Remember the anti-"czar" mania that gripped the Right as soon as Obama was elected? This might help your memory:

Obama has more czars than the Romanovs - who ruled Russia for 3 centuries. Romanovs 18, cyberczar makes 20. -- John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) May 30, 2009

FactCheck points out that McCain is now singing a different tune when it comes to Ebola:

McCain: I would say that we don't know exactly who's in charge. There has to be some kind of czar.

Salon's Jim Newell snarks about the Right's sudden reversal:

They want a "czar" now? They want an administration point-person coordinating the response? That's reasonable. So reasonable, in fact, that there already is such a person. Lisa Monaco is the administration's top Homeland Security advisor who's serving as the White House's point-person on Ebola. (Another logical choice would be the Surgeon General, a.k.a. the country's "top doctor." But there's only an acting Surgeon General right now. President Obama's nominee for the post, Vivek Murthy, has had his confirmation held up in the Senate for months because the NRA doesn't like his opinions about guns. No, really.)

Typical.

Islamophobia?

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Is it true that Maher's defense of Islamophobia doesn't make any sense?

The debate has been framed as a discussion over the nature of liberalism but that is, frankly, to give Maher's bigotry far too much credence. Maher called Islam "the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing," a statement which, when deconstructed, is a textbook illustration of bigotry.

For a start, religions don't do or think anything - people articulate ideas or act in the name of religion; Affleck was spot-on when he queried whether Maher had somehow determined the "the codified doctrine of Islam." And he was even more accurate when he lambasted Maher's attempt to play on white victimhood by casting himself, a highly influential TV host, as part of an oppressed group whose voice was somehow being suppressed on issues relating to Islam and Muslims -- all the while demonizing Islam and Muslims, largely unchallenged, on primetime Television.

One of the other participants, Sam Harris, explains the mechanics of defamation with this out-of-context quotation:

20141013-defamation.jpg

Harris writes, "I know one thing to a moral certainty, however: Both Greenwald and Aslan know that those words do not mean what they appear to mean," and quotes the source passage at length. He continues:

Aslan and Greenwald know that nowhere in my work do I suggest that we kill harmless people for thought crimes. And yet they (along with several of their colleagues) are doing their best to spread this lie about me. Nearly every other comment they've made about my work is similarly misleading.

Both Aslan and Greenwald are debasing our public discourse and making honest discussion of important ideas increasingly unpleasant--even personally dangerous. Why are they doing this? Please ask them and those who publish them.

Another writer familiar with Islam, Salman Rushdie, offers his perspective on "this new age of religious mayhem" (h/t: Friendly Atheist):

"It's hard not to conclude that this hate-filled religious rhetoric, pouring from the mouths of ruthless fanatics into the ears of angry young men, has become the most dangerous new weapon in the world today." [...]

"A word I dislike greatly, 'Islamophobia', has been coined to discredit those who point at these excesses, by labelling them as bigots. But in the first place, if I don't like your ideas, it must be acceptable for me to say so, just as it is acceptable for you to say that you don't like mine. Ideas cannot be ring-fenced just because they claim to have this or that fictional sky god on their side.

Rushdie hasn't been under threat of death for a quarter-century (since The Satanic Verses in 1989) because Islam's adherents are too civilized. Salon, however, states that the poll cited by Maher and Harris is wrong:

As Harris further elaborated, there is "abundant evidence that vast numbers of Muslims believe dangerous things about infidels, apostasy, blasphemy, jihad, and martyrdom." The "abundant evidence" in question--which popped up in many previous debates on the same topic--comes mainly from one source: a 2013 wide-ranging Pew Research Center survey examining religion-based beliefs and attitudes in 39 countries.

The author questions "not the methodology of the respected research Institute, but rather the genuineness of the answers provided by many of the 38,000 individuals it surveyed:"

Just picture the typical polling interview. Imagine you live in a country where Islam is the religion of the State, where criticizing the religion (let alone leaving it) is a criminal offense, where the educational system and the pervasive state media gang up every day to hammer that Islam is the highest moral norm ever--where, hell, even the opposition (mostly made of Islamist groups) does nothing but double down on religious intransigence... And here comes the Pew pollster, a total stranger with a list of disturbing questions pertaining to religion--questions to which the wrong answers can get you in trouble in many ways... Not the best conditions to conduct a credible opinion poll. [...]

If the religious opinions of Muslims are questionable, then so is their adherence to religion in the first place. I'm not saying that no citizen from Morocco to Indonesia genuinely adheres to Islam. I'm just stating the obvious: no one knows how many really do--and no one will ever know until people are free to form and state their religious opinions freely. This has an important implication: all of the mainstream Western debate about what 1.6 billion Muslims think is built on the false premise that... there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the first place.

(The poll is here.)

Salon describe the premiere of CitizenFour as "electric" and speculates about an Oscar:

"Citizenfour" is an urgent, gripping real-life spy story that should be seen by every American, and quite likely by everybody else too. No matter how much you think you know about the Snowden affair, the film provides important new context and surprising new facts, as well as an up-close personal encounter with the 21st-century's most famous whistleblower.

Ebola

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The National Institutes of Health reported that we could have had an Ebola vaccine by now, if not for a decade of budget cuts. Dr Francis Collins, the head of the NIH, remarks that "NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001:"

"Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would've gone through clinical trials and would have been ready." [...] "We would have been a year or two ahead of where we are, which would have made all the difference," he said. [...] "Money, or rather the lack of it, is a big part of the problem. NIH's purchasing power is down 23 percent from what it was a decade ago, and its budget has remained almost static."

What does the Right believe about all this? Corpulent conservative Erick Erickson claims that fat lesbians got all the Ebola dollars (yes, really):

Erickson's post, titled "Fat Lesbians Got All the Ebola Dollars, But Blame the GOP," cites an NIH-funded study examining why lesbians confront higher rates of obesity; the research is in line with other demographic studies examining public health challenges, but Erickson seized on the study to wage a demagogic attack on the agency for frivolously "studying the propensity of lesbians to be fat." He also attacked CDC research on gun violence and smoking cessation.

What a douche.

On a larger scale, Salon points out that the Right's anti-government mania is harming America, and that "most of the media coverage of the politics of Ebola to date has centered on whether President Obama has adequately and/or honestly dealt with the disease:"

"I remain concerned that we don't see sufficient seriousness on the part of the federal government about protecting the American public," Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told reporters. Cruz is probably the wrong guy to talk about seriousness: his government shutdown forced the NIH to delay clinical trials and made the CDC cut back on disease outbreak detection programs this time last year.

I find myself wondering: When, if ever, will the political debate over Ebola center on the way the right-wing libertarian approach to government has made us less safe? [...] The GOP's anti-government crusade has hampered our ability to face the Ebola challenge. In an election year, there's nothing wrong with Democrats saying that clearly.

Amazon

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Amazon's monopoly must be broken up, writes TNR's Franklin Foer:

Shopping on Amazon has so ingrained itself in modern American life that it has become something close to our unthinking habit, and the company has achieved a level of dominance that merits the application of a very old label: monopoly.

That term doesn't get tossed around much these days, but it should. Amazon is the shining representative of a new golden age of monopoly that also includes Google and Walmart. Unlike U.S. Steel, the new behemoths don't use their barely challenged power to hike up prices. They are, in fact, self-styled servants of the consumer and have ushered in an era of low prices for everything from flat-screen TVs to paper napkins to smart phones.

In other words, we're all enjoying the benefits of these corporations far too much to think hard about distant dangers.

We worried about high prices and ignored the threat that the monopoly actually delivers to our doorstep--low wages:

In its pursuit of bigness, Amazon has left a trail of destruction--competitors undercut, suppliers squeezed--some of it necessary, and some of it highly worrisome. [...] In effect, we've been thrust back 100 years to a time when the law was not up to the task of protecting the threats to democracy posed by monopoly; a time when the new nature of the corporation demanded a significant revision of government.

This quote from Louis Brandeis is great:

In an essay he wrote for Harper's Weekly in 1913, he excoriated the consumer who cared only about short-term prices: "Thoughtless or weak, he yields to the temptation of trifling immediate gain, and, selling his birthright for a mess of pottage, becomes himself an instrument of monopoly."

Much like WalMart, Amazon's "Growing profit margins depend, therefore, on continually getting a better deal from suppliers." As a result, Amazon's share of all new books sold is 41%--a number that climbs to 67% for ebooks. Foer surmises that "publishers will continue to strip away costs to satisfy Amazon:"

And more attention will fall on a strange inefficiency at the heart of the business: the advances that publishing houses pay their writers. This upfront money is the economic pillar on which quality books rest, the great bulwark against dilettantism. Advances make it financially viable for a writer to commit years of work to a project.

But no bank or investor in its right mind would extend that kind of credit to an author, save perhaps Stephen King. Which means that it won't take much for this anomalous ecosystem to collapse. [...]

In confronting what to do about Amazon, first we have to realize our own complicity. We've all been seduced by the deep discounts, the monthly automatic diaper delivery, the free Prime movies, the gift wrapping, the free two-day shipping, the ability to buy shoes or books or pinto beans or a toilet all from the same place. But it has gone beyond seduction, really. We expect these kinds of conveniences now, as if they were birthrights. They've become baked into our ideas about how consumers should be treated.

These expectations help fuel our collective denial about Amazon.

The Nation discusses how Amazon legally cheats workers, a major component of this denial:

No other company embodies the mantra "Time is money" quite like Amazon, with its seamless mastery of "just in time" logistics and round-the-clock online retail hours. But inside the cavernous warehouses that ship its goods, there are real people, and their time is not so preciously valued. So the Supreme Court is weighing their right to fair pay against the profits of an e-commerce Goliath. [...]

From a worker's perspective, the dilemma is felt through what they sacrifice for that end-of-the-day security screening. How many kids' birthday parties or school plays were missed because mom got stuck on an unexpectedly long line that day? As Ross Eisenbrey of Economic Policy Institute points out:

The 25 minutes the Integrity Staffing employees spend waiting in line for their security check is time taken away from them and from their families. It might not seem like much, but it amounts to 2 hours a week and 100 hours a year, which would involve real money if it were paid at time-and-a-half for overtime. And what if the warehouse workers had to wait an hour to get screened? How long the screening takes is up to the employer.

As a former Amazon warehouse wage slave, I can attest that desperation can drive one to sacrifice quite a lot.

Columbus Day

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As today is still celebrated as Columbus Day, this excerpt from An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States is especially appropriate, particularly the statement that "Any true history of the United States must focus on what has happened to (and with) Indigenous peoples--and what still happens:"

In the United States the legacy of settler colonialism can be seen in the endless wars of aggression and occupations; the trillions spent on war machinery, military bases, and personnel instead of social services and quality public education; the gross profits of corporations, each of which has greater resources and funds than more than half the countries in the world yet pay minimal taxes and provide few jobs for US citizens; the repression of generation after generation of activists who seek to change the system; the incarceration of the poor, particularly descendants of enslaved Africans; the individualism, carefully inculcated, that on the one hand produces self-blame for personal failure and on the other exalts ruthless dog-eat-dog competition for possible success, even though it rarely results; and high rates of suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, sexual violence against women and children, homelessness, dropping out of school, and gun violence.

This excerpt from Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus: What Your History Books Got Wrong points out that "Our history books not only imply that few people lived here, they also picture most of those who did as primitive," and ThinkProgress examines Columbus' real legacy:

Columbus, while remembered as a hero by many, was brutal to the native people. In his quest to find gold, he enslaved them, working thousands to death; brutalized them; and murdered them. [...]

Native Americans in what is now the United States would continue to be killed by later settlers in enormous numbers, have their land stolen by the government, and see their rights trampled on. This is Columbus's legacy, and the effects of his violent campaign and the decades of oppression afterward can still be seen today in the huge disparities between the Native American population and the population in general.

In a slightly more humorous vein, see this:

Dean Baker's observation that the deficit hawks are furious that the deficit is dropping is interesting:

Last week, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the deficit for the 2014 fiscal year that just ended was $460 billion, considerably lower than they had previously projected. This puts the deficit at 2.7 percent of GDP. At that level, the size of the debt relative to the economy is actually falling.

Not only is the deficit down sharply from its levels of 2009 and 2010, when it was near 10 percent of GDP, it is below the levels that even the deficit hawks had targeted back in those years. In other words, even if we had followed the lead of deficit crusaders like Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the deficit would be no lower today.

If anyone thought this would make the deficit hawks happy, they are badly mistaken. They are furious.

He then notes that "the deficit hawks have a bigger agenda:"

As just about everyone now knows, the major story in the economy over the last three decades has been the massive increase in inequality. The share of income going to the top one percent has roughly doubled since the 1970s, from 10 percent to 20 percent. As a result, most workers have seen almost none of the gains from economic growth over this period.

There are many people who would like to see this upward redistribution reversed, or at least not see the income gaps get still larger. A range of policies, from raising the minimum wage and more union friendly labor policies, to taxing Wall Street and full employment trade and Federal Reserve Board policy have been pushed to ensure that workers get their share of the economy's growth.

By contrast, the deficit hawk gang is perfectly happy to see this upward redistribution continue. After all, they and their patrons have been the beneficiaries.

What remains largely unsaid is that "the deficit hawks' agenda...is about getting people to obsess on the cost of their own retirement and to ignore the rich people who are stealing them blind." Paul Krugman explains how righteousness killed the world economy, observing that it "appears to be stumbling" and wondering "Why does this keep happening?"

After all, the events that brought on the Great Recession -- the housing bust, the banking crisis -- took place a long time ago. Why can't we escape their legacy?

The proximate answer lies in a series of policy mistakes: Austerity when economies needed stimulus, paranoia about inflation when the real risk is deflation, and so on. But why do governments keep making these mistakes? In particular, why do they keep making the same mistakes, year after year?

The answer, I'd suggest, is an excess of virtue. Righteousness is killing the world economy.

The punitive obsession that ignores debt relief has its roots in this righteousness:

In America, the famous Rick Santelli rant that gave birth to the Tea Party wasn't about taxes or spending -- it was a furious denunciation of proposals to help troubled homeowners. In Europe, austerity policies have been driven less by economic analysis than by Germany's moral indignation over the notion that irresponsible borrowers might not face the full consequences of their actions.

So the policy response to a crisis of excessive debt has, in effect, been a demand that debtors pay off their debts in full. What does history say about that strategy? That's easy: It doesn't work. Whatever progress debtors make through suffering and saving is more than offset through depression and deflation.

Sean McElwee looks at your brain on money and examines the psychosis of plutocracy:

The Internet is replete with apologias for the rich. They are thinly sourced and even less well thought. The goal is simple: to justify the unjustifiable chasm between the rich and poor, globally and within our nation. But the irony is that, rather than being better than the rest of us, in many ways the rich are worse.

Paul Piff and his co-authors, who have done extended research on the behaviors of the wealthy, find that lower class individuals are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than upper class individuals. In another study, they find individuals with expensive cars were more likely to cut off other drivers and pedestrians. Further, in laboratory experiments, wealthy participants were more likely to take valued goods, cheat, lie and endorse such behavior. These studies have support from other sources. For instance, the wealthy actually donate less to charity as a share of their income than the middle class. Their giving is more dependent on the economic climate than the middle class.

The trouble is that "in a society that worships wealth, those with wealth are worshipped as well:"

Many defenders of the rich argue that the rich are special and therefore merit special treatment. (Charles Murray has gone as far as to argue that the rich should preach their virtues to the poor.) Americans overwhelmingly believe that the wealthy have individually earned their place in society. But this is unlikely. Numerous studies find that financiers are vastly overpaid, and hedge fund managers, even the best, rarely beat the market. CEOs are also vastly overpaid, and largely benefit from a shift in tax policy that allows rent-seeking to flourish.

A famous economist once wrote,

"This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments."

News flash: It was Adam Smith. [This is yet another example of the Right not being familiar with their own venerated books.]

All humans all delusional. It is only the rich who have that delusion fostered. All humans are, to some extent, assholes. But only rich people can get away with it.

women in comics

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538 looks at women in comic books, noting that "To say the comic book industry has a slight gender skew is like saying Superman is kind of strong:"

Comic books -- much like the film industry they now fuel -- vastly under-represent women. The people who write comic books, particularly for major publishers, are overwhelmingly men. The artists who draw them are, too. The characters within them are also disproportionately men, as are the new characters introduced each year.

Some exceptions--the young Muslima Ms Marvel, the new female Thor, Batgirl's non-cheesecake costume--get good press, but "these recent advancements don't make up for the fact that women have been ignored in comic books for decades:"

When we zero in on the 2,415 DC and 3,342 Marvel characters with gender data who appear at least 10 times -- the set of characters that probably gives the most consistent view of what we see on the page -- female characters make up only 30.9 percent of the DC universe and 30.6 percent of the Marvel universe.

538 also observes that "Both [the Marvel and DC] universes have steadily come closer to gender parity, but each still faces a difficult-to-overcome imbalance."

And while it's not too surprising that so few women appear in comics today, people are talking about characters like the new Thor and Ms. Marvel because they feel change is happening in an industry and community that for years has had unwelcoming attitudes toward women.

(The LGBT community could make a similar complaint.)

Anonabox

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This Wired article pitches its readers on the merits of the Anonabox anonymizing router, hoping that "routing all your traffic through Tor may be as simple as putting a portable hardware condom on your ethernet cable:"

Anonabox's security hasn't yet been audited [but] its creators point out that it will be entirely open source, so its code can be more easily scrutinized for errors and fixed if necessary.

Anonabox alone won't fully protect a user's privacy. If you use the same browser for your anonymous and normal Internet activities, for instance, websites can use "browser fingerprinting" techniques like cookies to identify you.

From the KickStarter page:

Reliable Anonymity

The anonabox has been developed and refined for the sole purpose of running the open source software Tor, considered the best and most secure way to access the Internet anonymously. All traffic coming out of or going into your computer or network is encrypted this way. The result is strong, secure anonymity. Using the anonabox hides your location, as well as all the other personal data that leaks through ordinary Internet use. We noticed also that pageload times and end user experience is significantly faster than when running the Tor browser bundle software, because all the hard work is being done in the background by the anonabox.

Open Source Security

No more backdoors! The anonabox provides better security than most available products because it is completely open source, and open hardware. Anyone can audit and browse the code, or download hardware schematics. For this reason, it is guaranteed to be free from the documented back-doors and security flaws common to other commercially available routers. We welcome developers from around the world to create their own uses for the anonabox. We believe the device belongs to them and they are free to modify it any way they like.

[10/20: After numerous questions about the Anonabox during the past week, the Kickstarter has been suspended.]

Commenting on Pat Buchanan's 1992 declaration of a "culture war ... for the soul of America," Politico's Bill Scher remarks that "This week, nearly every Republican and conservative movement leader stood quietly as the Supreme Court effectively extended equal marriage rights to more than half of the country." He goes on to list the GOP's three biggest culture war losses (abortion, birth control, and marriage equality) and remarks that:

Pat Buchanan was never going to see his dream of an America without abortion or gays. But it was not preordained for Republicans to lose the culture war so completely. Bad strategic choices of their own making boxed them in a corner, leaving them no choice but to surrender at the courthouse steps.

soaking the rich

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The NYT begs of us "don't soak the rich" via Edward Kleinbard's assertion that "the American tax system already is the most progressive in the developed world"--a claim that I thought warranted further scrutiny. I checked into Foreign Affairs' "America the Undertaxed" article, which noted that "Compared with other developed countries, the United States has very low taxes, little redistribution of income [and] the overall U.S. tax system is only mildly progressive:"

In fact, the United States currently taxes top earners at some of the lowest effective rates in the country's history. Data from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) show that the top one percent of taxpayers paid an average federal income tax rate of 23 percent in 2008, about one-third less than they paid in 1980, despite the fact that their incomes are now much higher in both real and relative terms. [...]

In Europe, regressive taxes are matched with highly redistributive states. In the United States, mildly progressive taxes are matched with a not very redistributive state. As a result, the United States experiences greater inequality than most other advanced nations, with the tax-and-transfer system doing little to alleviate it.

Kleinbard claimed later in the piece that "reducing inequality is not about where the money comes from, but where the money goes, and how much of it is spent:"

The better response to income disparity, then, is not to tax the rich more, but to boost revenue over all so that government can invest more, and offer higher quality social insurance programs. [...] To address troubling trends in income inequality, we need more government, not less. But we do not need steeply higher marginal income tax rates to yield a richer, more equal and happier society.

FDL takes apart his argument:

Kleinbard isn't relying on the arguments of Modern Money Theory to make his case: he says the government needs revenues to support the spending programs he favors. He doesn't want to soak the rich, so he intends that increased revenues come from the middle of the income distribution. That leaves us with the bizarre notion that a nation that is willing to cut food stamps for the poorest part of the population will happily pay more taxes to fund some other programs that benefits the poor. It's an astonishing argument. [...]

Kleinbard writes "A chief executive who earns 200 times as much as her typical employee does not get 200 times the benefit from our investments in highways." That's true. She gets a lot more benefit than 200 times. Without those highways, she doesn't have a job. That applies to the entire oligarchy.

Soak 'em!

CitizenFour

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Spencer Ackerman writes of the CitizenFour documentary that "its 114 minutes crackle with the nervous energy of revelation" and calls it "a triumph of journalism and a triumph for journalism:"

It may be too late to change people's minds about Snowden, at least so soon after his leaks. But the Snowden who Poitras shows - hair tousled, resisting his attempts at styling it - is determined, sincere and human.

Friendly Atheist takes issue with Reza Aslan's dismissive comments on Sam Harris:

"Sam Harris is a neuroscientist; he knows as much about religion as I do about neuroscience. The difference is that I don't go around writing books about neuroscience."

FA's retort is very much on point:

For my money, Aslan is well qualified to discuss religion. He's clearly applied himself to the topic in a scholarly fashion - and even if he hadn't, he'd still be more than welcome to think and agitate and write about the field, letting the strength of his reasoning carry him through the marketplace of ideas.

And the same is true for everyone else. Very much including Harris. [...] But even if Harris were a mere armchair scholar whose day job was carpentry or teaching high-school English, the only thing that would matter is how solid his ideas are and how appealing his writing.

Everything else is vanity and churlishness.

Thomas Frank interviews Elizabeth Warren, whom he describes as "the single most exciting Democrat currently on the national stage." They discuss college tuition, consumer protection, and regulatory capture before Frank mentions his disappointment with Obama:

In 2008, I thought I had a candidate who was going to address these things. Right? Barack Obama. Today, my friends and I are pretty disappointed with what he's done. I wonder if you feel he has been forthright enough on these subjects. And I also wonder if you think that someone can take any of this stuff on without being president. You know, there are a lot of good politicians in America who have their heart in the right place. But they're not the president. Well anyhow. You understand my frustration...

I understand your frustration, Tom and, actually, I talk about this in the book. When I think about the president, for me, it's about both halves. If Barack Obama had not been president of the United States we would not have a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Period. I'm completely convinced of that. And I go through the details in the book, and I could tell them to you. But he was the one who refused to throw the agency under the bus and made sure that his team kept the agency alive and on the table. Now there was a lot of other stuff that also had to happen for it to happen. But if he hadn't been there, we wouldn't have gotten the agency. At the same time, he picked his economic team and when the going got tough, his economic team picked Wall Street.

You might say, "always." Just about every time they had to compromise, they compromised in the direction of Wall Street.

That's right. They protected Wall Street. Not families who were losing their homes. Not people who lost their jobs. Not young people who were struggling to get an education. And it happened over and over and over. So I see both of those things and they both matter.

atheism

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Andrew O'Hehir's "Atheism, Islam, and Liberalism" observes--correctly--that "talk-show hosts and movie stars (just for instance) aren't necessarily the best people to bring nuance or thoughtfulness or clarity to these conversations" about atheism and religion. He goes on to remark that "despite President Obama's claim that the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state, the group's extreme version of religious orthodoxy is clearly an important part of its allure:"

But when a radical militia group waving a flaming ideological sword has successfully lured the major Western powers into yet another self-destructive Middle East war, it's legitimate to wonder who is behaving rationally and who has lost their minds. Religion is driving us crazy, and the disorder is by no means limited to believers.

He continues:

One side insists that the only important question is whether the truth-claims of religion are actually true; the other side says that question doesn't even matter, and then wonders what "truth" is, anyway. It's the overly literal-minded versus the hopelessly vague.

What we see in discussions about religion in general and Islam in particular is a version of the same problem: People who barely speak the same language talking past each other, either making grand claims that refute themselves or raising legitimate questions that the other side ducks. [...]

At this point, Harris and Maher have become war trolls and fellow travelers of Dick Cheney, without even realizing it. [...] He and Maher have provided covert aid and comfort to bigots who firebomb mosques or beat up "Muslim-looking" people at the mall, while officially being horrified by such hateful actions. They're analogous to polite Southern whites of 1955, who did not personally use the N-word and found the Klan distasteful, but who never questioned the fundamental rightness of white supremacy.

The Atlantic's Crispin Sartwell comments on irrational atheism, and asserts that "The aging 'new atheists'--Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, for example--pit reason against faith, science against superstition, and declare for reason and science:"

It pictures the universe as a natural system, a system not guided by intelligent design and not traversed by spirits; a universe that can be explained by science, because it consists of material objects operating according to physical laws. In this sense, atheism embodies a whole picture of the world, offering explanations about its most general organization to the character of individual events.

Ironically, this is similar to the totalizing worldview of religion--neither can be shown to be true or false by science, or indeed by any rational technique. Whether theistic or atheistic, they are all matters of faith...

"I have taken a leap of atheist faith," he writes, standing rather close to religionists and claiming that "the atheist too, is deciding to believe in conditions of irremediable uncertainty, not merely following out a proof:"

Religious people have often offloaded the burden of their choices on institutions and relied on the Church's authorities and dogmas. But some atheists are equally willing to offload their beliefs on "reason" or "science" without acknowledging that they are making a bold intellectual commitment about the nature of the universe, and making it with utterly insufficient data. Religion at its best treats belief as a resolution in the face of doubt. I want an atheism that does the same, that displays epistemological courage.

National Journal reports that Edward Snowden disagreed with journalist Jane Mayer's assertion that NSA spying programs are legal:

Snowden disagreed, saying he "would dispute that no crimes have been shown." He pointed to government officials who appear to have lied to Congress under oath, and said the programs have been routinely abused by employees.

"We have had serial abuse from NSA agents spying on exes, lovers ... never prosecuted. That's a felony," he said. [...] "These programs themselves are unconstitutional [and] I am confident that the Supreme Court will agree these programs went too far."

Snowden cited a ruling by a federal judge last year that found the National Security Agency's bulk collection of American phone records likely unconstitutional as one reason for his confidence. He also noted that two presidential advisory panels have raised concerns about the lack of judicial oversight of the agency's programs.

Glenn Greenwald discussed a Snowden documentary called https://citizenfourfilm.com/ CitizenFour:

CITIZENFOUR, the new film by Intercept co-founding editor Laura Poitras, premiered this evening at the New York Film Festival, and will be in theaters around the country beginning October 24. Using all first-hand, real-time footage, it chronicles the extraordinary odyssey of Edward Snowden in Hong Kong while he worked with journalists, as well the aftermath of the disclosures for the NSA whistleblower himself and for countries and governments around the world.

Greenwald also mentions this "seemingly banal" detail:

In July of this year, Snowden's long-time girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, moved to Moscow to live with him...the fact that he is now living in domestic bliss as well, with his long-term girlfriend whom he loves, should forever put to rest the absurd campaign to depict his life as grim and dank.

Here's The Nation's sneak peek at an exclusive interview with Snowden. Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen Cohen write that "We recently met with the courageous whistleblower for over three hours in Moscow for a wide-ranging conversation on surveillance, technology and politics...a longer edited version will be published in a forthcoming issue." The highlight was this comment about patriotism:

Edward Snowden: You know, people sometimes say I broke an "oath of secrecy," that was one of the early charges leveled against me. But it's a fundamental misunderstanding, because there is no oath of secrecy for people who work in the intelligence community. You're asked to sign a civil agreement, called "Standard Form 312," which basically says, if you disclose classified information they can sue you, they can do this, that and the other. And you stand at risk of going to jail. But you are also asked to take an oath, and that's the oath of service. The oath of service is not to secrecy; it's to the Constitution--to protect it against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That's the oath that I kept, that James Clapper and Keith Alexander did not.

Here's the trailer for CitizenFour, which will be released on 24 October:

risky bets

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Robert Reich uses The Donald as an example of our two-tiered system of economic justice:

Thirty years ago, on its opening day in 1984, Donald Trump stood in a dark topcoat on the casino floor at Atlantic City's Trump Plaza, celebrating his new investment as the finest building in Atlantic City and possibly the nation.

Last week, the Trump Plaza folded and the Trump Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy, leaving some 1,000 employees without jobs.

Trump, meanwhile, was on twitter claiming he had "nothing to do with Atlantic City," and praising himself for his "great timing" in getting out of the investment.

In America, people with lots of money can easily avoid the consequences of bad bets and big losses by cashing out at the first sign of trouble.

The laws protect them through limited liability and bankruptcy.

But workers who move to a place like Atlantic City for a job, invest in a home there, and build their skills, have no such protection. Jobs vanish, skills are suddenly irrelevant, and home values plummet.

They're stuck with the mess. [...] As long as the laws shield large investors while putting the risks on ordinary people, investors will continue to make big bets that deliver jackpots when they win but create losses for everyone else.

Average working people need more fresh starts. Big corporations, banks, and Donald Trump need fewer.

BBW

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Book Riot suggests that we should stop celebrating Banned Books Week:

Celebrating banned books week is a marketing opportunity in many corners of the book world, and not without reason. These books are important. They deserve to be talked about. Talking about these books matters because it's how we talk about reading, about the sharing of ideas, and about why books and words are tools for growth.

But there's a fine line between celebrating banned books week and marketing books because they've been censored. This isn't a week about profits or how to sell these banned books. [...]

When we "celebrate" banned books week, we strip the context of censorship from the equation. Books are the conduit for discussion, but they aren't the purpose. Their being banned isn't the celebration.

The celebration is intellectual freedom.

That's a great point, and CBR cautions us against complacency:

And in case you think this stuff is ancient history, here's a reminder: It just happened again last week.

EW's list of 10 essential banned and challenged graphic novels is a decent one, reminding us that "While comics are now being taken seriously as literature, they're also being challenged and banned along with literature:"

Below is a list of 10 essential graphic novels that have been deemed, at some point, unworthy of First Amendment protection. Taken together, they're a measure of just how far we have to go when it comes to freedom of speech--and how far comics have come, in terms of popularity as well as their ability to embody everything from satire to education to poignancy.

I've read six of the ten books on the list, and have just begun a seventh--but I have the luxury of being more impervious to censorship than many other readers.

Right up there with Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, George Marshall's Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change looks to quickly join my reading list. Grist writes that Marshall's book is "a fantastic, if slightly depressing, introduction to the social and psychological science involved," and makes some trenchant remarks about the "rolling coal" assholes:

Diesel pollutants, unlike carbon dioxide, are local. The asthma and cancer these guys are spreading are not afflicting coastal liberals, but the very rural communities they call home. They are effectively punching themselves and their families in the face because Obama said face-punching is bad.

As Melissa Dahl notes on New York magazine's (excellent) new blog Science of Us, this, like so much of recent American politics, can be explained through the panic of rural white men who are losing cultural power. As "Real Americans" become more and more of an inward-looking, revanchist cult, they increasingly define everything outside their bubble as one giant lump of evil.

Corey Robin snarks that "the truth is, though conservatives are supposed to care about conserving the past for the sake of the future,"

...they've always had a strangely distended notion of time. Even Burke. An almost teenage, James Dean-esque, version of time. In which we're burning the candle at both ends, so why worry today about what we may not survive to experience tomorrow?

Liberaland shows us a Ferguson police officer aiming his assault rifle at the crowd last night, snarling "I will fucking kill you" at the people recording him and answering "Go fuck yourself" when asked to provide his name:

Salon provides a different clip of the same incident:

Just like Anthony Bologna and John Pike, some people just can't be trusted with a badge and a gun. This creepy cop from Ferguson should never work in law enforcement again.


update (7:24pm):
According to WaPo, the (unidentified) officer has been suspended.

I just played the Sam-Harris-smackdown card in an abortion debate on Twitter:


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update:
She kept coming back for more, but it's barely worth reading unless you have a strong stomach for Christardery--particularly the sort that doesn't recognize the contents of its own holy book:

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Yeah...if I got spanked that badly in public, I'd want to go "pray" about it in private, too.

Salon's excerpt from Peter Watson's The Age of Atheists looks at atheism's radical new heroes:

In the past few decades, both evolutionary biologists like Dawkins and cosmologists--physicists and astronomers--have mounted a spirited attack on the basic dimensions of religion, in particular the main monotheisms, and in doing so have tried hard to reshape what--for the sake of a better phrase--we may call our spiritual predicament.

Some examples of this "spirited attack" mentioned in the article include Richard Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow (1998) and The God Delusion (2006), Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell (2006), Sam Harris' The End of Faith (2004), and Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate (2002), and The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). Many others, such as Victor Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis didn't make the cut.

For another perspective, Jonathan Rée at The Guardian writes that "Atheism is in trouble, according to Terry Eagleton," and comments that Eagleton's new book Culture and the Death of God:

"takes us on a rapid tour of the intellectual battlefields of Europe over the past 300 years, sites where, according to the received version of history, the brave soldiers of progress and rationality have triumphed time and again over a rabble of reactionary God-botherers."

LGBTQ Nation comments on those those defenseless religious folk and their war against godless gays:

I'm finding it unusually difficult to avoid the urge to scream at the seemingly endless parade of pundits and spin doctors tell me, in their most deferential and conciliatory tones, that the rash of proposed "religious protection" laws are not about discrimination.

Oh heavens no! They're really just there to protect defenseless religious folk from the godless gays. Like innocent business owners, who could be accused of discrimination, just for standing behind their deeply held religious views.

Not surprisingly, they can provide no examples where this kind of hypothetical religious discrimination has occurred, though Anderson Cooper and other journalists have asked often and pointedly...

How to respond, one wonders:

I've been spinning my wheels trying to frame a response in my usual polite and respectful manner, and think I've finally landed on something appropriate.

"Bullshit."

Apparently trying to play nice hasn't worked, so it's time to call it what it is. Hate. Discrimination. Bigotry. You can couch it in terms like "religious freedom" all you like, but it doesn't make the emperor any less naked.

What's at issue is not the opinion of a person, but an action taken by a business:

Individuals enjoy a number of rights and liberties, including the freedom of religion, but businesses are not individuals. Your cake shop is not a Christian, though its owner might be.

When you start a business it becomes subject to another set of laws and responsibilities. There are city ordinances, health codes, and tax laws that are separate from those for individuals.

As a business owner you get to decide a lot of things, but you do not get to pick and choose your customers. You agreed to rules of which one says you have to serve everyone equally.

You can't turn them away because of the color of their skin or perhaps your religion takes a dim view of women in the workplace. But, refuse to hire a qualified female applicant and it's discrimination. Sexual orientation is no different. My money is just as green and your public business is, by law, open to ALL of the public, of which I am also a part.

This common-sense take is ignored by asshats such as Ross Douthat who whine about the terms of their surrender:

It now seems certain that before too many years elapse, the Supreme Court will be forced to acknowledge the logic of its own jurisprudence on same-sex marriage and redefine marriage to include gay couples in all 50 states.

Once this happens, the national debate essentially will be finished, but the country will remain divided, with a substantial minority of Americans, most of them religious, still committed to the older view of marriage.

So what then? One possibility is that this division will recede into the cultural background, with marriage joining the long list of topics on which Americans disagree without making a political issue out of it.

Yep, just like white supremacists still object to interracial marriage decades after Loving v. Virginia--and their retrograde opinions will be paid as little heed.

Douthat whines that "Religious-affiliated adoption agencies would be closed if they declined to place children with same-sex couples. (This has happened in Massachusetts and Illinois.)" but what he elides here is that these agencies were receiving public funds--and, when faced with the choice between bigotry and helping children, they chose bigotry. They elected to close their own doors, deciding, in effect, that they were primarily religious organizations and not adoption agencies.

His complaint that "the press coverage...was mendacious and hysterical" smacks of projection, but at least he makes one good point:

Christians had plenty of opportunities -- thousands of years' worth -- to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status -- this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.

Check out this tale of 7 people with keys to the Internet and the quarterly process behind keeping DNS running:

It might be a fairly typical office scene, were it not for the extraordinary security procedures that everyone in this room has had to complete just to get here, the sort of measures normally reserved for nuclear launch codes or presidential visits. The reason we are all here sounds like the stuff of science fiction, or the plot of a new Tom Cruise franchise: the ceremony we are about to witness sees the coming together of a group of people, from all over the world, who each hold a key to the internet. Together, their keys create a master key, which in turn controls one of the central security measures at the core of the web. [...]

The keyholders have been meeting four times a year, twice on the east coast of the US and twice here on the west, since 2010. [...] All have long backgrounds in internet security and work for various international institutions. They were chosen for their geographical spread as well as their experience - no one country is allowed to have too many keyholders. [...] Each of the 14 primary keyholders owns a traditional metal key to a safety deposit box, which in turn contains a smartcard, which in turn activates a machine that creates a new master key. [...]

If the master key were lost or stolen today, the consequences might not be calamitous: some users would receive security warnings, some networks would have problems, but not much more. But once everyone has moved to the new, more secure system (this is expected in the next three to five years), the effects of losing or damaging the key would be far graver. While every server would still be there, nothing would connect: it would all register as untrustworthy. The whole system, the backbone of the internet, would need to be rebuilt over weeks or months.

new Jim Crow

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Salon looks at Arizona's SB 1062 (which would have created special religious-opinion exemptions from the law) and calls it the Right's new Jim Crow, continuing the history of conservatives' discriminatory policies. "Like Sen. Barry Goldwater did in 1964," writes Elias Isquith, "[Rand] Paul argued that the Constitution had no room for anti-discrimination. Roughly four years later, Glenn Beck made a similar argument, this time in defense of SB 1062," as did Tucker Carlson, Cato, and other right-wing mouthpieces:

If we put all these and many other conservative defenses of SB 1062 together, it's hard not to reach a clear and unsettling conclusion: While conservatives themselves have largely given up the racism that coursed through a previous generation's defense of Jim Crow, conservatism itself has learned no enduring lesson from the Civil Rights Movement and has made no ideological adjustments as a result.

The problem with conservatism's often-touted firmness of conviction is twofold: a reluctance to make necessary corrections, and a subsequent inability to acknowledge them.

Lest anyone doubt that a middle-class existence has become increasingly precarious, Salon's Edward McClelland tells the story of a former Web support technician's struggles in today's economy, and contrasts this reality with the right-wing fantasy of bootstrapping:

In order for this free market version of economic justice to make sense, wages can't be low because the economy is not producing enough good jobs; they have to be low because employees lack the training and/or the work ethic to command more money. [...]

It's Social Calvinism, a worldview that does not just see money as a reward for virtuous behavior, but as evidence of virtue itself. The 1 percent consider themselves an Economic Elect, whose wealth is a byproduct of self-discipline, intelligence, thriftiness and tolerance for risk. As inequality increases, so does the winners' conviction that they are more equal than everyone else. [...]

That helps explains why opponents of raising the minimum wage insist that being unable to afford food, clothing and shelter is a character-building experience. If unskilled workers earn enough to live on, the argument goes, they'll have no motivation to better themselves.

From this bleakness, there is a glimmer of optimism:

It's hard to tell people they deserve to be poor when they've done everything they were supposed to do to avoid poverty: gone to college, worked 40 hours a week. A free market that fails to reward honest toil and initiative must inevitably become less free. If Americans can't get the money and benefits they need from their employers, they will turn to the government for help. And if the government won't help them, perhaps they'll vote in one that will.

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):

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

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celebration

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David Badash mentions that today is International Celebrate Bisexuality Day, honoring what LGBTQ Nation calls an "invisible majority" among the larger LGBT community:

Often referred to as the "invisible majority," several studies indicate that self-identified bisexuals make up the largest single population within the LGBT community in the United States. In each study, more women identified as bisexual than lesbian, and fewer men identified as bisexual than gay.

In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that among adults (5,042 respondents), 3.1 percent self-identified as bisexual, compared to 2.5 percent who self-identified as either gay or lesbian.

The Advocate discusses why we need Bi Pride Day:

I was a 14-year-old outspoken, feminist extrovert, but I somehow allowed other people to tell me how I felt or tell me that my sexual orientation was of less value. I let myself believe that bisexuality wasn't real or was greedy or that coming out was pointless, because other gay and straight people believed it. But at the very least, the anger that I still feel over this is what drives me to wake up and come to work at this publication every day. [...]

So, if you were wondering, that's why we must have Bi Pride Day. So that actual bisexual people can own their sexual orientation and feel like we're not just sitting on a fence or can't decide or that we're disappointing someone. Bi Pride Day exists so that some teenage kid who doesn't quite get what she's feeling can see that she's not crazy and she's not going through a phase.


update (5:45pm):
On a related note, thanks to Andrew Sullivan for mentioning the celebration-worthy literary tryst between Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman:

Oscar desperately wanted to meet Walt Whitman, whom he and many others considered to be America's living poet...Whitman's poetry spoke of the potency of friendship and love between men, particularly between working-class men, and positively oozed homoeroticism. Indeed, the 'Calamus' section of Whitman's great poetic cycle Leaves of Grass was so intensely homoerotic that it gave rise to the short-lived term 'calamite' to denote a man who loved men. Swinburne was to denounce 'the cult of the calamus' and 'calamites.' [...]

Oscar was suitably humble in the presence of Whitman, greeting him with the words, 'I have come to you as one with whom I have been acquainted almost from the cradle.' The contrast between the two poets could not have been more marked. Oscar was young, tall, slender and clean shaven. Whitman was in his early sixties, but looked much older. He was shorter than Oscar and wore a long, bushy white beard. Oscar was highly educated, cultivated and still in his languid Aesthetic phase. Whitman was self-taught, and robustly masculine in manner. [...]

Stoddart tactfully left the two poets alone. 'If you are willing - will excuse me - I will go off for an hour or so - come back again - leaving you together,' he said. 'We would be glad to have you stay,' Whitman replied. 'But do not feel to come back in an hour. Don't come for two or three.' Whitman opened a bottle of elderberry wine and he and Oscar drank it all before Whitman suggested they go upstairs to his 'den' on the third floor where, he told Oscar, 'We could be on 'thee and thou' terms.'

The next day, Whitman told the Philadelphia Press that the two of them had a "jolly good time" together. Did he get more specific? He did, reader. He did:

One of the first things I said was that I should call him 'Oscar.' 'I like that so much,' he answered, laying his hand on my knee. He seemed to me like a great big, splendid boy. He is so frank, and outspoken, and manly. I don't see why such mocking things are written of him.

Later, this tidbit emerges:

Oscar told [his friend George] Ives that there was 'no doubt' about Whitman's sexual tastes. 'I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips,' he boasted.

For more, see Neil McKenna's book The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde: An Intimate Biography (pp. 31-33).

Justin Rosario's post about Republican Jesus is my favorite thing today:

Republican Jesus ™ loves the rich. Ignore that whole "camel through the eye of a needle" garbage. Republican Jesus ™ wants you to be prosperous! It's called "prosperity theology" and it percolates throughout the conservative religious fervor. God rewards the faithful with material wealth. Very spiritual stuff. If your idea of spiritual is a McMansion.

But Republican Jesus ™ is not just about love. Republican Jesus ™ also hates and, boy, does he hate!

Republican Jesus ™ hates the poor. This is the flip side of "prosperity theology". If God rewards the faithful with riches, than the poor are obviously NOT of the faith and deserve what they get. This is, in part, why conservatives hate the social safety nets of welfare, food stamps and Medicaid. Those (and by "those" I mean those) people don't worship Republican Jesus ™ and are unworthy of being helped. Besides if you feed them, they'll just breed!

[...]

Republican Jesus ™ hates The Gay. They're sinners, after all. It says so right there in the Bible next to the part about shellfish being an abomination. Nothing demonstrates the compassionate conservatives' dedication to the teachings of Republican Jesus ™ like blocking legislation for same sex marriage and calling homosexuals pedophiles while enjoying a nice shrimp cocktail before a delicious lobster dinner.

[...]

Republican Jesus ™ hates Muslims. Muslims are scary because some of them do bad things to innocent people. That makes them all evil terrorists. This is not to be confused with White Christian Militia types who blow up abortion clinics or plot political assassinations in Republican Jesus' ™ name. Those people are martyrs and heroes. Or they were crazy lone wolves having nothing to do with Republican Jesus ™. It depends on which channel you're interviewing on, Fox or MSNBC.

Republican Jesus ™ totally hates Liberals. Liberals are the pawns of Satan George Soros trying to destroy the greatest country ever made on this 6000 year old planet (conservative moderates are almost as bad and must be expunged!). Compromising with a Liberal is a terrible sin in the eyes of Republican Jesus ™ and must not be tolerated.

If that weren't enough awesomeness, here's a quote from Jesus that can only the found in the Conservative Bible:

20130616-republicanjesus.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:

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