonunion); Bezos, according to Forbes, is the thirtieth wealthiest man in America.

Fred Cody, owner of Cody's Books in Berkeley, notes that "Amazon simply has too much power in the marketplace. And when their business interest conflicts with the public interest, the public interest suffers."


update (6/1):
The Nation lists 10 reasons to avoid doing business with Amazon, including: the company dodges taxes, wreaks havoc on small business via monopolistic practices, collects customers' information, abuses its employees with brutal working conditions, fights unions, and removed WikiLeaks from its Cloud service.

In slandering the heretics, DisInfo's Colby Hess laments how we atheists "are made outcasts from our own society:"

In trying only to achieve a free and open civilization based on facts and on reason, as reward for our efforts we are attacked by those on both the left and the right and smeared with the label "intolerant" or told that sharing our ideas amounts to nothing more than "proselytizing." [...]

Atheist opposition to religion doesn't stem from some deep-seated bias or unconsidered opinion. It's not derived from some ancient book immune to rational criticism. Modern atheism is built upon critical thinking and knowledge of objective scientific facts about the workings of the universe coupled with an unblinking awareness of the countless, clearly documented instances--both in the news and throughout history--in which religious believers have repeatedly sought to impose their own narrow ideology in ways that restrict other people's rights and limit their freedoms. [...]

When you think about it, this charge of intolerance against atheists is itself a form of intolerance, for if atheists are not allowed to expressly dispute the claims made by religion--if we are required to just sit there politely with our mouths shut while twiddling our thumbs--then essentially we are not allowed to exist.

Just like in previous eras--the ones about which they reminisce so longingly.

moral markets

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In "What Money Can't Buy," Michael Sandel asks the questions "Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?" to which NYT's Nicholas Kristof remarks:

This issue goes to the heart of fairness in our country. There has been much discussion recently about economic inequality, but almost no conversation about the way the spread of markets nurtures a broader, systemic inequality.

Market fundamentalism, Kristof observes, "is gaining ground:"

It's related to the glorification of wealth over the last couple of decades, to the celebration of opulence, and to the emergence of a new aristocracy. Market fundamentalists assume a measure of social Darwinism and accept that laissez-faire is always optimal.

That's the dogma that helped lead to bank deregulation and the current economic mess. And anyone who honestly believes that low taxes and unfettered free markets are always best should consider moving to Pakistan's tribal areas. They are a triumph of limited government, negligible taxes, no "burdensome regulation" and free markets for everything from drugs to AK-47s.

If you're infatuated with unfettered free markets, just visit Waziristan.

Paul Waldman brings the sarcasm in it's hard out there for a billionaire,

America's barons feel assaulted, victimized, wounded in ways that not even a bracing ride to your Hamptons estate in your new Porsche 911 can salve. And now that the presidential campaign is in full swing, their tender feelings are being hurt left and right.

Pyramid-scheme tycoon Frank Vandersloot is the national finance co-chair of Romney's campaign (to which he donated $1 million), but he whines that the Obama campaign's mention of this fact is equivalent to being placed on an "enemies list:"

What VanderSloot obviously wants is a situation in which he can put millions of dollars into influencing the course of elections and policy debates, but nobody ever criticizes him for it. Well, that's just not how things work in a democracy.

Politicus USA comments on the latest fact-free factoid floating around the conservative media cesspool, that Obama's consumer protection adviser Elizabeth Warren "is basically a Communist [because] she's a supporter of everything conservatives hate." Of course, as Politicus points out, "most of us know that communist (like Nazi and socialist) is a term conservatives like to throw around without really comprehending what it means:"

And not just the average ignorant Tea Partier but congressmen like Allen West, who is convinced that there are between 78 and 81 Democrats in Congress who are members of the Communist Party.

On the surface, it would seem both West and Carmenker are on agreement: a communist is one who is diametrically opposed to conservative ideology. This is all very Cold War and McCarthyesque and it's no wonder it's an attractive thesis to conservatives. It's a simple appeal - emotional and "patriotic" and it requires little thought - everyone knows that those commies were the enemies of American democracy and since conservatives are "real Americans" communism must be its opposite, right? (remember too that witch-hunts have historically been conservatism's response to people getting uppity and thinking for themselves).

Politicus comments on the factoid's source:

They claim that "For a refreshing and informative change in where you get your news, log on to OneNewsNow.com." If by informative they mean dishonest and misleading, they are apparently spot on and certainly in good company... [...]

Apparently, conservative viewers and readers want to be liberated from the world of facts and from the millstone that is a fact-based universe where fantasy is not allowed to have its way with reality. If one hate-filled group says something the hate-filled news service has to report it and certainly won't violate the precepts of the agreed upon fantasy universe to question it. Why introduce facts when the fantasy is so congenial?

Zizek has some remarks on austerity in LRB, mentioning the "black-shirted vigilantes from the Holocaust-denying ne0-fascist Golden Dawn movement:"

The trouble with defending European civilisation against the immigrant threat is that the ferocity of the defence is more of a threat to 'civilisation' than any number of Muslims. With friendly defenders like this, Europe needs no enemies.

Zizek notes that, despite its economic bellwether status, "Greece is not an exception:"

It is one of the main testing grounds for a new socio-economic model of potentially unlimited application: a depoliticised technocracy in which bankers and other experts are allowed to demolish democracy. By saving Greece from its so-called saviours, we also save Europe itself.

Salon asks if literary classics are obsolete, and looks at Dartmouth professor Daniel Rockmore's study "Quantitative Patterns of Stylistic Influence in the Evolution of Literature" (The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences):

The Dartmouth study analyzed multiple works by 537 authors who wrote English language texts published since 1550. Comparing them to each other, they found, not surprisingly, that authors from a given historical period have more in common with each other stylistically than they do with authors from the past (or future). They also found that the more recent a work is, the more "localized" its stylistic brethren are in time. [...]

Where the Dartmouth article makes a big leap, however, is in claiming that contemporary authors are less "influenced" by authors of the past than they are by those of their own time. Furthermore, they propose a reason: The explosion in the number of published books in the past century or so. Titles by contemporary authors are in the (vast) majority. By this logic, with "even more authors to choose from and selection dominated by contemporaneous authors," writers, like everyone else, are less likely to read the classics.

Then the author moves in for the kill:

There are so many wobbly assumptions built into these interpretations that they could be used as an illustration of the dangers of empirical hubris: Having a lot of numbers and equations is not the same as knowing what they mean, especially in such a complex and meaning-rich field as literature.

AlterNet's Don Hazen talks to Charles Ferguson about Ferguson's new book Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America:

He is appalled that despite ample evidence of disastrous decisions and large-scale lawbreaking, much of it outlined in his film and his book, not a single person has gone to jail for a fiasco that has wiped out a good deal of the hard-working American middle-class' resources.

And he holds Barack Obama responsible, considering him a huge disappointment in his first term.

Funded by the GOP's 'geezer empire' of billionaires, the far right is using the lackluster economic recovery to justify a great leap backward:

Beyond the usual GOP jeremiads--cutting taxes and government spending, shredding safety nets, eviscerating federal regulation and privatizing whatever remains--many of the GOP's biggest moneymen have specific issues and goals, often business-related, and would expect a Romney presidency to advance those agendas.

Among the goals of "this posse of unbelievably wealthy white men who have written million-dollar checks to GOP super PACs and non-profits in 2012" are pushing fracking, promoting unconstrained financial speculation, repealing Dodd-Frank, weakening Sarbanes-Oxley, eviscerating consumer protections, and supporting Israeli extremists:

The GOP's billionaire donors--all white, wealthy men and patriarchs heading their own empires--have a lot in common. They know no rules other than doing whatever it takes to win. They don't take no for an answer. They keep at it until they get what they want. And they see Mitt Romney as a kindred spirit who shares their values and will get the federal government to step in, or step aside, to help them secure their next fortune.

Democrats shouldn't continue compromising with them.

Ron Rosenbaum meditates on two famous poetic lines,

"What will survive of us is love." (Philip Larkin, "An Arundel Tomb")

and

"We must love one another or die." (WH Auden, "September 1, 1939")

"These two lines," writes Rosenbaum, "may be the most well-known lines of poetry about love written in the past century:"

But what's remarkable about them both is that the poets who wrote them agonized over them, were conflicted and critical of their own lines. Both Larkin and Auden eventually tried to distance themselves from their original unmediated utterances.

Toward the end of his (excellent) piece, Rosenbaum suggests that "it's no accident that these powerfully eloquent sentiments were virtually torn out of the souls and stanzas of these two poets:"

And no accident that in some ways they became embarrassed by how nakedly they reveal themselves in those lines. And how they had to do everything they could to cover up that nakedness, like the first couple, expelled from the garden. Make themselves and their poems more "mature" and "sophisticated" for a culture that makes a fetish of complication and ambiguity above earnestness as signs of "seriousness." Larkin put the barbed wire of irony around the ecstatic utterance, Auden altered or erased his.

For shame. [...] Can't we have both, the complex poems and the consolatory one-line reductions?

drained

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The Demos report entitled The Retirement Savings Drain (PDF) should open many 401(k) advocates' eyes when it points out that:

administering the average defined benefit plan, or traditional pension, costs 46 percent less than a typical 401(k) to provide the same benefit level in retirement, largely because of the higher fees and lower investment returns of 401(k)s and the ability of defined benefit plans to pool risk.

Using median incomes and actual average contribution rates, the report reveals that the lifetime costs of 401(k) fees can be as much as $154,794 for a hypothetical two-earner household:

To put that in perspective, that's the average cost of a house in many parts of the country, or more than the cost of a public-university education, including room and board, for two children.

Another key fact reported by Demos relates to relative costs:

In the long run, the average mutual fund earns a 7 percent return, before fees, matching the average return of the overall stock market. However, the post-fee returns average only 4.5 percent, meaning that, on average, fees eat up over a third of the total returns earned by mutual funds.

The report also asks, "why are fees, which limit Americans' already-scarce retirement savings, still so high?"

The answer is that the market for individual-account retirement savings is neither efficient nor competitive. 401(k) savers and plan-sponsoring employers lack information about the true costs or even existence of retirement plan fees and how they reduce returns.

The Department of Labor's new fee disclosure rules will take effect on 1 July, and may prompt workers into asking their employers difficult questions about their retirement benefit options. Perhaps fewer fund managers will be selected on such criteria as golf vacations for HR directors...


update (5/31):
Calling 401(k) fees "a pernicious rip-off," Forbes notes that a nagging and costly question persists:"

Whenever I asked the question "how much are 401k savers being overcharged" over the years, I haven't been able to get a decent answer. The government doesn't really track it and the middleman and your employer don't want you to know.

WSJ previews the sobering news about 401(k) fees:

There are more than 50 million Americans with investments in 401(k) and other defined-contribution retirement-savings plans. They're about to be getting more information about the fees they pay. [...]

Retirement-plan administrators have to provide detailed information to employers by July 1 about the fees they charge. Employers have to share that information with workers in their plans by Aug. 30, and once a year after that. The charges include investment-related fees and fees for administering a plan itself.


update (6/1):
Reuters wonders if we should scrap the 401(k) system and start over, looking ahead to investors' reaction "when 401(k) account statements hit their mailboxes this summer:"

A new format mandated by federal regulators will give investors a more transparent view of the fees they pay and a study released this week suggests many will be shocked by what they see [because] fees are not well understood by investors and even plan sponsors.

A recent AARP survey found that 71 percent of retirement savers do not think they pay any investment fees at all.

The Globe and Mail asks why is walking in the woods good for you?

In Japan, they call it shinrin-yoku - literally, "forest bathing." Here, we might just call it a walk in the park. Either way, people around the world have an intuitive sense of the restorative power of natural environments. The question is: Why?

Scientists have advanced a wide range of theories about the specific physical and mental benefits nature can provide, ranging from clean air and lack of noise pollution to the apparent immune-boosting effects of a fine mist of "wood essential oils."

The physical pleasures may be dwarfed by something less obvious, as "the most powerful benefits, a new study suggests, may result from the way trees and birds and sunsets gently tug - but never grab - at our attention:"

Dr. Berman and his colleagues believe that going for a walk in the park gives voluntary attention a break, since your mind has a chance to wander aimlessly and be engaged - involuntarily but gently - by your surroundings. [...] In contrast, honking horns and traffic lights and crowded sidewalks - and pretty much every other ingredient of modern life in a big city - constantly force you to exert your voluntary attention to react or block them out, leaving you more cognitively depleted.

The piece cautions that "[t]easing out the key variables will take time:"

...and ultimately, it seems unlikely that there's a single magical quality or essential oil that fully explains the call of the semi-wild. For now, it's enough to know that the benefits of exposure to nature are real and measurable. And in an increasingly distracting and distracted world, they're more important than ever.


update (5/31):
WSJ has something to add, courtesy of psychologist Ruth Ann Atchley at the University of Kansas:

To measure the mental benefits of hiking in the middle of nowhere, Dr. Atchley gave 60 backpackers a standard test of creativity before they hit the trail. She gave the same test to a different group of hikers four days into their journey.

The results were surprising: The hikers in the midst of nature showed a nearly 50% increase in performance on the test of creativity, and the effect held across all age groups.

"There's a growing advantage over time to being in nature," says Dr. Atchley. "We think that it peaks after about three days of really getting away, turning off the cellphone. It's when you have an extended period of time surrounded by that softly fascinating environment that you start seeing all kinds of positive effects in how your mind works."

How many of us can disconnect for that long?

Providing another reason why BofA's Brian Moynihan is America's worst CEO, Mother Jones reports that "Bank of America, which last fall announced plans to lay off 30,000 workers, is about to go on a hiring spree--overseas:"

America's second-largest bank is relocating its business-support operations to the Philippines...less than three years after Bank of America received a $45 billion federal bailout.

The next time BofA needs a cash infusion, they should ask the Philippine taxpayers for help.

conversion

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AlterNet maintains that Christians are good at getting people to convert--to agnosticism or atheism:

If the Catholic bishops, their conservative Protestant allies, and other right-wing fundamentalists had the sole objective of decimating religious belief, they couldn't be doing a better job of it.

Sometimes education does the trick, sometimes life experience opens one's eyes, and "[s]ometimes a believer simply picks up a copy of the Bible or the Koran and discovers faith-shaking contradictions or immoralities there." Institutional homophobia is a primary factor in driving people out of the church, as it "makes Fred Phelps a far better evangelist for atheism than for his own gay-hating Westborough Baptist Church." Biblical literalism fails because "it is easy to find quotes from the Bible that are either scientifically absurd or morally repugnant:"

But the more they resort to strict authoritarianism, insularity and strict interpretation of Iron Age texts, the more people are wounded in the name of God and the more people are outraged. By making Christian belief an all-or-nothing proposition, they force at least some would-be believers to choose "nothing."

One notable part of these spiritual successes is their long-standing war on gays. Mel White's new book Holy Terror: Lies the Christian Right Tells Us to Deny Gay Equality "examine[s] the innate cruelty and proto-fascism of the Christian right:"

"When I moved to Lynchburg it was a blue city, in spite of Liberty University being there," White said. "The reversal came with the collapse of our financial system [in 2008]. Suddenly everything blue was seen as costing too much money, including helping the poor. There was a revolt led by Fox News and its allies. It's difficult to find a restaurant or bar in Lynchburg that isn't playing Fox News. People quote Fox as though Fox is the arbiter of truth."

Tired of being scapegoated, White and his partner left:

"By the time Gary and I moved away from Lynchburg, a majority of Virginians seemed to be turning against gay people," White said. "They passed a constitutional amendment against marriage equality and new laws saying we cannot adopt [children] or provide foster care. More than half the people of Virginia seem to see us as the enemy." [...] "Too many of my sisters and brothers in the gay community don't seem to understand the power of religion," White lamented.

White points out that "[w]ithout religion there would be no homophobia:"

What other source of homophobia is there but six verses in the Bible? When Bible literalists preach that LGBT people are going to hell they become Christian terrorists. They use fear as their weapon, like all terrorists. They are seeking to deny our religious and civil rights. They threaten to turn our democracy into a fundamentalist theocracy. And if we don't reverse the trend, there is the very real possibility that in the end we will all be governed according to their perverted version of biblical law."

Here is Mr Fish's great illustration of religion's danger to humanity:

20120528-jesusjaws.jpg

World Affairs succumbs to night terrors over current interest in communism, positing that "the specter of 'new communism' ... is mounting a comeback; a new form of left-wing totalitarianism that enjoys intellectual celebrity" thanks to the Badiou, Hardt & Negri, and Zizek:

The appeal rests on one fact above all: only the new communists argue that the crises of contemporary liberal capitalist societies--ecological degradation, financial turmoil, the loss of trust in the political class, exploding inequality--are systemic; interlinked, not amenable to legislative reform, and requiring "revolutionary" solutions.

The piece cautions that "the new communism turns out to be a simple repetition of the old [and] remains within the orbit of leftist totalitarianism:"

Indeed, new communism seems to repeat every theoretical disaster of old communism. It is profoundly elitist, rehabilitating the Jacobin notion of the educational dictatorship. [...] Recent history tells us that authoritarian philosophical and political ideas can still find their way to the streets in advanced capitalist societies. The new communist ideas might yet connect with the young, the angry, and the idealistic who are confronted by a profound economic crisis in the context of an exhausted social democracy and a self-loathing intellectual culture. Tempting as it is, we can't afford to just shake our heads at the new communism and pass on by.

Sad Red Earth provides a pithy summary of their fears:

The Soviet edifice, and within, Zizek as court jester theorist.

Before he's shot.

And a ruthless clerk takes power.

That fate is more like conservative managerial dominance than communism, but I don't expect any better from corporate media outlets.

classic

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From the Twitter feed of Daniel Mendelsohn, I became aware of his 2009 Berkeley commencement address. After a pre-collegiate conversation with his mother about his desire to study the classics, he writes:

She took a deep breath and wearily ended with a sentence that--as she could not possibly guess, that May afternoon 30 years ago--would give me the title of a book I would write one day, a book about her vanished world, and how it vanished. "Plato, the Greeks," she muttered. "In a thousand years, it will all be lost."

Mendelsohn asks "what can it mean to devote oneself to a discipline that likes to think that it is timeless, that it has cheated the centuries, the millennia?" and uses Virgil's Aeneid to ruminate on the many losses along the way:

And even to think of the poem and everything it has produced over time is to be reminded, inevitably, of all the songs and stories and poems that didn't make it to the safe shore of "classic": the nine books of Sappho's lyrics, of which a single poem remains; the 75 lost plays of Aeschylus, the 116 vanished works of Sophocles, the 70 of Euripides; Aristotle's early dialogues, the banished Ovid's lost verse drama, Medea, the love elegies of Cornelius Gallus, the bosom friend of Vergil, which once comprised four whole books and of which 10 lines now survive; so much else.

Classicists, he writes, "bear the responsibility of being as aware of what we have lost as we are of what has survived to be studied by us." Mendelsohn later segues into discussing an "old Jewish woman [whom] I had been interviewing her for the book I wrote about the Holocaust:"

"So what happened when the war was over?" I asked softly. "What was the first thing that happened, once things started to be normal again?"

The old lady, whose real name had disappeared in the war along with her parents, her house, and nearly everything else she had known, was now called Mrs. Begley. When I asked her this question Mrs. Begley looked at me; her weary expression had kindled every so slightly.

"You know, it's a funny thing," she told me. "When the Germans first came, in '41, the first thing they did was close the theaters." [...] And I'll tell you something, because I remember it quite clearly: the first thing that happened, after the war was over and things got a little normal-the first thing was that the actors and theater people who were still alive got together and put on, in Polish, a production of Sophocles' Antigone."

He concludes "that was the story, and here is what I think it means:"

A lot of life gets lost--almost everything, in fact. [But] what remains means something--something very real, to real people, to people whose knowledge of suffering is derived from more than a book or a night at the movies. And so, I would ask you this: when you think of what it means to be a classicist, don't think only about your deconstructive readings of Homer, or post-structuralist approaches to Plautus, or Freudian readings of the Euripidean romances, or Marxist interpretations of the Peloponnesian War, the iconography of red-figure vases or the prosopography of the late Roman Republic. Think about Mrs. Begley; think about the people in Kraków, who, when they had very good reasons to believe that civilization had ended, felt that the first thing they needed to do was to put on a play by Sophocles.

WSJ looks at comic books and the success surrounding the Avengers, Batman, Spiderman, and X-Men franchises:

You might thus assume that superhero comics, the original properties on which these franchises are built, are in flush times. They aren't. The upper limit on sales of a superhero comic book these days is about 230,000; just two or three series routinely break into six digits. Twenty years ago, during the comic industry's brief Dutch-tulip phase, hot issues of "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" sold millions.

That two-decade slide "is a bit of a puzzle, especially because comics, broadly speaking, are respectable as never before:"

If no cultural barrier prevents a public that clearly loves its superheroes from picking up a new "Avengers" comic, why don't more people do so? The main reasons are obvious: It is for sale not in a real bookstore but in a specialty shop, and it is clumsily drawn, poorly written and incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in years of arcane mythology. [...]

The people who produce superhero comics have given up on the mass audience, and it in turn has given up on them. Meanwhile, the ablest creators have abandoned mainline superhero comics to mediocrity.

I'm not that concerned about superhero comics tending ward mediocrity--in the same way that summer blockbusters (like the Transformer movies) are for the motion-picture art form, or soap operas for TV. "The superhero comic has for decades been the fixed point around which this vital American art has revolved," the piece continues, and "it deserves better than to be reduced to a parody of a parody of itself."

Agreed. The medium needs better works of art, but also requires better criticism.

Marion Nestle's "Utopian Dream: A New Farm Bill" (Dissent, Spring 2012) contains this bit of historical sleuthing:

"Further increasing competition was the advent of the shareholder value movement to force corporations to produce more immediate and higher returns on investment. The start of the movement is often attributed to a 1981 speech given by Jack Welch, then head of General Electric, in which he insisted that corporations owed shareholders the benefits of faster growth and higher profit margins. The movement caught on quickly, and Wall Street soon began to press companies to report growth in profits ever quarter." (p. 17)

Jack Welch's speech at The Hotel Pierre in New York City entitled "Growing fast in a slow-growth economy" (8 December 1981) and was printed as Appendix A in Jack: Straight from the Gut (pp. 447-451). However, its actual content seems far too mild to have catalyzed such a movement. I would suggest instead that the impetus dated back at least to Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom a half-century ago:

The view has been gaining widespread acceptance that corporate officials and labor leaders have a "social responsibility" that goes beyond serving the interest of their stockholders or their members. This view shows a fundamental misconception of the character and nature of a free economy. In such an economy, there is one and only one social responsibility of business - to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition, without deception or fraud. [...] Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible. (p. 133)

Salon's piece on No Child Left Behind and the cheating epidemic points out that "[r]Rampant and widespread cheating on high-stakes standardized tests has been uncovered in districts nationwide" in the decade since NCLB became law:

NCLB mandates high-stakes standardized testing to monitor student achievement and aggressive intervention into schools that fall short: making Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, became a matter of a school's -- and increasingly teacher's -- survival.

Test results have been used as the pretext to fire teachers and force schools into becoming privately managed charters, even though research has shown that corruption-prone charters are not, as a whole, better, and are often much worse than traditional public schools. And the testing mandates have proven to be a bonanza for for-profit education companies likePearson and Kaplan (the latter is owned by the Washington Post Co.), which produce tests and materials to drill students in preparation.

Often derided as "No Child Left Untested" for its reliance on test results, NCLB has had other effects--"[t]he pressure to do well on standardized tests has also eviscerated the curriculum:"

Arts, science, music, physical education, literature and even recess are on the chopping block as teachers are forced to spend an ever greater amount of time on test preparation. This degrades classroom learning -- and, once again, the fundamental value and accuracy of the test.

The article concludes that "the high-stakes standardized testing regime cheats our children in more ways than one," and I have no difficulty agreeing with that analysis.

In 9 great freethinkers and religious dissenters, Adam Lee asks "What kind of world would we have if a majority of the human race was atheist?"

The defenders of the faith argue that atheism inevitably leads to selfishness and nihilism, and that only religion can justify charity or compassion, bind people together in community, or inspire a lively and flourishing culture. But this assertion can only be sustained by ignoring the accomplishments of famous nonreligious people throughout history, of which there have been many.

Lee lists Albert Einstein, Robert Ingersoll, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Asa Philip Randolph, Robert Frost, Emma Lazarus, and Yip Harburg; for more examples, he recommends Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History.

TNR's Timothy Noah has compiled a list of conservative clichés; here are my favorites:

Central planning. Any decision-making process by the federal government that conservatives dislike. The Pentagon never engages in central planning.

Job creator. A rich person. The idea is that one mustn't tax the rich, because it's rich people who, through investment, create jobs. This used to be called "trickle-down economics," and 31 years ago, when Ronald Reagan's budget chief got caught admitting to The Atlantic that the Reagan administration practiced it, he suffered public humiliation. Today, trickle-down economics is preached without shame.

Mainstream media (popular variation: lamestream media). The non-conservative news media, including every TV news organization except Fox and every nationally distributed newspaper except the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. The term's usage in recent years reflects the right's growing comfort with its position on the fringe. Where once conservatives claimed to inhabit the mainstream (as reflected in phrases like "silent majority" and "Moral Majority"), today the right sees the mainstream as so thoroughly compromised (and ruthlessly dominant) that it prefers to define itself as an unfairly besieged minority.

Starve the beast. A Republican strategy to cut government spending by cutting taxes. The theory is that lower tax revenue will force budget cuts down the road. But this doctrine contradicts conservatives' false-but-cherished belief that tax cuts so incentivize economic activity that revenue will rise rather than fall. Also, in practice, starving the beast hasn't lowered spending at all; it has merely increased the deficit.

I hadn't noticed that contradiction before.

One cliché that has far more than outlived its usefulness is the socialism-would-be-disastrous slur. The Independent's Owen Jones points out that, contrary to conservative myth, working people would benefit if socialists really did run the show. "'socialist' is regarded as the ultimate insult by much of our wealthy elite, who have been in a virtually uninterrupted triumphalist mood since Margaret Thatcher defeated their political opponents in the 1980s:"

If socialists really were running the show in Britain, they would be building a society run by, and in the interests of, working people [but] Instead, we have a government ... ruthlessly forcing working people to pay the immense cost of getting capitalism out of its mess.

In contrast to today, when having them meet us halfway to reality would be progress, EJ Dionne notes that conservatives used to care about community and compromise. "For most of the 20th century," he writes, "conservatives and progressives alternated in power...and this equilibrium allowed both sides to compromise and move forward" and asks, "So why has this consensus unraveled?" Obama has "pitched communal themes from the moment he took office [but] the more he emphasized a better balance between the individual and the community, the less interested conservatives became in anything that smacked of such equilibrium:"

That's why today's conservatives can't do business with liberals or even moderates who are still working within the American tradition defined by balance. It's why they can't agree even to budget deals that tilt heavily, but not entirely, toward spending cuts; only sharp reductions in taxes and government will do. It's why they cannot accept (as Romney and the Heritage Foundation once did) energetic efforts by the government to expand access to health insurance. It's why, even after a catastrophic financial crisis, they continue to resist new rules aimed not at overturning capitalism but at making it more stable.

AlterNet's piece on the failure of capitalism makes the ubiquitously banal observation that "[t]he old economic model has utterly failed us:"

It has destroyed our communities, our democracy, our economic security, and the planet we live on. The old industrial-age systems -- state communism, fascism, free-market capitalism -- have all let us down hard, and growing numbers of us understand that going back there isn't an option.

But we also know that transitioning to some kind of a new economy -- and, probably, a new governing model to match -- will be a civilization-wrenching process. We're having to reverse deep and ancient assumptions about how we allocate goods, labor, money, and power on a rapidly shrinking, endangered, complex, and ever more populated planet.

New governance and economics will, of course, be unobtainable as long as we're mired in the clichés of yesteryear.

Arun Gupta reassures us that "Occupy has hardly disappeared" despite the general perception that "the Occupy movement appears to have tumbled off a cliff, having failed to organise anything like a general strike on May Day." Gupta also reminds us that "protests did take place in more than 110 cities on May Day in recognition of worker resistance and solidarity," which is "no mean feat given the hostility to labour among the ruling elite in the US:"

Nationwide, [Occupy] is defending homeowners from evictions and disrupting auctions of foreclosed homes. There is a national campaign to force the government to break Bank of America into regional banks. Students are fighting against tuition increases and school cuts and for a moratorium on student debt. Occupiers are working with unions to battle corporations cutting wages and benefits. And many Occupy groups have joined movements for single-payer healthcare and against environmentally destructive oil and gas drilling.

Reason Being discusses the Catholic Church's war on America, observing that "The Church is waging a war on women, religious freedom, and general American values." This war is not merely punishing their own nuns, but by restricting the rights of non-Catholics to obtain contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Prime among these offensive campaigns is the Catholic Church's demand for special exemptions from healthcare laws:

One of the main problems that we are facing is the dishonesty of the Catholic leadership. Under the leadership of Pope Benedict and Cardinal Dolan the Church is trying desperately to frame this issue as a violation of their religious freedom. It is not. In truth, the goals of the Church would be a violation of the religious freedom of all non-Catholics in America. [...]

If the U.S. government were to pass a law that allowed Catholic institutions or businesses owned by Catholics to not offer contraceptive services it would violate the 'free exercise' clause of all non-Catholics. It would, in effect, be forcing people to live under the rules of Catholicism in many areas.

Commenting on the venality of the Vatican, RB cautions us to "not be fooled by the rhetoric of Rome:"

No one is forcing Catholic Churches to marry same-sex couples. Yet, this organization is fighting mightily to prevent unions between homosexuals. They are fighting against civil rights. When we remove religion from this conversation, the debate crumbles. The only opposition to same-sex marriage comes from religion in this country. That is wrong. [...] If a same-sex couple wishes to get married that is their business and none of the Church's. The Church should have no say in matters of civil rights.

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